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Trip Report Nepal & Tibet with OAT

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Nepal and Tibet
Oct17-Nov 10 2011
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) Tour “Nepal & the Mystical Himalayas”


In October-November 2011, I traveled to Nepal and Tibet with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). Tibet had been high on my bucket list for quite awhile, and the Nepal itinerary also looked very interesting. The main part of the tour was Nepal, with Tibet as a post-trip extension. There was also a pre-trip extension to Bhutan, but I had already traveled there a few years ago. However, the rest of the tour group, including my friend Ida (with whom I have traveled several times) had signed up for Bhutan, and the problems with this part of the trip affected us all.

When we received our travel documents and final itineraries a couple weeks before our departure, Ida discovered that the timing was off—and all the Bhutan itinerary was one day later than originally scheduled. The original schedule called for a flight from the US to India, an overnight near Delhi, and then a flight into Bhutan the following day. It took Oat several days to straighten this out, and they did so by booking the group for a second night in India, which would be “made up” by shortening their time in Nepal by one day. Unfortunately, that meant that I had to wait an extra day in Nepal for the rest of the group to arrive so we could begin our tour—and then everything was rather condensed. The hotel where we stayed near Kathmandu was very nice—but very far from the city, so my first day there was rather boring. This was the worst glitch that has occurred in any of my trips with OAT.

Brief itinerary (as it was revised).

Day 1-2 Flight from Chicago to Delhi (15 hrs). Hotel Ibis Gurgaon
Day 3-5: Kathmandu, Nepal: Gokarna Forest Resort.
3 Travel Delhi-Kathmandu
4 Just hanging out—and exploring immediate area while awaiting arrival of tour group
5 Optional Mt Everest flight (cancelled due to weather), Patan & Kathmandu Durbar
Squares, Boudhanath Stupa, Thanka Art Center, Home-hosted dinner.
Day 6-8 Annapurna Mountains: Sanctuary Lodge
Drive into mountains, trek to lodge, to scenic spots, remote villages, school
Day 9-10 Pokhara, Nepal: Pokhara Grande Hotel
Trek and drive to Pokhara. Lakeside Street, optional ultralite flight, Lake Phewa boat
ride, Davis Falls & Cave, Tibetan Refugee Camp carpet workshop, International
Mountain Museum, Raptor Rescue Center, free time in town for shopping.
Day 11-12 Seti River Camp
Grocery shopping in local market, river rafting to and from camp, hiking to remote
villages. Diwali entertainment by local villagers.
Day 13-14 Chitwan National Park: Safari Narayana Hotel
Naturalist talks, ox-cart ride to nearby village, elephant safari ride, bathing the
elephants, canoe trip and jungle walk with naturalist, crocodile breeding center,
Tharu cultural performance.
Day 15 Kathmandu: Gokarna Forest Resort
Flight to Kathmandu, Pashupatin Temple, Farewell dinner.
Day 16-18 Lhasa, Tibet: Shangbala Hotel
Flight to Lhasa, Bhakor Square, Jokhang Temple, Bhakor Street, Di Ji Orphanage
Optional massage at Blind Massage Center, Potala Palace, Sera Monastery
Day 19-20 Shigatse, Tibet: Monasawa Hotel Shigatse
Travel over Friendship Highway to Shigatse, Incense stick factory, Tashilhunpo
Monastery, free time for shopping and exploration.
Day 21 Gyantse, Tibet: Gyantse Hotel
Travel over Friendship Highway to Gyantse, visit to local farmhouse, Palchor
Monastery, walk through old town.
Day 22 Lhasa: Shangbala Hotel
Travel over high Himalayan scenic mountain passes to Lhasa.
Farewell dinner and cultural show.
Day 23 Kathmandu, Nepal: Gokarna Forest Resort
Flight to Kathmandu, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, lecture by woman who had
climbed Mt Everest 3X.
Day 24 Delhi India: Airport
Opt Mt. Everest flight (I skipped it), walk through local Nepalese village, flight to
Delhi, long wait in airport.
Day 25 Delhi – Chicago. 2:30AM – 7AM 17 hr flight direct to Chicago.

HIGHLIGHTS:

Touring the three old royal cities of Nepal: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, which date back almost 2,000 years.

Hiking in the beautiful Annapurna Mountain range of the Himalayas. Unfortunately, I couldn’t participate in all of the hikes because the bursitis in my hip really bothered me when I overdid it with the walking or climbing.

The cabins and grounds of the Sanctuary Lodge in the Annapurna’s—and watching the glow of the sunrise on the spectacular Fishtail Mountain (26,000 ft) over hot coffee every morning.

Soaring over the mountains and lake of Pokhara in an ultralite plane. An exciting adventure!

Rafting on the Seti River and getting soaked going through the rapids.

The beautiful Seti River tented camp and our Happy Hour chats around a campfire every evening.

In Chitwan National Park, sitting astride an elephant standing in the river, while he proceeded to give me a shower.

Our elephant safari ride through the jungle early in the morning.

Being in Nepal during the festival of Diwali—and observing the many Diwali customs.

The claustrophobic atmosphere in the Jokhang Temple of Lhasa: the crowds of pilgrims, the chanting of monks, the heat of burning yak butter, the smell of incense, the hundreds of Buddha images.

Climbing up to the famous Potala Palace, the former home of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Sadly, the Chinese army patrols that were so evident, especially in the old area of Lhasa. This was not a highlight—but an image burned in my memory.

The spectacle of dozens of monks vociferously debating in the courtyard of the Sera Monastery of Lhasa.

The spectacular Himalayan scenery in both countries.

Our personal tour of the local monastery on our last day in Nepal.

NEGATIVES (Everyone knows there are always a few on every trip).

The itinerary was very good as it was originally put together. However, the scheduling snafu by OAT meant that there was a lot of downtime at the beginning for me—just when I was most anxious to start touring—and an extra day in India that no one wanted for the rest of the group. As a result, we lost free time at the end of our stay in Nepal—when there were places some of us would have liked to tour on our own.

Our Nepalese guide developed a very bad cold and cough early on, and, of course, most of us managed to catch it. Ida and I caught it just before we arrived in Tibet, and felt pretty lousy during most of our time there. The fact that the weather was so chilly in Tibet and our rooms had no or spotty heating didn’t help. However, at least we had some heat. The OAT group that was there the last week in October had NO HEAT in their hotels, despite very cold weather.

A snowstorm in the mountains between Lhasa and Gyantse meant that we had to reverse the original itinerary (Lhasa to Gyantse to Shigatse back to Lhasa), because the highway between Lhasa and Gyantse, which went over steep mountain passes, was too icy. However, we didn’t miss anything because of this change. In Gyantse, one of our group inspected the tires of our van, and declared that they were unsafe for traversing the icy roads over the mountains back to Lhasa. She wanted to take a taxi back the way we came rather than ride in what she felt was a dangerous vehicle. However, the rest of us were willing to take the chance in order to view the spectacular scenery that we had come to Tibet to see. I felt it couldn’t, after all, be any more dangerous than riding in a Chinese taxi! Our guide promised that our driver would take it very slow—and he reassured us that the tires were not dangerous (at least according to their standards). He did take it slow and we made it safely. However, several of us have suggested to OAT that 4 wheel drive jeeps be used on this part of the trip when there is a possibility of icy roads

TRAVEL/TRANSPORTATION
I was very lucky in that I was booked on a direct flight on Air India between Chicago and Delhi, India. Everyone else, except for another person from the Chicago area, had to connect through JFK airport, which added considerable time to their overall journey. Although my flights were long (15 hrs to India and 17 hrs back to Chicago), they weren’t as bad as I had anticipated. There was an empty middle seat by me on the way over, and I had an entire row of 3 seats to myself on the return—thanks to a plane that was only about 1/3 full. There were individual seat back video screens, and the gluten-free meals were OK. The only problem was several screaming children on the trip over. Also, the wait in the Delhi airport on the return was soooo long—about 7-8 hours.

OAT GUIDES
Our Nepalese guide was Anup Shrestha. Getting off to a good start, he emailed us a couple weeks before our tour to give us tips on what to bring and to answer our questions. He was very knowledgeable, competent, friendly and had a great sense of humor. As I mentioned before, he contracted a bad cough—possibly from one of the group who had brought it from Bhutan—and couldn’t seem to shake it despite all the various medicines he took, including antibiotics from our group’s medical kits. Since we were all in such close contact, many of us came down with it—and it hit some of us harder than others. I admire Anup for carrying on despite everything. In retrospect, it would have been better to get a substitute guide before we all got the bug.

Our guide in Tibet was definitely not Mr. Personality. I don’t think he even knew our names until the end of the tour—and there were only 11 of us. However, we were very happy to have a native Tibetan guide, rather than the usual Chinese guides. We feel he was able to give us a better understanding of Tibet. I’d like to say more on this subject, but this is not the forum.

OAT TOUR GROUP
There were 13 in our Nepal group: 4 couples and 5 singles, 5 men and 8 women. As usual, the women outnumbered the men. Age range was approximately 50 – 80. Interestingly, the youngest in the group was probably the least fit. We all got along very well—everyone was on time, considerate of their fellow travelers, and congenial travel companions. One couple did not accompany us to Tibet, so there were only 11 on that portion of the trip. The small group size is one of the reasons I prefer to travel with OAT.

LODGINGS
By far the most luxurious hotel was the Gokarna Forest Resort outside of Kathmandu—where we stayed 3 different times. The rooms were large (some larger than others) and beautifully decorated and there was an entire building containing a pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna and exercise equipment. It even had a golf course! However, the drawback was that it was outside of Kathmandu proper, and added considerably to our driving time on the terrible Nepalese roads. And the monkeys running around on the roof made a terrible racket outside of our last room there. My favorites were the more basic Sanctuary Lodge in the Annapurnas, and the Seti River Camp. Their natural settings were so beautiful. None of the hotels in Tibet were especially memorable—but they were better than I had expected. Our group had the most complaints about the Shangbala Hotel in Lhasa—small rooms and inadequate heat. However, the heater in my room worked—and the location was great—right in the heart of the old Tibetan area. The other Tibetan hotels also had heating problems. The small room heaters usually worked, but there was no heat in the lobbies or dining rooms. The hotel for our overnight (or two) in India was in Gurgaon—near Delhi, but not in a good area, so not conducive to neighborhood walks (especially since I was alone there). My small single room had a very strange bathroom—with a shower that was not contained by walls or curtain so water ended up all over the floor, and an automatic faucet on the small sink that blasted cold water every time I came near it. The staff told me this was the “European style”.

FOOD
This is a little tricky for me to analyze properly, since I require a gluten-free diet, and was often served substitute dishes. I was quite worried about the Tibetan food, which is based on barley, since that is on my forbidden list, so had brought along quite a few emergency snacks. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to at least get a rice-based dish almost everywhere. And, in some cases, I actually got better dishes than the rest of the group—for instance the delicious yak steaks I received a couple times in Lhasa. The food in Nepal, which is similar to Indian food—rice, curries, etc—presented no problem. Their main dish is dal baht (lentils and rice), which we had several times, along with vegetables. It was fairly bland, but was fun to eat with our fingers—in the Nepalese style. I’m sorry I had to skip the mo-mo’s in Nepal and the tsampa bread in Tibet—as well as the beer throughout both countries. However, I was usually able to get a glass of mediocre wine with dinner. Otherwise, I relied on a mini-bottle of wine (I had packed a few of these) in my room. Ida and I picnicked on my leftover snacks—rice crackers, peanut butter, little cheeses, tuna salad, candy—on our last night in Kathmandu.

WEATHER
In Nepal, we had great weather--warm, but usually not too uncomfortable. Tibet was quite chilly, but, as I mentioned earlier, at least we had some heat in our hotel rooms. They don’t seem to turn on the heat there until a specific date, despite the weather, so the groups there during the end of October were out of luck. Also, while we were in Tibet, Nepal experienced unusually stormy weather, and we learned that several mountain climbers had to be airlifted out.

I would definitely recommend this trip for those who like to intersperse sight-seeing with physical activity, appreciate spectacular mountain scenery, and want to learn about these Asian cultures. Because of the many hikes in Nepal and the altitude in Tibet, you should be at least moderately physically fit. If any of you are considering this or another OAT trip as a new customer, and would like to receive a discount, Email me for my customer number before booking.

Please let me know if you have any questions, if you are interested in receiving my detailed trip report when I get around to writing it, or would like a link to my photos.
Kameo903@aol.com
Kami

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