Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Highlights

As 2011 winds down, we are taking some time to reflect on our whirlwind year. With its unique highs and lows, this is surely one we will not soon forget. We are thankful that the ups far outweigh the downs; so much so that it is impossible to pick just one or two to share. Instead, we are devoting our last post of 2011 to a monthly listing of our personal highlights.

The Kathmanduo: A Year in Review

January: Claudine Arrived in Nepal

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All eyes were on Claudine as she crossed the world on her own, trailblazing a new adventure.


February: Claudine Commenced Her Kiva Fellowship

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She learned tips for field work (bring your own water but don't count on bathroom breaks) and so, so much more from the clients and staff of BPW Patan.


March: Brian Arrived in Nepal

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The Kathmanduo was finally complete as Brian took the leap and joined Claudine. Monkey business ensued.


April: Visiting Tibetan Refugee Settlement Camps

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After working on behalf of a client seeking political asylum in the US, Brian got the opportunity to meet the family she left behind.


May: Reaching Thorung La Pass, Annapurna Circuit

Day 10: Climbing to the Thorung Pass

After days on the trail, we reached our literal highest point in Nepal (at that point): 17,769 feet (5,416 meters).


June: Finding a Home

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The Duo finally landed in its own flat after months of subletting. While the settling in process was not always intuitive or easy, by the end we learned that there's truly no place like home.


July: 40 Days of Yoga, Our Downward Dog Days of Summer

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The "fruit fast" aspect of this program was not such a hit, but at least it coincided with mango season. Otherwise, we loved our yoga challenge and considered it a huge success.


August: Nothing Good Happens in August

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We will not lie: August was a stressful month for us. On the bright side, we learned and grew a lot from the experience, improved our yoga practice as a coping mechanism, and -- when that failed -- relied on Claudine's tasty chickpea cookie dough balls to get us through.


September: USA!

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We traveled home for about two weeks and covered a lot of ground between Chicago, Boston, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. Family, friends, food. What more needs to be said?


October: Everest Base Camp Trek

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Hands down, the most stunning scenery we have ever encountered. These two weeks of trekking just may win for highlight of the year.


November: Thanksgiving Abroad

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We love Thanksgiving, so we were quite grateful to find that it follows you wherever you go, even half way around the world. You do not even need turkey to celebrate, as Claudine's vegan pilaf proved (though thanks to generous friends, we also had all the traditional fixings at our fingertips). All you need is a moment for humble reflection and some good company (wine doesn't hurt, either).


December: Pokhara Getaway

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Was it Lake Fewa's soothing waters, looming white Himalayan peaks, or the luxury of our resort hotel? Who cares how you did it -- Pokhara, we are smitten.

2011: not too shabby. Bring it, 2012 -- you have some pretty big shoes to fill.

Wishing you all the very best in the new year,
The Kathmanduo

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Temple Tree Resort and Spa and Other Hotels in Pokhara

Over time, we think we have learned a thing or two about hotels in Pokhara. After all, during each of our visits we have stayed at a different place. Pokhara offers a full range of accommodations, from the very cheap to the very pricey. While we are usually completely satisfied with hotels that are neat and clean but low on frills, this time around we wanted to stay somewhere a little nicer.

Our research first led us to the resort stand-bys: Hotel Shangri-La, Fulbari Resort and Spa, and Tiger Mountain Pokhara. We quickly nixed the first two because of generally poor reviews that suggest these two hotels really show their age. We also decided against Tiger Mountain, which gets excellent reviews but is very expensive. Moreover, all three are located a significant distance from Pokhara's lakeside, and we wanted to be within walking distance from cafes and restaurants.

Enter Temple Tree Resort and Spa.

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This brand new hotel seemed to answer our prayers. It opened in March of 2011, so there could be no complaints about aging amenities, and its location is ideal, less than a five minute walk off the lakeside strip. We also named our price and paid less than the $80 (plus taxes) resident rate we were quoted over the phone (though this good fortune may have been due to our December visit -- such a steal is probably not possible during the high seasons of spring and fall).

So did Temple Tree deliver? Well, frankly, we didn't want to leave.

The grounds are lovely.

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The rooms are comfortable.

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Standard rooms include a flat screen TV, a heating/cooling unit (!), and a private balcony.

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There are charming touches.

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And the stone bathroom felt downright luxurious.

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We ate breakfast every morning on the patio. The food was not notable, but it was not bad either. Temple Tree offers a fresh egg station, standard western favorites like french toast, pancakes, and breakfast meats, South Asian staples like chapati and curried potatoes, and cold cereals, fresh fruit, coffee, and tea.

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Finally, the service and staff were excellent.

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Temple Tree provides 24-hour power, which may seem standard to many readers but is definitely not the norm in power-starved Nepal, where 16-hour power outages are not unheard of. This made the built-in heater, which worked at all hours of the day, even more impressive. Hot water was available from 5 to 10 in the mornings and evenings. Again, this may sound appalling to many readers outside of Nepal, but here in Nepal during winter, this schedule is about as good as it gets.

Free wi-fi is another uncommon and appreciated amenity that Temple Tree provided. We found the service faster and more reliable than most others in Nepal and even used it for crystal-clear Skype calls. Flawless, complimentary wi-fi -- American hotels, are you listening?

We hear that the Temple Tree brand exists as a chain in other parts of Asia. While this location is unaffiliated with that chain, our satisfaction was not at all diminished. Those who are familiar with the chain, however, should expect some differences. We highly recommend Temple Tree if you're searching for a hotel that goes above and beyond the standard guesthouse offerings.

We also have suggestions, though, for Pokhara accommodations that hit two other price points.

For a solid mid-range option, we recommend Trek-O-Tel. We stayed there after we completed the Annapurna Circuit Trek, and we thought that it was really nice. We would have been happy to return to Trek-O-Tel again, especially for the rate they offered us of about $50, including taxes and breakfast, but we opted for Temple Tree to try something new.

For a great budget option, we suggest Hotel Peace Plaza, located on the northern end of lakeside. A single room with an attached bath ran about $10 a night (after bargaining). Rooms at Hotel Peace Plaza are spartan but clean and bright.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

World Peace Pagoda Hike in Pokhara

After experiencing three trips to Pokhara where its famous mountain views were largely obscured by clouds, I was excited to be visiting during winter months when I would have a better shot at clear days. This time around, I was not disappointed. Without cloud cover, mountains play peek-a-boo from almost anywhere in town.

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The best panoramas, however, involve a little work. One such viewpoint is from the World Peace Pagoda, which sits on a hilltop across the lake from Pokhara. There are two main routes to the pagoda: 1) for a more direct route, take a rowboat across the lake from Pokhara and walk the well-marked stair path about 30-45 minutes uphill or 2) walk around the Damside tip of the lake and up to the pagoda. We decided on the Damside route, in part because we hiked the more direct route on our honeymoon here in 2008.

Having hiked a number of trails in Nepal, we had no trouble feeling out the poorly marked way to the pagoda. With some input from locals and our ordinal instincts, we were making good progress. Still, we were happy to enlist the guiding services of a local willing to show us the most direct route to the top. Given that we were still puzzling our way through a tangle of trails at that point, the help was quite welcome.

About an hour and 20 minutes (and a very brisk walk -- thank you for the demanding pace, local guide) after leaving our hotel in Lakeside, we reached the pagoda.

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From here you can the mountains tower over Lake Fewa and the city of Pokhara below, including the pyramid-shaped Machhapuchhre, or "Fish Tail."

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The view was a little hazy, but it sure beat what I saw when I reached this point in 2008 on a monsoon-clouded August day:

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We descended the more direct stairway route down to the lake for our return back to Pokhara. This took about 20 minutes, and plenty of colorful boats greeted us when we reached the shore.

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The adjacent "Typical Restaurant" sells one-way boat tickets for about $4. We did not eat there, so I cannot comment on the quality of the food, but I believe the name says it all.

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The leisurely paddle across the lake took about 15 minutes. Between the lapping of the placid waters, the stunning views overhead, and the bright but mild sun, these 15 minutes are contenders for the best of our entire visit.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in Kathmandu

Happy Boxing Day, all.

Though we missed our family and friends, we had a lovely Christmas weekend in Kathmandu, which offered a surprising amount of Christmas cheer, beginning with a Christmas cake at Bhat Bhateni. What's in a Christmas cake, you wonder? We didn't know either, and the red cellophane wrapper did not give much away. So Brian asked a bakery employee, and the man responded, "Oh, sir, so many things." Sold.

Christmas Eve began for me with a 90-minute Zumba class. There were no Christmas carols in the mix, but we did do a rousing number to Rihanna's hit S&M (when in Nepal...?). Afterward Brian and I went out to lunch at Mike's Breakfast, where he had real pumpkin pie.

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In the afternoon we did a yoga session and then got started making our Christmas Eve menu: baba ghanoush soup, garlic hummus, curried cauliflower, and "smashed peas." Tandoor roti from our favorite local Nepali food joint rounded out the meal.

For dessert we had mulled wine, which we simmered with honey, lemon slices, cinnamon sticks, and an orange studded with cloves.

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And don't forget the Christmas cake.

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Which was reminiscent of Stollen and was actually pretty forgettable.

On Christmas morning we woke early to go to a buffet breakfast at the beautiful Hyatt Regency. We were joined by our friend Brian and my high school friend (hi Andrea!) who is in Nepal for work. Regrettably, we did not take any photos of the impressive breakfast spread. We were too busy talking and eating.

We did, though, take a snap of the Hyatt's Christmas decorations.

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And we admired the holiday treats on offer: a gingerbread house, mince pie, plum cake, and chocolate yule log.


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After our leisurely breakfast we lounged by the pool under the strong winter sun.

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Yes, I do believe I could get used to this.


When we returned to our apartment, we discovered Christmas gifts sitting on our table from our house helper and her brother. Hearts warmed!

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So now we have a Christmas Ganesh. Christmas in Nepal is truly complete.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pokhara 4.0

Well, we are back from Pokhara, which a few readers correctly identified in our teaser post on Monday. No one, however, mentioned anything about my Carmen Sandiego allusion in the title of that post. Hello? Don't tell me that Brian and I are the only geography nerds who obsessively watched that TV show and played the computer game.

Anyway, we had a lovely trip to Pokhara, which we have written about before here and here. Although this marked my third time and Brian's fourth time in Pokhara, this particular visit was arguably the best. We had spectacular views -- the best we have ever enjoyed from this lakeside spot at the foot of the Annapurna range -- and I can happily report that the mountains never cease to stun me, even after being spoiled by close encounters with the Himalayas during our Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp treks. We also enjoyed some excellent food and other treats. We want to give this trip its full due, including hotel and restaurant recommendations, but for now I am just going to share a few highlights from Pokhara.

A relaxing boat ride on Phewa Lake. I could have curled up in the bottom of the boat and taken a nap, but the views were just too good to close my eyes.

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Delicious coffee, fresh brown bread, homemade hummus, and caramel squares at AM/PM Organic Cafe.

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Steaming hot baths at our brand new hotel. STEAMING HOT. I took no fewer than two per day.




A festive Christmas tree outside Olive Cafe.

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A stunning sunrise view from our hotel balcony on our last morning.




Pokhara, we love you. Thanks for a wonderful visit.