The sun sets over Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal.
Late last year, I traveled to Nepal to report on whether the country was ready to welcome travelers after a series of major earthquakes rattled it to its core in the spring of 2015.
I came home wondering how you could not go. If ever there were a time to visit Nepal, it’s now.
My stomach is a knot of nervous anticipation as I check my packing list, preparing to join a group of international journalists and tour operators on a 10-day survey of the South Asian nation. How bad would the tourism infrastructure be?
In the days and months following the earthquakes, the media had portrayed a country in ruin. But was Nepal unsafe now, nine months after the ground had stopped shaking?
Getting there is no easy task. In Dallas, I have to sprint to make my connection, skidding into my seat a sweaty mess. Fifteen hours later, I touch down in Qatar, with eight hours to kill in an airport hotel. By the time I land in Kathmandu, after a full 35 hours in transit, I’m not sure what day it is, or if it’s time to drink morning coffee or go to bed.
Suitcases trickle onto the conveyor belt like water dripping from a faucet. When the creaky carousel slows to a halt two hours later, leaving me empty handed, I shuffle over to the grievance desk. As I gape at the chaotic piles of misplaced luggage crowding the floor, the baggage representative offers me a handwritten triplicate claim form. “It’s not even in a computer system,” I think, my chest tightening.
I email my husband in a panic, begging for help. “I don’t have time to call the airline,” I type desperately. After all my careful preparation, I have nothing. No water purifier. No clothes. No DENTAL FLOSS. I choke back tears and then immediately scold myself. “You’re a seasoned traveler. This is NO BIG DEAL.”
The next day, I scurry around Kathmandu’s Thamel neighborhood, outfitting myself for the days ahead in 45 frantic minutes between activities. I feel awkward in ill-fitting off-brand trekking pants and a bright blue tourist T-shirt that screams ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP. I’ve never been to Annapurna Base Camp; I’m not even sure where it is. I long for my slim Prana travel pants and wool Icebreaker tee.
Then I pass a dusty tent village in the Nepali capital, where earthquake refugees live with only the clothes on their backs. They are all smiling. I shrink down in shame. How could I be feeling sorry for myself?
The next morning, our group visits Kathmandu’s Kopan Monastery. A Buddhist monk in flowing robes leads us into the temple and speaks with uplifting potency about the secrets to contentment: love, compassion, acceptance. Stop looking for the next thing and be happy with the here and now, he says.
My heart swells with gratitude.
We continue on to Boudhanath, the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet, whose prominent golden stupa had cracked during the earthquake and is being rebuilt. Climbing worn stone stairs to a rooftop deck overlooking the temple, we pass a clutch of chanting Buddhists, who seem unfazed by the damage. Life goes on. Devotion persists. Stupas are still sacred, even if they are imperfect.
We light butter lamps and recite a prayer: “May all beings everywhere, plagued by suffering of body and mind, obtain an ocean of happiness and joy.”
In nearby Bhaktapur, earthquake damage from 2015 and 1934 is evident but not disruptive to the tempo of everyday life. “We are constantly rebuilding,” our tour guide tells us as we admire the ancient city’s carved lattice woodwork, narrow brick alleys, and open squares with pagoda-topped temples.
Nepal’s history is rife with hardship—poverty, earthquakes, civil war, border skirmishes, and—during our visit—a fuel shortage that has resulted in 20-hour waits for gas. Yet, everywhere we go the locals seem optimistic. So much so that I ask Sumit Baral, a tourism advisor for the country, for his thoughts on the subject. “It’s a mind-set,” he explains. “[Some things are] beyond our control. It all boils down to expectation.”
Our group hops a plane to Pokhara, an adventure destination and gateway to the famed Annapurna trekking circuit. Though the breathtaking region was almost wholly unharmed by the earthquakes, its tourism-dependent economy is suffering. Along the usually bustling lakefront, our footsteps echo against a row of shops where business owners sit idly with no one to greet.
Still, we see smiles. Riding mountain bikes to a stupa, we pass beaming locals who wave and shout, “Namaste!” Hiking through farms along a lush hillside, our small band joins a group of children playing on a swing. “Namaste!”
I go paragliding in Pokhara, soaring on pockets of wind over the Himalayas. Back on the ground, my instructor tells me business has been down since the earthquakes. I ask if he’s had to consider seeking out other work. “I like to fly,” he says with a smile, grateful to have a customer for the day. “This is my dream.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Experts estimate that tourism numbers were down 65 percent across Nepal in 2015. Yet the places we visit are functioning normally, lacking only the usual tourist rush. It’s a magically quiet time.
From Pokhara, we head north to Jomsom, in Nepal’s mountainous Mustang District. I wander the cobblestone streets, dodging donkeys and waving at shy, cherub-cheeked children who linger in doorways. A window cluttered with prayer wheels, singing bowls, yak bells, woven rugs, and jewelry catches my eye, and I duck into the small shop for a look.
I ask the elderly man behind the counter how life has been post-earthquake.
“This whole area has been empty since then. I’ve lost a lot of business, but I’m positive and hopeful that one day guests will return,” he says, then quickly adds: “I’m just happy me and my family are safe, and I’m very sad for those who died.”
Six days into our trip, just when I have stopped worrying about it, my luggage appears. I unzip my duffle and immediately feel overwhelmed. “What do I do with all this stuff?”
I have learned to live with what I have. Nepal is rubbing off on me.