I'm Emily and I live and work in Philadelphia, though I do my best to see other parts of the world as often as possible. There’s nothing I love more than exploring a new (or familiar) place with my camera and learning about cultures other than my own. Starting when I was just a baby, my family often crisscrossed the United States by plane, hitchhiking, or a hippie bus called the Gray Rabbit, to visit relatives scattered around the country. During the sweaty summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I ventured out on my own and drove my trusty (and air conditioning-free) 1992 Nissan Sentra out to San Francisco and back, discovering for the first time how much I enjoy the open road and traveling solo. Spending a semester abroad in Rome the following year really got me hooked on international travel, and I’ve had the bug ever since.
What interests you most about traveling? How do you select the countries that you visit?
There's something amazing about finally experiencing a place firsthand after only seeing images or hearing stories from other people. I’ll never forget wandering the streets of Rome for the first time and literally stumbling upon landmarks that had seemed unreal when my art history teacher projected slides of them. They were now suddenly right in front of me; tangible, touchable, and able to be explored and photographed. The best part, though, is all the culture that surrounds these new places. I love learning how other people do things. I think it's much too easy to get lost in our small bubbles, forgetting that the rest of the world is out there. There are unique lifestyles, foods, landscapes, languages, faces, and traditions to be experienced - so much more than just what’s in front of us right here, right now.
What sparked your interest to visit Nepal specifically?
I had no plans to visit Nepal, and actually had to be convinced a bit – which seems unbelievable now that I’ve been there and know the magic it holds. It was 2008, and I had just left my job of nine years at The Associated Press to travel around Southeast Asia for six months. After spending my first two months adventuring around Thailand and Laos, a friend I made along the way mentioned he was headed to Nepal to go “trekking.” At the time, I had no idea what that entailed, except that there was no way I could wander through some snowy mountains in my sandals, thin cotton pants, and out-of-shape self. Yet, something told me to go for it, because I suppose that was the whole point of the journey to Asia I had embarked on. It turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life (especially once I realized I could rent hiking boots, a small backpack, rain gear, sticks, and a sleeping bag for a mere five dollars a day) and Nepal is forever imprinted on my heart. I returned to Southeast Asia for another six months in 2010 and spent another month and a half falling in love with Nepal all over again.
What were some of the places you visited while in Nepal?
It’s difficult to sum up all of my experiences in Nepal in one short summary. Kathmandu, the general starting off point for anyone who visits, has the most intense, insane, overwhelming tourist section, called Thamel, of any city I've been to. Hundreds of shops sell the same brightly colored clothing, various teas, jewelry, handicrafts, baked goods, and photocopied versions of Lonely Planet. There's music blasting from all directions, with most shops playing the same “om mani padme hum” mantra on repeat, and motorbikes, taxis, and cycle-rickshaws whizzing by. Every few feet someone is trying to sell you Tiger Balm, wooden flutes, hash, marijuana, opium, or a trip to Tibet. It is total sensory overload geared only towards tourists, which is definitely too much for me. I was lucky enough to have someone recommend a guesthouse in the Paknajol neighborhood, which was outside of the madness (but close enough to grab dinner in one of the restaurants) in a quiet, peaceful, garden-filled area nearby.
After a few days of exploring the intensity and beautiful temples and squares that Kathmandu holds outside of touristy Thamel, I hopped a quick bus to the wonderfully charming World Heritage site and ancient city of Bhaktapur. Only a handful of cars and motorbikes share the quaint streets in this small town with bicycles and everyone else on foot. Temples, pagodas, pink and red powder, small shrines, and other signs of Hinduism are everywhere you look. Beautifully carved ancient wooden windows and structures are well preserved. Men sit in small groups playing music and singing nightly in the square's various temples. An enormous field of garbage at the edge of town is covered with pigs and piglets feasting. A burned and hardened corpse of a buffalo can be found lying in the street, waiting to be cut up and sold in the market. Birds chirping unfamiliar songs and the traditional ringing of a bell every time someone walks past a temple where they pray, to let God know they've arrived, are music to my ears. The sun rising over my guesthouse owner Sharmilla's shoulder, as we practiced yoga with the sunrise, was a lovely way to start the day. It was a quiet and peaceful place to settle in and make some connections.
Next up was a ten-day introduction to Buddhism and meditation in a hilltop Buddhist monastery, a short walk above Boudhanath stupa. As someone who grew up with absolutely no religion, I honestly surprised myself when I signed up. It ended up being a highlight of my trip, and the clearest I’ve ever felt. Breathtaking views of the Kathmandu Valley below, mixed with monks chanting early in the morning, as I sat for hours in silence attempting to meditate, learning about the fascinating aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and eating delicious vegetarian food three times a day. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough.
A few hours west of Kathmandu is Pokhara, a lovely lakeside town typically known as a jumping-off point for trekkers interested in tackling the Annapurna mountain range. Maybe it’s the gorgeous lake, or the tips of the mountains you can sometimes see in the early morning hours, or the sweet, welcoming family at my favorite guesthouse and restaurant, or the easy, laid-back feel of the town in general… but something keeps drawing me back.
I’ve gone on two different treks around the Annapurna region, one for ten days and one for six. The road that may be in place now was still being worked on during my visits, which meant that everything needed to be hand-carried up to the various villages. Each meal and guesthouse got a little bit more expensive the more stone steps I climbed. The achingly beautiful mountain vistas and various yaks and water buffalo and goats and sweet, smiling people and Coconut Crunchies cookies and tiny villages and magical forests filled with bright pink rhododendron blooms and that amazing natural hot spring pool that soothed my sore muscles under the starry open sky… are all moments I think back on lovingly and often.
What surprised you the most about your experience?
I never envisioned myself enjoying ten days up in the mountains, trekking up and down thousands of stone steps each day while carrying a backpack. I’m not much of a camper (that’s putting it lightly), so I was surprised at how much I loved arriving in a different village each night and rolling out my sleeping bag (we weren’t in tents, so that helped), and especially waking up with the sun to watch it rise slowly over the snow-capped mountaintops. It was exhausting and there were many times each day where I just wanted to sit down and quit, but my hungry stomach and the promise of another gorgeous view in the next village to look at while devouring delicious traditional Nepali dishes such as momos and dal baht kept me going.
What would you like people to know about your experience within the country that is little known?
While spending time in Bhaktapur, I became friends with Birjan and his family, who are Newars. I was fortunate enough to be invited into their home, and it was fascinating to learn about Newari culture and the traditional customs, especially when it comes to the kitchen: no shoes in the kitchen, no tasting in the kitchen, no smelling food in the kitchen, no touching your hand to your mouth even if someone hands you a boiled potato to eat (you're supposed to throw it into your mouth... I had to wash my hands outside of the house after I made this faux pas), no sharing plates of food for the unmarried, etc. Although it's apparently okay for the mother to cough all over the food as she's cooking while she has a cold.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested visiting Nepal?
At some point during your visit, be sure to try dal bhat, a traditional Nepali dish consisting of rice and lentils, and momos, or dumplings. If you enjoy Indian food, you’ll love Nepali cuisine, as it’s quite similar.
If you spend time in Pokhara and have a strong stomach, paragliding is a wonderful way to see the countryside and lake from above with the birds. Take a small hike up to the World Peace Pagoda on the other side of the lake. (watch out for leeches if it has rained lately) Rent a bicycle and wander outside of town. If you don’t have much time for a long trek, go for just a few days and be sure to catch a breathtaking sunrise at Poon Hill. And don’t worry like I did about having the right gear, as you can inexpensively rent everything you need in town for almost nothing.
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
I’ll never forget climbing for an hour in the dark to the top of Poon Hill and being blown away by a sunrise like no other: snow-topped Himalayan mountain ranges in each and every direction you faced. It was absolutely breathtaking and definitely unforgettable.
What is your funniest memory?
Trekking with Marie, who I met in Bhaktapur, was a blast. We cracked each other up non-stop, but the funniest time was on a bus ride. The seats were cramped as it was, seeing that they’re made for smaller-framed Nepalis. The seat directly in front of Marie collapsed back, and the man sitting in it was basically in her lap for the entirety of the bus ride. All we could do was laugh, as there were no other seats available.
What advice do you have for individuals that want to start traveling internationally, but don’t know how to start?
If you’re planning a longer trip, my suggestion would be to keep an open itinerary. You never know who you’ll meet or what place you’ll find yourself wanting to settle down in and explore for a while. I flew into Bangkok only knowing where I’d be staying the first two nights and figured it out as I went, which is not typical for me at all. I’m a planner and a scheduler, but there was nothing more freeing than waking up and figuring out each day as it came. Guidebooks are helpful, but you’ll meet multitudes of other travelers along the way with plentiful guesthouse and next-town suggestions. Avoid the overpriced tours… you can figure it all out yourself.
What’s next for you?
My current job allows for shorter adventures these days, so I’ve been making an annual week-plus trip to Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán region in late February for the past four years. It gives me the opportunity to thaw out a bit, relax by a peaceful lake, and learn more about a beautiful culture (though I still don’t speak Spanish after promising myself each year I’ll come home and learn).
To see more of Emily's travels, be sure to follow her @el_fotomat on Instagram. She can also be reached directly at ehinchcliff(at)gmail.com.
Images Courtesy of Emily Hinchcliff