Debating MonksInterview with Andrew Bondarev, who visited Nepal and Tibet with his father in April 2016.

Q: Please tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a Russia born, American immigrant of the early 90’s. In my late twenties now, I just finished up my MBA from Penn State University and will be starting a new job in the Philadelphia area this Summer. My father, is in his early sixties, lives in New Jersey and is a business owner. We both love the outdoors and stay quite active with events such as camping, fishing, and running marathons. We do quite a bit of travelling, and combined have visited close to forty different countries around the world!

Q: You visited Nepal and Tibet with your father. Please tell us about your overall experience.

My father and I great time exploring the culture of the region while also taking in the natural beauty of the land. We had to compromise when planning the trip, as my father was definitely more interested in the cultural aspects, while I wanted to do a lengthier trek. I think that it worked out perfectly as we were able to visit multiple cultural sites, while also fitting in a five day trek that wasn’t too difficult but still packed in plenty of natural beauty and adventure. Nepal and Tibet have many similarities, but at the same time are completely different countries. We were very happy that we were able to explore both areas.

A: Please describe your trek to Ghorepani / Poon Hill in some detail.

Day 1: Nayapul – Tirkhedhunga: On the first day, we drove about an hour from Pokhara to our trek starting destination in Nayapul. The first day saw an ascent of about 500 m, which was gradual and mainly on a dirt path. We ate plenty of delicious bananas sold by the locals, passed many tea-houses, and greatly enjoyed our first glimpse of rural Nepal life.

Day 2: Tirkhedhunga – Ghorepani: While the second day saw an ascent of about 1100 m, up many stairs, we felt great all day as we took ample rests, and trekked fairly slowly. With the higher elevation we were able to see some amazing view of the valley, and towards the end of the hike we passed through a forest which provided some appreciated protection from the sun. When we reached Ghorepani it was cloudy and rainy, so we started praying for a clear morning so that we could get a good view of the Annapurana Mountains the next day!

Day 3: Ghorepani – Poonhill – Tadapani: A 4AM wake-up call signaled that the skies were clear and that we would hike up to Poonhill to watch the sunrise over the Annapurana Mountain Range! After an hour hike, we reached the apex of our trip as we had an amazing view of peaks such as Dhaulagiri, Annapurna South, Fishtail, Annapurana I, etc… After a couple hours we hiked back down to Ghorepani, packed our stuff, ate breakfast and trekked on to Tadapani. This part of the hike was probably the most beautiful as we passed mainly through a blooming rhododendron forest and had amazing views of the mountains most of the way.

Day 4: Tadapani – Ghandruk: Today’s hike was short, about 3.5 hours, all downhill. We reached Ghandruk which was an active town filled with a thriving community. We visited a small museum in the afternoon, and I even took a hilly two mile run through town (marathon training) as I passed the local school, multiple shops, and local men processing and distributing yak meat!

Day 5: Ghandruk – Nayapul: This was the shortest hike, as we decided that instead of walking along a dusty road for 4 hours we would rather take a taxi. We hiked about an hour to a small town, and took the taxi all the way down to Nayapul. We passed multiple kids on their way to school, dressed in their matching school uniforms, and also saw amazing views of the surrounding countryside. From Nayapul we drove down to Pokhara where we went boating on the lake, and relaxed for most of the day.

Q: Please describe your visit to Tibet. What did you do and see?

A: We spent most of our time in Lhasa, which allowed us ample time to visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery and Norbulinka. They all had their unique beauty and each area saw many Tibetan’s praying at each site. The highlight of the sites was definitely the debating monks at the Sera Monastery. Each day the monks go to a special courtyard/garden where they pair up, and have lively debate about philosophical questions. One monk sits on the ground, while a second standing monk literally hurls questions at the sitting monk, lunging toward him and clapping his hands as he states his case. (Picture attached) We made multiple loops through the Barkhor market, were my dad was able to purchase many crafts (and even a small suitcase to bring them all home in!).

We had one excursion outside of Lhasa to Namtso Lake. The drive was very comfortable, in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and we were able to reach the lake in about 5 hours. The lake was absolutely beautiful, and we visited multiple small temples in the caves surrounding the lake, and were able to get up close with roaming Yak. The altitude at Namtso Lake is 4718 m, and it started to snow/hail at one point. A mix of the altitude and cold caused me to get a slight headache and stomachache, so I was quite excited to get back to Lhasa after an overnight in a very basic hotel next to the lake!

Q: Was the experience as expected or were there surprises? What was different vs your expectations?

A: I think that for the most part we knew what to expect because of the excellent prep and information provided by the kimkim team, but there were definitely a few surprises and differences of expectations. For the trek, we were surprised that the tea-houses we stayed at had showers and were fairly comfortable. We thought we were going to be super roughing it, but the popularity of the area caused many tea-houses to open for the large number of trekkers that pass through the area. Luckily we went in the off-season so we were able to avoid the mass droves of people, but were still able to take advantage of the comfortable tea-houses. In Tibet we were surprised by how modern the city was. With the 2008 completion of a railroad that linked Lhasa with the rest of China, there were multiple malls, movie theaters, and high rise apartments built to accommodate the large amount of people coming in. Luckily the old part of town still had the Tibetan charm that we hoped to experience, and we spent most of our time in this area.

Q: What were the highlights of your trip?

A: The highlight of the trip was the view of the mountains from Poonhill. Nothing can prepare you for seeing multiple >8,000 m peaks in the crisp early morning air.

Q: Was there anything that was challenging?

A: While the drive to and views of Namtso Lake were beautiful, the high altitude, cold and lack of western bathroom definitely challenged our psyche on the trip! I dealt with a bit of altitude sickness, so we were both quite excited to drive back to Lhasa.Yak Processing

Q: Do you have any tips for travelers who are considering coming to Nepal and Tibet? Any specific things to pack? Any tips about what kinds of activities to do?

A: Absolutely bring some cards and a couple of books. Some days of the hike are only about 3-4 hours, and therefore you might arrive at a teahouse around noon with a need to entertain yourself for the rest of the day! Make sure to have a good raincoat/umbrella with you to deal with any unexpected rain showers. Buy good hiking pants and tech-shirts, to limit the amount of gear you need to bring, and to stay comfortable (and non-stinky) during the trek! If visiting Pokhara, absolutely try to go Paragliding! We went with Babu Adventure, at a cost of about $100 USD pp, for 25 minutes we flew around the Pokhara valley.

Andrew planned and booked his trip using kimkim, a travel company specialized in adventure trips to destinations including Nepal. To learn more please visit kimkim’s Nepal page.