Apr 17, 2017

Our vegan trip to Nepal - photos and impressions


Two weeks ago I flew back to Estonia. But before that, I was on a vegan adventure in Nepal. What exactly did we do there and what do the words pickle, momo ja dhanyabad mean? Let's find out! I made over 700 photos there, but I carefully picked out my favorites and also wrote down my memories. Hopefully you'll love this little virtual travel with me! 

On March 20th, our travel group gathered at Tallinn Airport. Our flights were scheduled: Tallinn-Munich-Abu Dhabi-Kathmandu. From Munich, we flew with a ginormous Etihad Airways plane. On the plane, I quickly received my special vegan meal, which was turmeric rice with green bean curry, chickpea salad, fruit salad, fresh bun and vegan butter. Nothing to write home about, but a pretty decent meal, plus it was a warm meal. Definitely better than chewing on baguettes while traveling. The plane had a wonderful selection of quality movies. Many of them I had seen before (Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, The Shawshank Redemption, The Girl On the Train etc.) but there were some I hadn't. After six hours and couple of movies, we landed in Abu Dhabi early in the morning. At the airport we were welcomed by a cloud of air fresheners. They were really keen on spraying that everywhere. Couple of hours of waiting and we took our last four-hour flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. It was time to eat again and this time I received tomato pasta, corn salad, fresh watermelon and that bun and butter combo again.

When we landed in the valley of the gods, it was 4pm. I loved Kathmandu Airport! Such a charming and simple red brick building. I felt immediately at home. I had to wake up the stock exchange guy who was taking a nap and the customs clerk apparently really liked my last name, because he joyously kept repeating that. He also pointed the finger onto my visa photo and said "Nice!". After that, we were greeted by the people from Social Tours, which was our local organizer. They put white welcome scarves around our necks and we were directed into our buses that took us to our hotel.

Kathmandu felt really exotic for me, especially since it was my first trip to Asia. The evening was warm and sunny. At the hotel, we got to eat noodles, spicy tomato sauce, loads of fresh steamed spinach and veggies. Then it was time to check out our rooms. Since I'm a sucker for massages, I noticed that we had a little spa right next to our hotel. Of course I and couple of other people went there for a foot massage. It was spot on after long hours of traveling. 

View from the Hotel Pilgrim
The hotel room was rather cold that night. Fortunately I had packed some warm clothes and even a hat with me, so they came really handy that moment. For breakfast, I ate pan-fried potatoes, lentil curry and veggies. After that, it was time to take a two hour long walk around Kathmandu streets with a local chef. We gathered fresh ingredients and spices for our cooking workshop.

The street in front of our hotel and "Serenity Spa", where we received our foot massage. 
The usual wire jumble on Nepali streets
Cinnamon leaves
Nepali chili peppers
The streets were warm and sunny. Since I'm a pretty modest country girl, I didn't experience any so called culture shock while in Nepal. The only thing I didn't get used to was the continuous traffic noise and super loud honking. After our market tour, it was time to walk to the Social Tours headquarters, where we cooked potato naan, spicy soup and sauces, vegetable salad, peanut salad and fruit salad with the local chef.


Spicy sauce a.k.a pickle a.k.a achar is very common in Nepal and they serve it with almost every food. Usually it's made out of marinated radishes, bamboo, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, mango and of course with lots of chili and oil. This time the chef made three different versions. The green one was mild and made with fresh peppermint, the orange one was a bit spicy and the red one was advanced level spicy. I quickly started to love all these different pickle sauces and we got to try so many of them. The workshop was really fun and our hungry group devoured a huge pile of potato naans in no time.

After our lunch, we drove to the Monkey Temple (Swoyambhu), which is one of the oldest holy sites in Nepal. Right away we were greeted by monkeys who were fighting over bananas. Then we walked up the stairs to see this wonderful huge stupa staring at us with Buddha eyes. From the top of the hill, we could see the Kathmandu valley with it's numerous colorful houses. The air was warm, prayer flags were peacefully waving and we could hear the continuous and soft Om Mani Padme Hum mantra from the speakers.


In the evening, we were invited to a traditional seven course Nepali welcome dinner, where they also entertained us with local dance and singing performances. At first they brought us popcorn, which is also very common there. You can even get it with your coffee at different cafes. After popcorn, we were served spiced pan-fried potatoes, lentil pancakes, steamed spinach, mushroom curry, vegetable curry, lentil soup a.k.a dhal, another spicy soup and rice. My favorites were mushroom curry and that wonderful steamed spinach that I miss in Estonia. We only mostly have this tiny baby spinach, which will vanish into thin air after you cook it. But Nepali spinach is so leafy and sturdy. I also drank refreshing Everest beer, which was my favorite from the beers I tasted.

Our feast. The person facing me is Raj, the head of Social Tours. He was eating with hands like a true local. Some braver ones from our group tried it also.
We also had an interesting conversation with Raj about how for Nepali people it's logical that food is also medicine. And if you want to be healthy and happy, you have to work on your physical and mental well-being. He also said a sentence that sometimes haunts me: "The West has the clock, but we have the time". I believe him, because the people I met in Nepal were really peaceful and warm.

After our dinner, we were back in our hotel to get a good night sleep and prepare us for tomorrow. We then went on a hike in Shivapuri National Park and reached the Nagi Gumba nun monastery, where we cooked a lunch with the nuns.

Signs like these always make my happy! 
Bought this bracelet from the Monkey Temple. It should keep away the bad spirits. I love turquoise and of course skulls.
A calm fella! There are SO many dogs in Nepal. It seemed like there are at least three dogs on one square meter. I always saw dogs that were fell-fed and friendly. This nun monastery had at least three dogs and one of them lived on the roof. It made loud noise every time there were some literal monkey business going on and naughty monkeys were stealing oranges. 
Our local guide who hiked with us. He works in the National Park and said it's not a well-paying job, but he just really loves it. He also mentioned that he had seen a king cobra there twice (brrrr!) and during the 2015 earth-quake in Nepal his grandfather broke both of his legs. 
The ginger is being crushed in a heavy mortar and pestle.
Pressure cooker is really common in Nepal. They even use it in rural villages. A quick way to get your lentils boiled.
Spinach!!!
Pumpkin curry and dhal in the making.
Another lovely pickle made out of dried mustard leaves. They also use a lot of mustard oil while cooking.
Hello, monkey!
Mushroom curry made with oyster mushrooms - my huge favorites!
Bowls of lentil soup
Our local chef, nuns and a volunteer.

This meal right there was my most favorite food we ate during our trip. So fresh, so flavorful, so comforting! I loved the whole day: our hike, the monastery and the food. It was one of my favorite days in Nepal.

The next day it was time to leave Kathmandu and set course to Pokhara. The trip took many hours, so we made some stops to eat more wonderful food. Then we had a boat ride on Begnas lake to reach the amazing Begnas Lake Resort and Villas.

Of course I didn't pass up a chance to taste the local road food. Pan-fried potatoes with chili and fresh coriander and spicy chickpeas. Really good!
Couple of hours later, we had our official lunch stop. Another lovely place.
Noodles, steamed spinach, spicy tomato sauce and spicy cucumber and onion salad.
A suspension bridge at our lunch stop.
Cute colorful boats that took us to our resort.
Our resort had a pool! Guess what was the first thing I did after I checked into my room?
We were staying in charming stone houses.
Sunny morning near the pool.
At a distance, you can spot the Annapurna Massif, which is a part of the Himalayas. 
Our resort was absolutely wonderful. The stone houses were incredible and the service was A+. I also loved the view from our window, where I could see the lake and the mountain giants. We stayed there for two nights and while the days were sunny, both nights had thunder and warm rain. I could hear the crickets outside and it felt like a usual Estonian summer night. Especially when on the second night I heard a band playing on the opposite lake shore. 

Usually I always prefer a good and long night sleep, but this time I couldn't pass up the chance to go to a 6am yoga class in the morning. The class was literally a few steps from our house, so how could I not go? The clock went off at 5:40am. I put on my training clothes and onto the mat I went. This time we made Kundalini yoga and it took two hours. When I was looking outside of the window, I finally saw the great Himalayas. 

After the breakfast (this time it was potato patties and steamed veggies) we drove to the local permaculture coffee farm. We were there for many hours and had a chance to eat lunch made by the host. After our wonderful food experience in the nun monastery, the food here was my second favorite. The farmer also showed us his plantation and garden. They were such sweet people! The farmer told how he used to work in the leprosy hospital for many years, but then decided to grow his own coffee, fruits and vegetables. His idea was simple - take care of the land first and then the land will take care of you. When he was asked if he had some worries or problems, he said no. Only his back hurts a little from time to time.

Curry made on fire is always the best. But lentil dhal was made in the pressure cooker on a stove.
Lentil soup in the making
Luxury outhouse

Another wonderful local food experience. Rice, cauliflower curry, spicy pickle and the best lentil dhal I had in Nepal. It was loaded with fresh ginger.
This day was probably the hottest and being many hours outside (even when in the shadow), got the best of me. When I arrived to the hotel, I took a full body massage and then went to sleep. I even skipped dinner that night, because I really wanted to be well rested for our next adventures. But on the night before I had dinner in the hotel's restaurant and ate momos a.k.a Nepali filled dumplings with pickle sauce and some veggie rice, spinach and curry.

After two nights in our gorgeous resort, it was time to leave. We met with a local village ayurvedic doctor. It was interesting to see how the people in rural areas got the treat their illnesses. We had a chance to consult with the doctor about our health issues and many of us left with a bottle of powdered herb mixture. 

Can't handle this cuteness
The old lady was looking for her missing goats
A very creative gate
The local doctor
Cheat-sheet for medicinal plants
After the village clinic, we drove to Pokhara. It's interesting to know that until late 1960-s Pokhara was only accessible by foot. On the year 1968 the first road was completed and after that the city and tourism grew rapidly. Pokhara didn't seem really special at first, but the time there is a wonderful memory. I loved the friendly vibe, wide and logical streets, loads of restaurants and bars and the best good night sleep I had while in Nepal. I also loved the visit to the Ayurveda Health Home, where we booked consultations and procedures for the next day.

Then it was time for a Thakali food course. Thakali is an ethnolinguistic group originated from the Mustang District. They are known for their great business sense and many of them run hotels in Nepal. Their kitchen is also loved and many roadside Thakali places offer delicious food. Instead of rice, they often eat porridge made out of buckwheat flour, corn flour or barley flour.

We too were cooked a buckwheat flour porridge, dried spinach and potato soup, nettle and corn flour soup, fresh salad with cilantro and pickle sauce. The food was really unusual and the porridge was completely bland. Also the soups were really earthy but not in a really good way. I was really hungry and ate the whole thing. It was a different experience for sure but still interesting.  The locals really loved the buckwheat flour porridge and ate a bunch of it. In exchange, I offered them a black pepper vodka I brought with myself from Estonia.

Ayurveda Health Home. All clinics should be that pretty!
Bedroom in the clinic
Pokhara
Simple message in the clinic
Clinic's bookshelf
Medicine
Nettles for the soup
Dried spinach
Super aromatic Sichuan pepper
Fresh salad with cilantro
Soup in the making
Buckwheat flour porridge
After a long day, I met with my new awesome friend Anette in front of our hotel. We had a mission to find a great spot for dinner. It had to have the possibility to sit outside and it had to have Nepali dishes in the menu. 

Finally we found a wonderful place. It was rather quiet, it had tables outside and we could hear the soothing hang drum played at a distance. The menu had a lot of Nepali food and with really cheap prizes. For example - momos costed little over a dollar. I also ordered vegetable thukpa (spicy noodle soup) and local beer. The place was really tiny and inside I spotted a huge shelf with cabbage heads and pumpkin on it. The girl who was serving us, brought us a piece of paper and a pen, so we could write down what we wanted to order. I loved that she had to buy my beer from a shop next to the restaurant. 

Pokhara at night
Momos were served with a delicious mango pickle. Thukpa was also nice, but I even prefer this recipe :) When we started eating, a friendly dog came to our table and took a nap. I ordered a naan bread from him, but he completely refused. I guess that he was super stuffed and a regular plain naan was nothing he would fancy at that moment. Anette told me that on the next day she saw a worker of the restaurant feeding the same dog, so no wondering there!

After our dinner, it was hotel time again. Next day was packed with ayurvedic procedures and some people from our group also had a chance to go for a hike in the morning. I had an hour long consultation booked along with a three hour massage and oil treatment. Before that, I had a breakfast in a lovely cafe, where they served delicious tofu scramble with some rustic bread and fresh watermelon juice. Then it was time to walk to the clinic. While walking, I noticed some really great business names like "One Direction Hotel" and "Dead brain, fast food and video games". Also, Metallica was blasting from one of the balconies and my mood was really good. 

During my consultation with the ayurvedic doctor, she collected a lot of info and then set my ayurvedic body type. Then she gave me recommendations how I could support my body type and lifestyle. The following long massage was definitely the best one I received in Nepal. It was very thorough and with warm sesame oil. After the massage, I had a shirodhara, which is an ancient and unique ayurvedic procedure, where the continuous stream of warm oil is poured onto your forehead. It should support the nervous system and ease the stress, depression and headaches. It was pleasant, but the massage was surely my favorite.

On the same night, a group of five decided to get dinner together. We picked OR2K. We also visited the same restaurant in Kathmandu and we were happy to see that in Pokhara, too. Their super creamy hummus with pan-fried onions and mushrooms and fresh chapati bread is really something special. I also loved their pad Thai and momos. After our dinner, we were greeted by warm rain on the street.

Next day, we started driving back to Kathmandu. We stopped at another beautiful resort named Summit River Lodge, where we took part in a momo cooking class.

On our way to the resort.
A bear or a dog?
Regular Nepali village.
Hurray!!
Momo workshop
In exchange, we made my soft cocoa and orange cookies with the local chef.
Loving the spice rack
Fresh local cucumber. They are eating a lot of cucumber in Nepal and serve it as a salad or just slice it.
Filling for the vegetable momos.
Veggie broth
Chefs rolling the momo dough.

I loved that workshop and it was an honor to cook with the local chefs. I also had a chat with them and they were saying that their work schedule is a month in the hotel and a few free days at home in Kathmandu. I asked what they like to do on their free time and they said that you know, walk around on the streets of Kathmandu and meet up with friends. Not conquering the mountains and hiking like the tourists :)

On the day, a stomach flu started to spread in our group. Two people stayed in their room and skipped the workshop. But the day after they were fortunately fine enough to continue our drive to Kathmandu. When we arrived to Kathmandu, some of us decided to go for a dinner at a nearby restaurant. They had an item in the menu named "Elephant foot". It was basically a huge vegan patty. Since I had eaten mostly rice, lentils and Asian spices for almost two weeks, a regular patty and fries sounded pretty nice. But the patty was super floury and doughy and bland and even the fries were bad.

On the next morning, I didn't feel so good. I decided to stay in the hotel. It was the best decision, because what was following was vomiting for six times, diarrhea and a high fever. I was suspecting the infamous "Elephant foot", but it quickly became clear that the stomach flu had reached me. The rest of the group visited Kar.ma Coffee, which is owned by Raj's wife. They also took part of the cooking class, where they made lentil pancakes fried in mustard oil. Fortunately the vomiting had stopped for the next day, but I was still too weak to left my bed. I heard that another person from our group had gotten the stomach flu. Others visited Bhaktapur, which is the craftsman district of Kathmandu and bought some souvenirs. I finally started to gather my strength and could attend a dinner at OR2K, where we celebrated the jubilee of one of our group member. My healing was definitely supported by rehydration powder (thank you, Anette), lots of resting and getting all of it out of my system. 

Next day it was time to leave Nepal. Since our hotel had many little shops nearby, I decided to buy my souvenirs from there. Anette also took me to a great place named "Places Restaurant and Bar", where we had one last lunch before leaving. The interior was similar to OR2K, where we sat on the floor. I ordered tofu skewers with barbecue sauce and a mocktail named "True Blood", which was made with freshly pressed beet juice. Anette had a warm cauliflower salad with walnuts. The food and vibe was really great!


The last photo is from my Instagram, where you can find loads of other pictures from Nepal that I didn't post here. So if you want an extra dose, click HERE!

At the Kathmandu airport, the customs clerk joyously repeated my last name again and again and it was time to depart. When the plane took off, I saw some dark clouds outside and right when I started to listen to "Dive" by Nirvana, the plane had a really bad turbulence, where it dove much lower for a second. It was pretty creepy. I removed my headphones and gathered myself for a minute. Soon we landed in Abu Dhabi, where we had to wait for 5-6 hours. Fortunately me, Anette and her mom found a really quiet place and stayed there for most of the time. We also had a quick snack in one of the restaurants, where I ordered a luscious berry smoothie and a sparkling mineral water. After that, we flew six hours to Munich. Arriving to Europe really felt like I was almost home. We only had to wait two more hours and then flew with our Estonian Nordica to Tallinn.

It was SO good to land in Estonia and be convinced again that traveling can be really awesome, but there's no place like home. The best moment was when I saw my love at the airport. In our almost 13 years of living together, we hadn't been apart for that long :) In the car, he treated me to a homemade pizza roll made by our friend Miina. A hungry traveler devoured that in seconds. After that we drove to Tartu and this 2,5 hour long car ride felt super short after my adventures. Then we ate a wonderful mushroom risotto at our favorite place and at 7pm I was already sleeping. On the next day, we drove to our forest cabin. I had a super weird sleeping schedule for the following week - going to sleep at 10pm and waking up at 8am. So not me. 

A huge thanks to everyone who made this trip possible (Ave Riisberg, WRIS and Social Tours), to all the people who came to this trip and everyone, who shared memorable moments with me. Thank you, dhanyabad, Nepal!

Sandra

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