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Pokhara & the Himalayan hippie trail

Kathmandu may be the first city that comes to mind when you mention Nepal. But when it comes to retracing the infamous 'Hippie Trail' of the 1960s, there is no better place than Pokhara. Little known outside the hard-core travel circuit, Pokhara is Nepal's 3rd largest city, and - more importantly - lies in the shadow of three of the ten tallest mountains in the world.

On Friday, Gadling presented 48 hours in Kathmandu as a brief introduction to the mountain kingdom. But to truly come face-to-face with the majesty and grandeur of Nepal, you have to climb up into the Himalayas.

Prior to the construction of a major highway in 1968, the only way to access Pokhara was to hike in. Difficult access meant that travelers were in no rush to go anywhere else. The stories of bygone sex, drugs and rock n' roll in Pokhara are absolutely legendary.

With jet-setting flashpackers becoming more of the norm rather than the exception, things are certainly more PG-13 these days. But that doesn't mean that Pokhara is any less magical. Have we peaked your interest yet? Read on to find out more about the last vestiges of the Himalayan Hippie Trail.

Big in Japan: Cheating your way into university

Over the next few weeks, high school students across America are making one of the biggest decisions of their young adult lives, namely where to attend university. In Japan, the situation is no different, though this year the annual ritual has been marred by the country's largest ever cheating scandal.

For anyone out there in high school - or anyone with less than fond memories of being in high school - the SATs can be a painful rite of passage into semi-adulthood. The Japanese version is colloquially referred to as 'exam war,' and necessitates sitting for grueling entrance exams at multiple universities.

With the Japanese economy in the doldrums, and the pressure to succeed higher than ever, there is certainly temptation for youngsters to cheat. This week, the prestigious Kyoto University is embroiled in a battle with a prospective student, who is accused of sending and receiving messages from an online forum during an exam.

The Japanese media is having a field day, and the stress-stricken 19-yo from northern Japan is now a national pariah.

48 Hours in Kathmandu

Few city names roll off the tongue quite like Kathmandu. Maybe it's the unusual spelling, the exotic string of vowels or the simple fact that it's located on the far side of the planet at the base of the Himalayas. Whatever it is, the mere mention of Nepal's legendary capital is enough to make you want to pack your bags and jump on the next flight.

Kathmandu is one of the famed stops on the 1960s overland 'Hippie Trail,' which stretched from London to Sydney via North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This journey gave rise to Lonely Planet - and indeed the modern backpacking phenomenon - though it ended abruptly in the 1970s in response to increasing regional instability.

Since then, Kathmandu has weathered its fair share of uprising and civil strife, but things are starting to look much calmer. And so, in honor of one of the greatest cities in Central Asia, Gadling is proud to present 48 hours in Kathmandu.

Big in Japan: Ways to stay warm this winter

With winter continuing to rage all across the northern hemisphere, this post is devoted to quick tips for keeping warm. Of course, we're going to throw in a special Japanese twist, especially since keeping warm here presents its own brand of unique challenges.

Japan may lead the world in technological advancements such as 3D television and automated toilets. But when it comes to properly insulated buildings, they're sadly lacking. Winter here is often akin to urban camping, and the proper supplies are essential.

From electric blankets and propane heaters to steaming hot pots and cups of green tea, there are plenty of homegrown remedies for keeping the chill out of your bones. So, for any foreigners out there new to battling the Japanese elements, here is your queue to take good notes.

There may be only one month left to go before the cherry-blossoms signal the end of winter, but it's never too late to get the mercury rising.

Hidden Malibu: Point Dume State Preserve

You don't have to be a travel expert to know that Malibu is one of Southern California's most prestigious neighborhoods. With mansion-topped hillsides fronting the crashing surf of the Pacific, Malibu makes many of us wish that we could be hedonistic jingle writers a la Two and a Half Men.

If you don't have a few spare million to drop on a palatial estate in the sunset belt, fret not as many of the city's natural attractions are completely free of charge. All you need to do is get behind the wheel of a rental car - and escape from Los Angeles.

Depending on the traffic (which can be of legendary proportions in SoCal!), it takes around an hour or so to travel from downtown LA to Malibu via the Pacific Coastal Highway. And when you do arrive, be sure to buck the trend and skip out on the commercialism and the crowds at Zuma.

Your destination: the hidden gem that is Point Dume State Preserve.

Big in Japan: Girls' Day

Today's column is written in honor of Hina-matsuri (雛祭り) or Girls' Day, an annual March 3rd celebration for those of us with two X chromosomes. The striking focal point of this event is the presentation of up to seven tiers of handmade dolls, which have a material history dating back more than a millennium.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in Japan is the near constant occurrence of special events and festivals. Many of these are steeped in ritual and tradition, yet retain a firm place in the modern world.

Case in point: despite the decreasing size of Japanese dwellings, Hina-matsuri is reason enough to clean out the apartment and make some extra space for dozens of elaborate dolls. As symbolic representatives of the royal court, they are said to capture evil spirits while simultaneously bringing luck and love to young women.

Want to know more about this strange spectacle? Sure you do...

MTV Music Awards Head to Belfast

Looking for yet another a reason to escape to Europe?

This year's MTV Europe Music Awards will come at you live from Belfast on November 6th. The capital of Northern Ireland (not to be confused in any way with the Republic of Ireland!) beat out stiff competition this year from Warsaw, Paris and Istanbul.

The organizers are hoping that the event will prove to be an economic boon for the city, which has certainly weathered its fair share of turbulent times. Belfast is also no stranger to top-billing musical acts, especially since it is the home of none other than Van Morrison and Snow Patrol.

Belfast may have less polish than other European capitals, but that is exactly why it's worth checking out. There are a few grand old Victorian buildings amidst the urban grit, not to mention plenty of inviting pubs serving some rare microbrews.

As if this wasn't enough of a hard sell, budget carriers such as Easy Jet connect Belfast to most major European capitals, allowing for cheap and easy jetsetting.

Big in Japan: The Re-Launch!

Long-time readers of Gadling may remember the Big in Japan series, which reigned for 200 posts from 2007 to 2009. Well, we're proud to announce the re-launch of our weird, wacky and wonderful coverage from the Land of the Rising Sun.

My name is Matthew D. Firestone, and I'm a long-time resident of one of the world's greatest megalopolises, namely Tokyo. When I'm not stuffing my face full of sushi and drowning my cares away in sake, I'm usually on assignment as an author for Lonely Planet.

But we're not here to talk about travel writing and guidebooks. There will be plenty of time for that in some of my other posts. On the contrary, this featured column is all about Japan, and why you shouldn't overlook this tiny archipelago floating in the vast Pacific.

Like what you hear? Please keep on reading...

Big in Japan: Bye-bye, but not sayonara

This is a difficult post for me to write...

After more than 18 months of blogging from the Land of the Rising Sun, I have unfortunately decided to retire my Big in Japan series.

First and foremost, and I have immensely enjoyed writing about all of the weird, the wacky and the wonderful randomness that comes out of Japan.

On that note, a big domo arigatou is in order for all of the readers who followed my postings, left comments, and encouraged me to keep on writing.

I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Gadling - you all know who you are - for putting together the best damn travel blog on the web.

So, what's next? Good question (^_^)

I'm going to be retuning to southern Africa for a few months to work on some guidebooks for Lonely Planet. But, as they say in Japanese, this is merely bye-bye and not sayonara.

What's the difference you ask? Great question (^_^)

Sayonara translates to 'farewell,' and this is hopefully anything but. So, stay tuned, as there is a good chance I might make a return in the not too distant future...

Big in Japan: We're on vacation...

If you're stopping by to check on the latest installment of Big in Japan, we're sorry to say that we're on vacation...

What do travel writers do when they're on vacation?

Simple.

They travel - just travel - and take a break from writing.

In January, we'll be heading to India for a little R&R, and we hope to take a much-needed break from all forms electronic communication.

Call it technological fasting if you will!

However, we'll be back and hopefully feeling refreshed in February, and we will definitely be continuing our weekly updates from the Land of the Rising Sun.

In the meantime, be sure to check out all of the wonderful news stories going on at Gadling.

And of course, have a very happy and healthy 2009 (^_^)

** Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **

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