The first days in Nepal

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Astute GSRED readers may remember that Nepal was not originally on my itinerary – it was only added when I found out that Patti was game to meet me in India and was keen to take an Intrepid tour of the area. Since I was busy with Italy at the time I asked her to wade through the seven zillion options Intrepid offers in India and narrow it down to three or four that fit with our dates and general idea of what we wanted to see. (She had loads of time for this, I’m sure. All she was doing was running her own company in Calgary. I was busy trying to sample as many different flavours of gelato as possible, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry.) Anyways, one of the tours on the short list was called “Delhi to Kathmandu” and as soon as I saw Kathmandu, I was hooked. How could you not be? Kathmandu? I mean is that even a real place? It occupies the same place in my head as Timbucktoo or Mars – somewhere so impossibly exotic that you can’t be sure whether it’s real or not.

So even though I was sad to leave India so soon, I was also excited about seeing Nepal and getting to Kathmandu. We drove from Varanasi to a tiny border crossing, schlepped our bags across the border, and got into another minivan on the other side for the drive to Lumbini. The difference between India and Nepal was striking and instantaneous. For hours that morning we’d been driving through India – crowded and filthy and accompanied by the incessant honking that is required at all times in India. After crossing the border things were instantly calmer. There was less garbage on the roadside, and less honking, and a lot less people. Patti was quick to point out that though Nepal may be a very poor country, but it’s a lot easier to keep things tidy when you’ve got a population of 28 million, as opposed to 1.4 billion. I guess you have to cut India some slack.

We had a quick overnight stop in Lumbini, mostly just because driving much further on that day would have been too much. There’s really just one thing to see in Lumbini, and any Buddhists reading this will probably know what that is – the birthplace of the Buddha himself. We visited the site early in the morning, and though I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, I really enjoyed walking around the site. There were lots of people visiting, some as tourists and some as adherents. And there’s an enormous banyan tree near a large square pool that seemed to be the centre of the site. People were seated under the tree chanting and singing, and there were thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags strung from the branches of the tree. In fact, the whole site was festooned with prayer flags and the effect was beautiful.

Prayer flags strung between the trees in Lumbini

The whole site was really peaceful and it was a nice start to the day to wander in among the flags and listen to the chanting. Then it was back into the van for another few hours of driving to get us to the small town of Sauraha, near Chitwan National Park. Sauraha reminded me a lot of Orchha, it was small enough that it was a relaxing place to be, but big enough to have restaurants and beer and internet access. My kind of place.

Besides restaurants, beer and internet, the other big thing Sauraha has is elephants! There’s an elephant breeding centre near the town and the afternoon we arrived we rode bikes out to visit it. It was excellent! I never had a chance to get up close with elephants while I was in Africa, so visiting the breeding centre was a real highlight. It’s run by the Nepali government and has produced 34 babies, most of whom have survived. We even saw their exceedingly rare set of twin baby elephants! (Note to Kathryn: No, I cannot bring you a baby elephant, twin or otherwise.)

At the centre we met Suk, who was our guide and who gave us some interesting info about the centre and about elephants in general, and then let us loose to take pictures. The elephants were all behind fences and chained by their legs to big posts in the ground. The chains seemed depressingly short, but Suk later assured me that the elephants didn’t mind, and the reason that some of them were doing a sort of sad, repetitive little dance pulling on their chains is because we saw them close to their afternoon tea break when the handlers come around and give them balls of grass. They’re also let loose to forage in the park twice a day, since keeping twenty or more elephants provided with all the food they need in a day would be a formidable task.

A mom and baby elephant.

Interesting elephant facts from Suk:

  • Elephants eat 200 kg of food and drink 200 litres of water each day.
  • They live to about 75 years old in the wild, but well cared for elephants can live 90 to 100 years in captivity.
  • Elephants have a complete change of teeth six times in their lives.
  • An elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles in it!
The next day we were scheduled for a guided walk through Chitwan National Park, ending up at a “rustic” guesthouse in a very tiny village of Ghatgai. We downsized to daypacks only, left out main bags at the hotel in Sauraha, and set out at about 9:30 in the morning, once again guided by Suk. The day turned out to be… challenging. It’s not that the walking was particularly strenuous. Akshay had warned us we’d have two hour ride in a canoe, and then a six hour walk - that was not a problem. The problem came as we were sitting in the canoe on the Ripta river and it started to rain. I was clever enough to have packed my rain jacket, but it was still pretty cold and miserable sitting in the rain in that canoe.

A boatman in one of the long dugout canoes that took all eight of us downriver

Things were better and worse once we got ashore. It was nice to be out of the boat, but the rain continued and knowing we had six hours of walking on increasingly muddy tracks did nothing to improve my mood. Patti later said that she preferred the rain to the hot and sunny weather we’d had the day before, which strikes me as slightly insane, but perhaps I’ve become acclimatized to the heat after getting through Africa and the Middle East. Whatever, it was miserable. (I later found out that I was the only one who felt this way – everyone else was just fine with trudging though the mud, which leads me to think they might be slightly off, or maybe haven't been traveling long enough to get properly bitter about this kind of turn of events.)

We were supposed to be watching for exciting wildlife like rhinos and tigers, and we’d even had a briefing on what to do if confronted by an angry rhino (In short: run away, in zig-zag fashion, until you can find a tree big enough to hide behind or, even better, one you can climb. We were specifically discouraged from pushing other members of the group in between us and the rhinos.) Unsurprisingly, it turns out rhinos and tiger are too smart to hang around when it’s pissing down rain, so mostly we trekked quietly. Suk, our guide, pointed out some different birds and we saw a lot of deer, and I made up cryptic crossword clues in my head to pass the time. (Best effort: Hill country plane crash (5). Anyone?).

We passed the spot where these walks usually stop for lunch with nothing more than a sad comment from Suk, “This is where we usually stop for lunch. But today… raining.” Instead we pushed on for an observation tower that offered a bit of shelter where we could eat our lunches out of the wet. And to get to the tower we had to cross a small river, which required a trip across the dodgiest bridge I’ve ever seen.

The dodgiest bridge. Ever. (Terrence, if you’re reading this, that picture is for you.)

We all managed to get across, though Sheila elected to take off her shoes and socks and wade, which was probably by far the smarter option. After lunch things improved a lot, mostly because it stopped raining. There still wasn’t much to see in the forest, though, so I don’t think anyone was disappointed when we got to our final destination earlier than expected. There was another short canoe trip across the river and then we settled in to our exceedingly basic rooms. It promised to be a chilly night, and the mattress on the bed was thin enough to see through, which only added to the anticipation. I put on every layer of clothing I’d brought, unfolded all the blankets provided and spread them out onto the bed, and then added the large pink Barbie towel that came with the room for good measure. Then I joined the gang for cocktails.

The rustic washing-up facilities at the guest house. Needless to say, it was cold water only.

It actually turned out to be a very fun evening. We ended up sitting around playing a stupid card game called “Presidents and Assholes” and the whole group took part – me, Patti, Sheila, Jono, Adam, and even Akshay. We actually postponed our scheduled Village Walk (there is a always a Village Walk) because we were having too much fun. We did go eventually, and it was nice. Suk was there again to tell us about the local flora and we exchanged “Namastes” with lots of local villagers, and we got back to the guesthouse in time for dinner and another long round of cards. Patti and I even invented a new drink called either Super Chai, or Chai Plus, which is made up of a nice hot cup of masala chai laced with a generous measure of cheap local rum.

Looking down the road on the village walk.

The night passed surprisingly comfortably, and the next morning we had another few hours of walking to reach a crocodile breeding centre. Things were pretty slow there, mostly because it was still quite chilly and the crocodiles were understandably docile, being cold-blooded and all. After that was some more walking and then a very breezy ride in the back of an open jeep to return us to Sauraha, hot water and blissful free time. We even got there early enough that I had time to go for a run before our last scheduled activity in Sauraha. This is a good thing because my mood was getting increasingly black. This is a good thing, becasue by the time Patti and I were finally ensconced in our room (our third attempt – the first came equipped with a double bed instead of two singles, and the second came equipped with people already in it) I was in that kind of frame of mind where anything other than a private foot massage from Harrison Ford would have left me grumpy and swearing.

Clearly I needed a run, so even though my motivation to drink a beer and have a nap was much greater than my inclination to lace up my shoes, off I went. Of course I felt better right away, though the day was quite hot and sunny by the time I went out. I ran along the road we’d cycled to get to the elephant breeding centre, and it was lovely. I got a few odd looks, but as soon as I gave a friendly “Namaste” the funny looks would always turn into smiles, and I’d get a “Namaste!” right back. Little kids were especially excited by this. And I’m sure I saw more different animals on this run than on any other run, ever. There were: dogs, horses, chickens, ducks, cows, buffalo, oxen and goats. By the time I got back to the hotel, stretched, and had a hot shower, life was much better.

Then it was time for our last activity in Sauraha – the elephant safari! Just seeing elephants wasn’t enough – this time were were going to ride them through the forest for an hour in the hopes of spotting some more wildlife, specifically – rhinos! It turns out that riding an elephant is pretty uncomfortable. Four people were crammed into the sort of saddle/cage that was strapped to the top of the elephant, and there was an elephant driver who rode in front, straddling the elephant right behind its head.

Jonno and Sheila and the back of their elephant.

The elephant drivers were each equipped with a stout length of solid bamboo and an evil looking steel implement that looked like a heavy fireplace poker. Every once in a while our elephant would make some imperceptible error and the driver would wind up and give him (or maybe it was a her… I couldn’t tell from where I was sitting) an enormous thwack on the top of the head. The sound was really alarming, but I had to remind myself that the elephant’s skull is probably about 3 inches thick, and I really didn’t want to be on top of one that was out of control. At least he only used the evil steel thing once, because it made a sickening dull thud.

The parade through the forest

We bounced along with about eight or ten other elephants, all loaded up with tourists and on the hunt for rhinos. We did see quite a few more deer and even saw a crocodile sunning himself on an island in the river. What surprised me most was that the animals were largely unconcerned with us being so close. I suppose that they focused on the elephants, and since none of them were prey for elephants, there was no reason to be alarmed. I was with Patti, Adam, and a woman we didn’t know who had a small child with her. I think the baby was about two years old. She enjoyed herself for a little while, but before long she got fussy, and then the whole forest was treated to her inconsolable wailing for longer than I’d care to remember.

However, all that was fine because eventually we saw RHINOS! The elephant that Sheila and Jonno were on spotted them first, and the cry went out for everyone else to come over. It was a lot like the traffic jams on the Serengeti when a good lion or leopard spotting happens. There was, literally, an elephant jam in that forest. However, the rhinos were completely indifferent, even as the elephant drivers maneuvered to get closer and closer. It was a mother and baby (K: no baby rhino either) and they were fantastic. They were smaller than I expected – bigger than a horse, but smaller than a bison (I know, I know, everything is smaller than I expect, but I thought they were more like elephants). And they looked positively prehistoric – all that tough armour and the horns reminded me of a triceratops. I can’t believe how close we were able to get. See?

Yes, there was some zoom involved here, but really, we were about twenty feet from this rhinoceros.

It was definitely a highlight. After the rhinos we saw a nest of wild boar, most of whom were sleeping. That is to say they were sleeping until our little passenger bumped her head and commenced to wailing again with such fervour that the frightened piggies ran all the way home. Lucky pigs. We had a bouncy ride back with the poor fussy baby, and all involved were immensely grateful when she and her harried mom de-elephanted (well, if getting off a plane is deplaning, then isn’t getting off an elephant de-elephanting?). We got to ride the elephant back into town and got off at a conveniently located de-elephanting stand near the centre of the village.

That night there was a sort of street food festival in town so we camped out at a table and sampled all kinds of different food, and drank beer and rum and played more of the stupid card game. It was another good night, and I’m really grateful that our group is small, and everyone is fun and easy going and remarkably like-minded. And the next morning we were off to Kathmandu, which is definitely another story.


Kathryn said...

Jeez, what's the point of this trip if you aren't bringing great souvenirs back for all your friends?
hee hee
That elephant ride sounded like great fun, except for the wailing child. I hear 2 year olds make great crocodile snacks.
Cant wait to hear about Kathmandu - I totally get what you mean.... it's a little like Tierra del Fuego for me....does it TRULY exist??

kathryn said...

Me again..I just snuck an advance peek at your Kathmandu pics...have I mentioned how much I love monkeys..How 'bout a small monkey?

Also forgot to mention before....that bridge you had to walk across...I have nightmares about stuff like THANKS, guess who won't get any sleep tonight!


Unknown said...

No photos of Pam in Nepal?

Or any of the folks you are playing cards and travelling with?

People Pics Please.

Happy (muddy) trails...


Craig said...

Sounds like feline fellow and morning moisture in Nepal's capital.

Anonymous said...

hill country plane crash (5)
Nepal, anyone?

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