Monday, August 29, 2016

Pokhara

You can see Pokhara miles before the "Welcome to Pokhara" signs as the mountains that surround it can almost be seen from the Indian border. Pokhara is the tourists gateway to the Himalayas and appears a lot wealthier than other parts of the country because of this. Our faces sat pressed to the windows as we knew that behind the clouds was one of the best backgrounds in the world.

However, despite the majestic backdrop the stage ,Pokhara, itself is quite unimpressive. It is very touristy with hundreds of shops selling the same genuine fake "The North Face" products and new hotels sprouting up like beanstalks. After a brief drop into our hotel we had an orientation walk to the "Lakeside" which was the main tourist stretch. Pokhara was going to be our chance to just be tourists. At the far end we were approached by a old oriental woman who asked us to come to her shop. This is was something we got asked many time before and often ignored however when we saw that her shop was merely the contents of her rucksack we stayed a bit longer. In these parts of the world it's hard to believe stories. We are often brought up to assume street sellers are trying to rip us off. Equally, in this part of the world more people live in poverty and lead lives of extraordinary survival than we are used to back home. It's hard to know what to believe and really you just have to go with your gut. This woman explained that she came from a Tibetian village over the border and sells jewellery that her father had made there and we left with several bracelets each.

The next day we woke up to complete darkness, both because it was a power cut and we were getting up at 3am to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. A romantic idea but it was pouring with rain so we weren't too optimistic, but not enough to actually go back to bed because missing it would be worse. Our early departure was due to the fact that traffic up to the view point is normally choc-a-bloc. However, due to the rain most people seemed to have opted for bed.

After parking the truck we went on a blind scramble up to the platform which was surrounded by small tea houses. Most of the tea houses had clicked on to the idea of offering a fee for tourists to go on their roof to get that extra 2m elevation. Just as we were thinking we were going to get to enjoy the free platform to ourselves we heard a bus load of other optimists descend upon us.

When the sun did rise we caught a glimpse of the Himalayas enveloped in clouds which actually made it more special than the perfect shot the brochures advertise. A group of women from Gujarat starting chanting a prayer in an attempt for the sun to come out. Alas, being the first to arrive we were okay with being the first to give up. The plan was to hike down the mountain and for some reason I remember our guide saying it would only take 20 minutes but 2.5 hours later we were at the bottom. Thanks to the cloud cover I didn't realise quite how high we were from the ground and I suddenly regretted by idea to skip breakfast.

The sun didn't appear until later that afternoon when we were due to go paragliding as if there is one place that you should go paragliding - it's the Himalayas. The mini-bus ride up the mountain was an adrenaline ride in itself as we got an idea of what real Nepalese driving was like when tourist comfort isn't priority. Minutes after getting off the bus we were already in the air where the briefing was used literally as we were told "When I say walk, walk. When I say run, run." As it was a tandem ride it really was that easy. The thought of running off a cliff is against all natural instinct you were already in the air before the edge so you couldn't really stop even if you wanted to. There wasn't a big adrenaline rush which I was expecting but in fact it was actually quite pleasant and relaxing - until we decided to do somersaults before landing.

Our last evening was spent drinking on a bar roof enjoying the last sunset in Pokhara before our bellies got talkative. There is a phenomenon when travelling in an unfamiliar country when you start to crave those familiar carbohydrates and bland sauces. So continuing our touristy binge we had dinner at a popular westernised restaurant and were happy to have some pizza and our first 'Everest' beer to wash it down.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chitwan National Park

Everyone thinks of Nepalese countryside as being dominated by the Himalayas but there is a surprisingly large portion of the country that is covered in wetlands - or should I say sweatlands. Chitwan National Park is one of these wetlands which is a bit like the Asian Serengeti as it's famed for it's elephants, rhinos and even tigers.


The drive from Lumbini to Chitwan took us over a small mountain range where we had a scenic toilet stop at the top and a bite to eat at a roadside shack that seemed to specialise in whisky and whole cooked chickens. Back on flat ground the houses were surprisingly grand and painted in bright colours and surrounded by verandas. The explanation for this was clear as there was a lot of advertisements for companies that supply locals with visas and work abroad. While in India there was a great focus on advertising for education and work within India, it seems in Nepal more young people travel abroad for work and send money home. This is reflected in not only the housing but the more relaxed attitude around westerners.


We arrived at our hotel for the next few days called Sapna Lodge which means "Dream Lodge" which was quite apt. Other than the fact we were sweating from places we'd forgotten existed, the area was beautiful. There were several wooden buildings that looked somewhere between the grand houses we'd driven past and a thatched mud hut. In the distance you could see the Himalayas peak over the clouds and the piece de resistance had to be the fact there was a mum and baby elephant at the bottom of the garden. 


We were given an hour to explore that was easily taken up by rekindling my inner Eliza Thornberry with the tame elephants. The way the baby reacted to attention and it's playful nature and the mother's watchful gaze gave me no doubt these creatures have a bigger emotional capacity than we give them credit for. Chitwan is home to the Thuru people who are indigenous to the foothills of the Himalayas and we went on a visit to one of their villages. On appearance it wasn't that different to other rural villages in the country and considering they are known as people of the forest there was a lack of trees around this one.  We were shown numerous local dances and told about their way of life but it seemed that without visits from tourists these unique aspects of their life could quickly be lost. We ended the day with a lovely dinner at the lodge watching our elephants bathing in the river with a sole keeper rubbing their belly before chatting away under the majestic stage of mountains and stars. 

The next day we woke up before the sun as we were heading on an early morning safari to see what we could spot. We didn't have the best sleep as we were woken up not from the noise of the fan turning on but from drowning in sweat when the fan turned off. We drove out on a jungle beach buggy and headed along the highways "into the jungle" - although with our timescale we didn't have time to delve deep into the jungle! As we were cruising along the Nepalese roads I felt something fly out of my walking trousers and to my horror I saw my phone getting all some close contact with a lorries wheel. After stopping our buggy myself and our guide ran back to the incident site and were surprised to find only the screen was smashed. Well, and it didn't turn on. Regardless, I was impressed it didn't smash to pieces. 

After the excitement of my phone's death the safari didn't conjure up any extremely rare creatures and only a monkey or crocodile or two. I always find jeep safaris a lot less exciting and rewarding than walking safaris. The animals get pretty switched on to running away from the loud regular grumble of the safari trails, the suspense of a walking safari is miles better as anything could be around the corner. We returned to the hotel for breakfast before hopefully getting the chance to wash our hotel's elephants. 


We were disappointed to find out that our elephants were otherwise engaged (the life of a Chitwan elephant is comparable to a London stockbroker). Instead we drove to the nearest village which was the notoriously touristy village in Chitwan and turned into a busy river filled with tourists and two elephants. These elephants weren't looking as happy as ours did yesterday getting his belly rubbed. It felt like a bit of a production line as life jackets were passed from tourist to tourist before an elephant was commanded to lie down in the water by a man with a stick balancing on it's back while another two tourists climbed on it's back. The stick man then "encourages" the elephant to spray tourists with water before they are quickly booted off so they could get another pair on. Although this set up was horrible, it was amazing to sit a top and feel the power of this creature and feel it's tough skin alongside the smooth and refreshing splash of water. However, I'd recommend anyone who wants to do something like this in the future does more research than I did and find a more authentic and genuine experience (which unfortunately is hard to find in these parts of the world especially on a budget).

Our next event took us back to the water as we were canoeing down the river Rapti alongside some crocodiles. The canoes were hollowed out of a single tree and managed to fit six of us even though we did end up a little too close to the water considering the purpose of the trip was to spot crocodiles. Considering our past week the ride was ridiculously peaceful. It was quiet enough to hear the clap of a passing butterflies wings yet in the distance we could hear the roar of thunder. 

Back on dry land we went on a safari on foot and it reminded me how experience should always be regarded miles above qualifications. I have a fancy bit of paper and letters after my name that mean I should know a good bit about the natural world around me but compared to our guide who had left school at 16 to train with guides in the jungle; I knew nothing. We were on the trail of a rhino but only got as far as it's toilet - as rhinos use the same toilet sites for around a fortnight before moving on we could have spotted one had we waited long enough but not this time. It did get me imagining the situation in reverse and rhinos sitting around public toilets waiting to spot us. 

That evening we were treated to a Thuru culture extravaganza beginning with a traditional meal. The starter was an ambiguous soup that tasted like something you don't normally eat, a bit like leather. The rest of the meal was much more palatable and the waiters crowded around asking us about life back home. That evening we were heading to watch some traditional dances and so I thought now was a perfect opportunity to wear my new sari. Big mistake. I was suddenly every male member of staff's favourite guest. We were all expecting to be sitting in a circle watching eccentric dances by the light of a campfire, however we arrived at a purpose built hall that rapidly filled up with Japanese tourists. The show was quite impressive, if bizarre, with lovely costume and rhythmic dancing to make me feel so uncoordinated, especially when they invite you up to join. One of the highlights was when someone came on dressed as a peacock, danced and then handed out individual roses.

We left Chitwan the following morning and paid our bills before bundling back into our air-conned bus and enjoying the sensation of feeling every bead of sweat evapourate. Next stop: The Himalayas.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Lumbini - Entering Nepal

I woke up more groggy than ever as we were up again before the sun. We bundled ourselves into a tourist vehicle for the last time and mentally prepared ourselves for the 12 hour drive ahead. No amount of mental preparation could have prepared us for that drive. The driver seem to use the the brake and accelerator as if he was tapping along to songs on the radio. It didn't help that the road is notoriously full of potholes and I was sitting in the boot essentially. Thankfully, for my inner ear, we got a flat type which none of us were surprised about, in fact we were surprised it hadn't happened earlier. However, this did mean that we had to get out of the car in that stereotypical village where it seems like nobody had seen a tourist before. I couldn't look around without being greeted by the stares of men from a country that hasn't mastered the art of subtlety.

The driver seemed to take the flat tire incident as a means to take things easy but when offered to chance to walk over the border we were all quick to accept the challenge. The bumpy drive was a fitting send off as we said goodbye to the chaos of India and made out way into Nepal. There was little to differentiate Nepal and India at the time other than the stamps in our passports and the uniforms on officials. This changed as we drove on; the roads had lines painted on them, houses were grander and locals were less interested in you as tourists. The fact we were in a mini-bus with air-con and space to spread out on may have accentuated this bias view.


Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and therefore a pilgrimage sight to many Buddhists. Our stop here was to visit the shrine  and temple over the exact spot Buddha was born. We stayed overnight in a very lavish hotel called Buddha Mya Gardens and joined the crowds of pilgrims heading into Lumbini. Getting to this birthplace was no simple feat as we had to get a bus to a market place dedicated to selling tickets to local landmarks and then get another bus to the landmark, well a point that was a 10 minute walk from the site.

The temple itself stuck to Buddhist principles and was quite modest for a temple being a white building with a small door but at the same time it was guarded by armed police and body scanners. Outside the temple there were monks hiding from the heat under trees and the compulsory westerner who'd decided to leave home and dedicate their life to meditation. Inside there was what looked like an excavation site and a glass box over the marker stone showing exactly where Buddha was born. To this day I still have no idea if I was looking at the right stone or not...