Saturday, 21 May 2011

Nepal

The stupa at Boudha
It’s never an appealing option to take a night trip through Nepal’s mountainous countryside on roads prone to landslides, in a bus prone to failure, with drivers prone to long shifts with no sleep, so an overnight stay in Kakarbhitta was in order.

Kakarbhitta is a border town in the very east of the country, the first port of call coming from India’s Darjeeling, a dusty place comprising a bus station surrounded by a thousand colourful hotels. The border process itself is one of the stranger ones I’ve ever encountered: there is one long road running from India across no-man’s land and into Nepal, with not a single sign of any security gates. No barriers, no guards, no double-checking of visas or passports. I fact, if you weren’t aware it was a border you might wander straight on in and unwittingly become an illegal immigrant. Along the road there are in fact immigration offices hidden amongst the stores on either side. Kind locals direct you first to the Indian office where bored looking and gruff sounding guards stamp you out of India. They act as if they had once dreamed of high ranking glory in the Indian army, of leading troops of fanatical soldiers through jungles and over mountains, but have instead ended up stamping the passports of smelly backpackers. They paid no attention to my attempts at humour, waving me on brusquely to the Nepali office on the other side and returning to their card game.

At the Nepali immigration and customs there was a sudden change in atmosphere: where the Indian officials always seem a bit annoyed that you’re making them do their job, whether entering or exiting the country, the Nepalis were over the moon that we had come to. The guards smiled deeply and pressed their hands together in that traditional greeting that says, “I hold you close to my heart.” Even when one is angry, this action quickly dissipates any negative feelings and makes it impossible to get upset. Which can be frustrating when you’re complaining about something. One of the endearing things about Nepalis is their inability to say no. Walking through towns and cities many people approach you and pitch their hotel. “Is it quiet?” you ask. “Yes yes, very quiet, no noise.”
“Does it have hot water?”
“Of course,” comes the reply.
“Wifi?”
“Yes, wifi all over the hotel!”
It then materialises that very little of this is true, but it’s not a conscious lie: it come from a desperation to please. It makes me wonder what else I could ask for. “Does it come with elephants?”
“Yes sir, elephants in every room!”

The trip to Kathmandu takes 17 hours and even the bus promoted as being ‘luxury’ is a battered old machine, with seats that either don’t recline or stay eternally reclined. Usually the seat in front of you is of the latter variety. Not being able to face the full 17 hours, we hopped off after ten hours at Sauraha, for Chitwan National Park. It was an unexpectedly pleasurable four day break, I having previously imagined Nepal to consist only of mountains and temples; Chitwan is in fact one of Asia’s best nature reserves – all the more impressive given the ten year civil war from which Nepal has just emerged.

Sunset over Chitwan National Park.
The northern bank of the Narayani River is lined by hotels and tourist-oriented shops, but these fail to distract from the natural calm on the other side, where elephants, rhinos and even tigers roam freely. I took a days’ walking Safari through the jungle (the only other place I’ve done this in the world is in the Okavango Delta, Botswana), quietly treading in the tracks of these powerful beasts. The day started with a gentle trip down the river in a canoe (similar to the hollowed-out tree trunk makoro of Africa), smoothly controlled by a local who stands on the back and uses a single pole to direct the boat. We felt as at ease as the crocodiles who swam alongside us. We then pushed our way through grass several metres high and scrambled past the thick trees; at several points we came very close to massive rhinos wallowing in the dirty streams to stay cool. Despite their obvious physical superiority (and the warning from the guide to “climb a tree as fast as you can if they come towards us”) they seemed reluctant to hang around us too long, scrambling off remarkably silently into the undergrowth. We came across spotted deer and flocks of various birds of prey including ospreys and fishing eagles – in fact Nepal contains around a tenth of the all the world’s known species of birds – but alas no Bengali tigers. Our guide, who has been walking the jungle for the past 20 years, has sighted them only 10 times.

Where the sun filtered through the leaves it was burning hot – too hot for mere humans. A nice cooling bath is the perfect respite, and what better way than to ride an elephant into the river and let him spray you. It’s a truly humbling experience to swim with these gigantic creatures, who could kill you in an instant but instead appear happy to gently splash you and dip you into the water. My only concern was the amount of dung-water I think I swallowed.

Drifting down the river at Chitwan National Park.
In the evening Chitwan falls silent as the generators are all turned off and the sun sinks into the clear horizon. It was tempting to stay there for much longer, but the knowledge that the mountains were waiting proved too great. A few more hours on an uncomfortable bus and Kathmandu finally came into sight, sprawling over a valley surrounded by mountains on the edge of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately the mountains are almost always out of sight due to the haze and smog. For all its natural beauty, Nepal suffers from the old problem of rubbish and pollution – trying to provide for the needs of an expanding and increasingly westernised population means the disposal of the by-products is not the highest priority, and not everyone understands why discarding of plastic and glass and metal down the edge of a hill is not a great idea. Energy, especially in Kathmandu, is a particular difficulty: electricity is rationed between districts for a few hours per day. The thing is, during these hours everyone charges up huge batteries in order to use power later, so I’m not entirely convinced that the rationing actually reduces the total energy used!

Kathmandu
Nevertheless, Kathmandu and its surroundings are still mightily impressive, with the ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples creating a dreamlike atmosphere. The image everyone sees in pictures of Nepal (and that I’ve also uploaded here!) is that of the stupa at Boudha, with its giant eyes looking in all directions. It doesn’t matter where you’re standing, Buddha’s eyes are staring at you. Buddhist pilgrims form never-ending clockwise circles round the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels with their right hands as they do. (In both Indian and Nepali cultures the right hand is the ‘clean’ hand whereas the left is considered dirty. While the Nepalis no longer care so much about this rule while eating, to touch a religious object with one’s left hand is considered extremely offensive.) Around the edge are wonderful old wooden buildings with intricately carved frames and doors and burning piles of hay, which create a mystical, smoky aura. On top of the stupa are a few men tasked with the vain objective of keeping it in pristine condition: they throw buckets of white paint over the dome (why don’t they just use a hose and squirt it from the top?) and scrub the eyes as if wiping away its tears.

Pashupatinath
Nearby is Pashupatinath, where Hindu devotees of the god Shiva flock to take part in the ceremonies that take place there. The most moving of these are the cremations that are performed on the banks of the Bashmati, where the recently deceased are cleaned, wrapped in orange shrouds and decorated in flowers before being burnt in orderly fashion in the pyres lining the river. The scene is sometimes bizarre, the men going about things in a very matter-of-fact manner, talking on their mobiles, whilst the women rock, crying in grief. In Varanasi (India), the women are no longer allowed to go to these funerals because the widows used to be encouraged to throw themselves onto the flames with their dead husbands. In Nepal they are now allowed to attend, which makes for a far more emotional event. But the suicide bit is still illegal.

Baktapur
Slightly further afield is Baktapur, surely one of the best preserved towns in Nepal. Its tiny lanes wind around red-walled temple after temple, their distinctive brown, multi-layered roofs dominating the skyline. It’s a place to get lost in. An hour east, and a kilometre or so higher, is the tiny town of Nagarkot and its breathtaking views over the Himalayas. Well, if it wasn’t so cloudy, at least. A motorbike is the perfect way to tackle these twisty roads and can be hired cheaply (without insurance or a check of your driving licence) in Kathmandu.

Baktapur
The speedo didn’t work, the brakes were decidedly worn and the side-stand gave way after one try, but the engine of the little Pulsar heaved itself up the mountain without complaining too much. The only problem is that after a rainy night in Nagarkot, the roads leading further on (past the useless lookout point) were more flows of mud than anything else. I carefully pointed the bike down the track and held on to the brakes, hoping they’d last until we were back on tarmac. Children came out to laugh and old men sat in doorways shaking their heads. Finally, however, the main road to the capital materialised and it wasn’t long before I was fighting a way back through the horrendous traffic of the centre.

The brief glimpses of the mountains had left a desire to see them up close, and so it was time to head to the city of Pokhara. The bus ride there has to rank amongst one of the worst of my life, and I’ve had some pretty terrible ones. I had haggled for a lower price when booking the night before and I can only assume that he went for the budget option. Getting on to the bus the conductor waved us to the back, saying, “You’re in the box.” The ‘box’ turned out to be a tiny cabin located at the back next to the toilet, with chairs that didn’t recline, no leg-room due to the presence of a metal partition, and a sliding door that slid shut and cut my foot open every time the driver braked. The mixture of engine fumes and toilet vapour made for a sickening aroma and the low ceiling meant I banged my head on every bump. I was glad when Pokhara appeared in the valley below.

It’s as if you’re forced to endure a terrible journey in order to appreciate the destination, though with Pokhara there is no need. It occupies a perfect location, stretching along the edge of the beautifully blue Phewa lake, with mountains reflected in all directions. Eagles soar overhead, guiding the paragliders, whilst peaceful restaurants let you sit all day, admiring the views and contemplating the trek you’re about to tackle. Yes, the Annapurna circuit was waiting, but I’ll write about that next time.

Phewa lake, Pokhara
There was a strike on the day of the return trip from Pokhara to Kathmandu. The country is regularly plagued by these irritating events, which stop all traffic and close the shops. The fledgling democracy is struggling to find its feet and various groups, parties and representative organisations clamour for attention. Whatever the reasons, these strikes, known as ‘bandhas’, are disastrous for the fragile Nepali economy, and not a little annoying for tourists. There were just two buses that took the risk to drive that day and they charged us all an inflated but fair price for taking that risk. Sure enough, we were stopped halfway by a roadblock and a crowd of angry people. We all got out and tried to reason with the leader, explaining that though we sympathised with them, our presence there would make no difference to their cause. Eventually, to our surprise, it was the locals who persuaded their leader to relent – a fine example of the hospitality of the Nepalis.

I just spent two days at the ‘Last resort’, where you can throw yourself off bridges, down ravines or along rapids. It’s somewhat strange that humans want to do these illogical and counter-evolutionary things, but they’re not half fun. Standing on the edge of a 160m drop, looking at the raging river at the bottom of the narrow gorge, I felt a little nervous, but jumping suddenly seemed the most rational thing to do and before I knew it I was falling, totally at peace. And then the bungy cord snapped at my feet and I was bouncing, up and down, giggling like a school girl. It’s the closest to a religious experience I think I’ve ever come: the Israeli guy after me said much the same thing.

Nearby to the resort is the Tibetan border, and I hope to cross it tomorrow (Saturday). If there are no more strikes, that is.

2 comments:

  1. Best yet, my son! Not too many one's" makes it that much more personal! Amazing experiences. E.

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  2. Apparently, there is no one-eyed yellow idol to the North of Kathmandu. It is simply a poem by John Milton Hayes, written in 1911 and based on works by Rudyard Kipling. The poem is entitled, The Green Eye of the Yellow God:

    http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/2002/12/green-eye-of-yellow-god-j-milton-hayes.html

    Greg

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