Wandering the World Part 31

Exploring Nepal

The morning after the Nepal marathon was an early start. It seemed too early for what was planned. The four of us who would be continuing on around Nepal needed to be up at 05:00 to get the coach back into town. A few others were also there to head to the airport.

There wasn’t much about for breakfast, so it was lucky I’d packed some cereal bars just in case. This is something I got into the habit of packing since I visited China. It can be difficult to know when you’re going to miss a meal.

Leaving Kakani at dawn

The coach driver thought we were all going to the airport, and had not been told that we were going to the trekking office to begin a tour. The driver had no idea where it was, but one of the group was able to direct him somewhere nearby to drop us off.

For half a mile we dragged our suitcases down the uneven alleyways between shops until we found the trekking company’s office. We didn’t know that there were two though, so were then led to a different one.

One of the staff in the other office had been on the coach with us earlier, but he had gotten off before the coach reached the airport. He was very surprised to see us turn up at the office, but led us back to the first one which was located next to a hotel.

Nobody seemed to know what was going on, even at the hotel where we were supposed to be staying. Eventually we called the marathon company, and they spoke to the people on the hotel reception. They sorted things out and told us it’d be another hour until we could check-in to the hotel. It’d be in the afternoon we’d be going on a tour. There was no need for such an early coach into the city.

At the end of Mandala Street we found the Pumpernickle Bakery where we thought we’d sit and eat some lunch whilst we waited for the hotel to be sorted. It was relaxing, and the food was a change from what we’d gotten used to at the camp.

When we returned to the offices we arrived just ahead of those that had been on the later coach. Originally we should have been on the later coach as well, but we got moved to the early one at the last minute.

More time was spent waiting until eventually they were ready to take us on the fifteen minute drive to a tour of Swayambhunath — the so-called Monkey Temple. It gets this name from the number of rhesus macaques that live there, but it’s Tibetan name means “sublime trees”.

Swayambhunath is the oldest religious site in Nepal. It’s important to both Hindu and Buddhist religions which is quite unusual. It’s for this reason, in addition to the tourists, it can get quite busy there.

Instead of taking the large number of steps up to the stupa, we took the back entrance to make it quicker. Within minutes of entering we saw our first of many monkeys.

The guide took us into one of the shops and told about the different painting techniques they use, and the levels of mastery. For the more advanced levels they’d have had to have spent decades of their life having repeated the same design over and over. That’s some very particular dedication.

The focus of the site is obviously the stupa, but surrounding this are a number of statues and old buildings which I thought were interesting as well. It was just a shame how badly they’d been damaged in the 2015 earthquake.

It was difficult to know what there were more of around this stupa — monkeys, or people. The monkeys were being shooed away though were still trying desperately to eat crumbs from the floor. Those which were further away were either fighting amongst themselves, or grooming each other.

Our guide asked us if we wanted to see anything else, but wouldn’t tell us what else there was to see. So, we were driven back to the hotel until we were ready to go out for an evening meal.

Once we’d decided where to eat we posted where we’d be on social media. The size of our group soon swelled to twenty-three as more people we’d known from the camp turned up at the New Orleans Wine Bar.

At the end of the meal the four of us said goodbye to those we’d spent most the last week with, and headed back to the hotel.

In the early hours of the morning we felt a minor earthquake.

For those that live in Kathmandu it’s nothing unusual, and they didn’t seem to even notice it. For those of us that live in England, it’s a rarity to encounter them so got us talking about it.

When we met up with the guide he led us with our suitcases on a half mile walk to find the tourism bus we’d be taking. When we boarded I went to sit near the front, but the driver told me to sit at the back.

I moved to the back of the bus and started to take my backpacks off so I could sit, and the driver once again told me to sit before I’d had chance to. The bus was nowhere near ready to go, and people were still boarding — he was just very impolite and impatient.

After two hours along the Prithvi highway, we stopped for a twenty minute break at a large building selling food. Whilst at this stop we bumped into some other marathon runners who were now on their way to Pokhara for their own adventure. It’s weird when you’re travelling around a foreign country and keep bumping into people you know.

Forty minutes after the break we arrived at a building alongside the Trishuli river where we’d be rafting. We unloaded our luggage, and the bus continued on it’s way to Pokhara. The four of us weren’t the only ones on this excursion — we were waiting for another group that were travelling down from Pokhara, but they were running thirty-five minutes late.

Whilst we waited we loaded our luggage onto a truck that would wait for us down river. When the others arrived we put on a warm top they provided, a helmet, and a life jacket. We were then led through a vegetable patch to the nearby shore where the guide taught us the different commands he’d shout.

With lessons over, we boarded the raft and pushed off into the current.

White water rafting is hard work, especially when the waves are so big they come crashing over the boat. For the first two hours we got drenched repeatedly as we avoided capsizing, and had to steer furiously.

At 13:30 we stopped for a ten minute break on a beach where we could take photos before we had to get back on the raft to continue on. As we left the beach we could see a black snake crossing the river.

For the remainder of the rafting we had what the guide described as major rapids. He wasn’t joking. One of the last waves struck us with so much force that the boat almost flipped. We shifted from paddling fast, to hiding inside the raft and bracing ourselves. After the initial impact we were then back on the edge and steering furiously once more.

I’d never experienced anything like it before.

When it was all over, I felt extremely cold from how much body heat had been lost to the river. As it was now mid-afternoon I was also very hungry.

We were led into a back room of the Ananta Jeewan Church where we were able to get dry, and change into some warm clothes. Downstairs they’d put on a strange buffet of cold pasta, cold beans, an indescribable meat, peanut butter, and bread.

Our guide tried to flag down a tour bus whilst we ate, but was unable to do so. Eventually he gave up and got us on one of the local busses. There had been a scheduled bus we were supposed to take, but we’d missed it due to the delay on getting onto the rafts earlier.

The local busses in Nepal do not have suspension and you feel every single bump on the road with some severity. They’re the sort of transportation you’d refer to as a “boneshaker”.

To make matters worse, for those three hours I had to sit with my heavy camera bag on my knee as there was nowhere else to put it. An elderly lady at the back of the bus was also making phlegmy throat-clearing noises frequently until she was eventually sick.

It wasn’t a pleasant journey, but perhaps this is what it’s like to be a local travelling from city to city on a cramped bus.

After an hour into the journey out guide got a call from the porters in Pokhara asking where we were as we were now over two hours late. The sun was setting by this point, and the guide turned to us to explain the trek to the Australian base camp would now be at night.

I’d already guessed there were probably twenty minutes of light left, and at least an hour left to drive. One of them in our group didn’t sound too impressed.

Our options now were to stay in Pokhara and miss the hike, or to make our way to a guest house and do the hike in the morning. We didn’t really want to miss anything, so we agreed to the guest house.

When we got to Pokhara we unloaded our belongings for the bus and waited for further transportation. Ten minutes later a jeep turned up, but the driver had an issue. He’d not been told how many of us there were or that we’d all got luggage so he’d not packed any rope.

The guide decided that the luggage could go in the back of the jeep, and he’d squeeze himself in to the remaining space. He had to remain that way for the next forty-five minutes on the drive to Kande.

Our guide went off to talk to the owners of the guest house. We heard raised voices from them both, but it was difficult to tell whether it was an argument or some sort of friendly banter.

This guesthouse isn’t like one that you’d expect to see in many western countries. The front of the building is open and the inside has probably seen better days.

We were led to the back of the building and then down some dark steps to a corridor of padlocked rooms — the padlocks being on the outside of each door. I was wondering what we’d stumbled into. I was thinking it reminded me of an abandoned asylum from a video game.

When they opened the first of the rooms I saw two beds with dirty sheets and a thin blanket. It was impossible to know how much time had passed since they’d last had a clean. All of the rooms were the same, so Ben and Keith took this first room.

They opened up a second room which I took, and then a third room for Sam. Once we’d dropped our luggage off in the rooms we locked them back up and headed upstairs for food.

The menu was very basic — the best thing on there was pizza, but apparently they get those from the village. Due to the late hour they wouldn’t be available. The next best thing was a peanut butter pancake.

It wasn’t that filling so I went to bed not completely satisfied. I remained fully clothed as well as not only were the sheets dirty, but it was also very cold there.

I thought in a place that rough I wouldn’t get much sleep, but actually managed to get a decent five hours before we needed to be up for the hike.

The “Guesthouse”

The majority of our luggage was given to some porters that would carry it to Pokhara. I didn’t want to leave my camera backpack with them, so decided I’d be carrying all fifteen kilograms of it.

This was a two mile ascent to the Australian base camp for Annapurna. We started the trek as the sun was rising and was treated to amazing misty views across the valley. It was incredible.

Not long after we’d started our journey we heard bells jingling somewhere in the distance. They were getting closer and closer until we were surprised to see three donkeys rounding the corner, and making their way down the mountain with a Sherpa in tow.

Ninety minutes later we arrived at the base camp with some cloud cover. It made it difficult to pick out the different mountain peaks in the distance, but we could see Annapurna II intermittently poking through the clouds.

We were led up onto the roof of one of the two story buildings there, and some chairs were arranged for us. This is where we’d be eating breakfast: on the roof of a building, on the side of a mountain, and overlooking one of the most incredible sights in the world. To make things even more surreal we found there was Wi-Fi available.

This is what travelling is all about — the experiences and the sights that the world has to offer.

After breakfast we began our descent along a winding path. The entire trek down was only 4.2 miles, but when we reached the village of Dhampus the terrain changed from trees and grass to a road.

We followed the smooth road briefly but soon found ourselves on a cobbled and rocky path that reminded me of places in Yorkshire. The buildings were made from stone, and many of the walls covered in some sort of moss.

Descending to Dhampus

A cobbled path shouldn’t be that difficult, but overall it felt like the descent was a lot harder than the ascent had been. At the bottom a jeep was waiting for us with our luggage.

During the fifteen miles back to Pokhara the driver was pulled over and was required to pay the police. The police checkpoint on this road will pull over any new vehicles; any that don’t have their paperwork will be fined.

The driver dropped us off outside a paragliding shop, and took our luggage on to where we’d be staying for the night. As the driver left we were directed into a van, but was then told that as a water landing is a possibility I couldn’t take my camera with me. It was a little late to warn us, but they were okay with me leaving it in their van.

From the paragliding shop it’s a twenty minute drive up a mountain to where many people were already taking off. The four of us had to each choose who our guide would be.

One of the guides helped fit me with a helmet and harness, attached himself to the parachute, and then attached my harness to it. I was told not to look down, and to just run forward.

I ran forwards towards the edge of the cliff until my legs were moving but not making contact with anything. This was it, we were soaring through the air.

When you’re gliding through the air, catching thermals, time passes quickly. On one of the thermals we circled over it to take us higher and higher, passing close to vultures also riding the thermals, before swooping down over the trees.

“Do you like rollercoasters?” the guide asked me. It sounded like a loaded question, so cautiously I said “yes”.

We veered to one side so that we were over Lake Phewa Tal. “This will be fun,” the guide laughed. With that he began to perform aerial acrobatics over the water.

I hadn’t known it was possible for parachutes to go upside down. Once the guide had done this a few times we swung around over the shore and began our descent.

The guide told me to keep my legs up, and to then stand and run forward just as we’d be touching down.

It was a fun experience, and something else that was unlike anything I’d done before. Both paragliding and rafting are the sort of experiences that a lot of people will have when visiting Nepal.

Back at the paragliding shop the guide was nowhere to be found. A taxi turned up and the driver told us he was there to take us to our hotel where the guide was waiting for us. It was a nice hotel, and not only better than the previous nights place but also better than any rooms we’d stayed in on the trip so far.

After a late lunch I headed out on my own with cameras in hand. It was pretty easy to find my way down to the lake, and on the way I bumped into the photographer from the Nepal marathon. I mentioned to him our group would be eating out in the city that evening if anyone else was about and wanted to join us.

I found a good position to sit along the lake and I waited for the sun to set. My hope was that it’d make a good photograph, but after twenty minutes a layer of mist started to roll over the mountains. The sky had a purplish tinge to it, but I realised there wasn’t going to be a fantastic sunset — I just had to make do with the light that was there.

When I got back to the hotel I took the opportunity to have a shower. It wasn’t just lukewarm, it was hot. It’s amazing what things you can take for granted and then miss.

That evening the four of us went to the Moondance restaurant and met up with a number of other marathoners who just happened to be in town that night. I was starting to lose count of how many times we’d met up with people we’d already said goodbye to.

The restaurant is a nice place with two floors of seating. One of the guidebook recommended dishes is their pizza, and I have to agree their barbecue chicken and green pepper ones are incredibly good.

We’d taken our guide out for this meal as well as it’d been our plan to treat him, however the restaurant waived his part of the bill as they knew him.

Next morning we were driven to the bus station where we said goodbye to the guide and boarded the tourist bus bound for Chitwan. It was listed as a five hour journey, but could easily take eight hours with the roadworks and bad road surfaces.

After crossing one of the large bridges the road surface became bumpy, narrow, and dusty. It looked like the roadworks were there to improve the road surface and to widen it.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that we arrived in Sauraha, on the edge of the Chitwan National Park. After a quick lunch we were taken out on a short walking tour of the surrounding area.

I imagined the tour named “village walk” would be boring, but it wasn’t. It started off with us being shown some of their traditional homes made from elephant grass. In the winter months they coat the grass with clay to provide some insulation.

The people here would also eat copious amounts of chilli all year around as a way of keeping malaria-carrying mosquitoes away from them. I wasn’t sure how effective chillies really are, but they have been proven to have health benefits and were believed to be used as medicine by the Maya.

We moved on from these basic residences into the main village of modern buildings, and kept walking passed them until we reached a path that led to an avenue of trees. Something was being burnt in the yard of one of the buildings there creating wisps of smoke across the path.

With the sunlight breaking through the leaves it was creating impressive rays of light where they met the smoke. On the other side of the trees was the Rapti river which is what we were heading towards. At least the smoke might just keep the mosquitoes away.

I spotted two species of crocodile on the river — gharial and mugger. This is where I was enjoying myself the most on the walk — looking out for wildlife to photograph.

We crossed through an area that had a sign erected at it’s entry. It read “No permission with out entry”. It didn’t really make sense, but you could understand what it was supposed to mean.

I photographed an elephant in captivity as we entered, but I was falling behind the group. I rushed to catch up and stopped when I caught up with the guide who had stopped in a large clearing.

About ten metres in front of me, far closer than any of its African cousins had been in Kenya or Tanzania, was an Indian rhinoceros. It was mostly obscured by the bushes it was grazing from, but we weren’t allowed any closer. The guide didn’t really want us to move around to the other side either in case it was spooked. So I stood and tried my best to photograph it.

The others who had joined our group for this tour were talking loudly, unlike the rest of us who were either being silent or using hushed voices. This agitated the rhinoceros after a while which gave our guide no choice but to take us back to the river and wait for sunset.

After sunset we were taken to where another rhinoceros had been spotted down by the river. We watched this one for ten minutes before returning to the hotel for our evening meal.

Breakfast wasn’t great so once again I found myself eating one of the cereal bars I’d packed. The tours started at 08:00 with a drive to the river where we boarded a dugout canoe which was steered as if it was a Venetian gondola.

We passed many mugger crocodiles on the river — it’s possibly the closest I’ve ever been to a crocodile. In Australia I’d gotten quite close, but from a bigger and more robust boat.

An early morning haze hung over the river. Where we could see through the water it looked like the riverbed was almost touching the underside of the boat, though I suspect it was a trick of the light refracting by the water.

When we came ashore further down the river we began a nature walk that lasted for the next hour. We saw large termite mounds, a spotted deer, and a wild boar.

Some trees were draped with what the locals call “tree killer vine”. It’s named that due to the way it takes the moisture away from a tree until it kills it.

The walk ended at an elephant breeding centre. To start with they left us in a room with many boards of information for us to read that detailed what it is they do there.

At a very young age they will take the elephants away from their mother, and then have their food and water restricted. This form of torture is what they do to “break” them so that they can then teach them to be beasts of burden.

Their torture of these animals doesn’t stop there though. The boards then went on to describe how they are burnt and washed to desensitise the skin, and also how they can sustain injuries during training.

I strongly disagree with what it is they do. They may be protecting the animals from poachers, but in some ways their treatment of them seems worse. I didn’t want to see any more.

We were shown elephants in captivity with the older ones chained up by one leg, and no longer able to roam like their instincts tell them to. The females of this species are herd animals and are not used to the solitary life.

I saw one calf also chained up and trying to get to one of the other elephants. It couldn’t and looked distressed. I got closer to one of the younger ones; as I did so it used its trunk to pull on my leg to bring me closer.

When it found it couldn’t pull me into the enclosure it then started to pull on my shoelaces instead. You could tell that despite this harsh treatment, some were still quite playful. I know that they’re protecting these elephants, but it doesn’t make it right.

We were then taken to the elephant bathing area; this was just as bad. You could see the spiked tool they use to control the elephants, and the pink scar tissue across the top of the neck where it gets used.

Those that were in the water weren’t getting it any easier — they were being pulled around by a tusk or their trunk. For tourists wanting to pay to be washed by an elephant the handlers would then scrunch the elephant’s ear and pull them to the side to make the elephant roll to the side when their time was up.

I couldn’t watch them doing this or be part of the spectacle. I instead passed the time photographing birds and dragonflies that were around the river.

After seeing this, I was glad I’d chosen to go by jeep instead of elephant for the afternoon tour. It started on the other side of the river so we first had to take another dugout canoe before getting into the back of a jeep.

I saw the large footprint of an elephant in the ground — apparently the ones on this side of the river are wild.

The tour went on for a long time without us seeing any wildlife. It seemed like it was going to be an uneventful excursion until we reached a watering hole.

Whenever you want to find wildlife it’s usually best to start near the water. In this case we could see a rhino, some deer, and a couple of crocodiles. This was everything though until we reached the conservation centre.

I didn’t go inside the centre — I was distracted by photographing a signature spider that was spinning it’s web on one of the walls. I knew that inside the centre they detailed the conversation of crocodiles and turtles.

We were the first group to get back from the safari. It was a shame it had been mostly uneventful.

In the evening we went to the Tharu Culture Program to learn about their culture. It was an hour long dancing performance with some of it looking like fighting kata that may have been originally used to teach warriors.

After the show was over I tried my best to get some sleep ahead of what would be a long journey back to Kathmandu.

We left Chitwan at 08:30 the next morning, and didn’t stop until midday when we stopped for ten minutes. It seemed this would be our only chance to buy something to eat, but only unhealthy snacks were available.

Thirty minutes later we stopped again, this time for thirty minutes. It may have been a better opportunity to get food if we’d realised. I found most of my time there was spent looking around, and photographing some monkeys in one of the trees.

The hotel owner next to these trees didn’t seem to like monkeys, and threw a brick at them.

Later in the afternoon we made one final stop at just twenty-one kilometres away from Kathmandu. It seemed to me that it was pointless to stop so close to the city, but when we got closer it made sense. It took an hour to get through rush hour traffic to where we were dropped off.

I noticed one Nepali cleaning windows whilst standing on an upturned bucket which itself was on a ledge over a four story drop. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to have fallen.

The place where we’d been dropped off was not the place we’d caught the bus previously, and nobody from the trekking company was there either. We had to figure out where to go, and then make our own way there.

We tried to catch a taxi, but the driver had no idea where Mandala Street was. Fortunately I had a map on my phone so was able to navigate. It just didn’t help that we all had heavy suitcases to carry for two kilometres. If this had happened when I first started travelling then I wouldn’t have been prepared, and would have been clueless about what to do.

We checked back in to the hotel we’d stayed in when last in Kathmandu, and headed out to look around the shops. We used social media to find that a couple of other marathoners were back in Kathmandu as well, so they joined us for one last meal at the Electric Pagoda — a nice outdoor restaurant.

It was a fun evening, and our last as a group in Nepal.

The noise of traffic and people going about their business finishes late in Kathmandu, but also starts quite early. My earplugs didn’t work great so was up at 04:45, ready to be picked up at 05:30.

We had a flight booked for the morning which would take us passed Mount Everest and back, but at the airport we had to figure things out for ourselves. I noticed our tickets had some small-print which indicated which airline we were with, so we were at least able to join the right queue.

Our paperwork indicated we’d be on flight 102, but we were given tickets for 100. It didn’t seem to matter as in the departure hall there was a board which indicated multiple flights with Buddha Air would be leaving at the same time.

The flight time arrived and went. The staff there updated the PowerPoint presentation they were using for the departures board to say it was delayed pending a weather report.

Apparently domestic flights are frequently cancelled or delayed depending on how much fog is about. This delay was only for fifteen minutes, and although ours was the first in the list, when the time came ours was delayed a further fifteen minutes as the others boarded. I started to keep a close eye on the time as each delay would eat into the time I’d have between this flight and my flight home.

The flight to Everest finally took off at 08:00. On the way out the left-hand side of the plane got to see the Himalayan mountain range first. Those sitting on the right-hand side of the plane got a chance to go into the cockpit during this time.

My seat was at the front on the left-hand side of the aircraft. I was staring at the peaks trying to figure out which one was which. Then Mount Everest came into view, just before it was my turn to look from the cockpit. I quickly took a few photos from my window, and then moved on to taking photographs from the cockpit just as Everest swung into view in front.

To look at it, it doesn’t seem special — it could be any mountain. It is special though. It’s the highest peak in the world, but many people have lost their lives in their attempt to reach its summit.

After the flight, I was back at the hotel just thirty minutes before I was expecting to be at the airport. The trekking company decided I didn’t need to be at the airport three hours before the flight — they’d booked a taxi to get me there at 10:15. It didn’t arrive for another ten minutes, but didn’t take long to get to the airport.

The embarkation process and form was far simpler and more organised than the visa had been on arrival into the country. I did find security to be a little surprising though.

There was a queue for men, a queue for women, and then the business class queue. As the queue for men was twice the length of the queue for women they moved half of the males into the business class queue — even though that one was longer than the queue for women too. They wouldn’t let men and women queue together.

When eventually boarding the flight there was one final pat down by members of staff, just in case anything changed since the previous two security checks.

This was the second time I’d left this airport on a flight in the space of six hours. I’m sure that doesn’t happen that often. For the flight home I watched a movie about Everest that was inspired by the true story of a group of people that were stranded on the mountain when a storm arrived. It demonstrated just how difficult the mountain is to climb, and how easy it is for things to go catastrophically wrong.

It was one adventure I hadn’t experienced during my time in Nepal, but those I had were enough. Twenty six hours after seeing Everest I was back home with my Himalayan adventure over.