Nepal – the highs and the lows


Temple in Kathmandu

A Quick Jaunt to Dubai

The only flight we could get from Colombo to Nepal was via Dubai. Consequently, we left the continent of Asia, took a quick trip to the Middle East, and came back again! At Kathmandu airport, we met our friend Anton who was joining us for three weeks.

We had a couple of days in Kathmandu enjoying visits to Durbar Square, Freak Street and the Monkey Temple. For a few rupees, we even had an audience with Nepal’s revered prepubescent Living Goddess. She appeared briefly on the balcony in an enclosed courtyard looking rather bored with the whole business of being a Living Goddess.

Hanging out in Kathmandu

Our previous visit to Nepal had been twelve years previously and Thamel, the travellers hub, hadn’t changed at all. It was full of internet cafes, bakeries, restaurants, trekking companies and shops selling everything from incense to Nepalese clothing. One of our favourite hangouts, New Orleans was still going strong. We spent an evening there drinking cocktails and listening to live music.

T Goes Down with Food Poisoning

We took a bus along the Prithi Highway to Pokhara, a spectacular road following the Trisuli River. Pokhara is situated by a lake and is a major trekking base with a chilled vibe. We checked into the Hotel Pokhara Peace. And then went straight out for dinner and cocktails (yes – we like cocktails!) T took one look at her veggie noodles and took flight! Unfortunately, she went down with a severe dose of food poisoning which put her out of action for about a week.

Boats at Lake Pokhara

In the meantime, the remaining duo explored Pokhara on a series of day hikes, while T suffered, unable to leave the hotel room. She eventually surfaced for an early morning trip to see sunrise over the Annapurna mountain range.

Ku watching sunrise over the Annapurna Range

Power Cuts and Beer by Candlelight in Chitwan

We arrived at Chitwan National Park after an incredibly bumpy bus ride. The lodge we stayed at was quirky, with safari orientated pictures and artefacts decorating the corridors. There was a roof top restaurant which was quite atmospheric at night due to the fact that there was usually no power. We enjoyed dinner and beers by candlelight.

The stars were bright without the light pollution prevalent in cities and one night the moon was full and an amazing orange. Power cuts were very frequent in Nepal. In fact, there was even a power cut timetable, so that people could plan around them. Probably, about fifty per cent of the time there was no power, but the inconvenience was worth it for the spectacular night skies.

A Close Call with a Rhino!

Chitwan is renowned for it’s elephant and jeep safaris. An elephant strolling past you whilst you were having a drink at one of the many roof top restaurants was not uncommon. We took a jeep safari and saw several rhinos at very close quarters, including one angry looking one who was just about to charge at us. Luckily the driver put his foot down!

Peeping Baby Rhino

Chitwan hadn’t changed over the years either – a combination of simple village life intermingled with tourist orientated lodges, restaurants and shops, but not so many that it overcomes what is special about the place.  Somehow, the two seemed to co-exist together happily, which wasn’t the case with our next destinatition.

Meeting a friendly local dog in Chitwan

Bandipur – No Room at the Inn!

Bandipur is a small town in the mountains above the Prithi Highway. Recently, (we read in Lonely Planet), it had opened its doors to tourism, but apparently retained its traditional Nepalese way of life. We backtracked along the highway by bus and shared a jeep up the mountain with a German couple.

Our first mission was to find somewhere to stay. The first place we tried was much too expensive. The second place was very basic for the price quoted. The third place didn’t seem interested in our custom, despite having a ‘rooms available’ sign. They suggested we cross the road to somewhere else where they also weren’t interested in accommodating us! We eventually settled on somewhere, which although rather expensive by Nepalese standards, was adequate. For a town that was courting tourism, it wasn’t very friendly!

Colourful Doorway in Bandipur

Cowbells and Paddy Fields

T still didn’t feel a hundred per cent, so Anton and I set off on a day hike to a spiritual site in the mountains. The scenery was beautiful – the trail was high and overlooked paddy fields and tiny villages and we passed villagers herding their cows, the tinkling of cowbells warning of their approach. We went higher and higher and the trail became more dense as we had to push vegetation aside in order to pass.

Unsuccessful in our quest to locate the site and physically weary, we decided to turn back. Somehow, we got lost, and then we ran out of water. Things were getting desperate! I was so glad to have paid close attention to Bear Grylls and was now able to stave off dehydration by sucking on a small stone! I am glad to say that we did get back alive, and when we got back to town, went to the first shop to buy several bottles of water – it was bliss! 

Exploring Bandipur

Stranded in Bandipur!

We were only intending to stay in Bandipur for a couple of days, but were told by an American woman that there was a national strike on in Nepal, and that there was no public transport. She was stranded in Bandipur! We were oblivious to the situation until then. We had planned to leave the next day, as Anton’s flight back to the UK was leaving the day afterwards from Kathmandu!

Our only option was to wait until the following day in the hope that the strike would be off and we would somehow be able to make it back to Kathmandu. So, another day in Bandipur! As well as the locals being somewhat unfriendly, the food was limited too (especially as two out of three of us were vegetarian) and we were dreaming about what we would have to eat when we got back to Kathmandu! Pizza seemed to be the unanimous favourite choice! We did however sample some momos, a Nepalese favourite – steamed or fried dumplings filled with vegetables or meat. Very good!

Tasty Momos

The National Strike Continues

The one advantage of staying an extra day was that we suddenly noticed the Annapurna Mountains above the clouds! It hadn’t been very clear up until then, and it was a fantastic sight!

The day of Anton’s flight (scheduled to leave at 9.00 pm), we packed up and came downstairs at the hotel to be told that the strike was still on. We had to try and get back, so we tried to talk the jeep drivers into taking us down to the highway. They were adamant that they would not take us for any price! There were some French women staying at our hotel who also wanted to leave and we all stood around hoping that either someone would relent or somebody else would appear and agree to take us. They had been keen enough to bring us up here!

Escape down the Mountain

Anton was obviously somewhat concerned that he wouldn’t make his flight and when we could see that we weren’t getting anywhere, the three of us set off down the mountain road. It was times like this when we were pleased not to be carrying large backpacks! (We did this trip carrying only daypacks). It was hot and the road was very steep. About half way down, a jeep passed us with the French women in the back!

Breaking Down on the Prithi Highway

When we finally reached the highway, we ascertained that there were definitely no buses going anywhere, but managed to find a guy with a car who would take us all the way to Kathmandu for a price. We didn’t have any alternative. The car sped along for the first half of the journey and then promptly conked out.

To cut a long story short, we stopped twice while we waited for mechanics to sort the problem out, and we eventually crawled into Kathmandu in time for a farewell dinner. We were just pleased to make it, but we suffered for the mountain walk for days afterwards – just standing up was an effort!

The International Guest House in Kathmandu

After Anton left, we spent a week in Kathmandu staying at The International Guest House. At $12.50 each a night, including breakfast, it was a great deal. It had a roof terrace with great views, a lovely garden and was built in traditional Nepalese style.

Back in Kathmandu

Red Tape

One of the reasons we had decided to visit Nepal for a second time was simply because due to the new Indian visa rules. If we left India and returned on the same visa, we would have to stay out of the country for two months. Because we had wanted to go to Sri Lanka and could only spend thirty days there, we had to go somewhere else for a month. We did look at other options, but we had enjoyed our previous visit very much and Anton was keen to meet us in Nepal, so Nepal it was.

After working it all out, we found that we still wouldn’t be able to go back into India before our Nepalese visa ran out. Consequently, we found ourselves in a taxi heading to the Nepalese immigration office to apply for a visa extension. Having let our taxi driver go because we were told we were told we would have to wait four hours for our extension, we were offered an ‘unofficial’ fast track option – $15.00 each to get our visa extensions in ten minutes!

The Strange World of Pashupatinath

The following day we hired a car and driver to visit Pashupatinath, the Nepalese version of Varanasi. Situated on the holy Bagmati river not far from Kathmandu airport, Pashupatinath is a sacred place for Hindus.

Sadhu

Cows, monkeys, holymen and pilgrims mingled around the temples and ghats. There were small intricately carved stone buildings, apparently used as shelters for wandering holy men. We watched a cremation take place by the polluted river, where the ashes would be scattered. As the bereaved women walked along the ghats wailing, a monkey god approached us in full costume as real monkeys leapt around simultaneously. A bizarre place.

The Monkey God

The Buddhist Enclave of Bodnath

We continued on to Bodnath, a stunning Buddhist stupa covered with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Surrounding the stupa was a perfect circle of temples, restaurants and shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia.

Novice monks hurried through the streets. Every shop we passed was playing Om Mani Padme Hum (roughly translated to praise to the jewel in the lotus), the Buddhist chant, which became the theme tune of the trip. We had lunch on the roof top of one of the restaurants overlooking the stupa.

Ku in Bodnath

The Buddhist Enclave of Bodnath

Another day we visited Paton Square, a complex of temples, and a great spot to people watch. There was also an excellent museum. The Royal Palace in central Kathmandu opened to the public in 2008, when Nepal ceased to have a monarchy. In 2002, Crown Prince Dipendra had murdered nine members of his family at the palace, including his parents. It was an interesting place to look around – an eclectic and non-traditional mixture of styles.

Return to Pokhara

We went to the bus station to book a bus back to Pokhara.  The plan was to stay there a few days, before heading down to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, and then cross the border into India. We were informed that the strike was still on (although there was no evidence that there was a strike on in Kathmandu) and we would have a better chance of getting to Pokhara if we left the next day, so we bought our tickets and hoped for the best. Next day, our bus was waiting, so once again we hit the Prithi Highway and soon (well, seven hours later) we were back in Pokhara.

Trinket Sellers in Pokhara

Unrest by the Lake

We stayed at the same hotel, but this time had a balcony overlooking the street instead of the lake. Most of the time we were in Pokhara, the strike continued. Unlike Kathmandu, most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Those that did open, did so furtively, with shutters half way down.

On one occasion, we were in an internet cafe when the shutters came down and we were asked to exit through the back door. Another time, we were having lunch in a restaurant when there was a flurry of activity amongst the staff. The shutters came down and seconds later a group of protesters came marching down the road, followed by a police van. Most of the time the streets were strangely quiet in contrast to the usual hive of activity, and there was no traffic except for the odd bicycle.

Ku with a Shiva sculpture, Pokhara

An Eventful Bus Journey

As the strike continued, we were surprised when we were able to book a bus to Lumbini so easily. We set off, looking forward to paying a visit to Siddartha Gautama Buddha’s birthplace. After a few hours, we stopped at a dusty, ramshackle, but busy town, where the bus driver ordered us off the bus and onto another one. The second bus was absolutely packed. More and more people got on and we couldn’t move.

By now, we had left the mountains and were back in the terai, where the heat was intense. The bus stopped and we were told to get off, as no more traffic was allowed beyond that point due to the strike. If the bus continued, it would be attacked by strikers.

No Go Lumbini

We stood at the roadside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and from what we were able to establish, about 30km from Lumbini. The only form of transport available was bicycle rickshaw and we couldn’t expect a bicycle rickshaw driver to cycle all the way to Lumbini. We decided our best option was to go as far as the nearest town, which apparently was 8 km away.

Trapped at the Yeti Hotel

Bhairawa is a one horse town close to the Nepal/India border. We managed to get a room at The Yeti Hotel. Luckily for us, it had a good restaurant, as there was nothing else open. The strike was going to continue and we knew that we wouldn’t now make it to Lumbini, 22 km away. We couldn’t get into India for another three days because of the crazy visa regulations, so we were stuck.

An exploration of the town the next day confirmed our fears – absolutely nothing was going on. The only activity was an occasional angry and quite sizable protest marching through the streets. Our room was unbelievably hot, more so when the frequent power cuts killed the fan. Several cold showers a day was the only solution. The big event of the day was the much anticipated dinner at the restaurant downstairs.

At last the day came when we were allowed back into India. Our Nepalese leg of the trip hadn’t been easy. Nepal appeared to be in a state of chaos. There was much discontent and the demeanour of the Nepalese people had changed since we were last here. Hopefully, the beautiful country of Nepal will find its way, but clearly it has a long way to go.

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