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Nepal


Nepal's Valley Kathmandu valley

Nepal is a small country situated between two big countries, India to the South and China to the North. So roughly, I would say one third of the people look oriental, another one third of the people look Indian while the rest are all kind of mixed up, looking like, well, Nepalese. Even though it is a small country, it is as exotic as you can get. A lot of places to sight-see and a lot things to do. No wonder it is a favored place for many many visitors. It has natural wonders, like Mount Everest and other mountains for climbing, beautiful terrain for trekking, exciting rivers for white water rafting, and jungles for watching animals. It also has many amazing man-made sights that you can visit and admire, like Hindu temples, ancient palaces and city squares. On top of these, the country has stunning scenery, very friendly people, and a cheap cost of living. Among all the countries I have been, there are only a few where I'm interested in returning. Nepal is one of them.

Similar to India, here you often see a lot of locals sitting on top of the long-distance buses. It looked like a lot of fun to me. But it was not clear to me whether these 'top deck' passengers travel for free or had to pay extra to enjoy the beautiful views and fresh air. My guess is it is probably restricted to the locals only because I never saw westerners on top.

The trip from India's Varanasi to Nepal took two days using basic local transportion. It was described in the trip brochure as an experience that you would really hate, or something you would never forget the rest of your life. It turned out to be a bit of both. The public bus that took us to Nepal was almost a bus to hell. 5 people were crammed into a row, 3 on one side and 2 on the other side, with very little legroom. It was rather uncomfortable and some passengers were sick. Apparently the bus fair was very cheap. That was why they had to pack so many people. The bus was full of Westerners. Most of them were backpackers. It was late evening when we arrived at the Nepal and India border, which happens to be situated in the middle of small town. The street was jam packed with people, rickshaws, carts, cows, dogs, chickens and street vendors, just massive chaos. We got off the bus and had to get our luggage down from the top of the bus. Everyone was scrambling to get his or her luggage and carried it to the Indian immigration and then continued to the Nepal immigration which is just a few houses down the road. Up until now I still had no idea where the border was exactly, since I did not see any checkpoint or fence. There is certainly no such thing as a border patrol or a soldier anywhere in sight. It would appear that all these people and things were moving back and forth between two countries without paying any attention to border formalities at all. Pretty bizarre.

Then we were taken to a place called Nepal guesthouse, which was a dormitory for the night and bus change next morning. That turned out to be the most disgusting place we stayed during our four months. The place was full of bugs, landing on everything. One tour member (Lindsay) said she was eating something crunchy. But the restaurant did not serve anything crunchy. She suspected she was munching the bugs inside the dark restaurant. The food was so bad that Estrella decided not to eat at all. You really could not expect much because the overnight was part of the cheap bus fare. The management was nice enough to give me and Estrella a separate room because we were the only married couple in our group. The rest cramped into one big room. That night none of us had any decent sleep.

As usual, whenever we stay at a less desirable place, I have a simple and effective way of making everything look instantly and slightly better. I simply take off my glasses. With that, things kind of become blurry and out of focus. Believe it or not, ugly things become less ugly and do not bother me anymore. Next morning, we continued to Kathmandu. The road wound thru a valley, often with one edge right to the drop-off and one side only a few feet away from a cliff, leading to a big drop down to the river below. Sections of the road were even eroded so it was not surprising to see rusted-out wrecked cars at the bottom of the cliff.

Kathmandu

At the edge of Kathmandu, the bus stopped to allow a bunch of people to get on the bus. They were the hotel representatives, trying to get passengers to stay at their hotels. Luckily for us we stayed at an area called Thamel, which is next to their famous Durbar Square. The place is full of hotels, restaurants, and, of course, tourists. This is really one place that you can find tourists from all over the world. That night we all went out to a nice restaurant and had a good meal to make up for the horrible trip. Kathmandu is definitely a big change from India. The weather was much more comfortable and the streets are a lot cleaner. People are still poor but it is not so poor or so over-populated that people slept on the street. I did not see any homeless people.

The stores and restaurants of Thamel.

Thamel is a really cool place, a bustling district of Kathmandu, full of Westerners. If you are staying at Kathmandu at all, you have to stay at this place. There are many shops that sell all kind of things, including trekking gears made by company like North face, traditional army knives carried by the Gurkhas called khukris, religious and ceremonial paintings, etc. Of course you have to bargain. You should never pay the asking price. Overall, things are definitely cheap. But the best was we found a small travel agency just outside our hotel that did all the tour bookings for us. Some of these, we did last minute, asking them to book a trip for us next day. They were always able to accommodate us.

One day while walking in Thamel, I happened to see the cover of the Time magazine featuring the Napster guy and announcing that Napster site was being shut down. Sadly, the date the music died happened while we were in Kathmandu, before I had the chance to download anything.

Durbar Square

One word you would definitely learn in Nepal is 'Namaste' which could mean hello or goodbye. Everywhere you go, you greet people with that.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Exploring temple complex.

Our tour package officially ended at Kathmandu and a one-day sight-seeing tour of the area was included. A local guide took us to see several sights in and around Kathmandu. We visited the ancient and enigmatic Buddharath Stupa. It is enigmatic because there is only one single eye on each of the four faces on the stupa, a structure that is commonly found in places like Tibet and Nepal. The strings of paper flags hanging around the top of the stupa are called prayer flags. They are inscribed with auspicious (lucky) symbols. By letting them flapping in the wind, the wind would carry the prayers to heaven and, in return, bring back happiness, long life and prosperity.

Stupa

Next we went to visit the banks of the river Bagmati. This river flows into the Ganges, which is why it is also a popular place for cremation. There are platforms (ghats) built for this purpose. And we could see that one body was being prepared to be burned. This time we were able to see the whole thing from a bridge that spans the river. Hard to believe but some people would dive into the river after the ash was dropped into the water. I was told they were hoping to find metal or jewelry from the ash.

This place was also full of Hindu holy men or Sadhus. They devote their life to religion by giving up possessions, like monks. They spend their time prayer chanting, and meditating. Typically they would cover themselves with white ash, semi-naked, or then wrap themselves with orange clothing. They certainly looked weird but the bunch we saw here all seemed to just minding their own business and not bothering anyone.

Ghats along the river. Cremation platforms along the river. A body was being burned on the right.

Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, a medieval city full of temples and ancient palaces. The main attractions are clustered around Durbar Square. Here you find the royal palace, known as Hauman Dhoka, and many interesting temples, such as Kumari Chwok and Kumari Bahal, which last is the residence of the 'living goddess'. In short, the story of the living goddess goes like this. Nepalese pick some 4 to 7 years old girls who have certain features, from various poor villages, then subject them to a series of tests, including locking each up in a dark room with scary images to see if she can stay calm or not. The girl who survives all this becomes the living goddess. People would worship her and parade her on a palanquin during festivals. She stays as a goddess until her first menstruation, or, if she is unfortunate, until getting a cut or somehow otherwise damages her body. Then the whole selection process starts all over again. Kind of like looking for a new Dalai Lama. We went into her residence courtyard. The current goddess did come to the window to greet the visitors standing there to see her.

In general, I had a hard time telling which is a Hindu temple and which is a Buddhist temple, at least from the architecture point of view and nobody seemed to care. The two main religions here, Hinduism and Buddhist, exist very peacefully together. This is truly remarkable, unlike some other religions elsewhere.

Mount Everest

We spent the first couple of days sightseeing, including an hour-long flight to see Mount Everest. Everest, situated at the border between Nepal and China, was named after Colonel Sir George Everest, who was a British surveyor, geographer, and the Surveyor-General of India from 1830 to 1843. China claimed they had a name for it long before the British came and want to have that name restored for the maps. While the Nepalese did not have a written name for it, they are not crazy about the British name either so they decided to belatedly cook up an indigenous name for it. Anyway, Everest is still the best known name and is the one used on most maps. The peak is the highest point on Earth, at 8,848 m (29,028 ft) high. This includes the snow and ice piled on top, which is estimated to be about 10 m high. Believe it or not, officially, you are supposed to include everything when measuring a peak. While Mount Everest is the tallest, it does not mean it is much taller than others. I was surprised to find how hard it is to identify it from a distance. The fact that it is situated in a long range of mountains called Langtang, with all other peaks almost just tall, makes it very hard to tell which one is which. Looking from a distance, it would just be a narrow and long horizontal line of white snow that covered all the peaks stretching across the horizon, with the blue sky above and brown mountain side below it. This is very different from Mount Fuji in Japan or Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which you can tell from miles away, with just one nice peak to look at. It is more like Mount Blanc in France, except it is even harder to descry.

Of course, it would be quite an experience to trek to the Everest base camp to see the peak. This is, for us, entirely out of the question. People not in good shape are known to die by even going to the base camp. Trekking or no trekking, we still wanted to see Everest. So we did the easiest thing to see the peak, by taking a flight offered by a local airline called Mountain Air. It is in fact a popular excursion for tourists. The flight was in a small propeller plane, which carried about 10 passengers and each one was guaranteed a window seat except one. You see, at the back of the plane there was a row of three seats. The person who sat at the middle of the row would not have a window seat. For this reason, that seat only cost half price. We flew pretty much at the peak level along the mountain range toward Everest. The stewardess gave us a drawing that showed the profile of the mountain range with names printed above it. If you matched what you saw with what was on the profile, you could tell which was which. During the flight, the pilot invited passengers to go to the cockpit and see it from there, so we all took a turn to go. When it was Estrella's turn, the plane happened to reach the peak and was doing a U-turn to go back. So Estrella had a peak right in front of her when she snapped the picture. No wonder she came out of the cockpit with a big smile. As you can see from the photo she took, the peak is barely taller than a couple of others in front. At the end of the trip, we even got a certificate to prove that we saw it.

Mount Everest from the plane cockpit.

Nagarkot

After that we joined a two-day trekking trip. As much as we want to do all these trekking stuff, and I know a lot of people enjoy it, walking day after day is just not our idea of fun. Besides we were not in shape anyway. After some research, Estrella found this nice route around the valley. But the best thing about this route is it was a downhill trek with no climbing at all. The travel agent told us there were two itineraries. One tour had two overnights and one just one. The two-day trip had only one overnight. First day was for getting there and we only trekked the second day, downhill all the way, ending at a temple and a bus would take us home. Perfect, I thought. So one morning, we got up early and the guide took us to a bus station to go to a place called Nagarkot, which is a small village sitting on top of a mountain in the middle of Kathmandu Valley.

View from Nagarkot with Langtang in the background.

Looking from Nagarkot, with the Langtang mountain range in the background. See the white line of snow-capped peaks above the wire.

The hotel rep greeted us at the bus stop, and from there it was a nice walk to the hotel. The hotel has a meditation room, and maybe about eight guest rooms, with a very nice garden setting full of Himalayan orchids. Our package included all meals, and in the morning, our breakfast was served in the garden, with a full view of the Langtang mountain range. We were the only guests in the whole place. After we arrived, we did some hiking around the village.

Then next morning we got up at 5 o'clock to catch a mini bus to go to the top of the mountain with other fellow bus passengers, to see the sunrise and hopefully see the whole mountain range including Mount Everest. We did briefly see the mountains but because they were pretty far away, it was rather hard to tell which was which.

There were a bunch of entrepreneurs that had got up early and went to the viewing area with us. These were vendors selling souvenirs, mostly posters of Everest. I bought several of them as gifts. After seeing the sunrise, we went back to the hotel. Had breakfast and started the trek.

Breakfast in the hotel garden.

A hotel employee showed us part of the way. Then we were on our own. The trail was not exactly easy to follow since there was no mark or sign posted anywhere along the route. We went thru small villages and past rice paddies. When we got lost, we just yelled out 'Namaste' and then the name of the village that we were heading and some friendly local would always point the way for us. Then this old man showed up and insisted he was our guide. We kept telling him that we did not need him but he kept leading us all the way. We just could not get rid of him. At the end we gave him some money and bought him a bottle of coke.

Trekking toward our destination. Trekking toward our destination in the background.

White water rafting

Guides checking things out.

After the trek, we joined a two days white-water rafting trip. As far as I know, Nepal is the best place on Earth to do white-water rafting. You could choose from half a dozen river runs, ranging from really scary to easy, relaxing ones. We took an easy one down a river called Trisuli. It turned out three of us (me, Estrella and my brother Eddie) were the only passengers on this trip during the first day. There were three river guides, who took good care of us. One of them was in a kayak. It was certainly a lot of fun riding through rapids and getting wet. It is a little bit hard to describe white-water rafting experience. It is almost like you are sitting comfortably and relaxing in your living room for a while -floating gently down the river- and then all a sudden, you are hit by a combination of earthquake, rainstorm, and tornado all at the same time and you frantically try to stay alive for a few minutes. That is roughly how you feel when you hit a rapid. After a rapid, it would be quiet, relaxing, and comfortable again, just waiting to be hit by next earthquake, rainstorm, and tornado, meanwhile you are all wet, of course. I guess it is the adrenaline of hitting the rapids that attracts people to it.

However the most amazing thing had to be the scenery along the river. It was just simply spectacular at every turn, incredibly beautiful, and absolutely stunning. Unfortunately I could not take any photo because the camera was locked up in the waterproof bag. While floating down the river, we would go underneath bridges. Some of them are really very basic swinging bridges you see in the jungles of Indiana Jones movies. At least they allow the villagers to go from one side to other without getting wet. We also saw a couple of the most primitive form of a 'bridge' which is simply a rope with a bucket hanging below it. The passenger would climb into the bucket and then glide down. It was fun and easy at the first half of the trip anyway. After it hits the lowest point, the passenger would have to use his arm muscles to pull himself up to the other side. Not that much fun anymore.

That night we camped next to the river, which was great but it was also next to the major road that goes to Kathmandu. That was not that great. While we relaxed, the river guides were busy preparing a meal for us from scratch. As usual, we had a delicious vegetarian meal, made of rice and lentils which is their national dish, called 'dahlbat'.

Next morning, an American couple joined us and we continued down the river. They were on a one-day trip. This guy was a computer guy from Silicon Valley. He met his girlfriend while on a business trip to Singapore. They told us they had visited the Annapurna region of Nepal. If we ever come back to Nepal, that would be the place I want to visit next.

Chitwan

At the end of the river trip, my brother went back to Kathmandu while we took a bus to Chitwan National Park. There we stayed in a jungle resort - well, called Jungle Resort. It is one of the few resorts situated inside the National Park, located on a small island surrounded by rivers. We were taken to a small hotel in town and waited for others to be taken to the resort. There was a small pool so we went swimming and met an American couple by the pool. The guy was working on his laptop. I asked him if it was for work or for fun. He said they were missionaries and were doing some charity work in Nepal. Now they were on their way home. We also talked to one of the managers in the hotel. He said he once served in the Gurkhas and was trained by the British army. At one point he was stationed in UK. Now he is retired and this was his second job. When he found out we were worked with computers, he was totally convinced that now all Chinese are working on computers.

Crossing the river to the resort.

At the end, the group we waited on never showed up, so the hotel bus took us to the river edge and a small row boat was sent over to ferry us across. In this resort, there were two types of room available. One was small lodges and the other was permanent tents. Each room had private washroom and sitting area. We were lucky that the travel agent managed to book us a lodge very close to the dining room.

The hotel rooms are located in the jungle and there was no electricity except in the dining room. We were given a kerosene lamp to use until we went to sleep. Wake-up call was done by a resort employee who came knocking at your door. Aside from elephant safari, the resort offered a full range of programs for guests to participate - like bird watching, jungle walk, etc.

This place is actually a bit like a Nepalese version of Jurassic Park. In Jurassic Park, you ride jeep to look for dinosaurs. Here you ride elephant to look for single-horned rhinoceros, tigers, and other wildlife in an elephant safari.

So next morning, we were assigned two seats on an elephant for a two-hour safari through the jungle. Each elephant carried four passengers plus the driver (called a 'mahout'). You can think of an elephant as a very slow SUV that can go anywhere, road or no road. In this case, it just plowed through the jungle, while the guide looked for animals. We were quite lucky. We managed to see a rhino, a monkey, and a deer. Glimpsed them anyway. Then at one point, the guide pointed to a spot in the mud and told us that was a foot print from a tiger paw. While we did not see any tiger, it was still interesting to see a tiger paw print. Later I just could not help but wondering how on earth you could have just only one tiger paw print. Wait a minute. The only way for this to happen was to have a tiger drop down from above, maybe from a crane or a tree, and then just dipped one paw into the mud. Ummm I wondered.

Sitting on elephant and eagerly looking for wildlife.

As we plowed thru the forest, often the elephant had to do the hard work of actually removing fallen tree trunks using their big powerful "trunks" in order to continue forward. And we, as passengers, had to be careful in dodging tree branches above. You do not want to have one of these knocking you off the elephant. There were several elephants spread out, roaming the jungle. We saw one of them trying to go up a river bank. He did it very slowly and carefully. But he did slide back a couple of times. Even one of the powerful leg got stuck in the mud a bit. I guess this is no difference when your car tire is spinning in the mud trying to go up a slope. At one point, our elephant suddenly started to run like mad, shaking us a bit. It turned out, according to our mahout, the elephant heard the call of his 'sister' so he was happily rushing to greet her. Such lovely creatures. Bet your SUV would never do that!

A postcard of Nepal.

After the elephant ride, we had breakfast then did a jungle walk and a boat ride down the river. One thing that I forgot to mention before is that there are many leeches in the Nepal jungle. After a half-hour walk, two people in our group found themselves with blood spots on their bodies. One was bitten on the leg and one was bitten at the ankle. It is amazing that leeches could attach to you, suck your blood, and then leave without you knowing it at the time. Luckily I heard their bites are clean and they never infect you with anything.

At the dining room, we finally met the two Hong Kong girls who had been supposed to come with us the day before. They showed us all the fancy trekking equipment they had purchased in preparation. You could tell they were very excited and looking forward to their heavy-duty, multi-day trek.

Me waving goodbye from the back of a sinking elephant.

One of the interesting activities provided by the hotel lodge is 'bathing with elephants'. At two o'clock in the afternoon, a few of us changed into swimming trunks and went to the river with several elephants. You climbed on top of the elephant, then the elephant went down to the river with its mahout guiding it. Now the fun began. The elephant rolled and turned, basically taking a bath while you tried to maintain your balance and stay on top. Needless to say, we got dumped into the river many times.

While I was having fun bathing with the elephants, Estrella was having fun on dry land watching some of the bathers trying to dodge elephant dung floating down the river. You see some elephants decided to do their washroom business while being bathed. The size of elephant dung, believe it or not, is almost the size of a bowling ball. People tried hard not to be hit by one of these droppings, even those just floating by.

We stayed in Kathmandu for 12 days with almost non-stop action. Needless to say, we left reluctantly. At the airport, we talked to a young couple from Israel. They told us that it is almost a ritual for Israelis to visit Nepal to unwind after they completed their grueling military training. The couple just did Nepal and now heading to Thailand for the second part of their holiday. Boy, wished I could join them. From Kathmandu, we took a flight to Bangkok and continued to Hong Kong. After a family visit, we went on to Australia.


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