Kathmandu & Chitwan

“…we headed down to river, stripped to our underwear and went for a swim. The water was warm enough to feel like a bath and the bed was sandy. The current was strong so we’d float down and try and swim against the current back up. In time an elephant came down to the river to wash and it’s owner allowed us to spend time with it.”

Nepal. At the time of writing it has been over six years since I last went to the country and for me it still holds an incredibly special place in my heart. Nepal is a place of outstanding natural beauty with a myriad range of ecosystems from jungle to mountains (the highest in the world no less), has some of the friendliest and most humble people you can meet and one of the most vibrant cultures. In short before I tell you about my experience all I can say is this: if you are ever planning to travel and you only have one place to choose; make it Nepal. Seriously, be at one with the country, its people and their culture and it will be a trip of a lifetime.

The purpose of my trip was for trekking to raise money for charity. Namely to one of the most famous mountains on Earth; Everest. I shan’t be talking about the trek too much here, but by all means check out my Everest Base Camp post to see what that experience was like. The charity in question was Childreach International, who work in countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the UK to help ensure that young children have access to education and other safeguards and to help fight human trafficking. It is a worthy cause and I encourage anyone interested in one of their numerous projects to check out their website at www.childreach.org.uk to see what they do and how to get involved.

Kathamandu
Our first stop in Nepal was the capital of Kathmandu. This involved a reasonably long flight from London via Delhi. This was the longest flight I had ever done at that point (short by some I’ve done now) and so was a little taxing, there are some less than flattering photos of me looking like death upon arrival and for obvious reasons I shan’t be putting those up! The flight was also pretty turbulent; or as the staff aboard stated “please keep your seatbelts on as we are bouncing through large weather”. To this day that still makes me chuckle. Our arrival in Kathmandu was greeted by hotel and charity reps who provided us with traditional scarves. These are fine silk scarves known as Khata. They are common gifts that originate in Tibetan Buddhism and one of the occasions that they are traditionally given is on arrival or departure (as well as weddings, funerals, births or graduations). The whiteness of our scarves was to represent the pure heart of the giver and the scarf itself represents purity and compassion; two valuable traits.

One of the first things I had read about Kathmandu was that it was one of the dirtiest yet most vibrant cities on the planet, and that description was pretty spot on! Drawing from my journal, I wrote that “lanes don’t exist out here and there’s a whole range of scooters, bikes, buses, rickshaws, lorries and tak-taks. All constantly hooting at one another. People and animals roam the streets. There’s rubbish and Pepsi signs everywhere! In short Kathmandu feels like one giant construction site, yet it still has an amazing charm to it!” Aside from the dogs, of which there seemed to be hundreds, there were also huge bats. It’s worth looking out for them if you are ever in the vicinity of the Royal Palace. In essence though, it was a pleasant reminder of my time in Morocco, only with a completely different vibe – almost more modern that Morocco and as I expressed it was “a cross between Camden and the Medina’s of Fez and Marrakesh.” The traffic was pretty darn noisy and each vehicle came with a different tune which turned the streets into a musical cacophony of weirdness, but it also had another effect. The roads here were dusty and sandy, the traffic, animals and people kicked it up into a haze (most likely smog too) that was turned an orange hue by the setting sun, and was accented by the mountains in the distance. Like Marrakesh, Kathmandu is colourful. The stalls had an amazing array of pinks, yellows, blues, reds and pretty much any other colour so it is very much an assault on the senses, only Nepal smells (for the most part) a bit more pleasant, thanks in no small measure to the vast quantities of incense that is burning everywhere (to this day I still have a love for incense). I described it at the time as “a bizarre concoction of incense, food, sewage and some things I can’t quite put my finger on… …with the humidity adding to it.” Sounds delightful right?

One of the advantages of travelling on an itemised trip such as this, is that you get to experience things that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. Our first meal for example was at a traditional restaurant, where we sat, as is custom, on pillows near the floor and attempted to eat with our hands – only use your right hand mind, using your left would be considered a potentially insulting faux pas. Likewise only use your right hand to shake another persons hand. There is a customary use for the left hand that goes well with neither food nor handshaking! Food was delicious and included potatoes, rice, curry and moo-moos (a dumpling type thing) and in ever increasing strangeness popcorn – I’m guessing they thought this was a British delicacy – not sure what that says about British food! With that came rice wine which I thought would be a breeze. Needless to say I have never underestimated alcohol again… …OK that’s a lie… It was at this restaurant that we met the lady who successfully lead the first all female group to the summit of Everest, whom found great amusement in our attempts to eat with our hands! It sounds simple but there is a real technique and etiquette to it! With the meal came traditional dancing and costumes where there were dragon/horse hybrids and “what I can only describe as a moomin” which turned out to be a yeti. Overall, people are super friendly and unlike Morocco there is not a constant harassment. What I noticed though is that respect appears to be a given and as such is expected in return. I try to adhere to this trait; so as far as I’m concerned that suits me down to the ground! I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in Kathmandu, but the time I did spend was awesome, I’d heartily recommend checking out Thamel, it’s pretty much the backpackers district, where there are small winding alleys and great places to eat and shop. Top of that list is the KC Restaurant located at Paryatan Marg, 44600, Nepal (just off Thamel Marg). The best steak I’ve ever had. It was here that we met two guys who had bet on the football and won, so bought us all a beer, by comparative money they won about £150, and decided to treat people that only happened to be sitting next to them that they had never met – see what I mean about their kindness? The day after this we headed to the airport to get a flight to Lukla for our Base Camp trip. We wouldn’t return for about three weeks.

I was currently experiencing a three week interval…
…and we’re back…

Chitwan National Park
Upon our return we took a day to chill before we moved south to Chitwan. We spent the day in Kathmandu shopping and enjoying a cold beer at the hotel. A watermelon which one of the group purchased turned out to be rotten. Sad times. We watched a Portugal vs Brazil match and managed to meet up with a friend who was also on this charity trek but with a different group, followed by more beer and some shisha. I have to say the early start the next day combined with the shisha induced hangover was not great! A hot bus ride, several hours south-west to Chitwan was just the cure (note the sarcasm). This was aided by the landslide (note further sarcasm). It did teach me one thing about the Nepalese though. In Britain we would have had to wait for the relevant authorities and make sure that the clearance of the landslide was done in accordance with some law or another – not in Nepal, people got out of their cars and were basically hurling the rocks off the side of the mountain. We were moving within the hour. I’m sure health and safety exists for something… We had been warned by my friend we met the night before that the road getting there can be bumpy and at times a bit gut wrenching, with overturned trucks at the side of the road. I laughed at him and thought “yeah whatever mate!” Oh, how naive I was… There is a programme called the World’s Most Dangerous Roads and the road we travelled on was everything you’d get from that show; big steep drops, wheels on the edge of said drops, bottom of said drops littered with lorries, the road above said drops littered with lorries, taking said drops on bends at high speed, playing chicken with other vehicles at high speed on bends of said high drops, (essentially a lot of high drops and a lot of lorries who lost at chicken) basically a both terrifying and rather exhilarating experience and all my sarcasm aside I recall feeling somewhat refreshed upon our arrival to Chitwan. We were staying at the Hotel Parkside in Chitwan National Park. It is a truly excellent residence, located at Bachhauli-6, Hattisar, Sauraha, Chitwan, Nepal (check out the website for more info). The eating area and bar, aside from being stupidly cheap is outdoors with the geckos and heat, it was a fantastic way to wind down after a hot day of trekking in the jungle. We had gone to Chitwan to experience a different side to Nepal. Most people picture Nepal as only mountains, with rocky, snow-capped peaks. Nepal borders India though and the southern regions are remarkably tropical. There were elephants, tigers, rhinos and crocodiles (among others) to be seen and we thought this would be a nice way of doing it.

Upon arrival we explored the village and went to see the elephants, if you want to be super environmentally friendly as well, stop by the Elephant Dung Shop, where they have made plenty of paper products from recycled elephant dung. It’s better than it sounds. After learning about the animals, we headed down to river, stripped to our underwear and went for a swim. The water was warm enough to feel like a bath and the bed was sandy. The current was strong so we’d float down and try and swim against the current back up. In time an elephant came down to the river to wash and it’s owner allowed us to spend time with it. This was a super experience, though I almost had my foot crushed by the animal. The sun was golden and we dried off by the river while having milkshakes, it was at this point we learnt that the river had crocodiles in it. Thanks for the heads up Mr. Chitwan Guide! A glorious end to a long day considering no one got eaten. But the day wasn’t over, after we had gone back and eaten food, we headed into town for a cultural performance by the local tribe (I believe it was spelt Thuara, but I have a horrible feeling that is wrong) where there was much dancing and music. When the second day dawned we had decided to head into the jungle proper this time. We were going to do this in three ways, by boat, by foot and by elephant. The first time we went by boat down the river to see a different perspective of the rainforest. We saw a huge Heron type thing (sorry my biology/zoology classification knowledge is somewhat (by which I mean greatly) lacking) which, when it took flight you could hear the wings beat from a considerable distance. We then hung around some more bends in the river and saw some crocodiles and then made landfall to continue the journey on foot. One of the group was attacked by leeches and we had to wade up to our waist through the river to cross – great fun! We were given some advice about how to behave in the jungle, I mean there are wild animals after all prowling around, awaiting unwitting humans to stumble upon them. Apparently we are easy to catch and eat – I guess tasty too if the animals keep doing it. The rules we were given were as follows. I’ve yet to decide if he was being serious or was most excellent at satirical humour.

Be quiet at all times (the girl attacked by leeches screamed rather loudly – rule 1 fail)
This was the golden rule. All the other rules were specific to different animals and were as follows:

Rhino attack
Climb trees to at least 6m and failing that do your best to hide behind a tree. Failing that drop to the ground and zig-zag in 5m increments.

Sloth Bear attack
Huddle into a group and cover your eyes (they like to blind their opponents with big, sharp claws) and make lots of noise to scare them off.

Elephant attack
Disturbingly the largest and quietest animal in the jungle (I still think of elephants tip-toeing through the jungle). I hope that image is as funny in your head as mine. To avoid, ‘simply’ run and hide in the thick undergrowth.

Tiger attack
Pray for salvation.

The last one was very reassuring, especially when you see the claw marks on the trees. That said seeing a tiger in the wild is pretty rare. They have a territory of around 45-60km² per tiger, are an endangered species and rarely attack people in large groups especially if they have elephants. Our route by foot took us back to the start point where we collected the boats. We headed back to the hotel for lunch and then for the afternoon we took to the elephants to see the jungle from up on high. This seemed a better way to see animals (we saw some Rhinos) who are less perturbed by their fellow animals than humans on feet. That said the golden rule still applied. The elephant would sit 5 people including the handler and to me seemed happy (I am very conscious about the welfare of animals) I hate seeing big cats or birds in cages for example – remember the tiger needs 45-60km² not 45-60m². Still though I’m still not sure if I’d do it again, and if I did I would look very carefully into the animal welfare side of things. It is sadly something that did not cross my mind at the time. That said because this was organised by the charity, they have an obligation to ensure that any affiliate companies they work with are required to uphold the highest standards of welfare, so I’m confident that the animals were well treated. We called ours Boulder, and he/she was pretty verbal with the tooting. I have immense respect for these intelligent animals. This was our last day in Chitwan and we would be heading back to Kathmandu the next day, so there was nothing else to do but sit on the hotel roof and attempt to get a tan (or in my case sunburn), enjoy a nice hearty meal and revel in the majesty of the tropical thunderstorms that lit up the region with blue light all night.

Kathmandu
Our return to Kathmandu was basically the same as going to Chitwan minus the landslide and it is where we spent our last few days before our flight to India. We spent it shopping for traditional wears, trying new places to eat and exploring a few of the sights like the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, which in light of the recent (2015) earthquake was a real privilege to see, as a lot of it no longer exists. We also had a rickshaw race back to the hotel. One of the guys rented a motorcycle and we all enjoyed a ride through the throng of people and cars in the side streets. While we were there it was one of the girls birthdays and we celebrated by heading to the Garden of Dreams (or Garden of Six Seasons) located in Kaiser Mahal. Address is Tridevi Sadak, 44600, Nepal. This is a green oasis in the middle of an urban jungle and well worth a visit. The evening was spent with beer and whiskey at the hotel (Hotel Karma or Karma Travellers Home) after food and shisha at Funky Buddha Garden both of which are located on Thamel Bhagawati Marg. Some honest advice: DO try Everest Beer, which is a pretty decent lager and very reasonably priced, however, DO NOT try Everest Whiskey. The stuff burns blue and sears your throat and it doesn’t have a great taste either (maybe it sears taste buds too). It’s the only whiskey I couldn’t ever finish.

All in all, a fantastic country and a fantastic culture and people. I cannot recommend enough that you go and see it for yourself. It’s like a country that has come screaming into the 21st century but refuses to give up it’s heritage and rich culture. Definitely still one of my top places to visit. Don’t forget to check out my Everest Base Camp post to get a sense of rural Nepal and the mountains and to see what I got up to in the three week gap!

Jon

Cover Photo: One of the many side streets, Thamel, Kathmandu.

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