Nepal Blog: 26.06.09 - 10.07.09
Kathmandu ~ Chitwan National Park ~ Pokhara
Nepal is like dipping a toe into Indian culture then deciding to chill on the grassy banks after all. Predominantly Hindu, bright saris pervade the streets and polka dot the hillside fields. Men-only groups sit on wooden platforms on streetsides, playing cards and sipping glasses of chai. Cows languidly roam the pot-holed dusty streets in the midday heat. And there's the widest range of physiognomies that we've seen so far -wide Tibetan faces with their high cheekbones and tight, smiling eyes are as common as the large-featured, bushy moustached Indian ones, and large almond eyes in surprisingly Western settings.
Most of these faces are smiling at you, when they're not trying to offer you a cup of tea (which, when you've been standing in their shop for the last half hour trying to decide between two near-identical necklaces, comes as a nice surprise and shock to someone used to the impatient semi-sneers of the shop assistants on Oxford Street, if you can find one). But I knew how it was going to be after spending most of the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu sitting next to a Nepali minister for education, who, after taking off his glasses to reveal twinkling eyes, gave me a list of recommendations as long as my arm for Kathmandu then, seeing that i was beginning to drown in information, firmly thrust his card upon me, insisting that we call or email if we get stuck. "We like to know people are enjoying our country", he said.
Understatement. In two weeks, I've been given free lassis in restaurants, 8 cups of tea in shops (even when i wasn't buying anything) and after checking into hotels, had half the street in Thamel (the tourist district of Kathmandu) knowing my name (probably something to do with giving in with the tea and buying BOTH necklaces, but still), had random blessings on the street and been joined by a young Nepali vet student when walking around Durbar Square in Kathmandu on Saturday morning just because he fancied showing us around, and getting us into the tourist attractions for free.
We snaked down muddy back alleys through throngs of people out to see the 365 girls dressed up in their frilly party frocks and lining the streets in honour of the Kumari, the Newari living goddess (long story, but basically involves a Malla king, a goddess, an unseemly advance, and his subsequent guilt). You had to have your wits about you, because every so often there'd be someone slaughtering a goat at a road corner shrine and you'd need to dodge the blood spatters, but it was hard to keep focused when there was so much going on. Aside from the kohl-eyed Bo-Peeps, we passed a marching brass band wedding procession, a Karma Sutra temple, complete with engravings (not in any way erotic, we're assured, but rather an expression of a tantric religion, though they looked pretty erotic to me), 3000 rickshaws intent on mowing you down or at the very least splattering you head to foot in mud, and some beautiful wooden architecture complete with vivid blue doors.
Standing among the (Hindu and Buddhist) temple-strewn squares of Kathmandu, you glance upwards and catch a glimpse of the mist-covered mountaintops in the distance, just as a pigeon s***s on your head before you can get too poetic about it. Nepal's pigeon population seems to be thriving - in the villages they build birdhouses to keep them before ritually slaughtering them, but they roam free in the cities. Eat your heart out Trafalgar Square.
After seeing all those young girls putting in so much effort, it would have been wrong not to visit the Kumari's palace in time for her once-a-day appearance at her window (no photos please!). As well as Vinayak, the Nepali vet (who, by the way, doesn't particularly like animals, but it's a job, isn't it?), we'd met Lawrence, a Dutchman en route to Thailand to meet his girlfriend, and Matthew and Shira, a couple who'd met on a plane, and we'd all stood in the rain to see the goddess in which none of us believed. And we waited. Finally Vinayak went and somewhat sacriligeously hammered on the front door, demanding when the embodiment of Durga/Taleju (depending on who you believe) would keep her 4pm appointment and show her face, an act which i'm convinced sent her straight back to bed until 5, which is when she appeared. A hush echoed around the courtyard square. And, after staring regally, yet youthfully, the five-year-old disappeared back into the depths of the dark wood palace (prison?).
Well, it's not every day you see a living goddess, so we celebrated with a late lunch of momos, stick tricks and drinks in a tiny place Vinayak knew. Not a bad day all in all.
Kathmandu is perfectly situated for day trips, in fact, it's probably the reason it's the capital. Kess and i spent one day walking past paddy fields of women planting the already-germinated crop and singing together, bent in a line at right angles, up the hill to the Monkey Temple to the west of the city. The view at the top of the steep, animal-guarded stairway encompasses the whole of Kathmandu, and is pretty magic once you've wiped the sweat out of your eyes, but part of me prefered the ramble through the mountain-lined paddy fields for a true look at the city. Still, we did the obligatory walk around the prayer wheels (presided over by authoritarian-looking monkey heavies) and gazed at the big white stupa, which gazed right back at us through the painted eyes of the Buddha which watch over the 360 degree panorama. And, after all this tramping (you can't travel with a Kiwi for 6 months and some of the vocab not rub off), we were both glad to make it back to town for an Indian thali set and an early night.
A note on Nepalise food. Aside from the ubiquitous yet delicious momo dumplings, the influences seem to be largely Indian, with a fair whack of Tibetan yak cheese and curd thrown in. We've had some delicious daal bhaat and buff (buffalo) curries in some of the tiny momo restaurants (where you can dine like a queen for less than a dollar) and thick sweet lassi with nuts on top from a busy corner street seller (another Vinayak find).
But a serious food highlight was when sheltering from what can only be described as a biblical deluge in Bhaktapur, an ancient town 40 minutes from Thamel. After hiding from the monsoon with the ducks in a doorway (gilt edged) for over half an hour, we'd taken our chances, thrown our sandals to the wind, and swam our way to the nearest promising-smelling metal pot.
The cafe was pretty empty when we entered, apart from the family who ran it. Leaving the street full of residents sticking pots out to catch the rain water, we beamed at the earring-and-vested father behind the food as we shook out our umbrellas and wrung our clothes, pratically putting out the stove in the process. "So, what'll it be for you girls?" we assumed he said, in Nepali, as we struggled onto a bench to the sounds of Bollywood Sessions blaring from the t.v. "Umm, what've you got?" we mimed. "Momos?" To avoid further confusion, he rustled us up a plate of a bit of just about everything he had: the best momos I've ever tasted, potato curry, tomato pickle, and flat rice. As the t.v. steamed up from out evaporating backs (as opposed to the PG video), he proceeded to tell us proudly about his daughters, who had studied in Europe and were now living in America. His wife sat and anxiously watched as we tried each new mouthful, but satisfied by our obviously authentic grins of appreciation, nodded smiles now and then. And then the son, who up till now had been silently flicking through Bollywood channels whilst dexterously making momos piped up. In word perfect English. The dad, seeing that attention had passed from him, or perhaps just annoyed that he couldn't tell us more about his daughters' marketing courses, went over the to the t.v. and whacked up the sound, drowning out his son, who dutifully turned back to the momo-making, and started to dance back to our table. Seeing that he hadn't served us anything for fully five minutes, he shook up a tomato ketchup bottle and without asking if we needed any (we didn't), proceeded to explode the sauce all over our plates. And Jess' new silk scarf.
We never did get to see all that much of Bhaktapur, but we left the town with a warm glow from that little kitchen room and honest-meaning, friendly family.
Not that the warm glow lasted that long. We'd hired a motorbike and on the way back, the rush hour, ringroad traffic had been diverted and had to wing it cross-country over insane potholes and with no map to guide us, with Jess' back playing up and me with one eye open, dust scratching the contact lens in the streaming other. All I can say is that it's testament to Jess' navigation and driving skills that we got home at all. But i guess we should count ourselves lucky that the monsoon held off for those two hours!
Week Two in Nepal found us on the six and a half hour bus journey (if you include the traffic queue for roadworks in the boiling midday heat) to Chitwan National Park. I rather enjoyed the journey, which takes you past lush green gradated hillsides, thick forests and vertiginous drops to swift-moving brown waters below. Small boys play in the swinging metal baskets that transfer goods from one side to the other, high above the river, with a disturbing lack of fear (or safety awareness, for that matter). Other little boys and girls scream from wildly overcrowded schoolbuses driven by angels (Nepal puts a strong emphasis on schooling and with increasing birthrates, the Kathmandu Post told of concerns that there'd be inadequate numbers of secondary schools available before long. Or that bus-driver massacres would sharply increase, which would solve the issue at least).
The Royal Chitwan National Park is 932sq km large, and full of rhinos, tigers, leopards, elephants and deer to feed them, but the part we stayed in, at Sauraha, is mainly full of jungle lodges. So full in fact, that although there were still a few off-season groups around (mainly Indian), we were the only people staying at ours. Which did mean that we had the best service possible, as well as personal guide (Tilak) who took us on long-grass rambles and had time to talk religion and politics to us as the sun set over the river, but which also meant that there was no way Jess and i could lose ourselves in anonymity. This was particularly bad at mealtimes, at which we were constantly faced with a plate whcih can only be described as eclectic. As if to ensure that we'd get something we liked, we would have soup, rice, fried potatoes, fritter/meat AND chips. And these are healthy supersize-me buffalo-portions we're talking about here. There's no guilt worse than feeling ill from a long journey in the heat and having to leave a whole plate of food that has been prepared solely for you. We spent the next morning protesting our lack of pie-eating-contest stomachs in a desperate bid to keep portions down.
Other than that, the morning, as mornings go, was pretty spectacular. It started off with a canoe down the river, in a hollowed our tree, to spot some crocs. While our guide, Tilak, was to be honest more interested in bird watching, Jess and i were still full of the Oz croc tour guide's safety warnings: "These are not a joke. Crocs WILL eat you. Keep your arms inside the (speed)boat" - so were nervously scanning the bank for any sudden movements to threaten our bit of tree bark. Jess saw her first. "Umm, is that one? There? Right in front of us, two feet away?". It was, and she was hissing. Tilak pulled out a big cane pole in case she got frisky. So that's alright then.
Making it back alive, we walked past the village, with its heaps of corn drying in the sun on the ground, to the Elephant Breeding Centre, where some baby twins were suckling from their mother, and a baby wild boar was trying to suckle me. Then on for our elephant safari, for which we climbed on board a basket with two chain-smoking Frenchies (nervous?!) and lolloped our way with another elephant into the jungle, also known as 'low-flying branches land'. We were just revelling in the excitement of seeing two rhinos close up for the first time (who knew they were so be-armoured?) when our Nellies started getting 'playful'. It was all rather exciting, like a fairground teacups ride gone wrong, until Jess pointed at the other driver's terrified face, and we realised it wasn't a game. As the other elephant stamped and ours charged off into the trees, the strap holding our side of the basket snapped, leaving us bumping even more precariously on top of a giant steam-roller, which was out of control. Jess fell to the floor, in a wail of red-hot dust and we all waited with bated breath as the clouds cleared to see if she were breathing.
Oh ok, that bit's a lie, but it seemed a bit more of a fitting end to the drama than the truth, which was that the trainers got the elephants under control, and hopped down to mend our strap, and we all lived happily ever after (sorry Jess!).
The evening brought with it a cultural dance show, complete with man-in-peacock costume (also apparently traditional) and fireshow (ditto, and in no way imported from the Thai beaches for the tourists) and an early night, as i was to be up at 6am the next morning for a birdwatching session.
Yes really. But it turned out to be interesting in the end as it is a passion of Tilak's, and it was nice to take an early morning stroll and grab a mango from the tree before the 4-hour bus journey (on rock-hard seats) to Pokhara, our last stop in Nepal before the border crossing to India.
Pokhara's a true tourist town by a beautiful lake, and the last stop for trekkers setting off to do Annapurna walks. Jess and i, scared of leeches and monsoon horror stories, are saving the trek for next time, when we will hit Everest Base Camp in the right season, so are free to boat on the lake, enjoy the cooler climate and check out the views of the mountains in ease. And actually it's exactly what we need, to have some time to do some meditative yoga (one session focussed so much on breathing exercises that i nearly passed out from the rush of oxygen to the head) and chat to the restaurant waiters, who are full of tips (and warnings!) for India, and anecdotes about Nepal. So for now I'll leave you, and go for another stroll along the lakeside to enjoy the snow-topped mountain sunset views and snigger once again at the barber-come-massage stalls that line the streets ("no, i don't think i'll be letting you touch me, thanks for the offer though!") Who knows? There might be time for a lassi before the sun sets.