The Fearless Travelers in Nepal, September 1999
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Map of Nepal Ok, so why would anybody want to go to Nepal? Because a number of friends had said that the animal parks were great. They are essentially a kind of Lilliputian Africa. They have wild Rhinos, Bengal Tigers, elephants and a number of other animals in a safari situation. While visiting Africa was high on our to-do list, we hadn't been able to schedule the three weeks that we would want to take to go there. So, this seemed like an easy way to get the experience. And, of course, there were the Himalayas and Kathmandu to see. So we began the process of setting the trip up.

Friends had also said that going through Tiger Mountain was the best of the tour operators. So that is where I began my planning. I did check with a lot of other tour planners but the folks at Tiger Mountain were so courteous and informative in our e-mail communications that I was quite satisfied with the choice. Indeed, they took very good care of us. Try for more information.

Research also revealed that staying at the Yak and Yeti hotel in Kathmandu was the place to stay. Not cheap, but a great hotel with a lot of character. Although our stay there was not uneventful, I would highly recommend the place.

Our first priority was to see the animal park, second was to see the Himalayan peaks, and third was to tour Kathmandu. Now there are two animal parks in Nepal, the Royal Chitwan National Park near Kathmandu and Royal Bardia National Park across the country in the far western part of Nepal. The more we investigated, the more it became apparent that the Royal Chitwan National Park, though much more accessible, was far more commercialized. If you wanted a more realistic safari experience, then the Royal Bardia National Park was the choice and that's where we decided to go.

They have two places you can stay. Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge is located on the edge of the Park and the Tiger Tops Karnali Tented Camp sits within the park, 10 miles north of the Lodge on the banks of the great Karnali River. Both sounded interesting so we chose three nights at the lodge and one night at the tented camp. Now all we had to do was plan the rest of the trip.

Nepal is famous for trekking and mountain climbing. Indeed, most people didn't even know there were animal parks. We here we were in the Yak and Yeti bar one afternoon and got to talking to a lady who had been to Nepal six times. When we asked her if she had been to the animal parks, she professed total ignorance. All she had ever done were treks.

To view the Himalayas you will quickly settle on Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna mountain and the starting place for many treks. The Tiger Mountain website described the Pokhara Lodge as their newest property, just a half hour's drive from the town of Pokhara in western Nepal. It is situated on a spectacular hilltop ridge a thousand feet above Pokhara Valley with panoramic views of Machhapuchhare, and three of the world's 25,000 foot peaks, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, and Annapurna. The lodge was also supposed to set new standards of hospitality for Nepal's second biggest tourist destination. Sounded good enough for us to spend two nights there. The rest of the time, then, was to tour Kathmandu.

Our arrival in Kathmandu was uneventful with two exceptions. First, as you are heading in for a landing, you suddenly realize that you are between very large mountains and that you are very close to the ground coming in over the pass heading into the airport. When you get over that, you are presented with a very beautiful valley in front of you. Now this is what breathtaking refers to.

After you arrive you have to go through immigration and get your visa. When we got off the plane, there was a bus waiting. However, a few people were simply walking to the terminal, which wasn't far away. So, we eschewed the bus and just headed in. And we found ourselves at the front of the visa line. However, in typical bureaucratic fashion, they did not seem at all prepared for our arrival and it took 10 minutes before someone even decided to start processing us. At that point I looked back and there in the line behind us was just about everyone else on the flight. Now it took us 10 minutes of miscellaneous discussion with the visa man to get our visa approved. And we had all of the paperwork filled out. I have no idea how long it took the 50 people behind us to clear this step. Do not hesitate to get into the immigration line as soon as you can. You can always pee later. Well, after clearing customs we were then met by the Tiger Mountain representative who took us to the hotel. As we have noted many times, one of the most enjoyable things after a long flight to an unfamiliar country is to clear customs, walk out into a sea of people speaking a strange language and find somebody waving our name on a placard.

It turned out that we had arrived during the South Asia games, a minor Olympics. So there were a lot of people and activity related to that. Indeed, we were in the hotel that night when we heard a big explosion. Looking out the window to see what was going on, we were presented with a gigantic fireworks show. I say gigantic because after 30 minutes we got bored and went back to bed. It just went on and on.

The Yak and Yeti is acknowledged as the finest hotel in Kathmandu and it is that. It is located within an easy walk of the downtown and yet it is in a very quiet location. We were not impressed with any of the other hotels that we passed by in our travels.

The arrangement with the hotel was that a tour of Kathmandu was included so our guide the next day took us around to see the city. And that we did. The women wear stunningly beautiful outfits. Everybody was friendly and even the rug salesmen were not overbearing. English was not a problem and all shopkeepers spoke enough to get by. However, it is not a clean city. Trash is everywhere. Many places looked like they were ready to fall down. And travel by car was the usual 3rd world adventure. The Lonely Planet Website gives this apt description. 'Kathmandu is really two cities: a fabled capital of convivial pilgrims and carved rose-brick temples; and a splenetic sprawl smothered in the pollution of diesel fumes, dirt, monkeys and beggars.' That's Kathmandu all right.

That night we went out to see Freak Street, a place that used to be a hippy haven, to look around and take some pictures. And we wandered into a celebration of the Living Goddess, Kumari. Unfortunately, it was so crowded it was almost oppressive. On the other hand, there were virtually no other tourists around.

The next day we did the standard tour seeing the basic highlights as you can see from the photos. Durbar Square is a particularly interesting place. Actually, there are a couple of Durbar squares in various places around Kathmandu. But in the main Durbar square are a lot of ancient buildings, a variety of interesting people and a number of shops. At the far end of square there were a number of art shops with some really interesting works at dirt cheap prices, so be prepared to buy artwork.

The people and the sites in the city are very photogenic. However, many of the children and even some of the adults wanted to be paid to have their picture taken. For payment the children wanted pens and chocolate, things we didn't have, unfortunately. There are a lot of tourists around and many Americans. This is clearly a place for the backpacking set. And they all carry enough water to last a couple of days just in case they can't find their way back to their hotel. There also must be some kind of cachet for the number of ties hanging off of their backpacks because some of them were really adorned.

Anyway, our first trip was to Pokhara so the next morning we headed out on Nepal Airlines to fly there. The monsoon season was running very late this year and there were clouds everywhere. However, about half way to Pokhara we began to see mountain tops jutting above the clouds. These mountains are all more than 20,000 feet tall and even the peaks were beautiful. Well, landing at Pokhara some 30 minutes later was uneventful.

Pokhara is not much of a town but set in a beautiful location. It is where the backpacking set stays getting ready for treks and there are a lot of hotels offering really basic rooms and a few more upscale hotels, which we never looked into. A 30 minute ride through town and then up a terribly rutted road we arrived at the lodge, which is set on a hill overlooking the town. Then, you have to walk uphill a considerable distance to get to the main lodge. It seemed like a long walk because of the altitude.

The lodge has nineteen rooms arranged around the hilltop with thirteen individual bungalows. The whole lodge was sited to maximize the breathtaking views of the mountains and the Bijaypur River far below. All of the bungalows have private gardens with a variety of flowers. Still, the main lodge is the focal point. There is a big dining room and plenty of outdoor terraces for drinks and meals al fresco. The whole place is terraced and planted with indigenous shrubs, bamboo and fruit trees. But most of all, there are plenty of strategic viewpoints to enjoy a drink, or simply to meditate.

We were assured that when the clouds lifted the view is spectacular. And, even though the mountains remained mostly shrouded in clouds, we spent hours just watching for glimpses of the peaks in general and Annapurna specifically; it is a very relaxing place. Watching the clouds flow by was like watching a slow motion white river. Because of its beautifully, remote setting, it is not convenient to the city. All in all, we would highly recommend the place.

The place was full when we arrived with a trekking group of 21 people filling it up. The trekking group was 2/3 women, there was a 27-year-old silicon valley millionaire taking a break, two new women MD's and two new women lawyers, a couple of whom were traveling with their dads. For reasons we still don't understand, Nepal generally and Kathmandu specifically is like a Mecca for American travelers. People who have been virtually nowhere else in the world somehow want to go to Nepal. All of these people seemed to view coming to Nepal and going on a trek as some kind of cathartic or coming-of-age experience that they had to do before going on with the rest of their lives.

The next morning we toured Pokhara itself and did the obligatory visit to the island in the middle of the Fewa Lake. There are a number of shops in the downtown selling mostly tourist stuff and trekking equipment, in case you didn't bring enough along. Interestingly, they also sell a lot of Tibetan artifacts, but none of much significance. The question we both had was if most of the people there are backpackers, who buys this stuff? Where are backpackers going to put things? Anyway, it is a quaint town but a little goes a long way. That afternoon we had an interesting tour of the villages around the hotel and then relaxed at the lodge to look at the views.

The trip the next morning required us to fly back to Kathmandu to catch a second flight for a one-hour flight back out to Bardia in the far west. There we were picked up in a jeep which held the guide, a driver, the two of us and three teenagers from England. In talking to the Brits it turned out they had just finished high school and were doing a work/travel deal. They helped out at the camp in trade for room and board. It was very clear that this was a good excuse to postpone college.

The Tiger Mountain website promises you a two-hour scenic ride along a highway passing through many fascinating villages to get to the Karnali Jungle Lodge. Well, after an hour and half of dodging busses, trucks, bicycles, buffalos, chickens and cows, and passing through some very uninteresting towns, the driver informs us that we have only about 7 miles left. At that point, we turned onto a dirt road and now started dodging potholes as well. Then, a short time later, we had to ford a 50-foot wide stream. We were informed that the bridge had washed out not long ago and was still under repair. Anyway, another half hour later we arrived at the camp at dusk. Fortunately, everybody in the jeep was very tolerant of the crowded conditions.

It became very clear that there was a little excitement as we pulled into camp. We were informed that everybody was going down the road to see three wild young bull elephants that were making themselves at home in the rice fields of the local village. Seems the rice crop was ready for harvesting and these elephants had developed a taste for rice, and so were out snacking. Needless to say the villagers were not happy about this but there was little they could do to stop them.

Anyway, we checked in and found a lovely hotel, particularly considering the remoteness of the location. They have some twelve rooms with baths, spreading out from the main building. The room itself was no more than adequate but included mosquito netting over the bed which added a nice touch to the decor. Katherine had to remind me that we were out in the jungle. You were also informed that electricity was only on for a limited amount of time and so you should plan accordingly. But, there were kerosene lamps to light the room at night. And hot water was also available for a limited amount of time in the evening. In any case, the main facility had a nice bar and dining area, an acceptable wine list, cold beer and local food. All of the necessary comforts.

Well, the next morning was elephant trekking time. That meant that we were up at 5:30 to get some coffee before the 6:00 trek. We had four elephants for the six people going on the safari that morning, a mahout who steered the elephant and a guide who rode standing on the elephants' butt who acted as the lookout for the game we were trying to find. This was a true jungle safari albeit not for hunting.

We sat back to back on a basket strapped to the back of the elephant with our feet dangling to the side. To get you into this little basket you first climbed up stairs to a little stand maybe ten feet high. They then backed the elephant up so the basket was right next to the stand. You then simply stepped in and sat down with the help of the guide. Keep in mind that the elephant and the basket were moving, making this an interesting exercise the first time you try it because it's a long way down to the ground. And then it's off through the jungle looking for wildlife.

There was theoretically room for four people, two on a side. Fortunately, because it was not crowded, only the two of us had to fit in. That allowed us to sit back-to-back and kind of support each other. Actually, with only one person in the basket you could sit facing forward with your feet behind the mahout. On the other hand, in a more crowded situation, you'd get very cozy with your traveling partners not to mention the challenge of getting four people our size into the basket in the first place. We also found that the rocking motion of two of the elephants was easy to adjust to while a third had a definite jarring motion.

We were informed that two days earlier the safari had come across a Bengal Tiger eating a kill by the side of a trail. The cat actually charged the elephants, injuring one of them. So this had everybody all excited and we were all keeping a watchful eye. After about 20 minutes heading out a dirt access road you head off into the heavy jungle. Basically, the elephant just uses its trunk to move everything out of their way. The four elephants spread out to cover as much territory as possible with the guides verbally signaling each other when anything interesting was found. Well, it didn't take long before we heard the call and headed toward the caller. What they had found was a female rhino and a calf. Now our guides always wanted to make sure we all saw whatever was found so they would always quickly converge on whatever was found. Unfortunately, after the sudden and noisy appearance of four elephants she disappeared into the bushes. So off we went again.

It didn't take long to get the next call. This time a guide had found the three bull elephants and once again all four elephants were headed towards them. Suddenly the biggest bull heads straight for the four of us trumpeting wildly. It was at this point that we found out that an elephant can gallop.

The guide on the back of our elephant started screaming at the mahout and whipping the behind of our elephant with a cane in a manner that suggested we were in some serious danger. Twice the bull pulled up, we pulled up and then the chase began again. It didn't end until we crossed a small river. The bull stayed on the other side of the river trumpeting and shaking the life out of a 20-foot tall tree. I should also point out that they only used female elephants for the tourists because they are much easier to handle. After the fact, our guide casually pointed out that the males are considerably bigger and obviously stronger than the females and will indeed kill them. Now, if they'd only told us that ahead of time we would have gladly passed on the adventure. Katherine was definitely scared. Mike was too busy trying to take a picture to realize the seriousness of the situation. Sadly, between hanging on for dear life and bouncing around, Mike could only get a blurry picture.

That afternoon, the day after the bull elephants had visited the rice fields, we got to examine the path they had taken. Here was this path of destruction straight from the jungle to the rice fields. They had broken off trees in their way at least four inches in diameter. It was not at all comforting to realize how much bigger, and faster the bull elephant was than ours. The guide assured us that they usually don't actually catch our elephants.

Anyway, after everything calmed down, we headed on out again, this time through the appropriately named elephant grass and away from the bull elephants. This grass was growing five feet over our heads and was like being in a sea of white fronds. So we couldn't figure out how the guide could see anything. But suddenly he tells us there is a rhino ahead and signals the rest of the group. We couldn't see anything as the mahout moved the elephant slowly forward. Then suddenly 10 feet in front of us a rhino pops out into an opening and leisurely strolls past us down to the river. Well, that was enough excitement for the morning and we headed back to camp for breakfast, which was a lovely buffet with eggs cooked to order. Who says jungle life is tough.

This same routine was repeated in the evening before dinner. On the evening safari we saw nothing until just before we were to head back. Then, maybe 50 yards ahead, we see a big cat walking along the road. It turns out that this was a leopard, even rarer than the Bengal Tiger. Unfortunately, as the mahout tried to speed up the elephant, the cat maintained the distance between us and we simply ran out of light without being able to take a picture. Dinner at the camp always followed the evening safari by about an hour and included a cocktail hour where you had a chance to meet your campmates. At the time we were there, there were only 10 of us at the lodge and everybody was very friendly.

Well, the first day, it turns out, was the most interesting. The next day we saw nothing of particular interest but did see a lot of jungle. I say we didn't see too much but we did see several crocodiles including an albino crocodile, antelope, spotted dear, monkeys, a jackal, vultures, an eagle, and some very large spiders. Actually, the elephant rides were a kick. We'd ridden elephants on several different occasions before but always for show; for short distances along a predefined route as part of a display of working elephants to impress tourists. Here, we were out for around 2 hours each time going right through jungle. We crossed streams five feet deep, barged through jungle, and navigated the elephant grass.

The elephant moves through the jungle like a bulldozer. What they can't push aside they either break off with their trunks or simply pull out of the ground. They don't seem to want to go around anything. They kind of swim through the elephant grass, using their trunks to sweep the grass from one side to the other. And, they are immensely powerful and seem to enjoy ripping branches off of trees. You also notice that they are constantly raising their trunks sniffing the air for any signs of cats or other animals. They don't particularly like the tigers and they make a noise like a growl of a big cat when they sniff something, which alerts the guide.

You can actually do as much or as little as you wanted to at the lodge. The first afternoon we took a stroll around the perimeter of the park and visited the elephant garage. The next day we strolled through the local village and met some of the local people. Some of the guests just sat in the sun. It was a very relaxing place and the food was delicious. Anyway, the following day we headed out to the Tented Camp.

The tented camp is just that. It is a little village of some 10 fairly spacious tents next to the river, each with two cots and enough space to be comfortable. There is a showering facility with individual showers and decent toilets. And there is a common eating facility. When you are ready to head back you float down the river to where you are picked up for the drive back to the airport or wherever you are going.

After check-in, we decided to go for a short trek with the other guests, who were clearly trekkers. Confirming what I already knew about trekking, all we did was walk. Every time I stopped to take some picture, I ended up way behind the group. And, being a trek, we had to walk through the woods, along a steep river bank and way around the camp. Did I mention the leeches? We had never seen them before but soon found out how tenacious they are. Feeling an irritation in my sandals, yes we had sandals while the trekkers had boots, I took it off only to find a leech firmly attached to my toe. These are really disgusting creatures. And they attached themselves to the legs of others as well. Anyway, it began raining on the trek and rained all the next day during the trip down the river. Fortunately, we had ponchos and umbrellas so it wasn't too bad.

Travel out of any small foreign airport is a little daunting because of the language problems. It's hard enough understanding any announcement in English, let alone in some foreign language. At a small third-world country airport, it's even more daunting because there is little information offered about your flight and you never know if they are boarding your flight. Some announcement is made and a bunch of people get up and head out to a little plane. The problem is that the tour guide drops you off and makes sure you get checked in but generally cannot wait around for the hour or two until your flight leaves. So they bid you farewell and assure you there will be no problems. Anyway, we kept asking people if this was our flight and tried to find people with the same color boarding passes. This was all complicated because our flight was delayed.

We also ran into a curious and disturbing thing at the Bardia airport. First, we had to go through separate lines for baggage check; one for the men and one for the women. And they wanted to hand search your luggage. Now I'm thinking that we are in one of the most remote places you can imagine so just what was it they were looking for? Well, the woman who searched Katherine's bag promptly grabs money she had in her bag and indicates that she is going to keep this. Ignoring Katherine's vehement 'NO', she persists. Undaunted, Katherine grabs it back, closes the bag and moves on. It's always something.

It should be pointed out that, because of the weather, particularly during the monsoon season, flight delays are considered routine. So that arriving anywhere near on time is to be appreciated. So to put what happened next into perspective, let me summarize that day. We were up at the crack of dawn to pack ourselves into a small boat for a 2-1/2 hour float down a river in the rain. We changed clothes and then spent two hours traveling over bumpy roads in the rain to get to the airport. We spent two more hours waiting for our flight and another two hours flying back to Kathmandu in a small airplane in really bumpy weather. And, we had a suitcase full of damp clothes that needed to be dried before they mildewed. The things foremost on my mind during the entire flight back were taking a shower, having a drink and a nice meal, and going to bed. So I was feeling really good when we were again met by the Tiger Mountain representative at the airport and taken to the hotel. However, it soon became apparent that there was a problem checking us in. It seems that when we didn't show up on time, they had simply given away our room. To say that I was upset would be an understatement. Fortunately, the Tiger Mountain representative made sure that they would take care of us.

They ended up putting us up at another hotel that night, not as nice but quite acceptable. And they comped us for the room, dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. They then picked us up and brought us back to the Yak and Yeti, giving us a much nicer room this time around. These are the things that you expect at a nice hotel. And considering how upset I was, the hotel manager was very accommodating and tolerant. However, things were to get even more interesting.

First, we were scheduled to leave three days later, giving us plenty of time to see the city and surrounds. However, we had heard in Bardia that the Maoists were planning a demonstration on that day. So, as soon as we got back to Kathmandu, we went over to the Thai Airlines agency and re-booked our flight to leave one day earlier. How smart we thought we were.

Right after that we arranged, through the hotel, for a tour guide to see two places considered must sees: Pasupatinath and Bhaktapur. Pasupatinath is one of the holiest places in Nepal. It is also a place where people go to die and to be cremated. It is situated on the West Bank of the holy Baghmati River. Non-Hindu's cannot visit that site but can see it from the other side of the river bank.

On the visitor's side are a variety of tourists moving about amidst the ascetics or sadhu's. An ascetic is someone who practices strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline. They are austere in appearance, manner, or attitude and clearly a little bizarre for a westerner to behold. A sadhu is a Hindu ascetic. The wealthy dead are cremated in a bonfire that is quite public across the river from the visitors. It is a most interesting place to visit.

Bhaktapur is a city not far from Kathmandu that still retains a kind of medieval charm. You will be treated to a city that is culturally and artistically interesting and totally different from the frenetic and dirty Kathmandu. But it is a big city so be prepared to walk. It is definitely worth the trouble to visit. And, if you have the room, they sell a lot of pottery. Well, that wrapped up our tour of Kathmandu.

Unfortunately, on the morning of the departure day it was raining. So we arrive at the airport only to end up standing in the check-in line for an eternity before being checked in; the flight had been delayed because of the rain. What a surprise. Once through check-in, we were sent to the business lounge to await our flight. However, we were soon informed that the weather was so bad that the flight had been canceled. So, we have to go back downstairs to get our luggage. It also turns out that this announcement was not given to the economy passengers who were all wondering what we were doing as we were escorted to the counter downstairs.

The good news is that they will put us up overnight at their expense. The really good news is that, because we were flying business class, they put us up at, yes, you guessed it, the Yak and Yeti. So we ended up with two free nights lodging and two complimentary dinners and breakfasts. The airline took remarkably good care of us. The bad news is that we were now back on track to leave the day of the demonstrations. And, because of the potential unrest, we really were not supposed to leave the hotel that evening.

Well, the next morning was chaos to say the least. One van at a time was allowed to go to the airport and it was accompanied by a police escort. The Indians, and there was a large contingent staying at the hotel because the Air India flight had also been canceled, are not shy when it comes to getting through lines. They would literally push by you to jump into the arriving van. Indeed, we had seen them do the same thing when awaiting service at the front desk. They would simply push up to the front counter, get the attention of the person on duty and move to the head of the line to get keys, checkout or whatever. We had to put decorum aside to get a place on a van. The good news is that there were no incidents on the way to the airport and we eventually left without incident.

Still, one of the oddest incidents to occur took place in the line that next morning. There were clearly marked lines for business class and for economy class. And the lines were long and everybody was impatient to get going. But everybody was friendly and chatting. We then became aware of a man in a blazer with an emblem on the pocket who had surreptitiously moved to the front of our line with a handful of tickets. Turns out he was the guide for the Sri Lankan ping pong team that had been competing in the games. And it was equally apparent that he was line crashing. Way back at the end of the lines were maybe twenty kids. And it was clearly his plan to process them in front of us. Well, when this plan became apparent to all of us, the lady we were talking to in front of us and Katherine walked up to the front of the line and placed themselves between him and the counter and made it very apparent to those up front what they were doing. Finally, looking totally despondent, the interloper went back to the end of the lines to the cheers of all. It is never dull when we travel.

Overall the trip was delightful. The food was great, the safari experiences were unforgettable, the people were friendly and the sights most interesting. It is clearly a poor country but you learn to live with that. There is a lot of history to be seen and a culture to be appreciated.