In search of tigers in Nepal

Before we enter our eleventh country we need to exit the tenth. Whilst this is not quite as bureaucratically difficult as it has been previously it still takes some time, mostly because the stamp required for ‘driver’ is located at the top of the border town rather than at the border itself. Whilst we wait for an official to make their way back up through the winding streets we watch as four more immigration officials climb on board our trusty steed, Calypso, and proceed to rumage through our possessions. All of our Lonely Planets with any mention of Tibet are removed although thankfully, after some sweet talking from Warren, we get them back. Once driver has his stamp we are on our way. Our entry into Nepal is somewhat easier – we fill out a form, hand over our money and are welcomed with open arms.

Our first stop is a resort high in the hills that goes by the name of The Last Resort. By far the most luxurious place we have stayed on the trip so far but first we have to get there; just a short walk across a chain link suspention bridge a mere 160 meters over a spectacular gorge. Once we have made the nerve wracking journey we are shown to comfortable two man tents equipped with electricity and large double beds. Soon we get down to why we are here; those adrenalin junkies among us are going to throw themselves off the 160m high chain link bridge, one way or another. Thankfully for those who like to keep their feet on solid ground the surroundings are wonderful and there are plenty of relaxing activities.

Don’t look down!

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The next morning those crazy enough to plunge 160m attached to nothing more than a rope, make their way over to the bridge. The rest of us amble over to the viewing platform armed with cameras, waterproofs and a strong drink.

One by one we watch our friends and newly aquired family jump, fall and scream their way to the bottom of the gorge. After a truly terrifying morning filled with adrenalin (and that is just from the spectators) we return to the lodge famished and ready for lunch. The afternoon is spent with a far more productive massage to ease our weary muscles. Unfortunately one of the less appealing things about the jungle during monsoon season is the ubundance of leeches. Few of us managed to escape a leeching, I had four bites at last count.

Pernille taking the plunge

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Even the cow is sensible enough to resist!

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After a rejuvernating couple of days at The Last Resort we make our way to the capital – Kathmandu – in order to apply for our India visas. Unfortunately upon arrival at our hotel we are informed that this visa will take a full 9 days to obtain and we will no longer be visiting the town of Pokhara. Perhaps some forward planning on Odyssey’s part here could have enabled our time to be better spent else where.

Without prior knowledge of our predicament we find ourselves stuck in the city for an extraordinary length of time but we are sure we’ll find things to do.

The city is quite a change from the quiet countryside of The Last Resort. The smells are an overwhelming concoction of curry and daal that mingles delightfully with the stench of the rubbish that fills the streets. Our hotel is situated in the popular tourist area of Thamel and we find ourselves surrounded, for the first time in months, by the faces of fellow Western tourists, as well as a large number of Chinese tourists from across the border. This is somewhat of a novelty for us but we all welcome the opportunity to meet some tourists who have not been travelling with us for the past 3 months.

Lou, Fi and Teresa shopping in Kathmandu

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Wiring – Nepalese style

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We spend a number of days exploring the vast array of shops that line the streets, attempting to orientate ourselves in the maze that is Kathmandu city. With numerous days at our disposal we find that time keeps running away with us and we do very little in the first few days. However with fear setting in that we will spend 9 days here and explore very little of the city, we arrange a day of sightseeing. Many of the group are keen to head off on a guided tour of the city but disillutioned by tours we have taken part in, in the past Alex, Fiona and I, armed with a Lonely Planet, decide to make it on our own.

Stupas and statues of Buddha cover the city

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Temples in Kathmandu

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The Nepalese have a very liberal attitude to temple art work

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We start our day with a rickshaw ride to the Swayambhunath Temple. Known to the tourists as the ‘Monkey temple’. The large central stupa is impressive in its own rite, the monkeys only serve to enhance this stunning Buddhist temple. Set in a central location, looking out over the city, the Lonely Planet describes this temple as one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrim sites. With an enormous complex, set in such wonderful surroundings it is easy to see why. We spend a great deal of our time there watching the monkeys jumping in and out of a central pool, careful not to get too close as these animals can be vicious, they brighten up our morning no end.

The Monkey Temple

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From the Monkey Temple we make our way to the Putan area of Kathmandu. Putan in described by the Lonely Planet as one of the quieter and less touristy areas of Kathmandu where we will experience little to no hassle from the locals. We head straight to Durbar Square (meaning Palace Square), we had previously visited the Durbar Square in central Kathmandu but had been disappointed by the temples and Palace museum that we had found there. The square in Putan is entirely different. Quieter and prettier than it’s counter part we find ourselves much more able to relax without the constant pestering from locals attempting to sell us guides, jewellery, clothes and numerous other wares.

Looking up the Gods in a temple Durbar Square

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Ablutions in Durbar Square, Putan

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From the Durbar Square we wander to the Bagmati river in order to catch a glimpse of the famous Ghats where the Nepalese and Indian’s traditionally burn the bodies of their dead. After wandering in the heat, passing large snakes, more temples and spotting eagles over the river, for what feels like hours we finally admit defeat and stop someone to ask for directions to the Ghats. He very kindly informs us that we are at the Ghats! The round concrete blocks that we are standing on are the very same, not much to look at without the funeral ceremony but still an interesting cultural difference.

Searching for the very thing we’re all standing on!

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Emboldened by our day of sightseeing, feeling like we finally have a bit of a grip on Kathmandu Fiona, Louise, Jules, Yvonne and myself arrange a Nepalese cooking course for the next day. This was by far one of my favourite days in Nepal. We awake at 6.30 and are met at our hotel by Amrit. We begin the day with a tour of the local food market. He explains how the market sellers, who live in the villages surrounding Kathmandu, will gather their harvests and make their way into the city for days at a time to sell the produce they have grown.

Chilli, veg and chickens for sale at the market

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From the market Amrit takes us to his house where he introduces us to his 17 year old daughter Anu who will be guiding us through the cooking course. Amrit then leaves us and heads off to his second job. Anu explains to us that she has taken the day off from college to teach us, she says the whole family pitch in, running the cooking courses and she will catch up on her college work later in the day. Anu cooks us all an omlet and hands around sweet masala tea before we begin making the first course. She teaches us how to make a spiced rice pudding with a potato curry, a tradition breakfast dish. Next Anu helps us make the batter for the traditional Nepalese celebration ‘bread’, this is something that would be served at weddings and birthdays. At this time Anu’s mother returns from her job at one of the local laundry shops. She shows us how to fry the ‘bread’, which turns out to be more like donuts than true bread, before returning to work for another shift. In the mean time Anu is helping to knock up a daal baht (a slow cooked lentil dish served with rice, poppadoms and pickle) whilst we put together some momos (Nepalese dumplings filled with curried veg).

Anu telling us what’s what

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Momo making

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Frying the celebration bread

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Yvonne’s turn!

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We spend the rest of the morning eating everything we have made. Before long Amrit returns along with his eldest son who is also at college with Anu. I have so much admiration for this family who set up this cooking course 8 years ago with the help of two British tourists who still continue to invest in their business. Whilst still living in what we would see as abject poverty the entire family works as a team to try and improve their situation and make the most of the opportunities they have been given.

Fabulous food

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After 9 full days in Kathmandu we finally have our Indian visas and are on our way to the Chitwan nature reserve on the hunt for the most elusive of the big cats, the magnificent tiger. After getting lost in Kathmandu for 3 hours our 8 hour drive day has been extended somewhat but all of our worries fly out of the window when we arrive at the edge of the Chitwan National park and are greated by an elephant wandering down the road (accompanied by her mahout).

Pernille and myself making new friends

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With one short day in Chitwan we are all eager to fit in as much as possible and sign up to jungle walks, elephant safaris and river cruises as soon as we arrive. Our day starts bright and early the next morning with a two hour elephant back safari. We climb the stairs of what appear to be enormous mounting blocks and clamber aboard our elephants, four persons to an elephant and one mahout (elephant driver). Buzzing with excitement we make our way into the jungle to see what we can find. Unfortunately we are accompanied by a large number of giggling, squeeling and shouting Chinese tourists. Realising we are going to see very little with these lot in tow we beg our mahout to direct our elephant out of their range. Thankfully he appears as irritated as we are and willingly agrees.

All aboard!

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Before long we come across two, one horned rhino; a mother and calf sleeping peacefully in the bushes. However they are not to be sleeping peacefully for long because they are soon surrounded by elephants with excited tourists on board. The mahouts begin instructing the elephants to pull down the surrounding bushes, pushing the rhinos out into the open, something I feel distinctly uncomfortable about. Whilst the rhinos appear unfazed this is not what I expect from a wildlife safari.

The rhinos out in the open

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We spend some time with the rhinos who are now well and truly awake before we head back into the jungle in search of more animals. We spot deer and another family of rhinos but unfortunately the tiger, leopard and sloth bear ellude us.

Wallowing

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Before we make our way back for lunch we are taken to the river where we are given the opportunity to climb up on the elephants bareback and bathe them. Although I’m not sure who is doing the bathing, them or us!

An elephant shower

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The afternoon begins with what should be a leisurely cruise down the river, however we find ourselves in what feels like two very unstable canoes. We keep our eyes peeled for crocs but unfortunately we don’t come across any. After half an hour we make it safely down the river with no mishaps. Scrambling up the bank we prepare for our jungle walk. Before long we spot a large adult male rhino swimming up river, he exits the river in the same spot we did mere moments before. He is quite a spectacular sight once on the bank.

Doing the rhino paddle

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We are soon on the move again but fail to see any more wildlife but we do come across some tiger paw prints. It might not be quite a whole tiger but to know that they are in the area is startling and exhilarating all at once. As we are making our way back to the resort we hear the afternoon rains approaching, the sound is quite something. Almost as if we are approaching a raging river we hear it coming closer and scramble to put away our cameras before it hits, and hit it does. The downpour is unrelenting and after a matter of moments we are all soaked to the skin. We make our way home as quickly as possible soaked but thoroughly satisfied with our day.

Tiger foot prints

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Unbeknown to us whilst we are enjoying our time hunting for tigers in Nepal riots are currently kicking off in Darjeeling, our first stop in India, but more on that later.

We leave Chitwan the next morning all desperate for another day in this wonderful park. Ridding ourselves of excess wildlife (I find a toad in my walking boot, Mary and Bruce both have ghekkos stowed away in their luggage). Our next destination is the town of Janakpur. After a long drive day we arrive to find there is very little to do in the way of sights, we are all left somewhat confused as to why this town is on our route and equally why we are to spend two nights here.

We spend the first morning exploring the town and visiting the local temples, being so close to the border this town has a far more Indian feel about it. The temples are very different to anything we have seen in Tibet and Nepal so far. After sweating it out in the humid climate for a morning we are all keen to head back to the hotel and enjoy the first working aircon we have encountered in weeks. We also make use of the American movie channel and spend the day relaxing, preparing to leave for another on route hotel to the border the next day. However at 10pm we receive a phone call to tell us to stop packing, we will be staying another day. The riots in Darjeeling mean it is too dangerous for us to travel there. Simon and Teresa need another day to plan a new route through India.

Left to stew in a hotel room for yet another day we begin to question the management of the trip, why was the situation in Darjeeling not being monitored? After all it was posted on the Foreign Office website a full five days before we became aware of it. Why, when it is a known problem area, was there not a contingency plan already in place? With the realisation that we will now be making our way closer to west India and little hope that our new route will leave us satisfied we hatch a plan to leave the truck for a week or so and visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi. Elated with our new found freedom things are starting to look up.

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