Thursday, May 1, 2014

Where mountains touch the sky

Mother's bathing pool

There is no place better to start our tour of Nepal than Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The shrines and temples surrounding his birthplace are friendly, happy and serene places. A large square pond marks where his mother stopped to bathe. People would walk around this pond, stopping every couple of steps to crouch down and touch the ground. Behind it was a large tree festooned with flags leading off colourfully in all directions, each colour representing a different facet of the natural world. For instance green represented grass and white was for the sky. Around the tree were monks praying and people joining in or just watching. The whole complex was a monument for peace, with many temples from different countries and an eternal flame reminiscent of the one we saw in Hiroshima.

The perpetual Dhal Bhat
We were also introduced to their national dish, Dhal Bhat. Seriously, it seems that most people here eat it every day for lunch and dinner. It consists of rice, lentil soup, veg curry, something pickled, fresh veg or spinach and sometimes yoghurt for dessert. It's an 'all you can eat' meal, as they'll keep coming back and filling up until you plead, 'No more'. We all became very familiar with Dhal Bhat. We also had to adjust to continual rolling blackouts. Most areas are only given power about a third of the time to conserve hydro-electricity in the dry season. (No problems during monsoon when they have enough left over to sell to India.) There's a Nepal wide roster and a website that tells you which area has power when. This resulted in a rush for power points to charge phones and computers whenever the electricity came back on.

Suitably relaxed we travelled next to Chitwan, home of a large national park. We all opted for a walking safari which started with a ride on the river in a concerningly narrow canoe sitting extremely low in the crocodile filled water. Although it felt like it could topple over at any second, it was remarkably stable, even staying upright through several small rapids, although we did get a bit wet. What I remember most is the sheer absence of noise: no traffic, no motor boats, just the tranquility of our boat moving almost silently under human power through the water, and the sounds of wildlife and wind.

Our guide Bishnu
Eventually we were deposited on the bank far downstream, the challenge now to return on foot through the jungle. We were quickly given instructions on what to do if we came across wild animals; rhinos, tigers, boars and bears are active in this area. Elizabeth and I stopped for a quick natural toilet break, which became stressful when the rest of the group returned at a fast pace having come across a rhino almost immediately at close quarters. We barely escaped with our dignity intact and joined the group for a hasty retreat.

Rhinos seemed to be the order of the day; we came across another one a bit further up. This time though we were high on the bank and he/she was in the water. We watched in relative safety for quite a while filling our memory cards with pictures. We spent the next few hours trekking through the most beautiful jungle scenery with a guide who seemed self styled on Crocodile Dundee. Some of the interesting moments from Bishnu include...
* Found tiger scratchings on the bark of a tree.
* Found a spot with fresh tiger urine. We were all invited to smell. I politely declined. The smell of tiger urine is not something I need saved in my memory cells.
* Tiger paw print, with an explanation of how to use the size of the paw print to calculate the tiger's height.
* Numerous monkeys and deer thanks to his keen eye.
* A pair of rhinos. This time we snuck around them for a better view but hightailed it out of there when one of the rhinos started circling us.

The tiger is how big?

Bio gas well
It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Other activities included a visit to an elephant breeding ground, which included a walk through a farming village. They are encouraged here to practise sustainable and environmentally friendly living and farming through grants. Again we saw the versatility of the eminently renewable cow dung. In one house cow dung was put in a well in the ground and used to produce gas for cooking. The major crop here is rice, which is produced year round thanks to plenty of underground water with the wells to access it.

Relaxing at Australia Camp, cold & grey
After leaving here we went to Pokhara where we embarked on a two day trek of the Annapurna foothills. This began with a gruelling trek uphill, completing the day over 1km higher than when we started, at the fantastic Australia camp. No Australians living here now but Australians got here first. Weather was dodgy as we arrived and a decent view of the mountains was looking unlikely. We sat down to hot coffee and freshly deep fried sal roti (a big fatty rice doughnut that I became very fond of).

Less than an hour after we arrived a sudden storm hit with hail the size of golf balls; glad we were not out trekking. Just as suddenly it stopped, the skies cleared and we got awesome views of the Annapurna Himalayan mountain range. We all relaxed and enjoyed the views, sat down to some hearty dhal bhat for dinner and whiled away the night playing the card game Bullshit. We found out our guide was really good at it. At bedtime the girls' screams alerted us to an apparent humungous tarantula in their room. Some men braver than me went to investigate and came back laughing at how small it was and claiming they'd chucked it out. Unconvinced, the girls slept with their beds pushed together in the centre of the room.

Skies begin to clear
Ahhh, beautiful

The next day was a longer and harder trek but took us through some lovely villages with friendly people. Unfortunately previous visitors have not heeded the government's request to not give sweets or money to the children as a familar cry was, 'What's your name? Where are you from? Give me sweets!' We finished the day at a popular paragliding location where three of our group paraglided down the next day to Pokhara while the rest of us took a van. We spent the next day checking out the sights in Pokhara and pampering ourselves with post-trek massages. A tourist town, Pokhara had plenty of ways to relax before our gruelling bus trip to Kathmandu.

Pictures from the trek...

Reaching the top at Australia Camp

Sunrise the next morning

If there is a cat around...

The whole gang

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