The lodge was made up of simple low cabins
with a large dining room. There are many sitting areas and decks over the
water. But we didn't have time to sit - we were late getting there, so had
to drop everything to go on the afternoon jungle walk.
We were assigned a guide named Santa - who was a very handsome and serious young man - at least that's what I thought at first.
He started out the walk telling us about the
jungle: "This is not a zoo," he said, "We have very many animals,
but only three to worry about." (Well - THAT' was a relief, only three!)
"First is Rhino. Rhino has good nose and good ears, but not so good eyes.
So if you meet him, first thing to look for a large tree to hide behind. If
no big tree, look for trees with climbing branches; climb up 8 or 10 feet
and you can save your life. If no climbing trees, run in a zig- zag. Don't
run straight - Rhino can run in a straight line very fast. Second is Sloth
Bear. He has long claws and can climb trees very fast. Just clap your hands
and bear will go away. Third is Bengal Tiger. If tiger is making a low growl
and twitching his tail, just back slowly away. Don't try to take pictures,
don't turn your back, just back slowly away." (OK, then - now we know
how not to get killed.) We heard this speech whenever new people joined the
group. They were as relieved as I was to learn there is something you can
do to not get killed.
So off we go on our 1 1/2 hour walk through the jungle, which isn't really like the Amazon jungle with tall trees and a canopy. This is a lot like the woods in South Carolina - lots of deciduous trees, brush, and vines growing over everything. Also lots of buzzing bugs, but I had three inches of DEET on me so they stayed away. We saw lots of birds and heard their calls, but didn't see anything else. Well-- except for tiger scat (tiger poop to you.) It was about two weeks old and the tiger had eaten deer and fish, but no human. (Good to know, because once they taste human, they can't go back, according to Santa.)
The next day we're up at 5:30, washed, fed and ready to go on the elephant ride. I didn't get lifted up by his trunk, but the driver did. I had to get on from a platform. They back the elephant to the platform and we stepped onto a square thing with rails on it, where we sit. You really need the rails - those things go like sixty and you wobble around up there! The handler straddles the elephant's neck, and Judi sat on the saddle facing front; Larry and I sat on either side with our legs hanging over.
We started off down the path with three other elephants, then one-by-one they branched off the path by simply stepping into a solid wall of trees and branches! It's amazing! They use their ears to push stuff out of the way and if a tree is too much trouble to deal with, they just pull it up! Easy for them - but Larry and I were just stuck there with our legs hanging over the edge, catching on the higher branches - you had to be alert!
All of a sudden we heard a call from one of the other drivers - they saw a Rhino! We did a 180-degree turn (on an elephant this is a stupendous feat) and charged off towards the others. We broke through the jungle just in time to see this huge rhino - the kind with what looks like it has plates of armor on it and a sort of small horn. (I guess African rhino have no armor and a big horn.) Anyway, he walked across the beach and into the jungle about 200 yards from us. It was pretty neat seeing it!
Then we turned back into the jungle and continued breaking down small trees, tearing up vines and generally going wherever our elephant wanted to go. We were stopped in a small clearing, when Larry hissed "Tiger!" Our mahout peered into the brush and then backed that elephant up in a hurry and we left the scene! (See - it worked, just back up and you can save your life!). Larry said he didn't see the tiger's head, but saw the orange body and black stripes slink away into the brush. Back at the lodge, we told Santa that Larry saw a tiger, and Santa smiled and said "Deer," and we smiled and say "Tiger," and he laughed and said "Deer" and we said,"Ask the driver." Later at dinner, the manager came by and told us that the driver had confirmed that we did see a tiger. (I THOUGHT that guy backed up that elephant in a hurry.)
That afternoon, just as we were gathering
for a bird watching walk, people cried out that the rhino was back. Sure enough,
there it was on the beach about 100 yards from us. We all took off running
from the lodge and the elephant riders came out of the forest from the other
direction. The rhino heard all the ruckus - remember, he couldn't see us -
and ran into the jungle. The elephants went after him, and we followed on
foot. So there I was, walking down the path when I felt something behind me
- I looked and saw three elephants coming toward me - boy, are they big! Then
I turned around and started jogging to catch up with the others and realized
I had listened - SEVERAL TIMES - about how not to be attacked by a rhino,
and here I was jogging down a path trying to catch one! On foot! And guess
what. He jumped out of one side of the path and crashed into the other side
about three yards from us! Unbelievable!
Reluctantly departing Chitwan, we drove to Pokhara (Nepal's second city) to prepare for our trek.
1: The walk started an hour's drive from Pokhara at a village called
Nayapool. We stopped at the top of the trail to buy our walking sticks - 20
Nepali rupees, and worth every bit of it - even Larry, who wasn't sure he
wanted one became a believer. So here we go - innocently down, down the hill
and then up, up, up for hours past our original stop at Tikhedhunga and onto
the next town, Ulleri. Our guide, Surya, said today's distance would make
the next day easier. It had better, because the last hour up almost killed
Now, let me tell you about the trail. All of this mountainous area has terraces built all the way up the hillsides, and the trail follows the terraces. These amazing people have paved the terraced trails with slate flagstones - which means you don't have to worry too much about mud, BUT you do have to climb STEPS! It started out very hot, but as we got higher it cooled off, and then became very cloudy. We arrived at our village at 3:15 pm and at 3:30, there was a gigantic thunderstorm with rain and hail - we were so glad to be tucked away at the tea house.
The tea houses have lodging and food - and a similar menu, so you end up eating pretty much the same thing every day. However, the food is good, so it was OK. They sometimes have electricity and sometimes have hot water, but not usually at the same time. Sometimes the toilets are Western (meaning flush toilets), but sometimes there are only Eastern toilets (a hole in the floor). There is never any toilet paper and sometimes there is only a sink in which to wash your hands. The tea houses are usually perched on the top of the hill and have three or four levels to them - just what you want - more stairs! But the views are spectacular!
The first day we walked along a creek all the way to the top - it looked very much like Colorado, and I felt like a wimp being out of breath because the altitude was only around 6,000 ft. The entire walk was through a rhododendron forest. You wouldn't believe how big the rhododendron trees are - they are really trees! They dot the hillsides with sudden colors of pinks and reds - the way Aspens dot our hillsides in Colorado. The first day we thought we had missed their time to bloom because most of the trees had lost their blossoms - but it was OK because there were pink petals scattered all along our trail and later when we got higher, we found that they were still in bloom and the colors were brilliant - pink, rose and Chinese red. The forest is also made up of some kind of evergreens and many deciduous trees. Further along we saw orchids, holly and many, many, ferns.
The main reasons people take this trek is to see the rhododendrons and to see the Himalayas. While we could see the rhododendrons, we couldn't see the mountains. This time of year is the "burn time" during which people in the city and villages burn grasses and shrubs to encourage new growth after the monsoons. They were burning in Chitwan too. Anyway, the result of all this is a lot of pollution, so we couldn't see the mountains.
2: Day 2 began like day 1 ended -- straight up countless, additional
steps for the first two hours, before mercifully leveling off for stretches
between more ups and downs. We reached the picturesque village of Ghorepani
at 12:40 pm and were rewarded with spectacular views of the Annapurna range!
DAY 3: The next morning, we were supposed to get up at 4 am, climb a 90-degree hill of steps for one-and-a-half hours to reach Poon Hill, where we could watch the sunrise touch the peaks of Annapurna, Fish Tail and Dhaulagiri one-by-one. Apparently, as the sun rises it gradually sets the whole range aglow. Well, it SOUNDED good, but the thought of climbing several thousand more steps as a tune-up for the day's trek caused us some concern. Our sweet guide said, "not to worry," he knew a closer place where we would get a view almost as good. So, we went with plan B. The place was indeed closer - a 3-minute walk up (of course) 10 steps to the tea house above us. But the mountains were hidden at first, then the clouds parted enough for us to see the sun strike several of the major peaks in succession, giving us a taste of the view from Poon Hill. Later we heard the people who climbed Poon Hill didn't get an ideal view either, so we were really glad we had passed on that.
We went back to breakfast and then started the third day of the hike. Guess what! We walked UP from 9,000 feet to almost 10,000 feet - and I was short of breath for sure, while one of the porters strolling behind me was casually singing! (He was a mountain boy, so this was nothing to him!) For the first part of the day, we climbed the steps, but as we got higher, the steps became rhododendron roots. We ended up in an incredibly beautiful cloud forest that took us into a canyon with moss-covered trees, tree-sized rhododendrons, waterfalls, ferns and orchids with mist swirling around us.
stopped for lunch we saw a Languor monkey on the side of the hill above the
restaurant. It was like a fairy tale. And like a fairy tale the beauty was
tempered with danger in the form of slippery rocks and roots just waiting
to reach out and trip us.
As we were beginning to descend, our legs got a different type of workout - and I became aware of my knees by the time we reached Tadapani. It was steep and slippery and you had to be careful!
The tea house here only had electricity in the dining room (which serves as a meeting room in between meals.) It was chilly by the time we got there, and when I asked if the water was hot, I was told that it would be in a few minutes. Our room was on the third floor, the 2 bathrooms (Eastern - only one with a lock on the door) were on the second floor, and the showers were outside on the other end of the building. Finally they called and said the water was hot; I went to the shower and there was my hot water - in a bucket! I don't mind bucket showers if it's hot outside, but the temperature was about 50 degrees, so I only took care of essentials. It started raining around 3 pm (it usually does) and got pretty cold. The rooms had no heat, so we all sat in the dining room to keep warm. They had a big table and underneath it they placed metal cans with burning embers in them. There is a blanket that hangs down from the table. Everyone sits on a bench with their legs under the table and the blanket tucked around them. Judi dried one of her shirts by putting it over her knees! That night I was bundled up in bed trying to keep warm, and we had a tremendous thunderstorm. The roof of the tea house is tin, and I thought the wind was going to rip it off. But no - everything stayed intact.
4: The next morning we saw the mountains in their full glory! They
are magnificent, unbelievable, and surprising. One minute you're looking at
the "mountains" that look like the Rockies
and the next minute the clouds part and you see the HIMALAYAS towering over everything - scary and breathtaking. We were so close Judi couldn't use her telephoto lens to take a picture of them. The sun caught the tips and edges of the peaks, and the heat against the snow would make little puffs of clouds form. And that's how we started the fourth day of the trek.
Today and the tomorrow were supposed to be fairly easy, and today it was. But climbing down slippery steps for four hours is still climbing down slippery steps. Finally we reached Ghandruk, where we stayed in a less primitive tea house - warm showers, flush toilets that really flushed, and electric lights at night! It was heaven!
The mountains were wrapped in clouds when we arrived at Ghandruk. But just before sunset, the clouds parted, once again revealing the Annapurnas - and especially Fishtail in its astonishing beauty.
Fish Tail Peak, Annapurna Range
DAY 5: We had planned to get an early start on the fifth morning for our last day, but we woke to an incredibly blue sky with the Himalayas in full sight -so we stayed to see the sunrise, and again congratulated ourselves on not climbing Poon Hill - nothing could have been better than this view. These mountains are just unbelievable! I don't have the words to describe them.
Then four more hours of walking down hill, but not so steep this time, so we managed OK, and we got to see a few more monkeys. My knees looked like baseballs, but otherwise I was OK. And there we were then, back at Pokhara in a really swank hotel with a hot shower and flush toilet "en suite" with the bedroom! However, the electricity only worked sometimes, but as I was luxuriating under a hot shower, I didn't care if the lights went out! Now, we were back in civilization.
The hotel was especially appealing after a number of nights in the sparse tea houses. But just because it was an upscale establishment, didn't mean you could count on electricity. The next morning, we not only did not have hot water, we had no water. Such is life in Nepal. After alerting the desk, some action was taken and the situation was corrected. And, given the views, who could complain?
The main part of Pokhara is as cluttered, dusty and third-worldly as the rest of Nepal. The tourist district adjacent to the lake is more attractive and manageable with some appealing cafes, shops, and hotels. Today was a serious shopping day for Judi and me and we had a lot of fun buying jewelry from the Tibetan shops and street vendors. After two luxurious nights in Pokhara, we set out for Bandipur, an antique village that has been designated as a World Heritage Site. The next morning we made the harrowing 4-hour drive back to Kathmandu.
The plane was a small turbo prop with one row of seats next to the window on each side of the plane so everyone could see the mountains. We were right level with the peaks! (The brochure said in the past they were not able to go that high because the plane was not pressurized, but now that they had these NEW planes they could do it. I was SO relieved to hear the plane was pressurized! They didn't say anything about oxygen masks falling down if there was a problem though.) We were able to see from the windows, and also each person could go to the cockpit and look out the front of the plane - it was pretty neat.
Anyway - the sight was absolutely magnificent. The mountains were so powerful - They looked with disdain at mere humans and were unimpressed with us.
The plane turned in toward the mountains when it was returning to the airport and we were so close I was sure we would crash (but as Larry said - "Better than the nursing home.") It looked like an IMAX movie - what a wonderful way to end the trip!
Poster: Flying by Mount Everest
ANA Travel, located in Kathmandu, assisted us in developing our itinerary and did a great job of handling all of the logistics.
Nepal's Great Taxi Drivers...
I thought I owe it to all the great drivers we've had - to write a little about them. First off, the only people that can be drivers here must have Nepali genes, or at a minimum Indian genes. There is NO way a person could learn to drive here. When you rent a car, it comes with a driver - that's to keep the traffic accident mortality rate down - well not exactly down, but not as high as it would be if just anyone could take to the highways!
I had the opportunity to closely observe our
driver during the 4-hour ride from Bandipur to Kathmandu. So here's what happens.
We are on a single lane road that winds through canyons. At this point it's
outside any major area - that's the good news. The bad news is there are many,
many trucks and buses on the highway - big ones and overloaded ones like the
porters on the trek.
First off, a driver has to be aware of oncoming traffic, since everyone drives in the middle of the road. If someone is coming towards us, he needs to honk at them, and try to move over.
Next, he has to be aware of the trucks, etc. in front of us, and then figure out when he can safely pass. I have no idea what criteria he uses, as the road was so curvy you can't see three feet in the distance. Nevertheless, he constantly did it right! The other thing he has to be aware of is the gigantic pot holes in the road, because he has to zigzag around them. This can be especially tricky, if he is also passing or trying to get over to the shoulder so someone else doesn't plow into us. Another concern is the motorcycles that zip around and between everyone and the occasional truck that tries to pass us, while we are trying to pass someone else! Then, there are the goats and chickens that cross the road just as you begin to accelerate to accomplish a pass, and of course there are people walking along the shoulders of the road.
Spiritual energy floats over Kathmandu (and all of Nepal) like a pashmina shawl. It radiates from the holy men walking the streets, ordinary people who just received a blessing (indicated by a smudge of color on their foreheads, and the Buddhist and Hindu sacred sites, which are large and small and can be found everywhere. Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site covers a large area around a river. People come daily to pray, holy men perch on cliffs, and families come to prepare the bodies of relatives for cremation. There were several cremations going on while we were there. After the body is consumed, the ashes are poured into the river, which eventually flows into the holy Ganges River. The process looked to be a loving and humane way to say goodbye. We saw several large Buddhist stupas, but only had time to visit the Bouddhanath. It is gigantic with a clean, spacious walkway surrounding it and tidy shops lining the walkway. Tibetan women sold stunning jewelry from tables along the walkway, and you could push prayer wheels along - sending prayers for the world - as you circled the stupa. Inside the stupa, gigantic, incredibly beautiful statues gazed down on people praying and monks chanting. After a walk in the old section of the city we sat next to a group of women who were singing. We overheard a guide say the women come everyday to chant and sing religious songs; they gave coins to the beggars, cookies to the children, pats to the dogs, and spun cotton by hand into thread. Makes you wonder what else they were spinning.