You notice three interesting things about Nepal shortly after crossing the border from India.
1) The road is good.
2) Fog shrouded tree-cloaked hillsides curving round terraced triangles of dormant and sprouting fields o' something make it suddenly all quite scenic.
3) Shaka Laka Boom Noodle advertisements.
Some homes look very new, with lots of windows and colorful paint jobs. Others' walls try to maintain the conservative composure of traditional stone but have been sold out by some radical breakaway front. In the case of the houses, the bold painted advertisements take up only one wall of many and seem to co-exist peaceably, if garishly, with more traditional facades.
In the case of Nepal's government, the monarchy, the Maoists, and the people are not sitting together so well. King Gyandendra, who claims to have restored Nepal's democracy when he took over a year ago, is now doing things like censoring the press, denying freedom of assembly, imposing curfews and arresting members of opposing political parties. The anti-King Maoists are wreaking their own havoc by putting up road blocks, declaring strikes, and killing disagreeing villagers. Though the Maoists have been around for a dozen years, the previous king never used the military to crack down on their actions and their confrontations are getting worse. The "Seven Political Parties" have allied with the Maoists though no-one seems clear whether the Maoists are willing to give up their violent ways.
From the aftermath of the Soviet Union's Eastern European disintegration to the earthquake devastation of Pakistan, this trip has definitely dabbled us through a few eye-opening realities of life outside the U.S. Our arrival in Nepal precedes "Election Day" by about three weeks. As tourists, our safety is secure; but we will hear about and witness firsthand some of the hardships undergone by the Nepali people as national strikes cause stores to shut down for days and transportation to come to a standstill.
All that will encroach slowly on our reality here in Nepal. First, we spend some time reveling in the nice big clean comfortable rooms our rupees will buy. Then Erika must yammer for a while about how much things have changed since she visited Nepal 20 something years ago. Many more things to buy in many more stores; much more built up and sometimes colorful.
Then there's the religious chanting to which we awaken the next morning outside our window. On second thought it's not sounding very religious. Maybe 'cause it's coming from those guys in blue camoflauge strutting up and down the pavement holding guns. Monks wear orange.
The terraced fields en route to Pokhara are more dormant than fertile. Things are actually looking pretty dry. It is, in fact, winter. It's not skin-witheringly hot! It's not bone-shrivellingly cold! It is, in fact, more pleasant than any weather we've had in quite a while. Fancy that, pleasant weather.
Erika must yammer some more for a while about how unrecognizable Pokhara is compared to when she visited 20 something years ago. Famous for its lake (which she doesn't remember existing at all--okay, so she was in the throes of undiagnosed hepatitis at the time), Pokhara is one of Nepal's main tourist destinations. This is evidenced by the fact that every second building seems to be some kind of hotel. Every OTHER building seems to be some kind of pizza restaurant. We check out about nine lodgings before deciding on cozy family-run Mayur Guest House. Its comfortable sun-lit room will set us back a whopping $3.50 per night. It's nice that it's so sun-lit and reasonable as we will end up staying for almost two weeks. We fill up on gas before settling in for the stay.
The town's popularity with foreigners is not, at this time, evidenced by its abundance of foreigners. Something about political unrest and Maoists running around killing people. Oh well, their loss. Now we have all those tourist amenities we pretend to scorn but secretly love to ourselves. Like pizza restaurants. Without so many of those annoying tourists. Who are always wanting to do things like eating at pizza restaurants. It's bad that the political situation has scared off tourists for the locals, however, who rely on sleepy hungry tourists for their income. Try as we might, we cannot eat enough pizza to financially compensate these businesspeople for their economic losses.
It's a nice, quiet place to stroll around and fall off the Western food wagon. Dave's health, unfortunately, takes another turn for the worse. This means Erika has to find things to do (along with take care of Dave) and eat TWICE as much pizza while he recuperates. Some of the time is taken up by visits to the local doctor, a very nice Indian guy who also accompanies us to the local hospital for consultation. (This is to be Hospital Number 3 in a series of 5, as of time of writing, on Dave and Erika's Medical World Tour.) The hospital is the region's largest and borders on modern, though the lab floor is littered with blood-spotted scraps of paper and the interior design has clearly been modeled on a basement parking garage. The care is good, though. Things will be fine, in due time.
Meanwhile, Erika tries to be a good nurse in between wandering around chatting up local craftspeople and diligently eating enough pizza for two. Just to help the local economy. Several shops boast artists immersed in executing minute details of the colorful Buddhist religious paintings known as thankas.
This is also a good time to try a little day trekking, so she gets Gopal, one of the young guesthouse guys, to chauffeur her (podiatrically, not automotively) to a great viewspot overlooking the lake and underlooking the vaguely snowy peaks of the Annapurna range some distance away.
After the first steep ascent, the trail encounters a dirt road on which a bus has encountered a flat tire.
Gopal explains that the dozens of men perched atop the beleaguered vehicle are en route to a wedding; traditionally the men arrive together while the women are preparing elsewhere. Gopal says most people still have arranged marriages and don't meet their betrothed until the actual ceremony. His own marriage was arranged, which he accepted as normal tradition. Atypically, however, he is separated from his wife. Further up the road a group of young girls and women are dancing about; Gopal speculates that they are also preparing for the celebration.
Village homes are made with brick and wood shingled roof. A smoothed covering of red hillside earth covers the bottom half of a whitewashed wall. This two-tone design is typical of the area.
Some of the small towns on these steep slopes are only connected by narrow stone pathways. People of the highest villages must go all the way down to the lake to collect water and haul it laboriously back up. Some of the more "modern" villages have wells. Age doesn't stop anyone from scampering up and down slopes that are leaving Erika gasping (yeah, she USED to be a hiker, before glueing her butt to the back of a motorcycle for the last 9 months).
Erika and Gopal have a drink at a small teahouse before hopping a bus back into town. She strikes up a conversation with a friendly Tibetan man who has lived at a nearby refugee camp for over 40 years. Like many Tibetans in the area, he makes his living selling small trinkets to trekkers and other tourists. Look, here's a little health amulet, just the thing for poor sick Dave.
The most educational part of the hike is the bus ride back. The rickety local bus swings round tight curves with relative ease, stopping every 5 minutes to allow someone to get off and pee. Back in the valley, a longer stop takes place. After some time Gopal and about half the other passengers get off. He tells her to stay there and he'll be back. A soldier climbs on board and pokes his rifle under seats and into bags. He swaggers off as the bus starts up. Wait a minute, what's going on? Where's Gopal? Erika's not sure if she should get off at the next stop and try to walk back to where he was or just stay on to the end of the line and meet him back at the hotel. He gets back on ten minutes down the road at the next stop, explaining that it was a security check. Along with him and the others who've re-embarked is another soldier with a bigger gun who's acting a lot meaner than the first guy. Eventually he leaves. The bus passes a group of people who are gathered in what looks like a celebration. Not long after the bus passes another group who also seem to be celebrating but on closer observation are involved in some type of confrontation with the police. We pass the military compound where blue-camoflauged cops are practicing some goose-stepping. Finally the bus returns to Pokhara town just in time to watch a cop yelling at a man and a young woman on a motorcycle. Kinda creepy, what people are going through here.
Erika takes a second hike with Gopal to a newly-built Buddhist temple on the other side of the lake. The political situation sucks, but maybe a little spiritual contemplation at this hilltop sanctuary will offer a different perspective. For sure, who can think about the political situation when faced with the array of scantily-clad-color-coordinated dancing teenagers being filmed for a video outside the stupa with their shorty-shorts-ed lead singer. What would the Buddha've said.
You can't really ask him, OR the Dalai Lama, whose photo is enshrined at a small temple in the Tibetan refugee camp down below. Erika considers questioning the friendly monk who's studying at the monastery but thinks better of it.
Beautiful carpets are woven at the camp; this skill provides income for many in the community. Some small children run around the weaving hall while their mothers sit working all day long.
Back in town a bandh, or general strike, is underway. A few stores raise their corrugated doors a foot or two indicating furtive business inside, and one or two open boldly wide. But most stay shut in a nationwide protest of the King's policies. Not to mention that strike non-conformists risk Maoist retribution. Kids ride their bikes up and down the street, enjoying the fact that they don't have to go to school. Our hotel manager says that education along with business has been disrupted many times by strikes called by Maoists or others. During strikes, the highways are also shut down; though Dave's feeling better, we can't leave Pokhara as the main highways have been blocked. We stroll along the main street with the others. A seedy-looking young guy sidles up to Dave.
Seedy looking guy: Wanna buy hash?
Dave: That would be a very bad idea.
Seedy looking guy: Why?
Dave: Do you know what kind of work I do at home?
Seedy looking guy: Uh
Dave: I'm a cop*
seedy looking guy: Can I have 20 rupees then
* not really
Finally the planets align: Dave is well and the roads are clear. We've grown kind of attached to the folks at the Mayur and bid them an appreciative farewell. Dave's psyched to be back on the bike.
Next stop, Chitwan National Park. It's foggy and chilly, with most of the rice fields clipped and winter-dry. This woman's load appears light right now, but doubtless the baskets will soon be filled up with something looking too heavy to be hung off a person's head.
Pokhara to Chitwan is a full day's ride. We are able to pass through a few road check points far more quickly than the local cars and trucks and buses queued up at a standstill. The dusty small town of Sauraha seems to have sprung up mostly to serve the needs of tourists interested in taking part in an elephant trek or canoe safari. We are some of those tourists, so that works for us. The hotel has a lovely sunset view of the river.
Early next morning we set out with the river guide to check out the local animal life. Dave's desire to post dozens of crocodile photos in honor of his large-reptile affinity has been tempered by Erika's desire to pare down the croc photos to merely one:
It's peaceful to paddle along the river for an hour or so and scenic to walk the 6 kilometers back to town through the jungle reserve. Though we're coached on tree-climbing techniques in case of rhino attack, no rhinos will show up until the afternoon's Jeep Safari. And at that time, 2 out of 3 of those will be spotted at the animal preserve. We do observe snippets of sloth bears, boar, spotted deer and more crocodiles. And the preserve is pretty cool. You can see the rhinos up-close and personal, along with a swarming number of large-lizard-like baby crocodiles. A regal tiger lives in a very high-walled compound. The poignant posterboard explains that though no-one wished to keep this proud animal confined, it was a danger to the local people.
The best part of our nature adventure, though, is the elephant safari. An elephant picks us up, with his driver, at our hotel. Elephant safaris are apparently a pretty good business here although they do add a bit of carpeting to the street.
Once mounted on the box-frame-like contraption atop the elephant, you have a great view of the world passing by below. Maybe a little too close a view of how close your head is to the overhead power lines. Our elephant lumbers through the outskirts of town, where children play in front of stick-and-mud huts that are washed away and rebuilt every year after the monsoon floods.
And how, you may ask, do you steer an elephant? From Erika's front-left seat, she can clearly see the answer. Why of course, you steer with your bare feet, pushing behind the elephant's ears in the direction you'd like to go. At a rest stop, our elephant considers his true feelings regarding someone's naked feet prancing all up about his ears. Next time he's renting a bike.
The forest is thick with ferns, tall trees and high bushes. Our elephant crashes through them as if they were toothpicks, lumbering undaunted where our branch-flailed eyes can see no path. Creeping growths of vines transform branch clusters into fully fleshed-out creatures. This must be where those European topiary people who make deer-and-butterfly-shaped bushes for royal palaces begin their practice. Look, there are a few of their earlier attempts. That one was supposed to be a profile of Queen Elizabeth watching the 1988 World Cup cricket match. Then there are those heavy-duty wood-ish ropes corkscrewing up and around the tallest treetrunks. Erika tells Dave they use those to open REALLY big wine bottles but he's more interested in looking for rhinos.
Weve been traipsing around for almost two hours with no rhinos anywhere, and it's time to head back. Pretty disappointing, after all the hype about the ease of spotting them in the wild when you're disguised as an elephant. JUST as we turn the last corner, there it is! An honest-to-goodness rhino, having snacks, with another around the corner. Sure enough, they don't run off in fear of humans as all they notice is a big ol' trunked-and-wrinkled fellow gray and wild creature.
That's enough animals to keep up happy as we take off the next day for Kathmandu. It's an amazing ride, a looong and winding road which passes up hills with 12 consecutive snakelike loops in a row and (as noted in Erika's journal) "120,000 loops after that". She also notes "millions of terraces". We plan to stop at Daman for lunch, a midway village noted for its panoramic views of the Himalaya. Peculiar, then, that all the roadside restaurants overlook...the ROAD. Indeed, though many homes perch dramatically on the hillsides, none of their Himalaya-facing walls seem to have windows! Perhaps there's a superstitious or practical reason for this, but it seems kinda goofy to us. Not too much of a view in the hazy afternoon anyway, but it's fun to ride through the prayer flags marking entry to a temple at the hill's summit.
The 120,000 loops continue through millions more dry terraces which must glow resplendently green when rainy season washes in. It's getting pretty late in the day as signs appear for Kathmandu Valley. As the descent begins, you notice at least 40 trucks and buses stopped at another checkpoint. It looks like each bus' passengers are being taken off and individually walked through more armed guard posts. At this pace you can only imagine that folks have been waiting in their buses for hours and will continue to wait many more. We are fortunate to whiz on through.
Pokhara was under curfew from 9 PM to 4AM. In Kathmandu, things are tighter yet as protesters defy bans on public assembly in order to voice their displeasure with the King. An election is being called by the King on the anniversary of his seizure of power; at this time last year he took over and dissolved the Parliament, a key point of contention with those who prefer democracy. The alliance of the 7 Political Parties and the Maoists believe the election is a farce as the King is doing things like taking away candidates' cell phones and essentially putting them under house arrest in the guise of "security protection". As on the flip side the Maoists are threatening anyone wishing to run. 600 people will withdraw their candidacies and little is known about the rest. It's kind of crazy.
Perversely again, there are benefits for us tourists. For $9 a night we get a great room with a balcony in the normally popular yet virtually abandoned Thamel neighborhood. Restaurants with all kinds of good food are cheap and empty. Though the vendors are doing little business even when no strike is on, few of the pushy tactics found in other places are evidenced. Those who can't afford a shop find other ways to display their wares.
Just about everyone in Nepal is really likeable. It's a shame there's so much turmoil--the people deserve better. Local papers present news reports as if of two different countries. The Himalayan and Kathmandu Posts talk about attacks on citizens by the King's army and reveal the ludicrousness of the upcoming election (a decree has just been issued that "government employees must vote or receive punishment.") The Rising Nepal is clearly the monarchy's paper and basically says everything's fine except for those annoying agitators. We read the papers between looking for bike parts at the local Honda dealer and discovering charmingly named department stores.
We'll end up spending almost 2 weeks in Kathmandu as well, as the strike has blocked travel to the airport (where we'll eventually send the bike and ourselves to Bangkok). It's longer than planned but a very interesting place to be. Kathmandu has been popular with foreign travellers for many decades, as its attractions are both commonplace and magical. The daily street scene congregates around ancient-looking pedestrian squares and alleys where vendors sell spice and vegetables.
There's something to see around just about every corner
though when store windows are drawn on account of the latest strike, it's hard to identify these empty paths as the same bustling sidestreets you walked down yesterday. The one good thing about the strike is that while normally Kathmandu has scheduled power outages every day, since no-one's using any to light their closed businesses, there's no need to ration electricity. The Maoists and Seven Political Parties have called a seven day strike leading up to the election. Schools, businesses, factories, and roads are closed.
People are supporting the strike as the king is highly unpopular but are clearly suffering. Now the government has shut down EVERYONE's cell phone service citing "security reasons" -- the Maoists use them to communicate. One editorial wryly states, "The government should perhaps destroy roads since the Maoists use them and dismantle hospitals because Maoists seek treatment there." Another bitter example of royal rationale is commanding 375 local trucks and buses to run during the strike but taking no responsibility for any damage incurred during that time. As compensation for the danger faced by the drivers at Maoist hands for defying their bandh, however, the King offers 150,000 rupees (about $20,000) to anyone killed while driving. Well, THAT's reassuring.
Meanwhile, there's time to catch up on blog writing and explore intriguing sights. It's cool to wander around Durbar Square, where royalty reigned in earlier days. Now Hindu temples serve as tourist fodder while still holding services and ceremonies for worshippers. One building houses the Kumari Devi, a real young girl said be the incarnation of The Living Goddess worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. She can only hold her position until the onset of puberty, at which point the search begins again for another Kumari Devi. Peering through another doorway reveals a temple decked with latticed wrought-iron walls and a burst of pigeons.
We also like nearby Patan, which is less touristy but pretty fascinating. The older part of Patan looks much as it must have hundreds of years ago. Temples large and small rise up around every corner.
The largest cluster resides in Patan's own Durbar Square. Soldiers can be spotted there as well.
One afternoon we meet up with a couple of motorcycle travellers from Scotland who've been working with a village orphanage for a number of months. They're doing great work but are pretty cynical about the owners of the institution, who are collecting money without really providing for the kids. Unfortunately, they think that a lot of similar places have the same problems. They have a few days in Kathmandu to catch up on internet and Western food before heading back into the hills. Though in most countries we're eager to try the local food (some Central Asian localities excepted), in Nepal the locals subsist on a diet of rice and lentils (dal bhat) 3 times a day apparently no matter what their economic level. You start to think about pizza. They note that the routine diet doesn't always seem to be due to lack of other options--even when their host family and others in their village have other food, it is put aside while everyone eats another meal of dal bhat. And STILL they're heading back to do more altruistic stuff! Pretty impressive. ;)
Another day calls for a hike to the top of the Buddhist Swayambunath Temple. Up here the mood is both worshipful and festive. Vendors line the steep stairs, along with many stupas and large Buddha figures.
The view from the top is hazy but gives some idea of the breadth of Kathmandu. A few monkeys scamper around. Tourist browse through souvenirs, elderly men doze in the sun, kids play games, all under the famous watchful eye of the crowning Swayambunath stupa.
We must not, of course, forget to recount that little encounter with The Snake Guys, who crouch by the roadside serenading their coiled captives.
Dave cannot resist another reptile, and soon he has become a coiled captive as well. Once the two biggest snakes are draped comfortably around his neck, the Snake Guys whisper in his ear, "1000 rupees". Dave chuckles, as he thinks they're joking. But what if they're not? Erika figures he's worth at least 50, for which they seem happy to settle. (We'll spare her mother the photo where she's getting friendly with four OTHER snakes.)
Finally it's February 8, voting day. Few people are predicted to vote, but as we walk through town towards Pashupatinath Temple very small clusters of people surrounded by armed militia gather around tables to mark their ballots. February 9 reveals that an average of 20% of the people cast ballots nationwide. The strike's originators feel that they have succedded in their attempt to disrupt the vote. The mood in the streets is festive as shops open up once more.
For us, this means it will now be possible to book tickets and arrange for the bike to be sent to Thailand. We've grown really fond of Nepal. You can only hope that things will work out peacefully in favor of the peoples' desire for democracy.
*** Note: At the time of writing this blog, nearly 3 months after our departure and many more mass protests and strikes, King Gyandendra gave back power to the Parliament and has committed to rewriting the Constitution. The Maoist rebels have agreed to hold peace talks with the government.
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