Nepal for the novice

Even missed views and bumpy roads can’t make a trip to Nepal anything but a pleasure
The rays of retreating sun on Phewa Lake dotted with country boats and pedal boats offer a magnificent view with hills in the backdrop(Shutterstock)
The rays of retreating sun on Phewa Lake dotted with country boats and pedal boats offer a magnificent view with hills in the backdrop(Shutterstock)
Updated on May 13, 2018 02:01 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByYamini Nair

Royal Nepal Airlines flight RA206 from New Delhi to Kathmandu is about to land. All six women in our group are eagerly looking out through the windows for snow-clad mountains. But a thick blanket of clouds disappoints us.

The Tribhuvan International Airport is dealing with above capacity summer traveller numbers. The temperature is over 30˚ Celsius, and our wait at the conveyor belt to collect our checked-in bags crawls on for nearly two hours.

Our tour-planner-cum-guide, Gautam Waghle, says apologetically: “Our airport is very small; expansion plans are on.” He takes us to a hotel in the heart of Kathmandu, a city that doesn’t impress us much at first. It looks unplanned, with congested streets and underdeveloped roads, and has Delhi-like dust in the air. Narrow streets, where buildings stand precariously close to each other, remind us of Old Delhi.

Arya Ghat, along the Bagmati river, is filled with people carrying the bodies of their dear ones (Shilpa Kori)
Arya Ghat, along the Bagmati river, is filled with people carrying the bodies of their dear ones (Shilpa Kori)

After lunch and a short rest, we head to the centuries-old Pashupatinath Temple, one of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. A Himalayan rain offers a perfect backdrop to the sculptural grandeur of the temple, though poor crowd management makes a hassle-free darshan almost impossible. Still, we manage to get a glimpse of the sanctum sanctorum before strolling through the compound, enjoying the sprawling area with several small but stunning temple structures. Goats and monkeys offer some entertainment en route to Arya Ghat, where cremations take place on the lines of Assi Ghat in Varanasi. The Ghat, along the Bagmati river, is brimming with people carrying the bodies of their dear ones. Smoke billows from the pyres, priests prepare for the aarti, and a girl dances to spiritual tunes. It’s odd how this bustling area still offers enough tranquillity for the mind to ponder over the eternal truth of death.

The great elephant chase

At 6am the next morning, we start for Chitwan, five hours from Kathmandu. Roads are almost non-existent and dust makes visibility near-zero. The bumpy ride makes even those of us who are not prone to motion sickness throw up. Seated in the back, I lose count of the number of times my head hits the roof of the vehicle. 

To distract ourselves, we play antakshari, and our guide from Nepal surprises us with more Hindi songs than any of us know. Soon, he becomes the lifeline for both teams

The country canoes at Rapti river make the view picture-perfect, and the bumpy ride to this spot is worth it

At noon, we are at our hotel in Chitwan, standing by the tranquil Rapti river that is a sight for sore eyes (and heads). The country canoes make the view picture-perfect, and the bumpy ride to this spot is declared to be worth it.

Contrary to our expectations of Himalayan weather, it’s hot and humid. But we are looking forward to our elephant safari at Chitwan National Park. At 4pm on the dot, we clamber on to elevated wooden platforms that serve as ladders for our jumbos, and are soon soaking in the refreshing greenery of the forest, with just the chirping of birds and insects in the background. Drooping branches of trees and wild shrubs rub against us, leaving scratches on our skin. The grasslands that appear mid-way have tiny ponds. Other on-duty elephants and the ones undergoing training with sandbags cross our view.

In Chitwan, the tranquil Rapti river is a sight for sore eyes (Shilpa Kori)
In Chitwan, the tranquil Rapti river is a sight for sore eyes (Shilpa Kori)

The eerie silence is suddenly broken by the trumpeting of our elephant. We are startled to see another elephant, carrying two of our friends and two other tourists, charging towards us. Mahouts land hard blows on the charging elephant with their long sticks. We drip with sweat. The other elephant, visibly angry, is now at a distance, hitting a tree and kicking mud. After minutes-long efforts, the elephants are separated and led along different paths.

The mahout explains in Hindi: “They are sisters and are angry that we are not allowing them to play together.” We are not convinced. This must be his way of pacifying us. We ask the sisters’ names. “Sonakali and Anarkali,” he says.

Many times, we are tempted to scream out loud at the sight of a bird or animal, but we have promised to be quiet, so we are forced to whisper. Rhinoceros graze happily in the green meadows, a herd of deer keeps a safe distance, and eagles watch over us from tall tree branches. An hour later, our elephants bring us back. We thank them by feeding them bananas.

Rhinoceros at Chitwan National Park (Shilpa Kori)
Rhinoceros at Chitwan National Park (Shilpa Kori)

A short walk along the fresh, green meadow bordering the river when we get back to the hotel is almost like a meditation session, calming our elephant-shocked nerves. There’s a sitting area made of bamboos tied together, and a similar watch tower, and though the hotel staff had warned us about crocodiles in the river, the mood is perfect for a river dance while watching an elephant having a splash in the water.

Once darkness sets in, a hot cup of tea prepares us for the Tharu Cultural Program. We board an old van that rattles its way to the venue when it starts pouring. Along with other tourists from the hotel, we howl to the battering of huge raindrops in a vehicle with no windshield, and reach the auditorium drenched. An hour of performance by folk artistes excites us so much that we all get on to the stage to shake a leg to the music for the culminating programme.

Mountains ahoy

By 8am next morning, we are on the road to Pokhara. We ask Gautam hopefully whether this will be a different route from the one we took to get to Chitwan. “It’s the same road for a couple of hours,” he says, and we sink into sadness at the thought of the torturous ride ahead.

We reach Pokhara just after noon. After lunch, we walk to Phewa Lake. The rays of retreating sun on the lake dotted with country boats and pedal boats offer a magnificent view with hills in the backdrop. We catch a glimpse of the snow peaks in the Annapurna Mountain Range behind the hills.

A pedal boat takes us to a temple in the middle of the lake. The wind is chilling. We spend some time in the temple island enjoying the view and some selfies.

Devi’s Falls located at Pokhara is jaw-dropping (Shilpa Kori)
Devi’s Falls located at Pokhara is jaw-dropping (Shilpa Kori)

Exploring Pokhara the next day, we have an adventure in the dark at Mahendra Cave and Bat Cave. In the eerie bat cave, hundreds of bats hang from the roof. Outside the large limestone cave of Mahendra, a nest of probably a blue rock thrush, with four chicks in it, provides a welcome sight.

The Seti river gorge and the Devi’s Falls are jaw-dropping. Both places are certainly not for those with acrophobia, though they offer innumerable photo opportunities.

In the evening we are back at Phewa Lake for a stroll in the evening sun. The cafés and restaurants facing the lake are tastefully done. A live band is performing in front of one of them and Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh rents the air. Some shopping later, we call it a well-spent day.

A view of the congested Kathmandu Valley (Shilpa Kori)
A view of the congested Kathmandu Valley (Shilpa Kori)

Next morning, we leave for Kathmandu, five hours from Pokhara. The roads are good and we enjoy the ride. We stop by Swayambhunath Monkey Temple, on a hilltop overlooking the congested Kathmandu Valley. The structure was partly destroyed in the 2016 earthquake and some areas are yet to be restored.

We are all smiles as we board the plane to Delhi the next morning though we wish we’d had a longer holiday. The clouds don’t disappoint us this time, and the snow peaks offer a breathtaking view, sealing a perfect vacation.

From HT Brunch, May 13, 2018

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