Sunday, 27 July 2014

N 27.42.55 E 85.18.32 Thoughts on Nepal

We were in Nepal for almost two weeks in late July and early August. I'm still writing this on my trusty not very smartphone. Pictures upload as they will. Many are of my retail therapy purchases, including my made in Nepal Thai fishermen's pants. The monkeys are from the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu although we've seen them along the roadside with regularity.

When I was thinking about visiting Nepal, I had this picture of the country being on the vertical rather than horizontal. With Mt. Everest on the north edge at 8000+ meters and the southern border with India being close to sea level, it seemed like a humerous way to look at this country. Actually, this is not far off what it is like to travel through Nepal. Narrow winding roads cling to hillsides as they move from one valley to the next. The difference between the Tibet and Nepal sides is the level of rainfall. Nepal is in the rain shadow and we are traveling during monsoon season. We were hit with the lush greenery after months in desert areas.

Crossing from China to Nepal was relatively straight forward. Other than the four hour wait for Calypso to crawl down the hill in the truck parade and get processed. Trucks don't actually cross the border; freight is off loaded and carried by porters across the border and reloaded on the other side. To enter Nepal, we walked across the bridge with everybody else, through the small shops and into the small unassuming immigration office to purchase a visa.

The Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu was constructed by China but the Nepal side has not been maintained; one clear example that Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries. Their economy is based almost entirely on tourism and subsistence farming. It was the first country we've travelled through where we expected power outages for hours each day.

First stop was the Last Resort. Well advertised Eco resort with clear western involvement. White water rafting, bungy jumping and such with safety standards to please westerners. Gucci tenting. Spotless toilets and showers. Food and bar service to please tourists. After the less than acceptable hotels in Tibet, the pampering was lovely.

It was very surreal coming into Kathmandu after months along the silk road where we were the only westerners (and often the tourist attraction). Even though it was out of the trekking season, it was still tourist central. Mainly well off western kids doing the "I've been there" thing. Our hotel, in the old town, actually had a 60s American hippie meditation type scamming ladies for money via skype one afternoon. That said, Kathmandu is the place to purchase quality items either related to the outdoors (I replaced my old sandals with the same brand for 1/3 of what I had paid in Canada) or clothing for the hot traveling we have ahead. It was also the first place we encountered English language bookstores. Infrastructure in Kathmandu belied the lack of it elsewhere n the country.

An interesting thing we noted was the differences in Buddhist temples and monasteries from Tibet. Colours were more garish and there was a clear commercial component, particularly at the Monkey Temple. The spirituality we had come to expect in Tibet was absent.

What I will remember from Kathmandu. Bicycle rickshaw rides through town. We could have walked, if we had known where to go. Finding a Canon camera repair shop that replaced my broken LCD screen in an hour. Durbar square and the museum. Retail therapy gone wild.

Pokara was new for Odyssey. It's actually the town for trekking the Annapurna range. They were shy, but did occasionally show their peaks. It was brutally hot, which meant getting out early and coming back to the shade by noon. We were beginning to realize that the crew were not going to provide advice and suggestions and that we will be on our own to decide (and plan) what we wish to do in countries where there is no guide.

Next stop was Chitwan National Park on the southern border. Hot and humid. I find it very hard to say anything charitable about our experience with Chitwan National Park. It started with three separate groups of pirates (sorry, local citizens trying to make a living off the tourist trade) extorting "tax" to allow the truck to continue on the public road. Our "Eco resort" was actually a filthy, moldy 1 star motel of the type you see along the highway and you guess that rooms can be rented by the hour. We were presented with a list of activities with prices way out of reasonable for what we have come to expect. The cost of the two or so hour canoe ride/jungle walk was what the average Nepali makes n a month. It was along a well marked path so of course no animals were seen. The best word to describe the elephant breeding program was sad. Maybe someone needs to explain that if you are going to make a living off tourism, you need to provide a service. The people in Pakora have figured it out.

Leaving Chitwan and heading for the border crossing into India was new territory for Calypso as last year travel to Darjeeling and Sikkim was not allowed due to political unrest. We left early in the day with the direction that the condition of the road was unknown, there were no recommendations for hotels so it might be kind of basic or even bush camping in someone's driveway. True overlanding spirit. Instead, our enroute stop ( in a town noted for catering to businessmen not tourists) was a lovely surprise - some rooms even had air conditioning.

The roads were so good that we crossed the border a day early and headed to Sliguri. A totally different border crossing - so relaxed that we actually crossed out of Nepal without realizing (and the Indian police checkpoint didn't know what to do with us! So back across the bridge, find immigration and check out, then once more across and go looking for the Indian immigration office (which was tucked away in a side street).

What I thought I'd experience in Nepal - mountains, rural Sherpa hill people and cool mountain temperatures was not what we experienced. Like the rest of the world, Nepal is moving on; some of it for the better, some not. Moral of the story, never assume and travel with an open mind.

Cushion covers intensively embroidered.  Made by hand in Northern India
(not Nepal).  The store owner said it was at "their" village. Hand made beat out local for me.

Coffee.  Real coffee.  Delicious.
Unfortunately, instant nescafe is usually what you get.

Kathmandu retail therapy.  Beautiful silk wrap skirt and a
lovely cotton blouse.  Both made in Nepal.

Monkeys at the monkey temple

Border crossing to India

More retail therapy. Thai fishermen pants made in Nepal.
Very comfortable. Also showing off the hotel room in Siliguri.

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