A Nepalese Idyll

A journey that started badly with no local cash in the Kathmandu airport. US travelers cheques useless, ATM not accessible, the border bureaucrat refusing to accept VISA for my entry visa…Finally he relented and I faced the next hurdle with no cash: getting a taxi into town for the rendezvous with my travel group. Earthier Nepalese being quite accommodating, a taxi driver agreed to haul me to an ATM on the way. There are lots of ATMs in Nepal. The issue is finding one that works with foreign bankcards and also has money. I think we visited about 8 on the trip to the hotel, finally finding one in a biggish bank that was just being filled up. So I got to the hotel Tibet and was duly rewarded: first, a quite charming building in the foreign quarter, redolent of 19th century emissaries; and secondly, my new companions. We might baptize them Sotiri One, after our noble truck.

annapurna

Our two leaders/drivers/mechanics, James and Ali, and their passengers, Rekha, Hazel, Doug and me: James, a charming, earthy lad from Manchester area, a man of many talents; Ali, an Italian dancer and yoga aficiando before becoming a Dragoman leader; Rekha and Hazel, both Londoners, both with fascinating roots in India, two of the most intelligent, enchanting, not to mention beautiful, women I have ever met; and of course Doug, a Glaswegian with a deep intelligence often displayed in hilarious wit.

We got acquainted over dinner, Indian food, in the company of a delightful family band- mom, dad and two kids- playing Indian music. After a hearty Colonial breakfast early next morning we set off towards, Nuwakot, a former capital of Nepal. So I did not get to see much of Katmandu; there was little sign of earthquake damage but a lot of construction, particularly of streets.

kathmandu

As we edged out of the city the road gradually deteriorated into a dirt path, sometimes not wide enough for two vehicles to pass.

dirt-path

For the next 6 or 8 hours we very slowly worked our way through steeply hilled terrain, covering maybe 70 km, a foretaste of what we would see of roads in Nepal. But in the end the effort rewarded by our arrival at the ‘Famous Farm’, on the edge of the somewhat derelict village of Nuwakot . Nuwakot was the capital of Nepal for a brief period after being captured by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 1760s. His 7-story fortress, his Palace, BhairabTemple – a UNESCO World Heritage site-and Taleju Temple testify to the small town’s former glory.

nuwkot

Here there was considerable earthquake damage. In fact our hotel, the ‘Famous Farm’, had suffered but been repaired by its owner, the former operator of another major British tour company, Himalayan Encounters. The Farm, famous for I know not what, has been leading the efforts to rebuild the town, offering a modern town-house type replacement of destroyed houses, so far not winning the support of the displaced residents.

famous-farm

The Farm itself is delightful, probably the home of a 19th century noble, beautifully restored. Superbly detailed architecture, comfortable rooms, really fine food which we enjoyed on the panoramic patio or the magnificent dining room. In the group picture above we are on the patio. We spent an extra day at the Farm, enjoying really interesting conversations with inn-keepers and their staff, and exploring the temples, homes and historic buildings around Durbar Square.

By now we, the members of Sotiri One, were really warming up to one another. From the start we were like old friends reuniting. Rekha and Hazel both descended from first generation immigrants, Rekha and her parents escaping from Nairobi, Hazel’s mom and dad, one probably of Brahmin background the other from a rural farm, meeting in London in the 60s. Although they had just met Hazel and Rekha behaved like close sisters,  off on great flights of fancy. In one lengthy saga they were orphaned  sisters now seeking their real family in India, escorted by their step-dad: me! Throughout the trip we pondered with them life’s great questions- including those that Mr. Perfect would have to answer appropriately. Like, “What would you choose as your last meal if you were going to die?” Never sorted that one out.

By coincidence I had almost met Hazel, standing out in the crowd, in the Kathmandu queue at Delhi airport- we were on the same flights from London. Fate.

Doug entertained us with great flights of humour,  ascerbic Scots wit, and stories of his many travels and interesting environmental work back home. I was impressed that he quit his job and sold his upscale Porsche to travel for 18 months or so, following the wind. James exhibited a quiet wit, except when he got his hands on some fireworks in the Thar desert. He too had quit a good job to join Dragoman. He had been in the army and a number of varied jobs earlier. Ali, from deep in the Appenines, trained in dance and yoga, embodied Sotiri’s spirit, always ready with a broad smile and infectious laughter regardless of the challenges on the road.

Our next journey was much shorter and on a much better surface, like a secondary road elsewhere, except for the traffic. Generally, the Nepalese are a gentle, calm bunch- but not on the road. Words cannot describe the traffic havoc, trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes relentlessly pressing forward in both lanes, torpedos be damned, with the most notable skill being a firm hand on the horn. On top of this incessant buzz we had local drivers pausing alongside to gawk at Ali, a female trucker breaking all precedent.

Nonetheless, in the early afternoon we arrived at Bandipur, another hill town, accessible by a restricted road, maybe 5 km of narrow switchbacks. If fact for the last 500 m we had to disembark as Ali and James almost literally pushed Sotiri up what looked more like a rocky riverbed than a road. Bandipur, labelled a “living museum of Newari culture” (Lonely Planet), is a village of traditional homes preserved by the Bandipur Social Development Committee, with leadership, once again, from Himalayan Encounters. The main ‘mall’ houses a charming collection of cafes, restaurants, shops, temples and hotels. Our overnight here was in a much more modest lodge, apparently a stand-in for the original booking, probably the Old Inn Bandipur, also restored by Himalayan Encounters. Hard to believe that this charming but really isolated village was a centre of trade between India and Tibet until the highway was built in the 1960s.

bandiour

We enjoyed a few glasses of lassi, masala tea and the ubiquitous Kingfisher in this very location… the street wet from one of the massive cloudbursts we experienced throughout Nepal, apparently from a later-than-usual Monsoon. The one in Bandipur was particularly fierce, as if our hilltop hotel was in the middle of a thundercloud.

After getting ourselves down off the Bandipur hilltop, we continued northwestward on the Prithvi Highway to Pokhara, generally following the large, fast flowing and very brown Seti river. For lunch we stopped on its banks and crossed on a suspension bridge to a sort of picnic ground on the other side. Despite the speed and colour of the water, young boys were enjoying a swim, relief from the humid 30-35 C air. As we got closer to Pokhara, the hills flanking the river turned to steep gravel cliffs, probably between 100 and 200 feet high at their highest, testifying to the great power of the Seti.

seti-river

In the early afternoon we fell into the morass of vehicles of all sorts clogging the streets of Pokhara

pokhara

Eventually we reached the Lakeside City Hotel, a modern motel-like place on the edge of the lake, Phewa Tal. It was easy to find because, inscrutably, it sat behind a life-size model of a Twin Otter advertising a bar…phewa-tal

Pokhara presents a radical change from the serenity of the hill-top towns. It nourishes the vast trekking industry in the Annapurna region, as well as a big community of hang-gliders. Dozens of hiking supply shops, outfitters, cafes, restaurants, European bakeries, what have you. And crowds of people who looked like they just stepped out of the 60s hippie scene. We had a good time- comfortable rooms overlooking the lake, decent drinks at the patio restaurant, a variety of restaurants and lots to look at on the streets. My appetite was still not restored so I did not benefit greatly from the food. But we had fun boating on the lake…I lie, I trembled in fear that my rambunctious boat-mates would capsize the flimsy flat-bottomed craft.

pokhara

Here we had the only bit of rain during my whole 6-week trip. It lasted overnight and the following morning. I had planned to go hang-gliding that morning, but weather prevented. No worry, I had a great day accompanying Rekha and Hazel on a long tour thru just about every shop in lakeside Pokhara, then a trek to the Phewa waterfall, and a fine ice cream at the end.

Next day, the piece-de-resistance: an excursion to the Eco-Lodge overlooking Annapurna. We drove up a valley in jeeps to the village of Damphus*, then hiked a few steep kilometers thru small mountain farms.

*named after a former Montreal hockey player? probably not.

mountain-farm

Near the end our guide invited us to tea at is family home.

guides-home

Refreshed, we continued up the very rough trail to the Annapurna Eco-Lodge, a really remarkable place. It has been developed by an extended Nepalese family as a largely self-sustaining hotel: its food, water, and some power are all produced on-site. We got a tour of its functions, milked the cows, relaxed in the luxuriant gardens and enjoyed the excellent local cuisine, vegetarian of course. At the girls insistence I joined the yoga lessons for two sessions. Impressively invigorating!

ecolodge

Typical of the family’s dedication to the project, a member studied Japanese for a year before visiting Kobe to master a simple, sand-based water purification system perfected there. He gave us a demonstration of its operation. By coincidence, a Japanese couple he met in Kobe were visiting the lodge- so I got to practice some rusty phrases.

During the day, heavy low clouds obscured the Himalayas. But each morning at 6 the sky was clear. I was up to stare in awe at the horizon. Annapurna, shining brilliantly in the early sun!

annapurna

And as well, spectacular Machapuchare , Annapurna II, III, and IV. Absolutely breathtaking

achapuchare

As a fitting denouement to this enthralling natural display, on our final night at the lodge a couple dozen members of the family- moms, wives, daughters, brothers and sons- joined us with their musical instruments and voices, to entertained us with dance and song about local events. We were invited to join in- it was a ball!

annapdanceparty

Relunctantly, we left this real-life Shangri-la the next morning, down the trail, back in the jeeps to Pokhara for another night before heading south to Chitwan National Park. Views of Annapurna and her sisters followed us a good part of the way, until we turned

roadfromhell

from the familiar Prithvi Highway onto the ROAD from HELL! No kidding, the worst and scariest road I have ever been on, steep cliff on the passenger side, a sheer drop 200 feet or so to the swirling Tisuli River.

This section, probably only 30 km or so between Bharatpur and Narayangarh, involved about 3 hours of hair-raising bouncing over one endless pothole, often at about 5km/hr as maniacal buses, bikes and trucks shot by on the edge of the precipice. Fortunately we were on the inside of the ‘road’ though we often had to venture to the other edge to avoid cavernous holes. Good thing we were in such high-spirited,  undauntable company.

Late in the afternoon we reached the rather fine Rhino hotel in Chitwan (so named because rhinos wander the park-like grounds at night), probably a relic of 19th century hunting parties of the Raj. Our stay in Chitwan was a little disappointing in so far as we did not see much game, despite a hike thru the jungle,

chitwan-jungle

a scary boat trip on the crocodile infested river,

chitwan-boat

and a lengthy jeep ride thru the game preserve.

dscf3905

Doug and I did get leeched, though. Happily there were a lot of elephants around, obviously quite domesticated.

chitwan-elephant

The other disappointing thing here was that the heart of our Nepal group, Hazel and Rekha were about to head back to Kathmandu..

les-girls

They continue to celebrate their friendship at home. Here they are about to wreak havoc on London nightlife.

We did have a delightful celebration of the Nepalese holiday over dinner, with food and drinks provided by the hotel owner. And several rounds of farewell drinks late into the night.

idyllicgroup

Idyll: “a carefree episode that suggests a mood of peace and contentment” (after Webster).

Thus ended our Idyll, one of the most enthralling adventures in my long life. First we had the pleasures of pastoral Nepal, a spectacularly verdant environment and its warmly welcoming people. Secondly, Sotiri, her competent crew James and Ali, fulfilling the promise of the Dragoman mode of travel, allowing us to absorb these new experiences. And best of all, our random foursome that bonded in a trice, as if we had been friends for years. Moments that will live forever!

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