Nepal Impressions
 
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Nepal Impressions

 

10 DAYS IN NEPAL

 -STARRING-

Miles Stearman,

his father Sam,

& their guide Chitra

with a special appearance by

The Maoist Rebels

Day -3 – Off I go

Late on St. Patrick’s Day (as you may well remember) I board my flight from gray San Francisco to wonderful Hong Kong.

 Day -1 – Hong Kong, no longer a British territory?

I arrive in a gray Hong Kong.  Hmm.  Getting through passport control and the thermal imaging (SARS) was cake and I didn’t have to wait long for my bags (take that one, LAX!).  That being said, Hong Kong owed me something.  I was seated next to an annoying, vegetarian (who didn’t order his meals), Indian-Hindu, who’s snoring, once upon a time, rivaled my own.  I had surgery, the rest of the flight, especially me, wishes he had, too.

My Dad picks me up at the airport and we cram in as much of Hong Kong as we can in the few remaining hours of daylight.  That’s right, we got lost coming home.  Small nostalgic note:  The road system is EXACTLY the same as Britain’s (minus the road rage) and the beer is strangely familiar.  The only problem is communication is more difficult than a basic difference in accents.  Oddly enough, my dad doesn’t speak Cantonese either.

What happened to Day -2?  Still flying and the something about the international dateline made this day disappear.  Too bad I haven’t been able to harness this power for my own purposes.

Day 1 – C’mon Nepal

The real trip begins.  We set off for Kathmandu via Bangkok, are met at the airport by our tour guide Chitra and check into the Hotel Vaishali in Thamel (a northern district of Kathmandu).  Thamel is almost completely filled with Aussie, Brit and American tourists.  This is good; I also don’t speak any Nepalese.  We visit a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery and meet with the Head Monk who fled with the Dalai Lama in 1959.  Later we stop by a couple (maybe a dozen) of Hindi Temples.  Please don’t ask me to name any of these, you’ll understand later.

Since we have a few hours left to ourselves I feel it appropriate to have a couple (maybe a dozen) beers at this bar called ZOM.  Here at ZOM I am witness to Nepal’s hard rock scene and their very own Alanis Morissette fanatic.  She sings ‘You outta know’ THREE times in an hour.  It’s great.

Day 2 – Kathmandu Part 2

Not such good morning, my head hurts.  First we visit Swayambhunath Stupa, a large Nepalese Buddhist Temple.  At noon we visited the Boudhanath Stupa, the largest stupa in Nepal which also happens to not be Nepalese, but Tibetan.  Here is a good place to finally eat.  Now’s the good follow up, we now feel like witnessing a little bit of death so we head down to the river and the Hindi Pashupatinath temple to watch several cremations by the riverside. 

As uplifting as that is we head to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.  I feel obliged to tell you something so you don’t have to work it out for yourself like I had to.  Every city/town has a Durbar Square.  Why?  A few hundred years ago these places were called, for a very short time, ‘Place where you will be assaulted by hawkers and children to buy really cheap souvenirs or flat-out asked for cash.’  Since that’s very long to say, they just decided to stick to the easier-on-the-ear ‘Durbar.’ Back on track now, OK.  So at the Durbar Square we saw the living goddess, Kumari.  The Kumari is chosen at a very young age and then she is locked in a small house with her family and is the human manifestation of a goddess.  This isn’t such a bad gig since she is treated like royalty, gives blessings to the actual royal family and it is forbidden to take her photo.  The downside is that once she starts receiving her “monthly visitor” she’s booted out and sent to some ex-Kumari halfway house.  So we take her picture and flee through the Durbar and decide to visit many other Hindi temples (a trend starting?), maybe a hundred.

Day 3 – Driving, rafting and… driving, oh my!

After a night of not so many beers as the night before (maybe two) we start with an early drive out of the city – destination Chitwan.  The road to Chitwan is also the main road leading to India.  It is ALSO a road very prone to landslides.  With the monsoon season approaching next month and the roads still not finished from the last season you know there is always a future in road construction in Nepal.  Yes, the roads suck (see ‘Some side notes’ at the end).  So by breaking the monotony of hell and traffic jams we go rafting.  We meet up with a few other small tour groups and start rafting down the Trisuli River which, thankfully, is on route to Chitwan.  Rafting is awesome.  That’s all I can say.  If you haven’t been, go right now.  Really, RIGHT NOW.  This will still be here when you get back.

The roads still suck afterwards but we eventually reach the Royal Chitwan National Park and check in at the Rhino Residency Resort.  I already know that this is the best place we’ll stay at, it’s really nice.  However, apparently we’re on the ‘Will you be visited by Death?’ package.  Yesterday five people were killed by a tiger while having a picnic on the other side of the park, the sixth escaping by craftily climbing a tree.  I guess the cat was a bit too full to be bothered.  If that wasn’t enough, just that morning, before sunrise, a jaguar came into the camp and ate the dog.  The door will remain closed and locked this night.

Before we bar the gates for the night we visit the local cultural hall to see some Nepalese dance.  I have seen the women of Nepal and many are beautiful, so I think that this evening can’t be too bad and I won’t think of the tiger for a little while.  I think something along the lines of belly dancing, but I have been duped.  There were no women, not one woman.  Only guys, some old, one dressed as a woman and even one dressed as a peacock.  I must admit, though, the Peacock dance was hilarious.  And I did get to watch an old Korean dance on stage with what must have been an Australian Rick Flair.

Day 4 – Hunting tigers barehanded

No animal attacks this morning, but there is a baby rhino in the camp.  We start off with a shallow long boat ride to the Elephant Breeding Center passing a few very lazy crocodiles.  As we’re walking around the subject of the tiger comes up again and I notice that the park guide, Santa (yes, really), doesn’t have a gun.  Hell, he doesn’t even have a stick.  I start looking at trees to climb.

When we get there, there are… elephants.  Apparently there’s a wild elephant that likes to come to the camp and “help” with the breeding procedure.  Anyway we leave after a bit and take a long, long lunch.  After lunch there’s this safari on the back of an elephant to check out the jungle and grasslands of the park.  This is also very cool since we get to see a few one-horned rhinoceros and a python.  Rhinos are very big, about six feet.  They don’t seem to mind the elephant much and I’m happy to be 20 feet up.  There was a German family behind us that got to see a lot more than we did, though - antelopes, mongoose and a tiger.  I’m not bothered by it much with what’s been going on lately.  The evening ends by hearing a little girl was dragged from her home by the same tiger as before; left half-eaten in the forest.  Door still locked?  Check.

 Day 5 – A day to rest

We pack up this morning and say our goodbyes to Santa and crew.  Santa offers me a job as a guide at the reservation for a month.  After a short (5-hour) drive, we arrive in Pokhara, stopping at Phewa Lake along the way.  There are a few lakes around Pokhara, two of which have almost completely disappeared.  There is also the astounding Annapurna range nearby.  This is about the time we hear that the Maoists have set off a few bombs in Thamel the day before.

We check in at the Hotel Meera and make a consolidated decision to forgo any temple visits for the rest of the day.  I head down the strip.

After a few minutes I hear some music and go upstairs to the Hard Rock Café Pokhara Lakeside.  Authentic?  No.  Do I care?  No.  The band’s just rehearsing for tonight and I’m the only non-Nepali there.  These guys are actually good and I decide to hang out for awhile.  Think Limp Bizkit, Nickleback, The Doors with a Nepali accent.  Can’t be bad.

 Day 6 – Annapurna and the Nepali Stairs to Hell

Today starts what I came for.  However, this could end up badly since the Maoists rebels have a tendency to stop hikers and request a small “donation” of all the money they have.  My idea was to refuse.  “What are they going to do?  Shoot me?”  This couldn’t possibly be good for tourism and a few dead hikers might be enough to piss the UN off while they’re trying to negotiate a ceasefire.  No, they couldn’t shoot me.  Wrong.  They also come out in a force of about 40.  Not exactly odds in my favor.  Not like one-on-one fares me any better, either.  So, we begin our trek through Annapurna by driving an hour.  This is what I will tell you.  My dad and I thought this would be a leisurely 5-hour day hike.  “Hiking” up 6,000 feet, mostly stone stairs with an incline of about 89 degrees was not what I planned on.  Fortunately we make it to our guesthouse in Pothana before dark after passing through Chandrakot and Tanchowk, stopping by our guide Chitra’s home and village for a short break.  Since not much aside from the ground was viewable for most of the trek, sunset was breathtaking.  The sun cut through the haze a we could finally see the peaks around us – Annapurna 1, Annapurna South and Mount Machhapure (aka Mount Fishtail).  With no electricity except for one hour just after nightfall, it’s an early night.  And no Maoists. 

Day 7 – Driving again

We race the sunrise to the Austrian camp for a better view than last night and trek to Kande to meet our driver for the long drive to Kathmandu.  The roads haven’t changed much and we go through Pokhara just before the King arrives (by plane).  The military and paramilitary are in full force.  The Maoists did however blow a hole in a bridge outside of the town.  We drove around it. 

Day 8 – The search for Mount Everest begins

Today is a monumentous day.  Today I make it to the top of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.  Sort of.  At 6:50 AM we take off from Kathmandu Airport on Buddha Air.  Our goal: to fly within 5 nautical miles of this 29,000+ foot high summit.  You didn’t actually think I was going to try Everest I hope.  It’s cold up there.

Everest is a bitch.  The attempt is a bust.  No visibility so after ten minutes we head back and reschedule for two days later.  To make up for it, we head to Bhaktapur and visit their Durbar Square.  The most impressive thing about their Durbar Square is the Temple of 55 Windows.  This was mainly covered with bamboo scaffolding for some restoration project the Germans started.  Needless to say, it wasn’t very impressive.  There was the Golden Gate as well and a potter’s square (where they do pottery) just outside the Durbar.  Oh, and there were a couple of Hindi temples, about a thousand.

Afterwards we head up (about 12,000 feet) to the village Nagarkot and check in at the Niva Niwa Lodge.  This is another nice place and there is the added benefit of finally getting to see Everest at sunset along with the rest of the range.  This is also nice since we’re not the only people at the hotel for a change.  A large Indian tour group has a huge party and departs after a few hours.  We spend the rest of the evening chatting with a Finnish Miss Fitness World winner and her former Finland Rugby playing (two-time MVP winner) boyfriend.  OK, he spent most of the time talking.  About him.  Still it was a change.

Everest is still a bitch.  Nothing at sunset, not even a shadow.

 

Day 9 – It’s Chamar Time!

Everest still mocks me at sunrise.  I vow to destroy it if I don’t see it before I leave.  Until then we drive to Patan City, just south of Kathmandu and see their Durbar square.  Patan City is special because it’s supposed to be the last remaining city that still looks as it did during the 15th century.  Tourism must have been rampant back then.  Hindi temples: one million.

We spend the afternoon around Thamel spending the last of our money before our farewell dinner that evening.  Our final dinner in Nepal is at a restaurant called Bhojan Griha, which means ‘The Meal Place.’  Fitting.  Not only is it traditional Nepalese food, but there is more Nepalese dancing.  I can’t remember them all, but at least there were women this time.  The once dance I remember best was the Chamar dance.  This can best be described as a white man’s dance interpretation of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”  Then it’s back to Hotel Vaishali. 

Day 10 – Last day for me and for the mountain

I’m ready to call in air strikes on the so-called tallest mountain in the world before we even get to the airport for our second attempt at Everest.  The rock knows fear and it must fear me because, suddenly, there it is with all its friends stretching out for miles.  Nepal is home to eight of the fourteen largest peaks in the world and five or six of them are right here.  Everest - it’s big and it kind of stands out from all the rest of the peaks, but… now, after all the hype, I’m not too impressed.  I’ve decided Everest needs a new gimmick.  Think charred mountain sides, think lava spewing like a bolt of red fire straight up into the air for a mile, dragons (or something similar) circling close to the peak.  Mount Everest needs to channel the fear of the world into this place.  THAT would be something.  This was just some mountain.  OK, it’s big, it’s the biggest in the world, but c’mon, it’s not even trying.

So all we’re left with now is the flight back to Hong Kong.  It happens. 

Day 10 +1 – Back in USA Hong Kong

I decide to rest for awhile here in Hong Kong and there are thunderstorms as close as the garage.  Unfortunately I make a grave mistake.  I watch Alias.  For five hours.  After watching CSI for three.  OK, watching CSI I was kind of bored, but is like crack.  Yes, it’s highly unbelievable and, yes, Jennifer Garner ‘knows’ more languages than she has wigs, but I can’t stop watching it.  Why did it have to rain today?   

Day 10 +2 – Temple of 10,000 Buddhas (of Hate)

It’s my last day in Hong Kong and I finally get to see the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas in Sha Tin.  My dad makes his final arrangements for his trip to Kenya a couple of days later and we start the fun walk to the temple.  The temple here has spoken to Nepal about my trek – stone steps all the way up at 80 degrees.  Not so bad, but then there’s the very weird as-large-as life golden buddhas lining the path all the way up.  Buddhas are supposed to be serene beings, not have eyebrows ten feet long attacking other creatures.  And there really are 10,000 of them.  To be honest, it was pretty interesting.  Not all of the buddhas are life-size, the majority of them are only a few inches high, but some really are strange.  My favorite one had little arms sticking out of his eye sockets with the eyes in the palms.  What exactly did this represent?  Something too divine for my poor soul to comprehend, obviously.

Next thing I know, my dad’s taking me to the airport and when he leaves I can’t help but wonder if he’s going to get lost on the way home.  

Some side notes:

  • Despite the fact that Nepal has only had roads for the last 50 years (really), they have managed to become the worst drivers in the world.  Even Mark Horton (the only man whose passenger seat bears a label from the Surgeon General) would be surprised.  I thought Naples, Italy was bad.  These people drive through intersections without looking.  There are NO road signs.  We were in this Mazda passenger van, not a lot of acceleration on an incline.  WE passed trucks on the valley passes, drops a couple hundred of feet to bare rock below, uphill during blind corners.  Not even Mark would try this.  No, Mark, you wouldn’t.  It was a bit terrifying the first couple of days, but then it turned into something like watching a movie.  “I wonder if we’ll make this one.”  “Wow!  I wouldn’t try that one.”  Sometimes, I’d still get nervous, but I usually tried not to pay attention.  Ignorance is bliss and there wasn’t anything I could have done about it anyway.

  • In Tibet (as I learned from a Tibet woman trying to sell souvenirs), if a man cheats on his wife with another woman.  When the wife and her family find out, they confront her and cut off her nose.  Sometime they cut off the man’s nose, but apparently not always.  Still, not something I’d risk.  (OK, I’m not 100% on whether they cut the nose OFF, I know they cut it, but if it’s not removed it’s still a pretty deep cut.  I guess you could say you got it in a fight with a yak or whatever.)

  • There are about one million Tibetan refugees in Nepal.  They aren’t allowed to become citizens, can’t get a driver’s license or a passport in Nepal.  If they ever return to Tibet they will be killed by the Chinese.  “Miles, how is this funny?”  It’s not.

  • Nepal is a great place to visit.  Unless you like rain and a lot of it, don’t go from May-July.  This is their monsoon season.  The best visibility is from October-February.  March and April are the best times to miss all the tourists and prices are likely to be lower then, too.

  • The Nepalese rupee is currently 75 to the USD.  This means you can get a tall beer or a mixed drink for about $2, some places less.  Coca-cola is manufactured right there so that’s really cheap.  Glass bottled soda is the cheapest and I found those for as little as 15 rupees.  Clothing is cheap (I bought shirts for about $2-3) and fabric like pashmira is too.  You probably can’t get a better price for pashmira anywhere else, but go to the right place.

  • And the best tip, unless it’s flowing directly from the mountain, DO NOT drink tap water.  Trust me on this one, if nothing else.

Until next time or until I finally get around to answering your email…

S. Miles Stearman
Future-Visionary

"Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't."

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