Namaste (Welcome) to Nepal. These were the first words we heard crossing into Nepal. Kodari the first town on the Nepali site is a collection of wooden shanties along the road side looking after poorly serviced trucks ferrying goods to the Indian sub-continent.
BORDER TO KATHMANDU
Officially the name is the Democratic Republic of Nepal, with a population of 27 million people of which at least 3 million works across the border. Nepal lies in the Himalayas and is a long favourite overland destination. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital with hectic/chaotic traffic and small narrow streets not suited for our truck. Nepal is also the country with eight of the world’s 10 highest mountains. It has another 240 peaks over 6090 meters. For us this is the first time we are visiting a predominant Hindu country (83% of the population). The road was a disaster with lots of landslides due to pouring rain, very muddy tracks and deep ravines. (A 4WD went over the edge, landed upside down in the river 300 meters below and we can only assume the occupants died in the accident). This accident did not boost Clary`s confidence as we tried to negotiate the very slippery track only inches away from a very soft edge with nothing to stop you going down a few hundred meters. It took over2 hours (16 kilometres) to reach the resort in high range as many parts of the roads had been washed away due to recent rains. It also was the first time during our trip we engaged low range and rear diff lock to climb a 31% muddy hill. (12000 KG is a little more than a 4000KG Land cruiser). It is in times likes this I miss the Land cruiser or the Fuso Truck. Especially when you see the wheels go forward but the truck going backwards! (Despite having only 3 bars in the rear and 2 bars in the front). At around 4.30PM we pulled into the Borderlands Resort where we were allowed to camp for the night. This place was in the middle of rain forest bordering Bothe Kosi River. That night we are told that the heavy rain could cause further landslides and we should allow at least 4 hours (for a land cruiser) to complete the extra 130 kilometres to Kathmandu. As we were the only guests (camping in the car park) we met the owners and all staff. (It became a late night and a very nice Welcome to Nepal). Our first night in the rainforest on the Bhote Kosi River was the first night we camped among the trees again since we left Kyrgyzstan. This area is a combination of natural beauty and cultural riches, but a huge difference with Tibet. The Nepali people appear to be a lot poorer.
The area where we entered Nepal lies about 130KM north of Kathmandu and is located between the Himalayan range to the North dominated by the Langtang Lirung (7250 meters), and 2 mountains (Jugal Himal and Dorje Lakpa at 7000 meters in the South. To the east is the Everest Region. This area is home to 3 mountains over 8000 meters, including Mt Everest at 8848 meters. Unfortunately for us the weather was bad hence no more perfect views of Mount Everest on the Nepal side. We were confronted with lots of rain, landslides, mud and witnessed a deadly accident when a 4WD slid over the edge into the river 200 meters below. We decided to push on for Kathmandu. The 130 kilometres did take us 7 hours and wasn`t a lot of fun in bad weather. Entering the Kathmandu Valley, the weather started to clear a little but unfortunately with none of the Mt Everest views from the Nepal side we had hoped for. When we arrived in Kathmandu the traffic was like driving in India. After the border we only had to cope with overtaking busses and trucks in blind corners knowing when we heard the air horns they were overtaking so we stopped to ensure no head on collisions. But now we had to cope with cars, motorbikes, chickens, cows (holy), dogs, Tuk Tuks, bicycles, Trishaws, busses and trucks. No-one seemed to care if they drove left or right of the road and the name of the game was USE YOUR HORN. To make matters worse we got lost in the myriads of very narrow streets with power lines as low as 2 meters so having to stop and lift the lines continues. But it did not take long before the streets became too narrow for our truck and we came to a hold. With 6 or 7 cars behind us and bikes and bicycles trying to get past, we had to reverse out of the Thamel area for around 2 kilometres. NO FUN reversing and 6-point turns. Any way we made it and decided to try the Hyatt Regency recommended by other overlanders. We could park and stay in the Staff Car Park. It was time to get the scooter out and explore the unorganized traffic in Kathmandu. Unless you have been to Kathmandu or India and driven your own car, you have no idea how insane the traffic is. Everyone drives wherever they want to drive, one lane becomes five lanes, cows, dogs, car, motorbikes and busses pull up from anywhere and cross roads without stopping of looking. Rubbish, potholes and clothes are everywhere, people jump over barricades, taxi`s swerve left to right, no-one uses blinkers, most drive without reverse mirrors. Traffic comes from all directions and motorbikes are like ants around your car with complete disrespect for life. It is hard to understand why no-one realizes that by giving away traffic would most of the time move faster and lessen the horrendous traffic jams. I see Police officers just standing there waving their arms up and down, but no-one cares or obeys any rules…….
The next 10 days we explored Kathmandu by car and scooter. The traffic in Kathmandu has become as bad as India. Completely lawless! Early December Nepal will have elections and the first candidate has already been killed. This is a country that barely has any electricity, almost no water (even though it`s one of the water-richest countries in the world), no welfare or any kind of social security or services for its citizens. And this is all due to lack of good political leadership.
Why is no one standing up and saying: “This is enough! This needs to stop!”? Everyone is complaining quietly, in the privacy of their own homes, mumbling something about how they hate walking to work. It appears to us that Nepal is a beautiful country with beautiful people but sadly without any rules at all. Kathmandu is not only the capital of Nepal it also is the most polluted city in Nepal.
Kathmandu is a city where ancient traditions rub shoulders with the latest technological mobile phone. However, it is the grandeur of the past that enchants the visitor whose gaze may linger on an exquisitely carved wooden window frame, an 18th century bronze sculpture or the spiritually uplifting stupas. It has too many sights to list, but I will mention a few. DURBAR SQUARE, situated in the heart of old Kathmandu city. At Basantapur the Durbar Square includes the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace, the historic seat of the royalty; the magnificent Taleju Temple towering more than 40 meters. The Asan area, once the centre of old Kathmandu, with the market square is located about midway on the only diagonal thoroughfare in Kathmandu that links Durbar Square with Durbar Marg. BOUDDHANATH STUPA very close to the Hyatt regency where we camped in the staff car park for free.
Bauddhanath is one of the most imposing landmarks in Kathmandu; it is the largest stupa in the Kathmandu Valley and is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism. THAMEL the backpacker and Tourist area of Kathmandu. Thamel bustles with activity late into the night. Thamel caters entirely to tourists with its scores of hotels, rows of restaurants and bars, book shops, inviting souvenir shops, cyber cafes and travel agencies. Patan; this part of the city retains much of the old charm with its narrow streets, brick houses and multitude of well-preserved Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries (vihars) and monuments. The square is an enchanting melange of palace buildings, artistic courtyards and graceful pagoda temples. Just outside Patan is the Tibetan refugee camp. Enterprising Tibetans have made this a tourist attraction with its souvenir shops that sell hand-woven woollen carpets and handicrafts such as prayer wheels, an assortment of belt buckles, wooden bowls and jewellery.
A bit further east is the city of Bhaktapur located at 1410 meters. The Bhaktapur Durbar Square is by far the most elegant with its large open space facing south. The 15th century Palace of 55 Carved Windows and the palace entrance, the Golden Gate – a masterpiece in art – have added splendour to this palace square which consists of buildings dating from the 13th century to the 18th century. In front of the palace building are innumerable temples and architectural showpieces like the Lion Gate. The unique temple of Bhaktapur, the Nyatapola, literally means “five storied” and rises above the city`s landscape as a remarkable landmark. Bhaktapur is still untouched by rapid urbanization and has managed to retain its brick paved roads, charming red brick houses and a way of life that goes back to medieval times. This ancient city is also famous for pottery and woodcarving amply displayed on the squares and windows. In Kathmandu, Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed for ages, influencing each other, and the religious harmony is exemplary. To summarize Kathmandu is a must-see destination.
KATHMANDU to CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
While in Kathmandu we had no luck with our 6 Month Multi Entry visa to India; In Nepal only 3-month single entry permits are issued. We decided to have one more go at it in Pokhara and otherwise apply for the 6-month Multi Entry Visa in Australia. This week we left Kathmandu driving to Chitwan National Park.
Chitwan is one of 9 National Parks in Nepal; Nepal has 3 Wild life reserves, 6 Conservation reserves and one hunting reserve. Chitwan was the first National Park in Nepal. Before it was a hunting ground of the ruling class (read corrupt and rich). It is only 125 Km south east of Kathmandu however it takes 5 hours (more if it rains) to reach. Before reaching Chitwan you cross Bharatpur the district headquarters of the Chitwan District the fifth largest city of Nepal with the population of 143,836 (census 2011). Bharatpur is one of the fastest growing cities of Nepal. We did see multinational companies like Coca-Cola and San Miguel situated within the city. The word Chitwan means heart of the Jungle (not sure if I agree as it is not really jungle to us). The village Sauraha is small but very touristy. Despite this we found a very nice campsite on the Rapti River watching the Crocodiles sunbathing early morning in front of our truck. We enjoy lunch and dinner at the local riverside shack for around 2 (lunch) and 3 Euro for dinner watching the sun go down. Chitwan National Park is home to many animals, unfortunately for us we did see more elephants in the village then in the park. We only encountered one Rhino and no tigers. The swampy areas and numerous oxbow lakes of Chitwan have plenty of marsh mugger crocodiles. We used our scooter to do a rural tour to view the lifestyle of the indigenous Tharu people. We also visited the Chitwan midhills, home of the indigenous Chepangs. These rustic Chepang villages are interesting and have a wonderful view of the mountains and the surrounding hills and plains. We decided to take a jeep tour as our truck was not allowed into the National Park hoping to see one of the 120 Royal Bengal Tigers in the park, but we had no luck. I suppose we were disappointed being used to see lots of Wildlife in Africa. However the park was nice and covered 932 sq.km with deciduous forests overlooking the floodplains of Narayani, Rapti and Reu rivers and scenic. We enjoyed our R&R in Sauraha despite the many tourists, internet cafes and gift shops. Sauraha is located by the Rapti River.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK to POKHARA
Reluctantly did we leave the Chitwan National Park area; we back tracked for around 60 Kilometres before turning east. Our next stop was Overlander Camp in Pokhara. Pokhara is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nepal. Three out of the ten highest mountains in the world Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I and Manaslu are situated within 50 Kilometres of the city, hence the northern skyline of the city offers a very close view of the Himalayas. Due to its proximity to the Annapurna mountain range, the city is also a base for trekkers walking the Annapurna Circuit. In this region the mountains rise very quickly and within 30km the elevation rises from 1,000m to over 7,500m. Because of this sharp rise in altitude the area of Pokhara has one of the highest precipitation rates in the country (3,350mm/year in the valley to 5600mm/year or 222inches/year in surrounding areas). This region has a very strong military tradition. The world-famous Gurkha`s come from here.
The Annapurna Region North West of Pokhara has been touted as having the world`s best trekking routes. The Annapurna region is an area of contrasts comprising the wettest, driest and windiest places in Nepal. The area is composed of stark, rocky terrain, very similar to the Tibetan plateau, and is dotted with turquoise lakes, including Lake Tilicho (4919 m), the world`s highest lake. The Annapurna Conservation Area begins at 790 m and reaches a high of 8,091 m, the summit of Mount Annapurna I, the world`s 10th tallest peak. The area encompasses forested middle Mountain, high Himalaya and trans-Himalayan desert plateau like the landscape in Tibet as you move north. The lower elevations are dotted by Gurung, Magar, and Thakali and Brahmin villages while Tibetan cultural influence becomes apparent as you go north. India got hit with a Category 4 cyclone and unfortunately, we were at the tail end resulting in 4 days of rain.
POKHARA TO WEST NEPAL
After a 4 week break we returned from Australia. Eric at the Overland Camp in Pokhara took good care of our truck. Yannick, Muriel, Victor and Robin were also in Pokhara. (Les Simpsons). It was 6 months ago the last time we had a beer with them in Bishkek.
We are ready to explore Western Nepal. Our first stop was Lumbini the birthplace of Buddha, 180KM west of Pokhara, we arrived in the dark. We found a parking spot in a restaurant car park. The exact year of Buddhas birth is strongly disputed, with possible dates ranging from the 11th to the 6th century BC.
The town of Lumbini is one of the four holy places in Buddhism: the site of his birth and death. The temple and a bathing pool are believed to be originals from the era of Buddhas birth. 450000 pilgrims visit Lumbini every year. From Lumbini we took the back road (short cut) towards Taulihawa. (BAD IDEA) It did not take long before we got lost. 2 hours later we arrived in Taulihawa. From here Nepal is very sparsely populated and very few tourists venture this way.
That night we camped next to a dry river bed. Western Nepal is an area full of national parks and lots of culture. Royal Bardia National Park is the largest and most undisturbed wild area of the Terai. Like Chitwan but drier and more remote, it encompasses 1,000 square km of riverine grassland and salt forests. Bardia has the country’s second largest tiger population, plus blackbuck antelopes, a few wild elephants, Gharial crocodiles, birds and mammals, and some rare Gangetic dolphins in the Karnali River on its western border. The Raute tribe in this region still lives by hunting and gathering, moving from place to place. They say they are owners of the forest, and government should not interfere in their wild kingdom.
Unique Tharu culture in the Terai, Hindu culture in mid-mountains and Tibetan culture in the northern part of the Far-Western Region makes this area a perfect place to spend time. BUT The following day we were stopped and were searched at many army check points, we were told the area was on RED ALERT. The area has been subject to many Maoist attacks. Bridges, Telephone exchanges, Government offices, and Army bases all have been attacked.
Due to the RED ALERT and the many bombings in the area no tourists were around, and we had the place to ourselves. We were warned again and again re the Maoist terrorists in the area. Obviously, this was not a comfy feeling, so we decided to head straight for Mahendranagar. There is violence in the Terai region, although the number and severity of incidents decreased markedly following the end of the Maoist insurgency.
Unfortunately, armed criminal gangs and groups associated with the governing UCPN and a breakaway Maoist party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists reportedly still committed acts of violence, extortion, and intimidation. Over 13,000 police, civilians, and insurgents were killed in the conflict since 2009. The government and Maoists held peace talks in August, September and November, but they were unsuccessful, and the Maoists resumed their violent insurgency. Also, our plan was changed when a bomb exploded in Mahendranagar while we were in town. It was time to leave that same afternoon for the India border. Formalities where fast and at 4.30PM we were given the okay and could enter India. Well not exactly, as the gate was closed for security reasons? 6PM we were allowed into India (dark) and it was NAMASTE INDIA the second most populous nation in the world. By this time, it was dark and with 70% of cars and trucks not having the lights switched on, and having to negotiate wandering cows, motorbikes and scooters it was a sign of things to come.