Nepal was so different. It was an enlightening breath of fresh air and exciting and just a tad crazy.
My first days in Kathmandu were interesting to say the least. I stayed in Thamel, the tourist mecca section of town, in a simple guesthouse. I loved wandering the streets heading down to Durbar Square. I stopped at small flower markets at traffic circles (none of which were actual circles, more like traffic triangles where narrow roads come to meeting point), watched Nepalese Sadhus, waited outside the temple of the Living Goddess for her appearance, and just soaked it in. I visited the temple of Swayambhunath, taking in the prayer flags, monks, and prayer wheels, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Bhaktapur, with its astonishing temples and palaces (I took a rickety old bus missing several floor boards to the city; it was awesome).
In my first few days in the country the Maoists, who at the time were becoming quite a problem for the government, staged a strike in the capital. Most stores closed up, pulling down corrugated metal doors at their storefronts to prevent break-ins and looting. As I had heard most buses and cars were also to be off the road I hired a bicycle rickshaw driver to take me to Patan, another of the UNESCO World Heritage Site cities of the Kathmandu Valley. It was only 5 kilometers away and the rickshaw driver agreed – he had taken me to Swayambhunath the day before. The trip to Patan and back was fine. It was after he dropped me at a hostel in Thamel and it came time for payment that things went horribly wrong. I know we fixed price beforehand but upon returning he wanted more than we had agreed on. I said no. He refused to take the money. He spit on me. Cursed me. Cursed me and my family and our next generations. He wished me dead. Even though I was not actually staying at the Hotel Backpackers Inn, I hid in their lobby/lounge area as they had armed guards. From the parking lot entrance the rickshaw driver screamed obscenities at me for at least 20 minutes.
That sure was interesting.
I took a public bus to Chitwan, where I headed to the National Park. It was a pretty awful ride. It seemed to take forever although we took turns or precipitous cliffs with breakneck speed and had to stop for awhile as a large boulder the size of a rickshaw had rolled onto the middle of the road. It was exhilarating!
I had an awesome time at Chitwan!
Yesterday was very eventful. After breakfast we had a canoe ride for about an hour, followed by a three hour jungle walk. The guidebook had said these were not very safe. One of the hotel staff had informed us that just ten days before a Nepali tourist had been killed by a rhinoceros and that usually 1 to 2 people are killed annually. This was not comforting news. After getting out of the canoe the guide briefed us on evasive techniques were we to encounter any of the parks three dangerous animals: sloth bear, rhino, or tiger. [I still remember these techniques: if you see a bear, make noise. If you see a rhino, climb a tree or run in a zigzag. If you see a tiger, pray.]
We walked with two guides, one at the front and one at the rear, armed only with four-foot long sturdy sticks. The first animal we came across was a four foot long gharial crocodile sunning itself on a sandy area in the middle of a stream. Then we came upon many piles of rhino dung, some of it fresh. I wanted to see if I could climb a tree and found myself a rather poor climber…I saw myself likely being trampled by a rhino as a result.
Rhinos were spotted and so up into the trees [I had to have someone boost me up]. After ten minutes they trotted off and we climbed down and continued our walk. Only five minutes later we were running through the brush to see four rhinos together, just over 50 meters away (and few good climbing trees in sight.) It was very exciting. We saw no more rhinos but we did see monkeys and heard what might have been a bear quite close to us. After lunch we began a five hour jeep safari. On this trip we saw one bear, 12 rhinos, several crocodiles, wild pigs, wild chickens, deer, a monkey and a wild cat.
It was here I met British-Finnish couple A&P, with whom I would travel the next five weeks with. This morning a British couple and I went to the elephant breeding center by bicycle. Later we paid extra for an elephant bath. We also took an elephant safari ride together for a few hours. The elephant ride was a bit bruising and slow in parts, but we saw many rhinos up close and even saw two fighting.
We next headed to Pokhara, a lovely little town that serves as a base for trekking trips into the Annapurna Mountains. Here I met Tsering, a Tibetan refugee woman, in the center of town selling jewelry. I bought several pieces from her and got to talking. The following day A&P and I took a taxi out to the Tibetan refugee village several kilometers outside Pokhara to visit Tsering at home. She gave us a tour of the village and welcomed us into her home with many cups of yak milk tea (delicious!) and stories of her family. I stayed in touch with Tsering for many years, sending clothing for her five girls and exchanging letters and the occasional email.
A&P and I signed up for a four night, five day teahouse trek. From the first day in Nepal I had seen trekkers and I had wanted to do one but as a solo traveler did not see it as something realistic. But after meeting A&P they too revealed they wanted to do a trek but not just on their own. We joined forces and had an incredible, and at times tedious and exhausting and dangerous, time.
Day One. April 14 2001. We left on our trek the first day of the Nepali New Year 2058. It seemed a nice way to start off the New Year. Our guide Ram and our porter Bhim, met us at our hotel with a taxi at 7 am. With five of us it was pretty crowded and the one hour drive to Naya Pl was not the most comfortable. But we were beginning our trek and we were excited. We walked from Naya Pul to Birethani for breakfast and the beginning of our trek. Ram told us the first day would be about six hours and pretty hard as it is all uphill. We did pretty well though making it to Ghandrung in four and a half hours even with rain for the last hour. I was absolutely thrilled with the first day because my legs held up and we made great time. I was all smiles. We played a few games of billiards at a local place, had dinner, and went to bed around 8:30 pm.
Day Two. We were up around 6 am to see the sun rise and the peaks were absolutely stunning. The walk that day was short (three hours) and pleasant, through a wooded area. But we arrived before noon, thankfully before the rain, and had almost nothing to do for hours. The stop, Tadapani, consisted of a few lodges and restaurants and Tibetans selling handicrafts. It was cold and both P and I bought Tibetan shawls [I still have mine!] It was a long day and I would have preferred a little more walking to have something to do.
Day Three. From Tadapani to Ghorapani was about a six hour walk and we did not shave any time off this day. It was a lot of up, up, up and we were tired. It was on this day that Ram the guide asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. I told him sorry, but no. He had been peppering me with questions about a boyfriend and dating situations in the west from day one. Before we had started our trek he had helped me set my departure date with Thai Airways and he was trying to convince me to stay longer in Pokhara where he could show me around. I wish it had never happened.
We made it to Ghorapani, at around 2800 meters, with six hours of walking and one hour for a lunch break and rest. We made it just before the rain and hail started. Ghorapani is quite charming, with most buildings painted a bright blue with gorgeous views of the Annapurna mountain range. It’s big drawl, and the reason we had chosen this trek, is its proximity to Poon Hill. At 3200 meters one can see at least fifteen peaks of the beautiful Annapurnas.
Day Four. We all woke up at a quarter to five in the morning to walk up Poon Hill in time for the sunrise. A was not able to make it up because of some scary drops [he is scared of heights] but P and I made it with Ram. It was a 40 minute climb up. We stayed at the top for about an hour, then the 40 minute climb down, breakfast, and then we set off for Tatopani.
Earlier in the trip Ram suggested that we might be interested in extending our trek one day to add in Tatopani where there are hot springs instead of heading down to Tirkedunga. He said it was an easier route and that it would be easier for A as it would be a lot less steep.
Ram was not much of a guide for the first part, usually going ahead of us or still trying to chat me up. If we got ahead of A&P and I wanted to stop and wait he would tell me they would just catch up. So when I walked more with them Ram seemed to lose interest in us all. This bothered us a bit but I was secretly happy for the time away from him. We made it to Sikha in three hours and stopped an hour for lunch. The trail then had been mostly easy, wide undulating roads. But about an hour later, just after Ghara, an archway opened into a steep cliff face. I was ahead of the others and just knew A would hate it. It was not at all what we had been promised.
I was happy to be away from Ram and could feel the excitement of being on my own. I could have waited but I thought it was not far from Tatopani and decided to make a go of it. There was a lone girl and her porter a little way ahead but I had soon overtaken them. I started to feel apprehensive about being on my own as I still could not see the others and in fact did not see any other trekkers. The wind was picking up and a storm coming so I decided to go on. I knew the bridge across the river was not far and Tatopani was to be 30 minutes beyond. I signed in at the police checkpoint and crossed the bridge. I began to worry I was not going the right way but I asked locals and they all pointed in the same direction. I arrived at Tatopani at 3:45 pm, seven hours after we had set off. I waited at the first café for the others who arrived about 50 minutes later.
Day Five. We were off to another late start this day. It was 8:45 am by the time we left and it was already raining. Ram told us that once we crossed the bridges and the police checkpoint, the walking was easy along wide roads and without drop offs. That was not true, and the rain only made the narrow, muddy trails (often only 2 feet wide) worse. A was terrified and P was angry. I too was tired. I did not like being lied to and wanted to distance myself as much as possible from Ram. He had told us it was a five to six hour walk to Galeswor and then another two to three to Beni. His plan was for us to stay in Galeswor another night and then on to Beni where we would catch a bus or cab to Pokhara.
After walking several hours [a hard, miserable slog through thick muddy trails] we asked Ram if it were possible to push on through to Beni and be back to Pokhara that night but Ram said it was impossible. It took us nine hours to reach Galeswor. We had resigned ourselves to another night so we just sat down, took off our shoes, and rested. However at dinner two Canadian women told us it was only another 30 minutes on to Beni. That night I was curled up in bed reading when there was a knock on the door. It was Ram and he wanted to sleep in my room. He said the guide room “smelled funny” but I said no. What a creep!
Day Six. After breakfast we made the walk to Beni in a 50 minute leisurely pace. We waited 30 minutes for a taxi and then had a rough three and a half hour journey back to Pokhara.
The trek was amazing. Absolutely. It was a challenge but the stunning views and backdrop were worth the temporary physical pain. But it was marred by the incompetence, lies and harassment on the part of the trek guide. After returning to Pokhara we learned the company was likely only registered to sell treks but not to actually lead them. Sitting in the office of another trek company, we noticed their comprehensive trek board that listed the names, passport numbers, and citizenship of their trekkers, the guide posted with them, the trek and approximate days. Our trek company had nothing of the sort. When we went to complain to the company they met us only with stares and recriminations. An hour or so after leaving the office we stepped in to another company to book our flights to Kathmandu and on a hunch I requested to re-confirm my flight on to Bangkok and learned that someone had called on my behalf had cancelled my flight. The only other person who had that flight information was the person who had helped me book it in the first place – the trek guide Ram!
Back in Kathmandu we took a one hour scenic flight including a view of Mt. Everest. On our next to last evening we all went to dinner together and the next day I woke up sick as a dog. I could barely move but I dragged myself up to A&P’s room to learn that P too was incredible ill. I spent my last day curled up in a fetus position on the narrow, thin mattress of my cheap guesthouse room.
Even departing Nepal turned out to be an adventure as my inbound plane was temporarily diverted to Calcutta when Maoists set fire to the one and only runway. Thai Airways put all the passengers on the bus and took us to a nice buffet lunch while the fire was put out and we departed four hours late.
Whew. Nepal was almost enough adventure for a lifetime. Almost.