Nepal on a Shoestring

Posted on: 06 Jun 2018

Well this is a very self-indulgent Blog which to be honest has nothing to do with running, but I will try and mention the word so I am not a complete fraud, however I wanted to write about our Nepalese adventure so it is always there (hopefully!) for me to reminisce!

Nepal had always been one of those places that in the back of my mind I had always wanted to experience so instead of just daydreaming about it last July, after much researching of tour companies, I booked ‘Nepal on a Shoestring’ with Encounters Travel (Nepal tour).   At that point it was just me going and the countdown of 292 days until departure had begun!  In November, over lunch, I mentioned to Karen my little trip to Nepal which piqued her interest so much that in January Karen booked to come with me!   I was absolutely thrilled to have Karen as my travel companion for my Nepalese adventure!

Fast forward to Friday 18th May and we convened for our adventure at The Prince of Wales Pub at T4 Heathrow!  After some last minute Duty Free shopping, a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc we were Nepal bound via Abu Dhabi. Amongst much excitement, some in-flight movies, a little sleep we landed at Kathmandu at 3pm on Saturday 19th May and 30 minutes ahead of schedule.  As we already had our visas and immigration cards completed we were quickly though, but we never imagined that within 20 minutes of landing we would be standing outside the terminal building with our luggage looking for the local representative holding an Encounters Travel sign!  Unfortunately we couldn’t see anyone but with the then torrential rain it was hard to see anything, plus we weren’t due to land for another 10 minutes!  Fear not within 5 minutes, through the deluge, I spotted the sign and we were off through the chaos of Kathmandu arrivals to our car.

Now I know Kathmandu traffic is organised chaos at the best of times but during a monsoon rainfall this is taken to a whole new level!  We needed to have all the windows wound down as the car had steamed up so we were getting as wet sitting inside the car as we have been standing outside it and then all of a sudden we had to stop mid-traffic as the windscreen wipers were not working properly, but with the drivers wiper on the windscreen and the passengers sticking out at a 90 degree angle there was some resemblance of rain clearance occurring; perhaps it was a good thing we couldn’t see what was happening in front of us!  Finally the rain stopped and we arrived at Hotel Buddha where we were welcomed with a glass of mango juice and a wet towel to cool off with; we really needed a towel to dry off with!  The staff were wonderful and we were quickly checked in and very quickly reconvened for a much needed refreshment in the hotel garden.  That evening was spent just getting our bearings and after dinner it was time for an early night as we had a busy 9 days ahead of us, but I am sure then we had not comprehended how busy.

Sunday 20th May and on reflection we had a lie in as we didn’t meet for breakfast until 8.30am which was out in the garden; idyllic!  After then we had a good wander around Thamel absorbing the sights, sounds, smells and chaos; I loved it! 

At midday we were back at the hotel to meet Dipesh who was to be our guide for our time in Nepal, basically he was our minder!  What I have forgotten to say is that just before we left the UK we discovered that we were the only ones on the tour so Dipesh had the ‘lucky’ job of being our personal tour guide for the entirety, poor boy!  So with our schedule sorted for Monday, which was the official start of the tour as we’d arrived a day early, we had the afternoon free.  Well not that free, well kind of free as I had arranged a free walking tour of Kathmandu!  So off we set to find the Garden of Dreams to meet Shiva for our tour at 2pm.   The Garden of Dreams is one of the most serene and beautiful enclaves in Kathmandu, but is only a two minute walk, and a million miles, from the chaos of central Thamel.  Including ourselves there were 5 of us on the tour and we saw parts of Thamel and learnt so much about Nepal, old and new, that we would never have gleaned from a travel book.  We saw how people lived, local Stupa’s and prayer wheels, blackened funeral pyres, earthquake repairs, plus so much more before reaching the famous money temple; Swayambhunath Stupa.  The 405 steps (365 before the earthquake) are certainly not for the fainthearted but are so worth it.   The complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples, a Tibetan monastery, museum, library, shops and restaurants.  One description of the experience upon reaching the top:

‘We were breathless and sweating as we stumbled up the last steep steps and practically fell upon the biggest vajra (thunderbolt scepter) that I have ever seen. Behind this Vajra was the vast, round, white dome of the stupa, like a full solid skirt, at the top of which were two giant Buddha eyes wisely looking out over the peaceful valley which was just beginning to come alive.’

Back at the bottom of the stairs we had the opportunity to sit with some Tibetan monks before taking a different walk back to Thamel where we had a very welcome Tuborg beer back at the hotel.  The one thing Kathmandu has no shortage of is dust since the earthquake!   That evening we had the most delicious meal at The Third Eye Restaurant and then it was an early night as Monday was a 4.30am wake-up call!

Monday 21st May and at 5am we were bound for Kathmandu airport again, but this time for the domestic terminal as we were booked on Buddha Air’s 18 seater plane for the 6.30am Everest Mountain flight.  In the words of Buddha Air:

‘Everest Experience is a close-encounter mountain flight-seeing tour with Buddha Air.  Indulge in the panorama and maybe, just maybe, you might realize what you have been missing, or find what you have been looking for, all this while.

After all a trip to Nepal would be incomplete without truly understanding what really makes it beautiful.

Nothing compares to the sheer beauty or awe, the Himalayas has to offer.  Take the mother of all mountain flights, the Everest Experience where we put you, one on one with Mt. Everest, so close that you can almost touch it.’

Dipesh was there to check us in and direct us and then we just had to wait for our flight to be called.  Just before 6.30am someone shouted ‘flight 101 boarding’.  What an amazing experience, words really cannot do it justice.  The air hostess, after distributing boiled sweets, explains which peaks we are flying by, twice you can go up to the cockpit with the pilot, and the photo opportunities are endless.  The certificate I received at the end summed it up ‘I may not have climbed Everest…but touched it with my heart’.  By 8.30am we were back at the hotel enjoying breakfast! 

Mid-morning it was time for our Kathmandu tour, Dipesh was there again to make sure we met up with our local guide and then we were off into the organised disorder of Kathmandu traffic.  Our first stop was Boudhanath Stupa which is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet; it was quite surreal walking around the Stupa just below those unforgettable Buddha Eyes.  Of course there are the prayer wheels, as there are at every Stupa, and inserted into every prayer wheel is a piece of paper with ‘Om mani padme hum’ written on it.  When an individual spins the wheel, it is said that the effect is the same as reciting the mantra as many times as it is duplicated within the wheel.  The first word Om is a sacred syllable found in Indian religions, the word Mani means ‘jewel’ or ‘bead’, Padme is the ‘lotus flower’ (the Buddhist sacred flower), and Hum represents the spirit of enlightenment.

From there we set off back into the traffic chaos where cars, buses, mopeds and bikes negotiate road works, cows, earthquake damage and dust but eventually we reached one of the most sacred Hindu temples in Nepal; Pashupatinath Temple, which is located on both banks of the Bagmati River.   We were absolutely fascinated by this temple:

‘Pashupatinath is the most important temple dedicated to god Shiva. Every year this temple attracts hundreds of elderly followers of Hinduism.

They arrive here to find shelter for the last several weeks of their lives, to meet death, be cremated on the banks of the river and travel their last journey with the waters of the sacred river Bagmati, which later meets the holy river Ganges. Hinduists from every corner of Nepal and India are arriving here to die.

It is believed that those who die in Pashupatinath Temple are reborn as a human, regardless of any misconduct that could worsen their karma. The exact day of their death is predicted by astrologers of the temple. If you are attracted to the places where the spirit of death can be felt, then consider Pashupatinath as your first destination. It is a temple with special atmosphere of death; death is present in almost every ritual and every corner of it.’

It is very true when they say that ‘it is a temple with special atmosphere of death’ as whilst we were there we watched a cremation from near enough the start of the ceremony (fortunately we missed the washing of the body in the river) to when the smouldering started.  We also could see two cremations near enough at the end, just before the ashes were swept into the Bagmati River (which flows into the Ganges).  From here, a memory which will stay with me forever, we went onto Durbar Square. 

Durbar Square was where the city’s kings were once crowned and legitimised, and from where they ruled.  The square remains the traditional heart of the old town and Kathmandu’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture. The square is fabulous to wander around and there is so much to see, and if you’re lucky you might see The Living Goddess, which we unfortunately didn’t.  Sadly the square bore the brunt of the 2015 earthquake damage where half a dozen temples collapsed, as did several towers in the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex, but it is still wonderful. Apparently reconstruction will continue for years to come, which I can believe.  After which we had a slow wander back to our hotel with a little retail therapy along the way, well it is hard not to when in Kathmandu!  There was another well-deserved refreshment or two back at the hotel.  Dinner was fabulous at the OR2K restaurant, where we ate falafels seated on cushions on the floor!

Tuesday 22nd May and another early alarm call as by 6.30am we were on the bus with Dipesh bound for Chitwan National Park!  Now the road out of Kathmandu early morning is even more of an experience; buses, lorries, cars and bikes all vying for position in every direction and on every bend!  The air is filled with horns and fumes.  The initial goal of every driver is to reach and get through Sauraha by 10.30am as the road is closed there every day at 10.30am for repairs and if you don’t make it you will be stuck there until the next morning!  To say that post-earthquake the road is precarious in places would be putting it mildly, but my view was that our driver made this trip every day, in one direction or another, so he would know the road better than anyone else! 

We had a couple of stops on the way but finally made it, in one piece, to Chitwan Bus Station; a bare patch of rough ground!  We were met there by the hotel transport; a kind of minibus with no windows which was perfect for the higher temperatures that hit us at Chitwan.  Five minutes later we were at the Hotel Mona Lisa and again another wonderful welcome.  After a quick refresh it was lunchtime; lunch and dinner were included at the hotel.  We enjoyed a fabulous set lunch and met our ranger guide for Chitwan; Bali, and found out what we would be up to!  After lunch we were taken on a Tharu village tour which was so interesting and also involved much birdwatching; Bali was so knowledgeable and to help us carried a bird book and binoculars.  We then went onto to the elephant sanctuary; how many pictures can one person take of cute elephants!  Then just before the sunset we went for a walk alongside the river trying to spot rhino which we didn’t see today but did see quite a few crocodiles and many more colourful birds.  We then sat down by the river with a drink watching the sunset; idyllic!  Then back to the hotel in time for dinner and a drink to reflect on the days adventures!

Wednesday 23rd May and by 7.45am we were in a dugout canoe slowly passing the shores of the river which were full of amazing crocodiles and beautiful birds.  Fortunately we didn’t have to paddle ourselves so the day started leisurely taking in the outstanding surroundings.  We were then dropped off to start another walk through the jungle in search of rhino and this time we were successful as ahead of us we could see a mother and baby, just wonderful.  We were also on the lookout for a sighting of a rare tiger but the closest we got was a fresh footprint so another photo opportunity.  We then made our way to the elephant training and breeding centre, so lots more photos of elephants!  We also learned about the wild elephant called Ronaldo who keeps breaking into the centre, through the electrified fence, and currently 7 lady elephants were pregnant; he’d been a busy boy!  He had also recently broken into a shop in town, twice, and eaten all the fruit and veg!   We then made our way down to the river as it was bathing time with the elephants, another truly wonderful highlight.  I only fell off once trying to get on the elephant but once ensconced we spent the next 15 minutes being truly soaked by the elephant; it was brilliant!

Back to the hotel to get changed and then time for lunch, it had been a busy morning!  After lunch we had a time for a spot of retail therapy before we went on the elephant safari.  I wasn’t sure about the safari so had researched it and as with many things there are two sides but decided on balance to go.  It was an amazing but a pretty uncomfortable experience, an elephant has a pretty uneven gait!  However being on an elephant we were able to get close up to the rhino as the smell of the elephant masks the smell of humans; we saw another mother and baby and a rhino on his own which was breath-taking.  It was wonderful going through the jungle and seeing parts we would never have seen otherwise, however I am not sure I would do it again.  Back at the hotel the newly built swimming pool was finally available to us so we were the first westerners to try their pool out, perfect after our hectic day!  But the day wasn’t over yet as before dinner we were taken to the Tharu Cultural Program where we were entertainment by the Tharu dances.  We were not sure what to expect but we really did enjoy dances like Danda Nach (Stick Dance), Ago Nach (Fire Dance) and Mayur Nach (Peacock Dance); it turned out to be a great show.  

Thursday 24th May at 7.30am and we were back on a Nepalese bus with Dipesh bound for Pokhara.  We again had to negotiate Sauraha by 10.30am but after then the roads were better, well for some of the route!  6 hours later we arrived at Pokhara bus station where we bundled into a taxi to take the 10 minute ride to our next home for 2 nights; Hotel Orchid and another wonderful welcome.   Pokhara’s pace is slower than that of Kathmandu so it gives the place a more laid-back feel.  The town is nestled between lush green hills and is overlooked by snowy Himalayan peaks, Phewa Lake is Pokhara’s central feature with picturesque blue wooden boats bobbing near the water’s edge.  The lakeside is busy with those wishing to be taken over to The Holy Barahi Temple, which is situated on an island in Phewa lake; lifejackets over saris is a common sight!  On the far side of the lake, high up, you can see the Peace Pagoda which as we discovered gives a breath-taking panorama view of Pokhara Valley.

After a wonderful lunch down by the lake we met up with Dipesh for a walk around Pokhara, a much slower pace than previous days!  On recommendation we went for a drink in a restaurant/bar which offered wonderful views and from where we could also watch a roadside game of ping pong!  One of the players turned out to be Dipesh’ cousin who also joined us briefly before resuming his game!  It was so wonderful there, we returned for dinner and were not disappointed!

Friday 25th May and we were up and out at 5am with Dipesh.  The itinerary should have been to go to Sarangkot to view the sunrise, however it was unlikely with the cloud cover that we would see any sun and apparently there is not much else to see there if there is no sun!  So with advice from Dipesh we headed to the Peace Pagoda by taxi.  It was a steep climb out of Pokhara and for the first time I saw runners (see I said I’d mention running!) and they were all running up the hill towards the Peace Pagoda which is situated at an altitude of almost 1000 meters!  The taxi dropped us as close as he could and then it was over another 200 steps up to the top.  By 5.30am we had reached The World Peace Pagoda, which should be one of the more serene peace pagodas in the world but on this occasion the only other 3 people there chose to ignore the big ‘Silent’ signs and talk non-stop for the 3 times they circled the pagoda, and I thought women could talk but those 3 men put us to shame!   The pagoda is painted a brilliant white and overlooks the Annapurna Mountain range which reflects off Lake Phewa Tal below. It was built just after World War 2 by Buddhist monks from the Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji organization and is one of over 80 world peace pagodas in the world today. They are built to inspire peace for all races and creeds.

After retracing our steps we were back in our taxi going back downhill to Davi's Falls or Devi's Falls.  The waterfall is so named after a Swiss couple Davi, who on 31 July 1961 went swimming but the woman drowned in a pit because of the overflow, her body was eventually recovered 3 days later from the river Phusre.  Her father wished to name it ‘Davi's falls’ after her. Its Nepali name is Patale Chango, which means ‘underworld waterfall’.   The water forms an underground tunnel, approximately 500 feet long and 100 feet below ground level, after reaching the bottom.   After exiting the tunnel, the water passes through a cave called Gupteshwor Mahadev or ‘cave beneath the ground’, which was our next stop.  Gupteshwor Mahadev is said to be have been discovered in the 16th century, is Nepal's most famous cave and is also rumoured to be the longest cave in Nepal (9,700 feet).   The cave contains a huge stalagmite worshipped as a Shiva lingam and you literally clamber through a tunnel behind the shrine and emerge in a damp cavern adjacent to the thundering waters of Devi’s Falls.  Health and safety really is not apparent as you clamber through and I am so pleased we were there early as it was a congestion nightmare when we met just one family coming the other way!   Once we had escaped the cave we made our way to the Tashiling Tibetan settlement which at that time of the morning was just coming to life but we could still stand and listen to the morning Tibetan chants.  We were then back at the hotel at 8am and ready for breakfast!  We then set off for some retail therapy and I think Dipesh went back to bed!

After helping the Nepalese economy with our shopping the rest of the day was a relaxing one, our first of the trip!  We headed for a café by the lake and sat there with the most delicious iced coffees, watched the world go by, worked out our plan for when we returned to Kathmandu and reminisced over our adventure so far.  We were so comfortable sitting there that we then progressed to beers, from which we then ordered lunch!  It’s amazing how quickly 4 hours can pass!  Another leisurely stroll back, stopping for a drink where we’d had lunch the day before but actually seemed a lifetime ago!  We knew tomorrow was a long day so an early dinner ready for another early alarm call!

Saturday 26th May and by 7.30am we were on our final bus journey, with Dipesh as our chaperone, for the long trip back to Kathmandu.  This time we didn’t have the pressure of getting through Sauraha but the journey was arduous even with the stunning countryside.  We had two 25 minute breaks and a quick 5 minute stop and 8 hours after leaving Pokhara we were back in the chaos of Kathmandu!  Back at Hotel Buddha we were welcomed like long lost friends and near enough given our original rooms back!  Never has a beer tasted so good!   That evening we returned to our favourite restaurant, The Third Eye, and I splashed out and went expensive (still less than £5!) and ordered Fish Mamtaj, the name itself was captivating enough for me.  The distinctive thing about it was that it not only was just fish, but was fish stuffed with boiled egg!  The golden deep-fried and stuffed fish was served with the most amazing rich saffron sauce.  I am still dreaming about this meal!

Sunday 28th May and our last day as we were leaving that evening.  Our adventure was coming to an end.  The day was spent trying to retrace our steps and find all the shops we had vowed to revisit from when we had first been in Kathmandu, the re-tarmacking of a road didn’t help as we needed to go down this street but in true Kathmandu style the tarmac was still wet so we had to tiptoe down the side of the street trying, and failing, not to step in wet tarmac!  Finally with prayer flags, Buddha beads, books, clothes, scarves, hats, tea, note cards, Himalayan salt, incense, Nepalese sweets and books purchased and postcards posted we rested in the Pumpernickel Café with coffee and cake; not quite Nepalese but delicious!  Back to the hotel and a final shower before our late check out at 2pm.  We then returned to the OR2K restaurant for our final meal of falafels and we couldn’t resist their Basil Smash Gin drink!

The time had come to say goodbye, when people say a holiday has been life changing I now know what they mean.  It was an emotional but reserved goodbye to Dipesh who had become such a great friend over the last 8 days and who had never tired of our endless and sometimes repetitive questions.  We sent him on his way with an M&S plastic bag packed full of medicines, toiletries and batteries that we had leftover as we knew he would be able to make good use of it all.  With tears in our eyes we were airport bound and made it through the traffic jams for a seamless journey home.  

I have seen some amazing places but I have never experienced anywhere like Nepal; my trip enlightened, educated and enthralled me so much more than I could have ever imagined. 

Do you want to experience this for yourself? Try this Nepal tour for yourself!

Finally a big thank you to Karen for being the most amazing travel companion.  Till the next one!

Namaste!

 

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