NEPAL FOR THE NOVICE

Even missed views and bumpy roads can't make a trip to Nepal any­thing but a plea­sure

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - By Yamini Nair yamini.nair@htlive.com Fol­low @YamiNair312 on Twit­ter

Royal Nepal Air­lines flight RA206 from New Delhi to Kath­mandu is about to land. All six women in our group are ea­gerly look­ing out through the win­dows for snow-clad moun­tains. But a thick blan­ket of clouds dis­ap­points us.

The Trib­hu­van In­ter­na­tional Air­port is deal­ing with above ca­pac­ity sum­mer trav­eller num­bers. The tem­per­a­ture is over 30˚ Cel­sius, and our wait at the con­veyor belt to col­lect our checked-in bags crawls on for nearly two hours.

Our tour-planner-cum-guide, Gau­tam Waghle, says apolo­get­i­cally: “Our air­port is very small; ex­pan­sion plans are on.” He takes us to a ho­tel in the heart of Kath­mandu, a city that doesn’t im­press us much at first. It looks un­planned, with con­gested streets and un­der­de­vel­oped roads, and has Delhi-like dust in the air. Nar­row streets, where build­ings stand pre­car­i­ously close to each other, re­mind us of Old Delhi.

Af­ter lunch and a short rest, we head to the cen­turies-old Pashu­pati­nath Tem­ple, one of Unesco’s World Her­itage Sites. A Hi­malayan rain of­fers a per­fect back­drop to the sculp­tural grandeur of the tem­ple, though poor crowd man­age­ment makes a has­sle-free dar­shan al­most im­pos­si­ble. Still, we man­age to get a glimpse of the sanc­tum sanc­to­rum be­fore strolling through the com­pound, en­joy­ing the sprawl­ing area with sev­eral small but stun­ning tem­ple struc­tures. Goats and mon­keys of­fer some en­ter­tain­ment en route to Arya Ghat, where cre­ma­tions take place on the lines of Assi Ghat in Varanasi. The Ghat, along the Bag­mati river, is brim­ming with peo­ple car­ry­ing the bod­ies of their dear ones. Smoke bil­lows from the pyres, priests pre­pare for the aarti, and a girl dances to spir­i­tual tunes. It’s odd how this bustling area still of­fers enough tran­quil­lity for the mind to pon­der over the eter­nal truth of death.

THE GREAT ELE­PHANT CHASE

At 6am the next morn­ing, we start for Chit­wan, five hours from Kath­mandu. Roads are al­most non-ex­is­tent and dust makes vis­i­bil­ity near-zero. The bumpy ride makes even those of us who are not prone to mo­tion sick­ness throw up. Seated in the back, I lose count of the num­ber of times my head hits the roof of the ve­hi­cle. To dis­tract our­selves, we play

an­tak­shari, and our guide from Nepal sur­prises us with more Hindi songs than any of us know. Soon, he be­comes the life­line for both teams.

At noon, we are at our ho­tel in Chit­wan, stand­ing by the tran­quil Rapti river that is a sight for sore eyes (and heads). The coun­try ca­noes make the view pic­tureper­fect, and the bumpy ride to this spot is de­clared to be worth it.

Con­trary to our ex­pec­ta­tions of Hi­malayan weather, it’s hot and hu­mid. But we are look­ing for­ward to our ele­phant sa­fari at Chit­wan Na­tional Park. At 4pm on the dot, we clam­ber on to el­e­vated wooden plat­forms that serve as lad­ders for our jum­bos, and are soon soak­ing in the re­fresh­ing green­ery of the for­est, with just the chirp­ing of birds and in­sects in the back­ground. Droop­ing branches of trees and wild shrubs rub against us, leav­ing scratches on our skin. The grass­lands that ap­pear mid-way have tiny ponds. Other on-duty ele­phants and

The coun­try ca­noes at Rapti river make the view pic­ture-per­fect, and the bumpy ride to this spot is worth it

the ones un­der­go­ing train­ing with sand­bags cross our view.

The eerie si­lence is sud­denly bro­ken by the trum­pet­ing of our ele­phant. We are star­tled to see an­other ele­phant, car­ry­ing two of our friends and two other tourists, charg­ing to­wards us. Ma­houts land hard blows on the charg­ing ele­phant with their long sticks. We drip with sweat. The other ele­phant, vis­i­bly angry, is now at a dis­tance, hit­ting a tree and kick­ing mud. Af­ter min­utes-long ef­forts, the ele­phants are sep­a­rated and led along dif­fer­ent paths.

The ma­hout ex­plains in Hindi: “They are sis­ters and are angry that we are not al­low­ing them to play to­gether.” We are not con­vinced. This must be his way of paci­fy­ing us. We ask the sis­ters’ names. “Son­akali and Anarkali,” he says.

Many times, we are tempted to scream out loud at the sight of a bird or an­i­mal, but we have promised to be quiet, so we are forced to whisper. Rhi­noc­eros graze hap­pily in the green mead­ows, a herd of deer keeps a safe dis­tance, and ea­gles watch over us from tall tree branches. An hour later, our ele­phants bring us back. We thank them by feed­ing them ba­nanas.

A short walk along the fresh, green meadow bor­der­ing the river when we get back to the ho­tel is al­most like a med­i­ta­tion ses­sion, calm­ing our ele­phant-shocked nerves. There’s a sit­ting area made of bam­boos tied to­gether, and a sim­i­lar watch tower, and though the ho­tel staff had warned us about croc­o­diles in the river, the mood is per­fect for a river dance while watch­ing an ele­phant hav­ing a splash in the water.

Once dark­ness sets in, a hot cup of tea pre­pares us for the Tharu Cul­tural Pro­gram. We board an old van that rat­tles its way to the venue when it starts pour­ing. Along with other tourists from the ho­tel, we howl to the bat­ter­ing of huge rain­drops in a ve­hi­cle with no wind­shield, and reach the au­di­to­rium drenched. An hour of per­for­mance by folk artistes ex­cites us so much that we all get on to the stage to shake a leg to the mu­sic for the cul­mi­nat­ing pro­gramme.

MOUN­TAINS AHOY

By 8am next morn­ing, we are on the road to Pokhara. We ask Gau­tam hope­fully whether this will be a dif­fer­ent route from the one we took to get to Chit­wan. “It’s the same road for a cou­ple of hours,” he says, and we sink into sad­ness at the thought of the tor­tur­ous ride ahead.

We reach Pokhara just af­ter noon. Af­ter lunch, we walk to Phewa Lake. The rays of re­treat­ing sun on the lake dot­ted with coun­try boats and pedal boats of­fer a magnificent view with hills in the back­drop. We catch a glimpse of the snow peaks in the An­na­purna Moun­tain Range be­hind the hills.

A pedal boat takes us to a tem­ple in the mid­dle of the lake. The wind is chill­ing. We spend some time in the tem­ple is­land en­joy­ing the view and some self­ies.

Ex­plor­ing Pokhara the next day, we have an ad­ven­ture in the dark at Ma­hen­dra Cave and Bat Cave. In the eerie bat cave, hun­dreds of bats hang from the roof. Out­side the large lime­stone cave of Ma­hen­dra, a nest of prob­a­bly a blue rock thrush, with four chicks in it, pro­vides a wel­come sight.

The Seti river gorge and the Devi’s Falls are jaw-drop­ping. Both places are cer­tainly not for those with acro­pho­bia, though they of­fer in­nu­mer­able photo op­por­tu­ni­ties.

In the evening we are back at Phewa Lake for a stroll in the evening sun. The cafés and restau­rants fac­ing the lake are taste­fully done. A live band is per­form­ing in front of one of them and Ajeeb

Das­tanHaiYeh rents the air. Some shop­ping later, we call it a well-spent day.

Next morn­ing, we leave for Kath­mandu, five hours from Pokhara. The roads are good and we en­joy the ride. We stop by Swayamb­hu­nath Mon­key Tem­ple, on a hill­top over­look­ing the con­gested Kath­mandu Val­ley. The struc­ture was partly de­stroyed in the 2016 earth­quake and some ar­eas are yet to be re­stored.

We are all smiles as we board the plane to Delhi the next morn­ing though we wish we’d had a longer hol­i­day. The clouds don’t dis­ap­point us this time, and the snow peaks of­fer a breath­tak­ing view, seal­ing a per­fect va­ca­tion.

The rays of re­treat­ing sun on Phewa Lake dot­ted with coun­try boats and pedal boats of­fer a magnificent view with hills in the back­drop SIGHT TO BE­HOLD

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