Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nepal: what a difference a border makes

After a rain soaked arrival in the border town of Sonauli on the Nepalese side, we were not only glad for the return of sunshine that we had experienced uninterrupted for six weeks, but also for the palpable differences between India and Nepal. As much as we loved the colours, sounds and the intensity of India, Nepal while similar, felt like a new world, cleaner, less frenetic and laid back, nowhere more so the in Lumbini, which is a World Heritage Site, known for being the birth place of Buddha. The village is essentially a one street, one block affair with a few guest houses, stores and a couple of street level eateries and yet the village attracts thousands of pilgrim from around the world. The only chai shop has a few tourists and many more locals and in the early evening there is a steady parade of cows and goats, heading home to mud plastered thatch roofed dwellings.

Of course the main attraction is the giant park known as the Lumbini Development Zone, referred to as the Sacred Garden, where most Buddhist countries are building or have built giant temples and monasteries to complement the much revered Maya Devi Temple, marking the exact site of the Buddha’s birth. The Sacred Garden was designed by an architect from the land-starved country of Japan and measures one by three miles, so there are vast tracts between each nations temples that are best explored at a relaxed pace on bicycles.

We spent two nights here not only decompressing from India but to dry most of our belongings. To our good fortune, there was a major celebration of 77 years of nuns having been in Lumbini and we were invited to a luncheon, where we had authentic food as well, some local input to our next destination, Buthwal.

Instead of retracing our steps from the day before, we followed a road due north, which as promised had no traffic and for the first 10 kms was paved. Unexpectedly however, the remaining 20kms was a dirt track and gave true meaning to being off the beaten track. Still, it was a window into a Nepal where people still live off the land , mostly without electricity, and adults wear brightly coloured traditional clothes, including fezzes for men and scarves for women and where children delight in having their photos taken. Just before we reached the highway to Butwal we happened upon a wedding and had the pleasure of sharing the celebration with an extended family dressed in their colourful costumes, while a band with brass flutes, drums and 10 foot long brass horns played on.

Butwal is a prosperous commercial center which is literally at the footsteps of the Himalaya mountains and it was all too obvious as we walked around town that we were heading due north on the road that pointed straight UP at a steep angle, very much in contrast to our riding in India, which for the most part was flat.

Our destination was Tansen, a hill town appropriately named, some 40kms away, and while the distance seemed short, since nearly all of it was uphill. At the end we were much more tired, than after some of the 100+km days on the flat roads of India. Clearly the more than 2,000 kms we had cycled while in Australia and India were not sufficient for the demands of the long and steep mountain climbs. But what a thrilling ride it was as the road snaked in deep cut gorges, parts looking like the Fraser canyon of British Columbia, with spectacular terraces and rice fields and rushing blue waters below. As always, we had warm welcomes from the smiling locals in tiny villages.

Despite feeling the challenges of the climbs, we explored the town on foot drawn to the most notable site in town a 300 year pagoda like temple. Alas it was on a narrow, medieval like street, heading straight down, one for which most western building inspectors demanded handrails. Still, even from a distance it was captivating and a smiling elderly gentle man meditating in lotus position engaged us in pleasant conversation. It would have been too rude to refuse the invitation to sit with him and indeed the warm rays of the afternoon sun, and the cool still mountain air was an ideal environment for reflection. Unfortunately, my mind wondered fleetingly, from the exquisitely carved erotic sculptures on the columns of the temple of 300 years ago, reminiscent of Khujaraho, to the brass doors, bells and sculptures, but more importantly to the effort to stand up, and how much will my knees be talking to me to make the climb up to the highly recommended restaurant, filling the most urgent environmental imperative: food.

In Tansen, we stayed at the White Lake Hotel, although there is no lake in sight, but at a height of 1,550 metres, we soon understand the appellation, as the valley from our room’s balcony was a shimmering “white lake” of cloud-like dense mist below, illuminated simultaneously by the sun rising and the moon setting at the same time.

From Tansen, we were heading to the lakeside town of Pokhara, at the foothills of the Himalayas, about 120 kms away and given the previous days topography, not a destination to be reached in a day. Adding to the mystery, was the unknown terrain nor knowledge of places to stay along the way. In fact from a cyclist perspective we were one terra nova. Unlike previous trips, we encountered only two other cyclists in Veranasi, and a fairly exhaustive search of the internet showed very few others who had followed our route.

The road continued to follow some river valleys with moderate undulations there were lots of climbs of severity between various mountains. By the 40km mark we noted several very simple places offering food and lodging, one even had a tailor shop with “shirting and suiting” but none looked inviting. I also wanted to reach the halfway mark so we pushed on. Perhaps my growing exhaustion, coloured my perspective, but we decided on a lodge, the Nature View, at Waling , that had a small clean room with a detached washroom down the hall and a hot water bucket shower, but at five bucks a night, served our needs.

The following day we headed to Pokhara, where after another day of river valleys, deep gorges and rice terraces, and some tough 62kms of riding, it’s as if we arrived in yet another world for we are now in the heart of trekking country, with the 8,000 metre Annapurna mountains of the Himalayas serving as the backdrop and the main attraction, and the giant white clad teeth like peaks are clearly visible from our room, at the recently completed Hotel Trekking Inn. (A place I would highly recommend to anyone visiting these parts).

Like kids in a candy shop, we are soaking up luxuries and amenities: 24 hour hot water and a bath tub in which to luxuriate, and even a mini-fridge; television with news in English albeit all the woes of the world are not comforting; countless places offering laundry using washing machines versus our hand washed clothes in cold water; restaurants of every nationality so we have pizza and Israeli salad for lunch instead of searching for the elusive fried noodles and veggies in the villages; and shops stretched out along the lakes side road for a couple of kilometers. We spent the day shopping, in a meditative walking pace sharpening negotiating skills to acquire of a few essentials, a rainproof Gore-Tex jacket for Alison which thankfully does not have a pirated major brand’s label, new sunglasses and some shorts for me. We both get haircuts for the price of a Starbucks coffee and acquired a pocket book, carefully considered for content and weight. As we look ahead, we are already contemplating extending our 30 day Nepali visas, as we are truly enjoying this side of the border.



agesnumbers said...

Well done you made it I hear Everest whispering. D

Sam said...

We loved Nepal, Different feel than India for sure. Are you going on a trek in the Himalayas? We did the Annapurna circuit and loved it.
Glad you are both healthy and strong.

pablo said...

truly pushing the boundaries of mere mortal men / women - glad you found an opportunity to reassure us down on level ground ..

Laura Jacob said...

Sounds like fun. Enjoy