Monsoon and Mahouts

Got up at 6.00am to the sound of the rain pounding down torrentially outside; it had been pouring down relentlessly most of the night, and the paddy fields outside our rear window looked even more flooded.  We had been due to take a ride along the river in a boat made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, but looking at the deluge of water coming down outside we wondered whether or not it would happen.

Getting washed and dressed, I put on some cropped jeans and flip-flops, a t-shirt and, of course, my trusty 100% waterproof cagoule.  Trevor and I then made the mad dash through the dripping trees and splashed our way along the path to the dining room, and we thankfully climbed the steps up to shelter.

Anal and the hotel guide who had been assigned to us for our adventure here in Chitwan explained that we may have to change some of the planned activities around because of the inclement weather; this was OK by us and certainly didn’t come as any surprise.  He therefore said we’d postpone the canoe ride until the rain stopped/eased off, but in the meantime we enjoyed a good breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit, toast and omelette while the rain lashed down outside, and we watched the few people who had ventured out make their way up the street.  Most of them were covered head to foot in capacious rain ponchos with hoods, but occasionally we saw people with umbrellas; one guy was cycling along placidly, one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding his brolly over his head.  🙂

After breakfast was finished, at which point everyone was moaning that they could have had an extra half-hour or so in bed, it was agreed that we would reconvene at eight o’clock to go to the elephant breeding centre, which we’d still be able to visit even if the rain continued.  As I use my Samsung phone to take photographs, I put my phone into its waterproof case on its lanyard around my neck.  Finally, the rain appeared to have eased off slightly, so we all got on the open-sided bus-type vehicle for the 15 minute ride to Bharatpur.

Because our vehicle was open-side and its only protection was a tarpaulin roof, the rain lashed in the sides and front, and soon we were all looking a sorry sight with our hair plastered to our heads, and my mascara running down my face in black streaks.  At least it was warm and not like the rain at home, where you are cold and miserable as well as wet.

Eventually we alighted and followed our guide on foot through some long and extremely waterlogged grass that went over the tops of my flip-flops.  Although my cagoule was longer than hip-length, anything below that (i.e. the exposed legs of my cropped jeans) were soon soaked through.  Small spiked grass seeds caught in the material of my jeans and scratched my skin; it took a while to pick them off, just for more to be added.

Soon we arrived at a river bank and now the fun started; we had to get a hollowed-out boat across to the other side, where the elephant breeding centre was situated.  There were no seats or benches in the boats and the rainwater sloshed around inside; you either had to hunker down (uncomfortable) or kneel (in the water) while the guy punting the boat across the rapidly-flowing river, balanced perfectly and looked bored with the whole thing.

It only took a few minutes to get across, but now I didn’t care if I got wet or dry and just took it all in my stride.  We enjoyed a brief respite from the rain in the information centre which explained the breeding programme, the lives of Asian elephants, the main differences between the temperaments of the male (bull) and female (cow) elephants and how they are trained, from an early age, to recognise and obey the commands from the mahout, the elephant handler and driver.

We then went along to a place where some guys were sitting cross-legged, making up some food parcels for the elephants.  The parcels consisted of grass, a large handful of which was fashioned into a pouch into which was placed some rice and molasses; more grass was then tied around the parcel to keep it together.  There were large parcels for the adults and smaller ones for the baby elephants, who weigh 170 pounds (over 12 stone!) at birth.

Then we followed our guide to the shelters where the mothers and babies were tethered up.  I had mixed feelings about looking at the elephants chained up by their front legs; the chains didn’t look very long so they would severely limit the elephant’s movement.  We were assured, however, that the elephants were well-fed and were exercised every day; I suppose we are just not used to seeing working elephants.  After all, we use working horses at home and see animals on farms, and we can only hope that they are treated humanely by their owners.

After we’d seen as much as we could (and during which time it continued to rain, although not quite as hard), we made our way back to the river bank, and had another wet crossing back to the other side.  Then it was back onto the open-sided vehicle, where we opted to remain standing for the ride back as all the seats were soaking wet.

Once we arrived back at the lodge, our guide advised us that some of the activities that were planned, such as a trek through the rainforest and a visit to the river to watch elephants bathing, would have to be postponed or even cancelled, as the weather was too bad.  With any luck, however, the rain would abate by this afternoon to allow us to go on our guided safari with a mahout on elephant-back.  All we could do was sit it out, but we agreed to reassess the situation after lunch at 12.00 noon.

We got back to our room and thankfully removed all our wet clothes; my jeans were once again covered in the little spiked grass seeds.  I was pleased to see that my phone had remained completely dry in its waterproof pouch; definitely a worthwhile buy.

We got dried off any changed into clean clothes and spent the time until lunch just pottering around; resting, reading and watching TV.  The monsoon rain, if anything, looked to be coming down harder but there’s not a lot we could do about it.

At lunchtime we enjoyed another hearty meal, consisting of local and western-style dishes; we started with a hot bowl of home-made soup which was slightly spicy and very tasty.  There was no hurry, so we just took our time, enjoyed a cold bottle of beer each, and got all excited when we looked up into the sky and thought we could see the sun trying valiantly to peek through the clouds.

Our guide told us we’d meet again at 2.45pm, no matter what the weather, to go out on our elephant safari which, for some people, would be one of the highlights of our stay here, so we didn’t want to miss it if it could be helped.  So once again we adjourned to our room to while away the time, during which the weather did indeed improve and the sky brightened considerably, with only a very fine shower of rain falling.

I decided not to bring my phone with me on the safari as I wanted to view the scenery, and any animals we’d be lucky to spot, with my own eyes and not through the screen on my phone.

At the arranged time, off we went again in our dry clothes; the rain had tentatively stopped by now and the air was humid and sultry.  The guide had also dried off all the seats in our open-sided vehicle so we could sit down for the 20 minute ride to where the elephants and their mahouts were waiting for us.

The guide explained that all the elephants that were used for the rides were mature females, as they had a more placid nature than the more-aggressive males, who were sometimes stubborn and didn’t always obey the commands of their drivers.

Each elephant, in addition to its mahout, carried four passengers in a padded wooden frame strapped to the elephant’s back.  You had to climb up some wooden steps so you were the same height as the elephant, then step across and somehow shoehorn yourself into the carrier.  Two passengers faced diagonally forwards, and two faced diagonally backwards; Trevor and I were at the back, looking down at the side and rear of our elephant, who we later learned was called Basanti, which is a Hindu girl’s name meaning “of Spring”.

Off she plodded, through the long grass and into the trees and undergrowth.  We could observe at will the elephant following us and it was fascinating to watch; the elephant’s trunk was never still (do you know that an elephant has over 40,000 muscles in its trunk alone?!) and, as it walked sedately along, the trunk grabbed at chunks of grass and pulled them up, knocking the soil off the roots before putting the grass in its mouth.  It ate the succulent, sweeter part of the plant before biting off, and discarding, the roots.  At one stage our elephant, Basanti, stopped and put her trunk up into a tree to get some juicy leaves, but after the mahout gave her the order to continue, which she ignored, he gave her a prod with his stick and she answered with an irritated trumpeting noise!

Whilst the elephants just plodded along slowly and we didn’t feel unsafe riding on them, we were still in a precarious position, high up among the trees, and we kept getting poked, prodded and scratched by tree branches which pulled at our clothing and (sometimes) sprang back hard against our skin.  We therefore had to keep a close eye on any branches or other plants as well as trying to look out for wildlife. In addition, our elephant kept switching her tail from side to side, and every now and again it lashed against Trevor’s bare leg.  🙂

We saw lots of spotted deer, sambhar deer and antelopes, as well as monkeys swinging through the branches of the trees above.  We also saw many different types of birds.  We didn’t see, nor did we expect to see, the famed one-horned rhinoceros or the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger as it was the wrong time of the year, and in any case we didn’t go deep enough into the forest.  Also, the ground was pretty much waterlogged with all the rain we’d had; in some parts the water came half-way up the elephants’ legs, so imagine how deep it would have been on a human!

Our very interesting (and certainly different!) elephant-back safari ended back where we started after an hour and a half, and one by one we extricated ourselves from our high seats and climbed down the ladder to the ground again.

We were amused when Anal, our guide, said “Namaste!” to the elephant accompanied by the familiar “praying hands” pose, and Basanti put her trunk up in a similar pose in response.  Also, when she was given a bank note in her trunk as a tip, she passed it up to the mahout sitting on her back!  They were all very clever, and I only hope that the elephants are well looked-after and well-treated out of sight of the tourists, as I can’t abide any animal exploitation or cruelty.

Back in our rustic vehicle, we returned to the Hotel Parkside for about 5.00pm, which gave us a couple of hours to get a cool, refreshing shower and rest before getting changed for dinner.  By now, the sky had brightened considerably and the sun was out once again, and a lot of the excess water that had been on the paths was fast-drying already in the tropical heat.

Dinner was at 7.00pm again, and we spent the time eating, drinking and talking over the day’s events.  Anal advised us that we would have to be up at 6.00am again in the morning to try to fit in the canoe ride, before our breakfast, that we’d missed this morning; Vee and Charles said they didn’t want to go, so not to give them the early wake-up call.

As usual, after dinner Trevor and I adjourned to our room with a night-cap, and Trevor put the TV on to watch the inevitable football, while I read for a while, then inserted my ear-plugs before settling down for a good night’s sleep, before our early start in the morning.



Cable Car and Culture

Got up at eight o’clock this morning so we could be packed, breakfasted and ready to leave at 9.00am.  Realised it was 1st July – were we into the second half of 2018 already?! It was raining once again, so we donned our cagoules and made a dash for the restaurant along the paths fringed with dripping greenery.

Once again, we enjoyed cereal and freshly-baked pastries, washed down with fruit juice and strong, hot coffee.  Half-way through, Vee joined us and we passed the time making conversation about the places we’d been and the things we’d seen.

We then trundled our cases over to the reception area, handed in our key and paid our bar bill.  We hoped the rain would clear up because we were going to go on the Manakamana cable car and we didn’t want the view to be impeded by low clouds.

We all piled into the mini-bus and set off once again into the chaotic streets of Nepal, en route to Chitwan.  Anal said it would take about four hours to get there, as our driver Madern would be taking care on the winding and potholed roads.  Anal had already called the ‘traffic and travel’ hot line to check that there were no issues with the route to Chitwan; often the heavy monsoon rains can cause landslides and rockfalls, and the roads are blocked while these are cleared.  So far, so good though.

We had a couple of comfort stops on the way to visit the loos and enjoy a cup of coffee, then we arrived at Manakamana just before 12.30pm.  Our guide explained that the cable car closed for an hour for lunch, so it was a good idea for us to have our lunch too, while we waited.

By now it had stopped raining and the sun was attempting to come out, so we went into a nearby restaurant and decided to enjoy some beer and something light to eat.  Trevor and I just opted for a sandwich; but when it came there were four slices of bread, so potentially a substantial meal again, if you ate all of it.  We each ate three of our sandwiches, and washed them down with a can of Arna beer each.  We then wandered along and had a look at the inevitable handicraft and souvenir stalls on the way to the queue for the cable car, which was back in operation again.

We didn’t have to wait too long; each gondola carries six passengers so we were all able to get in; Anal told us he’d meet us at the top.  Apparently the cable car system was imported from Austria, and it opened on 24 November 1998.  The line runs for 9095 feet and has two stations; one in Cheres, Chitwan (where we boarded) which has an altitude of 846 feet, and one at Manakamana, Ghorka at an altitude of 4272 feet.

We set off and soared into the air, crossing the muddy Trishuli river below as we viewed the lush green hillsides and the mountain tops.  Here and there we spotted little remote dwellings and goats grazing on the hills, and every now and again passed another gondola on its way down.

It was a great ride and probably the longest cable-car journey I’ve been on, lasting just under 10 minutes.  As we got near the top, the view was impeded by the low cloud, but at least it hadn’t started raining again.  We met up with Anal, and he explained that he was taking us to the Manakamana Temple, which was a 17th century shrine to the goddess Bhagwati, who is said to grant wishes to those who are willing to make a suitable sacrifice.

As we walked into a large square, carefully trying to avoid the puddles and the muddy ground, we were drawn to the sound of lively music, accompanied by the persistent rhythm of drums.  We came across a group of musicians, in a red uniform complete with peaked caps, cummerbunds and matching spats, enthusiastically playing a catchy tune. Lots of the locals were dancing frenetically, really kicking up their bare feet on the wet ground, but we were fascinated by one lady in particular, who had long, black hair and was wearing an orange sari.  She was dancing, writhing, jerking and tossing her hair around as if trying to rid herself of inner demons.  She would have actually fallen over into the mud if someone hadn’t had hold of her arm to steady her.  Anal explained that it was believed that the harder you danced, the more you pleased the gods, hence this lady’s wild gyrations.

We stood and watched the band and the dancers for a while; in fact we just watched the local daily life passing by in its unusual and colourful ways.  We then continued on our way, through the stall-lined streets and along to the temple, immersing ourselves in the atmosphere and enjoying how it was such a contrast with our own lives back in Blighty.  🙂

Afterwards we made our way back to the queue for the cable car for the journey back down again, but the queue was quite long so, rather than wait for a gondola that would hold all six of us, we sort of pushed into the queue and three of us shared a gondola with three local ladies, while the other three went in a different gondola.  We wondered what they thought about us jumping the queue, but apparently the locals tend to treat visitors a little bit more special, as they are so pleased we’d come to visit their country.

Once we were all back down again, it was time to board the minibus to continue our journey to Chitwan National Park, in the sub-tropical lowlands.

We arrived at the Hotel Parkside just before 4.00pm, Madern driving through the gates and depositing us at the foot of some steps that led up to the open-sided hotel restaurant.  A cool glass of refreshing lassi awaited us as we took a seat and gazed around with interest at our rustic surroundings.

We were in a pleasant room with a beamed, thatched roof, held up with stout wooden pillars.  The tables and chairs were very heavy and appeared to be hand-made from solid wood.  Each table was covered in a cheerful red table-cloth, and colourful paper light-shades encased low-wattage bulbs.  We could smell the rain and leaf-mould and damp soil in the sultry, sub-tropical climate.  It certainly was a basic, no frills place, but that was what gave it its immense character and charm.  It reminded me a little of our stay in a wooden hut in the Amazon rainforest in February 2011.

Once we’d finished our drinks, we were handed our room keys and taken a short distance along some leafy paths to a separate building.  Trevor and I were allocated room 602 on the second floor.  Inside, our room was large and airy, with a window at the back overlooking flooded paddy fields, and a window at the front overlooking the small walkway to the rooms, which in turn looked onto the gardens, full of frondy trees and lush green lawns and other plants, and a small shaded area containing some tables and chairs.

There were two single beds separated by a large bedside table; each bed had its own reading light and mosquito net for extra protection against the little blighters.  There was also a ceiling fan in addition to, or instead of, A/C and the windows had a mesh screen over them as well.

The bathroom was a reasonable size and contained a WC, sink with mirror and vanity light, and bath-tub with a shower over it.  We were sure we’d enjoy a great stay here.

As we were resting on our beds, Trevor spotted something running up the wall; a closer look revealed it to be a Malaysian House Gecko, commonly known as a chit-chat in imitation of the distinctive sound that they make.  These little geckos are only about 8cm long, and are very prevalent all over tropical Asia.  It really brought back memories for me from my time living in Singapore between 1968-70; these little chit-chats would be all over our house, on the walls and ceiling, and you’d often hear the “chack-chack-chack-chack” call (quite a loud noise from such a little creature).  We liked having them in our room because they would eat any insects that ventured near, so we figured they’d help keep the flies and mozzies at bay.  🙂


Dinner tonight was at 7.00pm, because afterwards we were due to visit a traditional Tharu cultural show at a nearby small theatre that seated 300.  I had a cool shower and washed my hair before scraping it back into a small ponytail; I didn’t bother blow-drying and styling it with the hot-brush the way I usually do, because I didn’t want it to make me all hot and sweaty again.  I put on a red cotton cheesecloth sleeveless dress, and some silver sandals and I was ready.

In the dimly-lit restaurant, we enjoyed the sounds of the jungle through the open sides of the room, and we spotted (and heard!) lots of chit-chats, particularly on and inside the paper light-shades as they placed themselves strategically to catch any flies or moths attracted by the lights.  We enjoyed some traditional meat, chicken and vegetable dishes which seemed to be accompanied by an awful lot of carbohydrates; rice and pasta and potatoes.  Trevor and I enjoyed the usual cold thirst-quenching beer, and once everyone was fed and watered it was time to board the mini-bus to make it to the theatre in time for the cultural show.

The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the southern foothills of the Himalayas; most of the Tharu people live in the Nepal Terai. They are recognized as an official nationality by the Government of Nepal.

The Tharu people themselves say that they are a people of the forest. In Chitwan, they have lived in the forests for hundreds of years practicing a short fallow shifting cultivation. They plant rice, mustard, corn and lentils, but also collect forest products such as wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants and materials to build their houses; hunt deer, rabbit and wild boar, and go fishing in the rivers and oxbow lakes.

We were here to see them in their traditional costumes performing some tribal dances for us.  We filed into the small theatre (which was similar to a village hall) and took our seats.  It was difficult to understand the lady who was introducing each dance, as her accent was so heavy, but we enjoyed each of the dances with the men and woman, in their colourful costumes, doing the “stick” dance (a bit like the one that our Morris dancers do) and the “fire” dance.  One dancer came on dressed as a giant peacock and elicited a large cheer from the audience when he fanned out his spectacular tail!

The show lasted about 45 minutes and ended with some of the dancers coming into the audience and inviting people up on stage to join in some of the dancing; inevitably I got picked and, encouraged by the others in our group, went up to join the dancers on stage.  All the participants just did their own thing; it was all about getting down with the rhythm and strutting your stuff.  I was dancing quite energetically but it was probably a bit too soon after our dinner, because I ended up with a painful stitch in my right side.  Nonetheless, it was all good fun.

We arrived back at the Hotel Parkside around 9.30pm and, while the others bid us goodnight and returned to their rooms, Trevor and I went into the bar to see if we could get a nightcap.  There wasn’t a lot to choose from; some beer, bottles of wine (which you couldn’t order by the glass), some Bacardi and some Nepalese whisky.  Trevor chose a Gurkha beer and I chose a double Bacardi and cola and, because we were the only ones in the bar, we decided to take them back to our room instead.

Once we’d finished our drinks, and Trevor had caught up with the day’s football results, it was time to go to sleep.  We therefore let down and opened up our mosquito nets and spread them over the bed, carefully tucking them in under the mattress before settling down beneath them for the night.  We looked forward to seeing what tomorrow would bring.

The Pleasures of Pokhara

We got up about 7.30am and looked out of our window; we were pleased to see that the rain had abated a lot.  Outside, the air smelt gorgeously of damp earth but the morning was already warm and muggy.  Anal had advised us that our itinerary would change slightly today; the boat trip that was arranged for this afternoon would now take place first thing, in case there was any more rain.

We went along to the pleasant dining room for eight o’clock, and were surprised to find we were the only ones there; the others had either breakfasted early or had not come in yet.  I enjoyed some porridge, fruit juice and coffee, then we returned to our lodge to get sorted out for the day; we were advised to wear stout shoes or trainers and carry waterproofs, as we’d be negotiating some uneven terrain.

I wore long trousers, trekker shoes and socks and attached my bum-bag full of essentials such as toilet paper (!), hand gel, insect repellent, lip salve and my waterproof phone case which goes around my neck on a lanyard and so keeps my hands free.  Trevor carried our cagoules in his rucksack.

At nine o’clock we made our way to the lakeside where the raft-crossing was, but this time we weren’t going across; instead Anal led us to where some long rowing boats were moored up.  Each boat could hold four passengers in addition to the oarsman/woman.  We were each given a life-jacket to put on, then it was decided that the three men (Trevor, John and Charles) would go in one boat with a male oarsman, and the three women (Vee, Julie and I) would go into another boat with a female rower.  I hoped it wouldn’t start raining again as Trevor had both the cagoules!

Off we went along the calm green waters of Lake Feva.  There was spare paddle so Julie and I took it in turns to help out our rower; we let Vee off because she was a non-swimmer and was fairly nervous in the boat.

It was lovely and tranquil in the boat, just gliding gently along.  We called out and waved to the men’s boat as it went past, and I got some good photos of Trevor rowing away.  We passed other small boats and lone fishermen sitting placidly on the banks waiting for a bite.  At one stage we passed an interesting-looking island in the lake; it contained a temple and what looked like a very busy market, and thronged with people.

At this point our boat went around the island and we started to go back the way we came, eventually disembarking at the opposite side of the lake from the Fishtail Lodge, near where the rafts came in.  Our minibus was waiting for us, so once we’d handed in our life-jackets and accepted a bottle of cold water, we all climbed aboard for our next destination, the Bindhya Basini temple.

We had a drive of about 20 minutes through the sunlit, frenetic Saturday morning streets.  We had quite a lot of steps to climb up before reaching the temple, but the views over the colourful, ramshackle city buildings towards to distant Annapurna mountain range was worth it.

There were lots of local people around, all dressed in their best; the ladies looking beautiful in traditional robes, saris and headdresses, and the men more in Western style suits and ties.  It appeared that quite a few weddings were taking place; there were many flowers and we could smell the senses-stirring aroma of incense and essentials oils.

Some of the male wedding guests appeared to be Gurkhas or retired Gurkhas; one of them was wearing a red, white and blue tie featuring the Union flag; I shook his hand and asked if I could take his photo; he agreed so I got a picture of Trevor sitting with a real live Gurkha.  🙂

After looking around the temple, watching some of the weddings and just enjoying mingling with the locals (hardly any tourists at this time of year), we made our way back down all the steps and onto the waiting mini-bus, where we went a short distance to a village where Anal wanted to show us the distinctive, typically-Nepalese Newari architecture.  Then it was time to make our way to a lakeside restaurant for lunch.

The restaurant was cool and clean and, after making a loo visit, we made our to a table next to the large windows overlooking the lake and the distant peaks, looking a hazy blue-grey colour with the clouds just above them.  I enjoyed a chicken biryani washed down with an Everest beer, while Trevor opted for pizza.  Once again, the dishes were tasty and plentiful.

It was around 2.00pm when we finished lunch and all piled back on the minibus again.  Our next stop was to the well-known Devi’s falls (often misread as Devil’s falls).

When we arrived, we had to make our way along several walkways, along which we were accosted by the inevitable hawkers trying to sell us holiday tat.  At least if you just kept walking or said “no, thank you” they weren’t too persistent, unlike other places we’ve been where the hawkers are nothing short of a nuisance.  We passed several stalls selling flowers, bells, wooden carvings, hand-made jewellery, postcards and toys, among other things.  Eventually we came to the falls, which was really one big torrent which had been swollen by the recent heavy rain.

The waterfall cascaded down over rocks and rushed into a deep gorge below.  It wasn’t the most impressive waterfall we’ve seen by a long chalk, but it was still quite interesting.

Afterwards we went to the nearby Mahendra Cave, and we understood why we’d been advised to wear stout shoes, as the ground was extremely uneven and rocky as well as quite slippery from the water dripping from the roof of the cave.  The cave is a natural limestone cave and contained small stalactites and stalagmites.  The cave extended back about 100 metres and would have been completely dark but for the occasional, low-wattage light bulbs along the way.  You really had to watch where you were putting your feet or you could easily have twisted your ankle or fallen.

At the end of the cave had been placed a lit-up statue of the Hindu Lord Shiva, and a guy was there to give us a traditional Nepalese “blessing”, during which the inevitable tilaka was pressed onto our foreheads again.  Then it was time to make our way back out of the cave, the same way that we’d come in.

Our final stop for the day was to the Tibetan refugee camp which, despite its name, wasn’t a camp as such (with tents and things) but consisted of one- and two-storey buildings, a stupa, and the Shree Gaden Dhargay Ling Monastery.  The monastery doors were closed and locked and, when Anal knocked on the door, he didn’t elicit a response.  We couldn’t see many people about, so we just wandered around and looked at the little dwellings, a lot of which had colourful washing hanging outside them to dry.  Nearby were fields containing cows, goats and chickens, and there were also some stalls set out where the owners tried to tempt us to buy traditional Tibetan handicrafts and trinkets.

We arrived back at the Fishtail Lodge about 5.30pm, and once again agreed to meet for dinner at eight o’clock.  This gave us time to have a power nap and get showered and changed into clean clothes.  I contemplated going for a swim in the inviting pool again, but as we were leaving Pokhara in the morning I doubted whether my swimsuit would be dry on time.

Once we were ready, we went over to the bar to enjoy a cold drink before dinner.  The others came in and joined us, and we watched the start of the Argentina v France football game before making our way to our ‘usual’ table.  A lot of local people had come into the bar and rearranged some of the seats in rows, so they could watch the World Cup football on the large screen.

Once again the meal was a mixture of local and Western dishes, and was very tasty.  While we couldn’t see the TV screen properly from our table, we were able to keep tabs on the score easily by the cheers that came from the group of locals; it appeared that most of them were supporting France!  Anyway, the final result was 4-3 to France, so Argentina were out of the cup!  🙂

Because there were a lot of people drinking in the bar tonight, the proprietor prudently kept the bar open beyond 10.00pm, so I was able to enjoy some chilled gins and tonics while Trevor stuck to Everest beer.  It was about 11.00pm before we made our way back through the sultry darkness to lodge #3 and, after packing most of our stuff up ready to leave in the morning, we enjoyed a good night’s sleep.  We had really loved our stay at the Fishtail Lodge and in Pokhara, and we’d seen and done some interesting things.


Bandipur to Pokhara

We were up at 7.30am after a fairly restless night, mostly because of the heat and humidity, but also because of a stray dog that seemed to have spent most of the night bark, bark, barking (I’d had to get up in the night and put in my ear-plugs).  Nevertheless, we were excited to begin the new day and see what the next part of our Nepalese adventure had in store.

We ate a leisurely al fresco breakfast in the morning sunshine in the pleasant terraced courtyard at the rear of the hotel, which overlooked the lush, fertile land and the little dwellings and farmlands.  We could see many banana trees and tall maize plants; maize seemed to form a staple part of the Nepalese diet, and the corn-cobs would be sold (and sometimes roasted over a wood fire) at roadside stalls.

Breakfast consisted of muesli and home-made yoghurt, as well as fresh fruit salad and warm bread.  We washed it down with fruit juice and coffee and, just as we thought we’d finished, the staff brought out plates of eggs (omelette) and tomatoes.  As I mentioned before, we certainly weren’t going to starve this holiday, and the quality and quantity of the meals that were included in the total cost has so far been exceptional.

Once breakfast was over, we returned to our room, ensured everything was packed up, then the ever-obliging hotel staff lugged our cases down the steep wooden staircase, ready to trundle them along to the minibus.

As we left the hotel, the proprietor bestowed upon each of us a sort of satin fringed scarf, as well as applying the traditional Hindu tilaka on our foreheads.  The tilaka is similar too (but not the same as) the Indian bindi, and the main differences are as follows:

  • tilaka is always applied with paste or powder, whereas a bindi may be paste or jewel.
  • tilaka is usually applied for religious or spiritual reasons, or to honour a personage, event, or victory. A bindi can signify marriage, or be simply for decorative purposes.
  • bindi is worn only between the eyes, whereas a tilaka can also cover the face or other parts of the body. Tilaka can be applied to twelve parts of the body: head, forehead, neck, both upper-arms, both forearms, chest, both sides of the torso, stomach and shoulder.
  • Typically the bindi is worn only by women, whereas tilaka is worn by both men and women.

Once we’d all said our thanks and goodbyes, we followed our guide through the streets and back to our waiting mini-bus, where Madern greeted us and loaded our cases into the rear of the vehicle.  Then we were all ready to set off just after 9.30am, next stop Pokhara.

Off we went back onto the winding mountain roads; some of the route took us back along the same road we’d come along yesterday.  Anal estimated it would take about two and a half to three hours to reach Pokhara, but we were never bored because there was always plenty to see out of the window, and our minibus was comfortable and air-conditioned.

After about an hour, we pulled up at a rest stop where Anal said we had about 20 minutes to stretch our legs, go to the loo or enjoy a coffee or cold drink.  Another mini-bus and its occupants also arrived; we got talking to one of the ladies who said she was from Antwerp in Belgium.  We asked her if she knew last night’s football result of the England v Belgium match, and she took the greatest delight in informing us that Belgium had beaten England 1-0.  It didn’t really matter, because both teams were through to the next round anyway.

We enjoyed a good hot cardboard cup of ground coffee then, with some trepidation, I decided I needed the toilet as I wouldn’t be able to wait until we arrived at our hotel.  As usual, the toilets were less than salubrious, and the stench in the heat and humidity was terrible.  I made sure to wash my hands thoroughly and finish with a liberal squirt of anti-bacterial hand gel.

Back on the minibus we continued on our way, and just before 12.00 noon we made our way along a rutted path to the banks of Lake Feva.  Our hotel, the Fishtail Lodge, was situated in the verdant landscape at the other side of the lake, and we had to get across on a raft, with our luggage being sent over separately.

The rafts were certainly a unique form of transport.  Each consisted of a flat wooden base with a metal frame above over which was stretched a tarpaulin to provide shelter from the sun (or rain).  To each side of the raft was attached a stout green rope the same length as the width of the lake crossing, and the raft “operator” simply hauled on the rope to pull the raft across the water.  As he pulled on one side, the slack rope on the opposite side just paid out into the water, ready to be hauled up again for the journey back.  Simple but effective!

Once we were all across, we negotiated some steps and arrived at the reception area of the hotel, which consisted of separate lodges as accommodation, with the bar and dining room beyond reception.  The beautifully-landscaped gardens also contained a swimming pool and a “Dip & Sip” cocktail bar and massage spa.  It all looked very comfortable, and we noticed in the reception that they had a “wall of fame” of photographs of famous people who had stayed at Fishtail Lodge in its 49-year history.  We spotted Prince Charles and former US president Jimmy Carter among the dignitaries’ pictures.

We enjoyed a cool glass of fruit juice while our room keys were given out; Trevor and I were allocated lodge number 3.  Anal asked us all to be in reception for 12.30pm so we could get the raft back across the river; apparently we were going to a restaurant in Pokhara for our lunch.

Our lodge was really lovely.  It had a cool tiled floor, twins beds, a large window-seat, dressing table, desk, wardrobes and a spacious bathroom, and it was comfortably decorated in orange and cream shades, with mesh screens at the windows to keep out any insects.  We felt we’d have an enjoyable couple of nights here.  🙂

Back in reception we met up with the rest of the group and took the raft across the river once again, and boarded our mini-bus.  It was only a short ride to the Monsoon Restaurant, in the heart of the town, amongst lots of colourful shops, bars, restaurants, workplaces and houses.  It looked a lively place.

We took our seats and a table outside, and the proprietor set up a large oscillating fan to provide us with a cooling breeze.  Once again it was a set meal from a limited menu; you ate what was brought for you, and I enjoyed some salad to start with followed by chicken and vegetables; it was more of a Western-style meal than local dishes.  It goes without saying that Trevor and I washed ours down with a nice big bottle of chilled Everest each.  🙂

After eating fit to bust (uncomfortable!) Anal said we could either get the minibus back to the raft crossing, or walk back ourselves – it would only take about 15 minutes.  We all opted to walk back, as it would give us the time to look around the shops and explore a bit.

We had a look along the street, just soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the local clothing shops and handicrafts.  Wooden and brass ornaments featured heavily, as well as handmade textiles like pashminas, throws, cushion covers, hand-knitted items made out of yak wool, and intricate tapestry wall hangings.  We spent some time browsing but I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy (yet!) so we just wandered back to the raft, and got pulled across to our lodge.  By now it was about 3 o’clock, and we had the rest of the day at leisure.

We were both hot and sweaty after our walk back, so we decided to get changed into our cossies and make the most of the hotel’s inviting-looking pool.  We slid into the cool water which was sheer bliss, and we spent a good 50 minutes just swimming lazily around.  At some point John came along and joined us, then we decided to finish off with a nice cocktail while resting on a sun-lounger; I had a sangria and Trevor had a beer.  After our substantial lunch I’d decided I was going to give dinner a miss tonight; it certainly wouldn’t hurt me!

We sat outside for a while then returned to our lodge to get washed and changed and hang our cossies up to dry.  Then we had a half-hour power nap before looking outside; we noticed it was raining quite hard so we had to wear our cagoules to go over to the restaurant for dinner at 8.00pm.  Trevor joined the others at the table but I just sat at the bar, enjoying a margarita and doing some of this blog.  I only joined the others at the coffee stage of the meal.

Afterwards Trevor and I returned to the bar for another drink, but it emptied out quite quickly (the bar I mean, not the drink!) until we were the only ones left.  Once again it seemed as if everything stopped at 10.00pm, and the bar staff hinted broadly that they wanted us to go, by closing the bar and turning out the lights!  Unperturbed, we took our drinks back to our lodge and enjoyed them there; Trevor watched TV while I did some reading.  We wondered why the raft-service was advertised as being available “24 hours”; if everything closed at 10.00pm what was the point of going back into the village?

Not to worry though; we were both pleasantly tired by now so, lulled by the monsoon rain lashing down outside, we slept very well.



Patan to Bandipur

It was an early start for us this morning, as we had to be up, ready, packed and breakfasted in time to leave the hotel at 7.30am, to continue our great Nepalese adventure en route to our next hotel in the ancient village of Bandipur.

Bandipur is a hilltop settlement and a municipality in Tanahun District of Nepal. Because of its preserved, old time cultural atmosphere, Bandipur has increasingly been coming to the attention of tourism. At the time of the 2011 Nepal census it had a population of total (Bandipur and Dharampani) 15591 people living in 3750 individual households.

Bandipur is located at 27.56 N, 84.25 E and an elevation of 1030m on a mountain saddle (Mahabharat range) approximately 700m above the Marsyangdi River Valley, 143 km to the west of Kathmandu and 80 km to the east of Pokhara (where we would be visiting later on in our tour).  We were so looking forward to exploring this lovely village in the real Nepal, set within view of the Annapurna mountain range.

Anal advised us that, while Bandipur was only 90 or so miles away, it would take us 5-6 hours to get there in our minibus, due mainly to three factors:  the poor condition of some of the roads, the endless, chaotic traffic, and the narrow mountain roads as we negotiated often steep hairpin bends with sheer drops into the valley. I certainly hoped it wouldn’t be a white-knuckle ride!

We set off at 7.30am into the morning traffic, which was already quite busy.  As ever, the road was rutted and potholed and dusty in some parts, while muddy in other parts.  Our vehicle slowly lurched and rattled its way through the streets, often stopping for what seemed an age in queues of traffic.  Once we got moving again, we could see no obvious reason for the traffic jams, but it was start… stop… start… stop for a number of miles.  We weren’t too bothered though; it was cool and comfortable in our minibus and there was always plenty to see looking out the window.

After about an hour and a half, we made a “pit-stop” to allow us to use the restrooms and perhaps enjoy a cold drink. We only had 10 minutes, but it was enough to get off the bus and stretch our legs a bit.  Most of the loos were the Asian squat-style ones, but there was one Western style, although there was no paper; I was glad I’d brought my own, as well as some anti-bacterial hand-gel.

Back on the bus we continued on our way, taking frequent drinks from our water bottles in order to avoid dehydration in these sub-tropical temperatures.  Several times our bus drove around groups of cows and calves calmly walking along in the middle of the road.  We enjoyed looking at the shops and the distinctive Newari-style architecture.

Newa architecture is an indigenous style of building design used by the Newari people in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal. It is a style used in buildings ranging from stupas and chaitya monastery buildings to courtyard structures and houses. The style is marked by striking brick work and a unique style of wood carving rarely seen outside Nepal.

After a while, we left behind the dirt and the dust of the city and started to climb up and down the undulating hilly countryside; often getting fantastic views of the lush valleys below.  Our driver, Madern, was very careful and didn’t go too fast (to everyone’s relief!) and it was actually a very pleasant journey.  Along the majority of the route we followed the fast-flowing Trishuli river, which had many precarious-looking rope bridges across its width, as well as an interesting cable car soaring off into the heights, which Anal said we would visit on the way back.  The river twisted and turned and the water was a muddy brown colour; this was due to all the soil erosion which had occurred as a result of the monsoon rains.  Now and again we spotted intrepid people on rafts and small boats in the river, which appeared to be popular for white-water rafting.

Because we had had several leg-stretch stops on the way, the five and a half hour ride seemed to go passed very quickly, and eventually the bus pulled into a small vehicle park just outside the main road of Bandipur village, which didn’t allow through-traffic.  We were greeted by some gentle, pleasant ladies from our hotel, and Anal advised that we had about a 10 minute walk and that the staff would carry our bags for us.

We walked along, passing the charming little buildings filled with so much character.  Laughing and chattering children followed us, calling out “Namaste” and asking us where we were from.  We saw lots of interesting little shops, guest-houses, a temple, restaurants and bars advertising the World Cup games they would be showing on TV.

Finally we stopped outside the Gaun Ghar Hotel, a wooden building with shuttered windows and a first-floor balcony at the front running the width of the building, and containing colourful potted plants.  The hotel appealed to me immediately, and despite its rustic, basic appearance (or maybe because of it) I knew I would enjoy a memorable stay here.

We walked into a pleasant, sunlit courtyard surrounding a small fishpond, and were each given a glass of cool fruit juice.  Anal said we would be shown to our rooms to rest for a short while, before meeting for lunch in the restaurant downstairs.

We were allocated room 202 at the front of the building, next door to Vee who was in room 201; in fact, we shared the large balcony overlooking the main street which was devoid of any traffic.  The room was very basic and had no-frills, but was nevertheless clean and comfortable.  There were three beds (two of them towards the balcony doors), a rail on which to hang some clothes, and a bathroom with a stone floor.  The bathroom was really a basic wet-room; all it contained was a sink, WC and shower with a floor-drain, no bathtub.  It would suffice for one night, however.

After getting freshened up, we went back downstairs again and took our seats in the open-fronted incense-scented restaurant for lunch.  We ordered a cold bottle of Ghorka beer each which accompanied a selection of Nepalese dishes; there was no menu to order from so we each ate what we were given.  Local flavoursome soup or salad to start with, then a curry-like dish with fresh fruit to follow.  We’d noticed that the portions and the food so far on this holiday had certainly been more than generous!  🙂

After lunch, we had some time to ourselves, in which we enjoyed a half-hour power nap,  before reconvening at 3.30pm to take a walk around the village.  We set off at a sedate pace in the heat and humidity, watching our footing on the uneven ground.  The schools must have just been letting out as there were lots of smiling children in uniform, running, shouting and playing in the streets, and looking curiously at us as they passed by.  June is the low-season for visitors in Nepal; the real tourist season doesn’t start until September because of the monsoon, but in one way that was better because it meant that there were no crowds and the locals were very happy to see us, and did all they could to please us.

As we strolled along, we passed a temple with its distinctive pagodas, bells and prayer-wheels.  Hens with their little chicks pecked desultorily by the roadside, and we saw lots of nanny goats with their cute little kids, bounding and gambolling about sure-footedly on piles of rubble.  At one stage, from our elevated hilltop position, we had a fantastic view of the verdant valley and the river meandering below between the tiny, primitive dwellings, the Annapurna mountains rearing up in the background.

The village was quite charming and appeared to be from a bygone era, where modern-day technology hadn’t quite reached.  Unsurprisingly, we had no signals on our mobile phones, and our hotel didn’t appear to have wi-fi; we also had no television or phone in our room and the electricity supply was intermittent and unreliable at best.  However, isn’t this why we come to explore places like Nepal?  We couldn’t get anywhere more different from Britain if we tried!  🙂

We continued our little tour of Bandipur and came to a square where the locals were bagging up portions of raw meat on plastic sheeting in the open air.  Anal explained that a fatted cow or buffalo would be killed and cut up, then the pieces distributed among the locals so they could all have a good feast.

We then came to an area where fresh water that came down the mountain was directed into taps that flowed freely; locals would come here to do their laundry or to bathe and indeed each of the taps had someone standing at them, washing either themselves or a tub of clothes in the open air.  The pace of life here was certainly more relaxed and unhurried than our frenetic, high-tech 21st century lives at home.

Around 5.00pm we slowly made our way back into the village.  Some of us went a little further up the street to see what was in the hotel’s immediate vicinity; there were a few other guest houses, small general dealers and one or two bars which proudly proclaimed “Free wifi here!”.  We saw a little off-licence so decided to buy a bottle of beer each to enjoy on our balcony before dinner at 7.30pm.

The beer was called Nepal Ice and was strong, at 7%.  Next door to the off-licence was a bar with a few local guys gathered around watching the football on a large TV screen; we decided we’d come back later on to mingle with the natives and watch the England v Belgium game if it was on.  Meanwhile, we returned to our balcony and sat outside on a rustic bench for a bit, enjoying a spot of people-watching and looking into the distant mountains as dusk descended over this peaceful little village.

Dinner, once again, was a veritable feast of local and Western dishes; this time we washed it down with an exquisite home-made millet wine called tongba, brewed on the premises.  The proprietor also came around with a small pitcher from which he poured each of us the local distilled spirit, also made from millet, called raksi.  It was a strong drink, clear like gin or vodka; it reminded me a little of Japanese sake, or rice wine.  We enjoyed the food and the convivial company and, around 9.30pm, we said our goodnights and went off to do our own thing.  Trevor and I ventured outside and up the darkened street to look at the little bars and shops, deciding we’d return to our room, get our money, and come back for a few beers in one of the local hostelries as our hotel didn’t appear to have its own bar.

However, much to our dismay, it transpired that everything closes in Nepal at 10.00pm!!  Back out in the street, every building was battened down and shuttered and not a soul was about.  We walked in both directions but the whole village had gone to sleep, apart from a small shop opposite our hotel.  So much for mingling with the locals!  We therefore went to the little shop and purchased a couple of bottles of cold beer, and decided to drink them on our balcony in the sultry evening air.  We must have been the shop’s last customers of the night, because by the time we’d gone out on the balcony the proprietor was rolling down his shutters for the evening.

Nevertheless, it was very pleasant sitting out in the balmy darkness, listening to the creatures of the night singing away; bullfrogs, crickets, the occasional barking dog or cry of a hunting bird looking for prey.  We stayed out until about 11 o’clock as our wake-up call would be at 7.00am, ready to leave at eight.

We settled down in our rustic little room for the night, after a very interesting day.


Exploring Patan

We were up at 7.30 this morning, despite the time-difference. Looking out of the window, we could see that rain had fallen overnight; indeed this is the start of the monsoon season, and the temperature was hot and humid, despite our 4,300 feet altitude in the Kathmandu valley.

We got ourselves sorted out and went along to the restaurant, where we sat with John. I enjoyed a fairly Western breakfast of sausage, egg and tomato, washed down with a couple cups of coffee and some watermelon juice. I saw that they had some Yak cheese, so I had to try that. Where else would you come across Yak cheese?!

At nine o’clock we met up with Anal and the rest of our party, and we went outside and into the waiting mini-bus, where our driver Madern gave us all a litre bottle of water each. Once we were settled, we set off into the Wednesday morning rush-hour traffic which, like in India, was an experience in itself.

Driving through the dusty streets with their potholed roads and ramshackle buildings, we stared agog out of the windows at what passed for daily Nepalese life. Battered cars, vans and motorcycles vied for space on the roads with numerous stray dogs and cows; most of the time the vehicles just drove around them, their drivers completely nonplussed in the chaos.

We passed clothing shops with their colourful ladies’ dresses, saris and pashminas, small cafés, bars and restaurants, auto shops and other dilapidated, but nonetheless charming, buildings. Cyclists and pedestrians weaved their way in amongst the traffic with complete sang froid, many of them wearing face masks to protect from the clouds of dust and the lorries belching black exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. Several times we had to stop because vehicles in front of us had stopped to put on their spare wheel following a puncture; looking at the state of some of the vehicles with their almost-bald tyres, this was not really surprising.

After the entertainment beyond the minibus windows, we parked up and continued on foot to the first of our sightseeing stops – the Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath. A stupa is a large hemispherical shaped monument containing Buddhist relics, and the dome was topped by the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. Boudhanath is the largest and holiest stupa outside of Tibet. Radiating out from the pinnacle of the stupa were a lot of streamers containing colourful squares of cloth, a bit like bunting. Anal told us they were prayer flags.

There were also a lot of ornamental, free-turning cylinders which passers-by would start spinning; these were prayer wheels and they were quite hypnotic to watch. There were also various sized bells tinkling and chiming, as well as the evocative hint of incense over it all. From here, we also had a superb view over the Kathmandu valley; however, the cloud was quite low so we couldn’t see for miles.

After having a good look around, we continued on our way to the ancient religious complex of Swayambhunath, which is also known as the “Monkey Temple” due to the numerous wild macaques that live and roam around the grounds.  The monkeys were very agile and they jumped and swung from trees to rooftops to walls, some of them with little babies clinging to their sides.

The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples; a Tibetan monastery, museum and library.  There are also shops, restaurants and hostels. The site has two access points: a long staircase leading directly to the main platform of the temple, which is from the top of the hill to the east; and a car road around the hill from the south leading to the south-west entrance.
We saw a number of the monks walking around, in their distinctive orange robes with their shaven heads.

We puffed our way up all the steps so we could look around the beautiful, ornate buildings with their intricately-carved wooden decorations and their gilded statues. Everywhere we walked, we were watched by Buddha’s eyes. There is a large pair of eyes on each of the four sides of the main stupa which represent Wisdom and Compassion. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye. It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye which acts as messages to heavenly beings so that those interested can come down to earth to listen to the Buddha. The hellish beings and beings below the human realm cannot come to earth to listen to the Buddha’s teaching, however, the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches. Between the two eyes (also called Wisdom Eyes), a curly symbol, symbolizing the nose, is depicted which looks like a question mark, which is a Nepali sign of number figure one. This sign represents the unity of all things existing in the world as well as the only path to enlightenment through the teachings of Buddha. It was all extremely interesting, and Anal explained to us how it is the aim of each follower of the Buddhist religion to reach nirvana, which is the ultimate spiritual goal in which there is no pain or suffering.

After we’d looked around the temples and buildings, we had about 40 minutes of free time, so Trevor and I decided to take a look at some of the local craft and souvenir shops around us. I wanted to purchase a kukri, the distinctive curved knife typical of the Gurkha regiment. We had a look in some shops at the different knives available; some of them were large and very sharp, and were sheathed in leather, hand-tooled and decorated scabbards. These ones were expensive; over a hundred pounds each. However, I only wanted a decorative one to put on the wall at home so, after browsing around some of the stalls, I got a smaller one (which had a dull blade) in a leather scabbard decorated with old Nepali coins and brass. This one only cost 550 Nepali Rupees, or about four quid. 🙂

As we made our way back down all the steps, ladies were approaching us selling pashminas, singing bowls (metal bowls which vibrate and ring when struck) and little satin embroidered bags. One lady offered to sell me 10 of these bags (assorted colours and designs) for seven dollars; we got them for about five pounds so they worked out at 50p each. At that price you couldn’t be robbed!  I also bought some postcards and a couple of fridge magnets.

It was then time to meet up again with Anal and the rest of our group to go to lunch. We all boarded the minibus and made our way to Patan Durbar Square, where Madern parked up and we took a short walk to a local restaurant, and up some steps to tables and chairs, covered with parasols, in a pleasant roof top location.  We took our seats (under the shade, as the sun by now was fairly hot) and ordered a freezing cold beer each; I had an Everest and Trevor chose a beer called Gurkha.  We could then order anything we liked to eat from the menu, as lunch was included.  I’d had a good breakfast so I just opted for a plate of the house salad, which consisted of radish, carrot, cucumber, onion and coleslaw.  The others chose some of the local dishes, but I decided I’d wait until dinner tonight before eating something more substantial.

We passed a pleasant hour or so at the restaurant, then we had some free time to look around the square.  As ever, the colourful local shops were fascinating; I hoped I would be able to find a hand-knitted jacket made out of Yak wool to take home as a lovely (and useful) souvenir.

We went into the “Singing Bowl Centre”, where the shop-owner showed us how the singing bowls worked.  Some of them are made out of seven different metals, and they are created in such a way that, when gently struck in various places with a soft hammer, they set up a vibration and held a long, ringing note (think of a tuning fork).  Placing the vibrating bowl on your body in various locations gave a relaxing and massaging effect, and putting in on your head and feeling the vibrations and listening to the ringing notes was supposed to help you relax, and get rid of any tension headaches.  However, the bowls were very heavy and we thought they wouldn’t be suitable for carrying in our luggage.

Our final visit of the day was to the impressive Bhimsen Temple at Lalitpur.  This large temple contained many bells and intricate wooden sculptures, pillars and carvings.  Gilded doorways and thresholds were in abundance, flanked by ornate statues of Hindu deities.  We saw lots of images of the Hindu goddess Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant, as well as Parvati, has many arms and is always brandishing a variety of weapons and attacking the buffalo demon Mahisha.  It was all very interesting and I took lots of photos.

It was then time to board the minibus once again for the return journey to our hotel.  Once we got back, we dumped our bags and our purchases in our room, and hotfooted it along to the bar for a cold beer.  Then it was time to get washed and changed and adjourn to the restaurant, where once again we enjoyed a selection of the local dishes and had interesting and stimulating conversations with our fellow travellers.

Trevor and I then returned to the bar, where they were showing the Germany v Korean Republic match.  So far it was a 0-0 draw, but it wasn’t looking good for Germany because they needed to win to stay in the competition.  At first, there was only Trevor and I in the bar (apart from the barman), but we were quite amused when, one by one, more of the hotel staff, including the chef in his whites and tall hat, came into the bar and gathered around the TV screen to watch the match!  It ended up Germany 0 Korean Republic 2, so Germany were out!

Afterwards the bar emptied out, and we stayed for one more drink before turning in for the night, after a very full and interesting day.  We had to be up at 6.00am tomorrow, in order to leave the hotel by 7.30am for the 90-mile drive to Bandipur.

Namaste Kathmandu

So here we were, tired and grubby, with the longest part of our journey over. We had already met four other people who are doing the same escorted tour as us; this was arranged through Mercury Holidays, who we haven’t tried before. Usually we do escorted tours through Travelsphere or Titan, but the itinerary for this one looked good (and it was an attractive price) so we thought we’d give them a try. 🙂

It wasn’t really a great hardship waiting around at the airport. We found a nice lively little pub that had a huge screen showing football (Barcelona v Real Madrid) and of course, being in India, we had to order a pint of Kingfisher each.  🙂

Presently our flight was called and we once again boarded an aircraft; this was a small 737 for the one hour 50 minute flight into Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. Boy, would I be pleased when we arrived. I could hardly keep my eyes open on the plane, even though the terrain below us looked very interesting.

Finally the “fasten seatbelts” sign came on, and we made our descent into the airport, and touched down on Nepalese soil around 14:50 hours local time. Curiously enough, the time difference between British Summer Time and Nepal time is +4.45; they are 15 minutes ahead of India. Seems hardly worth changing the time zone for a mere 15 minutes.

Going through customs and immigration was a painless process; we had to pay $25.00 US to get our 15-day visas, then it was straight through security and off to the baggage carousel to collect our cases. Finally, we were through and we exited the airport and crossed the road to be greeted by our guide, Anal (which is pronounced Ann-aal). 🙂 We were each given a garland made of marigolds, and wished “Namaste”, the traditional greeting.

There were only six of us in total for this trip; John from Preston, Charles and Julie from Birmingham and Vee from Southampton. No doubt we’d all get to know each other pretty well in the coming days.

It only took about 30 minutes to reach our hotel, the Hotel Himalaya. We walked into a pleasant, airy reception area with the faint scent of incense, and were each given a glass of cool fruit juice. Then, once we were issued with our room keys, the rest of the time for today was our own, to give us a chance to recover from the sleepless night and jet lag.

We all agreed to reconvene at 7.00pm in the hotel restaurant, where a buffet meal would be laid on for us.

Our room was very pleasant, clean and comfortable, and looked onto lush gardens and greenery outside our ground-floor window. There were twin beds, a couple of armchairs and a coffee table, a large dressing table and wardrobe, and a spacious bathroom. We would be here for the next couple of nights.

Meanwhile, my tiredness seemed to have vanished so Trevor and I, after dumping our bags, decided to nip along to the bar and have a refreshing cold beer.

The local beer is called (predictably) Everest, and features a picture of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on it (no mention of Sir Edmund Hillary!) We each enjoyed a freezing 650ml bottle. At first we took it outside to sit at some chairs and tables in the gardens, but it didn’t take long before the mozzies descended, so we went back inside. Then we returned to our room for a 45 minute power nap before dinner.

Later on, we met up with the others in the restaurant, and partook of a selection of local dishes. They seemed like a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisine; there was poultry, fish, mutton, cheese and an array of fresh vegetables, all cooked with various sauces and spices. We really enjoyed both the meal and the company of our fellow travellers who, like us, were seasoned globe-trotters, and the conversation was peppered with places we’d visited, and holidays we’d enjoyed, in the past.

By 10.00pm we were really flagging, so we decided to visit the bar again for a night-cap. Trevor was happy because they were showing one of the World Cup football matches, between Denmark and France (it ended in a 0-0 draw).

We then returned to our room at 10.45pm, where I thankfully got washed and changed into my PJs before settling down. It certainly didn’t take long to drop off to sleep, and we looked forward to exploring this fascinating country tomorrow.

Night Flight to Nepal

At 5.00pm on Friday I walked out of the office door, with the fantastic feeling that it would be another 17 days before I returned. However, today was the day we’d been waiting for, when once again we would be jetting off to exotic locations and exciting adventures in our 84th country – this time, Nepal.

We spent the morning pottering around at home, doing our last-minute packing and other pre-holiday things, like completing our Nepalese visa forms. Then, at 12.15pm, our taxi arrived to take us to Durham railway station to commence the first leg of our journey, the train to London.

The train was on time and we happily made our way to our reserved seats, stashing our luggage in the racks and making ourselves comfortable. As soon as the train pulled out of the station, we cracked open a chilled bottle of champers, which we dispensed into some plastic beakers before toasting each other and the start of what we hoped would be another fabulous holiday.

The train sped through the brightly sunlit English countryside on its way to the capital. The weather had been glorious over the weekend and the forecast was for it to continue for another week or so. Nothing brings the great British public out more than the (relatively rare!) sunshine, and everyone seemed to be attired in shorts and sandals, bright summer dresses and cropped tops.

On our arrival into London Kings Cross, we proceeded to the London Underground Piccadilly Line for the hour-long tube ride to Terminal 4, Heathrow Airport.

The temperature in the train was predictably uncomfortably warm, but at least it wasn’t too crowded, and there were several empty seats. Every time the doors slid open, especially when travelling overground, we enjoyed a welcome breeze for a few seconds.

Eventually we arrived at the terminal and made our way to the Jet Airways desk to check in. Jet Airways is India’s second-largest airline (after Air India) and its headquarters are in New Delhi, so the first part of our flight would be via India’s capital.

We didn’t have to queue at the check-in desk and we were able to check our bags right through to Kathmandu. We hadn’t flown with Jet Airways before, so we didn’t know what to expect, although I have read some pretty poor reviews of it.

Once we’d got rid of our bags we made our way along to the executive lounge, as we had about three hours to while away. Going through security was very quick, so we arrived at the Plaza Premium Lounge in good time and settled down in some large, comfortable chairs in very pleasant surroundings. From here, we could look straight out at the arrival/departure gates and see the aircraft coming and going; a Boeing 737 Royal Air Maroc plane was being prepared for its next flight, and we watched the luggage being loaded onto it as well as the catering supplies.

We enjoyed some Indian snacks washed down with some cold Chang beer. I had some chicken tikka masala and rice, with a couple of samosas and some lime pickle. I followed this with a selection of cheeses, and we then had a couple of refreshing gins and tonics with ice and a slice. During this time, the Morrocan plane was pushed back and turned around, and we spotted our own Jet Airways 777 aircraft arriving from Delhi around 6.00pm.

We spent about 2½ hours in the lounge before we were called to board at Gate 2. We didn’t have far to go and were able to board the aircraft straight away. We were in the middle set of four seats; Trevor was in the aisle and I was next to him. We were seated next to an Indian couple who were flying out to spend some time with relatives in the Punjab region. Not surprisingly, most of the passengers were Indian, with only a few British scattered here and there.

It was very hot in the plane and I immediately removed my denim jacket before settling down on the somewhat-hard seat. We had around a nine-hour flight to get through so I hoped there would be no delays.

We took to the skies 30 minutes later than the scheduled time of 20:45 hours but it was absolutely ages before they came round with any drinks or snacks. Meanwhile, the hot and foetid atmosphere inside the aircraft was very uncomfortable, and this was only relieved slightly by turning on the air blowers.

Eventually the drinks trolley appeared and I asked for a glass of cold water along with my usual can of beer (Tiger). We were also given a packet of some sort of spicy Indian corn snack. I had a look through the in-flight entertainment programme but there was nothing I wanted to watch, so I just turned it to the Skymap so we could keep track of our journey.

Anyway… long-haul flights (especially night-time ones) are a pain in the proverbial, but necessary if we want to get to these exotic and unusual locations. It was after 11.30pm when they brought the meals round; we thought it was going to be Indian food but there was chickpea salad to start, followed by chicken arrabiata and a pistachio dessert. We were only given water to drink; no sign of any more beer or wine coming round.

After dinner I tried in vain to sleep. I cannot sleep sitting up at the best of times, and they were not the most comfortable of seats. It wasn’t helped by the bloke in front reclining his seat back and cutting into my space; also the lady next to me had a number of bags on the floor and on her lap, and she was determined to spread them, and herself, out as best she could. So I just had to sit there, rigidly upright, and count the hours and minutes slowly passing.

Eventually we touched down in Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi, at 9.30am local time. We now had to sit around and wait for our two-hour flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Homeward Bound

We were awake this morning well before the alarm-call, so I got up and decided to have a long, hot shower as we knew we had a long day ahead of us.  We packed up our cases, labelled them and left them for collection outside our room.

I felt an ominous rumbling in my nether regions and thought “oh no, not Delhi Belly just before a long-haul flight…!”

We enjoyed a good breakfast but, after I had to run to the loo again half way through, I decided to pop a couple of Imodium Plus capsules, to stop any cases of the galloping trots before they started.  We then went back to our room, had a final check around before picking up our carry-on bags and making our way to reception.

It only took about 30 minutes to get to Indira Gandhi International Airport, where the Virgin Atlantic desk was already open and there were no queues.  We therefore checked in our luggage straight away.   🙂

There were not many shops or cafés landside, so we decided to go through security and have a look around the duty-free shops and find somewhere to sit and relax, as we had about three hours to wait before our flight.

I thought I would try some new perfume and, after looking around the shop and trying some of the testers, I settled on a bottle of Valentino Donna, which had fruity top-notes (raspberries) and warm vanilla base notes.  It was $105.00 for the 100ml bottle, about 65 quid.  They also threw in a free cosmetic bag and a free men’s shower gel for Trevor.   🙂

There was nothing else I wanted to buy, so we decided to go and find a bar.  We weren’t going in the executive lounge this time; we discovered that you had to pay for alcoholic drinks in the lounge (as well as the £15 per head entrance fee) so it wasn’t worth it.  Instead, we found a bar with a good view of the aircraft and hangars, and we settled down with a cold Kingfisher beer each, and just relaxed and enjoyed the ambiance, talking over some of the fantastic things we’d seen on this memorable trip.

Once we’d finished our second beers, it was time to start making our way to the airport gate.  The round of four cans of Kingfisher beer turned out to be very expensive – 25 quid by the time they’d added their taxes and service charge on.

We walked along the endless corridors and travellators before we reached our gate, and discovered that flight VS301 to London Heathrow was boarding already, so we joined the end of the queue.

it turned out to be the same brand-new aeroplane that we’d flown out on; this time our seats were in row 61 and I’d requested an aisle seat because of my dodgy tum.  In any case there were quite a lot of empty seats on the aircraft; the flight was obviously not full and I ended up with a vacant seat beside me.

Not a lot else to say really.  One long-haul flight is pretty much like another one.  Pre-dinner drinks, meal, post-prandial drinks, in-flight entertainment (I watched the 2015 docu-film Amy about the life of Amy Winehouse – it was great!).  Trying in vain to sleep, etc.

The only annoyance was the Indian couple in front of us – I think they were mother and daughter.  The daughter put her seat back as soon as the plane was airborne almost into Trevor’s lap.  She then stretched herself out over the vacant seat next to her (which was in front of me).  That was not enough, however, and she ended up putting the seat back in front of me!  How many bl**dy seats did she want?!  We forced the seats upright again, viewing her glaring face through the gaps; one of the cabin crew guys said he would see if he could move us if we became uncomfortable.  Honestly – some people are incredibly inconsiderate when it comes to other passengers.   😦

The time passed slowly as it always does when you’re flying home from holiday.  Once we were within an hour of landing, the cabin crew came around with a light meal and some tea and coffee; they’d barely got it cleared up when the “Fasten Seatbelts” sign was switched on and flight VS301 started its final approach into Heathrow.

When we disembarked the aircraft it was cold, but still fairly mild for November.  We made our way through security to the baggage hall, and had absolutely ages to wait until our cases appeared on the carousel.  All around us people were collecting their bags and saying their goodbyes; some only had 30 minutes to an hour to get home, while we were trying not to think about the six-hour journey we still had to come, back to the North-East.   😦

Eventually we retrieved our bags and made our way to the Arrivals hall, where a private car would be waiting to drive us all the way home.  Our chauffeuse was a pleasant Brazilian lady and she was taking Trevor and me, as well as another lady from Bishop Auckland (about 14 miles from Durham) home.

The car was a Skoda Octavia which was large and comfortable; there was plenty of leg room and there was bottled water and tissues in the door pockets for us.  We left the airport at 7.15pm, so we weren’t expecting to get home before 01:00am, by the time stops were included.  And we had to get up for work in the morning!   😦

As it happened, however, no-one really needed a break.  So we managed to reach our front door at 00:15 hours – five hours after leaving the airport.  Then it was into the house, dump the bags, and straight into bed as we were obviously still on Indian time, so it felt like the middle of the night.

Another great holiday had come to an end.  Here’s to the next one!   🙂

In A Jam from Jaipur

It was a later start again this morning – 8.00am – but before we went along for breakfast we had to pack our cases and leave them outside for collection; we had the long journey almost back to Delhi to undergo today for our final night in India.   😦

Afterwards we assembled in reception and watched the cases being loaded on as we awaited the call to board our bus.  Then everyone piled on and once more we were on our way.

En route we were given the chance to photograph the distinctive Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds).  The palace is a five-storey pyramidal shaped monument that rises 50 feet (15m) from its high base. The top three floors of the structure have a dimension of one room width while the first and second floors have patios in front of them. The front elevation, as seen from the street, is like a honeycomb web of a beehive, built with small portholes. Each porthole has miniature windows and carved sandstone grills, finials and domes. It gives the appearance of a mass of semi-octagonal bays, giving the monument its unique façade. The inner face on the back side of the building consists of need-based chambers built with pillars and corridors with minimal ornamentation, and reach up to the top floor.  It certainly was a sight to behold.

Off we went once again and, when I wasn’t looking out of the window, I spent the time reading my Kindle, listening to music on my iPod, chatting or napping.  We weren’t due to arrive at the hotel until around 4.30pm, but Peter said we’d have plenty of comfort stops, including lunch, on the way.  Of course, there was also Harry, with his bottomless basket of cold Kingfisher beer.   😉

We arrived at a small, unassuming rest stop for lunch.  While they had a full Indian and Chinese menu, we decided just to settle for a sandwich; Trevor had a cheese toastie and I had fried egg.  We knew we’d get a big meal tonight.

Afterwards we had a little browse around the gift shop, but it was really just selling the same sort of stuff as all the other places we’d visited, so we didn’t bother buying anything.  We decided to make use of the restrooms, as we didn’t know how long it was going to be until the next stop.  As usual, we had to hand over a 10 rupee note to the “toilet attendant” for a couple of sheets or toilet paper or a paper towel.  At least the loos we’d been to on this trip had not been too nasty; we’ve seen much worse!

Back on the bus we set off again, down the dual carriageway and just whiled away the time.  Our driver Malekith, however spoke briefly to Peter, who advised us that there was a tremendous traffic jam ahead, a tailback of about 25 kilometres.  Oh dear!  We would, if we got the chance, try to find another route to get us to the hotel on time.

Around 3.15pm we felt a slight lurch in the bus, then heard a sort of flapping sound.  It could only mean one thing – a puncture.  Malekith pulled the bus over at the first opportunity he had, which was in a sort of truck stop next to what looked like a spare tyre place – India’s equivalent of Quik-Fit.   🙂

Peter said we could either stay on the bus or get off and stretch our legs, as long as we didn’t venture far, and certainly to keep off the busy road.  We decided to get off and have a look at the damage.

The burst tyre was the rear offside inner tyre (as coaches have four wheels, i.e. 2 x 2 at the rear) so Malekith and Harry had to remove the outer wheel to get to the inner one.  The wheel nuts were on very tight and, while Harry slowly jacked up the bus, Malekith had some considerable effort loosening each of the nuts before the wheel would come off.  Then he had to repeat the process with the wheel that contained the burst tyre.

As all this was going on, we walked about while some people just stayed on the bus.  Arriving and departing wagon drivers left their cabs and came over to have a look, or to help.  The outer wheel was eventually placed on the inside, and the next step was to retrieve the spare wheel to put on the outside (if you get my drift).

What a job it turned out to be!  The spare wheel was screwed onto a bracket under the front of the bus, the only access to which was via a removable plate at the front.  The space was tiny and, even though the two Indian guys were slightly built, a very tight squeeze, with hardly any room for manoeuvre.

To cut a long story short, it was a full hour and a half before the wheel was replaced and we were ready to continue on our way.  The time was now 4.45pm – so much for getting to the hotel by 4.30pm.  In fact we’d be lucky to make it for 6.30pm.

Once we were underway again, Malekith said he would try another route in order to avoid the traffic tailback.  So we went so far up the dual carriageway before turning round and coming back down the other side.  We passed the truck stop where we’d stopped to change the wheel, and noted that it was a full two hours since we’d arrived there; in other words, we’d made zero progress in two hours.   😦

Dusk was now falling as the bus made its way through the minor roads and backstreets.  Some of them were really poorly lit and it was difficult to see anything out of the window.  We went so far until we found ourselves in the middle of an enormous queue of lorries, stuck fast bumper to bumper (quite literally, you would not have been able to put your finger into the space between the bumpers).  Nothing was moving at all, and the incessant honking of horns didn’t help matters at all.

Our driver then decided he wasn’t staying in the queue, and pulled out to overtake the long line, on the wrong side of the road.  There was a collective sharp intake of breath when we saw the approaching headlights of a vehicle coming straight at us, but as ever it was a case of “the biggest wins” as the car swerved off the road at the last minute, in order to let us past.

Thus we continued our journey in a similar manner; in fact there were four lanes of traffic crammed into a two-lane road, and we watched in disbelief as two trucks went along, neck and neck with neither being prepared to give an inch; in the meantime a guy on a motorbike blithely sneaked through the space between them, with inches to spare.

The hours slowly passed – 7.00pm, 8.00pm and 9.00pm – still no sign of us reaching our hotel.  There was nothing we could do about it, so there was no point complaining.  This was the British “stiff upper lip” – we just had to get on with it.   🙂

Eventually the traffic thinned out and we were told it was about 40km (28 miles) to the hotel.  We arrived at around 10:15pm and thankfully left the bus, stretching out the kinks in our backs and legs.  We were told we could go straight to the dining room for our dinner, but first of all we wanted to go to our room and get washed and get some of the day’s dust and grime off us.

The hotel was the Trident Gurgaon, and was probably the poshest and grandest one we’d stayed at this trip.  It was all pillars and columns, high ceilings and doorways, and a fantastic atmospherically-lit outdoor pool surrounded by lily ponds and fountains.  It was a pity we’d arrived over five hours late, and had missed out on some of our time here!   😦

The meal was, as ever, delicious and I washed it down with a glass of sauvignon blanc wine (too late for Happy Hour this time!)

By the time we’d finished our meal we were too tired to go to the bar for a nightcap, so we just went straight to room 103, at the end of a scented corridor.  The beds were big and comfortable with crisp cotton sheets and plump pillows. We looked forward to a good night’s sleep.