19 Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh
NEPAL December 2000
The Kingdom of Nepal is a tourist paradise. It has the Himalayan trekking, river rafting, historic places and friendly people. Good food, beer and handmade crafts are available.
In the forests of Royal Bardia National Park we followed tiger tracks, on foot this time. No luck! Also found no one-horned rhino but saw the funny gharial crocodile with bulging eyes and long narrow snout.
It was mid winter (December) but warm in the Terai valley parallel to the Himalayan foothills. The road was built up high above the rice fields. Suddenly Jan swerved violently to the left, nearly off the high embankment. A cyclist had shot out of a side road without looking. Evasive action was of no avail. He hit our vehicle on the side and tumbled off the bicycle. We stopped at the next police barrier, where we had to remain for 25 hours. He was taken to hospital. Family members came and village councillors and other policemen. Eventually they signed a statement that he was completely to blame, but we could still not leave.. After a visit to the hospital where he was recovering from concussion, cuts and bruises, we settled on an amount of money to cover medical costs. This was to avoid being detained for maybe weeks until a court case could be heard.
We continued north and soon saw the magnificent Himalayan mountain panorama.
Pokhara is the centre for trekking in the western region. The Anapurna range is the great attraction. Walks and views and lakeside camping with Swiss friends was sheer bliss. So was Jan’s first steak in 2 months. Fillet steak from the supermarket was a very reasonable US$2.00/kg (R15.00/kg). Cattle are not allowed to be slaughtered at all in Nepal, so beef is imported from India where it may be slaughtered for export only! The views and breathing in Kathmandu was not so good.
However there was much to enjoy, like Buddhist and Hindu temples, pagodas and palaces, buildings decorated with woodcarving, Gurkha soldier traditions and knives, cheap Internet and a variety of good restaurants. When we got away from the city air pollution, Mt Everest was still not visible.
We returned to the Terai valley towards the east of Nepal. We entered India where the tea plantations of Nepal and the famous ones of Darjeeling meet.
Tourist visas are restrictive and very expensive. (For 2 persons: US$460/day). As the immigration post at the one border town,
Phuentsholing, is 5km inland, one can walk into this small Buddhist country for a day. We saw intricately decorated buildings and watched people in hand-woven traditional dress. India almost surrounds it but high Himalayan peaks in the north divide Bhutan and Tibet. Unlike in Tibet, the Buddhist culture is actively promoted. Traditional Buthanese artistry is supported by all; also by the King who, we read, had married 4 sisters in 1988!
We had obtained our visa for this Muslim country in Delhi. We lined up at the border with hundreds of trucks loaded with rocks, from India. (This flat, flood plain country has no stone. Rocks and bricks are hammered into gravel by hand, for road and building construction)
The main roads were surprisingly good for such a poor country.The many buses travelled at great speed and we and the many rickshaws speedily made way when the hooting missiles approached. Road signs were in Bangla squiggles only,. but some individual could always point us in the right direction (though we would only set off if at least 2 people pointed in the same direction!). Tourists are a rare sight and people crowded around us, sometimes for most of the night, where we were parked at a filling station.
In spite of the population density (3 times more populated per square km than India, which has 1 000 000 000), the air was clear and the countryside green. Large rivers provide irrigation for rice, sugar cane, jute and palm oil, but also cause disastrous flooding.
We went into India again and travelled from the tea estates in the north to Konark, south of Calcutta. An interesting ancient temple and a nice beach there was our Christmas treat. Orissa state is famous for textiles and
bags decorated with small mirrors. In Andrah Pradesh there were many roadside temples and large painted deities like the popular elephant and monkey gods. The 2000 km from Calcutta to Madras, once again was ‘running the gauntlet’ of Indian traffic. We saw several human bodies by the roadside; apparently killed in accidents but ignored by the passing throngs!
By New Year we had reached Chennai/ Madras. Very few Overlanders seem to come here, so no company or revelry for us. By then we had learned to avoid the “poisonous” Indian beers with names like “Godfather”, “Bullet” and “Black (K) night”! “Kingfisher” standard, was drinkable. We had pleasant parking in the garden of the Youth Hostel. We could not find the usual willing hands, so had to use the laundry facility provided, a concrete slab next to a tap. At a small shack on the street corner we could have ironing done for a few rupees.. But the biggest bonus was Indian classical music in the YH grounds, next to us, for 6 evenings.
It took Jan more than two weeks and much commuting by tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) to arrange the shipping to Malaysia. (while Leoné took in some more temples). We flew ahead to Kuala Lumpur. Then there was a dock strike in India and what should have been a 4-day voyage turned into a three-week wait…