Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rhinos, and Tigers, and Bears! Oh My!

We started running. We started running while trying to be as quiet as possible. On gravel. Toward the supposed location of a rhinoceros.

If you had been present for the morning debriefing on how to behave in the event that we were attacked by a tiger, sloth bear, or rhinoceros, you would be questioning our decision to run at a dangerous animal. I know I was.

After a leisurely canoe trip and two hours walking through the jungle, plunging through towering, eight-foot-tall elephant grass, and following meandering paths to check various watering holes, our “guarantee 100% you see rhino” was beginning to seem less and less likely. And the heat of the Nepali plains was gearing up, inching its way up toward 110. So when another tour guide alerted our guide about a nearby rhinoceros, running commenced.

Now, as awe-inspiring as it was to crouch in the underbrush watching this armored truck of an animal, one of only 503 known to be in Nepal, it was also slightly distressing. And I do mean in more ways than only the fear of being charged by such a behemoth.

Who are we to be invading this creature’s space? To be building resorts and campgrounds within their territory? To be stalking them as they lounge in a murky pool trying to beat the midday blaze? What hubris allows us to think we are powerful enough to stalk them unprotected and on foot?

Nature Reserves and National Parks are not zoos. Perhaps if the animals are not easily visible from the safety of a vehicle, we should leave them be. After all, I don’t go tracking grizzlies unarmed in the U.S. National Parks carrying only a walking stick. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tucked Away

Stepping off the tourist trail can be something of a gamble. The well-tread path is beaten for a reason, and with it comes ease of finding an affordable guesthouse, ease of transportation, a tendency toward having English menus, speaking English in general, and having Western amenities. Along with all our well-touristed stops in Nepal, we decided to make a pitstop. 

Tansen, or Palpa as it is locally known, is situated some six hours away from Pokhara. That’s six hours of sardined in a public bus snaking down Nepal’s Siddhartha Highway, a mountain road barely wide enough for the numerous buses to pass without their mirrors kissing.

The town itself is practically carved into the mountainside. Lanes and alleys stacked on one another, buildings tiered. Woven in between shops and restaurants, numerous shrines and temples tucked away. Mother goats sleep in the shade, their offspring prancing around them.

And somehow, this small town, in some ways so sleepy and quiet, managed to be the loudest small town we’ve encountered. Buses, motorbikes, and cars honked their way along, announcing the fact of forward movement. Tractors hauled empty trailers that banged and hammered their presence along the narrow streets. It was quite a feat, to have such a tiny place rival the noise of a big city.

Getting away from that can sometimes reveal a country’s hidden gems. Other times, it is simply guidebooks trying to create something from nothing. Tansen fell somewhere in the middle of those two.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pokhara Picnic

In stark contrast to Kathmandu’s hustle and bustle, Pokhara is a relatively peaceful city. Situated alongside Nepal’s third largest lake and known primarily as the starting point for the Annapurna treks, Pokhara made for a quiet place to simply relax.

Even for those of us not heading out to conquer any portion of the Himalaya mountain range, the city boasted several days’ worth of leisurely sights and activities. That is, once you got away from the tourist-aimed shops, trekking guides, and touts.

High above the lake, the Japanese-built Buddhist World Peace pagoda offered breathtaking views, after a hike that made it hard enough to breathe in the first place. (This was our first encounter with what was considered a “leisurely stroll” in the Nepal Lonely Planet.)

Unfortunately, we largely missed out on Pokhara’s famed views across the nearby mountain peaks, as it rained every morning and evening during our visit, leaving the views hazy the rest of the time.

The city buses made it a simple task to visit nearby waterfalls and cave temples. The Old City’s brick buildings and slow pace offered a glimpse into Pokhara’s past. And Nepali snacks of momos (dumplings), sekuwa (water buffalo jerkey), choyla (dried water buffalo with chili and garlic), and more momos were readily available.

Not a bad way to spend a couple of days. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chaos and Calm in Kathmandu

Flying into Kathmandu has the feeling of suddenly coming upon a pile of blocks spilled by some child giant; individual, brightly-colored, multistory buildings dot the landscape in jumbles and clusters.

On the ground, things aren’t much more organized. Dusty roads weave and wind. Buses, vans, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and rickshaws vie for their place, honking and passing without mercy. Cows meander and graze in streets and empty lots.

But amid all the chaos, secreted away down side streets and back alleys, it is easy to find respite in the city’s numerous oases of religion. Temples, stupas, and shrines offer occasional bits of silence. Prayer flags flap in the breeze. Bells are rung. Tibetan child monks play games behind monasteries. Prayer wheels spin. Devotees circumambulate.

It’s a city of sound and silence. Of concrete buildings and of ancient Newari architecture. A city of Hinduism, of Buddhism, of Lamaism. A city of multiple languages, but also English. Tucked away in a valley, but surrounded by the world’s highest peaks.

It’s a city where serenity and history are available in all the commotion, if only one looks for it.