Published: June 5th 2005May 24th 2005
Mother and child
Rhinos grazing peacefully in the lush jungle grass
It was not easy to leave India, not because we did not want to but because several obstacles were put in our way. Our plan was to reach the Chitwan National Park (Nepal)
in one day, but as you can imagine it did not work out. Somehow we got the impression that national parks - be it in India or Nepal - must be hard to reach to give them an air of exclusivity. Theoretically Varanasi is a perfect starting point for Nepal, but due to the political problems tourist numbers are dwindling and it was difficult to find transport other than local. Our train to Gorakhpur was due to leave shortly before midnight, we would arrive around 8 a.m., then take a bus to the Nepalese border and from the Nepalese town of Sunauli somehow get to the Chitwan National Park. Gorakhpur is normally around 5hrs from Varanasi but this would have been too short overnight and so we had opted for a passenger train. You will have guessed, dear readers, that our train was running late. On this journey we found out that a train in India loses its priority as soon as it runs late, which only adds
Line of working elephants
Elephants close to the Royal Chitwan National Park on their way to work
to its delay, of course. We arrived in Gorakhpur
only around noon, we had expected to be at the border by that time. We already had not found any breakfast and it looked as if we would have to skip lunch too, when fortunately Klaudia found some delicious looking lychees and we at least had some vitamins. Finding a bus to the border was also not an easy task and finally we turned to a travel agency selling us tickets for an “express” bus at a rather high rate. First we were only four on the bus, us and two Frenchmen we had already met in Varanasi and we thought the bus would leave soon (departure had been announced for 12:20) but we had to wait for another half hour in the boiling heat. (The unbearable temperatures are the main reason why we could not wait getting to Nepal.) It goes without saying that the bus filled up, though not as dramatically as we had got used to. We arrived at the border without problems, there we hired a bicycle rickshaw to take us to the Indian immigration office for our exit stamp. We had been told in Varanasi that
The elephant comes back with a huge bundle of elephant grass
we would be able to pay the Nepali visa in Indian rupees and that the Indian currency was accepted everywhere in Nepal as a parallel currency to the Nepali rupee. So we had withdrawn some more cash in Varanasi and did not bother about the 60 $ for the visa. Then an officer at the Indian border post told Stephan that the Nepalese only accepted dollars, no Indian rupees or credit cards, and sent him to the exchange office next door where it took much precious time to sort it all out. We would not want to know what execrable exchange rates they used! Finally everything was ready and we crossed the Nepalese border on foot.
We could hardly believe it, we were in Nepal, the top of the world!!! It was already 4 p.m. but we got the visa without any problems, and guess what, we could of course have paid in Indian rupees. We walked into Sunauli
in order to find any bus to the Chitwan National Park. Quite soon the differences to India became visible: the place was very clean, we never saw men using any spot that suited them as outdoor latrines and people were
Akash the ferryman
Our guides accompanied us everywhere and took very good care of us
overwhelmingly friendly. This may be due to the fact that Nepal, unlike India, relies heavily on tourism for income or because people were so by nature, to us it was very welcome. Quite soon we found out that the buses left from the Hotel Plaza, so we tried to find our way there, which we managed with the kind help of many Nepalese. Don’t get the impression that we were somehow lost, they were just fond of asking us whether they could help us. Everybody spoke excellent English, another sign of the impact of tourism. In the hotel we heard about the curfew for the first time and it quite puzzled us. The man at the travel agency counter told us that it started at 8 p.m. and that we had no chance getting to Chitwan this day, come what may. So he offered us a hotel room in a town on the way, the furthest we could come, saying that we could travel on in peace next morning. We were not sure whether he was not simply trying to make business on our ignorance (our guidebook was of a time before the difficult political situation). But we had to
Although it was small, we were happy not to be too close
wait for the bus anyway and decided to get some more information. The information on the curfew turned out to be correct, all Nepal apart from Pokhara and Kathmandu was touched, although opinions differed on its starting point. Then Stephan ran into another travel agent who would sell us a package for Chitwan and he said that we would certainly avoid the curfew if we took the next bus. In order to comfort us, the young man would even travel with us and take us to the hotel. It sounded really good and we gladly accepted. The bus arrived when we were still in the travel agency and Klaudia got quite nervous heading for the bus to find good seats. She was soon calmed down and shown the seats (they were numbered) and felt rather ashamed about her uncivilised behaviour, explaining it by the fact that she had spent more than three months in India. This outing soothed the Nepalese and they smiled benignantly.
The bus started around 7 p.m. and we watched the scenery like small children would. How good that our seats were in the driver’s cabin, this greatly enhanced our visibility! We once again noticed the
Seen from a safe distance, it looked really cute
cleanliness, an impression that should follow us all through the country. Unfortunately we did not drive far, only to the central bus stand, where we waited for other passengers for one hour. Finally the journey was taken up again, our ‘travel guide’ had taken seat beside us and was chattering away. On the way the bus stopped and we had dinner, our first real meal of the day. Everybody ate a kind of Nepalese thali there but we refused and ordered noodle soup with eggs. It came almost without liquid, thick with noodles and vegetables, but without spoons. But we also got hold of the appropriate cutlery and enjoyed our first Nepalese dish. It was really good, tasty, hot and slightly spicy, on the other hand we were almost starving. The presence of the military forces was rather obtrusive and we felt uneasy by it, the bus had to pass several checkpoints, once a soldier with a huge rifle entered the bus, checking the Nepalese travellers’ identities and searching some of the bags. Although it was already dark outside, we enjoyed the scenery as much as we could, we passed through wooded hills on a perfectly tarred road, twice we
This bird displays the special headgear only during mating season
chased owls up on our way. All of a sudden, the bus came to a halt and the word ‘curfew’ quickly spread through the bus. Several buses were already waiting, then another bus arrived behind us, ignoring the barricades, our bus hung on to it and several buses drove in a convoy. What a narrow escape! Unfortunately we had to stop again around 11 p.m. and this time there was no escaping the curfew. We had to spend the night in the bus. Klaudia was lucky and had one bench for herself, but Stephan had to spend the night outside until the mosquitoes drove him up the roof, where he joined other men. Mysteriously, the first buses started again around 3:30 a.m., we never found out how they knew the curfew was lifted, our bus crossed a bridge and we had to get off, being in the place closest to the national park where this bus could get. We were horrified when we found out how close to many hotels we had spent a rather horrible night. If somebody had told us, we would have crossed the bridge in the night, telling the soldiers that we had booked a hotel
Mother and child having a bath
The rhinos' skin is as sensitive as the elephants', so they also enjoy staying in the water
room. But everybody told us this would have been impossible and no hotel would have opened its doors out of fear of the military forces. We learnt our lesson, we had been too ambitious, it would have been better to accept the first travel agent’s offer and arrive refreshed in the national park.
We were standing anywhere on a crossing in Narayanghat, freezing in the cool morning air and as a result of our lack of sleep, our young Nepalese guide even more wretched than us. Arjun tried to find a phone so that he could call the hotel in Sauraha, the village by the Chitwan National Park. Of course he could not find any, at that early hour every shop was still closed. Stephan considered going to some hotel in order to find some hours of sleep, but those were closed as well. Later on we moved away from the crossing to another street where the shops were just opening and had some nice morning tea. Finally Arjun managed to get through and triumphantly announced that we would soon be picked up. In the meantime we watched what was going on all around us. A lot of cleaning
Male rhino in a pool
This one displays an impressive horn
was done, the rubbish was piled into a big heap and we supposed that it would be collected some time. As early as 6 a.m. schoolchildren walked by on their way to school, all in different uniforms depending on the school they attended. Around 7 a.m. the jeep arrived, which pleased us as it meant the end of our Nepalese odyssey. Our guide Prakash was very friendly and had a young, frank and funny face. He was always good-humoured and so thin that some stronger wind might have blown him away. During our time in the national park we grew really fond of him and always felt well looked after. He told us that last evening they had turned up and waited for us as long as possible, until the army drove them away. We did not drive for a long time, thank God, because the roads we took were utterly bad. We refreshed in the hotel, the room was nicely furnished and squeaky clean as well as the bathroom, we even had toilet paper, a ‘luxury’ we had often been denied in India. After a quick breakfast we decided not to have as rest immediately but to profit from
Rhino stepping out of the wood
This one was perfect for a wonderful picture
the cool temperatures and visited the Elephant Breeding Centre. Elephants are raised and trained there for their later use as working elephants and for tourism purposes. We learnt many interesting details about training elephants, their development and other zoological facts. Furthermore, this place’s aim is to uphold the complicated and wide-ranging knowledge of the elephant trainers and mahouts. We saw around ten cute elephant babies with their mothers, the smallest only two weeks of age. Prakash asked us whether we would like to feed the baby elephants and since we had some biscuits with us, Klaudia held one into the fenced area. A small elephant quickly arrived and gulped the first biscuit down greedily. We asked for permission to feed him another one and were granted it. Then a smaller elephant approached and Klaudia turned her attention to this one, she had already fed the other elephant with several biscuits. The bigger baby elephant was quite annoyed and jealous of the little one and managed to escape through the fence. Although he was still very young, he may have weighed 200 kg already and charged at Klaudia with his bowed head. He bumped into her stomach and drove her backwards,
Of course they also moved away from us
closer and closer to the edge of a low trench. Klaudia tried to push him back but to no avail, the small elephant was simply too strong. Then she got frightened and started shouting in a high-pitched voice, which unfortunately only further irritated the animal. Then Prakash intervened, soothing the elephant with low cooing sounds and finally managed to drive him off. Klaudia could climb up the trench and the small elephant withdrew behind the fence again. Nothing had happened to Klaudia, only small scratches but her body trembled a bit ad she did not want to stay much longer. At 10:30 a boat took us to the river where we waited for the elephants. The riverside is dotted with cafeterias and terraces, tourists’ paradise. The show of the elephant bathing could begin. In principle, the elephants are led by the mahouts to the river for their daily hygiene. They deliberately splash themselves with water to cool down and are scrubbed by the humans in order to rid the pachyderms of obnoxious parasites. The sight of this itself is hilarious, but to enhance the tourists’ pleasure, they are allowed to sit on the elephant’s back while all this is happening.
Another rhino's backside
We are especially fond of this one grazing in the lush vegetation
Stephan had great fun with the elephant and Klaudia enjoyed watching and taking pictures. The Nepalese do know what tourists like! They are also very fond of children and were especially patient with a 4-year old Columbian boy who would not get down from the elephants. Around noon we walked back to the hotel, had lunch and a rest. In the afternoon we went for a walk with Prakash, first we visited a house from a minority family, then we walked a bit along a creek and saw some male elephants which were just given vitamin shots by a veterinarian. We had dinner at the hotel and went to bed rather early in order to make up for last night and also because the following day would be packed.
Next morning we were up at 05:15 a.m., had early breakfast and walked to the entrance of the national park for the canoe ride. The Chitwan National Park is very well guarded by a large military corps. You walk by their camp on the way to the park and it always gave us an uneasy feeling. We were on the canoe for about half an hour with Prakash and Akash,
Male spotted deer
Impressive stag in the dense forest
another guide. We saw some birds, though we had expected to se many more, and two small crocodiles warming themselves up for the day on as sandbank. Then we started our jungle walk in the middle of the two guides. They were both armed with large sticks and Prakash intimidated us when he explained how to behave on encountering a rhino, a tiger or a sloth bear. The rhino was the most dangerous species and we were given the advice to climb a tree when we got too close. Should we not find a tree, we should throw our camera or backpack at them to keep them busy sniffing and we would have about 10 minutes to save ourselves. All the way, Stephan and I were on the lookout for climbable trees and quite worried that we could hardly detect any! We can tell you right away, we did not see any of the animals mentioned before, only their leftovers and a group of macaques at the very end. Still, we enjoyed the jungle walk, admiring the different plants and listening to the ear-splitting noise of crickets. We crossed the river in another boat and watched the elephant bathing again,
We came across all kinds of plants during our jungle walk
then we walked back to the hotel, had lunch and a longer siesta, our next appointment was only at 03:45 p.m. This time not elephant bathing but elephant riding. We were taken to a platform for climbing the elephant, where a Mexican tourist was already waiting. Everybody hoped to se rhinos this time, the Mexican had not seen any this morning either. Sitting on an elephant definitely has the advantage of the different perspective but it was still quite uncomfortable. There were paths but still many twigs were dashed into your face or around your arms and legs and we spent some time fending them off. All the trouble with plants and insects crawling about our extremities were forgotten when the first group of rhinos entered our field of vision. They stood right before us, a male and a female with a baby, peacefully grazing and not all disturbed by our presence, due to the elephant. When e saw them we could hardly believe how these huge and plump animals could be aggressive and dangerous. The weird thing about the adult rhinos was that they lacked their horns. When we asked the guide about it he told us that often
Klaudia found this one on the street but found it beautiful nevertheless
rhinos’ horns were eaten by bats. We had some problems accepting this explanation and could not say whether he was serious or pulling our leg. The elephant steadily walked on and we did not have to wait long for the next rhino. It was a big male having his bath in a small pond. Small frogs were hopping on and of his body, how funny! This one had a nice horn and we were happy to see that not all horns got eaten away. The guide led the elephant into the very pond, closer and closer to the rhino until it almost stepped on his head. The rhino was not very pleased by this intrusion into his private bathtub and backed away as far as he could, anyway he feared the elephant. We also crossed the river where the elephant got to its knees to refresh itself in the water. In the forest we saw even more rhinos, partly hidden by huge trees and found out that they liked open grassland best, which was perfect for nice pictures. We were very glad that we had seen 9 rhinos in roughly 3 hours, how wonderful. That evening we spent watching a
Are they fighting or are they mating?
Nepalese cultural program, where different dances were performed. We normally don’t like such tourist stuff, but it was much better than we expected and for the last dance, everybody was invited, Prakash and Akash got quite active and convinced Stephan to take part, too.
Next morning we were up early again for bird watching. Actually, we did not see many of our winged friends but another rhino in the river. We have to admit it fascinated us more than the tits, bulbuls, herons and marabous we spotted. Life is unfair, isn’t it? Never mind, we enjoyed the Chitwan National Park very much, with its friendly people, fascinating animals and beautiful landscape. Our first contact with Nepal left a positive impression on us, this country deserves more tourists than are coming at the moment. Hopefully they will be able to sort out their political problems and become a major tourist destination again.
There are more photos below