Overland From Delhi to Nepal

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July 13th 2019
Published: July 13th 2019
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"If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a gurkha." (from a poster in Kathmandu)

"Were there nothing else in Nepal save the Durbar Square of Bhatgaun, it would still be amply worth making a journey halfway round the globe to see." (E.A.Powell 1929)

I was travelling with my great friend from HCMC, Ajay. He is Indian, and in Delhi I stayed with his family. It was Ajay’s idea that we go to Nepal. In retrospect, we should have flown from Delhi to Kathmandu (KTM for short). The overland journey – by train and bus and bicycle rickshaw - although not terrible was unmemorable and a waste of two precious days. When we arrived in KTM, we were frazzled after spending a night on a sleeper train (from Delhi to Gorakhpur) and a night on a Nepali bus (from Bhairawa to KTM). The bus was so cold I had to don my fleece, and the loud music videos until 11pm made sleep impossible. After 11pm we slept fitfully.

The hotel I’d booked online in KTM was well-placed, comfortable and very friendly, but KTM was forgettable – a tourist town full of ugly modern buildings. There were three highlights in KTM: the lovely Boudanath Stupa (a World Heritage site), where the prayer wheels were a fascinating novelty; the Paleti Restaurant, where we ate buckwheat roti; and meeting Madhu, a friend of a friend (Ian Raitt), who was going to be our guide in Dhulikhel. Madhu was a lovely man who presented us with a piece of yellow Nepali cloth and then took us to a restaurant, where I drank a bottle of Gorkha beer, my only beer of the holiday.

After two nights in KTM, we took the bus to Pokhara, where Madhu had booked us a hotel. The scenery en route was spectacular, the bus following a river gorge with a sheer drop on the right-hand side. Thankfully Nepali traffic travels on the left (the same as India), so we were safe. Every so often we would pass a flimsy-looking suspension footbridge spanning the churning brown water below.

Suddenly our comfortable journey came to a halt. The traffic stopped moving, because ahead of us there had been a terrible accident. I left the bus and walked 100 metres down the road to witness a gruesome scene. A minibus had been crushed like a concertina between two larger vehicles. Unconscious people covered in blood lay by the roadside, and men worked feverishly to free the minibus driver, who was trapped in his seat. When he emerged, he was inert and blood-covered, probably dead. Injured passengers – some able to walk, some unconscious, all of them bloodied – were taken to small ambulances. One woman was in a parlous state: her leg had been mangled and stripped of skin, and she was unconscious, possibly dead. I took a single photo of the accident scene and felt guilty about doing so. Other people were taking photo after photo on their smartphones, which I thought was ghoulish.

After about 50 minutes the road had been cleared of wreckage, and we continued our journey. Definitely the worst accident it has been my misfortune to witness.

Pokhara was delightful. Our hotel, the New Pokhara Lodge, was old-fashioned and quiet yet handy for the tourist area. My bed was large and comfortable, and I slept like a baby. The hotel factotum, Raj, was the soul of courtesy and hospitality.

A highlight of Pokhara was the evening aarti by the lakeside. This is a Hindu religious ceremony. We stumbled across it on our first evening and went back for more the next day. Ajay told me this particular aarti was a copy of the great aarti in Varanasi. To the accompaniment of music and song, three men danced gracefully for an hour, burning incense and offering flames to the Hindu deities. There was a seated crowd and many people standing. We were the only tourists. I had no idea what was going on, but it was a wonderful occasion – the music and dancing uniquely beautiful, the lakeside venue with hills in the background and the twilight hour adding to the serene ambiance.

After the aarti, on our first evening, we dined in an upstairs restaurant. In Pokhara I had discovered momos – dumplings with a spicy vegetable interior - and ordered a plateful. Fresh from eating delicious buckwheat roti in KTM, Ajay ordered buckwheat as part of his regulation vegetarian thali. What arrived, however, was nothing like the dark scrumptious roti slices we had enjoyed in KTM. The buckwheat here took the form of a large brown glutinous mass. For all the world, it looked like a dollop of elephant shit. I tasted it; it was bland with the consistency of mashed potato. Ajay swiftly summoned the waiter and ordered boiled rice instead. We joked about the ‘elephant shit’ meal for the rest of the holiday.

The highlight of our second day in Pokhara was the walk through the forest to the World Peace Pagoda. We followed a trail for two hours, far away from the road, in the bosom of Mother Nature. I was dripping with sweat and finding the going tough. There were no signs or people to point us in the right direction, but I told Ajay that if we kept on climbing, we would eventually reach the hilltop where the Pagoda was. It was a lovely walk marred only by my accident.

As we were leaving the town and entering the forest, I urgently needed a crap and asked a man if I could use his toilet. It was a squat toilet, which I am very used to from living in Asia and Africa. While I was defecating, my feet slipped, and I fell backwards. Instinctively putting out my left hand, my strong hand, to break the fall and save my shorts from being soiled, I sprained two fingers. As I write this, the injury is still with me.

That little accident was a nuisance rather than a calamity, and I put it out of my mind as we walked uphill through the trees.

Eventually we arrived at a small restaurant beneath the Pagoda and ordered cold drinks. Ajay noticed blood on one of my feet and, taking off my sandal, I discovered a leech. My first leech since Borneo in 2003. I washed the blood off, but the tiny wound is still visible as I write this essay two weeks later.

Now we investigated the Pagoda, a splendid white structure with several golden Buddhas donated by foreign countries.

On our way back to the hotel we visited Devi’s Fall and a cave, neither of them very interesting.

Before leaving Pokhara the next morning, Raj took us up to the hotel rooftop from where it was possible to make out the distant snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Many people begin their Himalayan treks at Pokhara, but this was June, traditionally the beginning of the monsoon season, a bad time to go trekking. Raj told is that October and November are the best months for the Himalayas, because the monsoon is over and the weather has not yet turned cold. In December, it is very cold indeed.

Our journey away from Pokhara was uneventful. We decided not to revisit KTM but to head straight for Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of Nepal. My friend Ian Raitt, who lived in Nepal for four years, had strongly recommended that we spend at least one night in Bhaktapur. I had done no research and fondly believed that Bhaktapur was a district of greater KTM. I was entirely wrong: Bhaktapur is a tiny city unto itself. In fact, Bhaktapur turned out to be the greatest surprise of the whole Nepal tour.

I had to pay 1,500 rupees (= $14) to enter Bhaktapur. Ajay got in for free because he is an Indian. Indians travelling to Nepal get many privileges: they do not need a passport, just an identity card; they do not need a visa (mine cost $25); they can enter Hindu temples for free.

As we searched for a hotel (the only hotel we’d booked in advance was the one in KTM), I was struck by the similarity between Bhaktapur and Zanzibar Stone Town. The same high buildings, the same narrow streets. The only difference was the colour: in Zanzibar everything is white stone, whereas here the buildings were all red brick, and the roads too were constructed of red bricks arranged in symmetrical patterns – rather like parquet flooring.

We found a congenial hotel in Pottery Square and went for an evening stroll. Our first stop was Durbar Square. Its namesake in KTM is quite ordinary – a noisy, traffic-infested place with little of interest – but this Durbar Square (Durbar means royal) was magnificent, especially at dusk. It was traffic-free and devoid of other tourists. The ancient buildings were remarkable – not just for their stonework and brickwork but also for their woodwork. Some of the wooden carvings were centuries old, and they were in tiptop condition – graffiti-free and splendidly preserved. What a wonderful place! A veritable symphony of stone, brick and wood. We meandered slowly from building to building before heading off to the other important squares: Taumadhi and Dattatreya. Dattatreya had some interesting erotic stone carvings. The only problem with walking the narrow streets was dodging motorbikes.

That night I was sleeping soundly when a high-pitched buzzing awoke me. It was coming from the vicinity of my bed. Obviously some insect. I looked around but could see nothing. The noise continued; it was ear-piercing and made sleep impossible. I slapped my mattress, and the noise abated momentarily. Then I pulled the mattress off the bed frame to see what might be lurking underneath. Sure enough, there on the bed frame was a large black insect. Much as I hate killing insects, I had no choice but to kill this pesky critter; either that or no sleep. So I took my sandal and squashed it. In the morning I related my insect story to the hotel owner, who found it hilarious. He had no idea what sort of insect it was and suggested I had brought it with me from Vietnam.

The following morning we took a local bus to Dhulikhel. Madhu was waiting for us on the road and led us to the Geranium Resort Hotel, which had fine spacious rooms with large beds.

Madhu now took us to his countryside home – where his mother and wife live permanently. Madhu stays there at night but, during the day, spends time in his Dhulikhel town house, which serves as an office. Madhu is a skilled mountain guide who, during the climbing season, takes parties of walkers to the Everest and Annapurna base camps.

At Madhu’s country house we met his wife, mother, son and brother. They lived in a wooden shack, their previous dwelling, a three-storey house, having been destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. We sat down and ate a simple tasty lunch of daal, potato and rice. Then Madhu gave us a guided tour around his land. As well as being an expert trekker, he is a farmer, owning rice fields, buffalo and goats.

Now we walked back to the town and headed for a Buddha statue up on a hillside. It was a dead easy walk for Madhu, but for me it was taxing. Just above the Buddha was the Kali Temple, where a yellow-garbed ‘holy man’ latched onto Ajay. He accosted me and asked me if I could give him some foreign money. I obliged by handing over a 2,000 VND Vietnamese note. The ‘holy man’, quite obviously a bit of a rascal, was impressed by the 2,000 and asked me how many dollars the note was worth. I said ‘Not much’, which was diplomatic, because 2,000 VND is approximately one twelfth of a US dollar.

It was Ajay’s birthday, so on the way back to the hotel I asked Madhu to take us to a shop where I could buy Ajay a Nepali hat - dhaka topi. Ajay selected one, and I bought it for the princely sum of 200 rupees (= 2 US dollars).

After showering in the hotel, we visited Madhu’s town house-cum-office, where we dined on momos and peanuts. It was interesting to see a photo of Ian Raitt in one of the rooms and a pile of Ian’s books on a table. Madhu’s family clearly adore my friend, because he has trekked with them frequently and helped them financially after the terrible earthquake.

Our destination the following day was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Thrangu Tashi Yangtse (aka Namo Buddha Monastery), the centrepiece of which is a colourful temple quite unlike any temple I’ve ever seen. Photos of the temple interior are prohibited, but I was allowed to take pictures of the outside.

The most memorable thing about this monastery is the legend of Prince Mahasatwo and the tigress. 6,000 years ago this mythical Prince came across a tigress with five babies, all of them dying of hunger. In an act of supreme selflessness, he decided to offer his living body to the starving animal. She devoured him, drinking his blood and eating his flesh, leaving only the bones. Now she was strong and able to provide milk for her cubs. The bones of the Prince are buried under the Monastery, and his encounter with the starving tigress is commemorated in various sculptures and pictures. A wonderful, if unbelievable, story.

After a simple and delicious vegetarian lunch, we walked back towards civilization. After two days of walking, this old man was feeling his age. Also I had made the mistake of walking hatless in the hot sun, and my bald head was suffering. Madhu encouraged me to splash water on it, which helped.

After resting under a tree and eating a kulfi ice cream, we entered a small town where I changed $50 into rupees. Doing this at an exchange shop in KTM would have taken one minute, but in this town there were no exchange shops – only banks. The first bank we tried sent us away. Then we tried the Sunrise Bank, which offered me a decent rate. However, the process of changing dollars into local currency was ridiculously cumbersome, taking a full 20 minutes. Madhu and Ajay sat patiently while the female clerk photocopied my passport, fiddled with sheets of carbon paper and asked me to sign various documents.

Back at the hotel, we cleaned up and then met Madhu downstairs for a farewell dinner. The hotel kitchen was incredibly slow, preparing everything from scratch, but the thali meal, when it arrived 90 minutes later, was excellent.

That was the end of our holiday in Nepal. The following day we took a taxi to the airport and flew Air Indigo back to Delhi.

Our seven nights in Nepal were excellent. If we had flown from Delhi to KTM, instead of going overland, it would have given us two extra days – another day in Pokhara and more time in Bhaktapur. But I should not complain, because this was a holiday without mishap (sprained fingers notwithstanding) and with many strokes of good fortune.

It was my good fortune to have a travelling companion, Ajay, who spoke and read Hindi. It was my good fortune to have a friend, Ian Raitt, who knew Nepal and advised me where to go. Most importantly, he introduced us to Madhu, who pushed me to my limit on our two days of walking and was a splendid host.

Madhu was a shining light, a wonderful human being, but I have to say the Nepalis in general impressed me with their politeness and warmth. The staff at the KTM Regency Hotel, the hotel owner in Bhaktapur, Raj in Pokhara, Madhu’s family, restaurant staff, people on the street who gave us directions – all of them were very friendly.

The weather gods were smiling on us, because there was not a drop of rain the whole holiday. Ian Raitt had alarmed me with his talk of heavy monsoon rain, but this year the monsoon was delayed, so my umbrella and raincoat never got wet.

We met very few tourists on our travels. It was the monsoon season, so tourism was at a low ebb. In Bhaktapur, one of the most impressive places I have ever visited, we met only locals. I will never forget entering Durbar Square at dusk and being astounded by a) the peace and quiet b) the absence of traffic c) the absence of tourists.

The food in Nepal was tasty and cheap. I ate vegetarian food throughout – thalis and momos. The buckwheat rotis in KTM were memorable. So were the banana lassis and the masala tea, which we drank by the potful.

And in the background, wherever we went, was the cricket – the ICC World Cup. The hotels we stayed at – with the exception of Bhaktapur - provided multi-channel flat-screen TV’s enabling us to relax in our rooms and watch the day’s cricketing action. Ajay and I are cricket buffs, and we talked cricket non-stop.

Most people associate Nepal with Himalayan trekking, but I am too old for that now. I did my Himalayan trekking in 1987 in Kashmir, India, so I haven’t missed out. Nepal is the 68th country I have visited, my first new country since East Timor in 2003, and I will probably never go back. However, my memories of this holiday – an intense, varied, colourful, joyful, energetic and trouble-free week – will surely stay with me forever.


30th July 2019

Delightful article, Kevin. I feel sorry for the people at the accident, though.

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