The village of Sauraha is the gateway to the Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s number-three tourist destination. It feels far away from it all, as one comes along an unpaved road from the nearby town of Tandi Bazaar through an increasingly empty countryside, and then the tourist centre of the village is just a handful of guesthouses empty at this time of year. The river flowing along Sauraha forms the border with the Chitwan National Park.
I didn’t go to the national park, as it is among the sites whose entrance fees the Nepali government recently tripled in a shameless act of price gouging. But Sauraha is worth visiting just for the remarkably clean air, the jungle climate and, the best thing of all, elephant bathtime.
Tourists often ride in the park on trained elephants. Every day around 1100 a.m., these elephants are brought to the river near the River View Inn (you can walk across their courtyard to get to the place) for a bath. By paying 50 or 100 rupees to an elephant handler, you too can ride on top of an elephant in the river while it splashes water over itself with its trunk. Even if you don’t want to participate in this soggy experience, watching is great fun. Afterwards you can feed bananas to the elephant, which it eats peel and all.
Since at least the visit of the Emperor Ashoka in 249 BC (who left a pillar to mark the spot), Lumbini has been recognized by the devout as the fifth-century birthplace of Buddha and now it draws pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world. Coming from elsewhere in Nepal, though, you get dropped off at the nearby village of Buddha Nagar, inhabited mainly by Muslim traders and farmers. In language, culture and cleanliness, this is identical to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh just across the border a few kilometres south, which after my last trip in the Subcontinent I’d nominate as The Worst Place in the World.
The government of Nepal has set aside an area 6 km long and 2 km wide around the birthplace of Buddha as a park. There is a lot of plastic thrown away here, and air pollution rolling in from across the border, but it is clean enough to provide a refuge for exotic birds and there are some monkeys. Besides the actual birth site, which has a pool that the Buddha’s mother is said to have bathed in, Ashoka’s pillar and some ancient buildings that are currently being excavated, space has been set aside for monasteries representing various Buddhist traditions. Thus there is a Chinese monastery, a Burmese one, a Vietnamese one, etc. In spite of the presence of a handful of foreign Buddhist monks, the staff performing menial tasks at these monasteries or selling trinkets outside are the aforementioned Muslim locals. It’s a strange symbiosis.
Some of the monasteries offer space for guests. I stayed in the Korean monastery for 300 rupees a night. One must sleep on the floor on a raised platform, with a minimum of bedding provided, and showers are cold, but three meals a day are included that surprisingly turned out to be authentic (if very simple) Korean cuisine. My travelling companion and I were the only Westerners present, while the vast majority of the tourists staying here were Koreans in their late teens and early twenties.
For tourists, Pokhara is the second city of Nepal after Kathmandu. It is located 100 km west of the capital, next to a lovely (and remarkably clean) lake with several peaks of the Annapurna range visible on most days. The tourist hub of Lakeside is very similar to Kathmandu’s Thamel district, but it is less cramped and with better dining options.
It was a good place to stay for three weeks, idily pursuing my studies along the lakeside, watching paragliders come down from the Sarangkot hill overlooking Phewa Lake, or browsing at the fantastic bookshops in this city too (where I found a biography of Samuel Beckett and a first edition of Sándor Weöres’s 1958 volume of world poetry translations A lélek idézése).
A walk south along the lake, crossing the dam and then going up into the hills brought me to the World Peace Pagoda. This is a Buddhist shrine set up by a Japanese religious organization in the early 1970s, demolished by a hostile Nepalese government, and subsequently rebuild to a lasting tolerance. From here one has a better view of the Annapurna range than in Pokhara itself, with Lakeside and Phewa Lake below.
The downsides of Nepal’s development are present in Pokhara as well. Once you get outside of Lakeside, the city of Pokhara is just as polluted as any other urban conglomeration in Nepal. I rented a bicycle for a day, and while it was pleasant riding once outside the city, going through two or three kilometres of high-traffic streets first was a lung-burning experience. One wonders what it must have been like here during the era of the hippie trail, when the road had not yet been built and travellers had to walk in from Kathmandu.
The tourism industry in Lakeside seems to have developed too fast too soon, with a lot of businesses for not so many tourists. Walking down the main street in the evening, one usually often only one table occupied in each large restaurant, with the waiting staff outnumbering the tourists dining. For most of my time here I have been the only customer in the large guesthouse in which I’m staying. It’s a wonder anyone makes a profit. The rising amount of Chinese and Indian tourists may yet fill the void, however.
The Thamel distict has been my base in Kathmandu. This tourist area has developed since the 1980s (replacing the smaller ‘Freak Street’ area further south that was popular in the days of the hippie trail). It consists of only two main streets less than 2 kilometres long but it is packed with hundreds of shops and trekking agencies. I spent over a month in Thamel during my last trip to Nepal, each day discovering new nooks and crannies. You can buy all kinds of trekking gear here, mostly Chinese fakes with badly-sewn North Face logos that will only last for one trip, but occasionally some authentic imports or new Nepali brands that compete on quality. There are innumerable stalls selling hippie cotton clothes from India, pashmina wool sweaters and Tibetan paintings. Naturally the part of Thamel that kept me here so long is that the district has many English-language bookshops, of which Pilgrims Feed’n’Read here is one of the best in South Asia, boasting many esoteric publications in its labyrinthine building.
On this trip, however, the magic has worn off. One is aware of seeing everything through a haze of smog, and diesel soot covers some of the wares on display outside shops. The air of the Kathmandu valley is exponentially more polluted than three years ago. The long walks I used to take outside of Thamel to eat or sightsee are no longer pleasant or even particularly bearable due to the oppressive fumes. It took some effort to get down to Durbar Square, where the former royal palace is located along with several shrines. This is one of Kathmandu’s several UNESCO World Heritage sites.
I got a fairly cheap Air Arabia flight from Istanbul to Kathmandu via Sharjah, my second time flying to the Subcontinent with this nice budget airline that gets you a day-long layover in the UAE. Since my flight arrived in Kathmandu late in the evening, I wanted a quiet place to stay for the night within walking distance from the airport. I decided on Shechen Guest House, which is in Boudha, east of Kathmandu just off the ring road.
Shechen Guest House is run by Shechen Gompa, one of a number of Tibetan exile monasteries in Boudha. It is frequented by Westeners looking for contemplative or at least unnoisy lodgings. Nice clean sheets, attached bathroom and breakfast for 1300 Nepali rupees a night (~ 11€). There’s a lovely garden in the centre of the property, and a great big bookcase whose biggest attraction for me were some Lonely Planet travel guides from the 1980s (my, how the brand has changed).
The next day (I awoke to very hazy skies), I walked into the centre of Boudha. This is dominated by Boudhanath Stupa, built in the 5th century AD and circumambulated this morning by several tens of pilgrims. Many of the signs on shops are written in Tibetan alongside or instead of Nepali.