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Darjeeling (India), January 15th 2008
The contrast was huge when we crossed the border from India to Nepal. The difference was really huge. How we experienced Nepal? Maybe it can be described best as “little India”, but then without the negative extremes. So, less busyness, less pollution, less poverty and less arrogance. Nepalese people will apologise a lot for the fact that they are still a developing country (e.g. when you travel a bad road or see a beggar), and that is something an Indian person will not/never do.
During our first visit to Nepal on our journey, we primarily wanted to visit the Nepalese lowlands, called the Terai. The Terai stretches out over the complete width of the country, from the far west to the far east. The Terai is characterised by huge forests, vast farming lands, big rivers and picturesque villages. We entered Nepal in the far west, near the small town of Mahendranagar. We had some doubt if it was wise to visit the western part of Nepal because many western governments warn against travelling to this area due to insurgencies. Even stronger, some western governments even warn you not to travel independently through Nepal, but to use a tour operator. After travelling for more than five weeks through Nepal (both west and east), we can say that the travel warnings are too frantic. The travel warnings also have a dramatic impact on the people in western and eastern Nepal that earn their money in the tourist industry. In Bardia National Park for example, only a handful of travellers visit this place each week, resulting in many empty hotels and resorts. Local people are frustrated because they do not understand why the western governments keep warning against travelling in these areas. Especially now, when the peace is restored, there is no reason not to lift the travel warnings. For travellers who like the rest and do not want to march in columns through the park, this is the time to visit these places.
A busy shopping street in the old town of Kathmandu
The two most important national parks in the Terai are Bardia National Park and Chitwan National Park. Of the two parks, Chitwan N.P. is by far the most popular one. Chitwan N.P. is part of the triangle Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan, that is travelled by almost all visitors that come to Nepal. Chitwan N.P. is also easily reached, only 6 or 7 hours by bus from both Kathmandu and Pokhara. This is the place to go if you want to see for sure the one-horned Rhino. Local guides even dare to say that the chance on seeing a Rhino is almost 100%. We can imagine this if we see how used the Rhino’s are to human beings on the back of domesticated elephants. Bus loads full of (mainly) local tourists are loaded on the elephants after which the “hunt” for the Rhino’s start. The elephants are walking in column to a grassy field where, indeed, the Rhino’s are. The Rhino’s probably go every day to the same place to eat the grass. After seeing the Rhino’s, the elephant drivers turn on one’s heel and go back to the elephant stable. That is the end of the safari. This is not really a safari experience anymore. It is more like walking from animal to animal in a zoo on the back of an elephant. But ok, you can see the “wild” Rhino very good. On the other hand, far more remote Bardia N.P. still has the real safari experience, especially when you go on a walking safari with an experienced guide. Your adrenaline level increases when you walk through the dense jungle in search of an encounter with a wild elephant, a Rhino or even a tiger. The guide is only armed with a bamboo stick. Unfortunately we didn’t see the tiger. However our visit to Bardia N.P. was very successful because we saw a wild elephant (that you can not see anymore in Chitwan N.P.), a Rhino and the even more rare sweet water Ganges Dolphin. For us, Bardia N.P. was the absolute ‘wild life’ experience in the Terai.
The Janaki Mandir Temple in Janakpur
|Between the visits to the two national parks, we stayed for a couple of weeks in Kathmandu and its valley. Kathmandu and its valley are deservedly one of the highlights of Nepal. Many of the historical places are put on the UNESCO world heritage list. It is great to spend some days or weeks in Kathmandu and explore the different areas. From Kathmandu, we also did the Tamang Heritage Trail. Initially, we did not plan to do a trekking in Nepal. It was already winter which means that it is uncomfortable cold high in the mountains. However, we met somebody who told us good stories about the Tamang Heritage Trail. He told us that it is possible to do it in the winter time (because it is not a high altitude trekking) and that the area is still rarely visited by foreign hikers. We were immediately interested, especially when he told us that the trek gives you also one of the most beautiful Himalayan views in Nepal. Trekking through an area where not many tourists come was one of our major conditions. We did the trekking and we are glad we did it. It would have giving us a strange feeling, visiting Nepal without seeing the Himalayas. It is like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower.
While travelling in Nepal, you must take major delays into account, because of the many roadblocks. The roadblock is often used to put pressure on the (local) government, because the Nepalese people have no trust in the jurisdiction. The jurisdiction in Nepal, like in neighbouring country India, is ramshackle, there are long waiting lists (often witnesses already died before the case comes into court), and rich/powerful people are often not convicted because they bribe the judges. For this reason, the Nepalese people use the roadblocks to force the (local) government to settle cases. Roadblocks are used by villagers after a deadly traffic accident, students who want changes in the educational system or political parties that want to make a statement. The roadblock is very efficient in Nepal because there not many roads. There is for example only one highway from east to west. If you block this road, you block almost half of the country. During our journey through Nepal, we had six long bus rides. Out of these six, two bus rides were interrupted by a road block. One roadblock took nine hours (between Bardia N.P. and Butwal in western Nepal) and the other ‘only’ four hours (between Janakpur and Kakarvitta in eastern Nepal). It happens that roadblocks take several days. It is amazing to see how Nepalese people take these roadblocks with resignation. They must be used to it.
We experienced Nepal as a ‘calm’ destination between our two visits to India. Because of the low population density, the country is very pleasant to travel in, especially in comparison to India. The roads are quieter, there is less pollution and the people are more relaxed. Even a stay in the ‘hectic’ capital city of Kathmandu is pleasant. It is a good place to recharge your battery, in comparison to the capital city of India, Delhi, who pulls away all energy during your first day. So, Nepal is a very nice destination, with fabulous highlights and nice people. It is India for beginners!