Nepal: Bardia, Pokara and Dhal Bhat...
First of all, sorry to all that have sent me messages with no response. Seems I just can't keep up and really just don't want to spend all my days/money in an Internet cafe. But if you are wondering if I "got your email", the answer is yes.
Lets see, last email I wrote, I was in Rishikesh.
I had expected to catch an overnight train to Gorakhpur and to enter Nepal through the standard tourist route (Sunauli border crossing). After 2 hours in line (and 30 people trying to cut in front of me, 4 succeeding : ), I found out that the 2nd class was full -- 300 people wait-listed!
So I wandered out of the station and sat in a crusty little restaurant to have a Thali (all-you-can-eat platter of curry veggies, chapati, dhal, pickled mango and other stuff). The place was raided by kids so I moved on to the bus station. From there I found out there was a night bus directly to Banbassa - the closest border into Nepal, but also least used because its such a rough ride which avoids almost all tourist sights. Great I thought!
While waiting, I met a young Nepali woman and her mother -- they insisted I travel with them. They had been to the Ganga for the Durga Puja holiday and were on their way back to Nepal. They hooked up some good bus seats and finally we were off!
It was about 8 hours to Banbassa, but wasn't terrible. We arrived at 3:00am and all just huddled drinking chai in front of a fire for a few hours. Just before sunrise, ox carts arrived en masse and we negotiated a few inches of space on one. The lop-sided cart clunked along. Sitting on bags of rice, we tried to hold on as the sun rose over the trees.
After half an hour or so we reached the Indian immigration shack followed by the Nepali immigration... um house. It was just the immigration officers home. The officer was gone, but his 11 year old son was very friendly and helpful. The boy had most of my paperwork done before dad came back from the market. I instantly felt more relaxed as I walked across the border into Nepal. People were just suddenly more calm, friendly without the hustler undercurrent I sometimes felt in India.
Following the boys advice, I got the public bus into Mahendranagar for 20 cents and started looking for a place to change money. It was Sunday so all the banks were closed, but a friendly local guy showed me where a private money changer was. After 20 minutes of wandering in the hot sun and helping me to get a bus ticket, I expected a tip was in order (often demanded in India as baksheesh) but he flat out refused, noting the hospitality he received when he worked in Malaysia.
So I took a 5 hour bus ride to Anbassa. Its just a crusty little dirt road that leads into Royal Bardia national park. I knew the bus would drop me off 12km from the nearest guest house, but hoped I could avoid walking. Although everyone I met assured me it was totally safe, it turns out that due to the political problems and fears of the Maoists insurgents, tourists were avoiding the entire region.
I got a very excited and warm greeting when I stepped off that bus. Seems the whole village was happy I had arrived. I was taken by 4WD jeep to a great little guest house. There were a few other tourists, but I was still given the best bungalow they had for $1.75.
I really was just passing through and taking a rest from all that bus travel, but decided to do a guided "Jungle walking safari" through the park. Didn't see any of the Tigers or Leopards they apparently have there, but did see a huge wild elephant and a domesticated "pet" white rhino that wandered the park and let me pet it! It was just the guide and I... his advice was "If the elephant charges, we may have to run up a tree."
From Bardia, I got another crowded, dusty bus eastward. Its funny, there literally was 2 goats on board and the girl sitting next to me was holding a live, uncaged chicken! I got to do some more roof riding which was nice. After 15 hours of driving (and additional 5 hours of rest stops), we pulled into Pokara. I took the picture below as we pulled into town.
Pokara a major tourist destination and starting point for the Annapurna trekking routes (amongst many others). It was great to look up through this hot steamy jungle and see the snow covered Machhapuchhare mountain in the distance. As soon as I arrived, a thunder and lightning storm swept into the valley (very unusual for this time of year). So for the past few days I have just been learning about the trekking options, getting my gear ready and relaxing.
Here in Nepal, peoples lives revolve around Dhal Bhat (Literally "Lentil Rice"). It is an all-you-can-eat platter of tasty stuff. It can almost be used as a synonym for "food" here. It always comes with "achar" (which here in Nepal, is fresh tomato salsa) and "tarkari" (curried veggies/potatoes). If you are lucky, you get a papad (papadam, spicy cracker bread) and maybe even "saag" (spicy green stuff, usually spinach or something similar).
Anyway, I love this stuff and have these funny moments where a Nepali asks what I will have for lunch... I always get a mischievous smile and nod when I look em in the eye and reply: "Dhal Bhat!". Another great thing is that they all eat this soupy mixture without any utensils! Its totally fun just playing with your food, scooping up the slop and slurping it out of your hands, dipping in the achar, rice stuck to your lips... totally mad and totally fun!
I told some guys about how we westerners are disciplined not to "eat with our hands" as children. They thought it was funny and said it felt weird putting metal objects in their mouth.
Alright, another days budget spent at the net cafe... Hope you enjoyed it!
Tomorrow I take advantage of the clear skies and start my trek around the Annapurna mountain range. It's long (could take more than 3 weeks) and at some parts difficult. We'll see how far I get. Its remote, but don't worry mom, its heavily hiked and there are emergency facilities available if needed. I expect to meet plenty of people to hike with in the villages on the way.
So, if all goes well, you won't hear from me till mid November!