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Monday, October 26, 2009

Namaste from Nepal

Bathing with elephants, trekking in the Himalaya, visiting temples, enduring torturous bus rides and bargaining on the turbulent streets of Kathmandu - our three weeks traveling in Nepal has been fantastic! Nepal is a country of highly diverse and rich geography, culture, and incredible place to end our year long journey.
After an over-night stopover in Bahrain, we were stoked to be met by Tom at Kathmandu's very basic International Airport. We had a bit of a fiasco getting our entry visa (the money-less ATMs were a primer for Nepal's frustrating lack of infrastructure) we headed to Kathmandu's bustling tourist area - Thamel. The chaotic dirty streets immediately reminded me of my time in India - rubbish everywhere, mangy dogs, dodgy wiring, pollution, with taxis, rickshaws and pedestrians all vying for space. Despite this we were struck by the friendly, warm vibe of Nepal. Tom had already spent several days in the city and was buzzing at being out of New Zealand for the first time and experiencing such a radically different culture.
We spent our first day catching up with Tom, exploring the city and visiting the Swayambhunath stupa (Monkey temple). Religion is an intricate part of Nepalese life with Hinduism and Buddhism existing harmoniously and at times merging. At the temple we were entertained by the resident troop of monkeys until Kate was attacked by one!
The mountainous north of Nepal contains eight of the world's ten highest mountains, while the south is relatively flat, fertile and tropical. We headed south first - to the Chitwan National Park - famous for its elephants, rhinos and tigers. This was our first experience of Nepalese public transport. Typically it takes 9 or 10 hours on a bus to cover 120-150km in Nepal. It is quite hard to describe just how horrible these trips were...but in Tom's words "Shitty roads, shitty drivers, shitty overloaded buses". Each bus journey left us in a state of 'post-bus depression' that was only cured by a few Everests (the local brew).
On arriving in the chilled out village of Sauraha our memory of the rough bus trip soon faded - tame elephants lumbered along the streets, locals greeted us warmly and we soon found a cool riverside hostel. We really enjoyed Chitwan - the highlights were playing with 11-month old twin elephants at the Elephant Breeding Centre, bathing with the elephants in the river, and delicious Nepalese food at a restaurant called 'Sweet Memory'. We also went on an elephant safari in the jungle and were lucky enough to spot a rhino lolling in a mud pool, and some crocodiles. The experience was made a little more nerve-racking by the knowledge that a tourist had been trampled to death by an elephant there the previous week!
From Chitwan we caught another bus to the town of Pokhara - a lake side town that has grown with the popularity of the Annapurna circuit trek (the most popular trek in the world!) We were in Nepal during two of their major religious festivals (Dasain and Tihar) which was interesting and made things more vibrant...but the downside was that the roads and buses were much busier than usual with people traveling to their villages. This resulted in extremely busy road conditions, lots of head-on collisions blocking the narrow windy road and us being squashed beneath a pile of locals and their luggage for nine hours!Unfortunately our time in Pokhara was marred by grey skies and rain and we only managed to catch tiny glimpses of the spectacular Annapurna range, with its 8000m peaks soaring toward the heavens. We made the most of our time though, hiring crappy pushbikes that constantly stopped working, visiting the idyllically located Buddhist Peace Pagoda, Tom getting his first barbershop shave (complete with unwanted massage!) and spending a day exploring the area on motorbikes. Kate and Tom mastered the art of driving on Nepalese roads, which involves a lot of tooting, weaving and sharp awareness of oncoming trucks!

As we saw more of Nepal we were struck by the widespread poverty and the abysmal conditions so many people live in. Nepal remained isolated from the Western world until the 1950’s when its borders were opened. This saw a boom in tourism and many of the economic benefits that come with this. However, this has been coupled with massive population growth (the Nepalese population has more than tripled to 28 million since 1950), increasing dependence on foreign aid, pollution and continual political instability. Nepal has been troubled by a periodically violent Maoist insurgency for more than a decade, along with constant coups and changes of government, a Royal massacre and finally the dissolution of the Royal family in 2006. We spent many long evenings discussing Nepal’s social and economic problems and how these might be solved.

Following our time in Pokhara we headed back to Kathmandu to arrange things for trekking. Many people organise guides, porters and permits through the hundreds of trekking agencies in Kathmandu, but we decided to go it alone. We spent a frustrating day navigating our way through vague answers and Nepalese bureaucracy to eventually come out the other side ready to head north to the Langtang National Park for a week of Himalayan trekking.

Our bus journey to Langtang nearly broke me… the hours wore on the bus became more and more overloaded- local people, chickens, computers, sacks of onions were piled in and on the roof of the bus. We were also held up by mechanical problems. As the run-down bus crawled over a fresh landslide, precariously teetering on a cliff, hundreds of meters above the valley floor below, I made the decision to hop off. Much to the embarrassment of Tom and a lot of Nepalese shouting Kate and I chose to walk the last few kms to our destination.
Part of the dodgy road...

Trekking in the Langtang was a very different experience to tramping in New Zealand. The trail is an ancient route linking the isolated villages dotted up the valley with the outside world. There are plenty of ‘tea houses’ to stay at along the way- so there is no need to lug tents, sleeping bags, cookers or even food up the steep valley- a blessing at altitude! We were very close to Tibet (only 5km at one stage) and there was a strong influence of Tibetan culture. We had seven days of perfect weather, spectacular views of the surrounding 7000m peaks, lots of encounters with beautiful but intimidating yaks and even saw a black bear!

We spent lots of time chilling out in the peaceful villages, playing epic card games and meeting other trekkers. Walking at altitude with heavy packs definitely takes it out of you and this was made even harder for Tom who had a bad case of 'green apple splats'. Although the environment initially appeared pristine, the Himalayas have suffered some of the worst deforestation in the world and we saw sad examples of locals throwing bags of rubbish straight into the river and children smashing glass bottles. Kate and I loved travelling with Tom and the constant banter, antics and jokes made it felt like we were on school camp! Buddhist prayer wheel
Hanging with the local kids
After our painful bus journey to Langtang we opted for a slightly more expensive jeep trip back- worth every last rupee!

We spent our last few days in Kathmandu visiting Durbur square, shopping, enjoying delicious food, packing our bags one last time and getting very excited about heading home!
A few more photos....

Elephant dust showerCycling near ChitwanShopping in KathmanduTerracing of the land
And now we are back home in beautiful, clean, organised, peaceful Aotearoa! It is sooo awesome to be home catching up with friends and family. Everything seems so luxurious- having a hot shower whenever we want, sleeping in comfy clean beds, having a fridge, microwave and carpet and not having to worry about all our gear getting wet when it rains!

Kate and I have leant so much on our trip and I think it will take months for all our adventures to really sink in. But two lessons stand out more than most. Firstly- that we as New Zealanders are among some of the luckiest in the world. We live in the most incredible, well-run country and the opportunities we have from birth are immense. I think we often forget just how lucky we are and fail to appreciate the privileged lives we lead. The second is that overpopulation, the careless way people overuse resources and human greed is putting the earth under a massive strain. It has made us think a lot about the way we want to lead our lives.

So, the adventure is over! It is hard to believe. Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read our blog and follow our travels- we have really enjoyed sharing our stories.

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