Koshi Tappu, Janakpur & Dhulikhel Fri 29 October - Mon 8 November 2010
The drive on was uneventful save for stopping to pick up water from an army compound - this being where the water tank was! We had to show passports to get inside but once in they were very helpful and welcoming. We reached the area near Koshi Tappu as dark was falling. The LP had made it clear that this wildlife sanctuary was little visited and that those intrepid tourists that did make it out here generally came as part of organized tours. We quickly began to see why - we drove up and down trying to find it as there were no signs in English. By asking various army /traffic police we finally got within the area but then found that the few accommodation options mentioned in the LP were actually in the sanctuary so we couldn't get in until the next day. We tried to call the numbers in the book -only to find they were all in Kathmandu and wanted to organize tours for us -so not much help when we were "on the ground" here so to speak. There were no hotels or eating places outside and as no one knew where else to send us we ended up at the army camp which was at the entrance to the sanctuary. We were formerly handed over to them and thus became their problem!
We kept saying that we were sleeping in the car and just needed a safe place to camp but they persisted in trying to call and find us a place to stay - finally after an hour or so they admitted defeat and said we could stay within their compound in our car but they were worried we wouldn't be comfortable. When we finally drove in (they had to dismantle the barb wire barricades to allow this! ) they kept saying in amazement that it was a "sleeping car' so I think they really hadn't got that we actually WANTED to sleep in the car and thought it was just an emergency. We sat down to have tuna and crackers for dinner but they appeared shortly with 2 plates of food which were really tasty, and also made a point of formerly inviting us for dinner with the OIC and his number 2 the next night so after a shaky start we felt very welcome - we had good reason to be grateful to the army that day! We slept well but didn't enjoy our very early wakeup call -at 5.30am the next day -apparently they didn't have permission from the top brass for us to sleep within the camp so wanted us out of the way before anyone could object -whilst it was still dark!
Anyway once up we stuck around and had some tea before driving off to find the sanctuary entrance. Honestly there's no way in the world you'd find this alone (we had detailed army instructions!) it's a tiny bent sign off the highway leading you to a long windy road past various villages -rural life going on as ever - until finally we found the entrance. It was all a bit disorganized -no one seemed to know what to do with us but eventually a guide who sort of spoke a bit of English was tracked down and he came with us to show us the way -as there were no maps or other guidelines - so off we went. KT is one of the smallest sanctuaries in Nepal consisting mainly of grasslands and islands within the Koshi River.
The park boasts the sole remaining examples of the arna a special rare form of water buffalo, important as they are bigger and stronger than other buffaloes and also have huge horns - on display at the small dusty museum. Apparently they are also very dangerous so we were glad we had a guide to tell us to keep our distance as otherwise we'd have gone closer to get a picture! The sanctuary also has deer, boars, pythons crocodiles and even some Gangetic dolphins but the main lure and what brings in most of the foreigners who do make it out here is the bird life. The area boasts a huge variety of birdlife - up to 600 different species - some of them very rare. Migratory birds from Siberia and Tibet pass through this way. We drove around and spotted some wildlife (a pangolin -like a large ant eater - spotted at a distance and lots of arna) and then stopped for lunch at the Koshi Camp -one of the LP accommodation options on the edge of the sanctuary -again we'd never have found it!
This was a truly gorgeous spot. We relaxed in the lovely restaurant and then went down to the specially built bird watching house next to the lily ponds where we saw some amazing birds. A really relaxing way to while away a few hours!
They were kind enough to say we could camp there but we had committed to have dinner at the army camp that night so (feeling very in demand for once!) we arranged to go back the next evening. We had planned to go on an elephant safari but all the elephants were off working -I guess there aren't enough tourists to keep them hanging around idle -no doubt they are brought in by arrangement for tour parties. We decided to delay our elephant safari for the more touristy Chitwan we plan to visit later.
The army had really made an effort and we enjoyed a lovely meal -a Nepali thali - with the 2 officers that evening. The army are really wardens of the forest here and do an important job safeguarding the animals (and trees) from poaching/logging. Thanks so much guys for helping us out and making us so welcome -we forgive you for the early morning calls!
Next day we headed back to Koshi Camp where we hung out bird watched and relaxed for a couple of days. The camp was lovely and there were amazingly almost 300 varieties of birds in the vicinity. It really was a gorgeous spot have a look at their site www.koshicamp.com The camp had resident bird specialists on hand to lead you on guided walks see their site on www.birdingnepal.com. We loved it here and would really recommend it as a trip -though it's probably a good idea to take an organized tour or at least have your own transport and book ahead as otherwise it's just too hard!
Another reason we enjoyed our time at Koshi Camp was as we had some very good company- 17 ladies (and a couple of gents) from New Zealand. These guys -who ranged in age from mid 20s to early 80s, had just finished 2 weeks of very hard work building a home for a poor family in rural Nepal.
They were part of a worldwide amazing sounding organization Habitat. Initially founded by Jimmy Carter Habitat is a charitable organization by which poor people get "a hand up not a hand out." How it works is they get the materials needed to build their home in terms of a loan, and the labour (the volunteers) comes for free. The kiwis had done a fantastic job and worked really hard -we were very impressed. The lady who organizes the trips from NZ is Helen Neale and she can be contacted on email@example.com or for more info on Habitat see www.habitat.org it was great fun to meet them and hear all their stories.
After a couple of days r & r we drove on to our next destination the town of Janakpur. Straight across the plains on the central Mahendra Highway it was a fairly dull drive -leaving the scenic hills and their coolness behind. On our travels around Asia we've followed some of the story of the Hindu Epic the Ramayan and Janakpur is the birthplace of the heroine Sita and the place where she and the hero Rama married, and thus a very significant Hindu pilgrimage town.
Just across the border from India (through not a border westerners can cross at) this really felt more like India than Nepal -unfortunately not in a good way! We love India so often think it's a shame that a lot of the other travellers we meet in Nepal have nothing good to say about it. I think sometimes they fly into dirty hassle filled Delhi go to Agra (also pretty full on and with very hungry touts) and then cross into Nepal and come away with the view India is dirty and noisy without really giving it a chance. Here we got our own version of this -after the hills and the gorgeous clean air Janakpur was dusty smelly and the streets full of manky looking cows eating rubbish - all a bit ukk! We headed to the Hotel Rama on the basis that it was a favourite haunt of NGOs so we thought they'd be welcoming to campers. They agreed we could camp - but retrospectively tried to charge us 400 rupees we bargained them down to 200- and maybe for this reason they asked us to leave the next day -saying they were expecting 30 vehicles and so didn't have room for us. We went to another hotel in town the Hotel Manaki International and they let us stay for nothing, so it all worked out. Incidentally we forgot our camera charger and headed back to the Rama later that evening - not one single solitary car in their car park …miserable liars!!
Anyway Janakpur was an interesting bustling town to wander around, as I said it really felt like India. Tihar (also called Deepawali or festival of lights after the 3rd day of the festival) was about to happen and everywhere preparations were taking place. It is a time when people do a big spring clean and the Hotel Manaki was no exception they practically whipped the chairs out from under us whilst we were having breakfast to wipe them all down!
Like in Kolkata we saw a guy building figurines of the gods - we passed him and saw various stages of his work and then finally when his finished painted figures were in place -very nice. Lakshmi is the goddess of money/wealth and in this festival everyone lights up their home so that she visits -thus ensuring a good year financially speaking. We'd seen this all before but here they had another form of Laksmai puja or offerings - the planting of mango and other trees or branches in her honour. It was amazing the town was full of previously unseen greenery -definitely an improvement!
Whilst in Janakpur we took in the famous temple built on the exact spot where Sita was found by the King Janak, Janaki Mandir. Sita and Rama are worshipped as incarnations of the Hindu gods Lakshmi and Vishnu but they were in fact also real historical figures which we hadn't realized.
The temple was very full on - it looked a big like an ornate Rajasthani Palace. Again very like India from the markets outside selling all manner of religious paraphernalia to the temple cows to the ladies worshipping at Sita's statue in their beautifully ornate saris.
Just next door is another temple the Ram Sita Bibaha Mandir which commemorates the marriage of Rama and Sita with various somewhat tacky models depicting the event! The surrounding gardens were nice though. Janakpur is full of temple and Ghats or tanks for ritual bathing (and doing your laundry.)
We visited the largest one Danush Sagar which had lots of small shrines around the edge. All a bit grimy though! Everyone was nice and friendly and we filled our water tank at the nearby water tower (not from the ghat!) assisted by numerous helpers including 2 little boys who'd been sent to fetch water so their mother could cook dinner. I think we delayed them a bit -hopefully they weren't in trouble!
We drove across town to see a famous Big Monkey temple with a live monkey. Hanuman the monkey god was the hero who helped rescue Sita from where she was imprisoned by the demon King in Ella Sri Lanka (see that page in our SL pages) so he gets a lot of attention here. Our LP said when they visited the previous monkey had died due to morbid obesity and the other was fast following him. Thus we weren't that surprised when we arrived to be told "monkey dead." Apparently he'd got to 75 kgs! Hopefully they won't replace him -what on earth are they feeding them?!
The other reason we were in Janakpur -after the temples - was to take a trip to to the Janakpur Women's development Centre out in the village of Kuwa.
This attractive rural village is a big centre of Mithila Art. Traditionally this art is more associated with Bihar in India as the Kingdom of Mithila was once part of both countries. Janakpur was the capital of the kingdom and Sita was a Mithila Princess.
In a society where only high caste men could read or write this art form was developed by women as a means of decorating their homes and providing commentary on their lives - weddings, childbirth and daily life are all depicted in these brightly coloured paintings. The centre we visited had had aid from various countries (compared to anywhere else we've been Nepal gets sooooo much foreign aid!) to help the local women produce various paintings ceramics and paper mache work. Around 50 women are employed here - great in an area where there is little other opportunity for them -and the work was lovely. See more about this and other social projects on www.catgen.com/jwdc Apparently Mithila painting has now become a collectable item and is getting popular in arty circles.
Whilst at the Hotel Manaki we met some fellow travellers, a fairly unusual occurrence in this out of the way location and so great fun. Morton and his wife Katharine are from California and have been coming to Nepal for years. Now in his early 80s Mort is still travelling very intrepidly to these out of the way places which we thought was really impressive. We really enjoyed the time we spent with them - hopefully we'll still be doing this in our 80s and beyond!!
On Friday 5 November we left Janakpur and headed on to Kathmandu (Ktm). During our (brief!) stay at the Hotel Rama we'd met a Kiwi guy Phil who was a road engineer working here in Nepal. Andrew had picked his brains and based on the information he provided we had decided to go on the "scenic route" back to Ktm rather than sticking to the main highways. We're really pleased we did this as it turned out to be one of the most full on but beautiful drives of the trip to date.
The new highway is being built from Sindhuli to Dhulikhel (our next destination) with help from the Japanese and my god what a huge project! Cutting through and over many mountains the early stages which were completed had to be some of the best engineering we'd ever seen.
The newer sections following the river were still in progress. Very beautiful -cutting through lovely hill villages with Newari (an ethnic people of Nepal) architecture - but a bit scary in parts -the road was very narrow and there wasn't much in the way of passing places.
Combined with the hugely overcrowded holiday buses this lead to some very scary moments. At one stage just as it was getting dark we had to creep past a broken down bus right on the edge of the road as it felt like it might crumble under us…gulp!!! After this we didn't want to drive on much so we found a place on the river to camp.
It was a stunning spot on the banks of the river. We sat with a local family on their earth floor for dinner (chowmein) and then went and slept to the sound of the rushing river -quite beautiful.
We were very much the focus of attention next morning - the looks of amazement Andrew captured in his picture was of me taking a shower -inside the tent I might add! Not much in the way of personal space in some of these areas!
No one spoke much English but Andrew got out the atlas to show where we'd been -they were amazed as to where Australia was cf Nepal! They all wanted us to point out Bahrain and Dubai and we worked out that that was where lots of family members (girls working as house maids mainly) were currently living.
We enjoyed the rest of the drive and took it very slowly! On the way we spotted this "leopard dog" whose owners had obviously decorated him for the festivities! That evening we arrived at Dhulikhel a lovely old Newari town with stunning mountain views and clean air - amazingly just 30 k out of Ktm.
We were allowed to park at the beautiful Dhulikhel Mountain Resort. This was a stunning property consisting of lovely little cottages and gorgeous gardens looking out on the Himalayas. As this area was once a hot bed of Maoist activity there was quite a police presence and in fact the police had taken over the parking area of the hotel. This was good in that we were very safe - but not as great as we were woken up at 5am 2 days running to hear the Commander's early morning yoga session which incongrously he did to the accompaniment of very loud off key wailing music! Out with the ear plugs.
That evening it was the night that Lakshmi visits your home and we heard the singing down in the village which reminded us of the festivities a year ago when we were in Ktm. It's a sort of trick or treating gig kids (and some adults) make a real racket so you pay them to go away from your business and stop deafening your customers!
It all sounded quite raucous -but there was a far more refined organized version going on up at the restaurant at the Mountain Resort!
The Resort was a gorgeous place to relax and they made us very welcome. A lovely area just to sit and read and admire the beautiful gardens. Andrew got very friendly with Mr. Prem the resident gardener.
He had been in charge of the resort's gardens for 26 years and was a real professional. Andrew gave him some of the seeds we bought in Kashmir so we'll have to go back in a few years and admire the Kashmirian poppies! Mr. Prem had a network of pen pals (mostly ladies of a certain age!) from all around the world who have stayed in the resort and send him pictures of their own gardens! Good to see someone who really loves their job. Have a look at the resort's website http://www.dhulikhelmountainresort.com -a really great place to hang out and relax and very close to the city
We spent a really nice couple of days here, and when we weren't relaxing we made it down to the town of Dhulikhel. A working Newari town rather than just a tourist spot this was a great place to wander around taking in the lovely old architecture and the village life.
The little brick houses to make sure Lakshmi entered your home were everywhere, and we saw many men sporting the special 7 colour tikkas which celebrate the 5th day of the Tihar festival when brothers and sisters meet to exchange gifts and the brothers are given these tikkas as a form of protection for the year ahead.
There was a street parade going on to celebrate the Newari New Year (a huge number of different festivals in these parts at the moment it's hard to keep up!) with a very enthusiastic band in a great array of homemade uniforms!
There were also gorgeous mandalas (which allegedly show the path to enlightenment) everywhere on the floor -a really lovely one we saw was built entirely out of grain - so much work!
So finally on the morning of Monday 8 November we headed on the final 30km to arrive in Kathmandu.
It was a short drive and fairly depressing as we left the clear mountain air behind and drove into the polluted syrup which passes for air in Kathmandu -I could feel my last year's chest infection reasserting itself! It was however exciting to see familiar landmarks and we were very much looking forward to meeting up with our friends Gill and Bipin that evening - amazingly it's over a year since we last saw them.