Last thoughts on Nepal

I arrived in Kathmandu eight days ago with curiosity and with wanting to learn about its mysticism. After eight days I can only say that it has been a journey of wonder and discovery. A week in Kathmandu has made me fall in love with the place. It is a strange county with so many different ethnic groups. Within a hundred and fifty kilometres from the southern plains of the Terai which is 85 metres above sea level to land rises to over 8,000 metres in the Himalayas. Within that huge rise in altitude, there are all sorts of wonders in the terrain, it’s people and the various food.

The one thing that struck me was the patience people had. A city that I couldn’t figure out if it was being built or being demolished, had over 4 million people. The kind of mad rush I would have expected didn’t exist. Streets do not have traffic lights, where they did, it stopped working 15 years ago, cars and motorcycles share roads and alleyways with rickshaws and pedestrians. The only means of acknowledgement of their presence on the streets is the horn which is constantly blaring. Despite all this I have not seen a single accident or anyone loosing their temper. Road rage just doesn’t exist. My guide tells me “after all, this is the birthplace of Buddha”, which is seen in the everyday lives of the Nepalese.

Everywhere I turn, I see poverty. At least, that’s the way I see it. How else can I put it? Houses look like half built or half completed – which one I can’t tell – no electricity and no running water. Most look like a hole in the wall. Yet, I see happy faces. My guide tells me that they are not poor but contended people. You will never go hungry in Nepal as someone will feed you. There are no orphans in Nepal as someone will always take in the children whose parents have passed on, as if he or she was their own. While I still saw children in the streets, it is nothing like the ones you see in Thailand or India. In the one week, I hardly saw a beggar. Everywhere I went, I saw children so eager for their photos to be taken. Instead of asking for money, they ask for candy. Despite what I perceive as poverty and the dusty and filthy conditions of the city, people appear to be clean and tidy. You don’t see torn and tattered clothing on anyone. You can imagine how humble they must be.

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People in the villages in Chitwan were so warm and welcomed us into their homes that were made of grass, clay and cow dung. They had none of the worldly possessions the rest of us are used to, yet their lives appear to be so complete. My guide tells me that in most parts of Nepal, you could always expect to be fed and given shelter in homes and they never expect to be paid.

While there are many religions being practised in Nepal, Buddhism and Hinduism are the two main religions. It is hard to tell which religion one belongs to, as a Hindu will worship Buddha and a Buddhist will worship a Hindu god. Where one ceases and another begins, you cannot easily tell. In cities surrounded by Buddhist temples, you find Hindus living and in cities that dot Hindu temples, you find Buddhists living. There apparently are no religious tensions in Nepal. Children are brought up to respect other religions, something the rest of the world can learn from. I was there during the Dassain festival. I see everyone with Tikka on their forehead regardless of their religion.

Despite the political instability Nepal is going through at the moment, tourists can feel safe in the city as crime rate is relatively low. Obvious precaution is still necessary anywhere in the world but I never once felt threatened in any way while wandering through the city during the day or night.

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Day 8, the day I bid farewell to Nepal

Has it already been eight days? How time flies when you are having fun. I know it is a cliché but I was having fun exploring the city and it’s people.

Although the airport is twenty minutes away and my flight doesn’t depart till 12.30 pm, we were supposed to leave by 9.30 am. I was wondering why until we got to the airport.

The guide was only allowed to go as far as the entrance of the airport. Beyond that you needed a ticket. I guess it also ensures that the airport does not get very crowded and congested with every relative known to the departing passenger, who tend to come to send you off. There was a long line at the entrance as all passengers are allowed in twos. I thought that it was silly until I went in. I had to put my baggage through the X ray and then I had to step onto a pedestal for a body frisks (that was after I went through a metal detector that did not beep). After I collected my bags, I could check in my bags and collect my boarding pass.

The departure gates are one floor up, and before we could get onto the escalator to go up, a guard inspects your ticket and passport. Mind you, this was about fifty metres from collecting my boarding pass and the only exit or entrance between the airline counter and the escalator was the X ray machine and the body frisks point! Why check your boarding pass and passport, I have no idea.

Now we are in a completely secure area where the only things you could possibly add on to your hand luggage or your person is at the duty free shops. Next was immigration and we had to fill out our departure cards. We gave our passports to the officer but he wanted to know where my final destination was, which I told him and he wanted to see all my boarding passes before he stuck another wee bit of sticker on my passport and let me off.

Immediately after immigration was another bag check, X ray and body frisk. Again, this is after I have gone through a metal detector. Again, an officer checks my passport and boarding pass. A hundred metres or so comes the waiting lounges for the various airlines and I see the familiar x ray machines and metal detectors. Another round of body frisks. This is number three! I must have walked all of 300 metres so far.

While we were waiting for our flights, we hear various airlines calling for their flight departures but the monitors still show that the flight is still at check in stage. One had actually left and the monitor was showing that it was still checking in.

Finally my flight was called and we had to queue segregated by male and female. I was wondering why until I got to the front. Another body frisk before we step onto the tarmac to board the aircraft.

All in all four body frisks in less than 400 metres in a heavily locked down airport. Signs were prominently displayed all around the airport telling you that only 100 ml of liquid is allowed but despite all the searches I managed to bring with me 500 ml of bottled water with the seal broken. I begin to wonder if all the security and segregating is meant to create jobs for the locals because each station had at least half a dozen men and women working.

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As the plane took off, the Himalayas were in the distant and I think to myself how long it will be before I ticked off another one on my bucket list – the Himalayan base camp.

Day 7 The Himalayas

Another early morning start. This time 5 am for a 6.30 am flight over the mountains. We arrived on time but there was already a huge crowd at the domestic airport, mostly for the mountain flight as the other domestic departures leave after they have cleared the mountain flights.

There are several airlines offering flights over the mountain ranges and each airline with several flights each morning, one every ten minutes or so. Appears to be a huge money earner. They only sell the window seat, so everyone enjoys an uninterrupted view of the mountains. For US$182 person for a one hour round trip to the north of Kathmandu over the ranges and back seems like a lot of money but well worth it given that getting any closer to the Himalaya would involve trekking a few days.

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After take off, the plane flies to an altitude of 21,000 feet which is still well below Mount Everest, over hill stations and mountain passes. Soon after you get a glimpse of the snow capped mountains. First the plane flies towards the east and one side of the plane gets to see the mountains and when it reaches close to Mount Everest the plane turns around and the other side of the plane gets to see the mountains. You also get to go the cockpit to see Everest as the pilot would see it.

My first view of Everest was simply jaw dropping. It was so majestic to watch it from the air. To think that even the plane would not dare fly over the highest mountain in the world shows you the kind of respect it deserves. As I was watching it, I was wondering if I might ever one day be able to even come close to the foothills of Everest. Another destination on my bucket list? Everest Base Camp.

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We have about two hours to kill before we head off to Patan, so we decided to visit the former royal palace which is now a museum. This palace is famous for the 2002 royal family massacre where a prince came home drunk and killed eleven members of the royal family and then took his own life. Unfortunately when we approached the gate, we were told that they were still closed for the Dassain festival. So much for that, all we could see was the palace from the outside.

Patan is about 20 minutes by road and it took us no time at all, as the city was still on holiday mood. The first thing I noticed when I got to Patan was the stench from rotting rubbish. I later learnt that the municipality workers were still on the holiday and so there is no one around to clean the streets.

Patan is very much like Bhaktapur only looks a little newer, still several centuries old. We visited the alleyways and had a look at the various Hindu temples around. It was interesting to note that while most of the temples here were Hindu temples, most residents were Buddhists. But Nepal being Nepal, Buddhists still pray at Hindu temples and vice versa.

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As we walked around the city, we could see the number of Wells and watering holes that dot the city. I was told that there were over 300 naturally occurring waterholes that has been producing clean underground water for over 400 years and it hasn’t stopped once. I can see why Nepal has the second largest fresh water supply in the world.

As we were walking past the shops, I saw something really strange. Roasting chicken with a blow torch. I was told that he was blow torching the feathers off the skin before it is cooked. Even then, it was still weird.

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I wanted to try something really local for lunch and not a touristy café which we have been frequenting so very often. I managed to convince my guide that my stomach was strong enough, so we ventured into the alleyways looking for Newari food for lunch. The Newaris are the major ethnic group in Patan. This local tavern looked decent enough in my books, so we went in and ordered. While my stomach may be tough, I tried to only order food that is going to be cooked in front of me. The Newaris are known to favour buffalo meat more than one any other meat. So I ordered three different kinds of buffalo dishes; smoked and refried, chilli fried and pickled. Instead of rice, these are served with flattened rice flakes. I saw someone having something out of a cup. I wanted to try that as well. It turns out to be buffalo stock with more spice. I just had a small spoonful which goes with the flattened rice flakes. It was not something I liked but worth the experience

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After lunch we went visiting more temples. Apparently in those days, every square ‘Durbha’ had a temple with erotic carvings. Not sure how that actually helped with the population growth but I was told that was the main purpose. By four that evening, I was almost ‘templed’ out.

Tonight was the last night in Kathmandu and the guide threw us a farewell dinner at a local restaurant called ‘Uztap’. It was quite an experience. As we arrived, we were all given ‘tikka’ on our forehead and then the meal began. It started with traditional alcohol made with fermented ruce and then followed by soup and momos. As the main course was served, we were entertained by dancers from the various ethnic groups of Nepal from the people of the lowland in the south to the Sherpas in the mountainous north.

On the way back to the hotel for the last time, I remembered that there was yet one more local cuisine I have to taste, ‘panipuri’ and it was a coincidence that we were walking past a shop that sold one. I had two pieces and it was really nice. Panipuri is a golf ball like fried flour that is hollow on the inside. Just before you are going to eat it, you fill it with a paste that is made up of potatoes and green peas cooked in lentils. Then the whole thing is dipped in lime juice and served in a leaf plate. The panipuri is served one at a time. While you are eating one, the next one is prepared, and so it goes if you ordered many.

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Day 6 at Bhaktapur World Heritage Site

I had half a mind to sleep in this morning rather than to wake up at quarter past five to hike up a summit to watch the sun rise. Then I thought to myself that it is not everyday that one gets to see the first rays of the sun on the top of the world. So I decided to go ahead.

We climbed up the narrow steps and path to the summit in the wee hours and we were the only one up there. We waited for at least half an hour before we saw the first rays. Because of the altitude, it was dream like as the colours of the sun some on the valley below still shrouded in clouds. We were 1,728 metres above sea level and the clouds were below us. Then as the sun rose I could see orange lights on some of the peaks. It was spectacular and I did not regret getting up at that hour.

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After breakfast we headed towards the hills to a Tibetian monastery called Namo Buddha. The drive to the monastery was like going off road because the last four and a half kilometres was unsealed, rocky and looked like only suitable to four wheel drives, although we saw many Maruti Suzuki taxis going to and fro without second thoughts. That four and a half kilometres took forever.

Finally when we arrive at the monastery, it was amazing too see a structure like that in the mountains, especially after driving through rubbles and shacks. It was peaceful and serene. We walked up to the prayer room where no photography is allowed. It was a pity because that room was absolutely like being in heaven. The paintings on the wall and the ornaments were just amazing! There were also seven life sized Buddha in each of his incarnations. Right at the top was the temple where you can pray for blessing. I lighted a candle as an offering for good health for me and my family.

As we were approaching the bottom of the temple, I saw monks in full regalia. I asked one of them nearby what the occasion was and no was told that a master monk from Hong Kong was arriving. I waited till he arrived hoping to get a shot of him but to my disappointment he never got out of the vehicle he was in. So I managed to get a shot of the possession and the vehicle he was in. Oh well!

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Then it was back down hill on that rickety road again towards Bhaktapur. This was another old city built in the 11th century. It is amazing this world heritage site is still standing after the 1932 earthquake. Some of the buildings look like they may fall anytime but then you see people living in it.

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The old buildings had really thick walls (like about two feet) and really small and short doors. Some were only up to my shoulders. The alleyways that led to one courtyard after another were all cobblestoned. I then came to a temple that said only Hindus were allowed. How could I pass up on that opportunity? I convinced the soldier who was guarding the entrance that I was indeed a Hindu and went in. He was keeping an eye on me until he was convinced that I was not fooling around.
This temple again was very old with statues all around and corridors leading to thirteen courtyards. Each courtyard had a small temple and I could see that it was recently used for prayers. So it was a working temple. Before we left, our guide pointed out the famous temple with erotic carvings on the wall. Some of them were rather crude but it was apparently done to encourage population growth. The reason why it was in a temple was because that was where people came together and congregated, in the old days.

It was close to five in the evening before we left Bhaktapur for Kathmandu. Our last two days in Nepal. On the way there were more buses overloaded with people but by then we got used to seeing that it never caused any surprise anymore.

After checking in we went out to Thamel to get last minute souvenirs and bumped into David, Diane and Nabin. We went out to the Rum Doodle restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is somewhat different as it was a place to go after you come back from your mountain expedition. There are lots of signatures from other mountain trekkers with inscriptions made on pieces of wood carved in the shape of a yeti. There are literally hundreds of them on the wall and ceiling.

Lastly, we got our tickets for the morning mountain flight. If we can’t climb Mount Everest, we might as well fly there.

Day 5 from the valley to the hills of Dhulikhal

The morning started late for us as breakfast was only to start at 8 am. Had nice poached eggs with lovely bread and lots of masala tea. After that we went looking for birds down by the river and spotted a beautiful blue king Fisher perched on an elephant grass. Did not bother taking any photos since it was still pretty misty.

At 9.30am we departed the resort for the hill station in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Dhulikhal. The ride to the airport was less exciting than the trip we had two days earlier. This time it was a luxury mini van. It was also faster as it took us less than an hour.

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The check in at the airport was something from another century. The all bags were brought to a counter where someone physically opens each bag and inspects them with hand. No gloves. This would not happen in a country like New Zealand. After it was inspected, they are weighed in a traditional huge weighing scale. No scanner, no X ray, no electronics.

As we had about an hour and a half left to kill, we decided to head down to the local fruit market. That was again like walking back in time. There were lots of ladies selling bananas and other fruits. A lot of apples were there and I wondered how many were Imported? From New Zealand? There were also some curious looking fruits like one greenish looking ball like fruit, locally known as Amala. I had a go at it but it tasted sour as. Couldn’t finish the whole lot.

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Then I spotted a guy on a cart selling something that looked like the ‘kacang putih’ we get in Malaysia. I tried it but no one else was brave enough as this guy was not wearing any gloves and did not even wash his hands before hand. The stuff was made of mixing different peas, some crispy noodles, cut fruits, chilli powder, spices and a squeeze of lime. Mix all that together and it is served in an old newspaper rolled into a cone and he gives you another piece of cut cardboard to be used as a spoon. It tasted pretty good and it was one of those snacks that you can go on and on and not want to put it down kind of thing.

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After the market experience, we walked back to the airport. It was time to check in. The check in process was just as amusing as the bag drop process. You had to queue outside a curtained room, one line for men and another for women. When you get into the room, there is a guy sitting on a chair and he asks you to open your carry on bag, looks at it then frisks you while still seated and then says go. That’s it!

Buddha Air must be one of the few airlines I have flown (and I have flown quite a bit) that does not have life vests. That’s not all that they didn’t have – they also didn’t have oxygen masks. So if you fly Buddha Air, and which we will in a couple of days, you will need to BYO (bring your own) life vest and a bottle of oxygen.

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When we arrived in Kathmandu, the baggage collection was again chaotic and one wonders how many people have lost their luggage. Having said that, this is no different to the remote Indonesian airports. Having lived there for almost 6 years, I have not lost a single bag.

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The drive from Kathmandu was windy most of the way. We passed the only dual carriageway in Nepal which was 10km and was built with the help of the Japanese. We passed several stretches that were so narrow I wondered how two buses with people in and on the vehicle could safely make it across. Here was also where I saw trucks being used to ferry people. It literally looked like transporting cattle. Often you see people with babies and children on the roof of buses and in trucks sandwiched between several others. Transportation takes a whole new meaning in Nepal. Perhaps I have lived abroad too long.

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I saw the hotel when we arrived and scratched my head. It was perched on a hill and it was quite a climb. Thankfully there were porters and they carried two 12kg backpacks each, which was impressive. It was almost 2 in the afternoon so we ordered snacks instead of lunch. Due to the holiday, there were limited food available and also limited cooks. The snacks we ordered took almost 45 minutes to arrive.

After lunch we took a walk around the village nearby and then to the summit viewing point to get a glimpse of the settings sun. Looking at the steps and the narrow track, I’m not sure if I want to do it but won’t tell Vera (although she’ll figure it out when she reads this) because she’ll be overly concerned. I’ll see how I feel tonight and in the morning.

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Dinner is a relatively quiet affair after all the fanfare we had at Chitwan the last two nights. Partly because this is not a resort and partly because this is a holiday and there isn’t enough cooks let alone food.

 

Day 4 deep into Chitwan National Park

This morning is an early start even for me. We had a 6 am wake up call, but I was awake even before that. Got myself ready by the time the staff came over and knocked on our door to make sure we don’t miss the jeep safari and the dug out canoe ride.

There wasn’t much of a breakfast this morning due to the early start but we did have coffee and biscuits. It was misty and foggy so there was nothing much to see but I was hoping to see a bit on the way. The jeep we got was no different compared to the rickety one we got yesterday, so not keeping my hopes too high for a comfy ride.

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The morning was still too misty to take any photos although I had my 70-200mm fitted, ready for any action. We drove to the edge of the national park and got ourselves tickets and permission to enter. We drove a bit and saw some spotted deers and then more deers. Saw a wild boar further down. That was about it as far as animals went. We drove near a river when we got to see some birds. I was a little disappointed to be honest as I was expecting to see more animals. Probably I have been spoilt since seeing the big 5 on a safari in Africa.

After driving for almost an hour and a half, we called it quits and went to the river bank for our dug out canoe ride. The canoes were there all ready to go. I got my life jacket on and got into the canoe. It was a bit scary as the gap between the canoe and the water was about ten centimetres, which isn’t much when you think about it.

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When we came back to the resort breakfast was waiting for us. We had a short time to relax before we headed out to watch elephants bathing. We first had a briefing about elephants, their likes and dislikes. Their behaviour, how they train them and why the mahuts use the iron rods and spikes to poke them. We were also told about the difference between an Indian elephant and an African elephant. We then walked to the river where they took their baths.

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Back to the resort for lunch and about two hours to rest before we went to the local village to see how they lived. Interesting to see how simple their lives are compared to us. We have so many worldly possessions and yet we complain while these people have hardly anything and yet live a full life. Despite their poor livelihood, they appear to be neatly dressed and always are clean and polite. That is one thing about them – polite and warm people. While at the village, I had the opportunity to test the local millet beer that is homemade. Tasted a little like toddy but there is another version of this apparently, which is served warm. I have to try that.

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Just as we came back, the sun was setting we had a spectacular view of the sun setting by the river. Some say it is the best sunset ever but I still think the African sunsets are the best.

The rest of the evening was very uneventful. A slide show was put up to explain about the Park and its people. It was pretty monotonous and since I had a deck chair, I almost fell asleep several times while the guide was talking. Gosh, he must have felt offended.

Tomorrow’s morning activity was bird watching. After this morning I don’t think I am going to get any shots of birds-not in the mist, so sleeping in.

We arrive in Chitwan

This morning was a little later than usual to check out. We had a long (relatively speaking) breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast was as good as the morning before. A good choice of western and Nepalese food. The Nepalese food was like a fusion of Indian food as I had upma which in the Indian way would have been white, not too much spice and a wee bit thicker. The Nepalese version was almost watery, greenish in colour and had a lot of spice.

After breakfast, we check out and head for the airport. The domestic terminal is next door to the international one but it looks worlds apart. The international terminal is no award winning airport but the domestic terminal is like a rural bus terminal. The car park on gravel with pot holes and cars are parked anywhere and everywhere with no system.

As we enter the main terminal, we go through the standard metal detectors but men and women use different detectors for some reason. I thought once we got in it would be better but that isn’t the case at all. There is more chaos inside the terminal as well. There are queues but that could be going nowhere because you don’t where one starts and where one ends. It would be easy to stand in line in the wrong queue.

With the help of the guide, we manage to get to the front of the queue and check in. Then it was snaking through the crowd to the departure hall. Another metal detector check. Again men separated from women. Our laptops are not removed, water in the bags not inspected but you go through two separate detectors. For what, I have no clue. The other peculiar thing is after going through one detector just a few hundred metres as we entered the terminal, we go through another. What could one have possibly accumulated between entering the terminal, collecting your boarding pass and entering the departure hall?

The departure hall is slightly less chaotic but still lots of people and lots of announcements, all in Nepali. Even entering the tarmac into the busses that take you to the aircraft, you are segregated between men and women.

The 35 seater ATR-72 Buddha Air flight is delayed by over an hour, which I am told is pretty normal in this part of the world. As i take off, I see some pretty amazing views of the mountain ranges. Some look like out of this world to honest. The scenery suddenly changes from mountains to the plains and I could see rich rice field for miles and the Chitwan National Park which borders the plains and the mountains suddenly appear.

After the plane landed it felt a little like one of those remote Indonesian airports I have been to because there was a small counter where bags are brought to you and baggage tags are inspected against the bags before they are released.

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We walk less than 30 metres and are introduced to our transport for the day. Two really beaten up Land Rovers, one with a roof and one open top. I would have driven in an open top one if not for the side facing seats. Vera was not very happy with my initial decision but was glad I decided to go with the roof.

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I got to sit with the driver up front. Inside the Land Rover, everything was refitted and rewired. Apart from the engine and the transmission (I hope), everything else was either not functioning or modified. None of the gauges were working, including the speedometer – not that it could go very fast. Some were empty holes on the dash. The horn was a light switch hanging off a wire coming out of the steering column.

The road to Macan Paradise View (our accommodation for the next two days) looks like those four wheel drive tracks we used in the past. Thankfully it was dry this afternoon. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if it rained. We see several busses filled with people inside the busses as well as on top on the roof. Must be a pretty darn amazing view from the roof.

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After an hour in the rickety journey we reach paradise, or did we? It is set in the fringes of the national park. The rooms were basic but very nice, although the beds were like sleeping on a piece of wood. After lunch we waited for our nature walk.

At four we embark on the walk onto the forest with our local guide who explains all the medicinal values of the various plants and trees. After about half an hour into the walk, everyone went still and quiet. The guide points out some distance away a mother one horned rhinoceros and her baby. After some shots, we went looking for more animals but only managed to see leeches, although some of us in the group managed to also experience it. I had my super extra strength Bushman insect repellent, which must have worked.

When we got back to camp, we were sweating and tired. Chitwan is in the Southern end of Nepal known as the Terai. The Terai is in the plains and is only 85 metres above sea level – which makes the weather warm and humid. We were told that we will have the local Churi tribe performing for us that evening before dinner.

At seven, the troupe arrived. They gave us four performances and the last one they invited the guests. Vera was ‘lucky’ enough to be invited as she appeared to be with the main dancer. It got faster and livelier as time went on.

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We were served BBQ pork and chicken for dinner with some very nice vegetables and rice. After dinner we are told of our itinerary for the next day. We are to be ready by 6.15 am for some coffee before head off for more adventure.