Nepal was a last minute addition to our travel plans, a way to spend a cheap November before heading onto India. In a way this was great, we had no expectations or real plans. On the other hand, having spent no real time on research, our first few days in Kathmandu were a blur of figuring out which hike to choose, organising trekking permits and booking bus tickets.
Our very loosely formed plan was to hike the Annapurna Circuit for two weeks before climbing to Annapurna Base Camp for a week. This proved to be a little too ambitious; after climbing to 5,416m to get over the Thorong La Pass, my patience for high altitude trekking was worn somewhat thin.
At the end of the two weeks we decided to skip the ABC and head to Chitwan National Park instead. Here we hiked through the jungle, following tiger and leopard prints, surprising turtles and crocodiles and even stumbling across the occasional wild rhino.
Nepal has been a magical experience for us in ways we never expected. Here are some of our favourite moments from this month.
A lot of the popular treks in Nepal are lined with tea houses, where you can buy cheap meals and pay a dollar or two for a bed for the night.
Some of these are more like little hostels, with hot gas showers and large, heated common rooms, but many of the smaller tea houses are little more than a few spartan rooms attached to a family’s home.
Surrounded by chickens and the occasional goat, with corn drying in the eaves overhead and dinner cooked over the family hearth, this was different to any trekking experience we’d had before.
Add in the spectacular views from some of our little wooden rooms and the warmth and hospitality of our hosts, and we were on to a winner. Plus, it’s always nice not to have to carry a tent.
The Temples. The Prayer Flags. The Little Tibetan Villages.
One of the most striking things about hiking in Nepal is the number of prayer flags and intricately decorated temples which line the way. It was definitely interesting to see the markings of Nepalese culture and religion as we passed through the mountains. But they also reminded us of the need to respect this stunning, harsh landscape, both for its beauty and for the perils it contains. It has only been two years since dozens of hikers died on the Thorong La Pass during a snow storm. This isn’t the place to take anything for granted.
I didn’t love the mountains in Nepal like I imagined I would. I thought their presence would be a lot more immediate, that we would hike over the pass with snow on the ground and nudge up against glaciers as we went.
I think maybe the circuit was the wrong hike for that kind of experience, at least in November, and maybe we’d have had more of it at Everest Base Camp or on the ABC.
Regardless, the mountains made themselves felt, both through dizzying altitude and intense inclines and through a myriad of small, glimmering moments which stick in the memory. A full moon glancing back from snowy peaks after dark. The slow flaming of mountain tops at dawn, the new sun colouring them pink and orange. Huge, silent masses of white peering through a pine forest. We never forgot that there were there, and at every turn, every changing hour, they showed us something different.
One day I’d like to get closer to them, but this was more than a start.
We hadn’t come to Nepal for the wildlife, and even on the hike didn’t expect to see anything more extraordinary than some deer. To be honest, I got more than reasonably excited about spotting a preying mantis!
Deciding to go to Chitwan National Park, home to over 120 royal bengal tigers and over 600 wild rhinos, was a big deviation from our plans. But as usually happens with unplanned side trips, these turned out to be some of our favourite days in Nepal.
We saw six wild rhinos, one happily rampaging it’s way through town at dawn and laying waste to unattended motorbikes.
We canoed past crocodiles sunning themselves on the river, studiously inspected tiger scat and were surprised by a wild bull elephant who happily wandered into the government breeding centre in search of a mate. Huge and unpredictable, our guides considered the wild elephants more dangerous even than the rhinos or tigers, so we kept well back!
It was difficult to reconcile the picture of the wild elephant, coming and going as he pleased, with the captured female elephants who are used for safaris and to patrol the park on the look out for poachers. I’m not going to wade into the debate on whether elephant safaris are unethical, but here is an interesting article here which delves more deeply and expertly into this issue than I am able to, so have a read if you’re interested.
Needless to say, these are truly magnificent creatures, and it was a privilege to be so close to them.
I think it was about two in the morning when it came home to me that I was sleeping in a concrete watch tower in the jungle, beneath which a tiger could quite feasibly be pacing. I’d got about half way down the steel staircase towards the loo when I saw them, three sets of gleaming eyes in the darkness, and my heart absolutely jumped into my mouth. I realised very quickly that they were only deer, but their unexpected presence made the thick darkness press uncomfortably close.
Dozing back off to sleep a few minutes later, I was rudely reawakened by their sharp, warning bark. Two, three, four times. Was it me that had scared them, or was something else out there?
The jungle was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. And while I never really expected to see a tiger, it was enough to know that they were out there, somewhere, maybe even watching us from the long grass.
Nepal, you were magnificent. Thanks for having us.