A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

Himalayan Highs

The Synergies Of Pokin’ Around Pokhara And Jumping Off Cliffs

sunny 21 °C
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I really hate trendy business jargon. I cringe whenever I see a website that proudly proclaims that they “leverage technologies” to do this, or employ that “paradigm,” or whatever. One trendy word a while back was “synergy,” the idea of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It got badly overused, but it’s still an important concept.

After checking out the wildlife and hot elephant polo action in Chitwan, we headed back to Kathmandu for the weekend (I’ll be covering all of our time there in the next post). Early on Monday morning we caught a flight on Yeti Airlines (truly -- it’s Sherpa-owned, and one of Nepal’s best!) to Pokhara, the trekking capital of Nepal. Resting beside a beautiful lake at the foot of the Himalayas’ Annapurna range, this is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts of every kind. We stayed at a guesthouse in Lakeside, one of the world’s hugest backpacker ghettos, stretching for a couple of miles along (well, obviously) the lake.

A Nepali REI

Lakeside is one long string of trekking equipment shops, souvenir stands, used book stores, travel agencies, money exchangers, and restaurants featuring the same menu: Indian and Nepali dishes, Chinese, and “Continental,” which is sort of a catch-all category for hamburgers, pizza, pasta and even Mexican. It’s kind of interesting that Nepalis seem willing to take a culinary shot at making anything; this is a tradition that goes back to the ‘60s and the days of hippies overlanding from Europe through Asia in search of enlightenment and cheap pot, and finishing in Nepal. Some smart Nepalis realized that all these westerners were starved for variety after months of curried lentils and vegetables in Pakistan and India, so entrepreneurs that they are, they started opening travellers’ cafes that served everything under the sun -- but made with locally available ingrediants, so it never comes out quite like you’d expect. Thus, you order “Tacos de pollo” from the menu, and what comes out is a big hard corn shell stuffed with diced chicken and kidney beans, laid on its side and smothered in not-particularly-spicy tomato sauce and cheese like an enchilada, and sprinkled with parsley rather than cilantro. It's not bad, it's just not quite right. It’s sort of a reverse-synergy: the whole is somehow slightly less than the sum of its parts.

It was a misty day when we arrived, so we decided to spend the afternoon looking around the non-ghetto part of the town, attractively dubbed Old Pokhara.

Nothing much happening in Pokhara

Truth is, there’s not really much to see there. It took all of about ten minutes to mosey down the street called the “old bazaar.” There were a few shops selling baskets and cloth and other staples to locals, and that was about it.

Not exactly burning up the cash register

But hey -- no one comes to Pokhara to see sights in the town anyway. The sun came out and mists parted the next day, showing us what they do come for...

Rooftop view

We took a colorful rowboat across the lake...

All those years as a boyscout come in handy once in a while

...and climbed to the Peace Pagoda at the top of the ridge south of the lake for the view of Mt. Machhupachhare (don’t ask me how to pronounce that) and the rest of the Annapurnas in all their glory.

The Annapurna mountains over Pokhara’s Lake Phewa


Mountains display a synergy of their own. Really, they’re just incredibly huge rocks. But you put a bunch of these huge rocks together, and you get a sight that defies words. I mean, what can you write about mountains? They’re big. They’re beautiful. They make normally rational people want to climb them. I wish there was more that I could say, but really you just stand there looking at them and saying to yourself, “Yup, this sure doesn’t suck. I am so blessed to be looking at this.” And you take some photos, knowing that there’s no way a camera can capture the view, or the feeling of looking at them. They are simply beyond words. We go to see them, as one climber sagely put, “because it is there.”

Speaking of “normally rational,” the following day we drove around the lake and up to Sarangkot at the top of the cliff, where I proceeded to run off of it and fly back down.

The knowledge of Craig, a Zimbabwean paraglider, is all that stands between you and certain death

Nepal rivals New Zealand as a magnet for adrenaline junkies, and while I’m normally pretty sane, I really wanted to try paragliding. In Pokhara, you can do tandem flights with a seasoned pro, so I strapped on a helmet, and off we went.


You take a big rectangle of nylon and a bunch of ropes, a strong mountain wind, and the mind of a man who can sense the air currents with his whole body, and you create an amazing synergy.

It’s called flying.


Posted by Bwinky 03:15 Archived in Nepal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Rhinos and Tigers and Elephant... Polo?

Oh my! It’s Nepal’s Chitwan National Park

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Following a brief stop back in Delhi after visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, we flew to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal: the twelfth and final country in our Asian odyssey. From the beginning of our research for this trip, we had a sense that Nepal might be more than just logistically the final destination, that it may just be saving the best for last. And that has proven true. This small strip of a country nestled between the dusty northern plains of India and Tibet’s Himalaya mountains is an amazingly diverse place with incredible scenery and dozens of people groups united by their good-natured love of visitors. It’s really easy to fall in love with Nepal.

We were meeting an old friend, Kim, at the airport when we arrived. Unfortunately, Kim’s route from the USA took her through Bangkok -- during the week that pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the airport, forcing the cancellation of all flights into and out of the country. She was routed through Singapore instead but got to Kathmandu two days late, so we spent a couple of days just relaxing at our guesthouse. When she did arrive, after a day of recovery time we immediately took off for Nepal’s Terai region, the fertile lowlands along the India border. This semi-tropical plain is home to half the Nepali population, the birthplace of the Buddha, and our destination: Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s most-visited patch of forest.

Lynn and Kim, proving that it IS in fact a jungle out there

Called “Royal Chitwan National Park” until King Gyanendra was deposed a couple of years ago and the country went on the biggest demonarchialization drive since the Reign of Terror, Chitwan is a former hunting preserve for the kings of Nepal and is a great place to see a variety of wildlife. We took an early-morning canoe trip down the River Rapti...

Nothing but the sound of birds and the lap of water against the boat

...and headed into the forest with our guide, Lalu...

The finest in Nepali jungle engineering -- don't fall in, there's crocs down there!

...in search of “big game.”

Rhino poo, and it’s fresh...

Among the creatures we encountered were:

Curious langur monkeys in the trees

”Marsh Mugger” crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank

No, this bad boy wasn’t in the wild; he was in a pen, captured after having tasted human blood. Still beautiful, though...

One-horned Indian rhinos grazing in the forest -- this was a treat, these guys are really rare outside the park

And, of course, we saw (and rode on) elephants. We visited the Elephant Breeding Center near the town where we stayed. It’s quite a sight, with mothers and babies.

Elephants in the mist (well, smoke actually -- they produce a lot of poo that needs to be disposed of!)

Who could resist that face?

The unexpected highlight of the trip to Chitwan, though, was going to watch the U.S. team compete in the World Elephant Polo Association tournament!

The finest in pachyderm polo action

Yes, there is such a thing as polo played on elephants (they use a standard ball and mallets with really long handles), and yes, the United States does have a team -- the New York Blue.

How can you not want to hang with a team whose uniform features blue Chuck Taylors?

We happened to be on the same flight from Delhi with these guys, and we decided it was our patriotic duty to come see them play. Basically, they’re a bunch of drinking buddies who decided it was a shame that we didn’t have a team, so they formed one, practicing on top of SUVs to prepare for the tournament.

And the truth is, elephant polo is a blast to watch! We cheered and chanted “USA! USA!” like nationalistic hooligans, and were rewarded for our efforts with a resounding victory over the Indian Tigers.

Mounting up behind their mahout (elephant driver)

The referee tossing the ball to start the first “chukker” (period)

Racing after the ball with India in hot pursuit

It’s anyone’s ball!


If you’ve been following our blog since the beginning, you know that I like to find a larger lesson in what we’ve seen and experienced, and finish each entry with some sort of pithy observation. Well, apart from noting that the polo players wore something like pith helmets, I really can’t come up with a witty closing for this post. So I’ll leave it at this:

It doesn’t get much better than good friends, the beauty of God’s creation, and eight elephant-borne dudes with sticks trying to whack a little white ball between two posts.

Posted by Bwinky 20:21 Archived in Nepal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

Love Indian Style

Marriages, Musicals and Mausoleums In Jaipur and Agra

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India is a country that is rushing head-long into the 21st century, and there are definite conflicts between tradition and the modern world. This is perhaps visible nowhere more than in romance and marriage. November happens to be wedding season in India, as it is astrologically a very “auspicious” season of the year. Everywhere we went, almost every night we heard or saw weddings taking place.

And trust me, there is no way that you can miss an Indian wedding. In the West, we tie a few cans to the bumper of a car and paint “Just Married” on the back. In India, there is a procession through the streets with the bride riding behind the groom on the back of a white horse (or even an elephant if you can afford it, I suppose, as we saw several times in Delhi). They are both dressed in incredible finery, with ornate bejewelled headbands for her and a big turban for him, and they are preceded by a marching band and followed by a horse-drawn cart with a generator for the string lights carried by the merry-makers. It’s a huge, festive party, and I really wish I had some pictures to share, but I never had my camera along when we came upon one!

But we noticed one odd thing, and this comes back to the cultural differences: the bride was always a lot younger than the groom. In the case of one wedding procession we passed in Jodhpur, the groom was about 25, and the bride appeared to be maybe 15. The whole concept of getting married that young, and probably by the arrangement of your parents with the groom’s, just doesn’t jibe too well with the Western ideal of how romance and marriage work. And it also doesn’t automatically sit well with young Indians, either. Many are being influenced by the relationships they see in the movies, and “love marriages” are becoming much more common than they used to be.

From Jaisalmer, we traveled eastward to two larger Indian cities where we observed a lot about love in India, both historic and modern: first to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and then to Agra, home to India’s greatest icon.

Jaipur is called the Pink City, and upon entering the old part of town, it’s not difficult to see why: everything, from the city gate...


...to the buildings of the back alleys...


...is painted a lovely warm terra cotta pink. Jaipur may not be the most peaceful or beautiful or dramatic city in India, but the color creates a nice unifying quality that is very attractive.

The city is best known for the famous Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds: an incredibly ornate and stunningly beautiful architectural confection attached to the Maharaja’s palace.

Interestingly, it’s almost just a façade: only one narrow room deep

The Hawa Mahal was built so the women of the Maharaja’s harem could remain secluded while watching the outside world go by. This custom, guarding the virtue of women by protecting them from outside eyes, is called purdah, and is still practiced to some degree today in more conservative segments of Indian society. The Hawa Mahal is fronted with windows filled with fine laticework that shielded the Maharaja’s wives and concubines from the attentions of those going about their business in the streets below.

A short way outside the city is the Amber Fort, one of the most graceful and stately in Rajasthan.

It’s a long climb to the gate

Like every Indian castle, the Amber Fort features two main areas: the public and private rooms where the Maharajas held court and lived, and the zenana, where the women resided. The rules of purdah ensured that only eunuchs served the ladies, and only the Maharaja himself could enter the zenana. This sounds incredibly restrictive and sexist, but it was all in the spirit of protecting the women. Or so we are told.

Today, however, the relationship of the sexes is influenced far less by courtly honor than by the silver screen. India is the world’s most voracious market for movies, and the Hindi film industry has come to be known by the nickname “Bollywood” (after Bombay, or Mumbai, where most are produced). You think the American movie industry is important in our culture? It’s got nothing on Bollywood. The day after the Mumbai terror attacks, the front page of Delhi’s English-language paper, the Hindustan Times, was covered with quotes from... Security officers? Politicians? Nope: Bollywood actors and directors. They’re huge -- looming larger in Indian culture than just about anyone other than Gandhi and the Hindu gods.

Bollywood films are really interesting. They are almost all romantic comedies of the “boy and girl (who are both stunningly gorgeous) meet, fall in love, are separated by some obstacle that they eventually overcome and get married in the end” variety that almost never comes out of Hollywood anymore. They are extremely clean, as India’s censors allow nothing more than chaste hand-holding and longing looks, even after the wedding. And most interestingly, they are almost all musicals, with syrupy balads, soaring duets, and big, flashy production numbers -- all of which may or may not have anything to do with the plot. A really terrific English-language example of Bollywood style is British/Indian director Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, an Indian adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that is well worth checking out.

In Jaipur, we decided to go to the historic Raj Mandir Cinema to catch the latest Bollywood offering.

Indian Art Deco at its best

I have no idea what the title means

The movie was a real treat, and seeing it surrounded by Indians who were all curious whether we followed it -- we didn’t understand a word but we didn’t really need to -- was a blast. Prem (Sonu Sood) and Chandni (Eesha Koppikhar) meet in a music competition, fall in love and sing to each other a lot, but can’t get married because her father dies and she has family responsibilities. Prem becomes a music star and Chandni opens a music school, and years later things finally work out for them. Not exactly profound, but good fun.

Interestingly, since the censors are so strict, it forces the directors to find other ways to build romantic tension since the characters can’t just jump in the sack. So they are much more creative; this movie had a really wonderful scene where Prem sings to Chandni as she sleeps on a train. There is a terrific moment when a gust of wind blows aside her sari, exposing her foot. Sonu Sood’s acting and the cinematography in that moment were amazing; I never knew that the sight of a toe could be so erotic. It was very effective!

From Jaipur, we headed to our final destination in India: the big, ugly industrial city of Agra, which just happens to be the home of quite possibly the most beautiful building in the world...


...the Taj Mahal. You’ve seen it in pictures, but pictures really don’t do it justice. And it does change colors throughout the day:

Brilliant white at midday

Dusty rose at sunset

Soft blue at dusk

The Taj Mahal is also the world’s greatest monument to love. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child -- now that’s devotion. Quite romantic. A fitting end to this examination of love and marriage, Indian style.

And to our time in India.

Posted by Bwinky 08:49 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

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