My mother, Carol, and I had been in Nepal for three weeks. We had trekked for ten days with five other American’s and 17 (!) Nepalis along the Indigenous Peoples Trail. The experience was arduous, beautiful, rewarding, and ultimately, a very special experience. As most of our trekking colleagues headed back to the US, we had planned a four-day visit to Chitwan National Park in the Terai, the subtropical southern part of Nepal on the border with India.
The Park was created in 1973, and was the first national park in Nepal. A total of 68 species of mammals, 544 species of birds, 56 species of herpetofauna and 126 species of fish have been recorded there. The Park is famous for being home to, and protection for, the one-horned rhinoceros, the royal Bengal tiger, and the gharial crocodile.
As we reviewed our itinerary the night before our pick-up at the Kathmandu Guest House, my intuition kicked in. I couldn’t help but think that our while our trek the previous few weeks had felt authentic and grounded by the thousands of daily steps we each made daily from camp to camp, the trip to Chitwan was more likely to feel like a visit to Disneyland. Certainly, with the Jungle Safari Resort as our home for four days, there would be lots of rest between activities. While our trek had a general itinerary, it was adjusted by conditions, and camp and water availability. Our trip to Chitwan had predictable components that all visitors would experience. Every visitor, for example, would participate in an elephant safari, a canoe ride, and a jungle walk, among other activities.
But even Disneyland contains surprises…
Our trip to Chitwan was organized by Adventure Geo Treks, the same excellent trekking company that had organized our trek on the Indigenous Peoples Trail. We had opted for a ‘private car’ (rather than flying or taking a tourist bus), which in our case meant a kind young man with basic English skills was charged with driving us safely from the capital to the national park, which is a trip of approximately 160 kilometers (approx. 100 miles), and is estimated to take around 4.5 hours.
There was lot of traffic not really moving on the one lane road out of Kathmandu, so our driver took a back road through a residential area. My mother and I chalked up the traffic to the very end of the Daishan festival when so much of the country’s population was on the road. The “highway” follows the Trishuli river, with headwaters in Tibet, and has dramatic turns and views over the river and hills on the other side. It was harrowing, but beautiful.
Then came our first real surprise. We made fairly steady progress until about 30 kilometers out of Sauraha, our destination in Chitwan. The road had been substantially damaged in the most recent monsoons, and landslides had taken out much of the road. While rebuilt enough for cars to pass, the road was unpaved, uneven, and a challenge to move above 10 miles per hour. When we asked about the landslides, the answer was always “the monsoons.” It seems the road sustained a certain amount of damage each year. But 2015 and 2016 had been much worse: the 2015 earthquake had loosened the hillsides and made landslides more likely when the monsoons came.
We inched along toward Chitwan.
Our activities in Chitwan were, as I had intuited, highly choreographed, and yet, another surprise: quite compelling and delightful. Our first afternoon included a short walk through a Tharo village at the edge of the park. The Tharo people have lived in Chitwan for millennia, and it was only once cholera was mostly eradicated in the region in the 1960s that it became of interest to other settlers from both Nepal and India. The Tharo people haven’t been especially well treated but they are still prominent in the area. (They had traditionally been farmers on communal land, and when the area opened to settlers, they were forbidden from owning land and the farmlands were confiscated from their use.) Their homes continue to have multi-generational families living in them, and the villages are alive with the energy of children and community.
We went to see a dance and music performance at the Tharo Cultural Center. The performances, represented the traditional celebrations and gathering of the Tharo community,. Another surprise that evening was the realization that the audience was 95 percent Nepali, including many school aged kids. Of course, a visit to a US national park would reveal the same ratios, but it still took me by surprise. Yet another surprise? Even school kids in Nepal use their cellphones to film performances, and as I looked toward the stage from the back third of the room, I was distracted by the bright screens of cell phones raised in the air.
Our primary adventures in the Park consisted of a jungle jeep safari, an elephant safari and elephant bath, and a canoe ride on the river followed by a short walk in the jungle. As prescribed as these activities were, they each had their gifts and charms. Our jungle jeep safari yielded views (and pictures!) of a one-horned rhino at around 50 yards. We also saw macaques (small, very aggressive monkeys), several species of deer, a boar, and a range of birds, including kingfisher and stork. The rhino, however,was the prize.
Although we didn’t see any wildlife from the back of the Asian elephant on the elephant safari, the experience was great. These are really, really big animals, but also very gentle. The mahout sits on the elephant’s neck and guides with his feet pressed behind the elephant’s ears. Each elephant could seat four adults on a square wooden platform, each person straddling one of the corners. It was a bit intimate as we all leaned our backs on each other for balance, and the elephant lumbered through the jungle and across rivers and swamps. Remarkable creatures, I mostly enjoyed watching the other elephants from my perch, recognizing their intelligence and feeling compassion for their captivity. I also kept imagining the colorful and highly decorated elephants of Rajasthan, India (a trip for another time, I hope).
Our trip in a traditional dugout canoe yielded sightings of a number of mugger crocodile as well as of the more rare gharial crocodiles. Mugger crocodiles are the fresh water crocodiles of your imagination or pictures. The gharial crocodile is primarily a fish-eating crocodile, with long thin snouts; the males have an ball-shaped tip at the end of their snouts. They are considered highly endangered. Muggar crocodiles aren’t so discerning with their diet: they’ll snap their very large and powerful jaws at anything that moves! We also saw a number of birds, including a profusion kingfisher with aqua blue feathers under the wings.
We thought our drive down from Kathmandu to Chitwan was long: our return trip took over seven hours not including the 45 minutes stuck in a small alley, a few hundred yards from the Guest House in Kathmandu, waiting for a large passenger van to get past a double-parked taxi. I had empathy and compassion for the people who travel the road for their living, bus and truck drivers. The economy grows as people work and goods move, however the quality of life shrinks as the roads become overcrowded with traffic. The seasonal monsoons, and the 2015 earthquake, add a layer complexity to the ritual.
As my mom and I reflected on our experience in Chitwan, we recognized that the pace was slower, more languid, which was initially a bit of a challenge to adjust to. However, we read, and chatted, and occasionally napped between activities. On the whole, the experience was fun, exceedingly relaxing, and good for our souls.
This is my last post on my October adventures in Nepal with my mother, Carol. What’s next? Always a mystery until I sit down to write. My plan for the foreseeable future (which is hella oxymoronic), is to post once a week around Wednesday.
Thanks always for your engagement and for reading my blog: it means the world to me!