Face-off with an elephant in the Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal
Face-off with an elephant in the Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal

The Rediscovery of Nepal: A Road Trip

Somewhere along the way, people forgot to take the road to Nepal.

The capital Kathmandu was for long associated with hippies seeking Nirvana, but Nepal was classier than that. Its forests were the hunting grounds for royalty and the elites from all across the world. It may a abhorrent idea today, but we are talking of a different era. Adrenalin seekers got their high in Nepal – it could be scaling Mount Everest and other peaks, or exploring the many trails of the Himalayas. For Hindus and Buddhists, a pilgrimage to Nepal has been important to their faith.

And then things changed. Economic issues were always there in this impoverished landlocked state but that did not deter tourism. The mass assassination of the royal family, struggles in establishing an efficiently functioning democracy and political unrest for decades took its toll. Tourism plummeted. Nepal lost. But the loss to travellers who stayed away was no less.

Because Nepal is a country that has to be visited. Once, and then again. It is safe to travel to – always has been. The Nepalese have hospitality in their DNA, and you want to be served by them. And become their friend as they show you their wonderful country. And then you will realize for yourself why it’s included in the Kunzum 100 Great Journeys.

DRIVING INTO NEPAL

I live in New Delhi, the capital to India – not too far from the Nepalese borders depending how you perceive distances. To put it in perspective: I headed out at the crack of dawn in my car, crossed into Nepal a little after noon, and was driving my own car inside the Shuklaphanta National Park tracking rhinos well into the twilight hour. The heavy woods and tall grasses took on a golden hue and the skies turned red and orange and eventually dark grey before I drove out of the reserve. I could not have asked for a better welcome to what would turn out to be a memorable road trip.

Over three weeks, I savoured a traveller’s buffet. Wildlife, rivers, lakes, temples, festivals, people, history, architecture, mountains, artists, coffee – my plate was full. And yet every course whetted my appetite for more.

SHUKLAPHANTA NATIONAL PARK

My first stop was Mahendranagar, close to the reserve, just across the border from India. The hotels there are modest but camps have now come up in the park. The 305 sq. kms. reserve is home to about 24 mammal species and 350 bird species. Animal sightings are not so common but the jungle is a delight to be in anyway.

Additional excursions included a walk across the Dodhara Chandani pedestrian suspension bridge, one of the longest in Asia at 1.45 miles (2.3 km) connecting far-flung villages across the Mahakali river, and off-roading to the relatively obscure Lake Betkot with blue and green waters dedicated to Hindu God Shiva.

The pretty Betkot Lake near Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal
The pretty Betkot Lake near Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal

The Dodhara Chandani pedestrian suspension bridge, one of the longest in Asia at 1.45 miles (2.3 km) connecting far-flung villages across the Mahakali river near the Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal
The Dodhara Chandani pedestrian suspension bridge, one of the longest in Asia at 1.45 miles (2.3 km) connecting far-flung villages across the Mahakali river near the Shuklaphanta National Park in Nepal

BARDIA NATIONAL PARK

Bardia is a natural heritage we all have to treasure. For long, it was a hunting ground for Nepal’s royal family and their rich and powerful friends; it was declared a national park in 1988. Spread over 968 sq. kms. (100,000 hectares), it is home to 53 species of mammals including the Royal Bengal Tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros and over 400 species of birds and several varieties of reptiles and water animals.

Having been promised Gangetic Fresh Water Dolphins and wildlife sightings, I signed up for a 28 kms (17 miles) cruise down the Karnali river running along Bardia. I was disappointed not to spot any dolphins – human activity has pushed them to the verge of extinction. But it was still a delightful day out with many birds including the Rudy Shelducks giving us company. The clear blue waters and the silence had a calming effect on me.

Tracking rhinos and tiger on elephant back in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Tracking rhinos and tiger on elephant back in Bardia National Park in Nepal

A Barking Deer in Bardia National Park in Nepal
A Barking Deer in Bardia National Park in Nepal

Pythons resting in a pit in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Pythons resting in a pit in Bardia National Park in Nepal

Pumping up a raft for a cruise down the Karnali river in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Pumping up a raft for a cruise down the Karnali river in Bardia National Park in Nepal

Talk on innovation!! Locals carve out tree trunks to make boats - their flip-flops usually work as paddles. In Bardia National Park in Nepal
Talk on innovation!! Locals carve out tree trunks to make boats – their flip-flops usually work as paddles. In Bardia National Park in Nepal

Rudy Shelduck giving company in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Rudy Shelduck giving company in Bardia National Park in Nepal

Our guide on a tree, looking out for any wild animals in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Our guide on a tree, looking out for any wild animals in Bardia National Park in Nepal

Row, row, row your boat… down the Karnali river in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Row, row, row your boat… down the Karnali river in Bardia National Park in Nepal

LUMBINI

Next stop was Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and believed to be the birthplace of the Buddha in 623 B.C. The central attraction is the sacred garden with its Maya Devi Temple named after Buddha’s mother Queen Mahamaya or Maya Devi; a pillar has been erected by King Ashoka to mark this sacred spot. There are ancient excavations inside including a marker stone depicting the exact spot where Buddha was born and a bas-relief of Mayadevi.

Lumbini is one of the four important places associated with the life of Buddha, the others being Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment), Sarnath (where he first preached) and Kasia (where he passed away and attained Nirvana). The Sacred Garden is a massive complex with elaborate monasteries built by many countries including Germany, China, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Nepal and India. Hop on to cycle-rickshaws to navigate the town.

Buddhist monks praying near the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini in Nepal
Buddhist monks praying near the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini in Nepal

The Ashoka Pillar installed to mark the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini in Nepal
The Ashoka Pillar installed to mark the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini in Nepal

TANSEN

Tansen was a famous Hindustani classical singer in the court of Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, but what I savoured in this town by the same name were the touching Gandharva songs sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva at a Shiva Temple on a mound; notes from his sarangi added soul to his vocals. The temple, located in Bhairavsthan outside town, has a golden Trishul (trident – a weapon of Lord Shiva) boasted by locals to be the biggest in the world. Want a high? Ask the priests for some ganja (cannabis). I am not kidding.

Tansen itself is a pretty town, home to the culturally rich Newars, a prominent trading community. The town on a hill with its undulating cobblestoned streets and houses with exquisite doors and windows make for pretty picture postcards.

The main square of Tansen in Nepal
The main square of Tansen in Nepal

Gandharva songs being sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva at a Shiva Temple near Tansen in Nepal
Gandharva songs being sung by Til Bahadur Gandharva at a Shiva Temple near Tansen in Nepal

A golden Trishul (trident - a weapon of Lord Shiva) in a Shiva Temple at Bhairavsthan near Tansen in Nepal. Locals claim it to be the biggest in the world.
A golden Trishul (trident – a weapon of Lord Shiva) in a Shiva Temple at Bhairavsthan near Tansen in Nepal. Locals claim it to be the biggest in the world.

Want some ganja (cannabis) to feel high? Ask the priests at the Shiva Temple Bhairavsthan near Tansen in Nepal.
Want some ganja (cannabis) to feel high? Ask the priests at the Shiva Temple Bhairavsthan near Tansen in Nepal.

POKHARA

I rate Pokhara as the single best place to visit for travellers in the Indian subcontinent. Settled around the beautiful Fewa Lake at an altitude of 3,000 feet with the 23,000 feet high Machhapuchre (Fish Tail) peak dominating the landscape, the setting leaves you starry-eyed. Treks on the Annapurna circuit, whitewater rafting, paragliding and other high adrenalin adventure await you here. You can put your feet up and enjoy true espressos and yummy wood fired oven pizzas in restaurants offering fine dining at reasonable prices. I could not help shopping for the finest collection of Tibetan artefacts. Early morning is the time to hike up to the Peace Stupa for a panoramic view of Pokhara as the rising sun lights up the area.

A cafe serving refreshing coffee, cakes and sandwiches in Pokhara in Nepal
A cafe serving refreshing coffee, cakes and sandwiches in Pokhara in Nepal

The Peace Stupa on a hill above the Fewa Lake surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks in Pokhara in Nepal
The Peace Stupa on a hill above the Fewa Lake surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks in Pokhara in Nepal

The Fewa Lake in Pokhara in Nepal
The Fewa Lake in Pokhara in Nepal

BANDIPUR AND GORKHA

And then I chanced upon Bandipur, once an important trading town; the Newars of Bhaktapur had settled here in the 1800s. A no-vehicle zone, you can amble along its streets interacting with locals including children who always seem happy. Spend the night at boutique lodges like the Old Inn. Take a hike to the Siddha Caves, supposedly the biggest in Nepal. A short drive away is Gorkha, a historical town, where the famed Gorkha soldiers come from. I could not see the local palace there, being a particularly heavily rainy day.

On the way, I stopped for a cable car ride up to Manakamana Temple; the way below seems like a dessert bowl serving clouds with snow-capped peak jutting out of those. Whatever your religious views, go up there for wonderful panoramas.

A happy woman in Bandipur in Nepal
A happy woman in Bandipur in Nepal

An open-air chess board in Bandipur in Nepal
An open-air chess board in Bandipur in Nepal

The main street of Bandipur in Nepal
The main street of Bandipur in Nepal

Siddha Caves in Bandipur in Nepal
Siddha Caves in Bandipur in Nepal

Prayer bells at the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. It is accused by a cable car or a mountain hike from Gorkha.
Prayer bells at the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. It is accused by a cable car or a mountain hike from Gorkha.

The cable car taking you to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal
The cable car taking you to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal

KATHMANDU

It was with a sense of excitement that I drove into Thamel, the ‘tourist badland’ of Kathmandu. Much sobered down with political troubles keeping backpackers away, Thamel is still the place for the best of coffees, food and shopping in Nepal – with sex and drugs being peddled for those needing a headier cocktail. In between the fun, a visit to Patan is a must. Known as the ‘City of Fine Arts’ the structures in the Patan Darbar Square are dated 16th century onwards; most were built during the reign of King Siddhi Narsingh Malla (1618-1661 AD), the first independent Malla dynasty king of Patan. Don’t miss the Patan Museum, with its fine displays depicting the history of the city. No less impressive is Bhaktapur with its temples and courts and a potter’s village where you can see how clay items are produced. Unfortunately, both these cities suffered extensive damages in the massive earthquake of 2015.

Follow this with a visit to Pashupatinath, the most revered of temples for Lord Shiva in the world. And if you are lucky like me, you will be there on Shivaratri when a million devotees and sadhus go there to pray and fast. You can even pick up some marijuana sticks for Rs. 10 each as a ‘prasad’ or offering to Lord Shiva from these ‘holy men.’

Prayers being offered in a temple in Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal
Prayers being offered in a temple in Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal

The main square of Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal
The main square of Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal

Masked dancers on the occasion of Shivaratri in Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal
Masked dancers on the occasion of Shivaratri in Bhaktapur in Kathmandu in Nepal

The Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu in Nepal - it is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists
The Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu in Nepal – it is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists

A sadhu or ‘holy man’ on a high during Shivaratri at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal. You can even pick up some marijuana sticks for Rs. 10 each as a ‘prasad’ or offering to Lord Shiva from him.
A sadhu or ‘holy man’ on a high during Shivaratri at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal. You can even pick up some marijuana sticks for Rs. 10 each as a ‘prasad’ or offering to Lord Shiva from him.

Devotees thronging the Pashupatipath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal on the occasion of Shivaratri
Devotees thronging the Pashupatipath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal on the occasion of Shivaratri

Special costume for Shivaratri at the Pashupatipath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal
Special costume for Shivaratri at the Pashupatipath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal

The main square of Patan in Kathmandu in Nepal
The main square of Patan in Kathmandu in Nepal

Depictions of Kama Sutra on the facade of a temple in Patan in Kathmandu in Nepal
Depictions of Kama Sutra on the facade of a temple in Patan in Kathmandu in Nepal

Thamel in Kathmandu in Nepal
Thamel in Kathmandu in Nepal

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK

Getting to the Tiger Tops resort inside Chitwan National Park turned out to be one interesting ride. Parking the car at Meghauli airport – where only charter flights land and cattle graze much of the day – I was taken in World War II period Land Rovers up to a river, crossed it in a shallow row-boat and hopped on to another vintage Land Rover (I could have chosen an elephant too). It is another matter that all lodges inside the core of the reserve have since been asked to shut down and relocate to the periphery.

If you want to go off the grid and yet enjoy some fine things in life, go to Chitwan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Explore the forest in a 4-wheel or on foot – but watch out for any grumpy rhinos. Cruise down the Rapti and Narayani rivers with crocodiles, ghariyals and birds for company – and locals fishing for dinner.

End the great journey with a sundowner – fully aware that there will be another morning when you will find yourself driving to Nepal.

I happened to be in Chitwan National Park in Nepal on Valentine’s Day. A wild male tusker elephant came looking for a ‘female friend’ (to quote the staff) from amongst the private stables of the Tiger Tops lodge; he even destroyed a few staff quarters in anger when he did not find a suitable and willing mate.
I happened to be in Chitwan National Park in Nepal on Valentine’s Day. A wild male tusker elephant came looking for a ‘female friend’ (to quote the staff) from amongst the private stables of the Tiger Tops lodge; he even destroyed a few staff quarters in anger when he did not find a suitable and willing mate.

Elephants and mahouts from the stables of Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan National Park watch in apprehension when a wild male tusker came calling in search of a female partner.
Elephants and mahouts from the stables of Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan National Park watch in apprehension when a wild male tusker came calling in search of a female partner.

Taking a boat and World War era Land Rovers to get to Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan National Park in Nepal.
Taking a boat and World War era Land Rovers to get to Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan National Park in Nepal.

River crossing by rhinos in Chitwan National Park in Nepal
River crossing by rhinos in Chitwan National Park in Nepal

Ghariyals sunning themselves in the Rapti river in Chitwan National Park in Nepal
Ghariyals sunning themselves in the Rapti river in Chitwan National Park in Nepal

Another fishing innovation - in Chitwan National Park in Nepal
Another fishing innovation – in Chitwan National Park in Nepal

Vultures looking out for their next meal at the Jatayu Restaurant in in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. It is a special facility created to provide food to check the dwindling population of vultures.
Vultures looking out for their next meal at the Jatayu Restaurant in in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. It is a special facility created to provide food to check the dwindling population of vultures.

Our guide tracking wild animals and birds during a foot safari in Chitwan National Park in Nepal
Our guide tracking wild animals and birds during a foot safari in Chitwan National Park in Nepal

Approximate distances / time taken

* Delhi – Shuklaphanta Wildlife Park (in Mahendranagar): 360 kms (225 miles) / 9 hours (Add one hour to for border formalities)
* Shuklaphanta Wildlife Park – Bardia National Park: 160 kms (100 miles) / 2:30 hrs
* Bardia – Lumbini: 340 kms (212 miles) / 6:30 hrs
* Lumbini – Tansen: 80 kms (50 miles) / 2:30 hrs
* Tansen – Pokhara: 130 kms (81 miles) / 3:30 hrs
* Pokhara – Bandipur: 78 kms (49 miles) / 2 hrs
* Bandipur – Gorkha: 50 kms (31 miles) / 1:10 hrs
* Gorkha – Kathmandu: 150 kms (94 miles) / 4 hrs
* Kathmandu – Chitwan National Park (Meghauli Airport): 180 kms (112 miles) / 4:30 hrs

Note: The above are actual driving times and do not include any stops, delays etc.

Sundowner in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal
Sundowner in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal