An accidental adventurer in Nepal
The elephant I am riding is shaking like a bucking bronco, as I begin to lose my precarious perch on its leathery back. The gyrations finally dump me laughing and splashing into the muddy waters of Nepal's Narayani River.
This isn't the way it was supposed to be – I did not come to Nepal to be dislodged by a playful pachyderm in a jungle river that is also inhabited, although safely distant, by crocodiles.
This is far too energetic, too athletic, too adventurous. I came to this central Asian country not for thrills, not for its mountain trekking or riding wild animals, but for a rest, a change, and a chance to visit my daughter who is here on an internship with the anti-land-mines campaign. (The United Nations recently declared Nepal minefield-free, five years after a civil war.)
I am the antithesis of the classic Nepal tourist – I am a 62-year-old overweight man with high blood pressure, who was not lured by the siren call of the Himalayas, the legendary feats of Sir Edmund Hillary and his agile Sherpa guides, or the on-the-edge thrills of Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air. The closest I want to get to Everest is sipping from the 650-ml bottles of the local beer named after the venerable peak.
In short, I came in search of the couch potato's Nepal.
But it is hard not to slip accidentally into adventure, whether you like it or not – climbing, walking or riding some exotic beast. And it is hard not to get caught up in the majesty of the Himalayas even through the haze of 100 kilometres away, viewed from a comfortable restaurant terrace.
Mercifully, there are few of these energetic experiences. There are more days when my most arduous trek is traversing the stairs from the bar to my room in a luxury hotel. The scariest moment is passing time in the hotel bar with some raucous British tourists watching the Royal Wedding. Indeed, it is possible to find beauty and truth in Nepal by scarcely breaking a sweat.
My wife Elaine and I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal's big, bustling capital, late at night as the chaotic, polluted city was bathed in darkness from rolling blackouts that shut down power for an average of 12 hours a day. The hotel taxi bumped through potholed streets to the Shangri-la Hotel, which became our garden oasis from the world outside.
It turned out many of our fellow guests were trekkers, those Type-A, energetic types who were zealously checking dangerous destinations off their bucket lists. Not for me. Instead, I spent the first few days plunging into the teeming streets of Kathmandu, a city of fascinating extremes – the splendour and the squalor.
I explored the city's splendid Durbar Square with its ancient buildings. The country is a feast for architecture buffs, although many of the most beautiful structures are crumbling from neglect.
Then there is the wonderful chaos of the Thamel district where you can bargain for a pashmina shawl, eat a great pizza or feast on momos, the popular Tibetan dumplings. Walking in Thamel is not for the faint of heart – we fight for space on the sidewalk-less streets with cars, motor bikes and myriad hatchback Suzuki taxis. It is a city choking with pollution, but absolutely fascinating.
In Kathmandu, the most energetic animals are the pesky simians at the Monkey Temple on the city's outskirts. The ubiquitous street dogs are rendered soporific from gorging on garbage, and cows walk nonchalantly among the traffic.
The scariest creatures may be the wizened hippies, addled relics of the era when Nepal was the magnet for psychedelic rock stars and children on trust funds trying to find themselves. That seventies sideshow left behind a hippie hangout called Freak Street, a dingy backstreet of Internet cafés and restaurants. Some old hippies are still there, along with newer acolytes from Hamburg and Des Moines with their dreads and backpacks. For my generation, it is like looking in a frightening mirror of what we might have become.
For my personal high, I prefer a tranquil setting such as the Garden of Dreams, a walled glade built in the 1920s and later restored with Austrian money, and containing a café of European food. Or we could escape to the medieval city of Patan, whose royal square is more sedate and just as beautiful as in neighbouring Kathmandu. Even less frenetic is another royal city, Bhaktapur, less than an hour's drive east by car, for which you can bargain a low rate. Have a coffee at the Café Nyatapola in the splendid Taumadhi tole (or square) and watch the world go by.
But to truly escape urban life, we skip the heavy traffic to Everest base camp, and instead head south to Chitwan National Park for what I hoped would be a few days of rustic luxury. My hopes are dashed as soon as the boat ferries me across the river to the Island Jungle Resort. The message of the resort staff is blunt: You will be active!
They tell us we will be wakened at 5:30 a.m. for a jungle walk, followed by a 7:30 breakfast and then the rest of the day will unroll in activities. I whisper to my wife, "We've got to get out of here. I did not sign up for Boy Scouts camp." But we are trapped on an island, a day's drive from Kathmandu.
The only choice is to embrace Chitwan, and it is worth it. Sure, our cabin's toilet seat is unattached to the bowl, and the lights are dim, but we have a clean room and robust meals of curries, stews and daal, the ubiquitous lentil stew. And there is a riverside bar stocked with the old standby Everest beer.
The first afternoon, Hari, our guide, takes us through the precautions when we meet the rare one-horned rhino. "Run in a zig-zag pattern," he advises, "and then hide behind a tree." "Great," mutters my wife. "I can just see us doing that."
Thankfully, we never encounter the short-sighted rhinos on foot but we do observe the great beasts from the back of a truck – the couch potato's dream. In fact, we see four of the 500-odd rhinos believed to live in the park, as well as capturing surreal scenes of running deer that seem to glide through the air.
But the highlight is the elephant bath, in which after chiding by our fellow campers, I agree to participate. It is great fun – first being thrown by one elephant into the river and then climbing onto another, whose specialty is showering you with its trunk.
We are feeling some regret as we pack to leave, a feeling that quickly dissipates when a three-metre-long python slithers onto the verandah of one of the nearby cottages. But the park rangers are always vigilant, and subtly guide the snake away. Then there is a final boat ride across the Narayani to meet up with our driver.
It's a full day's drive to Pokhara, a city 200 kilometres west of Kathmandu and the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit, a prized destination of trekkers. Despite our best intentions there is some climbing, but how could we resist the chance to see the Annapurna peaks at sunrise? You travel about 40 minutes by car, then climb up past a procession of vendors to the top of a terraced viewing area. It is perfect for us – thrills without effort.
Later in the day, we are climbing (again) to the top of a high hill on which sits the stark-white World Peace Pagoda, built by Buddhist monks to promote a world without war. Even more challenging is descending the path to the shores of Lake Phewa Tal, then crossing by boat to Pokhara. It is a splendid hike capped by a drink along the lake, and a lunch of dumplings in the eclectic Moondance Restaurant, which advertises Canadian brownies for dessert.
We return to Kathmandu by plane, which takes 25 minutes compared with seven hours on the claustrophobic roads. We arrive exhausted but surprisingly content, creating the sneaking sensation that perhaps this exercise stuff is not all bad – as long as we don't make it a habit.