Sunday, November 4, 2012

Visiting Chitwan

As far as we were concerned, Dashain was an unexpected week off from our construction and orphanage work, yet Bal had already sussed this for us and proposed a trip of a lifetime to the other Nepali cities of Chitwan and Pokhara for about 6 days. For only £120 we would be transported down to the Terai south of the Himalayas to participate in safari walks, elephant riding and much more, to be followed by transport to the mountain sports city of Pokhara for a guided tour, sunrise viewing, boat ride and exploring caves, gorges and waterfalls. Accommodation and most meals were all to be included, so of course we said yes!

We travelled early on Saturday morning to Kathmandu to catch our tourist coach to Chitwan, a journey supposed to take 6 hours, but ended up exceeding 12! We spent almost half this time trying to leave the Kathmandu Valley via the mountain passes; the 25km route was packed with coaches and goods lorries and local buses, as everyone tried to leave Kathmandu to return to their homes in the South. The prodigious traffic jam (apparently making the national newspapers) was caused in part by two lorries which broke down on the pass in a position where they couldn't be towed and mechanics had to first reach and then repair them in situ. But never mind - the four of us (Amy, Nicky, Archie and me) had various travel games for company, spending many hours playing 'guess the song' with the help of our MP3 players and my headphone splitter.

We eventually started moving quickly, then followed by terrifyingly quickly, as our coach driver tried to make up time by overtaking buses and motorbikes on blind bends and in the face of oncoming traffic! Sleep was impossible when there would be a swerve, harsh acceleration or harsher braking every couple of seconds, it was best just to watch the scenery! Which mostly looked like this:

And on one memorable occasion, this:

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, deep in the Chitwan Nature Reserve, called the Hotel Misty.

Looking distinctly colonial, it gave us our first lukewarm shower in a couple of weeks, at the expense of many mozzies necessitating the application of insect repellent before going to bed... But the staff were very friendly and the meal portions huge, so we were quite satisfied all-in-all! We were supposed to have gone on a sunset walk and a culture show that evening, but having missed both of these on the coach, dinner and bed was the only option remaining...

The following day we all woke early in order to pack all our events into one day. We were taken into the Safari Park proper by genuine convertible jeep (good fun til I whacked my head and lost my hat!) and taken onto the river in dugout canoes. As we floated down in blissful quiet, crocodiles and kingfishers and fish and watering holes were all pointed out to us by our very good guide who was accompanying us from the hotel:

The 'log' in the right-hand photo is one of the many crocs we saw on the journey.

At one point we floated past the morning elephant safari which was crossing the river. Amusingly, and we did not spot this at the time, on the lead elephant were our friends Nadine and Fabian who are also volunteering with us in Kathmandu, but because we did not expect them to be there, we didn't recognise them at all!
After disembarking from our canoe ride at the other end of the stretch of river, we were taken to an elephant breeding centre, where the animals spend the first 3 years of their life until they begin training to carry the carriages that us fat humans ride around in. The training takes about a year and a half and at first the elephants can only carry the weight of one person, so at least they are eased in gently! I was most amazed at the gestation period of the elephant - 22 months is an incredibly long time, but I guess you need that much processing time to produce a baby weighing over 80kg...

Amy and the baby elephant (in that order)

Afterwards, we were led on a safari walk into the jungle proper (surrounded by cotton trees) in hope of spotting some Rhinos - no-one really believed that we would spot a tiger... But in the end we saw neither of these, merely some deer (which didn't photograph well, being so hidden, in fact I am astounded that the guide spotted them at all) and some termite nests (which were interesting but I failed to upload those photos).

But the highlight for me was being shown the 'Namaste' plant (also known as Mimosa) which is a small fern which closes its leaves if you touch it, making it look like it is wishing you a 'namaste', the greeting here that is accompanied by hands held in the prayer position. Cute.

Just before lunchtime, we took the jeep to our next activity, meanwhile stopping off at the hotel to get changed. Why? Because we were due to wash the elephants!

But this was not exactly what I imagined. Thinking that it would just be the elephants used for the rides getting a daily bath, it was actually just the one (quite old) elephant which was persuaded, over and over again, to take the tourists onto her back and spray them with the trunk. And unfortunately, with no animal rights in Nepal, this persuasion normally comes in the form of her ears being pulled repeatedly and occasionally being threatened (and I dare say prodded) with a sharp spike held by one of her minders.

I VERY nearly didn't participate. But after the girls had their go, and seemed to enjoy it (having not spotted beforehand what I did), Alfie decided to have a go anyway, and rather than waste 'the back seat' I went along for the ride. It felt exactly as you'd imagine, sat on a warm unsteady leathery bald rug being hosed with water from a dirty river. But in hindsight, I should have saved the poor animal from another pestering. And so I give, uncomfortably, the picture proof that this did happen:

Later I learnt that the elephant only gets this treatment for about an hour a day, a couple of days a week, and at least the others get a turn occasionally. But I have never felt more like an ignorant, rich tourist as I did participating in that event.

So afterwards, we ended up back at our hotel to get cleaned up, fed, and wait for our next tour to begin. We got a little bit bored during this time, so I rode the hotel-owner's motorbike round the compound (with his permission of course!) and caught a chicken, not at the same time.

The next part of the tour was the elephant ride itself - and I was pleased to see that these elephants, apart from having 4 hefty tourists shoved on top, seemed to be treated quite a bit better than the one being 'washed'. They seemed about as well trained as the average horse, with the driver only needing a light touch to steer them and they were very obedient.

We got on board and set off on our safari ride, crossing the river twice and through the jungle on both sides. Again, we were looking for rhinos, but the best we saw were lots of birds and some deer again!

It was a fun trip, especially lumbering along in convoy. I was only slightly disappointed at not seeing the wildlife we were promised, but the crocodiles on the river were very good to see, and I'm not a wildlife fanatic after all. Maybe we should just leave them in peace!

After the elephant ride, we were taken back to the hotel via one of the small villages in the area. Not a normal part of the expedition, it was fascinating to see the lives that many of the rural Nepalese live. In this sort of community, a one-room house will be the home of an extended family whose possessions might be the clothes they are wearing, a wind-up radio and some cooking utensils. For these people, it's a matter of working as a community to feed itself, where people would spend the day tending the fields, fishing in the river or driving the buffalo around. A very different live to the one we live - and absolute poverty needn't mean absolute misery.
After heading back to the hotel, and playing a quick game of cricket with some of the local lads, we set out by foot to the same place we bathed the elephant, in order to watch the sunrise. We had an hour or so to chat and digest the day's activities while waiting for this to happen. The whole adventure felt very much like a package holiday and, while this is a great way to experience those things that the organiser thinks are important, you do feel very much like a tourist being shipped from one attraction to another. Because that's exactly what's happening...

Being next to another tourist hotel, we stumbled across a packet of interestingly-named emergency contraception;

And we watched the impressive sun set as the girls had artistic photos of themselves taken:

Later that evening, we watched a cultural show in the main village centre. It was very interesting to watch the dances and hear the stories from the community, and this was clearly a great employment for a number of local young people. I think it dragged on a little bit and the amplification was unnecessary most of the time (leading to one poor lad, holding a radio microphone, trying to fight his way into the middle of a group of girls as they sang and danced in order to amplify the singing for us. He got whacked in the face a couple of times!)


The next day, all we had to do was eat breakfast and get on the coach to Pokhara, and were accompanied again by Nadine and Fabian - a nice surprise. But I did spot a very innovative combine harvester which is clearly just an attachment for a John Deere tractor stuck on top!

I think we all had a good time in Chitwan. I was in some way disappointed by the way that the elephants were treated - and it really got me thinking about what is an acceptable, or unacceptable way of entertaining tourists. I think there is nothing wrong with any activity which provides employment for locals and lets you discover the environment without ruining it - take our canoe ride, safari walks and culture show, for instance. But in future I'm going to be vary wary indeed about any activity for which animals are the centrepiece. And will bear this in mind next time I visit Longleat.
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1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff Colin - almost as interesting is your soul searching. As always I suggest that the key is in finding a balance point.

    p.s. I hope Amy has a good sense of humour :-)