Monday, March 3, 2008

Touring Terai, the tropical underbelly of Nepal

My dear Maarten, (and family, friends, pets etc)
ps. -some extra pics uploaded!-

It has just been recent that we parted, each going our own way, chasing our own (dis)modes of travel.
And what a first lone day it already was, exhausting yet exciting. The night train was same old overcrowded full. People sleeping on floor or double cramped in the same bunk. I had a fellow traveler to talk to, Paul from Wales who had been living several months in Kathmandu where his Nepalese brothers have a trekking company. Interesting chats about natural self-providing living, politics of trade, paganism and trancedentalism and futuristic capitalist ploys in regards to globalisation. Those last thoughts are already burned in the mental trashbin, before they could become general knowledge for evil persons to tap into. I didn't catch much sleep and woke up in time to get off at Gonda in search of the irregular Nepalganj border crossing. Everyone else was on their way to Gorakhpur for the more logical Sunauli crossing. Stepping off at Gonda with sleepy sand still in my eyes, I got be-hustled by the many rickshaw men. Perhaps more than in Delhi. I guess that's Uttar Pradesh for you, where folks scramble for every penny they might make in this poorest state of the India. The men fought over my custody and overquoting themselves even beyond the Delhi level. At a hotel I relaxed and wasted morning time by having a breakfast, changing money and checking the web. In Nepal they accept Indian currency, as it is regarded as a strong currency over there, but they only accept notes of 100 rupees or less and I was stuck with a couple of 1000's notes. Gonda probably never sees tourists, let alone white people as everyone was staring at me in utter
(or uttar?) amazement in ways that we experienced in Kota. I took a bus to the city of Bahraich as there was no direct bus to Nanpara from where all border traffic headed to. I should have taken the later morning train to Nanpara instead and saved me a lot of hassle. Alas, that option only occured to me during and afterwards. The bus to Bahraich was one of the bumpiest, even when sitting on the front next to the driver. There was no dashboard where it normaly would be to cover the noise of the engine and through several gaps you could see the road beneath you. In search of the bus to Nanpara I had to take a cycle rickshaw, which was the only mode of quick transport available. -It wouldn't be my last cycle rickshaw either as small-town Uttar Pradesh is filled with them as well as Nepal-
It was a real nice ride through the small alleys and streets of Bahraich and in some way it really looked almost like being back in a mix of Ucch Sharif and Bahawalpur in Pakistan. Perhaps more so because the city is completely muslim with many ornamental little mosques and darkly veiled women and frowning bearded men everywhere. A pretty nice town to explore, if I had the time. The bus to Nanpara took long enough. I had a lot of goats sitting behind me and they were surprisingly quiet. However the children on the bus weren't. Like a child standing next to me in the cramped footpath and when I was about to let his father put the boy on my lap, he vomited. A bit on my shoe, but most in the hands of his father, who had been quick enough to fold his hands into a cup to catch his boy's yellow-orange fluid. I quickly gave him a plastic bag so he could dispose of it. Poor kid being sick and all on this busy hot ride. Bus to the border took longer than expected. 17 slow km's, one hour. It was 5pm, 6 hours since I left Gonda. The border was a 2km stretched road so had to take a rickshaw again. Better than walking with my bags.
Indian customs stamped all very quickly, even got chai from them. It was also funny in the Nepali office. The official, a small lean man wearing a colourful traditional topi hat, greeted me kindly and took his time for things. To pay for a visa can be funny if you don't have dollars as you have to pay 30 dollars and in dollars only. Guess what I didn't have and no exchange office in sight since mostly Indian people use this crossing. (since early Feb, only a Spanish family and a Dutch couple had passed here, I read in the log book). I only had stronger euro's or Indian rupees. The man sensed I was sincerely unaware of this and accepted me to pay him in rupees. I purposely said that 1 dollar is 50 rupees to butter him up and play stupid (1 dollar is worth 40 rupees actually) and after silently calculating his profit he was happy to accept my Indian money. "Give me 1600 rupees and it's ok", meaning 400 rupees profit for this non-dollar service. I just wanted to get my visa and to be on way again, so I actually paid him in rupees worth closer to 30 euro's than 30 dollars. I handed him a note of 1000 rupees. "This one could be false you know" he said. "I surely didn't make it myself" I replied with a smirk and he accepted. I asked him some questions about the situation in the Terai where I now was, which he dodged in a vague manner. A negative advice decorated with a positive answer! This was my first taste of how Nepalese do not like to give negative answers, like the guidebook said. I again tried, more subtle, but to no avail. Not to get frustrated about as the Nepalese themselves are such composed people that don't raise their voice or show aggressive behaviour. Tip for tourists coming from India: always stay calm when facing frustration in Nepal, active and controlling behaviour lead nowhere here, unlike India.
Just as I walked outside the custom office, we heard noise and a group of 200 or so young people approached in a sort of protest march. The Nepali office quickly pulled me inside and closed the door as if something bad was about to happen. "Terai group" he said, pointing at the Indian-like flag with a black star in it. The youngsters did seem a bit agitated and unpredictable in their gestures and they marched on to the border gate while chanting "Terai zindabad!" (as is also done by muslims at the Wagha border crossing at Pakistan). A few minutes after the official allowed me to continue my way towards Nepalganj as the protesters were far away. A minute on the way with the rickshaw, I saw some big red stains on the road while a shopkeeper was putting salt on them. Could those stains be....? We passed several buildings of the UN food help programme and of Concern, the UK charity. Soon we entered town and on the first roundabout there were 20 or so soldiers in riot gear posted at the middle who kept an eye on things, though all seemed fine. At the 2nd roundabout, same scenario, another team of riot geared soldiers waiting around and overlooking the road. In the hotel I relaxed and had a shower. Meanwhile I heard more chanting again as if the same protesters had come marching back. When I went out 20 minutes afterwards, the streets were all dark and empty, most shops closed except for food stall, liquor stores and little canteens. As if people had given themselves their own curfew as even the soldiers were slowly driving away from the roundabout nearby.

Oh Maarten, I must confess that I sinned and ate meat again. Just like that one time in Lahore. This time just for the novelty of tasting water buffalo meat. Paul had told me that in Nepal they love eating buffalo meat and I must say that it is quite tasty. More tasting like a mix of mutton and beef, but then a taste of beef that has a darker and more freely living essence. Not the caged and hormonal-pumped taste of red cow beef, thankfully. As the Nepalese eat a lot of meat, Mutton, chicken and buffalo, the food here is very much like in Pakistan. Perhaps because there are a lot of muslims in the Terai region but the native Nepali's like to eat meat too. I hope to encounter momo's and noodle soups soon enough but so far not seen or tasted.

That it is tropical here, I experienced here through the nightly presence of many mosquito's but so far haven't been bitten. Lucky deet.

I already bought a bunch of Nepali tapes and mp3 cd's. Can't break a habit ey? I especially like the truly Nepali *Lok geet* folkpop style, that sounds like a mix of Indian and Chinese pop with a hint of Burmese tap drumming. It's lightheaded sweet pop in a rhythm that somehow resembles Jamaican riddims and even distant acoustic dubstep.

After Nepalganj I took an 8 hour bus to Butwal, a very nice afternoon ride through the forest and hills of the Terai. Butwal is a nice city on the highway towards Chitwan natural park and the has the river Tinau flowing through it. I walked through the shanty part of town which was on the banks of the Tinau river and a small water canal, dug by the UN. People live in small tin roofed houses and wash themselves in the river, kids playing everywhere. People greeted me and I stopped at several houses to take pictures and kids wanting to have their picture taken without asking for rupees as kids do in India, even while Nepal is more poor. I stumbled upon a local market and for 20 rupees and I ate 2 plates of fish and chuti pieces. Chuti is a sort of dry crisp grain that when it gets wet (with sauce) it soaks it up and becomes soft as a sort of rice or soft pasta. Quite nice! Good fish too, fresh from the Tinau river.

I took a bus to Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddartha Gautama, otherwise known as the first Buddha. I rented a bicycle and drove through the tree forest area and stopped at the Mayadevi temple, the birthplace of Buddha. King Ashoka around 250BC had even placed a stone on the spot to be believed to be the exact point of Siddartha's birth and this stone can still be seen, protected by a glass case 2 meters underground in the temple structure. Many buddhist pilgrims walked about in their white, red or orange robes.
You can also find a place to sleep in this buddhist sanctuary wood as buddhist temples of various countries are built of being built by governments and/or institutions from Japan, Thailand, China, Korea, France, German, Sri Lank and Burma to name a few. A lot of people that I had met, like Jim and a German fella on bicycle, had advised to stay at the Korean buddhist temple for it's good peace and especially the good food. The vegetarian food was very good indeed as it was like a buffet with maby dishes. Also the dorms were simple, nice and clean. Stone beds consisting of a little bit of foam and thick blankets, but they were fine to sleep on. The most important room of the temple is the buddha room, which is used for meditation and ceremony. I saw the evening ceremony where 4 monks sang in a different tone and recited mantra's for about 30 minutes. It was very nice to close your eyes and listen, just listening to their drone and peacefull tone and I felt refreshed afterwards.
We were woken up at 6am by the monks for breakfast, but as everyone had gone to sleep around 10pm, it wasn't hard to wake up. Besides, I wanted to wake up early to go cycling to Kapilavastu which was nearly 30km's away. Even on the heavy iron bike, it just took me more than 2 hours as the road was in quite good condition. I passed through many villages which mostly were muslim by the sight of mosques and bearded shopkeepers. People waved, young and old alike, also some bewildered and bemused looks from locals as I overtook them on their bike and it was a fun ride. At least it was still fresh in the morning mist which was better for when the sun would settle. I first went to Kudan, the monastery where Siddartha went to seek enlightenment after he left the palace in Kapilavastu and before he went down to India to spread his teachings. It seemed like a deserted place, only the huts of local farmers nearby and I walked around the crumbled structure and the many beautiful huge trees. Other than that, not much to see there. It depends what you are looking for. I took the road to Tilaurkot, which is the settlement where the remains Kapilavastu are, the old kingdom of Siddartha's family which he left to pursue enlightenment. Here there was more to see than at Kudan. More indication of marked structures and you could imagine the whole complex on this field, with the bathing places and courtyards. There were still some remains of the gate from where Siddartha had left the complex, never to return. The place had a special atmosphere about it, especially in sound because there were several things to hear and see; the little Hindu elephant temple overgrown by a tree where and old man and women sat, a little boy playing a drum. The sound of religious Hindu music from a little farm on the right. The live wedding music of a muslim marriage from the village at the front of the gate (which I passed just before). The group of Sri Lankese buddhist pilgrims who wandered through the site. Quite a bizarre mix of religious intonations. These 3 religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamism, manifesting themselves at this very spot, playing or just existing through and with each other. That to me was the more special meaning of this place instead of the old value of the site.
I drove the same way back to the Korean temple, 30km's again, but now with the sun settled on me. All in all a very nice ride of 60km's. But to again do it on a heavy iron bike like this one? Euh, no.

I arrived last night in Tansen, the Palpa district. Finally, the mountains! It was a 2 hour ride from Butwal and as the bus was full I had to sit on the roof, such magnificent views I got! I sat between a pack of baba's, holy men dressed in orange robes who are on a spiritual journey. They were quite the funny characters as they cracked one joke after the other and were smoking weed spliffs. The mix of these funny folks, the smell of weed and views into deep ravines where valleys of rice terraces, rocky river flows and villages dwelled beneath while rough forested peaks rose above us. Wow. How small a human indeed can feel. And so lucky too. As we drove by dusk I even spotted a small lynx (or wildcat) on the road and it swiftly ducked into the nearest bushes. Settled in a cosy yet basic hotel, overlooking the Tansen valleys from high up, I spend my evening in local food-drink-gathering places, where locals drink, eat and watch tv together, either Nepali soaps or US movies.

Oh yeah, people here all understand Hindi and it helps me a great deal to get around, even through giggles or small talk. Nepali is a sort of Hindi dialect with more Asian pronounciation. To chai (tea) they say *chia*, pronounced as *tsjia*.

In the next days I will go towards Pokhara. The mountains and villages around here are so nice, maybe I will hang around here a bit longer.

Do tell me Maarten, how do you fare on your freedom journey?
much regards,
your pal Seb

Tek, the kind customs official

Torn movie poster art in Nepalganj. Love that gallow.

Dusty ride on the Terai forest roads

Water canal in Butwal, shantytown on the side.

Chicken feet in sauce in shantytown market, Butwal.

half a pig with puddle, full a man gracing above

man with colorful Nepali topi hat that many folks wear here

Maya Devi temple, birthplace of Siddartha (Buddha)

scriptures on Kudan monastery

ridin' on the roof of the bus with the baba's in tow

some more snapshot views from the roof......

No comments: