20 April 2015 – 3 May 2015
Our bus Pokhara – Tansen departed at 6.30am, so at 5.30am we were up doing then 3km quick march to the bus station. We got there in plenty of time to enjoy a freshly baked apple pastry and a cup of tea. Yumbo.
When our bus pulled up, it looked about 50 years older than all the other buses and we knew instantly that we’d been a little bit ripped by the sweet man in the travel shop. Sucks to be us!
The Siddhartha Highway connects Pokhara to Sunauli, the Indian border crossing. Tansen, our destination, was about half way. The road itself is relentless. Twisting around mountains with vertical cliffs right beside the left hand side of the bus. But the scenery? Quite spectacular and dramatic! The bus ride took a loooong time with lots of stops every 3-5 minutes to pick people up and drop others off. Luggage on, luggage off. Rice on, rice off. Boxes and boxes and boxes on. Boxes and boxes and boxes off. Cement bags on. Cement bags off. The road was so bumpy that at one point the whole back seat dislodged itself and fell on the floor. The highlight of the ride came when during a daal bhaat break, the grandfather in the back seat next to Michael gave his two grandchildren a big drink of juice and some jelly looking things each. Not long after the bus got going again, the juice and jelly reappeared all over the grandfathers pants – and there was a little bit on the floor too. This set another poor wee boy off. Which then set another lady off. She spent the rest of her journey with her head out the window. No good. Michael = not happy.
There was next to no english on the bus and worrying that we’d miss our stop, I tried to speak to a few people to ask them where we were. Each time though the person would crack up laughing in my face and then look away and laugh with their friends. Even the bus boy, the guy selling tickets and running the show couldn’t look me in the eye. I think this reaction was more our of embarrassment than anything else? I’m not sure – but it happened a lot over the next few days and I didn’t take it personally! So, being brave and probably sounding like an immense dickhead, I took to our trusty guide book and attempted some Nepali in my loudest, clearest voice! – Yo bas kati baje Tansen-maa pugchha? – When does the bus arrive in Tansen? – and I got a reply! We were one and a half hours away.
Two hours later the bus stops and people are pointing and yelling at us. I guess this is our stop! We get out bags and the bus boy points to some jeeps across the road. We make an educated guess that we need to catch a jeep for the final part of our journey to Tanasen.
The jeep is pretty full already but the driver puts our bags on the roof and motions for us to get in. Everyone stares with blank expressions. No one moves over. I’ve seen these jeeps packed! I know they can squeeze us in, so I start to climb in the back anyway and two nice ladies smile and make room for me. Michael climbs in next but the ladies are less welcoming. He squeezes in, and in the process puts his foot on a lady’s sari which is partly on the ground. An easy mistake to make when there’s eight people in the rear cab of a jeep! She shoots him a death stare and says some angry words that we don’t understand. We smile and try to apologise but he’s made an enemy for life. Another lady then wants to get in too but again no one is moving. The driver gets involved. There’s some yelling and pointing at us. “They’re too fat and sweaty!” says one woman – “They smell like they haven’t showered in weeks!” says another. *Disclaimer* I’m only guessing this is what was said. The lady finally climbs in and joins us in the snuggle pit that is the back of the jeep. It’s very cosy. She sits next to Michael, directly opposite me and give me a HUGE smile. In fact she smiles at me and examines me head to toe the whole way up the hill to Tansen. It’s 3km up a very steep hill and she even holds onto my knees when we go around corners to keep herself upright. I want to kick her a little bit because I hate people touching my knees, but I don’t. Instead I touch her fore arms and smile right back, the whole way. And I think about how boring our clothes are in New Zealand and how beautiful and colourful these woman look, and they don’t even know it. No wonder the lady was pissed when Michael put his big, stinky, toe-jammy foot on her sari. Gosh!
And then we were in Tansen. City View Home Stay was another slow, slog of a climb up some steep streets but everyone was more that happy to give us directions and confirm that yes, we were on the right track. A man in the pharmacy even rang the home stay for us to let them know we were coming and some other nice men even walked us part of the way
After checking in, the first thing we did was eat at a wee restaurant down the street. There was more giggling from some girls eating when we said ‘Hello’ – so we took to saying hello again and again and waving and this just cracked them up. Naw. A little bit funny!
Michael ordered chilli momo’s. This is him waiting for momo’s. The school girls are giggling behind that pink curtain. They pulled it so they didn’t have to look at us any longer .
Then the momo’s arrived.
Momo’s are a dumpling apparently originating from Tibet. You can get them filled with veges, chicken or buffalo (menus say ‘buff’ momo – mwhaha buff) and you can get them steamed or fried, and chilli or not chilli. We ate momo’s quite a few times in Nepal – they were a cheap and easy meal, but if you eat too many, your tummy starts to look like one big momo – so you’ve gotta take it easy.
I had the chicken lollipop. I’d seen chicken lollipops on a few menus between here and India. Today I was brave enough to order.
I’m not sure what part of the chicken a chicken lollipop is. Neither was Michael. But they came with a little spicy sauce which was nice.
We didn’t do an awful lot else in Tansen. The weather was very foggy which made the walks and views terrible and the power was off for most of the time so we did a spot of reading.
I took bunch of photos of doorways.
And we saw a goat.
To be honest, I think the trip to Tansen was more exciting that Tansen itself. Bless.
The bus ride to Lumnini took four hours and was super scenic – kind of like looking down into the Shotover River. As with Tansen though, we had to jump off one bus and catch another to get to Lumbini itself.
Dating from the third century BC. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha. Boom. Good karma coming our way, right?!
Vic and Mike were less than impressed with Lumbini, in fact they described it as a shithole, so I was excited to see what we thought of it.
First impressions. Hot and dusty. 36 degrees hot. We have a chicken curry then settle into our room. It’s an awful sleep. It’s so hot compared to other parts of Nepal we’ve been in so far, there’s no air con and a pack of street dogs bark all night. I mean I love dogs but oh my. Bah.
At 6am the next morning we were on our bikes cycling through the Lumbini master plan – basically a big, big (I don’t know how big, but big, maybe 8km by 4km?) rectangular piece of land which holds the Sacred Garden (birth place of Buddha), the Maya Devi Mandir (the oldest known structure in Nepal), the pool (where Maya Devi, Budddha’ Mum, bathed before giving birth), 14 monasteries from different countries (they’ve got a plan to build 42 in total), a museum, shops selling necklaces and fizzy drinks and a giant Peace Pagoda thrown in there too.
We spent most of the day in the master plan, with a short break in the middle before heading back for sun set. Here’s what we saw:
And this is the Ashokan pillar which holds an inscription from 249BC, serving as the best evidence that Buddha was in fact born here. People had left offerings which just looked like a pile of rubbish after a few days.
In this building is the actual spot, the marker stone, where Buddha was born. We lined up with the masses to check it out. It’s 70cm long and covered by bullet proof glass…
And there’s the pool in front of the building! Maya Devi wasn’t in there when we visited the Sacred Garden, but there were a lot of turtles swimming around.
It was a full on day. We visited monasteries from Germany, Thailand, Nepal, India, Austria, Myanmar, China and Sri Lanka plus some others I can’t remember. That’s a lot of shoes on, shoes off in one day. We patted puppies and saw lizards and butterflies, and at one stage I drank a bottle of fizz and a litre of water all at once because it WAS SO HOT. The Lumbini master plan was better than I excepted and quite beautiful, but the small town of Lumbini itself leaves a lot to be desired.
Chitwan National Park
We caught a 6am bus from Lumbini – Sauraha. Sauraha is the little town right next to one of the entrances to Chitwan National Park. We planned to spend two or three nights here then carry on to Ghorka, so we had a big delicious plate of daal bhaat for lunch then found a room at the Family Guest House. We liked the name and the sign said ‘Typical Hospitality’ so we thought it must be good! We spent the rest of the day strolling and mooching – finishing it off with a butter chicken curry from what looked like the fanciest restaurant in town. The restaurant had a dog called Mandy – except Mandy didn’t look like a girl… we had a few meals here though just so I could pat Mandy.
On Saturday, 25 April we woke up at 10.30am feeling quite rested. It’s the 100th ANZAC anniversary today so we sit and ponder that for a while. It’s late by this time, so after plodding around for a while, we decide to skip breakfast and go straight to lunch. We order and then some elephants walk past.
Not 30 seconds later at 11.58am there was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
Our initial reaction was to run into the street. Michael ran into an empty field next to the restaurant we’d been sitting at and everyone around us followed. People were screaming, some were hysterical and genuinely very scared, others were crying. We were okay. Coming from Christchurch, we’re old hands at this earthquake bizzo. It was big, but okay. Then straight away we look at eachother, if it was big-ish here, where was the epicentre? We moved back to the restaurant and people went back to their shops, picking up what had fallen off shelves. We’re a bit stunned. Our guide book has a section on earthquakes that we’d read. It says that a big one was due. Michael had done a bit of reading online about the risks. It was surreal. Not another earthquake, surely. Not here, not now, not again?
The restaurant owner who was subdued when we ordered was now chatting non-stop with a glimmer of excitement in his eye. He’s showing us how he ran on to the street, even though we were there with him only moments before and saw him running. He takes us out the back to the kitchen to show us how the pots and pans were shaking and points out a bamboo structure that is now on a big lean. The street was buzzing. Aftershocks followed. Screaming. Excitement. Adrenaline. We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting and waiting, listening to Nepali radio which our Guest House dad, Govinda, translates to us every now and then.
That night we walk around a few restaurants to find one that has generator power so we can send e-mails and see whats happening. Steven and Sarah in Taiwan are all over the High Commission in India for us and Dan rings our travel insurance on our behalf from London. Everyone is doing something for us. Thank you so much for all your help and messages. Really. There’s not a lot else we can do right now.
During the night the streets are filled with screaming, people running and dogs barking each time there is an aftershock. I lie there and remember how in Christchurch after the February 2011 quake all we could here from our house, being across the road from the city cordon zone, was the sound of soldiers marching. The Christchurch nights now seem quite in comparison to this.
The following day, Sunday, we woke up with the sun. Although Nepal often has power outages, some scheduled, some not, the electricity had now been off for around 24 hours. We were at a bit of a loose end so we walked to a hotel at the other end of town to check on a girl, Maree from Germany, that we’d met on the bus two days ago. She was fine. She’d been walking through Chitwan looking at animals when the earthquake had hit and although she was a bit unsettled and unsure what she was going to do next, she was doing okay. Mid morning we went down to the river to watch the elephants bathe.
We spent the rest of the day feeling a bit like we were in limbo. Most of the tourists in town were trying to leave but like us, just not sure how. Information was scarce. No one really knew what to do.
So many questions. We had a flight booked Kathmandu – Kuala Lumpur for 14 May – but that was over two weeks away. Do we stay in Sauraha for two weeks? What if there are more earthquakes? We’ve had our fair share of earthquakes, surely. Do we try to get back to Kathmandu and hopefully we can get on an earlier flight in a few days time? When will the airport re-open? What’s the road to Kathmandu like now? We can’t carry on to Gorkha and Bandipur like we were going to – that’s pretty much the epicentre. And while we’re going through these questions I’m feeling so awful and selfish. What about Nepal? They’re the ones going through a disaster but I’m just thinking about myself. We were safe at present. Lots of others were not.
Then we play the what if game. What if we’d travelled faster and we’d been in Gorkha near the epicentre? Would we still be alive? What if we’d been on a rafting trip near Pokhara which we were planning to do next? What if we’d decided to climb Everest Base Camp? We would have been 3/4 of the way through and stuck up a mountain, or worse. What if we hadn’t extended our visa? We would have been in Kathmandu finishing off our sightseeing getting ready to fly out in the next few days. Where would we have been in Kathmandu? Was the guest house we stayed at in Thamel still standing? What about Cookie Walla – the little desert shop? What happened to their banofee pie and the nice man who makes it? And what’s going to happen to Saurha and the rest of Nepal with so many tourists leaving?
We had a lot of time and a lot of silence to think.
When it came to leaving Nepal our problem was this: we had a flight from Kathmandu in two weeks, but we wanted to leave now. The airport was closed so there was no point in going to try and get an earlier flight anyway – and we couldn’t get any information as to the condition of the road either. Travelling back to Kathmandu meant going relatively close to the epicentre also. We were worried about aftershocks and our safety and also putting extra pressure on that area of Nepal when it really didn’t need it. Our other option was to cross into India via the land border at Sonauli, a 4-5 hour drive away – however India only issues visas on arrival at airports, not land crossings… and the airport in Kathmandu was closed so we couldn’t fly to India.
But that’s not really a problem at all compared to what’s going on. How lucky are we that we were in a relatively unaffected area damage wise in Nepal?
We checked the internet when we were able to but apart from that, we sat at our Guest House with Govinda and his wife Ambika, talking every now and then, but kind of just waiting. For what we weren’t sure. A few aftershocks rolled through. We told G&A about Christchurch city and what happened to our house. Then, as there wasn’t much else to do, I hand washed two weeks worth of undies and a few t-shirts – much to everyones amusement. Govinda even took a few photos and said I could work for him! I had nothing on Ambika’s hand washing skills it would seem. She’s a pro.
On Monday we decided that we should visit Chitwan National Park, even though it didn’t feel quite right when a lot of the country was in such a mess. We booked into an afternoon jeep safari for four hours. Right as we’re about to leave we get word from the New Zealand Embassy that we can cross the land border into India at Sunauli. We advise our insurance company that this is what we’ll be doing and see what they can do about flights out of India for us.
Golly. How easy it is for us to just call insurance and walk away.
With a million unanswered questions and feeling a bit rushed and anxious, we head off on the jeep safari. While it’s nice, my mind is thinking about Nepal, the people who are trapped and although I’m still feeling selfish, I’m also thinking about how and when we’re going to leave.
In Chitwan we see around ten rhinoceros, monkeys, elephants, bison, bush pigs, peacocks and lots of other birds.
We also visit a crocodile breeding farm which I don’t really like at all.
That night back at the Guest House, Govinda and Ambika invite us to share daal bhaat with them. We eat on the concrete kitchen floor. It’s ridiculously tasty and we tell them so. They say that if I like, tomorrow I can learn how to cook daal bhaat. I say I’d like that a lot.
On Tuesday we wake up at 4.30am to check our e-mail. The electricity is more regular now. Southern Cross, our travel insurance, has e-mailed to say they are booking us flights out of India. We ask Govinda if he can organise a ride for us to the Indian border in a private car, also covered by insurance. He’s on to it straight away. By 9am we have our flight confirmation through so we’re off. We say goodbye to Govinda and Ambika and give them one of our prized New Zealand map tea towels that we carry. Only special people get these.
Ambika hands us a plastic bag for our journey. I look inside and there are two bottles of water and another bottle wrapped in newspaper. How sweet! They’ve given us water. I ask what’s in the newspaper and they both crack up laughing! ‘Special water for him’ Ambika says, pointing to Michael. It’s a big bottle of beer. Obviously Michael’s beer consumption over the last few days has made an impression on them!
Our car ride Sauraha – Sonauli takes around four hours and all goes well, except for when our kind but MAD driver try’s to over take on a blind corner in the pouring rain, locks up the car in the mud, slides and clips the front of the oncoming van. It’s a bit frightening but he smiles, looks back at the van then carries on. I then proceed to chew off all ten of my fingernails.
We walk over the border to India and wait while immigration inspect our passports.
It had been pouring with rain and was so muddy. Sonauli is one busy spot.
There’s a bit of confusion as we have a six month visa for India from 2013 and they want to know where our valid one is. After ten or so minutes we are given a seven day gratis visa and we’re free to go.
We don’t have any Indian rupee and the only ATM we can find isn’t working. We have some USD on us so enquire about getting a private car straight to Varanasi, where we need to be by tomorrow afternoon to catch a flight. Everyone we talk to seems like a scam man, it is so frustrating. We’re certainly not in Nepal anymore! Fed up, we decided a local bus to Ghorktpur is the most reliable way forward. The bus man kindly accepts our Nepali rupee as payment and the nice man making samosas does too. We’re on the bus. Now we just need to wait for it to fill up before it can leave. 40 minutes later and we’re off.
Now, on any other normal day I can make the most of a shitty situation. The power of positive thinking! Michael hates it when I say that. But today day, not so much. It was a very long three and a half hour ride full of staring and touching and getting elbowed in the head, people vomiting and the worst, the vomit going out the window in front of us and back into the one beside us and on to Michael’s face. That about takes the cake. The big vommity face cake. We were feeling little to no love for India in this moment.
At 5pm we arrive in Ghorktpur and again enquire about a a car to Varanasi. It all seems a bit expensive and smells like scammy-ness. Plan B: we’ll take the overnight train. Do you think we can get a ticket? We’re having some real communication issues and frustration levels are creeping higher again. We have no choice but to put our trust and faith in an agent across the road from the train station to get us a ticket. He promises us a bed and a private room on the overnight train. Who knows what we’ve just paid for.
We’ve got about six hours to kill so we have a curry.
At midnight we board our train and low and behold, we have a bed each in a private room. We’re relieved and actually sleep not too badly.
At 8am the following day we arrive in Varanasi. After a thali for breakfast the kind man at the food shop negotiates a rickshaw for us. It’s 22km to the airport and a nice whizz through the city. We get there and wait for our 3.10pm flight. I could really use a shower right now.
We fly Varanasi – New Delhi. In Delhi we stop by the information desk for a chat to see what sort of food is available in departures as we’re pretty hungry.
“Everything” says the man, “any food you want.”
“KFC?” asks Michael.
“Are there any Jupiter Lollipops through there?”
It’s probably the funniest thing I’ve heard in the last four days. Jupiter Lollipops aren’t even a thing as far as I’m aware.
Michael acts disappointed that there are no Jupiter Lollipops in departures. We thank the man then head off.
We wait another six hours before boarding our next flight to Kuala Lumpur.
We land at 7am Malaysian time and feel AWFUL but relieved. We’ve made it. After quickly checking our e-mail we find that Sharon & Barry, Michael’s parents, have booked us two nights at Frasers Place, the fanciest of all fancy apartments. Amazing. I could have cried. We’re so lucky and so spoilt. The apartment has a lounge and a kitchen and a shower I don’t have to wear my jandles in. It also has a rooftop pool. Ermagawd.
We visit a supermarket and cook in our little home for the next two days. We buy brands we recognise from New Zealand and cook pasta and eat cheese. It’s great to be back in Kuala Lumpur safe and sound. Everything is okay in the end. Stuff always works out. How lucky are we?
So what happens now?
Donate if you can.
If you experienced the Christchurch earthquakes or lived through them like we did, please, please, remember the kindness, charity and love shown to you by so many people, and pay it forward by giving a little to Nepal. It’s so easy to ignore and to walk away, but please don’t. It might be four weeks on and it’s not as big in the media now, but we know first hand that the effects will be felt for months and years to come. Please, please give as little or as much as you can.
There are lots or organisations who you can donate through, here’s a list of options or find one that you feel comfortable with.
Unicef: Visit unicef.org.nz/nepal or call 0800 243 575
World Vision: Visit worldvision.org.nz or call 0800 800 776
Oxfam: Visit oxfam.org.nz or call 0800 600 700
Red Cross: Visit redcross.org.nz or call 0800 Red Cross (0800 733 276)
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand: Visit caritas.org.nz or call 0900 4 11 11
New Zealand Nepal Society: Donations can be made to bank account number 01-0142-0053378-00
ChildFund NZ: Visit childfund.org.nz or call 0800 223 111
Habitat for Humanity: Visit habitat.org.nz/donate
Namaste Nepal .x.
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