Archive for the ‘Nepal’ Category

We were gutted to leave behind Pokhara but had an excellent last night. Keshab invited us for dinner with his family and we had a lovely time wolfing down their veggie thali and learning more about Nepali life from Govinda. We then had a few hours to enjoy the Street Festival, indulging in street game classics like tin can alley and giving the live music a shout. Alas the live music sounded like cats in a blender. As we left early on Friday morning, Govinda tied traditional Hindu good luck cloth around our necks in a touching farewell. Muneeza had to hold back the tears (no Mick Hucknall gags please).

To the mountains once more

Tansen lies in the Palpa district in Southern Terai. At 1,372m elevation it is nestled in the mountains and nicknamed The White Lake because most mornings the valley below is hidden by a blanket of dense mist. The arduous bus journey from Pokhara took 5hrs to cover just over 100km. We were dropped at the intersection with the Tansen road and had to take a jeep taxi up to the town. That was rubbish and nausea set in as we were thrown around the windy lanes like an uncontrollably large pair of breasts in an ill-fitting bra.

The trusted Lonely Planet says that “rarely will you hear a bad word said about Tansen”. I’m not really sure what there is to say that is positive. I don’t mean to sound disingenious to the inhabitants who are generally friendly, but it’s not a pretty place. Tansen is freezing cold, dirty, grubby and oh so noisy.

Sleep deprived and feeling depraved

Accommodation options aren’t great up in the mountains of Palpa. We checked in to the shabby Gauri Shankar Guest House. The rooms looked ok but hindsight is a wonderful thing and we wish we had never made that decision. After 2 nights with almost zero sleep, no hot water and often no water at all, frozen limbs from the open windows and a general feeling of desolation, we checked out and found somewhere to restore sanity.

What irked us the most was that the rooms were expensive. Our room was meant to be R850 ($12) but nothing worked. We pointed this out to the manager but all he did was drop the price to R800. When he said “see you again” my reply was somewhat barbed.

New Year’s Eve hike to Ranighat Palace

The one shining light and our sole reason for coming to Tansen in the first place. Ranighat Palace is a ruined baroque palace on the banks of the Hindu holy river of Kali Gandaki. It was built by a prominent politician in honour of his wife’s beauty, mimicking the story behind the Taj Mahal. The politician was exiled after am abortive attempt to seize power and the durbar was stripped of fittings and left to ruin.

We picked up a map from the helpful GETUP Tourism Office in Tansen and headed off early New Year’s Eve, around 07.30. The hike makes its way up the steep streets towards Shreenagar Danda, the large hill overlooking the town. From there you follow a relatively well marked trail for 7km to the infamous palace.

The trail is peaceful and stunning. At first you snake your way down to the valley floor through small villages and down roughly cut shortcuts. At each village we stopped for a polite chat and asked for onward directions.

The path then follows a rivulet and makes its way down the valley, beset on both sides by imposing cliffs. The flora is wonderfully diverse with the relaxing sound of the trickling water stream to lull you into a peaceful reverence.

After 6km the path forks and the right turn takes you down towards the river bed. At this point there is a deep gorge to your right and steep cliffs, with frequent waterfalls, to your left. It is so remote that you can’t help but feel thrown back in time. There were no tourists the entire time, only local villagers tending flocks or harvesting grass.

We arrived at the palace around 11.00 and took in the sights. The palace, though faded and jaded around the edges, still looks impressive and you can imagine how majestic it once looked. the river bed and valley is a razzle dazzle of rich colours.

After enjoying the views we sat down in the only tea house in the village of Ranighat and enjoyed a feast of veggie thali from a housewife. It was quaint to sit and watch her cook on a traditional clay stove fuelled by chopped wood.

The return path was the same except we were gifted increasingly heavy rain, so that by the time we reached Tansen we were thoroughly soaked and a bit grumpy.

Hotel California

For us Tansen was the place we could checkout anytime we wanted but could never leave. The night we got back from Ranighat, as we packed ready for the border crossing to India the next day, I was hit by another vicious attack of the bum wee.

Instead of hitting India on New Year’s Day we checked into Hotel White Lake for some creature comforts – a warm, clean room with TV and free Internet. We updated the plan to leave the next day if my insides would allow it. We woke the next day and I felt fine but my darling succumbed do the dastardly bug. So, another day was added to the Tansen stay. Luckily for me one of my client’s had asked me to do some work, so instead of festering in bed I earned some dollars to cover some of the additional flights we’ll need in India. Every cloud etc.

And so, finally, with no further deliberation, we awoke on Monday 3rd January and hopped on the bus to Sunauli and the Indian border. The next stage of our adventure was set to begin.

love jamer & muneeza x

Muneeza and I decided to add a week onto our stay in Pokhara to volunteer at the Butterfly Foundation, a child day care centre set-up by Govinda, the owner of the Butterfly Lodge where we have been staying, to help disadvantaged families in the local area. We turned up on Wednesday 22nd December after our trek and had a chat with Govinda’s son Keshab who is the manager at the centre.

The moment we walked through the front gate we fell in love with the place. The children came running up to us shouting “hello” and grabbing our hands and leading us to play with them (no dodgy gags please!). They were excited to see new faces who they could exhaust with their endless energy. It was hard to shake the little tigers off and head up to the office to speak to Keshab. Luckily for us Keshab speaks fluent English having spent 7 years studying and working in London. Guess where? Right next to Ealing Broadway less than 5mins walk from my old flat. It’s a small world. After a few drinks on Christmas Eve we started exchanging stories of London drinking haunts as well as getting the low down on life in Nepal, a most enjoyable exchange.

Why child care support is essential in Nepal

Nepal doesn’t have a welfare system like the UK. If you are poor, you are poor. There is no money from the state. You have to find somewhere local that is willing to help. For the poorest of families who live in difficult circumstances, it is hard to find work to provide a stable income. That means money for food, clothes and essential supplies like medicine is scarce.

These families rely on charitable organisations and altruistic souls to help them. The Butterfly Foundation enables mothers to work for a few hours each day knowing that their children are being looked after. The goal is to break the poverty cycle by encouraging the parents to work and bring home a regular income so that their children will have a brighter future. It’s an essential and admirable goal.

Getting into a routine

We arrived at 10am on Thursday as suggested by Keshab only to find he wasn’t there because he was stuck in a meeting for the Lodge. The chap who works in the office doesn’t speak good English and our Nepali is “a li a li”, so with confusing gestures we took the hint and went to find the teachers, or “ama” as they are called here. Nobody seemed to know what we should be doing, so we took it upon ourselves to go and entertain the children.

The kids have playtime from 09.30 to 11.30 every morning. The are picked up from home by the team and let loose in the playground. The playground consists of a large open grassy space with swings, climbing frames, sandpit and slides. The children are all aged 2-5 and have attention spans like mine. Each kid has a different obsession; some are addicted to football, others like to idle on the swings, some stick to the slides, others create chaos in the sand and some of the girls, under the impressive leadership of Suhana, walk round with their favourite dolls.

After playtime, the ama call the children to the outdoor seating area. They line them up in 4 rows and each row takes it in turn to march round the seating area to the beat of a drum shouting “one-two” as they march. Getting them organised can be fun as some of the kids don’t pay any attention (my Mum would sympathise with that!) and others are easily distracted.

Next is the singing half hour. First the kids line-up and sing the national anthem with their hands held together in the praying position. Then the ama lead them in various English and Nepali songs including popular nursery rhymes like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. After the first day we joined in and helped the kids with the English words though I was clearly out of tune and strangling cats. Watching the children sing and dance was a wonderful and entertaining experience. The cute twin boys inevitably ended up breaking rank and running off to play before we were able to grab them and bring them back. They can be so mischievous but they are adorable and it’s impossible to get angry with a 2 year old with a cheeky smile.

At around 12.15 the children, reluctantly and with great difficulty, are put in the classrooms for some basic skills teaching. Here they learn the alphabet in both English and Nepali as well as key words which the ama get them to repeat from pictures and words painted on the walls.

Butterfly Foundation Nepal Classroom The lessons are quite chaotic because there is limited space within which to fit over 30 children and keeping the attention of 2-5 year olds is rather challenging. The ama do their best to give the children some basic education but they sometimes struggle to keep them focussed.

The difficulty flares when one or two of the children get distracted and stop listening or, even worse, start to shout and scream. Most of them are well behaved but distracting behaviour is contagious. Once one starts, a chain reaction kicks in and the others follow suit. It’s like a tidal wave building and waiting to break. Hopefully in the future if funds can be raised, the Butterfly Foundation can build a new classroom that enables the ama to teach the children in separate classes to reduce the noise distraction.

After lessons comes messy time. Messy time involves feeding and watering the children. This, as the parents amongst you will attest to, is easier said than done. Not all children like to eat and not all can eat. Invariable we had to help the smaller children whose eating habits ranged from messy to chaotic. One small girl was the messiest eater we have ever seen; though she needed no help, every day she covered herself from head to toe with food and water. I helped one of the smallest boys every day because he was easily distracted and played with his food instead of eating (remind you of anyone Mum?). It was difficult but after asking for some local vocab, the word “kanyo” seemed to pay dividends and gradually he improved. We both loved messy time because it is entertaining, though less so when you have to clear up afterwards.

After food comes sleep time where the kids bed down for 2 hours before they are taken home. It’s a wonderful sight to see the children calm and snoozing after all the hectic activities of the morning. It’s also a nice time for the ama to relax and get their energy back.

Individual personalities shining through

It was inevitable that after a week we would get to know the children individually and it’s amazing how distinct their personalities are. There were a few annoying children who always wanted attention, who wanted to have their favourite toys and refused to share with the others. It took patience and a bit of strong mindedness to make them listen and play nicely with the other kids.

We also had our favourites. Muneeza loved the daughter of our friendly local barber, Sunkar. Ankita is incredibly cute and very gentle natured with a beautiful smile. Initially shy, she warmed to us over the week. My jani’s attention switched after a few days to the endlessly entertaining and incredibly cute twins. They come from one of the poorest families and when they arrived at the centre they were trouble, always soiling themselves all over the floor. Now, after some training and affection, they are better controlled and a lot of fun.

My favourites from the start were the deadly duo of Kem Kumani and Isha. These two girls are adorable and absolutely crazy. The have boundless energy and tear up the playground. They insisted on me swinging them around whilst shouting “monkey” – something I regret doing on the first day which went down a storm and ever since all the children demand I do it. Rather tiring as you know how repetitive kids can be. I loved the fact that the girls wanted me to pick them up and walk around the playground with them whilst they grabbed my beard and shouted “dunga” (Nepali for beard). I would happily have taken them home with me, so I’ve already told Muneeza she needs to squire me a daughter!

Sad to say goodbye but we’ll be back

After 1 week of helping out we had to say goodbye because the centre was closed for 5 days during the Annual Pokhara Street Festival. It was a strange moment; I always find goodbyes anti-climatic as you want to say so much but know that it is overdoing it. We took a last look at the children as they settled to sleep, said fond farewells to the ama and then walked back to the Lodge.

Words can’t adequately describe how enjoyable the week has been. It has definitely been emotional and we grew attached to the children and developed respect for the ama who really care for all of them. The Butterfly Foundation is a fantastic organisation and we are glad to have helped in some small way. What’s even better is that this volunteer opportunity was free, so we have been able to make a donation to the Butterfly Foundation to help with their projects instead of paying money to an agency.

We will definitely come back to Pokhara, our favourite place on the travels so far, to visit Keshab and his family and spend some more time at the centre catching up with the progress the kids are making.

I’ve also enjoyed seeing how natural Muneeza is with the children. She has much more patience than I and is fantastic at looking after them and keeping them entertained. It’s a nice experience to see your fiancee so comfortable around children and so natural and looking after them and giving them affection.

Take a peek behind the scenes

I spent 2 days with Keshab helping him understand how to improve the Butterfly Foundation website. As a result, I have created a Flickr photostream with lots of pics of the children and the various aspects of daily life. Please drop by and have a look at the Butterfly Foundation Flickr album.

From East to West, Altruism is best

I couldn’t finish this blog without nudging people to consider supporting Keshab in his aims to fundraise. Each year the Butterfly Foundation attempts to find kind people to help with child sponsorship in Nepal as well those with some spare time that the are willing to use to volunteer in Nepal. We would love it if our friends and family could spare some money or time, so if you are interested take a peek at the Butterfly Foundation website and do whatever you can. All support hugely appreciated.

love james & muneeza x

Butterfly Foundation Charity Nepal

Though sad to wave goodbye to the orphans in Sauraha, we were also excited to be heading to Pokhara for some mountain action (or is that mounting action?). We left Saturday 18th in the am, met a cool Belgian couple on the bus, Andy and Sarah, and hatched a plan to dig out trek info and meet for dinner the next night. We had booked a deluxe ensuite room at the Butterfly Lodge for a bargain $12 per night but some chancer taxi driver at the bus station did his best to dissuade us (quelle surprise!). The Butterfly Lodge, as highlighted by the Lonely Planet, donates a % of its profit to the nearby Butterfly Foundation, a not-for-profit day care centre for children from the poorest families in Pokhara and its surrounding villages. However, joe le taxi tried to persuade us that the family who run the hotel are really rich and give hardly anything to the people. Ironically, when pushed, he couldn’t confirm whether the place where he wanted us to stay gave anything to anyone other than the owner, his friend. Complete tool.

We stuck with our guns and insisted he drop us at the Butterfly Lodge. It was a shrewd decision. The place is ideally located at the northern end of Phewa Tal, the second largest lake in Nepal around which Pokhara is draped. It is the quietest part of town and within walking distance of all essential amenities, including the whisky shops. It is run by Govinda and his son Raj who also manages the Butterfly Foundation. The family set up the Foundation several years ago and have put a lot of energy and money into supporting local families. After dumping our bags we spoke to Raj about volunteer opportunities and he told us to visit the Foundation after our trek and he would be delighted to give us things to do. Our next blog describes our experience volunteering there.

World Peace Pagoda and Devi’s Falls

Perched at the top of a hill overlooking the lake, the World Peace Pagoda is a 2hr climb from Lakeside. We took a taxi to visit Devi’s Falls first, a waterfall that has carved open the rock at ground level and runs under the street. It is named after a Swiss woman who tragically fell to her death in the falls after heavy monsoon rains created a flash flood. The falls at first look rubbish but on closer inspection you can see the sheer drop and the funky patterns the water has carved out of the rock. We headed up the road from the falls towards the starting point for the path that climbs to the back of the pagoda.

The World Peace Pagoda is ironically named. There are 3 paths to the top but the most interesting routes, through the jungle and from the lake shore, are increasingly dangerous and many tourists have been robbed at knife point. We naturally erred on the side of caution and took the safest path which winds past people’s homes so you are never isolated. The view from the top over Pokhara and the valley is amazing but it was slightly marred by the raucous rumble of squabbling school children. We soaked up the sights of the mountains in the distance and then headed back down to town to meet our Belgian friends and sort the trekking plans for Monday.

Whistle stop tour of the Nepali Himalaya

Through the hotel we found a local guide who would take us on a 2 day trek through the local mountains for R1,400 per day ($20). Split between the two couples it was a good deal and our hotel reassured us that if the guide messed us around, they would take responsibility. After a hearty breakfast of porridge and banana with hot lemon tea (only $1.5) we hooked up with Raju and walked out of town towards Sarangkot, the first destination.

Sarangkot is a small peak that sits between Pokhara and the high Himalaya, the snow capped peaks. The walk is an early morning sharpener. After a brisk 20min stroll out of town on the paved road, you head straight up the mountain through people’s gardens and crop fields. The steps are steep and seemingly never ending. It takes about 2hrs to reach the top but the effort is worthwhile. Sarangkot offers 360 degree views of the Himalaya and Phewa Tal. On one side you can see across the shimmering lake to the World Peace Pagoda (ironic name because there are frequent muggings on the walk to the top) and on the other is the breathtaking panorama or snowy mountain peaks. It is a postcard moment and we sat and stared for a long time, soaking the views.

From Sarangkot the trek continued across the peaks and valleys of the lower Himalaya. The walk was not too demanding although the heat of the sun worked up a sweat. We arrived about 30mins before sunset at our incredibly over-priced lodge in  Naudanda. After a quick face wash we walked to the far side of town to get the best views of the mountains at sunset. It was a chilled experience, sitting in silence as the mountain hues changed from white to pink to red to black. After an average meal of vegetable thali (the staple Nepali diet of rice, daal, curry, chutney and yoghurt) we hit the sack early as there was nothing to do in Naudanda, literally a dusty road on a ridge between the mountains.

We rose early Tuesday morning to catch the sunrise. The girls left after 10mins, complaining about the cold. Andy and I opted to stay on to get the full monty. When the sun finally rose over the mountain tops, the colour display was spectacular. It was worth the effort and toughing out the cold.

After breakfast we walked on to the next stage of the 2 day trek, the climb up to Dhampus at the top of a higher peak. The climb was hard and Sarah struggled but dug deep and got to the top. We sat for a while to absorb the views – doesn’t matter how many times I see the mountains, I still find them impressive and inspiring. Our descent headed from Dhampus towards Phedi from where we had a 30mins sharp climb down the steps to the bus. The walk down was awesome as we passed through several small villages and said hello to the people who beamed smiles back at us. The people here are very friendly and always happy to welcome visitors with a genuine “Namaste, welcome”.

The bus journey back to Pokhara was hilarious. The bus was rammed so we had to wedge ourselves between the locals. As Nepali people are quite small (I am tall here!), the roof of the bus doesn’t allow me to stand up. Andy and myself had to semi crouch in the aisle and wind our legs around the food parcels on the floor. One lady got up and insisted I take her seat. I felt rude and said no thanks, that she should sit. It was an impasse until finally somebody explained that it was polite to accept the seat, so reluctantly I did but made sure I said thanks. The seat was cold comfort. The cushion was thinner than a size zero model so I spent the next 20mins with a metal bar rammed up my jacksy. I was glad to get off and jump into a taxi for the last leg of the journey to the hotel.

Routine maintenance

It’s amazing how quickly you can settle into a routine when you stop for a while in one place. After 5 days in Pokhara we are now living Groundhog Day every day.

* We wake about 07.30 and shower if we can find hot water

* We have breakfast at the same place near the hotel because we can get good food for less than $3

* Muneeza orders whilst I go to the sandwich shop to order lunch, the same order every day because it is so good

* After breakfast we get sorted in our room and head to the Butterfly Foundation (more in the next blog)

* When the kids go to sleep, we head back to the hotel and catch up on emails

* The afternoon is chilled with a walk around the town and then we have dinner in the same place

* We get back to the room about 20.00 and get into bed because it is so cold at night – we’re asleep by 22.00 latest.

It may be sad to admit but I love the ease of slipping into a routine and we’ve got another 3 days of this before the 12th Annual Pokhara Street Festival kicks to life on the 28th December. It should be a fun few days as Pokhara springs to life from its winter slumber and the streets are crammed with performers, tourists and crazy people. Our first festival on our travels – game on.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the update and Merry Christmas to one and all.

love james & muneeza x

Pokhara Nepal

Two weary gringos stepped off the bus at Sauraha to be greeted by the driver from the Tiger Residency Resort. Having booked an all inclusive 2 night, 3 day package from Kathmandu for only $100 per person, we had expected the accommodation to be rather primitive. However, we were pleasantly surprised to discover the ‘Resort’ was actually rather nice. Located on the edge of Sauraha town, it was quiet and the rooms and food were good for the money. We had a briefing with Chitra, our local guide for the next few days, and then took advantage of a 1hr chill before the activities began.

Eyes like an eagle

But strength sadly not of the bear. Joined by two friendly French peeps, we walked to the Chitwan National Park museum for some nature lessons. En route, as we passed the Government owned elephant stables (most elephants in Sauraha are captive, bred to support tourism and to carry out important work within the park) I casually looked out over the jungle plains and saw two large shapes emerging from the river bed. By chance I had spied two rhinos, a mother and calf. I didn’t register at first because spotting rhinos is hard and rare, let alone within 5 minutes of turning up.

I gave Chitra a nudge and he beamed back at me “Rhinos quick quick let’s follow them” and set off through the fence towards the beasties. Within 5mins we had followed them into the jungle and watched open mouthed with astonishment as we saw the baby and mother rhinos eating from the trees and bushes. Up close rhinos are impressive – not only are they huge and imposing, but their back and sides are covered with armour plating. They are like natural tanks.

The Chitwan rhino is the rare one-horned Indian rhino which was being poached to extinction during the Maoist insurgency. However, the good news for nature lovers is that since stability has returned to the political landscape, animal conservation is once more a focus and the population has risen slowly since 2008. Fingers crossed.

Through the mist

Early the next day, Wednesday, we set off on a canoe trip up the Rapti River which dissects the park. The experience is eerily beautiful. At 07.30 the river is enshrined in a fine, cold mist that reduces visibility to less than 5m. Crocodiles patrol the river and whilst you can’t see or hear them, their silent threat gnaws at your soporific mind and the temptation to put your hands in the warm shallow water teases.

Occasionally you can make out the shape of other boatmen and local mahouts riding their elephants to collect grass. Sitting in the wooden dug out canoe, you can imagine what it was like to be an early explorer in the virgin wilderness of Chitwan. Haunting, thrilling and calming in equal measure.

The morning’s fun was spoiled somewhat by a far quicker than planned jungle walk to the Elephant Breeding Centre. Feeling cheated by the 40min instead of 90min walk, we were dismayed on arrival at the centre. We had expected a place where elephants roamed freely, instead we were confronted by the depressing vision of over 20 elephants shackled to wooden posts with heavy iron chains. Inside we wept. Muneeza and I refused to take photos or spend anytime there; we told Chitra it wasn’t good to see these animals in chains and waited outside the centre for the others.

Elephant bathtime and safari

Bathing an elephant in the river is an experience that will leave an indelible memory and a smile on your face that takes time to fade.  We hadn’t planned for this but as we sat riverside and enjoyed a hot lemon tea (good for my worsening man flu), one of the mahouts started to bath his elephant. I said hello and he then waved us down to join him. Mange tout.

I spent the next 15mins standing and crouching next to the largest land mammal in the world, pouring water over its head and body and scrubbing its coarse skin. At first I was quietly crapping myself because elephants are huge and have been known to kill their mahouts in apparently random acts of aggression. Still, you only get one shot so don’t let the opportunity pass. It’s quite incredible to think that I have scrubbed an adult elephant as it snoozes in the midday sun.

In the afternoon we went on an elephant safari having been assured by Chitra that the mahouts in Chitwan treat their elephants kindly. Sitting atop an elephant as it ambles through pristine jungle is an odd experience. One the one hand it is exciting but on the other it is bloody painful and your legs and butt hit the numb zone. However, the pain paled into insignificance compared to the child like thrill of seeing something so huge between my legs for the first time in my life!

Having seen very little wildlife but nevertheless enjoying the view, our mahout’s keen eyes picked out a lone rhino as we were returning to camp. The animals are more tolerant of elephants than noisy jeeps and they effectively mask the smell of humans, so animals don’t disappear before you even knew they were there. We sat and watched the rhino as it chilled, then walked off into the jungle. It was one of those kodak moments best enjoyed with your eyes instead of obsessing about photos.

Bumpy bumpy road to 20,000 lakes

On Thursday we hired bikes (only $2 for the afternoon) and headed off with the vaguest of routes and plans to the 20,000 Lakes. 20,000 Lakes is an area of the jungle that floods during the monsoon to create thousands of small pools of water. In the current winter dry season, there are a few large lakes that are renowned for bird spotting.

The ride to the lakes is amazing. You cycle over bumpy dirt tracks, past elephants standing in people’s gardens, with lots of eager kids shouting “hello”. Each Tharu village has a different feel and it’s intriguing having a glimpse into people’s lives, albeit slightly voyeuristic. Before the entrance to the jungle you cross a river via a narrow, rickety wooden bridge that is wide enough for one person. The bridge also serves as the umbilical cord between the grass cutters in the jungle and the local villages, so patience is required to pick a clear spot to cross.

The ride through the jungle was amazing but both of us had a little squeaky bum time when we were told that rhinos, tigers and sloth bears are often seen in these parts. After a little hesitation, we pushed on encouraged by an English dude called John who was cycling to the lakes. A bit of an ornithologist, John gave us an intro to the bird life surrounding the lakes and proved an interesting companion. We left having spotted many birds and two crocodiles. We got back happy but with sore backsides from the crazy paving.

Sauraha Orphanage

We decided to spend an extra two days in Sauraha so we could help at the local orphanage run by Santa. Santa is inspirational – she left her cheating husband because he refused to look after the orphan children who had little support. She spends everything she earns on giving the 3 kids a better future. Yep another humbling experience!

Having taken Santa to the local stores to buy lots of food for the family, we then spent the next 2 afternoons entertaining the kids, Basanti (11), Sujan (9) and Bishan (7). Basanti is a gentle girl who loved to take Muneeza’s hand and show her around the small town. Her smile could light up a city. Sujan is the pocket dynamite, the attention deficit crazy kid who has to be in charge and wants everything (remind you of anyone?). He is hilarious and always playing the fool. Bishan is quiet and shy but a lot of fun when he warms to you. He loves affection and holding your hand when you walk.  All 3 of them left a big impression on us.

They are incredible and fantastic with each other. We took them for a walk to the riverside to see the elephants and treated them to an ice-cream only to learn that it’s bad for them at this time of year due to the cold and risk of respiratory infection. Oops, bad uncle. We were sad to say goodbye but will hopefully come back to Nepal and visit them again and if we can, help further with Santa’s plans for the children.

Hope you enjoyed the latest update. Happy Christmas to everyone

love james & muneeza x

We arrived in bustling Kathmandu after the most painful flight of the travels so far. Our flight from Cairo touched down in Doha at 21.30 and then we had to tough it out in the airport ‘quiet room’ until 04.45 for our connecting flight to Nepal. Hours entombed with a throng of sick people, topped up with turgid plane food, meant we landed in Kathmandu exhausted and my stomach was twinging like a trapped nerve. Luckily my plane grump was tempered by the jaw dropping back drop of the snow-capped Himalaya as we approached Nepal.

The Monkey Temple

Swayambhunath is one of the must-see sights of Kathmandu. Set atop a hill on the western edge of the city, the golden gilted white stupa shines out across the valley. It is known as the Monkey Temple because troops of rhesus macques roam everywhere and fight tirelessly with the dogs.

According to legend, the valley surrounding the hill was once a lake and the hill rose spontaneously from the waters, hence the name ‘swayambhu’ which means ‘self-arisen’. During the 14th century AD Mughal invaders from Bengal broke open the stupa in search of gold but it has since been restored and now forms part of the one of the UNESCO sites in Nepal.

The walk to the temple took us through the back streets of Thamel, the standard backpacker district that is adorned with markets, tour agencies and street sellers of every imaginable ilk. Like Cairo, Kathmandu is a seething mess of noise and dirt but the narrow winding alleys make for a perilous journey by foot.

The views from the top of the temple are fantastic and you can see across the whole of Kathmandu. Alas, like most tourist destinations, the tranquility of a Buddhist shrine has been replaced by the incessant noise of trade. To your left you will see Buddhists performing traditional incantations at a shrine whilst on your right somebody tries to sell you an authentic prayer wheel made in the factories of China. Worth visiting? Yes. Underwhelming experience? Yes.

Bodhnath

In my humble opinion this is more impressive than Swayambhunath because of the size of the stupa. Part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by the city. We arrived at prayer time which was unforgettable – from the base you can see endless rows of Buddhists in their traditional red robes reading and chanting from their prayer books whilst the monks beat out their hypnotic chanting from a loud speaker system.

The first stupa was built around 600AD when the Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo, converted to Buddhism. It was built according to legend as penance for killing his father, just another one of those family spats. The whitewashed dome gleams in the afternoon sun and thousands of prayer flags adorn masts and lines that are attached to the central stupa. It is a truly peaceful experience and we had a chilled afternoon soaking the atmosphere and listening to the prayers.

Durbar Square

We wanted to experience the city as we had with Cairo, so headed out on Monday on the ‘South from Thamel to Durbar Square’ circuit that is detailed in the Lonely Planet. It’s actually quite a nice walk, albeit one interspersed with car horns and exhaust fog. The walk winds through the market streets of Thamel, the busy tourist district full of hippies and colourful bazaars, and then south into the lanes that lead to the popular Durbar Square.

Every 100m you pass a shrine, either Hindu or Buddhist, and if lucky you can find people in prayer. Unlike the rather dour rituals of Christianity, Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples are adorned with colour and the leftover offerings from previous visitors. These guys know how to have fun whilst praying.

The noise and energy of Kathmandu is evident on the walk. The streets are quite literally alive and you often walk right past an important temple or landmark, distracted by the assault on the senses. The end point of the walk is Durbar Square where the city’s kings were once crowned and from where they ruled. The square remains the traditional heart of the city with spectacular buildings. The Kumari Devi, a real living goddess, lives in the building known as the Kumari Bahal, right beside the square. Follow the link for the crazy story behind this piece of popular culture.

Momos

Momos are the signature dish of Kathmandu, alongside dhaal baat, a lentils and rice extravaganza. They are steamed dumplings filled with either vegetables or meat and cooked with a potent blend of spices – mainly garlic, chilli and your body weight in ginger. For less than 1GBP you get a plate of 8 and they are delicious. I tucked in like a pig in…..

As much as the temple viewing and momo eating were fun, Kathmandu was too noisy for my liking, so we were glad to make an early retreat to the countryside. And so we got up early once more and boarded the 7am bus on Tuesday to Sauraha for our escape to the chilled rhythm of the Chitwan National Park.

love james & muneeza x