24 Hours

Features Issue 148 Mar, 2014
Text and Photo By Kapil Bisht

To spend a day well is what most of us seek when we go on trips. For some, that one day means walking for hours on end, being out of breath at times, to arrive at a place surrounded by towering peaks. For others, it is a day walking between giant Sal trees, binoculars slung around their necks, bodies tingling with the excitement of seeing a wild animal. Yet for some their ideal day is a day spent idling, hours of abandoning all thought of work or other things they wanted to escape. Here are a few places that have many of the things one thinks of when they picture a memorable 24 hours.

A refuge for Gods

Passing the medieval Siddha Pokhari and the western entrance to the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the asphalt road heads north, cutting through the timeless fields. Cylindrical hay stacks stand in the midst, like lighthouses in the middle of a green sea. The road rises and winds before ending in a parking lot near the top of a hill. This is the Doladri Hill, or “Swinging Hill,” a name derived from a mythological tale of a demon army that shook the high ground like a swing to flush out the gods who were hiding there. Situated at the top of the rise is Changu Narayan, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley. 

The few meters from the parking lot to the stairs that lead to the temple are filled with images of a hybrid between an old Newari village and a tourist town. Ducks waddle past, sometimes lambs scurry past you with a child chasing them; Seven Years In Tibet DVDs and wooden masks of Ganesh hang on the doors of shops. At the top of the climb, near an old pilgrim’s shelter, you see several stone tablets. They are ancient texts etched in stone, links to the place’s history. They are also indicators that you are near an ancient site.

A short flight of stairs from the stone inscriptions is the courtyard, at the center of which stands the main temple. Images of gods and goddesses are everywhere: they are on the wooden struts supporting the temple’s roofs; their stone images, reddened with centuries of vermilion rubbing, are snugly enshrined in temples; or they are in piles in dusty corners.

The huge stone image of the Garuda, the mythical bird, kneeling atop a stone pillar, hands folded in reverence, emphasizes the sanctity of the main temple. Devotees can get a glimpse of the inner sanctum and tika and parsaad from the main priest. On Wednesdays, the priest cooks kheer (rice pudding), which is given out to all visitors.

But Changu is not only for the religious. The ancient script on the stone pillar, the amazing stone sculptures, and the views of the lush valley are reasons enough to visit. There is also the Living Traditions Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of objects from the homes of the various ethnic people of Nepal, showcasing the gift Nepalis have of combining art and utility.

Changu Guest House (Anish Bhatta: 9818178336/01-5090852; www.changuguesthouse.com)
For simple fares like daal-bhaat, Changu Guest House. For Newari cuisine, Binayak Restaurant (Ram Prasad Kasula: 9851042807). The free-range chicken (local kukhura) curry with rice is a delicacy not to be missed. For tea and coffee try the LTM Café or the decades old tea shop located in the south-western corner of the temple courtyard.

Buses leave every half-an-hour from Baghbazaar to Changu Narayan (cost: 40 rupees). Changu Narayan temple entrance fee: 100 rupees for foreigners and 25 rupees for Indian citizens.

Go to Siddha Pokhari, near the western entrance to the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, then head north to the junction with the road that goes to Nagarkot. After a kilometer or so take the left turn. Changu Narayan is seven kilometers from here. An alternative is to go to Sankhu and then hike up to the Changu Narayan hill.     

Look out for
The postcards and books in the Living Traditions Museum shop (Sunita Bhadel, manager: 9849426899; Judith Chase, owner: 9808038417; judithconantchase@gmail.com), the Changu Museum, and the ancient, dilapidated courtyard near the Changu Guest House, which contains several unique stone images.

A sample of Mustang

The Dhaulagiri Icefall looms like a huge billboard for an ice-cream brand behind Larjung, a Thakali village on the Annapurna trek. It appears to have stopped and changed routes at the last moment, sparing Larjung an icy bath. Mount Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest peak and feeder to this icy river, rises behind the village, a luminous tower of ice. To be in Larjung is to be in the midst of geological giants: mountains, glaciers, and a river bed several hundred meters wide.
Larjung was once the southern border of the ancient Guge Kingdom. The Makhi Lhakhang, a monastery to the east of the village, is the southernmost Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Thak Khola. All the things that Mustang is known for are in or around Larjung. It is like a sample of Mustang left on the trailside.

This culmination of geographical beauty and historical and cultural heritage gives visitors ample things to do. The path to the aforementioned Makhi Lhakhang also passes near a cave-riddled cliff face. Although they are not as precariously located or as large as the now famous caves of Upper Mustang, they still evoke the same questions: Why were they built? How did people get to them?

There is another, more accessible, cave near Larjung. Known as Guru Sangpo Cave, it is the hollow where Padmasambhava, the wandering ascetic who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have meditated. For those who wish to collect the sacred saligram, ammonite fossils dating back to the Jurassic era, the river bed of the Kali Gandaki River near Larjung is a good place to look. Crossing the Kali Gandaki and hiking to the summits of the hills to the east provide excellent views of Dhaulagiri and other mountains, including the mountain that looks like a huge open book.
Larjung’s location is a true blessing to visitors. Whether the trek you always wanted to do is coming to an end or just starting, Larjung is a great place to slow down and soak in a bit of Mustang.

Larjung Lodge. Lodge Thasang Village (www.lodgethasangvillage.com)

Almost all lodges are run by Thakalis, so good food is almost a guarantee. Thakali style daal-bhaat and apple pies are fantastic here.

It takes four to five days to trek to Larjung from Nayapul. You can get there in a day on a bus or other vehicles. Daily budget is 1000-1,200 rupees.

It’s ossible to drive all the way to Larjung, passing through Pokhara and Nayapul. The trekking begins from Nayapul and passes through Tatopani and Ghasa on the famed Annapurna Circuit Trek.   
Look out for
Dried apples and apple brandy (from Marpha) and knitwear made by locals. Look for saligram.

Languor overdose 
We have to leave this place tomorrow,” my companion said. She felt threatened, she explained. The threat came from the long hours of sitting in the sun, the roasted organic potatoes and the sumptuous meals, the silence of the place. The days were too languid; indolence was threatening to become routine. This place that got us worried with its idyllic pace of life was Sing Gomba, a small village on the route to the sacred Gosainkunda Lake.

Sing Gomba is the place that trekkers and pilgrims usually stop at to gather strength for the push up to Gosainkunda or, if coming down from the lake, to relax. The houses here, with their spotlessly clean and meticulously tended gardens, resemble those of a Swiss town. Yaks graze on the hill slopes, pinching the silence with the sounds of their bells. The village derives its name, and spiritual and cultural strength, from the ancient Sing Gomba, which stands near the eastern end of the village.

If you sense your hard-earned rest in Sing Gomba degrading into boredom, you can try a few things. A short climb to the hilltop north of the village offers wonderful views of the mountains. The sunset from there is an amateur photographer’s dream come true. Fast walkers can also climb northeast to the Phoolum Gomba, which locals say is well over a thousand years old. Birdwatchers and those with an interest in wildlife can saunter to the nearby woods, although going too far into the forest poses a risk of getting lost. Barking deer frequent the area, and, stalking them, so do leopards.

But, if you have truly immersed into the spirit of the place and are in sync with its pace, you should also try these: snoozing in the garden, reading a book while munching on the locally made yak cheese, staring at the hills.

The Hotel Yak and Nak (Pasang Tamang: 010-670160/9741203099), Green Hill Hotel (Kanchha Tamang: 010-670399).  

All the lodges offer almost identical choice of food. Roasted or boiled potatoes, shyakpa (local soup), and green salads are excellent here.

It’s a six-hour bus ride to Dhunchey from Kathmandu (300 rupees). From there Sing Gomba is a day’s trek (1200-1500 rupees).

Drive to Trishuli and then to Dhunchey. Alternate route begins from Sundarijal; Sing Gomba reached on seventh day.  
Look out for
The cheese factory and the main prayer room of the village monastery.

Where elephants are lost

It is unlikely that you will see a poster with a close-up photo of an elephant with the words “Elephant missing: Please call the number below if you have any information,” but you might hear about lost elephants in Bardia. I did. My guide and I were resting on the top floor of a forty-foot wooden machan (watchtower) on the edge of a grassland when two Tharu men approached on a gray giant.  One of them looked up and asked my guide if he had seen an elephant. The men were employees of a luxury resort and one of their domesticated elephants had escaped the night before. My guide told them he hadn’t, and the men went away, further into the large grassland to continue their search.

 The jungles of Bardia are that big, that wild. Sprawled over 968 sq. km., Bardia National Park is the largest protected area in Nepal’s lowland. Royal Bengal tigers, rhinos, leopards, blue bulls, swamp deer, sambar and numerous other mammals inhabit this great wilderness. Birdwatchers have a whopping 426 bird species to look forward to, some of which can be seen in the gardens of the resorts you are staying in.

The wonderful thing about Bardia is that you need not be in the jungle to have memorable experiences; sometimes the wilderness arrives at your doorstep. The Tharu village of Thakurdwara, which is contiguous to the Bardia National Park and where most of the resorts are located, is one such place. It is like a no-creature’s land into which jungle fowl, cranes, deer, wild boars and, much to the villagers’ chagrin, elephants cross over. Machans stand in the fields—silent reminders of the threat posed by the marauding pachyderm herds.

But the wilderness does not only take; there are things there for the taking too. And no one is better at utilizing Nature’s bounty than the Tharus, the indigenous inhabitants of the Terai jungles. A visit to the Tharu Museum, designed and decorated to resemble a typical Tharu home, provides a glimpse into their skill and ingenuity in crafting objects from raw materials from the jungle. Step into a Tharu house in the village and you will be amazed at how many articles they can fashion from the elephant grass alone.

The extent to which wildlife has invaded human life in Bardia can best be gauged by listening to the conversations of people in teashops in the main bazaar. Chances are pretty high that talk will not be about politics. It will be about elephants and tigers.

Bardia Adventure Resort (Raj Kumar Bohara: 9848371999; www.bar.com), Nepal Wildlife Resort (Bhim Shahi: 9812431897; www.nepalwildlife.net) Mango Tree Lodge (www.mangotreelodge.com).

Resorts offer similar cuisine, so all are worth a try. You can request the cook to make some Tharu dishes. The fish curry is a local specialty in Bardia, but make sure the fish is from the nearby rivers or streams.
Daily flight to Nepalgunj (Rs. 8000). Several buses leave daily for the Far-West Region (1000-1,200 rupees). Daily budget for Thakurdwara is 1,500-2000 rupees.

West on the East-West Highway toward Bardia district. Head south from Ambassa.  
Look out for
Crocodile breeding center and Tharu handicrafts, especially baskets woven from dyed grass.