Lots more temples and a few elephants

We have just got back to Kathmandu in order to start the next stage of our journey, up over the mountains into Tibet where we will begin with a period of acclimatisation in a remote place called Taklacot. Apparently there is absolutely nothing to do there but I’ve just been told that laptops, mobile phones and even camera cards with pictures already on them have been strictly prohibited by the Chinese authorities. Fortunately I did manage to buy a suitable little camera when we came back down from the mountains into Pokhara and I am actually allowed to take a book with me. Perhaps I could do some catching up on my latest, rather incomplete, travel writings using the more traditional notebook and pencil. Anyway, all being well, I should be back within communication range in about a week.

Here is an update (added later) on the whirlwind tour of Nepal that took place before our attempt on Mount Kailash:

From Jomsom we flew back to Pokhara, a considerably larger and a apparently more prosperous city than Kathmandu. It is situated on the banks of the picturesque Phewa Lake and it’s proximity the the Annapurna range makes it a haven for trekkers and adventure sport enthusiasts. Never mind all that scenery: we were there for Tal Barahi island temple which is sacred to the Goddess Durga and had to be accessed by boat, and the Gupteshwar Gurpa underground temple of Shiva which required the negotiation of a number of steep and slippery steps. I didn’t find out the particular significance of either of these two rather attractive temples but the story of how the gushing Devi Waterfall (actually more a set of rapids) got its name was displayed on a signboard for all to see.  It is not named after a goddess, after all, but a poor woman by the name of Mrs Davis who was swept to her death here in 1961. Perhaps her relatives were somewhat comforted by her subsequent accidental deification.

After Pokhara we drove on some more of Nepal’s exhausting roads all the way down to the Indian border where we crossed a long suspension bridge across the broad Gandak River which takes the waters of the Annapurna range all the way down to the Ghangetic plain. I had to struggle with the maps later to confirm exactly where we were (from a geographical point of view if not from a spiritual) and it turns out that we didn’t actually leave Nepal. Huge, uprooted trees and building debris lay in the stream as a testament to the recent floods but we were here for the Ashram and temple complex of the Hindu sage Valmiki, said to have written the epic Ramayan here thousands of years ago. The steep, jungle-covered riverbanks are certainly peppered with caves where a hermit might have lived and studied for decades with only tigers for company but we arrived in the early afternoon and pretty well all the shrines and temples were shut.

It was quite a challenge for some of our party, getting up and down the seemingly endless labyrinth of steep, damp steps to find yet another set of barred gates concealing yet another murky, orange-decorated cave. The Yeti, who was the slimmest (and holiest) of our party wanted to perform puja at each and every one of them but some of the ladies had begun to complain and Miss Kitty, our up-until-now enthusiastic guide, was distinctly wilting in her office shoes and carefully applied makeup. Realising that these caves could go on for miles and that we might never find our way back to the suspension bridge I climbed back up and negotiated my own way back. Later I was to be found sitting under a makeshift awning, taking chai with a group of smiling locals. Miss Kitty’s face when she  caught up with me was a picture.

Our scheduled overnight stop was a so-called game lodge in the Chiwan National Park and we arrived there just too late for the afternoon elephant-back safari that usually takes visitors out for their obligatory sighting of the single-horned rhinoceros and much more unlikely encounter with one of the park’s 120 wild Bengal tigers. Miss Kitty told those of us who expressed our disappointment that it was not part of our itinerary (just why we were staying in the game lodge at all was not made clear) and set about tucking into a late lunch. Fortunately, I was not the only person in the group to be aggrieved at this wasted opportunity and a jeep was hastily arranged by the hotel staff to take a few of us for a consolation visit to the elephant breeding centre.  (At our own expense, of course).

Pachyaderm husbandry at this park has taken quite a beating (no pun intended) in the travel press in recent years and it is the domestic elephants, those that carry the tourists on their backs, rather than the wild ones viewed through the camera lens, who are said to be subject to ill-treatment. I wasn’t there long enough to see any examples but I wouldn’t be surprised. Elephant ownership is big business in the sub-Continent these days and Nepal is a country where it is still legal to lock a little girl up in a temple because she has been declared a “Living Goddess”. So legislating for animal welfare is probably a long way down the list of priorities. Anyway, we rode across the river in a wooden dugout (you have to squat as if you are taking a pee so as not to capsize it) and handed over a small tip to have the encampment kept open for us. The breeding centre has a variable population of about twenty mothers and young and most of these animals roam freely during the day, returning late in the afternoon for shelter, supplementary feeding and veterinary care. Well, so we were told. I could see that some of the mothers had several adoptees tethered beside them, that much was obvious because the elephant’s two year gestation period meant that they could not all have been siblings. Apparently, this is done to approximate a natural family group and they certainly looked contented enough.

Another mutiny against the poor Miss Kitty got us an early morning jeep safari into the jungle while the other half of our party lingered a bit longer over their breakfast. The tree cover set a scene straight out of “The Jungle Book” in the early morning sunshine and we had some lovely views of wild peacocks strutting against a misty backdrop but the rest of the animals were probably all still asleep. Our driver claimed to be able to smell the rhino but that was as close as we came to them. We glimpsed large, small and spotted varieties of deer but I don’t think I could identify them even if I had managed to get my pictures in focus. Being something of a top-predator aficionado myself, I’ve always regarded the cervidae (ruminants) as little more than a walking larder, bountifully stocked by nature for the benefit of the big cats. However, the photo-opportunities or the “game count” were not as important as being able to experience the atmosphere and it was definitely worth a missed breakfast.

Our drive to Janakpur was long and uncomfortable but brought us into town in time for evening ceremonies at the great Janaki Temple: an absolutely stunning, white palace built in the fairy-tale Mughul/Rajput style more typical of Rajasthan than Nepal. It is sacred to the Goddess Sita who is said to have lived in this very place with he father, King Janak, when she was betrothed to the Lord Rama. The acoustics for chanting and bells in the central mandapa were beautiful, devotees moved forward for blessings in their brilliantly coloured finery and a soft light from the butter lamps cast a glitter over everything. Flashes of lightning and a late monsoon downpour did nothing to lift the spell. I congratulated myself on having thought to take my low-light photographs on my mobile phone rather than my camera but was nonetheless delighted to be able to return the following morning for more pictures. Just like a glance behind a theatre set built out of cardboard, in daylight the magic was gone. The streets around the temple were choked with filth and great panoramas of partially demolished buildings showed what the rest of the city had had to endure. I’m told that the temple also suffered some earthquake damage but saw no obvious evidence of  recent re-building.

And, just in case anyone felt the need, there was one more temple to visit before we caught the flight back to Kathmandu. The Danusha Dham is revered as the place where the God Rama cast down the broken pieces of his bow before marrying Sita. Now, I’ve always liked the tale of the great bow that none of his rivals could draw, it reminds me of the story of Odysseus and Penelope, but I wasn’t quite so pleased with our introductory talk. The discovery in a field of an ancient statue of Sita was first given as having taken place eleven years ago: “what, a bit like the Terracotta army, you mean? Is the farmer who found it still around then?” No, it seems we were being told it was eleven thousand years ago: “before the pyramids, then? Before Mesopotamia? Before Gilgamesh? ”. After thoroughly alienating myself from the more devout members of our party for daring to challenge this muddled account, I think the event may have been agreed to have taken place sometime around the tenth century. Eleven hundred years. The Hindus may have  discovered the Zero but I sometimes wish they were a little less cavalier with its application.

Miss Kitty had clearly had enough of me by this stage and, I must say, the feeling was mutual. She may have had to stop frequently for directions and spent most of the time chatting or taking selfies on her mobile phone but she had been brought out of the office specially to assist us and was clearly not equal to the task. Getting annoyed with her was rather akin to smacking a fat little puppy, it made you feel awfully mean and did no good at all.

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