Saving Nepal’s Best for Last

After our stay at the comfortable, but basic, Seti River Camp, it was a complete shock to our senses when we arrived at the Kasara Chitwan Resort.  We were experiencing luxury overload!

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The reception area

I was expecting a room, not a stand alone suite.  When I opened my door, I entered this private courtyard.  The photo doesn’t do it justice, but I was too focused on enjoying my surroundings to put much energy into a photo shoot.

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Air conditioned bedroom on the left, bathroom with open air shower on the right, and a beautiful courtyard in between.  Those are little ponds on either side of the boardwalk, complete with resident frogs.

After getting settled, we headed out to hunt for  black rhinos.  Success!   We saw several.  My favorite is this shot, because he seemed a bit bored by us gawkers.

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So what the heck are YOU looking at?

Our mode of transportation during our “safari” was a platform mounted on the elephant’s back.  It was not the most comfortable ride, for us, or probably for the elephant either, but it was a fun experience.

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We didn’t see any tigers, but the group before us caught sight of one.  After hearing about the elephant’s reaction, I was just as glad that we hadn’t.  There was a whole lot of stomping, bouncing and trumpeting going on!

For me, the best part of our visit was when we were able to interact with the elephants in the water.

The rest of the group had heard all about my nephew Jack, and how much he LOVES elephants, so Jim was gracious enough to take stills with my camera, while Binoy, our wonderful guide, shot video with my iPhone.

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First trick was getting on
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Wait, I thought I was going to be washing–not getting washed!
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Now I have to get down
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Peter, Marilyn and I giving our buddy a nice massage, using smooth stones.

These are such beautiful, intelligent and gentle creatures.  What a privilege to send time with them.

Check out the toenails on her.  Fun fact–elephants sweat through their toenails.

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Mike, can I keep her?

While at Kasara, I kept thinking about these lines from the song “Camelot”.  “The rain will never fall till after sundown; By 8 the morning clouds must disappear”, because that’s exactly how it worked during our two days there.  In fact, we were extremely lucky during our entire trip.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather–slightly overcast when we were trekking, which is much more comfortable than walking under a hot sun.

The resort has a lovely pool, so I was very glad I’d packed my bathing suit.  Again, no photos.  Sometimes you have to put the camera down and just soak in your surroundings (literally).

It also has a great second story bar overlooking the pool.  I decided to skip the ox cart ride  through the village, and partake in a margarita instead.  That’s what my sisters, hermaña preferida, and cousins would have wanted me to do, and I couldn’t let them down.

Time to fly back to Kathmandu, and another lovely hotel, The Gokarna Forest Resort.

During our Nepal trip, we added three travelers, Ann from Indianapolis, was born in Indonesia.  She and her Turkish husband met in veterinary school.  Karl is a retired navy chaplain who served in Iraq.  He and Eugenia were born in Hong Kong, but have lived in San Diego when they are not traveling the world.  Their fluency in Chinese was much appreciated by all of us when we got to Tibet.

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Standing, left to right: Marilynn, Marie, Ann, Eugenia, Karl, Peter, Dick.  Me, practicing my squat, an essential skill for the airport rest rooms.  Jim is missing because he is the photographer.

Here are Marie and Dick, enjoying their first class seats.

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Jim, Peter and Marie will be returning to the USA after our last night together at the Gokarna, while the remaining six of us head off to Tibet.  The farewell dinner is an OAT tradition when the main trip ends, and what a farewell dinner it was!

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Ann, me, Marilyn, Marie and Eugenia

Yes, we needed help getting dressed, and no, we didn’t get to keep the saris.

Some of the men played dress up too.

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Karl, Binoy, Jim

It was the perfect ending for three fantastic weeks together.  Little did we know, but the remaining six of us were going to have a very different experience in Tibet.

 

 

 

 

Heavenly Himalayas

It’s a 17 minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokara if the planes are able to take off.  Otherwise, it is a 5 hour drive on bumpy mountain roads.  We were in luck.  After a 45 minute delay, it was clear enough to fly.

We stopped at the Pokhara office to load what we would need for the next three days into the OAT supplied duffels, leaving our big bags behind.  After lunch atop a mountain, we drove for about an hour, then hit the trail, to walk the last three miles to our lodge.

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Could this be what the OAT description means by “uneven steps”?

As I was walking up and down the mountain trail, I was thinking about my gym buddies at Somerset Hills Y.  Knowing that they would all be in class was the extra motivation that got me to Zumba, AOA, Yoga and Barre— and boy oh boy, were those classes necessary.  Our treks were far more enjoyable because I’d been “training” for the past 6 months.   It also helped that the heavy lifting was done by village women, who carried our bags in baskets on their backs, attached to a strap across their foreheads.

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That’s our luggage inside those baskets!

After the chaos of Kathmandu, we were so very ready for the beautiful and peacefully remote Gurung Lodge in Annapurna.  And what a fantastic lodge it was.  Our clean, comfortable rooms were stocked with umbrellas, warm hats and gloves, a north face parka, flashlight, and crocs.   The lounge chairs on our front porches were perfect for naps after our hikes through the villages, to the school, the mother’s cooperative, the museum  and the two room health center.

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Okay, no comments about the white legs.  In some parts of the world, pasty white skin is considered quite beautiful.  So there, Sue and Sandy.

During our stay, smoke from wildfires in India caused the sky to cloud up, so we only occasionally got a glimpse of the Annapurna Mountains.  Despite the clouds and mist, the view was still jaw dropping.   It was impossible to capture the magnificence of this mountain range in a photo, although we all tried. As with so much in life, you just had to be there.

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The view from our cabins

Our lodge had electricity for a few hours every day, just long enough to charge our camera batteries.  Solar power heated the water, so we took our showers in the afternoon.  As for our hair, the only blow dryer in the camp comes courtesy of the afternoon breeze.
Despite a complete lack of so many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted, we had tasty and healthy meals.  I so appreciated how hard the villagers and the lodge staff had to work to ensure that we were well fed and comfortable.

We got a little surprise on our village trek.  When we arrived, we were greeted by this group of women.  It took us a while to realize that ONE of them looked VERY familiar.

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Can you identify the nurse from San Francisco?

 

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Here’s a clue

Marilynn, our power walker, had arrived far in advance of the rest of our group, so the village ladies decided to dress her up and make her part of the welcoming committee.

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A flower garland and “Namaste”

It made me feel good to see how our contributions to the OAT Foundation are making life easier forthe communities we visit.   Before OAT donated the machinery, grain was ground by hand.  Not an easy task, as Marie is demonstrating.

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If my iPhone counted  accurately, the walk to the village is the equivalent of 103 flights of stairs ONE WAY!  And we couldn’t get the ladies to carry us in their baskets for the return trip.

But it was worth it, because the scenery was spectacular!

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Six Days In Happy Land

We are now in Nepal; quirky Internet connectivity made it difficult to do justice to beautiful Bhutan, so this post will be a quick collection of photos and memories of Happy Land.

THIMPHU

A few years ago, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer was chosen as one of the seven new wonders of the world.  Thimphu’s gigantic Buddha didn’t exist at that time.  If it had, I’m convinced Buddha would be giving Rio’s statue some serious competition.

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Buddha sits atop a mountain overlooking Thimphu

The base of the statue contains a temple, filled with hundreds of thousands of smaller Buddhas, butter lamps and butter sculptures. Yes, you read that right–sculptures are made of colored butter!

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Just the artwork on the base would get MY vote

Dedicated to teaching Bhutanese arts and crafts, this school focuses on 18 traditional crafts including painting, woodcarving, metal work and embroidery.

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Whenever I visit a country, particularly one whose economy is dependent on the tourist trade, I like to drop some dollars by buying gifts, so a stop in the school’s small shop was a definite requirement.

Handmade paper is another traditional Bhutanese craft.  We watched the entire process: the raw materials being delivered, heated, compressed, made into sheets and dried.

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Notice how hard these young women are working?  They were all smiling as they were lifting those heavy bundles!  And yes, I most certainly did make a purchase at their tiny gift shop.

The modern world is rapidly creeping into Bhutan.  Construction is everywhere.  But it isn’t just new buildings and new technology.  Since the introduction of television in 1999, the western world has slowly been influencing Bhutan’s youth.

Thimphu’s clock tower plaza, right beside our hotel was the site of what looked like an  auto exhibit, but it was a whole lot more.image

Young Bhutanese shed their traditional clothes, donning jeans and tee shirts to dance to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”.   Unfortunately, my camera’s software is incompatible with my iPad, so you won’t be able to see the beautiful young girls I videoed dancing, but with any luck, I’ll be able to link a YouTube video of the boys doing their hip hop routine when I get back home.
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You may be wondering what kind of audience the entertainment drew. Well, wonder no more, because when my personal paparazzi used his long lens to capture me unawares, he also photographed the crowd.

A bit sparse, no?

PUNAKHA

Much of the road between Thimphu and Punakha is under construction, making travel slooooow and very dusty.  We stopped at the Dochula Pass on the way to and from Punakha.

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108 Stupas of the Dochula Pass

The Dochula Pass memorial honors the 15 Bhutanese that were killed fighting the Indian separatists from Assam.  The separatists were creeping across the Bhutanese border, creating training camps.  The fourth king actually led his troops into battle and was victorious.  No wonder he is so beloved!

The pass is 10,000 feet above sea level, so Tashi thought it would be good practice for the Tiger’s Nest if we took a hike in the Royal Botanical Park that adjoins the memorial.

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The rhododendron were in bloom–they weren’t bushes, they were trees.

The jacaranda were also in bloom, outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

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Notice the covered wooden bridge in the distance.

This is the entrance to the Palace’s temple.  Inside Tashi gave us a fantastic lecture about Buddhism, using the artwork that covered the temple walls as an ancient Power Point Presentation.image

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I was so glad to see these monks, enjoying themselves by the river bank outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

We also visited a nunnery located atop a mountain, where I purchased some bracelets from this sweet 21 year old nun, who spoke perfect English.

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Marilynn from San Francisco on the right, bracelets on the window sill on the left.

No visit to Punakha would be complete without a stop at the Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery.  To get there you need to hike through rice fields, a village and up a hill.

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The shingles on roofs are held down with stones instead of nails.
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These sweet villagers were happy to pose for me
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Christmas presents for everyone!

imageThis monastery was founded by Drupka Kinley, the Divine Madman, whose “Thunderbolt of Wisdom”, also known as his “Flaming Thunderbolt” , brought his own special form of enlightenment to local women.  Infertile couples visit the monastery where the woman is doinked on the head with a huge wooden “thunderbolt”.  Could that be the Bhutanese version of IVF?

The Divine Madman is the inspiration behind the artwork that festoons the area’s houses.

Although not part of the “official” itinerary, our wonderful guide thought we might enjoy a visit to the 17th century village of Rinchen Gong.  These villagers are definitely not used to having visitors!  Our arrival was quite an occasion, especially for the children, who chased our van up the steep dirt road.

Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
These boys loved seeing their pictures
These boys loved seeing their pictures
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.

Our last stop was in Paro, where we climbed to the Tiger’s Nest and visited Bhutan’s  very first temple.  It was built in the 7th century by Tibet’s great ruler, Songtsen Gampo, and it is where he pinned the left foot of an ogress who once covered all of Bhutan and part of Tibet.

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Jim, spinning the prayer wheel outside the sacred Kyichu Lakhang