Friday, December 24, 2010
Chitwan National Park: Part 1
Nepal boasts two great jungle parks, the popular Chitwan and the more secluded Bardia, in the far west. My plan was to visit Bardia, since Chiwan seemed more commodified. Bardia, since it is less popular, is also a little more expensive. I made some inquiries and did some internet research, but most hotels seemed bent on selling expensive package tours that I could not afford. A person can just go there and buy what they want, but it is more difficult. Public transportation will only go to Ambassa, about seven miles from the park's accommodation, so special transport would be needed for the park. I emailed one budget place and tried to make a booking, but I received no reply. Buses from Lumbini take about 12 hours to get to the park, so barring a trip on the infamously deadly night buses, it would be impossible to arrive during the day and there are few traveling experiences more intimidating than arriving at a strange place at night without a booking. Therefore, I abandoned my hopes for Bardia; I was stuck with the jungle Disneyland of Chitwan.
A plus of Chitwan is the ease of visiting. So many visitors come through, all inclusive packages can run quite cheap. These packages are pretty interchangeable, they include food lodging, a canoe ride, a short jungle walk, an elephant ride, bird watching, and a culture show, featuring the intriguingly named "stick dancing". I didn't want all these things, only a full day guided jungle hike and an elephant ride and if I have some time, see what a stick dance is all about. I made the mistake of visiting a tour agents to arrange a self designed package. The man could only assure me a half day walk, which was three more hours than most packages, a jeep ride, which was nice because it would take me deeper into the park than walks, and the essential elephant ride. The package was a bit pricey, but after getting the man to include transport back to Kathmandu, I agreed in a moment of weakness. This was my mistake.
I don't wish to imply that the packages are a bad choice per se: they have the ease of not having to walk around an unknown place, trying to arrange all the activities, but they take away freedom, cost too much, and put the customer onto the assembly line; and since they already have your money, you are at their mercy.
I took a series of local buses to get to Tandi, a few miles from the park settlement at Sauraha. I was pleased to see a jeep awaiting my arrival. Within minutes of dropping my bags, my young trainee guide Bhutwan, took me for a short walk to the river, where a one-horned rhino, the poster animal of the park, was spotted. It was great, I got to tick one animal off the list so quickly. At least I knew I wouldn't be skunked.
After that, we walked to the bank of the main river to watch the sunset. This marked the border of the park; ferries are essential to visit. The sunset over the jungle was quite nice; the Terai skies seem unable to develop many clouds, at least in this time of the year, so the sun just dropped as a small orange orb, sinking into the sal trees. My guide and I sat and chatted, absorbing the river, watching the tour groups emerge from the forest to catch their ferry. Even though there were people everywhere, it was still relaxing to hear the jungle awaken as the light vanished.
We returned to the hotel for some dal bhat and chicken curry, which were quite nice. A beautiful young Israeli woman in Tansen told me of her experience with eating dal bhat with her hands. I decided to add this experience to the list that night. Numerous times I'd watched Nepali's eat with their right hand, mixing a little dal into the rice, stirring it a bit, then add a chunk of potato or other random vegetable from the tarkari, mixing it all up with a twisting motion. The tube that emerges is scooped up and pressed into a little ball and tossed into the mouth, without dropping any rice. Some people think that chopsticks are complicated! It was more difficult than I ever imagined it to be. Too much dal and it become a soupy mess, too little and it has no flavor. My first few bites were pathetic, dropping food, messing up my face. When I'd put food in my mouth, my thumb was in the way. Finally, I figured how to use my four main fingers as a scoop, then push the food into my fingers with the thumb. i then had to tuck the thumb back before bringing the food into my mouth; it not only kept out of the way, but then I could carefully drag my thumb across my fingers, pushing the food into my mouth. This method worked great and it seemed to impress the hotel staff who had already started calling me "Nepali guy" because of the Dhaka topi. I put a note in my head to practice this skill. I would be in hand eating countries for a while longer; impressing potential families with my great hand eating skills when invited to their home would be great. This prospect also seemed nice, since it is quite fun to eat with the hands.
The head guide sat down with me after I finished my food. "How did you enjoy the Tharu village tour?" He asked wide eyed, as if I'd just seen a tiger.
"I haven't taken any village tour."
"Did you go to the river?"
"Ok," he pulled out a brochure for the resort. "That was Tharu village tour." He pointed to the heading on the brochure and crossed it off with his index finger. I didn't remember a village, but I didn't expect a tour anyway. "Tomorrow, you wake up, 6 o'clock, eat breakfast, then canoe ride. You come back here, eat lunch, then jungle walk."
"Oh, how long is the jungle walk?"
"Maybe one and one half hour."
"I was told it was longer, a half day tour."
"No, only one and one half hour."
"Then next day, wake up, elephant ride, then after that, bird watching."
"No, jeep is 4 day package." he explained.
"My package had a jeep ride, and a long jungle walk, but no bird watching. I really don't care about bird watching."
"No, this is the package."
"I paid extra money for a special package. Didn't anyone tell you?"
"It's ok, it's ok. I call agency." It was good to know everyone was communicating so well. After a phone call, it was all worked out and I was getting what I ordered. After dinner, my guide and I walked around the tourist area, then stopped at a local bar for some lokal, which is the same as raksi.
The next morning was the part of my visit I most anticipated, a four hour walk through the rhino and tiger infested jungle. I was very fortunate, my walk was just my guide and me. Most groups were a bit large, which is more likely to scare away the wildlife. We passed a couple of guides who were surprised by our small group sized. One said, "Ah, very dangerous, two people. Are you scared?" I wasn't. I must have a faulty amygdala, because I rarely have the fear response of most people in "dangerous" situations. Truthfully, the chances of anything happening are quite low, just seeing animals is a lucky break, but there is a danger of being killed. Ultimately, the main goal of all the jungle activities is to spot the elusive Bengal tiger. The irony is that if a person does have the fortune of seeing the great king of the jungle, the only goal is then to find a way to get away from it. Rhinos when angry can kill with ease. Also to be feared is the sloth bear, an anteater like bear that has an affinity for attacking the face and genitals. Before entering the jungle, my guide explained the best ways to avoid dying. And if all else fails, he had a heavy bamboo stick.
Sadly, I needed none of his tips. The only animals from which I could possibly defend myself were birds, wild chickens, and the docilely deadly spotted dear. Seeing lots of harmful animals does not determine the quality of the walk. Chitwan's jungle is gorgeous and relaxing and merely being there made the hike worthwhile.
That afternoon, I took a jeep safari deep into the jungle. The only jeep that has any chance of seeing anything is the first and we were that jeep. We didn't see too much though. During this time of year, the grasses are nearly ten feet high, providing much cover; in one month, the villagers will cut most of the grass, making it the best time to visit. We saw two wild boar rummaging through the ground of a small settlement before we reached the gharial breeding center.
Gharial are river dwelling members of the crocodile family. They differ primarily in their mouth shape, which is a long tube, almost like sticks coming out of their heads, sharp toothed sticks. The increase of people in the terai and Northern India have threatened the species. The center has been doing a great job of raising the populations, shipping them throughout the subcontinent. It wasn't really nature watching, but it was neat to see such odd creatures.
As we left the center, we heard of a rhino sighting nearby. We walked a little while, then caught the jeep for another minute until we reached the rhino. It stood, munching on the tall grass in big mouthfuls, indifferent to our presence. After five minutes, it started to walk towards us, coming within ten feet. The one-horned rhino is like a giant steel cow with a big horn. Their weight much be incredible; it just looked like a dense creature. It then eyed us and came closer, marking our cue to depart. The sighting was quite special and finally quieted the annoying Chinese girl in our jeep who before was asking incessantly, "Where are all the animals?"
A kilometer down the road, we saw another, but it ran off into the grasses when we arrived. We spotted some barking deer, but they were but a flash of brown in the thicket. I stood up in the back, head above the cab, watching the jungle fly by, while ducking under low branches and high grasses. The jeep ride turned out to be great, overcoming my skepticism.