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Nepal: Off-the-beaten-track itineraries

By Nick Roosen 4 January 2022

Header image courtesy of Nick Roosen

After multiple layovers, the gentle thrum of the plane lulls me to sleep. Visions of snow-capped mountains, bustling markets, and pastel red Buddhist robes appear in my dreams. Visions of Nepal. A place I have long desired to visit. We have yet to touchdown but my mind is already there. Suddenly, I am shaken awake by the man seated next to me. He gestures towards the window. Slowly coming into view is a mighty mountain. At over 8,800 metres, Everest or Chomolungma (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ)—meaning “Mother Goddess of the World” in Tibetan—towers above the already impressive Himalayas. Beaming with pride, the man registers my awe at this phenomenal statue of rock, carved by ice and time.

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As a mountaineering buff touching down in Nepal for the first time, I understand the desire to head straight for the hills. The highest mountain in the world invariably puts Nepal on the map for many travellers. But what might come as a surprise is that during Nepal’s peak season, as many as 500 people flock to Everest Base Camp each day. It seems that our fascination with Everest is contributing to growing concerns over overcrowding, as well as the accumulation of untold tonnes of trash and human waste—pressures that are taking a toll on what many consider a sacred place. That’s why I’m keen to see if that same sense of awe and wonder can be found lingering off the beaten track in this country of contrasts.

Chitwan National Park (चितवन राष्ट्रिय निकुञ्ज): A walk on the wild side

With so much attention fixed on the “roof of the world,” it’s easy to miss Nepal’s steaming lowland jungles brimming with rare and unique wildlife. Chitwan National Park is about 150 kilometres southeast of Nepal’s second-largest city, Pokhara. In the local language, Chitwan (चितवन) means “the heart of the jungle.” At over 90,000 hectares, it is one of the largest surviving moist deciduous Sal forests in the world.

Home to rare mammals like the greater one-horned rhinoceros and Bengal tigers, this UNESCO World Heritage site also offers sanctuary for numerous other species, including the great hornbill, mugger crocodiles, and even Asian elephants. For the more adventurous, you could consider a visit to Bardia National Park in the far west of Nepal as an alternative. But be warned: If you’re travelling like I am—by local bus—the journey there can be upwards of 12 hours. 

At just five hours from Pokhara, Chitwan is a better fit for my plans. Good accommodation options can be found near the quieter village of Barauli on the western end of the park. I’ve opted for a canoe ride into Chitwan followed by a walking tour. In the usual fashion befitting of a wildlife experience, we’re up at first light.

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A thick veil of morning fog hangs over the river, obscuring the jungle beyond. The peaceful reverence is broken only by the calls of birds and the gurgle of water against the hull of the canoe. As the fog lifts, we spot the unmistakable profile of a mugger crocodile draped across the muddy bank. Just out of reach, long-necked Oriental darters ply the waters for fish. Soon, the morning chorus of birds is in full swing. A rushing sound of air overhead reveals a pair of great hornbills with vibrant golden bills. By the time our canoe makes landfall and we take to Chitwan’s walking trails, I’m brimming with curiosity for what we’ll find in the jungle’s depths.

Leading us carefully through the dense vegetation, our guides are ever vigilant—and for good reason. As we walk past a nearby tree, they point out deep gouges in the bark. I trace my nails down the groves and imagine the tiger’s claw that ripped through the tree’s skin, possibly just hours before. It’s a sobering reminder that we’re walking in the presence of an apex predator.

After lunch and a thorough search for leeches—long socks and trousers are highly recommended—we’re back on the trail of the tiger. But in a surprising twist, we find ourselves crossing paths with a prehistoric-looking beast from a bygone age. Over the last 50 million years, rhinos have migrated across continents, withstood ice ages, and faced giant crocodiles. It’s little wonder why at almost 2,000 kilogrammes, the greater one-horned rhinoceros resembles an armour-plated tank.

We can’t help but stand and gape at this mountain of a mammal. A moment of indiscretion is all it takes. What rhinos lack in terms of eyesight, they make up for with a sharp sense of smell and hearing. Our guides have barely enough time to drag us into the undergrowth before the rhino thunders through the gap in the clearing we’d occupied just moments before.

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Thanks to our guide’s quick reflexes and experience, we escape the wrath of the rhino. Ending the day on the banks of the Rapti River, where herds of elephants come to bathe, feed, and play, we revel in our experience of walking on the wild side of Chitwan. A sanctuary of surprises—that for a whole day—we had all to ourselves.

Marpha (मार्फा): A Himalayan mountain village

To the north of Pokhara, innumerable villages dot the rugged Himalayan landscape. Though just a stone’s throw from the popular Annapurna Circuit, few stop in the tiny village of Marpha. For me, this is home for a week.

When you imagine a small Himalayan village, surrounded by towering peaks, a monastery at its heart, and smiling children running through stone streets, you are picturing a village-like Marpha. Here, at the feet of the Annapurna range, a collection of stacked stone homes are skirted by gardens of blossoming apple trees—the source of Marpha’s famed apple brandy. As I share a glass with my hosts, who run the guest house I’m staying at, I discover that the tangy, exceptionally delicious, and dangerously strong liquor has a powerful ability to bridge cross-cultural boundaries.

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Soon, my hosts have enlisted me to assist their children with their homework. True to the village’s namesake—“mar” (मार्) meaning hardworking and “pha” (फ) meaning people—the kids are committed students. No small thanks to the brandy, their arithmetic is vastly superior to mine, but that doesn’t stop them from inviting me to visit the local school. Here, in sunlit classrooms, curious faces convey a great thirst for knowledge. When they ask what animals are found in my home country, they laugh with glee at my imitation of a kangaroo.

For those keen to explore the mountains, Marpha is an ideal jumping-off point for multi-day treks into the famed Annapurna ranges as well as the remote—and certainly off the beaten path—Mustang Region, an alien windswept world of mountain deserts and ancient Buddhist sites. Closer to home, there are plenty of day-walk options in and around Marpha.

Following the winding trails of the village, my feet carry me up a set of stone steps to a whitewashed monastery. Passing through a deserted courtyard, I gravitate towards a large open door. Kicking off my boots, I find myself standing before an ornate Buddhist shrine. The only sounds to register are the fluttering of prayer flags in the courtyard and my breath. I feel a sudden desire to linger in this peaceful place. 

Travel is so often an active pursuit of experiences, destinations, and discovery. But here, I find there is another type of travel: a passive experience, in which the act of stopping, sitting, and reflecting grants me access to one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever had. Returning to the room, I discover that I’ve been joined by several monks carrying out their daily prayers. As I rise to leave, they nod, smile, and continue their chanting. It is the smiles and kindness of the people of Marpha, the fiery nature of their brandy, and the newly discovered peace that I hope to remember forever.

Bhaktapur (𑐏𑑂𑐰𑐥 𑐡𑐾𑐫𑑂‎): An epic tug of war

The cart in the square teeters savagely. The groans of straining wood and clatter of wheels on cobblestone are muted against the roar of the crowd. I’m in Bhaktapur, about 15 kilometres east of Kathmandu, and my arrival in this ancient city is fortuitous. Tonight is the Bisket Jatra (बिस्काः जात्रा) festival. I had no idea of this auspicious timing when I decided to drop by what some describe as a city of “living heritage.”

Since the medieval period, Bhaktapur’s rich collection of ancient temples, buildings, intricate carvings, and traditional Newari (नेवार) architecture has withstood the test of time. Although the 2015 earthquake caused considerable damage, Bhaktapur remains a sight to behold. From the top steps of the unmissable Nyatapola Temple with its towering five-tiered roof, it’s the first glimpse of the sheer scale of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Bhaktapur is a living city with temples at every turn, thriving street markets, and countless examples of local craftsmanship on display. In a small courtyard, I discover a group of men playing a game I’d never seen before. Kasimala, I soon learn, is an ancient Newari game—similar to Ludo—where short sections of bamboo are used in place of dice. As the men’s voices rebound off the walls of royal palaces and ornate temples, they breathe life into the ancient city. As the ancient city is car-free, my recommendation would be to grab your walking shoes, a map, and hit the streets.

My camera’s memory card is bursting with images of architecture, ancient relics, and culture. But Bhaktapur is just getting started. “Tonight is the Bisket Jatra festival!” the lady at my guesthouse tells me, as she practically pushes me out the door and in the direction of Taumadhi Square. “Hurry!” she calls down the lane after me.

Since ancient times, the residents of Bhaktapur have enacted a grandiose ritual that heralds the start of the Nepali New Year. I grab a seat high on the steps of Nyatapola Temple next to the poised body of an intricately carved lion. As time passes, more and more people pour into the square. Taking centre stage is a sizeable wooden chariot. With wheels taller than a man, the chariot supports a pagoda-like structure. Richly costumed devotees sit precariously on the beams of the structure as members of the crowd surge forward to take their place in long ranks on either side of the cart.

The spectators beside me explain that the two teams represent the eastern and western sides of the town and they’re about to enact a tug of war of epic proportions, with the winning side earning the honour of looking after the town’s deities in the week of festivities to follow. By the time everyone assembles, the tension in the square has reached a fever pitch.

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To the ever-rising chants of their respective supporters, the eastern and western teams take up their ropes, and the battle commences! Hundreds of backs strain together as the opposing sides haul with all their might. This year, they’re well matched. Though the immense force is palpable—even from my perch high up on the temple steps—the cart only ever gains a few metres towards either camp, before the opposing side with one mighty grunt brings it skittering back towards their side.

The whole structure twists violently. Its convulsions, at times, threaten to send its occupants flying into the melee of teams and spectators. The mood among the crowd is the polar opposite of the battle taking place. Family, friends, and neighbours snack on the doughnut-like sel roti (सेल रोटी), crispy crunchy pani puri (पानी पुरी) and cardamom-spiced kulfi (क़ुल्फ़ी) ice cream, all while shouting words of encouragement. It’s a chance to relish in a tradition that has been unbroken for centuries, and I can’t help but be swept up in the spirit of the festive atmosphere. 

I’d planned on spending just a few weeks in Nepal, and after one month—plus a last minute-visa extension—I’m realising that I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s safe to say that I’m already making plans for my return. With so much to offer, the world has certainly taken note of Nepal’s rich cultural and natural splendours. But one thing this journey has taught me is that extraordinary experiences await you off the beaten track—just make sure you don’t block the way of a charging rhino!

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Nick Roosen

Contributor

Marine scientist, nature nut, and filmmaker, Nick Roosen’s passion for exploring the great outdoors is matched only by his curiosity to learn from vanishing cultures. Literally raised in a jungle, Nick is most in his element when studying saltwater crocodiles in Australia’s Northern territory, filming flying snakes in Borneo, or sharing a laugh with Himba communities in Northern Namibia. He loves telling stories that give a voice to culture, conservation, and wildlife.

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