November 2009: I decided to return to Nepal for a week to visit Chitwan National Park and try finding a wild tiger and rhino after my failed attempt during my first visit to Western Nepal’s Bardia National Park in 1997. Chitwan was a back-up plan to visiting the Hukawng Valley, in Myanmar. My trip to the Hukawng Valley, an enormous tiger reserve in Myanmar was cancelled because the country of Myanmar decided to cancel my permit to visit the restive region at the last moment due to their paranoia of foreigners especially Americans visiting the volatile region where the military government has been fighting a war against the tribal people of the area. I decided Chitwan would be less wild than the Hukawng but a good alternative that could provide excellent opportunities to see rhinos and tigers.

 

 

Chitwan National Park

Chitwan is located in red 

Chitwan National Park is located in the lowland steamy, humid sub-tropical forests of the Tarai. The Tarai was historically un-populated and considered hostile infested with malarial mosquitos, tigers, rhinos and other wild animals. Until the 1950, few people other than tribal people lived in the Terai. As population growth has exploded in Nepal along with poverty, more migrants from Katmandu and elsewhere have been moving to the Terai bringing with them deforestation and habitat loss for the region’s rare species. Chitwan National Park protects a large section of the Terai and the tigers, rhinos, elephants and giant mugger crocodiles and bizarre looking gharial crocodiles. The Buddhist Tharu tribe coexist with these animals and have done so peacefully for eons.

 

Katmandu and Pashupatinath Hindu Temple

I started my trip in Katmandu after flying to Katmandu from Bangkok. Katmandu located in a smog filled valley nested in between the foothills of the Himalayas is historical and exotic but it is also a polluted crazy city of human desperation, and chaos. Katmandu has a thriving backpacking scene and there are many budget hotels and restaurants. The highlight of my trip to Katmandu was visiting the 400-year-old Hindu temples of Pashupatinath Temple along the Bagmati river. Non-Hindi people are not allowed inside the temples, but it didn’t matter because the most interesting scenes are located outside the temple. The Baghmati River is considered holy to Nepali Hindus and at any given point of time there are dozens of cremations occurring out in the open along the river. It is pretty shocking to be walking along the river while corpses are in plain view while being consumed by flames as family members stand by. Families with money can afford wood to accelerate the cremation. Men, of the lowest caste, sweep the river to break loose the piles of human ash and decomposing body parts that are clogged sections of the river. It is a gruesome sight walking the river watching the cremations and I was torn because I came out of a morbid curiosity but what was a tourist attraction to me was likely one of the most painful events in the lives of the families that were engaging in the funeral rites of their loved ones before me. In the end, there is nothing pretty about death and whom I to judge this process. 

Along the banks of the river, Sadhu’s, Hindu Holmen gather and sit around idly. Many of the men wear loin clothes, some are naked, and they all have long hair and are adorned with face paint. I take a few photos of them and in return they request a tip. They are not aggressive and some I have been told have abandoned wealthy lifestyles in order to pursue the spiritual and nomadic journey of being a Sadhu. For other Sadhus, this is just a way for them to make a living begging for money. One Sadhu explains to me that he is able to lift heavy stones with his testicles by securing a chain connected to a 50-pound stone around his testicles and climbing a wall. To demonstrate this, he asked for 20 USD. I contemplated paying him, but I realized I was out of cash.

If the Pashupatinath wasn’t interesting enough, Macaque monkeys ran amok terrorizing visitors of the temple, pickpocketing people, ripping food from the hands of children and baring their fangs if direct eye contact is made with them. 

 

 

Cremation at Pashupatinath

Corpse being cremated while men in the river in the background sweep human ash and uncremated body parts down the river

Nepali Men

Sadhu Men

Sadhu Men

Monkeys pick pocketing tourists

Drive to Chitwan

I hired a vehicle and driver for the long drive down the traffic choked steep roads from Katmandu to Chitwan. The road was in terrible condition and were constantly jammed by large diesel trucks belching out black smoke. Cars flirted with suicide by passing on steep narrow roads clinging to cliffsides and by the time I arrived in Chitwan to my hotel, I was exhausted from the stress of constant horns, pollution, twists/turns and near-death experiences.

 

Tharu Tribe

A village of Tharu people, the indigenious Buddhist tribal people of the Terai, sorrounded my guest house. They live in very basic mudbrick houses and live on the edge of the forest and endure tiger and rhino attacks. Many Tharu lived in Chitwan before the creation of the park and were resettled outside and became landless. 

Tharu Village

Tharu woman fertilizing the agricultiural fields with buffalo dung

Tharu woman with traditional nose piercings

Elephant Rides into the Forest

There are many ways to see wildlife in Chitwan. One way to observe the wildlife is on the backs of the domesticated elephants. True enough we came across dozens of rhinos and were able to get right up next to them on top of elephants and the rhino were un-bothered by our presence as long as we were on top of the elephants, which the rhinos do not consider to be a threat to them.

 

Bathtime for the elephant

Bathtime for the elephant

Elephant orphanage

Crocodiles

The only approved trips to see the crocodiles, giant muggers and bizarre looking narrow snouted gharials, was to go on a ranger led early morning boat trip when they are all in the water. To go later in the day when the crocodiles are basking in the sun on the riverbed was not allowed. So, I decided to try and walk to the river on my own and when I reached the ranger hut, I saw the rangers were sleeping so I tip toed passed them and walked along the river eventually coming across exactly what I wanted to see. I walked within 10 feet of 15′ long giant mugger crocodiles basking in the sun and a giant 10′ long gharial crocodile. Since both were on land warming themselves, I was able to get incredible photos.

 

Crocodile in the river during the morning

Gharial crocodile

Giant mugger crocodile

Gharial crocodile

Giant foot long orb spider

grim reaper stork

Tracking Rhinos on Foot and being Charged

When I found out that there was ranger led walking treks into the forest, I signed up immediately. Along with a ranger it was just me and 1 or 2 others and we walked through the forest for an hour before we came across a mother rhino and baby grazing in a forest clearing. We were quiet trying not to alert the rhinos to our presence. Rhinos are dangerous and volatile under normal circumstances but provoking a protective mother with a baby is near suicide. The mother turned to make eye contact with us and instantly assumed a defensive poster. My ranger guide quickly alerted us to back up slowly and then the rhino only 50′ away charged at full speed. The ranger yelled run and we all ran blindly through the forest while the crashing sound of the rhinos’ footsteps, and branches breaking behind us became louder by the second. I fully expected the rhino to come baring down at us at any moment and I was looking for a good tree to hide behind, but we were mostly in tall grass and brush. Then we came to a stream, and I launched myself into the stream landing in the mud. I paused to gather my senses and the rhino was nowhere to be seen and seemed to abort its charge. Soon I was able to find the ranger and the others in my group and we continued our trek. The rest of the trek was far less eventful.

Mother and baby rhino

Rhino

Rhino

I loved my time in Chitwan, however I never did see a tiger. They are occasionally spotted but rarely. I discovered that up until recently one of the luxury lodges would die up a live goat to lure wild tigers for tourists to observe, however this practice stopped when the lodge closed down.

To get back to Katmandu I opted to avoid the long dangerous drive back and exchange it for the short and dangerous flight on Yeti Airlines, in a country with one of the worst aviation safety records in the world. The plane did little to instill confidence. The small turbo prop plane bore evidence of a fire, was missing panels, and some sections of the wing were duct taped together.

 

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