The Royal Chitwan National Park wasn't part of my original plans in Nepal, but the speedy round trip to the Annapurna Base Camp gave me more time than I expected, and the park came highly recommended.  Though the wildlife lodges inside the park were out of my budget, the village of Sauraha just across the river from the park was a convenient and relaxing pied a terre.  Much time was spent simply relaxing in the hotel and eating out at the small eateries on one of the town's two streets. The lowland heat and humidity probably contributed to the sleepy, pastoral feel of Sauraha.  I'm not aware of any other town where elephants routinely stomp down the main street and nobody even casts a second glance.  Or where a baby Indian Rhinoceros, adopted by the villagers after his mother was killed by a poacher, meanders aimlessly about looking for handouts. The tourist economy has suffered mightily in recent years due to a massive flood two years ago that infiltrated every building in the town, and the Maoist civil war hasn't helped matters.  Though Sauraha is arguably the third major tourist base in the nation, electricity service was very spotty and the telephone lines only functioned two out of the three days I spent there.  At one local eatery, the patron was so pleased that I had eaten there three times that he even invited me to his home for dinner. (Unfortunately, I could not go as I had a previously scheduled rendezvous.)  

Sauraha's resident orphan baby rhino, quite pettable, discovers food supplements in a town alley.

The prime attraction of the Royal Chitwan park is its fauna, and most particularly it is the largest habitat of Indian Rhinoceri in the world.  Numbers have swelled to park capacity limits and rhinos are now exported to other parks in Nepal to help in repopulation efforts.  Other native critters include the rarely spotted bengal tiger, even rarer leopard, wild Asian elephants and the more common crocodiles, deer, and monkeys.  Most visitors enter the park by multiple methods to gain a different angle for seeing wildlife.  I chose to do a jungle walk and an elephant safari.  The jungle walk is by far the most dangerous of the two.  Guides armed with only a stick lead tourists on foot into the jungle to look for animals.  The sometimes ornery Indian rhino is a temperamental beast and can charge people walking into their domain.  Six guides have been killed in the previous nine years, mostly in attempts to draw the attention of the rhino away from their clients.   The danger of the expedition in some ways makes a rhino sighting more exciting.  In my case, I joined another group at the last moment and we spotted a rhino walking down a stream and then bound up a fairly steep riverbank with astonishing power and grace for such a massive beast. The aesthetic armour-like plates on the Indian rhino contrast sharply with the smoother African rhino and indeed the two are different species.  The elephant safari is a more popular way to spot rhinos, and safer too as rhinos don't charge elephants. The lurching paces of the elephant make for an awkward, but interesting ride.  Still, it is not more uncomfortable than riding a camel, and the viewpoints from atop an elephant, at tree level, are very scenic.  While elephants cannot enter thick jungles like in jungle walks, they can cover more distance and walk across rivers during the course of the safari.

Indian rhino spotting while on an elephant-safari at the Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Leaving Sauraha on a tourist bus (where priority is given to tourists and locals can board if space is available), it was time to head toward the Kathmandu valley at last where I'd spend my final week in South Asia.  The dilapidated buses don't appear much sturdier than ordinary Nepali buses and this particular one illustrated the reality quite nicely as it broke down halfway through the 8 hour journey (prevailing rumour implicated a collapse of the suspension).   Local newspaper editorials suggested that the slack government should invest more energy in improving tourist infrastructure to boost this all-critical sector of the Nepali economy, and I certainly agree that it would be a good investment.  The driver of the broken bus hailed a passing ordinary bus and the tourists were placed on top of the bus, as virtually every Nepali bus is packed to the gills inside. This was a very scenic experience but sharp curves encouraged you to hang on for your life.

After a breakdown of a tourist bus departing in Sauraha, travellers were hoisted onto the roof of a passing ordinary bus, for the final hours of the ride into Kathmandu.  This is technically illegal in the capital city, but Nepali officials generally turn a blind eye to minor infractions by tourists.  Here, our bus is stuck in a queue preceding a military checkpoint.

In the Kathmandu valley, the star of the show is clearly the medieval Newari architecture in the three major historic cities:  Kathmandu, its suburb Patan, and the sublime Bhaktapur.  Millenium old buildings dot the old towns of these places, and in the case of Bhaktapur, virtually the whole town is ancient.  The breathtaking wood carvings and sculptures are stupendous and it's difficult to believe they have lasted in such good condition for so long, despite continuous heavy use through the centuries.  These dull, brown buildings are not terribly photogenic but are signficantly more impressive when seen in person.  Bhaktapur especially discourages foreign visitors with a USD$10 fee to even enter the city (which I managed to avoid by looking and acting Nepali), but for me, it was clearly the highlight of the Kathmandu valley.  Bhaktapur and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan were my two favourite cities in South Asia.  All 3 of the Newari cities feature a central Durbar (or royal) square exploding with pagodas and temples and stupas of all religions, ages and significations.  The most impressive of the Durbar squares is in Patan, which is a fairytale image of Asia whose allure must have been even more magnified as its legend circulated by word of mouth in medieval Europe.  Small wonder that Kathmandu has entered into the European pantheon of magical and exotic destinations, joining legendary fabled cities like Timbuktu and Samarkand.

An exquisite carved wood doorway in the courtyard of the Durbar palace and museum in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The magnificent medieval Durbar Square in Nepal is located in Patan, a nearby sister town of Kathmandu.

An extraordinary carved wood doorway inviting you into the courtyard an ordinary residential building.  The magic of medieval Nepal is that locals live interlaced with countless breathtaking specimens of thousand year old pieces of artwork in the service of the mundane purposes of daily life.

A Tibetan buddhist worshipper enters a shrine at the base of Swayambunath Temple.

Nepal, like India, has its place on the register of world faith sites.  Many people that the Buddha himself, Prince Gautama Siddhartha, was born in Nepal, in the village of Lumbini.  Several holy Hindu and Buddhist temples are located in Nepal, and a few in the environs of Kathmandu.  In Bodnath, one the largest Buddhist stupas in the world towers over the village.  The most beautiful Nepali temple that I visited, and apparently one of the most important, was in Swayambunath, just 2 km from Kathmandu on top of a hill, and easily reachable by walking.  It is a photographer's dream, bursting with form, detail, colour and atmosphere, and I only regret that I could not visit it a third time before I left Nepal.

A local girl observes me taking a picture of a bell on the summit of Swayambunath Temple, overlooking Kathmandu.  She wasn't quite sure if she was the object being photographed, so she started hitting her forehead with a stick just in case I was.  Swayambunath Temple, also known as the Monkey temple for its ubiquitous simian denizens, is one of the most important buddhist temples in Nepal. 

A group of Tibetan buddhist monks walk toward the Swayambunath Temple in the morning, passing in front of a row of prayer scrolls, which one spins in a clockwise direction for good luck .

The eyes of Buddha on the Swayambunath Temple peek through rows of Nepali prayer flags draped around the stupa.

I was fortunate to arrive in the Kathmandu Valley with plenty of time to explore, rather than in a tightly-scheduled surgical visit as I am known to do, because I spent a couple of days locked up in the uninteresting, though convenient, tourist ghetto of Kathmandu called Thamel.  At the end of two months in South Asia, I was finally chopped down by a parasite infection, probably giardia.  Since the onset of symptoms can sometimes be very slow, I have no idea where I caught the bug.  One afternoon I felt sick and bloated in my stomach with diarrhea and felt very tired, and later that night, I realized what I had because I had seen so many other travellers suffer from it previously.  I was lucky to recognize the symptoms in the middle of the night and to have previously bought the tinidazole and ciprofloxacin medications in anticipation of my trek, so that I could start my treatment right away.  My diarrhea got worse, my head grew distant and fuzzy, sweats alternated with the chills, and I threw up a couple of times on the floor, once after fainting while sitting on the throne.  Later in the early morning, I groggily stumbled down to the lobby to buy a bottle of Fanta, thinking that my body needed some sugar after not eating the previous day.  On my way back to my room, I blacked out again.  When I came to and opened my eyes, I found myself lying flat on my back and staring up at the ceiling of the hotel corridor, and the bottle of Fanta was shattered by my feet, my socks stained orange.  At that point, the hotel staff (a Tibetan family) very generously helped me by taking care of the cleanup and bringing drinks up to me in my room.  By the next day, the drugs started working and I was more or less fully recovered after 48 hours. The timing was good, as I didn't want to bring the bug back with me to North America, and I had already seen almost everything on my priority list of things to see in Nepal.

Guidebooks recommend that Nepal is best visited after India and now I undetstand why.  It is a detox program from the hassles, dishonesty and squalor of India.  Nepal is not free of problems for the tourist, and certainly the vast majority of its population lives well below the threshold of poverty, especially in the distant countryside inaccessible by roads and out of sight from visitors.  It is this voiceless majority that supports the Maoist uprising and it is not a problem that will go away of its own accord.  The question often comes up from those who want to see Nepal, "should I go?"  The answer you'll get from any and every Nepali is yes, you are wanted and needed and we'll do everything possible to make your stay enjoyable.  The situation will degrade further before it gets better, and some countries like Australia and New Zealand have already imposed travel bans to Nepal on their citizens in anticipation of the worst, but for the moment the situation is tenable.  How the June bandhs turn out will go a long way toward determining the future of the beautiful but troubled nation: a tourist dreamland, or a humanitarian disaster that quietly slips out of control and out of sight of the world's gaze.  If Nepal loses its tourists, and one particularly striking murder of a tourist would probably suffice to trigger an exodus, then it will lose its economy, then its international exposure, then its accountability, and then I shudder to think what next.  We can only hope.