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Driving Through Nepal On A Range Rover Evoque

 This adventure is basically about seeing some 30 countries on 2 continents, getting to know the people, their cultures and habits. For us snobbish, spoilt and decadent Westerners it is also a very healthy chance to get down, get real, disconnect from our current lives. Combining the many places to visit in Europe and Asia had made it clear quickly that we would need a car to see them all, and ultimately the idea of this overland drive was born. So here we are on the road, driving on a Range Rover Evoque.
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We made it into Nepal from India through the border at Bhairawa on 12th July, 2013. As soon as we entered the country we felt something had changed. The litter all over the place had disappeared, nobody unnecessarily rang the horn of his car, most drivers looked around before moving and it felt more relaxed, peaceful and calm over here. We enjoyed the hour’s drive over the fields towards Lumbini with the peasants working on their land, buffaloes bathing in water and family riding on bikes. How laid back, no rush, no fighting on the street, no chaos and suicide attempts in front of our car! We reached Lumbini in the last hours of sunshine and ended the day with a visit to the garden complex around the birthplace of Buddha. We still didn’t totally believe the peace on the road, but the Nepalese do seem to drive normally in a civilised way.

 

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After the stopover in Lumbini, the next day we entered the Siddhartha highway for our drive towards Pokhara via Tansen. As we started our ascent into the hills, we were amazed by the countryside. The mere sight of hills and mountains was so refreshing and the temperature dropped as we climbed up slowly. The road was good, with occasional landslides or potholes. We admired the hills in lush jungle vegetation, the rocks covered with light green fern and the waterfalls. We drove silently soaking up the impressions. We also turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows for the first time in weeks! It felt great. The road winded up the hills, passing many small villages as we reached Tansen, a sleepy mountain town where we stopped to buy some food and fruits. The houses of the old part of town reminded us of the mountain villages in Switzerland and Spain with their low ceilings, plenty of wooden elements, white and inclined walls. The woodwork had a distinctive style and ornament though.

 

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At around lunchtime we reached Pokhara, the lake city. Unfortunately the sky was full of clouds, and we couldn’t see any mountains. It stayed like that throughout the day. We came to Nepal to admire the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world, and couldn’t see any so far! So after lunch we fuelled up and continued towards Kathmandu. The roads changed and lead through a much larger, broader valley than the one in the morning. But just after a couple of kilometres the road was closed. A small car had hit a concrete pole at the side of the road and it had fallen on the car. After almost half an hour the road was free again and we drove on for several hours admiring the jungle on the lush mountains around us. As it started to get dark, the road narrowed, the trucks started slowing down, and the cars and motorbikes converted the whole thing into a mountain race. The darker it got, the more aggressive the race. Until at some point everybody stopped in the middle of a mountain slope beyond Naubise, in pitch black night. We turned off the engine, opened the hood to cool the car, and waited outside trying to understand what had happened. Within minutes kids selling water and food came walking through the waiting cars. Then at some point, everybody got into their cars again and drove on, as if nothing had happened.

 

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At around 8:30pm we reached Kathmandu. It was dark and we didn’t see much with the air filled with dust and smog. We somehow found our way to the Dwarika’s Hotel and that revealed to be a gem. The buildings and courtyards were mostly old Nepalese construction, beautifully restored, a mix of bricks and dark wood. Plants, flowers and water was everywhere, from the pool to the fountains to little decorative basins. We opted for a quick dinner in the Japanese restaurant and had our first sushi on this journey. We then called it a night and decided to discover more of this place tomorrow.

After several days of early bird mornings, today we took it easy. Reading and blogging at breakfast, we planned what to see in Kathmandu today. There were plenty of sights in and around the city, and many UNESCO listed places. So we set out to find out the real face of the city. At noon we left for the Boudhanath stupa, a huge temple in the northern side of town. The road through the city was not too interesting, with heavy traffic and plenty of fumes from the exhausts of all kinds of vehicles. The stupa, the biggest in the world, was in contrast very beautiful. The sky was getting dark with heavy rain clouds, giving the eyes of the stupa an impressive look, framed by many lines of colourful flags blowing in the wind. People walked around the temple, rolling the prayer rolls and the air was filled with the smell of incense. We walked around too, admiring the stupa and the old houses of the square. As we left, the first rain drops started to fall. By the time we were back on the road, it rained heavily as we drove through the intense Kathmandu traffic again.

Our next stop was the Swayambunath or the monkey temple. We put on our rain ponchos as we left the car and started climbing up the steep steps to the temple. These steps are one of those cases where a religion really wants to test the faith of the people! By the time we reached the last trees, we saw only one monkey. That must have been probably put there to justify the name of the place. Given the heat and little rain, we took off the ponchos at the ticket booth. We were wetter from sweating then we probably would have gotten from the rain. At the booth I paid the 400 rupees fee with a 1000 rupees bill, and got a 100 rupees bill back. It is incredible how these tricks are applied on tourists in all parts of the world. The guy didn’t even excuse himself after he gave me the missing 500 rupees bill. Anyway, the panorama of Kathmandu from the temple terraces was amazing.

 

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Having read about a place famous for its momos, the local variety of dumplings, we got hungry and drove into Thamel, the downtown district popular with travellers. We made it through the narrow roads and even found a parking place. Then we took a walk through the streets, with tourist shops left and right selling clothes, souvenirs, tours, fabrics. We passed a communist protest march without trouble. Thamel is still quite hippie, it smells of incense and the atmosphere seemed quite retro to us. We found the Yangling Tibetan Restaurant finally on the first floor of an anonymous building overlooking Freak Street, and ordered momos of course, steamed and fried ones. Delicious!! As we ate, we realised we had finally found ourselves back to our discovery mode, walking through towns, enjoying eateries and talking to people. Since we had entered India, we hadn’t done this anymore.

After buying some souvenirs for us and friends we walked back to the car and tried to find our way out of Thamel. As we kept looking for directions and followed city traffic, suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of Basantapur Durbar Square. For once traffic congestion was a good thing, since we had time to admire the many impressive buildings, temples, statues. This place was a sudden overdose of impressions. We parked the car, got the camera and walked back to check out the place more in detail. This part of town is still mainly medieval built, and over crowded with people. Still amazed we got back into the car. We had time for another sight, and decided to escape the crazy traffic and go to see Bhaktapur, a town just outside Kathmandu and with a UNESCO listed another Durbar Square. We underestimated traffic, and got lost on the way too. We arrived in darkness, parked the car at the foot of the old town and walked up the hill. Unfortunately there was very little light and we could admire only few of the beautiful medieval buildings. But this place was a jewel!

Exhausted from the day, we drove back to the hotel, and indulged in an excursion through fine Nepalese cuisine at the Dwarika’s signature restaurant. The nine course meal offered us an insight into the richness of the local specialities. We found the use of spices more moderate then in India, and in some cases we liked the Nepalese taste better, sometimes the Indian. This made us debate the dishes and closed this day full of impressions in a very tasteful way.

Since we didn’t manage to see the Himalayas in Nepal so far, we decided to resort to extreme measures to verify if this country really had the highest mountains in the world. So we took the mountain flight to check out the world on top of the clouds hanging low over the Kathmandu valley. After several delays for the flight, the boarding finally started. The wait was totally worth it as we flew past the mountains and enjoyed the cockpit views of the mighty Mt. Everest standing before us. What a sight! But when we landed back in Kathmandu, we were already running late. Still amazed by the flight, we hurriedly set out of Kathmandu for our return journey.

We left the main highway to Pokhara, from which we had come, to take the Tribhuvan Highway through the mountains to the border with India. We were pretty much alone on this road. Although we were in a hurry to reach the border early, as the road climbed into the jungle covered mountains, curve by curve we lost the pressure and started relaxing, enjoying this beautiful mountain highway. We passed several small villages, saw the kids come back fromv school, peasants at work on the fields, and climbed up to 2488m altitude shortly after the village of Daman. Hungry, we stopped for lunch at a village where we had seen an eatery as we drove by. And indeed, at what revealed to be a bus stop, a metal pot full of momos waited for us at the entrance. We had some, then a noodle soup, and then more momos since they were sooooo tasty, with their spicy sauce!

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After passing through Hetauda, we arrived hours late at the Nepal-India border in Birgunj, due to the delays in the mountain flight, heavy traffic in Kathmandu, and a more complicated road through the mountains than expected. We had almost no Nepalese cash left and, with the bleak possibility of finding a gas station in Nepal that accepted credit cards, we reached the border on a pretty much empty fuel tank. No sooner were we across, the traffic flow increased, the driving style faded into Indian-aggressive and chaotic, the use of the horns increased, dust and litter appeared… We could feel India reaching out for us again.

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