Legs dangling, feeling safe in the howdah on the back of an elephant, we crash through the 18-foot-high grass of the Royal Chitwan National Park nestled between Nepal and India, chasing a one-horned white rhino, cameras clicking. We corner a mother rhino and her baby, looking strangely defenseless despite their armor-plated skin. Then we're off on the long journey, past crocodiles, wild boars, and barking deer to the treetop Jungle Lodge of the Tiger Tops Hotel.
It is the final leg of an exotic, 72-day dream holiday via the TWA-Qantas Frequent Flyer plan. Within the boundaries set by time and season, we have chosen stopovers in French Polynesia, Australia, Bali, Singapore, India, and now, Nepal.
We booked into the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Katmandu and were assigned a room overlooking a private lake and island temple. The cost for a double room in this modern hotel, attached to a restored palace, is $90, including tax. The hotel is in a new area near the Royal Palace, within walking distance of the old city center, Durbar Square.
For a bird's-eye introduction to the land, we arranged to take the Royal Nepal Airlines' daily ``mountain flight.'' It was a breathtaking, hour-long experience, with views of eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world, including Everest and Kachenjunga. Our seat turned out to be beside a blank wall. Fortunately, the pilot allowed each passenger a few minutes in the cockpit, so we were able to see the whole mountain profile, including the hills, gorges, valleys, plateaus, and plains of the countryside.
Terraced farms crept up the mountains, looking like steps to the roof of the world. The cost of this trip in a 40-passenger Avro was $60 per person.
Hovering over the city of Katmandu, and visible from many points like the Acropolis in Athens, is the great stupa of Swayambhunath, a holy place for both Hindus and Buddhists and a focal point for all tourists. Nepal is 90 percent Hindu and 5 percent Buddhist, with a smattering of other religions making up the rest of the population of 15 million, of whom 800,000 live in the Katmandu Valley. Katmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur
Walking through the modern areas of Katmandu did not prepare us for the culture shock of medieval Durbar Square. Suddenly emerging from a crowded street, we came upon a forest of temples and pagodas, some glittering with gold tops, others painted in vivid colors, many inscribed with erotic religious carvings. High up on the steps of the temples, people sat sunning or bathing themselves, being shaved by barbers, and watching the crowds saunter by.
At the base of every temple there were merchants hawking wares -- anything from phony silver lockets from Tibet to fresh fruit and religious paintings called thangkas. Everything had to be bargained for, since the prices asked were often triple the actual value.
There are three major cities in the Katmandu Valley -- Katmandu, Patan, and Bahktapur, all of which at one time or another were independent kingdoms -- and they can be reached easily by taxi or public bus. While Katmandu and Patan have undergone the most modernization, it must be remembered that Nepal was xenophobic until the mid-1950s, and it is only in the past two decades that foreign ideas have been allowed to infiltrate indigenous traditions.
Each of the cities has a Durbar Square complex at its center, filled with Hindu and Buddhist temples and pagodas as well as food and souvenir stalls. We found Bhaktapur, with its potterymakers and templelike tearoom high above the square, the most picturesque. There is also a fine museum in the square, which houses Nepalese and Tibetan tantras. But then, most Westerners are bound to perceive Nepal as a series of exotic, medieval wonders. Kumari: the living goddess
Right near the center of Katmandu's Durbar Square, not far from the legendary statue of Hanuman Dhoka at the gate of the old royal palace, one stumbles upon what is probably the most exotic sight in all of the kingdom: the Kumari Devi, residence of the ``living goddess.'' In this rather humble enclave lives a young girl selected by temple priests in her preteens to preside over religious ceremonies. She serves only until she reaches puberty, whereupon another living goddess is chosen.
When we visited the Kumari's residence, one of her servants approached us in the courtyard and offered, for a fee of 1 rupee (about 6 cents), to bring her to the second-story balcony so we could see her. We were warned that it is forbidden to take pictures of the Kumari. So we paid our rupee, and she appeared on the balcony, pretty with sparkling eyes outlined with black paint, giggling like any 12-year-old. To trek or not to trek
In the past decade several good roads have been built in various parts of the kingdom; so it is not necessary, as it was in the past, for all travelers to use footpaths. Still, many visitors prefer to hike the trails. On just about every corner there are travel agencies that offer trekking trips, some more expensive than the most luxurious package tour and including a limousine to take you to the start of the trail; others are cheapies, but you must rent the equipment.
In most cases, however, trekking means lots of uphill walking, sleeping dormitory style in crude mountain shelters, doing battle with bedbugs, processing or avoiding polluted water, and coping with primitive toilet facilities. We found those drawbacks too daunting, though, of course, seasoned hikers and campers would not. One evening we took a 90-minute bus trip to Nagarkot and hiked about 1,000 yards uphill to see the sunset. That was enough ``trekking'' for me.
During the 1960s, Katmandu became a haven for hippies from America and elsewhere, and Durbar Square was overrun with longhaired wanderers who arrived for the infamous hashish brownies and freedom from prosecution for drug use. Since then, that group has been encouraged to move on, and the new invasion is composed almost entirely of ``trippies'' (as locals call the package-trip travelers) and ``trekkies'' (Yuppies roughing it). Dining in Nepal
The main dish of Nepal seems to be momos, which are meat-filled dumplings. Visitors who want variety can sample the health-food restaurants left behind by the hippies -- there are more in Katmandu than anywhere else on the continent. We ate at our hotel some of the time, but found the prices too high -- around $20 for dinner for two. We discovered a lovely Chinese restaurant down the road -- Nanglo's -- where we could have a full-course Chinese dinner for two for around $5 total. In fact, we found good Chinese restaurants throughout the Asian continent -- Indians and Nepalis like to eat ``Chinese'' just about as much as New Yorkers do. Tiger Tops
The pi`ece de r'esistance of our holiday was a climactic three-day adventure that took us to one of the world's most exotic resorts world: Tiger Tops in the Royal Chitwan National Park near the Nepal-Indian border.
The Royal Nepal Airlines plane landed near the town of Meghauli. Most of the townspeople, including snake charmers, flutists, and drummers, met us with greetings of ``Namaste'' (``na-MAST-ay''), the all-purpose Nepalese word of welcome and friendship. Then they watched with amusement as we climbed up on waiting elephants for a two-hour safari through the sal forests and jungle grass, where we saw Great Indian one-horned rhinoceroses and species of deer, wild boars, and birds.
At the Jungle Lodge we were assigned a room high up in a house built on stilts. We then were served water buffalo steak in the Nepalese-style dining lounge, with its huge domed roof and central open hearth.
After dinner, the naturalist in charge presented a slide lecture on area flora and fauna. He told us that two blinds nearby were being baited and if a leopard or Bengal tiger came to feed, he would ring a bell. It rang twice during the night, and all 20 lodge guests dashed into the black forest, following guides, to see both a leopard and a tiger feeding.
The next day, there were another elephant safari, a trek through the jungle grass, and a ride in a dugout canoe past languid bathing rhinos. Then we arrived at a camp where cozy, protected tents awaited us. After a dinner by the fire, we checked out the baited blinds, then sat around the fire and listened to the guides tell tall tales.
After another safari, we trekked along the river to the Tharu Village, where Tiger Tops maintains a traditional Tharu long house on a plateau overlooking a rice paddy. At night, most of the locals came to the long-house hotel, where we all danced around the fire to the strains of a native orchestra.
The following day we were taken by dugout canoe back to the Jungle Lodge, where our elephants were waiting to carry us back to the Meghauli airstrip and a flight to Katmandu.
The rest of the trip was anticlimactic: We stopped in Rome for a few days, then in London for a few more, then flew back to New York.
In retrospect, we would remember Tiger Tops most vividly, but other journeys offered other unforgettable moments as well: snorkeling on an uninhabited motu in French Polynesia; a spectacular thunderstorm in Cook Bay, Moorea; the Sydney Opera House, swirling its unique architectural sails in the harbor; the charming artlessness of the artists' colony in Ubud, Bali; the colonial glory of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay and its contrast to the modest living quarters of Mohandas Gandhi; the unexpected sereni ty of Khajuraho in central India, and the medieval carnival atmosphere of Durbar Square in Katmandu and the gentle ``Namaste'' from its rugged people.
Yes, we had opted for an exotic trip. But what we hadn't expected was that the exotic would not seem exotic for more than a moment and would be integrated so quickly into our own memories, our own lives. Namaste. Practical information:
Tiger Tops is expensive if you book through an Indian or a Nepalese travel agency. Have your US travel agency book it, or do it yourself directly by writing to Tiger Tops, PO Box 242, Katmandu, Nepal. Recently Tiger Tops offered a three-day package for $395 per person, including air fare from Katmandu to Meghauli and back. The same package, booked through Indian/Nepalese agencies, might cost twice as much.
Previous articles in this series appeared in the travel supplements of June 14 (Tahiti), Aug. 9 (South Pacific), and Oct. 11 (India).