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Rafting the Karnali River

The rafting trip began as most journeys of this type do by taking transportation to the river. I arrived at the Ganesh Kayak shop around 7:00 a.m. and deposited my things that I wouldn’t need with the shop keeper along with leaving most of my money in his safe. I then shared a taxi with a Frenchman to the bus station. We took a Kathmandu-bound bus to the town of Mugling. Also on the bus was an American woman doing the rafting trip. We were dropped off in the middle of the street as the bus driver didn’t know of the hotel where we were supposed to wait. It turned out that the hotel where we were told to wait changed names. After finding the hotel, we had tea while we waited for the main group coming from Kathmandu. The trip bus arrived around lunch time. The whole group (4 Nepali guides, two western guides, and 10 customers) had dal bhat at the hotel. I don’t think I have described dal bhat yet. It is the main staple dish of Nepal. Many Nepalis eat only this twice a day. Dal is a lentil soup and bhat is rice. It is usually served also with a curried vegetable of some type and a flat fried bread. It is about the only all-you-can-eat dish served in Nepal. We then bordered the rather ramshackle bus to continue the trip. We drove all day through farming communities and dry dusty towns until we finally reached our destination for the night around 9:30 p.m. After once again eating more dal bhat, we went to bed in the extremely basic hotel.

The next morning we had to get up early to leave by 5:30 a.m. Getting up wasn’t really an issue as at about 5:00 a.m. three buses pulled in blowing their horns incessantly as is the norm for Asia. Walking outside to brush my teeth, it appeared a full fledged convention was going on with people milling around everywhere. We boarded the bus and headed on our way. After two hours driving, we stopped for breakfast at a roadside stand. I was a little leary of eating at these places as I had just spent the last three days getting to know my hotel bathroom really well and making a nearby store owner who sold toilet paper very happy . It apparently was okay as I didn’t get sick again. One of the breakfast items was jalebis which is orange colored deep fried batter in sugar syrup. Yes, much of the food in Asia is fried at some point. We reboarded the bus and then drove for a few hours until we stopped in, I believe, Surkhet. Supposedly our bus didn’t have a permit or something like that to drive down to the river. We waited for two hours while phone calls were made and things were discussed. At one point we were told to move everything to a new bus and then stopped just after we had moved the heavy items and told we were actually going to take our original bus. While all this was going on, I had decided that I needed more toilet paper (yes, I know a recurring theme for me lately) for the 10-day trip. Unfortunately, we were far from the normal tourist spots and Nepalis don’t use toilet paper. They commonly employ water and the left hand (hence the eating etiquette of only using the right hand). A local boy who was standing around staring at us told me he knew where I could find some. We went weaving in and out around alleyways until arriving at a store. After some discussion, the storeowner managed to produce a roll that looked about a decade old. It may have been one of only two or three rolls in the whole town. I took it and returned to the bus feeling triumphant like I was carrying the Olympic torch or something. Toiler paper in hand, we reboarded the bus and began the four-hour trip down the gravel road to the river take in. Right around lunch time, we conviently blew a tire and decided to eat at that spot. We then drove on to the village at the river take in point. There was only one other exciting moment in getting to the village. We had to all get off the bus as the driver navigated a particulary rocky part of the road. At one point the bus pitched alarmingly toward the steep drop off.

Arriving at the village around 4:00 p.m., we were immediately surrounded by village children. Nepal is a very young country with a vast part of the population under 15. We unloaded the bus and carried our gear down to the river amid calls of “Don’t touch that,” “Get out of the boat,” and the like. They were very helpful in pumping up the boats though. As we had arrived so late, we spent the night on the beach by the village. We were told to keep watch so that nothing would be snatched away. Our shelters for sleeping turned out to be overturned rafts propped up by paddles with a tarp. We spread our sleeping bags under this. The bathroom was a hole dug in the ground with a surrounding tent. This would be our general set up for the whole trip.

The next day started with breakfast and the placing of the rafts in the water and loading them. The whole village again came out to stare at all the commotion and the white people in weird rubber and sports clothing. This time it was a mixture of adults and children and once again we worked while constantly shooing people out of the boats. Once the boats were loaded we all got in and set off with lots of shouts of goodbyes and waves. There were three rafts (two carrying passengers and one gear raft) as well as three kayaks. The river was a beautiful green color with an appreciable current. The rapids on the first day were very mild and gave us a chance to all practice our paddling skills. Despite the mild rapids, the gear raft managed to flip completely over. To upright the extremely heavy raft, about eight of us had to climb on the raft and pull to one side. The raft eventually flipped over giving me my first swim as we were thrown into the river. We stopped for lunch on a beach. The sand was full of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) and appeared as if it had been sprinkled thoroughly with silver glitter. It could even be seen shimmering under the green river. We stopped rafting for the day around 2:00 p.m. and set up camp on another beach. Several set out to find driftwood for a fire. I also took the opportunity to take a rinse off in the river hitting the high points (hair, armpits, feet) as the water was cold. After supper, the guides made a rum punch that was quite good. I generally don’t drink rum as I had too much fun with it in earlier years and now don’t tolerate it very well, but it was quite good. We had enough rum to do this for about three days. I went to bed around 8:00 p.m.

In the morning we once again followed what would be our morning routine for the trip. Restart the fire, breakfast around 7:30 a.m., break camp, fill in the latrine, burn the toilet paper, and finally be off by around 9:30 a.m. The morning was cold and windy but soon warmed with the arrival of the sun. The sun took a while to arrive as we were in a valley. The river today brought much bigger rapids which we had to survey before going. No rafts flipped but the kayakers did turn over a few times. We once again stopped for lunch and then rafted again in the evening until about 2:00 p.m. and then set up camp with a fire as I have already described.

The third day on the river brought the biggest rapids (Class IV+)of the trip. After lunch, we pulled in at a village so that the guides could do some “shopping” for supplies. The village was set high up on a ridge above the river. There was a high suspension bridge connecting both sides of the river. Upon our arrival, some of the villagers lined up on the bridge and watched us disembark. They were silent until I looked up and shouted a loud “Namaste.” At this point they all started waving. I climbed up to the bridge wearing my neoprene top which I am sure looked a little strange. After this, we looked around the village. The houses were all wood and set amongst rice fields. The guides wanted to buy some chickens for supper. The problem was that they had to catch them first. Of course, the chickens were going to cooperate. It was quite fun to watch the guides in paddling gear and a few villagers chase around these chickens. They finally caught three which were placed live into the gear raft. The villagers also sold us some roxi. Roxi is a homemade rice wine produced in many villages. To me it taste like a mix of saki and vodka. I personally didn’t like it, but we were out of rum. That night at camp, many of the group who had never seen chicken meat outside of a cellophane package watched in horrified fascination as the chickens were butchered. Their throats were cut and then they were defeathered. My family once had chickens so I have seen this before. The very fresh chickens were added to red beans and rice which was supper.

Day 6 was a rest day for us. This day gave me my first opportunity on this trip to try out the kayaks. A guide took two of us out at a time and began to teach us the basics of kayaking in a calm part of the river. I must say rolling is very hard and I still haven’t managed it. I learned that I need a lot more practice before attempting to kayak in strong whitewater. That evening I showered under a nearby waterfall with my half priced Nepali shampoo (“Fa”) that I had bought in Thamel. If I were female and had long flowing hair, it would have been a perfect setting for a shampoo commercial. As I am neither female nor do I possess long flowing locks, I just settled for enjoying the water (warmer than the river). I did finish with a hair flip though (not very impressive I’m sure).

The next day the majority of the big rapids were behind us. We stopped for lunch at a rock that provided a perfect six meter diving board. After lunch I was given the chance to kayak down the river. There were a few mild rapids that I made it down unscathed. Toward the end of the day, I managed to get stuck in a section of strange currents that nearly flipped me. Flailing around (yes this is the right word, I am not very graceful in a kayak) with the paddle, I managed to stay upright. That night around midnight I moved my sleeping bag from under the tarp as water kept dripping on me wetting me.

Day 8 was a slow one as there were only small rapids. Other people took turns in the kayak so I remained in the raft. As we neared our camping spot, one of the people in the kayak began splashing me with his paddle. In retaliation, I proceeded to leap from the raft in the water and flipped him. We still fairly far from shore and had to swim to camp. That night we camped again by a village and were soon surrounded by curious villagers. The kids here were much better behaved, and we played soccer and volleyball with them.

In the morning, one raft left early with members of the group who had to catch a flight. The rest of us piled into the remaining passenger raft and paddled only about two hours before stopping for the night. We were only about an hour from the take out point, but the bus wouldn’t be there to pick us up until the next day. There was a fascinating village nearby that the whole group went to explore (actually to see what alcohol they had). The village was full of wooden homes, rice fields, and some small shops. The only access to the village was by trail so all goods were bought in by people power or maybe mule. Most of the group found the one place in the village that sold beer. The whole village had a total of 20 beers in it which the group bought. I don’t drink beer, so I continued my explorations and bought some food for the bus ride home (crackers and some caramel tasting candy, unappealing, called “Lacto Choice”). Upon our return from the village, we found our campsite overrun with children. They sat and stared fascinated as we went about our activities. They also played with our fire. They finally left about dark. As we sat around the fire that night (which was very poor as the wood was wet), one of the girls was stung by a scorpion. Though painful, the sting wasn’t dangerous.

The river trip ended the next day in Chisopani, a very large village near Bardia National Park with road access. I was able once again to kayak for an hour or so. We stopped next to a large cable stay bridge over the river. We carried everything up to the town and waited for the bus which was not there when we arrived.

After about two hours or so the bus appeared. We loaded the bus and then began what has got to be the longest bus trip of my life. The plan was to drive through the night and arrive in Mugling around midnight from where I would catch another bus back to Pokhara. This being Nepal things don’t always work out that way. The trip began routinely, and we stopped at several places to drop some people off who were staying in west Nepal. We were slowed down by the numerous military checkposts where we had to stop so that the bus could register. Around 8:30 p.m. we started passing loads of big trucks on the side of the road. A group of people began to motion for the bus to park and speak with the bus driver. Come to find out we had run into a local banda, and the group had threatened to break our windshield with rocks if we didn’t stop driving. Bandas are the Nepali way of showing displeasure with something. They are basically road blockages which remain in place stopping all traffic until some demand is met. Anyone attempting to break the blockade is usually voilently attacked. They happen a lot now as Nepal is full of turmoil at the moment. In this case, the police had arrested a 75-year-old woman for something. The road had been blocked with a tractor since 9:00 a.m. I found all this out by walking up to where the main part of the protest was going on. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I was curious. There appeared to be just people milling around as most of the negotiations were taking place in Bhutwal which was further up the road. I spoke to a group of teenagers and also answered the usual questions (No I am not married even though I am 27). I stayed near a place where I could make a quick escape in case violence did break out as the police were there as well. After about four hours, the road was finally cleared. I don’t know what the final agreement was.

Our next crisis was trying to find fuel. Nepal suffers from chronic fuel shortages. I don’t know if I have explained this already but here goes. Nepal imports 100% of its oil from India. The Nepal State owned oil company sells the petrol products for less than cost. As a result, they never have enough money to pay India who periodically cuts back supplies. We must have stopped at about 15 gas stations before someone agreed to give us a whopping nine liters. Many of the fueling stations have fuel but have already promised it to other people. We drove on a little ways and finally found a station that let us fill up. At about 2:00 a.m. the bus driver decided he needed to sleep. We pulled on the side of the road until 5:00 a.m. The bus finally reached Mugling about 7:20 a.m. Three of us were placed on a local bus heading for Pokhara. Being a local as opposed to tourist bus, the seats were very small. I sat in the back bench where I could get some leg room. The 90km trip to an endless 3.5 hours. The bus stopped constantly. There are no organized stops and the bus responds to people flagging it down from the side of the road. These people don’t group together and the bus will sometimes stop every few feet. I was soon crammed in the back seat sitting next to a man and his live chicken behind a women with two very unhappy looking chickens in a net purse.

Upon arrival in Pokhara, I collected my belongings and went back to the hotel Rustika where I had been staying everytime I had gone to Pokhara. This was my third time in Pokhara, so it was beginning to fill like my town. I made sure to stop by and say hello to the cow herd that I had described in an earlier description of Pokhara. After a nap I went out for a shave and some food. I then went to use the Internet. While in the Internet cafe, I ended up getting into a debate with two Nepali strong Maoist supporters who, upon finding out I was American, began to tell me how he thought President Bush was a dangerous man. I agreed yes, the Iraq war is bad. One of them starting saying how the weak US dollar was caused by the Iraq war. At this point I had to launch into an economic lesson about currency to explain that no it wasn’t the war but interest rate differentials and import/export imbalances were the main causes of the dollar decline. Still not convinced, one of them decide to move on to try to convince me of that communism, Chairman Mao, and the Nepalese Maoist were just the bee’s knees. I pointed out that the Maoist kidnapped many children in Nepal. He dismissed this a small matter to which I replied “Unless you are the one kidnapped.” He then started again extolling communist virtues. Conveniently there was a map behind us. I was able to go through every current and former Communist country and point why they had failed or are currently the poorest areas on Earth. I paid special attention to China as they are Maoist after all. China realized that communism doesn’t work and is now a captalist economy with an authoritarian government. Also I pointed out the stupid or disasterous policies from Chinese Communist days. Things like the whole country being one time zone. Unfortunately this meant the far west of China has very strange daylight hours. Also that many people starved to death as Chairman Mao forced everyone to grow certain crop regardles of whether they were suitable or not for the area. Following this engaging conversation, I traded in my books for an Indian guidebook and then went to bed.

I returned to Kathmandu the next morning. I really didn’t feel like another long bus ride. I wanted to be in Kathmandu for Monday so that I could go to the Indian Embassy. I checked into the Classic Downtown Hotel in Thamel, used the Internet, and then fell into bed exhausted.

Today I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and took a taxi to the embassy. At the embassy, one has to get a number which dictates which order you enter the embassy. The consulate section is only open a few hours and if you don’t get in, you are just out of luck for the day. Despite getting there at 5:00 a.m., I still got number 13. Since the embassy didn’t open until 9:30 a.m., I returned to Thamel walking this time. I had memorized the route the taxi had taken to get me there. I went back to bed and set out for the embassy again about 8:30 am. I had planned to walk but soon got lost. Amazingly I had managed to make the walk back to Thamel in the pitch dark just fine but in the daylight I get lost. I hailed a pedicab to take me to the embassy. We agreed to a price of 60 rupees even though he originally wanted 200. When I paid him, I had 100 notes. Conveniently he didn’t have change and pedaled away with almost twice the agreed to fare. When my number was called I went into the embassy and filled out the form. India first faxes the form back to your home country to make sure you are not a criminal. I have to go back in three days to fill out the actual visa form. This will require me to repeat my early morning adventure. Until then I plan to do a bit of sightseeing around Kathmandu and then head to India with Darjeeling being my first stop. Darjeeling will be my last glimpse of the Himalayas. I will probably fly from India in a month or so to Bangkok. I looked at possibly going overland through Myanmar or via the Andaman Islands but neither seems possible.

Side Notes:
1. The Karnali River passed through mostly jungle. It was fascinating to see the remote villages as well as the numerous monkeys living in the trees along the river bank.
2. I normally like to refrain from too much political discussion, but I couldn’t pass up the conversation with the Maoist supporters.
3. I am currently considering how to end my trip after going to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. My current ideas are either go to Tanzania and climb Kilamanjaro or fly to Denmark and take a ferry to Iceland via the Faroe Islands. From Iceland, I would like to find a cargo ship to take me to the East Coast. Once in the US and money and gas prices permitting. I plan to spend a month or two visiting some of the places I haven’t yet seen in the US. In particular drive up the Rocky Mountains stopping at sights like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone before driving the Alaskan Highway. I would then take the Alaskan Marine Highway back to Seattle and drive down the West Coast returning home through the southwestern deserts.
4. I haven’t yet posted pictures of the rafting trip. I will probably do so when I leave Nepal in a week or so.

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4 Responses to “Rafting the Karnali River”

  1. Mom and Dad Says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Barry!

    We wish you all the best and give thanks to the Lord for you everyday.

    Safe Travels!
    Love, MOM and DAD

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Kellie Says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!!!!

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. Preeti Says:

    Yum, jilebis and dal bhat. Just had jilebis at a party over Christmas, so I’m glad you got to try them. There’s one kind that’s a pretty amber-yellow color and another that’s a rather intimidating tomato-orange color. From the sound of it you had the latter.

    On a somewhat off-color note, did I tell you about the Indian singer who didn’t want to perform in front of a Western audience (don’t remember if it was in Europe or the US) because “they had dirty bottoms”? As much as we like our toilet paper, they infinitely prefer their water method. Of course in India, the stipulation on left hand usage isn’t as great.

    BTW, Fa also makes a soap. Have you come across commercials for a soap called “Fair and Lovely” yet? Promises to make you paler and is naturally a big hit in India. If you get a chance to notice any Indian television shows, you’ll see that the actresses wear a mask of cosmetics to make them look paler, although it’s usually glaringly obvious that they simply need to use the right colors for their natural skin tone.

  6. Posted from United States United States
  7. Zach Says:

    Hey Barry. I just ran into your site…its very cool man. Way informative.

    Im heading to Nepal in awhile…I was curious what this trip sent you back…maybe even where to catch it. It sounds like a riot.

  8. Posted from China China

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