Part 1 – Sauraha –
I recite by heart the theatrical act of waking up before leaving one place. I devour the delicious pastries bought the night before at the Pokhara bakery, and I part from the affable owners of the guest-house that I called home in the last few days. Over the time, I have got used to saying goodbye to people, places and abodes. I leave without looking back, without regret; I am aware that I will keep fond memories of the past emotions, and this helps me to face those to come, to new places, new acquaintances, always hoping there will be many more. Backpack on my shoulders, I head towards the bus station where I find my bus to Royal Chitwan National Park: an old, mid-quality vehicle parked in the middle of the gravel road and already half occupied.
There is just enough time for a couple of hawkers that walk back and forth persistently, exposing hyper-calorific fat donuts covered with sugar on cardboard trays, then at 7:40 the driver turns on the bus and within a few minutes we are on the way. A thick, grey morning fog encompasses the entire area, and the outside air is fresh; within half an hour the bus joins the provincial road that runs along the great river Seti. The lazy and non-carbureted bus runs on a high street that flanks dizzying precipices; better not think about it. I was lucky to get a seat on the mountain side, and, for once, a wary driver who drives relatively slowly. I watch other tourist buses overtaking us at terrifying speed on this jagged street full of potholes, with stones that tumble down from the hills above.
These buses whizz by a few centimeters from the weak stone wall that marks the fine line between the road and the abyss, and that makes the difference between tourists on a trip and tourists on the bottom of the river.
Once we leave mountains and hills behind, the bus ventures into a dry and boring plain that continues for kilometers until we reach a secondary rough street that leads us towards the nearest village to the National Park, the last reachable by paved road. From here, a sandy path leads to Sauraha, a small outpost in the jungle where tourists make base to organise visits to the Royal Chitwan National Park.
As I get off the bus, I’m hopelessly crushed to the ground by a humid and annoying heat, a notable difference from the fresh air of Kathmandu and Pokhara. I avoid the usual touts who sell rooms in hotels of their choice, and opt for a private jeep in the company of another Italian tourist. The ramshackle jeep takes us along an earth road running between houses made of mud and straw, alongside streams and vast rice fields, until we arrive at the village. I walk on the sandy river bank and give a careful look to Sauraha: an agglomeration of spartan restaurants, travel agencies, and a number of simple houses, of which only a few made of bricks and mortar. Those made of bamboo, mud and straw are inhabited by peasants of Tharu ethnicity, people who feature multiple tribal tattoos and earrings in strange shapes; their stables are on stilts, and under the same roof live chickens, oxen, water buffaloes and goats.
Many women wash clothes and dishes on the road sides or groom each other heads; naked or half-naked children play in the dirt, and the occasional roofless, windowless and doorless jeep shuttles tourists to the starting points of the various jungle activities available in the area.
I have a bite on the terrace of a pretty thatched-roof restaurant, then my attention is taken by a wood where I have a glimpse of huge elephants grazing. These are of the type that are used to carry tourists, as their fangs have been trimmed. I leave the restaurant and enter the enclosure of one of the several ‘jungle lodges’ in the area, accommodation that are real green oasis in the jungle. The affable owner offers me to see one of their huts: the room is cozy and spacious, a huge window overlooks a wooden veranda on stilts, complete with wicker chairs and a coffee table made from a tree trunk. The hut is a mere 100 meters from the river, the boundary of the National Park, and between me and the slow greenish water there is only sand. I take it.
I decide to go out and walk to the park museum, which is a bit basic but quite complete: inside a small hall there are various exhibitions dedicated to the flora and to different types of insects and snakes, some poisonous as cobra or viper, that can be found within this natural reserve. The area is also home to rhinos, tigers, antelopes, monkeys, leopards and jackals. We are in the Terai, a narrow strip of flat, fertile land located at the foot of the nepalese Himalayan mountains at the border with India. It is a region with a subtropical climate that receives huge amounts of rainfall during the monsoon season. Thanks to these geographical features, the Terai is covered, in part, in acacia, ceiba and shisham forests, as well as in a variety of grasses, some that can reach heights of 8 meters! The several guides in uniform stationed at the exit of the museum tell me that it is thanks to the popular rides on elephant back inside areas covered in elephant grass that I can catch sight of the famous Chitwan rhinos. Not to be missed, they assure me. Each guide has his own special area of work, a clear (or sometimes unclear) fee, and yet everyone advises me not to take hasty decisions. I take their advice and I leave.
Sitting in one of the beach bars, I marvel at a postcard sunset; the white sand still feels the heat of the day, and a huge and extremely red sun disappears fast behind the dark green of the dense jungle, reflecting on the calm waters of the river. It is dark now, and the street lights are virtually nonexistent; mosquitoes are taking advantage of the cool climate and fly around angry, forcing me to leave the beach, now disturbingly dark, for the paved path.
My flashlight does not save me: after only a brief walk on the path, I’m engulfed by a thick and dense fog that the torch light cannot penetrate. A little further, the paved road turns into dirt and soon there are no more houses in sight, so I begin to doubt. Is this the right way? I realise it is not after a long walk, when I reach the river bank to a point that seems quite far ahead of the hotel. I turn around and head back; it takes some time to return to the crossroad where I missed the turn; I take the right path and quickly reach my destination.
I lie down in the bed. Its base is very hard and I feel I will sleep well, lulled by the sound of cicadas and by the chirping of various birds.
CHITWAN ON THE NET: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chitwan_District