Sunday, 30 December 2007

Full Time Results

As our plane sat on the Tarmac back at Edinburgh airport the full time whistle was blown on the 'old firm world match'. Probably just in time as the players would have noticed the considerable drop in temperature from 34 degrees Celsius to -2 degrees. There would be enough time to file the match report first though as the front door of the plane was jammed shut and we had a bit of time on our hands while they found a way to get us out the back door instead.

To catch up on the first half, click here.

It was a disappointing second half to what had been a tumultuous beginning to the match. Coming back on to the pitch, the Gers knew they would have to score two more goals than Celtic, just to get a draw. So 6 - 4 the score was when the referee blew his whistle starting the second half. It was a slow beginning as the ball was passed back and forth up and down the pitch. No real flare seemed to be coming from the players as the months ticked away without so much as a glimmer of a goal. The game passed out through South-East Asia, and all the way across China without much excitement. Then out of the blue, Celtic snuck a ball into the net, leaving almost no evidence from where it came, the crowd certainly didn't see where it came from and though I know for sure it happened, I can't even remember where I saw it. 7 - 4 to Celtic and more weeks of nothing. The first fans were starting to leave the stadium as full time approached. Then in Pochara, Nepal, a man standing on a shop roof wearing a Celtic top took the Celts yet further ahead. Rangers seemed to lose all heart at this point and with no real competition Celtic too seemed to lose their enthusiasm. One more goal was to come though, a boy working on a building site in Goa wearing a Rangers top tried hard to bring the score line back up but it was too little too late. Rangers failed to capitalise on the young man's comeback and as the last fortnight saw the full time approach, the score stayed Celtic 8, Rangers 5.

In Conclusion

We had spent the last month just waiting to come home really. The anticipation of getting back had become bigger than the distraction of being away. That's not to say the last month wasn't still good, but we very much had one eye on the ticking clock for most of it.

It's funny reflecting on a full year away, trying to answer the one question that everyone has - "Where was you favourite place?". There were places that were real highlights and places that were not. The trip all done and dusted now, Vietnam still sits under a black mark. Borneo, Cambodia, Nepal and Goa all stand out as real highlights. Not to take anything away from the other places too.

There were surprises on the way too. We had expected China to be a very difficult country. In our ignorance, we expected the people to be closed, abrupt and of course to speak absolutely no English. This couldn't have been more wrong. You can't sum up an entire country's people of course, but on the whole, we found the Chinese people to be some of the most helpful and lovely of the trip. We didn't expect to find such a diverse culture, changing as we crossed China in degrees comparable to crossing Europe. In fact so hospitable were they, that it wasn't until we reached Tibet that we remembered why we weren't supposed to agree with China, as a government.

Tibet although tinged with sadness, was still more upbeat and optimistic than we expected. Again, in our ignorance, we had expected to find a disenchanted and disenfranchised population. But that's not the case. True, they are an occupied country, and true they are severely restricted in their personal freedoms. There's no denying the Chinese occupation in Tibet is a bad thing, but the spirit of the Tibetans is such an inspiring one. They're still chipper, getting on with life as best as they can, and smiling.

Vietnam could learn a thing or two from the Tibetans, and the Cambodians. It was striking in Cambodia to consider the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge, so recent that the bloodstains can still be seen. Talking and engaging with most of the population, you know they had to endure it, and you know that they weren't all on the same side. Cambodia wants justice for what it has endured but that justice looks slow in coming. It will probably not happen until most of the proponents of the massacres have died themselves, but despite that, again, a country is trying to get on with things. The people of Cambodia aren't best impressed by their big chief, but still, they're smiling and making visitors welcome. Cambodia is possibly the least developed of the countries we visited, and yet it is one of the most clued in on how to deal with tourists (except maybe the immigration officials).

In terms of looking after tourists, Nepal does exceedingly well too. They have such an abundance of natural resources from the mountains to provide no end of adventure sports and electricity. They have the sports and trekking nailed, now they just have to sort the electricity.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos were all excellent countries, and sat well positioned on our itinerary as we slowly immersed ourselves deeper into the world. New Zealand, a homecoming for Nikki, and a 'meet the family' for me, was sort of like a pre-trip trip, preparing ourselves before launching into Asia. Alabama, with everything that came between there and home feels like a decade ago, but not so long ago to forget the fun we had with Sarah and Brennen, camping in Savannah and Chellis taking us out and about all the time too. (Remember me asking for a beer at the Cracker Barrel?). India had the unfortunate privilege of being our last stop. Competing for our time with too much to show us too late. We barely scraped the surface there, but it seems likely we'll be back.

Has the trip changed our lives? Given us a new perspective on life? Yes and No. There was no one life-changing experience but there were a number of real eye opening moments, particularly with the poverty. The staggering number of people with so little for themselves was one of the hardest things to walk past. Everyone wants your money, and everyone could certainly make use of it, but giving to one person while ten more look on in earnest is very difficult. Children are trained by their parents to beg for money or beg you to buy a trinket and it breaks your heart to say no, but to say yes exacerbates the problems. We tried different tactics, saying yes to everybody, saying yes to some, saying no to children, saying no to everyone. No tactic worked. All we could do was listen to, or sometimes ignore our hearts.

The corruption in government across Asia, the reckless standards of driving, the poor sanitation and provision of amenities bring home the privileged conventions we take for granted in the West. We might complain about traffic or government policies here, moan about rates and other such things but we really don't have it all that bad you know. In many ways that is probably one of the biggest things we got out of the trip, perspective.

People keep asking where we're going to go next. Do we have itchy feet yet and so on. We don't have itchy feet. More importantly, we don't have any money. A year away from home is a long time, I think it'll be a while before we need to get away big style again, but having said that, there's still a couple of corners of the world to see. For now though it's time to settle back into life, here in sunny Scotland. It's true what they say, there's no where quite like home - New Zealand came close though.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Lights, Camera, Inaction!

Our sleeper train to Mumbai was comfortable with an endless stream of food and hot drinks carried through the carriages to buy. As the train entered Mumbai's suburbs the apartments loomed in the pre-dawn sky. It was like entering the set of 'Escape From New York'. Dark and decaying apartments with dim energy saving lights competing against the gloom. Early morning commuter trains rode aside us, the open aired carriages carrying the early shifts into the workplaces, half awake people, slumped like zombies as they trundled past. There was no colourful tint to the sky, just horrible murky shadows hanging over the city. It was about five o'clock in the morning.

We disembarked at the final station and avoiding the sinister touts, we found our way out onto one of the dirtiest streets we've seen. Even the rats looked unimpressed at the smell as we walked double pace to get back to the street lit areas. As the first hints of daylight started to creep into the sky we found our hotel after a fairly straight forward ten minute walk. The room was grim, the rates sky high but we had a room which was more than could be said for the next half dozen people who asked for a room after us, as we sat waiting for it to be made up from it's last occupant. We would move the following day but today's breakfast was first. As the city started to wake up we ate breakfast in a local cafe, watching the street scene unfold. Leafy avenues with old vehicles and well dressed pedestrians changed the set to another New York movie, only this time set in down town Manhattan in the 50's. The trucks were old enough to fit the scene, with their big round headlamps and protruding bumpers. The thin men in their suits and hats filled the pavements, side stepping the men with aprons and mops, washing down their little patch of sidewalk.

We spent that day looking at other hotels and hostels. It was hard work finding anything better or less expensive and we didn't fully succeed . In the end we settled for a hotel which was dearer and still not really adequate but in its favour, there was no demolition work happening in the next room. We made do and got on with Mumbai.

We had expected Mumbai to be this fantastic shopping city and were very disappointed in what we found. Everything was overpriced tat, made to the lowest quality standards allowable and overpriced as far as they thought a white person would stupidly pay. We walked around the city a bit, stuck our noses into an art exhibition but did very little else. We admired a couple of buildings in the passing, namely the Gate of India, from where the British Raj departed India and the Taj Hotel, built by an upper class Indian during colonial times, incensed at being refused entry to the 'white' establishments. As sight seeing goes, that was about the extent of our endeavours.

Disappointed in the shopping we decided it was going to be a case of just watching and waiting for the clock to tick down before we would get the plane home. We had promised to catch up with Nick and Esther again (of kayaking fame) as we knew we would all be in Mumbai at the same time but apart from that there was nothing else to do with ourselves.

Then one lazy afternoon as we stepped out from 'Barista Coffee Shop' we were confronted by a man who claimed to be an agent for Bollywood. Suspicious at first we were eventually lured by the promise of fame and fortune and signed up for a day's work as Extras on set. Two mornings later we were on a bus driving out to Bollywood with about a dozen really annoying teenagers who all thought they were going to be the next big thing. Also riding on the bus were Nick and Esther.

We weren't actually filming on a Bollywood back lot, instead we were out on location in a shopping mall. The film, which was part financed and set in Australia was now in India for it's first day's filming here, and the first scene to be shot was set in a mall in Australia, hence the bus load of white folk. For the best part of the morning we wandered back and forth around the mall, up and down escalators, crossing back and forth in the back of the same shot, looking like the worlds most confused couple. If the confusion couldn't be read on our faces it was probably being disguised by our terror of the director who was a big fat sweaty man who spent all morning yelling down a mic and out a Tannoy in the middle of the set. It would seem that continuity is not such a big deal in Bollywood as we were plonked left right and centre, jumping around the mall like magicians appearing simultaneously behind the two opposing characters.

The afternoon was a bit of a different beast. First we had the gun scene. Baddie A, riding down an escalator is trying to shoot Goodie B going up the other escalator. Goodie B is quite oblivious to this turn of events though, not least because Baddie A has fitted a silencer to the front of his gun. There was nothing silent about the pyrotechnic though which blasted the necessary spark from the barrel for the camera. By the end of take 10 or 11 tinnitus was starting to set in.

A little break followed and then it was time to shift down to the front of the mall. The mall had been open all day while we filmed in it and as word spread that there was a film crew, so the numbers of spectators exploded, especially when for the last scene of the day one of the Bollywood Mega Stars stepped on set. It was absolutely chaos with the crowds surging to catch a glimpse of their hero. There were no cordons to keep them back, no line marked on the ground, instead a handful of security men, armed with clubs who would periodically decide the crowd had pushed too close in and would charge at them shouting and waving their sticks at anyone who didn't run back fast enough.

We had a fun day, finishing an hour early and being paid handsomely for our time. When we worked out our hourly rate later we realised we had made quite the fortune, raking in a whopping 34 pence per hour.

Our little brush with Bollywood gave us the momentum to see us through to the end of our time in Mumbai. We found a fab little delicatessen which had good coffee and cakes and made good proper breakfasts (quite the rarity). A few little souvenirs to pick up for presents and before we knew it, it was time to come home. Not before we finally found the time to go and see the Bollywood blockbuster which had opened back when we were in Delhi though - Om Shanti Om. By now, everyone and their dog had already seen the film three times and we had the cinema almost just to the four of us. The final box ticked, we could now leave India.

Holiday in Goa

Goa was our holiday from the trip that we needed. We were here for 10 days and we didn't intend to move. Goa is a former Portuguese colony and the influences are apparent everywhere, especially in the Catholic shrines that are on every street corner. The food too is quite different from the rest of India, consisting of heavier meet, including beef and a strong appreciation of garlic.

Our first stop in Goa was a beach called Anjuna. With a string of restaurants in big beach shacks by the water and a couple of roads coming back up from the beach with other restaurants and guest houses on it, the village is really pretty small. Our Guesthouse did fabulous breakfasts and the restaurants around the village were all of an exceptional standard. We were quite taken aback by the standard of the cuisine, and our days seemed to spent eating, punctuated with short periods of idleness.

After fitting in three big meals, a dip in the sea and a wee wander somewhere or another, the day was pretty much over so we spent another four days doing that to make sure we didn't miss anything. We hired a scooter one day and took a ride up to another beach where a restaurant there, owned by two French chefs serves food that would seriously sit beside world class cuisine anywhere else in the world. It wasn't cheap by India's standards, but we had a good feed each for the price of a glass of wine in a comparative place back home.

With about three days left we moved down the coast to Benaulim, the biggest beach resort in Goa. We had deliberately avoided this at first because we thought it would be full of tourists and touts exploiting them and the area. We came for the last couple of days though because it was close to the train station from where we would be departing to go to Mumbai.

Getting from Anjuna to Benaulim was going to be arduous. It was further than the distance from the airport, and the cost of the taxi from there had equalled a night's accommodation so we were keen to find an alternative method. The only option available to us though was by bus, and it was likely to take us all day, having to use four separate buses and move between bus stations. It seems the Goans are so laid back because everything just seems to fall together here. Our buses, given our past experiences could have been an utter nightmare, and the chances of getting a wrong bus or getting off at the wrong place or missing the last connection, or anything else, would in any other place be astronomically high. Somehow though, it all slotted together perfectly as if it was all supposed to. Even when our bags got stuck down the front of the bus and we got stuck up the back with about 60 people between us (on a bus rated to carry about 25), it all worked out fine. Joy of joys, we found a little Coffee Day and I guarded the bags while Nikki and a girl on the bus with us went off in search of accommodation.

Anjuna had been one of our most expensive stops, and we expected this to be even more so but it turned out to be really cheap, with accommodation every bit as good and food also on par, at less than half the price. The tourist trap thing didn't seem to exist either we were delighted to discover. The beach too was lovely, with silver sand that squeaked as you walked on it. The sea was ever so slightly cooler than up the coast, but as the mid-winter sun beat upon our backs, it offered a blessed relief. It was great wading out into the sea because the sand declined into the water at such a shallow gradient, you could walk out for what seemed like miles, then finding a sandbar, you would come back up a bit and then down slowly again. We could stand a good 150 meters or more from the sand and still only be above waste deep. The water was pretty calm too. Our next three days passed in a similar routine to Anjuna and at the end of the three days, we were thoroughly relaxed and ready to face Bombay for our final week of our adventure.

Going to Goa

The next morning was to be a leisurely one. We had time for breakfast at our hotel first, which after three days absence confirmed to be the source of our unsettled stomachs in Delhi. Nikki especially had a a couple of rough days earlier and diligently made sure she could tick the Delhi Belly box before leaving the city. Breakfast done , we put our bags on our backs and caught a tuc-tuc to the airport. A scene ensued when the driver promised us he would put us in 'his taxi', as we had requested, since it was quite a distance on the motorway and we didn't really want to do that in a tuc-tuc.

It became obvious though that he didn't have a taxi, (yet another lie which as the end of the trip approaches we are looking forward to the end of) and instead he was simply wasting our time driving around looking for a taxi who would take us off him and give him a cut. We had already left it too late in leaving our hotel and this was not helping matters so after ten minutes we got out and walked away and found another tuc-tuc at a much more reasonable price and hared it down the motorway in that.

We arrived at the airport with an hour before our flight was due to take off and our hearts sank when we saw the chaos inside. Everyone, for every flight has first to get all their luggage scanned and tagged before they then get it all back and take it up to the check-in desks and hand it over again at the check-in. The queue for the x-ray machine was less a queue and more amele as people fought and queue-skipped and jumped passed each other to try and get through the system.

We fought, shoved and shouted our way through the process, successfully checking in with 10 minutes to go before take off. Then it was through to the next security stage where the women and men get separated and processed. That took a further 15 minutes and more fighting with a massively fat man before we were through all of that. Then, with four departure gates, and our flight at none of them it was time to worry about our flight. Not for long though as the airport staff casually ushered everyone through the gate for a different plane and we were onto our delayed flight as if it was just another day at the airport.

Our plane was brand new, fresh out of the wrapper and we had a good flight to Goa arriving in the evening. Another taxi next, at an exorbitant but pre-paid and apparently on the level fare and after an hour we arrived at our next guest house.

The air in Goa felt cleaner, we could hear the birds settling down in the trees and everyone seemed happy and relaxed. We knew straight away that Goa was going to be good.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Taj Mahal

We had now used up one of our four remaining weeks. We departed Delhi by train in the morning to head to Agra, home of the Taj-Mahal. It was a short journey of only a couple of hours, but long enough for a free paper, bottle of water and a decent breakfast served on a tray that beat most of the big flights we've taken on the trip. The journey was fine and finding a hotel was also fairly effortless. We had three days now to see the town, the Taj and possibly pop out to see an abandoned Mogul city too if we could be bothered.

Our first day was spent around town. The Taj is no small tourist attraction and the roads through the town give some clue to the number of coaches they must serve by their size. As is our tradition, we walked for miles in the midday heat to find lunch and then find the tourist district. Our hotel was a little bit out of the zone, the cost of affordable accommodation. Pizza Hut served us well for lunch, and once again provided a much better menu for vegetarians than back home (you see this was still a cultural experience, not just the soft option). Then we found where to come the next day for the Taj. There was a new sight here, which was introduced without explanation - camels. Carts pulled by camels, ponies and cattle plied the route between the Taj-Mahal and the ancient fort, carrying tourists between the two destinations. We followed on foot and made an off the hoof decision to pop into the fort and see it for ourselves.

The setting sun gave a beautiful cast across the walled courtyards and terraces protected within the mighty walls. From one of the ramparts, we could look across the haze of the town and see the Taj-Mahal in the distance, recreating the legendary past time of the committed king who had built the grand tomb and then been imprisoned by his son for squandering the empirical funds. An old phenomenon was starting to recur again while we were here and it would continue the following day too at the Taj-Mahal. Groups of people, usually teenagers would ask us to pose for a photo with them. The best instance was earlier in the day though when we posed beside a camel with an entire family around us who thrust their new born baby into Nikki's arms while we posed grinning down the lens.

The fort was mostly red sandstone, cut with intricate details and with latticed windows of stone and narrow alleys and corridors. There were also examples of the trade mark mogul design which the Taj is such a famous example of; the cut marble with precious stone and jewel insets. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the mini-city, exploring the interlacing multilevel walkways and gardens. As night fell it was time to head back and prepare for our big visit the next day.

We arrived at the Taj Mahal around 9 o'clock in the morning. We had considered going earlier to see the sunrise and beat the queues but we were advised against it and quite right too. The queues, which had been huge the previous afternoon (Sunday) were really quite small the following morning and we were through them in no time. Also the cool winter sun was only just beginning to burn off the mist when we got there so if we had been any earlier we wouldn't have seen a lot.

After passing through the ticket check, we followed the crowd into a huge courtyard. The buildings on the right and left followed the Moguls fascination with symmetry and when these finally opened into the square, so that road we had just walked down was also mirrored in front of us with an opposite road leading in. To our left was an almighty tower with a massive doorway in the middle of it. Through this arch, perfectly framed was the Taj-Mahal behind. It is impossible to take a bad photo here because everything seems to follow the magic equation for lining up beautifully. The Taj-Mahal itself has an identically proportioned archway and it was possible to stand so that these seemed to be one. After taking a few moments to take all this in it was time to step through the archway into the central complex.

The area is a giant square with the Taj-Mahal standing at the opposite side to the gate house where we were. Between us and it are the gardens. Perfectly manicured lawns, tended by gardeners and an ox pulled lawnmower. At both of the other two sides of the square are what are called the water houses. These are where the water poured into the complex from outside the walls. At one time the buildings had small waterfalls that poured down from the middle of them and fed the geometric system of canals that run around and through the grounds. Today the water seems to come from an undisclosed source.

From where we were standing the Taj-Mahal was only just visible through the morning mist and looked rather ghostly as it glowed feebly from the distance. I felt thoroughly short changed at first but the mist did burn off and the sight which we saw again on our way out was really rather impressive. We had been given shoe covers when we bought our tickets which meant we didn't have to take our shoes off to go up into the building. The Taj is flanked on either side by symmetrical mosques which are open faced. We had a wander around the left hand one first, watching a little bit of the restoration work that was being carried out on it. Then in keeping with all that we have learned on our travels we circumnavigated the Taj in a counter clockwise direction. The sun was now starting to rise quite high in the sky and as it proceeded around the building we could see the subtle shifting of shadows and the colour of the light as it reflected off the white marble.

They say the building is losing its pristine white colour to marble cancer - the effects of the corrosive pollution in the air. In an attempt to prevent this the government has banned traffic from driving in a 100 meter radiance of the site, unless you are important enough and your car is big enough in which case the rules don't really apply. That said, it's still pretty white for now but apparently it is starting to go a little off colour.

Once we'd walked around the building and took a little rest in the shadow behind it, it was time to climb up on to the giant marble plinth it sits upon. One more lap of it again to get the feel from it up here next, walking between the building and the four pillars that guard each of it's corners. Then it was time to pop inside and give it a sniff. The building is a tomb and inside there is a walkway that runs around the inside hidden behind marble latticing that you can't go into. Next is the inner chamber where everyone goes, and in the centre of that, inside more latticing are the two coffins of him and her. The whole indoors area is even more intricately embedded with precious stones, marbles and jewels than the outside. The locals who came to see the Taj from around India paid a far cheaper entrance fee than us, and in return didn't get shoe covers, meaning they had to remove their footwear before entering. What we discovered on our sniff inside was that the place really smells of sweaty feet.

We had great day at the Taj-Mahal and left suitably impressed in the early afternoon. By chance we bumped into Nick and Esther, our two friends from the remedial Kayaking group in Nepal later in the day and spent the night enjoying a very good but small dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.

The next day was our last in Agra. We would be getting a train back to Delhi in the evening, spending a night there and then flying south the next morning. We were tossing up whether we could be bothered going to see Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city or not. In the end we decided we would go. We packed our bags and checked out of our hotel and then checked our bags in at the train station before taking an auto rickshaw to the bus station to get a bus to Fatehpur.

The city was built as a new capital city for the Mogul region but only served for a couple of decades before everybody packed up and left it. It would seem that the water supply was too salty to serve the king and people and so the buildings and courts were left to time. The British restored the city during their reign and today the site stands perfectly preserved like a walk back in time. The buildings are all perfectly intact and you have complete freedom to walk around them although some upstairs floors were locked. By the time we had gotten there and then had lunch, we only had a couple of hours to see it all before heading back. Again we had got it right though and the setting sun served again to really bring out all the details of the buildings and make it all the more remarkable. Because it was the end of day there weren't too many people there adding further to the sense of it being a ghost town where everyone suddenly saw you coming and just vanished.

We saw it all, took many more great photos and then successfully made it back to our old faithful hotel in Delhi, enjoying another fab meal on the train and crashing out on our beds exhausted.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Delhi Dallying

We had a choice to make. With four and a bit weeks of our trip left we had to decide what we wanted to see in India and what could wait till next time (note that 'next time' indicates a fundamental shift of mind since Varanasi). India has no shortage of attractions but as we did our research we became aware that the ticking clock wasn't our only consideration. After a year of wandering and taking in breathtaking sights, we were starting to get a little saturated with the whole big old stone structure thing. In short, we had seen enough. We still had this month left though and we weren't going to just sit and watch the clock tick down, but we did decide to take it easy and do a few things over a longer time rather than try to squeeze lots in.

First Delhi. In our trademark style, we wandered across most of the city, refusing to pay the auto-rickshaws the 'white tax' they imposed on us by refusing to use their meters. We ventured across town by a combination of metro, walking in circles and final capitulation to the heat and auto-rickshaws to find the Nehru Planetarium. Named after India's first Prime Minister and situated in the grounds of his Prime Ministerial house, the planetarium is a 30 year old tribute to his interest in the science. It has in it the capsule that three cosmonauts returned to Earth in, including India's first man in space. Possibly the best thing about the spaceship, was that in complete seriousness, the Soviets saw it fit to paint the common symbols seen in the postal service for fragile and 'this way up' on the side of it. It took us two attempts to see the show having arrived for a booked out display on National Children's day the first time, but it was well worth coming back for on our second visit. We stuck our heads into Nehru's house for a wee look, given our situation on day one and would follow that up later in the week with a stroll around the very impressive government buildings which lead down to the great big arch which stands as a war memorial.

Having said we were saturated with big old stone things, we would be going to see the Taj-Mahal in Agra later, and before seeing that, it felt appropriate while in Delhi to visit the tomb of a Persian big wig, Hanuman, which was said to have served as a prototype to the Taj. The complex was amazing. We reached it about an hour before sunset having walked for about two hours trying to find the place. The entry fee could be paid in either Rupees or US Dollars, and with the dollar being so low at the time, we promptly pulled out our get out of jail coupons and saved ourselves a couple of pennies. The main showpiece did indeed look like a less grand, and not white version of the Taj-Mahal, but some of the most fun parts of the complex were the other Persian temples and tombs off to the side where you had much more freedom to climb up the stairs on to the roofs and walk under the stone pagodas crowning the faded, but mostly intact structures.

Delhi otherwise passed in a week of happy idleness. We wanted to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster called Om Shanti Om but didn't seem to find the time. One of our more amusing activities was riding the Metro. Part underground, part over ground, the metro railway is the first in India, and still a new thing for Delhi. It has been open two or three years now and is proving a success. It seems though that the people haven't quite got the hang of it yet. In most countries it is recognised that in order to get on a train, you should first let the passengers on board disembark. It is further realised in most countries that the best way to do that is to stand just to the side and let everyone funnel out between two queues of people who next step onto the train and fill the void. Not in India. As you stand preparing to leave the train waiting for it to stop and the doors to open you have to take the stance of an athlete waiting for the starting pistol. In addition you need to clench your fists and brace yourself like a boxer. When the doors open you are faced with a crowd of people entirely blocking your exit and immediately all competing and elbowing each other to get on the train first. There is no comprehension that if they let you off first there will be more space, or that the train won't go without them. As an exitee you have to look for the smallest person then lunge straight at them and push them backwards out through the crowd. This has several effects. Firstly it rather effectively clears a path for you and everyone behind you. Secondly, it means that someone else takes all the knocks for you. Thirdly it makes you look rather tough and everyone else makes an effort to huddle out of your way, thus helping create the path, and fourthly, for a fraction of a second you can almost see the dawning realisation in the little person that maybe there's a better way, but only for a fraction of a second. Shouting "Charge!" as the doors open is also a great way to see terror strike the faces of 30 people instantaneously as you launch yourself into them kicking and punching as you go.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Coming to the Capital

We stepped off our train in Delhi and braced ourselves for the forewarned onslaught of touts, agents and other what-nots, all who would seemingly be most concerned about us spending too much money at the wrong places though who would themselves ensure that particular outcome happened. Before leaving the station we sorted out our bearings and had a good idea which way to head. If all went well our hotel would only be a ten minute walk or so, straight down the obvious road that should be facing us when we exited.

Our packs were buckled onto us, front and back, our hands tightly gripping our other bags. Our caps were tipped over our faces to avoid the eye contact of doom and we were ready. Head down we started out. With the weight of your bags on you, once you get up to speed you have a useful force of momentum which is often a good aid to repelling advancing 'friends'. In particular, a pack attached your front is an excellent buffer with which to ping your adversaries, who are normally smaller in frame and standing roughly still, far across the station car park. The tipped cap then gives you the confidence that any onlookers will simply assume you didn't see the now horizontal fellow, and if otherwise, it aids you in pretending you don't see them.

We charged out through the doors and there was a wall of waiting people. We slipped through them, maybe they were waiting for family after all. Next the car park jammed with tuc-tucs (which in India are called auto-rickshaws), nope they didn't seem interested either. Busy road to cross, that means standing still, we're doomed. Nope, got across that. Wow, we're doing great. Right there's the road we want, hard dash down that should do the trick. It took us about ten minutes down that road until we got to our hotel. In that time, only one person offered us a hotel and even then accepted our 'no thanks' with almost immediate satisfaction. Our arrival in Delhi turned out to be one of our easiest arrivals.

Our hotel on the other hand was rubbish. They had our booking, for that we should at least give them credit, but we had picked this one and phoned ahead on the recommendation of our guide book. It's hard to pin down exactly what it was that made us decide to find another hotel the next day. It might have been the owner who asked us every five minutes to give him our laundry, or the shower that only provided five minutes of warm water if you phoned reception first. Maybe it was the window with glass made of wood, or it could have been the ceiling fan that was as noisy as if a single prop plane had nose dived the roof. As the mosque to the right of us and the Jain temple to left competed to make the most noise in our room we resolved to check out first thing in the morning.

Day two, and our second hotel fairs little better. Its fan is quiet, in fact we have two fans and they're both quiet. The room is massive with two double beds and a couch. The couch is so grotty though you wouldn't want to leave your clothes lying on it, let alone sit on it yourself. The only window is back into the internal indoor courtyard thing which is surrounded by every other room's window and door too. The only thing that prevented us from being overly distracted by someone else's telly was the racket of the several parties happening on the various floors. Then at 5 o'clock in the morning, like clockwork, the daily two hour power cut meant the generator got started to shake and rattle its way around the down stairs concourse rousing everybody for breakfast.

Day three and our third hotel does good enough. It's not great but as the best of a bad bunch it serves us for the next week. We are staying in a corner of Delhi called Parhganj, this is the budget travellers quarter and consists mostly of a single street with hotels running the length of it, and stalls selling cheap tack and souvenir clothes.

With our somewhat deep immersion into the noisy, less sanitary ways of India, our first priority for Delhi was to hang around the nice big clean shops and cafes and enjoy a little bit of 'clean' again. Connaught Place performed admirably. A giant ring of big posh shops with a park in the middle and circled by a road carrying cheaper more affordable shops on its circumference. The shopping on offer would not stand up to most western city's ideals but it was good enough for us, especially since our budget didn't stretch much past a T-shirt for Nikki and a clutch of magazines anyway.

We spent a couple of days doing very little else, using the time to find a comfortable relationship with India. One of our favourite haunts was a chain of cafes called Coffee Day. In Connaght Place alone, there was about half a dozen of these shops, where we sat and plotted our attack strategy for seeing the city. Another chain restauranteur we were making friends with was a familiar fast food company from home but with a distinct difference. McDonalds in India doesn't serve Big Macs, Hamburgers or Cheeseburgers. In fact, India being a largely Hindu country, it serves no beef whatsoever. The same selection of Chicken Dippers and McChicken Sandwich are available but that is where the meat offerings end. The menu must be as much as 50% vegetarian, offering about 4 or 5 different vege-burgers, plus wraps, pizzas, pies and chunky potatoe wedges. It was fab.

We were recomposed and ready to get out there and see the city.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Doolally for Diwali

Varanasi is notorious for rip off merchants and liars who will mislead you and do anything to extract your apparently boundless wealth. If you get a taxi or auto-rickshaw you will probably not get taken to your hotel because it will have burned down or been flooded, instead you'll be taken to their 'other hotel' and charged way over the odds for it too. Watching the cows in the station and considering our options while waiting for the tourist information center to open, we got chatting to an Irish couple who led us through the now familiar gauntlet for them and showed us their very nice hotel where we promptly made a booking.

It is in the old part of town. A labyrinth of tiny alleyways and footpaths, crammed with people, cows and motorbikes. Traffic frequently backs up if two cows meet in an alley (the alleys are only about as wide as a pregnant cow) and some gentle persuasion is applied to the holy animals to find a solution to the situation. Cows are everywhere in India. Because they are considered holy animals, no-one interferes with them. The result is thousands of cows that idly wander the streets and back lanes, regarding the traffic with indifference (often acting as roundabouts), and sadly, consuming no end of the bountiful rubbish that is strewn everywhere you look. The subsequent result of this is the vast spread of dung that is absolutely everywhere. Walking through the lanes can be a bit of a dance as you have to avoid the mines, and the traffic and while passing the cows themselves, their swinging poo'y tails.

Varanasi is famous for its Ghats, stone stairs leading down to the shore of the Ganges. The length of the town lies along the water course and there are dozens of these ghats, harbouring dozens of little boats each, and food sellers and silk merchants trying to tempt you into their shops. We had arrived in Varanasi during the festival of Diwali, the festival of light and for the first couple of days the town was a little bit quieter as some people had closed their businesses and headed to their home towns to celebrate with the family. We weren't actually aware of this until a couple of days later when the town exploded back to full life.

What we were aware of though was the explosions in the sky and on the pavements. The festival of light is celebrated with fireworks and we spent a couple of evenings up on the roof of our hotel watching the sky glowing and dancing in colours all around us. It also seemed to be the festival of big bangs as plenty of kids were throwing bangers all over the streets, lots of them big enough to probably be classed as a bomb back home. The biggest fireworks of all though belonged to our hotel owner who put on a show on his roof with quite the arsenal of explosives. He was setting off mortars that exploded into star bursts that wouldn't look out of place in a big organised firework display and he had plenty of them. Excitement gave way to terror when one of the rapid-fire fireworks fell over and started launching rounds into the crowd but we were soon all enjoying ourselves again, especially when he brought out his piece-de-resistance, a massive box that once lit took about five minutes to launch about 240 fireworks into the sky.

The fireworks and explosions lasted for about a week after the actual festival, though it didn't seem to bother the cows who didn't even batter an ear at the biggest booms that had us cowering. In the pursuit of some calm we headed out of town to Sarnath, another Pilgrim stop often visited in conjunction with Lumbini in Nepal. This is the park where the Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon, sitting in a deer park under a bodhi tree. Today the place remains a serene park with several ancient monastic remains, another Ashokan Pillar and a Bodhi tree said to be a direct cutting of a direct cutting, and a couple of times more of the original tree he sat under. There's also a deer park here though no claims are made about the ancestry of those.

We spent a week in Varanasi, acclimatising to the Indian way of things, the noise, the cows and the bustle and also, the very very slow service in restaurants, the like not seen since Cambodia. The record was waiting over an hour for a cup of tea and a piece of toast. By the end of the week all that was left was to go out on the Ganges in a boat.

We had almost been putting this off because, despite being such a holy, and cleansing river, the water is really dangerous. It is full of heavy metals and toxins, dumped by industries up stream and it is full of rubbish floating along and nourishing the odd bathing cow. People come down to bathe and purify themselves in the water, seemingly blind to the true state of the water. Our Irish friends had witnessed floating animal carcases when they took a boat out into it.

The Ganges is a very holy river though and Varanasi is a very holy town. Apparently, if you die here you automatically gain immediate enlightenment and thus escape the cycle of reincarnation. As such, lots of old people see out the last of their days here, and once the last day has come and gone, they get cremated in open pyres at the shore of the Ganges, just to make doubly sure. There are two 'burning ghats' in Varanasi, one at either end of the town, where day and night the orange glow of the flames illuminates the ancient and majestic buildings behind.

We had pretty much seen everything Varanasi had to offer, and we had pretty much acclimatised to India's ways now as well. It was time to head out of town and toward the one place with an even harder reputation for scams - Delhi.

Our final country

We were up early the next morning and after a spot of breakfast and a very bumpy taxi ride for about 6KMs, we were standing at the border ready to leave Nepal for India. We first had a couple of things to do in the border town, namely change our money and get processed by immigration. We don't like border towns. As a rule, they're seedy, dirty, noisy and nasty. Everyone seems to exist in them to impair your progress and take your money. Everything in them is overpriced and of dubious quality and anything anyone tells you, usually turns out to be a lie. For a more in depth analysis let me refer you to our earlier posts, The Cambodian Immigration Incident and The Carry On to Kathmandu.

We had had a tough time entering Nepal and we were braced for the same leaving it but as it turned out we had one of the best times yet. The money changer seemed fair and the staff at the immigration desk were laughing and having such a good time that they stamped Nikki's exit visa with an entry one. India's immigration was a little less friendly but as it consisted of a man sitting behind a desk at the side of the road he probably had reason to be a little disgruntled anyway. Then we got ourselves bundled into a jeep to head to the nearest train station at Gorakhpur. For the 3 hour journey, four of us sat in the back seat (for 3 people) three people sat in the front seat (for 2 people) and five people sat in the boot (for 2 people). We considered ourselves lucky that the driver couldn't find that one last person he was looking for to 'fill' the car before leaving.

At Gorakhpur station, a sight familiar to us from our days in China greeted us; Hundreds of ticket counters - each for specific destinations only, all with huge unmoving queues, and no clue where to go for our tickets to Varanasi. There was also a less familiar sight in the foyer, standing between the queues. A great big cow, which once it got a bit tired lay down for a bit, then got up again, relieved itself and lay down in a different spot, presumably as baffled by the queues as we were. After much stress and fighting with queue skippers we got to the front of the MP's, female's and foreigner's queue and then after further stress and hassle had ourselves a sleeper ticket to Varanasi. We had a long wait first though so took a brief sniff outside, decided it was all too much and far too scary (even this far in to our trip, India is still quite the assault for the new visitor) and hid in a retiring room at the station until night time.

This gave us time to reflect on Nepal, the country that we only visited because it was in the way, and only expected to stay in for about a week and a half but didn't leave for five weeks. It had been quite the little gem on our tour and definitely one of our favourite countries of them all. Somehow we never managed to do what most people do in Nepal which is launch ourselves off on a trek but we have most definitely not ruled this out for the future, though maybe we'll leave the white water alone. The array of adventures and activities and the cost of them is possibly at the best ratio in the world. The availability of western comforts, in terms of nice hotels and good food surpassed any of the other 'scary' countries we went through, and the people were some of the most friendly, and well informed we have had the pleasure of being with too. We very much liked Nepal and definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a cheap get away, that's not quite off the peg.

At 11 o'clock our sleeper train trundled into the station. We were sleeper class, which is the basic class for those who want to travel horizontal. The beds are three high, the foam mostly worn flat and you get no linen, pillows or privacy. It's fine though, so long as you don't have the bottom beds because if you do, you can say cheerio to any hope of getting a lie down as it seems perfectly normal practise to share your bench with anyone else who wants to sit there too. We had the top beds and had a reasonably good trip. The only horror of the trip was the sight that faced us in a toilet as we boarded the train and walked passed the flapping door. In a good news, bad news scenario we had the only carriage probably in the entire train that had a western toilet. The bad news being that someone who didn't know how to use it had stood on top of the seat in their familiar crouch position, somehow avoiding a broken neck in the jostling train but as a result actually missing the target and leaving a very neat smoldering deposit on the toilet seat itself. We managed the trip without a need to face the horror a second time and reached Varanasi early in the morning.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007


We left Pochara, a fortnight after arriving in town to finally make our way to the border with India. We had one more stop on the way first though which was Lumbini, birth place of Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism and better known as The Buddha himself.
The village of Lumbini is tiny, so small in fact that we missed it on the bus and got off a mile further down the dusty road at an even smaller village, with a single guesthouse and a friendly owner. This was not such a bad thing in the end as it was still just as close to the reserve and gave us a good glimpse at traditional Nepali village life without any of the touts and hard sells that are to be found at most tourist spots.
A traditional Nepali village consists mostly of a long straightish road, flanked on both sides by single story mud and cane houses neighboured by three storey concrete and often rather windowless houses. Barbers have little huts on the side of the road just big enough for the barber, a seat and a rusty old mirror. The road is fairly chock a block with cycles and motorbikes which toot at anything in their way, and the odd cycle rickshaw dragging a cargo of people and produce you wouldn't burden an ox with. There's plenty of oxes and buffalo pulling trailers too, with goods and people you wouldn't burden a van with. There are no vans. There are lots of chickens though, and dogs and cows which wander the streets to their hearts content, usually obliging the motorbikes with their doubly loud horns who would have you believe their journey must be of the utmost peril. Trying to make their way between all this 'quiet' village life were two backpackers on old curvy handle bar style bikes, heading into the birthplace reserve.
The reserve is a wonderfully peaceful area of grass, forest and lake, full of birds and other happy creatures and surrounded on all sides by a large wall and railings. It is quite some size, measuring several kilometers in each direction. In the centre of the reserve on an island, are some excavated relics of ancient monasteries. In the middle of these is a building which protects the most important remains on the site - the building where the Buddha is said to have been born, and as legend has it, immediately stood up, took seven steps and made a highly respected statement of some significance. Several archaeological missions have come here from around the world and the general scientific consensus is that this indeed is most likely the Buddha's birthplace.

Inside the new building are the remains of the walls, standing about three feet high now but clearly delineating rooms and doorways and such like. In one of the small rooms is a flat stone which is regarded as the spot of the miraculous debut to the world. There is a raised walkway which guides Pilgrims and the inquisitive around the remains and brings them right up to the spot of most interest where everyone takes a blessing from the wall beside them and a photo of their special moment. Considering the magnitude and religious significance of the site, there is a wonderfully relaxed attitude from the administrators. Everything is right there in front of your nose, there's no enforced distance to keep, no restrictions on photography and no over-hushed sense of reverence required of visitors. We considered how differently things would be run, say, if there was a similar site of Christian significance in the middle of the Vatican and how stifled it would be for Pilgrims.

Outside the building was a stone column, known as Asoka's Pillar, and placed there by the Mauryan king Asoka, as was often his way when visiting such places in the 3rd Century BC. This column is also particularly revered and when we were there it had a group of about 50 worshippers chanting and praying, prostrated to the pillar.

Because the site is of huge significance to the Buddhist community worldwide, many foreign Buddhist societies have paid homage to it by erected monasteries in their own style and practising their own brand of Buddhism in two adjacent sites, known as the east and west monastic zones. These zones have existed now since the 70's with large and small monasteries in various styles, from Cambodia, Burma, China, Thailand, France and several other nations. The most opulent and stunning belongs to Germany. For every monastery already on the site, there seems to be two more in construction and in another few years time it is going to be quite the monastic theme park.

We spent a full day cycling our old style bikes around the site and returned to our guesthouse just before dark for dinner, a beer and bed.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Highs and Lows

With all the excitement of the last few days behind us it time was time to hide in a dark corner and lick our wounds. Mine were nothing more than knocks and bumps and Nikki's nose, finger and toe had formed nice little bruises which dutifully faded after everyone had had time to give her maximum respect. It was my turn for a bit of sympathy next though which I earned with an ear infection and a bout of food poisoning. I say ear infection, that's my own rather unqualified diagnosis, based on it being quite sore all the time and my continual comedy falls owing to a lack of balance. A self prescribed course of antibiotics seemed to do the trick though. The food poisoning was a bit different. Suspected cause; a chicken curry - the first meat in a while and the last now till we're out of India. That had me laid up in bed for a few days while Nikki nursed me back to life. That passed too though I was left a bit week for the next couple of days and without any appetite.

As things started to improve it was time to either leave the town or do what seemed to keep getting put back at every turn - paragliding. We had left it till we came back from the kayaking, hoping that the weather which had till now obscured the mountains completely might improve and offer us a better view. They hadn't and we were resigned to go the following day regardless of the visibility. We awoke early, as is the way in Nepal, and looking out the window couldn't believe our luck. There were all the mountains, hanging above the wakening town, like a big secret thing trying to sneak passed without being spotted. We grabbed our chance to make a booking. Booking made, all that was left to do now was sit back and wait for our booked time, watching as the clouds all rolled right back in again and hid the mountains like they had never been there to start with.

Not to worry, the view will be second to the whole flying thing anyway, we'll be too busy looking down to look up. We get in the van, and are driven up the hill with our pilots who we will shortly be getting strapped to and thrown off a hillside with. Alas, a quick sniff of the air and our pilots correctly predict that there are no thermals in the air and all we can really hope for is as much time as it takes to float down the height of the hill and land at the bottom.

It was an awesome ten minutes though. The hardest part was the running down this very short grassy slope that immediately gave way to falling trees and cliffs. Then with a sudden whoosh you get lifted backwards, up and then forwards. You then have to shimmy this wee seat down that is behind your back and then all that is left is to sit back and enjoy the world's highest armchair as it swoops about miles above houses and trees and gorges and suchlike. It was great.

Following discussions with our respective pilots, they are of the opinion that I was more scared than Nikki, something I put down to residual food poisoning and my ear infection. Just before landing we did some swoops and acrobatics to bring us down the last 100 metres or so in next to no time. It felt like free fall only with the ground a matter of seconds away if something went wrong. Nothing did of course and before I knew it we had landed, only I rather ungracefully landed on my rear end, and Nikki, who had landed minutes earlier, and had come running over to greet us got tangled in our glider as it fell on her head.

It was a really good ten minutes and better yet, because it was such a short trip, we got some of our money back too. Nikki even got a chance to fly her glider too taking a few sweeps and turns. I instead took a few photos and a little video.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Up Seti River without a Paddle

Pokhara is Nepal's second city. The tourists and thus us too, stay in the district called Lakeside, which it will come as no surprise to the enlightened reader, is situated beside a lake. People come here for all kinds of attractions. For those seeking enlightenment there are yoga courses and meditation classes. For those who want a little more activity there is the lake with boats and pedalos to hire, and a few walks in the surrounding hills - namely up to the world peace pagoda which looks back over the lake, across the town and up to the Annapurna mountain range beyond with the staggering peaks of several mountains exceeding 8000 meters and as you'd expect covered in snow.

For the little bit more adventurous again, Pokhara has in one town what many countries would be envious of and at prices they could simply never match. There are countless treks in the mountains, from day treks right up to the 18 day round trip all the way round the whole range taking you through the Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian and Middle Eastern influenced corners. If you don't fancy walking far for your thrills there's kayaking, para-gliding, white water rafting, micro-light flights and of course endless shops selling the same ripped off North Face and Columbia trekking accessories.

We thought we might spend about 5 days here and maybe take in an activity if we could motivate ourselves - our travel slogan has become "sleep in, see nothing". Our first full day in town was the Christmas day of the Daishan Festival. Everywhere was closed and the town was eerily deserted on what was a lovely morning. We found the one German owned bakery that was open for breakfast and we joined the throng trying to get some sustenance for the day ahead. The day sailed by then as the town slowly rose from its slumber to party night in the evening. The next couple of days were spent with the usual wandering, and a bit of rowing and a trip to the peace pagoda. On our first evening we had caught a glimpse of the towering snowy peaks beyond, glowing in the setting sun light. We didn't know it at the time but that would turn out to be one of our very rare sights of them in what was an unusually cloudy spell over the town for the rest of our stay.

We changed hotels after our first choice invoked a one booking one toilet roll policy and then made some research into maybe going on a kayaking course. The trip had become a little sedentary, we felt we needed some sort of adrenaline kick just to keep things interesting. We booked ourselves on a four day course. Day one would be spent on the lake, learning all the basics including how to do an 'Eskimo Roll' which is what you call it when you right yourself after a capsize by flipping your paddle in a special way and popping back upright. Day's 2, 3 and 4 would then see us out on the river, getting more confident as the river increased from grade 1 (fastish flowing calmish water) up to grade 3 and a bit (boulders, froth, destruction and terror). There were ten of us on our course, 3 instructors and a supply/rescue raft.

Day 1, on the lake, went reasonably well. In most cases we could paddle in the direction we intended. We could all successfully capsize and in varying degrees of success some of us could even right ourselves. We could all get ourselves out of an upside down kayak too if the roll was unsuccessful, an exit maneuver that by the end of the week we were all quite expert at. Escaping from the kayak by this method though leads to a boat-ful of water, a drifting oar and a wet kayaker so if the roll is not successful we learned how to approach an inverted comrade from the side so they could grab the front of our kayak with their searching hands and right themselves that way too. Nic and I had much practise at that but we stopped after I came in too quick and crushed her right hand pinky between our boats creating the first bruise of the expedition. There was some concern from Nikki and I that we hadn't fully mastered the Eskimo Roll yet but we were assured there would be plenty of time for that on the grade 1 river. Relaxed, except for a sore pinky, we went to bed looking forward to our first day on the river.

Day 2 started off pretty good. We were a bit wobbly as we slipped into the current but we kept it together and like a paddle of ducklings following their mother we made our way tentatively down river. In fact it was nearly five minutes until the first bend came and the fun began. As people tipped, and Eskimos failed, people popped out of their boats and the instructors shot off rescuing both people and crafts. Nikki and I found ourselves behind the crowd as we battled to go in the right direction. Then wanting some of the fun I took the first tumble for us into a sink hole, attempted the Eskimo roll, failed, ejected from the kayak and popped up looking for my rescue. It occurred to me as I went around the left side of the rock that we were supposed to have gone around the right side of, that there was no one around to get me. Nikki was doing everything she could to simply stay upright and watch as i got carried away to the rocks, my kayak left upturned, spinning infinitely in the hole. That was the first scare of the day but it passed on reflection that I didn't really get washed quite as far down river as I thought I did and the boat was salvaged by an instructor who had realised there were two people missing from the mess further down river. The day continued fairly well, the rapids rapidly increasing in size and with them the frequency of kayak/kayaker separations.

We were split into groups of three or four with an instructor per group and this proved pretty good. We were taught direction signs which were fairly intuitive. If the instructor waggled his paddles to the right it meant go to the right, a waggle to the left intimating the expected alternative. However instead of using his paddle our instructor just used his hand. For Nikki who was paddling without her glasses this wasn't ideal. Even I had trouble seeing what he was saying sometimes leaving the only other option which was going roughly straight on or following the person in front, hoping they had seen the signal and were in full control of their craft, almost a certainty in the negative. The result was that I tended to spot the danger just before I was on it, sometimes avoiding it, sometimes tumbling, for Nikki though, the first she knew was when she was ploughing over it all, time after time after time after time. While the rest of us were tackling grade 2 stuff, Nic was successfully conquering falls, holes, whirlpools, jaggy rocks and the like, by leaning forward and just paddling like there was no tomorrow, trying to get back out of the grade 4 stuff and coming out each time like a hero. Unable to match her dexterity the rest of us competed for the best tumbles and swims down river, I took a hard knock on the knee off a boulder on one of my swims.

Day 3. (day 2 on the river) It was unwise of Nikki to use up all her luck on the first day like that but without her glasses on, she can be forgiven for a little shortsightedness. For my part I had been moderately lucky and would continue to be so today. We had camped overnight on the beach, had a good breakfast and were off. The morning proceeded as the day before but during the last rapids before lunch we had a big one to get through. It was time for Nikki to stop being so good and start falling in like the rest of us. The only trouble was, she was rather good at that too.

Coming through the rapid she tipped, ejected and bobbed down the river a bit, watching as her kayak and her parted ways. I was ignorant to all this at the time until she came shooting past me as I did all I could to fight against the same outcome. She made good time as she raced past all the obstacles, beaten only by her kayak, quite literally, which also made good time and then spun round whacking her on the nose for good measure as it continued passed. A little dazed, Nikki's troubles were over as she fell into a pocket of calmer water off to the side and the instructor came to rescue her. Not knowing about the whack to the face, and fearing more for the kayak, our leader told her to swim to the side while he recovered her boat. White water is a funny beast though for those of us ignorant in its ways, and before you could say "where's my paddle?" Nikki was off on part two of her adventure, caught in another whirlpool and spat off again on another jaunt through the rocks, our instructor looking around, kayak now recovered to see a little white helmet and life vest bobbing off past our lunch spot. That particular adventure ended shortly after that, Nic paddling back up river in her delivered kayak with a bloody nose and a few bumps too.

That was most of the excitement for the day except the last rapids before camp where everyone got put through the spin cycle, my kayak disappearing completely and requiring a search party to find it. Due to my missing kayak, and fellow comrade, Esther's kayak doing a superb impression of the last moments of the Titanic, we got a lift through the last bit of choppy water on the raft and were the first people to set foot on the beach. Five minutes later a few successful kayaks came in, a few more were towed (including mine) and once again Nikki went racing past us all sans kayak as the Nepal national kayaking champion raced her down river to pick her up and bring her back. It had been a hard day but day 4 was yet to come.

Day 4 was a short day, a big rapid, then a HUGE rapid and then an early lunch and back on the bus to town. The big rapid was predictable, lots of us flipped, a few of us survived it and while I tried Nikki's lean forward and paddle paddle paddle technique, owing in part to finding myself stuck in a terrifying torrent, Nikki got swept under and pulled along for a bit down with the fish before getting spat out straight for the next set of rapids we were all told to stop before reaching. Plucked out by our instructor with a battered toe that looked (but wasn't) broken and being punched around a bit by the water and possibly a boulder in the face she sat out the final rapid which in secret I was wishing I could have done too.

They marched us along the shore first to take a look at it and talk us through the route to take, the result being that I was utterly freaked and terrified of what seemed my inevitable death. Soon enough though we were all getting pulled through the machine by the current, our paddles really only serving to point our boats while we got dragged wherever fate had decided. I went round the big boulder, down the hole in front of it mostly up the other side of the hole, and then suddenly had nothing else to worry about as I tumbled about like upturned flotsam. My biggest concern had been the sharp S Bend I was going to have to take around the two very big and particularly Jaggy rocks, which hid inside two churning mountains of froth, betrayed only by the glinting sunlight. One arm over my face, I ejected from the kayak, and got carried along while I tried to work out which way was up to swim to the surface. The life jacket did it's stuff though and within a few seconds, which seemed like a few minutes I popped up, delighted to discover that all the peril was already quite a distance behind me. All that remained now was not to crash into the rest of the debris that was kayaks, paddles and bodies racing down with me.

The trip had been a lot of fun despite our various bruises and bumps. We had thought it was going to be a four day course, at the end of which we would be able to cope with the conditions we had gone through. Instead it was really just a guided trip where the instructors were mostly available to rescue you when the inevitable happened. As such we seemed to spend more time in total terror of situations we felt in no way equipped for. Despite that though, we survived to tell the tale and it was most certainly an adrenaline kick, and punch, and scrape and bump and dunking...

The road to Pokhara

The day we left Kathmandu was the big sacrificing day of Daishan. Goats were everywhere; on the roofs of buses, on walls, tied to trees, everywhere. People could not pass butchers for dozens of goats tied up waiting their fate. As our bus slowly crawled towards a junction we saw two goats tied to a railing beside a pool of blood and a frayed rope where presumably minutes earlier their friend had stood. Others were being led like a dog on a rope by their owners as the negotiated for the cheapest, 'kill (sacrifice) it, shave it and quarter it' package around. Often the goat in question standing, either unaware or trying to ignore the detached head staring back at it or the odd hoof here and there.

The traffic police struggled to keep traffic moving as there are no rules of the road here, except as we have become well used to, the biggest always wins. Today they were aided though by the somewhat unhelpful holy man who took it upon himself to try and give alternative directions to other traffic the police were failing to control. After a couple of hours though our bus had successfully got about 10 km out of town and the pandemonium started to settle.

We intended to break our journey at a small mountain village for a night called Bandipur. Bandipur has no traffic, no modern buildings, and owing to an oversight by the restaurant regarding Daishan, next to no food. So proceeded a day of easy walking to the top of the hill to enjoy the surrounding valleys, and generally settling down to the pace of the village. The gentle pace mercifully applied to the insect life too. There are giant spiders here which are like something out of a horror movie. They are not the fat hairy tarantula type, but the streamlined ones, with the long legs at the front and back and no hair. They were black and green and as big as a man's hand. Quite terrifying, as they hung in their webs from phone lines and tree branches. We never saw one move, but they looked fast. Our room was extremely basic, with a bed, a single sheet and a small table, but there was a tiny little wooden balcony behind a door which had a gob-smacking view over the whole area, trouble was, the balcony looked like it was just waiting for an excuse to collapse. I gave it one by jumping up and down on it repeatedly to test it, it seemed safe so I gave up and went back in doors.

To get to Bandipur, we jumped off our bus at a nearby town, got our bags thrown down from the roof of the bus and then caught a jeep up to the village at the top of the hill. The jeep was the same idea as the songthaews from S.E Asia - basically a pick up truck with two benches running down the sides of the back bit and a roof over the top. Normally you could fit maybe five people on each bench and sit a couple of children between the feet if you wanted a little bit of comfort while you travelled. Our car, counting the people on the benches, the people on those peoples' knees, on the bags in the middle, on the roof (using our bags for cushions), standing on the flap that closes to keep you in and sitting up front with the driver, crawled up the hill with 40 passengers on board.

After our stay we had a more pleasant journey back down the hill with only 6 or so of us in the car. We caught the next big bus going through town, then changed buses when it broke down and continued to Pokhara. We learned that today was the day that everyone travelled to stay with their families so we were very lucky that the bus was not any busier than usual, unlike the vehicles we saw arriving in town later in the day, presumably after everyone had come home from work. As such there was little excitement on our bus, except for the goat who enjoyed a rare trip indoors instead of on the roof. He is probably not around any more though to tell of his privilege.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Kathmandu part Two

We settled back into our old hotel in Kathmandu and then moved the next morning because despite our booking and returning patronage, they still saw fit only to keep the bad room for us. A trip round the corner though and we were settled into our new digs with joy of joys, a TV with English language channels. This was the first time in nearly three months we could watch uncensored news from the real world, following our previous captivity to China's CCTV (irony?) network.

We had a busy few days ahead of us, taking in all the sights we had missed on our first visit to the city. First up was the Monkey Temple. Sitting atop a hill at one end of the town, the small but lofty complex contains a couple of monasteries, several stupas, countless prayer wheels, Pilgrims and monkeys. The monkeys are quite sedate compared to some we have previously met on the trip, owing in part perhaps to the recent cull on a bunch that had been deemed out of hand. We took a walk to the hill from our corner of town, calculating that 30 minutes or so should have been substantial time to get round the back of the hill and tackle the steps and souvenir sellers. About an hour into our perambulations we wondered how a reasonably high hill could hide itself so successfully in an otherwise flat town. A wander across a bridge to look back revealed we had already brushed the foot of it once before and soon enough we were standing at the ticket office waiting for the girl to get change so we could pay and enter - a considerable problem when the ATM's denominations are big and the prices of most things are not.

We took a wander to an older district of the city too called Durbar Square. Actually the square is just a part of the district but it is a common location as most towns in Nepal have a Durbar Square. These are usually fairly open spaces with various old style buildings and stupas or towers which are often ascendable for a fee. Durbar Square in Kathmandu was starting to warm up with local colour as the first days of the Dashain festival were approaching. This Hindu festival lasts for 15 days but peaks in the middle when everyone returns home for a couple of days and sacrifices a goat for the occasion. We started to notice more and more goats in town and suspected they were not long for the world.

Quite by chance we found a lovely little garden tucked away behind a wall and a ticket office which was once the estate of a chap who made his fortune in a card game with the king. His estate though had lain forgotten about and had become jungle and ruin until it was rediscovered and re-landscaped again to become quite the retreat complete with wi-fi and coming soon, restaurants and bars.

It was now time to step out of Kathmandu again, but only for a couple of hours while we visited the nearby town of Bhaktapur, a well preserved insight into how Nepalese towns used to look. There is no modern architecture and the roads are closed to traffic here giving a sense of stepping back in time. Some of the narrow alleys felt very medieval as people leaned out of boxed windows and threw pails of manky water out onto the ground. The walls bulged and loomed over, threatening to collapse at any time, a few taking the precaution of having wooden poles jutted into place to hold them up. We had a nice day travelling back in time and then when the rain came we popped into a taxi and went home again.

It was now almost time to leave Kathmandu but there was one more corner of the town left which we wanted to see first. Bodnath is home to most of Nepal's Tibetan immigrants and the town is awash with prayer flags and robed monks. The monasteries are bright and well kept and there is even the odd picture of the Dalai Lama smiling from within his picture frame. Bodnath is also home to one of the world's biggest Stupas (big conical shrine thing). It takes a full 5 minutes to walk around the stupa and it is similar in height to maybe a 10 story building. Another of the common sights here, much more so than anywhere else was large German tour groups who had a habit of booking up all the tables in the restaurants before we got there. Many people come here to study Tibetan Buddhism and there are lots of courses run here by the various monasteries.

It wasn't a deliberate strategy, but this being a Buddhist enclave, we later decided that it was probably a good place to be to avoid the goat sacrificing and fire cracker excitement going on in the Hindu corners of town. We also stumbled upon the Hyatt-Regency while we were there, and after a moment of consideration we decided we were due a treat and promptly settled in for a night of luxury. So proceeded a reminiscent scene of us entering by the back door, which was nearer our last hotel, and pushing past the lunch time buffet table with all our bags and attachments as we smiled politely at the open mouths and stares that followed us across the cavernous restaurant. Actually, in truth that didn't really happen. No-one seemed to notice us or blink twice at our bags. We were doing posh, but not Ritz-Carlton posh. We made the most of our two hours of free drinks and nibbles though, splashed in the pool and sauna a bit and before you could say "Where's our butler?" our time was up and we had to check out. All was now done and seen in Kathmandu and we were ready to set off to the second biggest town, via a very small one on the way. It would be an early start though so one more night was necessary back in Thamel, beside the snake charmers, before we were on the bus and out of town.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Off To The Jungle For Big Game Hunting

Chitwan National Park, about 120Kms south of Kathmandu is a reserve, home to rhinos, tigers, elephants, monitor lizards, crocodiles, leopards and many other slightly less exiting creatures. For the price of a single day's budget in China, we had paid for the two of us to have a three day trip to the park. The price included accommodation, all food, all transport, a trip to the elephant breeding center, a jungle trek, canoe trip, elephant safari, cultural performance, traditional village tour and park entry fees - not bad!

The bus journey was a fairly effortless 6 hour ordeal though our promised free pick up from our hotel turned out to be a man standing waiting to lead us on foot across town to the bus station. Our hotel was a little basic but nice enough and the five of us soon settled into the routine of being ordered here and there by the hotel staff who were keeping us on schedule for the hectic series of events.

It felt like the off season, with all the hotels being almost completely empty and a lot of construction work going on around the small town. There were about 8 to 10 staff members in our hotel who did everything from the jungle guiding through to serving in the restaurant, cooking the food, driving the jeep and building the extension out back.

Night 1 and we visited the breeding center and saw the elephants chomping down on their elephant snacks while the baby elephants looked on in jealousy (they were too young for Dumbo junk food). Next we were shipped down to the cultural exhibition hall to see a series of tribal dances with sticks which was all very entertaining. The performers consisted of about a dozen male dancers who reenacted tribal boogies for our entertainment. The best bit though was the one dance that actually had a part for the women. Rather than share their earning with a couple of girls for the sake of one dance, the two newest members got bedecked in skirts and lipstick and pushed out onto the stage. The audience politely pretended not to notice.

It was up early the next morning and out to go rhino hunting. Our weapons for the hunt were cameras to shoot them with and elephants to find them with. We had two elephants and we sat in baskets on their backs for three and a half hours while we explored savanna, rivers, forest and grassland in search of what is not known to be an easy to hide animal, given it's size. Our hunt was unsuccessful but we had a great time sitting atop an elephant, our legs dangling while it waded through the water and marsh. It is quite the odd sensation at first as sitting just behind it's shoulders, you lurch back and forth and side to side. Despite their size, they are incredibly gentle and there isn't so much as a hint of their approach from their completely silent footsteps.

Lunch followed and then it was out into the jungle this time to go tiger hunting. First we had a boat ride down the river to reach the heart of the jungle. The boat, a dug-out canoe, was not very stable as we were carried down stream and the five of us sat in a singular terrorised row as we pondered what would happen if we toppled into the crocodile infested water. We might have been less concerned if our guide had not shown us a crocodile lying smiling at us in the water as we got into the canoe. We made it safely to the jungle and then, as an echo of the monsoon opened above our heads we entered the undergrowth looking for our prey. Due to the sudden down pour, our guide stopped his safety speech early and we didn't actually find out what we were supposed to do if we did find a tiger, and if it rather considered that we were the prey. Our only defense was our guide's stick since all weapons are banned from the reserve. As it was we needn't have worried as the closest we came was a fresh paw print and a couple of trees with big claw scratches in them, marking favourite scratching posts. By then end of the day we were knackered and an early night saw us up early again the next morning for our traditional village tour.

We were then due to have returned to Kathmandu but decided to stay for an extra day and pay 75 pence each to go and wash the elephants down at the river. We decided that with the size of the elephants, and their stomping and rolling and splashing in the water that the crocodiles would keep a wide berth and they seemed to do just that, or at least if they didn't, they didn't seem hungry. The biggest danger seemed to be having an elephant roll over on top of you or getting washed away in what was an incredibly strong current, not that the elephants seemed to notice. We had a lot of fun down at the water and got to ride the elephants bareback and get lifted up onto their backs by their trunks. Nic and I were a little disappointed because we thought the emphasis of the whole thing would be on us giving the elephants a good time and a bit of a scrub but it rather seemed the opposite. Still, we decided that if they weren't down splashing around with us as scooshing us from their trunks, they would have more likely been standing out in the very hot sun somewhere and they still seemed to be having a good time too so we decided our money was still in the elephant's favour. The afternoon was spent with a few beers and more splashing about, this time in the swimming pool of a near by, slightly posher hotel.

We had a nice last night with Valerie and Nicolas who we had now spent about two and a half weeks with. They had not spent much of their trip before this point with many other people, and neither had we. Our jeep buddying for the trip out of Tibet could not have been a better choice as we found that couple to couple, we had quite the number of similarities between us and interests. The following morning we parted ways as we got on different buses and as Nic and I returned to Kathmandu we wondered how we had managed such a perfect match.

Thanks Guys.

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