Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Back in the Saddle

Well, it has officially been many many days since these keys were clacked in any way shape or form and my poor little miss Mac was beginning to feel utterly rejected so I figured it was time to get her back in gear. Strange as it may seem, after 3 weeks away from technology in the Himalayas, I was not actually chomping at the bit to get back in the saddle – in fact – quite the contrary. After a healthy dose of techno starvation I was somewhat repelled by the thought of switching this puppy on – partly since ‘getting back to nature’ left me void of a desire for information – but partly because I was just too damn lazy (and a bit exhausted) to face the prospect of catching up on a months worth of blogging. But of course – since habits are hard to break (and a habit is formed in 22 days or something like that – so definitely less time than I had been plugging away on an almost daily basis at this old blog thingimijiggy stuff, prior to the trek), the urge to document and write about my thoughts and experiences has been gradually creeping back into my conscience over the last couple of days. Then yesterday I found myself on our long bus ride, composing sentences in my mind and trying to commit them to memory for recall later.
So here we are: back in India, Darjeeling to be precise. Sipping on tea (but of course – what else does one do in Darjeeling when it’s cloudy out with not a Himalayan peak in sight) and I’m back at the keyboard. And yes: I’m a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin! So I guess I’ll just jump right in from way back about a week ago when we returned from our trek (I will of course fill you in on the details of the trek when my urge to mindlessly type up the daily ‘journal’ I kept en route), exhausted but very contented and satisfied – well actually that’s not entirely true –but to sum up – the trek was stupendous, spectacular, all I imagined and more – and then it ended – and it all felt like a bit of an anti-climax. Not because it ended, but because of the way it ended. We had decided to hike out from Lukla, instead of flying like most, to experience some of rural Nepal, and we had been warned that it was tough territory. The days of hiking were long and hard and the ups and downs steep. Well – we thought – after 2 weeks at altitude it will be a breeze. We are in shape! No problem! But it was HARD! Now that in it self was not so much of a problem but our final day to reach Kathmandu was a very long and bumpy bus ride from Shivalaya, which began at 5.30am. The early start was not so tough since we’d been waking before 6 with sunrise most mornings, but since it was around 6.30pm before we stepped off the bus, those 13 hours of jumping and jostling just kinda took the wind out of our sails. The return to Kathmandu was supposed to be a victorious fanfare of civilization and perhaps a glass of wine – and instead it was – get me to a room with a shower and maybe I’ll see the real world again in the morning. The planned celebration was postponed and I felt like I’d been robbed of my achievement. Three weeks of hiking had earned me a hurrah – and somehow it felt like the moment passed. But oh well – some celebrations are only in thought and not deed I suppose. We did buy that promised bottle of wine we’d been dreaming of for days, but I drank most of it alone the following day while my hubby was lost in computer hell, trying to figure out why his photo’s wouldn’t transfer from hard drive to laptop and ‘not in the mood’ for a glass of wine and a ‘cheers to us’ – oh well – like a true alcoholic I drank alone and tried to retrieve that jovial celebratory spirit from the deep well of despair it was diving down into……OK OK I’m being a drama queen – it wasn’t that bad really – I mean – I had a nice lazy day – read my book – had a massage and generally felt a little bit good to be back in the real world – but like I said – a bit of an anticlimax.
Our second full day back in Kathmandu was also kinda slow to get going but after a leisurely breakfast on our little roof-top terrace we visited Bodnath stupa

– a gargantuan Buddhist monument just outside the city centre with prayer flags floating in the breeze from the centre to multiple anchor points all around the surrounding courtyard.

We strolled around taking it all in and as always I had the delights of personal commentary under his breath from my cynical narrator and companion – berating the phony buddhists (aka white hippy travelers) for their public displays of Buddhist prayer.

After a couple of loops to admire the perfect proportions of the huge white dome with it’s central golden spire, almost akin to a huge white bosom with a nipple resembling something from the brazier section of a Madonna costume we picked one of the many roof-top terraces for a spot of lunch and a different, elevated angle of viewing.

From this new perspective we were reminded once again of our greater surroundings – the Kathmandu valley, crammed full of people and buildings and in the distance those omnipotent Himalayan snow covered peaks. Ahh Kathmandu! Now we were in the Stupa mood so we decided to make the journey across town to the monkey temple. We decided that another tempo ride might give us both stiff necks (very mini mini buses that seem big enough for perhaps 3.5 normal sized white guys that cram about 14 Nepalese into them and shuttle passengers all around the city for the cost of a grape – we couldn’t actually sit up straight without hitting our heads) and weren’t sure which number tempo would get us close to where we were headed so we decided to splash out for a cab to take us direct. Now on leaving the Stupa area the first cab driver wanted 600rp – but I knew that was over the top so we headed away from the ‘tourist price’ area and bargained our way down to just 250rp for the 30 min ride via the ring road to the opposite side of the city. I was quite proud of myself and impressed with my hard nosed bargaining skills that have been coming along quite nicely (that’s less than $4 people).

Now my memories of the monkey temple were quite spectacular, since on my last visit I happened to coincidentally time my arrival at the temple with the Nepalese New Year; so there were literally thousands of devotees hanging around in a jovial spirit. This time around however there were just lots and lots of tourists taking pictures and a really amateur looking music video shoot going on with a couple of Nepalese gangster rapper wannabes who looked like they’d dressed for an 80’s costume party as the bastard child of Eminem and Michael Jackson. (Just picture it!)

The saving grace though was (once again) those darn mountains glowing away in the distance and the wonderful aerial view of Kathmandu, since the monkey temple sits on the top of a steep hill to the West of the city centre.

We strolled the 3km back to our hotel, crossing the river and taking in the ‘suburbs’ of Kathmandu, arriving just in time for sundown from our rooftop with the last of the red wine from our celebration splurge (actually a surprising good Cab Merlot blend from Australia for less than $10 – about half our daily budget).
Our final day in the Kathmandu valley was spent in the city of Patan,

which is basically a much smaller, quieter and in many ways more well kept version of Kathmandu city. Although it used to be a completely separate city, these days the border between Kathmandu and Patan is pretty much non-existent as the cities have grown and all the small towns and hamlets of the valley have pretty much mingled into one. Although it was much less impressive and not half as packed with sights and artifacts as Kathmandu it was still a fascinating day and was a nice way to escape the crowds.

To say ‘goodbye’ to Kathmandu we decided our final dinner would be in a traditional Nepalese restaurant but when we arrived to find the ‘entertainment’ of a ‘cultural show’ in full swing, the enthusiasm for a dose of Kathmandu culture was written all over my darling husband’s face so we opted for the backpacker version – looked more like a soup-kitchen from the d├ęcor but provided us with a final tasty dose of Dal Bhat (the traditional Nepalese dish) by candle-light…… not for the sake of romance – there was yet another power cut in that part of town!

And we were on the road again. I do have to note that since my last visit 14 yrs ago the roads have drastically improved but since there are still many pot-holed and unpaved sections of highway this was not exactly something we were over the moon about – but a necessary evil. We were on our way to Chitwan National Park to hunt for the ever-elusive tiger and maybe a Rhino or two. Twice our journey was halted by mysterious and unexplained ‘hold-ups’ but eventually we arrived to the warmth and lush tropical surroundings of the terrain (the fertile strip of land separating the mountains from the Indian low-lands), and we settled in to the Jungle Lagoon Safari Lodge.

We had only one full day in the park but boy what a day. Our 6am wake up call sounded pretty much like this: “your elephant awaits”. Literally – we walked out of our lodge to be greeted by a small group of elephants and their mahouts (their drivers) and climbed up a ladder to a mounting platform from which we took our place in the ‘saddle’. Actually it wasn’t a saddle, but a small padded area kind of like an upside down table with cushions inside strapped to the back of the elephant that fit 4 riders. Once ‘onboard’, our elephant transported us to the forest where we would find wild boar and various kinds of deer, birds and butterflies.

I think the highlight of the day for me was later that morning when our guide took us to the riverside for elephant bath time. At 11am every morning the mahouts bring their elephants down to the river for a good scrub and tourists are welcome to assist. For a 200rp (less than $3) tip Darko and I took turns riding an elephant bareback into the river and giggled with glee as our elephant doused us with water from the river via her trunk.

It was truly incredible to be sitting on the back of the largest land mammal on the planet taking a bath. The elephants are so well trained by their keepers that with a simple command they can wiggle their massive behind in such a way that you suddenly feel like a cowboy at the rodeo riding a bucking bronco, and off you go, into the river. The mahout will then quickly throw you a hand, pull you back up and wait for you to be back in position before performing the whole little stunt all over again and there you are back in the river. What fun! Not once, did I feel afraid or scared for my safety, surrounded by these ten-ton creatures, playing in the water. Amazing. I even got to stand on my elephant’s head before diving into the river. Definitely the most fun I’ve had in a long long time.
And the afternoon came in a close second for favorite moments. After a lazy lunch it was time for our canoe trip and jungle safari on foot. We paddled down the river, watching, surprisingly calmly, the lazy crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks and admiring the many beautiful and unusual birds passing by.

We saw Storks, Egrets and many different types of Kingfisher, many with almost luminescent plumage of bright orange and shining turquoise. After a few km’s we were deposited ashore (on a stretch without the sunbathing crocs) and headed into the bush to find some more wildlife. We had not got even a couple of hundred meters from the bank of the river when our guide stopped us to explain what to do if we were to run into any dangerous animals. Only a few words into his explanation and the mention of something about climbing trees we suddenly became aware of some movement less than 30 meters away. Standing right there in a clearing, staring our way, was a mother rhino with her baby in tow. We stood completely still in awe and watched in disbelief as she sniffed the air and with an almost nonchalant toss of her horn turned and walked away. We followed, a healthy distance behind and heard rustling through the undergrowth. We climbed a tree for a better vantage point, we listened….. nothing. As stealthily as they had appeared, they had disappeared into the jungle. And so we continued on and found deer, a mere cat type animal, and many birds. We thought our rhino encounter had come and gone and then suddenly our guide stopped dead in his tracks and entreated us to find a tree fast and get up it. We froze and saw immediately ahead, not more than 20 metres from us, poppa rhino, chillin’ in the bush. Clearly he knew we were there – he looked our way many times, but since the eyesight and hearing of a rhino is exceedingly poor and we stayed as still as we could he pretty much ignored us.

We watched for several minutes and then slowly retreated, leaving him to his peace and quiet. Once again: amazing! From there we made our way to the elephant breeding centre where we saw several baby elephants and their mothers being fed by their keepers.
Our time in Nepal was coming to an end. We were sad to be leaving, but looking forward to our next stop and final Himalayan destination, Darjeeling. But of course before we could reach this tea-lovers mountain oasis…… one last bus ride. The Mahendra Highway runs the length of Nepal through the Terrai and this was the only way for us to reach the border. Almost 12 hours of bumping and jostling. And since it is not a hugely popular tourist route – we were forced to do the journey by public bus. Our seats were a squeeze, but at least we had seats, which is more than can be said for many of the passengers along for the ride. We stopped more times than I could count to pick up or drop off passengers and the aisles were packed. One guy even had a live chicken in a little wicker basket with him, which he carefully placed in the overhead shelving for the duration of his ride. It was actually during this long and arduous ride that I started to get re-inspired to ‘catch up’ with my blog. As I stared out of the window, watching the daily life of Nepal pass by I was once again impressed by the constant contrasts and juxtapositions staring back at me every minute that I spend in this colorful continent (not to mention the nosey Nepalese men…..staring that is!).
A stream of consciousness series of observations:
A town full of dirt and grime, a bike workshop with tools and pieces of engine strewn across a cement courtyard, fields of agriculture with crops of mustard, and grain with colors from green through yellow and orange to golden and straw. Seeds and grain spread on plastic sheets and tarps to dry by the roadside. Women in colorful saris of red, orange, turquoise, blue and green striding through the fields with bundles of straw balanced atop their heads. Dry riverbeds. A truck parked in the middle of the dry riverbed with colorfully sari-clad women taking rocks and boulders from the expanse of rock and placing them in the truck. Fields being ploughed by ancient methods: wooden ploughs, pulled by a pair of white humped cows, driven by the farmer. Pigs snuffling in the dirt alongside chickens and mangy dogs. Wooden huts, mud huts and in the gardens orange, yellow and red gladioli injecting a splash of vibrant color into the dirty view. It is interesting to me that sometimes in this land of ‘survival’ there are signs of appreciation for beauty and aesthetics but surrounded by so much filth: A flower for the sake of beauty. And marigolds everywhere that are cut and the petals used for offerings to the gods. And then a huge dam which we passed over on the road. The water still and glass-like, offering a perfect reflection of the man-made structure that has been built to harness this incredible force of nature, the power of water, a natural resource that Nepal is beginning to use for it’s own benefit. Roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetables. Bunches of bananas. Pyramids of apples. Shacks full of snacks, packets of nibbles, biscuits and chocolate. Roadside cemeteries. Holy men in orange robes with bare-feet and painted faces walking down the road. Many many people walking down the road in both directions and cycling and brightly painted trucks and honking and honking and honking.
And finally, after dark, we reach Karkabitta, the border town for India. It was almost 6pm when we reached the border and had to ask a policeman to point us toward the immigration building. In most countries with land borders there is only one way to get across that border and that cannot possibly be done without presenting papers to a border guard or immigration officer. Here the locals were just freely crossing like it was any other road. We actually had to go and find the office. When we presented our passports we had an entertaining conversation with the official who was subtly implying that we might need to offer a bribe, since our visa had actually expired the day before. However, we had been informed on arrival that if we wanted to stay longer there would not be a problem we would simply pay an extra $2 fee per day. So I clearly and calmly stated that we were aware of the policy and were happy to pay the correct fee and be on our way. He then suggested that instead of the $4 US we gave him we should give Nepalese money – 500rps. We politely declined, since that amount is closer to $8 than 4. Did he really think after a month in Nepal we wouldn’t know the exchange rate? Can’t blame a man for trying I suppose.
Next we walked the km long no-mans land to the Indian side in pitch darkness. As Darko happily pitched in – a country that in 20 years will have the #1 economy in the world cannot even light the road to it’s entry – this seemed quite bizarre to us. Next we had to go through the whole process of searching for the immigration office that we had gone through on the Nepal side all over again, to find a small, badly lit building with an un-uniformed ‘official’ sitting at a desk with a pile of papers and a hand-written leather bound ledger. He wrote our passport details in the ledger, gave us a stamp and sent us on our way. Welcome back to India!
After a day of snacking on curry flavored chips and coconut cookies, in a bouncing bus, we were dying for some real food - so we found a shack with some tasty Samosas and then joined a rabble of locals waiting for the bus to Siliguri, the town from which we could catch a jeep to Darjeeling in the morning. When the bus arrived there was an almighty jostle to alight the bus, but somehow, with the help of my 20kilo backpack and some brute force I managed to shove my way through and make it to the door of the bus and we were on (with a seat).
We were looking forward to a few days of doing not much of anything but enjoying the view and saying a final goodbye to the mountains in Darjeeling, so we were sadly disappointed to see that as we went winding up the mountain, gaining altitude and losing centigrade at a high rate we were also ascending into the clouds. Those wonderful snow capped peaks were looking set to elude us on this last stop of our Himalayan tour. Not to be deterred by this slight setback we set off up the steep alleys of Darjeeling to reach the highest ridge of the town and find a ‘room with a view’, optimistic that the clouds would lift and the magical views would appear.
It is now day 3 in Darjeeling (I started this entry 2 days ago and then got interrupted by some fun conversation in the cafe with a fellow traveler and her friend who actually lives here in Darjeeling) and although we’ve put on a brave face and visited the zoo (I’ve now seen a tiger and a snow-leopard through a chicken wire fence), sampled some of the world’s finest Harrod’s stocked Darjeeling tea in the world (and seen where and how it is processed) and sampled most of the cakes in the best bakery and tea shop in town I am still sitting here typing with my head quite literally in the clouds. While we are well aware that we probably used up most of our good weather Karma in Nepal with some incredibly perfect blue sky days throughout our whole trek, I will still leave Darjeeling feeling somewhat cheated by this dam thick white glue hanging around us in the sky, which shows absolutely no signs of going anywhere anytime soon (especially since it’s completely still, with not a hint of a breeze to help shift the dam stuff). So, if I could give a word of advice about visiting Darjeeling: before you make the journey, check the weather report and if it predicts low cloud – give it a miss. To be fair to the place, it does have a certain charm to it, even without the magnificent views that are apparently hiding just behind the mist, and the food here is pretty good – so far having had several great meals at decent prices, not to mention the tea which I have a newly invigorated love for, having seen exactly how it is made (don’t forget I’m originally English), but truthfully – if the views are in hiding there’s just not much to it.
We’re going to give it a couple more days, just incase the sun decides to come up but after that we will head south to Calcutta and the Sunderbans National Park for another shot at glimpsing a tiger in the wild and then…… well – we’ll get to that when we get to it.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Arriving to Kathmandu

It is virtually impossible not to be charmed by Kathmandu. After revisiting Bali last year following many years away from Asia I was sadly disappointed by how much it had changed (and not in a good way) and so I was somewhat nervous to return to a place I had always held in that coveted top spot of ‘favorite places I’ve been’. I was never fully certain why Nepal held such a mystical power over me – but it has long been beckoning me back (as had India) so it was with great trepidation and yet high hopes that I walked across the border just 3 days ago with my fingers crossed.
Since we had been traveling for the best part of 3 full days to get that far we decided we would postpone the last leg of the journey to Kathmandu a couple more days and call in on a little town just an hour from the border named Lumbini which was the birth place of Siddartha Guatama – also known as ‘the Buddha’.

Having skipped right by it last time and after having been considerably developed in recent years due to it’s new status as a world heritage site we thought it might be a nice interlude to buses and trains. We were right. We arrived to a tiny little one street town lit by only a few battery-powered lamps (the power outages in Nepal are a daily occurrence) and at once found a place to stay. Since our travels had thoroughly exhausted us we took dinner at the only restaurant in town and made it an early night wondering what the morning might bring. We weren’t disappointed. We arose to find that the mustard fields surrounding us were shrouded in a thick morning mist, which created a serene and impenetrable wall around us. We had read that the development site surrounding Buddha’s birthplace was very spread out so we rented bicycles (the old school kind with no gears - mine even had a little basket on the front) and headed out to explore. As we entered the gates we were transported to a world of calm and tranquility, and the dirt road we cycled down led us to the centre of it all: a marker stone on the exact spot that the little Buddha in training was popped out into the world.

This in itself was fairly unimpressive (as was the Askoka pillar, apparently erected in the 2nd century BC, as a homage to the Buddha from one of the kings – but that looked more like a concrete pillar that was hoisted some time in the last 6 months), but once we explored further afield and discovered the eternal flame and the many Buddhist enclosures in various stages of completion around the complex we were reminded that sometimes history in the making can be as intriguing as the really old stuff.

Truly there were some spectacular spaces and details to be seen and the grounds themselves are like a bizarre combination of the Palace of Versaille in France, the Cambridge Backs in England and a Balinese Rice Paddy.
So, things had got off to a great start in Nepal. We had a lovely siesta, since the mid day heat was somewhat stifling and then ended the day cycling once more to the far end of the complex where the ‘World Peace Stupa’ stands in all her glory and literally seemed to glow a message of peace in the last golden rays of daylight.

I’m not sure if I was just feeling sentimental, maybe the heat of the day had gone to my head, maybe cycling all day had thrown me a little off balance or maybe the energy infused into the Stupa and the intentions of peace meditated on by the many Buddhists around the world who had been instrumental in the building of this fabulous monument have actually created an aura of peace about this place but as we cycled up to the entrance I found myself having a ‘moment’ and feeling an incredibly moving surge of hope and belief that peace on the planet is a real possibility and if only everyone could visit this place and find this feeling there might be hope for the world and it’s inhabitants yet! Soppy stuff I know but I just thought I’d share it with you anyway!

My hopes had been lifted and I felt that the percentage chance that I would still indeed be smitten with Nepal had just gone up by at least another 10%. Our 7am ‘Express luxury mini bus to Kathmandu’ the following day was ready and waiting by 6.30am and we were off. Even though it turned out the bus was not actually all that luxury and not particularly ‘express’ (arriving at 5pm instead of the scheduled 3pm) I was not disheartened, and when we finally alighted in Kathmandu my spirits began to soar. It actually looked much lighter and brighter and ‘prettier’ than I remembered. After one month in India we have pretty much habituated to the filth and squalor of our surroundings and come to expect dusty and mucky piles of garbage on every street corner and down every alleyway, but the Nepalese have apparently got their shit together far more than their neighbors, in that department. Now I’m not saying they’d win the ‘World’s cleanest City’ award or anything like that – but let’s just say it’s a big improvement. And the construction seems to have become a little more streamlined and colorful than I recalled from my last visit with the tower blocks coming in all kinds of bright summer hues in blue, green, pink and yellow. In my minds eye I always remembered Kathmandu as humble and warm but a little dull and dusty grey. This new Kathmandu was vibrant and energized. Now it’s true that it certainly has come close to stepping over that line of development and in Thamel (the main tourist hub) become a war zone of neon and noise, but somehow, to me at least, it still manages to have that charm that can perhaps only come from the gradual higgeldy piggeldy layering of ‘development’ that has obviously occurred over time as each new establishment attempts to outdo the next to get the viewers attention. It is almost a miniature rustic Hong Kong or NY Times Square– but nothing like either of them at the same time.

Anyway, the real clincher for my seal of approval and affirmation that I still love it here came today when we embarked upon a walking tour of the city, suggested in the ever-faithful ‘Lonely Planet’. We didn’t even manage to complete the tour before the exhaustion and hunger set in because although it suggests the tour will take only 2 hours we had already spent 3 and got only half the way around. The reason was quite simply that everywhere we turned there was something to look at, something to explore and photograph, and something to be amazed by.

It’s like walking into a living museum, only the people are really living there and going about their life without the slightest notice of the centuries old monuments and sculptures that stand in the way of their day. It is truly amazing and magnificent to round a corner of a street in Kathmandu, just like any other busy junction of the tourist zone with souvenir stores and outdoor clothing outlets to be greeted by a square containing a breathtaking Stupa surrounded by multiple shrines and monuments, all centuries old and in various states of repair. Quite literally phenomenal!

And all the while the sun rained down on us with a beautiful warm glow making everything shine.

The Kathmandu that greeted me today was even better than the one I remembered and the accommodation and food has definitely gone up a notch or two. The Nepalese are much, much smarter businessmen than their Indian counterparts across the border. They understand that with so much competition on their doorstep (as new establishments have been built) the quality has to go up – which of course means the price goes up too – but by Western standards it’s still pretty cheap here and we are actually paying less than $8 for a room with a clean bathroom and a hot shower (a luxury that was rare on my last visit).
After an errand run to register our impending trek, an amazingly cheap and delightful late lunch in a non-touristy part of town and tea on our roof-top, overlooking the mayhem of the old city I decided it was time for a bit of a deeper delve into the heart of Nepal and the heart of my journey to this part of the world so I headed off to the Buddhist Meditation Centre for a lecture and guided meditation (free). Strangely the teacher was from Spain – but was very illuminating in the ways of the Buddha and I really felt something click during my meditation – so I am seriously considering a 10-day Vipassana when we return from our trek (silent meditation retreat). We’ll see!
Tomorrow we plan to spend the day making the final preparations for our trek and I have to say, I cannot wait to be ‘off to the hills’ and actually set my sights on the almighty Everest. This is going to be a truly amazing experience. Since access to power will be very limited and internet connection exorbitantly costly (not surprising at 5000M above sea level) I won’t be posting while we are trekking but I am planning on writing the old fashioned way (with pen and paper) on a daily basis and typing it up when we return so have no fear – you will be subjected to the daily details and mindless minutia of life on the trekking trail in due course. (As long as we make it back alive with all of our fingers and toes intact!!)