Last few days in Nepal and then back to India for a second dose....
30.04.2009 - 22.05.2009 40 °C
The last time I wrote an entry I had just got back to Pokhara, Nepal after my 15 day trek!! As you can imagine I took it steady for a few days and let the blisters heal, though some 20 days later they are still healing! Pokhara is a beautiful place and whilst we started to feel the effects of the imminent monsoon on our last night we were blessed with this gorgeous sunset after eating BBQ chicken from a street seller!
Early next morning we got on the bus for the 10 hour journey to Katmandu, Nepal's capital!! Katmandu, whilst is full of things to see and do, it is highly polluted and seems to suffer from having some of the craziest drivers. Imagine roads 6 meters wide with cars, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cyclists and pedestrians all completing for the same space, its bedlam!! Add to that the constant torrent of shop owners trying to sell you the very same thing that the guy down the street tried to sell you, the homeless glue sniffing packs of kids and various other beggars and you start to get a feel for streets of Katmandu's Thamel district.
Whilst Katmandu is quite a dirty city and I have not made it sound a paradise, it is somewhere that I am glad to have been. For one thing once you get out of the more touristy / back packer side of Thamel there are many parts of the Katmandu Valley that have much to offer. There are more temples, stupas and monuments than you can throw a stick at!
One of the more scared areas is Pashupati, this is various temples and stupas along side some burning ghats. Ghats are basically open air crematoriums, they wrap up the body and cremate it at the side of the river and put the ashes into the river! When we were there many burnings were taking place, the whole ghatt area has the smell of burning flesh, not nice!! Whilst the thought of my family having a massive bonfire when I pass away doesn't sound like my cup of tea, Hindus consider this to be one of the most scared ceremonies! For the record I have been pondering about my method of burial and at the moment I am toying with been cryogenically frozen like Walt Disney or just been thrown down a cravasse, hopefully I will have a few more years before I have to start thinking about those decisions....
Another day we jumped on a bus and went to an area called Bhaktpur, here we visited various temples and certainly got to see the more untouched parts of Katmandu. On the way back we even got involved in some protests, whilst they were mainly trouble free, we did see people burning tires! We were told it was something to do with the prime minister and the president of Nepal!!
After 5 days in Katmandu it was time to say good bye to my Russian friends and get the 17 hour bus night bus to Kakarvitta, the Indian boarder! I will miss Nepal, the country, terrain and its people!! Only in Nepal can streets be littered with people selling the same things on rugs next to the road, can you ride on the top of jam packed bus with the goats, see people fixing the unfixable and get one of the best fillet steaks I have ever had for £3.50!! Some things I will not miss, the spitting (not just your standard spitting but people really giving it some, one morning I got woke up by a women doing it), the pollution, level of the driving and litter everywhere. Though I am going to India, are things going to be much different?
No sooner were we 30 minutes outside Katmandu we got stuck in a massive traffic jam, for about 7 hours in total! Night buses are notoriously dangerous in Nepal, mainly because the roads are so bad and most vechiles don't exactly come with a service history!! It was now 12pm, I was in a upright seat that bounced up and down and was in front of a guy that insisted on clearing his throat every 30 seconds!! As a last resort I had bought some Vallium sleeping tablets for about 10p each, I took half, the next thing I knew it was still dark and we were still driving, I took the second half. Next thing I knew it was 7:30! Whilst I would not condone their use all the time, that particular journey would have been unbearable without! in the end the bus journey took 21 hours.
I successfully got through the boarder crossing and then had to get another bus for two hours to a place called Silguri and then a jeep to Darjeeling, the land of tea!! I have already mentioned how dangerous some of the journeys I have taken have been, this jeep took on a whole new level. We were jam packed in a shared jeep going into hair pins with sheer drops at the side, some of the over taking maneuverers I could hardly watch, they seem to think that flashing the lights and using the horn are enough to stop you crashing into a jeep doing the same thing coming the other way.... To add insult to injury I was sat sideways in the back on a sweaty seat and every time he went over a bump my bottom would get some air and I would get a mini arse ripper, this is a snowboarding term used for when you fall (usually on a jump) and one of your arse cheeks hits the ground promptly followed by the other, causing a ripping effect on the anus..... More painful than childbirth for about 10 minutes, fact!!!
So I was now in Darjeeling, back in the mountains, some 2200 meters above sea level and famous largely for the narrow gage train and tea plantations. The highlights were seeing the various temples (though temple viewings are becoming a regular occurrence now), walking through the market bazzars and a visit to a tea plantation where they produce tea for Harrods. I also got up at 3:30am to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, we got a jeep and the driver insisted on booming out Akon full blast at that ungodly hour, the sunrise was slightly disappointing, rising from behind the clouds instead of the 3rd highest mountain in the world Khangchendzonga and Everest. What really spoilt it though was the other 1000 or so people who also raced up the hill from Darjeeling that morning in jeeps! I can assure you that if you had to trek to Tiger Hill I would have been stood with a dozen western tourists and the odd Indian tourist....
The next location was Kolkata, after contending with the 3 hour jeep journey back down again I arrived early evening to catch my sleeper train. I was back on Indian trains! My first Indian journey towards Nepal I booked second class air con, this time I decided to go sleeper non AC, this is the way that most middle class Indian people travel and I whilst AC is not that expensive (to us) I wanted to travel as a Indian would and at the same time save brass... What can I say its the Yorkshireman in me! As experiences go it was fine and I slept fairly well once I got on the train....... Seems the ticket I booked was put on a waiting list and there was no space for me, eventually after running around like a blue arsed fly I managed to get on another train that departed 30 minutes later and got into Kolkata 2 hours later! Result! Next morning the time when we were due in went by, I asked a family near me if we were anywhere near (bearing in mind Indian trains have no announcements) and they told me that during the night the train had to go a different way because of engineering works and we were running 4.5 hours late!! Welcome back to India I thought! One of the boys who was sat near me got chatting, his English was probably better than mine and kept me entertained the rest of the way. I think his family were quite well off and would have been in AC class if there had been space, they were from Goa and once again I found myself in company of Indian people who oozed nothing but politeness, honesty and generosity. As we said good bye they even gave me all their telephone numbers and told me to say hello if was ever in Goa, though I thought the young lad also got a good deal with a bike ride and one of my Mum's Sunday lunches if he ever came to England.... This really made me think again and whilst its easy to get the impression that many Indian people are just con artists and beggars I am positive that the majority are hard working, ambitious, clever and would make excellent employees! Maybe that's why the Indian economy has been doing so well over recent years?
I spent a couple of days in Kolkata, mainly to get my camera fixed as the flash had broken in Nepal!! Kolkata is also another city that is very dirty. You can actually see people living in rubbish tips, their houses built out of purely rubbish!! I spent a rainy afternoon in the Indian Museum and I can honestly say that if it wasn't for the rain I would have been out after 10 minutes, imagine room after room of wooden display cases with 1000's of rocks and pieces of bone! One of the 'hi lights' was a 30 meter fossilised tree!! At one stage I thought things were looking up when I found the art gallery, when I got inside they were displaying faded, postage stamped sized paintings! Maybe some people might find this quite interesting, but not for me, certainly missing flashing lights and things you can touch! I was now also starting to realise that the Indians have two tier entry fee's, one price for Indians and another price for foreigners, sometimes the foreign price can be 10/20 times the price of the Indian entrance fee!! In England that would be classed as racism....
From Kolkata the next stop Bodgaya. I was travelling by train, sleeper class and once again when I got on the train and sorted out the high pitched stupid Indian women that seemed to think she was meant to be in seat/bed, everything was OK. She seemed reluctant move and could see the sweat pouring off me from carrying my two rucksacks, plus another bag in my hand and after walking at pace from the emergency taxi I had to get! i had get the taxi as I had stupidly gone to the wrong train station in the first place.... I was not in the mood and she got a Leeds warning, didn't hear much from her for the rest of the journey!
I was in the top bunk of three, imagine a window with two seats horizontally either side then a seat across the window at the other side and a walkway down the middle. Each of these seats is for three people to sit on through the day then come bedtime someone jumps on the top bunk and the back rest converts into a middle bunk. So that's 9 people per bay, though I have seen people sharing and people slept on floors. Sleeping on the top bunk is OK as you can go to bed whenever you want and as long as you have got your bags locked up its not a bad option if you don't mind the heat. They have three electric fans per compartment that essentially blow warm air around, everybody keeps the windows open to try and let a bit of breeze in, but the noise is unbearable. Didn't get a wink of sleep that night, still at least I am doing it the Indian way.... and if I remember rightly I was actually too cold at one point in the AC carriage!
Bodgaya is small two bit town but did have a very impressive temple called Mahabodhi and it felt like the most untouched in terms of the tourist trade to date. One afternoon I went for a walk to some caves where Buddha has meant to have spent a number of years and whilst the caves were a little disappointing the walk was not. I am not sure I went the way the lonely planet had recommended and the more I think about it the more I think that I did off road it slightly. I firstly walked over a sandy flood plain, which once the monsoon comes will be impassible and you would need to walk to the bridge much further down, which in hind sight might be the bridge that the lonely planet mentioned....... I then found myself walking though farming villages, with kids shouting hello and running along with me, when I got my camera out they went mental and I can only liken it to a scenes from Blue Peter that I have locked in my mind when John Lesley would go to these remote African villages and would be surrounded by kids.
Next stop Varanasi, this time I negotiated the train without any problems. Though it did involve getting an auto rickshaw from Bodgaya to Gaya, where the train departed from. I had read on the internet and in my lonely planet guide that this road after dark was quite dangerous and shouldn't really be travelled alone, I didn't have much choice in the matter. Here I was in an auto rickshaw with two Indian guys, who could have taken me anywhere..... Once we got going I reached into my rucksack and took out my leatherman and had the blade at the ready, I knew what the station looked like and thought if they tried anything on they had messed with the wrong person. For most of the journey I was thinking of what I would say if they did try anything, I think 'you have f@cked with the wrong man today boys' was the bookies favourite by the time we arrive at the station, I gave them the money and said good bye! Still made me think that travelling alone in some of these more remote places in India can be quite dangerous.
I was not on the train for long and soon found myself walking round the narrow streets of Varanasi at 3:00am looking for my guest house, this place was like a maze!! Some guy decided to show me the way, obviously he would have asked for a bit of cash for helping me out. He was walking down these dingy streets with sacred cows, dogs and people all lying around asleep, add to that the associated faecal matter of the animals and probably humans littering the paths and it was like dodging a mine field. I made sure that I put plenty of distance between myself and the 'guide' just to make sure he didn't try anything, I also had one hand on the trusty leatherman just in case!! I would read later that the streets of Varanasi are not the safest place to walk around at 3am. I eventually told the 'guide' to bugger off and found my own way to the guest house! Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrams come to wash a lifetime of sins in the Ganges or to cremate their loved ones. Whilst many people do have a swim in the Ganges I gave it a swerve, mainly because I read that there is something like 500 million times more effluent than the recommended levels for bathing water and I saw a dead body floating at the side of the river not far from where these were swimming.
The guest house I was staying at had a good bunch of people, including a lad and his Dad from Leeds (we get everywhere). One night all 8 of us plus driver in one tuk tuk (possibly a world record? Will have to check with Norris McWhirter) went for a nice meal followed a quick stop at the whiskey shop and a walk along the ghats to see the evenings display!! I got pretty drunk for the second time since leaving England and found myself uttering the immortal words 'I am never drinking whiskey again' the next morning!
Back on the train again now next stop Agra! I boarded the train and found my seat without any problems, by now every single journey on a train had some sort of incident..... Not this time, was I starting to get used to the Indian railway network? Bit of pub quiz trivia for you now that not many people know, did you know that the Indian Railways are the biggest employer in the world? Fact!!
We arrived in Agra early morning, I was now travelling with a Swedish girl called Soffan. We had some breakfast and got down to business, in one day we would go to the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Baby Taj Mahal and a Taj lookout. I can honestly say that Agra was exactly as I expected and was one of my hi lights so far, the Taj is definitely one of the wonders of the world and looks just like it does in the pictures! That night we went for some food, it was quite late nearly 10pm by the time we found a restaurant, the food came out in less than 5 minutes and the rice was cold, I kicked up a bit of a fuss and was going to leave, he persuaded me to taste the chicken which I did and it tasted pretty good, we ate our food minus the rice! Though I wasn't convinced that this would be be last time I would speak of the evening I ate chicken in Agra......
Next day in Agra was quiet, said good bye to Soffan as she was travelling up north and spent the day catching up with work in the blistering heat, just sat around talking on the phone in the shade was exhausting!
That night got back on the train next stop Jaipur, this time I was in sitting class as I was only on the train for 4 hours, by now 4 hours sounds like a quick trip into Leeds. Sitting class was a lot more crowded and was still stiflingly hot, but as I sat there in my reserved seat I actually started to believed that the India train system was a doddle and I had got it cracked. I read my book, listened to some music and looked around me, all I could see is Indian people chatting to each other laughing and joking! I thought if this was England nobody would even say hello to the person next to them never mind strike up conversation with a dozen people around them, maybe its the cramped conditions or the heat that makes Indian people be this way? Whatever it is I found myself sat thinking I wish England was a bit more like this. That journey I had an almost euphoric feeling and remembered exactly how lucky I was to be doing what I am doing! I got off the train at Jaipur, though it seems they have two stations called Jaipur and I was 12 km away from where I wanted to be, after double checking my situation I jumped into the nearest auto rickshaw and disaster was averted. Note to self: when it comes to trains in India, don't count your chickens till they have hatched.
So I am now in Jaipur, not really done much here except catch up on my blog and ride out the after effects of the chicken I shouldn't have eaten in Agra...... This is now the third dodgy stomach I have had in nearly two months and whilst it does not put you on your death bed, it does make you think. I have tried to just eat vegetables as much as possible but every so often I give in and eat meat, after all I love my meat. From now on I will be much more careful choosing where I eat meat....... As becoming veggie is just not an option and certainly does not except you from a dodgy stomach.
Next stop Udaipur....