geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
Bikaner express train to the blue city
Indian lentil salesman. North Indians prefer bread while south Indians prefer rice, but as in Nepal, they are united in their love for lentils. Literally hundreds of varieties of lentils exist, and some form of bhat (curried lentils) is served each meal.
The general dearth of water in the desert makes a five day trek a sweaty dirty business to say the least, so we were very happy to get back to Bikaner and finally enjoy that piping hot bucket of water and that pristine sand-less, camel-crap-less Tandoori chicken we had been dreaming about during long bouts of camel induced crotch pounding. We selected a very clean and modern restaurant that looked something like what we might find in Western Europe, though the rat scurrying around the tables combined with the unconcerned looks on the waiters’ faces was a dead giveaway that we were still in Rajasthan.
Bikaner is a hopeful desert outpost town that is trying to get on the beaten tourist path, but hasn’t quite made it yet. In deference to their burgeoning tourist business, we spent several days trying to make sense of their attractions: a crumbling fort, a few dilapidated havelis, and a dubious dancing camel show, before we finally gave up and found ourselves staring at the bland concrete hulk of a large, mostly empty, junk-country shopping mall. We have come across several of these ghost malls in north India and each time find ourselves lost in thought, gazing at some poor visionary’s failed business enterprise: there is nothing more depressing than a poorly executed attempt at mimicking the western excess of a massive shopping complex.
Katlijn bought a salwar in Bikaner. In addition to being attractive and more comfortable, Indians genuinely appreciated her wearing the local clothing and we were subjected to significantly less staring.
In Singapore, they have malls so herculean they have the combined excess of ten ordinary malls into one massive shopping center of mythical proportions that assault the senses with entire districts full of flashing advertising screens, exhausting supplies of expensive consumer goods, and mammoth American-style food courts. It is as though they had begun by carefully studying the very essence of western culture and then decided to quite deliberately go about reproducing it by marshaling all their greatest engineers and artisans, gathering their wisest philosophers, and focusing their tremendous Eastern assiduity to the task of constructing stunningly sophisticated consumer meccas having more Starbucks per unit volume than anywhere else in the universe: a place more western than the west could ever be.
Indian attempts at reproducing this type of western consumer excess are, thankfully, abysmal failures. Wandering around places like Bikaner always brings to mind the same questions: where is all that IT money going to anyhow? Isn’t India supposed to be running the planet in a few decades ? And when they do, will there still be errant cows wandering the streets? God, I hope so.
In Delhi, they tried to get rid of the cows. Several years ago, the nation realized that Western cities don’t have street cows, decided they were an embarrassment to the New India’s modern image, and embarked on an ambitious multi-million dollar program to rid “smelly” Delhi of its wonderfully robust bovines. What about holy cows and holy rats !? Such a shameless rebuke of centuries of Hindu heritage ! Fortunately, the government failed utterly at the task having under-estimated the monumental scale of the problem. Despite persistent effort, cows are still regularly seen obstructing traffic, strutting rebelliously down busy Delhi traffic arteries in defiance of Indian persecution. And I sincerely hope that when India’s IT money finally beats a path to Bikaner’s swirling desert outpost to transform the sad, dusty concrete shopping complex we were staring at into a bustling modern commercial metropolis, the cows will still be there meandering serenely down the crowded ultra-modern neon-lit shopping halls of a unique Indian creation- not another western strip mall clone, but something the world has never seen before: a modern city that actually looks original, a New India with its very own futuristic vision of next-generation rickshaws, touts, and food wallahs.
With this optimistic vision in my mind, we proceeded to Bikaner's crusty train station and waited several hours for our train to arrive. When asked where the train was, the station master told us it would arrive "in time" which is as close to "on time" as you get in North India and is a good indication your train will come sometime before dark. The train broke down on us again somewhere in the middle of the desert and we tried to pass the time reading our books over the general raucous accumulating around us.
Interestingly, if you are the only person on an empty bus or train in India, Indian passengers will come and sit right beside you instead of selecting one of the many empty seats. This is especially true if you are quietly reading a book which, in my experience, results in a large crowd of men invading my personal space and breathing down my back while they read carefully over my shoulder. According to several sources we have asked, many Indians simply do not understand why someone would sit by themselves and read a book- it is just not done here. Apparantly, we look very lonely and either they want to keep us company by engaging us in conversation ("Canada !? Beautiful country. My sister....") , or they are so intensely interested in what could possibly keep us occupied that they want to grab our books from our hands and rifle through them. Trying to read the Lonely Planet Guide to India is particularly challenging as surrounding passengers want nothing more than to pass the book around the train taking turns looking things up. Our i-pod is another object of immense fascination and complete strangers see absolutely no problem with borrowing our earphones for the duration of our trip while occasionally demanding that we change the song for them. After a few weeks in India, it occurs to us that we have completely lost our privacy. Our business and our belongings have now become public property.
An Indian bangle maker and salesman. Bangles are worn by most Indian women, especially during pregnancy when their rustling sound can be heard and later recognized by the baby.
Another Indian train peculiarity is the male Indian cross-dressers that go up and down the hallway generally annoying the passengers and asking for money. Whenever one walks into our train car, every nearby man, woman, and child gets up to stare at us. To the general annoyance of the transvestite beggars, a man wearing a bra and pantyhose is completely uninteresting compared to a white tourist's reaction to the situation- especially if they react by sticking their noses deeply into a massive Indian guide book desperately trying to pretend the text is so absorbing they don't even notice the fake bosoms heaving above them or the growing circus of spectators.
Faced with these experiences, we were glad to finally arrive in Jodhpur, Rajasthan's "Blue City". We tugged our junk-country earphones out of a pair of hairy ears, wrested control of our thick guidebook, and hoisted our bulging backpacks off the train. It wasn't long before we found a nice family-run guesthouse with a gorgeous rooftop view of Jodhpur's looming cliff-side fortress.
Glorious Meherangarh fort reigning over the blue city.
Mughal influenced architecture inside one of the fort's many palaces. These windows are specially designed so that women can surreptitiously peer down on the courtyard, while the men below are not able to see up through the windows at the women.
Tragic tiny hand prints of all the Maharaja's widows who performed sati (ritual self-immolation) when their husband died in 1843. Obviously, this Indian tradition is now forbidden by law though a very small number of incidents still occur each year in remote isolated villages.
View of Jodhpur from the ramparts. Jodhpur is called the "blue city" due to the indigo hue of the rambling buildings that make up the old city. This colour represents the Brahmin caste which constitutes most of the city's population.
We met up with a nice couple, Doug and Lee, both retired teachers from Berkeley, California, who are on their own six month world trip. In the evening, they shared dinner with us as well as interesting experiences including living abroad (Malaysia and Africa), travelling, and teaching Steve Jobs' children in California. They also kept us company while we explored the impressive forts, cenotaphs, and markets in what was our favourite of Rajasthan's colourful desert cities.
Milky white marble memorials and cenotaphs to Jodhpur's past Maharajas near Fort Meherangarh.
Rajasthan is considered a living study in ethno-musicology. The harsh desert climate contrasts dramatically with a sophisticated culture of music, dance, and dazzling clothing often having symbolic significance. The happy pink-and-gold combination seen here may only be worn by a woman who has borne a son.
Immediately following our hyper-dramatic Hindi film experience at the Pink City's Raj Mandir meringue inspired cinema, we caught a night train to Rajhastan's desert outpost town of Bikaner travelling, as always, in India's second lowest train class. Our usual strategy is to reserve, using India's miraculously functioning on-line ticketing service, the two top bunks allowing us to go to bed whenever we want to without disturbing the passengers below us. Unfortunately, the little-used Jaipur-Bikaner line runs an older and smaller model of train with low ceilings that force us to squeeze our bodies through a tiny crack separating the bed from the grungy ventilation fans, leaving us only just barely enough room to lie flat on our backs, occasionally being woken by the sensation of our noses rubbing against the dirty roof-top. Despite expensive ear-plugs, sleeping medication, and junk-country earphones, we are forced to endure yet another restless night when our carriage is invaded, at some ungodly hour of the morning, by a gang of yapping old Indian women.
As later explained to us by a friend of ours from Bangalore: Indians believe that it is their birth-right to make noise. It is not that they are trying to be rude; the entire concept of shutting off the light being quiet for others trying to sleep is, to them, such an abstract metaphysical paradigm as to be simply unfathomable to the sub-continent's general populace. It is not just the gangs of old Indian crones which seem to haunt the wakeful halls of every late-night sleeper train in the country, even the men running the hotels spend hours chattering in Hindi to each other into the wee hours of the morning. And what on earth are they talking about, anyway ? Where I come from, adult men just don't have that much to say to each other and certainly don't stay up all night giggling like school girls.
At times, Katlijn will be driven mad by the hotel men whose incessant gossiping simply overwhelms her specially molded high-end India-traveller's ear protection. Finally, in a fit of insanity, she will throw her ear plugs angrily at the door and storm out into the neighbouring hotel lobby to find six loitering men locked in loquacious banter, and frantically yells out to them:
"Oi ! We're trying to sleep in here !"
The hotel men stare at each other, exchanging blank looks- their brains, having been conditioned to a lifetime of whining scooters, quarrelling urban farm animals, and obnoxious horn blasts, are now no longer capable of even grasping the basic notion of noise pollution. Instead, after a brief pause, their Hindi chattering starts up again more intently as they desperately try to sort out, by group consensus, what the problem could possibly be, until finally they seem to settle on a theory, a plausible hypotheses: their best guess at what her frantic late-night fussing might be referring to. The oldest turns down the volume of the blaring Indian pop music, and asks, in his best English,
"Hot water bucket ?"
As I mentioned already, we don't get a lot of sleep in India. We finally arrived at Bikaner the next morning and groggily squeezed our way out of our claustrophobic train coffin, hauled our gigantic dusty backpacks from out beneath two loudly snoring old crones, and made our way to Vino's fabulous Bikaner Camel Safari Guest House: a sandy desert budget accommodation that seems to be managed and operated entirely by children.
After a brief visit to Bikaner's old city, we made arrangements with Vino for a five day camel safari through the Thar Desert. We were ready to go by the next morning and met up with Steve, a chatty Swiss backpacker who will keep us company the first couple of days. Steve is an economist taking several months off for long-term travel and proving, yet again, that the world's backpackers are quite an agreeable and varied people.
We started our desert trek at Kani Mata Temple, a peculiar and remote 14th century holy outpost in the middle of the sand dunes whose explicit purpose and ardent cult of followers is devoted solely to the worship of rodents. It seems that the cadre of Hindu holy animals knows no bounds: cows, monkeys, elephants, bulls, tigers and more. But, seriously, rats !? Just when we thought India's penchant for superstition could not possibly be stretched any further, we find ourselves in a temple, whose floors look alive with the scurrying of countless holy rodents, where it is considered auspicious for one to scamper over your bare feet and especially good fortune if you can spot a big, fat, fluffy, white one. We made our way carefully around the premises, together with a few barefooted devotees- their eyes peeled for white rats hoping that they might be so blessed as to feel the tickling of rat whiskers between their toes- all the while wondering if this temple was really built here for the explicit purpose of worshipping rats, or whether they simply got deified as the pragmatic solution to an ancient and uncontainable infestation.
According to devotees of the affectionately titled "rat temple", the holy rats seen here (called kabas) are the reincarnation of dead storytellers brought here to deprive Yama, the Hindu god of Death, of human souls.
After visiting the rat temple, we met up with our desert guides, the camelman and the cook. Despite spending every second together for five long hot days, we had a tough time making any kind of connection with them given their tenable grasp of our language and our entire ignorance of whatever Rajasthani tongue they communicated with. In fact, we never even learned their names, having given up after making a hash with the pronunciation and finally settling on calling the camelman the "white guy" and then referring to the cook at all times relative to the camelman as simply "the other guy".
Our camelman, the white guy, so-named for his white turban and white loin cloth which he wore and washed daily.
We had three camels with us: Steve's camel, our riding camel we named "Alice", and a strapping young male camel we named "Orneel de Kameel",who carried the cart while periodically sticking its tongue out at passing lady camels who, without fail, would saunter giddily towards Orneel's manly camel stench, unable to contain their passion at such witty flirtation. All over the Great Thar Desert, camelmen would have to chase after young virgin camels who had fallen under the powerful spell of Orneel's wooful raspberries.
From the very beginning, it was obvious that sitting on a camel for five days was going to be a supremely uncomfortable experience. The camelman had Alice lie on the ground so I could get on the saddle. Before I even had a chance to sit down, Alice, upon feeling my legs brush against his side, would suddenly let out a gaping camel groan of disapproval and lurch upwards, slamming its hard backside into my unsuspecting crotch while stretching my stiff legs sideways dangerously beyond the safety zone of my admittedly limited flexibility. This would be followed by several hours of stoically enduring the graceless back-and-forth saunter of Alice slowly rocking my testes into numbness until, mercifully, it was time for me to get off and begin the long and painful process of returning circulation to the lower half of my body. Camels also do not make a smooth transition from the standing to sitting position. Instead, they sort of fold themselves up in several fast jerking motions like a collapsible lawn chair, each fold giving the rider the sensation of freefall and each time landing, inevitably, hard on his crotch. By the time we finally got off, our legs had been reduced to a senseless oblivion: two heavy weights swinging lifeless from our torsos waddling awkwardly about the desert.
The first few days we enjoyed taking turns riding the camel and lying down in the back of the cart peacefully reading a book. However, it wasn't long before we began fighting over who got to lie down in the cart and who had to receive a three hour crotch pummeling. Finally, perhaps out of compassion, the camel man let us both lie down in the camel cart while Alice, bareback and unburdened, trotted happily behind us with a smug look of victory.
During our trek, we enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of the scrubby desert’s understated beauty punctuated by the occasional viper, vulture, and gazelle. We often passed secluded families living in tiny isolated mud huts, or even small mud villages sprouting sleepy rural desert communities.
Rajasthani boy and his mud home.
Thar Desert village.
The people of the Thar desert were exceptionally curious of us, especially the young children. While we stopped for tea or meals, small groups of brothers and sisters would huddle together and plant themselves at a safe distance to apprehensively study us in great detail like tiny fledgling scientists. Astonishingly, these profoundly patient children could go about their staring business uninterrupted for many hours in such a deep and pure state of meditation that, I must presume, it did not even occur to them to ask me for a pen. In the few cases they did ask us for something, it was never money, toys, or pens, but empty plastic water bottles of all things. In fact, empty plastic bottles were a trophy so deeply coveted by desert children, it drove them to acts of camel cart thievery that forced our poor nameless cook to be constantly vigilant and, when necessary, jump off and chase after them.
The larger Thar Desert villages each have a long trough of water for the camels. As we waited for Alice and Orneel to drink their share, the entire population of the village, often numbering in the hundreds, would emerge from their mud houses and rush down the street cheering our arrival at what felt like a royal welcome. When our camels were finished and we would continue on our way, the children would run after us into the desert for a while yelling "ta-ta !" and erupting into tearful laughter every time we responded to them.
The cook picked up pieces of valuable dried wood along the way which he would use, together with camel droppings, to make a fire. From time to time, he would also jump off the cart and disappear into a seemingly random mud hut in the middle of nowhere with an empty bottle and some supplies, then appear again sometime later behind us, running along the sandy trail in his sandals to catch up, the bottles now full of the desert goat milk he uses for our obligatory morning, afternoon, and evening chai. At some of the larger villages, he could be seen with the locals trading for supplies and, especially, flour for making his delicious chapattis. Furthermore, many of the locals supplied us with water from their personal wells. In return, our operation ran a kind of desert taxi service between the tiny villages as the camelman would allow complete strangers to ride on the cart with us along the empty roads. In many cases, our friends would join us for a hot cup of chai and even sit around the campfires at night, together with their sons and daughters, always staring at us, always smiling, while our cook and the camelman eyed our empty plastic containers nervously.
Despite working in the remote seclusion of the desert, the cook produced some extraordinarily delightful Indian vegetable curries making each mealtime an experience Katlijn and I, saddle-sore, would very much look forward to. While one cannot deny his obvious culinary talents, he did not run the most sanitary of kitchens and the small number of pots and pans he carried with us often served multiple purposes including wash board and portable camel latrine. At one point, we watched in horror as he used his dirty shirt sleeve to rub a large pile of green droppings off the pan and into the fire, mix and pound the dough on the same pan, then roast his superbly shaped chapattis directly on the smouldering camel dung. Furthermore, due to the difficulties inherent in finding water in the desert, after every meal, we washed our dishes in dirt we scooped from the ground. To be fair, a sand-wash is an amazingly effective desert camping trick which I suggest you all try at home if you don't believe me, the only drawback being chewing on the little bits of sand that perennially find their way into every bite.
The cook concocting another one of his delicious stews while desert children nervously study our camp.
The cook pounds and shapes the dough as the camelman cooks the result on a tawa then puffs up the final chapatti directly on the coals. An old local man in a red turban enjoys a hot metal cup of chai while quietly watching them at work.
Evening in the desert is a particularly magical time as the dark blue sky transforms itself into the deep crimsons, violets, and yellows of some of the world's most spectacular sunsets. At night, we sleep in the open sand gazing at the brightly lit stars above us, while each morning the cook wakes us up with breakfast in bed. Sipping on hot chai while crunching down on our sandy toast, the Thar Desert entertains us again with another inspired sunrise, worlds away from the late night gossip of India's hotelmen.
Despite hot weather during the day, the desert temperature drops rapidly at night. Underneath two layers of blankets and our sleeping bags, while isolating ourselves from the ground with two more layers of blankets, we slept comfortably beneath the stars.
A sari shop in India. The line of male tailors on the left display a huge variety of fabrics to the women sitting on the right. The fabrics can be cut into saris or other clothing items. Shops like this are seen all over India and, by tradition, all the fabric tailors and shopkeepers are men while their clientele are all women.
After a long bus ride, we arrived in Jaipur mid-afternoon. All the hotels recommended in our guidebook were fully booked so we had to wander around the crowds with our giant tout-magnet backpacks looking around for a reasonably clean place to stay. In the end, we settled for an over-priced room, with two drab beds and a snowy television, ran by an old Indian fart and his five hapless cronies. As a word of advice: never stay at a venue in India in which the front lobby is occupied twenty four hours a day by six loitering men. As we waited an eternity for a luke-warm bucket of water, staring vacantly out our comically minuscule window, occasionally going downstairs to the lobby to check the progress of our simple cornflakes breakfast (only to find six loitering men staring vacantly at the peeling paint of our stodgy hotel), we began to wonder just how many men it takes to do absolutely nothing.
A much better alternative is to find a hotel run by an Indian woman. At Keoladio Nation Park, for example, our astute hotel lady single-handedly did everyone's laundry, cooked all our food, fixed the plumbing, and helped her kids with their homework while still finding enough time and energy to skillfully hustle us out of 50 Rupees for a pair of foggy binoculars and a crumbling bird book. You had to admire her.
Jaipur was our first stop on our tour of the province of Rajasthan. This state in North-East India, bordering Pakistan, has been doggedly controlled by the Rajput people for more than 1000 years. They are a Hindu warrior clan, constantly fighting, if not with the Muslim Mughals and the Western British, then against each other. Much of their bellicose way of life feels a bit like that of the Japanese Samurai: hierarchical while emphasizing honour and chivalry in combat- demanding ritual mass suicide by self-immolation over surrender. The practice of warfare was such a common occurrence that it became highly ritualized and enshrined in their culture: philosophy as well as an art form developed around combat with beautifully carved swords, gorgeously decorated armour, and vivid paintings. They were such a staunchly proud and recalcitrant opponent, that they managed to retain significantly more independence than the rest of India as both the Mughals and the British found it wiser to make special arrangements with the Rajputs rather than embarking on a long internecine struggle. Unfortunately, this independence ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for these desert people. The Rajput rulers eventually became corrupt and lived a lavish life-style while the general population lived in poverty. When India finally gained its independence in 1947, Rajasthan had one of the sub-continent's lowest rates of life expectancy and literacy. It remains to this day one of the poorest states in India.
Jaipur's impressive hilltop Amber Fort. All of the major cities in Rajasthan have sprawling walled fortresses that served to protect the various city-states.
Entrance to Amber Fort's inner palace.
The palace architecture is a mixture of Rajput and Mughal styles.
We embarked on a long hot walking tour of a desert city that seemed to be choking under the malodorous fumes of diesel fuel, camel carts, and permanently clogged traffic arteries. The 18th century Jantar Mantar observatory provided an interesting diversion- it looks a bit like an amusement park full of mammoth experimental art sculptures. However, each construction has a specific purpose for tracking the motion of planets and stars, including a 27 meter high sundial which can be used to tell the time accurately to within 2 seconds. Unfortunately, we can't tell you what other amazing feats of mathematics and engineering were on display as our guide turned out to be completely stoned, speaking in an incoherent babble while puttering around the observatory in a kind of hashish induced slow-motion.
Upon exiting the observatory, Katlijn made the well-intentioned mistake of offering a begging boy one of our bananas. Upon grasping the fruit in his little hands, his eyes went wide, astonished at such good fortune, his whole face lighting up to assume the childlike expression of barely contained excitement normally reserved for unwrapping Christmas gifts. He quickly ran down the street screaming with glee, summoning his friends and family, who began to emerge wraith-like, previously invisible, from some secret place in between the cluttered jumble of concrete junk-peddling holes in the wall. It wasn't long before Katlijn was surrounded by street people beseeching her for free bananas. Without enough supply to meet the exponentially growing demand, we had to beat a hasty retreat into a street full of rampaging rickshaws and honking motorcycles. A lone police officer stood uselessly in the middle of the chaos, looking positively stranded, staring vacantly at the emerging traffic situation.
At what point did we start snapping at people asking for bananas ?
When was the exact moment that penniless widows abruptly vanish from our view ?
Why do children constantly ask me for pens ?
What the hell is wrong with this place !?
Through the smoggy crush of the Pink City's rush-hour vehicle hordes, the streets bursting at the seems with staring masses and Indian queue beasts, between cars and trucks, careening cycle rickshaws and high-speed scooters, slowly making its way between the fruit wallahs and stray dogs, quite suddenly, an enormous elephant smugly lumbers down the road. Above us, literally hundreds of kites fill the skies for the kite festival. Somehow, the magic of the sublimely foreign scene before us, or perhaps just the serene expression on the elephant's face, filled me with a renewed empathy for this country and made me realize how lucky we are to be travelling to a place which can only be experienced and not easily explained.
A fruit stand in Jaipur. Jaipur is nicknamed the "pink" city due to the predominantly pink colour of the buildings in its old city. The coral colors are particularly vivid just before sunset.
To celebrate my renewed faith in, or perhaps just temporarily prolonged tolerance for, the confounding process that is travelling through India, I decided to take Katlijn out for what is perhaps the world's most dubious "dinner and a movie" date: McDonald's and a Bollywood film.
While some cultures have a problem with culinary fusion, I am personally all for it. Other than tasting good, I believe there should be no rules defining whether or not different schools of gastronomy should be combined together. Despite this, I must make exception for the shameless combination of the well-respected centuries-old Indian culinary tradition with an American fast-food laboratory product designed at minimum cost for mass consumption: an ill-conceived fusion clearly demonstrated in such Frankenstein creations as the "Chicken Maharaja Mac". Certainly, the line of vegetarian potato burger products featured in Indian McDonald's, the "McAloo Tikkas", are a testament to globalization gone awry. However, to India McDonald's credit, they have exceptionally clean toilet facilities. Say what you will about their nefarious influence on global eating trends, even in a country not exactly renowned for its cleanliness, the MacDonald's bathrooms positively sparkle and may possibly harbor the sub-continents only functioning automated hand dryers.
Jaipur is home to India's number one Hindi cinema: the world-famous Raj Mandir- a massive, sublimely ugly, green and white cinema complex with bizarre architectural motifs that seem to have been inspired by marsh mellows and lemon meringue pies. Katlijn was allowed to get our tickets from the "ladies queue", as oppose to the much longer and more unruly "men's queue". She similarly helped a gang of Indian boys get tickets for the show who returned her kindness by explaining to us what was going on during the film. Ultimately, it was not as bad as we thought, and a few of the musical numbers were downright catchy. If you can't make sense of India's Bollywood film mania, it is probably you have never seen one of these films live at an actual Bollywood cinema. The raucous crowd booing the villains, cheering the heroes, and joining together in group gut-laughter magically turn the absurdity of the underlying script into a genuinely entertaining experience. Like its American counterpart, Bollywood films are full of a lot of beautiful people, classy cars, and opulence. However, it feels more artificial and jarring coming from Hindi cinema as it is so obviously at odds with the reality we had seen in North India. Where are the betel-nut stained teeth and the invisible beggars ? How come there are no dogs barking or monkeys dancing and why don't Bollywoods stars ever haggle with rickshaw touts ? Despite the dramatic music and emotionally exhausting story, culled of errant cows and lumbering elephants, Bollywood's watered-down version of India feels a bit empty compared to the real thing.
One of several pythons we spotted at xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />KeoladeoNational Park. The large bulge seen about a meter from the snake's mouth is a recently eaten animal that is currently being digested by the snake.
A King Cobra bite will kill a fully grown adult human being in less than ten minutes without an appropriate anti-venom. Pythons grow as long as 7 meters and are fully capable of constricting, suffocating, and then consuming large mammals including jackals, deer, and tourists. Depending on the time of year, both of these snakes are seen with alarming regularity throughout KeoladioNational Park. At the entrance, there is an enormous yellow warning sign that reads in dramatic bold red characters:
"BEWARE OF TOUTS !"
Not a word of caution for unsuspecting birders about the giant snakes. Not a single suggestion can be found anywhere regarding appropriate course of action when the largest venomous snakes in the world stand a meter and a half high, their throats flared in striking position. However, the sign expounds in great detail who to call when the indigenous species of commission foraging rickshaw wallahs takes you to the wrong hotel. It is very clear, in massive crimson letters, italicized for emphasis, that "absolutely under no circumstances" should one "accept tea from strangers".
Marvelling at the ridiculousness of this piece of advice from India's forestry ministries, I began to wonder whether or not we had come to the right place for a little vacation from Agra's Taj Mahal touts and the energy sapping experiences of haggling with hotel managers, finding our way around dusty labyrinthine alleyways, and digesting countless flea-ridden chapatti. However, we didn't start to get really worried until the forest ranger/tout manning the park entrance stopped us from entering because we were not allowed to bring our binoculars inside.
"But it's a bloody bird-watchingreserve !" Katlijn tried to explain, clearly exasperated, with stress on the word "bird" fruitlessly emphasizing the particular difficulties inherent in this activity without binoculars, given the small size and tendency of its object to flock far away from people in the camouflaged and remote sanctuary of trees.
The so-called forest "ranger" tells us that we must pay him 20 Rupees to use the park's binoculars on top of the entry fee (outrageously inflated 20 fold for foreign tourists), and it was just too bad we already had a pair from our hotel owner who just "should have known better". This was one scam too many for Katlijn, the straw that broke the camel's back, and the subsequent tirade this unleashed from her mouth sent flocks of storks and cormorants scattering off the ground in alarm. This was followed by a long and unpleasant round of haggling over the illusive price of a pair of binoculars, the entrance fees, and a couple of dodgy Indian mountain bikes. However, once we were in the park, it was indeed quite peaceful and pleasant- our serenity only interrupted once by a poor little boy who made the mistake of asking Katlijn where she was from and suggested she give him her pen.
A blue bull drinking waters in the marshy grasslands.
We managed to spot a lot of wildlife including blue bulls, several species of deer, Indian mud turtles, jungle cats, and jackals. However, the real draw at KeoladeoPark are the 500 species of migratory birds, especially water birds, which frequent the area. It is in some ways an artificial sanctuary since it was once an arid region which filled with water only during the monsoon season and dried up afterwards. One of the maharajas artificially diverted water to the region from a nearby canal in order to attract more ducks for the purpose of entertaining his guests with duck hunting. His actions were very successful not only at creating one of the world's easiest duck shoots, but also at attracting all sorts of different types of water birds. It is now a protected area frequented by serious bird geeks, with an artificial ecology that is still sustained by diverting water from nearby canals and dams.
Katlijn bird-watching at KeoladeoNational Park.
Our bird-identifying skills leave much to be desired, and the dusty, tattered 1940s British Colonial era "Bird's of India" book, also given to us by our hotel owner, was of little use. Thus, Katlijn was forced to swallow her pride, make amends with the Park tout, and ask him for his help in identifying birds. Together, we spent many hours spotting countless different varieties of herons, geese, owls, woodpeckers, and kingfishers before coming back and exchanging information with the birders staying at our hotel.
Just before leaving, we realized our hotel lady was attempting to charge us a fee for the binoculars and her crumbling bird book. When we tried to explain we weren't allowed to use them in the park, she simply smiled and gave us the infamous Indian head wobble- perhaps the most mysterious and infuriating gesticulations on the sub-continent: a gentle cranial motion which, in the ambiguous hands of a skillful tout, means neither "yes" nor "no", but rather something more along the lines of, "I entirely agree with you, sir. Life really does suck". We finally acquiesce, once again, in defeat. They should have made that warning sign bigger.
Indian man getting a deep and thorough ear cleaning by one of the local touts.
Before leaving Varanasi, we made a brief stop at Saranath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is the place where Siddhartha Gotama, the first Buddha, gave his teachings describing the four noble truths and the basic tenets of Buddhism. For this reason, it was also once the site of an impressive temple complex. However, there is scant evidence of this now. These days, the most remarkable thing about Saranath is the long and very intense staring we are subjected to by the masses of middle-class Indian families that picnic here on the grassy lawns.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of staring. We look different, we speak different, we come from a different place. For the most part, I can relate to their curious- trying to gather their courage to talk with us. However, Indians take staring to a whole new level.
On a recent bus ride, a man sitting in a seat in front of us turned around, rested his head on his cushion and stared at me, without pause, for ten minutes straight. I tried to stare back at him, but found it impossible to hold his gaze. I swear, he didn't so much as blink ! Most irritating are small packs of middle-class Indian teenage boys who find following a couple of white tourists around a park and staring at them to be a day filling activity so immensely fascinating it warrants repeated photography. Katlijn is a particularly popular target. Even after asking the boys not to photograph her, they'll hide behind pillars and bushes, snapping her picture paparazzi style.
If you are reading this blog, please leave me a comment below answering the following question: what on earth do you do with photographs of random white tourists !? Honestly, we have no idea.
The troubling thing is that most Indians know about as much about the West as we know about India, which is to say, pretty much nothing at all. For example, we once met an Indian on the train who was shocked that we stayed at cheap hotel rooms, did not travel first class, and used an unfashionably low budget cell phone. His impression of foreigners is that we just give money away freely to anyone who asks because we have so much of it. More insulting: our understanding is that many Indian males still think white women are sex-craved targets willing to have pre-marital escapades with any Indian man- an attitude which is clearly reinforced by much of the popular Indian media. We are very often asked about our marital status and, on the rare occasions we tell Nepali and Indian people that we are not married, they tend to shake their head and nudge each other as if confirming their basest pre-conceptions. The problem then with staring, is not so much the staring, it is thinking about what the other person is thinking about- pitting one set of misconceptions against the other.
The only other remarkable thing about Saranath are the locals attempting to "line up" for tickets. There is no actual line, but a massive tangle of bodies elbowing, shoving, and pressing up against each other. At the ticket gate, hundreds of hands can be seen holding onto the booth's bars, white knuckled, pulling the rest of their bodies to the front of the horde. There are so many bodies pressed so tightly against one another that it no longer resembles a crowd of individuals, but one single multi-headed, multi-limbed monster surging up against a poor emaciated ticket wallah cowering inside a ramshackle booth, locked in a life or death struggle with the beast, desperately trying to stave off its many thrashing appendages with nothing more than tiny stubs of paper. Interestingly, women are actually allowed to go, automatically, to the front of the queue-beast. Of course, I have never met a western woman willing to test this theory given the monster's many groping hands and its multiplicity of male brains.
We escaped the monstrous, staring crowd in the early evening to arrive at Varanasi's train station. At night, Indian train stations look like refugee camps full of hundreds of weary Indians sleeping on the concrete ground waiting for their train to arrive. In our experience, nothing ever seems to work as expected in India, so we were positively astounded to find our names listed properly on the side of the correct train car. How could it be that our information was sent from an Internet form to some remote Indian operator, having filtered through the creaking Indian train system bureaucracy (presumably oiled by countless 5 rupee basksheesh) to arrive at the Varanasi station manger who paid off some tout to paste it on the side of a train so it was hanging right in front of us ? And this is not an isolated event ! Our names are always there: spelled correctly and pasted firmly on the side of the correct train car. How all these multitudinous transactions occur without problem, while I can't even get hotel owners to bring me a bucket of hot water, is truly one of the great mysteries of India.
Indian trains have about 6-8 classes to accommodate the budget and comfort requirements of all travelers. We are budget travelers and therefore ride in the "sleeper class" which is the second lowest class (even we don't travel with the lowest class which is a kind of repository of all the worst rumours you have ever heard about India). Trying to overcome the snoring passengers around me, I stuffed my imitation Sony earphones from Nepal deep into my ears for a bit of music. However, no matter how hard I pushed, the right ear piece produced nothing more than an annoying buzzing, while the left one gave only a distant hum. Whenever something like this happens, Katlijn likes to make the following remark: "junk country !" which succinctly summarizes the quality of the merchandise we have purchased since landing in Nepal. Without functional earphones, I took a few sleeping pills and let the gentle motion of the train rock me to sleep.
We began our post-Varanasi, post-queue-beast encounter by visiting the erotic temples of Kajuraho. These temples were the result of a mysterious creative burst occurring between 950-1050 AD by the Chandelan people, one of the last early Hindu empires in North India. Nobody knows why they bothered to make such an extensive temple complex in a place with absolutely no strategic value at all. I can tell you from our long overnight train-ride and subsequent 6 hour bus experience that it truly is in the middle of nowhere. If not for the temples, the small band of locals who man this outpost attraction would never be here. They constantly complain about the lack of rainfall and are more reluctant than usual to provide us a bucket of hot water- it hasn't rained here for three years !
Most tour books erroneously refer to the Kajuraho temples as "erotic" temples. Admittedly, a few of the thousands of fine sculptures that cover these temples are of rather shocking threesomes and foursomes. However, the vast majority simply depict women in daily life. The reason for sculpting such lurid scenes and the artists' original intent in general remains a mystery to Indo-Aryan scholars.
Shortly after the completion of the Kajuraho temples, they were abandoned for the nearby forts to help ward off the various groups of Muslims invading from Afghanistan. This was the beginning of centuries of Hindu-Muslim conflicts which continue to this day in various forms, including present tensions along the Pakistan-India border. It would be another 800 years before the temples were accidentally rediscovered by a lost British colonist. We spent a couple of very happy days biking around the temple grounds, absorbing the beautiful architecture and exquisite carvings- definitely the most impressive we have seen in all of India.
We continued on to a city called Orcha where we met up with Party-Dean, the Aussie backpacker, and the German couple, Karsten and his wife Julianna. Party-Dean is to us representative of the younger generation of 20-something ultra-low-budget travelers you have heard about: living the good life while hauling their backpack around the globe. However, Party-Dean is the minority: the reality is that the backpacking scene has changed over the years. They aren't the ragged bums we were initially afraid we'd have to deal with. Nowadays, the vast majority of modern backpackers are an older more sophisticated sort and range anywhere from their late twenties to early sixties. They travel cheap, but still have enough money to occasionally splurge on a truly awesome Tandoori Chicken. Most of them are professionals taking a couple of years off, confident they can return and find work again with no problems. Karsten and Julianna, for example, have been traveling for two and a half years and will shortly go back to Germany to continue their careers. Of the very few young backpackers we do encounter, they are not nearly as annoying as we thought. Party-Dean is actually a pretty nice guy, not to mention the fact that his frugal life style has taught him the very useful ability to ferret out any given city's cheapest 30-rupee quality Indian eatery.
We spent several days exploring the ruined forts of Orcha with the German couple and Party-Dean. The most successful of the Muslim invaders were the Mughals who arrived around 1500 AD into India. At one point, their empire contained most of the sub-continent and their legacy can be seen in the many old forts and cenotaphs of most North Indian cities. Orcha's forts, though massive, are less famous and some are in a state of near collapse. Nevertheless, we had a great time clambering over their impressive, atmospheric remains.
Orcha's Forts and Cenotaphs are fine examples of Mughal architecture.
Undoubtedly, the most famous Mughal legacy is the Taj Mahal, located in Agra, just south of Delhi. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and, if you will pardon the cliche, is in fact as beautiful as they say it is. It was built by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1631-1653. He was so grieved by the loss of his second wife, who died giving birth to her fourteenth son, he built this massive white marble masterpiece in her memory. It is said that he actually had plans to build an identical Taj in black marble, exactly opposite the current white Taj. Fortunately, one of his many sons over-threw him by force and locked him in the Agra fort before he could deplete the empire of the considerable resources required to complete his mad, though inspired, vision. Shah Jahan together with his wife, Mumtaz Jahan, are currently buried together beneath the gorgeous domed roof of the Taj Mahal.
While you have undoubtedly seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, you have probably never seen it from this angle. Most photographs of the Taj Mahal are taken from the front garden since this was the view intended by its architect. We chose to photograph it here from the backside not only for the nice reflection in the surrounding waters, but because this angle reveals one aspect of the architect's creativity: the Taj Mahal is built on a platform several meters above the ground so that, whenever we look at it, the building is always framed against the sky enhancing its beauty. Another important feature, seen here but omitted by most photographs, are the red sandstone structures on either side which complete the frame and contrast nicely with the white marble of the main building.
In addition to the Taj Mahal, Agra is famous for its touts which rival those of Varanasi. The Agra rickshaw touts are particularly renowned for their exceptional skills at shuttling tourists for hours between commission peddling shops while never actually taking them to the Taj Mahal. Our particular tout managed this by using the excuse of a city-wide rickshaw strike. Nevertheless, he did take us to a few interesting places with some chatty craftsmen which almost made his hustle worth our time.
If you get close enough to the Taj Mahal, you will see that its marble exterior is decorated with inlaid gems. Agra is world-famous for this art form. Even though the cost of marble items with inlaid gems is well above our price range this year, these craftsmen are happy to show us their trade.
It takes this carpet weaver more than a month to make a full sized carpet. Every carpet pattern is different and for each pattern, he invents a new song with mnemonic lyrics that help him remember the order in which to weave different colours of thread. He sits for hours singing this song in complete concentration, while his hands move in a blur steadily weaving the carpet imperceptibly longer and longer.
Katlijn gets a little help trying on this red sari.
Sunrise on the Ganges. The Ganges is possibly the holiest place in all of India if not the whole world. Ironically, it is also the most poluted. Five hundred faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water is considered safe enough for bathing. Samples from the river indicate more than 1.5 million bacteria per 100 mL of Ganges water.
We took off through the thick fog of Kathmandu's outdated airport with Air India- an airline which tops the black list on travel advisory websites. We flew this company using the same dubious logic of most Air India customers: "hell, it's got to be safer than the bus !"
Perhaps because Nepal is India's smaller and less famous neighbour, or perhaps because most people visit Nepal after India, Nepal is forever compared with respect to India. They always say the same thing: "Nepal is like India, but different". We, of course, went to Nepal first and will forever see India with respect to Nepal. Here is our first impression:
India looks a bit like Nepal- there are cars, goats, and cows bustling about to the sound of honking horns in a kind of street havoc. BUT, India's is a paved havoc. That, and the cows are bigger. They're huge ! Cows in Nepal are poor, emaciated, mangy little beasts. Cows in India are rich, fat, robust bovines with massive horns often seen chasing naked children off the road. Otherwise, India looks like Nepal. In time, this first impression will be proven wrong. Nepal and India are utterly different, and don't believe anyone who tells you this "same but different" nonsense. The Nepali people, of course, know that they are not Indian and, to avoid any possible confusion, they actually invented their own distinct time-zone exactly 15 minutes ahead of India's.
After landing in India and setting our watches straight, we caught a pre-paid taxi service which navigated us successfully through the chaos to drop us off near Varanasi's old town. From here, we spent a long time haggling with a shabby rickshaw tout and came to an agreement which neither of us understood completely. This is the first among many similar experiences we will encounter throughout our India travels. Prior to coming to India, I had never met an Indian without a fluent, Abu-accented, command of my language. Furthermore, language was never a significant barrier in Nepal. Thus, we were a bit surprised to find that the majority of Indians on the budget-travel circuit do not, in fact, speak much English.
After getting about halfway to our desired destination we had a heated altercation with our rickshaw tout over something neither party understood and had to elbow our way out of the gathering crowd of curious on-lookers. We then wound through the impossibly old and narrow streets of Varanasi, our massive backpacks scraping a layer of grime off the crumbling plaster walls, desperately looking for the Ganges. We couldn't find it. Worse still, we made the mistake of asking one of the locals for directions. Attempting to capitalize on the commission racket, our new friend tries taking us to several guest houses before finally dropping us off near the river and demanding five rupees baksheesh for his service. After refusing, we are chased out of the old city and stumble inadvertently onto a dark and smoky ghat full of dead bodies burning in the night. Apprehensively, we approach the fiery pyres and are surprised to find ourselves so close we can see a leg, a foot, toes. An arm burns off and falls to the ground. A man in a dirty white turban is attempting to to put it back on the pyre. He can't manage it- instead, he chases the severed limb around the ground with two sticks, trying unsuccessfully to pick it up.
Katlijn begins to feel a little queasy at this sight, so we head straight for our desired guest house, chosen because it is perched strategically above one of the Ganges' famous ghats. Within minutes we are already haggling over the inflated price of a room barely big enough to fit the bed, with one tiny screen window too dirty to let in any light but still having enough holes to leak in a steady stream of mosquitoes and the ashy smoke emanating from the corpses below. It's late and we are too tired to explore other options, so we roll out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep.
In Varanasi, the monkeys come out at night.
When I was in Nepal, I used to think the monkeys were cute, funny, fuzzy little creatures providing hours of entertainment and plenty of atmosphere. Now I hate the little monsters. They begin by performing what sounds like a late-night tap dance on the corrugated roof of our budget accommodation. As the show reaches its climax, things get out of hand and, from the subsequent screeching, clawing, and scampering, I gather that a giant monkey fight breaks out. As more and more monkeys pile on each other above us, the whole roof shakes and rattles.
Then the dogs start.
Egged on by the brawling, roof-top, monkeys. First one. Then two. Then a hundred. All the dogs in Varanasi are barking at the monkeys, and then at each other, and then just for the sake of barking. Varanasi turns into a nighttime zoo of canines and apes all trying to out-bark each other. The barking induces aggression and I find myself imagining poking a small rifle through the holes in the screen window of our strategically located sniper position, gunning down the unsuspecting mutts. For Katlijn, the situation is worse. The constant yapping becomes so irksome it seeps into her sub-conscious so that when she finally falls asleep, she actually dreams of violently bludgeoning helpless puppies with a blunt object.
Then the bongos start.
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. At first, the holy man's drums are barely audible above the symphony of animal noises outside. But once you notice it, you can't stop listening. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump, made more obtrusive by its irritating childlike simplicity, it consumes my very being until the incessant thumping becomes a roar above the howling monkeys and yelping dogs, driving me slowly madder, until I want to throw open the shutters of the dirt-stained windows onto the choking Ganges, inhale a lung full of ashes mixed with dead body smoke, and bellow out over the flaming corpses,
"Oi, Bongo man ! Shut up ! We're trying to sleep !"
But I don't do this. Instead, I lie awake in my bed listening, unable to stop myself, to the ceaseless thumping, imagining myself taking one of those Tibetan horns, big as a python, positioning it right next to the bongo-playing sadhu, and exhaling with all my might into its sonorous chamber generating a massive, deafening, horn blast. I would then casually glance over at the sadhu's frail frame, like I never noticed him before, and say politely,
"Oh, I'm sorry about that, Mister Bongo Dude. It's my religion"
And with only that explanation, I proceed to let loose another thunderous honk. HA ! Let's see you bongo over that, bongo boy !
Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep. Dreary-eyed, we clamber down to the dingy cellar of our low-budget accommodation for breakfast. The grumpy chef emerges from his dark kitchen: a fat, balding Varanasi resident with a perpetually tired look on his face and huge bags under his eyes, the product of whole generations of screeching primates. He slowly fumbles around on the table looking for the menus, then throws them at us across the room so they land on the table with the pages fluttering open. After disappearing into his kitchen for ten minutes, he re-emerges and we tell him our order. The cook doesn't speak a word of English, not even the words "pancake" or "banana", so he motions us to write it down on a notepad before returning back to his kitchen. After some time, he re-emerges and studies our hand-written order disapprovingly, scanning it for errors, until finally, he finds one. Thrusting his stubby finger up and down on our notepad he says, "room number", and disappears again.
Naturally, it was quite a while before we received our breakfast and left the confines of our tiny stifling room to emerge onto Varanasi's hazy river-side ghats. We are immediately approached by touts, trying to take me for a boat ride, trying to get me into their shop, trying to stick a long thin medieval-looking implement into my ear to get the "best ear cleaning, no problem, I give you good price !" By the time we reach the main ghat, touts are coming at us from all sides with their hands outstretched,
"Hi ! Hello ! Where are you from ?", one grabs my hand, "Canada ? Good country. My brother is from Canada. Lot's of Indians in Canada", but rather than shake my hand, he is squeezing it about painfully.
I try to pull away, he holds on.
"No problem, I give best massage, good price", I watch helplessly as he manipulates my fingers into obscene gymnastics. Finally, with Katlijn's help and using my other hand, I manage to wrench free from his iron grip, but it's too late:
"Five rupees," he demands.
Trying to escape this tout, we walk briskly away towards an aged sadhu sitting cross-legged on the stairs beckoning us toward him. Surely no tout will bother us around this respected holy man. He is wearing a tray full of variegated colours into which he dips his finger and places a saffron tikka on my forehead. At first, I naively thought this was a kind blessing, but then he demands five rupees baksheesh- our would-be saviour turns out to be just another tout in sadhu's clothing.
View of Varanasi's ghats in the haze. The turqoise boats on the right can be used for transportation between the various "ghats", or steps leading down to the river for bathing.
Even the children are in on it. A young boy and his brother picked us up for a boat ride to watch a nightly dance festival from the water. When he dropped us off again, he tried to double our originally agreed upon price based on a fabricated misunderstanding. When we walk off his boat and refuse to pay him anything extra, he yells at us "bad karma !" This is initially laughable until I stop to think about it, and it occurs to me that an eight year old kid just told me the Hindu equivalent of "go to hell !"
This rickshaw driver, shown with his tree-wheel rickshaw and my backpack, offered me a ride to the station in his helicopter.
Main street Varanasi. You should see this place at rush hour !
By nightfall, I needed to get back to our guest house so I ask the nearest rickshaw driver to take me to the main ghat. Like all cycle-rickshaw drivers, mine is thin, dressed in rags, and destitute. Happy to get my business, he smiles revealing a row of sickly red teeth, rotting away from a life of chewing paan. Paan is a popular Indian digestive made from betel nut wrapped in a leaf. Unfortunately, betel nut is both cancerous and mildly narcotic so that many Indians consume it like chain smokers leading to ruddy, rotting teeth- an affliction which has reached epidemic proportions in Varanasi. Betel nut is illegal in most parts of the world outside of India.
Being peddled around Varanasi on a rickshaw by day is scary enough. Riding one at night is downright terrifying. The cars and trucks have only dim, often mal-functioning, headlights. It's hard to tell them apart from the motorcycles careening madly through the chaos. Cows don't have headlights. Monkeys don't have headlights. Everything you can possibly imagine is a potentially lethal obstacle. Nevertheless, my poor rickshaw driver, sweat dripping through his tattered rags, pedals as fast as he can. Periodically, he swerves violently to avoid a flock of chickens, a pothole, or a pedestrian seen just in time, and I have to hold on tightly as our rickshaw tilts on two wheels, the third spinning wildly in the air.
After a good half hour, we still don't arrive at the main ghat and I start wondering where we are, quickly coming to the conclusion that, wherever we are, it is not where I want to be. I tap my ragged, panting driver on the shoulder, and ask him "how much longer until we get to the main ghat ?"
He replies by trying to repeat what I said with a confused look on his face. He pedals to the side of the dark, busy road and stops the rickshaw. I ask again and he repeats again. After a few more of these exchanges, it quickly becomes apparent that his understanding of the English language can be summarized by only two phrases: "30 rupees" and "no problem"- enough to land him a client, but not quite enough to get him to where he needs to go.
By now, a large crowd of Indians gathers around me and my frail, betel nut addict- most of them just staring at me in awe, many engaging me in inane conversation "Hello ! Where are you from ? Canada ! Good country. My son lives in Toronto. Lot's of Indians there", but none having the requisite map reading skills I wanted.
After several futile minutes, trying to say the words "main" and "ghat" in as many ways as I know how, while each Indian individually puzzles over my map, some sort of group consensus is reached and everyone confidently points my rickshaw driver in a seemingly random direction, sending us peddling furiously, once more, through the night. My driver turns around, flashes me his rotting teeth and yells back "no problem", giving me absolutely no confidence whatsoever we are pointed in the right way.
After a long time, I can hear the cadence of my driver's peddling growing slower, his breathing growing heavier. I don't blame him- it's late and we've been travelling a long time. At some point, he points to a dark hole in the wall and asks, "hashish ? Marijuana ?" and I say, "No thanks". Nevertheless, he stops the cart anyhow and disappears into the hole leaving me sitting on his little rickshaw wondering if he understood my answer properly.
It isn't long before I'm approached by a nearby Indian (there is always a nearby Indian). "Hello ! Where you from ? Canada !? Great country. My cousin works in Calgary. etc." Fortunately, this one miraculously turns out to be a student at the University with perfect, Abu-accented English. We chat for some time before my driver finally emerges out of the dark hole in the wall with a joint hanging out of his mouth and a bong tucked into his loin cloth. I ask the Indian student whether he thinks my rickshaw driver will be able to get me to the main ghat.
The student assures me, "He's no good, but the ghats are just a few blocks from here so no problem." And with that, we are off once again, the scent of marijuana trailing behind my driver's smoldering weed as I wave back at the student thanking him for his help.
Indeed, it wasn't long before we finally arrived at the main ghat. Of course, my driver asked me for twice our originally agreed upon rate. However, I was too tired and happy to be back to give up much of a fight. I just paid him his money and waved goodbye to my stoned rickshaw wallah. He flashed me one last betel nut smile before finally pedaling out of my life and into the night.
I could already sense the presence of the hand massage touts nearby and was preparing myself for the inevitable gauntlet when, without warning, the power goes out and my surroundings descend into pitch blackness. Instinctively, I stick my hands deep in my pocket for protection, hoping to fool the masses of touts I know to be coming at me now from all direction with outstretched hands, desperate to give mine a good squishing. But it does no good, instead, my guard down, I feel a cold spot of paint dripping between my eyes which, slowly adjusting to the dark, can barely discern an old man's withered hand moving away from my forehead. "Fiver rupees", the tout in sadhu's clothing demands for his blessing.
I quickly learn that Varanasi's famous ghats are a death trap in the dark with no lights to illuminate the many holes, steps, and river side drop-offs. Slowly and carefully, I walk back towards my guest house. I can already hear the scampering monkeys preparing to begin their late-night corrugated rooftop tap-dance extravaganza which will begin the unstoppable chain events leading to a thousand barking dogs- another sleepless night. I begin to wonder:
Since when did I become afraid to ask people for directions on the street ?
When did I begin walking around in fear that somebody might try to shake my hand ?
Why are there twelve light switches in my room, and only one light bulb ?
What the hell is wrong with this place ?
On the way home, I pass by a real sadhu dressed in yellow and orange rags with a small sac containing a few coins. I give him a ten rupee note. "Thank you so much, and bless you" he says to me, and somehow I feel instantly better. A bit further, a young western woman wrapped in a warm pashmina waits for me by the river-side. When I approach she tells me she feels uncomfortable walking alone in the dark and asks me if I can walk her to the hotel. I don't blame her. As we walk along the Ganges together, I tell her about my rickshaw ordeal.
"Did he really not understand me ? Was he stoned ? Or was he just trying to scam me into paying more money ?" One never knows, we agree.
Back at my hotel, I over-hear some recently arriving tourists ruthlessly grilling the staff like suspected criminals, completely certain that they would somehow be scammed unless they spell out in great details every aspect of their agreement beforehand and write it down on paper, their misplaced anger giving them away as recent victims of Varanasi's shakedown.
That night, the monkeys took their show elsewhere, the dogs didn't start their chain-reaction barking, and even bongo man, god bless him, provided us with one night of blissful sleep. By morning, we had our order ready for the grumpy chef in neat block-letters with our hotel number clearly written on the top. When he emerged from his dungeon kitchen, he put both hands on the table, bent over our notebook, and studied the papers carefully for a long time while we waited anxiously. Finally, he made a low grunt of reluctant approval, eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and returned to his dark kitchen which soon emanated the sweet smell of banana pancakes. I discovered a new respect for this chef's grumpiness- I'd be grumpy too if all the tourists I baked pancakes for talked to me like a common thief. Whatever is wrong with this place, it is cyclic leading both visitors and locals alike to badger each other.
Varansi at morning time in gorgeous pastels.
Less tired, our stomachs full of banana pancakes, we set off to explore Varanasi again. Over the initial shock of so many people treating us like walking money bags, we focus our attention instead on the vast majority of people bathing and bustling about the ghats. There are rich people, poor people, old people, young people, holy men, hippies, body builders, kite flyers, cricket players, and any other sort of person you can imagine doing anything you can imagine: bathing, swimming, playing, rowing, eating, cremating, dancing, defecating, laughing, crying, singing, praying, meditating, and more.
Colourful ghat-side characters. After cremating their deceased, Hindus will shave their heads and dress in white. Unlike in the west, white, rather than black, represents mourning.
As the days go on and we become use to life on the Ghats, the touts grow less and less prominent in the kaleidoscopic hubbub until they, too, are just another type of person, like any other, going about their business. In fact, we don't even notice the tourists. We know they must be somewhere, having chatted with them at our guest house and dealt with the touts that cater to them; India's tourist business is booming like never before. It is just that the tourists are a minority. Overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of local people, they disappear completely into the crowd, replaced instead by a feeling of authenticity like no other place we have visited.
Varanasi is, of course, the final earthly destination for Hindu souls. Though many Hindus will not see Varanasi in their lifetime, it is most likely where they will come to die. It is, at very least, the most auspicious place to have your body cremated. Hindus believe that if your life expires in Varanasi, you will be immediately offered moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Not everyone can afford to burn their loved-ones near the Ganges: the priests, ceremony, and wood cost considerable sums of money. The wood is particularly expensive, and three different types are provided to accommodate a range of budgets. Those who can't afford wood can use a nearby electric crematorium, which is also significantly more environmentally friendly. However few people are willing to do this since wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, providing a symbolic connection between the body and the earth.
Given the high cost of wood, it is weighed carefully and sold by the kilogram. These people are experts in knowing exactly how much wood is needed to burn a given corpse.
The dead burn along the Ganges' ghats twenty-four hours a day. The Indian concept of a funeral is exactly opposite that of the West. Instead of a solemn and private affair around a body made artificially to look alive, the Hindu funeral is an entirely public spectacle set around a raw burning corpse. It is a place to contemplate death. While bodies are burning around you, there is a constant sound of ceremonies, drumming, and music filling the air which, combined with the many colours and varieties of people, creates a special mystical and spiritual atmosphere completely unique in the world.
Looking back on Varanasi, it was the highlight of our visit to the sub-continent: India at its most vibrant and irritating. It is simultaneously busy and peaceful, colourful and dark, magical and raw: exploding with life.
Nepal is home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Of these, we only managed to see two of them during our trek through the Annapurna Circuit: Daulagiri (Number seven at a height of 8167 meters), and Annapurna I (Number ten at a height of 8091 meters). While we won't have time to trek up to the other mountains until our next visit, there are alternatives.
Nepal offers perhaps the most scenic mountain flights in the world. Unfortunately, Kathmandu's dubious airport is strategically located in a part of the valley nearly always covered in a thick blanket of early morning fog. It took me three trips to the airport before there was barely enough visibility to allow planes to take off. However, once you do manage to catch a plane, it will get you your shot of nearly all the great Himalayan peaks with almost no physical effort. It isn't quite the same as walking up there- the sterile cabin environment just can't reproduce the experience of actually earning the view. On the other hand, this is the only way you can enjoy gazing upon the world's highest point with a gin and tonic in your hand.
Mount Everest. Elevation 8848 meters. Highest point on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, in an over-priced Indian budget hotel room in Jaipur, something attracted my attention: barely visible through the snowy static of the television screen was a a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary: most likely the first person, together with Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Edmund Hillary had just died. The only photograph taken on Everst's peak commemorating the successful joint Nepali-Indian-British expedition, is of Tenzing taken by Hillary. It has become a very famous image since appearing on Nepal's own "Everest" beer label.
Interestingly, in 1999, they found the body of George Mallory and his partner frozen just beneath the summit fueling speculation that they had reached the summit many years earlier in a 1924 expedition. It is still not clear whether they froze to death on the way up or on the way down. While, Tenzing and Hillary are still credited with the first successful Everest conquest, George Mallory is more famous for his stoic reply to a journalist questioning the purpose of climbing Everest: "because it's there".
These days, you need to meet three necessary requirements to conquer Everest: you must be an experienced mountaineer, totally nuts, and filthy rich (not necessarily in that order). It costs 60,000 Euros just to be given permission to climb Everest. Nevertheless, though many die each year "because it's there", wealthy people continue to pay the exorbitant fee for their chance. In Nepal, you can hear many of their stories. Some of these stories are gripping, such as the definitive adventure book written about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (also a film). However, my favorite story is that of Briton Maurice Wilson, who enacted his cunning plan to crash a private plane halfway up the mountain and then simply walk from there to the top. He was found frozen to death in a light sweater a few hundred meters from the crash sight, proving that harboring only two of the necessary three requirements for conquering Everest is not sufficient.
Katlijn and I will have to leave our definitive shot at Everest for our next visit- though on our budget, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the view near the base camp. We were sad to leave behind Nepal- one of the poorest and most admirable places on earth. From their office in Kathmandu, our guide, Mahesh, our porter, Vishnu, together with our initial Nepali contact, Ram, waved us one last goodbye as we crammed ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny white car and risked one last harrowing taxi ride to the foggy airport en route to India.
As a wise man once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child ?". With this thought in mind, we returned to Kathmandu in search of a western-style Christmas dinner. Let's be honest, the best thing about Nepal is not the local food, it is the fact that there are enough decent foreign restaurants that you can avoid eating it entirely. A new brand of swanky foreign run restaurants have popped up all over Kathmandu, one of the best being "Kilroys" owned and operated by an Irish chef. We had to reserve early for Christmas dinner as it is perhaps the only place serving up a decent meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot buns, and a large selection of tasteful wines. One can only wonder where in Nepal they managed to find a turkey, but it tasted incredible so we didn't ask too many questions and spent the entire evening gorging ourselves on Christmas goodness.
Over the next several days, we explored Kathmandu and its surroundings. Kathmandu is an awkward blend of the most exotic ancient and the most uninspired kind of modern. The streets are tiny, crowded, and pot-holed. They wind haphazardly around crumbling structures, home to a rats nest of rickshaws, touts, and dog pooh. One can't help but wonder how on earth it will ever be possible to modernize a place like this. They'd basically just have to bulldoze the whole lot and start over again, and come to think of it, this probably wouldn't be such a bad idea. Many parts of town are destitute and falling into decay. Much of this is not the kind of graceful decay of ancient civilizations, the buildings brooding over a time forgotten. Kathmandu's is a poor, humiliating, concrete modern decay.
We met up again with our Himalaya guide, Mahesh, to get his advice on where to buy some electronics- a card reader for our digital camera and some headphones for our ipod. He leads us to a hole in the wall full of dusty 80s era audio technology- the kind of devices used in local buses where the pounding rhythms of Nepali pop music can barely be heard above a low fidelity crackle. The shop is run by two old ladies who show us their stock of audio headphones. For a moment, I stop to admire the superior craftsmanship of the imitation Sony boxes. It's amazing- you could swear it's the real thing until you open the box revealing a shoddy product on which no respected electronics giant would dare gamble away its trusted brand name.
We ask the shop keepers a few simple questions about their goods to help us decide what to buy. Their response is to shake their head from one shoulder to the other- an irritating Nepali gesture that means neither "yes" nor "no". In fact, as far as I can tell, it means nothing at all- a gesticulation of such utter meaninglessness that it can't possibly be translated or understood. It is the non-answer given to such vital queries as "Do you have anything other than Daal Bhaat on the menu ?", "Are those ice-cubes made from tap water ?", and "Is that milk pasteurized ?". In the face of such total absence of information, there is nothing one can do but acquiesce, defeated, and buy whatever junk they are trying to sell you.
However, while it must be said that modern Kathmandu is a stumbling junk heap of a city, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting its prouder and more dignified past in the old city and the surrounding Kathmandu valley. In fact, you can pretty much avoid seeing Kathmandu itself except as a kind of wasteland between the tourist sanctuary of the Thamel district, full of backpackers buying last minute North Fakes from the multitude of trekking shops, and the ancient exotic of the Kathmandu valley.
Christmas day turns out to fall on Kathmandu's laundry day.
Some of the most interesting places to visit are the Buddhist temples and Tibetan refugee villages which dot the entire Kathmandu valley. We visited the most important stupas, Swayambunath and Bodnath, where the monks allowed us to sit with them during their ceremonies. One of the monks begins with the low, ethereal, Tibetan chant. Over top of this barely audible rumble, an entire room full of at least 50 monks begin to chant, rhythmically and in unison, the syllables of a verse. Suddenly, a cymbal crashes, winds cry, and horns blast in an ear-splitting cacophony to break this contemplative rhythm. According to an Irish student of Buddhism I met later, the Tibetan verses simply describe a scene which the monks attempt to imagine in great detail as they repeat the verse over and over. The banging of the percussion and the harsh horn blasts are intended to represent the grand entrance of the Buddha, or one of his incarnations, into this scene.
Tibetan Prayer flags fluttering over Swayambunath Stupa. The watchful eyes of Buddha gazing in all four direction over the Kathmandu valley. The nose-like sign below the eyes is the Nepali number one; it is a symbol of unity.
In Nepal, both Buddhists and Hindus have worshiped peacefully together at the same temples for years. Both Buddhist and Hindu shrines are juxtaposed in the same compound. Furthermore, Swayambunath stupa is over-run by monkeys who are considered sacred animals by Hindus. Thus, Swayambunath is affectionately known as "The Monkey Temple" by the locals.
Tibetan horns and cymbals.
Nepal is the lesser known home to its legendary people: the birthplace of Buddha and refuge to many of his modern spiritual followers, the Sherpa people who are still paramount in the ascent and exploration of the world's highest mountains, and the fierce Gurkha warriors many of whom still serve as the Dalai Lama's personal guard and are employed by the British military. The traditions of these and Nepal's other people have remained intact over the years. Unlike India, Nepal was never significantly influenced by the British who decided early that the rugged hill side terrain would be too difficult to colonize. In fact, after initial conflicts with the west in the early 1800s, Nepal shut themselves off completely and the country was almost entirely unseen by foreigners until 1951.
The most important residents of the Kathmandu valley are the Newari. They are the inventors of the pagoda and therefore their architectural heritage, disproportionate to their fame, can be seen throughout Asia. Furthermore, the painfully spicy Newari meat dishes serve as a delicious caveat to the bland and soupy lentils otherwise dominating Nepali food. While reading an entertaining and informative book by a Nepali girl once worshiped as a living goddess, called From Godess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Roayal Kumari by Rashmila Shakya, we became most interested in these people and visited their ancient and once-glorious cities at Patan and Bhaktapur.
Patan's Durbar square provides the largest density of Newari architecture in the world.
Examples of Newari architecture.
.Bhaktapur in graceful decay. At first glance, many of the old buildings appear dilapidated. Closer inspection reveals elegant Newari touches.
And what do you think the sport of choice is in Shangri-La ? Hacky-sac, of course. Children all over Nepal can almost always be seen enjoying a good hack. Too poor for our decadent western style cloth bags, children forge their makeshift hack-sacs out of a tangled ball of elastic bands rummaged from the garbage !
"Honking car horns is prohibited". Like most Nepali road signs, this one is entirely ignored.
All the Annapurna backpackers end up in Pokhara. Thus, it isn't long before we bump into a few of our trail friends and arrange a celebratory dinner- no daal bhaat allowed. After researching the most expensive restaurants in Pokhara, we come across a French bistro with an impressive wine list. You can always count on the Nepali for a solid effort at foreign cuisine, and while you could get a better "steak au poivre" in Normandy, what other French restaurant in the world has waiters serving you in North Fake jackets and hiking boots ?
Pokhara use to be a major destination on the Himalayan hippy pilgrimage in search of a free-love, free-pot, Shangri-la, but it now caters primarily to fat German tourists. Still, we had a lot of fun here and enjoyed some pretty tasty food before finally deciding to move on.
Inspired by the Korean Himalaya Woman, Andrew, Kimchi held convincingly between his metal chopsticks, enjoys a Korean pork barbecue in Pokhara with Katlijn. Koreans are avid hikers and some very authentic and tasty Korean restaurants have opened in Pokhara to cater to this demographic. In fact, we both decided that this was the best Korean food we had tasted since visiting Seoul a few years ago.
With a bit more time on our hands, we did some research on the bus situation in Nepal. It turns out they have something called "Tourist buses" which, for about 50 rupees extra (about 50 cents), provide you with marginally more comfort and safety. We take one to a small turnoff in the middle of nowhere and ride on the roof of a connecting bus going up to the small medieval town of Bandipur. The trip up to Bandipur is perfect for a little roof-riding as we climb above the clouds and are offered fantastic views of the Himalaya in the distance. Bandipur itself is a picturesque Newari town full of friendly people and some nice day hikes. We enjoy one relaxing day exploring the surrounding hills before continuing on to Chitwan.
Main street Bandipur, a perfectly preserved Newari village.
There is no way to catch a tourist bus from Bandipur to Chitwan so we are crammed into a small jeep so full of people that arms and legs spill out of the windows- there is simply no place left to put all those limbs. We can hear the creaking and groaning of the rooftop buckling under the weight of so many passengers sitting above us. We take this for a half hour before being herded onto a public bus by a skillful tout, and pushed towards two seats at the very back with malfunctioning seat backs which, to the general amusement of the bus staff, force us to stare blankly at the ceiling for several hours before finally arriving at the city of Sauraha near Chitwan National Park.
Chitwan is a long way from the cold Himalaya mountains. It is located in the Central Terai region of Nepal. The park together with the neighbouring reserves and conservation areas encompasses almost 1500 square kilometers- mainly sal forests and grasslands. It is host to 450 species of birds and 50 different species of mammals. It is also one of the only safari parks of this type where you are actually allowed to walk through the park, though you must at all times be accompanied by knowledgeable guides for safety. We decide this is the best way to see Chitwan, despite some small risk of wildlife attacks.
We get up early in the morning and enjoy a peaceful paddle down the Rapti River in the mist. Along the way, we see marsh mugger crocodiles, and a bizarre looking creature called a "gardial" which is a kind of prehistoric crocodile with jagged teeth and a long snout- they have not evolved at all in the last 150 million years. We also get a very close look at a one-horned rhino above the river bank.
View of the misty moody Rapti River from our dugout canoe as we hunt for crocodiles.
A marsh mugger sunning itself in the late morning. We owe the term "mugger" to British soldiers who watched these creatures emerge camouflaged from the reeds and drag local villagers to their watery death.
Before entering the sal forest, we are given instructions on what to do in the event of an attack by the various animals living in the park, except a Bengal Tiger. When I asked about this, he suggested the chances are pretty low, but I imagine there isn't much we can do about it anyhow. According to our guide, tigers hunt mostly at night and are not very active during the day. However, there are some incidents every year due to tigresses protecting their cubs or older tigers which discover that humans are relatively easy prey. A reassuring thought, for sure !
An endangered one-horned rhino. If you are ever charged by a rhino, the correct reaction is to run in a zig-zag pattern and drop articles of clothing behind you. This is often enough to throw off rhinos which have notoriously poor eye-sight and rely mostly on smell. If you are lucky, you will survive, intact, with your underpants still on.
Entering the Sal forest.
Claw marks of a Bengal Tiger. These markings together with its pungent urine demarcate its territory.
Our first morning is our most successful. It feels like walking through a fence-less zoo. We encounter spotted deer, barking deer, sambha deer, wild boars, rhinos, langur monkeys, red-face macaques, several gardials, and countless exotic birds. Katlijn and I march between our two guides who are armed with small staffs.
A Bengal Tiger sighting is the ultimate prize of any Chitwan safari and both Katlijn and I want to see this more than anything, until we hear a cat-like growl emerging unseen between the Sal trees and watch our guides turn pale. They motion us to stay still and position themselves in front, fingering their staffs. It occurs to me that our guides are shorter than me and a shade too spindly to take on a tiger with a couple of bamboo sticks. As they eye each other apprehensively, I can see them thinking the same thing. We slowly move away from the forest and further up the path where we are told to crouch down and wait. "It's a tiger !" one our guides whispers. We wait a long time, not quite certain anymore that we actually want to see a tiger, but nothing emerges from the forest.
Afterwards, our guides agreed they heard two sounds: a rhino and a tiger. I only heard a tiger. In fact, a bit shaken from this experience, I pretty much only hear tigers in the forest for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the afternoon is relatively uneventful. A wildlife safari is actually a more relaxing experience than I had imagined- it tends to involve a lot of waiting around in a wooden safety tower hoping for something to happen while, in fact, nothing does. After several rounds of "hammer, paper, scissor" I fall asleep for a few hours before our guides wake us up and tell us our safari was over for the day.
As it turns out, we had inadvertently timed our safari for the one day in the year that the villagers are allowed to go out to the grasslands and pick grass for use in their houses. They were singing loudly and deliberately make a lot of noise to avoid wildlife encounters, in direct contrast to what were were trying to do. Consequently, we met a lot of villagers, but hardly any wildlife in the afternoon.
Chitwan National Park was originally a plot of land used for royal hunting expeditions. Since it was reserved only for this purpose, it was spared the worst of habitat poaching and most of its animal species survived. However, the People's War resulted in deteriorated security in the area and both animal and habitat poaching resumed over the last ten years. The rhino population was reduced significantly and only a handful of tigers remain today. With improving security, police stations can now be seen throughout the park patrolling the area. If the political situation continues to improve, the park will be saved.
The nearby villagers have grown accustom to gathering wood from the forest which is of a superior quality to the wood they are allowed to use in their conservation area. In fact, it appears they are using the grass gathering day to smuggle it out. In most cases, the locals bundle the grass on their back and herd it to their village. There are so many of them doing this that, from the observation tower, it looks like the meadows are alive and the grass itself has decided to move into town. Our guide uses his staff to poke at one of the grass bundles revealing that many of them are decoys used to hide blocks of wood inside. It is such as simple ruse that the police are probably more or less aware of this and allow it to go on to some extant.
Villagers loading a dugout canoe with grass bundles. Interestingly, the original people living in the Chitwan area evolved a natural resistance to malaria.
We stay at a a gorgeous village in the middle of the jungle hosted by a friendly young Nepali woman. We decide to order the barbecue chicken, not having ever seen that on a Nepali menu before. This turns out to be an enormous evening-filling production involving catching a chicken, killing it, making a fire, and roasting it cave-man style. Sometime in the middle of the night, we finally get to eat our chicken. The overall gastronomic experience is always one part taste and one part atmosphere. This chicken was among the best we had ever tasted and even the best restaurant in the world could never fully realize the experience of eating it around an open fire with the Chitwan locals celebrating a successful day of gathering and smuggling.
Unfortunately, this inspiring dinner will forever be tainted in my mind by the fact that I spent much of the next day throwing it up all over the forest floor. At one point, I found myself retching next to the bloody chicken feathers- perhaps its ghost exacting revenge on me from its poultry after-life. Katlijn, however, was unaffected and enjoyed a full day safari while I recovered.
By the following morning, I was well enough again to walk back to Sauraha. We went briskly through the forest, barely stopping to watch the wildlife, so we could get to the Rapti River in time to help bathe the elephants.
On the way back to Sauraha, Andrew stops at the elephant breeding center to feed a baby elephant the last of his digestive cookies.
Giving an elephant a bath is sure to capture the youthful soul in anybody. As we desperately try to climb up on the elephant's back, the trainer shouts commands causing the elephant to try to shake us off. It rolls around, shakes about, and sprays us with its nose. Meanwhile, children again, lost in the fun, we all forget how old we are and splash about together with the giant beasts.
I think one can safely say that it is a lot more fun to have a bath with an elephant than to actually ride on one. We decide we need to try an elephant safari that evening just to see what it is all about it. It turns out that an elephant safari involves being squeezed into a small box full of fat German tourists, and rocked about uncomfortably as the elephant waddles slowly through the forest. On the bright side, it is amazing how close you can get to the wildlife on an elephant. Deer are perfectly comfortable with elephants around, even when they are loaded with obnoxious tourists squeezing their camera triggers. Even the rhinos seem to barely notice us, sitting around lazily barely noticing us hovering over them.
Mule trains carrying supplies between the Annapurna villages. Mahesh says that once the roads are completed on either side of Thorung La pass, most of the mules and porters will no longer be needed.
While it is an easy hike into Pokhara from Tatopani, we make a detour to Ghorapani, meaning “horse water”, and a place of no particular interest. The main purpose of heading up to Ghorapani is to make a side trip to “Poon Hill” which is considered one of the most spectacular lookouts in the Himalaya. We are very sorry to leave the comforts of Tatopani, especially considering Mahesh estimates a steep, uphill, eight hour climb to get to Ghorapani. This also means that by the end of the day we are again at a reasonably high elevation guaranteeing us another cold night.
Katlijn in the lead, we storm to the top in under six hours, two hours under the estimated time. I put my bag down in our room, rest my legs and shoulders a few moments, grab my towel, then head off to a room optimistically titled “hot shower”. We spend the rest of the evening huddled around a log fire while I experiment with the local take on a European pouss-cafe called "Mustang Coffee" which is basically coffee with mixed with millet wine. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't do this to a decent cup of coffee, but its an improvement on pure instant coffee.
Andrew recovering from his shower in front of the fire system.
Ghorapani to Tikedungha (Elevation 1525 meters)
Mount Dhaulagiri (Elevation 8167 meters) from Poon Hill. Seventh highest mountain in the world.
In song, we hear Mahesh approaching shortly after five AM the next morning. Watching my breath swirling in the air before me, it is hard to convince myself to exit my cozy sleeping bag into the cold dark. Fortunately, I had cleverly anticipated this problem the night before and slept fully dressed with my headlamp and trusty North Fake tucked away deep inside of my sleeping bag, already warm and ready for the ascent.
It takes us a half hour to get to the top of Poon Hill, guided by Mahesh, our headlamps, and the stars. According to Mahesh, Poon Hill “must” be seen at sunrise to fully appreciate the experience. Sunrise, it turns out, happens quite a bit later up here owing to the mountains blocking the horizon- something, for whatever reason, I had not cleverly anticipated. This leaves us standing around in the cold for a good hour before the sun peeks mercifully over the front of Machupuchre immediately melting away our cold spirits and coating the Annapurna and Dhawalagiri ranges in a breathtaking orange and pink light. Katlijn was well on her way down before sunrise, too cold to linger, enjoying gorgeous views of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri on the way between a forest of Rhododendrons. I spend some time on the top taking photos and absorbing the views while sipping some quality Masala tea offered to trekkers at the top. In high season, Mahesh says that over 600 backpackers are crammed up here in one morning. Fortunately, we are here much later in the year and have traded away these crowds for somewhat colder weather. There are only a handful of other people around me chattering quietly in various languages and accents.
After breakfast, we descend steeply down a green valley for several hours- an experience for which my knees won’t fully forgive me for another three days. Mahesh informs us that along the way, we will encounter Maoist rebels which control a large percentage of the rural parts of the country including passage to our destination at Tikedungha. The Maoists are a militant communist party that have been waging a ten year "People's War" to overhaul the existing system with a communist classless, and caste-less, system more conducive to improving the plight of rural peasants. As a part of these activities, the Maoists have been extorting money from foreign tourists on occupied trekking routes for years.
The way this works is that you are asked to make a "voluntary donation"- "voluntary" being Maoist for "the last person who refused to give money is still recovering in the hospital". George Bush labeled the Maoists a terrorist organization so Americans are most likely "asked" to give a bit extra. Being from Canada and Belgium, we are welcomed by the Maoists with a smile and given a short lecture about how they plan to use the money to help rural communities followed by long and more animated tirade about the evils of American imperialism and how they fund a corrupt government to drop bombs against them. As we are not Americans, he gives us a two hundred rupee discount and a receipt that reads "voluntary donation" which we have to keep with us: the Maoists are civil enough to only ask that we donate money one time so if we are ever stopped by Maoists again we can just show them your slip. Of course, we wouldn't need this slip if our donations were really voluntary, but this logic eludes them entirely.
Mahish (right) negotiating our payment with the Maoists.
Let's face it, the Maoist's really are a terrorist organization and their People's war has not only worsened the plight of rural farmers, it has cost about 15,000 Nepali lives and resulted in irreparable damage to the ecology due to habitat and wildlife poaching during the weakened security. It's not exactly the kind of organization you want your tourist dollars going to. Thus, ripping the Maoists off is a kind of tourist sport and is even fervently encouraged by the guides and porters who will aid you in this endeavour. In our case, we give all our papers to Vishnu who goes on ahead knowing that Nepali people are never stopped by the Maoists. Katlijn, Mahesh, and I follow behind. Mahesh tells the officer that we flew in to Jomsom and are hiking down in seven days. When asked for our papers, we tell them our porter has them. Not willing to make much of a fuss, they believe our story. At two hundred rupees a day plus our two hundred rupee discount for not being American, we feel like we have done our part. Other tourists often band together around somebody who already has a "voluntary donation" slip from some other part of the country. Interestingly, I read later in one of the local papers that the Maoists have pledged to stop this extortion. However, I can tell you this is definitely not the case and there was even a recent incident where a Swiss trekker was badly beaten by the Maoists for refusing to pay.
When we got into Tikedungha, I chatted with an American at the lodge curious about his Maoist encounter- he got the 200 rupee discount too by posing as a Canadian tourist ! We spend our last evening reading and relaxing with Mahesh and Vishnu.
Andrew, whose game has steadily been improving, fails yet again to beat Vishnu at a round of Carom. Carom is best described as a cross between snooker and crokenol. It involves sinking small wooden disks into one of the four corner pockets. It is a thoroughly addictive game played all over Nepal.
Tikedeungha to Pokhara (Elevation 884 meters)
The four of us after completing the Annapurna Circuit.
It’s an easy and pleasant three hour walk through shaded trees down to a nondescript village called Naya Pul where all four of us, together with our bags, cram into a tiny taxi which could comfortably fit about two. Our pubescent chauffeur confidently lurches around goats and potholes for an hour before we arrive, a bit shaken, at a mid-range hotel room in Pokhara. After basking in showers with that elusive combination of both hot water and high pressure, we take the entire contents of our backpacks to a shop where we are able to haggle a good per kilo price for laundry.
Cows and motorcycles.
We spend a few hours wandering around the streets of Pokhara which line the picturesque waters of lake Phewa Tal. Pokhara is shamelessly touristy which is exactly what you want after 17 days in the mountains. Everything from authentic Italian pizzas and gelato to a decent cup of joe are widely available.
A professional is needed to shave away Andrew's three week old mountain growth.
In the evening, Mahesh and Vishnu take us out for a “special” dinner, which turns out to be Daal Bhaat again. “Daal” means “lentils” and “Bhaat” means rice. The combination of “Daal Bhaat” basically summarizes the entire Nepali cuisine. Vishnu likes to refer to this combination as “Nepali Pizza” perhaps referring to its ubiquitous presence- there must be some sort of law requiring it to show up on all restaurant menus.`
To eat Daal Bhaat properly, you take your soupy lentils, pour them on your rice, and shovel it into your mouth with your fingers. It’s not that I’m putting Daal Bhaat down, I love lentils as much as the next guy. The first time I tried Daal Bhaat I thought it was great. In fact, and I realize this isn't a huge compliment, it really is the best thing on the menu. But seriously, every meal !? I spent three weeks with Mahesh and Vishnu and never saw them eat anything else. Actually, without exaggerating, I have never seen a Nepali person eat anything at all besides Daal Bhaat. Mahesh tells me that when baby turns six months old, there is a huge celebration where all the villagers turn out to acknowledge the auspicious occasion of the infant’s “first Daal Bhaat” and the beginning of a long and happy life of lentils.`
As it turns out, this particular Daal Bhaat really is special as it comes with mutton. From what I understand, most families can't afford meat and only eat it on very special occasions about once or twice a year. I can honestly say that this is too bad because the non-vegetarian version of Daal Bhaat is seriously tasty stuff and we thank Mahesh and Vishnu for restoring our faith in Nepali cuisine.`
I have received a lot of e-mails about this blog, mostly to the effect of "why didn't you just go to a Thai beach ?" so I feel I need to defend Himalayan trekking. "Yes", it was cold. "Yes", the high altitude caused some minor headaches. And "yes", we ate a hell of a lot of daal bhaat. But Katlijn and I both enjoyed the amazing scenery, people, and diversity immensely and highly recommend this to anyone of all ages. Get a porter if you need to. Try a lower elevation trek if you need to. Nepal is a hiker's paradise. We are seriously considering coming back again next year for a trek up to the Everest base camp. I can't wait !
Clouds blocking out the sun over the Trans Himalaya high dessert
We had been convincing ourselves for days that things could only get progressively warmer after the pass and we have very high hopes. Soon we could take our wool hats off, don T-shirts, and lose those crusty pairs of thermal underwear we had been wearing for the last week. Alas, last night was still cold and today no better. Clouds hang over the whole Mustang valley blocking our view and the sun leaving us once again with unusually cold weather. Mahesh tells us that it is snowing up at the pass right now blocking safe passage- a remark which was later confirmed to me by a Scotsman who attempted to make the pass despite the bad weather. It seems as though I defended my PhD just in time- a day or two later and we wouldn't have made it !
Our plan today is to start early and make it to Marpha before noon. Later than this and we get caught in the heavy winds that regularly blow through the valley. Our plan, of course, is foiled by the cold weather which causes the winds to pick up earlier in the day. We are caught with the full force of it. It makes for some pretty unpleasant walking but we manage to make it to the town of Jomsom where we stop to have lunch.
Nepali school girls in uniform
The villages on this side of the pass, and Jomsom in particular, are very luxurious compared with where we had come from. Furthermore, there are many more trekkers here owing to the airport in Jomsom and its proximity to the city of Pokhara. Many people simply fly in from Pokhara and walk back down to avoid the exertion of high altitude climbs while enjoying some spectacular scenery. Both for the large number of apples and American tourists, this portion of our trek is often called the "apple pie trail" referring to the tasty desert catered at most lodges. At Jomsom, Katlijn and I are both able to order a chicken schnitzel with fries as a reward for walking through the wind.
We arrive in Marpha later in the day, still cold, still wearing that crusty thermal underwear. The power is out and there is no hot water. The hotel owner puts some coals underneath the dining table and we all sit around it roasting our legs and drinking some delicious local apple brandy to stay warm (there is a distillery just outside of town). With this cozy arrangement, we play cards with Mahesh and Vishnu. They teach us some Nepali card games while we teach them both the game and the word "bullshit" which they begin to use with regularly from now on. Mahesh would start by saying to Vishnu mockingly, "There warm showers at Lower Pisang." Vishnu would pause for dramatic effect and then reply slowly, "Booool-sheeeeet" to which they would both laugh uproariously. Katlijn looked a bit uneasy.
Andrew demonstrating the bucket system.
Day 13 Marpha to Ghasa (Elevation 2010)
The small business caste of the Thakali people living here line their roof tops with stacks of firewood. According to our guide, these stacks are a demonstration of wealth.
We are disappointed again the next morning when we look outside: icicles hanging off the ledge and a thick layer of clouds. The morning begins with a soft, gentle romantic snow but naturally this culminates into a full blown snow storm by the time we are halfway through the day's hike. It is like yesterday's winds, but colder, stronger, and mixed with a dense snowy precipitation making it impossible to even look up. Sunglasses are needed, not to block the sun's UV rays which I thought I would never see again, but as a kind of eye protection against bits of ice and snow. Safety pins are needed to keep that damn North Fake jacket closed.
Not only is it cold and unpleasant, but it is disconcertingly quiet and lonely. Nobody in their right mind is still walking through this- we are the only trekkers out there. At some point, I see a lone jeep coming towards us silently off in the distance. When it arrives, the British guy we met back in Muktinath opens the window and gives me two big thumbs up. As they pass by us, I see the beady eyes of the Korean Himalaya Woman, wrapped in her Eskimo outfit and fluffy ear muffs, peering at me behind her thick scarf out the back window, her arms raised as far as her snow suit allows waving a kind of "goodbye". Then the jeep vanishes and we are by ourselves again with only the snow and the sound of it blowing past us.
We trudge slowly onwards against the frigid wind for several hours and I can't stop thinking of those Tibetans up at the High Camp probably sitting there right now, cross-legged around a smoky piece of yak shit thinking, gosh, it's not quite as cozy as a log fire but I'm sure as hell glad I'm not walking out in that ! At times like these, it seems only natural that I have to go to the bathroom and I spend a long and uncomfortable period of time considering the various desperate possibilities available to me. Eventually, we come across a town where I ask Mahesh to enquire the owners of a small home if I can use their bathroom. A chilling sense of deja vu washes over me.
The old crone leads me to her barn. We navigate our way around the chickens. She makes a path through the goats and beckons me to go with her. She motions at me to step over her buffalo to a small wooden shack with a hole in the ground. As I crouch down, I feel instantly relieved. I'm not sick. There is nobody cooking dhal baat outside the door. I didn't even get attacked by an alpha rooster on the way in. I think I made it, so I get up and push on the door. It's locked.
"Excuse me !" I cry out, "Excuse me ?", hoping my faint voice will carry through several layers of down, fleece, and wool- a faint echo above the howling winds.
After 10 minutes I start to get seriously cold and begin thinking about Mahesh' comments regarding people dying over night due to exposure to the cold. I wonder just how many tourists they find every year, frozen to death and forgotten, locked in the back of some Tibetan's bathroom. Is this how it is going to be then ? Freezing to death over a crouch toilet in the back of this barn ? It somehow seemed like a fitting conclusion to my Annapurna experience.
Just before I am about to enact a daring getaway that involves dangerously scaling the outhouse walls and walking out on their rooftops, Mahesh comes to my rescue. Within a few hours, the weather improves and we arrive safely at a small lodge in Ghasa.
Andrew turning Tibetan prayer wheels shortly after the snow storm and his embarrassing brush with death.
Ghasa to Tatopani (Elevation 1190)
View of the Kali Gandaki valley we follow down to Tatopani. Nestled between mountains higher than 8000 meters, it is the world's deepest valley- nearly 6 km deep and 36 km wide.
Nepali people love to take a crack at foreign foods and I was impressed to see Japanese Okonomiyaki on the breakfast menu this morning. It's actually a pretty good imitation, though it lacks Okonomiyaki sauce which sort of defeats the purpose.
It's an easy walk down the valley to a place called "Tatopani". "Tato" means "hot" and "pani" means "water", and the name refers to a nearby hot spring. A hot spring, I might add, that is about the best thing that has happened to us in the last two weeks. Forget the pine forests, the barren alpine scenery, the cold high dessert, this place looks like a club-med tropical paradise. There are bananas and oranges which you can literally pick off the trees for free from the lodge gardens.
Katlijn nicks a few oranges off the tree.
In short, Tatopani turns out to be a small miracle. How can it possibly be that we were slogging through a snow storm yesterday ? Here we have warm weather, fresh fruit juice, and some kick-ass banana milkshakes, not to mention the amazing healing properties of natural hot springs on two weeks worth of sore muscles. Finally, we are able get rid of those crusty thermal underwear.
To avoid altitude sickness, we need to spend a day acclimatizing at Manang. This also allows us the possibility to do a little laundry, access the internet, and stock up on Snickers bars before the final push over the Thorung La pass waiting for us 2000 meters higher. Mahesh tells us that we should enjoy the luxuries of Manang now since the higher elevation lodges are pretty basic. He adds that we will need to use the bucket “system” after today. It is unclear at this point whether he is referring to the shower or the toilet facilities.
The nighttime temperature in Manang regularly dips below 20 degrees Celsius. Mahesh tells us that people caught exposed in the night will freeze to death. Bundled in my thermal underwear, a wool hat, a heavy down sleeping bag geared for extreme cold, together with a fleece lining, I can say that I would be moderately comfortable if not for the inadequate foam mattress which causing me to periodically turn over taking turns numbing different sides of my body. Unfortunately, all-weather sleeping bags do not take into account night-time toilet runs- something my body seems to need frequently at this altitude given the vast quantities of dhal baat I am consuming. Dhal baat, in my personal experience, is a natural night-time laxative. Every night I am forced to ask myself the same vexing question: do I really need to go to the bathroom badly enough to get out of this sleeping bag, spend several frantic minute fumbling around the room in a desperate search for the toilet paper, dash outside and across the field to the nearest toilet, and then crouch down and expose my bare bottom to the freezing elements ? Unfortunately, after long and uncomfortable deliberation, the answer is always affirmative.
At about 8.30 in the morning, we can hear Mahesh coming to wake us up. Mahesh always gives us plenty of warning by singing a gentle melody. His voice grows gradually stronger as he approach until there is a sudden silence followed by a softly spoken, “Excuse me ?“ which is my cue to get up and return circulation to whatever side of my body I was lying on. Even on the trail, Mahesh normally carries a barely audible hum. When rounding a bend, he gives a soft whistle on the off chance we might startle somebody unseen around the corner. We like his gentle and unassuming nature.
Andrew marvelling at his frozen laundry.
The sun is very powerful at this altitude making a palpable temperature difference every time you walk into the shadow. Since there is no heating in Manang, a row of shopkeepers along the street can be seen each morning sitting outside their stores in the sun because it is too cold to sit underneath the shadow inside. We quickly adapt to the local customs, apply some sunscreen, and enjoy a hardy fried eggs and hash brown breakfast while soaking in the powerful rays.
Gunga Purna Glacier spilling down the mountain side. Evidence of glacier erosion can be seen throughout the xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Himalaya in large displaced boulders and smoothed rock surfaces.
Following the old climbers adage of “climb high, sleep low” to aid the acclimatization process, we hike up a few hundred meters above Manang to an excellent view point of the gorgeous Gunga Purna Glacier cascading down between Annapurna IV and Gunga Purna peak feeding a small turquoise lake below. Over night, the surface of the lake freezes over and we can hear it cracking in the sun as we march to the top.
Along the way, we catch a rare glimpse of a small dear near the lookout point which, judging by the elevation and the description in my book, is likely an endangered musk deer. Perhaps more impressive, we catch our first glimpses of the legendary Korean Himalaya Woman and her entourage:
- 10 porters literally carrying buckets of kimchi on their backs - 1 Korean Chef - 1 Korean/Nepali guide - 2 young Nepali boys holding her hand whose actual function we often speculate over while gossiping around the fire.
At least she is doing her part to keep the mountain economy going. We have never actually seen or heard her, but only barely discern two beady eyes peering from behind a scarf, an enormous Eskimo jacket, and big fluffy ear muffs. She looks a bit like Kenny from SouthPark.
The district capital of Manang camouflaged against its harsh environment.
We get back in the early afternoon and I spend the day taking pictures of the Tibetan people and architecture around the village while Katlijn relaxes with a book. Being low-season, we enjoy the entire hotel to ourselves.
Manang to Letdar (Elevation 4250 meters)
The human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. This process of acclimatisation is still not fully understood. AcuteMountain Sickness is a potentially fatal condition.
Mahesh gets us up early the next morning for the day's hike forcing us to bid a fond farewell to the comforts of Manang. The pine vegetation grows gradually thinner and finally disappears as we climb above the tree line leaving only small shrubs that can survive in the high dry climate here. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of rare mountain Ghorels grazing near the path.
To avoid altitude sickness, it is important not to gain too much altitude in one day so we have only a short four hour walk and gain about 700 more meters. Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent me from developing a painful headache. To make matters worse, Mahesh doesn't want me to sleep it off because he says I'll have more trouble falling asleep at night- another physiological effect of the body's acclimatization process. Instead, he suggests I eat some garlic soup which is the local remedy for altitude sickness.
Tibetans planting garlic, one of the few crops that grows at this altitude easily, and also a prominent ingredient in the local cuisine.
Regardless of its medicinal properties, garlic appears to be the ingredient of choice among the Tibetans living here. In general, it is chopped, grated, and roasted into all sorts of foods in such copious amounts as to render it utterly inedible. The fact that my soup was actually dubbed "garlic" by the Tibetan people should have been a clear warning for travellers to stay away, but I decide to give it a try. I slowly spoon down the whole bowl like a bad medicine. While my headache does indeed disappear, the soup's odor could still be sensed lingering on my breath for days.
While I recover from my headache, Katlijn talks with the Dutch couple. The older mother is afraid she won't make the Thorung La pass and so rented a horse from Manang allowing her to go faster. Rose, her physically fit daughter, has no signs of altitude sickness and wants to make the pass in one day- a feat normally accomplished in two days. According to our guide, making the pass from Letdar is not possible, but this does not deter them whatsoever. Later, our guide reveals that their porter and the horse trainer are aware of this and have planned from the beginning to take them to a shabby, ice-cold tea house just below the pass as soon as they realize they can't make it before daybreak. Naturally, this tea house is owned by the horse trainer and the porter will take part of the profits.
Today was my first introduction to the Tibetans' very own variation on the fire system. You may have wondered how the Tibetans can possibly stay warm at night above the tree line with the complete absence of fire wood. Their solution is to pack a large storage closet full of sacks of perfectly round yak turds. Two or three of these yak paddies are placed in a small oven and set on fire giving off a surprising amount of heat while filling the cabin full of a choking yak dung haze. It is definitely as effective as a log fire, though it certainly lacks the cozy ambiance.
It is so cold at night that the bathroom water bucket is frozen solid sending me to their backup toilet- a tiny outhouse of unspeakable filth. I come back and nestle my way between the Himalaya Woman and her large entourage of porters, chefs, and translators all huddled, shoulder to shoulder, around three chunks of smouldering yak feces. It occurs to me that maybe a Thai beach wouldn't be so bad after all.
Letdar to High Camp (Elevation 4900 meters)
We wake up early the next morning and I am pleasantly surprised to find that my headache is gone and I'm able to climb higher. We see the Dutch couple leave at about which is much too late to make the pass- Rose tells us the horse trainer took a very long time to prepare the horse causing their delay.
We are in very high spirits today as we enjoy another gorgeous hike in beautiful weather. While the temperature is bitterly cold at night, it is surprisingly comfortable to walk in during the day as long as we are in the sunshine. Along the way, we see a few forlorn travellers returning, pale faced and sick, to lower elevation. They had to go back down to Manang and recover from altitude sickness. Perhaps they will be able to try again in a few days if the weather holds. We stop at a village called Phedi and have lunch with Evan, the Canadian biologist from Nelson. We discuss what luxuries we miss most. For Katlijn, it is a bag of green hula-hoops and a pack of Fruitella. I want a good dark Belgian beer which would be the perfect Himalayan fire side companion. Nepali beer, by the way, is always of the lager variety and actually pretty good. The best brand is Everest which is quite a satisfying ice beer. Beer and whisky are available at all lodges even at higher elevations. However, like everything else, it all has to be brought up on the back of some poor porter making it unaffordable on our budget. In general, the price of all food and water inflates with altitude making tonight's destination the most expensive lodge in the Annapurna.
After lunch, neither of us are showing any signs of altitude sickness so Mahesh suggests we continue further up to the High Camp at an elevation of 4900 meters. This entails a steep 1 hour climb which will shorten tomorrow's final scramble over Thorong La. This is the first time during our trip where we start to really feel the lack of oxygen in the air. We have to make frequent stops to catch our breath and walk at a frustratingly slow pace. At this rate, it seems like we are making absolutely no progress at all, so it is surprising to see Phedi growing gradually smaller as the High Camp comes within view. Finally, we arrive. The sky is perfectly clear, I only have a mild headache, and we are confident we will make the pass. The Korean Himalaya Woman is with us too and she shares a little Nakchi with me to celebrate.
Seven ways to use a yak
Forget what you have read about Tibetan spiritualism and the Dalai Lama. In fact, Tibetans are actually avid yak herders ! Yaks are considered one of the most useful animals in the the world and are one of the only bovines that can live easily at high altitudes. Here are seven practical ways you can use a yak:
Yak butter, milk and especially yak cheese which is surprisingly tasty (actually should be called "Nak" cheese).
Yak fur is commonly used in clothing and in shelters.
Yak dung is a fuel forheating and cooking.
Yak dung is also a fertilizer.
Yaks are powerful beasts of burden.
Yak spinal cords are an effective contraceptive.
High Camp over Thorung La (Elevation 5416 meters) to Muktinath (Elevation 3710 meters)
Katlijn and I spend the entire night tossing and turning- contorting our bodies, sleeping bags, and pillows in search of that one mythical arrangement which might actually make us comfortable enough to sleep. There isn't one. At about , Mahesh' song can be heard mercifully ending what must have been one of the longest nights in my life. I talked to several people who stayed at the High Camp and they all had the same experience. I only know of one Frenchman who managed to fall asleep only to wake up and run out in the freezing cold hyperventilating as a result of a nightmare he had where he couldn't breath properly. A physician we met on the trail told us that both lack of sleep and bizarre dreams are common side-effects at high altitudes.
It is pitch black outside and freezing cold. I can't touch my breakfast and give the whole thing to Vishnu. To make matters worse, I have a splitting headache and need to take some aspirin. It is the worst I felt the whole trip. Determined to make the pass, I dawn several layers of clothing, switch my headlamp on, and do up all three remaining buttons on that North Fake down jacket.
We have to leave very early to be sure we make the pass in the morning. Otherwise, the winds typically picks up resulting in a high wind chill factor and a potential for frostbite. As we march through the darkness, my headache slowly dissolves. Gazing at the multitude of stars in the clear night sky and the moon's glow illuminating some of the highest peaks in the world is almost a religious experience. At dawn, we pass a small tea house occupied by the two Dutch women, shivering and stomping, just as Mahish had predicted. They told us it was so cold that icicles were hanging off their frozen blankets in the night.
The Himalayan sky behind mountains.
It's very slow going up to Thorung La, the largest mountain pass in the world and also one of the highest trekking routes. Behind us can be seen a few interspersed trekkers at various stages of the ascent. Most of them are stopped waiting to catch their breaths while admiring the surrounding alpine scenery. Others can be seen concentrating on putting one foot slowly in front of the other, each leg like a lead weight, steadily moving forward. Our porter is the slowest with his heavy bag. Then, Mahish and I walking at our pace. Far ahead is Katlijn who seems to be less affected by the altitude. She is waiting for us at the top.
We are all happy to reach the pass and have a quick celebratory photo. However, it is too cold for us to linger long and, within minutes, we begin our long steep descent. The cold weather ensures us some tricky icy passages, but we manage all right and it isn't long before we start to take our heavy jackets and sweaters off. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of the dry Mustang valley and the Dhawalagiri range separating Nepal from Tibet.
Mahesh and Andrew managing the icy slopes just below Thorung La
A view of the MustangValley which is in a dry high dessert climate. This region most resembles Tibet, located just beyond those mountains, and is referred to as the Trans-Himalaya.
We arrive at the town Muktinath in the early afternoon after about eight hours of walking, our knees sore from the long descent. We celebrate with a few special menu items for dinner: I have a "pepper steak" (read, "Chunk of Yak in brown sauce") while Katlijn has "pizza prosciutto" (Spam ham). Over dinner, we talk with Evan and a British couple about their experiences in India and get a few good travel tips. It was truly a memorable day. I peek down the hallway and watch expectantly as Katlijn dissapears into the shower room. After a few moments there are shouts of glee and steam leaking out the cracks. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Eco-friendly solar-powered water boilers can be found throughout the Himalaya. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water on a sunny day.
After countless trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, I wake up early the next morning to the uncomfortable realization that I need to walk six hours with both a heavy backpack and a serious case of the runs. It is at this point that I am happy Katlijn brought a porter who significantly lightens my load by taking my sleeping bag. Of course, Vishnu now carries all of Katlijn’s stuff, 10 snickers bars, the last installment of Harry Potter and TWO heavy arctic sleeping bags. In order to manage this, he uses a head strap in addition to the shoulder and waist harness. Mahish calls this Vishnu’s “magic” which makes it all possible. Regardless, Vishnu is my hero.
Having the runs in a foreign country is one of the unfortunate facts of life in traveling to Nepal and India. Since many small villages dot the entire Annapurna circuit, trekkers are discouraged from going in the wild. Naturally, I was able to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to tour of the gamut of Himalayan toilet facilities. Like the vast majority of the world, they are of the “squat over a hole in the ground” variety and come in a few predictable classes of materials and designs. My favorite was when, in sheer desperation, I had to ask one of the villagers to use the toilet in her home. A tiny, hunched, ancient woman led me into her barn where I had to navigate my way through several chickens, a flock of goats, and a buffalo to the smallest wooden bathroom I had ever seen. Just outside the bathroom was her kitchen stove of all things- a funny wood burning stove with a small iron chimney that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. I stepped over the buffalo and ducked into what must be the filthiest spider infested bathroom in Nepal, if not the entire Indian sub-continent. I had to simultaneously hold the door shut and assume the crouching position forcing me to hang monkey-style over the hole- an acrobatic feat that would require extreme coordination even without my bowel condition. I lost my balance several times causing the whole shack to tremble violently for the duration of this experience. When I emerged, I was horrified to find the old crone just outside my door cooking some Daal Bhaat on the Dr. Seuss stove. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, revealing all three of her teeth, giving me a look of simultaneous astonishment and disgust that said, “What is the matter with you man !? You are 32 years old and still not potty trained !?” With what remaining grace I could muster, I stepped over the buffalo, put my hands together, and muttered “namaste”. She watched me carefully as I moved her goats aside and was literally attacked by an aggressive rooster on my way out.
There are currently no roads in this part of the Annapurna so all supplies are carried between the villages by porters who bare all sorts of strange and bizarre Eastern and Western items and livestock, often in ridiculously over-sized and over-stuffed backpacks and cages. However, a new road is currently under construction which will connect Besi Sahar with Manang promising to change everything, for better and for worse. We have to take an enormous up-hill detour to avoid blasting of the mountain side necessary for this construction. Mahish says the road will be bad for porters and guides which currently form the backbone of the tourist and transportation culture. When I once asked him if they will control the nature and amount of traffic on the road, he muttered sadly, “like in Kathmandu” which basically means a cluttered mess of buses, cars, and backpackers where pounding the horn repeatedly takes the place of road rules.
This is my favorite porter who was very kind to let me take her picture. Note that she is carrying that weight on her head ! Himalayan women do much of the hard labor. I have seen similar old ladies wielding dangerous looking axes to chop fire wood.
By the end of the day, my condition starts to improve. Unfortunately, Katlijn seems to be developing sinusitis. The lodge owners give her some local inhalant which seems to work quite effectively at reducing her symptoms. Mahish then produced another local remedy for my stomach condition that looks suspiciously like guinea pig droppings- I decide not to chance it.
Katlijn taking full advantage of the Jagat's local anti-sinusitis inhalant underneath her jacket.
During the night, Katlijn hears some commotion in the village.
Day 4 Jagat to Tal (Elevation 1700 meters)
Mahish gets us out of bed early the next morning and we enjoy a tasty apple pancake breakfast. He explains that the commotion was due to a thief caught stealing from one of the lodges. He is currently held in the local Jagat kindergarten since the nearest police station is in Bahundanda, nearly six hours walk away.
Mahish tells us that only kindergarten and elementary schools are available in most of the small villages we pass. He had to walk two hours to get to his nearest high school [uphill both ways] and this is not unusual. Some kids stay with relatives or in boarding houses away from home while other students can be seen in their uniforms walking the same trails as us. Still others, especially the girls, won’t go to school at all and are needed to work the farm at home. Maybe that road really will come in handy.
As we leave the town, we see all the villagers gathered in a crowded circle: men, women, children, and babies. We have to ask them to move aside so we can get through. In the center of the circle stands the young thief who looks positively terrified. There is blood dripping out of his mouth. He had been beaten. One of the villagers passes me by and feels the needed to explain, “he stole money”.
Waterfalls carving the Himalaya from stone.
Katlijn is still not feeling well so we do only a short three-hour walk to a small town called “Tal”. The path is very beautiful with several waterfalls cascading down the valley side. The Himalayas are caused by the massive collision of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, encompassing both India and Australia, with the Eurasian continent. The resulting force is causing the bordering land to raise in elevation at a rate of a few centimeters each year. When we look at the Himalaya, we are not so much seeing mountains but the gaps between them carved by the rivers. It is interesting to consider that the river we are following through the valley is therefore older than the mountains themselves.
Day 5 Tal to Chame (Elevation 2700 meters)
Tibetan people live at these higher elevations. Chortens, such as this modern example at Tal, mark the entrance to Tibetan villages.
Katlijn spent a lot of time in bed and we are considering staying in Tal until she recovers. However, Mahish encourages us to continue on at least a bit further today. He is afraid that if we lose another day or two now we may have trouble making the high pass since we are attempting this trek so late in the year. The next storm could block our passage entirely and we would have to return home.
Amazingly, Katlijn’s condition seems to improve as we walk. After a long nine-hour slog, we manage to make it to Chame making up for the time we lost yesterday. Mahish told me later he never thought we'd make it ! Along the way, the diverse sub-tropical vegetation gives way to pine forests. There are no more terraces of rice fields. Rather, corn, wheat, and millet are grown at this altitude. In contrast to the Gurung people living at lower altitudes, the people here are mostly Tibetan- both newer refugees and older communities dating back to the ancient trade routes between India and China. The villages themselves look notably different with spiritual displays of prayer wheels, flags, and stupas.
As if marking this contrast to a new stage in our journey, the weather also begins to roll in- changing from this morning’s balmy, “why the hell are we lugging around these arctic sleeping bags ?”, to the evening’s bone chilling “why the hell won’t the zipper work on these cheapo Kathmandu North ‘Fake’ jackets we borrowed from our guide ?” Towards the end of our walk, it starts to snow and we experience our first night of serious cold weather.
Mist through the trees. The weather rolls down the hills at us.
Nepali people are very fond of the word “system”. Everything is a “system”, no matter how trivial. If you go to a restaurant in Kathmandu and ask them to wrap your tuna sandwich in foil, this is referred to as the take-home "system". Similarly, after Mahish finds Katlijn huddled on her bed refusing to come out of the room unless we cut out little leg holes from her sleeping bag, he invites us down to use the fire “system”. We decide to take his advice and follow him to a room where a few Tibetans sit around a fire.
Underneath a curtain of drying yak jerky, sipping from a piping hot cup of coco, roasting my feet in front of the cozy fire after a long day of hiking, reveling in my lack of bowel problems, I realize that this is my ideal vacation. Katlijn is not convinced, however, and argued vehemently in favor a cocktail on a Thai beach. Nevertheless, she had to admit that this particular moment was bliss. We spent the evening chatting with our guide and porter until, thoroughly exhausted, we retired to our room at about 8 PM- a late night by our mountain trekking standards.
Day 6 Chame to Lower Pisang (Elevation 3200 meters)
The sun burning snow off the impressive bulk of Annapurna II seen here towering above us to an elevation of 7937 meters.
The weather clears up and we enjoy spectacular views of the Annapurna range during an easy five-hour walk to the town of “Lower Pisang”. Upon arriving, two loud Korean girls tell us that there are “hot” showers in our lodge. Excited by this prospect, Katlijn and I grab our camp towels and head for our first winter high-altitude shower experience:
Imagine that you are naked in an enclosed wooden room completely shielded from the sun. Imagine, if you will, the temperature in this room is close to 0 degrees Celsius- sort of like sitting naked in your freezer. Now, think of a chest-high tap on the wall with one merciless knob dribbling luke-warm water onto the floor. Imagine how cold that water feels against the concrete in your bare feet. Now, imagine small holes in the wooden shack through which you can feel a cold draft blowing against your body. Imagine standing there for what seems like an eternity waiting for, no… hoping to god, that luke-warm dribble will eventually turn into a “hot” dribble like those damn obnoxious Korean girls promised. Finally, imagine it never gets “hot” at all. In fact, it gets slowly colder and colder as whatever “hot” water that might have been there to begin with is being used up.
We soon learn that it is actually better to be under the luke-warm water than getting splashed by it in the freezing cold. You still feel cold under the tap, but it is definitely better than not being under the tap. Thus, it is not only hard to get into the shower, but infinitely harder to get out of it. My approach is to plan carefully my actions before I reach up from my naked crouch position and shut the tap off. I then slowly and methodically dry each part of my body and, as soon as possible, cover that part of my body with clothing. Katlijn’s approach is to yell maniacally several expletives followed by the word “cold” at the top of her lungs to serve as a warning to any other trekkers within the next village.
After our shower, we proceed with haste to the fire “system” and I eat some of the lodge’s chowmein wondering how on earth it is possible to cook something with absolutely no taste at all. The Korean girls are kind enough to lend me their red chili sauce. They tell me they take this with them everywhere in Nepal to provide a little character to their meals. It doesn’t help.
Back in Kathmandu, they make tea by simultaneously boiling together the milk, the tea, the spices, and some water. It is a truly satisfying beverage which I highly recommend. Up here in the Himalayan mountains, you are lucky to get a small tea bag floating ineffectively in a glass of slightly-warm unpasteurized milk. I decide, instead, to try my luck with the local “Tibetan tea” which turns out to be a vile brew made from salt and warm yak butter. I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t get anyone sitting around the fire to drink it either. In fact, I couldn’t even get any of the Nepali people to drink it. Instead, it turned into the evening's much needed entertainment as everyone took turns smelling it and then contorting their face into an image of disgust followed by guffaws of laughter.
After this game grew tiresome, we spent the rest of the evening around the fire gossiping with the other travelers. One of the joys of doing the Annapurna Circuit is talking about the various eccentrics that are crazy enough to do this hike in the middle of winter. Since we are all walking the same trail, sitting around the same fires, and eating the same food, you get to know them pretty well. There is Evan, a Canadian Biologist from Nelson, BC, who actually decided to start the Annapurna Circuit immediately after he got back from a 20 day trek to the Everest Base Camp- otherwise he is entirely normal and we like him a lot. There are the Dutch girls, a 55 year old mother and her daughter who claim that Eindhoven has everything we need to be happy (at this point, a soft mattress, a hot shower, and sit-toilets). Our favourite, however, is the infamous “Korean Himalaya Woman”.
Everyone on the mountainside knows of the Korean Himalaya Woman; rumors travel fast between the villages. According to the two Korean girls, she has been sited recently on horse back at Lower Pisang and they claim she gave them a cup of instant noodle ramen. She visits the Himalaya twice a year with not one, not two, but TEN porters ! This is in addition to her guide and chef. Each porter is purported to carry several kilos of Kimchi, an octopus, and some dog meat which her chef turns into a giant Korean feast every night somewhere in the distant mountains. Reports indicate she is generous. We have not yet seen her but have only heard stories about- she is sort of the Asian culinary counterpart to the illusive yeti.
I looked down at my full cup of salty Tibetan tea in quiet contemplation. Could the legend be true ?
Day 7 Lower Pisang to Manang (Elevation 3540 meters)
We get up early the next morning and I have some buckwheat bread with jam. Tibetan buckwheat bread looks like a Frisbee and tastes a bit like one too. Anyone for a game of Ultimate ?
Katlijn and Vishnu checking the map en route to Manang.
We enjoy a flat and highly enjoyable walk to the Tibetan town of Manang, the district capital and a virtual metropolis compared to the villages we had been staying in. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of Annapurna II, III, and IV. The weather is gorgeous. We have recovered from our illnesses. Upon arriving, I turned the tap water on… hot water ! It is a perfect day.
You can do everything in Manang. You can check your e-mail, buy Pringles potato chips, and even watch a small selection of DVDs on a big screen (“Seven Years in Tibet”, “Kundun”, “Into thin air”, etc.). You can even spend an evening around a campfire with the local Tibetans listening to their classic rock CD collection.
In short, Manang is the best place on this side of the Himalayas and we are very happy to be here for the next couple of days.
A couple of locals hanging out on main street Manang in the early morning.
Machu means "fish", Puchre means "tail. It is the fishtail mountain.
As seen from Sarangkot in Pokhara at sundown.
Sorry for the long delay in updating this blog. Believe it or not, there really are solar powered internet cafes in the Himalaya. However, they cost a small fortune to use so we decided to wait until we got back from our trek before updating our blog and responding to e-mail.
We completed the entire Annapurna Circuit a few days ago. Since it was a very special experience, we will provide a detailed day-by-day account of this particular journey which we will post in installments over the next week or so (subject to Internet availability and power outages, of course). After that, we will try to update the blog more regularly to describe the places we have visited...
The xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Annapurna Circuit
Day 1 Bus ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar (Elevation 800 meters)
Before it started leaking uncontrollably all over our hotel room floor, Katlijn enjoyed one last civilized luxury in Kathmandu: a hot bath. I have to say, in retrospect, our Kathmandu hotel is comparatively not so stinky and actually downright comfortable compared to what we will experience in the next 17 days.
We met up with our guide, Mahish, and our porter, Vishnu, in the early morning, got in a dangerously dilapidated taxi, and weaved at top speed through honking motorcycles and countless bovines before arriving at a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Mahish sat us down for a breakfast of Nepali tea and biscuits before we got into a rickety old bus painted in psychedelic pastel colours and took off for the Himalayas. This was our first experience with Nepal's public transportation system.
It takes two to three people to navigate the Nepali infrastructure by bus. There is the driver- in our case, an old man wearing a wool hat with a marijuana badge sewn on the front. Then there are one or two helpers who serve several purposes including the following:
- Calling out for passengers - Looking out for the startling number and variety of highway obstacles - A substitute for malfunctioning signal lights. - Strapping baggage, furniture, and roosters to the rooftop - Yelling Nepali profanities at slow moving vehicles and bovines
Our helper was a sixteen year old boy wearing a black "Jack Daniel's" bandanna, bandit-style, and black low-rider jeans. This wouldn't have been so bad except for the glaring fact that he was going commando. There do not appear to be actual bus stops in Nepal. Instead, the helper is constantly vigilant for potential passengers waiting in the middle of nowhere. To signal the driver to stop the bus, he would pound the side of the bus one time. After throwing whatever bizarre items the passenger may have onto a towering rooftop pile, he would pound the bus two times to signal it to start moving again.
Whenever passing another vehicle, a terrifying event which occurred with distressing regularity, he would pound the bus several times signalling there was no visible traffic, potholes, or farm animals. Our bus driver would then push the horn repeatedly and gun it- sending everyone lurching backwards, perhaps losing a few roosters behind us, as our bus hurtled past at full speed, held together only by a few rusty bolts, some rope, and the collective blind faith of those of us inside. On the narrow mountain roads, I had to hold back the urge to cry out. "Mr. Bus driver ! Are our lives really so dispensable to you !?"
Nevertheless, as our bus tempts fate just a few inches from a cliff side rounding a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, the Nepali people do not seem to notice. It was astonishing. I want to explain to them, "Our lives are in the hands of a crusty ex-hippy and a boy who wears no underpants. WE ARE IN SERIOUS TROUBLE HERE !". But yet, as I stare behind me, there are, at best, a few looks of mild concern. Our porter is sound asleep.
You may call me paranoid, but consider the following facts and figures which are all true:
1) You are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured in a bus fatality in Nepal than you are in any developed country.
2) I can see burnt carcasses of psychedelic pastel coloured buses off the cliff side that look disturbingly like the one I am riding in.
3) Riding a bus is considered the most dangerous activity you can do in Nepal. It is more dangerous than white water rafting, more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, even more dangerous than drinking the tap water.
I can see our helper bent over in front of the bus fiddling with the dash board and mooning the passengers while he's at it. Before long, I hear a crackling noise through bus speakers and then the booming sound of Indian pop music played at full volume through an 80s cassette player system: my nightmare is complete.
Resigned to my fate, I rest my head against the grungy bus window and stare at the havoc outside. I start to feel the motion sickness pills kicking in listening to the rhythm of the music. I begin to play a game with myself: closing my eyes and opening them again then mentally remarking the foreign images in front of me.
Nepali girls with tikas wearing British school boy uniforms.
A technicolour truck with the words "push horn" painted on the back in Hindu font.
Cows parked between motorcycles.
Day 2 Besi Sahar to Bahundada (Elevation 1310 meters)
Every inch of land used. Rice is grown in the Himalays up to about 2000 meters.
Damn. I shouldn't have eaten so much chicken with my Daal Bhaat last night. I am sensing the start of a serious case of Traveller's Diarrhea. However, Katlijn is in high spirits so I try not to let on too much. This is our first day of serious trekking.
We have a Nepali guide named "Mahish" who can tell us what we are looking at and show us the way. Actually, this isn't true. Mahish also tells us when to get up, where to sleep, where to eat, where to rest, and where to go to the bathroom. In fact, we are total lemmings completely under his command. We even ride the bus when he asks this of us. We do absolutely everything he says and pay him for this privilege. Still, he is polite enough to refer to me as "sir".
I carry my own backpack, but Katlijn hired a porter named "Vishnu". After noting that we were basically paying our porter for my vacation, we also loaded him with a few extra comforts. Vishnu is not as outgoing as Mahish, but we learn to admire his quiet determination lugging his load up the mountainside. He always carries, by far, the heaviest bag and the biggest smile.
Katlijn, Vishnu, and Mahish. Vishnu's bag is loaded with Katlijn's belongings, a heavy arctic sleeping bag, 10 snickers bars, and the last installment of Harry Potter.
So far, the Himalayas are not the bitter cold, white, icy, yeti-abode I had always imagined as a child. Instead, the vegetation is sub-tropical and the green hills are terraced with rice plantations plowed by oxes. During our easy hike through the country, we pass by many small villages stopping occasionally for tea, before arriving at our lodge; "lodge" being Nepali for "spartan shack with luke-warm showers". Nevertheless, it is cozy by candlelight and the views from the patio are gorgeous at dusk.
A big thanks to all those who came to our send-off party. We had a nice cross-section of people from our lives in Belgium, and a few from our lives abroad. It was great to see all one more time before we hit the road.
In true form, the subsequent events after our party consisted of eating chocolate coffee beans for breakfast on the floor of our empty apartment, hauling refrigerators down three flights of stairs, and submitting that last journal article sometime in the middle of the night. After some serious last minute banking arrangements early the next morning, we finally left Leuven to arrive 20 hours later in Kathmandu. A guy named Ram, who has arranged our 18 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, picked us up at the airport. We had a short, but harrowing, car ride through the streets of Kathmandu to arrive safely, with all our gear, at a stinky hotel in the middle of the city. This was pretty much our plan.
We spent our first day being chased around by honking motorcycles in the narrow streets of xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Kathmandu. At night, the power went out which, according to the receptionist, is a common occurrence here. Thus, we used a few candles to find our way to the top of the hotel. We spent much of the evening together on the roof listening to the sounds of the city. Kathmandu sounds like people, honking horns, and dogs barking (it smells a bit like that too). Katlijn wants it to be known that she doesn't think our hotel stinks. But really, it is all relative, and I think she may have already been here too long. Here are a few images of Kathmandu:
Temple through the trees.
Beautiful Nepali woman with children
A square where the children play
The children who wanted me to take their picture.
It's late. I'm at an internet cafe. I fear the power may go out again, so I will sign off for now. Tomorrow, we leave early in the morning with our winter gear to start our trek through the Himalayas. I understand there are some solar power internet stations along our route; sounds more reliable than the Kathmandu power grid, anyways. Until then, namaste !