Monday, March 26, 2012
THE HIMALAYAS On Monday, March 19th, we caught a plane to the small town of Jomsom, located on the west side of the Annapurna Circuit, in the Kali Gandaki Valley. The plane was a small & seated 18 people. Our flight was somewhat turbulent, luckily only lasting 25 minutes. The scenery from the plane is spectacular as you see your first glimpses of the Annapurna range. At times the plane flies so close to the mountains, you feel that you could reach out and touch them. The planes only fly early in the morning as the wind shifts around 10 a.m. and they simply cannot fly any longer. Upon landing we could not help but notice the bleak terrain around us... reminded me of a Star Wars episode where Luke goes to a far off planet.....I was just waiting for the weird creatures to arrive. This valley is desert like and the majority of the houses are built in the Tibetan style . Jomsom is the start off point for local trekking. In the past five years a road has been built into this area. Our friends Elsie and Ramesh commented that the road was good for the locals, but somewhat harmful to tourism. This area had once been cut off from the rest of Nepal and only accessible by foot either from Pokhara or via the Annapurna circuit. Large trucks bringing goods from southern Nepal and local jeeps/motorcycles create dust and pollution to a once pristine area. Having said this, the scenery took our breath away. We were surrounded by the Dhaulagiri range with Dhaulagiri mountain itself rising to a height 26,795 feet (8,167 meters). It is the World's seventh highest peak and was first climbed in 1960. It's name means " dazzling, white, beautiful" which it certainly is. We were also surrounded by numerous other peaks of the Annapurna range, it's highest peak at 8091 meters. The Kaligandaki river flows between these two ranges and this gorge is said to be the World's largest. At one point we reached the Upper Mustang which is the conduit to Tibet. A rugged area of the Himalayas, which in its' own way is very beautiful and very dramatic everywhere you look. Believe we had mentioned that the Nepal part of our trip was planned by a friend from Calgary, Elsie James, who lives in Nepal for about 6 months of the year, doing charity work for Medical Mercy Canada. Her Nepalese son, Ramesh, owns a travel and trekking company, in addition to working part time for Medical Mercy. Elsie had contacted us when we were still in India and asked if she and Ramesh could join us for the trekking part of the trip, as they both needed a break, as they had been working hard for the last few months without a break. We were delighted. They also brought along a young Nepalese man, Nakel, who works for them part time. By the way, Elsie is now 77 and still very vibrant, an example to us all. On her 75th birthday, she hiked the Everest Base Camp trek, quite a feat for a young person, let alone a 75 year old. Ramesh also hired a local porter, Mongole, to carry our bags. We simply carried day packs. This is the norm when hiking here. The porters do carry some very heavy loads. When you travel in the Annapurna area you need special permits and there are checkpoints along the way, manned by the Nepalese Army. Elsie told us that whenever someone has gotten lost, they are normally never found. After landing, we had breakfast at a local guesthouse, then headed off to the small town of Marpha, about a 1 1/2 hour hike from Jomsom. The weather was certainly cooler than Pokhara, where we had been for the previous 3 days, but putting on our fleeces did the trick early in the morning. We quickly warmed up and soon after starting our walk, the sweaters came off. We arrived at the Paradise guesthouse in Marpha where we stayed for the next two nights. Guesthouses in this part of Nepal are very basic, but comfortable. Rooms are usually made up of twin beds with a sheet on the bed. You sleep in your own sleeping bags ( we rented sleeping bags in Pokhara) and you are supplied with a pillow and only sometimes a blanket. We had brought our silk sleeping bag liners from home which provided extra warmth. The floors are usually just wooden and the bathroom is an all in one toilet and shower; so when you take a shower the whole bathroom gets wet. We normally had our showers in the late afternoon, after returning from our hikes, as the water is solar heated, so only hot water later in the day. One of the guesthouses we stayed in had squat toilets, not my favorite, but what a great way to build up your thigh muscles! After settling in, we headed off to discover the wonderful little village of Marpha. A very narrow, winding main road with trucks and jeeps having to take another road around the town. You only have to contend with the local donkeys and cows carrying their supplies along the street to another town. You can always hear them approaching due to the tinkling of the bells they wear. The village of Marpha is surrounded by terraced fields of buckwheat and apple orchards. The apple blossoms were just starting, as spring has arrived. Lots of locals working in the files either tilling with a team of oxen pulling a hand made plow, hand sowing the crop or weeding by hand. These people work very hard and lead a very simple . There is also several Tibetan refugee camps all along the valley. We walked around the town then hiked up to a point above the town where a meditation cave was built into the hill. Quite steep just below the cave, where we stopped at a chorten. A chorten is a Buddhist sacred monument. You can see them in the fields, the entrance to a village and most incredibly, at the top of some mountains. You have to wonder how they can build them on some of these high locations, let alone bring up the supplies. The majority of the houses in Marpha are painted white, with dark burgundy doors and windows. All the roofs of the houses are piled high with firewood, which is used for cooking and mainly heating in the winter. The following day, we hiked to Tukuche (2,580 meters) a small village some 2 1/2 hours Marpha, then back to Marpha on the other side of the river through a juniper forest. Tukuche along with several villages in the valley, were stop overs for the salt and spice traders from China. They would buy goods along the way and sell them further down the line. Superb views of the Dhaulagiri range here. The next day Wednesday, saw us heading off early, before the winds started, going further north to Kagbeni. We followed the river bed of the Kali Gandaki river, which at this time of year was only a small stream. During monsoon season the river widens to a kilometer wide. Also some hiking along the dusty road. Fortunately, Robin bought himself a face mask when we first got to Nepal (could have used it in India) and it has definitely helped him. Our destination was some 4 1/2 to 5 hours away. We stopped for a snack in a small village along the route, Eklibhatti, a junction for roads leading to Jomsom, Kagbeni and Muktinath. We stayed the Asia Hotel Guesthouse in Kagbeni. Robin and I walked through the town and found a YakDonald's and a 7Eleven.....Nepal style. The village of Kagbeni is 2,800 metres in elevation and is the gateway to the North Mustang area, which leads to Tibet. As an aside, the Mustang area was closed to foreigners as late as the 1960's because of border issues with China. Even today, if you want to hike in the North Mustang area, you need to pay an additional $500 U.S. per person. The whole town of Kagbeni is an ancient fortress and overlooks the Eastern band of the river. Also a very old Monastery and Temple. The next morning, Ramesh, Robin and Mongole started trekking up to Muktinath. Our hike took 4 hours and we climbed over 1,000 metres. At times we had to deal with very steep and narrow paths, a little scary! We came across porters carrying goods and one told us his load was 65 kilos! Along the way, passed the ancient village of Jharkot, which was along the salt and spice trading route. This town juts out over the valley, quite a sight. Then our final destination,Muktinath. We met Elsie and Nakel, who rode up in a jeep. The town was awash with Pilgrims, who come here as one of the sacred sites of Buddhism. The temple has a permanent natural flame. We decIded that it would be best to travel back to Jomsom this same day, as transportation the next day could be difficult to find, due to the feast/festival that all the Pilgrims were attending in Muktinath. We found a jeep that took the six of us back to Jomsom, a 1 1/2 hour trip over a very bumpy and at times scary road. The jeep driver did not look old enough to drive, had music blaring and went around the hairpin curves like he was a race car driver. These sturdy jeeps are made by the Mahindra automobile company of India, who also make buses, large trucks and Tuk Tuk's. These jeeps are based on an old Willy's jeep design; and are intended to seat about 10 passengers, but some this day had up to 20 due to the holy day. The ride back was so dusty and we were glad to get back to Jomsom in one piece. The following day, Elsie and I took a 2 hour hike and went to visit the small village of Thuni, across the river from Jomsom. It was a little eerie when we got there....no one in the town. On our way down and back to Jomsom, we realized they were all working in the fields. Robin and I treated ourselves to hot chocolate apple crumble and tea and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. Should mention that each night, we played crib or hearts with Elsie and Ramesh; always lots of laughs. The next morning, Saturday, we caught a small plane back to Pokhara and had about a 3 hour wait for our plane back to Kathmandu. Robin took the opportunity to go for a shave and haircut, which also included a facial massage all for the princely sum of $12. Pokhara has so many barbershops catering to Trekkers who have not shaved for weeks. Back in Kathmandu early Saturday afternoon; almost felt like home. On Sunday, we treated ourselves to a massage........yeah! Caught up on downloading pictures and spent the afternoon relaxing at the hotel. Today, Monday the 26th, we are spending the last of our Nepalese currency on "needed" purchases. Robin is actually bargaining, something he doesn't normally do, and he is pretty good at it. I was interested in a cotton shirt and the vendor wanted 550 rupees, I said it was too much, so he said buy two for 1,100......they must think we have lost some brain cells in the high altitude! Finally got 2 shirts for 800 rupees or $10. Stopped for coffee, then for lunch at Garden of Dreams. This is a restored palace belonging to the former Prime Minister of Nepal. It is an oases among the chaos of the Thamel tourist area. You can sit amongst the gardens for as long as you want or have lunch in the cafe. Flying to Delhi tomorrow, Tuesday and we have a very late flight to Amsterdam on Wednesday night and back to Calgary on Thursday afternoon. We have enjoyed our trip to both India and Nepal, but will be glad to get back home to our routine, especially our work outs. We would recommend both countries for visits, however we know that most of our friends and family would not be willing to travel in this manner. For us, traveling to these countries makes us realize how privileged we are and how challenged other parts of the world are to maintain the basics of life. Looking forward to seeing our friends and family. Hope you have enjoyed our pictures and blog. Claire and Robin
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Arrived in Pokhara from Bandipur on Thursday mid day after a 2 hour car ride through the countryside. Pokhara is the second largest City in Nepal and the tourist area abuts Lake Phewa Tal and is surrounded by hills, mountains and in the distance the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. Great views of the mountains from our hotel, including Hiunchuli (6441 metres), Annapurna 1 (8091 metres), Machapuchare (6997 metres), Annapurna 111(7555 metres), Annapurna 4 (7525 metres) and Annapurna 11 (7937 metres). We are here simply relaxing for three days prior to heading further north on Monday to Jomsom for five days of trekking. The first afternoon, we walked through the town. Seems to be a smaller version of tourist area of Thamel in Kathmandu. Must say that they have made a real effort here, especially in the tourist area, to keep the area clean and clean up the garbage. We have even noticed vehicles from the City of Pokhara picking up garbage. Only non motorized boats are allowed on the lake. You can either have an oarsman take you on a boat ride, or take a boat out yourself. They made the decision not to allow motorized boats for various reasons. Firstly, not to pollute the lake, secondly to provide employment to some of the locals and lastly no noise pollution either. Since we have been here, lots of boats on the lake at all times, many of whom visit a small temple on an island. On our second day, we visited the Ghurkha museum, which displays the achievements of the famous Nepalese regiments who have fought in many conflicts since the 19th century Indian Mutiny. Today the Ghurkhas still have a presence in Brunei, protecting the Royal family there, in England and in Singapore. The British still have a recruiting camp here in Pokhara and every year hundreds of young Nepalese men vie to gain a spot in the rigorous training. Then went to visit the World Peace Pagoda which was built by Buddhist monks from Japan to promote world peace. It is situated on a high hill above the town with great vistas of the lake and the Himalayas in the background. Got some great pictures from here. There are a couple of Tibetan refugee camps near Pokhara. On Saturday, we went for a long walk along the lake and met a young Tibetan lady named Tangay who told us about the plight of the Tibetans. Her parents were nomads in Tibet and freely crossed the borders of Tibet and Nepal with their animals for many years. She was born in Nepal, as we're her younger brother and sister, yet they cannot get recognition from the Nepalese government and they cannot and do not want to go back to Tibet due to the repression there by the Chinese government. She makes her living here by selling jewelry by the lakeside. The Tibetans have been banned by the local government here from selling on the main street. Needless to say, we did buy a little something from her. We also went for a one hour boat ride in the lake with an oarsman, but Robin also helped out with paddling. One of the popular things to do here is paragliding and each morning you see many people gliding over the local hills, landing near the lake. Some ultralights flying about as well. We opted out of this activity saying we are too old and oh yes....too smart! A bit cloudy Saturday afternoon and some light rain on Sunday morning. Today, Sunday the 18th is our last day here in Pokhara, so we will probably go for a couple of walks around the town and lakeside to limber up for our next five days of trekking. This afternoon an acquaintance from Calgary, Elsie James, will be joining us, along with her friend from Nepal, Ramesh. Ramesh arranged the Nepal part of our trip. We had met him years ago when he visited Elsie in Calgary. He owns a travel agency and also works part time for Medical Mercy, the same charity that Elsie works for six months of the year here in Nepal. The forecast for Jomsom is sunny with highs of 10 degrees mC and lows of 0 C. We have the proper clothes with us so shouldn't be a problem. After our five days of trekking, we will fly back to Pokhara from Jomsom on the 24th then another flight later in the afternoon back to Kathmandu where we will relax for a couple of days before our flight back to Delhi on March 27th. We have run into a few Canadians, but in the minority both here in Nepal and in India. The biggest groups of travelers seem to be the French followed by Germans. Many young Australians and English kids here in Nepal also.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
BANDIPUR AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS On Wednesday, March 14th, we left Sauhara (Chitwan National Park) and headed for Pokhara with a overnight stop in Bandipur. The road followed the river and the terrain became very mountainous. Not many villages along the way and those we passed were very primitive..outdoor kitchens and mud houses. CBandipur is an old mountain town with 18th century architecture and really hasn't changed much as it is 6 km. off the main highway up a windy mountain road. We walked through the town in the afternoon watching the locals go about their business. A group of men playing a card game throwing down the cards with loud exclamations, old grandmothers looking after small children, kids coming back from school with arms wrapped around each other and some boys taunting one another. Saw a group of children climbing a tree to eat fruit, people sitting in their shops waiting for someone to stop by and purchase something. A lot of children in school uniforms when we arrived so asked why they were in the playground we were told that it was "tiffin time". Tiffins are used to carry their lunches, so it means lunch time. Probably only a handful of tourists in this town, so nice and quiet here. Beautiful views of large rolling hills however can't really see the Himalayas, as cloudy over the mountains. The next morning up at 6 a.m. to watch the sunrise and we were welcomed with a mist hanging over the hills and the sun hitting the peaks of the Annapurna range, yes some peaking through the mist. Some general comments about things we have noticed in Nepal and India which we think are interesting and worthy of mention. At all airports, train stations and some museums, you need to pass through security. There are always two lines, one for men and one for women. In India and Nepal it is natural to see men holding on to one another with hands wrapped around each other, just a sign of friendship. In Nepal, March is classified as a lucky month, so a lot of couples are getting married; and by the way, still very much the custom in both countries to have arranged marriages. I believe I mentioned that in Nepal, electric power only exists for about 10 hours a day. Most hotels have generators, but even then, they only turn them on when it starts to get dark; so at times, no power at all. Also most hotels have minimal lighting in hotel rooms to save on electrical costs. The other day we stopped at a gas station and as the power was out, the attendant had to come out and use a hand crank on the gas pump so that we could fill up with gas. We got a kick out of the street hawkers in Kathmandu. You are approached for several types of merchandise and services...small purses, tiger balm seems to be a big one (maybe could have used some for my back!), rickshaw rides, taxis, massages and finally the big one " you look in my shop, no pressure to buy". The other night we went for dinner in an authentic Newari restaurant and indulged in a desert called Shikarni..a thick yogurt whipped and mixed with cashew nuts, coconut and cinnamon, very yummy. Also we noticed that the older Newari women have tattooed ankles. In years gone by, this was thought to attract men. Sanitation in this country is a real problem. The government and charity organizations that do work in this country are trying to educate people on good sanitation habits. They have designated "free open defecation zones" where they are encouraging people not to practice open defecation. Most villagers do not have toilets and we have read in local papers that due to this about 40% of Nepalese practice open defecation. This causes pollution in water sources, which are so polluted, it is really sad to see. Even the sacred river in Kathmandu is so polluted it can hardly flow! Common diseases that have been eradicated in modern countries still exist here. Tuberculosis, diarrhea ( fourteen thousand die from diarrhea each year), malaria, etc. They also still have leprosy. This is a real problem, as leprosy can be cured if caught early enough. The problem is that there is still such a stigma attached to leprosy, people do not come forward until it is too late. Our friend, Elsie James who works in Nepal for 6 months of the year for Medical Mercy, says that they include information at their medical clinics in remote villages about leprosy as part of other programs to educate people. If they had a leprosy clinic, no one would attend. Another issue here in Nepal is the lack of safety standards surrounding large propane tanks which are used for cooking in almost every household and all restaurants, due to power shortages. They simply re-use the tanks, would never be allowed back home. The Government is aware of the situation, but has done nothing about it and has failed to act on this matter. Nepal has the largest standing army (based on percentage of population in all of Asia). The army is everywhere and you get used to the presence of heavily armed troops in the cities, villages and even the National Parks. We wanted to understand what is happening politically, however it is simply too complex an issue to try to explain. The bottom line is that this country has so much potential but is hamstrung by corrupt government officials, lack of political leadership and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Notwithstanding the political and economic chaos, the Nepalese people stand out as a warm, caring,generous and friendly people. This is in sharp contrast to the Indian people who are still caught up in their caste system...rude, greedy and pushy. Having said this, we did meet some nice Indian people in our travels.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK Arrived in Chitwan National Park on Sunday, March 11th. We flew from Kathmandu to Bharatpur a 25 minute flight on a small two propeller engine plane. We saw incredible views of the Himalayas from the air. Upon landing, we were met by a driver to take us to our hotel in the small village of Sauraha, which borders the National Park. The Parkland Hotel is in a garden like setting and every unit has a small outdoor terrace, where we have spent time relaxing, reading and oh yes, using the Internet.....who knew WiFi in the jungle! A little aside. While in India, I (Claire) pulled my back while turning the wrong way when lifting my suitcase onto a bed. This type of thing has happened several times over the years, and I am sure sitting in a car for long distances over a three week period didn't help matters. I thought it would get better, but simply got worse; also the hard beds here haven't helped. Was so bad when we went up to Nagarkot ( a small village outside Katmandu where we spent a night) and the next night in Kathmandu, that I could not sleep as I was in so much pain. On Saturday, I looked for medical treatment on the internet and in our Lonely Planet book and found a clinic in our area of Kathmandu, which caters to tourists and expats that work here. Luckily for me, they were open and our driver took us there. Got excellent treatment and got "magic" pills from the Doctor. He also recommended some physio, but we were leaving the next day for Chitwan. The pills have really helped and I have been doing a lot of stretching, which has been good. They also gave me a back brace, which I have used on a couple of occasions. Back to Chitwan.... In the late afternoon, our guide Babu took our group to see the elephants that the Government owns. They are used in the jungle to look for poachers and for breeding purposes. They were spraying themselves with dirt to get rid of the insects. Our group here is made up of the following...a young Chinese girl ( 30) with her Mother from Shanghai, a 20 year old girl from Swizerland traveling on her own and a family (Father, Mother and teenage daughter) from Bombay. Then onto to visit the local houses of the Tharu, the local indigenous people. They use materials at hand to make their houses. Woven twigs and grass coated in thick layers of river mud. The mud acts as a natural heat shield, keeping the homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The roofs are made of grass cut from the jungle which they replace after the monsoon season. They leave some gaps in the walls, so you see the twigs, windows that let in the light and provide air circulation. They also decorate the mud walls with hand prints, markings and pictures of animals . They gather the materials they need from the jungle. The Tharu people have a natural immunity to malaria and today still live in the same manner they have for years. Then off to the river side to watch the sunset. We saw monkeys, a crocodile, egrets and a gharial ( long nosed type of crocodile). Lots of people at the river side including locals and tourists to watch the sunset. In the evening our hotel arranged to have the local Tharu men entertain us with their special dances. They performed several stick dances, which is where a great circle of men whack sticks together in time. They are very co-ordinated and one one young man did a dance with fire sticks. Maybe a little touristy, but provides employment for the locals. Off at 8 a.m the next morning for an elephant ride in the jungle that lasted 1 1/2 hours. I felt that my back was better, wore my brace and took the plunge. Wow, was it ever worth it. Four of us on each Asian elephant. We saw monkeys, hog deers, spotted deers, a peacock and a mother One Horned Indian Rhino with her baby! They say that a lot of the animals were poached during the decade long Maoist uprisings but with the Government conservation efforts things are reviving. The jungle here is sub-tropical, 70% of the jungle is covered in sal forest (a tree native to this area) and large areas of grassland which grow up to 8 meters in height so good for animals to hide. Then off to see the elephants get their morning baths. They are warm blooded animals and need to cool down. Some people also decide to bathe with the elephants and they get on them and the elephants spray them..we decided to opt out on this activity. Back to the hotel for a rest period, then off in the afternoon for a dugout canoe ride on the river, followed by a nature walk. On the river trip we got into a dugout canoe and the guide told us to be careful and watch our balance so that we wouldn't flip over into the river. O.k no problem right...well I guess....so many crocodiles, like we want to flip over? We saw numerous crocodiles, gharials, kingfishers, egrets and cranes. A nice way to float down the river and see the wildlife in the late afternoon. After about 1/2 hour on the river, we were offloaded along the shore and went for a 1 1/2 hour walk n the jungle. Once again lots of wildlife, including a male rhino, bathing itself and eating grass in a small lagoon. Then our guide spotted a wounded rhino as well, sad to see. He called the warden so they could take the rhino to a rescue centre. It had probably been in a fight with another rhino. Final stop on this walk was the elephant breeding centre. Saw lots of Mom elephants with their babies. The young elephants stay with the Mom's till about 6 years of age. On Tuesday an early morning, to go for a bird walk. We saw many species of local birds and great to go for an early morning walk along the river. Believe it or not, the elephant drivers were on strike today. We are told they are striking to get more pay from the owners and better benefits. Think it was timely that we went for our elephant ride in the jungle yesterday. In the afternoon, a jeep ride to the 20,000 Lakes Conservation area. We saw some wild boar, spotted deer, kingfisher and lots of other types of birds. Once again about eight or so crocodiles sunning themselves along the banks of one of the lakes. And yes, once again a rhino! We feel we have been very fortunate, as a lot of other people we have spoken to have not seen any rhinos. While we were on our way back to town in our open air truck, we picked up an older Indigenous couple. The man had been cycling with the women on the back of his bike on this very rough road and was obviously very tired. He asked if we could give her a ride, but since just the two of us and our guide were in the back of the truck, we insisted that he also join us in along with his bike. They rode with us for about 15 minutes, then we ran into a broken down jeep that blocked the road. The couple thanked us and were back on their way on their bike. Ends up the broken down jeep was carrying seven tourists into the lakes. It was that groups second jeep, as the previous one had also broken down. Offered to take them back into Sauraha, which was abut a 1/2 hour drive away. Just then started to rain, so here we were all in the back with a tarp on the top; but still managed to get wet. Had fun getting to know this group of Germans, Dutch and New Zealanders. Chitwan has always been a place that we have wanted to visit and it has exceeded our expectations. It is a tranquil rural setting with a small village ambience set in a vibrant nature refuge. We are being picked up by a driver on Wednesday morning on our way to Pokhara but stopping overnight in Bandipur, a mountain town.
Friday, March 9, 2012
KATHMANDU, NEPAL Arrived late afternoon on Tuesday, March 6th after a 2 hour flight from Delhi. Our hotel is in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, which is where most of the hotels and shops are, that cater to the tourists and trekking crowd. The area is made up of small lanes, like a rabbits warren. Quite an interesting area, it's nice to be in a city where we can actually walk around. This was almost impossible when we were in India, as usually staying out of the town, or in an area that was not walkable. The first evening we went to a restaurant that served traditional Nepalese food and they also had traditional entertainment including music and dancing. Very nice way to be welcomed to Nepal. Supper consisted of a small welcome drink, which was millet wine (Chang)....very strong, so definitely would not want too much, followed by appetizers which were "momo's. These are like a dumpling stuffed with meat and steamed or fried, very yummy. We have had momo's several times over the last few days and have gotten addicted to them ( chicken, water buffalo and vegetable). Remainder of dinner was rice, steamed vegetables, which we were definitely glad to see and a mild curried chicken. Desert was yoghurt, which they eat a lot of here. The following morning, we were met by our driver Arjun and our guide Parras, they will be with us for the next four days. During the day we were taken to see three different temples, stupas and Buddhist monasteries. The "Monkey Temple" sits above the City, so great view. Unfortunately a lot of smog/pollution here, just like most of the places we visited in India. Kathmandu has a population of five million and as a lot of other places, has grown quickly and has a lack of infrastructure. At one of the temples that is used for cremations, we actually saw a family waiting to cremate a body, kinda weird. Also saw many Sadhu's at this site, also known as Yogis, mainly from India who live in poverty and give up all wordly goods, including sex! Right now the City has a lack of power. During the day the power is not on, our hotel has its own generator. Power goes back on around 10 p.m. each night and stays on overnight when the demand is not as great. You actually learn to live around this. Wednesday was Holi Day, also known as the Festival of Colour. This is one of many holiday days in Nepal and perhaps the most riotous. Young people lambaste one another with plastic bags filled with water and they colour themselves and one another with colored powder. Our car was pelted a few times and Robin nearly missed getting hit, as his window was rolled down. On Thursday morning, we visited a neighbouring city, Bhaktapur which is a medieval city and very well preserved. We will post some pictures. We were impressed and loved walking around the old part of the town viewing the ancient buildings. The city is known for it's craftsmen which include potters, painters , wood carvers and paper makers. We saw many of these artists at work. We then continued by car to a small mountain village Nagarkot at an elevation of 2175 meters (7100 ft.). Good views of the Kathmandu valley, but once again a bit of smog, although the locals deny it. The people in the valley are the Newari, originally Mongolians. They are known to be farmers or merchants. The Kathmandu valley is made up of terraced fields which are planted with wheat, potatoes, spinach, onions, garlic and coriander. During the monsoon season, they plant rice. We woke at 6 a.m. to watch the sunrise in Nagarkot. Fortunately, the smog wasn't too bad and we were able to see some of the peaks. We then headed off on a 4 hour hike back through the valley, walking through small villages. What an experience seeing the farmers go about their work. It is amazing that they still do so much by hand. Tools are still very simplistic, a plow made of wood, pulled by a team of oxen. Other sights included a young woman swinging her young child in a hand made basket, young children playing with a tire, an old woman sitting on a stoop, young men playing a game called carom that looks like a table top billiards, kids going to school on uniforms and young babies being cared for by grandparents. Lunch at Changu Narayan at the end of our hike . There is a pagoda style temple here which is the oldest temple in Nepal which dates back to the 14th century and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Drove back to Kathmandu in the afternoon and went for a foot massage...after a 4 hour hike and after sitting in cars, trains, planes for three weeks, glorious.
Monday, March 5, 2012
VARANASI Long day getting to Varanasi on Saturday. Our flight didn't leave till about 2:30 p.m. from Khajuraho , so one of those hurry up and wait days. Robin and I went for a short walk in the morning, but you are constantly hastled by touts trying to sell their wares or by tuk tuk drivers. Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, and boy talk about chaos here...thought we has seen it all, but there is absolutely no order in this city which now has a population in excess of 3.5million. The city is steeped in Hindu mythology and the Ganges (they call it the Ganga) flows right through the city. The City is also about 60% Hindu and 40% Muslim. Will be in Varanasi for two nights, but really only one day as we arrived quite late in the afternoon and simply visited a small weaving enterprise. They still weave any silk material by hand. The weavers only weave about 5 cm. per day and only weave for about 4 to 5 hours per day due to the strain on their hands and eyes. Those that machine weave can work an 8 hour day. Quite extraordinary work! The next morning we went to visit the small village of Sarnath. This town is where Buddha travelled shortly after his enlightenment and gave his first sermon to five disciples revealing his eightfold plan which would lead to nirvana......I will go no further so you don't think I/we have been enlightened! There is a temple and museum in his honour and this is a pilgrimage site for those practicing Buddhism. Also visited the large Dhamek Stupa said to be built in 249 B.C. Spent the afternoon relaxing and around 5 headed down to The Ghats (steps - hundreds of them) to view the evening ceremony. Just a little background regarding Varanasi. A lot of Hindu's come here to die if they can afford to do so. All the great Maharajah built palaces here along the Ganges so that their ashes could be strewn in the Ganges (Mother God) once their bodies had been cremated. The four of us, rented a rowboat so that we could view the ceremony from the river. The man who rowed the boat has been doing this for seventeen years, rowing tourists and locals for both the morning ceremony at sunrise and for the evening ceremony. He first took us to the Ghats where the dead are being prepared for cremation. The relatives first wrap their dead, then bring their bodies down to the river and soak them with the water from the sacred Ganges. They then cremate the bodies then spread the ashes in the river. You also see hundreds of people bathing in the river as it is holy water. We then moved to a further set of ghats to view the ceremony. On the steps were five buddhist monks who chanted, played drums, rang bells, dispersed incense and chanted in praise of the Holy Ganga. It was incredible to see all the people on the steps, many of them locals and visiting Hindus and hundreds of tourists both on the steps and in small boats viewing from the river. The boats were tied together an bobbing up and down with the movement of the river, so some of our pictures a little blurred. Each one of the four of us placed a a small floral blessing in the Ganges, a very moving evening. Suzanne and I always get a chuckle out of watching the so called traffic police. They stand in a round structure in the middle of busy intersections and wave their hands to get the traffic moving, but usually just an exercise in futility as the drivers, motorcycles, tuk tuks, bikes, people just do as they want, creating utter chaos. Last night coming back from the ceremony the traffic police had on gloves with reflective strips so that drivers could see them better...what a laugh...even more so when we noticed that the gloves appeared to be rubber gloves that one would use to wash dishes, with reflective strips placed on them. Across the places we have visited, the local shops, restaurants, etc. all seem to have a problem with any rupee bills in 500 and 1,000 rupee denominations. This is the equivalent of $10 and $20. We are told that this is due to rampant counterfeiting . So they prefer to get 50 rupee notes, which is one dollar. At times, we have simply insisted that they take what we have as far as denominations are concerned and at times unable to buy what we wanted such as water or snacks. Not a problem in the hotels fortunately. It is now Monday and we flew back to Delhi this afternoon from Varanasi. Off to Kathmandu, Nepal tomorrow afternoon, to begin the second leg of our journey. Suzanne and Colin will be spending an additional week in the north of India. We have enjoyed our three weeks in India. It has been wonderful, exotic, chaotic, frustrating and stimulating. Would not have missed it. It was also great to spend time with Suzanne and Colin.
Friday, March 2, 2012
KHAJURAHO Arrived in Khajuraho on Thursday, March 1st. We took a train from Agra to Jhansi which was called the Taj Express and was to take 2 1/2 hours, then a 4 hour drive from Jhansi to Khajuraho . Well the Indian version of express and ours is quite different. The train did leave on time, but took 4 hours and went quite slow for the majority of the time and stopped in about seven small towns along the way. A tray table that you would not want to put down...don't even know how to describe what was in there! Not to the standard of the TGV on France! Met by a driver in Jhansi and told we had to drive 175 kms which would normally take 2 1/2 hrs, but of course this being India took us 4 1/2 hours. These were definitely the worst roads we have been on to date. Part of the road was only one lane and you can't say it was paved. Some sections like a gravel back alley with huge pot holes where you literally have to stop and slowly try to drive through the best part of the pot hole. Finally arrived in Khajuraho around 6:30 p.m. and we were all very tired and Suzanne has caught Robin's cold. We were met by a representative of Holiday India, the company we used to book the trip, and he wanted to know if we could start the sight seeing at 8 a.m. but we told him 9 a.m. Must say that the company has been pretty good to date. They have even called us at some of the hotels we have stayed in to ensure everything has been running smoothly. So far only two of the places we have stayed in have been so-so, but all the remaining good....part of the adventure. Today we headed out to see the Temples. You might say, gee....more temples. Well, the temples in Khajuraho are known for their erotic scenes. Not necessarily something's that we would normally seek out, they are well known, so go with the flow. The Temples were built between 950 and 1050 A.D. Originally there was about 85 temples, but today only 20 have been preserved. Unesco is involved here to help with some of the restorations. The temples depict the life and times of the Chandelas, a clan found in this part of India. The main statues represent Shatki (Hindu Goddess) and Shiva (Hindu God) the female and male principles, the Yin and Yang. The temples are built of sandstone in shades of buff, pink and pale yellow. Around the town there are a set of East and West temples and we visited both sites. Spent the afternoon at the hotel relaxing for a change. We are flying to Varanasi tomorrow for a couple of days, then back to Delhi before leaving for Nepal. Just some things we have noticed here in India. The local papers are full of reports of government officials, police and business people accused and on trial for corruption. The other part of the papers are about cricket and the latest news of the Bollywood stars. During one of our drives we noticed workers in the fields gathering the potato crop by hand. We are told that a kilo of potatoes cost 3 rupee; that works out to .06 cents...not even a penny for two pounds of potatoes! Have to also mention the way in which people squat waiting for buses, working, taking a break. It is like a Yoga move that I have a very hard time doing....just letting your rear end fall between your legs. They can squat like this for hours. Finally a few more misspelt words that just crack me up.....spragahetti, foreginers, grouop and omlellete....