A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

India

Incredible India!

So this is going to be a long one, with an EXCESSIVE amount of pictures and endless narrative because we have free internet and a fast connection. (Apologies to those with a slow connection.) India was a bit of a mix for us -- challenging in some ways but overall a place we enjoyed, although in our travels we only scratched the surface of this vast place. We saw some amazing architecture and craftmanship, met some nice folks, and saw some pretty countryside. But we were also bombarded by aggressive folks trying to sell stuff. And tuk-tuk drivers who always wanted to take us to shops to "just look," where invariably we were subjected to a hard sell. We got a little jaded after a while. Plus the pollution and garbage in the streets was disheartening. Our photos are pretty sanitized, like the ad campaign we saw on TV - "Incredible India!" - so we'll give just one that shows the other part of the story that people tend to leave out, but is part of what we encountered most places we went.

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We decided to fly from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, and then go overland to Darjeeling. Though this meant flying on Yeti Air (which had just had a fatal crash a couple weeks before), and a negative contribution environmentally, taking the bus route overland seemed far worse, as the normal ten hour trip had stretched to twenty, following road wash-outs, and had been described as harrowing even in good conditions. Traffic in Kathmandu had been harrowing enough..so we took to the skies and had some great views of the Himalayas, even managing to see Everest above the clouds. We landed in Bhadrapur in the late afternoon (sweltering and humid) and hired a car to take us across the border and up to Darjeeling. Although it was dark by the time we reached the foothills, we were pretty sure there were some steep drop offs, given the number of switchbacks, but we arrived safely nonetheless. Our driver loved the Eagles, so we got to listen to all their hits, plus ones even worse...We ended up staying in a "hotel," which was part of a Tibetan Institute, founded by the Dalai Lama, whose mission is to preserve Tibetan language and custom. Lots of Tibetan refugees live in the area, as do Nepalis, so the place is a real mix of cultures and peoples. In the morning we got our first real view of the area:

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Darjeeling is spread up and down along the hillsides, and was a peaceful break from Kathmandu. One day we tried going to the Happy Valley tea plantation but it was closed as it was Sunday afternoon. No matter as we meet Flora, who clearly has encountered tourists in such a situation, and invited us to her tea shop for a tasting, and a-testing. We learned a little about tea making and types and then were tested...we pretty much passed. She was quite a character so it was good fun. For all you train geeks (yes, Daphne, this includes you--come on, own it--it's not just your brother and father anymore) we spent a nice afternoon riding the famed narrow gauge Toy Train (non-train geeks google it) from Darjeeling to Ghum, a nearby town. Very entertaining. Here's a shot of Daph by the train:

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When we got to Ghum, we stopped to get the best samosas we had in India from this man:

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Near Ghum was the Yiga Choeling Monastery:

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Later, we checked out the Ghum monastery and shared a far away dance with these kids. (Too bad we don't have a shot of us carefree, wacky tourists dancing "with" them. Picture it if you dare.)

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We timed our visit to coincide with Diwali, the festival of lights, which in Darjeeling, at least, means tons of fireworks all over the place. We had a nice evening watching them, and sort of enduring a small cultural show at a place we went for dinner. After a few days in Darjeeling, we headed down to Siliguri to catch a night train to Varanasi. (Real name: Benares. We were told by some amazing ladies we met later that the British couldn't pronounce Benares, hence Varanasi.) Night train....hmmmm. Would have been better with some Night Train. Yow! Truth is it went fine at first. We met a nice college student, Karma, from Darjeeling, and chatted with him for a bit. We hadn't been able to get a private compartment, nor had we been able to get all the berths together, but Karma graciously switched with us, and even took the top berth. Unfortunately sometime in the middle of the night three guys boarded the train and started yelling at Karma that he was in their berth (we suppose, as this was all in Hindi), and suddenly two of them climbed up and grabbed his pillow and sheet and tried to wrench him out of the berth! Karma changed berths so the tension abated. But then the three guys wouldn't shut up. The whole train is asleeep and they blabbed on and on. Daphne finally got them to shut up--thanks Daph. Needless to say, we didn't have the greatest night's sleep, and the morning was spent trying to guess what station we were at, as they don't have conductors announcing stops, and we didn't have a route map. After a false start, satisfying only because we made a point of waking the three jerks up, we finally got off at the right station, and got a taxi into town.

So, Benares was the first real jolt for us in our foray into India. This is one of the holiest places there, due to the Ganges, but also one of the filthiest we saw. Spirituality in the raw. There are daily rituals at the Ganges, and loads of pilgrims (as well as tourists), but the river and city is quite polluted. Our first night we took an evening boat trip to see of the nightly rituals at the temples that lines the banks, and it was quite amazing, especially as this takes place every night.

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The next day we saw the Ganges at "work", washings and cowpies drying:

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Death tourism is alive and well in Benares. Many Indians hope to be cleansed, cremated and then have their ashes scattered in the holy river. So, some travel there, stay in hospices and wait to die. Cremation requires lots of wood. Banyan is favored:

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Walking through the streets it's common to encounter bulls and cows:

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One night we decided to go eat dinner at a fancy place a bit far from where we were staying, and took an auto tuk-tuk, owned by two brothers, Arjun and Uttam. They were quite pleased when we asked if we could try our hand at driving. They said most tourists don't even talk to them. Well, we're kind of crazy that way. Not only do we want to talk, but we want to drive! (Driving in India is a bit different than back home. There's no adherence to traffic lanes, if there are any, and few traffic lights, and fewer that are obeyed. No one uses their mirrors--changing lanes and negotiating roundabouts and intersections is done by easing in, and listening for the warning honkings. Takes a bit of time to get used to, but it does work.)

From Benares we hired a car and driver to go south and west to Khajuraho, and then to Agra. The roads in most parts of India that we travelled, and this was no exception, are in really poor condition. Average speed is around 25 m.p.h. Average vertical rise on each bump around one foot. The drive to Khajuraho took about ten hours, and one flat tire. Our driver Arbinder was great and never flagged. It must be all the paan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paan) he chewed and spat out the window. However, Kahajuraho was worth the effort getting there, as it has so many beautifully and intricately carved Hindu temples. It's known for the erotic carvings (tourists need titty-lation?) but that focus minimizes the place, which has outstanding artistic work. Here are a few shots:

We loved this first one as it shows a sculptor working on an elephant carving that isn't complete:

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There was also a Jain temple complex we visited. This is the oldest religion in India, which has non-violence as one its tenets, and thus, some strict adherents will not eat after dark to ensure they don't ingest insects by mistake--wow! Some also sweep the ground in front of them while walking so as to avoid the little critters. Most temples you visit expect a little contribution, and the Jain ones are no exception:

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Oooops! Looks like the "secret" is out! And you gotta wonder what all those padlocks are about.

We also visited the old village of Khajuraho, away from the tourist strips surrounding the temples, thanks to a couple of kids who just wanted to "show us the real Khajuraho" and practice their English. When will we ever learn? Well, it's actually good that we still get duped a little here and there, because it means we're retaining some of our naivete and openness. What the kids wanted in the end was...baksheesh! Sheesh! However, we all enjoyed walking around the streets there, which were peaceful, and hearing about life there. Plus we got to make a contribution at a temple, the "mayor's" giftshop, and a school. So we decided that made it okay that when the kids asked for baksheesh we didn't give it to them....Rationalization is so great!

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From Khujaraho we headed further west and north, and stopped for an hour or so at Orccha, which was blazing hot as it was a midday. Orccha has a palace-fort complex from the 17th century, which we saw, and some temples, which we didn't. There are three palaces, one of which is the Jahangir Mahal, which comes with an unusual story. Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors, allied with Orccha, and a palace was built in his honor...it took years to build but Jahangir only stayed one night. Those Mughals had plenty of other nice accomodations...The architecture was a blend of Hindu and Mughal styles, and there are still some frescoes that haven't totally deteriorated--here's one in the Raja Mahal, as well a shot of the Raja Mahal:

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Finally got a shot of a pigment seller's wares:

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We continued on, finally getting on a decent road a couple of hours later on the way to Agra, a place where smog ruled--it was so bad you couldn't see the Taj from fairly nearby it. We visited the usual tourist sites: the Red Fort, the Baby Taj, Fatehpur Sikri (outside of Agra), and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Palace-fort fatigue set in. Plus, we battled many touts and tuk-tuk drivers, sometimes unsuccessfully. That means we visited a carpet shop, a marble shop (we had a good laugh about the idea of buying and lugging around a piece of marble), and some other places escaping memory at this point, thankfully. We held firm and bought nothing, eventually regretting not buying a miniature backgammon set that started out at 1500 rupees, and went down to 200 (a couple bucks), as we walked further and further away from the guy. (From then on we were obessed with getting one, and kept looking for another without success until we got to Udaipur, where we paid 1000 rupees. That's how it goes sometimes.) All of these sites were pretty incredible, but it's too boring (maybe more for us than you) to show all the pics, so here's some of each place.

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At the Red Fort we posed on one of the thrones, and an Indian tourist asked us to take a picture for him. We agreed, of course, but made him pose, just like Will had to...that's just how we roll sometimes:

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To get to the Taj and the Baby Taj, we had to cross this bridge. Typical tuk-tuk traffic:

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Here's the Baby Taj. Smaller but beautiful in its own right.

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By the time we got to Fatehpur Sikri, we were a little tired of people pretending to want to show us sites for free, take us places promising no shopping detours, etc., and resolved to ignore anyone who approached...but this guy was a "student," who promised he didn't want any money, that he was just a volunteer at a holy place (there'a mosque there.) So we agreed. Actually he was quite nice but at the end he happened to pass his "uncle's" blanket arrayed with sandstone carvings just so we could see that artisans today continue the heritage. Okay, we did buy a little candle holder. It wasn't too heavy either, considering it was...STONE, AAAAHHHHHH! This is a jali in the mosque complex at Fatehpur, carved from one piece of stone. Amazing craftmanship:

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The Taj Mahal. A tribute to love. What can we say? It is magnificent, much larger than it looks in photos, and was glowing in the late-afternoon sun. It was worth going there even though we were almost crushed by crowds when we made the stupid decision to go into the mausoleum chamber. You've seen the photos of the Taj, but probably not the crowds. This photo only hints at the hordes there:

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The final Mahal is one you won't have seen before:

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This is how they served toast at our hotel. We dubbed the creation "Toast Mahal." Lovely, isn't it? A tribute to the short-lived usefulness of carbs.

From Agra we took a day train to Jaipur, which was uneventful, which is where we spent the last few days with Daphne before she headed back home to her ever-lovin' man, Carlos, enclosed showers, and her plasma TV. Jaipur was also pretty smoggy, and just as touristy as Agra, but touts were slightly less aggressive. All the Indians we met seem to agree that Agra is the worst in that regard. Japiur had a great astronomical instruments site--the Jantar Mantar--which was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II in the early 1700s. This is an outdoors site consisting of various pieces, like sun dials and horoscope instruments, some of which are quite large.

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Jaipur has its own share of palace-fort wonders. Here's the Amber Fort, and a shot of a detail from the Sheesh (mirror) Mahal there, which must have been breath-taking orginally:

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In Jaipur, the guide we hired for the day only fooled us into visiting a "guru"...whose office was in the back of a jewelry shop. Didn't buy anything though, not even the crystal the "guru" said would solve so many problems. Later that night we met a tuk-tuk driver, Ali G...yes, that was really what he decided to call himself, who was quite a cut-up. He didn't want us to pay for the tuk-tuk ride but just to buy him a beer. He was such a character we agreed, and busted a gut with him as they say. He told us a joke about a guy who got a cobra up his rear...well, we'll spare you this one. We related all the fun we'd had with various tuk-tuk drivers wanting us to go to shops and "just look" etc. and he laughed along with us.

The next day we said goodbye to Daphne as she headed off by train to Delhi where she would catch her flight back home, and then we made arrangments for our last couple of weeks in India. We decided we would stay in Rajasthan, and head down to Ranthambhore, a wildlife preserve, to get away from city life, and maybe see a tiger and other animals we don't get to see in the U.S., 'cause they're all extinct back home. We had a pretty good time there, though some bone-jolting rides in the safari vehicles, which are large trucks that have seats in them, and bounce like crazy, especially towards the back. We spent some time with a couple of Indian women who were in their nineties and had some great stories to tell. And we did actually see a tiger once, but it was too far away and moving too quickly for a photo--nonetheless, exciting. Other than the tiger, we managed to see a hyena (we have a shot of its ass as it's walking away, but didn't think it worth posting) and sloth-bear, which are rarely seen, loads of deer and antelope, and, of course, langurs, which were everywhere we went in India. They pose really well, no? (Don't want baksheesh either!)

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It was nice and peaceful in Ranthambhore and we rested up a couple of days there, getting over some colds, our first since leaving home. Bundi was our next stop, as we made our way to Udaipur. Bundi is still not overly touristy, but that probably won't last too long, as they're working on changing that. Plus, it's in Lonely Planet as a good place to go...

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During our stay there was an important Sikh festival, celebrating the birth of the religion's founder, that was fun to watch as the processions went by:

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Will met these guys who wanted their photo taken, so we feel we should share it with the world...

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It's a small city...that also has a fort-palace complex. Here's a shot of it from the streets below it:

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Our time there also coincided with Bundi festival, created to promote tourism, and that was a kind of wacky. It started out by the Palace gates with various dignitaries making pujas (offerings), and groups of dancers and drummers. From there a long procession of floats interspersed with dancers and drummers, some camels and horses, and an elephant, went through the streets of Bundi. The noise was deafening as each of the groups blared their own music, but it added to whole experience. Some of the floats had "scenes" of events we are ignorant of. There was one that had a mechanical papier-mache dog that lifted its leg and peed on a dead guy underneath him. Clearly a bad guy, but we never found out who. (It's hard to see the pee in the photo otherwise we'd put it in, as we liked it a lot.) Will took this photo of some Rajasthani costumed drummers outside the palace gates and had to give them money for it...so you're going to look at them now so we get our money's worth:

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Here are more shots of the festival:

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We did take a little tour with a guy from the hotel we stayed at, and saw the fort-palace as well as one of the 50 or so step-wells Bundi has. These are deep wells with "steps" that circle down, which were built by the Maharajas so commoners could have easy access to water. The one we saw was the biggest and very impressive.

From Bundi we continued south and west to Bassi, and stayed in a modest, restored fort palace. Sounds grander than it was, but it was quiet, and it had an enclosed shower. From there we visited...another fort-palace complex at nearby Chittaurgarh. Fort-palace fatigue should seem more than understandable by now. There were two large towers there, in addition to a complex of buildings in not so great condition spread over an area, on a plateau overlooking Chittaurgarh. We especially liked the detail of the woman peeking out from above and looking down.

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After Bassi, we had a really crazy taxi driver who took us to Ranakpur, a quiet area with another nature preserve, that is north and west of Udaipur. The driver alternated between loud, gaping yawns, deep-felt sighs, and looking at us and laughing while he asked if everything was okay. Probably because he nearly killed us a couple of times. He asked for a photo to be taken of him and for some reason got all serious for it.

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Ranakpur and the area around is bucolic, quiet and hilly, and is an area we would definitely go back to. We got a tour of the local animal preserve by our hotel owner who also happened to be the preserve manager. Alas, no leopards were spotted that day. We saw some Jain temples there, one of which was spectacular as it had hundreds of uniquely carved columns inside:

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There are many small stepwells around the area of Ranakpur, that farmers use for agriculture, typically with cows and waterwheels:

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Yikes! This is long. That's what happens when we have free and easy internet access. Conciseness goes out the door. Getting near the end though. Whew!

Our next to last stop was Udaipur, a city built around several man-made lakes. This is where the Lake Palace is, which is where most people want to stay. We didn't as it was tooooo expensive. This is it, where we didn't stay, and how it looked at night from our hotel:

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Nice, huh? This is also where Octopussy was filmed, which for some reason remains a plug for many places in town, who advertise nightly showings of it. We wanted to go, but somehow never did. Roger Moore's mug has lost some of it's luster for us.

There is a city palace...which we did go and see. The rooms have various displays, often with life-size photo cardboard cut-outs of historical figures. We liked this sign inside quite a bit; it's everyone's favorite Hindu god:

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To finish with Udaipur, here's sunset from our hotel. Ooooh!:

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Our last stop was Mumbai. We left 48 hours before the killings and hostage-taking and so count ourselves very lucky. We stayed in the area where it all took place, and visited a few of the places targeted. We have no other comment than to wonder how we can make the world a different place, so people don't feel they have to resort to violence to be heard. (Thanks Arundhati Roy.)

On a lighter note, we giggled at this item on the menu at our hotel. If someone can figure out what it means, let us know.

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We actually kind of liked Mumbai. It's a big city, with lots of traffic but has a good feeling to it. We won't give the blow-by-blow of what we did, but we finally did get to the cinema for a flick. Not Bollywood (ridiculous aren't we?), as the new James Bond one was there, and having missed Octopussy, we had to see it. Wasn't so hot. But you do get reserved seats which was cool, and we all stood for the Indian national anthem before the show. We did go to the house where Gandhi lived when he was there, which has been turned into a kind of museum, and felt spiritually renewed there. Given the recent violence, it seems appropriate that we ended our travels in India with his plea to Hitler to reconsider his ultimate course of action.

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See you in Thailand!

Posted by cleichter 21:34 Archived in India Comments (0)

Nepal

Manasulu circuit trek and the non-trek circuit (aka the highs and the lows of Nepal)

When we got to Nepal after our diving extravaganza in Egypt, we sadly realized that because of Carina's injured ankles, she shouldn't go on the trek and risk more damage to her tendons. This was very upsetting for both of us since this was a part of the trip we were both really looking forward to. The decision that we made together was for me to join Daphne on the trek as we couldn't send her off alone, while Carina would try to make other plans and then regroup in Kathmandu before travelling together in India. In hindsight, we should have made the decision earlier to cancel the trek and give Daphne enough of a warning so that she could decide what she wanted to do. As it was, we basically decided the night before the trek was to begin with the manager of the company. It all felt a bit rushed and of course upsetting and weird and worrisome to know that I'd be leaving Carina alone. I think the entire trek was filled with the very mixed emotions of enjoying some moments of it and at the same time feeling bad that Carina couldn't be there to share it.

Rather than give a long narrative of the trek, I thought it would be more interesting to share some pictures from different moments along the trail. The trek took around twenty days to complete, and I would divide the time between three distinct sections of the loop around Manasulu Himal: the week and a half hike up the steep river valley to higher altitudes, the week at altitude and the crossing of the Larkya Pass, and the final days of descending via the Annapurna circuit trail. The first week was a difficult one because the weather was extremely hot and humid, and it rained almost every day for the first week and a half. Eesh. I was surprised to learn that the altitude at the beginning of the circuit was only around 200 meters: we had a lot of ascending to do. Another challenge of this particular circuit trek is that the terrain doesn't gain altitude steadily; instead, you go up and down (jokingly referred to as the "Nepalese flats" by our head guide) many times during the day. Beautiful terrain, though, and quite different from the return side of the circuit.

A typical day would start with one of the kitchen staff serving us our wake-up tea by our tents. After dressing, we would sit in our dining tent and be served a hearty breakfast of porridge, chapati, eggs, etc. The first week, we spent most of the day hiking, because we weren't at altitude and needed to gain a lot of ground. Something that struck me about this trek was that at no point (except briefly at the pass) were we away from any kind of settlement. The trail was always filled with villagers and their animals, travelling up and down the route. It was always amazing to see people farming and herding animals at very high and seemingly inhospitable areas. Lunch was always a welcome respite for us, but it meant more cooking for our kitchen crew. After the afternoon portion of hiking, we would usually roll into our camp site, already set up by the porters, and would sit down to my favorite moment: tea and cookies. Then we had time to write in our journals, play cards, hide in our tents, or tend to our washing and laundry, before eating dinner at 8-ish, then sleep. A simple existence made so by the hard work of the porters and kitchen staff.

Here are some moments from the three weeks.

This is a shot Daphne took of me talking to Purba, a Sherpa who functioned as a sherpa. We learned that the word means both an ethnic origin and the function of mountain guide/porter. This was during the first week of the trek on a particularly enjoyable part of the trail above the river valley below (and a rare moment of clearer skies). We spent many days gaining and losing ground to the river, the Budi Gandaki, and crossing it on suspension bridges many times.

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This was a common site on the trail, especially at higher altitudes where more Sherpa lived. They alone herded the yaks we saw on the trail. Also, many villagers use burrows to haul loads up and down the trail.

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This is a shot of faithful Gyanendra, our motherly head guide, taking care of a little blister I developed during the first week. Daphne braved a bad respiratory ailment over the first week, and here she's undergoing a Gyanendra special: head under a towel suckin' in the clove oil fumes. She said it helped. Something else we encountered on this wetter portion of the trail, were leaches. They attach themselves to your boot then work their way up to your leg where they suck the blood right outta ya! Daphne and Gyanendra were plagued by them for two of the days. Yuckie!

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This is a shot of some of our kitchen staff at one the lunch stops. Because this was a camping trek, meaning there often weren't tea houses available for sleeping, we often ate lunch outside on a tarp. This was one of the times we made use of a house in a village. These guys were incrediblely young and fit. They would make us three meals a day and would run ahead of us on the trail to be sure to be at the camp site before we arrived. From left to right are Chatra, Mona and Subey (not pictured is Dhana, our head cook, whom we really grew to respect).

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We passed the eastern flanks of Manasulu before we reached the high pass. Manasulu is one of the fourteen +8,000m peaks in the world. Many teams were higher up at the base camps making their summit bids. This has always been known as the Japanese mountain since they were the first to climb it in the '50's after Hillary and Norgay did Everest. Apparently, Manasulu holds the same kind of mystique and awe for the Japanese, as Everest holds for us. We were blessed with a window of clear weather on this morning to take some photos of the summit before the noon clouds socked it in.

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This is a shot of our porters. I was embarrassed when the trekking company manager told us before we left that we would have a total staff of two guides, five kitchen workers and 12 porters....for two people...ridiculous. The upside was that we were employing these guys. The porter issue is somewhat controversial for westerners because it feels like exploitation. They carry big-ass loads and are compensated, by our standards, with minimal pay. However, Gyanendra told me that many of the porters are farmers in their villages, and that during this time of year, after the harvest, supplement their income by portering. He made a point of telling me that they want the work and actually not happy with folks who are self-sufficient on the trail. We gave them what I considered to be excellent tips after the trek. I also loved the fact that the trekking company made sure they had fairly decent (and matching) Gore-tex clothing for the colder, higher altitudes. This shot was taken at a village called Samdo, which was just two days before our crossing the high pass. Our porters were Rup Badu, Maan Badu, Ed Badu, Mahan Badu, Sher Badu, Mongal Badu, Sushil Badu and Narayan. Badu means "strong" in Nepalese.

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This is a panorama shot I took on our acclimitization day at Samdo. We stayed there an extra day to help our bodies prepare for the altitude of the pass. That day I decided to go with one of our kitchen staff-turned guide to hike up the ridge of one of the smaller peaks to get this beautiful view of the Manasulu massif and the Larkya pass. From this perspective on the ridge, we are actually quite close to the Chinese border. This was a nice moment that I wished Carina were sharing with me. The peaks in order from left to right are: Himal Chuli, Peak 29, Manasulu, Larke peak, and to the right, the Larkya Pass, we were are headed.

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It snowed the night before we headed up to the pass and we did the classic pre-dawn start. This shot is of me...taking a much needed rest on the way to the pass after the sun had risen above the other peaks.

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The prayer flags were our signal that we had finally reached the pass. This is a shot of us with Gyanendra and Purba enjoying the moment before heading down the other side of the pass towards the Annapurnas and our completion of the trek in the following week. This was by far our toughest day. We topped out at 4,930m (16,269ft). Our elevation gain for the day was 470m (1,651ft) and loss 1,340m (4,422ft) on the "backside."

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I added my little stone to this cairn in an emotional moment of reaching this beautiful place and not having Carina there to enjoy it with me...difficult. I took a stone from the site back for her...don't tell anyone.

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So here's Carina's posting:

That I was pretty bummed about not being able to do the trek is an understatement, as it's something I've wanted to do since I was teen, plus I had over three weeks till Will and Daphne got back, and couldn't do much walking. I decided to try to rest my tendons as much as possible and focus on "acceptance."

Kathmandu (and much of the valley) is quite a congested place, and the area our hotel was in, Thamel, was as touristy as could be. Navigating the streets is a challenge, as they're narrow, and there's tons of pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, and cars. Thamel is party central at night, so lots of live bands, mainly playing the classics--think: "Sweet Child o' Mine." Even though Nepalis are mainly Hindus, it does a attract a large portion of tourists who are Buddhist wannabes, which must explain why every shop plays the exact same CD of the Om Mani Padmi Om mantra. I'm sad to say I grew to cringe every time I heard it. I'll never be able to meditate again... I'd like to say something positive about Thamel...but I can't.

Anyhow, I tried arranging a few trips that would have been awesome--a horse trek to the less-visited Kingdom of Mustang, and a trip to Bhutan, but both fell through. At this point I was pretty much losing my mind in Thamel, and arranged a car and driver to take me on a trip to few places in Nepal. Razu, my driver, was absolutely great, but spoke rarely. (After about two days in the car with him, he finally spoke, saying as we drove through the outskirts of a small city, "Madam, this is a city." Thankfully I was making a little movie with the camera at that very moment so I captured the whole dialogue.) I would insert some pics of my trip here, but somehow we sent those home already...It's fitting as most of my time in Nepal I felt kind of cursed, what with every travel plan I tried to make disintegrating.

I saw some beautiful views of the Himalayas, and Annapurnas from a mountaintop place in Daman, south of Kathmandu, that was extremely peaceful and restorative. After that I spent a couple of days at a wacky stay at a lodge in a nature reserve. I knew it would be bizarre as the manager's orientation speech included his telling us that the schedule of activities was packed tight so we wouldn't get bored, as we probably wouldn't see much wildlife. I spent a lot of time laughing with other guests while I was there. Our schedule included: early morning elephant safari, canoe trip, elephant bathing, elephant safari, and then...movieshow!

The elephant safaris (I never would have gone to the lodge if I had known this was in store) were silly--nothing to see, and a lot of foliage hitting you in your face if you're not watching, plus there's four people on each elephant, sitting cheek to cheek so to speak. The canoe trip? Thought this would be fun. We floated downstream while two guys poled to steer through the shallow water. Wonder what elephant bathing is like? Now I know. People climb onto the elephant who is in a shallow stream, and elephant is commanded to spray water on them. Needless to say everyone was a bit surprised by this one, as for some reason, we all thought elephant bathing would involve the elephant being bathed. Go figure. And then..."movieshow." I skipped it both nights, which was just as well as both times it was in Nepali. I do have to say, to be fair, I did see two rhinos in the stream, which was exciting, but no tigers, which are what people hope to see in this park. We found out our last day there, that in this lodge the last tiger sighting was about 2 years ago. The stay there is something I'll remember with a smile.

After my nature experience, we drove further west and south across the Terai, a wide plain in southern Nepal (and northern India), to reach Lumbini, the place Buddha is believed to have been born. It's an interesting site, quite large, and not yet finished. A Japanese lansdscape architect designed the place about twent years ago, and it's still being completed, and will be lovely when done. The government of Nepal has given plots of lands to different countries to build their own temples, and some are finished, so it's an interesting assortment of styles. I hired a guide and spent a few hours there, learning details about Buddha and Buddhism, and giving psychotherapeutic advice to the guide who wanted to help his good friend through a bad time. Wil managed to get a call through after trying for a few days on the way down from the pass, and we arranged to meet up in my next destination, as I still had a couple days left on my itinerary.

We had a very long day's drive north through more stunning mountains, with beautiful valleys and gorges, and few inhabitants for the most part as much of the area has steep hillsides, and reached Pokhara, a lakeside town in the foothills of the Annapurnas. The next day Will arrived and we had a joyous reunion. Will got his beard shaved off and had a massage in the chair by the barber that wasn't up to his expectations but was funny for me to watch.
After a day in Pokhara, we started heading back east to Kathmandu, stopping for the night at Bandipur, a medieval village, that we both enjoyed visiting. Scenic views of the mountains to our north, and a valley below that was swallowed in mist in the morning. Then back to the dreaded Kathmandu where we met up with Daphne and had a farewell Nepal dinner at a nice French restaurant, before leaving for...India!

Posted by cleichter 01:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Return to Egypt

Our ferry across the Red Sea from Jordan got us to land pretty late. We had thought we'd be able to get a taxi from there to our destination, Dahab, but as it was around 11:30 at night, none could be found. Luckily there was a bus there heading south, and we negotiated a price to take us to our hotel. Now having had some experience with prices being changed at the last minute we made sure to each ask a couple of times if this price included taking us to our hotel...The bus was loaded with yappy tourists heading south, mainly to Sharm El Sheikh, the mega draw for most tourists. We got to Dahab and the bus conductor told us to get off and transfer to a taxi as the bus could not navigate the small streets of Dahab, and that we should pay the taxi driver more money. It had been a long day and journey, and that probably explains in part why Carina went a little off on the bus guy, telling him we wouldn't pay any more. Don't need to go into any more details...she just got quiet after a bit....and the bus guy ended up paying the taxi driver (as was right!) Our hotel, the Red Sea Relax, was decent, and had been recommended by someone we had met while snorkelling in Zanzibar. We checked in around 2 a.m. and went straight to bed.

Dahab is a very touristy place, consisting of a beach strip of restaurants and shops, and a so-so beach. (Actually not so much beach, but the water was great.) Will likened the strip to the Jersey shore, but then it seems he thinks a few places are like that. Amazingly, it's possible to meet friendly locals every five feet or so, as they eagerly want to engage in cultural exchange. This kind of exchange is where you give them your money and they give you a meal at their restaurant, or some clothing from their shop, or a trip via camel, jeep, boat etc.

Somehow we weren't feeling that friendly all of the time, and so decided we would do some snorkelling as the Red Sea has lots of great reefs. We ended up at one of the famous sites, the Blue Hole, about a half hour away, and had some of the best snorkelling so far--incredible coral and lots of fish. We had made the trip with a group of divers, and by the time we got back, we started talking to the dive shop at our hotel. It didn't hurt that they were having a 2 for 1 special. Plus Carina had injured her achilles tendons a few weeks and was hobbbling a bit, so we figured the course would be a good way to rest her ankles. So...that's how we ended up getting certified as Open Water divers over the next three days. Woo-hoo! We're just happy-go- lucky, foot-loose and fancy-free. (When we heard that India was sending a rocket to the moon, we started thinking about becoming astronauts, but that'll be another trip.) Spending our time taking the course meant we didn't get to see more diving sites, but we were excited to think of including more dives on the rest of the trip so it was worth it. We spent our time studying our manuals and practicing our diving skills, and negotiating the strip to eat dinner at night.

These are the only two pictures we took in Dahab!! Shame on us!!

They're both of a well-known site called the Blue Hole. If you look in one of the shots, you can see the lighter-colored reef that forms the circular, deep "hole." Very nice. You could also ride camels here...wee!

Egypt_-_Re..ue_Hole.jpg

Egypt_-_Re.._Camels.jpg

Next stop...Nepal trek!

Posted by cleichter 00:56 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

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