Tuesday, 23 September 2008

25 - 26 September 2008: Gear shopping

We're having a really lovely time in Pokhara, getting ready to go into the Himalayas. As we've been travelling with light rucksacks for the last four months, we had to do some serious shopping yesterday to make sure we're properly equipped for high-altitude trekking. We bought down jackets, sleeping bags, 'Gortex' waterproofs, boots, etc. at knock down prices. (Photo shows only half the stuff we bought!)

It's very inspirational to be in the shadow of some of the world's highest mountains. These include the Annapurna range (the highest point of which is 8091m) and Machhapuchare or Fish Tail (6997m. Further away are Dhaulagiri (8167m) and Manaslu (8156m). We're planning to trek around the Annapurna range first (16 - 18 days) and then hopefully continue to the Annapurna Base Camp (10 - 14 days). So we may be away without much access to the internet for up to a month. The highest point on the Annapurna Circuit is the Thorung La pass at 5416m which will be our highest altitude gained so far.

Today we went into the Tourist Office to apply for our trekking permits for the Annapurna Conservation Area. We also had to register our insurance details in case of search and rescue.

We had lunch at a hotel with lovely views of the Fewa Lake and the high peaks around Pokhara. Many famous people had stayed here, including Prince Charles in 1980. As we left the garden, Andy spotted a 2m-long snake amongst the plants. Jen had already walked past it, but thought the rustling she heard was a gecko. Just as well as she would've had a panic attack!

22-23 September 2003: Arriving in Nepal

Leaving Varanasi at 1am, we travelled the 6-hour journey to the end of the trainline at Gorahkpur. On the train, we were astonished to see a policeman armed with a submachine gun. Were we travelling through bandit country? Was it really necessary to have such a powerful weapon on public transport? What would happen if he was over-powered?

The border was a further two and a half hours by bus. The journey was distinctly ncomfortable, and we were packed in like sardines. Big sweaty men pressed themselves against your seat. Everyone jostled for any available space.

The border was a ying-yang experience. The Indian side was crowded, bustling and packed with touts. As we walked over to the Nepalese side, the tranquility washed over us. At last we had escaped. The 3km journey to the bus station by cycle-rickshaw was serene: people smiled, women walked freely along the streets and birdsong filled the air.

The 8-hour bus journey to Pokhara was pleasant, with the bus riding smoothly along wide, well-built roads which followed the valleys. Occasionally, we crossed a suspension bridge over a deep gorge or a wide river. The environmental beauty was striking - even better than we had imagined! We arrived in Pokhara around 9pm, and after booking into our hotel, we rushed to the local pub for a pint of 'Everest' beer - what a fitting name and a good taste. We also had our first taste of momos, a Tibetan snack similar to Chinese dim sum.

On the recommendation of a friend, we're staying at the Butterfly Lodge near the lakeside. Eating our breakfast this morning, we glimpsed Annapurna III and the Fish Tail Peak. Jen caught Andy with a big smile, looking extremely happy for the first time in ages.

This afternoon we spent with our new found friend, Sushil, who took us boating across the lake and up to the World Peace Pagoda.

We had our first encounters with the local wildlife. We saw two snakes by the fittingly named Snake Temple along the path to the pagoda. As we returned to the lake through the dense forest, we both got a leech (‘iilimato’ in Finnish) on our feet. We didn't feel or see a thing, but noticed patches of fresh blood inside our sandals. You can't come walking to Nepal without getting a leech...

We went straight back to the pub tonight for more Everest beer and momos, and we're going back for more after this internet session. All in all, Pokhara has stunning scenery, and it's very relaxing, quiet and clean here. We are in paradise.

Tomorrow we'll make plans for trekking.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

19 - 21 September 2008: Varanasi

The train ride to Varanasi ended up being a mammoth 20-hour journey. Fortunately, the snoring walrus sleeping on the top bunk didn't stay on the train for too long, and we were grateful for the earplugs. During the day, we read our books and enjoyed endless cups of chai (tea) and Parle-G biscuits. The food-wallah was keen to practise his reading, so he kept borrowing Jen's book even when she was reading it herself!

Arriving at the hotel in Varanasi, we were surprised to find it was a gated compound complete with swimming pool, restaurant and internet café. Relaxing in this paradise, we organised a sunrise boat tour of the Ganges for the following morning.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges or to cremate their dead on the river banks. People also come to Varanasi to die, as death here means liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The city has numerous ghats (bathing steps leading down to the water) along the bank of the Ganges.

This morning, we rowed away from the ghat in the early morning light. We offered a floating candle filled with flower petals to the river in return for wealth and a happy life. This seemed a good investment for 20 rupees (25p). As we passed the main public cremation ghat we saw a body wrapped in colourful fabric, waiting for its turn to be burnt.

The Ganges is in a very poor state of environmental health. The water is septic and full of rubbish and sewage. Regardless of this, 60,000 pilgrims take a holy dip in the river every day. We witnessed pilgrims getting ready to take the plunge less than 10 meters away from a dead cow floating in the water (see photo below - the dead cow is in the middle right of the picture). Other wildlife include a dead fish and a man doing yoga in the water (see below left).

Unfortunately our tour didn't end there. Our 'land' guide was a very strange character. Andy made him cry when he asked what his wife did for a living. He replied that she was a housewife, but then went on to explain (at length) about the great achievements of his son. His eyes welled up with pride. Our well-intentioned guide also tried to force convert us to Hinduism, lecturing us for several lifetimes. He even started using the f-word at one point.

We had a couple of frights today. In a blackout, Andy fell down some stairs but was completely unhurt. Jen also walked into a glass door but luckily bounced. We start our trip towards Nepal tonight which is just as well as we think our insurance company would have us extradited. We should be at the border crossing tomorrow morning. If all goes well, we might well be in Pokhara tomorrow night.