Escape from India!

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
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Trip End Aug 08, 2005


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Saturday, December 13, 2003

Hi All,

We are in Nepal - yeehah. We're very happy to be here, it's not too cold - yet, and we are relaxing a bit. Here's the latest since our last update.

After saying goodbye to our Tibetan English students, we caught the overnight bus from Dharamsala back to Delhi. We now seemed to be almost used to the discomfort and lack of sleep, so much so that after we checked into our hotel we actually still felt alive enough to bargain a rickshaw to the U.K. embassy, to be ultra efficient and collect our new passports. Unfortunately, against our good intentions, India had decided to have a random festival holiday that meant we had to wait until the next day. We had been looking forward to heading south to the warmer climate of Delhi but surprisingly, the cold had reached there too and all the stalls that a few weeks earlier had sold thin t- shirts and dresses, now displayed thick wooly jumpers and jackets.

From Delhi, a short train journey took us to Bharatpur and to Keoladeo National Park, a man made marsh area which attracts many species of birds from as far as Russia and Siberia. It boasts to be one of the world's top bird spotting sights and we thought it would make a peaceful change from other India sights. As we cycled round the tracks in the early morning, with the help of a guide, we spotted jackals, many owls, parrots, eagles, painted storks, spoonbils, kingfishers and woodpeckers. Our guide even found us two large pythons coiled up around each other, hidden at the base of a tree.

Agra was next on the list and as home of the Taj Mahal, it could hardly be missed. So it was that at 6a.m, and after a rigorous security search and 750 rupees entrance fee (Indians pay 20!), we entered the manicured gardens in front of the Taj Mahal. It was built to house the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal the favourite wife (and bearer of 14 children) of Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. For all it's hype, the building is amazing. All the white marble is inlaid with semi precious stones and the entire Qur'an is said to be written on it's walls. It didn't fail to impress us, especially as the sun rose, bathing the marble in warm red light and highlighting the amazing detail. It was well worth getting up early for, especially before the crowds of tourists started to arrive. After a few hours, it was back into the dusty, noisy chaos of everyday Agra, so we left that afternoon on the next train south to Jhansi. A long rickshaw journey then took us to the small town of Orcha and as we have so often found when visiting ancient sites, many places had been lost or just ignored until some British soldier happened to stumble across it. Orcha is one such place and now a small town has built up around the ruined palace and temples. At first they don't seem that great but on closer inspection, all the coloured tiles, wall paintings and sculptured decoration really starts to impress and the traquility of the place, with all the buildings randomly appearing out of the surrounding forest, really started to grow on us. For this reason, we didn't mind too much when we couldn't leave due to local elections, which can apparently get quite violent in certain parts of the country, so public transport is suspended. The next day, we were on our way again, back to Jhansi to catch a bus to Khajuraho and it's famed erotic temples.

The competition between hotels in Khajuraho is fierce and the sales pitch discreetly starts on the bus and ends in mayhem at the station, but it resulted in a nice hotel at a good price and the town itself was very pleasant. Now that we were used to very early morning starts, and because all the temples in Khajuraho face east, we went to the entrance for sunrise and really enjoyed a peaceful wander around the beautiful gardens and elaborately carved temples lit by the rising sun. The 'erotic' title is a bit misleading as the temples have many carvings of everyday life, but some are amusingly explicit although not nearly as bad as the guides' explanations of some scenes and Kama Sutra techniques which some of them depict. The other strange thing is that many of the remaining staircases to the temples and their plinths have been repaired by randomly adding bits of blocks from other ruined temples. Afterwards we rented bikes and cycled around the other temples that are scattered around the countryside. On the way we were befriended by a couple of young Indian men, eager to practise their English and show us their home in the old village. They were really nice and when visiting their home and family, the girls insisted that they wanted to dress Sian up in an Indian saree complete with Indian make up which was much to everyone's amusement. The village tour they gave us was interesting and peaceful and included a visit to the local school which typically then asked for a donation. Overall it was a genuinely pleasant experience and a personal insight into local life which unfortunately you rarely get in India as someone always wants something which leads us to our next invitation. That night we were invited to dinner at an Indian family's home. Normally we wouldn't accept such invitations as they are usually not genuine but this time we hoped it would be different. It was all a bit confusing really as the guy seemed very genuine and he was very eager to show us his hospitality by arranging a massive meal and wanting to take us to see the local sights. It was obvious that his family was quite poor but he had such big dreams and he then became a bit desperate to go into business with us as his Western sponsor. Unfortunately it wasn't going to be, so after leaving the family a gift and some chocolate eagerly demolished by the kids, we left at the next opportunity. It all just shows as we've seen so many times, that no mater how genuinely friendly Indians can be, there is almost always an ulterior motive and they always push it just a bit too much and spoil a friendly situation.

The next day begins the day's events which we affectionately(?) term 'Disaster Day 1'. We got up really early (5am) in order to visit Panna Tiger Reserve where we had great hopes of spotting a tiger. Unfortunately our jeep did not show up and it was too late to arrange another as the tigers disappear deep into the park as soon as the sun gets warm. So we decided on a sharp exit on the 10 am bus which also decided not to show up. We tried an alternative route recommended to us and became stranded at a crossroads where nobody spoke English and all the passing buses to our destination seemed like a Guinness Book of Records attempt to cram as many people into a bus as possible. So we returned to Khajuraho and had to wait until 2.30 pm for the next scheduled bus, although we were warned that it too might not show. Thankfully it did and we set off on a 5 hour journey to Satna, the nearest town with rail links. At this point we had decided to go to Bandhavgarh National Park to track tigers there. The bus journey started off okay but deteriorated rapidly as the 'roads' degenerated into rubble and potholes to rival even the worst in Africa, and which spewed clouds of dust through the windows which would not close. You could barely see in front of you it was so bad. Finally after 6 hours we arrived in Satna and proceeded to find a hotel as it was too late and we were too filthy to go on to the national park. Unfortunately, and for some bizarre unknown reason, the hotels in Satna are priced quite high (by Indian standards) and we had trouble finding anything. Eventually we settled on somewhere that at least had a shower and we went to sleep hoping that our trip to Bandhavgarh the next day would go smoothly. This is the bit where we mention 'Disaster Day 2'. We got to the train station in the morning after having checked the train times and been assured that there were many going regularly. Alas, no, when we got there they told us that the next train was at 2pm, later than we liked but still in time for connecting transport. We hung around (Satna really is the middle of nowhere with nothing to see) until 1.45pm when we decided to reconfirm the train. A very stroppy Kev returned a few minutes later having been told that the train was delayed until 3.30pm. Incidentally, the trains going through Satna whilst we waited were really funny. They were so packed that there were many people sitting on the roof. We had been desperately hoping that our train wouldn't be as busy, but hey, one train as oppose to no train would have been a bonus. The delay meant that we would be too late for the connecting train and bus. We were reluctant to give up our last chance of seeing tigers in India so we decided to see about the cost of a taxi directly to the park. We successfully bargained one to a reasonable price when we realised that the cost of the taxi meant that we would not have enough cash for the park. So ensued another 2 hours of driving around Satna trying to change money. No Chance. And so we gave up as we were absolutely fed up, we decided to miss the park and go directly to Varanasi, our next destination. We couldn't get a train until 2am so we hired the hotel room again for 7 hours so that we could get a nap first, in the end the train ride was okay and we got some sleep!

Varanasi was hectic at first but we had a really nice time there. We had been warned of the scams and touts and couldn't manage to get a rickshaw to the hotel of our choice as when one hotel becomes popular, other hotels change their name to something very similar to make you think that you're where you're supposed to be. Anywhere we ended up somewhere okay and then headed out to the ghats along the river Ganges. There are many ghats that run along the river for a few kms and, being far from the noisy polluted roads, they were a haven of peace and tranquility for us. We strolled along watching the colourful boats bobbing in the water, people washing in the holy river and others worshipping and performing puja at the temples on the riverbank. We came across the 'burning ghats' and saw cremations which take place around the clock. Many people come to Varanasi to die and then to be cremated by the Ganges where their ashes are scattered, in order to escape the cycle of rebirth. It is a subduing experience, witnessing it so close by but at the same time it is an integral part of the culture there. Thankfully we missed some of the really distressing sights that some of our friends had witnessed and had been affected by. We got up early the next morning and did a sunrise boat ride along the ghats in time to see the thousands of people who flock there to perform their daily cleansing activities and religious rituals. People happily wash and brush their teeth in the water despite the cows bathing and the cremations close by. The water and indeed the city, is holy and these things of concern to Westerners are not even considered here.

In Varanasi we also did a little shopping (Sian couldn't resist a little more silk before leaving India and Varanasi is famous for it) and we tried to see the film that we had been extras in, Kal Ho Naa Ho, which has been released in the cinemas. The crowds turned out to be too big so we gave it a miss for now. We booked a tourist coach to Pokhara, Nepal and prepared for the long journey. The tourist bus was the best option as the Maoist activity in Nepal has resulted in many road block and police checks during which all the people (except foreigners) are checked along with their baggage. This extends the journey time considerably and curfews in Nepal mean you end up spending the night on the bus. We thought tourist bus = only foreigners = no checks = Pokhara in one day. This is where we get to Disaster Day 3! Having checked and confirmed that the bus was going our hotel duly advised us at the last minute that it was cancelled. Flights were not available and so we decided to get a train as far north as possible, then take buses. So we boarded the train to Gorakpur at 1.45pm (it too was late) for the 6 hour journey. It went smoothly at first, until commotion erupted all around as young army recruits packed themselves into the train. Most had not got tickets so there were far too many people crammed everywhere and sitting on the floor. They then thought it was hilarious to pull the emergency chain every few minutes, stopping the train so much that we spent more time stationary than we did moving. People began to get angry and then darkness fell. Just our luck, the electricity was out in our carriage - quite unnerving when the windows are all barred, it's pitch black and there are bodies everywhere blocking your exit. The train was then attacked by youths outside throwing rocks and smashing some of the windows. Finally the train moved on a little further but the young recruits then decided to hassle us. We had had enough and as the train was stopped again we decided to try and change carriage. No mean feat with our large backpacks and the huge crowds in the aisles! Eventually we managed to escape and found refuge in an empty carriage with electricity! The train eventually arrived in Gorakpur, 10 hours late. We had a quick breakfast then squashed into a jeep to take us the short 2 hour journey to the border. We got our visas and after arranging a bus, which was again apparently cancelled, we found that we were too late to catch another one and arrive in Pokhara the same day due to the police checks and curfew. It also would have meant a night sitting on the bus, so we hired a car to take us. We arrived, much relieved, later that day.

Pokhara, so far, has been fantastic. We have spent a couple of days recuperating and relaxing, wandering through the town , eating good food (steak!), drinking a little red wine and strolling by the tranquil lake. The views on a clear day are spectacular, with the jagged snow capped peaks of the Annapurna range lit up by the sunlight. We are going trekkng tomorrow but we don't know how long for, we'll see how it goes.

Anyway, hopefully everything will go more smoothly from now on, fingers crossed! If we don't get another chance, then Merry Christmas to everyone, we hope you all have a really good time.

Take Care all,

K & S.
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