Thailand, Cambodia, China/Tibet, Nepal, India (May 2005-December 2005)
27th May - 30th May 2005 Susana completed her Rescue Diver course, successfully 'rescuing' our 'unconscious' divemaster from near certain death at the bottom of the ocean (ok, 10m down and he wasn't *really* unconscious). After a couple of nice dives at Phi Phi islands we established that the tsunami had done little damage to the undersea world. We then had a couple of strenuous days by the pool, with the occasional massage (not the dodgy kind) and jog along the beach. 30th May - 2nd June After a night bus to Bangkok (dinner-stop at midnight), a tuk-tuk and a "rapid" train that took 2 hours to go 76km we found ourselves in the old capital, Ayuthaya. We switched into culture-gear and had a look at various Wats (What? Wats are temples!). Some are ruins, others are still in use, nicely decorated and well maintained - at one Wat, the Buddha statues even get Tesco water to drink (the heat must be getting to them!). We were foolish enough to try cycling through the afternoon rush-hour traffic in our bid to see the Tesco-drinkers, and lived to regret the decision - we went again by Tuk-tuk the following day! 2nd June - 4th June Tried out the "diesel express" train as we headed east to Pak Chong. The diesel express was a bit faster, with air-conditioning to boot. From Pak Chong we went to Khao Yai national park where we awoke to the sound of mysterious trampling noises in the dark and gibbons singing (laaah - the hills are alive... with the sound of gib...bons). Lots of wildlife - gibbons, hornbills, deer, a crocodile (no-one is sure how it got there, but there's a crocodile park near Bangkok...!), a leopard cat, pythons, macaques and more. 5th June - 8th June Another "rapid" train but, being Sunday wasn't one hour late and actually seemed to make progress. We arrived in Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), Thailand's second largest city where you can't hire a car and the airport has no commercial planes but that's ok because Susana thinks they do an excellent Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad) at the night market. Besides, buses and sitting in the back of pickup trucks and motorbikes is more fun than car hire (especially when Susana runs down the aisle to tell the crazy driver, even from a Brazilian perspective, to slow down - NOW! ... which he duly did). All this, in order to see the best-preserved Khmer ruins in Thailand - Phimai and Phanom Rung and a bit of silk-weaving. Back in Khorat, we indulged two hours of Thai "massage" (being pulled, stretched, elbowed, and stepped on) for the equivalent of US$5 - a tad cheaper than in the UK! 9th June Headed for the Cambodian border... 10th June Left Thailand at Aranyaprathet, having successfully avoided visa scams, and had a smooth border crossing into Cambodia, entering at Poipet - a busy and dusty border town with the majority of transport being men pulling carts loaded sky-high with goods. 11th Jun - 19th Jun Based in Siem Reap, we spent a week exploring many of the temples and buildings of the Angkor complex from the old Khmer empire (IX to XV centuries). Some days we hired bicycles and braved the Siem Reap traffic. Other days we hired a Cambodian tuk-tuk and Poli chauffered us between sites in our horse-and-carriage of the modern world (replace horse with motorbike). On no days did we miss out on the best shakes in the world (in our considered opinion) at Sunien's Drinks Shop. On the rare occasion where the heat hadn't dehydrated us despite 4 litres of water each, Roger indulged in a beer (Angkor beer - what else?!), while Susana chose the coconut option. The temples, starting at 4km from Siem Reap, were impressive: Angkor Wat is a huge structure - the main building is roughly 200m x 200m (taking over 15 mins to walk around it in the heat) and there's a 600m stone causeway leading up to it from the moat. Other temples we visited include: Bayon, which has loads of huge stone faces carved into the towers; Ta Phrom, which is particularly atmospheric as it has been left in a partially restored state, complete with trees and tree roots intertwined with the stone structure just like in those old "Tarzan and the Lost City" films (or for the more recently-inclined, it's where they filmed "Tomb-Raider"); Banteay Srei, which is further afield, but intricately carved and the Roulos Group which contains some of the earliest temples in the area. Paid a visit to the Landmine Museum (www.cambodialandminemuseum.org) to see the various plastic and metal mines (still one of the biggest ! killers in Cambodia in certain provinces) dug up and deactivated by Aki Ra - a one man mission to clear Cambodia of mines. One of the many mine victims in this country (one of the lucky ones to have a prosthetic limb), having lost one leg, a brother and a sister at the age of 8, showed us round the mock (we hope) minefield. We also went to a cello concert by Beatocello (performed by a Swiss doctor "Beat") (www.beatocello.com) who runs the 3 independent children's hospitals in Cambodia. 20th June - 22nd June Headed to eastern Cambodia - reaching central Cambodia and discovered that the boat service up the Mekong has currently been replaced by buses (do they float?). Saw a few 8th-10th century Khmer temples on the outskirts of Kompong Thom. After admiring the old French colonial buildings in Kompong Cham, we took a 5 hour bus trip to Kratie with a driver who seemed to have an intimate relationship with the horn. Any excuse seemed okay to sound the horn - cars, bicycles, pedestrians, water buffalo, dogs, birds, in fact even an empty road seemed to suffice! 23rd June Click here for details of our epic car journey from Kratie to Ban Lung, Ratanakiri province. 24th June - 27th June Spent a few days exploring the area around Ban Lung by hired bicycles, visiting waterfalls, a beautiful crater lake, past cashew plantations, rubber plantations and all manner of weird and wacky vehicles cobbled together (or taken apart?). Given the frequency and strength of rainfall, we decided against our original plan of a trip to the Virachay National Park, but spent an informative time meeting up with some of the NGOs working for the national park (Stephane in particular). Roger took up an invitation to help the NGOs defeat the local side in their weekly football match at the airfield! His arrival at the, already started, match turned the game and he was unofficially awarded 'Man of the Match!'. A new career, perhaps? 28th June - 29th June Not-so-epic car journey from Ban Lung to Kratie. Now wiser, we ensured we went back in a pick-up (inside, still squashed). It was a reasonably uneventful trip, just the usual explosion (locals told us an unexploded US bomb uncovered during roadworks) to wait for and lack of Bridge Number Four. No problem. A short wait for the former, and a Cambodian improvised ferry for the latter (see pic). Just 10 hours for this trip! Went to see the endangered Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins (about 80 left in Cambodia) near Kratie (17 died last year from pollution and fishing nets) before they are no more. Feasted on miscellaneous tropical fruits (English names not known) whilst watching the rainy season progress. 30th June Boarded a decrepit minibus for Snuol, along a nice tarmac road, only to have the driveshaft (deja vu?) fall apart as we drove along. Fortunately, it must be a common occurrence, for the chap sitting on the roof leaped down, grabbed his toolkit and was instantly under the car bolting things back together again. Not as fatal as last time - nothing sheared, just bolts gone missing (surely not scrap value?). At Snuol we changed to a pickup (inside again) ready loaded with furniture, live catfish, chickens (dead and alive), eggs, tobacco, vegetables, and a backpacker. We had the fortune of witnessing the unofficial record for most people and goods possible to squeeze onto, into, around, and hanging-on-the-back-of a pickup (see pic). There was barely room for a credit card between the wheel and the wheel-arch. After an uneventful 3 hour trip past forested, and not-so-forested (logged) areas we arrived in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province, where we discovered that we were staying with a lady who had survived the harsh Khmer Rouge years (1975-1979), unlike the couple of million of Cambodians who died, by making their clothes. 1st July - 3rd July Saw a few more waterfalls, including the impressive Bou Sra waterfall with its double cascades, and visited the local Phnong people (currently in dispute with a Chinese company over land), and partook of some rice wine. 4th July - 6th July Squeezed into another pickup to Phnom Penh, arriving in the nation's capital in our dusty, as usual fully-laden, pickup seven hours later. Visited Tuol Sleng museum, previously a school and then the infamous centre for torture during the Khmer Rouge regime and then the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, where thousands of the Khmer Rouge's victims were discovered in mass graves. Susana observed that Phnom Penh has changed from sleepy, laid-back capital six years ago to the full-on hustle and bustle of a modern busy city (though not all roads are tarmac yet) with plenty of good bars and restaurants. 7th July - 8th July Took a spacious air-con'd bus to Sihanoukville for a relaxing couple of days in a bungalow overlooking the beach. 9th July Epic journey #3. Sihanoukville to Trat (Thailand). Started smoothly with tarmac road past picturesque paddy fields, but soon deteriorated once the dirt road began. Heavy rains had turned much of the road into thick mud (particularly where teenagers were operating those huge roadworking vehicles), which our skilled driver miraculously worked his way through (unlike one unfortunate car that was well and truly stuck). Even the wipers worked on this air-con'd minibus. We passed over four ferries (two were Cambodian improvised style, but bigger and two more 'normal') taking over seven hours to go 180km. Once across the border to Thailand and back on tarmac, we soon made it to Trat and a good night's sleep. 10th July - 13th July After a conversation with Pam & Dave, an Australian couple, their plan sounded good and we headed for our last piece of beach action on the island of Koh Chang - a still very forested island, with beautiful beaches (palm trees et al.), and one tarmac road running almost round the island. Very relaxing, and sufficiently lacking in traffic for us to try our hand at moped-driving (automatic of course)! 14th July - 17th July Thought it about time we saw the capital of this country, so went to Bangkok. The contrast to an idyllic, peaceful, nature-rich island was severe, but we have started to acclimatise and seen a few of Bangkok's cultural (and shopping) spots. 18th July - 1st August Still coming to terms with the fact that we seem to have been travelling for 543 years - all the dates here say that we are in the year 2548. Or could it be something to do with their Buddhist calendar...? Escaped Bangkok overnight to see the floating market at Damnoen Saduak - lots and lots of boats selling fresh produce and noodle soup breakfasts in amongst the floating tourist tat stalls (once we'd harrassed our not-very-enthusiastic boat driver enough to actually take us to the market area). In the town itself we frequented a street stall for dinner, noting that they plugged into the lamp post for their (metered!) electricity supply. Back in Bangkok, we had ourselves measured up for some tailor-made suits on the off-chance that we might make it back to London and find ourselves in need of jobs. Whilst they were being made we arranged for an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. Sadly, the travel agent we booked through was not competent enough to complete the simple task of matching us with the correct bus. On the plus side, we discovered that our enforced stay in Bangkok enabled us to see an important Buddhist light festival the following night. Having more confidence in our own ability to board a bus, we went to the bus station and successfully found a bus to Sukhothai, one of the old Thai capitals. There we hired some ropey old bicycles and pedalled our way round some interesting historical remnants (and Buddhas, of course). Hopped on another bus to Chiang Mai - famed for its 300 temples (too many even for Roger), cookery schools, hill-tribe trekking, and massage courses. Parting ways for a couple of days, Susana checked out the hill-tribe trekking whilst Roger tried his hand at Thai massage. And then back to steamy Bangkok to check how the suits were getting on, packing into boxes and sending 'em home. 2nd - 8th August Escaped Thailand by flying to Kunming, south-west China and were astounded to find the noise levels decrease - all motorbikes (except police ones) were electric and silent! Then headed uphill to the picturesque towns of Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian. In Lijiang we attended a traditional Naxi music show performed mainly by octogenarians (they lose a couple of members a year to old age). Leaving Lijiang, we encountered the Chinese marketing machine in full swing, pulling in to "Shangri-La" bus station at Zhongdian. After a look around town, a visit to an impressive local monastery and resisting the temptation to buy some new trekking gear for a fraction of the cost in the UK, we arranged our compulsory (group) entry permit to Tibet. 9th - 11th August Took a flight to Lhasa (3595m), arriving at Gongkar airport some distance away. During the 90 minute bus ride to Lhasa, we admired the Tibetan plateau and got talking to two American young ladies, Laura and Marci, and started to plot a trip to Everest Base Camp. In Lhasa, we weaved in and out of the prayer-wheel-wielding Tibetan pilgrims whilst exploring the Barkhor area and the Jokhang temple. Trapped behind a metal grid we queued for (limited availability) tickets for the Potala palace, discovering that the grid was a (futile) attempt to stop queue-jumpers. Still, the following day we got to see the Potala - the Dalai Lama's former winter palace. The few open rooms were brightly coloured and included the Dalai Lama's audience chamber. 12th - 18th August Our foursome plus Tibetan driver set off in our smart Landcruiser on a round trip to southern Tibet over high passes (e.g. 5220m) via several important monasteries and towns (Gyantse, Shigatse, Shegar, Sakya) with the furthest point being Everest (Qomolangma) base camp (5200m) as used by Sir Edmund Hillary et al. Even at base camp, there were people trying to sell us turquoise necklaces and fossils. We passed glaciers, snow-capped mountains, some stunning turquoise and deep blue lakes (Yamdrok-Tso & Nam-Tso), valleys full of barley (Tibetan staple) and rather a lot of Chinese road-works. Soon the Friendship Highway to Nepal really will be a highway. Oh, and we also saw a lot of yaks (the ones we didn't eat) & mountain sheep. 19th - 23rd August Safely back in Lhasa, we went to see a few more of its sights: the Norbulingka - the Dalai Lama's former summer palace; Drepung Monastery, Nechung Oracle, Sera Monastery. On reading our Chinese guidebook to Tibet, we were interested to read that the 1.2 million Tibetans that died, did so in the "peaceful liberation of Tibet". Liberated of their freedom, that is. Coming soon (1st September) is the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In view of this, the state won't issue any permits for travel anywhere around Tibet; all houses must display a Chinese flag (or else...) and no-one is allowed to enter Tibet from Nepal at the moment. It seems that China is a little paranoid that people might want to sabotage the 'celebrations'. Perhaps not all Tibetans wanted to be invaded... Hopefully we can still get out! 24th - 28th August We made one final day trip, no permit required, to the more remote Ganden monastery (In '96 a demonstration here was severely crushed and the monastery temporarily closed - now there is a police station on-site.), where we were invited into the kitchen by some monks for some butter tea. Then, we headed for the Nepalese border - 4 days away by landcruiser - with some new company: Wolf (professor) and Male (lecturer), two entertaining Germans we teamed up with to share a vehicle. Once beyond Shegar, we passed Tingri for final views of Everest (Qomolangma) and other snowy mountains and saw some spectacular scenery from vast dry plains needing irrigation to grow crops through to steep, deep, lush gorges with plenty of gushing waterfalls as we passed through the Himalayas on into Nepal and then to Kathmandu. 29th August - 1st September Kathmandu - a rude awakening of senses. From the tranquility of open plains we entered the chaos of Kathmandu. Cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, people in narrow streets going all directions with no pavements on which to seek refuge. Large space to small space. Time for some serious readjustments! Or shall we just head out and go trekking...? 2nd Sep - 22nd Sep Took a bus to Besi Sahar from where we were forced onto the roof of a local bus to Khudi, 45 mins further up a very bumpy road, where our trek around the Annapurna mountain range began. First, the stats: the highest of the mountains in this range is Annapurna I at 8091m, with Annapurna II,III,IV, South and several other peaks all above 7000m. Over 21 days we covered more than 300km starting at 800m and climbing to 5000m to see Tilicho Tal (the highest lake in the world) - a side trip - then back down to Manang at 3540m and up again to Thorong-La pass at 5416m, before descending to about 1000m at the finish. With Ram Ji, our ever-cheerful porter-guide, we crossed 32 suspension bridges and numerous rivers and streams, and saw several spectacular waterfalls! Checking our map, we were surprised to see 'Marijuana Fields" marked but, sure enough, we came across marijuana ("ganja") growing by the side of the path! Along the trail, we met many mule trains carrying goods from the lowland towns to the more remote villages, along with the human equivalent - some were carrying loads of up to 80kg, ranging from steel bars to racks full of chickens. There's no way any motorised vehicle could get round... yet - but the flying rocks from dynamite explosions that we ran away from indicate that they are trying to make it possible some day! Soon, we discovered that our names weren't in fact Susana and Roger, but instead we are called "Pen" and "Sweet". We deduce this from the countless greetings we had from small children: "Hello Sweet", "Hello Pen". Sometimes we changed our names to "Money" and "Balloon". No doubt some well-meaning but naive travellers before us did not intend to help turn these children into beggars! If you want to help, DON'T GIVE THEM THESE THINGS!!! Give to a local school instead! From Tilicho Tal (5000m) we descended back down to 3600m before continuing our ascent to Thorong-La pass (5416m) - the highest we have been by foot! Expecting spectacular views, we were somewhat miffed to ascend in snow to a frozen and fog-ridden pass. After our 600m climb, we rested/froze for 20 minutes and began the 1600m same-day descent. With extremely weary legs, we staggered into Muktinath, an important pilgrimage place for both Hindus and Buddhists. We carried on to Kagbeni village, where we peered into the remote Mustang region (to trek there costs US$700 for a 10-day permit!), before continuing down the western side of the Annapurna range. Descending into the realms of apple trees, we were pleased to discover a distillery at Marpha, busily producing bottles of apple brandy. Needless to say we felt obliged to help out the local business - a bottle spurred us on for the remaining 5 days! Back at these altitudes, Susana was also pleased to be able to have her giant apple pies again. The last stretch went via Ghorepani and Poon Hill - a place to get an excellent panorama of the Annapurna range (Himal) - when it isn't cloudy, that is! The Maoists must have heard of Roger's karate prowess, since not only did they announce a 3-month ceasefire the day after we started our trek, but they also evacuated the Poon Hill area, heading west, a week before we turned up. We therefore made no donation to their cause, nor received the infamous receipt to avoid duplicate payments! We descended on through beautiful, mossy, rhododendron forest (cloudy), with lots of flowers to keep Susana busy with the camera and giving Roger and Ram Ji plenty of rest time, finally reaching a road and a bus to Pokhara. We arrived in the largest town in central Nepal on 22nd September, Susana's birthday! 22nd Sep - 27th Sep We spent the next few days recuperating in Pokhara - a relaxing town beside a lake with views to the mountains (when not cloudy) - enjoying the benefits of 24-hour electricity (apart from the power cuts), hot water on-tap, good cheap restaurants, nice hotels, western toilets, internet, and water buffaloes wandering down the main street! 28th Sep - 30th Sep Since we were now fit, and had 30 days left on our Nepal visa, we decided that now was a good time to do another trek. Back to Kathmandu for preparations for a trek to Everest Base Camp, this time without porter! 1st Oct - 23rd Oct After a nail-biting flight, descent through clouds, and landing at Lukla on the shortest (& uphill) runway we've seen (incidentally ending in a brick wall and mountain!), we arrived in the Everest region, to start our trek at 2800m. Differently from Annapurna, due to the higher altitudes, the majority of the villages in this area are only occupied during the summer months. Most villages therefore consist of Yak grazing land and a few lodges. The Annapurnan mules turned into Yaks carrying Chinese goods led by Tibetan traders coming across the high passes or trekkers' camping gear up from Lukla. Along the trails we said "Hello" or "Namaste" to all sorts of nationalities except for one, that insisted on avoiding English or Nepali and had to say: "Bonjour" to which we replied: "Bom Dia"! And as a change from Annapurna, the children here greet you with "Hello Bonbon?". Which nationality(ies?) has converted these kids into beggars...? At Thami, we awoke to a bumping and the sound of distressed mooing. On looking out of the window, we discovered the source of this disturbance: a thirsty calf had found some water in a small plastic barrel. Its head fit nicely inside, but wouldn't come out, so it was randomly bashing into things and desperately hoping the owner would come along and free it. Fortunately, he came out to see what all the fuss was about, pulled the barrel off and gave it a slap! We took a few deliberate detours up neighbouring valleys to ensure that we covered all the main trails on our map, and several of the minor ones. On reaching Gokyo (4750m) we climbed up the nearby peak Gokyo Ri (5450m) - starting at 4am to be up in time for sunrise. Cold, with great views all around and Everest in the distance. A few days later, we arrived in Chhukhung (4743m) where we found another peak to climb: Chhukhung Ri (5550m) - starting at 4am of course! Three valleys and two passes (5420m & 5535m) later, we made it Gorak Shep (5150m) from where we went to the Nepalese Everest Base Camp (5364m) giving us the matching set! No tents, but two wrecked helicopters let us know we'd arrived. The nights (and days) at this altitude were colder still - so cold that the condensation froze on our window... we barely dared poke our heads out of our sleeping bags! Carrying on our trend, starting at 4am, we climbed the nearby peak of Kala Patthar (5546m) for good views of Everest and the vast extent of the Khumbu Glacier - this time under strong moonlight, strong enough to dazzle us if we tried to look at it. We waited for the sun to warm us up once it had finally risen above Nuptse at 7:20am, leaving us and our drinking water frozen for 2 hours despite all our layers. As we eagerly awaited the sun's warmth on our lonely peak, a horde of porters unexpectedly ascended carrying guitars, drums and mixing equipment. What the ....? Ah yes, what else could it be but an attempt on the Guiness Book of Records for the World's Highest Gig? Music for sunrise over Everest. Not Bad. Gluttons for punishment, we descended, had lunch, then went back up again in time for sunset, only to have a lone guitarist supply music for us as the sun went down! Not bad at all! At Machhermo (4410m) we heard tales of the last sighting of a Yeti (31 years ago) that had killed 3 Yaks and frightened the living daylights out of the Yak-herder. We saw the spot and Sir Edmund Hillary launched an investigation to try to find it, to no avail. A reputed Yak skull was later taken to the USA to be examined and declared to be of a mountain goat, but we've seen pictures and almost bought the postcard! All along the routes, we saw groups on package tours sleeping in tents and wondered if they knew that it was actually more expensive to stay in tents than in a cosy, brick-walled lodge. The partitions between rooms were not much thicker than the walls of the tents, however, since you could easily hear the people in the next 'room' breathing or turning over in their sleeping bag! The odd accidental 'whack!' on the wall was enough to startle us awake, bolt-upright, until we got our breathing back to normal and slept again. 23rd Oct - 26th Oct One day in Kathmandu was enough and we high-tailed it to Pokhara, our post-trekking spot, for a few last breaths of relaxation before plunging into the expected chaos of India... We exited Lukla with a downhill acceleration for take-off and were pleased to arrive back in Kathmandu to 24-hour electricity, cold and hot running water, hot showers on demand, and no longer being in competition with Nepalese porters for food! After our trek, we heard news of Hurricane Wilma and millions of Americans without power. Having spent most of our time in villages with no electricity anyway (or running water for that matter), we viewed this with a slightly different perspective! 27th Oct - 31st Oct Crossed the border into India and encountered the expected crowded, dirty, noisy, rubbish-strewn streets - a taster of what was to come. First stop the holy city of Varanasi, on the Ganges: right into the thick of it - a city of over a million inhabitants. It has a medieval feel to it, with narrow streets, old, decaying palaces, open sewers along the streets and sewage discharging, some untreated and some treated (probably), into the river where Indians were busying 'cleansing' themselves in the holy water of the Ganges. Washing wallahs were busy battering people's clothes clean on stone slabs, theoretically making them cleaner.Further up the river, bodies were laid out on wooden funeral pyres on the river bank and burnt, one after another. As a sign of modernisation, a crematorium has sprung up - a cheaper and cleaner option. We also came across our first cows in town - blocking the narrow streets, standing peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them - an admirable attribute. 1st Nov - 3rd Nov Headed for Khajuraho for the rather interesting sculptures on its many 10th - 11th century Hindu & Jain temples (see pic). It seems that they decided to sculpt the Kama Sutra on the outside of these religious buildings! The nationwide 5-day Diwali celebrations began with dancing on the streets, fireworks, the giving and consumption of Indian sweets, candles in front of the houses, and the occasional pattern made from cow dung (holy, of course) in front of the house door. We joined in the celebrations by consuming 1kg of sweets (we gave each other 0.5kg!), lighting a couple of fireworks in the hotel garden, and joining in with some dancing (men only).
3rd Nov - 4th Nov A flying visit to Orchha, a relaxing village with imposing old, fortified palaces and more old temples. Here we had our closest encounter yet with the India's holy animal, while eating at a small roadside restaurant, as one of them took an interest in our empty plates and banana skins, and demonstrated the reach of its tongue! 5th Nov - 7th Nov We made the mistake of picking the weekend after Diwali, probably the busiest time of year, to visit India's most famous monument: the Taj Mahal & fort. As we approached, we passed several stressed-looking westerners. We soon found out why. The structure itself is impressive and intricately carved but the groups of youths had nothing better to do than follow any western women they found around the Taj Mahal grounds until they left. This not only stressed Susana but also Roger, who switched his surveillance circuits to full alert, intervening in many of their attempts to 'brush past' Susana. Even sitting on the grass wouldn't deter them. One too many approached Susana, so Roger practiced his newly-found hypnotising skills. "You are feeling sleeeepy..." to which a confused reply: "No?!", "You are feeling sleeeeepy...". Puzzled looks. A few more hypnotic orders and a gentle prod on his nose and success: "I go now?". "Yes! Goodbye!" - and he left, never to return. In Agra itself, not only can you see the pollution in the air and in the streets, but you can smell it in your hotel room, a couple of floors above street-level. "Stinkstadt" is Susana's term for the place.
7th Nov - 14th Nov Having planned our trip superbly (i.e. found out 2 days beforehand) we headed west to the holy town of Pushkar for its famous annual Camel fair coinciding with another religious festival. We spent a relatively relaxing week strolling around the 1,000 camels, and hundreds of beautiful horses, and tried a camel's-eye view with a 40-min camel ride around the fair. We observed colourful religious rituals occurring throughout the festival, even rousing ourselves for their pre-dawn 'Puja' ceremony - washing in the holy lake. It wasn't so difficult to wake up given the prayers, chanting and singing blaring out over the town's loudspeakers and the stereotypically loud Israelis next door. Sadly, all of the excellent cultural events in the show were cancelled due to the death two days beforehand of an Indian ex-president. Er, why? Maybe a minute's silence would have been a better option, but hey, this is India! Still, it won't stop people from having a good time. Being such a holy place, all meat and even eggs are banned here, as are drugs and alcohol. Incidentally, it's the only place we've been to so far where several times a day, we've been offered hashish and/or alcohol! And now, time for the overnight sleeper train, Amritsar-bound (north-west)...
15th Nov - 17th Nov Awoke early in the morning still on train entering the outskirts of Smelly Delhi, to be welcomed by the sight, stretching over several kilometres, of hundreds of men squatting on the tracks. We dubbed them, accurately, the "Delhi Defecators"! A quick day looking at some of Delhi's sights, a night on a real bed, and we were off up to Amritsar on another overnight train. 17th Nov - 24th Nov Spent a day in Amritsar, where the home of the Sikh's religious and polical centre: the beautiful and peaceful Golden Temple sits. Our evening entertainment consisted of a 34km trip to the border with Pakistan for the daily lowering of the flags. This is a comical, theatrical occasion with cheering crowds chanting "Hindustan" on this side of the border, and "Pakistan" on the other side, complete with leader on microphone.
With funny hats, exaggerated and high-speed marching, the soldiers all but ran to the border, shook hands with the opposite side, and lowered the flags in complete sync. Off then to colder climes and the heights of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, where the nearest we got to an audience was sitting in a cafe with his picture on the wall. Still, at least the monasteries here are allowed to show his picture, unlike those in Tibet! We were surprised by the number of Buddhist nuns around. Then to the further heights of Chamba for some old temples, Dalhousie - an old British hill station for people from Lahore to escape the summer heat. 24th Nov - 1st Dec In the Kullu valley we spent a couple of days in Naggar, a chilled out place, where a couple of Indian weddings were going on, and Roerich (a Russian artist) spent many a day, leaving his house and art gallery behind. Further up the valley, we reconnoitred Manali, concluding that it is a useful starting point for arranging treks, but doesn't have much else going for it. No treks for us this time - instead we got a taste of English winter weather with temps of 4-11C. In Shimla - the old British summer capital (the entire government upped and moved here to the cool height of 2000m for the summer) - we admired the colonial architecture, including the impressive Viceroy's mansion with 'botanical gardens' (more like 'tended lawn some trees & flowers'). That was enough cold weather, windy roads, and crazy drivers (most buses had at least one person being travel-sick down the side of it!) for us, and we high-tailed it down south. 2nd Dec - 6th Dec A 12 hour train journey, a several hour wait, and a 3.5 hour flight later, and we arrived in Bangalore, "down south", and back in the warmth. After a frustrating time trying to speak Hinglish to get the auto-rickshaw drivers to understand where we were trying to go (we swear it's easier in countries where they don't speak English at all!), and finding one that would actually agree to use the meter (like the law says they should!), we managed to get to, and enjoy, the city's large botanical gardens. Sadly, not many flowers at this time of year, so no pics (sorry Neville), but lots of big trees and a relaxing place nonetheless. Then off for our next overnight train to Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese, then Dutch, then British and now Indian(!) settlement on the coast of Kerala, where we are enjoying the abundance of fresh fruit (Susana has gone pineapple-juice-mad) and unchallenged strolls along the streets. Both Roger & Susana had a go at hoisting the old Chinese fishing nets (5-person operated) lining the shore. 6th Dec - 9th Dec The literacy rate in Kerala is between 91 & 100% and it showed, being the most relaxing state we've travelled in, in India. After enjoying Cochin, we headed for Alleppey further downriver and arranged a two-day boat cruise in our own private wicker boat, exploring the backwaters of Kerala above ricefields that are 1-2 metres below sea-level. Very relaxing compared to an auto-rickshaw in the city! 10th Dec - 15th Dec We briefly visited Quilon - centre for cashew production, so Susana was nuts about it - where Roger saw his tasty banana crisps being made. Due to inclement weather, and quickly disappearing time, we moved on to Varkala to stock up on sun, sand and sea with a few days' relaxation on the beach. Once we got past the usual extortion racket operated by Cartel AutoRickshaw we had a thoroughly enjoyable time, splashing around in the sea and eating good food (even a Tibetan restaurant!). Watching 20 fishermen on shore hauling in their nets for an average haul of $1 a day was an eye-opener. 17th Dec - 19th Dec Our time came to head to Bombay (Mumbai) where we stunned all the auto-rickshaw drivers at Bombay airport by declining all offers and stepping into the car that had been sent to pick us up by Mahesh - Bond Commodoties' (Susana's old firm) representative in India. The best driver in India - Mahesh had trained him well (and sacked him 5 times in a year!). Mahesh & family took us for a nice dinner in an outdoor restaurant where Mahesh's knowledge answered some of our myriad questions about India. A brief couple of days exploring Bombay with side trip (two-overnight train journeys) to see the fascinating Ellora Caves - ornate Buddhist, Jainist & Hindu temples carved out of the rock over 1000 years ago. 20th Dec Got a taster of the U.K. with Bombay's impressive old British Colonial buildings before finally fighting with the taxi drivers to take us to the airport for a non-extortionate fee (another story here). Finally, the check-in saga, our last taste of India this time with Virgin Atlantic's meagre hand luggage allowance being less than our internal Indian Airline flights meant we were suddenly and unexpectedly 'overweight' (like most other passengers judging by the sagas at the other check-in desks - $20 a kilo...). Result: we binned our Everest trekking poles so carefully carried across India. 20th Dec - 11th Jan 2006 Boarded the plane home, arriving back in the UK 5 hours later, after a 10 hour flight! Still so used to backpacking we went from place to place: a quick look at the house, collection/purchase of car, dinner with Leslie & Pat and formally relieved Leslie of his Yatlik webmaster duties - without his help, you'd never have seen all the pictures. One last trip up to see family, and we were reunited with Roger's family in time for Christmas.
Happy Christmas & New Year to you all! We're now back in the house, and doing those exciting things you do in wintery England: redecorating! Next stop: jobs! Thank you very much for your interest and guestbook entries. We regret that we will be unable to supply you with any more smart photos for the time being! Thank you for travelling with Yatlik webwide holidays!