A Travellerspoint blog

The Wedding Crashers

Dancing up a storm in the streets of Agra...

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The most amazing traveling experiences are usually the unexpected. We were sitting on the rooftop of our guesthouse in Agra, admiring the dark silhouette of the Taj Mahal framed in the night sky. The night was getting late and my companions were dwindling, down to just myself and a German guy, Pablo. We were just about to call it a night when we heard a crazed mash of sounds from the twisted maze of streets below. It was very loud, was definitely live amplified music and was moving down the street. One of the guys at the guesthouse informed us it was a local wedding celebration. Pablo and I looked at each other, and quickly decided to head down to the street for a quick 2 minute look before heading to bed.

It didn't quite happen like that.

The wedding procession was crazy. It was led by a large band, complete with brass section, strings, a large percussion section singing and even a hand drawn cart carrying an organ, the sound system and a range of oddly shaped speakers. Next were the guests, wildly dancing and jumping. Behind this was a horse drawn cart carrying the bride, both bride and horse hiding behind a mass of brightly coloured veils. She was haloed by a circular board with hundreds of tiny lights attached. The horse also towed a generator, providing power to her halo, the speakers and the men carrying bright lamps that encircled the whole wedding party, ensuring the whole affair was well lit as they wandered through the darkened streets.

They spotted us from a block away, three guys from the wedding breaking out from the mass, wildly dancing towards us, a mass of smiles and cheering. They circled us then grabbed our arms and dragged us into the thriving mass of revelers, giving us no option to refuse. This began one of the most amazing hours I've ever experienced, a crazed sweat soaked assault on the senses. Dancing through the narrow lane-ways of Taj Gang, surrounded by a sea of smiling laughing Indians. Also absorbed into the madness were a German girl, a Swiss girl and a Korean girl. Our group of foreigners were certainly the centre of the party, surrounded at all times by revelers wanting to shake hands, hug, dance and introduce their whole family. It was all a bit overwhelming, the dancing was frenetic, these Indian guys are wild, lots of gyrating and grinding; clapping and twirling. It was also very crrowded, the crowd pressed against one another, toes unavoidable in the crush. It was like being in the fron rows of a western rock concert! I woke up the next morning with bruised feet and half a toenail missing.

After a while we reached the destination, a local hall. This was obviously the center of the days celebrations, and the mess and stains indicated that the party had been going all day. In fact the celebrations last a whole week. The procession we'd walked into was the post-ceremony day 1 parade. We were invited in for a meal, most of the guests full of smiles and cheer. A few were a bit put off by the foreign girls, as the weddings are a male dominated affair (in fact the bride left after the parade,) but most were keen for us to stay. They seated us at a table, making quite a fuss. The table cloth was dirty, and they insisted on getting a fresh one (which was only mildly cleaner) before serving dinner. As we'd all already had a large dinner and a couple of beers, we were incredibly full, but still managed a token effort on the food we were presented. Mercifully they put a large plate down and let us serve ourselves, so we weren't lumbered with mountains of rice to dig through. As we were still the star attraction, we had a large audience of Indians staring at us while we ate.

After a final round of farewells (it took quite a while, lots of handshakes and hugs) we reluctantly left. The night certainly goes down as a highlight of the trip, and one of the most different and unusual things I've ever experienced.

Posted by nomadSteve 02:36 Archived in India Comments (0)

Chased by an elephant

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"The most dangerous animal is the wild elephants. There’s nothing you can do. If we see one you run. Run away as fast as you can. And pray." I was in Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, doing a walking trip through the jungle. "Rhinos have bad eyesight; easy to run away in a zigzag, wild pigs are easy to hit with your stick, black bears can be frightened off and tigers and leopards are shy." That was the advice of my two jungle guides. Elephants own the jungle.

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The weather was hot and sticky, typical pre-monsoonal weather on the Indian plain. We were walking through the steamy jungle along a rough jeep track, well off the main tourist route for the elephant rides. It was the heat of the day, sweat beading off our bodies like waterfalls. It was just myself and two local guides, all three of us armed with large sticks. We’d already seen deer, monkeys and one Asian Rhino. Suddenly about 50 metres in front of us a large group of wild pigs quickly ran across the track. About 10 adults and 15 babies in all. As we slowly continued, one of guides was explaining how the pigs can attack you and was showing me the best way to fend them off with our sticks, when a grunt shot out of the jungle, just ten metres from the track. Another pig. My two guides stood near the edge of the track, sticks raised above their heads. We heard the rustling of the jungle as the pig approached. It broke from the trees in a loose waddle a few metres along the track from our position, slowly plodding across the track into the trees on the other side, giving a parting look and grunt as it disappeared.

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As we continued, we were loudly laughing and joking about our “run-in” with the pig. We were pulled out of our jovial mood when a trumpeting roar ripped through the jungle. It had come from close by, just along the jeep track, just 30m or so around the corner. My first instincts were surprise and confusion. What was that? Is it dangerous? What do we do? My guide’s first instincts on the other hand were fear and survival. They turned and ran, just tearing away as fast as they could. This of course left me languishing a few seconds behind, and once I lifted my feet had to do my best Usain Bolt impression to catch up. By now of course I'd recognised the sound. The most feared sound in the jungle. An elephant.

We stopped after a few hundred metres, out of breath and pouring sweat. The guides were panicked, as we hurriedly tried to decide on the best course of action. A small track ducked off into the jungle to the left. Do we go down that? Do we keep going back up the road? Was the elephant following us? Then our decision was made for us as the head of a huge elephant appeared around the corner, trunk swaying, ivory tusks glinting in a shaft of sunlight. Again my guides picked flight over fight, with one ducking into the thick jungle to the left the other to the right. Leaving me again slightly bewildered, like a rabbit in headlights in the middle of the track, unsure of which way to go. Damn my lack of decision making!

The rest of the elephant slowly came into view, gnarled hide, giant muscle bound legs, four Nepali soldiers perched on its back...

Turns out the elephants (there were five in the end) were trained elephants working with the army, on a mission to find and “remove” a particular wild elephant that had killed a couple of villagers in recent months. My guides assured me that “remove” meant to escort it to a safe area, but the amount of high caliber weaponry on show made the think otherwise. I think they were just trying to protect my thin-skinned Western sensibilities.

One of my guides noticed quickly when I started laughing, but the other got about 100 metres into the bush before he was stopped. Poor guy, we were giving him heaps after that! The incident definitely me gave me a well-needed adrenalin boost.

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I also got involved in the elephant bathing here, which is a good bit of fun. They wash the elephants every day, and you can “help.” Though really all you do is jump in the water and play with the elephants, climbing on their backs while they splash around. The best bits are when the mahout (elephant rider) gives a command and the elephants fill their trunks and spray you with water.

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It was such a good feeling to escape Kathmandu. Whilst I do miss the people I met there, it was certainly way passed time to go. Things were too familiar there, too easy. I knew where to get a good breakfast, where to get dinner, the best street stalls, the bars to go to, and the best hole in the wall lassi place. As I walked to the bus station I couldn't get the smile off my face. Back on the road!

It was certainly the right day to go, but I had to get my final rabies shot in the morning. Everyone takes the tourist bus straight to Sauraha for Chitwan National Park, leaving at 7. As I wasn't finished till 10:30 the only option was the local bus. A long but entertaining ride. I decided on one of the local minibuses, usually quicker than the standard large local buses. After going two blocks the bus stopped at the side of the road, staying an hour while the driver and the new passengers struggled with the complex jigsaw of tying another 15 boxes onto the already packed roof. Quite an impressively stable tower by the end.

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Ten minutes after leaving Kathmandu the ear-piercing sound of grinding metal tore through the minibus. Then came another 45 minute stop while they did a surprisingly quick job of replacing one of the rear bearings.

The first section of the road heads along the Prithivi Highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. A jam-packed narrow winding road, one of the most dangerous in the world. I've travelled on it three times now, every time seeing multiple accidents, including a couple of pretty nasty ones. The traffic wasn't moving at all, and another two hour delay ensued. This was turning into a slow trip...

Then we heard a shudder and the bus pulled over, only to see one of the front tyres on a very unnatural angle. Speedy highway repair number two...

It wasn't until nine the bus arrived at Narayangarh, still quite a way from my final destination. Narayangarh is a large uninteresting typical Asian small city. Flat, busy and industrial, with no tourist draw cards at all. A western tourist is a rare sight indeed. I worked out I had to get across town from the main bus park to the minibus centre, though I had no idea where it was. No-one would give me directions or tell me how far it was. The rickshaw drivers were saying three kilometres, but I was skeptical. Still I had no real options, so I negotiated with a cycle rickshaw driver for 50 rupees to take me there, which I knew was way above the going rate anyway. As we headed up the road, I noticed another empty rickshaw following us up the street. "What's he up to?" I thought. It made sense when we got to our destination. A minivan was just leaving, so I stopped it, jumped out of the rickshaw, threw my bags on the roof and turned to give the rickshaw driver his 50 rupees.

He looked at me with that cheeky local smile, the one that says 'scam'. "No sir, 150 rupees. We agreed, 150 rupees!"
"No way" I replied. "We agreed, 50. You are not getting more than 50". We kept arguing for a couple of minutes, while he refused to take my 50. Then the other rickshaw driver piped up.
"Sir, I heard you agree 150 rupees." So that was the game he was playing. Now I realise getting overcharged is part of the deal in this part of the world, and at the end of the day we are talking less than two dollars. But this sort of scam is just downright dishonest. And I was definitely digging me heals in.
"Take the 50, or it's going back in my pocket mate. Your choice." He still refused the money, asking again for 150. So back in the pocket it went and I jumped onto the minivan, which was completely packed, so I had to perch myself in the open doorway. The rickshaw driver reached in and grabbed my arm.
"150, you agreed. You westerners! Trying to rip us off all time!" The cheek of this guy! Trying to shame and embarrass me into it. No way that was gonna happen. The minivan started leaving, so I brushed his arm away, got the 50 back out and tried one final time to hand it to him. He refused, but it was snatched out of my hand by his mate.
Then I saw the first driver eyeball my bag sitting on the roof as the minivan slowly pulled out into the street. He moved towards it, that look in his eyes. I hung myself out of the door of the minibus with one hand, knocking his arm away with the other. "Just you try it buddy!" I could see him still eyeballing the bag as we disappeared into the night.

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The old man sitting next to me on the bus turned to me and smiled. "Well done my friend, well done." After half an hour on the bus I was dropped at an intersection on the side of the dark highway, still ten kilometres from my destination. One taxi driver appeared from the darkness, asking an extortionate 500 rupees for the trip. I tried to beat him down, but he refused, turning his back and heading toward his taxi. Realising he had me over a barrel I had to follow him and agree. Five minutes down the road he mysteriously stopped in this tiny village, jumping out, saying he'd be back soon. I tried to call after him, but he'd faded into the darkness. Confused, I sat alone in the taxi for five minutes, till he returned with his daughter in tow. He wanted her to practice her English on me in the taxi, but she was quite shy. It had been a long journey, but again I arrived with a smile on my face. It's so much fun when things don't quite go to plan!

As I was tired by that stage I just picked a place from the lonely planet, something I've avoided doing on this trip so far. Turned out be great, cheap, good staff and a nice location surrounded by a beautiful tropical garden. I just wanted a quick bite to eat and a beer and crash out that night. It didn't quite pan out like this, as the guesthouse owner invited me to have dinner and a drink with some of his friends. I think the only reason they invited me over was they had noticed my guitar. Thus began a long beer and fried chicken fueled jam session. Always entertaining with the locals.

This was not the ideal way to prepare for a few hot humid days in the jungle...

Finally, heading to the border. To India. Straight to Varanasi. They call me mad, going straight there at this time of year. Why not just throw myself in the deep end eh? Live dangerously!

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Posted by nomadSteve 06:43 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Surviving the Bandh

Communists, rabies and how to accidentally get locked in a brothel...

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When I was "planning" this trip, one of the most important things was not to plan much at all. The intention to just wing it and make it up as I go. Which is just as well, as whenever I do plan things they don't quite work out...

After trekking the Annapurna circuit I had a few rather uneventful days in Pokhara. There really isn't all that much to say about those days. It was good meeting up my parents there for a few days, and generally being social. Hera and I had a good day cycling up to the "bat cave" just north of the town. It didn't really live up to the name, as we only saw one small bat. It was fun though, if only for the climbing and squeezing involved. On the way back we had probably the best meal I've had on the trip at a tiny local place. This is one of those places not used to western tourists where the locals can't help but stare while you eat. We had a large meal of curry, roti, samosas and things that defy description, tea and even a selection of sweets for desert. And all for 140 rupees for the both of us (2 aussie dollars.) Half way through the meal we heard some chirping and looked towards the roof. Sitting on one of the girders was a birds nest with four hungry chicks. It was feeding time as the parents had just arrived to regurgitate their food. Most entertainingly we realised a few minutes later that directly below the birds nest was the bubbling pot of curry. Bird flu anyone? So that was the secret ingredient, birds feathers and regurgitated insects...

The big talk around Nepal was the increasing political tensions, with the Maoist party calling on the current Prime Minister to resign. They were planning huge rallies for May the 1st in Kathmandu, and an "indefinite" Bandh (strike) following that. Not a very encouraging word at all, something that makes travelling a touch more difficult. My original plan was to head west to Bardia national park, but the possibility of getting stuck there, and reports of a large diahorrhea outbreak with overflowing hospitals and a number of deaths were not encouraging. So sad that in this day and age that people are dying from diahorhea.

So I made a snap decision to belt it back to Kathmandu on the 29th, then bus to Jiri at 6am on the 30th to start the Everest trek. The plan fell in a complete heap after the bus from Pokhara was late into Kathmandu, and I failed to get the required trekking permits that evening. This meant no chance of getting the bus to Jiri (they all leave before 9am, when the permit office opens.) Given that i didn't want to drop for return flights to Lukla for the Everest trek, I was stuck in Kathmandu. Not a place I really wanted to end be if it turned as bad as a lot of people were expecting. Luckily it didn't. Though as an aside tourists have never been in any danger in Nepal. Everyone here realises that tourism is the backbone of their economy. It’s quite surreal to see hundreds of angry chanting communists marching up the street, who suddenly spot you and start smiling and waving and shout “Namaste!”

After realising i was most likely in Kathmandu for the long haul, i hit the town with another Aussie guy i met on the bus from Pokhara. After a couple of drinks we decided to look for another bar to drink at. We saw a sign for the "Nowhere Pub." Worth a shot we thought, and proceeded down a small alleyway and up a dark set of stairs. It didn't seem quite right, but sometimes the most interesting venues are in odd places so we kept going. We went through a gate, with a few Nepali guys standing around it. "Pub? Beer?" we asked. "Yes, up!" they said, "Beer!" Then they closed and locked the gate behind us, the key disappearing into one of their pockets. By this stage we were getting pretty nervous, but as we'd had a few drinks already we thought "maybe it's just a really underground pub..." It was only when we started passing rooms containing double beds and scantily clad Nepali girls beconing us in we realised what we'd stumbled into. So the "Nowhere Pub" turned out to in fact be nowhere. We quickly backtracked down the stairs, only to be obstructed at the now locked gate. "You stay. Woman! Good price!" It took some arguing for them to finally let us out. As we stood back out on the street we just looked at each other "What the ???" Certainly the first time I've been accidentally locked in a brothel!

As I was expecting to only be there one night, i went for the easy option and stayed in Thamel, the main tourist district. Whilst it's easy in Thamel, its such a fake tourist wonderland. Nothing local remains, just hundreds of trekking shops, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, bookshops and internet cafes. The next day, I escaped and moved down to the Durbur Square / Freak street area. Freak Street was named after the Hippies that congregated in the area during the 60s and 70s. Whilst much of the hippy element has disappeared, Freak Street is much more peaceful and alternative than Thamel. It also was much more active during the Bandh, with a thriving street scene just up the road. I also found the boys I was trekking with and decided to stay in the same hotel as them, especially if we had to hole up in a hotel for a few days it if all turned nasty.

So the Bandh. What is a Bandh you may ask? A Bandh in Nepal is a full strike imposed by the Maoists. No buses, no non-essential vehicles are allowed on the roads, and only two hours of trading are allowed per day; 6-8pm. And even during these hours only a few places were open, as the Maoists were asking "donations" from any shops open. Nepal is still recovering from over a decade of civil war and tensions. The last couple of years had been relatively peaceful, but tensions have again flared. The major issue being the lack of progress on the new constitution, which has a deadline of May the 28th.

Tensions were high before the May 1st rallies. Over 100,000 Maoists had come from around Nepal to protest in Kathmandu. The streets were filled with thousands of flag waving chanting Maoists, and waiting police and army. The government had mobilised the army to "prevent" violent clashes. The air was pulsing with tension, you could see it in the faces of both sides. The locals were worried. Violence was expected.

May the 1st was peaceful. The protests occurred with minimal violence. It was quite a sight, tens of thousands of chanting flag waving communists. I was surprised as to the make-up of the crowds. Lots of women, and a large age range-including children and the elderly. I'd always thought of these "uprisings" consisting of a majority of young men. It was surprising on the evening of the 1st. The whole city breathed a collective sigh of relief, shops reopened and the mood was jubilant.

The next day things had changed. The Bandh was in full effect. The odd tourist place was open for those first couple of days, but most of the city was closed. The streets were empty, except for the odd tourist, groups of hundreds of protesting maoists and of course the hash dealers.

By day three though the mood had changed again. The streets had a festive atmosphere. The street vendors were the only places allowed to open so we were living off a diet of street samosas and pineapple. The streets were full of people playing soccer, cricket, volleyball and hackey sack. Something that is usually impossible on the clogged streets of Kathmandu.

Though day three was also when the maoists started cracking down on anyone defying the Bandh. My local cafe, which had been about the only one in the area staying open, was threatened with smashed windows and beatings if they were caught open again. There were some reports from elsewhere in the city of shop owners bashed and shops trashed for defying the strike.

After a few days tensions had returned. Violence was spreading and everyone had had enough of the strike. A few people were killed, food was getting scarce, the poor were struggling with no income, and disease was spreading. "Peace" rallies were staged, consisting mostly of normal people with no political affiliation urging an end to the Bandh and for the political parties to reach an agreement. One of these rallies was staged in the Kathmandu Durbur Square, one block from my hotel. We could here the chanting, and could see on the TV that tens of thousands had filled the square. This one was peaceful, but as i left the hotel i was met by hundreds of waiting riot police armed with shields, batons and tear-gas launchers. Luckily they weren't needed that day. I tried to bypass the rallies, but they had spread into surrounding streets. The sound of 100,000 people chanting is quite impressive. Unfortunately a couple of these rallies in other parts of Kathmandu turned into violent clashes as Maoists attempted to shut them down, leading to overturned vehicles and numerous hospitalisations. The newspapers were full of quite graphic pictures of injured maoists, protesters and police.

That evening people were worried again. Things seemed to be going downhill rapidly. The Maoists seemed to be digging their heels in, stating during the afternoon that they were nearing their goal, that the prime minister was close to resigning. It was then a complete surprise to everyone that that night the Maoists unexpectedly called an end to the strike.

The next day things were back to normal, all the shops were open and the streets were full of traffic. Everyone was relaxed and seemed to have forgotten the still simmering tensions brewing just off the radar. We were reminded when a violent clash occurred only a few blocks away, with numerous vehicles overturned and scores of maoists and police taken to hospital. In fact we were lucky not to be caught up in it, as we heading for the cinema. We ended up going to the wrong one (but stayed and watched a movie anyway.) The one we were aiming for would have taken us through the heart of the rallies. We did see heavily armoured riot control vehicles and tear-gas armed riot police heading that way.

Even with the tensions here, it still has that rather laid back Nepali style. We passed a group of police one day, decked out in full riot gear brandishing their bamboo sticks. The guys at the front were marching in formation, their gear in perfect order, faces serious and determined. At the back however were two guys with face masks up, body armour hanging open and having a play fight with their bamboo sticks. Quite a contrast. The Maoists are the same. We passed one large group of Maoists marching down the street. The guys at the front were waving their flags, angrily chanting and throwing fists in the air. The guys at the back were all jokes and smiles, two of them good naturedly grabbing my arms and trying to drag me along with them. As much fun as it would be to join a communist rally i thought it was prudent not to get involved. I could just see the headlines back home "Australian joins communists."

It's funny how much Western culture has intruded into Nepalese life. During the Bandh we were reading the youth section of the local newspaper. It had a collection of tips from the "hip" youth of Kathmandu on how to survive the Bandh. Now I would have imagined these would be things like "Avoid large groups of protesters, don't break the curfew etc. But no. This is what the tips were.

  • Get on facebook as much as possible

  • Stay close to your mobile phone

  • Get your friends together and watch movies all the time

  • And most importantly party, party, party

I was shocked to discover I've been in Kathmandu almost two weeks. It's been a fairly social time, hanging out with a good crew of people. It's been a surprisingly stagnant time. Lots of wandering around, especially during the Bandh. Their are even some sights within striking distance that I wanted to see and somehow failed to get too. Everyone I've been hanging around with is the same, "We've been here two weeks? But I haven't done anything!" Even things like updating the diary and the blog, and even playing the guitar i bought have failed to happen. I guess it's because it's been quite a social time, and has more of a semblance of normal life, hanging around with the same people for a while. Strange though. Everyone was hoping the Bandh would end, but we are all still here, not achieving much. But their have been reasons keeping me here, first their was the Bandh, then I was waiting for my Indian visa, now I'm waiting till tomorrow for a follow up rabies shot...

Why the rabies shot you ask? I had an unlucky couple of days. Firstly I stupidly fell down a set of stairs resulting in a set of bruises and grazes. The next night I was walking home along a darkened deserted street, with only a few of the Kathmandu street dogs wandering the streets. I was strolling past one of these dogs, I heard a small growl and suddenly it had sunk it's teeth into my hand. Completely unexpected. I quickly whipped it out of the way and the dog went for my leg, getting a hold of my trousers. I tried to shake it off without success, and then eventually sent it away whimpering with a couple of kicks to the ribs. I was then surprised when a local appeared, yelling at me for kicking a dog! Whilst the bite wasn't serious it did break the skin, presenting the very real danger of rabies. It's quite common in this part of the world amongst dogs and monkeys, especially as the dog had attacked me completely out of the blue. So the next morning i had to find a clinic to get my follow up rabies booster. I have had the pre-exposure vaccine, but the booster is required. This proved harder than expected, as due to the Bandh all the clinics and hospitals had run out of the vaccine. It took a while to find a clinic with supplies. Unfortunately i do need another one tomorrow, and have figured it's much easier to do it here where i know i can get it than try down in the Terai or in India.

I did end up spending a few days at a local orphanage. I met two girls who were volunteering there, and decided to tag along. We ended up repainting their dining room, and painting an educational food pyramid on the wall. When I arrived the kids were going stir crazy. Preceding the strike, the Maoists had imposed a school strike, so the kids had effectively been stuck in the orphanage for three weeks. So a lot of time was spent just playing with the kids. It did get rather chaotic when we were painting. Everyone was so enthusiastic to help, and paint went everywhere. Most of the kids their aren't technically orphans. It's a home for kids whose parents are in jail in Nepal. Like many developing countries, the way the prison system works here is that kids usually live in the jails with their parents, usually very unpleasant places. The woman who set up this orphanage is an impressive woman. She has three orphanages and a range of programs set up for helping women and children in the jails. Not a bad effort for a 35 year old unschooled village woman, especially in a country like Nepal. I did enjoy my few days there, and will certainly do some more volunteering somewhere down the line.

As nice as it's been hanging around with a crew, I'm looking forward to hitting the road and setting out on my own again. For a "solo" trip so far I've spent surprisingly little time travelling on my own. In fact I've actually spent little time "travelling" and have covered only very few kilometres during the trip so far. Though that will be changing in the next week. Now I'm heading toward India, in the middle of the scorching Indian summer. Bring on the heat!

Posted by nomadSteve 04:05 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Round and round in circles: The Annapurna Circuit


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What to write about the Annapurna circuit? 18 days, over 220 km and up to 5416m high. The challenge, the people (both locals and fellow trekkers), the surroundings and of course the mountains all conspired to make it a breathtaking trip, one I am sure will remain as a highlight of the whole trip. I've really been struggling as to what to write for this blog post. There are so many stories to tell, it’s been so hard to know where to start!

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The Annapurna circuit is one of the old "classic" treks of the world. Traversing a wide range of cultures and landscapes, the track circumnavigates the Annapurna massive, a series of jagged peaks up to 8167m. The track passes through a huge range of environments, from terraced farming, to tropical rainforest, Rhododendron forest, and into the stark Tibetan desert like valleys of the Northern Himalaya. The mountains really are stunning, and the circuit gives great views of the peaks from all angles. Whilst a lot the track still has no roads and vehicles (though it won't be this way for long) this not a wilderness hike, with the circuit being the main trade route for the mountain towns and villages. In fact I was over prepared, carrying too much gear; used to more remote hiking in Tasmania. This a teahouse trek, meaning you're always passing through villages with numerous guesthouses to eat, sleep, do laundry and even have hot showers.

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Each day you share the track with pack mules and endless streams of porters carrying insanely large loads on their backs. They carry all sorts on their backs including cages of live chickens and even explosives for the new road. I saw one poor porter attempting a shortcut down a steep path and losing his load of trekkers gear, bouncing down the hill, and slipping the contents onto the road below.

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I was feeling somewhat nervous about embarking on the trek alone. I got used to being asked by Nepalis "You mean you're going alone? No friends? No guide? No porter?" I figured that I would meet people soon enough on the track, and at least find people to do the Thorung La pass with. After reading up on the trek, I didn't feel I needed a guide, I wanted to carry my own pack, and didn't want to stuck with an annoying westerner I met in Pokhara or Kathmandu. An 18 day trek is a long time to be stuck with someone who you like. Still I was getting a bit nervous about embarking on the trek alone and the risks of the altitude along the way.

I needn't have worried, as meeting people proved easy enough, walking the circuit is quite a social affair. By day 4 I was part of the "Yak Pack". A group consisting of myself, two Canadian brothers Dylan and Noah, and a Dutch girl Hera and her guide. I walked the rest of the trip with Hera, and the boys for about ten days in the middle of the trek.

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The first half of the circuit is all leading up to the Thorung La pass, apparently the world’s highest mountain pass at 5416m. For days before the pass, it's all people are talking about, leading to a certain sense of dread, which was heightened as we started meeting people who had failed to conquer the pass, suffering from altitude sickness. Overall we were all pretty good with the altitude, though we did have an extra acclimatization day in Manang (3600m) with Hera suffering from altitude headaches. You can certainly feel the thin air over 3500m, every breath becomes laboured, and the climbs become just a slow plodding slog.

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The acclimatisation days in Manang were almost my favourite. It was nice after a few days of company to just take off and explore on my own exploring the surrounding hills, visiting a few Gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries). Now as those of you who know me would know I'm not a religious or spiritual person at all, but visiting a couple of these Gompas really was an enlightening experience. In particular the Praken Gompa, a small monastery built in a rocky overhang perched on a cliff at 4100m. Inside is a 94 year old Llama, who hasn't left his mountain home for 41 years. Receiving a blessing for the upcoming Thorung La pass and sharing a silent cup of tea with him whilst looking across at the Annapurna range and the mighty Gangapurna glacier was quite a moving experience for me.

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Overall though the walking was easier than I expected, with quite a few days ending before lunch, particularly as we neared the pass and further ascent was impossible due to acclimatizing for the altitude. We got through quite a number of card games and read more than a couple of books during the trip. If I was by myself, I would have done the lower sections a day or two faster, but I was happy to have found a good crew of people to walk with.

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The pass day was probably the toughest on the body, more in the insane descent that followed than reaching the pass itself. We had been in a good routine of up at 6, and walking by 7, though on the pass day we hit it an hour earlier. Strangely all the guides and locals make this big deal of leaving insanely early (as in 3 or 4) to hit the pass early. The exact reasons are unsure, with a multitude of explanations "It gets windy later" or "the ice melts later, making it slippery" (I didn't quite understand this one...) or "the lodges at Muktinath will be full." I think now it's more one of things that has seeped into the guiding ethos and everyone has forgotten the real reasons.
As it was the approach to the pass felt like a highway, with hundreds making their early dashes for the top. We had stayed at High Camp (4915m) and joined the crowds that had left the lower camps earlier in the morning. You really do feel high up in the Himalaya approaching Thorung La, with incredible views of the surrounding peaks. I won't try to find the words to describe the mountains; hopefully the photos give at least a slight idea of what it’s like.

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It was a great sense of achievement hitting the pass, with hugs and congratulations all round. There was quite a crowd gathered at the pass itself (and even a tiny teahouse!), so we hiked up another 50m or so to a small shrine on the hill above, where we sat and scoffed a couple of congratulatory snickers bars and sat and enjoyed the view.
The descent that day was murderous. With a 1,700m drop in altitude in about 3 hours, and carrying packs, the day proved almost fatal for knees, calves and thighs. It took days for ours to recover.

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One moment that will stick in my mind was sitting on our guesthouse rooftop at Muktinath the night after we did the pass. It’s somewhat hard to explain but the lingering sense of achievement, the aching body, and a sudden increase in oxygen left me with a really contented glow. Surrounded by the silhouettes of the mountains in the moonlight, the stars and distant flashes of lightning from a storm down on the Indian planes. I felt a real sense of peace and contentment, enhanced when my companion began singing a haunting song in Dutch.

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The rest of the circuit heads down the Kali Ghandaki valley for a few days, before skipping back up to Ghorepani for some more mountain views and Rhododendron forests. I was actually surprised by the Upper Khali Ghandaki valley and how sparse and desert like it is. At one stage when we were walking down the wide desert valley and trail bikes appeared, billowing clouds of dust behind them. It felt like we'd just wandered into a Mad Max film!

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One day in particular almost killed me. I had a rough nights sleep and was feeling slightly ill. We'd done 3 days walk since the pass, relatively flat or downhill days, but my legs still hadn't recovered from the descent and the burning in the legs was agony. This day we gained 1700m, heading back up into the high country. By far the toughest days walking I’ve done. It became that slow plod, every step willing the legs forward. As always though, the feeling once you make it to the destination makes it all worthwhile.

We ended up having a rest day, though we still did the obligatory dawn pilgrimage to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas from Poon Hill. Certainly some spectacular views, but it was rather distracting sharing the hill with 200 other eager trekkers. Though I did have a great day sitting atop Poon Hill on my own, reading a relaxing.
We decided we'd tack an extra day onto the trek and detour via the village of Ghandruk, which took us through twisted rainforest. One section of the track had been intriguing us on the maps. On the few maps we saw this section had "Group trekking only." They recommend doing all trekking in Nepal in groups, so why was this bit special? Not particularly dangerous, no altitude, no insane climbs or descents. We decided it must be muggers or something. Then we found a large map on the wall of the teahouse and on this section was large skull and crossbones. Of course! Pirates! As we left the last village, under the giant sign "DO NOT TREK ALONE" we entered a dark, ancient twisted section of rainforest. We were prepared at any moment to have to draw cutlasses and fight off waves of marauding bandana-clad forest pirates. Disappointingly all we encountered was a gang of vicious ladybugs and a lone bloodthirsty leach. Not a single bandana in sight!

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In recent years new roads have been pushed up both sides of the circuit, changing the landscape and the feel of many of the towns and villages. As good as the trek was the Annapurna circuit is changing rapidly, with people already saying that it isn't what it once was. After a few days of towns with track only access it was a shock to arrive in Muktinath to the sounds of motorbikes and horns, amazing how different a vibe it was. A lot of people now are skipping sections of the track and catching buses and jeeps. These sections were still amazingly scenic, but it really does have a different feel. It will be interesting to see how things change in the next decade. The road is a shame for the overseas trekkers, but it’s hard to deny the locals the economic benefits of opening up. So my advice is to do this trek as soon as possible.

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There were sections in the earlier part of the trek where the road is being constructed. While it is impressive to see how they construct roads in such obscenely steep terrain, the sounds of jackhammers and rock blasting certainly add a different elements to the feel of the mountains. One of my more nervous moments of the trek came on day 2, whilst I was still trekking on my own. After a tough climb, I stopped at a local teahouse for lunch. Also having a break were a group of porters carrying the explosives for the new road and their police escort. The policeman was cheerful looking guy, happily singing to himself as he strolled into the restaurant. He sauntered up and flopped lazily into the chair next to me, casually slinging his automatic rifle onto his lap, the barrel only 10 centimeters from my leg. He closed his eyes, still singing and casually started tapping along to the song in his head. On the trigger of his rifle. I prayed that he still had the safety on. It was running through my mind telling the stories afterwards. "I was fine with the altitude, no twisted ankles, and no popped knees. Though I did get shot in the leg at point blank range..."

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I was so glad I made this the first big "moment" of my trip, and I'm sure will stay in my mind the rest of my life.
As it was we had an extra day in the mountains due to a Maoist strike. Though I'll leave the strikes and being stuck in Kathmandu for the next post...

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Posted by nomadSteve 03:45 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Sahl: The hippy that time forgot

Or how I lost an afternoon on the hill...

You meet some interesting people on the road.

I was walking through the forest, heading down from the World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara. As usual I had wandered from the main path, heading vaguely in the direction i wanted to go: down. Suddenly i heard this strange, somewhat alien noise, snaking it's way through the trees. It was somehow familiar. But I couldn't place it... Hang on, it sounds like someone singing the guitar solo from Jimi Hendrix's "All along the Watchtower!" It then changed into a rather tuneless rendition of the Beatles "I am the walrus"

I decided, "what the hell!" and went to investigate. A rough path led a couple of hundred metres down to a small clearing, with views across the Annapurna Range and a small Hindu Shrine in the centre. Dancing in circles around the shrine, was a whirling, whaling old Hippy. With shawls and scarves spinning, this colourful spinning top was by now blurting out a deranged mix of the Doors and the Rolling Stones. On first sight he was obviously completely mad, most likely startig the hippy trail back in the 70's and forgotten to leave.

Suddenly he stopped: He'd seen me! "Ah, my friend. A visitor from the land of trees, I am blessed!"

Obviously, I was confused at this stage, and greeted his with the Nepalese greeting "Namaste"

"Namaste" he gurgled, eyes darting from side to side. "Please my friend, sit and relax, enjoy the living!"
I'd realised be now he was definitely a "couple of sheep short of the top paddock", and that his mental state may be effected by that small green plant... He gestured at the small rock wall surrounding the clearing. I sat, still feeling rather confused. By this stage I was a bit sunburnt and sweaty from the walk. "You look hot my friend. Please, I will get you a refreshing drink!"

He reached into a tiny pouch hanging from his neck. My earlier suspicions were confirmed when he pulled out a giant spliff. "Drink from the waters of the soul my friend!"

"Sahl" then proceeded to inform me of his status as the one true living god, "Ghorunash" or something similar. He said there was a small but devout following of this religion. I asked how many. "At this stage my friend, more than I can count, and I can't count at all!"
"So in that case one then!" I said sarcastically. He opened his mouth in a wide smile and winked.

"Can i take your photo?" I asked, fumbling in my pack for my camera.
"You can try." He stated with an odd, lilted smile. Like he knew something I didn't. I took a single photo, the perfect portrait. It was only when i returned to the Lakeside and flicked through my photos, the photo was completely white. Spooky.
Maybe he did know something I didn't.

Posted by nomadSteve 01:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

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