India: Part 7

Hello Everyone!

We effortlessly [comparatively] made our way back to Delhi from Kathmandu having ample time to checkin to our flight, avoiding any potential wipeout situations. When we landed in Delhi we made a quick pitstop at Duty Free to stock up for our reunion with our friends in a few days, before heading to the metro. We were Delhi Metro Pros by this point, easily navigating our way back to Connaught Place in New Delhi where we returned to a restaurant we had tried on our first visit to Delhi for supper. We had dosas and chai before heading back to the metro to continue on to a railway station we hadn’t transited through before. Delhi has 24 railway stations so it is important to always check where your train leaves from. We arrived to the train station with plenty of time before our train was to depart so we passed the time in the upper class waiting room. We boarded our train to Amritsar, a 12 hour overnight journey, and attempted to locate our seats. I say attempted as Indians have a terribly annoying habit of playing musical seats. We found one of our seats and a child was sleeping on our bunk, so his mom requested we take their bunk further up the carriage as to not disturb him. We located our second bunk and a man again asked if we minded switching with him for a different bunk so he could be we his family. That meant we originally had booked bunk numbers 34 and 45, and ended up with 6 and 39. How the conductors ever keep things straight baffles me. I opted for bunk number 6 as it was a side upper bunk with a private curtain which would shield me from peering eyes. I was just settling in when a young guy stuck his head under my curtain. I yelled at him asking him what he was doing and he promptly dropped the curtain and continued walking, sticking his hand under the curtain in the hopes of grabbing a feel on his way. I proceeded to yank the curtains open and yell what a ‘bad man’ (simplified language so as he, and those around me, would clearly understand what I was saying) he was. He scurried off quickly and didn’t bother me for the rest of the journey. One thing I have noticed about the Indian culture is they do not seem to feel shame about things- it is an unnerving quality.

We arrived to Amritsar the next morning and headed to our hostel via cycle rickshaw. In India labor is dirt cheap and because of this the cycle rickshaws are much cheaper than the motorized rickshaws despite being infinitely more work. It is appalling to hand over the equivalent of $0.70 CAD cents after a man has cycled you 4 kms and is dripping sweat as he accepts his pittance. In Canada it would be the opposite; a cycle rickshaw would be expensive while a motorized one would be cheap. We arrived to our hostel, checked in, and sat in the common area drinking chai with the other guests as we planned our day. The hostel, Jugaadus’, offered amazing tours on a donation basis to all the major attractions. As well, they organise shared transport to the border closing ceremony, a major bonus as it is 30 kms away. We signed up for both the border ceremony and the night tour of the Golden Temple.

We headed out to grab lunch, but every single restaurant and store were shut. We were very confused and headed back to the hostel where we inquired if there was a reason for the closures. The hostel workers informed us that the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib had been desecrated by having 20 pages torn out, resulting in the entire city of Amritsar going on strike in protest. The holy book is considered a Guru, and respected as though it is a person. For the Sikhs, the page tearing is equivalent to a violent attack on a person. Luckily for us, the hostel had a ‘pay it forward’ kitchen where meals were provided and you were able to eat any of them, and then provide a donation of what you felt it was worth at the end of your stay.

After lunch a group of us piled into two rickshaws and began the long drive to the Wagah Border Ceremony. We found out about the border ceremony originally through watching Departures, and our intention to visit was solidified by the numerous recommendations from locals along our travels. The ceremony is a daily military practice involving the Border Security Force (India) and the Pakistan Rangers that has taken place since 1959. It is a drill of very fast and aggressive dance like moves, coordinated perfectly between both sides. It displays both the rivalry between the two countries as well as the dedication to work together to protect the border. It has been described as ‘A display of carefully choreographed contempt.’ The finale is the lowering of both flags in perfect unison, a brisk handshake, and closing of both sides gates.

We arrived to the grounds and passed through numerous security checks before being ushered to the VIP seating section (they reserve spots for foreigners). We had about an hour to wait before the ceremony started as if you arrive late you end up with terrible seats. The time passed easily by observing the stands with the locals, to say they were passionate would be an understatement. It felt like we were at a football match rather than a ceremonial military display. The announcer for the Indian side was hilarious, he was so into firing the crowd up and stopped at nothing to get chants and cheering going. He picked women from the crowd to run with flags towards the Pakistan side, much to the delight of the crowd. Women spontaneously began dancing, dragging other women from the crowds to join them, causing loud cheers from the spectators. It was a full audience, both normal seating and VIP seating on the Indian side, with barely any fans on the Pakistani side. Finally, the ceremony began, and it was fierce. The contempt of the soliders, backed by the intensity of the cheering from the crowd, made for a very exciting atmosphere. The theatrics from the soldiers was award worthy. Experiencing the ceremony first-hand was one of our favorite travel experiences so far, we highly recommend attending!

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Arriving back at the hostel we had just enough time to grab a few necessities before we met our tour guide for the Golden Temple. Out hostel was within easy walking distance to the temple, the only difficult part was making out way through two roundabouts. Arriving at the temple we had to remove our shoes, and both men and women had to cover their heads. I had brought a scarf for this purpose while Chris borrowed one of the provided orange bandanas provided by the temple. The bandana made him look like he was part of a motorcycle gang, it was screen-printed with ‘The Golden Temple’ on the front so he joked he was part of the ‘Templars’ gang. Appropriately covered, we headed to the main entrance to the temple, where you need to walk through water to cleanse your feet. My heels were still recovering from our trek, and I shuttered to think of the bacteria count of the water, so I quickly skirted the foot baths undetected. We came to the top of the entrance stairs and were dazzled by the temple glimmering ahead of us.
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Our guide explained a few things about the construction of the temple; it was first constructed in 1588 and the donation of the gold for the outside adornment was by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century. The Sikhs are very open to anyone and everyone irregardless of religion, which is why we were able to visit. We then proceeded down the stairs to the waters edge for more photos and an explanation of the origins of the cities name, Amritsar. Amritsar means the ‘Pool of the nectar of immortality’ after the tank of water in which the temple was built, and where the city of Amritsar grew around. The water is to the Sikhs as the Ganga is to the Hindus; sacred and possessing the power to cleanse and cure. We continued our walk around the waters edge until we reached the Langar, the Sihk word for common dining hall/kitchen, where they serve meals 24/7, 365 days a year, to anywhere from 80 to 200 000 people per day. The cooking, service of the food, dishwashing, and cleaning of the halls is done entirely on a volunteer basis. As we walked up the stairs to the dining hall we were handed a stainless steel tray, bowl, and a spoon from volunteers. We entered the hall and found space to sit down cross-legged with the other diners. In no time we were served a lentil dish, warm rice pudding dish, and handed chapati. A boy no older than 8 whipped up and down the aisles with a large water dispenser on wheels that had what looked like a handbrake on the steering mechanism to effortlessly dispense water. We were warned by our guide that even though they say the water is safe, as tourists it was best to avoid. We ate our meal in awe of the efficiency of the volunteers. The food was delicious and we were continuously offered refills until we stood to leave. We brought our dishes to another group of volunteers who roughly dumped anything remaining on our plates into a massive garbage can, and threw the plates into a large transport container to be brought to the washing area. We were then brought to witness the volunteers cooking the food in the largest pots any of us had ever laid eyes on. It looked like a serious effort and workout to stir the contents. We then observed the chapati oven that churns out 10 000 chapati’s an hour. It was a remarkable operation that has obviously been refined through the hundreds of years they have been serving meals. Finally, we reached the dishwashing area where each item is washed six different times to maintain a safe level of hygiene.

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Our tour guide then ran through some of the philosophies of Sikhism such as believing in one creator God, equality for all mankind, serving both the community and God, and striving towards inner peace and happiness. On the flipside, the Sikhs are known to be fierce warriors, defending their territories and people at any cost. If you are baptized in the Sikh religion you are given a dagger which you must wear at all times to show your dedication to protecting your family and beliefs. It seems a bit ironic to me the contrasting aspects of their religious beliefs and goals and the willingness to engage in conflict, but admirable none the less. The tour guide told us numerous fables highlighting the Sikh faith, none of which I can recite in full, and elaborated on some of the principles I mentioned above. This one paragraph barely grazes the surface of the religion, but are aspects that I particularly admired and wanted to share. We learned a lot and gained an immense amount of respect for the Sikh people during our visit.

After our meal and tour of the Langar we secured seats for the evening ceremony, called Palki Sahib, where the Guru Granth Sahib is put to bed. As I mentioned previously the Sikhs consider the book to be a living Guru, and as such they put it to bed each evening and wake it up each morning. As the ceremony began the people who had gathered began singing and chanting passages from the scripture , the speed and sound of the chants increasing fervently as the book approached the hall. As the book passed, everyone rose to their feet, magnetized by the chanting and perhaps, the power of the book itself. The bed for the book was more luxurious than any bed Chris and I have slept in in the previous 9 months. Having tucked the book in, they closed the doors to the room to the hoards of people trying to push their way as close as possible to the sacred text.

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The following day Chris and I signed up to do the food tour. Amritsar is one of the gastronomic capitals of India, and both Chris and I were keen to try some of the regions specialties. We hit numerous restaurants, food stands, and drink shops during the 4-hour tour, and were nearly unable to walk by the end of it. Our favorites were kulcha, a naan like bread that is baked in a clay oven until golden brown then lathered in butter and served with chickpea curry, and the lassi served with ghee (clarified butter). We stopped at one of the restaurants Anthony Bordain ate at during his episode of ‘Parts Unknown’ called Kesar Da Dhaba, enjoying the veg thali as much as he did. We highly recommend you do the food tour if you are in Amritsar, you try such a variety of foods from a variety of places that otherwise you may not have the courage to enter.

We spent the remainder of the day relaxing before we had to head to Roorkee for the start of the wedding festivities. I will cover the weddings in my next post.

Cheers!

Nepal

Hello everyone!

I will begin my post describing the saga that took place to make it to Nepal.

From Varanasi it is only a 10 hour bus ride to the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu. However, as you may or may not have read in the news, Nepal instituted a constitution for the first time in their history the week before we were scheduled to arrive in Nepal. Some of the minority groups feel the constitution marginalizes them, and thus began protesting. The majority of these groups live along the border of India, and subsequently India closed the borders due to the unrest. Furthermore, India began enforcing restrictions on what vehicles could cross the border, severely limiting supplies and petrol to Nepal. India blames the unrest, Nepal blames India and says they are enforcing this embargo to force Nepal to revise the constitution, and unfortunately it is a lose-lose for Nepal. As we were unable to cross via land border we had to book a last minute flight from Delhi to Kathmandu. This meant we had to board a 16-hour night train from Varanasi to Delhi in order to catch our flight. We booked a train that was due to arrive at 6:10 am, and our flight was at 11:05 am, leaving us a 5-hour window to make our way from the train station to the airport via the metro system. We figured even if the train was two hours late we would still have plenty of time to make the flight. To that point the latest any of the trains we had taken had been was an hour and a half, leaving us feeling confident there would be no issues.

We awoke on the train twenty minutes before we were scheduled to arrive and asked someone how far we were from Delhi and they told us two hours. We were a bit alarmed, and hoped perhaps there was a translation issue and they misunderstood our question. The next two hours passed painstakingly slow as at each station we peered hopefully out the window to see the station name. Two hours came and went, and we still hadn’t arrived. We were growing more and more concerned and began discussing what the latest time we could arrive and still potentially make the flight. An hour later (a total of 3 hours and 15 minutes late) we pulled into the Delhi station and took off in full sprint to the metro station. Our chances of making our flight were very slim, but we thought it was worth a shot. Our mad dash had us weaving in and out of the hoards of people making their way to work, slipping and sliding on the freshly polished tile floor (treads on our shoes are all but nonexistent). All was going fine until we were flying down a set of stairs, and as I had a bag on my back and one on my front I was unable to see the steps, and I missed the bottom stair and absolutely wiped out, twisting my ankle majorly in the process. The two bags also make it impossible to get up on my own, I was a bit like a turtle found on my back, and luckily some nice Indian men stopped and helped me up as Chris was too far ahead of me to even realize anything was amiss. When he turned around I was limping towards him shouting that I had fallen and twisted my ankle. He [thankfully] took one of my bags and we were off again, albeit slightly slower. We made it onto the airport express metro train at 9:34 am and prayed we would be able to make it. Arriving to the airport terminal meant another mad dash to try and find our counter to check-in at, which we successfully did at 10:01, an hour and four minutes before the flight was to leave. All of the counters had closed, but one of the attendants thankfully allowed us to check-in, encouraging us to hurry as boarding was about to start. We were in disbelief that we had done it, thanked her profusely, and hurried to passport control and security. We cleared both and arrived to our gate as they announced they were beginning boarding. We finally let out a sigh of relief, high-fived, and collapsed into our seats on the plane. I imagine that is what it would feel like to be on the Amazing Race, it was quite the adrenaline rush.

The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes, just enough time to purchase something to eat as we hadn’t eaten since dinner the evening prior. We landed in Kathmandu and had to organize our visa on arrival. We were really surprised at how efficient the process was, they had just implemented 5 kiosks where you filled in your details, had a picture taken with a webcam, and received a printed receipt. You then took that receipt to a counter where you paid the visa fee, which you were able to do with a credit card! You then took both these receipts to a counter where an immigration officer filled out your visa and stuck it in your passport. I was very impressed with how easy to process was.

We had organzied an airport pickup with our guesthouse as we were concerned with the petrol shortage there would be no taxis. We were very glad we had done this as it would have cost us an arm and leg to get a taxi at the airport. We arrived to our guesthouse, had a quick shower, and then headed out to explore and have a bite to eat. We were staying in the backpacker area of Thamel where you can find anything and everything you may need for your trek. Immediately we noticed how quiet the roads were, especially coming from India. It was rather eery as Kathmandu is meant to be a bit like India in terms of how busy the roads are and the incessant honking. Also, the air pollution in Kathmandu is suppose to be horrendous, but we did not notice any of these things during our stay, likely due to the petrol shortage. We found a place with a good happy hour special and gratefully ordered two celebratory beers. We were absolutely smashed from the previous 36 hours of travel so it was a very early night for the two of us.

The next morning was an early one as we had arranged a bus to get to Pokhara as we were concerned the buses were going to stop running soon due to the lack of fuel. Taxis were not an option to get to the bus station as the rates had already been enflated by two or three times the regular price, so our guesthouse owner had his brother walk us to the station. The bus companies had all banded together and combined their patrons to fill one bus. We left promptly and began the slow journey towards Pokhara. The bus made frequent stops to pick people up or drop them off within Kathmandu, it took us over an hour just to get out of the city. Once on the road we stopped what felt like every 15-20 kms for chai, bathroom breaks, snack breaks, or lunch breaks. The drive was beautiful along the river, but it honestly felt like we would just get going and it would be time for another break! About half-way through the journey I began to feel unwell, and my nausea intensified as the journey continued. By the time we made it to Pokhara I was in a panic as I knew I had some sort of food poisoning that was about to come to a head very shortly. We took an exorbitantly priced taxi to our guesthouse where I sprinted to our room and confined myself to the bathroom. Needless to say, I spent the remainder of the day in bed.

The following day I was feeling much better and was able to eat breakfast without any issues. We headed to the trekking permit office to organize our trekking permits for the following day. This process was seamless and efficient. We needed two permits; one was for entry into the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACAP), and the other was the Trekkers Information Management System Permit (TIMS card). You need two passport photos for each permit, as well as to show your passport. Having completed this we headed to a bookshop to purchase a trekking map and then met with the owner of our guesthouse (Pushpa Guesthouse) to go over our trekking route. He was a guide for over 20 years and could have told us the route with his eyes closed. He made us feel very at ease about going on our own without a guide or porter. With our route finalized we packed our bags, bought a trekking pole each, had a good supper, and headed to bed early in anticipation of departing the next day.

We showed up at the bus station the next morning at 6:20 am and were ushered onto a bus that was packed and seemingly ready to go. We were pleased with our timing, until the driver turned the key in the ignition and the bus sputtered and died. He happily announced “No Fuel!” and everyone began disembarking the bus without any objections. Another bus then pulled in and we were told that bus would be leaving at 7:30 for Nayapol, the town at the start of our hike. We sat on the bus for over an hour before we were told the bus wasn’t full enough to leave, that only when it was full would it go. A few other hikers had boarded the bus with us and we joined together and approached a taxi driver to enquire about sharing a taxi to the start of the hike. It was double the price as the bus per person, but seeing as it could take hours for the bus to fill we decided to go with the taxi. The drive was beautiful, and the taxi driver definitely earned his wage as the roads were awful. We arrived to Nayapol an hour and 10 minutes later, more than an hour quicker than the bus would have taken. We thanked the taxi driver and headed down the path to begin our hike. We were filled with anticipation and excitement to finally be on the trail after all of the uncertainty about whether we would be able to make it Nepal, let alone be able to hike.

Day 1 Summary: 5 hours hike from Nayapul elevation: 1070 meters to Ulleri elevation: 2020 meters. Total elevation gain: 950 meters Where we spent the night: The Super View Guesthouse & Restaurant
Total Daily expenditure for both of us : $38.25 CAD

We reached the ACAP and TIMS checkpoints after about 20 minutes of walking and signed into the conservation area. Having made things official, we set off under the blazing heat of the sun. The temperature soared in the 30°s despite it only being 9:30 am. I realized fairly early into the hike that I had perhaps over estimated my recovery after my bout of food poisoning only a day earlier. I was feeling quite weak as I still hadn’t found my appetite and had very little to eat in the previous 24 hours. Luckily, the trail is dotted with teahouses and we were able to stop frequently for breaks to refuel with sodas or snacks. The first few hours were overall uphill, but had flat sections as well as several downhill sections. The guesthouse owner had mentioned there was a section of the trail where you climbed 3,200 stairs, but I was under the impression they were on day 2, not day 1. By the time we were half way though the stairs I finally admitted to myself that the stairs were in fact, on day 1. I struggled up the stairs needing frequent breaks where I would collapse for a rest and water. It was not one of my finest days hiking, I was elated when we reached our final destination for the day, Ulleri. We stayed at The Super View Guesthouse and Restaurant, in their new building which had wonderfully hot water and very clean rooms. Our room had a spectacular view (as the name implies), and the rooftop restaurant was lovely. Over dinner we shared a table with Fran and Charles, a couple from England, who we got on famously with. Fran had spent several years backpacking before meeting Charles so we had a lovely time hearing her travel experiences. The evening passed quickly with stellar conversation and warm drinks. We retired to bed very early as we [mostly me] were entirely spent from the first day on the trail.
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The trail the entire day was very easy and straight forward, there were no confusing bits or parts you could get lost on.

Day 2 Summary: 3 hours hike from Ulleri (2020m) to Ghorepani elevation: 2860 meters Total elevation gain: 840 meters Where we spent the night: Nice View Guesthouse located on the way to Poon Hill, has a beautiful balcony with picnic tables
Total daily expenditure for both of us: $36 CAD

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I awoke feeling infinitely better than I had the day before, and was ready to tackle the day. We had an early breakfast and hit the trail shortly after to get ahead of everyone else staying in Ulleri. The first half an hour we had to climb more stairs, but thankfully after that the trail was relatively flat and through the cover of the jungle. It was very easy compared to the previous day, and we were extremely surprised how quickly we ended up smashing it out when we asked a porter on the trail how far to Ghorepani and he said 20 minutes, when we thought we had an additional two hours to go. Overall we ended up finishing the day in 3 hours, when the suggested time is 5 hours. We had lunch at the first guesthouse you reach in Lower Ghorepani and the Dal Bhat and pancakes were fantastic, we recommend having lunch there! We continued on to Upper Ghorepani and checked out numerous guesthouses before settling on Nice View Guesthouse (notice a theme with the names of the guesthouses) which is on the way up to Poon Hill, and has a lovely balcony with patio tables at the front. We stayed in the best room in the house, room #6, which had windows 180° of windows with spectacular views, check out the picture below! The food here was also great, we definitely recommend staying here. We met Robert, from New Brunswick, at this guesthouse and had a lovely evening chatting. We couldn’t help remark how slim the chances of us three maritimers meeting in the Himalayas was, but there we were!

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Day 3 Summary: Sunrise trek from Ghorepani to Poon Hill elevation: 3210 meters: 45 minutes up and 25 minutes down. Then we continued on to Tadapani elevation: 2630 meters (via Deurali Pass at 3090 meters but at some points on the trail we reached over 3200 meters): 3 hours and 15 mins Total elevation change: A decrease in elevation of 230 meters Where we spent the evening: Panorama Point Guesthouse
Total daily expenditure for both of us: $44.13

Day 3 had a very early start as we wanted to be at the top of Poon Hill for sunrise. We set out guided by the light of our headtorches at 4:45am, along with almost every other tourist staying in Ghorepani. It was all worth it when we got to the top and there was a small stand selling hot drinks. We settled in with our coffees and waited for the sun to peak up over the mountains and illuminate them for us, and more importantly, warm us up. I love the feeling of waiting for the sun to rise, it feels like a fresh start and when those first beams hit your face it is nothing short of perfect. We stayed for as long as possible up there, and in no time at all the throngs of the other tourists left due to the cold or their grumbling stomachs and we found we had the place basically ti ourselves. Chris got some incredible shots from up there, check them out below!

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We reluctantly began to make our way down, relishing in the views for as long as possible. We had breakfast at our guesthouse, packed up, and then hit the trail for Tadapani. We had to climb our way up to Deurali Pass at 3090 meters, which was an effort after having already climbed to Poon Hill! At the top the views, in our opinion, were even better than at Poon Hill. If I had a do-over, I would aim to be at the top of the pass for sunrise as you would definitely have the place to yourself, and shave off 45 minutes of steep uphill climb from your day! After the pass it was flat for a while, before we began our steep descent to the river. Going down requires much more concentration, and is much harder on your legs. It seemed to be never-ending, but we finally made it and stopped for a coca-cola and a toastie. We set off for Tadapani, knowing we would have to climb our way back up from the river. We were astonished when we arrived in Tadapani 45 minutes later, an hour and 45 minutes ahead of schedule! We had only been hiking for 3 hours and 15 minutes (excluding the Poon Hill hike) and could have pressed on, but the views from Panorama Point Guesthouse were too good to leave. We had a fantastic lunch of spring rolls, chips and salad taking in the view. The menus at all of the guesthouses are government regulated so they cannot undercut one another, but in doing so every single guesthouse has the exact same menu, with prices increasing with the altitude. The execution of the menus varied greatly, with the only reliable option being Dal Bhat (traditional meal). However, these spring rolls rocked, make sure to order them it you find yourself at Panorama Point! Shower was hot, and the rooms satisfactory. The evening dining hall had a glorious wood fire that they kept going all night, keeping you toasty warm over dinner. Chris had the mushroom enchilada, a specialty item they offered, and said it was the best enchilada he had ever had!

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Day 4 Summary: 5.5 hours hike from Tadapani to Upper Sinuwa 2360 metersTotal elevation change: A decrease in 270 meters Where we spent the evening: At the second guesthouse you encounter when you reach Upper Sinuwa (the middle one) called Sinuwa Lodge and Restaurant Total daily expenditure for both of us: $48.13 CAD

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Do not be deceived by the total elevation change in the summary, this was a very hard day that had more uphill climbing than down. The day started with a further descent from Tadapani to our first suspension bridge, then a climb from the bridge to upper Chhomrong, then a steep descent to Chhomrong. We stopped along the way for lunch at Chhomrong Cottage and were so, so happy we did. We had a pizza each that was perfectly executed thin crust pizza (the mushroom pizza was especially nice), and to top it off we shared a slice of their Chocolate Cake that Time Magazine wrote about in 2010 calling it the ‘Best Chocolate Cake in Asia.’ It was devine,true chocolate cake that was exactly what we needed. Her bean burritos were also mentioned in the Time article and we were sad we missed trying them. You must stop for at least lunch and chocolate cake (their tea is delicious as well) on the way, and if you are planning to stay in Chhomrong I would suggest there as the rooms looked very nice. It had been recommended that we stay in Chhomrong by the guesthouse owner in Pokhara, but we wanted to push on to shorten our next day. With full bellies we headed out to finish the steep descent and the very steep ascent to Sinuwa. When we reached Lower Sinuwa we could see Upper and it looked about only 30 more minutes away. We decided to press on, which we would regret. It took an hour and ten minutes to reach Upper Sinuwa,in the direct heat of the afternoon sun. It was entirely uphill, and we were both gassed from covering so much ground already. In total the day is recommended to take 8 hours to finish, and we did it in 5.5 hours. We were grateful to collapse on our beds and take an afternoon catnap. The guesthouse we stayed in was the second on you come to, and had hot showers, pleasant rooms, and decent food. We were in bed very early after such a grueling day.

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Day 5 Summary: 4.5 hours hike from Upper Sinuwa to Dureli 3200 meters Total elevation change: Ascended 849 meters Where we spent the evening: At Deureli Guesthouse and Lodge at the very top of Deureli, away from all the other guesthouses Total daily expenditure for both of us: $39.13

We hit the trail early as there was a large group of French people we kept running into on the trail also staying in Sinuwa that we wanted to get ahead of. I must make mention here of ethical tourism in regards to trekking; if you are going to hire a porter it is your responsibility to abide by the recommendation to keep your bag that is to be carried by the porter to a maximum of 20 kg. The French group had a blatant disregard for this and had loaded their porters to the absolute brink of what was humanly possible, with full charcuterie boards and bottles and bottles of wine from France that they would bring out each evening. I would estimate the porters were easily carrying 40-60 kilograms each. Two women we ran into on the trail had confronted the group about this and how they morally could do this, and they defended themselves by saying it was the company they went with cutting corners by not providing enough porters. This is not an acceptable excuse coming from people from first world countries. It is our duty to demand that companies abide by these rules and regulations, and that most importantly we abide by them! It is ridiculous claim you can do nothing when you have your bottles of fine wine and cheese packed safely in these bags. I was infuriated by their ignorance and lack of disregard for their porters. If you do chose to employ a porter or guide or both, please be an ethical trekker and keep your bag below 20 kg. Leave the wine at home, and eat local.

With that rant aside, day 5 was a much nicer day than day 4, with the gains in altitude being very gradual, with the terrain being over-all flat. We arrived to Himalaya, our original destination for the day, by 10:00 am and instead decided to have a snack and press on to Deurali. We made it to Deurali by lunch time, hiking for a total of 4.5 hours and covering a distance that should have taken 7-8 hours. We wanted to stop in Deurali as it is the perfect place to stop before heading to basecamp, if your intention is to spend the night at basecamp as ours was. There are several guesthouses clumped together in Deurali, and then one single guesthouse at the top of a steep hill above the others. We decided to head up to the guesthouse at the top of the hill to save ourselves the hill the next day. We were the first ones who arrived and easily obtained a room. We spent the day lazing in the sun. They have no proper shower, only a bucket with a hose, but the water that comes from the hose is warm. The rooms were the most basic we had encountered thus far, simply sheets of plywood. The food was acceptable at best. What really put the nail in the coffin for the guesthouse for us however, was when we went to go to bed they refused to provide us with a blanket as they said they had too many Nepalese guides and porters, there werent’t enough for us as well as them. We attempted to sleep with all of our clothes on in our sleeping bags, but it was just too cold. I went out and begged one of the worker for blankets, which he begrudgingly gave us one. We really felt we were being punished by this guesthouse for not having a guide or porter, despite the fact it had nothing to do with the guesthouse! We spent just as much money, or more, than those who had guides/porters. We were really disgusted with this uncharacteristic behavior from the owner. I would not recommend staying at that guesthouse. The only good thing that came out of us staying there was we met Nile and Sophie, a brilliant couple from England who we got on with like a house on fire!

Day 6: Dureli to Annapurna Base camp(ABC): Dureli to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) elevation: 3700 meters 1 hour 20 mins hiking. MCB to ABC 1 hour 10 minutes hiking elevation: 4130 meters Total Elevation change: Ascended 930 meters. Where we spent the night: Annapurna Guesthouse which is the first guesthousr on the right when you get to the top of the stairs Total expenditure for both of us for the day: $60.75

Our day started very early as we were concerned about getting a room at ABC as Nile and Soph’s guide informed us it was going to be very busy up there. We hit the trail at 6:30 am and had a few gentle rolling hills before a 20 minute flat section along the river. We then ascended 500 meters to MBC, where we stopped to have a tea and share a snickers. The sun still hadn’t gotten over the monstrous mountains, making it a very chilly hike. As we departed MBC the sun peaked over the mountains, warming our frigid hands and faces. The walk from MBC to ABC was much easier than I had been anticipating, perhaps because of the breathtaking 360° view on the way. We stopped several times for photos, as well as to pause to take things in. We were joined by two Nepalese mountain dogs for one section of the walk, and I was tempted to take them home. They are similar in look to Bernese Mountain Dogs but are much smaller. I loved meeting them on the trail as they were always friendly and looking for a pet or two on your way past. We reached ABC at 9:30 am after 2 hours 45 minutes trekking (1 hour and 30 minutes quicker than the suggested times) arranged our room at Annapurna Guesthouse and Restaurant (making sure we would be given blankets) and headed out to snap pictures before the clouds rolled in. By 10:00 am the clouds completely obscured the mountains, you would have no idea the were looming behind them if you hadn’t seen them prior.

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The above quote is found at ABC at reads:

The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve,
they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.

I love that, it resonates deeply with me.
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Soph and Nile arrived shortly thereafter and we spent the day chatting and playing cards. The guesthouse food was delicious, and we treated ourselves with hot chocolate throughout the day. Best of all, the dining area was toasty warm. By early evening it began to snow, continuing off and on until we went to bed that evening. Most people sleep at MBC, hike to ABC early in the morning, spend a few hours there and then begin their hike out. We felt this to be a waste as the pinnacle of the hike is to reach ABC! We thoroughly enjoyed our day there and recommend completing the hike this way, so long as you do okay at altitude.

Day 7 Summary: 4.5 hours hiking from ABC elevation: 4130 meters to High Sinuwa elevation 2360 meters Total elevation change: Descended 1770 meters

We awoke for sunrise at ABC and were amazed by the overnight transformation; it had evidently snowed all evening, having a dramatic effect on the landscape in making itseem much more barren. We snapped endless pictures as the lighting changed with the rising sun. We then had breakfast, took our last photos, and set out. We stopped several more times along the way, the lighting and setting were just too good!

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Although getting down is much quicker than going up, it is mentally and physically draining. We made it all the way to Bamboo, had a quick lunch, and pressed on to High Sinuwa. This time we stayed at the last guesthouse of three (Based on a recommendation from Soph and nile), where the rooms were much nicer than where we previously stayed and we had the best shower of the entire trek. Nile and Soph ended up staying there as well, so our card games and banter continued for another evening. Some people experience runners high, while I can say I definitely experience hikers high. When you finish for the day, take off your boots, have a warm shower, and sit down for the evening with a warm drink and good company there is no better feeling. My feet took an absolute beating throughout the day on the downhill, and two blisters that had previously been surface level were several layers deep and had been joined by 4 black toenails. I have owned my boots for 2 years and hiked extensively with them, and they had given me some grief in the past, but nothing ever to this extent. My feet throbbed as we sat playing cards, and I began to worry about the next few days of hiking.

Day 8: 5.5 hours of hiking from high Sinuwa to Siwai elevation: 1390 meters Total elevation change: We descended 970 meters Where we spent the night: We made it back to Pokhara and stayed at our original guesthouse, Pushpa.

My concerns regarding my feet were confirmed when I awoke for day 8 of our hike. Chris and I tried to affix bandages and padding as best we could, stuffed kleenex in the toes of my boots, and tied them as right as possible. These things did pretty much nothing to ease my discomfort, but there are no alternative options to get out of the mountains so I told myself I just had to suck it up. Chris tried to convince me to get out over several days so each day we only had to hike a few hours, but this would just make things worse as getting my boots on and my feet moving were the hardest part, stopping frequently made it worse. We set off with the intention to make it as far as feasible. I limped along the trail, thankful for the aid of my trekking pole, running at certain points as it hurt less to run than to walk. People we met on their way up must have thought I was absolutely mental but at that point I really didn’t care. We made it all the way to New Bridge before breaking for lunch, pleased with our progress with my troublesome feet. During lunch a single porter and one client stopped to eat lunch as well, and the porter began inquiring where we were headed. He mentioned they intended to make it back go Pokhara that day, which made my ears perk. He said they were going to go to Siwai, a further two hours walk, and try to arrange a jeep and he invited us along to share the jeep as prices were likely go be high due to the continued petrol shortage. I was ecstatic as that meant we would finish a day early, and we would be cutting several hours of hiking off by taking the jeep which I would desperately benefit from. We headed out together after lunch and I was determined to just put one foot infront of the other to make it to Siwai. We arrived after an hour and thirty-five minutes and I was thanking my lucky stars I was able to guts it out as we were able to arrange a taxi. It cost an exorbitant amount of money for Nepalese standards, but due to the petrol shortage we didn’t have much bargaining power, and frankly I really didn’t care the price.

Chris and I were both so relieved to make it back to Pokhara after the hair raising two hour taxi ourney. We quickly showered and headed out for pizza and beers to celebrate completing the trek. We ended up at Godfathers Pizza where the pizza was so good we spent the next 4 evenings there as well, taking both Fran and Charles and Sophie and Nile there for dinner when they each finished their treks. I really don’t have anything interesting to describe about our days post-trek as they were spent recovering. The only things I will mention is we moved guesthouses to Sacred Valley Inn which was beautiful and very comfortable, and we had breakfast each morning at AM/PM Cafe which was devine.

Overall trek tips:
1.Bring your own tea bags, coffee or hot chocolate as the higher you go the more expensive they are, but a cup of hot water is very cheap.
2. Bring filter tablets, liquid or a bottle that can filter as plastic bottles are not allowed in the Annapurna Conservation Area
3. Bring toilet paper
4. Bring duct tape and gauze for blister repair, and if in doubt about your boots don’t be cheap, buy new ones (trust me)
5. Bring a sleeping bag, even if it is a lightweight one graded for only 5-8 degrees. That is all we had, and when combined with the blankets provided it was perfect. Also, that way the mildew smelling blankets don’t actually touch you.
6. A quick dry towel is a must
7. Bring enough socks that you will have a dry pair each day
8. Oral rehydration salts are a good way to keep hydrated at the end of the hiking day, bring satchels from home
9. Make sure your pack is lightweight enough you can carry it for the entire day without being sore
10. If you are an experienced hiker who has extensive experience with long-distance treks and has spent significant amount of time at altitude, don’t be afraid to go alone. The path is incredibly well defined, you would really have to duff it to lose it. You don’t need to carry food as the teahouses are so plentiful along the trail.

******On that note, we encountered two guides who were absolutely fantastic with their clients (Our friends Nile/Soph and Fran/Charles). If you are looking for a guide/porter I highly recommend contacting either of the two listed below, they are top notch! They helped us and went above and being in doing so as we were individual hikers. Also, our friends both had very positive experiences with them. (I am not receiving any compensation for writing this, they were awesome so I offered to mention them!)

1. Ramchandra subedi (Ram)
Email: ramchandra_12@yahoo.com
Contact number: +977 9846280962 Government register number: 512
2. Dilip Trekking Guide
Email: bhandarik12@yahoo.com
Contacr number: +9856026872

Phew, what a post! The trek was one of our best travel experiences, I could go on for ages about how amazing it was. The only way you can possibly understand it is to make your way to Nepal and experience it yourself. I highly, highly recommend doing so. Nepal is perfectly safe, and the people are among the friendliest we have encountered. They need tourists to return as so much of the country is dependent on our revenue. In the short two weeks we have spent here, Nepal has become one of our all time favorite countries. Book your ticket, plan your trek, and discover it for yourself. You won’t regret it!

India: Part 6

Hi Everyone!

From Agra we decided to go a little bit off the beaten path by heading to a small town called Orchha. It is mentioned in the Lonely Planet book as a ‘hidden gem,’ and after the hustle and bustle of Agra we decided it would be worth a visit. To get there we took a train to a town called Jhansi, and then took a richshaw the 30 kms from Jhansi to Orchha. If that sounds like a massive distance for a rickshaw, it is because it is. I was certain we weren’t going to make it, but our driver got us there safe and sound after an exhilarating hour ride.

We made it to Orchha by late afternoon and were immediately pleased with our decision. It is a small town that is very peaceful and haggle free. We had a quick bite to eat at a restaurant that overlooked both the palace and the temple, and couldn’t help but be taken aback by the beauty within such a small area. As we had decided to move faster through India we really only had the rest of the day and the following morning to explore, so we made the most of our time and headed to the palace first. It was actually two palaces in one complex, one of the palaces was built to “out-do” the other. The first palace is renowned for its original paintings found on the walls within. We had fun exploring the different rooms and levels of the palace, ending up at the top with spectacular views of the sun setting over the temple. I must admit, I was infinitely more impressed exploring this palace and viewing the paintings in the rooms than I was exploring the Taj Mahal. Perhaps it was the fact my expectations were lower, or we were really the only tourists there. Either way, I think it is a must visit!

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We made our way to the second palace and couldn’t help but notice a flurry of activity as we made our way up the stairs to the main courtyard. When we reached the courtyard we were dumbfounded; the entire place had been transformed into a set for a movie or music video (we couldn’t tell which). There were colorful tapestries hanging from the royal balconies on the upper levels of the courtyard, giving us a glimpse into how impressive the palace would have been at the height of its empire. People were dressed in old school traditional battle gear and dotted the periphery of the courtyard. At the centre of it all was a very buff, young Indian guy who was clearly the star of the show. We headed to the Royal balcony for a birds eye view of the activities below.

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After visiting the palaces we made our way over to the temple in the centre of the town. The stairs leading up to the temple were occupied by varying sizes of monkeys who gave us lazy glances as we walked past. Several had very young babies who looked very much like little aliens and were very inquisitive of us.

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The temple was much more impessive from the outside than the inside, so we had a quick look around before heading back out. We decided we still had time to walk to the cenotaphs (memorials) on the outside of town and headed there for sunset. Along the way we had excellent views of the temple in the evening light.

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The cenotaphs and the grounds they were located on were so peaceful, aside from a few locals we were the only people there. We relished in the quiet, serene atmosphere that is so difficult to comeby in India.

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We reluctantly headed back into town from our haven and had a quick dinner before hitting the hay. The next day we leisurely awoke and had a late breakfast before having to make our way back to Jhansi to catch our train to our next destination, Khajuraho.

We arrived to the train station with plenty of time to spare before our train departed, so we killed time by hanging out in the ‘Upper class’ waiting room. Each railway station has one of these waiting rooms, or a tourist specific room, which make waiting a much more comfortable experience. I suggest you seek out these rooms if you have time to kill at a station!

With about 15 minutes before our train was about to depart we checked the board one last time to ensure there were no delays before making our way down to the platform. Jhansi is not a tourist destination and as such we were quite the anomaly to the local people also waiting for trains. As I mentioned in previous posts the men have an uncanny ability to stare for prolonged periods of time, and this was to be the worst bout of staring yet. In no time at all I had an audience of about 20 men in a semi-circle surrounding Chris and I on the platform. Chris moved infront of me to try and shield me from them, and they simply all shifted a few meters to the right to regain their view. This dance continued for a painstaking hour and twenty minutes as our train was unfortunately delayed. It was quite humorous as they were neither deterred nor embarrassed by Chris’s attempts to shield me from view. Chris had to leave me unguarded for a few minutes to go and check the board to see what was going on with the train, and I cracked it at one young gentleman who came to close in his transfixed state. I told him very loudly and firmly to “Go away and STOP staring at me,” which he looked to his friend to translate. When his friend translated what I said (with a sly smile) the man gave me a terrified look and ran away. The train finally arrived and we quickly boarded to get away from the leering men. We had to purchase air-conditioned 2nd class tickets as everything else was sold out. This ended up being a blessing in disguise as there are curtains with each bunk in 2AC, giving me the privacy I so desperately needed after my time spent on the platform. The ride went by smoothly under my veil of secrecy, and we arrived to Khajuraho at 11 pm. We caught a rickshaw into our hotel, and a quick bite to eat, and headed to bed after our long day.

The following day was started at a small cafe that served dosas, which are fermented crepes made of rice batter that are then stuffed with ingredients. Dosas are a staple food in Southern India. We opted for egg, cheese and veg stuffed dosas and they were delectable as well as extremely filling. Having fueled up for the day we headed for the Jain and Hindu Temples found within the city that were the draw to visiting. The temples are famous for their architecture, and specifically their erotic sculptures and symbolism. Chris and I were two of only a handful of tourists visiting the temples which was remarkable as the temples were incredible. While the draw for most is to see the naughty sculptures, they account for less than 10% of the architecture in the complex. They also aren’t made prominent or emphasized; they are simply dispersed among the other sculptures. These temples were a highlight for our time in India, they impressed us majorly with their intricate designs and intriguing interiors.

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After visiting the main temples located within the town we arranged a rickshaw to bring us to the remaining temples that are scattered around the surrounding countryside. This was a valuable experience in itself as we were able to drive through many small villages and our driver told us a bit of life in these rural areas. In this specific area the caste system has a very predominant role in society; there are different schools, hospitals, stores etc. for each caste and they are unable to move within the different caste systems, they must go to their corresponding sector based on which caste they are (i.e. you couldn’t go to an upper caste hospital if the services are better). This was the first we had heard of such extreme segregation among the castes. We visited the surrounding temples, some of which were less impressive than the main temples, and some which were more impressive. It took several hours and all we had to pay for was the rickshaw as these temples are free to enter. I do think they are worth visiting, even if you are strapped for time.

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The rest of the evening was spent having a leisurely dinner and then killing time until our night train to Varanasi that departed at 11:00 pm.

We arrived to Varanasi mid-morning and caught a rickshaw that could bring us only part of the way to our guesthouse as vehicles aren’t allowed within several hundred meters of the holy ghats. While driving we noticed a definite level of madness surrounding us, especially coming from two very small and quiet towns. Our driver dropped us at the limit for vehicles and we began our walk to our guesthouse. This sounds like a simple task, but we were harassed by people every step of the way. Eventually a guy took it upon himself to lead us to our guesthouse, which was actually helpful as the streets were so winding and chaotic I doubt we would have found it otherwise. By this point I was hot and sweaty from the walk in the sweltering heat, fed up with having to shout ‘No, thank you’ every two seconds to people we passed trying to sell us things, and just wanting to arrive to our guesthouse. As we continued our never-ending walk I had the unfortunate luck of having my foot spat on by a man rinsing his mouth with water. When I thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, I passed by a bull in an impossibly narrow street that began to urinate just as I was at its rear, adding cow pee to my already spat on foot (and leg). This was one of those moments I proclaimed , “F****** India!!!!!!!” and resolved to leave the god forsaken country for once and all. However, two minutes later we arrived at our guesthouse and I promptly had a shower and some food, and things didn’t seem quite as dire as they had, on the contrary I was able to find the humour in the situation.

Chris and I decided to spend the afternoon walking the length of the river along the different ghats. A bit of information about Varanasi before I delve into describing our experience; it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it is the holiest city of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and the Ganges (or Ganga) river flows through its centre and is the most sacred river to Hindus. Hindus believe that dying in the city will bring salvation, making it a major pilgrimage site. Cremation takes place at several ghats, and the ashes are spread in the Ganges. The remaining ghats are bathing ghats or are used for spiritual rituals and ceramonies. A dip in the sacred water is believed to remit sins.

The Ganges basin is home to 37% of Indias population. The city of Varanasi alone dumps 200 million liters of untreated human waste into the Ganges every day, and the total amount of untreated sewage from the entire population that lives along the ganges is estimated to be 1.3 billion litres per day. People who cannot afford all of the wood required to be fully cremated are put into the water to finish decomposing, or certain people (unwed girls, young boys, etc) are not cremated at all but rather floated down the river to decompose naturally. Cows and stray animals use the water to bathe, drink and defecate. Dead cattle carcases are also thrown into the river by farmers. It is estimated that the peak values of fecal coliforms is 100 million per 100 mLs, more than 200,000 times the recommended limit for bathing. A superbug resistant to antibiotics has been linked to the river and sourced as causing the spread of the bug. Further, chemicals from mines, plants and farms are also dumped into the river polluting it with toxins such as mercury, lead etc. These are just some of the issues the Ganges river faces, there are numous reports documenting the full extent of the pollution and the efforts to clean up the river with a quick google search.

Bearing all of that in mind, we walked along the ghats observing people going about their bathing rituals, or performing spiritual rituals in the water. It was apparent how contaminated the water was just by looking at it, it seemed more like a sludge than a free-flowing body of water. It actually made my stomach do a bit of a turn watching people dive into the water and come up with big mouthfuls of water that they would spit out when they surfaced. Especially when they surfaced next to a cow having a dip as well. On our walk we were approached constantly by men asking if we wanted a river cruise, and when we declined they would follow-up by offering to sell us opium. The Holiness of the city seems to be a bit lost on some people who were looking to make some extra money off tourists.

We finished our walk at the cremation ghats, with our intention to stay for only a few minutes out of respect for the families. We ended up staying even less than that as two “Holy” men attempted to do a bit of a tour and explanation for us despite us vehemently telling them [repeatedly] we didn’t want their help, we just wanted to observe things on our own. They refused to leave us alone so we began to leave, which made them begin to threaten our salvation and karma for not giving them money. It was a really awful experience as they were exploiting their religion and beliefs in such a Holy place at the expense of tourists. It was unfortunate.

That evening we headed to a ceremony at one of the largest ghats before sitting on the rooftop balcony of our guesthouse for a few hours taking in the sunset.

The next morning we woke up early to go for a sunrise boat cruise. Our boat was a complete disaster and I was absolutely terrified the entire hour ride that it was going to capsize and I would be plunged into the water. The ride did provide a wonderful perspective of the ghats and allowed us to view the morning cermonies with a front-view rather than from behind. The sunrise was also very beautiful from our little boat. I think the fear of the water for me, outweighed the benefits, but it was still a worthwhile experience.

There really is no where like Varanasi in the world, and despite all of the issues I mentioned regarding the water, we could feel the sacred appreciation of the city and water from the pilgrims. It was beautiful to watch people with such strong faith exercising their beliefs through the spiritual ritual of bathing. You could almost feel the power of their faith emenate from the water and steps of the ghats. Despite the detractors I mentioned, our experience in the Holy city was a very positive and meaningful one.

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That afternoon we boarded a train to head back to Delhi to catch our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. I will cover the saga to make our flight, and our time in Nepal, in my next post!

Cheers!

India: Part 5

Hi everyone!

Our first night bus experience was from Udaipur to Ajmer and it was what I’ve come to expect in India; madness. People piled on the bus screaming and hollering at one another, jostling to get down the aisle quicker. This never ceases to irritate me and set my jaw to clench, if only they would all be slightly more patient with one another and conduct themselves in an orderly fashion they would actually get on faster. Alas, in a country of 1.3 billion people getting ahead of the next person is the name of the game. This was particularly unfortunate for Chris who had the aisle seat and was repeatedly smashed in the head with bodies and luggage as people tried to get by. To make matters worse, people then began to lay in the aisles as there were no seats left. To get on or off the bus now meant that people had to also try and circumvent sleeping bodies as well as each other. We witnessed one poor older man get kicked in the head several times by another passenger when he failed to wake up to get out of the way. I read for the majority of the night, closing my eyes for only an hour and a half before arriving to Ajmer, the town adjacent to Pushkar where we would have to catch a local bus as no buses went direct from Udaipur.

We shook off sleep and headed into the local bus station, disregarding rickshaw drivers along the way who shouted the buses didn’t start running until 9 am. We figured out where to catch our bus and waited for it to arrive, gathering the attention of the entire station as it was a small station in a small town. Finally it showed up and the ride as well as making our way to our guesthouse were easy tasks. We were staying at Hotel Everest, and they were kind enough to give us a room to sleep in until check-in at noon.

Pushkar is one of thee five sacred dhams (pilgrimage site) for devout Hindus. Ghandhi’s ashes were spread in the lake in the middle of the town. Pushkar is also one of the oldest cities in India, and is famous for its camel fair that is held once a year.

We spent our first afternoon walking through the town, where literally every single shop on the main street is selling clothes or jewelry for tourists. This meant we were the stars of the road, as we made our way shopkeepers competed with each other to garner our attention in an effort to bring us into their shops. We headed down to the lake where “Holy” men trap you in a “blessing” and then demand you make a donation of at least 100 Rupees ($2 CAD) to guarantee good luck for your family. Feel free to roll your eyes, it appears all religions are much the same that way. We spent the rest of the day on the rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view of the city.

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The next day it was sadly my turn to be ill and I spent most of my day in the room. As unfortunate as it was it thankfully was limited to just the one day. I figured my ticket was bound to be up sooner rather than later and I was happy to have our room rather than be caught on a train or bus.

The next day I was feeling much better and we made our way to the different temples within the town. It was a frustrating affair as it felt as though people were trying to scam us at every turn, it was very draining. The moment that had me laughing through my teeth was when we went to the largest temple. At every temple you have to remove your shoes before entering, and there are always several entrepreneurs who have shelves where you can “safely” store your shoes. Being a savvy tourist I asked how much for said entrepreneur to watch over our shoes and he replied a ‘donation of whatever you feel.’ I was satisfied with this answer and Chris and I then visited the temple where a “student, NOT a guide” followed us around giving us information we neither requested or wanted, and then demanded a donation. We begrudgingly gave him some money (which he insisted wasn’t enough to ensure that ever elusive karma for our whole family) and then returned for our shoes. I handed over a generous amount of coins to the guy, and he had the nerve to say he only accepted bills! I burst out laughing as I was at my wits end at this point and told him he could take it or leave it, but under no uncertain circumstances was I giving him more. This story makes me smile now, but at the moment I was in a state of bewilderment.

We had one final temple to see, which is perched atop a hill overlooking the town and the countryside. I was in no mood for any further temple visits but I conceded to completing the hour hike up the hill to blow off some steam and take in the view. Plus, I figured there wouldn’t be as many people around, it would be a good way to find some space in the country which feels like there is no such concept. We began our ascent and I noticed several people around us beginning their walk up as well. Chris and I trudged up the steep stairs quickly in an effort to break away from the others, and to my utter dismay they quickened their pace as well. We continued this way for some time before I decided a better approach would be to stop and take a break, allowing them to go ahead. We stopped, our fellow climbers looked at us gratefully, and stopped as well, crowding around Chris and I. Several thoughts ran through my head at this point:
1. You have to be kidding me
2. They better not try and say they guided us up this hill and demand money
3. With so much open space, why have they decided to stand as close as they possibly can to us

I must say that they seemed very friendly and nice, but after the day we had battling people I just wasn’t up for another debacle. Chris and I raced up to the top, losing them about two-thirds of the way, and sat at the top for a while watching the monkeys and taking in the view. We avoided entering the temple to save ourselves the headache. We then started to make our way down, during which time we were followed by a few guys around our age who were creepy enough to be the straw that broke the camels back for me; I had full-blown, proper “I cannot handle any more India” rant, complete with stomping down the stairs as I went for effect. You may be asking yourself why I broke at this point as it wasn’t our worst day in India by far, so I will try to explain. India has a way of slowly grinding away at your patience and tolerance levels, breaking you down over the course of weeks before finally causing you to snap. Traveling in India is a very rewarding travel experience because it is so radical and full-on all the time, but it does take a toll on you over time. I like to think my rant was at least a sacred rant, after which I felt much better. Chris and I made the decision to move a bit faster after this, which turned out to be the best decision we could have made.

From Pushkar we took a 6 hour train to the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. We arrived on a Thursday evening, and the Taj is closed on Fridays so we spent our first day in Agra exploring the fort. The fort was in excellent shape, and provided excellent views of the Taj so we were happy to spend several hours walking the grounds.

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That evening we headed to a restaurant that had great sunset views of the Taj and also sold sneaky beers disguised as “Big Juices.” We had a snack and a beer while watching the sunset over the Taj, the anticipation building for our visit the next day.

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The following day we had a very early start as we wanted to be at the Taj for sunrise as it is the best time to take pictures, and it supposedly has the fewest number of tourists. When we arrived there were throngs of tourists waiting in line for tickets, so I made my way to the female only line and was able to purchase our tickets much faster than those in the regular line, much to the annoyance of a German couple (you snooze you loose). We then had to clear “security” to enter the grounds, which was the most inefficient and half-assed security attempt we have experienced. They scanned every bag and purse, but no one was looking at the screen that displayed the contents of the bags, so they then manually searched each bag! Nevertheless, we made it through and walked through the gate where we were rewarded with our first close viewing of the Taj. The week prior to our visit there was an unfortunate event of a tourist taking a selfie with the Taj that resulted in death, so part of the top viewing deck was cordoned off to prevent further injuries. We made our way further down the grounds towards the Taj where there is another viewing platform where we were able to get some spectacular photos.

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The lighting at that time of morning was perfect, but I would say that most tourists have got the memo about it being the best time to visit and you certainly won’t have it all to yourself. We enjoyed finding a (some what) secluded bench and just sitting and taking in the beauty of the Taj for a while. We then walked around the outside of the Taj, before finally entering and viewing the inside. All in all our vist was around three hours, and we really took our time. It is really hard to describe what it is like to visit the Taj, I feel a bit lackluster with my post, but I think it is something you have to see and experience for yourself.

We headed back to our room where we had breakfast in bed (what a treat!) and enjoyed the english language channels on the T.V. We had supper that evening at a restaurant called Pinch of Spice, which was definitely a tourist haunt but had massive quantities of food for a reasonable price.

The following morning we headed out early to our next destination, Orchha, which I will cover in my next post!

Cheers!

India: Part 4

Hey Everyone!

I realize how behind I am with the blog and I endeavor to get caught up before heading back to India, which I anticipate will be no issue as my feet are a disaster from the hike so I can’t go very far from bed.

We boarded our air-conditioned bus early in the morning headed from Jodhpur heading to Udaipur. We were thanking our lucky stars we had opted for the air-con bus as Chris wasn’t feeling well and had it been a normal bus the heat would have been too much for him. He ended up darting off the bus at one of the stops and being sick, and unfortunately continued in a plastic bag as the bus departed again. I felt awful for him as he is hardly ever the one to fall ill, it is usually always me. The bus ride was uneventful otherwise, beside the bus driver using the horn incessantly and unnecessarily. Even ear plugs plunged into our ears as far as possible couldn’t block out the the constant horn honking.

We arrived to Udaipur, easily negotiated a rickshaw, and headed for our guesthouse. Udaipur has been referred to as the Venice of Asia due to its location on water, and beautiful historic buildings. It is also called the ‘white city’ for its dominant coloring of the majority of the buildings. As we made our way to the guesthouse our first impression was that the city was aptly nicknamed. On first appearances it seemed to be cleaner and more regal than any of the other cities we had visited thus far.

We booked our stay at Lassi Guesthouse based on both booking.com and TripAdvisor reviews. We were not disappointed, the rooms were immaculate and comfortable. We relaxed for the afternoon, giving Chris a bit of recovery time. After a lay down and a shower he was feeling much better so we headed out to find some (non-indian) food. We stumbled across a cafe called Yummy Yoga with an offer of 2 for 1 pizza. This appealed to Chris’s uneasy stomach so we headed inside and were welcomed by blasting aircon and comfy seats. The workers were lovely and suggested a honey, ginger lemon tea for Chris that had real ginger and lemon chunks. The pizzas were small, but delicious and easy on the stomach. After our bite to eat we decided to save exploring Udaipur for the next day and headed back to our room to start watching the new TV series Narcos, which was recommended to us by fellow travelers. The show is based on Pablo Escobars life and is very interesting, I recommend it!

The following day Chris was feeling much better and we got an early start to our day, beginning with breakfast that was included in our room rate. The breakfast was located at the guesthouses restaurant, Little Prince, which is a few minute walk away from the guesthouse located on the river by a ghat. A ghat is a term used to reference a communal area (usually steps) on a public body of water that is designated for swimming, bathing, washing clothes etc. As we waited for our breakfast to arrive we watched as several local men showed up for their morning bathing ritual. The would dive into the water, swim back to the steps, lather up (I mean really lather up), and then dive back in to rinse the soap off. They would repeat this process several times before they were satisfied. They then moved on to their clothing, and spent a painstaking amount of time and effort hand-washing every inch of their clothes. While observing this over coffee I joked with Chris and asked him how much I would have to pay him to jump in the water, and without missing a beat he said $20 CAD. I was surprised by such a low number considering how filthy the water was, and just as I was about to say as much I heard a bird chirp which stopped me. Birds chirping isn’t an unusual sound here, but it was the proximity of the chirp to us and the sound being vaguely familiar to me. I leaned forward in my chair just in time to see a newcomer to the ghat dunk the cage of his pet parrot into the water, and proceed to scrub the bottom of the cage as the bird sat unperturbed on its perch in the cage. I looked back at Chris with a raised eyebrow, and he quipped that perhaps he would need to rethink his price.

After our delightful spanish breakfast consisting of a cheese omlete, spiced potato wedges and toast, we set off to find a clothing boutique Chris had found online that specialized in tailoring mens dress clothes. The boutique, Namaste, is rated number one for all shopping in the area and had raving reviews of the quality of the clothes made. We were welcomed warmly by the owners of the store who set out to determine what Chris was interested in and explain to him the different fabrics and styles options. Chris chose dress shirts first, picking out five different colors. He then made the big decision of what color and fabric his suit was to be made of. After much agonizing, he decided on a classic grey color. Finally, he chose two other colors for additional dress pants. I was much quicker with my decisions as all I wanted was two kurtas (a long dress like shirt typically warn with leggings) and I had been eyeing the fabrics while Chris was making his selections and already knew which two I wanted. They informed us we were to come back the next day, less than 24 hours later, for a fitting.

As we were leaving the tailor shop I saw a sign for Shashis Cooking Class, the class we had read about on TripAdvisor and attempted to book via email. We stepped into the restaurant of which the sign was posted and were able to book lessons for the following evening.

We then made our way to the famous palace, navigating our way through the winding streets, until the enormous entrance gate loomed infront of us. We paid the admission fee and then set out to explore. It was a remarkably beautiful complex and we spent a significant amount of time making our way through all of the extravagant rooms and courtyards. It started to rain shortly after we entered so it was more incentive to meander slowly so as to ward off getting soaked. My favorite part of the palace was a courtyard with numerous peacocks adorning the walls, their colors coming in part from precious and semi-precious stones.From the upper floors of the palace you had fantastic views of the city and the famous Taj Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the lake. Best of all, we weren’t hassled at all during our entire visit of the palace!

After the palace we decided to splurge and get Ayurvedic massages from a spa recommended as high quality by Lonely Planet. Ayurvedic is the word used to describe Hindu traditional medicine, so the massage was a traditional Indian massage. After over 8 months of carrying all our wordly possessions on our backs, sleeping in different hotel or hostel beds each night, and 4 months straight of tenting, we figured our bodies deserved the indulgence. For $16 CAD we were able to get a one-hour, full-body massage. It was interesting, certain parts were better (and more comfortable) than others, but it didn’t beat a therapeutic massage at home. If nothing else, it was relaxing and the oils and powders they used smelled devine.

We had a few hours rest before heading out to a show demonstrating dancing and music typical of the Rajasthan province. It was an hour long and was very entertaining, the show stopper being an elderly woman who balanced 11 clay pots on her head while continuing to dance, walk on glass, and stomp on a pan to keep time with the beat of the music.

After the show we headed to a restaurant called Charcoal for dinner. They had a fantastic rooftop with a view of the entire city and the palace that was beautifully illuminated. We chose a little booth overhanging the ledge of the roof in a way that made you seem like you were floating, where you sat on comfy cushions cross-legged. Unfortunately, within a minute of our drinks arriving the heavens opened up and we were caught in a torrential downpour. We grabbed our drinks and headed for the cover of the overhang which sheltered about half of the rooftop seating. The staff was very kind and made every effort to make us feel comfortable, even offering to let us use one of the hotel rooms and they would deliver our food down. We opted to stay on the roof as we had come mostly for the view of the city. The food was acceptable, definitely not worth the pricetag but it was a memorable evening.

The following day we had a lazy start to the day before heading to our fitting. Chris had a blazer, two dress shirts, and two pairs of pants ready to be tried on. They were incredibly high quality and fit him like a charm, no adjustments needed to be made. What a difference tailored clothes make! Check out the picture below to see the finished product. He was so impressed with the clothes he ended up ordering another blazer (navy) and another dress shirt. My dresses were a bit big but they said it was no problem to take them in.
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That evening we had our cooking lesson with Shashi. There were just the two of us and a young British guy. The lesson started with Shashi telling us about her life and how she got started with the lessons. It was a very interesting, albeit very sad, story. When her husband died 15 years ago at the age of 32 she couldn’t leave the house for an entire year after as she is of the highest caste in India which dictates this period of bereavement. During this time she relied of the generosity of friends and neighbors to see her and her two children through. After the year she was still in a tough spot as her caste is that of the educators, scholars, and priests (none of which she was) so she was unable to take any other work. She secretly washed clothes for some of the guesthouses in town to survive. She lived below the Sunshine Restaurant at this time, and her sons both worked at the restaurant. One of her sons befriended an Irish guy, and invited him to their home for a meal. Over the following few weeks he had several meals with the family, and then suggested that Shashi start cooking classes as her food was so good. This was 5 years ago and Shashi did not know any English at that time. She learned very quicky, and with the help of other tourists throughout the years got her business up and running. She is now #1 on TripAdvisor, a true testament to her determination, passion and drive to be successful.

After her introduction she went through the recipe book she provides with each lesson and you take home with you at the end. It laid out exactly what we were going to prepare, as well as allowing her to tell us a few key tips that we wrote down eagerly. After the pre-lesson we headed into her kitchen to begin. We started of making Masala Chai, the tea most commonly found in India that I mentioned in a previous post. We ground cardamon, black peppercorn and ginger, and combined this mixture with a ratio of 4:1 milk to water, a generous amount of sugar, and Assam tea. It was the best chai we have had to date, and little did we know it would be much needed as we had a very long night of cooking ahead of us. Over the course of the next 4 hours we prepared pankora (battered and fried vegetables that are a snack or appetizer), two different types of chutney (mango and corriander), two different types of paratha (a type of flatbread), the “magic sauce” to which you can add any type of protein or vegetable and we subsequently decided on cauliflower and potato and paneer (which we made from scratch), vegetable byriani, chapati, plain and stuffed naan, and a coconut stuffed paratha for dessert. Shashi was very patient with us and offered us many cooking tips and tidbits, not only for Indian cooking. The best thing to come out of the class was the “magic sauce” which can be the base for hundreds of recipes. It keeps in the fridge for 5-6 days, so you could make a batch on the weekend and have variations of dishes throughout the week. As long as you have tumeric, garam masala, corriander, fennel seeds, cumin, red chili powder, mustard seeds, and salt in your spice box you can make the sauce, and most other Indian dishes. As we went through the lesson one of my biggest cooking misconceptions was proven wrong; using fresh spices and ingredients to make your own sauces does not take a significant amount of time longer than using store bought pre-made sauces (not to mention it is significantly more flavorful making your own). The lesson made me vow to buy fresh spices and herbs (and grow my own) from now on. Finally we reached the end of the cooking, and it was time to get down to eating. The food was delectable; it stands to be my favorite meal in India to this point. The entire lesson lasted over 5 hours and we learned so much about not only cooking but also life in India. It was a definite travel highlight, if you are ever in Udaipur you must go to Shashis Class!

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The following day was our last day in Udaipur and we had planned to go on a boat cruise around the lake. Mother nature let us down again by blasting us with more rain, so we opted instead to head to the ‘Celebration’ Mall to restock out toiletries as they were getting quite low and it is almost impossible to find actual supermarkets or stores within cities. The mall was beautiful, the outside made to resemble a palace. I ended up buying a new pair of leggings to replace the pair I had with holes in the legs, and another kurta for good measure.

We boarded our night bus at 10:30 pm heading to our next destination, Pushkar. I will cover our time there in my next post!

Cheers!