Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Temples, Trails, Peaks and Rhinos

SAURAHA: The elephant crashed through the leafy green scrub and lumbered on, whilst we were whipped with branches. You get a different perspective sitting high and not so comfortably on the back of a five tonne pachyderm. The view of your steed is limited to a mass of grey, wrinkly, thick skin below you and the bulbous hairy dome of its head with its wide ears flapping in front. But it is the perfect vehicle for rhino hunting - and that is exactly what we were doing.

Who would have that thought coming to Nepal we would end up on an elephant safari. Mountains and trekking are usually associated with this landlocked country stuck between the two giants of India and China. But a safari in the fabulous Chitwan National Park is how we have ended our visit here, and it could have topped the trekking as the highlight of the country or perhaps our entire travels so far.

It is not often that you get to see magestic One-Horned Indian Rhinos in the wild but this is surprisingly what we got to see. It was surprising because they (more amazingly there was not one but two together) were not bothered as we and about 10 other elephants loaded with tourists crashed our way through the forests in search of them. The mahoots shouting to each other did not disturb them either, as we finally came across the two grazing grey armoured endangered beasts as dusk approached.

Elephant Safari
Not so sneaking up to a Rhino

It was a special end to a fantastic day which started bright and early with a trip downriver in a dug-out canoe, spotting the snout of a fresh-water crocodile, and then a two-hour hike through the jungle forests. We had the usual danger speech beforehand - this is what you do if we get charged by a rhino, if a Bengal tiger attacks do this and if a wild elephant decides to go for us then we are done for. Unfortunately we didn't encounter any of that; we spotted some deer and - for the first time away from their scavenging role at temples - monkeys in their natural habitat.

But Chitwan has only been the climax of what has been an excellent three weeks here. We flew from Delhi to Kathmandu and were greeted by the familiar face of my mother amongst the crowds outside the airport. She had arrived earlier and was to be our first travel companion from home on our trip.

Kathmandu was seen from the blissful environs of Boudnath, the location for a massive stupa (Buddhist spire) where devout Tibetans lap clockwise. From our base we explored the area and visited the medieval suburb of Patan south of the river. The small narrow streets were packed with tight-knit Hindu shrines and temples, culminating in the large Durbar square. Multi-tiered distinctive Newari temples were architecturally amazing and again another stereotype of Nepal was shattered – more than just a mountain range for trekking in.

We ventured into the touristy suburb of Thamel for a night to be close to the bus stop to get to Pokhara. The peace we were accustomed to in Boudnath was broken by the neon lights, touts, feral street kids fighting and general overload of population density. It was good to get away in the end and head west, in search of the stereotyipcal image of Nepal: mountains.

Pokhara delivered. Initially everything was clouded but in the afternoon the heavens opened and there in front of us were the famous Annapurnas gleaming bright white and rearing above us. Massive mountains know how to make you feel small and these did. No matter how many times you view them you never get sick of their sight. They are glorious reminders of nature's beauty. Photos of course can never do it justice, but it doesn't stop you trying.

Pokhara though is a tourist town, and had all the trappings that that involves. Despite this, there can't be too many towns in the world where you can sip your latte as you gaze up on 7000m high mountains. The tourist area is well situated on the serene Fewa Tal lake and to kill time we hired a local woman to row us around as the sun set.

A trek into the Annapurna region is a must if you come to Pokhara. A complete circuit of the range would take almost three weeks and was beyond our time scope or our fitness level. We instead decided to do a five day trek to a popular 3200m high spot called Poon Hill where the Annapurnas and the nearby Dhaulagiri, seventh highest mountain in the world, are viewed in all their glory.

Poon Hill
Dawn at Poon Hill

To gear up for it and to make sure our fitness was up to scratch we tackled another viewing hill closer to Pokhara called Sarangkot. The views are usually superb, at the right time of year, but as we are only now just starting to depart the monsoon for the dryer seasons, the clouds decided to block any view after our hard climb up 800m all the way from town. We stayed the night there but the view in the morning – usually the best time - wasn't any better.

Our trek to Poon Hill was delayed as a rest day was imposed on us by the monsoon. On our day of departure the rain sheeted down and filled the streets, turning the one outside our guesthouse into a river. It stopped our activities but fortunately it seemed like the last gasp of a dying beast, and the next day we departed via taxi out to the start of the trek.

Trekking in Nepal is unlike trekking anywhere else in the world. The paths along the popular routes are nicely paved, you share the route with pack horses, goats heading to market and locals heading home. Then there is the famous scenery, often just as impressive as the mountains: green forested slopes worked with rice paddy terraces. The scenery changes depending on where you are and on the entire Annapurna circuit it turns more into Tibetan style rocky environment north of the range.

On the third morning we clambered up in the half light of dawn to the top of Poon Hill. The views were literally breathtaking as we recovered from the exertion of getting to the top. Luck was finally with us and we were treated to a perfect clear dawn with sun rising behind the Annapurna range to the east and Dhaulagiri lit up to the north. It was a special moment for all of us.

Trekking is an industry here and so almost everything is geared towards it. There are lodges everywhere, all with attached restaurants providing all the usual travellers' fare. Facilities range from the more basic, rough timber floors with squat toilets, to sophisticated ones with flushing toilets and hot and cold showers.

Unfortunately in some parts a culture seems to have developed of milking tourists for all they're worth. Cartels, or as they are called here "Committees or Associations", set menu prices for all the lodges on the trails across a certain area. They set their prices at two or usually three times the prices of what the same meal costs back in town.

I understand that there is a higher cost associated with carting goods to the lodges by porters but when the item you want to eat – a locally grown meal that locals eat - is ludicrously expensive, you have to wonder. And strangely with the portering costs a beer is not that much more expensive than in town.

But that's enough of my rant. We immeasurably enjoyed our hike, and I am extremely proud of mum carrying her pack (almost) the whole way, when virtually everybody else was using porters. We have now made our way down to the tropical plains and the animal spotting. And in amongst this I got to spend another birthday in another country and what a special one it was.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Return to the plains

DELHI: We are back in the nations capital after roaming the partially contentious and certainly mountainous area of India's far north. The region was an awe inspiring look at nature at its most raw and rugged and has to be along with northern Laos the highlight of the trip so far. But all things had to finish and we have now weaved and wound our way back through the Himalayas.

Delhi like Kolkata can hit you in the face with its sights. Not just the grand architectural ones that we have been visiting but all the street life. There have been no flash lodgings for us so that means we mingle more with the masses as we come out of our temporary abode above the Main Bazaar strip in Paharganj.

Everyday Indians shopping for clothes dodge the cycle rickshaws and their green and yellow auto cousins. Innovative street kids perform acrobatic twisting and then stick out their hand as a man trundles by on his little cart with wheels. Or there is the more traditional metal cup rattled at you by a man hobbling with a crutch or a woman with a baby in her arms.

But it is not just the humanity, animals mix and mingle along with the people. Cows forlornly wander around waiting for a handout of potatoes or just a munch on a cardboard box. Tethered bullocks pull wagons loaded with sacks or a horse used for weddings trots by. Other horses are still stuck in the 19th century as they are harnessed to carriages waiting for paying passengers to climb on board.

And then there have been Delhi's splendid monuments to gawk at. The pre-British Raj era Mughal built ones are more fabulous examples of Muslim architecture. The imposing Red Fort and the spectacular Humayun's Tomb which they say was a trial run for the Taj Mahal. If that is the case then Taj must truly be impressive. We shall wait and see.

Red fort 2
Old Mughal architectural wonders in Delhi

We spent a morning soaking in the magnificent structure and then soaking in our own sweat as we clambered over the mausoleums and mosques in the sticky heat. We combined the trip to the more somber Ghandi Smitri, the place where the Mahatma was martyred to a crazed man 60 years ago. It has now been turned into an exhaustive museum dedicated to his life.

Previously to Delhi we had to pass through the old British summer capital of Shimla again. This time the weather that had dampened our last visit thankfully had eased and we actually got to roam the bazaars clinging to the hillsides. Kipling wrote of the bazaars as a "crowded rabbit warren that climbs up from the valley at forty five" where "a man who knows his way there can defy all the police .. so cunningly does veranda communicate with veranda, alley-way with alley-way and bolt-hole with bolt-hole". Not much has changed in the last 100 years it seems.

Lower Bazaar
Shimla's middle bazaar

There were not as many sights to tick off this time in Shimla it was of more a recovery and preparation for the two 10 hour journeys that bookended the visit. The stay did though coincide with a Bollywood film that was being staged in the city and this was another example of how Indians just like Papuan New Guineans love real life entertainment. Hundreds of people stopped to gawk at the production and the crew had a hard time keeping back the crowds from ruining their shoot.

One thing we certainly now miss is the cool mountain air. Thankfully our stop in Delhi is only a short one and tomorrow we back on a plane and flying to somewhere with plenty of mountains; Nepal. We also get to be greeted by my mother who is already there. Our first contact with family for 5 months. Bring on the next chapter.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Dust on the boots (and more bus stories)

KALPA: Sitting on a barrier on the side of the road taking a break, I saw the tractor rumble around around the bend. Perhaps a lift is possible, I thought, for these tractors loaded with gravel routinely head from the river bed into town. Grabbing our full packs ready in anticipation, the tractor sidled up and the driver called "Kaza, Kaza". "Yes, yes" we answered.

We threw our burden onto the gravel heap in the trailer and climbed up onto a back tray between the wheels of the tractor and happily bounced the last four kilometres into town. It was a great relief to know there was no more trudging along the dusty boring road with our full packs.

This was the Spiti valley, another slice of Tibetan moonscape (or perhaps Marscape) in the far north of India. We had been hiking the 16km back to the main town in the valley because the public bus system in Spiti is unfortunately a little erratic. The only other way around is to hire jeeps and the local taxi union (mafia) sets exorbitant prices for foreigners.

So we walked back to Spiti's capital, Kaza, and notched up a new mode of transport that we had not ridden before: a tractor ride. And even though it was very bumpy and we had to hold on for dear life, it was certainly more sedate than the other main mode of transport over the last couple of weeks: the bus. Buses have either been long, frustrating, painful or terrifying.

But back to Ladakh, which seems like a long time ago now. We got there on that long bus ride as described before and stayed a week in the isolated Buddhist (former) kingdom, soaking up the comforts and sights that this entailed. Leh in parts was a complete tourist town, in fact in the area we stayed, Changspa, you could call it little Israel. Hebrew was outspeaking any other foreign language 2 to 1. But being touristy it was still surprisingly fantastic. Leh has to rate as one of my most favourite towns.

The reason we enjoyed the place and why it lived up to my expectations was due to its setting. Surrounded by moonscape, Leh was an oasis of green fed by irrigation channels flowing with feng shui goodness. The small town centre bustled at just the right pace but it only took a few minutes to walk off through the stone-walled alleys into semi-rural surroundings. The old palace and Gompa (monastery) loomed over the town on one side and was pleasantly twinned by a new, Japanese built stupa on the other side of town, the place to go for sunsets.

We filled our time in the Ladakhi capital by munching our way through the smorgasbord of delights which competed for our rupee. There was also the chance to ride a mountain bike down from the highest motorable pass in the world (supposedly 5600m, but my GPS, and others, had it at around 5380m – still bloody high). You get a two hour lift up to the frosty top 39km away from Leh, have a cup of chai trying to negate some of the altitude sickness and then ride on down for the next three hours.

Ride of my life
My bike for the ride

But the fun and relaxation of Leh had to end and then it was to the painful trip of getting back from Ladakh. It was basically backtracking via the route we had already taken to get there (the only other overland route from Ladakh is through Kashmir, and even though I would like to go there have been some major flare ups recently and is just too dangerous). This time though instead of a long haul sleep deprived van trip we decided to take the "deluxe" government bus to the first real settlement south of Leh, Keylong in the Lahaul valley.

Fortunately the government bus was a lot slower than the van, unfortunately that meant that it took 15 hours for a journey around 350km starting at 5 in the morning. We also had to put up with getting the last two seats on the bus in the back row. Normally I like being a back seat heavy, but in this case it meant that concussion almost occurred numerous times as we were launched airborne over bumps into the luggage rack above us. There was also a non-working fan strategically placed with its sharp metal edge right next to your head. Any time a bump was felt coming it was duck and cover.

Arriving very weary in the pitch black in Keylong, it was with great relief to not only depart the bus but find a fantastic cheap guesthouse with for the first time a TV actually showing the Olympics (the second to last day of competition). We caught our first views of the competition, which turned out to be a gymnastic version of synchronised swimming with five girls but with ropes and hoops. Is this new?

The guesthouse kudos was increased tenthfold upon morning when we looked out the window and discovered a bunch of white snow capped peaks of over 6000m bearing down us at the end of a green, steep V shaped valley. You have to love the Himalayas; views you just don't get back home.

The other poor saps from our bus trip left brazenly early on the same deluxe torture and carried on south to our previous departure point, Manali. We instead stayed along with another Australian couple and their four year old son and enjoyed a proper stop over break by exploring the surrounding area. This involved a hike across the valley to a traditional village called Khardung.

With stone walled houses built over mucked up stables, roofs piled high with winter fodder and drying dung for fuel, the village obviously hadn't changed much in centuries. We further ventured (or slogged) up the steep valley slope to a Buddhist Gompa (monastery) which unfortunately we didn't even get to see inside as no monks were to be found.

The next day we teamed up with the friendly Aussies (it was great to converse about things back home – it had been a while) and gave the buses a miss altogether, paid the extra to hire a jeep taxi. It just so happens they were heading the same direction as us, the 10 hour trip to the adjacent – dusty again - Spiti Valley.

The Himalayas shield the valley and the ones north, like Ladakh and Tibet, from the monsoon. Which is precisely why we were here, to escape the rain. The effect though is the dusty, Mars like landscape it creates. It is a cold desert, but healthily inhabited by hearty friendly folk.

The valley like its neighbours is predominately Buddhist, which means there are some amazingly old Gompas to visit. One in particular at the village of Tabo is World Heritage listed for its amazing 1000 year old murals littering its dark interior. We got a personal tour with a monk and our Australian friends and it was hard to believe that we were so close to something created so long long ago. I felt like Indiana Jones with my torch in hand examining the fine detail inside a mud built temple that looked like those mosques in Mali.

Tabo Gompa
Tabo Gompa

Unfortunately the frustrating and scary Spiti bus network let the valley down. It was a tad bizarre and incurred my wrath as we waited and waited in the dusty capital Kaza for the bus to the village of Kibber. Instead of a logical small bus that shuttles back and forth a few times a day between the population centres, there is a only a single bus which originates about 100km away down the valley. It is usually scheduled to get to Kaza around 5:30pm but by the time it got there for us it was over two hours late. Hence why we were walking and taking tractors back to Kaza.

And then finally there is the scary and terrifying aspect of the bus system which we discovered as we were heading on south out of the valley: maniac drivers. In a valley full of hair-pin turns and blind corners we managed to get a driver that ignored it all and went full throttle the whole way. At one point one of our friendly tractor and trailer combos filled with people was nearly collected and sent into the rushing Spiti river below. We held on for dear white knuckled life.

To make the journey just that tad more exciting, the road had been made impassable for the bus due to a landslip. We were forced to strap on the packs and clamber over loose rock to where the road began again and board another bus. The drop into the valley below meant that a cup of chai was required to calm the nerves when we reached our destination nearby.

Now we are making a big loop back to Shimla. We have left the dusty valleys behind and are back in the greenery of the Kinnaur Valley to the south. We have a week to get back to Delhi before we head off again to another new country, but with just as many mountains – if not more - than the Indian north. Tidings from there.