Archive for the ‘India and Nepal’ Category

Thanks to double entry visas for India, we could include a trip to Nepal into our itinerary- and it was absolutely worth the tour. We enjoyed every single day we had in the country- and just wished there had been more days in total. So, as with so many other places, we will have to come back here one day to see those tings we had to bypass now. Nevertheless, we were granted a very interesting impression of this diverse place.

We entered the country from the south, at Sunauli bordercrossing. Nepal can be roughly divided into three general areas: the flat Terai region to the south, the hilly center and the mountainous north with the Himalayan range. Many parts of the country, especially to the northeast and northwest, are still difficult to access, and some areas only had sealed roads built in recent times. Due to our limited amount of time, we had to restrict ourselves to the bigger towns in central Nepal- long hikes were not possible unfortunately, as they would have required better equipment, better weather (the monsoon hits Nepal as well) and yet again- more time.

Lady in Nepal

Lady in NepalLady in Nepal

Our first stop was at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, located not far from the border. We went through immigration, which took no time at all (you can get your visa on arrival). The officials were very friendly and relaxed- “You have no passport photograph? Does not matter, a photocopy of your passport will do”. “You only have Indian rupees? That’s alright, just pay in India  rupees, then.” It shows again- everything is a matter of attitude.

We caught a bus that brought us to the small village- and our first bus ride in Nepal was an exciting one immediately, as we were seated on the roof, between our backpacks and some more luggage. To the great view from up there came the added benefit of not sweating for once due to the air flow. There is not much to Lumbini itself, but in the morning, we walked over to the compound that hosts the temple situated at at the exact spot where the Buddha was born- you can see an encased rock that marks his place of birth. The rest of the site has been declared a development area- the intention is to create a place where Buddhist practitioners can live, gather and study. A number of Buddhist monasteries have already been built, some are still under construction. Each monastery is from a different country (the site is meant to address Buddhists the world over). There are temples from places commonly associated with Buddhism, like Thailand or Cambodia, but there are also monasteries from countries such as Germany or France. It is interesting to see the differences in architecture and design of the buildings- one can see influences from the home country (even though, it has to be added, there was nothing particularly German about the German monastery- as German culture and Buddhism seem worlds apart anyways).

Next, we had decided to continue to Tansen, a mountain town further north. Three bus rides and witnessing an accident later (a huge rock had fallen onto the roof of another bus but everybody seemed fine), we arrived in the town and went looking for a place to stay before heading out for dinner at a Newari restaurant. Newari dishes are a particular kind of Nepalese food. Nepalese cuisine is otherwise mostly known for dal bhat- lentils and rice- or Tibetan momo’s- dumplings filled with either vegetables, chicken or waterbufallo meat. Newari dishes are often spicy (waterbuffalo with chillies is a favorite) and contain more meat.

And next, a new addition to the tale of disease and sickness: as Nico had made such a fulminant headstart in India, and then doubled that score less than 2 weeks later, it was time for me to follow in his footsteps- so I got sick that night, spent the better part of it hanging over the toilet and suffered from terrible stomach cramps. The next morning I munched some Buscopan and was ok enough by midday, so we walked up to an outlook on the mountain behind town- the Himalayan range, which you can see from there on clear days was unfortunately hidden behind a veil of clouds. So we descended back into town, strolled along the steep lanes and soaked in some of the town’s atmosphere- Tansen is a very pleasant place, the streets filled with the chatter of people, little shops everywhere, nice buildings and street eateries.

The following morning we got up at 5 am to catch the first bus to Pokhara. Bus rides in Nepal are, in general, an experience in themselves. We never took a tourist bus, but always went with local buses. Here, you can be lucky and find yourself in a vehicle that actually leaves 5 cms of room for your legs, but in others, you literally have to pull your legs up in order to fit into the seat- we tried several techniques, from letting the leg dangle into the corridor to sitting crosslegged, to pulling your leg up to your body and hug it with your arms to squeezing the leg up against the window or stick it between the two seats in front of you. Add to that the bumps in the road and the absence of shock absorbers, and you will sometimes find yourself flying up to the roof, only to then crash back onto the barely upholstered seats- poor buttocks. Yet, somewhat fun nevertheless. And the surrounding nature makes up for the inconveniences tenfold- lush green mountains, rice paddies in terraces at the slopes, rivers flowing deep below in narrow gorges and valleys (also a test of my nerves at times- I do not particularly like heights, and the buses maneuver along the streets dangerously close to the abyss- and there are no crash barriers). One problem associated with the farming and development in the valleys that one cannot help but notice are the frequent landslides caused by erosion and then intensified during the monsoon. Our buses often had to roll over heaps of gravel and mud to continue on the road- and at times, entire villages are buried by parts of a collapsing mountain.

We made it to Pokhara in one piece and found a place to stay. Pokhara is a very popular tourist destination as it offers possibilities for various outdoor activities, such as paragliding, and forms the starting point for Annapurna massif hikes. Hence- tourism is big business and as such, an entire scene catering to tourist needs has developed- there are tour operators that want to sell you canoeing, rafting or hiking packages, there are cafes, bars and restaurants, there are shops selling counterfeit trekking gear and your usual range of hippie dress, bags and other such knickknacks. And then there are massage parlors to complete the image. While it was surely nice to find a place where you can eat a good pizza and steak again, the discrepancy between this somewhat artificial world and local life could not be bigger. Nepal, after all, remains a very poor country- more than 80 % of the population survives on less than 2 Dollars a day, half of the people cannot read or write, most Nepalis live in the countryside and their life consists of hard work. In view of this, the prices in the tourist ‘ghettos’, to borrow a term from Lonely Planet, while being cheap to us Westerners,  are incredibly high for Nepalese standards. Yet, tourism also brings money into the economy and is as such important to Nepal- it is, as always , a mixed bag. We felt that as long as the touristic development is not exaggerated too much, then there can probably be a mutual benefit to both locals as well as visitors in all of this.

Row girl, row!

Row girl, row!

Paddle fight??

Paddle fight??

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Our stay in Pokhara began with a visit to the hospital- my stomach still had not improved, and the cramps were quite nasty, but more importantly, allergy and eczema plagued me had developed a rash around the eyes that made me look like a jellyfish and I knew could only be cured by prescription strength cortisone cream- so I returned with a bag full of  pills and ointments and began my recovery. The next day we went on a hike in the mountains around Pokhara, to visit the world peace pagoda, a temple dedicated to peace as the name suggests- it was erected by a Japanese in memory of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings. There are several such temples all over the world as a constant reminder to the importance of peace in our world. It proved not that easy to find the place, as we got lost in the forest on the way there (then, it has to be added, it seems Nico and me are quite the masters when it comes to not finding our way- we have spent many a day wandering around a place with a confused expression on our faces…).

Buddhist Temple

Buddhist Temple

We do, of course, never give up, so we happily wandered on- and then found ourselves headfirst in the middle of our next adventure. To give you a clue- it involves animals and first encounters. In order to bring across the beauty of the situation, here a little recount of the events that were to follow- for more immediacy, as a verbatim report. Nico (picks up a wet leaf from the forest floor and stares at it fascinatedly): ” Hehe, look Anna, that’s a funny worm on this leaf- it can hold on to it with its back end- looks like it has a suction cup there!”  Anna (comes over to have a look): “Cool, what an awesome thing, and look at the way it is wriggling around looking for something to attach itself to!” (Nico drops the leaf to the floor and the two of them walk on….until….) Nico: ” Shit, shit, there is one of these worms on my leg, no, two, no….damn it, it’s four!!! And they are sucking my blood!!!!!! Anna (lifts the leg of her pants as well to check): “Darn, same here, only one, but a really fat one!!!! And it won’t budge!!!”

At that point we had obviously realized that the cute, funny, and especially THIN worms  were not worms at all, but bloodthirsty leeches that were after our vital juices and had happily begun feasting on us (and transformed from thin to maggot-like fat in the process)!!! The suction cup quite simply being a sucker…The naive innocence of city people. What to do? You cannot flick them off anymore once they have firmly attached themselves, and ripping them off will just give you scars. I vaguely remembered that they are not particularly fond of fire and to our great relief, Nico produced a matchbox from the depths of his camera bag- so we burned the little fuckers off our legs. It still continued bleeding for a bit, but hey, we are made from steel. We reached the pagoda, by now out of water and thirsty, and enjoyed the beautiful view over Pokhara’s lake, before descending (yet again, on a wrong path somehow) and rented a boat to go rowing on the lake for a bit.

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain

The next day saw our departure to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. We spent nearly a week in the city and took daytrips to places in the surrounding valley. There is much to see in Kathmandu- narrow streets lined with shops, temples, stupas (Buddhist places of worship) and the magnificent architecture around Durbar square- the city’s old heart with the royal palace, surrounded by delicately carved temples- many of then multistoreyed. It is, in general, incredible just how many temples and shrines there are in Nepal- they are everywhere, if you properly look out for them you will spot one at nearly each streetcorner- or in backyards, courtyards… One day, we made the hike up to the so called monkey temple, or  Swayambhunath, a bit east of town, which is a religious complex with an impressive stupa, shrines and temples- and you have an excellent view over the city from up there. One remarkable thing about Nepal is that there are many temples that are used by both Hindus and Buddhists- speaking of religious tolerance: this is a very good example! Religion is very much a part of life in all respects anyways, it permeates all people’s dealings- something we are absolutely not used to back In Europe. We also went to Bodhnath, a very famous stupa west of Kathmandu- it is a huge structure, decorated with prayer flags, and you can witness devoted Buddhists circling the stupa in a clockwise motion.

Nepali guys having a lazy one

Nepali guys having a lazy one

To dig a bit into Nepalese history (which was often turbulent- even up until very recently, before the people’s war was ended in 2006 and the king abdicated)- we went to the medieval town of Bakhtapur. It is a beautiful, well preserved place, full of old buildings, many of them have amazingly carved wooden windows. There are many temples as well (and a lot of them feature quite erotic carvings, much like Khajuraho in India), and you can observe people working on the street- making pottery, spinning wool, or knitting. Patan, just south of Kathmandu also used to be the seat of a king in the past and hence also still boasts a Durbar (king’s) square with beautiful temples and a palace building, which we visited on another day. (Additionally,  Patan provided me with one lasting memory of a completely different sort- while walking on the street, I was shat on by a bird- and big time at that, straight in the face. It is safe to say that this was one of the more disgusting moments in my life, and Nico did not look overly happy either, when he helped me wipe the bird feaces off my face.

Since one can, however, not always just engage in historical or religious pursuits or have nasty bird encounters, we decided to do something for our adrenaline levels as well- we went bungee jumping off Asia’s highest bungee jump- a bridge spanning a gorge with a river down below, at 160 metres. I did mention before my quite developed vertigo- yet since I consider it a stupid fear to have, I decided for a confrontational therapy of sorts. Nico was all excitement anyways. We were put in group 2, and after having waited for our turn made it out onto the bridge. I thought there wold be a bit more waiting to acclimatise and start coming to grips with the fact that I would be hauling myself of that bridge any minute now, but no, my number was called first, and so I had no choice but to let myself be tied to a long rope, stand over the abyss on a mini platform- and jump. And scream. Veeeery loudly. Nico made a much more poised job out of the whole thing, floating into the depths laughing, which I could watch from below, standing next to the river. Despite all the screaming on my part, we decided we had to do another round, this time a so called canyon swing. While during bungee, you jump headfirst, during the swing, the rope gets attached in front of your belly, not at the ankles, so you jump with your feet first and have a much longer free fall, before swinging through the canyon (as the name suggests). Asked myself again what the hell I was doing up there in the seconds before the jump, jumped, screamed again, and Nico as Mr. Confident joy-jumping into the gorge once more. We both liked the bungee better. All in all, an awesome experience- but I am afraid it did not cure the vertigo entirely.


Our last day in Kathmandu we just spent walking around and went to a brief Jazz jam session at night, before we boarded a bus that should form the starting point of our two day odyssey back to Dheli. We left the country the way we had entered it: seated on the roof of a bus headed for Sunauli border crossing, while the sun was setting over the rice paddies, and finally walked back into India.

Good bye, Nepal- and thanks for the good times!

Another temple

Another temple

Nepali woman with tattooed legs

Nepali woman with tattooed legs

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Yes, we are still alive- and have by now arrived in Malaysia.  So there is much to tell- hence several new posts are to be expected in the coming days.

Indian Sttle Busride

Indian Style Busride

But first things first- starting back at where we left at- India, and us heading north to flee from the monsoon’s onset. Our path led us, via Mumbai once more, to Nashik- a place that, against what you might expect in India, is famous for the wine that is grown  around town. Yes, there are vineyards in India. As two oenophiles (and one of them a proper wine expert), we had to check this out, of course. So we spent a pleasant afternoon at Sula vineyards, sampling their range of reds and whites, sitting on the terrace overlooking the vines as well as taking a guided tour of the compound. In the end we took one bottle home for later and spent the next day exploring the rest of town. Nashik has a range of temples and is famous as a holy place for Hindu’s. Many people were bathing in the town’s river when we visited, many a cow was roaming the area and women were washing clothes at the ghats along the river (ghats are steps that are leading down to the water).

Holy man doing hia laundry

Holy man doing his laundry

Funny looking man

Funny looking man

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Next, we experienced our first fully booked train, so we spent the journey to Aurangabad sitting in the corridor on our backpacks next to the train’s open doors- made for good views on the surrounding fields. Aurangabad served us as the base for exploring two sites relatively close by. Ellora and Ajanta- both famous for their numerous temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, as well as some Jain temples. We headed to Ellora first- there are 34 temples in total, so you can easily spend an entire day wandering around. Most of the structures are dating back to over 1000 years (some even 1500)- and they are more like temple caves, all hewn directly into the rock, which has dictated the development of the site as such. The temples are lined up one next to the other, from oldest to younger and they become progressively more elaborate. The first group are Buddhist temples, which generally are plainer- yet very beautiful. They feature Buddha statues and elaborate carvings in the stone, such as decorated pillars. The Hindu temples have various statues of the many gods, ornate decoration and many are multi-storeyed. We really liked the Jain temples, which stand out through their very fine detail in decor- flower petals, sculptures, patterns- all carved into the rock.

Chilling with Budda

Chilling with Buddha

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Buddhist Cave

Buddhist Cave

The following day brought us to Ajanta- the temple caves there are even older than those in Ellora- some date back 2500 years, which is mind boggling if you think about it. The whole site is horseshoe shaped and extends along a riverbend. The temples here are exclusively Buddhist and some of them have painted interiors- with entire battle scenes, all in minuscule detail. We very much enjoyed wandering around and marvelling at the skill involved in the creation of these masterpieces. What was a bit confusing, however, was the fact that many of the Indian visitor’s to both Ellora and Ajanta stopped marvelling at the temples the moment they laid eyes on us, and instead redirected their entire attention to us as their new subjects of interest- and took out their cameras, to take our picture… So we ended up being surrounded by endless groups of locals, shaking our hands and posing for fotos alongside the tourists- we eventually put an end to that by refusing more pictures.

After these new impressions, we continued our journey north, and boarded a train heading for Rajasthan- 20 hour journey in total, with one stop-over, which provided us with the experience of the craziest rushhour the world has ever seen. There is traffic, then there is Iranian and Indian traffic, and then there is Traffic in Ahmedabad- we just wanted to cross the road in front of the trainstation to get to a restaurant on the other side- and we literally couldn’t. It took us 15 minutes to snake our way through the masses of cars, busses, bikes, mopeds, and rikshas…

Our private terrace (the room was 2 Euros per person)

Our private terrace (the room was 2 Euros per person)

Massive Bats in the trees

Massive Bats in the trees

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The following morning, Udaipur appeared at the horizon- and the heatwave came with it. Rajastan seriously is one warm place- close to the desert, it is very dry, and temperatures rise up to the high forties- we had to experience this ourselves. Since we are, of course, trying not to spend any uneccesary money, we always opted for air cooled (i.e. a ceiling fan) instead of air conditioned rooms- try that in 45 degrees celsius, sleeping becomes a whole new experience. We ended up jumping under the shower with all our clothes on, then lying down in bed wet, and covering ourselves with a sheet to stay wet for a longer period of time.


Udaipur itself is a very beautiful place- the city center is located around a big lake, on the shores of which lies a magnificent palace (belonging to the local Maharaja family), which we explored one afternoon. The city was hosting a so called ‘beggar festival’ during our stay. It meant that people from the surrounding areas were invited to town and where then given donations by the citizens, mostly in the form of grain, but also fruit, and cookies. We sat on the central square and watched the scene, bought some cookies to give away, and just let the impressions immerse us. The rest of our stay we wandered around the city, a big park, had some nice meals on the many roof terraces, met some locals and planned on our next destinations. They were to be Kumbalgarh fortress and and the magnificent marble Jain temple in Ranakpur.

Cute Indian Girl

Cute Indian Girl

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White Marble Jain Temple

White Marble Jain Temple

And now a new chapter has to be added to our travel stories- the chapter of disease and illness. Yes, we have both managed to get sick on this trip by now- twice in each case actually. Nico made a headstart- and it all began in Kumbalgarh, due to some form of Dal (Lentil) fry poisoning. But one thing after the other. Kumbalgarh is a very mighty, very impressive fortress in the hilly countryside of Rajasthan- it’s surrounding walls are 32 km long, and there are numerous temples found all over the compound. The main fortress building is an extensive structure, too, overlooking the entire surrounding landscape. After we sweated our way around the place, we sat down at the site’s restaurant- bad idea, as it turned out later. Nico feasted on the fateful dalfry, while I ate some veggie curry. Our stop in Ranakpur turned out to be somewhat more extended- we checked out the temple: wow. It is completely made from white marble and has the incredible number of 1444 pillars- each and everyone looking different through their unique carvings. We then missed our bus and had to wait 2 hours for the next one. Since the monsoon had by now started catching up with us, it did not take long before it started raining- and storming. We found shelter in a small foodstall along the road. Then the bad news- a tree had collapsed and blocked the road to Jodhpur- our destination. So some people, armed with what looked like a toy axe, went there and seriously chopped the thing to pieces, so our bus could finally get through. Thumbs up!

Mighty Fort

Mighty Fort

We rumbled through the landscape in our derelict bus until, all of a sudden, Nico started feeling veeeeery queasy- at first, then outright nauseous. It got worse and worse until at last, there was no way around it- he had to hang his head out of the window and throw up. Fortunately, we weren’t that far from Jodhpur anymore. We got into a Riksha and told the driver the place we wanted to get to- and fast, as Nico was not doing particularly well and his stomach had started grumbling dangerously as well by now. The guy starts driving, assuring us he knows where it is, heads into the old city (a veritable maze of narrow, cow, cowdung and trash filled lanes) and it becomes clear- he has no clue where he needs to go. Great. 3 stops and asking for directions later we finally made it there- the place turns out to be a shithole, but cheap, so in view of Nico’s state, we decide to stay for the night. Not a very pleasant one for him I might add.

Camel Carriage

Camel Carriage

Camel pulling a face

Camel pulling a face

sdfsdg

The next day, I moved us into an AC room somewhere else, as the outside temperatures are unbearable and fever has kicked in by now. So in the end, we do not get to see all that much of the Blue city (so called due to the blue paint of many of the old city’s buildings) and its mighty fort overlooking the town- but Nico is doing better after 2 days, so we still walk around a bit before heading on to Bikaner further north. Bikaner is a hot and dusty place famous for its Camel Research and Breeding Center, which we visit during a particularly sweltering afternoon. The proximity to the desert also becomes clearly visible in one of the popular means of transport around town- carts pulled by camels.

Rat-temple

Rat-temple

Just a bit south of town lies another curious sight to behold- a rat temple.  You have read correctly- a Hindu temple home to a huge number of rats- they are regarded as sacred, and are allowed to live inside the temple compound, are fed with milk and ghee (a sort of butter) and generally just roam around the place. The temple itself was supposedly built on a foundation of said ghee (as it is rather precious), so the floor can become greasy on hot summer days. Visiting this place is surely not something for those not particularly fond of rats- they are everywhere. It is considered bad luck if one runs over your feet, so you have to watch where you tread. If you do, however, spot a white rat, you will have good luck. We did not see one, but also avoided having the little rodents jumping over our feet. While this all might sound like a rat’s paradise, we were not so sure it really is- many of the poor beasts were in a terrible state- missing limbs, wounds, a large number had lost their fur in huge patches, or were simply- dead. Yet, all in all, definitely somewhat of an extraordinary experience.

well....quite disgusting

well....quite disgusting

With this, our time in Rajasthan came to an end and we boarded a train headed for Chandigarh. It is an unusual city for India, in that it is entirely planned- like Brasilia or Canberra, for instance. The plan was developed and executed by none other than Le Corbusier. Hence, the town is divided into sectors, the streets are all lined up in right angle patterns and it even comes equipped with an artificial lake.  We wandered around the place and checked out the famous rockgarden-developed by artist Nek Chand, who began creating sculptures from the debris left behind during Chandigarh’s constructuion- entire villages were torn down in the process. He collected tons of material and set out to put it together into animals, humans, and patterns. First secretly, hiding his creations in a government owned unused plot of land, when discovered in the 70’s, the government acknowledged their artistic value and helped him further develop his art and incorporate it into a complete park with waterfalls, and narrow lanes winding through the site- it is a bit like a labyrinth.

White turban....

White turban....

...orange turban!

...orange turban!

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One remarkable thing about Chandigarh is its large Sikh population. You will see men wearing turbans in all possible colors (often matching with the shade of their T-shirts). We had already spotted many a turban in Rajasthan- they have a different meaning over there, though. Rather than being primarily a religious sign, they may refer to a person’s status in society, such as caste- and they do look different as well, in terms of fabric and shape.

It's weird seeing swastikas everywhere if as a German

It's weird seeing swastikas everywhere as a German

The next leg of our journey finally brought us to the country’s capital, Delhi. What is amazing about the city is its state of the art metro system, built partly for the Commonwealth games in 2010 and still being extended now. It feels like a different world entering the fully airconditioned modern trains after the noise and heat of the streets. Nevertheless, the cars are crammed to bursting point, too- and people push to get in without even letting anyone step out first. Additionally, to prevent any attacks, every passenger and the luggage has to be screened before boarding the train- exactly as at the airport.  A Delhi metro ride thus surely qualifies as an experience in itself.

Mr Gandhi

Mr Gandhi

In general, there was much to explore- the old city with its bazaars and huge mosque, New Delhi and Connaught place- full of shops, the presidential palace, parks, Ghandi’s grave, good places to eat. One day I followed in Nico’s footsteps by being a bit sick, but it was less severe and passed rather quickly, so we could head on to Khajuraho- famous for its temple group featuring Kamasutra carvings. As train connections to the small place or not that great, and apart from the temples there is not all that much to see, we had decided to head there by night train, arrive early in the morning, spend the day exploring and catch another night train in the evening to continue to Varanasi.

So much the plan- Nico’s health decided otherwise, and here we are at disease and illness, the sequel. He began feeling slightly funny in the afternoon, and by the time we boarded the train had started developing a fever- and one of your typical Indian disease’s- traveller’s diarrhea. You can surely imagine that there is better ways to spend a night when you have a temperature of 40 degrees celsius and your circulation is below low due to loss of fluids than to be on a train.  By morning he was close to collapse. So off we went to town and just got a room for the day. The doctor’s office in town smelled of bat pee (we have begun to know the scent, as they are always to be found in dark temples- and it is a very distinctive…aehm..perfume)- so we opted for self treatment instead. Tea, rehydration solution, paracetamol, and eventually antibiotics. At night he was stable enough to board train number 2 to get back to a bigger place with a better doctor,  should the need still be there. I checked out the temples that afternoon, when he was doing better already- and I must say, some inspiring Kamasutra scenes indeed- one needs flexibility tough.

Kamasutra it is....

Kamasutra it is....

...they must have had a lot of fun back then!

...they must have had a lot of fun back then!

When we arrived in Varanasi, Nico was doing much better already thanks to the antibiotics, so we could actually enjoy exploring the place. Varanasi is one of the holiest towns in India- with the Ganges as a sacred river flowing through it. Ritual bathing is an integral part of the Hindu Varanasi experience- we saw many people in the river along the ghats. (It should probably be mentioned that the safety of such practices remains debatable, as the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers on earth, but this is of course irrelevant to religious ritual). At night, religious ceremonies with puja (offerings) are held along the ghats- and Varanasi is also an auspicious place to die at in Hindu belief, as it releases you from the circle of reincarnation. As Hindu’s cremate their death, some of the ghats along the Ganges are cremation ghats. We went to observe some of the public funerals- the corpse, enveloped in colorful fabrics and decorated with flower petals, is carried through the old town on a stretcher, is then doused with Ganges water and finally lowered onto the funeral pyre and set alight. The amount of wood needed to burn one  body is precisely calculated, so that not too much wood is wasted- and also, because the family of the deceased pays for the firewood per kilo.

The streets of Varanassi

The streets of Varanassi

Varanasi is also a very intense place- a lot of people, crazy traffic, heat- and many touts starting to annoy you the moment you step out of the train- they either want to offer you a riksha ride, or bring you to their hotel/restaurant/whatnot. We managed to make it into the center and were then followed on foot by people that promised us the ‘cheapest rate’ at their guesthouses. Even a firm ‘no’ did not make them go away for a while.  It has to be added that the old town a Varanasi is a proper labyrinth of tiny (and often dirty) alleyways- there are cows everywhere, and sometimes the lanes are so narrow, you cannot get past and have to wait for the cow to move. It goes without saying that the cows also feel the urge to relieve themselves from time to time,  so cow droppings are a constant danger at the level of your feet, especially at night, when you can’t see them properly (it pays top have a flashlight).

Taking a bath in the ganga

Taking a bath in the Ganga

Whie still sweeating our way around town looking for accomodation, I managed to slip when trying to avoid a collision with a cart, and my left foot found itself in the gutter- and in everything that was sloshing around inside it. To give you a clue: colorpattern- between green and black, texture- slimy, often already fermenting (hence: bubbles forming on the surface). I was rather close to throwing up. But then, no weakness, so we went on, found a hotel, took a shower and began exploring the place. During our stay we attended one of the nightly ceremonies at a ghat, which was an impressive experience- dancing, singing and a synchronous choreography with fire, incense, and continuous offerings. Our remaining days were filled wandering the lanes and streets of Varanasi and organizing our departure to Nepal.

We only visited one of India’s best known sights after we had returned from Nepal. I will however include it in this post- as it belongs to the overall India experience. I am, of course, referring to the world famous Taj Mahal in Agra. Managing to see it proved quite a challenge, as upon our return from Nepal, trains were horribly overbooked and we had limited time before our departure from Delhi was due. In the end, it took one 16 hour train journey, some hours of sightseeing, and then catching another train get Delhi to get to the airport in time- all in less than 2 days, but it was the only way.

The Taj is a huge structure, surrounded by an extensive park- and its overall white appearance is indeed rather impressive.  The interior has beautifully executed marble carvings, and many of the walls are decorated with flower inlays in the marble. There is a direct view on the river from the platform surrounding the Taj Mahal, and the two adjoining buildings (one of them a mosque) are beautifully decorated, too- built from red sandstone, with painted ceilings.

Well, not the best conditions to take nice photo...Taj in the rain

Well, not the best conditions to take nice photo...Taj in the rain

We also had a look at the Agra fort, before heading back to Delhi. On the train, we made the acquaintance of a very friendly guy who helped us get to the right metro stop when the train ended a station earlier than had been scheduled. And then we already found ourselves at Indira Ghandi International airport, which feels worlds apart from street life in India, headed for Malaysia-thus ended our 5 weeks in India- a turbulent time, full of new impressions- good and bad, and surely one that will stay with us for a long time.

Namaste.

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The Indian toursim industry’s slogan- Incredible India!- seemed like a good title for this first entry on the subcontinent- as incredible it is!

We have been in the country for a good couple of weeks now and the impressions and experiences were manifold, intense, colorful, interesting, enriching, but also sometimes a test of our nerves and patience. Yet, despite the latter, we would not want to miss them for anything in the world.

Mumbai City Train

Mumbai City Train

Where to start? Probably best at the beginning. After a stopover in Dubai we arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) in the early hours of May 26th. Being India’s biggest city, it was going to be a full on taste of India to start with. And the first 2 hours proved to be very “Indian” in quite some ways. We boarded a prepaid taxi at the airport (so at least no haggling required) and told the driver the name of a hotel we intended to stay at. Having arrived, we were informed that only the most expensive rooms were available (supposedly, we did not quite believe it). It would have amounted to something more than 40 Euros, which is an incredible amount by Indian standards. So we declined, and decided to look for some place else. Without invitation, a random guy jumped into our Taxi and told us he knew a cheap place- what would be our budget? Not more than 1000 Rupees, we replied. So he directed our driver into dodgy streets off all the maps we had of Mumbai- people sleeping in the streets, dirt and garbage everywhere, and even a fat dead rat as decoration right in front of the entrance to the hotel he had picked for us. He then ran upstairs and debated with the owner- we could not understand a word of course. We demanded to see a room- it was small, smelly, the toilet was full of shit- literally- and then he wanted 1200 Rupees. Comission fee for the dude included it may be assumed. We just laughed and left. And told the driver to bring us to our second choice. Mr. Random guy, however, had different plans and made the driver drive somewhere else yet again, even though we had insisted on being brought to our pic. Then the two of them fought and the random guy left- so we finally made it to Hotel Lawrence and got a room for 800 (yes, Mumbai is expensive). Pfffffffff.

Local "Launderette"

Local "Launderette"

So there you go- the first big difference between a country like Iran and India: in the former, people on the street want to help you, without asking anything in return. In India, most people are very happy to help you, but in return for money- of course, as with all things, there are exceptions, and we have met very nice and friendly people on the way- but the mentality in the country is decidedly different from our previous destinations.

Cute girl

Cute girl

India is intense- the traffic is insane, absolutely crazy. You as the pedestrian need to keep your eyes open for rogue Rikshas, bikes, cars and motorcycles zooming at you from all possible directions (yes, the traffic is lefthanded, but that does not stop scooters just going against the traffic on the right hand lane, either…). We saw a man being hit by a Riksha which was just driving on the right instead of the lefthand side- he was fine, fortunately.

Kitchen on Train

Kitchen on Train

Night Train

Night Train

Then there are huge piles of waste lying around in the streets, and air pollution levels block up your nose for days at a time. Train stations have a constant smell of feaces hovering above them- from people using the train’s bathroom while it is halting at a station- check the tracks, you will find…shit. And rats. The cities indeed are full of cows- wandering around, blocking traffc, eating garbage (which, obviously, is very bad for them- many have terribly bloated tummies from eating plastic). If you have a sensitive nose, you will encounter a multitude of smells in this country- many of them to be classified under ‘nasty’.

Typical Street Stand

Typical Street Stand

Then there is poverty. Children as well as adults begging, or trying to sell food/articles of any sort along the streets. The gap between rich and poor is very large. While many people inhabit comfortable, air conditioned houses and appartments, huge numbers of families still live in makeshift huts in the slums on the outer fringes of the city, or- as mentioned above- in Mumbai, simply sleep on the streets, on a piece of cardboard. The difference in lifestyle  between your average middle class person and a member of the lowest classes is hard to fathom. They lead completely different lives. TV commercials adress an affluent, well-funded clientele, while the products they praise are worlds away from those fighting for bare survival on a day to day basis. One sees many people that have suffered from injuries which were inadequately treated and are now handicapped as a result. So all this is quite something to digest.

Scooter Ride

Scooter Ride

Cows Everywhere

Cows Everywhere

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Then there is the issue of egoism. If queuing anywhere, you can be 100% sure that someone will jump the queue and just squeeze himself in right in front of you without as much as batting an eyelid. Old men and women particularly love doing this, but then we have had people from all age groups just pushing past us as if we were invisible-particularly annoying when queuing for traintickets. You have to either push them away or start arguing with them- and they won’t even say sorry when made aware of what they just did. On the train itself, people will just sit on your berth during the night- you pay for a sleeper train and wake up to find your berth crowded with bags and random people- you underneath all of them.

Scootering around

Scootering around

Riksha drivers will try to rip you off whenever possible. They will also say they know where you are headed only to then cruise around the streets lost, and needing to stop 5 times to ask for directions.

All this might sound terribly negative now- it is just meant as an illustration of the fact that this country is full-on. Because, despite all of the above, we are having a great time and there are a large number of amazing things.

India is full of color and smell- the smell of food being prepared and fried along the thousands of street stalls, the smell of Jasmine flowers in front of temples, the smell of incense at people’s homes or at a shrine. Then there is the dress- bright saris, tunikas, skirts, scarves, turbans. There is the sparkle of gold earrings and noserings, and bright bangles decorating women’s arms.

Mix of Indian Food on Banana Leaf

Mix of Indian Food on Banana Leaf

There is the food- a huge variety of meals, all with their regional characteristics. Naan bread, chapatis, dosas (Indian stuffed crepes), masala dishes, spicy vindaloos along the coast of Goa, Tandoori fish and chicken, vegetable dishes (this country really is a vegetarian’s paradise!), pickles and refreshing drinks, such as lime soda and lassi.

And there are the diverse culture and religions- Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism. They all have their own places of worship, often beautifully crafted, richly decorated buildings. You will see people visiting temples to present flower petals to the gods, taking ritual baths in the rivers, chanting, partaking in festivals- but also muslims following the call to prayer in one of the  many mosques. Local practices vary stronly from region to region, and the various languages add to the feeling of being in many countries in one. So does the climate- the south is wet and humid, while Rajasthan in the North is dry and has a great desert- complete with camels…And then of course there is Bollywood. Still not quite our type of movie, with all the singing and dancing, but intriguing nevertheless.

So it is one great bowl of impressions, good and bad.

To get back to where we find ourselves in all this- Mumbai it was. We collapsed on our bed and fell asleep until 11am. The heat woke us up- and when we say heat, we mean heat. India surely is one warm country. Mumbai was still relatively pleasant at 33 degrees, up North in Rajasthan we encountered temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius…I did not know I could even sweat on my shins….

Old colonial architecture (the train station)

Old colonial architecture (the train station)

So we gathered ourselves and our belongings and headed out into town to explore, and to have lunch. Mumbai proved to be a pleasant place, with many colonial style buildings, such as the beautiful trainstation, many relaxed cafes, good restaurants and a city beach- Chowpatty.  At night, it is crowded with families having picknick and snacks, eating cotton candy and dipping their feet into the sea. It has a bit of a fairground atmosphere. We also visited the Taj Mahal Hotel (that had been the target of terrorist attacks in 2008), the Gateway of India, some parks, markets, an open air human-powered washing spot, where one can bring dirty clothes to have them cleaned,  and English bookstores- finally!!! And had our first beers in a good while, ah were they refreshing!!!!! Of course, in a place of 16 million inhabitants, this was just a glimpse of all the city has to offer- we shall have to return at one point.

Hippie Stuck in Goa since the 60's

Hippie Stuck in Goa since the 60's

Goan Coastline

Goan Coastline

After the metropolis, we decided to chill out for some days- on the beach in Goa, to be precise. So we boarded a train south (train journeys have also become an integral part to our India experience- imagine crammed train carriages, and in the middle of all this people walking past balancing trays with food of all sorts, and cold and hot drinks- “chaiiiiii, garam chaiiiiii” (tea, hot tea) will resonate with us forever). On the train we met Tim and Magda from Canada, who were sharing a compartment with us. We began talking and got along so well we decided to head to the small town of Arambol together upon our arrival in Goa. There, we got really lucky and found a complete house for ourselves for 100 Rupees a night per person- the delights of travelling in off season. Then it got even better- we ran into Joe and Brittany, a couple whom Tim and Magda had met in the north of India and who were staying in Arambol as well.

Sundown in Goa

Sundown in Goa

And thus began a very relaxed week in India’s formerly Portugese state. Good food, walks on the beach, swimming, reading, and making friends with a bunch of stray dogs that crowded our front porch every night. Evenings with cold beers, and playing cards, and finally two days spent on a scooter exploring the state to some greater extent. We visited a spice plantation, the now deserted town of Old Goa, which still boasts Portugese Churches and drove up the coast to check out some of the other towns frequented by visitors- Goa is not exactly the hippie paradise it used to be in the 60’s anymore, and much of the trance scene has dissapeared apparently- yet it remains a beautiful place to forget about the world for a while.

Rooftop view from our house

Rooftop view from our house

Hippie Shelter under the Mango tree

Hippie Shelter under the Mango tree

And then the monsoon arrived- it was impressive: within two days, the atmosphere changed entirely, from laid back sunny beach life to storms, pouring rain and the beach being slowly eroded by huge waves. It had all began with amazing thunderstorms late at night- beautiful lightning strikes and thunder in the distance. So we decided it was time to pack our bags and head north again, away from the rain- the next stage of our journey through India of which you will be told in our next update.

Until then, Namaste.

Anna and Nico

The Day I managed to grow Fungus on my Jeans (and my backpack)

The Day I managed to grow Fungus on my Jeans (and my backpack)

It was hard work to open that thing

It was hard work to open that thing

After the rain

After the rain

Lord of the Dogs

Lord of the Dogs

The Dog Mistress

The Dog Mistress

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Photos!!

So as you can see the photos of Iran are all uploaded now and I hope they’ll give you some good impressions of the country. Furthermore I added some more pictures to the Jumpo’s section and one more to the Food section (more will be coming soon). And because I didn’t upload any pictures in a while I’ll also show you one of the nicer pictures from India already, I hope you like it.

Thunderstorm in Goa, unfortunately you can see some raindrops on the lense

Thunderstorm in Goa, unfortunately you can see some raindrops on the lense

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