This is the blog of Martin and Caroline as they go out and see some of the world

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Better late than never - Varanasi, Agra and New Delhi - India

Although we are home I am sorry as it has still taken forever for us to update this with the Indian part of our trip.

We had a long journey to the border of Sunauli by bus, we crossed the border and caught the bus with the blue stripe down the side to Gorakhpur.  On the bus there were quite a few of us who were heading out to Varanasi so it was quite nice to know that we would not be alone waiting for the train as the first train journey in a new country is always hard until you learn the way of the place.  Once we reached Gorakhpur it was like we were the new attractions in the zoo.  People seemed bewildered by us and just seemed to stop and stare, a few brave people got up the courage to come and talk to us and their English was brilliant but this was frowned apon by the train police and they were sent away from us which was a shame.  Once we were on the train we shared our cabin with a lady from Hong Kong who was on the bus with us and a guy from Israel.  The journey was not too bad except that the train driver blew his horn non stop the whole way. 

Once we arrived in Varanasi we shared a cab with the lady from Hong Kong to try and find a hotel.  It seems that no matter what hotel / B&B / Hostel you ask to be taken to the cab driver will only take you to the places where he gets commission from.  We ended up walking away from the place that the cab driver took us to but found a really nice place on our own, it had a big gated garden and it was like a haven in the chaos.

We checked in and went and walked along the bank of the Ganges which was very close to our hotel. 

We were not too sure what to expect but everyone we had spoke to told us how wonderful Varanasi was and how spiritual it was.  We did not however see that side of it.  The whole place was so dirty, smelly and overflowing with rubbish.  They do not seem to notice the streams of pee that run down into the Ganges where people relieve themselves whenever and where ever they feel like.  It is shocking after seeing what goes into the river to see them washing themselves, their clothes and their teeth in there.  The amount of poor and disabled people was hard to take in and the amount of stray and starving dogs was hard to see aswell.  We set aside an amount every day that we would give to beggars but it is really hard to know where to stop.  We speant one day just walking round feeding the stray dogs but it is all just too little to do any real help.

Every evening there is a display of fire and chanting that is to give thanks to Mother Ganges.  We were offered a boat to watch the display from the water and when we said maybe tomorrow we were told that it was only on for that one night and we would miss it if we did not take the boat tonight, it seems they will tell you any cock and bull story to get money out of you.  We never did take up the offer of a boat to watch it and I dont think we missed much.

We were so glad that we got to watch a burning ghat ceremony in Nepal as in Varanasi it is just not the same, it is not as peaceful and meaningful here.  It all just seems one big mess. 

We had hoped to go West to Rajastan but once we were looking on the internet all the trains out that way were full but the man at our hotel managed to get us a train to Agra.  We were quite pleased to be leaving Varanasi but typically on our last day we found the cleanest place there to eat and wished we had found it on day one.  The food was good and the banana Lassi's were lush.

We headed off to the station and onto Agra.

Once we got to Agra we made a point of asking the taxi driver to only take us to the hotel that we wanted to go to and no other.   Once we got to the hotel we found that it was very far away from the Taj and not really suitable so we let the taxi driver take us to one of his hotels.  We ended up finding our own place which was the best of a bad bunch.  We found the entrance to the Taj and decided to go first thing rather than that day as we heard it was less busy first thing. 

The lines for the Taj was not very busy at all when we arrived in the morning and by the time we left it was getting really busy so I think we made the right choice. 

The Taj was amazing and was one of the best places we had visited.  We were blown away by the place and seeing it at sunrise was fantastic as it seemed to change colour as the sun hit it.

We took a rickshaw to visit the Red Fort and when we were there we hired a guide and speant a day seeing the sights and sitting in the lovely green garden.

On the way back the ricksahw driver that had been waiting for us asked if he could take us to some shops as he would get paid for taking us to certain shops.  We had nothing else planned for the day so we said OK.  During part of the journey it must have got a bit much for our driver as he asked Martin to take a turn with the cycling.  Then the drivers friend turned up and they decided they would both like the money so I went in the other rickshaw and Martin stayed in ours and we were driven to about 3 shops until we had had enougth and said no more shops.

We were in India for wedding season and two stag do's passed our hotel in the evening.  The groom's were plassed on top of a horse and walked around the town with lights, music and lots of people dancing around them.  I have to say the grooms did not look happy even when people were putting money into their hands.

On our last night in Agra there was a holy festival of some kind and there was music and prayers blasting out from huge speakers all night at full blast, they did not stop until about 6am which was when our taxi arrived to take us to the train station and the streets were full of people walking home to start their day after a night of parying in the streets.

The train ride from Agra to Delhi was probably the nicest as we got to sit and talk to people and discuss the differences between arranged marrages and the class systems in India.  It was a nice trip and they made us feel really welcome.

Once we got to Delhi we were approached by a man asking if we were looking for a hotel, we had an idea of where we wanted to go but he was quite persistant in us trying some of his hotels.  As we were walking and talking  to the man a police man came out of nowhere and started hitting the man with a long bamboo type cane and telling him not to talk to us.  It was a shock to see but no one else seemed to bothered.  We found a reasonably priced hotel and booked for 1 night.  It was not great but after Agra it seemed quite nice.  We went out exploring and later that day found a hotel that was recommended by the Lonley Planet and although it was 350 rupees a night more expensive we booked into it for the following nights.  We had a hot shower, a clean tidy room and a plasma TV with an English movie channel. 

We had decided to do all our shopping once we got to Delhi but the choice was not exactly great, everything was the same in all the shops but it was nice to get out and have places to walk to.  We did notice that beggars seemed to be quite rich in Delhi as we saw a lot of them counting their cash and yet the people dressed in rags that walk around collecting rubbish to sell ask for nothing from you.

The stray dogs are not as bad in Delhi as it seems that alot of the dogs are neutered and you can tell.  There are not as many strays and they all seems quite well fed and not as scared of the people who pass them by.

There was anothe festival while we were there but this one was celebrated in the day time thank goodness.

We had started to run out of money and the trains were still full with about 100 people on the waiting lists so we decided to head home.  We had hoped to spend about 3 months in India but it was not meant to be.  We would like to go back there one day but go in our motor home and have a bit more freedom to explore.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Kathmandu to Pokhara – Nepal

The jeep dropped us off in Thamel and we booked into the same bed and breakfast as 2 of the other girls as we had no place booked.  It was really expensive at $35 a night but we had already booked for 2 days so we decided that we would look for somewhere else for the rest of our stay. (We ended up finding one for the equivalent of $16 a night) The next day Martin decided to get a haircut in one of the barbers but the trimmers the man was using were so old and blunt that it was taking forever so Martin told him to use the cut throat razor and had his head shaved.  He then got a head and body massage and was in the chair for over an hour.  We met up with a few of the people from the tour the next night and we all went out for some drinks and something to eat. 
The next day we went to a place called Pashupati Nath which is where people take the dead to be burnt on burning ghats.  It sounds quite horrific but it is not.  It was quite expensive to get in but it was actually quite a nice place to spend some time.  One side of the bridge is set aside for common people’s ghats and the other side of the bridge is for rich people’s.  It was quite interesting to see the difference between the rich and the poor ceremonies.  The rich people had ceremonies that went on for a few hours but the poor people just had the body washed and then wrapped before being cremated.  Once the cremation is finished they are swept into the Bagmati River which runs alongside the ghats.  All the rubbish is also thrown into the river which is a shame as there is so much rubbish flowing down it.

We went and booked some trips to do on our journey through to Pokhara and we decided on some white water rafting and a jungle safari.
We headed off on the bus to the site where the rafting started from and joined our guide.  The rapids we did were a 3+ but the river has lots of different rapids all along.  We opted for a 4 hour trip but some people were heading off for 4 day trips.  We really enjoyed the rafting although Martin thought that maybe he would want bigger rapids if he went again. 

We had lunch and then were put on the bus to Chitwan National Park.  We stayed at the Jungle World Resort hotel which was really nice, there were only 6 of us in the whole place so it was really peaceful.

We went on a Elephant backed safari, we saw a young rhino but we were amazed we saw anything as there must have been about 20 elephants in the group trampling through the forest and obviously it was not a quiet walk through the jungle. 

We then went for a canoe ride down the river and we saw a lot of crocodile’s on the banks and in the water.
We then went on a walk through the jungle, we again had a small chance of seeing any wildlife though as all the hotels were taking their guests for walks as well and we all kept passing each other as we walked.  We were showed a tiger paw print by our guide and Martin was very suspicious about the print and while he was looking to find another print he walked straight into a fallen tree and cut his head, there was a lot of blood but luckily just a small cut.
There was then the option to have a bath with the elephants, we decided not to but it was still fun to watch.

If anyone is ever going to Chitwan, do not book a tour in advance as there are so many hotels there you are better off just getting the bus there and then finding a hotel on arrival as this tour was not value for money, we are sure that the hotel did not get paid the amount of money that we paid the tour operator in Thamel.
We then got a bus to Pokhara which took 3 hours longer than it should have because a lorry had broken down and caused a massive traffic jam but we arrived and booked into our hotel.  We decided to do some trekking and the man at the hotel knew of a guide so we arranged a 3 day trek with him.  His name was Yam and he collected us at 8am the next morning to start.  We crossed the lake by boat then climbed to the peace pagoda then headed off.  The views while we were walking were outstanding and there were mountain eagles flying over head the whole time. 

The 1st night we stayed at a man’s house who runs a camp site, we wished we had a tent as the room we were given was terrible, it was more like a cow shed with beds.  All night you could hear rats running around, we did not sleep well! 

The next morning we headed further up the mountain and were greeted with more great views.  That night we stayed at the Happy Heart Hotel which was stark contrast to the place the night before.  It is run by a lady called Maya and it was lovely.  Although there was no electricity or running water the whole place was really clean and homely.  We were invited into the kitchen to sit round the fire while she cooked dinner, it was really good to watch as she prepared and cooked about 5 dishes on 1 fire.  It got really cold at night so the fire was very welcome.  The next morning we were up at 5.30 to get to the summit of Panchase and see the views at sunrise over the Himalayas at 3000 metres.  It was steep but worth it.

We went back to the Happy Heart and had breakfast before we started our steep descent.  It was harder than going up.  It was 5 and a half hours of walking down the equivalent of a stone wall.  A lot of it was slippery as well so it was not so easy.
That night we went out for a well earned steak and a beer at our favourite restaurant in Pokhara.  If we ever get the chance we will most definitely come back to Nepal, it was our favorite place so far.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

To the roof of the world - Tibet

The train trip from Chengdu to Lhasa was 3 days and 2 nights long, the views from the window were amazing. 

We travelled up to 5000 metres at one point as we crossed over a high pass.  The train has the facility for you to pump oxygen into your compartment if you need it but we decided not to do that so we could try and adjust to the altitude.  We shared our cabin with a Chinese man who was heading to Lhasa for business and when he was met at the train station he was given some herbal medicine that is meant to help with adjusting to the altitude and he gave some to us to try.
We arrived in Lhasa and were collected by our guide in a minibus with 3 others who were on our tour.  We drove back to the hotel and us and 2 of the others from the minibus went out for dinner.  We had a Korean barbeque, we had yak meat and it is the most delicious meat that we have had in a really long time.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off for our sightseeing day in Lhasa.  We visited Potala Palace that was built in 637 AD and was the former winter residence for the Dalai Lama. 

We then visited the Jokhang Temple which is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism.  It is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Pilgrims and the outside is surrounded by people walking clockwise spinning their prayer wheels or people prostrating themselves in front of the temple and we were told that nomads travel miles to the temple this way.

In the morning we had another good breakfast and headed out on the road in our bus.  We crossed over the summit of Kamba La at 4794m and saw a beautiful lake called Lake Yamdrok which is one of the holiest lakes in Tibet, it was a beautiful colour blue. 

We drove to the Tashilumpu monastery which is the home of the Panchen Lama although he spends most of his time in Beijing and only visits the monastery for a few months of the year.  The Panchen Lama is a very important person, he is chosen by the Dalai Lama and he is the person who discovers the next Dalai Lama when he dies and gets reincarnated into his next body but the current Panchen Lama is not the one chosen by the Dalai Lama, he mysteriously disappeared and has been replaced by a Panchen Lama chosen by the Chinese government.  It will be an interesting time when the Dalai Lama passes away to see who the Panchen Lama chooses.  We were told by our guide that we were not allowed to ask questions about this subject or talk about it in public at all. 

All through Tibet there were police on every corner.
We then drove on to Shigaste and checked in to our hotel.  We went for dinner in the hotel restaurant and chatted to an Australian couple which was nice.
Once we were in bed I heard a rustling in the curtains and when I turned on the light I saw a rodent on my back pack which ran away once the light was on.  I told Martin and he said that it would be OK and to go back to sleep.  After a while Martin heard rustling and turned the light on to see the rodent sitting on the dressing table, he then suddenly believed me and we went to reception to change rooms.  We were told that the hotel was full and could not move but after much discussion and telling them that we were not going to sleep in a room with a rat we were eventually told we could swap.  The man on reception then moved a couple of Tibetan men from their room and made them go into the rat room while we waited for them to change the bedding so we could sleep in their room.  The room stunk so we may have been better off with the rat!
We noticed that as we seemed to get higher in altitude the hotels and breakfasts got worse, we were not too impressed with the breakfast in the morning but we knew we had a long day ahead.  We were all ready to head off to go to the Rongbuk Guesthouse which is at 5000m which is where we were due to stay that night but 1 hour down the road the bus broke down.  The day before a warning buzzer had been going off but the driver just ignored it but it seems it was something to pay attention to as the fan belt broke and the alternator seized.  So we spent 6 hours at the side of the road.  A replacement bus arrived and we managed to get to Old Tingari to a guesthouse at 4300m.  There was no hot water in the room but we had a thermos of hot water and a jug but believe me it was way too cold to clean anything but your teeth.  The restaurant was really welcoming and warm and it was nice for us to all sit in the warm and eat some nice food.  The night time was not too great as it seems to keep themselves warm the Tibetan stray dogs just bark all night which is not good when the glass in your window does not fit the frame so it sounded like they were in the room with us howling.
The next morning breakfast was half a tablespoon of scrambled egg with 2 chapattis.  Not the best breakfast to start the day with but at least we had our bus back and so we headed off to Everest base camp.  We arrived there about 11.30am.  It was not quite what we expected and we would call it more of a viewing platform than being at base camp.  I am not sure if people climbing Everest even camp there.  We had the choice to walk back to the Rongbuk guesthouse for lunch or we could go in the bus but me and Martin and a girl called Megan decided to walk back.  We ended up walking about 5k and the sun was so strong that I think we all got a bit of altitude sickness as quite a few of us started to go down with bad headaches during lunch.

We started descending and made our way to Old Tingri to the Snow Leopard Hostel, to say we were all not happy with this place was an understatement,  there was no electricity, no running water, no food and the place was filthy.  If anyone ever gets offered to stay here as part of a tour, ask to go somewhere else! We went for breakfast in the morning by candle light and had 1 boiled egg with a pancake.  We were looking forward to finishing the tour and getting some decent food.
We drove to the Friendship Bridge and we passed through customs on the Tibet side and said goodbye to our guide and we walked across the Friendship Bridge to the Nepal border.  Myself and Martin and 5 of the others from the trip stopped for lunch at the border and we had a Dahl Bat for the equivalent of 70p all you can eat.  We managed to get a jeep for us all and we headed off to Kathmandu. We instantly took a liking to Nepal and the scenery around us was so green and nice compared to the baron sights in Tibet.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Back to Chengdu – China

Being back in Chengdu was like coming back to civitlisation after where we had been.  We had not thought much of the place the first time we were here but we really enjoyed it on the 2nd visit, maybe it was because we could finally eat something or have a latte in a McCafe.
We collected our tickets and wasted a day shopping waiting for the train to Tibet. 

Emei and the Dafu Temple – China

We had a few days to kill before we had to be back at Chengdu to pick up our train tickets and head out to Tibet and we were getting our 4 day itch and knew it was time to move on from JiaJiang.  We had looked on the internet for places nearby and Emei sounded nice so we got the bus to Leshan and then the connecting bus to Emei.   This was definalty another ‘real’ China type of place and may well in the summer be buzzing with tourists going to the mountain that seems to be the only thing people would come here for but in the winter there is not a lot going on.  We found a hotel opposite the train station and managed to get checked in for 128 yuan a night (£13). 
We went out to find food and there was not one place that we wanted to stop and eat, the whole place looked dirty and there were no English translations or even pictures so we did not know what to order.  We went and had some dried noodles in our room which was the 1st time in China we could not find somthing nice to eat.
The next morning the weather was not too great and from the internet it seemed it would end up costing us about 300 yuan each to get access to the mountain and some reports seemed to be a bit hit and miss so we decided not to use such a big proportion of our budget on it and we went to the Dafu temple instead which was just up the road.  This place was an oasis amongst the grime.  It was only 10 yuan each to get in (£1) and we had the whole place to ourselves, except for the buddhist monks who lived there of course, we spent half a day looking round and enjoying the silence.  It was the best value for money we had speant in a long while.

The Big Buddha and Buddha Cliffs – China

It turns out that although the station we arrived at was called Leshan we were actually staying in a place called Jiajing county, but we did not mind as we found a hotel with breakfast for £15 a night and we were only a 30 minute bus ride from Leshan so we decided to stay where we were.  We caught a bus to go and see the big Buddha aka Dafo in Leshan.  It is the biggest Buddha in the world and was carved out of a cliff face, work started in 713 AD and was completed in 803, it is 71m tall.

He is very impressive and it was nice to walk around the surrounding park area with some relative fresh air.  In summer I bet the place is rammed with tourists but it was not too bad as we got there early but by the time we were leaving there were Chinese tour groups arriving and it was starting to fill up.
On our way to the Buddha a very helpful lady on the bus whisked us through the bus depot and on to the tourist bus so fast that we did not see where we were or where we would have to get back to so when we left it became obvious we had no idea how to get back.  We got on the 1st bus that came along that was a number 13 and we thought we would ride it until we saw something that was familiar.  That did not happen and we got to the end of the line and had to get off.  We then went to catch the number 6 bus which the lady in the depot told us was going to central station but when we showed the bus driver the address of our hotel he told us to get a number 1 or a number 2 bus but when we showed them our hotel details they said no, wrong bus.  So we thought we would get the number 6 to the central depot thinking that this must be our depot to get home.  On we jumped, paid our 1 Yuan (10p) a piece bus fare and waited for the bus depot we were looking for to come into site. We then came to the end of the line again and this was no bus depot.  We thought we would get a bus back into town and just get a cab and would you believe the bus we went to get on was the one with the helpful driver who told us to get a number 1 or 2 bus.  He looked at us in disbelief and asked in Chinese what we were doing there.  In the end his friend who was on the bus with him drove us in his car to the bus depot.  We were very relieved to see it.  We got on the bus for JiaJiang and then ended up getting off at the wrong stop and had to get a cab to the hotel – not a good day for transport!

We had sat and had a cup of tea with the manageress of the hotel one evening who told us about the Buddha cliffs which were based in JiaJiang.  She said it was just a bus drive away and so we thought we would give it a go.  She also told us that the bus for it stopped right outside the hotel but while we waited not one bus stopped any where near us.  We hailed a cab and were quoted 15 yuan to get there, we knew it was outside the town so we thought that was probably a fair price.  It wasn’t until we got there and reaslied it was not that far away at all and if we had been on the meter then the journey would have probably cost us 6 yuan – if only we spoke Chinese we would have had words with the cab driver!
We paid our 7 yuan each to get in and had a wander round.  It was nice to be away from the crowds and the smells and able to just wander without bumping into people.  A lot of the Buddha faces had been smashed during the cutural revolution which was a shame.

There was a bus waiting when we walked out and we jumped on and were back at the hotel without a problem.
There was a big market laid out down one of the back streets and we decided to have a look, here we saw turtles hanging up by string waiting to be sold, fish dying in buckets, lots and lots of chunks of meat on display and a few skinned and gutted dogs for sale too. This is not that sanitised China that you see in the big tourist spots!

The train to Leshan – China

We found a place called Leshan that was not too far away from Chengdu and it had a few things to do there so we decided to head there.  We booked a train ticket and the journey was only 3.5 hours so we did not think it would be that bad of a journey.  It seems we never learn.  We had a ticket for a seat each and once we headed off we did not think it was that busy on the train, all the seats were full and so were the aisles but we thought it would be bearable.  At each stop more and more people crammed on the train and they all have about 3 bags to one person.  At one of the stops the people could no longer fit through the doors and so about 8 people with about 12 bags climbed through the window on top of us, we kept trying to close the window on them but they just kept coming.  Two of the people who came in through the window ended up squatting on the very small table in between the seats for 3 hours.  The guard lady came and informed us that we would be approaching Leshan soon and we tried to follow her to the door to get out but there were just so many people you could not move.  We had to put our backpacks in front of us and just push, it was the only way to get through.  There was one man on the floor who could not move and the people with him could not move him, he was passed out drunk and not stirring so over the top of him we went.  Once we got to the door the lady made everyone who was not getting off at that stop move but there was nowhere for them to move to.  It was mayhem.  Once we were off the train we stood and watched the chaos of the people trying to get on.  In the end there was lots of arguing and they were told the train was too full.  I wish they had done that about 10 stops before hand, it would have made for a nicer journey for everyone.