November 16, 2007

Exploding Chennai...

:: Thali Lunch ::

We stopped overnight in the town of Bhubaneshwar before catching a 20 hour train all the way to Chennai (formerly Madras) in time for the build up to Diwali - the biggest of Hindu festivals.

Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state is the fourth biggest city in India and is the second largest exporter of IT enabled services behind it's neighbour Bangalore. This combined with a strong manufacturing industries means Chennai is an economy on the up and up. The city also is home to a Tamil movie industry called Kollywood very different in language, content and music to the movies to those produced in Bollywood (Mumbai).

Our stay in Chennai was made all the more enjoyable by actually knowing someone living here. Krishna, who worked with Marcus in San Francisco, took us out for a fantastic meal, gave us pointers on what to see around town and left us with a huge box of Diwali sweets. He also generously agreed to mind our big bags for a few weeks so that we can venture down to the south unencumbered. Thanks for everything Krishna - see you again soon!

Diwali Festival for Hindus is the equivalent to Christmas. It's a crazy time of year with everyone running around the shops doing last minute buying followed by two days of parties, firecrackers, fireworks and the consumption of enormous amounts of sweets. For two days solid everyone set off fireworks and bangers in the street - in a very haphazard and dangerous manner may I add. (Heh..Dee has sensitive hearing :-) ) We spent two days walking around with our hands over our ears peering around corners to make sure there weren't any fireworks aimed in our direction. Now when we say everyone, we mean everyone. It was an incredible experience to walk down narrow streets just after dark and every household was out in the street letting off bangers, poppers, rockets, whirlythingys, sparklers and roman candles - kids parents and pets all in on the act.

As we'll be back in Chennai before Christmas we put off some sightseeing until then and concentrated on trying to clear down our memory cards and get the blog up to date.

25kg of luggage lighter, we set off for the seaside town of Mamallapuram a couple of hours south of Chennai.


Here is a little video I just uploaded of my rooftop ride on a Nepali Bus ...its the only way to travel !

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November 9, 2007

Puri and the Ocean

Hopping on yet another night train we got to the beach town of Puri in the State of Orissa and encountered our worst tout to date. Every tourist stop in India comes with it's own set of touts and rickshaw drivers trying to get you into their hotel, visit a silk shop etc. If you arrive late at night into a busy place their assistance can be invaluable in finding accommodation, however at 7am in the morning after a near sleepless night on the train they are the very last people you want to deal with.
If a tout accompanies you into a hotel the price immediately goes up as he gets a commission for the deal and generally the hotel owner will ignore us and deal with the tout. Therefore it's preferable to be doing the wheeling and dealing by oneself. In Kolkata Marcus waited with the bags while I set off to look for a hotel. Within minutes I had a tout on my tail and had to run down a few alleyways to give him the slip. Anyhow at this stop we were unlucky enough to attract a completely crazy rickshaw driver who just did not understand the meaning of the words "go away" .. and followed us for what seemed like forever; after a highly frustrating encounter we have since changed our approach tactics. We now arrive into places with our earplugs on the ready and use them at the first opportunity :-)

Puri is a popular Indian tourist resort, although it has two distinct ends, the Hindu end where all the local tourists go and then the other end where everyone else winds up. It was great to be back to seaside fare again .. mackerel, prawns, tuna on every little cafe's menu. It is not the sort of place where you strip off and go for a dip, more the kind of place where you savour the food and breathe in some fresh seaside air. Aside from the beach up our end literally being a toilet and cricket ground for the fishing community there are big rip currents which drown people each year. Around us were lots of hotels and lovely little garden cafes when we ventured down to the Hindu end we were surprised to see hotel upon hotel, camel rides, snacks on the beach and a promenade. We thought we were staying at the busy end of things!

:: The Sun Temple ::

In a side trip from Puri we went to see the Sun Temple in nearby Konark. Built in 1278 the entire temple has been conceived as a chariot of the sun god with 24 wheels, each about 10 feet in diameter, with a set of spokes and elaborate erotic carvings. Seven horses drag the temple. Two lions crushing elephants guard the entrance. The temple is well restored and its carvings certainly made it a little different from all the other temples we've seen on this trip.

As always there's a ridiculous transport story, this entry's installment happened on the way out to the Sun Temple. Boarding a local bus we both managed to get a seat and waited for the bus to fill up. As more people piled in the ticket collector greeted each person individually asking where they were going and made a point of personally squeezing each new comer in one by one thus ensuring that there wasn't an inch of space wasted down the very back of the bus. The moment the bus was in motion he started trying to move down the aisle to collect the fares causing mayhem as people were packed in so tight they couldn't even get their money out let alone let him pass. Obviously there's a system ......

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Everyone has heard of the city of Calcutta, although mostly in a negative light. Poverty, pollution, smell and dirt seem to be predominant stereotype people have. In short not the sort of city that you'd go out of your way to visit. We weren't really sure what to expect but were very pleasantly surprised. Arriving into the magnificent Howrah station we stepped out to be met by hundreds of Ambassador cabs - these yellow cabs, running for 100 years are a famous nostalgic icon of Calcutta. Beyond them were palm trees all around and big old colonial buildings in the distance. It was almost like stepping on to a movie set of India in British Raj times.

:: Calcutta Cabs ::

Calcutta changed it's name to Kolkata in 2001- some say to erase the legacy of British Rule. Kolkata served as the capital of India during the British Raj until 1911 when the capital was moved to New Delhi. A change of name maybe but what still exists is an impressive legacy of remarkably beautiful colonial mansions, wide streets of red bricked buildings and huge green parks.

:: Cricket in the Park ::

Poverty always been a part of Kolkata's history, under British Rule in the 19th century the city was divided into the rich "White Town" British area and impoverished "Black Town" the Indian part. In modern times the British are gone but there are the new wealthy and plenty of signs of affluence around unfortunately there are still the have nots.

::Victoria Mermorial::

After Varanasi Kolkata was like a breath of fresh air to us and offered us a completely different picture of Indian life. The busy streets, affluent shops and restaurants, leafy streets and big parks ooze with old charm. We took a walk through multiple cricket game and polo games in Maidan Park.

::BBD Central Business District::

One unusual thing we noticed about Kolkata was that there were no cheap and cheerful local restaurants. The choice was upmarket air conditioned restaurants or street food outside the really touristy areas. On saying that there was street food on every corner and most of the times the stalls were thronged with people having a snacks at all hours of the day. Surprising favourites were banana toast and panini style toasted cheese sandwiches along with the local dishes. With juice bars and chai stands on every street corner we were never far away from refreshments.

:: Government Cars (&Drivers) ::

We had some great food in Kolkata and enjoyed wandering around the leafy street and experiencing life in a big Indian city. Yes Kolkata is dirty, polluted and poor but it's also manages to be affluent, charming and endearing place to spend a few days soaking up the atmosphere.

Next stop and the Indian beach town of Puri.

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Our first stop in India was the holy city of Varanasi, a 3,000 year old city on the banks of the River Ganges and one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Hindus. According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi liberates soul from the human body to the ultimate.It is the goal of every Hindu to die there, because they believe that doing so will release them from the cycle of birth and death.
The river Ganges is also believed to have the power of washing away all of one's sins. Sacrifices, prayers and any charity donated here reaps a thousand times more rewards than the same act done elsewhere such is the power of the city.
For ages Varanasi has been a centre of learning of Indian philosophy, spiritualism, mysticism - with it's rich cultural heritage and tradition it is essentially the cultural capital of India.

:: Sacred Cow ::

The spiritual hub of Varanasi is along one side of the Ganges riverbank where over a hundred Ganga Ghats and temples, owned mostly by rich Maharajahs, are located. The ghats are broad flights of steps down to the bank of the river; pilgrims flock to these spots to take a dip in the sacred waters and to offer morning prayers to the rising sun. It is believed that people are cleansed physically, mentally and spiritually in these ghats. Near these ghats are hospices where terminally ill people from all over India spend their last days. We took an early morning boat trip at dawn up river, it was an excellent way to experience the pilgrims activities, admire the beautiful old temples and absorb and appreciate what is Varanasi.

There are few places where death is so public. Amongst the bathing ghats there are two burning ghats where cremations are carried out continuously day and night - this can mean up to 200 cremations per day. The burning ghats are open to all, and tourists get right up next to the funeral pyres. The lower the caste the closer to the river the cremations takes place. White shrouded corpses are men, coloured are female, gold coloured shrouds are old men and orange coloured shrouds old women. The family purchases wood to burn the corpse on, typically it takes 200 kgs to cremate a body and wood can cost 150 rupees a kilo (2.6 Euros/ 4 AUD) making it costly to the average Indian family.

:: The Burning Ghat ::

It is the male members of the family that carry out the cremation. Women usually do not attend as it is believed their open grief may compel the soul of the departed to stay behind. Untouchables prepare the body and wrap it in a shroud, the corpse is then run on a stretcher through the small alley ways down to the ghats where it is submerged in the water, it is then laid out to dry. Meanwhile a pyre is constructed from wood and the corpse is placed on the top. The eldest son lights the fire and acts as primary attendant for the entire procedure which can take up to three hours.

The Ganges may be the religious lifeblood of India but it is also alarmingly polluted; raw sewage, rotting carcasses, industrial effluent, fertilisers and pesticides infect the river from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal. The river that gives life also takes it away through disease and sickness - it's purity deteriorated as the Indian booming population places an ever growing burden on her. For the moment this doesn't stop pilgrims bathing and drinking the water. Efforts to clean the river are underway but it's an uphill battle given the millions of people that depend on the river.

Not only is the city a sprawling congested hive of activity but the old part near the river is a rabbit warren of small little lanes challenging to even the best navigator. We stayed in a small family run guesthouse right on the banks of the Ganges and never really ever felt 100% confident on finding our way back through the maze of street. Cows, goats, dogs etc wander through the tiny lanes and down around the ghats in an owner less fashion - and they're not always docile we've had a few experiences where they can charge. Whilst we were there the Durga Puja festival was in full swing. Makeshift temples were impressively constructed from corrugated steel and elaborate paper mache idols were paraded through the streets then immersed in the river. We could still hear the party going and music thumping at 4am in the morning.

As an introduction to India, Varanasi was as full on as they get.You don't really get used to the smokey ash filled air or walking past the burning corpses each day. Tourists are free to watch the cremations up close, however it seems almost disrespectful as there is not much left up to the imagination. There is real life in the city as well, cremations and pilgrims don't get in the way of the local boys who have regular cricket games in amongst the ghats .... cricket is a religion here .. but that's for another blog.

Due to a bout of very violent illness I'm going to put off writing about the Indian culinary scene until a later date.

:: Spritual Ganga ::

Varanasi truly is a place where life and death come together. You cannot help being absorbed into the abundant spirituality and tradition that embrace the area around the Ganga giving it a strong feeling of purpose, history and longevity.

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November 7, 2007

The Annapurna Circuit (Diet)

Have you ever wanted to lose those pesky pounds while eating as many Carbs as you can ?
Well the Annapurna Trekking Diet is for you -
Every Day you can feast on as many potato and pasta dishes as you can handle.
No Gym work required
Everyone can walk, can't they ..?
All you need to do is walk (carrying your own bag) for 6-8 hours per day for more than two weeks... and the best part is, only half of it is up hill !

(Yes we dropped a fair few of those Chinese Dumpling induced pounds in Nepal)

We hadn't exactly planned on doing a big in trek in Nepal; we toyed briefly with the idea a few weeks ago, then suddenly found ourselves purchasing diamox and a set of walking poles in Kathmandu and asking ourselves did we really know what we were doing (clearly not).

Following fantastic reports of the Annapurna circuit trek and the no backtracking nature of the loop we thought this was the walk for us, particularly since we had seen Everest from Tibet and that is the other major trekking option. Dee's dad, Gilbert, bravely agreed to join our expedition in Jomson on day 11 of the circuit. With this deadline in place we rushed to the starting point of Besishar and started walking.

:: While it was Green ... ::

People have been walking the Annapurna circuit for decades, in fact we met a surprising number of people on their second or third lap of a lifetime. The trek is basically a ~300 kilometre loop, normally walked anti-clockwise, that circles the Annapurna mountain ranges. Over the course of the first 10 days we ascended from 900 metres to 5,416 metres. Such a change in altitude provided an ever changing backdrop of scenery. The path wound its way though tiny isolated villages and lush rice terraced fields, under waterfalls, through waterfalls, down waterfalls, up waterfalls (you get the idea) and traversed raging rivers on huge suspension bridges before climbing high into the mountains. Each day the path took us further and further away from road and civilisation.... there's one way in and one way out - you have no option but to turn back or proceed forward to Jomson where there is an airport should you want out.

After doing some research we decided to tackle the trek independently and to be our own porters/guides/fixers. As there's no sense of direction needed to follow the path (as most of the walk is through optionless valleys) and every few hours there is a small village with tea houses and lodges to stay in; this turned out to be a perfect choice. Most of the lodges have great food and some even have hot showers (if the solar panels got a good dose of sun that day). Our very first stop was in the small village of Ngadi, absolutely wrecked from a hard days walking we sat out under a starlit sky enjoying a potato curry and questioned what the hell we'd got ourselves into. 1 day down ... only a 15+ days to go, it wasn't the time to start measuring how far away the end was. The next few days passed surprisingly quickly as we negotiated our way over rivers, over waterfalls and up steep hills, all the time surrounded by green vegetation and the sound of gushing water. Stopping in the villages of Jayat, Darapani and Chame, all nestled under towering snow capped peaks, we were thoroughly enjoying the trekking but finding ourselves tucked up in bed by and fast asleep by 8pm every night.

:: A Breakfast View ::

The trek follows ancient paths used as trade routes between Nepal and Tibet. These paths have long facilitated the flow of cultures and religions in this remote and formerly inaccessible region. In the low lying area the dominant religion of the villages is Hindu, as you proceed further on this changes to Buddhism and there are chortens and prayer wheels as you enter the villages. As the path is the only route to the villages it's a busy thoroughfare of local porters and teams of mules, everything has to be carried in and out of the villages from the distant road. The long parade of mules causes huge early morning traffic jams on the small suspension bridges. Meanwhile porters are like ants marching with huge loads; we passed one guy who had a fridge freezer on his back. Carrying our own bags we could (sort of) empathise with the porters - we certainly had enormous respect for how hard their jobs are.

:: Boo... Snow ::

As we climbed higher and higher and the lush green vegetation turned to barren rock the day when we'd climb over Thorung La pass (5416 metres) grew closer and closer. Disappointingly the blue skies disappeared and gave way to snow. The day before we were due to cross the pass we battled our way in a freezing snowstorm to our lodge for the night. By that stage a foot of snow had fallen, over bowls of steaming porridge we warmed up watching as the snowfall got heavier and the threat of getting snowed in became a reality - the last thing we needed when we were meeting Gilbert three days later, and a further two days walk away. Waking up at 5am all ready to go we ventured out to find two feet of fresh snow on the ground and the track up the mountain completely covered. Resigned to having to wait another day in the hope the snow had cleared we all went back to bed. I'll just add here that snow in September is extremely rare, one guide was on his 50th lap of that circuit and had never seen snow this early in the year.

:: Trudging to the top ::

Luckily a day's thawing revealed the track and the following morning we began the slow very very steep loopback trail up the mountain. The day involves a climb 1000m up to the pass and 1600 metres down the other side into the town of Mukinath. Along with lots of other trekkers we chugged along eyes fixed on the narrow path below aware that the recent snowfall disguised huge drop offs. As for the magnificent mountain views, not a sniff, all we could see was white - where land met sky was indistinguishable. 4 arduous hours later we reached the 5416 metre high top, caught our breath, took a couple of photos and then started down before the high winds picked up. For a little perspective, at 5,416m (about 18,000 feet) this is 4 times the height of Ben Nevis, 600m (2,000 feet) higher than Mont Blanc, 1.5 times Mt Cook and 2.5 times the height of Mt Kosciusko. The steep decent 1,600m to Mukinath was an agonising 5 hours of knee jarring manoeuvring in torrential rain through a dismal barren scree landscape. To say we reached Mukinath absolutely shattered is putting it lightly - after a hot shower, cold beer and some macaroni, tuna and cheese we were almost human again.

:: The Top ::

The next day we felt in remarkably good shape considering the day before and power-walked to the "meet up" point of Jomson only to find that the airport in Jomson hadn't seen any flight action in 4 days. If there was no change in the weather and Gilbert's flight was cancelled the following morning then we would simply have to walk for a couple of days to meet up with each other halfway- and that's exactly what we had to do! Two miserably wet days of battling in the rain, wading through swollen rivers and scrambling over landslides finally brought us to the town of Tatopani where we walked into a hotel to find Gilbert and guide recovering with a cold beer. Over the next hour we swapped stories of woe - when his flight had been cancelled they had tried to catch a bus to Beni (an entrance point to the Annapurna region) but buses weren't running due to a landslide. Hopping into a taxi they charged through a few hair-rising floods before the maverick driver ran out of luck and got stuck. As the water began to rise to knee level in the back of the taxi they decided it was a good time to leave and abandoned ship wading to a passing bus with their bags hoisted over their heads. The bus (full of half drowned occupants) trundled on for a few miles before being blocked by a landslide and in a final twist of the story Gilbert and guide got out and completed the remainder of the journey on foot before starting the real trek the following day to get to us. What an introduction to trekking in Nepal!!!

If the recent advent of blue skies in the little town of Tatopani didn't help make our respective ordeals fade away then a relaxing couple of hours in the hot springs certainly did. And that's exactly where we spent the remainder of the afternoon.

:: Climbing ... ::

By this stage we were trekking for 15 serious days in a row and it was beginning to feel like this was our normal life. With little time for relaxing before tackling the next challenge, the following day we set off for the blue roofed town of Ghorepani perched high up in the mountains. 15 km of very steep steps took us up the 1,700 metre ascent through some astounding beautiful scenery. Spectacular valley views and thick rhododendron forests were admired between grunts of exertion - it seemed like the top would never come. Gilbert showed us what real trekking and mountain fitness is all about by bounding up the mountain. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest days of the trek both mentally and physically and all three of us were thankful when we finally reached the top.

:: Poon Hill ::

Poon Hill above Ghorepani draws crowds at dawn as has it one of the best views on the Annapurna Circuit. The panoramic view of over 50 mountains includes Dhauligiri, Manaslu and the Annapurna mountains.

:: Sunrise over The Fishtail ::

Hiking on to Tadapani we decided to have a rest afternoon - although we'd been up trekking since 4:30am that morning so it didn't really qualify as a short day at all. Relaxing outside our hotel in the sunshine with a beer we people-watched for a couple of hours. It was a rather sadistic affair as our location was at the top of a particularly steep climb and everyone coming up was struggling - the last thing I'm sure they needed was an audience revelling in the drama. The lounging abruptly ended when a group of 16 Finnish ladies suddenly arrived and we had to make a mad dash to get into the showers before them.

I'd like to say the remainder of the trek was downhill, but that's never the case. In clear blue sky conditions we hiked on to Chomrong in the Annapurna Sanctuary to get a close look at the Fishtail Peak and the surrounding awesomely spectacular Annapurna mountain ranges. Our final day of trekking (day 19) saw us say goodbye to the mountain vistas and we headed down the trail towards the main road back to civilisation. Treating ourselves to a taxi (a beat up Toyota Coralla circa 1970) we sat back dreaming of big juicy steaks and hot apple pie awaiting us in the traveller hangout of Pokhara. 10 km of hair rising dangerous overtaking on the brow of a hill/ hairpin bend / steep drop off proved too much for our Toyota Corolla and in a sudden shunt it was curtains for the steering mechanism. We were not even a minute out assessing the gravity situation before an pickup (already full of people and goods) arrived and offered to take us the rest of the way. Gilbert, well versed in the protocol involved in trashing and abandoning Nepalese taxis assured us that you're never waiting long for the next form of transport to come along. After four occupants squeezed into the front seat we stuffed ourselves, bags and poles into the back. After completing a delivery of whatever was in the back of the truck we were finally on the way to Pokhara.

:: The End ::

After all the fresh mountain air coming back to the "real world" made us acutely aware of all the traffic, noise and air pollution around. On the upside we were met with an impressive array of great food and home comforts like hot showers, comfortable beds, satellite TV, newspapers and internet. Situated on a large lake with impressive views of the mountains Pokhara is a low key touristy town that panders to every trekkers needs. We comfortably settled into to a few rest days here enjoying huge steaks (imported from Calcutta - not sure how that works), shopping/haggling and generally enjoying not having to get up and walk uphill for miles. After all the exercise of the preceding days, it was guilt free living at it best. However, all good things must come to an end and soon we said goodbye to Gilbert as he headed for the airport and we headed back to Kathmandu to get Indian Visas and head for the border.

Kathmandu is a crazy, often frustrating place. We thought dodging motorbikes in Vietnam was a harrowing experience - it's nothing compared to Kathmandu. Tiny little white Suzuki taxi put F1 to shame accelerating down populated narrow streets causing pedestrians to dive into the gutter to avoid getting hit. The city streets simply can't handle the volume of traffic resulting in constant traffic jams and horn blowing. Intermingled with the taxis are racing motorbikes and annoying rickshaws which have a 6 ft high and 2ft long piece of wood running over the drivers head. If you're lucky enough to be over this height you are under constant threat of being decapitated.

:: A Kathmandu Market ::

Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu is a myriad of outdoor shops filled with all kinds of everything fake, silver jewellery shops, souvenirs shops and lots of guesthouses and restaurants. Touts and rickshaw drivers continually compete for attention to the point where after a couple of days we started to completely ignore anyone trying to talk to us in the streets. Thankfully tranquil rooftop balconies exist where you can escape out of the constant noise and danger of ending up as roadkill for a couple of hours.

After two long very frustrating days queueing in the Indian embassy we finally got our Visas and the green light to leave Kathmandu and all it's madness. Hopping on an early morning bus in the rain we ran into horrendous traffic - the definition of which is three hours stationary inching a foot occassionally. Unfortunately the rain meant nobody was riding on the roof so conditions in the interior of the bus were snug to say the least. In darkness, running six hours late we finally reached the border town of Sunauli and all it's glory; money changers, pushy travel agents and filthy hotels. Rising the following morning we were delighted to escape across the border and into India. The first person we met was the border guy, in between smiles and chit chat he stamped our passports and vigiously shook our hands welcoming us before letting us loose to find our way to Varanasi.

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Everest at Dawn

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