Diwali Doolalee

Happy Diwali by the way!  Well it’s over now as I’m sure you know, so happy belated Diwali.  We spent it in the sprawling mass that is Jaipur with a couple of English girls we’d met beforehand in Agra.  It was a hectic couple of days.  The whole place became a war zone as locals ignited fireworks on the streets.  They seemed to specialize in bangers that went off like hand-grenades, creating no spectacular light-show whatsoever but leaving you with perforated ear-drums.  We’d befriended a rickshaw driver called Tiger Ali.  He was a self-proclaimed tiger with the ladies apparently.  Tiger Ali took us up to an old fort overlooking the city.  Whilst up there we got chased by a massive monkey, Tiger Ali out-running us all, screaming like a little girl.  On the way down we had to snake through a few kilometres of hill-side jungle.  As it was dark and Tiger Ali’s headlights didn’t work it was rather terrifying.  Begging Tiger Ali to slow down we were informed that we had to go fast because there were tigers prowling in the trees.  Good.

We went to the cinema to check out the latest Bollywood blockbuster, Ra-One.  The movie started well enough; a blatant rip-off of Iron-Man and the Matrix.  By the end though it made absolutely no sense.  There were musical numbers, needless cameos and the audience were just cheering and jumping around for the whole duration like it was a football derby.  Every time our hero appeared on the screen the whole auditorium erupted.  It made the Aberdeen Belmont seem a little tame.

Well, now we’re in Udiapur, where they filmed Octopussy.  It’s beautiful, we’ve been out on motorbikes (well I had to ride on the back of G’s as the traffic is manic and I’m a wimp), swam in lakes and cooked curries on rooftops.  We’ve also discovered 8pm whiskey, the tipple of choice for any discerning Indain.  Very good stuff.

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Holy Shit.

Cows on the street have lost their novelty.  As holy beings out here, they are obviously free to wander where they want, blocking traffic and pedestrians at their whim.  They eat food from poor people’s stalls.  They try to push motorbikes over.  And they shit everywhere.  Dog-poo on a trainer is nothing compared to cow-pat on a flip-flop.  Actually that should be around the flip-flop and therefore in between the toes.

We’re in Zara Phillips’ favourite town Jodhpur, which did actually lend it’s name to the pony trousers.  The old town is incredible and refreshingly non-touristy, it’s also very blue.  From the giant fort that sits above you’re greeted with a swathe of  houses that look like they were nicked from a Greek island, except that they’re all blue.  The fort is vast (and was recently used for filming in the upcoming batman movie, bat fans!) with huge spiky metal gates to ward off elephant attacks and old cannonball dents from previous sieges.

The other day we were in Pushkar, a smaller place surrounding a lake complete with 400+ temples.  I accidentally entered one.  It was open air see, and beside the lake.  One minute I was taking a photo and the next I had flower petals in my hand and being led to the shore.  A fat Brahman appeared beside me, made me hold a coconut over the water and began his blessings.  Alarm bells were ringing.  He asked how many people were in my family.  I said four.  Big mistake.  Each family, including myself, was given a specific blessing and then the inevitable request followed.  “Can you please make a donation for each family member that has been blessed.”  He wanted so many rupees for each member I wished I was an orphan.  I ended up bargaining with the holy man, as tourists and locals looked on disapprovingly.   “Please sir!”  He exclaimed, “have an open heart!”  I told him that I did have an open heart but not an open wallet.  We settled on half the price.  Self-enlightenment over.  I’m not sure where people go in India to discover themselves but it probably involves a few trips to the ATM.

Next up – Jaipur for Diwali!

Oh, and never ever take an Indian sleeper bus.  It’s false advertising, you will not sleep.

Farewell Sparky

We bid au revoir to Marcus (or the spanish equivalent) from Agra, which wasn’t quite the romp we had planned for as he was bloody ill.  Still G and I drank a few for him and still managed to cart him to the Taj Mahal in ridiculous Harry Krishna outfits we had purchased in Varanasi – photos to follow.

The Taj lives up to the billing by the way.  Reflecting the sun off it’s polished marble it’s actually difficult to look at directly.  Up close though, the level of detail is staggering, not a bad grave for the old ball and chain.  Not a bad grave at all.

Yesterday Stinwad and I took a detour to see an old palace and an epic mosque parked alongside it.  Some muslim fellows were having a bit of a singsong in the grounds, one of them in particular impressing us with his drum skills.  Everyone in India seems to be religious.  Some of them seem to worship in mysterious ways though.  Back in Varanasi for instance, we watched guys panning for gold in the shallows of the Ganges where the ashes of the deceased were being dumped.  As these people were adorned with plenty of jewellery upon cremation there was obviously a fair bit of gold to be had.  Well, I say panning but these guys were fully submerging themselves and coming up with pans full of silt, ash and maybe a tiny speck of gold.  Mental.

OK, we’re off to Rajastan tonight – I have had Dehli belly already (spewed everywhere last night after my curry) and we’re going to check out a cheeky sunset over the Taj right…about…now.

Varanasi To See You

We crossed the border.  It was harrowing.  Agreeing to purchase some onward tickets south to Varanasi we received them on the Indian side in a tiny shop fronted by the Indian equivalent of Del-boy.  Glancing at the price on the tickets we reckoned we were paying the chancer far too much commission (as in triple the price of the ticket) so tried bargaining with him.  Next thing we knew he was shouting, “I’m not your slave!”  And trying to grab all our money and tickets off us.  Marcus attempted to slip some of our cash out of his pocket, which is when a large mechanic from down the road filled the doorway and inquired why we were touching his boss.  Some smooth talking and rather large compromises later we had evaded their threat of the police and slipped ourselves on the bus, wallets emptier but faces intact.  Welcome to India.

From the bus we caught a sleeper train where we had been allocated a “box.”  Thankfully the box contained beds and a fitful nights rest ended with the sights and sounds of Varanasi.  My opinion of India was about to change.  This place is magic.

The old streets don’t have space for traffic so I think it’s less hectic to get around than other major cities.  Saying that, cows regularly pin you to walls, touts have offered us anything from drugs to boat-rides to head massages and yesterday I was confronted with a number of open crematoriums.  The Hindus rather like the Ganges it seems, and a number of them stagger to Varanasi for their final days before popping their sandals and being burnt on pyres right next to the river.  Strangely it wasn’t as horrible as I expected.  There actually seemed to be a bit of a party atmosphere.

We’re heading to Agra soon, to see some curry house called Maj’s Tahal or something.  Luckily we have the tickets bought already so no swindling this time round.

Oh, and we washed elephants in Nepal.  I rode one and it squirted water all over me with it’s trunk.  If you ever want to feel five again I highly recommend this.

Mazel Tov Mayhem.

So with the Annapurna swiftly behind us we reclined and relaxed in the serene town of Pokhara.  Reclining and relaxing down, we focused more intently on the partying options available and settled for a rather silly week of boat-rides in the lake, cheap steaks and rum.  Marcus took up a three-day shift behind one of the local bars, Spinks temporarily fell in love with said local bar’s barmaid (she left for Kathmandu), Stin went for a rather bizarre walk with a Bangladeshi bloke and I, of course, was above such infantile behaviour.  Enough dobbing.

During the Annapurna trek I’d come across an Israei guy who had lent his gloves to his girlfriend and had subsequently lost the feeling in his fingers.  Being the all-round good Samaritan that I am I granted him mine (of course I had a spare pair, if not the poor bastard would’ve gone cold) and upon arrival at the end of the trek, he was there with the gloves in hand ready for return.  He then told us about a rafting trip he and his girlfriend ( called Hanny although we called her Honey which got a bit weird) were going on a rather exciting-sounding rafting excursion.

Cut to a travel agents in Pokhara and us four Brits were amongst a hive of rafting-frenzied Israelis.  It tuned out there were 49 of them.  They like to keep together.  What followed was an epic three-day “cruise” down the Kali-Gandaki river.  Beforehand I predicted a rather tame affair.  By the second capsize, where all eight of our crew were left alone by our guide who had been flipped out the boat before us, I knew differently.  People were thrown overboard by the huge swells, whole crews strewn across the river by walls of white water.  At one point I was let on top of a turned-over raft, surfing like a amateur as I bounced off boulders of doom.  It was awesome.  At night we danced round campfires and sang “Israelis Can’t Dance” to an uninspired audience.  They’re a unique bunch the Israelis.  Very regimented when it comes to preparing a campsite (that’ll be the compulsory military service then) but the epitome of first-come, first-serve when it came to buffet o’clock.

Today we hit Chitwan national park in the south.  On a rather sweaty trek we came face to face with a with rhino.  It was massive and quite surprisingly, sporting a rather massive erection.  We backed away nervously, hoping a willing rhino-ette would fill our spot.

Yesterday, on a rather more significant note to the trip, was a temporary good-bye to Spinks who has opted to stay in Nepal and climb a 6500 metre peak near Everest.  It’s going to take him 3 weeks apparently so wish him luck.  In the meantime we’ll be washing elephants tomorrow, heading to India and getting Marcus to Dehli via a few tactical pauses for photos and beer.  Wish us luck too please.

Anna to the Purna

It’s been a while!  Well we finished our stint on the Annapurna Circuit Trek, legs and backs aching, cameras broken (mine, and on the first day) and various records ticked.  Quite literally the highlight of the trek was the 5400 metre Thorong Pass, although getting there was far from easy.  It took eight days actually, although the Lonely Planet recommends you get there in eleven (Sergeant Pumba and Major Stin ensured we hiked further than was perceived possible every bloody day) and they were rather action packed.

We started quite low down altitude-wise, among waterfalls, jungle and rice paddies.  Pretty standard for Nepal as far as we were concerned.  During this time we met a Spanish bloke called Joan (pronounced Joanne as in Lumley) who seemed to be stoned all the time yet somehow sauntered to his destination with a full bag with a minimum amount of fuss.  Thanks to him we didn’t take any of the wrong turns we doubtless would of, as our map was less accurate than Arsene Wegner.  Slowly we rose through the valleys until rocks began replacing trees.

One of these rocks landed on Spinks’ head after we decided to copy some Nepalese in taking a short-cut.  The lesson was quickly learned that Nepalese are quite a bit better at the whole mountain thing.  Twinkling their toes from stone to perch, we looked like marauding rhinos in comparison, Stin stumbling up ahead in one instance causing a mini-landslide that connected with Pumba’s rather fragile noggin.  After some harsh words that we’ll put down as “friendly banter” we decided never to take a short-cut ever again.  Bloody Nepalese.

By now we were climbing through the park at a great rate of knots, villages becoming older and more remote, huge eagles circling the thermals above us and mountains starting to appear out of the rapidly removing clouds.  We stopped at one village where they seemed to be having some sort of party.  It turns out it was a show they were putting on to celebrate tourism in Nepal.  Spinks was presented with a little hand-knitted man-bag for being the first guest at the festivities, and he then gave quite a good inoffensive speech.  We were all mightily impressed.  We were then entered into an apple eating competition (I couldn’t enter for Chinese crown related reasons) where a Dutch girl thrashed all and sundry ad we all helped ourselves to the local brew – a mixture of fermented barley and urine apparently.

Higher and higher we went, climbing above 4000 metres into what appeared to be Mordor on a bad day.  Before we made the final ascent to the Pass, we stopped in a village where there was a tiny cinema that promised free tea and popcorn.  Excited for a wee slice of civilization we settled down to a movie called Into The Thin Air.  The plot involved a group of climbers all dying in variously horrible ways  on Mount Everest.  It was more harrowing than Requiem For A Dream.  I wept into to my free tea, vowing never to climb anywhere near a giant mountain ever again.  Spinks on the other hand has vowed to climb Everest before he’s 35.  Idiot.

And so the final pass loomed.  I was a breathless, stumbling fool, pausing for monumental breaks every twenty metres or so.  Marcus was in a similar shape, although he thought I was waiting for him to give moral support (Spinks and Stin had marched miles ahead obviously), a claim I was more than willing to accept.  We were now officially in the Himalayas, huge peaks of snow looming over us but as soon as we were up we were down.  The snow was replaced with sand and suddenly we were in Afghanistan, with a head-wind similar to the rear-end of a jumbo jet.  The final slog to Jomsom was surreal but worth it, with rum and apple brandy as a liquid pat on the liver.

Finally we cheated and bussed it to Tapotani (or something similar) where we spent two days in hot springs and a chance to give Spinks his birthday present: An Andrew Survival Kit, complete with spare socks, toilet paper, deodorant and a book by Edmund Hillary warning about the effects on Altitude Sickness.  I think he was happy.

Next up: River Rafting with Israelis for three days!