Category: Asia

India!

I made it. And I don’t know why I suffer like I do. It’s only my own fault. I planned to split the trip in to two days. 8 hours of Nepali bus was enough. My knees were killing me as there wasn’t enough leg space to fit, much less stretch. Then the 8 hours turned in to 11. We broke down, we went slow,… I should have had dinner and gotten a hotel! I’d had a snack for breakfast, a small snack for lunch and that’s it. It was my first long bus trip that didn’t stop for a meal.

But then, I continued. “I’ll see if the hotels are better across the border.” I got on a bus that was going to take 1-2 hours to the next city because the border town wasn’t better. It turned in to 4 hours. Which had me arrive 10 minutes before the night train to Varanasi left! But I wanted to get a hotel! I’ll just get a sleeper. With 5 minutes left, I bought a ticket, not a sleeper. Only general admission was left. I should have been in a hotel with a full belly hours before. Instead I got on a train. A full train. India style full. I pushed my way on to a bench with four other men. I fit half my ass. It was 11pm. I didn’t know how long the train took. Then, a few hours later it got truly India style full. People were arguing for space. Standing room only in the aisles. But I still had half a check on a bench! Whoopee. Slept, barely, for a little under three hours and the train gloriously arrived at 5am. Ravished, having eaten only two fried things, some puffed rice, some cookies and fruit, I checked in to my hotel and ate breakfast. I’m on the Ganges. I keep running in to wildly famous, huge rivers. Can’t wait to return to my tradition of drinking a beer looking at the sunset.

Varanasi is neat. The tourist infrastructure isn’t overwhelming. I likely feel that way because I’m here during the off season. I’m enjoying it.

Some first impressions about India:

– I see about thirty men for every woman.

– I have no personal space. Someone turned the page of my book while I was reading it! A guy slept on my shoulder.

– People sleep everywhere. Lots of people on rooftops to escape the heat. And lots of people sleeping in the train station and in the streets.

– My lunch was delicious.

– The touts are everywhere. One followed me for thirty minutes as I walked around.

– I’m being lied to constantly.

– It’s cheap.

Kathmandu Valley

Got my tent back. And resolved the feeling that I’d been isolated from Nepali people.

Went to the Indian Embassy today, a week after my first visit. I’ve got to go again in a few hours to pick up my visa, then all is set! It’s good until December 3rd. So maybe that’s when I come home? I’m leaving Kathmandu first thing in the morning. Not sure if I’ll head directly to India (Varanasi) or stop in a Nepali town on the way (Bandipur). Whatever I do, I’m excited. Most travelers I’m meeting have spent time in India and virtually all are going there. Most people are going to Ladakh too. It’s definitely the trail.

I had a week to wait and staying in the tourist area would have made me grumpy. So off it was around the Kathmandu Valley. Spent most of my time in Bahktapur, a world heritage designated Newari town. Most people go for a few hours, I spent three days. It was the start of being the only one in the hotel. Bahktapur is a maze of narrow brick alleys and templed squares. It’s famous for it’s intricately carved doors, windows, temples and roofs. And yet (at least at this time of year), it’s not over-run by tourists and still feels vibrantly local. I happened upon festival time. Celebrating some deities and Chapatis. Hundreds of women were praying and giving offerings at the endless number of shrine sites. There were hundreds if not thousands of places to revere. A bump on the sidewalk? Throw some rice! A statue in the sewer? Rub some powder on it! A shrine? Do the whole shebang! Really and orgy of hinduism for the Newari culture. Another thing that I like very much is that amongst the people, it’s the men who wear traditional dress. And another, I ate local food for days in a row. Lots of mo-mos. Dirty cheap. Dirty and tasty. Visited another temple, the oldest in the region, and was bored. Why am I still filling my time with seeing so many temples?!

Then, back through the insanity of Kathmandu’s highways to Patan. Another place known for the same things as Bahktapur. Another hotel out of the way. More contact with locals. The famous square had many hundreds of locals in it every night, and at most a few other tourists. I watched a demonstration get started, complete with torches (nicely medieval). Learned that the next day was to be a strike. Some Newaris want the capital to be declared an autonomous zone. How do you separate the seat of the government from the government?

It was said by an expat that it was the most intense strike in his nine years in Nepal. And after walking around most of the city for the day, I can say that the immediate area that I was staying in was the most dangerous. All traffic besides human rights observers, media and ambulances was stopped. Mobs of angry men forcefully stopped anyone else riding a moto or bicycle. I saw a burned moto. I saw bicyclists attacked with sticks and their tires deflated. I saw a vegetable seller who was open for business have her wares destroyed. I struggled to find food and ended up walking over two hours to the tourists area for lunch. Lots of tires burned in the streets. And as a nightcap, some vehicles were destroyed in front of my hotel. First a group were hucking bricks at a parked truck. Then a guy pulled them in to a heated argument (I thought to tell them to stop). But after a few minutes, everyone smiled, shook hands and went to a different van and collectively started to trash it. Eventually it was flipped on it’s side. Then dragged away from buildings, and flipped again to be upside-down. Then, set on fire. My first mob vehicle fire. ahhhh 

In the morning there was an orgy of business, cleaning and religion. Seemed like everyone was making up for lost time. By 6am, the streets were packed like a market day. There was even a parade at 6:30am.

I moved up to Thamel. Visited another temple for the views of the city. Ate my first steak in years (blah). Had a good time hanging out with Gehaz. And mostly just killed time in the tourist hole. There aren’t many of us here, I love the low season.

I’m in a great mood. I’m going to head to the last major temple this evening for sunset. And I’m looking forward to some touring in the heat of india before some more trekking.

Some tidbits:

– Tshirts of Goa are very popular for Nepali men. But not as popular as the wrestler John Cena or Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

– Nepal is my 25th country. I think.

– I’ve read 20 books in the past five months.

– Temples often have sex acts carved on them. All sorts, anal, oral, with horses, etc, etc

– While watching the van burn, a guy turned to me and with a smile said “This is Nepali culture.”

35 days of walking in Nepal

First off. I’m pissed. I just got back to Kathmandu a few hours ago. Happy, relieved and grateful for the past three weeks of walking. I’m at my hotel, picking up my stuff that was sitting in storage. “Where’s my tent?” – “Your tent? It’s missing?” – “Yes.” – They watch me search for a long time for it. – “Oh, was it black with one pole?” – “Yes.” – “A tourist took it. Don’t worry. I’ll call him and it will be back in few days.” – “What?! You let a tourist take it? How do you know it has one pole? How do you know what color it is? It was in a stuff sack.” Obviously, they are lying and something is fishy. But really, all that I care about is that I GET MY TENT BACK. The dude looked kind of worried when I totally poked holes in all of his lame theories that it was a mix up. And he made some major slips. Like letting it be known that he was present when the tent was set up in the yard. That he was present when a “tourist” “borrowed” it. And letting it be known that he could (and did) call said tourist on his personal cell phone to get it back. He definitely got concerned when I pointed out that it was a “special” tent that couldn’t be bought in stores, that it costs $250 and that the police would be called if it didn’t come back. The guys of the hotel are nice dudes (I’ve stayed there for about five nights so far), and this pisses me off. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m 30% hopeful that I’ll get my tent back and 0% hopeful that I’ll get money for it if it’s not returned. ARGH.

ANYWAYS………. Again, hiking has been excellent. I did a mishmash of treks. Flew to the tourist hub of Lukla, hiked to the Everest region. Got really sick (vomiting, dehydration, diarreah). Got snowed on. Went around the first pass due to snow and weakness. Hiked to Everest Base Camp and up the Kala Patar view point. Hiked off the Everest superhighway over Cho La Pass. Hiked up the Gokyo Valley, across the glacier, up to the many lakes, Cho Oyu Base Camp, and Gokyo Ri view point. Hiked over Renjo Pass and got further off the superhighway. Back to Lukla. Then from Lukla to Tumlingtar, fully off the beaten track.

Nepal tea house trekking can be quite nice. It’s nice to dodge out of storms in to hotels. It’s nice to sit around fireplaces and socialize with other trekkers. It’s nice to have a bed and someone else cooking. And it sucks to be in the bubble of tourism. I spent most of my time in Nepal in the bubble and had little nepali food and even less contact with normal nepalis. It’s trekking, not traveling. But from Lukla to Tumlingtar, it’s been a perfect mix of the two. Only one hotel that we stayed at had had another tourist within the last three weeks. The villages are really inhabited! Locals going on about their lives! Even at a guesthouse you have to get them to open up operations. And there is no pasta to eat, no snickers to buy, just Dal Bhat all the time. One night we were even invited over for a homestay. Slept outside on a box bed on the second story overlooking their fields. Everything but the sugar and spice was grown on their land. Even the flour for the morning pancakes was made on the spot. Talk about fresh and local. I was invited in to numerous other houses as well. Simply by virtue of being a tourist. And the fact that it rained lightly almost the whole week so people were gracious to take me out of the rain. It was the “middle hills” region and we lost and gained a ton of altitude. Up a valley side, down a valley side. You can look across the valley at the next tiny village. It looks not far, but might take four hours to get there.

The Everest portion of the trek was quite different. High altitudes made me sick from the dry air. The walking was sometimes laborious. The views when the clouds parted were epic. It’s obvious and yet doesn’t strike you until you experience it. The mountains are huge. And there is a higher density of big mountains than in the Annapurna region, so it was more dramatic. And it was nice to have the snowstorms. A dusting of snow on everything made it all the more beautiful.

I should write more. But I just got off the plane from the boonies and don’t feel like it. Next up… getting an India Visa (which may take over a week) and trying not to get pissed about my tent and the touts selling me flutes, rugs and drugs.

Backpacking in Nepal

I had a mushroom and bean tostada for dinner, ratatouille for lunch and a croisant with espresso for breakfast. I’m no longer on the trail and I’m most definitely no longer in Myanmar. Nepal is quite different. Since I’ve arrived a few weeks ago, I’ve had little interaction with locals who aren’t in the tourist trade. It’s been like being in a bubble, isolated from the country.

This isn’t a complaint though. I’ve come here for the same reason as most people. To hike. And the hikes are worth it, and understandably isolated from the “real” Nepal. Locals simply didn’t set up towns at the high elevations that I hiked through. Shortly after landing I picked up and went to the Annapurna region. I hiked the Annapurna Circuit, with three days of side trips to Ice Lake and Tilicho Lake (”The Highest Lake In The World!”), then I added a trip to Annapurna One’s Base Camp. All very excellent. It took 16 days, with plenty of short days, but that’s still considered blazingly fast. They typical fashion would involve almost thirty days of hiking a few hours per day. That’s understandable in the high altitude region. Or in parts where the trial is stairs. The stairs are brutally steep and go for a long ways. It can be quite a pounding on the knees. But for a good portion of the trek, fast miles make sense in my mind. You’re transitioning along ROADS through lowland areas that at this time of year have few views due to the poor visibility of pre-monsoon polluted skies. Nepal has decided to build roads up many valleys. I’m sure that it’ll benefit many. But in the case of the Annapurna Circuit I’d be surprised if it didn’t kill the trek and thus the thriving economy of the area. And they’re building them for the express purpose of increasing tourism. Seems like a bad management choice to me! BOOO road building.

The towns, villages, settlements, and solitary guesthouses are one of the highlights of trekking in the area. Some have “real” components that are amazing stone enclaves that seem to date from perhistory. Imagine Mesa Verde at 13,000 feet and still inhabited. Then there are the guest houses. They make their money on the food as rooms cost anywhere from nothing to two dollars. Meals hovered just under $4. They’re a great place to meet others. Very social vibe.

As for meeting others. Here’s a mind bender. At a bus stop on the way to the trek I met a girl from Davis, Amber (she’s from Idaho). Small world. Then at the side trip to Ice Lake I met Andy and Katie (also from Idaho) who are excellent friends with my enemy (I mean good friend) Ben who worked with me in Utah. Andy and Katie knew Ben in college in Colorado. Small world. Then during this conversation, they started talking amongst themselves when I mentioned that I had I lived in Davis. They said something about blah, blah, blah Amber. They were talking about Amber, who they went to high school with, and I went to college with. And who I had just run in to after five years and hadn’t mentioned. Now THAT’S a small world.

On other fronts. I met a lot of other cool people and hiked with them on and off. The french guys who carried two wheels of french cheese, a whole smoked ham, a bottle of wine and two homemade liquers were of course a highlight!!

And so were the mountains. And it’s for the mountains that I’m extending my visa and continuing to walk for another three weeks in Nepal. Off to the Everest region.

So long, goodbye.

My time in SE Asia is over. Tomorrow I fly to Nepal. I’m happy how I traveled, and not sad that I’m leaving. Myanmar, my last month, was the highlight. Just enough of off the beaten track excitement. It’s a wonderful country, with a horrible government. The people are exceptionally friendly with most people eager to practice english and extend some hospitality. I enjoyed the rigors of the country. Main roads turn to dirt and usually require one bus to pull off the road for the other to go past. Most towns had around 3-10 other tourists. Air conditioning was scarce for a budget traveler, and electricity was usually off so it didn’t matter.

I’m excited about the next step and totally unsure where I want to go after Nepal.

The Kindness of Strangers in Myanmar

I’ve had a full social calendar. I’ve made no less than six friends who show up randomly at my hotel, seeing if I want to hang out. And yesterday alone, I was introduced to at least a hundred family members and friends. The morning started with getting picked up for a sight seeing tour (gratis of course). I was sandwiched on a moto by two of my good friends. We stopped at one of their houses to parade in front of his mom. “Look mom! No job, but I’m hanging with a white dude and practicing English!” Then next door to a friend’s house. I was upstairs to be struck in the face with the sight of two small boys splayed out near naked on the floor, only covered by a little gauze on their dicks and tshirts. Fresh circumcisions. Nice. The extended family continued to fan the sick looking kids, but really I was the center of attention. If I got circumcised when I was five, I’d be crying. Met the four generations. Ate food, drank tea. Outside in the street were some wildly dressed, wildly dancing Hindus. You know, just a random festival, no big deal.

Finally, on to the excursion for the day. Got on the motos. Drove out of town. Check point! They’re pulling us over for not wearing helmets. Whistles blowing, pointing, cops in the street. Friend on the back says to friend driving “pull a u-turn”! We did, and I proceeded to run from the cops in a country known primarily for police brutality. Oh well. So it was decided we’d take the back way. It turned out to be a LONG detour, up and over a mountain pass, just to avoid the check point. Finally, we arrived at the famous Sleeping Buddha. It’s said to be the largest in the world at about 180 meters. It’s one of those projects that’s not finished and likely never to be finished. Still, quite a quirky and fun place to go though. It was 182 rooms. Kind of the grand project of an architectural nutcase. Some of the rooms a filled with concrete statues depicting the story of Buddha.

Then on to grandmother’s house. Who we woke up. “Look! A white guy!” Then lunch at a ‘famous’, beautiful lake of which the only thing that I learned about was that women are not allowed. Just like in the head of the Sleeping Buddha. For lunch I was again granted special treatment. We ate the food that the restauranteurs had made for themselves. And got free dishes on top of that. After the ride back to town and a nap, I was again picked up for some socializing.

More friends, more family. Hung out at a friend’s bettle nut stand. Bettle nut is a drug that lots of men and women chew. It does nasty work rotting your teeth, and you spit red juice everywhere. I got to try wrapping the leaf bundles and ever chewed one myself. Spent a few hours there. Then walked down to the continuation of the Hindu festival. Oggled at men with metal hooks in their backs pulling strongly while dancing and men with 80+ metal spikes in their bodies that supported elaborate head dresses. I followed the crowd right in to the tiny temple and the heated, manic, sweaty, colored powder covered, culmination of the festival. Finally the day ended after a long dinner where everyone talked about religion. They’re amazed by my atheism. Myanmar is extremely devout and I’ve had multiple conversations about faith so far.

That was just one day.

On other fronts. It’s hot. Burmese food is pretty ok, but not great. I’m going to Hpa-An by boat today (one of the nicest trips in the country). Might not have internet for phone access for a while. Who knows.

Bangkok

As usual, I’ve done a lot.

Spent a great remainder of my time in Laos hosted by Denis Lagarde and family. Then took a night train to here. It was more like napping than actually sleeping. Yesterday, I basically went shopping. Went to the weekend market. Which I had been told was on of the biggest markets in Asia. I wasn’t enthralled but it was good. The most interesting thing about it was that amongst all of the shops selling cheap, fake clothes were shops selling stuff designed by the owners. I also went to the mall and got stuck in the area with luxury good stores, not about to find my way out for a long while.

Then today, more chores. Bought my Nepal ticket. Mailed off my photos. Bought replacements for things that I had lost or broken, etc, etc.

Bangkok is an enjoyable city. I like being about to take the sky train and a boat taxi around. It’s so much wealthier and modern and “western” than everywhere that I’ve been.