From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mountains and Mayhem

We got in to India okay- 3 days ago now. It's best to step back a month or so when we first departed...

From Darjeeling in India's northeast, we crossed into eastern Nepal. What awaited us there was a tortuous 18-hour ride through a night and half a day on bone-rattling roads to Kathmandu. We spent about five days there, procuring cheap imitation North Face gear that we'd need for our hike (our small backpacks are equipped for heat, not for mountains). When not doing that, we were wandering the city's winding, small lanes, chock full of little shrines and temples and surprises.

Then: Pokhara, the starting point (roughly) for what turned into an eighteen-day hike around famous Annapurna in the Himalayas. This was fantastic. For nearly three weeks, just mountains and fresh air. We went from 800m (2600') to 5400+m (17,800') and back again, with countless ups and downs in between.

The first third of the trip was mostly ascent, going from heat and green and rice paddies up to cold and brown and sparse vegetation. We hit Tibetan lands then, and ultimately snow. We crossed the high Thorung La mountain pass (after a 4am departure and headlamp-lit trudge up the mountain); bitterly cold and at times knee-deep in snow. Over the pass: more Tibet, then a long, long descent down the incredibly windy Kali Gandaki Valley, surrounded on all sides by towering, white-capped mountains. It was great fun.

Just shy of where we could have ended our trek (and once we'd lost all the elevation we gained), we ascended once more into the high hills. When we reached the 2000m village of Chhomrong, Rebecca paused to rest (umm, from a food-related illness), while I climbed briskly up to Annapurna Base Camp one day and came back down the next. After, we finally descended for good - one long day of walking followed by a two-hour bus ride back to Pokhara (sitting on top of the bus because the inside was full).

All in all, a fantastic hike. We generally walked long days, in part because we tended to only sleep in villages/teahouses that had friendly, smiling owners (which at times were few and far between). Most nights there were no mice in our room. Almost all nights we were asleep at 7pm or shortly after because it was f-ing cold and dark and there was nothing else to do but sleep. Rebecca's birthday was celebrated in the village of Tukuche, where we splurged and had pasta, rosti, cake, and purchased a bottle of cherry brandy made by a 70-year old woman at her rustic home/distillery.

We were ready to be done at the end, however. We'd based our budget on my previous hike in Nepal - 7 years ago. This stretched us the time we got back to Pokhara and paid for our sleeping bag rental and had a post-trek meal, we had just over 200 rupees left (under $3). My shoes mostly fell apart about ten days into the trek; I kept them together with shoelaces and bits of twine that we found along the trails.

So that's the hike. Something like 200 miles, with a couple miles each of ascending and descending. I lost 5 lbs, Rebecca 10. We're fit, though!

We spent just a day in Pokhara after that, both itching a bit to return to India. A new rule (dating to December) meant that we could not officially enter India within 60 days of our previous departure - try working that out when you have a 30-day Nepali visa. In lieu of visiting the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to sort this out and get special permission, we figured we'd just roll up at the border, deny all knowledge of the new rule, and see what happened. What happened was nearly two hours of baksheesh (bribe) demands, threats of sending us back to the capital (8 long hours - each way), and a lot of talking (mostly by Rebecca) - and we got in (without paying any "extra" fee).

Our hellacious journey continued. Three hours to Gorakhpur, then an overnight ride on fixed-blue-holey-vinyl-covered seats, five across, in a bus with neither shocks nor a speed limiter. We pulled into our destination - Varanasi - at 2.45am. Convenient. Averting roughly two thousand offers/demands for rickshaw rides, hotels ("my friend's/brother's"), and other imaginative and profusive hassling, we just drank chais, played cribbage, and sat on the bus station floor until just prior to dawn, then walked to the Ganges riverside and found a place to stay.

Since then: mayhem. Tiny alleys and big cows and running errands and getting happily lost and a bit of tummy upset. But it is good to be back in India again. Today's our third day here, and we haven't yet figured out when we'll leave.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Back to India (We Hope)

Greetings. We're just back from nearly three weeks in the mountains. More on that will follow.

In the meantime, tomorrow we're up bright and early to catch a bus to the Indian border. Due to a recently introduced technicality, we're actually not allowed back into India without a special permit issued in Kathmandu (which we opted not to get). Fingers crossed...especially after our impending 5.15am wakeup and 7-hr bus ride to the frontier.

Off now to a post-Nepal celabratory meal. A lengthier email will be forthcoming once/if we arrive okay in India.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Off to Find Some Yeti!

We made it to Kathmandu okay, though the 18-hr bus journey that capped it all is best summarized as...well, not sure.

Love Kathmandu.

Left on Day Five. In Pokhara now. In the morning we begin a three-week-or-so hike. Will report back when we finish!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Last Day in India - For Now

We're still in Darjeeling. It's been a wonderful retreat from the heat and chaos. As in most places we stay for over a day, we've developed a nice little routine: we have our favorite cafes/restaurants, certain walks we do each day, a place to get chai - all mixed among the things to "do". In this way, almost imperceptably a place becomes like a slice of home.

Speaking of home, we are still mixing in home-like tasks. I am editing my book, trying to do a little each day. Not a bad place to do it, actually: traveling here, I spend much less than I spent on the flat/food/utilities simply by living and doing "nothing" in Australia. I do enjoy the low cost of things here!

That said, India has changed somewhat since my previous visits in 2002 and 2003. Most noticeably, there's been a huge increase in domestic tourism - Indian tourists run rampant in many places. Accommodation has gone up 50% I'd say. Transport and food, perhaps 25%. I (Brian) am doing a better job this time around about learning more about the culture - gods and gurus and subtle differences between regions - and the food.

Today was the Holi festival, meaning that gangs of Hindus are out in force, smearing and throwing brightly-colored powder on themselves and passers-by. We're in a predominantly Buddhist region, so we've probably been less affected than if we weren't in the mountains (we escaped with colored faces, avoiding the full-body treatment).

Though in theory, we should have a spot-on view of Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain peak, it's been cloudy for five days straight here. We'll just have to imagine what it looked like - buy a postcard. We leave tomorrow for Nepal. 20-24 hrs to Kathmandu on an array of dodgy cramped buses. Should be fun.