Archive for the 'Nepal 2009' Category

Picnics, Trains and Mountains

Just another Sunday morning at the Kapoors. The power is out, the shower is cold, Punam the maid is ill and has not been for days so the house is looking savage. We are recovering from a couple of nights partying, preceded by a week traveling in Nepal. My stomach is churning again and I have slept most of the weekend. So I guess this is the pay back. But it is a glorious day outside (I am trying hard to recall the British December), and we are a family, and families stick together. I don’t know how I could survive India without these people.

The weekend of 21st we went to a company picnic on Saturday and a day trip to Agra on Sunday. The picnic was one of those annual affairs organized by our company in the spirit of strengthening ties with colleagues and family. Yasmine accompanied the Technopak contingent of myself, Safiye, Alex and Jacek. A bit of a formality, but we had some fun with the team games and a bit of cricket and badminton. Saturday night we went to Delhi for a Reggae party and stayed for the after-party before catching the 4:45 train to Agra. A stiff (and very cold) night on the sleeper train and we rocked up in Agra Sunday morning ready for a day of sightseeing. Myself, Dasha (Russian), Mari (Brazilian), Maja & Alek (Macedonian), Jas (Singaporean) & Alex (German). The Taj Mahal was the obvious first destination, a beautiful building and a refreshing break from temples and holy monuments. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like the visit was a “take-your-photo-and-run” kind of trip. After lunch in the city we took our cabs a little out of the way to a large temple/fort, by which point we were all suitably fatigued to really appreciate it’s spender or significance. But it made for a pleasant afternoon activity before the return journey late afternoon.

Nepal shaped up to be the best trip thus far in (outside of) India. Must have had something to do with the people, because it wasn’t without complication. I crept out of work early afternoon Friday 27th with Safiye and Alex for a lunch with colleagues and then packing at home. Yasmine and Jas joined us at the kapoors and we left by cab for Old Delhi Station late afternoon. Shoe string travelers that we are, we opted for the budget 15 hour train and 10 hour bus ride, as opposed to the two hour flight into Kathmandu. As usual, we were delayed in traffic and hurried into the station late for our 16:55 train to Gorakhpur, only to find no sign of it on the departure board. I asked a helpful station manager, who promptly informed me that the train was late, by a minimum of 5 hours. So we took our bags and got the metro to Connaught Place where we found a coffee shop to pass the hours. A couple more restless hours in McDonalds on the station platform, running between card games and the departure board, and finally another station master advised us that the train was ready for departure. I think we departed at midnight, seven hours late.

The train was much longer than the 15 hours anticipated, because it stopped at every junction to allow the trains behind to pass by to avoid making them late as well. But like I said, surviving in India is all about the people you’re with, and I was in good company. I also quite enjoyed sitting by the open door for periods of time with my legs trailing over the rail tracks, reading my book and watching the rice paddies race by. As long as you are moving with a purpose, with direction and a destination, you can be quite content doing nothing for a while.

It was well into Saturday evening that we finally arrived close to the border in Gorakhpur. Behind schedule by at least half a day, our plan to cross the border the same day was thwarted because it is not crossable at night. So we found a cheap hotel to put up for a few hours before catching an early morning bus to the border town of Sunauli. A couple of hours on the bus (maybe more I can’t recall), and Sunday morning we finally reached the border. The crossing was relatively easy, I felt sure we could have walked straight through without being stopped. Yet we went through the formalities, exchanging rupees for dollars to pay for the visa, and our rickshaws took us and our luggage the short distance between immigration offices. Once on the Nepal side it was just a case of finding the hotel we had been directed to and picking up the tickets for the next bus.

We left the border Sunday afternoon on an eight hour bus that took us to the Neapli city of Pohkara. Worst bus I have ever experienced, and I’ve been on a few. It was falling apart to the extent that I was conscious I might put my foot through the rusted floor. But the comfort of good company and stunning views, jolts and jerks twisting and turning on uneven roads perched on mountain verges, saw us through. Then, finally, the driver indicated to the five lone and motionless bodies in the shadows of the back seats, that the bus had achieved its final destination. Dropped off in a dark and barren part of town, busting for the toilet and desperate for food we piled into the car of the first person that offered and gratefully accepted the first hotel we were taken to in a race to use the facilities.

The hotel turned out to be a good choice, managed by a very affable Nepali trekker who had an office in the garden. After showering, he directed us to the infamous “Everest Steak House” just down the road, and the promise of a decent steak and a glass of wine didn’t disappoint. It’s been a while folks, since I sampled a good red meat. A beer in the next pub, listening to live music, topped the evening off. When we were just about done for the night we convened back at the hotel in the manager’s office to lay out our plan for the next few days. It was a given, since we had lost a lot of time, that I would not be back in the office on Thursday morning as planned. Two days just wasn’t sufficient. So we settled on a two day hike with a guide and a third day paragliding and relaxing, turning for home on Thursday morning. None of us had planned for the extra expense or time, but it made sense while we were here, and I figured I could concoct a semi-true story to explain my absence from work.

Monday morning we were up bright and early with a fly-filled breakfast of Nepalese porridge and chai, ready to commence our two day trek. Views of the mountains overlooking the hotel were a welcome wake-up, quite the converse of the dark and dusty streets we found ourselves on as the bus pulled away the previous night. The guide took us a short distance into the mountains by minibus, and then we set off on foot with all our luggage on our backs. We took it at a slow pace, much to the annoyance of our guide who frequently disappeared over the horizon in front of us. But we were in no hurry, particularly with such inspiring views, the Annapurna mountain range peering above the clouds as if it were floating in mid air and the green sweep of terraced hills below. The day’s hike took us through a village for lunch and numerous rest stops thereafter as and when “the girls” required.

We finally reached the “village” early evening, just in time to watch the sun set behind the hills. Not so much a village, more a handful of outbuildings on the top of a hill. Our guest house was basic but adequate. Stone cold rooms with no light and nothing to stop the neighbors peeking over the head high walls, but sufficient for one night’s sleep in the mountains. After ditching the bags and rolling out my sleeping bag, I sat down in the smoky room that constituted the kitchen for a warm chai and a sample of the local liquor, watching dinner being prepared. Dinner with the other guests from various parts of the world, some light conversation huddled up in the girl’s room fighting for warmth, before bed became the obvious conclusion.

Tuesday morning we were up before dawn to march up the hill for a view of the sunrise. Beginning the ascent in pitch black with nothing but the torch of our phones to guide us up the uneven steps, we were all cold, hungry, and lacking energy. However, the incentive of getting to the top by sun rise gave me the energy to power through and before long we were watching the sun emerge from the fog above the Annapurna range. We were at about 2,500 meters, and the biggest mountain on the horizon was over 8,000 meters. Not Everest, but close. Back to the village for breakfast, Nepali pancakes and chai, before setting off for the hike back.

On the second day of the hike we were content to walk at an even slower pace as the beauty of our surrounds intensified and the conversation became more stimulating in the deserted milieu of the Himalayas. Our guide all but gave up and eventually disappeared into the village in the valley. At one stop, we were beckoned over by the head teacher of a small government school serving the farmer families living on the immediate hill side. A good place for a toilet break, I ambled over to meet him and took a brief tour of the school, saying hello to the kids and observing their English classes. An impressive setup given the resources available with chairs, desks, blackboards and text books for every child. At another stop we said hello to a couple of Nepalese women who were collecting fodder for their cattle from the village below. I think they were amused by our blond hair, and they sang songs as we continued the descent down the hill. The guide had long since disappeared and Alex and I missed a turning and ended up taking the long route to the village. However, the girls caught up eventually and we knew we were heading in the right direction, so we rejoined our guide late afternoon in the valley for a rather belated but much needed lunch of greasy noodles. Finally, a bus ride home along the banks of the vast Phewa Tal lake, and we were back in Pokhara for another evening of pleasant food and entertainment.

On Wednesday morning me and Alex were up early to make the most of a hearty breakfast at one of the steakhouses. The girls, still recovering from the previous day’s hike, stayed in bed. We convened back at the hotel to take a minibus a short distance up the hill to a series of launch sites for the paragliding. There we sat, an uninterrupted view over the valley and of the lake at the bottom, with the sun basking down us while our instructors prepared the equipment. Then we each took it in turn to go through directions with our instructors and one-by-one we took off from the hillside gliding from one thermal to the next, gaining elevation until the wind dropped and looking for another thermal to ride. The ride itself lasted a good forty minutes, plenty of time to discuss the intricacies of the sport and the life of a paraglider whilst absorbing the view. I was with an interesting fellow from Zimbabwe who spends his time chasing the paragliding seasons across all corners of the world. During the descent, we went through a series of fast paced “tumbles,” hurtling through almost 360 degrees whilst gathering pace toward the landing site. We convened for group pictures at the bottom while the equipment was packed and the minibus dropped us off close to the hotel late morning.

With time on our hands and a recommendation for a good bite at a lakeside restaurant, we decided to backtrack and followed the lake on foot for a good time before finding the restaurant and taking lunch beside another landing site. After lunch, a little further back up the road, a lakeside snack house awaited where we wasted the afternoon away drinking tea and looking out over the tranquil water of the still lake. Paradise. We couldn’t have been any farther away from the deluge of dust and dirt and stress and noise that is India. Nepal is quite the adversary. We made a pact there and then that we should all return to the same spot within the ensuing five years, something I would happily honour.

Aware that dusk would soon be upon us, we left the restaurant late afternoon and meandered back along the lake towards the town. Some time significantly later, after stopping for an energy boost of chicken momos, we were back in the tourist centre of Pokhara. Time for a spot of shopping and our last king-size meal back at the Everset Steak House. Picking up supplies on the way back to the hotel, we prepared for the long journey home the following morning.

Thursday morning we awoke at some indecent hour to hitch a cab to the bus station and take the first bus back to the border. The bus back wasn’t much smoother than the bus there, but by then we well knew what to expect. It was when we got to the border that afternoon that the journey began to sour, and ironically it was the border crossing that marked the end of our time in the bubble of paradise that was Nepal. We did exactly the reverse of what we had done on the way, stopping at the hotel on the Nepali side to purchase tickets for the bus to Gorakhpur, and taking a couple of rickshaws to get us through immigration. But on the Indian side an argument broke out with the rickshaw drivers over price, Indians being Indians, and the ticket master tried to rip us off by getting us to pay his friend to confirm our already confirmed train tickets.

As soon as we smelt a scam we asked politely to have the ticket back and walked off. But the guy still had our passport numbers and details, and refused to give them back. Hungry, fatigued and frustrated with the Indian preoccupation to make an extra buck, I ripped the page out of the man’s book, screwed it up and took off for the bus. What I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that the ticket master had seen what had happened and was obviously irritated by the fact that we hadn’t let his friend rip us off for a few extra rupees. So, in turn, he “lost” our real tickets and put us on a government bus. Without realizing this, a conflict ensued with the bus manager when we refused to pay the fare, given that we had already paid once. Voices raised, adrenaline pumped and the guy actually threatened us with violence, attempting to slap me and Alex lightly whenever the girls made a counter argument. This is one scenario I have never encountered in India before, but there was really nothing we could do but suck it in and pay the man before someone did something that really would sour the trip. A quiet observer sitting next me, obviously embarrassed by the conduct of his fellow countryman, insisted on buying us fruit at a market and lending me his jumper when it got cold. I couldn’t refuse such generosity. Still, it is ironic that we should come from our own little heaven in the mountains of Nepal, to our own little hell of stress and frustration the moment we arrive back in India.

Two hours later and we were back in the gloomy city that is Gorakhpur. Trust me, you don’t want to ever stay in this place for long. We rediscovered the same restaurant that we frequented almost a week before and waited for the departure time of our train. This time the train was only a couple of hours late, but there was concern for some time that it might be a repeat of our outbound journey. We finally arrived back in Gurgaon to the familiar malaise of noise and dirt. Malaise it may be, but at least it is familiar. We have made it our home, and we were happy to be back. After a short time to recover with a shower and some food, we were ready to hit the town to celebrate. Fond memories of the place and the people, this was without doubt one of the best trips I have graced with my presence since my time in India. I can only hope for many more like it.


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