Friday 21 January 2011
So we finally left India and crossed the border into Nepal. The journey through the sub- continent, 4000 km through the largest democracy on the planet ended at a quiet border-post on the stony banks of the Khola river. We were the only customers checking out at this friendly post. The only traffic was the odd bicycle or pony-cart taxi struggling up the rocky bank to cross the bridge. The locals needed no visa.
I have never been anywhere quite so culturally different from western Europe. It seemed everything was done differently in India. I must admit that I leave the country not more informed, enlightened and with an understanding of its culture or cultures but only aware that I am more ignorant about more things than I thought I was. I know we are all supposed to be culturally sensitive in these modern times, but I could not help feeling that many of Indias problems exist because of the culture and not despite it, religion being a huge controlling factor and perhaps also an excuse which many things are hidden behind.
I found the Indians often not the easiest of people to like and had to repeat to myself the advice my friend Ricky who had been there a lot gave me; no matter what happens just keep smiling. I tried also to stop thinking how things could be better here if only people would clean this or repair that and so on. 'If I was king'type of thoughts in India are about as useful as those about re-arranging the stars.
US. President Obama's visit here was all over the papers soon after we arrived and the articles gave the impression that he was complimenting India on having a billion middle-class. In all the miles and through the hundreds of villages, towns and cities we passed through we found them hard to find. Yes we met some educated and wealth families but the sanitized world of new cars, cleaning products and skin-lightening creams portrayed on the TV adverts largely eluded us. We passed only one shopping center with a McDonalds on the outskirts of a city so maybe we were looking for the wrong thing. I asked an Englishman but 20 year resident here what 'middle-class' actually meant here. Did it mean you had a motorcycle? He laughed at the 1 Billion figure and said he was not sure either but perhaps it meant you simply had a job.
Our life on the bikes was one travelling through a world of beat-up buses and buffalo's. I tried to put thoughts of problems and solutions away and pay attention to the smaller details and the changes in landscape and people as we made our way North.
Anja would remark upon the variations in both mens and womens clothing from one district to the next; small changes in Saris and headgear that would have gone unnoticed to me. I would point out the changes in cart or tuck-tuck design. Behind the mass vehicle world of Tata, Mahindra, Hero-Honda or Maruti-Suzuki was a complex one of the 'vernacular vehicle'. A certain design of ox-cart, rick-shaw and even locally made truck was often particular to a certain town. If a scooter was chopped and turned into a trike, we would see many in one town and then never again. Cow-carts changed to ox-carts to buffalo-carts to pony or camel-carts the constructions always different. The chassis and wheel construction would vary from wood to bamboo to steel re-bar. Sometimes the engine was one animal sometimes two. The buffalo themselves also seemed to change, those in the South having longer horns that swept impressively down the animals back.
The food of course also changed. Our favorite street food being a kind of yellow -rice concoction that sadly disappeared one day and we were back to samosas deep-fried in historic oil.
A constant was the overloud horn hooping, a simple motorbike being equipped with an array of sound devices capable of far exceeding any European decibel regulations. Our ears often hurt in town and countryside alike.
I expected Nepal, especially the Terai or lowland plain to be like another Indian state but as soon as we crossed the border things were different.
There is really only one road West to East through Nepal and we figured it would be busy and possibly unpleasant. The ride East then North to Pokhara turned out to be one of the nicest stretches on our trip. The traffic was mainly bicycles and the villagers had not yet bought into the great concrete-con to which the Indians had so largely succumbed. We were in grass thatched bamboo and mud-hut land. The young wheat was bright green in the paddy fields and there were marigold gardens and daily swept, hard packed mud yards. The crap and rubbish, so much a part of India seemed to be under control here. The people obviously had little money for the main part but grew almost all they needed. Perhaps my naive ideas of a rural idyll would be washed away with the first monsoon rains but although the weather was cold and mostly foggy we were happy to be here.
Bardia National Park is home to the rare one horned rhino, Bengal tiger leopards, pythons and other beasties from the jungle-book. We stayed a few days in a mud-hut guest house in the forest and went on a jungle walk with Baba and Krishna, two interesting young guides who were proud of West Nepal and wanted to help develop the tourism in this not so frequented corner in an environmentally friendly way and without all the trappings and problems of the more famous and visited areas. They were good trackers and we followed a mother rhino and babies footprints until we located them in some tall grass by one of the many dry riverbeds. We had to climb a tree to spot them maybe 30m away. Later we got close to an enormous python waiting for prey on a fallen tree. The tiger tracks were fresh in the mud but were sadly elusive that day.
We planned to hike into the mountains of the Jumla region with Baba but a few phone calls revealed there was just too much snow and it was too cold. Some poor villager got caught out at night with his mules and they all froze to death. It was damn cold down on the plains. We are not here at the best season.
In Butwal we turned North towards Pokhara, the base for some of Nepals best mountain trekking. What looked on the map like 60kms was in fact a 160km twisting mountain road that did its best to hug the natural contours up terraced or forested valleys but was forced repeatedly over ridges and down to the next river. We were slowly winching and worming our way into the Himalayas.
Right now we are in Pokhara, buying a few warm clothes and gleaning some valuable advice about the famous Annapurna trails, one of which would take us over some of the highest passes in the world. Some people say it is too cold right now and people are coming back with frostbite. Others say we should be ok, it depends on the weather when we get there. The trek could take us 3 weeks or so, more with side trips, acclimatisation and such. Whichever route we choose we will be off the radar so to speak for maybe a month so no blog posts for a while. (no change there then).
Friday 7 January 2011
Fleissig gestrampelt, viel gesehen, viel gegessen, viel Strassendreck geatmet, leider war ich aber ganz schreibfaul. Fernsehen im Hotelzimmer ist ein Kommunikationskiller.
Aber erst mal wuenschen wir Euch allen ein gesundes und glueckliches Neues Jahr. Macht das Beste draus!!
Wir haben das neue Jahr ganz unspektakulaer im Hotelzimmer mit "Alice im Wunderland" und "New Moon" verbracht. Keiine Party fuer uns in Rishikesh, und das Wetter lud auch nicht auf einen Spaziergang ein. Dafuer gab es eine sonnige Neujahrswanderung, endlich einen Berg besteigen, die Himalayaberge an den Fusssohlen kitzeln, sozusagen.
Seit einer Woche sind wir hier, die letzte Station vor der Grenze zu Nepal, in 5 Tagen werden wir dort sein, noch ca. 300km Radeln bis zum neuen Abschnitt der Reise. Einem bergigen Abschnitt. Schnee haben wir noch keinen gesehen, doch die lange Unterwaesche ist schon gekauft. Morgen geht es weiter, Auf Wiedersehen Lassi- und Englishbreakfeaststadt (und auf Wiedersehen internationale Yogaszene (die treiben hier zu Hunderten ihr Unwesen)).
Naja, und irgendwie habe ich mich auch die letzten Wochen an Indien gewoehnt. Die Nebenstrassen haben es uns leichter gemacht. Wunderschoene fremdartige Kulturlandschaften, wenig hupende und stinkende LKW´s, freundliche Landbevoelkerung. Einmal konnten wir sogar ungesehen unser Zelt aufschlagen und draussen schlafen. Eine schoene Abwechslung zum lausigen Hotel. Ich bin ein bisschen traurig, Indien zu verlassen, wer haett´s gedacht. Jemand hatt mal zu uns gesagt, Indien ist wie ein anderes Universum. Das ist eine gute Beschreibung. Ich werde ein paar gewohnte Bilder vermissen: Huehnerstraeusschen links und rechts am Fahrradlenker baumelnd, Wasserbueffel im Wasserloch, 5 Leute und 2 Ziegen auf einem Moped, in Decken gehuellte, einen Tee schluerfende Inder um ein Feuerchen, Frauen in Knallbunten Saris mit einem Turm Wasserkruege auf dem Kopf, Schweinekaempfe im Abwasserkanal, Kamel-, Esel-, Ochsen- und Bueffelkarren und dann die wunderbaren Obst- und Gemuesetuerme, kunstvoll aufgestapelt. Ach ja, eines meiner Lieblingsbilder sind die "Kuhkeksstapel": getrocknete Kuhfladen die aussehen wie Riesenkekse.
Die Inder sind die besten "Hochstapler".
Aber vielleicht komme ich ja mal wieder....
Auf Wiedersehen Indien, Hallo Nepal!
PS.: Auf den letzten Indienkilometern durfte ich noch einen Elefanten streicheln. Der war herrlich warm und ledrig. Mein erster Elefanantenkontakt ueberhaupt. Vorher konnten wir nur die imposanten Haufen auf der Strasse bestaunen.
Mandu to the Mountains
From Mandu we headed north towards Bundi, our next touristic destination. We stopped in Ujjain to visit some pilgrimage temples, they were colourful and all but I realized I had reached temple overload and was loosing interest in pink elephant-man sculptures. The town too was overbusy and full of giant 3-wheeled taxi's, clattering and puffing out black smoke from their exhausts by the front wheel. A system which poisoned not only passers by but passengers aswell. These must be one of the worst vehicles ever designed.
A few days on pleasant roads took us out of Madhya Pradesh and into Rajasthan. We were seeing more and more camels now and the first town we entered, Jhalrapatan, was an eye-opener. I have been to a few medieval fairs in Europe, the best was in the walled town of Visby on Götland, an island in the Baltic where the whole town stepped back into medieval life for a week. Jhalrapatan was the real thing. The circus was in town and had set up outside the walls and the accompanying temporary township was a sight to see; a Gypsy camp gone crazy. I was reminded a little of a Glastonbury type festival because of the buzz but the vehicles were camel or buffalo drawn, the tents were made from leaves and plastic and each family had brought all its livestock. Safety and sanitation came to my mind, I had no desire to take a ride on an unoiled merry-go-round let alone one on a fifth hand big-wheel which probably began life in Volgograd in the eighties. Call me chicken if you like but we don't cycle an hour here without seeing a truck with a wheel fallen off and some guys replacing shattered bearings. 'Don't fix what ain't broke' must written somewhere in ancient Hindu texts. We were funneled with the crowd through elephant gates in the city walls to a blue painted narrow maze of streets so busy with people that cars were excluded. For the first time in many weeks we now saw shops with all kinds of stuff for sale, not just the usual fried food, truck and motorbike parts. Some colour had returned to our world. We were in the land of the Kings.
Bundi was also a blue painted town. A beautiful one with a 14 story palace built against the mountainside and surrounded by miles of ridge running castellated walls. With a Tank or reservoir in the center of town this was a great place to spend a few days. Infact it was hard to leave but we wanted to see Pushkar, another pilgrimage town on the edge of the desert a few days north.
Pushkar was fun and we met some nice people there, Kate, a nurse from Cheddar and Gray, an Astrologist who had lived for years in Rishikesh, our next stop on the tourist trail and home of the Sadhu-Guru yoga spiritual healing hindu meditating fraternity. Apparently also a beautiful town on the banks of the Ganges, nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas. We wanted to be here for Christmas but it proved to be a couple of days too far for that. The ride though was one of the best we had in all of India. Out of the semi-desert through green fields and sparsely forrested and quiet Shekhawati region. We stayed in small towns along the backroads, Charawa being one of the best architecturally. We rode unknowingly out of Rajasthan and into Haryan where we saw our last camel. In Gohana, a friendly town we visited a family of teachers with prize-winning children and were taken home by a hotelier to eat with his family.
Christmas was spent in a small town called Shamli in a hotel where ten drunks were warming up the dance-floor for a wedding the following day. The decebael level in our room was well over the danger level but we sang 'Silent Night' at the top of our voices an headed out to eat alone in a large cold dining hall up the road. The food was good.
We finally rolled into Rishikesh where we spent the new year, met Volker our German friend and went walking in the mountains bordering the icy-blue Ganges which poured down from its Himalayan spring not far away.
Next stop Nepal.