Friday, October 26, 2007

Northern India

Two words can sum up how we feel about India after spending two weeks in the North. Pleasantly surprised. The people have been helpful and kind, the touts have been fairly easy to handle, the poverty, though bad, hasn't been as pervasive as we feared, and the food has been nothing short of fantastic. That being said, India is not a country in which you can just 'cruise' through, and by overloading all five senses on a daily basis, it manages to leave a mark on you, whether you want it to or not. Luckily for us, so far that mark has been a mark of approval.

Prayer flags and stones decorate the circuit around the Dalai Lama's residence in McLeod Ganj.

Those five senses then . . . we saw a cows make a diving grab for a vendor's goods, moving faster than we've ever seen a cow move before. We watched a ten-year old boy approach another, look at his goods he had for sale, and jokingly barter with him before returning to his own stall full of goods to buy. On the Ganga River, we saw three boys using the river as a latrine, while around the bend and downriver, older men brush their teeth and the women do laundry. Meanwhile, at our knees, our guide dips his hand in the river and shows us the water, "See? It is clean, you no have worry". And all around you, people, with a light dusting of wandering cows. Then there's the garbage piles and the river water . . .

In front of the Taj Mahal just before sunset.


Our ears are blasted by car horns, pierced by autorickshaw wails, and deafened by truck and bus honks, while "Sir, you want to buy? Sir, just looking. Hello Miss, you see? Good price, good quality. Hello! You want taxi, see here (showing us a piece of paper) nice city sightsee" is whispered, yelled or thrown at you as you walk by. In Varanasi, population 1.6 million, we awoke to a loud 'mooo' outside our window, which, being a holy cow, could be taken as quite an auspiscious start to the day.

The nose is perhaps the least well-off of the sensory organs, as a poupourri is throw at you at every step. The morning air is made pungent by the garbage left over from days before. At any point you could meet the sweet smell of incense burning, or of holy sticks/flowers being burned, or the strong smell of cologne on a passing man, proving his wealth in his scent. The cities burst with cars, emitting deisel, gas and propane fumes by the ton, while the sides of the roads and rail tracks are used as toilets, emitting a surprising variety of stenches from sun-baked to . . never mind. Riding on all of this is the scent of curries cooking, which is like finding an oasis.

That being said, if the nose gets the shaft, the mouth gets the gold. Curries come in all shapes and sizes, from creamy paneers to light dhals to curry soups. The meals often include more than one taste, so your taste buds are pulled in all directions as you work to take breaths between bites, and every order starts with, "Two chai please", often to be followed by "two more, thanks". The heavy use of beans, peas, tofu and cheese has allowed us to veer away from meat - we haven't had any meat since we arrived 18 days ago, and are loving it so far.

And the body - what jostling it takes in the back of an autorickshaw! Or in the train station, where Emily rounded a corner and promptly ran into the nose of an oncoming cow, which was ambling into the station's main hall. The gentle rocking on the trains is forgotten when we get on a bus, which roars down roads irregardless of the people, dogs, cows or goats in the way, let alone oncoming traffic or the pot holes. The cool of the hill stations to the heat of the Gangetic plain to the sultry smoothness of river-side in Varanasi, the body does take a beating!
Sunrise on the holy Ganga (Ganges) River, Varanasi.

On top of all this is the sights to see. Delhi was done in quick-like fashion, hitting the spots we wanted to while taking in the inbetweens as much as we could. It suprised us how wide and open the streets were, and lots of trees and parks dot the map. The hill stations were fabulous, and the Tattapani hot springs were a major bonus.

Being in McLeod Ganj and seeing where the Dalai Lamas holds residence was a real thrill. He was away in the States at the time, but soaking up the atmosphere created by all those Tibetans, monks, aged hippies and vendors amid gorgeous mountains was three days well-spent. It was also very refreshing for us to think that no matter how harshly China stamps out the Tibetan life in Tibet, at least there is somewhere that it can continue to thrive, if not grow, again.
A leaf from the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha reached Enlightenment, Bodhgaya.

Agra was nothing short of dirty, so the Taj Mahal, already a stand-out, was truly stunning. It's pleasing design, intricate marble carving and ridiculous amounts of inlaid gems and stones made it something to behold. The holy Ganga River flowing behind it only added to the timelessness one feels when standing next to something so famous and aged. The babble and flow of the thousands of onlookers contrasted sharply with the quiet reverance we encountered while sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, where Gautama became Englightened. The tree you see there is actually an off-shoot of a tree that itself is an off-shoot of the actual tree the Buddha sat under in c.500 B.C! Like in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon, King Ashoka created a stupa to commemorate the occasion, which is impressive in itself.

The Ganga river, so important to the Indian traditions and past, was wonderful to see waking up at dawn. Watching the people go through their morning rituals - the bathing, washing, brushing, toiletering, swimming, was quite the sight. The ghats, or large steps rising out of the water, were topped with pagodas, temples and in one place, the area where bodies are burned daily for cremation. The river lives and breathes as the people do, and it seems that in every Varanasian a little bit of that river resides. We abstained from ingesting any of the water, being the prudes that we are.

So India so far has been great, and we're not even half way finished:) We're now in the Vancouver-esque city of Mumbai (we haven't even seen a cow yet!!!) where we're gearing up for another 24-train ride, this time to the outsourcing capital, Bangalore. Chances are that all of you have talked to someone in Bangalore in the past few years, as many businesses us them as their call centers. From there it's to the hills, jungles, backwaters and temples of the south. Be sure to check out our Picasa photo album for part of the trip. Hope you're all well, and thank you for the continual stream of emails and well wishes - all are appreciated, even if not replied to!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nepal

After the long desert of the past 30 days in Western China and Tibet, Nepal was a revelation. Moisture picked up off the oceans surrounding the subcontinent gather into clouds over Nepal, hit the Himalayas and dump their cargo onto this country, leaving everything north of the Himalayas stark and barren, but making Nepal itself a fantastic menagerie of life. The forests outside Kathmandu, the city where we spent 8 days, boast over 500 species of flowering plants, over 380 species of birds and countless species of insects, including gorgeously-coloured butterflies and thirsty leeches. Nepal, squished between mountain ranges both to its north and its south, is a healthy mixture of forest, rainforest, plain, mountain, lake and river, making it an outdoorsperson's dream. However, much like some of the beautiful flowering plants we found, thorns are hidden amidst the lushness, leaving the country in a fragile state and one best traveled warily.



Kathmandu is located in this lovely valley ringed by mountains, with the Himalayas just out of view.


Coming into Nepal, we admittedly didn't know much about it other than its close proximity to Mt. Everest and the Himalayas and that it was a great place to trek. What we learned in our very short time there surprised us. For example, we didn't know that in 2001, the prince at the time took up arms and massacred his entire family before turning the gun on himself. Imagine young Prince Harry doing this to the present-day Queen and all the rest of the family? The outcry and disbelief would echo around the world. How could we not have heard of this? We also learned that now the country is a democracy, but the election that was supposed to happen months ago has been suspended time and time again, leaving the people with less and less faith in their leaders. Then there's the Maoist rebels wreaking havoc in the West, kidnapping, killing, creating strikes and generally keeping things in a constant state of flux. They were granted opposition status as a party, then decided they wanted more, and have since walked out of parliament and have taken up alterior means of trying to get what they want. On top of that, we had a few experiences in the city and one in the forest while birding that made us feel a little uncomfortable, and glad that we stayed in the close confines of Kathmandu.


We're now in the land of the sari, and Nepal was a good precursor for India.

Kathmandu itself is quite the place. We spent most of our time in Thamel, a Bangkok Khao-san road-esque place that was like stepping into a dream-nightmare after the beauty and emptiness of Tibet. On the one hand, there was every food known to a Westerner's mind. Curries, Mexican, pizzas, Italian, steaks, chocolate mousse, apple pie . . . the list goes on. Also plenty of beers and wine from France, Chile and Australia, including one of our favourites, Hardy's Shiraz. On the other hand, motorists there have very little respect for your toes, and motorcyclists are simply coming through. The main street of Thamel is jam-packed with internet cafes, restaurants, bakeries, ATM machines, money exchangers and everywhere people selling trips, bus rides, tiger balm and hash, the latter a little more quietly than the three former. Add to this taxis, motorcycles, peddle bikes, small trucks, dogs, and you've got yourself one happening place.

Sun sets on an ancient structure which we guess houses deceased.

It was neat for us to be there with Mom and Dad Styles, as they were here in 1973, and just a few things had changed! It's not very often that you get to see what a place was like 35 years later through someone else's eyes like that, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Like most other places that have been 'discovered' by tourists, some changes are good, and others not so good. Check out their blog for more on their thoughts on what's changed, and their experiences in Pokhara, a lake-side town a few hours out of Kathmandu valley. Nepal is a place we'd like to go back to, though the political situation would have to change significantly for us to actually do so. For this trip, it was a great place to recover a bit from the last 30 days of buses, trains and dust, and to prepare ourselves for what for us is the scariest part of our journey, India.


A touch of old in downtown Kathmandu.

We will spend 6 weeks in India, trying to take in as much as possible in that time, both in the north and the south. We've heard mixed reviews of the country, and, after reading some of its authors, also know what to expect in terms of poverty and beggars. But, it's a country that has drawn both of us for various reasons, so, to India it is! Hope all is well with you, and thank you to those email senders among you - we appreciate the updates:)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tibet

Onto Tibet! Our silk road voyage blended into a journey south to Tibet, but with two key differences: we were on a train instead of buses (praise Allah) and the scenery became decidedly mountainous rather than sand-duney.

Train twisting and climbing into the Tibetan plateau.


For once the LP was wrong, in our opinion: rather than being bored we were enthralled by the open landscape between Golmud and Lhasa, where animals abound. We counted 250 hooved wild animals (we think: wild donkeys, antelopes or gazelles, deer, goats), 10 foxes, a wolf, countless raptors (including three Himalayan Griffon Vultures, which are even bigger than Cinereous Vultures) and other birds, not to mention the hoardes of grazing sheep and yaks. We also admired the delicacy of the lichen and grass on the hills: made us think of the Dalai Lama's request that Tibet be internationally protected as a unique ecosystem because it is mostly unspoiled but is very fragile. Once the lichen and topsoil is disturbed, it takes a very long time to recover it, if ever. Geoff especially was glued to the window and was rewarded with lots of wildlife spotting.

Lichen 'skin' covering the muscles of the mountain.

Lhasa was a place of mixed feelings: on the one hand it was clean and there was good food and shopping, on the other hand it was easy to see China imposing its shops, restrictions, and people on the Tibetans. We worked hard to see all the sights: we biked to both Sera and Drepung Monasteries and took a bus to the third one, Ganden. We went to both the Potala (Dalai Lama's winter palace) and Norbulingka (summer palace), and we even fit in some birding and shopping.

Potala Palace, Lhasa


We biked on some country roads to Sera Monastery and met some cute - and dirty - kids:)


And we saw the monks debating, Tibetan style! So much energy! And aggression, but good naturedly. Very cool for us to see.


video


Having seen as much as we could in Lhasa, we hired a Tibetan driver and his Toyota LandCruiser and set out for a four-day bumpy ride to the Nepalese border. Our driver Sonam was friendly and good-humoured and we really enjoyed seeing Tibet through his eyes. 'Our number-one teacher in Tibet!' we told him:) He helped us to see beyond the city of Lhasa into the village life of Tibetans where the Chinese influence was less apparent.




Three families eating together and taking a break from their barley harvesting. We met them on our way from Lhasa to Nepal. Mel and I are sitting there at the back: he with a farmer's hat, and me with a red scarf.


We crossed over several high passes, stopping to breathe the air and acclimatize, and to take pictures. On one of these high passes, as we stepped out of our stuffy jeep on to a windy and dusty mountain top, a local girl selling bracelets remarked on my flipflops, admired my toe-polish, and motioned for me to paint her nails. So I dug out some nail polish and we had a mountain-top manicure, haha:) I gave her the bottle when we were done and she gave me a bracelet; lots of smiles and a picture. Her name is Tsereh.


The scenery all the way along was amazing - like driving through a postcard. The last 30km were the most harrowing and long 30km of our lives. Picture this: single lane dirt road made so muddy by the rain that any car other than a jeep would have been stuck or slid right off the road, winding down a mountain, 1000m cliff on one side with a turbulent river at the bottom, and sheer rock wall on the other side, at night, in the fog, and the rain, with raging waterfalls flowing onto the road (washing out parts of it) and over the road so that we drove under them like a carwash and over them like a river, with semi's going up and down the same road, passing construction materials and machines and tents, and skirting fresh landslides that included some rocks as big as a small car. We went 28km in 3 hours. We had to stop a couple of times because a semi up ahead was stuck or there was a rock on the road, and once our front tire fell into a hole but our driver managed to drive out of it. To top it all off, when we were finally in view of the border town that was our destination (at 11pm) we got stuck for 2 hours because the road controllers at the bottom were accepting bribes from vehicles wanting to come up the road: the road is supposed to be open for downward-traffic only before midnight and upward-traffic only after midnight, but the guards at the bottom take some money and let upward-traffic go up, which, of course, completely clogs the road and makes it impassable for everybody. It certainly was a grande finale to our overland adventure!


The next morning we woke up to find ourselves in a lush rainforest ecosystem: in our harrowing ride in the dark we hadn't been able to see the transition from the arid Tibetan landscape to the tropical Nepalese one. Geoff says "It's like we've stepped off the movie set of 'Mission to Mars' and onto the one for 'Jurassic Park'." And it really is. The change is amazing. So far we're really enjoying our time in Kathmandu with its trees and funky courtyard-restaurants. We're here for a few days and then head on to India, while Mel and Donna go back to China to explore the south. We've had such a great time traveling together: we all feel very fortunate to have had this chance to experience (and survive!) all these adventures together. We'll miss you, mom and dad Styles!

Next stop: Delhi! Make sure to check out our Picasa Web Albums for more pictures.