I’m like a bird…..

The other day, somebody asked me what the high point of our trip had been to date.  Well, one of the high points (boom boom!) was paragliding in Pokhara over Phewa Lake from Sarangkot at 1590m down to the lake level at 790m.  You’re strapped to a paragliding “pilot” whose comedic response to the question “how many times have you done paragliding?” is “this is my first time”.  Ummm.

To take off, you lean forward and then start running down the hill and then at some point you are no longer running on anything as you are already in the air: once you finally realise this and stop looking stupid running in the air, you sit back and relax while you float around and let the thermal currents take you where they will.  The steering is all done by the pilot.

The views of the mountains, lake and city were all pretty spectacular but paragliding might not be for the faint hearted or for those who don’t like heights it has to be said.  Nearer landing, the pilot gives you the option of doing some “excitement” i.e. being spun around a lot more (which did make my stomach a little queasy).  Shortly after this, we landed near the lake (fortunately not in the lake which had been one of my concerns going into this). However, contrary to what I had expected, the landing was incredibly soft and essentially you just land walking.  All good fun.  It’s a popular pass-time here and often the sky is filled with brightly coloured paragliding sails which adds to some of the picturesque views of the city.

 

​Holiday celebrations

It’s fair to say that this year’s Christmas festivities were a little different. 
Our Christmas morning was spent in a boys’ orphanage playing games with the resident boys.  (It turns out that I am relatively skilled at moving a biscuit from my forehead to my mouth without using my hands although my skills at the “chocolate game” when you have to roll a 6 and then dress up and try and eat a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork remain as poor as they did during my childhood.) 
While lunch was the Nepali staple of dahl baht (eaten in the traditional way using our right hands only without any cutlery), we were in fact treated to a Christmas dinner of sorts in the evening – mulled wine followed by roast chicken and pork with roast potatoes and lots of vegetables and even gravy and apple sauce (a very welcome surprise).

 

Although it wasn’t officially Nepali New Year (that falls in April), Pokhara hosted a 5 day street festival from 28 December to 1 January during which the buildings were decorated with colourful lights, banners were put up across the street and the restaurants and shops invaded the pavements and set up what seemed like hundreds of stalls, thus transforming the main Lakeside thoroughfare. Billed as THE event of the year in Pokhara, essentially there was a 5 day party and various small stages were set up on the main street featuring cultural (and other perhaps less cultural) dances and live musicians. It was busy too: apparently residents from villages all over Nepal are bussed in to come and join the party and go shopping (taking advantage of the alleged “very special” and “not to be missed” new year prices).

While we enjoyed some of the days of this festival, as the holiday fell at a weekend, we went off on a side trip and spent New Year’s Eve itself in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha (in the south of Nepal).  While perhaps not the most happening of places to party on NYE, this is one of Nepal’s key sites to visit.  

It’s obviously an important pilgrimage destination although, other than the marker stone which pinpoints the exact birthplace of Buddha in 623BC, the rest of the Lumbini Gardens is relatively modern comprising a number of monasteries (erected in the last 20 years and many by other countries where Buddhism is a major religion such as China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc). 

For me some of the serenity that I had expected from such an important pilgrimage site was lost by the large numbers of selfie-taking visitors.  I had expected a much calmer, perhaps more respectful, aura.

Just in case you were in any doubt…


In contrast, our visit to the ancient ruins of Tilaurakot where Buddha had spent the first 29 years of his life as a prince (before renouncing his privileged lifestyle and seeking Enlightenment), was significantly quieter but that’s probably because there were hardly any visitors here.  It was also an incredibly misty day which perhaps also deterred less hardy visitors.

As for our NYE celebrations themselves, again this was a bit different.  In our hotel there were 5 guests (including ourselves).  Just after dinner, the hotel staff (with quite some pomp and ceremony albeit this was lost on the 3 other guests who remained glued to their smartphones throughout) brought out a chocolate cake with a firework type candle on top for us to share with them.  This was topped off with a small glass of hot rum with honey and ginger as we sat round the fire pit in the garden. Given that this all took place at about 8pm, it’s fair to say that we didn’t quite make midnight (not least as it was pretty cold).

Namaste

As part of the volunteering induction, we had a Nepali lesson. Going into the lesson, pretty much all we could say was “Namaste” (“Hello” or literally, “I bow to the god inside of you”).  I’d like to say that coming out of the lesson, we were able to say a huge amount more but that unfortunately would be quite far from the reality of the situation.

Things probably started to go a bit awry when we were told there were 8 vowels and 36 consonants and then quickly went downhill at an ever increasing pace when we then learnt there were 5 sub-groups of consonants each with a nasal consonant and a strong distinction between aspirated and unaspirated sounds.  Not being natural linguists, this was a little beyond us particularly when we learned that not using the correct sound could get you into all sorts of problems: for example, aspirating the word “dahl” could mean you end up with condoms with your rice instead of the Nepali lunch staple of rice and lentils.

 

​Rice threshing

Have you ever thought about the contents of a packet of rice you buy in your local supermarket?  Until recently, me neither: it’s just rice isn’t it and is pretty cheap to buy. 

However, after a day spent rice threshing in Nepal, I’m looking at rice in a whole new light now that I know how much effort it takes to harvest it in an unmechanised environment. And as well as being time consuming, it’s hard work too, both for us and the cows. 
(And we only saw part of the process).



After the harvest, the first job is to take the bundles of recently cut rice, lift them over your shoulder and then bash them as hard as possible on the ground to try and make the rice kernels fall out.  The residual grass then has to be evenly spread out under the path of the group of cows that have been tethered together and are walking round and round in a circle on the cut grass again to separate out any other grains of rice from it.  Of course the cows are way more interested in stopping to eat and so another job is to ensure that they keep moving. This is achieved by continuously following them around and grunting at them (for information, a deep grunt seems to be the most effective) to encourage them to move and/or giving them a quick clip on the backside (either by hand or with a stick) and all the time hoping that they don’t take against you and decide to retaliate with a good back-kick.   



Following the cows around on the grass isn’t as easy as it looks (bit like walking on a sandy beach) and you can get a bit dizzy going round and round the same way although spare a thought for the cows who are doing this for hours on end.   (One slightly less pleasant job is trying to ensure that any cow dung is not trampled into the grass and instead is removed as quickly as possible).  Once all the bundles have been threshed in this way, the resulting pile of rice has to be sieved further and the trodden down grass bundled together and tied up for animal feed. 

 

Although it was a full day’s work, disappointingly the resulting pile of rice was not as impressive as I felt it should have been. And this is, of course, not the end of the process: another stage is processing the rice kernels and taking off the outer shell but this was not something with which we were involved.  


It was a fun day although no doubt the local farmers with whom we had been working were not particularly impressed by the fact that their harvesting process had been delayed by the foreign novices.  
But they looked after us well and we all enjoyed a generous picnic lunch of dahl baht (rice and lentils) in the middle of the rice field in a very picturesque setting.  

The view from Pokhara

At the end of our trek, we arrived in Pokhara, Nepal’s 2nd largest city which has a relaxed vibe.   It turns out that the view of the Annapurnas from Lake Fewa is pretty spectacular.  Ummm, food for thought: was it necessary to spend 16 days trekking the Circuit?  Yes, of course it was.

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The mountains here are rather ethereal and look a bit more like an old fashioned film screen back-drop rather than the Real McCoy.  But they are real and very big!

We’ll be in Pokhara for a few weeks while undertaking some voluntary work: we’re doing a construction project and a woman’s empowerment project.

​Please Sir, can I have some more….?

Apparently one symptom of altitude sickness is a loss of appetite but we were obviously ok, as we ate heartily throughout.  Dall baht (lentils and rice) (with its bonus free refill) was the main staple but we were able to get a variety of other things too (fried rice, fried noodles, mo-mos (vegetable dumplings) and some pasta dishes).  On a couple of menus at the higher altitude, yak burgers also featured but we resisted this temptation (?) and stayed vegetarian.  Despite the troughing, we seemed to burn through all the extra calories and by the time we arrived in Pokhara, we had both lost a few pounds.  It is probably also my driest December on record: apart from a shared beer towards the end of our trek, it was water (when not frozen) all the way!

Thukpa (noodle soup)
Mo mo
Delicious Tibetan bread for breakfast
Everest Lager

​The Apple Pie trail and beyond

Once over the pass, I had it in my head that we would only be walking downhill from now on.  Wrong!  While on the first part of the trail we had been walking partly on the “road” (the term being used in the loosest of senses), on this part of the trek we walked mostly on trails which just go up and over one hill and then descend only to rise immediately over the next crest with a combination of steps and gravelly paths to test out your knees to the full.  On some days we might only want to drop 200m but in order to do so, we would climb 400m, then drop 1000m and then climb back up 400m again!  During this part of the trek, we followed the Kalligandaki river on what is colloquially known as the Apple pie trail because that dish appears on a lot of the menus in the tea-houses.  

Thorang-La pass is almost the highest point on this picture 

The incursion of the road is a little bit controversial and there are some purists who say that trekking the Annapurna Circuit is now over because of the road which has wiped out some of the trails.  Yes it’s true that you do see some hardy vehicles going along the road but not that many and of course the introduction of the road brings better communication, healthcare, food and education to the local population.  And of course, the road has not taken away the wonderful mountain views.  

After 10 days of walking, we had a break when we took a local bus from Jomsom to Tatopani.  Once on the “deluxe” bus (the word “deluxe” being a brand rather than an adjective, given all the broken seats on the bus), we quickly realised just how bad the road was – it was full of pot-holes, was very narrow and we were often extremely close to the edge of the road with a 200m or so sheer drop into the river valley below, which was particularly scary when the bus tried to get through a deep pot hole and tilted at a sharp angle and/or we had to get pass an oncoming vehicle.  It reminded me of a rollercoaster ride at a fun fair but unfortunately without any safety precautions: probably the worst day of the trek and not an experience I am in a hurry to repeat.  

After that we were back walking again, completing the Annapurna Circuit after a further 3 days.  However, as our initial plan had also been to do the 3 day Tillicho Lake extension which we had cancelled due to the increased risk of avalanche and landslide following snow fall, we tacked on 3 further days at the end of the trek, just to make sure we got the full 16 day experience.  This took us to some delightful places – all with Tolkein-esque names – like Sikha, Ghorepani, Ghandruk and Landruk and also to Poon Hill which afforded an incredible panoramic view over the Annapurna mountains.  Simply stunning.

​The Big One: Over the Top: 12 December 2017

It was a few days later that I first heard about the concept of different types of fun.  Apparently, Type 1 fun is when something is fun to do and also fun to remember.  Type 2 fun is when something is not fun to do but is fun to remember.  It’s fair to say that this (at least for me) was probably a day of Type 2 fun.  


After practically no sleep at all (it is very hard to sleep at high altitude), the day’s activities officially started at 3.45am with breakfast at 4am and then around 4.40am, we started the 1000m ascent up in the dark and freezing cold to the Thorung La (“La” means mountain pass).  It was a clear night and the moon and stars were out, but we still needed our head torches to see our steep path upwards, especially when navigating the icy patches (just to throw another challenge at us).  As light broke around 6.20am, it became a bit easier, but it was still around the minus 17 mark and it was hard going climbing up in the really thin air to the heady height of 5416 metres, breathing pretty heavily just trying to catch your breath.  And still the climb went on!  But with the patience and encouragement of our guide and a turbo energy boost from eating my first Mars bar in 20 years, we made the pass in pretty good time.  [Pause here for a self-congratulatory pat on the back].

The rest of the day was then spent going down and then more down – 1600m descent in total which in some ways was just as hard as going up (albeit the air quality was less challenging).  Unfortunately for me, I became rather dehydrated resulting in a severe headache.  Up until that point in the trek, I’d been pretty good at drinking lots and lots of water (over 5 litres each day as we went to increasingly high altitude: drinking H2O is another way of trying to maintain the oxygen in your body) but today all my drinking water froze while climbing up to the Thorung La.  And there weren’t any shops at 5416m either!  The day, however, ended well on arrival at our tea house in Muktinath with a hot shower and relatively comfortable bed to boot.

​The Annapurna Circuit

“Let’s go trekking in Nepal”. “Sure, sounds good” I said and then didn’t give it any further thought.  So it was only on arrival in Kathmandu that reality set in when I realised that we were booked on a 18 day trek (16 days walking) round the Annapurna Circuit at altitude right at the end of the trekking season in December (i.e. winter) in the freezing cold.  I’m used to lots of mental challenges and stressful situations but this was probably the hardest physical challenge I have ever done, especially considering my age, level of fitness (or lack thereof), my inherited legendary sense of (no) balance and my twice-operated on knee.  Then there was my fear of getting altitude sickness to overcome as well.  But, armed with my brand new walking boots (oh yes a true rookie here), we got through it, blister free too.  Needless to say, Mountain Goat was absolutely fine.  True there were some really hard bits and days when I thought Nepal would benefit from investment in flatter paths (as opposed to the seemingly constant ascents and descents) and I made many a self-promise to scrutinise more closely Husband’s plans/bookings for other parts of the trip.

For the first few days we followed the Marsyangdi River climbing each day between 400 and 800m.  It was clearly winter in this river valley and the terraced fields were brown and barren.  Often we were the only people staying in our tea houses which were very basic especially at the lower altitudes: they were often made of wood with ill fitting doors and windows with no attempt at insulation despite the negative temperatures.  Typically though, we got blankets in addition to our sleeping bags so we did keep warm in bed.  Some tea houses had stoves to heat the communal dining room, but as we went above the treeline, firewood became scarcer and sometimes the yak dung (alternative fuel) just didn’t give off that much heat.   The unheated and uninsulated bedrooms uniformly opened onto the outside of the buildings which just added an extra chill, most problematic when answering the call of nature in the middle of the night when we didn’t have an “attached” (ensuite) room.  In the highest point where we stayed (Thorung Phedi at 4450m), the water in the toilets froze!  

View from tea house, Yak Kharka, 4050m

However, although it was winter, apart from the last couple of days (and the day crossing the pass: see “The Big One: Over the Top” below) during the day, the sun shone brightly and we were able to walk in T shirts or just one fleece.  The slight negative was that usually by 3pm, the sun dropped sharply behind the mountains and the temperature would then plummet pretty quickly (often to at least minus 10 at night).  One big positive though: no mosquitoes or leaches: way too cold for those little nasties!!  Although we saw that it was snowing on the route ahead of us, we were lucky and never had to walk in snow or rain.  Underfoot was a different matter and in various parts, we had to navigate some pretty icy patches.

Generally we started walking around 8am (bit too cold to start any earlier) and would walk between 5 and 6 hours each day, sometimes longer.  Although the distances we covered weren’t always that significant, as you went further up, you could feel the air getting thinner and sometimes it was harder to catch your breath. We would then “chill out” (literally) at our destination tea house as part of acclimatisation to the altitude.  

The Nepalese consider that any peak under 6000m is just a hill: worth perhaps remembering that Ben Nevis is only 1300m.  Fair to say we were looking at some big monsters: if the altitude and/or the climbing hadn’t already robbed me of all my breath, the scenery would have done.

On the way up to the Thorung La pass, we particularly liked Menang at 3500m where we spent a couple of nights acclimatising to the altitude.  The “town” was a bit like a Wild West Frontier town but had a certain charm although we didn’t avail ourselves of the make shift “cinemas” as we were out of season:  we were however able to spot a general theme to the film choices.

​Happy Christmas and Happy New Year

Quick note to wish everyone a very happy Christmas and all the best for the rest of 2074.  

Not a typo: here in Nepal we are actually over half way through 2074 (in mid-April, it will be 2075).

So not only is Nepal 5¾ hours ahead of GMT, it is also 56 years and 8 months ahead! 

We are not feeling that Christmassy here although have seen a few trees around, some of them looking a bit sorry for themselves. 

Happy holidays!

And so to Nepal (and an admin update)….

We arrived in Kathmandu yesterday and tomorrow we are off trekking – the Annapurna Circuit – for a few weeks.

Amusingly (at least to me) while India was 5½ hours ahead of the UK, Nepal is 5¾ hours ahead.  The quarter of an hour time change is a first for me as far as I can remember.

While we are trekking, I anticipate that we will be in a bit of an internet “blackout” zone and so the blog is unlikely to get updated until the week before Christmas. Hopefully we will have some good photos to post then.

There are some additional photos on instagram at charlottecrockett123. Again updates here may be limited while we are in the mountains.

Shekhawati

Our final days in Rajasthan were spent in the Shekhawati region which is slightly off the confirmed tourist trail. It is renowned for the painted havellis (ornately decorated residences): these were built by merchants who played games of “one up man ship” with each other to see who could have the most beautifully decorated houses. Originally these towns were on the busy trading routes but trade was curtailed both with the rise of the ports at Mumbhai and Kolkata and also by Partition as the trading routes with Pakistan were cut off. As a result, sadly, today the owners seem to have lost interest in these buildings and the majority of the havellis have fallen into disrepair which is a shame. Many are now being pulled down and replaced with modern (and ugly) shopping premises.

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A restored Haveli in Churo – now a boutique hotel

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Wedding Crashers

 

28 November 2017: So I’m aware that Asian weddings tend to have a lot more guests than your average British wedding. However, what I hadn’t realised was that it was acceptable to invite additional random people to tag along with you when you were invited to a wedding. This is exactly what happened to us when the owners of our guest house in Bikaner invited us along to a Hindu wedding that was taking place in town.

So off we went to this large open air venue in the evening. We had worried a little bit about what to wear (the contents of our rucsacs not really extending to formal wedding guest attire) but in the end, we fitted in ok as there was a huge range of clothing from the bling bling beautiful saris to scruffier people in jeans, down jackets and trainers.   Apparently this time of year is high wedding season in Rajasthan (no matter what day of the week it is) albeit it can get a bit chilly in the evenings.

Unsurprisingly we knew no one and, again unsurprisingly, we stood out a little.: although to be fair we were never asked the direct question of “who are you?” or “what are you doing here?” – instead we just had all the normal “from where are you from?” type of questions that we seem to get wherever we go. Peter, in particular, seemed to be a real hit and patiently went through the same basic introductory conversation several times.

There was a vast amount of food and we merrily tucked in which seemed to be the done thing to do. In fact we may have tucked in a little too much as it was only after a while that we realised that we had perhaps over concentrated on the stalls serving starter type food and that in fact on the other side of the venue full main courses were available. Still, we didn’t let this put us off …. and happily tucked into that too: we wouldn’t have wanted to miss out after all.  There was no alcohol though.

As for the bride and groom, they arrived separately – the groom dressed in white arrived on horse-back with lots of dancing and cheering and the bride (dressed in a red sari with lots of gold on it) arrived later although her entry didn’t have as much pomp and ceremony about it. We didn’t witness any ceremonial bits (weddings tend to go on over several days) but instead saw the bride and groom have formal photos taken with all their wedding guests, group by group: given the fact that there were hundreds of guests (possibly over a thousand), this was a lengthy process and I was quite worried for the couple – while their guests (and gate crashers!) all got to tuck into the food, they didn’t seem to get any refreshments and posing for so many photos didn’t look that much fun it has to be said. Although the owners of our guest house were keen for us to also join them on stage for their photo with the happy couple, we thought that that was possibly one step too far and politely declined.

 

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The Land of the Kings

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So we have continued our tour around Rajasthan which has been fort-tastic. As well as the forts/palaces in Jaipur, we’ve seen some impressive forts in Jodhpur (the Blue City), Jaisalmer (the Golden City) as well as visiting Udaipur (which could be known as the White City) and Bikaner.

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Jodhpur (the Blue City)

[The mighty Mehrangarh (Jodhpur), Kumbhalgarh and Jaisalmer Forts]

We also stopped at Pushkar which is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus and also a hot spot backpacker destination (where it seems de rigeur to grow dreadlocks and walk around looking like you haven’t bathed for several weeks (but perhaps I’m just getting old)).

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Udaipur has probably been our favourite place in Rajasthan so far – with its beautiful lake and impressive City Palace. Like pretty much every other hostel or restaurant in town, our hostel boasted a roof top with a lake view where it was nice to chill out and wonder how the richer tourists were doing at the Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the lake (the riff-raff are kept well away as only hotel residents are allowed to visit the hotel). One of our best activities was doing a guided bike ride which, once we left Udaipur’s crazy traffic system, and got out of town onto the backwaters by the main lake and its sister lakes was really enjoyable: it was nice to get off the beaten track.

We also enjoyed getting lost in the Old City in Jodhpur with its tiny alleyways and paths which were not wide enough for cars to pass (although that didn’t stop the high volume of rickshaws or motorbikes).

One Hump or Two?

 

One of the evocative “highlights” of Rajasthan is camel trekking through the Thar Desert (through the middle of which runs the border with Pakistan). On paper, this all sounds pretty romantic but that’s without factoring in that camels can be (a) pretty grumpy (and let’s face it, quite smelly) animals and (b) pretty uncomfortable to ride leaving you feeling hobbled/walking around like John Wayne for a while following dismount.

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However, obviously we are gluttons for punishment as we ended up doing 2 separate (albeit short) treks: one sunset trek from Jaisalmer and then a longer overnight trek from Bikaner.

The Thar desert is not a classic sand dune desert – instead, you end up trekking through arid scrub land with intermittent bushes and even villages and electricity pylons (there’s been a big push to modernise and even irrigate some of these outlying areas). Again this all serves as a reminder of the immense population of India (1.2 billion): you can never quite seem to get away from other people.

It has to be said that our first trek was really quite uncomfortable: while we were probably short changed in terms of the length of the trek, on balance this was a good thing. Fortunately, the saddle used on the second (and longer) trek was far more comfortable and the desert camp we stayed in was actually pretty sophisticated and even had flushing toilets – a bonus. However, lest anyone think we have gone completely soft, we were still camping but to be fair, the tent was great and had lovely thick duvets which kept us warm (it was pretty cold once the sun went down).   And then there was the starlit romantic dinner for 2 ….

 

 

 

Entrepreneurs in action

You’ve got to admire the spirit (and persistence) of hawkers. Peter’s daypack had been ripped for a while and this had been attracting a certain amount of attention from sharp-eyed hawkers. On the approach to Jaisalmer fort, he eventually succumbed and agreed to have someone sew it up.

And before I knew it, I also found myself having agreed to having some work done on my walking sandals – a job I didn’t even know had to be done! Before you could blink, my sandals were off, the glue was out together with the sewing thread and voila the bit that had (apparently) been flapping around was fixed.

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As soon as our jobs were finished, you could see the hawkers chasing down the next person – anyone who had a loose thread or a small rip on any part of their clothing, shoes or bags was fair game.

 

Déjà vu

So for the second time on this trip, we felt a sense of abandonment (see “Robinson Crusoe” post). This time in the Thar desert somewhere outside of Jaisalmer where we had been cheerfully deposited by our camel driver, Joe*, who said goodbye and raced off into the sunset with the two camels we had ridden out to the sand dunes.

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Goodbye

So we sat and waited and watched the sun go down and the ensuing sunset. This time we did have some snacks (high quality soya protein snacks we had bought at a Jain Temple earlier in the trip no less) but again no one for company apart from a few scarab beetles and (for a short while only) a stray dog who suddenly appeared and then disappeared as quickly again. It was another relatively odd experience.

Fortunately we were finally collected by our jeep driver, Mama*, who took us back to Jaisalmer which was obviously all part of the plan but perhaps it would have been helpful to have had a little more of said plan communicated to us in advance!

*Names probably should have been changed but who knows if they are real anyway

They’re grrrreat!

15 November 2017: Our foray into Ranthambhore National Park unfortunately yielded no sightings of any tigers (Tony or otherwise). We did however see a number of tiger prints in the sand although the more cynical among us mused whether they were pre-planted especially given their proximity to the entrance gate.

_MG_7371 All was not lost: we saw lots of “tiger food” – antelopes, spotted deer, samba deer, Indian gazelle (very similar (maybe the same?) to the Thomson Gazelle which you see all over Africa), peacocks and languar monkeys plus a whole host of smaller birds (including a number of owls).  Our key spot was a sloth bear which we were able to follow for a while. There were also a lot of crocodiles basking in the sun by the severely depleted water holes. Tigers are loners and cover a huge amount of ground and so we always knew that our chances of spotting one were slim. The guides rely on the warning cries of the other animals alerting everyone to the presence of tigers (or leopards) but unfortunately today everyone seemed to be living in harmony and so we left without a sighting.

Learning (some of) the ropes

So a few days’ into our India trip and we are learning some of the quirks (slowly but hopefully surely).

One of the biggest challenges in Jaipur was crossing the road. The traffic is literally constant and even when you think you might be on a pavement and in a (relatively) safe zone, quite often you would find that a rickshaw or motorcycle also felt that that same area was their fair game. Near our hotel was a road called Mirza Ismail Road which was one of the key arteries of the new city. It’s known locally as MI but quite quickly Peter started referring to it as the M1: crossing the Motorway in the UK would probably be less terrifying. You just had to plot your route and then go for it making sure not to make any sudden movements and hope that the traffic would anticipate what you were going to do next. And then, at night-time, was the added challenge of being especially wary of the 25% or so of vehicles that were unlit.

 

Relying on ATMs, we initially ran into a few problems. While all machines seemed to recognise our cards and provide an individual personal welcome message, many were reluctant to actually dispense any cash to us. Once we got over our initial feelings of worrying that the machines had been tampered with, we soon learnt that only a few ATMs allow foreign cards to be used so we have to pick and choose with a little more care going forward.

There’s (nominally) lots of metal detector security gates and airport style x ray machine for bags – e.g. at entrances to metro stations, railway stations and also to major sites. However, there seem to be different policies applicable at different places. Common to all, however, seems to be that the more you beep, the quicker you are allowed through – eyebrows only seem to be raised if in fact you have nothing setting off the machine. It’s not entirely clear how they work or what in fact they stop. Indeed at the railway station, while you are told to put your big bags through the airport screening X ray machine, it seems perfectly acceptable to walk through the metal detector with your day pack.

Sight seeing in Jaipur

As you would expect from the capital of Rajasthan, some of the sights in and around Jaipur are magnificent – after all, we are in the land of Maharajahs.

About 11km outside of Jaipur is the grand Amber Fort which is well worth a day trip, after you’ve haggled with the rickshaw driver to take you there. (Actually one of the trickier parts of the day is trying to find your designated rickshaw (from the hundreds parked up) at the end of your visit to the Fort).

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Inside of the Old City (apparently painted pink just to hide the poor quality of the materials used?), one of the key sites is the City Palace with its Peacock Gates. Also housed here are reputedly the largest silver objects in the world – in the form of 1.6m tall silver vessels which allegedly Maharajah Madho Singh II used to transport Ganges holy water to England for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.

The Hawa Mahal is probably Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark (built to enable the royal ladies to watch the life and processions of the city.

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And probably the most curious sight is the Jantar Mantar, the observatory containing a number of pretty accurate sun dials.

 

Celebrity Squares

“Selfie? Selfie? Can I have a selfie?” chirrups a small girl in the Albert Museum in central Jaipur.   And suddenly from nowhere you find yourself posing not only with the small girl but seemingly all her extended family who have appeared from nowhere, all of whom seem absolutely delighted with the photo. But surely it’s one that will be deleted straight away isn’t it?

But this wasn’t a one off event.  At first, my celebrity star seemed to shine higher than Peter’s but then suddenly he had a long run in which he managed to catch up.  At one point he was asked for a selfie even when the guys in question actually had no camera themselves and I had to take the photo with my camera (not sure how that amounts to a selfie but never mind).  It will be interesting to see if the word “selfie” replaces “photo” in years to come.

Move over David Beckham, make way for the new celebrity

 

 

City Safari

Having seen camels, elephants, monkeys, and wild boars, you could be forgiven for thinking we were on an official safari.  But no, we are in the city of Jaipur (which is India’s 10th largest city) and these animals together with cows, chipmunks, various types of rat, dogs and goats are all just part and parcel of its population, all living side by side.  As a pedestrian, one of the greatest challenges comes from the large number of big cows (obviously a revered animal) that seem to roam freely everywhere but can be quite difficult to get past, especially in the narrow bazaars.  Amazingly, they seem totally unphased by the vast numbers of people and all the traffic including all the honking horns.  Presumably they have just got used to it?

Destination: Pink City

For various reasons, including the fact that Delhi is currently enveloped in a thick cloud of toxic smog, we decided to change our plans and on arrival in India, headed straight for Jaipur, the Pink City, in Rajasthan.

The drive to Jaipur took about 5 to 6 hours: it’s probably fair to say that the road markings in India are indicative only and the trick seems to be to try to keep moving at all times (no matter what vehicle you are in – be it lorry, bus, car, auto rickshaw, motor bike, cyclist etc). Traffic seems to weave in and out (you can overtake on either side) and while driving is of course meant to be on the left, this is optional at times. My favourite sign so far is “Horn Please” painted on the back of lorries: this seems to be the most unnecessary sign in the world given the beeping is constant: there is certainly no need to remind anyone to use their horn. But somehow the traffic keeps moving (albeit only inch by inch in Delhi proper).

From one extreme to another

Having spent 10 days in the relaxed (but rather tired and faded) Asmara where an internet connection is a little hard to come by (let alone a good one), international mobile phones don’t work, there are no ATMS (everyone carries around wads of cash with the largest note being 100 Nakfa (about £5)), we suddenly found ourselves fast forwarded 3 decades when we landed in Dubai.

Unfortunately, our Fly Dubai flight from Asmara was not the smoothest: we suffered terrible turbulence and the plane suddenly dropped quite significantly, tilted and then seemed to nosedrive for a few minutes until the pilot managed to gain stability again. Unfortunately one stewardess was temporarily knocked out during this episode but otherwise everyone seemed to be safe and sound (as was the stewardess shortly afterwards). You sometimes get a spontaneous round of applause when planes land – this one felt pretty heartfelt when we landed safely on the tarmac; first aboard paramedics for the air-stewardess.

It was my first trip to Dubai, Peter’s second. It reminded me a bit of Hong Kong – the contrast of the ultra modern city buildings set side by side by some of the more traditional aspects of the original trading city.   It was fun crossing the creek using the small water taxis (abras) charging 1 dirham (about 20/25 pence) albeit you had to have your wits about you at the other side and time your jump off onto the shore carefully. Perhaps the journey was not quite as picturesque as the Star Ferry harbour crossing in Hong Kong but it had a similar charm.

On balance, 1½ days in Dubai was too short and I’m not just saying that because our hotel was great (we were upgraded to a suite with 2 rooms and 2 really nice bathrooms).   Perhaps it goes without saying but we were not staying at the Burj Al Arab (the 7 star sail hotel).   Of course we went to see it (from the outside is all you are allowed) but managed to spectacularly mis-time our arrival so that the sun was completely in the wrong place and therefore we couldn’t take decent photos.  Still, it gives us an excuse to return and it was nice chilling out on one of the few public beaches for a while before embarking on one of Peter’s favourite pass-times – shopping! Well, when you are in Dubai, it would be pretty rude not to check out a mall wouldn’t it!

You can buy anything in Dubai: of course you can given the number of malls everywhere.   In fact when you are in the malls, it’s hard to remember that you are in fact in Dubai – you could easily be on any UK high street given the familiar brands including Body Shop, Gap, Apple Store, Banana Republic, Claire’s Accessories and Waitrose.

As part of our final preparations for India, we had read in the guide book that the power supply can fluctuate and so it was recommended that we bought a voltage adaptor to try and control the supply and prevent the Mac from blowing up in case of such an event. To be honest, neither of us really knew exactly what we were shopping for and, after asking around a bit, we were eventually directed to a shop that sold what we wanted. Imagine our surprise when we were pointed in the direction of something that was the size of a modest bedside cabinet. That didn’t strike us at the most practical of things to buy and we were happy later to find something that was the size of a small plug adaptor which seemed far more realistic. The only problem then was that we were in the “wholesalers” district and just being allowed to buy one piece as opposed to a 100 had to be carefully negotiated!

Reflections on Eritrea

So this is a place of contrasts and is a bit different from other African cities we’ve visited. The Lonely Planet guide (last published 2009 as perhaps unsurprisingly, they focus on other more popular destinations) waxes lyrical about the Art Deco buildings that can be found in Asmara (the capital) but even in 2009, it records the fact that many are a bit faded. Fast-forward another 8 years and unfortunately the state of the buildings has worsened but, with a bit of imagination, you can still visualise a princely Italian colonial city although perhaps the Lonely Planet over-eggs the situation a little. However, it’s fair to say that the cafés certainly do make a damn fine macchiato (at least when the electricity is working).

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Although tourists are few and far between, this is not a place where you get significantly stared at or otherwise hassled: yes of course there are a few beggars particularly around the religious buildings (and interestingly the different religious groups all seem to live in harmony together with lots of inter marriage etc) but the beggars (and the hawkers too) are not persistent to any significant degree. Of course you are noticed (we ourselves were surprised when we saw other tourists) and people take a good look but we soon realised that offering a cheerful “selam” or “merhaba” accompanied by a wave of the hand and a smile went a long long way and usually dispelled even the hardest of stares and often we were rewarded with broad smiles.  At times there seemed to be a little confusion about our nationality: frequently it was assumed that we were either German or, more interestingly, Chinese.   Given our height, this was a new one on us but does indicate from where the foreign investment in the country is coming. Perhaps, however, the chant of “one eyed Chinese” from some small school children was not a particularly flattering refrain.

Frequently we would be stopped by someone proffering their hand to welcome us with a handshake (fortunately a simple handshake and not the more complicated handshake/3 shoulder bumps routine that Eritreans usually greet each other with). At other times we’d be walking along a road and hear a resoundingly firm “Buongiorgno”, another reminder of the colonial past.

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It is not a particularly cheap country – in particular, food is pretty expensive (even some local produce is surprisingly dear). Yet despite the low wages (for those lucky enough actually to be in employment), the crime rate is pretty low and we never felt threatened in any way.

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There is a great sense of order – although none of the traffic lights in town seem to work, driving is done in an orderly fashion: pedestrians crossing streets are carefully avoided and car horns are only used sparingly. People also queue in single file for buses in the cities (slightly less so in the rural areas where buses are less frequent and people are just keen to make sure they get on the bus before it reaches bursting point).   Once on board, everyone is very diligent about buying a ticket and even on super crowded buses, you see ticket inspectors somehow working their way down the bus to check that everyone has today’s correct coloured ticket.   On one morning, at a petrol station, we saw a very orderly queue of empty containers all lined up waiting for the petrol station to open to sell kerosene. While the containers pretty much all looked identical to me, presumably their ownership was very clear to the Eritreans who had all huddled elsewhere out of the direct sun, waiting patiently to be served. You certainly did not get the sense that anyone was going to queue jump in any way.

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As we were mainly city-based, we saw a significant number of official buildings (various different ministries etc).   Typically during working hours, the Eritrean flag would be flown but come the evening, a whistle would be blown to signify the flag was coming down at which point all pedestrians in the local vicinity immediately stopped and fell completely silent until the flag was lowered and the 2nd whistle blown. And yes, before you ask, we did completely muck this up and managed to collide with someone who unexpectedly (to us) suddenly stopped dead in their tracks in front of us.

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Another area of contrast is how people are dressed. In Asmara, the older males tend to be rather dapperly dressed in 1950s Italian suits while the younger guys are attired in normal western clobber – jeans and T-shirts etc. We only really saw traditionally dressed men outside of the capital.   In contrast, quite a significant proportion of the women (even in Asmara) wore traditional clothing – brightly coloured dresses with white scarves over their heads often covering up the traditional tightly plaited hairstyles underneath. But it was also very common to see girls/young women in their 20s and 30s following the latest western trends: everyone mixing side by side blending in together.

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As a tourist, it’s not particularly easy to get around (no backpacker trail here). In addition, you need travel permits to go more than 25km outside of Asmara. These have to be applied for in advance with all sorts of details (including the exact licence plates of the car in which you are travelling and/or details of any public transport you propose to take). This extra layer of bureaucracy seems a little unnecessary: given the lack of tourists/visitors in the country, we are pretty easy to spot. On various occasions, we had people tell us they had seen us in town at such and such a place so it’s not like the authorities don’t know where we are at all times.   There are also various parts of the country that are completely closed to foreigners which can feel a little frustrating.    But as Peter would say “TIA” – “This is Africa”.

Hiking around Asmara

The city of Asmara is very high up (about 2,400m) and almost as soon as you leave, you drop down often on hairpin bends through beautiful valleys. Once you’ve identified the correct bus, it doesn’t take you too long to leave the city behind and escape into the dramatic countryside.

On one hike in the Durfor valley, we walked along the railway which clung to the mountain side: no need to worry about trains: the railway itself was not used for many years and now, although back in repair, only runs on Sunday if there more than 10 passengers. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the required quorum together and so did the next best thing of wandering along the line getting the spectacular views on foot.

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There’s a great sense of space out in the open – huge wide valleys which are really rocky (lots of quartz and granite here) and yet somehow people still manage to farm in what are pretty tough conditions especially in the heat of the day. We’re in Eritrea after the rainy season but it still looks pretty dry and the rivers are no longer running although there are various reservoirs that have still got water. Our local guide was very enthusiastic about the bird life and also seemed quite keen to see if he could disturb sleeping hyenas just to show us (we were less keen on this and very much took the view “let sleeping dogs lie”). Other potential hazards to avoid are landmines (although much of the area has been cleared) and, of course, snakes but fortunately we came across none of these.

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An Eritrean version of the wildebeest migration

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At the end of the Durfor Valley hike
At the end of a hard day’s hike….

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While waiting for a bus to return to Asmara at the end of one of our hikes, we were surrounded by a group of local school children (8th graders) who were all on their way to school (the children either go to school in the morning or the afternoon and are easily identified in their brightly coloured (in many cases, well worn and a bit thread-bare) shirts which comprise their school uniform). One of the girls pushed forward her exercise book open at an algebra problem. Sensing this was more within Peter’s level of expertise, I pointed her in his direction: it was actually quite complicated as both “x” and “y” ended up as negative but I have faith that he got it right and the girl seemed very grateful/excited and it was a fun way to while away some of the bus waiting time.

Robinson Crusoe

On a trip to Massawa which is on the Red Sea (Eritrea means Red Sea), we managed to piggy back onto a boat trip organised by some Russian ex pats who had also come down from Asmara for the weekend. However, something must have got lost in translation literally as they dropped us off on a tiny deserted island (Green Island) and then disappeared off without it being clear if or when they would return to pick us (or the white plastic furniture they had left with us) up. To be fair, as the boat was pulling away they kindly imparted some friendly advice, telling us to watch out for the snakes in the wooded area, to avoid treading on the sea urchins on the coral in the sea and also to be careful of the crows who might steal any food we had (had we indeed had the foresight to bring any provisions). It was a rather odd few hours especially after it only took us a few moments to realise that our survival skills were very limited (we didn’t even have a pen-knife between us) and the tiny shell-less crabs that inhabited the island didn’t look like they would provide any sustenance. Still the company was excellent and the Red Sea beautifully warm and the episode ended well – we were collected before the thermometer hit 37 degrees!img_6939.jpg

So how many camels is “wife” worth?

Despite Peter’s best attempts, it turns out that the camel fair in Keren was only about buying and selling camels.   Or you could have bought goats or cattle too as those markets were also on at the same time in the coral next door. It wasn’t entirely clear how (or indeed how much) business was actually being conducted nor what in fact you should be looking for were you minded to buy a camel but it was still an interesting spectacle.

The road to Keren

Sunday 29 October 2017: We had our first taste of Eritrean public transport today as we took a bus from Asmara to Keren some 91 km north of Asmara (approx. a 3 hour journey).  While we waited for the bus to depart (which seemed entirely dependent on when the bus driver felt like hopping on board), we watched the endless stream of hawkers come on the bus plying their wares.

As expected, there were people selling drinks and others selling pastries, nuts and other snacks for the journey ahead.  More unusually though, also on sale were brooms and even a full set of kitchen utensils (pans, serving spoons, sieves etc): mind you that would have gone nicely with the bags of dried pasta that were also available together with the 1kg bags of salt.  Given we weren’t in fact sure when (or maybe if) the bus was going to leave, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that we would in fact have time to make a full meal!

Finally we left the bus station with a completely full compliment of passengers only to stop immediately outside of the walls of the bus station and take on about 30% more passengers. Disappointingly no chickens or other livestock on this bus journey but am sure they will be our fellow travelling companions at some stage during this trip.

Later on in the day we ended up in a small village (having done a short hike) and the only way out was by minibus but of course that was not going to leave until it was absolutely full.  However, given it was mid-afternoon already, there was no way of telling how many other people were going our way.  In the end therefore we did a “contract hire” of the whole minibus only to find that as soon as we started moving they took on lots more (fare paying) passengers anyway.  Que sera – we had anticipated that this would be the case as the same had happened to us on previous trips (in Albania) but better than sitting two hours waiting for minibus to fill up and move.

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Big Saturday night out

28 October 2017: Tonight we found ourselves in an Eritrean restaurant eating pizza (widely available given Eritrea was an Italian colony), listening to a young female Eritrean singer singing Adele accompanied by another talented young male Eritrean on the piano.  The dining crowd (a mixture of Eritreans and ex pats including an ambassador) particularly seemed to come alive when Justin Bieber was sung.  All in all it was a fun but quite surreal evening.

First hiccup

So in the end the rucsac won out (somewhat, it has to be said, to my surprise). However, by the time I had walked from Gatwick train station to the check-in desk, I was already thinking that carrying my pack was overrated and was thinking of Plan B.  Must have been the extra pair of socks that tipped the balance!

At the start however, it became a moot point: while we both arrived safely in Asmara, our bags did not. Our first hiccup and a bit of a logistical issue in a country where international mobile phones don’t work, wifi reception is pretty limited and generally it was a bit hard to work out who in fact we were meant to speak to in order to resolve the issue.   A question of “holding the faith” which ultimately did work as the bags arrived on the following morning’s flight (we were overly excited when the news of their arrival came through – in fairness, we’d only been apart 24 hours but it was only our first journey so made for a positive reunion!).

 

So where are we going?

“Let’s go find some penguins”.  “Let’s learn Spanish”.  “I’d like to go to India”.  And then there was “Can we fit in Eritrea too?”.

With an extended period of time off, you think you have time to go everywhere and to do and see everything.  However, as the plans evolve (and the planning is certainly a very  fluid process), you realise the obvious: the world is a big place and if you are going to enjoy the trip and not just be on the road the whole time or merely collecting the coveted stamp in your passport, you simply can’t fit it all in.  And then, of course, you need to think about saving something for the next trip.

So to answer the question, the easiest thing to say is that we are starting in Eritrea and, in particular, its capital, Asmara.  Following that we head further East via Dubai to the Indian sub-continent.  I’m lucky enough to be making a return trip to India: my first trip there was in 1991 as part of my (first!) gap year and it was my first significant solo trip.  A lot of vivid memories from that trip are still indelibly imprinted in my mind and I am very excited to see what has changed in the intervening 1/4 of a century.  I wonder how much I will recognise. I know Peter is looking forward in particular to December when we start trekking in Nepal (the mountain goat in him will come to the fore).

And now back to the more mundane activity of packing and the big decision of whether to take a rucsac or a wheelie bag.   And just how many pairs of socks is the right number for the trip?