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Delhi to Kathmandu
The only way to describe the Delhi to Kathmandu trip is as an action packed journey through India and Nepal and something akin to a `Planes, Trains and Automobiles`, with the odd Ox cart, Elephant, rickshaw, dug out boat and light aircraft thrown in for fun!
Having arrived into Delhi airport at 5am we said a quick hello to the rest of the group and headed off for a few hours rest before formal introductions to Abhi our tour leader (and soon to be friend) and other members of the group.
After a quick briefing we headed out on a ½ day tour of Delhi for our first flavour of Indian life, culture and the eagerly awaited curry, none of which disappointed. We visited the Jami Masjid, the principal mosque of Old Delhi, where some of the women in the group had to wear fetching art smocks to hide our arms which usefully doubled up as protection from the flocks of pigeons flying overhead. We headed onto the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi just as the sun was going down and locals began to promenade around the adjoining park, before returning back to the hotel for the first beer of the fortnight.
Anyone who has ever complained about crossing Waterloo Station at rush hour has clearly not been to an Indian train station at 6am. It was certainly a shock to the system for the 15 of us, half asleep, experiencing for the first time the madness and aromas of crowded Indian streets. Being typically British we stumbled our way through with our bags, apologizing as we went, whilst Abhi artfully managed to lead us to exactly where our carriage would stop and bundled us onto the train when it arrived ahead of the crowds. The train was a pleasant surprise with comfortable seats, where we were served with a basic breakfast and tea and the loos were even quite serviceable!
Arriving into Agra we headed straight to the The Taj Mahal where we met Sunil, our local guide for the day, who enthralled us with many great stories. Having spent time walking through the gardens, marveling at the architecture and taking the inevitable hundreds of photo’s (although we resisted the “Princess Diana seat” picture) we headed for our second curry of the trip which again was fantastic. After lunch we visited the stunning Red Fort which is more a walled palatial city and still home to the Indian military.
Our second train station experience was much less hectic but our journey from Agra to Jhansi was equally as pleasurable as the first. After spending our first few days in India in the hustle and bustle of city life, arriving in the countryside at Orchha was such a contrast particularly as we were staying in a tranquil hotel with courtyard gardens and a small pool – perfect for a quick swim before lunch. We worked off our latest curry by walking into the village for a tour of the palaces and temples where it was fantastic to be almost the only tourists wandering freely around these ancient sites. Especially pleasing was the complete lack of the persistent street vendors of Delhi and Agra trying to foist their `exclusive` wares on us.
We also learnt an important lesson for the rest of our stay that afternoon; don’t get too close to the rear end of a cow or, like one of our group, you may get a nasty and smelly surprise! We ended the day with drinks around an open fire in the hotel gardens with lots of chat and bonding with our fellow travellers!
The next day we set off mid morning (along with our hangovers) to Khajuraho on our first major road journey of the trip. The 4 hours flew by with so many sights to behold as we travelled through the countryside; such as villagers making fire bricks from the dung of their water buffalo stationed in the “front yard”, street markets selling everything from “fresh” fish to truck tyres and the ubiquitous roaming cows. However, these were a mere side-show to the fantastically chaotic Indian traffic fighting to negotiate the potholed tarmac or more often dirt roads. We became fascinated by the hierarchical system in place which denoted who gave way to whom and the level of horn tooting required to alert others of their presence. Pedestrians naturally were at the bottom of the heap, followed by cyclists (even those laden with 10 plastic garden chairs), then tuk-tuks, motorbikes (complete with the usual 3 passengers), cars, vans, hugely overloaded local buses and finally large brightly coloured trucks. But regardless of mode of transport there is always one thing that has priority over all else and that is the Holy Cow! These free roaming beasts must not be harmed and miraculously seem to escape injury even when standing in the middle of the M25 equivalent.
Arriving early afternoon we had time for lunch and a quick swim, before heading into town for the sound and lightshow at the temples and shopping in the market before dinner – another curry of course but no-one had tired of them yet! Our transport of choice that evening was a team of rickshaws who raced us to and from town in wacky races style.
Khajuraho / Varanasi
We awoke to unseasonal wet weather, reminiscent of a typical UK summer of warm drizzle and went off to be awed by the famous erotic temples which had been discovered in the jungle by the British 400 years ago. The mind boggled at some of the scenes depicted in the carvings and some photograph editing will need to be done prior to the holiday slideshow at home!
The plan for the afternoon was to be a quick internal flight to Varanasi, however what we didn’t count on was that Indian air traffic control and autopilot weren’t able to cope with typical foggy Gatwick conditions, and by late afternoon when the fog hadn’t lifted the flight was cancelled.
The challenge then was finding transport to get to Varanasi overland so we could stay on track with the itinerary. This proved difficult and although Abhi found a supplier of cars, he then had to find some drivers!, Eventually a Jeep, a people carrier, a saloon car and an old ambassador car arrived and we set out on what was to be a long, bumpy and uncomfortable night, finally arriving to Varanasi at 0930 the next day in time for a late breakfast.
After a few hours rest we were back on schedule with an afternoon tour. Then what better way to erase the memory of our overnight drive than a hilarious rickshaw ride through the manic streets of Varanasi to see the ritual prayers and sunset ceremony down by the river Ganges? This was awe-inspiring, with hundreds of spectators on the river banks and in small boats launching thousands of small flower/candle boats along the river, (said to release the spirits on dead relatives to the afterlife with a prayer). Abhi came up trumps again by finding us a great vantage point, which also happened to double as a stable for a couple of cows trying to have a snooze.
Once the ceremony was over we wound our way through the old city alleyways past many small shops and food stalls taking in all the smells (good and bad) before emerging on the banks of Mother Ganges and headed for dinner at a terrace restaurant with fantastic views overlooking the city and river.
Varanasi / Into Nepal
An early start this morning before sunrise took us back down to the ghats to board our small row boat for a cruise along the holy river. A flotilla of small boats drifted along full of tourists, passing more small flower boats drifting along in a haze of candle smoke to see the early morning ritual bathing, exercises/yoga and clothes being washed (even the white towels of local hotels were being bashed out on rocks along the river banks, alongside the rubbish).
Drifting back downstream we came to a large cremation site identified by the towers of wood and black smoked buildings. Walking back through the old town we stopped to have a cup of Chai from a street vendor. Initially concerned about the potential consequences, Abhi assured us we`d be fine due to the 10 minutes brewing ritual of boiling pots of water, then milk all done on a small stove fanned by a tiny electric fan and sure enough it tasted great. Walking through the narrow streets we found hidden temples, dodged cows, saw a monkey electrocuted on the tangled overhead electric cables and finally came across a group of locals restraining a thief who had just tried to steal an old ladies gold chain. They kindly paused their street justice beating to let our group pass along the narrow alley, all just a normal day in the streets of Varanasi.
We were then on the road again, northwards to the Nepalese border where first we signed out of India, before crossing the road to the Nepal immigration office, paid the entry fee and headed to our hotel for the night in Lumbini.
Lumbini / Pokhara
We visited the site of the birthplace of Buddha first thing, taking a walk through the colourful prayer flags stretching across the park where many monks were praying, past the eternal flame and around the lake where at first glance we thought we’d seen Buddha himself riding a Harley !.
Our next journey was amazing as we flew up to Pokhara in a small 18 seater plane through clear sunny skies which afforded fantastic views over the Annapurna mountain range. Being a private charter the pilots were happy to invite each of us up to the cockpit to take pictures of the full range which was spectacular.
After what had been a busy few days with a lot of travelling we had some down time in Pokhara to relax. Whether that meant a few hours by the pool, a hassle free shopping experience or leisurely lunches by the lake with a cold beer in hand, it was certainly enjoyed by all in the group.
Our first and only lie-in of the trip prepared us for our mid morning canoe ride across Phewa Lake followed by a steep climb up to the World Peace Pagoda overlooking Pokhara. After an hours upward walk we were rewarded with fantastic views of the Annapurna range stretching along the horizon and a cold coke served by the enterprising lady in a shack.
Sunrise at Sarankot / Bandipur Village Stay
With the promise of a fantastic sunrise over the Annapurna we all dutifully rose at 0530 to drive to the hilltop village of Sarankot but our luck hadn’t improved and due to the heavy cloud the sun never appeared! However the full English breakfast served at the Himalayan Encounters office on the way back made up for our disappointment and set us up for the drive to the traditional hillside village of Bandipur.
After a late lunch we took a walk around the village and surrounding countryside accompanied by many of the local children who were just finishing school for the day. We called into the village hospital to see some of the good work being done there to improve the conditions and got back just in time for a beer as the sun set behind the hills and dinner was served around the camp fire.
Chitwan National Park
One of the highlights of the trip for many of us was the Elephant back safari through the jungle and grass lands of Chitwan. We climbed onboard early on our second day in the park and headed into the long grasses and across the river in search of Rhino. There was a great variety of bird life to view as we went and we also spotted monkey and deer. Then just as we had given up hope of seeing Rhino a mother and baby appeared through the morning mists in the undergrowth, which made our day.
Continuing the wildlife theme with an afternoon canoe trip on the Rapti River with our expert bird spotting guide, we saw the 'mugger' & 'gharial' crocodiles basking in the afternoon sun on the banks before settling by the river ourselves for sundowners and the sunset.
Back on the road for the long drive to the Kathmandu valley we finally arrived in the ancient town of Bhaktapur early evening after being delayed due to traffic congestion. We had a quick dinner followed by a well planned early night because although the hotel has a great location in the centre of town, it does mean a dawn wake up call from the ringing prayer bells accompanied by the local dogs barking choir!
We only had time for a quick tour around Bhaktapur which, as a World Heritage site is recognized by UNESCO for its abundant rich culture, temples and artworks in wood, metal and stone, which we found as we made our way through some of the narrow alleyways and past the potters square where they were still using the traditional methods.
Finally onto the last stop of the trip, Kathmandu. Eagerly awaited by many, it didn’t disappoint and we first headed to the cremation site and Temple complex of Pashhupatinath on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. After the obligatory stop to photograph a Sadhu we moved onto the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath and finally a walk through the famous Durbar Square via a labyrinth of crowded streets and the markets of the Thamel area where we all indulged in some retail therapy.
Having come to the end of the trip, there was only one highlight left, a scenic flight to see Mt. Everest. The very early wake up call was certainly worth it as we boarded our small plane just after sunrise to fly along the edge of the Himalaya towards Everest for some spectacular photo opportunities.
The trip had given us all a great insight into the cultures of Indian and Nepalese life and every day had offered a new sight, sound, smell (not always pleasant!) or photo opportunity, leaving a desire to return in the future to experience more.
Whilst most of our group were seasoned `adventure tour` travellers there were a few first time sceptics amongst us who all seemed to be won over by this fantastic experience of sharing so much with a great and varied bunch of people. Under the expert leadership of Abhi we had travelled hundreds of miles across the two countries but never once tired of setting off on a new day of discovery. All in all a fantastic adventure that will be forever remembered and relived during every Indian meal back home!
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