Friday, 21 September 2007

Not long left in Paradise...

Part of a festival on the beach, celebrating the Elephant deity Ganesh

Same again, but cool and blurry

More Ganesh

Arambol. My house is just around the corner of the cliff on the far left hand side.

Current social group comprised of (from top to bottom): Phil and Carly, who I used to be at university with and just happened to pass me in a restaurant. Surprised would be the word. And also a couple of cockneys, Adam and James.

My little bungalow. Does it get much better?

Mumbai University

Well, it's nearly all over. This Wednesday I fly home, back to England to rejoin the real world. But that still gives me time to make totally sure that everyone hates me by the time I get back, by telling you about Goa, India, the final location in what will be 10 months of backpacking.

And my god is it a good place to finish. I'm in a small beach town called Arambol in North Goa, on the west coast of India. It's a bona-fide paradise. We're at the tail end of the low-season for tourism here, the place doesn't start to get busy until October so there's a good number of people but it's not crowded at all. I've got an idyllic hut on the edge of a path that goes round a cliff between two beaches for the princely sum of about two pounds fifty a night. I think everyone realises they've struck backpacker gold too because everyone's so relaxed, happy and there's almost a community feel to the place.

All I can say is, if it stays like this, it will be bloody difficult to try and leave next week. There's even a trance rave in a waterpark that we're all going to tomorrow, you couldn't beat it with a really big stick. And another thing, every day that I've been in Arambol there's a steady increase in the amount of pretty girls wandering about. What's going on, am I being punished for having to put an end to the backpacker life? I had to come home at some point, what kind of cruel God would do this to a poor boy? Well Ganesh seems to be in charge around here so that's who I blame.

Before I got here it though, it all went a bit unnecessarily hardcore on the travelling front. I came into India from Nepal which was right over the other side from Goa, where I was aiming for. From Kathmandu to Mumbai went as follows: 12 hours on a bus which was delayed numerable times to Nepali border. 3 hours from border town, Sunauli to Gorakphur in India where I can get the train. Gorakhpur was not a good first impression of India, the station was more like a refugee camp. And my train was at 5am. I got there at 10pm. Slept on a bench in the train station. 37 hours on the train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai. All very silly, I think you'll agree. So, after a day and a half in Mumbai which is a nice enough place, I got a 14 hour train down to Goa and enlisted the help of (read: followed) an Indian family going the same way to Arambol. Trust me though, it's worth it!

So, see you all soon. I'll be the old git in the corner whinging about how much cheaper everything is in Asia. "Why, you can get a car and a house for about 35p in Nepal I tell you, it's all too expensive here bla bla bla...."

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Riding the bus Nepali style

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Who the hell wants to go to Liverpool?
(Most of the images are in this format because I can't upload them like I normally do for some reason known only to the computers of this city. I also had to make them lower quality).

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Three Nepali women in red

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The river we rafted along part of the way to Kathmandu

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It's safe to say I nearly wet myself when I saw this in a Kathamandu bookshop among all the climbing/hiking books. If only the lady behind the counter could have known my joy...

Check out the birthday present hat. It says "Free Mark". Like "Free Tibet" but with a Mark twist. Also, worryingly, this photo may be proof that I am turning into my Dad, as I am holding a glass of red wine, akin to my father in just about any photo you will ever see of him

Q. How much fun can you have getting from Pokhara to Kathmandu?

A. Loads!

Yesterday I needed to make said journey. One way to do it was to go on a direct coach from one city to the other. But the far better choice was to get a bus part of the way, then do some white water rafting and then get another bus the remaining way. Even better though is when you realise there is no organised bus from the rafting end-point to Kathmandu but that the Nepali guys are just trying to hitch a ride for you on a bus going there. And that there's no room inside the bus so you can ride on the roof! I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive at first seeing as the bus/lorry drivers here seem to have a mild death wish but riding on top of buses is definitely the way to go. Although my arse would not agree, I think it was suitably numb and bruised after 5 hours sitting on a roof rack.

Pokhara was also the place from where I'm now travelling alone properly for the first time as Haya has headed for North India, while I am going in a more southerly, beachy direction. Thinking about it I did have four days on my own in Byron Bay, Australia but I always knew that Nick would be waiting for me in Brisbane with both arms wide open.

So it's India tomorrow (touch wood, as I haven't booked a bus ticket down there yet) and off towards Goa and Mumbai. I'll probably leave Goa til last so that I can spend about a week doing as little as possible on a beach before I face up to coming home and do stuff like getting a j-o-b. Eeek.

Oh and now Mark is 23 too. Which means Mark can speak about himself in the third person. Mark had a fun birthday in Kathmandu and went out for an expensive meal (by Nepal standards) which was paid for very kindly by his parents on the now decrepit credit card. Then Mark and a bunch of other people went to a bar called Tom and Jerry's and had a drink or few while the DJ played "classic" tunes from the 70's and 80's. Most of the others were closer to 3o than 20 so while Mark could have pointed out that many of the songs were before his time, he also wanted to live to see 24 so thought better of it.

A note on cynicism. Of course a healthy dose of cynicism helps when travelling as not everyone you meet is always genuine. But too much non-trust can also lead to you missing out on something that you otherwise might not see or experience. A case to illustrate this point was me walking through Thamel, Kathmandu last week. I'd deliberately got myself a bit lost as I find that's one of the best ways to see a city, kind of semi-aimless wandering. Anyway, I'm taking a picture of a cow or something (they just walk the streets here as they're sacred to Hindu's so can do more or less what they please) and a Nepali guy starts talking to me about this and that and walking the same way as me. I'm waiting for him to tell me he's a trekking guide and ask me if I have any friends that want to do a trek. But instead he starts telling me about an orphanage he runs. He asks me if I want to go with him and see it. So I say sure, why not.

All the way there though I'm still waiting for some kind of sales pitch or spiel at which point I'll politely say goodbye and find my way back. But it doesn't come. We just walk to his orphanage, and he shows me round. The kids have just finished school, and it turns out they're all Tibetan children aged roughly between 4 and 11. We chat for a while about things like charities and government aid (of which there is little or none in Nepal), drink some tea and he asks if there's any way I know of in which I can help. I gave him my email address, took his details and said I'll see what I can do when I get home. And I fully intend to.

The point of this story is that I've met countless people while travelling that wouldn't have let the guy get far past an initial hello without cutting him off or saying they needed to be elsewhere. Maybe on a different day I would have done the same. Maybe on a different day, a different guy would have just been trying to sell me some crap. But going around expecting everyone you don't know that's friendly to be trying to screw you over is missing the half the point of travelling in the first place. How do you think Lenny Henry finds all those places that need his help every two years for comic relief? You think he has a large BBC research team doing all that work for him while he sits at home feeding Dawn French? Of course not.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

On top of the world at Everest base camp


Woohoo again!

Our arse-numbing transport from Lhasa down to the Nepal border via Everest

A little girl in Gyantse.

(I wanted to add more photos to this blog but the computer I'm using has decided against it...) 
Well, now I've seen the top of the world. Mount Everest or Mount Qomolangma as it's known to those who know it by that name.

What am I supposed to go and see now that's going to be better than that? I suppose I could climb to the top but that would require that I am physically fit rather than the athletically challenged wreck my body actually is. The altitude at base camp alone makes walking anywhere seem at least twice the distance, so maybe I'll save the trek up to the summit for the next time I'm in Tibet...

Seriously though, Tibet and Everest have to be among the most ridiculously stunning places on Earth. Unbelievable. Mountains everywhere, big rivers, small rivers, huge valleys, more mountains and the friendship highway that passes through a fair few of them on the way from Lhasa to Nepal. You can just spend hours looking out of the window of your jeep/bus and not get bored.

There was even a desert in the middle of Tibet, we drove through it on the way to a small monastery town called Gyantse. Having had no idea that we would be driving through a desert in our 4x4, or that deserts existed in Tibet, you could call it a nice surprise. Like having extra jam in the middle of your doughnut.

While we were in Lhasa we became creatures of habit in our eating patterns, in that a group of us would inevitably end up in a restaurant called ‘Tashi 2’. On our last night there, we were playing cards after more bobi’s and momo’s and maybe even a Lhasa beer or two when a, let's say slightly inebriated, Tibetan guy comes in, goes into the kitchen and starts singing with the staff. Turns out he's singing a song about freeing Tibet.

Which may not sound like so big a deal but it can actually get you arrested in Tibet, as can wearing an image of the Dalai Lama around your neck. This guy had had a few so didn't seem to care and told us with a mixture of hand gestures and one or two words of English that the Dalai Lama was good and China chased him away.

Again, this doesn't sound like much but imagine if you could be arrested in England for something similar e.g. political protest. Either way, after a few beers with us he staggered off on his way home and left us to agree that such random encounters are such a great part of traveling.

No doubt everyone reading this knows it's my birthday in two days time - I'm going to be celebrating it in Kathmandu, Nepal! Seems like there's the odd bar or two here that stays open late so there shouldn't be too many problems there then.

Kathmandu is an interesting place after China and Tibet. It's been a destination of people traveling through Asia even before the first hippies first started making their way here in the sixties. Back then there probably wasn't a hundred guys trying to offer them treks, tiger balm or (in a very hushed voice) "the ganja".

It's also got more of a ramshackle feel to it than anywhere in China. I think some of those who were the hippy inhabitants way back when are still hanging around too, there is a much greater age range among those who aren't local. What I mean by this is that, you go to Thailand, and virtually all backpackers are in the 18-30 bracket. Here, you've got them from the young and excitable to the old and crusty, I saw a guy earlier who looked like Santa with a long-term crack habit.

So in conclusion, add seeing Mount Everest to one of those stupid lists of "things to do before you die" as well as all those other things we're supposed to do like swim with dolphins and the like.

Maybe managing to watch anything presented by Russel Brand without wanting to tear off your own arm just so you have something to throw at the television is on there too? Is he still incredibly annoying? Let me know.