My last trip in Nepal was to Lumbini, Buddha's birthplace near the Indian border. It is a massive complex containing temples of various nationalities. This peaceful place seemed like a fitting end to my time in Nepal...
Mayadevi temple, sight of Buddha's birth
Many temples dot the landscape
Karma Samten Ling Monastery
Inside the monastery
Buddhist students keeping cool
Under the Bodhi Tree (where Lord Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment)
Travel in Nepal is hard work. It is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries.
The domestic flights are expensive and the country has less than 60km of railway track so the only reasonable way to get around is by using the poorly maintained winding roads. Much of the terrain is mountainous. It can take as much as 20 hours to cross less than half the country by bus. Some of the roads are little more than mud tracks with rocks resting on top. In the jeep up to Deurali I was literally being thrown around the back seat the surface was that bad. The track to Fikkal was practically undriveable, we lost our balance on the bike at a snail's pace. Drivers will often fill up minibuses to the point where people are standing up inside and its normal to see people sitting on the roof. The buses have hardly any leg room, the drivers relentlessly use the horn, often have the radio on full blast, speed up to go around corners and bus strikes happen without any warning whatsoever.
In the taxi back to Pokhara - as you can see I can barely keep hold of my camera
Food is also an issue, I had Dhaal Bhaat twice a day for weeks, at times all I could think about was a fry up or one of the other endless choices of food we have at home. In Fikkal western food simply wasn't available. When it is available you have to be careful as it is often not prepared in the correct way and can give you a stomach upset (especially on the treks). The water can also be a culprit, many people drink boiled water which is fine but it can cause problems if not boiled properly. Curry soup for breakfast doesn't help matters. At times I was so ill I just had to lie in bed and eat biscuits for days. I liked Nepali food but try to imagine eating you're favourite meal for lunch and dinner every day and you get the idea.
Washing is another problem, especially in rural areas. Where I was staying there was no bath or shower, I had to fill up a bucket and tip the water over myself. Washing clothes was all done by hand. The electricity supply is extremely temperamental so a torch or headlamp proves vital - especially as the toilet is often situated outside.
Basically travel in Nepal is a challenge and it really opened my eyes to how unbelievably lucky we are at home, the irony being that we will never realise our fortune unless we witness the other side of the coin.
All of these hardships resulted in something that I didn't feel so much with some other journeys I've done - a real sense of accomplishment when it was all over. I think this element of challenge added to the intensity of the experience, and made me a stronger person mentally. Nepal has to be the most intense/shocking/challenging/surprising place I've ever experienced.
After six intense weeks in Nepal it was time to cross the border into India. My first impressions were that it seemed busier and the landscape flatter and drier. Travel seemed easier than in Nepal due to the extensive train network that covers the country - although these trains get ridiculously busy they are cheap and move along surprisingly quickly and smoothly, a welcome relief after the Nepali travel experience.
In a way I was completely immune to most of the things that probably shock first time visitors to India - the poverty, the crazy roads, the wandering cattle - this all exists in Nepal. What did shock me was the greater contrast between rich and poor, you'll have modern metro systems and spacious government areas coexisting alongside slums for instance.
My first stop was Varanasi, situated on the Ganges river and famous for the riverside cremations that take place...
Until next time
On the bus from Sonauli to Gorakhpur
Gorakhpur Railway Station
Inside the train station
On the train, not much chance of a proper seat - I had to sit on a sand bag opposite the toilet.
Arrival in Varanasi
I took a wander outside of the hotel to see if I could find the waterfront. A friendly tuk tuk driver pulled up at the side of the road and asked me where I wanted to go. I thought I might as well get in seeing as I didn’t have a clue where I was going (nothing new!) He showed me to water and explained to me that he could be my day guide for a fixed price of 15 rupees. Usually I would be very wary of people who wanted to show me around a place - in Morocco the unofficial guides are notorious. However since he agreed a reasonable price beforehand I thought I should go for it. I’m glad I did, he took me to places that I probably wouldn’t have had the time or patience to find by myself and nearly started a fight with my hotel receptionist when he thought they were charging me too much, loyalty must be included! Here he is on the left with his 'brother'...
Hindus come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges
Life through the eyes of a tuk tuk
Sunrise over the Ganges
My tuk tuk guide took me to the city's old muslim quarter to see a man spinning silk...
Here we are relaxing in an Air Conditioned silk shop, a welcome relief from the steamy city streets. They know how to reel in customers...
The shop keeper started laying out all the shawls and bed covers in front of me - there was something therapeutic about sitting there being shown all these beautifully designed materials. I ended up buying a couple, I couldn't resist!
Shawls that I bought as gifts
I took a boat to the infamous cremation grounds on the banks of the Ganges. A guide explained that the souls of the people who had died were being liberated from their bodies by the 'eternal flame' and would go to 'nirvana'. Scenes that would only ever happen behind closed doors back at home were happening right in front of me - you could see various body parts crisping away through the fire. It was shocking to see. The man explained that they had a hospice there where people come when they know they are going to die and he asked me to give a donation so that "a poor family can afford burning wood". The acrid smoke was invading my eyes so I gave a few rupees and left promptly...
Cremation grounds approach
Smoke of the dead fills the Temple Grounds
India's roads have to be seen to be believed. Ironically they seemed to be in a better condition than those in Nepal but the driving was worse! Cars, tuk tuks and bikes hurtle down the wrong side of the road and swerve out of your way at the last minute. It is absolute chaos...
Driving in the tuk tuk on the streets of Varanasi. Notice how the driver will stop for nothing - even when a bike pulls out right in front of us (whilst trying to overtake).
The final stretch of my journey took me from Varanasi to Delhi, via the towns of Orccha and Agra...
See nothing but dusk-lit plains,
Hear nothing but a whistling train,
Feel nothing but the wind on my face,
Want nothing but this solace.
For some reason this image makes me think of Slumdog Millionaire, good film...
The town of Orccha lies in the state of Madya Pradesh on the Betwa River. There are many atmospheric temples and palaces to explore and a bustling, atmospheric marketplace...
Orccha town centre
The marketplace with Ram Raja Temple in the distance
Holy men posing by the side of the river, they often ask for a small gift for a photo, I thought it would be money well spent
Yet another overcrowded vehicle
So many questions...
Street foods are everywhere in India, some more appealing than others...
Goat doing some window shopping
Ram Raja Temple
Inside Laxmi Narayan Temple
Looking out from Laxmi Temple, the surrounding landscape is very dry and flat
Music in the central square
Goodness knows what's going on here
No trip to India would be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal - my next stop was Agra, home to surely the most famous sight in India...
I booked into a 5 star hotel in Agra for the equivalent of about £45 a night. Upon arrival at the hotel gates I was saluted by the hotel security guard - “Namaste”. As I had my hands full he called his friend and a golf buggy rolled up to take me to the entrance. As I entered the lobby I could smell flowers and hear soothing music being played. A friendly lady greeted me and proceeded to place a flower necklace around my neck. Not a bad welcome!
The room was big enough for four people, two double beds, mini bar, large tv and a view of the courtyard. There was a big swimming pool, bowling alley and many atmospheric restaurants and bars. The rooms were cleaned and stocked up at least twice a day and I was given chocolates for all my hard work...
View from my window
Chocolates given to me by the cleaners
The swimming pool which was delightfully uncrowded - it was especially nice when lit up at night...
Oh yes, my main reason for being here was to visit the Taj Mahal. It was impressive, but so busy that it lost some of its allure. The best time to go is either sunrise or sunset...
I'm not sure what it was - whether it was because I was travelling alone or because I hadn't shaved for two months, Indian people kept coming up to me and either telling me how handsome I was or asking if they could get a photo, either of them, or of them with me...
Back at the hotel...
A meal I had in one of the Indian restaurants in the hotel. I had the place to myself and a music group came out to serenade me. The chef then came to ask me if he'd done a good job, could get used to this...
Friendly barman who kept giving me crisps, and a kingfisher hat to take home
I also visited the Taj Mahal from the other side of the river at sunrise and there were very few people around...
Taken from the other side...
The dark side
Onward to Delhi...
Spacious government areas
India Gate - commemorating Indian soldiers lost in World War I