Tourists at the Taj
Manali – Himachal Pradesh
Old town Manali
We arrived in Manali to find that the monsoon rains travelling North through India had finally caught up with us, sheets of completely vertical rain lashing down all day. Nevertheless, the mountains were lush and green and after our 20 hour endurance on the “highway to hell” we were happy to stretch our legs while exploring the surrounding valleys. We stayed in the Old Town, narrow winding streets with hobbit-like wooden dwellings, livestock and typical Himachali life going on all around. We enjoyed Manali, preferring old-town life over the busy traveler area of Vashisht - where the smell of chillums fill the air. Manali is infamous for its cannabis – literally growing like a weed! In every garden plants loom some 6-8 ft “high”. Our time in Manali was short as we now had a mission – to be in Nepal within two weeks, still with many stops to make in India along the way.
Being a witch, Emma was excited by the rickety and enchanting old buildings
Chandigarh – Punjab
We have both been looking forward to visiting the Swiss architect designed city of Chandigarh, since meeting our Swiss friends Felix and Mirza back in Mysore. We arrived by bus at 04:00 with Emma feeling unwell (yes again!), five hours later after a mad panic to retrieve a bag we left on the bus and numerous rickshaw/foot journeys to various hotels in order to find one which (a) wasn’t full and (b) wasn’t way above our budget we found our home - in sector 22B! Each sector houses a different type of commerce or residence. This retro-futuristic city is cleverly designed into 48 – 1x1.5km sectors. It is a beautiful crumbling 60’s vision of the future – kind of Bladerunner-esque.
Map of Chandigarh
Protected by listed building laws, the city is still as it was when it was built, just somewhat more run-down. As it is one of India’s only designed cities, it is home to some welcoming features – underground sewers and pavements on which to walk in particular, along with minimal traffic congestion. While Emma was bound to the toilet, Guy went to investigate this intriguing city. He found the world famous rock garden; a park built entirely of recycled artifacts and building waste with curious statues overlooking the weird place. He also enjoyed the cleanliness and organization of this fascinating city. Being in Punjab, it was predominantly a Sikh city, and as a result the people were friendly and the prices high! We could only afford to spend one night in Chandigarh, and continued our journey South the following day.
Recycled pottery mosaics on a vast scale in the Rock Garden - Chandigarh
Weird deer regiment sculptures – Rock Garden
Haridwar-Rishikesh-Haridwar - Uttrakhand
The next two days were possibly our most stressful time in India to date, but also one of the memorable experiences that make travelling in India so unique. We had left some belongings with our family homestay to go trekking, some two months ago. To get there you have to go via Haridwar (already Emma’s least favorite city) to Rishikesh (known to Guy as Shittikesh). As these cities are on the banks of the Ganges they are important holy sites for Hindus, on a normal day both cities are busy with families on a pilgrimage to the Ganges. We managed to unknowingly arrive on the first day of a huge festival in which thousands of Indian men were roaming the streets, all dressed in orange and making a rawkus noise! For the three train journeys that followed, Haridwar to Rishikesh, Rishikesh to Haridwar and Haridwar to Dehli, we were the only passengers on board with tickets. The trains were swamped – literally thousands of people crammed into each carriage, hundreds more on the roof and about 4-5 layers thick of people clinging on from the outside at doors and windows! Unfortunately, like sardines in a tin, we were unable (and unwilling) to gather photographic evidence, avoiding standing out any more than we did. Emma got very annoyed with some Indian boys who kept taking unwanted pictures of her! We witnessed armed policemen “patrolling” the carriages, sneakily collecting 100 rupee bribes from all ticketless passengers – that being everyone bar us, they pocketed a small fortune. One of the sad corruptions of India; you can pay your way out of most crimes.
A typical Indian train – taken from the middle carriage!
Dirty, disheveled and almost dead we arrived to the incredibly hot and humid Delhi. Totally hungry, we delved into a McDonalds veggie burger at the train station (both of us had vowed many moons ago to never eat a McDonalds again – oops!) and then made our way to our old hotel in Parhaganj with the smiliest reception man. The humidity in Delhi was so intense that Emma gave up on her “no AC” rule (which is on account of her environmental awareness and the fact that she is a mega-scrooge when it comes to room cost) and we took an air conditioned room. In fact, over the next few days she became the “AC bitch”, darting between AC buildings, stopping only for a 5 rupee Mango Licks (ice lolly) at every corner on the way!
While planning our travels in India, Varanassi (another holy city on the Ganges) and Darjeeling (with its toy train ride through the mountains) were two cities on our “places to visit” list, however we collectively decided that with the ongoing festival and unbearable humidity of the Monsoon, train travel to these destinations would be too much. So instead, we booked a flight to Kathmandu with plans to visit these places on our way home. We spent the next few days in Delhi organizing our trip to Nepal; shopping for a printer for the school, exchanging money and visiting more AC McDonalds’ (double oops!) along the way. Once again we really enjoyed Delhi, even more so this time as there is something comforting about revisiting a place and not needing to refer to a map every five minutes. We visited Old Delhi for the first time, and as you can see, it was busy…
Old Delhi chaos
Guy enjoyed many “Choala Baturas” – a 35 rupee street food delicacy of Delhi consisting of a greasy chickpea curry with pickled chilies, raw onion and oily bread. (Simon and Caity – This is the new Dosa!). He also convinced Emma to eat at the Hard Rock Café, as he has many fond memories of eating with his Dad many years ago in Washington DC, New York and London – Now Delhi!
Agra – Uttar Pradesh
The Taj Mahal
This hectic city is home to the world wonder – The Taj Mahal. This Muslim monument to love is revered the world round, and no trip to India would be complete without a visit to this famous building. So we booked the AC luxury Shathabi Express train, two hours from Delhi for our day trip. Arriving at 07:00 we made our way directly to the Taj (avoiding numerous tourist scams along the way) in order to beat the crowds. The giant white marble building fully lives up to expectations, beautiful, majestic and calm. Unfortunately, the monsoon skies were grey combined with the pollution from the former capital city surrounding the Taj, and it looked a little bleak against the horizon.
Emma at the Taj Mahal
We spent many hours ambling around the grounds taking obligatory touristy photos, along with amusing ourselves at other tourist antics.
As the afternoon approached, the temperature and humidity became near unbearable and the AC bitch got very hot – even our favorite Coffee Day had broken AC so we just sweated out in a little park by the Red Fort awaiting our return train some five hours later!
Although the Taj Mahal is a wonderful sight, it has become largely an expensive tourist attraction. The ultimate place of worship we visited in India was the auspicious Golden Temple in Amritsar as it is still a flourishing, living temple. The ambience there will remain in our memories forever.
Beautiful architecture in the Mosque adjoining the Taj
Kathmandu – Nepal
Good morning Nepal!
After a beautiful flight giving our first glimpses of the mighty Himalayan range of Nepal above the clouds, we landed in Kathmandu – the capital city of Nepal. The climate here was far more comfortable than that of India currently, being 1200M above sea level and nestled in surrounding foothills of the Himalayas. The difference in culture was immediately obvious, far calmer and more laid back. The Nepalese people are far more peaceful and seemingly westernized than many Indians – not a Sari in sight. We were no longer “celebrities” in family photos, and calls of “Yes, you want rickshaw!” or “Yes friend, look in my shop” were all but a memory.
We headed to Josche (AKA Freak Street) on a recommendation of Cherry. This gained its name due to the Hippie influx of the 1970’s, yet was particularly calm and relaxed, without a hippie in sight! Feeling relaxed, we took to visiting the streets of the city. The buildings are considerably higher than most in India, the majority being 6-8 storeys high. There was is decidedly more oriental influence to the architecture and it is visually more appealing than the concrete boxes of India. We visited the Durbar Square complex (and snuck in a side street to avoid the ridiculous tourist fee – thanks for the tip Cherry), a world heritage site containing many oriental looking temples, a palace and huge Buddhist prayer wheels.
Durbar Square Temples
We spent just a half day sightseeing before our lunchtime meeting with Dawa, a contact from the school in Lukla. Due to inclement weather conditions, he advised us to fly out to Lukla the next morning! The only other way to reach Lukla is a week trekking from the nearest road and with all our bags and the printer we didn’t fancy that option. So the afternoon was busy buying supplies to last us in the isolated mountain region of Lukla for the next couple of months. We look forward to visiting more of Kathmandu and the surrounding valleys on our return.
Candyfloss and bubblegum boy at Durbar Square
At 06:00 we met with Dawa at the Kathmandu airport and waited to hear if the flight would go ahead. We were a little nervous about the impending 30 minute flight after hearing that we were to be the first flight to leave for Lulka in the past ten days. Conditions were good so we were lead to our plane – a tiny 14 seater twin propeller plane. There was a “dolled-up” air hostess greeting us who directed us to our seats – over a great pile of stuff! (supplies for the village). As instructed by Dawa, we hurried to get a seat on the left to get the best views of the Himalayan range, for on a good day, Mount Everest is visible in the distance. However it was a little cloudy so we will have to wait until we trek there soon to see it. The short 30 minute flight was incredible, flying close to the mountains bristling with trees and waterfalls – It reminded us of Jurrassic Park. Having never seen a cockpit before, Emma was excited to be sitting behind the pilot (may I inform you Captain Jeremy Upgrade that our makeshift cockpit aboard “Slag Airways” was somewhat misinformed - a Murder Mystery night hosted on an aeroplane). Coming in for landing in Lukla, Emma’s attention was still focused on the dials whereas Guy looked nervously upon the incredibly short uphill runway jutting out from the side of a mountain. Assisted by the gradient, these planes have a short stopping distance and we landed safely.
A rare break in the clouds reveals stunning peaks
On landing in the village, the sky was clear and there were amazing views of three surrounding valleys with Cumulous clouds rising out of the dense forests. We couldn’t wait to explore. However after less than an hour these pretty clouds enveloped the village and we were trapped inside our first of many clouds. The Monsoon rains here are intense and cold, and visibility can be very little. If the door of our room is left open then the clouds sometimes invite themselves in! Still during the intense Monsoon, life goes on for everyone – Sherpas carry enormous loads to neighboring villages and workmen build more guest houses throughout the day. Though we wish we had come a little more prepared for the cold and wet, we have invested in a rather lovely umbrella that comes everywhere with us. Lukla sees many tourists in season (Oct-Nov) as it is the start point for treks to Everest and surrounding Himalayas. To cope with season demand, the main street is lined with guest houses along with a “Scottish Pub” and a convincing-yet-fake Starbucks! None of these attractions are open yet as the season doesn’t begin for another month. We’re the only tourists in the village. The rains have brought regular power cuts and we have spent evenings by candlelight playing our homemade Carcassonne – an invaluable addition to our travelling gear. Emma is also producing jewelry at a fast pace and, at this rate, will soon be out of materials!
A room with a view
Our first days in Lukla were spent getting to know the area. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anywhere to stay with a kitchen for us to cook for ourselves, but we found a good base to call home. With Lukla being a trekking town and since all supplies have to be flown in the prices are significantly higher than elsewhere in Nepal (100 rupees for an apple, which is about double than in your local ASDA). We have set about hunting down the cheapest goods and hope that in time people will recognise us and we’ll get a more “local price”. We eat with the family at our guest house once a day, usually a grand portion of Dhal bhat (rice and lentil soup with VERY salty veggie curry) or Momo’s. Traditionally Nepalese people eat twice a day – both meals being Dhal bhat, so we will try to adapt to this pattern in time. Guy has found the lack of fizzy drinks, snacks and movie channels quite a challenge, but this is a great opportunity for us to live a more basic lifestyle away from the temptations of the modern world and its conveniences. One of the most rejuvenating feelings is going to collect your own water fresh from the mountain spring. Guy has become a masterchef on the camping stove – creating interesting combinations of noodles and veg, pasta and warming mochas.
Lukla School, literally a Classroom in the Clouds
We started our work at Shree Lukla Primary School on our second day in Lukla. We arrived at the beginning of the children’s exam week and so our first efforts were to get the computer room up and running and fixing the damp-damaged computers. A challenging task with power cuts and surges making running a PC impossible for the first few days, as a result our progress was slow and frustrating. Though we have not taught the children yet, the ones we have met are adorable; calm, polite and very inquisitive about our presence. They even have little flannels pinned to their jumpers for snotty noses! Every morning before exams begin, we have a growing number of little people peeping round the door of the computer room. They shuffle in shyly, one by one, say “Namaste” with their hands in prayer position and have a cheeky look at what is going on. All being said, our first week at the school has been fun and work in the computer room is almost done. We have set up another blog for the charity Classroom in the Clouds to follow our work at the school, so take a look (if we haven’t bored you already) – http://classroominthecloudslukla.blogspot.com
Guy installing Windows in our room
Many people in Lukla are used to tourists and so speak some English. We are also learning basic Nepali to help us communicate. Today we mastered “Tapii ko naam ke ho” (what is your name?) and the response “Mero naam Guy/Emma ho” (my name is Guy/Emma) – the head teacher was very impressed and we scored our first Brownie points with him! We are aiming for one new phrase a day and have an iphone app to help! It is great to learn some language and culture. In India we were on the move so frequently and with each state having a different dialect, learning more than the basic hello was near impossible.
After one whole week of non-stop rain and clouds (locals tell us that this is the worst Monsoon in Lukla for many years), feeling like it was never going to end, Saturday arrived – our one day off school each week. We must have gained some karma points this week because we awoke to sunshine! Determined not to miss the first opportunity to explore we hurriedly packed a day bag and headed for the mountains. We took the advice of a friend who informed us of a nice walk with good views to the nearby village of Bom. The walk took us through streams, waterfalls and rivers, up steep mountainsides until we reached Bom, a tiny farming village of about ten houses at 3000M. Just before the clouds rolled in we were able to look back and see Lukla in the distance. We are getting quite used to predicting the clouds and so we wasted no time getting back home – arriving about 5 minutes before the rains began. It felt rejuvenating to manage a 5 hour walk and the beautiful scenery made it clear how lucky we are to be in this spectacular place.
A sunny walk – and Emma finally washes her feet (no need to worry now Mum!)
Mon Papa – can you identify this colourful moth?
Little Chandigarh man made of old wires
Emma can whip up a not-so-tasty cardboard-like porridge in Lukla - Tasty!
(As always - More photos in our Flickr - search username; namasteindia2011)
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