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December 2007 Archives

December 17, 2007

Nepal

(After staying a while in Zurich, we are back on the road. We're currently on a tour through Rajasthan in India, and our current location is a desert city called Bikaner. We will update the blog about our India experience as soon as we can, but first here's Rahel's travel diary about her 3 week stay in Nepal.)

"namaste, didi - namaste nepale!"... arriving in nepal was a pleasurable relief after having gone twice through indian customs in delhi. already at the airport there is an athmosphere of peace and people are relaxed and smiling. what a wonderful place :)

everyone here is calling each other "dai" (brother) and "didi" (sister), unless they are obviously addressing a person from the royal family. of course, although some citizens still have portraits from the royal family hanging in their homes, the royals have had more popular times than these days. there is even a young-maoist movement (totally illusionary and even pretty dangerous: if you dare to refuse donation, you have a pretty high risk of getting serious "accidental" injuries) that would certainly be proud to erase all royal blood in the country, and there have been really tough political times. but the nepal of today is one year over the official end of their so-called "civil war", when maoists would visit rural villages and force a son from each family to serve in their guerilla army, and when the official military would arrive shortly thereafter to punish the families that have provided the maoist army young soldiers (what an insane situation!). so the tension has much ceased within the people since the end of war. however, there is still craving for a real leader, democracy and egality, and for a better future for their country...

culturally, nepal is very colourful and mixed, with so many different ethnies being joined in this single country. newaris, who anciently inhabited the kathmandu district and still live there, sherpas and gurungs from the kumbu (everest) region, upper-cast chhetris, highest-cast brahmins from the west, the former ruling rana families, and even more! please don't nail me on the detail, even bastian who has lived and worked in kathmandu for over two years, could not explain them to me ;)

here are some pictures form art of kathmandu city, patan, with traditional newari houses and a rooftop view:

anyway, as wonderful, colourful and amazing this place is, nepal has also its crazy sides. traffic, for example, especially in places like kathmandu, is purley chaotic - the streets belong to each and everyone. don't be surprised to have people chatting in the middle of the road, dogs and cows crossing the streets, trucks falling apart right in front of you, road blocks and slow traffic because of a taxi parked on the road while the driver is somewhere having tea and chatting away. there are also a number of very peculiar rules concerning traffic. first of all, you are only responsible for what happens in front of you, anything behind your car's rear end is none of your business. therefore, whenever you have a car in front of you - which is basically all the time - you need to make sure that it is aware of your existence, meaning you blow the horn. a very noisy place! another rule concerns accidents: if you hit someone on the road and the person is not dead, you will have to pay him or her monthly disability annuity for the rest of their life. so people just run their victims over back and forth a couple of times to make sure they're dead; you then have to pay a certain sum only once, and in the end that's much cheaper. unluckily, i have come across such a situation on my way back from a trek in the annapurna region. there had been a bus accident the previous night, and because the bus company had refused to pay the relatives of the dead, the village people had started a riot. the dead body was naturally left on the road until the bus company agreed on the price for the dead, and within the more than 12 hours of negotiation that followed, hundreds of cars and trucks had accumulated on both sides of the road block. a peculiar and not so comfortable situation...

but back to the amazing and unforgettable :) here some comments and pictures from the trek:

on the first day, viku lama (my sherpa guide) and myself started walking the ghorapani circuit in the annapurna region by the short walk from naya pul (1070 m) to birethanti (1025 m).

on the second day we walked gradually through the hills from biretanthi to gandhruk (1940 m). half of the way we faced rain and hail and were happy to arrive in a hut with under table heater where we could dry our clothes....

on day three, we descended about 1000 m down to the river and climbed up again on the other side to chhomrong (2170 m). amazing sunrise on machhapuchhre and annapurna south!

the forth day took us again back down to the river and then up through rodhodendhron forest to tadapani - a small village on 2600 m with a nice tibetan stupa and loads of prayer flags. here, as we were the only guests, we had both dinner and breakfast in the owners kitchen right next to the stove. nice popcorn, tee and rum, and my first ever buffalo meat.

on day five, we had a short walk down and a steep climb through a snowy forest cliff to a 3000 m ridge and then down to ghorapani (2750 m). As we arrived early, we decided to climb poon hill (3210 m) before dusk. this was the highest as well as coldest night of the trek, but what a view from poon hill: from the right (east) to the left (west) the machhapuchhre, annapurna, the dhaulagiri, the mustang valley and finally the nhilgiri. and what a starlit night!

On the last of our three nights in Delhi, we met with Kaushik, a guy we contacted via couchsurfing. We went out with him and ended up in a private party somewhere in Delhi with people from all around the world. You learn so much about a place by getting to know the local people anywhere in the world. This is something we want to do in other places in India as well, and couchsurfing seems like an ideal platform to do that.

The next morning, we left Delhi and drove almost the entire day through small, rural villages. Already after about 100km after Delhi, we felt like having travelled backwards in time. Life there looks like what it probably looked like centuries ago. People stared at us as if they hadn't seen Europeans before. In the early evening, we arrived in a village called Mandawa, famous for its "Havelis", i.e. large merchant residences built about 200 years ago with vibrant, colorful murals. The most beautiful haveli has been turned into a heritage hotel, and it was the one we stayed at. We were the only guests that night which seemed a bit strange, but at least it was quiet! However, it was quite cold at night as the rooms were not heated, and we were quite glad to have our sleeping bags with us. We now know that the concept of a heating system simply doesn't exist here, and after having learned that temperatures rise above 40 degrees celsius during 9 months of the year, we also know why.

The morning after, we had a short tour through the village and then drove to a larger city called Bikaner. Bikaner has a large, impressive fort (about 1000 m walls), and it was easy to imagine how it felt living there during the time of the Maharajas. The next day, we went to an unusual temple: the Karni Mata Temple, home to hordes of holy rats. The locals believe that because these rats are holy, they don't get sick and cannot spread any diseases. At least that's what they claim to believe, although it was pretty obvious the many of the rats were dead sick. Anyways, an interesting place.

Next, we went to visit a Jain Temple. We wouldn't loose a word about YAT ("yet another temple"), but this one stood out because it was small (for a change) and extremely beautiful, and because it's not everyday that you enter a temple of a religion you hardly heard of. Out of many interesting facts about this decidedly non-violent religion, the Jains believe that the universe is infinite and was not created by a deity. Not bad for a religion founded around 500 B.C. Makes Genesis look like a fairy tale. Oh, wait...

On the way back to the city, we also visited the National Camel Research Center. Amazing place, full of camels (surprising, I know). Camels are amazing animals, and were quite eager to go on a Camel Safari two days later, out in the Thar desert.

The next morning, we drove to a city called Jaisalmer. This was the most eastern part we would ever go to, only about 60 km from the Pakistani border. It was a rough ride, as the streets started to get quite bad. We stayed in a beautiful hotel which has been some kind of palace in the old days. One of things that is really amazing in Rajasthan is that many of the hotels are heritage hotels, and we could have easily stayed longer in many of the hotels just to relax, read and drink chai.

Jaisalmer is famous for its fort which literally looks like a sand castle. It stands in the middle of the golden city, on a three peaked hill, straight out of an oriental fairy tale. An absolutely amazing place we will never forget. Sad enough, tourism has taken its toll: the fort is full of restaurants and guesthouses, and the official opinion is that if this development is not stopped, the fort will collapse one day. We were quite glad we were booked in a hotel outside of the fort.

The day after, we went on an overnight Camel safari in the desert. It was just the two of us, a guide and a kid who helped him. It was an interesting experience, but Rahel must have eaten something bad somewhere, or maybe she had too much sun on that day, but she spend a part of the night throwing up. Plus, it was very very cold, and I hardly couldn't sleep because I woke up shivering ever half an hour. Also, the guide there was a bit a strange person: he told us stories of the death of his father in law, and how much he had to pay for the burial. It's absolutely common that people whine about how much bad luck they had recently (only in the presence of tourists, of course), but the story this guy came up with was so bad and so blatant a lie that we gave him a good tip for the entertainment he provided.

After the safari, we drove to the city of Jodhpur where we basically went to the hotel, checked in and fell asleep until early in the afternoon the next day. Jodhpur goes under the name of "the blue city", because a large part of the houses in the old city are painted in blue. The fort in Jodphur was absolutely fantastic - looking back now, it's easy to say that this was the most beautiful fort in all of Rajasthan, and we've seen a lot.

The next morning, we were driving to our next destination, the city of Udaipur. To do so, we had to cross the mountain range that goes through the state of Rajasthan from north to south, the Aravalli Range. A very beautiful area, and according to the guide book, the oldest mountain range on the planet. In the middle of it, we stopped at a place called Ranakpur, to visit another Jain Temple. We were not very interested to see yet another temple, but now we are glad we did. This was by far the most beautiful religious building we have ever seen in our whole life. It's impossible to describe it, and impossible to catch its beauty with a picture. The temple is made out of marble, a complicated series of 29 halls supported by a forest of 1444 carved pillars of which no two are alike. It was absolutely phenomenal.

We drove on to Udaipur, where we stayed in the most beautiful hotel of the entire trip so far. It was an old palace, and we had a huge, spacious room with two balconies with beds (!!), overlooking the garden where birds would sing and monkeys would play. Udaipur is "the romantic city", and it really is gorgeous. Surrounded by hills, it has an artificial lake which has dried out in recent years, but because the past monsoon was quite wet, the lake was full again.

Let's come to an end for this blog entry. Up to Udaipur, the trip has been fantastic, and it turned out to get even better: only a few days later, we would see three Tigers in Ranthambhore National Park, one as close as two meters from our jeep (which was open-sided!). But more aBut more about this later. We are currently in Jaipur, the state capital, and will head on to the Taj Mahal tomorrow.

A final word about everyday life as a tourist in India: it's intense. People stare at us as if we were from a distant planet, and we never experienced something like that before, not even in Africa. Well, you have to get used to it. Then there's the money and begging issue, as described above. You have to learn to ignore it. Then, there's the trust issue. In shops, restaurants, even at museums we hardly ever get the correct change. We've heard an enormous variety of lies from all kinds of people (some of them were so absurd that even our driver had to laugh when we told him). You have to be very careful or you are fooled every minute. On the other hand, it's superbly safe. There's a lot of hassle, sure, but never any violence. Amusingly, they are afraid to give us spicy food. We insist on spicy food in resaurants when we order, but they just smile and give us the mild food because they think we can't handle it. We asked, begged for spicy food, learned to order spicy food in Hindi, nothing worked. It got to the point where we had to return the food and say this was not what we ordered, and that we are disappointed that Indian food is not spicy at all! From that moment on, it worked ;-) All of this gets better, as always, when you leave the cities and go to the villages. But it takes its toll on you. Just yesterday we met a woman from the US who had travelled everywhere, spent half a year in Africa and was always proud of herself that she could handle any place in the world. She said she couldn't handle India.

For us, it's easier, presumably because we have a private car and driver, and stay in nice hotels. It's still intense though, but we enjoy it a lot. It has been the best time of the entire trip so far.