A Travellerspoint blog

Don't Lucknow...

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A man in an internet cafe claimed "there are so many things in Lucknow"; less encouragingly our Varanasi lodge owner told us “there is nothing in Lucknow”.

My answer is, "there is nothing in Lucknow, but you'll have an adventure getting there and out."

Leaving Varanasi involved as much drama as arriving in it: an absurdly chaotic journey by auto-rickshaw to the station. Our driver dove through crazy alleyways webbed with people, cows and traffic, all of which continually seemed bent on their own deaths (my favourite was a man meandering across a busy roundabout, a dazed look in his eyes, who walked straight at our rickshaw as though it wasn't there). Apart from us there was another Londoner in the rickshaw: a laidback fellow in a straw hat, who hung half out of the vehicle, surfing over every incident in a manner joyful to behold – apologising 'madam' to an Indian woman we surprised, slapping a cow on the rump as we passed by, joking and laughing with the driver - and who, when we arrived, disentangled himself with the words, “listen, I've got a train to catch, I can't stand here all day and talk about where I got my jacket.”

And when we reached the other end at Lucknow, our journey to first the wrong hotel and then the right one (both awful, by the way) was equally ridiculous. We sat in an uncomfortable cycle rickshaw, watching our skinny driver haul us down what would be in the UK an A road in the company of heavy-duty lorries, cars and motorcycles - in a contraption that felt as fragile as a box of matchsticks. Whenever we passed over a crossing I gripped the side and hissed “scary” until the moment passed. In the middle of all this wind and noise and absurdity, a motorcycle drew alongside and two guys decided to start a conversation, seemingly heedless of their precarious position between a clockwork toy and several juggernauts. They wanted to know where Rich came from, had he been in India long, where before, why was he travelling, did he need a guide, etc.

Lucknow, in our brief interlude there, was a cleaner city than Varanasi (most places are), but grey, dull, and the people in the hotels given to harsh and abrupt manners, and doing things like ignoring our online payment and charging us again for the room (musty with the door hanging off its hinges). On streets dominated by electronics stores, we turned out to be the main attraction, and people actually stopped to stare – tourists don't go to Lucknow. In India, if you stop and ask a question, and become involved in conversation, then it suddenly becomes the business of everybody in the street surrounding; this was much magnified in Lucknow, with about 20 people as an audience when we asked for directions. We saw no other tourists, not even during our brief trip to the Residency (which seems to have become the haunt of the city's lovers). And we came out of Lucknow so pissed off at the touts, the brusque hotels, the vague incompetence that seemed present in everythng... or maybe, so angry at myself for dreaming of India and then finding it (literally) so hard to digest, so hard. Or at least Uttar Pradesh. I wanted to get out the whole state, get to Rajasthan, and try not to hope too highly, and in the meantime see the Taj.

The Residency was as dull and ugly as the rest of Lucknow.

The Residency was as dull and ugly as the rest of Lucknow.

Getting a train from Lucknow to Agra was also an experience. Rich was sat by a window and I was right on the aisle – and felt very on display to the hard rake of stares I encountered every time I looked up. India is so ridiculously male, so hugely unbalanced, and the stares were so continual that the only solution was to read The Ramayana, a book I'd got in Varanasi, with more attention than I could lend the story. This was, however, to my advantage. Towards the end of the journey, the carriage emptied a little and people weren't staring quite so much. The attention had turned to Rich, who, caught in a circle of curious faces, looked like a man placed suddenly into a group job interview. What was he reading, what country was he from, what was his job, what was his educational qualification, what did he think of India? My attention was drawn in as someone referred to the 'holy book' one of us had been reading earlier, and I got out The Ramayana, and that and Rich's book were passed around, and produced much commentary, none of which we could understand. This chatter remained quite one-sided; while one woman offered me a biscuit and another responded to friendly smiles with the same back, the former had left by the time talk started and the latter had only enough English to give her name and say that she was visiting Agra. Rich, when returning questions, similarly met the language barrier or was embroiled in more details about someone's job than he wanted to know. But it felt good, and some of my increasingly bitter thoughts about India dissipated – it wasn't an endless con: people were curious, friendly, interested. Also on that train, whilst I was deep into Rich's book (The Ramayama got a bit much), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a beggar came crawling through the carriage, missing the limbs needed to walk. There was that horrible moment, a horrible second of clutching my book and not looking, deliberately not seeing - it caught me by such surprise and shock. It didn't feel real. Such things are not seen in the UK.

A lot of hands reached out and dispensed crumpled bank notes. That's not often seen in the UK, either.

Posted by wanderingwolf 05:02 Archived in India Tagged india lucknow Comments (0)

Varanasi: City of Filth

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So... India. And Varanasi, of all places. How do I capture a week there? I intended to call this entry 'City of Filth, City of Light', before realising that there's too much for one post. I'm therefore attempting a two-part entry. This half will be on the City of Filth... the difficult, the indigestible, the Varanasi tourists tend to skate over.

A shock, coming from Lumbini to Varanasi! From the serene chanting of monks around a pipal tree to one of the most intense places on Earth. And the journey itself, from Gorakhpur, proved challenging. We had an overnight train journey booked, and grabbed a quick meal from a place opposite the station, before beginning a brutal introduction to Indian railways (we've had a much better experience since). Everywhere we had to step around sleeping people; apprehensively we watched a train arrive. As it pulled in fights broke out to get into the packed carriages; skinny figures climbed frantically out of windows to avoid being crushed. This was Unreserved Sleeper Class. Our own train, meanwhile, was three hours late arriving at the platform and seven and a half hours late arriving at Varanasi... Rich's paneer curry turned out to be a bad idea. I wandered round the carriages and in the morning saw a man shaving, with cream and all, in front of a sink. Apparently he had a job interview. He appeared unperturbed by the ridiculousness of the situation, in which there'd been no communication from the driver or anyone official about what was happening. In London, the driver breaks into worried apology if you sit at a stop for more than a minute; in India time -- and space -- are different.

Kathmandu's Thamel prepared me somewhat for the madness of the driving - not merely in terms of pedestrians in the road, but also the endless jostling for position by the vehicles, the reckless meandering of vast cows across the street, the striving of auto-rickshaws against their skinny human counterparts (I have a strong impression of thin, too thin, snappable brown ankles and lined, beaten faces... such weariness). Thamel even gave me a sniff of the dust, the constant flying dirt that has crept into both of us and made us cough. Thamel even prepared me a little for Varanasi Old City/Godaulia: the ramshackle stalls and shops, the slender alleyways crammed with people and cows and yet more people roaring through on motorcycles to continuous horn-blasts, and of course the touts... "Anklet, madam? For the leg!" "Boat? Boat?" "Rickshaw, rickshaw?" "Where are you going? Can I help you?"

... But I was not prepared to find, in Benares, the sacred City of Light, such filth so continually proliferated. On the way to almost anywhere the traveller encounters a stinking pile of refuse - containers, carrier bags, used sanitary pads, everything - that seems to melt a little more each time passed. Flies haunt the air, cowpats the ground. The general attitude to waste disposal was exemplified in something Rich witnessed from an evening boat ride on the Ganges (timed to coincide with the last day of Diwali and the mass flocking of people to the riverside to perform puja). He'd seen a man pouring water with great ceremony from a plastic cup, which he immediately discarded into the same holy river he'd offered to.

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This woman at least kept hold of her cup.

This woman at least kept hold of her cup.

The people are as extreme as their setting. In Nepal, one did not get overly stared at. Here, whilst there are Western tourists everywhere, they are so tiny a proportion compared to the locals that the latter stare with hard black intensity. This appears to be an Indian thing, not specifically a Varanasi thing, as we met the height of this at Gorakhpur train station, where the stares were such that I kept suspecting some public outrage just behind us. The stares are largely hard, or blank, or a trigger to touting. You in turn see sights both intriguing and shocking. Thin children wash clothes at night under street water taps. Dreadlocked, orange-robed sadhus sit on the ghat steps, and on one street the beggars line one side with their bowls. One day I saw a man with mainly missing limbs crawling across a road using just his elbows. On another day, on a nightmarish walk in the heat down a main road, we found a young man stretched out on the ground, dusty, on his back, eyes closed, in a completely inappropriate place, within a foot of the wheels of passing rickshaws - without any sign as to whether he was asleep or alive at all.

The Yogi Lodge, where we stayed, turned out to be another representative of the tricksiness of Varanasi, another test for the wits and patience. For one thing, Yogi Lodge is popular - and so there are clones all over the city, called things like 'Old Yogi Lodge', 'New Yogi Lodge', 'Real Yogi Lodge', and so on, all claiming to be the one recommended by Lonely Planet and all paying commission to supposedly helpful rickshaw drivers. We had to trust a guy who led us to what we think WAS the real Yogi Lodge, but who knows? At this version we were driven to distraction by a resident tout called Ravi, who pounced on us whenever we tried to leave, asking us where we were going, did we need help getting to wherever, what tours did we want to do, etc. One day I said I would be just 'wandering around, doing some shopping', and he wanted to escort us to 'the best places to buy silk'. Another day I announced I would be going to a yoga class, and he insisted on taking me to a specific Yoga Centre, and couldn't comprehend me ever wanting to try anywhere else. This reached the point of us nearly moving hostels as neither of us had 'crossed the world to learn evasion tactics'. Even remembering the guy sends my blood pressure up.

The province of high blood pressure is not Ravi's alone. One morning we took a boat-ride on the Ganges. More on that later, but it's worth describing the frustration framing the event because it's a good example of how stressful INDIA in general can be. We had difficulty making our rendezvous with the boatman, who, we'd been assured, would be waiting for us at the Brown Bread Bakery, a multi-storey yet cosy restaurant that produces delicious bread and helps fund a charity school. Liking the place and the purpose, we'd booked the trip through the BBB. Our hostel door was locked, and two older Indians bustled around upstairs whilst we darted around below, crying "namaste" hopelessly into the gloom. In the context of the dark, early rising and the previous night's dithering over whether or not to change hostels, the whole thing seemed like part of a diabolic plan to prevent lodgers doing anything except through Ravi. Eventually I shouted with such anger that the upstairs men were disturbed, and they told us to wake up a guy sleeping downstairs, who had been so prone under a blanket before that I'd taken him for furniture. We finally exited, and reached the BBB as part of an increasingly dense stream of Hindus heading to the Ganges, but the BBB itself was dark and locked. Again we were reduced to shouting "namaste" and eventually had to make an expensive phone-call to the BBB owner. He sounded perplexed as to our distress and told us to wait for the boatman, and indicated we'd been told wrongly where to meet him.

After some minutes, a ridiculously small male child arrived, gesturing at us to follow. We had no way of telling whether this was our 'man' or not; we followed him down the labyrinthine streets to the river, which already bustled with morning pilgrims, boats, bathers, child sellers offering candles, etc. Our boy leapt across some boats and, rather comically given his skinny limbs, began to manoeuvre one free of the others. For a few seconds I was quite unsure about what to think of the charitable BBB man, wondering whether his 'school' entailed many rowing lessons. To my relief, an elderly yet wiry guy popped up - but he didn't speak any English, only smiled benignly, and again we had no idea if the boy just touted for him or if this was what we'd already paid for. We rang Mr BBB, who flakily and irrelevantly explained that we'd have the coffee we'd ordered when we got back to land. In the end only the intervention of someone else, a guy who wanted to see our receipt, ensured that we got on our way. Ignoring the ride for now, and the smiles of the multicoloured crowds even as the sullen smoke of the pyres ascended with the sun, this first hour set the stage for one of our darkest mornings in India. Back at the BBB we discovered extra levels of bizarreness: how apparently somebody had been at the BBB in the morning but, as the building was locked from the OUTSIDE, could do nothing, how someone else had been sharing our boat and had gone off with our boatman, etc.

The big things in Varanasi are the river and the ghats (steps leading down to the river), on which, as one traveller put it, 'you can see the whole of life and death'. Like 'life and death' both are intense, and potentially uncomfortable. Varanasi is where good Hindus go to die, and few travellers arrive without some awareness of the significance of the Ganges. On our first evening we ventured into the maze of streets with the idea of walking down to it; on our way we encountered a group of four white-robed figures bearing a pallet on their shoulders, chanting, and setting a fast pace as they progressed through Godaulia. From some background reading I knew the huddle of robes on the pallet hid a dead body, and that the family members carrying it would be taking it to one of the two 'burning ghats' - areas of public cremation, after which the remaining body parts would be given to the river, supposedly allowing the soul freedom from rebirth. We followed the men as they would be going in the direction of the river... and all at once found ourselves at the main burning ghat, on a ledge overlooking fires I tried not to look at too closely. In lingering there we caught the attention of a guy who, after much vocal, uncomfortable admiration of our respect, provided some gruesome and weird details about the cremations. It took so many kilos of wood to burn a body, so many hours. A woman's pelvis would often need to be burned over and over, and even then leftovers would need to be given to the river. The same with a man's torso. Lepers could not be burnt there, nor the victims of snake-bites, who would be set afloat on the river in the hope that healers would take them ashore and revive them. Everyone knew him at the burning ghats; we could come closer with him. Come here, come here. And so close, too close! We stood on a platform with no other Westerners in sight, silent Hindus around us as their relatives burnt on the ground at our feet - and one of the dead feet poked out, its toes still untouched by the heat. We stepped away hurriedly, and our man came with us. It takes so many kilos of wood to burn a body, it is so expensive. There are dying people living near the burning ghat, waiting to die, but they don't have the money. We are wise, kind people, would we like to come with him and visit one of the women living nearby, to donate? It would be very good karma to give a donation.

Varanasi's main burning ghat.

Varanasi's main burning ghat.

We gave him a hundred rupees and escaped; later we heard that this is a common scam around the ghats. Tourists may give a lot out of shock and discomfort; the money would be the tout's, and find its way to a liquor store and not a pyre. I remember the guilt, the sick feeling the encounter gave me. The guilt of having the morbid fascination to be there in the first place, and the peripheral knowledge that both the guilt and the fascination tap a bedrock of anger that the desperation here is such that death and spirituality can be prostituted - and also, below that, a sense of being perhaps uncomprehending in applying such a Western division between religion and money. Why shouldn't flying souls muddy their toes with the effort, here, of staying alive? Varanasi is too complex for straightforward opinions; instead you must peel through them like layers of an onion. In this instance the taste I'm left with is of the bitterness of ghoulish poverty.

Religion, silk-selling, crowding.

Religion, silk-selling, crowding.

Hard to digest, indeed! And not just spiritually. We signed up for an Indian cooking class. This mainly involved watching a woman and her daughter create delicious alu gobhi (potato and cauliflower) curry, alu paratha (spicy potato mash in chapatti-esque bread) and masala chai (Indian spiced tea). I sat, wondering at the immense difference in generations on display - the older woman with little English, and the daughter with a university education and a kind of coy dismay at my ignorance of spices. Sweat touched me, something writhed in my stomach. I could eat only a few amazing mouthfuls, before making a desperate exit. I stumbled through the streets, pausing to gape at a public religious ceremony (brahmins, incense), stomach roiling. My next day would be a non-day, a day of vomiting and gut-wrenching pain.

Having begun the process of swallowing, I'll work on the less difficult side of Varanasi digestion (the nutrition?) in the next post.

Posted by wanderingwolf 02:16 Archived in India Tagged food india varanasi Comments (1)

Lumbini... Exit Nepal, Enter India

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I met my first mosquito of travelling in Lumbini. Despite this introduction, Lumbini was... cute. It was mainly one street, down which, thanks to Diwali, children cavorted with fire-crackers to a backdrop like an overenthusiastic Christmas market - different coloured lights draped every building, making even the mandalas in Pokhara look half-hearted. After a long bus journey, during which there wasn't even been any fun Hindi dance music, we had a quick meal of thukpa before turning in. A mosquito coil snaked its slow way to self-destruction on a table.

Christmas? Nope, Diwali.

Christmas? Nope, Diwali.

In the morning we made our way to Lumbini proper - the Lumbini distinguished as the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he supposedly lived until the age of 29. It's also a paradise for butterflies, as we discovered walking down the long entrance lane; every step disturbed a small swarm of them, of many different kinds and colours. An orange-robed monk sped past us on a motorbike; a more demure group sat beneath some trees as we got nearer to the centre. Before we entered the actual building housing the apparent birthplace, on removing our shoes we saw tourists photographing a rather unimpressive pillar. This turned out to be the Ashoka Pillar - a pillar inscribed with the edicts of India's most famous emperor of antiquity, the 3rd century Ashoka Maurya who championed Buddhism and whose lion capital provides India with its national emblem and whose 'Wheel of Dharma' symbol with its flag. The pillar drew my attention because of its incredible age, but it made little impression as it didn't look it! A claim that this was a 1960s creation would have been credible.

Look, it's got to LOOK old to be impressive.

Look, it's got to LOOK old to be impressive.

Inside the building a wooden walkway directed us around knee-high crumbling ruins, conceivably several thousand years old, towards an indistinct stone relief showing the Buddha's mother, Queen Mayadevi, giving birth (she was just about identifiable). Below, a marker stone proclaimed the site of birth. It provoked an odd feeling in me - certainly this place has more meaning than Pokhara's World Peace Stupa, but, in my ill-educated way, I didn't think the Buddha wished to be personally venerated. This also wasn't where he 'did anything' - no sermons, no enlightenment.

Feeling so detached I left the building - and then saw a vast pipal tree festooned with prayer flags, a bowl of burning incense at its foot, with a couple of people meditating nearby. A whole group of Chinese tourists were doing the same to the instruction of a monk a little way away. Between us and the scene lay a green pool, in which tiny turtles swam - apparently the pool the queen bathed in. This and the history of the place made less of an impact than the living spirituality on view. As we walked towards some more monastic ruins, I thought whether it would feel good to meditate there, to let some silence in before all the hectic travelling to India to come. I'm not saying I was profoundly struck, only that the idea seemed appropriate.

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As we passed the tree a red-robed priest gave me an incense stick to light for the pot and a blessing, wrapping white thread round my wrist whilst chanting and touching my head. Paradoxically - for I know at least that the Buddha taught that craving is suffering - as I placed the incense in the pot I wished... Partly to become a better person, but mainly for nothing; it was wishing, it was desire for something, some answer to the request anyone makes of life - for it to do something to them. And then, feeling self-conscious, I sat down and closed my eyes. Rich sat down next to me, and to my astonishment, when I distractedly opened my eyes, he gave every appearance of meditating too. Soothed, I closed my eyes again.

Invisibly, a monk led the Chinese around the tree several times, and they all chanted, and in the background came the repeated thump of wood striking against wood. My unruly mind largely wandered everywhere, but every now and then I had a sense of presence, of nowness, and the rhythm of the instrument and the chanting occasionally swelled into a self-obliterating wave.

We then had a wander around the rest of the site, which is a kind of competition between different nations as to who can build the biggest and most impressive Buddhist temple. All admirable, but their closeness to each other somewhat sapped the wonder.

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After this Buddhist goodbye from Nepal, we began to the process of crossing into India - first by catching a bus to Bhairahawa. We'd planned to grab food there but all we could see of the town was a dusty vulture-circle of cycle-rickshaw drivers, who displayed understandable amazement that anyone would want to stay in such a place, and not immediately contract their services to move on. This we did, to Belahiya, the Nepali side of Sunauli.

In some ways the border-crossing - a sign welcoming you to India, and a couple of crowded sheds in which you simply got your exit and entry stamps, with none of the thorough security checks or bureaucratic fat usual in the West - suggested the arbitrariness of national borders, the idea that it's just a line on a map somewhere, but that's not how it felt. You feel the change in mode, the new distrust, the new density of colour and sound. I remember sitting on the bus to Gorakhpur, feeling uneasy as for a while we were the only passengers and all I could think of was that encouraging box in my India guidebook, about a woman raped on a Mumbai bus. Sitting there, as the night went by, a night filled with inexplicable groups of teenage boys dancing in the middle of nowhere - crazy roadside raves behind speakers mounted on trucks and garish floats shaped like gods. So different from serene, heavy-lidded Buddhist Nepal with its one national soundtrack, 'om mani padme hum'. Rapid dance music, distorted and speaker-buzzlingly loud, roared up from the first of those parties in Sunauli, as if to say, 'India is louder than Nepal. INDIA IS LOUDER!'

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Posted by wanderingwolf 15:25 Archived in Nepal Tagged india nepal border-crossing Comments (0)

Pokhara (and Kathmandu again!)

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The traditional end to any trek involves a series of nightmare bus journeys, right? Jomsom-Ghasa-Beni-Pokhara, where we spent one night in an overly posh hotel I felt too dirty to be in, and then back to Kathmandu. All thanks to the fact that we'd left a lot of our stuff in Kathmandu so we didn't have to drag it up any mountains. Our achingly long bus journey to Pokhara included a lunch stop that seemed genuinely aimed at locals*; the only thing on the menu was copious amounts of dal bhat. We ate whilst young men performed less-than-reassuring engineering under our bus, sucking in the suddenly humid, oxygen-rich air, watching a stereotypically blue mountain river gush over some smoothed boulders. Peter Mathiessen's Snow Leopard made the journey bearable - a very good book that practices its ideology... a Zen approach to writing, alive with vivid detail that almost captured the elusive 'Zen moment' of the author's own trek. I'd love to be able to emulate.

Our random night in Kathmandu was actually surprisingly fun. We successfully hunted out the tomba place the Slovakian had mentioned in Kagbeni, and after finding it I wished we'd managed it before. A small place crowded with locals sucking tomba from wooden tankards and ordering snacks from a scrappish menu, it had a convivial atmosphere that allowed people to fall into conversation with each other. We had a crazily cheap dinner of thukpa (noodle soup) and momos, and found ourselves chatting, against all probability, with a couple of deaf guys, one of whom kept making smoking gestures at Rich, and eventually resorted to writing 'Bob' on his mobile to show he thought Rich looked like Bob Marley. Wide smiles and thumbs-up motions communicated that tomba was good; we all agreed, tomba is good.

Afterwards we stumbled out and bumped into the French couple we'd trekked with! They'd made it over the pass and seen Maria do the same... so we all did it, eventually.

And then, the next day, we reached the long-awaited Pokhara, which during the trek had been spoken of a wonderland of steak, beer and hot showers, with stunning mountain scenery reflected in the lake it's named for. It rewarded us with relentlessly dull mist and clouds, and a strange holiday resort atmosphere that both of us find uncomfortable. In Kathmandu's Thamel the commercialism is a frantic thing, a more aggressive presence, but it is merely one aspect - you feel that the people desperately selling to you are equally manically driving to places, worshipping their gods, dealing with their families, etc. The difference seems well symbolised by the fact that in Pokhara there are pavements where the well-fed tourist can perambulate, whereas in Thamel there are no pavements, no space for pavements, because everyone is doing something. I accept I'm being unfair to Pokhara, but a more metaphorical pall has descended on us here. I worry about the future, and there is not enough to distract - not even the three-legged cow that meanders drunkenly around the nearby street, or the giant bamboo Dasain swing still up among some lone trees for the joy of local children, or even (as hazardous and entrapping as it has proved) the large central street of shops stuffed with hippie clothes, brass ornaments and books.

(In one shop, I picked up a monkey-shaped brass ornament. "Hanuman?" I said hopefully at the young minder. She nodded and beamed. Encouraged, I picked up another. "Shiva?" "Yes, yes." Her smile grew wider. My hand wandered; I selected another and held it up. "Who is this?" "I don't know," she said, with exactly the same smile.)

Away from the tourist shops are lone Tibetan refugees, selling jewellery on shawls spread on public benches or on low walls. In the evenings we ended up in either a tourist trap of a pub, thumping with covers of cheesy pop (though the local band sounded promisingly metallic at first) or in a grungy if emptyish bar, or in a restaurant hiding away from an unexpected rainstorm, or drinking tomba out of huge wooden tankards, or, most times, wandering up and down hoping to find decent local music or general life - with little success.

HARDCORE tomba.

HARDCORE tomba.

Halloween happened in Pokhara, mainly in my head, but more notably and externally so did Diwali. Colourful mandalas appeared on the pavements outside shop doors, each to be photographed continually by excited tourists.

Now here's something that'd make you popular in Europe.

Now here's something that'd make you popular in Europe.

One thing to 'do' in Pokhara is visit the World Peace Stupa - a walk away through lush if monotonous forest. There are magnificent aerial views to be had over Pokhara doing this, but for us the mist made it merely pretty. The Stupa itself, whilst large and shining, had the vacant air of any public monument created with overt meaning - I felt more 'meaning' in Muktinath where I had little idea of what I was looking at, and where there were no large signs explaining anything.

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Another day we rented a boat and rowed out onto the lake. Even with some mist that was lovely - the vegetation around the lake went down to the water, and vibrated with monkeys leaping from tree to tree, and finally, away from the madding crowd, you could find some quiet, and marvel at the mirror-like calm of the water. Whilst no mountains displayed their reflections for us, it's certainly worth doing. Somehow the serenity brought my own turbulence to the surface, and I closed my eyes, trying to think of nothing at all, especially not the future. People imagine absolute freedom when travelling, as though that's something the mind can know immediately, as though our self-imposed chains don't follow us.

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After Pokhara comes Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha, and the last stop in Nepal before India.

  • Tourist buses, meanwhile, will (and did with us) drop you at expensive restaurants.

Posted by wanderingwolf 02:13 Archived in Nepal Tagged booze nepal Comments (0)

Booze and flying shamans... down to Jomsom

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The next day we parted company with the German couple and walked to the villages of Jhong and Jharkot as a scenic route to Kagbeni. As we drew away, the pass we had conquered became ever clearer, a dip between two rounded mountainous shoulders, like a headless torso, and I had more of an idea of Thorung Peak than I ever did during the day of the pass. In the wind I walked faltering, still wondering what had happened in the previous few days.

Goodbye, Pass of Doom.

Goodbye, Pass of Doom.

Jhong and Jharkot were a strange experience, altogether. Jhong we did not stop in, merely passing through, not even bothering to have a closer look at the ruined fort tower there (which to be honest looked no more remarkable than any other ruined fort tower).

Jhong

Jhong

The silence of it, however, and the scarcity of the people among the picturesque houses, and the way the subtle sign to Jharkot (a village noted in the guidebooks for its continuing practice of B'on, the pre-Buddhist shamanic religion of Tibet) plunged us into a quiet, winding path in a forest littered with crude stone shrines... the whole episode left a corresponding silent space in my mind. Enchanted, I half expected to round a corner and find a group of shamans assembled, feathered like cliché Native Americans in my imagination, who would look me in the eye, address me by name and intimate some mysterious destiny. This dream vanished in the hot, sweaty climb above the forest to Jharkot itself, which at first gave the impression of being a ghost town, and by the time we sat down on the balcony of the first hotel we came to for some quick lunch I was convinced we wouldn't see any sign of shamanism.

This is where we discovered tomba! Listed as an alcoholic drink on the menu, we ordered it out of curiosity. It appeared as a plastic jug with a slitted straw poking out of a mound of small brown pebbles – millets, as our waiter explained, and he showed us that we could top up using a large thermos of hot water - flavoured by the fermented millets to have a strong, almost wine-like taste. This could be topped up a surprising number of times, and I walked away from Jharkot a little tipsily.

We've got to work out how to make this.

We've got to work out how to make this.

Whilst we sat there sucking up this weird new drink, Rich tapped my shoulder and said “shamans” - and in view, two men in red had appeared outside the door of a house, one of them with a drum. The older led the drumbeat; the younger had a bashful air about him. They began singing a kind of chant – an untroubled kind of tune that remained in my head a while afterwards. In the simplicity of two voices rubbing over one another like a pair of old hands, there was something uplifting about it, and too genuine to feel 'mystical'. Perhaps because I associate ecstasy with mysticism this felt more like an old folk shanty. To our delight they came closer and stood under the balcony, performing the same chant, and smiled up at us when we peered over. A peaceful moment, sitting there, drinking tomba, listening to shamans and watching scores of crows wheeling through the sky above.

Leaving Jharkot we passed them outside another house and they grinned shyly at us – what an endearing pair of shamans! Later on the long walk to Kagbeni we somehow passed them again... maybe the shamans could fly?

Cute shamans, plus satellite dish.

Cute shamans, plus satellite dish.

The journey to Kagbeni was less fun – a long and monotonous road, unrelieved but for Dali-esque sloping hills like dunes, pockmarked with caves and wrinkled by dead rivers.

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At sunset we encountered a Nepali who'd gone the wrong way, and in doing so had ruled out the only alternative to our route. He was a pleasant but irritating kind of guy at that time of night, the more so for having crossed Thorung La earlier that same day at some ridiculous speed. I consoled myself with the idea that Nepalis probably spend a lot more time ascending past safe levels of oxygen than flatland Brits. We reached Kagbeni as night set in proper, and managed to shake him off.

Kagbeni in the dark confused us. The road seemed to snake and skirt it rather than entering, and in a power-cut we could see only clusters of dark buildings sat at the foot of of an immense wall of wall, a blacker slice of night that in the morning would emerge with the over-defined glory of an illustration in a fantasy book – the foot of a mountain. We blundered around for a while before finally finding a lodge attached to a Yac Donalds (complete with yellow logo) – the only place that had any sign of life.

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Despite the attachment, it was a posh place, tastefully decorated with wall hangings and dark furniture, with a social area consisting of cushions around a low table, but in the dark it was a lititle subdued. A bearded Slovakian we'd met before the pass got excited at the mention of tomba, and recommended somewhere in Kathmandu to drink it. He then sipped tea quietly, listening as a faint-voiced hippy talked about how 'they' were 'making her move on' the next morning but she didn't know where to go. One snatch of conversation can build an entire story in your head. We drank the surprisingly decent (malty and rich) Gorkha beer and ate something that wasn't dal bhat.

In the morning Kagbeni materialised as unbelievably picturesque, with quaint (if empty) shops huddled about a small river, and streets populated with cute baby animals, from calves to kittens. We didn't hang about but set off for Jomsom – another monotonous walk, this time through the relentless wind and barren plain of the Kali Gandaki riverbed. Then the river trickled slowly past grey sand; at other times it's apparently worthy of the violent goddess it's named for – according to Peter Mathiessen's Snow Leopard, which I picked up in Jomsom.

Kali Gandaki.

Kali Gandaki.

(I forgot to mention how ridiculous Rich was at Kagbeni. He not only fixed our room's leaking toilet, but also fixed the WiFi by guessing the probable IP address of the router, then the admin username and password, and finally the problematic setting. The lodge owners never knew their benefactor. I sometimes think this makes life more difficult for him. I just accept that the world is unfixable; with Rich it might just be a question of not having the right tool).

Jomsom is windy, big, luxurious (WiFi and hot water on demand?!). It's the beginning of civilisation again... and the further I get from trekking, the more nostalgic I become!

Posted by wanderingwolf 17:13 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking booze nepal spirituality Comments (0)

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