Saturday, June 25, 2011

Agra and that big marble building

Ok, I am the first to admit that I wasn't too fussed on heading to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is not that I didn't want to see it, it is just that I am more inclined to enjoy natural beauty than I am man-made ones and I just didn't think I'd be that 'wowed' by a big marble building. After an overnight train trip coupled with 'India Belly' (formerly known as Delhi Belly) I was even less in the mood for sight seeing. I was so ill that I almost stayed hidden in my hotel room until I had a "you can't come to India and not see the Taj" revelation.

I am mighty glad I had that revelation too, because that big marble building commonly known as the Taj Mahal is every bit as magnificent as everyone says it is. Brent and I were both in awe of its sheer beauty and it easily trumps any other man-made monument we have come across in India. As usual we (like so many other tourists) proved to be of more interest to the Indian tourists than the poor Taj itself. The novelty of having our pictures taken with the locals has more than warn off, especially when we now know what some of the more unsavoury men are doing with those pictures! While I did let the odd child take our picture, I was pretty annoyed when I sat down (in an effort not to vomit on the Taj) and an Indian man sat right next to me (almost on top of me) and his friend began taking unwanted photos of the two of us. I'm really not sure what he plans on telling his friends about the photo of him with a foreign girl doubled over in pain with a look of disgust on her face, because that is exactly the kind of picture he got.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Varanasi - burning bodies and all

I am not sure how or why I have conjured up images in my head of Varanasi being a sea of orange. Perhaps it is the thought of the baking sun's reflection turning the city orange, maybe it is the idea of red dirt surrounding the Ganges or simply the saffron robes of Hindus and golden sari-clad women that has implanted the idea. Needless to say I am initially disappointed when I step out onto the hotel's balcony overlooking Meer Ghat and the holy river to find stretches of grey. Grey muddy water surrounded by grey dirt, grey monuments and an equally grey sky. It is somewhat disheartening to come to India's holiest and most sacred river to find scores of rubbish floating down it. People are ogling at the rivers beauty and I honestly feel like I have either spiritually missed the point or am becoming very cynical. I berate myself for having expectations of the city in the first place and try to erase all 'orange' glistening images still left in my mind.

If you can look past the filth (of which there is plenty and is only magnified in the rains as it floats between  your ankles) then there certainly is an element of intrigue and magic to Varanasi. Walking the Ghat is prime people watching material as devout Hindus flock to the holy waters like moths to a flame. Every conceivable task takes place along the waters from clothes washing to bathing, swimming and boat ride, religious offerings, men, women, children and babies having their heads shaved, farmers washing their cattle and of course the deceased being doused in the holy waters before being cremated on piles of expensive wood for all to see.

I am not as troubled by the sight of burning bodies as I thought I would be. What I am troubled by is the scene that surrounds the cremation. The filth honestly resembles a tip, complete with cows, goats, buffalo and dogs defecating, urinating or sleeping nest to the fires. Some men chat loudly on their phones while simultaneously urinating next to the body, oblivious to the solemn occasion. Others bathe in the waters next to where the corpse is washed. The scene is confronting and made more so by the fact that the wind is blowing the ashes of the dead into our eyes and mouths. It is a complete sensory overload. Sometime later as I stop along the ghats to look at the view I realise rather abruptly that I am standing next to a corpse. My childish reaction brings me filthy looks from the locals and I am embarrassed at my behaviour.

Aside from the Ghats, the tiny alleyways of Varanasi are amazing to walk though and simply get lost in. Filled with every imaginable kind of Indian food, silks and crafts with chanting constantly filling the air, we have managed to eat and drink our way through the labyrinth maze that is  Varanasi. A chaotic and candid place, well worth the visit. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Never a dull moment when back in India

I was excited to be returning to India. Something was drawing me back, so  much so that we decided to leave Nepal before our visa finished. We figured there was so much we were yet to see of the country with relatively little time, so we hopped on a bus and headed for the border.

As we inched closer to India the heat and humidity began to climb. When we reach the border some 10hrs later, the contrast between Nepal and India is stark, despite the two being separated by a mere 'Welcome to India' sign. Beyond the border all I can see is hordes of people, barefoot beggars and scantily clad children. The streets are overflowing with rubbish and as if on cue as we step into India it begins to pour, a reminder to us that it is monsoon season. I look back across at Nepal and begin to doubt my decision.

We have planned to spend the night at the Indian border before heading to Varanasi. In the pouring rain we find the only hotel in the area and ask to see a room. The room turns out to be reminiscent of a prison cell with nothing more that 4 concrete unpainted walls with a bed in the middle. The bed is unmade, has clearly been slept in and has fresh mud trampled through the sheets. We decide get on the next bus to the next town.

As I step on the bus I am gobsmacked by the sight of a young girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old holding a newborn baby clearly no more than 24hrs old. The baby is naked and the two are saturated. The little girl holds the baby as through she is a limp doll and she devours a cookie perhaps given to her by  a stranger. It is not until Brent points out that the bus has no windows that I realise I am staring at this child while ankle deep in water, getting soaked through the windowless bus. We find a different bus, equally as wet and dirty but with windows to shut out the rain.

We haven't traveled more than 100m when we pass an horrific accident. A truck has collided with a motorbike and both rider and passenger have been killed. As we drive past a few meters, an angry Indian throws his pushbike in front of our bus. Brent and I are sitting upfront next to the driver and look to him confused at why the man would do this, when seemingly out of nowhere a mob of Indian men come charging at our bus with batons and sticks.

Without turning the engine off the bus driver leaps from his seat to shut and lock the back door. This causes people to panic and try to escape. The men outside begin violently smashing the bus and yelling in Hindi and the babies and children inside begin to cry, adding to the drama and consequently my fear of being trapped on the bus. I know full well that if you are in a traffic accident in India the best cause of action is to get out and run, for the people will relentlessly and indiscriminately attack you, but we have not caused this accident so I am confused as to why we are being targeted. The bus driver has left his window open and a man outside tries to climb in. I am not sure if it is the fear in my eyes or the fact that he probably won't fit through that makes him retreat, but I am somewhat relieved when he does.

After sometime the focus moves away from our bus and we somehow learn that the people, over a hundred of them, are 'striking' due to the accident. We are unsure of why our bus was targeted but were told it had to do with our bus being a government bus. The people have stopped attacking the bus but refuse to let us leave. We watch the commotion for over an hour and it seems that the two deceased have been put in a rickshaw for the people to come and view. The whole scene is chaotic and animalistic and I can't help but wonder how these people could possibly unite in a natural disaster or crisis. After sometime we realise we aren't in any danger anymore and we leave the bus and walk up the road to find another. Third time lucky, we get on a bus that gets us safely all the way to our destination. We check into a hotel in the middle of the night, which is no more than a bed, bucket and hole in the ground, but after the day I've had I'd be happy sleeping outside with the cows! Tomorrow we have another full days bus ride to Varanasi - hopefully it is less eventful.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Everest Base Camp Trek

Day 1: Lukla to Phakding 2610m
We begin the morning at 5am anxious about the 17 seater plane but excited about what lies ahead. As it turns out we have great weather and a very easy flight into Lukla. Today is an easy 2.5 hour walk following the Dudh Koshi River. This is because we have already flown in at altitude and we need to allow our bodies time to acclimatise. The walk is relatively flat with only a few ups and downs, just enough to get the heart pumping. Our room is cosy with misty mountain views and we feast on traditional Nepalese Dahl Bhaat and roast potatoes.  A stray dog follows us all the way from Lukla airport to our guesthouse and I am surprised to find that somewhere in the afternoon he has found his way into the lodge and plonked himself outside our room.

Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazar 3435m
We walk about 5 hours today mostly following the river and crossing several large swinging bridges. For the first 2.5 hours the walk is similar to yesterday with a few easy slopes. The last 2.5 hours is a steep and steady zig-zag climb made even more difficult by the fact that I have food poisoning. The altitude makes my ears pop and our steps slow. We have been lucky again with clear weather which makes for some incredible views. Namche Bazar looks like a quiet town of colourful homes, lodges and guesthouses.

Day 3: Rest Day
Today is known as arrest day but it really means a day of acclimatising and this means climbing high and sleeping low. We climb 3900m in Sagarmatha National Park in order to get what is supposed to be our first glimpse of Everest. Unfortunately the clouds come over in just minutes of us waking and by the time we reach the top of our destination we can barely see 50 meters in front of us. We climb back down to our guesthouse in Namche and spend the day here. It is important not to sleep during the day as this effects the acclimatisation process but the thin air makes us sleepy. We take a stroll through Namche markets and spend the afternoon rugged up and reading.
Day 4: Namche to Debuche 3820mToday we walk from Namche to Debuche taking approximately 5 hours with the first three being relatively flat and the last two hours quite steep and uneven. Despite the cloud the views are nothing short of magnificent. Several hours after reaching our lodge, Brent and our guide Seshi (pronounced Saucy) frantically wave for me to come outside. The clouds have moved and we get our first glimpse of Mount Everest. From our view the mountain sits behind Lhotse Sahara and to the right of Lhotse Mountain. We can only see the peak but it is still breathtaking to be looking at the world’s highest mountain. We stand out in the chilly air for over an hour watching the mountain disappear and reappear from behind the clouds. It is more exciting than we could have imagined and we end the day completely elated.

Everest is the tiny bit you see at the back - In front is Lhotse Sahara

Day 5: Debuche to Dingboche 4410m
The walk today is relatively short, approximately 4 hours and it is reasonably easy hoever the altitude makes it harder than it would be otherwise. It is difficult to explain the effects of altitude. Even walking on flat ground is difficult, almost as though you are walking through water. We see our first actual Yak today and they are smaller and hairier than the cow cross we have seen since Lukla. A funny moment is watching a brave little dog trying to cross a swing bridge. Each time with legs shaking he gets about ¼ of the way across, panics and runs back. Eventually he gets the courage up and runs full speed across the bridge. The weather is quite clear in places and we get some great views of some of the mountains. Ama Dablam at 6856m is the most beautiful and prominent.

The little dog trying to cross the swing bridge

Ama Dablam
Day 6: Rest day at Dingboche
The morning doesn’t start too great. A husband and wife team who we have continued to bump into is staying out the same lodge as us. During the night without any of the usual warning symptoms the husband fell ill with severe Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). He developed fluid on the lungs, began vomiting and began to lose vision. An emergency helicopter was flown in to rescue him and his wife. Another trekker from an Indian school group staying at our lodge is also walked back to Namche Bazar with mild AMS and is later flown out as his condition worsened. I have woken this morning with the flu and this makes detecting common AMS symptoms more difficult. This combined with seeing two people fall so ill so suddenly is quite scary. Nevertheless it is essential for us to acclimatise and this means trekking high and retuning to our lodge. We climb to 4,900m and we experience the most incredible views I have ever seen. For a decent amount of time the weather is clear and we sit in awe at the 360 degree snow capped mountain views. As the clouds blow in we are literally sitting amongst them. We are so high that instead of craning your neck to see a mountain we are simply looking across at them. We spend the afternoon resting, crossing our fingers that we stay free of AMS. We now know that no one is exempt.

Day 7: Dingboche to Leboche 4910m
The walk today is rocky and uneven with barren terrain surrounding us. The sky is unusually clear for off-season and we are once again graced with gorgeous mountain views. The altitude makes breathing difficult but the mountains are energising. Our guide tells us the trek will take 5.5 hours but we unintentionally walk it in 4. This causes me some problems and about half hour out of our destination I experience a severe headache to the back of my head followed by nausea. I am told this is the worst kind of headache associated with AMS because it means a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. It is better for us to continue the half hour to our lodge then turn back for 3.5hours so we push on. Despite knowing the seriousness of AMS, we are a day out of Base Camp and I am determined to reach it. We decide to sit and wait a few hours before turning back and I drink copious amounts of lemon tea (over a litre) which is supposed to ease symptoms. Several hours later I feel a little better and we make the decision to stay. During the night another Indian student begins vomiting. He had also been suffering severe headaches earlier in the day. He will not be seeing base camp and will be walked our flown back in the morning.
Day 8: Leboche to Gorakshep to Everest Base Camp 5180m to 5365m
We wake early with excitement and anticipation about today’s trek to base camp. Within 2 hours we will reach our lodge where we drop off our pack before continuing on to base camp. This first two hours is rocky and gives us both altitude induced headaches but it hardly matters. After hot tea we rug up, wish each other luck and head off. It is a 2 hour trek over extremely rocky and sometimes icy terrain. The altitude makes me feel like I have been hit in the back of the head with a pole and the simple task of buckling our day pack is a challenge. The sky is incredibly cloudless and we are surrounded by mountains with Khumba Glacier (the world’s largest) to our right. We also have a perfect view of the top of Everest. My head is pounding from the altitude so I pop my iPod in to take the focus of the pain. Listening to the iPod isn’t as bad as it sounds because aside from the odd scurrying rat, the atmosphere is silent. As we approach Base Camp over rocks and ice I take it out in order to listen for falling rock and breaking ice.
With thumping heads and heaving breath we finally reach Everest Base Camp. From the camp we look directly at Khumba Ice fall and it is incredible. You cannot actually see Mount Everest from base camp, which we were aware of, but I am surprised that base camp is just rock covered ice without a sign or monument acknowledging the spot. I am told this is because the exact location varies from year to year and that in peak mountaineering season the camp is covered with the tents of those brave enough and experienced enough to attempt the summit.
We spend about half hour marvelling at the view, ecstatic that we have accomplished our goal of reaching Everest Base Camp. After a few too many snaps and a chocolate bar to refuel we slowly head back to our lodge against the icy wind with our backs to the camp. Although our main goal has been achieved and we could technically trek back to Lukla in 3-4 days we are hoping to attempt crossing the potentially dangerous Chola Pass in order to reach Gokyo Lake. So while we spend the afternoon reflecting on our accomplishment, it is still a little premature to be celebrating.

Day 9: Gorakshep to Dzonglha to Pheriche 4900m
We wake at 4am with the intention of climbing Kala Pathar Mountain (5545m) in order to view Mount Everest from top to bottom but when we look out the window all we can see is fog so we go back to sleep. I am glad of this as my altitude headache has gotten worse and my cold has moved to my chest. When we wake again in a few hours it is snowing. This makes our guide question our chances of being able to cross Cholla Pass tomorrow but regardless we head off in that direction. Walking in the snow is not as romantic as I first thought as we walk on slippery wet rocks on narrow cliffs. When we reach Dzonglha some 4 hours later and my altitude headache is still thumping with my chest becoming infected our guide warns us that I am a perfect candidate for frozen liquid on the lungs. He points out that our accommodation is still at high altitude has no heating and no phone service thus no helicopter rescue should I get worse during the night. If we leave however it means we won’t be able to cross the pass but we can still see Gokyo via an alternative route if I feel better tomorrow. We decide to descend to Pheriche another 3 hours away.
Day 10: Pheriche to Phortse Thanga 3675m
After a full nights rest at lower altitude I am feeling much better so we inform our guide that rather than heading back to Kathmandu we would like to go on to Gokyo Lake. He is clearly disappointed at this and perhaps thought he was going to get a full weeks pay without having to finish the trek but nevertheless we head the few hours walk to Phortse Thanga. Again we walk along narrow cliffs and pass through some gorgeous tiny towns built of stone and sustained by potato farms. Our guide either storms off in front or lags behind complaining of a sore stomach and we can’t help but wonder if this is a ploy to get us to turn back. Brent and I enjoy the walk which is difficult in places but mostly looks like a forest out of a fairytale complete with a gushing river and Spanish moss or ‘grandfather’s beard’ hanging from the trees. When we reach the lodge I have my first shower complete with hot water since day 2 and Brent has his first since we left. My goodness we must have needed it!
Day 11: Phortse Thanga to Marcherma
After a steep descent yesterday our legs are sore for the first time during the trek and this is accentuated by today’s steep and seemingly continuous climb. In four hours we climb 800m and are more than relieved when we reach our lodge. The owners have a DVD player and this is somewhat a novelty for all of us so we sit around the yak-dung fire and watch GI Joe and drink hot chocolate.
Day12: Marcherma to Gokyo Lake 4900m
We trek for 3.5 relatively easy hours. When we reach the lake at 10:30am the weather is clear with no wind and the lake looks like a perfect glassy reflection of the sky. It is aqua blue and still and surrounded by mountains. A couple of orange feathered ducks are the only thing to disturb the water. It is tempting to swim in it but the water is not far above freezing and with the chilly air and my lingering cold I opt for dangling my hands in. We drop our packs off at the lodge and then decide to trek halfway up Gokyo Ri Mountain (another few hundred metres) to get some more views and snaps of the pristine lake. After lunch the clouds and wind roll in and I am glad we made the effort to climb the mountain earlier. Later in the afternoon an array of multi-coloured yaks descend from the mountain and graze contentedly on the sparse shrubbery surrounding the lodge.

Day 13: Gokyo to Phortse Thanga
Brent wakes several times during the night gasping for air, a common complaint when at high altitude. When our alarm goes off at 4am so we climb Gokyo Ri to the top to watch the sunrise, it is Brent this time who is glad it is too cloudy to see anything. A few hours later though the sky has cleared and despite already having a 4-5 hour walk ahead of us we decide to climb it. There is something addictive about trekking high in thin air. Even though it feels as though you are competing for oxygen and the simple task of blowing your nose leaves you gasping for air, each step towards the top gives way to an even more incredible view and motivates you to keep going. Today we are competing with the clouds and we trek as quickly as possible to get to the top. After an hour and a half or maybe more we reach the top at 5360m. We have a few minutes of spectacular views including the top of Everest before the cloud and bitter winds come in. Climbing down is physically more demanding as it puts a lot of pressure on your knees but with each step down comes a little more oxygen.
Once at the bottom we begin our 3 day descent back to Lukla. We walk for nearly 5 hours before reaching our first destination back again at Phortse Thanga. It has been an almost completely downhill walk and our knees are aching. We celebrate our accomplishments with an Everest Beer that is cold enough to drink straight from the cabinet. Brent finishes the night off by sharing a jug of ‘Roxy’ with our guide – a potent Nepalese spirit drank with warmed water.
Day 14: Phortse Thanga to Namche Bazar
Despite it being day 2 of our descent, today requires us to climb up and over several mountains to get back down to Namche. On our way we stop off at a Buddhist Monastery where for a small donation you can view the skull of a Yeti. For those of you who don’t know, a yeti is in Nepalese tradition an abominable snowman of 6-8 feet tall that lives high in the mountains and preys on anything including humans. The skull was a gift to the monastery and although initially received with disappointment became more cherished as scientists and mountaineers  alike showed growing interest in it. A short walk from the monastery is Khumjung School that was established and inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to Summit Everest. It is Sunday, but in Nepal that is a school day and the children are in class so we only briefly walk through. We arrive a short time later back at the Moonlight Lodge, the plushest accommodation of the lot. Brent tries his luck with a Yak steak which we are later informed is buffalo and I stick to steamed Tibetan momos.

Yeti Skull

Buddhist Monastery

Khumjung school
Day 15: Namche to Lukla
Today feels like an eternity. We have left Namche early and walk for over 6 hours. It feels like the most difficult day thus far. Perhaps this is because there is no promise of a beautiful mountain at the end and we know that our trip is finally coming to end. As with all things the trek does eventually end and we celebrate with an Everest beer in one of the empty pubs. We get an early night as our flight is at 6am.

Brent exhausted after he carried our 18kg pack the entire way!

Day 16: Lukla to Kathmandu
I wake again apprehensive at the thought of having to catch the teeny tiny aircraft. My nerves are warranted though as the plane is notorious for crashing due to the ever changing weather in the Himalayas. Apparently during our trek a helicopter doing a routine rescue crashed in the mountains killing the two pilots aboard and this plays through my head constantly. As luck would have it we have another perfectly clear day and we arrive back in Kathmandu without a hitch.
 I don’t think in this life time I will be climbing Mount Everest so to get to Everest base Camp was quite an accomplishment. This has definitely been the highlight of all my travels so far. Challenging and rewarding, I urge anyone with a reasonable level of fitness to attempt the trek. Now I am off to officially celebrate!
Brent and I with an elderly Sherpa woman on her way up the mountain


goodbye India Hello Nepal

Nepal is the kind of place you know you will come back to. It is the kind of place you fall in love with the minute you step off the plane into the tiny little airport. It is the kind of place you instantly feel at ease with as the rhythm of your walk falls into place with the buzz of the streets. Ok, so my relationship with Nepal is premature as we have only been here two days and haven’t yet left Kathmandu, but I can already tell.
My last exam finished in India on the 27th and by lunch time on the 28th we were getting lost in the maze like streets of Thamal in Kathmandu and sipping hot Nepalese chai. I have officially finished my university exchange program in India and because I am unable to continue my studies in Australia until next year (due to certain subjects offered in term 1 being a prerequisite for me enrolling in term two) Brent and I have decided to spend the next six months travelling. It wasn’t an easy decision and required me to sell my near new car, but I don’t think this opportunity will come by again anytime soon, so we have leapt at the chance. Nepal is our first stop and we have booked a trek to Everest base camp.