India got the better of me so I decided to leave a little early. I'm in Kathmandu and will be for a week or so until I can organize my trek around Annapurna.
I left Jaipur and decided to try a bus to Agra. It was a bus ride like few others I have been on. A narrow two lane road all the way to Agra. There were herds of goats, cattle, broken down trucks being repaired in the road, oxen driven carts, and people walking along the highway as well. Our driver blew his horn the whole way while dodging around various obstacles, and passed anything he could get around. There is no such thing as a passing zone in India. Everywhere and anywhere seems to fit the pattern. Since there are no traffic cops or enforcement of any kind,(that I could see) traffic is a constant mess
. I met two Israeli girls on the ride, and they said riding at night was much worse. I think I'll stick to trains whenever possible in the future. At least until I get out of India.I had e-mailed reservations to a guest house right in front of the Taj Mahal, so we got into a motor rickshaw and headed there. They call themselves hotels and guest houses, and they are in a sense. There are no common rooms and dorm type sleeping arrangements. I miss that because it is a great way to share stories and meet fellow travelers. I knew this hotel had advertised a roof top Taj view, so I put my stuff away and went to the 4th floor, where they have an open air restaurant and viewing area. I climbed the last steps and saw an almost 100% view of the famous tomb. It was a stunning first sight. I just stood there and soaked it in for a few minutes. I was alone on the roof, but I smiled anyway. It's one of the reasons I travel. Moments like that make it all worthwhile.
The girls and I got up at 5:30 to be at the gates for the 6 a.m. opening. It'd hard to describe seeing this in person. It's much bigger than it seems in photos. It's a massive marble structure, with a huge courtyard surrounding the main tomb. It took an estimated 20 years to construct, and they used over 1000 elephants to haul the marble from the quarry nearby. The detail is something that has to be seen up close. It is in everything inside and out
. The marble is carved and polished on all the surfaces that you can see. We spent three hours at the site. I hated to leave and 'one last look' ended up being several. We did a city tour later in the day and saw several other temples and elaborate tombs. Along the route we saw marble workers using chisels and hand powered polishing machines, similar to what was used 350 years ago during construction. They were buffing,carving and chiseling small pieces to place inside other marble sections to add color. A staggering amount of time goes into each section. The marble still comes from the same area as the Taj marble did. I watched the sun set on the roof and saw the color of the Taj change with the setting sun. It was hard to look away. India has a lot to see but it's monuments are surrounded by squalor. The Taj Mahal is one of the most stunning achievements in engineering and workmanship anywhere in the world. Yet it is surrounded by filth. The streets are filled with garbage, it smells all of the time,there are beggars and people selling things and hassling you everywhere you go. The noise is constant. It's hard to escape. The power goes off several times a day. Diesel generators spring to life and pollute the air even more. It's really sad. I was glad to leave Agra.
The train to Varanasi was an overnight sleeper. The girls headed off in a different direction, so I was on my own again
. The ride to Varanasi was decent. I got a sleeper car and had the upper berth. No a/c, but a fan and open windows helped to keep me comfortable. In the morning I actually saw unspoiled land. Fields of grass and a few small towns that were not shacks and tent cities. The ride was a long one. We were late by 4 hours, so After 14 hours on a train I was ready to get off and get to my room. Varanasi is just like the other cities I have seen. Crowded, messy. smelly, and polluted beyond belief. My hotel was right near the Ganges. A nice place, but the power kept going off at various times. It's hard to sleep when it's hot, humid and without any air moving around! The Ganges is one of the holiest sites in the Hindu religion. The city is spread out along the banks of the river, and there are steps leading down to the water all along the banks.These "Ghats" are used for access by the people so they can cleanse themselves in the holy water. People take baths, wash their clothes, pray while sitting in the water,and they also float flowers and make offerings to the river from the steps. I took a 5 a.m. boat ride with some other hotel guests along the banks. There were people at every Ghat. The river is brown with mud, but people wash their clothes and sheets in it anyway. We passed two areas where people are cremated. They use a pyramid of wood to contain the body, and the family watches as it burns to ashes. The ashes are then spread into the river to float away. When we passed the pyres, there were three burning at various stages
. I could clearly see the outline of a body in one of the fires. (Pictures are forbidden) As we passed the fires, a carcass of a cow floated by with several birds feasting on the remains. We continued on, not believing there were people brushing their teeth just off shore. I had not brushed yet myself, but had no inkling to dip my hand in the water and rub my teeth and gums as the locals were doing. A few had brushes, and just dipped them in the water and brushed away. People were soaping up all over the steps and then jumping in to rinse off. I figured I would wait until I got back to the hotel to shower. The journey took 1 1/2 hours with one man rowing and one steering the boat. At the main Ghat, there were hundreds of people entering the water and praying. It was quite a sight. Colorful robes, burning incense, and bells ringing. People floated bowls with flowers and candles out into the current as well. It was a memorable scene. After breakfast I walked the route we took by boat. When I reached the funeral area, they were preparing a body for burial in the river.The body was on a boat with a large rock tied to it. The family had chosen a decorative wrapping for the deceased. It was ' bright orange for the shroud.' (any Travis McGee fans?) They went out about 100 yards and dumped the body overboard. Around 48,000 people a year are cremated or dumped into the river. It is definitely a problem. Along with sewage and regular pollution, the river is a mess. It does have a good flow, and floods every year, but the government would like to clean it up somehow
. (They introduced turtles to the river for this purpose) Along the shoreline I also saw a herd of water buffalo lounging in the river. There were kids and adults swimming right next to and among them. Neither the people or the beasts seemed to care. There are many temples along the water and high on the banks. Holy men sit here all day and pray and meditate. I stayed here three nights and then caught a bus to The Nepal border. A train was out of the way, so I got a deal to reach Kathmandu. A bus from Varanasi to the border, overnight in Nepal, and then a connecting bus to Kathmandu. The roads in Nepal were rough. Landslides and flooding along the river washed out the roads, so the going was slow. 9 hours to Nepal and 10 hours to Kathmandu. It was nice to finally get out of the heat of India. Kathmandu is at about 6,500 ft elevation. I slept last night without a fan for the first time in two weeks. I also had a hot shower and my first beer in two weeks. Nice. Nepal is much friendlier. People don't beg and hassle you all the time, and are happy to talk. The rebel situation is a problem however. We passed many military roadblocks and had armed men board our bus and inspect the passengers frequently. A final note. As for India, I can't remember being so glad to leave a country before. I won't miss it at all. I saw some wonderful things, but I don't think I will ever return.
Arriving in Kathmandu was an event
. There was a roadblock due to security reasons entering the city. I got off with a rep. from my hotel and we walked about 3 miles until we reached a local bus. We took a few shortcuts, climbing up hillsides in the dark to avoid walking the entire snake path roadway. The traffic was backed up for miles. The entrance to Kathmandu is a long climbing and twisting road, so the trucks and busses were struggling to move ahead every few minutes. When we got on the local bus the smell was awful. The windows were closed and I looked around for a cause or reason for the odor. In the back of the bus there were at least 10 goats! If someone tells you you smell like a goat, it is not a compliment. The rep. who met my bus said these animals were for the upcoming month long Nepal festival, and would be sacrificed at some point. Kathmandu is a nice change from India. The streets are cleaner, there are very few animals, and it does not have a permanent odor in the streets.
I organized my trek, and leave for Annapurna on Thursday. I am going with a guide and a small group of hikers. I figured it would be a little safer with a Nepalese guide. I am carrying my own gear. It will be a challenge. I will come back to Kathmandu for one day after the trek, and leave for Tibet the following day for a 10 day trip. I'll try to see Everest from the Tibetan side. I won't know how I'll do that until I reach Lhasa
. Probably by 4 wheel drive. The trek is too long and there is too much snow on that route.
Here is a link to follow the trek route. Click on each green dot along the way. These are the overnight stops and highlights of the days trek. My trek starts in Besisahar and ends in Pokhara 21 days later. A few days will be spent acclimatizing along the route. Not sure which way we'll go into Pokhara, maybe Beni, maybe Gorepani.
I'll be out of touch until the trek is done.