Our Path of Excess Leads to a Temple of Wisdom
Trip Start Jul 2003
50Trip End May 2005
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'The temple's statue is kept hidden because its sight is unbearably frightening: people who catch a glimpse are in danger of losing their liver.'
From Bangladesh, 18 hours on India's Worst Train took us west through Bihar to relaxing Bodhgayer (most sacred to Buddhists with its tree of enlightenment). Pretty much deserted at this time of year a quick study of the Buddha was made whilst enjoying great international temples and 'donation only' accommodation. No Marabar Caves (Passage to India) due to banditry activity, and we were suitably enlightened by watermelon and pomegranate fruit juice instead.
Varanasi next: ghats with plenty of fires ablaze and bodies being cast into the Ganges. At 9pm with our rucksacks we encountered funeral processions in a maze of very narrow wynds in a powercut, falling over dark cows so tightly squeezed into the streets they must have been born there. From the steps of a ghat we climbed up and up to a great room with first class views over the sacred river.
Lucknow next with the splendid ruins of the British Residency. Strangely becoming Clive of India and General Havelock (again) a row ensued when we refused to pay the outrageous foreigner entrance prices. Demanding to speak to whoever was in charge, we were motorbiked far into the site among the dilapidated ruins once tragically famous for The Siege during the 1857 Mutiny. After a long and heated 'chat' with Dr Somebody in charge of the 'worst kept historical site in India' (recent magazine survey), it was agreed by his office that Will was 'worth 20 Indians because he has a British passport' and should therefore pay accordingly. Refusing his compromise of only 10 Indians we left his office, no one seemingly realising that we were now actually in the site.
Bussing north we finally left 6 months of India and entered the terraces on the shoulders of the Himalayas: Nepal. Pleasantly detained in a Butwal hotel by Maoist strikes, student riots and government bandhas we were allowed north after a couple of days to the town (and former kingdom) of Tansen: wonderful hill-top, tarmec-less place reminiscent of Tuscany? Trapped here in the traffic-less, lumpy-stoned narrow streets lined with beautiful houses we had absolutely no complaints amongst some great food. Nepal is full of traditions of behaviour and meeting and greeting, making it very pleasant for the visitor. From a long chat with a taxi driver we were told, rather drastically from a Hindu, that "tourists are gods".
We talked ourselves into a walk in the mountains (called a trek in Nepal), bought a map and set off at 5am with our compass for the dilipidated Ranighat Palace. We arrived at an incredible location over a huge river, having dropped over a vertical kilometre towards sea level, at times crawling on our hands and knees down ravines. Only 5hrs seemed good going. British-Indian troops had originally constructed a 'road' back from the palace, but it had long since collapsed into the river. We made the return journey via this route, ascending 15 miles to 1400m and taking only 6 hours without donkeys, only occasionally being overtaken by large moving bushes (with an old local somewhere inside). The beautiful tiny villages, huddled round their meeting trees, were wonderfully geared up for tourism ('2 years ago we had a hundred visitors') and the 3 shops we found were filled with randomly priced out of date things. An elderly gentleman alarmingly whipped the top off a challenging packet of peanuts with a large kukri for us, leaving us counting fingers and handing out peanuts.
With Maoist/government strikes and roadblocks besieging us in Tansen, worry set in as our rupees dwindled. Feeling guilty about the Red Cross ambulance suggestion, a local was 'persuaded' to drive us to Pokhara. At every checkpoint on the frighteningly high route, Emma feigned illness whilst a soldier poked about in our cakes, and on we continued. Villages perched on the ridges were very picturesque, and in one a handful of villagers told us a bus had been 'stopped' up ahead. Watching an old man box a 5 year old round the ears for strolling up the hill smoking a cigarette, our driver tied a rather large green banner across the front of the car, 'Only for Tourists'. Eventually we reached and squeezed past the smashed up minibus and a couple of burnt-out motorbikes, but nobody seemed to know exactly what had happened. And it didn't spoil the wonderful views down terraced rice paddys and dry river beds such a long way below. Six hours later we jumped out of the battered Toyota into a torrential downpour in Pokhara.
After slightly less resources than we'd normally expect for the last few months, the laid-back lakeside hangout of Pokhara was paradise: chocolate cake, beer, boiled vegetables (plain), swanky restaurants and Coldplay. Did you know that you can buy a thousand records and a thousand DVDs all one one CD for a pound? Even with all the political turmoil in Nepal, the biggest danger here is to eat, drink and spend considerably more than planned. According to the papers despite the unrest, tourism is booming: apparently tourists are spending less time here but are spending more cash. Even with summer mist obscuring most of Nepal for most of the day, the huge snow-capped Annapurna range back-drop and lake was even more perfect than those long, horizontal posters everywhere.
'Sleepy Kathmandu was invaded in 1966 by some 200 hippies from all over the world. They appeared like scubs on the anatomy of Kathmandu. Ill-clad, unkempt, with beads and bells, wearing flowers in their hair, gag buttons on their breasts, barefooted, carrying dreams in their heads and hope in their hearts and knap-sacks on their backs. For their parts, the hippies found Kathmandu especially groovy' (the 70's classic 'Hippie Dharma' by Captain F D Colaabavala, very entertaining).
A city now plundered by tourism (eg Thamel), but largely underdeveloped by Indian standards with rubbly roads and some very pleasant people. And with beautiful little rooms in old wooden, low beamed-ceilinged Nuwari houses for bargain off-season prices in Freak Street, and with bakeries and bars compensating for the lack of hippies somewhat.
And so finally we get up into those mountains. Firstly the Nepal/Tibet border, and then the Everest Base Camp before heading to Lhasa via some outrageously high mountain passes.
Sir Edmund Willary and Sherpa Emmsie