Warning: this is about two weeks of writing in one post so it is very long!
Gorakhpur to Delhi
Everybody was right about Gorakhpur being a (for lack of better words) shithole! It was filthy, it stunk and we were hoping that this was not a true representation of the India we were about to encounter. However, we had a massive meal from the station canteen and it cost the equivalent of just under £1.00 each! So one thing we were happy about was the price of the food and drink at train stations (and later, the price of food in general)
After waiting around for something gruesome like three hours and meeting a curious medical student who insisted on adding us to Facebook (but we don't think he will find us as we gave him vague info) and giving us hugs and kisses, we headed to our platform. We thought there was some sort of riot going on as a massive crowd was formed around one area of the train and a policeman was threatening everybody with a baton. We soon found out that it was not a riot, but a scrum for the "Sleeper" class passengers. Wow were we happy that we did not choose to cheap out too much on the trains. Perry would like to add: "anyone going to India, I can not stress enough how much you should avoid Sleeper class!"
Basically, "Sleeper" class is all unreserved seating, not air conditioned and it has bars on the windows which makes it look like a prison. It is basically a "sit wherever you find a surface" situation. We were lucky enough that our first train was the "2AC" class which is one below first class and air conditioned. There are 6 people in each compartment, each having their own bed (three top bunks, three bottom). There was a lovely couple from Hyderabad in our compartment which made us feel 100% better about India after what we had seen up to that point. The train ride was generally quite pleasant and we even managed to get some shut eye.
We arrived in Delhi at 6am on Monday (February 25th) and made it to our Couchsurfer Vidhi's place. We freshened up and then Vidhi took us, along with another "surfer" named Elizabeth from Austria to try some local street food. The street food scene here is pretty amazing and CHEAP. We never really seem to know what we are eating apart from the fact that it is vegetarian (we hope) and it always seems to taste delicious! The merchants never seem to really speak too much English, especially in non touristy areas so we just point and receive a surprise.
On Mondays, most attractions are closed so most of the items on our to-do list were undoable but we managed to get a lot in anyways. We started at Qutab Minar which was a beautiful complex. We were shocked at how many people wanted to take photos of Perry and I. It's like they had never seen a "white" person. We then went to Tughlaqabad Fort which provided a juxtaposition of old and new and after lunch we visited Lodhi Garden. Perry, Elizabeth and I decided to try and see a Bollywood film so we headed to a busy area and found a theatre playing one. At the Box office, the cashier and the other theatre goers seemed to all laugh at us and confirm multiple times that it is in Hindi and not English. In the cinema itself we received even more laughs and chuckles as we sat down. We really enjoyed the film (especially Perry as it had a "cricket" theme) and managed to understand a majority of it even though there was no English (except for a word here and a word there). At times we got so into it that we forgot it wasn't in English. We are hoping to catch some more films in our remaining time in India.
One thing that surprised us about Delhi is how modern it is and that it was not as "crazy" as everyone was warning us. That is, until we got to Old Delhi. Now that was very crazy. Tons of people, tons of rickshaws, tons of merchants, tons of honking, tons of street food, and not much space. It was a great experience but we could only handle so much of the chaos before moving on. We visited the Red Fort (which is also where Perry's great grandfather was stationed for the British Army) and then the markets and decided to get out!
We decided to head to Gandhi Smrti which is the residence that Gandhi lived in and was assassinated in. What a difference from Old Delhi. This was such a peaceful and serene sight and they have done a fantastic job with converting it into a museum and educating the public on every aspect of Gandhi and his life. It was very interesting and we were very satisfied and happy with visiting it. Oh, it was also free to enter (bonus!). This was one of the highlights of Delhi for us.
We then got some street food (mmmm) and headed to something completely unusual: Swaminarayan Akshardam. This is a very new site which was completed in 2005. It is referred to as a "Hindu temple complex" but the best way we like to describe it is: a Hindu Disneyland. Basically there is this beautifully constructed ground with a massive Hindu temple in the middle of it. It is very intricate and ornate. Now, in addition to this temple, they have an Imax show on India (available on DVD), a water and light/music show in the evening (like the Bellagio in Vegas but not as good), food courts AND a ride! Yes, a ride! We were told that our ticket included a boat ride on the river and when we got to it, we were surprised to be led indoors and onto a wooden/log boat that was attached to rails. So basically like a theme park ride. This "boat ride" was a ride through 10,000 years of Indian history in 10 minutes. It was very well done and felt like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland. The whole thing just seemed so strange to us as it was so modern and incorporated religion with entertainment but in a wide scope. Even getting into the place was strange and added to the theme park feeling. There was a massive cue where we had to go through metal detecters and be searched. Absolutely nothing was allowed in, not even phones or cameras (so we have no photos of this place) and everything had to be checked in. There was a form to fill out (it seemed like a "customs" form) with personal contact details and then a photo was taken of each person with the belongings they were checking in, so it was very secure. It was just quite strange why they allowed nothing to enter since it was such a modern place.
On our third day in Delhi, we began at India Gate and Rajpath which is the area of the presidents residence. It looks very "British" with what looked like Victorian style buildings. Perry's great grandfather worked in this area for the last Viceroy of India so it was neat to imagine him walking the same streets back in the day.
We then decided to make the trek to the "Sulabh international Museum of Toilets". Now, sadly enough, this was one of the musts on our Delhi to-do list as it just sounded so quirky and has amazing reviews on TripAdviser. We were warned that is quite a journey to get there but we didn't think that meant a 3 hour round trip!!! It was absolutely worth it though!! Sulabh is a sanitation organization and the curator of the toilet museum is so passionate about the subject of toilets and waste that he gave us possibly one of the best tours we have been on. He was such a delightful character and we wanted to pack him in our suitcase. We saw very intricate toilets, very practical toilets, some very modern advances in toilet and water conservation technology AND we saw cement made from human excrement (and we touched it!!). It was definitely another highlight of Delhi! Definitely worth the long journey!
Since it took so long to get to the museum, we were in a hurry back to catch our train to Agra. Vidhi wanted to take us somewhere special for lunch and we submitted to his control even though we had only one hour til our train departed! You can probably all imagine how panicked we were but we attempted to just go with the flow.
We arrived in a building and followed some "canteen" signs and ended up in what seemed like an auction! We had no idea what was going on but it seemed pretty chaotic! There was a man calling out numbers and then it all began to make sense. All these people that were crowded at the entrance were waiting for a table...or should we say seats at a shared table. The man in charge was calling out ticket numbers but priority seemed to go to any party who required the number of seats available. If you were a foreign girl this also seemed to hold sway so Vidhi pushed me to the front and we had seats within minutes! We were still not prepared for what our 100 rupee tickets had in store for us. We received a tray with a little rice, some sort of desert and a cup with yoghurt. Then suddenly we were surrounded by servers who offered us various curry dishes, rice and naan breads. When we had finished eating the food, more came, and when we finished eating that, even more came. It was all you can eat without leaving your seat, and the service was so quick we never had an empty tray. What at first seemed like chaos was actually one of the best organized eateries we have been to. The man who was calling out ticket numbers was also directing the servers wherever there was a need. If we were low on rice, he would call for the rice guy and so on. Now that's multi-tasking!! We soon found out that was the canteen at the embassy for the Andrah Pradesh province and that each Indian provincial embassy has a canteen like this that offers the cuisine of that province...and the one we went to was apparently one of the more expensive ones! 100 rupees?? That is the equivalent to £1.20 or less than $2.00 for delicious, amazing, effortless Indian food! Such a great place to discover and we wouldn't have experienced it without our awesome host...the best thing is, we were in and out in less than half an hour which meant that we were hopeful of catching our train! Funny enough, when we arrived at the station, we found out our train was 1:20 delayed. This was a sign as Vidhi was shocked that we had not visited the most important sight in Delhi: Humayun's Tomb which just so happened to be around the corner from the station. So off we went to explore one more sight in Delhi before heading to Agra. This was a great ending as it is one of the inspirations for the Taj Mahal so it seemed fitting that it would be the last thing to see before heading to Agra.
Again, we thought we would miss our now delayed train but we made it with about 7 minutes to spare. This time we had booked the "3AC" class which is similar to "2AC" but has 8 people in a compartment instead of 6 (with middle bunks between the upper and lower). We met a law student named Naman that we conversed with for the entire three hour journey. He gave us heaps of information about Jaipur as that is where he is from (and where we are headed after Agra). We look forward to keeping in touch with him as he will be a great source of information for future visits to India as he has travelled to most parts.
We arrived in Agra at around 8pm. Unfortunately we missed the sunset over the Taj Mahal. Our hotel had a view of it from the rooftop restaurant so we went up there to see what we could see. To our surprise, there were no floodlights or any fancy light work to illuminate it. All you could see was a black outline of it in the distance but this was perfect as it added to the mysteriousness of it and allowed us to see it for the first time at sunrise.
We were out the door by 6am and joined the tourists for the sunrise view of the Taj Mahal. It is very well designed in that you can't see the actual Taj Mahal until you are through the ornate entrance gates so the first glimpse you see of the actual Taj Mahal makes your hair stand up. It really is a true work of art. We couldn't believe we were there. We spent about 2.5 hours wandering around and taking a million photos. We could have spent all day there but unfortunately we had booked a tuk tuk driver to take us on a tour. Big mistake!
We had read and heard plenty of stories of taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers and the various ways they try and scam you. For example, you ask them to take you somewhere and then they stop somewhere "along the way" such as a friend's shop and try to get you to buy things as they earn commission. So we completely expected this but we thought we would just add it to the experience as he offered a good price to take us around for the day. He first took us to the "Baby Taj" which was also a very nice sight and we even thought the gardens of the Baby Taj were much more impressive than the actual Taj Mahal. We were then taken to the opposite side of the river from the Taj Mahal so we could get another look at it from a different angle. Then all the commission work began as we were taken to a few merchants to try and spend money. We felt quite uncomfortable at times but stuck to our guns and refused to buy anything (except one top for me at a textile shop). Even the restaurant experience was horrible. We said we wanted street food yet the driver took us to a restaurant and when we looked at the menu with astronomical prices and began to walk out as it was more than a fine dining restaurant that we went to just a couple days before (and this was anything but fine dining), the waiter brought us the "Indian menu" (ie non tourist menu) where the prices were less than half. We should have walked out there and then just at the fact that they try and scam the tourists so badly but we didn't feel like arguing so just ordered the cheapest thing on the menu so we could get the heck out of there.
After lunch, we told the driver that we now wanted to see something special that we came to Agra for. Perry's great grandmother grew up in Agra and eventually married and had children there as well so we wanted to see some buildings that had some family history behind them. One of them was the school/convent that his great grandmother and some of her children attended. We had agreed with the driver the night before that he would take us there and when we told him to take us there, he ended up taking us to one of Mother Theresa's charity homes. We weren't stupid. We told him that this is not where we asked to go and after conversing with other rickshaw drivers and finding out where the place we wanted to go actually was, he told us that he couldn't take us there because rickshaws weren't allowed there. After some arguing, we told him to take us back to the hotel, which he did and it was nice to be in control in the sense that we paid him less than half of what we said we would pay him for the day. We tried not to let it get us down as we sort of expected this to happen. Luckily the hotel agent found us a nice taxi driver to take us to the school. The caretaker of the school offered to give us a tour and it was a very impressive school complete with a massive football pitch and even a skateboard park. It was quite neat thinking of Perry's great grandmother and great uncles walking through the courtyards and playing in the playground so long ago.
After we visited the school, we got dropped off at the train station where we had a couple of hours to kill until our train arrived. It seemed like the quietest station in India but it wasn't the main station in Agra, just a small one with two platforms. We people watched people watching us (they really like to stare at us) and watched the world go by.
Our train was nearly an hour delayed so we arrived in Jaipur around midnight. We took a rickshaw to the hotel and again, the driver tried to offer us a day tour for the following day. We weren't falling for that again so we refused.
We found a tour the next day that is operated it by the tourism department and went to most of the places we wanted to see in Jaipur. We only had one full day so it seemed like a decent tour to do. The sights were quite impressive but our absolute favorite was the one that everyone goes to Jaipur for: the Amber Fort/Amer Fort. It was a great way to end the tour. Unfortunately, we didnt get to go to the Nahargarh Fort as a truck broke down on the road leading to it meaning that our bus couldn't squeeze through. This fort is supposed to provide a fantastic view of Jaipur so we were a bit annoyed to miss it but it wasn't the end of the world! Just another reason to return!
I managed to screw up when booking our train from Jaipur to Jodhpur. I had it booked for midnight but silly me booked it for the day before (I guess the midnight thing confused me when searching for trains) so we managed to find a bus instead which was actually air conditioned with a massive amount of leg room so it was fine.
Jodhpur was truly amazing. Perry and I had been saying that India didn't seem to have the "magical" quality that we were expecting but we found that in Jodhpur and later on in Jaisalmer. Jodhpur has a very busy street market scene and it was just as you see in the movies. Lots of colorful saris, tons of cows roaming around, merchants trying to sell various goods. We could have walked through the markets for days. We booked a cooking class that had amazing reviews online and this was such an amazing experience. The class lasted about 5 hours and the husband and wife (Anil and Rykka) that run it are absolutely delightful and so deserving of their success. Anil's father was an Ayurvedic doctor and has passed on his secrets to Anil, who specializes in spices. We learned all about the benefits of Ayurvedic spices, herbs and seeds and used plenty of them in the cooking. The food we cooked was so delicious and we also received a recipe book with it so are looking forward to recreating many of the dishes in the future.
After Jodhpur, we headed to Jaisalamer where we were booked in to do a 1.5 day/1 night camel safari in the Thar Desert. This is one experience we were really looking forward to but it ended up being a bit disappointing. The camel ride was not comfortable at all. Our thighs and stomach muscles were aching. The novelty only lasted so long. When we got to the dunes though, it was a pretty spectacular sunset and sleeping under the stars was pretty amazing. But in the middle of the night, I awoke with some terrible food poisoning and it was not pleasant, especially in the middle of the desert. I just wanted to go back into the city but after about an hour of cleaning out my system, I felt a bit better and went to sleep, where the bugs insisted on crawling all over us and biting us. We had about an hour and a half of riding the following day to get us back to where the jeep would pick us up to return us to Jaislamer. We walked for a portion of it as we were really sore. An evening of this experience would have been enough. During the day it felt as it was about 40 degrees Celsius and just really uncomfortable (which may have added to me being sick) so we would recommend just an evening safari to the dunes to watch the sunset and that's it!
When we returned to Jaisalmer from the safari, we headed towards the fort which was really neat as it is a living fort with many shops, restaurant and hotels operating within it. Unfortunately, I was still feeling quite ill so had to sit for a while. When I felt a bit better we explored more of the fort and then headed towards the lake where we sat and relaxed for a bit. We were going to take a boat ride at sunset but when we saw someone feeding the fish, we realized how filthy the water was and decided against it.
We wandered around some more and found a rooftop restaurant with a view of the fort where we decided to relax before heading on the night train back to Jodhpur.
Back to Jodhpur
We returned to Jodhpur as our train to Allahabad departed from here so we had almost another full day which we were happy about as we really like Jodhpur.
We decided to go up to the fort and partake in a zip line tour of the fort. I was really excited as I've never zip lined before but when we got strapped up and I saw that we would be hanging by just a caribiner clip, I got very scared! The course had 6 lines plus one practice one. The setting was absolutely beautiful and we learned a lot about the fort along the way. It was also where they filmed a scene for The Dark Knight Rises. I managed to be the only screamer and I was amazed at how Perry and the two others on our tour could not scream when zipping across the fort! By about the third zip line, I felt a lot calmer and started to really enjoy it. The longest one was 320metres which seemed very long. It was a great thrill and we both loved the experience. Just wish it lasted longer!!
We then wandered around the market where we bargained for bangles and some more shoes and eventually ended up at Spice Paradise where we did our cooking class a few days before and stocked up on some spices. Jaisalmer and Jodhpur were definitely 2 of my favorite places thus far.
Allahabad is known for Sangam which is the confluence of three holy rivers (Ganges, Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati) and is a really spiritual location for Hindus. It is also the sight of the Kumbh Mela which is a mass Hindu pilgrimage that occurs once every twelve years. And this year happened to be one of the years that it was running. Unfortunately for us, we didn't look into this before pre booking our trains so we missed it by about a week! There was still about 10% of the camps and attractions left but it wasn't really anything to boast about. I believe it is the world's largest gathering having 30 million recorded visitors (but was probably more like 50 million). This is in a 40 square km space. The population of Canada is 30 million, the population of England is 60 million! So imagine nearly this vast amount of people in a 40 sq. km space!!! We really wished we had planned it better to allow us to experience this. Maybe we will have to return in 12 years!
We did get to see an amazing sunset over the Sangam and people taking holy baths in the rivers which was quite neat! Allahabad was also very memorable as we had a lovely host. We were there for only one evening but would love to return to visit Nitin and his family again!
Where do we begin with Varanasi. It is one of the world's oldest cities and quite chaotic. The streets are very narrow so the traffic jams allow for an over abundance of car horns to be heard at all times of day. The honking got me very annoyed as a lot of the times it is unnecessary and exaggerated in the sense that people don't just tap the horn and release, they literally slam their hand into it and hold it there for what seems like 20 minutes!
The main attraction for us was the Ganges and seeing the various ghats in which Hindus prepare themselves for bathing in the Ganges. The water is quite filthy as many people spread ashes in this water and bodies are also burnt at two different ghats in which the remains are then placed in the same water so Perry and I were not keen on bathing in it. We walked up and down the ghats (over 200 of them), some more interesting than others. As mentioned, a couple of them are meant for burning bodies and many old people go to Varanasi to die so there are constantly bodies being burnt. We stumbled upon the burning ghats and it was quite a shocking sight. It felt as though after seeing bodies burning, nothing could shock us now. Some were well into being turned into ashes, others freshly placed in the flames and some just arriving from a procession to the river and being prepared for the ritual. I won't get into details but it was quite graphic.
In the evenings, some ghats have "entertainment" in the form of an Aarti which is like a religious offering. The one we saw was quite large scale and we heard it is done like that to attract the tourists, both Indian and non-Indian. Our host Ashish (a Varanasi local) mentioned that it seems a lot of what happens at the ghats is put on for show and to attract tourists. He said it is nothing like it used to be and so filthy now. There was also an older man that we spoke with who had been there something like 30 years ago and revisiting it now he said he just wanted to leave and that it was not as it used to be.
It was quite busy also because the Kumb Mela just ended not too long ago and many of the "Naga Babas" have relocated to the ghats. Naga Babas are basically "holy" or "enlightened" beings. Many of them are naked with dreadlocks and have ashes and mud covered all over their body. Perry and I are not too fond of them as from our experience, they seem to constantly try and get money from the tourists and not in a nice way either. Not all, but we've seen many in this fashion. We encountered many tourists talking to them and many of the Naga Babas tried to lure us into their tents but we were not interested.
Being in India, we have become quite cynical, which perhaps is not a good thing. It is hard not to become cynical as it seems most of the time, people are trying to rip us off. It is really unfortunate because we have also met so many lovely people which are the complete opposite. We have started playing games. Like when people are trying to sell us stuff and they ask what country we are from, we say one that they've probably never heard of. Perry's favorite is: the Democratic Republic of Congo! its funny cause the salesmen then has no reply and is unable to try and sweet talk us into spending our rupees on something that we are being ripped off on anyways.
The spectrum of educated vs non educated and of rich and poor is wide ranging and very difficult to adapt to. Seeing so many people peeing on the streets and the constant smell of fesces and urine, the constant horking and spitting of chewing tobacco and the spit patches all over the roads and sidewalks is completely unpleasant.
Waiting for our train to Kolkata in Varanasi, we could not wait for the journey to be over. It was our last train in India and we were so thankful for that but it seemed to be off to a bad start. It was 2 hours delayed. We encountered large rats and mice scampering through the platform (at one point we saw at least six), then a cow roaming through (with no idea how it even got onto the platform), and then monkeys climbing through the steel girders and as we were about to board the train, a Naga Baba was squatting on the platform, a stream of urine building up around him. He wasn't even being discreet about it, he was just squatting in the path of the passengers. We were overly disgusted at this sight and could not understand how these people find it okay to pollute their country like this and are not even embarrassed to do something that seems so uncivilized (to a westerner anyways). The entire scene at the train station was like a circus. This is a whole other culture and a whole other world and the trains and train stations is the one place to experience the wide range of social classes present in India and also the huge difference between "educated" and "uneducated" people in India. The opposites between them really are extreme.
By the time we reached Kolkata, we were not so much interested in ticking anymore sights off our to-do list. It was getting really hot so we were happy enough to relax a bit before the journey to Thailand. What made Kolkata a really memorable stop was our fantastic hosts that we spent two days with sharing stories, eating local foods, seeing sights, eating, watching Bollywood movies, eating, having great conversations and some more eating. If we had stayed in a hotel, we are pretty sure we would not have enjoyed Kolkata. Dwaita and Tito introduced us to an authentic Biryani, kochuri, some local sweets, and Dark Fantasy chocolate biscuits which are so delicious! We learned that the Bengalis are real foodies and this was very obvious when driving through the city and observing the masses of restaurants, food courts and street food. We were happy enough to spend two days eating. Sadly enough, the only major sight we saw was the South Park Street Cemetery which had many interesting tombs and epitaphs. It reminded us of Pere Lachaise in Paris. We literally only spent about an hour seeing sights as it was about 35 degrees and uncomfortable.
We also crossed Howrah Bridge, which is the world's busiest bridge. We also passed by Eden Gardens and the cricket stadium which, at 100,000 seats is one of the world's largest. One thing we found really amusing were the billboards by the Kolkata traffic police that promoted crossing the street safely (ie not j-walking). It was a picture of the Beatles' Abbey Road album cover of them crossing the road at a crosswalk with the caption saying "if they can do it, so can you!" Unfortunately, I didn't get to take a photo of it!
We were also introduced to our first Rajni Khanth film. We have heard lots about this legend of an Indian film actor and the film we saw ("Robot") was so cheesy but awesome at the same time that we definitely want to see more of this guy! He is an absolute legend and there are even websites a la Chuck Norris jokes dedicated to him We definitely want to return to Kolkata and during the Durga Puja festival which looks like one of a kind. Returning for the food wouldn't be a bad idea either! We found many differences between West Bengal and other parts of India but primarily the lack of vegetarians which was surprising considering how vegetarian the rest of the country is. Our host ordered a vegetarian Biryani for me and its like the whole room went silent and stared at him as anything vegetarian seems rare. Kolkata was a great last stop in India and we look forward to returning one day and to explore more of the West Bengal province as well...but for now: it's time for Bangkok!!
Last Thoughts on India
Many people scolded us for having only two weeks in India, but to us, it is definitely enough to get a taste and as much as we can handle on a first visit. I would definitely like to return one day and visit other parts of the country (especially the south) and maybe some smaller villages rather than cities as I am sure it is not all urine infested and I did enjoy a lot of our experiences but we are looking forward to a bit more of a "relaxing" environment on the beaches in Southeast Asia (although there is no doubt that the unusual sights are far from over). We appreciate that it is a whole other culture, non-western and it is definitely eye-opening. We definitely recommend it but just be aware that you will see plenty of things that you are not used to seeing and it may seem VERY chaotic at times so come with an open mind. Even with an open mind though, there are only so many urine sights and scents you can handle so beware! Hah!
Some more observations about India:
1. there is an abundance of men's toilets/urinals and a big lack of women's. So then why do the men insist on whipping it out on any street or alleyway or train platform and going pee?? There is nothing discreet about it. The stench of pee that fills the cities and the sight of men going pee in the streets is a sight that happens far too often for our liking. We are very careful not to step in any liquid on the street as it is most likely not something we want to be stepping on.
2. The spitting. Oh the spitting. And not just the spitting, but the horking that goes along with it. Not just the men but the women too! This seems to be quite a problem cause even in the Delhi metro and other parts of India there are signs everywhere that say "no spitting" and threaten to fine if you are caught. It is really an unpleasant sight and sound and makes us cringe every time we encounter it. I think a lot of it is because they use a lot of chewing tobacco so sometimes you get all sorts of different colored spits flying by you. Lovely! We even saw a man washing up dishes and he spat in a bowl and continued washing it without soap....the worst part is that it was a public eatery! Even more unpleasant is someone talking to you with a packet of chewing tobacco in their mouth. This is primarily the taxi and rickshaw drivers that we have encountered it with but it makes us cringe as we can see and smell the brown or red liquid in their mouth which in turn gives them brown teeth. Cringe!
3. We constantly see men holding hands with other men. I think it is just a friendship thing but seems so backwards in the sense that public displays of affection are usually frowned upon and we are assuming homosexuality is frowned upon as well so it's interesting that we constantly see men holding hands and that they see it as a friendship thing rather than intimate.
4. It seems as a lot of young babies and toddlers have makeup on! We asked one of our hosts and she said it is because of superstition and that black eyeliner is meant to improve sight.
5. We also constantly see little boys dressed in girls clothing. We see this a lot and found out from a host that it is because of the obsession with the "boy" or male in India. Everybody wants a boy and some are so obsessed, that they kidnap other people's boys so some disguise their boys by dressing them as girls to prevent them from being kidnapped.
6. People are really curious about us. The staring is constant and people are always asking to take photos of us. We are guessing its because of the obvious reason: we are white. It's really funny though because we will be walking down the street and see people's camera phones pointed in our directions. Sometimes it is obvious they are videotaping us as they follow us with their cameras. The thing is, you would think they've never seen a white person before but with the amounts of tourists in some places, they must come across them often. At first we didn't mind having our photos taken and even thought it would be funny to offer them our autographs, but now it seems a bit pervy at times. Perry has started playing a game and if they stare, he stares back. One incident was hilarious! There was a young man staring so Perry stared, following his eyes and even shifting his body to hold the stare. The young man then said "why are you staring" at which we cracked up and replied "YOU'RE staring at US". It's like they don't even realize they're doing it, which is similar to something else in India:
7. The HONKING! First the apparent obsession with honking horns was amusing but after about a week it became REALLY annoying. When we've walked up some side streets with not many cars, one or two will go by and honk for absolutely no reason which made us wonder if they even realize that they are honking. We asked one of our hosts about it and he said that one time his neighbor was driving into their street and honking and our host made him stop and roll down his window and he asked "why are you honking??" In which his neighbor replied "I'm not honking!" So that concludes that, no, they do not realize they are honking their horns because of an apparent overuse so you can just imagine how immense the honking is!
7. They use bamboo tied together with rope for scaffolding! It's crazy seeing construction work being done with bamboo poles leaning against buildings!
It is a super interesting country. Many things we loved and many things we hated but we will definitely return one day to explore more as there is so much more to it. If you plan on visiting you better go soon as there is talks of the Taj Mahal not being accessible to tourists as they are planning on restoring it and this is one sight you do not want to miss!!
We didnt get much sleep last night. The only alarm we have is on my phone and the battery was dead. Simple solution: charge it, right? Wrong! As mentioned before, in Nepal they only have mains powered electricity for about ten hours a day. The time that it goes on never seems consistent and varies from place to place. Well it was 10pm, and still no power. We were absolutely exhausted and were taking turns shutting our eyes as we wanted to make sure we would be up in time for our bus to Lumbini. Well, at midnight (when everybody is already asleep and has no dire need for electricity, except for us), the power finally went on and we were finally able to set an alarm and try and get some sleep. We figured we could sleep on the bus, Right? Boy were we wrong!
Just when we thought the bus rides couldn't get more interesting, here we are in the most rickety bus to date which doesn't help the bruises on our rear ends from wiping out in the snow during our trek! It is also the most "local" bus we have been on with just us and one English/Bristolian man named Richard being the only tourists. We still managed to get completely ripped off though on our bus tickets even though we knew it at the time we just sucked it up and figured its part of the experience.
So this bus is absolutely packed. There was no room in the trunk of the bus for our backpacks so they are hanging on for dear life on a rack at the top of the bus. My eyes are glued to the window so I can spot them If they fly off. There aren't enough seats for everybody either so the driver pulled out some footstools and put them in the aisle for some passengers to sit on.
In addition to the rickety-ness of the bus not allowing for any shut-eye, there just so happens to be a flat screen TV playing Nepalese music videos (which seem to be heavily influenced by Bollywood). The bus itself may need an update (and maybe some breaks and suspension) but they don't skimp on what sounds like a state of the art sound system that allows for the music to reach all areas of the bus (and not at a low volume either). The TV is also the nicest and most modern TV we have seen in Nepal. Nice to see they have their priorities straight!
The sights from the window are just as interesting as they were from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Again, it's a Saturday but you wouldn't have guessed it because when we left at 6:30am, the lake was the busiest we have seen it with all the locals getting their morning exercise, the cows roaming the streets looking for their breakfast and there were numerous butchers ripping apart animals on the sides of the streets.
We really feel like we are in a movie, with the music videos acting as the soundtrack. Actually it feels exactly like the scene in the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" when they arrive in India and take the local bus to the hotel, except that we are in Nepal. We can't help but laugh at it all. I would rather the local bus than the tourist bus any day (except for the getting ripped off bit...it's apparently a lot worse in India so we just have to learn to cope with it).
They have now put on a film called "Race 2". I was really enjoying the music so hopefully I will enjoy this film as much, even though it is not in English.
We stop for lunch. These places that we stop at are just little shacks on the side of the roads that are meant for the locals. They do not cater to the tourists (ie, no "western" toilets or food) but the good thing about that is that they offer the local prices! It is not like the places we stopped at on the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara which were very tourist oriented and had at least one western toilet in addition to the holes in the ground. The ones we stopped at today had no western toilets but that didnt matter as we are getting quite used to squatting.
Suddenly, we reach a patch of road that seems as the paving has been destroyed by a landslide. We are not on a bus anymore but river rafting through fierce rapids. Unfortunately, we seem to be hitting patches like this a lot more constantly and I am wishing I had packed some motion sickness tablets. I am guessing the lady sat in front of me is wishing the same as she projectile vomits out the window. I am very thankful that my window is closed. They must get a lot of passengers with motion sickness on these buses as there is a stash of plastic bags in the first aid kit (yes, believe it or not they have a first aid kit in here).
We are sitting at the very back and it's really amusing watching the bus and all the passengers sway from side to side. I can't see anything ahead because I am in the very corner. I tell Perry it is quite frightening not seeing what is in front especially when it feels like we are going 100 miles an hour in a rickety bus on bumpy roads and all you hear is horns honking every ten seconds and the screeches of the breaks (or lack thereof). Perry is in the aisle seat so he can see out the front window ahead. He says "trust me, it's more frightening being able to see!"
We can't seem to take our eyes off the music videos. They are so cheesy but so catchy and funny. I hope I can find some of these online!
We suddenly stop in the middle of nowhere and about 15 men get out. We look out the window and it looks as though they are all finding a bush to go pee in. I wonder what they would think if I went out there with my "SheeWee"! As we start driving, we see a bus on the opposite side with all the men scattered about, their backs to the road. I guess they had the same idea.
We are nearing our destination of Bhairihawa. Most of the passengers emptied out at the last stop in Butwal so we moved up to the front. The driver has all the windows open...and the door as well. Lets just hope we don't roll out!
Once we reach Bairihawa, a swarm of taxi drivers and cycle rickshaw drivers try to lure us in but we find the local bus to Lumbini....which seemed to move at about 5 miles an hour but I can't say for certain as the speedometer was not working! I was lucky enough to be offered a seat next to the driver and again, it felt like watching a movie from the windshield. The road to Lumbini was one long stretch with lots of locals working on the farms, lots of cows and goats roaming around, and many many many cyclists. The funny thing is, none of them seemed to be in a hurry. They were all cycling as if they were daydreaming.
We eventually get to Lumbini and follow Richard to a guesthouse he has booked. Unsurprisingly, they are overbooked so we find a guesthouse next door that we are very happy is only for one night. We quickly change and brave the filthy sheets and flies squashed to the walls and head over to see the birthplace of Buddha.
The grounds that the birthplace is located on is 2.5 square km. We begin by visiting a Buddhist temple and garden dedicated to Buddha and then making our way to the Mayadevi Temple, Ashoka Pillar and Sacred Pond. It is quite a neat and peaceful sight to visit. There are lots of groups from various countries and it is a real pilgrimage for them. We are going to walk around the rest of the grounds but decided we would come back in the morning as it is getting late. I also have quite a headache from the 9 hours of travel and from bumping my head on a very low door frame so we leave to get something to eat.
We feast on Nepalese delicacies since it is our last night in Nepal and also have our first beer of the trip (which seems to go straight to our heads). Richard joins us and we have a nice conversation about Nepal. When it is time to retire to bed, we put our mosquito net to use for the first time! It feels like camping! In the middle of the night, there seem to be all sorts going on! The merchants shutting the garage screen doors in front of their shops is a very unpleasant sound (similar to a dump truck unloading something very heavy) but worse is the barking dogs that are going hysterical. We are actually quite scared as It sounds like packs of wolves and the barking goes on for hours. We did get to bed early though so we have given ourselves time to have our sleep ruined!!
In the morning we went for breakfast and invited a lady we briefly spoke with the night before to join us. Funny enough, she is from Vancouver and her name is Cheryl! She gave us lots of tips about India and if it wasn't for her, we would not have guessed that the bus to Ghorakpur (where we take the train to Delhi) takes 3 hours! It is 70km from the border so we thought it would take about an hour! So we decided to get a move on sooner than expected. This meant that we couldn't return to the gardens where Buddha's birthplace is but we were happy enough to see the main sights the day before.
So we had to take a bus back to Bairahawa in order to take a cycle rickshaw to the Indian border (a bit over 5km from Bairahawa). Just when you think the bus rides can't get any worse or scarier, they do! Our bus to Lumbini seemed to go about 5miles an hour yesterday, this one seemed to go 105! It was VERY scary as the driver swerved us in and out of lanes nearly crashing into every oncoming vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist that we passed. Perry mentioned that it seemed to have a lawn mower engine and we wouldn't be surprised if it did because it seemed to break down for a few minutes at one point. The driver lifted the cushion beside his sit and low and behold: there was the engine! Crazyyyy
We made it to Bairahawa in what seemed a quarter of the time as it did to get to Lumbini the day before. When we got there, we were swarmed by the cycle rickshaw drivers where we bargained one down to 100 rupees to get us to the border. We have no idea if that is a good price but we felt quite bad as we had two heavy backpacks in addition to our body weight and it did not look easy. It was our first rickshaw ride of any kind and it was damn scary. I asked Perry if they call them "rick"shaws because they are rickety! We thought we were going to collapse at any point because they seemed to be made of wood. It was really funny to see other rickshaws and cycles pass us. Ours moved so slowly because of the weight.
We made it to the Indian border and Perry makes a good point when he says we could have walked accross with 20kg of cocaine in our bags and they wouldn't have known. There seemed to be no checks whatsoever. People were just walking through and we could have easily passed right by immigration but luckily we questioned it and found a little hole in a wall with a curtain in front of it in between shops. We sorted out the entry forms and now we are in India! We found a bus to Ghorakpur which is very obvious that its a local bus. Perry says it feels like one of those massage chairs which is very true: except it feels as they are set to the rocket launch setting and with an "ejector seat" capability. Not comfortable in the slightest. The windows are made of plexi glass (which is probably a good thing) and it seems to be the fastest one yet which does not help my bladder in the slightest. Yes folks, all this could be yours for just 80 Indian Rupees!
So far, India seems slightly more busy than Nepal but we have not hit Delhi yet, which apparently is like Kathmandu on steroids. Makes us kind of nervous but really excited as well. Here's to hoping that we don't get Delhi Belly! There also seem to be a lot more cows in India but again, we've only been in the country for about an hour so it it hard to say for sure. A couple of passengers seem to have puked out the window so it's not too different from the buses in Nepal! We've been told that Ghorakpur is very unpleasant and to get in and get out so we are looking forward to getting on our first ever Indian train and the 13.5 hour journey to Delhi (which will probably be longer as there seem to be a lot of delays on the trains in India). But first, what I am (or rather my bladder is) really looking forward to is a toilet! Oh and the fact that this is our last bus for a while as we've got trains booked for the next two weeks! There is only so much "rocket launch" speed setting massage chairs, unstoppable honking and men peeing on the sides of the road (with visible pee streams) I can handle!
After taking a nap in Pokhara, we went for a walk towards the lake. It looked absolutely beautiful with the mountains in the background (which are apparently only hills cause in Nepal mountains are only considered mountains when they are over 6,000 meters but to the western eye, they were definitely mountains). We found a boat rental place and rented a paddleboat and hired a "boatman" to take us around for an hour. In the middle of the lake there is a small Hindu temple so we got off the boat to take a look around. It was quite a beautiful setting and it was nice to be somewhere with so much natural beauty. It was definitely a nice escape from Kathmandu.
We went to a shop to exchange some money and we decided to try a local chocolate bar called "Choco Fun" which is actually made in Pokhara. It is basically a wafer based chocolate. We bought a pack of 18....and they were so addicting that we ended up finishing the entire pack that night! Oops! Maybe it was not a great idea to eat all that the night before the trek!
Our trekking journey:
Day 1 (Sunday February 17th)
This morning we met our Sherpa and guide for breakfast at 8:00 am and then took off to begin our six day trek in the Annapurna region (Pun Hill/Ghorepani). We took a cab for the first hour to a little village called Nayapul where we began the trek. The altitude in Nayapul is 1050m. We were off to a good start: I managed to forget my mobile phone in the cab!! Luckily I noticed only 5 minutes into the trek and we were able to reach the cab driver and have it returned (for a 500 rupee charge of course! But that's nothing). So off we went...and then it began to pour! I couldn't believe our luck! We stayed undercover for a few minutes until the rain calmed down and off we were again. Within the first 15 minutes, our level of unfitness was really beginning to show! We took the advice of our guide and took smaller steps which actually really helped.
We could not believe what we were doing! Here we were in Nepal on our first ever trek. This is a very popular trek as it is relatively short (compared to ones like Everest and Annapurna base camps) and provides stunning views. All along the walk were little villages with guest houses or lodges or campgrounds, all providing tea, food and other beverages. Many of these were actually the homes of the locals which they had converted and extended. We saw locals farming and going about their daily routines. There were houses scattered all over the mountains. Our guide told us that all these locals walk at least two hours a day as he did when he lived in the mountains growing up. They walk to school, to the farms, to neighboring and distant villages. Walking these mountains is a piece of cake to them and we were unimpressed that we could not keep up! We were so amazed by the beauty of waterfalls and rivers and typical village life that we took quite a few photos which allowed us to catch our breath.
At around 12:30, we had finished our trek for the day in a village called Tikhedhunga (1577m). We were so thankful cause the last bit was all uphill and absolutely exhausting. The actual walk itself was only about 2.5 hours and it is the easiest day of the trek. Kind of nervous about that!
The best way to describe our guesthouse is basically as a giant treehouse. The whole thing was basically made from woodchip board. we had an upstairs room and there were little cracks that you could see through to the lower level. One of the toilets is also upstairs and it was difficult going to the bathroom without the thought that I would fall right through. But it was quite sturdy. The wall between our room and the neighboring rooms was also very thin allowing for every noise and movement to be heard. It was quite comical before bed as our neighbor, an American living in Abu Dhabi, reminded us: "FYI, I can hear EVERYTHING" and we continued to have a conversation through the "wall". It was very funny.
The guesthouse is run by a young women who is 25 years old, has a 1.5 year old son and who's husband is in the British army in India. He comes back "often" though: every two years!!!! She receives help from her mother in law and another young girl whom she has hired. When all the Trekkers arrive, it gets quite busy for her so the guides and Sherpas help her out in the kitchen as each Trekker orders something different from the last and at different times. We had a lunch of the typical Nepalese food known as Dal Bhat which is basically rice and lentils and a side of curry and a papad. The locals eat it at least two times a day and they don't use utensils so I thought I would try the local way and eat with my hands. I got through it! It was a unique experience and one of the local neighbors was very amused watching me attempt to eat the local way. Perry had a vegetable curry. The curry here is quite liquidy and almost soup like, it is served in a bowl which is then poured over the rice. We shared a rice pudding for desert. The food was soooo delicious because most of the ingredients are grown on their farm. The potatoes, the rice, the corn, the spinach,
the wheat which is used for the flower etc so everything has a lot of flavor. Following lunch, we had a nap and the first hot shower in Nepal- who would have thought that it would be in the middle of nowhere in the "mountains"? It was absolutely pouring and we missed the downpour on our trek (except for the very brief bit at the beginning) by just minutes so we felt really lucky. It was difficult to nap without the worry of the chipboard roof caving in on us because of the heavy rain but we did manage to get a couple of hours of sleep. There is also no heating so we got under the same bed (we had 2 tiny single beds, big beds don't really seem to exist in the guesthouses) so we could produce body heat to warm us up quicker. It was quite comical.
For dinner, we decided that we would have a Tibetan dish that is very common in Nepal because of the proximity to Tibet called Momos. The best way to describe a Momo is like a gyoza or a perogy but the contents (which can be potato, cheese, vegetable, meat or a combination of the above) are curried. We are addicted. I really wanted to learn how to make this dish so I offered to help in the kitchen. I fried up all the ingredients and then our Sherpa attempted to show me how to close the dough into the proper shape. I failed big time. Perry had a go as well and also did not succeed. It was very funny to see our product beside our Sherpa's!! The guest house owner also made us some popcorn before dinner and it was sooooooo good, right from their corn! Popcorn seems to be very popular here and that makes me happy as I love it so much.
I have also become addicted to Nepali tea. It is basically black tea but they steep the tea with milk instead of water and also, they use buffalo milk instead of cow milk so it is very rich and delicious.
After dinner we socialized with all the other Trekkers, guides and Sherpas. We were offered a traditional warm alcoholic drink called Raksi which is made from millet. The best description is that it tastes exactly like grappa or raki but not as strong and it goes down a lot smoother because it is warm. It was a bit difficult to drink but we (nearly) got through a glass of it.
I also played with the son of the guest house owner. He is adorable! All the Nepalese children always seem to be bundled up and look so cozy and warm!! At first I thought the baby was a girl because he had both his ears pierced although he looked like a boy and then our guide Bijay informed me that it's a boy and its a custom for young babies and children to have piercings (we have also seen many young girls with their noses pierced). We watched some Bollywood movies and then some football and then retired to bed to rest up for day two which is meant to be the hardest day out of the six.
We really underestimated the weather and overestimated our accommodations (mainly the insulation) . It is absolutely freezing at night and clothes do not dry. Also, we didn't think we would be sweating so much during the trek so we thought we could re wear our pants or even wash and wear again but since things don't dry, that is not much of an option! So basically we will most likely be wearing filthy clothes for the rest of the trek. Ces't la vie! It gets so cold at night that we also just layered up in our trekking clothes as well! Oh well, it's an adventure
We began our trek at 730 after being woken up by the roosters and having a nice breakfast which included freshly made traditional Tibetan bread. I was feeling very nervous as this is supposed to be the hardest day of the trek so I wrapped up my ankles and knees for support as my joints seem to be failing me recently. It was a very clear morning but the down side: the first two hours was a steep ascent. It was not easy in the slightest especially being so unfit but on the bright side, it was absolutely beautiful with views of Annapurna south summit (7219 m) and Fish tail (Mt Machhapuchhare 6993m). We saw buffaloes, donkeys transporting goods to the villages in the hills (which are really mountains to us), massive cows, goats, waterfalls etc. The first two hours basically took us from 1577m to 2070m to a village called Ulleri. We stopped for a quick snack and then we entered a forested area in which we hit snow. It was shadowy because of the trees so the snow had not fully melted which made it a bit slippery. There were rhododendron trees( the national flower of Nepal) and plenty more animals and waterfalls along the way. This bit was difficult but not as much as the first 2 hours. We then stopped for lunch in the sunshine which allowed some of our sweat to dry up ( it is not fun putting a backpack on a sweaty back!). We then continued through more forested area after a little village that was covered in mud and animal poo. Our shoes were filthy but we didn't have to worry because soon after we were in a forested area with thick snow which happened to clean all the mud off and get us soaked at the same time. Because it was quite sunny, the snow on top of the trees was melting off and creating a rain shower, sometimes feeling like snowballs were pelting us as so much would come down at once. I was quite nervous as I thought after lunch it would be more difficult due to exhaustion but it was actually quite easy (relatively speaking).
We arrived in the village of Ghorepani which we were told is quite commercial compared to where we stayed last night because there are 3 trekking routes that lead into this village. We got to our hotel and we were astounded by the view if the world's 6th highest mountain: Dauligiri. We were told that it is the most dangerous mountain to climb in the world and has the highest number of casualties. We were lucky to get a nice little cabin with a view of this stunning mountain as well. We couldn't believe our eyes and felt so lucky and privileged to be here and experiencing this. I also managed to somehow get one of the songs from Dora the Explorer stuck in my head and wanted to sing it out loud: "we did it, we did it, we did it, HOORAY!" I would have loved to crack open a bottle of bubbly but it is only day 2 of 6 and there are so many more challenges to overcome before any celebrating!
We walked around the village and snapped some photos and discussed how there is so much of the world that we have not seen. Nepal was not even on our list of places to visit but we can't imagine not having done this. It should be on everybody's bucket list.
Again we have definitely underestimated the weather as there is thick snow here and it's only going to get colder tomorrow as we go higher up. The showers were not working because the pipes had frozen over so we sat by a fire in the dining area to warm up. It really helped but was only colder when we went outside.
For dinner we enjoyed homemade pizza with yaks cheese, a vegetable curry and the best apple pie we have ever tasted. The menus are quite versatile and have lots of different options such as curries, pastas, pizza, salads, sandwiches, an other specialties. We thought we would be eating dal baht everyday so it is nice to have options.
Tomorrow we depart earlier than we want at 5:30am to get a sunrise view from the top of Poon Hill. We then return to our lodge for breakfast and then depart again for another 5 hours of hiking. Supposedly today was the hardest day but I have a feeling tomorrow will be tougher because of the early rise and because our muscles are sore. On top of this being a physical challenge it is also a mental one. It's really scary to think that tomorrow will be colder and that there are still 4 days left. It makes me very nervous and uneasy and I hope I will be able to do it. I have no doubts about Perry but I am just uncertain how I will cope. We also began our malaria tablets today and am nervous of any side effects we may encounter. As Perry says, I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and I will do it. I am so glad to be experiencing this with him and to have him by my side. This truly feels like the honeymoon of a lifetime! Bring it on Poon Hill!!!
We awoke at the ungodly hour of 5am. By 530 we were out the door and on our way to the top of Poon Hill, along with every other trekker that overnighted in Ghorepani. It was pitch black and you could see head lamps and flashlights bobbing up the "hill". All I could think was "we are all absolutely crazy!!" But when we got to the top at 3210 Metres and watched the sunrise over some of the world's most famous mountains, I realized we weren't so crazy after all. The only crazy thing about it was how unprepared we were for this. It was about -7 but felt colder with the windchill and all we had were rain jackets! People wearing ski jackets were even freezing so imagine how cold we were. We took our photos and decided to get the heck out of there and back down to our hotel for some breakfast!!! Now the descent was incredibly challenging for me. I just wanted to give up. I think there was a combination of reasons why I struggled: we had not eaten any breakfast, it was freezing, a higher elevation than used to, we hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, I had a milk tea at the top on an empty stomach which I think upset my stomach, it was a very steep climb down and very slippery and we also started our malaria tablets the night before which can have quite a few side effects. So i think a combination of all of the above made me feel really dizzy and sick almost to the point of throwing up. The lower we went, the better I started to feel. But it made me very uneasy to think that was just the beginning of the day. We still had about 5 more hours of hiking after breakfast and the beginning was an ascent to the same elevation as Poon Hill. The thought of this made me sick to my stomach and really not want to even attempt it but I put on my game face an off we went! It actually was a lot better than expected. It didnt seem as steep as going up to Poon Hill and the sun was out so it was nice to feel the warmth. The summit we reached at 3210metres had absolutely stunning views. It was similar views as from Poon Hill but from different angles and not as many people so we were able to capture some beautiful photos. We saw a couple of planes fly by and they were at a lower elevation than we were. It was crazy and absolutely breathtaking. We could not believe our eyes.
This is definitely not what we had expected when we booked our trek. We were expecting long leisurely walks but not huge uphills and slippery snowy/icy downllhills, we weren't even expecting snow and we definitely were not expecting the magnificent views we have been seeing. This is just something else.
After the summit, the walk became a steep descent on slippery snow. It was quite scary at times as there were steep drops and narrow slippery paths so it was scary to think that if we took the wrong step or slipped, we could just slide off the cliffs. At times I found it easier to just sit on my butt and slide down. Other times, I had no choice but wiping out unplanned and sliding down. Perry was behind me every step of the way and I felt very lucky to have him there. We thought how crazy we must be trekking the Himalayas. Most people sit on a beach for their honeymoon. We were wiping out on snow and getting bruises on our butts to prove it! We actually found it quite fun and amusing at times but not so much now when we sit on our bruises!
We stopped for lunch after the steep descent and the owner of the guesthouse said that a man had fallen just last week on the steep bit that we had just completed and broken his arm. He had to get airlifted out of the area. Then our guide told us that it is the most dangerous part of the trek so we felt quite lucky to have completed that part with only a few bruises from wiping out in the snow and ice.
After lunch we had about 1.5 hours more till we reached our destination for the day. It was through a very muddy forested area that got our shoes and bottoms of our pants filthy. It was a descent so felt very easy. We reached a couple of other Trekkers and we could tell that Bijay wanted to pass them cause they were going slow so we told him we don't mind going faster. So we basically ran down to the bottom point of the descent. It was fun but not a very smart idea because immediately after, we had a 40 minute steep ascent to our destination. It was so exhausting especially as we had just spent the last bit of the descent running which took all our energy. We eventually made it to Tadaphani where we were staying for the evening.
I am amazed at what we have accomplished today. It felt as if we had walked through four seasons and so many different terrains. It is the most challenging thing I have accomplished, both physically and mentally and I am so proud of ourselves. We had a feast to celebrate.
The nights in guest houses are also quite an experience as well. From the people you meet, to the unknowingness of wether or not you will get a hot shower or fireplace in the dining hall, to the freezing temperatures in the unheated bedrooms, we have become quite used to all of this. We really enjoy the socializing with the guides, porters, other Trekkers and sometimes even the local workers. The trek guides and porters have never met each other (most of the time) but the way they interact and socialize, it looks as they have known each other for years! There is no competition between them and they all get along.
It is interesting hearing the different stories from all the guides about their times on the mountains. We asked Bijay if he has ever had any difficult clients. He told us that once he had a lady that was really tired during a trek in Annapurna and she just sat down and refused to move either up to the next village because she was too tired or down to the last village they had passed as she did not want to do the same journey twice. So they had to sleep in the snow in minus 15 degree weather! Bijay said his body froze and that the Sherpa came down the next morning and brought him a thermos of tea to warm his body and that the Sherpa carried the lady all the way to the next point. I cannot imagine that!! Oh and she also had three Sherpas to carry her stuff because one of her bags had only food in it because she didnt like the food on the mountain. We have one Sherpa between the two of us!! I wonder why some people even bother traveling.
We also learn a lot about the Nepali traditions and culture while conversing in the guest houses. We learned that the term "Sherpa" is actually a Nepalese ethnic group and also a family name. If they do not belong to the Sherpa ethnic group or have the last name of Sherpa then they are not technically Sherpas (as in a porter), but now the term has become synonymous with the term "porter" especially because of the westerners. All the guide books refer to a porter as a Sherpa. We had no idea.
What we also like about the guesthouses and the trekking is that you see a lot of the same people you have encountered on the trails on previous days so it is seems as you are doing the journey together and it is motivating and funny when you pass each other on the trails. From Tadaphani, a lot of the people we met in our first few days depart for different directions. Some go towards Annapurna Base Camp or towards Gandruk and beyond. Most were going in the direction of ABC but not the full way. We seem to be the only ones going towards Gandruk this time.
The fireplace in our guest house was so warm and we were scared to leave the dining hall as we thought it would be a dramatic change in temperature since we were sitting by the fire but it was okay. I think our bodies are adjusting to the cold temperatures...maybe
We were super excited for today because it was only supposed to be three hours and all downhill. Usually when we have encountered descents, this means there will be an ascent so as much as we enjoy the downhill bits, it is also worrying because it means there will be hard work at the end. But Bijay assured us that there would be no ascents so we were quite energetic. We began the descent at about 8:30 and were zooming by. It was all through a forested area full of rhododendron trees. We were flying by and it all felt like a piece of cake! I was wearing ankle supports as I have done every day of the trek but yesterday, I gave one to a girl that had rolled her ankle cause I had a spare one. So I was using the spare one but I had wrapped my ankle too tight so it was very uncomfortable. About halfway through, I stopped to take off the ankle support. Two minutes later, I was saying how much better it felt and then BAM, I roll my ankle just as I was saying that. I SCREAMED like I've never screamed before. The pain was so unbearable. I rolled my ankles two times yesterday but because they are so weak and I have injured them so many times, it didn't hurt and I just carried on (I think they are just permanently damaged). This one did hurt though. It felt like it cracked when I rolled it, I sat down and the pain went down a bit. I had to carry on. I didn't want to let Perry or Bijay down. I took some painkillers and wrapped the ankle back up and it felt okay, especially when the painkillers started to kick in. I couldn't believe it especially as it happened when I was saying how much better my ankle felt. And I was also saying that I felt like Superwomen as we were flying past the trail. I spoke too soon! We still managed to finish the trek in 2 hours instead of the normal 3, even with an injured ankle so I was pretty happy about that! What I was even happier about was that our guesthouse has hot showers!! And it is like the perfect temperature! I did not want to get out and neither did Perry. It felt so nice that I might have another one before bed!
The village of Gandruk is the second largest village in Nepal with 3,000 inhabitants. We walked around and went to a museum that showed the life of the Gurung people (the ethnic group that live in Gandruk). It was a cute museum with interesting artifacts depicting daily life. We were offered some Raksi which we thought we would give another try. This one seemed to go down a lot smoother. Maybe we are just getting used to it!!
Bijay also showed us the route we are walking tomorrow. It will be a 6 hour walk beginning with a descent, then ascent, then descent and then ascent again. I am quite nervous because my ankle is quite swollen but I want to finish this. I will just wrap my ankle tight and take my time (and stock up on ibuprofen!). It will be the last hardest day (although I don't think it will beat the difficulty of yesterday's journey) as the following day we only have two hours to walk.
This guest house is quite modern but they don't have a fireplace as burning fires is not allowed in this village. It's funny as it seems so far our guest houses have either hot showers or a fireplace in the dining hall, never both! So it is quite chilly! Another trekker pointed out that they never close the doors in the guesthouses and it is so true! The locals are all bundled up and sometimes cold but the doors are all open!! Apparently they are not used to closing the doors for some reason. It's funny (although not so much when we are shivering).
We are very happy to have the guide and porter that we do. Bijay has been so good to us and very warm and welcoming and hospitable. He also chose a fantastic route and explains a lot of things to us as we go along. We have seen a lot of Trekkers that are doing the same route but in the opposite direction and I cannot imagine doing that as there would be a lot more of uphill bits and the dangerous snowy/icy bit we did yesterday would be terrifying going in the opposite direction. We saw a couple of seniors today going the opposite direction and it broke my heart to think how they will conquer that part. It will be very difficult for them. Then we saw a mom and her two children also going the opposite direction , the youngest maybe 8 and I also do not know how the children will do at that bit but I remember being much fearless when I was that age so they may be alright.
Yesterday we ran into another guide and 3 Scandinavian girls and our guide asked him (in Nepalese) if they had gone up Poon Hill and he said they had not and that he had not even mentioned it or suggested it to the girls as he is only a part time guide and wanted to sleep in. My jaw dropped when I heard this. The girls have come all this way to do this trek and they miss one of the, if not THE main highlight and one of the famous viewpoints of the trek. Bijay says there are a lot of guides like that which makes me even more thankful that we chose him for our trek.
We awoke to a stunning view of Annapurna South and Machapucharre ( the fish tail....I have become addicted to saying the Nepalese name for it, try saying it really quickly, it's a lot of fun: MAH-CHA-POO-CHA-REH). We seem to be really lucky with weather and arriving at our destinations minutes before rain starts. It has happened on many occasions. When we arrive, there are many clouds that do not allow for a view but when we awake in the morning, we are greeted by stunning jaw-dropping views. Today was one of those days.
We were quite excited as it was meant to be the last difficult day of the trek. We began with a steep descent to the Modi Khola river. Our legs were so shaky as we had a 2 hour descent yesterday and I was quite frightened as I had rolled my ankle the day before so I was really taking my time.
We saw all the children walking, err I mean hiking, to school and it really put us to shame. They literally run up and down the steep bits, some just in flip flops or sandals and here we were putting two feet on each step trying to hang on for dear life at times. Even our Sherpa, Sandeep, was miles ahead of us with 20 kg on his back!
Believe it or not, we were looking forward to an ascent so we could use some different muscles and after the descent to the river, up we went! We made it to the top and reached the village of Landruk. The ascent seemed quite bearable compared to previous ones but maybe that's because we are feeling more fit? The rest of the walk up until lunch was "Nepali flat". Bijay told us on day one of the trek that there are two kinds of flat: "Holland flat" which is absolutely flat and "Nepali Flat"which may seem flat but has a gradual ascending or descending slope. "Holland Flat" does not exist in Nepal but we always get excited when we see "Nepali Flat" bits, especially after ascents like we did today.
Since yesterday, I do not feel confident with downhill bits or even Nepali flat bits with many stones because I am worried about rolling my ankle again. The hesitation seemed to slow us down a bit even though it was an easy terrain as I was scared.
We stopped for lunch in the village of Tolka. It was a lovely guesthouse with a grassy field and the sun was shining so we sat in the sun and rested. It felt lovely to feel the sun on us. We ended up having a massive meal as they topped up our plates with seconds!
We had about 2.5 hours of walking after lunch and a majority of that was a steep ascent. We reached the beginning of the ascent after a "Nepali Flat" bit and I don't know wether it was the big lunch that gave us energy or the thought that this was the last ascent of the 6 days but we seemed to race through it. I felt amazing and did not want to stop to take a break. We completely surprised Bijay and ourselves because we completed the ascent in 45 minutes instead of the normal hour and twenty minutes- and that is with an injured ankle!!! Bijay has been trekking for 18 years and that is the fastest he's ever completed the ascent. It is very funny because we were so slow on the descents which are generally a lot easier than ascents but we zoomed past the ascents. It was just completely backwards! So the journey after lunch took us only an hour and 45 minutes instead if the usual 2.5 hours. We were very pleased with ourselves!
We finished in a village called Pothana which has views of Pokhara and the lake and valley and we could not believe what we have achieved thus far. It absolutely amazes me.
We still have a 2.5 hour descent until we complete the 6 day journey tomorrow but I feel that we have completed it already because we have overcome so many challenges. It seems like we started so long ago, not just 5 days, and we are feeling quite sad that this leg of our honeymoon adventure has nearly come to an end. It has been such an amazing experience and we already want to come back. The crazy thing is that we never even thought about coming to Nepal and now we can't imagine not having experienced this beautiful country. It has such a unique culture and we really enjoyed learning about it and witnessing it on our trek. We are sad that we have to say bye to our amazing guide, Bijay, and our superman of a Sherpa, Sandeep, as we have really enjoyed the time spent with them. We still have a few hours with them tomorrow until we have to say goodbye so we will make the most of it.
Day 6- the journey back to Pokhara:
Today we began feeling quite excited and sad at the same time as this journey was ending. We had only a 2.5 hour descent until we reached the finale in the village of Pedi and then a half an hour taxi ride to reach Pokhara. The descent was quite flat and unchallenging at bits and we really just wanted to be finished. We passed through the village of Damphus which had some more beautiful views of Machapucharre and some of the Annapurna peaks. We began to see and hear vehicles which made us realize we hadn't seen any cars in 6 days.
As mentioned, we were feeling like we just wanted to be finished as it was quite an easy and unchallenging terrain...that is, until the last 1.5 hours when we descended straight down what felt like millions of steps. They just seemed to never end and our legs were hating us. It seemed like the road and the Pokhara valley were near but we never seemed to reach them! However, we were extremely lucky to be going down these steps and not up. We saw plenty of people going up on the start of their treks and we were pleased that a) we were finishing and not starting and b) that we were going the opposite direction as them (down, not up) and c) that our guide chose a much better and more pleasant start to our route.
When we reached the bottom, our legs wanted to collapse, but I had to get a celebratory heel click in! We felt pretty incredible and could not believe what we had achieved. We felt that 6 days was just the right amount of time, especially for being pretty unfit (although the 6 days really did shape us up!)
We took a taxi back to Pokhara where we said goodbye to Bijay and Sandeep. They felt more like friends rather than just a guide and a Sherpa so we felt quite sad saying goodbye to them. We shared such an amazing and memorable adventure with them and also many conversations in which we learned about life in Nepal.
Once we got to our room, the fatigue and exhaustion really hit us. We just wanted to pass out and sleep but we had to get some laundry done as we happened to wear pretty much the same sweaty and smelly clothes for 6 days straight. It felt amazing to take a really hot shower and get into clean clothes. It was also around 23 degrees so it was a nice change from the cold weather in the mountains.
We went for a stroll and tried to think back to the last 6 days but it just seemed so surreal and that it was all a dream. Just days ago, We were in -7 degree weather, climbing up "hills" at 3210 Metres and now we were below 1000 Metres getting a suntan.
Seeing the village life in the mountains was amazing. It's a whole other world. Houses in the middle of nowhere having to get resources by hiking for hours or by donkeys, electricity for only about 10 hours a day, growing all their own produce and grains, children having to walk at least 2 hours a day to get to and from school, women and men hiking for hours with heavy loads supported by their foreheads, no cars, no Internet...actually there was Internet at certain points but it was so nice to be away from it that we didn't dare attempt to connect. It was such a unique experience and we feel so lucky to have experienced it.
We can now say that we have trekked the Himalayas (although a very small portion). It sounds so exciting and exotic and we want to return for more. This should be on everybody's bucket lists!
Tomorrow we continue our journey with an overnight stop in Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha) before continuing on to India. It will have a lot to live up to as Nepal and its people have been wonderful.
One thing that we (and our leg muscles) will be happy to not see for a long time, is another step! Ouch!
It's Saturday morning just past 7am and Kathmandu is busier than ever. We are on a bus driving through Kathmandu on our way to Pokhara. The fruit merchants are all out on their bikes and some set up on the sidewalks, the horns are honking non stop, the burning piles of rubbish adding to the haze of smog are building up, children are playing football at the local park, or playing with the stray dogs on the sides of the street, women are pointlessly sweeping the dust from their store fronts (which we are sure will return in no time), butchers are chopping up the raw meat on the sidewalks in front of their shops (great place to allow the fumes and dust to catch onto the meat), and the locals are all running around a dirt track getting their morning exercise. As the bus stops to fuel up, children come on the bus to try and sell the passengers chips, another man comes on to try and sell newspapers, other men knock on our windows to try and sell us other goods through it. All this at 7:30am on a Saturday- the local day off. Well you never would have guessed it with so much going on!
As we depart the Kathmandu Valley, the smog is beginning to thin out, the mountains are becoming more visible, and I am looking forward to not having to constantly clean black muck from the inside of my nose.
Despite the almost intolerable pollution (to the westerner anyways), Kathmandu is definitely a city I recommend visiting just because it seems like a whole other world. Everywhere we look, there is something to see, something to capture a photo of, something to make your jaw drop, something that seems completely uncivilized to us but is the norm to the locals. No wonder I went through THREE camera batteries in just one day! If you are looking for a culture shock, this is definitely a place to be.
Another bus just overtook our bus when going around a bend. "Is this a one way road?" I ask Perry. The answer is no. Oh boy, we've got a long ride ahead of us! But as we drive on the windy mountains out of the Kathmandu Valley, it's already starting to look like a beautiful ride to Pokhara. Although with the swaying from side to side it feels more like a boat ride on choppy waters rather than a bus ride. I don't know what is louder: the frequent honking of the cars and buses that are overtaking us, or the constant loud screeching of our buses' breaks? The honking is not just a "beep beep" sound either. The horns have a somewhat musical sound which makes it quite comical rather than annoying. Each one is unique as well so they do not all sound the same. Even with the comical horns, this is still one of the scariest rides I have been on, but also one of the most beautiful.
We reach the Gorkha province and drive along the Tishuli River. As exhausted as I am, I don't want to fall asleep (Perry is already there) because there is so much to see. Farmers cultivating land, tons of cafe and fruit shacks on the side of the road, little villages with children running around, some playing a Nepali version of pool and others playing football (right next to the highway which is very narrow) or washing clothes or running across the road itself as buses, cars and motorcycles whizz by, women walking along the highway (some with large baskets on their backs), men carrying logs the Nepalese way (with a rope attached to their heads and taking some of the weight), clothes hanging on rooftops and on barbed wire along the road and basically from anywhere a rope can be tied to, a man running with a cow, rapids on the river with kayakers attempting to ride them, men loading logs onto an inflatable raft, people crossing the river via a suspension bridge, goats and dogs simultaneously roaming around the shacks and homes, a man making dust brooms out of straw, and just the stunning scenery itself is hard to take my eyes off of. I just want to ask the bus driver to stop so I can snap some photos! Don't think the rest of the passengers would be too impressed though. Perry is already unimpressed with me reaching over and snapping a photo every 5 seconds! I should have chosen the window seat! At least he is awake now and can witness this amazing setting.
Suddenly we come to a traffic jam. Bus loads of followers of the Hindu religion are being dropped off. There is a cable car that takes passengers up to the top of a mountain to a Hindu temple. This is a pilgrimage for them. As we wait for a cop to direct our bus, some men knock on the windows of the buses, including ours, in an attempt to sell us cucumbers and papadom style crisp bread. Very tempting but we have already eaten.
This area marks the halfway point on our journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
I find it difficult to resist turning my camera off and putting it away. We pass plenty of rice and wheat fields that look very beautiful with the mountains in the background. I see a bus ahead with passengers on TOP of it! I quickly stumble to the back of the bus to snap a photo from the window. There are four young Tibetan monks sitting back there. One is wearing a Chicago Bulls hat, one is wearing red Vans, one has a dog on his lap, another has his headphones on, and they all seem to have smartphones. They are about 18-20 years old. One starts a conversation with me and asks me where I am from. I tell him Canada and he get his phone out and shows me photos of the monastery they live in which also houses a guest house. It is in Pokhara. Then he shows me a photo of him in his Canada shirt that a volunteer brought him. He seems very excited to show me this.
We see a lot of straw huts in the area which seem to provide a shelter for the cows, goats and other animals. The scent of campfire fills the bus as locals burn compost. We pass along the Madi river which flows from the Annapurna mountain. Women and children are bathing themselves and washing their clothes and hair in the water. We soon stop for lunch. All the restaurans have signs that say "highway restaurant" and there are plenty of them. It begins to lightly rain but it feels almost tropical as it is quite warm. Over lunch, we find out that our trekking guide, Bijay, is into football. Perry and him will get along just great!
Following lunch, we continue our journey to Pokhara with about an hour and fifteen minutes to go. We continue passing through many wheat fields with lots of men and women working, and even cows ploughing the fields. One of the men operating the cow plough whips the cows with a stick. Poor cows. We feel as if we have gone back in time. As we pass by the children that are playing along the highway, they wave at the bus. Perry waves back.
This whole journey has felt like we have been watching a film. Our window is the screen and it has captivated our attention. We cannot take our eyes off the screen. It is not a film though, it is 100% real and we feel so lucky that we are here experiencing it. We wish we could bring everyone we know along with us to experience this. If you do get the chance, one thing is for sure, and the nearly 300 photos I have just captured on this one bus journey alone will agree, this is one bus journey you definitely do NOT want to fall asleep on!
We have now reached Pokhara in a lovely guest house that is 1,000 times better than the one in Kathmandu...and the best part: the tap water comes out clean, not brown!
Unfortunately it has started raining quite heavily but we are hoping it stops soon so that we can go explore the lakeside. If not, then this may be an evening to upload the photos from our trip thus far and just have a relaxing evening before we set off for our trek tomorrow! We still cannot believe the bus journey we went on today. Perry says his neck hurts because he just couldn't take his eyes off of the window. It seems like it was all a dream. Completely surreal! This trip is just getting started and we can't wait for more experiences like this!
We arrived in Kathmandu last night just after 6pm local time. I take back what I said about Dubai Airport Terminal 2 being dingy..Kathmandu airport is much worse. .We felt like we had gone back to the 1970s.
As soon as we left customs, we had people trying to sell us tours or hotel rooms or cab rides. We were met by our trek guide that had hired a handicapped man to hold our name sign for us so he could have some employment. We thought it was very sweet. The handicapped man was so excited and wanted to carry our bags and was so happy that we had arrived. We were then put into a "taxi" which was like a small work van that allowed for every bump in the road to be felt...and lets just say the roads seem to be primarily dirt roads with plenty of bumps. The culture shock began immediately!
Kathmandu only has electricity running for 10 hours a day. For the remaining 14 hours, they use backup sources such as generators which sometimes only power a few low lights. So everything seemed quite dark and pedestrians were walking around with flashlights. We couldn't believe the traffic and the way people drove and how all the pedestrians were not getting run over. There were SO many people about and so much going on. Everywhere we looked was something unusual to us: a man fixing shoes on the side of the road with a flashlight in his mouth, meat being sold on wooden tables by the side of the road without any refrigeration (good thing we are going vegeterian!), people carrying LPG gas tanks on their bicycles.
We arrived at our guest house in the Thamel neighborhood which is the backpacker/tourist district and lets just it is not worth anymore than the £3 a night we paid for it. We put on our game faces and braved our first night there. In the morning we were very thankful that we packed washcloths and dry shampoo as the water was coming out brown and smelly. We were also thankful for the water we had purchased the night before which lasted for our teeth to be washed in addition to certain body parts.
We thought since we only had a day here that we should find a tour rather than wasting our time trying to find things ourselves. This was not easy as it seems there aren't really organized tours unless you book a package. Although we have booked a trekking tour, it did not include a Kathmandu tour so we went around to some tour agencies and they were all really expensive but private. We decided to just go for it and managed to knock 20% off. Our guide arrived and despite the tour agency saying he spoke English, this was not entirely true. We struggled a bit and him us but we managed to understand the main bits.
We began the tour at the Monkey Temple, locally known as Swayambhunath which is a religious complex consisting of a Buddhist stupa , and a hindu temple amongst other things. It was a special day because it is the first day of school for the children so they have a big festival there. There were school children everywhere and they were so excited. We even saw someone dressed as Mickey Mouse. The monkeys were so awesome to watch. They were roaming all through the complex. I've never seen monkeys outside of the zoo so I felt that they would jump on us at times.
Our next stop was the Baudha Stupa. It is a Buddhist stupa but it also caters for the Hindu religion as well. It seems as many of the locals practice both religions and each religion is tolerant of the other, often sharing customs and even worship spaces (such as at the Monkey Temple). The locals we have spoken with have also said they practice both when asked which one they follow. We walked around and watched people meditate and light insense and hang up memorial flags and then departed for stop 3.
Our third stop was the eye opening
Pashupatinath Temple which is apparently one of the most well known Hindu Temples in the world. This temple and the area surrounding was just unbelievable to westerners like ourselves. On the bank of the Bagmati river, there were families cremating their loved ones while on the other side of the grounds (this was a massive space), there were about 5-7 weddings going on at once. There were sacred cows, one even so massive and dangerous that it has killed people before (it was actually more like a bull than a cow) but because they consider it to be like a god, they do not harm the cows. There were tons of monkeys running around and even celebrating as they were being fed leftovers from the weddings and then there was an area with two different types of deer running around. There was a large park where all the locals hung out and there were people worshiping in the temple itself. Unfortunately, non Hindus are not allowed in the temple itself but we observed from the outside. We spent hours here and it just added to the culture shock.
We then went to Kathmandu Durbar Square which is the area surrounding the old royal palace. We went into the palace itself and one of the areas was nine stories high! We were glad to make it out of there without crashing through one of the many rickety wooden staircases, many of which had loose banisters and even loose steps. The architecture was so intricate and beautiful, a majority of it handcarved out of wood. The museum was quite amateur but did have some interesting artifacts that belonged to the various kings of Nepal. We then wandered around the square amongst the fruit and vegetable street merchants and some local neighborhoods before returning to Thamel for a nice dinner. We were absolutely exhausted as the tour lasted 7 hours.
One thing we have noticed is that many locals wear face masks when out and about and it's too bad we didn't pack any. The pollution is unbelievable. We have found ourselves feeling quite ill from the intensity of it. I even wore black trousers today and they are filthy from the dust that gusts around the city. I have been feeling quite nauseous at times and Perry has been having headaches. The smells of the city don't always help. One moment, the scent of incense fills every street and the next moment the scent of sewage, pee and dirty water overtake the incense scent. But hopefully when we depart for Pokhara tomorrow, we will be feeling better as Pokhara is meant to be a lot cleaner.
We have also encountered plenty of men and women horking and spitting today! It is quite unpleasant but I am sure we will get used to it as I believe this is a common occurrence in India as well.
So now it is time to pack and get a fairly early night's sleep as we have a journey to Pokhara tomorrow. The following day we will begin our 6 day trek. We are quite nervous about it because we are physically unfit and have not prepared ourselves but it seems fairly easy compared to other treks out there. Wish us luck! But first, we may need some luck getting to sleep as its Friday night and there seems to be a lot of crazyness going on outside our hotel room window!
Day two in Dubai we decided to head to the Aquaventure water park at the Atlantis Palm resort and we were so glad we did. We briefly explored the impressive hotel before making our way to the water park. The cue to get in was massive and therefore we were expecting the cues for all the slides to be massive as well but we were wrong. At most we had 5 people in front of us when waiting to go down a slide. Most slides we could just turn up and ride away without waiting in any line. This is because there is so much to do at the water park and its so big that everyone is spread out. In addition to the main slides, there are tons of little beach style areas with lounge chairs, there is a children's area with calmer slides, there is a "rapids" attraction where you float all around the park and pass through little rapids. We were brave and tried out the "Leap of Faith" which is basically a completely vertical slide and very scary! You end up going through an enclosed part of the shark tank as well. Lets just say we only had enough courage to go on that slide once. One of our favorites was the "shark attack" ride where you end up in an enclosed case in an aquarium and float through with all the fish swimming around. It was a very neat and unique idea. We tested out our new waterproof camera and got some fun photos as well!
This was our first "honeymoon" type activity that we did and it felt quite relaxing although I was getting quite nauseous near the end with all the being thrown around! We were really happy that we decided to spend a majority of the day here and thought it was worth every penny of the overpriced admission. It felt like the Disneyland of water parks.
We then went to Madinat Jumeirah which is this area near the water that is made to look traditional. It was next to the water with lots of nice restaurants and a traditional souk with merchants selling lots of souvenirs and clothing and so on. After browsing the restaurant menus, we found a nice Lebanese restaurant to sit down and have dinner. We chose to sit outside and as they sat us, another waiter from another restaurant in the area (we couldn't even see where the restaurant was) came over with a menu and said that the outside space is for all the restaurants to share and that we can choose from his restaurants menu as well. It was a very awkward and uncomfortable situation because we specifically liked the look of the menu (and prices) of the one we chose so we had no interest in eating from anywhere else. He seemed quite desperate. The waiter from the restaurant we chose came by to see if we were ready and the waiter from the other restaurant just stood right beside him and then started showing us every single page of his restaurant's menu to try and get us to pick something. He told us that they have "nachos, burgers, wings" and other foods we were not interested in. It was so uncomfortable and awkward and not a very pleasant dining experience because we felt a bit bad for rejecting him but we chose the restaurant we chose for a reason. Once he got lost, we started to enjoy the atmosphere. Our meals were MASSIVE and our bill came to something crazy like £12/$18! We couldn't believe how cheap it was especially considering the setting of being by the water and with a view of the Burj Al Arab (the famous 7 star hotel that is shaped like a sail) in the background. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.
On our final full day, we decided to start off by taking it easy and lounged by the pool. We worked on our tans for a couple of hours (oh yes, life is tough) and then we got ready to go visit the world's tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. We were so glad we pre booked this before we even started our trip because all the time slots to go up were sold out for at least the next couple of days. This attraction is called "At The Top" and it takes you to the 124th floor of the building. The elevator shoots you straight up and really builds it up with dark and futuristic lighting. When the doors of the elevator opened and we got out on the 124th floor, our knees immediately stiffened and locked up. We were terrified and found it difficult to get ourselves to the edge of the windows but we got there in the end. The worst bit was the exterior part that had wooden beams on the floors that were bouncy and creaky and didn't feel safe at all. We got the views and photos we wanted from the exterior bit and then got the heck inside. We chose a perfect day to go up because it was very clear and you could see a lot of the famous buildings. We managed to capture a photo of me heel clicking as well!!
We then went back down to earth and wandered around Dubai Mall- the world's largest mall. We got some more cheesecake chocolates from Patchi and we tried these amazing buns called Papparoti which are basically a warm bun with a caramel and coffee flavor coating and a filling of butter that oozes out. It's so naughty but soooo good! So much for losing weight on this trip!!
We watched the very impressive Dubai fountains some more and then I got a call from Farhan whom I went to high school with. He currently resides in Dubai and we met up and went for a coffee. Crazy to think it has been pretty much 9 years since we have seen each other! But very cool to be meeting up on another side of the world!
Today we depart Dubai and arrive in Kathmandu. So we are basically going from one of the richest countries in the world to one of the poorest. It will be a crazy culture shock and we can't wait! From hereon in, we will be slumming it. Lets just say our hotel in Kathmandu cost £3 a night. We will have to sleep with our mouths closed so no creepy crawlies find their way in!
As mentioned, Dubai has been an interesting city. The city itself is absolutely MASSIVE and then so is everything within it! The world's tallest building, the world's biggest mall, huge luxurious hotels...it's definitely not a place for backpackers (we got PLENTY of stares when we were traveling with our backpacks). But we did enjoy it and it felt like a "honeymoon" place to be in as we got some sun, some swimming, nice meals etc, relaxation. But it may as well have been Vegas, Florida, Beverly Hills or all 3 combined. All that is missing is a Cheesecake Factory...or so we thought!!! We researched it a bit late and realized there is one here, and not just any but the world's biggest (but of course). We are completely kicking ourselves for not researching this before we departed! But I guess the cheesecake flavor chocolates from Patchi satisfied our cheesecake cravings for the time being.
So now we are at Dubai airport, terminal 2, one of the dingiest terminals we have been in (besides maybe Heraklion!). Check in was an absolute nightmare with only ONE agent checking in TWO international flights with only 2.5 hours to go! They finally got some more staff on about half an hour after and for some reason we got pulled out of the middle of the cue and put in the beginning of a new one. We felt really bad bypassing everyone but I think it's because we had only backpacks and everyone in front of us (all Nepalese men), had massive amounts of luggage and cardboard boxes so we must have been easy to move?? We were starving so we were just happy to be checked in. We enjoyed one last sinful meal (which I wont mention what) and now Perry and I are becoming vegetarians for a majority of the remainder of the trip (even though I don't eat much meat as it is) and certainly for the rest of the week as we are doing a trek and want to be in tip top condition for it (ie, no diarrhea and upset stomachs!). So here is to city 3, country 3 of our honeymoon adventure and to no more meat for a while!
We arrived in Dubai in the wee hours of the morning. Passport control took ages but we didn't mind because we didn't want to arrive at our host's too early. We couldn't believe how slack the passport control process was. They didn't ask any questions and didnt even make us scan our eyes. And luckily, all was good with my visa.
We hung around the airport because we didn't want to wake our host up. Luckily there was free wifi so it allowed some Skype time with my family in Canada. When it was time to make our way to our host's apartment, we got on the metro.
The metro is in the "top 10 attractions in Dubai" list as voted by travelers on tripadviser. We understood why. You can see a lot of Dubai's famous buildings from it (like the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa). It runs along a very long strip called Sheikh Zayed Road which many of the sights are located near. Because it is primarily above ground, it provides a lot to look at. It is also spectacularly clean. It was quite hazy out when we first got on it but cleared up after the morning.
We met a nice lady from Ottawa on the metro. And when we got of the metro at Internet City, this man started showing us the way to the exit and to the cabs. He was from India and has lived with his family in Dubai for the last 13 years. He flagged a cab for us but the driver said he didn't know where the address was and then he flagged another one and that driver said it was too close for him to drive. So we said we would walk it as we were not having luck with the cabs and (thought we) wanted the exercise . The nice man that led us to the cabs said that he works right across where we were headed so he led us in the right direction. It was so nice of him. So far it seems that everyone is super friendly- except the cab drivers!
One thing we noticed immediately about the newer part of Dubai is that everything is just MASSIVE! Dubai itself is massive and it takes a while to get from one point to another but everything within it is also massive. The roads sometimes have 6 lanes, the sidewalks are so wide and they seem even wider because no uses them so you feel like an ant when you have a huge space of sidewalk and surrounded by large buildings. It is definitely not a pedestrian friendly city but the metro is VERY efficient (and air conditioned). All the maps we have looked at are also very misleading because everything looks really close but it takes ages to walk to a place that looks like it is across the street on a map. We are sure getting our exercise and blisters on our feet to prove it!
Another thing we felt about the more modern part of Dubai is that this is quite a strange city. It is so modern and seems really artificial at times. You really can't tell if you are in Dubai or London or America. It seems like a combination of Las Vegas, Florida and London...but that is judging by the buildings and Dubai Mall as Dubai Mall has every UK and American chain imaginable (we've come across Boots, Waitrose, WHSmith, New Look, Debenhams, Forever21, Top Shop, you name it, it's there!). Also, they are just building and building and building. There is so much land being built up. I would love to come back in 20 years and see what it looks like then. We have passed through a ton of construction zones today.
We ended up at the mall as we wanted to visit Burj Khalifa- the world's tallest building- and this is located at Dubai Mall. Now, the world's tallest building is UNREAL! It hurts your eyes to look up at it (although that probably has something to do with looking right at the sun) and when you compare it to nearby buildings, it really makes you wonder how in the world they built something that tall. It does not look real. We booked a tour to go up to the observation deck on Wednesday so we are quite excited for that. I might need some vertigo pills though! In front of this building and The Dubai Mall are musical fountains designed by the same people that are responsible for the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas. We watched one show to some Arabian music and it was so awesome. The water goes so high that we ended up getting some heavy mist from the fountains splash us. We will definitely go back for more shows though as it looks spectacular, especially with an amazing building like the Burj Khalifa in the background.
So Dubai Mall is quite a dangerous place when it comes to food!! There is a Tim Hortons, a Hummingbird Bakery, a Cold Stone Creamery amongst other guilty pleasure foods (although we haven't come across a Cheesecake Factory) but our favorite is a very swanky chocolate shop called Patchi. My friend Diana brought us some chocolates from this chain when she visited the UAE and we were hooked-especially because they make this amazing cheesecake chocolate variety!!! So we stepped foot in one and bought some cheesecake chocolates an also a pistachio cream one. Mmmmmmm so good!! There were also tons of chain restaurants that you can find in the UK and America like TGIFridays and Macaroni Grill and Rainforest Cafe...like I said, you would never guess you are in Dubai by being at this mall...oh EXCEPT that every single shop sign has its Arabic equivalent written next to it...even places like Subway and WH Smith have a logo written in Arabic. I would love to know if they are literal translations.
We also stumbled across the Dubai Mall Aquarium. We didn't find it necessary to go in as there are huge observation areas scattered throughout the shops. We were there at a perfect time as we saw a bunch of scuba divers in there and what were they doing?? Window cleaning!!! Now that is an exciting job to have, scuba diving amongst sharks and exotic fish in order to clean the inside windows of tanks.
We also visited the older part of Dubai and this looked quite different from the newer part. It's the area where the gold souk and spice souk are. The buildings are quite old and crowded (much unlike the modern part) and there is evidently a large community of Indian residents. Tons of shops that cater to Indian goods and also tons of curry restaurants. This area got us excited for India!! The souks were pretty cool but its basically shop owners stopping you and asking you if you want a "pashmina, Ali baba shoes (which I actually really want but am waiting for India to purchase), purses, watches, perfume etc". Perry noticed that they always target the women even if he is standing right beside me. Some shop owners did try to get him in a traditional headdress though! No luck!! The gold souk had some beautiful jewelry. I especially loved the bangles but of course this place was not of much use to us at the moment as we are on a backpackers budget.
One thing that has surprised us about Dubai is that it is not as expensive as we thought it would be. Sure the hotels can be quite luxurious and some of the attractions like the water park at Atlantis and the aquarium are really overpriced but the food and transportation is ridiculously cheap! A day pass for the buses and metro is under £3/$5 and the water taxis that got us around the old part of Dubai were about 20 cents each way!! Crazy!! So now we think we completely overestimated how much to bring here which means we will probably have enough left over to spend an afternoon at the Atlantis waterpark (which has a slide that runs through the shark tanks!!!) or to go for a nice meal...or maybe to just convert to another currency for the rest of the trip.
Although it is quite a different city, we are still enjoying it and seeing the world's tallest building is worth it alone. Oh yeah and the heat is awesome too. Tomorrow we plan on visiting the waterfront area, but maybe we will splash about in our host's pool for a while. Our feet wouldn't mind some R&R!
Day 2 of Istanbul began with a ferry ride to the European side and a stop for some Burek. Burek is a pastry made with filo and with various fillings such as potato, cheese, spinach, or ground meat. Perry and I have come to love these and will definitely miss them! We then continued on towards Hagia Sophia. We walked through the grounds of Topkapi Palace but decided we weren't interested in going inside. It then started to POUR! My new umbrella lasted approximately 1.5 minutes before it was turned inside out and the metal bent like a super flexible yoga instructor! So we decided to go into the Hagia Sofia...with a stop for some extremely overpriced freshly squeezed pomegranate juice just prior...those that know me know how much I love pomegranates so I couldn't resist.
Into the Hagia Sofia we went. It's so crazy to think that the most recent version of this building was completed in 500something AD and it is still standing. They don't even make buildings nowadays that last 60 years before they need to be knocked down and rebuilt. The interior of this now museum is very beautiful and intricate and I really liked that we could go to the upper floor and view it from above. I of course could not stop taking photos!!
Upon exiting the museum, we heard another call to prayer but this was unreal because it was coming from the Blue Mosque and about three other surrounding mosques so the sounds were all echoing and mixing with each other. I find myself always recording these call to prayers as I just find them so fascinating and know I will want to listen back to them when we finish our trip.
Unfortunately the rain did not stop so we decided to head to the Grand Bazaar as it is covered. This place is definitely a labyrinth of Jewelers, souvenirs, trinkets, clothes, shoes and so on. Apparently there are sometimes 250,000-500,000 people that visit it daily! There were little tea stands throughout and an employee would carry trays of tea throughout the market to offer to the merchants. There were also the tiniest little food stalls that did the same- carry trays of food to all the merchants. We decided to sit at one of these as the food looked delicious and very homemade. We observed that all the patrons would sit, wolf their food down in two minutes and go. There must have been four waves of people that came and went while we ate. It was all locals and we really stood out sat amongst them (everybody shares the tables as there are only two!). One young man even put his arm around perry, patted him in the belly and said "I finish but you still eating!!" Because he arrived after us but finished before us. It was very comical.
We didn't buy anything at the bazaar but I was very close to buying some of the tiny glasses they use for tea here. As we left, we ended up on a shopping street that had tons of wedding shops amongst shoe stores and clothing stores, all catering to the locals. We couldn't believe how many people were on this street. I found a man selling the tea glasses that I love so much on the side of the road and they were a price I couldn't pass up on so I ended up buying a set. Can't wait to use them when we get back!
We then walked across the bridge with all the fisherman (mentioned in the previous post) and ended up in the area of Karikoy where we found a fish market and plenty of roosters roaming around. All the streets surrounding this area were filled with merchants selling tools and hardware type things. It seemed like 20 streets of Home Hardware/B &Q. Nothing interested us here so we climbed up some steep streets and ended up at Galata Tower. We decided not to climb up as it was not that high and the weather was not the greatest. This area had lots of cute shops and cafes but we decided to head back to our hosts and make him and his fiancé some dinner.
It was difficult to find ingredients that we needed so we made a simple dinner of potatoes and chicken with a salad (and grilled haloumi cheese...mmmm). We needed the evening with some nice conversations with Khalid and Burcu (pronounced Burju- the 'c' in Turkey is pronounced like a 'j' unless the c has a little squiggly under it then it sounds like a 'ch'). The next morning they made us a lovely breakfast and then we departed for the Sulthanamet area where we visited the Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century and was used to store water. It has 336 marble columns and looks really mysterious. It is very damp and we found water constantly dripping on our heads and clothes....it seemed like this was the case in all of Istanbul as it rained constantly (except for day one) so we decided to head back and call it an evening.
Today is our last day in Istanbul as our flight for Dubai leaves at around 10pm. Luckily, I've received my visa after some hassles from the agency I went through to obtain it. All the trouble we've gone through to obtain this visa makes us really negative about the UAE and we really just want to skip right over it and avoid contributing tourist dollars (or dirhams) to their economy BUT as I said, we've had three days of rain and I'm sure the sunshine will make us feel better about it once we are there. Plus our host seems really awesome and he's also got a pool so it shouldn't be all that bad!
Today we were meant to go to one of the Princess islands but the rain made us lazy and we just stayed at home and packed and started our journey to the airport. We tried to find a restaurant that had wifi so I could check up on my UAE visa and we found some of the waiters in the restaurants to be quite cold and unwelcoming. I don't know if this is because we had out backpacks or because they didnt speak English or we didn't speak Turkish but nonetheless we found a nice welcoming restaurant with wifi. Only problem is, they did not have a menu that we understood or any vegetarian options. I am quite surprised at the lack of vegetarian options in many restaurants in a country that is predominantly Muslim. This restaurant said they will make me something special. We ordered this weird frothy yogurt drink mixed with water that we keep seeing. My reaction when I tried it was "wow that is nasty" and Perry thought that as well but for some reason we kept sipping away at it as there was something about it and surprisingly we got through the whole thing! Perry ordered a kebab burger and they brought me a plate of potatoes in a sauce that evidently had meat in it once upon a time. It was still tasty. But I was still starving and we were getting ready to go pay when out comes two giant dishes of grilled vegetables, a giant plate of fries and two side plates of rice. I guess the potatoes in sauce was a starter?? It was lovely and so tasty and they treated us really well, bringing us tea on the house and a very tasty desert called Kunefe (no idea how that is spelled) which was syrupy and cheesy and just delicious. We were worried at what this would cost us as we didn't have too many lyras left but we were completely shocked at how inexpensive it was! We are now absolutely stuffed but this should tie us over until we get to Dubai.
All in all, Istanbul has been great. We had fantastic hosts, fantastic foods and plenty of culture to witness. It was a great first stop of this honeymoon adventure. We would like to return one day, but would prefer to do it in warmer months. What is nice to know is that this will be (err SHOULD be) the worst of the weather during this trip so it's all looking up from here.
Teshekular Istanbul and see you again sometime!
Well we arrived in Istanbul (with a shocking 10.8kg backpack on my back--how did I manage to pack so light??) and day one of our current adventure has come and gone...and what a day it was!
We arrived in Istanbul just after 5am but because of the time difference, this only allowed us to sleep on the plane for about 3 hours so needless to say, we were pretty exhausted!! We made our way to the Kodakoy area (pronounced KodaCUEy--there is an accent above the "o" which I can't input) which is on the Asia side of Istanbul and we met with our host for some breakfast. We tried the traditional tea (called chai) which to me tastes like regular black tea (maybe a touch stronger) and is served in these lovely glasses that look like a large shot glass or mini tulip glass! I couldn't believe my eyes at the sight of this tea everywhere we went today. Believe it or not-it seems more of a tea culture than in England! But I will talk more about that later!
Following breakfast and tea we rode a little shuttle bus to our host's apartment. These shuttle busses are something else, very rickety and they pick you up and drop you off wherever you want along the route--no need for bus stops! You just flag it down when you see one and when you want to get off just tell or yell at the bus driver and he will pull over and let you off. They are very small, maybe with ten seats and some standing space. The drivers honk like crazy cause they try to get as many people as they can on these buses (apparently the name for them translates to something like "pack them in") because this means more money for them. So although the honking may give you a headache after a while, the advantage to these shuttles is that they wait for you even if you are a block or two away and running for it because it means more Turkish Lyra in their pocket! So that is nice to know that they won't drive away because they are not on schedule like the drivers do in some cities (ahemVancouver).
Our host Khalid's place is very nice! With a massive pool! But unfortunately the weather is not right for it at the moment. The thing Perry and I love most though is that it is in what seems like the least touristy place of Istanbul! There are NO tourists here. The neighborhood/area is called Unalan, in the municipality of Uskadar and when Perry and I took the shuttle back into Kodakoy after a power nap, the lack of tourists became very evident when all eyes were on us!
We came from below zero temperatures in the UK to around 15 degrees and sunny in Istanbul so it really felt like summer to us. We were HOT, so I wore sandals and a light cardigan! Well when we got on the bus I noticed all eyes on my light cardigan and sandals and I looked around and realized that every passenger had a winter coat on and many even boots!! The man sitting next to me said "As soon as you get on bus I think to myself 'she English, she English!" Everybody on the shuttle was smiling and/or laughing. I explained that it felt like summer to us and we were very warm. It seemed like every new passenger that climbed on the shuttle, he would point out my shoes to them! Needless to say, I felt like an Australian in Vancouver (you know, the ones that wear their thong sandals in December which always makes me ask if they are crazyyyy). I felt the stares all.day.looooong! I would catch people's eyes drift directly to my feet. I almost bought a new pair of shoes cause I was standing out so much. And no I wasn't being paranoid, Perry noticed it too!!! I asked some girls to take a photo of us and they were even pointing and laughing at my feet! I guess it's karma for thinking that Australians are crazy for wearing thong sandals in winter weather in Vancouver!!
We took a ferry to the European side and as soon as we got off (well actually even from the ferry ride), I was snap happy with my camera.
The area where the ferry dropped us off, I believe it is called Eminonu, had so much going on, and again, barely any tourists so it provided a glimpse into the life of the locals. There were these little boats along the waterfront and on each of these boats were 2-6 men making fish sandwiches and in front of the boats was ample seating space that had tons of people sitting and eating these fish sandwiches (called Balik Ekmek). There were also stands that were making these little donut balls and corn on the cob and chestnuts, and then there were these drinks that everybody had in their hands that had pickles and onions sticking out of them. The color of the liquid was a pinkish red and we had no idea what it was. I am determined to find out though and may even try one today. We loved seeing all the locals sitting on these very low stools (which looked like mini barrels) and eating their fish sandwiches and drinking their red drink with pickles. It seemed like a real local thing to do so we said we would give it a try later.
Right around the corner there was a bridge with all these men (we even saw a women) fishing. There must have been 30-50 of them on both sides of the bridge and they were catching anything from small smelt-like fishes to some bigger trout size ones. They all had a bucket or bowl with water that they were putting their catches in and a lot of the fishes were still alive and breathing and some even swimming around. The fisherman were all socializing, children running around, and there was an older woman with a garbage bag full of water that was going up and down the bridge selling it to the fisherman. It seemed like a real social thing for them as well as a money maker. Perry and I looked in the water and there seemed to be tons of jelly fish in there too!!
Just accross the street, there was a beautiful mosque right next to a spice bazaar. We wandered through the bazaar where we tried Turkish Delight and I snapped so many photos because the colors of the spices and teas were so beautiful! Some of the cafes in the market would carry trays of the traditional tea through the market and sell it to the merchants. Again, what I loved about this market is that we barely saw any tourists, unless they were Turkish tourists. I guess it is not high season but we really seemed to stand out. We then wandered through the neighboring streets and alleyways with merchants selling anything from pots and pans, to tobacco, to cheese, to scarves and linens...pretty much anything and everything. There were also tons of foodie stalls and all we wanted to do was try all the different foods but we managed to resist the delicacies as we weren't even hungry.
This area of Eminonu was such a great place to people watch and catch a glimpse of the rich culture of the local people. We could have walked around for hours but it was time to find some touristy attractions!
We made our way to what was evidently the tourist area: where Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are. We only viewed the Haghia Sophia from the outside because it was half an hour til closing time (we will return though) but we were fortunate enough to go inside the Blue Mosque. Now let me tell you, this place is unbelievable. Such beautiful architecture and the designs on the walls inside are just something else. Again, I couldn't help but snap snap snap snap away! We were in there for quite some time and it was running into one of the call to prayers. One of the security guards welcomed us to sit down if we liked and to observe it. Of course we didn't pass up on this. It was such an amazing experience! The men are all at the front of the mosque and the women all at the back. It seemed like the worshippers came and went as they pleased and some mobile phones went off a few times! Luckily it wasn't any of ours, but it seemed quite informal in regards to the atmosphere of it (people talking, mobiles going off, kids running around, even the fact that they allowed tourists to sit and watch) but I guess its because it is such a famous mosque. I believe some mosques don't allow visitors at all during the call to prayer so those may seem a bit more formal/strict. But formal or informal, the chanting is just so hauntingly beautiful in each of the mosques. Perry and I even agreed that we would put something like that on our iPods!
When we left the Blue Mosque it was dark out and it was great to see this mosque all lit up. Stunning architecture as mentioned. We made our way back to the area where the ferry departs and treated ourselves to one of the fish sandwiches we observed all the locals eating earlier. Perry loved his but unfortunately mine was full of bones and some grissle and wasn't too pleasant to eat. I still managed to eat most of it but most of the time was spent picking the bones out of my mouth!
We then got back on the ferry towards Kadikoy. As soon as you get on the ferry, a waiter goes around with a tray of tea and offers it to the passengers. It seems like everybody, and I mean everybody that gets on the ferry buys one of these teas so we did as the locals do and bought us some tea. As mentioned, the tea culture seems really big here. We saw people drinking this tea everywhere, from the merchants in the bazaar and alleyways to the passengers in the ferry. And it is always served in what looks like a mini tulip style glass (or extra large shot glass). I would love a set of these to have in our future home but the downside is we are backpacking and can't fit trinkets like these in our luggage. I am still tempted to purchase some though and post them back.
Following the ferry, we had a shuttle ride back to Unalan to our host's apartment. As soon as we got off the shuttle by his building, there were locals having a celebration in the street with a sound system set up and lots of dancing going on. We watched for a bit, and thought about how lucky we are to have the opportunity to stay in a neighborhood with no tourists and be witnessing this rich culture.
We returned to Khalid's apartment, had a nice conversation with him, while observing fireworks from the area that the celebration was going on and then we retired to bed to get some rest and prepare ourselves for a day of sightseeing the following day.
And that brings us to now, day 2, on a ferry heading back to Eminonu and ready to witness some more of the rich culture and stunning architecture that is so prominent here in Istanbul. And ready to try some more delicacies! Maybe I will be lucky to find a fish sandwich without bones in it!
This is it!! We decided on this just over two months ago. We've been packed and ready to go for weeks and now the time has come. We are en route to Stansted airport..train from Oxford to London, tube to Baker Street station, shuttle to Stansted (with a cheeky pub stop along the way for some celebratory Strongbow cider).. Hopefully this journey of " hop on, hop off, drink cider, repeat" prior to even boarding the plane will exhaust us enough to make us pass out and get some rest so that we can be ready for a day of exploring Istanbul tomorrow. And with our packed itinerary (thanks to my obsessive planning) there will be no stopping!
;-). I am also using this trip as a way to lose the weight I have put on recently so I am motivated to be on the go go go...in fact, instead of taking the tube to Baker Street from Paddington, we decided to walk it, backpacks and all...and just our luck it decided to hail down (like PAINFULLY hail) and be really windy,( windy enough to blow metal cafe chairs down the street!!). We stood undercover with a bunch of businessmen because the hail was actually really hurting as it hit our faces and these chairs just blew along Wizard of Oz style...We were in hysterics! It is part of the adventure after all! We also stumbled upon a Beatles shop with some amazing merchandise and 22 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes' residence, so although we haven't even departed yet, it feels like we are already traveling. But I guess London always feels like that as there is so much to do here!
So the only uneasy feeling I have at the moment is to do with my visa for UAE. After a ton of conflicting information from a variety of sources, I have gone ahead and applied for a visa through a third party- a travel agency that was recommended by a member of Couchsurfing. I applied, transferred the excessive amount of AED and now I cross my fingers and wait. It's out of my hands now. I was told that it will be ready before we arrive in Dubai on Monday but I do have my doubts. I'm not going to let it worry me. I have to just be positive, enjoy Istanbul, and take each day as it comes. If I get the visa, then great, if not then I can think of a lot worse places to spend 3 nights than the Dubai airport! But all I have to say is Dubai, you have already broken the bank and we haven't even touched foot on UAE soil yet! You better be worth it!!! Well, the weather looks promising anyways so here's hoping that the visa comes through!
I spent about half an hour at a currency exchange counter before getting on the train. One thing that is NOT easy when traveling to ten different countries (which means ten different currencies) is trying to predict how much to bring in each currency, how much to bring in travelers checks (if any) and how much to leave in a bank account. The annoying thing about the bank is they only allow a very minimal amount to be withdrawn daily while abroad and they get you with the fees and poor exchange rates so we opted into getting travelers checks in order to avoid paying hundreds of £'s in transaction fees. I have never used travelers checks before but after some research, they seemed like a good option. This way they are insured as well so if the checks get lost or stolen then we can get them replaced. Also, some countries we are visiting, such as Laos and India, do not (legally) allow their currencies out of or into the country so this just complicated things even more but it will all be part of the adventure that is just beginning!
Istanbul, we are coming for you! Oh, and this will definitely be an experience as we are being hosted by a couple that just so happen to be naturists! Gotta love Couchsurfing and the interesting yet amazing people you meet because of it! Looking forward to it. And to escaping the miserable cold weather in the UK!
But for now, I leave you with something very appropriate (click here and enjoy the song as much as we are enjoying our Strongbow at the moment!)
Honeymoon adventure part 1, bring it on!