Thursday, 23 December 2010

Days 108 - 118: End of Part 1

Anjuna, Goa

Getting to Delhi marks the end of part one of the round-the-world odyssey. I have to head back to the UK in January or February for a couple of things, not least the run up to best man duties at my friends' Pete & Karen's wedding. Plus, heading up to Nepal and Tibet in January would have been a bit dull as it would have been cold and I wouldn't have been able to do a lot of the stuff I would have liked to do. My India visa expires on the 22nd January so I have to be out of here by then. So I've taken the executive decision to stop the official overlanding as of Delhi and restart from that point as and when I can get my ass back out here.

Delhi was hectic. The trip down on the bus was slow, taking 10 hours when it should have been 5. What seemed to delay us heavily was the sheer number of weddings going on. November and December is really the season for it over here. When the bus did finally arrive in Delhi at 11.30pm the driver refused to go to the interstate bus terminal, which is fairly central. That meant that I was stranded somewhere in the Delhi suburbs with no obvious means of onward transportation. That was until it turned out that one of the people who'd been on the bus was a rickshaw driver whose rickshaw just happened to be parked across the road. This was either a startling piece of good luck, or they saw me coming. I'm not quite sure which. Either way I managed to make it to a rather nice hotel and crashed out there for a couple of days.

Delhi was the place where I hit the wall in travelling terms. Everyone said it would happen eventually, although I didn't really believe them. I just ran out of energy and basically spent a week doing very little. It's not the greatest of places to develop that kind of fatigue either as it's pretty draining. Paharganj, where all the travellers stay, is particularly hard work. Everyone, seemingly, is solely interested in parting you from your money and they will find elaborate ways to do so. In particular they focus on the railway station where people don't know what they're doing. One Aussie woman I met was practically in tears because the touts around the station had been so aggressive in stopping her getting to the ticket office there and steering her towards one of their overpriced ticket agencies. One tout even had a uniform and ID card. There were numerous other examples and it happened so often that I just ended up ignoring everyone who spoke to me and barely breaking stride. It seemed to be the only way but it did mean that I was more rude to more people in Delhi than I've probably ever been in my life until now. For instance, where previously I'd have indulged in some banter about the stuff people wanted to sell me or whether the rickshaw driver would take me to some shop where he'd get some commission in Delhi I just said "no". It's a bit sad that I've been put on the defensive so much here. It's just possible that some people just want to chat, as had been the case in Iran and Pakistan, but they received the same treatment.

Anyway, it's not all negative. After crashing in Delhi I made it down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was spectacular but very busy. I also went to see the Agra Fort, which is very well preserved and much more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi (but not a patch on Lahore). I stayed in a nice place called The Nirvana Hostel. Dorm rooms and communal areas for the first time for ages. Then it was back to Delhi, for a few more days, including visiting the museum (which is v good indeed) and meeting up with Jyotin, an ex-colleague of mine who's back in Delhi for the hols.

I'm now down in Goa for Xmas and New Year, currently sharing a villa with Rick and Tugca and expecting to see a few other travellers who I've met over the last few months. Time for a bit of well-deserved R&R. See you again in a few months!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Day 91 - 107: More chapati?

It's been a while since I posted so quite a bit to catch up on. Shimla was a bit dull. It was the summer capital of the Raj and is basically an English market town in the middle of India. Complete with amateur dramatics society and YMCA (where we stayed and no, it's not that much fun to stay there). The main thing that marks it out as obviously Indian is a massive statue of Hannuman the monkey god (yes, he of "born from an egg on a mountain-top" fame). Alexandre and I hiked up to the top of the hill, aware of various warnings that the monkeys up there were particularly violent. They sell sticks to hit them with! It all seemed fine until getting right up to the temple when one of the simian so-and-sos jumped on my back to steal my sunnies. Monkey on my back, indeed. Shimla not that exciting altogether and the Bird Sanctuary rates as the worst tourist attraction I've seen on my trip. Even worse than the meteorite crater at Dogubayazit. The bird collection consisted of chickens, geese and ducks and little else besides. More of a European farmyard sanctuary.

So it was off to Rishikesh where the Beatles came to hang out with the Maharishi Yogi. Lots of Asrams and lots of yoga. I signed up for a week-long yoga and meditation retreat at the Phool Chatti Ashram. I had a few days to kill before that. Met up with Mike, Tanja and Ipi again and we all spent a few days wandering around Rishikesh, getting our ears cleaned by an ear cleaner, going white-water rafting (no-one fell in) and various other things.

So then it was off to the retreat. It's a beautiful place, on the banks of the ganges and about 5km out of Rishikesh so quiet. Cold too, but hey it's December on the edge of the himalayas. The days consisted of a 5.30am start, 3 hours of yoga a day, some more meditation (although I'm v glad I did the Tushita course before as it meant I knew what I was doing in the meditation as most didn't), chanting, nose cleaning (pouring water up one nostril and out the other!) and some nice walks in the country-side. Excellent grub - served up by the kitchen staff who just keep coming round offering stuff until you say no: "more vegetable?", "more chapati?" etc. There were two highlights. Firstly dunking ourselves in the Ganges three times (yes, very cold) after chanting "Om Ganga Mai" a few times and making a flower offering. Secondly the fire ceremony where we did more chanting (the same mantra 108 times, one for each god) and burnt wood. All in all quite a good week.

Then I headed back into Rishikesh with Rick, Tucga, Amira and Cora. Went whitewater rafting again, but this time a much longer course. This time I did fall in, mid-rapids. Wicked fun. Other than that basically doing not much in Rishikesh. We all went to the sunset ceremony at the Shiva temple by the Ganges. I could describe it, but I'll stick some photos up when I next get the chance.

I had planned to head down to Delhi yesterday. But, after tempting fate by telling my Ma on the phone that I'd managed to avoid getting sick at all on the trip since Moldova, I found myself laid up in my 'hotel' in Rishikesh for 24 hours. Nothing serious and I'm off to Delhi today. I'll put some photos on this post when I have a bit more time.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Contact info in India

I finally succumbed and picked up an Indian SIM card to keep in touch with people over here. The number is +91 812 629 0724. Off to do some yoga now. Will do a proper blog post in about a week.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Days 80 - 90: Shhhh

McLeod-Ganj, India
Getting into India proved an awful lot easier than getting into Pakistan. I cadged a lift with Mike, Tanja and Ipi in the 33 year old Mercedes van that they'd driven all the way from Austria. Crossed over the border at Wagah-Attari but managed to miss the border closing ceremony due to combination of pain-in-the-ass border officials and enjoying our first beers for a month. 15,000 people go to watch it on the Indian side alone and it felt like being at a football match with crowds streaming towards the border. The beers tasted good though. Well, the Tigers were good but the Hayward's 5000 which we picked up later was vile. Sounds like engine oil, tastes like engine oil, and about 9% to boot.

From the border we headed off to look for somewhere to park the van up for the night. Ended up on the side of a farmer's field. Beautiful place. The local farmers were very interested in who we were, and we paid them an extended visit in the morning, although not quite as extended as they wanted and they were very disappointed when we finally took off. I think they'd invited all the neighbours to come and meet their new guests. I did get to drive their tractor before we went though.

From there we headed up country towards Dharamsala, stopping off en route in Nurpur for the night. Nice temple, lots of monkeys, quite a few annoying kids and an early morning wake up call from a guy from the Indian Archaeological Survey to encourage us to move on.

We were parked right next to the fortress/temple complex. It was also at this point that I remembered my 'when I get to India' cigar that Karima had bought me, which I'd been carrying since home. So I sparked that bad boy up to celebrate.

From Nurpur it was a short hop to Dharamsala/McLeod-Ganj so we stopped off at some hot springs. Hiked a few kms as the bridge was still being built. Acquired some dogs that did their best to spook all the farm animals along the way. Local farmers were not impressed and I'm not sure our attempts to tell them that the dogs weren't ours were completely understood. Also met a bunch of Tibetan bikers from McLeod whose cafe we went along to when we got into town.

McLeod-Ganj is an old hill station which is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. A very traveller-heavy place and it was weird seeing lots of tourists for the first time in ages. The scenery is spectacular. The town rambles up the side of a steep hill with mountains in the background and loads of pine forests.

While in McLeod I thought I'd get down and spiritual by signing up to a course on Buddhism. 6 days of silence, abstinence and meditation at the Tushita Meditation Centre, at the top of the hill above McLeod.

Actually very interesting. While I might not really buy into any form of religion in a big way, I certainly found the meditation to be a worthwhile thing and I may well carry on doing it. While meditating you have to avoid two elements: dullness (i.e. thinking about nothing) and agitation (i.e. thinking about lots of random things). I'm simplifying massively here. I was almost totally devoid of dullness. Insert your own joke here please.

After 6 days all of us on the course were ready for a bit of fun so all met up at a bar back in McLeod for drinking, singing and (most importantly) TALKING!!! A great bunch of folks and a good night, so a lot of us did the same thing again the following night.

Today I'm off to Shimla Hill Station on the overnight bus. After almost 10 days in McLeod it feels a bit weird to be back on the road again.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Days 72 - 79: Up close and personal with the Baluchistan Levies

Lahore, Pakistan

So now to bring you up to date...

After crossing the border into Pakistan at Taftan I was immediately whisked off to the Baluchistan Levies station. They told me there were no buses that day and I would need to spend the night at the station. Quite a fun 24 hours actually. It's a bit like the wild west in Taftan and staying at the station was a cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and Rio Bravo (movie buffs will be able to tell me why that's unsurprising). They fed and watered me and all in all it was a good time. Although I couldn't actually leave the station. One slightly unnerving moment was when I was chatting to some people inside the station. I asked if they were police and they said no and made a gesture of putting their wrists together. So they were all prisoners. Altogether there were 83 prisoners in the station, and it wasn't a big one. Fortunately all of them were there for passport and visa violations in Iran, from whence they'd just been evicted. After 24 hours I was ready to move on, but sadly when I went off (armed bodyguard in tow) to catch the bus it turned out that there was a strike. So no buses that day.

I'd resigned myself to another (and possibly another and another) night at the Taftan Hilton when Ali and Daniyal turned up. They'd been driving overland from the UK to Pakistan, initially in 2 cars and now in 1 car following a crash in Turkey. So I squeezed myself into the back of their 3-series BMW, very grateful to be getting out of Taftan, and off we went. As a bit of background info the road between Taftan and Quetta is VERY DANGEROUS and shouldn't be driven in the night or without armed escort. Initially we had a guy with a gun in the car but about half way to Quetta they decided we didn't need it any more. A little further on, thanks largely to terrible roads and lorries constantly using main beams, we had a crash. No-one hurt, but the radiator was knackered. We managed to limp on to some vestige of civilisation in the form of a cluster of houses, where several people tried to fix it, all to no avail. Since that hadn't worked, we decided to wait it out, hiding in a hut by the side of the road in the middle of the night. Kidnappings and tribal violence are quite common along that road so we decided it was best to keep our heads down. After a couple of hours the police turned up. We'd been checking in at police checkpoints all the way along the route and when we didn't arrive at the next one they eventually sent out a search party.

The police turned up a little more en masse this time and they towed us to a second levies station where we spent the rest of the night. Again, all a bit wild-west.

In the morning we got a tow to the nearest big town where we sat and waited for Ali's friends to come out from Quetta to pick us up. At that point we stuck the car on the back of a cattle lorry and sent it off towards Quetta and we piled into the Toyota pick-up (in hindsight a much more sensible vehicle for these roads!).

Pic below is of our various rescuers...

After the fun and games on the road, Quetta was a relative haven of calm, so I kicked back for a couple of days and then got the Jaffer 'Express' to Lahore, a 30 hour train journey in standard class (no first class available), which was made easier by all the friendly folks on the train, including Waqas, below...

In Lahore I've spent about 4 days at the Regale Internet Inn, a relative haven of peace and calm in a crazy town. Visited all the sights: the old town, the fort, Jehangir's tomb etc.

Spent a fun day with Javed, who I recommend as a guide if you come to Lahore (, +92 300 4350 693, photo below, Javed's on the left). Also I've enjoyed a lot of local music at various venues including a great band playing on the roof here at the Regale.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Days 58 - 71: Beneath the veil

Lahore, Pakistan

Since it's been nearly a month since I last posted, this is going to be a rather brief whip through Iran. So having been joined by Ian in Shiraz we proceeded on a whistle-stop tour of the big 3 in Iran: Shiraz (for Persepolis), Esfahan and Yazd.

Persepolis was impressive but they've made a few weird decisions with how they look after the sight and I wasn't quite as wowed with it as I thought I would be. We also headed over to Pasargardae which wasn't much to write home about at all. Mind you, all these sites are 2500 years old so you can't expect too much.

Esfahan was spectacular, particularly the Imam Square.

A very religious town with lots of impressive mosques. Also a lively bazaar in which we splurged on various things. I took the opportunity of having Ian around to pick up a carpet (a Qashqai bread kilim from Mr Ackbar, below, to be precise) and some camel-bone carvings which I sent home with him.

Chatted to a lot of people here including one young mullah and lots of english teachers (although I suspect some of them might not have been english teachers at all, one for instance, under questioning couldn't name a single english novel). Nice bridge in Esfahan too. Also in Esfahan we went to see Zerhaneh ("house of strength") which had been billed a an Iranian martial art. In reality it consisted mostly of lots of men doing splits press-ups and then twirling huge wooden clubs around. You have to see the pictures. Also met my second air force colonel.

For Yazd I had two aims: ride on a camel and eat camel. I achieved both objectives. Also went on a trip out into the desert to visit Meybod (an old castle), Chak Chak (the holiest Zoroastrian site perched on the side of a mountain - really picturesque - piccie of the inside of the temple below) and Kharanaq (a run down old town).

Ian and I also assumed to roles of retail consultants for the evening as we were dragged off by the owners of the local "mall" (think Somerfield in the 1970s) to advise them on how to attract more customers. Not exactly either of our fields but hey, it was different.

After bidding Ian a fond farewell I headed down to Kerman with Dallas and Mary who I'd met in Yazd. The next day we headed into the Kaluts with Mahmoud our guide in his old BMW. The Kaluts are an amazing place. Check out pics on the internet. I'll post if I can. A sandy desert with huge rock mesas. We were visited by some wild foxes during the night. Photo of us hunting foxes is below...

I decided to sleep out in wilds under the stars, despite the foxes. A very cool experience. I was undisturbed by the foxes but at one point I heard a rustling and shone my torch in the direction, to see lots of little lights shining back (like eyes reflected in the dark). Turned out to be a crisp bag. My home for the night is in the photo below...

After Kerman I headed on alone to Bam, where they're rebuilding the old adobe citadel which was previously spectacular but was pretty much destroyed in the earthquake of 2003. Rebuilding is coming along. No other tourists there, although the Iranian Minister of Transport was, bizarrely. Tourism has dried up, according to Mr Ackbar who runs the guesthouse, by the security fears. A japanese guy was kidnapped in 2007. To be fair, they might have a point and Mr A was very careful to ensure that he knew where I was at all times and gave me a lift to a lot of places himself.

From Bam I headed to the border. Police escort in Bam but nothing after that. I'd been told that the cops would be all over me as soon as I got to Zahedan, the next town, but there were none around. So I jumped in a cab and headed for the border. At one checkpoint the police were quite surprised that I had no escort but hey. Made it to the border in the early afternoon and crossed without any problems. Then Pakistan...but that story will have to wait for another day.

I've skipped over quite a bit here: some massively flirty Iranian ladies on the bus (I may be developing a headscarf fetish), Mustapha the wizened bellboy at the hotel in Esfahan, dozens of interesting people who stopped to chat, lots of old buildings, some really cool restaurants and a bunch of other stuff. Should have tried to keep this more up to date as I went but there just wasn't time.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Day something to day something else: Waaaah!

So the good news is that I'm still alive and in one piece after a rather turbulent journey across the Iran/Pakistan borderlands. I'm going to blog properly once I have access to fast internet and there isn't a scheduled power cut. In Lahore right now with exciting tales to tell of Iran and particularly the journey over to Pakistan which included numerous armed police escorts, 2 nights in different 'police stations', a late night car crash in the most dangerous place in Pakistan (no harm done to anyone) and getting up close and personal with the Baluchistan Militia Levies. TTFN.