Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nepal: what a difference a border makes

After a rain soaked arrival in the border town of Sonauli on the Nepalese side, we were not only glad for the return of sunshine that we had experienced uninterrupted for six weeks, but also for the palpable differences between India and Nepal. As much as we loved the colours, sounds and the intensity of India, Nepal while similar, felt like a new world, cleaner, less frenetic and laid back, nowhere more so the in Lumbini, which is a World Heritage Site, known for being the birth place of Buddha. The village is essentially a one street, one block affair with a few guest houses, stores and a couple of street level eateries and yet the village attracts thousands of pilgrim from around the world. The only chai shop has a few tourists and many more locals and in the early evening there is a steady parade of cows and goats, heading home to mud plastered thatch roofed dwellings.

Of course the main attraction is the giant park known as the Lumbini Development Zone, referred to as the Sacred Garden, where most Buddhist countries are building or have built giant temples and monasteries to complement the much revered Maya Devi Temple, marking the exact site of the Buddha’s birth. The Sacred Garden was designed by an architect from the land-starved country of Japan and measures one by three miles, so there are vast tracts between each nations temples that are best explored at a relaxed pace on bicycles.

We spent two nights here not only decompressing from India but to dry most of our belongings. To our good fortune, there was a major celebration of 77 years of nuns having been in Lumbini and we were invited to a luncheon, where we had authentic food as well, some local input to our next destination, Buthwal.

Instead of retracing our steps from the day before, we followed a road due north, which as promised had no traffic and for the first 10 kms was paved. Unexpectedly however, the remaining 20kms was a dirt track and gave true meaning to being off the beaten track. Still, it was a window into a Nepal where people still live off the land , mostly without electricity, and adults wear brightly coloured traditional clothes, including fezzes for men and scarves for women and where children delight in having their photos taken. Just before we reached the highway to Butwal we happened upon a wedding and had the pleasure of sharing the celebration with an extended family dressed in their colourful costumes, while a band with brass flutes, drums and 10 foot long brass horns played on.

Butwal is a prosperous commercial center which is literally at the footsteps of the Himalaya mountains and it was all too obvious as we walked around town that we were heading due north on the road that pointed straight UP at a steep angle, very much in contrast to our riding in India, which for the most part was flat.

Our destination was Tansen, a hill town appropriately named, some 40kms away, and while the distance seemed short, since nearly all of it was uphill. At the end we were much more tired, than after some of the 100+km days on the flat roads of India. Clearly the more than 2,000 kms we had cycled while in Australia and India were not sufficient for the demands of the long and steep mountain climbs. But what a thrilling ride it was as the road snaked in deep cut gorges, parts looking like the Fraser canyon of British Columbia, with spectacular terraces and rice fields and rushing blue waters below. As always, we had warm welcomes from the smiling locals in tiny villages.

Despite feeling the challenges of the climbs, we explored the town on foot drawn to the most notable site in town a 300 year pagoda like temple. Alas it was on a narrow, medieval like street, heading straight down, one for which most western building inspectors demanded handrails. Still, even from a distance it was captivating and a smiling elderly gentle man meditating in lotus position engaged us in pleasant conversation. It would have been too rude to refuse the invitation to sit with him and indeed the warm rays of the afternoon sun, and the cool still mountain air was an ideal environment for reflection. Unfortunately, my mind wondered fleetingly, from the exquisitely carved erotic sculptures on the columns of the temple of 300 years ago, reminiscent of Khujaraho, to the brass doors, bells and sculptures, but more importantly to the effort to stand up, and how much will my knees be talking to me to make the climb up to the highly recommended restaurant, filling the most urgent environmental imperative: food.

In Tansen, we stayed at the White Lake Hotel, although there is no lake in sight, but at a height of 1,550 metres, we soon understand the appellation, as the valley from our room’s balcony was a shimmering “white lake” of cloud-like dense mist below, illuminated simultaneously by the sun rising and the moon setting at the same time.

From Tansen, we were heading to the lakeside town of Pokhara, at the foothills of the Himalayas, about 120 kms away and given the previous days topography, not a destination to be reached in a day. Adding to the mystery, was the unknown terrain nor knowledge of places to stay along the way. In fact from a cyclist perspective we were one terra nova. Unlike previous trips, we encountered only two other cyclists in Veranasi, and a fairly exhaustive search of the internet showed very few others who had followed our route.

The road continued to follow some river valleys with moderate undulations there were lots of climbs of severity between various mountains. By the 40km mark we noted several very simple places offering food and lodging, one even had a tailor shop with “shirting and suiting” but none looked inviting. I also wanted to reach the halfway mark so we pushed on. Perhaps my growing exhaustion, coloured my perspective, but we decided on a lodge, the Nature View, at Waling , that had a small clean room with a detached washroom down the hall and a hot water bucket shower, but at five bucks a night, served our needs.

The following day we headed to Pokhara, where after another day of river valleys, deep gorges and rice terraces, and some tough 62kms of riding, it’s as if we arrived in yet another world for we are now in the heart of trekking country, with the 8,000 metre Annapurna mountains of the Himalayas serving as the backdrop and the main attraction, and the giant white clad teeth like peaks are clearly visible from our room, at the recently completed Hotel Trekking Inn. (A place I would highly recommend to anyone visiting these parts).

Like kids in a candy shop, we are soaking up luxuries and amenities: 24 hour hot water and a bath tub in which to luxuriate, and even a mini-fridge; television with news in English albeit all the woes of the world are not comforting; countless places offering laundry using washing machines versus our hand washed clothes in cold water; restaurants of every nationality so we have pizza and Israeli salad for lunch instead of searching for the elusive fried noodles and veggies in the villages; and shops stretched out along the lakes side road for a couple of kilometers. We spent the day shopping, in a meditative walking pace sharpening negotiating skills to acquire of a few essentials, a rainproof Gore-Tex jacket for Alison which thankfully does not have a pirated major brand’s label, new sunglasses and some shorts for me. We both get haircuts for the price of a Starbucks coffee and acquired a pocket book, carefully considered for content and weight. As we look ahead, we are already contemplating extending our 30 day Nepali visas, as we are truly enjoying this side of the border.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Leaving India: persistence and overcoming impossibilities

After a long unscheduled “rest”in Sarnath, it felt good to be back on the bikes and ride comfortably about 70 kms to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Guest House in Ghazipur, which had been recently upgraded with good quality furniture and mattresses, the latter being the most notable requirement of tired cyclists, and as on many occasions, we were the only guest in the hotel, and it being run by the state government, had the full complement of staff to look after our dinner and breakfast needs.

The next destination, Doharighat had an identical UP guest house and we looked forward to a good night’s sleep, having had yet again an easy ride through small villages and open fields with yellow mustard seed plants and the occasional sugar and rice fields throw in. I duly approached the person behind the UP reception desk in a deserted lobby who told me quite curtly that there were no rooms to be had and then he disappeared. My suspicions were raised since there were no cars or buses in the parking lot so I just stood there patiently for a couple of minutes when Person #1 returned and I asked again if we could get a room, to which he said no. I smiled and tried to look pathetic and told him that we had been staying in UP guest houses through our travels and we were very tired after riding 80 kms.

A few minutes later Person #2 appeared, an obvious superior and after some discussion takes place between them and it’s clear that Person #1 was sent to look at a room. More discussion and Person #2 say sorry “but it’s impossible”. I once again play my ‘”we are card carrying members of UP Guest Houses” and are very tired and we don’t want to cycle 60kms to the next town and could I at least see the room that they had been discussing. Person #1 shows me a room with peeling walls but with same nearly new furniture and the much coveted mattresses that we enjoyed the night before. By this time Person #2 arrives and directs Person #1 to open another room that looked perfectly OK, other than the fact that the linen need changing and tells Person #1 to give me this ’’impossible room’’, and by the way he tells me there is no hot water.

Person #3 now appears - clearly he is the lowest man on the totem pole- and I ask him when the others have departed if we could get new sheets, towels and buckets of hot water and with the aid of a few rupees he returns smiling with everything we asked for, which only goes to show that in India even the impossible is possible with a little patience, persistence and showing appreciation of those who actually do the work. Later we dined again with the place all to ourselves, with its full complement of staff.

From the mundane issues of accommodation, we were looking forward to Kushinagar, as part of our on-chronological tour of the famous Buddhist sights demarking his life: Kushinagar being the place where the Buddha died and was cremated in 563 BCE, having come from Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon, to Lumbini where we are today, the place where Buddha was born.

The highlight of our stay in Kushinagar was the Mahaparinirvana Temple, that houses a 5th Century six meter long reclining Buddha, that was unearthed in 1876. Set in a beautiful parkland, the temple was truly serene and moving, as a continuous stream of devotees, in a small tomb, chanted, lit candles and brought offerings of flowers, incense and money, some of which ended in the right pocket of the attendant. As in Sarnath and in Lumbini most major Buddhist countries are represented with the own temples and meditation complexes and devotees wearing their national colours move in unison to the various holy sites in these communities.

After a short ride to Gorahkpur, we faced a nearly 100 km day to the India-Nepal border town of Sonauli. Despite the fancy digs at the Park Regency we found six staff sleeping on the lobby couches at 7:15 a.m. well past the time the restaurant was supposed to open, so we decided to leave on near empty stomach to beat the heavy morning traffic, typical of all large Indian cities. We had covered about 10 kms when over a span of a few minutes the western sky turned black and the fierce winds forced us off the bikes and rain began to fall. Fortunately within a few minutes we found a house with an overhang and a half open rollup garage type door where we were protected from the heavy downpour and were able to put on several layers of clothing to keep warm. Through the open door, two kids about three and five offered us chairs inside their room, brought us tea and snacks while we could only make out the shadows of their mother, who no doubt, out of modesty, kept out of sight.

After an hour it started to clear and conscious of the fact that we had done only 10kms and it was past 9:30 we started to ride first in the drizzle and using heavier downpours as an opportunity to consume road side chai but our frequent stop making it to our destination seemed like a remote possibility. Still, we had made some progress and after a good lunch by 1pm, we “only” had 50kms to go. By this time we were both thoroughly wet but persisted at the goal of reaching our border destination; waiting for a bus might have caused hyperthermia and moving was the only way to keep warm. With only a few kilometres to go and still about two hours of daylight left, we had more tea and our favourite “snack” a two- egg- bread- omelette from the road side egg-wallah.

Fortunately by this time the rain stopped but it was getting colder, thus I was elated to find the local UP Guest House only to be demoralized as they were obviously full, and preparations were well under way for a wedding. A quick inspection of the only other optoin in town convinced me that our best option would be to sleep on the Nepali side, the only limitation being the bumper to bumper traffic and slowly setting sun. The road was a giant mud bath that added to the challenge, but by persistent manoeuvring of our bikes between cars, truck, buses and rickshaws enabled us to push our way to Immigration . We cleared Indian Immigration reasonably quickly and in about 15 minutes we also had our Nepali Visas.

We were both getting seriously cold and a couple of full hotels added chills to our spirits as the prospect of riding in the dark the four kilometers to the next town started to loom large. Fortunately, persistence paid off and we did land, in the near dark, at the Mamata Hotel, recently completed with a lovely room with hot water. We were both on the verge of tears of joy. Later a small group of overland adventurers in a sizeable bus, who had arrived at the hotel the same time as we did, told us that it took them three hours to grind their way through the border traffic, which goes to show that cycling has its advantages, if you are persistent and are prepared to ride the distances to soak up the local scenery, which at times come with some rain and loads of possibilities.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Selected Images of India #4

From Sarnath: the week the wasn’t

The last time I set digits to the keypad, we were anticipating a Shabbat dinner but it wasn’t the way things turned out. Ever since arriving in Varanasi, to a person, told us that everyone gets ill there, no doubt in large measure due to the abysmal state of sanitation and the water quality of the Ganges. Not that we are smug but Alison and I have had more than thirty cycling trips between us in south east Asia and India, without ever being sick. But by last Friday it was clear that Alison wasn’t about to continue our streak and by late afternoon had a mild fever and severe stomach woes. Disappointed as we were, we could not make it to Shabbat dinner. A few days resting, a dose of Ciproflaxin, and a steady diet of water and tea lead to Alison’s partial recovery. This allowed us to return to Chabad House for a welcomed meal, accompanied by lively discussion of life and Judaism. It turns out the both the Rabbi and his wife, she in her late thirties and he in his forties found their calling after a life of work and travel so we could well appreciate his advice and experience that amongst other things one is best off eating street food, where there is a large turnover and one can see what is being served.

Still, by Monday we decided to cycle to Sarnath, only 15 kms from Varanasi which promised being much smaller in size and the center for Buddhism, to be quieter and also less polluted. The roads getting there, mostly dust tracts under an expressway under construction. On arrival we were delighted to find that Sarnath wasn’t anything like Varanasi, which I earlier described as the confluence of all the contradictions of India. Sarnath is the place where Buddha gained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and gave his first sermon in 528 BC and the sites and monuments here have been holy to Buddhist ever since.

Sarnath continues to attract large numbers of pilgrims of many nationalities and yet retains the charm of a small village with basically one main street lined with vendors offering fruits, vegetables and stalls and small shops selling a treasure trove of religious art, ornaments and Buddhist books. There are spacious Burmese, Bhutanese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tibetan and Vietnamese temples many with monasteries where many come for retreats and dharma gatherings.

So in this environment of green spaces and lovely gardens, only moderate air pollution our good fortunes continued as did Alison’s recovery. We found Shivam guest house, built less than a year ago with huge rooms, with large windows and gleaming tile floors and beds designed to accommodate a family a at least five, the perfect place but Alison’s recovery was slower than we anticipated. So much so that we approached the local clinic to discover that we had to register for the lofty sum of one rupee and the medical consult with the doctor and all of the medications we received for all possible travel related ailments which hopefully will last for at least another thirty trips, were completely free of charge!

While this wasn’t the week we planned, by tomorrow, we should be on the road, not only of recovery but one of exploration of this land of many incongruities: one of the calmest, smallest communities, a place revered by Buddhists the world over, next door to the holiest and most chaotic Hindu place of worship; in a nation with many poor people, an ill Canadian is treated by a doctor, free of charge. Had we stayed with our original plans, Sarnath might only have been a short stop on our route; such is India and we are thankful for the week that wasn’t.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Varanasi, known as Kashi, the City of Life

It has been said that India is not a contradiction in terms, but sets the terms for all contradictions, and this is especially true in Varanasi. I give a few rupees to a beggar and an Indian man next to me says “good karma”. Later I read in the India Times that the American Bill Gates is urging Indian billionaires to be more charitable. Indeed in India there are many billionaires and countless living in poverty.

Just before arriving, on the perfectly smooth four-lane expressway cows wandered and not unexpectedly trucks and cars travel in the wrong lanes, as everywhere in India. At the city’s periphery there are gleaming modern Toyota and Ford car dealerships next the tent cities and mud dwellings and women making paddies from cow droppings and artfully arranging them by the road side. The pavement stops and suddenly it’s a mud track due to construction and traffic is at a standstill. Throughout the congested narrow lanes of Old Varanasi, where a cow can barely pass, one always needs to be on the look-out for speeding motorcycles.

But it’s along the Ganges, locally the Ganga, one of the most holy of rivers to Hindus, in this City of Life, where life and death stand in stand in dark contrast. Pilgrims come to pray and the sick and elderly come to die. By all accounts one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet by the thousands healthy-looking people pray at, swim in and drink the water of the Ganges along the dozens of ghats. There are colourful and very moving puja ceremonies before sunrise and at sunset. Amongst the ghats are several special “burning ghats” for cremation, bodies wrapped in white, placed on piles of wood, surrounded by family and ; most have their ashes scattered in the holy water. But even here there is a class divide: one ghat for the untouchables and the rest positioned such the wealthier are closest to the water. Unlike the healthy, in seeming contradiction most of the ill and dead animals are not cremated but are weighed down by stones and sent into the Ganges.

The celebrations of life and death seem almost equally serene as the prevailing belief is in reincarnation. The “puja”, meaning respect incorporate elements of most religious and folk art/dance traditions that I have seen. There is the constant chanting, ringing of bells, use of water, flowers, incense, candles and lights. The blowing of a conch sounding just like the shofar, the use of smoke and candles as in Eastern Orthodoxy and the delicate hand and body movements of the dancers of Thailand and Indonesia. All this in a setting where huge crowds gather; cows, goats, dogs roam freely. The crowd is mostly women in multi-coloured saris, men in their woollens, often covered with thick blankets to ward off the chill of the dawn or dusk, children selling small offerings of flower pedals with a candle to be floated down the river, holy men in pure white or deep orange robes and thankfully, not that many foreign tourists, who seem to arrive by the busload and head straight for larger boats to observe the ceremonies are far enough off shore such that only their ineffectual flashing cameras indicate their presence. Most independent travelers appear as mesmerized by the fusion of activities and only an occasional oriental stands out as he or she makes grotesque faces in contorted positions, for the benefit of the camera.

Beyond the river there is a maze of streets to wander in the old city, a number of temples, a vibrant university set along landscaped boulevards and several major arterials full of all the modern conveniences of a city of about two million. We have been here three days but decided to stay an extra night, having found several restaurants and street vendors to our liking, one special one being the Aum Café, run by a spiritual ex-Californian woman with simple, healthy food and she is proud of using only fresh ingredients and for not having a can opener, and free wi-fi is an additional bonus.

On Thursday night as we are strolling after dinner, the unmistakable figure of a man with a large black hat, black suit and white shirt, a Chabad Rabbi appears. He is putting up posters in Hebrew, having only arrived the day before that Chabad House is open and we will be having a Sabbath service and meal with him this evening.

What is the chance of such a Sangam, the confluence of events, in this case two tourists, who had planned to move on the day before, meeting a Rabbi, who had just arrived in town the day before, on aminor side street at the south end of Varanasi: only in India, the land of contradictions and conjunctions?

Namaste and Shabbat Shalom


chief explorer

andrew's bicycling tours

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Selected Images of India #2

Erotic sculptures from 1000 years ago

Life as it is, from Khujaraho to arriving in Varanasi

If it was not for this blog, the countless photos and the universal ritual of reviewing the daily tally of digital images which I imagine is similar to great white hunters of long ago, tallying their daily kills. In our case, we have two cameras and Alison in a humorous moment suggested saved our marriage, as such we can each focus on our own experiences. Without these reminders I would have difficulty recalling, where we have been, what we have seen and try to review it in some orderly manner. Beyond the daily kilometers covered, which now totals 1,200, soon at some level all the myriad of experiences start to meld into a gigantic pot full of everything India is well known for, compounded by the fact that we are experiencing it by being self-propelled on two wheels and at times internalizing all of the nuances, as we move from place to place, and by osmosis we become Indianized, a word not yet in the Google Dictionary.

From Khujaraho to Satna, we rode through pleasant country side and for the first time I became aware of the marking on the map, “Panna Hills” which by the standards of the Rockies or the Himalayas are mere random errors on the generally flat landscape, but they still engaged slightly different muscles groups and were a welcome variety and a taste of what’s to come as we head towards Nepal. It being Indian Independence day, we were regaled in every settlement by everyone heading to a school yard or other point of assembly carrying small flag and the speeches and singing followed us for most of the day. As luck would have it there was yet another wedding in the hotel we were staying, and after dinner we were “invited” to join the festivities and sample the fruits and sweets that were offered.

While I do a fair amount of planning for each trip, after Satna I was not sure which way we were going to ride towards Varanasi, the quality of the road surface and the promise of a place to stay being two key considerations. The two faint pink lines on my map, which I was told was a single lane road, and reassured that it was in good condition became our route to Chitrakoot, and what a great ride it turned out to be, with virtually no traffic and at least half the distance through rolling hills and forest with little or no habitation.

In Chitrakoot we spent the afternoon and evening wandering the narrow streets leading to Ram Ghat, one of the revered bathing places to mingle among the pilgrims and worshipers followed by a boat ride on the river, each river boat being saddled with an additional passenger: a pink eyed pure white rabbit.
Just as we were starting to have dinner, a couple from Australia arrived and perhaps like us, not having seen a foreign tourist for many days, and none on bicycles yet, they were eager to trade stories as like-minded people do. Each encounter is a quick recap of a life and we soon learned that the Ozzies had rented their home for five years and are thus “forced” to be on the road for the most part for the duration, needless to say, prompting us to give consideration to extending our own four month foray.

The ride to Allahabad promised to be challenging as the map indicated a distance of about 130 kms and in anticipation we had an early start and the tanks were filled with morning chais and parathas. What we did not count on were the abysmally rough road surfaces which constituted about the first 50 kms. Conscious of the need to keep a steady pace the pounding took its physical and mental toll, for in the early low angle of the sun, the road like a mirage shimmered perfectly smooth, and for very short periods indeed it was quite ride able, but for the most continued like an old rock and roll song, ‘’shake, rattle and roll’’. Slowly my mindset changed: rather than experiencing disappointment as the apparently smooth surface in the distance turned out to be otherwise, I gradually assumed that the road will be rough and took delight in the few smooth patches as they materialized. It brought to mind the slogan on a T shirt I had seen earlier “MBA Master of Bad Attitude” which could be interpreted in many ways but it became a mantra as I conquered my own attitude to the road and accept “Life as it is”.

Thankfully, the road did improve and by the 110 km mark as the sun was once again slowly sinking, to my horror I saw Alison lying motionless on the road about 25 feet behind. By the time I raced back a concerned crowed had already formed and traffic around here were rerouted and she was able to tell me that she did not see the rut in the road and had fallen off her bike. In a minute or so she regained composure and reflected on her scraped elbow, a large bump and we were directed to a nearby first aid station and her wounds were attended to and she soon recovered her composure. While only about 25 kms from our destination, we considered taking a bus but she made the heroic decision to ride the distance. We arrived at what later turned out to be the outskirts of Allahabad in near pitch darkness and it appeared nobody had heard, or understood, the direction to our planned place to stay.

As our map of the city only showed the core, we moved in the darkness, each with rear flashers but with no way for me to see Alison cycling behind, she kept singing “I am right behind you” until at one intersection a confident young man of about 18 was able to draw a small sketch, which to my horror indicated several turns and about four more kilometers to go. My lateral suggestion to hire a rickshaw and follow it to our destination was met by a firm directive from the local youth: “You will not hire a rickshaw; you will ride”. We followed instructions and we continued in the Saturday night traffic, moving at a snail’s pace towards our destination; a half hour later our guide who was on foot gave us an encouraging smile and a wave as we waited to make a turn at a particularly congested intersection.

Using the Catholic Cathedral as our landmark, which we discovered was beautifully lit at night; I pull up to our hotel, only to have my heart sink to be told that they were fully booked. More cycling and several “sorry no rooms” we finally arrived at Hotel Valentine, thankfully several notches above a “love hotel”. After 137 kms and riding, including one hour in the dark, I instantly loved the room but was still motivated to negotiate a 35% discount. And yet again, after a dinner were ‘’invited’’ to a very lavish wedding in the fancy hotel across the street, where we enjoyed the fireworks, the music, the chanting and the sweets; - After all, this is life as it is in India.

On Sunday morning we were inexplicably drawn to the huge Cathedral, where a moving service in English was in progress to commemorate International Leprosy day and was our way of reflecting on and giving thanks to our own good fortune. We then toured four majestic tombs from the 1600s but the highlight of the day turned out to be a visit to the “Sangam” meaning the auspicious confluence, in this case of two holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, which draws hordes of pilgrims, which every 12 years attracts a staggering 17 million. This year’s Magh Mela, a couple of days away, is a more minor celebration but judging by the sea of tents set up as far as the eye could see and the throngs of people everywhere, we quickly understood why there were no rooms to be had.

Next day we stayed at the Utter Pradesh Government run guest house at the foot of the bridge crossing the Ganges. Luckily they had a room for us, one of a few of several dozen that had been renovated, the rest being gutted and under construction. Once again, amongst the rubble we had a great stay and as the only guests, the full attention of staff with a delicious dinner and early breakfast as requested.

The smooth concrete road leading to the edge of Varanasi was a joy to behold only to be jolted into another reality as the main street leading to our destination was under construction, reminding us of the Ying and Yang of life. Once again, we found the hotels listed in tourist guides, especially with views of the Ganges, fully booked. Thankfully, there are no shortages of places to stay and a modest hotel, in a quiet location with a large balcony and a magnificent view of the rivers awaited us, a sharp contrast to the throngs at the main ghats, and the labyrinth of narrow streets that seem to attract speedy motorcycles. All is well as we accept life as it is.