Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Mad dogs, Englishmen and a couple of Aussie girls...

Our first week of touring Northern India has been a pretty eventful one. Since Agra we took our show to Jaipur after our proposed tiger safari in Ranthambore was cancelled for stocktaking. The glamour of it. Jaipur is a pretty city and we spent some hot lunchtimes braving the 42c heat to see the Pink Palace and the Amber Fort, which is majestically situated on the hills outside town overlooking the river. After a false start (it was almost like watching me try to get a horse started) we took the slightly touristy but enjoyable elephant ride up to the top. Inside the fort was three parts scorched sandstone to one part menacing monkey, a combination that we found to our liking.

Our extra night in Jaipur gave us the chance to browse the bazaars, soak up the local culture and visit Pizza Hut. Well, there is a limit to how much curry you can eat.

Pushkar, a highly religious town where alcohol and meat are banned, followed next. The heat here was offset slightly by the fact our hotel had a swimming pool and we spent the next day and a half engaged in light sightseeing, getting harrassed by the locals (No, we really, really, REALLY don't want to buy two marionettes) and attempting to grow gills.

Now we are in the pretty city of Udaipur, home to many lakes, palaces and temples. Admittedly the lakes have dried up but the temples and palaces are stil around. Today's attempt to melt in the noonday sun took us to the fantastic Monsoon Palace, high on the hills above town and utterly deserted apart from the monkeys, a chipmunk which had moved in to one of the upstairs rooms and a bat in the basement. Our solitary creepings added much to the atmosphere of the place and made it one of the highlights of India so far.

(Note to those awaiting new galleries - a seemingly promising spot has turned out to be a bust so we may have to wait until Thailand. And I though India was meant to be the home of whizz-bang technology. After all, that's where all the helpdesks are...)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rupee Madness
After 11 days of altitude sickness, 6 of which involved long days bouncing about in the jeep, we were ready to spread out and unwind for a few days and Kathmandu proved to be the perfect place.

Our hotel's chef proved a master of French toast and these daily feasts set us up for lazy days of shopping and minor sightseeing. The shops of Thamel overflow with beautiful handmade photo albums and paper products, t-shirts custom embroidered by sewingmachine wizards, sarongs and wraps of all colours and materials as well as the usual chess sets and North Fake jackets. The prices were reasonable and our haggling skills well-honed so we feel like we got a couple of bargains. The Nepalese people have a great attitude and if you want it, they can make it, and it was this - and the great food - which made our stay in Kathmandu a great one.

We flew to Delhi on the 14th after the most exhaustive security checks ever encountered. My backpack has been x-rayed so many times that I'm scared to dump it down heavily in case it gets angry, turns green and fills me in. Delhi was a bit of a culture shock but not the overwhelming one we expected. The people speak English, drive (primarily) on the left, like cricket and love curry. It's like South Harrow really except, with temperatures in the 40c area, a bit warmer.

Our friend Lisa arrived on Sunday to find us in UEFA cup spot (Boro) and relegation (WBA for our mate Spence) fever. Incredibly 5 results went the right way thanks to Mark Schwarzer and my home-made West Brom shirt (which has bailed them out twice now).

We are now in Jaipur on the third day of our 16-day tour of Rajahstan, and will be here until Sunday. On Tuesday we saw the Taj Mahal which, despite its familiarity, is amazing. The power of the bulding lies in its ability to inspire from a distance with its elegant dome and towers as well as close up as you marvel at the almost endless ornamentation. Semi-precious stones, inlaid flush to the surface of the marble cover every surface, forming flowers, patterns and writing. Yesterday's highlight was Fathepur-Sikri, the former capital abandoned for lack of water. Grand courtyards and red sandstone buildings stand empty next to puzzlingly green lawns.

(Our search for an internet cafe with the means to upload pictures is sadly ongoing.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

High Anxiety

Our flight to Lhasa was fine. The scenery outside of the plane was fantastic (Martin is working as we speak to get these photos up) though the food inside gave us a slight cause for concern if it was a sign of things to come (salty porridge....?).

The flight was on-time and when we landed we started to wonder if all this talk of Altitude Sickness is just lies. Headaches, dizzyness, out-of-breath, yeah right. We were fine and we're only in the airport (kind of like that time we beat jet lag and woke up in a hotel room in Gympie at 9 o'clock at night - try finding food at that time of night in Gympie!).

It was another two hours before we were able to feel its first effects. The airport at Lhasa is over 90 kms outside of town and so felt fine for the two hour coach journey into town. We arrived at our Hotel and proceeded to walk up two flights of stairs to the reception. After the first flight we started to breath heavily and by the second we were panting like we'd just done the Ventoux. After checking into our room we discovered we needed to have a good lie down (involving a four hour nap) after which we had the strangest feeling in the world - the dizzyness of being tipsy combined with a hangover size headache. Hmm, hardly seems fair to have them both at the same time.

Its probably a good time now to say we were pretty disappointed with Tibet. Perhaps our perceptions were too unrealistic. We knew it wasn't going to be the Shangri-la of "Lost Horizon" fame and we knew that the Chinese had altered it forever, but we just couldn't get a good feeling for it. Maybe it was the harrassing monks shouting "Money, money!" at any white-faced tourists they see or being persistently overcharged by shopkeepers. Alternatively it could be the sinister Non-Government operators (NGOs) who seem to each have a token Tibetan with them in each of the restaurants we went to. Tibet's case also wasn't helped by the profusion of 17 year olds on their gap year whose Mummy has given them a round-the-world ticket which gives them a stop in 20 different countries for five days. I hope somebody back home will tell them how stupid they look in their collection of "ethnic" hats. I didn't have the heart.

As it stands we were happy to leave Lhasa and head towards the border on a Jeep trek that would take in some of the sights as well as Mt Everest Base Camp. We were lucky to be paired with Ana and Juan Carlos (from Spain and Argentina) for the trip. Apart from an opportunity to practice my ever-diminishing spanish, Ana and Juan Carlos were great companions and always up for a laugh. Lucky this as we keep running into them here in Kathmandu!

We departed on my birthday (4:00am start - that's why I'm starting to look old!) and over the next few days passed through several of Tibet's towns, monasteries and forts. All these were only a pre-cursor for the big one - Everest. All through the last couple of days our guidebooks had promised glimpses of Everest. It wasn't until Day 4 as we went over our highest pass that we saw it. I'm not going to bother with words as the four of us in the jeep certainly didn't. Instead we jumped out of the jeep and were giddy as children (not just the altitude this time) and ran about photographing Everest and us in various combinations. After half an hour here we jumped back in the jeep and headed towards Everest Base Camp where we would spend the night.

Everest Base Camp was an interesting place for an evening, but I can't imagine spending five weeks there as some of the mountaineers we met had. All that time for acclimitisation must drive them potty. One climber we met, Humphrey Murphy is hoping to go up in a few days time if the weather is right. We've got our fingers crossed for him and will be keeping an eye on Explorer's Web for his progress.

After Everest, we thought the last day would be a disappointment. Thankfully it wasn't. As we lost 4,000 metres of altitude and headed to Nepal the road hugged the river and we had some amazing scenery. The friendliest border crossing ever, a cheap and tasty dhal bat lunch and a five hour bus ride later and we were in Kathmandu. Obviously there are bigger issues in Nepal with the Maoist rebels in the countryside (our bus went through about 6 roadblocks), but Kathmandu is fine and a friendly and welcoming place.

We definitely feel we're back into our world now - driving on the left, cricket in the streets and fantastic food. Namaste.