Saturday, June 30, 2007

Nepal, fresh air to Pokhara

(Pokhara signpost)

It was amazing how fast things changed once you got into Nepal. To be sure the first 5 km or so after to border could have been still in India, but after that, things changed. The country, the people, and thank God, even the traffic got better. The first thing that struck me is that it was somehow cleaner than India. Second the people were different, now they had distinct mongoloid features, rather than the very dark complexion which characterized much of northern India. Personally I find the Nepali much more attractive. After a few km, I found that the air was cleaner and lo and behold the road started to go into the mountains. There was little traffic, and beautiful vistas as the road followed a river valley into the hills. The road to Pokhara is a very long winding road, with plenty of views, very interesting little villages along the side of the road wherever there was enough room for them, and though the road wasn't all that great, it was certainly passable, made even more so by the lack of traffic. I was having so much fun, that I actually made it all the way to Pokhara, something I hadn't really planned to do. It was a very long day, so I was really happy to get there.

(Heading towards Pokhara)

This was what I had been missing since I left northern Pakistan, some great mountain roads, little traffic, great vistas. No wonder that I was ready to get out of India, this is what was waiting for me, and I knew it.

(Strider and the Annapurnas)

Pokhara is a great place to unwind after norther India, it is very scenic, has all the amenities of a tourist town, and it is cheap. Of course these amenities don't come without a price, and that is the concentration of hustlers is very high. Nevertheless, it is truly one of the nicest places to hang out in that I have been that doesn't have a beach. The biggest drawback was the fact that I had picked the wrong time of the year to be here. The spectacular Annapurna range was for the most part hidden away behind clouds or it was so hazy that the view just gave you a hint of what was hiding up there.

(Heading towards Pokhara)

I did walking around the town, and in the hills above, which afford a great view of the town. One day I was feeling particularly energetic and took a walk around the lake. Something that started out as a hour walk down to the Dam, turned out to be a 7 hour walk all the way around the lake back to where I had started.

(Phewa Lake, Pokhara)

It was really wonderful, there are a number of little villages across the lake from the town, and the hills go up and down and around the hills. There are always paths, going in all directions but it was still easy to find your way. There were practically no people around, and a couple of dogs kept me company for at 3 km through three villages, before turning back home.
Close to far side of the lake I had a choice to make, I either continue walking along the hills or wait try to get a ride across a canal separating me from the river valley and eventually the other side of the lake. I had seen a couple of school kids coming from the opposite side of the lake, walking across this large river delta, so I knew they had a way to cross. It turned out that the families had canoes and when called would row over and get their kids and bring them back across. So when I got to the spot, I waited and sure enough someone came along, called and a girl came down rowed across and brought him back. When they got back to my side I asked if he would take me across and he cheerfully did (for 10 Nrs). On the opposite side, once I crossed the large river delta, there is a road, so it was an easy, if hot and dusty walk back to the village.

(Hills around Pokhara)

A few days later I took my motorcycle an rode to the end of this road, and it goes quite a way back into the river valley, and ends at a small village which is split in the middle by river which feeds the lake from the mountains.
Also there are some great rides up and around the hills in the area in every direction. But it is best if you have a bike with some power, as the hills can be pretty steep, with plenty of boulders and loose rocks.

More Later...

India, the last few kilometers.

(Varanasi, road sign)

All good things must eventually come to an end, and so it was with India. Cecilia had taken off, and I decided to stay a couple of extra days and have a look at Konark. (See previous blog). I also checked out the little fishing village just north of Puri, which was very interesting. Life unfolding right on the beach. Whether it was sorting fish, playing children, or the beach as an open air toilet. I also caught a very lively game of Cricket at an open field where the previous morning the whole village were taking care of their morning toilet (men only). Makes me wonder though, 4000 years of history, and they haven't figured out how to dig a hole in the ground, and put some walls around it. A common sight all around rural India in the morning by the way.

(Varanasi, sunset)

Somehow, by the time I left Puri, I was only interested in getting out of India. My mind was already on mountains, and something "different". So, I pretty just rode straight out of the country by the fastest way possible. No more sightseeing or playing tourist.
Because of continuing problems with the border entrances in the eastern part of Nepal, both Cecilia and I had decided to head to Sunauli, which is in the center of Nepal, north of Varanasi.

(Varanasi, along the Ganges)

The northern part of India was by far the poorest, most rural, crowded and "un-enjoyable" part of India which I had experienced. Including lots of "agressive" people everywhere. Something that I was surprised about. Everywhere else I had been in India, they the people are curious, but usually respectful, here as in Puri they were very hands on and "agressive", not very enjoyable. In addition to all this it was very dusty, hot and for my money with a few minor exceptions not all that scenic. The roads were under construction in many places making travel a real nightmare. I am not going to get into traffic situation, as it is a constant when traveling in India and doesn't really require any further explanation.

(Varanasi, Ganges)

From Puri I basically got to Varanasi in two days, and then from Varanasi I made it to Pokhara in a day. Varansi was a real interesting place, and will definitely spend more time there next time I come this way. But as I mentioned earlier, by this time I was only interested in leaving India as fast as possible. The Ganges river runs through town and it is one of the holiest cities in India. Apparently if you die in Vanarsi you go straight to heaven. As I got there fairly late in the afternoon after a long and harrowing ride, I didn't get to see very much, oh well, there is always next time.

(Varanasi, Ganges)

The following morning, I headed north to the border. One little tip, if there is a town you want to avoid traveling through it is Gorakhpur, unfortunately I wasn't that lucky. In the end it took asking 5 people, 3 policemen and some luck to find my way through. The border crossing is pretty hectic, as the border point is in the middle of town (or what seemed like it). Traffic parked in the middle of the road while the officials in open fronted buildings on either side took care of required paperwork. Luckly the procedure is wasn't all that complicated, and in 45 minutes I was in Nepal.
Some closing remarks on India are a lot more difficult to think of than I thought. All in all I really enjoyed my stay in India. But when I try to think of what it is that I enjoyed, I am hard pressed to come up with anything specific. The country is basically a mess. It is corrupt, burocratic, un-reliable, chaotic, dirty and generally speaking well worth a third world developing nation status (which of course they are trying very hard to get away from and to a large extent have managed to do). Strangely enough, all these things and many more negative impressions are relative. This is the way India is, and you simply have to accept it to get to the rest. If you can't see past all of the negatives, you will miss out on the huge diversity of the Indian people and country. The fact that it is country of huge possibilities, and it will be one consumer paradise without equal, bar China, soon, cannot be denied. It is modern in places, often a stones throw from places which haven't changed in centuries. It is both progressive and so backward that it is almost amazing that it is possible. The people are stratling two worlds and it is very interesting to see how they mix the two. Whether it is the westernized disco party girls, who will marry the person their parents pick for them. Or the desire to posses all the trappings of the western world rather than proper shoes for their children. The huge middle class (300+ million) seem almost out of place in their own country, considering how a large majority of people are barely getting by. All these things are true and many more about India, and they are not all that keen on hearing about the problems and would rather talk about the positives. I don't blame them, like a Masala film, it is all about escaping reality. But they will have to face the problems and solve them before they are ready to take to the worlds stage and are able to command respect on an international level.
After having spent some time in India, nothing I read in the papers or hear on the news about India is can be a surprise. That is the way India is. They have real problems, which no-one but the Indians are going to be able to solve, western solutions simply do not apply here. I am looking forward to coming back and spending more time here and see more of the country and meet more of its people. Assuming they let me in after having read this.