There is something special about India, though after the 2007 expedition from the southern most point of India back to London, Pete had decided that as great a place as it is he would give it a long break. He never thought he would be heading for India this year, definitely not in the middle of the monsoon. But after the Tibet/China closure it was the logical but still crazy destination, so below are the group’s adventures in India and Nepal.
So while Tim and Cher headed off with Penelope back to the UK, Pete headed off in front of the group to go and pickup Archie our new truck for the India section. The group headed to Delhi where Pete would meet them after collecting the truck in Kathmandu and driving it as fast as possible across India. An adventure they say is best relived after the time but we will not bore you with the transit of the truck.
The group on the other hand flew from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Delhi. What you must remember is that although over the last months we have travelled some amazing, crazy places and seen and experienced so many great things, this still does not prepare you for India.
It’s the heat, humidity, smell and total closeness of it all, personal space does not exist in India then on top of that you have the colours and the noise. There were a couple of shocked people as they left the terminal building and headed for Hotel Good Times, a safe haven from the craziness outside. The shock slowly wears off and you begin to see why India is so special – no matter where you look something is happening, most of which is just totally crazy.
Delhi is the pulsing heart of India and is great to explore and soon the group were off and all started to quite enjoy the craziness of it all though the heat and humidity where real killers. Everybody spent the first day exploring and Sam having volunteered headed to the train station to get a couple of tickets so that everybody could head off to Agra the following day to see the Taj Mahal. This is a site not to be missed when visiting India. To see the true adventures of buying a couple of train tickets click the link at the bottom of the Odyssey website to Northern Monkey Diaries, it makes great reading though these northerners do tend to gone a bit!
And so the adventure carried on, the train from Delhi to Agra is one of the better trips you can do in India as the train is fairly smart and organised and the journey takes only about 3 hours, a long 3 hours of shock for many, but hey, when in India!! After finding the hotel and going out for a good curry evening in Agra it was an early start the next morning to try and beat the hordes all trying to see this ultimate symbol of love. The Taj affects everybody differently but is a very special place, the cloudy sky when the group visited was a pity but everybody still enjoyed it as well as the many other attractions in the surrounding town, then everybody jumped on the train and headed back to Delhi to meet Pete and the new truck Archie, definitely no Penelope but still a functional overland truck with all the kit.
The plan from there was to head for the hills and get away from the oppressive heat just like the Raj had done when they had ruled and as many Indian businesspeople do today. The foot hills of the Himalayas are dotted with hill stations which all served as retreats during the monsoon.
The first stop-off was Chandigarh, a city in India which is basically described as not India. With its wide tree lined avenues, orderly traffic a clean sidewalks it was easy to see why. The highlight of the group’s stay was a visit to the local museum showing the work of an artist who has built an amazing garden from various recycled scrap. Think there were a couple of sceptical people when they headed off, but considering it is the second most visited site after the Taj Mahal it had to be something special and everybody was not disappointed the scale and design is amazing and it was a great 2-3 hours walks with entrance costing just US$0.20.
The next morning early the group wandered their way up into the foot hills and their final destination would be Dharamasala/McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama the Spiritual Leader of the people of Tibet who lives in exile. It seemed like a fitting place to visit as we and all other tourists had been denied entry into Tibet this year. It took two days drive to get there with some interesting roads and some crazy fellow drivers on the road, it seems the norm to overtake on a blind corner in India and just park your truck any where you feel like, creating massive traffic build-ups and total chaos, but this is just standard for India. After deciding that it was a bit too wet to camp, the first hotel Pete found next to a massive temple refused us entry as the group was not Hindi, which I guess makes sense, but a couple of folks in the back looked rather nervous at the prospect of trying to find a camp up in the hills with rain bucketing down around us, but it worked out as always and they drove for another hour and found a nice clean hotel with great views down the valley and a restaurant serving up some spicy fare.
On through the foot hills they ventured with stunning views down to the plains below. As they drove the road got more and more windy and the drop off bigger and bigger with great rivers appearing rather small in the gorge bellow. Another great thing in India is the lunch stops, well most of us thought so. At most major villages the locals cook up a storm with fantastic samosas and other fried goodies allowing you to get lunch for about £0.10, though I think Simon was a bit samosaed out by the time they reached Nepal.
On the truck’s arrival in McLeod Ganj we created quite a stir with overland trucks not visiting very often and road designed for rickshaws it all got rather interesting. After a quick chat to the local police to assure them we did plan to take to the narrow roads they waved us on in typical Indian style and then took up a good spot to watch. As Archie crept through he barely cleared the buildings on either side, but after a couple of tense moments we arrived at their hotel.
The concept “cliff-hanging hotel” came to mind – at road level only a single storey was visible, but dropping down the cliff was another 4 floors with amazing views down into the gorge. With a typical hippie town feel with the smell of incense wafting on the air and robed monks all over the show it had a special feel. Everybody was soon off exploring with most heading for the main temple complex and home of the Dalai Lama. The building itself is fairly modern but with its many Buddha images chanting monks and holy feel many people took time to just chill out and watch monk life happen.
Unfortunately his holiness the Dalai Lama was on a tour around the world pleading with other nations to support the plight of the Tibetan people so there was no chance of bumping into him but it was still a special place to visit and enjoy. Even better it was cool after the plains of India. McLeod Ganj is the wettest place in India and over the 3 days it lived up to its reputation with many people investing in an umbrella.
Next the group headed back towards Chandigarh and from there towards the yoga and spiritual town of Rishikesh. Over the past days the roads had been full of people all dressed in orange cycling and walking making their way for hundreds of kilometres to pay homage in Rishikesh. Just the volumes are impressive. On arrival in the town several of the group headed to a view the main bridge across the river where it was calculated that on average more than 3,000 pilgrims crossed over every hour and they had been walking in for more than two weeks, some of them from as many as 500 km away. To see the spiritual commitment in this part of the world is humbling. With time to chill and watch it all going on many folks found time for a couple of massages and for some the chance to try their hand at yoga.
Next towards the western most frontier of Nepal, en route the group stopped off at the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Famous as the first national park created in India and with a hugely diverse range of animals, including elephants and tigers as the big attraction. Accommodation for the night was a five star lodge who gave a great price due to it being low season. The rooms boasted fantastic beds with crisp white linen and every imaginable luxury with huge bathrooms all out of marble. Dinner was also a feast with a buffet laid on for everybody to enjoy, some of the lads stunned the staff with the amount of food they could put away. As for the game viewing it was all rather disappointing with the highlight being Sam scaring the most of his game viewing mates to death with a mighty tiger roar.
On leaving Corbett it was time to head for the Nepal Border, this section called the Teria has been closed to tourists for ages due to the Maoists faction of Nepal attacking tourists and government buildings. The great thing was that due to the new government which has now included the Maoists this entire region is open to tourists again. But first the truck had to get there, as a crossing into Nepal from India it is seldom used and so the roads going there are rather interesting with the question often been asked of the locals “is this right road” to which there is normally a nod of the head. This can mean anything in India as any conversation involves nodding the head to a blank look to being pointed hopefully in the right direction. After many stops and questions they finally arrived at a big bridge across a river only to be told that they could only cross at 5pm and since it was only 2pm this seemed rather strange but having checked the sign it all seemed to be true so in the cooking heat the books and backgammon boards were brought out and so the wait was on.
At 5pm after a bit of bribing and discussion the officials finally agreed to allow the truck across the very narrow bridge causing much confusion with the multitude of people trying to cross on foot, bike and cow. On arriving on the other side the group had the pleasure of the Indian immigration officers who seemed in no hurry to stamp them through. After about an hour they were finally able to head for Nepal. The difference was immediately obvious – the craziness of India had gone, the road side was fairly clear of rubbish, but the ability to drive though had not returned fully, although it was made slightly better due to a fuel shortage which meant the roads were fairly empty.
On arriving at the Nepal immigration office it was rather worrying that it all appeared locked up but off the roof appeared a friendly face who informed Pete that he was the man in charge of immigration and that they had closed for the day. Everyone started peering around and imagined setting up camp in no man’s land. But this is Nepal, a friendly country, so after being told about the best hotel in the nearby town he suggested returning the next day to get visas and stuff sorted. The same was true for customs and so the group rolled into Nepal all thinking what a great change from the craziness of India.
The hotel was great with a touch of luxury, as we often enjoy on an Odyssey trip. The amount of money set aside for accommodation, food and activities is almost double what the competition budget. Worth remembering if you are reading this and comparing tours. Dinner was an amusing affair with a menu boasting the Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds and other fast food chains many people envisaged a western food feast. Many others looked closely and decided the logos on the menu looked deftly scanned and so settled for simple Nepali fair. To say the least this was no Pizza Hut or KFC as couple of dreams went up in smoke when the food arrived, tasty but not your normal fast food joint!!The next morning was an early start as they headed back to one of the friendliest if not efficient borders they have dealt with to date. Took a while to get all the visas sorted but soon enough Archie was rolling along thorough the Western Terai. The looks from the locals told the story that they had not seen too many tourists over the last years and everybody was super friendly. The sad thing about this province is that the government in Nepal has neglected it badly and basic services like schools and hospitals are few and far between and fuel was all but unobtainable. Pete had topped up the bulk tanks in India and so luckily did not have to worry. The Teria is a stunning part of Nepal with great rivers, mosaics of rice paddies and rural life all around. The road on the other hand was quite interesting, for the first bit it was fantastic but as we drove along we could see the signs of past protest road blocks and burnt out tyres, but as Archie rolled through the locals waved, happy to have travellers back in their part of Nepal.
In order to make more time in places further along, the decision had been made to make a big day of it and get all the way to Butwal which meant a long day on the road. Many of the rivers were in flood and in a couple of places Archie was forced to drive through the river as the bridge was either gone or impassable. At one river, a truck had broken its front steering and so had its front wheels pointing in opposite directions – needless to say this caused a major traffic jam spreading in both directions. A huge tractor had been brought in to tow him out, but the cable they had was too small and kept snapping. After having a bit of a look, Pete drove our truck right to the front of the queue creating a small riot with all the other drivers. But Archie had a big cable which would easily pull the truck out, the condition being that once the way was clear our group would be first to go through. After some muttering it was agreed and soon Archie had bounced his way through the river.Upon finally arriving in Butwal it was dark and since no accommodation was booked, Pete went in search of one. On any journey at times you must make do with what you can find and Butwal was to stretch this point, the hotel if you could call it that was clean but far from the standard that the group was used to, but hey everyone survived and headed towards the mountain village of Tansen the next morning.
Tansen is a spectacular mountain hamlet up in the hills of the Teria, once a major stop for tourists it has been closed for years and as the group arrived they were welcomed and all asked if they were the first of many tourists to come. This is a traditional Nepal town which has not been spoilt by mass tourism and the streets were great to wander, the locals were friendly and all wanting to chat. Many of the local temples are hundreds of years old and great to explore. The group has a way of finding the best spots in town, and promptly discovered a great restaurant in a restored old house which provided the venue for a bit of a party all I think celebrating the fact that Nepal is a great destination, many saying it should be added to the list of many highlights.
After spending two days exploring it was time to hit the road again, this time heading for Pokhara the chilled out tourist Mecca at the beginning of the Annapurna circuit. This would be big chill time with the chance to go walking, rafting shopping and so the list could go on. Most the group opted for the rafting and all had a great day out, many deciding that more rafting was definitely on the cards. The other major culinary moment was steak, huge juicy steaks. Anybody who has been through India where cows are holy understands why steak is so important. Not only is there no beef but cows rule the streets and if they are not in the way you are trying to avoid the landmines they leave all over the place. Steak is good and Pokhara was the place for it so on the first night the group missioned off and it was huge tasty steaks all round. Followed by a good bar with live music and a great setting on the edge of the lake life was rather good. All too soon it was time to move on and due to the possibility of protests closing the road it was decided to leave at 6am to try to get out of town before the roads were blocked. Normally as a tourist vehicle you are allowed through but rather safe than sorry so it was an early start. Even at 6am the barricades where in place but most groups waved the truck through as it headed up the valley towards Kathmandu. This is a stunning drive, gradually climbing towards Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is a great city and probably rates as a city highlight for most. The group headed for Thamel, the heart of the old city, to enjoy the craziness of it all. Whether it be temples and old windy streets with small stupas every where to all night parties with live bands, or quite well appointed cafes and restaurants with great food, Kathmandu has it all. This was also the point where many of the group hopped on a plane and flew up to see the mighty Mt Everest and curse the Chinese for not letting us into Tibet. Seeing Everest is an amazing site, to see how it towers above all the other snow capped peaks around it, I think everybody who flew came back saying it was worth every cent.
After three day stay in Kathmandu it was time to jump back aboard Archie and head towards the Tibetan border (unfortunately still closed to tourists) but the destination was 16 km before the border. The Last Resort is the adventure centre for Nepal, most famous for its bungy jump and its bridge swing said to be the highest in the world. Just the walk into the funky luxury camp is a challenge for those with a fear of heights as the wire suspension bridge is the only way in. This takes you across the 170m deep gorge and is the same bridge the brave folks would jump off in the coming days.
Set in the thick vegetation of the gorge wall is a stunning tented camp where the group spent 3 days in comfort – if bridge jumping, canyoning or rafting was not your thing there was plenty of opportunity to chill out in real comfort. For the jumpers a couple of visits to the bridge were required before everybody finally signed up for the following day’s jumping session. Out of the group only 4 folks decided not to jump, some mentioned age, others said been there done that and others just said total terror, no way, and that they struggled to walk across the bridge let alone jump off it.
Early the next morning the group slowly emerged – the term “ready to jump” can be used loosely; some looked totally terrified with a couple deciding to change their mind and chicken out (although a bit of peer group pressure took effect and they decided to jump a couple of days later). After all getting weighed, up the jumpers headed for the bridge which had been setup for jumping. One word – AMAZING! Everybody jumped, a couple of the lads even did two jumps on the one day and then jumped before they left again, then on top of this some in the group went abseiling down waterfalls the highest at 48m being quite a long way down, and the on the last day many went rafting down the river back to Kathmandu. This is such a special place to visit and even the non adventure driven loved every minute.
It was then back to Kathmandu for two days before heading to Bangkok to continue the Odyssey adventure in South East Asia.