Friday, May 22, 2009

CC: The Road Goes Ever On and On

After having spent some time with the Tibetans living in the mountains of Nepal and read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, “Freedom in Exile” (really worth a read), I’ve realized that a change in plans is in order. There is now absolutely no way I could even entertain the possibility of paying a mandatory Chinese tour guide hundreds of dollars to take me through the few reconstructed areas of the country that they’ve spent the last fifty years destroying.

The best alternative I can see is to head up to Dharamsala in northern India instead – the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile (and the western backpacker population in exile as well, as I soon came to learn). The result of this decision turned out to be perhaps five of the most uncomfortable days of my life. My travel itinerary:

Riding the roof of a bus in the Terai

  1. Thanks to the strikes in the Terai, it takes a single 19 hour ride in a bus whose seats are designed for someone a foot shorter than me to reach the border (which is maybe 200 or 300 km away at most). Between hours spent waiting for enough passengers to show up for the trip to be profitable, being stuck in traffic, and countless snack and meal stops, the bus manages to get me there at 2am.
  2. From the bus stop it’s a one hour walk to the border. A nice chance to stretch my legs actually.
  3. After spending a couple hours finding the bus despite endless misdirection from Indians trying to scam me into buying expensive private transport (nice to be back – and I say that without sarcasm), a 4 hour bus trip through the plains almost makes me wish it was a 19 hour bus trip through the mountains thanks to the 40 degree pre-monsoon heat.
  4. After a night of marinating in my own sweat in my hotel room, I get to the train station for a trip that gets me to Amritsar 27 hours later.
  5. I spend the night in the Sikhs’ extremely welcoming and friendly Golden Temple (where I seemed to be of more interest than a temple made of solid gold to half of the curious pilgrims there). The next morning it’s a 3 hour bus ride to Pathankot where I transfer to another 3.5 hour bus ride into the hills to lower Dharamsala and finally one more half hour ride up to McLeod Ganj. Phew.

Next time someone goes on about how tough it must be to sit on a plane with meals and movies for 20 hours to get to New Zealand I think I may have a fit of the giggles. I may as well have made the journey to Mordor to get here as far as I’m concerned.

CC: I'll Soon Be Seeing You.

After a few days in town, I’ve finally found the Kathmandu that Cat Stevens was singing about.

To be honest, I was by no means looking forward to arriving. When you’re talking to trekkers you can’t mention Kathmandu without being barraged with words such as loud, pollution, beggars, dirty, and awful, to name a few. In fact I’d only met two people who seemed to really like it at all.

So it was with much trepidation that I peered out the window of the bus as we started to roll in to the outskirts of the city. Not so bad yet - maybe it doesn’t really hit you till you get to the city centre…

Kathmandu from Above - ok, a bit polluted

I step off the bus. Huh. There’s no shit in the streets. I can’t see a single person relieving him or herself at the side of the road or even detect the smell of urine. A cow politely moves out of the way for the traffic – consisting mostly of pedestrians and just a few motorbikes.

“My friend! My friend!” Here it comes. Time to get besieged by touts, shop owners, and beggars. “No thanks.” I reply (unusually polite after my time in the friendly mountain villages). He nods and walks away. Wait! What? He left as soon as I said I wasn’t interested?.

Big stupa in the middle of a square

This doesn’t seem right. As far as I can see, Kathmandu is an India veteran’s wet dream. It’s as though someone took note of every cry of frustration I’d ever uttered about all of the worst problems in big Indian cities and just removed them from Kathmandu. Walking through Thamel (the big tourist district), I’m surrounded by comfortable hotels and immaculate restaurants serving spot on western food. This place just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the subcontinent! It’s like a theme park!

Expensive Thamel restaurant

But then again, it’s like a theme park. I didn’t come all this way to sip chai (inflated to six times the normal Nepali price!) and munch on salads and pizza with Westerners on short vacations whose budgets are as big as they are boring. After a few days it’s time to migrate to Freak Street (yup, that’s actually what it’s called). I don’t even think I rationally played any part in making this decision either – I suspect that my month and a half old beard in conjunction with my Aladdin pants made that particular decision for me.

Looking down Freak Street at night

Away from the travel agencies and souvenir shops, and right next to the city’s Dubar Square, it was seriously like walking through a time portal. Four decades melted away before my eyes. A few hotel inspections later I chance upon the Moonstay Lodge (costing about $2.50 a night). This is more like it!

My room!