Trip Report - India & Nepal
- Submitted by: Hans Braker & Thea Van Zon, Netherlands
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
We travelled to India and Nepal from October 3 to October 30 1992. We had experience travelling for a similar period of time in Indonesia, one year before. Because of the limited time, we did not see all the sights, and, to be frank, we don't really care about `must see' spots. So don't respond by saying that we missed Khajuraho or the Ajanta caves; we know that. But we had to make some choices, and we wanted to get the flavour of different parts of India. Moreover, since we are enthousiastic hikers having spent weeks and weeks in the Alps and the Pyrenees, we really wanted to see something of Nepal, maybe not the Himalayas themselves but at least the base for it all, Kathmandu, and to meet people who did some trekking so as to get some impressions.
We think of ourselves as medium-budget travellers, staying in bottom-end or middle-range hotels, preferably taking local public transport but not reluctant to take a flight occasionally.
We shall first give our day-to-day program and end up with some paragraphs on several distinct topics.
All prices are given for two persons, double rooms etc. For the trains we bought Indrail Passes in The Netherlands, first class.
Lonely Planet's Travel Survival Kit India,
4th edition, June 1990
ISBN 0 86442 081 1
Lonely Planet's Travel Survival Kit Nepal,
1st edition, October 1990
ISBN 0 86442 024 2
The two above guides shall in the sequel be referred to as `Kit', and from the context it will be clear which one is meant. The guides contain information on cities, things to see, places to stay and eat, transportation, as well as lots of general information about the country, people, habits, money, religions, dangers, etc. etc. We could not have travelled properly without the help of such guides.
We will occasionally refer to specific pages of the Kits, whenever in our opinion some vital or useful information should be changed or added.
DAY TO DAY
We had the unlikely luck that the parents of a good friend had to catch a flight at Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) half an hour before our plane would leave. Since he lives at 20 km from our home, and his parents stayed with him the night before the flight, he could pick us up and take the four of us to the airport.
At 7 am we flew to London Heathrow (50 min) only to discover that the Air India flight to Bombay had a delay of more than 9 h. It had arrived at New York too late so would be late at London too. Luckily enough we each got vouchers for breakfast (4.5 pounds) and lunch (6.5 pounds).
The delay grew even larger since we had to identify all our luggage at Heathrow. First all the luggage was `unpacked' (smashed onto the all-wet concrete - fortunately we had flight bags around the backpacks). Then, in groups of 10, passengers had to point at their luggage after which it was all packed again. Imagine a Boeing 747 and you know how long that takes. Finally at 18.05 we took off and landed at New Delhi Indira Gandhi at 06.30 local time (2.00 European time - India is 4 and a half hours ahead).
After a stop of an hour and a half or so we went on to Bombay, arrival 10.30. Of course the plane to Madras had already gone but it was easy to get seats on the 13.00 plane. Changed money at international terminal: rate $1 = Rs 28.04 for traveller's cheques. We changed $300 which would suffice for quite a while (more than 15 days). Free airport bus to the domestic airport and punctual departure.
Arrival Madras 14.50. We wanted to take a suburban train to Madras, but did not know the location of the train station. When asking around of course `no train, no train, only taxi!'. Five days later we found out that the railway station is just 300 m or so straight in front of the terminals, just across a road. Trains run every ten minutes, and it takes about half an hour to get to Madras. We took an airport minibus for Rs 80. Dropped off at Parry's corner and with help of little boys found the right bus (all is in Tamil) to Mahabalipuram, taking not more than an hour and a half.
We stayed at Lakshmi Lodge (Kit: add p.844), just nextdoor to the Sea Queen Restaurant. Good views of the beach and temple from the upper floor under construction. A new place, with small but clean rooms around a tiny courtyard, a veranda with two chairs and a table in front of each room. Rs 125. Possibility to order food at the Lodge, which is then brought from a nearby restaurant in about half an hour. At this lodge we slept wonderfully well after the rather exhausting start of the holidays.
Spent in Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram). Lunch at Mamalla Bhavan, in the ordinary dining hall. This was not a success, since we got to eat from plates still containing food that other people had not eaten, then just filled up again. The chapatis were okay. The cost was corresponding: Rs 15. Probably the special section serves better food.
Back at the lodge we heard about the airplane crash at Amsterdam, and we tried in vain to get a newspaper in English. Later that evening we tried at three hotels to watch the news, but all three just happened to have their TV-sets repaired...
At the end of the afternoon we made a stroll up the rocky part behind the village, with niches and carvings. We met an Indian family from Madras who spent the day along the coast. We spent an hour walking around with them and exchanging views on one another's countries. They also wonderfully explained us about the historical sights. Then they went back to Madras, 60 km in the pitch dark with three persons on one scooter...
The dinner we took at the lodge is recommended: grilled fish, a really big one, fresh from the sea and prepared in a very tasty marinade. Dinner cost Rs 81.
We went to visit Vedanthangal bird sanctuary. First to Chingleput by bus (Rs 8). Here we checked at the railway station about the train we wanted to take the next day. We found the bus to Vedanthangal (Rs 7) at the bus stop (look for buses from the VMMS-company, a 45 min. drive). Upon arrival we found out that there was not enough water yet, so there were no birds. But we could have a closer look at the nature, including squirrels, monkeys and local kids.
The bus back to Chingleput left at exactly 16.10 which it seemed to do every day. Cheaper bus: Rs 5,40, but the bus ticket also read ``the company is not responsible for loss of life or property''. Well, each time we bought a newspaper there would be many reports of buses fallen off bridges or caught in other unpleasant accidents.
In Chingleput we waited for our bus at the road to Mahabalipuram, but since it is impossible to read the texts on the buses and the numbering is as comprehensible as the average enigma, we had to ask about every bus whether it was the right one. After twenty minutes the correct bus appeared. Dinner that evening at Rs 74.
It was a time of festivals; everything was beautifully decorated - cars, houses, bicycles and even trains - with colourful paper flags. In the evening firecrackers exploded everywhere, people gave each other sweets and we saw a performance of a dance group in the street.
First stomach problems. Not lethal but a little annoying. Still nothing could stop us from travelling, so we went to Chingleput again, where we arrived far too early allowing us to explore the railway station which is a world within a world. The whole hierarchy of station officers, Ladies queue and Gents queue, the runs at arriving trains and the quiet after departure.
One railway worker badly needed some social improvement so he started a chat, immediately inviting Hans to come over and meet his boss. After Hans told him he does a PhD, the man told all his colleagues that it was a Dutch professor of mathematics who was now his friend. After the meeting with the boss they insisted on being pictured at their station, and from everywhere people appeared so we believe we photographed half of the railway people. A hint to future travellers: take a large collection of stamps from your country; many people like this railway worker collect them, and they are very easy to take with you.
Here we bought a map of India at only Rs 25. Quite useful especially to see where you are during a long train trip.
Travelled unreserved in First Class Chair car to Chidambaram on the Cholan Express. Very comfortable! Only about 40 % of the seats were taken. Meals (thalis) are served on board on large metal plates, but we did not try them. We stuck to biscuits. Everywhere we went we could buy biscuits, although, obviously, in smaller shops they could be very old! Best place to buy seems to be the railway station, where many foods and drinks are sold.
In Chidambaram we took a room in hotel Tamil Nadu (Rs 145). According to the Kit it's the best place in town and from what we saw of the town this is probably true. Between the railway station and the hotel we also had our first negative experience: a dead man lying just next to the road. The next afternoon the body was still lying there...
Almost from the moment we had entered the train it had been raining. This made walking the streets an enormous expedition: water and mud everywhere, trucks and buses trying hard to splash it all over us. Not nice. In spite of that we went to the temple complex, according to our guide the only private one in the area, and therefore the only one where you could visit the interior part. The gopurams (temple towers) outside are true masterpieces already, and inside we were just in time to witness a puja ceremony carried out by the brahmins (of course). The ceremony involved an incredible noise of bells, drums and other instruments. We did not catch the essence of it all but it was quite impressive with a lot of people joining in the ceremony of light, water and fire.
The priests are really doing their best to get as much money from you as possible for a temple donation; you can fill out a form during which they show you forms of others who gave very generous amounts.
After this ceremony we had some trouble finding the shoe-keeper outside and for a moment we thought our shoes had gone. Luckily enough we found her sitting behind a truck.
We had some Indian sweets opposite the hotel: small cakes in very sweet syrup. Delicious! It was dark already; we decided to return to Madras the next day and fly to Hyderabad because in the south it would stay very wet for several more days.
Since the train back to Madras would leave late in the morning, we decided to visit Chidambaram's Annamalai university. A large complex with modern-looking buildings. We wanted to visit the department of mathematics which turned out to be at the far end of the campus. It was very hard to find since there were only two classrooms and three offices! We had a look around in the library and a chat with the staff. Interesting meeting!
We reserved at the railway station for the 11.22 Cholan Express, which turned out to be unnecessary since there were even less passengers than the day before. The train was an hour late. We arrived at Madras Egmore station at about 18.00.
We wanted to make a flight reservation at the Indian Airlines office, but from 18.00 to 19.00 the office was only open for cancellations (Kit change p.820). The first hotel we tried was full; we found a room at hotel Kanchi - far too expensive at Rs 320 including all extra charges - where in fact you pay for the looks of the lounge but the room and bathroom are a complete disaster! A general rule we found was that all hotels with rooms above Rs 150 have this same characteristic. We took an auto-rickshaw (Rs 20) to Maharadja Restaurant where we had an excellent meal. The Indian breads - nan, paratha - are great in combination with fruits or curries. We also liked the dishes with cheese.
After breakfast at the hotel (the well-known toast, butter, jam) for Rs 36, we went to Mount Road for some shopping. Bought books at the American bookshop: six books for Rs 624, a mosquito net (Rs 425) at Witco. This mosquito net has served its purpose very well; used about ten times.
At Indian Airlines we booked a flight to Hyderabad for that same day at 19.00. The fare is $57 per person but if your age is below 30 it's just $43.
Thea bought a salwar (thin ladies' trousers) for Rs 75. She used it extensively during the rest of our stay.
We visited George Town, the harbour quarter, with the impressive red high court building. Because of the festival there were no court sessions so we had to be content with the views of the building. What was more interesting was the view of the court clerks and their enormous, huge paper production. Files were stacked up high, held together with thin strings, papers were absolutely everywere and everyone played magic with the carbon-copy papers.
A nice Indian drink is the green coconut, which is sold at many places for Rs 3 to Rs 5. The nut is opened on the spot and with a straw you can drink the somewhat sour milk. It is very refreshing. Often the nut is opened after you emptied it, and you can eat the rest of the coconut.
We returned by bus (Rs 2) to Mount Road. The buses in Madras are always full and you have to enter and leave the bus in the Indian way: use your elbows and your weight to get through. Took very good milkshakes at Maharadja plus some sweets and sodas (Rs 25). Back to the hotel with an autorickshaw, this time on the meter (Rs 10).
We went to Egmore railway station to take a suburban train to the airport. Absolutely no useful information as to the departures of trains was displayed, but we found out we should go to the second platform, walk to the right and cross the tracks at the far end. There immediately a train arrived which took us to the airport.
At the airport extra security measures were taken since that day two Sikh terrorists had been hung. They were the assassins of the general who had been in charge of the clearing of the golden temple at Amritsar. The Sikhs had announced bombings and during the rest of our stay we noted that extremely high precautions were taken everywhere. The luggage was thoroughly checked; we had to remove the batteries from our torch and take them downstairs to have them put in the registered luggage. The official even wanted us to remove the batteries from our camera but since we insisted that this would spoil all our pictures we were allowed to leave them in.
The plane had a delay of 20 minutes upon departure; the view of Madras by night was wonderful! During the stop in Bangalore soldiers immediately boarded the plane and checked wheteher all luggage still had an owner inside the plane. Only after this check new passengers boarded.
After the arrival in Hyderabad (actually Secunderabad) at 23.00 we were terribly ripped off by the taxi-driver. It was dark and rainy and all there was at the airport were Ambassador taxis who could just ask anything they wanted. During daytime an autorickshaw would be the best alternative for going to Hyderabad, an eight km drive. Since we had no choice we paid the Rs 150 they asked.
Luckily enough there were free rooms at the hotel, hotel Suhail (Rs 132), not very well located in a filthy alley but very quiet and clean enough. No services like drinks etc. and we asked a hotel clerk to buy us some softdrinks.
We took breakfast (Rs 20) in the Grand Hotel. Don't try this place! The cups were absolutely filthy and we had to think twice before drinking the tea, although the sugar bread was okay. Hans got stomach problems again that evening, and the causal relation seemed clear.
We went to Secunderabad railway station by autorickshaw (Rs 25) to book seats on the Ajanta-express for the next day. All trains in the direction of Aurangabad were booked up to the next 10 days! The whole system is computerised and this information can be read from terminals.
The booking office is not at a 15 minutes walk from the railway station but you have to walk down the first platform to the left, take some steps down to the left and take the first door to the right (no signs).
The booking office is on the ground floor (Kit change p. 772).
Since Hyderabad is not touristic at all (we spotted one westerner) the Tourist Quota are hardly ever used. We filled in a reservation form, the clerk wrote `foreign tourists' on it and assured us it would be properly taken care of. The next day it would turn out we had indeed been given berths from the Tourist Quota.
The streets around Secunderabad station are great for exploring; many small shops and people just selling all kinds of things in the streets. A good place to sit with a drink and watch everything go by. Here Thea bought a pair of leather slippers (Rs 75).
We went to the Charminar, a square huge building with minarets, by autorickshaw (Rs 20). The city is absolute crowded with cars, buses and trucks which fill the air with exhaust fumes, so a ride is not a real pleasure.
Near the Charminar is the Mecca Mashid, a large mosque, where Hans was allowed to go inside. The front of this building is covered with metal wire to keep birds out, so the exterior is completely spoilt. Here again the guide was trying hard to get us to give generous gifts. He himself got Rs 10 and the shoekeeper Rs 5.
We went to the post office (Rs 15) to buy stamps for postcards we were still looking for. Here we met an Indian who showed us that the philatelistic stamps could be obtained upstairs. This man was determined to have a conversation with us. He insisted on an appointment with us and because he seemed to be quite harmless we decided to meet him in the hotel that evening.
We made a phonecall to The Netherlands. A typical system: we had to pay Rs 200 in advance, had to wait almost an hour before the clerk hinted that it was our turn. The connection was good enough for both sides to say that all was well. After the call we paid the remaining Rs 80.
After a nap at the hotel we went to the beautiful Birla Mandir temple. This temple of white marble lies on a hill, dominating Hyderabad. Because it was late in the afternoon the stones were not too hot; during daytime our bare feet would not have supported the heat! Many Hindu pilgrims visited the inner sanctuary in front of which a long queue formed.
Back at the hotel, Hans went out to get some water but could not find it at any shop or stall. Finally he found out that mineral water was sold at medical shops. With this knowledge we could find water more easily in other towns too. A liter cost around Rs 10.
When Hans got back to the hotel the Indian, Shafeeq, was already there; he had been knocking on our door although we would meet in the `lobby'. After we found a quiet place to sit he explained to us that he was looking for a job in Europe; he did not like America and he thought as himself as a `free-thinking' man... we found him far too romantic to ever be able to support life in Europe. Shafeeq thought the best chance he had was when he would marry a western girl, so would we be kind enough to tell Dutch girls that he was looking for one? The conversation included him putting his hands on Hans' knees, he liked to read a poem to us, and it all felt rather odd to us. We ended up agreeing we would mail him some job advertisements from home, which we did later in November.
We had a light dinner of salted biscuits and Hans used some Orisel because of the stomach problems.
Breakfast in a restaurant in Station Road. Many people having breakfast, all eating something with curry. Thea took idli, semolina-like small cakes with two kinds of curry - yes, hot.
Then we went to visit Golconda Fort, about six km outside Hyderabad. First to the Nampally bus stop by rickshaw (Rs 10) and then bus 119 which stops at Golconda's main entrance gate (Rs 4.50). It was a Sunday and many people came here from Hyderabad to escape the town's atmosphere. For us it was a good opportunity to take some pictures of the people and their colourful clothes. We climbed all the way up, where the view and cool are a good reward. Back down it is nice picknicking on the green lawns.
Here for the first time we saw postcards so we immediately bought some, rather poor quality paper but with nice scenes. We went back by autorickshaw (rs 25) to the post office to get stamps (Rs 7 per postcard - each postcard cost Rs 1...). We wrote the cards and posted them at the GPO, where we saw at least 12 mailboxes for different cities, states and countries.
We packed and went to Secunderabad station (Rs 25) where Thea went into town to get provisions (including cookies from a bakery). She was never afraid to go out on her own and was never bothered when alone. One hour before departure a passenger list was pinned down on a notice board on the platform ... and we were on the list. We had AC 2-tier places, meaning that there were two beds above each another. In 3-tier there are three. Even in 2-tier carriages there are many differences. We shared a compartment with two Indians; the compartment had a door which could be closed and locked. There are also compartments like these for two persons. Later we would travel on a carriage where curtains are the only thing to separate people. On all trains we could get bedrolls at Rs 10, including sheets, a pillow and a blanket. We slept very well!
We arrived at Aurangabad with one hour delay at 8 am. The advantage of the delay was that we could see something of the vicinity. Our hotel, the Tourist Home (Rs 70), was at ten minutes on foot. The place was very pleasant, clean and quiet, and the people helpful. Our laundry was done and returned towards the evening (Rs 30).
Aurangabad covers a very large area, although it is not densely populated. Since it is also pitch-dark at night it is advisable to take autorickshaws around town. The surroundings are renowned for the caves. The caves of Aurangabad itself are among the lesser visited ones. We went there by autorickshaw (Rs 20). From the site of the caves the view over Aurangabad shows a green area, with hardly the impression of a large city.
From there we walked down to the Bibi-ka-Maqbara, a small copy of the Taj Mahal. Walking cross-country turned out to be harder than it seemed from above. The irregularity of the terrain and the unfriendliness of the flora forced us to return to the main street. The Bibi-ka-Maqbara is nice because of its quietness and smallness. Here we also met a student, Sijed, who very kindly explained us about the buildings and their history. He invited us to visit his home and we agreed to be there around five pm.
But first we went to the Panchakki, a watermill right next to a mosque. This was a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the afternoon, with ponds and streaming water.
After a stop at the hotel we went to Sijed's place. It was hard to find but the rickshaw driver asked around and finally found the spot. We hardly saw anyone as surprised as Sijed to see us show up; apparently he had not expected to actually see us. We met his father (his mother died several years ago), his brother and one of his sisters. His father was an agricultural higher officer, and their place was a government house.
We talked about many things; Sijed was very aware of world events and anxious to talk to us. He and his family were sincerely interested in our opinions, and for us it was an opportunity to ask about things we had experienced in India. He showed us his collection of photographs, and told us about his friends in Iran. We spent around two hours with them. Then we went to a photo-studio to have a picture taken, which Sijed later sent us. He showed us which bus to take to our hotel (Rs 3).
We had an excellent diner at Food Wala's Tandoor, a great but also very expensive place, with a bouncer at the door. For Rs 250 we got our first major splurge!
Since Hyderabad we saw more muslims, most dressed completely in black. This looked a bit sad next to all those colourful sarees. To our surprise India is very alive at night. Most shops don't open until 10 am, and after it gets dark all streets are crowded with people, shops are lit and open until late.
Thea was ill. Heavy stomach aches, and stayed in bed all day. She slept a lot, ate almost nothing and had two bags of Orisel in water. Thus involuntarily a day of low activity; Hans just went for shopping (biscuits/ cakes Rs 20, 4 bottles of water Rs 48, newspaper Rs 2).
At the railway station he reserved on the train from Manmad (on the Bombay-Delhi line) to Jhansi. According to our schedule the next stop would be the fort at Mandu, but because of the poor connections we preferred the direct connection to Jhansi, a small and not popular place a little south of Agra. Reservations for two days later were no problem at all.
Around seven pm Sijed dropped by, and Hans went to the same restaurant with him. He ate much and good. He particularly liked the sweet corn soup and the chicken kebab. A doctor's brandy as a dessert, like many other liquors Indian-brewed. He got good value for his Rs 245.
Sijed offered us a sandalwood pen, in return we gave him a Dutch cigar (we brought some for either special occasions or special briberies).
Thea needed one more day to recover. Since she could manage without Hans around, Hans went to the Ellora caves. Rickshaw to bus station (Rs 6), bus to Ellora (Rs 6). Near the entrance there are many souvenir stalls and, for the first time, some real terraces with the cafeterias.
Hans visited the first 16 caves, the buddhist ones and the (more interesting) hinduist caves. Not very crowded. Bringing a flashlight is a good idea. The sixteenth cave is actually a huge temple entirely carved from the rocks; very impressive.
Return by taxi-jeep for the same price as the bus. On the way back passed near Daulatabad, the famous hill fortress with its ingenious defence systems.
At 6 pm Hans went to see the Bombay Circus which had put its tent opposite the Tourist Home. For only Rs 20 he could sit on the first row. Although the circus and its material looked very old and reminded of the sixties, the performances were excellent, although the tricks with animals were not always a pretty sight. One trick did not succeed at all although the artist kept trying it for about twenty minutes...
Hans then walked to Food Wala's Bhoj Restaurant (vegetarian). The walk was almost a circus trick by itself in that dark. He had a delicious meal including paneer (soft cheese). The sweets are also great here. And the prices moderate compared with the previous days: only Rs 85.
A day for travel. We slept much, until 8 am. We packed, payed the bill and walked to the station. The train to Manmad was already waiting at the station. We took a compartment for two persons. Such a compartment would be a true luxury during night travel. We hoped to get into a similar train on the way to Jhansi. Just before the train would depart, our friend Sijed appeared in the train. He had bought a platform ticket so he could say goodbye to us.
Since the train left twenty minutes late because it waited for another train to arrive, we had plenty of time to chat. After saying goodbye and a bit more than one hour of travel we arrived at manmad, a small town with a dusty city center without paved roads. We managed to find water at the medical shop, as we had discovered in Hyderabad. We bought bananas twice at the railway station. Here we discovered than one should not ask for a certain number of bananas, but one should mention the amount for which to get bananas. Thus, if you say `five' you will get bananas for five rupees, not five bananas. We payed two or three rupees for six to eight bananas. For Rs 30 we bought enough biscuits to survive the trip to Jhansi.
At the railway station there were lots of things to see: cows walking on the platforms, little boys pissing on the rails, fanatic sellers going for all arriving trains, sleepy travellers strolling around, porters trying to earn some rupees lifting enormous heavy bags.
The train was an hour late and our places were occupied. The `TC', the train conductor, gave us two other places. This train was not as nice as the one we had taken from Hyderabad to Aurangabad; it did not have separate compartments for four persons, but was divided only by curtains, pale, dirty and ragged. We chained and locked our backpacks together, stuffed them under our seats and tied them to the window using belts. This way, when our berths were down, the backpacks could not be moved away from the window into the corridor. Anyone wanting to steal anything would have to feel around in the dark in an impossible position, and would not manage to get the backpacks completely. Well, this train was apparently not a known tourist train since we saw no other westerners, so we should have been safe anyway. Bedrolls again for Rs 10 each, and we slept very well again.
This train arrived exactly on schedule. We walked to hotel Veerangana (a long walk and not advisable other than in the morning's cool weather). Our room cost Rs 103. Double doors offered fresh air without mosquitos. This friendly, though slow and not always very clean hotel is situated outside the center, if at least one can speak of a center. Like Aurangabad, Jhansi is spread out on a large area. Behind the hotel we saw some soldiers preparing a terrain for some kind of festivity. In India it is an honour to be in the army; soldiers have many privileges.
The breakfast we had was of extremely poor quality and quantity. We decided not to eat anything there anymore. The breakfast included frozen soda, a tiny little pancake as large as a cigar, and fat French toast. Expensive for Rs 38. Our conjecture that a more expensive hotel has less quality seemed to hold true once more.
After breakfast we walked to the fort. On the way there we saw almost only shops for cars and motorbikes. The fort is beautiful, and because it was Friday entrance was free. The fort has been used by the army until recently, and much of it remained intact so one gets a good impression of it.
We took a rickshaw to the shopping area near Nav Bharat restaurant, where we just strolled around and examined the shops. We had a drink near a `pan' shop, of which we saw many but had not found out yet what it was exactly. It turned out that pan is a kind of mouthfreshener, wrapped in a leaf when prepared on the spot. Otherwise it can be bought in small bags. Almost everyone buys and eats some pan several times daily. The pan seller gave us a little of his merchandise and it was refreshing indeed!
In one of the shops Thea bought an Indian outfit: salwar + kameez, beside the saree the only clothing for ladies. Buying clothes is a funnny ritual; the buyer and the seller sit down on a platform, and the seller takes material from his stock while the customer tries to choose. All clothes are unpacked and unfolded, even if you said you don't like the look of it. It's a lot of work folding and packing everything again afterward. The set of trousers and skirt cost Rs 215. The sellers are always men, not only for clothes but in each and every shop we have been in.
Back to the hotel by auto-rickshaw (Rs 10), where we met a German tourist who travelled around on his own. He told us he had been having severe stomach problems for about a week, and that he had been seeing a doctor who prescribed him several different pills. The fact that you can catch an illness which would leave you helpless seems a good reason not to travel through India on your own. When you're two there's always someone who can go out for help or at least for shopping.
At the station we could not make reservations for Agra, so we had to try our luck two days later. Back to the area where we had also been that afternoon, where we took a good dinner at Nav Bharat Restaurant. It's very scarcely lit, but the cook knows what he's doing. They also know what to do when the electricity is (again!) cut off. The candles are lit in no time. We had a look at the shops again. It seemed as if other shops were open than the ones we saw during daytime. At Nav Bharat Bakery, which is a small very well-equipped supermarket, we took provisions including tomato chips to have with a beer back at the hotel. Nice quiet evening with a drink, a snack and a good book!
We noticed in Jhansi and surroundings that very few people speak English. It was the only place we visited where that was a bit of a problem. Communication can be hard, but the people keep on trying. Many even just started speaking Hindi to us! They are very curious about foreigners and love to shake hands.
The soldiers behind the hotel made an enormous noise so we woke up early. Not bad, since we had a day trip planned to Orchha (we still don't know how to pronounce it properly), an old village with a huge palace and several temples. It all looks a bit run down but the atmosphere is certainly very special. At the bus station (Rs 10 from the hotel) we had to wait for about an hour until the bus (Rs 8) finally drove off. But there was so much to see at the bus station that we absolutely did not get bored. So many people, buying, selling, working, travelling, waiting, cooking, eating...
On the way between Jhansi and Orchha the bus crosses the state border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh several times. At each of those points there is a barrier and the bus driver has to pay taxes. All around Orchha there is still an old wall, and a narrow gate indicates the entrance.
From the bus stop we went across the river and up to the Palace, where (as indicated in the Kit) an old gatekeeper will show you the paintings or what is left of them. It must all have been beautiful but what remains is merely very large. It is now possible to walk from to room where once there must have been gates in the enormous labyrinth. At the higher levels the walls are beautifully decorated and small towers determine the village's skyline. Like at many other places we were totally surprised by the amount and the size of the birds of prey, notably the vultures. These huge animals either flew low over our heads or were sitting on the towers, where their size could be seen to be about that of a six year old.
Back in the village, in the temple opposite the square many people were involved in the ongoing rituals. Bells and fire were the main ingredients.
While waiting for the bus we were really getting annoyed about all the children paying so much attention to us. It was one of the very few places where we were getting irritated about their behaviour. On the way back we had to change buses at a crossing, and for some reason the ride cost a rupee more per person.
At the hotel we talked to the manager who had enjoyed his education in hotel management at Austria, and who had seen quite a bit of the world. But after all he felt best in his home country.
We also found out what the soldiers had been doing behind the hotel: there was a charity action going on, organised among others by the army. Also many soldiers' wives participated in the organisation of the food stalls, the game corners and the clothes shops. Being the only foreigners we received a warm welcome by the head organiser, but only until some high-ranking officer arrived. We had a very good time and used the opportunity to ask about the home-made dishes we tasted, and which tasted good.
Got up early again, so it was not too hot to walk to the station. The train was only an hour late. We had a talk with an MBA-student amid great public interest: about 30 people eager to overhear our conversation.
There was no way we could get into the first class compartments. They were either guarded so we could not even get in the train, or people did not want to let us into their compartments. So we had to go into second class, which was completely, and we mean completely, occupied. Every horizontal space was occupied, so we decided just to stand where it was possible (even moving was difficult) and look for an opportunity to take a place. Several people had gone up the platform and others were charged with occupying their seats. Pretending not to understand anyone is a good strategy under such circumstances. Thea found a tiny place to sit. A short while after the train departed Hans was also given a place to sit. It was our experience in general that people would kindly offer us a seat. They also expected us to move over whenever new people entered the train. This could result in seven people sitting on a bench designed for three.
Long before actually arriving at Agra Cantonment Station, like with every other arrival, people started pushing for the exit. We really had to push our way out of the train, since from the outside people were trying to get in as soon as the train stopped.
The way to find a place in Agra is too just look a little helpless, then someone comes up to you and offers to show you to a lodge. Of course he will get commission, but he'll still know a good place. At least that's our Agra experience. First we checked at the Tourist Rest House, which was what we first picked. It was full, and did not seem all that interesting anyway. We were brought to Deepak Lodge, on Ajmer Road. A small place with rooms of different qualities. We paid Rs 85 a night. Stepping out of our room we stood in the garden, where we could also sit. Drinks and many different meals could be served. It's a family place, but the whole family likes talking too much. It was absolutely impossible to even sit for five minutes or so without someone coming up at us, wanting to talk. At this place the mosquito net has been very useful.
We met some other Dutch travellers who had sold their house and quit their jobs. They wanted to make a tour of half a year. We were very surprised to hear they had never been in an underdeveloped country before.
Next is some interesting information for anyone wanting to go from Agra to Varanasi (and quite a lot of people do this). This trip is difficult to arrange as a tourist, and it's a major source of income for the Agra `tourist agencies' just in front of the Cantonment Station. We have spoken to people who paid ridiculous amounts (Rs 900 each!!) for travelling to Varanasi first class, only to discover that they had to share a compartment (for four or six? - they did not mention) with ten other persons.
The story is this: it is not possible to make reservations for the trip to Varanasi at Agra. The Kit does not mention this. Since all trains are completely full (and we've experienced that!) what can you do to get a place on a train? That's where the agents come in. An agent will tell you that he can arrange a place for you. Obviously, you don't believe him. Then he tells you he has a friend in Delhi who will reserve and occupy a place for you. When the train arrives at Agra you take the place. Simple. Then he mentions his price and again you don't believe him. Too high. He shows you some copies of receipts of other travellers. They paid even more, but since he likes you...
Well you get the idea. We did not want to pay that much but we ended up, after some time of arguing and repeating that it was too expensive for us, with an agent who offered the most reasonable price - Rs 160 each. He filled in a nice form for us which would arrange everything. We got a copy and we would see about it in four days. So much here - rest in four days. But let us say here that it did not quite work out as expected - it would work out as feared. It is really a pity that the Kit does not cover this problem; there is a train at 11 pm but reservations are not possible on this one either. Moreover it is the known tourist train, and risks of theft are said to be high on this line. That was also one of the reasons we wanted to travel by day. We will post a query on this subject in rec.travel just to find out if anyone discovered how train travel between Agra and Varanasi is best arranged.
Feeling comfortable about the reservation we went to the Taj Mahal with an autorickshaw (Rs 20) - a cycle-rickshaw would take too long since the sun was already very low. The Taj Mahal was without a doubt the most beautiful experience of the four weeks. It must have been said a milion times, but it is great! We wanted to see it once in the evening and once in the morning. Like at many railway stations the ladies' queue was the quickest way to the tickets (Rs 4). The safety measures are very heavy: bodysearching and checking of bags, x-ray doors. Video-cameras only allowed at the entrance gate, not near the Taj Mahal itself. Around the Taj many heavily armed guards patrolled. The fear of Sikh attacks was still noticeable. The sunset over the Taj was a wonderful experience.
We had dinner behind the Taj, just outside the East gate, at Relax restaurant. We liked the place and the food so much we would return there two more times. We had a vegetarian meal with kofta (cheese) (Rs 80). If you like small shops and narrow winding streets, the area just to the south is the place to be, although from one moment to the other you may find yourself in a pitch-dark completely deserted alley. And when the electricity falls out - brr.
Autorickshaw back to the lodge (Rs 20). On Mahatma Gandhi Road we bought a film at a brandnew shop.
Up early: 6 am. Breakfast at the lodge (Rs 40). We walked to Idgah bus station, just fifteen minutes down the road. There the bus (Rs 16) for Fatehpur Sikri left at 8. The ride took almost an hour in a virtually flat landscape - it almost felt like home to us. Fatehpur Sikri is a single hill rising up from the plains. On top is the city, which was inhabited only for several decades. The palaces and mosques are all built of red stone. Splendid!
It is a true pleasure walking among the deserted buildings, most of them still in very good condition. The only drawback of the place is that you can hardly walk around without being bothered by men wanting to be your guide. The trick almost all of them used was to tell they were no guides but students and that you could give them whatever you liked after the tour. Of course if you give them a certain amount they will claim it is really ridiculously little and they'll make a big fuss. The same thing happened to us earlier. And if you do take a guide, make sure he speaks English properly.
Most people do not walk all the way to the river but you should. On the bank is an old caravanserai, outside the Elephant Gate. The atmosphere is really oriental out there.
After having spent several hours in the old city we went down again, looking for a bank in the village at the foot of the hill. We found a bank but there they did not exchange cash dollars. We were advised to go to the State Bank of India in Agra. Wrong advice, since back at Agra they turned out not to change dollars either. But the nearby Bank of Baroda did. And what a transaction! Again an example of bureaucracy. In the bank there was paper lying everywhere, but it was hot so the fans were switched on. And thus more than once we saw papers flying around. Of course the paper had to be filled in in triple, we had to sign and countersign, and then the clerk went away; when he came back he handed us a numbered coin as a proof that the exchanged money was ours, we had to line up before a counter (not really clear which) and when we discovered which clerk handled the transaction we could get our money in return for the coin. Phew.
After lunch at the lodge (Rs 40) with delicious banana pancakes we went to the office of Indian Airlines by cycle-rickshaw (Rs 10). It is located in Clarks Shiraz hotel, one of the most expensive hotels of Agra. We booked a flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu for a couple of days later; we had to take the plane a day before the day we would have liked to. Oh yes, the price: $108 for the two of us. Very good, prompt service.
It was the end of the afternoon so there was still time to do something. We wanted to take a cycle-rickshaw outside Clarks Shiraz, but the rickshaw drivers apparently all planned to wait outside the hotel until an obviously terribly rich person would come out so they could pedal him to the Taj Mahal and back for the price of a normal day's work. They did not want to take us at first, but after some talking and explaining that we did not stay in the hotel, we found a driver (Rs 10). Entrance fort Rs 4, and take care of getting the correct change here... tricky persons.
It was extremely crowded, but the spot and the time were ideal for taking some pictures of the Taj Mahal, situated around a bend in the river in plain view. It was constructed there so the emperor could see it from his palace. The fort itself is also quite impressive. It has a lot of hidden qualities and taking a guide here seems a good idea.
We decided to go to a restaurant which was a bit more touristic, but the food and the atmosphere of Zorba the Buddha did not really appeal to us. We paid Rs 160 for dinner. We walked back and longed for our bed, after this day full of activity, more or less characterised by the hassles with guides, sellers and drivers, as well as by the forts and palaces in red.
The same early rise as yesterday. Got dressed quickly, gave laundry to the reception and off for the Taj Mahal in the dark (Rs 10). Arrived around 7 am. It was much less crowded than two days before. The sun had just risen a little. Fantastic!! Taking pictures was not a problem. Marvellous compositions possible, like a scene with the Taj Mahal seen from under a gate of one of the flanking mosques. The scene is great for just strolling around on the cool marble and sitting on a bench looking out over the river.
We had breakfast at Relax restaurant, a delicious muesli with curd, apple, banana, cornflakes and honey, and some French toast. A breakfast worthy of the Taj Mahal (Rs 40). We went to a jewelry shop we had seen two days before, and there we bought a pair of silver earrings (Rs 150) and ordered a broche to be made with a black stone in which a star can be seen when held in the sunlight (Rs 350). We paid half of it in advance, and the next day the broche would be ready. We took a rickshaw to the fort - the driver was horrible: he hardly advanced, sat the wrong way around on the saddle most of the time, insisted to take us to shops where we only needed to look around so as to let him earn some baksheesh, and kept on touching both of us to support his arguments. When we finally arrived at the fort he did not want to take us to the gate but stopped way before. We retaliated by paying him less than agreed. We're not proud of it but how else can you make him see you did not like his behaviour and lack of manners at all?
We had a look at the red fort again, this time by daylight. We then walked to the Jami Mashid mosque behind Agra Fort railway station. Not really worth it, although the quarters around it are a spectacular bazaar scene. Rickshaw to GPO, where we could drop off some postcards we still had to mail. Then to the telegraph office to make a phonecal to tell our parents we were still alive. This was not all that straightforward. Apparently the employee did not have much experience with abroad telecommunications, since he tried a dozen times without any success. Then his colleague, proudly introduced as `the expert', managed to establish the connection in his first try... Walked back, same lunch as day before, rested in the afternoon, dinner at Relax again.
A day of bad luck. We had to go to the area around the Taj Mahal again to get the broche. So we had muesli there like yesterday... Agra became familiar to us and it was time to leave for Varanasi. The broche was ready but the maker had succeeded in making a terrible scratch on the stone. So after a lot of debating we could get our money back, provided we signed a form stating that we did not buy the broche we had ordered; for the taxes the salesman said. Back at the lodge we packed and went to the travel agent where we booked our places for Varanasi - first class. Ah, and we did not forget to pick up the laundry we gave to the reception a day before. The agent took us to the railway station where we should wait until he signalled us. After the train arrived he did signal us, but with the news that there were no first class places available. The swindler! After he checked with the train conductor's notes, he found out he could give us two places in second class. He told us the numbers: 49 and 51. He brought us to the places, chased the five people away who were sitting at places 49, 50 and 51, and told the other passengers that these were our places. But we did not have any written proof of that, and we were correct in assuming that we were not entitled to sit there at all.
But we still had our Indrail Passes. Each time we reserved a train before that day, a train official had written in the pass which places were reserved for us in which train. So we simply added this train and the correct seat numbers to the other reservations in the passes. The train would leave at 12.40, and arrive at Moghulsarai near Varanasi at 1.30 am that night. So it was important to have a place to at least sit. And we had seen before how full it could get. This train got even fuller and when it got dark and time to lower the berths, indeed someone came to claim one of our places. We said we had reservation and the man wanted to check that. We showed our passes and he agreed that we had the reservations. But when someone else claimed the other place and called for the conductor, he gave us only one of the two berths. But the berth was wide enough to let both of us sleep on it. When all berths were in use, there was not a single one on which only one person slept, and the rest of the compartment was also completely full! Wow, what an experience!
We arrived on time in Moghulsarai, but there was no connection for Varanasi until 7 am. There were retiring rooms at the station, but all were occupied. All else that was possible was the first class waiting room. which was hot and full. But we were so tired we managed to sleep lying on three separate chairs arranged in a row. And no comfortable chairs but the ones you'll find in an average cafeteria. At around seven we took the train for Varanasi.
The train was full of pilgrims. Old men with white beards, dressed in orange, and old women. They had been on that train for a long time, and they were almost at the end of their pilgrimage: the holy river Ganges. When the train crossed a bridge over the river they all prayed and were visibly impressed at the sight of the goal of their journey.
At the railway station we were picked up by an old rickshaw driver who took us to Jogi Lodge (not Yogi Lodge) in a side alley of Harishchandra Road, near Harishchandra Ghat, one of the places for ceremonial cremation. This lodge had been advised by Deepak Lodge in Agra, but we certainly would not advise it to anyone else! It was the only place where we've seen mice and cockroaches during these four weeks. Absolutely run-down. The `rooftop restaurant' they advertise with has no view, and the `staff' is a bunch of money-thirsty and unpleasant people. Since we only had to stay for one night we survived. The amount of Rs 70 was too much for this room.
After a shower we took off for a look at the area, called Godaulia. Down at the ghats (the stairs into the Ganges) boatman try hard to get you into their boats. The thing you should absolutely not miss in Varanasi is a boat trip at sunrise. Paying more than about Rs 30 an hour is not reasonable. The ghats are not only used for bathing in the morning and evening, but during the rest of the day they are used for washing and drying. We walked along the shore of the Ganges in the direction of the center and finally got there through the labyrinth of narrow streets that marks the area at less than two hundred metres from the river.
Further east we found the golden temple, with the help of a little boy who brought us straight into a silk shop, the only place where it is possible to have a good look at the temple. Good location for a shop, nice try at trapping tourists. There are many temples, but it is not always clear if it is permitted to enter them. For whoever likes strolling around in this maze of alleys with shops and sellers everywhere, Varanasi is the place to be. But the image we recall from Varanasi is mainly that is is dirty. And awfully crowded. We preferred the wide streets and rural aspect of Agra. So it was more or less luck that we had not been able to reserve for the flight of two days later and we were relieved we had to stay for only a day and a half.
We tried a real masala dosa, a hard thin pancake filled with very tasty and spicy ingredients (Rs 35). Time for a nap, since that night we had not had much sleep. It was alreadu dark when we went to the Durga temple (with aggressive monkeys) and the pretty white Tulsi Manas temple. In this modern temple there is a show with moving puppets, and also a series of pictures from the Ramayana. Very nice.
One of the things to buy here, next to silk, are bangles. They are sold everywhere, in many different colors and sizes. But they are vulnerable and should be well packed, not just stuffed in the backpack. Three of Thea's bangles did not survive the return journey...
We had dinner at El Chico (Rs 130). Of course full of westerners. The food was okay, nothing special. We took some local rum to ease the stomach (a recipe we remember from skiing in Austria once: if you have symptoms of diarrhoea, take some strong alcohol). When we got out of the restaurant, the streets were packed with people and rickshaws. Near the Ganges mosquitos were everywhere. We rickshawed back (Rs 4) and had a look at the Harishchandra burning ghat. Someone explained to us that people came from over a hundred kilometers to get someone burned. Not everyone is burned; only the rich people since for a ceremonial burning it takes a lot of wood, and some special kinds of wood like sandalwood. The people with less money are burned in electric crematoria; their ashes are also spread over the Ganges. Others just have their bodies dumped into the river, with some extra weight to make them sink. At the burning ghats male family members (women are not allowed because of their `weakness': they might start crying and get emotional) wait until it is their family's turn, with the body wrapped up in cloths. We saw at least four families waiting.
Up early for the boat trip at sunrise. At 5.30. Down to the river where still some fires were burning. We made a trip to the most southern ghat and back. It is very impressive to witness from the water the sight of all the men and women taking their ceremonial morning baths. It is unbelievable how many people are attracted by this place. People come here each morning from tens of kilometers away. They wash and pray. One with even more theatrical ceremonies than the other. One is taking water from the river, then pours it back slowly while saying a prayer. Someone else submerges himself a number of times, counting each time. A glimpse of another culture. The trip of about an hour cost Rs 35. We took some beautiful pictures here.
We walked into the center, where we took breakfast at Aces restaurant; a good pot of tea and kingsize banana pancakes. We took a rickshaw (Rs 7) to Bharat Mata temple. It is a strange kind of temple, since the only thing it contains is a huge relief map of India. And a corner to sell postcards and all kinds of books about India and Nepal.
Then we took another rickshaw to go to Aurangzeb's mosque. The driver could not find it, and even after asking directions we got lost in the maze of alleys. Since we had to take a plane that afternoon we decided to stop our search for the mosque and head back to the main roads, which were further away than we thought. If you have time, these narrow streets are a real discovery. Back to the hotel again (Rs 10), showered and packed. The `management' had already invited a friend to take care of airport transport. There must have been a substantial baksheesh in it for them. We paid Rs 100 for the 20-kilometer ride. It was not funny because of the dust and the strong wind. We both caught a cold.
At the airport there was nothing. A dirty and extremely expensive restaurant; empty and primitive otherwise. During the afternoon more people arrived; most of them in groups of organised tours. Many of them were Spanish teenagers; they made an awful noise in the small and hot lounge, shouting, singing and dancing. And then all of a sudden the checkin started. There were three counters and it was not clear at all where one should go and in which order. One counter was for paying airport taxes (Rs 150 each), one for getting exit visa and one for getting the boarding passes. And which was for what? A total mess. Only the guides of the organised tours knew what they were doing. Well finally everyone got a boarding pass and with some delay we could board the plane. But it did not take off. After a long time we heard that the airport lights were not working so we could not take off. We were told they were trying to get it repaired again. When we saw a row of blue lights outside we thought they had managed, but then came the message that we should disembark. We would get a room in a hotel in Varanasi.
Then the mess became even larger. The exit visa had to be cancelled, we had to get the airport taxes back, and get a room in a hotel. The airport officials had arranged rooms in several hotels, and they filled in forms (in quadruple of course) for every group. Since the larger groups had guides that used to give banknotes along with the passports each time they came at Varanasi airport, they got helped first, since there were no lines and everyone tried to grab whatever was available... such situations bring out the worst in people. Since we were only looking for one room we were about the last to be helped; they dealt with the larger blocks of rooms first. And all those group leaders kept whining about people insisting on having a single room, while the airport staff had explained ten times that there were only doubles... awful. It was an emergency situation so how could they expect top service? After everyone more or less successfully got himself on the list we had to wait for buses to arrive. The bus drivers would get the lists for the hotel. They would, but the list never showed up at hotel Clark's Varanasi, where we were taken. Hey, did we get to a top end hotel after all! What a change from the lodges we had been in! But since there was no list we had a hard time getting a room. Another group, with German and Austrian tourists, had been staying at Clark's for several days so the staff knew them and they immediately got a room. For us it was more difficult; at first they insisted on a form from Indian Airlines but after a kind word of the Austrian guide they gave us their last room - a single room. But that was our first chance since three weeks to take a hot bath so we enjoyed it. And we hoped everything would go better the next day. At least we would fly into Kathmandu at broad daylight; three weeks earlier and six weeks earlier planes had crashed while approaching Kathmandu without much sight.
Breakfast in Clark's is what you would expect in such a top-end hotel: toast, tea, fruit juice, jam, sweet breads. But we did not eat that much since we both had some stomach problems... we suspected the masala dosa to be the guilty party. Hans would even have stomach problems for the next four (!) weeks. Three weeks after our return he consulted our doctor and after some antibiotics the problem was solved.
We were ready for departure at 7 am, like the German/Austrian group. But we could have stayed in bed longer since the bus was an hour late. At the airport the whole messy ritual of the day before started all over: again we had to pay airport tax, again we had to get exit visa (after filling in the same form as yesterday - sure), and again we had to line up for boarding passes. Security check like yesterday, including checking of videocameras and asking everyone how much currency they took with them. And all that had been done the day before too. Sigh.
But finally, after a delay of 17 hours and a half, we took off at 11 am. Such a delay for a flight of only 25 minutes! But the flight was very spectacular: very low over the hills, and a breathtaking view of the Himalayas for those sitting at the left.
After arrival at the airport everyone rushed to the arrival hall to change money and to fill in the entrance visa forms, at very unstable tables. The visa cost $20 each. We exchanged $100 for Rs 4553. We had picked the most quiet hotel we could find in the Travel Survival Kit. That was hotel Catnap, across the river from the center of town, 10 minutes walking from Durbar square. And we have to say it was a very good choice, after our visits to the more touristic parts of town. A taxi drove us there for $3. The hotel is a bit hard to find at first, but after a day you know the shortcuts. It has very large rooms, is absolutely quiet, and from the roof the view of Kathmandu's skyline is very special. Only drawback was that we shared the bathroom with three other rooms. But that seems to be normal in Kathmandu. We payed Rs 275 per night. The boss is a very kind and somewhat shy man with a funny smoker's cough.
We did what the name of the hotel told us to, and after this nap we were very anxious to finally see Kathmandu. Hans had been persistent in his idea to see Kathmandu after India, though Thea would not have minded visiting only India. And we were both very glad we went there. After the three weeks in India, Kathmandu felt like very luxurious, almost western. It is possible to buy whatever you may need, there are hundreds of restaurants, but, most of all, the people are very different from the Indians. Much more friendly. The atmosphere of the city is relaxed, it is the capital yet so small you can get across on foot in half an hour.
Durbar square is a very special place, with temples all over it. We had never seen anything quite like it. On Bali we also saw the major temple complex but in Kathmandu the square is part of everyday life; people sit on the temples and markets are held in front of them. It is a must to climb up the central temple and watch things go by from up there.
We reconfirmed our flight back to India, at the office of Royal Nepalese Airlines. Bought some tea in one of the many tea shops. A good measure of the degree of tourism in Kathmandu is the number of jewelry shops. We bought several earrings during our stay. There are large differences in price and quality and the general hint is not to buy anything in the first shop, but to look around carefully first. Bargain at some shop then and find out what the real bottom price is. It takes time but it pays to invest it. We found that the shops in Thamel were more expensive than those on New Road.
It was the day before the Diwali festival and many christmas-like decorations as well as fireworks were sold everywhere. Those fireworks turned out to be rather a nuisance later on since a favourite pastime of the children was to scare tourists with firecrackers.
We ate well at the Kabab Corner for Rs 300 including local rum to clean the stomach and protect against infections...
We got up early, at six. It was terribly cold so we had to wear our sweaters. It was the day of the festival on which cows were honoured. At many spots we saw larger and smaller cows being decorated with colourful paper and with several coloured powders. It was already crowded in the streets. We did one of the walkig tours from the Kit so we knew where to find nice squares and temples. We saw many people having a cold or coughing a lot... apparently the climate was still hard for the Kathmandese as well. We fit in the scene with our colds.
We looked at the many sweaters for sale but we found them too thick. At Tushita on Kantipath we had a great breakfast: curd with fruit and muesli. Lots of it (Rs 135). From there we walked to Swayambunath, the main temple. It was quite a climb up the stairs but the temple is really impressive and very well located on the top of a hill. Unluckily it was very cloudy.
Walked back to the hotel, had a nice hot shower and spent some time reading. Then by rickshaw to Patan (Rs 35). Due to a raise in price the fare is what the meter indicates plus 30%. Of course we suspected a hassle at first but it seems this is the truth. Patan is also a very nice town to walk around and discover the squares and temples. By rickshaw (Rs 40) back to Thamel. We were very glad we did not stay in a hotel in this part of Kathmandu - far too many westerners to our taste, and much too crowded. We ate at Le Bistro on its open-air square. Because of the festival children as well as adults tried to make some money by singing at the restaurants. Nice music although all groups of children seemed to have only one song on the repertoire. Good meals Rs 300.
We bought some food for our trip of the next day, biscuits and chocolate. Surrounded by fireworks we walked back to the hotel and picked up the flight bag of Hans' backpack which had gotten torn up. Thoroughly repaired by the skilled tailor. From the roof of the hotel we watched the fireworks over Kathmandu... a great experience!
This morning we first arranged some necessary affairs - at first all went wrong because everything was closed. After ten o'clock most shops opened. At the hotel we had borrowed a 1:50.000 map of the valley which we photocopied for only Rs 20. At the book shop this map cost Rs 600! We reconfirmed our flight with Air India - finally.
The most popular tourist trade is the T-shirt industry. All over Kathmandu men embroider T-shirts with any picture or text you can imagine. We also ordered T-shirt with the text `Thea and Hans - India 1992 Nepal'. Rs 150 each.
We wanted to go for an afternoon hike so we took a big portion of muesli at the same place as the day before. By rickshaw we went to Balaju, northwest of Kathmandu, and about two kilometers past the village to the entrance to Nagargun wildlife reserve. Registration and entrance fee Rs 10. A well-kept and easy path led uphill to the summit Jamacho. According to the Kit it would be about 20 km, but the sign at the entrance said 5 km. And it was closer to 5 than to 20 since we walked up in about an hour and a half. The altitude difference was about 600 m. On the top is a small temple and a view tower. And the view over the valley was splendid!! Bad luck though that it was not clear weather again. We spent a lot of time in the sun and eating our provisions. The way back took us only an hour. We walked back on the main road to Kathmandu, where we took a rickshaw in Thamel to get back to the hotel. After a well-deserved shower we went back to town.
There appears to be quite a black market for changing money, and at a good rate. The procedure is to be approached by someone who wants to change, then enter his shop and do the change. Smooth and simple. This way we changed one $50 bill for Rs 2500.
We bought some bottles of water like every night and kept on being bothered by the fireworks. Rather awful how long they keep on throwing firecrackers around. Dinner at Kebab Corner again for Rs 300.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, walked to the trolley bus stop where a huge crowd was already waiting for the bus to arrive. Upon arrival, people entered through doors and windows, pushing eachother aside to get in. We managed to squeeze ourselves in and survived the trip to the end point at Bhaktapur. There it was a ten minutes' walk to the city center. Bhaktapur is a lovely town; when we were there, all kinds of agricultural products were spread out on squares and fields to dry in the sun. The red houses on the gentle slope make a nice view.
We wanted to catch a bus to Nagarkot, the famous place on the valley rim with a good early morning view of the Himalaya's. The next bus went after three hours and after lots of negociating we ended up taking a taxi to Nagarkot. It cost us Rs 300 for the 50 minutes, 20 km drive. At Nagarkot we managed to get something to eat at the totally untouristy hour in the middle of the day. Usually people arrive late afternoon and leave early in the morning after having witnessed the sunrise over the Himalaya. The place is nothing more than a bunch of very expensive hotels and more hotels are built every day. We had bad luck again since the clouds again beat the snow-topped mountains.
We wanted to walk down to Changunarayan Temple, back in the direction of Kathmandu. After a four-hour walk, mostly downhill we arrived there. On the way we got rather depressed at the enormous quantity of children begging for some rupees. Apparently many tourists do give them either some money or sweets, since the children show quite a knowledge of what you might have hidden in which pocket. And many children were sent to us by their parents or older brothers and sisters.
The walk was not difficult since there was a good path all the way; the only arising problem was that at several places there were too many paths. All men we saw on our way were wearing flowers around their necks and they wore the tika sign on the forehead. At that particular day of the festival all women visited their brothers to honour them with these signs. That is also the reason why we had seen so many travelling women, in the bus, in taxis and on the road. All dressed in their best colourful sarees.
At the Temple we met two Spaniards with whom we managed to share a taxi back to Kathmandu. They had been tempted to pay the taxi driver the full price he asked: Rs 600. This was a ridiculous amount and we could get him down to Rs 400 which was still far too much. But this time we kept the aces: the taxi was stuck in the far-away place and he had to get out of there one way or another. We, the tourists, had the option of walking downhill and catching a taxi at the road down there. After we had starting descending the hill, the taxi fare descended even more rapidly and we went to Kathmandu for the more reasonable price of Rs 300... so only Rs 150 for us.
At Thamel we picked up the three embroidered T-shirts we had ordered before. We had dinner at Tushita, a place we had gotten to know. Since we were more or less known customers there we dared asking whether they had some coins for friends who collect them. Until then we had seen only paper money. The waiter went out into the street and came back with four coins he gave to us. These later made a friend very happy.
On the way back to the hotel we bought some chips, water and beer for the evening. At the hotel we found our laundry washed, dried, ironed (Rs 51). Hans started taking some imodium pills because of the continuing stomach problems. We would go home in two days so he should try to avoid needing toilet visits at unpleasant places and times.
Day of rest, packing and shopping. Slept till late and had a good refreshing shower - after finally the shower was free. We wanted to eat at Freak Street at least once so that's where we took breakfast, at Maggi's. Among other things we took delicious Tibetan bread with honey. Down in the street there was a lot of activity going on around some expedition. Cars were filled with equipment for apparently a rafting trip. Looked adventurous and promising!
Then we did some shopping for birthdays of friends and relatives. We bought lots of jewelry and some clothing, after of course having checked out many shops and loads of negociating. We ended up at the rooftop terrace of Aroma restaurant at the end of the afternoon where we witnessed the activities down in the street at one of the busy crossroads of Kathmandu. A large cold beer and a vanilla-shake for Rs 100.
A good buy were the pairs of walking trousers for each of us (Rs 225 and Rs 325). It would turn out later that these trousers with many pockets and a spacious fit were ideal for hiking.
After dinner at the good restaurabt Kebab Corner (Rs 320) back to Hotel Catnap where we packed everything for the departure of the next morning. We paid the bill and gave the boss the Dutch cigar we had left over of our `bribe collection', along with a tip for his good care.
Got up at five thirty and found the taxi waiting that the boss had ordered for us... and what a taxi it was. The doors had to be closed very gently in order not to have them falling out, the windows had to be pulled up by hand, the windscreen wipers were not functioning while it was very misty. And still we had to pay Rs 150... well at least he had been at the hotel on time.
At the airport we checked in and paid the exit tax (Rs 1000). We were a bit annoyed by the porters who shifted our bags not more than two meters and claimed they were always given a good fee.
We changed back the remaining rupees into dollars, and had a good breakfast (Rs 270). The plane had a small delay. Of course the airport intercom system did not work at all so everyone was very confused at who were to board and who were not.
The flight offered spectacular views of the highest mountains in the world. Everyone worked overtime taking pictures. At New Delhi we wanted to go into a retiring room, but we had already had a stamp in our passports that we were entering India when the officer told us we could stay in the transit zone since there were no retiring rooms available. A lady arranged for all transit passengers to get their luggage and we were shown to the transit area where comfortable chairs were available to spend the time resting and sleeping. We were told we would be checked in after an Air India official would contact us. This turned out to go just fine, although the employee checking us in was not cooperative at all. He made errors in labeling luggage and simply refused to listen to the wishes of the passengers.
During our waiting time at the transit area we wanted to change back our Indian rupees but this was normally impossible since there were only banks outside this area. And the customs would not let us go there (a twenty meter walk). Finally Hans managed to get an airport security guard to escort him to the bank and change the rupees. For a fee of course...
We spent some money in the well-filled tax-free shop and could board in time for our flight back to Amsterdam, Schiphol airport via Frankfurt. Time elapsed surprisingly quickly and we had very good seats in the first row of the tourist class. Changeover in Frankfurt took a bit longer than scheduled but we took the opportunity to change into the Nepalese trousers and the T-shirts we had had made as a souvenir. A good shave and wash made us look fresh as ever and prepared to meet our family at Amsterdam.
The last leg of the flight was particularly interesting since we flew low and it was completely clear. It was the end of October and we saw autumn colours everywhere on the ground. Every village, lake and dike were recognizable so we quickly felt at home again... although the impressions of these holidays still tend to come up at unexpected moments.
Delft University of Technology,
Department of Technical Mathematics and Informatics,Room ET 7.25,
P.O. Box 5031, 2600 GA Delft, The Netherlands,
Phone (0)31 (0)15 783689, firstname.lastname@example.org