Monday, October 26, 2015

Holy Varanasi and the River Ganges

The plan for Friday October 16th was to take the overnight train to Varanasi, this turned out to be another adventure!  Thanks to help from Shridhar (a work friend of Sara's) we had several different train reservations, one in first class AC and one in third class AC, the idea being we would wait to see which bunks were confirmed the day of travel, and hopefully get the 1st class, but with 3rd class as a backup. That afternoon the plan was to take the train with the 3rd class bunks as those were confirmed, however the train was abut 4 hours delayed, and we were concerned it would be canceled, leaving us no way to get to Varanasi. We have learned the key to traveling in India is to be flexible and to have a backup plan!  The staff at our hotel were amazing, they let us stay in the room until 7pm, and spent a lot of time checking the train schedule and advising us on the best options.

Finally we decided to get on the later train, where we only had one fist class bunk confirmed, with the advice we could pay the extra fare on the train to the conductor and share the bunk.  So off we went to the train station. Thankfully our driver helped communicate with the porters at the train station (called Coolies) to carry our bags, and Gian also helped us buy the general ticket we needed to get on the train, as we only had the one confirmed seat.  Good thing we had these folks to help us as it was a bit chaotic, and very dark.  

We sat on the platform waiting for our train, and 15 minutes before it arrived the Coolie suddenly got excited and said quick come with me. So Sara went back to the ticket office and after providing several tips to different people got the money back for the general ticket.  We are still not sure what happened and since the ticket only cost $3 would have been happy to keep it, especially as when we tried to get on the train the ticket man needed some persuading, and for a horrible moment we thought the train would leave without us! 

Anyway we were on the train, and survived scrutiny by the train conductor who did not look amused to find both of us there. Our cabin mate Sabuj helped explain what was happening and told us we would need to pay a penalty later, which we expected. We have found everyone in India to be very friendly and helpful, which made an amazing difference.  So we slept together on the pretty hard narrow bed and were happy to get to Varanasi the next morning.

Varanasi is a fairly big ancient city which is very crowded and noisy. The guide book says Varanasi “ takes no prisoners “ so we knew it was going to be complete sensory overload. Varanasi in on the Ganges river and is considered to be one of the holiest cities in India. Many people come to Varanasi to pray, bath or cremate their dead family members. Having your ashes sent down the Ganges is considered to be very special. There is a long strip of ghats along the Ganges. The ghats are long stone steps on the banks of the Ganges. We spent the first afternoon (Saturday 17th) walking along the river Ganges and just taking in the scenes. It was still very hot, and after walking several hours up the river we negotiated a boat ride back to our hotel, which was right on the river Ganges.  That evening boat ride was amazingly peaceful, which we needed after such a busy day.

Sunday 18th we got up at 5:30am and took a two hour dawn boat ride. It was wonderful to see the sunrise over then River Ganges, and the bank was busy with people praying, bathing and generally going about their daily lives. We rested for the rest of the day, as the temperatures were in the upper 90Fs, and it was very humid. That evening we walked to Dashashwamedh Ghat to see a special Hindu ceremony called the Ganga Aarti which is performed by 7 Brahman priests. Another amazing experience.

The next few days were travel back to New Delhi and then to Kathmandu, where we spent a few relaxing days before starting our trek in the Himalayan mountains.  It is currently Sunday October 25th and we are in Namache Bazzar at 11,400 feet after three difficult days of hiking.  Our next post will be about our trek in the mountains!

Click here for a slideshow of Varanasi

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Getting to Agra and the Taj Mahal

OK, before we talk about our time in Agra I have to comment on the car ride we took from Dharamsala to New Delhi. We were supposed to fly on Wednesday October 14th, but due to bad weather the flight was canceled so we ended up renting a car and a driver. Our taxi driver who took us to the airport said the drive was a 10-11 hour drive but our driver who took us to New Delhi said 9 hours. That should have been a clue to how the ride was going to go. Highway 1 is a small narrow mountain road until it gets close to New Delhi. Holy Molly driving in India is completely crazy. It is basically jungle rules. It is the art of the car horn and at night the horn and the dimmer switch. It is constant horn beeping. They beep the horn and it means I am behind you so look out I am coming around you. There is absolutely no lane discipline. It is British driving rules so the driver is on the right side of the car. 

I was sitting directly behind the driver so I saw all the oncoming traffic. Sara had the more scenic side with a view of the countryside. I can’t count the number of times I thought we were going to be killed in a head on collision. They sometimes have a white line in the middle of the road but I never saw any yellow no pass lines.  We saw a number of trucks and vehicles with no tail lights at night and even the occasional bus or truck going the wrong direction on the highway. All in all, without question it was the scariest car ride I have ever been on. I will have to say our driver was very good but the drive was like being in a NASCAR race or a scene from the Fast and Furious movie.  I looked over at Sara who was napping and tried, but just couldn’t do it.  Sara said her approach was to look out of the widow to the dark countryside; clearly it wasn’t as scary on her side where the imminent head on collisions were hidden.

We arrived in New Delhi around midnight, and our previously arranged driver was waiting for us at a gas station for the hand off.  The push to get to Agra was we really wanted to see the Taj Mahal, and the only day we had was Thursday (Oct 15th) as the Taj is closed on Fridays.  So Gian who was our driver for the next two days drove us the 3-4 hours to Agra. This experience was quite different, as the new expressway was almost empty.  We did notice after a while our Gian was starting to weave a bit, could have been sleepy, so we started talking to him to ensure we arrived alive!

We finally arrived at out hotel at 4am, and slept until around 11am!  The afternoon of Thursday Oct 15th we visited the Taj Mahal. Very very impressive, and we were glad we made the effort to visit. We spent about 3 hours wandering the large complex taking pictures and enjoying the peace.  There were a lot of people visiting, but not many tourists. A lot of Indian people wanted their photos taken with us, our guide explained it was because they had never seen a foreigner before and woudl go back to their village with a photo of us.  We enjoyed a nice dinner and chatted to the couple next to us who were from Portsmouth England, Sara’s home town.

Friday (Oct 16th) we got up early and visited Agra Fort, a huge red fortress complex with some magnificent white palaces inside.  The architecture was amazing.  It was a really hot day again so after spending a few hours we went back to the hotel for a lunch and to prepare for our overnight train to Varanasi.

Click here for a slide show of the Taj Mahal and Agra

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bustling New Delhi and McLeod Ganj - Home of the Dalia Lama

Our journey to India started by flying back to London and then taking an all night flight to New Delhi. Once again we arrived in New Delhi completed smashed, it was Saturday October 10th.  Fortunately we booked a really nice hotel in New Delhi so we had a chance to clean up and rest up in a really nice and comfortable environment. 

Once we had a slight recovery we launched out that afternoon and went to a place called India Gate. This is a big park which is a memorial for all the Indian soldiers who lost their life in wars. It was an interesting and enjoyable place to go in the evening. India is very crowded, noisy, and chaotic but we knew that before we got there so we were prepared to embrace the people and the culture. This way the chaos doesn’t really bother you that much. So far we have found the people to be very nice and friendly, as interested in taking pictures of us as we are of them.

The next day (Sunday 11th) was the only full day we had in Delhi. Both days in Delhi we had a driver who would take us to our locations and let us out and wait for us. Trying to use public transportation would have been a disaster and the cost of a driver for the day was around $35 which we considered a bargain. The streets of Delhi are total madness. Only people used to driving in that kind of traffic should try it. We decided we wanted to launch right into the lion’s den of Old Delhi’s medieval bazaars and little shops. This is the nitty gritty of Delhi, no upscale markets or restaurants, just little shops and street food on the streets and back alleys. It could have been sensory overload if we were not prepared but we knew what we were getting into, and we went early before it got very busy! Sara wanted to find some real Indian clothing which she managed to accomplish, heading up the small stairs in several shops to be shown the many choices. 

Our driver took us away from old Delhi to a really good small and authentic restaurant for lunch. For most of the day we didn’t see many tourists, just a lot of Indian locals enjoying their Sunday. After lunch we headed to the Red Fort which is a massive fort containing many marble temples and monuments built around 400 years ago.  The area was packed with locals and just a few tourists. We stood in line to buy our ticket and then realized a security guard was blowing his whistle at us. No we weren’t trouble, he was directing us to the foreigners ticket window – joy no line. We spent the afternoon at the fort and really enjoyed it, although the heat was getting to us by the end.  We typically walk five to six miles a day, good exercise!

Sara’s blond hair is quite a novelty and many people ask to have their picture taken with her, which John finds amusing and Sara is a little uncomfortable about!  It is mostly younger people that ask, both men and women.  

 On Monday 12th we left New Delhi and flew to Dharamsala. It was a hour and half flight from Delhi. We had to take a taxi from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj which is the little town where the Dalai Lama lives. McLeod Ganj is a busy narrow streeted town in the mountains. We elected to stay at Hotel Tibet which only cost $15 a night but is in a perfect location in town. The hotel room has two fairly comfortable beds and a toilet and a shower so we happy campers, although the fumes from a recent painting in the room are a little disconcerting.  The room instructions included good advice about keeping the windows closed "to prevent the mishandling of our goods by the monkeys"!

That afternoon when we arrived we mostly walked around trying to figure out where everything was. The next day was our full day and we started by walking up to the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple. We thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be somewhat emotional realizing the plight and peril the Tibetan people have endured. There are about 60,000 Tibetan people in the surrounding area. In the afternoon we walked up to a Hindu temple in another little town. Tomorrow we fly back to New Delhi and meet our new driver who will drive us to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wandering the Streets of Rome

We left Dallas on Saturday October 3rd night and arrived in Rome Sunday afternoon. That included an all night flight from Dallas to London and then spending the next day and another flight to get to Rome. Needless to say, after all that we were pretty whipped by the time we got to Rome.

Sara had a business conference in Rome, Italy so we decided we would go to her conference and then fly on to India afterwards from London. Since we’re traveling on air miles, we could get to India, and decided to spend some time in India since we had never visited that country.  We then have another flight to the neighboring country of Nepal.  

But first Rome!  Our time in Rome gave me a chance to tour the city and do lots of photography while Sara was sadly working. Rome is a beautiful city with lots of ancient structures and of course the Vatican and all its beauty and facilities. I mainly used public transportation which worked well once I got the hang of all the routes and how it all worked.  On the first day (Monday 5th), Sara and I went to St Peters Square, the Pantheon and some of the other Piazzas. Rome is very busy with traffic and crowds and a huge line to get into the Vatican.

On Tuesday 7th, John got up early to join a special tour which allowed entry into the Vatican before the general public, making photography much easier.  He toured the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums and St Peters Basilica, which is the largest church in the world.  All of these were fabulous and stunning.

One of the highlights of our time in Rome was getting to attend a Rheinhold Messner talk the last day of Sara’s conference. He was the keynote speaker and was very inspiring. He started mountain climbing at age eight. He was the first person to solo summit Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. He was a very humble man and claimed not to be any different than most ordinary people but if you look at all his climbing successes it is very clear he was a very special person.

After the conference ended we had one last afternoon in Rome.  We took the metro to the Coliseum, which is architecturally stunning.  However both of us commented it had a really bad vibe because of the brutality that occurred there.  Ok it was over 2,000 years ago that the gladiators fought there, but it was easy to imagine when looking down on the main arena. After the Coliseum we walked through the “Forum” which is large area full of old temples and the area where the Roman Senate met.  This was really interesting and peaceful.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

India & Nepal 2015

 Today we leave on our 20th wedding anniversary celebration trip! We are returning to Nepal to hike to the village of Pangboche where we were married by Lama Geshe 20 years ago. In an amazing coincidence Lama Geshe's son Jigme Sherpa works for KPMG in the New York office (the same firm as Sara), and was actually at our wedding helping his father. Pretty amazing.

Before we get to Nepal we will spend a week in Rome, where Sara has to work and John will be taking photos. On October 9th we fly to India for 10 days to visit Dharamsala (home of the Dalai Lama), the Taj Mahal and Varanasi - city on the Ganges. Should be an adventure.

Finally on October 20th we fly to Nepal and after a few days rest will fly to the village of Lukla to start our 14 day hike in the Everest region.  We are so excited to return to the mountains and have planned a fairly relaxed trek to Pangoche at 13,000ft, with plenty of time to stop and explore on the way.

After our trek in the mountains we will spend a few days in the lake town of Pokhara before starting the long journey home. Should be a fabulous way to celebrate 20 years of adventure together.