Monday, November 29, 2010

Movember 2010

Let me introduce you to the 2010 version of the 'Mo.  Not a bad effort if I must say so myself.  You can compare to last year's edition. Steph is away so I had to take the photo self portrait style. 

The trip to Nepal and India put a kink in the mustache growing plan because as much as I enjoy growing the 'Mo, I just couldn't have all my photos from the trip with it.  I learned that lesson last year in Marrakesh thanks to the "Oh Mr. Mustache" comment and the corresponding photo...

Now I know that some would argue that not shaving the entire 2 week trip has about the same effect, but I opted for the traveler beard instead.  Its more itchy but not as eye catching.  So when I arrived back to London I carved this bad boy out.  Let me know what you think...

Movember is always so much fun at the beginning but the novelty wears off by week 4 getting a bit ridiculous.    I'm looking forward to getting a clean shave just in time for the holiday season.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Up to The Monkey Temple

With the sun getting low in the sky, we topped up on caffeine with a coffee and headed off to visit Swayambhunath, also known as The Monkey Temple. To get there, we had to take another taxi ride – so let the entertainment begin!

It was equally as crazy, this time in the daylight, revealing more sights and sounds from this hectic city.  In one extremely quick and tense situation the driver luckily escaped hitting a moped carry 3 generations of a Nepalese family.  I don’t know how he avoided them but he did!  I also snapped these interesting shots as we drove by.  I'm not sure what is going on in the first photo but the second is a local butcher shop which only goes to show that the vegetarian dishes are the better option in this part of the world.  Also, the guy didn't approve of my drive-by-snapshot.

The money temple was built on top of a huge hill with 365 steps leading to it and has some holy monkeys living on the grounds.  The Tibetan name actually translates to "Sublime Trees".  Upon entry at the bottom, a seemingly old holy man came up to us and wanted to put a red mark on our forehead with a bright red powder.  We obliged for the experience of it (and gave him a few rupees).  On top we found another big Stupa and other various religious things, a few monkeys and of course some souvenir shops.  It was worth the climb, as the setting sun really made some of the gold leaf shine.

So now is a good time to introduce our friends Ben who is English and Nora who is French. We met them in Wales 2 years ago when we went coasteering (climbing around the rocky Welsh coast in wetsuits). Its funny to think that we went to Wales to get away and ended up meeting neighbors who turn out to be good friends.  Anyway they rock and are good travel buddies.

I frequently run into Ben on my commute so we catch up at the pub as well. Earlier this summer, they played a big role in my surprise birthday party. I still owe him for that one... When we heard they were taking this trip it didn't take much convincing to get us to come along as well.  As for Ben's missing bag...fortunately, it arrived that afternoon!

Our time in Kathmandu was short but throughout our visit, we kept being amazed that this country was in such political unrest as early as 2 years ago.  With the monarchy dissolved and the royal palace turned in to a museum, we were truly visiting after recent significant changes. All in all, we only saw a small piece of Kathmandu and the mighty Himalayas but it was well worth the experience and left us thinking of a return visit someday to do some trekking or as Ben wants to do, climb Everest!

Monday, November 22, 2010

From Mt Everest to The Temples

Our only option on this trip to see Mt. Everest was an early morning scenic flight in a jet stream plane run by Yeti Airlines.  We happily took the opportunity having to wake before dawn to catch a taxi to the airport. In the air, we had stunning views of the Himalayas and were even allowed into the cockpit to see a panoramic view of Mt. Everest! At certain points we could almost reach out and touch the snow on the top of the mountains.

After breakfast, we headed for a visit to The Pashupatinath Temple, one of the holiest and biggest Hindu temples in Nepal. Visitors (non-Hindu) are not allowed in the main temple but you can explore the grounds and there is plenty to see and take in. Set on both banks of a river, you first arrive at the crematorium where in the Hindu faith, loved ones are cremated on the bank of the river. I’m trying to keep this as light as possible but it is as it sounds. Bodies are burned on cement platforms built along the river and then the ashes are thrown in to the river after some are collected to keep. Cremation is meant to help the spirit pass in to the other world - the ultimate destination of the dead.  It is a sacred river and a highly sought after location for cremation. 

As westerners, we tend to be more hands-off with death but in the Hindu faith the oldest son is responsible for actually setting fire. It is an honor for the son in recognition of the parent who has just died, sometimes only just hours ago.

While we were there, we could see 3 bodies at different stages of the cremation process.  I’m having a hard time summing up and describing my feelings standing across the river watching a cremation first hand. It was simply different and in a way, one of the moments you travel for - to open your mind to new experiences and ways of thinking.  The photo included is from a distance, to help others see and begin to understand a religion and practice that has existed for many thousands of years.  You can see at a high level what the scene looked like.  The river runs in the gap between the buildings in the photo. 

Another thought provoking site was a couple boys picking up charred logs out of the dirty river.  The logs could be reused again and have resell value.  They were in knee deep water, digging the logs out of the water, putting them on push carts to wheel them to the bank.

Exploring the rest of the area surrounding the temple we got to see plenty of monuments including some Shiva linga shrines for all you Indiana Jones fans. Shiva is a Hindu diety and linga is a representation of Shiva; the linga's exact meaning being under dispute but largely means fertility the way its shown at this temple. There was also a good view of the temple from the other side of the river where we could watch the followers come and go for morning worship. We found the above holy man sitting in one of the monuments taking in some sun. A few monkeys were bouncing around causing trouble as well.

On the way out, there were some kids playing on a special swing, which looked fun.  It’s made of four huge bamboo stalks shaped into a four-pillar arch with a swing hanging from the top. They are built for kids at New Years (Diwali). Seeing them previously on some of the taxi drives, I couldn’t resist! The guide helped me translate to a couple local kids swinging and I quickly found myself on the swing being pushed by a Nepalese girl. After a few swings I got a little air but more importantly some good fun! Ben joined me and had a swing too!

Back in the van, we headed to the Bodhnath Stupa - one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu.  There is a big population of Tibetan monks and 50 or so monasteries in the area.  It was a thrill to see the monks wondering around going about their daily lives.  The Stupa is one of the largest in the world, a huge round white structure with a gold tower top complete with a pair of eyes, one on each of the 4 sides.  No one can go inside the Stupa because they have been sealed shut for many years and contain remains of Lord Buddha. They are very sacred places in the Buddhist faith and quite nice sites to visit.

For lunch we had a great view, the photo from the previous post, and our had our first traditional Nepalese Dhal Baat which is a platter of rice, lentils soup, spicy pickle, curried vegetables and a chicken curry as well (if you ordered the non-veg version) (All menus read “veg” or “non-veg”). It was good and hearty!  We also enjoyed glass-bottled Cokes - something we enjoyed throughout the trip!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Welcome to Kathmandu

It’s no small hop to Nepal and India….and being our first real trip to Asia we have been eagerly awaiting this journey! From London it was 8 hours to Delhi and another 2 onto Kathmandu. To change planes in Delhi, we had to go through security again. They had a separate line for the ladies and Steph’s security lady asked if her hair was naturally curly. She replied yes and the girl said, “It is looking good on you!” (a compliment well-received after an 8 hour overnight flight!)

On the landing approach into Kathmandu we were given our first views of the mighty snow-capped Himalayas which quickly snapped us out of our air-travel daze. Let the adventure begin!

Arrival in Kathmandu was simple thanks to us, I mean Steph, organizing our visas in advance…the queue for people applying for visas on arrival was huge! We made it down to the baggage hall and impatiently awaited our bags. If we haven’t told you previously, we put our backpacks in large bright orange duffel bags when we check them for flights. These bags have saved us once before because they stand out of the crowd, however, in this trekking capital nearly everyone had their backpacks in bright duffel bags! We did find them without issue but unfortunately our friend Ben was not as lucky. His bag just wasn’t there and after we all scoured the halls for an hour he had to give his contact details and they assured him it was probably in Delhi and didn’t make the connection. So, with just the clothes on his back, we set off to grab a taxi.

Interestingly, Nepal is 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of GMT, while India is 5 hours 30 minutes; we think that is an attempt to let the world know they are a different country.

As with most journeys, they begin with a taxi ride which can be such entertainment – and this was no exception! After picking our driver and negotiating price we threw our luggage in the trunk and hopped in. The taxi was a small rugged old (and I mean OLD) 4 door sedan of some kind. While negotiating the price we had only told him the general area we were going so, after learning our exact hotel address he had to check his sat nav – AKA, the other local taxi drivers. Eventually he understood where we were headed and we tore off into the rough, dusty streets of Kathmandu.

Simply said, traffic here is wild. Cars, buses, trucks, taxis, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, buffalo, goats and people all speeding down horrendous roads. Actually, Nepal is notorious for having some of the worst roads in the world due to the recurring damage received yearly during the monsoon.

Chatting to the driver, he was extremely friendly. He told us a little about the area and that we had arrived during Diwali.  For Hindus, Diwali is the most important festival of the year and is celebrated over 5 days by performing traditional activities together in their homes.   Many of the houses had festive lights strung vertically from the roof as decoration and shops had strings of marigolds lining their shop fronts.

Nearing our hotel, we needed to make a left hand turn but there was a police officer blocking the road. With a simple shake of his hand, we were denied entry – who knows why. The driver, not 100% sure what to do, slowly entered back into the flow of traffic. He then decided to do a U-turn. The only problem was there weren’t any gaps in the traffic. Once we figured out what he was trying to do it was clear it wasn’t going to be pretty. Lots of cars, bikes and buses, all honking at us, zoomed past. He slowly started just turning in front traffic. Some would stop, others would dodge us but go on past with horns blaring and lights flickering. However this didn’t faze our driver. He methodically inched to the other side of the road and when he ran out of room, simply stopped, put it in reverse, made himself some space and finished the turn - almost like he was the only person on the road. At one stage we were perpendicular in the road blocking everybody. The windows were down and I can still hear the horns and see the headlights of cars and mopeds starring us down, inches from the door, as we sat helpless in the middle of the road. Eventually he got us going in the other direction and after one more “local sat nav”, he dropped us off at the hotel. Of course in somewhat of a stunned manner, we had a good laugh at the calamity - good fun!

Reaching the hotel we dropped our bags and hit the streets to find some dinner. Here we met a retired lady from Maine that was traveling in Kathmandu for 30 days who gave us some friendly advice. Its an interesting thought to just pack up and move somewhere for 30 days, but she seemed to be making the most of it – also working with a local ladies fabric cooperative to help re-sale handmade fabrics. So, after enjoying a good chat with her at a shared table, over our chicken sizzler dinner (skillet cooked chicken and noodles in a gravy), we headed back to the hotel to catch a decent night’s sleep.

The Road to Dehli

Today* we embark on a 2 week journey called the Road to Delhi. Starting from Kathmandu, Nepal making our way to Delhi, India overland – by bus, elephant, tuk tuk, train and boat. Some of the highlights will include seeing a distant Mt Everest, riding elephants in Chitwan National Park, a boat ride on the Ganges, visiting the Taj Mahal, the Pink City of Jaipur and an added extra trip to Ranthambore to try to spot some tigers, to name a just a few.

Below is a map of our path across the Nepal and Northern India.

Over the coming days and weeks we hope to give some insight to our journey. We are traveling with a group from Gecko that includes our friends Ben and Nora, whom we met last year while travelling in Wales. You will meet them as we go along.

Namaste ( hello and goodbye greeting )!

* Actually, we're back from this trip already.  Our time and access to internet was so limited that we couldn't post any of this along the way!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back to Amsterdam

Steph is lucky enough to have a work client in Amsterdam and was able to work there for a few weeks.  So never missing an opportunity to do some traveling I flew out Friday after work for the weekend.  From London, Amsterdam is a great weekend trip.  The flight is only an hour and flying from London City Airport which is mainly a business traveler airport, you only need a few minutes to check in, get through security and in board your flight.  In Amsterdam the airport is only 15 minutes by train to the city center which makes it incredibly easy to get in and out.

One thing that Amsterdam provides is a wide range of things to do.  I know, I know, its famous for its red light district and party atmosphere but it also has a wide range of higher brow culture.  Plus you get to wandering through the streets admiring the canals and bridges. When you get tired you just stop in a brown cafe to relax. To clarify these are not the same as the coffee shops! They are Amsterdam's version of a pub, taking their name from the brown walls inside after years and years of cigarette smoke. It sounds crazy but they are warm and cozy places and a must do on any visit.

We had a nice and chilled out weekend.  The weather wasn't great, lots of rain, clouds and cold but we managed thanks to Steph's umbrella.  The main thing on our list was to visit Anne Frank's house.  All of the advance tickets were sold out so we had to wait in line, fighting the rain to get in.  We both read the book this year so it was something we wanted to do.  What a story and what a staggering does of reality. There were no Hollywood endings.  It was an emotional tour.

We also hit the famous Rijksmuseum for a dose of Dutch art culture but mainly wanted to see all the Rembrandt works.  And as always with art work art you've seen in books over the years is hard to believe its actually real!

So all in all a low key trip for us but a good one!

Oh and I forget to mention that we did have Steph's favorite Dutch pancake covered in apples, cinnamon and ice cream, yum!  Now you see it, now you don't...

Amsterdam Photos