Monday, December 31, 2007

I'm getting way behind on this blog but to keep you up to date, since the last trek I've mostly been been back in Kathmandu. Had a chance to attend the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival which featured a couple of excellent documentaries about Nepal. Sari Soldiers was one in particular to keep an eye out for. It's the story of the Maoist uprising as told from the experiences of 6 women all on a different side of the conflict.

After that I had a chance to walk around the hills immediately outside the capitol. The start of this walk was a disaster. I walked to Kakani which turned out to be both the most expensive place I've been to so far but also more importantly the least friendly. I was so put off by the place I walked to a bar by the side of the road and put up with drunk police and electricians trying to kiss my hands and cheeks for several hours just to escape the surly hotel owners! Fortunately the woman who owned the place was nicer than her customers and let me sleep in the bar after it closed. After that the walk became a series people offering me nothing but hospitality.

Since then I've been back in town getting ready for the short-ish walk to the town of pokhara 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu. This is the heart of the beaten tourist path so I'm interested to see the differences between traveling here vs the eastern region of the country.

The various political parties have selected April 8th as the date for the next elections after they were postponed from this past November. This doesn't mean they will definitely happen on the 8th as they were easily postponed last time but it's an event that I'm trying keep abreast of as the general state of lawlessness in the country keeps getting worse. For example while I've been here they have had to pass a law making kidnapping illegal, as it has started to become a real problem. Actually it has always been a problem for women but that has been historically classified as "human trafficking" so until recently kidnappers faced ridiculously light sentences.

The far western region, the least visited area of the country and last section that I would be walking through has been for the last two months experiencing a severe food shortage that is causing people in remote villages to face starvation if they do not leave their homes. If the situation hasn't improved buy mid February when I am hoping to go I may have delay that portion of the walk until another day. Having already visited the far western region twice I know how little food is available even without a famine. We will see.

Otherwise the capitol chugs on with fuel shortages and power outages. I recently found out that a former U.S. ambassador to India had described the place as a "functioning anarchy". My impression Nepal is slightly different, that of civilized chaos. It's doesn't just function but is a pleasant place despite having the initial appearance of pure chaos.

Photo captions.

1)Low budget historic preservation. The businesses can stay but they house may have to go.

2)Big budget historic preservation. The prince had to go but the house can stay.

3)This photo of a photo at the China-Tibet photo exhibit is of Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet but they could just as easily be of Kathmandu. The pace of development is almost exactly the same.

4)After biting me she stuck her tong out at me! The crazy cow of Naxal.

5)Dhal Bhat at it's finest!

6)Just another Buddhist monastery...

Monday, December 17, 2007

The first four days, Dologhat to Mantali

The first trek started with 5 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to the bridge at
a small village called Dologhat. This was a ride I had taken twice before
while part of Sojourn Nepal and a path over which I walked in 1995.
As with most South Asian long distance bus rides, this one started with
the requisite massive technical problem. The gear walla ('doer of
gears' aka manual transmission) was not engaging first
gear. A serious problem that meant the bus would only start from a stand
still if facing down hill. This made getting through the thick Kathmandu
traffic a slow and violent process as the driver, whom I was sitting next to,
would struggle with the stick, rev the engine and wince at all the grinding
noises. Just past the airport at the edge of town we pulled over into
a repair shop, down a steep hill. If they couldn't fix it, the bus was never going to make it
back up that hill.

This wasn't just a repair shop it was an open field where groups of teenagers
were building busses from scratch. After some words with the young guys
welding the bus frame in front of us, the floor was popped open revealing the
engine and gear shaft. A guy jumped in and repaired the stick with an
electric soldering gun wearing a pair of slim fashion sunglasses as a
welding mask. The entrance to the cab filled with villagers staring at the
bright welding flashes with fascination. Then while the metal was still
smoking the floor was slid back into place and we took off up the hill and
very nearly got into a collision with a taxi driver who rightly didn't expect a
huge bus to blindly thrust its self into the middle of the road. Frequent
near death accidents are an unfortunate reality in Nepal.

An hour down the road I realized that my backpack, securely tied to the roof,
was being used as a cushion by one of the 20+ people traveling on the roof.
In an attempt to save money I had skipped buying the usual hard plastic Nalgene
water bottles used by campers the world over and instead bought two 1.5 liter
bottles of Coca Cola at something like 1/20 the cost. Now I had
visions of 3 liters of Coca Cola bursting in my bag and corroding my camera, erasing my notebook and quite possibly dissolving my sleeping bag and backpack. It was too horrible to contemplate
so I just left it to fate. Fortunately no one took the opportunity to pilfer
my bag and the unopened coke bottles withstood the pressure of being used as
cushions for 4 hours.

Dologhat is the point were the Indrawati Koshi and Bhote Koshi come together
to form the much larger Sun Koshi, possibly the largest river in
Nepal. In Dologhat, there are lots of restaurants for the
bus loads of people traveling to and from Kathmandu and little else.
After getting off the bus we walked down to the point where the rivers come together and got
talking to a group of three young Kathmanduites who had ridden out on a
motorcycle to see the river and eat fresh fish. We walked back and forth
across the bridge talking about life in Nepal and Canada (I'll explain
shortly) and looking for a place to eat but we couldn't find anywhere either
clean enough for them or with fish so we parted ways and started walking
down the river. At the first bridge, still in Dologaht, we were stopped by a
young guy named Santosh who spoke some English and insisted that we hangout
with him. He pointed out a cheap hotel, in fact the cheapest of the whole
trip and as it was too late to start walking we joined him and some of his
friends by the river. This turned out to be a bad idea as his friends were
sitting around chain smoking, drinking and throwing bottles in the
river. It was a seen straight out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. One in
particular was dead set on being an ass, alternately complementing and then
insulting me. Fortunately it seamed to embarrass his friends and caused one of
the group to leave. They did offer us goat meat and crushed rice from a plastic
bag which was quite delicious.

After that I accompanied Snatosh to the otherside of Dologhat where I got
the impression I was being shown off as his western "friend" to anyone who
would listen. That turned out to be just about every teenager in town. I
would later figureout that this was a common practice.

We drank tea, and more tea and I asked him about his still fresh bandage.
His arm was bleeding through a small cotton bandage. He told me quite
proudly that he was an excellent motorcycle rider and that he had crashed
while driving drunk the day before. He wanted me to know that it was only
because he was drunk that he crashed, he was after all an excellent
motorcycle rider! We met quite a few others who were throughly pickled
racing up and down the only road in town. Dologhat is one of those middle
places in Nepal where young people have access to the modern world and
aspire to travel but live on the edge of very rural and traditional
villages. Lots of pro wrestling t-shirts and alcoholics.

Santosh asked me again and again how I could get him a Canadian visa. We
must have had the same conversation for over two hours. Note: In an attempt
to change the nature of such conversations and to avoid ever present not so
distant anti-American sentiment, I spent the entire trek introducing myself as a Canadian. It
definitely changed the course of many a conversation, as people told me
how much they wanted to go to Canada, but where exactly in Europe was it? No
one was much impressed with the tales of deep snow for 7 months a year and
no one blinked an eye when I told them the prime minister was Tony Humphries
(hint, not the PM of Canada).

That night we want to his house to watch Hindi music videos from
India's version of MTV, but the hospitality was tainted by the rude manner in which he kept dismissing
his mother, as she tried to inquire who these strangers were in her house.
At 8pm we left for our hotel with Santosh telling us that we would meet him
at 8 am for breakfast! It was a form of hospitality but not the kind we were
eager to take him up on.

The hotel was a wooden house perched on a cliff leading down to the
floodplain below. Being so close to the river at approximately 800 meters
above sea level there was no glass in the windows and the walls between
rooms were made of cardboard. You were simultaneously both inside and out
side. It was obvious that we were sleeping in the owners bedroom as they came
in and took there bedding out into the restaurant that formed the
front half of the house, where they slept on the floor. Like everyday we woke up at 6:00am
and got going by 6:30am not waiting for slim possibility that Santosh might
actually keep his date with us.

From Dologaht it was a 5 hour walk uphill through the clouds along a
dusty road to the village of Salle, where we stopped for lunch. Salle was
also a stopping point for buses that plied this road to Kathmandu, we
happened to come at the same time as a bus bound for the village full of
mostly young men. Most of the buses you see in Nepal are full of men as
there are still strong social taboos against women migrating for work.

Leaving Salle we were stopped by a farmer who asked us where we were going.
Usually it was one of us who would ask just about everyone we passed if we
were on the right road to the next destination. So far everyone we had
asked had said that we were on the right road to get to Ramichap.
Fortunately, this friendly soul further inquired where in Ramichap we were going as it
was both a district and a town! We admitted that we didn't know
where we were going that day but that we were heading to Mantali, at least a three day walk away. He took us back to Salle and drew us a map that tried to represent in three dimensons the
route we would take. Unfortunately he was no artist and the line
representing both elevation and direction looked like giant half
circle. It was clear that if we followed the road it would take us 4 days to reach the
Ramichap border rather then the main town half way across the district.
We thanked him and went off on the trail he directed us to. After half
an hour of climbing straight up we could see what he was talking about, the
road wandered back and forth in infinite switchbacks. This was clearly the
right trail. The next village we came to we met a very friendly and
slightly drunk man who answered our questions for directions with an invitation to
have tea and biscuits. It sounded like a genuine offer so we took him up on it. While
having tea and talking about where we were from and where we were going, a
group of about 5 young men who were walking the opposite direction stopped
and had tea with us. One who was from the area we were heading to looked
at our homemade map from Salle and told us quite rightly that "this map is
no good". He proceeded to write down all of the names of the villages and
the general terrain we would pass so that we could ask better directions as
we went. This was immensely helpful as the large scale map we had didn't show
anything in the area we were crossing. No trail, no villages, nothing.

The rest of the day from this village onward was fairly level walking
through pine forests with amazing views of the valleys below and as we
crossed the ridge along which we were walking the views of the Himalayas
were superb. At about 3pm we started a long descent crossing the path of
another dirt road with buses full of young men. By 4pm we came to the end of
the road in a small village called Kaphale. In a stupid move that we would
not repeat we decided to keep going even though the sun would set by 5:15.
There was a small village across a deep river valley just a half mile from
where we were standing, surely we could make it to that village by dark. Asking
a young guy if there was any accommodation available in the village we could
see, he said no and that we should stay in Kaphale.

I was convinced that
there must be somewhere to stay in the not so distant village and kept
asking, wasn't there somewhere to stay over there? The answer was that we
could stay in the Buddhist monastery slightly above the village. The
thought of walking up that hill was daunting, probably a 2000 foot decent
followed by a 2500 foot accent but staying in a Buddhist monastery VS the
nasty looking hotels at the road's end was tempting so we headed off for the
monastery. The valley we were descending seemed to go on forever, so that it
was 4:30 by the time we reached the suspension bridge at the bottom. Just
then we met Talin Lama who was heading up to the village we just left.
After asking him if we were on the road to the monastery he told us in
English that there was no one in the monastery and that it was closed and
locked! Ah! This was a problem.

Seeing that we had no idea what we were doing he immediately offered to have
us stay at his house, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. So he turned around
and we all walked up the hill towards the village we had been heading to.
Due to a misunderstanding he led us to the monastery to have a look and
then to the near by school where we were offered a plate of delicious
oranges which grew all over the village. It was pitch black by this time
and my legs were beginning to shake I was so exhausted. After a long while at
the school and after many cups of tea we departed for the village that we
had overshot in the dark. By the time we finally reached his house it was
around 8 pm, 14 hours after leaving Dologhat.

We ate a huge plate of Dhal Baht and agreed to a further offer to spend
the next day here with Talin and his family, then I literally passed out while people were
talking to me. One thing about staying in someone's house in a small
village as a guest is that you are perceived to be infinitely more
interesting than you actually are and become a spectacle. You are not
left alone for one minute and often have crowds form around you. The
bed was on an elevated platform on the porch as were
several other beds. It felt great to sleep outside with only a roof over
head. In the night the sounds of dogs fighting kept waking me up but the
sound of someone violently coughing and expectorating was a scary reminder
of the prevalence of respiratory infection in the villages.

The next day my feet were sore and badly blistered. It's never a good idea
to start a long walk with such a ridiculously long first day. We spent the
next morning in Talin's village where everyone was first and foremost an
unemployed Thangka painter (traditional Bhuddist painings)and secondly a farmer. Early in the morning we had a massive plate of food made from boiled corn and went to cut several paddies of rice that were ready to harvest. Walking through the uncut rice, a wave of hundreds of grasshoppers would scatter in front of you like water
parting in the wake of a ship. The amount of life in a field that has never seen pesticide is quite remarkable. Grasshoppers, spiders and praying mantis by the hundreds were everywhere. There were people wrapping rice around the branches of trees to
dry and we even met the Lama from the monastery who was returning from a
trip. Afterwards it was back to the house to eat another massive plate
of Dhal Bhat.

Their home was a large two story wood house with a clay floor in the middle
of which was a large sunken hearth. The family's plates were beautiful heavy
brass. Talin said that they cost 800 rupees a piece! The food came with
several glasses of dahi, slightly biter fermenting milk. Delicious.

Unfortunately for us, Talin wanted to take us back to the village we had
decided to pass up the day before, back down and then back up that huge
ravine. This river turned out to be the boarder of Ramichap district, so we
had made it after all. After a short swim in the river at the bottom of
the valley we walked back up that hill and were introduced to some
relatives. In fact everyone we met in the village was a relative! In
Nepali it's respectful to address people you meet with kinship terms
but these people all seemed to be actual relatives. Maternal
aunts and uncles, paternal nephews... it was endless. Despite our
nervousness to get back before dark we agreed to go to his mother's house
where we ate plates of meat and corn mash. Delicious but it meant that we
would have to walk back in the dark. To our surprise Talin suggested that we
stay 4 or 5 days at his mother's house! We declined the offer and started the
long walk back in the dark. It became obvious that Talin was quite scared
of us being attacked by a "tiger" that had attacked animals and people in
the area by the bridge. He would call out and carried a flaming kerosene
torch. There was no chance of a tiger living at this elevation but
something was in these woods, we decided to call it a "big cat" which Talin
thought was very funny.

The next morning the school principle drew us another map which would take
us all the way to Mantali, the first "town" on our walk. It was quite
amazing in its accuracy. Leaving Talin's village at 7:30am after another
huge meal we walked 2 hours to the orange growing village of Bramma Bishnu
where Talin suggested we wait 2 hours for a plate of Dhal Baht. Tim and I
were getting kind of stressed at Talin's total disregard for time and space,
after all he could walk to Montali in a single day where as we were only
capable of walking about half the pace of your average Nepali. We declined,
still stuffed from breakfast and continued on.

As Talin left us he gave us a stern warning about the "jungle" we were about
to walk through. He said we would without a doubt be attacked by a tiger and if not
then the bandits would surely get us. It was quite a shocking warning. We
could see the pass after the forest and it looked like it would take no more
than 1/2 an hour to cross the small wooded area. In fact it did take only 1/2
an hour and the only people we met were a friendly couple who gave us
some of their biscuits. This kind of warning of sure and dire consequences became a problem on the walk because with everyone crying wolf you never knew when to
take a warning seriously. If we had heeded half of the warnings we received
of dangerous jungles, tigers and roads lined with bandits who would kill us,
hack our bodies into bits and steal our cloths we never would have made it
out of Kathmandu. The result was that you came to ignore all warnings except
the warning that you are on a road that "wandered very far". That was the
one sure warning you should heed. Constantly asking directions was

After leaving Bramma Bishnu we walked through very steep and beautiful
terrain eventually coming to the village of Galpa. This was a wonderful
little place with a view of the Himalayas that stretched as far as you could
see. We stumbled into the village of about 20 buildings and a large
grammar school at dusk and were taken to a teahouse / hotel where our
room was soon flooded with kids and a few grown folks who wanted to
ask the usual questions. It was as though we were again famous for no
good reason. "Village super stars" without merit. After the
excitement died down we met up with a group of school teachers who
wanted to practice their English with the same set of
questions. We met the school principle and spent most of the evening
with the teachers, who agreed to meet us for tea in the morning. After
they bought us breakfast of tea and biscuits we walked town a
beautiful trail with excellent Himalayan views.

Up to this point we had been walking at exactly half the speed it was
assumed all people walked, so that when someone told us that it was 5
hours from point A to B we could count on it taking 10 hours. 10
hours of walking a day became the norm, leaving around 7 am and
stopping as close to 5 pm as was possible. From Galpa to Mantali,
which was the first place to actually make it on our map, it was a long
and leisurely downhill decent. Early in the day we encountered another
well meaning but slightly pickled man who invited us in to his house
for tea but we had to decline. Shortly afterwards a lone woman asked if we had
eaten and invited us to her home. It was hard to turn down such
hospitality but we had found that eating a massive meal around 9 to 10
in the morning took about 2 hours and really slowed us down. Lots of
cups of tea and a couple of packs of biscuits in the morning followed
by a light snack around 1pm and then a heaping plate of Dhal Baht for
dinner was all we would eat.

Leaving the higher elevations, we walked until we came to a road with
bus service to Mantali. The first road in two days. We only got lost
once and had to be rescued by a young kid who led us back to the main
trail. Large trails have a funny way of disappearing in Nepal. One
minute you know that you are on the main trail and the next you are
walking along the edge of a rice paddy no more than 6" wide.
Unfortunately I wore a thin pair of socks and by the end of the day I
had given my self huge blisters on both heals. My shoes were still
breaking me in. The afternoon was hot and dry pine forests with
almost no villages but Mantali and the adjoining villages were well
irrigated and surrounded by lush flood plains with acres of rice
paddies. Approaching the town, we met a Bhutanese refugee who had
grown up in one of the refugee camps in the Terai. He was currently
working as a teacher in a local primary school and had just heard
about the international relocation program that was giving those who
had been in the camps visas to various countries. He was optimistic
but wanted to return to Bhutan. I can't imagine why knowing what the
Bhutanese government was likely to do to him if he returned.

Mantali was a bit of a let down as far as destinations go. A modern
cement "town" with three roads and lots of shops selling cheap
imported Chinese goods. Two wonderful things did happen in town, we
found a hotel that had a shower! After 5 days, we were filthy and our
clothes needed to be washed, so this hotel / bar / restaurant, ugly as
it was let us clean our selves up. The other wonderful find came
after I got my hair cut and bought a three day old news paper (the
most current available). While having tea on the main street through
town I got talking to a man about Canada, he turned out to work for a
Swiss NGO and incidentally had the only high quality map (Swiss of
course!) of Ramichap district in all of Ramichap district. He took me
to his office and let me photocopy the map down the street in the only
photo copier in town. We had been asking teachers and police along
the way if they had any maps but no one had anything besides a map
showing the outline of the district. Armed with this new map we took
the next day to rest our feet and dry our laundry. The hotel had a
interesting set of characters who came everyday. One of whom was a
policeman who was often drunk after work and would ask me over and
over again where I was from, with a horrifying grin. Incredibly
annoying! The other downside was the restaurant was directly above
our room and during the nights, much drinking and merryment would
culminate in singing and drumming on the table. This had the effect
of turning our room into a huge drum with each stomp on the floor and
each pounding of a fist on the table. It was an experience.

I'll get you the next leg of the journey in a few days.

In the mean time check out these excellent maps of Nepal I found online.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mantali to Okhaldunga

As I work on the blog content I'm uploading the photos, it's a slow and annoying process so bear with me. These are in reverse order walking from Mantali to Okhaldunga.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Some photos from the first four days

Experiencing serious computer trouble, hold tight and take a look at these images from the first four days of the trip.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

How do you know you are on the wrong trail when walking in rural Nepal?

1: It is in fact an abandoned irrigation canal.
2: It is heavily overgrown.
3: You haven't seen anyone on it for several hours.
4: You have come to a landslide that completely obliterates the trail.
5: All of the above.
6: None of the above.

Answer below.

click on the photos they expand!

Well I'm just off a 40 hour bus ride from the town of Taplejung with nothing but fond memories and many a blister to show for it. My eyes are heavy and I smell quite bad but I had to check my email so I will leave you with a few photos from the first wonderful walk in this series of walks across Nepal. It took me 20 days to reach Taplejung and along the way I got lost as the title of this post suggests but more importantly I always found wonderful people who helped me make it to the next town. Almost every day a school teacher or student would join me and practice his or her English. A few children and even a shy cow or two would run away at the sight of such an odd traveler. Manny people would say hello and ask an almost preset series of questions: Where was I from, where was I coming from and going to, what was my job and why was I walking when there was a bus?! In fact if I had known the answers to only these questions I could have gotten by just fine. I walked with porters, soldiers, Maoists, families, drunks, alone, with entire villages on pilgrimages and passed a wild yak high up in the clouds.

On the first day I passed a group of 5 Japanese tourists with 7 support staff including a photographer and two guides! I bet they didn't get nearly as many blisters as I did. Other than that there were 4 Spanish tourists in Taplejung and that was it. I was told tourists some times followed my route but I didn't see a single one in 19 days. This is remarkable considering that the newspapers here are declaring this the single biggest year in Nepalese tourism history as measured by shear number of foreigners to visit the country. People need to put those guide books down and just get lost, that's what I do.

I was joined on this trek by a Dutchman named Tim, who has asked that I not include his full name or any photos. As an internet researcher I fully understand his request! It's sufficient to say he had a wonderful sense of adventure and also thoroughly enjoyed the trek! As he was a bit taller than myself he flew back from Taplejung rather than suffering the impossibility of Nepalese buses for those over 6 feet tall. I will never forgive him for this!

Interesting stories and all that stuff to follow shortly.
Answer 6!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Am I really leaving?

I've been staying with friends, aka my Nepali family here in Kathmandu for the last 11 days! I cant believe it's been that long. It's been wonderful, totally relaxing. They have also been stuffing me with home grown, not just home made food. Before leaving the states my housemate Chris said that it would never take 7 months to walk across Nepal, "so what was I really up to?" While that may be true, you have to take hospitality into account, after all it's not the destination as much as the journey that counts.

I was checking a guide book in a local bookshop for info and maps about the area I am going to be walking in. With great pleasure I found nothing. I did find a line in a guide book saying that the beaten path in Nepal is surprisingly thin. I couldn't agree more. I have yet to see a tourist in a public bus or away from the typical tourist destinations. It's wonderful. It's refreshing to know that as in my former wanderings in Far Western Nepal that I won't be coming across hordes of other travelers and the inevitable inflated prices for basic goods that such crowds generate. Apparently, in the Annapurna region, an immensely popular trekking region a basic plate of Dhal Baht (rice and lentils) the staple dish of Nepal costs 240 rupees. About 200 rupees more that it costs anywhere else in the country, which is fine if you are here for two weeks and suddenly find yourself in a comparatively cheap country. I of course in my typical overly frugal fashion have allocated about 300 Rupees a day for my entire trip. So far I have had no problem keeping within this approximately $4.80 a day. The other downside to the beaten path is the inevitable change you notice in people. As a traveler in such heavily visited areas you are first and foremost a customer. Everything becomes about the money. Your chances of stumbling into someones home as a guest vanishes. Tourists also tend to complain a lot!

As for my up coming walk, these are the larger villages I will be walking to over the next 150 miles and 20 to 30 days.


Good luck trying to find these on Google Earth. The last destination, Terhathum is supposedly a road head where I can catch a return bus to Kathmandu. Supposedly. Mud slides and general strikes have a huge impact on where the roads start and stop.

In another stroke of genius I just managed to erase all of the photos I have taken so far with one wrong motion of the mouse. I did manage to find some random photos of Kathmandu in this computer however, which I will try and upload now. Too bad because my photos were much better! Ah digital, easy come easy go.

Talk to you in a month or so.

The first 4 photos are in Kathmandu, the last one is a flooded Kolkatta. Ummmmm.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Some Photos!

Some photos from the trip...

1)Payer flags in Darjeeling.
2)A neighbors house in the Kathmandu suburbs.
4)The middle of Darjeeling, (can you see the "Blind Date Family Restaurant"?).
5)The Second oldest monastery in Sikkim (rebuilt!).
6)New Delhi from the train station.
7)New Delhi railway platform.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sikkim to Kathmandu

Yesterday I worked on an hour and a half long blog
entry which was deleted due to my clumsiness. This is
an abridged version of the last few days.

Leaving Gangtok on the 28th of October at 8 am for a 5
hour bus ride to the large sprawling town of Siliguri
in the plains below, I was reflecting on how relatively
peaceful Dargeeling and Sikkim were for a traveler.
There are no shop keepers addressing you mid stride, "Yes
somethings? Come inside, have a look". That sort of
thing. In other touristy areas of South Asia You could be walking down the street
bleeding or deep in a personal conversation or crying,
whatever it doesn't matter and shop opwers and barkers will come right
up and hit you with the bluntest and most awkward of
sales pitches. So in retrospect Dargeeling and the
surrounding hills were somewhere I could have spent
much more time if I wasn't in a hurry to beat the
weather in Nepal.

Reaching Siliguri 5 hours later I was reminded that I
was still in India. This border town / quasi frontier town
seams to supply much of the hill area I just came from
(and probably most of eastern Nepal) with consumer and
durable goods. The main roads are jammed
solid with endless traffic. I was able to catch
another connecting bus to the actual border town of
Panitanki about an hour down the road.

On the bus I had the first of three conversations with
three Nepalese folks who all had the exact samething to
say. No one can make a living in Nepal. Between the
Government taxes and the Maoist "taxes" (aka being
robbed), the lack of education, and the lack of industry,
people feel hopeless. This was in stark contrast to
India where everyone wanted me to magically sponsor
them, on the spot to the states. But never once did I
hear this kind of dire self assessment of India by
Indians. People would say India is getting expensive
and that the people who live in the country are
"backwards" but in general Indians are not crying
about the sky falling as in Nepal. This was kind of
a shock.

My first indication that things in Nepal are in fact
slipping "backwards" in comparison to India was the
Indian immigration office. I have never thought of
India as efficient. Resourceful yes, but efficient,
never. Yet the immigration office there it was a picturesque
little one room shack with a single immigration officer handling
foreigners paperwork. I was in and out in no time,
while having a conversation with an American couple
who were heading to a Christian music concert somewhere
nearby in Nepal. Arriving at the Nepalese immigration
office after a hot and dusty walk over a very long
bridge I came across a much larger building with a
counter for visa service. Behind the counter were 5
men processing the same three tourists, (my self
included) as their Indian counterpart. The Nepalese
staff seemed to be divided into two teams, an A team
and a B team. The A team consisted of two men sitting
their desks busily hand copying all of my passport
information from the form on which I had just done the same.
The B team consisted of two men doing nothing.
Or, rather one was sitting to the side shouting at the
others in an animated way, about what I don't know.
His B team counter part across the room was sitting at
a desk glaring at all the coming visitors and equally
as angrily tapping his pencil vertically up and down
on his desk. Facilitating all of this was what I will
call in good Indian tradition the peon, who talked to
the coming tourists and handed out papers and then
handed papers back to his coworkers. It was really

Once in Nepal the official state bank money exchanger
would not accept anything but the smallest of Indian
pocket change so I headed to a private money changer
who despite having a sign hand painted on the wall
reading "no Indian Rs. 500 or Rs. 1000 notes
changed" gladly exchanged my large Indian currency.

Looking around the difference between India and Nepal
was immediate and obvious. Nepal is lagging
behind India. The number of stores and the lack of
business they were doing told you everything you need
to know. 5 minutes away in India business was
booming, exploding, thriving. In Nepal there were
mostly liquor shops and stores selling Indian goods at
a Rs. 5 mark up (to cover the smuggling of course!).

Somewhere en route to Nepal I was told there was a
general strike in the area to which I had originally wanted to
go, thus the change of plans and the decision to head
to Kathmandu instead of Taplejung.

I bought a bus ticket and had to laugh. The A team B
team phenomenon had fully extended itself to the bus
company as well. Again a counter with 5 men sitting
while two worked but this time it was just
unbelievable. It was funny in the way an expertly
written comedy is funny. These guys were all shouting
and yelling at each other, throwing books of tickets
at each other and trying to figure out what it was
they had cryptically written in their ticket books
which were a maze of jumbled text written at all
angles across the page.

I got the last seat on the 4pm bus. They laughed;
they knew what I was in store for. You know why the
bad kids sit in the back seat in grade school? Because
it's bumpy. This bus was intensely hot the instant I
stepped on board. Everyone was sweating and the bus was
beyond full. The back seat which was just two
cushioned boards that weren't attached to the rest of
the bus or each other (making for a huge uneven crack
in the middle!) had 6 grown men sitting there like a
hot sweaty litter of puppies trying to find their
mothers teat. The teat was comfort and none of us were
to ever find it! 15 hours of what can only be
described as a rollercoaster / moon-bounce / sauna
followed. We would all kind of just barely fall
asleep on each other and then be ejected out of our
seats and thrown forward only to be covered by a layer
of dust that was shaken loose by the jolt. Every now
and then we would have to sit up and push the chair
back in to place. I bundled my sweater up and used it
as a kneepad so that my knee would survive the endless
bashing against the seat in front of me. It went on
like this from 4pm until 7:30am when the bus became
stuck in heavy traffic entering the only road into and
out of Kathmandu tothe south. It was hell, some kind of
test to make sure that I really wanted to give up my
comfortable life in the States for 7 months. I only
just barely passed. At the traffic jam I grabbed my
bag off the roof and walked for another two hours to a
cheapish hotel in Thamel the tourist area of the city.

Kathmandu has changed a bit. It seams like it's
growing "up". It certainly has grown and modernized in a
lot of ways. Less people on bicycles and more (almost
everyone) on motorcycles and even private cars! A lot
of the little tucked away abandoned places have been
developed including my favorite garden. Once a
romantically overgrown throwback to the Rana period in
Nepal it oozed "colonial era charm" (i.e excess of the Ranns), without having
been part of a colony! It has subsequently been
redeveloped into "The Secrete Garden" or something
like that with a huge entrance fee and security
guards. It was such a wonderful reward for those who
took the time to look in each nook and cranny of the
city and now its been packaged and is being sold at a
hefty price. Kind of the general phenomenon in the
city. Good for Nepal no so good for me.

I did accidentally run into 3 of the 6 people I know
in Nepal last night while looking for a Halloween
party. It was really fun catching up and made up for
the blog disaster and roach soup! earlier in the day.

I'll try and upload a few photos this week. Have to figure out how that is going to work.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Road to Nepal

My trip to Sikkim is absurdly short but then again I'm only visiting these few sights in India as an aside to the real purpose of the trip, to walk across Nepal. Or at least to try! Friday I was able to complete the visa application for Sikkim which required two passport stamps, making it almost a separate country. The trip to Phodong in northern Sikkim started like all of my days at 6am in order to make a 7am shared jeep which was to take me across the hills and valleys from Darjeeling to the former Kingdom of Sikkim. This ride is the reason they make Jeeps. The road is one long extreme grade both up and down with nearly impossible corkscrew loops designed to compensate for areas in which switchbacks would be impossible. It consists of hundreds of blind turns and the entire ride along the unguarded edge of a two thousand foot drop straight down. These drivers navigate by blind faith, literally, and excessive use of one's horn. It makes all the already lawless and organic driving in the rest of India seam tame by comparison. I mean what are close calls all day long if the consequence of a single mistake isn't sure death?

I only spent one day in Phodong but it was filled with many interesting conversations. My hotel proprietor and his neighbor, a police officer shred the opinion that the central government of Sikkim is not at all interested in the welfare of the people or infrastructure of the state. Judging by the condition of the roads they are right. The roads are worse than those in DC in the early 90's. Manny of the roads in the capital are still dirt.

Today I took a few hours to walk to the second oldest monastery in Sikkim but it's Sunday and just about everything is closed. It also appears to be the day to get drunk and talk to me at length about hair brained tourism ideas and political topics that everyone everywhere has already talked into the ground.

I still can't get over the prolific cellphone use! It's no different than being back home. In fact people keep asking me for my mobile number. Definitely not the India I left seen years ago.

Tomorrow at 7am I have a date with my least favorite place in India, a bus station. Bus stations seem to attract liers, cheats and thieves like no place else in India. Yesterday I had someone quote me 1200 rupees for a two hour ride at the jeep park here in Gangtok. The real price for the trip which I was able to get by walking 20 minutes up the road, 50 rupees. I'm heading to north east Nepal, directly west of where I am now but in order to get there I have to travel 100 kilometers south and another 100 back north in Nepal because there is no immigration office in the hills. In all it will involve four of more connecting buses and approximately 20 hours of transit.

Unfortunately I don't have my itinerary for Nepal with me but it will be about a month before I get to post another entry so hold tight and read John Pilkington's book if you haven't already.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tea in Darjeeling

blogging in the hills of India is a bit of a luxury, imagine that. This has to be quick but just keep it up to date I arrived here in Darjeeling yesterday after an 11 hour train ride from Kolkata and a 2 hour jeep ride through the hills from the last major train station in Northern India. Spent yesterday trying to get a permit to Sikkim (the area just north of here). The permit is a formality, it's free and anyone can get one, yet I must play the game and shuttle back and forth between government offices looking for the right bureaucrat with the right stamp. In the office yesterday there were several people, Indians and foreigners complaining that various permits that they applied for in 2003 were still stuck in limbo! Mine should be ready today, I hope.

While in this cybercafe I just noticed a young guy from Darjeeling flirting with someone in a chat room! Wow. Never expected that.

Darjeeling is an Indian tourist mecca, crowded and very commercial but it feels good to be back in the hills where it's cool and the people speak Nepali. At last I can follow the gist of what people are saying.

Oh yeah, 3 rupee tea in Darjeeling tastes exactly like 3 rupee tea in Kolkata. Hummmm...

I've also decided on a route through eastern Nepal... more on that tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

डेल्ही तो Kolkata

7 days into the trip and I haven't walked a mile on a dirt trail! I
left Washington DC on the 16th for London Heathrow where I had a 6

hour layover, not the 20 hours I originally thought. For some reason
the bulleted lines on my itinerary fell randomly across departures,
takeoffs and connecting flights. Really glad I caught that one! I did

have time to blow $40 on a train ride into the city and a quick snack
of my favorite UK "delicacy". A big pot of Onkin Peach Bio Pot

yogurt. It was worth the $12 train ticket for that alone. Walked the

Thames and gawked at house boats and fancy homes around the
Hammersmith Station. Got the feeling that I was being watched... a
lot! Poor London, the CCTV is really over the top. It's like a big

brother Sci Fi flick except it's real.

Arrived in New Delhi on the 18th at 5:30 am and made my way into town
in a shared taxi with a woman from Portland, OR who owns the Sari
export business, We shared stories of living in India
and she filled me in on the Delhi metro, as I was full of questions.
We opted for a taxi as the EATS bus, which costs a fraction of the
price, would have required a 3 hour wait!

Once in Paharganj, the tourist hood of New Delhi I checked into the
Hotel Navrang. At Rs.100 a night it's a dump but it's my favorite
dump in New Delhi, just around the corner from my favorite super cheap

14 rupee restaurant, the name of which I have no idea.

In the first couple of hours I got lost exploring the back alleys of
Pahargan and then made my way to the tourist ticket counter at the New
Delhi railway station where I bought a ticket to Kolkata aka Kalka
for the incredibly low price of Rs. 95!!! Thats a 20 hour journey for
about $2.25. After that I was off to ride the entire New Delhi metro

I have an odd personal goal of riding all of the Metro systems I come
across, from end to end, every line, through every station. First was
New York, then Washington DC, bits of the San Franciso system and eventually a pathetic stab at
finishing the London Underground in 2000. Riding the Metro from
Connaught Circus to Dwaraka 9, the eastern end of the Blue Line and
back took at least two hours and transported me from the dense urban
setting at the center of Delhi to the exploding suburbs of massive
concrete housing developments. Seven stories tall and the size of city
blocks these buildings are huge and just as ugly. A truly soulless new
New Delhi is emerging.

Shortly after this jet lag caught up with me and I headed
back to my hotel to sleep it off around 2pm. I awoke the next morning
at 4am, packed my bag and walked back to the train station to catch my
5:50am train. As we pulled out of the station I was surprised that we

were headed west but thought we must be heading for a junction or

something. The rising sun did little to allay my fears that I was
traveling in the wrong direction but I thought, hey I've never taken
this route so what do I know.

Two hours later the train filled up and the berth designed for 8 was
was somehow comfortably holding 19 people. When I finally asked the girls sitting across from
me where they were going they said Chandigarh! about half way to Simla and in completely the wrong direction. So I caught a commuter train back to Delhi, bought my next two connecting tickets to Kolkata (not
Kalka!) and Darjeeling before checking back into my hotel. In the end
the train ticket I thought I got such a bargain on cost me 2040

Arrived in Calcutta now Kolkata on the 21st and walked into town from Howra
station. It has been such a refreshing change from Delhi. The city
is beautiful and the people far more friendly than I have encountered
anywhere in Norther India. Air pollution is one major down side. Like all Indian cities the air quality along the major roads is dangerous. I checked into the Salvation Army Guest
House and scored a bed in the dormitory at 70 rupees a night. Lots of
deranged looking travelers staying here. I don't understand the need to become such a cliche'd hippie just because you are traveling in ndia? People the 60's are over, showers are back in vogue.

Having broken the bank on my train ride to Kolkata I have decided to
stick mostly to street food while in India. My technique for staying healthy
on such cheap food is to only eat at busy places that use banana leaf
plates and clay cups, neither of which get "washed" in potentially
tainted water between uses. Once finished you simply destroy your fired but
unglazed cups after you're done. If you were to refill these cups too
many times they would simply melt into your tea. The proper restaurants are at least 8 times as expensive as the street vendors but I had a dish of panier matar that transcended this world.

Everything I read about Kolkata said that it was a gastronomic
wonderland, and they were right, so wonderfully right! Everything
tastes better here, even the simplest breads are lighter and more
delicious, with a totally different quality that you find in Delhi or
Uttar Pradesh. Same ingredients, same cooking utensils, differen
results, it's amazing.

I have managed to keep up the same odd sleeping habits, passing out at
8pm and waking up at 3 or 4am. Days 2 and 3 in Kolkata have been spent
walking around soaking up the atmosphere and of course riding the
entire subway and a bunch of the trollys. I have been walking around a lot to break in my new shoes but it's obvious that they are the ones breaking me in. By the end of Tuesday I had two huge blisters that needed lancing.

Just finished reading A Walk Across America, a story of a young man who walks from NY State to New Orleans in a year and a half, living and working along the way. This and the last book I finished on a Brit's walk across western Nepal in 1983 have set the tone for this trip, I'm only going to read books about long walks that are more difficult than mine! That will keep me in check when I want to complainer about blisters...

The buildings here in Kolkata are a combination of decaying Victorian houses and
office buildings and modern but stylish almost "modernist" cement
structures. I have to say this is rapidly becoming my favorite big
city in India! One thig about getting up at 5am is that nothing official or professional in this city opens until 10am. Must have to do with all of India being in the same time zone. It makes sense in Delhi but Kolkata has ended up with an odd late start to the day.

Tomorrow I have a 10pm train to New Jalpaniguri the connecting point
for travel to Darjeeling and Sikkim. My eyes haven't had their fill of this city but my lungs are about to quit on me. More when I get to the Himalayas.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Since so many people asked me about what I was bringing on a 7 month trip across Nepal, I thought I would break it down.

1 pare of pants,
1 pare of good light weight hiking shoes (in this case La Sortiva Trango Light Low's to be specific),
1 pair of shorts,
4 shirts,
Thermal tops and bottoms,
A wind proof hat,
4 pairs of socks and underwear,
A down sleeping bag,
Cheapest possible 12 year old sleeping pad,
Gortex bevy,
Cheapest gortex rain coat,
Flip flops,
Medium weight jacket,
Wind up flashlight!,
Maps and language books,
Hat, sunglasses, bandanna,
Hygiene / medical kit,
Quick dry towel,
Whisperlite MSR camping stove and .85 lieter MSR titanium cooking pot,
Lots of plastic bags,
A bit of rope / twine for hanging a mosquito net and laundry,
Mosquito net,
About $2000 in mixed form + credit cards,
And one luxury, a pair of small binoculars.

All this goes in a $100 medium sized (maybe 45 liters?) cheap'o backpack from REI, I think the model is called TourStar. Its about 12 years old and a bit beat up.

If I remember correctly I will want to get this down to two shirts and two pairs of underwear ASAP once I start walking. I will most likely dump as much of the excess unused items as well. No one ever said walking across Nepal was glamorous!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Yesterday was my last day of gainful employment. Yikes!

The flyer at left is the last publicity campaign of my life as it exists now. This blog is intended as a way to document and share the experiences of my upcoming trip to Nepal, a 7 month trip during which I hope to traverse the country from east to west.

Ever since my first trip to what was then the Kingdom of Nepal in 1995 I have been preoccupied with returning and visiting as much of the country as I possibly can. The forces of supply and demand, namely the lack of enough time and money to undertake such trips has keep me state side more than I would like to admit. A cheap group house, good job and a concerted effort to save money over the last 2+ years has enabled me to finally get back.

Prior trips have taken me and my traveling companions through the Helambu, Langtang, Ganesh Himal, and portions of the Far Western region. This trip I aim to pass through all 5 regions of the country, and as many of the 14 zones and 75 districts as possible. Due to political instability I may have to forgo the Midwest region, but that is yet to be seen. All in all I spent about a year and a half in Nepal over the course of the 5 years between 1995 and 2000. 3 months here and 4 months there… piece by piece.

The first trip was with Sojourn Nepal, now known as the Passage Project. Highly recommended for any 19 year old. Hell anyone of any age would benefit from joining that program. It was a great crash course in the wild city of Kathmandu. Living with a family, taking language courses, attending lectures on culture, politics, economy and the like. Trekking through the countryside and ultimately undergoing the final “disorientation” before leaving to return back to the states. In my case it I was off for another adventure as an organic migrant farm worker after my first trip to Nepal, which considerably softened the blow of returning home. No one tells you that returning home is by far the most disturbing portion of traveling for protracted periods of time. Everything you know as familiar is cast in a new and strange light, people and places you knew look fresh and different.

More on this after I box up my life.