Normally a trip to the Scottish highlands around Fort William at this time of year doesn’t seem to bring much rain. This year was different providing a good mix of low volume steep creeking and big water punch and pray hole running.
How did that happen? It seems like only yesterday we got back from our World Tour and we’re now off again. I have to admit it’s all feeling a little rushed, after planning and booking it all back in the summer, autumn fell past and we’re having to pack and sort Christmas cards before our flight early tomorrow morning.
What’s the plan? For those who don’t know, Sharon and I are heading to Ecuador for the rest of the month. We’re boating for just over 2 weeks, then taking a boat out to the Galapagos for 8 days over Christmas.
Well, Sharon and I have returned home and begun the process of reintergrating back in to the community. The weather isn't helping – I think I've worked out where my warm clothing is, but it's not accessable right now… We've been a bit slack with the blog updates recently and have posted no photos since New Zealand. I'll get photos and blogs up asap, and for those facebook friends, I'll post some on there too. I'll also let you know what exciting stuff you can expect from this site in the next few months too.
In Agra we had two completely different cultural experiences. Firstly we went to the Taj Mahal, which lived up to expectations – it is a truly beautiful monument. Second, we went to see a Bollywood film, Race, at a cinema in Agra. It was hilarious and surprisingly easy to follow given the over the top acting and the English dialogue every so often. It's telling how many times the songs from the film have been played on our transport; we knew them all!
Delhi is exhausting, our tour group unanimously decided. Sharon and I headed to the Red Fort (which wasn't as cool as the one in Agra) and then wandered to the Craft Museum via the Friday Mosque (Asia's largest). The mosque looked big but was otherwise unimpressive from the outside, however the Craft Museum was great. It reminded me of the British Museum, but devoted entirely to Indian artifacts. It had a full size replica Indian village, showing the varying building styles across the country. In the courtyard were crafty locals demonstrating their skills, but lacking the hard sell other street vendors excell at. The main section of the museum were the exhibits covering hundreds of years of India history, from the life life dolls they made as souveniers for the British working with the East India Company to the elaborate wooden statues and textiles.
While hunting for an auto-rickshaw to take us to the hotel, we saw a long line of them waiting and doing nothing. We approached several drivers, most of whom looked blankly at us and didn't seem to understand. It confused us that they weren't all vying for our business as normal, but we persisted and convinced one driver that he wanted to offer us a ride. Only when he pushed his rickshaw around the corner did we realise that the queue was for fuel…
Two more days of craziness and then we're back to the English madness that most of you call real life!
We're now in India – last country before we head home. We've joined a tour run by a company called Intrepid and things aren't quite going as advertised – the group is great, but the leader isn't and it doesn't feel like we're able to see the best of the places we're visiting. Still we've seen some cool things and are having fun.
We're in Varanassi at the moment, having spent 24hrs travelling down the Ganges and we're about to head out and see some temples. The we're off to Orcha, then Agra and finally to Delhi.
We're spending our last few days this trip in Nepal. We'll be sad to leave & have already planned for our return. It's been amazing, the people have been so friendly, the countryside beautiful and Kathmandu was unique…
We've spent the last two days in Chitwan national park – one of the best parks in Asia, apparently. We've ridden elephants, had an amazing opportunity to wash them and have seen loads of wild animals, including almost a dozen Rhinos!
We're off to Buddha's birthplace, Lumbini, tomorrow, and then we're across the border into India – we're expecting the craziness to increase exponentially between here and Delhi, but have a great group we're travelling with so it should be cool.
We've had an amazing time here so far; we've spent some time chilling in Kathmandu (where Sharon's had the “It's a crazy crazy world” song going around in her head), we've paddled a couple of awesome rivers.
Our first river was the Seti. On the first night we camped across the river from a monkey tribe – first time we've seen monkies in the wild. Second night we had the local village come down and sing us folk songs and were amazed by one kid who had taken an inner tube from a truck tyre and turned it into a manouverable boat that he could roll! After that river we had to ride on the roof of the bus with our kit back to Pokhara where we got a shower and then early the next morning headed out to the Kali Gandaki. This was a slightly harder river with lots of good fun bouncy rapids, loads of mules and kids (human and goat) shouting goodbye (the goats bleated rather than shouted, but we could tell what they were trying to say anyway). Enclosed by steep sided hills, we were impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of one lad who turned up at our campsite with cold beers and the ubiquitous Coke to sell. It was great having the raft guides along with us – they acted as porters, interpreters, chefs and were also generally good company. We've got the same crew on the Sun Kosi (a 9 day trip we start tomorrow) which we're really looking forward to.
We'll we've arrived in Nepal finally. Today's the first time I thought we'd miss a flight – we had a bit of a problem with our kayaks. We arrived to check in 3 hours before our flight and Thia Air point blank refused to take them, they didn't want excess baggage money – they said that there wasn't room on the plane. Rapidly assessing our options – we could delay our flight by a few more days, or we could send them cargo. If we delayed our flight, we'd have to pay excess baggage on them anyway, so we decided to send them cargo. Apparently it was a Saturday and the Cargo shipment wouldn't arrive in Kathmandu until Tuesday – that wasn't really a problem, since we'd have to delay our paddling a few days to allow Sharon to recover from her throat infection anyway.
The problem was getting us and the boats to the Cargo centre and ourselves back again before the flight let. The (now) helpful staff at Thai Airways checked our bags in on 'stand by' incase we didn't return in time. It wasn't hard to find a taxi driver willing to take us to the cargo centre with our kayaks. We didn't know where it was, so had to get him to call them up and get given directions in Thai. The driver was really helpful and even waited while we filled out the paperwork and then went on a mission to pay them – the cashier counter is in a completely different building again. To get to the cashier counter I had to head into a secure area accompanied by the Thai Airways driver (our taxi driver and Sharon had to stay in the main office) and then I needed to show the poor girls staffing the counter how to use their card payment machine. Chip and PIN is a pain to use abroad, most places don't understand it – this time it almost caused us to miss the flight as it took me ages to explain about the pin number to people who don't speak English.
At 10:10 (with our gate closing at 10:35) we had a 10 minute tax ride back to the airport terminal (where the driver expected extra money for having to wait so long) and luckily we were able to let the staff know to load our rucksacks and sprinted through security. We had to massively jump the queue at Passport control, but everyone in the line was understanding and allowed us to without too much complaining. The gate was one of the furthest away from check in, so we had to sprint and arrive just after the gate was due to close. We were the last people to board the plane and were out of breath and very surprised that we were actually on the plane.
The flight was amazing – we were above cloud level as we came into Kathmandu and saw the Himilaya sticking out above the clouds too – we were flying level with Everest, looking across the peaks of the highest mountains in the world.
Kathmandu brought us back down to ground, the airport was a strangely relaxed affair with no-one manning the walk through metal detectors and the staff seeming more intent on playing hangman on the computer than issuing visas. But we got through and found Ultimate Descents who are helping us with the logistics of this part of the trip. The theory is that if they organise it all, we end up paying a little extra, but end up getting to do much more and don't have to worry about putting 9 days worth of food in the back of the boats. The plan is to wait for a few days in Kathmandu, then head to the Seti for a 3 day trip, then 3 days on the Kali Gandaki and then 9 on the Sun Kosi, with one in Pokhara to relax and then we'll hook up with Intrepid for our overland trip to Delhi.
[Written 1st March 2008]
Addendum: a few days later, on attempting to pick up our boats, we had lots more hassle at the cargo centre. Luckily Ultimate Rivers sent a local guy with us. He didn't have a clue what was going on, but could at least ask people – their English wasn't great, although they knew well enough when it came to asking for money! The moral of the story is, don't ship a boat into Kathmandu. If you can't fly with one, hire one here.
Arriving in busy Bangkok, our kayaks increased our appeal to the legion of taxi touts waiting in the airport lounge – they knew we weren't walking anywhere with the boats in tow. We walked right past them, though and straight to the left luggage counter where for a tenner we were able to store two kayaks and a rucksack securely. With a lightened load, we braved Bangkok with Mr Joke at the meal. It was late, but our hotel was welcoming – good quality hotels come cheaply here and we slept well – we'd need it. The following morning we were up early, enjoying our hearty breakfast and we then headed to the train station to book a space in the air conditioned coach on the night train to Chang Mai that evening. With two seats secured we wandered out into two, with no real plan. We ended up wandering through China town to the river where we joined locals on the river ferry. A Buddist monk in his saffron orange robes asked us where we were going and then later came and found us to warn us that our stop was next – a refreshing change from the other Thais who had asked us where we were heading, they usually used it as the start of a sales pitch.
From the ferry we winded our way through tiny back streets that locals insisted on navigating by moped – I think Thais in cities may have forgotten how to walk – and ended up at the Royal Barges Museum. Fantastically ornate ceremonial narrow boats with gold guilded figure heads rose high out of their dry docks and sat along side relics of boats bombed during WW II and models of the strictly adheared to processional order, still used on state functions today. Crossing the river, we found ourselves in the Backpacker's mecca – Khao San road. There was a Boot, Subway, lots of Neon signs and hundreds of market stalls selling tourist tat. We left and wandered among quieter streets back to train station.
The overnight train was empty and quiet, we slept better than we thought we might are were rewarded with a beautiful hazy sunrise over distant mountains shortly before we arrived in Chang Mai. We'd been recommended a place to stay, but they were full so we turned to our trusty Lonely Planet bible and found the Siri Guest House, a wonderfully welcoming place right in the centre of the old city. Wandering around the Chang Mai was great – there are stil (restored) remains of the 12th Century city wall, and the moat still has water in it. After so long in New World countries, it was pleasing to be back in a place with real history. One of the Budda images we saw in a Chang Mai Wat (temple) dated back to about 500BC, and the night markets we wandered around that evening are (now very touristy) remnants of the trading caravans that used to transport cargo between China and an Indian sea port.
To make the most of our limited time we headed out on a hillside village trek early the following morning, walking up steep paths to get to a traditional village that used to make it's money from the Opium trade, but now serves tourists with hand crafted goods and poses for photos next to their authentic wooden shacks on stilts. The terrain and flora were reminisant of Fiji and the trek we did there. The elephants weren't. We'd been awed by the elephants we camped near in San Diego Wild Animal park and now we were up close to these huge creatures. It's quite a scary experience to be perched atop a large elephant as it negotiates a tiny trail that switchbacks up the hill and back down again, but it's wonderful to see them up close. Following a failed bamboo rafting attempt in Fiji (too much rain) we were glad that todays rafting wasn't cancelled. After riding the elephants we headed to a waterfall for a post lunch swim and then rafted back to the bus down a shallow river grade 2 river. It reminded me of a less civilized version of punting in Cambridge.
Another early start the next day took us to a Thai Organic Farm where they run a cookery course – we learnt a lot and ate more scrummy Thai dishes. We even had a doggy bag that we could take back to Bangkok with us (another overnight train) containing spring rolls that Sharon had proudly made from scratch. THe night train was more crowded and we slept less well than previously (I'd opt for the earlier train which has proper beds, rather than reclining seats next time) so caught a few hours sleep at our hotel before heading out into Bangkok again. This time we took in some temples, saw the massive reclining Budda and the Marco Polo statues that guarded the enterance. The temples and Budda images are, like their barges, studded with coloured gem stones, gold leaf and bright red and green paint. It's those colours, along with the bright pink, purple and orange taxis that we'll remember when we leave tomorrow. Travelling around Thailand has been a brief insight into South East Asia, but it's shown us we love this area and will return. But for now we're heading off to Nepal for some different Asian culture and almost as importantly, some whitewater.
From thunderstorms to glaring sun; that was the difference leaving the Aussie coast and heading into the centre made. We spent three very hot days seeing some very large and impressive rock formations with a cool tour group – we were up before dawn each day (and dawn is an early riser in the desert) to avoid having to walk in the midday sun. It was 31C before sunrise and only got hotter but this did mean we could sleep under the stars both nights, which is always great.
From Alice Springs we flew to Perth then on to Singapore for a night. We ate at a rather mediocre Chinese reestaurant and saw Pink Dolphins, but didn't have time for much else. We're now in Bangkok and are off to see Thailand.
(Our flight home is now confirmed for the 8th April – so it's not long 'til we'll be back in Blighty.)