Thursday, February 28, 2008

City of Light

Mark Twain had this to say of Varanasi:
Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all three of them put together.
I ended up spending a week in Varanasi. I can't say why, exactly. There really isn't a week's worth of things to see and do; rather it was inertia I suppose. Inertia and the fact that I wasn't sure where I was going next, or why. After 10-1/2 months of 'traveling' in India and Nepal, I'd lost the point. Originally the plan was to spend February doing a yoga course in Rishikesh, but my travel companion's back problems put an end to that. Instead we'd floated around for a second month in Nepal. Now I was back in in-your-face India, in perhaps the most in-your-face city of all: Varanasi, aka Kashi, The Luminous, founded by the big guy Shiva himself.
Varanasi, a city of much religious significance, has been continuously inhabited since at least the sixth century BC. Today there's a patina of modernity atop the ancient city, most of it not very nice. The traffic consists of countless bicycle and auto rickshas; carts pulled by oxen, horses, or bicycles, or pushed by humans; scooters, motorbikes and bicycles; cars, lorries and buses. All on roads also crowded with pedestrian traffic, beggars, stray dogs and cows. Pollution is intense. Several varieties of shit and piss-- dog, cow, buffalo, goat and human-- can be found everywhere, along with putrid rubbish. Children who ought to be in school instead learn to hock postcards in several European languages and Japanese. Touts hassle constantly, some aggressively, and others with a polished friendliness that is so misleading as to make one leery of absolutely everyone. And then there are the cremations and other religious ceremonies.

Monday, February 25, 2008


The bus ride from Pokhara to Sunauli and the Indian border includes several hours of lurching along twisty mountain roads. When I made the journey in October, I suffered quite badly from motion sickness. This time I was prepared, having taken an anti-nausea pill which proved to be effective. Having experienced the beautiful scenery once already, I actually drifted in and out of sleep for much of the seven hour ride (this despite the fact that the driver seemed to have learned to drive in India and used his horn like a battering ram). About the time we reached Bhairawa (the turn-off for Lumbini), and still a couple of kilometers from bus terminal at Sunauli, the bus stopped and deposited the remaining passengers. There was a transportation strike in progress, and no point in continuing.

We decided to spend the night in Bhairawa, the accomodation and food prospects looking more promising than those of the dusty, tout and mosquito-infested border. Mistake #1. We got a bicycle rikshaw to take us to the Hotel Glasglow. Our guidebook had given the place such a positive review ("practically perfect"), I figured it had to be at least decent. Mistake #2. The guy at Reception spoke little English, but told us the room rate (700 Nepali Rupees, or around $11. We'd paid 500 for our lovely room in Pokhara) and sent us to look at the room. It was really sad, and I got a sinking feeling in my gut. This is what we've got to look forward to from now on: India. Nepal was generally SO MUCH cleaner than India, and the Nepalis are generally a pleasure to deal with. Further, they have some sense of what foreign travelers want: clean rooms, good service, and, importantly, a pleasant atmosphere. In India, and this room at the Hotel Glasgow, everything reeks of neglect; there's simply no love. But we'd been up since 5am and were knackered, so we agreed to take the over-priced, nasty room. I asked where we could get a bus ticket for Varanasi and learned that we could only do that 4km away in Sunauli. We should've moved on then, but we didn't. Mistake #3.

After dumping our bags, we went out in search of food. The bandha (bandha literally means lock, and is the word for strike in Hindi as well) meant that nearly all of the shops and restaurants in Bhairawa were closed. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the only real food we'd eaten was a croissant and chai at the bus park and a second chai on the road. In desperation, we entered an upscale hotel and ordered Veg set meals in the completely empty restaurant. They were quite pricy, so we expected something rather nice. Mistake #4. The meals turned out to be the ubiqitous dal bhat, which is basically rice, dal, a veg and some greens. We didn't even get a papad.

Our spirits low, we considered our options. I figured that since we had to go to Sunauli anyhow we ought to just check out of the room and spend the night at the border. Surely it couldn't be much worse. Perhaps the hotel staff would take pity on us and let us just leave? Bellies full but hardly sated, we walked back to Hotel Glasgow and stated our case to the man at reception. He had a difficult time understanding what I wanted, but in the end said he'd have to charge us half the room fee. Fair enough, I suppose, but not completely acceptable. We decided to suck it up and just stay put. I'd walk off some of my ill humor with a walk to Sunauli to get the tickets, and Alex (who did not sleep on the bus) would have a nap. Dejected, we went up to the room. I happened to glance at the pillow on my bed. It had 5-6 strands of black hair on it. Alex's was the same. Yuck. I went down to complain, again experiencing language difficulties. A woman was sent in to change the bedding, a young man accompanying her (to supervise?). Everything ok? he asked. Sure. But then I went to use the bathroom and discovered that the toilet didn't even flush... That was enough to send us packing. I paid the 1/2 room rate, complaining about the toilet, etc, and we caught another bicycle rikshaw to Sunauli.

Like many border towns, Sunauli is dirty, mosquito-ridden, and utterly charmless. The main road is packed with money changers (both the Nepali and Indian Rupees are controlled currencies and can't be exchanged outside of their respective countries, though you are permitted to use Indian notes up to 100 rupees) and not much else. We found a surprisingly decent room for 600, drank chai at the hotel, then went to find a bus ticket. A couple of doors down we found a travel agent who sold us a direct bus ticket to Varanasi for 300 Indian Rupees. Mistake #5 (how big a mistake this was will be revealed shortly). The agent tried to get us to book a room at a place in Varanasi, and we said we'd think about it. Varanasi is notorious for touts who get ridiculous commissions from the guest houses, sometimes as much as 80% of the room rate. So it's not necessarily bad to arrange a room beforehand. In this case though the agent would obviously serve as tout, and we declined.

We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. Mistake #6. It was empty except for a table of Tibetans. Alex tried to order three different dishes from the menu, and was told that none were available. (This is so common in India, the menus packed with tems that have probably never been available, as to be maddening.) He ended up settling on just a beer, which came directly from off a shelf at room temperature. The best I can say about my food was that it was edible.

The next morning we went back to the agent's to pick up our ticket. The guy there (not the one from the previous day) warned us that we were not to pay anything to the people on the Indian side, that sometimes the Indian guys would try to cheat you. Then he said to look for Mr. Babalu 50 meters up the road from Indian Immigration and drew us a little map.

When I last crossed this border in October, I failed to notice the Nepali Immigration office at all. I walked right across the open border and got my passport stamped on the India side. This failure to receive an exit stamp caused no small amount of trouble when I returned to Nepal in December. This time I dutifully went through the process on both sides. The representative at Indian Immigration was a credit to his office (or should I say an anomaly?), a surprisingly friendly chap. He looked at my passport. Sheila? This is a very good name, an Indian name, And Rae? That too is Indian. Very good. You are going to Varanasi? Very nice place, I am from varanasi. Are you married? Friends? Friends are ok when it is hot, but you need a husband when it is cold. This is the cold season. Then he looked at Alex's passport. Same birth year? This is very good, you should get married in Varanasi. Different country... is this a problem? We told him No, and that we'd think about his suggestion.

That little exchange with the border agent was our last bit of fun, really. We asked for the Varanasi bus and were directed to a pathetically decrepit government bus. The floor was filthy, covered in peanut shells and trash, seat cushions had fallen off their frames and were strewn about the floor... It had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. The sort of bus you can tolerate for a short ride, but not the kind you want to spend 10 hours on. We showed our ticket. Mr Babalu? Oh, go to that office up the street. Whew (or so we thought briefly.) We went as directed, and were advised by some two-bit goondas to wait at the picturesque (not) chai stall across the road.

Unsurprisingly, the bus that eventually pulled up was the same one we'd seen earlier. The goons from the office told us to get on, then proceeded to try to sell us the actual ticket for the bus, which was in fact 196 Rupees. We refused. The only people on the bus were the driver, the conductor, and a French guy in a hoodie. The goons tried to menace us, saying that if we didn't pay them the money, we'd have to get off the bus. The French guy came over and told them to get lost. The driver motioned for me to sit down. The bus folks were clearly familliar with this scenario, though not party to it. Alex demanded they hand over the tickets, which they eventually did with some *ahem* prompting. After the goons were off the bus and we'd finally pulled out, the French guy came over to tell us that something like this always happened at this border, that it is a terrible place. I later heard an interesting tale from a friend who'd also passed that way recently. He had taken the night bus, and before it started out a man had come around and sold them tickets for 400 rupees. It seemed a bit steep, but he paid and received his ticket. After the bus was on its way, the actually conductor came around. Every foreigner on the bus ended up paying 596 rupees for the 196 rupee journey.

If the bus at rest was post-apocalyptic, in motion it was merely apocolyptic. Everything-- the windows, the seats, the doors-- shook and rattled at full volume, a cacaphony liberally spiked with regular blasts from the horn. There was no suspension to speak of, and we bounced and lurched about in our seats. It felt like being on the inside of a maraca that was being shaken fervently, the noise and vibration of it. Alex shot some video, which has had us in tears with every viewing to date. Why is it that my favorite travel stories spring from the worst experiences?

The roads in the state of Uttar Pradesh can be quite bad, but I recalled the stretch from the border to Gorakhpur (the first major city on the way to Varanasi) to be ok. Our bus, however, decided to take a "shortcut" along something resembling a cow path much of the way According to our knowledgable ami, this route was indeed marginally shorter, though considerably slower, and was taken to save petrol. I wasn't entirely clear on who actually benefitted from this scam, but I do know that the three hour ride to Gorakhpur ended up taking us over five painfully-slow and extra-bouncy hours.

In the end, shaken and deaf, it was nearly 10pm when we reached Varanasi. That's 13-1/2 hours for an alleged 10 hour journey. In terms of the richness of our experience, we surely got our 300 rupees worth.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


It is with mixed feelings that I write that I'm back in India. The story of how I got here must be told, but unfortunately I don't have time at the moment.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Nepal is heavily reliant on hydro-electrical power for its energy needs, which is hardly surprising in this mountainous, water-rich nation. Unfortunately, supply has failed to keep up with growing demand, largely due to a lack of political will. Since Maoist agitation began in 1996, and even more so since the palace massacre of 2001 (where the crown prince wiped out 12 members of the royal family before turning the gun on himself), the Nepali government has been largely ineffectual in fulfilling even basic functions. The government is broke, elections haven't been held since 2001, and the people have completely lost faith in government and the political process. The Maoists and their affiliates continue to engage in violence even after having joined the government and paying lipe service to the democratic process (just recently the leader, Prachandra, stated that the Maoists would take power after the Constitutional Assembly in April, even if a coup were required).When I was in Nepal last October, the rainy season had recently wound up, and there were no apprent power problems. When I returned again in December, Kathmandu was experiencing three hour power cuts two days a week in load shedding. Weeks later, Kathmandu was up to twelve hours of cuts per week. At present, the nation's capital is without electical power 8 hours per day, and recently Pokhara has followed suit. There also happens to be a shortage of diesel fuel (and massive queues at petrol pumps), which is of course exacerbated by the increased demand to run back-up generators at businesses that can afford it. Much of Industry, never particularly healthy, is on its deathbed.You can get used to the power cuts easily enough when you're a visitor and you know that it's not going to affect you indefinitely. And the locals don't seem to be complaining too much.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

2K7RL, Part III

The Reading List is back!

11. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress- Dai SiJie
I received this book as a gift (thanks, Colleen!). A bittersweet story told from the perspective of a cultured city youth who is sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” by the noble peasantry and hard labour. His real education comes in the dual forms of a secret box of Western novels and the young lady of the title.

When I was a university student I read a couple of first-hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution (one of which, “Born Red,” was also a gift from Colleen), neither of which was in any way sentimental. Rather, they were personal stories of mass insanity and human tragedy.

12. Murakami Haruki Yellow Pages (1)- Kato Norihiro
Kato, University prof and Murakami freak, has employed countless students and hours in this impressive effort to dissect Haruki’s first four full length works: Hear the Sound of the Wind; 1973 Pinball; A Wild Sheep Chase; and The End of the World and Hard-boiled Wonderland. I don't know if this is available in English, but if it is and you love Murakami as I do. then buy this book.

13. In Spite of the Gods (The Strange Rise of Modern India)- Edward Luce
Luce, former India correspondent to the Financial Times, writes about India from a great insider-outsider perspective. He’s married to an Indian woman and has a clear affection for his subject, yet his ultimate status as outsider gives him an objectivity that would be difficult for a native. I’m still getting a lot of milage out of the amazing facts I picked up in this book.

14. The Idea of India- Sunil Khilnani
I first read this when the book was published back around 2000. I was at that time, unfortunately, too ignorant of modern Indian to appreciate it. This is definitely a book for people who already possess a fair degree of knowledge regarding Indian political history.

15. Enduring Love- Ian McEwan
Right from the opening line, McEwan’s status as a master craftsman is evident. The novel begins with a tragedy, and slowly builds With a work like this under his belt, how Amsterdam ever won the Booker Prize is really beyond me. Almost as good as Atonement (which, btw, is an excellent book club-book.)


It took about four hours of walking, taxi, bus and jeep to travel the 50 or so kilometers from Pokhara to Bandipur. We had a lazy morning of heavy breakfasts/coffee/sudoku, then packed up our big bags and stored them in Santosh's mother's room (Santosh is our innkeeper at Vienna Lake Lodge) so that we could travel light. We figured we'd be away for 2-4 days and didn't want to be lugging all of our stuff around. Things have become rather stuffed and heavy since we've equipped to handle sub-zero weather.

Bandipur is a small town perched on a ridge overlooking Dumre and the main Kathmandu-Pokhara highway. Its charms are undeniable: a traditional Newari village (nearly all of the buildings are brick or stone and wood constructions) with stunning views of the entire Annapurna range and zero traffic. Back in the day, it was a stopping point on the trade route between Tibet and India. You can still tread the path between Dumre and Bandipur, which we did on our return trip.

The weather couldn't have been better- it was warm and sunny, and for the first few days we had a crystal-clear view of the mountains. We also got lucky with our guest house, and there was even a pleasant cafe to eat our meals. We awoke around six every morning and headed out to watch the sunrise from atop Thanimai or from a field with 360 degree views, which we "discovered" randomly. One day we hiked down the cool, shaded North side of the ridge to the massive Siddha Cave (we were actually able to do a bit of exploring thanks to a kid with a big light- our flashlights were simply insufficient); another day, Alex's birthday, was spent trekking out to the Magar village of Ramkot, a walk recommended by the information center in Bandipur. That turned out to be a bit strange, as the village is completely unequipped to handle curious foreigners. There wasn't a single shop, much less a tea house, and we only managed to ward of dehydration by refilling our water bottle at the village tap. (Fortunately, the natural spring water was delicious and safe.) The trail to Ramkot was on the exposed South side, and the sun beat directly down on us for the several hours.

As usual, I took quite a lot of photos. And again I've posted some of them on Facebook, so please don't be shy and click here.

Friday, February 01, 2008


I just revised the "Sarangkot" entry below, so DO scroll down for another look.

After a couple of rainy days, today was awesome. You could see Machhapuchhari (aka Fishtail) from Lakeside, as well what I believe is Annapurna III. We got a pathetically late start, however, and ended up just making a short visit to Devi Falls and nearby Mahadev Cave. Not sure that any of that warrants describing.

On the way back, Alex got shaved at one of the barbers for less than 50 cents!