It's time for another round-up of videos we took that didn't quite make it into our posts. This one will cover India and Nepal. Enjoy!
First, from our first stop in India, an aerial view of the madness at the Howrah flower market in Kolkata
Next, some young Nepali men on the street rocking out on traditional fiddles in Darjeeling, India
Then a few peaceful moments of Tibetan Prayer Flags flying above Pelling, Sikkim, India
And a few more peaceful moments from our pre-dawn boat ride on the Ganges River in Varanasi
Moving on to Nepal, a panorama from the best viewpoint on our five-day trek
And finally, some rather inebriated gentlemen dancing in the street at Holi in Pokhara.
After washing the Holi dye off our bodies (actually we would continue to find it in our ears, nose, and between our toes for a few days to come), we set off for the main attraction of our Nepal trip: a five-day trek through the Annapurna Conservation Area, a part of the Himalayas well known for its trails and endless trekking possibilities.
We took a taxi to the trailhead, about 1.5 hours away from Pokhara, and set off with our packs. This seven-hour day of trekking started off hot and dusty, and ended with two hours of steep stairs up 400 meters (out of a total elevation gain of 1000 m for the day).
Day two was a little easier, with an elevation gain of "only" a little over 800 m. The trails passed through rhododendron forests, and some of the trees were in bloom with beautiful pink flowers. During our tea stop, and on and off for the rest of the afternoon, there were snow flurries, reminding us of how quickly the weather can change with elevation. The day ended in Ghorepani, a town (basically a cluster of blue and white lodges or tea houses) blessed with lovely views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains that were covered in clouds when we arrived.
However, the next morning, when we awoke at 4:30 am to hike up 45 minutes to a higher and popular spot for sunrise called Poon Hill, we looked out the window to find a completely clear sky and impressive 8000-meter mountains, seemingly in grasping distance, lit up by the almost full moon. We strapped on our headlamps and climbed up the path leading to Poon Hill, arriving second only to the chai-walla (the tea seller). Our eagerness was rewarded with a bone-chilling 45-minute wait until the sun actually started to rise and the crowds started to arrive. The full moon was directly west, and from 180 degrees opposite rose the sun, lighting up the bright white peaks and coloring the sky with a hazy pink hue. From east to west we could see an impressive 13 peaks, most of them between 7000 and 8000 m in height. To say that it was stunning and humbling would be an understatement.
After we were satisfied that we had more photos and video than could ever be useful, we headed back down to our tea house and took a rest day. Nick's dad wasn't feeling great, and we were more than happy to spend a lazy day sitting around the fire, reading, and playing hearts (which was more like "watching as Claudia tries and fails to shoot the moon"), while gazing out the windows at the mountains.
The next day turned out to be our favorite. Already having over-indulged on snow-capped views, we weren't expecting the views to get better, but they did. The hike took us up in elevation first, leading to a viewpoint called Gurung Hill that topped what Poon Hill had shown us the previous morning. In addition to all the mountains we had seen before, we could also see the endless foothills and valleys in the other direction, and the view reminded me a bit of a scene from the Appalachian or Smoky Mountains in the Eastern U.S.
With huge smiles on our faces, we weren't too bothered by the up and down path that took us to our last and final tea house in Tadapani, where we were blessed with more amazing views from its patio, and where we sampled something called a "Snickers Roll", which was essentially a Snickers Hot Pocket, except fried, not microwaved. We felt very American!
On our final day, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise, and then got started on the long haul back. It was hot and annoyingly downhill, as final days of mountain treks usually are, with a total descent of 1600 m. Our knees were shot, but we were glad that we pushed through and couldn't have been happier with the beautiful peaks we spent the last few days gazing at.
You do not need to hire a guide for this trek, or other treks in this area, since the signage and other hikers you'll see make it impossible to get lost. However, it is not a good idea to hike alone. Hiring a porter to carry your bag is also possible either in Pokhara or in most of the villages you'll pass through. While the Ghorepani-Ghandrunk trek wasn't exactly an unbeaten path, it's popular for a reason: it affords gorgeous views in as little as 3-4 days (if you're a fast hiker or short on time). We did it in 5 days, but that included a rest day on the day we saw the sunrise at Poon Hill. Taking it really easy, or lengthening the route by going north to Chomrong or east to Landruk, you could turn this trek into 6 or more days. Altitude shouldn't be an issue, since the highest point is around 3200 m (but the highest point you'll have to spend the night is 2800 m).
Get a massage at the Seeing Hands Clinic in Pokhara Lakeside South after coming back from a trek. The organization trains blind Nepalis in massage therapy, and the massage was one of the best I've ever gotten. It's a good value too, at around $15/hour.
We had heard about Holi well before leaving Africa for the South Asian Subcontinent. "It's that crazy holiday in India where everyone throws colored powder and water at each other and people just go nuts", fellow travelers told us. So we immediately looked it up and started doing our research on where to be for this racous celebration. While the parties are supposedly at their most colorful (pun intended) in various cities in India, our timing was going to put us in Nepal. Luckily, since it's a Hindu holiday, the party goes down in India's mountainous neighbor as well. As we would soon find out, this celebration is probably the least religious Hindu holiday, and is more about everyone coming together and having a fun time in celebration of the start of Spring.
We took the seven-hour bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara on the actual holiday, so we got a taste of the mess we were in for as we winded our way through mountain villages. We saw tons of children pelting each other with colored powder and water-- some even using giant Super Soakers-- and the roads had tons of "Holi" stains on them as well. Even our bus wasn't safe from the color attacks: its windows got pelted a few times on our journey!
As soon as we got to Pokhara, we changed into clothes we didn't care about and set off for downtown. We found a fun outdoor concert going on, and a nice mix of backpackers and locals dancing to punk-influenced covers of American songs being pretty successfully pulled off by long-haired local bands. Everyone was absolutely covered in bright, beautiful colors. The powdered dye is sold on the streets in 10- or 20-cent bags, and it's completely appropriate and expected to go up to strangers and say "Happy Holi!" while smearing their faces, necks, and backs with the powder. Some people mix the powder with water and turn the whole affair into more of a water fight.
We had a blast dancing, Holi-ing strangers, taking photos, and observing what have to be the most patient cops on Earth, who were trying to keep the whole scene under control. While it may not have been the most authentic Holi experience, it was good-natured and messy fun!
A small sign in the bustling and over-saturated backpacker area of Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal calls to us. It's small, shares no details, and is overpowered by the other bright signs around it, food carts, hotel- and trek touts, and live music coming from all directions, but it proclaims simply, "Cookie Walla". We must go.
We walk down the dimly-lit alley, past a restaurant and a guest house, and nearly walk too far before a young man sticks his head out the doorway: "Cookie Walla?" We enter.
We're shown into a small and dark space, asked to sit on some mattresses on the floor, and given our options by the energetic young man. The Cookie Walla is a young Kathmandu resident with two talents: making delicious desserts, and making that popping noise you can make with your tongue and the roof of your mouth, about ten times louder than anyone you've ever met, with which he punctuates the end of nearly every sentence. We figure he chose the profession that best utilized his two talents, and boy are we glad.
The frozen concoction we ended up with, and eagerly devoured on our walk home was made of a cookie crust, ice cream, chocolate sauce, and bananas, and wouldn't be out of place at a midwestern barbecue. It's serendipitous experiences like this one, ones that we stumble upon accidentally and would never find their way into a guide book, that will surely be some of our favorite and most-lasting experiences of our journey.
A few days after a precarious exit from India, my dad met us in Kathmandu: he had been looking for a chance to catch up with us somewhere along our journey, and something about Nepal piqued his interest. A few weeks earlier, he pulled the trigger on a flight, spent some time researching the mountain kingdom, and joined us. Looking no worse for the considerable wear of 40 hours of travel, he arrived midday on a Monday and we spent the next day and a half seeing the historical and religious sights around the Kathmandu valley before heading into the Himalayan foothills for a short trek.
The Kathmandu valley has been inhabited for many thousands of years, but has been connected to the outside world by roads for only around 50, and by air for just a bit longer than that. It has historically been an important stopping point on the trade route between northern India and Tibet, and has been held sacred by Buddhists for centuries, its circular shape being referred to as an enormous mandala, befitting of its place as a location of immense spiritual significance.
Our first stop was Swayambhu stupa, only a few kilometers' uphill walk from our hotel, but one of the oldest and most revered sites in the valley. Legend has it that the entire valley was once submerged in a huge, snake-infested lake, but 91 aeons ago, a lotus flower, one of the most potent symbols in Buddhism, appeared miraculously on the surface of the lake in the very location of the hill Swayambhu sits atop, leading the the eventual draining and habitation of the valley. The flower is said to have been self-created (the literal translation of the word Swayambhu), and thus extremely holy, so the hill and the stupas and temples on top of it have been worshipped for thousands of years. The current dome probably dates to the fifth century.
After a tasty Tibetan meal and some much-needed rest for all of us, we hired a car the next day to see some of the more far-flung attractions in the valley.
The first stop of the day was Changu Narayan, a Hindu temple also dating from around the fifth century, but the current buildings having been reconstructed around 1700. The site contained many small shrines and stone carvings to various dieties, and some very ornate wooden roof supports. One interesting fact is that there is a stone image of the Hindu god Vishnu residing inside the temple. It is said to sweat from time to time, indicating that the represented God is battling with foes in the spirit world, and the cloth used to wipe his brow is held as a sacred relic and is reputed to guard against snake bites.
Although my dad was quite impressed with the simple temple, Claudia and I might have had a wee bit of a temple hangover from India, so we hurried along to our second destination, the ancient city of Bhaktapur.
This proved to be our favorite site of the day, the Nepali capital from around 1200-1500, and still remarkably well preserved. We spent a few pleasant hours strolling the ancient city's narrow streets and visiting numerous temples, shrines, and public squares. We even tried the city's signature yogurt snack, known locally as the king of curds. Maybe not as impressive as a snakebite-preventing rag, but this city's claim to fame is as the site where the early Keanu Reeves classic, Little Buddha was filmed in 1995.
Next up was Pashupatinath, another Hindu sacred site. Here, on the shores of the Bagmati river, the devout congregate to cremate their dead since this river--albeit little more than a polluted trickle when we saw it--flows into the Ganges in Varanasi, India. We had dogeared another nearby site, Gorakhnath, for a potential visit because of its prominent place in a story we had been following since our arrival in India. The story goes that Shiva married a woman named Sati who, offended by an insult and in a fit of rage, jumped into a fire to her death. Shiva, stricken with grief, retrieved her corpse and flew all over the subcontinent, scattering her remains. The sites where each of the 51 pieces fell are held as sacred among Shiva-worshippers, and while we had visited one or two towns in India famous for being the spot where a toe or shoulder fell, none of them could compete in our minds with nearby Gorkhnath, the holy site where her vagina landed!
We rounded out the day with our second Buddhist stupa of the valley in Boudhanath, this one one of the world's largest and the most spiritually important monument in Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. We took a contemplative stroll around the stupa's perimeter before calling it a day.
A few days later, after celebrating the Holi festival, and our trek in the Annapurna (you'll have to wait for the next posts for those stories), we returned to Kathmandu to see my dad off, do some last-minute planning for the next leg of our journey, and pack in some more sightseeing, this time in small and historical Patan. Another ancient capital, this one dates back to the 18th century and boasts another jaw-dropping collection of royal palaces, temples, statues, and artisan markets just steps from our quaint but rough-around-the-edges guest house.
Kathmandu is a thoroughly modern city, yet the surrounding valley is simply brimming with centuries of history and culture. The collection of sites we visited felt like something of an echo of our time in India; the ornate Hindu temples, the solemn Buddhist stupas, and the opulent palaces all combined to make a succinct summary of our time on the subcontinent.