Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nepal, and back at home in Pokhara

Indian Air

So two and a half hours before my flight, I’m finally allowed to check in. I’m the first one, and they know I’ve been here all morning waiting, so they give me a good window exit row seat. I’d probably prefer the front row given the dash I’ve got to get round to the domestic terminal, assuming the flight isn’t delayed. Once checked in, one would assume you could go through immigration at one’s leisure? Nope. You have to wait till you’re given the go-ahead for that.

Nice discriminatory emigration rules specially for women under 30

Immigration looks at my passport, and confirms with me that this is a double entry visa. Yes, I reply, as it says on the visa. Double entry. After much more pondering and frowning at stamps, he comes to the conclusion that I arrived on 7th September. Nope, that was my leaving date for the first entry. Hmmm, more frowning. To save some time I point out the 21st Sept entry stamp in front of him. Ah. So, if you want to come back, you will need another visa. Yes, I realise that. Stamped and I can go.

Upstairs, where there nothing! We’re not allowed to go through the security checks yet, it’s too early. So waiting in an empty area for another twenty minutes or so. Through security, without problems, although I notice the muppets haven’t stamped the tag on my backpack, so I go back. They look confused, but eventually scan it again and stamp the tag without ado. I may have explained this before, but the Indian model for checking you are not a terrorist is to use those little paper name tags with a bit of elastic that the airlines usually give you for free as you check in. When you’re checked, they stamp the tag with a usually-illegible ink stamp, and then when you go to board, they check these again, and usually decide to have a root through your bag again, just for good measure.

Meanwhile the body check is the usual walk-through scanner, though they are always turned up to maximum sensitivity so I set it off with my miniscule belt buckle, which doesn’t set scanners off anywhere else in the world. Again, I think they just want the chance to see what’s in your pockets. Women go through a separate lane with screens. Goodness knows what happens in there. Once through, I walk to the window and look out at the moody atmospheric scene. It’s mid-day but like dusk, with heavy rainclouds rolling over every few minutes.

I wonder what’s happened to Thuzar. I take a photo of a passenger plane far out on the runway in the rain, then an army muppet comes running over yelling hey, hey what are you doing? I’m sorry, what is the problem? Are you taking photos or videos, he asks me, as I stand in front of him with my camera. Oh, I’m sorry, I reply, I didn’t realise that we weren’t allowed to take photos, given that there are no signs saying as much, and this is a large window in a passenger terminal waiting area. He snorts and walks away.

The Indian Army don’t want you seeing this either, the muppets

The plane is of course late, ostensibly because of the bad weather, though who knows really. Thuzar’s Indian Airways plane that she decided not to take was two hours late, and that was before the rains started. I fork out for a 20r cup of sweet tea, damn pricy but there’s nothing else here and I’m hungry. I reckon I could have got in lunch at Fire and Ice if there are any more delays, and that thought does not make me happy! As we’ve been delayed, my chances of getting a flight to Pokhara today are slipping away. Oh well, that may not necessarily be a bad thing, I need the sleep (heh heh!).

Off the plane quick but queues at passport control are small.I know the drill now, fill out the form, go pay the cash (30USD), take that receipt to Visa on arrival lane with form, arrival card and photo. Sticker is placed unnecessarily right in the middle of page. We're through. Outside you get India-style hassle, but they are no match for me. Annoyingly the only ATM is out of order. All the taxi touts are taking advantage of this, offering to drive you to an ATM for a small dollar fee. One suspects they've put the thing out themselves.

I walk round to the domestic terminal. I suspect that I've missed the last flight because of Air India running so late, and my suspicions are correct. I walk down out of the airport to find a cab. I hate the airport cabs. And even the fixed price taxi booth is a con here, clearly something set up by the drivers' union to screw tourists rather than a government-regulated thing to help.

So down at the gate, a police chap tells me the name of the bus station I want for the overnight buses, and explains to the taxi driver that I need to go via an ATM. I worry that he'll take me to a Nepali bank that won't work with international cards, which he probably was going to do, but thank goodness I spotted a Standard Chartered on the way. We pass the red-brick British Embassy, and soon arrive at Balaju bus station, the long-distance one north of Thamel.

You can tell you aren't in India by the almost total lack of hassle. I'm soon kitted out with a ticket for 260r, on a bus leaving at 7:15pm. I buy some local nibbles and get on board and wait.

Yet Another Overnight Bus

Interesting decoration

We leave a little late, and head into mad traffic that you can't believe exists in a small capital like Kathmandu. I snooze on and off, but I have a chap next to me who is very interested to chat with me using his 10 words of English, my seat is cramped and worse, seems to lean slightly to the left, one of those small things that over several hours is going to be awful.

We drive on and after a short dinner stop, everyone starts to doze off despite the loud Nepali dohori music. Including the guy next to me who despite having the aisle seat keeps twisting his legs into my space and dunking his head on my shoulder. It turns into a war. One of his key weapons is flatulence. I also note we appear to be on the slowest bus on the road, bloomin everyone is overtaking us, including, i note, some luxury buses. Then again, given my experiences with those...

We stop at midnight for dinner. My first dal bhat!

It's good, but more than enough, so I refuse all the free refills (except for chilli sauce of course). After twenty minutes we're off again. 100 yards up the road where we park up sit for three feckin hours. Of course, if someone had told me it was going to be three, I could have got off, stretched my legs, but no. I sit on the bus like a muppet thinking 'we'll surely go any second now'? Three hours. If they don't all do this I shall be very unhappy. I wouldn't mind if there were some kind of reason. It's probably just the way it is.

Out, and a bit of hassle. Light rain. Find bus going to Lakeside. Get off too early, before Damside. Walk wrong direction. Eventually work it out. Half an hour.

The Palace!

Thirty seconds up here

Raju comes out to greet me, followed by his wife Sushmita and daughter Riya. It’s great to be back for the third time here, it’s like home now. Pokhara Palace Hotel is a great place!

Raju and Riya

I promptly request what I’m in need of.. a Raju Special Breakfast, which turns out to be cooked by Sushmita! Raju’s apparently taught her well, or so he says!

Riya has grown up a bit, and now talks incessantly in Nepali. Apparently she’s doing very well in school, and loves showing her new-found intellect by counting to 100 and spelling out lots of words in English.

A monkey..


Pokhara Palace Hotel is a newish guesthouse, though now it’s been here long enough for Raju to have covered the place with flowers and plants, it’s beautiful.

The front of Pokhara Palace hotel

From the roof if the weather is good you can see Fishtail (Machhapuchhare) and some of the Annapurna range. The rooms are always spotlessly clean and thanks to some new hotels being built on both sides, it’s now not so noisy early in the morning thanks to various farm animals!

Up to my penthouse suite

I shower, hot from the solar panels on the roof, and have a short snooze. I find that I can just about pick up a very weak but open wifi signal from my room! Then Suresh Nepali turns up! Suresh was one of my two guides for both my previous visits here. His hair has gone long, just like his father’s.

Dinner is at home with Raju, then I get to try out Nepal Ice beer, the new lager which has come out of nowhere and now seems to be the beer of choice. I don’t detect an amazing amount of flavour, but it does the trick. I still think I prefer Everest Beer.

Raju, Suresh and I head out to look for Ram, who now works at Monal Hotel. He’s not there, so we go to Busy Bee Cafe anyway! This is the place of choice late in the evening, with a large outdoor seating area, food, and plenty of booze. They have live music most evenings, but this is not always a good thing!

Busy Bee


The boys!

ACAP Office
Next day Raju, Suresh and I get together a trekking plan over breakfast (enjoyed at a leisurely 1pm or so!). In the time I have available, the Jomsom trek is ideal. We can fly up and walk back down. I’ll get up to Kagbeni, which is the last town before the mystical “Last Kingdom” of Lo Mustang. To do any trekking in the area, you need a permit, so Raju runs me down to the office on his motorbike.

The bike

The office

Inside you fill out a form, hand over *two* photos, and the 2,000r fee. Minutes later, I have the permit, with my photo on it. I remember the first time we went to Annapurna, Adrian and I had our photos mixed up on the permits. Didn’t seem to matter much. Especially as the Maoists controlled the whole region at that time.

Devi Falls
Next he runs me along to the Devi Falls, which we missed last time. They’re a small but impressive falls, with the water plunging down underground and emerging a few kilometres later.

Back to the Palace, and Ram kaji turns up. Ram was our other guide for our previous treks.

Right, intermission with blog now.. I’m off for 6 days or so to Jomsom. More when I’m back. By the way, am contemplating dropping Tibet from my itinerary given timing. There’s a flight from Kathmandu to Shanghai. I’ll work it out when I get back to Kathmandu.

Here’s the draft plan for Jomsom Trek:

1. 28th Bus from Pokhara to Beni. Hike to Tatopani
2. 29th Trek Tatopani to Lete or Kalopani
3. 30th Lete to Kagbeni
4. 1st Kagbeni to Muktinah and Jarkhot to Kagbeni
5. 2nd Kagbeni to Jomsom
6. Fly to Pokhara. If the flight is cancelled, trek out to Beni.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Back to the Black Hole!

We’re up a few hours later to shower next door and breakfast with Tom. I have marmite on toast, goodbye Marmite, I’ll miss you (not enough to burden my pack with a pot though!). Pippi comes over, then we head out loaded up to the airport.

It’s actually cheaper to take a taxi to the airport than use the train if there are two of you, such is the rip-off that is Heathrow Express train. Fourteen pounds each. They should be prosecuted for this abuse of the term “public transport”.


Anyway, at Heathrow Terminal 4, we come out to the check in floor, past my beloved First Class check-in area, but still (with the Silver card) in to the Business Fast Bag Drop lane which doesn’t have anyone waiting. The nice girl who checks us in gives us Fast Track stickers too, something that I suspect I’m not eligible for. Amusingly, when we go into security, after getting past the BAA “security” monkeys who help national security by insisting I jam my camera into one of our other bags, we find that the Fast Track queue is in fact bigger than the normal one, so I dodge out of it.

The business lounge is very busy, and I worry about getting Thuzar in as a guest, but it’s no problem. A bit of free food and drink, and to my horror I find that the internet costs money! Whatever next?! Tomato juice tastes weird too, so we wander out to do a spot of shopping with my last few English pennies. Our flight, leaving from gate 14, is clearly going to be late as it’s 20 minutes to departure and they haven’t started boarding. Their strange excuse is that they don’t have enough people to man the desks – but they are letting families board. So why they don’t then carry on boarding slowly rather than making people wait, I do not know. Anyway, I enjoy pushing into the front of the queue as an Exec card member 

We’re in the same seats as last time of course, 16E and 16F, which surprises Thuzar. Ah, little does she realise the genius and planning that goes into all of this! Unfortunately being just behind the bulkhead has backfired on this trip, as we have *two* babies in front of us! The horror! Ah well, we eventually take off, and even the announcements over the PA seem to echo our relief that we’ve escaped Heathrow.. come on, build that third runway!

Skipping a Night
It’s a long flight to Calcutta, 10 hours, and we can’t sleep as we’ve departed at 3pm. We arrive at 5am, just when we’re starting to feel tired. The food is good in between though, and I watch a couple of movies, as well as a short bit of Creature Comforts, this show by the makers of Wallace and Gromit where they’ve interviewed British people on a variety of subjects, then have but snippets of conversation to animated animal characters. Sounds strange but it’s delightful, I recommend it to you all!

So good to be back in Calcutta. At 4:30am as we descend the ground temperature is already 27C! We come out, clear customs quickly, and collect our bags. The confidence I feel now here is so differentto when I first arrived – I know how everything works now and feel much happier as a result. We walk out, round to the domestic terminal, and at the Indian Airways sales office I buy my ticket to Kathmandu for 3 days time, the same day Thuzar flies off to Burma. 5900r, or about 75 pounds. I was trying to book this online in the UK and it was going to cost about 110! Worth waiting for then!

After this, and now it being 7am and into the 30s so I’m sweating nicely already, we have to talk our way into the domestic terminal to get a taxi (the prepay booth is only accessible inside). The army seem confused by my simple request, but as I’m a foreigner I get away with it. Inside we find that the prepay booth doesn’t start until.. there are two guys standing here as I ask the question, and one says 8:30am, and the other says 7:15am! Welcome to India!

So we wait around, sipping our Mazaa mango drink, until about 7:30am when I spot a couple of Indian guys getting served. I stand behind them, but he seems to ignore me as he takes requests from Indians standing behind me. I say “excuse me” and he takes my order, to Park Street. Now, this booth has just opened, and they charge people funny amounts like 207r or 312r. So, guess how he works out the cash? Easy, he opens with no change at all, and then gets stroppy when you don’t have exact! I have to wait about 10 minutes before enough locals have contributed change to deal with my 500 note.

Into town
Into town, and I enact my strategy for finding somewhere. We cab to Park Street, to Barista coffee house, which is supposed to be a Starbucks-style place. It is, with the exception of it just opening now and there being rat droppings and dead cockroaches all over the floor! Nice! I leave Thuzar there with the bags, and wander off to Sudder Street to look for a place, as we’re sure as hell not staying at the Capital Guest House, the unfriendly dirty place we used before.

Past VIP International, which the book recommends but which sits on a main road, and into the main area. It’s so run down, and even the recommended places are shabby hovels. The problem is Calcutta, like a lot of India, is that you have a choice – Taj Palace, or Park Hotel, for about 2-300US dollars per night, or some flea-pit for about 10. There’s not much in between. I end up at Hotel Astoria, which looks relatively nice from the outside, but is fairly grim in, but the room’s clean and for AC we pay 850r per night, about 10 pounds.

I think I’ll be clever, and check in without bags to avoid tipping the bloomin’ porter, but reception will not let me check in without my bags. Why on earth not? Rules!! What rubbish, what if I didn’t have any bags? Typical India – rules are there to be followed without question regardless of common sense. So, back to coffee shop, bags, and a trudge through one of the most touristy areas of Calcutta looking like tourist muppets, and of course attracting lots more attention than before. I have to shout at one chap who, on being told firmly no by me, then tries Thuzar. We arrive and check in, and I tip the bloomin’ porter – after all we will be here three nights, and I don’t want them robbing our room or anything.

We’re so tired, and hit the sack as soon as we can, proceeding to sleep through the whole Indian day. We wake up at 7pm and go out, to eat at the Blue Sky CafĂ© on the corner, and have some simple tasty curries with dal, rice and naan.

Back for more sleep!

Merchant bankers?

The disaster is we’re completely set on UK time still, including (as I write this) being absolutely wide awake and starving at 2am, or about 9pm UK time! Nightmare. Tomorrow we go to Fire and Ice for free wifi and decent food, and perhaps the Victoria Memorial. Perhaps not!

PS: Eventually we give in and eat Thuzar’s cookies, which does the trick, and we get to sleep as the call to prayer starts from the local mosque.

Doing nothing in Calcutta
We manage to wake up in the afternoon, and head out to Fire and Ice, a twenty minute walk away along the grimy streets. If you want to go there, go to Maidan metro station, take the Karnak Building exit, turn right and at the corner turn left. Walk past the shoe-shiners, then you’ll find the restaurant on the left.

The restaurant is wonderful, an oasis, from the moment the capped security guard opens the door for you with a friendly smile. We sit at a table near a power point, and order insalata mista, pepperoni pizza and some foccacia, and in minutes I’m tapping away on the fast internet over the free wifi.

The food is really good too, the pizzas with thin crispy bases, proper mozzarella cheese, anchovies, good bread with rosemary and a light dusting of salt. Great mellow music plays in the background, and the walls are red brick broken by the occasional poster of a classic film star. And the bill, with a few large bottles of beers, coffees, the lot.. 800 rupees, i.e. a tenner. Great value, despite being probably one of the most expensive restaurants in Calcutta!

On the way back we pop into the bars in the Park Hotel. This place, on Park Street, is one of the luxury offerings, with rooms costing 250-300 US$ per night according to LP. Their “pub”, called Someplace Else, is quite busy and seems like a nice place, but Thuzar doesn’t like the lecherous looks she’s getting – a general problem in all Indian bars. We walk through to Roxy, the night club bar, which is empty now, but open, and have a beer there instead. On the way back we have a nice late dinner at Blue Sky, which will hopefully stave off the early hours “dinner time” hunger. It works, not that we manage to sleep until morning prayer calls. Incidentally, the mosque here does something funny, perhaps Ali or Shaq can enlighten me – at 3:40am, they say a sentence (not musically). Another one ten minutes later. Then the musical call starts at 4am. What are the precursors all about?

Next day another shockingly late start again, and it’s raining. As we walk out, it becomes clear it’s been raining a fair bit, the road entrance to our hotel is flooded. We wade through this, and potter along the streets. Starts raining hard again, so we duck into Zurich Restaurant, which has good thalis.

Unfortunately tandoori oven is not going now, it’s mid-afternoon, so we go for some curries. All good. Next we walk in the rain to my choice, the Victoria Memorial. We past the Howrah Bridge in the distance, which you’re not allowed to take photos of.


The flooded maidan park

Take cover!

The Indian government don’t want you to find out about… this bridge…

The Victoria Memorial
This memorial, built for Queen Victoria, can be seen from miles off, sitting in between maidan parks.

LP describes it as a cross between St. Pauls Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal, and this is not far off.

It’s an enormous Raj-era monument built out of white marble, set in large beautiful gardens. As it’s fairly late now, I don’t want to pay 150r foreigner price for entry, so we go for the bargain 4 rupees for garden access.

It’s damn impressive. Clearly lots of Indian families think so too as they all pose for photos from all angles.

It’s a short walk in the pouring rain back to our sanctuary, Fire and Ice. Despite a thorough brushing on the doormat our feet are filthy, and I have to apologise to the waiters for the footsteps leading to our table. We start with some beers, then go for pepperoni pizza, salad and bread. The usual, one might say. It’s just as tasty as yesterday, and I have a big blog upload session, needed as like a muppet I re-uploaded all the Jaisalmer and Jaipur photos yesterday *that I’d already uploaded* groan!! Idiot!

Home, and it’s our last night in Calcutta, hurrah!

Leaving Calcutta and the Unexpected Mad End
Again, no sleep almost all night, maybe just one hour before my alarm clock went off at 4:50am. The plan was to leave at 6am, as we needed to be at the airport by 7, but as it had been raining heavily, I figured leaving a bit early might not be a non-sensible thing to do. We dropped the key off, and walked out, me super-charged for a fight with the greedy taxis sitting in Sudder Street, generally the worst ones for ripping off tourists. Through the water, and a guy comes up to me. I don’t like the look of him.

Taxi? I pause, look left and right, surveying the scene. Maybe. To the airport, how much? 220rupees. How much? Two hundred and twenty. I’m bowled back. It’s a fair price straight off. I don’t need to haggle. This leaves me speechless for a second, giving the hotel porter guy time to nod at me and say it’s a fair price. To be honest I’m a bit disappointed, I was looking forward to a bit of haggling. I slightly dejectedly sit down in the back. Thuzar says “Your face” by way of explanation. Ah, that’d be it.

The taxi driver takes a funny route, and I wonder if he’s driving me somewhere to be robbed. Later as we see the extent of the flooding, I come to a new conclusion – he’s avoiding “rivers”. I’ve wound down my window, which turns out to be a big mistake as another car whizzes past, showering Thuzar and myself.. in the face… with a flood of dirty street water!! Ooooohhh myyyy god! How disgusting is this??? This morning we were worried about our feet getting dirty, and now this! The water, the filth! Will be get cholera or some horrible unheard-of eye infection? God knows!

At the airport we wash as best we can, but I will feel filthy until I’ve had at least a couple of showers and have washed these clothes! Our army guy says it’s too early for Thuzar to check-in. Her flight is 9:20am, mine 13:50. We wait around, there’s nothing much here, just a couple of grotty shops and an overpriced food place selling almost nothing. No access to the Clipper Lounge this time. We listen to a pair of old Americans, one of whom lost her passport in the hotel. They were supposed to be taking the Druk Air plane to Bhutan. Not today!

If only..

Eventually we get through security, and check Thuzar in. Half an hour till she goes through. Then, how to put this? Thuzar goes crazy on me, decides she’s not going to fly home, she’s going to stay here. What?! I try to persuade her otherwise, but she asks the airline staff to pull her bag. What the hell am I supposed to do? It’s an awful way to end what had been such a lovely time together. Very sad. So she’s going to stay in Calcutta with 500 rupees I’ve just given her, which is enough for a taxi back into town. What is she going to do? I don’t know. She’s 30 years old and I can’t force her to go on the flight. What on earth do I do? I try calling her friends in Yangon but don’t get through. I have to go…


Too Windy for Rollercoasters
Today we have two trips - down to Brighton, and down to Whitstable. Both trains leave from Victoria, so an organised person would take everything they need for the second trip to the first. Not me, oh no. The train down to Brighton is fairly fast, but there’s plenty of time to eat my messy sandwiches from the Cheese Shop .

Brighton is a town (city?) on the south coast of England, about 45 minutes by fast train. It’s a seaside holiday town, and indeed has grand pavilion buildings used by the royalty on their holidays years ago. We walk down to the beach, which is very stony – funnily you don’t notice this when the weather’s good as the whole beach is covered by tens of thousands of people, but on a mid-week bad-weather day like today, there’s plenty of empty space!

The weather is strange, with dark stormy clouds rolling across with the strong gale blowing onshore, interspersed with bursts of sunshine making the water sparkle.

We walk along the beach to the pier, the end of which houses a smallish amusement park with a rollercoaster and some other rides. We abandoned plans to go to Thorpe Park after finding out it was 32 pounds each! So expensive, and funnily enough in this week’s Private Eye they have a cartoon playing on the scary bit for parents in these big parks not being the ride but the entry fees.

So here we are, but it’s blowing some, this is lean-into-the-wind stuff, and the swell, whilst not impressive by global standards, is crashing on to the beach. We reach the pier, and find you don’t have to pay entry fees any more to go on to it. Good.

Walking along, it looks like lots of the attractions are shut. We pass the arcades and bars, and reach the rides. Rollercoaster is shut. Oh dear. I spot the next best thing in the corner, the Z Booster! To add to the fun, they are not sure if it’s safe to ride in this strong wind, so seek the opinion of the site safety engineer. Gulp!

This is effectively two sets of seats at either end of a long pole, pivoted in the middle.

They make us take our shoes off, and we’re strapped in. I’m feeling distinctly nervous. There are two German teenagers riding it with us, they’re at the other end so have already been loaded and are dangling their feet in the air eighty feet up. The ride starts, first by simply spinning us up to the top. This is enough excitement for me. Then we are spun forwards so that we are facing down, suspended only by the harness. HEEEELLLLLPPP!!

The next couple of minutes pass very quickly, but mostly involve being spun backwards and forwards, and being held at all sorts of awful angles, whilst simultaneously the big pivot throwing us up and down at high speeds. A crowd of schoolchildren had gathered to watch our punishment. When it ends we stagger off, and I notice Thuzar has a funny expression on her face, the kind set by much screaming and intense fear!

Next we tried the ghost train ride, which turned out to be completely naff and unscary. Still, got us out of the rain I suppose. Then back into town via an ice cream, and to the station.

Back in London we check in online for the flight to Calcutta, and I print a P85 form to say I don’t plan on being in the UK much this year. Back to Victoria (groan), and we catch the 16:48 because it’s late, a theme of this trip!!

Down to Chestfield with the ticket I bought earlier, to Whitstable. Of course, I was feeling nervous that they’d check the tickets for the first time ever between Whitstable and Chestfield, about a 3 minutes journey. We made it.

Mum picks us up, and Hedge joins us for dinner. Pops sneaks some sausages off me. We make the half ten train back to London, and tube it home. Time to pack, groan. It takes hours!