Friday, 24 May 2013

Visa hunter

I have quite literally done more stuff in the past two weeks than i think i have done in any two weeks of my life. The last two days i have found myself a nice quiet hotel and just slept haha and watch suits but apart from that just sleep. From tibilisi i had myself a nice little plan which didnt really work out, surprise surprise. But at least the most important thing has been completed and the main purpose of my trip can go ahead. I have my Iran visa!!!! :)

Anyway more on that one later. I have been working on a pretty loose schedule up to now but the d'day of being back in Turkey on 21st May was rapidly approaching so i had to shorten my time in georgia and have some serious journeys if i wanted to check out armenia and see the breakaway republics of Karabakh and Abkhazia. My entry to armenia was one of the more memorable introductions to a country i have had, having two of the cars i was riding in break down and then arriving in the most horrendous storm i have seen in a long time. Soaked bedgraggled and slightly pissed off i arrived at the hostel having had no replies to any of the 20 couch surfing requests i had sent a week prior. Hey ho sometimes you get no luck :( As it turns out as often it does this worked in my favour as i stayed at the best hostel i have ever stayed at, truly amazing service where the only answer was yes!! Anyway i had five days in armenia so one day in the capital Yerevan was enough as its pretty small and the only real things of interest for someone with churchphobia was the genocide museum. I will fully admit to knowing nothing about the genocide aside from the fact that turkey denies it and most countries side with turkey in denying it. All you can say is that prior to 1915 there were 2 million armenians and after 1917 there were 500,000 scattered around the globe. I had been under the assumption that the turks had invaded and killed them but infact the armenians were scattered throughout the ottoman empire and it was in multiple towns and cities a few government leaders compelled to exterminate them. Despite the obvious hatred armenians have for turks in general i will say that one of the most compelling quotes was that this was 'the work of a few not the work of the majority' so i will point this out now.

The museum was an eye opener and the fact that neither the uk or the usa accepts this happened is a shame and a stain. Purely through our alliance with turkey over our requirements for middle east conflicts we skip over this little known event in history. After this it was back to the fashion parade that is Yerevan. I have never seen a city where people take so much care of their appearance, everyone looked like a model and armenia without a shadow of a doubt has the most beautiful women in the world. After Yerevan i took a couple of day trips to the big lake Sevan which looks kinda similar to lake Tahoe and also to some monasterys outside of the city. It was on this excursion with a couple of poles and sammy the irish guy we devised a plan with our taxi driver to take a two day trip to the south of the country ticking off some sites along the way like the worlds longest cable car (bet you didnt know that was in armenia) before entering Karabakh for an evening and a morning. Karabakh claims independence but since 1992 and the fall of the soviet union both armenia and azerbaijan have been fighting over it. Infact, now it is kind of occupied by armenia and in azerbaijan it is a crime to visit the area. So that is why i am now officially banned from ever going to azerbaijan with my current passport. Another first for me!! Anyway Karabakh was kind of interesting, like the genocide i didnt know too much about the war and it was interesting to interact with some of the locals even if some were decidedly unfriendly. Whilst drunk at 2am we nearly got arrested by the secret police but fortunately Jakub the polish guy i was with kissed ass so much my inflammatory comments didnt backfire. But seriously if you want to sit and ask me questions for 40 minutes pretending to want to be my friend and not answer any of mine what do you expect me to say!!

It was cool to see some of the cities etc and experience it but what i really came for was the deserted city of Agdam. It is kind of similar i guess to chernobyl where 20 years ago people left in a hurry and never returned. I had seen blogs and photos from people who had got inside and there is the classic photo infront of the mosque which was the only building left unscathed in the fighting. This was a real anticlimax as we didnt get anywhere near it as the two people we hired to get us around the army and police checks both crapped themselves and refused to take us. Needing to be back in Yerevan and with a 9 hour trip in a lada that had already broken down on several occasions ahead of us we didnt have time to try again. This sucked massively as we had driven all this way largely for nothing :( oh well you cant win every time.

And from there my epic days of endless transport changes and visa chasing began. I really wanted to visit abkhazia on my way back to turkey and just managed to get across the border at 5pm after huge delays waiting in a barbed wire confine, walking across the border i felt like a refugee with people coming past on any form of transport and with loads and loads of possesions. Being after 5pm this meant the public transport in the form of minibuses had stopped which is where the travellers worst night mare starts. Just to get moving i took a cab who dropped me in the middle of nowhere and then i got endlessly harrassed by locals trying to rip me off. With nightime approaching and 50km still to go i finally hitch hiked my way to Sukhumi the capital where i met my next couchsurfing host. Marina was russian and lived with her husband in a very old and rickety house but what it did have was a great location and a hammock in the garden. I had some plans to see stuff outside sukhumi but in actual fact i ended up chilling in a hammock, going to the beach or buying and eating massive amounts of vegetable from the market :) Sukhumi like karabakh was torn apart by war in 1992-1993 and is still only recognised as independent by 5 countries. Infact entering from georgia there isnt even a border post just some concrete blocks in the road. I never really felt too welcome in abkhazia, excusing my hosts and a couple of others i just got questions about why the UK supports georgia and endlessly harrassed for money. Other travellers i met had various stories from being extorted by police to being dragged off buses and mugged. I didnt have anything like that fortunately but it was quite intimidating in places!!!

But after this little sojourn in eastern europe my main goal was still Iran so i hightailed it back to Trabzon on an epic 15 hour day with 10 transport changes!! And after a morning where i could have cried after some heart stopping NO VISA YOUR ENGLISH answers, the afternoon staff after 200 euros and some epic hassle issued me with an Iranian visa!!! I was so relieved i couldnt quite believe it and kept checking it to make sure there was no mistake lol So now I am chilling for a couple of days before heading to Kurdistan and on to Iran. Im guessing most things will be blocked or the interent will be so slow for the next few weeks so dont expect any photos or blog posts haha

catch you later


Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Chasing Kars

What a cool place i am in, Tbilisi and i think it is possibly the most endearing capital i have been to. I arrived last night after 12 hours squashed in a mini bus and was straight out on the town. I got turned down on all my couch requests which was a pain but its Easter here (i know i was puzzled too) so most Georgians have gone home. Turns out Georgia is orthodox christian so they have a different calendar and this year i get two white Easters. It was snowing in the mountains :) wonder what the odds were on that one.

After dogubayazit i was pretty bored having been couch surfing then left to my own devices. I left after just a day and headed to kars to my next rendezvous with local students. Kars like erzurum doesn't have much for the wandering tourist but it does have great great people. I ended up staying again for four days in which time i visited the castle which was ok, but also hitch hiked out to the ancient city of ani and went to a Turkish wedding but more on that later. In kars i stayed with Hayrettin and his friends Cihan and the best cook in turkey Burcu :) like all students we ended up staying in bed most days till two haha i am getting seriously lazy!! Unlike erzurum these guys were English students so it was much easier to talk to them and make friends here. Along with this came the inevitable questions about grammar lol which i still have no idea about at all.

After one day in Kars three of us decided to hitch hike out to the ancient city of ani which was about 40km out of town. Ahh the pleasure of hitch hiking :) it all started so well we left early and after three very interesting rides, one in what was possibly the oldest car still working in the world and also a kangarooing bumpy off road detour with a learner driver we were there. The city doesn't have too much left but was once a major site on the silk route and as i am following this pretty essential stopping point for me. The area is pretty earthquake prone so must is rubble but there were some cool churches and mosques with a dramatic mountain backdrop and a view over the closed border with Armenia. This border is still closed after the war and so for me to visit is a long detour through Georgia haha this region blows the mind for its relationships between people and countries. The ride back wasn't so great and took 5 hours to cover the 40km which involved sitting at the side of an incredibly empty road for ages and also walking endlessly to the horizon. We did make it back and to a Turkish wedding when we were picked up as it got dark by a fellow guest. I am so glad we made it to the wedding was such a cool experience :D not a drop of booze in sight but everybody dancing with the traditional moves which fortunately was simple so i could join in. To be fair i didn't just join in i put them to shame with some of the moves i was busting out lol

After that it was another heartfelt goodbye and the hottest bus ride ever to batumi in Georgia. Country number 51!! over halfway to my life time goal :) I went to batumi to get my Azerbaijan visa after the consulate in kars said no :( application in and everything no problems but the cost of 100 quid for a week seemed excessive. So the plan changed yet again and i left batumi which is photogenic but has nothing else and headed for the mountains. (plus nobody in batumi smiles ever!!!) Batumi has had so much investment and has many 5 star hotels after the old president put so much money into it, but the new president has withdrawn the support. So there are epic buildings standing empty and being off season the city is dead which is a bit creepy. The mountains though are always a good outlet and i spent a few days exploring traditional villages and attempting and failing the 3 day hike to the highest village in Europe. Even now the snow is deep and i had to catch a ride. I stopped around for the Easter feast which was essentially meat and vodka before taking the bus yesterday to Tbilisi. This city is just completely regenerating itself and there are so many cool new buildings as well as the traditional old ones. Its a pleasure to walk around and just to be here sat in a cafe in the sun is great. Not so much time here which is a shame but got to get back to the sight seeing :) its a cool country but so much of it is occupied by the Russians or has claimed Independence you cant see everything. But we will do our best!! Enjoy the photos there are some cool ones


Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Eastbound and down

For four days i was a student again, and do i miss that life when 11am is too early, washing up doesnt matter and the only plan for the day is jokes and more banter. Yes!!!! The last four days have been so much fun, my decision to persist with couch surfing has resulted in some of the best days i have ever had travelling. Emre and his friends in Erzurum were truly cool guys and showed me the real turkey. I cant thank them enough for that!!

But after I left you last time I believe I was about to do that most quitissential of capadoccian experiences the world famous balloon ride. After about 10 seconds deliberation i decided that i had to do it. And lets just say it was worth it. Despite the literally hundreds of balloons and the chaotic takeoff areas, it is just truly magical once you are up in the air. Drifting amongst the fairy towers and cave houses as the sun comes up is breathtaking. The colours kind of reminded me of the grand canyon in a way, just spectacular in the early dawn light. It really is something that has to be done!! The rest of my time was no less special, missing the fun of two wheels i rented a motorbike for the day to explore some underground cities that were at one time home to over 20,000 people, truly remarkable. Those were pretty cool to explore in the pitch black, climbing through holes in the cealing and dropping down through tiny shafts. Must admit its not for the faint hearted in places especially when you can feel your footholds crumbling away!! That day also saw we stranded in the middle of nowhere as the idiot at the shop promised the bike would do 80km on a tank. Rubbish 50km later in a deserted valley it konks out. FFS!!!! many many stronger words were uttered i can assure you. So 1/2 hour trek to a farm and some pretty impressive sign language later this legend of a turkish guy gave me a lift with a jerry can. Couldnt say thankyou enough. Especially as turkey has the most expensive fuel in the world apparently, and he wouldnt take a cent. You really do meet some great people!!

After that a swift pass back through ankara to collect my uzbek visa and then east to the slightly seedy black sea port of Trabzon and the traditional turkey I had come here to see. Two days in Trabzon was plenty believe me so I moved on to Erzurum. Where the fun began!!

The first day i arrıved was my birthday and maybe you saw on facebook it was my fırst proper attempt at hitch hiking or auto stop as they call it here. 10 hours it took to get from where i was staying near Trabzon to Erzurum. I managed to hitch for about 200km but the other 200 was on the bus :( Nearly everyone i have met here has been doing it and says its so easy, even hitchwiki the website goes on about how easy it is in turkey. To start it was, getting picked up after about 10 minutes in Trabzon but it was just downhill from there lol. I did get to go in a truck for the first time so i guess thats a small upside. I will persist with it but its kind of demoralising, everytime someone drives past its like they are telling you to F off. And when they stop but for a different reason is the worst haha you are all excited then massive let down. You just want to know whether they are not going the same way or they really dont want to help out the overladen, slightly unkempt englishman. Maybe a shave will yield better results??

But i did make Erzurum before nightfall and met up with my new host Emre a biology student at the university there. Emre lives with his mates Kubilay and Adem, but the flat despite the lack of furniture is the centre of goings on and for two nights a load of people from his course came over. First night was vodka time which very quickly led to a night of dancing to turkish music and lessons on how to click my fingers. A life skill which sadly still eludes me lol It is probably the first country i have ever been to where traditional music is the only order of the day. Despite their efforts i cant say that i am a fan however. It is all so sad, emotive and just about hurt and pain. The mood is just reflective to the point of wanting to end it lol, I was told you cant forget the bad stuff and move on. Im not entirely sure thats for everyone. Needless to stay we still had a good time and the banter was fun.

Theres not a great deal to see in Erzurum but Fatih and Emre showed me the mosques and city tower etc before heading through a slightly decrepit neighbourhood and on up to the castle which overlooks the city. The view is amazing with snow covered mountains all around. The city itself is a centre for skiing in the winter but for the rest of the year its stuck on a high plain miles from anywhere at around 2000m. Lets just say it was cold and the weather is pretty abysmal (anyone booking their holidays yet haha i should work for the tourist board) The first question most people asked was why are you here?? Im getting used to that most places i go now. If it wasnt for the uni ım ure it would die a death but the student atmosphere is central to everything and great to experience again. The other nights we tried some traditional turkish delicacies like Çig Kofte which is raw meat, barley and a mixture of blended vegetables rubbed together by hand for three hours!!! Tastes amazing but not great if your starving :) The perfect accompaniment to any meal here Rakı was brought out which just adds to the melancholy atmosphere. Vodka for party, Rakı for reminiscing. We werent drunk the whole time however and I did fınd time to watch aston villa get spanked, get thrown out of emres uni lab class apparently for health and safety lol and experience the highs and lows of the somewhat slightly confusing relationship dynamics between the various classmembers. Seriously ive read novels with easier story lines. Good times though and ones i certainly wont forget that in a hurry!!

Now today i sit 20km from Iran in a place called Dogubayazit which is a mostly kurdish village at the base of Mt. Ararat. The weather was rubbish this afternoon but tomorrow hopefully it will brightnen up to see the palace and the mountain. And Noahs ark if the stories are to be believed!! So i believe that we are all pretty much up to date. From here its onwards to Georgia the land of honey and the home of all surnames ending in dze!! Catch you later guys


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Turkey and the start of the road east

So here it is guys back by popular demand and several threats my blog is here.

I am now in Capadoccia maybe you have heard of it? but if you haven't you have definitely seen it in some amazing pictures :) I have just spent 7 hours hiking round the fairy pinnacles, valleys, gorges and abandoned villages. It is really really cool and tomorrow I have a balloon ride booked so proper excited now!!!!

Time is flying once again and I have been away for a week and a half wow. My plan is totally up in the air and now seems dependant on visas which i guessed at the start it might end up doing. I flew into Sofia and took the night train to Istanbul which is the final stage of the orient express and something i didn't do last time i was in the area. Lets just say i think the orient express passengers had it easier. First someone committed suicide in front of the train which was really sad and meant we had to wait for the police etc to arrive (not always the quickest in Bulgaria, have a word with your dad Tereza it was by your town). This meant we got to the border at 3am where the border police insisted on taking everything out of my bag which was not really what i wanted and then i was the only nationality that had to buy a visa. All the Germans thought it exceptionally funny. But finally i got to sleep and woke up expecting to see the ancient city of Istanbul on the horizon but the guy in the cabin next to me said we had been stopped for five hours pretty much as soon as i fell asleep because someone had stolen the cables. lol it happens here too. Anyway i wont bore you with the rest of it but i got to Istanbul 9 hours late but i got there. Anyway this is why you go travelling right?

I stayed in a hostel which i haven't done in a long time and to be frank the hostel was nice but so quiet. I did meet a few people to go out with at night (by the way Istanbul has amazing night life) and also to hang around with to see the sights. Had to properly get back into the swing of talking to absolutely everybody and there were some interesting characters. There is so much to see in Istanbul its crazy but i got to the main sights blue mosque, aya sofia etc which were really nice but its the small sights in the backstreets which are the best. The best thing is just pick a direction and walk and stop for coffee tea whatever. Its so big you can easily get away from it all, i highly recommend definitely for a long weekend.

But even before i did this i had a date with the Iranian embassy. Now i have already started the application process months ago and due to the fact there are no relations between our two great countries i wasn't expecting this to go smoothly. And guess what it didn't. I was let into the embassy which was great, they even had my paper work in order. Already too good to be true i thought and then they dropped the bomb! Ever so nicely the guy announced that on the 1st April for two months we have changed our policy, you now have 15 days on issuance of visa to get to Iran rather than 3 months. FFS. I wasn't going to be in Iran for two months and my schedule after one day has been blown out of the water. Its a good job i never book anything. So now i am doing two months travelling around Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan before flying back to Istanbul from east turkey picking up my visa and flying back. The guy was really apologetic and was like if you had been here 4 days ago it would have been fine so i thanked him, gave the thumbs up and left. (Later i found out the thumbs up is the rudest gesture you can do in Iran so maybe i wont even get any visa haha)

Anyway after that I was in the mood for a drink so after it being suggested at the hostel a few of us went to a random couchsurfing meeting in the evening. Already a member from years back i have decided to make a real effort this time and use it alot. I had a great evening out met some really cool people, learnt a bit of salsa and some other dance moves and got some great contacts :) Actually staying with someone on couchsurfing is something i never really tried before but i have already stayed with Can in Ankara for a couple of nights and it was great to see the city from a locals perspective, and also be able to stay in a home which believe me you miss alot. Although his exceptionally crazy cats meant i didn't get the greatest of sleep especially when it knocked down a load of shelves one night and then thought it would be great to jump from sofa onto my bed on the floor over and over again!! Fun times. Anyway Ankara doesn't have much for tourists being a largely administrative city and i was only there for picking up an Uzbekistan visa (more fun and games) and replacing items that have already broken like my shoes. I loved those shoes as well 40 odd countries before they gave up the ghost so not too bad i guess.

And then from Ankara i have a week to kill before i can pick up my visa so i have come to Capadoccia the land of fairy chimneys and where lord of the rings becomes real. All day i hiked exploring caves, sticking my head in random holes and tunnels and generally just enjoying exploring. There is none of this signage cluttering up the place like in the UK its just like here's a valley go check it out. So that's what i did, although meeting a local who showed me a few hidden treasures helped. Saw a few really amazing cave churches with ancient paintings was so nice. Anyway now i am absolutely shattered and legs are killing so heading for food and sleep (really boring i know) but the balloon ride is for sunrise at 5am so i do have an excuse.

Take care everybody and catch up soon


Friday, 14 December 2012

Tribes and Tribulations

Seasons greetings

Its been so long now since I wrote a blog post im going to have to skim through quite a lot. I reckon it was Darjeeling which was over a month ago time is really flying by and soon it will be Christmas. Even out here I heard Slade for the first time yesterday made be a bit nostalgic. Sad to say I think it will be my first Christmas without Fairy Tale of New York gutted.

So I will get down to it I have now been to 4 of the 7 Tribal states and have one more to visit for which i don't need a special permit. I am currently staying with a family in Aizawl in Mizoram. He is the teacher of Ganesh a guy i met on the bus in Assam who invited me to come and visit. Unfortunately his family have literally no space in their house so i couldn't stay there instead he fixed me up with his teacher nearby. Its kind of been a recurring theme in Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya i have either lived with or been doted on by some family who takes me under their wing. Its really amazing such nice people.

After Darjeeling I had a brief sojourn into Sikkim did a bit of walking in the amazing countryside and had my first experience of Diwali in India although Sikkim has quite a large Buddhist population so it was not nearly as intense as other places. I pretty much blitzed through Sikkim which was a bit of a shame but it was unavoidable at the time as my plan was to make it to Kolkatta for the cricket which has obviously not happened now. From Sikkim it was 26 hours on a bus to Assam then another 12 hours the next day onto the island of Majuli which is the biggest river island in India. The place is a spiritual centre for Hindus as well as being the most laid back and chilled place I think I have visited. I had gone there for a festival but the dates I had been told were wrong so I stayed for four days taking leisurely cycle rides to different Satras and then just lying under the palm trees watching the sunrise and sunset. Awesome stuff. Unfortunately the boat ride out is slightly less relaxing. I had to take the ferry four times in the end as I left and then came back for the correct days of the festival. It involves the single most unstable and overloaded ferry I have ever seen which was a bit of a nightmare. Especially the first one as I sat on the roof and the slightest movement kept edging me towards a dip in the river. Its the first time I have seen the locals look worried!! I have some photos and when I get some faster internet I will upload them.

From Majuli I took another backbreaking twelve hour bus ride to Nagaland. This was the main purpose of me going to the north east as this year was the first year you could visit as a solo traveler and not as part of a tour group. I arrived in Mon which is like the biggest frontier town ever having watched everyone carrying guns, machetes and spears in all the villages we passed through. I had heard stories about the nagas being dangerous and to watch out, but as ever the hospitality shown to the random English guy rocking up with nowhere to stay was second to none. As its winter here it gets dark so early around 4 so I always seem to arrive in the dark which sucks as it makes things so much harder. In Nagaland it was pretty much a permanent black out of electricity as well which didn't help. Anyway i got fixed up with a naga family who looked after me and sent their son out to drive me around the tribal villages on his motor bike. The villages still stay pretty traditional and in some of them the older men had face tattoos which signifies they took part in head hunting raids back in the day. A couple of the villages had some skulls and various traditional artefacts so it was pretty interesting. Every village has a different language so even for my guide it was a bit of a problem communicating. Its a really crazy place, pretty much no one had a job and the son who took me around kept bringing me back to his other house (away from his parents) which was a massive drinking den for the local guys. Nagaland is a dry state due to it being overtly christian but everyone guys, girls everyone drinks like a fish. So rather than getting the tax revenue all the money goes to the smugglers. On the way in the police had searched my bags but they obviously do a lousy job or just get bribed. Having rum thrust in your face at 9am having a few glasses then being driven on twisty roads by a guy who is drunk and also huffing opium was a little bit nerve racking but i got to see everything and I am still in one piece. Not wanting to push my luck any further I had to say my goodbyes and again experience the torture of a packed jeep ride for fourteen hours. My record so far is twenty people in a jeep which was impressive considering there are only 8 seats. I really don't remember anything like this last time i went traveling literally every place I have been going to is 12-14 hours so it takes a day to get over it. Fortunately I have one more 16 hour night bus then the blessed relief of train journeys. Cant wait!!

But even if the travel is bad the destinations are worth it. Hornbill festival is  newish creation intent on preserving the rich heritage of a rapidly changing population. It is also the one time when all the Naga tribes come together and it is 7 days of dancing, singing, eating all dressed up in the traditional clothes. It is by far the most photogenic festival I have seen and the three days I was there flew by just being entranced by everything and making the most of the availability of beef. The nagas eat everything which meant I got to try larvae for the first time. Lovely stuff. The war dances and even the wrestling competition was spectacular. One American guy had a go and got completely hammered into the ground which kind of dissuaded me. The festival takes part in Kohima the capital of Nagaland and the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. It is as far west as Japan made it in the entire war and kind of marked a turning point like el-Alamein for the Germans. The famous phrase 'when you go home tell them of us, for your tomorrow we gave our today' was written in blood on a rock in the centre of town at Garrison hill and has since been re-engraved by the war cemetery. There is also a museum of the battle which was just incredible especially the photos there was nothing left when the siege had ended. Definitely worth some time of Wikipedia if you don't know much about it.

Kohima doesn't have many hotels and what little they do have gets booked by tour groups months in advance so I just decided to turn up without even trying to book. I had to see the festival so even if I slept in a park it had to be done. Again luckily and completely by chance I stumbled into a restaurant rather than a hotel whilst looking for rooms and one of the guys Robin ran a girls hostel for a college and being Christmas everyone was away so I stayed instead. I can add this to my collection of random accommodations. I also made friends with the people at the restaurant who made me dinner every day and I didn't have to eat rice either. It also turned out Robin knew pretty much everyone their was to know in Kohima so we had all sorts of interesting experiences like hanging out with one of Nagalands biggest bands, getting priority for the Hornbill rock concert which has loads of bands from around India, as well as the last night when we had to leave because he initially thought some of his friends had been taken by insurgents but it later transpired they had robbed a petrol station. Nagaland was strange like that they are completely different to Indians and I would go as far as to say they despise Indians which is why they are fighting for and want independence. Yet because they are a collection of tribes their loyalty always goes back to the villages so the independence movement has collapsed and has now been divided up into different factions that fight each other rather than as a united force. They have so much potential there but nobody wants to invest because of the security situation and numerous other reasons. I loved it and have been made to promise I will go back, so next year hopefully I can get the opportunity as long as the permit situation doesn't change.

And from Nagaland it was onto Shillong which is a dump, then to Nongrhiat an unexpected wonder of a place at the bottom of a secluded valley just a few kms from Cherrapunjee famous for being the official wettest place on earth. I had heard it was nice and worth seeing, lonely planet had said it was worth a day trip and nothing more (a piece of advice lonely planet India especially for the North East is the biggest waste of space ever) but I stayed one night and there were lots of people who had stayed for weeks. Nongrhiat has an infectious atmosphere of complete tranquility and is the site of living root bridges where villagers have used the roots of trees, twisted them together and formed living bridges across these stunning jungle covered gorges. It took two hours to hike down and it was so nice and peaceful such a contrast to the noise and stress of all the towns. There was also a river for swimming and chilling out two minutes from the guesthouse, managed to get in some cliff diving as well. As always happens the one time I book something I want to change my plans but unfortunately I could only do the one night as there were no more buses to Aizawl for a week. Before I had to leave I managed to hike up to a promontory overlooking the fourth highest waterfall in the world and ride in the back of a truck over the Meghalayan moors. Seriously it looks exactly like Scotland except with tribal people, really spectacular stuff.

And now I am in Aizawl catching up with some jobs and eating lots. I finally managed to post a parcel here after spending nearly two days and enlisting a string of helpers in Shillong. No idea why but they wanted the parcel wrapped in cloth, stitched up and sealed in medieval fashion with wax. Not entirely sure if it will make it home as it is a pair of Naga traditional machetes know as Daos but we will see.

Not entirely sure how long I will be here my friend wants it to be a month but I want to head down to Bangladesh by the middle of next week. Who knows.

Anyway have a Merry Christmas if I don't write again before the 25th. Have a good one

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Time flies

I know its been quite a long time but I very rarely seem to have either the Internet or the time at the moment.

I left it last time in Kathmandu which seems a lifetime ago. Since then I went to Pokhara where despite my best intentions of going trekking I ended up largely sleeping, watching films and wandering round some of the hills that provide amazing views over the lake and the Annapurna mountain range. Three weeks doing the Everest trek pretty much knackered me out and it was nice to be able to catch up on some TV series and download some new ones. Plus the quiet of Pokhara meant I was actually able to sleep past 6am for the first time since Ive been here.

Well rested I headed off to Chitwan national park in the vain hope of seeing tigers but more realistically seeing the Rhinos for which chitwan is famous. Unfortunately the main trekking season of October and November is the worst time for Chitwan as the grass is ten feet tall and it nigh on impossible to see anything. Unfazed a group of six of us braved the barrage of safari shops and guides and booked one for the next morning. So we headed out early morning on a canoe ride to see the crocodiles and gharials (fish eating crocs) before trekking back three hours to the main town Sauraha. Turns out our luck was in straight after a somewhat disappointing canoe ride we nearly walked straight into a massive Asian rhino just in the bushes. The wind was blowing the wrong way and it legged it before we could get a photo but our spirits were raised. As it was that was the only thing we saw in three hour slogging through gigantic grass and we found ourselves back at the canoe launch point disappointed. Chitwans big attraction is the elephants which patrol up and down the main streets which takes some getting used to but it provides an opportunity to take part in the elephant bathing in the river. This pretty much involves sitting on the back of an elephant whilst it squirts you with water and then rolls over dumping you in the river. It was kind of nice and something to do before our elephant safari that night.

There is two bits to chitwan the main park then the 'community forest' which is basically some trees that have a whole load of deer and monkeys and pretty much jack of anything else. So you wander round on the back of an elephant for an hour with about twenty other elephants full of shouting indian and chinese tourists so anything that may have been close legs it. Its disappointing but I rode on an elephant so that's kind of cool.

Unfortunately the people I was with were pressed for time and left the next morning but I resolved to go into the park again and this time go for a day and a half so that I could get deep into the park. So for the next day and a half we walked and walked and walked through the park. As any time with safaris you cant guarantee anything so by four o'clock after walking for 9 hours I was gutted until round the next bend a mother and baby rhino. They were so close it was amazing and this time the wind was blowing towards us. We were there for at least half an hour before they left and it was great just watching these massive animals just twenty meters away. I was briefed by the guide before we went in about what to do should we see certain things and they come at you, for rhinos it was climb a tree which makes sense and tigers it was stare it out which I would have been interest to see put into practise. This all seems good advice until you look around and theres no trees within 300m not quite sure what plan B was. So we just sat still and watched and fortunately despite the fact they were no more than twenty meters away they didn't see us.

From then on it was a windfall we saw a bear really close as it barked a warning at us then ran, monkeys, wild pigs, deer, crocodiles, loads of birds and tiger tracks so it was well worth it in the end. In celebration me and my two guides got drunk on local wine watching the sunset and playing cards whilst listening to the jungle which was quality. Even had an early morning hungover encounter with a rhino that was sleeping at the stairs to the lodge.

After Chitwan I had pretty much done everything I wanted in Nepal and was ready for India. Unfortunately to pick up my Bangladesh visa it meant going back for two incredibly tedious days in Kathmandu faffing around before taking the 16 hour killer of a night bus to the border. Unfortunately I was at the front of the bus and it was tortuous hurtling along in the pitch black, overtaking on blind bends with Justin Bieber on repeat and the screeching of the brakes which is still ringing in my ears. Needless to stay I didn't get any sleep at all and was a mess when I rocked up in Kakharbitta the border town. As always happens it turns out alright in the end as i met Hari this local Nepalese guy who was returning home on the same bus after visiting England and he just said hey do you want to have breakfast and rest a bit in my house. Two days later I was still there, his family were so great feeding me up and showing me the local sights of their tea plantation and rural village. I was sad to leave as they were so generous and it was great chatting with them about local life in Nepal and going through their photos of London. I doubt on this trip but hopefully soon I can go back and stay for longer. But with a visa set to expire I made the hard choice of going for my first taste of India.

Not quite wanting to go to any cities yet I headed up into the hills to Darjeeling to sample the tea and make the most of the clear weather to see some more of the huge mountains of the Himalayas. Right on the doorstep is Kachenjunga which is the 3rd highest mountain which we got up early for this morning. Darjeeling is nothing like i imagined the town is picturesque from afar but the narrow streets are a mess of rubbish and traffic with incessant horns and exhaust fumes, I'm sure it was grand in its day but that day has definitely passed. A good thing though is they actually have food options Dominoes last night was a real treat  after fried rice twice a day and a fry up with proper bacon and eggs this morning. Other than that ive just been drinking large amounts of amazing tea.

My hotel is an absolute dump so cold and damp but at just over a quid a night i cant complain too much and I leave tomorrow. After picking up my special permit yesterday I head to the tiny mountain kingdom of Sikkim for ten days before heading off to the tribal states of the north east over the coming month. Not sure how far I can get as the permit situation seems a bit up in the air but if I can get to Nagaland i will be so happy. There is a massive tribal gathering in a couple of weeks and I would love to be there.

Im sure you will be chuffed to know its cold here probably worse than at home and only going to get colder in Sikkim so its not all sun, sea and sand.

Ill leave it there as I need some more tea and an episode of Dexter is waiting. Catch you later


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Namasde Nepal

So here we are three weeks in Nepal and i finally have both the time and energy now to write my first entry of this years blog. Quite a lot to cover as it has been pretty eventful with some good accomplishments thrown in.

Three weeks ago after finishing work on the Friday I flew out to Nepal via a very pleasant upgrade to first class for one leg and also the crushing reality of 8 hours on the floor of Delhi airport trying to sleep in freezing air con. This was nicely followed by 2 hours in the visa queue at Kathmandu airport and then the very in your face city itself. I had planned to come to Nepal first as a nice ease in for India in a months time but the city was not at all what i expected or had prepared for. Its just hot and dirty with the tourist part Thamel a hot mess of camping shops and other tourist crap. I don't think i have met anyone that likes Thamel yet. Anyway it served to make up my mind to get the hell on with the trekking and on the 5th i took the 10 hour bus to Jiri which is at the start of the Everest base camp trek. You can either walk the six days to the start of the trek proper or fly into the worlds most dangerous airport Lukla. The fact the weather had grounded all flights kind of helped the decision so instead I took what must have been close to the worlds most dangerous bus ride instead. The bus was mental ive seen some stuff is SE Asia but this took the biscuit as soon as you leave Kathmandu its tiny little mountain roads with massive drops on either side, blind overtaking, loads of backing up with someone making sure all four wheels stay on the ground plus the fact it was so overcrowded with people on the roof as well. All you can do is laugh really, I forgot to get at the front so was at the back bouncing around smelling the stench of everyone being sick in front. Happy memories.

Anyway made it to Jiri where I promptly hooked up with two other English trekkers doing the walk on their own without guides and porters and the like. Being poor/tight as many people seem to think I was also carrying all my own stuff. From there we set out on six eight hour walking days going up one sheer valley and down the next. Honestly the comradery of everyone was pretty much what kept us going as the scenery was ok but kind of lacked any spectacular views but the walk was hard core. After two days our group had swelled to 6 with another English pair Ian and Pippa as well as Jar this chinese guy who spoke no english and was my room buddy for a few nights. We soon realised how cold it was going to be as well as at night even at a few thousand meters it gets cold quick.

Seven days in we got to the start of the serious stuff climbing up from Namche Bazaar the Sherpa capital at 3400m, over the course of five days high altitude trekking we made it to Everest Base camp and the viewing point at Kala Pathar. At this point everyone struggles, as walking whilst carrying 14kg at 5000m is tough. We still managed to blitz all of the organised groups who carry nothing and have an endless stream of porters and yaks carrying all the 'essentials to the top.' By this point I had realised I had packed too much stuff and had done a serious rethink leaving alot of things behind including deoderant, washing powder, and a change of clothes. Above Namche for eight days no-one had a shower as it was too expensive, changed clothes because we had nothing but thermals in the bag or ate anything but rice and lentils. It was not pleasant and I pitty the poor sod who gets my washing but everyone's in the same boat. I lucked out walking with Ian and Pippa as well as another Andrew who were all a good laugh, keeping ourselves entertained with endless card games and banter before bed time at 6.30pm. Your body clock just changes so much when your walking getting up at 5.30am at first light for breakfast and to be first on the trail then going to bed as soon as it gets dark. The lodges were properly cold as its just a stone building divided up with some ply wood so its great just to get into your sleeping bag and warm up.

From Namche the path lead us through Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche and finally to Gorek Shep, now forever known as the place where people go to die. Gorek Shep is at 5200m and is the base for the walk to base camp and Kala Pathar (from where you see everest). Most of the towns are pretty grim just bleak settlements on the high mountain plains but the Shep is so bad. It was the one night we didn't get a room as well and had to sleep on just a plank of wood in a corridor with everyone huddled together. It was a comedy of errors from the start, we all felt pretty bad and most of us had colds by this point as well as coughs and god knows what else. Then part way through the night the owner robs all our blankets leaving us so cold, and just listening to people hawk their guts up with a kind of surround sound effect. At dinner lots of people looked ill and for whatever reason hadnt gone back down to get rid of the altitude sickness. Three people died when we were up there and some of the people shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a trek in their lives, vetting process required I think. On the way down we were playing the will they/wont they make it game and wondering if they new what they were letting themselves in for.

All in all we had a great time i finally got the monkey off my back and made it to base camp after last times saga in Tibet and the views and weather were incredible. We have some great photos which I will put up next opportunity i get. So thats pretty much up to date, apart from the fun and games at Lukla airport. Seriously ive never seen anything like it we spent all day trying to find out what the hell was going on and just get any flight as we kept being bumped by tour groups. Fortunately our hotel owner came through and pulled a few strings with his mate on the airline and we did some bumping of our own and managed to get down in time for our celebratory Pizza night with so much beer. After three weeks of tea and rice it was immense.

Anyways im off to the festival now, get myself some face paint and see what goes down. Then on to Pokhara for some more trekking then an elephant safari in Chitwan national park to hopefully see some rhinos and maybe a tiger if im lucky :)

Hope everyones great!!