Hunza Valley: Pakistan's Backpacker Paradise

I know its getting a little bit old, but after our side trip to Skardu I once again was struck with a bout of traveller's diarrhea. With a quick disolve immodium I made it through the three hour mini-van ride to the town of Karimabad, then I basically didn't move for the next three days (other than back and forth between my bed and the toilet). Did you know that the large intestine has a volume of up to 8L? Do you know how many trips to the bathroom it takes to evacuate 8L from your body? Alot. A whole shitload in fact. Do you know how NOT delicious the 'tangy orange' W.H.O. recommended formula rehydration salts taste? Very NOT delicious. I was supposed to be drinking 2-4L of the vile mixture every day but I could barely swallow a mouthful, not only is it NOT delicious it isn't TANGY either. It took our second-tier antibiotics to settle my stomach, I've probably built up a resistance to the milder ones.

Meanwhile, Yann was taking advantage of the beautiful weather, scenery and communal home-cooked dinners at the lovely Old Hunza Inn. Towering above the town is the beautifully restored 800 year old Baltit Fort, and towering above the fort are the huge 7000m+ Ultar, Diran and Rakaposhi snow capped mountains. Karimabad, like most of the Hunza Valley towns is Ismaili. Ismailiism is a breakaway Shia sect, whose current spiritual leader, the Aga Khan seems to have a more moderate take on Islam (the town is actually named after the current Aga Khan, Karim Hussayni). Women in the town are not usually veiled and are more colourfully dressed than their Shia and Sunni counterparts. For tourists, it makes for more open conversation and relaxed atmosphere. The town is a real traveller's hub. Yann was sporting his shaggy 4-month old beard and was getting frequent Taliban jokes from locals. Ismaili men don't wear too much facial hair, and if they do they keep it GROOMED. One man even told Yann that he really didn't like his beard. I got in the habit of calling him Yann Walker Lindh. In my first journey out of our room we stumbled upon a TV crew filming a show about the region for Pakistan TV1. They were very happy to have us in the show and attempted to get us to dance with the locals. I felt a little bit embarassed that the crew seemed more interested in filming our reactions than filming the local dancers and musicians actually putting on the show. When I started feeling even better I was able to sample a slice of divine local walnut cake and climb up to the Baltit Fort. We resisted We enjoyed a guided tour with the price of our admission ticket and Pakistani tourists (Western dressed) took turns posing with Yann who was clad in his shalwar kameez and wool hat (more Taliban jokes exchanged to my delight). On my second day of recovery we walked down to the neighbouring village of Ganish. It is a small village with a few dozen families, but they are the proud recipients of a UNESCO heritage award for the restoration and preservation of their small wooden family owned mosques. Hundreds of years old, they are covered with intricate carvings and are still used for prayer by the families to whom they are passed down from generation to generation. At the entrance of the town there is a large water tank filled every summer. Summer holidays were in full swing and children were running in and out of the tank. But noticeably absent from the crowd of young swimmers were little girls, who don't seem to enjoy the same "fun priveleges" as their brothers. We could have stayed in Karimabad for weeks it was such a pleasant place. But there was just too much buzz about the upcoming Shandur Pass polo festival and we decided we couldn't miss out on it, even though it involved heading back to Gilgit and then continuing another 8-10 hours to the Shandur Pass. We enjoyed one last day of fine weather, scenery and food before beginning our journey to see our first ever polo match.

First Days in the Northern Areas of Pakistan

Gilgit is a multi-faith town, with Sunnis, Shiites and Ismailis co-existing relatively peacefully. As little as ten years, ago sectarian violence erupted in the town and consequently it now has a very heavy army presence. Gilgit has a harsh exterior (lots of men in Pashto hats with long dark beards and serious expressions) but a soft interior (friendly smiles and handshakes for "guests"). When we set out in the morning to explore the town we weren't even sure if it would be appropriate to photograph people. We began cautiously, but by the end of the morning people were popping out from every corner requesting a photo or offering us a cup of tea. It took a bit of adjusting when people offered us tea, we were used to our Indian reply of "how much?". People seemed a shocked by the suggestion that we would pay for tea after being invited! We visited a cobbler, whose shop walls were plastered in posters of scantily clad Indian filmstars , a kebab stand and a bread making shop. We sat in the bread shop after being invited by the baker sweating away, pulling naans out of a huge clay oven. He didn't speak any English and he and his three co-workers were all Afghanis. Their small assembly line was cracking out flatbreads at an furious pace and restaurant workers were coming and going, picking up fresh bread to go with their kebabs. We were surprised by two bottles of ice cold mountain dew delivered to us, a gift from the bakers. The two drinks probably set them back the equivalent of 15-20 bread sales. Walking back towards the hotel we had to start turning people's offers of tea down, there were just too many. We couln't leave the bazaar without picking up a few pashto hats though, little did we know that we chose the Chitrali hats instead of the Gilgiti ones (we remedied the situation a few days later). The main thing to do in Gilgit is people-watch, and once we had enough of that we took a mini bus towards Skardu, the base for K2 viewing treks. The ride was another painful one, 18 people in a van designed to fit 10. The road to Skardu is a narrow, rocky one, perilously winding alongside the raging Indus River, beautiful but scary. In usual Asian fashion our driver was driving way too fast.

We weren't doing a trek, way too expensive and way too tough, so we didn't actually really know why we had decided to go to Skardu. The town is conservative, isn't very pretty and we didn't exactly get a warm welcome either. There are even fewer women on the streets here than in Gilgit (we saw five in Gilgit, zero in Skardu, in the words of a fellow blogger the last time it rained in Skardu it rained men). We huddled in our hotel room wondering what to do next, we couldn't bear the thought of doing the return trip to Gilgit the next day.

What we ended up doing was taking an overpriced taxi to Satpara Lake about 10km from Skardu, there are only two hotels on the banks of the lake and we had a quiet, cool, peaceful setting for two nights (except that they are building a big ugly dam and they work on all night). The eve of our departure it began to rain, and rained throughout the night. Our taxi back to Skardu had trouble getting us up a small hill that had slightly turned to mud overnight (I really wanted to suggest that I drive the car up the hill, but I didn't think that would go over too well, but he was pretty painfully incompetent). With only one rainfall, the main road between Skardu and Gilgit had also completely degenerated. After a few hours of driving we arrived at the sight of a giant mudslide, with a few mini buses deeply submerged and a few dozen others waiting around. Our minibus company had another one of its buses stranded on the other side of the mudslide, so all we had to do was empty our minibus and switch to the other one. This saved us alot of waiting, it didn't look like anyone was going anywhere for a long long time.

Big Mosques and a Really Long Bus Ride

Before leaving Lahore we felt that we had to visit the beautiful Badshahi mosque in the Old City. We raced there and spent an hour walking around the grounds. Right when we entered we were greeted by an absolutely adorable old man who offered/forced his guide services. He was so cute that we let him lead us around, as these things usually do, it turned out badly, with him demanding a huge payment for his 20 minute tour. We gave him what we felt was a fair price but left feeling frustrated, especially when the shoe minders also tried to charge us too much. In the early afternoon we boarded a bus to Rawalpindi, this is Islamabad's twin city, the uglier one that no one has really heard of. Islamabad is a planned city, a huge grid, more of a quiet diplomatic enclave, with green lawns, wide streets and districts with names like F-6. Rawalpindi, or Pindi as its locally referred to is the real thing, noisy polluting rickshaws (not as bad as Lahore), kebab vendors, crowded streets...

We arrived in Pindi after dark and started looking for a hotel. The first one on our list refused to take us, claiming there were no rooms, even though we could see every single room key hanging on the wall behind the counter. We were sent down the street to another hotel from our guidebook. The manager spoke good English and we began checking in. This usually involves filling out a form with personal information such as passport and visa number. The manager/used car salesman inspected our passports and began telling us that our visas weren't valid for the area we wanted to visit, which was of course total bullshit. Then he told us that Pakistani hotel rules dictate that he had to hold our passports for the night, also total bullshit. When he refused to let us keep our passports we had to walk away, even though it was late and we didn't really know where else to find a cheap hotel.

It took us a taxi ride to two different neighbourhoods and an inspection of 4 different hotels before we settled on a cheap room somewhere. The staff didn't really speak English but they were friendly and helpful. They communicated to us that "lots of tourist, Guh-man, Aus-lalia stay here". Our guess is that the raised prices at the guidebook-listed hotel next door forced alot of budget travellers to check out the rooms at the grungy Al-Hayat like we did. We got a window-less room and the power failed frequently throughout the night, causing us to wake up covered in sweat without the fan blowing on us. It seemed like the other hotel patrons had completely given up on getting any sleep while the power was off and they assembled in the lounge next to our room and discussed loudly until about 4a.m. I got up a few times to have cold showers in an attempt to cool down. The "shower" consisted of a small tap about a 2 feet from the ground. "Showering" consisted of me crouched in a ball attempting not to touch my skin against the absolutely filthy wall or floor. At night the monster cockroaches joined me in the bathroom for my bathing, appearing in the squat-toilet on the floor. Adding to the room's decor was a single dirty sandal, left in the middle of the floor.

We woke up/we're still awake early in the morning and we hired a taxi to visit Islamabad. We wanted to visit the Shah Faisal mosque, the largest mosque in the world (area wise), built with donations from the Saudi Arabian King Faisal in the 1970's. Actually, before going we didn't know it was a modern structure so we were pretty surprised to see the geometric oddity. After circling around it for a while it grew on us, it's supposed to be modelled after a nomadic desert tent and is quite spectacular. In the evening we headed to the bus station to catch the 'VIP' air-conditioned government coach to Gilgit, a 20 hour journey north. As most of our bus rides have been, this one was also pure pain. Here are some of the reasons why:
-Three hour Hindi movie starring Salman Khan playing at full blast until midnight (I actually watched the whole thing, ok I admit it, this was a GOOD part of the bus trip)
-Punjabi music playing for the rest of the night
-Drivers taking hair-pin turns so fast that it would rip you from your pathetically fragile sleep
-Drivers periodically deciding that they would turn off the air-conditioning, until it was so hot that someone complained
-People in front of us completely inclining their seats the ENTIRE 20 hour trip, even though two of the passengers were small children that weren't even using the seat
-Air-conditioning with only one setting; too cold at night and not cold enough during the day
-Finishing off the trip with army passport registrations a few kilometers away from each other, in a final attempt to make me completely lose your mind

Needless to say, when we arrived in Gilgit we were pretty exhausted. Yann has trouble staying too long in one place without doing anything, but we vowed to take one day of recovery in the town after two nearly sleepless nights in a row.

It's Thursday Sufi Night in Lahore

Lahore is a huge, busy, modern city and when we were there it was also really hot. We decided we would stay only two nights, so we packed our days in an attempt to experience the most of the city. Our first stop was the Lahore Museum, which I only wanted to visit because of its "fasting Buddha" statue. It didn't disappoint, it sure was a skinny Buddha. I also enjoyed the moustached Buddha sculptures, up until Pakistan he was usually fat and baby-faced. There was a substantial police presence (armed) on the streets as some opposition party marches were planned around the city, we didn't see much action but were stuck in the re-routed traffic. Back at our hostel we met up with Daniel, who we had crossed the border with. It was his second trip to Lahore and he had promised to take us to the second-hand market where we could pick up some Pakistani dress. Most men are clad in the traditional shalwar kameez, a long shirt and trousers of the same colour (usually a neutral off-white, beige or light blue). Women wear a similar outfit but usually more colourful and ornate with a matching shawl to cover both the head and chest. The second-hand market is an amazing place, with recycled goods everywhere, of course I didn't know this until AFTER I bought the men's underwear for pyjamas. For his outfit, Yann had every possible shade of off-white to choose from and settled with a beige. The women's clothing selection seemed to have an 80's feel to it and I had trouble finding something that wasn't hideous, I chose a long plain pyjama/tent that was hideous but at least wasn't a fashion faux-pas. We got back to the hotel, changed into our new outfits and hung around swapping information and recommendations with other travellers. The "Regale Internet Inn" was another welcome change from India (and most of South East Asia). Mostly dorm beds, not very luxurious but a completely hassle-free environment. Internet on an honour system, complimentary filtered water, free use of huge refrigerator and kitchen. Adding to its popularity are the Thursday "Sufi Nights" that include an afternoon of qiwwali (Islamic devotional singing, which we missed due to our shopping) and a night of Sufi (Islamic mysticism) dancing and drumming. A guide from the hotel accompanies all the tourists, including many women who normally wouldn't be found at these male dominated venues, free of charge.

We didn't leave for the Sufi venue until well after dark, a row of rickshaws awaited us outside the hotel, pre-arranged for the tourists. We loaded in and drove off to the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal in the outskirts of town. We raced a donkey cart loaded with locals on the last stretch of the trip and arrived to a place overflowing with activity. People line the small dark alley selling drinks and snacks to the local men pouring in and out of the shrine. Rickshaws arrive by the dozen. Our guide quickly hurried us up the long flight of stairs to the upper outdoor quadrangle where the expert Sufi drummers play every week. The tourists are given a prime spot, with all women shoved to one side. But a prime spot in this ridiculously crowded place still involves a certain degree of pain and sweating.

There are people everywhere, and when I say people what I really mean is men. Just when you think its impossible to cram anyone else onto the floor another crowd of people comes up the stairs, push their way through the crowd, exchange a few words and manage to sit themselves on top of people until the crowd gives and they find themselves a seat. The locals exercised a lot of restraint when it came to the tourists, never being too harsh with us as we were jostled around, but a poor Canadian-Pakistani (first time in Pakistan) was mistakenly thrown into the main seating area and was shown no mercy, he was seated right in front of me but by the end of the night I couldn't even see him.

When we arrived the "warm-up band" was on, two men with absolutely beautiful voices devotional chanting while collecting donations. As they sang, vendors made the perilous journey back and forth through the crowd selling juice or snacks. Others spray rose-water from backpacks/tanks rigged with a hose, or cool us down with large bamboo fans, for these services they get small donations. My donation to rose water man got me a large blast to the face, thank you. As with all warm-up bands, the crowd was getting impatient and finally the two famous drumming brothers appeared and began beating away for the happy crowd. Actually it was a very happy crowd, the smell of hash permeating the outdoor theatre and the haze of smoke getting increasingly thick. It was being puffed away at an alarming speed with five joints lit and smoked at once (by one person at a time). One of the two brothers was born deaf and his father apparently taught him how to keep a beat by drumming on his back. With years of experience he keeps synchronised with his brother by feeling vibrations through his abdomen.

Members of the crowd began their week's journey towards enlightenment by spinning their heads vigourously in beat with the drums. The drumming went on for a long time and we were so sweaty that our hands and feet had wrinkled up like we had come just come out of a bathtub. By now it was close to midnight and I was getting grumpy because Yann didn't want to leave when two other girls that I was sitting with got up to leave. But for once, Yann made the right decision, what I didn't know was that the headlining act hadn't even come out yet. The drumming stopped and the "bouncers" frenetically cleared a large area around the two drummers (squeezing people into an even smaller space). The drumming quickly started up again and the dancers entered the shrine.

The dancing began to the cheering and chanting of the crowd. First some general arm waving and stomping around to the beat of the drums. Then full out head shaking, body spinning action. Most of the dancers were quite young and spun around with absolute determination and physical superiority. The oldest of the group was gigantic, stood in one spot the entire time (well over an hour) but shook his head back an forth at a concussion-inducing speed without ever taking a break. The longer and faster a dancer would spin, the rowdier the crowd would get. We were hot, we were sweaty, we were squished, we were exhausted, but we were mesmerized. We left when the girl next to me couldn't stand the discomfort of our seats anymore, I was happy I wasn't the first to indicate my desire to leave, I was torn between the amazing spectacle before us and the unbelievable pain in my back and the pile of my own sweat that I was soaking in. We got back to the hotel past 2 a.m.
Lahore, what a cool city!

From Sikh Serenity to Pakistani Pomp

There is only one legal international border crossing between Pakistan and India and it sits in the Punjab province of each country (at partition Punjab was split in two). Its an easy trip from Delhi on a speedy day train or a slow night train at less than half the price (we took the night train). The train brings you as far as the holy city of Amritsar and we arrived there early in the day.

We spent all morning taking in the city and its calm, welcoming atmosphere. We knew we were suprised when we asked a rickshaw driver the cost of a ride to the Golden Temple and he directed us to the free shuttle bus. Being home to the Sikh's foremost pilgrimage sight, the Golden Temple, Amritsar is set up for accomodating loads of visitors. There are free shuttle buses connecting the main transport hubs to the Golden Temple. At the temple itself there are free dormitories and free meal. The temple's community kitchen serves hot meals to hundreds every day, with charity enshrined into Sikhism by the motto "Service to humanity is service to God". Noticeably absent from the temple grounds is the usual crowd of begging destitute children and elderly. The grounds, including the huge pool with bathers surrounding the temple (that is actually golden) hum with activity but seem to retain a certain calmness and serenity. After our visit we took advantage of the free beds and slept for a few hours before begining the journey to Pakistan. The bus ride to the Indian border town of Attari took a little over an hour, and we split a rickshaw drive to customs with the only other tourist crossing into Pakistan. We filled out lots of forms and passed through lots of different buildings before finally entering no-man's land. Here porters shuttle bags back and forth, Indian and Pakistani porters each wearing distinct uniforms to make sure each remain on the correct side of the border. Entering the Pakistani side we had to fill out more forms and then we headed to the bag checking area. The guards brought Yann into a room where he had to answer lots of questions mostly pertaining to the amount of money he made. I got to wait outside with our bags and another guard who also chatted me up in a friendly manner and a crazy old man who got me a glass of water. When Yann exited the room the bag checking guard asked to see all his money, when he saw the American money he offered an exchange to Pakistani rupees, which we didn't need as our American money is just an emergency reserve. He insisted, whispering that he wouldn't open our bags if we just changed 20$ with him. Yann was friendly but persistently refused to change money. The guard smiled, didn't check our bags and let us go.

We then had a long wait until the the border closure at sunset, and we tried to decide whether or not we should stay for the big show or move onwards to Lahore. We weren't especially keen on travelling at night into the big city (we usually avoid night travel) but when three other tourists crossed the border the six of us decided to stick around for the ceremony. At about 5:30 busloads of Pakistanis began arriving at the border stadium, so we joined the crowds to get good seats. This wasn't necessary because foreigners are ushered to the "VIP section" right at the front, men on one side, women and children on the other. As people file in to their seats, a few rabble rousers entered the stadium dressed in green and white outfits carrying huge Pakistani flags. Loud roars emerged from the men's side of the stadium while the women clapped furiously. I was sandwiched amongst a crowd of happy children that were cheering their hearts out and I couldn't resist yelling along with them. The only cheer that that I understood was the popular "Pakistan Zindabad" (long live Pakistan). I refrained from shouting when the cheers mentioned Allah, (my guess at the translation, something along the lines of: Who's the best? Allah!), while Yann refrained from all chanting (party pooper, thats right!). The atmosphere in the crowd was awesome with the two rabble rousers taunting the equally loud Indian crowd on the other side of the gate, waving their Pakistani flags like they hadn't been doing it every day for years, or for one, judging by his age, probably since partition. When the soldiers arrived on the scene the crowd went crazy, with a respectable looking man next to Yann shouting at the top of his lungs "there go the Tigers, roooaaaaaaaarrrrr!". The guards chosen for the ceremony are probably the ten largest men in Pakistan, and are made even larger by their huge boots and foot high accordion-like helmets. They are dressed in black with red trim and are seriously the toughest looking guys I've ever seen. The don't march, they fly, covering unbelivable distance with their monster strides. And when the crowd isn't cheering, the only sound in the place is the stomping of their gigantic boots. After some preliminary marching they brought out the big guns, the hugest meanest looking soldier of them all. He criss-crossed the pavement, stomping and kicking his leg all the way up to his nose as he stomped (and we have evidence to prove it!). The ceremony ends with the soldiers lining up at the border, opening the gates and shaking hands with the Indian soldiers on the other side. Each team of soldiers then pulls down their respective flags in a complicated routine. Quite frankly, the Indian Army didn't seem to have recruited for size or intimidation factor, the Pakistanis tower over the khaki-clad Indians. The stadium on the Indian side was definetely more full than the Pakistani one, but what the Pakistanis lack in numbers they make up in passion. The children next to me beamed with excitement and pride and when I asked them if it was their first time at the ceremony they exclaimed :"No! of course not!". Getting to Lahore was easier than we thought, we just followed the crowds into the public buses waiting nearby. I was quickly shooed away, and was feeling a little bit confused until I realised that each bus is divided into two compartments (separated by a metal wall), one for ladies and one for men. So I left Yann and boarded the separate door at the front to join the other women. I was berated by friendly smiles, handshakes and offers of seating. One woman bought me an ice cream at a stop on the way to Lahore, and two teenage girls requested that I become their sister. They called through the grill to their father in the back of the bus. He handed them a camera and shouted instructions at them as they attempted to take my photo. It had been a long time since I had felt so welcomed and comfortable.

After transfering buses we arrived at a popular hostel in Lahore, dropped our bags and made it to the grocery store just before closing time. I got a loaf of bread, peanut butter and a ginger ale meanwhile Yann was outside at the busy chicken shawarma stand. We ate, then collapsed in bed after a long, amazing day.

Diarrhea Delhi

We left Delhi after 10 days without having seen much of the city other than Pahar Ganj, its grungy backpacker ghetto. We had arrived after over 50 hours of travel from Kathmandu, only to find the city in the middle of a heat wave. An Indian style heat wave, that is, an excrutiating, painful, difficulty breathing, no chance in hell you're getting a night's sleep heatwave. Here are some of the Indian newspaper headlines from the week (planes grounded!?!):
'Severe Heat Wave Persists in North India'
'Delhi Reeling Under Scorching Heat as Temperatures Soar'
'Several Planes Grounded as Mercury Soars in North India'

So... we grounded ourselves as well, spending one day over 11 hours in an air-conditioned internet cafe (at 15 rupees an hour this was a great deal, I even took naps on the chairs). We managed in only five days to get our hands on two Central Asian visas (Kyrgystan, Tajikistan), which is really quite a feat in the visa world, and we were almost ready to go, when Yann was struck with a case of "Delhi Belly" aka most hardcore diarrhea imagineable. To help with recovery, it began raining everyday in the city, making life much more bearable. People cheered and danced on the streets the first day it rained, actually pretty much every time it rained. We were able to get a full night's sleep for the first time in almost a week. At some point in between the heat and the diarrhea we were able to get to one of Delhi's sights, the Qutb Minar, a nice big old minaret. With some antibiotics Yann started to recover and it was my turn to delay our departure even further, with a similar case or raging excretion. I spent two days sleeping, all day. One evening, Yann ran into Tina and Ryhadd, two Brits that had travelled with us in China, so he left me in the hotel room to sleep while he had dinner. I was feeling much better but not well enough to leave the room so I settled in for a night of television and gatorade. It wasn't long after Yann left that I started getting fairly bad cramps and had to get up regularly to make trips to the bathroom.

I will now give you a lesson on what to DO if you are feeling like you are going to pass out (I learned this from the nurses after my bike accident)
1-Sit down where you are so that you cannot fall and hurt yourself
2-Place your head between your legs to try to get the blood to rush there
3-Do not get up until you are certain that your fainting spell has passed, or call for help

Here is a lesson on what NOT to do if you feel like you are going to pass out: Leap off the toilet, with your underwear around your ankles in an attempt to make it to the bed across the room. This was what I did, and in doing so ended up passing out, smashing against the bed frame (and consequently waking up). I managed to drag myself off the floor and onto the bed, still not having regained hearing or vision and lay sprawling there until I got my hands on a bottle of gatorade. Thanks to that bottle which I had left on the bed, I was able to regain some energy (as well as my senses) and feel like I was going to live. By the time Yann got back almost four hours later I was pretty much hysterical, not so much because of my predicament (I think my underwear were still hovering around my ankles at this point), but because by now I thought Yann had been kidnapped.

So don't ask us for any Delhi travel advice, although we can recommend a great internet cafe and a hotel with a decent toilet (good flushing abilities), for both, turn off the main bazaar at the public urinals/ chicken stand, you can't miss the smell.
The possible culprit? Emilie chowing down on train food to the shock and dismay of other travellers...

Best (and Worst) of Nepal

Here we have some of our best and worst moments of our 14 days in Nepal, we've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit if you don't feel like ploughing through our gazillion photos. The gallery is available here.

Our FAVOURITE Places/Activities
According to Yann:
1- Getting charged by elephant in Chitwan National Park
2- Meeting up with Maoist protesters in Pokhara
3- Birthday dinner in Kathmandu: Pizza and Everest beer (courtesy of Megan)
According to Emilie:
1- Newari architecture in Kathmandu and Patan
2- Chitwan elephant encounters (the good and the bad)
3- Walking around Bodnath stupa in Kathmandu

Most DISSAPOINTING Places/Activities
According to Yann:
1- Watching young man die on the street at the Nepalese border (with locals showing little concern)
2- Glue sniffing street kids in Thamel, Kathmandu
3- Hearing Venga Boys full blast at 3a.m. on a night bus (Boom boom boom boom I want you in my room)
According to Emilie:
1- Thamel: Kathmandu's tourist ghetto
2- Nepal night buses (overheated, slow, noisy and crowded)
3- Getting stuck in various bandhs

According to Yann:
1- Buffalo momos
2- Vegetable momos
3- Buff and Veg mixed momos
According to Emilie:
1- Onion bhajis from street stalls
2- Veg momos
3- 50% off baked goods

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Nepal, it is available here

Maoists Spice up a Speedy Visit to Pokhara

After two weeks in Nepal it was time to move out of Kathmandu and say goodbye to Megan. Before we left her, Megan let us know that there were strikes called for the upcoming Sunday and Monday. Strikes (locally called bandhs) in Nepal essentially paralyse transportation with nothing other than possibly rickshaws and pedestrians being allowed to circulate. So we took a bus for the touristic town of Pokhara having decided to skip the previously planned stop in Bandipur, since we wanted to exit Nepal to resume our fast-paced traveling. This allowed for two days in Pokhara, not much, but enough to see it. The bus ride to Pokhara winds through valleys of rural Nepal and was very pleasant minus the heat and the bus stop at the extortionately priced tourist restaurant. Entering Pokhara we noticed a group of villagers sporting red caps imprinted with the letters "YCL", they were gathered around a statue in the center of town. Since we arrived in Nepal, the YCL had appeared on the front page of newspapers almost daily. The YCL, or Youth Communist League are a sister organization of the Maoists and seem to be favorite target of the local English newspapers. Judging from their most recent activities: pelting a UN jeep carrying the American ambassador with rocks and kidnapping a Nepali wanted on fraud charges and delivering him to police, a more appropriate name for them could be the "Young Communist Vigilantes". While we were in Kathmandu the current prime minister Koirala publicly called them the "Young Criminal League" creating quite a political stir and prompting many reactions from the Maoists. With elections coming up this year, Nepal is going through very interesting times. The elections will determine the Constituent Assembly who will then put together the country's new constitution. Every group in Nepal, especially minority groups are trying to make their voices heard, to guarantee themselves a favourable place in the constitution.

Exiting the real Pokhara and entering the tourist zone, we left the politics behind and found a lovely guest house with again very reasonable low season prices. We relaxed for a few minutes in our room and decided that the first order of business was to book our tickets for the Indian border for Saturday, knowing that Sunday and Monday we would be stranded by the strikes. While surveying several travel agencies to find the best price we learned that there was also a strike on Friday and possibly on Saturday. As usual, no one actually knew anything for sure, but some agencies weren't selling tickets for Friday or Saturday, which was a bad sign. It was Thursday afternoon, if we didn't leave that day we wouldn't be able to leave Nepal, let alone Pokhara for five days. After brief debate we decided it was better to get to the Indian border before the strikes started and the only out of Nepal was a dreaded night bus leaving only a few hours later.

We had come all the way to Pokhara (not exactly on the way to the border) and before leaving we felt we should at least accomplish the major tourist activity in town, a boat trip on Phewa Lake. With time running out before departure time, we rented a boat for an hour. Emilie's paddling skills were somewhat inadequate, so we didn't manage to get very far. With my criticising Emilie's paddling and the fact that for some reasons we had the heaviest paddles on earth, Emilie quit and let me row us back to shore. So, an hour in the boat proved to be more than enough for us. After the boat ride we quickly ate dinner, picked up our backpack at the hotel, hailed a taxi and headed for the bus station. The bus station sits right next to the statue occupied by YCL members earlier. On arrival there, we noticed that there was nothing left of the statue. All that remained was the base implanted with a red hammer and sickle flag. A large crowd had now gathered there and as the good and safe travellers that we are, we headed over to the gathering (of course still wearing our backpacks so that we could make an extra fast escape if things degenerated), Megan would not be impressed. We approached the crowd and asked if we could take pictures, protesters immediately began talking to us. We were warmly welcomed and even asked to be part of the procession through the town. Seeing the police close by and knowing to what extent they love permanently pacifying activists we politely declined. We still had a bus to catch. After discussing with an older protester we learned that they just reposessed some land from the royal family around Pokhara and that they were a Maoist aligned group called the Tamuwan Mukti Morcha (TMM). We also learned that the now removed statue was some member of the royal family. We continued to discuss with protesters always making sure to reiterate our anti-monarchy position (and how Canada is still not free of monarchy). While discussing the crowd started getting ready for the procession, with the distribution and lighting of torches. We stood on the remains of the statue and watched the torches disappear down the road. After this brief but highly entertaining Maoist spectacle we returned to our bus and our extra tiny seats and waited to depart on our long journey to the border. Little did we know that the temperature there was hovering around 50 degrees celcius (no exaggerations). We were at the border by 4:30am and stamped out of Nepal and back into India soon after. But we wouldn't be in Delhi for another 30 hours, that are just too hot and painful to describe.

Welcome to Shit-wan...Uhhh...Chitwan National Park

For Yann's birthday weekend, the three of us planned a trip to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. As one of Nepal's top three most visited sites and one of the best places in the sub-continent for wildlife viewing, we paid no attention to the warnings of heat and hopped on to a tourist bus heading for the park. Not without warning but still very annoyingly, the bus drops off all its passengers a few kilometers from Sauraha, allowing them to be mobbed by business card weilding locals trying to attract you to their hotel. It seems no one has understood that getting two inches from someone's face and yelling "hello hello where you want go, hotel very cheap" isn't exactly the best sales pitch. But in my usual boneheaded fashion I managed to single out the one seller with dilated pupils and a large quantity of marijuana in his system. Megan and Yann were kind enough to point this out to me once we had settled into his hotel. Our first task in Sauraha was to book a jungle walking tour. What better way to go searching for tigers, bears and rhinos then to go walking unarmed through the jungle? Every other building in the small Sauraha tourist strip is a travel agent, and they all offer the notorious jungle walks. After a brief interview with our slurring hotel resident stoner, who offered his guide services, we quickly set out to find another candidate. The next guy we met claimed to be the guide described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as having fended off a tiger attack, he even had the framed letter from the tourists who were with him during the attack. We visited a third guide who gave us about the same rhetoric as tiger man. During this process Megan seemed to be the only one showing some apprehension about the safety issues, apparently she is the only one of the three of us with a brain. We booked tiger man for a four hour morning walk the next day, we each paid about 5$ for his and his assistant's animal tracking services. We celebrated our Chitwan holiday and Yann's birthday with a mound of half disentegrated chocolate (most likely ruined from the continuous melting and rehardening in the heat of Sauraha). Our walk started at 6am but it took a while to purchase our park entry tickets as we were lined up behind hotel workers buying tickets for long lists of guests (who were probably still sleeping). We were introduced to the assistant guide, a young man who had been working for a month, both our guides were armed with a pair of flip-flops on their shoes and long wooden bamboo sticks. Feeling extra safe now. We got ferried over the river in a long wooden boat and began our walk. We walked quietly for a few minutes, until Megan brought up the question of safety tips. Our senior guide then gave us the rundown:
Sloth bears- Stick together and act big and scary, don't climb a tree, don't run
Tigers- Don't run, fight for your life
Rhinos- If there is a big tree, hide behind it, otherwise climb a tree
Elephants- Run for your life My idea of the jungle walk was that we would follow a trail through the park, enjoying the scenery and if we were lucky, we might see an animal from far away (if we were unlucky we would see one from close). Very quickly into the walk I realised this wasn't exactly what our guides had in mind. Our guide spotted rhino dung and rhino tracks in the ground and exclaimed "a rhino been here last 10 minutes, follow me, quiet", and cut off the path and into the forest "following the tracks". Most of this tracking business seemed like an act, and after about an hour of walking around pretty much in circles I was wondering how I was going to last 4 hours. Every once in a while our guide would squat to his knees and scan the forest with a very concerned look on his face. Megan would turn around to sneak a glimpse of the novice guide looking bored and useless, once he would notice her, he would turn on his serious "scanning for wildlife" face. Acting on a tip from some park rangers that we crossed paths with, we took a small detour through the tall grasslands on a search for some rhinos, that didn't yield any sightings either. Back into the jungle, our guide brought us into some thicker vegetation and it started becoming more difficult to see anything ahead of us. As we walked through the quiet jungle we were all startled by the sound of an animal, it was a loud snort/puff. The novice guide was actually more than just startled, he blew past us running in fear. This is the point in the "jungle walk" that I started doubting the safety of it all. Retrospectively, this was also the point where we should have turned around and walked away from the animal sound. Our guide on the other hand, led us closer to the source of the sound, exclaiming confidently that we had come across a rhino (one of the least agressive of the possible encounters). The next few moments are somewhat of a blur, but each of us has managed to reconstruct the events as follows:

MEGAN's Account:
All of a sudden, our guides were yelling, the junior one ran off like a bolt of lightning. It was sheer mayhem. Yann, Emilie and I were running in all directions not knowing what to do. And by running in all directions, I mean slowly trying to navigate over and under branches with our cumbersome backpacks, cameras and water bottle holders making things that much more difficult. The senior guide who stuck around was pushing us and screaming. At this point, we could hear stomping and branches snapping right behind us. I couldn’t look back – I was too focused on trying to run through the thick jungle (while contemplating my lack of tree-climbing abilities and whether or not now would be a good time to learn). This is when I tripped and fell. While splayed out on the ground, I had no idea what was about to kill me – maybe a rhino or a tiger?...but something was very near.

Emilie, who was behind me at the time, was kind enough to stop for me, while our guide looked me right in the eyes and yelled "RUNNNNN, RUNNNNN, RUNNNN". I quickly made it back onto my feet and continued the frenzied running. Eventually, the charging stopped, and our guide stopped, and we all just stood around laugh-crying. The guide was brushing off my pants and shaking my hand. We had survived being charged by a wild elephant!

The guide told me "even me too, I was sad. I thought you would be dead". Umm, thank you junior guide, who ran off – dropping his stick and a shoe – but making sure to hold onto his lunch.

EMILIE's Account:
Novice guide starts running as fast as he can, Yann who is right next to him, takes his cue and starts running too. Meanwhile Megan and I are at the back of the pack not yet reacting. Senior guide begins to scream "Run! Run!", we are now running through thick brush with the senior guide shouting and pushing. Megan falls flat on her face in the scramble and the senior guide is yelling at me (and her) to run, but I'm not moving since I am stuck behind Megan who is still on the ground. At this point I look behind me to see a huge elephant coming towards us (I suppose all elephants qualify as huge however). Megan is now back up, with some help from the senior guide (who I maintain put her there in the first place) and we continue running together. The whole time this is going on, we can hear the elephant trampling through the forest, but the sound finally stops. The senior guide rushes back towards the elephant to make sure the stampede is over.

We quickly continued walking through the brush until we felt we were at a safe distance at which point we stopped to compose ourselves. The young guide was shaking, he had lost one shoe and dropped his bamboo stick, but was still holding on firmly to his lunch. Senior guide was trying to cover up his panicked behavior, pointing out how he was "very sad and sorry" when Megan fell, but luckily he was there to help her. Megan and Yann still didn't know what was chasing them, neither of them had looked back (am I the only one with such morbid curiosity?). However, if they had listened properly to the safety instructions they should have known what kind of beast we had encountered (run from an elephant). None of us were too shook up because we were never really aware of the danger that was facing us. It didn't stop us, however, from cutting our jungle walk short.

YANN's Account:
I run quicker than all the elephants in all the jungles of the world. Proven by Fact!

Back in Sauraha, I took a bath in the river with the elephants (trained ones) and their handlers, we got stuck in a torrential downpour complete with lightning storm and we drank a bottle of wine, toasting to the beginning of our new lives. We wouldn't arrive back in Kathmandu until late the next evening stuck in Sauraha by a local roadblock/strike for hours. But of all the passengers on the tourist bus, we were confident that we had had the most intense brush with nature. "Oh you saw a wild peacock? How nice.... we got attacked by an angry wild elephant... but peacocks.. amazing...really amazing."

An afterthought: although our guides were pretty much useless (they did prove to be good trackers though), they seemed somewhat embarassed by their cowardly behavior. At one point, the senior guide made a comment about it being his responsibility to protect the tourists. Really that's a complete load of rhino dung. We come to a poor country and pay peanuts for a jungle walk, in which anyone in their right mind should know they are exposing themselves to certain dangers. Seriously, what can the poor village guides really do with a bamboo stick? They can't very well stop a charging elephant, though they might be able to wack a tourist in the head and save themselves. For five bucks I certainly wouldn't risk my life for a tourist, and we let him know that, hopefully his expressions of guilt were part of his act.
A second afterthought: For Seinfeld fans, think of our senior guide as George Castanza in the fire at the children's birthday party.