We had planned to fly to Iran, puy a vehicle, then drive back through Afghanistan to India and Nepal. That was before the revolution in Iran and the Russian invasion in Afghanistan. In the end we compromised, flying to Nepal and working our way south through India, with visits to Burma and a couple of cities in South-east Asia on the way home.
This account is just a summary, recalling some of the highlights of a four-month journey.
It was all a rush. We'd flown from New Zealand, sorted out Geoff's enrollment at Caulfied Tech (Melbourne), then spent a few days in Perth with the family, where I developed an ulcer on my eye and had to rush off to hospital in the middle of the night. No contact lenses, so with me wearing my hated glasses we flew off to Bangkok, to pick up a connecting flight to Kathmandu.
Through immigration in Thailand, and we fronted up to Royal Nepal Airlines for the next leg of the trip. Whoops, they had never heard of us. It seems the New Zealand travel agent had stuffed up completely, and we had no booking. We did, however, have time to do something about it, since the flight left in six hours time. A frantic trip into town saw us at the Royal Nepal office, waving tickets showing a confirmed booking. They countered with a long waiting list, and little hope of getting to Nepal for days. However, persistance paid out, and two hours later two people who hadn't confirmed their flight were wiped off the passenger list and we were written in. Another suicidal dash back to the airport, then we were boarding, rushing on as soon as the flight was called, relaxing once we were in the air.
OK, maybe we relaxed too soon, and I had forgotten how interesting Kathmandu could be in the dark. We arrived after midnight, and shared a taxi into town with some other travellers. We didn't have anywhere booked, but I was confident I could find us somewhere to stay. Well, I could in the light of day, but by one in the morning it got a bit more difficult. The taxi driver didn't help by driving into a deep, muddy ditch, and we all had to pile out and push. My initial choice of lodge was full, and in the end we settled on one recommended by the driver, happy just to get dry and get to bed. We turned out to be in a bit of a strange hotel, but the room was big and airy, and the Indian crows outside in the yard were endlessly entertaining, so we stayed.
I waasn't sure what a return visit to Nepal would be like, but it was fine - I took great pleasure in revisiting places I had loved before, and it was great being able to share them with Geoff, introducing him to the things that had made such a strong impression on me. We spend a week or so around the Kathmandu valley, getting trekking permits and visiting the surrounding villages, before setting off to Pokara - we were going to walk the same trek I took years before. The bus left in the cold pre-dawn. So cold that the driver had lit a little fire under the fuel tank, to warm up the diesel and get it flowing properly! The road to Pokara was, as always, under repair, with teams of workers, mainly women, sitting breaking and sifting rocks, making piles of stones to be used for resurfacing. Its a great bus journey, along narrow winding mountain roads with some of the world's most extravagant mountain scenery around every bend. Part of the way along one of our tyres disintegrated; the driver just hacked off great lumps of flapping rubber with a machete and we drove on. Geoff and I jolted up and down painfully on the narrow, crowded seats, while the Nepalese appeared to sleep peacefully, stacked one against the other, whole families cascading in height, each using the next as a pillow. Just our from Pokara we drove off the road into the river, where the driver proceeded to wash the bus, telling all the passengers to find their own way to town.
No problems. Eventually a local minibus (van) came by, and we and about 25 other people, with assorted livestock and baggage crammed in, and we arrived at the lakeside.
Some things had definitely changed since my last visit. The drug scene was much more visible, and as we unfolded ourselves from the van onto the road verge little boys ran up offering "room and mushrooms" - they were selling off fungi picked from the forest. Some was probably innocuous, some was probably halucinogenic, and some was certainly poisonous; there were a couple of travellers suffering very ill effects while we were there, with the local hotel-keepers very worried that they would die on the premises. We were extremely unimpressed with the scene, and decided to get trekking asop.
Once again I had some of the best days of my life walking in the mountains. Things had changed, and this time we stayed in trekking lodges all along the way (rather than the private houses I had stayed on my previous trek), but the mountains and the people were the same, and once we had left the town and its drop-out druggies behind we were able to enjoy all of the things that had so endeared Nepal to me on my first trip. Geoff and I took four weeks to walk up to Muktinath and back. This gave us lots of time - we were able to stay a couple of nights in places that appealed, and we made a point of not walking all day. We settled on a regime of getting up pre-dawn, and being on the path just after the sun rose. We only walked 10-12 km each day (although sometimes that was on incredibly steep slopes cut into thousands of steps, very slow walking), and we were always able to stop before lunch, giving us time to look around the village we were staying the night in. Even now, years later, smells and sounds can spark a memory from the trek, and I'm transported back to the villages and mountains. I won't go into detail here - this sort of trek deserves a story to itself - I may write it up some day.
Our last night on the trail was spent at the Tibetan Refugee camp, not far out of Pokara, with a woman who made the best momos we ever had. We then cut down the hillside to the river and walked into town the back way, for a few days R&R on the lake before taking the bone-shattering bus trip back to Kathmandu.
December, and it was getting cold, with very short days. Kathmandu was wreathed in fog until 10 in the morning, the dank chill going right through to the bone. We were touched by the street kids - little boys who slept out on the streets, clad in little more than rags - and usually shared our breakfast with a small group of them. However, we were heading south into India, to much warmer climes.
South, and our first stop was Varanasi, my favourite city in India. We came in by train from Raxaul at about four in the morning, and poor Geoff was dragged down to the ghats, not even allowed to stop and find an hotel to dump the packs. We sat on the steps and watched the sun rise over one of the truly awe-inspiring sights in the sub-continent - Varanasi crouched on the side of the Ganges, with the people of India paying homage to the river as the sun comes up.
Varanasi is, of course, one of the most hustling, bustling, noisy and crowded cities as the day builds to the crowded crescendo of the night. The streets can be so crowded you can only cross by clambering over empty rickshaws (we had to do this). Sights and sounds crash land in your brain. The roads leading to the ghats are lined with people waiting to die and be cremated by the Ganges. Along the river bank there are a number of burning places, and you can hire a boat and be taken for a scenic tour of the river, while cremations go on night and day. The city is old, with high water-marks from previous floods ringing the buildings along the riverbank, and decaying temples crumbling, flooded, into the water. Many streets are just alleyways, thronged with people, too narrow for cars. Stepping off the pavement into a silk or brocade shop brings a whole new sensation. Vivid colours shower from the walls and shelves, and soon you are almost buried under layers of colour, as you sit on the floor and have the most stunning array of cloth piled up around you. When you leave, the shop owner sets about re-folding the dozens of saris and shawls, ready for the next customer.
Only ten kilometres from Varanasi is Sarnath, a haven of peace and quiet, a major buddhist centre and a wonderful contrast to the in-your-face Varanasi.
So far it was all repeats for me, but we finally headed off my old travel path, and took a combination of train and several buses to Khajuraho to visit the temples - well worth the slight inconvenience, and we spent several days walking around the area, also going to the Jain temples nearby. On route to Agra we stopped at Gwalior and had a very hard time finding a hotel that would accept us as guests. There were no "hippy" hotels or backpackers' lodges, and the local hotels didn't want to have anything to do with us. It was Christmas day, and we had been looking forward to a relaxing evening, but we spent hours finding a room, finally ending up at the Government Bungalow, dining on luke-warm stringy chicken. The place was empty, but we were told we could only stay the night then go. In the event, we were happy to leave!
Every now and again travellers come against this sort of ingrained attitude in India - if you carry a backpack you are a "hippy", dirty, drug-seeking, loose-morals - you get the picture. At home we were two highly-regarded professional workers; here we weren't wanted. Just another aspect of India - one that can grate and wear you down over time, until you meet someone who restores your faith in mankind, and your spirits lift, making it all worth while again. During our trip we found ourselves on an emotional roller-coaster - slowly worn down by the daily grind of being treated like a commodity, then buoyed up by a chance encounter with someone who made you put it all back into perspective again.
Our very welcome spirit boost came in Agra. Back on familiar territory for me, and we headed down to the rabbit warren of streets near the Taj, to the same hotel I had stayed in before, Here we met Raj, son of the owner. Educated in England and at the Sorbonne, fluent in four languages, eager to play bridge and to talk to travellers, Raj was just what we needed. Someone to talk about India from the inside, to explain things that we saw and to encourage us to get the most out of being in Agra. The Taj Mahal, is, of course, fantastic - better than you think it is going to be, with changing moods from sunrise to moonlight, but there is more to Agra than the Taj. We had been going to only stay a couple of nights, but the good company kept us in Agra much longer, and we had lots of time to explore the Red Fort and to go out to Fatipur Sikri, as well as time to just sit on the verandah, watching the world go by.
There were monkeys, crossing the road on the overhead wires, and elegant, supercilious camels padding past, but the most memorable of all was a little kitten someone had tied to a bicycle with a bit of string. It sat in the sun, bored, until a passing man stopped and crouched down right next to it to have a piss. With his dhoti in one hand and his penis in the other, he was powerless to stop the kitten, which at last had something to play with.
From Agra we went to Jaipur, the pink city, then on to Udaipur. New Year had come and gone, and the Indian electioneering was gearing up. The streets were full of kids chanting party slogans, and banners daubed with the icons of each party.
After an abortive attempt to get to Bharatpur, we diverted inland to Aurangabad, to visit Ajanta and Ellora, both wonderful places to see, before heading for the coast and Bombay. The city is yet another overwhelming Indian sensation - crowds, beggars, lots of people and places to see, yet there was time and space for quiet games of cricket on the green and walks along the waterfront. We had our hassles here, but were left with an overall like of the city.
A ferry ran overnight to Goa, tempting us away from the buses and trains. We slept on the bare deck; I had my torso and head on one level, and my legs down in a gully, but managed to sleep nevertheless.
Panaji didn't really appeal, and Vasco de Gama was a real drug scene, so we went to south to what was, then, the more remote beach at Colva. Getting off the bus we were grabbed by a little boy who led us up through the coconut groves to first one house which didn't look too good, but then to a Portuguese family who had rooms to rent. They had no space that night, but let us sleep on the floor of the salon, a ballroom-sized space full of antique furniture. The next day we moved out into a bedroom fronting onto an inner courtyard. The owner was a wonderful cook, and people staying at other houses used to come over and book in for dinner. It was an idyllic place to stay with only one drawback - the pigs. You see, the house had an organic toilet. It was a magnificent structure, a three-seater, raised up on a wooden platform, with little wooden lids over each hole. Once you were inside, and lifted up the lid of your chosen hole, a myriad little feelers gestured like anenomes from around the rim; the cockroaches were waving hello. However, if you looked into the hole, the full horror of the loo became evident. Down below was a pig run - a lovely corridor one pig wide, with a grinning pig breathing hot steamy breathes up at the hole, waiting for dinner. It was enough to make every sphincter slam shup immediately!
Pigs notwithstanding, we loved Goa, and extended our stay from a proposed two days to ten. The weather was perfect, the ocean provided good swimming, the family we stayed with were welcoming, the company was good, and we discovered the pleasure of phospherescence in the ocean at night. Walks along the beach became magic, with our footprints glowing eerily behing us, and the huge sheets of tiny fish layed out on the beach to dry became sheets of cold light in the otherwise pitch dark night.
Time was running out, and we had to move on, however reluctantly, if we wanted to see more of India. South through Mangalore (bed bugs in a seedy hotel) to Cochin, another wonder place to explore, with its centuries-old christian and jewish influences, the waterways and islands, and the Kathakali dancers in Ernakalum. Great place, but the end of our trip was in sight, and we had decided to get to the southern tip of India. We still had a couple of weeks, and resolved to spend most of lazing on a beach - Kovalum, south of Trivandrum, looked fine.
Yes - just perfect for a lazy week or so before flying out. We found the place we wanted to stay, but the owner wasn't anywhere to be found, and no-one knew if there was any room, so we spent the first night sleeping out in the courtyard - Geoff was on a table and I had four chairs in a row. I still managed to sleep! Things improved the next day, when we moved into a room, and we settled in for a relaxing time. Nice try. We still had to confirm our flight to Rangoon, and communications in this part of India weren't any too good. Day after day we took the bus into Trivandrum and sat in the airline office, waiting to sort out our booking; no telexed confirmation of the booking ever came. In the end a rather nice man took pity on us and wrote in "confirmed" on the tickets without it being true, and we all agreed to give up and trust in luck.
We spent the last couple of days going down to the southern tip of India, looking at one of the ugliest monuments we have ever seen.
Came time to leave India, we boarded our flight with no trouble - there were very few passengers on the trip to Calcutta, possibly a good thing; it was a terrible trip, and that comes from someone who enjoys bumpy flights. We stopped overnight in Calcutta, and flew on to Rangoon in a near-empty airplane.
Burma was politically difficult, but I had really loved it on my previous trip, and we decided to stop off for the bare seven days allowed. The powers that be had made life more difficult, instituting Tourist Burma, with strong controls on where we could stay and where we could go, so we booked into the spartan (no mattress on the wooden-slatted beds) YMCA for a couple of nights, had a quick look around Rangoon, then flew up to Mandalay. We made a booking to take the boat down to Pagan, then spent a day exploring Mandalay hill and the markets around the town. The boat trip was just as I remembered, with everyone living on deck, crammed on top of one another, but very friendly. We disembarked at Pagan in the early dawn light, and took a horse and carriage into town.
Pagan is a wonderful place, a small village surrounded by extensive ruined and restored buddhist temples. We hired a horse and cart to take us out to the further temples, and spent two days in the area.
Are you counting the days? Yes - our seven days are running out; we have to leave tomorrow!
We had booked a flight down to Rangoon, but although we were at the airstrip at some incredible time in the morning the plane wasn't. We looked up as it flew high overhead, not deigning to land. The local Mr Fixit sorted out transport of a kind, and we were off on a mad dash to the nearest railhead, hoping to pick up the next train to Rangoon. We made it, and arrived back in time to fly out to Bangkok.
I had hated Bangkok on my first visit there, and nothing had changed. I still hated it, and spread that dislike to Geoff. We changed our collective mind on a later trip, but this time the shock of it all was enough to spur us into action, and we were on a flight to Penang within hours of arriving. We had a good friend living in a kampong in the south of Penang, and we fled to the refuge of his quiet village. Rob's place was just what we wanted. The village was muslim, and Chinese New Year was celebrated with a Koran-reading competition. We pottered around the island, bought Rob some ducks and made a duck cage, and generally had a great time. Rob's friend from Uni (now his wife), Peng Lian, invited us to a party for Chinese New Year, and we did go, but found the loud westerness of it all a bit too much, excusing ourselves to go back to the village.
This need to re-adjust to western-style life after travelling in India has been typical for me - I had the same reactions after my first trip. India may be crowded and noisy, but it is very rural, and it is never threatening or really disturbing, whereas western rowdiness had a different feel altogether, and is harder to come to terms with. It doesn't take me long to adjust, but I can't do it overnight. I was interested that Geoff had the same need to be quiet for a while, to give himself time to get used to things again.
Our last stopover before going home to Perth and on to Melbourne was Singapore, where we stayed with Thim and Cynthia. Thim is a friend from Uni days, and we'd stayed with him on previous trips. He had married and had children since the last time we saw him, so we had lots to catch up on.
This trip consolidated my feeling that backpacking was the only way to travel, and that India and the Indian sub-continent are the best places to do it!