Day 43: Sunday 4th November: Varanasi – Kathmando

This was the earliest start yet. I haven’t been up this early since the 6 till 2 shift at Handsworth Pitt. As we left the hotel grounds, bang on time, at 5.00am and turned into the main street outside I was not surprised to see it occupied by a substantial number of faces quietly waiting for daylight to break and staring inquisitively as we sneaked out into the last of the night. As soon as we left the city the lights on the bus went out and most of its passengers quickly slipped into the dreams so abruptly broken an hour earlier. Laying with head pressed against the window it was strange not to lookout on a scene bathed in early morning sun but a landscape shrouded in mist. Laying in the comfort and warmth of a hotel it is easy to ignore the fact that life for the masses here in Mother India gets
harder after dark.

This journey turned into another nightmare trip. First a very long and boring drive up to the Nepalese border along a road totally unfit for carrying traffic. The border was yet another dumping ground for lorries and travellers. The actual border control was situated on the main street of the town and took an hour to get to because of all the vehicles queuing. The women had to use the most appalling toilet I have seen since Ecuador 1993. Once through the border we were told to expect another 10 hour drive up to Kathmandu.

The last of the daylight was not waisted on the most beautiful of scenery as we started to climb into the foothills of the Himalayas but our estimated time of arrival began to look ridiculous. As dark took over the drive became dangerous. The road started to climb steeply and the lorries coming down from Kathmandu just kept up their constant drive to overtake everything in front irrespective of the danger. At 10.00am Sue erupted into rage. We’d now been driving for six hours since Nepal without a toilet stop and fifteen in total. As by magic the bus stopped for what I thought was a toilet stop but on looking at John Paul’s face it was obvious we were going no further. Whether by luck or judgement we were stopped at the entrance to a Nepalese travel lodge and after a ten minute wait Leighton confirmed they had enough room. Although I didn’t have any Nepalese rupees and we’d been told by the guide in Varanasi not to take anything above 100 Indian notes because no one would change them the little man at the bar took them thank goodness.

The lodge had been built by the locals and was quite comfortable if not a bit damp. The rooms were stretched out above the bar and dining room terrace and lit by fairy lights and looked idyllic from the road. The service at the bar was good but food took an age even though a large sign said ‘food 24 hours a day’. By the time our soup arrived I’d had three bottles of Ghauka and since I’d been up since 4.00am I was feeling a bit tipsy. I sat with John Paul and he was very annoyed about the length of the journey which was impossible in the time given by Andrew and Mark. I think it is becoming obvious they are office travellers. Their instructions said set off no later than 8.00am and a buffet tea will be waiting in Kathmandu. We had been travelling for sixteen hours with few breaks, hence the outrage by Sue, and talking to the little barman who lived in Kathmandu it takes at least another three hours. It seems to me they’re either ignorant of the distances and road conditions or they’re prepared to endanger our lives and the reputation of the drivers for the sake of their precious timetable. Went to bed very very tired and bitter because obviously we have lost one of our days in Kathmandu.

Day 44 : Monday 5th November:Kathmando

Because of the horrendous journey yesterday, today’s start is scheduled for 11.00am. I developed my second bout of Delhi belly and didn’t improve the situation with the beer last night but I needed it. The breakfast although good took a good hour to be served, speed not in the Nepalese gene pack. I sat in the shade looking at the beautiful mountainous scenery doing heavy breathing exercises every time I got a stomach cramp.

The journey to Kathmandu which took well over four hours with the traffic congestion in the city, made last nights effort look positively stupid. We were heading up a mountainside road full of potholes, mad Nepalese lorry drivers, at least three over turned lorries and a drop of three or four hundred feet into the river below.

Our first glimpse of the legendary city reminded me of all the stinking, over-populated, poverty stricken holes we’d been through in India. The hotel looked better from inside than out but our room was the worse so far. It was a box of a hole with a double bed that sloped down to the headboard even though the floor was flat, a dirty bathroom with no door lock and bad lighting that made everything look worse. Instead of kicking up a fuss we rushed off to eat with Barry who’d been here a couple of days and was raving about the place.

The food was very good for bar food and the live band was excellent especially the singer, lead and bass guitarists. We then decided to move bars but had to rush back to our hotel to use the toilet. When we came out couldn’t find the rest of the group, this place is a maze of alleys etc.

Day 45 : Monday 6th November: Kathmando

Because of the horrendous journey yesterday, today’s start is scheduled for 11.00am. I’ve developed my second bout of Delhi belly and didn’t improve the situation with the beer last night but I needed it. The breakfast although good took a good hour to be served, speed not in the Nepalese gene pack. I sat in the shade looking at the beautiful mountainous scenery doing heavy breathing exercises every time I got a stomach cramp.

The journey to Kathmandu which took well over four hours with the traffic congestion in the city, made last nights effort look positively stupid. We were heading up a mountainside road full of potholes, mad Nepalese lorry drivers, at least three over turned lorries and a drop of three or four hundred feet into the river below.

On our first glimpse of the legendary city it looked like all the stinking, over-populated, poverty stricken holes we’d been through in India. The hotel looked better from the inside than the outside but our room worse so far. It was a box of a hole with a double bed that sloped down to the headboard even though the floor was flat, a dirty bathroom with no door lock and bad lighting that made everything look worse. Instead of kicking up a fuss we rushed off to eat with Barry who’d been here a couple of days and was raving about the place. It didn’t seem appropriate to spoil his image of the place. It was only later that I found out he wasn’t staying in our hotel. He later admitted their hotel was cleaner and surprisingly cheaper.

The bar he recommended was good as was the food but the live band were exceptional especially the singer, lead and bass guitarists. After an hour or two we decided to move bars and headed off into the night and the maze of streets. Unfortunately I had to rush back to our hotel to use the toilet. I’d obviously been feeding my Delhi belly but when we came out we couldn’t find the rest of the group and had to abandon the evening much to Anne’s annoyance. I agreed to go and have a coffee in a quaint little coffee shop. No sooner had we received our drinks and the staff started to turn the lights out, close everything down and lock the doors. We were in no doubt they wanted us out. Rather bad practice for a business. Nothing left to do but head back to the dingy room and sleep.

Day 46 : Tuesday 7th November: Kathmando

As promised the flight to Everest went a head at 5.00am and the tired but happy group returned about 10.00am and went straight back to bed contented. Anne and myself had declined the free flight but now regret it. I had visions of flying in some patched up Russian piece of junk but not at all the planes looked very modern. I hadn’t realised at this point that the trip to Everest base camp was cancelled. So much for the Ozbus blurb about once in a lifetime opportunity. Things are beginning to turn pear shape: we don’t have the time they said to see these great sites and the journey times allowed between are ridiculous. Poor Jaenpol he looks knackered every night. We were supposed do the journey from Varanasi to Kathmandu in one day and it took 16 hours to an unscheduled stop which was still four and half hours away.

Our first impression of the accommodation last night was pretty accurate but it did not take into account the water feature. On second reflection the room was crap and dingy, the bed hard but the water feature an horrendously noisy series of buckets with holes outside the only window. When the first shower or water usage started at about 5.00am in the morning it started gushing and making a rattling noise that made sleep impossible.

Besides this we didn’t rise until late morning because we were both spaced out after the horrendous drive yesterday and so had a late breakfast and then went to explore the area around our hotel. Managed to buy a Lumix battery for the camera but it nearly cost as much as back home but two silk inner sleeping liners were only a third of the Sheffield price.

Made our way back to the hotel to checkout an arranged three hour bus tour of the city. It was important that we were not to spend most of the time on the bus and the guide promised us that most of the time would be walking. I’m to glad to say his word was better than the two in London. The bus was needed to take us to our first venue the Monkey Temple which is back out of the city.

This has been a temple for two thousand years and as the name suggests has monkeys by the score. I was quite pleased to see them because the guide said they sometimes don’t come out when it’s not sunny and it was very dull although not cold. Besides, the monkeys there were the real pests; these were the street sellers or entrepreneurial beggars who hung around in groups just like the apes. As Anne was in negotiation with a woman selling more bracelets for the girls (our daughters) one of the monkeys, unknown to me until it landed, placed an empty can of something squarely on my head much to the delight of two young girls in front of me.

The actual temple is very hard to describe, the buildings were mainly of wood and in need of serious renovation and was devalued by all the street sellers who completely outnumbered the animals and who, with the exception of the can throwing incident, left us alone.

The trip into the old part of Kathmandu was more interesting. No sooner had we left the coach and we were surrounded by street sellers. I have had a problem with street sellers or entrepreneurial beggars as I call them ever since starting the trip. They come up to me and shove their wares in my face and quote some ridiculous price. I know I should ignore them and not give them any facial contact but I can’t help saying something, to me it is polite but to them it is contact and leads to them pester me and then me eventually losing my temper. But the king of all beggars lives in old Kathmandu and if his patter was correct he makes the flutes, the beautifully carved wooden flutes he sells. I made the terrible mistake of asking him to play one of his instruments and although he only managed a dozen notes it was enough for him to believe that I had committed myself to buying one of his creations. I attempted to explain that we were backpacking and really couldn’t carry such a large heavy instrument but he either didn’t understand or didn’t want to.

Our first stop in the old area was a very interesting old temple with wooden carvings of erotic figures. For some unknown reason, at least to me, young couples sat underneath the erotic freeze kissing and cuddling seemingly oblivious to the wooden antics above their heads. As we made our way away from the wooden porno I first caught sight of the flute seller from hell. After his virtuoso of a dozen notes he gave me a price of only 3500 rupees. I explained to him that I only wanted to hear what the instrument sounded like and had no intention of buying one because it was too heavy to carry. To him, and his non-existent grasp of the English language, this meant I was some shrewd business negotiator.

We went to see the living goddess. She was chosen at the age of 5 after various rituals to test her character. Her feet were never allowed to touch the ground in case she cut herself and shed blood. Once she reached menstruation she was no longer pure and therefore could no longer be the goddess and a new one was found. She was only allowed 13 public appearances. After being the goddess she was destined to be a spinster for the rest of her life. No self-respecting Nepalese lad would want to marry a goddess. It would be difficult trying to please someone who had grown up with their feet off the ground. Once a day, around 4.00pm, she made a momentary appearance at a small window in the courtyard of the old palace. Before she looked out of her prison cell, two chaperone’s surveyed the courtyard for camera toting visitors and plain clothe guards approached those who had not heeded all the signs.

We arrived too early and were taken by our guide round the various street stalls. At each venue my flute toting friend appeared each time with a new lower price. He followed me around the temple of naughty nudes, waited outside the old courtyard as we checked the time of the goddess’ appearance, sat patiently as we had drinks and ice cream in a café and weaved in and out of the crowds down the packed streets between each venue. Eventually our guide approached a tourist policeman and he and his flutes were taken away. At this point he was quoting 600 rupees and Anne was pleading with me to buy it and free him and us from the turmoil. I have to say I felt so sorry for him at this point that I was tempted to follow them and pay him.

The goddess eventually appeared after a couple of Japanese tourists were made to put their cameras away. To me she looked sad and lonely and I was glad to leave the courtyard and join the throngs of people outside. I would like to say her sad image haunted me for hours, days or weeks but in fact it didn’t last minutes because as I stepped out through the large old wooden door flute man jumped on me with his latest and cheapest offer yet: 500 rupees. I have to say, what sympathy I had dissipated instantly and I screamed at him ‘please fuck off’. He replied ‘400 rupee? handmade by me’. He followed me all the way back to the bus and made his last offer as we drove away. He was persistent following me for over three hours and consistent dropping his price in 500 rupee units each chance he got. I do regret not giving such a craftsman the money even though at least three other sellers approached me showing similar flutes they had also made.

In the evening we were taken to a restaurant come cultural centre for a night of traditional food, music and dance. Although I enjoyed the food and the performances it was very much staged managed for tourists. The highlight of the evening for me was the rice based liquor which was very pleasant but disliked by everyone but Anne, John and myself. I had about 11 glasses which is probably why I enjoyed the whole evening. Also the young ladies dancing were very attractive.

Day 47 : Thursday 8th November: Kathmandu – Hotel Avocado – Darjeeling

Although today’s itinerary does say Kathmandu to Darjeeling there’s no chance whatsoever of making it. The experience of Varanasi to Kathmandu seems to have sunk in. Today’s journey is 200 kilometres longer and so we intend driving until dark and then either free camping or finding a hotel. We have had to abandon the drive and trek outside Kathmandu and of course the trip to Everest Base Camp which was advertised as the highlight of the whole journey and the chance of a lifetime according to Ozbus blurb. Now, along with Mac and Mas, we all realise that the blurb meant nothing. It was just a way of getting bums on seats. Only eighteen of the thirty seven are now heading for today’s destination, the others have gone off to do their own thing. Mas, and Mac left us in Delhi as soon as it was confirmed we were flying from Calcutta. They’re now in Tibet. Dave, who suddenly turned up in Kathmandu, is now waiting for a flight home. John, Das, Jim, Barry, Paul, Geof, Kate and Caroline staying in Kathmandu to bungee jump, water raft and para glide before flying to Calcutta to rejoin us. Mas and Mac rejoining in Bangkok.

The journey back down the road we came up was just as spectacular; this time saw the lower section missed two days ago in the dark with the road perched high above the beautiful river many feet below. Had a prepared lunch in a roadside café in an idyllic setting overlooking the river. Amazingly the owner did not seem to object to 21 people sitting at his tables and chairs eating their packed lunches. He even helped to clean up some of the mess. Would not happen in UK. We spent 4 hours retracing out journey back down towards the border before turning to follow the foothills on our left that lead to Darjeeling.

As we drive along I make another observation which is probably obvious to everyone else but not me. I have already remarked earlier in India that I saw a sign for the latest Royal Enfield bike and the place is scattered with Massey Ferguson tractors and Morris cars. Well I’ve suddenly realised that the Indian Sub Continent is an who’s who of British products. Today while heading across Nepal I’ve seen adverts for Lifeboy soap, lux washing powder and Pepsodent toothpaste. Looking at the standard of living along this route I don’t think mums here will ‘wonder where the yellow went’ when their kids brush their teeth with you know who.

I’ve also noticed another unpleasant side effect to keeping a blog, to accompany the aching elbows, wrists, finger joints and eye strain from trying to focus on a screen and keyboard that’s bouncing up and down from the movement of the bus, and that is a constant feeling of nausea. I first thought it was linked to Delhi belly but now realise its a kind of travel sickness. When I just sit and look at the stunning countryside the sickness goes away. I’m also having to spend longer at the keyboard for less output. It’s harder to find a new angle and easier just to sit and watch India go by.

The countryside around this part of Nepal is very different to the mountainous region obviously but has a quaint beauty to recommend it. We have journeyed for a few hours along a pretty poor road lined with lovely thatched huts sitting among palm tree groves. Constantly overshadowing everything are the forested hills, just visible through the haze and mist and a life source feeding the communities with an abundant supply of water which eventually seems to reach them from pipes by the roadside. I’ve just passed a man washing his car with a kind of power hose which seemed to come straight out of the hillside. On the lower part of the road is an enormous dried up river bed which must be very impressive in the Monsoon period. On the other side of this wide stony bed more forested hills lead all the way to the setting Sun on the far silhouetted horizon. The wide expansive stony river bed is alive with figures and their trucks harvesting this season’s deposits presumably to be broken down further for construction and road repair. Laying by the road, having created a large deep scar through the forest, are very large boulders, smooth and round from their journey down the hillside and just waiting for next years rains and pastures new.

As darkness began to take hold talk of free camping died and hotel suggestions developed thanks mainly to Sue who’d found an attractive sounding Hotel Avocado highly recommended in her Lonely Planet. After travelling up and down the main street of the town we found ourselves outside the hotel. As Leighton rushed off to find out availability the are outside went into darkness as the headlights of the bus for some unknown reason cut-out. Leighton came back with tales of gloom about the hotel which had gone into serious decline in the years since Sue’s book was published but the adjoining hotel was available. Our room was excellent, very large with big double bed, clean bathroom and large windows looking out over a large grassed area.

Dinner was arranged and consisted of rice and two types of curry chicken and vegetable washed down with copious amounts of beer. All in all a good ending to a long but beautiful day scenic wise.

Day 48 : Friday 9th November: Darjeeling

We awoke with some difficulty still very tired from the night journey up the foothills. Breakfast was served late and was a treat with cornflakes and cold milk, nan breads with a very tasty, mild, vegetable curry, scrambled eggs and to finish off a banana. Instead of coffee, which I have favoured mainly because of the milky, sweat and sickly tea they serve in India, I had tea. I couldn’t sit in the heart of Darjeeling and not have tea. In fact it was so good I had a second cup.

After breakfast we set off to the market which was spread out all around our hotel and the area we were staying in. Unfortunately it was raining, the streets were muddy and the whole place was rundown. We set off to explore with JaenPol who very quickly went off to find a bar selling cold beer. We finished up in the local museum which was very run down and old fashioned but interesting in a strange antique type of way. All the exhibits were falling to bits and faded but nevertheless had a quaint appeal.

An hour later we bumped into JaenPol walking down the hillside and who had found a pleasant little bar overlooking the tea plantations. He was content to take us back to the bar and we spent a very pleasant hour talking to the waiter about the views down the hillside to the refugee camp, monastery and signed wall photos of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, BB King and Janis Joplin. According to the waiter all had visited Darjeeling at sometime but had not signed the photos.

We left JaenPol, who went back to the hotel to sleep, and made our way down the hillside to visit the refugee Camp, tea plantation and the Tibetan Refugee Camp. We somehow failed to find the tea plantation which gave us more time at the refugee camp. The refugees had fled Tibet when China took over and were made welcome by the Indian Govt who gave them the piece of land below Darjeeling. The camp consists of a nursery, school and workshops providing the inhabitants with education, skills and self respect.

On leaving the camp and making our way back up the hillside to Darjeeling we met a group of women from Australia, New Zealand and Scotland making their way slowly back up the very steep hillside. The woman from Scotland was in her 60s and teaching for three months in the town. It had cost her a lot of money to get there and pay for her own accommodation and she even told me she had gone out last week and bought new chairs for the kids to sit on in the classroom because the facilities were so bad. She admitted the young kids were very antagonistic but as they got older they recognised the importance of education and were a pleasure to work with.

Once back in the town our walking partners showed us to a jewellery shop in the square with the most amazing collection of stock. This was a cross between an antique shop and a specialist jewellers. The shop which wasn’t that big was a sea of hanging bracelets, necklaces, cases full of rings, brooches, lucky charms, all made of silver or gold and all unusual, different, novel as the lady from Scotland said. We spent a good £60 – 70 once again on our daughters. As we left the night was drawing in and preparations seemed to be a foot for Davali the Festival of Light. I asked the owner of the jewellery shop what would taking place later and he replied nothing it is only the first night and he was right.

We had a meal in the hotel and very good it was just like the breakfast. As the meal finished Ozbus members slowly made their way outside into the street where young kids were setting off fireworks. They were lighting and dancing round Catherine Wheels like Scots performing reels. The kids were amazing setting of cherry bombs, Catherine wheels and various fountains and all the time enticing the younger element of the bus into the antics. The whole series of events culminated in Marcus asking one of the youngsters if he had a firework he could handle and the lad gave him a cherry bomb which exploded seriously burning his hand. The rest of the evening was spent trying to quell the pain in Marcus’s hand which puffed up in great blisters under the called water tap in the hotel. This was abandoned when the the hotel staff complained about the amount of water which was being used. It seems that Darjeeling are constantly suffering from a water shortage.

We made our way upstairs back to our room. Once again we had been given a room that did not really endear itself to us. It smelt fusty and was damp. It did have plenty of room with an anti room consisting of a sofa, telly and chairs but was not very warm or inviting and was in an annex section two doors up the street from the main hotel which had good reviews from those staying in it and the Lonely Planet guide.

Day 49 : Saturday 10th November: Darjeeling – Malda

Once again another very early start because of the length and nature of the journey. Left at 6.00am but unfortunately did not rise in time for breakfast. The journey back down to the plain 8,000 feet below was breathtaking. The road follows the narrow gauge railway line criss crossing every few hundred yards. The first part from Darjeeling up to Ghoom was quite busy for the time of the day with four wheel drive Tatras providing transportation for everything from people, animals, products and materials. The more modern vehicle looks like a cheap version of the Landrover Discovery. From Ghoom the road cleared and we made steady progress down. The 80 or so kilometres took three and half hours and at times the bus was very close to the edge of the road and drops of two to three thousand feet straight down into the tea plantations. Accidents must be common and the local governments way of dealing with it is novel. Every few hundred yards, usually at a bend or a precarious point a series of road signs were placed to invoke the consequences of dangerous driving. These are the few I remember:

‘If you’re married divorce speed’,

‘Enjoy these beautiful hills at low speed’

‘For survival make late arrival’ and my favourite

‘Give blood to the bloodbank not the hillside’

I have to say although it was a long way to drive to spend one day in Darjeeling the scenery coming back down made it all worthwhile. This is a spectacular part of the world and makes you realise, and even more angry, what we are missing by not going to Everest and Laos. I can’t wait to talk to Mas and Mac about their experiences since leaving the bus.

Once back down onto the hot plain again we set off for our penultimate hotel in India at the nondescript Malda. The rest of the journey was uneventful, just a long weary slog along more appalling roads.

We pulled into the grounds of the hotel well before I expected: no asking the way at every junction. The hotel Park was modern (three years old) and looked impressive and the food in the bar restaurant was good and even more important, for John Paul, the beer was ice cold and only 80 rupees. The good points were far outweighed by the total incompetence and attitude of the management who just insisted on refusing to take any money and placed everything on your room tag. Later when everyone went to bed, not early after midnight, the staff came banging on room doors insisting on sorting out each bill. This did not go down well with many people who refused to open their doors shouting in the best cockney fuck off I’m in bed’ when of course she was watching Arsenal.

Day 50: Sunday 11th November: Malda – Calcutta

The last part of our journey across Northern India started as farcical as yesterdays ended. Breakfast was scheduled for 7.00am but the hotel management insisted on serving it at 8.00am even though some had been sitting in the dining room for over an hour waiting impatiently. Once it started it took over one hour to serve a breakfast of cornflakes and coffee and it only arrived when the Arsenal fan jumped up and stormed into the kitchen shouting ‘how fucking long does it take to put cornflakes in a bowl? ‘I want them fucking now’. When they did arrive, ten minutes later, there was no milk and no spoons to eat it or sugar.

The management also had the knack of increasing the price of things. My telephone bill went from a few hundred rupees to fourteen hundred and once on the bus we couldn’t get out of the grounds until everyone were forced to disembark and have our breakfast bills checked again. By this time poor old Leighton was pulling his hair out and shouting ‘get me out of India’. This of course was a three star hotel.

The last bit of the long trek across this poor wretched country was no better with every conceivable obstacle: rickshaws, pot holes deep enough to destroy suspensions, diversions, a total lack of signs and just to make the journey longer a massive traffic jam created by a procession to celebrate the last night of Divali and an opportunist demonstration by the communist party and trade unions as we entered the outskirts of Calcutta.

Strangely enough the procession and demo made our entrance into this famous city more interesting with music, lights and placards demanding better pay etc. Things took a turn for the worse once we turned of the main central area of shops, lights and affluence and entered the seediest of areas and our last hotel before leaving India probably for good. Few on the bus have expressed a desire to return even those who went to Goa had a good time. The Hotel Himalaya was the worse hotel yet with no bar, an alcohol ban and unpleasant seedy rooms with tatty linen, cockroaches in the bathrooms and at least one big fat rat that chased the lads down our corridor. Not only did the hotel not have beer but this area had no bars or restaurants and once outside you could see why. Calcutta must have some of the cheapest hotels in the world and our friends back in London booked us into probably the cheapest in the city. What made this final administrative insult even worse was it totally ruined the groups plan to have a final big party with JaenPol and Marcus who were heading back tomorrow with the bus. This was the most upset I have seen John Paul and I felt embarrassed and ashamed that such an individual effort should be rewarded like this. I and the others were now forced to say thanks and goodbye to the man who had driven us single handily 17,000 kilometres in the car park at the airport. This was without doubt the lowest point of the whole trip and one I will remember for its sadness and injustice. I can safely say that most people are now pissed off with Ozbus, some vowing not to use it any further.

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