Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Backpacker Trail - Kathmandu to Pokhara

We were up early in the morning to catch a cab to Delhi airport. We were pretty chuffed with our decision to avoid the backpacker district, as our hotel near the airport had been far better value. For less money than Cottage Yes Please (the brilliant name does still excuse a lot...) we had clean bedsheets and a nice bathroom, with the bonus of lovely staff who did not hang around outside the door for unearned tips. When we factored in the brilliant food (which you will be pleased to know did not repeat on us), it had been a good shout all round. Feeling charitable, we resolved to give the hotel taxi driver a decent tip once we were dropped off at the airport. However, we were too slow sorting out our bags, and before we could call out for him to wait he was off. It was indeed a different experience when compared to our first visit to Delhi.

Given the 'anything goes' atmosphere of India, the security at Delhi airport came as a shock. Even to get into the building we had to show passports and flight tickets. Upon checking in our baggage, the staff at the desk became twitchy about our helmets, saying they should go in the hold. We argued, saying that they were too expensive and could not be bashed. Eventually they agreed that we could take them as hand luggage, on the proviso that security did not mind.

Although they had no issue with the helmets, it turned out that the security checks were more rigorous than usual. As well as putting our shoes through the x-ray and walking through the metal detector, we also had to be swiped with a hand-held device and received a complimentary bonus frisking. Ladies have to go through a separate section to have this done by a female guard. Unfortunately for me said guard seemed to be a bit of a psychopath, and was very perturbed by the motorbike armour in my jeans (worn to save limited bag space). I tried to explain what it was, but she didn't speak enough English to understand. She insisted that I take the hip armour out of my jeans, and aggressively stabbed it with her metal detector for a while before feeling in the internal pockets for god knows what. We had similar issues with the knee armour, at which point I got annoyed and told her to stop poking it as it was expensive. I don't mind a standard airport frisking, but this was insane. She was even concerned about the underwire in my bra, I kid you not.

Upon finally satisfying herself that I was not a terrorist, I was released to rejoin Oli. The mens check is done in full view of the x-ray machine, and those guards had been sensible enough to link the fact that we had motorbike helmets with the presence of Oli's armour. As a result, he had experienced no issues at all, just a gentle sweep with the metal detector and a minor frisking. Some people have all the luck!

The rest of the airport experience was without issue, and we touched down in Kathmandu on schedule. The visas are done on arrival here, which we had expected to be a nightmare. Happily, it was surprisingly efficient, and we quickly went to re-join our luggage. We had realised on our Dubai to Delhi flight how much one of the panniers resembles some sort of explosive, with its spiral bike lock and fuel bottles jammed in the sides, but thankfully nobody has minded so far.

At a first glance, Kathmandu (KTM) seems to have a lot of poverty in general, but lacks the polar extremes of Delhi. Although some of the streets are unsurfaced, and there is a general shabby air, we have not yet seen the large scale homelessness of the Indian capital, nor obviously rich people cruising around in flashy cars. The area we were staying in is the backpacker district of Thamel. We usually try to avoid the uber-touristy parts of cities, but there was plenty of good, cheap accommodation around and it seemed worth a shot.

We actually ended up quite enjoying this part of the city. There was a definite buzz about it, and although it was hectic it was less offensively in-your-face than India. People do try to sell you just about everything (as is to be expected in such a touristy part of town), but they were almost always unfailingly polite and listened to us when we declined. Thamel is a hippy paradise, with countless shops selling brightly coloured clothes and an all pervading smell of incense. It is actually very reminiscent of some aspects of Brighton, and accordingly of my teenage years (back when I still considered tie-dye to be a sensible fashion option). Despite all the hustle and bustle, we immediately felt surprisingly comfortable there.

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After a couple of nights in the capital, doing not much other than wandering the busy streets, eating great food and drinking cold beers, it was time to head to our next destination. This was the town of Pokhara, a popular lakeside resort. The bus left KTM at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. As we tiredly staggered to the bus stop with our luggage at six thirty, we were deluged with offers to buy various drinks and snacks to get us through the journey. I was most surprised to find that one passing salesman was also offering drugs. This is not exactly my scene, but even if it was, who wants these things at such an hour of the morning? The offer of narcotics is a constant background whisper in Thamel, some sales pitches subtle, others not so much, so I suppose this shouldn't really have come as a huge shock.

The journey itself was painfully slow, but we just accepted it and went with the flow. The road from KTM to Pokhara was only 130 miles, but somehow the driver managed to stretch this over eight hours. The amount of stops was generous to say the least, and after an initial toilet break we stopped again shortly after for breakfast. We drove along at a snails pace for another two hours, and then it was time for lunch. At this point, we were only thirty miles from our destination, so it seemed a little unnecessary.  On the plus side though, Oli and I were surprised to spot an eatery at the roadside named 'Cock Fight Restaurant'. In case there was any doubt as to the nature of the establishment, the sign was emblazoned with photographs of angry roosters. Now, we have seen a lot on our travels, but this still caused Oli and I to start in surprise. As my good friend Laini Johnson has suggested, perhaps the idea is to bet on a bird, and eat the loser with your winnings. A classy night out indeed.

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All was going well on arrival into Pokhara until we realised we had left the Go-Pro camera in the bus seat pocket. Unfortunately we did not actually notice this until we were almost at our hostel. Thankfully, our cabbie was a great guy and called around on his phone, whilst hurriedly driving us back to the bus. We eventually caught up with it and were reunited with the camera. He did not ask for any extra pennies, but we tipped him very handsomely in our gratitude.

By the time we had settled into our room and got ourselves sorted, we were absolutely starving. Unfortunately our decision to leave the comfort of our room coincided with a heavy downpour. Apparently this rain is unseasonal, as this time of year should usually be dry and cool rather than warm and humid. We ducked into a softly lit bar / restaurant, and enjoyed tasty curries as the rain hammered down outside. This being Nepal, the power is a sensitive creature easily upset by the weather. The lights died a few times whilst we were there, adding to the cosy atmosphere.

This morning we rose late, and made a rough plan of how to spend our time in Nepal (nothing like planning well in advance...). We decided to go ahead with renting an Enfield, and made our way to the Bullet Base Camp pub to see what we could sort out. We have ended up agreeing to take a bike for six days, and attempt riding to Muktinath. Apparently due to the unseasonable rain the road is 'like a bog' and worse than usual. This made us pause for a second, before deciding to go for it anyway. Hopefully the challenge will make it all the more fun...

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On our way back to the hotel, we were politely accosted by a group of children. It turned out they were residents of the local orphanage, and we were invited inside as they were having an open house day. Thinking we might as well, we happily accepted and were given a tour of the place. It was surprisingly lovely, and it was great to see that these kids appeared to be so well looked after. They had a few stalls set out at the end, selling pictures the children had drawn and other handicrafts. Sadly space is very much at a premium for us on the bike, but we gladly gave a cash donation instead.

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From here, we wandered a few kilometres down the road to sort out the necessary permits. The area we are going to is a dedicated conservation area, so to visit we need to pay a fee and obtain the relevant document. This was surprisingly painless and cheaper than expected. They were even happy for me to use my leftover Iranian visa photos (complete with unflattering headscarf) rather than getting new ones taken. I knew it was worth hanging on to them!

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Oli has now gone to collect the Enfield, whilst I am supposed to be preparing what we are going to take with us, rather than writing this. Due to the terrible roads and lack of luggage racks, we will be attempting to bring everything we need for the week in our little backpack. We are very excited for the adventure ahead, even though it will probably involve the harshest roads so far – bring it on!

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