It’s going to take time to process but I need to put down my thoughts while the scent of cow dung and oleander are still with me. It’s been a lifelong ambition to travel to India and Nepal and I knew they would be very different from any countries I’d seen before. People kept saying ‘Oh you won’t like the poverty or the dirt or the noise or the traffic’ and they were right and they were wrong. I didn’t like it but it got to me in a way I didn’t expect. And when we reached Nepal, in spite of everything, it worked its magic on me.
Day 1/2: Arrived in Delhi with my group. The flight was long and I was with a lovely gentleman who was visiting his family in the Punjab but who insisted on telling me every detail of his wife’s many and various medical problems. Way too much information for an nine hour flight! We’d flown overnight without any sleep so the transfer to the hotel was a noisy shock. It felt like I’d been plunged into bedlam. The streets were filled with traffic, goats, cows, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, coaches, cars and oxen carts. If a vehicle carried a horn it was hooting. There seemed to be no right of way or sense of giving way, it was every man/animal/vehicle for himself.
We were carried more than driven to the Qutub Minaret, the tallest rubble masonry minaret in the world.
Construction began in 1192 AD and despite various disasters including a lightning strike it was rebuilt. Several examples of wonderful carving in the outlying buildings together with the oldest iron pillar in the world (4th century). Amazing as these sights were, I was longing to get to our hotel which thankfully was very comfortable. On arrival we were greeted with a ‘namaste’, a bindi planted on our forehead and a garland of marigolds. This happened at every hotel we stayed in (and there were a few). (Note the matchsticks propping my eyes open in the photo!) Felt better after a hot bath and two glasses of wine (not necessarily in that order!)
Day 3: Early start, driving through busy Delhi streets and past markets. It was everything I’d been told, filthy; noisy; cows wandering around with their noses in rubbish tips; dust so thick we all got sore throats. The shops were just a revelation. Butchers’ shops displayed parts of animals I didn’t know existed; chickens shut in tiny cases clucking pathetically; steaming cooking pots bubbled adjacent to the live animals cruelly demonstrating where they would end up.
There were no pavements; the streets were like construction sites with piles of rubble, bricks and earth to clamber over. The power cables amused me the most.These were draped over and round poles and buildings like black spaghetti. Some dangled so low over the road that buses drove into them but amazingly without any disasters.
From the chaos of Old Delhi we drove to see Gandhi’s cremation site by the Yamuna River and then into the British Colonial part of town – New Delhi. It was like stepping into another world; landscaped with lush manicured gardens, large gated estates, their fences allowing a tantalising view of magnificent white-walled bungalows. The road system began to be orderly, roundabouts appeared, even the horns’ noises lessened. We circled the India Gate war memorial and arrived at the Viceroy’s House (which should, most definitely be described as a palace) and the old Parliament building.
Lovely as all this was I couldn’t help but feel guilt that we had imposed our lifestyle on a country that clearly had their own culture and their own ideas of grandeur. Our final stop before leaving Delhi was at Humayun’s Tomb, almost a forerunner of the Taj Mahjal but not quite as beautiful.
It was built for the Mughal Emperor Humayun in 1569 and designed by a Persian architect. Having seen this wonderful piece of architecture, I began to fear that when I did finally clap eyes on the Taj Mahal, it be an anti-climax. We left Delhi then and drove through flat agricultural countryside for several hours. The fields were lripe with wheat and other crops. Several women squatted in the fields moulding cow pats which are used as fuel and roof tiles. Eventually we arrived in Agra and settled into our hotel rooms but I had to rush to the hotel rooftop to get my first sight of the Taj.
Day 4: The 5am alarm call wasn’t appreciated but after setting off in the dark, we stood by the West Gate waiting to be let in as the first rays began to climb up the red sandstone outer walls. Eventually the gates were opened and I almost ran to the great entrance gate through which I caught my first sight of the Taj Mahal, the great white marble mausoleum built by the Shaj Jehan as a tribute to his adored wife Mumtaz. It was most certainly not an anti-climax.
The building shimmered in the early morning light accentuating the exquisite inlays on the white marble; the symmetry; the delicacy; set against a backdrop of luxuriant gardens and vibrant flowers. I was transfixed. On the other side of the Taj is the river, which at that early part of the day was veiled in mist; one lone fishing boat was just casting off as I stood and watched in relative isolation. The story of the Shah Jehan who built this mausoleum for his beloved wife was slightly spoiled when we heard what happened to him. His plan was to build a version of the Taj in black marble for his own tomb. His eldest son, fearing his inheritance would be used up, captured his father and imprisoned him in the nearby Red Fort. We went to the Fort which was also an architectural masterpiece so not a bad prison.
Agra – Red Fort. Shah Jehan’s prison
However, it was poignant to see the misty view of the Taj from the Fort that Shah Jehan would have gazed at every day. In the end he was buried next to Mumtaz.
Day 5: Early call and had a quick breakfast before going to the train station. That was an experience in itself! Very confusing signage but we had help and managed to find our seats. Made the mistake of trying to use the ‘She Toilet’ – I’ll draw a veil over that.
From Jhansi station drove to Orchha Fort. It was hot, humid and the fort had loads of stairs. I only managed a few but met some lovely locals. I found it quite odd at first but many of the local people kept asking if they could take a photograph with us. According to our local guide it was the novelty of my blond (ish) hair and pale skin. After a nice lunch in beautiful gardens we drove on and stopped at a hamlet where our Tour Manager is a frequent visitor. We were able to meet the local people and visit the school to watch the children at lessons.
Our guide helps them by buying pens for the children and we left sweets for them. They kept calling out ‘Heeello!’ and ‘My pen’ and wanting to hold our hands. Although it was just incredible to see them, I felt a little like a voyeur and slightly uncomfortable. The houses were immaculately clean. Got quite emotional to see such happy, well cared-for children who had so little compared to our own. The beautiful woman in the picture shares her house with 25 other people. The house has two and a half rooms.
We then had a very long, uncomfortable drive through the countryside on bumpy roads arriving at Khajuraho after dark. Settled into our hotel exhausted.
Day 6: I’d woken in the night confused. I didn’t know where I was, then couldn’t get back to sleep. Just managed a bit of fruit for breakfast before driving to see the Hindu temples at Khajuraho.
Such incredible sandstone carvings, many of them erotic and based on the Kama Sutra. Climbed barefoot into the inner sanctum of one of the temples and then walked in the beautifully kept gardens. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and beautiful though it was, the heat and humidity were getting to me a bit.
To the airport and boarded a Boeing 737-800 for a 40 minute flight to Varanasi. We had a sudden addition to our itinerary. As there were elections the next day, many sacred sites were closed so almost immediately we drove to Sarnath, near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh. This a very holy site for Buddhists as it is where Buddha gave his first sermon.
There was a stupa and a vast area of ruins which visitors sometimes daub with gold leaf as offerings. A large party of pilgrims, led by the Buddhist monks were seated on the grass chanting and sweet scented smoke from the incense burners drifted past. It was a very special place.
At Varanasi, we were given only minutes to check into our hotel before being whisked off to the Ganges waterfront. Took a large boat along the waterfront, past the ghats (flights of steps) which were full of people enjoying the Aarti festival, a Hindu ritual that takes place every night on the ghats (steps) of the Ganges. Light from wicks soaked in ghee is offered to one or more deities while hundreds of people sing and dance along the riverfront.
As we sailed past we lit small candles set in saucers of marigolds and floated them down the Ganges in memory of loved ones. These had been sold to us by some very enterprising and insistent little girls who looked angelic but were apparently lethal if you got on the wrong side of them.
We disembarked on one of the less crowded ghats having sailed past the cremation ghats. The boat fell silent as we passed the burning pyres and the relatives of those being cremated. Nothing in our previous experience could have prepared us for that. The steps were lined with bodies waiting to be burned and those that had been alight for some hours. Also on the steps were cows and goats and male mourners and the remains of previous pyres.
The walk through Varanasi was an experience in itself. The pollution was so great we needed to put scarves over our faces and yet the streets were bursting with people, cows, goats, stray dogs, rickshaws, tuc-tucs, motorbikes and cars. Horns hooted constantly but no-one took any notice. Our Tour Manager thought it would be ‘fun’ for us to go back to the hotel on a rickshaw. I didn’t realise I would be taking my life into my hands. To even reach the rickshaws we had to cross the road which was gridlocked with vehicles and animals and no-one, and I mean no-one, was letting any pedestrians through. Crossing that road could be put under the heading of ‘dangerous sports’ and I’m still amazed we all made it without incident. And then there was the rickshaw ride itself…
For a start our ‘driver’ didn’t know where our hotel was so had to ensure he kept his cousin – another rickshaw driver taking others of our party – in sight. The cousin was keen to get there and we kept losing him. To say our driver took risks in trying to keep up is an understatement. I held onto my companion for dear life but small though we both were, the rickshaw hardly held us. Then the other rickshaw drivers kept ramming into the back of us in an effort to stop other drivers cutting in. It was the scariest ride I have ever been on. We made it back to the hotel but all needed a stiff drink before bed to calm our shattered nerves.
Day 7: 5am wake up call. Drove back to the ghats and climbed aboard another boat to watch the sunrise over the Ganges.
Wasn’t feeling particularly keen on this but by the time the red sun rose over the steamy waters, I was sold. Walked back through the streets and ran the gamut of the hawkers who pushed and pushed us all to buy souvenirs. They were especially keen on selling fridge magnets depicting the burning bodies on the cremation ghats!
Needless to say there were no takers. Drove back to the hotel. Packed and set off for the airport. Flew back to Delhi.
When we arrived at our hotel, we were given the usual bindi and garland but today being World Women’s Day all the women were given a pink rose and we had our photo taken for the local paper.
Day 8: Flew to Kathmandu. It felt very different in Nepal. Everyone seemed to be so grateful and happy we visited. There’s a common misconception that much of Nepal was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. In fact, though damage was pretty bad and 9,000 people lost their lives and 22,000 injured, it is a country getting back on its feet. Checked into the Hyatt Regency, a beautiful hotel near the famous Boudhanath Stupa.
Hyatt Regency foyer
We were greeted with huge smiles wherever we went, despite all its troubles, Nepal is a calm and beautiful place. Our local guide, Dipak, told us that though many of the wonderful temples were damaged or destroyed, there is a huge rebuilding programme going on. He was a lovely man, who collected English idioms with relish. Everything was ‘spiffing’ or ‘top hole’ and when he spoke of his lovely family, he referred to his children as his ‘cheeky monkeys’. I spent the afternoon by the swimming pool doing not a lot.
Day 9: Up at 5am in the hope of taking a flight around Everest. Drove to the airport and waited while an aircraft took off to do a weather check. When the pilot reported back that it was not good enough, we weren’t surprised, there had been rumbles of thunder all night and the day dawned very overcast. It was a disappointment but we had two more chances so weren’t disheartened and it meant I could go back to bed for a while.
Drove to Kathmandu centre, to Patan Durbar Square, a World Heritage site and one that was damaged in the earthquake (though not as badly as Basantapur Durbar Square).
Patan Durbar Square
Although there was reconstruction work going on, this was still a most beautiful and serene place. Visited several temples and ogled at the glorious architecture with exquisite carvings. Thankfully there are still Nepalese artisans who have the skill to reproduce and repair the fine buildings and sculptures. Walked through Kathmandu mesmerised by the myriad of shops and markets. The streets were full of life, many still full of rubble too but we just climbed over it and continued on our way.
In the afternoon we visited the Boudhanath Stupa,
a short walk behind our hotel. My friend insisted she knew the short cut having been there before and we found it quite easily. The stupa is in the centre of a large circular shopping street. To our left a tent housed a large group of Buddhist monks chanting and burning fragrant incense. We joined everyone in walking clockwise around the stupa which is a mark of respect and reverence.
Walking clockwise around the stupa
My companion also managed to do loads of shopping. As we circumambulated around the stupa, the sky grew ominously dark so we decided to return to the hotel for some tea. Unfortunately, my friend’s sense of direction wasn’t quite as ‘top-hole’ as our local guide’s and we got a smidge lost. We asked several locals who all said they spoke English. They were trying to be so helpful but just succeeded in getting us more and more disorientated. I was on the point of trying to find a taxi when an Aussie voice called out ‘Do you want the Hyatt Regency?’ and this marvellous woman, who clearly now lives in Kathmandu, gave us clear and concise directions back to the hotel but not, unfortunately, before the heavens opened and dropped an ocean of water on us.
Day 10: The storm flashed and banged all night but as we were trying again for our Everest flight my alarm went off at 4.45am. We waited to hear from the airport, although it seemed obvious to me there would be no flying around the mountains today. Eventually we all descended on the breakfast buffet like a flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square. After a bit of a lie-down, drove to the airport and flew in a Buddha Airways ATR 42 to Bharatpur. Fortunately the weather had cheered up by this time and we arrived in the central-southern part of Nepal in the Chitwan National Park for our two-day stay at the Nariyani Safari Lodge. We drove through some colourful agricultural countryside watching the women working in the fields. These were bordered by a pretty blue flower which, Dipak informed us, was a rampant weed – Ageratum – which I plant annually in my garden!
After an hours’ drive, we arrived at the lodge and were assigned our clean, crisp but basic rooms. I immediately found a large spider in my sink which, I’m ashamed to say, I dispatched quickly down the plughole. So much for emulating Buddhist principles!
After a simple but satisfying buffet lunch overlooking the river, we were taken to a small enclosure and introduced to Somokali.
Our ranger, Harka, gave us lots of information about the elephants and the safari we would be taking the next day. She was a sweet-natured elephant and allowed a few of us to feed her. Later on Harka gave us a slide show in the lodge – some of the pictures were absolutely revolting. They showed King Edward VII on a shoot in Chitwan with hundreds of tiger skins hanging up behind him and his party like curtains. I was so ashamed I needed several glasses of the excellent local wine to erase the memory from my mind. My friends accompanied me back to my room before I turned in for the night, just to ensure I didn’t have any unwanted visitors. All was fine. However, in the middle of the night, something fell on my head and woke me but I was too scared to look and see what it was until the morning. I struggled to get back to sleep as the sounds of the jungle outside were loud and creepy. Hoots and squawks and scrabbling at my window gave my imagination a field day. It was a restless night but I did manage to get some sleep.
Day 11: When I woke it was obvious something had dropped on me in the night. On my bed cover (and my head) was what looked like some bark fallen from the roof of my quarters.
Later on, one of my fellow travellers told me he had been bombarded by grubs mating so I counted myself fortunate and didn’t investigate the ‘bark’ too closely. Breakfast was at 6:30am on the terrace overlooking the river. It was a beautiful sight with the mist rolling off the water. Got a lift to the departure site and with my two friends was helped onto our elephant who, thankfully, seemed docile. We had dressed, as advised, in camouflage colours. We followed another elephant and almost immediately she splashed through a river or shallow lake. All the elephants were female as the males can be quite aggressive. They all clearly loved their mahouts. Once we had become used to the swaying motion of the animal it was actually quite comfortable but I did have trouble steadying my camera enough to take photos.
As the sun rose the ranger pointed out rhino, monkeys, many different sorts of deer, wild boar – one with her babies – and a rather excitable peacock. Sadly no tigers though we did see a tree trunk with claw marks so there was one about.
On our way back we passed a sadhu, sitting cross-legged getting quietly stoned on hashish who waved happily to us as we swayed past. We dismounted and thanked the elephants but then a little later went down to the river to see them having their baths – a reward for their hard work taking the awkward humans on safari.
Some of our group decided to join the elephants and got an impromptu shower and we were joined by a few local children who were celebrating the Hindu spring festival, Holi. This is the festival of colours and it’s not hard to see how they mark it. Most of them sat fascinated and laughing, watching us as we were soaked by the elephants who were clearly enjoying themselves too.
After lunch we wobbled our way into some dugout canoes which were ably guided downriver by local boatmen. I was a little alarmed when our canoe began to take on water but I was told to stop complaining or I would be thrown in. This wasn’t an inviting prospect as there were several very large crocodiles on the riverbank watching and doing the croc equivalent of licking their lips, so I shut up and watched as my canvas shoes became waterlogged. When we reached the other side of the shore we were told to keep quiet as we walked through the jungle to a crocodile farm. I tried but my shoes squelched really loudly and I was convinced I’d be set upon by a croc or a tiger. We passed more trees with tiger claw markings. This, we were told, was the way the tiger marks out its territory. Not a comforting thought.
The crocodile farm was a bit of a revelation – I didn’t know they got so enormous. As we walked back to the riverside we were told to keep quiet; a rhino had joined us and was making his own way down to the river. We watched him very carefully as we made our way back to the lodge – and he watched us carefully back!
As it was Holi day, after a really lovely meal we were treated to a display of some local dancing by some of the lodge staff. Then it was our turn. Our faces were daubed with pink powder and we were pulled into the dancing circle – I think the lodge staff were impressed, they were grinning, pointing and clapping a lot.
Day 12: Another early start and we said farewell to the lodge staff who had been fantastic, particularly Harka the ranger. We left as the sun was rising and were delighted to see our rhino who had strolled up to the river bank by the lodge to say goodbye. Our next stop was to be Pokhara, a town in the foothills of the Annapurna range. Before the earthquake the road trip took about five hours. Unfortunately some of the roads were being remade and this meant a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride for closer to seven hours. Despite the bumping and jolting it was a marvellous trip. The scenery, as we climbed higher into the mountains, was breathtaking.
We arrived pretty exhausted but knowing we had a free day the following day, I went straight to the concierge and booked an ultralight flight round Annapurna. Dipak and Matt, our Tour Manager, dragged us out straight away to the Gurkha museum as much of the selection and training for this wonderful army unit is done here. In 2015 almost 8,000 Nepalese men applied to join. The selection is very rigorous and in the end, the British army only take about 230 men. Dipak, our local guide, had applied in his youth and failed to get in. Pokhara is his home and he very proudly told us how it is a huge status symbol to be picked. Sadly, in the last few years there has been much misinformation about the gurhkas’ benefits on British television news. We were told that it is still a life that most young Nepalese men aspire to.
From there we drove to Lake Fewa, a large freshwater lake where we donned life jackets and climbed into rowing boats. I did wonder why, in Chitwan, we had been rowed in dug-out canoes in a crocodile-infested river without life-jackets yet here they seemed to pay more attention to safety. To be fair, the lake was a lot deeper than the croc-filled river. When we stepped ashore again we had a walk around the lakeside shopping centre and bought some souvenirs; then back to the hotel for dinner.
Day 13: Alarm went off at 5.45am and I wore, as instructed, many layers – four to be exact. Met Princess, my Chicago/Filipino friend (yes, that really is her name) and we drove to Pokhara airport, just five minutes away from the hotel. After filling in a disclaimer – not worried at all – we got suited up. I had a large jacket and trousers to add to my four layers as well as leg warmers, ear defenders, gloves and a helmet. Felt like I was being suited up for an Apollo flight rather than a small craft with a lawnmower engine. Met my pilot, Saja who seemed very young. I asked him how many hours flying he had on the ultralight and when he proudly said 200, my heart sank. I then asked him the average number of hours it took to go solo and he said ‘usually 24 but I have broken the record, I only had 4 hours flying time before going solo’ – he seemed so pleased with himself I swallowed hard and shut up. He strapped me into the rear seat and then climbed into the front and did some reassuring checks. Then, we followed Princess and her pilot out onto the runway and took off. Wow. I’ve flown in many small aircraft, even open cockpit monoplanes but never one as open or small as this. It was incredible. We turned right towards the mountains and climbed away. As expected, it felt very cold up there, hence all the layers but so worth the discomfort for the amazing view.
Soon enough we arrived at the snow capped peaks of Annapurna and Saja pointed out the range, Annapurna 1,2, 3 and South. The mountains were so close I felt I could reach out and touch them but as we climbed, it got colder. Pretty soon I couldn’t feel my feet and though we chatted over the intercom, every time Saja asked me if I was cold I said ‘not really’. What was he going to do about it? How to describe the amazing views? It’s almost impossible. Being in the ultralight was like flying without an aircraft, I think the freezing temperatures added to the experience. Not being able to feel my legs made it more real although I did wonder how long it took to get frostbite.
Flying past the World Peace Pagoda and over Lake Fewa
All too soon we began descending and we flew past the beautiful World Peace Pagoda and Lake Fewa. Then we began turning onto final approach for landing and the ultralight kissed the ground without any fuss or blood spilled. It had been an amazing experience and one I shall never forget. I even got a DVD of my flight together with a certificate to prove I survived!
When I arrived back at the hotel I sat by the pool to thaw out – it was actually very hot and I even got a bit sunburned – savouring every moment of my morning flight. Later on we were all going out to dinner by Lake Fewa but Dipak kindly invited us to his house to meet his wife and cheeky monkeys. What a lovely family – he has two girls, 7 and 14 and a six-month old son. His wife was very sweet and we left after a cup of spiced tea. The meal at lakeside was really nice and though we still had another day of the trip to go, this was to be our last opportunity to sit down together to break bread. It was really enjoyable and as I sat next to Dipak I had a chance to ask him about Nepal and how the earthquake had affected them all. He said it was the most terrifying experience of his life and I can imagine it was.
Day 14: Another early start but was used to them by this time. Alarm call at 4:45, had breakfast and packed. Our driver took us up some really narrow mountain roads, with traffic coming in the opposite direction. It was a bit of a competition to see who won right of way. I had my eyes shut most of the time, especially when we drove close to the edge of the road where there was a sheer drop of thousands of feet and no wall or barrier to stop us if we got too close. We left the coach and began walking and as the terrain was quite steep, some of us got quite breathless very quickly though I like to think it was more the high altitude than my unfitness. As it got light it became obvious why we had gone to such lengths. The sun rose and cast a pink glow on the Annapurna range that was truly magical.
Back to the airport for our flight back to Kathmandu and our aircraft went tech. Our Tour Manager had arranged for an ATR 42 to be waiting on the tarmac at Kathmandu to whisk us off to see Everest but as we waited for a replacement aircraft to arrive at Pokhara we began to worry cloud would build up over the Himalayas and spoil our final chance to go. As it turned out the sick aircraft was a blessing in disguise as there had been cloud over the mountains which had cleared over time. As soon as we landed at Kathmandu we crossed the tarmac to our waiting aircraft which the Tour Manager had chartered especially for us. We each had a window seat and took off towards the Himalayas. The views were spectacular and as we approached Mount Everest the flight attendants made sure we knew exactly which mountains were which. The Captain invited us up to the flight deck individually and we managed to get some wonderful views of Everest. It’s clearly the tallest mountain around and looks quite forbidding even from the air. We turned around and all got another view of it as we swapped over to the other side of the aircraft (I’m sure the Captain was madly re-trimming the aircraft to compensate for the weight differentials as we moved!)
This really was the icing on the cake. Our views of the roof of the world were spectacular and Everest in particular absolutely stunning. The airline handed us certificates to say we had been there and some people bought souvenirs on board. We returned to our hotel quite speechless and I had a quiet final dinner with two of my friends reflecting on our experiences.
Day 15: The next day we were up early (again!) and drove to Kathmandhu airport for our flight back to Delhi. We weren’t there very long before boarding for our flight back to the UK which took about 9 hours. All in all it was an incredible trip. Ten flights, four boat trips, a train, numerous coaches, a rickshaw, an ultralight and an elephant but my goodness I need a holiday now.