Early on when we were planning for this honeymoon, Darjeeling was high on both of our lists. After Varanasi we had our high hopes that we wouldn't be disappointed with our decision to travel to this more remote part of India...and we weren't.
We weren't able to get the seats that we wanted for the Varanasi - Darjeeling train and had to book the second cheapest tickets in the "Sleeper Car" category. We were warned that it wouldn't be enjoyable and we had to keep our belongings chained to our beds or our bodies. At the station we had to wait in a special room with other westerners only to be escorted to the train that was 3 hours late by a police officer. I guess the train station in Varanasi is not the safest place for beautiful and gullible Scandinavian men. We found are beds in the car and both of us had the upper bunks, there are bunks in 3 different levels. Lower, middle and upper as you can see in our video. Upper bunks are the safest for theft but worst for the air circulation, mosquitoes and temperature. I decided to give K.G relief from duty and I stayed up almost the whole night, took a little accidental nap at 4 am.
The sleeper class is mainly occupied by locals traveling and it is a fun circus with people selling and trading anything you could imagine, it never got quiet during the 20 hour train ride. At 2 am the conductor checked our tickets and I told him not to wake K.G up unless he wanted to die painfully by the hands of my little bundle of joy. After the conductor left a cheeky local fellow came to tell me that we were in his bunks and needed to move, he was pretty relentless and finally I had to tell him to leave or I'll wake up my wife and she'll kick his ass. Maybe it was the moonlight from the window that lit my bicep when the train slowly turned that made the man realize he was better off moving to the next car and find an easier target. I like the latter option.
We arrived to our station around noon and hunted down a jeep with Alex and Elena from Russia, whom we met in Varanasi to take us to the town of Darjeeling at 7000 ft. It took about an hour to fill the jeep with 8 people including some locals and a lady with her son from Australia.
Darjeeling is famous for 2 things, tea and the toy train. The tea is amazing even for a coffee drinker like me and it is served everywhere here with great pride like wine in Italy. We've sampled a lot of them and visited 2 tea plantations including the very first one established around 1850 after the British had found this area's climate perfect for growing tea.
The second thing is the toy train that is another British invention, it is called the toy train because the tracks are only 2 feet wide due to the terrain. There is a steam and a diesel version and the going is very slow, you can jump off and take a couple of pictures and jump back on. It was a key piece in developing Darjeeling to what it is now in terms of transportation but these days it is just a cute way to travel few miles for tourists.
We've spent the days here hiking the hills up and down with Alex and Elena and stopping to taste teas and local pastries. Yesterday we took the gondola ride down to the tea plantations, the ride was a super fun way to see all the hillsides tea plantations. On one of our walks we got engaged with the local kids for game of hacky sack that's called chungi by the locals and I also got to do it with students at the local monastery. The population here originates from Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan and they are extremely nice and hospitable. They invite you to their houses for tea and tell about their lives here and their dreams of one day having this area as separate state called Gorkhaland. We've really enjoyed staying in Darjeeling, enough to spent 5 days here instead of the planned 3. Highly recommend this place, especially those traveling in India who are seeking for a place to relax and breath the clean mountain air.
Tomorrow K.G and I head back down to the valley to a town called Siliguri that is about an hour away from the Nepalese border. The plan is to cross to Nepal the day after tomorrow ( Saturday) and catch a bus and start heading towards the city of Pokhara in the middle of Nepal. Nepal has had some hard times after the earthquake and the fuel crisis and we are expecting the traveling to be more challenging from here on, but at the same time we're really excited to see it and to spend few dollars to help the nation rebound back.
Peace out, we're heading out to drink some green tea and eat some momos!
PS. One of our group photos is shot in the local Indian style, can you guess which one?
After an overnight stop in Jaipur (the picture of the pink building is the Wind Palace there) and we headed on to Varanasi by train. What can I say about Varanasi...guidebooks and fellow travellers warned that it'll be intense and that's exactly what it was!
We took an overnight train from Jaipur that was supposed to take around 16 hours, you add a little bit of Indian magic and it turns into 21 hours. We got out of the train and right away you could feel that we were no longer in the cool and dry desert climate, Varanasi was hot and humid. India has a lot of odors (good and bad) and when the weather is like it was it multiplies the effect.
We opted to not take the prepaid tuk tuk inside the train station parking lot and decided to go outside the gate and find a good deal, we ended up finding a great deal of assholes who were fighting to get our dollars. The situation got pretty intense when they started pulling me with force to get into their tuk tuks, I finally had to make them respect my authority by flexing my muscles like a peacock. It worked out but I did get insulted in Hindi,but I did insult them and their mothers in Finnish to settle the score. Like Ron Burgundy once said " Wow that escalated quickly!" After we all calmed down K.G and I decided on a tuk tuk and started our journey to our guest house, I made a call to the owner of our lodging with our Indian cellphone that we got for $15 and he told us where to meet him. After 45 minutes and 4 phone calls to our guest house owner Rahul our driver was able to find his way, Rahul then escorted us to the guest house and gave us few tips how to survive Varanasi. Our room was nice, bathroom was communal and did not have warm water but the weather was hot enough to not miss it.
We spent our days ( 3 ) in Varanasi walking along the shores of the holy river Ganges people watching and doing yoga on our guest house roof top. In the guest house we had 2 German/Canadian girls who had just graduated as yoga instructors and gave free sessions every morning at 8 am, I'm as flexible as an iron bar so they had to correct my posture often. The yoga was a great way to start the day relaxed before heading out to the streets of Varanasi.
Some of you might already know that Varanasi is one of the holiest sites for Hindus, they believe that if you die there and your body is cremated the right way will end the cycle of rebirth. There are two ghats ( spots on the river banks ) where the cremation happens out in the open. One of them has always a cremation going on 24/7, when the previous burning is about to end they'll light up the next one. We didn't feel disgusted or shocked to see this but it wasn't exactly something to eat your lunch next to it either. In one of the pictures we posted on the slideshow you can see the amount of fire wood they have next to the burning ghat. The amount of wood needed to do a complete burn is calculated very precisely by experienced "undertakers". The life around these burning ghats goes on normally, men play poker and kids kick the ball right next to the fires. Walking along the ghats we were constantly stopped by very entrepreneurial Indian men trying to shake our hands and then grip your hand with 2 hands and start massaging your arm while telling you how tired you looked and what the price would be. If it wasn't one of these guys then it would be a person selling you a boat ride, drugs, chai or all of them.
Varanasi is now officially checked off the list and we did not find it holy for us, many westerners do though. We weren't big fans of the place, but it is definitely something to see and experience, it's up to you how many days you want to spend there. We met quite a few people who stayed at our guesthouse who were staying for extended time in Varanasi, either to study local music, yoga, meditation, or religious practice. Although the place is very spiritual for some, K. G. and I had a very hard time looking past the burial ground of a river with deceased things floating by as the Hindu pilgrims bathed in it. An Irish nurse who worked in Kolkata for 10 years told us about these westerners who came to the hospital with multiple diseases, bacteria and viruses who had washed away their sins in the holy river. Needless to say, we kept our distance from the water and my pink Speedo stayed in the backpack...for now.
From Varanasi we took the overnight train to Darjeeling and that was an adventure. More on that in the next post...
After a very gnarly over night bus to Udaipur (we got the sleeper AC bus, but the roads in this country are just not meant to be driven) we awoke at sunrise on the rooftop terrace of the Dream Heaven Guesthouse. The top photo is taken from the restaurant on top of the guest house. The city is in hills surrounding a lake (unfortunately unswimmable as all water here in India is) with narrow walkable roads throughout. We really enjoyed this town.
There was a large hill on which a monsoon temple stood and Ville and I spent a few hours walking outside the city and to the top. It was the first time in India that we got away from the city chaos for a while and worked up a sweat. Since the roads are such chaos in India, it really is not possible to do much walking anywhere we have been yet. Sadly, we found they charged a decent amount at the base of the hill to walk up the road because it was an animal preserve, which actually wasn't the sad part, but that even the animal preserve is littered everywhere with garbage. It's really sad to see the littered and burning of garbage everywhere in India.
When on the train, they just throw the garbage outside. Streets, littered and heaped with garbage. Most guesthouses we stay in do not provide garbage bins, and you are hard pressed to find garbage bins when walking around cities. Everyone just throws there trash on the ground. Guess it gives someone a job to sweep it into a pile and burn it. I think this amounts for part of the reason there is a haze always laying over towns and cities. We still haven't taken to being able to throw garbage on the streets and instead bag it and leave it in guesthouses for them to probably throw on the street. Oh well.
We hiked also a gondola hill while here and even went to a very disappointing old car museum. We read how the car from James Bond: Octopussy was there (and Ville needed to see it with his own eyes) but most of the cars were not well preserved and there was only a few for to see for the hefty ticket price. But nonetheless Ville got to see his car and we had such a fantastic meal at Natraj Thali that we hit it up twice! Thali is a set meal of 3 different dishes, naan bread, and a couple sides that they continue to load your plate with as you eat until you physically explode. All who know Ville know that a place like this is his kind of place. The first sitting at this place was a new one for me, the place was packed full of middle aged Indian men and I was the only woman in the place. Our second time we got to sit with an Indian family we didn't know and they just stared at us while we ate together and the man finished his meal with a nice big belch. Oh, another cool tidbit. Burping and farting are totally ok here and no one seems to notice when they just let them rip! Ville has really taken to this and feels the need to burp and fart louder than the Indians (Finnish pride I think) so it's been pretty cool. And staring is not rude. So that has taken a little getting use to as well. And we get stared at a lot! I mean, we are pretty good looking I guess.
Somehow after our last miserable bus experience we got talked into another bus to Ajmer (the promise of a 5 1/2 hour trip turned into over 7) and we just made the last bus to Pushkar, our final destination. Pushkar was also pretty cool. Only 15000 people and another town with a holy lake in the middle. We arrived on a holy day for Hindus to come bath in the lake and was pretty cool to see. Again we found a temple on a hill that took over an hour and large stairs to climb to the top and then another smaller temple at the top of a hill. We stayed in a guesthouse just off the main street and therefore was actually quiet and we slept a whole 2 uninterrupted nights of sleep! The first since arriving in India.
Caught the local bus back to Ajmer (met 2 of the cutest kids on the bus we played with) and caught the 2 hour train to Jaipur, capitol of Rajasthan. Just checked into the Moustache Hostel in Jaipur (sister hostel to the one we stayed at in Delhi) and will see some sights tomorrow before our train to Varanasi.
Ta Ta for now!
Thanks to a very sweet girl, Gauri, Ville and I experienced a very different Delhi than most. Gauri is Indian and lives in Delhi very close to the amazing Hostel Mustache she recommended (if ever in Delhi you must stay here, the staff is fabulous and it is a much needed place to relax, unplug, meet with fellow travelers, with 5 star accommodation!)
Gauri picked us up to go to yoga, unfortunately a flat tire took us a minor detour from that, but back on the road she took us to the best market in Delhi, Sarojini Nagar Market, with incredibly cheap clothes and we loaded up on warm weather things for Darjeeling and Nepal. Next, our tour guide took us to a food festival near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (where big matches of cricket are played, the nations most enthralling sport!) After stuffing our pretty little faces, we headed to the trendy Hauz Khas Village. It seemed like a hip new area of restaurants, bars, and places where hip, young Indians come to either work in an innovative start-up space, grab (expensive in relation to everything else) drinks with friends, or hang out in the old fort near a lake and smoke cigarettes. It was our most fun yet getting to meet a local and get the inside scoop on the cultural norms, the places to go and just what its like to be an Indian today. Thanks Gauri for being awesome!!
Next, we headed on an overnight train to Jaisalmer in the Rajasthan area of India. The train actually went really well compared to our last bus experience, and we even roomed with a nice middle aged Indian couple in the same berth who only spoke Hindi, but who needs words when body language says it all. Finally, Jaisalmer was quite a bit less crowded than the last few cities and we were able to check into a guesthouse near the fort and take a deep breathe. I can't even explain how nerve racking it is to walk out the door and head ANYWHERE in India without being here to experience it firsthand. The maddening honking from every direction. Motorbikes, cars, tuk tuks, cows, people, and every other thing you can imagine packed onto roads meant maybe for one car. And there is no order or rules. It's just step on the gas, break hard, and honk. A lot. Being a walker here is taking your life in everyone else's hands constantly. It's crazy how the madness comes together somehow and works, but really inefficiently. But it works.
Jaisalmer's Fort was pretty cool. People are still living in it and the narrow stone streets are littered full of people selling blankets, clothes, jewelry, and the likes to all the passing tourists. And yes, whities, but also we have seen lots of Indian tourists on our travels. And boy do they love to take pictures with us! But no, really, they do. It's the weirdest thing. And not just because word is out that Ville is a visiting male model from Sweden, but because they want to take the pictures home and show them off to friends we have been told. You will see we added one such pic above with a huge Indian family. Do we know them, of course not! They just asked to take pictures with us. Finally getting the attention we deserve. :)
The second night Ville and I did a camel safari where two young lads, whom we nicknamed (Dad you would be proud) Camel Warrior who is 17 and Little D who is 12, took us out on camels to sleep a night out on the dunes. On the way out of town we passed a gypsy village (Zoltan, we asked if they knew you) and met some pretty cute kids. Once on camels, Ville, aka Omar the camel trader, was a natural. He was like one with the camel. Riding a camel is like riding a horse with a strut. Pretty bumpy. And getting up and down was a trip. Camel Warrior and Little D were super into sunglasses, cell phones, and camera. Camel Warrior told us how in a couple years his father will decide on the girl he will marry from another village. He made us promise to come to his wedding. We said we will bring him a goat. He followed up a phone call the next day to make sure we will still be coming to his wedding.
These two boys cooked us a mean meal of curry vegetable, naan bread, and chai. It was great! And we got to sleep on a moonless night out under the stars. It was like PCT all over again, but with camels. Our ride back into town was fun, and Ville said that camel riding is not for boys. He just might need a new nickname. Anyone?
Until next time...
It was quite an adventure getting to Agra, but seeing the Taj Mahal in person was worth it.
Ville and I took a local bus down to Agra (oh just about 8 hours and one pee break what would take an hour and a half by car). The roads are atrocious. Completely packed full of everything from people, motorbikes, cars, semis, tractors, and everything you can possibly imagine packed into and onto those. It's wild. Detours everywhere and construction crews, looking in no hurry to finish a road project that could take years if they ever do get around to finishing it. Our bus was packed, and our bags on our laps, but only a $2 ride, what a deal. By the time we arrived in Agra, we were dropped at a very crowded spot a ways from where we were staying. The auto rickshaw driver drove us all over town lost and eventually dropped us somewhere to grab another one and try again. We finally arrived at our homestay late in the evening and were thrilled to drop bags and get food at a local restaurant (hadn't eaten since breakfast).
The homestay was decent, but sadly, as everything that gets a write up in Lonely Planet, now is overpriced for what you get and is also out to just make money off you. Even the friendly auto rickshaw driver we hired from there just to take us around to see the sights, made multiple stops at crappy marble and textile shops trying to sell us countertops to stuff in our backpacks. Unfortunately, the best part of Agra is the Taj Mahal and everything else could be missed. It is a city catered to tourists and draws lots of poor Indians trying to eek out a living and get by. You can't blame them.
We arrived at the Taj Mahal at sunrise and it was magical! It's just so massive and the surrounding gardens were beautiful. Monkeys and bright green parrots were everywhere and being there so early we dodged most of the crowds. Ville and I agreed that part of the pure beauty of the Taj Mahal is being in India and the challenges of getting to it. It's quite different than getting off a train in Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. But such intricate detail in all the carving of the marble inlaid with jewels. After the Taj Mahal we went to see the Red Fort which was also a massive fort built in 1565 and about a mile and a half circumference. Also impressive with views in the distance of the Taj Mahal. After we were drug to many crappy shops, followed by Baby Taj (built before the Taj Mahal and much smaller) before being taken to a park to watch the sun set across the river from the Taj Mahal. It was an eventful day.
Today we caught a train, that was actually only 20 min. late (a miracle for trains in India) and only 4 hours instead of the 8 by bus. The cabin on the train was Ville and I on top bunks with snoring and farting Indian men beneath. There also were only windows for the bottom bunks so it takes quite a lot of focus to not let my claustrophobia get the best of me. And now we are back at the best place to stay ever when in Delhi, the Moustache Hostel! Excellent staff, great computers, breakfast included, chai, and full of great travelers to meet. Tomorrow we will see Gauri, a girl we met on the flight to India, and go do some yoga and exploring.
Until next time...
Delhi! And thanks to Delhi we finally have decent internet to write an update. For those who haven't yet been updated, Ville and I decided to take a belated 3 month honeymoon and head to India, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand (and not necessarily in that order).
We had a very eventful flight here: got a ride from Mom to Portland where we got to hang with Lisa, Sean, Braydon, Mom, Jordan and Reina. Our flight to Vancouver went off without a hitch and when we arrived in Vancouver, the pilot for our China Airlines flight drove the plane off the runway and got it stuck or something and they had to cancel our flight to Taiwan while flying a new plane over. We got put up in a very classy joint to sleep for a few hours and some food vouchers and back to the airport the next day for our flight to leave at 2:30pm (15 hours later). Thirteen hours later we arrived in Taipei, Taiwan for quick hour or so layover in a very empty airport and on to Bangkok where we arrived 2 am local time and over 37 hours of travel later!
Bangkok was a quick stop, an overnight in the airport, and we had a flight the next day to Kolkata, India. Kolkata was a trip. Even for these two travelers, we both agreed one of the craziest places we have been so far. Kolkata is like a rich, classy broad who has lost some screws and way past her prime, but still rocking some broke high heels with a cigarette hanging from her lips. The sheer number of people in India makes for a much smaller area of personal space and is taking a bit to get used to. The streets are absolutely maddening and a taxi ride is worse than a very rickety and cheap roller coaster. Lights mean nothing. streets have no grid, there are no lanes, everyone takes the right of way, and you just get ballsy and run for your life to cross. It's a rush!
And the food!! Dosas and curries. Naan and roti. We have been trying it all, all be it Ville got a bit of a stomach bug already and had a fever the last couple days and is finally on the mend. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So we hopped an early plane to Delhi this morning (was a zoo at the airport) and made it to a hostel here in a quieter part of town and are so relieved to get a hot shower, a room without mice and mosquitos, and hot AND running water! Oh boy!
K.G. & Ville
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