I am now back in the country where the travel bug first really bit me- Nepal. Four and a half years ago I fell in love with the mountainous valley of Pokhara while volunteering at an orphanage and venturing into the Himalayas with some walking sticks and a large backpack. Before I get into that, I’ll finish off with India.
Harry and I arrived to Agra after about 4-5 hours of being on the train; the ride should have been 2-3, but it’s India so delays are expected. We hopped on a rickshaw to the Pizza Hut, where we would meet our new Couchsurfing host. From there our host, Rohit, took us to his hotel where we got an early nights rest in preparation for sunrise at the Taj Mahal.
After a poor nights sleep due to mosquitos buzzing around our heads all night, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5AM to get to the ticket office by 5:30AM, which is when the crowd starts. You want to be the first person in the Taj to get the perfect pictures without anyone it your shots, but it’s hardly possible. Even at 5:30 the line up was long and the gates weren’t going to open for another half hour. My “perfect shot” actually took some hours of photoshopping out the crowd because by the time we entered there were already at least 50 people in front of us. But, regardless of people, it was still a spectacular sight to see. The architecture was, of course, beautiful; some of the detail was so intricate in the designs and everything was so symmetrical.
We learned the history behind the Taj Mahal- it is a Muslim structure (there is a mosque on site) and it was created as a tomb for the favourite wife (Mumtaz Mahal) of an emperor in the 17th century (Shah Jahan). It is one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. That is, of course, the long story short. If you want to know more, Wikipedia is probably more helpful than I.
Anyway, we were really glad we got to see the grand Taj finally. It nearly marked an end to our India journey- we had to then sit in our Couchsurfers clothing/gift shop for the next several hours while we waited for our night train to leave to Varanasi. It was alright though, we managed to find stuff to do and that night had a really good (and cheap) meal from the restaurant next door.
Around 10PM, our host drove us to the train station. Our train was to leave at 11PM. Something like four hours later, we finally caught our train. India, I tell you.
Our train being that late also meant we were arriving to Varanasi much later. We ended up being on that train for about 24 hours, it was supposed to be 10-12. At that moment we were really glad we hadn’t cheaped out and bought 3AC seats instead of sleeper or general. We knew it would be a long ride so we figured it wasn’t worth the pain of the lower classes. I wasn’t sad to be missing the heat of the day, the smells, the dust, people hoarking out the windows, etc. It was almost like we were in another world for 24 hours. Then we arrived in Varanasi and remembered where we were.
We were there around 3AM and still needed to get to the tourist centre. Rickshaws were trying to charge us upwards of 200 rupees, a complete rip-off, just because of the time (and our white faces). After much searching and bargaining, we finally found a guy to take us for 60 rupees. We were happy to have saved a total of about $2.80. I’m sure back home most of you are thinking, “Why would you even bother going through the hassle of bargaining for such a small amount of money??” There are three main reasons, the first being you can’t think in “back home currency”, you have to think, “What would a local pay” in order to know what a fair price is. The second reason is purely respect. The locals will think you’re just another dumb tourist if you don’t bargain to the bitter end. They might not like you so much if you get a cheaper price from them, but at least they will respect you and know you are to be taken seriously. The third is principle. It’s not right for locals to rip you off just because you have more money than them. I understand paying a bit more, and both Harry and I don’t mind it, but upping the price more than double is just wrong.
Anyway, we made it one way or another for a fair price to where we wanted to go, found a cheap room, and crashed until noon. We spent the next two days checking out religious sites and rituals, but blasted pretty fast through Varanasi because we just wanted to move on to Nepal.
After a couple nights there we were already making our way to the bordering country. We spent one night in a super awful hotel room in a city called Gorakhpur. We didn’t have a choice, it would not be a good idea to try to continue the journey through the night. All of the hotels were horrible. But I mean- this was reallllly bad. The dirtiest room I’ve ever stayed in, hands down. There was a little turd (about human sized) in the corner of the room, not even in the bathroom. That’s how bad we’re talking right now. We maybe would have chosen for a slightly better room but it was all we could afford with the currency we had left and it would have been really silly for us to get out more at the time (the ATMs charge you $5 every time when all we needed was $5). So we sucked it up and spent the night there. We were only there for about 6 hours anyway because we got up early to catch the 6AM bus to the border of Nepal, where we could finally live a little more peacefully.
We were still several hours away from peace because of the border crossing and the long bus ride to Pokhara (about 10 hours). But we were happy when we were granted our visas and were on the bus. Most of Nepal is a lot like India mixed with China/Tibet. Pokhara is the same but also with a very heavy Western influence. So until we finally arrived, we almost felt like we had never left India…except for the fact that the people are a lot less rude. That was an instant relief.
Over the past 4.5 years, Pokhara has become even more westernized and a lot has changed. The hotels have become much more plentiful and bigger, there are new outdoor shopping “centres” (not like a mall or anything, like a plaza with a few expensive shops). The prices have gone up a lot and it’s much harder to find cheap deals on things. And, on the positive side, it’s become a lot cleaner. There is still rubbish in the lake and here and there along the roads, but much less than the last time I was here. Also there are less cows on the road and stray dogs. I’m not sure if they were sent to other villages, adopted, dare I say euthanized, but somehow most of them have disappeared. They are also going to build an international airport here. I think to some extent they’ve gone too far- when I first came here, Pokhara had already lost it’s local charm but it still burned a bit beneath the tourism; now the flame has just been extinguished all together. You have to walk quite far out to see the real local side of the city. It’s nice to have decent western delights here, like REAL pizza, good (not great) baked goods, and all the vegan, raw, non-GMO, organic, soy free smoothies your hearth desires. But it’s really just another tourist city now.
Despite losing a bit more of it’s charm, we were super happy to be in Pokhara. We stayed a bit out of the tourist centre with some Polish Couchsurfing hosts, who provided us with the perfect room, super fast wifi, nice hot showers, and not to mention awesome company- everything we could have dreamed of. They were here for 6 months on their honeymoon and getting ready to leave because their visas wouldn’t let them stay another longer. Dominik is a software engineer, working on the road on some app development, and Patty is getting her massage therapy certification so she can eventually support herself that way. She is also a great cook and made us some really delicious meals during our time there. We ended up staying with them for about a week, maybe a bit longer even, and then they left to do one last trek before having to leave the country.
Harry and I moved to a hotel ($7/night), which was fine, but we did miss the luxury of being in their cozy house with the best wifi in Nepal. And that’s where we are now- prepping for our own trek. We’re about to do Mardi Himal, a lesser-known trek around the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) area. I will let you know how it went when we get back; ttfn, ta ta for now.