Hello from the Isle of Man!!!!!! Yes - we're back in the UK and apart from each other for the first time in 10 and a half months!!!!
Our last week was spent in India, which was certainly an experience! We were both looking forward to, and dreading, our time there so it was with trepidation that we boarded the bus to the Nepal border. We'd booked ourselves onto the middle of the range bus (at a pricely sum of £6 for an 8 hour journey!). The bus was very basic so God knows what the cheap bus would have been like. We arrived at the station at 6am ready for the 6.30 "tourist" bus. It turned out that the "tourist" bus was exactly the same as the local bus! To make the journey a bit more exciting the seat that Nick and I had wasn't securely attached meaning that every time we went over a bump (which was frequent) we got thrown into the seat in front! This was funny for the first half hour but the novelty soon wore off and as the road was incredibly twisty and bumpy it was very hard work staying on the seat! Then, about halfway along the road one of the bolts sheared all together meaning that we were only attached by one very loose bolt - what fun!!
Something we saw on our bus journey was villages with bison tied to posts by their horns! We were in the area at the time of a big Hindu festival where, on the last day, they sacrifice a buffalo by decapitating it with a huge Kookri knife. Apparently if the head isn't removed in one swipe it is considered very bad luck and the man doing the decapitation has to leave the village! A bit harsh really!?!
Anyway, we eventually arrived at the Nepal border town at around 3pm, a bit shaken and dusty, but in one piece. From here we had to take a rickshaw to the actual border where we had to search for the Immigration check point on the Indian side. As the Nepalese and Indians don't need to show ID to cross the border the whole area just looks like a big market and non-locals have to play search the Immigration office. Once across we joined with Laura and Wilbur (the other tourists from our bus) and jumped on a local bus to Gorakhpor. This was a very uneventful journey and we arrived in Gorakhpor just as it was getting dark. Laura checked into a hostel for the night while Wilbur, Nick and I bought a ticket for the night train to Varanasi and had some dinner. It was here that we experienced our first taste of the staring we'd been warned about. People in India will openly stare at white people and don't even look away when you look at them. Just walking down the street would almost cause accidents as the drivers were staring at us rather than where they were going- really odd!
The night train was uneventful. More comfortable than a bus, less comfortable than a hostel, and we arrived in Varanasi at around 7am.
Once there Nick and I made straight for Yogi Lodge, a hostel in our book which is recommended as they don't try to con you there. Unfortunately it's very difficult to find and in an area where rickshaws can't go so we had to ask for directions. This is more difficult than it sounds! As we discovered, you can't ask directions in India. A soon as we did we were physically guided to the hostel by a man who then wanted money! All we'd asked is "Is Yogi Lodge this way?" Our hostel owner told us he'd pay him, then didn't, meaning that the "guide" found us later in the day and followed us until we paid him!
The hostel organised a tour around Varanasi for us that morning and a trip on the Ganges for the next morning. So, the rest of the morning was spent visiting Temples and a silk "factory" with a guide from the hostel before Nick and I set off to wander around by ourselves.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and considered very holy by Hindus and Buddhists. It's the city where Hindus from around the world take there dead to be cremated as it is one of the few places in the world where they believe their soul will go straight to Nirvana. This means that the city is constantly full of people (but especially so when we were there as it was festival season!). People visit to be "cleansed" by the Ganges while the elderly and sick go there to die. The old city is a collection of incredibly narrow streets, full of markets, people and cows, which leads down to the Ghats on the river front.
In our first afternoon Nick and I walked down to the river front to see the Ghats. We saw people washing themselves and their clothes in the water at the cleansing Ghats then we continued to the famous burning Ghat. This is where the bodies are cremated. To westerners, who shy away from death, it was a very strange experience. The dead bodies are wrapped in cloth then put on top of a pile of burning wood and left until the body has completely burned. The body is then removed from the funeral pyre and the skull is smashed so the soul can escape! I can't imagine that going down to well at a Christian funeral! We saw the bodies on the fires but not the skull smashing (thankfully).
That evening we had arranged to meet Wilbur (from the bus and train) but the city is so busy and confusing that we missed him. We had a really good evening wandering the streets and watching the festival before having an early night.
The next morning we got up at 4.50 for our sunrise trip on the Ganges. It was absolutely beautiful to see the sunrise and the Ghats away from the chaos of the city centre. After sorting our train tickets to Agra for that evening we had another wander round the city. Varanasi is an amazing place, full of history and culture but unfortunately it is filthy. (Anyone who's read Terry Pratchet - Varanasi is how I imagine Angk Morepork.) The sacred cows that wander the streets are left to wander and sh1t everywhere, there are no rubbish bins so the locals just throw all there rubbish on the streets, we even saw some people sh1tting in the street!!!! You had to be really careful where you stepped! It's also ruined by the people who see white people as cash machines. People would latch on to us in the street and start telling us stories / trying to give us directions, unasked, then want money from us. This made us very wary of everyone who approached us (and some were just being friendly).
Anyway, that evening we jumped on the night train to Agra. Again, an uneventful journey. Well, except for dinner, it was lovely but we had no cutlery so had to eat with our fingers, the local way. We found this really difficult and felt like children with food everywhere! It was an experience though.
We arrived in Agra at 8.30 the next morning. We'd been told that Agra's a horrible place so had decided to just visit the Taj Mahal then get a bus to Bharatpur about an hour away. In fact when we arrived we were approached by a man who said he runs a tour company and could take us to all the sights for about £5. This sounded like a good deal to us so we agreed and went to put our bags in left luggage. When the man approached us he looked very smart, shirt and tie, neat hair and he showed us a very professional business card. We assumed he was the manager of the company and a different person would actually be taking us around. After we'd checked our bags in the same guy came back. Tie off, shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, chewing on beetle nut and spitting on the ground! It turned out that he was our rickshaw driver after all. He was a great guy though. He spoke really good English and took us to all the tourist places while telling us how to see them for cheap!
We visited the China Ka Rauza and Baby Taj first, both of which were built before the Taj Mahal. Then after lunch and a trip to a marble shop (we didn't buy anything which annoyed them a bit) I went to the Taj Mahal. Nick decided not to go in as it is very expensive and he really wasn't that bothered about seeing it! It is a very beautiful building and I'm really glad I saw it but it was very crowded and expensive. Anyway, while I was looking round the Taj Nick went to the rooftop bar of a nearby hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal. Here Nick had a beer and our rickshaw driver had a quarter bottle of whiskey!!! He was quite happy and driving even more erratically on our journey to the bus station, but, we got there in one piece and set of on the very short trip to Bharatpur.
Bharatpur is a small town with a large wildlife reserve nearby. We wanted to see some of the Indian countryside as well as the cities and this seemed like a good way to do it. We found a lovely hostel and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and chatting to the other guests then had an early night in preparation for the next day.
The next morning we got up early, had breakfast then headed into the park. We had to fight off an army of rickshaw drivers and guides who wanted to accompany us around the park but we really wanted some time alone and eventually managed to escape them. We're really glad we decided to go alone as we could go to places on foot where rickshaws couldn't go. This meant that we saw wild deer, monkeys, turtles, lizards and all sorts of birds that the rickshaws would have scared off. It was a very tiring walk though. We were out walking from 7.30am until 3.30pm and it was ridiculously hot! What is it they say about Mad dogs and English men?!?!?
That afternoon and evening was spent relaxing and recovering from the heat of the day though we had no other guests to talk to this time. The couple who had been there (originally from India but have been living in Atlanta for the last 20 years) had left because it was too hot!!!
And so to our final train journey of the trip. From Bharatpur to Delhi. Remember what I said about Indian people staring at white people? Well, I don't think they have ever seen white people before at Bharatpur train station. We had to wait half an hour for our train and in that time we had a circle of people, old and young, male and female, sitting and standing around us just staring. They didn't move, didn't look away, hardly even blinked for half an hour - really weird.
We arrived at Delhi at around 1pm and after a bit of hastle with the rickshaw driver (he wanted us to stay in a very expensive place so he could get his commission, we didn't want to) we found a decent hotel (with air con and a TV!!!!) had a wander round the local area, dinner and an early night.
So, our final day after 10 and a half months travelling!! The 2nd October is the birthday of two very important people - Nick Massey and Mahatma Ghandi. This was great as it meant that it was a national holiday in India so the streets were very quiet and everyone was really happy. It was bad because Ghandi's birthday is a dry day in India. So, there was Nick trying to buy beer to celebrate his birthday and he couldn't. Even saying "But it's my birthday too and I want a beer" didn't work! Anyway, we spent the day walking around Delhi, we visited the Red Fort and India Gate then walked along the Rajpath to ParliamentPalace (designed by Edward Lutyens). Delhi was surprisingly clean and trouble free and we had a really enjoyable day. We finally managed to get some beer in the hotel and so had some beers with a Scottish guy and Swiss couple who'd just arrived before going to bed in a foreign country for the last time on this trip!
The next morning we were up at 4am for our taxi to the airport. After a 9 hour flight we arrived in Heathrow then transferred to Manchester where we were met by our parents. Then to Nick's parents house where there was a small surprise party with Nick's sister and boyfriend, my sister and husband, my niece and boyfriend and our friends Rob, Elisa and new baby Sofia! A brilliant home coming.
So, here endeth the travel blog!
Finally, we would like to say thank you to all of our friends, old and new, who we met, stayed with and travelled with on our trip. Your friendship and hospitality helped to make this trip even more unforgettable and it wouldn't have been half as good without you.
Take care everyone and we'll see you / speak to you very soon.