‘Jhong, jhong’ Annapurna Base Camp

We reached Tadapani at 4.30pm on day 3 of our 13-day trek. The rain and hail had stopped, but grey clouds continued to swirl and thunder still rumbled overhead. The twelve members of our party had been stretched thin by a steep climb up from a river crossing a couple of kilometres back.

Amy and I turned around as we reached the first tea house and waited. Peering out from under our rain hoods we could see other trekkers through the windows of various guesthouses, already comfortably settled into their accommodation for the night. Emma and Oliver came next with Tobin, Sydney, Andrea and Peter, our Canadian friends not far behind. Pasang, Nima, Pemba and Mingma, our guides and porters, were hot on their heals despite being weighed down with our gear.

Tadapani was a pretty little village, nestled in a saddle of the mountain foothills. Heavy set stone guesthouses roofed with the ubiquitous blue corrugated iron of this area were joined by terraced stone walkways and patios. It was surrounded by the Rhododendron forest that had made for a wonderful days trek and would have had magnificent views had the weather been clear.

It would have been nice to linger. We had hiked a full day already from Ghorepani along high ridges with views of the Annapurna range before descending steeply into a beautiful forested gorge following a babbling creek. The weather had been perfect right up until we finished lunch. Then clouds gathered threateningly and the heavens opened.

By the time we reached Tadapani we were all tired and wet and while some us may have been ok with trekking in the storm others were not. Our night’s accommodation was, according to our guides, 20 minutes further on and with the clouds again darkening overhead we drew breath and hurried on.

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Trekking in the storm

Nima lead the way, with Tobin and Andrea hot on his heals as we very quickly gave up hard won elevation. No sooner had we left Tadapani than the rain, thunder and lightning started up again. We were somewhat protected by the forest but that also reduced the ambient light and it suddenly felt like night was only a short time away. Down and down we went, with increasing urgency, following a goat track of a trail over twisted roots, muddy slopes and unsteady rocks.

The rain began to mingle with hail while the thunder and lightning continued to crackle. After twenty minutes of racing down the hillside our estimated time of arrival stretched to ‘twenty-five minutes more’. I tried not to be despondent, but began to question whether we should have insisted on stopping for the night back at Tadapani.

It had already been a long day. Peter, Emma, Amy and I had started walking at 4.30am that morning for a side trip to watch sunrise over the Annapurna range from the 3200 metre Poon Hill. The others were also awake and out of bed at that time, at least for a while, after Pasang had come knocking on our door reporting that the weather was all clear and the views worth the early morning effort. Whether to stay at Tadapani was, however, now a moot point. We had given up so much elevation so quickly that it would have been more than we could muster to climb back up the way we had just come.

So we pushed on, and on. Tobin in particular was on a mission to put a solid roof over his head as soon as possible. He marched determinedly at Nima’s heals. If he could have gone faster and the lead the way himself, I’m sure he would have. Andrea was right behind him equally determined to support him in his endeavour. The light got dimmer as the day faded in earnest. My own anxiety grew a little as I steadied my voice to reassure Amy our guides knew exactly where they were going.

And then, just as quickly as we had stepped into the darkness of the forest we stepped back out. Lightning still flashed and rain and hail continued to fall, but without the canopy of trees overhead everything was brighter, including our spirits. A blue tin roof five hundred metres on had us convinced our day was finally done. I relaxed, squeezed Amy’s hand and reassured her we were finally there. When we caught up with Andrea, Tobin and Nima however, Andrea looked at me gravely and informed us, ‘this isn’t it’.‘Apparently it’s just over there’, Andrea said pointing to a place out of sight below the hill which continued steeply down before us. When everyone else caught up we stepped out from under the eaves of the abandoned building we were sheltered under and followed Nima once again. Five minutes later it was ‘it’. A brightly coloured and cheery Nepalese teahouse presented itself sitting snug into the hillside. The tension lifted and Peter calmly declared, ‘that’ll be the day we talk about the most’.

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The morning after the first storm – we were ready for more
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The second of the afternoon storms

Maybe. We encountered a similar storm the very next day. Despite these challenges everyday of our journey to Annapurna Base Camp and back seemed better than the last.

The trek started at Nayapol (1090m), where we were dropped off after a hairy minibus ride. ‘We go by walk now’, Pasang told us. Nearly everybody and every thing ‘goes by walk’ from that point. Just a little further on, at the village of Hille, the road ends, but despite the lack of vehicles a network of villages and life carries on. They are supplied with everything you could want by trains of donkeys laden with goods or by basket carrying Nepalese bearing up to 120 kilos at a time (or so we were told) as they climb up and down the steep mountain trails.

Trekking here therefore really requires very little. Way less than perhaps than we had loaded onto the backs of our Nepalese guides and porters. Based on previous hiking and camping experience we took everything we would usually take for a week or so in the wild minus the tents, cookware and food (we did take approximately 60 snickers bars). Even then the eight of us managed to fill three large packs and four day packs with stuff.

Our Nepalese companions by comparison appeared to bring little more than the clothes on their back (jeans and a t-shirt) and a warm coat for the evening. While trekking through afternoon thunderstorms in our fancy new raincoats and rain pants, Pasang, Nima, Pemba and Mingma simply pulled a large plastic bag over the packs they carried to keep it and them dry. I wondered what they really thought of us and all the other trekking pole wielding, gortex clad warriors they accompany.

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Canadian and Australian rain gear
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Nepalese rain gear

They probably weren’t too fussed. Carrying gear for foreigners, no matter how over the top, provides much needed income. Pasang, our guide for these two weeks had his home destroyed in the massive earthquake that happened almost exactly a year ago. He and his family have been living in a leaking tent ever since as they work to save up enough money to finish off the house they are building to replace the old one.

Pasang, ‘…is a mountain man’, the fellow at the Trekkers Information Management Office in Pokhara had told us before issuing our trekking permit. He had insisted on meeting our guide before issuing the relevant documentation. Pasang however had only to say a few words before the permit man was convinced of his credentials. Pasang himself would say, ‘I’m Nepalese strong’. He was too, although I didn’t really know what ‘Nepalese strong’ meant at first. I thought we were pretty strong too. Emma and I have both been known to run long distances and we have both lugged twenty plus kilo packs uphill and down dale in our time. Andrea and Peter have similar, and probably even more adventurous, credentials. If it weren’t for the cultural expectation that a guide and porters be employed before heading into the mountains, I probably would have insisted on lugging my own bag here as well.

By the end of day two however, I had changed my tune. The day started out innocently enough, contouring around the side of the plunging ravines which make up this area (and most of Nepal I suspect). The stone trail soon turned to stone stairs that went up and up and up. Then they went up some more. Up we went too until we had climbed so far I found it hard to comprehend that there could be anymore land up there above us.

‘Bishtari, Bishtari’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ Pasang urged us all, but by lunchtime the collective burn in our thighs was enough to cook a meal. We sat and enjoyed a lunch of potato rostis, fried noodles and rice and other items from the set mountain menu while enjoying the view from a terrace perched precariously on the edge of the slope. And yet our days work was only half done. We had climbed 800 metres since starting out that morning and still had 600 more to go before reaching the village of Ghorepani at 2800m.

For the most part everyone took the day’s toils in their stride. Tobin displayed character which belied his age initiating game after game of ‘20 questions’ as he hiked along in good humour. So, for that matter, did Sydney and Amy. Andrea and Peter’s ‘peg game’ kept everyone well entertained. We all snuck around trying secretly to deposit a clothes peg on a fellow hiker without their noticing and then watching with amusement to see how long it would take them to discover they had been ‘pegged’. Oliver found some demons to contend with late in the day as the efforts of our ascent took their toll, but kept on regardless.

We reached Ghorepani, our home for the night, nearly eight and a half hours after setting out and with a collective sigh of relief. An apple strudel from the German Bakery below the rustic Fishtail guesthouse revived Oliver’s spirits and I reflected on the meaning of ‘Nepalese strong’. I was forced to admit I was very grateful for the company and assistance of our porters and guide.

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Pasang and Nima – ‘Nepalese strong’

Back to the the morning after our trek through the storm (day 3) – it dawned clear and calm. The rain had washed much of the smog and haze from the air and mountain peaks which had appeared ill defined and floating, as if in mid air, from Poon Hill suddenly crystallised. I felt 20% happier just for standing and looking up at the ice covered ridges, peaks and flutes.

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The mountains from Poon Hill were mostly hidden by ‘smog’
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The sight made Greg 20% happier

We set off by continuing steeply downwards to a suspension bridge over a river before climbing right back up the other side. Nowhere in Nepal is flat. Obvious I know, but still quite a thing to experience. In the mountains of Nepal, you walk everywhere and everywhere is either up or down and steep, regardless of direction.

It was fascinatingly wonderful to walk through the landscape. Not a wilderness, but still wild. Small stone villages dot the massive slopes, surrounded by terraced agricultural land and interspersed by patches of forest, plunging creeks and waterfalls. On some slopes landslides stood out like scars with huge piles of rubble and debris accumulated in the river channels below.

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Tobin performing ‘black magic’ on day 3
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Through the rhododendrons

Flat spaces upon which to stand, live and grow crops have all been hard won, hewn by human hand from the hillsides. As we occasionally contoured around the hills rather than climbing up or down, I felt like I was flying, such was the perspective granted by our vantage point over life on the hillside below.

On day 4, at the village of Chhomrong three valleys intersect. To our right the valley descended the way we would travel upon our return from the top. Behind us was the path we had just traversed from Tadapani and to our left the valley leading up to Annapurna Base Camp – still 2000 metres higher than where we stood.

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Chhomrong views
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Pemba, Pasang and Mingma enjoying milk tea at Chhomrong

I could have turned back to finish our trek at this point and been eternally grateful for a magnificent experience. There was however no need for that. We all seemed to grow in strength each day, even if we were well ready for sleep each night. Oliver, having found the third quarter of day 2 tough had landed upon a sound strategy for managing the physical ups and downs and was now taking the whole experience easily in his stride. Tobin struggled with the afternoon storms which crackled across the sky but despite that showed no sign of wanting to turn back.

Overall, the eight of us, twelve including our guides, were getting along so well I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather have been or anything I would rather have been doing. The whole experience was so enjoyable you couldn’t help but be present. No thought of where we were going next, or what had happened to bring us here entered my head, so absorbed was I in the company of our Canadian friends, the sights and sounds of life in the mountain foothills and the huffing and puffing of steps, stairs and trail.

It only got better from there. As we climbed up the valley towards our goal, agricultural and village life gave way to bamboo forested slopes filled with birdsong and the occasional group of monkeys. As we went higher the forest fell away too. Massive glacially carved valleys were filled with alpine grasses and all around us waterfalls plunged from impossible heights towards the river we were following. Surely this valley must have been the inspiration for the elven homeland of ‘Rivendell’ in the movies of The Lord of the Rings.

The scale of the place was hard to process. From exactly how high on the mountainside the many waterfalls tumbled I cannot say despite standing, pondering and marveling for quite some time. It must surely have been hundreds of metres, but could easily have been much more. Just as in the Australian outback we found it impossible to capture a sky which stretched 180 degrees from horizon to horizon in all directions, here it was impossible to point a camera at anything more than a sliver of the mountain scene. Though Peter and I tried our best!

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The Himalayas or Rivendell?
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To the mountains!

We climbed the final 900 vertical metres to Annapurna Base Camp on day 7 and for one reason or another it seemed a whole lot easier than the climb to Ghorepani on day 2. We made Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) by 11.00 am under bright blue sky and with brilliant views. Machapuchare is a sacred mountain standing 3 metres shy of 7 kilometres above sea level. It has an unusual shape, something like a fishtail and often goes by that name.

Ahead of us was a snow fall leading towards Annapurna Base Camp. The weather closed in quickly as we set off for the final leg. The temperature dropped markedly and t-shirts were soon replaced with coats and beanies and gloves were dug out of packs. Visibility also diminished as misty clouds blew silently past and the mountains disappeared from sight.

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Heading to ABC – the sun still shining
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Going up
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Almost there
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The weather closed in

When we reached ABC a couple of hours later it was impossible to imagine the mountains even existed. They must surely have been all around us, but all we saw were glimpses of snow and rock as the swirling clouds parted briefly before closing again. We played cards, read books, and drank warm drinks in the relatively warm common room with folk from all over the world and trusted the next morning would reveal the sights we had come to see.

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We made it!
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The girls played cards… out that window the next morning there would be mountains

Too much lemon ginger tea stirred me from my warm and cozy sleeping bag at 11.30pm that night. I reluctantly stumbled out of the dorm room we were all sharing to be greeted by a most excellent sight. The light of a nearly full moon illuminated crystal clear, 360 degrees, views of the Annapurna amphitheatre of mountains.

Annapurna Base Camp is surrounded by peaks. Our ascent in the misty weather now felt like climbing through a trapdoor into this secret, hidden place. Now it was the way back down to the world below that was hidden from view. I was so awed I stumbled around for 15 minutes before the sub zero cold and lack of clothes forced me back to bed.

I got up again a short time later when Peter went through the same experience. Peter however had no intention of returning to bed. Instead, after returning from the loo (washroom for Canadians), he started to fumble about in the dark as quietly as possible for his camera equipment. We both dressed more appropriately before spending an hour marveling at the sight. Tiredness saw us reluctantly return to bed around 1.00am.

We all emerged one by one from around 5.00 am that same morning though I wasn’t sure daylight could do anything to enhance the view. It was however like changing from black and white TV to colour making the scene that much more vivid. Many photos were taken.

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The same view as the photo above!
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Canadians at ABC
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Australians at ABC
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A Japanese expedition base
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Prayer flags
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Annapurna Base Camp
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Posing for photos

Here is a video taken in the early morning light – it gives you an idea of how magnificent it was.

We very reluctantly started our descent at 9.00. We wanted to stay longer but Pasang was worried about the weather which closed in each afternoon. ‘Jhong Jhong’ (let’s go, let’s go) he would say, and we knew he was right but it was oh so hard to tear ourselves away. Oliver became a little emotional when we informed him we had to go. He wanted to spend the whole day and another night.

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Sunshine on the way down from ABC

The journey down was just as great as the journey up. Slip sliding down the snowy hillside eased the pain of departure for Oliver who was enthusiastically joined in the fun by Tobin.

By day 8, collectively we operated like a well oiled machine. Tobin and Oliver often lead the way, chatting happily about the ins and outs of the ‘Percy Jackson’ books they have both devoured recently. They were like a roving mountain book club. ‘Let’s list all our favourite Greek demi-gods in alphabetical order’ I’m sure I overheard Tobin proposing to Oliver on one occasion.

Meanwhile Amy and Sydney discovered that stories made hiking all the more enjoyable and so Peter and I recounted tales of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, north American pioneers, and various adventurous travel experiences. It was a pleasure to watch as Sydney, Tobin, Amy and Oliver gradually began to behave increasingly like siblings, much as they have with other good friends back home. It was also a pleasure to get to know our new friends better and better as we all reveled in each others antics and personalities which became increasingly less guarded the further we went on.

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On the way ‘down’ to Chhomrong
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Tobin and Charlie the dog – he adopted us for a few days

 

I don’t know precisely how far we walked. There are too many possible routes to Base Camp for one standard measurement. Some signs suggested that direct route to be around 85 kilometres, but this didn’t include the loop we added to pass through Ghorepani and Poon Hill. Somewhere over a hundred kilometres seems most likely. A crude estimate of our elevation gain suggests we also climbed over four vertical kilometres to reach our goal. This however is undoubtedly a significant underestimate because it does not account for the many steep descents into and out of river crossing that had to be traversed between lodgings. Somewhere between 5000 and 6000 vertical metres seems more likely.

If someone had presented us with those figures before we set off, I’m not sure we would have gone. A 13-day trek, over a hundred kilometres in length and with a vertical elevation gain of approximately five kilometres sounds like a big ask for anyone, let alone 11 and 9 year olds. It goes to show you shouldn’t underestimate what your kids can do. It also goes to show that meeting up with adventurous Canadians should be part of everyone’s trip to Nepal!

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We made it down!

For me the trek to Annapurna Base Camp was the best two weeks of our trip so far. I can’t wait to come back and trek to Everest Base Camp, the full Annapurna Circuit, and the Mustang, Langtang and other trekking regions.

Travel well Peter, Andrea, Sydney and Tobin. We look forward to more adventures in Iceland.

 



There were so many photos we wanted to include – so here are a few more that didn’t fit neatly in the text.

Some trekking shots:

People:

Animals:

Teahouse times:

Finally thanks to the photographers: Peter, Greg, Andrea and Amy and probably Sydney too!

 

India: an addendum

‘What country are we in?’ Oliver asked at dinner last night. A fair question. A bit like asking what day of the week it is once you’ve been on a really good holiday for a while. Nepal is the answer, Chitwan – Nepal. You know you’re in Chitwan when elephants wander through the garden of your accommodation as casually as kangaroos hopping through Emma’s old horse paddock back home – there is one going past as I am typing.

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The view from Greg’s blogging spot
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Blogging life

We’ve been here for two days so far and are yet to leave the confines of the Sapana Village Lodge. Oliver, Amy and I have finished reading the second half of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore died which was a bit sad, but Harry and Ginny Weasley got together which was a bit happy. Emma, I think, has read a number of books, or at least most of one really long one.

You might say we’ve been having another holiday from our holiday. There are a host of wonderful things on our doorstep, but they will wait. Playing badminton over a bamboo pole resting on a couple of deck chairs has been all the fun we need.

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Badminton

India, as you may have gathered, was jammed packed and from where we left off last time we still weren’t quite done. We did, for example, have an interesting arrival into Delhi. We had done well, by and large, with accommodation selections and were quietly confident with our choice of the Skyz Homestay in Delhi. Until we got there, climbed the narrow staircase to the top floor of the building and were shown our rooms.

They were filthy. Thick dust covered un-mopped floors, bed sheets clearly hadn’t been changed from the previous occupants, and the toilets reeked with thick dirt all over the floors and shower doors hanging off the hinges. Our host asked me if everything was ok and comfortable. ‘The toilets could do with cleaning’ I think I said. He seemed surprised. Perceptive man. We made up an excuse to go for a walk where a family conference ensued. Emma purchased some further data credit for her phone and was soon hunting for new digs.

She found one within a kilometre of where we were but we had no idea which way it was in the maze of streets without names. Some helpful locals, followed by a lovely bicycle rickshaw man, soon helped us track down the lovely Megha Homestay and after looking at the room we booked on the spot. The rickshaw man took us back to the original place with the man who saw no filth, my mind plotting what I would tell him and wondering how he might react. Fortunately, we were spared that because he wasn’t home. We grabbed our bags and piled four people and luggage onto the rickshaw built for two for the journey back to our new place.

The next evening, we went to watch South Africa play Sri-Lanka in the T20 Cricket World Cup. Attending the cricket in India is not the same as attending the cricket in Australia. The Delhi cricket stadium looks gorgeous under lights on television and indeed from the stands. The stands themselves however are ramshackle as you would expect in India. Emma and Amy went to the toilet. Once. See photo and I’ll say no more.

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Not up to Australian standards…

We started off seated on the second tier of the stadium which was… loud. Indian supporters are incredibly enthusiastic even when India is not playing. We met one fellow who had caught a two-day train from Chennai to watch AB de Villiers play. He said, ‘It was horrible’. The train that is, not AB. AB smacked a massive six to win the game which we watched from our relocated seats on the upper, outdoor, tier of the stadium. The upper tier provided a brilliant birds eye view of the game without the echoing rumble of the excitable crowd.

I counted six requests for photos with us from other spectators. I think we were more popular than AB.  We did try to win the car using a sign like we had in Australia last year, but alas the cameras did not search the top tier. We all know Emma’s sign waving skills would otherwise have won it for us for sure.

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Watching from the top tier
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Trying to win a car!!

No trip to India is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal. It’s just one of those things, one of the most iconic structures in the world. What I love about going to places like this is the feeling of deja vu, or of stepping into the cover of a Lonely Planet book. It’s a little surreal to be in a place you’ve never been but which seems almost as familiar as your own front door.

We visited on a stormy day. Thick grey clouds provided a gorgeous back drop for the marble monolith. It was Easter Sunday and Amy and Oliver had Kit-Kats for breakfast at the entry gate at 6.46am because no food is allowed while I tried to work through in my mind whether or not India’s policy of charging foreigners 800% more than locals for the privilege of visiting such places is justified. I still haven’t worked out if I am ok with that or whether it seriously irks me. It is what it is, and I won’t dwell on it, but blanket policies which make assumptions about people based on skin colour are problematic.

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The first look… magical
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Practicing our silly poses
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The winning silly pose!
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Selfie at the Taj Mahal
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The sun almost came out as we were leaving

We paid 800% more than the locals to get into Fatehpur Sikri as well. Never heard of it? Neither had we, but Naresh suggested it was worth a look on the way to Agra so we said, ‘sure, why not’. Fatehpur Sikri was the short lived capital of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585. I can’t believe I didn’t know that. According to the Lonely Planet:

‘Emperor Akbar visited the village of Sikri to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne. When the prophecy came true, Akbar built his new capital here, including a stunning mosque – still in use today – and three palaces for each of his favourite wives, one a Hindu, one a Muslim and one a Christian (though Hindu villagers in Sikri dispute these claims). The city was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece, but erected in an area that supposedly suffered from water shortages and so was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.’

Imagine spending the fortune of an Empire building a city of magnificence without the foresight to check if there was enough water to support it. Alas it is through such decisions that UNESCO world heritage sights are created. I suspect however you need to be an Emperor before it is possible to simply put no foot wrong. For everyone else it is no doubt a case of ‘off with their head!’. I wonder if the fruits of any of my labours will be celebrated like this in the future. A UNESCO world heritage listing perhaps for the most short-sighted of advice I have provided the environment minister?

The fact that Akbar’s three favourite wives were ardent believers in three separate religions also seems remarkable given they seemed to happily co-exist rather than run each other through with swords. There’s always a favourite though and his Hindi wife had the most magnificent palace because she gave him a son – couldn’t have just been chance could it? Nah. It would however be a mistake to think Akbar had just three wives too. There is another tiered building in the complex built with 176 columns – one for each member of Akbar’s harem. I so want to be an Emperor. For the buildings I could construct I mean. What were you thinking?

Just an aside Akbar was the grandfather of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal).

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The massive temple square at Fatehpur Sikri
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Chilling at the Fatehpur Sikri – for Brendon

I think we better move on. Last story. A nice peaceful one. Of natural India and the wonderful wildlife it supports. Before the Taj and Fatehpur Sikri we stopped in at the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. On the back of a bicycle rickshaw we gently cruised this oasis of calm and serenity where we spotted no less than 41 different species of bird including kingfishers, black rumped woodpecker, Siberian ruby throat, painted stork, hornbills, and the aptly named yellow footed green pigeon.

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Cycle rickshaw at bird sanctuary
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White-throated kingfisher – for Khia
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Yellow footed green pigeon

But that’s it for India. We were done. We flew out to Nepal the day after the cricket match and spent two action packed days in Thamel, Kathmandu. Action packed because we were on a shopping mission to purchase the gear we would need to trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. Yep, in a little over a week from now we will be meeting up once again with the Canadian friends we first met in Cambodia before making the 10-12 day trek into the mountains.

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Shopping in the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu

In Thamel we purchased a bag full of trekking gear and about a dozen sizzling brownies. They were incredible! A sizzling hot plate supporting a rich moist chocolate syrup coated chocolate brownie topped with a ball of vanilla ice-cream. I don’t normally blog about food, but this was amazing. Dai – you’ve got to get over here. You’d love it!

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Yum!!

Beauty in the ruins

India is a handful. There is so much to take in that it will take some time to process – to work out what to make of it all. We approached India with some trepidation. When my fears ran away with me, as they sometimes do, I imagined India chewing us up and spitting us out. I had visions of being so uncomfortable we would end up hating it, and each other in the process. Emma had worries about us all being consumed by stomach bugs and curled up in bed for days on end.

These worries were not baseless as they sometimes are. I did visit India with work nine years ago. I went to Ahmedabad, where the air quality was so appalling you couldn’t see more 100 metres and where slums stretched as far as the eye could see. Others we meet, that have travelled to India, also invariably have tales to tell about Delhi belly.

This however has not been our experience. The sky has almost invariably been blue and apart from the odd rumble, our stomachs have been fine. The place is gritty and dirty and ramshackle and crumbling, but there is beauty in the ruins. I found it in Bundi, a town of colourful walls settled at the foot of another imposing old palace and fort.

In general, Bundi looks as though it has been constructed from the kind of materials we keep stored in the lean-to at the side of our house. Open drains abound, carrying grey water through a complex mish mash of alleys, lanes and streets. The water drains to a central lake so rich with nutrients it has turned an unnatural shade of green. Sound appealing? It’s not, unless you can also see the beauty it creates.

In amongst the drains and flaking walls, there is a texture and colour which is unique and captivating. As we walked the streets in search of step wells, forts and palaces I found myself happily snapping photos of the endless supply of intriguing walls, doors and windows. Every twisting turn presented new and beautiful sights.

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Bundi Palace – note the green lake
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Bundi – view from the Palace
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The beautiful colours
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Amazing step well in Bundi
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Indoor beauty also – staying at Bundi Haveli (Haveli translates to mansion)

Our little family of four however walked the streets of Bundi and had four significantly different experiences. It all depended upon what caught our eyes and imaginations. In Bundi I started to revel in our celebrity status. I also begun to feel comfortable, if not at home, walking the streets. Travelling in India I decided is not that dissimilar to elsewhere, its just not presented in such a glossy package.

Not everyone felt the same. Oliver made a throw away comment as we left our hotel one day to the effect of, ‘now I really appreciate good drains’. Bundi’s plumbing clearly came as a shock to him and it became a feature of his experience. It will, reasonably, take some time for him to become accustomed to this and for his focus to shift elsewhere. Emma and Amy were still struggling to different degrees with the heat, smells, noise (they really do honk way more than is necessary) and constant attention.

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Bundi street scene

The attention we all continue to receive almost everywhere we go is itself an ongoing riddle. It is almost impossible to know what the basis of our daily interactions with the local people will be. To so many people we are little more than walking ATMs and we have found ourselves on many occasions politely talking our way out of unsolicited diversions into shops, navigating our way out of services we didn’t ask for and studiously, if uncertainly, declining requests for a handout.

Not everyone however is out to lighten our wallet. We met some wonderful people who didn’t treat us like a walking rupee. Tony, his wife and sons from the Lake View Garden Restaurant in Bundi were among our favourites. The Lake View Garden is a small place with a crumbling kitchen and plastic tables and chairs weathered by the sun overlooking the unnaturally green lake. The food was incredible and cheap and we ate there three times a day.

By the end of our stay Amy and Oliver were roaming the gardens with new friends almost like they were visiting a school mate on a weekend. Tony and his wife were so lovely and so unassuming it was a pleasure to pay over the odds for the food they served.

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Friends at Lake View Garden
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Lake View Garden Family
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Amy having henna done – the kitchen is in that little door
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The revealing of the henna

Then there was Mr Kukki and his son Kukki Jnr (aka Bunty) – amateur archaeologists working out of Bundi. Mr Kukki is globally renowned for his discovery of ancient rock art (think aboriginal rock art such as in Kakadu) in the hills of Rajasthan. His story is a most inspiring tale. In short Mr Kukki moved to India from Pakistan as a refugee. As a young kid he started scratching around in the hills to escape work at his fathers shop through which he built up a handy collection of ancient coins. Not that he knew it.

He grew up some more and opened his own highly successful business and became a wealthy man (yep India has them too). His archaeological hobby however proved too much for him and he sacrificed everything he had to pursue his passion. He soon put together a collection of priceless ancient artefacts by scratching around in the hills in withering heat which he then donated to the national museum. He squandered a fortune to follow his passion and just when he had his ticket back to financial freedom he gave it away based on a principled decision that the artefacts he had found belonged to all of India.

Today the Kukki’s make enough rupees during the tourist season, by showing people like us a few of the ancient rock arts sites, to keep fossicking the rest of the year. When we asked how much a day out with the Kukki’s would cost, Kukki Jnr’s reply was, ‘that’s up to you. I’ll show you around, we’ll have a good day, and then you can give me a few rupees if you like’. It is a tale of dedication, passion and a calling triumphing over self interest.

Seldom do you have the pleasure of meeting such a man of principle who purpose in life is more clearly known. What a joy to be doing what you love, loving what you do and content and happy as a result. I hope one day to find this too and while I enjoyed the rock art, hidden out in the wilds on the edge of a gorge with vultures circling above, I enjoyed the Kukki’s enthusiasm and story more.

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Kukki Jnr explaining the cave paintings
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With some of the cave paintings
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We leant how to paint
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Leaving our mark (temporary graffiti – rain will wash this off)

Another Indian fellow interested in more than a rupee cut my hair while we were in Bundi. Growing my hair was fun, but I’m over it. I think it was a mild mid-life crisis and a hankering to break out of the Commonwealth Public Service mold, but the reality is it was bugging me. So I wandered into a tumble down little hobbit hole of a hairdressers unsure quite what to expect.

The haircut went as expected. A snip here a snip there. It was what followed that no one could see coming. At first I thought the man had mistaken my head for scone dough as he started slapping and pulling and kneading my scalp. Head massage, I soon cottoned on. Nice. Then I felt the strange sensation of fingers twisting in my ears. Did that feel nice? I’m not sure. A face massage, with special attention to the eyes, was followed a shower from a water sprayer which ran all over my face and down the front of my shirt.

‘Does everyone get this treatment?’ Emma asked as she, Amy and Oliver watched on. I don’t think she got an answer before he started on the chiropractic work, grabbing each of my arms in turn and wrenching them back as he simultaneously pushed me forward. An arm massage followed that and a knuckle cracking after that. A few slaps to the head topped it all off.

How much I asked him? ‘As you like it’, came the answer. The price of half the services in India is a matter of ‘as you like it’. I paid the equivalent of $3, which according to our driver Naresh was probably about $2 too much, but I’d do it again just for fun!

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Haircut time

We moved on from Bundi to Ranthambore and the Ranthambore National Park. We came to Ranthambore hoping to see a tiger. Not in a cage. Not in a zoo. In the wild. A real, live, wild tiger. Yep, that’s what we came for. We were not however expecting it to happen. People make many safaris into Ranthambore hoping to see a tiger and while the sightings are frequent enough to keep you hoping, people are more often disappointed than not.

We agreed to book whatever safaris were left through our hotel and hope for the best. We had tried to book in advance on line – three hours of Emma’s life she’ll never get back. After checking in I went to pay for a private ‘Gypsy’ (4WD) ride into the park but it wasn’t that simple. An Indian man with limited English guided me to the front door told me to wait and soon returned on his scooter. I got on and off we went, a little nervous because Emma had no idea I had gone.

We whizzed through the usual Indian chaos before arriving at the safari booking office, a fair sized concrete building packed full of locals desperate to get to an inadequate number of ticket windows. Into the fray I descended, urged on by my man from the hotel, pink safari slip in hand. I made the ticket window after some effort and pushed my safari slip through to the harried soul on the other side where upon I was told to wait until my name was called.

Which I did, sandwiched like a sardine with Indian men pressing up against me on all sides. It may have been unpleasant except I couldn’t help think what a wonderful cultural experience it was. What a spectacle of disorder. After thirty minutes I received my prize – four seats on a ‘canter’ in zone 5, one of the lucky zones for tigers.

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We got the last seats on the canter

The canter picked us up later that afternoon and we rumbled into the park. We whisked past spotted dear, samba dear, monkeys, peacocks, crocodiles and other creatures without more than a fleeting, bouncing, sideways glance. We were on a mission to get deep in to tiger country. These other curiosities were being reserved as a consolation prize on the way back.

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Consolation prize dear – photo by Amy

When we reached a cool, wet, grassy, green gorge in the dusty, rocky hills the canter halted and the guide did his best to keep everyone quiet while we sat and waited. I tried not to be disappointed. I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen. Alas, no tigers for us. The engine started up and we did a u-turn to head for home.

And then. And then. And then. And then there were three other canters and a few gypsys all stopped up ahead looking into the grass. We stopped too and cast our eyes around before locking onto an orange, black and white stripy head protruding from the grass. My heart leapt and Amy jumped a little with excitement beside me.

A tiger. It was a tiger. IT WAS A TIGER!! I couldn’t believe it. It sat there, in a pond of water fringed by grass, looking magnificent without really trying to. It just sat and watched oblivious to the 60 people staring at it, jaws dropped and cameras firing. For thirty minutes we watched as it swatted away insects with casual flicks of its head and paws before it slowly stood, turned and walked back into the tall grass. All eyes followed for as long as possible before it simply disappeared.

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Watching and photographing
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TIGER!!
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TIGER!!

We didn’t go on any more safaris. They are not cheap and we couldn’t see how the experience we had just had could be topped. We took the next day off. Playing in the pool, throwing a frisbee, doing school work and watching with amusement as the hotel staff used a hammer to smash the padlock off our hotel door when the key refused to work.

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Is this a theme? – hotel staff and door lock issues

The next day was Holi. We didn’t really know what to expect or even if we were in the right place to observe any of the goings on. We walked out into the streets hoping to see some colour and movement but unsure what we would find. Within minutes we were coloured from head to toe by different groups of young men all eager to help a family of foreigners experience the fun.

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Happy Holi
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Holi colours

We never expected India to be an easy place to travel. I think that Emma and I felt it was a place we ‘should’ visit, if only to deepen our appreciation of the life we lead at home. I’m not sure that Australians, by and large and without wishing to generalise, do always understand what they’ve got. It would however be condescending to suggest that we have it better all round. There is beauty and vibrancy and life in this country which we first found so different and strange.

It has been hard on occasion observing the discomfort felt by Emma, but more particularly Amy and Oliver – but does that mean we shouldn’t have come? I don’t know what Amy and Oliver will take from the experiences we have had so far, whether they are also taking in the beauty in the ruins. They have however now had exposure to how differently more than a billion people in this world live and this I hope will give them a broader perspective to chew over in the years to come.

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Beautiful ruins