48 hours as guests of the Iranian Police

5 February, 2010

Taftan (on the Iran/Pakistan border): 8 March 2008

With the desert sun well on it’s way towards the horizon we rolled to a stop just inside the border. Two young police officers with ill-fitting uniforms and awkwardly slung AK-47s eyed us up with what seemed like a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. After an uncomfortable pause, with us staring at them and them staring at us, one waved us forward while the other strolled over and slammed the heavy gate shut behind us.

We’d just crossed into the Islamic Republic of Iran, and with our single-entry Pakistani visas stamped out just a few minutes earlier there was no turning back. Iran is squeezed uncomfortably between Afghanistan and Iraq, so the only way out was thousands of kilometres to the north into Turkey. We had 28 days to drive the length of the country, and the nervous excitement was building between Simon, Pat and I.

Our first stop was the police checkpoint overlooking the border crossing. The cramped and messy office was all windows and the room was like a greenhouse. Three plain clothes officers sat sweltering in the heat, not willing to leave the sanctuary of their desktop fans as we entered. We were waved over and stood awkwardly as an officer took our passports in turn. He thumbed through the pages and looked us over in the same manner all border police do, a quiet prying look that we will soon become very used to. It was after 5pm and I’m sure they just wanted to get home so they handed back our passports without any grief. One of them begrudgingly wandered out with us and made a cursory inspection of the car – an unconvincing demonstration of the Islamic Republic’s front-line against the smuggling of illicit imports like alcohol, pornography, drugs and of course Christianity.

Back in the Hilux for the short drive across to the deserted immigration building. I don’t know how many people they process on a normal day, but one thing we’ve learnt about border crossings is that the size of immigration buildings is not so much a practical issue – more a blatant display of a country’s self-perception of wealth and status. A young immigration officer sat in the only occupied booth and he checked and stamped our visas without any fuss.

So we were legally in Iran, but our vehicle wasn’t. The Carnet we needed stamped at the Customs office would exempt us from paying import duty on the Hilux (otherwise we were effectively smuggling it into the country). We tried to ask the immigration officer where the Customs office was, but we were simply told to wait outside on the other side of the building. With us not speaking any Farsi we couldn’t explain our problem, so all we could do was wait. We didn’t even know what we were waiting for! Fifteen minutes later two police officers arrive on a motorbike and one gets off and signals to us to that it’s time to go. He jumps in the back seat of the Hilux, and points us towards the exit of the border compound. When we realise where we’re heading, we stop and try to explain that we can’t leave the border until we’ve been to the Customs office. After some arm waving and pointing to pages in our Farsi phrase book he eventually gets the idea. We drive to the far corner of the compound where the Customs office sits, with a handful of trucks still parked outside. With the Carnet in hand I make my way into the building and join a small but determined crowd of truck drivers swamping the only booth left open. The Customs officer is making a lacklustre show of stamping some of the final few sets of customs papers, but when our Carnet makes it to the top of the pile he decides it’s too hard for that late in the day. He unceremoniously bundles me and and the rest of the truck drivers out the door and locks it behind us. So without the Carnet stamped we can’t legally take the Hilux into the country which left us in limbo, stuck at the border!

After some more arm waving and pointing to the phrase book our police escort gets the gist of our problem. We drive across the border compound again to a forlorn building sitting on it’s own in the middle of a large dusty yard full of trucks parked up for the night. The building was a roadhouse for truckers and our initial disappointment at not quite making it through the border was replaced by a relief that the long day was over, and we could finally relax, have a meal and a bed, and finish the bureaucracy in the morning. But this feeling didn’t last. We found the manager in the kitchen and our escort explained to him we needed to stay. Unfortunately, for reasons we never quite worked out he decided he didn’t want us staying at his fine establishment. Confusion soon turned into frustration and our police escort was on the phone to his superior officer asking for advice. After much discussion in rapid-fire Farsi a crowd of truck drivers had gathered in the dining room to watch the spectacle, and luckily one of them spoke enough English to roughly translate. We were being told to drive to Zahedan, 90km up the road, and come back to the border in the morning. We weren’t too keen on this so we grabbed our map and pointed to the town of Mirjaveh a few kilometres away. The reply translated through the truck driver was something along the lines of “the police do not have so much power in that town. You might not be safe there”.

So, time for a bit of background… the border where we were at Taftan is in the heart of the Balochistan desert, which is a troubled area at the moment. The Balochi tribes are resentful that their homeland has been annexed by both Iran and Pakistan, and there’s a fairly active separatist movement in action. A more recent development is the rise in opium smuggling caused by two decades of war in nearby Afghanistan. For impoverished Afghan farmers growing opium is an attractive way to make a living in the otherwise devastated economy. According to the UNODC, most of the worlds supply of opiates is smuggled out of Afghanistan through the Balochistan desert and overland to Europe. When the Iranian government tried to crack down on the smuggling they faced a well equipped enemy – indirectly funded by heroin junkies on the streets of the western world, and armed with weapons dumped in Afghanistan by the Soviets and the Americans. Now the Iranian Police resemble an army, fighting a virtual civil war against a well equipped and determined enemy. The war has cost the Iranian people the lives of more than three thousand police officers in the last 30 years. Also, in the last few years drug smugglers have kidnapped tourists in the hope of later trading them for captured colleagues. At the time we were there a Japanese man was still being held by a group of bandits (he was later released unharmed in June 2008).

With this in mind we quite liked the idea of staying in the guarded border compound, so we persevered with our efforts to secure a bed. After a long and quite heated discussion which pitched our police officer and the truck drivers who had taken our side against the stubborn host, he finally gave in and conceded we could stay. After all this we realised we hadn’t had a chance to buy any Iranian money, so he begrudgingly accepted payment in Pakistani Rupees. We cooked dinner over our gas stove on the verandah then called it a night – technically our first in Iran.

The view from the border compound

Just after dawn the next morning we found ourselves locked inside the roadhouse so we clambered out of a window in the foyer, loaded up the Hilux, and our police escort arrived right on time for us to drive back across the compound to the Customs office. The office was deserted so we killed a bit of time playing cricket in the carpark. Playing back-yard cricket as a kid we’d always had a rule that if you hit the ball over the fence you’re out and you had to go fetch the ball. This time it wasn’t so simple -over the fence on the batter’s left was Pakistan. We might’ve had a bit of trouble getting the ball back!

As the group of stragglers outside the front door built into a mob, I left Pat and Simon playing cricket and joined in the scrum of truck drivers rolling towards the unattended booths when the doors opened at 8am. What followed still seems surreal and wouldn’t seem out of place in a Monty Python sketch. With the crowd of impatient truck drivers crowded around the glass booths, the dozen or so Customs officers treated us to a well-practiced and painfully comical display of ‘Pretending to be Busy’. Piles of important looking papers were picked up, carried across the room, put down, shuffled, picked up and moved back across the room to eventually end up on the same desk they started on. Lost items we searched for fruitlessly amongst drawers. Desks were tidied and rearranged, with books and papers aligned with millimetre accuracy. Important Things That Must Be Done were suddenly remembered which resulted in a stride across the office to a seemingly random pile of papers which was looked at, shuffled, and placed back in the same spot. The phalanx of important looking stamps on each officer’s desk was meticulously updated with today’s date, the ink pad was refreshed and the mechanism was checked. What was most impressive was that this whole charade was maintained for a full half an hour after the office opened, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the crowd of people it was intended to impress. Half a dozen arms grasping bundles of customs papers squeezed through each of the small windows, their owners quietly waiting for the performance to be over and the stamping to begin. Finally one of the officers must have inadvertently caught the eye of one of the truckies and the spell was broken. Knowing their game was over, one by one the officers resigned themselves to the fact their day had started, and the slow process of stamping and signing began.

With all of the signs in Farsi and no other clues to go on I had picked a booth at random. When our Carnet came to top of the pile the officer looked at me, handed me the Carnet and pointed somewhere generally on the other side of the room. So I picked another random booth on the other side of the room and eventually met the same response. I found a handful of car drivers also with Carnets huddled near an office door in an alcove off the main room. Encouraged, I joined them and waited some more. A couple of them walked away triumphantly with stamped Carnets, but mine was once again ignored. Sensing no impending progress I got our police escort to campaign on my behalf but that was no more fruitful. Eventually one of the Customs officers decided he could be bothered dealing with the foreigner, but unlike the Pakistani drivers who were simply stamped and sent off he wanted to come out and check the Hilux. So after what felt like an eternity stuck inside the crowded and dingy building we walk out to find Pat and Simon basking in the warm morning sun, reading their books with a cup of tea in hand. The bonnet was raised and the chassis number checked. He asked to look in the canopy, but like the police officer the previous evening he was content with a cursory glance and didn’t bother touching anything (which was a good thing, as we realised we still had a couple of bottles of Kingfisher beer which we’d smuggled across Pakistan and forgotten to get rid of!). Back inside, and with a stamp and a signature we were finally on our way. At just over 17 hours, that was by far our worst border crossing!

Our signed Carnet, at last!

Pat and Simon relaxing while I fight my way through the bureaucracy

We were excited to finally get going and we pulled out of the carpark and headed straight to the exit, at which point the police officer in the front seat waved his arms excitedly and screamed something in Farsi which probably translated something like “Excuse me Sir, you appear to be travelling on the incorrect side of the road”. This was not a good start considering we had another 23,000km of driving on the wrong side ahead of us!

So we headed to the village of Mirjaveh just up the road where the escort directed us into the local police compound and he jumped out. Our escort was upgraded to a couple of dudes on a motorbike with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. We followed the motorbike across the featureless desert, and with the fuel light glowing ominously we reached the outpost town of Zahedan.

Once there we asked our escort to take us straight to the bank. The Iranian banking system is totally isolated from the rest of the world so you have to bring all of your spending money into the country with you in cash. We each exchanged a couple of hundred US Dollars for a couple of million Iranian Rials (the Iranian government may refer to the USA as “The Great Satan” but they sure love the Almighty Dollar!).

We still needed to get rid of some Pakistani rupees which the bank wouldn’t change for us, so our police dudes took us to the moneychanger at the bazaar. We’d stupidly forgotten to check the current exchange rate from Rupee to Rial so we went into the deal blind, and I’m sure he knew as well as we did that we had no option but to change the Rupees with him. I can’t remember what rate we got but I can safely say we made one Iranian happy that day!

Pat and the money changer -something tells me the short man won this time

We hadn’t had a chance to refuel during our dash across the desert from Quetta the previous day, so now that we were cashed up we explained to the motorbike dudes that we needed fuel. We were led to a service station back on the outskirts of town and that’s when our fun with Iranian diesel began. Even though Iran has vast oil reserves they have very limited refining capabilities. So they export their crude oil to other countries and buy it back as refined petrol and diesel at an inflated cost. With the troubled state of the economy (after the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and international sanctions) this has lead to fuel shortages and they’ve recently implemented a ration system (which admittedly wasn’t as bad as Nepal where they had virtually no fuel at all!). But our escorts lead us past the queue of cars waiting to take their ration and we pulled straight up to a pump. Armed with the Farsi phrasebook I find the word for diesel and question the young kid manning the pump (who was looking at us like we were from Mars already). “Gazoyl?”; I get a blank look. I try saying the word differently, sounding out the syllables “gaz-oy-l?” and the look turns to confusion. I point to the Farsi script in the book and he looks at me like I’m crazy. Having no faith in my pronunciation I get one of the police officers over and point to the word and point to the pump with a questioning look on my face. I’m met with the same look. This isn’t going well. A crowd gathers and I point to “gazoyl” and I point to the Hilux and eventually someone clicked. What we didn’t realise is that they’d probably never seen a diesel car before. Every single car, van, ute and 4×4 in Iran has a petrol engine. The only things that run on diesel are trucks and buses. Once they worked out we weren’t crazy we were taken over to the other side of the station where the semi-trailers were, and with a crowd of curious onlookers we finally filled up. The 60 litres came to just short of 10,000 Rials, so we peeled off a 10,000 Rial note (aka a green Khomeini), handed it to the pump attendant and we were on our way. With a minimal amount of mental arithmetic we worked out we’d just paid about $1.20 for the tank -not $1.20 a litre, $1.20 a tank! And that’s where my love of Iran began -in a dusty truckstop in the Balochistan desert.

A fill-up we did later in Iran - 54 litres for just over a dollar

Of course if something seems too good to be true it probably is. Not far out of Zahedan the Hilux started struggling to keep up with the ute full of armed police officers that was our latest escort. Our already dismal cruising speed of 115 dropped to 100, then to 90, and no amount of encouragement would help it along. Our only hypothesis was that we’d run the tank so low before Zahedan that we’d picked up some rubbish in the bottom of the tank and it had clogged up the fuel filter (the black-market diesel we’d bought in Kathmandu was full of crap). There wasn’t much we could do about it at the time so we persevered, slowly!

Another Iranian town somewhere in Balochistan

The Balochistan Desert was flat and featureless with hardly any settlement outside the odd dusty little towns that have somehow survived at the major crossroads. Every time we crossed into another police jurisdiction we’d stop and wait by the side of the road or in a fortified police compound and we’d eventually be handed over to an escort from the next jurisdiction. Sometimes the handover was quick and sometimes we’d kick around the yard for half an hour or more. There wasn’t much we could do about the waiting -they were providing an armed escort for free, and we figured they wouldn’t have bothered if they didn’t think it was necessary. But it was during these hours of waiting we had a chance to get to know our chaperones. Dog-eared photos of family, wives and girlfriends were bought out, phrasebooks and maps of Iran showing home towns were prodded excitedly, and we pieced together the stories of these young guys. Conscripted from all across the country, they knew they’d been bought to the most dangerous part of Iran to fight their fellow countrymen. Both sides just doing what they had to do to earn a living. You couldn’t help feeling that these guys were merely pawns in a game that stretched well beyond this lawless desert.

Another town, another ute full of dudes with guns

As the day dragged on and the kilometres were chewed up the desert was broken by the occasional range of low and barren hills which the Hilux was really starting to struggle up. In the late afternoon we pulled up behind our escort in a layby near the top of one of the ranges. Our escorts took positions in the high ground, obviously a bit wary of being surrounded by the hills. After a longer wait than usual the handover escort appeared over the crest with an old Land Rover behind. The Landy was driven by a Dutch couple who we had a brief chat to, sharing general observations about the roads just covered. But before we could get much useful information our unusually impatient escorts hurried us along and we were on our way, heartened by the fact that we weren’t the only people crazy enough to be driving across Iran!

Police officer standing guard while we wait at another handover

The Dutch couple we met coming the other way

The Balochistan Desert slowly reclaiming a couple of abandoned houses

As dusk fell we were still well short of our planned destination of Bam but our progress was still hampered by our sick Hilux and the constant swapping of one ute full of dudes with guns with another ute full of dudes with guns. At one handover a bunch of energetic police officers got us into a game of football in the yard of their compound. Our ball skills were poor but they were slowed down by the assault rifles still slung over their shoulders. The game disintegrated into a slapstick comedy after a stocky little police officer took a liking to Simon and decided it would be more entertaining to chase him around with his gun and handcuffs. I don’t think Simon saw the funny side of it at the time!

More of our new friends, during another stop in another police compound

Coming into Bam

After 11 hours on the road covering only 430 kilometres our escorts finally led us to Akbars Guest House in Bam. We sat drinking tea with Akbar in his lounge as his son went out and grabbed us some dinner from a nearby restaurant. Akbar was an English teacher in a past life but now he runs one of the only guest houses in Bam so he’s well known amongst those lucky enough to travel through the area. He explained the situation with the Japanese tourist who’d been kidnapped in Bam but assured us the police escorts weren’t necessary. He also explained a few basics about what to expect as a tourist in Iran, and although we were exhausted after our long drive we listened attentively as we knew it was valuable advice that’d make our next four weeks much easier.

Later in the evening three young Iranians turned up to stay, and not long after them a couple of plainclothes police officers arrived. Apologising for the interruption Akbar went off to talk to the officers. Our passports were scrutinised then the Iranians were roused out of their room and identity papers checked. The officers sat interrogating them for quite some time and eventually left. It turns out that they were most interested in why the girl was travelling with two guys and what her relationship to them was. It was an early lesson about life in an Islamic Republic.

We’d heard about how Muslims aren’t supposed to shave so Pat and I thought our assimilation into such a strong Islamic culture would be made easier if we grew a beard. It’d been about five weeks since our last shave just before our trek in Nepal, and we were both sporting mangy excuses for a beard with great pride. However to my bitter disappointment Akbar informed us that beards weren’t fashionable amongst the general population, and it was only devout Muslims that grew them. So early the next morning the clippers and razor came out and I got rid of the damn thing (with pleasure!). Pat wasn’t convinced and had become attached to his beard, so he decided he’d keep it on (his stubbornness would be vindicated later in Shiraz -but that’s a story for later!).

I was convinced that the problem we’d had the previous day with the Hilux losing power was due to a blocked fuel filter. So after breakfast I fished a new filter out of the spare parts box and found the right pages in the workshop manual. Armed with a 12mm socket and a rag I worked through the instructions and after far too long the new filter was installed and primed and we were ready to go again.

We weren’t allowed to leave the guest-house without a police escort so Akbar gave them a call and they arrived to take us for a bit of sightseeing. We wished Akbar farewell -his friendly advice would serve us well in the weeks to come. Bam was hit by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in 2003 that killed about 26,000 people. Freshly constructed buildings of varying states of completion were interspersed amongst the flattened buildings. I got the impression that the city was slowly but surely recovering. Bam is famous for it’s ancient citadel, but the earthquake had mostly flattened it. We wandered the citadel ruins with two police officers in tow, using a fair bit of imagination to picture it in it’s glory days. Restoration teams funded by various Iranian and foreign NGO’s were piecing the mud city back together wall by wall -a daunting task in the hot and sticky spring heat.

The Citadel in Bam, devastated by the 2003 earthquake.

We left Bam about midday and continued our slow progress west, though the handovers between escorts were quicker than the previous day. Pat used sign language while we were driving to negotiate a trade of his sunglasses for a police officer’s cap and the next time we stopped the exchange was made. There were wide grins and high fives in both vehicles until the officer had second thoughts and decided that his commanding officer probably wouldn’t look to kindly on him giving away police uniform. So the deal was retracted via sign language, the officer pointing to his boss in the driver’s seat then to himself making the universal throat cutting sign! With spirits deflated the booty was returned at the next stop.

Typical view for two whole days -desert and ute full of guns

Our escorts had mostly been utes with two or three guys in the back but occasionally we’d get a black Peugot sedan with a couple of plain-clothed officers inside (very mafia-like). One point one of the plain clothes officers decided to jump in with us. His English was basic but we managed to get a passable conversation going with the help of the phrase book. He had his AK-47 with him next to me in the back seat so I asked him if I could feel how heavy it was. He kindly obliged and was happy to show how it all worked. Finished with the AK-47 he reached under his shirt and to my surprise pulled out a concealed pistol. He unclipped the magazine to show me it was loaded and handed it to me. I didn’t really know what to do with it, I would’ve loved to have wound down the window and let off a couple of rounds into the empty desert but I refrained myself! I passed it forward to Simon, who then handed it to Pat who was driving at the time. Once we’d all passed the pistol around like you’d pass around a bag of lollies, I begrudgingly handed it back to the police officer and he tucked it back into his trousers. Having this much firepower in the car was a little bit off-putting and I’ve since made a rule – no assault rifles in the car!
The highlight of the firepower stakes came later that afternoon when we were escorted by two pickups, one of which had a mounted machine gun on the back. Now I’m one of the lucky few people who know how invincible you feel when you’ve got a guy with a gun that big keeping an eye on you!

Even now, just the thought of it brings a smile to my face!

As the long afternoon faded into the early evening our escort led us through yet another police checkpoint, then pulled over in a dusty parking bay. A couple of phone calls were made and the officer in charge waved us on. For 2000km and four days of driving since the lowlands of Pakistan we’d had the police constantly keeping an eye on us, and now we were being set free to roam unescorted. Liberated but feeling strangely exposed we set off, winding our way down from the vast desert regions to the city of Bandar Abbas, and a body of water that has been synonymous with all that is wrong with the world since I was a teenager – the Persian Gulf.

More to come, hopefully soon!

Some links to interesting stuff about the region…

Poppy is a book by Australian Salmon Gregor, who spent almost a year in Afghanistan researching the poppy growing industry:

A short report from Al Jazeera on the Iranian Police’s struggle against smugglers.

A Scottish couple’s experiences doing the same stretch of road by bicycle (and people said we were mad!?)

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New trip video

18 June, 2009

Here’s a video offering a small taste of the whole trip, squeezed nicely into 3 minutes and 39 seconds.

Enjoy!

Bloody hell, we actually made it!

23 July, 2008

Well the rumours are true -we finally made it to London on the 11th of July. After a quick photo shoot in central London on Saturday morning we spent the next few days cleaning and packing the Hilux, and it’s now in a container on it’s way back to Australia.

As for the intrepid crew, Simon is hanging around the UK for the next week or so before coming back to Sydney for the summer, Josh is in Spain en-route to Canada, and Lani and I are back in Australia.

Hopefully I’ll have a bit of spare time on my hands over the coming weeks, so keep an eye on the blog for the rest of the story. The next update will cover our four weeks in my favourite country of the trip -Iran.

Til then, take care!

A quick dash through Pakistan

5 June, 2008

Hello from rainy Budapest. You’ve probably noticed this update has taken a while, hopefully the next one shouldn’t take as long! This update covers our week in Pakistan, after we left Lani at the Indian side of the border, and Simon, Pat and Me keep going. Enjoy!

 

India/Pakistan border: 3 March 2008

As we passed under the ceremonial arch on the Pakistan side of the border it was bit like entering the unknown. The NZ government class the whole country as an “Extreme Risk” destination, and the Aussie goverment’s advice is “Do not travel”. Now it’s fair to say the advice offered by each country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is always on the conservative side, that’s their job, they do it well, so you take the advice with a grain of salt and do your own research. The problem for us is that there’s a small but significant clause in each and every travel insurance policy (trust me I’ve checked them all) which says if you ignore warnings or advice issued by the government or in the mass media, you’re on your own. The hardcore explorers would scoff at this, saying if you’ve got travel insurance you’re obviously not being adventurous enough, but we have to be realistic.

So we’re not covered by travel insurance in Pakistan, but the only other options to get from India to Europe are Afghanistan (yeah right) and China (beaureucratic nightmare and hellishly expensive). We’d checked out updates from people who had been or were in Pakistan, and it sounded like it wasn’t too bad. So the decision was made that we’d cut through Pakistan as quickly as possible, and escape to the relative peace and tranquility of Iran.

We pulled into the very modern customs building on the Pakistan side of the border, only to be told there was no power, so they couldn’t process us. After 15 minutes of kicking the rugby ball around the carpark we were summoned in to get our passports stamped, and one of the customs guys suggested to Simon that they might like to search the Hilux for contraband alcohol (Pakistan is a Muslim country, so alcohol is illegal). So we thought we’d better play it safe and grab out the three Kingfisher beers that we had left in the chilly-bin, and put them on the ground next to the Hilux, before heading in to do the paperwork. Next thing we knew a very excited customs officer races in from the carpark and has some words with the superintendent, who calmy walks over to us at the counter and asks whether the beer is ours. So we say yes, and he replies in a conspiratorial tone that they’re not actually beer, they’re fruit juice, so there’s no problem and we should put them back inside the ute before anyone else notices. He then told us that three beers wasn’t nearly enough, and probed us with a glint in his eye as to whether we had any wine, or vodka, or maybe even whiskey? We didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time, as it was the first time we’ve met friendly border officials!

So having got through all of the paperwork for us and the Hilux to legally enter Pakistan, we took a left out of the border compound and drove straight back to the border. Not long after Pakistan was partitioned from the rest of India, bored border officials choreographed an elaborate and entertaining border closing ceremony, which has developed into a major tourist attraction drawing crowds of thousands of patriotic Indians and Pakistanis, and a a handful of bewildered foreigners at sunset every day.

The ceremony starts with the arrival of two squads of the tallest and most impressive specimens from each countries frontier corps, for what amounts to a 30 minute chest puffing competition. After the obligatory shake of hands between the two commanders across the border there follows some displays of lung capacity with endless shouting, guards adopting comically aggressive stances while fondling their automatic rifles and exchanging evil glares, sometimes nose-to-nose over no-mans-land, before loudly stomping off apparent disgust at the disgraceful state of the opposing soldiers.

While all this is going on the crowds in the grandstands either side of the border are chanting and firing up their troops. Our Pakistani contingent was nowhere near the size of the Indian supporters, but that’s not really surprising.

I eventually managed to spot Lani in the opposite crowd (a bit like a game of real-life Where’s Wally?).

The finale begins with the race to untie each flag (this time won convincingly by the Pakis!), before each side lowers their flag as slow as possible so it doesn’t end up lower than the other one on the way down.

After all is said and done the gates are slammed shut with gusto and the squads of soldiers march of into the dusk light.

It’s a bizarre spectacle, but highly entertaining if you’re ever in the area. With a final wave to Lani as the crowds dispersed, we headed back to the Hilux and made our way down the highway to the cultural heart of Pakistan, Lahore.

 

Lahore: 3 – 5 March 2008

Now we’ve had a lot of surprised reactions when people notice our Western Australian number plates, but it was our turn to be surprised when we pulled into the hostel in Lahore, where parked outside was a beat-up old 1962 Land Rover, with Western Australian plates! It turns out it’s owned by three German guys who are doing the same as us, but a little bit slower, and not quite as comfortably!

On the second day we were in Lahore I found myself in a dodgy little restaurant, surrounded by locals intently watching news coverage of a bombing somewhere. We only found out later that day that the bombing was barely a few kilometres from our hostel, and I think three people had been killed. Still, everyone seemed to take it in their stride, and the streets of Lahore were still packed with people getting on with their lives.

 

Lahore to Quetta: 5 – 6 March 2008

So after a couple of days soaking up the relatively cosmopolitan lifestyle in Lahore we hit the road. Pakistan highways were much more civilised than in India, and the despite what many Indians had told us, the country is much more developed. They even had speed radars, as Simon found out the hard way. Not surprisingly when the cop who pulled us over realised we were foreigners he let us off with a stern warning about “overspeed” and we were on our way. The hospitality even went as far as the highway toll booths, where we were offered tea more often than we were asked to pay.

A solid days drive took us south-west to Bahalwapur for the night, then we pushed west across the plains towards the infamous Baluchistan Desert and Quetta. About 100km out of Sukkur we were pulled over by the local police and offered an escort, which they weren’t at all insistent on, so we politely declined. They sent us off with advice to lock our doors and not to stop for anyone, which we happily followed. It was reassuring to see that every police post along the highway were obviously keeping an eye out for us, and radioing our progress ahead to the next post.

The highway across the flat plains of central Pakistan eventually took us into the hills following a river valley, and as dusk fell we wound our way into the mountains up to the city of Quetta, on the eastern edge of the Baluchistan Desert.

 

Quetta: 6 – 8 March 2008

We spent a couple of nights in Quetta, a city written off by the guidebooks as a dusty little hole of a frontier town. The description was essentially correct, but what it didn’t account for was the fact that the remote and harsh setting was balanced equally by the absolutely overwhelming hospitality. Our days there were spent wandering the streets and the bazaar, being constantly approached by locals keen to chat to us to find out where we were from and practise their English, and of course invite us to have tea!. I drove out to the “Satellite Town” one day to find an air filter for the Hilux, and ended up engaged in an intense conversation with the guy at the tyre store next door for the best part of half an hour. On the way back I was stuck in traffic trying to cross a busy intersection, but as soon as the police officer trying (mildly successfully) to control the traffic saw I was a foreigner he virtually jumped into the middle of the opposing traffic flow waving his arms maniacally to give me a chance to get across.

In the middle of the afternoon on the second day I was waiting with the Hilux at a carwash when a dude in a suit came over to me and invited me to come and sit with his boss, who was also waiting for his car to be washed, and wanted to talk to me. Slightly perturbed, thinking this sounded like a scene out of a Mafia movie (does the Taliban operate like this?!?), I wandered over. It turns out the ‘boss’ was the mayor of one of the districts surrounding Quetta (ie the area where most of the drugs from Afghanistan get smuggled through) and we sat basking in the sun drinking tea and Chiku milkshakes fetched for us from the shop over the road, waiting for our cars to be washed, chatting about life in our respective countries. It turns out his son is a minister of some description (finance I think) in the Pakistani government. Maybe I should’ve got some contact details in case I wanted to come back to Pakistan -it sounds like he’s a pretty well connected guy!

 

Quetta – Taftan (Iran border): 8 March 2008

So when the time came to move on, we made an early start for the long drive across the Pakistani half of the Baluchistan desert to Taftan, and the border with Iran. As I mentioned above the Baluchistan desert is a major drug-smuggling corridor, and I think it was in National Geographic I read that 80% of the opiates that are sold in Europe have been smuggled out of Afghanistan through the region. Progress was slow as we negotiated the single lane of dodgy pot-holed tarmac which we had to share with a constant flow of slow and heavily-laden trucks making their way to and from the only (legal) border crossing between the two countries. As the day wore on, and the desert sun got hotter, the stress levels started rising as we came to the realisation we weren’t likely to make it to the relative safety of Taftan before dark. Then almost exactly halfway across the desert, the miserable excuse for a road suddenly stopped, and was replaced by one of the most beautiful sights we’d seen in thousands of kilometres of driving. Pristine smooth tarmac, broken only by ephemeral mirages, stretched two-lanes wide, as far as we could see.

I don’t often get so verbose about tarmac, but after crossing three countries with roads ranging from poor to atrocious, seeing the quality of this road was like a gift from God (or probably Allah, given that we were in a Muslim country). 

So with the sun already making some progress towards the horizon, we wound the Hilux up to it’s top speed of 120 km/h and blasted west across the featureless desert, passing the cumbersome trucks with ease, and trying to forget the fact we were driving a conspicuously foreign vehicle across mostly uninhabited desert only 60 or so kilometres from Afghanistan! Here’s a clip from Al Jazeera about the problems the Pakistani police are having in the region on YouTube.

We finally hit Taftan about 16:30, and while we were relieved to be in ‘civilisation’ again, we were also very aware of the fact the border was closing at 17:00, and we’d been told if we got stuck there the only safe place to stay overnight in Taftan was inside the police compound, which supposedly (but not suprisingly) wasn’t a pleasant option.

We rocked up to the police office at the border and sat impatiently as the official processed our passports at Pakistani pace (ie painfully slow). Before he could stamp us out of the country he informed us we had to head to the customs depot, back at the edge of town. So one of the guards jumped in with us and showed us the way back through the dusty little town to the customs office, where we endured another excruciatingly long wait for the customs guy to process the Carnet for the Hilux. Sensing there wasn’t much progress happening, I eventually made a bee-line for the guy in charge, and with a combination of basic English and excessive hand-gestures, I made a case for our Carnet to make it’s way up from the bottom of a growing pile of truckies paperwork. Thankfully the dude took sympathy on us and he personally grabbed it out of the pile, came out to check the chassis number on the Hilux, and before we knew it we had a signed and stamped Carnet. So back to the police post, and sensing our desire to get it over and done with quickly, the official kept the small-talk to a minimum and with a flourish he stamped the passports. With barely minutes to spare we raced back to the Hilux and drove the twenty metres to the big gates, and with the guards already poised ready to slam them shut, we crossed excitedly into The Islamic Republic of Iran, supposedly one of the key members of the infamous “Axis of Evil”. This should be interesting…

Diesel?! yeah right!

3 April, 2008
Hello from Tabriz, northern Iran. Our Iranian visa runs out tomorrow, so we’re heading straight for the Turkey border, then on to Van to pick up Simon’s mate Anna, and hopefully Josh.

This post covers the leg from Kathmandu down into India, and across the big touristy spots of Northern India, all the way to the Pakistan Border. As usual more pics can be found on my facebook profile here. Enjoy!

Kathmandu: 23 February 2008
So after the trek we’d planned to spend a day in Kathmandu to do some washing and recuperate (in that order), then bugger off west to Pokhara then south back into India. It seems like a straightforward plan, but we hadn’t accounted for Nepali politics…

Like everything else in Nepal, petroleum products must be bought and imported from India. That means that the government owned Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) has to buy all of the fuel for the country from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). As most of us in the west know, fuel prices have gone up a hell of a lot in recent times, for reasons vaguely known but mostly accepted. However the Nepalese have a slightly less tolerant view, and whenever the NOC tries to put prices up at the pump to cover the increases, the Nepali people blame internal corruption in the NOC and some opposition political party will call a general strike, crippling the economy. So inevitably the government backs down and the NOC drops their prices again, and everyone gets on with their lives. This has been going on for a while now, and not surprisingly the NOC has hit some major cashflow problems, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by their major creditor the IOC. So inevitably the IOC has decided to minimise the risk, and have limited how much fuel they’ll sell to the NOC until they sort their shit out. So much to their disgust (but not surprisingly) the Nepali people find themselves hit with fuel rations.

Now a couple of blog entries ago I mentioned the strike we encountered in the coming into Nepal in the Terai Region spanning the border with India, during which a general sense of lawlessness prevails. Villagers in the Terai Region have to watch fuel tankers trundling past their empty petrol stations, up the valley towards the capital Kathmandu. Eventually a group of these villagers decide that’s not good enough. So, armed with whatever they can find they ambush some unsuspecting fuel tanker driver and direct him and his precious cargo to whichever village they hail from. By the time the police arrive the tanker is empty and the driver is released, relatively unharmed. Once one village gets away with it, others decide to give it a go. It doesn’t take long for the truck drivers to decide they don’t get paid enough to run the gauntlet so they park their trucks at the border refusing to move, leaving Kathmandu totally starved of any form of fuel, right from cooking gas to diesel.

So this is the situation we came back to after fifteen days of blissful ignorance frolicking in the mountains. We had about a third of a tank of diesel in the Hilux, which given the mountainous roads probably wouldn’t get us out of Nepal, and definitely not via the border crossing we wanted to use at Sonauli. We asked everyone we could (we even tried calling the embassies but didn’t get an answer dammit) but they all said the same thing  -join the queue. It was a Saturday which is the equivalent of a Sunday in the west, and even with a fuel crisis the government controlled pumps wouldn’t open. So that meant the queue would definitely be at least one day, and we’d been told it could end up being anything up to three days long. Time was something we couldn’t afford, so we had to come up with a Plan B. Pat and I were despatched onto the streets of Kathmandu with a diesel can and the barest dregs of a plan, which pretty much involved finding anyone we could in authority and playing the Dumb Foreigner Card then hoping they’d take pity on us and/or see the potential for a bribe (which we were willing to pay by this stage).
So we caught a taxi to the only fuel station in Kathmandu that hadn’t run out, much to the amusement of the taxi driver who assured us it was closed, but we assured him we knew that but still wanted to go. Even though it was closed for the day, the queue stretched three vehicles wide about half a kilometre down the road. We walked past the queue of vehicles and the razor-wire barricades around the petrol station, to one of the friendly looking soldiers with AK-47’s guarding the place, who was obviously amused by the sight of two hopeful looking foreigners with a diesel can. After convincing him we were serious, he referred us to his senior officer who either wouldn’t or couldn’t see the potential to make some extra money for the day and told us to bugger off. With no other obvious tactic to get hold of some diesel from the pump (we’re not too schooled up in bribes and the like), we resorted to the much less elegant but highly efficient Plan C, the Black Market.

About a kilometre from the petrol station was another large concentration of diesel -the main bus station. Trying to look inconspicuous when you’re a foreigner carrying a bright yellow diesel can in the middle of a fuel crisis isn’t easy, especially when you’re as tall as Pat. But we slipped through the scrum of buses jostling for position on the ranks, and made our way out the back, where things were a bit quieter, and groups of bus drivers congregated in empty cabs killing time smoking and playing cards. We approached one such group of drivers, but we didn’t know any Nepali, and they didn’t know any English. We eventually got through to them that we wanted some diesel, and they laughed. When faced with a language barrier like this we had to resort to the one universal language that everyone understands -money. A 1000 rupee note got them moving, and before long we’d settled on a price of 1500 rupees for 10 litres -two and a half times the pump price. Without hesitation a young guy crawled under one of the buses nearby (we have to assume it was his bus) and cracked open the sump plug on the diesel tank, draining it into a bucket. After siphoning it out of the bucket into our can (avoiding the lumps at the bottom) we handed over the money and got out of their as fast as we could. Now I mentioned above it was hard to look inconspicuous, but now we had a half-full bright yellow diesel can! So we skirted around a police officer who was thankfully distracted by the chaotic traffic and jumped into the nearest taxi we could find. The taxi driver thought it was hilarious, even more so when we told him how much we’d paid, but Pat and I were quietly pleased with ourselves. We had enough diesel to get out of the country -mission accomplished!


24 – 27 February: Kathmandu – Pokhara – Sanauli (Nepal/India border) – Gorakhpur – Varanasi
So the next morning Josh left for the airport -he was heading to a wedding in Thailand and is planning to meet up with us again in eastern Turkey.
Pat, Simon, Lani and I had a lazy start and headed east on the road to Pokhara. The roads in Kathmandu we’re relatively empty -media estimates said only one-third of the vehicles in Kathmandu had any fuel. Most of those vehicles were stuck in the queues that stretched for kilometres either side of every fuel station, as news had just come in of a convoy of tankers that had agreed to go through the Terai Region after the government guaranteed an armed escort. All along the road to Pokhara expectant locals crowded on the side of the road waiting for buses which were very scarce, and inevitably full. About five kilometres out of Pokhara Simon spotted a queue which was only a couple of hundred metres long so we decided to stop and check it out, as we’d already used most of the black market diesel, and we realised we weren’t going to make it to the border.
The Hilux in the queue 
We found out that a tanker was out the back dropping off the ration of 3000 litres of diesel right then. Twenty minutes later the pump was running, and the queue started moving. They were rationing how much they’d give to each vehicle, but we managed to wrangle 30 litres out of them, which was enough to safely get across the border. Within minutes all of our problems were solved, and as we pulled away from the station we saw the queue had at least tripled behind us in the time it took us to get to the front. As smug as we were, it was still hard knowing that the Nepali people will have to deal with this for the forseeable future. They can’t play black-market prices, and they can’t make a run for the border like we can.

By the time we made it to Pokhara and found the way to our accomodation it’s fair to say we were all a bit knackered and irritable. When we were flagged down by a group of teenagers standing in a decrepit booth by the side of the road around the lake, demanding a tax for our vehicle we weren’t in the mood to be messed with, and we let them know what we thought of their ‘tax’. The guys were standing in front of the Hilux, and despite the suggestion from the navigators seat that I use the bullbar, I reversed down the road and found a restaurant, where we asked the owner what the story was. It turns out that it was actually an official tax, and the guys who normally collect the tax were having their dinner, so they left the kids in charge. With our tails between our legs we headed back up the road, where they took our rupees and our apologies with the typical Nepali cheer.

The next day we hired bikes and rode to the other side of town to the International Mountaineering Museum which had been recommended by our guide, and was worth a look. On the way back through town we came across a Maoist rally, and despite my curiosity (and opportunity for establishing my career as a photo-journalist), we decided to heed the specific advice laid out by our embassies and avoided the rally in case it turned nasty. Instead we headed to the lake, and while Pat, Lani and I took the sensible option of hiring kayaks, Simon ignored the fact there was no wind and hired a square bathtub with a sail that he called a yacht.
Simon and his bathtub 
OK so admittedly our kayaks were river kayaks, which meant it was damn hard to hold a straight line, but we still managed to easily out-pace Simon, much to his disgust.
Pat out on the lake 
I felt sorry for the local guy who asked me if he could have a quick paddle in my kayak when Lani and I came back to shore. Eager to impress his wife and extended family, he enthusiastically jumped in and started paddling, and merely managed to spin the kayak around almost a full turn. After letting him fluster about for a couple of minutes, I managed to grab the end of the kayak and pull him back to dry land. As I helped him out I assured him it’s always harder than it looks, loudly enough so his spectators could hear, so hopefully he redeemed some face.

So it was time to bid Nepal farewell, and we headed south the next day to the Indian border and onwards to Gorakhpur. As we crossed the plains of the Terai region we started seeing much more communist (Maoist) graffiti and flags, and even one in English, though I’m sure the ones in Nepali were much more inspiring…
 img_9593.jpg
 They should fire their slogan writer
When we tried to find lunch in one of the larger towns near the border we were faced with street after street of closed shops with their shutters pulled down and wind-blown rubbish collecting in the doorways. The strike was still well and truly in force, and the economic cost to those businesses must’ve been huge. Boredom and desperation can’t be a good mix.
The border crossing at Sunauli was much busier than the one we’d used going north into Nepal, and the officials were much more efficient. We somehow managed to pick-up a self-appointed helper on the Nepal side, who assured us he worked at the customs office, but avoided telling us that he doesn’t actually work for customs, and that we’re the ones who actually pay him for this service, which we didn’t actually need. Nonetheless he did find us a toilet, so we paid him a pittance and give him a quick lecture about scamming people, which I’m sure he already knew. Maybe he’ll think twice about harrassing Kiwis and Aussies from now on, but I doubt it. None of us could work out exactly how long the whole border process took, but we’re guessing about an hour and a half, which is good compared to some horror stories we’ve heard.

On one hand we were glad to be out of Nepal and away from the trouble that has started, and which will only get worse in the lead-up to the elections in April. But we were also sad to leave, as the people were so hospitable and friendly, and the scenery amazing. Maybe we’ll be back sometime, and hopefully by then things will have changed for the better for the Nepal people.

We stayed that night in Gorakhpur, and arrived in Varanasi early the next afternoon.

27 February – 3 March: Varanasi – Agra – Amritsar – Attari (Pakistan border)
We got a little bit lost in the middle of Varanasi, but thankfully one of the touts that most people revile (including us) spotted us and was able to suggest accomodation with off-street parking for the Hilux only a stones throw from the Ganges. With no better ideas we checked it out ended up taking it -one of our simpler accomodation choices of the trip!

The main attraction at Varanasi is witnessing life on the Ganges River. This bit of the Ganges is particularly sacred to Hindus, so they’ve built dozens of ghats, like temples, on the riverbank. We managed to get down to the river just after dusk and mingled with the crowds of Hindus and the occasional inquisitive tourists. In contrast to most crowded spots in India (of which there are many) the atmosphere along the Ganges at Varanasi was much more calm and peaceful. The sceptic in me thinks it was simply the absence of rickshaws and car-horns, but I’d like to think it was because of the positive vibe from all of the thousands of Hindus who were at Varanasi for a major religious pilgrimage.

Sunset ceremony at the main ghat
Shop near the old city 
We hired a boat at some un-godly hour the next morning, and as we cruised up the river the sun rose over our right shoulders and bathed the riverbank in a nice soft light. It even made the burning ghat (where they cremate bodies) look picturesque.
Sunrise on the Ganges
I thought it was quite nice, but you have to look past the details I guess. There’s something like seventy raw sewerage outlets pumping into that stretch of the river, and is places the water is so polluted it is septic. Pat had given the hotel some laundry to do, and as we passed the dudes thrashing the clothes on the bank of the river the rest of us sat back smugly and enquired if he had any white shirts he really liked.
The laundromat, 5 metres up-stream from the sewerage outlet 
His stuff came back OK in the end -well that’s what we told him, we left the windows down in the Hilux for the next few days though ;).

The ghats at Varanasi

We arrived in Agra the next day, and once again a tout found us while we were stopped at an ATM. After some serious haggling we managed to get a reasonable rate on the rooms, which I later found out was less than a bunch of Indian dudes were paying next door. With the vaguest outline of the Taj Mahal visible through the night sky from the hotel roof, we went to sleep in restless anticipation of checking it out the next day.

Getting up before dawn (again) we were rewarded with a stunning view as the rising sun caught the side of the Taj. We wandered the grounds, taking hundreds of photos and basking in the reflected morning light off what turned out to be a spectacular sight.
Me and the Taj
I had been a little bit sceptical, but there’s good reason people rave about the Taj Mahal. You have to feel sorry for the king who made it as a tomb for his wife -soon after it was built his son kicked him out of the palace and imprisoned him in the Red Fort, where he spent the rest of his life having to look out over the river at his masterpiece from a distance. We checked out the red Fort that afternoon, which was nice, but not in the same league as the Taj.
The Red Fort
The Taj from the Red Fort 

The road between Agra and Delhi was the best we’d had in India. Two lanes each way, minimal traffic, and most importantly hardly any motorbikes, rickshaws and cows. We found our way into Delhi with a few hiccups but nothing major, and we basked on the grass in the middle of Connaught Place with the warm sun on our faces and good coffee and decent bakery goods going down very well. That was the extent of our time in Delhi unfortunately, and that night we finally pulled into Amritsar about midnight after a hell of a long drive.

Amritsar is in the Punjab province of India. When Pakistan was granted independence from India, the border was drawn right through the middle of the Punjab. The province is home to  the Sikh religion, and the Golden Temple in Amritsar is the focus of their faith.
The Golden Temple 
We met a British dude at the temple who had converted to Sikhism years ago, and we spent ages listening to his explanations of the Sikhs persecuted past, and the ritual of bathing in the waters of the Golden Temple, which is the Sikh equivalent of Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca. As much as we enjoyed listening to him, time was getting on, and we had to get to Pakistan that afternoon. The pressure to make it to the border was obviously getting to Simon, and after we’d driven 5000km in India, he managed to get the first scratch on the Hilux as he squeezed past (or through) a cycle-rickshaw carrying a load of planks. Don’t worry, we’ve been giving him shit about it constantly since then!
Typical traffic in India -still no excuse though Simon 

Once again the paperwork was reasonably straightforward at the border, and after a bit of a wait we were ready to cross into Pakistan. Unfortunately it meant it was also time to say good-bye to Lani, as she was staying in India while Pat Simon and I tackled the Muslim world.  After the goodbyes we drove the few hundred metres to the border. Luckily there’s an elaborate border closing ceremony staged here every evening, so we were able to take photos of the border for a change.

Crossing between the two sets of ceremonial gates

It’s a cliche, but India had definitely been an assault on the senses. Personally I don’t think I’ll hurry back, but I can understand why some people love it. Most people ask about the driving in India, and to be honest it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Once you’re actually on the road, and have got into the ‘expect the unexpected’ mindset I mentioned in an earlier post it’s not too bad. Readjusting to driving back home could be an issue though!

That’s enough for now. Next post will cover our quick dash through Pakistan. Take care!

Frolicking on the top of the world

23 March, 2008
This update comes from the beautiful city of Esfahan, Iran. More photos from our adventures in the Himalayas covered in this blog update can be found here. Enjoy!
 
Kathmandu: 6-7 February 2008
We had come to Kathmandu to, not surprisingly, do a trek in the Himalayas. We spent a couple of days meeting with a guide Simon had been recommended, Nima, and wandering the streets of the tourist district Thamel, sorting out prices for ridiculously cheap imitation North Face gear. Thre stuffI ended up buying, including down jacket, goretex pants, soft shell, polyprop and fleece longjohns, gloves, trekking socks and fleece sleeping bag liner all came to the exorbitant sum of 7500 Nepal rupees, or about AUD$130! Most of the gear wasn’t actually too cheap and nasty, and most of it lasted the two week trek very well. But it’s a good thing we’ve got the Hilux, as we’ve each got 5 kilos of extra stuff now!

The tourist area of Thamel was full of internet cafes, German bakeries, imitation trekking gear shops and touts, so many touts! It was busy enough as it was, but I’m sure it’s terrible in the proper tourist season!

Kathmandu was an interesting city to spend time in. The bandh (strike) we’d encountered on the way north from the India border had cut-off most of the supplies to the capital. As far as I can tell, apart from some fresh produce which is grown in the hills around Kathmandu, everything has to be imported from India. So with the bandh affecting the whole border region, the city had already started running out of the basics. As well as that, scheduled rolling electricity rationing affected the whole city, and we had to organise our days around when the guest house and when the touristy Thamel area would have power. The power supply was so unreliable we carried head-torches with us, even during the day!

Dunche and the Langtang and Gosainkund area: 8-22 February 2008
After a fair amount of pondering we decided to head for the Langtang Valley area rather than do the more popular (and more touristy) Annapurna Circuit. To get to the town of Dunche where the trek starts there is a 104km drive which takes most of a day in the bus. Unfortunately because the diesel supplies had already started to run out in Kathmandu we couldn’t take the Hilux, so the bus was the only option. The roads for the last 48km were poor to atrocious and it took 4 hours to cover that stretch. But to be fair the road wound it’s way over some pretty big ranges and along some hair-raisingly steep slopes. A few hours from the end I had had enough of sitting inside the bus with elbows and arses in my face from the people crowded in the aisle, not to mention the bags of potatoes and fertiliser piled on the floor, and the assorted livestock on board. So I clambered up onto the roof with all the young blokes and squeezed into a comfy spot amongst the bags.
 
My new mates on the roof 
 
Eventually I sweet-talked my way to a prime spot at the front, and with one hand firmly grasping one of the ropes tying down the bags, I spent the last couple of hours looking out over the massive drops on the left, and praying the brakes would hold out for the whole trip.
 
The road to Dhunche 

We’d been concerned about our packs being on the roof with loads of people sitting on top of them, but it turns out they were fine -our guide Tseering had made sure they were well covered by a tarpaulin which was tied down tight. Unfortunately for a British couple on the bus with us one of their packs had been stolen out of the locked luggage compartment at the back of the bus. After an agonising wait while the police at Dunche didn’t seem to be doing anything at all, we later saw the guy jump into a ute with about eight heavily armed police. He told us they were going to head back down the valley to ask some people some questions, and try to find the pack. He looked like he was about to shit himself! We never heard how they went, but at least the local police gave it a go. To be honest I think they were just happy to be doing some real policing, as Dunche was a sleepy little village in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of the trek, but hopefully I can portray the essence of the next 16 days.

Nima had supplied two guys to come with us. Tseering was our guide. We were lucky to get him, as he’d normally do proper mountaineering expeditions, but as it was the off-season he was happy to come with us to make some money and “have a holiday”. Tseering hasn’t done Everest, but he’s climbed quite a few of the 8000m peaks, and we’d often be hitting him up for stories about his experiences. Rotna was our porter, and entertainment. We’d given him about 25kg to carry, but on the big expeditions he’d be carrying closer to 40kg. Tseering was telling us about self-employed porters who would carry up to 90kg at times! Rotna had broken English, and a wicked sense of humour. His cries of “I am a disco dancer” echoing across the valley would keep our spirits up during the long days.

Tekking in the Himalayas isn’t like doing the backcountry huts in NZ. Villages have been dotted along the valleys from long before tourism hit Nepal, and since trekkers started arriving in the middle of last century many guesthouses have been established, normally clustered in with five or six others at convenient points up the valley.
 
Landslide Lodge
 
The village at Thulo Syabru 
 
Only a few of them were open at that time of the year, but we never had trouble finding somewhere to sleep. Considering their isolation they were pretty comfortable. Some had solar lights, a few had solar hot water, and they all had exactly the same menu, which invariably focused around carbohydrates, in potato, rice or pasta form. Admittedly the food was exactly what we needed, but it was a bit much by the end -we were all craving veges and meat. All of the food had to be carried in by porters, or grown in the tiny vege patches around the villages, so we can’t really complain -they did well considering what they had to work with. A local speciality we sampled a fair bit of was Yak Cheese, which was produced in a couple of factories we went past.

Pat tucking into the Yak cheese

Most days at the lower altitudes would be 6-7 hours walking, and a couple of them we gained over 1km in altitude in a day. The lower part of the valley was fairly steep, but above Ghoda Tabela we hit the glacier-carved section of the valley which was much flatter, but as we were above 3000m by that point the oxygen levels had dropped significantly, and we did shorter days, with only 300-500m altitude gain to help our bodies acclimatise.

Between Langtang and Kyanjin Gompa

After 5 days trekking up the valley, the highest village we stayed in was Kyanjin Gompa, at about 3900m (150m higher than Mount Cook, the highest mountain in NZ!).
 
Si and I at Kyanjin Gompa 
 
On day six we set out to tackle the peak of Tserko-Ri on the north side of the valley. We left our packs with Rotna on the valley floor and slogged our way up a very steep ridge. At about 4500m we came off the ridge and hit some deep snow and boulders. Unfortunately Lani’s shoes weren’t up to it so she had to turn back there. We spent a few hours clambering over boulders, and trudging through knee-deep snow, steadily working our way up and around to the north-east side. We were really starting to feel the effects of the lack of oxygen by this stage, and progress was slow but steady. As we came up to the last stretch Tseering had to cut steps out of the ice with an ice-axe.
 
The final few metres 
 
We finally reached the summit mid-afternoon, which according to Tseering’s altimeter was a touch over 5000m. Sure it wasn’t Everest, but we were pretty bloody happy as we soaked in the panoramic view encompassing Langtang-Ri and the Langtang Valley.
 
At the top
 
The view back down the Langtang Valley
 
 Our guide, Tseering
 
We couldn’t stay long, as the altitude was starting to have a pretty nasty effect on Josh, so we made our way back as fast as we could, with our thighs and knees threatening to give up on us with every step.
 
 
 
Just as the sun was dropping behind the mountains on the other side of the valley, we trudged exhausted and hungry like moths to the flame of the cooking fire Lani and Rotna had set up in an abandoned yak-hut. After a super-sweet Nepalese tea we managed to get the energy to put up our tents and cook some of Simon’s Noodle Surprise, with Buffalo Salami and Yak Cheese.

Chef Pudke

Our camp at 4000m

We camped two nights at that spot, on the slope of an alluvial fan, at an altitude of about 4000m. When you buy a decent sleeping bag they’ll typically quote a minimum temperature that you can sleep at where the bag will keep you warm. I was pretty confident with mine when I bought it, as it’s rated to 8 degrees below zero. Unfortunately that wasn’t warm enough! I slept in full length thermals, with a fleece sleeping bag liner as well. Tseering reckoned it got down to minus 15 degrees both nights. The condensation from our breaths was freezing on the inside of the tents, and whenever we inadvertently knocked the walls of the tent we’d set off a mini ice-fall. We even had to sleep with our water bottles inside our sleeping bags otherwise they would’ve frozen and we wouldn’t have had any water until the river thawed the next morning. At the time it wasn’t much fun, but to be honest it wasn’t so bad as we were well-equipped for the conditions. Funnily enough it was also the first time I’d used my tent -the only other time I’d even put it up was a nice spring afternoon in the back yard in Perth.

We came back down the Langtang valley in less than half the time it took to go up, then we headed up towards a spot called Gosainkund, a set of five lakes which have a lot of religious significance to Hindus.
 
Forest near Sing Gompa 
 
After a solid slog one morning we stopped for lunch at a spot called Laurabina. As we waited for our fried rice and/or macaroni and thawed ourselves around the fireplace, the clouds which had been milling around the valleys suddenly swept up onto the ridge and we were enveloped in white. Not long after that the snow started, and got heavier, and pretty soon we realised that we weren’t going any further that day. A British couple turned up not long after us, and a young Canadian couple emerged from the snow looking a bit bedraggled. Resigned to a long afternoon stuck in the guesthouse we settled in and wasted the afternoon playing cards and talking crap.
 
Settling in 
 
The snow stopped just after dark, and when the clouds cleared a few hours later the bright moon on the fresh snow was pretty magical.

Lodge at Laurabina

The next morning we trudged up the ridge through the knee-deep powder with a nasty wind whipping past us torturing any exposed skin.
 
Up the ridge 
 
The path to Gosainkund 
 
When we finally reached the lakes at Gosainkund we found they were totally frozen over with three metres of ice, which destroyed any chance of a swim in the holy waters which according to Hindus will totally cleanse the soul. So with our unclean souls still intact (some more unclean than others) we tested the ‘three metres thick’ theory and ventured out onto the lake.

The main lake

Lani Josh and I headed halfway back down that afternoon, but even though the guesthouse was running out of food Si and Pat stayed up at Gosainkund for the night. The next day they had to descend from 4300m to 1950m in one day -a drop of about 2.3 vertical kilometres! Pat also copped a fairly bad bout of food poisoning that morning, and when they finally got into Dunche he was in pretty bad shape. It was the first time in the whole trek we’d seen Tseering flustered!

Back streets of Dhunche

The bus trip back to Kathmandu was even worse than on the way up, so before long I was back on the roof and found a good spot near the back sitting next to a Nepali police officer who was based at Dhunche.
 
Typical passing manoeuvre 
 
We had a good chat about his family life, and his work as a police officer. Perhaps the most interesting stuff was about the government and the Maoists. Now I’m no expert on recent Nepali history, but I found it a fascinating (and sad) situation the country is in, so I’ll attempt to summarise it based largely on that conversation on the roof of a bus, and from bits we gleamed during our stay in Nepal.
 
The ruling monarchy in Nepal holds tight control over the Nepal Army, who’s job includes ‘protection’ of all communication and electricity infrastructure, as well as Kathmandu’s international airport -which gives them (and the king who controls them) a hell of a lot of power within the country, much to the resentment of the people. Until a few years ago there was a lot of violence in Nepal, between the monarchist government and a group of people known as Maoists, with communist ideologies based on the policies of Mao Zedong, who used to be an (in)famous Chinese leader with questionable morals. But the government was reluctant to use the army to fight the increasingly militant Maoist threat, because using your army against your own people (even if they’re violently opposed to your government) is plain old civil war. So they established what’s known as the Armed Police Force, who seem to be trained and equipped as well as the actual army, but who operate as a branch of the police, with their main aim to quash the Maoist uprising. About two years ago the government and the Maoists signed a cease-fire agreement, which has ultimately allowed the cogs of democracy to start turning, with a general election scheduled for mid-April. Now it seems the population looks at the prospect of an election with a mixture of  anticipation and scepticism. The popular support seems to be for a party, or conglomeration of parties who I can’t remember the names of, who are pushing for a proper democracy. But the other major players are the monarchist supporters of the existing government and the Maoists, both of whom have the ability to disrupt the elections if it looks like they’re not going to go their way -it’d be pretty hard to hold an election if the power and communications ‘accidentally’ failed (which happens to be the infrastructure under the control of the army, which is under the control of the king).
 
Maybe that’s being overly cynical, but it’ll be interesting to see how things pan out for Nepal -a beautiful country full of fantastically warm and friendly people. The Nepalese left a distinct impression on all of us, and their resilience in the face of a rugged landscape, harsh climate, and questionable government was an inspiration to us.

So enough of the political analysis for now. In the next update I’ll hopefully cover our escape from a dire fuel crisis in Kathmandu using black-market diesel, and our travels across Northern India to the border of Pakistan. Now get back to work!

Honk, honk, accelerate, brakes, honk, honk…

11 March, 2008
Thankfully after a few long days driving I’ve managed to type up the next update. We’re in Bandar Abbas at the moment, on the Persian Gulf coast of Iran. Iran has been surreal and frustrating for the 3 days we’ve been here. Since we crossed the Pakistan/Iran border we’ve been under constant armed police escort, which has normally consisted of a ute full of dudes weilding AK47’s. While driving at night we’d even have a guy in the back seat of the Hilux with us, AK47 between their legs, and a Beretta on their hip. Thankfully we’re out of the ‘dangerous’ area now, and we’re hopefully going to make better progress in the next few weeks. More on that later! Here’s a quick rundown of our drive north from Chennai, where we picked up the Hilux from the port, to Kathmandu. Enjoy!
 
Chennai to Kathmandu: 2 – 5 February 2008
So now we finally had the Hilux we were two weeks behind schedule, and Simon’s mate Pat was flying into Kathmandu on the 5th February to meet us for some trekking in the Himalayas. The prospect of driving from Chennai to Kathmandu in four days would’ve been a dream until very recently, but luckily for us the Indian Government has almost finished building what’s known as The Golden Quadrilateral, a dual-carriageway highway linking the big four cities of Chennai, Kolkotta, New Delhi and Mumbai.

Now I wouldn’t be the first person to describe driving in India as crazy, and it is. But the funny thing is it seems to work because it’s so simple. You just ignore all those troublesome aspects of driving like indicators, lanes, traffic lights, headlights, right-of-way, rearview mirrors, speed limits, etc etc, and replace them with one thing, the horn. You also learn very quickly to assume nothing and expect absolutely anything.

The cities are pretty straight-forward, because the roads are generally so congested that speeds are low, and it’s simply a case of pointing where you want to go and honking almost incessantly until you get there. As I mentioned before, traffic lights and give way rules are non-existent. The concept of ‘might-is-right’ where you give way to everything bigger than you, doesn’t even always apply. But the solid bullbar on the front of the Hilux is a fairly good deterrent to any ambitious rickshaw drivers.

Driving through Gaya, close to the Nepal border

Highway driving was a whole new experience from city driving. The classic example was not far north of Chennai. We were happily cruising along at 70 or 80km/h in the fast-lane of a nice dual-carriageway (two lanes each way, separated by a raised median strip), when suddenly a truck came over a rise directly toward us in our lane. After the split-second of disbelief wore off, Simon managed to swerve to the left and avoid the oncoming truck as well as the endless stream of pedestrians, pushbikes, rickshaws and motorbikes plodding along in the left lane. This was not an uncommon occurrence, and we soon learnt that if an Indian wants to get to somewhere on the other side of the median strip, they won’t think to go past it to the next turning point and come back at it from the correct direction, they’ll simply cut onto the wrong side and run the gauntlet. Everyone from pushbikes to buses was doing it, but once we knew to keep an eye out for them it was fine, but there were a few close calls, especially at night. Sometimes everyone had to do it, as large sections of road weren’t finished, so without warning our side of the road would suddenly finish in a pile of dirt (or often an unfinished bridge) and we’d have to swerve across a rutted and bumpy patch of dirt onto the opposite lanes, and pray. These stretches of unfinished or half-finished highway often lasted kilometres, and in one case in Orissa, a whole state. Dogs, goats and cows wandered the highways as they pleased providing challenging slow-moving obstacles, and at one point we almost ran over an old woman who had blocked off the whole fast-lane with rocks and spread out her rice to dry.

The only warning sign we ever saw

Trucks, trucks and more trucks

Seats are for wussies

Railway crossings are a good illustration of the mentality of the average Indian driver. When the barriers are down they won’t wait in a queue like you’d expect, they’ll crowd up to the barrier using the whole width of the road, on both sides of the tracks. I’m sure you can imagine the mayhem when the barriers come up. The nett effect of this on everyone’s progress is easily negative, but yet they still do it every time.
 
Railway crossing chaos is about to happen

Other highlghts were the liberal (ie constant) use of highbeam at nights, ridiculously overloaded trucks, dodgy toll-gate officials trying to rip us off, nice toll gate officials seeing we were tourists and letting us through for free, piles of gravel randomly dotted across the road, potholes larger than some of the mines I’ve worked in, wrecked trucks left perched on the shoulder, and the endless entertainment of reading the bizarre phrases Indian truck drivers would adorn their hideously signwritten trucks with.

As night fell the roads cleared up somewhat, and my initial apprehensions were calmed by the fact that driving was almost safer at night because all the local traffic cleared off and we only had to deal with the slow-moving, but very courteous, truck drivers.

Team photo

We shared the driving between Josh Si and I, and for the first two days we drove until no-one felt awake enough to drive, then picked a spot to camp and sleep for a few hours til daylight. The first night we went a fair way off the highway and found a nice quiet spot. The second night we weren’t so lucky, and every square metre of flat land for kilometres was taken up with rice paddies, so we resorted to sleeping just off the highway. I’m guessing they don’t have much entertainment in the town of Budbud, because we woke to a massive crowd of locals, who obviously found our presence a lot more interesting than their ride to work. So, barely awake, and slightly taken aback, we packed up the tent and fought our way to the back of the ute to pack it away, and wishing the silent but cheerful crowd goodbye we made our way back onto the highway.

The crowd we awoke to

We’ve struck crowds like that the whole way, and now that we’re used to it it’s not so bad. To be fair that’s exactly why we chose to drive our own vehicle -to see the areas that are off the normal tourist trail. Whenever we stop for chai or lunch the same thing happens. Whichever stall we choose instantly becomes the most popular spot in the village, and everyone (actually normally only the guys) will happily stand arund and watch us do whatever we’re doing. Normally there’ll be one dude who plucks up the courage to attempt a conversation, and with broken English and a bit of hand waving we manage. I’m not claiming we’re new-age missionaries or anything, but it is nice to be able to provide a friendly face for the western world!

For the last stretch to the Nepal border we had to go off the ‘Golden Quadrilateral’ and negotiate a few hundred kilometres of smaller raods, to the border crossing at Raxaul/Birganj. The bridge over the Ganges River just out of Patna provided some hair-raising entertainment. The concrete bridge is constructed in segments about 50m long on each bridge support, with a steel zig-zag join between each segment, like you see on bridges everywhere. The catch was that every time a vehicle (especially the trucks) passed over these joins, the concrete from the first section would pop back up, and the concrete in the section the truck drove onto would have to take the weight and sink, leaving ‘steps’ of up to about 10cm in the joins. We watched in fascinated horror for the whole 7.5km length of the bridge.

Random fuel stop at some ungodly hour in the troubled Bihar region

After driving through the night, we reached the Nepal border at 0700, and after almost inadvertantly driving straight across (it’s easier than it sounds), we were flagged down and pointed towards immigration, where the immigration dude tried to con us into paying 50 rupees for the departure card. Tired and not in the best of moods, we told him politely where he could stuff his 50 rupee ‘fee’ and eventually walked out with passports stamped. Then the fun began. To get the Hilux into each country without having to pay import duty at every border, we have an internationally recognised document called a Carnet en Passage Douanes, which we have to have stamped and correctly filled out whenever we enter and leave each country. Long story short, if it isn’t filled out properly we could be liable to pay up to AUD$65,000 in import duties/fines. This was the first border we’d crossed in the Hilux, so we were a bit nervous abot the whole thing. So after being offered a chai and a seat outside the customs office to wait and watch the mass of locals crossing the border in the early morning sun, the customs officer eventually emerged, and he took me over to another office to do the paperwork. After we finally found the right ledger to record the details in, it soon became apparent he had no idea what he was doing, as he had to read the entries on the previous pages, then ask me what they meant, and then where each bit of information was on our carnet document before he painstakingly copied it verbatim inot the ledger (even though the people who designed the carnet supplied a perforated rip-off section on each page for exactly that purpose). It wasn’t until the last line that I realsied he was filling in the imports section of his ledger, even though we were leaving India at the time. He took a fair bit of convincing, but I eventually got hold of the ledger, found the exports section and showed him the right place to re-write all of the stuff he’d just written. It was at this point he apologetically explained in broken English that sometimes the job of customs officer at Raxaul is deputised out, obviously to whoever is unlucky enough to be in the office at the time the actual customs officer decides he’s going to have a day off (or maybe even the cleaner, who knows). I did feel sorry for the guy after hearing that. We eventually got everything recorded, and after much discussion between him and a colleague who’d turned up to help, and me virtually ripping the carnet our of his hands before he stamped it in the wrong place, we had all the stamps and signatures in the right place, so I got out of there as fast as I could before they changed their mind! An hour and a half after we pulled up, we were off to Nepal!

After the relaxed nature of the Indian side of the border, the first thing we saw when we crossed the bridge into Nepal was lots of soldiers with guns, unfortunately soldiers with guns turned out to be a common sight throughout the country. They were nice enough to point us in the direction of the immigration office, where a friendly Nepalese immigration official politely tried to tell us there was a 100 rupee fee on top of the USD$30 for the visa. I think the dudes with guns outside soothed our tempers a bit, but when we politely told him where to stick his 100 rupee fee, he merely shrugged and got on with issuing our visas. The guy at the customs building took the carnet off me, and in less than 15 minutes it was ready to go, and he even changed some Indian rupees to Nepalese rupees for us.

He also offered some advice -get out of town. It turns out we’d stumbled into what’s known as a bandh, a bizarre type of regional strike normally called by a minor political party as a protest to the government, which causes massive economic disruption (which ironically hurts the locals most), and is enforced by the calling party with threats of violence if anyone breaks it. Tensions were high, and we took the most direct route out of there. Just on the edge of town we came across one roadblock of burning drums and concrete blocks. I wasn’t keen to stop, and managed to squeeze the Hilux through a gap without anyone getting too agitated.

We decided to take the scenic route to Kathmandu, known as the Tribhuvan Highway, which on paper looks a lot shorter, but instead of skirting around the big hills like the main highway does, it winds it’s way right over them. It was a long drive, but the road was excellent (although narrow), and being amongst the foothills of the Himalayas the panoramic views of the mountains got us excited for what was to come in the next couple of weeks.
 
Simon 

The highest point, we think

Finally after driving 3000km -the last 36 hours of which we didn’t even stop for sleep to make sure we met Pat on time, we got to the guest house we were supposed to be meeting at and he wasn’t even there to bloody meet us! Ungrateful bugger! So Lani Si and I walked into Thamel for dinner, but both Si and I kept falling asleep at the table. Time to call it a day I think!

Plan B in action

4 March, 2008
Someone smart once said that some things are better late than never, and hopefully the update of this blog is one of those things!
I’m not going to try to cover all of the trip so far in this update, but it’s still gonna be a long one, so if you’ve got some time to kill grab a coffee and read on. There’s more photos on my Facebook profile, which you can see even if you don’t have a Facebook account. The first album is here and the second here.
Singapore: 15-16 January 2008
So it all started in a happy little bar in Singapore. We’d all made it there on our own – Lani from Perth, Simon from Auckland and Me from Nelson. After making our ways into the city (think massive pack, 32 degrees, 95% humidity, and rush-hour on the MRT), we rendezvoused at the Prince of Wales Backpackers where one of my old-mates from high-school, René, kept the beers flowing as he recounted the tales of his 7 years in Singapore. Nicely warmed up on some local Pilseners, we put on the tidiest clothes we had (which isn’t saying much these days) and hit the city to experience some night-life. Being a Tuesday night it wasn’t cranking, but the highlight has to be Orchard Towers (I think that’s what it’s called… René?), where every floor you go up offers a more bizarre experience. Take this bar for example:
What you can’t see is that the bar was full of scantily clad Singaporean lovelies, who would swamp any western guy who walked in within seconds. Sounds like every guys dream right? Well that depends on your own point of view. It just so happens that Lani is the only female in this photo. Yeah we didn’t believe it at first either. Poor Simon was devastated when we finally let him in on the joke. Cheers for your tour guiding René!
Next day we picked up a few odds and ends at Sim Lim Square, the massive (6 storey) mall dedicated to cheap-as-chips electronics stuff. Then we checked out the beginnings of René’s hospitality empire near Chinatown -René has just opened his second restaurant Uluru a couple of doors down from his first one. Very classy, but a little bit out of our backpacking price range!
So after another sweaty rush-hour trip on the MRT to the airport, our stopover was over and it was time to start the journey proper. Next stop, Chennai India!
Chennai: 17-18 January 2008
Our first taste of India was a noisy and smelly taxi ride through the noisy and smelly streets of Chennai. Traffic was relatively light, but the pollution and the driving was something I realised I was going to have to come to terms with pretty quickly. We found the accommodation easily enough, got charged an arm and a leg for our room, and as the excitement of finally being there was taken over by exhaustion we crashed into bed.
Went for a walk in the morning, watching the locals going about their lives, keeping an eye on where we were walking (and what we were walking in), and observing the chaotic symphony of Indian traffic with equal measures of trepidation and admiration. We ended up at Marina Beach which was, well, big. I’m struggling for any more positive adjectives. I’m used to the rubbish now, but that morning I was pretty shocked to see the amount of rubbish -it’s a beach, you’d think they’d at least respect that?! The zone between high and low tides was the only clean part. As well as the rubbish, the beach was seemingly covered in rows of semi-permanent market stalls selling a whole range of crap that I thought only westerners would be stupid enough to buy. I think we’d all seen enough, so we bailed back into Triplicane for some food. At 75 rupees (about AUD$2.20) for brunch we got a feel for how cheap this place is going to be -if only all of our meals were that cheap though.
On the way home we took a bit of a detour down a tiny little lane I spotted, and we were swamped by bunches of happy friendly kids, all genuinely pleased to see us, and find out where we were from. Lani as usual was the star of the show, but we always knew blondes have all the fun. Re-energised knowing there are Indians out there who see us as more than just walking wallets, we emerged back into the madness of Triplicane High Road and headed back to the accommodation.
Buying a couple of Indian simcards that afternoon cost the ridiculous sum of 1000 rupees, but we did manage to avoid all of the beauracracy normally associated with the process -I’ve heard of foreigners who had to provide written references and wait up to two weeks. The process did take best part of an hour and a half, but we were all happily sitting in our new friend Ahmed’s tiny little shop, chatting about stuff (mainly cricket) and drinking chai he’d got some kid to fetch for us all.
We grabbed a rickshaw to check out some of the limited sightseeing in Chennai, and quickly got scammed into stopping at some ridiculously over-priced stores. When the driver realised we were in fact tight-ass backpackers (wow I wonder how long that took him) he soon gave up, asked for a 10 rupee retainer to stay while we checked out a temple, and we never saw him again.
The next day we got to the central station at 0500 on the (supposedly slim) chance we might get on the early Shatabdi Express train to Bangalore. When we got there we booked, paid, and found the right platform with no dramas at all. Before we knew it, we were on our way in a clean, comfortable, half-empty carriage on a train that didn’t stop once the whole way to Bangalore -oh how I wish all of our public transport experiences since then could’ve been that easy!
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Bangalore: 18 January 2008
Bangalore was a city we were in mixed minds about spending some time in, and as it turned out we only stayed long enough to get a ride out of there. After three hours of traipsing between the bus and train stations, deciphering timetables, and mastering the art of Indian Queueing (it’s all about the elbows, and massive packs help too sometimes), we had tickets for the overnight bus to Hampi, then an overnight bus 3 days later to Goa. With a few hours to kill we decided to try to find a GPS unit to buy. A dude on the train had recommended a place called The Forum, which an overpriced rickshaw ride later we found to be a massive mall, which even by western standards would be considered pretty darn flash. But alas, no GPS’s. The dude in the Apple store did give me a free universal power adaptor which was nice though. After a bit of wandering around looking at stuff we couldn’t afford to buy (damn backpacking budget!) we explored the streets around the mall looking for a feed. Friendly locals were more than happy to point in any general direction and assure us a restaurant was “2 minutes walk”, and funnily enough we did eventually stumble across one. From across the road it looked clean enough, so we poked our heads in and we were swamped by a whole bunch of highly-excited kids each trying to attract our attention. We soon worked out they worked there (well some of them did, others just kinda hung around, which seems a very Indian thing to do in most retail establishments). After introductions were made, and our countries of origin were determined, the conversation died down a little and we managed to order some food, exactly what at the time we didn’t know, but we trusted their judgement. It turns out it was a masala dosa, which was nice enough. When we asked for some chai, once again a kid was despatched down the road to grab some. All up the meal for three of us (including chai) was 45 rupees, or about AUD$1.20! It was so refreshing to not be paying tourist prices. The kids wouldn’t even accept a 5 rupee tip. So once again bouyed by some genuine Indian hospitality we made our way back to the bus station to catch a bus.
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Well here’s where the fun began. Indian bus stations are an experience in themselves. First up we got about three different opinions as to which platform our bus left from. Luckily we narrowed it down to one, then had to resort to asking the driver of every bus that pulled up whether he was going to Hampi, which is a very delicate process as Indians have a charming habit of responding with an enthusiastic “yes yes sir” to any question posed to them. Eventually, almost an hour after we were supposed to leave, we found a bus that was actually heading to Hampi, but not very quickly, and even less comfortably. After showing the ticket to the conductor again and pointing at the class we’d booked, he told us it wasn’t our bus and that ours was 2 buses down. So we jumped onto that bus, and we were told that no, our class of bus to Hampi had been cancelled that night, but we could stay on this bus (which was the same class we’d booked anyway), as it was heading to Hospet which was only 25km from Hampi. Dazed and confused we dumped our stuff in the back, found a seat, and tried to catch some sleep as the driver negotiated the suicidal game that is night-time driving in India.
So we arrive in Hospet about 0600. Once again there was mass confusion as to how to get to the next bus from Hospet to Hampi. The driver is telling us to stay on board cos he’ll drive us, but the conductor is outside telling us to get our bags out of the back and walk to another bus. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, bags are out, then back in. I lose track of where Simon and Lani are. Driver and conductor are both shouting at us to get on and get off respectively. Eventually we reconvene and decide to stick with the bus and driver cos it’s a pretty safe bet. So we get moving, we’re all smug and settling in for the trip to Hampi, and before we even get a chance to sit down properly the bus screeches to a halt on the other side of the bus terminal, and the driver tells us to get out, pointing to the same bus the conductor had been pointing to the whole time! After a solid 5 minutes of pure confusion, all he’d wanted to do was save us the hassle of walking less than 100m to the other bus. Even more dazed and confused this time, we thanked him for the effort and jumped on the Hampi bus a moment before it coughed into life and left the terminal in a cloud of exhaust.
Hampi: 19 – 21 January 2008
After a night of not-quite-sleep on the roller-coaster night bus, we wandered to the far end of Hampi (on the other side of the river) to a hostel called The Goan Corner, which was full of hippies and rock climbers but had a nice relaxed vibe. For a bit of exercise we wandered up the valley and made our way up to the Hanuman Temple (aka the Monkey Temple), where we were rewarded with excellent views of the sun setting through the perpetual haze that blankets even the rural areas of India.
We’d come to Hampi to explore the ancient ruins left from what used to be the political and religious centre of one of the dynasties that ruled the area -I’m sure Simon can fill in the details. So the next morning we hired some bikes and set off into the dust and heat. The first one we got too was Vittala Temple which cost the princely sum of USD$5 to get into. It was quite nice, but didn’t really blow my socks off.
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So we wandered back to our bikes via the scenic route and stumbled upon the much less mentioned Achyutaraya Temple and plaza. Now this was impressive. A massive plaza/bazaar stretched hundreds of metres up the valley, topped off with a temple at the end. Spying another temple at the top of a hill over-looking Achyutaraya (there’s lots around) we checked our water supplies (low) and decided to climb up to it. We were thankfully rewarded with 360 degree views of the Hampi area.
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Back down by the river we stopped in at a restaurant for an early dinner. When we enquired about a bonfire being set-up on the banks of the river, the waiter told us about his friend who had killed himself the previous night riding home drunk on his motorbike from a festival in the next village. Which is especially surprising because the Hampi area is supposedly alcohol-free due to it’s religious significance. The guy had no family in Hampi, so the town’s residents had all chipped in to build the bonfire (which we now knew was a funeral pyre) so he could be cremated and his ashes spread into the river. Not a particularly cheerful story, but I think it touched all of us.
We didn’t venture as far the next day, but Lani and Simon did get blessed by the resident elephant at the temple in the middle of Hampi (for a one rupee donation of course).
So we got a rickshaw back to Hospet to catch our next bus, and once again had an experience one can only get in an Indian bus terminal. Luckily we had accrued a team of extremely helpful State Transport Corporation employees who did the hard work, and eventually herded us onto the right bus when it turned up over an hour late. We thought we’d been roughing it on the night bus to Hampi, but this bus opened up whole new levels of basic. Simon managed to get our bags on board, taking up a seat on what was at times an extremely crowded bus, which just to make things more fun was constantly stopping to pick up and drop off people, and of course there was the suicidal night-driving which was best to sleep through. Simon woke up at one point to find the girl next to him’s hand prying up his t-shirt, which unfortunately for Si wasn’t an amorous gesture, but instead an attempt at his money-belt. We stumbled off the bus in Panaji at 0700 pretty much at the end of our tether, but thankfully smack bang in the middle of the resort state of Goa…
Arambol: 22 – 25 January 2008
So we found a bus north which got us to a town called Mapusa in about 30 minutes. Once there we thought we’d tracked down a bus to the next step, a town called Mandrem. Not long into the ride I worked out the dawn sun was on the wrong side of the bus, and with a bit of investigation I worked out the bus we’d just jumped on wasn’t heading to Mandrem, it was heading to Panjim, which was another name for Panaji which we’d just left. Too tired to attempt anything tricky, we stuck it out on that bus all the way to Panjim, and then back to Mapusa again where we eventually found the right bus to Mandrem. With a team of locals on the bus ready to tell us where to get off we were eventually deposited in the nice, but dull resort beach of Mandrem. It didn’t take long to determine Mandrem had the atmosphere and ambience of a nursing home, so we grabbed a taxi to nearby Arambol, which had the atmosphere and ambience of, well, I’m stuck for adjectives here. I guess if you’ve just jumped off a plane from rainy Heathrow (which 90% of the people there had), it would be nice, but we weren’t impressed. OK so we’re a tough group to please considering we’d all recently spent time in either Cottesloe, Omaha and/or the Marlborough Sounds. The tourists were predominantly middle-aged hippies of British or European descent, wearing an eclectic assortment of Indian-themed hippy clothes that you never thought people actually wore, and a look that bordered stoned and smugly arrogant.
We headed off to the north end of the beach and found the Om Ganesh Guest House away from the madness around the point.
We’d heard there was a really good market every Wednesday in a little town about 15km south called Anjuna, so the next day Lani and I ventured off to hire a moped (aka scooter) for the day to check them out. After checking a few places which had already hired out all their mopeds, we came across another likely looking shop with a moped out the front. It turns out it belonged to the guy working inside, but he soon saw a few quick rupees o be made and he was happy to hire it to us for the day for a reasonable price. After a quick run-dwon of how it works (it’s been a while since I last rode Hendo’s Nifty 50 at high school) we were on our way, wind in the hair, horn blaring, negotiating Indian traffic with reckless abandon. Once we got there the markets turned out to be a huge turist-trap, with very enthusiastic touts ahrrassing us the whole way. Deal of the day was my 1500 down to 300 rupee effort for a Pashmina shawl for Mummy, which took some hard and creative bargaining, but it was worth it (I promise I’ll send it soon Mum!).
We checked out Anjuna Beach on the way out, and the final consensus is that perhaps the southern beaches are nicer, cos we weren’t impressed with what we saw in the north of Goa!
We were all hanging out for some western food by this stage, and we’d heard a tip about a place called Double Dutch, which turned out to be an idyllic little restaurant with tables tucked into quiet alcoves with overhanging palm tress and lush greenery, and a menu to die for. So Simon and I tucked into a couple of sizeable beef steaks (yes actual beef, which funnily enough is a bit hard to find in a Hindu country). Fully satisfied we strolled back to our guest house, and there Simon and I stayed for the next 24 hours as our bodies purged whatever toxin had piggybacked it’s way into our stomach via the steaks. I won’t go into the details.
So the day after that we left Arambol, and Goa, without too much remorse. I think what dissapointed me the most was the fact that every single local we met (apart from the friendly ones on the bus into Mandrem) had the same agenda -to sell us something. Even the tourists got to us -so many of the hippies were concentrating so hard on being the most hippyish that they totally forgot to relax and have fun. Anyway enough of my hippy-bashing.
We caught a rickshaw to Karmali Railway Station, where a bunch of schoolkids swamped us, while Simon gave an impromptu geography lesson, and Lani wooed the crowd with her photos from home.
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It as a fairly uneventful 12 hour train ride from Karmali to Mumbai. The incessant and repetitive monotone cries of “Cheese sandwich, omelette, poori”, “Chicken lollipop”, “Chai, chai chai, chai” would’ve lulled us to sleep if it wasn’t for the air-conditioning, which was on full, even though it was winter. The carriages got so cold that everyone had to wrap themselves in the conveniently supplied rugs, and even the staff were blowing their hands to keep them warm as they walked through our carriage. But I guess, we did pay for Three-tier Air-Conditioning Class, so we can’t complain about not gtting our money’s worth.
Mumbai: 26 – 27 January 2008
The platforms at the main railway station at Mumbai were absolute chaos, as thousands of people fought their way onto the Sleeper Class Carriages of the train opposite. The police were even throwing the odd slap with their hitting-sticks, which fired up the crowd a bit, but did nothing to create any sense of order. We squeezed our way out the masses, and made our way to the only cheap hostel in Mumbai, The Salvation Army Guest House. It was cheap for a reason, but we were knackered.
The next day was Republic Day, which interestingly enough is an alcohol-free day for Indians. Can you imagine the government telling Kiwi’s, and especially Aussies, that they weren’t allowed to drink on their national days?! Anyway after spending the whole day trying to organise transport for the next leg, we finally caught up with Josh, the third of the three owners of the Hilux. After a sunset stroll along the waterfront to Chowpatty Beach, we retired to Leopold’s Cafe (the favourite hang-out of the author of Shantaram) as it was one of the few places foreigners could get a beer, after registering our passports that is!
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We managed to find excellent coffee the next morning (our first decent coffee in weeks!) at a place called Barista, which is kind of an Indian version of Starbucks. With caffiene in our veins we jumped on a ferry out into Mumbai Harbour to Elephanta Island, a very highly recommended collection of temples excavated into the bedrock of this small island in the harbour. Don’t bother. I don’t doubt a lot of hard work went into carving them, but balanced with the crowds, the half kilometre climb up the hill through a throng of incessant touts, and the investment of virtually a whole day to see them, it doesn’t really justify it.
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So that evening we jumped on a bus out of Mumbai. It’s an interesting city -I think what struck me most was the (relative) wealth around the place. Lots of nice shops, nice cars (who would drive a Maserati in Indian traffic?!), a very relaxed standard of dress for the ladies, and even footpaths -even though they were full of dudes trying to sell us hash.
Aurangabad: 28 – 29 January 2008
The night bus to Aurangabad was luxury compared to the state buses we’d been taking. After a quick snooze we found a local bus to Ellora caves, another set of temples carved into rock, but a hell of a lot more impressive than Elephanta Island.
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Then back on bus to Daulatabad Fort, which was set up when one of the old rulers of India decided he wanted to move the capital, so he force marched the population of the existing capital down to Daulatabad. Not surprisingly he didn’t last long, but luckily the fort did because it was pretty impressive. Just as the sun set we got talking to massive group of schoolkids, and Josh wooed them with the guitar, and Lani as usual was a favourite with the girls.
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As darkness set in we found ourselves waiting in the dust by the side of the road for a local bus to take us back to Aurangabad. Not many came past, and the ones that did were full, which is a concept we didn’t think the Indians knew until tonight -these buses really were full. Eventually one stopped, so the locals and us all ran to the door, and amidst the shouting and confusion which seems to accompany most dealings with regard to buses, we finally determined it was yet another full bus. Until I noticed the driver waving me over (us bus drivers can spot a fellow driver, it’s an ancient tradition older than the freemasons), so I came round to his side and he waved me up into the cab. Screaming at the others to follow, I clambered up, and we happily drove off into the night perched on whatever we could find, leaving the poor locals we were waiting with in the dust.
The next morning we hired a car and driver to visit Ajanta Caves, yet another set of temples carved into rock, which were even more impressive than Ellora.
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That night we took yet another night bus back to Mumbai, then the next morning got a flight back to where it all began, Chennai.
Chennai: 30 January – 1 February 2008
We were back in Chennai to (finally) pick up the Hilux, which was two weeks late because the ship out of Perth was delayed. So first stop was to catch up with our shipping agent Rao, who told us we wouldn’t be able to get a customs inspection for two days. So with time to kill in Chennai we decided to venture beyond Triplicane in search of good coffee. We managed to find a few very funky cafes and restaurants, but as night fell and hankering for a beer took over we were caught out by the fact we were all dressed like backpacker hobos, and the bars wouldn’t relax their dress codes, even for cashed-up foreigners. I wasn’t thirsty anyway.
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The next day, in anticipation of finally being reunited with our baby, we did a bit of shopping for camping and vehicle stuff, and I even splashed out and bought some clothes at the very nice Spencers Plaza.
So the big day finally arrived. After catching a rickshaw to the Customs House, we waited almost an hour while our agent Rao and one of his colleagues (I forget his name -we’ll call him White Shirt) were upstairs meeting with the customs officials. Eventually they all came down and we met the Customs Officer lady, who we jumped into a little car with for the drive to the Container Freight Station (CFS). During the trip we got chatting to her, talking about our impressions of India, our lives back home, our families, her work, her family, her kids education. So yeah, it was a very interesting chat. Our shipping agent back in Oz had lost the Carnet, which meant our container had sat at the CFS for quite a few days, and as other containers were shuffled in and out, ours had made it’s way to the bottom of a stack of four, in the middle of a row five deep, blocked at both ends by endless more rows, so there wasn’t a hope in hell of getting the Hilux out without some serious container juggling. Rao was stressing, thinking that the Customs lady was going to kick up a stink that she couldn’t inspect the Hilux properly, but no, once we’d cut off the Australian Customs seal ond opened the container she was happy for me to squeeze down to the front of the container, pop the bonnet, and read off the engine and chassis number so she could check them against the all-important Carnet. After that, a quick look under the tarp lying on top of the stuff in the canopy (more out of curiosity I reckon), and she was done -no more than five or ten minutes tops. Rao and his colleagues couldn’t believe how quick it was -they were expecting an hour or more. He later told us he was chatting to the Customs lady, and she’d mentioned our chat in the car, and he said we’d obviously impressed her. Simon always was a bit of a charmer!
So after such a quick Customs inspection, then came the waiting. It turns out that of the three mobile container cranes, two weren’t in action. Another of Rao’s colleagues (Brown shirt) had been at the CFS since 0700 without any progress, so we settled in for a long wait. Some of the truckies had been waiting for three days for their containers to be loaded. I soon got bored, and before long I was chatting to the operator of one of the big 15-metre tall straddle-cranes that handle the longer 40-foot containers. Trying my luck (and playing the harmless foreigner card a bit), I asked if I could have a look at the view from the top. He had to check with his boss, whose primary concern was the fact I’d get my hands dirty, who then handed me a hard-hat and told me to go for it!
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Having come from the extremely OH&S conscious mining industry, to a place where random people can walk around a container handling facility, and climb up a crane, is pretty crazy. After a long four hours of waiting, even our agent had had enough, so he grabbed Si and I and we stormed into the directors office and very politely asked if our container cold possibly be moved, if it wasn’t too much trouble. At least that what I think they said, then they started having a heated discussion which I’m sure was about whether Tendulkar or Dravid were the best Indian cricketers of all time. Either way, not long after we left the extremely ugly, but nonetheless extremely welcome, sight of the container crane rolled around the corner, and after Brown Shirt jumped up to the operators cab and slipped him some rupees, it started pulling off the eight containers blocking ours. Finally our container emerged, and with trepidation we watched it hanging from the crane as he trundled down the row and placed it down in a nice empty space (with a few more rupees going to the operator as soon as it was down -gotta love baksheesh!).
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Without hesitation we ripped open the door and started work on the straps and blocks holding it in place. The shipping company in Perth had forgotten to disconnect the battery, but thankfully the Hilux started first time, and with a team of a dozen random onlookers directing me, I backed it out of the container into daylight for the first time in over a month. Finally almost two years of planning had paid off!
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After another hour waiting for the agent to sort out the container handling fees, we were free to drive it out of the CFS. We’d been psyching ourselves up for Indian driving for a couple of weeks now, so with horn blaring and foot hovering over the brake, I emerged onto the night-time streets of Chennai. Luckily we had Rao with us for navigation, and we made it back to the guest house in Triplicane without breaking too much of a sweat. First drive in India all good!

Plan B

14 January, 2008

Well I guess we always knew there’d be some dramas on a trip like this, but we weren’t expecting them this early. Long story short, the ship that took our container from Fremantle to Singapore was 5 days late, which meant it missed the connecting ship for the second leg to Chennai. The ETA in Chennai is now the 23rd (originally it was supposed to be the 10th!), so we’re going to be vehicle-less for at least a couple of weeks dammit.

So, onto Plan B already… at this stage we’re considering back-packing (like normal people) from Chennai – Bangalore – Goa – Mumbai, then flying back to Chennai to pick up the Hilux. Then we’ll head north, straight up the east coast and then inland to Kathmandu to meet Pat and go for a stroll in the Himalayas.

Now we’re over the initial shock, Plan B isn’t sounding so bad. It’ll give us a chance to “acclimatise” to India, without the extra stress of the driving. We’ll keep you posted…