Tuesday 13 October – Saturday 1 November 2009 Kathmandu to Daman to Birganj (Raxual)
As I type I can't believe we've been almost a week in Kathmandu. We love our camp spot in the Scouts HQ and we even have some overlander neighbours! Walter and Carrie from Germany have also been on the road 2 years though their huge vehicle makes the Toyota look positively tiny!
They have come through from Pakistan and Iran and thus have been a treasure trove of information about these areas. They also have given us a lot of information - a lot of it not welcome - about the situation with visas to India. Apparently we are very unlikely to get a 2nd 6 month visa to India. This is a blow as we naively thought we'd get one as a matter of course. As ever there is a way around this and as ever it involves money! Apparently if you use an agent and pay them around 10,000 rupees (around $150 Aus) a 6 month visa materializes otherwise it doesn't. We ummed and ahhed but have decided ("A Scout is Thrifty" as the sign we literally live under reminds us!) not to pay and to give it a go alone.
Apparently the modus operandi of the visa authorities is to say your embassy hasn't responded to a fax asking for your suitability for a further visa in time. They use this as an excuse not to give you a 6 month visa though usually you can still get 3 months. Our counter plan ("A Scout is Resourceful") is to tackle the Australian embassy directly and go on Friday when we have to pick up our visa with proof that we are good citizens. Wish us luck! If we just get 3 months we'll have to change our route but it won't be the end of the world so we'll give it a go.
We have now renewed our Nepali visa and will probably leave on Saturday 24th October which gives us time to get to Pushkar in India in time for the camel fair on the 30th.
In the meantime I finally met up with my friend Gill who now lives in Kathmandu, for the first time in 10 years! It was wonderful to see her and meet her partner Bipin and we had a wonder around town and a fantastic meal out with them with traditional food and dancing - and a fair bit of traditional home brew which was a bit lethal!
We have arrived slap bang in the middle of the Tihar celebrations - Tihar being the Nepalese equivalent of Diwali in India, the festival of the lights - so there have been fireworks bright lights and festivities everywhere.
Other than this we've done very little - mainly because I went down with a killer dose of flu a few days ago and today is the first day I've kept upright for more than an hour! We'll definitely be heading back to Nepal for a repeat visit in a few months as there is still a lot to see and as ever too little time in which to do it.
In the meantime we're really looking forward to going to Gill and Bipin's for a meal in the next day or so - we hear rumours Bipin is a fabulous chef!!
Update 20 October onwards:
Considering we spent so long in Kathmandu we really did very little conventional touristy stuff. My flu rather than abating as I said at the end of my last entry came back with the force of a sledge hammer and I was laid low with a bad chest infection for over a week. Kathmandu is a busy vibrant but very polluted city and people wear face masks everywhere on the streets. Maybe I should have done so! It also rivals Hanoi in Vietnam in the "most dangerous place to cross the road" stakes. The traffic - rickshaws, bikes, people, cars buses - is unremitting and the traffic police don't really seem all that proactive! Maybe they've placed traffic control in the "too hard" basket and given up!
Poor Kari our neighbour was also pretty sick with a chest infection so half the happy campers were ill. Things were not helped by the ongoing building work - necessitating a lot of overnight soil deliveries - or the 6am exercise classes which kicked off promptly every morning. With off key Chinese music and instructions screamed through the mike this was bad enough at that ungodly hour but things took a further turn downhill when the "laughter classes" started. We had heard of these in India - particularly Mumbai - the idea is you all laugh "to get closer to God" apparently. So we had 20 odd people going "ha ha ha ho ho ho !!!" in unison. They then had to roar like tigers. Forget sleeping in!
Still we shouldn't complain (see our Scouts mottos for inspiration!) it was amazingly lucky to score a camp spot right in the middle of the city with a lot of advantages - a close dairy and bakery. We even managed to organize home water deliveries from a really nice guy Ram who cycled over with 100 litres somehow precariously balanced on his bike when we were getting dry! Walter and Kari have camped here before and it seems permission is given a bit arbitrarily. They have apparently had a few bad experiences with overlanders and some people they just refuse to accept. We were thus pretty lucky that (after an initial telephone refusal) once we got in the gates we were allowed to stay for 100 rupees (about $1.50 Aus) a night for over 2 weeks.
It was fun having Walter and Kari as neighbours and we had a wonderful BBQ - something we've not done for quite a while. Walter cooked up a delicious steak with cream and garlic sauce and we had some Buff (or Buffalo) sausages. We also really enjoyed the company of our 2 camp site dogs. A motley pair - both missing the odd ear- they were nevertheless very friendly and enjoyed a lot of fuss and the odd bit of food from us. In return they took the business of guarding the trucks very seriously and went into frantic barking when any unknown persons came near!
As one of the only grassy patches in the middle of Kathmandu we also got visited by herds of goats and cows (one of which stuck its nose in and finished up Kari's coffee!) so we were a bit of an inner city farm really. We also got a few visits from monkeys. We saw one of these doing a tight rope walking act right in the middle of one of the busiest sections of town.
Having done a bit more research we decided to pay to get another 6 month visa for India. As written before they argue that they have not received approval from your embassy so can only give you 1 or 3 months. We tried but couldn't track down the people in Australia who were supposed to be doing this to chase them up. If you get an agent (who knows who and how much to bribe!) amazingly this makes the objections go and you get a visa. We worked out if we paid for 2 3 month visas we were no better off than if we paid for one 6 month visa through an agency and we skipped the hassle of heading down the visa centre where time has no meaning! So we engaged an agent the appropriately named Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and immediately got a 6 month visa. The only downside was that this was double rather than multiple entry. We were told we had no chance of getting the latter. This means we can only do one in and out trip on this visa and as we planned to revisit Nepal and go to Bangladesh we'll have to re-think our plans.
Our initial visa was multiple entry though we never asked for this or needed it. It seems crazy whilst the Indian government claim to want tourists they make it so hard. We were asked why we should need a 2nd 6 month visa when we'd already had one as if we were criminals. You think they'd encourage it. We spoke to quite a few travellers who had come the other way through Pakistan and they experienced similar issues often getting far less time than they wanted. All a bit perplexing but at least the job's now done! Lakshmi did do a good job so if you need to engage her services give her a call on 9841347786. She had a horrific accident whilst we were there when her long scarf caught Isabel Duncan style in her moped wheel. Thankfully she is now fine though she had a really bad cut on her neck.
So our time was spent reasonably pleasantly dealing with the above. Less pleasant was Andrew's dealings with Toyota Kathmandu - we have used Toyota all over India and Indonesia and never experienced the problems we did here. They were not helpful at all and Andrew had to run around buy the parts and organize everything himself. Toyota really need to lift their game regarding training here!
On a far more pleasant note the delay allowed us to spend some time with Gill my friend from the UK and get to know her partner Bipin. Bipin was as promised a really good cook and we had some great meals there and I really enjoyed catching up with Gill. We'll be back to see them in 2010 for sure.
I guess the car problems ill health and the fact that we knew we'd be back meant we were a bit lazy regarding seeing much of Kathmandu. It was certainly a very busy vibrant city though the pollution is pretty bad. We feel we haven't yet done it justice and will have a good look around the many historical monuments on our next trip.
Whilst here we had to renew all our insurances and get a new carnet sent out as we've now passed our 2nd anniversary "on the road." As we couldn't cross customs without it we were getting a bit anxious but it turned up in good time. Thanks to Gil's Bipin for providing a postal address, and Maree from the NTAA in Darwin and Kirsti & Peppina from the AAA in Canberra for all their help. It's been a woefully expensive month and the credit card has taken a hammering - car registration , car insurance, carnet fees, medical and camera insurances - dal and water only for the next few weeks!!
One good thing we did experience was being in Kathamandu for the Tihar festival. This is the Nepali equivalent of the Indian festival Divali the festival of lights. The lights were in abundance and were very beautiful and the festival had a lot of very interesting facets - certain animals are worshipped on certain days -crows, bullocks - but our favourite was when the dogs were honoured. Our camp dogs looked very proud with their tikas and garlands of flowers and you could buy dog biscuits to give to these "gods for the day" as offerings!
On the 3rd day of the festival everyone lights up their homes so Lakshmi - the afore mentioned goddess of wealth - pays them a visit for the coming year. Beautiful designs are drawn on the pavements and the houses have a trail of lamps to light her way. There is a local sort of "trick or treating" in which the local kids (and some adults) visit local business with basic instruments and sing in a raucous way to disturb the customers till they are given money to go away! The guys in our picture moved up and down the street with their impromptu orchestra - and seemed to be doing well on the money front! It seemed a really enjoyable sort of festival everyone getting involved.
On day 5 of the festival is Bhai Tika - when brothers and sisters meet and in exchange for gifts sisters place special 7 coloured tikas on their brother's foreheads to protect them for the coming year. Whilst we dealt with visa, car and illness issues all this provided a really interesting backdrop.
So on Friday 30 October we said a sad goodbye to Gill & Bipin, Kari and Walter and Chopper and Whiskers (dogs!) and headed towards the Indian border towards our next destination the town of Daman.
Actually leaving the outskirt of Kathmandu took nearly 2 hours but once we got out the scenery was lovely. The rice crops were ready to pick and everywhere was green and lush. We headed that night to Daman a little town perched 2322 metres high, it is famous for having a superb view of the Himalayas to the north east and west.
We got there as it was growing dark and found a camp spot opposite the Daman Mountain Resort which has a viewing tower promising the best views.
It was really hard getting up at 5.30am (especially as this was the first quiet morning we'd had in a long time!) but we were rewarded by stunning mountain views. None of us were really sure which was Everest and eventually we worked out it was to the east probably hidden by clouds! It was a truly stunning view though and we were glad we'd made the effort.
We drove on down winding roads through rice paddies past wooden houses and smiling people a really nice last view (for a while) of Nepal.
We hit the border town of Birganj by early afternoon. Like many border towns Birganj is pretty ugly/uninspiring. Thankfully all the border formalities went through smoothly though it was the most decrepit customs office -like an old chook shed - we'd ever seen. Driving through the gates from Nepal to the Indian border town of Raxual were a bizarre mixture of foot passengers, laden bullock carts, pony traps, lots of huge laden lorries - and a hell of a lot of dust!
The customs guys on the Indian side were very friendly and gave us chai. They came out to do an inspection but it was fairly low key and we were away swiftly. We actually got in trouble for taking a picture of the bridge between the 2 countries and the policeman made us delete it so we were a bit nervous of taking many more pictures in the surrounding area after that.
By 2pm on Saturday 31 October we drove back into the wonderful chaos that is India. We were cutting it fine but with a lot of driving we were on track to get to Pushkar Rajasthan in time to at least see the end of the camel fair - or so we thought at the time!!