Ajmer, Pushkar, Udaipur and Jodhpur

We left Jaipur to drive to the small town of Pushkar, stopping off at Ajmer on the way. Ajmer possesses a huge mosque with attached market and tomb. We had a local guide here called Ajmal who spoke to us softly and smartly about the history of the city, the philosophy of the local muslims and hindus, his own art and wider topics of people and technology. He was genuinely one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long time, I could have happily sat and discussed and debated with him for hours. Despite all the hustle and bustle, his calmness was infectious.

After departing the mosque, it was only a short trip around a mountain to our hotel in Pushkar. Pushkar was the first place we stayed in India that wasn’t a City. Much of the town was forbidden to traffic, which led to it being significantly more serene than we’d experienced so far. Our room looked out over the small, sacred lake that the town encircled. After a trip to see the only Brahma temple in the world, we were fortune enough to happen across a Hindu fire ceremony and we participated in a puja or prayer for our health, happiness and family. This was a beautiful town, filled with spirituality and calm.

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The next day we had a long drive down to Udaipur. I’ll confess to not having heard of this city before we reached India, but we were again staying on the waterfront in a lovely room with a balcony.

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Udaipur was one of the locations for ‘Octopussy’ and there were at least 8 hotels and restaurants in town showing the film on a nightly basis. We demurred, but headed for the temples and palaces instead. The tall Jagdish temple of Vishnu was impressive, and the City Palace spectacular – built onto and around the mountain.

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We finished the day with a trip to the local gardens before watching the Sun set at the Monsoon Palace above the city.

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We hustled onto Jodhpur for the final stop in our short tour of Rajasthan. We were finally relaxing in India, after a few tense days in Delhi, the process of traveling around all these more restrained and organised locations was allowing us to feel more comfortable. Yes, it’s still noisy and colourful, but less intense and jarring. In Jodhpur we visited the large Mehrangarh, the fort and residence of the Jodhpur royal family. While it would be easy to get a little ‘fort-ed out’ this still had the capacity to impress.

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We finished up our Rajasthan tour and flew back to Delhi the next day, before heading back to Hong Kong. Before we left we had one last visit – the Qutab Minar complex in South Delhi. This was the nicest monument we saw in Delhi – and one of the best audio guides I’ve ever had. It was striking the comparison with the run down and underwhelming Red Fort.

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Sun City Blues – India Tour Part 2

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At about the time we were on Brahma ghat in Pushkar, participating in the fire ceremony and receiving puja from a young Brahmin, the bodies of two local children were being pulled out of the sacred waters. Prakesh told us about it the next morning as we climbed into the car; they had sneaked away from their school group and tried to go for a swim in deep waters. “Sometimes, the children, they are just so naughty,” he said sadly. It was a reminder; in India there are no safety railings.

Our next stop was the jewel of Rajasthan, Udaipur, “the most romantic spot in India”. The city is arranged around the beautiful Lake Pichola and ringed by the reddish Aravalli Hills; several hotels, including the maharana’s former Summer Palace situated on a small island, were used in the filming of Octopussy, and about half of the city’s guesthouses, coffee shops and bars show the film every night. A six-hour drive in hot sunshine exhausted us, but led us to the Lake Pichola hotel, with its rooftop pool and cushioned divan area in our room, with stunning views of the lake. After a swim, an exploration of the central Lal Ghat, and a sleep, we felt braced to contemplate more sightseeing.

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Hanif took us to the Jagdish Temple, a 450-year-old temple to Vishnu, where the intricately carved facade features erotic art. “You are not allowed to come here before you are married, but after you are married, the couples come here so they know what to do!” said Hanif, grinning. The day was a festival for women, we learned, and a group of women were seated on the floor in the temple, singing and beating a drum. All festivals and shrines for women, it appears, involve women asking for long lives for their husbands; women either don’t need long lives or are assumed to already have them. Later, we saw the majestic City Palace, decorated with mirrors, tiles, and coloured glass, with the intricate interweaving of public and private courtyards, women’s quarters and men, familiar to us from other palaces. At sunset, we asked Prakesh to drive us to the former Monsoon Palace, perched on top of a mountain about 10km from the city to give it some relief from monsoon temperatures. Although government-owned, it’s essentially abandoned, and sits in its beautiful isolated spot quietly disintegrating, although many people come up at sunset to see the views. We watched the reddish sun sink behind the hills before returning to the city for dinner by the lake.

In the narrow streets of Udaipur, I also came close to mastering the skills needed to walk around any Indian city; nerves of steel, a measured pace, and the determination to hold your line and trust everything else to weave around you. To paraphrase the Lonely Planet guide section on rules of the road, “Indians drive on the left… and that’s about it.” Even this modest assertion should probably be footnoted to the effect of, “Unless there’s a cow or a camel in the road, or an autorickshaw driver is particularly annoying you.”

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Our last destination was Jodhpur, another six-hour drive followed by a whistle-stop tour of the Mehrangarh sandstone fort that towers above the city. Jodhpur is the ‘sun city’, the ‘blue city’ – Brahmins in the Old City painted their homes a vivid, glowing blue – and the ‘land of death’ – from the harsh arid climate, edging towards the desert that stretches into Pakistan. High up, the soil and the sandstone buildings have the same red-gold glow, occasionally contrasted by the white marble that Rajasthan is famous for, shipped in from further east. Another six hours of driving, a midday stop at a Jain temple, and a further 2.5 hours of sightseeing combined to give me a creeping headache, and a desire to retire to bed early. We’d run out of time for our our tour, although I badly wanted to make the further drive to Jaisalmer and the edge of the desert and watch the sands silt up the Jaisalmer Fort. The next morning, we reluctantly flew back to Delhi.

Having scored a significantly cheaper hotel deal in Gurgaon, a business suburb, we had a last day to take in some of South Delhi’s sights, principally the Qutb Minar. The minar itself is a 70-metre high tower, constructed in odd sections by an array of sultans and emperors, grounding the remains of a mighty mosque that was repeatedly altered and expanded by the array of rulers who conquered and reconquered Delhi. Some of the towers were never finished, the neat stucco finish stripped away, leaving only stumps of rubble, but the huge and intricate carved screen of the mosque still arches, in semi-ruined form, across it. It reminded me of nothing so much as the ruined city of the giants in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, and the inscription written across it:

Though under earth and throneless now I be,

Yet, while I lived, all earth was under me.

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Leaving Delhi, my feelings were mixed. It had taken me some time to get the hang of the country, to manage the feelings of overwhelm, dislocation and anxiety it brought up. But the more our tour progressed, the more I loved the beauty and colour, and started to feel that I could find it addictive. We saw so little, really – not even all of one province – and the list of places that I still wanted to see grew ever longer – Sikkim, Amritsar, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Chennai, Darjeeling, Orissa, Ladakh… In five full weeks on the Indian subcontinent, I had also managed not to get sick, groped, or scammed. At the same time, the heat and the pressure of eyes had worn me down simultaneously. At Qutb Minar I was swarmed by several dozen schoolchildren who wanted endless photos, and although I smiled as graciously as possible, being a minor tourist attraction was exhausting. My experience of riding the Delhi Metro was somewhat similar; invariably the carriage contained at least 90% men who felt free to stare while I did my best to maintain composure and radiate confidence.

My lasting images of India were of life on the streets as we rolled through towns; entrepreneurs with a chair and a sheet of tin shaving their customers in the shelter of underpasses, street food sellers and water-trolley vendors, whole families living under tarps just yards from where, bizarrely, giant plush pink bears are for sale. We ended the trip by taking the red-eye from Delhi to Hong Kong for a family wedding, and I watched the sleek neon skyscrapers of Honkers roll by, half-delirious from a sleepless night, unable to take in the scale of the contrast.

Agra and Jaipur

Early in the morning we were picked up by our driver for the next 8 days – Prakesh. The first leg of our exploration took in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, capital city of Rajasthan. First though, was the small matter of a 3.5 hour drive. This was by far the longest we’ve been in a car for some months, and God is it a miserable way to travel distance, especially in India. The aircon was cranked up, but the Sun beats down on you and you emerge slightly sweaty and dazed from any journey. Our first leg was relatively smooth on a virtually deserted dual carriageway connecting Delhi with Agra. Prakesh informed us that you couldn’t go above 80kmph on it or you were likely to suffer burst tyres. Fun.
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Anyway, once we had arrived at our Agra hotel, showered and lunched we headed to the Taj Mahal, one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’. Despite the crowds and our slightly obsequious guide, this is a wonder that lives up to it’s name. Genuinely beautiful and moving, my only regret is that we weren’t able to visit at sunset. One of the impressive things about the Taj is the lengths to which the local government have gone to preserve it. Motor vehicles (with very few exceptions) aren’t allowed within 1km of it and noxious industry has been severely curtailed within 50km. While I wonder the overall effect on the local economy, there is no doubt that this makes for a more peaceful and cleaner environment, particularly notable when compared to Delhi.
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Agra fort was gridlocked with traffic, so we took a pass and headed to our hotel. The next morning we were heading for Japiur, via Fatehpur Sikri. Apparently this possesses the largest gate in the world. Either way, it’s an attractive sandstone fort on a hillside, with a mosque and a tomb built in. We said goodbye to our local guide and headed back to the car for the drive to Japiur.
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Jaipur is known as the ‘Pink City’, a naming trend that we found repeated throughout Rajasthan. In the old town all the buildings are painted a uniform pink – although in reality this is a more russet/brown colour. After a stop by the Palace of the Winds in the Old City, we headed out to Amber Fort just outside the city.
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Slowly, but surely, we were both getting a bit more comfortable with India. The noise and the heat, while intense, were no longer oppressive. The hawkers remained an irritation, but were easily dismissed (apart from the snake charmers who still freaked me out). An elephant ride up to the main fort entrance was utterly ridiculous. We had a racing elephant, who was keen to demonstrate his aggressive overtaking skills, despite our assurance that we were impressed. The fort itself is spectacular and was everything the Red Fort was not, well maintained and informative.
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After this, we headed to the Japiur city astronomical observatory, or Jantar Mantar as locals call it (and our new guide reminded us at least 5 times). This could be confused for an avant-garde sculpture garden, but contained huge instruments for the measurement of the movements of the Sun and Stars – including the world’s largest sundial.
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We closed off a full day at the Japiur City Palace, the colourful home of the local royal family. They still live here, but much of the area was open to the public.
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Delhi

I’m not really sure what I expected from Delhi. Friends, Romans and the Lonely Planet guide warned us of the noise, volume of people and confusion, especially at Delhi Airport, and the general culture shock that we would experience.

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On arrival from the short (1.5 hour) flight from Nepal, we had the second smoothest passage through an airport I’ve ever had (the smoothest being in Singapore at 23:00 on a Sunday). Customs was a breeze (visas had been sorted out in London), my bag was off the plane by the time we reached the carousel and a quick trip to the taxi counter with 400 rupees (£4) got us a taxi to our hotel. The streets were pretty quiet and we arrived within 30 minutes at our recuperation spot for the next few days.

We’d decided about halfway through the Annapurna circuit that we wanted to spend (and had earned!) a few days pampered by the pool before committing to further tourist activities. Fortunately there was a deal on a 5-star luxury hotel near Connaught Place in New Delhi that got us in for less that a night at the Luton Airport Travelodge. Some lounging by the pool, a trip to the shops for some fresh (clean) lightweight cotton clothes, some gorgeous food was just the ticket… to give me a mild upset digestive system for the next few days.

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The heat was really something. It had been hot in Hong Kong and Kathmandu, but it was hitting 36 degrees in Delhi. That’s too damn hot. Like absolute idiots, we decided to brave these midday temperatures and head to the Red Fort in Old Delhi. Being idiots who like walking and taking public transport in cities, we decided to walk to the metro, take that to near the fort and then walk down Chadni Chowk (a huge bazaar street) to the fort. This was, well, quite intense. Here we finally got the noise and confusion we’d been warned about, not at all helped by the heat or my dicky stomach.  When we finally made it through the traffic to the Red Fort, we found a crumbling remnant of old times, used by kings and maharajas, and subsequently by the British. To be honest it was a bit disappointing, it’s poorly maintained, poorly signed and not very informative. I felt this at the time and it’s even more apparent over a week later having been through Rajasthan (more on which to follow).

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What was moving in the Red Fort, however, was the Museum of the Struggle for Indian Independence. Again, it’s not hugely well curated, but the message and the history are powerful enough to overwhelm that. I’ve rarely been to an exhibit that made me feel to proud (of the Indians) and so horrificly ashamed (of being British). What unconscionable shits we were to India. The utter grace, respect and friendliness we have received from almost every Indian we’ve met is an astonishingly impressive legacy of the liberal foresight of the leaders of their revolution. That they achieved their goal (eventually) without demonising their former colonial overseers is one thing, but they also managed to not just bind together an utterly disparate nation, but put front and centre the necessity to break the caste system and educate their mothers and daughters while doing it.

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A couple of days into our stop in Delhi we realised that with the week and a half we had left, we weren’t going to be able to see too much under our own steam. So we went via the Indian Tourist agency and organised an 8-day tour of Agra and Rajasthan. A trip to the Indian National Museum, another dip in the pool and we were off to explore beyond Delhi.

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Reflections on The Annapurna Circuit and Nepal

As I think we’ve mentioned, neither of us had done a trek anything like as long or sustained as our Annapurna Circuit trek. We’d both done 4/5 days (in tents) up Jebel M’Goum in Morocco and I’d done 4/5 days in Torres del Paine in Chile with Dave Emery (the wrong way, as Dave likes to remind me). With 18 days of walking every day (average > 6 hours/day) of over 250km from 500m altitude up to 5416m, this was a completely different kettle of dal baht. Genuinely I loved the whole thing. There were a few (we worked out 5) tough days, but they were so rewarding and satisfying that I enjoyed those too. It probably helped that neither of us got particularly sick, either with altitude or digestion, and that this wasn’t the ‘whole’ of our holiday, but the food, terrain, atmosphere, routine and, of course, scenery were thrilling and inspiring. We were also very much aided by not having to carry our main packs each day (thanks porters!) and by staying in proper beds in tea houses each night rather than tents. It makes a huge difference when you know you’ve got a dry, warm bed to recover in.

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Even with some of our group who’d struggled a bit more (usually with the food) evening conversation towards the end turned to other treks to do, whether day walks in Northern Ireland, or the West Highland Way, to the Inca Trail and Kilimanjiro. I think the 18-day nature of the trek was probably longer than we’d do again, but it was very worthwhile to go through a trek that long. We’ll probably look to do a couple of days here and there in SE Asia, and certainly see what we can do in New Zealand.

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Nepal was a great experience as well, the first proper period of the trek where we weren’t in daily comfort. I’m sure this will sound awful, but I don’t think we’d been more than 2 days the whole trip beforehand without broadband internet. The world is an incredibly connected place nowadays, as my ability to get live twitter updates on Bath games while in a small town by Lake Baikal, or checking whatever latest stupidity the American government was up to while stopped at the Mongolian border, will testify to. We’d joked upon reaching Hong Kong that we were ‘back in civilisation’, but to be honest we hadn’t ever left it. Stable electricity, clean, potable water, hot showers and wifi connections were ubiquitous for the first 7 weeks of our journey, the nights spent on the train being pretty much the only exceptions.

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As soon as we arrived in Kathmandu the climate, culture and communications were clearly comparatively compromised (sorry). The roads throughout Nepal are rough and rarely tarmac-ed, there are daily power cuts in all parts of the country (apart from a couple of small villages with their own micro-hydroelectric projects), water is either so polluted or populated with bacteria that you can’t even brush your teeth with is, there is very little internet access outside the cities (and what there is is unstable and slow) and showers are often solar-powered, limiting you to a couple of gallons of lukewarm water in the early afternoon. This wasn’t particularly difficult to navigate given our guided trek, but it shows how easy it is to be glib about far lesser ‘hardships’.

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I’m a firm believer in the benefits that technology and communication bring, better roads means greater ease of movement, which means broader horizons. Stable electricity means opening up more hours for reading. The internet brings a wealth of information and the ability to reach for goals that previously weren’t just unobtainable, but were inconceivable. Given my general geeky leanings and choice of profession I doubt this is of any surprise, but I don’t hold that we were weakened by these advances, that they are barriers to human interaction. If my Mum is able to criticise my choice of hair colour and beard halfway around the world, that’s a good thing. I think. Yes, it’s a good thing!

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The point of this aside is that it’s often brought up on treks like this that it’s important to see them ‘before they’re spoiled’. Spoiling, generally, means ‘making more accessible to others’. Sure, occasionally this means there’s an extra McDonalds or Starbucks and God knows that’s depressing to see, but it’s too easy to see those bad things and ignore the improvements in healthcare and education that has been brought to locals. It is, perhaps, the pace of change that can be a damaging factor, and one that is extraordinarily difficult to manage. In Nepal they seem to be making a decent stab at this, focussing on small, sustainable projects, like local hydroelectric projects, a primary school for every village, computers, small, but regular extensions for lodges, and regular water purification systems to sell safe water to tourists. Yes, the new roads will bring more tourists, and yes it’s satisfying to be smug about seeing what has been seen by few other westerners, but the democratisation of knowledge and natural beauty are fundamental forces for good in this world – supporting bringing them about in sustainable ways should be applauded.

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Solemn Utterences – India Tour Part 1

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After three days in Delhi, we set off on our tour. We’d managed to find a company which had put together a one-week itinerary, taking in some of the major sights of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and the ‘golden triangle’ of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. We were picked up from the Lalit at 7:30am for the first stage – a four-hour drive to Agra to see that little-known sight, the Taj Mahal.

“In India, the cow he is sacred,” said Prakesh, our endlessly cheerful driver, gesturing to the one blocking the other side of the road. “Nobody people is touching him, nobody people is eating him.”

Our tour includes a guide in each location who shows us round the sights, and in Agra this was the obsequious Dinesh, who referred to me as “your highness” and offered us grave commiserations on our failure to produce a son. The Taj itself, the intricate white marble tomb built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife, is arresting on first glance, and stays that way. It’s built with a meticulous symmetry, every aspect laid out to create a flawless mirror image, from the mosque building on each side to the perfect reflection of the Taj in the water in front of it. Mothers carrying kohled and veiled babies asked us for photos; however, one toddler was so unnerved by my strange foreign features that she clonked me solidly on the head and then burst into tears. After a few hours of mid-afternoon sunshine, we were sweaty and drained, and Dinesh’s oiliness was beginning to wear on my nerves. We circled the red-sandstone Agra Fort quickly by car, before Dinesh, claiming to show us how the intricate inlaid marble of the Taj was done, hustled us to one of the inevitable “showrooms” where you are plied with tea and pressured into buying an inlaid marble tabletop. We declined politely, but thus began the first of several arguments with Dinesh on our lack of interest in questionable shopping emporiums, which continued until we left for Jaipur the next day.

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On the drive to Jaipur, after a stop at a jewellery showroom Dinesh claimed was a “private museum”, we stopped at the ancient fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri, where the Sufi saint Shaihk Salim Chishti predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal emperor Akbar. The red sandstone walls of the city contain a huge mosque and the white marble tomb of the saint, surrounded with carved marble screens where childless women still tie red and gold threads for wishes. After several more hours in the car, relieved to be rid of Dinesh, we arrived in our rather soulless business hotel in the New City area of Jaipur. I ate gulab jamum, sweet dumplings with rosewater syrup, hoping the next day would improve.

It did. We got up early to reach the Amber Palace, perched spectacularly on a hill above an artificial lake created by the maharajah Jai Singh. Progress up the hill is by elephant, which we quickly regretted; our seat was rocky and uncomfortable and our elephant apparently keen on proceeding as fast as possible. As we reached the unloading point, under the sign saying NO TIPPING, our elephant driver turned to us and made the ‘baksheesh’ gesture, one finger rubbing against thumb. The palace itself, though, is an intricate and beautiful creation, with carved and painted screens and a stunning view of the gardens on the lake. We followed this with a visit to one of Jai Singh’s other creations – the Jantar Mantar, or observatory, where he built an enormous sundial which is accurate to within 20 seconds and a series of instruments to track the movements of the sun and stars. Our new guide might have seemed to others abrupt, but to us he was perfect, briefly describing each sight and then absenting himself while we explored and took photos. Jaipur is the ‘pink city’, its Old Town well-preserved and all painted in a uniform orange-pink hue, and with the maharajah’s old palaces and their intricate screenwork visible everywhere. While quieter than Agra, like everywhere in India, it buzzes with scooters and bikes, many of them ridden by women with helmets perched on top of their bejewelled saris, sitting daintily side-saddle. Everywhere, the saris are in the flaming red-gold-orange colours that seem so characteristic of Rajasthan.

After two nights and one day in Jaipur, our next destination was the Sufi mosque in Ajmer, one of the most important Sufi sites and locations of Muslim pilgrimage in the world. I wrapped my purple Delhi scarf around my head, and Loz bought a handkerchief in the bazaar for ten rupees to cover his head. We were handed over to one of the Sufi guides, tall, solemn, and green-eyed Ajmal, who guided us around with flawless English and graceful movements, telling us about his art and his long-ago visit to London. The central saint’s tomb is a pushing, shoving throng of pilgrims making offerings of blankets and heaped petals. We sheltered in a corner and watched: “Always, people panic,” said Ajmal calmly. “There is all the time in the world.”

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Our final destination for the day, however, was the sacred Hindu town of Pushkar, a few kilometres away, site of the only temple to the Hindu god Brahma. For a change, we would explore the town on foot and at sunset, and our guide, Mahmoud, picked us up at five o’clock. Pushkar is also a major pilgrimage site and something of a hippy town, with a relaxed vibe and an absence of the hawkers that haunt most of the other monuments. Mahmoud guided us around the temple and the town, telling us the story of how Brahma’s wife cursed him to have only one temple on earth because of his impatience and faithlessness. Monkeys picked through the sweets left as shrine offerings as we stepped over the stones engraved as memorials to the dead in English, Arabic, and Hindi.

“It will take a few more visits, I think,” said Ajmal before we left him, “before you really understand Indian culture.”

Lastly, we went down to the bathing ghats on the lake, where pilgrims take their holy dip at sunset or dawn. The sun was just setting and the evening ‘fire ceremony’ had begun, with a group of men chanting quietly as a lit torch was held aloft and a bell rang. Mahmoud filled both our hands with flowers from the lakeshore to cast onto the water as the ceremony finished, and groups of Indians gathered silently around us with their hands folded. As the sun went down, the bell stopped ringing, and I stood there in the moment of silence, clutching a handful of damp flowers, watching pink and gold petals float in the still water. The men began chanting again, joyfully, rising to a crescendo, and quite unexpectedly, I started to cry.

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The Last Push – Himalaya Trek (Part 6)

After a week of relatively easy descent we reached Tatopani and a chance to spend an afternoon relaxing in the hot springs there. As we got lower down and longer into the season the lodges we were staying in got more populated. It was nice to catch up with some other travellers (while we secretly judged them for not having completed the length of trek that we had!)

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The last two days were significantly more challenging. An 1800m climb up Ghorepani for views of Annapurna I, before a 2km sharp descent the next day. The significantly higher temperature and humidity down at this altitude made for a much tougher couple of days walk. However, while the days were long, we got through them with relative ease – just showing how many kilometres we had strengthened our legs with. Finally, we got down to Birethanti, the end of our 250km+ expedition and happy (and sweaty) hugs were exchanged by all.

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The next day was easy, a short drive to Pokhara before a relaxing day by the lake there before a short flight back to return to Kathmandu. Our penultimate day in Nepal conincided with Amy’s 30th birthday, so there was nothing for it but an early morning flight across the Himalaya to see Everest, before a relaxing afternoon massage. Honestly, life can be tough.

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