Welcome to Kraków

When the alarm shattered the silence at 3.20am it felt as if we had only been asleep for 10 minutes, as we blearily opened our eyes in the darkened Travel Lodge room. Straightaway I put the kettle on and made some coffee; we would have to wait until we were at the airport before having any breakfast.

We got washed, dressed and packed, looked around the room to ensure we hadn’t forgotten anything, and left the hotel just before 4.00am. A light rain (what we call a ‘mizzle’ in the North, i.e. mist+drizzle) was falling and I was glad I’d packed my cagoule in my carry-on bag. We loaded our stuff into the car and drove the short distance to the long-stay car park. Dropping the keys in at the reception, we were just in time to get the shuttle bus.

We had never flown from or into Edinburgh Airport and we were surprised at how big it was; certainly a lot bigger than Newcastle. As we approached the airport building we could already see the one-way system in place and the signs everywhere advising people to maintain social distancing and wear a mask at all times whilst in the airport terminal.

The queue at the EasyJet luggage drop desk was quite short (we’d already checked in and printed our boarding passes before leaving home) so, once we’d got rid of our cases, we went through security until we were airside. At this point we decided we’d try and find somewhere that was open where we could get something to eat and drink, which was quite difficult as most places were closed at this time of the morning, and the ones that were planning on opening would not do so before 5.00am. There was a Wetherspoons which stayed stubbornly closed, a Burger King which was also closed and a depressing-looking series of vending machines selling water and soft drinks.

Eventually we found a Costa Coffee that was open and we bought ourselves the unlikely breakfast of Heineken beer and a millionaire’s shortbread for me, and beer and a cheese toastie for Trevor. I also purchased a bottle of water to keep myself hydrated on the aircraft.

Soon the call for boarding appeared on the departure board, and we made our way to the EasyJet designated gate and joined the quick-moving queue to board. We were exciting at our first trip away this year, very unusual for us when we usually go on holiday three or four times a year. 🙂

The aircraft took to the skies on time, and we settled back for the 2 hours 10 minutes flight. Once we’d reached cruising height the refreshments trolley appeared, which I was surprised at because I had thought they would not be serving food and drink on a reasonably short flight, in order to avoid passengers having to remove their masks. But we enjoyed a coffee each and a small canister of Pringles (strange breakfast indeed!) then, when the trolley made its return journey along the aisle we had a cold beer each, as we were now slowly getting into the holiday mood. 🙂

Before landing, we had to complete our Passenger Locator Form with our contact details, a mandatory chore without which we would not be allowed to leave the airport. All part of the Track & Trace system, where they are supposed to keep an eye on people’s movements around the globe and advise them if they come into contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.

We touched down at Pope John Paul II International Airport, Kraków, 20 minutes ahead of schedule and taxied along to the arrivals gate. I was disappointed to see that it was raining (!) as the weather in Poland recently had been sunny and warm. It didn’t take long to go through security, and we arrived at the luggage carousel at the exact time our cases appeared, so no waiting around there either. A bit different from our arrival into LAX last October, which took just under three hours to process via the US immigration system. 🙂

Putting up the hood of my cagoule, we trundled our bags to the airport exit, where we met Mike, the Newmarket Holidays rep. Only one other bloke, who we later found out was called Frank, had also come in on our flight from Edinburgh, so the three of us were directed to a private hire car which took us on the 45 minute ride to our hotel, the Golden Tulip, in Krakow-Kazimierz.

The main entrance to the hotel (and the back entrance, for that matter) were only accessible by a gate, and you had to press the buzzer to announce your arrival, or use your room card. The rain had abated quite a lot by now, and the sky looked a lot brighter; the forecast was for it to be fair this afternoon (good!) 🙂

The hotel was in a fantastic location, walking distance from most of Kraków’s attractions, and in a street containing many bars, restaurants and shops. We couldn’t wait to explore this, our 90th country. 🙂

We checked in and had to wait in the lobby for 20 minutes or so before our second-floor room was ready, all the time wearing our mask. Looking around we could see the entrance to the dining room, as well as a cocktail bar. Each of the entrances had hand-sanitizer dispensers nearby, as did the entrance to the lifts, which only allowed one person at a time, unless you were sharing a room.

Once in our room we thankfully removed our masks and had a single thought; an hour’s nap to make up for the very early start. We emptied our cases and hung up the few items of clothing we had brought for our 4-night stay, then I set the timer on my phone to go off in an hour’s time, and we settled down in the clean cotton sheets.

When we woke up it was about 12.30pm and, looking out of the window, we could see that the rain had stopped and the sun was tentatively trying to peep through. I freshened up a bit and then we decided to explore our immediate surroundings and go and have a spot of lunch somewhere.

Off we went along the street, looking in the windows of the shops (one of which was a Spar, just down the road from the hotel) and we soon came to an inviting-looking restaurant called Pierwszy Stopien; it contained lots of greenery and exposed brickwork and contained wooden chairs and tables with glass candle holders. As we went in, we were greeted by a friendly mask-wearing waitress and we confirmed we’d like a table for two.

We noticed that they were offering a lunchtime three-course set menu, so we placed our order and decided to sample a Polish beer, ordering a pint of Tyskie each. I ordered a thick asparagus soup garnished with fresh cream and chopped pistachio nuts, while Trevor enjoyed a chunky tomato soup.

For the main course, I had delicious stuffed red peppers which contained barley, onions and carrots amongst other things, served with a mixed salad. Trevor tried the steamed Russian dumplings.

Then we had a traditional Polish dessert which was something like cake with a fruit puree on top. It was all excellent value for money, coming to just over £13.00 for both of us. Currently there are five Polish złotys to the pound, and everything we’d seen so far seemed remarkably cheap.

After our delicious lunch we set off to explore the area. We walked along the uncrowded street to the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and came to a square containing Isreali restaurants and Jewish bookshops, as well as a synagogue; the iron railings separating the square from the main road had Stars of David contained within the metal work. We came across a life-size statue of a man sitting on a bench, a nearby plaque proclaimed him to be Jan Karski, an emissary of the Polish people in German-occupied Poland in 1940-43, who tried to prevent the Holocaust. He lived from 1914-2000 and was given the accolade of “Righteous among the Nations” and became an honorary citizen of Israel. Trevor sat down on the bench next to the statue and I took his photo. 🙂

We walked a bit further along and came to a large, cream-coloured building set back from the road among some trees; a path led to the entrance which claimed it to be the Kupa Synagogue. It cost 10 złotys (a couple of quid) each to go inside, which was classed more as a donation than an entry fee. We decided to see what it was like, as I had never been in a synagogue before.

The Kupa synagogue was founded in 1643, so it was over 300 years old. It was richly decorated with paintings, wall decorations and featured a fantastically ornate ceiling, painted in subtle browns, blue, cream, white and beige, which depicted scenes from the Bible. Around the edge of the upper gallery (from which you could enter the women’s section) were the 12 signs of the zodiac. There was also a large bima (a big centrally-placed pulpit for reading Tora scrolls) as well as a double seat next to the bima for the person holding the scrolls. In addition, there were several long tables and benches which were used for dining on feast days.

We had a good look round, spending about half an hour inside the synagogue. On the leaflet we were given by the lady who took our money at the door was the notice:

In Judaism the synagogue is used only for prayer, learning and religious purposes… it is forbidden to use the synagogue as, for instance, shelter against the rain or the sun or to visit it only to fill your curiosity. That is why visitors are requested to make a short prayer to the Creator of the world, the Host of this building, of whom they are guests at this moment.

I don’t know many prayers off by heart, except the Lord’s Prayer, so I stood under the chandelier and recited that. 🙂

Once outside again, we walked along the pleasant streets, looking at the interesting architecture and the characterful shops, restaurants, bars and pavement cafés. The weather was bright and pleasant now, so we decided to have a drink at one of the bars, called Beer Street, which had some pleasant parasoled tables and chairs outside, at which small groups of (socially distanced) people sat.

Trevor ordered the drinks while I went to use the loo, and we spent a relaxing interlude sitting outside for a while, talking about the strange times we have been experiencing in 2020, and how we were lucky finally to get away on holiday somewhere, even if only for a short time.

Afterwards we walked back along to the hotel, stopping at the Spar to get some beer and wine to enjoy in our hotel room later on. 🙂

We then spent some time pottering around in our room, reading, watching TV (there was only one news channel in English, the rest of the channels were in Polish) and relaxing. At around 6.30pm I got washed and changed, and we decided to go back to the Pierwszy Stopien restaurant for our dinners; we had enjoyed it so much at lunchtime and we’d also seen some impressive-looking burgers being served, so we thought we try one of those. 🙂

We were greeted by the same smiling waitress (at least I assumed she was smiling under her mask) and shown to a table surrounded by lots of greenery, pot plants and glass candle-holders. There were more people in than there had been at lunchtime, and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, that of family and friends breaking bread together. We each ordered the special burger and Trevor chose a Tyskie beer while I decided to have an Aperol Spritz.

The burgers were massive! They came in a triple-decker toasted bun and contained lettuce, tomato, onion and a special sauce, and were served with plump dill pickles and chunky chips. It was quite a struggle to finish the meal, and once again it was excellent value for money.

We then decided to try to walk off some of the calories by crossing the Vistula river and exploring further afield. We went across a bridge over what is a very wide river, as night was beginning to fall and the lights from the riverside buildings were reflecting on the rippling water. We saw a large boat that had evidently been converted to a restaurant and/or night club, and the sky was lit up by a large ferris wheel, the spokes and hub of which subtly changed colour. I can never resist going on a ferris wheel, so we each paid our 25 złotys and took our seats in one of the capsules.

Off we went, up and up, and enjoyed stunning views over the Vistula (also called the Wisła (pronounced Vizwa) in Polish) and the twinkling lights of Kraków. We had three revolutions of the ‘big wheel’ before we came to a stop and the sliding doors of our capsule opened.

As we walked along the riverside, we saw a large, interesting tethered balloon. It wasn’t a hot-air balloon and, at first, we thought it was just one of those advertising balloons you sometimes see, until we spotted a gondola underneath that was clearly big enough to hold people; in fact, a small queue had formed of people waiting to board. We stood and watched a while, then discovered you could buy tickets for the balloon at a nearby kiosk, it worked out at about 11 quid each for 10 minutes, but they stopped ‘flights’ at 8.00pm and it was five to eight now, and the last ascent was about to commence. We knew what we’d be doing tomorrow night! 🙂

As we watched, the balloon slowly lifted off; it was tethered by a steel cable which was wound around a revolving drum which allowed it to be paid out at a constant rate, leading to a smooth ascent. It went up to about 300 feet, glowing a pale blue in the darkened sky; from a distance it looked like a large, glowing moon, as you couldn’t see the cable.

We set off walking back to the hotel, as it was starting to get a bit chilly now, and we were still a little tired after our early start (and the hour’s time difference). We arrived back at the Golden Tulip around nine o’clock, and decided to open the beer and wine we’d bought at the Spar. I got washed and into my ‘jamas and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine while reading my Kindle. I am reading the true-crime book Children who Kill by Carol Ann Lee; it is an interesting (although somewhat disturbing) anthology of child murderers (and murderers who are children), such as Thompson and Venebles, and Mary Bell.

At 10.30pm I could hardly keep my eyes open any more and we settled down for our first night in Poland. We had to be up at seven o’clock tomorrow for breakfast at eight, and we slept very well.

Seward to Seattle

Got up at seven o’clock this morning to find the Quest docked in Seward, Alaska.  We went up for breakfast in the Windows Café and I enjoyed the full English as we knew we’d be disembarking soon.  😦

We returned to stateroom 6009, packed the remainder of our stuff into our carry-on bags, had a last look around and reluctantly left our cabin, making our way to The Den to await the call for our group, Green #11, to disembark.  This came around 9.15am and we went down to Deck 3, swiped our cruise cards for the last time, and finally left the Azamara Quest.  We’d had a great two weeks on her, but our holiday wasn’t quite over yet.

We boarded one of the waiting coaches for the two-hour ride to Anchorage, where we would board an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle-Tacoma airport.  We’d been advised that the best seats were on the same side as the driver (the left-hand side in the USA!) as this would give us the most scenic route for the journey.

We set off through the town which eventually gave to wide roads and onto the freeway, and it was certainly true regarding the views out of the window; trees and lakes and snow-capped mountains against a blue-grey sky filled with scudding clouds.  I took quite a few photos of the starkly-beautiful landscape out of the bus window and spent the time reading my Kindle or listening to music on my iPod.

The time flew by, and the clue that we were near the airport came by the sight of aircraft roaring overhead on their final approach into Anchorage. We then spotted the control tower, and eventually the bus pulled up at the entrance to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  A quick Google told me that the airport is after Ted Stevens, a U.S. senator from Alaska in office from 1968 to 2009.  You live and learn!  🙂

Inside the check-in building we were confronted by a couple of HUGE polar bears!  Luckily, however, they were in a glass case and were stuffed ones, with details of the name of the hunter and when they were killed.  To be honest, killing is polar bear is something to be ashamed of, not proud, but in Alaska where hunting and whaling and fur-trapping was a way of life, I suppose that at the time the bears were killed it was more acceptable than it would be today.

Likewise, we also saw some stuffed brown bears in a glass case as well, their taxidermied bodies artificially posed, huge paws raised, and their glass eyes staring blankly into infinity.

We made our way to the check-in desk that had a short queue, and quickly managed to get rid of our cases, after having to pay an unexpected $30.00 each for checked bags!  Then it was just the usual; through security and into the Duty Free shopping area and other airside amenities.

As our flight to Sea-Tac wasn’t until 3.30pm, we had quite a bit of time to kill.  We therefore had a look around the airport and finally settled on a small restaurant and bar area, where they had free wifi and facilities to charge your phone or laptop.  We weren’t too hungry after our substantial breakfast, but ordered a dish of chicken wings in a sort of barbecue sauce to share, as well as a pint of the local beer each.

I then charged up my phone, plugged in my laptop, and spent some time updating and uploading this blog, whilst enjoying another beer.  🙂

It was then time to proceed to the departure gate where we could see our Alaska Airlines plane sitting waiting for us on the tarmac.  Boarding commenced not long afterwards and we took our seats, surprised to find that the aircraft was pretty full.

The flight to Sea-Tac was around three hours 30 minutes, and before landing we had to advance our watches one hour forwards again, to Pacific Daylight Time, which is eight hours behind BST.  We’d started our holiday eight hours ahead, in Japan, and now we were eight hours behind! 🙂

We landed around 8.30pm local time and looked around for the rep to direct us to the coach to take us to our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard.  No such luck, however, and after trundling our bags through seemingly endless corridors and past luggage carousels, we could only find a Princess Cruises rep and we asked her.  She told us that the shuttle buses to and from the various local hotels were listed on the schedules at the bus stops, and showed us where to go.

We arrived at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel around 9.20pm after a long day doing nothing much in particular.  The hotel was fairly basic but cheerful and comfortable, and we were given a room on the second floor.  After dumping our cases we decided to go downstairs and get something to eat and drink as we were quite hungry by now; the last food we’d eaten was our shared chicken wings at Anchorage airport.

The hotel ‘restaurant’ was more like a fast-food place, where you ordered your meal or snack and received it packed in cardboard with paper coffee cups. I had a chicken, bacon and salad club sandwich with a tub of side salad, washed down with a Budweiser, while Trevor had a bowl of chunky soup and a sandwich.

The hotel had a lounge area with a living-flame fire and various armchairs and couches.  A group of blokes were having a lively game of cards in the corner.  We finished our beers and were feeling quite tired by now, so we just went back to our room, where we watched some TV and settled down to sleep.

The next morning we ate breakfast before the shuttle bus came to take us back to the airport.  Then it was just a case of checking in for our British Airways flight back to Blighty and passing the nine-and-a-half hours homeward bound.

Another unusual, superb holiday had come to an end, and we could now begin counting down the days to the next one.  🙂

Good Morning Tokyo

Disembarking the aircraft and making our way through Arrivals was fairly quick and efficient, and soon we found the Azamara Club Cruises rep and joined three other couples from our flight for the bus to the hotel, which they told us was about 1½ hour’s travel away.  In Japan, they drive on the left as we do in Britain, and we looked out of the bus window with interest as we made our way through the Saturday lunchtime traffic to the Grand Prince Takanawa Hotel.

The hotel was huge, with a massive marble-floored lobby.  As we walked to the reception desk, we were greeted by bowing and smiling hotel staff. It didn’t take long to check in, which was just as well because we were feeling very tired and longing for a lie-down.

We were allocated room 2520 on the fifth floor and as we made our way to the lifts I stopped to go to the toilet.  Now I have to take some time here to describe the toilets in Japan, because they’re unlike any you’ll see anywhere else.  When you go into the cubicle the lid of the toilet comes up automatically, then when you sit down, you’ll find yourself on a heated toilet seat, with a control panel where you can choose what music you want to listen to.  Then, when you’ve finished doing what you need to do, you can choose to have either your ‘front’ or ‘back’ gently washed with warm or cool water, you can choose the water pressure and whether you want the spray to be plain, oscillated or pulsed.  Then, you can sit and have everything ‘blow dried’.

As soon as you stand up, the toilet will automatically flush and the lid goes back down again.  I think it is the only time in my life I have ever taken photos of a toilet!  😊

Room 2520 was fairly plainly decorated, but clean and comfortable with a pleasant 5th floor view from a small balcony over trees and landscaped gardens.  We decided to have a nap first, then go out and explore our immediate surroundings afterwards.

We set the alarm for an hour’s time, then thankfully collapsed onto the bed for a power nap.  When the alarm went off all too soon, we forced ourselves to get up to try to adapt to the new time zone as closely as possible.  We then thought we’d go out and stretch our legs.

Walking back through the hotel foyer we were met with the usual bowing and smiling staff, then we went outside into the warm afternoon sunshine.  We were not in the main city centre of Tokyo, but rather on the outskirts, where it was not so busy and frenetic. Most of the buildings surrounding us were hotels and office blocks, with here and there some shops, bars and restaurants.

We opted to go into a nearby bar and have ourselves a Japanese beer.  We each ordered a cold pint of Kirin, and sat on a terrace table opposite our hotel, and drank our beer in a glassy-eyed, semi-somnolent state.  The beers were quite expensive at £7.85 a glass so, after we’d finished, we decided to go further down the road where we’d seen another bar advertising “Happy Hour” from 5.00-7.00pm where we could also get something to eat.

The downstairs basement bar was called the “Outback Bar and Grill” and was an Australian-themed steak bar.  We each ordered another Kirin beer and I chose a Caesar salad with steak (instead of the usual chicken) while Trevor had a delicious-looking steak focaccia.  We stayed for another beer each, then decided to take a slow walk back to the hotel and relax in our room for the evening.  When we came out of the bar about 6.50pm, we were slightly surprised to see it was already dark.

Back in our hotel we saw that they had a “7-11” general store, so we went in and bought a bottle of prosecco to enjoy up in our room.  We saw several bottles of wine or liquor that just had Japanese writing on the bottle and I was quite tempted to buy one and see what we ended up with, a sort of “Russian Roulette”.  😊

Last Monday, to get in the mood for all things Japanese, I decided to re-watch the movie Lost in Translation.  This is one of my favourite films and stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two fellow American ‘lost souls’ in Tokyo, and it highlights some of the cultural differences as well as having a slightly comical aspect.  Already, during our short time in Japan, I had seen several things that reminded me of scenes from the film; the smiling, bowing hotel staff, the disembodied Japanese voices spouting robotic gobbledegook in the toilets and in the lifts and the bottles of Suntory Whisky in the shop.

The Lost in Translation theme continued back in our hotel room, where Trevor quickly zapped through the various TV channels, all of which seemed to be showing Japanese game shows, their presenters yammering away in an over-enthusiastic manner.  There appeared to be no English-language programmes at all, but after all, the cultural differences are exactly why we go on holiday to places like Japan, Nepal, Ecuador and Brazil, to name but a few.

I got washed and changed into my PJs, and enjoyed a couple of glasses of prosecco while reading some of my magazines. I was trying to keep my eyes open as long as possible, but I really was fighting a losing battle, and I settled down before 9.00pm and was out like a light.

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese,
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so.

The Vapors – 1980

There were a few songs that sprung to mind when thinking of a title for today’s blog; as well as Turning Japanese by the Vapors, I could have had Big in Japan  by Alphaville or Japanese Boy by Anneka.  So maybe that might give you a bit of a clue as to where we were going to start our next epic cruise!  😊

Yes!  Today we were flying from Newcastle to London Heathrow at 11.30am, then onwards to Tokyo, Japan at 3.45pm.  We weren’t really looking forward to the long-haul flight and the 8-hour time difference, but these things are a fact of life when you want to visit exciting locations, and fewer places could be more exciting or exotic than Japan.

We drove through to Newcastle and left the car in the long-term car park before joining the British Airways queue inside the terminal. We checked our bags right through to Tokyo, then went through security and into the Metro bar, where Trevor enjoyed a pint and I had a large cup of Americano coffee, hot and strong. Then it was time to make our way to the gate for flight BA1327 to the capital.

On arrival 45 minutes later, we proceeded to the connections area in Terminal 5, then made a beeline for the ‘Crown Rivers’ pub there, which is a Wetherspoon’s pub and was doing a lively trade in meals and drinks.  It was lunchtime by now and we were quite hungry, so I used the Wetherspoon’s app to order and pay for a couple of pints of beer, plus some traditional fish and chips for Trevor and a plate of chilli con carne for myself.

The service was excellent; the drinks arrived in three minutes and the meals only three minutes after that.  It was certainly a contrast from the last Wetherspoon’s pub we’d been in, the ‘Lord Chief Justice of the Common Plea’ in Keswick, where we’d had to wait a full half hour before we received any drinks.

We each enjoyed another round of drinks before it was time to go along to the British Airways departure gate, where we could see our aircraft, a B789 Dreamliner, waiting for us on the tarmac.  Boarding did not take long at all, and we made ourselves comfortable in our seats to endure the 11-hour flight to Tokyo.

The aircraft soared off into the skies and we settled back in our seats, looking out of the windows at the receding London landscape below. Then, once the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign had been switched off, the cabin crew came around with pre-dinner drinks and snacks, and we passed the time looking at the interactive AVOD screens, reading, listening to music and all the other things you need to do to try to keep the tedium at bay.

The Dreamliner aircraft windows do not have the usual pull-down shades that you find on most aircraft.  Instead, they have a dimmer switch below which serves to lighten and darken the glass, a bit like those ‘Reactolite’ sunglasses you could get.  As we had the sun on our side of the aircraft and we were heading in a north-easterly direction, we dimmed the windows a little to make it more comfortable on the eyes to look out.

It was a strange time to be flying; it was neither a night flight nor a day flight.  We were due to arrive in Tokyo at 11.10am local time, which would feel like 03.10am British time, and we wondered how the jetlag would affect us.

As we were travelling north-east and into the daylight, we noticed a very unusual phenomenon; it never really got dark.  I managed to get some fantastic photos out of the aeroplane window of a blood-red sunset, with the silhouette of the aircraft wing against a deep blue sky but then, instead of the sun disappearing below the horizon, it started to come up again!  Looking at our sky map, we noticed we were flying over Sweden and then Finland, so we concluded that because we were so far north and flying east, we enjoyed the sight of the sun being constantly in the sky.  Against our blackened windows, it looked like a deep red ball, and it reflected into the interior of the plane as a warm red glow.

I can never sleep at all on a plane, so I just passed the time reading and watching a couple of episodes of Fawlty Towers, which is still funny after all these years.

Time passed in its usual way and soon the cabin crew came round again with our breakfast of Spanish omelette and fresh fruit salad.  Our sky map told us we had a couple of hours to go, and passengers around the aircraft were getting up and stretching their legs and using the restrooms.

Eventually the announcement came for us to return to our seats and fasten our seatbelts, and the words “cabin crew prepare for landing”.  We looked out of the windows with interest at the Japanese landscape, buildings, roads, traffic and gardens, as the aeroplane glided into Narita International Airport, Tokyo, and touched down at 11.00am local time.

We had arrived!

Kathmandu to King’s Cross

Well, what more is there to write?  We we got up this morning our holiday was effectively over, and we just had the tedium of a looooooong journey back home again.

We had a light breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then collected our cases from our room and went down to the foyer to check out.  The minibus had, by now, arrived to take us to the Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, so once we’d paid our hotel bill and our luggage was loaded into the vehicle, we set off into the early Friday morning traffic.

It was about 40 minutes to the airport, and once we arrived the guy showed us where we needed to go to check in.  There were no queues so we checked our bags right through to London Heathrow.  Looking at the time, we decided it wouldn’t we worth while going to the executive lounge, so we just went through security and along to the departure gate to wait.  Once there, we spotted Charles and Julie again and stopped for a brief chat.

Our flight was soon called for the first leg of the journey – Kathmandu to Delhi.  We were offered a snack and a bottle of water; I declined the snack but drank the water with some more paracetamols.  When we came into land, it was really painful for my ears as the aircraft descended; normally passengers will feel slight popping in their ears as the pressure is equalised, but because I was bunged up with my cold I couldn’t relieve the pressure, and it was like being in deep water.  I was relieved once we were back on terra firma.  😦

Inside Indira Gandhi International Airport we didn’t have a lot of time before our flight was called, so off went along to the departure gate for the longest part of the journey.  Once we boarded the Boeing 777, we noticed there were a lot of spare seats, so Trevor and I had three seats between two of us, which was great.  This meant I could sit with my feet up and help to avoid the awful swollen feet and ankles that are so common on long-haul flights.

The flight wasn’t too bad, as it happens.  The staff came around fairly regularly with drinks and snacks, as well as our main meal.  I declined my dinner, but kept myself hydrated with the small bottles of water and some cans of Tiger Beer.  🙂

Then I just passed the time reading, messing around on my iPad, looking out of the window, leafing through the in-flight magazines and seeing where we were on the SkyMap.  The eight and a half hour flight seemed to go by quite quickly, and eventually the “fasten seatbelts” sign came on for our final approach into Heathrow Terminal 4.

Again, the changes in air pressure as the aircraft descended were very uncomfortable, and by the time we finally landed I felt as if both of my ears were filled with fluid.  At least the long-haul flight was over though, and we were back in Blighty.

It didn’t take too long to retrieve our cases from the luggage carousel, after which we made our way to the underground station, and the Picadilly Line, to get the tube along to London King’s Cross, where we arrived about 8.15pm.

Our train back up to Durham was not due until 10 o’clock, but we’d arranged to meet our daughter Kathryn and her husband Gareth (they live in London) in the “Parcel Yard” pub, and we found they were already there when we arrived.

So that’s it, really.  We passed a pleasant hour or so in the Parcel Yard until it was time to go along to Platform 6 around 9.45pm, where our train was already in.  We stashed our cases in the luggage rack and tiredly made our way to our seats for the last leg of the journey.  The train left on time and headed north, rattling along at a fair old pace, bringing us ever closer to home.

We were back in the house just before 2.00am, after another incredible (and different!) experience and adventure in Nepal.  What a great time we had had.

Heritage and History

Got up at 7.30am to find that the electricity in the room had gone off; this was a regular occurrence in Nepal.  It would come on for a few seconds; then go off again, so it was difficult to keep our phones charged up.

When we looked out of the window we were pleased to see it was dry, so we got ourselves ready then went down to the Kutumba restaurant for a good breakfast to set us up for the day.

Once again there were only us and the Belgian group in the restaurant so we were afforded the usual king’s welcome.  It was not worth the hotel’s while to put on a huge collection of cooked breakfast items, so there was only continental breakfast available.  We therefore enjoyed cereal, toast, juice and coffee before returning to our rooms and gathering together sunhats, cameras, map, hand-gel, toilet paper (!!) and, of course, credit cards and money in case we saw any unique souvenirs.  🙂

Off we went around 8.30am into the streets, which were not too hot or crowded at this time of day.  We decided to go to the bridge where the pedestrian “toll booth” was, pay our $15.00 each and spend as much time as we wanted, at leisure, exploring all the treasures Bhaktapur had to offer.

On arrival at the bridge we couldn’t see any sign of anyone in the little toll-house (indeed the door was firmly closed) but, as soon as we put one foot onto the bridge, a guy in an official-looking uniform seemed to materialise out of nowhere and asked us for our ticket!  We explained we’d only arrived yesterday so he led us over to the toll-house, made out our day-passes and we handed over our 30 dollars.

Referring to our map, we thought we’d make our way first of all to Pottery Square, but we wanted to explore as much as we could en route, as he had all day.

We crossed the bridge and walked up the narrow, uneven streets full of narrow, uneven houses, some of them with tattered-looking clothes hanging outside to dry.  Many of the doors onto the streets were open, but when you glanced inside the interior of a lot of the buildings was pitch dark; I didn’t know whether the occupants used heavy curtains or draperies to keep out the heat, the dust or both, but the overall effect was claustrophobic.  Perhaps the people liked somewhere quiet and dark to rest after the noise, heat and traffic outside.

In between the little houses were the occasional small cafés; a lot of them were known as “Mo:Mo” cafés (written like that, with the colon) and we’d previously been advised by Anal that “mo-mo” was a type of steamed dumpling, very popular in Nepal.  The cafés had photos of some of their dishes on boards outside, and customers were enjoying their breakfasts inside.  We were dubious about eating at any of these little places as we didn’t want to risk a “Delhi Belly” when we’re flying home tomorrow!

We strolled along until we came out at what was obviously a large, man-made green lake, which it transpired was called the Siddha Pokhari lake.  It appeared to be largely covered by a layer of bright green lichen or moss, but here and there we could see large, orange and black fish jumping, or coming to the surface to catch flies.  We walked all around the perimeter of the lake before heading in the general direction of the squares.

We came to Pottery Square.  Like much of the rest of Bhaktapur, there was an awful lot of building work going on; piles of bricks and stones, and rubble and the clanging of tools on masonry and the rumble of the cement mixers going round.  In among it all we saw the rows of newly-created pots laid out in the sun to dry.  The many pots and bowls and other clay items are made in the locals’ houses, then displayed for sale; it was quite cool to see an item that had only been created that morning.  The clay used was of different colours too; some was the usual ‘reddish’ colour but others were a dark-grey to black.  Because of the restoration work and the lack of visitors the square was not as busy as usual, but there were nevertheless several stalls set up, their owners trying to tempt us to buy their wares.  There were also a couple of locals who, spotting a potential opportunity to make some money, offered themselves to us as guides for the day.  We politely declined and continued on our way.

The little shops with their hand-crafted wares displayed a wide range of attractive goods, and I spotted a shop that was selling hand-knitted 100% woollen pullovers, hats, scarves, gloves and hooded jackets; it was the latter I was particularly interested in.  After browsing around a couple of the shops I saw what I was after – a purple and white knitted, fleece-lined woollen jacket with a zip front, hood and hand-warmer pockets.  It was very well-made and had quite a lot of weight to it; it would be a lovely warm jacket for the winter.  The shopkeeper wanted 2,800 rupees for it (about 20 quid!!) but we knocked her down to 2,500 rupees, and handed over 3 x 1,000 rupee notes.

At this point the lady showed me some interesting, brightly-coloured circular bags with zips around the outside.  When the zip was undone, the bag opened out into a rucksack, complete with shoulder straps and a couple of small external pockets!  It was an ingenious idea and the lady said we could have the rucksack for 500 rupees instead of its usual price of 800.  So we took the jacket and the bag for the 3,000 rupees – great bargains!  🙂

Well pleased with my purchases, we walked along until we came to the renowned Durbar Square.  In the wake of the 2015 earthquake the square, like the other places we’d seen in Bhakapur, was undergoing extensive building and renovation work.  Many of the historic, intricate buildings had wooden props and scaffolding up around them, and the Durbar Square gave the impression of being an area of chaos instead of the peaceful and spiritual visit it was supposed to be.  Nevertheless, we determined to have a look at the palaces, pagodas and temples and make the most of our visit.

Almost immediately, we were accosted by a local guy who offered to be our guide, saying he’d give us a 2-hour tour for 500 rupees.  We politely declined as we preferred to do our own thing and didn’t want someone hanging around us all the time.  The guy would not take no for an answer, and trailed behind us, offering his unwanted opinion and interrupting Trevor and me when we were speaking amongst ourselves.  Trevor repeatedly told him we didn’t want a guide and it took a full 20 minutes before we finally got rid of the guy.  We were then able to take our time and examine the buildings, take photos and just look around.

The first place we stopped at was the famous Golden Gate, which is the main entrance to the courtyard of the Palace of 55 Windows.  The door is surmounted by a figure of the Hindu goddess Kali and Garuda (mythical griffin) and attended by two heavenly nymphs. It is embellished with monsters and other Hindu mythical creatures of marvelous intricacy. Percy Brown, an eminent English art critic and historian, described the Golden Gate as “the most lovely piece of art in the whole Kingdom; it is placed like a jewel, flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings”.

Then, of course, was the famous Palace of 55 Windows itself.  Like a lot of the buildings, it was undergoing repairs, but nothing could detract from the intricate, detailed Newari architecture; the wooden trellises, the decorative window frames and the mellowed brick work.  The interior of the palace wasn’t open to the public, but one end of it had been turned into a small museum for which there was another charge if you wanted to go in.

Next, we went to the Nyatapola Temple.  Nyatapola in the Newari language means five storeys – the symbolic of five basic elements. This is the biggest and highest pagoda of Nepal ever built with such architectural perfection and symmetry. The temple’s foundation is said to be made wider than its base.  At each side of the steps leading up to the pagoda were effigies of Buddhas and Elephants.  We sat on the cool stonework for a short time, and just people-watched and looked around at the life passing by in the area.  Several times more we were asked if we needed a “guide”, and each time we told them no, thank you.  You couldn’t blame them for trying to make a living, though.  🙂

We continued in this way, looking at the ancient buildings and many temples, browsing the shops and just pottering about.  After about three and a half hours, when the sun was at its highest and the air was hot and humid, we decided we’d take a slow walk back along to the hotel and sit outside in the lovely gardens for a rest, along with the inevitable cold bottle of Nepal Ice each.  😉

We arrived back at about 1.00pm and enjoyed our beers, sitting at a parasoled table outside the hotel reception.  I think the American and Belgian guests had left by now, and Trevor and I were the only ones remaning in the hotel!

We sat out for about an hour, then it clouded over and started to rain a little, so we went back inside and had a lie-down.  At least the electricity was back on and the room was nice and cool again.  I had a glass of water with some paracetamol to try to keep my nasty cold at bay (regular readers of this blog may remember I had a cold on the last holiday we were on as well, in January).  😦

When we woke up, we spent time re-packing the suitcases and generally getting sorted out and trying to put the depressing thought out of our mind that this time tomorrow we’d be on the aeroplane, heading for home.  I decided to have a refreshing shower but I couldn’t get the water to come out of the shower-head, so it ended up being a bath.  It didn’t really matter though, because I felt clean and refreshed and I blow-dried and styled my hair.  Then we just pottered around until dinner time, where once again we decided to eat in the hotel.

We had the excellent personal service again, as the hotel’s only guests.  I ordered a delicious, savoury vegetable soup to start followed by nasi goreng, a rice dish of Indonesian origin, although many Asian countries have their own version of it.  This as unlike any nasi goreng I’d ever tasted before, however, as it contained fresh green chillies and it packed quite a punch.  The chillies were just what I needed for clearing my blocked sinuses, however!  🙂

Afterwards we adjourned to the Tribal Bar, where the bar staff were pleased to see us.  There was no live footy on tonight, however, so we just spent the time pleasantly at the bar; I enjoyed an unusual cocktail which contained rum, lemon, honey and local spices; it was served with boiling water so was more like a hot toddy than a cocktail – just what I needed.  I will have to make it at home.

At some point some other customers came into the bar, so the bar staff went over to talk to them.  We finished our drinks, said goodbye and “namaste” and returned to our room as we had to finish our packing and be up early in the morning (5.45am) as breakfast was at 6.20am and the minibus was coming at seven to take us to the airport.

We settled down in room 202 for our last night on Nepalese soil, after a very good day.

 

 

 

Browsing in Bhaktapur

Woke up about 5.00am to go to the loo; my throat was quite hoarse and tickly and I put it down to the drying effects of the air-conditioning.  Went back to sleep again, then woke up at 8.00am when the alarm went off.  Trevor said it had been 2.45am (!!) before the football had finally finished; after extra time it had gone to penalties, which England had won 4-3.  🙂

My throat was still dry and tickly and I hoped it would be OK once I’d gone out into the fresh air.  We packed up most of our stuff and went down to breakfast, where we saw Charles and Julie; Vee and John had left for the airport several hours before.

We enjoyed our breakfast then decided to walk up the street and look around the shops for a bit; there was certainly no hurry.  Not all of the shops were open yet, but we managed to browse in one or two of them; one had a lot of handcrafted textile goods in, such as shawls and bags, pashminas and household things like cushion covers and wall-hangings.

After walking back to the hotel we spent some time sitting outside by the pool; my throat was still dry and husky and I reluctantly decided I was going down with a cold.  Just my luck!  😦

We returned to our room and had a cup of coffee, then finished packing up all our luggage to take it down to the foyer at 11.15am.  We found Anal and Madern waiting for us, so we were able to leave straight away, once we’d settled our bar bill and checked out.

It seemed strange, us being the only ones on the minibus.  We set off into the traffic and were advised it was only a 45-50 minute drive from Kathmandu so could plan on arriving around lunchtime.

Just before 12.00 noon our vehicle pulled up in a small gated courtyard; we had arrived at the Hotel Heritage, Bhaktapur, which would be our base for the next couple of nights.  It looked lovely; a traditional style building set in ornate gardens and stone terraces. In fact, the Hotel Heritage was the first deluxe hotel to be built in Bhaktapur, and was like a living antique shop, full of intricate wooden carvings, ornate decor, stone floors and exposed brickwork in the walls.  Colourful handmade curtains, cushions and throws were everywhere, and of course there was a ever-present smell of incense in the air.  What an amazing place; we got a fantastic welcome from the hotel staff.

We were advised by Anal that we were on our own now; someone else would be coming on Friday morning at 7.00am to take us to the airport.  We thanked him and Madern for all their help and for making our visit a memorable one, then we handed each of them an envelope containing a generous tip.  Everything of interest in Bhaktapur appeared to be within walking distance of the hotel, so we’d feel perfectly confident exploring the city by ourselves.

Our large room on the first floor, number 202, was amazing.  All dark wooden carved furniture, stone floor, brick wall with colourful handmade accessories, included a patchwork quilt and hand-woven rug.  A small side-table contained complimentary bottles of water, some fruit and a few canapés, and there was a large settee, ample wardrobe space and a cool, stone-floored bathroom containing a bath tub with shower over it, sink and WC.  It all looked lovely and was so unusual.

We weren’t hungry after our substantial breakfast, but we thought we’d have a short rest before venturing out and exploring our immediate vicinity.  The hotel proprietor had given us a leaflet, showing the nearby attractions with detailed maps on how to get to them.

First of all, we decided we’d explore the hotel gardens, so we wandered around and saw that there was a bar/pub called the “Tribal Bar” which, in keeping with the rest of the hotel, was ornate and comfortable, with antique wooden tables, comfortable, squashy armchairs and settees, and a row of large padded stools along the bar.  We knew where we’d be going tonight!

It was hot and humid, and I wasn’t feeling up to much walking, so we decided to sit at one of the parasoled tables and enjoy a freezing cold beer each.  The hotel served the strong  Nepal Ice beer, which comes in 650ml bottles.  There were another three people sitting at a nearby table; we judged from their accents that they were from North America.

There were also some other guests in the hotel grounds; a female tabby-and-white cat with her two half-grown kittens – they looked to be about 10 weeks old.  The tabby striped kittens were as alike as two peas in a pod, and they were frisky and playful.  Being cat lovers, we couldn’t resist stroking and petting them and, as we sat down to enjoy our beer, they settled down near our table.  🙂

Afterwards. we took a slow stroll out of the hotel and along the road, where we had noticed on our map that an interesting-looking temple, the Bahari Ajima Temple, was close by.  There was the usual ornate wooden carvings, lots of gilt, mosaic tiles, small hanging tinkly bells and the little alcoves where you could light a candle.  There was wooden board next to the temple explaining what everything was, but because it was all written in Nepalese then we didn’t have a clue what we were looking at!  It all looked very nice though.  We also passed a shoe-shop on the corner near the hotel; it had lots of sequinned and hand-embroidered shoes and sandals in.  I bought a pair of ornate red velvet mules; they were very different and cost less than 10 quid!  🙂

We then decided to walk into the main town to get an idea of our bearings and plan what we were going to do tomorrow, as we had the whole day to explore.  We therefore walked through the dusty streets towards the main square; we noticed that there wasn’t as much traffic as there was in Kathmandu and the streets, although busy, were not too crowded.  Once again, Trevor and I were conspicuous as the only Westerners to be seen.

We passed little open air refreshment stands, and even a lady roasting some corn-on-the-cob by the roadside and making a few coppers selling them.  We also saw an “emporium” of different shops, including a pharmacy and a small supermarket, as well as clothing shops.

As we walked along, having to be constantly mindful of the traffic (there were a lot of motorbikes and scooters, if not actual cars, and there were no pavements) we browsed in the little individual shops, looking for bargains or unique souvenirs of our amazing visit to Nepal.

Eventually we came to a bridge that was the gateway to the cultural centre.  Some of the historic buildings of Bhaktapur were badly damaged in the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, that registered 7.8 on the Richter scale.  Therefore, in order to help fund the extensive repairs and restoration that was needed, a sign at the bridge proclaimed that visitors were required to purchase a day-pass to allow them to visit all the monuments.  For non-Nepalese visitors, it would cost $15.00 per person for the day.

At this point we saw another couple of Westerners hovering by the bridge sign, a couple of young girls with backpacks; they looked like students.  We decided that we’d be better off coming back in the morning and paying our 15 bucks apiece then for the whole day; therefore getting better value for money.  As it was after 6.00pm now, we decided we’d just return to the hotel and chill out there.

Back in our room, we pottered around for a bit then decided to eat in the hotel about 7.00pm.  Because we’d had no lunch, we were fairly hungry by now, so we got washed and changed and went downstairs again.

The hotel restaurant was called “Kutumba” and was apparently open to non-hotel residents.  When we went in, we were the only ones there so we were shown to a table for two and given time to peruse the extensive menu.  Shortly afterwards, a group of three young men came in; it transpired they were from Belgium and were also guests in the hotel.  The restaurant had a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere aided by the soothing Nepalese music playing softly, and the small candles flickering on the bar and on the tables.

I enjoyed a delicious prawn cocktail which was a bit of a twist on the ‘usual’ prawn cocktail, as the sauce was quite spicy and the prawns were served warm.  I then followed this with a tasty mutton biryani in which the rice was served in a spicy sauce and contained peppers and vegetables and the odd burst of chilli!  It was all washed down with a glass of white wine.  Every now and again the chef would come out of the kitchen and ask us if we were enjoying the meal – we were certainly getting top-class service tonight!

Afterwards we decided to go along to the Tribal Bar which we’d looked at briefly earlier on.  We settled ourselves on the huge bar stools and ordered a beer each, then spent some time chatting with the bar staff.  As usual, because we were the only people in the bar, the staff were intrigued by us and they kept asking what we thought of Nepal and of the hotel.  The bar was great; they were playing some background jazz music and it looked as if it would be a friendly lively place when it was full.

There was no live football tonight; they were just showing a re-run of the England match, and we sat and enjoyed our drinks and half-heartedly watched the game and passed the time in a laid-back way until we were tired, so off we went to our comfortable bed with its handmade patchwork quilt.

Tomorrow was our last full day in Nepal, so we determined to make the most of it.  We slept well.

 

Chitwan to Kathmandu

We had to get up at 6.00am in order to leave half an hour later for our boat trip before breakfast.  We were pleased to see that it wasn’t raining when we looked out of our window; in fact, the water level seemed to have receded slightly since last night.

Only four of us went (plus our guide): Trevor, John, Julie and me.  We set off in our little open-sided vehicle, driving through the awakening streets, before arriving at the “boatyard”, where a number of the long, hollowed-out boats were lined up, along with their removable seats (we were actually happy that they had seats this time!).

We donned the life-jackets we’d been given, then followed our guide down to the riverside and waited for our boat to be punted down before we could board.  It wasn’t yet 6.45am and the morning air was sweet and fresh and quiet; all we could hear, along with the sound of the water flowing, was the occasional bird call and the drone of flying insects.  It was so peaceful and tranquil.

We all got into the boat and set off, gliding along in the cool green Narayani river.  We soon spotted a mugger crocodile basking on the bankside, ready to slide into the water.  We also saw lots of white egrets and the occasional flash of brilliant blue as a kingfisher flew past.  Sometimes we spotted monkeys in the trees, as well as another crocodile swimming along, with just his head and snout visible.  You had to be sure to look on both sides of the boat and keep your eyes peeled at all times.

Everyone just spoke in whispers and we all enjoyed the silence and the sounds of nature.  Vee and Charles, who opted not to come, didn’t know what they were missing, although they did have the advantage of a lie-in.  🙂

Our boat ride lasted about an hour and our vehicle had gone down the riverside to meet us when we disembarked.  Then we handed our life-jackets in and all piled back on the minibus to arrive back at the Hotel Parkside for about 7.45am, enough time for us to finish the majority of our packing and get ourselves sorted out before breakfast.

We were ready for our breakfast by now, and we enjoyed the usual (sometimes odd!) selection of dishes and accompaniments.  For example, they would sometimes bring out the cooked breakfast before the cereal, and it might contain potatoes and onions (an unusual choice for breakfast) as well as eggs and tomatoes.  The coffee was good, however, and we also quenched our thirst with a refreshing glass of fruit juice.  One thing was for sure, no way had they let us starve at this rustic jungle hotel, even though the electricity supply was intermittent and unreliable at times, a fact of life in some developing countries.

Anal had checked that the road to Kathmandu was clear after yesterday’s rains (no apparent landslides or blockages) so he reckoned it would take about 6-7 hours to get back to the capital, including rest stops and some time out for lunch in a restaurant along the route.

We therefore set off about nine o’clock, after our cases had been loaded into the back of the minibus and we’d given the local guide a tip for his excellent service in the last couple of days.

We left behind the peace and the greenery of the rain forest and ventured once again into the dirty, dusty, crowded, bumpy, disorganised streets.  Lots of cyclists and pedestrians wore protective face-masks, which was perfectly understandable in the almost palpable clouds of dust and exhaust fumes.  Our vehicle rattled, jolted and lurched its way over the uneven road surface, zigzagging round motorcyclists, pedestrians and many stray cows, who would sit placidly in the middle of the road chewing their cud.

We continued back along the winding mountain roads, our vehicle starting, stopping, starting and stopping. We’d been travelling for about an hour when we came to a halt at the back of an enormous queue of stationary traffic, which stretched down along the winding road as far as the eye could see.  Drivers had left their vehicles and were speaking to each other, finding out what was happening; eventually the message reached us from the front of the queue; there had been a landslide and the road was blocked with earth, rocks and rubble, dislodged by the heavy rains.

There was nothing we could do but sit it out.  We got out of the vehicle and walked about at the roadside to stretch our legs a bit.  It was over an hour before we saw the vehicles at the head of the queue finally begin to move, so we all took our seats once again, turned up the air-con in the already-hot bus, and thankfully continued on our way once more.  🙂

We soon came across the “road repair” gang who were shovelling cement into a mixer and appearing to do work of some sort.  There were young ladies as well as men, all of them with an air of importance in their yellow hard-hats, but with their safety flip-flops on and no high-viz vests.  A far cry from the strict H&S rules at home!  🙂

We continued on our merry little way in the usual white-knuckle fashion, until it was time to stop for lunch.  We found a nice little restaurant that offered tables and chairs outside among the trees, so we thankfully ordered ourselves a cold beer each (we were ready for it by now!) and I opted to try a dish of Nepalese thali, which is rice served with a selection of accompaniments.  Dishes served in a Thali vary from region to region in South Asia and are usually served in small brass bowls, called katori. These ‘katoris’ are placed along the edge of the round tray – the actual thali: sometimes a steel tray with multiple compartments is used. Typical dishes include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, papad, dahi (yogurt), small amounts of chutney or pickle, and a sweet dish to top it off.

There was an awful lot of it and, tasty though it was, it was impossible to eat it all.

Afterwards we had a loo stop and then off we went once again, to continue on the road to Kathmandu, passing some of the things, like the cable-car, that we’d experienced previously.

Around 5.00pm the minibus pulled up once again in front of the Hotel Himalaya, where we’d started off a week ago.  We’d done so much in such a short time that it seemed ages ago, a lot longer than a week.  So it was with a grand sense of déjà vu that we walked into the lobby and waited until our cases were brought in, and our rooms allocated.

This time Trevor and I were on the fourth floor, in room 4017, which was more or less the same as the one we’d previously stayed in.  I felt tired and grubby and I was dying for a long shower to wash off the grime of the city, and to wash and blow-dry my hair.  This I did, and we had time to relax for a short while before making our way down to the dining room for the “last supper” with Vee, John, Charles and Julie, as tomorrow we’d all be going our separate ways:  John was going home to Blighty, Vee was off to Bhutan for a further four days, Charles and Julie were staying in Kathmandu for another couple of days, and Trevor and I were spending a couple of days at Bhaktapur, one of the main cultural cities in the Kathmandu valley.

We all met up in the restaurant but, as we appeared to be the only guests remaining in the hotel in this, the low season, there was no buffet tonight, it was the à la carte menu.  When the waiter came over, however, he said there was no pork and no prawns, which immediately meant a number of the dishes were off the menu.  😦

As it transpired, I’m sure the chef and waiters must have trained at Fawlty Towers, because the ordering and the service was a complete fiasco.  I’d ordered minestrone soup and then vegetable biryani, and the others had placed their orders too.  However, when the dishes came, one of them hadn’t been ordered by anyone, and my biryani was delivered to me about five minutes before my soup arrived.  One by one our dishes arrived, until poor Charles was sitting there with nothing and had to ask what had happened to his meal. Eventually they brought it out and we were all eating something, even if it only vaguely resembled what we thought we’d ordered.  🙂

When we’d finally all been fed and watered, Trevor and I gave out our calling cards with my website address and email address on, and I obtained all the others’ email addresses too, so I could send them some photos and let them know when my website and blog had been updated.  Then we all went out to the hotel foyer where we asked the hotel’s manager, who was passing by, to take a group photo of us all for posterity.  🙂

Then we all said our goodnights and our farewells and wished each other a pleasant and safe onward journey, and we all went our separate ways, Trevor and I invariably into the hotel bar where they were showing the highlights of some of the World Cup games.  England were due to play Colombia, but because of the time difference the match wasn’t due to start here until 11.45pm.

After a couple of nice gins and tonics we returned to our room, where I settled down to sleep after reading for a short while.  I put in my ear plugs so Trevor could watch the football without disturbing me, and was asleep a short while later.

Waking up after what seemed like ages, I was surprised to find the football was still on; it had gone into extra time so Trevor was still awake and watching it!  Just as well we didn’t have to leave the hotel until 11.30 tomorrow morning; we could enjoy a lie-in and spent the greater part of the morning relaxing before visiting our final destination this holiday – the historic city of Bhaktapur.

 

Monsoon and Mahouts

Got up at 6.00am to the sound of the rain pounding down torrentially outside; it had been pouring down relentlessly most of the night, and the paddy fields outside our rear window looked even more flooded.  We had been due to take a ride along the river in a boat made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, but looking at the deluge of water coming down outside we wondered whether or not it would happen.

Getting washed and dressed, I put on some cropped jeans and flip-flops, a t-shirt and, of course, my trusty 100% waterproof cagoule.  Trevor and I then made the mad dash through the dripping trees and splashed our way along the path to the dining room, and we thankfully climbed the steps up to shelter.

Anal and the hotel guide who had been assigned to us for our adventure here in Chitwan explained that we may have to change some of the planned activities around because of the inclement weather; this was OK by us and certainly didn’t come as any surprise.  He therefore said we’d postpone the canoe ride until the rain stopped/eased off, but in the meantime we enjoyed a good breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit, toast and omelette while the rain lashed down outside, and we watched the few people who had ventured out make their way up the street.  Most of them were covered head to foot in capacious rain ponchos with hoods, but occasionally we saw people with umbrellas; one guy was cycling along placidly, one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding his brolly over his head.  🙂

After breakfast was finished, at which point everyone was moaning that they could have had an extra half-hour or so in bed, it was agreed that we would reconvene at eight o’clock to go to the elephant breeding centre, which we’d still be able to visit even if the rain continued.  As I use my Samsung phone to take photographs, I put my phone into its waterproof case on its lanyard around my neck.  Finally, the rain appeared to have eased off slightly, so we all got on the open-sided bus-type vehicle for the 15 minute ride to Bharatpur.

Because our vehicle was open-side and its only protection was a tarpaulin roof, the rain lashed in the sides and front, and soon we were all looking a sorry sight with our hair plastered to our heads, and my mascara running down my face in black streaks.  At least it was warm and not like the rain at home, where you are cold and miserable as well as wet.

Eventually we alighted and followed our guide on foot through some long and extremely waterlogged grass that went over the tops of my flip-flops.  Although my cagoule was longer than hip-length, anything below that (i.e. the exposed legs of my cropped jeans) were soon soaked through.  Small spiked grass seeds caught in the material of my jeans and scratched my skin; it took a while to pick them off, just for more to be added.

Soon we arrived at a river bank and now the fun started; we had to get a hollowed-out boat across to the other side, where the elephant breeding centre was situated.  There were no seats or benches in the boats and the rainwater sloshed around inside; you either had to hunker down (uncomfortable) or kneel (in the water) while the guy punting the boat across the rapidly-flowing river, balanced perfectly and looked bored with the whole thing.

It only took a few minutes to get across, but now I didn’t care if I got wet or dry and just took it all in my stride.  We enjoyed a brief respite from the rain in the information centre which explained the breeding programme, the lives of Asian elephants, the main differences between the temperaments of the male (bull) and female (cow) elephants and how they are trained, from an early age, to recognise and obey the commands from the mahout, the elephant handler and driver.

We then went along to a place where some guys were sitting cross-legged, making up some food parcels for the elephants.  The parcels consisted of grass, a large handful of which was fashioned into a pouch into which was placed some rice and molasses; more grass was then tied around the parcel to keep it together.  There were large parcels for the adults and smaller ones for the baby elephants, who weigh 170 pounds (over 12 stone!) at birth.

Then we followed our guide to the shelters where the mothers and babies were tethered up.  I had mixed feelings about looking at the elephants chained up by their front legs; the chains didn’t look very long so they would severely limit the elephant’s movement.  We were assured, however, that the elephants were well-fed and were exercised every day; I suppose we are just not used to seeing working elephants.  After all, we use working horses at home and see animals on farms, and we can only hope that they are treated humanely by their owners.

After we’d seen as much as we could (and during which time it continued to rain, although not quite as hard), we made our way back to the river bank, and had another wet crossing back to the other side.  Then it was back onto the open-sided vehicle, where we opted to remain standing for the ride back as all the seats were soaking wet.

Once we arrived back at the lodge, our guide advised us that some of the activities that were planned, such as a trek through the rainforest and a visit to the river to watch elephants bathing, would have to be postponed or even cancelled, as the weather was too bad.  With any luck, however, the rain would abate by this afternoon to allow us to go on our guided safari with a mahout on elephant-back.  All we could do was sit it out, but we agreed to reassess the situation after lunch at 12.00 noon.

We got back to our room and thankfully removed all our wet clothes; my jeans were once again covered in the little spiked grass seeds.  I was pleased to see that my phone had remained completely dry in its waterproof pouch; definitely a worthwhile buy.

We got dried off any changed into clean clothes and spent the time until lunch just pottering around; resting, reading and watching TV.  The monsoon rain, if anything, looked to be coming down harder but there’s not a lot we could do about it.

At lunchtime we enjoyed another hearty meal, consisting of local and western-style dishes; we started with a hot bowl of home-made soup which was slightly spicy and very tasty.  There was no hurry, so we just took our time, enjoyed a cold bottle of beer each, and got all excited when we looked up into the sky and thought we could see the sun trying valiantly to peek through the clouds.

Our guide told us we’d meet again at 2.45pm, no matter what the weather, to go out on our elephant safari which, for some people, would be one of the highlights of our stay here, so we didn’t want to miss it if it could be helped.  So once again we adjourned to our room to while away the time, during which the weather did indeed improve and the sky brightened considerably, with only a very fine shower of rain falling.

I decided not to bring my phone with me on the safari as I wanted to view the scenery, and any animals we’d be lucky to spot, with my own eyes and not through the screen on my phone.

At the arranged time, off we went again in our dry clothes; the rain had tentatively stopped by now and the air was humid and sultry.  The guide had also dried off all the seats in our open-sided vehicle so we could sit down for the 20 minute ride to where the elephants and their mahouts were waiting for us.

The guide explained that all the elephants that were used for the rides were mature females, as they had a more placid nature than the more-aggressive males, who were sometimes stubborn and didn’t always obey the commands of their drivers.

Each elephant, in addition to its mahout, carried four passengers in a padded wooden frame strapped to the elephant’s back.  You had to climb up some wooden steps so you were the same height as the elephant, then step across and somehow shoehorn yourself into the carrier.  Two passengers faced diagonally forwards, and two faced diagonally backwards; Trevor and I were at the back, looking down at the side and rear of our elephant, who we later learned was called Basanti, which is a Hindu girl’s name meaning “of Spring”.

Off she plodded, through the long grass and into the trees and undergrowth.  We could observe at will the elephant following us and it was fascinating to watch; the elephant’s trunk was never still (do you know that an elephant has over 40,000 muscles in its trunk alone?!) and, as it walked sedately along, the trunk grabbed at chunks of grass and pulled them up, knocking the soil off the roots before putting the grass in its mouth.  It ate the succulent, sweeter part of the plant before biting off, and discarding, the roots.  At one stage our elephant, Basanti, stopped and put her trunk up into a tree to get some juicy leaves, but after the mahout gave her the order to continue, which she ignored, he gave her a prod with his stick and she answered with an irritated trumpeting noise!

Whilst the elephants just plodded along slowly and we didn’t feel unsafe riding on them, we were still in a precarious position, high up among the trees, and we kept getting poked, prodded and scratched by tree branches which pulled at our clothing and (sometimes) sprang back hard against our skin.  We therefore had to keep a close eye on any branches or other plants as well as trying to look out for wildlife. In addition, our elephant kept switching her tail from side to side, and every now and again it lashed against Trevor’s bare leg.  🙂

We saw lots of spotted deer, sambhar deer and antelopes, as well as monkeys swinging through the branches of the trees above.  We also saw many different types of birds.  We didn’t see, nor did we expect to see, the famed one-horned rhinoceros or the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger as it was the wrong time of the year, and in any case we didn’t go deep enough into the forest.  Also, the ground was pretty much waterlogged with all the rain we’d had; in some parts the water came half-way up the elephants’ legs, so imagine how deep it would have been on a human!

Our very interesting (and certainly different!) elephant-back safari ended back where we started after an hour and a half, and one by one we extricated ourselves from our high seats and climbed down the ladder to the ground again.

We were amused when Anal, our guide, said “Namaste!” to the elephant accompanied by the familiar “praying hands” pose, and Basanti put her trunk up in a similar pose in response.  Also, when she was given a bank note in her trunk as a tip, she passed it up to the mahout sitting on her back!  They were all very clever, and I only hope that the elephants are well looked-after and well-treated out of sight of the tourists, as I can’t abide any animal exploitation or cruelty.

Back in our rustic vehicle, we returned to the Hotel Parkside for about 5.00pm, which gave us a couple of hours to get a cool, refreshing shower and rest before getting changed for dinner.  By now, the sky had brightened considerably and the sun was out once again, and a lot of the excess water that had been on the paths was fast-drying already in the tropical heat.

Dinner was at 7.00pm again, and we spent the time eating, drinking and talking over the day’s events.  Anal advised us that we would have to be up at 6.00am again in the morning to try to fit in the canoe ride, before our breakfast, that we’d missed this morning; Vee and Charles said they didn’t want to go, so not to give them the early wake-up call.

As usual, after dinner Trevor and I adjourned to our room with a night-cap, and Trevor put the TV on to watch the inevitable football, while I read for a while, then inserted my ear-plugs before settling down for a good night’s sleep, before our early start in the morning.

 

 

Cable Car and Culture

Got up at eight o’clock this morning so we could be packed, breakfasted and ready to leave at 9.00am.  Realised it was 1st July – were we into the second half of 2018 already?! It was raining once again, so we donned our cagoules and made a dash for the restaurant along the paths fringed with dripping greenery.

Once again, we enjoyed cereal and freshly-baked pastries, washed down with fruit juice and strong, hot coffee.  Half-way through, Vee joined us and we passed the time making conversation about the places we’d been and the things we’d seen.

We then trundled our cases over to the reception area, handed in our key and paid our bar bill.  We hoped the rain would clear up because we were going to go on the Manakamana cable car and we didn’t want the view to be impeded by low clouds.

We all piled into the mini-bus and set off once again into the chaotic streets of Nepal, en route to Chitwan.  Anal said it would take about four hours to get there, as our driver Madern would be taking care on the winding and potholed roads.  Anal had already called the ‘traffic and travel’ hot line to check that there were no issues with the route to Chitwan; often the heavy monsoon rains can cause landslides and rockfalls, and the roads are blocked while these are cleared.  So far, so good though.

We had a couple of comfort stops on the way to visit the loos and enjoy a cup of coffee, then we arrived at Manakamana just before 12.30pm.  Our guide explained that the cable car closed for an hour for lunch, so it was a good idea for us to have our lunch too, while we waited.

By now it had stopped raining and the sun was attempting to come out, so we went into a nearby restaurant and decided to enjoy some beer and something light to eat.  Trevor and I just opted for a sandwich; but when it came there were four slices of bread, so potentially a substantial meal again, if you ate all of it.  We each ate three of our sandwiches, and washed them down with a can of Arna beer each.  We then wandered along and had a look at the inevitable handicraft and souvenir stalls on the way to the queue for the cable car, which was back in operation again.

We didn’t have to wait too long; each gondola carries six passengers so we were all able to get in; Anal told us he’d meet us at the top.  Apparently the cable car system was imported from Austria, and it opened on 24 November 1998.  The line runs for 9095 feet and has two stations; one in Cheres, Chitwan (where we boarded) which has an altitude of 846 feet, and one at Manakamana, Ghorka at an altitude of 4272 feet.

We set off and soared into the air, crossing the muddy Trishuli river below as we viewed the lush green hillsides and the mountain tops.  Here and there we spotted little remote dwellings and goats grazing on the hills, and every now and again passed another gondola on its way down.

It was a great ride and probably the longest cable-car journey I’ve been on, lasting just under 10 minutes.  As we got near the top, the view was impeded by the low cloud, but at least it hadn’t started raining again.  We met up with Anal, and he explained that he was taking us to the Manakamana Temple, which was a 17th century shrine to the goddess Bhagwati, who is said to grant wishes to those who are willing to make a suitable sacrifice.

As we walked into a large square, carefully trying to avoid the puddles and the muddy ground, we were drawn to the sound of lively music, accompanied by the persistent rhythm of drums.  We came across a group of musicians, in a red uniform complete with peaked caps, cummerbunds and matching spats, enthusiastically playing a catchy tune. Lots of the locals were dancing frenetically, really kicking up their bare feet on the wet ground, but we were fascinated by one lady in particular, who had long, black hair and was wearing an orange sari.  She was dancing, writhing, jerking and tossing her hair around as if trying to rid herself of inner demons.  She would have actually fallen over into the mud if someone hadn’t had hold of her arm to steady her.  Anal explained that it was believed that the harder you danced, the more you pleased the gods, hence this lady’s wild gyrations.

We stood and watched the band and the dancers for a while; in fact we just watched the local daily life passing by in its unusual and colourful ways.  We then continued on our way, through the stall-lined streets and along to the temple, immersing ourselves in the atmosphere and enjoying how it was such a contrast with our own lives back in Blighty.  🙂

Afterwards we made our way back to the queue for the cable car for the journey back down again, but the queue was quite long so, rather than wait for a gondola that would hold all six of us, we sort of pushed into the queue and three of us shared a gondola with three local ladies, while the other three went in a different gondola.  We wondered what they thought about us jumping the queue, but apparently the locals tend to treat visitors a little bit more special, as they are so pleased we’d come to visit their country.

Once we were all back down again, it was time to board the minibus to continue our journey to Chitwan National Park, in the sub-tropical lowlands.

We arrived at the Hotel Parkside just before 4.00pm, Madern driving through the gates and depositing us at the foot of some steps that led up to the open-sided hotel restaurant.  A cool glass of refreshing lassi awaited us as we took a seat and gazed around with interest at our rustic surroundings.

We were in a pleasant room with a beamed, thatched roof, held up with stout wooden pillars.  The tables and chairs were very heavy and appeared to be hand-made from solid wood.  Each table was covered in a cheerful red table-cloth, and colourful paper light-shades encased low-wattage bulbs.  We could smell the rain and leaf-mould and damp soil in the sultry, sub-tropical climate.  It certainly was a basic, no frills place, but that was what gave it its immense character and charm.  It reminded me a little of our stay in a wooden hut in the Amazon rainforest in February 2011.

Once we’d finished our drinks, we were handed our room keys and taken a short distance along some leafy paths to a separate building.  Trevor and I were allocated room 602 on the second floor.  Inside, our room was large and airy, with a window at the back overlooking flooded paddy fields, and a window at the front overlooking the small walkway to the rooms, which in turn looked onto the gardens, full of frondy trees and lush green lawns and other plants, and a small shaded area containing some tables and chairs.

There were two single beds separated by a large bedside table; each bed had its own reading light and mosquito net for extra protection against the little blighters.  There was also a ceiling fan in addition to, or instead of, A/C and the windows had a mesh screen over them as well.

The bathroom was a reasonable size and contained a WC, sink with mirror and vanity light, and bath-tub with a shower over it.  We were sure we’d enjoy a great stay here.

As we were resting on our beds, Trevor spotted something running up the wall; a closer look revealed it to be a Malaysian House Gecko, commonly known as a chit-chat in imitation of the distinctive sound that they make.  These little geckos are only about 8cm long, and are very prevalent all over tropical Asia.  It really brought back memories for me from my time living in Singapore between 1968-70; these little chit-chats would be all over our house, on the walls and ceiling, and you’d often hear the “chack-chack-chack-chack” call (quite a loud noise from such a little creature).  We liked having them in our room because they would eat any insects that ventured near, so we figured they’d help keep the flies and mozzies at bay.  🙂

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Dinner tonight was at 7.00pm, because afterwards we were due to visit a traditional Tharu cultural show at a nearby small theatre that seated 300.  I had a cool shower and washed my hair before scraping it back into a small ponytail; I didn’t bother blow-drying and styling it with the hot-brush the way I usually do, because I didn’t want it to make me all hot and sweaty again.  I put on a red cotton cheesecloth sleeveless dress, and some silver sandals and I was ready.

In the dimly-lit restaurant, we enjoyed the sounds of the jungle through the open sides of the room, and we spotted (and heard!) lots of chit-chats, particularly on and inside the paper light-shades as they placed themselves strategically to catch any flies or moths attracted by the lights.  We enjoyed some traditional meat, chicken and vegetable dishes which seemed to be accompanied by an awful lot of carbohydrates; rice and pasta and potatoes.  Trevor and I enjoyed the usual cold thirst-quenching beer, and once everyone was fed and watered it was time to board the mini-bus to make it to the theatre in time for the cultural show.

The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the southern foothills of the Himalayas; most of the Tharu people live in the Nepal Terai. They are recognized as an official nationality by the Government of Nepal.

The Tharu people themselves say that they are a people of the forest. In Chitwan, they have lived in the forests for hundreds of years practicing a short fallow shifting cultivation. They plant rice, mustard, corn and lentils, but also collect forest products such as wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants and materials to build their houses; hunt deer, rabbit and wild boar, and go fishing in the rivers and oxbow lakes.

We were here to see them in their traditional costumes performing some tribal dances for us.  We filed into the small theatre (which was similar to a village hall) and took our seats.  It was difficult to understand the lady who was introducing each dance, as her accent was so heavy, but we enjoyed each of the dances with the men and woman, in their colourful costumes, doing the “stick” dance (a bit like the one that our Morris dancers do) and the “fire” dance.  One dancer came on dressed as a giant peacock and elicited a large cheer from the audience when he fanned out his spectacular tail!

The show lasted about 45 minutes and ended with some of the dancers coming into the audience and inviting people up on stage to join in some of the dancing; inevitably I got picked and, encouraged by the others in our group, went up to join the dancers on stage.  All the participants just did their own thing; it was all about getting down with the rhythm and strutting your stuff.  I was dancing quite energetically but it was probably a bit too soon after our dinner, because I ended up with a painful stitch in my right side.  Nonetheless, it was all good fun.

We arrived back at the Hotel Parkside around 9.30pm and, while the others bid us goodnight and returned to their rooms, Trevor and I went into the bar to see if we could get a nightcap.  There wasn’t a lot to choose from; some beer, bottles of wine (which you couldn’t order by the glass), some Bacardi and some Nepalese whisky.  Trevor chose a Gurkha beer and I chose a double Bacardi and cola and, because we were the only ones in the bar, we decided to take them back to our room instead.

Once we’d finished our drinks, and Trevor had caught up with the day’s football results, it was time to go to sleep.  We therefore let down and opened up our mosquito nets and spread them over the bed, carefully tucking them in under the mattress before settling down beneath them for the night.  We looked forward to seeing what tomorrow would bring.