Last Stop: Negara Brunei Darussalam

14 06 2009

I’ve been blessed with a gift of time over the last few days (as I’ll explain in the next post), so I had some time to write. I wanted to share a little bit about the last destination me and Tolik wound up visiting before we went our separate ways (him back to New York, me to Thailand to study massage for a week) – The Sultanate of Brunei.

When we were putting together our itinerary for the travel, Tolik succinctly described Brunei as:

“… The second word that comes to mind when Brunei is mentioned is Boring for B, right after antisemitism for A – the sultanate of Brunei forbids entry to any Israeli citizens. US citizens, surprisingly, don’t need a visa. Anyhoo, Brunei was worth the extra day to look at and check off an extra country… “

It’s a tiny country with a population of less than 400,000 people located on the island of Borneo. When I say tiny, I mean, so tiny that a cattle station they have in Australia that supplies them with meat is bigger than Brunei itself.

However, due to rich oil and gas deposits and protection from the British, it is quite wealthy. In fact, the nominal per capita GDP is over $50,000 – placing it #5 in the world. One step higher of the United States, actually.

But fortunately, the money is being quite well spent. In fact, they have invested US$1.1 billion in a luxury Empire Country Club and Hotel. Now that’s thinking about the future! I guess they are following Dubai’s trend in that respect.

It has about 3 major towns: Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait and Seria (also known as Shelltown, because that’s where Shell has set up its operations and most of the country’s revenues are coming from). Most of the people live within them – with a huge expat population in Seria.

We spent a night in the capital and visited the other cities in transit. All in all, Brunei turned out to be an interesting place to spend two days before heading out, but was probably not the top place we’d return to:

Mosque

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

Boat

Ceremonial boat permanently parked next to the Mosque. Nobody really knows what it does, though.

Water Village

The most interesting part about Brunei was a big water village in their capital. It was just fascinating to see something like this next to modern buildings and skyscrapers (by Brunei standards):

Boat

Water village

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Closes up of the houses

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Even the billboards find their way here.

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Typical alley within the water village.

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Used by people, bikes, etc.

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Close-up of a house. Sorry - can't think of a better headline :)

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The evening descends on the village.





Deep in the Jungle of Borneo

11 06 2009

After we left Indonesia, our next destination was the rainforest of Borneo.  I think that all of us (or at least some of us) at some point have wanted to see just how exactly Tarzan or Maugli lived and this was an opportunity to explore one of the few remaining jungle environments in the world.

Borneo is the 3rd largest non-contintal island in the world and is divided between 3 countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

We headed to a national park called Gunung Mulu, located in Sarawak – Malaysian side of the Borneo. Mulu is a pretty inaccessible area; the only practical way of getting to and from it is by air. It is possible to travel to the area by riverboat, but it requires a chartered long boat for the last part – and the whole trip by river would take around 12 hours to complete. So we decided to fly in and then hike out (by walking and taking the boat part of the way) out of the park.

I think that it is one of those places where pictures will do more justice than words. Hope you like them!

Fauna: Our Friends in the Jungle

The diversity and abundance of various insects, bugs and other creepy-crawlers was amazing (at least now that you think about it from a comfortable bed – when you havve things crawling on you whenever you’re asleep or awake, they are not so amazing anymore). Below are just a few examples of what we managed to capture on camera.

This little fellow tried to hide from us by disguising as a twig. But we found him!

This little fellow tried to hide from us by disguising as a twig. But we found him and got him on camera!

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One of the many, many flying insects that were always around. This guy wasn't too thrilled about us being on his territory, as you can see in his look.

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Sorokonozhka, we think... haven't counted the legs, though.

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Another one. This one was trying to climb towards us.

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Snail

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It looks like a grasshoper, but who really knows!

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What subway rats are for the New York MTA system, these guys are for the jungle - they are everywhere, big and small.

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Not sure what this is... but at least, it doesn't try to bite you.

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These guys, on the other hand, do bite! We wound up spending the night next to a bee hive - fortunately, they went away as the evening came (afraid of the bats).

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A little close up. These guys are attracted to sweat - which made it tough considering that we spent the most of the day hiking!


Flora – Peak Under the Jungle Canopy

Even the camera had a hard time capturing the overall environment, so these are just some specific bits and pieces.

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It's very tough to capture the surroundings on camera. The sheer amount of vegetation is astounding. It is simply so GREEN.

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Beautiful flowers.

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The Forbidden Fruit

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Mushrooms - also forbidden :)


River and The Boat Ride

Our plan was  to fly in to the rainforest on one end and then trek our way to another side of it.  In order to cover the distance, we had to hire several local boat to take us up the river.

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We had several boats to take ,in all - combined, they added up to about 8 hours on the river.

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The color of the water is always brown and murky from the sediments.

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River flowing through the rainforest.

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The water level was quite low, so we often got stuck on the rocks. To get out, we had to come out of the boat and push it through and then get back in.

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One of the views from the boat.

Caves

The park is famous for its caves and the expeditions that have been mounted to explore them. Mulu’s Sarawak Chamber is the largest natural chamber in the world, and Deer Cave is the largest cave passage known to man. According to the guides it is big enough to fit St. Peter’s Basilica or several jumbojets inside.

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From the inside the cave

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Entrance from the outside

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Stalactites... or is it Stalagmites. Damn, I can never remember.

Bats

While the caves are interesting on their own, the best part is what happens at night – when the sun comes down. One of the caves, the Deer Cave, is home to over 2 million bats, who come out on their feeding rounds every evening at dusk. Apparently, the bats leaving Deer Cave consume over 50 tonnes of insects every night, and may travel 50km in search of food.

It is really quite an amazing sight. I highly recommend that you check out the two videos below to see it:

Video 1: Bats Coming Out of Deer Cave

Video 2: Close Up


Finish Line – The Predators of the Jungle

When we finished our trek through the rainforest and the river, we came out to a small little village where we had to catch a van going to the closest town.

While waiting, we got some food at a  street vendor and immediately got surrounded by the local predators:

Cats 1

Judging by the sounds these guys were making, they meant business.

Cats 2

They may look cute and cuddly, but you just try NOT to give them a chicken bone...





Adventures in Indonesia – Volcanoes, Bikes and Planes – Part 2

8 06 2009

Narrated by Tolik

As we were descending the volcano and approaching Selo, I ran ahead to check on my bike. I think I forgot to mention earlier that 30 minutes into the climb to the top, I noticed that I did not have bike keys in my pocket, so I assumed I must have left them in the bike, which I deemed to be an acceptable risk at the time. Now, coming up to my bike I noticed they weren’t in it. Looking around the bike and asking locals if they have seen them didn’t yield anything. At this point Alex and Borya came down and we were deciding what to do. It was 11:30 and our flight to Jakarta [capital of Indonesia, our through-point to the next destination] was supposed to be at 14:40. Another complicating factor was that we had not actually purchased tickets for it and were intending to buy them in the airport before the flight. Some locals have suggested that they could start the bike, if we could take of the chain locking the front wheel, which has a separate lock.

After trying several keys from the keychain a local brought, I actually found one that unlocked the chain. However, the ignition had a separate, round key, which was impossible for us to pick. The only other option left to us was transporting the bike back to the city. Borya quickly arranged it with the locals, who agreed to provide a truck and a driver. While he was waiting for the truck, Alex and I went back on his bike.

Although it only took about half the time to get to Yogyakarta [where we were staying at a guesthouse] as it took to get to the volcano, the ride seemed to take a long time. Buses passing within inches of the bike were not helping the situation either. By the end of the ride I was passing and cutting people off no worse than any Indonesian. At 13:30 I got to the hostel. Surprisingly, Borya has just arrived right before me – with the bike in the back of a truck.

We decided that if we could get to airport by 14:00, we had a chance of catching the flight – “stranger things have happened” said Borya, rationalizing our decision. We decided to separate to get everything done. In only 10 minutes, Borya managed to deal with owner of the bikes and the lost keys and check us out of the hostel, while I packed all my stuff that was thrown all around the room.

The following is what happened next:

13:45 - we boarded a taxi. Despite being offered a cash incentive to get us there in 15 minutes, the driver wasn’t able to complete the drive in less than 30.

14:15 - Approaching LionAir [our airline] office at the airport, we noticed the schedule of flights to Jakarta: 14:45 was crossed out and 14:20 was written on top. Getting to the window I asked about the next flight, even though it was useless to us because we had a connection from Jakarta to Kota Kinabalu shortly thereafter. It didn’t matter anyway – the next flight was full.

14: 19 – Running out of viable options, I went to AirAsia [another airline] to see if we can somehow arrange something in terms of changing existing tickets and maybe getting to Kota entirely through them. The price quoted was exorbitant and I left without saying a word as soon as the guy finished typing it on the calculator. I delivered the bad news to Borya, who was sitting with the luggage, and went on to look for an internet access to decide on the course of action. On my way I passed the departure information screen. I saw 14:20 flight that we technically missed, but there was something curious about it – it was not boarding yet. I decided to ask LionAir agent again. What followed was so incredible that it prompted Borya to later say “I don’t think stranger things have happened.”

14:26 – Approaching a different (than the one I asked previously) agent at the ticket desk, I asked: “What would it take to get 2 tickets on 14:20 flight to Jakarta; it is not boarding yet.” “Today ?” – he asked incredulously. “Yes, right now” – I replied, trying to reassure him with the tone of my voice that I was serious. He made a quick phone call and then wrote down a number on a piece of paper – one million rupiahs (or… $100). I nodded and threw him my credit card. He, in turn, made another quick call and told his assistant to write up the tickets, who proceeded to do so at an incredible speed. As she was doing it, the boarding was announced for the flight.

14:29 – I ran up to Borya shouting that we probably made the flight and then ran back. Picking up the tickets, we ran towards the check-in counter. As I was giving the agent our passports, before I could say anything, Borya gave his enormous backpack into the luggage. He too now realized it wasn’t the best idea, given our limited amount of time for connection in Jakarta to the next flight, but the agent would not give it back and we didn’t have time to argue.

14:37 – We continued through security and came up to the boarding gate just as the last batch of people were boarding the flight. Every seat on the plane was taken, except for the first row of seats. Our seats were 1A and 1B. The seats on the other side (D-F) were used by the flight attendants.

14:50 – The plane departed.

16:00 - We landed in Jakarta, which left us with an hour and 10 minutes for our onward connection to Kota Kinabalu [our next destination]. The problem was that the flight to Kota was at international terminal and we arrived to domestic, which was a good 20 minutes away. It was compounded by the fact that Borya’s bag was checked in.

16:20 – While he was waiting for the bag at the carousel, I researched how to get to the other terminal and how long it takes. Coming back inside the terminal I saw Borya still waiting for the bag.

16:23 - We have decided that I should go ahead and check us in and he would come later.

16:45 – As I ran back out of the terminal, I bargained with cabbies for the fare, but noticing I was in a hurry and not wanting to break the default price, they all wanted $5 for a 10-minute ride. Luckily, a shuttle bus was just departing the bus stop, I waved to the driver, who courteously stopped and I got on. Reaching the international terminal and subsequently the AirAsia check-in counter, I was in for another nasty surprise – you need to check in 45 minutes before the flight, and I was there about 30 before. My request for check-in was promptly escalated to a manager, who flat-out refused. I was considering options available but couldn’t find anything better then to continue arguing with him. If we didn’t make this flight, we were better off not leaving Yogyakarta [our previous destination] in the first place, as the next one was only in 2 days. Also, I didn’t know if Borya was successful in getting his bag. I continued to argue with the guy, repeating “the flight is not boarding yet” like a mantra.

Meanwhile, going back 20 minutes [Borya's narration]: 16:25 – As Murphy’s law states – things that can go wrong, will. The bag got lost in transition and only after running around and having the luggage manager actually come out to the airplane itself, it was recovered.

16:35 – I grabbed the bag and ran out on the street, needing to get to the International terminal pronto. I looked around for taxi driver and, immediately, one popped up. “40 thousand rupiah,” he asked. Although I was in a rush, I knew that it was a rip-off price and by reflex, I declined and made another several steps.

Another driver made an appearance. “International terminal,” he asked. “Yes. Do it for 30 thousand?,” I offered. He hesitated for a second and agreed. We ran into the parking lot when, to my big surprise, his taxi vehicle of choice turned out to be a 2-wheel motorbike. Normally, that would not be a problem – except that I had 2 backpacks on me, which are not really designed for motorbike riding.

Cursing the heavens and the driver for not being upfront, we put one backpack between his legs, I sat behind him and held on, as he made his way out of the airport. But, if Indian drivers can carry 4 to 6 passengers on a bike, Indonesians are just as good at carrying passengers with bags and backpacks.

16:50: We made it safely to the terminal.

16:53: When I caught up to Tolik, he was arguing with the manager about letting us on the flight. We immediately attempted to do a good cop, bad cop routine where I tried to appeal to the good side of the manager, while Tolik kept arguing with him simultaneously.

When we started to lose hope, somebody suddenly radioed in the manager. Through the jumbled voice, we made out that the flight was delayed. The manager looked at us, looked at his assistant, looked at us again and said to the assistant: “print their boarding passes.

17:04 – We boarded the plane.

17:15 – Plane left the gate.

===

I’ve learned a few valuable lessons about flying that day.

After arriving to Kota Kinabalu late at night, we had no energy to look for a hostel. And since we had a flight in the early morning, we just settled in to spend the night at the airport. It was cozier than it looks :)

After arriving to Kota Kinabalu late at night, we had no energy to look for a hostel. And since we had a flight in the early morning, we just settled in to spend the night at the airport. It was cozier than it looks :)





Adventures in Indonesia – The Ascent of the Merapi Volcano

7 06 2009

Hello again!

My apologies that the last two weeks have been somewhat light in postings. It occurred partially because of a food poisoning in Singapore that put me out of commission for a few days, compounded by the fact that we wound up traveling through areas in Indonesia and Malaysia with limited Internet connections. As a result, there is a lot of stuff to share now!

The following is a “guest post” by my traveling companion, Tolik, about our little adventure in Indonesia (pictures are my own):

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Fun Fact: Mount Merapi – meaning Mountain of Fire – is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has produced more pyroclastic flows than any other volcano in the world. It has been active for 10,000 years with the latest eruption taking place in 2006.

While Mt. Merapi was always on the list of destinations we planned to hit on this trip, the plan for ascending it (as is the case for most things on this trip) was improvised just hours beforehand. Still suffering the aftershocks of his indulgence in Singaporean cuisine, Borya wasn’t sure if he was able to do it. However, another traveler in our guesthouse, Serbian “Socialist” Alexander indicated interest in joining us. After additional research, by 18:00 we have all pretty much agreed to go.

The shortest and currently the only safe way to ascend Mt. Merapi is from the village of Selo. It is a tiny obscure village on its foothills, approximately 2 hours away from Yogyakarta [city in Indonesia where we were staying for a few days]. Having lost my phone with detailed Indonesian maps and GPS a day earlier, our sole navigation aid was a page from a notebook with a hastily drawn semblance of a map.

Our makeshift map

Typically, people start the ascend at night, in order to make the summit by sunrise. So, following that suggestion, we left the guesthouse at 00:30 on our rented motorbikes [which is typically the easiest and fastest way of getting around in the city].

As a quick aside, I must add that it is a very enjoyable experience to start a trip in the middle of the night. There is a large sense of anticipation and adventure afforded by departure after nightfall. Something that is normally banal during the day, becomes magical and filled with possibilities, most of which aren’t likely to occur, but that doesn’t matter. Anticipation is the reward.

Alex rode on the bike with me and Borya was following us on his bike. Thoroughly enjoying the road in the absence of other Indonesian motorbike riders, always intent on cutting you off, we ended up missing our turn to Selo – the trail’s starting point. This innocuous mistake was made significantly more serious given the fact that we were in the middle of the night in a rural area in a foreign country. How do you find someone to ask directions, and once you do, how do you communicate with them with sufficient clarity? Luckily we stumbled upon a gas station that was open 24/7 (unlike everything else in rural Indonesia). The attendant, while he did not speak any English, was able to give us fairly precise directions as to where we needed to go.

As we proceeded to go back to our turn, heavy fog fell, reducing the visibility to just several meters in front. Oncoming trucks turned into large noisy shadows, powerful wind gusts following in their wake. We made note of a non-functioning traffic light, but unfortunately continued for another 5 kilometers, before ascertaining that it was, in fact, our turn. After coming back to it, we were on the road to Selo – behind schedule, but according to plan.

As we proceeded the pitch black symmetrical cone of the volcano on the slightly glowing sky background, a fairly big feature even before, came to dominate the landscape. Half an hour into the turn, we came to a fork. After exploring it and the bizarre shop open in the middle of the night, as well as the closed observation deck (for viewing the volcano), we decided on the correct direction – another 10 kilometers of a winding mountain road going up to the highest lights visible on the slope of the volcano. At one point on that road, I laid the bike down in some very slippery mud, which Alex certainly didn’t appreciate, however in the end we got to highest point reachable by road safely. Giant letters above the parking lot announced: “New Selo.”

As we got off the bikes, we were approached by a few locals offering to guide us to the top. Remembering our previous experience with the guide in Nepal (which proved to be pretty unnecessary), I insisted that we don’t need one. We refused the locals’ offer, but Borya did rent a jacket from one of them for 15,000 Rupiah ($1.50), as it was pretty chilly at this altitude at night (Selo is about 1.5km above sea level). After looking around for an entire 30 seconds we found a path that seemed to go uphill and so, at 3:40, armed with flashlights, we began our ascent, trying to make 1.5km of altitude (the summit of the volcano is almost 3km, it is equivalent to going up the Empire State Building 5 times) by sunrise, while also trying to accommodate Borya’s uncooperative digestive tract.

Path to the top of the volcano

Path to the top of the volcano

First 20 minutes of the ascent took place over pretty clear and easy to walk path winding through tobacco fields; but after that the fields ended and the path turned into a bed of currently dry stream signified by boulders and tree roots sticking out of the ground where the soil was washed away (often making for convenient handles). As we proceeded uphill, our flashlights cutting through the darkness and dense vegetation, realization that we were actually doing it – ascending a volcano on the ring of fire in Indonesia – was at once a humbling and empowering.

View of the volcano in the dark

View of the volcano in the dark

Stopping for a rest, we turned off the lights and quieted down, letting darkness and nocturnal jungle noises flow around us. However, after our eyes quickly adjusted, it turned out that darkness was full of detail. An entire valley of lights, like dark velvet with jewels spread around it could be seen for tens of kilometers and far below us we could see its edge: the rubies of New Selo transmitter antenna. The sky was similarly sprinkled with stars, though veiled by thin milky clouds and, so, much more subdued than lights in the valley, except for one very brilliant point. Contemplating the discrepancy, we decided it was a planet – probably Mercury.

After a few minutes of enjoying the rest and the view we continued the climb. The winding path, which was rather a dry bed from water run-off was separating into various directions, merging, separating again. This was somewhat impeding navigation and we even had to split up a few times to follow two potential routes then come back and agree on the way to go.

The view

The view

By 5:00, though the sunrise was still 40 minutes away, it was already dawn. We turned off our flashlights as they were no longer necessary. The view around us made the continued climb a surreal experience. We could see a huge column of dirty white smoke rising from the top of the volcano. The sky was of purple gradient, from dark towards the west to almost glowing towards the east. The entire valley was visible with not one or two, but seven (!) perfectly symmetrical volcano cones. One rising directly adjacent to Merapi and others getting smaller and smaller towards the horizon. Armies of small puffy white clouds were attacking all of them from the east, as the wind blowing from hence cooled rising on their slopes and the moisture condensed.

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The image was similar to what one would see on a cover of a cheap sci-fi novel. We were no longer ascending a volcano, but exploring a different planet, at least for as long as the purple sky at dawn could allow suspension of disbelief.

Half an hour later we reached the treeline. The sunrise was imminent, betrayed by the glowing lining underneath the clouds, and we were still a long distance away from the top. There was no way we could reach it by sunrise, but neither did we need to. It was impossible to top the view we saw at the time, as I have described previously. We agreed to ascend a little bit more to a large rocky balcony of sorts and set up there for breakfast.

After having breakfast,we started up again. Moving further the landscape changed dramatically. Shrubs and grasses, still ubiquitous even above the treeline, gave way to barren ground made up of volcanic rock. It was extremely light, but had very coarse surface with some sharp edges. It was probably formed when lava flows (most recent of which took place in 2006) cooled and later broke apart into smaller and smaller pieces because of day-night temperature differential.

The incline also changed significantly, reaching in places 50 degrees. The climb from here was slow and arduous as each step had to be taken deliberately to avoid slipping on the rocks or cutting hands on their sharp edges.

Steep ascent on the rocks

Steep ascent on the rocks

Towards the top the fresh mountain air started to smell of sulfur, indicating continuing seismic activity at the volcano; or, alternatively, according to Hugo Chavez, a recent visit by George W. Bush. Some of the rocks actually had yellow sulfur stains. Touching one of them, I almost burned my hand – the rock was directly above a vent and so was searing hot.

Surfur smoke coming out of the caldera

Surfur smoke coming out of the caldera

After taking some pictures on the rocks, we went up to reach the rim of the caldera. Looking down into it we didn’t see anything interesting.

Caldera

Caldera

It was flat and sandy with steep cliffs around it. However, the sand betrayed a curious thing: it sometimes contained a lake, likely during rainy season, so swimming was definitely an interesting possibility, but unfortunately not for us – it was currently dry. Huge column of smoke rising next to us, we went further up to the summit.

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It was largely a symbolic achievement, as the view wasn’t any more beautiful or profound then previously. Wanting to get a cool photo I went up to stack of rocks somewhat below the summit, once I got up on them, the sheer height struck me – there was over 100 meter vertical drop one step (or loss of balance) away. It was further amplified by volcano being 2.5km above the rest of the landscape. This was a scarier experience than jumping out of a plane and I even got jitters – Borya’s fumbling’s with the camera seemed to take forever.

After getting our fill of pictures we went downhill. The clouds that were attacking other volcanoes at the dawn by now have reached towards the top of Merapi as well. It was interesting to walk in their haze on the barren rocks, being able to see only a few meters in front, and further down they provided excellent cover from the unforgiving (as we will learn later) South Asian sun. The way down was relatively easy, a few slips and falls notwithstanding. In a couple of hours we were approaching the village of Selo, where another surprise was awaiting us…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Another beautiful view from the top

Another beautiful view from the top





What do you get when you put ancient temples, incredible nature, Buddhist culture and Communist government together? Nepal!

26 05 2009

Everything is a-OK! I wonder if the OK symbol actually came from this ancient Buddhist gesture?

Everything is a-OK! I wonder if the OK symbol actually came from this ancient Buddhist gesture?

There is something magical about Nepal. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but when you’re there, it feels like you’ve arrived somewhere really special. Maybe it’s because of the imposing nature and mountains, or perhaps it’s the ancient temples and sacred sites that are present everywhere you go, or possibly the unique do-good Buddhist culture set in a Communist country. Nepal is a small country, ruled by a Monarchy for generations up until a few years ago, and tucked away in the mountains between India and China. With the exception of a handful of small cities (Kathmandu being the capital), much of the population lives in remote villages, disconnected from the world, and continues a traditional way of living. It’s really a place where you have an opportunity to go back in time.

Arriving to Nepal from India, the transformation both amazed and humbled us. Although the two countries border each other and share many similarities, they are very different and it’s apparent from the moment you step foot in the middle of the country.

Nepalese people are much more gracious and mild in their behavior. Gone was the aggression that you often witnessed in India. Gone was the noise, the heat and the overcrowding. People seemed much more hospitable and trusting of one another. Even though they did not necessarily have much more than their neighbors to the West, they seemed happier and more content with what they did posess.

The country has recently undergone a civil war which is still fresh in everybody’s memories. It ended a few years ago and although there has been some political instability between the latest government and the Maoists, Nepal is a relatively safe place to visit – especially for Western tourists, who are not involved in their internal politics. The top danger in these places come more from every day things, such as riding in buses or crossing the roads, rather than anything else.

All things considered, I think that Nepal is one of the best-kept secrets for travelers looking to enjoy nature and outdoors, history and culture, and just get away from it all – on a budget. If you’re interested in a more detailed account of our short detour to Nepal, along with more pictures, please enjoy the following:

The Decision to Go to Nepal

“What if we go to Nepal,” said Tolik lifting his head up from the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Our original plan was to head up to the Himalayas in the North of India for a few days of trekking. However, the train tickets we booked in that direction turned out to be waitlisted, which meant that it was a gamble now – we may have gotten the seats or we may have had to ride on the floor for 12 hours. Either way, it made sense to consider other options, so we were researching our possibilities.

Nepal certainly seemed as an appealing alternative. It was relatively close by – a train, couple of buses, and some walking – and we could be there within 24-48 hours. Visas can be received upon arrival, so that meant that we didn’t need to spend any additional time filing the paperwork. And we probably would not get an opportunity to go there again for years, if ever, as it’s not the easiest place to get to.

So, after doing some research on the safety situation and the logistics of getting there, we decided to go for it.

Getting to Nepal by land from India is relatively easy. There were several possible approaches, but our path consisted of taking an overnight train from Varanasi to a city called Gorakhpur. From there, it was just a short 3-hour bus ride to the border.

Ironically, when we booked the tickets for the train, we were only able to get one ticket. But, that was better than nothing. We figured that we’d be able to share a sleeping bunk and simply hide Tolik when the tickets were being checked. The plan worked surprisingly well – although, I have to admit that those bunks are not really designed to fit 2 people…

After getting to Gorakhpur in the morning, we caught a bus heading to a town called Sunnauli – on the Indian side of the border. The ride was uneventful, but as our bus was approaching the border, we stopped because of a huge line of trucks and other vehicles ahead of us. Since everybody was pretty much stopped and we were relatively close, we stepped out of the bus and simply started walking.

Making our way to the border by foot

Making our way to the border by foot

Crossing the border was amazingly simple. In fact, nobody even stops you to check for documentation. You simply had to take a detour to the immigration office to get a visa for your stay and that was it. And then you simply walk into Nepal.

And we're in Nepal!

And we're in Nepal!

Once we crossed into Nepal, we decided to head into a city called Pokhara – 3rd largest city in Nepal and a starting point for a lot of great hikes and treks.

From the border, there were frequent buses headed towards Pokhara, but there was something unusual about the way they operated. There were only buses leaving in the morning and the evening – but nothing in between. That wouldn’t be so weird, except that the buses leaving in the evening, were departing from 5pm until 8pm, but were all arriving at the same time. For some weird reason, they were all purposely stretching out the 250km journey over a period of almost 10 hours in order to avoid arriving to Pokhara in the middle of the night.

However illogical it seemed, we missed the morning “tourist” bus, so we booked a ticket for an evening “local” one. It’s very interesting how these places typically have expensive, A/C buses for tourists or dirt-cheap, but shabby ones for everybody else.

Calling home during some quite time. Man, the satellite phone is great!

Calling home during some quiet time. Man, the satellite phone is great!

After bumming around for a few hours, making a few calls and researching where we’re going to stay the following couple of days, we headed to the bus stand.

It seemed pretty odd that with the exception of a couple of other people, we were the only ones there. “Was there so few people headed to Pokhara”, we thought. Suddenly, in a typical Indian fashion – with horns blaring – an old bus showed up in the distance. The next few moments were so surreal, they were almost out of a movie.

Nepalese buses - this picture was taken in the morning, after arrival.

Nepalese buses - this picture was taken in the morning, after arrival.

A whole bunch of people appeared out of nowhere – from the bus stand, bus itself, ticket counter, etc. They grabbed our bags and started moving them to the roof of the bus. Since all of the luggage goes on the roof, they have a person who rides the entire way on the roof as well, guarding the bags from potential theft.

Once we saw that the bags made it upstairs, Tolik and I stepped on the bus and stopped in our way. To say it was crowded would be an understatement. Every seat was occupied and people standing and sitting in the aisle. Every spare inch of the floor occupied by bags and various containers. The seat numbers that were written on our paper ticket didn’t seem to count for much since there were no available seats, plus it seemed unlikely that we’d be able to communicate our plight to anybody – partially because of the language barrier, partially because nobody actually cared.

But spending two months in India teaches you to take things as they are, so as unappealing as the prospect of riding for 10 hours standing up in a crowded bus seemed, it was something that wasn’t completely shocking anymore.

Fortunately, some guy appeared out of nowhere and started to check everybody’s tickets and was able to recover our seats for us. The people that were occupying our seats moved to the back or to the roof and we plopped down in our space. And we were off…

After going for about an hour, the bus came to a stop in front of a series of small food shops in a tiny village. Suddenly, the bus got surrounded by very talkative Nepalis and something interesting began to happen. All of the bags and containers that were lying idly of the floor of the bus were now moved out of the bus through the windows. The people inside the bus were collectively pushing them out, while the people outside were receiving them and moving them away. Finally, we figured out that it’s how the inventory of all those soft drinks, snacks and other food staples make their way to these shops!

When the goodies were cleared, the guy that got us our seats came up to us and asked if we want to ride outside. It took us a little while to understand that he was asking if we want to ride on the roof. Although I was quite comfortable in my recently acquired chair and was not particularly eager to give it up, Tolik jumped at the opportunity and quickly climbed out of the window on the roof of the bus. Before I knew it, he disappeared out of sight, his seat was occupied by another passenger who immediately fell asleep, and the bus was on its way.

Amazingly enough, all of these oddities aside, the bus trip actually went really well. Tolik eventually returned from the roof, we were able to get some sleep, and arrived to the destination as planned.

Paragliding in Pokhara

Pokhara turned out to be a little tourist town situated on a beautiful lake with the Himalayas in the backdrop. Upon arriving in the morning, we settled in a guesthouse and went out exploring. Pokhara offers a number of activities for its guests, ranging from numerous trekking options to extreme sports and so on. It didn’t take long before we came across a few companies offering paragliding.

Paragliding, essentially, is a recreational flying sport where you fly with a parachute but without using an engine. It’s actually really fascinating – you launch by simply walking/running into the wind. Once you launch, it’s a very stable and calm flight – so, stable, it’s hard to believe you’re flying. Using hot air currents, called thermals, you are able to climb to a higher elevation and stay up in the air for hours.

All in all, it’s a very safe sport and since the organization seemed legitimate with a few foreign pilots, we decided to go for it. So, without further ado:

Setting up the parachute.

Setting up the parachute.

Tolik looking down from the hill. Can you imagine that the way you start the process is by running down the hill and then jumping?!

Tolik looking down from the hill. Can you imagine that the way you start the process is by running down the hill and then jumping?!

It's almost like a flying a kite. A really giant kite... with you attached to it.

It's almost like a flying a kite. A really giant kite... with you attached to it.

Start walking, then speed up to a jog...

Start walking, then speed up to a jog...

Off you go!

Off you go!

It is absolutely amazing how calm and steady it is up in the air.

It is absolutely amazing how calm and steady it is up in the air.

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And the views are quite beautiful, as well.

And the views are quite beautiful, as well.

Trekking in Annapurna

One of the top reasons tourists flock to Nepal is for trekking opportunities it has to offer. Although Everest is not quite in our league, we planned to do an overnight hiking trip in another popular mountain range, Annapurna. Since we were a bit short on time and didn’t have the opportunity to do enough research to prepare fora hike on our own, we decided to hire a guide for the two days.

Ironically, the guide turned out to be a mixed bag. Although he was semi-helpful, he underestimated our speed, so we wound doing the entire 2-day trek in about 10 hours – which kind of defeated bringing the tent and other gear with us.

But that aside, it was very enjoyable. As you hiked through the mountains, you were passing by tiny villages, rice terraces, and so on. The most interesting aspect was the fact that they did not have any roads leading up to them, just small foot paths through the mountains – so the only way to reach them was by walking.

Local standing on a hill.

Local standing on a hill.

Can you spot an outsider? These guys loved the dried apple snacks that we brought.

Can you spot an outsider? These guys loved the dried apple snacks that we brought.

Going back to the hunter/gatherer days.

Going back to the hunter/gatherer days.

Unfortunately, the visibility atop of the mountain was poor due to fog.

Unfortunately, the visibility atop of the mountain was poor due to fog..

Local carrying a basket on his back using his head as leverage.

Local carrying a basket on his back using his head as leverage..

Village tucked away in the hills

Village tucked away in the hills.

Rice terraces.

Rice terraces.

Kathmandu

Our flight out of Nepal from from Kathmandu, so we headed there for our last day.

It’s one of the most unusual cities I’ve ever seen. The combination of the architecture, temples, people and everything in between is enough to have you wandering around for days. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours:

Durbar Square

Durbar Square

Temple

Typical temple in one off the squares

Temple

The temples are everywhere!

For some reason, many people are walking around with surgical masks on.

Local girls. For some reason, many people were walking around with surgical masks on.

Flags at a temple

Many of the temples are decorated with these colorful things. Although they look like flags, they are actually pieces of cloth with script and text on them.

Buddha - I believe you've heard of that one.

Buddha - I believe you've you heard of that guy :)








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