A Travellerspoint blog

26 - Vamos a Guate chicos! Aprendemos espanol!

We arrived into Cancun, Mexico to a scene of chaos! The queue through immigration was colossal and to make matters worse we picked the worst possible queue and seemed to wait for hours. We felt a little better when we saw that Ewan McGregor and his family had to wait in line as well. We headed straight on to Playa del Carmen for a night, then over the border into Belize and up to Sarteneja on the coast in the NE of the country. Sarteneja turned out to be pretty low key, we were the only visitors that month to the national park! It was easy to see why...as the hoardes of mosquitoes followed us around on our walk. We had been supposed to be searching for a lagoon...but our guide got us lost in a waterlogged swamp and instead we spent a couple of hours wandering through the waters cooking nicely in the sunshine! But they did have a great observation tower soaring above the canopy....

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We only stayed a couple of days in Belize as we were eager to get to our Spanish course - so we headed straight onto Guatemala. We arrived into Flores on the 23rd December and breathed a sigh of relief. We'd pretty much been traveling continually south and moving every night since we left Portland a couple of weeks ago. We kicked back and spent Christmas Eve relaxing by the lake and wandering around the cute little streets.

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Christmas Day was perfect....the morning spent watching a Christmas movie and then out for a slap up steak lunch. We managed to communicate with our halting Spanish that we wanted to drink our prized bottle of Napa red and also for them to cook our Christmas pudding that we'd been lugging around. I think they thought our Christmas pudding a little odd but the chef obligingly popped it in the microwave for us!

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Boxing Day was a 5am start and off to the main sight in the area - the jungle shrouded Mayan temples of Tikal. We had a 4 hour guided tour around the temples with plenty of time for scambling up the temples to admire the view. Tikal was only rediscovered in the late 1800's - by chewing gum hunters, who having climbed up the gum trees were amazed to see the tops of the temples poking out the top of the canopy. It wasn't possible to see them from the ground as the jungle had swallowed them up. It was a pretty atmospheric place to wander round early in the morning without the tourist hoardes.

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In a rush to commence our Spanish course we bravely boarded a night bus and arrived into Quetzaltanango or Xela in the Guatemalean highlands. We found a great language school called Miguel de Cervantes and we checked in there and signed up for classes! Xela is a perfect place to study Spanish - a city that didn't feel too big, full of nice bars and cafes and complete with beautiful architecture. We had fours hours of classes in the morning and then the afternoons free to enjoy Xela or head off on a trip.

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Every Friday was a potluck lunch where everyone at the school got together and supposedly cooked specialities from home for each other - not quite sure about our contributions. Fond memories of our time there.

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Day trips highlights included a walk up to the Laguna Chicabel where we had a lot of fun bantering with the locals in our baby Spanish.

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We also set off bright and early one morning to Santa Maria - the massive volcano that had been quite literally looming over us and Xela for 2 weeks. The alarm buzzed into life at 5am and we headed into the centrale parque to try and negotiate a taxi to the base of the volcano. After negotiating a reasonable rate, we set off in probably the worst vehicle of the year....we squeeked, screeched and rattled our way across the dirt roads to the start point. It was still dark as we left the village and headed up through the veg fields. Probably just as well that it was too dark to see what we were going to be climbing up!

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We couldn't see a whole lot what with the gloomy light and the morning cloud cover. It was a pretty unrelentingly steep upwards climb and thankfully after 3.5 hours going up we finally reached the summit at about 3770m - and found lots of locals ensconced up there already, many of them seemed to be involved in some sort of Mayan/Catholic religious ceremony. We headed over for a view down to Santaguito, one of three active volcanos in Guatemala, and arrived just in perfect time to enjoy a tuna sarnie whilst watching an eruption of steam travel high up into the sky.

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After 2 weeks in Xela it was time to leave, other than Delhi this was the place we'd stayed the longest - and to be honest after 28 hours of lessons our heads were starting to fry with all the learning. We proudly eschewed the rip off tourist shuttle going direct to Antigua and instead got on a local long distance bus and changed half way onto a chicken bus for the final section. We arrived into Antigua and immediately felt a different vibe.....everyone was a tourist! A pretty place, with many of the buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial era, but a bit of a challenge on a backpacker budget. Arriving into Antigua we realised that Bryn had left all his laundry hung up back in Xela....we immediately set about coordinating the school in Xela, a shuttle company and a hostel in Antigua in order to get it back! Thankfully, for $5 Bryn's laundry was able to follow on behind us and be reunited!

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The main reason for our visit to Antigua was actually as a base to visit Pacaya, another active volcano, but this time erupting a steady stream of lava. Visiting Pacaya is a bit of a tourist conveyer belt, what can you expect for a 6 hour trip for $7. As we arrived at the start point, there were hundreds of tourists there, being organised into groups and setting off up the path, and kicking up swirling clouds of ash as they went. Little Guatamalean kids were clamouring round us trying to get us to buy walking sticks and hombres on horses were trying to get us to pay for a ride. We gladly set off with our group and were immediately surprised at the breakneck pace at which we seemed to be setting off at! To begin with we were walking through some woods for about 40 minutes ...and then suddenly we rounded a corner and could see Pacaya for the first time!

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We descended briefly onto the dark grey lava field, onto lava flows which were 2 and 4 years old. The path was pretty good to begin with....the main problem being that it was fine ash and it seemed a little bit like one step forward, two steps backwards. Soon we were picking our way over large chunks of lava...grateful for our gloves and long trousers as the lava was razor sharp. We got to the top about 10 minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon....and got to witness the magical transformation as the active lava flows started to glow with increased ferocity. We could see the lava literally oozing down the slope...large chunks falling off and tumbling down. As the light continued to dip, we realised that bits around us were glowing red hot, we were actually on the lava flow!! We had brought the obligatory marshmallows with us and Fi enjoyed toasting them....amazed that they were ready in about 5 seconds!! It really was quite an amazing experience....the beautiful sunset, other volcanoes silhouetted in the distance and all this whilst being on a glowing lava flow oneselves. As the light disappeared it was time to head down picking our way carefully across the lava boulders - we were pretty grateful for our head torches!

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Enough volcanoes though for the time being....heading Honduras way for some diving and beach time :)

Posted by FiColes 08:05 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

25 - Road trippin' USA

We arrived into LA airport and had a nail-biting wait at immigration whilst they gave Bryn the final thumbs up on his green card. Funnily enough the immigration man didn't appreciate Bryn's joke that 'my wife isn't really American'. Luckily, he still got the right stamps and we were able to meet up with the third Roadtrip team-mate - Wren, who'd flown in from the UK.

We headed north and stopped at what was to be the first of many bland roadside motels. After a good night's sleep we all felt a lot better and ventured into Santa Barbara, an upmarket coastal town full of preened blond Californian sporty types, for Wren's first paddle in the Pacific and an opportunity to stretch our legs.

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We headed further up the coast to our rendez-vous with Roadtrip team-mates 4 and 5 - Fi's parents, who'd flown into San Francisco and driven south. The next day we all headed over to Hearst Castle, set in a spectacular position, high in the hills overlooking the coast. Hearst Castle was only finished in 1947 but the sheer opulance, grandeur and wacky mix of architecture had to be admired. Randolph Hearst was a media mogul with a large fortune and spared no expense creating his dream retreat.

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The next day we stopped at the local sea-lion colony. It was incredible, these giant slugs were all laid out all over the beach sunning themselves. We couldn't believe we could get so close....no wardens, entry fees etc

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Heading north we were driving up the stunning Big Sur coastline - our little road clinging onto to the dramatic seascapes. The weather was lovely and stopping for coffees at local cafes overlooking the coastline was divine. We reached Carmel, an upmarket little town on the coast, for lunch and had a potter around the art galleries. In the afternoon we did the 17 mile drive through the Pebble Beach community - admiring the houses and stunning coastline.

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The next day was, Thanksgiving, and Monterey Bay Aquarium for 3 of the roadies. The aquarium was excellent and we got to see lots of fun things - tiny seahorses, beautiful circling silver sardines, colourful jellies, playful sea otters and cute penguins.

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We continued up the coast and had Thanksgiving lunch in an authentic American diner - bringing back lots of happy memories for Bryn from his days serving in the deep south. We all got up to San Francisco and were thankful to find our hotel, The Phoenix, in the notorious Tenderloin district. The Phoenix is a favourite haunt of rock bands and it turned out to be excellent value if you don't mind the marujana fumes.

San Francisco was fully decked out in the Christmas/Thanksgiving spirit and everyone had a great time wandering round the shops. We all went out on a bay cruise - a wedding present courtesy of Hillie and Tom - thankyou very much. The sun was shining and we had fantastic views all across the bay and back to SF.

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We also had tickets for a Sunday game to the San Francisco 49ers - it really was quite a spectacle. Despite the fact that they only play for about 60 minutes, we were sat in our seats for about 4 hours whilst the cheerleaders performed, the army marched, new marines were sworn in, jets conducted fly overs and heros were honoured. We couldn't imagine any of that at a premier league game. Wren got quite into the spirit of things and pal-ed up with the 49ers fans.

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3 roadies took the trip over to Alcatraz and loved the audio tour, walking round marveling at the story of the Great Escape and vowing to get our hands on the film asap.

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Then after a couple of bottles of excellent Napa wine we had to say goodbye to road trippers 4 and 5 who were back to SF for their flight to the UK.

The rest of us continued driving up the coast and visited haunting Bodega Bay, where the Hitchcock movie The Birds had been filmed. It really was like the film - the sea fog was amazing the way it would move in and cloak us suddenly. This was twitchers paradise and we had fun spotting turkey vultures, hawks and pelicans.

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We visited Redwood NP where you drive through the redwood groves for about 30 miles. We had fun doing the tacky tourist things like driving through a tree....

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on a tree.....

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and also having a little wander through the groves.....

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Further up the coast, we went for a day hike in the Prairie Redwood NP - we had an excellent day for it, sunshine and crisp cold air. This was billed as 'the best one day hike in the redwoods' - and it thankfully lived up to it's billing. We started off in a dark redwood forest, ascending gradually through all the big trunks looming up at us. Soon we were heading down again and we reached the beach - completely undeveloped and deserted. Well apart from a sea lion who we startled somewhat! It was quite eerie walking along the beach as the coastal mists oozed down the valleys obscuring our view. After a few miles, we started to head inland, but not before spotting a majestic elk skulking over by some trees. Giant redwoods, deserted beach, crashing waves, sea lions and elks - what more could you possibly want from a day hike!

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The next couple of weeks we spent driving through Oregon and then onto Washington having a look round the wine areas and stopping at cute little towns on the way and visiting a whole host of wine tasting rooms. Much of this a wedding present courtesy of the Centric boys - thanks very much. We spent a couple of days in Walla Walla, a cute if particularly cold little town in the middle of Washington wine country. It was Friday night and there was no stopping Wren who had us out visiting the wine bars ending up at some live music. Wren had the whole bar up and dancing!

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Then it was time to drop roadie number 3 off at the airport and start our long drive back to LA. A whole lot of very boring freeway - with an exciting stop to visit the Napa Valley, a particularly informative visit to a couple of wineries - courtesy of Hillie and Tom - thankyou very much. The little town of Napa is pretty cute and a symbol of the success of the valley.

We also stopped off in Bakersfield - which is a really dull and grey place in the middle of the Californian dust bowl. However, Bryn had been reading the Lonely Planet which had it down as the place to go for county and western music.....so we checked in and headed over to the massive venue and spent the evening in awe of the proficient line dancing.

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It was great meeting up with the parentinos, none of us could believe that we'd been away for over a year. But it's time to get our flight down to Cancun, Mexico! Vamos chicos!

Posted by FiColes 14:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

24 - Southern Sojourn

It felt like a bit of a dream leaving Delhi....we'd been in Asia for 11 months!! We had a mammouth trip to New Zealand that included a 12 hour stopover in Singapore, this combined with the excitement of games and movies on demand on the plane meant that we arrived completely knackered. We headed straight over to Remuera where we were staying with family on Fi's side.

Anne and John were extremely hospitable and staying with them in Auckland was a really lovely experience.....one year into our travelling experience, just the touch of home that we needed to reinvigorate us to continue! Anne cooked up some fantastic dinners..... perfect home cooking after spicy vegetarian India. We spent about a week in Auckland getting over our jetlag, eating rather well, running round getting a load of medical tests done on Bryn for his green card and also enjoying local delicacies such as fish'n'chips in swish Parnell.

We were also priviliged to get a space on one of John's legendary Auckland tours, getting a feel for the city off the Link bus route and seeing many locations linking in with family stories. The tour culminated in the high court where Fi got to experience her first (and hopefully only) trip to the dock.

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On reccommendation, we headed off to Tiritiri Matangi island in the waters next to Auckland. Native bird species tend to struggle on the mainland due to exotic pest species introduced when the Europeans arrived. They've actually eradicated all these pests from Tiritiri and spent much time introducing native bush back to the island.

When we arrived we were assigned a volunteer guide, Anna, who took us on a 2 hour walk - showing us many species on the way.....Tui, Quail, Stiches and Saddlebacks. The highlight though was the little blue penguin and penguin chicklet which we found hiding underneath the walkway.

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We also headed over to Waiheke Island, just an hour's boatride from Auckland downtown. The island is known for it's hippy, artistic, green community and it's fun having a potter round.

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It's also got a large selection of boutique wineries....and we eagerly set off on a tasting circuit. Favourites included Jurassic Ridge where we had quite an indepth chat and a vine tour from the (English!) owner.

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We also went to trendy Mudbrick where we got to enjoy a wedding present.....wine tasting complete with cheese platter on the terrace looking out across the vines down to the sea. Stupendous! Thank you very much Jessica!

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Back in Auckland we headed off to the US embassy for a nail-biting 3 hour wait for our green card interview. It didn't help matters as we saw other people get turned away after failing to even get a tourist visa. However, our turn finally came round and we seemed to pass the suspicious repetitive questioning.

With Bryn's green card in the bag we were able to head off on our NZ road trip, we were very fortunate to be able to borrrow Anne and John's car and we excitedly set off for the Coromandel peninsula, mountainous and green, with beautiful yellow sand beaches, and with an extremely wiggly road hugging the coast all the way round. It really felt off the beaten track, and so close to Auckland!

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We visited Hot Water beach where if you arrive at the right tide time you can dig yourself a hot water pool in the sands above the hot springs underneath. We arrived at the right time, along with most of Auckland, so we had to content ourselves with dipping our toes in other people's pools! We visited Cathedral Cove, with it's rock formations, and were the first to spot a school of leaping dolphins out in the deep water.

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We headed through the Bay of Plenty and on to the East Cape, with more spectacular coastal scenery. We spent our wedding anniversary kayaking in the beautiful serene and green waters and building up the courage for a quick dip in the extraordinarily cold waters.

The most easterly lighthouse in the world...

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We also visited Gisbourne eager to taste the aromatic white wines for which the area is famous...but we were stymied as everything was shut so we had to content ourselves with a tasting in town. We also visited the Eastwoodhill Arboretum - a nice walk, and great if you're into trees. We did manage to find some amazing wine tasting platters in town which went down nicely one afternoon in the sunshine...

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Further down the coast, we enjoyed wandering around Napier and the art deco buildings. The whole town had been flattened by an earthquake in 1930 and as a result the rebuilding was designed to boost morale using the latest building fashions.

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The area around Napier, Hawkes Bay, is one of the largest wine regions in New Zealand and we eagerly set about visiting the wineries. We also headed over to Craggy Range where Anne and John had got us a fantastic wedding present....a three course gourmet lunch complete with reccomended wines. Pate, terrine and Pinot Noir to start followed by the roast pork platter accompanied by Viognier....yum yum.

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We also set about walking to the largest gannet colony in the world....8 km along the beach - only accessible at low tide. You can get really close to the colony, perched on a grassy plateau overlooking cliffs and we had a lot of fun photographing the gannets as they swooped low over our heads into their nests.

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We couldn't come to NZ of course without doing a good old Kiwi Tramp and all the wine and food was taking it's toll. We fancied the Tongariro Crossing as it's billed as one of the top 10 one day walks in the world. We arrived into the little village of National Park, which actually seems to exist more for the winter ski season than summer walkers, and it was pretty quiet....and we weren't able to do the walk the following day due to the weather.

When we were finally able to get out and do the walk though we weren't disappointed. The weather was clear and the sun was beating down as we set off, across some lava flows and up a steep 500m climb up to the South crater, with fantastic views to Mt Taranaki in the distance. Another steep 300m ascent up to the red crater. Feeling pretty good we set off on a side trip up the Mt Tongariro summit, sliding across snowfields on the way. Back on the main trail as we came up to the rim of the red crater we were treated to some pretty spectacular views....down into the red crater, and over to the absolutely stunningly beautiful emerald lakes and then over to the blue lake. A really great one day walk!

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Back in Auckland we bid our farewells to the Priestleys - thanks again Anne and John for everything :) After 3 fantastic weeks in NZ, we headed to the airport for the usual check-in debacle. This time, not only did it take us the usual extra hour than everyone else to get through check in, the Air NZ staff had got so flustered over our ticket that they forgot to tag our bags! Of course, we only realised this as we stood sadly awaiting our bags at the other end! However, luckily Bryn had found us a fantastic beach-side bungalow and as there didn't seem anyone else around on our patch of sand we swam happily for a couple of days in our undies whilst we awaited our luggage!

When our backpacks finally arrived we were able to really get into the swing of things....sipping the fruits of our Hawkes Bay wine trip on our deck watching the sun go down, spending hours out on the reef searching for fishies and long walks on the endless white sands that seem to completely surround our bit of the island.

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We proudly dragged ourselves away from the beach to attend our local Sunday church service where despite tourists making up about half the numbers we were treated to some superb singing.

Feeling like all we did was sit round eating and drinking (which pretty much was the reality) we worked up the energy for the cross island trek.....right through the uninhabited mountainous jungle centre. The views across to both sides of the island were spectacular.

Feeling virtuous after our walk and having worked up an appetite we headed to one of the legendary Island Nights - an all you can eat buffet stacked full of local delights....ika mata (raw tuna fish with coconut cream and lime), taro and octopus. We were then treated to a local dance troupe who entertained us with fire dances, coconut husking and an awful lot of hip shaking! A great evening - and another wedding present - many thanks to Helen and Manu!

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10 days on Rarotonga has absolutely raced by, it's felt like a holiday within a holiday, but it's time to move on again...this time to LA for our rendez-vous with our parents, Fi's first thanksgiving and Bryn's proud entry into the USA with his new green card!!

Posted by FiColes 21:03 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

23 - Living it up in Rajasthan

Amritsar

Getting off the plane in Amritsar, India felt like coming home...after 2 months in Central Asia it was a relief and fun to be able to talk to everyone in english! We headed off to the Pakistan border for the afternoon closing ceremony. It was a little bizarre, tensions really are quite high between these two countries and yet they manage to co-ordinate this spectacular display of machismo, arrogance and bravado every day for the assembled crowds on both sides of the border. There were literally thousands of people on both sides watching the display from grandstands. Each side tries to outdo the other and goosestep, shout or march that little bit higher, louder or faster. There were MCs on both sides....ours whipping up the crowd with frenzied cries of 'Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan!'. Most of the hour long ceremony consisted of guards goosestepping quickly to and from the border culminating in the flags being slowly lowered....signifying that the border was closed for the day and that for us the show was over.

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The next day was the Golden Temple - home to the Sikh religion. It was a great experience and brought to life the Sikh values of equality and inclusiveness. We had to cover our heads, a friendly Sikh chap at the entrance sorted Bryn out a bright orange pirate look. The golden temple (750kg of gold) is set in the middle of a giant square pond...which devotees walk around, swim in and also scarily drink as it's considered holy. There was a communal kitchen, a feature of all Sikh temples, staffed by volunteers serving up dhal and chappattis to all comers for any donations anyone wanted to give. Inside the golden temple are four priests who keep up a chant from the Sikh holy book which is broadcast around the whole temple complex on loudspeakers. It was fun chilling out around the pond and people watching.

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We headed down to Delhi for a few days before catching the train to Jaipur in Rajasthan. We'd decided to do Rajasthan in style as we had so many wedding presents here and it seemed a shame to have to return to our backpacking ways in between our presents.....any excuse for us to upgrade!!

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Jaipur - is the pink city. We had thought that this would mean that everything would be a nice delicate pink sandstone, but it wasn't to be. Instead all the buildings are actually painted pink....nice from a distance but up close everything just looked a little dirty. We visited the Observatory which dates back to 1728 and has the largest timepiece on earth....a giant sun dial which can tell the time to the nearest minute - see the shadow in the bottom right of the photo indicating it's about half one.

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We also visited the City Palace and the Palace of Winds - enjoying the pretty buildings and a new style of architecture for us.

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We went off to the Amber Fort, a massive structure 10km outside Jaipur, which we had fun exploring. There's always loads of Indian tourists at the sights - but sometimes we wondered whether they had actually come to see the sight or to take pictures of foreigners. Everyone wanted their photo taken with us!

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We also climbed up to see the Tiger Fort overlooking Jaipur and had a great time walking round the ramparts as the sun started to dip.

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Bikaner

Another overnight sleeper train and we arrived in Bikaner....a swirling dusty city set in the desert. Fi got particularly excited at seeing camel carts delivering their loads in downtown Bikaner!

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We were staying in Bhairon Villas a heritage hotel, once home to Bikaner's Prime Minister - this was another wedding present, this time courtesy of Nicola and Kieron - thankyou! Our room had real character and really seemed like some sort of Scottish game lodge complete with stags heads on the walls.

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We set off early one morning for the Karni Mata Temple which is 30km south of Bikaner, to foreigners it is known as the Rat Temple and the main reason people visit Bikaner. The people here believe that they will be reincarnated as kabas - a holy rat. The holy rodents receive first class treatment at this temple....large saucers of creamy milk left out for them, food in abundance and the temple has also been modified to provide them with plenty of holes to scuttle through the walls. It's considered particularly auspicious for you if one of the little flea-ridden bundles scurries over your feet. Yes, being a Hindu temple....you're barefoot, doing your best to avoid the rat poop. We were a little disappointed at the quality of the rats considering the treatment they receive - we had thought they might be a little more cute and furry. Instead they were mangy, dirty things...and we were both glad to get out of there.

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We also visited the National Camel Research Centre...where we learnt about the different breeds of local camels...you need to select different ones for speed, endurance, strength etc They had a great little cafe serving up camel products....we weren't totally convinced about our camel ice creams!

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Jaisalmer

We arrived into Jaisalmer at dawn, glad to get off our train as there wasn't an air-con option and we spent most the night coughing as clouds of desert billowed through our carriage. We were grateful for our pick-up which whizzed us across town and straight into our beds at Hotel Fifu. We were staying outside the fort walls....it's essentially the world's largest sandcastle and the extra demands that tourists are placing on the water infrastructure are causing the castle to fall down.

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We'd organised a 3 day camel trek into the desert here - a wedding present from Lisa, Nat and Mel. Thanks girls we really had a lot of fun! It was incredible seeing how people survive here in this parched environment. It was tough seeing the fields which were literally dust.....this the second year that that monsoon rains had failed. Most the camels that we saw had actually lost their humps as they'd had to use their fat reserves due to the lack of food.

We spent our days riding for a few hours and then stopping up under a nice shady tree for a 3 hour siesta to escape the worst of the heat. We were well fed with fresh chappattis and veg curry every meal :)

Each night the camel men would let their camels wander looking for food, as camel food is scarce during the drought, for a few hours and then head out to find them before they themselves went to sleep. They spent 2 hours looking for their camels the first night! Sleeping was a magical experience...no tents, just a roll mat on the sand dunes under the stars. Our guide Mr Khan really looked after us, waking us up each morning with a cup of chai. We honestly didn't lift a finger for 3 days.

Our guide's devotion to our two camels....Mr Lalloo and Julian was quite astounding....whilst other guides spent their money on themselves (cigarettes/alcohol), he would buy his camels sugarcane and oil. We'd never seen anyone smile so much when we told him that we thought his camels were the best kept! He was an interesting chap, world's apart from our lives but with a very kind heart, who'd got married at the age of 12 and fully expected his children to be married off at that age as well...the dowry system is still in force in Rajasthan and he grimaced as he told us that his first three children were all daughters!

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Back in Jaisalmer we enjoyed wandering round the fort at dusk - lots of little lanes and great views out across Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is famous for it's rich merchants houses with their fabulous intricate sandstone carvings. We also bought some really stunning patchwork bedspreads made out of 60 year old Brahmin dresses.

Jodhpur

We caught a dusty train over to Jodhpur where it was yet another wedding present....this time in the form of a luxury hotel stay from Paul and Millie - thankyou! Our train actually arrived in two hours late...and it was a lovely start to our stay when the hotel apologised that we were late!...bearing in mind that it was us that were late....and told us a tray of sandwiches was in our room....which had been upgraded to the suite! Kharni Bhawan is a 1940s red sandstone villa and was once home to Rajasthan royalty. We spent a fabulous day relaxing by the pool and pretending we were on some posh holiday. We splashed out one night and decided to sample a bottle of sparkling Indian wine....Sula Brut....surprisingly OK we thought considering the climate. The food was fabulous and had won awards in Europe...the chicken tikka was the best we'd ever had!

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We visited Jodhpur Fort, where by this time in the trip, the sheer volume of forts was starting to take it's toll :)

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Nice view out across the Blue City

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Udaipur

It was time to move on and unfortunately there weren't train tracks where we wanted to go....so we had to settle for a non AC bus...with some wierd double sleeping compartments where we were actually pretty comfortable for the 8 hour trip to Udaipur. We'd found a nice hotel on the lake in Udaipur...we had a lovely view from our balcony over the lake.

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Udaipur is a city set on the edge of an artificial lake....there's a pretty famous hotel in the middle where we had been supposed to go across for the lunch buffet for one of our wedding presents....but unfortunately they'd put a stop to day trippers such as ourselves since the Mumbai attacks....same hotel chain as the one that had been attacked. However, we contented ourselves with a really fabulous dinner on the lake shore looking over to the Lake Palace and also a afternoon tea at another posh hotel on the lake shore. The afternoon tea spreads were really stupendous! Thanks Claire and Matt - a couple of really nice experiences!

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Udaipur and Mount Abu aren't connected by train so we ended up sharing a taxi for the day with two French people and stopping off at a few sights on the way. First up was Kumbalgargh Fort, which is the second biggest in Rajastahn, it was a really imposing sight up at 1100m. We had fun exploring and loved the breezy views at the top.

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Next stop was Ranakpur where we visited a beautiful Jain temple - Jainism is one the oldest world religions, founded in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the Hindu caste system. The temple was made from beautiful milk white marble and despite having been built almost 600 years ago looked brand new. Jains take very seriously that they mustn't harm any living being and as a result many wear scarves over their mouths to prevent breathing an insect in. They also really don't want one scrap of flesh on display in their temples so Bryn donned a pair of baby blue janitor trousers and Fi got to wear a baby pink granny outfit. Everyone seemed to find us very amusing.

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Mount Abu

We arrived into Mount Abu late and had trouble finding a decent hotel due to Diwali, the largest Hindu festival of the year, when Gujaratis flood to Mount Abu for the holiday season. There's not a lot to do in Mount Abu, it's just a nice place, set in the mountains and at 1219m was a welcome break from the dusty desert plains of Rajastahn. We had a lovely dinner at the Jaipur Palace with a terrace looking out across the town and enjoyed the Diwali fireworks going off all over the city.

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We also took a guided walk in the hills in the National Park and were lucky to spot our first bear of the trip. People are attacked all the time and we'd been given big sticks to fend off an attack, unfortunately our bear was a long way away. We also got to see some pretty lazy crocs sunning themselves.

Then we were off on our last Indian train journey :( We'd been really lucky to secure the last two tickets out of Mount Abu over the holiday period - and we'd had to upgrade to second class! A couple of nights in Delhi before heading off for our flight to Singapore and then onto Auckland. It's hard to believe that we've been in Asia for 10 months and we're definitely sad to be leaving but looking forward to seeing some family and different bits of the world!

Posted by FiColes 21:01 Archived in India Comments (0)

22 - Stepford Wives go Soviet

We made it to the border and were glad to make it across with all our dollars, as there aren't any cash machines for foreigners in Turkmenistan, and no hassle for our artwork. Across the border, we met Timur, our guide/driver - foreigners aren't allowed in Turkmenistan without paying for a driver and car every day, as the government doesn't want just anyone walking around their country(?!). We set off immediately down to Konye Urgench - another silk road city! This one was slightly different as the main sights are all set out of town, surrounded now by desert as the river changed it's course and the city was abandoned. It was slightly disappointing to have come all this way and for the main sights to be locked as they are trying to erradicate a pigeon problem. But it was interesting to see how all these buildings look without the zealous restoration efforts that we'd seen in Uzbekistan.

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It was amusing to watch the Turkmen women undergoing an ancient fertility ritual that involved donning a thick coat and rolling down a hill! It looked quite painful so Fi chickened out!

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We set off through the Karakum desert to the Darvaza gas craters....these are the results of Soviet gas exploration in the 1950s. There are three of them....one filled with bubbling water, another with bubbling mud and the last which was to be our campsite for the night is alight.

It was quite a sight when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon....40m in diameter and depth....and flames everywhere! It was quite hot to stand next to....and we made sure not to stray too close to the edge! As the sun went down....it started to glow....it really was an amazing sight....and we had to agree with our guidebook which describes it as the gates to hell. It really was quite quite an astounding sight....and we were able to see the glow all night through our tent!

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The next day was a long desert drive south to Ashgabat, the capital. We had loads of fun spotting the camels at the side of the road......Timur had said a few times that they were really dangerous for drivers as despite it being a straight desert road....the small dips and hills means that sometimes people don't see them in time. It turns out that people let their camels roam free in the desert for up to 4 months before they head after them, on motorbike, asking at local villages when their camels were last seen!

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Sure enough though, we sadly came across an accident that had probably happened 20 minutes previous. It was shocking to see the driver of the car hadn't made it.....not likely with 300kg of camel crashing into his windscreen.

We arrived into Ashgabat and got settled into our Soviet era hotel, complete with moody babushka on each floor. Definitely one of our more downmarket establishments...complete with scampering mice that died each night in our bathroom! Ashgabat was the jewel in the crown of Dictator Niyazov's regime...and something his successor is keen to build on. It really is quite something.....gold self-obsessed statues interspersed freely in between the gleaming white marble buildings - everything in the centre of town has to use Italian marble. They were very proud of having the biggest flagpole in the world....well done them!

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There were public parks everywhere but no one seemed to use them!

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Everyone drives everywhere as gas is so cheap but like the parks there were far too many roads for the number of people using them....

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It quickly became a little freaky and seemed like some sort of cross between 1984 and the Stepford Wives. It seemed a little odd that the only people on the streets were ourselves, the army of streetcleaners and the military policemen stationed on each streetcorner. Not many photos because the police won't allow it! People seemed to act a little like zombies, their laughter and chatter kept behind closed doors. To be honest the whole place seemed to lack any real soul - the central pedestrian areas of European cities and the hustle and bustle of Asian cities were non-existant. The powerful nanny state actually made China seem pretty soft. On the other hand, it is similar to China in that the people are not used to anything else so what they don't know won't hurt them? The free gas, free electric and practically free petrol keep people pretty happy.

Our feelings of unsettledness deepened as we were randomly refused entry to a couple of markets by plain clothed policemen....only to enter moments later unhassled by another entrance! Enough was enough for Fi though, as we set off one night to find a reccomended Chinese restaurant and after 30 minutes walk a plain clothed cop tried to usher us off the road! Fi, worrying that she was about to be kept from her Chinese feast, demanded to know what was going on from this rather ambivalent/unfriendly cop....thankfully, someone came to our aid and said we only had to get off the main road for 10 minutes while the President's calvalcade came whizzing by....before we could proceed to our Chinese restaurant! Dumplings....Mmmm.

We whizzed round the main sights in Ashgabat....going up the arch of neutrality, complete with a gold statue of their man Niyazov - which spins round every day to ensure he's looking directly towards the sun.

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Bryn then enjoyed the rest of the time in Ashgabat viewing every Turkmen carpet in the city and conducting a thorough price/quality comparison.

Enough was enough though of toy town Ashgabat and we were thankful to hit the desert road. Our first stop was the ancient site of Gonur where the current excavations have been dated back to a staggering 3000 BC!! Despite having had our reservations at looking at a pile of sandy mounds in the middle of the desert we really were gobsmacked at what we saw. There were pottery shards everywhere and the foundations were in pretty good nick. We saw ceramics kilns, shashlick ovens, water purification works, the royal palace and even a drainage system! They are still uncovering stuff and we were able to go and have a look at what they were currently working on....no need to cordon off the area etc....we were able to get right in and see what they were up to! We saw the burial tombs where the royalty were buried alongside their horses.

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The most staggering thing we saw though was a human skeleton complete with a bronze bracelet and ring still in situ!

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Back at the entrance we got chatting with one of the local archaeologists who'd worked there for the last 20 years.....it was amazing watching him undertake what must be the world's most complicated jigsaw puzzle as he restored an ossuary. I don't think they get too many visitors....before we knew it we were being ushered over to meet Viktor Sarianidi...the 79 year old Russian/Greek lead archaeologist. He'd discovered the site 50 years ago and had led the excavations twice a year since then....considering the heat, dust and bumpy journey over the dunes to get there we thought this pretty good going. He thought that this year would be his last though. We got to ask him loads of questions and uncovered that funding was a big issue for them....it turned out that he'd sold his Moscow flat to pay for the excavations.

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We also visited Merv....which only dates back to 600 BC, and with many of the remains being dated much later - it's actually a succession of cities spread over about 1000 years. Over the years they'd played host to many of the world's major religions Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. They've only excavated about 10% - so we needed a better imagination than in Gonur, and often what they had excavated had been fairly comprehensively restored which somewhat destroyed the magic of the place.

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We then drove 700km through the desert to the SE corner of the country, right next to Afghanistan. We visited the dinosaur plateau in search of the footsteps of Turkmenosaurus Rex who came this way 155 million years ago. The dinosaurs had left loads of footprints on the bed of a muddy lake....which had then dried rock hard in the sun, there was then a volcanic eruption which covered the lakebed in lava sealing the footprints for us to view all these years later. We'd been quite sceptical about this...until we saw it.....it's not just one footprint....we were able to track where the dinosaurs had been heading all over the rock face!

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We also visited the Kyrk Gyz cave where we were welcomed by the local mullah who kindly said some prayers for us.

We were then given a bit of cloth each and we had to throw it, and make it stick to the roof of the cave....achieving this would grant us a wish.

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They weren't specific about whether we'd still get our wish if we weren't successful on the first attempt....

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All that was left to do in Turkmenistan was another long desert drive to catch our $21 flight all the way across the country back to Ashgabat. And then onwards back to India :)

Posted by FiColes 02:41 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

21 - Mosques, Minarets & Madrassas

We arrived into Tashkent, Uzbekistan and headed for the train station hotel which surprisingly enough we'd heard good things about. The train station is super clean and like everywhere in central Tashkent - full of police - whom we tried hard to steer clear of as corruption is rife. We felt quite dodgy, trying to avoid the cops, as we changed money on the illegal black market. Especially as in Uzbekistan the largest note is only worth 50 cents, so you end up counting bank robber-style wads of cash and carrying it all off in shopping bags. Heaven knows how they pay for something like a car!

We didn't do a whole lot in Tashkent.....it's a Soviet city complete with wide roads, lots of nice shady trees and plenty of cafes serving us tasty shashlick and beers. We visited the national history museum and went off to the massive main market where all manner of fresh and dry produce is for sale. The guidebook had told us of whole rooms full of flour etc which we hadn't really believed until we found the onion warehouse!

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One night we came across the Gasthaus, hidden behind the train station, which was really quite bizarre. As the night went on we got quite confused where we were.....were we really in Uzbekistan?? The waiters and waitresses were in typical Bavarian costume, we were eating fantastic german sausages and drinking great cloudy microbrewery beer. Had we been transported to Bavaria for the night?

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Being at the train station, we of course had to depart by train and we had a very pleasant 4 hour ride to Samarkand, the first of our silk road cities. The sights here really knocked our socks off.....the Registan, the centre of Timur's 14th century capital, was absolutely magnificent.....it's a massive square surrounded on three sides by medrassas (Islamic religious schools), all decorated with stunning turquoise mosaic tiles.

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90% of the sights in Uzbekistan are massively restored....and although there were some dodgy Soviet restoration attempts, on the whole the result is impressive. Walking round the Registan in the evening was quite spellbinding....

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As we ticked off some of the smaller sights in Samarkand we realised that after 10 months of travelling....we were the subjects of yet another scam! Arriving at a very minor sight, and hearing the quite high entrance price we walked off....and were surprised to hear the lady calling after us "Student discount? Only 2000 then? 1500?" From this point on, we wised up and played hard-ball with the smiling middle aged ladies writing any price they fancied on the tickets.

We moved onto Bukhara which was a nice change to Samarkand. Although, Bukhara is a typical tourist town it at least has some sense of 'ye olde worlde' to it. In between the sights in Samarkand are immaculate squares, manicured gardens and gleaming shops.....in Bukhara you get more of a feeling that camel caravans really did come through here once upon a time....

We went to the Ark - which was a fortress occupied right from the 5th century until the Soviets invaded in 1920. We visited the prison where, in the 1840's, two British envoys, Stoddart and Conolly, were kept for 3 years in the 'bug pit' before they were marched to their deaths....all because Queen Victoria hadn't personally replied to a letter from the Emir.

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We cheated death on the Soviet era fairground wheel....which seemed to sway alarmingly in the breeze....

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And of course more mosques, minarets and medrassas! We had fun going in a medrassa that was actually closed to the public as it hadn't been restored yet. We paid for our 'tickets' to some local pensioner who keenly showed us round and yabbered away in Russian to us :) We had fun scrambling up the stairs into crumbling rooms, taking care to avoid the sheer drop offs and up onto the roof.

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By this stage in our central Asian experience we were having food issues..... Bryn was laid up in bed and Fi was sent out to find acceptable food items. For 4 weeks now, we'd pretty much survived on a diet of salty shashlyck, bread, and tomato salads. They really don't seem to eat much else in restaurants despite having the finest array of fruits and vegetables that we'd seen on our trip so far!

Soon we were in Khiva, another silk road city, which is a pretty compact version of Bukhara. Literally every building, is a medrassa, a mosque or a minaret. Bryn being laid up in bed again, Fi went up the ancient minaret solo, dodging teenage Uzbeks making out in the narrow, dark, winding staircase! The view was pretty good though...

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As the sun went down it was pretty special as the tour parties cleared out and the sunset cast everything in a soft orange glow. Sadly Fi had to enjoy the romantic vistas on her own!

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We moved on from Khiva up to Nukus, right next to the Turkmenistan border. The main reason for visiting Nukus is to visit the art gallery which contains a massive collection of artwork, banned in the Soviet period. We had a great time wandering round and it made a nice change to silk road sights. They had a great shop with artwork for sale and soon we were off to the market to change our dollars and count our giant wodge of notes to procure a couple of nice pieces.

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Posted by FiColes 02:37 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (0)

20 - Camping, Caviar and Cream Tea

After a 12 hour bus transit from Almaty, Kazakhstan we finally arrived in Cholpan-Ata, Kyrgzstan at 9pm....ever so slightly worried where we were going to stay the night. We needn't have worried....we were met off the marshrutka (minibus) by a friendly babushka (grandma) who led us off down a dark dirt track to our 'homestay' which turned out to be one of the more simple places we'd stayed.....the facilities being past the potatos and right at the blackberry bushes. Cholpan-Ata is set on lake Issyk-Kul - a massive freshwater lake at 1800m. There were numerous beaches around town where Russians, Kakakhs and Kyrgyz all flock during the summer to sun (sunburn) themselves, including pregnant women wearing g-strings! We made it down the beach but after a quick dip in the freezing glacial waters we went for some lunchtime shasklyk and beers instead!

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Moving round the lake we arrived in Karakol - the trekking capital of central Asia. We stayed in a lovely homestay courtesy of Babushka Fatima. Her daughter-in-law spoke good English which was a real help and made asking questions about Kyrgyzstan and the USSR much less painful. It was interesting to hear how the people really struggled to cope without socialism for many years as they had never had to think about their careers or generating money. They were suffering an almost institutionalised mindset that was difficult to break free from. Only now are they starting to get used to trade and entrepreneurialism and starting to see the benefits.

Kyrgyzstan is full of two types of vehicles - Ladas and German-manufactured cars from the 1980s. I did not know it was possible for these cars to still be on the road, I thought they went to a little car heaven in the sky when we got rid. Now I know different. Most of the cars we went in had 500,000 miles on the clock BEFORE the mileometer stopped working! I wonder why we cannot be more sustainable in the UK and repair and reuse like here? Although, to be fair, I am, not sure that even 5% would pass a UK MOT.

We were lucky to be in Karakol on a Sunday to see the second largest animal market in central Asia....where we arrived bright and early at 6am! Lots of horses, sheep and cows.....and men in felt hats whom Bryn had a particular penchant for photographing with his long lens....

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Not quite the same as in the UK...no pens for the animals so you had to watch out for the bucking horses and we did see a few sheep being stuffed in the boot of a Lada for the journey to their new home!

We had resolved that for our trek into the hills we didn't want another 18 year old 'guide' accompanying us so we set off round town in search of some camping equipment to rent, which is surprisingly difficult as most the operations who have equipment only rent it out as long as you hire a guide/porter/cook from them. However, after a couple of days we had sorted our gear and got in our bright blue Lada taxi (Bryn very excitedly hand picked this) which whizzed us up to Jeti-Orguz the start of our trek, undaunted by our 18kg packs.

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The first day was pretty easy ambling up the beautiful valley in the baking sunshine. After a couple of hours walking we spied a yurt that agreed to bring us some chai.....what we didn't bargain on was that in Kyrgzstan, tea is never just tea....you simply must eat as well. So there we were....with a beautiful view down the grassy valley....tucking into a cream tea that would have gone for good money in central London....the homemade blackcurrant jam was the best we'd ever had! Grudgingly, we set off in search of our campsite for the night.

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Day 2 was actually an easy day but for some reason we made rather slow going. We were walking up narrow alpine valleys full of grass, streams with big tall green conifers everywhere....all very Soviet. However, it was very pleasant walking mainly....apart from fording a couple of glacial streams where we needed to take our boots off. We'd done this a lot in Borneo but hadn't quite realised quite how cold the glacial meltwaters would be - people must have heard our swearing 20km away!

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It started to rain just as we reached our campsite....we got our tent up pretty quickly and spent the rest of the afternoon cowering from the rain. Just before bedtime an inquisitive and insistent cow herd decided that they wanted to become friends and several times we had to shoo away a snuffling snout that was trying to get into our tent!! After living in fear of the cow shadows outside the tent all night , we generated the courage for a stern face to face dawn showdown....

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We also spotted some interesting looking orange scurrying fluffy things that later turned out to be marmots.

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Day 3 we got up a little late due to more rain and set off for the first high altitude pass of the trek.....this was where it turned out that the maps we had weren't exactly Ordance Survey quality. We missed the path and ended up doing most of the 1000m ascent up the river course....at one point going up some pretty steep sections as we got pelted by hailstones. This wasn't exactly the summer walk we'd planned.

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Luckily, the weather got better as we approached the 3800m pass and there were some pretty stunning views as we trekked across the barren plateau.

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Going down from the pass was a lot of fun as we got to ski down about 400m.....ok no poles or actual skis....but we made it down in record time and thankfully no broken bones in this remote place!!

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At this point, we thought we'd done the hard work....but oh no....our crappy maps made it a tough afternoon for us. First we trekked one km too far down one side of the valley before realising that there was no way through due to some nasty looking morraine piles....so we had to head back up to where we could actually cross the river.....then we headed too far down the other side of the valley...and ended up having to descend about 400m down an extremely steep track through pine forest.

We had another equally tough day to follow - made even harder by the fact that our legs were wooden from the previous day - pretty difficult to motivate sufficiently to wriggle out of our sleeping bags! After a lot of slow trudging and a picturesque stop for tea at 3,000m....
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....we were finally at Ala-Kol Lake (3500m) for a late lunch just as the hail starting to pelt down again! It was really quite scary walking round the lake as the heavens ominously rumbled. There were hardly any trekkers, no where to pitch a tent and we were dressed in summer gear as slowly everything started to turn white!

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We made it to the pass at 5pm, definitely not on schedule.

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Our jubilation at having finally made it up quickly evaporated as it was snowing heavily (covering tracks) and starting to get dark. Unfortunately, because of this, we could not locate the path down from the pass. We searched for around one hour, including one near fatal descent investigation! At 6pm we really thought we would be those silly trekkers who disappear after going off on their own into the wilderness - it was too late to go back to the last place a tent could go, too cold and exposed to stay on the pass and no route down! Finally we see something resembling a slighter gradient and decide to go for it - after sliding down on our bums for 30 mins we were down and thankfully still in one piece. Shortly after it started to thunder and hail so we erected our tent in record time and as we looked out later we were surrounded by a foot of snow! We decided we needed to celebrate our survival through a tough day - what better way than a fine chilled vodka and caviar supper. Perfect.

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An easy half day walk followed to our end point, Altan Arashyn, where we were able to go in a butch lady's shed for a hot spring bath - perfect recovery. The mutton knuckle soup wasnt anything to write home about though! Only one vehicle was due to make it's way back into Karakol that day so we waited around until the departure time of 6pm. 3 hours later we were still waiting as the driver had decided that fermented mares milk in the hills was a much more appealing propsect. Our spirits started to slump as we realised that we weren't going to be having our celebratory beer and shashlick feast that evening :( Then we saw a jeep revving its engines and hollared the locals in our best russian to give us a lift. After a bit of negotiating we were on our way. This was the roughest track we had ever been on - it took over 2 hours to go 20km - at one point we all had to get in the total darkness and walk down while the jeep skidded down the worst bits! A flat tyre didn't help matters....but at least our head torches came in useful as they tried to change the tyre by mobile phone light! We were very happy to arrive back late, and safely, in our nice homestay where they invited us to join them for a supper - bread, jam and tea.

After a day of laundry and recovery (i.e. more shaslyk and beer!) we headed off around the lake to Kochkor, the land of rolling green pastures, in contrast to the more rocky snow-capped mountain scenery at Karakol. This was where we did our 'Life of a Shepherd' horse trek wedding present, courtesy of the Centric boys, Chris, Sean, Andrew and Pete. Thanks lads. This was great fun. With no riding experience we were a little nervous, but then, as we mounted our steads, we realised these were friendly chaps. We were quickly learning the Kyrgyz horse language e.g. "Tcho" and a kick to the gut to go faster. But there were no real worries as our mounts were certainly no sprinters! Bryn, in fact, had a particularly flatulant mount and was regularly scorned as he moved upwind of the group. It was a great experience staying in the traditional yurts. They are so warm, and the families make you feel so comfortable and serve endless food - "more cream tea anyone?" Another girl, Nona (American), came along with us and she proved to be quite a mean card player!

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There was a cute little puppy at one of the yurts who'd had his ears and tail cut off! It turns out that they do this all across central Asia so that the dog has less problems when it gets older and starts fighting!

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At the end of day two, our horses were starting to turn asthmatic and sweat heavily so they were glad that we dismounted for the final time. Our guide departed back to the yurt from the previous night where he had been exchanging glances with a sweet sixteen, and we relaxed by the glacial lake at 3500m. A really good trip.

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We just spent two nights in the capital, Bishkek, as no real sights and no cheap hotels. We did appreciate our bathtub and separate living room in our $40 hotel for a treat though! We wandered the leafy streets and had a final meal out with Nona, before beginning our 2 day overland journey back through Kazakhstan to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It was disappointing that as we got off a matrushka in Kazakhstan that Bryn was surrounded by a group of jostling men, one of whom kept making repeated attempts at his pocket.....for his 'wallet' which thankfully was just a wodge of toilet paper. A difficult situation as they were all in on the scam and we were trying to get our bags off the bus at the same time before it drove off....

2 days, 3 countries, 1 randomly shut border crossing for foreigners only due to a power cut!, 2 borders successfully crossed. Uzbekistan here we come!

Posted by FiColes 02:36 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

19 - Here a Stan, there a Stan, everwhere a Stan Stan!

We arrived into Almaty at 3am and at that time in the morning there was nothing to do except wait it out at the airport until the city got going. It's a tough place for backpackers as people speak little English and prices are more aligned to Europe than Asia. We felt lucky to find a room in our price range at the very Soviet and soul-less Hotel Saulet where Bryn was promptly propositoned by some Kazakh chap looking for a 'foreign acquaintance' for his rather ropey looking 40 year old 'girlfriend'. Bryn was pretty happy to be able to point at his wedding ring.

Almaty is definitely the most European place that we'd been all trip and we felt quite at home walking along the wide tree-lined streets. It's a pretty affluent place...so it was a surprise for Fi one day to be walking along, without her bodyguard Bryn, and have some little Kazakh chap make a pickpocketing attempt on her rucksac. Not too sure who was then most surprised by the reflex reaction right hook that landed on the left side of his face. He didn't get anything :) But it was a reminder to us to start using those money belts again!....particularly as Fi had just withdrawn $1000 from the cashpoint!

There's not really loads of key sights in Almaty but having been in 40 degree Delhi for 6 weeks it was a bit of a novelty for us being able to walk around without triggering undue perspiration. It was wierd for Fi, after 2 months in India being starred at for exposing any flesh, now being starred at for quite the opposite reasons. It's definitely not wrong in Kazakhstan to wear 6 inch sparkly heels for a stroll in the park.

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We went up the cable car one day for a pretty hazy view over Almaty and were amused to find the Beatles at the top with all the Kazakhs queueing for photos.

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We got tickets to the circus one afternoon, and despite out initial horror at realising that we were the only adults in attendence who didn't have children with us, actually had a great time watching all the performers. We then headed out for a slap up central Asian feast...mouth watering lamb shashlik...yum. This, and the circus, was all courtesy of another wedding present - thanks to Great Aunt Tillie for all of that!

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Dog school was actually pretty funny
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And as for the giant orange skipping fluffball...
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We headed out to the Charyn Canyon for a day trip on a bus full of Kazakh/Russian tourists. Charyn Canyon is definitely not the Grand Canyon but we had fun wandering through all the sandstone formations.

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We also headed out into the mountains just 10km from Almaty to stretch our legs. We headed to Medeu where they are currently refurbing a massive ice rink in preparation for the Asian Winter Games. We set off on our Lonely Planet walk and were disappointed for it to finish 10 minutes later as we'd actually only walked along a BMX track.
Undeterred we set off up a small path leading straight up a steep hill. We quickly gained height heading up through the trees and stubbornly kept going as the path got narrower and narrower. We did wonder whether we actually were on some sort of animal track as the vegetation closed in further around us......careful what you wish for.....round the next corner there was a massive hole leading into the earth......a bear's lair!!! We beat a hasty retreat.....we didn't feel quite so confident without our jungle guide. We headed further up the hill into a lovely Alpine type clearing full of flowers and aromatic herbs...however, by now there really wasn't a path and our mountain was getting steeper and steeper.

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We realised we had to head back down and as the heavens started to rumble we realised it was the right one. We felt quite elated to be back down at the road as the rain was really starting to come down, so we found somewhere to shelter with a load of Kazakhs. These were Kazakhs on holiday and despite their lack of English and our lack of Russian - they wanted to be friends. We all posed for photos and then the vodka bottle came out and before we knew it there we were, in the middle of the afternoon, doing shots of vodka with the locals in the middle of the beautiful mountain scenery.

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Ok, off to Stan number 2.....

Posted by FiColes 02:16 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

18 - Indian interlude

We were pretty sad to leave Temple Tiger as we'd grown rather accustomed to life there. But like with all our luxury treats, it was back into the real world with a jolt. It took us about 10 hours on a stiflingly hot sardine bus to get to the border - what should have taken about 5 - due to more Nepalese strikes.

Crossing the border into India was definitely one of the more relaxed border crossings that we'd done so far. Due to the large numbers of people crossing every day they seem to have given up on examining passports etc and instead if you want a stamp you need to go and ask for one.

We caught a bus no problem to Gorakhpur where we had booked tickets on a sleeper train to Varanasi. Getting off the bus in Gorakhpur at midnight was a real eyeopener. The scores of people who simply lie down on the pavement for their night's sleep, the children to whom the island in the middle of a roundabout is home and the figures lurking in the shadows preparing their evening fix. In the station it really wasn't clear who was waiting for trains and who was living on the platforms. Despite having reserved sleepers, we were keen to stretch out on them, having heard nightmare stories about people wanting to 'share' your seats etc in India. It all turned out OK in the end and we actually had a great night's sleep in our non AC, second class coach.....arriving in Varanasi 8 hours later...all for the price of a UK beer.

Arriving into Varanasi was like stepping into a tandoori oven. By the time we had found somewhere to stay we'd drunk 4 litres of water and by the end of the day.....another 6 bottles had followed. Trying to economise, thanks to our Temple Tiger splurge, we'd opted for a fan only room. This just wasn't sensible in the 40 degree heat......our only escape from the heat were our hourly showers, no need to towel dry, just go and stand in front of the fan for 2 minutes. Our days were spent getting up early...around 6am and going to see the Ganges, taking a boat ride before retreating into our hot box for the next 10 hours until we could venture out again for our evening stroll along the Ganges. Despite the touts etc, Varanasi did have a pretty special atmosphere. The bodies draped in bright orange fabrics, with long processions of family following on, winding their way through the narrow lanes down to the Ganges; the burning ghats visible from afar in the evenings; the smell of incense in the air from the evening ceremonies; the old men, followers of Shiva sat passing the time with their painted faces and long hair. It still gave us a bit of a fright though to see a body floating down the Ganges one morning.....it turns out that there are a few circumstances whereby you don't get burnt and instead you are set into the Ganges, supposedly weighted down but obviously not in this case! Leaving aside the pollution in the Ganges, it's wierd to see everyone bathing happily despite what might float by...

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Fi declined the opportunity to practice with the Ganges Swimming Club....

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We caught another sleeper train onward to Agra. This one was AC.....and seemed like luxury to us. Bryn was impressed that his evening meal order was taken at one station and delivered an hour later to his bunk at the next station....all for 40p. Sadly we had to get off at Agra though and negotiate our way through the tout throng to the sea of rickshaw drivers. We were impressed to find a bargain place to stay with a view of the Taj!

We went off to Agra Fort and were immediately introduced to Indian tourists.....who want their photos taken by us...on our camera for some bizarre reason :)

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We were outside the Taj for 6am along with a long line of other tourists. Stepping round the corner to see it for the first time was quite spell binding. It really is a very impressive and beautiful building. Actually being there, seeing the green lawns, fountains and pools was certainly better than seeing pictures etc. We spent quite some time posing for photos!

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Our evening trip onto the other side of the river to see sunset wasn't quite as successful as Bryn forgot his camera battery and then it turned out that there wasn't even a colourful sunset that day!

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We'd been thinking for some time that a rest from travelling would probably be good.....and we'd decided that Delhi would probably be the place to do it as we'd have easy access to plenty of amenities. We needed to engage our brains on something other than bus timetables and managing our budget.

However, with 6 weeks in Delhi now complete and about 12 embassy visits under our belts it's time to push on for our seven week tour of the Stans....Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan!

Posted by FiColes 03:19 Archived in India Comments (0)

17 - Peaks, Protests, Presents and Parks

Leaving Tibet, we did have a bit of a nightmare trying to get on our flight as no-one seems to understand our round the world ticket – the ‘Star Alliance’ has obviously just been thought up by the CEOs – the ‘alliance’ concept is yet to be communicated to the airline staff on the ground. Eventually Fi had to take snaps of everyone involved and Bryn had to raise his voice for about a hour, quite interesting when the Air China staff spoke no English, but it made Bryn feel better – they only let us on at the last minute.

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We did arrive in Nepal though after a lovely mountain flight from Lhasa, getting a great view of Everest.

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It’s not quite the same though as staring up from base camp :)

After a bit of research in the LP we checked into a nice hotel in Kathmandu to ‘celebrate’ Bryn’s 30th birthday, and treated him to a slap-up Italian meal with a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse – god we miss wine – after a walk around Durbar Square.

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After a couple of days in Kathmandu, catching up on some western food....including the biggest steaks in the world....

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....and getting some shopping done we had to get out. It really is hectic, dirty, and in the tourist area, quite a sleazy city. The hash boys and tiger balm salesman whispering in your ear every five minutes does wear you down quite quickly. Although it is sad to see kids rummaging through the piles of litter left on the street for collection each evening, before the dogs come and take anything remaining that is even slightly edible.

Now it was time to move on to the main event – the 2 week Annapurna circuit trek. We had been preparing for months, three summits, carrying full packs, humid and cold conditions….we were ready. We decided against porters and guides as we had never felt in better shape. We packed the slabs of Dairy Milk and headed off. Testing out our new fake Arcteryx waterproofs right from the start which didn't turn out to be that waterproof :(

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We met a nice pair of French guys, Christian and Ben, and a pair of Canadians (not Americans Bryn), Chris and Sheryl on the bus to the start point. From this point on these would be our hiking buddies.

The trek didn’t start off well for Bryn as he had the squips and was sick at the side of the trail twice on day one. But in the blistering lowland heat we pushed on. It was cool being able to get cups of tea at the teahouses every hour - unique.

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These little places all had strangely similar, yet varied menus – be careful when ordering western food though as a ‘Lasagne’ failed to contain pasta and none of the ingredients were cooked. They also often contained sweet little playful children….

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We started to find our rhythm after a tough first couple of days, and with the aid of cooler climate each day of ascending we were walking at a good pace and had already gained a day on the book’s walking itinerary after 4 days.

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Passing by the local weed plantations.....

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At the village of Upper Pisang we got our first really good view of the snow-capped Annapurna peaks – time for photos at our well positioned lodge for the night.

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The sun was really hot in the day so, as Bryn forgot his hat, he had to improvise the headgear!

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Once we got to the village of Manang at 3,500m we stopped for a day to acclimatize, as Bryn had been altitude sick in Tibet at Everest and we didn’t want any repeat.

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Some local apple crumble helped make us feel comfortable :) It was starting to get pretty darn cold in the evenings though and this would be our last shower for 4 days!

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The days started to get very easy for hiking now as we were limited by the amount of altitude we could sensibly cover in a day – trying to keep it less than 500m per day. We were now leaving at 9am and finishing at 2pm even with lunch and tea breaks.

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The lodges were now putting charcoal burners under the tables which was a godsend as it was starting to get damn cold!

Finally, the time had come for the most challenging day of the trek, climbing from 4,500m to 5,500m over the Thorong La pass and then back down to 3,800m to Muktinath. You have to get over before the strong winds come in, so given the ascent coupled with the inability to walk to the loo without losing breath at this altitude we headed off at 6.15am after a bowl of apple porridge and pot of mint tea.

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The walk was incredible – we were walking on our own up a mountain with practically zero visibility and snow everywhere – a real sense of mystique and adventure.

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By 10am we had reached the pass and felt a real sense of achievement and a little relief that after thinking about the trek for 6 months we had completed it.

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Our weary lungs and legs were pleased it would be downhill from hereon in and we vowed to relax and focus on enjoying the villages were walking through and the people we would meet.

Fi's new temple buddies from Muktinath...

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Highlights included Kagbeni, a little traditional village, set in the middle of the rainshadow desert....appearing like an oasis to us....

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We stayed in a little place run by three Nuns, complete with private chapel and a monk chanting outside our room. The village felt like a medieval film, with its ramshackle stone housing, narrow lanes and free-roaming livestock…

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Passed up a visit to the well known ‘YakDonalds’..

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We also really liked Marpha – the home of the Nepalese apple – an experiment founded by the King after a visit to France – the apple juice is amazing – quite a few litres consumed! ;)

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The further we descended the more rain we were walking in with no decent waterproofs. The clouds were now covering all the mountain peak vistas by about 7am each day. Also, unfortunately for tourists, a jeep track has now been established for virtually the entire route once over the pass, which for us took away the magic of walking in the Annapurnas.

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We therefore decided to stop at Tukuche and head back to Jomsom and fly to Pokhara and use the the remaining three days better elsewhere. The Annapurna Circuit completed for us in 11 days.

On the bus back from Pokhara to Kathmandu we caught up in one of the seemingly regular Nepalese strikes. We don’t quite understand what these are about, but they do cause gridlock. We joined a queue of traffic 40km outside of Kathmandu that was not allowed to enter the city for a further 5 hours. So we all sat in midday heat, packed on buses with no aircon and no water. Ambulances could not get through the traffic to help people. People were taking refuge wherever they could find shade…. It was chaos.

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Back in Kathmandu we headed off for another one of our Wedding presents – a Meditation and Yoga retreat courtesy of Mike and Alex. We had three days in a lovely secluded retreat learning how to try and achieve balance between our mind, body and soul. We got quite into it…..ohm, ohm, ohm, ohm, ohm! Even Bryn managed to keep the sarcastic comments at a minimum. We also enjoyed treatments as part of the package - Ayervedic massage, oil dripping on the head thing, and steam bath….!

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Fully mentally and physically reinvigorated we now caught a bus to Royal Chitwan National Park – where Bryn had struck a great off-season deal on a luxury lodge in the park, Temple Tiger, as few visitors go when it is so hot and wet – didn’t deter us though!

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It is amazing to be able to go from the Himalayas to a lowland jungle in less than a day’s driving – Nepal is a lot more geographically diverse than we had imagined. We had an amazing time, a real highlight of our trip. We went on 5 elephant safaris, jungle walks and a boat trip in only 4 days. We saw loads of Rhinos up close and personal, four types of deer, a monitor lizard, 18ft Python, wild pigs, a flying squirrel, jackals and Langur and Rhesus Monkeys.

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It really must be one of the best places outside of Africa for remote and natural wildlife. For most of the time we were the only guests and so received totally personal service – a real treat after backpacking for so long. It was great to be able to sit back and relax in the evening on the viewing deck and watch the Rhinos wallowing in the mud with a drink in hand – paradise. We got lucky with the weather in that it was baking hot but bone dry.

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In addition, we were able to include another wedding present – from Katie – where we spent an afternoon with all the elephants, learned about them, got to play with them, and most importantly, helped to wash them!

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After a great month in Nepal, we are now ready (?) to step over the border into blistering summer heat of northern India. Let the fun continue!

Posted by FiColes 03:59 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

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