Nepal / India Archive


Vipassana – Buddha’s detox for the mind

Every now and then, you chance to do something that throws up a challenge to that cosy, known, predictable procession that is everyday life. A […]

Every now and then, you chance to do something that throws up a challenge to that cosy, known, predictable procession that is everyday life. A 10 day silent meditation retreat in an ashram in the middle of India promised all this of course, plus a little bit more. In actuality though it managed to not only deliver the profound personal inspiration I was seeking, but also impart a deep cultural experience and still provide enough material for a serious horror movie script to boot…

The Preamble

I seemed to have been following in the footsteps of Buddha for sometime now. 8 years of living in Japan was a good start and combined nicely with our recent adventures through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal, all major Buddhist societies. We had visited Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini in Nepal and where he reached enlightenment in Bodhgaya, Northern India, but in all my reading, knowledge, experiences and interactions with both the religion and people, I had never really sat down and tried to practically experiment with it.

Now I am not a religious man, a little too rational, egotistic, scarred or sceptical for the great ‘leap of faith’ that seems to be a pre-requisite for the major creeds I think, though I can certainly respect people’s own individual beliefs that way. I do however have a strong belief in the metaphysical and higher plains of consciousness and also the inner confidence that we have the potential for far greater evolutionary steps. And as with the philosophies of the great yogi’s, Buddhism has always appealed to me this way – the power of meditation to awaken mans potential within, to form a union with the universe and transcend it – it all just seems to speak truth and flow logically for me somehow.

So Vipassana is the Buddha’s gift to mankind. And while there are many forms of meditation both before Buddha and since, Vipassana was specifically his technique – provided and taught to the people of India by him during his lifetime as a way to gain control over their own minds and ease life’s suffering & misery. Lost to India for a long time, it was preserved in Myanmar in its original form and brought back to India by Goenka in the 70’s and now is sustained and taught in retreat centres all around the world. The 10 day, silent meditation course we embarked on was really just an introduction to this technique, but a chance to experience an aspect of Buddhism first hand. For me (and to some extent Megumi), it was a first really deep dive into the world of meditation and something we had been eagerly anticipating as a natural rounding out of our Buddha trail, Indian and Yogic experiments and experiences.

The Set-up

We had chosen to do the course in Hyderabad almost completely at random. It was a way to give us a destination really, to both compliment and complete our travels. Placed at the centre of India, Hydrabad is very much a melting pot for India’s tribes and a little more off the tourist trail which enhanced its appeal.

As we arrived at the centre on day 1, down a dusty, dry road about an hours drive out of the city, an old Indian guy at the entry gate was giving an Irish guy Justin, a quite serious once over on whether he was really committed to seeing out the program. It seemed funny at the time, but was a warning shot that resounded slightly more ominously upon later reflection. Once through the gate, the compound was segregated into men’s and women’s areas complete with separate dining areas, dormitories, common areas & separate entrances to our shared meditation halls. At this point, Megumi had to jump the fence into her own quarter for registration. As we said our goodbyes, the first physical separation since the start of the trip, it started to hit home and I turned to the registration task with a little apprehension. Together with Justin, we then embarked on a series of entry procedures filling in numerous forms / waivers, handing over valuable possessions, organizing storage for our books, pens & other distractions and also receiving room allocations. A sombre bureaucratic atmosphere had taken hold and the process began to ominously resemble entering prison. Had they ask us to strip for delousing, I would have fled!

In total there were 120 other inmates, 80 odd men and 40 women and somewhat surprisingly only a handful of foreigners; as well as me & Justin, there were 2 other non-Indian men – a young, blonde quite serious Italian and an older French guy, plus a couple of women (Dutch & English) in Megumi’s pen. Unlike the other foreigners though, I missed out on my own room and got billeted with a rather curious 50 year old Indian guy, who spoke only 3 words of English I think. Our room was simple and our 2 mosquito net covered cots were divided by a single curtain down the centre of the room, with a separate bathroom / washroom area. A chronic snorer and 3 am riser (to do his washing!), I later christened my roomie Gollum, for the strange whispered arguments he started having with himself in Tagalu from days 5 or so on in the program.

The program itself was pretty regimented, total silence from the morning of Day 2 to Day 10. Every morning (and every session) we were greeted by bells gonged in our windows to wake us up and get us moving. We got to the mediation hall at 4.30am for a 2 hour meditation session. At 6.30, we had breakfast in the dining hall, followed by an hour break. Then a 3 hour meditation session, lunch and a 2 hour rest, then a 4 hour afternoon meditation followed by a light meal, rest and in the evening, a 1 hour meditation, followed by 90 minute video discourse on the technique & the philosophy before a 30 minute meditation finishing at 9pm.

There were plenty of rules – no talking obviously, but this also was extended to looking at anyone or engaging in any form of interaction, a concept called noble silence. Unfortunately to my considerable consternation throughout the meditation sessions, in this part of India at least, the term ‘noble silence’ does not seem to extend itself to cover both burping and farting. Meals were taken sitting on the floor of the dining hall Indian style. While the food was a bland, humble rotation of local Indian food, it was not tasty, but proved to be quite edible none the less (Apparently spices affect the body and the mind) When I wasn’t eating during the breaks, I was sleeping or meditating in my room and that was that really, there was not much room for anything else.

Getting Inside My Head

10 hours a day is a long time to be roaming in the depths of the mind and the Vipassana meditation program is designed to go in deep, but build up to it in very gradual stages. For the first 2 days, we focused simply on concentrating on our breath and the action of breathing. A skill designed to try to focus on the present and in the process gain control of the mind. The conscious mind hates this and jumps around like crazy, a concept called the ‘monkey mind’. For the first 2 days, I was constantly experiencing random emotional thoughts and reactions to lots of things both in the past or future. For 2 days it seems, I was confused, emotional and agitated trying to fight with the mind to focus on the task at hand. I constantly caught myself dwelling on something, an issue in the past, sharing a room with my flat, what I was going to do after this meditation was over or coming up with a brilliant distracting idea – anything to keep me from being in the here and now. Other forms of meditation gives you a mantra, which makes this easier to do, giving the mind something to focus on. Here though, you patiently had to keep bringing your focus back to the breath from each new random departure. Agonisingly slowly this seemed to get easier and easier and by day 3 I was able to concentrate for a long time at a stretch, without the random interruptions.

For the next few days, we were then asked to switch focus, in order to help concentrate the mind. This was done by focusing on feeling the breath at the very tip of your nose in the triangle down to your bottom lip. Apparently your mind naturally thinks on things at a macro scale, so in order to go inwards for Vipassana, you first need to re-train it to focus on more subtler, micro sensations. As tedious as water torture, drip by drip, this is just as effective. After the wild mood swings of day 1 and 2, by day 3 and 4 I was feeling quite peaceful and the mind started to become particularly sensitive to the touch of every breath and I started to uncover new sensations. Which is just as well really, because by day 3, the physical torture of sitting for 10 hours a day starts to become unbearable. From 30 minutes in a seating position to start with, by day 3 this has regressed to 5 minutes in a series of positions that I moved through quicker a quicker, like a dog chasing its tail. I lasted til the end of day 3 before I move to a chair. With some semblance of false pride I noted that the other foreigners have all broken slightly ahead of me or were doing just as badly at least. The French guy had quit already (2 days in), Justin has taken a back rest for his cushion, which he later abandons for a chair and the Italian guy has gone for a chair as well. I last a day and half in the chair before stealing Justin’s backrest – the chair was causing me even more pain.

On Day 5, minds focused and now concentrated, we finally start the actual Vipassana meditation. This part is a lot more complicated to explain, so give me some creative license here. Vipassana is introduced as a surgical like process where you expand your new awareness out to your entire body. Moving slowly, you start to become aware of hundreds of small sensations all over and objectively (this is the most important word here), you start to observe them, both the positive and negative sensations. An observation process that over time, through careful non-reaction, works to remove many of the cravings and sufferings (which is what the sensations represent), all embedded deeply within the human mind and the primary cause of our unhappiness. Hard to swallow (or explain simply) I know, but this is the technique Buddha came up with and its been working for thousands of years.

On day 6 pondering these things, I have my AHA moment. We retire to a private meditation cell (a small 1m x 2m windowless room) and suddenly I am able to really tune into my entire body, and have sensations tingling from head to toe. As I focus in on the sensations I feel the tingling grow and become almost a uniform energy or pulse across my entire body, the flow builds to a creshendo and suddenly I become aware of my body as being made up entirely of vibrations and experience a sensation of peace sweep over me, an awareness of myself as becoming like light. I experience the truth that my body consists purely of vibrations and feel a lightening / awareness of myself existing beyond time and space. I expand upwards, relishing this awareness and sensation, vaguely conscious of my actual body as a shadowy meditation pose much further below me. In total this altered euphoric state lasts no more than a couple of minutes, leaving me very slowly, I fade back to the floor unable to resist and keep the moment, the sensations though lingering on.

Which is where things suddenly got a lot more interesting! Here I had, had an experience that was very exciting and obviously opening doors at a higher conscious level, I wanted more of it, to go deeper, but I also felt that I had wandered off radar from the courses objectives, I was operating outside the textbook so to speak and had started craving an experience of my own making, cravings being exactly what we had been told to avoid. I consulted Guruji, an old Indian chap who was presiding over all the inmates and the only one we were able to actually converse with. He told me that this was positive progress and that the experience was simply a release. But I went away somewhat conflicted not sure he had really understood my experience. I still felt discouraged and that I had tried to do something a little off the charts so I consciously shelved this area of exploration reluctantly and went back to the program of simply feeling sensations.

Now, I had been detecting some sensations that manifested themselves as tiny crawling sensations on my body & being objective means not reacting to the various tickles, stabs of pain or euphoric tingles that these sensations give off. So for the next 3 days I focused on exploring these and in the process delving deeper & deeper into my psyche. Dark worms that gave electric shocks, thin insects that wiggled and tingled and the occasional fairy puff of pleasure. How my mind chose these manifestations I don’t know, but I was in deep here. Many of these sensations were lying deep beneath the surface of the face and at times I could feel my head as a complete cup of insects and their resultant sensations struggling to get out. Objectively I watched and appraised them, trying not to feel any emotion or so I thought, waiting for each to emerge one by one in my minds eye and in the process goes the logic, dispense with another deep attachment.

After several days of this torture, the lectures started to reveal that my earlier euphoric experience had actually been right on track that we were supposed to be working towards to feeling sensations at every level of the body and in so doing experience a free flow of energy throughout, I realized that I had just jumped far ahead with my own experiences. I was also starting to feel frustration with the ‘insect mining’ that I was currently doing and these worries started to permeate the process I was going through. Unable to switch off the awareness of the senses and very deep in by now, I continued to feel the creepy, crawling sensations on my face and could not get past it to recapture the free flow of energy. The bugs kept crawling even when we stopped the mediations, during meals (and for several days afterwards).

Everyone’s experience is different I guess and everyone has their own demons and manifestations. If this process was easy, we would all be running around on Cloud 9 and blissfully free of the worlds problems. But hindsight is equally a wonderful thing, and I now realize I went a little too deep and somewhere along the line I started to become too aggressive with the sensations I was feeling, perhaps frustrated by the misdirection of my own progress. I began trying to force the sensations to reveal themselves and exterminate them, rather than simply observe – a reactionary affect that just multiplied the sensations themselves, dug them in and made them worse and in so doing creating a block.

To be honest, as the 10 days of meditation came to an end, I was far from relaxed and getting completely worked up about the bugs in my system. And as the program ended I felt a little disappointed. I guess I was expecting things to be more completed, more defined, perhaps ecstatic – yet I felt I had only just started to grasp the process and had achieved little. Yes, I had had, several moments of higher awareness and had gained an invaluable understanding of my mind, conscious thought and the overall process, but my over-riding sense was more one of confusion and a weird preoccupation with the insect like sensations. This is dangerous territory and I can easily see how people can open themselves up to all sorts of dangerous obsessions & psychosis here. The ego and competitor in me, wanted to feel some resolution that I had cleaned everything out, reached a certain level with this and pushed the point. At the end I really I just wanted the crawlings to stop and if that mean’t the meditation as well, then fine.

And as the insects slowly slipped away over the coming days (I became afraid to close my eyes), I did come to feel a very subtle overall increase in my personal sense of peace and control from the experience. I realised I had gained a lot from the first few days alone and I felt different now, albeit subtly so. While on one hand I had wanted it all to end, I also wanted to start it again, to retrace my steps so to speak with more equanimity and see where I could really have gotten to. The physical side of the meditation while still uncomfortable but had become quite secondary to the overall experience, my attention was focused much deeper in now..

Apart from the insect horrors though, the experience itself was fascinating. While I tried desperately to ignore Justin and the other foreigners attention for my own sanity, I naturally turned my attention to the other Indians, observing everyone’s idiosyncracies in ‘oh too close detail’. From the endless stream of bodily noises that seemed strangely socially acceptable, to my room-mates psychotic late night mutter arguments as he battled his own demons (if I was seeing insects, I can’t imagine what he was fighting off!), the whole experience was a fascinating insight into everday Indian living and lives. The complete diaspora of Indian society seemed represented here – from old folks with obvious health issues seeking some kind of peaceful reckoning to young kids with the attention span of a gnat obviously forced to be here and to the more mature seekers in between. And then there were the women, always resplendent in their Sari’s, somehow always looking more composed and able to concentrate than any of the men. Megumi for one, had managed to completely avoid eye contact with me the entire time and always seemed to be in a perfect state of meditation and posture.

And as the silence gloves came off on the last day, I reconnected with Justin and Megumi and some of the other meditators that were obviously resonating on the same level as us. As we shared experiences (and nightmares) and the shared joy of survival, I realized that this was something I needed to do again. Next time though armed with more information and experience, I was confident there was a lot more to do and that this was only just the start of something. I left feeling sharper and more aware of myself than ever before, but still with many things unresolved and those damn insects…….!

NB: 6 weeks later neck deep in Africa I had a recurrence of the middle eye infection that had first cropped up in India, though this time it almost left me blind. I realized it was the same left eye that had tortured me during meditation. Can’t help thinking the bug action wasn’t just a simple coincidence!


India – The Sights

It appears that detailed, timely blog postings on our adventures has proven to be a most elusive skill so far in our travels. So… in […]

It appears that detailed, timely blog postings on our adventures has proven to be a most elusive skill so far in our travels. So… in order to keep things moving and regular (and also break up the tedium of introspective contemplations), I thought bundling a lazy, slightly irreverent, but mostly expedient take on the “Incredible India” sights into a single post might be worth a go.

This really is in no particular order or actually a Top 10! But it should give you the quick skinny (plus some snaps) on the touristy, but nevertheless stunning stuff that we have checked out along out merry way around India. I will keep adding to this and updating it as we go, so be sure to check back!

1) The Bodhi Tree – Bodhgaya

Monks jostling near the tree

The spot where Buddha reached enlightenment is marked by a beautiful park, monolith, many monasteries and a huge tree that is a direct cutting from the original Bodhi tree. The park vibrates with a magical, spiritual energy and peace, as thousands of monks from all countries (in all colours) meditate, chant, relentlessly protraste themselves on special boards or circumambulate the site and its prayer wheels – all simply amazing to behold. Of course there is precious little space under the tree for a conservatively dressed Australian, even with the peaceful application of the elbows; all the good spots are well staked out by the many Tibetan, Bhutanese, Thai or Nepali’s who have trained for decades to get up at 4am; all keen to have another stab at seeking enlightenment and some divine inspiration. While we were there an international Thervada Chanting Conference was taking place (Lots of Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Korean monks) plus thousands of Tibetans were in town (including the 17th Karmapa) so the place was jumping.  Outside the park though, Bodhgaya is classic India – poor, dusty, loud, confusing with hundreds of beggars lined up to prey on the Buddhist’s karmic conscience.

2) The Erotic Temples – Khajuraho

stacks of statues!

Built around the 11th -14th century, the stone carvings on these temples are simply amazing in their intricacy though not nearly as erotic as every tourist brochure would have you believe – but then India is very conservative these days. The said scenes, when you can find them amongst the thousands of detailed sculptures, represent various states of undress, a few interesting positions and some rather more bestial explorations with horses and elephants. Set in 3 locations around the small town, the temples make a pleasant days viewing and feature a ‘sound and light’ historical show at night which is actually worth checking out. Right outside the park though (and everywhere else actually) touts outnumber the tourists 10 to 1 and do really test the patience. Endless in-your-face demands to buy sex keyrings, books on karma sutra or enter discussion on the servicing of multiple wives and girlfriends abound in English, Japanese and a dozen other attempted languages. The Indians seem to think that any tourist checking out this sight has to be as debauched, kinky and sex obsessed as the average Indian male’s secret imagination and fantasies – which is a pretty tall ask believe me – be warned.

3) Tiger Safari – Bandhavgarh National Park

Tracking tigers

Bit out of the way this one, but definitely worth it. With the highest density of Tigers in India, this is the best place to see one in the wild of anywhere, so we splurged a bit to have a couple of cracks. Initially we tried to do the safari on an elephant back’s – but the bull (male) phant was horny, the female was on heat and the other elephant was knocked up – so we were humbly reduced to a jeep. Our first safari at sunrise accompanied by a guide, roamed the misty dirt tracks & waterholes in the jungle looking for tiger prints (there were many) and listening for monkey & bird alarm calls (constantly) that tell you a Tiger is near. 4 hours later we gave up, though we did see stacks of deer, eagles, vultures, monkeys, wild boar and other stuff. No-one else saw a tiger that morning either which was strangely satisfying. Doubling down, we went back in the afternoon for a sunset session and got immediately lucky. Within 15 minutes, the jungle went wild with monkey calls and we tore up the dirt track to discover a huge, 2 year old tiger lying happily on the track. Completely ignoring the mad, camera totting jeep creatures around him – he then proceeded to walk along the road for 20 minutes with us snapping wildly behind, stopping for an occasional roar, stretch or snooze. In total we got an hour of wild tiger face (& photo) time which is pretty much unheard of!

4) Agra– Taj Mahal, Baby Taj, Agra Fort, Fatephur Sikri

The Taj Mahal

India’s number 1 destination and rightly so – Agra is jam packed with incredibly history and architectural wonders and worthy of at least a couple of days exploration. It is also full of pushy Indian tourists, egotistical guards, dodgy guesthouses, annoying rickshaw drivers, postcard sellers and squirrels! The Taj is amazing – everyone should see it at some point and a million better minds than mine have described its splendours eloquently; what they don’t tell you though is that  its very expensive; ridiculously crowded (trying to get a clear shot is impossible next to a thousand other Indians with no sense of personal space all trying to do the same); oh and the security guards are arseholes. They had the audacity to confiscate Megumi’s finger puppet P-chan, banning him from entry. Apparently soft toys constitute both a significant religious and terrorist threat (the line of crying babies was more than 50m long). After our own angry confrontation and a lot of Indian hand and head waving – we left in disgust. To balance this experience though, we did happily discover the somewhat secret Baby Taj (Itimad-ud-Daulah) – a smaller, earlier constructed, similar completely marble tomb – that while not as stupendous it is just as fascinating architecturally, much cheaper, was all to ourselves and happily not intimidated by the presence of finger puppets. The Agra Fort is also a stunning complex and steeped in interesting architecture, politics and history, though most recently invaded by squirrels it is well worth the visit, if only just to comprehend the palatial harems of the great Mughals. A short bus-ride out of Agra is also the fort town of Fatephur Sikri- an equally magnificent fort, mosque and ranging red marble conquest, that fully warrants a days adventuring.

5) Delhi – Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb & Old Delhi Markets

Humayun's Tomb

Delhi was quite the surprise – green, full of parks and possibly the most unpolluted city we visited in India. It teems with ancient ruins and innumerable testaments to the Moghul era and other age’s past littered across the Delhi landscape, seemingly so integrated into the Delhi urbanity that they are easily overlooked. We spent plenty of time exploring and still really only scratched the surface. The red fort is the major attraction and though impressive from the outside, inside it is a very poor cousin to the forts of Agra, Fatephur Sikri and Rajasthan, hardly worth the entrance fee.  Much more compelling was Humayun’s Tomb, an early predecessor to the Taj Mahal  and set amongst an amazing park like complex of different tombs, sculptures and gardens very well preserved.  We didn’t make the largest mosque in India,the Jama Masdjid, but did wander the nearby ancient market complex’s and labrynths’ of old Delhi. An endlessly fascinating maze of thematic markets – spices, fruits, fabrics, wedding jewellery, sweets – you name it, there is a mind numbingly complex, bustling, dedicated market to suit all tastes here. An endless insight into India’s true inner workings and a real orgy for the senses – though you would require several days to come close to getting your head around what’s what and what’s really going on.

6) Jaipur – The Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal & the pink city

Hawa Mahal - A palace for the ladies

Jaipur was a bit dissapointing to be honest, though perhaps its a view tarnished a tad by a sordid dose of Delhi Belly. The city is indeed pink and the fort and key monuments are contained within large square, well organized streets each with specialized markets and wares largely unchanged in centuries. The Hawa Mahal was definitely a highlight – the palace where the Maharaja kept his wives and harem, all cleverly designed so that they could see out but the public could not see in. The palace itself is quite amazing with all the wealthy trims of the Rajasthani elite and the surrounding hills and lakes are all scenically peppered with other forts, summer palaces. Most interesting perhaps was the Maharaja’s astrological centre, full of large complex astrological sun dials and other such toys, the envy of all star gazing obsessives everywhere. The Rajasthani food is also amazing and markets abound with Rajasthans famous jewelry and threads, but all this is offset by a big city vibe and the constant harassment from touts, shopkeepers and most of the locals you meet. Constantly on the defensive, its not a friendly or comfortable place and a day is more than enough for the sites, 2 or 3 due to illness is definite overkill and not worth the resulting sacrifices to our Rajasthan tour!

7) Jodhpur – Mehrangarh Fort & the blue city

Jodhpur & the blue city

The city really is blue and dominated by the amazing fort that sits on the hill in the centre of town. The fort is a perfectly preserved vision of the Maharaja’s of Rajasthan lifestyle and impregnable military might and an easy way to fill in a day. We stayed in a beautiful, 500 year old haveli under the fort walls and were completely enchanted by the town itself. The blue buildings represent bramin (Hindu caste elite) houses and the town is a labyrinth of tiny, winding back alleys and shops that are fascinating to wander. The place does not feel like it has changed that much in the last 3 or 400 years. The people costume up nicely with plenty of fat, Rajasthani mustaches to savour and are generally quite friendly, approachable and proud; though the dogs do seem to be particularly viscous – carry a stick! Its also a great place to sample the many delights of the Rajasthani diet.

8) Hampi – Rocks, ruins and relaxation

Rocks, Ruins & Rice Paddies

Hampi takes you by surprise. Nestled inland to the South, it is easily accessible from Goa and acts as a perfect relaxation and recovery haven for travellers. Set on 2 sides of a river, it is a holy city, one side an active mecca for Indians, while the other side, accessible by a single small rowing boat, is a relaxing collection of cheap backpacker friendly, huts. The surrounding area is literally littered with the ancient ruins of temples and magnificent sculptured palaces from ages past, all set against stunning stone covered hills and rice paddies that form the most amazing backdrop that we encountered in India. You can happily spend weeks here in a  traveller bubble, with little agenda other than relaxation and meeting other like minded folk. There is plenty of yoga, a large lake and river to swim in for the hot days, casual movie nights and endless adventures further afield to explore the many ruins and temples on motorbike or check out some of the best rock climbing in India. The highlight for mine, was the Hanuman (Monkey god) temple at the top of a mountain. The temple is occupied by a bunch of sadhu’s seemingly glued to their chillum’s, but its all about the stunning views of the landscapes in all directions. Highly recommend it if you get the chance, a hard place to leave!

9) Ellora – Buddhist, Hindi & Jain cave temples

Buddhist cave auditorium

Ellora and the somewhat adjacent Ajanta were probably the highlight of all the stunning ancient sights that we visited in India.  Ellora is located about 30 or 40 minutes out of Aurangubad and incorporates a vast network of caves literally carved out of the cliff-faces in the 1st to the 8th century. There are more than 40 cave temples in total and each represents a kind of time capsule of India’s various religions of the time divided into 3 major sections – sets of buddhist, hindu and Jain temples. The detail of these temples is completely amazing, some of the temples are massive and represent hundreds of years of chipping away at rock faces to create the space, let alone craft the thousands of intricate statues contained within each. The buddhist temples were a lot more minimal, focused on monasteries, prayer & education halls and music / meditation chambers. While the hindu temples were of a grand scale with thousands of intricate sculptures and temples designs dedicated to the major deities. Unfortunately our temple tour was cut short at the magnificent Kailash temple (the largest and most stunning) when someone’s flash set of a swarm of bee’s. I was stung at least 20 times on the head and arms as I was fleeing the temple and enveloped in a swarm of bee’s that chased me some 200 metres outside the complex. They only desisted when I buried myself in a pile of smoking leaves, the guards pointed me at. As helpful as they were the guards seemed quite relaxed and content to get the whole thing on video; it seems this is nothing unusual at this time of year – be warned. Even with a swollen face and savagely stung pride though, the bewildering wonder at human achievement was only marginally subdued and we didn’t even get to the Jain temples, with supposedly the best sculptural detail. Another time perhaps!

10) Ajanta – Buddhist cave temples and frescoes

Buddhist circlework

Located a couple of hours out of Aurangubad, Ajanta was re-discovered by an Englishmen a few centuries ago while hunting a tiger. The tiger they were tracking disappeared into a cave somewhere out of sight and on further investigation, plus some backing from the local Maharaja, they discovered this set of 26 odd caves completely buried and overtaken by the bush. Each of the caves, like Ellora, were hand carved into the mountainside between the 1st and 5th century and while similarly full of scultptures, due to being largely hidden from the world for 1500 years or so, Ajanta contains walls covered with some of the most amazing frescoes and paintings from that time still largely intact. All of the caves here are Buddhist monasteries and temples, some with adjoining meditation rooms, while others are unfinished and therefore still show how the temples were made (by hammer and chisel). An archeologists absolute wet dream, the paintings and buddhist sculptures here leave you speechless and very much in awe of the skill and dedication of the ancient Indian devotee’s and how alive buddhism must have been. An absolute must see for mine.

More pics coming when I actually score some free bandwidth and a day off!


A Pilgrimage to Goa

Goa, famed for its beaches, Portugese influence and hospitality is India’s favourite holiday destination and one of those places that has loomed large in my […]

Goa, famed for its beaches, Portugese influence and hospitality is India’s favourite holiday destination and one of those places that has loomed large in my life for many years. In the late 80’s and early nineties it was the place everyone seemed to disappear to and come back with new beats, ideas and psychedelic inspiration. Much of the trance music and associated symbologies that I have been promoting, listening and partying to ever since, draws its origins and inspiration from that time and place.

In Rishkesh, one of our fellow yogi aspirants, psy trance DJ (Lusid), psychic alchemist and our favourite Indian – Rohan, had pointed us to Chakra View. A 3 day ecological festival in the jungles around Goa featuring a great musical line-up, yoga and meditation – it seemed like the perfect way to engage with the Goa of my youthful imaginings. So after a brief civilizing experience in Delhi hosted by Rohan, we booked our festival tickets, accommodation and cut short some of our planned Rajasthan tour in order to get to Goa in time. And then just at our most planned and organized, Goa pounced and stripped us bare! Mid way through our 12 hour train journey from Mumbai the phone started buzzing – politics had kicked in, the police weren’t on side, the festival was cancelled and by the time our train reached Goa the phone was almost dead, the party had changed locations 3 times and we, completely at her mercy were shuffling Goan train stops with each new update.

Eventually we alighted in Chapora, rented a scooter and found a quaint shack behind a funky beach café in Morjim, just south of Aranbol with some of Rohan’s other Indian friends. Comfortably located amongst a swarm of Russian beach tourists (no-one ever told me about that) and close to the last suggested location of the migratory festival, we dived into the pristine waters and relaxed on the beach, waiting for the next move. The festival, as with many things to good to be true,  never happened of course despite several more attempts and the longer we stayed in Goa the more we understood that this was how things usually work here. No-one could remember the last time there was ever a 3 day festival in Goa. Our foolish enthusiasm in buying tickets / accommodation in advance nicely contrasted the Japanese organisation and security of our recent experiences, with all of India’s special quirks. In the first 3 days alone several other parties were cancelled with numerous others popping up instantly to take their place. The initial frenetic mobile viral network that greeted us just kept evolving and almost without realizing it we became seduced by the chase of the party itself and capturing the underground buzz.

Goa has many faces and obviously as rewards its popularity, many more than we actually got to experience. We based ourselves in Northern Goa entirely throughout, where there are a plethora of clubs, night markets, shops and cafes all designed to cater to the Goan trance and hippy scene. A strange insulated bubble in the Indian experience – meat dishes and wine flow freely and there always seems to be a beat in the background here somewhere, anytime of day. Joints flow freely in the restaurants and chillums on the dance floor and the place is awash with LSD – definitely a one drug town. Many of the markets, clubs and bars still have glowing salutes and remnants of their heydays in the late 80’s – fluro escher like designs in the ceilings and old hippies in all the garb. Around Anjuna and Chapora the party folk congregate during the evenings, waiting news of the latest updates, regaled in all their funky, fashionable tribal best. The parties, like the music are always full power and relentless, though much less psychedelic and fluoro tipped than of old. Many of the bars shut at 10pm and move indoors now and you have to bike-up to travel to the more remote, underground destinations in order to get a full night / outdoor experience. Fleets of trancers on motorbikes and scooters brave the dark labyrinth of roads, villages and their own respective states at night getting to and from parties. For the first few days this was a completely disorientating and nerve racking process – slow, steady and at times completely lost, but after a week, we too were pro’s.

And of the Goan parties – after the seemingly endless chases and disappointments of the first few days we started to find ones with music that really worked for us and by the end of our 2 week stay we were firmly in its clutches. Days were spent recovering on the beach and perfecting the first semblance of a tan that I have perhaps had in 15 years (Set bizarrely amongst Russian supermodel wives in bikini’s, their kids and Indian sari clad nannies). While each evening seemed to produce an even better party than the last – a subtle conspiracy designed to keep us there just that little bit longer. The parties themselves are fascinating in that Indian way and probably best defined by Shiva Valley, next to Curly’s on the beach in Anjuna. While a truly global citizenry dance the night way, swarms of enterprising Indians work the periphery. Everything is always instantly on hand and a seemingly endless stream of young male faces appear out of the dark in front of you proffering anything that might be needed that moment – water, food, cigarettes, glow sticks and the rest. At the same time, mothers and grandmothers guard comfortably, thatched squares on the surrounding sand and sell chai, rolling papers and food to any escapee’s from the dance floor that happen to wander by chasing a moments’ respite.

Amid all the other party tourists, our experience was made most especially magic through Rohan and his network of Indian friends – old Goan pro’s from their university days treating the occasion as a reunion (Andy, Sid, Viru, Aditi, Praveen et al – big shout outs and thanks!), as well as an Australian couple, Lucy and Adam who we merged paths with for our post Goa recovery. Totally well hosted, crewed and sorted on all fronts, we got an insiders, Indian perspective of the Goa scene – a fantastic way to really connect and bond with some locals on the same, shared wavelength and hopefully make some friends for life!

And after almost 2 weeks of searching we did find our ultimate Goan party; a mix of progressive and intelligent psy-trance at “Club West End”, a beautiful Portugese style old mansion with an outdoor dance floor and a pool, secluded in its own discrete valley and featuring a more refined crowd. After an all day marathon we were well spent and in its wake the remaining crew began to slowly break-up – ultimately succumbing to those compelling, but increasingly unheeded calls for a return to reality. Reluctantly and with considerable reticence on our own part, we too caste aside Goa’s spell and managed to plan our escape as well, keen to clear the head again and strangely seeking a holiday from Goa’s relentless cycles of pursuit. I somehow suspect that we will be back at some point though 😉


Disneyland for the Soul

After 5 weeks of intense immersion in all things mind, body and spirit – we finally (and quite reluctantly) managed to eject ourselves from Rishkesh. […]

After 5 weeks of intense immersion in all things mind, body and spirit – we finally (and quite reluctantly) managed to eject ourselves from Rishkesh. It’s amazing the difference a month makes! Since Christmas we have fallen all the way through the mystical Indian “Looking Glass” with experiences in Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine, zen macrobiotics, reiki, astrologers, enlightened guru’s and much more; all set against the backdrop of the worlds largest religious festival & spiritual mustering (the Kumbha Mela) and the beautiful, peaceful setting that is the Ganges River and Rishkesh. An indoctrination that was equally balanced through sharing the  experience with an amazing, talented and eclectic bunch of people (Indian, Korean, Icelandic, Greek, Canadian, Chinese, German, Bolivian and American amongst many others) that should ensure the experience lasts just as long in the memory, as the new friendships forged.

Stumbled over the edge there have we, I here you say? And perhaps so! Certainly I feel a bit like I have succumbed to my childhood fears and programming and sought out the Indian equivalent of a Christian boot camp! A seemingly well worn path in India and scarily stereotypical, but I can see why the Beatles and millions of others got stuck here for so long. Its not that most of this information is wildly new conceptually or unexpected, but there is a simple liberation in being able to completely open the mind to the possibilities, throw oneself into it and in the process wipe away the rusty cobwebs of the soul, gained through years of neglect. India uniquely probably cultivates this effect – so rich in its traditions, history, veneration and cultural acceptance of the rightness of the grand spiritual pursuit, that explorations of this kind can happen here much more unchecked than other places.

It will certainly take some time for me to really sit down and process all that we experienced and learnt here. It is definitely more akin to a spiritual awakening and the new knowledge and awareness necessitates much more meditation, practice and perspective over the months ahead. But as we rush southward to warmer climes and away from this spiritual Disneyland to the waiting tourist traps of Rajasthan and the beaches (and retoxins) of Goa, I thought I should document some of my more lingering reverberations and thoughts while they remain fresh, pure and unjaded by the return to reality ahead.

Of Mind

  • Having not studied anything in almost 15 years, this whole course was really a mental exercise in itself with often several lectures broaching fascinating new subjects on a daily basis. Each subject, new exercise or technique had supportive notes and opened seemingly infinite gateways for further reading, practice and research.
  • What I did appreciate most about the Yogic method though – is that it largely see’s itself not as a religion but really as a scientific method for self realization. The Yogic systems have been developed over thousands of years and are seen as proven paths towards systemic improvement of the human spiritual condition and evolving higher states of consciousness.
  • The basis of the course we studied was essentially introducing this in detail and the  requirements of the path of the Yogi. Accordingly there were many references to the great Indian texts and the works / deeds and experience of the great Yogi masters.
  • Important in this, was a series of lectures on Yamas & Niyamas – the ethical codebook of the Yogi’s if you will, exploring the do’s and don’ts of the Yogic system. These include topics such as truth, theft, non-violence, celibacy (or the tantric alternative ejaculation control!) and self study, taking tapas (or vows) which were all worthy contemplations in themselves.
  • Central in all this as well though was receiving an understanding and scientific explanation of the various stages of consciousness and the 5 bodies  (ie physical, pranic, astral, causal etc) as outlined by the Yogi masters.  These are critical to the Yogic system and really where it starts to leave modern science behind. Our general conception of an energetic (pranic), aural (astral) body is minimal and the science while able to prove they exist, is limited beyond that. Whereas the great Yogi’s describe these planes in great detail and offer that progressing our awareness and control of these, beyond just the physical body is central to all transcendence .
  • We also learnt about the stages of mind – conscious, sub-conscious and higher consciousness and some beginner techniques for embarking on the difficult task of exploring / training / stilling these – starting with mental concentration exercises and some preliminary meditation techniques.
  • Among many other subjects, there were some particularly interesting lectures and initial practical explorations into the field of “Yoga Nidra” – a yoga focused on the development of lucid dreaming, the ability to relax the body completely during sleep, travel in the astral plane and develop / program the subconscious mind whilst sleeping!

Of Body

  • At an internal level – we studied Yogic purification, eating and alternative medicine techniques. These included a series of lectures on things like diets & vegetarianism, Zen Macrobiotics and included the learning of a series of traditional yogic cleansing techniques (Kriyas) that include tongue scraping, gum salt rubs, nasal / eye flushes, vomiting and bowel cleanses – some of which I have been doing everyday & can atest that they work wonders. (But I will leave it to you to guess which 😉
  • Of course true to its name we also studied Yoga and over the course learnt 20 asana’s in detail, (plus 6 warming exercises and sun salutations). Each of which had their own individual physiological (and healing) benefits. I can now rather surprisingly do a headstand for 5 minutes (and an inverted table) and at the end of the course we were working up to holding some poses for 5-10 minutes across a 2-3 hour session. The result being I am feeling a lot more flexible, healthy (and impressed with myself) though back bends are a struggle and I still rather frustratingly cannot touch my toes.
  • There were also some interesting lectures that introduced other more exotic and traditional Yogic healing techniques – the most interesting and surprisingly compelling of which was Urine Therapy – but I will give you a reprieve on the details there. (Suffice to say that it does make sense and that these Yogi’s really do go at things hard!)
  • We also learn’t about (and visited) several Ayurvedic doctors – Ayurvedic medicine is a 5,000 year old medical science that works hand in hand with Yoga as a system and is based on an analysis of your body type into its constituent dosha’s (there are 3). By simply feeling my pulse a doctor I visited was able to tell me that I suffered from prolonged back pain and a range of other previous conditions that were unnervingly accurate. He then told me what foods I should eat to keep balanced and prescribed some herbal supplements to improve vitality / energy (which has actually worked quite well). This same doctor has had significant success in curing Alzheimer’s disease and ageing with these methods.
  • I should also add here that living in a completely alcohol free and vegetarian town (and mostly organic restaurants at that) on top of all the exercise, has also meant that I am back to a weight last seen as a teenager. Though I sincerely doubt that can last!

Of Spirit

  • A lot of the Yoga we learnt was specifically designed to work on different Chakra points (7 energy points on the body) and in doing so open up / increase our awareness and specific capabilities through the direct development of these. Examples of this might very briefly include cultivating such things as vitality (Root Chakra – Mulladara), sensuality (Sex Chakra – Svadisthana), willpower (Belly – Manipura), love (Heart – Anahata), mastery of time / space (Throat – Vishuda), mental control (3rd Eye – Ajna) or higher states of consciousness (Crown – Shahsrara). As we got more into the yoga postures, you could really start to feel these chakra’s individually become more activated and actually affect your overall state of being, as the energy starts to run and flow more effectively. Additionally through specific sublimation exercises we learn’t to convert energy between the chakra’s, focused largely on energy movement from the lower more popular chakra’s energy centres to the higher and more transcendent ones.
  • Assisting these, we also did a serious of music meditations designed to support the yoga with music specifically targeted at stimulating / resonating with a chakra to increase the overall effects.
  • We also learnt some meditation techniques – based around chanting and the heart that focus on trying to calm the “wandering monkey mind” and open up for explorations of self. This is obviously really the focus of the great yogi masters  and the “yoga of the mind control” was really only a basic introduction at the course level. The greater emphasis being to open things up to start with through the physical yoga systems.
  • Outside class, Megumi did also embark on some explorations in Reiki, a Japanese system known more for its healing powers that seems similar to Yoga. With a lot of commonality with what we have learn’t it is certainly something she would like to learn more about.
  • But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Rishkesh metaphysical experience was the Astrologer. A strange, early 40’s innocuous looking Indian man whose family had been doing astrology for 20 generations, he possessed the amazing and particularly freaky ability to perceive very personal, secret truths about everyone’s past and key glints into aspects of the future. Everyone who visited him came back equally astounded at his insights and psychic levels of perception – revealing unnervingly accurate truths without exception. I wont go into personal details, I will leave it simply at that – but he left a lot to ponder!
  • Daily around Rishkesh as well – there were also a series of Gurus – all wise sages conducting different hearing sessions or lectures with disciples and others at their ashrams on any given day – many featuring dancing and devotional singing which all added to the spiritual vibe and magic of the place.
  • Many Guru’s were actually in town as part of the greater Kumbha Mela happening in nearby Haridwar – a gathering (up to 50 million people) of all the great Yogi’s, saddhu’s and hindu’s held every 4 years as they gather to bathe (purify their souls) on the Ganges. Haridwar had prepared by building a tent city 50km by 10 km around the town and while it was only early in the 3 month festival and a bit cold when we attended – the energy was still electric and quite magical; emphasized by the solar eclipse taking place that day –  a special experience that warrants its own blog when I find the time.
  • There were other workshops / lectures that also proliferated – some that we attended included heart meditations, devotional chanting / singing and bio-wave dance experimentations. The list goes on…

As you can no doubt imagine, my head is now spinning with all this information, ideas, possibilities and experiences and my sincere apologies if I do come across here like a naïve schoolboy. Full to the brim – I have loved every bit of it, though I am very much looking forward to the break of normal travel again. Even as we pried ourselves away, Rishkesh was conspiring to keep us there longer. The 2nd last day we trialled the second month yoga class that was even more engaging than the first month and our last experience on the way to the train station, was sitting down to hear Shantimayi – an American female guru give a beautiful 2 hour open session on love & quantum connectivity, mixed with some lovely chanting. It was cultish but beautiful, pure & inspirational in its simplicity.

As for next steps I really don’t know, I am not a Yogi yet, as tempting as the call has been. But I am certainly inspired and want more. Much of it resonates very well with me and seems a natural extension and development to my own independent naval gazing and latent attraction to buddhism and so I emerge keen to continue my explorations deeper down some of these new paths. There is plenty of time and thinking to do yet though and many more experiences to be added to the mix – including a 10 day silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) in Hyderabad at the start of March…….. It would appear that the Plots are definitely Melting and starting to thicken…!!.

Some Suggested Reading:

A Search in Secret India, by Paul Brunton

Autobiography of a Yogi, by Yogananda

Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, by Swami Satyananda

Yoga Nidra, by Swami Satyananda

Meditations from the Tantras, by Swami Satyananda

See also:


Yogic Explorations

We had arrived expecting to stay a week... but here we are, 10 days later and 1 week into a 1 month esoteric yoga course; ensconced in an ashram apartment overlooking the Ganges and enjoying more than 6 hours a day of yogic activities focused on balancing the mind, body and soul. Surprised - wasn't quite on my radar either.

After almost a month exploring the dusty, loud and chaotic treasure chest of Northern India, we arrived in Rishkesh and were immediately seduced by the clean, relaxed magnetic energy of the place. We had arrived expecting to maybe stay a week, perhaps two if we really connected. But here we are, 10 days later and 1 week into a 1 month esoteric yoga course; ensconced in an ashram apartment overlooking the Ganges and enjoying more than 6 hours a day of yogic activities focused on balancing the mind, body and soul. Surprised – wasn’t quite on my radar either.

In setting out on this travel adventure, our goals had always been about using this time to focus on rebalancing & realigning ourselves; to clean out some of our baggage and forge new experience’s and perspectives on life. From our auspicious early experiments with the detox, this focus has resonated particularly well and here, now, with the fresh start that a new decade and the onset of the “year of the tiger” augers (we are both tigers!), yoga & meditation seems especially relevant and Rishkesh – the right thing in the right time and place.

Footbridge to Laxman Jhula

Made famous care of an extended stay by the Beatles in the 1960’s – Rishkesh has been a major destination for Westerners seeking the spiritual delights of the Indian sub- continent ever since. The Rishkesh of the pilgrims and travellers though, is set back from the main town, among scenic hills that conceal several settlements either side of the beautiful, smoky aqua waters of the Ganges. Largely car free, it is packed with hundreds of Ashrams, guru’s, sadhu’s (ascetics), yoga / meditation centres, shops and vegetarian restaurants, all linked across the holy river by a pair of long walking bridges.

The yoga course we have signed up for is called Trika Yoga & Meditation under the Agama school. Focused on the esoteric traditions of Indian & Tibetan tantric yoga, it purports to  represent  many of the secret spiritual, mental and physical techniques as they have been practised for more than 5,000 years. The curriculum is a modern construct though that draws from a range of Yoga practice areas – Hatha Yoga (Physical), Kriya Yoga (Purification), Meditations (including music, yantra’s) and others, along with ideas integrated from other eastern (Tibetan, Zen, Daoist etc), Christian or alternative medicine practices. This is all neatly presented as a fusion of theory, practice, science and philosophy that engages on many levels and seems especially suited to the curious requirements of the enquiring Western mind. In truth it is a bit “new age in a box”, perhaps trying to integrate too much in places and a tad over zealous in its approach to others, but overall it is well structured and captivating; a sound and comprehensive introduction to the path of becoming a Yogi.

The Trika class room

Along with a dozen or so other fantastic and engaging classmates from all over the globe, our daily routine has become fairly regulated and full.  In the morning, following an early meditation session that I in truth rarely make (Megumi is a star); we learn a new “Asana” (A yoga position) and receive a small lecture on its relative physical, healing and Chakra related effects (ie key body energetic flows). From there we jump into an hour and a half of practice focused as much on holding and visualizing the energy flows of each position as on physical movement or flexibility(rather gratefully). Then in the afternoon, we do a solid 2 hour practice of the various asana’s, which is often supplemented by other practices (ie music meditation or mental concentration) and following a short break, finish with a 2–3 hour evening lecture and discussion on a specific aspect of an esoteric Yoga practice (ie Meditation, Ethics, Mental concentration, Healing etc).

It does all feel a long way from the yoga classes that I had managed to avoid so effectively to date (My classic stereotype of popular yoga as mostly just physical exercise at any rate). In fact, ‘downward facing dog’ has not come up once in any class to date and I hesitate to think how I could rationalize its energetic and healing benefits if it ever actually did. The experience thus far has been transformative and thoroughly enjoyable, not least because it provides an intriguing insight into all those mystical Indian traditions that endlessly fascinate; but also because it forces one to allocate time and systemic study for genuine self analysis and does so against a potential blueprint for self improvement and realization. In truth, I am not sure what will actually really stick and become personal dogma at the courses end, but I can definitely see many seeds for further practice and investigation on several fronts and I look forward to updating these in more detail down the track. For the moment though, mired in the physical – I still have not managed to touch my toes. But I am closer than I have been in years & happily I now realize that this is not really the point anyway…


A Delhi Blinder

Strange times these – somewhere in Mayheya Pradesh on a tiger safari, I developed an irritation in my left eye, nothing serious or so I […]

Strange times these – somewhere in Mayheya Pradesh on a tiger safari, I developed an irritation in my left eye, nothing serious or so I thought. Some minor headaches, redness and it kind of died down after a few days. Then in Agra (Taj Mahal) it popped up again – figured I’d get it checked out in Delhi perhaps, not many other options I was in the mind to explore.

3 or 4 days later we reached Delhi, excited to be in a big city for the first time in almost 2 months, we checked into a nicer hotel intent on re-stocking supplies and reacquainting ourselves with some creature comforts. Second day in though and my eye starts going nuts; full-on migraines whenever I am exposed to the sun or bright lights and the redness spread to my right eye as well. Tricky situation really – an acute light sensitivity is no way to operate in a strange city and I was forced to confine myself to the recesses of a dark Delhi hotel room – windows covered, lights off.

After a day of no improvement, we tracked down an ophthalmologist at the Apollo Hospital in Delhi. Just getting there, a 40 minute rickshaw ride through hectic traffic with me mostly blind; head wrapped up in protective sunglasses and a scarf was an interesting adventure in itself. But thankfully the trepidation I had about dealing with hospitals in India was quickly balanced out by a professional, cheap, but confusingly efficient process. In a country of more than a billion people, I guess you should expect hospitals to operate on overdrive. Mild Conjunctivitis was the quick diagnosis though – a bagful of drugs was subscribed and I was away.

Throwing a pharmacy at it, Indian style!

A day later though and nothing had changed, the doc told me otherwise, so I waited it out – hiding in my dark hotel room; saved from craziness by the strange comfort of being able to listen to the test cricket back in Australia live on TV (it still hurt to watch). Megumi had to sate her tourist limbo with some free range roaming of the coffee shops around Pharganj and occasionally fetching me some food. 2 more days & things had actually somehow gotten worse, pressure was building up now so back to hospital we went. A new Doc, lots more tests and a different diagnosis. This time it was Uveitis – a lot more serious apparently as it required twice the handful of drugs. Thankfully this time though the drugs took affect immediately and by the next day I could interact with the world again (sunglasses firmly in place of course) and start catching up on our Delhi explorations – albeit with cloudy vision from the drugs and sporting one freaky engorged, dilated pupil.

Since then I have been enjoying a different kind of India and terrorising the locals with my wild, deranged, pupil look. Most people don’t really notice what it is about me – but the beggars, touts & sadhu’s are now all keeping their distance. On closer study no-one wants to deal with the ‘half deranged, high foreign guy’, whose left eye is slightly crazier than theirs and can’t seem to focus.

The infection, you see is a bit of a mystery. They are not sure how you get it and no-one seems to know how long it lasts – 8-10 weeks, 1 year? Google for once has been unable to provide any real clarity in the form of self diagnosis? All I do know is that I need to keep taking these steroid eye drops 6 times a day and if I stop it will likely reappear. For the moment though, I am quite enjoying it. Having a little more personal space in India is quite the luxury and combined with an enforced, extended break from using the computer (sorry all), there is actually some upside, truth be told. Perhaps there is a divine purpose here after all….. 😉


Encountering India

Everyone says that ‘nothing really prepares you for India’, that sprawling explosion of humanity that is sole survivor to the world’s classic civilizations. We approached […]

Everyone says that ‘nothing really prepares you for India’, that sprawling explosion of humanity that is sole survivor to the world’s classic civilizations. We approached India full of tales of its extremes of poverty, destitution and turbulence; blended with the endless fascination of its mysticism, history, sights and religious fervours. Ideas all spiced perhaps by minor insights gleaned through intersecting interests in music, cricket, bollywood, Indian food and IT. Many people have told me that I would start loving India the moment I left and that this love would grow every day thereafter – an insight perhaps into both the trials ahead and the constitution of the purveyors of such advice 😉

With such advice ever present in our minds though, we entered India keenly excited to forge our own paths and tales, tempered I guess with a sense of expectation or even trepidation at the experience ahead. Surprisingly though this shock never really came and instead it has been superseded by an endless series of fascinating encounters and adventures, each uniquely amazing and engaging in its own right, but all strangely disappointing in their inability to match the dreaded hype. Perhaps though, we had simply just found the answer to that cryptic metaphor – nothing prepares you for India… except perhaps Nepal?

Jeep ride to the Border

From the moment we crossed the Indian / Nepali border at Saunali & cautiously hastened to meet the India we had read, seen and heard so much about; we embarked on a series of escalations in crowd, colour and scale, somewhat equally balanced by an unexpected, but significant improvement in both safety and infrastructure from the Nepal that we had left behind. Having just survived the busride from hell from Pokhara, care of a drunk demonically possessed, mobile wielding driver; a journey that bonded its foreign passengers for life through the shared miracle of survival. Thus connected, we teamed up with a Canadian couple in Lumbini (birthplace of Buddha) for the walk across the Indian border and having been forewarned by a Japanese woman about her friends being robbed by bandits on the bus to Varanasi, we instead decided to grab a share jeep to Gorahkpur (2-3 hours away) to catch a train.

We had literally been in the country 10 minutes, when our jeep was pulled over by the local Mafia. A large, well-built Indian wrenched open the door & proceeded to try and physically intimidate us into separating us from our train tickets (in order to buy new fake ones) or else be escorted from the country. Surprised, flustered and pissed at the confusing intrusion, we somehow managed to dodge the scam and pull away in a heightened state of tense, nervy euphoria. The rest of the passengers in the jeep (mostly Indians & Nepali’s) simply sat there placidly throughout, pretending as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened & perhaps that was the case. Welcome to India!

After an otherwise uneventful and almost enjoyable drive through hazy, rural plains (Indian roads were a vast improvement on Nepali roads & buses) we reached Gorahkpur where we caught an overnight train to Varanasi, a trip of some 10 hours. At Varanasi station, as we waited to book ongoing tickets at the tourist office before embarking – tales from other travellers began to float to the surface, (this seems to happen almost religiously among travellers in India). After numerous warnings about the scams awaiting us outside the door, one Spanish guy then told us how had been taken aside by an Indian guy in uniform at Delhi station and escorted to an official looking room on the station platform where they forced him into booking an expensive hotel, train and taxi to the value of US$300. (None of which existed) – the taxi then dropped him off in the middle of nowhere. Another British girl then told us how she had been on a bus when the driver had hit and killed a person on the road. The angered villagers had then stormed the bus, pulled the driver off and beaten him to death. Her advice if we ever witness an accident – don’t hang around to watch, get out of there as soon as you can (something we ignored a short time later when our rickshaw driver hit someone in a crowded market and got pulled out of his seat and into a fist fight)!

Coupled with our own paranoia though, these stories seemed to resonate seamlessly with the ominous threat posed by the vulture like heads of the rickshaw touts, as they repeatedly peered into the windows of the station booking office at us – sensing fresh prey. With nowhere further to hide and working as a four team unit with our Canadian friends Jo & Ian, we took some deep breaths, shouldered our packs and plunged into the ether of Varanasi station and our first real taste of India.


Varanasi is India’s holiest, oldest and most confronting city. From the moment you leave the station, rickshaw touts & taxis maul you for attention. Later hotel and boat touts, begging Sadhu’s, kids selling flowers / candles, street food vendors or the ‘hand massage’ scam guys – all take turns to  hound you as you walk anywhere around the old city or along the river itself. A thriving, dirty congested ancient metropolis built in a labyrinth along the river Ganges – the city confounds in its many sights. All day (and night) bodies burn on wooden funeral pyres or are simply dumped from the back of a boat into the same river that people bathe, worship, wash & dry bright fabrics and clothes, scrub their cows or any other of a seemingly endless litany of purifications and activities that mark its steps (ghats). By sunset the main ghats resound with lights, smoke, bells and music of the nightly Puja’s where costumed young androgynous men, perform a series of dances and ritualized ceremonies in front of thousands of guests both onshore and in row boats, against the dark backdrop of floating candles and distant embers of funeral pyres. Back from the ghats and river itself, a confusion of thin, cow clogged alleys and passageways link a fascinating treasure trove of temples, guesthouses, cafe’s, shops, music / yoga studio’s and innumerable other mysterious old buildings. Locals and tourists alike whisper rumours of this guru or that spiritual baba being in town, in much the same way western actors stir gossip in the daily tabloids.

Yet, with all this, Varanasi resonates with an over-riding peaceful and relaxing energy- it offers a sense of purity and spiritual magnetism that intoxicates you. Drunk with its sights and experiences, it is not nearly as shocking as we had imagined and once you slow down and relax into its pace – you become enchanted by the cycles of death and everyday life endlessly paraded on its shores. The ability to sit with a chai or some street food; chat to a Sadhu; enjoy lunch from the many wonderful cafe’s; watch a tabla or sitar performance or more often simply mediate and contemplate Varanasi’s many sights and wonders is balancing all in itself. Street side harassments give way to fun and creative interplay and as you tune into this more and more, the chaos starts to fade away and everything settles into its own rhythm – even the  touts, kids and sadhu’s start to recognize you and keep their distance.

Now, almost 8 weeks later and with many more cities, trains, hotels and religious sites under our belt  – India has only become more enjoyable this way. All that heightened tension and expectation has slowly unravelled into pleasant interactions. The India we have encountered is alive with colour, diversity, endless contradictions, fun and a strong spiritual presence that is completely hypnotic and more than enough compensation for the clamouring crowds, deceits and dodgy water – its primary detractions…


Annapurna Trek Part 3: The Pass, a Proposal & the descent

Continued from Part 2

Day 10 – Thorung Pedi to Muktinath (10 Hours trek, 16km, Ascend 1,000m, Descend 1,600m)

We got up at about 4.30 am – the cold, altitude, nightly toilet calls and early risers all around us, conspiring against any serious attempt at sleep. Armed with headlamps, innumerable layers, tea & bread we set off around 5.30 and started the slow, arduous climb up to high camp. The cold was immense and quickly permeated the dual layers of socks and my feeble apology for gloves, leaving everything numb. About halfway up the hill as the sky started to lighten, we saw other lights below us and closing quickly – a team of Israeli’s we had seen at breakfast. We struggled slowly forward, resting every 20 or so metres and expecting to be passed any second, but they never seemed to arrive. Later we found out from other trekkers, that 2 of the Israeli girls had suffered altitude sickness suddenly and one had collapsed, unconscious and had to be taken back down by horse.

Trail views

Trail views

Fortunately, we didn’t know this and our AMS fears were happily subsumed by the simple focus on breathing and the next step in front. Reaching the High Camp after an hour, we pushed on optimistically to a Teahouse, a few hours or so further along the path. Everything was buried in snow now, our path included, at times almost impossible to discern, despite the many early risers that had already gone through. The sun failed to materialize and the cloudy, overcast sky neglected to provide any relief to our freezing extremities. Above, lonely, snow covered peaks towered overhead, crested with thick layers of blue ice, perfect time capsules from many ages past. As we continued to slowly ascend over a series of hills, breathing became more and more difficult and we were now forced to stop every 10 or 20m. Almost entirely without conversation, we soldiered on mechanically, empathetically bonding with other trekkers as we passed them – a Korean guy, 2 older American women, an eccentric French woman and several others, many of whom we had met before.

Reaching the Teahouse, we dived in, glad of the respite. A small, dirty hut the teahouse interior was black from fires past and covered in rubbish and blackened blankets. An Israeli guy was inside, happily sheltering with his girlfriend – “Hey, did you see my toes?” was his welcome. Happy just to be out of the wind, we joined them and several porters shivering inside, ordered a hot tea and set about reviving hands and feet. The tea was a warming and necessary re-hydrant – our 3 water bottles had all frozen within 20 minutes of our start that morning, so we had been running dry as we would have to for most of the day.

After a 10 minute stop, we charged on, keen to keep moving and get this out of the way. Returning to the cold and the climb was daunting, but we slowly warmed up and fell into rhythm. I jumped to the front and was leading – trying to drive things steadily forward; thoughts firmly fixed and motivated by the summit.

I had determined back in Pokhara that I would propose to Megumi at the top. I had always intended to do it at some special point during our trip and when I was researching the trek it had seemed full of romantic promise – the highest point in our lives etc. I had though envisioned a bright, sunny day & us riding the high of the pass conquest, perhaps surprising her while posing for a photo at the top. I had even recruited the help of a Tibetan lady back in Pokhara to help find an interesting ring to mark the occasion. A cheap, green malachite stone, framed in silver it was a long way short of a diamond most definitely, by still quite symbolic (and practical given our travels), I could feel it burning a hole in my pocket where I had hidden it safely weeks ago awaiting this moment.

It was all so different now though – bitterly cold, windy and grim with determination, it felt a long way from any mood of celebration. Still I was determined to go through with it and this kept me going; brimming with love, thoughts and possible scenarios as I wondered where / how I would get the opportunity and how she would react given the circumstances. Around every new corner in the path a wind had was lurking – horrendously cold and loaded with fine ice like sandpaper – it rushed off the slopes and at times almost blasted us backwards as we walked. We had hoped to beat this wind (usually it peaked around 11am hence the early start), but over the last hour or so of the climb it seemed to grow in intensity adding a ferocious wind chill to the already substantial sub-zero temperatures.

Newly engaged @ Thorung La

Newly engaged @ Thorung La

Suddenly as we rounded a final bend, we could see a stack of Prayer Flags and a large rock cairn and knew we had reached the Thorung La pass and summit. Leading by a little way now, I stopped in front of the cairn, which was acting as a windbreak to wait for Megumi and saw Karna scurry off in the background for a toilet stop. I looked closely at Megumi – she was exhausted and barely able to breathe, she had been fantastically upbeat and in her element all trip, but she really looked close to the end of her tether here. I waited for her to arrive and gave her a huge hug of support and congratulations. And as she turned around to look for Karna, I took the chance to drop to a knee, prize a frozen glove off and somehow dig the ring out of its wrapping with my numb fingers. When she turned back to look at me, I managed to squeeze out the all important words – she was truly surprised and speechless. As it slowly sank in, she kind of nodded and then started crying, the tears visibly freezing into icy trails as they ran down her face. Panicked at this, I tried to settle her down and as Karna reappeared and the wind surged again, we quickly ran across to shelter in the teahouse.

Quickly arming ourselves with more of the world’s most expensive, but vital tea we collapsed into the tea-house – a tiny, dirty wooden shed with room for about 8 or so trekkers. We were mostly quiet, but all completely satisfied in our own way – me happy to have actually managed the proposal and made the top; Megumi glowing and seemingly subsumed by and processing her newfound status with loving smiles and much fondling of the ring; even Karna was simply glad to have made the pass without any trouble and issues with the hole in his shoe. The eccentric Frenchwomen, another older couple and several porters also made an appearance with warm though tempered greetings. After 5 minutes, some readjusting of our gear and a couple of deep breaths we decided to push on to warmer, lower climes as soon as we could and after a few quick photo’s to mark the moment (the camera was frozen & barely working), we forged back into the icy wind and began the journey down.

Gazing into Mustang

Gazing into Mustang

Still beset by the wind, the path continued gently downward for another 3km, slowly revealing the stunning vista’s of Mustang – a spectacular fusion of snow peaks and brown valleys. Although still numb from the cold, we made good time now that we were breathing normally and were soon descending back below the snowline. The path then became very steep and often precariously covered in gravel and ice. With gravity on our side, we slipped and slid down cliff-faces and danced dangerously along ridge tops, contentedly rejoicing in our ability to breathe normally again.

For more than 3 hours, we plunged downhill into the dusty valleys, attracted like moths to the distant sight of the villages, until finally we reached a teahouse and feasted on some soup – our first real meal of the day apart from chocolate and energy bars. Another hour and we arrived in Muktinath, Nepal’s second most famous Hindu site and Buddhist temple where the hills were covered in cobwebs of prayer flags. With barely a sideways glance at the temples, we quickly stormed past the pilgrims and trinkets stalls to our destination, the Bob Marley Guesthouse.



Completely exhausted, the guesthouse was like an oasis. Basking in our first hot shower in 6 days along with carpeted rooms, mirrors and an open fireplace; we ordered a series of beers to celebrate simply arriving and the successful conquest of the pass with Karna. Many other trekkers soon arrived and we greeted each warmly, familiar faces now and comrades in arms – language and cultural barriers all momentarily a thing of the past. Later, we pulled ourselves away from the fire to have dinner and reluctantly reporting upstairs we were thrust in front of another couple by the Nepali staff. Somewhat uncomfortable and kind of craving a private table given the occasion, we happily discovered the reason for the forced intimacy- the table was heated by coals beneath, a kind of dining table ‘kotatsu’; even better though the other couple were 2 Aussies from Perth, Lindz and Catie and of particularly good humour – which had been about the only thing really missing from the trek so far. Cheered by familiar Aussie banter, good food, a few beverages and the warmth, Megumi decided to order a celebratory “Hot Bob Special”, only to discover that the hot chocolate, rum concoction she had just drained also contained marijuana – a fact which promptly forced her early retirement. I decided to stay on chatting with the couple and some other trekkers and in the process of the conversation casually remarked (in line with my own realization), that I had proposed earlier that day. The news met was met with heartfelt congratulations and sharing of other engagement tales which gave me some time to finally reflect. Funny how that happens though, it was such an immense day – physically, psychologically and mentally – that the engagement itself had really represented a very, small part in it all and it was only really then, actually talking about it for the first time with strangers that it seemed to become real somehow. It has loomed larger ever since of course and the crossing itself has faded more and more into the background in comparison, but it certainly did not feel that way then.

Day 11 – Muktinath to Kagbeni (4 Hours trek, 6km, 1,000m descent)

The next day, after a well deserved sleep in of sorts, we assaulted our much maligned muscles with the climb back up the path to the Muktinath and explored the complex with Karna. He took us on a tour of the Hindi & Buddhist temples and sacred site (fire actually gas naturally comes out of a stream here, all cased inside a Buddhist temple). Amazing though that these 2 religions can so perfectly share the same sacred sites like this; if only Jews and Muslims could do the same?

Upper Mustang, Kagbeni

Upper Mustang, Kagbeni

Afterwards, we gathered our things and began our casual walk down the valley to Kagbeni. This was possibly the most splendid day of sightseeing of the entire trek, the great brown, valleys of Mustang; with their hilltop monasteries and medieval towns all provided a spectacular backdrop to our relaxed and roaming minds. As we plodded downhill, behind us the peak of Thorung La became clearly visible and every step seemed to yield a new and greater view of the descent we had made the day before. Ahead in the distance the massive peaks of Dailgiri and Nilgiri beckoned and the valley opened up into a steep ravine – the eroded walls of the Jhong Khola river, home to innumerable caves and fascinating rock formations

Stopping briefly at the small town of Jharkhot to explore the 500 year old Tibetan monastery and ruins of a fort, we arrived in Kagbeni early afternoon. Kagbeni is where the Khola river meets the mighty Kali Gandaki river and acts as a gateway to Upper Mustang. Our arrival was greeted by a shrill, dusty wind that echoed along the river floor with gusts that almost took us off our feet on the descent into the village. After checking into the Asian Trekkers Inn and magically procuring a room with our own bathroom, we explored the town – revelling in the tiny, winding medieval back alleys, ancient gompa and houses with first floor stables. One side of town provides fantastic views of the forbidden zone – Upper Mustang and several restaurants tempt with their quaintness, most particularly “YakDonalds”. At dinner back at the Inn, we were happy to reacquaint ourselves with Catie & Lindz, the Aussie couple from Bob Marley and together with an eccentric Spanish woman managed to happily trade tales, til late in the evening fired perhaps by warmth of another dinner table kotatsu.

Day 12 – Kagbeni to Marpha (5 Hours trek, 15km)

The following day we walked along the 1km wide Kali Gandaki river bed to Jomson, setting out early in order to arrive ahead of the noon wind that we had experienced the previous evening. After more stupendous views and rock formations along the ravine floor we reach Jomson, our most civilized stop on route and home to an “airstrip”. We hungrily fall upon the ATM (the only one in the entire trek) to replenish our wallets for the first time since the start of  our journey; somehow we had managed to budget everything to perfection to get there, but there was precious little room for the unplanned. Here we also ran into several other fellow trekkers from the crossing and before – several seemed to be fatigued and getting sick – bodies in a state of collapse after the stresses of the crossing. Whereas for the last dozen days, we had all been forced to more or less mirror each others pace and progress, now with advent of jeep roads, planes and pleasant environs – our paths would all dramatically diverge. We said some goodbyes and then take lunch overlooking the Nigiri mountain range, chatting to an old, retired Japanese couple who had just seen their flight cancelled by the same winds we had walked hard to avoid.

Monastery view, Marpha

Monastery view, Marpha

The 2 hour walk to Marpha was much harder than planned. Buffeted by the winds along the valley floor, our dusk masks firmly in place as though in a Western, at times we made little headway at all – almost walking to s standstill. Marpha was worth it though – a beautiful, quaint little town famous for its monastery and Apple orchards. With a little shopping around, we secured a large sunny room with bathroom & courtyard, overlooking an Apple orchard and were able to do some washing for the first time in more than a week. Exploring the town later was a real treat – the streets perfectly clean and lined with Tibetan giftshops, the houses and guesthouses all neat whitewashed and beautifully presented. A beautiful Gompa and meditation centre dominated the township and a walk up the stairs to the temple yielded stunning views. In the meditation centre, young monks were busy practicing chanting mantra’s and an old lama invited us to his meditation chamber – peaceful and incredibly tranquil he sat in a trance, eyes closed lost in his chanting – unable to match the peace for long, we prize ourselves away with great reluctance.

For the following day, we had decided to skip a couple of days walking and catch a bus to Tatopani Hot Springs, as Megumi’s knee had not fully recovered from the descent down the pass (Actually I think she just wanted to fast track the hot springs). With the prospect of Karna not having to carry a pack the next day as a result, we were able to celebrate with a few beers and some Apple brandy late in to the evening, along with another young Sherpa who was staying at the same guesthouse having just returned from a failed attempt with a large French party at climbing nearby Mt Tuchre.

Day 13 – Marpha to Tatopani (4 Hours drive, 30 km, 1,000m descent)

The bus to Tatopani required an early start and unfortunately, a very tight fitting seat. Apart from an Israeli couple and 2 English girls, the rest of the passengers were largely local and young. All seemed in possession of large bags, boxes and bottles of Apple brandy for sale at some larger township down the valley somewhere. At one point, we had to stop for half an hour while everyone on the bus investigated their respective stash in an attempt to locate the leak that was working its way down the centre of the bus. The culprit it turned out was a 4 litre plastic oil can filled with Brandy – as a result of the bumpy bus ride it had swollen to the shape of a soccer ball and on removal from its plastic hiding place proceeded to arc an alcoholic stream several metres distant.

Tatopani Hotspring

Tatopani Hotspring

After 4 hours of anaerobic jerking, down a cliff-side track most backs will usually protest, mine actually went on complete strike – so our arrival at the Hotspring in Tatopani was intensely welcome. The Hot spring as it turns out was a small concrete pool down by the river, that while pleasantly warm was certainly a long way from the Japanese onsen that I had envisioned. Megumi though, was not in the least put off and happily wiled away the afternoon, under the fascinated eyes of the other porters, all reporting in to the hot spring for a big scrub ahead of their respective returns to civilization.

Later in the afternoon, we sat in a small local house drinking glasses of Chyang and interacting with a local family and their baby child, while another studied economics. Megumi was playing professional photographer and had everyone posing for portraits that we promised to send later on. Happily content as the day slipped away, one of the Belgians from a group we had got to know at the start of the trek stuck his head in to enquire after our crossing. After telling him of our engagement, he extended his congratulations and told us that the high altitude had also triggered a similar resolve in him. Having taken the trip originally to escape with his mates, he had had a moment of clarity and intended to rush home to propose to his long term girlfriend.

Day 14 – Tatopani to Pokhara (8 Hours drive, 50km)

Originally, we had planned to hike across to Gorepani and complete our circuit with the stunning, central view of the mountains we had just circumnavigated. Unfortunately though, this now represented a steep 8 hour ascent and an equally intense descent and Megumi felt her knee really wasn’t up to it. Truth be told post pass, conquest, the onsen and everything else I was exaactly jumping out of my skin either.

Braving the bus

Braving the bus

Instead, (and in my case accompanied by stomach cramps), we braved the local road and back protests to take a Jeep down the mountainside. This actually required flagging a lift, after a 2 hour stakeout for a bus that wouldn’t leave without a full complement of passengers failed to materialize (we had 6, they needed 15 to move). The entire 2 hour trip down the cliff face was then spent mesmerized by the charms of 2 funky 20 something Nepali jeepsters, as they proceeded to almost surf the vehicle down the rough mountain passes. This was enacted through a series of smooth, well-practiced manoeuvres such as trading places without stopping the vehicle (1 would open the door, step out onto the bonnet and walk across to the passenger door, while the other simply slid into the drivers seat); pausing along the road to jump from jeep onto a wall to collect fresh mandarins from a tree; down to the sharing of a scammed cigarette from passing villagers and the procuring of fares and cargo from locals as they passed through villages; everything had the seamless flow that comes from a genuine, relaxed & fun loving demeanour – something Nepali’s seem to ooze.

At Beni, Karna took us to meet his sister’s for lunch. A tiny, 2 room concrete apartment set high into the hill and well below the poverty line, we humbly sat on straw matting on the floor and ate Dahl Baht – specially cooked for us. Then acting the photographers we again took a series of photographs of the family, which we promised to print and send, before jumping on a bus for the epic trip back to Pokhara. A little should be said on this as possible, but after 5 hours of constant vibrations, stomach cramps and seemingly endless single lane, cliff-top overtaking, reversing or passing manoeuvres in the dark, we were relieved to arrive back at our hotel around 8pm.


This is all rather epic documentation I know, but it had been almost 15 days and it felt like so much more. So much time seemed to pass and so many things change…. Whether from the altitude or trekking experience itself and its encounters with people harking back to another age or the stunning scenery; to a new engagement and life of commitment and new friends; or the sense of satisfaction that comes from simply achieving a new physical feat and the heightened awareness / humility that perhaps comes from living without creature comforts and a fresh changes of clothes. You learn so much about yourself without trying too hard sometimes and upon returning, all these thoughts and experiences seem to swim around me like parts of a new suit, waiting to be properly fitted. I can’t wait for it to settle and to take it all for its next walk!


Annapurna Trek Part 2: Acclimitization

Continued from Part 1

Day 5 – Chame to Gyaru (8 hrs trekking, 19 km, 1,020m rise)

After an early start, the morning was spent steadily climbing to higher altitudes, through pine forests and expansive valleys while the Marsyandi river rapids continued to snake far below. The Annapurna snow peaks now dominate the horizon and each new bend in the path or crest in the valley, yields increasingly more resplendent views and angles. We pass through a ruined village, remnants of a former Tibetan Khampa (warrior) camp from the days of armed Tibetan resistance to the Chinese, now little more than shelter to passing porters. The villages now featured large Mani’s, rows of Tibetan prayer wheels, at both their entrance and exits and we could increasingly frequently spy Gompa’s (Tibetan Monasteries) and prayer flags ensconced in the clutches of remote clifftops.

After a few hours, a huge granite wall appears and dominates a large portion of the mornings trekking, the sheer face seems to ascend perfectly upwards and Karna reveals this is a holy site to many of the local Gurungs. Named ‘Paungi Dandi’ or ‘gateway to heaven’, it is believed to be where the dead ascend to heaven. Shamans hold rituals at the base for the deceased and the trail is littered by rocks arranged in neat pyramids and silks scarves tied around bushes and pines – prayers and offerings to the departed.

Medieval Upper Pisang

Medieval Upper Pisang

Continuing uphill, from mid morning the road divides into ‘Upper and Lower Pisang’ routes and we break from the main path to take the higher road. While considerably more challenging, we have read that this is the more spectacular view and experience, the villages more interesting and untouched – it will also be our first taste of higher altitudes and give us a good chance at some acclimatization. Immediately the change is obvious and we have the road to ourselves, blessedly free from other trekkers for seemingly the first time – our imaginations are suddenly sparked and free to roam unchecked. The river drops away to the floor of the valley and we rise up the valley wall. After a tough few hours climbing the thin, winding goat-track path, we reach the village of Upper Pisang, a rocky almost medieval town built into the mountainside and watched over by a large Gompa above. The surrounding land here is above the tree-line and brown and barren. Horses, goats and cows roam fields littered with round stones and bordered in turn by metre high stone walls, on entering the village we sight our first yak seated calmly in a straw covered courtyard. It looks a more desperate existence here, the Tibetan people are browner, tougher, more hardened – you can tell that the wind howls through here. The village itself is fascinating; the stoned paved alleys that link the town, reveal a complex warren of stone houses that fuse stables, living quarters and wood storage into a 3d labyrnth up the hill. Many places seem abandoned.

We pause for lunch to take in this new environment, our original objective and perhaps inspired decide to forge onto the next town. The trail continues softly along the valley wall for a while, ducking in and out of scattered pines and a beautiful, clear aqua lake. Then suddenly we are faced with a huge swollen incline crested by a Gompa. Depressingly we see a path snaking its way directly up the slope and realize we may have been too ambitious here. For 2 hours we slowly zig zag up the mountains, a 500m rise and by far our hardest climb so far. For company,  we are egged on by a team of porters, good naturedly chasing their patrons up the slope into the setting sun. Every 50m or so, we are forced to stop and catch our breath, our first taste of altitude and far from a pleasant one.

Central Heating, Gyaru

Central Heating, Gyaru

Eventually though and truly exhausted we reach Gyaru, another medieval stone town and at 3,700m, far higher than I have ever been in my life. At the top we are greeted by stunning vista’s of the mountains, a definite fatigue reliever. The nearest guesthouse, the Yakru Mount View (their are only 2) is a 2 storey construction, built around a hollow central lounge room with fireplace – you can tell that this is essentially efficient and we secure a nice room overlooking the mountains. The young manager is playing some impressively funky music which helps to keep us warm in the fading light. It quickly becomes freezing  and we settle in with an older english trekker around the fire, happily immersed in intimate conversation, until the embers start to fade.

Day 6 – Gyaru to Manang (6 hrs trekking, 15 km, 190m fall)

After a sleepless night, a common symptom of altitude, we wake up to find the weather has closed in and the brilliant surrounding vista of yesterday afternoon has been with-held ominously from view. After a breakfast of Tibetan bread, (kind of like dampa, fried like a pancake and my new staple) we head outside and feel the first faint tickles of snowfall. For the first couple of hours we trek in the light snow along a thin, winding trail through pines and bushes regaled in the full spectrum of Autumns shades. Despite the weather and clouds covering the peaks, the views remain breath-taking and we are happily entertained. Walking comfortably along flat tracks, after the previous days climb, we reach Ngawal, another medieval stone town, set into the barren hill side and beset with the usual prayer flags and mani’s.

Looking back from Ngawal

Looking back from Ngawal

After tea in Ngawal, the snow gets heavier and more serious, the path on the stoney, thinly forrested higher altitude is very exposed and the constant snow means we are soon wet and freezing. We accelerate and button down for the long 3 hour trek to Manang; the walking turns into a slow endless and relentless drive to get there, Megumi is noticeably fading just as we reach town. We arrive to find that with the weather, the town is backed up with other trekkers, Manang is a reasonably sized village and normally somewhere that trekkers stay a couple of days in order to help acclimitization. On this occasion, the poor weather has mean’t  that no-one has moved on and we are forced to take the only room we can. A wooden hut, down a muddy path at the back of a hotel. We take dinner early and retire exhausted and freezing, as the snow continues to fall steadily outside.

Day 7 – Around Manang

It is another sleepless night and I hope that I can acclimatise soon, you seem to dream more at altitude as well I think, which takes some getting used to. Outside everything is white and covered with snow, but there is blue sky about and the weather is clearing. We have decided to take a rest day as well and use the time to acclimatize by exploring some of the surrounding area.

After a solid breakfast and blessedly free of packs, we embark on a climb up to Prakeen Gompa, situated high on the cliff-face above Manang. As we climb, the  weather clears and we are gifted with a constantly shifting series of glimpses at the stunning peaks that surround us in all directions. It takes about an hour and a half to scramble up to the vertical path to the Gompa- as we get closer to the top, we are again forced to stop every few metres to get our breath and stay thumping hearts as the higher altitude takes its toll. One guidebook says this is 4,500 metres, another 3,900 – Karna thinks its the former – even he is blowing hard .

Tibetan Lama Blessings

Blessings from a Tibetan Lama

At the top, we stop to catch our breath and then enter the Gompa. A 93 year old Tibetan Lama and his wife live here, the Lama is famed for providing blessings to trekkers who are crossing the Thorung La pass for a small donation which is why we are here. He greets us in a grimy temple cut into the cliff wall and then individually performs the blessing. First by giving us some medicine for the pass – small black seeds that we wash down with a special oil. He then places a braided necklace around our necks, to act as a charm for the crossing; and finally uses a Tibetan prayer within its protective wooden case to anoint our heads. Afterwards we are served tea and chat with him amicably. He, like everyone we seem to meet here, is fascinated by Megumi – with her nose ring and slightly mongolian cheekbones /nose, she looks convincingly  Nepali or Tibetan; but her clothes just don’t fit. Megumi buys some prayer beads from him and he tells us he has lived in this cave for more than 40 years.

Mountain Gompa

Mountain Gompa

Feeling considerably energised and empowered by this experience, we depart the Gompa and charge back down the mountainside, shimmying down cliff faces and goat tracks across to a couple of other hilltop Gompa’s on our way to the neighbouring town of Braga. The views were breathtaking, the peaks continuing their games of hide and seek with the clouds, so that full paroramic was never quite in view. There is something about the mountains here that makes the spirits soar, I can see why the Tibetans dedicate themselves so wholly and successfully to pursuits of the spirit, the air tingles with a heightened consciousness and self clarity here, amplified a hundredfold by the vastness, solitude and immensity of nature.

After exploring the clifftown of Braga, we returned to Manang blending back into the menagerie of trekkers acclimitizing. There are more and more familiar faces now – a strange, eclectic mix and not quite the band of soulsearchers I had envisioned; at times, the place has more the feel of a European ski resort. Tomorrow, we make for Letdar, some 4100 metres and the the first real test for altitude sickness and although we climbed higher than that today, above 3,500metres you can only rise by 300m per day in order to allow your body to acclimitize. Should be interesting.

Day 8 – Manang to Letdar (3 hr trek, 10km, 660m rise)

We rise at 6am to have breakfast and set off by 7am. We are determined to beat the crowd and ensure a decent place to sleep at the next locale. The trail rises slowly and the altitude ensures we are constantly out of breath, it is very slow going. Megumi in particularly is really suffering and unable to breath – its her birthday today, a little unplanned and hard to make much of a fuss given where we are. The morning starts out cold and drizzling but slowly clears and the mountain views steadily improve. After a few hours, we reach Yak Kharaka and cross the snowline. The hills are covered with Yaks grazing here, it is where all the locals in the area put their yaks out to pasture.

Yak mustering

Yak mustering

An hour further down the track we reach Letdar, there are 3 hotels and little else. These aclimitizations villages seem to becoming a littlew more desperate and isolated the higher we get. The first is already full care of a tour group and and at the second we are shown a twin room in a mud cave that has more akin with a stables, not quite what Megumi is up for on her birthday. Despite her fatigue and willingness for whatever, I stubbornly head back down the hill fortunately finding a Sunny room at our 3rd and last option.

Later in the afternoon, we walk back down past the yak mustering to Yak Karkha to give Megumi a reprieve from her fatigue (a major sign of AMS). There is a lodge here that is also famous for having some of the best chocolate cake on the circuit, so she is able to dine out a little and considerably raise her spirits. Not much of a birthday this and I didn’t even bring a present along, but I do have other plans further along!

We have some Diamox with dinner and bond over the cold, with a couple from Slovakia and a Korean trekker. Sleeping is a nightmare and the Diamox ensures we have to get up and brave the -5 / 10 degree weather every hour to get to the toilet.

Day 9 – Letdar to Thorung Pedi (3 hr trek, 5km, 400m rise)

Megumi wakes up feeling much better in the morning and we stomp the couple of hours along the rocky path in the mountainside to Thorung Pedi in very good time. The path is a slow climb, but not challenging with fantastic views back to Annapurna 2 and Gangapurna. We spend some time behind a trek group of some 15 Germans which makes us feel a lot better about ourselves and also pass see a huge group of Musk deer grazing.

Path to Thorung Pedi

Path to Thorung Pedi

On reaching Thorung Pedi, we fiork out an extra 200 RP for a room with an attached bathroom – quaking at the idea of venturing outdoors all night to the alternative. After a fortifying lunch of soup and baked potato’s we trek the hour and a half up to the high camp (4,850m) for some more acclimitization practice. It is an arduous climb and we can barely make 20 metres at a time without stopping short of breath. The steep snow and ice covered path is also quite hazardous and a daunting prospect for tomorrow. We stop at the teahouse and engage with our former english acquaintence and another older Irish chap before heading back down the hill.

Tomorrow is intimidating and there is little prospect of sleep. We need to trek for 9-10 hours tomorrow, the first 5 hours will be a tough, freezing high altitude climb to the pass of Thorung La, followed by a nightmare, 4 hour descent. All the conversations at the dinner table are quite restrained and sober as a result – everyone is feeling the effects of the altitide and focused on the big day ahead. It is freezing cold and we decide to retreat to our sleeping bags relatively early. Kana also manages to steal a few blankets for us. Our -20 degree rating on the sleeping bags has been sorely tested and come up short the last 2 nights.

Continue reading Part 3


Annapurna Trek Part 1 – Uphill

As one of the longest (and most popular) treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit is a 15-21 day hike that follows.....

As possibly one the bigger undertakings in our lives to date, this part of our adventure is impossible to throw up in a single blog. Apart from the amazing sights, people, cultures, mountains and the auspicious peak crossing (and engagement proposal) itself – there is also the simple fact that there was not a lot to do when the sun goes down… other than stay warm and make a few notes. While one could easily write a book on it (as many people seem to do here), I will try to simply capture the more salient experiences for posterity, but bear with me as I serialize this a little bit.

Annapurna Circuit Basics

Annapurna Circuit Basics

From Kathmandu, we braved a 7 hr bus ride through the scenic valleys, rice paddies & villages of the Prithi highway to Pokhara, a peaceful lakeside city in central Nepal. Whereas Kathmandu has a big city, chaos complex, Pokhara retains much of  it’s hippie vibe and the tourist part of town (Lakeside) is happily insulated from the world and home to both long term travelers relaxing and soaking up a low cost, alternate lifestyle and a myriad of trekkers (largely Euro’s) preparing to savour the surrounding mountains that completely dominate the horizon.

As one of the longest (and most popular) treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit is a 15-21 day hike that follows a course along two rivers – up, over and around the stunning mountain range known as the Annapurna’s – a region containing 3 of the 8 tallest mountains in the world; the highest pass; highest lake and the deepest ravine – all following trails that used to represent salt trading routes linking the villages and tribes between Nepal and Tibet for thousands of years. What makes the circuit most amazing though,  is its accessibility and the ease with which it allows you to navigate and engage with this part of the world, as you stay & eat at local tea-houses in ancient villages scattered, every few hours along the valleys and mountains along the way.

Our porter - Karna

Our porter - Karna

This was our goal anyway and while Megumi haunted our hotels’ wi-fi trying to finish her project, I stalked internet cafe’s, updated our site and spent time researching and talking to trekking companies under the taunting shadows of the Annapurna range. As many of my friends will atest I am a long way off any form of peak fitness, so you can imagine this undertaking came not without equal doses of both excitement and trepidation. After chatting to a few companies, I found some guys I connected well with and proceeded to hire an english speaking, porter to carry our main backpack (Megumi had injured her shoulder doing back somersaults from a high wire in Laos and I was not exactly fit, so it seemed liked the smart thing to do given our reservations). Not keen to be stuck with someone we didn’t like for 15 days though, we took this hiring process pretty cautiously, interviewing a few and actually ended up waiting an extra day to ensure we got a porter (Karna) who we felt especially comfortable with. With that sorted out, officially registered, some last minute hiring of down sleeping bags and jackets (when told it was likely to hit -15 degrees up top at night) and a quick stockpiling of drugs, energy bars & chocolates, we were ready to go.

Day 1 – Pokhara to BesiSahar (5 hr Bus) / trek to Ngadi (13km / 4 hrs)

Our porter Karna (running late), picked us up from our hotel at 6.30am in order to catch a local bus to our trek start point, some 100km (5 hours) distant. Catching a local bus in Nepal is a fascinating experience. The TATA buses tend to be brightly, almost psychedelically decked out and operated by a tight team of 2-3 individuals. Firstly, a driver who is completely focused on the somewhat extensive demands of driving along unsealed, one-lane cliff-faces at high speed; dodging oncoming traffic and sounding his ‘ring tone-esque’ horn ahead of every curve. He is closely partnered by a chief facilitator who hangs out the bus side door banging the side of the bus & ringing another horn in a code that seems to provide the driver direction on possible stops, fares, unsighted bends, road edges and reversing dangers; while at the same time managing to tout for additional fares to anyone they pass. All this is accompanied of course by blaring high pitched, bollywood female vocalists and a 4/4 drum beat, pumped through a nervously, thin speaker that amazingly seems to synch perfectly with every challenge the road throws up and the rolling rhythmic gate of passenger heads. The end experience – a constantly interrupted journey of jolts, yells, bangs, beats and melodies that works seamlessly together, as the bus team relentlessly compliment the full seated trekker passengers, with any passing fare from villagers, sacks or chickens that they can conjur.

Rice Terraces

Rice Terraces

After that extended education safely in the bag, we arrived at BesiSahar and decided to forego the jeep journey up the newly laid road and begin walking, at the very least to break in a few muscles with an easy day. We followed the rough, relatively flat, jeep road for a few hours along the winding course of the Marsyandi river, through hills brimming with rice terraces on the verge of harvest and local swarms of Gurung kids attempting to apprise us of our pens. Upon coming to the small village of BhuleBhule, the road noticeably stopped and a bridge leapt over the raging river below marking the start of the new travel frontier ahead. A transition easily accentuated by the donkey trains backing up – all being loaded up with food, alcohol and other essential supplies for the higher markets, many days walk above.

For the first time the dawning realization hit us that  from here on in, there were no short-cuts or easy ways out. Commitment is a funny thing, for the next 12 days we would be on our own, the only way out from here was with our own 2 feet, or on the back of a donkey (excepting the expensive helicopter / plane  evac.) Any which way it would take several days now to return to safety. Its amazing how few times in life you are really required to commit to that much time and effort without some sort of net.

Beyond the road we plunged, onward to the small settlement of Ngadi, a series of guesthouses clustered together into a tiny community, where we proceeded to grab a room in one overlooking the river. Arriving mid afternoon, we then watched trains of porters scurry desperately past, trying to catch their respective trekker groups, so that they can start setting up camp for the night. A group of 10 or so older trekkers in a group (most likely French) charge past. In the fading light of dusk they appear as though some forms of human arachnid – shiny, aluminium ski poles protrude unnervingly from hunched bodies, as though bionic grafted frontal limbs & accompanied by the scurrying, metallic CLIK CLAK sound of the poles searching randomly for grip in the rocks in the nature, an entirely alien and unsettling sight. We did actually bring a set of trekking poles ourselves, kindly donated by our porter and I swore to avoid them if at all possible.

Our Guesthouse, despite initial appearances is freezing cold and spartan, perhaps a too real introduction to the days ahead. Huddled into our dining room, for trekker company we have 2 aloof Frenchmen; a Mexican & an American girl, immersed in their knitting and a Canadian banker, Peter – plus an array of locals, guides and porters all waiting for us to finish dinner, so that they can themselves eat. Peter turns out to be our only real conversation, currently working his way from Mongolia, through Tibet & Nepal. We stay up late swapping world views, while everyone else retreats to the warmth of sleeping bags.

Day 2 – Ngadi to Chamche (8 hrs trekking, 16 km, 480m rise)

After an early start around 7am and a relatively even trail, we start hitting some more serious hills mid morning, as the river drops to the bottom of a deep ravine and we start to chart the path higher up the slope. Likely, this is just a small taste of things to come, but the going is tough, as I re-aquaint myself  with many muscles, long forgotten and reluctantly employed. Megumi seems to bound up the steep inclines,  but  I am beginning to have considerable self-doubts about my own fitness and preparation. As we follow the river, the hills give way to a huge gorge and the rice paddies either side appear to impossibly cascade  down the sides of the cliff-face & small isolated, villages dot the highest corners, seemingly completely inaccessible.

After a few hours we hear explosions echoing down the valley – blastings for a new road that seems destined to bring ‘civilization’ to this corner of the world. Thoughts flood my mind of the change taking place and the endless arguments for and against. Further up we pass a group of boys as young as 10, chipping impossibly away at the rockface, boring holes into cliffs for dynamiting and throwing loose rocks down the mountain side. I do wonder the death toll that this road racks up for these ‘workers’. With the task in front of them it will take years to complete, but they will get there – its is likely the only guaranteed employment around. For much of the afternoon, we follow the makings of the ‘new road’ relentlessly uphill, picking a trail through landsides and ‘blast sites’ till we reach the small village of Chamche.  Blowing hard, I am sore all over and completely exhausted!

We stay in a Tibetan Guesthouse in the centre of town, a pleasant lodge with nice (warmer) rooms and get our first chance to partake of the local liquer “chyang”, a sake like liquor made from rice. Over dinner we watch 4 generations of Tibetan women manage the lodge. The great grandmother parades around the living area chanting mantra’s, twirling beads and cleansing rooms with sage. One of the grand-daughters takes a shine to Megumi, who manufactures a paper crane from scrap to become an instant hit and essential playmate til bedtime.

Day 3 – Chamche to Danaqyu (8 hrs trekking, 15 Km, 815m rise)

Another hard days trekking, the body endlessly protesting, but I do seem to find it a lot easier today than Megumi. Yesterday was lots 0f steep climbs, today is steady and I find that I can do ‘endurance’, its the shifting my weight vertically uphill that seems to be the problem! In the morning there is a steep climb and then more picking our way through road construction. Marijuana grows wild on the sides of the road here and the curious smell of dust and sensimilla adds a lingering strangeness to proceedings..

Pipe Carriers

Pipe Carriers

As the rice paddies, grasses slowly, give way to pine forests, we pass more and more donkey caravans, colourfully decorated and winding their way ever upwards with their precious cargoes; impressive in their ability to pick their way through the rocky crevasses. More amazingly we pass several locals barefoot and carrying a dozen, several metre length pipes on their backs up the desperately steep paths. A reminder of how isolated and remote the areas we are heading into really are, despite the seeming endless presence of other trekkers.

At the top of a hill, we pass a couple – the women is visibly upset, crying and seemingly lost in doubts. I know how they feel, though we seem to have very little room for hesitation. Karna is a godsend this way – quiet, friendly and assured, he maintains a steady, unerring pace and when we find it tough and start to falter he moves easily to the front, so that we can just match his assured and practiced footsteps. Already, I am not sure how we would do this without him. While we are carrying a day pack each, he is carrying a full backpack / sleeping bags and his own day pack on a frame half my size, yet never seems tired. Friendly with the locals, he is also able to easily pass on lots of insights and quickly get us settled into tea-house’s, often procuring local delicacies for us from the hidden kitchens – we have bonded pretty quickly.

At Danaqyu, we arrive quite late as the sun disappears behind the mountains and the temperature drops dramatically. We find a guesthouse (The Potala), run by another Tibetan lady that is otherwise empty, so as to guarantee us a hot shower. (There is usually only limited solar heating for a couple of these we have learned) While rooms are generally cheap (200 RP / night or US$3), food is where the tea-houses make their money (you have to eat where you stay) and meals are progressively getting more expensive every few hours now. A coke is up to 150R now, from 35 R 3 days ago. When everything comes up via donkey you have to expect that I guess.

Day 4 – Danaqyu to Chame (5 Hours, 12 km, 510m)

Supposedly a very tough climb to start the day, but it was surprisingly ok. The body still protests and seems to continually discover new untested muscles, but we seem to be getting fitter or at least used to it now. The dramatic, snow capped mountains of the Annapurna range start to pepper the horizons, as we ease up the valley and onto a plateau covered with crops and horses. Villages are slowly changing from the wood dwellings and farms of the Gurung people, into the stone and spartan lifestyles of the Tibetans.

It is a small hike today and we arrive in the thriving township of Chame about lunchtime with ample time to check into a nice, sunny, guest-house by the river and do some much needed washing, while the sun still shines. Chame comes across like one of the last real outposts and the village is an key administration centre. The town is a significant size and its paved streets expound with dozens of enterprising shops showcasing innumerable treasures invaluable to the trekker unprepared or desperate for comforts. We happily take in the sights and pride ourselves in our lack of temptation; Megumi manages to track down the towns, tiny little Hot spring.

Later, we meet Peter again and spend the evening around our guesthouse fire exchanging stories and news, along with a young German couple on their honeymoon and a troupe of 50+ yr old Belgians who we have been leapfrogging for the last 2 days.  An easy day and fresh comforts has everyone in a good mood and positive about the paths (and pass) looming ahead.

Continue reading Part 2

Continue reading Part 3