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Hitting the high spots in India and Nepal

Tourists can find exaltation in many forms: the people's heightened sense of spirituality, the demanding treks to mountainous camps, even an unceremonious trip up a tree, chased by an amorous rhino.

By RICK and CINDY OWENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


Tourists can find exaltation in many forms: the people's heightened sense of spirituality, the demanding treks to mountainous camps, even an unceremonious trip up a tree, chased by an amorous rhino.

It was after midnight when we cleared customs and changed money at Bombay Airport. Outside the airport, a pressing throng of touts and taxi drivers confronted us, all shouting that they had the best prices and rooms in Bombay.

We had been forewarned about the rigors of travel in India and the tremendous nuisance and inconvenience presented by the touts. After interviewing four drivers, we found one who knew where our hotel was and who insisted he would not attempt to take us to "his hotel," a ploy by which the drivers receive commissions from the hotels.

Bombay -- also called Mumbai -- is hectic and suffers from all the ills expected of major cities. The pace is fast, and the streets are clogged with people, bicycles, rickshaws, taxis and numerous "sacred cows" that manage to lumber through the traffic.

Our initial frustration and confusion slowly wore off, and after a few days we moved on by train, via Ahmadabad, to visit the hill town of Pushkar, 500 miles north of Bombay.

The train system in India is vast. If you have the time and patience, virtually any city can be reached by a combination of railways.

Bombay's Churchgate train station was mobbed. Crowds, yelling to get tickets, swamped the ticket windows. It turned out there had been an earthquake near Ahmadabad that took more than 20,000 lives.

We beat a swarm of people to a newly opened ticket window, got tickets and hastily boarded a train leaving for Ahmadabad. We had planned to stay overnight there, but the station was chaotic following the quake. We managed to get tickets to Pushkar, for 33 rupees each, or about 80 cents, for the eight-hour journey.

The bad news was that we were on the slowest kind of train in India. The coaches have only wooden bench seats; after that, it's standing room only.

People were thronged on the platform at Ahmadabad as the train rolled into the station. Even before the train stopped, bodies swarmed toward the doors. I pushed Cindy ahead up the steps. It was like trying to get a dozen people into a phone booth at the same time.

Cindy was wedged in the door entrance with another woman, but at least three people squirted through the door between her legs. I lost my grip on one door handle and swung perilously away from the train. The crowd surged again, pushing me hard enough against Cindy to propel her into the coach.

Pushkar, at an elevation of 3,000 feet, is a marked contrast to the streets of Bombay and chaos of Ahmadabad. It is considered a holy city by Hindus and overlooks sacred Nikki Lake.

This was our first real look at the spiritual side of India. Each morning and evening, flower-bedecked pilgrims solemnly descended to the ghats, a series of terraced steps at the base of the temples, to cleanse themselves in the holy water of the lake. We were moved by the sense of spirituality present.

We caught an uncrowded local train and headed toward Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. It was an all-day journey, but the ride was relaxed and the scenery pleasant, with endless green rice fields punctuating the frequent stops at small towns.

We ate street vendors' food but were careful. Although the basic ingredients are the same -- rice, potatoes and lentils (called dal bhat) -- the spices, preparation and taste varied widely from region to region. Street food is very cheap. Our combined expenses were well below $25 a day.

The train station at Agra plunged us back into the hassle of the big city. The Taj Mahal was incredible. After all the anticipation, it still surpassed our expectations. Getting to it involved negotiating a maze of tourist bazaars, but once inside the gates, the contrast was mind-boggling.

It was huge, with gleaming white marble walls, supported by graceful arches inlaid with beautiful marble designs, the most stunning architectural work we had ever seen.

* * *

We traveled by bus north to the Nepal border and then on to Pohkara, one of the gateways to the Himalayas. We arrived in Pohkara at sunset, just in time to get our first glimpse of the Himalayas. I could not take my eyes off them as I stood motionless, watching the shadows slowly creep up their slopes. They are stunning.

Pohkara lies at an altitude of 3,000 feet, at the base of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. Eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world, all higher than 26,000 feet, are in Nepal. Pohkara is a staging area for expeditions to two of these, Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri.

Everything in Pohkara seems to revolve around the mountains and trekking. Without any real discussion, we found ourselves seriously considering the possibilities of a trek.

Kamal, our hotel manager, had been a guide for several such treks. He arranged for one of the lesser treks, which would take us to an altitude of about 11,000 feet over a five-day period. That evening we met Krishna, who would be our guide and porter for the trek.

"Namaste, namaste," he greeted us. Roughly translated, that means, "I honor the god you pray to." It is an apt representation of the humbleness of the Nepali people.

Early the next morning, we rode about 25 miles in a taxi and then hiked 30 minutes to the entrance of the Annapurna Conservation Area Park.

Our destination for the first day was Ulleri, a hamlet about seven hours distant. The going at first was slightly uphill and easy. Soon we were on a dirt trail punctuated with stone steps. Dense jungle foliage was beautiful, alive with monkeys and howling birds. Streams cascaded down steep ravines.

As we climbed out of a narrow valley, we approached a swaying wooden footbridge supported by ropes. Krishna bounded across. Heights are not Cindy's strong suit, particularly with a roaring stream gushing over rocks 50 feet below. She hesitated.

She began, but about halfway across some of the planks were missing. Krishna was smiling. "Just step across and come over," he encouraged. She did, grinning back at me through clenched teeth.

The trail steepened and basically became a series of stone steps. These trails have existed for centuries, originally used by traders carrying salt and furs from Tibet to the flatlands of Nepal and on to India.

Donkeys passed us, heavily laden with supplies for the villages ahead. This is the only means of transportation for the area. The trail became steeper yet.

Now we were climbing on a series of cutbacks carved into the mountain. Clouds swirled in, and the temperature dropped abruptly. We took shelter in a small teahouse as it started to rain. It had become so cold that we dug out our extra clothes as it began to hail.

We set off as the clouds cleared. Our rest stops became longer and more frequent.

Ulleri consisted of eight or nine lodges built into a terraced hillside. Fortunately, ours was the first one, and as we entered we were greeted with a barrage of Namastes and hellos from an enthusiastic group of trekkers. Still panting from the altitude and the climb, we huddled close to a huge wood-burning stove.

Later we learned that we had climbed the infamous "3,000 steps" -- a gain of 4,000 feet in elevation -- considered the toughest part of the trek.

Accommodations on the Annapurna circuit are spartan and typically maintained by generations of owner-families.

Our dinner was basic: dal bhat, yak cheese and delicious Tibetan bread covered with buffalo butter. The meal cost $1.50 for the both of us.

The next morning we were greeted with clear skies and a tremendous view of Annapurna I looming in the distance. We had become somewhat acclimatized, but we faced an additional 3,000-foot gain in altitude during the first half of the climb.

The trail became broken, and we often had to climb around washed-out sections. We were passed by porters, who had replaced the donkeys because of the steep incline. Each porter, carrying 70-pound packs, was wearing an old jacket, flimsy pants -- and flip-flops.

The altitude in Gorepani is 9,500 feet. It was cloudy and cold, with 4 inches of snow on the ground.

We were greeted at our lodge by a group of trekkers seated around a table with their arms and legs tucked under a large blanket, which had been draped over the table. Under the table, pans of hot coals had been placed. Wood at this altitude is scarce, and this system provides the most efficient means of heating.

Accommodations here were primitive: a 10- by 12-foot room with two beds and one small light bulb. The walls were quarter-inch plywood, and the toilets were outside. The price of the room was $1.20. Thick quilted comforters covered each bed. One small generator served the lodge; our light went out at 8 p.m., and we read for an hour by candlelight.

The next morning, we were again greeted with a startling view of both Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I. Above us, another 1,000 feet, was Poon Hill, at 10,665 feet the highest point of our trek.

I made the climb and got a few pictures of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.

After a quick breakfast, we turned east toward Tatopani. After a steep climb through fresh snow, it was mainly downhill to Tatopani, where we decided to skip the usual two-day trek back down to Pohkara and make it all the next day.

The next morning, Cindy took the lead. It was downhill, and she fairly flew over the trail. We reached the paved road to Pohkara in just under seven hours, tired but exhilarated: We had covered 13 miles in one day. By five p.m., we were back in our room at the Sacred Valley.

* * *

We booked tickets south to Chitwan National Park in the flatlands of Nepal. The bus line ends at the small town of Sauhara, headquarters for excursions into the park. The park was established to protect primarily tigers, rhinos and, more recently, a small herd of elephants.

We purchased park permits and negotiated the services of the two required guides, Lama and Riza. Early the next morning, we crossed the Rati River by dugout canoe to enter the park.

The park is made up of large areas of marshland and forest so dense that visibility is less than 10 yards. Half an hour into the park, Lama's hand went up. "Very still, very still," he instructed as he pointed in front of us at an enormous rhino.

It stood motionless but alert, its ears pointing up.

Suddenly there was a crashing explosion. Dust, branches and grass filled the air. Lama ran to his left, calling, "Come, come! Very dangerous, very dangerous!"

There was another explosion in front of us, as we closely followed Lama's reversal of direction. We arrived at a tree where Riza was already perched. He took Cindy's arm and pulled her up while I pushed from below. Lama made a foothold for me with his hands, quietly repeating, "Slowly, slowly, very dangerous, very dangerous!"

We all made it into the tree without slipping. Up there, Lama explained that it was mating season and that there were two rhinos near us. The first, the female that we saw, was being closely courted by a male. She took off, rejecting his overtures. Our reverse in direction resulted from the male pursuing her.

We immensely enjoyed Nepal and its people, but it was time to return to India. We left the Nepali border by bus to Gorkaphur, where we booked an express train to Bombay. This time we managed to secure tickets in "First Class -- Air Conditioned."

When we arrived in Bombay at 6 a.m., 43 hours later, Churchgate Station was quiet. It was a Muslim holiday, and the streets were deserted as we walked back to our hotel. We had been away only three weeks, but it seemed like months since we had been here.

When not traversing the globe, Rick and Cindy Owens make their home in Clearwater.

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