May 06, 2000

Nepal: Pokhara

Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna range, is sort of a Nepali Gatlinburg, amply furnished with locally-flavored tourist shops with trinkets and postcards. However, since they see a lot of trekkers, there's also a lot of mountaineering gear for sale. It's mostly overpriced, but I pick up some postcards. The area also features some restaurants with overambitious menus.

Our guide, Naba Raj Paudel (managing director of Adventure Pokhara Tours and Travels; nice guy, good guide) suggested that we go up into the hills for sunrise. While getting up that early is usually completely antithetical to my character, I'm not adjusted to this time zone yet, so it's not so bad. It turns out to be exactly the right thing to do. From our vantage point in the foothills, we could see from the valley floor to the peaks of the nearby mountains. In the pre-dawn light, the entire valley was a misty green, cut by a few streams, dotted with patches of fog, and contoured by rice fields and terraces. The steeper hills beyond were deeper green with tops lost in a layer of clouds. As the sun began to come up, the clouds began to part, and there, tinted pink, were the tops of the mountains. Many pictures were taken, none of which do the scene justice.

Naba Raj took us off to see a few more of the local sights. First, it was Devi Falls. At the falls, a small stream falls into a deep pit, which connects to God-knows-where. There are some dubious local legends about how it got its name (among other things, a westerns woman named Devi or Devon was swept away into it a century ago), but the really interesting part is the course the stream has carved out for itself. It's packed with peculiar, organically rounded pits and arches.

After that, we take off to the local Tibetan refugee colony. They try to sell us vastly overpriced rugs. We do, however, get a close-up look at the rugs being made. Threads are knotted on a warp, then trimmed with scissors to a uniform height. In the picture below, the top row of threads are untrimmed.

We also go to their temple, which is a gorgeous place. They have a pair of solar reflectors set up out front in order to light fires or boil water or some such for ceremonial purposes.

Dinner is at some weird places. The first night, it's is at the Fishtail Lounge, a restaurant attached to another hotel, which is in turn named after one of the mountains It's set in the middle of a lake, and the only access (at least, the only access we know about) is by a tethered raft, pulled across about fifty yards of water by the steersman. It's a long climb up a great many steps (this country is not accessible by any stretch of the imagination). It's too dark to take advantage of the view, which is presumably lovely, but the Indian food is quite good. On the second night, it's at the overly ambitious La Bella Napoli. The menu lists a broad range of cuisines: Italian (of course), Mexican, and American as well as more common Chinese, Indian, and Nepali. We get a variety of dishes, including some…well, let's say unique renditions of some traditional Italian pasta dishes.

May 05, 2000

Nepal: Katmandu

Back when he was funny, Gallagher had a line something like "Why do they call them buildings when they're done building them? They ought to call them 'builts.' Or maybe 'crumblings.'" That pretty much describes the most common architectural style in Katmandu. Most buildings are made from lightly mortared brick or cinder block, three or four stories tall, and look to be falling apart. The bricks look battered and there are tiny gaps here and there. The effect is magnified by peeling and fading paint on signs, asphalt in poor repair, the occasional completely collapsed or abandoned building, dusty sidewalks (where there are sidewalks at all) and patches of rubbish liberally distributed all along the way.

But the strange part is the feral cows. Travel around Katmandu for any length of time, and you'll run into a cow aimlessly wandering the streets. The Nepalese, being very fond of cows, are content to let them do so. Indeed, cows have considerable legal protection. For example, if you injure a cow, you're responsible for its care until it recovers. If you kill a cow…well, best not to. And, of course, Katmandu is also inhabited by Goldie and Boots, a pair of temporarily Asian carnivores.


Twice in Katmandu we have dinner at the Yak and Yeti. Despite the peculiar and frivolous name, it's actually a large, elegant hotel complex (converted from a nineteenth century palace) and home to Nepal's largest ballroom. The first time was tasting their buffet menu, which will be served at the Marine ball in a month or so. Four of the Marines from the embassy show up, and they all have names that start with a J. I resist asking "Mind if we call you Bruce to keep things clear?" The second time was on Callee's birthday (John Lennon would have been 60 that day), when we ate at Naachghar, a lovely, lovely restaurant in the hotel.


The food was probably the best we had on the entire trip (much naan was eaten) and started off with the local booze, roksi. Unlike the local booze in Africa, which was a weak beer, roksi is white lightning, pure and simple. The local wisdom is that if you can stick your finger in it and light it, it's good roksi. Roksi is served in low, unfired clay cups, and the good stuff is supposed to eat through it. Still, it's remarkably smooth. The best part of the evening was the entertainment. There was a program of Nepali dances, which seem less stylized than the dancing in India. The most charming, though, was when a guy dressed in a white fur suit (think gorilla suit, only white) did a lurching little dance from the back of the room up to the stage, where he was joined by two guys in a big pile of fur with horns. There are very few places where one can see a yak and yeti dance, but this is one of them.

A sacred river runs through Katmandu. Along its banks is a temple complex named Pashpati. This is where funerals take place. Bodies are brought to landings on the riverside and burned on pyres. There were a few of those going on while I was there. The picture below is of the opposite bank; I figured I shouldn't turn somebody's family tragedy into my tourist attraction. Farther up the hill are a number of other temples inhabited by nice little monkies.


Another of Katmandu's important religious sites is Bhodi, a big, big stupa.


And there are prayer wheels all around it.

May 04, 2000

India: Jaipur

Jaipur is known for being a pink city because of a coat of pink paint covering every building in the older parts of the city. The tradition dates back to about a hundred years ago, when it was the only color which could be obtained in sufficient quantity to paint the entire city.

About fifteen kilometers from Jaipur proper is the Amber fort. Although its name might be derived from its vaguely yellowish color, it actually comes from its Indian name, Amer. Access is up a paved, gated roadway, somewhat shielded from view at the bottom of this picture. We took an elephant ride up, although the elephant seemed not to want to go.



Once you get to the top, you're dropped off at a broad courtyard. Some of the elephants which are lined up in the parking lot are lined up in the center of this picture. Also just barely visible is a line of fortifications and watchtowers along the ridgeline of the hills beyond.

Inside, the fort is an immense complex of ramps, courtyards, audience halls, and apartments. Oh, and a few lovely gardens, like this one.

One of the things that struck me as weird about "Persian" carpets is that their designs had been represented as being drawn from the design of gardens. I always thought "That's weird. Gardens don't look like that. Must be heavily stylized." But then I started seeing things like this all over the place.

Probably the most impressive part of the Amber fort was the mirror room. One part near the entrance had its walls heavily encrusted with little chips of highly polished metal. They're fairly blurry mirrors, but the reflect light just fine. But then our tour guide took us into a room, closed the door (no windows, so it was pitch black), and had a guy there light two tiny candles. The guy recited a little verse based on "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as he gracefully waved the candles through the air, and the entire room glittered. Marvelous.

And speaking of marvelous, Jaipur itself hosts perhaps the world's most advanced observatory lacking actual sensing equipment. It was built in the eighteenth century and consists of a variety of vast sundials, astrolabes, and so on. The typical piece of equipment is a sundial (for lack of a better word) like those clustered to the left of the picture below.

The sundials consist of a semicircular swath of marble with a stairway at the base of the curve. The stairway points approximately northerly (although there's a cluster of twelve, each aligned with a specific zodiacal sign). As the sun rises and sets, the shadow of the stairway falls on the semicircle. The passage of the shadow as measured by precise engravings (see below) could be used to measure angles, time of day, and so on with remarkable precision. The tallest of the sundials is ten stories tall, with a resolution of two seconds.

May 03, 2000

India: Delhi






"Y'know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in New Delhi?"

"They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?"

"No, man, they don't eat beef."

"Well, what's a Big Mac?"

"Big Mac's a Big Mac, 'cept in New Delhi, they call it a Maharaja Mac."

"Maharaja Mac...what do they call a Whopper?"

"I dunno, man; didn't go to Burger King."



Being Americans, what's the first thing we do when we go to the capital city of a far-away country? Go to McDonalds. We aren't the only ones with that idea, either. The majority of the customers looked distinctly American. Water buffalo burgers are a little odd, but the fries are exactly the same.

Delhi is two cities, actually. There's the old city (Delhi proper) and the new city (New Delhi, cleverly enough). We were mostly in the new city, which looked as though it could be in the Bay Area, if you ignore the occasional camel. The streets were broad and well-maintained with green median strips and banner ads for high-tech companies. Oh, and most of the people are Asian. We stayed at the Claridges hotel, an establishment that played heavily to the colonial past, with Victorian engravings on every wall and lovely ravens in every room (or perhaps they were writing desks; Antone and I were confused on that point through the entire trip. Antone also braved the New Delhi night in search of a good dictionary, which he found.



During our brief stay, we saw the big government buildings and a few ancient monuments. The most interesting was Qutb Minar, a mosque with a very, very, very tall minaret. To give some idea of scale, those column-and-lintel deals at the bottom of the picture are about ten feet tall.


The Qutb Minar complex is home to the famous Iron Pillar, a black iron pillar which has stood for close to 2000 years without rusting away due to the purity of the metal. I got a picture, but it's not a terribly interesting object. What I did find particularly captivating was the elaborate decoration on every surface, Qur'anic passages and elaborate floral motifs.


There were also a number of vividly green parakeets. It was a little weird not seeing such birds inside somebody's house, but I suppose they have to live in the wild somewhere.

May 02, 2000

Nepal: Chitwan

Or, more accurately, ESCAPE FROM CHITWAN!



Chitwan is a town between Pokhara and Katmandu which is near a
large nature preserve. The drive from Pokhara to Chitwan is quite
pleasant. The first half is through steep, green hills broken
by the occasional river valley. The vegetation is nicely jungle-like,
with broad-leaved trees and tall grass, all of it vibrantly alive
after the recent monsoon rains. We also pass terraced rice fields
starting to turn gold as the harvest nears. A number of buildings
here are in a style thousands of years old: timber frame and thatched
roof, with walls made of a layer of thatching covered with a smooth
layer of clay. Still, there's the occasional brick or concrete
building as well.



Our accommodations in Chitwan…well, suck. Badly. The Jungle Nepal
Resort, which came highly recommended to us, is in dreadful condition.
They're in the midst of constructing several new buildings, but
they're not done yet, so we have to stay in their crumbling old
buildings. The hot water heaters have been moved to the new buildings,
so there's no hot water. They're also rebuilding the kitchen,
so we have to go to the hotel next door to eat. They're redoing
the landscaping, so the outside looks like a gravel pit with occasional
trees. Oh, and it's the holidays, so while there's a staff, there's
nobody to complain to. At least, nobody who can do anything.



While our accommodations are dreadful, the first foray into the
wilderness is pleasant. We get into a flat-bottomed canoe and
drift down the river looking for animals. Nepal doesn't have anything
like the wealth of wildlife that Africa has, so most of what we
see are birds and the occasional crocodile. The trip ends at an
elephant breeding center. Among them were a family of elephants,
including a cute little baby elephant being protected by the older
ones.


We stroll around and try not to get too close to the large animals,
but they occasionally try to get close to us. Indeed, a four month
old elephant gets very close to Naomi, nudging her chair out of
the way in order to get to a pile of hay. There was some talk
of taking the baby elephant with us as secondary transportation.





One thing I can say for the lack of big wildlife is that it makes
you pay closer attention to the little things. For example, Nepal
is home to some remarkable insects, like this lovely dragonfly
I noticed while sitting on a riverbank.





The afternoon trip, a drive out to 20,000 Lake, goes rather differently.
Indeed, it becomes


Escape From Chitwan! (Part 1)


The plan for the afternoon was to drive out to a small lake adjacent
to the park area. During this entire trip, we never actually entered
the park proper. Rather, we went through one of a number of forest
areas owned by a consortium of hotels and resorts, all surrounding
the park. Anyway, the omens for this expedition were poor. The
jeep to take us into the forest was an hour late, had trouble
starting, and was clearly struggling with a significant fuel leak.
Nevertheless, we carry on.



On the trip, the jeep stalled out a time or two, since it appeared
that we had lost first gear. When we got into the woods, we started
going down a dirt road with some very deep ruts. This caused some
problems for Naomi, since the benches in the jeep were very narrow.
She got banged around a bit as we kept hold of her.



Then the jeep got stuck in the mud. On one particularly deep set
of ruts, we lost momentum and stopped. And so, deep in the forest,
we had to get out and push the jeep out of the mud. With no place
to turn around, there was little for it but to keep going on to
the lake.



When we got to the lake, the engine died completely. So there
we were, several kilometers away from anything even vaguely resembling
the vestiges of civilization, in the middle of a forest known
to be inhabited by tigers, with a dead engine and the sun going
down. There were a few thoroughly drunk Nepalis in the vicinity,
hanging out on their day off, but there was little help there.
With a few twigs and a Coke bottle label, the jeep was eventually
restarted, and we were finally off. The driver was advised to
ignore the bumps and power through any muddy ruts, lest we get
stuck again. As the sun finally set, we were out of the forest
and on our way back to the hotel. Need I mention that we didn't
see much in the way of animals?



When we got back, they attempted to serve dinner in one of the
new buildings, but as we started the soup, the tablecloth became
polka-dotted with little insects, which no amount of bug-smashing
could abate. We retreated to Naomi's room to plot our next move.




The next day, we were ready for what we had come here for: riding
elephants. There's lots of elephant-riding at Chitwan. The typical
"saddle" is a wooden frame, shaped like half of a cube. The frame
is two or three feet on a side, and about half that height, with
cloth webbing across the bottom. The frame is securely strapped
to the elephant's back, with the mahout actually seated outside
the frame on the elephant's neck so that he can rest his feet
behind the elephant's ears (that's Naomi, Ken, and Helen).





These frames seat four, whether they fit or not. I can see them
adequate for, say, a family of four Nepalis, who tend to be small
and lean (or even five if the fifth is a very small child), but
it's more than a little cramped for that number of larger Europeans.
We had two elephants, one of which held Ken (who would never be
mistaken for a small person), Helen, Naomi, and Callee. Antone
and I shared the second with a pair of German tourists. We took
a long walk through town to the buffer zone forest and wandered
through the trees for about two hours. The elephants we rode in
Africa were a smoother, more comfortable ride, but what struck
me as the most important difference was in the attitude. The African
guides made it sure that we knew that they were involved in some
sort of environmentally responsible enterprise and told us a lot
about the elephants and the environment. Here, riding elephants
is something that tourists do. We got into the elephant and walked
around the wilderness with no commentary on the whys and wherefores.
We didn't see much, but we did eventually see a pair of rhinos:
a mother and child. Our mahout's strategy to get us good pictures,
though, seemed to be to charge right up to the rhinos, which struck
me as a bad idea. The mother rhino made a good show of moving
into a protective position, but we did eventually manever into
a position to get a good picture.





Once we got back to the Jungle Nepal Lodge, we embarked on


Escape From Chitwan! (Part 2)


Having finally become fed up with our accommodations, we left.
We moved to the small hotel next door, to where we were doing
most of our meals anyway. We got several visits from the staff
of our former lodging who were trying to alter the paperwork to
make it look like not so much of a disaster. We declined to assist
them, and when we got back to Katmandu, Ken performed the nigh-impossible
feat of getting a partial refund out of the management. In dollars,
even!

May 01, 2000

India: Agra




The Taj. Need more be said? Probably not, but, like Victoria Falls, one may legitimately say "Damn."

The Indians are taking a very careful approach to the Taj, realizing its profound cultural and economic power, and since it's not in the middle of a city (unlike, say, the Colosseum or the Athenian Acropolis), they can do some remarkable things to keep it together. Gas-powered vehicles can't come any closer than a mile so the fumes can't eat into the marble. You have to park (in a lot filled with people trying to sell you things) and either walk or take an animal-drawn cart. After being patted down for guns and bombs by guards at the main entrance, you go down a long red-stone entryway which was once used as a barracks and still serves in that capacity. Then you turn right, go through another, grander gateway and there, down a long reflecting pool and a well-kept lawn to...well, you know. The picture above is taken from a bit to the left, so you don't see the pool.

It just so happens that we went on the wrong day. One day a week, the Taj is closed for repairs. One day, the entry fee is 100 rupees (quite a lot for the average Indian, but it's about two bucks), on four days, it's something like ten or twenty. And one day, it's free. We happened to be in town on the day it was free. During the local equivalent of the week between Christmas and New Years. While a major Muslim cleric was in town and attracting lots of visitors. It was packed. We had to take off our shoes before going into the Taj itself (another move to protect the marble) and had a fun time taking Naomi's chair up the steps. It was even more fun taking her through the packed crowd (we're talking "Three Die In Stampede" density here) and into the Taj itself. The building is as gorgeous close up as it is from a distance. Large parts are inlaid with semi-precious stone, and the inlay, like that below, is perfectly flush with the marble surface. Inside, the caskets of Shah Jahan (the Moghul emperor responsible for the building) and his wife Mumtaz Mahal (for whom it was built) are exquisitely carved. That evening, we had dinner at a restaurant with a view of the Taj. Full moon, even. Pretty.


Across the river from the Taj is the Red Fort, a massive fortress/palace complex, parts of which are being used even today by the Indian army. There's a set of gorgeous apartments overlooking the river, many of which have lovely gardens and pools attached to them. There are even double-layered walls which had running water behind them to cool them in the oppressively hot summers. Below is a fountain/tub about seven feet long and perhaps a foot deep at its deepest.


There's a bittersweet story attached to the apartment it's in. The Shah Jahan was, late in life, deposed by his son Aurangzeb, perhaps for the excessive expense in building the Taj. He was imprisoned in that apartment for his final years, made from the same marble as the Taj and decorated by the same craftsmen. Right now, there's a rough hole about the size of a walnut in one of the doorframes. It used to be filled by the Kooh-i-Noor, the largest diamond in the world, now residing in the British Museum. The popular belief is that in it, you would have been able to see a reflection of what lay through the broad, open windows and across the river: the Taj Mahal. The picture below was taken looking from that spot.


Some thirty five kilometers away or so is Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Moghul empire under Akbar the Great for about a dozen years until the site was abandoned. The legend behind Fatehpur Sikri is that a Sufi mystic from a village (on the future palace's site) prophesied that Akbar would soon have a son. By the year's end, Akbar had a son and the mysic found his home village becoming a palace. Fatehpur Sikri is the quintessence of the Moghul's acceptance of their realm's diversity. Although nominally Muslim, the Moghuls went in for religious tolerance in a big way. Fatehpur Sikri has apartments for Akbar's three wives, each from a different religion (one Muslim, one Christian, one Hindu). One section was patterned after Chinese pagodas. Particularly notable is this column in the private audience chamber. The motifs on the bottom section are inspired by the Muslims (ironically, one of the motifs is a wine bottle; go figure), the motifs on the second section are inspired by the Hindus.


Higher up, the chevron patterns were inspired by the peaked roofs of the Christians, while the bulbous protrusions of the capital were based on Buddhist prayer wheels.