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We were up at 7.30am after a fairly restless night, mostly because of the heat and humidity, but also because of a stray dog that seemed to have spent most of the night bark, bark, barking (I’d had to get up in the night and put in my ear-plugs).  Nevertheless, we were excited to begin the new day and see what the next part of our Nepalese adventure had in store.

We ate a leisurely al fresco breakfast in the morning sunshine in the pleasant terraced courtyard at the rear of the hotel, which overlooked the lush, fertile land and the little dwellings and farmlands.  We could see many banana trees and tall maize plants; maize seemed to form a staple part of the Nepalese diet, and the corn-cobs would be sold (and sometimes roasted over a wood fire) at roadside stalls.

Breakfast consisted of muesli and home-made yoghurt, as well as fresh fruit salad and warm bread.  We washed it down with fruit juice and coffee and, just as we thought we’d finished, the staff brought out plates of eggs (omelette) and tomatoes.  As I mentioned before, we certainly weren’t going to starve this holiday, and the quality and quantity of the meals that were included in the total cost has so far been exceptional.

Once breakfast was over, we returned to our room, ensured everything was packed up, then the ever-obliging hotel staff lugged our cases down the steep wooden staircase, ready to trundle them along to the minibus.

As we left the hotel, the proprietor bestowed upon each of us a sort of satin fringed scarf, as well as applying the traditional Hindu tilaka on our foreheads.  The tilaka is similar too (but not the same as) the Indian bindi, and the main differences are as follows:

  • tilaka is always applied with paste or powder, whereas a bindi may be paste or jewel.
  • tilaka is usually applied for religious or spiritual reasons, or to honour a personage, event, or victory. A bindi can signify marriage, or be simply for decorative purposes.
  • bindi is worn only between the eyes, whereas a tilaka can also cover the face or other parts of the body. Tilaka can be applied to twelve parts of the body: head, forehead, neck, both upper-arms, both forearms, chest, both sides of the torso, stomach and shoulder.
  • Typically the bindi is worn only by women, whereas tilaka is worn by both men and women.

Once we’d all said our thanks and goodbyes, we followed our guide through the streets and back to our waiting mini-bus, where Madern greeted us and loaded our cases into the rear of the vehicle.  Then we were all ready to set off just after 9.30am, next stop Pokhara.

Off we went back onto the winding mountain roads; some of the route took us back along the same road we’d come along yesterday.  Anal estimated it would take about two and a half to three hours to reach Pokhara, but we were never bored because there was always plenty to see out of the window, and our minibus was comfortable and air-conditioned.

After about an hour, we pulled up at a rest stop where Anal said we had about 20 minutes to stretch our legs, go to the loo or enjoy a coffee or cold drink.  Another mini-bus and its occupants also arrived; we got talking to one of the ladies who said she was from Antwerp in Belgium.  We asked her if she knew last night’s football result of the England v Belgium match, and she took the greatest delight in informing us that Belgium had beaten England 1-0.  It didn’t really matter, because both teams were through to the next round anyway.

We enjoyed a good hot cardboard cup of ground coffee then, with some trepidation, I decided I needed the toilet as I wouldn’t be able to wait until we arrived at our hotel.  As usual, the toilets were less than salubrious, and the stench in the heat and humidity was terrible.  I made sure to wash my hands thoroughly and finish with a liberal squirt of anti-bacterial hand gel.

Back on the minibus we continued on our way, and just before 12.00 noon we made our way along a rutted path to the banks of Lake Feva.  Our hotel, the Fishtail Lodge, was situated in the verdant landscape at the other side of the lake, and we had to get across on a raft, with our luggage being sent over separately.

The rafts were certainly a unique form of transport.  Each consisted of a flat wooden base with a metal frame above over which was stretched a tarpaulin to provide shelter from the sun (or rain).  To each side of the raft was attached a stout green rope the same length as the width of the lake crossing, and the raft “operator” simply hauled on the rope to pull the raft across the water.  As he pulled on one side, the slack rope on the opposite side just paid out into the water, ready to be hauled up again for the journey back.  Simple but effective!

Once we were all across, we negotiated some steps and arrived at the reception area of the hotel, which consisted of separate lodges as accommodation, with the bar and dining room beyond reception.  The beautifully-landscaped gardens also contained a swimming pool and a “Dip & Sip” cocktail bar and massage spa.  It all looked very comfortable, and we noticed in the reception that they had a “wall of fame” of photographs of famous people who had stayed at Fishtail Lodge in its 49-year history.  We spotted Prince Charles and former US president Jimmy Carter among the dignitaries’ pictures.

We enjoyed a cool glass of fruit juice while our room keys were given out; Trevor and I were allocated lodge number 3.  Anal asked us all to be in reception for 12.30pm so we could get the raft back across the river; apparently we were going to a restaurant in Pokhara for our lunch.

Our lodge was really lovely.  It had a cool tiled floor, twins beds, a large window-seat, dressing table, desk, wardrobes and a spacious bathroom, and it was comfortably decorated in orange and cream shades, with mesh screens at the windows to keep out any insects.  We felt we’d have an enjoyable couple of nights here.  🙂

Back in reception we met up with the rest of the group and took the raft across the river once again, and boarded our mini-bus.  It was only a short ride to the Monsoon Restaurant, in the heart of the town, amongst lots of colourful shops, bars, restaurants, workplaces and houses.  It looked a lively place.

We took our seats and a table outside, and the proprietor set up a large oscillating fan to provide us with a cooling breeze.  Once again it was a set meal from a limited menu; you ate what was brought for you, and I enjoyed some salad to start with followed by chicken and vegetables; it was more of a Western-style meal than local dishes.  It goes without saying that Trevor and I washed ours down with a nice big bottle of chilled Everest each.  🙂

After eating fit to bust (uncomfortable!) Anal said we could either get the minibus back to the raft crossing, or walk back ourselves – it would only take about 15 minutes.  We all opted to walk back, as it would give us the time to look around the shops and explore a bit.

We had a look along the street, just soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the local clothing shops and handicrafts.  Wooden and brass ornaments featured heavily, as well as handmade textiles like pashminas, throws, cushion covers, hand-knitted items made out of yak wool, and intricate tapestry wall hangings.  We spent some time browsing but I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy (yet!) so we just wandered back to the raft, and got pulled across to our lodge.  By now it was about 3 o’clock, and we had the rest of the day at leisure.

We were both hot and sweaty after our walk back, so we decided to get changed into our cossies and make the most of the hotel’s inviting-looking pool.  We slid into the cool water which was sheer bliss, and we spent a good 50 minutes just swimming lazily around.  At some point John came along and joined us, then we decided to finish off with a nice cocktail while resting on a sun-lounger; I had a sangria and Trevor had a beer.  After our substantial lunch I’d decided I was going to give dinner a miss tonight; it certainly wouldn’t hurt me!

We sat outside for a while then returned to our lodge to get washed and changed and hang our cossies up to dry.  Then we had a half-hour power nap before looking outside; we noticed it was raining quite hard so we had to wear our cagoules to go over to the restaurant for dinner at 8.00pm.  Trevor joined the others at the table but I just sat at the bar, enjoying a margarita and doing some of this blog.  I only joined the others at the coffee stage of the meal.

Afterwards Trevor and I returned to the bar for another drink, but it emptied out quite quickly (the bar I mean, not the drink!) until we were the only ones left.  Once again it seemed as if everything stopped at 10.00pm, and the bar staff hinted broadly that they wanted us to go, by closing the bar and turning out the lights!  Unperturbed, we took our drinks back to our lodge and enjoyed them there; Trevor watched TV while I did some reading.  We wondered why the raft-service was advertised as being available “24 hours”; if everything closed at 10.00pm what was the point of going back into the village?

Not to worry though; we were both pleasantly tired by now so, lulled by the monsoon rain lashing down outside, we slept very well.

 

 

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Patan to Bandipur

It was an early start for us this morning, as we had to be up, ready, packed and breakfasted in time to leave the hotel at 7.30am, to continue our great Nepalese adventure en route to our next hotel in the ancient village of Bandipur.

Bandipur is a hilltop settlement and a municipality in Tanahun District of Nepal. Because of its preserved, old time cultural atmosphere, Bandipur has increasingly been coming to the attention of tourism. At the time of the 2011 Nepal census it had a population of total (Bandipur and Dharampani) 15591 people living in 3750 individual households.

Bandipur is located at 27.56 N, 84.25 E and an elevation of 1030m on a mountain saddle (Mahabharat range) approximately 700m above the Marsyangdi River Valley, 143 km to the west of Kathmandu and 80 km to the east of Pokhara (where we would be visiting later on in our tour).  We were so looking forward to exploring this lovely village in the real Nepal, set within view of the Annapurna mountain range.

Anal advised us that, while Bandipur was only 90 or so miles away, it would take us 5-6 hours to get there in our minibus, due mainly to three factors:  the poor condition of some of the roads, the endless, chaotic traffic, and the narrow mountain roads as we negotiated often steep hairpin bends with sheer drops into the valley. I certainly hoped it wouldn’t be a white-knuckle ride!

We set off at 7.30am into the morning traffic, which was already quite busy.  As ever, the road was rutted and potholed and dusty in some parts, while muddy in other parts.  Our vehicle slowly lurched and rattled its way through the streets, often stopping for what seemed an age in queues of traffic.  Once we got moving again, we could see no obvious reason for the traffic jams, but it was start… stop… start… stop for a number of miles.  We weren’t too bothered though; it was cool and comfortable in our minibus and there was always plenty to see looking out the window.

After about an hour and a half, we made a “pit-stop” to allow us to use the restrooms and perhaps enjoy a cold drink. We only had 10 minutes, but it was enough to get off the bus and stretch our legs a bit.  Most of the loos were the Asian squat-style ones, but there was one Western style, although there was no paper; I was glad I’d brought my own, as well as some anti-bacterial hand-gel.

Back on the bus we continued on our way, taking frequent drinks from our water bottles in order to avoid dehydration in these sub-tropical temperatures.  Several times our bus drove around groups of cows and calves calmly walking along in the middle of the road.  We enjoyed looking at the shops and the distinctive Newari-style architecture.

Newa architecture is an indigenous style of building design used by the Newari people in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal. It is a style used in buildings ranging from stupas and chaitya monastery buildings to courtyard structures and houses. The style is marked by striking brick work and a unique style of wood carving rarely seen outside Nepal.

After a while, we left behind the dirt and the dust of the city and started to climb up and down the undulating hilly countryside; often getting fantastic views of the lush valleys below.  Our driver, Madern, was very careful and didn’t go too fast (to everyone’s relief!) and it was actually a very pleasant journey.  Along the majority of the route we followed the fast-flowing Trishuli river, which had many precarious-looking rope bridges across its width, as well as an interesting cable car soaring off into the heights, which Anal said we would visit on the way back.  The river twisted and turned and the water was a muddy brown colour; this was due to all the soil erosion which had occurred as a result of the monsoon rains.  Now and again we spotted intrepid people on rafts and small boats in the river, which appeared to be popular for white-water rafting.

Because we had had several leg-stretch stops on the way, the five and a half hour ride seemed to go passed very quickly, and eventually the bus pulled into a small vehicle park just outside the main road of Bandipur village, which didn’t allow through-traffic.  We were greeted by some gentle, pleasant ladies from our hotel, and Anal advised that we had about a 10 minute walk and that the staff would carry our bags for us.

We walked along, passing the charming little buildings filled with so much character.  Laughing and chattering children followed us, calling out “Namaste” and asking us where we were from.  We saw lots of interesting little shops, guest-houses, a temple, restaurants and bars advertising the World Cup games they would be showing on TV.

Finally we stopped outside the Gaun Ghar Hotel, a wooden building with shuttered windows and a first-floor balcony at the front running the width of the building, and containing colourful potted plants.  The hotel appealed to me immediately, and despite its rustic, basic appearance (or maybe because of it) I knew I would enjoy a memorable stay here.

We walked into a pleasant, sunlit courtyard surrounding a small fishpond, and were each given a glass of cool fruit juice.  Anal said we would be shown to our rooms to rest for a short while, before meeting for lunch in the restaurant downstairs.

We were allocated room 202 at the front of the building, next door to Vee who was in room 201; in fact, we shared the large balcony overlooking the main street which was devoid of any traffic.  The room was very basic and had no-frills, but was nevertheless clean and comfortable.  There were three beds (two of them towards the balcony doors), a rail on which to hang some clothes, and a bathroom with a stone floor.  The bathroom was really a basic wet-room; all it contained was a sink, WC and shower with a floor-drain, no bathtub.  It would suffice for one night, however.

After getting freshened up, we went back downstairs again and took our seats in the open-fronted incense-scented restaurant for lunch.  We ordered a cold bottle of Ghorka beer each which accompanied a selection of Nepalese dishes; there was no menu to order from so we each ate what we were given.  Local flavoursome soup or salad to start with, then a curry-like dish with fresh fruit to follow.  We’d noticed that the portions and the food so far on this holiday had certainly been more than generous!  🙂

After lunch, we had some time to ourselves, in which we enjoyed a half-hour power nap,  before reconvening at 3.30pm to take a walk around the village.  We set off at a sedate pace in the heat and humidity, watching our footing on the uneven ground.  The schools must have just been letting out as there were lots of smiling children in uniform, running, shouting and playing in the streets, and looking curiously at us as they passed by.  June is the low-season for visitors in Nepal; the real tourist season doesn’t start until September because of the monsoon, but in one way that was better because it meant that there were no crowds and the locals were very happy to see us, and did all they could to please us.

As we strolled along, we passed a temple with its distinctive pagodas, bells and prayer-wheels.  Hens with their little chicks pecked desultorily by the roadside, and we saw lots of nanny goats with their cute little kids, bounding and gambolling about sure-footedly on piles of rubble.  At one stage, from our elevated hilltop position, we had a fantastic view of the verdant valley and the river meandering below between the tiny, primitive dwellings, the Annapurna mountains rearing up in the background.

The village was quite charming and appeared to be from a bygone era, where modern-day technology hadn’t quite reached.  Unsurprisingly, we had no signals on our mobile phones, and our hotel didn’t appear to have wi-fi; we also had no television or phone in our room and the electricity supply was intermittent and unreliable at best.  However, isn’t this why we come to explore places like Nepal?  We couldn’t get anywhere more different from Britain if we tried!  🙂

We continued our little tour of Bandipur and came to a square where the locals were bagging up portions of raw meat on plastic sheeting in the open air.  Anal explained that a fatted cow or buffalo would be killed and cut up, then the pieces distributed among the locals so they could all have a good feast.

We then came to an area where fresh water that came down the mountain was directed into taps that flowed freely; locals would come here to do their laundry or to bathe and indeed each of the taps had someone standing at them, washing either themselves or a tub of clothes in the open air.  The pace of life here was certainly more relaxed and unhurried than our frenetic, high-tech 21st century lives at home.

Around 5.00pm we slowly made our way back into the village.  Some of us went a little further up the street to see what was in the hotel’s immediate vicinity; there were a few other guest houses, small general dealers and one or two bars which proudly proclaimed “Free wifi here!”.  We saw a little off-licence so decided to buy a bottle of beer each to enjoy on our balcony before dinner at 7.30pm.

The beer was called Nepal Ice and was strong, at 7%.  Next door to the off-licence was a bar with a few local guys gathered around watching the football on a large TV screen; we decided we’d come back later on to mingle with the natives and watch the England v Belgium game if it was on.  Meanwhile, we returned to our balcony and sat outside on a rustic bench for a bit, enjoying a spot of people-watching and looking into the distant mountains as dusk descended over this peaceful little village.

Dinner, once again, was a veritable feast of local and Western dishes; this time we washed it down with an exquisite home-made millet wine called tongba, brewed on the premises.  The proprietor also came around with a small pitcher from which he poured each of us the local distilled spirit, also made from millet, called raksi.  It was a strong drink, clear like gin or vodka; it reminded me a little of Japanese sake, or rice wine.  We enjoyed the food and the convivial company and, around 9.30pm, we said our goodnights and went off to do our own thing.  Trevor and I ventured outside and up the darkened street to look at the little bars and shops, deciding we’d return to our room, get our money, and come back for a few beers in one of the local hostelries as our hotel didn’t appear to have its own bar.

However, much to our dismay, it transpired that everything closes in Nepal at 10.00pm!!  Back out in the street, every building was battened down and shuttered and not a soul was about.  We walked in both directions but the whole village had gone to sleep, apart from a small shop opposite our hotel.  So much for mingling with the locals!  We therefore went to the little shop and purchased a couple of bottles of cold beer, and decided to drink them on our balcony in the sultry evening air.  We must have been the shop’s last customers of the night, because by the time we’d gone out on the balcony the proprietor was rolling down his shutters for the evening.

Nevertheless, it was very pleasant sitting out in the balmy darkness, listening to the creatures of the night singing away; bullfrogs, crickets, the occasional barking dog or cry of a hunting bird looking for prey.  We stayed out until about 11 o’clock as our wake-up call would be at 7.00am, ready to leave at eight.

We settled down in our rustic little room for the night, after a very interesting day.

 

Exploring Patan

We were up at 7.30 this morning, despite the time-difference. Looking out of the window, we could see that rain had fallen overnight; indeed this is the start of the monsoon season, and the temperature was hot and humid, despite our 4,300 feet altitude in the Kathmandu valley.

We got ourselves sorted out and went along to the restaurant, where we sat with John. I enjoyed a fairly Western breakfast of sausage, egg and tomato, washed down with a couple cups of coffee and some watermelon juice. I saw that they had some Yak cheese, so I had to try that. Where else would you come across Yak cheese?!

At nine o’clock we met up with Anal and the rest of our party, and we went outside and into the waiting mini-bus, where our driver Madern gave us all a litre bottle of water each. Once we were settled, we set off into the Wednesday morning rush-hour traffic which, like in India, was an experience in itself.

Driving through the dusty streets with their potholed roads and ramshackle buildings, we stared agog out of the windows at what passed for daily Nepalese life. Battered cars, vans and motorcycles vied for space on the roads with numerous stray dogs and cows; most of the time the vehicles just drove around them, their drivers completely nonplussed in the chaos.

We passed clothing shops with their colourful ladies’ dresses, saris and pashminas, small cafés, bars and restaurants, auto shops and other dilapidated, but nonetheless charming, buildings. Cyclists and pedestrians weaved their way in amongst the traffic with complete sang froid, many of them wearing face masks to protect from the clouds of dust and the lorries belching black exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. Several times we had to stop because vehicles in front of us had stopped to put on their spare wheel following a puncture; looking at the state of some of the vehicles with their almost-bald tyres, this was not really surprising.

After the entertainment beyond the minibus windows, we parked up and continued on foot to the first of our sightseeing stops – the Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath. A stupa is a large hemispherical shaped monument containing Buddhist relics, and the dome was topped by the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. Boudhanath is the largest and holiest stupa outside of Tibet. Radiating out from the pinnacle of the stupa were a lot of streamers containing colourful squares of cloth, a bit like bunting. Anal told us they were prayer flags.

There were also a lot of ornamental, free-turning cylinders which passers-by would start spinning; these were prayer wheels and they were quite hypnotic to watch. There were also various sized bells tinkling and chiming, as well as the evocative hint of incense over it all. From here, we also had a superb view over the Kathmandu valley; however, the cloud was quite low so we couldn’t see for miles.

After having a good look around, we continued on our way to the ancient religious complex of Swayambhunath, which is also known as the “Monkey Temple” due to the numerous wild macaques that live and roam around the grounds.  The monkeys were very agile and they jumped and swung from trees to rooftops to walls, some of them with little babies clinging to their sides.

The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples; a Tibetan monastery, museum and library.  There are also shops, restaurants and hostels. The site has two access points: a long staircase leading directly to the main platform of the temple, which is from the top of the hill to the east; and a car road around the hill from the south leading to the south-west entrance.
We saw a number of the monks walking around, in their distinctive orange robes with their shaven heads.

We puffed our way up all the steps so we could look around the beautiful, ornate buildings with their intricately-carved wooden decorations and their gilded statues. Everywhere we walked, we were watched by Buddha’s eyes. There is a large pair of eyes on each of the four sides of the main stupa which represent Wisdom and Compassion. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye. It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye which acts as messages to heavenly beings so that those interested can come down to earth to listen to the Buddha. The hellish beings and beings below the human realm cannot come to earth to listen to the Buddha’s teaching, however, the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches. Between the two eyes (also called Wisdom Eyes), a curly symbol, symbolizing the nose, is depicted which looks like a question mark, which is a Nepali sign of number figure one. This sign represents the unity of all things existing in the world as well as the only path to enlightenment through the teachings of Buddha. It was all extremely interesting, and Anal explained to us how it is the aim of each follower of the Buddhist religion to reach nirvana, which is the ultimate spiritual goal in which there is no pain or suffering.

After we’d looked around the temples and buildings, we had about 40 minutes of free time, so Trevor and I decided to take a look at some of the local craft and souvenir shops around us. I wanted to purchase a kukri, the distinctive curved knife typical of the Gurkha regiment. We had a look in some shops at the different knives available; some of them were large and very sharp, and were sheathed in leather, hand-tooled and decorated scabbards. These ones were expensive; over a hundred pounds each. However, I only wanted a decorative one to put on the wall at home so, after browsing around some of the stalls, I got a smaller one (which had a dull blade) in a leather scabbard decorated with old Nepali coins and brass. This one only cost 550 Nepali Rupees, or about four quid. 🙂

As we made our way back down all the steps, ladies were approaching us selling pashminas, singing bowls (metal bowls which vibrate and ring when struck) and little satin embroidered bags. One lady offered to sell me 10 of these bags (assorted colours and designs) for seven dollars; we got them for about five pounds so they worked out at 50p each. At that price you couldn’t be robbed!  I also bought some postcards and a couple of fridge magnets.

It was then time to meet up again with Anal and the rest of our group to go to lunch. We all boarded the minibus and made our way to Patan Durbar Square, where Madern parked up and we took a short walk to a local restaurant, and up some steps to tables and chairs, covered with parasols, in a pleasant roof top location.  We took our seats (under the shade, as the sun by now was fairly hot) and ordered a freezing cold beer each; I had an Everest and Trevor chose a beer called Gurkha.  We could then order anything we liked to eat from the menu, as lunch was included.  I’d had a good breakfast so I just opted for a plate of the house salad, which consisted of radish, carrot, cucumber, onion and coleslaw.  The others chose some of the local dishes, but I decided I’d wait until dinner tonight before eating something more substantial.

We passed a pleasant hour or so at the restaurant, then we had some free time to look around the square.  As ever, the colourful local shops were fascinating; I hoped I would be able to find a hand-knitted jacket made out of Yak wool to take home as a lovely (and useful) souvenir.

We went into the “Singing Bowl Centre”, where the shop-owner showed us how the singing bowls worked.  Some of them are made out of seven different metals, and they are created in such a way that, when gently struck in various places with a soft hammer, they set up a vibration and held a long, ringing note (think of a tuning fork).  Placing the vibrating bowl on your body in various locations gave a relaxing and massaging effect, and putting in on your head and feeling the vibrations and listening to the ringing notes was supposed to help you relax, and get rid of any tension headaches.  However, the bowls were very heavy and we thought they wouldn’t be suitable for carrying in our luggage.

Our final visit of the day was to the impressive Bhimsen Temple at Lalitpur.  This large temple contained many bells and intricate wooden sculptures, pillars and carvings.  Gilded doorways and thresholds were in abundance, flanked by ornate statues of Hindu deities.  We saw lots of images of the Hindu goddess Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant, as well as Parvati, has many arms and is always brandishing a variety of weapons and attacking the buffalo demon Mahisha.  It was all very interesting and I took lots of photos.

It was then time to board the minibus once again for the return journey to our hotel.  Once we got back, we dumped our bags and our purchases in our room, and hotfooted it along to the bar for a cold beer.  Then it was time to get washed and changed and adjourn to the restaurant, where once again we enjoyed a selection of the local dishes and had interesting and stimulating conversations with our fellow travellers.

Trevor and I then returned to the bar, where they were showing the Germany v Korean Republic match.  So far it was a 0-0 draw, but it wasn’t looking good for Germany because they needed to win to stay in the competition.  At first, there was only Trevor and I in the bar (apart from the barman), but we were quite amused when, one by one, more of the hotel staff, including the chef in his whites and tall hat, came into the bar and gathered around the TV screen to watch the match!  It ended up Germany 0 Korean Republic 2, so Germany were out!

Afterwards the bar emptied out, and we stayed for one more drink before turning in for the night, after a very full and interesting day.  We had to be up at 6.00am tomorrow, in order to leave the hotel by 7.30am for the 90-mile drive to Bandipur.

Namaste Kathmandu

So here we were, tired and grubby, with the longest part of our journey over. We had already met four other people who are doing the same escorted tour as us; this was arranged through Mercury Holidays, who we haven’t tried before. Usually we do escorted tours through Travelsphere or Titan, but the itinerary for this one looked good (and it was an attractive price) so we thought we’d give them a try. 🙂

It wasn’t really a great hardship waiting around at the airport. We found a nice lively little pub that had a huge screen showing football (Barcelona v Real Madrid) and of course, being in India, we had to order a pint of Kingfisher each.  🙂

Presently our flight was called and we once again boarded an aircraft; this was a small 737 for the one hour 50 minute flight into Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. Boy, would I be pleased when we arrived. I could hardly keep my eyes open on the plane, even though the terrain below us looked very interesting.

Finally the “fasten seatbelts” sign came on, and we made our descent into the airport, and touched down on Nepalese soil around 14:50 hours local time. Curiously enough, the time difference between British Summer Time and Nepal time is +4.45; they are 15 minutes ahead of India. Seems hardly worth changing the time zone for a mere 15 minutes.

Going through customs and immigration was a painless process; we had to pay $25.00 US to get our 15-day visas, then it was straight through security and off to the baggage carousel to collect our cases. Finally, we were through and we exited the airport and crossed the road to be greeted by our guide, Anal (which is pronounced Ann-aal). 🙂 We were each given a garland made of marigolds, and wished “Namaste”, the traditional greeting.

There were only six of us in total for this trip; John from Preston, Charles and Julie from Birmingham and Vee from Southampton. No doubt we’d all get to know each other pretty well in the coming days.

It only took about 30 minutes to reach our hotel, the Hotel Himalaya. We walked into a pleasant, airy reception area with the faint scent of incense, and were each given a glass of cool fruit juice. Then, once we were issued with our room keys, the rest of the time for today was our own, to give us a chance to recover from the sleepless night and jet lag.

We all agreed to reconvene at 7.00pm in the hotel restaurant, where a buffet meal would be laid on for us.

Our room was very pleasant, clean and comfortable, and looked onto lush gardens and greenery outside our ground-floor window. There were twin beds, a couple of armchairs and a coffee table, a large dressing table and wardrobe, and a spacious bathroom. We would be here for the next couple of nights.

Meanwhile, my tiredness seemed to have vanished so Trevor and I, after dumping our bags, decided to nip along to the bar and have a refreshing cold beer.

The local beer is called (predictably) Everest, and features a picture of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on it (no mention of Sir Edmund Hillary!) We each enjoyed a freezing 650ml bottle. At first we took it outside to sit at some chairs and tables in the gardens, but it didn’t take long before the mozzies descended, so we went back inside. Then we returned to our room for a 45 minute power nap before dinner.

Later on, we met up with the others in the restaurant, and partook of a selection of local dishes. They seemed like a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisine; there was poultry, fish, mutton, cheese and an array of fresh vegetables, all cooked with various sauces and spices. We really enjoyed both the meal and the company of our fellow travellers who, like us, were seasoned globe-trotters, and the conversation was peppered with places we’d visited, and holidays we’d enjoyed, in the past.

By 10.00pm we were really flagging, so we decided to visit the bar again for a night-cap. Trevor was happy because they were showing one of the World Cup football matches, between Denmark and France (it ended in a 0-0 draw).

We then returned to our room at 10.45pm, where I thankfully got washed and changed into my PJs before settling down. It certainly didn’t take long to drop off to sleep, and we looked forward to exploring this fascinating country tomorrow.

At 5.00pm on Friday I walked out of the office door, with the fantastic feeling that it would be another 17 days before I returned. However, today was the day we’d been waiting for, when once again we would be jetting off to exotic locations and exciting adventures in our 84th country – this time, Nepal.

We spent the morning pottering around at home, doing our last-minute packing and other pre-holiday things, like completing our Nepalese visa forms. Then, at 12.15pm, our taxi arrived to take us to Durham railway station to commence the first leg of our journey, the train to London.

The train was on time and we happily made our way to our reserved seats, stashing our luggage in the racks and making ourselves comfortable. As soon as the train pulled out of the station, we cracked open a chilled bottle of champers, which we dispensed into some plastic beakers before toasting each other and the start of what we hoped would be another fabulous holiday.

The train sped through the brightly sunlit English countryside on its way to the capital. The weather had been glorious over the weekend and the forecast was for it to continue for another week or so. Nothing brings the great British public out more than the (relatively rare!) sunshine, and everyone seemed to be attired in shorts and sandals, bright summer dresses and cropped tops.

On our arrival into London Kings Cross, we proceeded to the London Underground Piccadilly Line for the hour-long tube ride to Terminal 4, Heathrow Airport.

The temperature in the train was predictably uncomfortably warm, but at least it wasn’t too crowded, and there were several empty seats. Every time the doors slid open, especially when travelling overground, we enjoyed a welcome breeze for a few seconds.

Eventually we arrived at the terminal and made our way to the Jet Airways desk to check in. Jet Airways is India’s second-largest airline (after Air India) and its headquarters are in New Delhi, so the first part of our flight would be via India’s capital.

We didn’t have to queue at the check-in desk and we were able to check our bags right through to Kathmandu. We hadn’t flown with Jet Airways before, so we didn’t know what to expect, although I have read some pretty poor reviews of it.

Once we’d got rid of our bags we made our way along to the executive lounge, as we had about three hours to while away. Going through security was very quick, so we arrived at the Plaza Premium Lounge in good time and settled down in some large, comfortable chairs in very pleasant surroundings. From here, we could look straight out at the arrival/departure gates and see the aircraft coming and going; a Boeing 737 Royal Air Maroc plane was being prepared for its next flight, and we watched the luggage being loaded onto it as well as the catering supplies.

We enjoyed some Indian snacks washed down with some cold Chang beer. I had some chicken tikka masala and rice, with a couple of samosas and some lime pickle. I followed this with a selection of cheeses, and we then had a couple of refreshing gins and tonics with ice and a slice. During this time, the Morrocan plane was pushed back and turned around, and we spotted our own Jet Airways 777 aircraft arriving from Delhi around 6.00pm.

We spent about 2½ hours in the lounge before we were called to board at Gate 2. We didn’t have far to go and were able to board the aircraft straight away. We were in the middle set of four seats; Trevor was in the aisle and I was next to him. We were seated next to an Indian couple who were flying out to spend some time with relatives in the Punjab region. Not surprisingly, most of the passengers were Indian, with only a few British scattered here and there.

It was very hot in the plane and I immediately removed my denim jacket before settling down on the somewhat-hard seat. We had around a nine-hour flight to get through so I hoped there would be no delays.

We took to the skies 30 minutes later than the scheduled time of 20:45 hours but it was absolutely ages before they came round with any drinks or snacks. Meanwhile, the hot and foetid atmosphere inside the aircraft was very uncomfortable, and this was only relieved slightly by turning on the air blowers.

Eventually the drinks trolley appeared and I asked for a glass of cold water along with my usual can of beer (Tiger). We were also given a packet of some sort of spicy Indian corn snack. I had a look through the in-flight entertainment programme but there was nothing I wanted to watch, so I just turned it to the Skymap so we could keep track of our journey.

Anyway… long-haul flights (especially night-time ones) are a pain in the proverbial, but necessary if we want to get to these exotic and unusual locations. It was after 11.30pm when they brought the meals round; we thought it was going to be Indian food but there was chickpea salad to start, followed by chicken arrabiata and a pistachio dessert. We were only given water to drink; no sign of any more beer or wine coming round.

After dinner I tried in vain to sleep. I cannot sleep sitting up at the best of times, and they were not the most comfortable of seats. It wasn’t helped by the bloke in front reclining his seat back and cutting into my space; also the lady next to me had a number of bags on the floor and on her lap, and she was determined to spread them, and herself, out as best she could. So I just had to sit there, rigidly upright, and count the hours and minutes slowly passing.

Eventually we touched down in Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi, at 9.30am local time. We now had to sit around and wait for our two-hour flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Homeward Bound

Well, this is the boring and depressing part of the holiday.  We got up at 7.00am and found ourselves right back where we started, in Abu Dhabi.  Out on the balcony we watched the red sun climbing in the sky, heralding the new day.

We collected our bags, had a last look around cabin 6098 to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, then made our way to the crowded Ocean View buffet where we enjoyed a good breakfast.  Then we went out to the pool deck in the sunshine, to await the call for disembarkation.

Down the gangplank we went, then made our way to the rows of waiting coaches.  Then it was another 90 minutes back to the airport at Dubai, where we left the coach and seemed to have to walk for miles until we found the Emirates desk in this massive airport.  As ever, it was the inevitable zig-zagging queue, but eventually we were able to check in for our A380 Airbus flight EK19, where we asked for an aisle seat.

Once we’d rid ourselves of our bags, it was a case of going through security then along to the executive lounge, where we enjoyed some snacks and drinks and made the most of the free wi-fi.  We then noticed on the departures board that our flight was ready for boarding, so off we went to the gate, where we were able to join the quick-moving queue and board straight away.

On the aircraft, a pleasant surprise awaited us.  We had been given the seats next to the emergency exit, so it meant there were no seats at all in front of us and loads of room instead.  Instead of the tray table and AVOD screen that you usually find in the back of the seat in front of you, our tray table came out of our arm rest, and the screen swivelled up from the gap between the seats.  It was great!  🙂

We were also right next to the galley, so we wouldn’t have far to go if we wanted anything to drink.  Also, if we needed to go to the loo or just get up to stretch our legs, we could just do so; there was no squeezing past the person next to us.

The giant aircraft took to the skies on time, and shortly afterwards the stewardesses came round with some pre-dinner drinks.  I then looked through the selection of available films and other entertainment, and decided to watch Victoria & Abdul, starring the inimitable Dame Judi Dench.  It was excellent, and I enjoyed a delicious meal of lamb stew and vegetables washed down with white wine.

Afterwards I watched another film; this time an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House.  That too was very good and it whiled away the hours on the long-haul flight.

The time passed in its usual way during what was a fairly smooth flight, as we watched the aircraft’s progress on the Sky Map.  We were served another meal, this time English “afternoon tea” consisting of finger sandwiches and warm scones with jam and Rodda’s clotted cream.  I washed it down with another glass of wine.  🙂

Finally we saw that flight EK19 was crossing the North Sea so we knew we weren’t far from home.  We touched down in Manchester Airport around 18:50 hours, where we were advised that the outside temperature was a chilly 3ºC.  Then it was just the usual rigmarole; disembark the aircraft, go through security, collect our cases, then wait for the shuttle bus to take us to the long-term car park.

Then it was back in the car and on the road for home.  We arrived back in our house at 22:50 hours, whereupon I went straight to bed.  Another superb holiday, marred only slightly by my cold/cough, was over.

Got up this morning feeling quite sad that this was our last day on board the good ship Constellation and we would be flying home tomorrow.  😦

We went and had our breakfasts in the Ocean View buffet, then wandered out on deck.  We had a couple of hours to spare because we weren’t due to dock in Dubai until 11.00am where we would remain in port until 11.00pm – a good 12 hours to explore this amazing city.

We spent some time packing stuff into the cases that we wouldn’t need again this cruise.  Then we had to go along to present our passports and cruise cards to the UAE immigration inspectors.  We then sat out in the sunshine and watched as the pilot boat came alongside the Constellation and the pilot climbed up the ladder to board our ship.  We got the same lift as him to the topmost deck.  🙂

As the Constellation slowly manoeuvred herself into port, we immediately spotted the distinctive red funnel of what is probably the world’s most famous ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2.  She has been in retirement in Dubai since October 2008, and we wondered what condition she would be in.  Originally they were going to turn her into a floating hotel, but the project ran out of money and the QE2 has had to go through the indignity of just sitting there like a ghost ship, slowly rusting.

We were privileged enough to have had a couple of transatlantic voyages on this great liner, once in 1997 and once in 2000.  It was really quite poignant to see her just sitting there, although we were pleased to see that she didn’t look too bad, and indeed we spotted a number of men on the decks, seemingly working on the ship.  So maybe they have some plans for the good old QE2 after all – let’s hope so.

Although the Queen Elizabeth 2 is a proper ocean liner (rather than a cruise ship) and is 70,000 GRT in size, she looked quite small next to the modern ships, including our own 91,000 GRT Constellation.  The difference, however, is that her lines and clean, sleek and classic, rather than looking like an ugly floating apartment block.  We couldn’t take our eyes of this great old ship, and we noticed lots of other people taking photos of her as well, particularly as the distinctive Dubai skyline, including the Burj Khalifa, formed the unmistakable backdrop.

Meanwhile, the Constellation had berthed by now so we made our way to the Celebrity Theatre to await the call for our city tour.

We were allocated bus #13 and we disembarked the Constellation and made our way through the passenger terminal to the buses waiting outside.  I can’t remember the name of our guide, but he did have a very annoying way of speaking, punctuating every other word with yeah… yeah… yeah.  In the end we weren’t listening to what he was saying but rather how many times he kept saying “yeah”.  In any case, we were engrossed in looking out of the window at all the amazing buildings and other sights.

As we were leaving the dock area we passed by the QE2 and got some good photographs of her.  Then we made our way through the slow-moving Saturday morning traffic for our first destination, the famous Dubai Mall, which is the largest mall in the world by total area. It is part of the 20-billion-dollar Downtown complex, and includes 1,200 shops. It attracts over 54 million visitors each year.

Inside the mall, our guide showed us where we would be meeting after we’d had our free time, as he issued us with tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.  We were next to a roped-off selection of luxury cars; we spotted a Lamborghini,  McLaren F1, Maserati, Ferrari and others.  Trevor said there would have been well over a million pounds worth of cars there.  After all, Dubai just reeks of money and luxury so even out on the roads every other car was a luxury one.

The guide showed us where to go to get the lifts to the top of the Burj Khalifa, and told us we had about an hour and a half.  We joined the inevitable zig-zagging queue and, when we got to the head of the queue, presented our tickets.  However, the time shown on the tickets for our visit was 23:00 hours which was obviously incorrect.  The lady then took our tickets away and said we’d have to be issued with new ones, so we had to stand back in the queue to let other people past us.  We hoped it wouldn’t take too long, as this waiting was eating into our time.

After about five minutes the lady returned with new tickets for us and we thankfully made our way to the high-speed lifts to go to the 125th floor.  The Burj Khalifa actually has 148 floors but the viewing area, shop, restaurants etc are on the 125th floor.  The massive lifts sped their way up, and the ascent made my ears pop.

At the top, we all spilled out of the lift then looked around in awe at the incredible views.  The tops of other sky-scraper buildings were way below us, and we could see for miles and miles as it was a clear day.  Cars and trucks, far below us, looked like lines of ants as they crawled along the highway.  It was fantastic – here we were at the top of the tallest building in the world.  🙂

After we’d seen all we wanted, and bought some postcards and other souvenirs in the shop, we made our way back down again and along to where the luxury cars were, to meet up with our guide and the rest of our party.  We then continued back through the mall and back onto the bus for the scenic coastal tour.

We passed many luxury apartment blocks and hotels as we made our way through this bustling, affluent city.  Eventually the bus pulled up along the coast, at the famous Jumeirah Beach, which is a popular place where ex-pats live.  We could see another famous Dubai landmark, the Burj Al Arab hotel, which is shaped like the sail of a boat and has a helicopter landing pad at the top.  We got out of the bus for a photo stop, and walked along the shoreline in the pleasant sunshine.

Continuing on our way, we also passed another famous luxury hotel, Atlantis, The Palm.  This was opened in 2008 at a cost of 500 million USD. It was set in lush, immaculate lawns and flower beds, and had a pristine sandy beach, which I believe was part of the artificial beaches created in The Palms at the turn of the millennium.

We arrived back at the Constellation around 5.00pm, after a very interesting tour indeed.  We made our way to the stern to the Sunset Bar, and I enjoyed a cold prosecco as we looked across at the QE2 as the sun hung low in the sky.  Then it was back to cabin 6098, to get showered and changed and ready for dinner, and put more of our stuff in the cases.

We enjoyed a good dinner in the San Marco restaurant, washed down with prosecco and finished off with a glass of Amaretto and some coffee.  Then we went back to the cabin to finish our packing, and also to get changed into the clothes we’d be travelling home in, as our cases had to be outside our doors by 10.00pm.

Afterwards, we went along to the Celebrity Theatre to see the final show, called “Funny Bones”.  It consisted of two guys, one British and one Japanese, who performed old-fashioned mime sketches that were really funny and original.  Certainly a show with a difference and, as I’ve already said, we have been extremely impressed with the entertainment on the Constellation this cruise.

Around 11.00pm the ship weighed anchor and set sail for Abu Dhabi once again.  We then finished off the evening by going to the Rendez-Vous lounge, where we enjoyed some cocktails as well as the peace and quiet, as there was no band on tonight.  We then reluctantly made our way back to cabin 6098 for our last night on board.