HIMALAYAN TALES #6: VARANASI

19 February 2018


001. Varanasi, one of the oldest and most historically rich cities of India. A city of Holy men, Mother Ganga, winding alleys, delicious curries, animals of all varieties and hell of a lot of poop. After our eventful journey, arriving in Varanasi felt like a bit of slap in the face. However, after a couple of days of rest we had readjusted our sleep-deprived mindsets and began to see magic hidden between the chaos.

002. The city of Varanasi is something so unique that I still find hard to put into words to describe. The winding alleys are full of animals, scooters, people and colour! Huge cows, endless dogs, goats and monkeys are EVERYWHERE in Varanasi and as a result so is a hell of a lot of poop (not just of the animal variety either....). Darting around the brightly painted alleys and getting lost is almost half the fun of the city. When you need a breath of (literal) fresh air Mother Ganga and the ghats provide. The river is the centre of life for many people in Varanasi and there is a quiet sense of calmness if you just sit and watch day-to-day life unfolding. Realistically though, walking along the river touts will offer you a boat ride or try to sell you something relentlessly. I suggest heading more towards the Assi Ghat end of the river for a quieter atmosphere that's slightly less tourist-centred.

003. While in Varanasi we stayed in a lovely place called Singh Guesthouse. It was an affordable, clean little oasis from the craziness outside with a big green garden, multiple rooftops and tasty cheap breakfast. The Indian food in Varanasi was SO GOOD! We were spoilt for choice with super cheap and tasty pure 100% veg restaurants. Our favourite one was called Ashok, which was the cheapest by far and always had locals dining in too. Niyita and Shree also get honourable mentions because of their generous (and delicious) thali sizes too.

004. While on the topic of food I may as well mention hash- you can get it almost everywhere in Varanasi. You might even come across bhang lassi or special lassi at one of the many lassi stores around town. It is essentially a dairy based shake laced with THC (or bhang in Indian terms). If you're not into edibles there are always countless touts down to sell you a good time along the banks of the Ganges too, more towards Assi Ghat end. Heck, you might even start talking to one of the holy Babas and light up a chillum with him because they are high all the time man (and not just in the spiritual sense). I'm not here to condone or condemn anything- merely just educate!

005. The cremation ghats of Varanasi are one of key points for any visitor to the city. There are two cremation spots along the river- Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Bodies are burned here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Before the body even arrives at the Holy Ganga, it is washed and coated with ghee (purified butter). It takes 6-7 hours to burn one single body and a large amount of wood that the family must buy for the cremation. The bodies of men are wrapped in white and women are wrapped in red. Pure bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, leprosy sufferers, holy Hindu men and victims of cobra bites, are sunk directly into the river intact. We had a lovely in-depth conversation with a local Indian one night who talked us through everything that goes into the cremation ceremonies and left with a more wholesome understanding of how it all worked.

006. The comfortable feeling of acceptance and almost nonchalance about death was something I found refreshing coming from a Western culture where death is so traumatic and closed-off from everything. It felt really beautiful and moving to see death represented and dealt with so openly. The fact is that death is the only thing in life ever really guaranteed. Without death life in this body would be infinite. Death is a tool, something that should serve as a reminder to just LIVE. I think the confronting but humbling way that Hinduism deals with death on the banks the Ganga opens up so many thought provoking doors and I am very grateful to have experienced something that really blew me out of my Western-trained-mind.

007. Also, just so I don't end on a too-serious note... that goat munching on our banana peels was the FUNNIEST animal we crossed paths with in all of India and I almost always end up in tears looking at its little face. ENJOY!

Lena x 

STRAWLESS FOR THE SEA

16 February 2018


001. Hello, eco babe and/or warrior just here checking in again. Here is my FIRST ever piece of digital illustration. I made this at some point last year with zero clue what I was doing and zero skill. It's a messy and juvenile, but kinda fun! I have no intention or clue what to do with this so I figured I may as well post it on here.

002. You are free to download it, hang it up at your local cafe, put it on a postcard or throw it in the bin?! Whatever the hell you feel like! It's here and it's free to share with the world if you believe in the message too (the sea turtles will thank you later I promise).

Lena x

HIMALAYAN TALES #5: CROSSING THE BORDER FROM NEPAL TO INDIA

12 February 2018


001. Okay, before I jump into the border crossing business I'll just give a little recap of how we reached this point in the trip so far, because my posts haven't quite been chronological. We arrived in Kathmandu ---> then travelled to Pokhara ---> then trekked Annapurna Base Camp ---> returned to Pokhara ---> then returned to Kathmandu again ---> before jumping on a bus to Lumbini.

002. Lumbini is said to be the birthplace of Buddha and one of the more convenient towns to reach near the border of India, just a simple nauseating 12 hour bus ride from Kathmandu. The town is quite small but naturally draws in a lot of Buddhists who want to see the sights. There isn't really a backpacker scene, but we only stayed 2 nights to organise ourselves to cross the border via land into India. The 24 hours of transit we embarked on to get from Lumbini, Nepal to Varanasi, India was an experience so say the least. I hope that it can be helpful for anyone else planning a similar route!

003. Our day of travel began at 7.30am in Lumbini, hailing a local bus on the side of the road to take us to a town 1 hour away called Bhairhawa (also on the map as Siddharthangar) . We arrived there at about 9am and asked around on how to get to Sunali, the name of the town at the border. Friendly locals and taxi drivers point us across the road to an area where shared mini vans and taxis were picking up people. Bhairahawa to Sunali is only about 5 km on a straight road and doesn't take long at all.

004. We jumped out of our shared mini van, and started to walk towards the border. There are people EVERYWHERE at this border crossing and trucks lined up for kilometres. Make sure you see the very small Nepal immigration/government building and get your passport stamped OUT of the country, then walk across into India!

005. From the moment you step foot in India you will be hassled about buses, rickshaws and exchanging money. It's best to get rid of all your Nepali rupees before coming to India because they have no value and we found it impossible to exchange everywhere else. There are some Indian people are the border who want to exchange your Nepali rupees for you, but it's a little bit of a rip off. It's okay if you just have small money left to exchange to pay for a bus, but the best option is just try not to leave Nepal with excess rupees and start fresh in India using an ATM or something.

006. Another key point is make sure you get your passport stamped INTO India! I know it seems obvious, but the immigration office again is quite small and not signed too well, so make sure you keep walking until you see it. With every man and his dog hassling you for a bus or rickshaw it's easy to want to jump on one and get out of there but the passport stamping business is essential.

007. From Sunali we boarded a local bus to take us to Gorakhpur, a town where a train station runs. We had taken one too many 12+ nauseating bus rides in Nepal so were very much looking forward to a nice easy-breezy train ride - or so we thought! The local bus packed us in like a tin of sardines, even when you thought it couldn't possibly be more full, they managed to squeeze extra passengers on. Surprisingly though, we arrived at Gorakhpur in the estimated time of 3-4 hours later. At Gorakhpur everyone walks off the bus and automatically piled into rickshaws to take you to the train station nearby. Honestly, we had no idea what was happening but just followed suit with everyone else who piled into the rickshaws routinely.

008. By the time we arrived at Gorakhpur train station it was 2pm and we managed to buy a ticket for a train to Varanasi at 4pm for less than $2. It's probably worth mentioning that at this point we had not seen another Western person or backpacker at all, and nor did we until the next day. The intense stares and constant attention were something we didn't experience in Nepal at all and were a little unprepared for. It's considered somewhat normal in Indian culture and as a visitor you just have to accept it as best you can. We were waiting at the train station for a few hours and made friends with a young Indian guy who spoke English quite well. We chatted and he asked questions about Ben's didgeridoo he was carrying around. For the entire time we were surrounded by at LEAST 20 Indian men, who didn't really speak English and just wanted to be part of the excitement... which really was just two white people waiting on the platform for a train with a weird wooden instrument. I couldn't even tell you how many selfies I was in that day or what the hell has happened to them now. WELCOME TO INDIA HEY?!

009. After many delays, platforms changes and general sense of confusion our train finally arrived at 7pm (3 hours later than scheduled). We were beyond excited to be on a moving train and away from our celebrity status on the platform. This train wasn't particularly full and you could just sit in any carriage you liked. However, a couple of hours into the journey one of the train conductors/security people came up to us sounding a little distressed and asked us in very broken English to follow him. We were confused but just went with it anyway- what else can do you? He took us off the train and led us into a completely empty carriage. It had black out barred windows and assured us it was for our safety. The only other people who were in the carriage were his fellow workers. The whole situation felt so strange and bizarre but we just went with it and trusted that his intentions were kind.

010. The empty carriage was actually totally fine, if only just a little strange and we managed to sleep for an hour or so. When we finally pulled up at Varanasi train station, the end of the trip, it was 2.30am and we had NO accommodation. Our original plan did not involve arriving this late and we tossed up just waiting on the platform until sunrise... but the station was FULL of people covering the floor already sleeping and after our "for-your-safety" experience we thought it was maybe a bad idea.

011. But of course this is India, a country of 1.3 billion people and we found the loveliest rickshaw driver ever to take us somewhere away from the train station. The trouble was that at 3am the only places actually open were hotels that charged $150 a night... which at this stage was literally a couple of hours. At one point we just decided to try and roam the streets for a couple of hours until the sun came up but the kind rickshaw driver wouldn't take no for an answer (or our extra rupees). In the end we did end up finding a place that was $20 for the most disgusting place I have ever rested my head, but after the longest day of my existence I accepted my fate of the dingiest room in India, just for a few hours of sleep.

012. This was ridiculously long, I apologise, but I hope it can possibly help someone out in the future who may be trying to plan the same route!

Lena x

HIMALAYAN TALES #4: ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP PART TWO

9 February 2018


001. Hello and thanks for following along on this Himalayan adventure! I'm going to jump right into a day-by-day rundown so make sure you catch up on PART ONE here. 

DAY FOUR: Tadapani to Chomrong. We had an early start and left before most of the other trekkers and were rewarded with an early morning sighting of MONKEYS as we walked through dense jungle surroundings. The went on, continuing to get a little hotter and steeper. Our destination was Chomrong and is actually one of the biggest town/villages you pass through on the trek with lots of guesthouses to choose from. We stayed in upper Chromrong, which left us with plenty of stairs to walk down in the morning, but was a little quieter than staying in the centre. This was a pretty early day, but we took advantage of it by having a shower and washing our well-worn clothes. 

DAY FIVE: Chomrong to Himalaya. This was our BIGGEST day of trekking, which didn't exactly go to plan. We set off from Chomrong, then hit the village of Sinuwai after another gruelling encounter with a large amount of stairs. From that point onwards though, the track became a lot more enjoyable, in terms of intense inclines. Our original plan was to stop at Bamboo for the night, but we arrived fairly early and still felt full of energy so continued on to Dovan. The walk there doesn't take too long and is lush bamboo forest. We arrived in Dovan only to find out that they were no rooms available at all (a risk you have to take when trekking alone wihout a porter or guide), so we just trekked onwards to Himalaya. If you can't tell by the less-than-creative-names, the stop off points turned into just clusters of teahouses for trekkers, more so than an actual villages bubbling with life. Overall, this day was pretty damn lovely. Once you pass the afore mentioned stairs, the whole way from Bamboo all the way to Himalaya is really beautiful trekking. We even saw some more monkeys! By the time we arrived at the Himalaya camp we were exhausted but rewarded with a room (hooray). It was at this point that the weather REALLY started to drop noticeably and the landscape started to change. We were getting SO excited to see the Himalayan region in all its alpine glory, as making it to base camp began to feel so close! 

DAY SIX: Himalaya to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC). We started off in the cold early morning, and reached the camp of Deurali before too long. We stopped for tea to warm our insides and take in the view. The alpine region had officially started and it was BLOWING MY MIND! Huge raw red cliffs, towering over a flowing river in the valley and surrounded by snowy peaks. The walk from Deurali to MBC is breathtakingly beautiful. Pure magic! Along the way we even had to do some slippery, icy river crossings- just an indication at how cold it was beginning to get. We arrived at MBC just after lunch and did some exploring. The three little teahouses were surrounded by golden grass and dwarfed by red mountains capped with white snow, all glowing in the sunshine in a crazy contrast of colour. Writing this now I still cannot believe that I was lucky enough to experience nature like this AND while seeing snow for the first time! Mind FREAKING blown. By 3pm that afternoon it was absolutely freezing, but luckily we asked for extra blankets (on top of our sleeping bags!) and managed to survive the icy night. 

DAY SEVEN: Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) to Bamboo. After some discussion with one of our trekking friends and his friendly guide the night before, we decided to get up to ABC at sunrise. This was a 5am wakeup call and I can safely say was the coldest I have ever been in my life! We took flashlights and hiked most of the way completely in the dark. The stars shone brightly and looked magical. Despite being FREEZING, sunrise at ABC was really something special. As the sun finally decided to poke into the valley, the white peaked giants began to literally glow pink and orange! I felt a strong sense of accomplishment and wonder (cheesy but true!). How lucky am I to have experienced such magical things in such an enchanting country like Nepal?! The walk to MBC with the sun finally high up in the sky was equally as epic. Crazy how just an hour earlier we had crept past these sleeping giants in the dark, to only later see them in full clear vision. We arrived back at MBC and packed our things to head back down the mountain. Earlier we had planned to stay two nights at MBC then ABC, but we were NOT prepared for the cold and felt satisfied by our incredible experience as it was. I really recommend staying at MBC over ABC if you only have one night because you can trek to ABC for sunrise or sunset (which isn't far) without having to carry your backpack and it could possibly be a couple of degrees warmer. After leaving MBC we walked downhill all day, taking our time and enjoying the epic views. We arrived with VERY sore legs and knees in Bamboo, but felt so damn content after the days adventures. 

DAY EIGHT: Bamboo to Jhinu. This day was a hell of a lot of downhill but a hell of a lot of uphill too. Luckily we were a day ahead of schedule so just enjoyed our final days of trekking and took our time. By the time we arrived in Jhinu we felt so mellow and really just wanted to relax and chill out as the trek was beginning to unwind. We had planned to go to the hot springs, but just didn't get there in the end- which didn't really bother us too much. We had just trekked up saw the FREAKING HUGE HIMALAYAS, the hot springs didn't spark as much passion (but I'm sure they are lovely). For dinner we had dhal bhat (as always) and I distinctively remember it being amazing because of the fresh veggies from the garden- the little things you take for granted before trekking up at high altitude! 

DAY NINE: Jhinu to Ghandruk. We started the day off with a slight wrong turn, but managed to get back on track quickly enough. Our route went from Jhinu, through New Bridge to Ghandruk. The weather was getting warmer again on the lowlands as we trekked through beautiful rainforest and saw an incredible waterfall! We were lucky enough to see a diverse landscape over the 10 days and felt very happy about the general route overall we chose to walk. At some point during this day I think we maybe chose a bad route and didn't look at the incline on the map, because we had to climb a hill from hell up to Ghandruk. We were relieved to make it to the top, rest our sore legs and snack on tea and biscuits. We ended our final night of the trek sitting on the balcony of our guesthouse watching monkeys playing in the trees. A little exhausted but oh-so-content. 

DAY TEN: Ghandruk to Kimche. The final morning we woke up, packed our bags and ate our final breakfast of tea and toast. Ghandruk to Kimche isn't very far at all and is maybe 40 minutes of gentle down hill walking. Kimche is the stop where you can grab a bus to take you back down to Pokhara for about $4. It was probably the most precarious bus ride I've ever been on- teetering along cliffs, doing the school drop offs and driving along roads that definitely weren't designed to fit one bus in a lane, let alone two. BUT I LOVED IT! I have fond memories of loud Nepali music blasting the whole way, with a larrikin driver/conductor duo. Not to mention the bus itself- heavily decorated with rainbow tassels, fake flowers, prayer beads, peacock feathers and a statue of Ganesh. We couldn't have a more Nepali experience if we tried to end an epic adventure in the mountains! 

002. Nepal is a country of PURE MAGIC! I feel so thankful and grateful and lucky to have experienced natural beauty that COMPLETELY BLOWS MY MIND. I don't even have words for it. If you are considering trekking this area in Nepal or have any questions (as I'm sure I definitely didn't address everything) please feel free to ask. The little Himalayan wonderland is simply the best and I just want to give the whole of Nepal a big giant hug. Love love love!

Lena x

HIMALAYAN TALES #3: ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP PART ONE (POON HILL)

7 February 2018


001. Welcome to this EPIC instalment of my travel journal, where I attempt to cohesively and eloquently summarise almost two weeks of trekking, in one of the most mind-blowing parts of the world, into two hopefully-short(ish)-and-sweet blog posts. Wish me luck!

002. I may as well begin stating the straight up facts and giving you a brief summary of what we embarked on... Ben and myself have NEVER done any trekking (other than day hikes) before in our life, so naturally when in the mountainous Himalayan region of Nepal we decided to undertake a 10 day trek without a guide or without a porter. We chose to do the Annapurna Base Camp Trek combined with the Poon Hill trek, which forms a nice little loop in the Annapurna region without having to backtrack too much. To keep things easy I'm going to be using the names of the places we passed throughout the trek, so HERE is a simple map for those of you playing at home to follow along!

003. I know it sounds crazy to do a trek without a guide or porter, but honestly it wasn't as insane as it sounds. The trek itself was EASY to navigate and if you were ever at a fork in the road a porter or friendly local passing with his donkeys were always more than happy to steer you in the right direction. Carrying your own gear also was fairly simple- don't overpack and you will be sweet (it's not really rocket science). This is a teahouse trek, meaning you stay at little guesthouses along the way and eat meals there too, so really you don't have a reason to be carrying hefty gear (unless you chose camp solo instead). I want to address that we were on a tight budget and felt completely confident in our fitness and self-determination needed to complete the trek. If you are however travelling with maybe a bigger group or budget I would totally recommend hiring the local people of Nepal and to treat them with kindness and respect. From my (very rough) calculations, on the trek we spent about $20-25 a day each, which included lodgings, three meals and snacks along the way. For me, I found this trek challenging but one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things I have ever done. I'm hooked on those mountain endorphins and really would love to return to Nepal to trek another region, or even attempt more multi-day hikes in my own backyard of Australia. For first timers into the trekking world, I really would recommend Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) as a really great starting point! The photos above are in chronological order, so read along and enjoy the imagery too.

DAY ONE: Nayapul to Uleri. The first day of our trek began with walking along a dusty road that ran beside a clear blue flowing river and sweating a LOT- something we weren't really expecting. We stopped off for lunch in a village called Hille, nestled among lush green rice fields. Then we began to ascend a part of the trek best referred to as the stairs from hell, that almost seemed never ending. When we arrived at the top to the quaint village of Uleri, our legs were like jelly and we promptly checked into a cosy guesthouse. We filled our bellies with dhal bhat, chatted with other trekkers we met along the way, then dozed off to sleep feeling exhausted and content.

DAY TWO: Uleri to Ghorepani. We woke for an early start and were rewarded with a beautiful pink sunrise, peeping over the mountains and showering sunlight into the cobbled village. The trek started with more stairs, then moved into a more dense jungle/forest area. Each day we walked for about 4 or 5 hours (relatively steady paced) but we surprised ourselves on day two with how early we managed to arrive at Ghorepani- our goal for the day. It was probably only lunchtime, but we were pretty exhausted still adjusting to the the trekking life and in no hurry, so we found a room with a perfect view for the night and just chilled out, looking out the window at the snowy peaks in awe! We had our traditional dinner of dhal bhat and went to bed, ready for a super early wakeup call to walk up to Poon Hill for sunrise.

DAY THREE: Ghorepani to Tadapani. Ready to rise and shine at 4.30am, with torches and almost every single layer we could squeeze on! Poon Hill is a popular sunrise viewpoint, a short walk up hill from Ghorepani. The view of the mountains and the sunrise itself is quite beautiful, but we both agreed it was a bit overrated. There was maybe 200-500 people up there on that one single morning. We sipped on $2 teas, which were available at the top, and tried to soak up the sun on our numb bodies as it began to poke through. After we headed back down for breakfast and checked out of our room, we hit the trail again heading towards Tadapani. This part of the trek begins with a short but slightly gruelling ascent through a magical forest, feeling like you are in a scene of Lord of the Rings. When you emerge at the top you have reached Deurali Pass, which without a doubt was more breathtaking and beautiful than the viewpoint we were treated to at the crowded Poon Hill earlier. There are lush rolling mountain hills as far as the eye can see on one side, and snow capped peaks on the other. My recommendation is to skip Poon Hill for sunrise and just set off on your trek towards Tadapani a bit earlier, where I am sure you would be rewarded with killer views and far less people. After Deurali Pass, you continue on through a magical forest/valley area. This was one of my favourite days of the whole trek as the surroundings just continued to become more enchanting! Tadapani itself is a little village which also had insane snowcapped sunset views- each day was just getting better and better and the natural beauty of the Himalayas was blowing our minds!

Lena x


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