Thursday, 22 May 2014

See Potala Palace

Arriving at Lhasa airport meant an immediate ascent for my body to 3,600m from 1,400m in Kathmandu. After the previous two weeks in India the first thing I noticed was the fresh clean air but even before that I was blindsided by a stunning view of the Himalayas from the plane. 
The hour bus ride to Lhasa from the airport also provided beautiful views of the mountainous region and valleys we drove through, I did not know what to expect but this was breathtaking, or was that the thin air?
The effects of altitude were not as immediately dramatic as I expected but still quite noticeable. I did not sleep at all the first night with a 12hr headache. I had to walk in slow motion for the first two days or I became dizzy and out of breath. Good thing I got a fourth floor room in the hotel with no elevator! 
The cleanliness and infrastructure were quite a pleasant change after India and Nepal but came with a conflicted feeling knowing they are due mainly to the heavily present Chinese big brother.  
The second day was spent doing a low physical impact tour of Jockhang temple and acclimating but not without some great distant views of what I came here to see. 
Potala Palace was first built in the 7th century by King Gampo. It was expanded In the 17th century by the 5th Dali Lama to become the chief residence of the Dali Lamas but it was not completed until after his death. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising the 14th Dali Lama fled to India and has been in exile since. 

Like all iconic landmarks you see photos of them and have a good understanding of their significance but seeing them in person is another thing altogether and Potala is no exception, words and pictures cannot do justice to the grandeur. 
My ability to climb the steps to the top was a very real concern less than 48hrs after arriving, a real struggle but well worth it for the history and many elaborate rooms, tombs and temples within. 
I'm not exactly sure where my fascination with this building came from but I had wanted to see it and experience Tibet for many years, a journey well worth it and another Buddhist country I instantly felt a deep spiritual connection with. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Visit Buddhas Bohdi Tree

Bodhgaya is the place where after much seeking prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree to become Buddha and the most holy place for Buddhists. 

Without planning I arrived the day before the full moon celebration of Buddhas birthday to be at this holy place for the special day. I continue to be grateful for these incredible opportune experiences presented to me by the universe. 
After traveling nearly two weeks in India the first thing that struck me about the small town of Bodhgaya is the relatively clean streets and relaxed, happy mood.  
Being Buddhas birthday there was a great vibe but many people cramming through the security checks and around the grounds on my morning visit to the temple where I saw the 6th generation of the original bohdi tree for the first time. 
In the evening it was more relaxed and I made my way straight to a meditation spot under the tree where I sat amongst monks. 
After a while they stood so I stood as someone handed me a paper lotus and lit a candle at its centre. We began walking and I was thrilled to take part in a procession around the temple, keeping my flame alive and placing the lit lotus in a decoration at the end. 
I have felt the need to make a pilgrimage here for a long time as a seeker of truths and admirer of the Buddhist dharma and left feeling blessed to meditate under the tree and be a part of the celebration. 
I was not not foolish enough to think I would attain enlightenment here or expand my wisdom at all just from a location, I came for the experience. 

It is about the journey, not the destination. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Eat Vegetarian for a Week

One of those goals I put on the Life List to expand my understanding of other people's perspectives and how they live but as a natural born carnivore I never expected I would really accomplish foregoing meat for an entire week. This was always going to be a tough challenge. 

The main obstacle apart from missing a good schnitzel or chop is the limited, bland options in the western world that admittedly could be overcome if I really wanted to but why would I bother when I could fry a few sausages or drop by a KFC instead?

Then I went to India. 

A country that is largely vegetarian and a source of most of the vegetarian food eaten in the west. The authentic flavour is unbeatable and the many and varied options are dominant on every menu. No more excuses for me, if I was going to do it, this is the place. 

I started as soon as I arrived with a street samosa The second night proved a challenge in a restaurant with some terrific smelling meats barbecuing in the kitchen but I stayed strong. It was hilarious to hear myself say things like "mine's the vegetarian one" or "is there meat in this?" Things that coming from someone else would normally make me snicker smugly as I roll my eyes. 

Three days in Rishakesh helped with this goal in that there is no meat available in the whole city. Instead of being on a menu the meat has free reign to walk and deficate wherever it wants in the Hindi streets. Not that I needed to be quarantined from meat as I embraced the wonderful local food for the seven day challenge. 
Being India there was also the day of my vegetarian week where I didn't eat anything at all due to the dreaded Delhi belly and it took a bit longer than that to fully recover so to appease anyone who may think I took a short cut, I even stretched my abstinence out to ten days!!

Unfortunately it is impossible to accurately measure how my body coped or how I felt after a week without meat due to also being affected by nausea, gastro and general travelers fatigue but it's fair to say my methane production was through the roof.  

Would I become a full time vegetarian? No. I may give vegetarian options more consideration in the future and maybe eat less meat but to live without bacon, prawns, kransky, lamb roast......that's just ridiculous. 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

See the Taj Mahal

After six days in the country I only have a minuscule insight of the giant wonder that is India but I can tell you that Delhi does have it's shocking parts of beggars, smog and raw sewerage with the usual tourist traps alive and well but nothing you won't find in other south East Asian countries. 
A cross between the hustle and bustle of Bangkok with the cruel poverty of Cambodia and a red dust all of its own that settles in your nostrils with the afternoon winds. There is also the crushing heat if you time it right and of course it's own particular smell. 
There are some genuinely wonderful people to be found. In particular the ones who overcome their shyness and approach just to interact with a foreigner, practice their English with native speakers or as has happened more than once, get a photo taken with the white person. 
The food is fantastic once you overcome the stigma attached to the infamous Delhi belly and relax enough to enjoy it. 
Seven out of eleven people - our tour group size - will get sick at some point and I'm grateful I was in a hotel room with a bed and a toilet to endure mine unlike some of my unfortunate fellow travelers who fell a day after me and had to go through it on a ten hour train ride. 
The trains are not as horrifying as one is led to believe though I wouldn't want to be a female needing the toilet.....or a sick traveler.
And so I arrive here. The jewel in the crown of India. A post card of itself, the Taj Mahal, sunrise and sunset. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Visit The Beatles Ashram in India

I was aware the dilapidated Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram still stood somewhere in Rishakesh but hadn't figured on finding it so it was an unexpected surprise when our tour guide stopped at the front gate especially for me and announced we were at The Beatles Ashram. 
The complex itself is massive with many buildings, meditation domes and ornaments along roads being slowly over run by the surrounding hillside forest. 
The real thrill came for me though when I stumbled upon this special "cathedral" building decorated in homage to The Beatles by some very talented artistic fans over the years. 
A wonderful unexpected surprise on my first day in Rishakesh, the same day I cleanse myself in the Ganges  and so now added to the Life List. 

Bathe in the Ganges.

The Ganges flows from the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas for 2,500km into the Bay of Bengal at Kolkata with the sacred city of Varanasi, known for its human cremation ceremonies, about halfway. 

Why the Ganges? It has long been considered both pure and purifying in Hindu culture and at this juncture in my life, it couldn’t hurt to wash away a few sins....

However, I highly doubt the people who originally considered the river pure had to take the following into account:

According to official standards, water safe for bathing should not contain more than 500 faecal coliforms per 100ml. 

Upstream of Varanasi's ghats the river water already contains 60,000 faecal coliforms per 100 ml. 

After passing through Varanasi and receiving 32 streams of raw sewage from the city, the concentration of fecal coliforms in the river rises to1.5 million!!
So here I am as close as possible to the beginning of this majestic river in the desperate hope of avoiding as many fecal coliforms as possible at Rishakesh, less than 200km from the source and famous for the ashram the Beatles came to in the sixties. 
The "bathing" ritual of cleansing from the Ganges simply involves cupping the water in your hands and pouring it over your head. On the ghats of Rishakesh during a large Hindu prayer ceremony at sunset amongst the chanting and prayer this was a special experience. 
For those who may think I did not really complete this goal thoroughly enough rest assured, the following day I went white water rafting and became fully immersed in the Ganges, even swallowing some down the rapids.