Enter: Nepal and the Himalayas

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Local breakfast, fried curry potatoes

I have finally departed from the low, swampy jungle lands on northern India. Camping along busy roads each night in a hot, breeze-less marsh surrounded by mosquitoes, I patiently waited to cross into Nepal. Nepal is culturally very similar but lacks the extremely dense populated areas of India. Traffic is less, locals are less inquisitive and the Annapurna mountains range in the distance. I am now a few days ride from the Annapurna circuit trail and plan to cycle to the base of the holy mountain.

 

Cacauphony of horns, black snot, animal behavior and Hindu Ashrams

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Under a hot sun, traffic, trash, cows and noise for miles.

India is by far the most difficult country for cycling. The traffic alone would scare most from taking the streets on a two wheeler, combined with the summer heat, pollution, terrible road conditions and masses of people you get an experience like no other. India is a world of its own, unique and always surprising.

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Girl wandering through traffic looking for Indian Rupees.

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Food stalls on the Ganga river, Rishikesh

My first impression was absolute chaos as I made my way through rush hour on a muddy, dirt road packed with vehicles. Motorcycles zipped through, cows blocked lanes napping in the shade, beggars tapped on windows seeking food, and cow shit…. everywhere. Meanwhile the sun burns through the clouds and temperatures sore, the humidity is 100% and every gas powered vehicle around you is honking. The locals have become so accustomed to the noise that it no longer seems to bother them, and I find that they rarely look before crossing the street. Without a bell or a horn this makes things extremely difficult as I often have to yell to keep people from crossing the road in front of me.

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Everyone seems o be wearing a Turban here, but there are very few Muslims. 

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Things get better with altitude, Dharamshala 6,000 feet

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Temple of the Dali Lama, Dharamshala is his official residence away from Tibet.

It is quite shocking. Cities consist of miles of traffic, with shanty towns built out of cardboard and plastic along the river. Everywhere you go a holy building, be it a Muslim Mosque, Hindu Ashram or Sikh Gurdwara peaks out of sprawl and can be seen from a distance. Devotional music (Kirtan) played on harmonium, tabla, bell and voice echos through speakers in grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies. Hindu ascetics, with long beards, dreaded hair and long orange robes walk the streets barefoot seeking alms.

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Sikh Gurdwara, Langaar, meal time

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Women rolling dough for deep fried Puri

Within all this I have found sanctuary in the Sikh temples known as Gurdwaras. Here travelers are welcomed and given a safe place to sleep as well as an evening meal free of charge. The Sikhs are often surprised to see a foreigner on a bicycle but quickly invite me in, often times giving me a room to sleep in. The Gurdwaras are usually large cylindrical white domes easily seen from a far, upon entering your head is covered with a turban or bandanna and feet and hands are washed before entering the main hall. Inside the main hall a holy text called the Gurbani is placed on a table covered in bright cloth.

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New Sikh friends.

Religious Sikhs forego cutting their hair, as it is regarded as holy. Men and women cover their extremely long hair with a turban (white, yellow and orange being the norm) or shawl and always carry a small sword or knife called a Kirpaan at their side. Men often tuck their extremely long beards into their turban. Their practice includes reciting the Gurbani, playing and singing Kirtan, and prayer. I have found them to be generous, kind and honest. I often look for Sikh businesses as they will not inflate the price for a foreign customer.

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Public water fountain

Everywhere else bargaining is a must! Fruits and vegetables are all purchased on small roadside carts. My first day I was charged double for everything, still thinking prices were cheap. A kilo of eggplant costs $0.50, tomatoes $0.20 and onions $0.10. Local food is abundant yet monotonous. Breakfast is some sort of toasted bread, or scone with a cup of super sweet milk chai, lunch and dinner consist of chapatis (whole wheat tortillas), Dal (Legume pulse with spice), mush boiled vegetables, and white rice (Basmati). To get good vegetables and ample protein I have to cook for myself, boiling eggs and mixing Dal with eggplant. Yogurt has become my go to during hot afternoons when I am hungry but can not take the rich Indian diet. The locals have quite a sweet tooth, with shops selling sweet fried dough balls, and Chai, Coffee and black tea always being loaded with sugar. As a result the typical Indian body has small legs, skinny arms and a large belly. On hot afternoons you can see Indians eating buttered chapatis and rich curries in the shade of a small restaurant. To me their diet caters more to a cold atmosphere, rather than the tropical. I miss the sticky rice, bamboo shoots and roasted meats of Laos.

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Huge  batch of Choley. spiced Chickpeas

Everyday is a sensory overload, with smells of spice, composting waste, incense, smog, and sweat. In cities and towns I often find myself surrounded by locals touching my bicycle, pulling on panniers, and grabbing brake levers. Disheveled kids often chase me down small streets and catch me before I enter busy intersections. There is no doubt to me that India is by far the most challenging, but there is also much to offer in culture, religion and history.

I am now in the holy city of Rishikesh, made famous to west by the Beatles trip to India in the late 60’s. Foreigners travel the streets looking for Ashrams, Gurus and yoga teachers. The Nepal border is 400 km away, and I look forward to a respite from the heat, and chaos of the cities.The foothills will soon make way to the Himalayas.DCIM100GOPRO

From Malaysia to India

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Kuala Lumpur’s famous twin towers

The last 48 hours have been a blur. A long lay over in Kuala Lumpur gave me ample time to explore the city on a hot summer night, and then a long flight to New Delhi, followed by a midnight bus to the region of Punjab.

Malaysia is fascinating as it is so diverse! Malays, Pakistani’s, Indian’s, Chinese and Arab’s all mixed together speaking the national language Bahasa Malaysia. Wandering through the city I passed through cultural districts that took me back to the cities of China, the Middle East and India. Walking behind the cities famous Mosque I passed stores selling authentic Jordanian clothes and head scarves, and listened to people bargain on cobble stone streets speaking Arabic.

A long bus ride took me to the holy Sikh city of Amritsar. Getting off of the bus and riding through the city I was overwhelmed by chaos!! By far the most chaotic environment since the Middle East. Traffic consists of all types of transport going with and against traffic, horns blaring in all directions and cows!! Holy Hindu cows blocking traffic as they eat grass in the median. If I can keep healthy I can do this, but if it falters this is going to be impossible.

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Amritsar Punjab, India. In the distance the Sikh Golden Temple

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A city and state full of Sikh’s, Punjab India

Passage to India

My mind wanders, back to the Mekong river and its source. I look across at the distant bank and see Thailand. The slow moving water has been to China, Myanmar and even parts of Tibet. And now, standing at it’s side I prepare to travel back to the country that almost took the lives of my brother and sisters.

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That Dam, Old Stupa, Vientiane, Laos

There are people here that spend their entire lives on the river, coming to land only to sell and trade. Their babies too young to swim are tied to the boat,  keeping them from falling in. The river is wide, and bamboo shacks built on piers can be found not far from the shore. In the late afternoon the river people can be seen pulling fish from nets and putting tarps over their boats.

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Huge landslide en-route to Vientiane, even motor cycles couldn’t get through.

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Pushing a bike in the mud has its consequencesDCIM100GOPRO

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Vientiane, Laos city capital monument

I have been in Vientiane for three days, and am patiently waiting for my Indian visa. The jungle road to the city was extremely mountainous and on most days it never stopped raining. Many times I would have to stop pedaling and push through a muddy section of road, or carry Esperanza through a shallow river. In one area the entire mountain gave way and covered the road. Traffic was backed up for kilometers as no car or motorbike was able to pass. With a little effort I pushed through to the other side and watched the hundreds of people sitting in their vehicles waiting in the rain.

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Rice fields become part of the overflowed Mekong River.

Considering its status as the capital of Laos, Vientiane, as far as Asian cities goes, is rather quite. Rush hour brings loud, polluting motorbikes, and three wheeled “took tooks” driving on the sidewalks and into oncoming traffic. Wheeled carts selling fruit, meat and smoothies fill the sides of the roads and Buddhist monks wearing bright orange robes navigate their way across busy streets and intersections. Its complete chaos. Adding to traffic is a large percentage of overly cautious drivers performing 6 point turns in large intersections, parking lots and narrow drive ways. Sometimes drivers will stop in the middle of a narrow road and hold up traffic while they exit their car, make sure there is enough space. I brought up the subject with a few locals and was told that only 20% of the drivers in Laos have licenses.

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Dog meat jerky, wet market

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Wet market entrance

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Lao ladies squat on tables selling various parts of meat.

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Ornate carvings on temple doors.

My visa has be granted and by the time most of you read this I will be well on my way, via a 36 hour lay-over in Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi. As mentioned above, I am a bit reserved about India from my previous experience. In 1992 my family did a pilgrimage of the Buddhist holy sites in the north east of the country. We visited Varanasi, swam in the Ganges and traveled to Buddha’s enlightenment and birth place. Towards the end of the trip however my brother became seriously ill. Fever, diarrhea and nausea were so normal to all of us that we thought it would pass.  Weeks later, while en-route for America in Hong Kong, my mother took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with Typhoid Fever. My two sisters soon followed. My older started felling really cold, even while taking a hot bath, and was soon lying beside my brother also having Typhoid, My little sister 2 years old at the time soon was diagnosed with Tuberculosis.

The Hong Kong infectious disease ward is not a pretty place, and my mother spent every day keeping them company, and at night sleeping on a wooden bench outside their door. I escaped the physical sickness but mentally became ill. For years afterwards I was completely paranoid of germs, illness and disease, I would sometimes wash my hands so many times that they would bleed. At 8 years old life seemed completely out of control. And it would take me several years to feel comfortable again with life.

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This picture was taken on 1992 pilgrimage to India.

These thoughts now echo in my mind as a prepare for the journey. I am stronger physically but mentally I worry about the fears returning. I will stay north and head to the holy Sikh region of Punjab before cycling the Himalayas to Nepal. Touch base again soon, I will reunite with my brother in Bhutan!

Days of Laos

I remember taking the over night boat from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, my family of 6 all sharing a small cabin with two 2 beds.
I remember being squeezed into the back of an Indian station wagon on pilgrimage in northern India, the 6 of us crammed in the back seat .
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One of the many Old Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang.

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Local Lao lady prepares me Iced coffee in a bag with ice. 1/4 cup dark black grounds, 1/4 tsp tamarind, 1 cup sweetened condensed milk, and 1 large bag of ice. 5,000 kip ($0.75). A n hour earlier I ordered the same coffee at the same place for 10,000.

Many bordering countries are so similar that if it weren’t for the border you would never know that you were in a different country. Most of Europe is like this, however I remember Albania being a third world country in the middle of modern Europe. Once out of China, I found Laos to be quite different. Development ceased, roads became narrow; full of mud and pot holes and residences became jungle huts; devoid of electricity, built of bamboo and straw. Chinese villages are full of electronic shops selling cellphones and boutiques selling knockoff Levis, now I find the villages full of naked children playing in roadside runoff, and elders carrying dirt and sticks on water buffalo carts.

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Crossing an old bridge built for bikes and motorbikes. Skinny tires would easily get stuck in the seams of the boards.

The once cornucopia-like selection of vegetables and fruits, so prevalent in China, has also tapered down to a few wilted cucumbers, some yellowing egg plant and maybe a few bananas. The villagers here spend little time growing anything but rice, and supply the rest of their diet by hunting and scavenging in the jungle.
Meals usually consist of the plentiful and tasty glutinous sticky rice, (the rice is squeezed into a ball with your hand then dipped into the other dishes) and “jungle stuff”. The other day I was invited to an afternoon meal and the “jungle stuff” was the following: roasted rat, boiled river snails, BBQ toad, and wild mushrooms. (Roadside vendors often sell roasted bat, squirrel and bags of live insects for frying).

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Rice “steps”

The road brings me up and down steep mountains, occasionally passing steps of rice paddies. The jungle comes right up to the road and is so full of life. Each night I camp and I find my stuff completely engulfed by insects, ants, and rats. Midnight usually brings a storm and by morning there is nothing left untouched. My clothes, panniers and pretty much everything I own, never seems to dry and is spotted with black mold. Even the inside of my hat and handle bars are spotted. The heat too takes its toll making my skin red and itchy, and turning the few vegetables and fruit that I do find into mush.

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My guess is that this is the topography of the entire country.

The roads are empty during the hottest hours of the day, locals lounging in the shade or bathing in the rivers.  I pedal on trying to cover ground and my sweaty clothes begin to feel like a wet suit. The cash in my pockets can be “wrung-out” with sweat and my skin dries with a layer of salt. As tough as it is I feel privileged to be able to cycle every day with enough food and water and even a tent for camping in the jungle. I have found that a bottle of mineral water ($0.75) costs more than most villagers make in a day, and each day I drink 4-5 bottles. I see children with bellies swollen from starvation, and kids going through garbage looking for food to eat. Suffering is completely out in the open here.

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Local shrine for the dead.

The Mekong River begins at the boarder of China,Myanmar and Laos. The river sweeps south, designating the border with Myanmar, then Thailand before finally cutting through the country.  In the shape of a snake, it makes its way north east for a while before heading south again. It is in this snake-like loop where the river meets a tributary creating a small peninsula which became a historic city called Luang Prabang.Luang aerial Luang Prabang has an almost island feel with palm trees and a cool river breeze.  Historic colonial buildings, crispy French baguettes , and brick paved alleyways can be found between ancient Buddhist monasteries. Each day at dawn the Buddhist monks living walk the main street barefoot seeking alms. The city is quiet, peaceful and has been a good resting place the last few days. Yesterday I bonded with a couple from Chile, meditating in the monastery and practicing yoga in the park.

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UNESCO Buddhist Monastery Luang Prabang

 

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Quiet alley ways between monasteries.

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A good example of Laotian/Thai style architecture

It is a good day! I am on the move headed south. I move quick as I might have to spend several days in the Lao capital waiting for a multiple entry Indian visa. I head to Cambodia then Punjab in September.

River to Laos

A boat built of plywood and bamboo reeds takes me down river to the Laos border. I have slowly observed the culture in southern China become more and more exotic with Buddhist architecture and jungle created cuisine of sticky rice and fermented foods wrapped in banana leafs. It is unbearably hot, and the long days on the bike leave me completely exhausted.

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Heading south, in the distance Laos.

Each night in a stagnant tent I await a small breeze to cool my sweating body. Morning brings the sound of  monkeys, birds and the ever-present cicadas in the canopy above.

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 Riverman

Laos will be a mountainous, jungle with Buddhist culture at its core surrounded by communist rule. A lot like China but with a deep rooted history in the ancient Theravada Buddhist practice. (China is predominantly Mahayana Buddhist). I look forward to offering alms to monastics and carefully finding a place to sleeping under large banyan trees.(The country still has thousands lands of active land mines left from the Vietnam war).

Tobacco, Tea and an Asian Monsoon

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Yunnan’s most popular past time smoking tobacco. Local with water pipe.

The landscape has become one large dense jungle. With strength, plots are cleared away for tobacco, rice and corn. I watch as locals spend hours working in the field, under a hot humid sun, standing bare foot in mud.  I am invited for lunch and given a bowl of rice, some salted vegetables.Cigarettes pass from hand to hand to mine, a smile and then a puff. A cup of Pu’er fermented tea. The sky grows dark, thunder, then a strong down pour. Lightning flashes. The road becomes one large mud puddle, and the mountains begin to wash away, dirt moves, rocks tumble and cars stop. I am on the remotest of roads heading toward the Laos border. If it is not food or tobacco growing then it is tea as I am about 200 km from the famous city of Pu’Er (one of China’s most popular teas sold in small to large “cakes”).

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Locals and dog sorting tobacco for smoke house.

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Human bush

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This lady was carrying a large stack of invasive ferns 3 km home to be used as fuel.

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Rubber tree. First time seeing one of these. The sap is collected below in a small bucket. The dry sap is rubber, which makes me wonder why we don’t have more white tires.

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Local roadside pineapples. So sweet and ripe that you can eat the heart.

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Long muddy puddles full of leeches. I gather speed, lift my feet in the air and hope that there are no deep spots. You are actually supposed to “push” a leech off with your finger nails rather than use a lighter, which may result in blood poisoning.

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Mud.