FIFTY. SIX. HOURS.

Our Mini Bus back to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.

Upon arrive back in Ölgii our first order of business was to get a plane ticket back to the capital. We had heard plenty of horror stories of the bus ride from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar and we were willing to do just about anything to avoid that… anything except spend 2 more weeks in the thriving metropolis of Ölgii, Mongolia.

Apparently August is back to school time, which means every kid in the country is making their way to school … in Ulaanbaatar. Those with means fly and those without take the bus. And with only one airline in the country and only one flight every other day from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar we were looking at at least 2 weeks before we could get a seat. Any seat!

So, looks like we’re taking the bus. We asked around about how long it should take to get to UB on the bus, “Two to Five Days.” DAYS. DAYS! They are measuring the time in DAYS!

We give up on the plane plan and go to where the buses leave from and start asking prices. It’s basically the same price for a mini bus (11 passenger van) or the big bus, and when they showed us which seats were available on the big bus (for gringo like us) we opted for the mini bus. Hindsight that might have been a mistake, but I have absolutely no plans of ever finding out if the big bus is any better. I think you see where this is going …

We make a deal with a minibus guy and he says that we’ll be leaving at 1:30pm Mongolian time. “Great!” we’ve got plenty of time to get some lunch and get back. So we leave our big bags and go around the corner to grab some lunch. We make our way back at 1:25 to see the last bus pulling out of the parking lot…

WHERE DID OUR BUS GO?
WHAT HAPPENED TO MONGOLIAN TIME?
Where are our bags?

Luckily, a guy in a Toyota, who kind of speaks english, says he’s been waiting for us and to hurry up… we jump in and then make a number of stops at various alley’s picking people up and dropping people off. Even switching drivers at one point. We have absolutely no idea what’s going on but Toyota guy is insisting, in broken English of course, that he’s taking us to the bus with our bags. #Trust

By 1:45 we’re at what seems to be at a combination minibus mechanic/corrugated aluminum sheeting company/family home where the minibus we made the deal with is as well as 4 high school age kids. We arrive as they are wrapping everything up in a trap on the roof where we’re told our bags are. The Toyota guy takes off and we proceed to wait thinking we’re leaving any minute and how lucky we are that it’s just us and some high school kids… plenty of room. You see where this is going …

Three more trips from the Toyota guy later and it’s now a quarter to 4 and we’ve got our 11 passengers. As we start getting in the van we’re told we need to sit in the back. Oh, no. We know this routine. We’re sitting right here in this middle row, we got here first. After a little back and forth they realize this isn’t our first rodeo and give in.

By the time we leave town we’ve made 2 more stops and we are comfortably sitting 5 wide on a 3-person seat with 17 people in an 11-passenger van looking at over 1000 miles of open fields between us and Ulaanbaatar.

Fifty Six Hours across MongoliaThrough multiple breakdowns.

Being towed across a river by a tractor.

And through the nightly karaoke party that seemed to break out at dusk every night.

For FIFTY. SIX. HOURS.

I guess we’re lucky it didn’t take the full 5 days!

Ger Life

Cow in Doorway Ger Life

The next morning we meet our driver/guide/”translator” and set out in our awesome Russia van on our private tour. Our tour was going to be a bit different than the typical tour, since it was just Liz, the driver and myself, and we were between typical tourist seasons. The plan was that everything was going to be done communally, setting up camp, cooking, etc. That sounded great to us. We were excited that we’d probably get to do somethings we wouldn’t have on our own and overall just thankful that we weren’t starving to death in the rain walking back to civilization without any horses.

Western MongoliaAs we made our way toward Tavan Bodg National Park we got to experience another first… Russian Van Races. Out here there is nothing paved, roads are more like tracks through a field and are completely optional. Passing is done whenever, wherever and why ever. And they drive FAST! I mean REALLY FAST. Especially if the drivers know each other… and there is some pride on the line. With a bit lost in translation it seemed that the loser provided beer at the next stopping point.

Loser buys beer in Western MongoliaOnce in the park we stopped to visit and Eagle hunter. No. No. Not someone who hunts eagles, but someone who hunts with eagles. It’s basically the traditional Mongolian version of falconry. It was pretty cool. From there it was on to meet the family we’d be staying with for the next few days.

We pulled up to 2 gers with 6 or 7 kids running around and about 500 goats. We were quickly greeted by the kids, our host Erbolot and his wife. They invited us in and promptly offered us tea and an assortment of cheeses. We’d be staying in their ger and experiencing ger life for the next few days before Erbolot escorted us on a 5 day horseback ride around Khoton Lake.

Gar LifeFrom the outside gers are pretty nondescript and all look exactly the same; big round white tents. But on the inside they are absolutely beautiful. Decorated with brightly colored handmade wall coverings. There is a warm stove burning in the evenings and no shortage of dairy products. Liz and I quickly settled in to ger life, milking the goats, eating cheese, playing with kids, and experience the dominant culture in western Mongolia, Kazakh (From Kazakhstan). Oh, and zero English.. It was a great opportunity to practice our Kazakh language skills… which consisted of one word “Рахмет!” which means thank you and is pronounced Rax-met! With a deep guttural hack for the “Rrrrackmet!” They always laughed when I said it but I think they got the idea.

Over the next few days Erbolot and our driver took us to visit waterfalls and other ger families and to some of the regional historical sites. Which, our driver who didn’t really speak much English at all, explained to us as “dead people.”

Ger life moves pretty slowly on steppe … even after almost a year of travel and being out of the corporate rat race, coming to grips with South American siesta, and being OK with only accomplishing maybe one thing for the day, it felt slow. Glacial would be a good way to describe it but it was really nice to relax and just enjoy the wide-open spaces.

Relaxing; Gar LifeLiz and I got fairly proficient at the evening activity.
Goat milking.

Milking goats - Tavan Bodg National Park; Western MongoliaFirst my specialty; Goat Roping. First you gotta get the mama goats on a rope to be milked. Some come running; others have to be dragged across the steppe by their horns.

Then came Liz’s expertise; The milking. After a quick tutorial (broken English) she was alternating in with the rest of the ger girls and filing buckets. The oldest daughter (who was learning English in school) was so impressed she asked Liz “How many goats do you have?” … thinking back on it we’re not so sure that wasn’t a joke.

And finally once all the mama goats have been milked and removed from the rope it’s time for that last step and most important step; letting the babies out of the pin.

A Very Bavarian Birthday

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany

Well I’m 31 now. I’m into my 30’s officially. To be honest, I’m not feeling super great about it. I liked being 30 and wasn’t totally ready for that to be over. But oh well, no real choice about it, so I figured we should get on with the celebrating!

We debated on where to go for a while – a birthday in Paris would be so romantic, a birthday skiing in the Alps would be so exciting, or maybe Amsterdam? But turns out that Europe is stinkin’ expensive!! Just the train ticket to Paris is $350 Euros! And that’s before you get a hotel. And I’m quite certain that if I was in Paris for my birthday there is no hope of me stopping myself from going out to incredible meals, eating my weight in cheese and pastries and drinking ridiculous wine – that is to say it would have gotten really expensive really fast. Same goes for skiing (plus, the snow reports say there’s not any good snow yet).

So we decided to go to one of the “must see” sights in Germany – the Neuschwanstein Castle. It’s this gorgeous castle set up on a rugged mountain surrounded by gorges, and it’s right on the border of Austria in the beginning of the Alps. It was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, you can really see the similarities.

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany So that was the plan, but of course plans go awry! Its supposed to be a four hour drive to the castle, so we left early in the morning with plans to make to the castle, then spend the night in the hour-away mountain town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Oh important tidbit, while we didn’t get a white Christmas, we got a white day after Christmas… and every day since then! So there’s a good amount of snow already, and as we’re leaving it starts coming heavily down again. So our four hour drive turned into eight+ hours to get to the castle. We arrive there and park, but can’t see the castle because of the snow coming down. We go to buy tickets to go up, and learn that we got there 10 minutes AFTER the ticket office closed. So no princess castle for Lizzy on her birthday.

Snow Driving - Germany

Knowing it’s taken twice as long to drive as we had planned, we decide to leave for our hotel immediately since it’s going to take a couple hours and make the most of it. The drive was absolutely gorgeous and took us through Austria for the majority of the time. The snow was really fluffy and I just couldn’t help myself, when we got stuck in traffic I jumped out and made snow angels!

Snow drive to Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany

Snow drive to Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany The hotel was great and we quickly headed into town to grab dinner and figure out where to celebrate. We walked a couple blocks and found the “Grill und Wein” restaurant we were hoping for, and then found it was closed for the holidays, as were most of the other nice places in town. So what did we do??? Exactly what you do anywhere in the world when you’re celebration plans don’t work out… you find the Irish Pub! And there was one just down the street. After a birthday pint of Bavarian brew there, we went to grab pizza for dinner, promising our new Irish pub friends to be back shortly.

Birthday Bavarian style

After our quick dinner we returned to a big welcome from the Irish pub. Seriously, how is it that every Irish pub in the world consistently delivers a guaranteed good night?! We made lots of friends there and closed the place down at about 4:00 AM!

Birthday party

The next morning we were up early and ready to see this castle! We made it back to the castle and this time were able to get tickets AND we could see the castle from a distance. It definitely lived up to the hype!!

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany It’s a 40 minute walk up the hill, which was like walking in a winter wonderland.

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany

We took the required tour to see the inside and it was equally as impressive. Both Rick and I agreed that of all of the famous, historical buildings we’ve seen on this trip and others, this was our favorite! It’s beautifully made inside, and intricate and in great condition. Sorry, no photos allowed inside so I don’t have any share 🙁

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany

King Ludwig II who built it was considered insane. I can see why from even just the exterior design, it’s so different from other castles. It took 23 years to build. The king moved in before it was completed… and good thing because he only got to live in it for one year before he died. King Ludwig was a recluse and built it for complete seclusion, the plan was for the castle to be “sacred and out of reach” from people… and only six weeks after he died the castle was opened to the public. It’s in the top three most visited places in Germany. Guess that didn’t work out so well for him!

It was pretty awesome to see. I’m really glad we visited while we were in Germany.

Neuschwanstein Castle - GermanySnow Flake

But I have to admit the 18+ hours of driving was kind of a beat down so it was really great to get lots of emails and Facebook comments from everyone back home! Thanks for making me feel special on my birthday! Cheers!Birthday Bavarian style

Amazing Beaches around Krabi

Hanging out on the Islands

You’ve seen the pictures of gorgeous sunsets, and the famous Thai beaches with white sand, crystal water and limestone karsts jutting out. Let me tell ya, it’s harder to find in Krabi than you would think, but when you do finally, it’s spectacular.

Here’s my travel advice warning before you get carried away with these incredible pics: I still don’t recommend staying in Krabi or Ao Nang. They’re really overdeveloped, haven’t been taken care of and, frankly, the food and service sucks. But there are pretty day trips from there… but you could take those same day trips based out of somewhere far less trashed out.

Ok – so on to the beautiful pictures to make you all jealous while you’re bundled up in winter clothes!

Sunset Ao Nang Beach, Krabi,, Thailand

Our first night we got to enjoy the most beautiful sunset I think I’ve ever seen, just off Ao Nang beach. Choosing which pictures to post for this is really hard – and really they don’t even begin to capture it!

The next day we went on the “Five Island Tour” on a longtail boat.

Longtail Boats - Krabi,, Thailand

We started off at Railay Beach – the perfect “play in the water” beach. It’s not an island, but you do have to take a boat to get there because it’s cut off from any road due to the rock formations.

Cave Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand

Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand

It’s known for it’s rock climbing and a cave that you can only get to in low tide.

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Then went to Poda Island

Poda Island Krabi, Thailand Poda Island Krabi, Thailand

Then we stopped at a couple spots to snorkel. There were a ton of fish, but it didn’t have the coral or variety we were hoping for. But it did remind us how we had wanted to learn to Scuba drive (… foreshadowing for future blog post).

 

Then we went to Chicken Island… can you see why it’s named that? The couple Americans on the boat agreed Turkey Island would be better, but they don’t really have turkeys in Thailand.

Chicken Island, Thailand

Chicken Island is attached to a few other small islands at low tide by giant sandbars that, so you can basically walk between them. So of course we did… Childhood flashback to Land Before Time and the land bridge to The Great Valley… except our land bridge took us to the only island where you could buy beer! Didn’t exactly save us from extinction, but we were excited nonetheless!

We enjoyed swimming around and playing on the islands the rest of the afternoon.

That night we thought we had upgraded our accommodations from where we spent our first couple nights – the desk lady was still not a fan us due to our vagrant-style introduction. I guess first impressions stick.

We did have a location closer to the main beach… but here’s our “Ocean View” bungalow in Ao Nang. Yep, that’s the Ocean View. It was rustic charming though.

Ocean View room

The morning we got up to pack all of our stuff up we found THOUSANDS of ants had moved their colony into our clothes that we had sitting on the floor of the bungalow. There wasn’t any furniture or places to hang clothes, so we just had them stacked up in packing cubes and piles. The bungalow is built on short stilts, the floor is bamboo with small gaps between the planks. We didn’t have any food in our room, no idea why they picked our clothes as their new homestead. But it was terrifying and a huge pain in the butt. They had moved in the queen. And ants in your pants don’t shake off. They refuse. It took us over an hour and we still didn’t get all of them off – we just had to prioritize the clothes we were wearing that day and hope that being packed up in our backpacks would kill the others.

AntsWe spent the next few days enjoying the beaches and exploring with Alvin and Jennifer! We had so much fun – they are a blast!! We had some really great times, and even when things didn’t go our way we still made the most of it and made some memories that will be forever be really awesome stories!! Alvin and Jennifer rock!! We are so grateful to have them as friends and couldn’t have imagined more fun or awesome people to be the first to meet up with us on our trip!! YOU GUYS ARE AWESOME – WE LOVE YA!!

Phi Phi island

Our Arrival to Southern Thailand

Ooops!

Ooops!

Well we had our first significant travel logistics ooops. We flew from Chiang Mai down to the beaches in Southern Thailand. We found a cheap flight into Phuket, but Alvin and Jennifer were going to Krabi, so we really wanted to just get to Krabi. We thought, no problem, it’s just a 2 hour ferry ride from Phuket to Krabi… a few minor details we overlooked.

  • That’s the time it would actually take, yes, BUT all ferries make it a day long trip with a stop on Koh Phi Phi for 5-6+ hours.
  • That means that the ferries really only run in the morning
  • Also buses only run mid morning
  • Our flight landed in Phuket at midnight
  • The Phuket airport is in. the. middle. of. nowhere. – an hour and half cab ride into the town of Phuket. An expensive cab ride. And the bus to town quits running at 8pm.
  • The bus to Krabi leaves from in town, not out by the airport.
  • The Phuket airport shuts down at midnight and kicks everyone out.

So basically our options were, sleep outside of the airport until the morning (not really an option, there was no where to sleep), cab ride to Phuket (expensive), or cab ride to Krabi (slightly more expensive, but at least at our destination).

We did the cab ride to Krabi, and arrived at 2:30am. We tried to book a room online en route – when we got there we looked for the place for about 40 minutes. It was a little guest house. Everything was shut down. Our sweet cab driver was so nice and got our and helped us walk up and down the street searching for our place, asking the 7/11 clerk, more searching, trying to call. Finally Rick walked really far down this alley and found our place. It’s now after 3:00am… and there’s no one to be found. The front of the guest house is this sorta open courtyard, there’s one leather-ish couch.

So I pull out my camping air pad (thanks, IMM!) and hunker down on the ground, and Rick takes his spot on the couch. And we slept semi-peacefully amidst the mosquitos and cats. Until 6:30am when the front desk lady found us and woke us up yelling “No! No! No! You can’t do this. You can’t sleep here!” we tried to explain what happened, but really she didn’t care, she kinda shoved us into an empty room and told us to sleep there. Heck yea! Free night’s stay!

sort of.

Rock the Cat Ba, Rock the Cat Ba! …and getting lost in the South China Sea

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We just spent three days on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – it’s kinda of like a fantasy island. The main draw is the crazy topography – all around it is a bay of limestone karsts, fancy word for giant hunks of limestone splashed down right in the middle of the ocean. It’s surreal.

Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

Our favorite day was the boat tour day, which took us out right into the middle of all of the karsts… and got Rick and I lost in the South China Sea for a little while!

We met some great folks from the west coast at dinner the night before and they were going on a boat tour with a guy from their hotel and asked if we wanted to join. Well the price was right and we happily agreed to join. Funny thing about cheap boat tours…. Let’s just say our motto for the day was “Safety Third!” (Mom, Dad: Kidding it’s really wasn’t that bad)

We were pointed to a van to ride to the dock, where we got on a “junk boat” (which is the real name for these boats, although, it was also a good description).

Junk Boat Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

On our way out to the bay we stopped at one of the many fish farms… different than fish farms I’ve seen before, these are floating fish farms. Apparently they catch them as baby fishes and feed’em, fatten them up, then sell them as big fat fishes (hello, Never Finding Nemo). And these little itty bitty ladies balance on narrow floating pieces and flip 30lb fish from one netted enclosure to another.

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So our next stop is kayaking. We’ve been totally entranced boating through this landscape, but now we actually get to get IN TO it! Our boat pulls up to a dock surrounded by kayaks and we are pointed to get out…. Then ushered over to the edge.

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We wait, thinking surely our guide is going to give us some direction. Or some timing, when to be back. Maybe what direction to go… Or not go… Like go around that island, or stay between these. I mean we’re in the middle of the South China Sea, not just that, but it’s not like we can see more than a quarter mile in any direction because there’s a giant, 10-15 story limestone island.

So… We wait… Nope, no direction. Just a push into a kayak and a hand pointing us out to the bay.

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

Ok, so surely our guide will be right behind our group. Duh. I mean it’s gotta be self explanatory if he’s just setting us out there.

Oh – by the way, I also note at this time that we do not have life jackets. Why did this stand out to me? Well because every other tourist in a kayak has a bright orange one on. Worrisome? Slightly. More so when I notice the inch of water in our kayak. But it does make it easier to spot the other folks in our group – they’re the ones without the life jackets!

So we’re off paddling towards… Well who knows, just paddling in the direction pointed to us. The group is around us… We see a really cool opening in the limestone, just high enough over the water for a kayak to go through. So of course we have to see what’s on the other side! We veer left and head for the secret lagoon – another couple in our group has already headed that way.

The sea is super peaceful. It’s like being in a giant dream lagoon. I guess the giant rock islands put a stop to any waves or currents.

The lagoon is beautiful, we paddle around for a couple minutes. Take pics. And see we’re the only ones in there… So we head off to find our group…

<<  cue the Gilligan’s Island theme music. “A three hour tour…”  >>

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We come out of the lagoon back under the arch, and there’s no one from our group anywhere to be seen. But no worries because we know the direction we came from… So they must have continued on the trajectory past our little lagoon. Take a left, and paddle ho! We’re cruisin!

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We make it around the next karst, and between a couple giant ones. There’s an awesome looking, wide, but very low arch cut out of the limestone and we can see light and water on the other side… That must be the big lagoon we imagine our guide us taking us to. There’s another tour group coming out of there… It’s so cool to smoothly glide under the rock. We emerge into a huge lagoon surrounded by jungle – we search the trees for monkeys, but really each of us is secretly, silently, with a calm smiling expression searching the horizon of the water for our un-life-jacketed guide and tour group. No luck!

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

I finally admit out loud  that I’m a bit nervous that we’ve lost them. Rick too. So we decide they must have come this way (there’s yet another group in the lagoon with us, clearly it’s THE spot to go to). You can’t see the whole lagoon because it’s got a twisty, curvy, hidden “shoreline” which is really just islands surrounding us.  So we decide we’ll kayak the perimeter so we can find the exit they took. All of the way around… Nope, no exit except the way we came in. I’m feeling those paddling muscles at this point!

So we decide to head back to the floating “dock” more of a big boat/dock because it’s not attached to anchored to any land. We’ll find them there for sure!

Paddle paddle … See other groups, but not ours. As we approach the dock, we search the boats for ours. It’s definitely not at the dock anymore. We search the horizon for it… Nope can’t find it.

Rick suddenly remembers that he thought he heard something about we were supposed to kayak to another rendezvous point on the other side of some island and that’s where the boat picks us up. But doesn’t remember where that point was or what time, or what direction…. Or if it was even the tour we went with… because we had talked with a few different companies before going with this one, so it could have been a different company.

We go to the dock thinking that at least they can tell us if we’re supposed to be there or somewhere else, or maybe which direction our group went, or if they had come back yet or not. We paddle up to the guy at the dock and ask about our boat, if we are supposed to be back or not, if they are coming back. We get very perplexed looks… and eventually get “Noo Eng-liiish”. But maybe we can say our boats name or our guides name and at least get a hand pointing us the right way…. Until we realize we know neither our boat’s name, our guide’s name, the name of the tour or anything. We know the name of the hotel we left from…. And I don’t think “Take me to Ali Baba’s Hotel” is going to get us very far here.

This may be when we start to get a little freaked out. I declare that I will commandeer a different tourist boat if we don’t find them in the next hour.

We start paddling back towards the direction we explored… because… well there’s nothing else to do really. As we round the corner, we see a platoon of un-lifejacketed kayakers headed our direction!! YEA!! It’s our group… well at least half of our group. But no matter, we are celebrating no longer being lost in the South China Sea!

The other half of our group seems to have gone missing like us. Our guide, smiling and completely unaware that we were lost at sea for a good 40 minutes points us toward the sign that says “Here: Danger. No Entry.” And hands us a flashlight.

Danger No Entry Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

And somehow I feel much safer entering a pitch black water cave with this guide than I did paddling around on our own. We enter this cave, and it’s awesome – we are going through completely pitch black, narrow, and VERY low ceiling sea cave! How cool is that?! Just when we’ve been paddling for 10 minutes in the dark, we see a light on the other side and make our way out into a secluded lagoon (maybe this is how we lost him, he went through one of these things?!)

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After exploring a bit more around the lagoons, we board the boat again and have delicious fresh seafood lunch. The sun has come out now – we’re lucky because it’s rainy season – so our guide tells us we get to go to Happy Beach and swim. It was not so beach because of high tide, but we had so much fun swimming in the clear green-blue water.

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After that, off to Rick’s much awaited Deep Water Soloing (the fancy name for when you rock climb up from the water, with no harness, just the water to catch your fall if you fall). I manned the camera from the boat. Turns out it really is an acquired skill to be able to climb all of the way up the limestone rock that manages to be really slippery and really sharp at the same time. Rick made it up the bottom portion really well, but wisely chose not to slice up his hands by continuing to the top.

Deep Water Soloing Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We slowly made our way back to port, toured a couple of islands on the way and got to see a beautiful sunset.

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Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

The Good, The Bad and The Gorkahpur – a terrible, terrible place

The Good, The Bad and The Gorkahpur – a terrible, terrible place

Well, I promised to write about the Good, the Bad and Ugly of the trip and we had out first ugly experience. I’m writing this as I look at the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal… but it took going through one nasty place to get here!

We traveled to Agra from Nepal overland – jeep to bus to mininus to bus to train- looking back, we should have just flown. The bus rides were bumpy, crowded (I never knew my body could fit into that small of a space, its like when a mouse has to squeeze its body into a hole a third of it’s size… that was us on the minibus), but overall not bad. We had heard horror stories of the boarder crossing at Sunauli so we got out of there quickly. It wasn’t until we arrived in Gorkahpur that it got bad.

I’m hesitant to try to describe it – it’s hard to put that magnitude of disgustingness into words. And I don’t want to sound overly negative… but there was nothing positive about our experience there. Before you read further, I am happy to say that we have made it past Gorka-hell and found Agra to be much better!! The people are friendly and helpful and endearing, the Taj is beautiful and we’ve found a little rooftop café where I’m sitting now writing that has the sweetest staff, great food and serves clandestine beers! J So know that’s it’s gotten better! But before it got better… it was really bad…

As soon as we got to Gorkahpur, the smells were overwhelming – garbage, poop, dead things. Our bus was passing the train station… we shoved our way to the front and opened the door, since the driver wasn’t listening to us that we wanted him to stop. We were moving pretty slowly since the streets were so crowded, so Rick and I decided to just jump off while it was moving. We got into the train station, and we had heard this was a major transportation hub so we expected there to be some signs in English, or someone who spoke Engilish… but no. Not a word.

Then we noticed the staring. Everyone was staring at us.
Everybody's looking at me!
We finally found a random man that spoke a little English and as we tried to talk with him, a crowd gathered around us of about 25 people just watching us. The man was essentially no help – but did show us the women’s only line for tickets which I got in. At which point I became a celebrity and the women all wanted to take pictures with me. Not horrible yet.

Ok – so we finally figure out, we can’t buy a ticket from the station for the reserved seats. We find a travel agency a travel agent finds us and facilitates the procuring of a train ticket. We end up getting paying an arm and a leg for a ticket, but there’s only one train to Agra and it’s not until 1:00pm the next day (and it’s about 6pm)…. So looks like we’re staying the night in Gorkahpur.

We have our guide book and the name of one shabby hotel. Note, the guidebook says of Gorkahpur “Gorkahpur, known for it’s flies, is a stop for trains. Don’t spend any time here if you can avoid it.” Excellent. Known for its flies truly is the nicest thing I could think of to say about the place. Unfortunately, there’s no other overland route from where we were in Nepal to India.

As we walked out of the train station, we were bombarded by yelling tuktuk and rickshaw drivers and we had to duck and weave to avoid them. Only then we noticed we were walking of streets literally made of trash and feces. We looked around, surely we were walking in the dump by accident…. But no, there was no avoiding it. It was everywhere. People stood on it, had snack carts on it, were laying on it. It was unavoidable. Plastic and paper were the best hope of what you stepped on. More often it was a mucky squish of rotten bits of food, poop, some dirty water and goo. We walked up and down the street looking at different hotels, thinking surely there would be a decent looking one… we found the one the guidebook recommended as “not entirely horrible.” The room was dirty disgustingly filthy absolutely everywhere… the floor, the bed, the walls! Smears of unkown brown. Piles of dirt. The bathroom… well I’ll let the pictures tell you. I don’t think the toilet had every flushed. (oh and let me add that the next morning our bathroom had the lovely addition of a ton of fresh rat poop). I didn’t brush my teeth or wash my hands because I was too afraid to go in the bathroom for more than to quickly pee and run out!

Horrible Nasty Bathroom

There was literally NO WHERE to go that was remotely clean. No restaurant, no shop, no hotel, NOTHING. I’ve never experienced that before.

I have never so badly wanted to completely crawl inside my own skin. I wanted to untouch everything.

The animals were so sad. Cows wandered freely down the streets (very common in Nepal and India) but the difference was that they were sick because of the filth. We saw cows with hooves they couldn’t walk on that were literally rotting off. Dogs with holes in their sides literally rotting.

We found the Hotel Sunrise to be the lesser of the evils of hotels – I think? I mean at that point there wasn’t much of a difference. You saw the pictures, this was no Four Seasons.

We went back to the train station because at least we weren’t getting yelled at there by people trying to sell us things and we could see the floor of it, so less trash.
Desperately waiting on a train - The Good, The Bad and The Gorkahpur – a terrible, terrible place

We walked around there for a while, and decided we should eat something (we hadn’t eaten all day… and pray for no food illness!). And as we are walking out this lady is walking towards us… with a kinda crazy smile. It was crowded everywhere so someone bumping into you or walking right up next to you isn’t weird… and I figured that’s what she was doing. I smiled back and she walked up next to me and hits me in the right upper arm/boob. Like hits me with her hand… not a bump, very much on purpose. And then keeps walking. I’m shocked. Rick’s shocked. We look at each other and try to explain it away as maybe she was just trying to touch me? That had happened a couple times where people just walked up and touched us. So maybe that was it?

Fast forward to the next day… we’ve been stuck in Gorkahpur for 14 hours or so now. We don’t want to be in our nasty room, or the train station… the only think I can do to keep from feeling like I’m touching something disgusting is keep walking. Perpetual motion. Just keep walking around, trying not to touch anything. So we got up early and started walking around the streets hoping we find the nice part of town. We find a somewhat quieter street a couple blocks away from ours – less horns, less yelling – it has a couple of schools on it. So we walk it’s length (probably 2-3km), back and forth. And finally decide to head back towards the station to check on our train… and as we’re walking down the street through the crowds, of course, I briefly notice a lady looking at us (not really a weird thing at this point, pretty much everyone starred at us) and walking towards us (again not weird)… until she gets right up next to me, and with a balled up fist, punches me in the boob!! WHAT THE!?!? I squeal and stop and she’s already gone, disappeared into the crowd. It was the same crazy-eyes lady!! On a different day, in a different part of town, she found me and attacked me again! What was up with this lady?!

So now I’m kinda freaking out, feeling attacked – there’s no where safe or clean! We go to the train station to check on our train…. And learn it’s 3 hours delayed. NOOOOO not more time in Gorkahpur.

I’m on the look out now for Crazy Eyes and trying to avoid the ever present ick on everything.

We pack up and decide to just wait at the station (at least we can sit on a bench that doesn’t have trash and poo piled up on it, and there are police around to protect me from Crazy Eyes). We wait… and wait… the train is more delayed by hours.

Finally our train arrives and I have never been so happy to get on a train… we RUN to our coach as soon as it pulls up. We have reserved seats in a sleeper car – let’s just say it’s the most relaxed we’d felt in two days, and the best sleep we’d gotten. Oh and we finally had food we felt remotely safe about eating.

So if you go to Gorkahpur…. Scratch that. Do not go to Gorkahpur. Fly from Nepal to India. Whatever it costs, it’s worth it. Trust me.

Gorkahpur, known for it’s Flies, Crazy Eyes, and never-ending disgusting-ness!

Check out the list of things we loved about India!

17 Things We’ve Loved about India

The Taj Mahal in India
  1. The People.
    Super friendly people everywhere that just want to chat. To ask where you’re from, how long you’re here, tell you about their city, the culture. It was amazing – true genuine hospitality and friendliness. Everywhere!
  2. Diwali Lights.
    It is the festival of lights and, boy, do they decorate accordingly! There are Christmas lights everywhere – it’s really festive and puts you in a fun mood. And while the strings of lights were cool, my favorite part were the little candle flames everywhere giving off this warm glow.
    IMG_0156
  3. Rick is a celebrity. Photo ops!
    We had a lot of folks asking to take photos with us. It was quite funny to us. And as soon as we would say okay to one guy, there were 10 more that appeared wanting pictures too! Like they were just waiting for the first brave guy to ask. We humored just about everyone that asked… even when it meant we were standing around for photos for 15 minutes. And we just get a picture with them too – because, why not? It’s fun… but the staring does get a little weird after a while. Crazy eyes!
    Being a celebraty in India
  4. Party Cows.
    We call them Party Cows – they were painted and decorated for Diwali and all over the streets. There were also Party Donkeys, Party Goats… pretty much if you could get it to stand still for long enough, it was painted!
    Party Cows in India - Dawali
    “Party until the cows come home” – uh oh, I think the cows came home. Knock, knock.
  5. Jaipur Shopping Festival.
    In celebration of Diwali, Jaipur has a huge shopping festival. The stores decorate their store fronts with crazy elaborate scenes – it’s like NYC at Christmas.
    Diwali - India
    Popular Indian night club? Nope, just people waiting to get into the temple for Diwali.
  6. Diwali.
    Ok, I know that’s three things for Diwali, but it was so fun! Everyone was super friendly on the “big night” of Diwali Oct 23 when we were in Jairpur. Cheery people shouted down the street at us “Happy Diwali”… came out of houses to tell us “Happy Diwali”.Diwali - IndiaThere are also poo sculptures involved. Not so sure on what these mean or what they are for (or if it’s real poo), but all over the streets on the 24th there were little “gingerbread man” sculptures made of poop.
  7. Street Food.
    The best food we’ve had on the trip so far! Street food in India is delicious. From dahl and chapatis, to lassis, to samosas with curry flavors inside. We basically never really know what it is, but if it’s popular with the locals and there’s a line in front of the cart, we’re in! The flavors have been incredible.
    Street food in India
    We are in Delhi until this evening, so more street food is in our near future!
  8.  Sunsets.
    Absolutely stunning sunsets. Everyday. So the cause may not be so sexy… I think a lot of it has to do with the pollution, but the results are amazing.
    Sunsets in India
  9. Palaces.
    Lots and lots of palaces. I think Udaipur had the best ones! We spent 4-5 days in Udaipur, it’s a beautiful city, said to be the most romantic city in India. I can see why, it’s set on a couple of lakes and has beautiful palaces surrounding the lake, and even in the middle of the lake.
    Palaces of India
  10. Marwari Horses.
    I loved getting to ride them so much, it’s a separate post.
  11. Trains.
    The trains are awesome. You can get everywhere by train… and it’s like a moving hotel if you get an overnight one (awesome for us budget travelers!). And it’s a nice, comfy hotel – I think I got my best sleep on the trains in India. And you wake up and you’re in your next destination.
  12. Henna.
    It really is beautiful how intricate the designs are.
    Henna
  13. Taj Mahal.
    Pretty impressive place.
    The Taj Mahal in Agra, India
  14. Elephants and camels everywhere.

    Elephants and Camels in India
  15. Tuk tuk rides.
    Always an adventure – but far better than to be in one, than dodging them on the street, they can be ruthless.
    Tuk Tuk Rides in India
    Pay up, buddy! No free ride here!
  16.  Rooftop cafes.
    Roof Top Views in India
  17. “Everything is possible!” … and “it’s not possible”
    We heard both. A LOT. We made a wonderful friend in Agra who took care of us at his rooftop restaurant every night we were there. The first time we walked in we were greeted warmly and told “what would make you happy? Everything is possible!”
    Everything is Possible at Join Us Cafe in Agra, India
    On the flip side, when someone here wants to say no to your request (like “May I take a picture of your shop?” or “May I have another beer?” near closing time)… the answer is a very proper sounding “Not possible.” It’s very disarming…. We’ve come to find it kind of endearing and funny now. But there’s a little part of me that always wants to argue, “It’s not really that it’s ‘not possible’, sir. I think what you really mean is you don’t want to!”

We have one last day in India to enjoy the wonderful culture, people, sights and flavors.

Upgrade!!

Upgrades don’t suck! Thank you Qatar Airlines for a wonderful start to our trip with some Billecart-Salmon Brut!

Loving this life with my handsome and amazing adventure partner!

Cheers!!

On our way!

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So it’s almost 1am here at the brand spanking new Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar our first stop (18 hour layover) of our trip and I figured it was time for me to make my first official post to our blog. Liz has done an excellent job of documenting our moving/packing/re-packing/etc up to this point and I’m sure she will continue to surpass me in frequency and quality of posts.

We spend ~14 hours on a Qatar Airways plane and it was actually quite pleasant. They’ve got an awesome selection of movies/TV/etc for free, the seats weren’t too uncomfortable even after double digit hours in them (Liz was kind enough to remind me when we sat down that we spent 16 hours in a U-Haul recently) and we got dinner and breakfast.

My favorite part of the airport so far has been the free luggage carts that glide effortlessly across the floor and just beg to be ridden.

I leave you with a hyperlapse Liz made of us playing in the airport.