Day 196 to 205 – Pokhara to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Finally leaving Pokhara had a little bit of meaning to it, in total I’d been here nearly 2 weeks split over 3 stays. I really liked the place, despite all the tourism and everything that goes with it. I crossed the border back into India the next day, after a night in what was essentially a prison cell hotel room in Butwal. The border was a simple affair on the Nepal side, if still chaotic, the Indian side was more interesting, just finding the government buildings for example was a nightmare, doubling back up the street utterly jammed with traffic somehow going in 17 directions.

I had to make a nuisance of myself for almost an hour to get my Carnet processed at customs, just constantly standing in the way, and asking them how long it would take, seemed to speed it along. It’s usually a 10 minute job and there was no queue, it was just held up by Indian’ness. A backpacker I met at the visa office put me on the course of a bad mood for the rest of the day, he’d obviously had a bad one so far and was just relentlessly negative about the road, the hotels and the people. I knew roughly what to expect heading into India for the second time, but I was ready to blow by the evening after the border farce, and being back in the horrendous traffic again, even compared to Nepal.

Just a bit of maintenance. There was nothing holding it up by the way

Just as it was getting dark I reached a big town and was pretty confident a hotel would be easy to come by, probably even a good cheap one. The first 3 I tried though were “full”, one of them was somehow full with an empty car park on a deserted road. Something fishy was going on and I was getting pretty short with hotel owners snubbing me, the backpacker guy had mentioned hotels were hard to find because they don’t want foreigners and I’d brushed it off as his bad day. Maybe he was right. I asked a traffic cop if he knew of a hotel for foreigners in town and he pointed me in the right direction with a name to go on. Also HAHAHA TRAFFIC COP! A real life traffic cop in India, what a joke of a job.

This felt very Indian, burning fields on huge open plains with someone driving on the wrong side of the road

The ride to Varanasi was finished by lunch time, including navigating some of the most congested and stupid traffic I’ve ever been in. It takes that title because someone actually managed to get their bike TIED to mine, by driving into my pannier and hooking their engine bars through a strap on them. We both nearly fell in thick traffic with nowhere to fall. If I could have reached him I’d have clouted him, he wasn’t wearing a helmet for protection against angry foreigners.

A little hazy but still amazing

I had that afternoon and the following day off in Varanasi and the bad mood melted away. It is a stunning place, I took a walk down the river that evening and it is an amazing place to be. There’s so much calmly happening on the beautiful stretch of river with all the colourful ghats and temples. hundreds of boats up and down the river some with tourists, some fishing or delivering. Lots of people just going about their lives washing pots and pans, kids flying kites or playing cricket, even some guys building a boat. I went for another walk in the morning and it’s the same feeling but with the morning rituals, people just living their lives, washing their clothes and blankets, fishing, kids swimming. Tourists milling around in it all.

A very weird mix of architecture, old and new

The town itself was mental, traffic everywhere and tight, maze-like alleys. A complete contrast to the quiet calm river and ghats only a few hundred meters away. Though a couple of points along the river are spoiled by tourist traps and sellers of “stunning and unique goods”. Lots of people would say hello and try to chat as I walked by, not uncommon at all, I’d be polite and chat if they weren’t obviously selling anything. A couple of guys really pissed me off though, I’d stop to chat and they’d offer to shake my hand, being very British and polite I’d offer my hand which they’d immediately pull in and massage to try and get me to buy one. The first guy caught me off guard and I just wrenched my hand back, the second guy nearly got pulled in to the river. After that I stopped shaking hands. That annoyed me though, when a local guy walked passed, asked how I was doing and I barely responded with a grunt annoyed at people selling me things, he smiled and said “Good” and walked on; he was just being nice and I was too jaded by the sellers to even chat to him, I eased up a bit after that.

The ghats at sunset

I almost didn’t take a boat ride down the river, it looked like a bit of a scam, I’d walked all along the river multiple times already. I much prefer making my own way and deciding what to see, so being stuck on a boat for 3 hours didn’t sound fun. I’m glad I convinced myself to do it though, the river side was stunning from the water, with the sunset and then later in the dark. The Burning Ghat especially, an ancient site for cremations 24 hours a day. It’s strangle peaceful watching open cremations in one of the holiest sites in the world. It’s not regarded as weird by people that there’s a couple of hundred tourists at their loved ones funerals.

Burning Ghat

Leaving Varanasi felt pretty significant, crossing the Ganges at this holy point on the river, heading east. The goal was to get to Kolkata, I’d be flying from there in 5 days to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, and I had to find a safe place to leave Donkey before then. It was going to be a 2 day ride but sleeping would only be a short break in the middle, I just needed to get there. It was my first time riding on a proper “motorway” in India too, and it was much safer than I expected, there’s still the occasional water buffalo dopily crossing the road but having a central divider keeps most of the stupid at bay.

I made really good progress and started hunting for a hotel at sunset, and stumbled on this incredibly weird place. It looked like it should have been an old but ugly manor, surrounded by its huge grounds, iron gates and fencing, and large doors at either end of a huge entrance hall. I hadn’t seen anything else like it on the road, mostly dirty guesthouses so I knew I’d found the right place and just had to beat them down in price a bit. It looked like it would have been a grand hotel 20 years ago, and now it was just falling apart, very common in India so far, lots of ambition to begin with but no maintenance. So I was still awake at 2am chasing mosquitoes around the room that got in through various holes in the walls and windows and were eating me alive. A very fitting way to celebrate Day 200 of my trip, half naked chasing mosquitoes at 2am in an grand hotel falling down around me.

One of the weirder hotels of the trip

The last 4 hour run to Kolkata was simple enough and I did it one sitting I think, it’s hard to remember, just repeated scenery and road rolling by. Coming in to Kolkata was very memorable though, back to insane Indian traffic but now in with the population one of it’s biggest cities. The poverty too was striking, “stalls” lining the middle of the road for miles, no bigger than 1×3 meters, that served as store front, living room and bedroom for families of 5, the stench was overwhelming. I wondered what I’d got myself in for coming here when the roads narrowed and the buildings were falling apart but the traffic just got crazier. Then it all just seemed to give way to a metropolitan city, wide roads appeared, tram tracks, large beautiful British architecture buildings, even traffic cops actually being useful in large intersections. It seems the poverty just stops and the money begins, the hotel I was aiming for was seemingly in the most wealthy district with jewelry shops, high end tailors and, to my joy, a SubWay (food not trains). The poverty could still be seen in places, a double bed outside a shop with 4 women of 3 generations sleeping on it. It’s a pretty sickening sign of the divide that is just totally normal here.

It also reminded me yet again of why I avoid big cities, the hotel was pretty dire and more expensive than I’d paid anywhere else in the last 2 months. I spent 3 hours riding around and that was the best option, it was only for 3 nights though before I’d be flying off. I had to find somewhere to store Donkey and had been in touch with a guy from the Kolkata bikers club. I messaged him to say was in town and asked if he had managed to find any leads on a storage spot, he had found 4 that he trusted within 24 hours. I rode over the next day to some random GPS coordinates on the other side of the city to leave my bike with someone I’d never met, against every single instinct. There were 3 guys on bikes waiting there for me who greeted me like an old friend, we got Donkey prepared for long term storage and he even took some of my luggae to store in his apartment instead of leaving it strapped to the bike. All seemed well, they were really nice guys, one of them well known in the Kolkata biking scene and they were eager to help a traveller (Though at time of writing I still don’t know if Donkey will be there when I get back…).

Sleep well Donkey

I had a spare day to sort out documents for the flight and visa for Vietnam and see some of Kolkata. Though that plan was foiled because I barely slept that night thanks to a nice new illness. I stumbled around a couple of printing places and got my photo taken then just slept most of the day and hoping it would disappear before the flight the next day. There was a whole day to kill before the midnight flight, I thought this would be easily done in the middle of a big city but I could find nothing but expensive restaurants to sit in, or a chain coffee place with no power or wifi. Sacrilege! I ended up heading to the airport 7 hours early hoping to check in and just sit in departures with wifi, power and some food. Foiled again, check in wouldn’t open until 3 hours before the flight so I was stuck with the single small cafe in the check in hall for 4 hours.

The flight had a 2 hour long stop over in Kuala Lumpur before arriving in Ho Chi Minh which meant a 4 hour flight followed by a 2 hour one, so I got zero sleep and arrived in Vietnam at 7am, very much ready to drop off. There was the visa process in the way first though and another few hours waiting with a hundred other foreigners to obtain that. By the time I was in the cab on the way to the hotel I was nodding off in the back seat and went straight to bed, sleeping for 4 hours. I woke up late in the evening and went out for breakfast (Supper? I don’t know) and only then realised I was actually in Vietnam, country number 24! I hadn’t rode here, but it certainly felt like a new bit of the adventure. I had six days to buy two motorbikes and get everything ready for when my cousin Charlee arrived so we could hit the ground running and start the ride to Hanoi!

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City

11/11/2017 – 20/11/2017

Day 196 to 205.PNG

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