We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.
— Anais Nin, 1903 - 1977
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hobovoodoo

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About me

I'm 33, Male, from United Kingdom

Where am I now?

I've moved to: marcopolosrhino.com

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My route

China (People's Republic)
Nepal
India
Thailand

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Roaming Without a Home

Jan 2014 - Aug 2014

My Life on My Back, The World at My Feet...

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Leaving China

After three years in wonderful Dali, it's time for a new adventure.

3:00pm

In Dali, I worked as an English teacher and - the two are not necessarily synonymous - I learned how to teach. I learned Mandarin. I brewed and sold fruit wines. I studied both Tai Ji and Qi Gong. I met others who had fled from the West, in search of something more.

Three years is a long time. Time enough to build a home, to love and to lose, to become someone new. Yet, also time enough to settle down, to become lazy, to gather dust. Things had grown too easy in Dali, too routine. One grows old fast, that way. It was time for a new challenge.

On departing, I leave behind my friends, my students, my lost love, and my dog. I have never been good at goodbyes. Instead, I strive to salute the day, and say hello to the world. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. There is nothing to hold onto.

As John Lennon once sang, "You don't take nothing with you but your soul". For now, I am off in search of mine.

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Kathmandu

Four days in and around Kathmandu and Patan.

10:00am

My flight was delayed on the way in, probably due to a thick blanket of fog over Kunming, though no disclosure was forthcoming. As the plane began its descent into Nepal, the view was nothing short of magical. A floating island of ice and snow-capped peaks, visible above the cloud-covered ground, more a part of the sky or heavens than the earth: my first vision of the Himalaya. Our descent brought us safely into Tribuhvan, an airport more suited to an overseas army base than an international capital, with dirt tracks for landing strips and shacks for offices.

Visas were bought and issued without complication and I lugged my bags outside in search of a taxi. A tout found me pretty fast, and after my murmured agreement to check out the hotel he was seeking commission from, we were soon driving through Kathmandu's dusty squalor. My new friend had worked as both porter and guide on many treks, including Everest and Annapurna. Now, at the tender age of 23, he worked with his friends in managing a small travel agency. Nepal is a young country, with the average age somewhere in the early twenties and a life expectancy in the mid-forties. Men marry young and must find work if their wife and children are not to live in poverty. While stalled in traffic, I watched people come and go, living out of a ramshackle collection of shacks and dilapidated housing. My first impression was of a city under re-construction, shortly after a war; half finished, or half destroyed.

With no real destination in mind, I decided to 'follow the nose', eager to dump my bags and head out for my first taste of Nepali cuisine. I had not eaten a proper meal all day, only picking at my friend Sholto's hotel breakfast in Kunming and refusing what passes for traveller fare on China Eastern airlines. Alone in a restaurant, I tucked into my khana, a selection of small dishes, curries and pickles, served with endless daal and a mountain of rice. Suddenly, we were plunged into darkness, and the waiter hurried to bring a candle to the table. In Kathmandu, the electricity is rationed by district and can be turned off for up to 12 hours a day. I remained on the balcony and ate by candlelight, watching the streets below.

All parties in Kathmandu, and the tourist base of Thamel in particular, seemed very glad for business and perfectly happy to negotiate. The area is far more populated by Nepalese out on the weekend than by foreign visitors, though the extent of tourist hotels, restaurants and trekking shops suggests this is not usually the case. It is the low season, and clearly a buyer's market. Taxi drivers cruise behind anyone walking too slow, and drug dealers push their wares, both openly and persistently. One was even bold enough to follow me all the way back to my hotel, and nearly to the door of my room before I was able to get rid of him.

Despite the hassles, and the dark-lit streets, Kathmandu seems a fairly safe city to walk around, so long as you keep an eye out for the motorcycles. For the most part, people, motorbikes and horses all share the same road. There is a dusty clutter of poor housing and crumbling splendor, with ancient temples and shrines poking curiously out of housing estates. Poverty is everywhere, from the sari'd women peering out from shacks and small, dark rooms to the children dressed in rags, playing with litter or makeshift toys. The more enterprising among them chase you for money, offering to sell you cigarettes, pose for photos or take you somewhere; never mind if you don't know where you want to go! I had resolved not to hand out money - knowing it often does more harm than good - but it is not always easy to stick to your resolutions.

On my first day I visited the sights of Durbar Square and the Buddhist stupa at Swayanbunath, where I remained most of the afternoon sipping masala tea and waiting for the rains to stop, as monkeys fought and snatched at scraps outside (it is supposed to be the dry season and I had left both coat and umbrella back at the hotel). I did much the same at Patan, though the weather was glorious. After an hour's walk from one former palace to another, choking on the awful pollution, I spent a pleasant hour people-watching from the roof of a restaurant overlooking the main square. After wandering the ancient alleyways, searching out the numerous temples, I sat down in a courtyard for a break. My presence soon attracted the inquisitive eyes of two young children, perhaps brother and sister. I gestured for them to come over, placing my hands together and bowing the head, saying Namaste ('na-mas-tay'), a beautiful, universal Hindu greeting that means something like: 'I bow to the divine in you'. I showed them the bananas and oranges I had brought for my lunch and the bolder of the two, a girl of around five, held out her hand shyly. She retreated with her boons to her brother's side, where she sat beaming. After a moment, the younger boy also accepted, and was soon joined by a friend. The four of us sat down to share the fruit together, the children full of smiles. No doubt, this was a rare treat.

On this trip, I would be traveling without a base, thus carrying everything I own on my back. I hoped the experiment would teach me to be less attached to things and more in search of experience. Upon leaving China, my two packs and guitar weighed in at somewhere between 25-30kg and now I had to make room for the winter clothing and trekking pants I had bought in Thamel. The sorting was swift and severe; within an hour a huge pile of clothes, coats, notebooks, sheets and scarves were packed into a large rucksack and deposited at the hotel reception. The day before, I told the staff, I had contacted a local charity in lieu of perhaps doing some volunteer work with orphaned children but had received no reply and had been unable to locate their office. They promised to make sure my donation found the right people. I would still be packing heavy until I left the Himalayas of Nepal and India, but at least now I would be able to walk!

And so, newly energized, organised and acclimatized, I packed myself up like a mule and set off in the direction of the nearest bus station. Next stop: Daman.

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Daman

Altitude: 2322m. Population:100

8:28am

After buying my ticket and hoisting my bags up onto the roof, I climbed aboard the crowded jeep-bus that was to carry us uphill to Daman. I had been assured a seat, 'A1', but it took me a while to find it, crammed in as it was between the door and a rail. The road was long and winding, especially as we paused every five or ten minutes to find space for more passengers between or on top of those already aboard. I helped a woman rescue her little girl from the crush and she sat half on my bag and lap for the rest of the journey, while her mother did her utmost to keep from pushing her bottom into my face. It took us some five hours to cover the 80km up to Daman, finally arriving around 6pm.

I stayed at Sherpa Lodge, a rustic cottage set up the hill a little above the rest of the town, which I was to have all to myself. In fact, for the space of three days, I was the only foreigner in the vicinity. Few tourists bother to stop here; those that do pause only to admire the view of the Himalayas, which is said to be the best in Nepal. Yet, if you can put up with the lack of electricity or running water, it is a nice place to watch the world go by, and a glorious escape from the bustle of Kathmandu. I spent most of my time on the balcony of my house, deep in a good book, watching the occasional shepherd herding goats past my door, or women returning from the mountain with gigantic packs of dry leaves on their backs.

I made friends with the family of one of the only local restaurants, and took their dog 'Leon' (spelling?) on what I gathered would be an easy stroll up to a nearby monastery. Two hours later, I was panting in the heat and cursing my fitness; I never actually reached the peak. Daman is at an altitude of only 2322m, but already I felt exhausted; I would definitely have to get into some training before tackling Annapurna!

The nights are freezing up in the mountains, and my breezy cottage provided little shelter from the wind. I shivered through the night, unable to get comfortable on the hard wood of my bed. Each morning, walking past the old lady who owned the house, she would greet me with a 'Good morning. Sleep good? Very quiet, yes?' 'Very quiet', I agreed. And impossibly uncomfortable. The people are friendly and inviting, but the lack of fruit and vegetables means one has little choice but to eat daal and rice, morning, noon and night. After three nights of poor food and cold baths, I was more than ready to move on.

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Chitwan National Park

In search of the rhino...

6:05pm

I arrived at the bus park in Hetauda without issue, but my request for a ticket to Chitwan prompted the teller to ask me about a series of possible destinations, all of which were villages on the edge of the park. The question stumped me. Without a guidebook, I resorted to impersonations of tigers, crocodiles and rhinos until the man grew tired of my gesticulations and wrote me a ticket. "Five minutes", he said, pointing at a rickety bus nearby. I tossed my bags up onto the roof and ran to grab a curry, which I ate standing by the entrance, watching the bus. After two spoonfuls of rice, a grunt and a spurt of dust told me the bus was readying to depart. I wolfed down as much of the curry as I could, dropped some money on the counter and ran after the bus, scrambling through the door as we rolled out of the park.

An uneventful two hours later, we switched to another bus to drive us into Sauraha, a village on the edge of the park.Like most of Nepal right now, the park is all but bereft of tourists, though obviously well-prepared for their arrival. This makes it all the more manageable for hobos like me, who don't have to struggle too hard to find our $3 bungalows on the river side. For three blissful days I lived an easy routine of practising tai ji in the mornings and reading throughout the afternoons, while I waited for others to arrive to share the price of a forest trek. Sometimes, at least, life is about being, not doing. Traveling gives you the space to stay 'in the moment', as the masters would have it. When you are in another country, when everything is foreign, everything new, you find the time to observe life, both inner and outer. Instead of watching a movie, you watch a great, sinking red ball descend from the sky. The Sun disappears into the river, but it remains light for over an hour. I sit, drinking tea, writing this, wondering how the light gets left behind.

How quickly we become accustomed to the extraordinary. I say hello to the elephants and their trainers on my way to the bakery in the morning. One night, lost in my own thoughts on the dark and dusty paths, I almost walked right into one! On the edge of the river, a group of youths invite me to join them, offering supplies of mushrooms or hash. I watch a herd of cattle pass within mere metres of a large crocodile, sunning itself on the bank. A woman appears, waving her arms, shouting at the beasts. The cows turn to face her, grunt in vague acknowledgement and shuffle on at their own, lazy pace. The crocodile never stirs.

After three days I am joined at the Tree Land Lodge by Natalie and Louise, two Irish lasses who are eager to sign up for a jungle walking tour. Though of different ages and backgrounds, we were all on much the same page as far as lifestyle concerns. Natalie works as a psychotherapist, but travels whenever possible, and has spent a lot of time in India. Louise takes work with homeless shelters and other important centres, while insisting on continuing her tradition of escaping every Winter, and traveling three months of the year.

We set out together the next day, along with "Tutsey" - our guide - and his silent, unnamed assistant.We entered the park via an hour long canoe ride down the Narayani river, a tributary that runs all the way to the Ganges in India. The sheer variety of birds that frequent this area is almost as astonishing as the daredevil approach they take towards the local population of marsh muggers, a kind of freshwater crocodile. We saw numerous kingfishers and wagtails, herons and peacocks, as well as buzzards, cranes and eagles, wintering away from the colder climes of Europe and Siberia.

As we stepped out of the canoe, the real adventure began. In the mud of the bank were a series of fresh tiger prints, leading into the forest. We followed the same trail as Tutsey told us how to deal with the various animals in the park. If a bear was to approach, we should stand our ground and beat at the ground with a stick. To escape a charging rhino, one was to climb the nearest tree or, failing that, run away in a zig-zag pattern. Though tigers are extremely rare, if confronted with this king of beasts, we must not run, but stand our ground, always maintaining eye contact (probably easier said than done!). I asked Tutsey what he considered to be the most dangerous animal in the park. "The rhino", he said. "Both my uncles were killed by rhinos."

We did not have to wait long before catching sight of one. After walking for around an hour, we rounded a corner and saw the great beast standing plainly in the middle of the path. Upon noticing us, it did not run or charge, but slowly shuffled off into the dense grass, which hides even the largest of animals. The rest of the morning was quiet, except for the brief glimpse of a herd of deer, just visible in the distance through the trees. Around noon, we sat down to a thoroughly unsatisfying lunch of soft white bread, chopped chillies and boiled eggs, in the shade of a wooden hide, with a commanding view of the plains around us. Nothing stirred but the birds.

There are few ventures so exhilarating as stalking through the forest in the company of an experienced guide. As we moved on, we continued to find signs of recent tiger activity. Tutsey pointed out the huge paw prints as we passed, as well as piles of tiger poop. Up ahead, one tree had been clawed and scratched to a tremendous height; the tiger must have stood over six feet on her hind legs. I began to feel that she was only up ahead of us, or close by, watching, stalking us. The idea is not so far-fetched; it is said a tiger is a hundred more times likely to see you, than you are to see her.

Soon after, we again glimpsed the brown fur of spotted deer, watching us through the trees, but they remained too distant to see clearly. We passed two marsh muggers sleeping lazily in the Sun on the opposite bank of the river. There were bison stomping through the bushes close by, heard but unseen. Up ahead, Tutsey signaled us to stop. "Rhino", he whispered. "Big one." We inched closer to where he was pointing. Mere metres in front of us, a huge bull, bleached white by a layer of dried, caked mud, trundled on through the grass. It looked up, cocked its head and immediately charged away through the grass, quickly becoming invisible.

It was growing late, but they greatest prize was still to come. Tutsey stalled on the path, signalling to us: stop; be quiet; listen. He cupped his hands to his ears. A stick cracked under paws. The leaves were brushed by something unseen, which crunched the foliage loose. We tried to peer through the grass, seeing nothing. "There! Look!" A huge, sloth bear pawed its way out from the bush, standing on the road, perhaps five metres in front of us. We stood face to face with this great bulk, too stunned to reach for our cameras. I looked into its eyes, dark and animal, ringed with spots of brown. For a terrible moment, I feared it would charge us and tear us apart with those great clawed paws. My heart stopped in my chest. But in a matter of seconds, mere seconds, it turned and ran into the bush. We waited fifteen minutes in silence, hoping she would reappear. It was to no avail; this briefest glimpse was all she would allow.

I am proud to say that the last great animal we encountered was spotted not by Tutsey, but by me. Through the grass, I spied our third rhino, chomping up great bundles of straw. We watched him for a long time before he finally seemed to sense our presence, turned and walked away.

Our last stop before crossing the river which marks the park's natural boundary, was at a series of small lakes, inhabited by large numbers of marsh muggers. These great reptiles lay motionless along one whole bank of the river, as though dreaming through some endless prehistoric slumber. Peacocks, ducks and a bright blue bird I have forgotten the name of, hopped around these sleeping giants, poking and digging in the wet mud, only inches from their flattened, elongated jaws. Again, I was amazed at how little afraid they seemed and wondered if they had some contract, some symbiotic agreement.

Once ferried over the water, the women settled into their accommodation (already bought and paid for), while I went out in search of cheaper eats. After a long, unfruitful walk, I was invited in by a local family whom I approached to ask for directions. In the kitchen/bedroom of their humble household, I was treated to a gigantic portion of curry and rice, with omelette and pickles aside. All were extremely curious as to my country, life, occupations and destinations and I did my best to respond to their questions, put to me in terribly broken English. I paid them handsomely for their kindness and returned to the hotel on the river to sleep.

The second day was much less eventful, involving only a short walk through the forest reserve on the opposite bank from the main park. Tutsey set a quick pace and we for most of the time we saw nothing except monkeys, watching us from the treetops. Only as we crossed a stream did we pause, when Tutsey spied a large stag watching us through the undergrowth. I sat down, observing in silence as the stag was joined by a doe. This was our first clear sighting of the deer we had glimpsed so often the day before and they now seemed almost unafraid, posing gloriously in the shallows of the stream as we took a series of photographs. The perfect ending to a mostly wonderful trip.

Next Stop: Lumbini. Birthplace of the Buddha.

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