The magic of the temples of Angkor are almost beyond imagination.
I met many people on my travels who have claimed to be “templed out” – tired of seeing one similar […]
After watching LOTR for the first time I started a long journey of the heart. The first steps were the reading of the book itself, now and forever with the […]
At one point in our journey I actually advocated to Cesca that we skip China. That she didn’t listen, and talked me round, proves clearly that I don’t know everything and Cesca has some great ideas herself.
Oh, boy were my eyes going to be opened!
Entering the country via a large bus with lay down seats was fun. It rattled through the night towards the modern city of Guilin and the Li River.
Certain cities in the world are instantly recognisable from hundreds of classic movies that have been set there. No one could mistake Paris, New York or London on film, but for me the most recognisable city of them all is the great bay of Hong Kong. I grew up on a strict diet of Hong Kong movies: from Jackie Chan cop thrillers to John Woo gangster flicks. The Hong Kong cinema actor Chow Yun Fat was considered by my friends and I as the coolest guy in the universe, bar none, thanks to his incredible performances as Ken Gor and The God of Gamblers. With these memories, I felt like I knew the city off by heart even before I visited there. I had a mental map already in my head that included combinations of scenes from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and the, unintentionally, hilarious Jean Claude Van Dam 90’s action fest Double Impact. It was no doubt the sort of distorted mental map that everyone has when they have watched too many movies: all warped distances and colours. Larger than life could ever be.
I knew, of course, that reality would bring me down with a bump. Surely, no city could be exactly as it is portrayed in the movies?
I prepared to be disappointed.
Very little survives a man’s death. I have commented before that most of the “Great’s” from history did not write much down for themselves and Gandhi is no different. For while he did write many letters (all available online) he did this not because he wanted to leave lessons for you and I to follow or to build a movement around, but simply because he didn’t have a telephone. If you are looking for published books then you only have one to find; his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.
I have a copy of it, I picked up in Mumbai, and it is not what you might expect.
Cesca left me snoozing in our room and went out to the roof top café/restaurant to take some photos of the city.
The city is blue, blue of the Brahmin caste we were told, but I can’t help wondering if there is another reason for its popular -nay ubiquitous-shade. I heard one rumour that it was due to the blue paint putting off the mosquitos. However, I am more inclined to believe it is to challenge the other brightly-coloured-city it is most often confused with (Jaipur, which is bright pink!) I leaned back on the bed and spied out of the window at the huge cliff-wall behind the hotel, and then up, up and eventually to the turrets of the Mehrangarh Fort high above.
It towered over the entire city of a million people, ever watching like a sleeping dragon turned to stone by some mighty magic, frozen with one eye open and brooding over its faded dominance.
The city’s name? Where else but Jodhpur: the blue city of India set amongst the stark landscape of the Thar Desert.
Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.
Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.
Ask a hundred people where in the world they would like to visit most of all and a significant percentage of them will say Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Indeed there are tours (and we met a few people on such) that fly into Delhi, drive to Agra for a day and then drive back to fly out. That these people can claim to have experienced India is to some laughable.
But then they are probably not trying to, instead they are after a unique chance of visiting the worlds greatest monument to romantic love ever constructed. For that is what this strange tomb is; one man’s attempt to express his love and loss. Seen in that sense, flying half way across the world just to see the sun rise here is perhaps not so crazy after all.
Cesca and I arrived a different way, a much more down to earth way; by train. Agra was one of the few places that we had phoned ahead and booked. This is because Agra has quite a different reputation amongst backpackers; a deadly reputation.
Surrounding the great tomb is, what some might call, a shanty town. In the past it probably was, just a place for the Mountebanks, snake charmers and con artists to live when they weren’t begging outside the tomb proper. Then came the era of international tourism and the arrival of backpackers. I can hardly imagine what courage it took to backpack India in those first days. I get some of the stories from fifteen years ago when my sister-in-law was in the north of India. Back then, the population was tiny compared to now and everyone much poorer. Staying in the area around the Taj, called the Ganj, was probably taking your life in your hands even just from the point of view of the water quality (drawn directly from the great river flowing behind the Taj and very polluted). You may consider this an exaggeration, but even in our more modern times there has been deaths here. The story I was told was that there was a con being played, which went like this:
Varkala is a very popular tourist destination with western travellers. Similar to Goa in many respects, it is a large beach front collection of Happy Bars and cheap hostels. Our taxi from the bus station tried ever so hard to force us to chose the hotel he wanted us to go to, to the point of demanding more money and following us to a cafe. As unsettling as that was, I felt safe in the western environment and only kept him in view as he sat menacingly opposite us. After he got bored and left, we ventured out and found some rooms.
Cesca and I chose a nice beach-hut style hostel, which was very pleasant. Gwenny found a room further along the cliff edge.
Varkala beachfront is sat atop a quite high cliff overlooking the beach itself. A narrow, and in some places, dangerous path runs along this cliff with the hordes of tourist shops, cafes and hostels all along one side.
Kerala the beautiful; the green of a million palm trees, the blue of warm waters. Kerala the red of the sun at set; its light rays refracted to a ruby colour that captivates the mind. Kerala the advanced; an Indian state with amazing reading levels, excellent English, vibrant and – for India – safe roads. Where people duck into little cafés to sample the regions amazing ice-creams. A maze of river inlets and quiet backwaters and small settlements filled to the brim with interesting people. Kerala that is an example to us all, showing that Indians can find a way of peace with East and West and that not all change has to leave people behind. Kerala the only state in the world that has elected a Marxist government; Kerala the communist.
Kerala the heat wave.
As we came down from the cool of the mountains of Ooty, on the famous Nilgiris – Mountain Railway, I couldn’t help but notice the creeping rise of the ambient temperature. It rose and continued to rise. Just when I thought it must surely stop, it didn’t. A few of the European people in the carriage exchanged looks and nervous laughter. One girl sitting near us had befriended us on the way down. This was Gwenny from Holland. I have remarked before that it is the people we have met that really matter in our travels, for they give you a chance to share your experiences, to laugh with someone who has been there and done it too – quite a different feeling than talking to someone back home about the journey. There it is “to”, on the road it is “with”. We had met many: Franco in Australia, Lenin and Bobbits in South East Asia and now Gwenny. We all hit it off immediately, not that we had much choice in talking to her as she talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and could keep it up for hours. As people with the same skills and the same open attitudes, I don’t think we stopped talking for the entire day. Or week.
The most common question I have been asked by people after returning home is, “which was your favourite country to visit?” For Cesca and I it has to be the majestic New Zealand. Not because it is terribly exotic. as everything is familiar (especially the road names), but rather because it is so much like you wish England could be. The lakes, the mountains, the rivers, the beaches. New Zealand has everything. The people have a real “get up and go” attitude that is infectious. They love their country, they also appear to know who they are and what they want. Living in such a culture is, and I hesitate to write this, idyllic.
Shame I don’t live there then!
Cesca and I have written many articles on the subject of New Zealand and also made a “love letter” of a short-film celebrating the country (found under “films” in the navigation bar). However, I have always wanted to do more to speak of our time driving around these islands.
Well, our wish has come true.
About a two weeks ago I was approached by a company working for Air New Zealand. They wanted to license all our content on New Zealand for use in the official Air New Zealand iPhone app!
I lay on my back and tried to relax. The sound of rolling waves crashed back and forth in the distance, which helped. However, the sun was beating down, heating the air and leaving me gasping like I had my head in an oven. It was also making the sand hot to the touch and the use of sandals more of a necessity than just a fashion statement.
I hadn’t worn shoes for 2 months. A new adult first, meaning that my feet were always dusty; the ever present Indian dirt and sand sticked to my toes. Every night I showered and a torrent of black washed off my feet. I turned onto my side and spied Cesca on the next sun lounger, she was taking in the sun by laying on her front, her bikini open at the back to allow a tan, but – since I had rubbed in some cream for her – no white line or burning. I reached to the table between us and took down my beer and my book. It was called The Master of Go, by Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata.
Then my phone rang. It was my best friend Mark.
I thumbed the screen and the call connected, “Mark!” I exclaimed, genuinely please to hear from him, “It’s great to hear your voice. Where are you?” From over the connection I could hear what sounded like traffic and men talking; the sounds of London. The sounds of home.
“Heyya, I thought I would give you a call,” his voice was raised like he could not really hear me and was compensating by shouting; he must be at work on a building site, “I’m in a man hole at the moment sorting out foundations for a new tube station.”
“Wow,” I said, interested.
“Yeah, it’s for the Olympics and all that. Anyway, it’s cold, wet and horrible and I am down this smelly hole and I thought I could do with cheering up. Where are you?”
One of the unique things about India, and one that you never quite come to terms with, is the trains. I would even go as far as to say that if you could understand Indian trains, then you might well lay claim to being truly at home in India. For almost everything that there is to experience in this wild and beautiful country is capable of being experienced by rail.
You see all sorts of things just by walking into a station. They are often grand buildings left over from the British age of iron and function as hotel for thousands of homeless travelers of all types. They have some of the best and very worst toilets in the world, and for some over the edge of the platform is preferred. They are often smelly, frequently dirty and occasionally horrid. But, for every bad thing there exists a good to balance it out. Stations are packed with families playing together, sleeping and eating together. There is the bustle and fizz of people meeting, people departing from loved ones and people wishing they were on their way. The best bookshops I found in India were operated out of mobile stores. Almost anything you could want is for sale on these strips of concrete, and after hours on a train you will eat almost anything (no matter where it has been). They are amazing places, a sort of nexus point and a melting pot of cultures. The gaps between the high and low fade away on these platforms. They are to India what blackcabs are to London. Almost, but not quite, romantic.
People sleeping at a Station.
India has invested heavily in its trains, a trick they learned from the Victorians, and something we back home should consider carefully. Short of flying, trains remain the quintessential method of transport around India. The tracks are everywhere. All the major cities are linked, and most of the minor ones. In fact, we never struggled to find a train going anywhere we wanted to go, from the high tech city of Bengaluru (Bangalore) to the deep desert city of Jaisalmer.
We just struggled to get on one or two.
They are not slow either. For while a journey, say from Varanasi to Agra, takes place over one night, a simple look out of the window shows how the train is hammering out the miles at mind-meltingly fast speeds. It’s just the country is massive. Eventually, train transport became a welcome break for us. We would even plan our journey around it and use it as a “free nights’ accommodation”. For seeing into a heart of India, trains are your choice.
The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai was something we had worried about before landing in the city, but to look at the place it was as though they had never happened. In any city with such a varied and ethnic population, it had probably not fully been disseminated. Sometimes, I have wondered about the quick dissemination of news. Does it actually help or hinder? Is, in a very real sense, ignorance bliss? In India, of course, they are as used to terrorism as any Londoner. Terror was in at the birth of this nation, it was in the separation from Pakistan, it never leaves. I think perhaps that they have become numb to it.
This is what I thought as I sat at the table. Leopold’s cafe is a travellers legend. Not least of all because of the famous gangster novel, supposedly mostly true, called “Shantaram”. In that book, which I read in two days (a sure sign that I didn’t enjoy it), the main character is taken here by a local guide and it is here that he meets his friends for the first time. In my mind, I imagined something grander. Something with a “old empire” feel, like some of the journalist bars we had visited in places such as Cambodia. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is a cafe like a greasy spoon.
Albeit one with machine gun marks on the walls.
Thailand, again we arrived in Thailand, but this time by air.
The siege of Bangkok airport, which had messed us about so much the last time, was over. The president was back in country (he sneaked in via Chiang Mai) and the king was appealing for calm. In fact, the situation in Thailand was no longer bothering us. Rather, the emerging details of the heinous Mumbai massacre had us a little worried. We were due to fly to the city in four days, but the government was counselling that all but essential travel be cancelled.
Cesca and I logged into the web to find an update.
“The government site says don’t go,” she said.
“Then we cannot,” I replied crestfallen.
Cesca looked very disappointed. “But, India is the reason I wanted to come away to travel!” I looked at her, and I knew that we must face the possibility of not going, of shunting the entire trip forwards three months. It was a daunting prospect.
“Let’s look around the web, I will try on the Thorntree.”
The travel blogging is back!
Note: This is the third part of a complete three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. This entry continues our adventures in Halong Bay and the wonder that is Tet in Hanoi.
The next day we were taken to a large island and dropped off. There we were given a bike each. These were frankly terrible bikes and I got the distinct impression that that staff did not expect us to ride them. They expected us to pay for a moped instead. An older couple from our group did so, but Cesca and I insisted on riding and so set off. The chain fell off immediately, so Cesca changed her bike and we set off. The wheels locked immediately, so Cesca changed her bike again and we set off. The seat fell off immediately, so Cesca took my bike, I got another one, and we set off.
Note: This is the second part of a complete three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. We continue with our trip into Halong Bay
The trip cost us $85, and we were lucky, others on our boat later told us what they had paid anything from $80 to $160 each for exactly the same experience.
The bus arrived at the dock’s edge (having visited the ubiquitous tourist-shucking-shop on the way) and we joined the scrum waiting for their boats. It was there that I started to come up with a theory:
What appears to happen, to my sceptical mind, is that the tour guide from the hotel is actually an agent from one of these travel cafes. He arrives with busload of suckers, all who have been sold “luxury” cruises and generally up-sold as much as possible, and then goes into the dock office and passes you off into that system for a commission.
Then he buggers off.
Now you are in another system, which has bought you all at the same price. This is why paying more makes no difference to the client. To the agent, paying more goes straight into his pocket. So now, you are randomly’ishly assigned a boat by block and shuffled aboard. The boat crew have paid the office a small amount for membership of the boat club and they then earn all their money, beyond a cut of the price, in the reselling of extras. This explains why a beer is £4 and they hate you bringing your own water.
The travel blogging is back!
Note: This is the first part of a final three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. The next part will be auto posted in 4 days and the third part 4 days after that.
This was the last stop on our tour of Vietnam and almost the last stop in the whole of South East Asia. It had been a long winding road up this thin and sunny country. A long winding road inside us too; as the further we travelled around SEA the more we felt changed by our time here. We wanted it to be an ending to remember. Luckily, the Vietnamese were only too willing to provide one hell of a party to see us off.
This was because in a few days it was Tet. To the Vietnamese this is Xmas, New Year’s Eve and everyone’s birthday all on the same day.
We arrived in Hanoi by, the now commonality, of a “Crush Bus” and were dumped unceremoniously on the outskirts of the city by the corner of a set of turnpikes. Traffic ran seemingly in all directions around us as we negotiated our bags off the bus.
Sitting on the sidewalk for a few moments, we almost fell prey to the taxi drivers who descended on the arriving tourists like fisherman who have just spotted a large shoal of fish. Cesca and I watched as the newer tourists were netted, gutted for cash, placed in small packed tins and driven off into the city. Clearly the bus company had dropped us here as a way of supporting outrageous taxi fees, probably for some sort of kick back. I looked around; the Hotel was probably only 30 meters away as the crow flies, but from here, well most would pay anything to get away from all this traffic. Cesca waved away all prowling taxi drivers and we sat on our bags and waited. After a while, we were the only tourists left and indeed the bus moved on as well. Only a few unlucky taxi drivers remained.
Good. We were ready.
This is a cross post written by Basho, originally posted on www.rohantime.com
Why this train?
This night on this train? The Calcutta to Delhi train is one of the classic overnight Indian journeys. In India the train service is split into multiple classes. You have the scrum and battle of unreserved third, and frankly that class scares me. Then you have reserved third that is not much better, but at least you don’t need to fight for your seat, not that you would particularly want it when you get it. Then you have 3rd sleeper, which requires a career in Olympic gymnastics to use as each birth has beds stacked in triplicate up the wall. Next comes 2nd AC, which is where we aim for. It is like 3rd, but the beds are in the much more reasonable double bunks and you get a pillow. Or at least you should. It is a very late train tonight when we join at Agra, and the rest of the hundred person carriage is fast a sleep, something that I will not be able to join them in as, (a) the snorers have started in earnest and (b) I don’t have a pillow.
Trying to be as quiet as possible I search the small berth for the missing item. The white sheets are folded in place at the end of the bed, as is the rough and itchy looking blanket, but there is no sign of the pillow.
It was at this point that my Rohan Cloudbase Jacket came to my rescue. […]
This is a cross post written by Basho, originally posted on www.rohantime.com
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. Escaping to the cool of the mountains was essential after the 40 degree heat of the deserts of Rajasthan. Up here the bright sun is tempered with the breeze blowing off the snow covered mountains of Tibet, visible in the distance but over 80 miles away.
Trying to plan for the unexpected, when limited to 25kg of weight in your pack, can be daunting. Warm clothes usually take up lots of space and weigh you down. Wet weather clothes often won’t pack down tight and can stay wet for days after use. Not to mention breakages. When you are doing all sort of activities from brush-cutting in the Australian Outback, crossing the sering deserts of Jaisalmer on a camel, bungee jumping off the bridges of New Zealand or hiking through the jungles of the Thai/Burma border, you need clothes that can stand up to abuse and yet still be smart enough to wear in a top Singapore Restaurant.