Yaks for tea and Tibetan Temples. Living the high life in Shangri-la

“You have to imagine,” said the man in broken English, “that this…” he gestured his hands at the view in front of us, “big lake… flood wide and deep… great water!” He broke into a wide toothy smile.

There was a pause as we considered this.

“But… not at the moment,” Cesca eventually prompted.

“No!” the man said vehemently, still smiling and shaking his head.

“At the moment it is just a dry field full of Yaks”.

The closest Yak stopped chewing and looked up at us, as if responding to the sound of its name.

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China: Li River to Shangri-La

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.

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Hong Kong : The Most Photogenic City in the world

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.

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Gandhi

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.

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Shimla mountains and a happy meeting

Breaking out of the Backpacker Bubble in India

Jaipur, the Kalka–Shimla Railway and onto Shimla

I sat on the balcony and considered the view. The remote 7800ft high mountain town of Shimla flowed over the hills in front of […]

Jaisalmer, sandcastle of India

Jaisalmer is a town located 575 m west from the state capital Jaipur. It lies in the heart of the Thar Desert

On the road, […]

Jodhpur

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.

 

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It Shouldn’t Happen to a Backpacker: The Moth Story

As a traveller you know, and even expect, the unknown to occur. You want this; for some it’s the whole point of leaving their home in the first place. It’s usually to do with the fun stuff like walking the Great Wall, eating Sushi in Tokyo Fish Market or jumping off a bridge in New Zealand with only an elastic band to prevent your death.

Those are the known unknown things that you decide to do only when faced with the opportunity. You know you might do them, but you perhaps only have the haziest plan about them. What this story highlights are the complete unknowns; those strange twists of fate and chance that dog everyone’s lives from one end to the other. Perhaps that is being unfair to them as they are the same class of occurrence that led to me meeting my wife, my friends and finding my job.

But, they can also lead to what is to follow…

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Udaipur

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.

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Agra and the Taj Mahal

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:

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Bodh Gaya Part 2 and onwards to Sarnath

Eating food in India is no joke.

On one hand there are high-end coffee cafes that have prices that could only make sense to the gainfully employed. High-end coffee needs to be carefully metered out as it is too comforting and familiar a western experience to eat in such a cafe. Not only does it take you away from your local-encounters in this mighty country, but also takes a large amount of Indian coin from your purse and that directly affects how much you have to spend on the fun things.

On the other hand there are the types of restaurants that Indians eat in themselves. Entering one of these is the classic story of India – the locals stare at you, the menu is in Hindu script, you have no idea what the food is and your loud shouting for Poppadum’s doesn’t go over well. For these places, the average (read lowest common denominator) English person might make the classic mistake that acting like one would act in an Indian restaurant in one’s own country (where Indian immigrants are very supplicating to asshole western dinners) is perhaps not the best idea when there are a million people in the surrounding two miles all of the same culture. Basically, I wonder if the English causal racism played out abroad is not the cause of many of the poisonings you hear about (just wait until this blog gets to Agra for a story of tourist poisoning that will make your hair stand on end). However, treated with respect, and a little bit of savvy regarding the menu, these “true” Indian restaurants serve generally fine if basic fair.

No, the really bad places to eat – the places where one should just walk on – are the for-tourists cafes. This isn’t because they are all bad – some are great and should be cherished like diamonds in the rough – it’s because when they are bad… they try to kill you.
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Varkala & Holi : Kerala part two

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.

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Kerala, the heat and the wonder of Southern India: part one

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.

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This Is India Podcast

Hello and welcome to an experiment!

Cecsa and I have sat down and recorded a podcast of our time in Anegundi in India. This is […]

Outside Context New Zealand articles now on iPhone

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!

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Goa: The Beach Life

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.

Sandals.

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?”

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The Ellora Caves

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.

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Sunset in Mumbai

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.

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Bangkok, city of a thousand names

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.”

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