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 our […]

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, and […]

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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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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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 a […]

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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Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tet New Year – Part Three!

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.

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Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tet New Year – Part Two

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.

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Hanoi, Halong Bay & Tet New Year – Part One

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.

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