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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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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Mysore

“Can you take us to this hotel please?” I asked the tuk tuk driver.

He shook his head, “No, that hotel burned down.”

“Burned down? I just spoke to them on the phone…”

He held his hands apart and looked slightly hurt that I was doubting him, “Hotel closed,” he insisted, “I take you to one much better.”

Time for the Bad Cop.

In India, catching a tuk tuk and negotiating the fare – or even the simple existence of the destination – is a national pastime. Not one driver, in three months, took us where we wanted to go without comment, argument or an all out fight. At first, this grates on the nerves and then you cant help but be brought down by it. Then you feel victimised for being western and (relatively) rich. You start to think that they are all out to get you personally. However, it is none of these; it is an official sport. Take it as a sport, a sparring match, and you suddenly find it fun.

And you develop tactics.

Our tactic is to use the old Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, but with a twist. The twist being that I, the large white man in slightly military clothing, am not the bad cop. Cesca is. There is something about confident English women that is like Kryptonite to a tuk tuk driver. We sometimes really played it up. Cesca would fake anger at the guy and then I would step in and take his side.

“But Darling,” I would plead, “he has to earn a living, I am sure he is not ripping us off.” I would then give the driver a look, one I practiced, which said ‘Hey buddy, look at this, I have an angry white women here. I know you need to rip us off, you know I know, but please let’s just defuse this bomb before it goes off and we both look embarrassed’. It was a kind of shared-trauma pleading look.

Worked 90% of the time. The 10% is a story for later…

It was very easy to feel a little guilty about such behaviour, but honestly this is just part of the game as well. There is no White Man’s Burden, I didn’t owe anyone being “gouged” (the travelers term for rip off rides).

Cesca looked the guy in the eye and scowled – something she is very good at, “We want to go to this one please?” She said proffering the Lonely Planet aloft.

This guy was not cracking, “I not take you to that one,” he said.

Time for Phase Two. […]

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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Our Pilgrimage to Gandhi

**UPDATE – LOTS OF NEW IMAGES!*

Welcome back to the travel blogging. Our amazing, 12 month, around the world journey had so far taken us to the far side of the world, the jungles of South East Asia and now was to come our most incredible experience yet.

Now we had arrived in India.

Over the next few weeks, I will be presenting a number of article on the subject of our travels in this most exotic of countries. We explored almost every inch of it, from the cities, beaches, mountains, deserts, jungles and wet lands. Along the way we took in some of the most holy sights in the entire world, including Elora, The great Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Sarnath, the Bodhi Tree and even stood in the presence of the remains of the Great Lord Buddha himself.

It was 3 months to remember.

To kick us off, I have this article by none other than Cesca herself. This was her experience trying to find the Gandhi Museum hidden somewhere in Mumbai. This was our pilgrimage to Gandhi:

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