Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Boulders, Blue Wash and a Bond Film

JAISALMER: It seems like an age ago that we were in Mysore, where I posted the last lame blog story, but it has just been three weeks. Since that time we have come a bloody long way again, clocking up more miles on the train and bus than I care to calculate (yet). We have also had some varied standout and forgettable moments from getting a new travel companion and seeing more amazing sights and scenery to having to put up with polluted, rubbish filled cities and battle touts and other pests (including an audacious autorickshaw driver who chased us done a lane trying to take us to a commission paying hotel).

Mysore was a standout town for us and India; it was actually fairly clean and livable. There were large boulevards to walk down and a brilliant market to explore, and then there was its fabulous palace, built only a hundred years ago, but quite impressive. After trying to sneak in with our camera (they were banned) we joined the hundreds of locals in marveling at its magnificent rooms.

Our time in Mysore also coincided with the start of the India's major festival period; Diwali, the festival of lights. We have since christened it the never-ending Diwali as it has followed us like that autorickshaw. The festival would be great if it was just the fireworks but as it turns out it also involves kids igniting fire crackers - the exploding, banging kind.

There doesn't seem to be any regulation on the size of bang either. Sitting and trying to have an evening meal while an explosion rocks you and the buildings around is not much fun – especially in a country that has active terrorism. But that is just a minor complaint and since Mysore the sights we have seen more than make up for the long travel or kids risking their fingers.

Firstly there was Hampi a boulder strewn region that once contained a capital city of an abandoned empire. The inhabitants were prodigious carvers and with the masses of material scattered around turned it all into an amazing rock city. Wandering around giant boulders to the forgotten temples and bazaars was one of the highlights for our trip in the south. Seeing as we almost did not have time to get there the experience was doubly magical.

Rocky landscape
Boulder strewn Hampi

Hampi was a highlight, so was Mysore, and then there was Bombay, our next stop. We came all the way from the south, clocking up those kilometres, to the big financial smokey town to meet Rob's sister. She had come all the way from Oz to meet us (bless her, someone who actually wants to travel with us for a month). We were going further north to where we hadn't been yet (it still hard to believe how big and varied this country is) and she was happily coming along for the ride.

The colonial architecture of the graceful buildings and busy bustling thoroughfares of Mumbai was our first shared experience. Unfortunately for me it was tainted by the expense of the place and is now also viewed through a bed bug riddled prism. Due to the cost of getting a room we ended up crashing at the cheapest place we found, the Salvos. God bless them, they provide cheapish rooms but they also came with some ferocious bed-bugs. Those blood sucking mites, savaged me for a few nights in a row. Luckily for Mumbai we have to go back there so it will get a chance to redeem itself.

We kept heading north and to begin with the journey wasn't that crash hot for us. To start there was a rough overnight train trip to Ahmedabad in sleeper class, the most basic, where me and Rob had to share a single bunk (a long story but not something I would repeat in a hurry). Then after reading a good review of the city with its old town we discovered that prosperous Ahmedabad was also one full of traffic and virtually devoid of accessible sights. Instead of a few nights there we quickly departed after one.

Then finally after a hard week or so we made it to almost mythical Rajasthan and it was fantastic to end up in its southern jewel, Udaipur. The city is another gem by Indian standards and although it doesn't take too much looking to see some of the more undesirable elements of India in its nooks and crannies the beauty of the architecture there overwhelmingly outweighed any negatives.

Udaipur is graced by its setting around a man-made lake. Even though the water was mostly a shade of green it still was a fantastically photogenic place where sunsets are the stuff of photographers wet dreams especially when there are graceful soaring palaces to fill up the viewfinder. Then there are the palaces that take up every inch of islands in the lake. This is a place which would make a fabulous set for a movie and as we found out it has. Every night we were treated (and then eventually annoyed) by showings of James Bond's Octopussy at the roof-top restaurants around town.

Lake view
Udaipur's lake

We spent quite a lot of time wandering around the old town and its tourist orientated streets, visiting the city palace where like Mysore we filed through its small rooms and courtyards with hundreds of gawping locals and buses of foreign tour groups alike. Unlike Bond though we didn't get to a couple of locations in the film, one in particular, the lake palace, is now a very flash hotel. You can dine in the restaurant but we were held back by the fact we needed to iron our clothes first (and possibly the price).

Movie locations were one of the reasons that drove us on to the next city we visited, Jodhpur. The city starred in the film Darjeeling Limited, which had inspired us last year to get to India. Now after clambering around the city's imposing fort and getting the birds eye view of the labyrinth like old city with its Brahmin blue washed walls you could see why the old city was chosen as an extra to Owen Wilson and co. We spent a few nights there taking in the old city and superb central market with its amazing clocktower, but also trying to dodge that autorickshaw driver.

Jodhpur's fort and the old city were impressive and reason enough to get there but after now venturing further west to India's frontier desert town of Jaisalmer and immersing ourselves in its own version of ancient defences it is hard to work out which is more scenic. Jaisalmer though has foregone the blue paint and instead just devoted itself to natural sandstone so the effect of the fort's rounded bastions rising out of the old town and surrounding Thar desert is a bit like a sandcastle at one immense beach.

The old town of Jaisalmer has the added benefit though of some of the most exquisitely carved noblemen's houses or havellis you will likely see anywhere. They are rivaled only by the fort palaces for intricately carved stone lattice screens and flower features under eves that are attached with a bayonet fixture similar to a light bulb.

Patwa ki haveli
A Jaisalmer havelli

Jaisalmer is not just a big fairyland town in the desert it is also the home of camel safaris. A chance to escape the noise, smog, grime and yes creepy rickshaw drivers and jump instead onto farting camels and head into the peaceful, quite and very sandy desert to sleep under the stars for a few days. And that is what we have just done, but will have to wait until the next update. Coming sooner than the last I promise.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Southern Exposure

MYSORE: To the south, to the south. The monsoon had ended (or so we thought) and it was time to take in the south. We have dipped our toes into the Dravidian cultures of South India like taking a dip in the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea. The surf has been rough at times, but we have drip-dried off and experienced another side of India.

The tip of the sub-continent was reached and like a yo-yo we are now we are winding our way back up. It has been a long trip to get, here passing from the foothills of the Himalayas, across mystical flat broad and brown rivers, to the temple strewn and palm fringed east coast. Once we hit the coast at Orissa in the north-east we hugged it through to Madras and then all the way southward to as far as we could go.

The journey by boat, bus and long distance trains has not been without its moments. Fortunately they have been little things and for most of the time we have enjoyed the coast and have watched the sun rise or set over it, discovering the scenery of cliff-lined shores, flat broad beaches, still inland waterways and canals of the backwaters and the historical monuments left behind by coastal empires that have flourished and gone.

But unfortunately for you the reader because I am lazy I have not done a major write up of this section of our journey so you will have to contend with the following spotlight on some of the highlights and lowlights, listed in no particular order from the past three weeks...

* Taking a dip in both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea beside fully clothed Kolkatans in the former and bikini clad westeners in the latter.

* A couple of near-24 hour train rides to get to the coast and the south in the first place; getting woken at four in the morning by someone insisting your are in their bunk, then watching for hours as the train passes through rice paddies and coconut palm groves.

* Visiting the fabulous 800 year old Sun Temple in Orissa and wandering around (with lots of local tourists) the gigantic structure, getting up close to massive wall carvings of sun dials/chariot wheels and risque raunchy scenes.

* Visiting the equally impressive and older carvings covering a rocky hilllock at Mamallapuram (just south of Chennai) and wondering about the lost empire that created them.

* Being a tight arse and not paying the “foreigner price” to visit the famous Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and instead looking at it through the cyclone fencing on the beach.

* Having to dodge the squatting local fishermen at Mamallapuram who insist on taking their morning abultions almost in front of you on the beach as you try to get some dawn photos of the Shore Temple through the fence.

* Visiting the city of Madurai with one of the world's largest Hindu temples, which is surrounded by a dozen massive gompuras (technocoloured pyramid shaped towers covered in statues of hindu gods and deities) - only to find that all the gompuras are covered in equally massive scaffolding and palm fronds – and you can't see a thing.

* Swapping curry and rice for aubergine gratin and ratatoui, and roti and naan for croissants, in Pondicherry.

* Being introduced to a whole new cuisine – southern style; steamed rice cakes, lentil pancakes and lots of spicey sauces – the best (and cheapest) eating of the trip.

* Cruising up the coconut tree lined, almost black, backwaters of Kerala for eight hours while watching fishermen lay nets and punt canoes with nearby eagles, kingfishers and egrets also going about their business.

* Reaching the tip of the sub-continent and discovering that there is a massive statue erected offshore on an island which is viewable from our cheap hotel room; sunrise was good.

* Loving the fact that the monsoon has ended only to discover that southern India also experiences a north-west monsoon directly after the south-east has finished; nobody told us!

* Getting more rain than we bargined for again while a cyclone parks itself off the coast and causes major rain in Kerala.

* Observing Indians and their crowd control behavior and being frightened at the way they will barge onto to transport before you have a chance to get off it; you learn to push back and realise why there are numerous human crushings at temples here.

* Watching the sunset over the ocean from a clifftop restaurant at Varkala and eating cheap fresh whole grilled tuna and snapper.

* Seeing two rare white tigers gnawing on their meaty dinner (unfortunately not in the wild but whilst taking a visit to a zoo in Orissa).

* Wandering around the photogenic old French quarter in Pondi. French colonial architecture in India! Another surprise.

* Discovering further colonialisation in the Catholic dominated ex-Portugese Fort Cochin – huge churches, and a loud Sunday sing-along.

* Watching at night from the vantage point of a cycle rickshaw, throngs of thousands of devotees to the Mother Godess Durga congreate and celebrate.

* Taking the slow bus to Mysore and arriving at 10pm over some of the worst roads we have experienced on the trip; who puts a series of speed humps in the middle of nowhere – but at least we made it safely, albeit with tyre puncture as an interval.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Oh the Humanity

VARANASI: I saw the man hover around, standing nearby and moving when we did. This was not unusual in the busiest ghat of the city. Touts and hawkers continually pestered tourists while pilgrims gathered on the steps and awaited instructions from their guides, and local dwellers and the saffron clad sadhus bathed and washed in the holy water, oblivious to everyone else surrounding.

Walking away, the man held out his hand to shake mine. I complied as I thought it was a harmless enough activity. I had shaken hands with many Indians while travelling through the country and it usually ends with that, just a hand shake. Immediately though the man grabbed my upper arm and with very strong hands proceeded to almost Chinese burn it in an intense massage that followed down the length to my hand.

For a few minutes I was stuck, not able to get away, but at the same time given the most painful and enjoyable massage of my life. It ended with him cracking not just my fingers but my whole hand and saying for 10 rupees he would do my head neck and shoulders for five minutes. With a prolonged “thanks but no thanks” we eventually managed to keep moving in the hot morning sun.

Welcome the dawn 2
Life on the ghats

The famous ghats of Varanasi were explored throughout the morning. We walked up and down the steps leading to the Ganges, passing the temples to Shiva, Vishnu, Kali and just about all the other gods and watching the bathers wash in the holy water, until the heat of the day became too much. We returned to the area when the sun had dropped and the temperature had cooled, to only be greeted by the same smiling masseuse from the morning.

“Ten rupees, head, neck and shoulders”. This time I complied and amidst the crowds of pilgrims, tourists and wallahs enjoying the evening on the steps of the ghat, he laid down a cloth and got me sit on it. What followed was one of those bizarre travel moments that you just have to go with. With Indians staring and tourists surely bemused I was given a full body massage from fingers to toes while laying on my back and then my front. It didn't bother me and cost more than 10 rupees in the end but it was a serene experience as I gazed over the dusky Ganges and my muscles were given a massive pounding.

Yes we are back in India and in the holy city of Varanasi and travel life is back into a more hectic and frenetic pace. But how can you not enjoy all the sights, experiences and frustration that entails. It is never boring.

Life exists everywhere here. The crammed old city swarms not only with the clamour of people densely packed in, but coexists with the revered monkeys and cows that happily bound along the rooftops and lazily wander the narrow alleys feeding on the scraps. Occasionally a bull will block access and bellow or a squabble will erupt between the simians but on the whole they all exist in the same space.

Death is not far away here either. The charred corpses on top of the pyre at the burning ghats are a very visible reminder that the Ganges is not only revered for the living but for the afterlife as well. Then there are scenes of a bloated cow's body stuck in a eddy behind a moored boat and not far away is a man gargling the river water.

Human existence takes on an almost collective cohesion. The masses of pilgrims all piling into a boat for a trip along the holy river. The jostling of the crowds as they are forced to thin down to fit through the narrow alleys. Passing the sadhus with their baskets containing cobras or, most beautifully, how the city's rooftops become the playground of the boys.

With ground space a premium, kites are launched from rooftops and with skillful pull strokes allowed to gain altitude. There is an art to flying these simple homemade paper and stick contraptions, but it seems just about every boy in the city has mastered it. We watched from the rooftop of our guesthouse an endless dusky sky full of kites bobbing. Travelling certainly has its special moments and this along with getting my public pummeling were some of them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Temples, Trails, Peaks and Rhinos

SAURAHA: The elephant crashed through the leafy green scrub and lumbered on, whilst we were whipped with branches. You get a different perspective sitting high and not so comfortably on the back of a five tonne pachyderm. The view of your steed is limited to a mass of grey, wrinkly, thick skin below you and the bulbous hairy dome of its head with its wide ears flapping in front. But it is the perfect vehicle for rhino hunting - and that is exactly what we were doing.

Who would have that thought coming to Nepal we would end up on an elephant safari. Mountains and trekking are usually associated with this landlocked country stuck between the two giants of India and China. But a safari in the fabulous Chitwan National Park is how we have ended our visit here, and it could have topped the trekking as the highlight of the country or perhaps our entire travels so far.

It is not often that you get to see magestic One-Horned Indian Rhinos in the wild but this is surprisingly what we got to see. It was surprising because they (more amazingly there was not one but two together) were not bothered as we and about 10 other elephants loaded with tourists crashed our way through the forests in search of them. The mahoots shouting to each other did not disturb them either, as we finally came across the two grazing grey armoured endangered beasts as dusk approached.

Elephant Safari
Not so sneaking up to a Rhino

It was a special end to a fantastic day which started bright and early with a trip downriver in a dug-out canoe, spotting the snout of a fresh-water crocodile, and then a two-hour hike through the jungle forests. We had the usual danger speech beforehand - this is what you do if we get charged by a rhino, if a Bengal tiger attacks do this and if a wild elephant decides to go for us then we are done for. Unfortunately we didn't encounter any of that; we spotted some deer and - for the first time away from their scavenging role at temples - monkeys in their natural habitat.

But Chitwan has only been the climax of what has been an excellent three weeks here. We flew from Delhi to Kathmandu and were greeted by the familiar face of my mother amongst the crowds outside the airport. She had arrived earlier and was to be our first travel companion from home on our trip.

Kathmandu was seen from the blissful environs of Boudnath, the location for a massive stupa (Buddhist spire) where devout Tibetans lap clockwise. From our base we explored the area and visited the medieval suburb of Patan south of the river. The small narrow streets were packed with tight-knit Hindu shrines and temples, culminating in the large Durbar square. Multi-tiered distinctive Newari temples were architecturally amazing and again another stereotype of Nepal was shattered – more than just a mountain range for trekking in.

We ventured into the touristy suburb of Thamel for a night to be close to the bus stop to get to Pokhara. The peace we were accustomed to in Boudnath was broken by the neon lights, touts, feral street kids fighting and general overload of population density. It was good to get away in the end and head west, in search of the stereotyipcal image of Nepal: mountains.

Pokhara delivered. Initially everything was clouded but in the afternoon the heavens opened and there in front of us were the famous Annapurnas gleaming bright white and rearing above us. Massive mountains know how to make you feel small and these did. No matter how many times you view them you never get sick of their sight. They are glorious reminders of nature's beauty. Photos of course can never do it justice, but it doesn't stop you trying.

Pokhara though is a tourist town, and had all the trappings that that involves. Despite this, there can't be too many towns in the world where you can sip your latte as you gaze up on 7000m high mountains. The tourist area is well situated on the serene Fewa Tal lake and to kill time we hired a local woman to row us around as the sun set.

A trek into the Annapurna region is a must if you come to Pokhara. A complete circuit of the range would take almost three weeks and was beyond our time scope or our fitness level. We instead decided to do a five day trek to a popular 3200m high spot called Poon Hill where the Annapurnas and the nearby Dhaulagiri, seventh highest mountain in the world, are viewed in all their glory.

Poon Hill
Dawn at Poon Hill

To gear up for it and to make sure our fitness was up to scratch we tackled another viewing hill closer to Pokhara called Sarangkot. The views are usually superb, at the right time of year, but as we are only now just starting to depart the monsoon for the dryer seasons, the clouds decided to block any view after our hard climb up 800m all the way from town. We stayed the night there but the view in the morning – usually the best time - wasn't any better.

Our trek to Poon Hill was delayed as a rest day was imposed on us by the monsoon. On our day of departure the rain sheeted down and filled the streets, turning the one outside our guesthouse into a river. It stopped our activities but fortunately it seemed like the last gasp of a dying beast, and the next day we departed via taxi out to the start of the trek.

Trekking in Nepal is unlike trekking anywhere else in the world. The paths along the popular routes are nicely paved, you share the route with pack horses, goats heading to market and locals heading home. Then there is the famous scenery, often just as impressive as the mountains: green forested slopes worked with rice paddy terraces. The scenery changes depending on where you are and on the entire Annapurna circuit it turns more into Tibetan style rocky environment north of the range.

On the third morning we clambered up in the half light of dawn to the top of Poon Hill. The views were literally breathtaking as we recovered from the exertion of getting to the top. Luck was finally with us and we were treated to a perfect clear dawn with sun rising behind the Annapurna range to the east and Dhaulagiri lit up to the north. It was a special moment for all of us.

Trekking is an industry here and so almost everything is geared towards it. There are lodges everywhere, all with attached restaurants providing all the usual travellers' fare. Facilities range from the more basic, rough timber floors with squat toilets, to sophisticated ones with flushing toilets and hot and cold showers.

Unfortunately in some parts a culture seems to have developed of milking tourists for all they're worth. Cartels, or as they are called here "Committees or Associations", set menu prices for all the lodges on the trails across a certain area. They set their prices at two or usually three times the prices of what the same meal costs back in town.

I understand that there is a higher cost associated with carting goods to the lodges by porters but when the item you want to eat – a locally grown meal that locals eat - is ludicrously expensive, you have to wonder. And strangely with the portering costs a beer is not that much more expensive than in town.

But that's enough of my rant. We immeasurably enjoyed our hike, and I am extremely proud of mum carrying her pack (almost) the whole way, when virtually everybody else was using porters. We have now made our way down to the tropical plains and the animal spotting. And in amongst this I got to spend another birthday in another country and what a special one it was.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Return to the plains

DELHI: We are back in the nations capital after roaming the partially contentious and certainly mountainous area of India's far north. The region was an awe inspiring look at nature at its most raw and rugged and has to be along with northern Laos the highlight of the trip so far. But all things had to finish and we have now weaved and wound our way back through the Himalayas.

Delhi like Kolkata can hit you in the face with its sights. Not just the grand architectural ones that we have been visiting but all the street life. There have been no flash lodgings for us so that means we mingle more with the masses as we come out of our temporary abode above the Main Bazaar strip in Paharganj.

Everyday Indians shopping for clothes dodge the cycle rickshaws and their green and yellow auto cousins. Innovative street kids perform acrobatic twisting and then stick out their hand as a man trundles by on his little cart with wheels. Or there is the more traditional metal cup rattled at you by a man hobbling with a crutch or a woman with a baby in her arms.

But it is not just the humanity, animals mix and mingle along with the people. Cows forlornly wander around waiting for a handout of potatoes or just a munch on a cardboard box. Tethered bullocks pull wagons loaded with sacks or a horse used for weddings trots by. Other horses are still stuck in the 19th century as they are harnessed to carriages waiting for paying passengers to climb on board.

And then there have been Delhi's splendid monuments to gawk at. The pre-British Raj era Mughal built ones are more fabulous examples of Muslim architecture. The imposing Red Fort and the spectacular Humayun's Tomb which they say was a trial run for the Taj Mahal. If that is the case then Taj must truly be impressive. We shall wait and see.

Red fort 2
Old Mughal architectural wonders in Delhi

We spent a morning soaking in the magnificent structure and then soaking in our own sweat as we clambered over the mausoleums and mosques in the sticky heat. We combined the trip to the more somber Ghandi Smitri, the place where the Mahatma was martyred to a crazed man 60 years ago. It has now been turned into an exhaustive museum dedicated to his life.

Previously to Delhi we had to pass through the old British summer capital of Shimla again. This time the weather that had dampened our last visit thankfully had eased and we actually got to roam the bazaars clinging to the hillsides. Kipling wrote of the bazaars as a "crowded rabbit warren that climbs up from the valley at forty five" where "a man who knows his way there can defy all the police .. so cunningly does veranda communicate with veranda, alley-way with alley-way and bolt-hole with bolt-hole". Not much has changed in the last 100 years it seems.

Lower Bazaar
Shimla's middle bazaar

There were not as many sights to tick off this time in Shimla it was of more a recovery and preparation for the two 10 hour journeys that bookended the visit. The stay did though coincide with a Bollywood film that was being staged in the city and this was another example of how Indians just like Papuan New Guineans love real life entertainment. Hundreds of people stopped to gawk at the production and the crew had a hard time keeping back the crowds from ruining their shoot.

One thing we certainly now miss is the cool mountain air. Thankfully our stop in Delhi is only a short one and tomorrow we back on a plane and flying to somewhere with plenty of mountains; Nepal. We also get to be greeted by my mother who is already there. Our first contact with family for 5 months. Bring on the next chapter.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Dust on the boots (and more bus stories)

KALPA: Sitting on a barrier on the side of the road taking a break, I saw the tractor rumble around around the bend. Perhaps a lift is possible, I thought, for these tractors loaded with gravel routinely head from the river bed into town. Grabbing our full packs ready in anticipation, the tractor sidled up and the driver called "Kaza, Kaza". "Yes, yes" we answered.

We threw our burden onto the gravel heap in the trailer and climbed up onto a back tray between the wheels of the tractor and happily bounced the last four kilometres into town. It was a great relief to know there was no more trudging along the dusty boring road with our full packs.

This was the Spiti valley, another slice of Tibetan moonscape (or perhaps Marscape) in the far north of India. We had been hiking the 16km back to the main town in the valley because the public bus system in Spiti is unfortunately a little erratic. The only other way around is to hire jeeps and the local taxi union (mafia) sets exorbitant prices for foreigners.

So we walked back to Spiti's capital, Kaza, and notched up a new mode of transport that we had not ridden before: a tractor ride. And even though it was very bumpy and we had to hold on for dear life, it was certainly more sedate than the other main mode of transport over the last couple of weeks: the bus. Buses have either been long, frustrating, painful or terrifying.

But back to Ladakh, which seems like a long time ago now. We got there on that long bus ride as described before and stayed a week in the isolated Buddhist (former) kingdom, soaking up the comforts and sights that this entailed. Leh in parts was a complete tourist town, in fact in the area we stayed, Changspa, you could call it little Israel. Hebrew was outspeaking any other foreign language 2 to 1. But being touristy it was still surprisingly fantastic. Leh has to rate as one of my most favourite towns.

The reason we enjoyed the place and why it lived up to my expectations was due to its setting. Surrounded by moonscape, Leh was an oasis of green fed by irrigation channels flowing with feng shui goodness. The small town centre bustled at just the right pace but it only took a few minutes to walk off through the stone-walled alleys into semi-rural surroundings. The old palace and Gompa (monastery) loomed over the town on one side and was pleasantly twinned by a new, Japanese built stupa on the other side of town, the place to go for sunsets.

We filled our time in the Ladakhi capital by munching our way through the smorgasbord of delights which competed for our rupee. There was also the chance to ride a mountain bike down from the highest motorable pass in the world (supposedly 5600m, but my GPS, and others, had it at around 5380m – still bloody high). You get a two hour lift up to the frosty top 39km away from Leh, have a cup of chai trying to negate some of the altitude sickness and then ride on down for the next three hours.

Ride of my life
My bike for the ride

But the fun and relaxation of Leh had to end and then it was to the painful trip of getting back from Ladakh. It was basically backtracking via the route we had already taken to get there (the only other overland route from Ladakh is through Kashmir, and even though I would like to go there have been some major flare ups recently and is just too dangerous). This time though instead of a long haul sleep deprived van trip we decided to take the "deluxe" government bus to the first real settlement south of Leh, Keylong in the Lahaul valley.

Fortunately the government bus was a lot slower than the van, unfortunately that meant that it took 15 hours for a journey around 350km starting at 5 in the morning. We also had to put up with getting the last two seats on the bus in the back row. Normally I like being a back seat heavy, but in this case it meant that concussion almost occurred numerous times as we were launched airborne over bumps into the luggage rack above us. There was also a non-working fan strategically placed with its sharp metal edge right next to your head. Any time a bump was felt coming it was duck and cover.

Arriving very weary in the pitch black in Keylong, it was with great relief to not only depart the bus but find a fantastic cheap guesthouse with for the first time a TV actually showing the Olympics (the second to last day of competition). We caught our first views of the competition, which turned out to be a gymnastic version of synchronised swimming with five girls but with ropes and hoops. Is this new?

The guesthouse kudos was increased tenthfold upon morning when we looked out the window and discovered a bunch of white snow capped peaks of over 6000m bearing down us at the end of a green, steep V shaped valley. You have to love the Himalayas; views you just don't get back home.

The other poor saps from our bus trip left brazenly early on the same deluxe torture and carried on south to our previous departure point, Manali. We instead stayed along with another Australian couple and their four year old son and enjoyed a proper stop over break by exploring the surrounding area. This involved a hike across the valley to a traditional village called Khardung.

With stone walled houses built over mucked up stables, roofs piled high with winter fodder and drying dung for fuel, the village obviously hadn't changed much in centuries. We further ventured (or slogged) up the steep valley slope to a Buddhist Gompa (monastery) which unfortunately we didn't even get to see inside as no monks were to be found.

The next day we teamed up with the friendly Aussies (it was great to converse about things back home – it had been a while) and gave the buses a miss altogether, paid the extra to hire a jeep taxi. It just so happens they were heading the same direction as us, the 10 hour trip to the adjacent – dusty again - Spiti Valley.

The Himalayas shield the valley and the ones north, like Ladakh and Tibet, from the monsoon. Which is precisely why we were here, to escape the rain. The effect though is the dusty, Mars like landscape it creates. It is a cold desert, but healthily inhabited by hearty friendly folk.

The valley like its neighbours is predominately Buddhist, which means there are some amazingly old Gompas to visit. One in particular at the village of Tabo is World Heritage listed for its amazing 1000 year old murals littering its dark interior. We got a personal tour with a monk and our Australian friends and it was hard to believe that we were so close to something created so long long ago. I felt like Indiana Jones with my torch in hand examining the fine detail inside a mud built temple that looked like those mosques in Mali.

Tabo Gompa
Tabo Gompa

Unfortunately the frustrating and scary Spiti bus network let the valley down. It was a tad bizarre and incurred my wrath as we waited and waited in the dusty capital Kaza for the bus to the village of Kibber. Instead of a logical small bus that shuttles back and forth a few times a day between the population centres, there is a only a single bus which originates about 100km away down the valley. It is usually scheduled to get to Kaza around 5:30pm but by the time it got there for us it was over two hours late. Hence why we were walking and taking tractors back to Kaza.

And then finally there is the scary and terrifying aspect of the bus system which we discovered as we were heading on south out of the valley: maniac drivers. In a valley full of hair-pin turns and blind corners we managed to get a driver that ignored it all and went full throttle the whole way. At one point one of our friendly tractor and trailer combos filled with people was nearly collected and sent into the rushing Spiti river below. We held on for dear white knuckled life.

To make the journey just that tad more exciting, the road had been made impassable for the bus due to a landslip. We were forced to strap on the packs and clamber over loose rock to where the road began again and board another bus. The drop into the valley below meant that a cup of chai was required to calm the nerves when we reached our destination nearby.

Now we are making a big loop back to Shimla. We have left the dusty valleys behind and are back in the greenery of the Kinnaur Valley to the south. We have a week to get back to Delhi before we head off again to another new country, but with just as many mountains – if not more - than the Indian north. Tidings from there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Leh it on me

LEH: The road to Leh. It was some ride alright. Eighteen gruelling hours over a bone-rattling road. Trying to get any sleep after starting at two in the morning was impossible. There was also the worry of actually getting there: our driver kept needing an occasional prod to stay awake. And then there was the altitude sickness.

But back to the how and why we were making this trip into India's little Tibet. A combination of factors drove us north. Firstly there is the rain. The monsoon had finally caught up with us. After having only the odd shower once or twice a week for the entire time we had been travelling, now we were getting soaked all day everyday. In contrast, Ladakh is basically a desert.

And then there is the timing. The road to Ladakh heads over the highest passes in the world. They are only open during the summer and officially close by mid September. If we were going to head there it was either now or another year. We don't have as yet plans to come back another year.

Just getting to the staging post for this long journey took its own time. From our brief stay in Delhi we went to Chandigarh, using for the first time Indian Railway's express Chair Class – very European and a dramatic contrast to the overnight services we had used previously.

Completely planned and built in the 50s and 60s, Chandigarh is a city that is not just strange for India, but anywhere. The modernist Swiss architect Le Corbusier certainly had a thing for straight roads and space. Unfortunately the design makes it a hike to get anywhere interesting without hiring a bicycle rickshaw.

My biggest criticism (although who am to criticise – architect I am not) of the perfect grid layout was that unlike other cities with a similar design it does not have the people to fill the huge space allocated for it. I was impressed though by the way he used the Golden Ratio (1.6??), with the city's administrative area represented as the head of the body and the shopping/entertainment area around where the heart should be. Not so impressive is the unoriginality of the grid square naming – Sector 17, Sector 22 etc. Boring.

From the ordered straight lines of Chandigarh's streets we took another toy-train to the British Raj hill-station of Shimla along some of the windiest, loopiest tracks I have been on. At one stage looking out the window I could see four sets of rails we had just passed over below us. There is also a famous amount of tunnels built for this line, a total of 103 for its 96km length. Like the Darjeeling toy-train it was slow, but fortunately not as slow – completing the journey in a relaxed 5 hours.

The toy-train

Shimla itself was wet and cold but we managed a damp climb to pay our respects at the monkey temple overlooking the town. Unfortunately the temple is overrun with its namesakes, who can be very feral. For the climb we hired the necessary gear; a 1.2m long whacking stick to keep the rampant monkeys abay. Even though the monkeys kept out of reach, I couldn't let the hire sticks go to waste and gave some monkeys a scare. Much to Rob's distress this caused much ferocious hissing and scary teeth being bared.

Being wet, it was good to move on further north to our Ladakh staging post, the popular tourist town of Manali – although it was also wet here. By this stage we were over the rain and looking forward to the desert climate over the Himalayas. We spent minimal time in Manali, merely enough to make sure we were over the 10 hour trip from Shimla and ready for the massive trip before us.

And so to great ride we undertook. We could have done it in two days, with a night camping out on the way (which is probably the way we will do it on the way back) but due to timing factors we did it in one big day. It was cold and dark when the alarm went off at 1am, and it was another hour and half before our van eventually turned up.

We took our seats at the back and immediately realised no sleep would be possible due to the Indian techno pop CD our driver blasted at us. The awful lines - “I want to party baby .. where's the party at .. down the road somewhere .. or on the dance floor” - will be etched in my mind forever. Strangely I do want to buy the CD though – for the kitch factor of course.

The van was bitterly cold as before dawn we passed up and over the first pass of 3900m into the Lahaul valley. It was a cold and wet chai at 6 in the morning at a two-horse town before we kept going further up this valley, that strangely reminded me of Iceland: all green and steep sided and completely bare of trees.

It wasn't until we climbed up the next major pass - just under 5000m - a few hours later that we started to get into the dry rocky moonscape I was expecting. From here on in for the rest of the day we were above 4000m and passed through the harshest terrain I have ever seen. There were sand dunes and rock landscapes and a weird flat open Mongolian like (complete with nomad tents) valley that took an hour to drive through.

Sand buttrisses
Sand buttrisses complete the dramatic road

We stopped at various points for passport checks and food from hardy people who had set up parachute tents for the few months that this road is open. In a month's time the Army will come along and move them all down to their home villages at lower altitudes.

By the afternoon I was battling fatigue, a headache and the leaden feeling which comes from altitude sickness. Our driver was not faring much better and thankfully being located at the back of the van we couldn't see the fact that he was nodding off at the wheel. With hundreds of hair pin turns this of course was not good. The Irish guy sitting in the front passenger seat kept an eye out and a finger to prod him awake with. We made him take a nap at one of the parachute tent places.

It was with great relief and sense of achievement that we passed over the highest pass of the journey : the 5328m high Taglang La – the second highest pass in the world. There was even a little snow. (As an aside the highest road pass in the world at 5602m, Khardung La, sits behind Leh and tomorrow I take a ride up to it and then mountain bike down!) From the high of Taglang it was all downhill to Leh, which meant I could only start to feel to better.

We entered Ladakh and its blue skies and we have been here since and will be for some time longer. Leh was worth the painful journey to get here. The sun shines every day and there are ancient Buddhist monasteries to explore. The Ladakhis are the some of the warmest people I have met, and though this chilled out town is small it has all the comforts a weary traveller could want. It was a long ride through the rain and pain but we are now finally having a rest. Leh is yet another holiday from a long holiday.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The thirty two hour train (plus some other bits)

DELHI: Thirty two hours rattling along the rails. It seems like a long time. But it passes and you wonder how it went so quickly. From the North East of India to the capital, Delhi, we sat, slept and sipped chai. We watched the Ganges plains roll by the window. Farmers working the paddy fields, school kids wandering to and from the old villages made of mud and brick, and monkeys being a nuisance at platforms.

Bicycle home
Farmer going home as the train goes by

To while away the time on this second-longest train trip of my life (the first being in Russia), we stared out of the window, and we read. Around the World in Eighty Days was an apt choice which I picked up cheap at a bookshop. Or there was daily newspaper, sold from the hawkers on platforms or wandering the carriages.

The endless wallahs walking up and down the aisle shouted about their newspapers in Hindi, Bengali or English, but more commonly they called out "chai" (tea) as they lugged a hot urn and paper cups along. Occasionally a shoe shine boy, a masseuse, a coconut seller or most curiously a mung bean concoction maker would pass through. In a land of a billion people everyone tries to find a niche - even the beggars who sweep the floor of the carriage and then return with a hand out stretched.

The reason for this long journey was simple: we are heading to some more mountains and Delhi is on the way. I say more mountains because the majority of the last 10 days have been spent in the Himalayas. Or more precisely, in Sikkim and Darjeeling.

Sikkim is the small piece of India that is sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan and with Tibet looming over it. It is home to the highest mountain in India and the third highest in the world: Khangchendzonga. It is usually possible to see the peak from just about all angles of the small state, except during the monsoon. And we unfortunately are still in the monsoon.

So we spent 10 days staying at accommodation perched on the top of ridge lines with unobstructed views of a mountain 8598 metres tall, without seeing it in all its glory once. We did see some snowy, rocky ridgeline emerge through a gap in the clouds for a few minutes. I can only assume that this small window was displaying a small piece of the bigger glorious views of the mountain which we really only saw on a poster in a shop in Darjeeling.

It wasn't all bad though. We did get to be at a higher altitude, above the hot sticky plains and coast below. Darjeeling, being around 2100m high, was in fact quite cold, with night times getting down to the low teens - temperatures I havn't felt since winter in Melbourne last year.

Also the vistas which we did get to see were worth it. On our journey to and from Darjeeling we got to pass through the tea plantations the area is famous for. Jeeps were the usual mode of transport and it was easy to understand why as we travelled from Sikkim to Darjeeling. From the bottom of a valley we climbed steeply on a jolting, rough road with more hair pins than a hat shop. For most of its way the road was only wide enough between tea bushes to fit our jeep as we went up and around and up a lot more.

Sikkim was also a welcome relief from the almost crushing crowds of Calcutta. The Sikkimese could have passed for Tibetans and it was hard to believe we were still in India. They were some of the friendliest people we have come across. There was no pushing and shoving or the hassle in which you get in the big cities here. Just a friendly and relaxed attitude.

Sikkim had a lot of Bhuddist temples

But it was time to skate on and we have mostly by train. This included the famous Toy Train from Darjeeling. Carriages as long a large car and the engine the size of a small truck, it slowly railled us down following the exact course of a road with much swifter jeeps. Which came first the road or railway I am not sure but it was possibly the slowest train in the world. It took three hours to travel the 31km we journeyed. The rest of the way down was by jeep.

So after two days in Delhi (one rained out), we are off once more: heading north first to Chandigarh and then to another well known hill station: Shimla. We don't linger though as this time real Himalayan landscapes await as we jeep-ride some more over the highest roads in the world to the moonscape of Ladakh. The mountainous passes are only open for a few months each year, and luckily for us right now is the open season. It will probably be another rough ride there and back, but this is what travelling is about - seeing things you can't see back home.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Frozen eras in a hectic city

KOLKATA: The sights, smells and sound - not all good - in the "City of Joy" bombard you at every step. Calcutta is my first foray into the subcontinent and what an entrance point. It is the most populous city I have been to and certainly not for the faint hearted, but if you can look past the squalor and hold your nose when needed this is in an incredible city.

The first thing that struck me was how this place had caught hold of moment in time and not let go. The timeline has been ripped up and the historical pieces have been scattered all over. Fragments of 1950s England, a shred of 19th century Asia, a medieval scrap and then there is the modern strand weaving throughout the rest.

Stepping foot outside the airport after our eventful flight from Bangkok (it made the newspapers the next day due to a rowdy drunken man seated in front of us duly arrested on the tarmac), I was greeted by a fleet of 1950s vintage yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxis gleaming brightly in the sun. Every taxi here harks back to that golden age of round fenders and chrome bumpers; I guess if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Ambassador fleet

We got our ride into town in the back of one. With bench seats in the front, climate control via a rolled down window, shutting off the engine at traffic lights, and picking up extra passengers along the road, it was a great way to enter the centre of town.

Removing our packs from the cavernous boot another era struck us, as we were immediately greeted by a rickshaw runner touting his foot-powered vehicle. Surely Kolkata is the only place left on the planet where you can be pulled around on a wooden-spoked cart by a man with bare feet. After five days here we are still yet to use their services. It seems demeaning for me who is perfectly capable of walking to be pulled along by skinnier man with his cart. Then again, it is their way to make a living.

Checking in to the mouldy hotel we stayed in for the first night (we promptly moved out the next morning), we discovered another legacy of the British: their centuries old bureaucracy. We waited for what seemed almost half an hour as the ledger was carefully filled out and all our details were neatly written in – including father's name, where we had been, where we going – and then again for the receipt as we paid.

Escaping the paper work we took to the streets. The streetside sights we have seen while walking – and we have walked a fair way over this spread out city – are things you don't forget in a hurry. It is here that the eras of time really mingle, from ancient ways to the modern.

A typical amble will take you past tiny shop fronts offering services ranging from automotive parts to astrology readings, or the sight of holy Hindu cows outside of halal butcher shops. Food and drink sellers will be whipping up their concoctions of sweets, roti, curries, fresh lime or sugar cane juice and the ever present and my favourite chai (a sweet milky tea in a throw-away terracotta cup, which you have the satisfaction of smashing in the gutter).

Cup of chai?
Cup of chai?

The amble will take you down traffic filled streets full of not only the yellow Ambassadors but their white brothers owned by Government departments. If you pass these government buildings there will be multitudes of them parked with their drivers, some with "On Duty" signs in their windows. I can just imagine scenes inside the government buildings similar to the start of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Rows of desks with clerks and typewriters with fans whirring overhead.

Further on the wander you will be bound to see sights not particularly fetching for the eye. Men pissing into gutters without care for who is around. Children tagging you for a block making hand to mouth gestures are hard to shake from your person as well your mind. Then there are the occasional more sedentary ones, waving stumps at you to gain your attention for some coins in their cup. A man face first on the ground with two short arm stumps flapping about like a seal would have been comical if it wasn't so tragic.

There will also be at some point a beggar woman and her lolling baby. I made the mistake of trying to engage a local shopkeeper to tell me the Bengali words for "please, go away". When the man proceeded to inform me that they were not beggars but only did this out of habit, I was a tad shocked. If someone asks you for money isn't this begging? I politely argued that point.

The shopkeeper conceded, but this unsettled me and made me ponder the best way to approach the beggar hassle. Ignore or give to each of them. Wouldn't handing out money just be perpetuating the begging? I have seen numerous charities giving food handouts. Besides if I gave to every beggar on the street I wouldn't have any money myself.

On these extended strolls we have also visited the traditional sights. The crumbling government buildings from the colonial era when Calcutta was the capital: Dalhousie square, the ornate Writers Building and General Post Office, now overgrown compared to early black and white photos. Then there is the grandeur of the Victoria Memorial – an almost squat Taj Mahal like structure built for the dead queen – one of the buildings from that period which is kept in good condition. The old cemetery of the Raj also still remains.

Sights here have been religious too. We visited the serene resting place of Mother Teresa, and watched the devout come and pray on her tomb. We then contrasted that with a visit to the sacred Hindu Kali temple, where we were jostled, pushed and shoved trying to get a glimpse of the black-skinned three eye god. Kali is very demanding and outside of her enclosure is the sacrificial alter where a goat is brought daily and once a year a buffalo.

Then there was a trip to the Indian Museum, something that looks like it hasn't changed since the British left. Rooms full of dusty cabinets full of dusty rocks are in one section, but more rewarding were the large complete skeletons of elephants and whales as well an interesting wing on the ethnology of the various tribal groups scattered throughout India.

Elephant speciman
Specimens in the Indian Museum

So with most of the sights out of the way, it is time to move on and tonight we do on the Darjeeling Mail. It is perhaps good timing to be leaving as the rains have finally hit us while we have been here. There was concern before we came as to the state of the monsoon, but with relief we have had mostly rain free days. Which of course has made it extremely hot and humid.

Buying tickets for the train was a venture into the realm of the paper pushing clerks. With the only sign a "May I help you" and a person sitting behind it who wouldn't help, it took us a while to work out the system. Eventually after helping myself to a form and more paperwork and waiting, we had some tickets out of the city.

The train we will catch is actually not to Darjeeling but it takes us near enough to get there easily. I would have liked to take the Darjeeling Express and behave like Adrian Brody or Owen Wilson, but unfortunately there is no Darjeeling Express so the Mail will have to do. Whatever is it called it will be my first Indian train. I am sure this will be start of a long affair.

Monday, July 21, 2008


BANGKOK: Every long story, adventure or activity needs to be broken up a bit. The battered copy of War and Peace I just finished had quite a few breaks throughout its long plot. Football has its halftime. The tour de France has a rest day. All the old cinematic epics were given an intermission. And so, like a long epic, the last few weeks have been the halftime in our journey.

Indochina is now kaput. Over. Finished. We hitched a ride on an Air Asia flight and flew into Thailand. After 3 months in the 3 countries (8 weeks in Vietnam alone) it was great to head off again to somewhere slightly different.

By the end, to be honest, we were a tad over Vietnam. There are only so many times of getting ripped off which you can shrug off. My tolerance is around zero. In our last week doing the final tourist loop southeast from Hanoi, we were bound to get shafted. And we did on a few occasions.

We had tried to see the World Heritage Halong Bay economically and via a different route than most people would take, but instead we were sold a "day tour" which didn't last till noon let alone a full day, and didn't include lunch. But shit happens. You grin and bear it. Notch it up on the "experience to try avoid again" board.

The last days in Vietnam did have good moments. In fact some were among the best. Hiking across Cat Ba island was one tour that was really worth it. Most of the island is National Park and very rugged. Flying across the island it would look like those scenes at the start of Jurassic Park; walking 14 or so kilometres across it we saw how Jurassic it was first hand.

It was one of few times in Indochina where we actually saw quite a bit of wildlife. Besides numerous large spiders blocking the path we saw four different snakes, one eating a lizard whilst hanging from a tree. Everywhere else in Vietnam it almost seemed to me that anything wild was already or about to be eaten; a market wander can always be a bit disturbing.

Hang in there
Tree snake dining on lizard

The hike finished in one of the most beautiful places I have been. We first walked and then later cruised through fjord-like scenery where those jungle clad mountains decended into the sea. It reminded me of Norway or New Zealand, and you just can't get enough of a view like that; it made up for (although we didn't know it at the time) the lack of a real cruise around Halong Bay.

Staying on Cat Ba island was also an another experience - to see Vietnamese tourists in the wild. Instead of mountain climbs, they seek beaches to play on. The tiny strips of sand that were available on the rocky island were full to overflowing with locals tackling the surf - no more than waist deep; perhaps because they couldn't swim? Rubber tubes around the waist were certainly popular.

Unfortunately, because the island is so popular during the “summer months” - or at this time of year – the accomodation was more expensive than what we were used to. And on weekends the price automatically doubled. We turned up on a Wednesday (via a dodgy, overcrowded ferry – another story), which was fine until we decided to stay until the Saturday. Friday night we found out it was impossible to get anything for a reasonale price.

Luckily we had made friends with the operator of our hotel, James, who offered to put us in his own house for a price we more used to. This turned out to be an interesting insight into how normal Vietnamese actually live. We hung out in his local neighbourhood for the afternoon, meeting the local kids. And then at night we got to listen to the gentle sounds of the neighbourhood, before sweating in their hotbox room at the top of the homemade house. It was an experience we won't forget for a while.

Another touristy spot on our list was Ninh Binh. It was easily accessible from Hanoi, located on the train line south. Ninh Binh is host to the popular – again with locals and foreigners alike – Tam Coc. It is billed as “Halong Bay on the rice fields”.

Tam Coc certainly has the karst hill landscape interspersed with rice paddies and canals. But it is also now completely set up as a tourist experience that it is almost comical. You you pay an entrance fee to the area and then pay for a little boat for a two hour trip rowed by an elderly lady.

So far so good, but it turns out the boat just travels up the river-canal hybrid for an hour passing through caves. You are bomarbed at the end by drink sellers on little boats who make you by a drink for your rower, and then the boat heads back exactly the same way and your madam tries to sell handicrafts (i.e. embroidered tablecloth anyone?) and at the end asks for a tip. No deviation from the theme please. At least the scenery was spectacular.

Surronding Ninh Binh and Tam Coc were some other spectacular sights, though more mundane I guess for the Vietnamese. This time of year is hay harvesting season and riding through the back villages away from Tam Coc it was almost as if we had been transported back in time to middle ages Europe.

Hay drying streets
Hay drying village streets

Hay was drying on every available patch of road and roof, and to go through the villages you just rode over a hay bed road. After our touristy experience it was great to see locals doing local things. Hopefully that is how I will remember Vietnam, the local side of life. Not the defined tourist trail.

So now we have been in Thailand for almost two weeks and we certainly haven't been far from the tourist trail. But as I have stated it has been a break from our journey and Thailand is an easy place to take a break. We have ventured out of Bangkok - firstly to Kanchanaburi to see the bridge over the river Kwai and the Death Railway. This was something I wanted to see last time I was here two years ago, but didn't. Secondly we ventured up to Ayuthaya for a few days rest out of the smog. I did visit there last time but was happy to go back with Rob.

And so now the next stage of our journey begins. Intermission is over and we are flying to India. A one way ticket to Kolkata and a 6 month visa in our passport. The journey proceeds into new grounds for me. I cannot wait to immerse myself in the experience of India.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hanoi haven

NINH BINH: There comes a point when you can hit a wall whilst travelling. I have felt it before, when you get to the stage when you think "that is enough, and why are we still going?". This was certainly the feeling a week ago when we walked around the dusty frontier town of Lao Cai.

On the border with China, Lao Cai is about as fun as all border towns can be - not very. Though there should be, there is no romance in these towns; they are just a place where day trippers from across the border come to spend their money on goods they can't get at home.

The place was hot. Extremely hot. And we made the mistake of arriving in town in the morning and then having a whole day to fill before departing on the overnight train to Hanoi. This was a disaster. We walked around and sweated buckets - literally buckets. I haven't experienced a place this hot since Cambodia.

To add to the heat and make us feel sick of the travel, we were scammed into overpaying for train tickets. In our desperation to get out of the place, we went to a travel agent and not the official train ticket office. (The train office was shut for lunch - for 4 hours.) The agent promised only first class was available - but for the A+ price we got the C- seats. Getting ripped off puts you in bad mood.

Then there were the couple of weeks of hard travel getting to Lao Cai. Coming across the mountains of Northern Laos was slow work. After making it to Vietnam there was Dien Bien Phu another boring border town. Then there were more mountain roads to negotiate - including another stint at pushing a bus through mud - to get to the touristy Sapa. And then whilst in Sapa all we seemed to get was hassled by the local hill tribe women throughout the town. After Laos, we had forgotten what the Vietnamese hard sell was like.

Hanoi was a haven. Another holiday from our holiday. but with more things to do than read books.

A lethargic pace descended on us during the five nights there. A couple of sightseeing activities during the day, and the rest of the time rambling about the brilliant Old Quarter - poking our noses into the little cafes, bars and restaurants - was how we spent our time. It was a great break.

A ritual developed while we were there. Although you have best intentions to check out all the good spots, you invariably find a few brilliant places initially and then the other spots don't quite compare later.

For breakfast it was a baguette and omelette combination for a miserly (or masterly) 40 cents from a little woman whipping up these fantastic delicious morsels from a gas burner on the footpath. A nearby tin oven warmed the bread while we munched through them sitting on plastic stools not a hand span high.

Gutter BBQ
Street side dining

An iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk – a Hanoi institution it seemed - was followed after from another little plastic stool place around the corner. These street side cafes do one item, for a pittance, and do it well. We loved Hanoi.

There were of course the restaurants. We didn't even make a dent in the listings of high class, cheap eateries. Thankfully we are going back in a week for some more. Have I mentioned that Hanoi is cosmopolitan? I guess we can thank the French for that. So chic, so Frenchy.

In between eating our way around the city there were things to see. The Museum of Ethnology was high class and could have been found in any western city. The indoor very informative exhibits on the various races to be found in Vietnam were supremely complimented by short docos and, outside, full scale reconstructions of traditional houses which you could wander through.

We also paid our respects to Uncle Ho in his big ugly concrete bunker. Soldiers in full white dress uniform didn't let us linger as we, and a whole bunch of Vietnamese, filed past waxen old Ho Chi Minh lying stately in his glass case. I missed seeing Lenin and Mao when passing through Moscow and Beijing respectively, so it was about time I saw one of the triumvirate. (As a side thought I guess when old Fidel finally passes on there could have a forth Madame Tussuad's contract being worked on in Havana).

Uncle Ho's resting place
Uncle Ho in da bunker

So we now have moved on from Hanoi, but like I said we will be back – we do have a plane to catch from there in a little over a week. In the meantime there are a few sites to see in the vicinity, including a(nother) world heritage natural wonder. Till next time, with batteries recharged and the travel zest back...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Golden Triangle traipsing

DIEN BIEN PHU: The Akha hill-tribe woman approached as we sat eating breakfast. They had approached before and always waved them away with a "no thank you" and a smile to their offer of handicrafts. This old woman in her traditional dress with her hat adorned with bright and shiny objects proceeded to place all her items on the table anyway.

After refusing all the small bags and bracelets she finally came close to me and whispering through her betel nut stained teeth said "Opium?". Excuse me, what did she say? "Opium?" she whispered again, closer this time.

We were in the notorious Golden Triangle. The loose area surrounding the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma intersect. The area is a bit of fable now. All the countries have tightened up their drug control but obviously poppy is still being cultivated.

There is no discernible sign announcing that you have entered the triangle, although at some point we must have. I guess we passed into the general area as we travelled up the Mekong on our slow boat and landed at the border town of Huay Xai.

In the town itself they were offering day trips to the actual point of intersect and promoting it as "The Golden Triangle". We didn't take the trip but I am betting there would be no opium there though. About as adventurous as we became during our rest day in Huay Xai, where we recuperated from the long days on the boat, was to go and visit the local Red Cross sauna and massage.

For some strange reason spending 10 minutes inside a tiny herbal steam filled room and sweating the last drop out of you is quite invigorating. And sweating is what we did but in a different way when we did a two day trek from Muang Sing to overnight in an Akha village.

Muang Sing is closer to other triangle, the one where China, Burma and Laos meet, than the Golden one to the south. The Akha had originally come across from China and in fact, as we discovered in a leisurely bike ride, the border is only 10km away.

Our trek had been organised through the local provincial government tourist agency. Apparently this is the only legitimate way to do it and in my eyes this can only be a good thing. So unlike similar "treks" that I have seen in northern Thailand and heard about in northern Vietnam, these treks in Laos are less of a tourist circus and more of a this is how we are, like it or not. There were no "long neck village - bamboo rafting trek" here.

A Belgium couple and us were the only ones in the group. Our guide was from the local area and we were joined by another guide who could speak Akha. After a short tuk-tuk ride to an accessible Akha village we set off.

On the way to our overnight stay we were told and shown the culture of Akha. They are Animists and have a strong sense of the spirits that surround them. At the edge of their villages they construct spirit gates to allow spirits and only spirits to pass. We walked around them. They are usually also adorned with items to warn the spirits not to mess with the village.

We were also told how the Akha have their own style of massage. And this later became a blessing after the 7 hours of trekking through rain and personally having to remove two bloated leeches from my legs. We were in need of some pummeling and pummeling is what we got. It seemed Akha style was more rough than gentle. It was intense but felt good afterwards.

A night with the cocks crowing in the darkness and then we said our goodbyes and trekked back to town. We were both struck by how similar Laos, in its ethnic cultures, terrain and landscape, is and yet very different to Papua New Guinea. One thing is for sure PNG just dreams about getting the sort of tourists that visit Laos.

The guesthouse
Our guesthouse and resident pigs in the village

From Muang Sing our plan was to move across the north of the country on roads less travelled and enter into Vietnam via a newly opened border near the town of Dien Bien Phu. For history lovers DBP is better known as the location where in 1954 the French suffered its catastrophic loss against the Ho Chi Minh led communists. This eventually led to the creation of North Vietnam.

To pass this way we finally experienced what we had read and heard about the bus trips of Laos. How bad they can be. The prelude to the ultimate bus adventure was when we were leaving Luang Nam Tha to get to Oudomxay, the major junction town of the north. The bus was full and my seat had had its padding replaced with a plank, which would have been fine expect the roads were some the most potholed in Laos.

On top of that the bus's front right brake decided to lock up and numerous stops were made to bash and convert water into clouds of steam by pouring it on the hot brake pad. But this was only the precursor to a real adventure ahead.

It came after we made it from Oudomxay to little Muang Khou where we had to spend two nights on the banks of the Nam Ou river – the bus for our final leg in Laos through to Dien Bien Phu only runs every second day. To kill time in this small town I had sat and watched the passing of people back and forth over the Nam Ou via little ferry boats or more riveting when two large coal trucks had to be shunted over on a barge.

It seemed that not much traffic actually passed this way - and we were to find out later why. To get the heavy coal trucks over the river involved the use of not only the small tug attached to the barge but five small river boats all attached to one end heaving and straining to push the barge across the fast flowing Nam Ou. It was a sight.

Pushing the coal truck across the Nam Ou

The next day it was our turn to cross over at a very early hour and stake our seat on the bus. After delaying for an hour or so we departed and all was well on the road for a while. True the road was more goat track than autobahn but we were steadily moving.

It was only when there was another bus broken down on an incline in the middle of a very muddy section that there were thoughts as to whether we would get there. It took over an hour to negotiate the stuck bus with everyone involved pulling on ropes. It didn't take long heaving to get a muddy ourselves. The wet season had after all now started.

Mud troubles
Passing the broken down bus on the muddy road

This was only the beginning, around the next corner was one of the coal trucks that crossed the river the previous morning parked in the middle of the road and not going anywhere. A drop off into the steep valley below was perilously close. I have forgotten to mention that this is rugged but very beautiful country and we were driving up the side of a mountain.

After getting the truck to back up we managed to pass it with more rope pulling. But of course around the next corner was other coal truck, and more pulling. By this time I was covered in mud and sweating profusely along with the rest of the bus. Did we get a discount for this? No.

In the end a journey that should have taken 3-4 hours over a 90km stretch of road from town to town, took a total of 9 hours from start to finish. An average of 10km an hour, you could almost walk it. Needless to say we were stuffed and tired by the time Dien Bien Phu arrived.

Our trip through wonderful Laos is now finished, and it is a little bit saddening. Laos is a brilliant country and the people are wonderful. It is developing but hopefully not too much. Oh and if you are wondering we didn't touch the opium.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Strangers on the Mekong

HUAY XAI: The woman in the flowing yellow skirt strode up and down the steps, striking a pose to aim her oversized camera up the river or down. She took what seemed hundreds of photos at all different angles and directions. Aiming the paparazzi long lens at the boats lining the river bank, shooting at children leaning out of windows or boatmen maneuvering their craft.

She was joined by a Japanese couple who almost seemed to be in camera competition with her. They pulled out a large Pentax and an even larger Canon and together with the woman ridiculously posed with their photographic equipment on the steps above the boat for a group shot.

The engine started and all three reboarded the slow boat to take up their claimed seats. The woman had got on earlier and managed to claim a soft seat, the Japanese couple had to contend with a hard wooden seat covered with a cushion.

The boat was a long and narrow steel hulled vessel with a decking and roof constructed of timber on top. At the front on top of the prow the captain sat himself at the wheel. He wasn't tucked away in a special cabin just up the front with all luggage and cargo stacked behind him. The passengers lined up behind this, with the comfortable seats first and then wooden benches and then just decking up behind. At the stern the engine roared next to the bucket and scoop toilet and the small area reserved for the owner and family to live.

Red curtains

It wasn't just the Japanese couple who had to settle for wooden benches. A group of three Canadians jocks arrived late. It must have been their partying the night before. They initially sat around chatting but not long after launch two of them were intent to set up their hammocks. Their idea would have blocked the access to the back, so the matriarch selling the snacks and drink told them to take it down.

During the voyage one of the jocks got it in his head to try and erect his hammock up the front. Rearranging the luggage he succeeded in doing so and even lying down before the owners tried to persuade him to take it down for his safety. It was only after his pillow fell in the murky water and floated by out of reach that he gave up.

The river flowed on down past green jungly slopes. At regular intervals large grey black rocks protruded at sharp angles which the vessel proceed to navigate around. The rocks sped up the water and caused eddies and whirlpools to form, fighting against these the boat's engine roared as the propeller briefly churned in nothing but air.

The passengers made the most of each of their locations. The wooden benches were rearranged, and cushions put on the deck. After her initial camera obsession the yellow skirt woman was found lying down with her back on some luggage leaving her comfortable seat. The Japanese couple had rigged up a bed using two benches facing each other and the jocks settled for the deck floor.

An aging hippy with long grey dreadlocks and a threadbare shirt was originally content to just gaze at the scene flowing past him. He took it all in through old eyes framed by thick glasses. Only rising occasionally to go to the toilet and never once speaking. During the middle of day he made himself a bed with a single cushion and laid down to sleep rising after a couple of hours to resume his watchfulness.

Blue window

In contrast four Irish girls made their home on a bunch of comfortable seats. They all had an identical uniform of short shorts and singlets. They were looking forward to Thailand's beaches. Their bare legs caused one villager, who boarded halfway along the river, to gawp incessantly like he had never (and he probably hadn't) seen such a thing before.

For two days the boat languidly chugged against the current. Villages dependent on the river for their transport and protein slipped on by. Gardens were carved into the hillside in close proximity to these villages. Buffalos grazing on the banks or cooling off in calmer waters docilely watched the uninteresting boat pass. Boys playing in the water or throwing nets had seen these types of craft before. Occasionally they would wave. Some passengers might wave back.

The first night the boat stopped at Pak Beng, 10 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. Everyone wandered up the slope to get accommodation. Some following touts offering better rooms than they had, others shrugging them off and searching for their own room. The greying hippy slipped from view and didn't return for the second day. The other westerners all returned.

The second day the scenes of the first were repeated. Yellow skirt took so many photos that she held up the boat from leaving. The Japanese couple fussed about their seating arrangements, hung out their hand washed laundry on some wooden benches and took photos of each other with their own big camera.

A Yunnanese business man decided the best way to travel two full days was to be drunk. He proceeded to knock back Beer Lao on the first day, but on the second he came armed with a bottle of cheap whiskey to attack his liver with from eight AM onwards. He found people to play cards with before making a bed.

The landscape was flatter than the previous day. Not as many rocks were needed to be avoided. Once the Thai border was alongside the river was as wide as it would be further south near Vientiane or Savannakhet.

The Irish girls were bored. Even a copy of The Da Vinci Code failed to keep one interested. By the time another 10 hours was up by reaching the end point of Huay Xai they were jumping at the chance to get off. Thailand would have though to wait as the boat arrived too late for a border crossing this day.

The approach of Huay Xai prompted yellow skirt into action after hours of playing solitaire on her iPod. She shot off megabytes worth of worthless photos, pointing it in everyones face before finally packing it away in the jumbo sized bag she was lugging.

Everyone disembarked and slowly wandered up the slope and dispersed their own separate ways. The muddy brown Mekong had been slowly traversed and had thrown together these strangers and was now throwing them apart.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Up and around and down northern Laos

LUANG PRABANG: "I'll be there for yooou ...". Welcome to the strangest town in Asia. The surreal Vang Vieng where walking the streets you will bombarded, at any time of day, with the sounds of Friends blasting out from TVs in the lounge restaurants scattered amongst this small town.

I am not sure if the producers of Friends realise, but there is a spot on earth where their show is still being watched 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Backpackers lying up on cushion covered plinths in a small town in Laos glued to a TV showed that ended years ago. I counted over six of these restaurants all loudly playing various repeats over and over. Bizarre.

We had come to Vang Vieng from Vientiane. It was the logical next step north on highway 13, the only real way to get to the northern provinces. For us the attraction of the place wasn't crap TV, but a beautiful surrounding countryside and yes yet more caves to explore.

Over the two days which we were there we headed off on bikes to stop and be amateur spelunkers. Some of these caves extended some distance into the hills and with the caverns opening up it was hard not to see similiarities to childhood weekend matinee watchings of Journey to the centre of the earth. Except there were no claymation dinosaurs in these journeys, just a stillness and the drip drip dripping of water.

Painting the walls ..
Cave exploration

Venturing further north on route 13 we got our first taste of the roads of Laos to come. Up until this point our journey was along realatively flat countryside, following the Mekong valley. Now, however, we got to experience some of the windiest roads I have ever encounted. For our 7 hour road trip to Phonsavan, covering only 200 odd kms, we twisted and turned up and down and up and down endlessly through the mountainside. There was never more than 100 metres of straight road and more hair pin turns than I could possibly count.

We eventually made it into Phonsavan, though it was in the dark, and more 5 hours later than we thought – our first bus choice was full, so it was a 5 hour wait until the next one. The town is nondescript, but it wasn't the town we came for, instead the ancient attractions nearby. The Plain of Jars.

A day trip tour was needed to get out to these mysterious relics. The reason these jars of stone and ceramics were made and then scattered across the hillsides of this region is still a mystery. Were they, as local legend suggests, made for making whiskey? If so, the more than 500 littering the area and their giant size means that those ancients were having one hell of a party at some stage. More likely is that they were made as burial urns which were subsquently looted in their 2000 year history. One thing is for sure is that they are an amazing sight and it is a crime that there aren't more - 30% were destroyed by American bombs.

Ancient jars
A few of the Jars

Phonsavan is a nondescript town now because in the 1960s and 70s this region was the scene of some of the heaviest bombing in the history of the world. An average of one plane load of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. And nobody outside the country knew.

We stuck our noses into the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) exhibition to see the good work they are doing in removing the bombs that didn't blow up. The entire countryside is still littered with unexploded bombs and it's taking years to remove them. In all the guesthouses in Phonsavan there are large collections of bomb bits lining the walls. In one cafe they have even turned small cluster bombs or bombies into ash trays. Deadly souvenirs of a past most are trying to forget.

From Phonsavan we had to backtrack for 4 hours back up and down and around the mountains to get to route 13 and then more around and up and down for another 4 hours as the road north of the turnoff junction became yet more curvaceous. Hill tribe villagers build their grass huts right alongside the roadside. These roads really are quite incredible - 8 hours of travelling for 220kms. But again the travel was worth it, as it landed us in Luang Prabang.

This town is a UNESCO world hertiage site and a damn fine nice little place. It was the seat of Lao royalty – in days prior to the communist takeover. And it has the old world feel, which Hoi An in Vietnam had. A feeling of this is the way old Asia was. It is the premier tourist destination in Laos and deservedly so.

We have spent our time here in relaxation mode. There are sights to see, more so than there have been in other parts of Laos, but we are more in a mode of soaking it up. The days have been revolving around the weather as well. Now is the rainy season and there has certainly been more of it than before. But with all the cafes, wats, markets and cheap eats, it is easy to forget about the rain.

And so from here on for the next while the trip is possibliy more about the journey than the destination. We have two days slow boating up the mighty Mekong, then go up close to the Burmese border. And there will be a hell of a lot more rough roads in the back of beaten up trucks over mountain passes to experience. Eventually, before our Lao visa expires, the goal is to get back into northern Vietnam. Somehow I think the least of our worries on this trip will be having to watch crap TV repeats.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Back along the Mekong

VIENTIANE: The little red vespa gleamed in the hot tropical sun. I kept walking on by but just knew that I would have to come back. With the "Jules Classic Rentals" sign hanging above it was just too much of a temptation. How much would cost to fulfill a dream was what I needed answering.

The next day the classic 1967 Italian beauty was still there and so was Jules. $10 for the day Jules told me in a heavy French accent (I guess he is one of those "lotus eaters", that the old French colonialist called the foreigners who stayed on in Laos). And half a day? Enough time for me to cruise with my girl around the streets of Vientiane. Only $5. Sold.

Saddled up and we cruised Vientiane until lunch. Much like our trip through Laos it was at a leisurely pace and (mostly) with a grin. And like learning how to handle the old girl and its quirks (clutch and gears on the left handlebar) our Lao adventure didn't kick off that great. A bit of a stalled start.

Vespa Dream
Living the dream

The nine hour bus trip from Hue to Savannakhet in Laos was quite hellish. Once again the bus was completely packed. But at least we managed to get a proper seat and not like the Japanese tourists who had to sit on the small red plastic seats in the aisle. The major problem for me was that I felt quite nauseous at the end. This was later compounded – although I am unsure if linked – by getting a dose of the ol' gastro in Savannaket. Instead of two nights there originally planned we spent an extra one due to one completely lost to no sleep and rushing to the bucket and scoop toilet. Fun.

Savannakhet itself was a bit a tad boring or "quiet" - it is after all a commercial centre and that's it really - so it was good to keep heading north. We found Tha Khaek, our next stop, was a good place to chill and check out the brilliant karst peak countryside. A day of exploring was required to see some of the very cool caves dotted around in them.

There was an amazing story of how, not far from Tha Khaek, a villager was chasing bats into a cave – a local delicacy apparently – 15 metres up the side of a cliff and as he crawled through the small opening he looked down into a cavern below him he was shocked to see a large Buddha statue inside.

As the villager went to inspect he discovered that there were more than 200 bronze Buddhas littering the cavern floor, varying in size from quite large to small, seated amongst the stalagmites. He didn't breathe a word of his discovery for a few days before finally informing the rest of the village and taking back some others.

It so happens that the Buddhas are believed to have been left untouched in the cave for over 600 years. What is more remarkable is that this amazing discovery by the villager only happened four years ago. I had to see this. Who left them behind I wanted to know and why?

Well my questions are still unanswered, but I have climbed through the small opening and into the cavern. The Buddhas are all still there but of course the locals have turned it into a small tourist attraction. They are at least very reverent in their approach to looking after the site.

Rob was required to don a traditional Lao skirt before entering. We had to remove hats and shoes and adhere to a whole host of other regulations including "no gambling inside". There is now a concrete staircase all the way to the cave entrance and once inside, the cavern has been divided into two with the Buddhas displayed in one half and mats for sitting on in the other. Some old caretakers were there looking after the objects and eager to give us a blessing and tie another coloured string to our wrists.

Under the Buddha cave
The pool underneath the Buddha cave

We ventured into other caves, some also devoted to Buddha and some not, before cruising along up the Mekong to the capital where we are now. Vientiane it turns out is one of the most laid back cities I have ever been too. Not much happens quickly here, which is a shock after being in Vietnam for a while. Whereas things start happening before six in the neighbouring country, you are lucky to see cafes with "all day breakfas" signs open up until after 8 in Laos.

So all this means we are loving Laos. Laid back is for us. Though like my vespa ride it will have to come to end some stage but at least that wont be for another few weeks. There are adventures to be had in the north yet.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Confucius says no more caves

HUE: The bus from Hoi An to Hue hadn't been going more than 20 minutes before they dropped us at the touristy Marble Mountains. Right in front of the bus was a large cave entrance. We had 30 minutes there even though we were just keen to get going. I decided to venture into the cave though Rob opted to stay put. I bought a ticket (nothing is for free here, but it was only $1) for this cave experience and ventured on in.

It turns out that it was just me and the bats. I could hear them above me as I climbed the steps further into the dimly lit interior. Perhaps no one else went in because it was crap? There was a certain Buddhist or Taoist or the hybrid version people subscribe to here slant about the place with statues of deities peeping out from niches. The further in I went, the darker it got. The cave opened into chamber and a fetid smell around me grew stronger; bat shit.

Steps led down on the opposite side of the cavern. Horrible scenes were depicted on either side and I realised that this represented a path to hell. What have I got myself in to here I thought. I was by myself in the semi dark, with scenes showing torture by demons, and I was having second thoughts. As I paused on the steps to contemplate this I realised that less than a foot from me in the gloomy light there was something worse than the concrete demons. A spindly legged spider bigger than my hand.

Cave dwelling spider
The spider next to my gingerly placed lens cap

This was almost too much. I took a few photos and after a bit further got out. Fortunately the rest of the trip has been nothing as bad my cave experience. And apart from a few crap bus trips it has been an amazing time in central Vietnam. There have been boat trips, bike riding, old world heritage towns to roam, ancient temple ruins to explore and vibrant cities built in a medieval style citadel to see.

Hoi An had been the perfect place to slow down after the journey to get there. We were squished into buses on the journey to and from Buon Ma Thuot, as we made our way along the Ho Chi Minh Road. Along the HCM road (which is named after one of the many routes that guns and supplies were smuggled south during the Vietnam war), we broke the trip at Kon Tum.

Kon Tum is a small town surrounded by various hill tribe groups. Unfortunately, even though Lonely Planet waxed lyrical over the town and said it was the "friendliest in Vietnam", as Rob's sister pointed out that is like the travel of real estate jargon, meaning boring and uninteresting. And she was right - apart from a couple of nice cafes and the chance to wander around hill tribe settlements (not villages) on the edge of town, there was nothing to do. Nasty touts at the bus station weren't so "friendly" either. Instead of two nights there it was hastily rearranged and we were back on a cramped bus the day after arrival.

We were two of five people squeezed into four seats at the back of the bus - but the trip down to Danang, en route to Hoi An, could have been worse. The bus took us through stunning scenery - following the HCM trail, the road wove with a river up and down through mountainous jungle, sparsely inhabited. We also survived the local bus from Danang to Hoi An grinding slowly along and making us pay double - a popular local scam apparently. Finally arriving at our destination was a bit of an anticlimax: we wandered around the wrong part of town in the heat of the day with our packs on looking fruitlessly for a hotel.

Lanterns 2
Lanterns in Hoi An

But that was the worst of it over. We spent four nights in Hoi An, just relaxing and enjoying a place where there were real French style pastries. We also took a day trip out to My Son, a world heritage site of temples built by the Chams in a pre Angkor period. I ventured off also to have a look at the southern end of China Beach to bring back memories of the 80s TV show.

Now in Hue we have been venturing out on bikes through more world heritage sites in and around the city; the tombs are of emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty. The citadel surrounding the city itself has keep us busy.

A plastic bag is a lot of fun
Girls playing in Hue

So even though we have a 9 hour bus trip tomorrow to Laos, we are currently pacing our trip like the Confucian bowl: in a traditional merchant's house we visited in old Hoi An, a Vietnamese lady explained the meaning behind this bowl, which has a hole in its base. If you fill it 3/4 full with water, the water stays in the bowl. If you try and fill it 100%, the water drains away through the hole. If you are too greedy and overfill your bowl, you will end up losing the lot. The good with the bad. The caves, and long buses, with bikes, new foods and cheap beers.