Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Everyone told us that we would either love or hate India, but actually we had pretty mixed feelings. Just walking down the street here is an experience, as you dodge crazed rickshaw drivers seemingly intent on knocking pedestrians into the open sewers, feral cows feeding off piles of festering rubbish, and mangy monkeys that loiter on street corners looking for someone to pick a fight with. But despite this, we found India a fascinating place with enough charm for us to overlook its annoyances.

One of our favourite things about India was the sweet but slightly crazy people we have met. We got chatting to an old man on the train to Varanasi who refused to believe that there were no arranged marriages or wild monkeys in Britain. In Jaipur we were accosted by a man who asked us where in the UK we lived, and when we answered Brighton asked 'so are you gay?'. We also met a rickshaw driver there with the brightest orange hair we have ever seen. Less charming were the fake holy men, who hang around in temples trying to put dots on tourists heads then demanding money. The Jain temple in Jaisalmer even had a sign saying 'please don't tip the 'holy men''! (They also had a sign outside asking women not to enter during their 'monthly course period'.)
Another thing that we loved about India was the food. This must be the easiest country in the world to be a vegetarian, and we have become addicted to vegetable thalis, paneer cheese, lassis and super sweet chai tea served in disposable clay cups. After hearing other travellers' Delhi belly horror stories, we were relieved to escape India without suffering any stomach problems, despite indulging in some fairly dubious street food.

Our first Indian train ride was from Gorakhpur, near the Nepali border, to Varanasi. This was quite an experience - we didn't know that there were different classes of ticket so we wound up getting seats in the cheapest carriage, which is commonly known as 'jungle class' because of the people sitting on luggage racks and hanging out of the doors. Varanasi is a filthy but charming city and, despite being a bit of a shock to the system, it became one of our favourite places in India. We took a dawn boat trip alongside the ghats - platforms along the banks of the Ganges where local people bathe and wash their clothes every morning. We weren't tempted to join them as although the Hindus say Ganges water is holy water, we were a bit put off by all of the dead bodies floating in there. Most of these are put in the river at the 'burning ghat', where Hindu cremations are carried out.

From Varanasi we took another train to Agra. Agra itself was a fairly unpleasant town, but the ugliness of the town only seemed to highlight the beauty of the Taj Mahal, the first sight of which took our breath away despite the crowds of tourists and the yellowing marble. Up close it is even more impressive, with thousands of jewels inlaid into the stone, and an amazing echo effect inside of the dome which amplifies the murmuring voices of the visitors.

Next we went to Jaipur, which was a bit of a let down, perhaps because Debbie went down with flu and spent most of the time in bed. The city's famous pink buildings looked pretty shabby to us and we were too stingy to pay the 300 rupee entrance fee to the City Palace. Our personal highlight was a beggar at the Sun Temple charging people to take a photo of his 'six-legged cow', which turned out to be a cow with the back two legs of a dead calf sticking out.

After a long train ride across the Rajasthan desert, we were welcomed to Jaisalmer by a seething mass of hotel touts and rickshaw drivers. Luckily we were spared from having to deal with any of them as for once we had booked a hotel and they had sent a car to meet us. From Jaisalmer, we were able to take a trip into the Rajasthan desert. First we went by jeep to an abandoned village and an oasis where we had a nice swim. When the road ended we swapped the jeep for camels and rode out into the desert. It was a warm, clear night so we slept out on the sand dunes, and everyone fell asleep looking at the stars, except for Graeme who was more interested in watching the dung beetles steal bits of camel poo and roll them around. He wasn't so pleased when he woke up in the morning to find one had crawled inside his t-shirt.

We spent our last two weeks in Dharamsala, working as volunteer English teachers to Tibetan refugees. We stayed in McLeodganj – the top end of town, which is dominated by the Tibetan refugee population. Our room had views of mountains decorated with prayer flags and with eagles flying overhead. Debbie had a job teaching English to a nun and Graeme taught a class of monks, and both of us volunteered at conversation classes. Working with Buddhist monks and nuns was an interesting experience: at one class, without thinking, Graeme killed a mosquito that had landed on him then looked up to see his group of monks all staring at him with expressions of shock and horror on their faces – one of them looked like he was going to cry.

A highlight of our stay in Dharamsala was attending a teaching given by the Dalai Lama. He spoke in Tibetan but an English translation was broadcast via radio. Everyone sat on the floor and after a few hours our legs and backs really ached. The elderly monks and nuns who sat around us didn't seem bothered by this at all, although one nun kept falling asleep and her friends had to keep poking her to wake her up.

On our first visit to Delhi we stayed in the main backpacker area called Paharganj, which seemed to be a mix of all of the worst things about India: endless shops selling MC Hammer trousers, persistent rickshaw drivers and constant rip-off attempts. We did like the Akshardam temple, a new construction with a main building covered with carvings of elephants, and a kitsch boat ride through scenes depicting scenes from the history of India. After spending a couple of weeks up in Dharamsala we were not keen to return to Delhi, but our second trip was more fun as we stayed with some friends of Debbie's sister; Amarjeet, Sunita, and their very cute baby daughter Shrushti. Delhi was still too hot for us so we spent our last afternoon in an airconditioned cinema watching a bollywood movie called 'Dil Bole Hadippa', luckily the story was so predictable that we could understand what was going on despite not knowing a word of Hindi.

After a year a half of travelling we arrived back in London slightly shellshocked and were met at the airport by Perry who took us back to his place.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kathman-don't

Because our diet for the last few weeks had consisted mainly of supernoodles, we spent our first few days in Kathmandu doing nothing but eating at all of the different restaurants around town. However, we soon realised that the good food was about the only thing we did like about Kathmandu. The narrow streets are riddled with potholes filled with muddy water from the constant rain, and are completely jammed with rickshaws, scooters, and the odd out-of-place looking 4WD, all spewing out noxious fumes and constantly honking their unnecessarily-loud horns. There are no pavements so pedestrians run the constant risk of being mown down by one of them. On top of this we were constantly hassled by a seemingly endless succession of rickshaw drivers, tiger balm salesmen, freelance trekking guides looking for someone stupid enough to go trekking in the monsoon, and really annoying guys who come up and play their silly little violins in your face.

We had to wait around for a week for our Indian visas to be processed so we decided to escape Kathmandu and go to the Royal Chitwan National park for a few days. This turned out to be a very good plan. We saw twin baby elephants at the Elephant Breeding Centre, and went on an elephant ride into the park where we saw deer, a peacock, a python, and two endangered one-horned rhinos. However, our favourite bit was when our elephant-driver accidentally dropped his umbrella on the floor and the elephant picked it up with her trunk and passed it back up to him. We also helped to give the elephants a bath in the river although actually they ended up giving us a (much needed) bath instead.

After having to endure a couple more days in Kathmandu because our Indian visas took longer than expected, we finally headed to the Indian border, stopping on the way at Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The bus company in Kathmandu had 'forgotten' to tell us that our bus actually terminated in a town about an hour from Lumbini and we would have to get a local bus the rest of the way, but we didn't mind because people are allowed to sit on the roof of local buses and we sat up there chatting with a couple of local college students – in Nepal, the cool kids sit on the top of the bus! Lumbini has become an international Buddhist centre and there are temples built by different Buddhist countries throughout the world, with the Nepali temple marking the exact spot where the Buddha was said to have been born.

Free Tibet

Getting into Tibet was quite a mission. After getting Chinese visas and getting into China we then had to apply for Tibet Travel Permits to enter the region. Even then, getting the train tickets to Lhasa was difficult and we had to spend the first half of the journey (20 hours) trying to sleep in the packed-out hard-seat section because these were the only tickets we could get. After an unscheduled six hour wait in Lanzhou – whose only claim to fame is that it is the most polluted city in China - we finally made it to Xining, the halfway point on our journey, where we met up with Vali and Alex, two Austrian guys with whom we had arranged to travel to Tibet. The second part of the journey was much easier as the four of us had managed to get a sleeper compartment, which we shared with a Chinese couple who invited us to share their bottle of snake-penis wine - very good for male virility, apparently. The railway is the highest in the world and climbs to over 5000 metres above sea level, passing through beautiful mountain scenery. The train was fitted with oxygen masks in case any passengers suffered from altitude sickness – it was lucky that none of us had any problems as none of us could understand the Chinese instructions.

In Lhasa, we visited lots of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and the Potala palace, the home of the Dalai Lama before he fled to India. Inside there are golden statues of Buddha and other gods such as scary protector deities with three heads or chains of skulls around their necks, tombs of past lamas, and photographs of current lamas – the notable exception being the current Dalai Lama, whose image has been banned by the Chinese government. Most monasteries have some signs of the damage inflicted by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, and according to our guide many tombs and statues have since been rebuilt.

Pilgrims come to Lhasa from all over Tibet and always walk around the monasteries and temples in clockwise circles, spinning prayer wheels as they go. The monasteries are dark and windowless places, lit only by yak-butter candles which are kept alight by pilgrims who add spoonfuls of yak-butter from plastic bags that they carry with them on their pilgrimage; these make the monasteries smell of yak, and the floors slippery from butter spillages.

The one thing we don't miss about Tibet was the food. The Tibetan diet mostly consists of tsampa, a stodgy, tasteless mixture of barley flour with water or yak-butter tea. Yak-butter tea tastes salty, oily and yakky, and we could barely finish a cup of the stuff. But probably the worst crime against food we have ever tasted were yak-cheese sweets – dried yak cheese coated with sugar, which somehow manage to taste worse than they sound. We mostly survived off instant noodles, as every hotel gives free hot water to guests and they tasted better than most of the food we ate in restaurants.

After leaving Lhasa we travelled overland through Tibet to the Nepali border, stopping at lakes, monasteries and mountain passes decorated with prayer flags on the way. We passed herds of yaks, and nomad tents with 'cute' little children running out towards us with open palms, shouting the only English words they know - 'hello, money'.

Everest Base Camp was the highest point of our journey, at 5,200 metres above sea level. We spent a night in a yak-skin tent, which was surprisingly warm despite the freezing weather outside, and the following morning we walked to base camp itself for an amazing view of Mount Everest, or Qomolangma as it is called in Tibetan.

The next day we drove down the very steep road to the Nepali border. The road took us down from the cold, dry Tibetan plateau to the tropical Nepali climate in the middle of the monsoon. There were beautiful views of the valley (when the mist cleared) and we drove under waterfalls which were cascading down directly onto the road. Because the end of the road was closed due to roadworks, we walked the last few kilometres in to town, wading through ankle deep water where a waterfall had taken over the road.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

China

Our first view of China was of Guangzhao airport, and after three months looking at nothing but paddy fields we ended up stumbling about like zombies from Dawn of the Dead looking in posh electronics shops and hideous golfwear stores. Graeme's favourite shop was the chain of Bruce Lee themed fast food restaurants.

One of the best things about China was the food. At home, neither of us are very big fans of Chinese restaurants, so we were both surprised at the amazing food that we were served at even the tiniest local restaurants where we couldn't understand a word of the menu and had to rely on the staff to choose our food. The best, and also the spiciest, food was in Sichuan province, especially the all you can eat hotpot restaurants, where you pick food from a buffet then cook it in a pot with oil, water, chilli and spices at your own table.

We arrived in China just in time to see the total solar eclipse on 22nd July, which was the longest eclipse of the 21st Century. The day was quite cloudy, but despite this we could see the sun through the clouds as the eclipse progressed, and the clouds shifted giving us a clear view of the 'diamond ring' just before totality. After the eclipse, we went down to the banks of the Qiantang River in time to see the tidal bore, a giant wave that rushes up the river mouth when the tide comes in.


We were pretty underwhelmed by Shanghai; the famous 'Bund' has been turned into a building site as they prepare for the 'Expo 2010'. The most exciting part for us was travelling to the airport on the superfast Maglev train at 300kph and watching the cars on the parallel motorway appear to drive backwards, although we were a bit pissed off that we missed out on taking the 420kph train by 10 minutes.

video

For Graeme's birthday we were in Chengdu and we went on a daytrip to the Panda Research Centre where we saw cute baby pandas including a nine day old one in an incubator. In the evening we went to the Sichuan Opera and saw traditional performances of fire-breathing and mask-changing.
Our last stop before leaving for Tibet was Leshan, where we fought through the throngs of Chinese tourists to see the world's largest sitting Buddha statue.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

We wuz in 'Nam....

Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, Vietnam was a bit of a let down. The locals were not as friendly as everywhere else, and we always had to be on our guard against scams and rip-offs.

We arrived in Hanoi at 4am, after being on buses for almost 24 hours (due to nightmare bus delays), perhaps not the best time to arrive in any city. All of the hostels were closed but luckily we found a reggae bar that was still open and sat in there drinking until the hostels opened at around 6am.

Hanoi is dirty, noisy and overcrowded. Everyone seems to get around on scooters and crossing a road involves stepping out and walking slowly across letting the scooters (hopefully) avoid you. We couldn't leave our hostel without nearly being run over, or being hassled by an endless stream of people trying to sell us photocopied books or stale cakes, or trying to get us into their 'cyclo' (rickshaw). We did see some cool things though, such as Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body, some old B52 planes you could climb on, and we met up again with our friends from Laos, John and Gem, for a few Bia Hoi's – no place is that bad when it has 10p beers!

We had a week to kill before our flight to China so we decided to go on a three-day boat trip to Halong Bay for Debbie's birthday. Halong bay was really pretty with hundreds of limestone pillars rising out of the sea. We spent one night on a boat and another on an island in the bay. This was much more relaxing than Hanoi, but we were still happy to be leaving Vietnam when we got on our plane to China.

Toobin

Just north of the Lao border the Mekong river contains thousands of tiny islands with no electricity or running water, and apart from tourism no industries except (rice) farming and fishing. We stayed for a few days on one of the larger islands, Don Deth, doing very little except cycling around the paddy fields, avoiding the water buffalo which had wandered onto the paths, and lazing around in hammocks for a few days.

After finally dragging ourselves out of our hammocks we left the island and continued north to see some caves at Ban Kong Lor. A songthaew (pick-up truck with two benches in the back for seats) dropped us off at the cave entrance and from there we got into a small wooden boat which took us along the river that runs through the caves for 5km and out the other side. Afterwards, we spent the night at a homestay in the village and provided free entertainment for the local children.

After so much time in the countryside, Vientiane, the capital 'city' of Laos (population 500,000) seemed like quite a metropolis. We got very excited about cheese baguettes and french wine for a couple of days, although we are converted to drinking Lao-style coffee (served strong and sweet with a shot of condensed millk) and of course Beerlao. While we were in Vientiane we made a pilgrimage to the Beerlao factory, where we were rewarded with a tour of the factory, free beers, and a calendar featuring lots of lovely Lao ladies.

We weren't so keen on our next stop, Vang Vieng, which seemed like the Lao equivalent of Ibiza. Everyone comes here to go 'tubing' – floating down the river on inner tubes, stopping at lots of bars on the way, where the staff throw ropes which you use to haul yourself in whenever you want a drink. When they aren't tubing, everyone sits in bars drinking 'happy shakes' and watching Friends DVDs on repeat all day.

After escaping Vang Vieng we went to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos with lots of beautiful old Wats (buddhist temples) to explore and a much more peaceful atmosphere. Naturally we shattered this along with our new friends John and Gem by going out drinking past the curfew and having to wake up the (heavily pregnant) hostel owner to get back in. The four of us also went on a daytrip out of town to visit a waterfall and a local bear sanctuary. This turned into a bit of an adventure when just a few miles out of town we found a tree had fallen, completely blocking the road. We resigned ourselves to having to turn back but instead the enterprising tuk tuk drivers encouraged their passengers to squeeze through a gap under the tree and swap into tuk tuks stuck on the other side. This way everyone got to continue their journeys without having to wait hours for the road to be cleared.

Our final stop before crossing into Vietnam was Phonsavanh, also known as the Plain of Jars. The jars were left behind by an unknown ancient civilization; the latest theory is that they were used as funeral urns, but we much prefer the local superstition that they were used to distill massive amounts of lao-lao, the local alcoholic drink. This part of Laos is the most heavily bombed region of Laos, and Laos is the most heavily bombed nation on earth, perhaps the most surprising thing is that the bombing (by the USA) took place while they were not officially at war. There are lots of unexploded cluster bombs still lying around and there are warnings at all of the jar sites not to step away from the marked paths. Other local 'points of interest' include bomb craters and a cave where hundreds of people sheltered from the bombing raids. People here use bomb shells as ornaments, plant pots and foundation posts for their houses.


Holiday in Cambodia

We crossed the Cambodian border with only the usual amount of hassle and a small bribe, then headed onto Siem Reap, the nearest town to the ruins at Angkor Wat. Our first view of Angkor Wat was at sunrise the next day – it was pretty cool, but we're not sure whether it was worth getting up at 4am for. We preferred Ta Prohm, a nearby temple which has been left an unrestored state, with old trees growing up around the brickwork. However, our favourite thing we saw was a snake vs gecko fight under an archway at one of the temples.

video

After a couple days we were all templed-out so we left for the capital, Phnom Penh. for a few days. Phnom Penh is an ugly and fairly uninteresting town, but we were stuck there for the weekend as we had to wait for our Lao visas to be processed. Luckily Phnom Penh is home to the cheapest G&T's in Southeast Asia so we didn't have too much trouble passing the time.

We also took time to visit Choueng Ek, aka the killing fields, an area just outside of town where the Khmer Rouge murdered thousands of their victims in the 1970's. Bits of bone and torn cloth still stick out of the ground near to the paths. The site is now marked by a memorial tower filled with skulls dug up from the mass graves.

After getting out of Phnom Penh we spent a few days in a town called Ban Lung, near the Lao border, where we stayed in a dirt-cheap room in a beautiful old colonial house next to a lake. Unfortunately the place must have been just as attractive to the local mouse and ant populations, as armies of both seemed to have set up camp in our room. We went on a daytrip around the local area on the backs of two scooters ridden by our tour guides, and were driven to some local waterfalls and Buddha statues. We also went on an elephant ride through a rubber plantation. After a few days chilling out with the mice and ants, we headed north to the Lao border.