Mon, 30 Jun 2003 10:25:51 +1000 (EST)
au revoir for some, hola for others
just a quick note to everyone on my email list that I am heading overseas again for the 3rd time in 5 years, leaving next Saturday morning July 5th - this time for around 18 months, comprised of 6 months in Thailand/India/Nepal, and a year-long working holiday visa in Ireland starting January 2004. So for all my aussie mates - I’ll see you in a bit, and to my pals in u.k. and Europe - be prepared and I’ll see you very shortly indeed!!
I’ll no doubt be sending out weekly diaries to all so you can keep up with my travels - if you don't want to be on this email update just reply and let me know at the above email address (I’ve had comments in the past that they're a tad too long for some folk - mainly coz I get excited and ramble on a bit).
Anyway, I’ll be in touch.
Sun, 6 Jul 2003 12:59:11 +1000 (EST)
safely arrived in Bangkok
Man what an endurance test my first day has been!! I decided not to stay in Brunei for 2 days after all - was talking to a fella on the plane from Brisbane and he said there was sweet bugger all to do there.
So I changed my flight to the same evening - there was something like 60 seats spare on the flight.
well, after waking up at 4am, and being at the airport by 5ish, killing time in my half-awake state, and finally boarding the plane (sorry the goodbye was sooooo brief kim/krist/laura) everything was pretty smooth sailing thru to Brisbane (2 hour layover) onto Brunei (7hours flight, 4 hour layover) and Bangkok (3 hour flight).
Arrived Bangkok 9.30pm local time (12.30am melb time) absolutely drained. while waiting for a taxi to khao san road (Bangkok’s backpacking mecca) I met a French guy and a singapore/swedish chick and shared the cab, and have ended up rooming with the girl last night....get this, twin room with ensuite and air-con, and a free breakfast for less than A$10 each!!!!
Wanting to soak up some of the khao san atmosphere we went out for a couple of drinks....which turned into a 2am bedtime (5am melb time - on the go for 25 hours straight!!)
This morning I’m heading to a local market to check out the way the locals do things.
Will write again soon.
having fun, love, tony
Sun, 13 Jul 2003 21:32:56 +1000 (EST)
Bangkok - ko pha ngan
am in ko pha ngan southern Thailand just now, arrived yesterday and full moon party will be on 15th...cant wait!!
As you all know I left Melbourne on July 5th bound for Bangkok via 2 days in Brunei. In the end I decided to skip the Brunei stop and head straight there.....which meant a bloody long first day's travel! After my 6.05am flight to Brisbane (2hours) and 2hour wait for the Royal Brunei flight, it was 7 hours to Bandar Seri Begawan (capital of Brunei, BSB for short). That was followed by a 4 hour wait for the Bangkok flight (fortunately I was able to change my flight - "yes sir we have available seats"..."how many?"...."about 60 or 70" - needless to say the plane was pretty empty.
upon arrival at Bangkok, I met a French bloke and a Swedish Singapore gal, shared a cab to Khao San Road, and ended up rooming with Jessica in a hostel behind the Buddhist temple - twin room, hot shower, air-con and a free breakfast for 250 Baht each (that’s 10 Aussie dollars and is actually a bit of a splash out!!) went out drinking and checked out "the scene" on Khao San (man its built up incredibly in 4 years -they have, unfortunately, even got a Burger King and McDonalds in there now), finally getting in at 2am Thai time (5am Melbourne time - a 25 hour day since I woke up).
Next day, my first full day in Thailand, disaster struck. I need to make a travel insurance claim already!!! We were talking about music tastes etc, and so I went to grab my CD walkman and cdees out of my bag.....missing!! brand new cd walkman and 32 cdees gone.....After searching high and low in the hostel I tried to re-trace my steps, and came to the conclusion that it went missing on the plane - I had either mislaid it myself or someone made off with while I had a nap. Fortunately, everyone has been very helpful, the Thai Tourist Police who reported it to, the Royal Brunei customer service people and my travel agent back home, and so I can make my claim relatively easily. It did mean that I had to spend about 4 days in Bangkok tho, when in only wanted to spend 2.
Not all bad tho!! With shopping soooo cheap on Khao San Road, I was able to replace my CD walkman the following day - it only cost me 1500Baht (A$60) after talking the guy down from his starting price of 2800Baht (A$115) And my cdees - I also replaced most of them and bought a couple of extras for 100Baht (A$4) each.
Finally managed to escape BKK, and headed west to Kanchanaburi (Bridge over River Kwai) for a couple of days. Me and Cedric (the French guy) along with about 6 others mini-bussed it there and variously rented mountain bikes and mopeds for cruise about the area, visiting museums, war memorials and the like related to the Thai-Burma Death Railway from World War 2. Also went out on a daytrip 80km away to the gorgeous Erawan Waterfalls for a nice 3km mini hike and swim in the pools there ...lovely!
From k'buri it was time to make the big journey down south to ko pha ngan, a tidy 22 hours of non-stop travel. first the 2hour mini-bus drive back to BKK, a 2 hour wait there, and then a 11 hour overnight bus to Surat Thani (2 1/2 hours of that just getting out of BKK as its the Buddha's birthday and traffic is horrendous - worst I’ve ever seen). Another 2 hour wait, then a 4 hour ferry to Ko pha ngan. And I still don’t have accommodation yet!! A further 20 minute long-tail boat ride with an English bloke Jamie, and I’m back to Haad Tien Beach and 'The Sanctuary" where I stayed last time for 10 days, in a dorm room for 60Baht a night (A$2.20).
All that’s left now is to chill until the 15th for the Full Moon Party on the beach, and then party on.
Thu, 17 Jul 2003 16:13:00 +1000 (EST)
full moon party
Well it took me until I arrived in ko pha ngan - a week after I left Melbourne, but now I really feel like I’m on holiday! There is a small bar on my beach, just up a hill and slightly into the jungle called "Guy's Place", and Sunday night after eating an awesome communal feast of spring rolls, coconut soup, pumpkin curry and rice (A$6 - all you can eat) at Sanctuary, a bunch of us walked up the hill and heard the sounds of Manu Chao. A few beers in and the bar tender supplied a pipe and an eighth compliments of the house. One of the Americans had an acoustic guitar and started playing a selection of classics. It was at this point when I thought 'yep, this is good'.
Fast forward 2 days..... I'd been hanging with this 18 year old English guy Jamie since Kanchanaburi, and on the morning of the Full Mon Party around 10am we decided to get the longtail boat across to Haad Rin, do some shopping, get some lunch and few beers in, catch a free flick (Terminator 3) in one of the cafe's, and sit on the beach until sunset. Jamie also had some gear, bought in K'Buri, so we kinda started the FMP experience really early.
We then went back to Haad Tien for dinner and get changed, but just before that I enquired at one of the local "pharmacy's" for some diet pills (essentially pure speed) - 2 caps at 70Baht (A$2.50) each. Also got a medium Sang Som Thai whisky, coke and red bull bucket for the hell of it for 150Baht (A$6).
It was 11pm before we got the boat back to the FMP, and it was just starting gear up, and was PACKED. Haad Rin is about 500metres long with a really really shallow beach - when the tide is in you can walk out about 50-60 metres without the water getting higher than your calf. And there were, at a guess, about 5-6000 people warming up to go nuts when it peaked at around 3ish. There has to be around a dozen clubs facing onto the beach, all playing different sounds and having their own elaborate set up of fluoro lights, banners and other decorations - it makes for an amazing sight when coming in by boat - lit up like a Christmas tree.
I had drunk about 1/2 my whisky while waiting for the boat, and dropped diet pill #1 as soon as we got there. Jamie was just on the beers and pot, while I was just 'ON'. Jamie and I walked the length of the beach, skipping off in between bungalows to have a sneaky joint (too many Thai Police on the beach these days), then picking out the various good spots - "tommy's", "the vinyl club" paradise bungalows" "cactus club", and just as we were about to walk back I turned around to talk to him, and he was gone - vanished. He was getting quite pissed at this stage, and must have lost me - I was like "oh fuck, I’ll never find him now". Oh well, drop the other diet pill!! Headed back to "tommy's" to sit for a bit, and got talking to 2 lads from Jersey Islands - they were like "just hang with us - do you want to share a joint?” Now tell me, is the Pope Catholic?
So we sneak off to another bungalow hideaway, and 1/2 way thru the J, one of them starts throwing up - bad reaction the E he was on. Apparently they had 3 between them, and had taken one each, but this guy didn't want his final 1/2......"Tony, do you want 1/2 an E?" I said No to begin with, being quite buzzy on the diet pills, whisky and beer. A couple of hours later on, after some hardcore dance action, joint smoking and people watching (some crazy costumes, people painted up in fluoro bodypaint, fit-as girls in bikini's) I went off the find a toilet, and on the way to my mates I saw Jamie staggering all over the place! Just randomly in the crowd - I was amazed! Reunited, I took him back to meet the Jersey guys. By this time it was around 4am-ish, and the question of the final E popped up again, this time I said OK, just the perfect pick me up, 1/2 an E to peak just as the sun rises over Haad Rin......luuuurrrvelly!!! I asked the guy how much, he says "just buy us a beer each" Can’t complain too much about that.
It was a perfect night, the brightest full moon I’d seen in ages, no clouds, just a sky full of stars....then as the sun rose there was a smattering of fluffy white cloud for the sun to rise thru reflect its rays off - pinks and purples, oranges and yellows ...mmmmmmmm. There were still about 1500-2000 kicking it hard too at this stage, 5am-ish.i was feeling pretty darn good too at this point, still dancing on strong, and so around 8am wandered up to Backyard Pub up the hill where the traditional after was. By this stage, Jamie had gone home just as sunrise came, and the Jersey boys not long after. However, I had got chatting to 2 Swedish gals, and kept them company. Backyard was yet to start - 9am was the kick-off time. The Swedes couldn't be bothered hanging about, and I was beginning to fade as well, so back down to Haad Rin it was for the longtail-boat back to Sanctuary by 9am.
Four hours sleep was all I could manage, and then just sat in a hammock at Sanctuary Restaurant drinking fresh fruit shakes all day.
So, it was fair effort, from 10am beering on through the day, joints, whisky, diet pills, and 1/2 an E ...and better than the last one I was at in March 1999.
Hope you're all having as good a time as I,
peace love and happy faces
Tue, 22 Jul 2003 16:09:30 +1000 (EST)
post full moon mania
well I’m now on Ko Tao, just 2hours ferry north of Ko Pha Ngan after spending quite a great deal of time doing a great deal of nothing a week or so post-party.
Some interesting gossip that spread like wildfire thru the backpacker scene.....the afternoon after the party at about 3.30pm there was a police drug raid at a club called Backyard. this place is situated up in the hills overlooking much of Haad Rin, a decent 20 minute walk up a dirt track to find this huge wooden shack with a couple of bars, verandahs looking out on the beach and some pretty hard pumping tunes. So anyway, apparently there were a couple of hundred people up there when Thai Police stormed the place, guns and all, had the music stopped, and were arresting locals and westerners for possession and supplying. There were some undercover cops watching deal going on and so knew who they were looking for. One Dutch guy had about 20 E's on him.....he's a goner. The DJ at the time of the raid was an English bloke who had already taken his share of pills, but didn't have a work permit, so when the police told him to pack up, he did......then legged it like mad. I met this guy about 3 days later on the beach and he was still shitting himself about getting caught.
Luckily for me, I didn't go (I didn't have anything on me anyway, but it’s not a nice scene to be caught up in) as I was too knackered (getting old!!!)
So I've just been sitting on the beach at Haad Yuan, chilling on hammocks on the beach with friends drinking beers, fruit shakes, eating great food, playing beach volleyball and frisbee. Usually I’ll have maybe one errand to run for the day and more than likely still not get it done.
I did manage to get to Haad Rin to book my ferry and scuba dive course on Ko Tao tho, with a company called Asia Divers on Sai Ree Beach (for those of you who've been to this part of the world) - only 6800Baht (A$260) for 4 days instruction with full PADI qualification, 4 free nights accommodation and refund on the ferry ticket across......not bad!
Anyway, gotta get back for the 2nd 1/2 of day 1 of my course.
peace love and happy faces
Fri, 25 Jul 2003 19:53:33 +1000 (EST)
scuba diving on ko tao
Just finished my Scuba Diving course today...I am now a certified PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water Diver which means I can dive anywhere I want to, anywhere in the world just by showing my PADI license!!
Scuba diving is a blast I tell you...I’ve not had soo much fun in such a long time. It was something I always wanted to do, but it surpassed all expectations. I had some trouble 'equalising' as I got deeper (you have to pinch your nose and breathe out so that the air spaces inside your head/body match the pressure in the water - otherwise you get severe ear pains, and possibly more serious internal injuries) but once I got that sorted I was okay. We dove to 18 metres, and the coral and the tropical fish are amazing. barracuda, angel fish, butterfly fish, moray eels, groupers.....the list goes on
I am considering doing the 'Advanced Open Water' Course - a further 2days, where you can go to 30 metres and do night diving as well!!.....also a chance to dive with whale sharks (harmless) The Open Water course only cost 6800Baht ($A250ish) with 4nights accommodation included in the price, and the advanced course costs another 5500 (A$200ish).
I might wait a couple of days tho, give my ears a chance to sort themselves out, but it'll be well worth it no doubt. Also, it'll give me a chance to see some more of the island.
Will write again soon.
Tue, 29 Jul 2003 21:37:56 +1000 (EST)
Scuba diving is sooooo much fun!!
Still in ko tao, finished my dive course last Friday, developed a slight ear infection and so had to stay out of the water for a little while. The weather hasn't been brilliant in recent days - fairly overcast and windy, with choppy waters which affected where we could dive. Had the occasional heavy thunderstorm as well. Went snorkelling on Sunday when the sun finally came out, and got pretty pinkly sunburnt which was sore for a day or two. got some ear drops from a medical clinic here, and its all clear now, so went for a two 'fun dives' today to 12 metres and saw two bright blue stingrays, a mummy and baby moray eel, and a 2 metre long turtle, along with loads of other smaller fish and heaps of brightly coloured coral.
tomorrow I am going to start the Advanced Open Water dive course - 2 days and 5 dives, including one to 30 metres, a navigation course dive, a multi-level dive, photography dive (that's gonna be fun fun fun) and a night dive!! Ko Tao is reputedly the best, and also cheapest, dive site in Thailand, if not all of south east asia, so I’m taking advantage of it while I can. I’m also getting a discount on the Advanced course, plus free accommodation because I’m staying with the same dive company.
Haven’t done much else, especially since I got sunburnt on Sunday, mainly just sitting in beach-fronted cafes drinking fruit shakes and making serious headway into my "Lord Of The Rings" book which kinda got forgotten about the past 2 weeks or so.
Anyway, will write more when there's something more interesting to write about other than me drinking fruit shakes and reading......this is the life tho, I’m sooo relaxed.
Fri, 8 Aug 2003 21:13:23 +1000 (EST)
ko tao - Singapore
Have made it down to Singapore, and fly onto kolkata, India, tomorrow at noon.
Its been a mixture of intense travelling and intense relaxation over the past week or so. Last time I wrote I was on ko tao, and my final day there included possibly the best sunset I’ve seen in quite some time. The weather had been up and down while there and usually cloudy around dusk so I’d been robbed off the classic tropical island sunset, but I was not to be denied on my final night.
I had nothing but time on my hands that last day with my ferry to the mainland being an overnight sleeper at 9pm, and so after a pleasant stroll through some jungle trails to a quiet beach away from all the dive shop mania, to sip on watermelon shakes just watching the waves roll in all day, I then returned to the port, planted myself at a beachside pub fronting the jetty with a beer or 3 and soaked up that classic sunset I’d been missing.
then began the intensity of travelling. Well, not that it’s intense, just that its sooooooo loooong. 9 hours overnight sleeping on a mattress on the ferry, 2 hours waiting at a bus station cafe at Surat Thani for a 4hour minibus ride to Hat Yai, followed by another 1hour wait there. Another 4hour minibus ride to the border, do the immigration passport stampy business, wait another 1/2 hour for a 90minute local bus to Khota Bharu in Malaysia. overnight there, asleep at 10pm, up at 8am, share a 1hour taxi ride with 3 others to the ferry port to the Perhentian Islands, wait 90minutes there coz the ferry is late, spend another 2 1/2 hours on the ferry before finally arriving at around 1pm. phew!!
spent 3 days on Perhentian Kecil (small) Island and squeezed in 5 dives, including 2 shipwrecks - one a 50metre long cargo ship which hit a sandbar and sank while transporting sugar (Sugar Wreck) (they saved all the sugar by the way - no lives lost), and an 18metre WW2 retired Malaysian warship which was being used to transport Vietnamese refugees in the 70's, and sunk in 1976 (once again no lives lost, but somehow all the refugees disappeared)
Perhentian Islands are beautiful. Tiny in comparison to Ko Tao both in size and dive action. Ko Tao had over 40 dive shops, Perhentian's only 10 on both islands combined. This made for a much more relaxed atmosphere (if I thought I was relaxed on Ko Tao, well I didn't know the meaning of the word) to dive in. No big converted fishing boats with 20 or more divers on board, just a tiny little dinghy with an outboard motor carrying max 7 people including the dive master. It was soooo nice.
But then it was time to leave coz I have a plane to catch. Which meant more insane travelling. But one more dive before I go!! So I did a 7.30am early morning dive, jumped on the 12noon slow boat to the mainland. 2 and 1/2 hours spent on that, plus that hour long taxi ride later, and I’m back at Khota Bharu around 3.30-4ish. I could if I wanted to, jump on a 7pm overnight 14hour express train direct to Singapore, but I decide that I’m tired enough and want to spend another night in KB. Besides the English couple I’ve met are getting the slow "jungle train" to a national park in central Malaysia the following day, which goes about 2/3rds of the way to Singapore, where I have to change trains to an express..........
I should have got the overnighter express.....
We got up at 5am!!! to get this jungle train, which to our dismay had had a timetable change just last week - it wasn't leaving at 5.45am anymore, but a 6.50am....we could have had another hours sleep!! Finally it left, dropping my friends off at their stop around 4.30pm - I still had another 4 1/2 hours to Gemas where I changed trains. Arrived there sometime after 9pm, and upon enquiring when the express was coming through, I was told 1.45am!!!
So 4 hours or more in the dead of night waiting for my next train...needless to say Lord of The Rings got a good workout again, and the coffee shop on the platform was kept busy. In the end I got to Singapore at 8am-ish, 27 hours after I got up.
It’s all good tho, I’ll be in India when I next write.
Cheers, keep in touch.
Thu, 14 Aug 2003 14:54:13 +1000 (EST)
stuck in Singapore - part 1
well, I did anticipate emailing you next from India, but no such luck. I am stuck in Singapore until at least next Monday through a series of events that began with a stuff-up by myself.
All was going well with this trip (aside from the insurance claim), smooth as clockwork and as I had planned for at least the last 6 months. then on Saturday I was at the airport and about to check in my baggage when the airline chick flicks through my passport and asks "excuse me sir, do you have a visa for India?" "Um, no, I was under the impression I would be issued one on arrival" "I'm sorry sir, you need to purchase a visa in advance before entering the country, I’m afraid I cannot let you board this flight".
See, my travel agent had never mentioned the visa issue to me as she thought I had organised it though Intrepid Travel when I was originally doing the China-Tibet-Nepal-India group trek (which got cancelled because of SARS), and I had never questioned her coz she was sooooo great organising everything else. So, I then had to go back to a hostel, wait until Monday and visit the Indian embassy and get it processed here. A hassle, but not too bad, I thought, reckoning I could get it in 2-3 working days, or same day if I paid a fee for an express service. But no, it gets worse - it takes 5 working days (for some ungodly reason) with no express service available (no matter how much I pleaded and begged). the 5th working day would be Friday, but this Friday is a public holiday in Singapore, so I now have to wait until next Monday to get my visa. Adding to the misery, Royal Brunei only fly twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday's to Kolkata from Sing, so it'll be Wednesday before I fly!!
A whole week to spend in Singapore (making a total of 12 days) - a city where you can pretty much cover everything in 4-5 days, and where I done all of that in the week I had here over the New Year 1998-1999,...groannn!!!!
Okay, so that's the whinge and whine over with....my time thus far hasn't been as bad as it could have been. I checked into a different hostel after leaving the airport (the first one was shitty AA+). Slept for a few hours, slightly depressed, then decided to go for a walkabout town. Headed to Raffles Hotel, the most exclusive hotel in Singapore, for a bit of a look.
It is a tradition while visiting the city to pop in to Raffles' 'Long Bar', the Public Bar, and sup on a Singapore Sling cocktail and soak up the ambience. This drink was concocted by a barman here at the turn of the 20th Century and contains about 5 shots of liquor (Gin, Benedictine, Cherry Brandy, Cointreau, and Grenadine), pineapple juice, lime juice, Angostura Bitters, garnished with a wedge of pineapple and a cherry. Very sweet, and a tidy S$18.50 (A$16). Another tradition at this bar is the free peanuts on the table, of which you're supposed to throw the shells on the floor - it really adds to the ambience here - a snobby posh bar with a devil may care attitude!!
next morning I met a new bunch of travellers in my dorm, 3 gals named Kirsti, Susanne and Sara from Germany, England and NZ respectively. These girls have provided me with the most fun you could possible expect to have in a place like Singapore, making it bearable when it could have been horrendous. the 3 of them are mad-hatters, and with their sense of humour and sense of fun, we all clicked straight away. I joined them on a day-trip to Singapore Zoo where we ran a muck. Its quite a nice zoo, with entertaining shows featuring chimps/apes, and sea lions, altho we all did get a little upset going through the big cat enclosures, which were quite small for animals which usually have territories spanning hundreds of kilometres. you could just tell they were bored and depressed, just pacing up and down or sleeping. one highlight tho was a free live sex show from the baboon enclosure!! the female just bent over, stuck her backside in the air, and the male stood up and gave it to her doggy style!!! the look on his face when he finished was unforgettable!!! ha ha ha!!
later on that night the girls had planned a visit to Raffles. the previous day they had gone into the Hotel looking like a rabble in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, and managed to blag their way in to the Residents Area, sit down and munch on peanuts for free - without buying a drink!! (in this part of the Hotel, it was like Red carpet, chandeliers, private pianist in the corner, waiters/bar tenders in tuxedos - definitely no shell-on-the-floor-throwing here). Anyway, this time they got dressed up to the nines, and I put on the best/cleanest clothes I had (my cargo pants and a collared shirt - but still with my sandals).
Once again, being so bold and brash as we were, we strolled in like we owned the place, right past the 'Residents Only' sign, and sat down at 'The Writers Bar' where the bar tender recognised the girls from the previous day - apparently leaving quite an impression!! - and ordered a round of Singapore Slings. This place was definitely in complete contrast to where I had my Sling the day before. By the end of the night we had endeared ourselves to Gary the bar-tender - he indulged our every request with aplomb, while we were most probably pushing our luck and over-stepping the bounds just by being there, it being residents only and all. to top it all off, just before closing time he asked if we wanted another round, to which we said no (the drinks were not cheap!!!). "oh no, don't worry, my shout"..... we couldn't believe it, we were being shouted drinks by a tuxedo clad bar tender in the poshest, most exclusive hotel in Singapore, all the while being serenaded by the top-class pianist on the baby grand piano in the corner!!! And then he didn't even charge us full price for the drinks we did order!! Score!!!
well, this email is quite long already, so I’ll end now, and continue my Singapore sortie on another email.
Thu, 14 Aug 2003 17:31:11 +1000 (EST)
Fwd: stuck in Singapore - part 2
I thought it would be easier for you guys if I split this tale into 2 parts, coz it is quite long, and I’ve got nothing but time and email here is relatively cheap (S$2 per hour) so I can afford to spend time here in the net cafe.
anyway, the following day after our zoo/Raffles exploits, we thought we'd head down to Sentosa Island (Si and Les will know all about this place!) It's basically an island theme park, incredibly commercial/touristy/cheesy/tacky, kind of a Disneyland feel to it, but if you take all this with a grain of salt, it's really quite fun, especially with the company I had with me.
To get there you had to get a cable car over the water between mainland Singapore and Sentosa, a 7 minute joy ride with awesome views of the city skyline. Kirsti the German girl left earlier that morning, so it was just the 3 of us cruising around the island on the monorail checking out the various attractions. there was also a few beaches the lie down at and swim around, altho the water wasn't exactly appealing, what with the shipping port just across the way, and the views of the container ships waiting to dock was less than romantic. if you lay back at stared straight at the palm trees you could almost imagine it being a tropical paradise...
the highlight of the day tho was at the very end just after sunset with a 45 minute high tech water fountain show, with the grace and beauty of the fountains interplayed with a laser light and digital imaged animation show - the 'wall' created by several fountains spraying up a fine mist providing the backdrop for the projected images. it was quite cool, with an MC up on stage in front of the fountain interacting with "Kiki" a cartoon monkey, telling a story about "Sentosa Wonderland". it was pretty impressive to say the least.
Following day, another day trip to another island, Pulau Ubin, which has quite a few old fishing villages and is kind of a throwback to Singapore in the 60's when it was still quite rural and hadn't become the hi-tech business centre it is today. Another swim in another dank, murky body of water, but this time once we'd got into the water, Susanne decided she wanted to complete one of her 'have to do while on holiday tasks' and skinny dip, so all 3 of us got un-kitted and swam about in the altogether. I was required to keep a distance and let the girls have some privacy to which I was happy to comply - I just like to feeling of freedom letting it all hang out, so to speak!! we were only in for 15 minutes or so, coz it wasn't the nicest water, and a bit of thunderstorm was brewing in the distance with thunder and lightning about, so we got out and headed back to the ferry port.
at the end of each of these days, we're absolutely knackered and so don't do much more than sit in the room and talk, meeting each of the new folk that arrive and bemusing the hell out of them with our antics and stories.
yesterday both Susanne and Sara left, Susanne in the morning, so Sara and I walked about the city some more, killing time, drinking beer by the marina, until she left mid evening. just a quiet day doing too much after our last 3 days of hectic activity.
which brings me to today, all alone again, trying to decide what to do until Wednesday next week when I’ve confirmed my flight to Kolkata will be. perhaps I will leave here and head to Sumatra for 5-6 days. I’ll let you know.
Wed, 20 Aug 2003 23:10:03 +1000 (EST)
India.....finally!!! - first impressions
I definitely DO NOT WANT to be a taxi driver in Kolkata in my next life!!!!!!!!
Am finally in Kolkata, after finally getting my Indian visa from the embassy in Singapore. I was going stir-crazy in Sing - it really is a 3-4 days maximum type of city. I ducked back into Malaysia for a bit after finally (a lot of finally's hey!!) deciding on what to do to kill time. first choice Sumatra, Indonesia was out coz there was no cheap flights across, and so booked a 4-hour bus ride to Mersing, the jumping off point to Tioman island, and chilled there for 3 nights. the most exciting thing I did was hire a mountain bike for 1/2 a day and cruised along the various beaches on the island (you'd love it Luke Grant and Si) - rode past a really nice golf course with ocean views, and got around to sewing cloth patches of countries I’d been to on my rucksack. It was exactly what I needed.
2 nights back in Sing, checking back into the same hostel room as before - different bed tho, and got munched alive by bed bugs (I was in your old bed Suzanne - definitely bed bugs!) and then this morning finally (another one!) boarded the 3 1/2 flight to Kolkata.
The first Indian I spoke to after leaving the airport was a taxi driver who tried to rip me off. I asked the price to Sudder Street (Kolkata's equivalent to Khao San Road), "On the meter, on the meter" So I go with him, jump in the cab, and don't see any meter, "On the meter, I charge you by the kilo-metre"..."Okay, so how much?" "506 Rupees ($A18)" The Lonely Planet guide book I have may be 2 years old, but it says 160 Rupees, so I know I’m getting ripped, and told him so, "So, how much you pay?"..."I'll pay 160 Rs"..."No, how 'bout 500"..."No"...."390"..."No". We had yet to leave the airport car-park, so I told him to take me back to the terminal, and got out to look for another cab driver. Meanwhile, it is 35 degrees of sweltering humid heat. The next cabbie was cool, Oso, his name was. He agreed on 200 Rs, still a little higher than the guidebook but not too bad, and as soon as he found out I was Australian, he was like, "Oh Australia, you have good cricket team, I like Steve Waugh" and proceeded to spend the next 40 minutes yabbering on about the World Cup last year..."Oh, but I don't like the Pakistanis...!!"
All the while he's yabbering on, he's supposed to be concentrating on the traffic, which was pure madness. I lost count of the times I watched the back of the cab/bus/motorbike/rickshaw/random pedestrian loom up in front of me in the front seat of the cab, and Oso would maybe slow down a bit, then at the extreme last minute, fully put on the brakes. More than a few times I was convinced we were still going to have a collision. But no, I survived unscathed, and actually thoroughly enjoyed it at the same time. The sights and the sounds of the roadside hustle and bustle of street stalls hawking knick knacks snacks, the stench and dirtiness and utter mad chaos of it all - and this is only the first day!!
We got to Sudder Street and I checked into the Salvation Army Guest House, in an 8-bed dorm for 60 Rs a night (A$2). After showering and cleaning up, and inspecting my bedbug wounds, within 15 minutes I had a hashish joint in my hand courtesy of the Spanish and English guys sharing my room. You can get 10grams for 450 Rs (A$15 !!!!!!) just from the rickshaw wallah's on the street.
It's now 6.30pm and I've just had dinner. On my first night in India, what do you reckon I had to eat......Chinese. There are loads of little hawker stalls on the footpath. This guy basically had a portable shack on wheels, with a wok, some spices and a gas tank, and was selling fried noodles with chicken and vege for 16 Rs (about 50cents Oz). Bargain. Fekkin delicious too. This country is definitely going to help control my bank balance.
Anyway, that was Day 1. Tomorrow I’m off for a bit of sight-seeing and sort out a visa for Nepal - hopefully that should run a little smoother.
Sat, 23 Aug 2003 16:10:33 +1000 (EST)
kolkata nutter - part 1
I have had an amazing couple of days in kolkata.
got up pretty early (8am) this morning to try and get some things done before the heat kicked in. it's not as hot and unbearable as I thought it would be, only around 35degrees and stiflingly humid as opposed to 42+ and stiflingly humid!! had breakfast at a little local cafe - people had told me that India had the best Mango lassi's on the planet, and now I can say its definitely true (nice apple pancakes too).
I really had no idea what to do today, one of those can't-make-a-decision-if-my-life-depended-on-it days, so I just decided to go for a long walk on the streets, take in the hustle and bustle and sights and sounds and smells! and see where I end up.
Kolkata has its very own, and need I say, very dilapidated tram network, on which trams run and slightly quicker than snails pace. its a sight to behold when you see one ambling along a street with about 50 taxis, buses, tri-rickshaws all trying to overtake it at the same time, on both sides of the street with on-coming traffic in the opposite direction. they no doubt make a contribution to the traffic jams and congestion, but they also add a certain charm as well. there has been a campaign to get rid of them, but there has also been a stronger, and so far successful, campaign to keep them, led by a bunch of Melbourne-based tram enthusiasts (I guess our equivalent of train-spotters). Anyway, I caught one of these down the road for about a kilometre or so, and the conductor couldn't speak enough English to ask me where I was going to, or to tell me how much the fare was so I rode for free.
I ended up at the Howrah Bridge - similar in size to Sydney Harbour Bridge, and considered to be somewhat of an engineering marvel when built in 1943, and is said to be the busiest bridge in the world - over 100,000 vehicles, and countless pedestrians, including me, cross it every day.
On the way back I spotted a bunch of 20 or so Indian teenagers playing cricket in a car park, and stopped to take a photo. They spied me and called me over. "Where you from?"..."Australia"..."AUSTRALIA!!!!!!!!, you play cricket!?!?!?!?!?, you know Steve Waugh?".....I ended up playing with these guys for about 4 hours! And it wasn't just a friendly hit either, they were playing as if it was the World Cup. When it was my turn to bowl, I took a wicket with my first ball, caught and bowled, and they all went ABOLUTELY NUTS!!!!!!! I then got smacked all over the park for the rest of the over, but they loved it. Then, when batting, I carted the first ball I faced for 4 runs straight over the bowler's head, then missed the next 3 balls. At this point, (this is how serious it all was...) my captain came up to me and says "Tony, you must score off every ball, even if only a single. if you don't score the run rate will fall, and we will LOSE!" I made about 10 runs or so, then got clean bowled, but I’d made my contribution. The guy who bowled me then acquired hero status for getting the Aussie out....it was sooooo funny to watch, and I loved every minute of it. Oh, my team won too!
After the match, I wanted another photo of the boys, and so now have a couple of classic 'team photo' shots with me in front holding the cricket bat. I was exhausted afterwards and walked back to the hostel, and after dinner, went straight to bed.
Kolkata nutter - part 2 next email,
Sat, 23 Aug 2003 16:17:24 +1000 (EST)
kolkata nutter - part 2
There is an enormous park in Kolkata, called "The Maidan", which has a few monuments from the time of the British Raj dotted about it. I thought I’d wander around and check these out, once again off to an early early start. Monsoon season hasn't quite fully passed through this part of the country yet, and so I got caught out and got thoroughly drenched by 3 short, sharp thunderstorms in the space of about 4 hours. It was okay tho, because within 15-20 minutes of the rain stopping, I was almost dry again!
Also situated close by The Maidan is Eden Gardens, Kolkata's home of cricket where they play international tests against Australia, England, West Indies etc. As a self-respecting sports fan, and perhaps being inspired by the game on Thursday, I traipsed across a couple of muddy fields, and negotiated crossing the myriad of Kolkata's streets of bumper to bumper traffic, roundabouts, and one rear-ender between two cabs (so I guess they do collide on occasion) to get to a suitable vantage point to take a couple of photos. The ground was closed so I couldn't get in unfortunately - that would have been cool.
Back at the hostel mid afternoon for a shower and clean up, and got talking to one of my roomies. Staying at the Salvation Army Guest House are a lot of volunteer workers for the Mother Theresa "Missionaries of Charity". There are several houses in Kolkata, to where volunteers who walk the streets take homeless Indian men, women and children to be fed, clothed, given medical treatment and generally looked after. Some volunteers have been working there for months on end, others just for a short time, and as there were some heading off to work for the afternoon shift, I thought I’d join them to see what it was like. The house I visited was very grimly named "Hospital for the Dying and Destitute".
It is cordoned off between men and women, and it was quite a shock to be honest, to see several rows of men of all ages (but mostly elderly) lying on stretcher beds looking quite sickly, skin and bones, with really bad sores bandaged up, and some literally at deaths door. Many were also mentally not with it either. The volunteer duties are many and varied, including cleaning and bandaging wounds, medical application, cleaning the patients (if you get my drift), and to be quite honest I was glad to be assigned to the laundry first up, where about 10 of us hand-washed, rinsed, wrung-out and hung up to dry all the patients bedding and clothing. Then came feeding time, where plates of rice, chicken and bits of veg were doled out. Some patients were either so destitute or mentally screwed they couldn't feed themselves, and I had to spoon feed a tiny, skin and bones old man with no teeth like he was a baby, literally. He would open his mouth to indicate he was ready for another spoonful, chew with his gums and swallow - repeat. some patients were throwing tantrums, others were spitting food out on themselves - it was an eye-opener indeed. after the dishes were washed, dried and put away, we got treated to chai tea, biscuits and chapati's.
I’m glad I did the 1/2 days volunteering, and I was quite in awe of some of the staff there whose compassion and humanity towards the patients was unbelievable, but I don't think I could do it for an extended period - it was pretty draining in the end.
I'm leaving Kolkata this evening for Darjeeling, an old British Raj hill station town near the eastern border of Nepal. It's also where that famous and oh-so-yummy tea comes from!! A 13-hour 2nd class sleeper ticket cost 350 Rs (A$12) - soooooo cheap!!
Anyway, will write more from there.
Fri, 29 Aug 2003 21:56:50 +1000 (EST)
anyone one for a cuppa tea?......Darjeeling
have spent the last 3 days in Darjeeling, West Bengal state in north-east India. Its so nice to escape from the heat and hustle and bustle for a few days. Its quite a few degrees cooler up in the mountains, practically at the foot of the eastern end of the Himalayas.
Monday 25 August
It was quite a ride getting up here (here we go again...another hairy-scary journey tale from tony!!). It's a 13 hour overnighter by train to Siliguri - 2nd class sleeper, which means you share a cubicle with 5 others, 3 beds in a bunk either side of the cubicle, in my case sharing with 5 middle-aged Indians who couldn't speak English - and then a further 3 hours by 4WD jeep up the mountain road to Darj. Or normally 3 hours, but more like 4 1/2 if you have to stop 5 miles out of town to get the brakes checked, and then another stop when the jeep gets a puncture in the front wheel. Also, we had to take a detour up an alternative route up the mountain - the bad road - because the 'good' road suffered from a landslide and for a stretch of about 30-40 metres the cliff side of the road has sunk about 3 feet, leaving only just over a car width of room for traffic to negotiate both ways!!
Aside from that it was pretty uneventful by Indian standards - 4 fully grown men in the front seat, 3 men and a lady with a baby in the middle seats, and 4 more (me) sitting in the back, plus the baggage guy hanging on off the back...all up 14 people in a jeep designed for 9. Got to Darj, found my hostel and pretty much went straight to bed - at 6pm, knackered.
Tuesday 26 August
My hostel, The Shamrock hotel (no Irish links here at all, just a name) is a small family run place, really quite quaint, with the eldest boy having the best command of English sorting everything out. For breakfast I sat in their family room watching English football on TV while the mother fussed about organising my omelette, toast and cup of Darjeeling tea. It was here that I met my current travelling companions for the next 3 days, an English guy, a Japanese guy, a Swiss guy, and 3 Aussie chicks from Sydney. I haven't met too many other Aussie travellers on this journey, so it was nice to be able to crack and listen to Aussie-context jokes and fully understand them again.
Darjeeling is way way up in the hills, and when we ventured out it was fully engulfed in cloud/fog, and kind of eerie. It's a busy little town with streets etched into the side of the hill, and so many steps and alley ways and lanes going up and down leading between them, it was good training for my Himalayan expedition to come. Being so close to Nepal and Tibet, it has a lot of immigrants who have drifted to this town over the years, and so has more of a feel of those countries than the India I was expecting. The facial features of the people, the clothing, and the food all add to this feeling. We checked out the famous Happy Valley Tea Estate, home to finest Darjeeling tea, on our way down the hill, checking out the little ladies in traditional attire picking the leaves to be processed for export. The small Zoo was once again depressing for the size of the enclosures for the big cats, but I got to see some Snow Leopards which are quite rare - this zoo has actually been successful in breeding them to boost the numbers which is cool.
Later that night we went out for dinner at around 8.30pm....and the town was dead!! Nearly all of the restaurants/cafes/diners were shut or about to, and we were extremely lucky to get a table in the basement bar of one of the supposedly better restaurants in town. The food was ordinary there, and the service not much better. What was funny tho, was this Indian cover band that was playing in the corner.....it was all long-hair 70's-early 80's cheese-rock by the likes of Kiss, Led Zep, Van Halen and Deep Purple (Chris Harrison/matt jobson, you would have LOVED it!!!) I found it soooo funny seeing these guys pulling all the wah-wah ray-gun style guitar moves and putting in soooo much effort, I couldn't resist giving the ol' 'satanic sign-of-the-cow' hand-sign with my arm raised in the air in salute to them - I cacked myself laughing!
Wednesday 27 August
Up at 4am this morning. Why??????? With Darjeeling being at the foot of the Himalayas, you can apparently get a decent view of Kanchendzonga, the worlds 3rd highest mountain, with surrounding smaller peaks - provided you do get up before dawn and before the early morning cloud cover rolls in and sets for the day. You also have to be quite lucky too, coz it's not always perfect weather either. First thing we did was check the night-sky, and lo and behold it was a starry starry night - a good sign. The best place to view these mountains is from a place called Tiger Hill in the next town 8km away, and we were going to get a jeep down, except for a snap 3-day transport strike called in West Bengal. Doh! Next best option was to climb the hilly streets to a hostel at the top of Darj and ask the manager to climb up to his rooftop balcony. He obliged, and at around 6am-ish we had a picture perfect view of the amazing Himalayan range with the hills of Darj dotted with small villages in the foreground - so picture perfect in fact that I went a little nuts and took about 15 shots - I couldn't resist. By 8am the clouds had rolled in and the view was gone.
Later in the day, after a well-earned light breakfast (hardly anything was open) we trekked down another hill at the opposite end of town to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a co-operative establishment where Tibetan refugees can use the workshops to make various traditional wares, such as rugs and clothing and woodwork carvings, for sale to tourists. All profits are then ploughed back into the Centre in the form of fair-trade wages for the workers. Also set up here is an orphanage and school for children of the workers. It was pretty amazing to watch these people hand weave rugs that take 30 days to make, and sell for US$300ish. They're also so incredibly friendly and cheerful. The kids were great fun, and we spent a bit of time playing games with them and generally having a laugh.
I've been in India a week now, and to use my new favourite phrase - one I picked up from an English backpacker in Kolkata, "I'm still farting with confidence", i.e.: there's been no 'follow-through' as a result of dodgy Indian curries.
Will write again soon, cheers, Tony
Sun, 31 Aug 2003 01:31:15 +1000 (EST)
The Himalayas creep even closer...
My last email mentioned capturing my first glimpse of the magical Himalayan mountain range......now I’m even closer coz I’m in Kathmandu, Nepal!!
I've decided to leave India for the time being and come back to it once I’ve got my trekking outta the way...the lure of the mountains was just too great to resist.
Getting here was something of another epic travel trauma, this one probably the most tiring and enduring of any so far on this trip. I mean, I’ve 'complained' tongue-in-cheek about other arduous journeys, but this one just plain sucked. 25 hours of hell with just a couple of hours respite along the way.
Wednesday 27 August (I was a day ahead of myself last email)
As we had pretty much seen everything there was to see in Darjeeling we were talking about leaving town. After originally expecting to be 'stuck' in Darjeeling due to an all-encompassing snap 3-day transport strike called the previous day, the 5 of us (me, 3 Aussie chicks Cathy, Kirsten and Caroline, and a Japanese guy Atsushi) were lucky to find out that there were indeed jeeps going down the mountain, and we could be on one at 3pm. This was at 1pm. So we had 2 hours to walk back up the hill to our guest house, pack, check out, and wander back down the hill to the bus station. Unfortunately Johnny English was astray at this time and missed his opportunity to leave town.
After another 3 hour journey back down the hill, we had to overnight in the dank, rank and dirty Delhi Hotel in Siliguri, a shitty transit-town that you would only ever visit if you were on your to someplace else. This part of the journey was okay, the hell was to begin in the morning.
Thursday 28 August
Firstly, up and out at 7am, we had a 45 minute mini-bus ride to the border, where we duly completed our departure and arrival formalities, and I gleefully gained another stamp/visa for my expanding passport collection. After discovering that all of the thru-direct buses to Kathmandu had already departed for the morning, we elected to hop aboard a local bus to a halfway point town, Janakpur, where we would pick up an overnight bus to Kathmandu. Nepalese buses being designed for Nepalese people, there was a considerable lack of leg room available. Cathy and I being somewhat tallish were lucky enough to procure aisle seats, but that was small comfort. I was quite surprised (and relieved) to notice that this particular bus did not have sacks of rice/bales of hay/chicken cages sitting in the aisles - this has been a regular occurrence in most of the local buses I’ve been on in third world countries, however it was still quite full most of the way.
A tidy 7 hours later we arrived in Janakpur where we had a welcoming committee of a dozen or so rickshaw drivers and a couple dozen more locals, no doubt amazed to see a bunch of bedraggled whiteys hop off the bus. There was a wait of around 90 minutes for the Kathmandu bus here, 90 minutes too long I thought at the time (little was I to know what was going to follow). Janakpur is a dustbowl of a town, but is a site of religious significance for Hindu pilgrimages. It is the birthplace of Sita, and also here that she was married to Rama (a couple of important Hindu gods), but I didn't see any of the sites related to this while here.
On the Kathmandu bus at 5.30pm, we were seated in 5 of the 6 back row seats, and therefore felt every single bump and ditch over the coming interminably long 14 hours. Once we got off the plains and began gaining altitude in the hills, the road became progressively worse. There were a couple of particularly large bumps we rode and we got some serious air, even hitting our heads of the ceiling of the bus 3 feet above, and Cathy landing her face on the seat in front and getting a fat lip.
The Tribhuvan 'Highway' is already a rather narrow unpaved road, and with the recent monsoon season, has been made even narrower in parts. Buses trucks and vans coming up the hill therefore pass by buses, trucks and vans coming down the hill within literally centimetres to spare. It was of no surprise to me at all then, when at roughly 3am, with all of us still wide awake, we hit a log-jam of at least a couple dozen vehicles at a spot where there was NO ROOM AT ALL for passing. The only solution available was for all vehicles to reverse back down the hill far enough to a space wide enough to try and create space perform some magic act and tricks of geometry to pass.....okay, forward here a few inches, turn a little to the left here (giving us a great view of the cliff face inches away, and a god-knows-how-many-foot drop to the bottom), and voila, we managed to pass and continue on our way. I reckon it took the best part of an hour to travel around 300 metres.
To make matters worse, we also had to deal with military check-point after military check-point - 6 in all during the journey. The has been some Communist Mao-ist rebel insurgency’s in recent times, and the fragile, unstable and insecure Nepali Government have instigated these checkpoints to check for weapons and other rebel material. The poor locals have to get off the bus, have all their bags searched by uncomfortably-large-gun wielding military, then get back on the bus again. With the amount of traffic on the road, this can, and did, take quite some time. (Not to concern people here, Nepal is perfectly safe for Westerners to travel through. The Mao-ists sees us as income for the local working-class, and therefore our passage is ideologically sound, and even encouraged, and therefore do not trouble us - only the locals are affected by this)
We were told we'd be in Kathmandu at 5.30am, but when the sun rose at around 6am, we were still quite some distance away (2 hours in fact). To make matters worse, when coming to the outskirts of Kathmandu, we had to endure a traffic jam created by yet another military check-point. When we finally got off the bus, battered, bruised and beaten at 8am, we negotiated a cab ride to a guesthouse in Thamel, the backpacker ghetto equivalent to Khao San Road, and crashed into glorious sleep, sans shower. Just too tired to take one.
Friday 29 August
I'm all rested up now, feeling fresh, and happy to be in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, I cannot see my magical mountains from here as we are in the Valley, but we are completely surrounded by a ring of hills which make for a fantastic morning view. All that's left for me to do now, is a bit of research into Everest Base Camp treks, and perhaps a side trip to Tibet, and have a look around at what's to see here. While there is still a bit of monsoonal activity at the moment its at the tail-end of the season now, and August and September is serious festival time in Nepal, with one practically after another, so it's a good time to be here. I think there is one tomorrow in the next town, so I’ll give a rundown on that next email.
Wed, 3 Sep 2003 15:23:39 +1000 (EST)
Apparently it's good luck
Well, I've been in Kathmandu for a few days now, and have all in all liked it. It is a city of contrasts, with a population of 500,000 crammed into such a tiny space. To put it into perspective, Nepal's entire population is 23.4 million, and is geographically roughly the same size as the State of Victoria in Australia. Oz in total has only 20 million!!
Anyway, I have seen such a diverse range of sights here, differing between old and new, rich and poor, dirty and ugly. Generally the old and poor areas tend to be the pretty areas. The rich, new developments tend to be ugly concrete block constructions that seem to have been built quite hurriedly and slip-shoddily (is that a word?).
Friday 29 August
About the title of the email. My first afternoon here, after that horrible bus ride and a sleep, I was eating lunch in an outdoor courtyard cafe just beneath the shade of a couple of trees full of birds, when I felt a cold wet splodge land on my shirt - I just got shat on!! Welcome to Nepal!!! Quickly, after cursing the birds, I ran to the toilet, got some wet toilet paper and cleaned it up suitably enough, then just as quickly, moved tables to a spot beneath a veranda. I've been informed by several people that it's good luck to be shat upon by a bird, and that it happened on my first day here, I consider a blessing....
Saturday 30 August
August and September are festival months in Nepal, and while the weather is not quite good enough for trekking (monsoon), there is still plenty to do and see.
The 'Teej' festival is a 3-day 'Festival of Women' and is located in a small town, Pashupatinath, about 5Km from Kathmandu. According to my guidebook, this festival starts with a sumptuous meal, and a full day of feasting and talking, followed by 24 hours of fasting. The following day, they get dressed up in bright, colourful red and gold saris, usually the ones they were married in, then take ritual dips in the (very polluted and smelly) Bagmati River, and call upon the gods to protect their husbands. On the final day the women offer their husbands food previously offered to the gods, and then have another ritual bathing ceremony. My guidebook's final comment on this festival is quite funny....."Completion of these ceremonies washes away all female sin, including the sin of a woman touching her husband during her period!"
We taxi-ed it across to Pashupatinath on the second day of Teej, a roasting 30+ degree day to wander around and look at all the women dressed up in their finery, performing traditional songs and dances. It was pretty amazing. It was also pretty amazing, and a fair test of endurance to see the women lining up patiently to enter the Pashupatinath temple for the ceremony - the queue was several hundred metres long, and remember that these women are fasting (no food or drink) and it was plus-30 degrees. As well as being the site of Teej, Pashupatinath Temple is the most important Hindu temple in Nepal, and one of the most important Shiva temples on the sub-continent and draws devotees from all over India (many thanks to Lonely Planet for plagiarism material). As a result there were also dozens upon dozens of Sadhus, nomadic Hindu holy men, wandering around or sitting down begging for alms. These guys make wonderful photographic material, dressed in orange with long scraggly beards and hair, and loads of beads and other jewellery draped around their necks and hands. All in all, a pretty cool day out.
Sunday 31 August
Today was research day for me. Research for a trip to Tibet. There are absolutely hundreds of travel/trekking agencies in Thamel offering 'the cheapest/best quality treks/tours', and no doubt some are lying - they can't all be the cheapest!! I sussed out about a dozen or so, and found that, apart from a couple, they were all offering roughly the same deal, coz once yer in Tibet, the Tibet Tourism Board (TTB - run by the Chinese Government) takes over the show, and it charges all tour companies in Kathmandu a fixed price for the service.
I opted for a 4night-5day one-way tour to Lhasa by mini-bus for US$125, plus another US$26 for a 15-day permit for Tibet. This is the budget option!! Not exactly cheap, but hey, how often does one get to visit Tibet, the high-plains known as 'The Roof of the World', birthplace of the Dalai Lama???? I leave on Saturday 6 September, driving through the Himalayan range, visiting Buddhist monasteries and Holy Lakes along the way, and will spend the remaining 10 days travelling around the Lhasa Region of Tibet independently. I'm going with a company called Eco-Trek, which is listed as reputable and ecologically/environmentally sound by the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) which is a Non-Government Organisation dedicated to protecting and preserving the Himalayas and the porters/sherpas/guides who work on them. I cannae wait to leave!!! I also visited the office of this group to gather info for my Everest Base Camp trek later this month, and felt compelled to shell out US$20 for a 12-month membership to this worthy cause. Greeny brownie points for me!!
Monday 1 September
I went shopping today, and bought myself a spiffy little attachment for my camera called a 2-times converter, and a polarising filter. The first item basically doubles the zoom range on my lens, for those extreme close-ups I'll be getting of Everest. Woo-hoo! The second item helps to reduce the glare from the sun and will bring out the blue of the sky even further, which will also be kinda handy. I'm getting excited about this trek.
Another temple not far away, about a kilometre walk from Kathmandu, is the Buddhist temple of 'Swayambunath', also known as 'Monkey Temple' for the large group of said animals that have taken it up as their home, guarding the hill leading up to it. Quite a hill it is too, with 365 steps leading to the top, one for each day of the year, split down the middle by double banisters, which the monkeys like to slide down, gracefully showing off their balancing skills. At the top is a stupa, topped by a gold-coloured square-block, from which the watchful eyes of Buddha gaze out across the valley in each direction. It's easily one of the most popular and easily recognisable symbols of Nepal (it graces the cover of my Lonely Planet guidebook, and I now have taken an almost identical picture of it myself, with my new speccy lens).
On my way back to Kathmandu, I passed the "Hopeful Home for Orphans and Helpless Children". Before I left Australia, I had been in contact with the Manager of this place with a view to spending a month or so here as a volunteer, helping out with the kids homework and giving informal English-language lessons. All those plans changed as my itinerary changed several times over, but I thought I'd pop in for a look-see. There are 35 kids here ranging from ages 4-16, whose parents have either died or abandoned them, or who are too poor to afford to look after them. The place is tiny, with 2 dorm rooms (boys and girls), and they usually sleep 2 or 3 to a bed. The conditions are clean enough, but about a dozen or so have conjunctivitis in the eyes due to poor nutrition and diet. The orphanage has no funding whatsoever, indeed Nepal does not have a welfare system, and relies on donations and gifts. It is run by 3 women, one of them herself an orphan, and they are illiterate in English and Nepali. Currently there is one live-in volunteer, a 19 year old English girl who has been there 2 months, and a couple of part-time volunteers, an Aussie girl, and an English lad.
They have had a website designed for them, and an email address - set up by a volunteer - check it out if you like at ' http://www.hopefulhome.com/ ' or ' www.uq.net.au/~zzshall/page2.html '.
Tuesday 2 September
I returned to the orphanage today, spending the whole day there, from 11am-6.30pm. I came bearing gifts too - with a quick visit to the markets in Thamel I procured a couple of hacky-sacks, one pink and one blue - and spent a bit of time teaching them the finer arts of hacky!! Some of them were quite adept at picking it up, one kid perfecting a trick that still haven't mastered in 8 years of hacky-ing! The kids with conjunctivitis were kept home from school, and I kept them company, joining in their little games, and being constantly amazed at them, their English-language skills, they way they looked out for each other and their general attitude to their plight.
I've been given a Nepali name too, by one of the manager-women. It's apparently tradition to rename any Westerner that visits Nepal, but its not something that all Westerners are lucky enough to receive. If you wish you can now call me Parvan, or Parvan-sir, as the kids do! It's meaning has something to do with environment or peace, and also coz I’m tall. It's a pretty fitting name, and very perceptive seeing as she had only known me a matter of hours when she bestowed this name on me. The fact I was wearing my hippy shirt and beads and a Nepali hat, and have a scruffy beard may have given her an idea of what to name me.
When the other kids came home from school (they attend an English-language school in the village), and the part-time volunteers came, the energy levels cranked up a gear, and pom-pom making and origami were in vogue for the afternoon, followed by songs and silly dances. That was, of course, provided they had finished their homework. By 6.30pm, when the kids do their evening Hindu prayers in front of the makeshift temple, I was exhausted. By 8pm, I was in bed, having earnt some Karma brownie points (loadsa brownie points for me this week!!).
Tue, 9 Sep 2003 01:36:46 +1000 (EST)
killing time (and my budget) in Kathmandu
It's now Friday afternoon, and roughly 12 hours till I’m up and out on a mini-bus to Tibet. The past 3 days not much has been happening here apart from a lot of hashish consumption, good cheap eating, and good cheap shopping. Despite everything being so so so so cheap, I've killed my budget for Nepal well and truly because I’ve kinda over-indulged myself a bit. I swear it's so hard to resist when everything is so cheap.
I'm loving just chilling out on my private balcony tho, smoking chillums and looking out onto the main street of Thamel, the backpacker ghetto of Kathmandu, as well as eating good food at so so so so cheap prices. The local cuisine is not much to talk about, but their is soooo much to choose from in terms of Western food. Way back in the 70's when backpackers had done the hippy overland trail from London to Kathmandu, after months and months of local foods in various countries, they would drool at the variety on offer here, and nothing has changed. The nearby German bakery has been getting my Rupees for breakfast every morning, and then after 8pm, any leftover pastries, pizza slices and cakes etc are sold at half price!!
I've been going on and on about how cheap it is here, but just to give you a bit of an idea of just how cheap Nepal is (and this is the touristy bit of the capital city - apparently it gets cheaper), I’ll list some of my expenses in Nepali rupees, then in dollars.
* Accommodation - single room with a balcony overlooking the main street (with shared bathroom) 150 Rs, US$2, A$3
* Set Breakfast - 2 eggs, hash brown potatoes, tomato, brown bread, coffee 65 Rs, US$0.90c, A$1.40
* Dinner - Indian vege curry, naan bread, soft drink 150 Rs, US$2, A$3
* email - 20 Rs per hour, US$0.25c, A$0.40c per hour
* San Miguel beer 110 Rs, US$ 1.50, A$2.50 (beer is relatively expensive, and I’ve had only one since I left Singapore, which is saving me a packet)
* Bottled water 1.5litre 25 Rs, US$0.30c, A$0.50
then when I went shopping for souvenirs and 'stuff'....
* huge sarong/bedspread, double sided print, top quality. 600 Rs, US$8ish, A$12ish
* jacket - heavy, thick wool, with fleece lining, and a hood 1000 Rs, US$14ish, A$22ish
* Trekking equipment - 'Polartec' scarf & hat, a decent water bottle, and a carabina to hook my bottle to my pack 990 Rs, US$14, A$21
Cheap cheap cheap. On that note, I’ll close. You'll next be hearing from me in Lhasa, Tibet with a full round up of my 5 day trip.
Fri, 12 Sep 2003 17:38:44 +1000 (EST)
7 years in Tibet (well 5 days at least!)
Tashi Dele (hello), Greetings from the Roof of the World,
Well its been a pretty crazy and hectic 5-day journey from Kathmandu to say the least!! It started off with a 5am kick-off last Saturday when I had to meet my tour group. There were a heap of people standing around looking lost, some booking on a 'higher' class tour - basically they travel by Landcruiser jeep instead of mini-bus, have twin share rooms instead of dorm rooms, and have all breakfasts and tourist site entrance fees paid for. For this privilege they paid roughly an extra US$60 than I did on the budget level.
Saturday 6 September
An indication of things to come was a complete absence of Landcruisers, so when we finally left, all folk piled into two 20-seat minibuses for the journey to the border, making for a rather cramped 1st day journey. This tho, was more than made up for by the perfect weather and absolutely stunning views of the Himalayas on the way up. The standard of the road climbing up the mountains was what I have come to expect from Nepal - bumpy, narrow dirt roads with very very little room for overtaking either way, and the mini-bus skirting heart-stopping, lump-in-the-throat inducing drops off the side the cliff just inches away. Being the end of monsoon season, it came as no surprise to me to find parts of the road completely washed away and hastily re-built using fallen rocks, gravel and dirt. At one stage the road had not yet been repaired, with absolutely no vehicles passing. we (and about 20-30 other vehicles) had to get off, grab our packs on our backs and negotiate a hastily constructed 3-logs-roped-together bridge, while a waterfall cascaded down where the road had washed away. Mini-bus drivers that had been trapped on the other side, then transported us the rest of the way.
Finally reaching the Nepal side of the border and completing immigration formalities, we trudged a couple of k's up the road through 'no-mans-land' and over the Friendship Bridge, and waited, in the rain, to get thru the Chinese immigration checkpoint. From here we had to pile into waiting 4WD's for a 9kilometre 45 minute journey up the mountain to Zhang-Mu, a customs checkpoint, and where we were to get our Tibet permits authorised by scary looking Chinese military. On this short trip, I had a very much near-death experience - and I'm not joking either!! As we were travelling up-mountain we passed several heavily-laden, dodgy Indian goods trucks. One truck in particular was way way WAY too top heavy. Our driver had to stop, on the cliff-face side to allow this truck to pass. There was a pretty deep, and large, pot-hole in the road just in front, and as the truck edged forward, it lurched violently to the side, and I swear to God it was gonna tip over and land on our Landcruiser. Our driver saw this and quickly geared into reverse and gunned it back about 10 feet, just as the truck driver also realised and also stepped on it to come out the other side of the pot-hole, and miraculously came out of it right side up. Phew!! Death by toppling truck - not a nice way to go.
All of these delays meant that we had missed getting thru Customs and Permit Authorisation, and had to spend the night at this shitty border town, Zhang Mu. It was here that we met our guide for the Tibetan end of the trip, a Tibetan fella named Dorje, who would see us thru to Lhasa.
I had my first real experience of Chinese bureaucracy here, and boy did it give me, and the rest of the group, the shits. After having to endure the long wait to cross the border, they confiscated our passports overnight, just so we wouldn't go anywhere. They were originally also going to make us leave our rucksacks in the Customs office overnight, just in case we were smuggling goods or drugs or whatever - meaning we would have to take out what we needed (toiletries, sleeping gear etc) and collect the rest the next morning. We kicked up enough of a stink about this, and our guide managed to persuade the officials to let us take our gear to the hotel. Also, as this was not our scheduled overnight stop, accommodation had to be hastily arranged, and only certain hotels/hostels are allowed to accept foreigners for some silly reason - and these were all full. Our guide had to get special permission from the Chinese Police Security Bureau (PSB, or red-tape Nazi's as I like to call them) for us to stay at a non-tourist designated hotel.
Sunday 7 September
The following morning we were ushered to the checkpoint "8.50am and no later for permit authorisation". This process involved us standing in line while our guide collected our passports, gave them back to us, along with a photocopy of our 'special 15-day Tibet Tourist Permit', stood in line some more, finally got to the checkpoint booth where a scary-official-looking Chinese guy scrutinised our passports and permits, waved us on with a grunt, and finally stamped the original tourist permits that the guide was carrying. This took all of about 3 hours. It was here that the higher-fee-paying-Landcruiser set finally got their Landcruisers, and we got some space in the mini-bus, a group of 10 formed (3 Aussie guys, including a 58 year-old, 2 Dutch women, a German couple, 1 Israeli guy, 1 Korean woman and the one ubiquitous Japanese woman), and we finally left at around Noon.....so much for 8.50am!!
I am now officially in Tibet!!!!!!!!!! A time and a place I have long yearned for, and a rush of exhilaration, anticipation, and excitement pulses thru me as I anticipate the next 4 days of this Overland Adventure to Shangri-la.
We then set ourselves for a whole day of driving until 9pm, including making up the ground lost yesterday, and covered just over 300Km, an average of just under 30Km per hour!! We gained some serious altitude tho, crossing the high plains on rough gravel and unpaved dirt roads, and stopping at a couple of passes, Nyalam Pass at 3800metres and Lalung-La pass at 5050metres. These passes hold high spiritual and religious importance for the devout Buddhist Tibetans, with absolutely stunning views of the Himalayas including Everest (8848m), Mount Cho Oyu (8201m), Mount Lhotse (8516m) and Mount Xixapangma, Tibet's highest mountain at 8013metres. Here they make special pilgrimages and leave prayer flags attached to wooden poles stuck in the earth, and build little stone mounds (known as 'cairns') as offerings to Buddha. It makes for pretty special viewing, and awesome photographic material, seeing these bright, colourful flags, set against the bluest of all blue skies I have ever seen, and the stark, bleak, barren, brown and pale yellow landscape of the high plains. Being so high up, the sun is exceptionally bright, and it brings out such clarity in the colours, they are sooooo crisp and clear - I must admit I went even a little more snap-happy with my camera than I usually manage to do.
These high plains have a very special and unique beauty about them. As barren and stark as they are, with little more foliage than spear grass, it is the vastness of this high-altitude desert-like landscape that is breathtaking. Dotted throughout these plains are small villages of hardy, traditional, goat and yak-herding folk, and it is mind-boggling, and awe-inspiring, to see how these people eke out a living, just barely above self-subsistence levels. I have nothing but pure admiration for these simple-living folk, coz sure as hell, I could never do it.
Arriving at Tingri (altitude 4390meteres) with the sun just setting, we checked into a very simple guesthouse and set up lodgings for the night in 3-bed dorms . Now when I say simple, I mean very simple. The communal toilets consisted of a concrete block - one men’s and one women’s cubicle separated by a single slab of concrete, no doors, and a rectangular shape cut out of the ground, with a pit below in which you squat over to do your business. Like I said, simple. Our bathing consisted of a large bowl of hot water which we could wash our face and, with a bit of soap, generally splash water over ourselves. The Landcruiser set also stayed here, the only difference being is they had twin-share accommodation. Oh, and I should mention, in reference to an email I sent a while back - I am no longer farting with such confidence! Getting that small cramp in the stomach that indicates I need to go, and having to confront that toilet block was not so much fun.
Monday 8 September
Waking to a freezing cold, crisp, clear blue sky day, we set off at 8.30am for another full day of driving. But before we got 300metres down the road, we were all begging the bus driver to stop, coz there before us to the right-hand-side was the best view of Everest we had seen yet!!! After another crazy photo session, we set off again. It was on this day that I had my first real disappointment with the tour. Along this stretch of road there is a turn-off to Sakya Monastery, 30Km away, which according to my guidebook is one of the most spectacular in Tibet - and we drove straight past it. I was dumbfounded, and confronted the guide, who basically said that the itinerary was set, that I should have checked the itinerary before I booked, and if I had any complaints I should speak to the travel agency I booked the trip thru. Not happy. The thing is that I sussed out about 10 different agencies in Kathmandu, and they all offered pretty much the same itinerary, including Sakya, and I naturally assumed this company was also going there. I guess I shouldn't make assumptions, and on closer inspection of my itinerary, it was indeed missing off the schedule - but if it's so great why would they opt not to take tour groups there???? Anyway, enough whinging!!!
It was pretty much more of the same landscape today, mostly flat, with slightly better roads now that we had reached the plateau. It still spun me out tho, that we were driving at an average of 4000metres above sea-level. There is one problem with being this high - altitude sickness. The air is a lot thinner here, and therefore harder to breathe naturally. other symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, dizziness, nausea, lethargy, and irritability. We all suffered to some extent, some more than others - throwing up being a common sight, especially with the women for some reason. I got the headache, and some dizziness, was a little irritable (perhaps explaining my Sakya whinge), but I generally moved about pretty freely. I think I've built up a pretty good base level of fitness from travelling around, lugging my rucksack from town to town, and walking miles and miles, which I am thankful for, seeing others in the group struggle.
Arriving at Shigatse, Tibet's 2nd largest city, the site of Tashilumpo Monastery - home of the Panchen Lama, the 2nd most important religious figure behind the Dalai Lama, we checked into a hotel where for the first time the Landcruiser set seemed to get what they paid for. Our 4-bed dorm room in a concrete block out the back of the hotel, and dire toilets, paled into comparison with the luxury-rooms with ensuite bathroom with HOT shower!!. We all then snuck into the main hotel rooms and revelled in the glory of a hot shower for the first time since we left Kathmandu........and damn was it GOOD!!!!!!!
Tuesday 9 September
Woke up this morning to drizzling rain and dangerously dark-grey looking clouds. I also started to feel a slight cold coming on, and had to dig out my rain jacket for the first time on the entire trip since I left home. Leaving on time for the first time this trip, we spent the first 3 hours of the day touring around Tashilumpo Monastery, an amazingly ornate architectural wonder built back in 1447. Its still very much a working monastery, and it was amazing to see Tibetan monks in their maroon robes wandering the busy cobbled lanes twisting around ancient buildings within the grounds, and to be able to walk thru the prayer rooms and observe them reciting prayers from ancient scriptures. They almost sing the prayers in a deep, kind of droning, mumbling tone, and accentuate certain parts of the scripture by clapping in unison and raising the volume, keeping time to a point where I was moved into a little jig as I passed thru. I actually made some of them laugh out loud as I danced and clapped in time with them - they have an amazing sense of humour and clearly enjoyed seeing the silly Westerner getting involved!
There are several tombs of previous Panchen Lamas which you can view - once again ornately decorated with mandalas and kaleidoscopic rainbow swirls, gold Buddha’s, and rich tapestries. I bought one little souvenir here - a cute little prayer bag with a rope that you wear like a necklace - it is supposed to protect you from evil spirits and also bring good luck to you. All of us on the bus bought one, and I'm wearing right now as I type. I really do quite like it. The Tashilumpo Monastery is all in all an amazing place.
While in Shigatse we were supposed to also visit the local Bazaar (market) - this was listed on the itinerary, but our guide arbitrarily decided that we would just drive to the next town, a breezy 90Km away. At this stage of the tour there were some grumblings amongst us about the quality of our guide, as he didn't seem to be doing too much in the way of guide duties. While driving for hours on end, through little villages, over high passes, and past amazing rugged mountain ranges, he was decidedly silent. There was very little (if any) description or discourse about Tibetan history, language, culture, religion at all, and I spent quite a bit of time reading my guide book to dig out the information I sought about each place. People were actually beginning to ask me about this pass or that mountain or some other monastery. We came to the conclusion that Dorje was little more than a Chinese-appointed escort/chaperone/guard. To be fair, he did talk us thru Tashilumpo, but apart from that, he didn't seem to volunteer any information other than "we are at X pass, or X town - we have X amount of time for lunch"
The smoothest road of the trip so far was a flat bitumen highway to Gyantse, a pleasant surprise after the rough tracks we'd been on the previous 3 days. This is the 3rd largest city in Tibet (and still not very big), overlooked by the towering Gyantse Dzong (fortress) built in the 14th Century, and the Pelkor Chode monastery. Upon seeing this for the first time as we entered town, I was induced to utter a Keanu Reeves-in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure-like "Whoa". It was very, very impressive indeed.
We had lunch in town before being given an hour or so to look around, followed by a tour of the monastery and fort. We were told to meet back outside the restaurant at 4.30pm, to walk down to the monastery. I wandered off by myself, starting to feel a little more under-the-weather, had a look in a few market stalls, and checked email for 20 minutes. I got back to the meeting point at 4.32pm according to my watch, and there was no-one around. We had been running late pretty much the whole trip, and just when I’m 2 minutes late somewhere, our guide decides to get his act together and leave on schedule. I could have chased them up, and spent another 2 hours in the 2nd monastery for the day, but was feeling very lethargic, and so decided to put what little energy I had into walking thru the small village just out of town and up the hill to the fortress.
About halfway up, I got the old tell-tale stomach cramp, and was not within coo-ee of a toilet. Luckily for me, I was carrying a roll of toilet paper, and after a quick lookout for people and a scout around for a discreet spot, did my business just off to the side of the path. That done, unspotted, up at the top of the hill, the fortress offered absolutely stunning, commanding views of the valley below. Unbeknown to me, there was a 30 Yuan (A$6) entrance fee to climb the final staircase to the very, very top, but after spending 55Yuan (A$11) at Tashilumpo, plus lunch, my daily budget was killed, and I was starting to feel very much worse for wear, so I headed back down to the guesthouse and crashed out on the comfy-est bed I’ve had thus far.
Wednesday 10 September
Our final day, and the longest drive yet, to Lhasa, via another couple of high passes, Karo-La (5010m) and Kamba-La (4794m) and the amazing scorpion-shaped, turquoise-blue coloured Yamdrok-Tso lake. This lake is one of four holy lakes in Tibet, another venue for Buddhist pilgrimages, and once again, like the rest of the Tibet I've seen, absolutely stunning to look at. It's easy to see why the Tibetans revere these natural wonders so much and give them such a high spiritual place in their lives. The only drawback to seeing Yamdrok-Tso lake today was that it was a bit overcast and therefore the turquoise colour wasn't as bright as it could have been. I've this spot seen postcards, and on a TV doco on Tibet, and to see it in the flesh gave me goose bumps (or was that just because it was cold?????)
On the final high pass (Kambala) we stopped for yet another photo op. This pass overlooks Yamdrok-Tso, and I took the opportunity to build my own little cairn, and had my photo taken sitting in the cross-legged lotus position next to it, in a picture of pure serenity (also a bit of a pose, but never mind!!) On the approach to Lhasa, we crossed a bridge over the Brahmaputra River, which drifts down into India, and is up there with the Ganges in terms of holi-ness amongst its devotees.
Late in the afternoon we arrived in Lhasa, and I have to be honest and say I was a tad disappointed. I had been warned by fellow travellers who'd been here - it's pretty much just a big Chinese city, and the Tibetan part of the city is tiny and has been over-ridden by Chinese development of the kind I've come to hate - ugly square blocks with shiny bathroom-like tiles on the outside. It's been like this in each place I've been thru, and it's thoroughly depressing to see.
On the final day our guide, Dorje, seemed to come good, and when the hostel we planned to check into was full, helped us find accommodation. There is nothing worse than arriving in a foreign city, not knowing where anything is, not speaking the language (especially Chinese/Tibetan) and having nowhere to stay. He also helped some of us arrange rides back to Kathmandu, for those who were leaving within the next day or 2.
So overall my impression of the tour was a bit mixed. I loved Tibet's natural wonders and impressive scenery, was in awe of some of the architecture dating back several centuries, but I felt that I'd had little, if any, interaction with the local people, and lacked the feeling of closeness I was expecting because of that. I also felt that I hadn't gained much of an understanding of the culture and spirituality of the place - I think the guide was lacking in enthusiasm and energy and brought nothing to the tour, which I believe a guide is supposed to do. It was a bit of a cattle-truck trip, just being ferried from one place to the next without having time to soak up the atmosphere of the place.
Anyway, hope this email wasn't too long - there was a lot to cover. My cold only seemed to last 2-3 days and I feel back on track to full health.
Will write about Lhasa soon.
Kale Shoo (goodbye) cheers, tony
Sat, 13 Sep 2003 19:32:02 +1000 (EST)
Hi, Tashi Dele,
Well my first impressions about Lhasa basically being another Chinese city have been pretty much confirmed - which is sad. I have done a lot of walking about town the past 3days, and apart from a small pocket right by the tourist zone, I see nothing but ugly Chinese architecture. And I read somewhere that of the 13000 or so businesses in Lhasa, only 300-odd are run by Tibetans. The rumours of Chinese sponsored cultural genocide is true.
The most identifying feature of Lhasa to the world is the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama before he fled to India. I visited this awesome building on my first full day here, in total awe of the place, staring up at it from the street below, gob-smacked at the 13 story high structure. It is truly an architectural phenomenon, however now that the Dalai Lama no longer lives here, it lies dormant, and has become little more than an enormous museum. It took me about 3 hours to wander thru the various rooms housing the tombs of former Lama's and statues and relics of religious importance. The fact that this amazing, and highly symbolic building is so lifeless left me a tad disappointed, and served as a reminder that the Dalai Lama cannot serve his people from here.
The area that nearly all of the hostels are located in is Barkhor Square, the small Tibetan quarter of town, which is, all in all, very pretty. The houses and buildings are simple in design, but decorated ornately, with painted doorways and window frames. It is a site of ritual pilgrimage for Buddhists, and It's great to sit by and watch hundreds upon hundreds of folk of all ages, amble around the 800metre kora circuit, spinning their prayer wheels and murmuring devotional prayers under their breath. The idea is to complete the circuit in a clockwise direction, passing several shrines along the way, and to keep the standing prayer wheels along the street spinning constantly.
At the edge of the square is Tibet's most revered religious structure, The Jokhang, which dates from the 7th Century and houses the most important Buddhist shrines in Tibet. It is absolutely bustling with worshippers, and even before you can enter, you need to negotiate a path through the forecourt which is crowded with prostrating pilgrims. It was a pretty moving experience wandering thru the various rooms, once again in a clockwise direction, observing the devout Buddhists offering alms to the various statues in each room, and keeping the tea-lamps alight keeping them filled with yak butter offerings. Not having a great deal of knowledge about, or devotion to, the Buddhist faith I understood little of what was going on around me, but it was moving to see people showing utter devotion to their faith. Up on the roof of the Jokhang, the views over Lhasa, across to the Potala and beyond are stunning, and with perfect blue skies, once again my camera got a good workout.
Their are several "kora's" (pilgrimage walks) you can do in Lhasa, of varying length, and today, for something to do, and to observe the pilgrims, I undertook 3 of them - The Barkhor and Jokhang Circuits described earlier, and another, more lengthy at 8Km, the Lingkhor Circuit. This circuit effectively covers the entirety of the old city, and was a good opportunity to take in all the sites of the city in one hit. Opposite the Potala Palace and a short walk away is a largish hill, Chagpo Ri, which offers outstanding photographic shots of the Potala. It also has a steel telecom mast at the top. Now according to my guidebook, you can climb this hill and take advantage of the views and the photo op.
I guess things have changed in the past 2 years as world politics and security issues have become more sensitive, coz as I approached the summit, I heard some shouting down below, and 2 Chinese military with guns were waving at me to come down, while they blew whistles and ran towards me. I should have guessed by the complete absence of other tourists on the hill, and the shut gates, that it was now off-limits. As the Chinese met up with me, babbling away in raised tones, all I could do was raise my hands in a placatory nature, open my guidebook to the language section and point out the phrase "I’m sorry". I hadn't even got my camera out to take a photo, but had taken 34 of the 36 shots on my roll, so was gutted when a 3rd, and obviously higher in rank, officer demanded that I hand over the unfinished roll of film. I tried to explain that I hadn't taken any pictures of any sensitive landmarks, but he either didn't understand, or didn't care, and still demanded my film. I'd had such a great photo day too, with piccies of pilgrims, and sunlit prayer flags blowing in the wind - damn I hate those Chinese military types with their authoritarian ego-driven attitudes.
I am now trying to organise transport back to the Nepali border, responding to notices from other travellers interested in sharing the cost of a rented Landcruiser-with-driver. One notice in particular spun me out, coz at the bottom was the name and email address of a Canadian guy, Travis, who I met and travelled with for a week while in Croatia 2 years ago!! Small world!! He's out of town at the moment on a 3 day trip visiting the Holy Lake of Nam-Tso, but when he returns tonight/tomorrow it'll be wild to meet him again.
Anyway, more soon as usual, Bye, Kale Shoo, Tony.
Tue, 16 Sep 2003 15:51:07 +1000 (EST)
Lhasa the land of long lost friends
well this is my final day in Lhasa - I’ve managed to spend an entire week here!! I would have liked to have gotten out of town, spent a couple of nights in other villages and visited a few sites of importance, but I've kind of been in a state of flux, trying to make sure I had a ride out of Tibet back to Nepal. Otherwise it's a 500Yuan (A$100) per day fine for overstaying the 15 day visa.
The day after my episode with the Chinese military dudes (some folk have said I was lucky to get away with just having my film confiscated, I could have either been fined or arrested, or both - which definitely would not have been fun!) I re-did the walk about town, re-taking most of the photos I'd shot previously. There was no way I was going to miss out on getting them, coz it really was an awesome photo day. The only exception being that I couldn't get all of the same pilgrim shots (there were a couple of gorgeous ones of little old ladies, with facial wrinkles showing the wear and tear of a hard, hard life, sitting up against a wall on the pilgrim circuit, dressed in traditional nomadic attire, spinning prayer wheels.
While visiting the "Temple of 1000 Buddha images", taking piccies of beautifully sunlit prayer flags, I stumbled on a TV crew, filming a Chinese soap opera, and hung around for a bit to watch. From what I could gather, the story was of a couple whose relationship was on the rocks, taking a holiday and visiting Tibet to try and mend the rift. It was quite funny seeing them do re-take after re-take of the same 2minute scene, with the classic 'walk away from the argument and stare vaguely off into the middle distance, holding the pose for a good 15-20 seconds' soap opera scene.
I finally caught up with my Canadian friend Travis, the guy I travelled with for a week in Croatia 2 years ago. It was such a spin-out for both of us to be in Lhasa, by complete chance, fluke and coincidence. Him and his girlfriend Michelle have done a massive U.K-Denmark-Russia, Trans-Siberian-Mongolian railway trip to Beijing thru Western China and onto Tibet. And I thought my journey was something special!!!! They also have been travelling with some Dutch and Israeli and American folk, and so I've been hanging out, doing not too much, with them the past 2 days.
I have also managed to arrange travel with Travis, Michelle, and an American gal Erin, back to Nepal, essentially on the same route as I took coming, but with stops in different towns, and visiting a few monasteries I missed on the way due to the inept travel guide I had. We will also, fingers crossed, visit Everest Base Camp from the Tibetan side!!!
Anyway, when I next write, I think I’ll be back in Kathmandu.
Kale Shoo, Tony
Wed, 24 Sep 2003 18:34:29 +1000 (EST)
buzzing border bungy bohte-koshi rafting birthday bash - part 1
well I’ve been back in Kathmandu now for 2 days and have basically been too stiff and sore to write straight away. for those of you who didn't know, 22 September was my birthday, and I celebrated that day in style. For more details on that, you'll have to keep reading.
Anyways, leaving Lhasa on a 2night-3day trip on the 17th with my buddy Travis, his girl Michelle and American Erin, along with our comically-named driver dude, PooPoo, we set off at 6am for the long, arduous 300Km-ish 14-hour drive to Lhatse, our first overnight stop. We're basically covering the same path I came in on, skipping a couple of detours, and doing a couple I missed on the way up. It was pretty well smooth-sailing, but not totally. Aside from the joy of travelling with Trav again, rehashing old memories and creating new ones, the reason I decided to go with these guys was that we would visit those sites I missed. One of them being Sakya Monastery, which is described in my Lonely Planet as having 'the most spectacular assembly hall in Tibet' After driving all day, we reached this site late in the afternoon - and it was closed! There was no ticket man, and no one with keys to the place, so we had to satisfy ourselves by walking around the courtyard and surrounding grounds. To be fair, the scenery here was spectacular, surrounded by enormous hills, with stupa's and old monastic ruins set in the side of steep rock faces. But we couldn't go inside. Oh well, we saved ourselves 40Yuan (A$8).
After an uneventful night at our lodgings in the "Tibetan Farmers Adventure Guest House" (they have some great hostel names here!!) we set off over the high plains again, and at each high-pass, whose names ended in 'La' (Gyatso-La, Lalung-La), would ritually burst into loud "Ooooh-La-La-La-La-La-La's" and piss ourselves laughing. I didn't have this much fun on the way up!!
Our next major stopping point was Everest Base Camp! There is a road all the way up here, and therefore no need to do a 2-3week trek to view the highest point on the planet like you do in Nepal. Cheating, I suppose in one sense, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I would be doing some serious trekking when I do get back to Nepal. On the approach road we passed Rhong-Phu Monastery, another site on my must-see-on-the-way-back list. This is only 8Km from Base Camp, and its possible to stay here in lodgings, or camping, and wake up in the morning for a dawn sunrise watch over Everest. We considered this as a possibility, but in the end just opted for an afternoon visit to Base Camp. Slightly disappointed as I was, this was a group decision, with the driver, in broken English, forcefully making his point that the next town 100Km or so away, Tingri, would be our next overnighter.
Anyway, Base Camp. We were lucky to get there when we did early afternoon, coz Himalayan weather being what it is, by the time we left 3hours later, Everest (Qomolangma in Tibetan, Sagarmatha in Nepali)was shrouded in thick cloud. But we did have a fantastic view, with some slight cloud sitting lightly behind the peak, and got some amazing photos. The camp itself is tiny, with just a few enclosed marquee tents serving as accommodation and restaurants, and a small farmyard holding a dozen or so pack-yaks. Nevertheless, its a buzzing little hive of activity, with sherpas bustling about making preparations for the next crazy foreigner to make his assault. Oh yeah, there is also the highest post office in the world here, but they had only a handful of postcards left, and had run out of stamps!!! We had to settle on buying one postcard each, and pay in advance for the stamps with the promise that they would be sent to our families once they had re-stocked.
Finally seeing Everest up close, after having glimpses of it all the way thru to Lhasa was.......WOW, indescribable! Ever since I was 15 or 16 I'd had dreams of visiting Base Camp and the Himalayas, and 13 years later, here I am. Utter elation is probably the best way to describe my emotion at the point that I stood at the top of the small hill at the edge of Base Camp and tried to take it all in. Even with the bitter cold biting wind cutting thru me, it was hard to tear myself away when we decided it was time for lunch, and to celebrate with a cold Lhasa Beer.
Driving back out with the cloud-shrouded Everest in the rear-view mirror, we stopped briefly at Rhong-phu, took a couple of quick snaps, and made our way back to the main 'Friendship Highway' with an extra passenger on board. Some poor French fella with virtually no English had decided to go for a wander around, lost a little track of time, and came back to discover his travelling party had departed for Tingri without him!! Luckily, we had room for an extra passenger, but our greedy-eyed unscrupulous driver insisted he pay an extra 75 Yuan for the ride.
PooPoo, also in his wisdom, decided to take a 'shortcut' across the plains to try and save time as he'd decided we'd already spent too much time at Base Camp. Some short cut (as they always are!). We were also following another Landcruiser who'd also taken this short cut, and before too long, we were stopped while the other driver repaired a broken shock absorber, or got seriously bogged in mud. Then it was our turn to get a flat and wait 1/2 an hour while the spare was put on. This wasn't all bad tho, coz the spot we stopped in the middle of nowhere, across a flat peak, with views over miles and miles of land, just giving us a perfect idea of how isolated this land can be. With being so high up, and the air so crisp, it was a little hard to breathe, and the late afternoon sun was sooooo bright - it just all added to the moment.
At our lodgings in Tingri, we met a group of mad Englishman who were cycling from Lhasa to Kathmandu!!!, and were taking 16 days to do so......nutters! That's all I can say, but good on 'em anyway. You've got to have some admiration for that feat coz it's pretty hard going even in a Landcruiser.
Our last day of driving, up and out at 8am, and PooPoo reckons we'll be at the border by 6pm. Oh God, another full day of driving....... amazingly, and thankfully, he was totally wrong - we got there by 2pm, and with the time change at the Border, were back in Nepal by Midday.
Part 2 to come.
Wed, 24 Sep 2003 22:30:45 +1000 (EST)
buzzing base camp border bungy bohte-koshi rafting birthday bash - part 2
when I last left you I was at the border on the Nepal side. From here the plan was to go to a place just 12Km down the road called The Last Resort. It's a bit of an adventure adrenalin playground spot - hence the crazy subject title. This is a company that operates out of Kathmandu, who I'd been in touch with while in Lhasa and had booked to stay there for a night or two of luxurious R&R, with a bit of an adrenalin kick thrown in. This was in the form of a bungy jump, followed by white-water rafting. As it was quiet season I was able to wangle US$5 off the US$125 price (jump/rafting/1 night accom/all meals and facilities), as well as 10% off at the 'Instant Karma' Bar. Sweet.
I was hoping to be picked up from the border, however there's a bit of political strife in Nepal at the mo, with Communist Mao-ist types raising a bit of an insurgency against the government, and they'd called a nation-wide 3 day transport strike, so nothing, absolutely nothing was moving on the roads. So we hiked it, with our rucksacks on our backs and daypacks on our fronts, around 15Kg each, all the way downhill (mostly - luckily) for 4 hours including several rest breaks along the way.
It was well worth it once we got there. The Last Resort, camped in the Himalayan hills, looks over the Bohte-Koshi River, and is only accessible from the main road by a suspension bridge 500feet above the raging river below (from where you do the worlds longest freefall bungy jump!). Once there you are utterly enchanted by quaint immaculately manicured gardens and eco-friendly-designed wood-and-bamboo buildings serving as restaurant and office. It's tent accommodation, but we were given the Deluxe Tent (US$40 per night outside of the deal - cut to US$25 per night for us) and never before in my life have I stayed in such luxurious tents - thick canvas with thatched roof canopy, with double bed and bedside table, and kerosene lantern beside.
We were shown around the grounds to the slate lined plunge pool and herbal steam room/sauna, and outdoor hot showers with views out to the Himalayan Range, and then treated to a superbly cooked chicken-ala-king with rice and steamed vegies. Yummmmmmmmmm!!!!! And at 10% off, the bar got full use. We were the only people there, and so got the full treatment from the staff. I remember saying "I could get used to this". Now those people that know me well know that I don't usually go for mod-cons and like to rough it and do it on the cheap as much as I can......but, hey, it was my birthday in 3days time, so I was gonna treat myself!!!!
The next morning was Bungy time!! Travis and I were booked in to do it, along with Erin. But first one of the new staff was going to do a jump, so that the videographer dude could test out the new platform and different angles he had to work with. But the Bungy Staff guy, a 20year old named Bipin, doing only his second jump, bailed. Erin, being the lightest was up next, and she also bailed. Travis next, jumped on the first countdown, and to watch him freefall some 160metres towards the raging river below was something else!! It gave me encouragement that I could also do it. Now, I've bungy-ed once before, in Queenstown New Zealand in 1996 - but that was only 42metres (130-odd feet)......this was 160metres (500feet)!!!!
So I'm up there on the platform, with Woody the American Vietnam-vet jumpmaster dude trying all this pop-psychology wordplay to psyche me out/up to jump, and I’m like "Woody, don’t try any of yer psychobabble bullshit on me", with the video guy Rueben filming it all. Then it came time to jump, and I'd bragged during the 'video-interview' that I’d jump first time, so there was nothing to do but 5..4..3..2..1..JUMP!!! As I launched myself off the platform my stomach shot up into my throat, and I watched, arms outstretched, as the Bohte-Koshi came rushing up to me at full speed. Then the rope stretched, and I rebounded back up about 300feet and fell again....and again.....and again. The only way back up to the top was by a 1/2hour steep rocky path, but I had such adrenalin pumping thru me that I ran full-speed about 1/2 the way until I had no breath left, and the stomach stitch was too much...but I had to keep moving moving moving moving!!!!! After lunch the staff organised a game of extreme Frisbee in the gardens, by which time, being a rather physical version of it, we all were completely beat, and after a quick Plunge Pool and shower settled into the Instant Karma Bar for the evening.
For some reason the rafting was not on the following day, and was postponed to the 22nd (my birthday) so it was a free day to do whatever we wanted, and I wanted to do sweet f.a., and spent the afternoon sitting in the sun sewing cloth-patch-flags onto my rucksack, then sitting in the Plunge Pool (which was getting heaps of use - we were still the only clients!!)
September 22 - its my birthday!!! and at breakfast I'm roped into drinking a double Khukuri Rum. Luckily they let me eat breakfast first!! Then, checkout, settle the bill (US$193 for 3nights, all meals and facilities, and, at the bar I'd only spent US$23 the entire time I was there - nice!)
Onto a bus to the Rafting site, and were told its +4 rapids. After donning our helmets and life jackets, and a quick briefing about what to expect and how to follow the raft leader's commands, we were in the water, joined by an Englishman - Kevin - and Bipin the Bungy guy, making 6 clients, plus 2 raft dudes. We're in the water not even 2 minutes and we hit our first serious rapids, which we get thru okay, but the 2nd rapids we hit are a little more violent, and we hit a huge hole and all get flipped out. I'm under water for what seems like several seconds, still holding onto my oar and fighting to get to the surface. when I do surface I cant see anyone else, or the raft, anywhere. there is a 2nd rafting expedition with us, and they rush by me, shouting out 'grab our safety rope, grab the rope', but I can't see the 20metre rope anywhere either. Eventually trailing safety kayakers come along and I’m able to grab on and get taken to shore, absolutely beaten up and with a largish bruise on my thigh.
slowly but surely people are rescued at various points down the river, and were told the raft came ashore a little ways downriver, and we should all congregate there. Erin's missing. So we start a search for her, which is quickly called off when she's seen walking down the road toward us - she was the first rescued. Okay, so back in the raft - lets go again! After our first episode we're a lot more aggressive with our rowing, as the reason we got tossed was because we didn't go hard enough. Everything's smooth sailing (pardon the pun) and we're like "hey this is fun, woo hoo!!" Then another nasty stretch of rapids appears and our raft guide is belting out commands "FORWARD, LEFT BACK, LEFT BACK, FORWARD, ALL BACK, HOLD ON!!!!!!!!" and a similar but deeper hole in the water looms on us which we were trying like buggery to avoid. we didn't. we got tossed again, but this time we were all able to grab the rope tied around the raft and either haul ourselves on, or get hauled on by someone else....except that the raft is upturned, and all we can do is hold on for dear life and ride the rapids wherever they take us.....for a long, long, and somewhat scary time.
The safety kayaker behind was screaming at the raft guide in Nepali - the 'flip rope' is not attached, so he has to frantically paddle to the other raft and borrow theirs, tie it on, and wait until the water calms down enough that we can safely jump off while the guide flips the raft right-side-up. But it didn't get calm enough for quite some time, and the girls are screaming 'Get us the hell off this thing' and a mild panic is evident. eventually, we reach calmer waters, flip the raft and reach shore line - on the opposite back to where the road is. so after a 20minute rest, time to calm down and catch our breath, we have to get back in the raft, something not everyone is happy about, and negotiate some more rapids and paddle like hell to reach the other bank a.s.a.p. - and call it quits about 1/2 an hour short of our scheduled finish.
It was intense, so intense, a scary time, but once we all got thru unscathed, we were elated, with adrenalin once again pumping thru our veins.......I’d do it again tomorrow - if it was free! what a way to spend my BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!! WOO-HOOOO!!!!!!!!!!
3-4hours later I’m back in Kathmandu, and an hour or so after that I'm in a bar having a superb meal, drinking beer, and celebrating in style one of the most intense birthdays I’ve ever had with all my rafting buddies. Way Cool.
Thu, 16 Oct 2003 21:11:59 +1000 (EST)
some journal reading respite for you - this one'll be pretty short!!> > I'm in Pokhara now, the base town for trekking the Annapurna ranges, after leaving Kathmandu yesterday.> > After finishing the epic Tibet-Birthday-Bungy-Rafting adventure with Trav, Michelle and Erin, I checked back into my comfy pad at the (breaks into Eagle's song) Hotel California, 2nd floor room with balcony view of the main Thamel District street, for A$3 a night - and chilled out for days.
Gotta admit I was pretty stiff and sore after the rafting, and needed a few days to relax and unwind. That few days drifted out to 7 before I thought I’d better get my shit together and move on. I pretty much did nothing 'cept wander around the market streets, ate good food - quite often splurging on expensive pizza and other western delicacies, and beer - I haven't drunk so much beer in weeks!! Not to lay blame anywhere, but Travis liked a drink, and I felt compelled to join him.
I also took care of all my Christmas shopping in one hit, buying gifts for 9 people, plus a coupla goodies for myself - and spending less than A$200!!! I didn't scrimp either, it's, as I keep saying, soooooo cheap here.
But I finally did wake up and smell the visa-expiry looming, and have moved on. I met a Scottish fella, Paul, on the bus here and have lined up a 16-18day trek around the Annapurna Circuit with him, plus a porter to help carry our gear. He's a Glaswegian Celtic lad, but I can deal with that I guess......it'll be good blather on the trek anyways!!
Will be in touch again in about 3weeks or so.
Sat, 18 Oct 2003 14:00:16 +1000 (EST)
Annapurna - part 1
Hey hey hey,
How is everyone? I just got back to Pokhara a coupla days ago after 15days trekking around the Annapurna Circuit in the mystical, magical Himalayan Mountains.
I met up with a Scottish Glaswegian fella named Paul on the bus to Pokhara, and we quickly struck up a conversation about the relative merits of Scottish football teams, he being Celtic lad, and I being a hearts fan. We also had the same idea in mind about trekking the Annapurna circuit, and so my brief search for a trekking partner was over.
I’d been recommended a guesthouse by and English guy I met in Kathmandu, and so we headed there. Apart from the cheap rooms with attached bathroom (100rupees each – A$2), we were told about a giant ganja plant in the garden that you could pick yer own from!!!! When we saw the plant, it was no plant – it was a TREE, 2 stories tall with a trunk that I couldn’t wrap my hands around it was that thick!! From our balcony on the 2nd floor we only had to reach out and pick the bits we wanted!! However it was at the end of season and most of the good stuff has already been picked, and the rest was going to seed.
The following day everything went so smoothly organising the trek, without having to resort to expensive package tours. The waiter at brekky was a guide/porter, who referred us to his mate, Puran. Then my visa extension, the trekking permit fee, bus ticket to the starting point town, plus shopping for trekking gear all got sorted within the space of a few hours……a good start.
Day 1, October 1st, with a fresh roll of film to start the trek. But first we had to get to Besi Sahar, a bone-rattling 5 hour local bus ride with the usual array of rice sacks, caged chickens and even a goat alongside the human passengers. By the time we got there and had lunch, there was only the possibility of 3 hours trekking, to Bhulbule. Our first evening, and as the sun set, the clouds kindly parted and gave us our first glimpse of the Himalayas up close, Mount Manaslu, and got us all excited. We chuckled to ourselves later on in the trek about how excited we got, coz the views only got better and better and better!!!.
Along the way we also met up with an Israeli woman, Hamutal with her guide Mukti, and also an Aussie couple from Newcastle, Jack and Christine, so were now a healthy party of 7, which was nice – a good group to chat to in the evenings coz there’s really not much to do at night, and besides, after waking 5-7 hours you don’t feel like doing too much!
Puran was doing an excellent job finding us accommodation along the way – it seemed that at every village he had a mate who’d put us up at 50% off – which meant that me and Paul were paying between 40 and 100 rupees each per night (that’s a paltry A$0.80cents to A$2!!)
Everywhere we stayed seemed to have 5star views in quaint little hillside villages with thatched or stone huts with brightly painted walls and signs.
Another little bonus by about the 3rd day at around Dharapani, which pleased Paul no end, was the copious amounts of wild ganja growing on the side of the trails. We were in prime growing territory at around 2000m high with bright sunshine every day, and lots of moisture about with the wild Marsyangdi River rushing down from the peaks. None of it tho was of great quality, but it still made for good photos, especially at Chame, where across the path from out guesthouse a crop of 8foot high plants stood just waiting for us to play about in!!!
As we progressed along the trail, we constantly noticed the scenery change from tropical jungle rainforest terrain, to pine forest, then as we reached greater altitudes, it turned more barren with small scrubbery shrubs and grasses, a lot of which looked like the Scottish Highlands. Then finally, when we were reaching heights upwards of 4000metres it looked like pure high-altitude desert – just as barren and desolate but strangely beautiful as the Tibetan High Plains were. We also felt it get a lot colder, especially at night, and were rugging up around dinner. We would then start walking at 7am with long trousers, a t-shirt and windstopper fleece, but by 9am it was up around 20degrees and we were too hot!!
A typical day would start with us waking at 6-6.30am, breakfast and farting about, with a plan to leave by 7.30am. Rarely did we make that schedule, coz I’m shockingly slow in the mornings!! But, hey, it didn’t matter a dot anyway, so why worry too much about time!! We had 2 rucksacks and a daypack between us – our porter Puran would carry the heaviest of the rucksacks (about 16Kg) and Paul and I would alternate carrying the other. Puran had it easy compared to some of the other porters we met on the trek – some were required to anywhere between 30-40Kg, some even upwards of 50Kg – absolutely nuts!!! And only getting paid about US$1-2 per day!!!!! We would walk for about 2 hours, take a 15minute break and compare our time with the suggested timing in the guidebook, and laugh that we’d done it in about 60% of the time. Another hour or so, and then lunch for an hour, then another 2-3 hours in the afternoon with little rest/photo/smoke breaks whenever we felt the need. We’d always be at our destination by about 2-3pm, nearly always first trekkers in town, and we’d just kill the rest of the day by checking out the village, or resting in our beds smoking copious amounts of hash that Paul’d bought (10 grams for 400 rupees – A$8). Dinner would be at 6-7pm, and then we’d nearly always be in bed by 8-8.30pm, pretty well knackered.
By the 6th day we’d reached Manang at 3500metres high, pretty much the point where Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS – Altitude Sickness) can start having an effect, and the Himalayan Rescue Association recommends a rest and acclimatisation day here. The day before tho we’d stayed at a village only 2hours walk and 150m drop from Manang, and I’d recently been to Tibet and so was already acclimatised, so we pushed on, leaving Jack and Christine as Jack had suffered some mild AMS symptoms. Sad to say goodbye, so then we were 5.
This was when we started slowing down a bit, with less oxygen getting to the lungs, but we were still going at a cracking pace compared to everyone else. In fact, I was nicknamed ‘Speed Boy’ because in relation to the other trekkers I practically ran up the hills!! All those long walks, ‘training’ I’ve been doing since I left were seemingly paying off. And the views were just getting better and better all the time. Each day as we progressed we would come across a fresh section of Himalayan mountains, first it was Manaslu, then Annapurna 2, then 4, then 3, Gangapurna, Pisang Peak, Chulu East, then West up at Thorung Phedi and High Camp (4800metres).
The day of the assault on Thorung-La – the highest mountain pass in the world at 5416metres (17599feet), and pretty much the greatest challenge of the walk, we were up at 3.30am!! this was for 2 reasons – one, it’s nigh on impossible to sleep at that altitude, and two, we were to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas at around 6.30am.
Let me tell you now, at 5am and at 4800metres, IT’S BLOODY COLD!!!!!!!! We were wearing pretty much every stitch of clothing we had, and began trudging up the 600metre climb to the Pass, where ITS EVEN BLOODY COLDER – minus 15 degrees in fact. So cold that my camera decided to pack it in – what a day for that to happen!! Fortunately, other folk had cameras that were working, some digital, and I’ll be able to get copies no worries. But the sunrise was something to behold, and something I’ll never, ever forget. A celebratory cigarette, Snickers bar, and cup of tea, and 20minutes later (it was too cold!!)we were off down the other side – a steep descent of 1600metres to Muktinath, stripping off layers and layers of clothing as it got lighter and brighter and warmer.
At the "Bob Marley Guest House and Restaurant" in Muktinath, Puran informed us we were his equal fastest trekking customers for doing the pass, up in 2 hours, down in 4. Some celebrations were in order, and for the first time since we started the trek, there was music playing on the stereo – Bob Marley, The Doors, Led Zep, Hendrix, all good stuff, so beers and beers and beers were in order (Paul had lost his hash somewhere near Chame on the trail – some lucky donkey is probably now walking around stoned out of its brain!!!!!!). it was the first time that we’d gotten drunk since we’d left – the first 2-3nights we’d have 1 bottle each and that’d be enough, before it got too high to drink – but we were still at 3800metres and so felt it pretty harsh getting up the next morning!!
part 2 to come....
Sat, 18 Oct 2003 14:14:45 +1000 (EST)
Annapurna - part 2
From here was pretty much downhill all the way, and so our walks were only 3-4 hours rather than 6-7 each day. At Jomson, one day after the pass, there is an airport, where Hamutal and her guide were flying out of, and so was our last day together – it was also her birthday, and so another drinking sesh was in order!!! But we were still at 2800m here, and the beers, along with Rackshi Wine (local moonshine liquor) and local Apple Brandy (more moonshine type stuff at somewhere near 80% alcohol) gave us an even worse hangover than Muktinath!!!! Nonetheless, I bought a small bottle of it to celebrate when I land in Edinburgh later this year.
A couple of easy days followed, and then at Tatopani on Day12 we opted for a rest day. There are Hot Springs here, right beside the Kali Gandaki River, which flows through the deepest gorge in the world. We also stayed in the nicest place in town for 100Rupees each, and gorged on the finest food on the trail. Our first day off since we started – sleep in!!!, then after a wander around, few postcards written and down to the hot springs, supping on a cold beer, smoking joints (Paul had acquired some more quality gear) followed by an hour long massage,…..oh man, it was gorgeous.
We were back down in amongst the pine forest and tropical jungle terrain again now, but still well and truly in the mountains. This was testified to by the 1750metre ascent we had to make from Tatopani to Ghorapani – needless to say a bit of a shock to system after our 2 easy days and the rest day!!!! But apparently, once again, we completed it in near record time, 5 hours!! Completely beat tho by the end of it. Our guesthouse at Ghorapani (2750metres) was probably the worst one we stayed at – thin plywood walls so you could hear everything going on in the whole place – but this was more than made up for by the view from the room Puran got us. It was a top-floor corner room with windows on 2 sides, one looking out directly to Dhaulagiri Mountain, and the other to Annapurna and Annapurna South – 8000metre high peaks so close you felt as tho you could reach out and touch them!!! Oh it was SUPERB!!!
The following morning was another early 4am start, to climb a local hill, Poon Hill (only a baby at 3210metres high!!) to watch another Himalayan sunrise over the Annapurna's and Dhaulagiri. Once again the temp was below freezing and once again the sunrise was absolutely stunning. Just watching it go from complete dark with the moon and clear starry night providing the only light, then through a magic show of colours to complete light is something I highly recommend every single one of you I’m writing to should do at least once!
This was also our last day, and so after a quick brekky, we set off speedily down the track to Naya Pul, a drop of 1700metres, eager to finally finish and get back to Pokhara for a drinking session to end them all. Mid-morning, walking through lush jungle I got my first injury for the trek – I slipped on some wet marble rock and as I landed to steady myself twinged my right knee. A rather inopportune time to do so, because just up ahead was a steep descent of some 3300 roughly paved stone steps. I had one saviour tho – Ibuprofen painkillers – thank God for Ibuprofen is all I can say!!.
Finally limping into Naya Pul, I gladly slumped into a seat at a café and gulped down a Coke, and let our guide organise a taxi for the hour long journey back to Pokhara. Once back at our guesthouse it was straight into the joints and beers and a bender that ended up at around 1am – not bad seeing as we’d been up since 4am!! Oh, and I woke up yesterday morning with a terrible swollen ankle, which means I must have fell over, but I don’t remember a single thing about it!!!!!!
I'm now off to the western end of Nepal to Royal Bardia National Park, with the hope of seeing some rhinos and tigers, and perhaps the very rare Gangetic Dolphin!!
Sun, 26 Oct 2003 14:34:49 +1100 (EST)
rhino spotting at royal Bardia - sorry guys 3rd attempt - this is it!!
I've had another pretty crazy bus journey or 4 since I last wrote, and am now writing from Manali in Himachel Pradesh state, North-Western India.
I arrived at Royal Bardia National Park on the 19th after leaving Pokhara at 1pm, expecting to be on the bus for 14 hours, long enough already methinks, but I wasn't prepared for 23(!!!) hours. In one way this was good as otherwise I would have gotten there at 3AM - as it was I arrived at Midday. The reason for the delay? Well, there has been quite a bit of Communist Mao-ist anti-government rebellion going on in Nepal in recent times, with the occasional shooting taking place about the country. So, in these parts there is a an 8PM - 4AM curfew on the roads. I had no idea about this at all, and I had fallen asleep at this stage, and when I woke up around 9-ish I was startled to discover the bus driver, conductor, and all passengers fast asleep. I was the only Westerner on the bus so couldn't question anyone about it, and so promptly followed suit and went back to sleep!! Resuming at 4AM on the dot, all was good barring the multiple checkpoint searches by the Government army along the way. Having been in Nepal for over a month now, this was all old hat, and apart from the bothersome delay, it didn't really phaze me - just go with the flow.
At the entrance to Royal Bardia I was met by a staff member of the 'Forest Hideaway Cottages' where I’d pre-booked my stay, for the final 13Km motorcycle ride into the park. This place was similar to the bungy-rafting place I stayed at for my birthday, with similar prices for their "Jungle Safaris", but being, once again, almost the only person there, was able to negotiate a considerable 25% discount for a 3night-3day stay, including all accommodation/food/park guide/park entry permit and bus fare to the Nepali border after I left (US$120).
It was pretty cool here, set just outside the Park boundary, in amongst a local ethnic Tharu-tribe village with mud-brick and thatch style housing. My bungalow was directly facing into the rice-paddy fields of the village and being harvest time, also got to watch them hard at work. The park itself is noted for its Royal Bengal Tiger and one-horned Rhino population, wild elephants, as well as numerous deer, leopards, jungle cats, langur and rhesus monkeys, wild boar, and dozens of species of birdlife. Of the entire population of tigers in Nepal, more than half of them live in the 968sq Km Bardia, and the chances of seeing a rare Rhino are getting better all the time with successful breeding programs in the park. I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing either one or both.
The elephants and boar also quite often like to stray out of the park and into the village, lured by the easy pickings of the crops, and so in response the villagers have erected 'machans' or watching towers' built of bamboo and wood with thatch roofing, with men posted to keep watch at night and scare them off. Apparently in the past this has caused quite a commotion among guests at the Forest Hideaway, but unfortunately I wasn't to be disturbed in my sleep by this.
My first full day here I did a rafting expedition - this one just an ambling, relaxing ride down the Karnali River, hoping to spot wildlife by the cool waters edge. There was only myself, a French couple and 2 guides aboard, and, binoculars and telephoto lenses at the ready, we spent the whole day peacefully and quietly keeping an eye out for any jungle activity. There were plenty of sambar deer, langur monkeys, a few boar, a couple of alligators, and a variety of birds (eagles, hawks, herons, storks, kingfishers), but no tigers, elephants or rhinos.
The next day the French couple left, leaving me the only person at the Hideaway, and my guide Raj took me on a couple of 1/2 day walks in different parts of the Park. I had seen nothing but more of the same the whole day and was about to call it quits just before sunset, when crossing a bridge over the river Raj saw something in the distance moving about in the water. Binoculars out - a Rhino!! Quickly we scampered down to the edge of the riverbank and crept along until we were just barely 10metres away from him. He was about 2/3rds submerged in the water, peacefully resting and cooling off his thick hide, either completely unaware of our presence or not giving a damn. We sat watching him for about 1/2 an hour, snapping pictures and hoping he would finish his bath and leave the water, with the blazing red sun setting in the background, until it was too dark to see anymore.
One last chance to spot something was an early morning bird-watching walk, up and out at 5am with the sun just rising. At this time there is an equal chance of catching a glimpse of a tiger as well as the bird-watching, but it was not to be. I decided to skip the last afternoons activity and get an earlier bus to the border, hoping to skip into India before the border post closed at 6pm.
Sun, 26 Oct 2003 15:54:51 +1100 (EST)
back in India
thought I’d split these emails up a bit for you.
so I’ve left the Hideaway, and I’m waiting at the bus stop along the Mahendra Highway at the intersection outside of the National Park. There is nothing more here than a few temporary wooden shacks that serve as makeshift cafe's for those waiting to get long-distance buses to India or Pokhara, or local buses along the bumpy, dusty gravel roads to the villages in the surrounding area. Life goes on as usual, except that there is this crazy white fella sitting on his rucksack by the edge of the road. So in the 1/2 an hour or so I wait for my bus, I am completely surrounded by 15 or 20 locals staring or trying to make little conversation with me - "where you come from", "what your age", where you go", "are you married", "what your religion", "from Australia? - you like CRICKET!!" - Ahhhhhhh, Ricky Ponting!!!!!!" The Nepali's are mad about cricket too....
All of a sudden a commotion breaks out - next door to the National Park is a Nepali Army Barracks - as an army transport truck pulls up. The Captain obviously is curious about the gathering, sees me, his frown breaks into a smile, and I proceed to answer all the same questions all over again!! When my bus finally pulls up, this Nepali Army Captain picks up my rucksack, loads it onto the bus for me, and shakes my hand...........I love Nepali's.
I'm told it's a 3 1/2 hour journey to the border - I automatically add 3 hours, and am not far wrong - it took 5 1/2 hours, mainly due, once again, to the 5 Army checkpoints in the 150Km bus ride. From the border town of Mahedrenagar, it's another 5Km to the physical border and Nepali Immigration, then I have to walk 2Km thru 'no mans land' - it ain't India, it ain't Nepal, it's just there, to the Indian Immigration office, and yet another cricket conversation. So now I'm back in India, at 4PM, and, wanting to get the hell out of the shitty shitty shitty border town of Banbassa I have to face another long night-bus ride to get anywhere in India. My Lonely Planet says there is a 15hour direct bus to Dharamsala.
The guy at the ticket office insists "No, Not possible - you go to Delhi",
"But I don't want to go to Delhi",
"I have a room with nice view for you if you like to stay here",
"I don't want to stay in Banbassa, and what the hell is there to see here anyway, its a shitty border town"
"If you want to go Dharamsala, you must go this way...." and proceeds to give vague directions to the opposite side of town.
I walk the exact opposite to where he directs me, and 50metres down the road is a bus stop for Shimla. This is the capital of Himachel Pradesh, the state in which Dharamsala is located, so I concede, and hop on. It's now 5.30PM, and I'm told we'll arrive in Shimla at 10AM, a 16 and a 1/2 hours long ride, and only about 1/2 way to Dharamsala!!!! Oh boy. Once again, for the 3rd bus ride in a row, I am the only white guy on the bus, and I’m beginning to feel as tho I'm the only backpacker in this entire part of the world, but I also kinda like this, to escape from the 'scene' that it can sometimes become.
I also have to say that this and the two previous rides weren't as bad as they could've been. Luckily, and this is quite a rarity, they weren't fully overcrowded with excess rice sacks and farm animals, in fact most of the time I had 2 seats to myself and so could even stretch out my legs and get some 1/2 decent sleep when I wanted it. They're just bloody long. I've gotten used to it tho, and knowing I’ve got a 7 or 10 or 15 hour bus ride ahead of me doesn't faze me, I just grin and bear it.
Overnight on this bus ride, we pass thru several towns that would normally be of interest to me if it wasn't at 2AM or 6AM. Haridwar is the point where the Ganges River leaves the Himalayas and is a Holy Pilgrimage point for Hindu worshippers. Our bus driver was clearly of this nature, coz when we got there for a 20minute toilet/snack break, he disappeared, and came back later all wet. At 2AM, he'd stripped down to his shorts and gone for a sins cleansing dip in the Ganges!! Only In India.
Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, is another point we briefly stopped at, which is a planned city, much like Canberra, built in the 1950's as the new capital of the recently-partitioned Punjab, when it was split in two between India and Pakistan. It is India's cleanest, and probably wealthiest city, with little sign of the usual street wandering cows, beggars, shoeshine boys and general pollution.
Anyway, the allotted 10AM arrival time comes and goes, and we're still not in Shimla - climbing slowly back through very scenic hills into the foot of the Himalayan range on switchback road after switchback road, it was 11.30AM when we finally arrived. Shimla is incredibly hilly, and as I got off the bus I was swarmed with locals offering their porter services to whichever guesthouse I choose (or one which they're touting for). But I’m busting for a piss, and the first thing on my mind is a toilet, and so I ignore and push my way thru the horde, racing up the hill till I see a public men's. I won't go into great detail, but it was probably the foulest toilet I’ve ever used - lets put it this way, when Indian men squat for number 2's, they haven't got good aim, and I don't think any cleaner has been near it in months!!
The place I chose to stay, a YMCA hostel, happened to be at the top of a hill at the opposite end of town from the bus station. After an 18hour bus ride I am now forced to walk 2miles up hill. Thankfully I've still got my Annapurna legs and I’m able to endure it. Damn it was good to get a hot shower and some decent sleep in a warm comfy bed!!!!
After a nap, I went for a wander about Shimla to check out the sights and get some food in. I could stay here for a few days I think - quite pretty with a few nice walks to surrounding villages. But I’m set for Dharamsala and plan to leave for there the next day. Until that is, I meet up with a coupla cute gals from Edinburgh who're headed for Manali. Not having had any Western company for a while now, and keen for some chat about Scotland, I take them up on their offer to travel with them. They, in turn, are thankful to meet up with a Western guy to travel with, as the Indian men have been giving them some trouble. I was planning to go to Manali anyways, directly after Dharamsala, so I'll just do it in reverse!! I love been able to make decisions arbitrarily like that!!
So first thing next morning, and I find myself on an 11hour bus to Manali.
more soon, tony
Sun, 26 Oct 2003 16:49:45 +1100 (EST)
Manali. I've heard about this place before. I've heard it's a bit of a 60's style hippie drop-out zone, with tie-dye fashion, long hair, and spaced-out Westerners wandering about in a haze of hashish smoke.
We (me, and the 2 Scots, Jane and Debbie) arrived here at 7PM. Driving along the mountain road in the dark, all of a sudden we are confronted by this large town with flashing neon lights, restaurants, travel and trekking agencies, and guesthouses galore, and crazy traffic dominated by the even crazier auto-rickshaw drivers, ducking their little death-trap-pollution-belting gas-guzzlers in and out of the way of buses and pedestrians alike. Manali is a pretty busy place now.
I had heard of a smaller village 4Km further up in the hills, Vashisht, which was a bit quieter than Manali, and so we decided to hire one of those death-trap auto rickshaws for the steep drive up the hill, and checked into a nice, cheap (60 Rupees for my room - A$2) little guesthouse with a view over the town and the Kullu Valley. Next morning we wandered down the street and popped into the first cafe we saw for a rooftop, mountain and valley view breakfast. Turned out we picked the place to be 'seen' in Vashisht, and pretty soon the sun-drenched rooftop was full of aforementioned hippie drop-out types, smoking chillums and drinking chai with local Indian Sadhus and wise old men of the hills with names like Baba Mango, and dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-Shirts. Just my kinda place!!
We did have plans to just have brekky and scoot off down the hill to check out what Manali had to offer in the daylight hours. But it soon became pretty clear, especially once our table filled up with chillum and joint toting folk, that we weren't going any place anytime soon. Our Apple Honey Pancakes and Chai Tea brekky soon became augmented by several different varieties and qualities of hashish, each one designed "to give you a different kind of high....man.......you don't just get stoned, you get high, you get energized......man" Fine by me, I couldn't tell the difference, I just knew I liked it!!
I bumped into an Austrian fella I smoked regularly with in Kathmandu at this cafe, which was cool - chatted to him and then an Irish/Manchester/Cornwall (his description) bloke, Clem, joined our table. Clem was renting a place further up in the hills, and offered to take us up to the rooftop of his place for a few more joints, some juice and music, before showing us India's best waterfall, a further 1/2 walk in the hills. How could we decline!?!?!?! Manali soon became a distant memory of an idea, and we were soon sitting back on some rocks, smoking, and watching and listening in complete silence to a gorgeous waterfall in the Indian Himalayas.
Back in the village several hours later, it was gearing up for a big night as today was a national festival day, Diwali, the Festival of Light. Firecrackers and mini fireworks were being lit by kids every minute, and the sound and light blast they made was something else, you just had to block your ears for fear of deafness, and laugh as the locals laughed at you for doing so. It was going to be a big night, with a big party planned at one of the local cafe's, and a fireworks display later in
It was at this point, unfortunately, that the cold that had been creeping up on me, finally bloomed, helped no doubt by the dose of hay fever I got from the dusty hill walk to the falls earlier in the day. I began feeling like total shit, all stuffed up in the nose with a throbbing headache. I hadn't replenished my first aid kit in a while, and had no medication for it, and I was definitely done with joints for the day. I had to call it quits, and so I'd love to tell you about how the party was, but I was in bed.
Today, I’m still feeling a bit under the weather, but its the first time I’ve felt shit in ages. Another day, maybe 2 here, and then I’m definitely on for Dharamsala. I hear the Dalai Lama is back in town!!
Fri, 31 Oct 2003 00:25:27 +1100 (EST)
memories of Manali
Phew!! How to describe the past 4 days!! We were staying in Vashisht, a small village just 4Km north of Manali, and managed to drag ourselves away from there just before we got sucked into the tourist black hole that it is. Seriously, people come here for a few days and end up staying for weeks, months, even years in some cases! One 40-year-old London lad we met, Pip, has been coming here annually since the 80's, and stays for months at a time. Apparently you can rent a cottage in the hills here for US$125 a year!!!!!!! Even if your not here, it's worth the splurge just to have the keys!!!!!!
The bulk of our time was spent at a rooftop cafe overlooking the Kullu Valley and mountain scenery, smoking spliff after spliff after.... and chillums, like madmen and women. I'd usually get up and down to the cafe by about 9am, and in the already blazing hot sun, have a gorgeous brekky of honey apple pancakes, cheese tomato toasties, a banana lassi and several chai teas.
It wouldn't be long before the placed filled up with joint toting society dropouts, wide-eyed tourists (like us) and a good selection of Vashisht's finest and wisest Baba Holy Men and Sadhus. There were 2 in particular we spent a lot of time with, Baba Mango and Joshi. Baba Mango is one helluva crazy man, rumoured to regularly smoke 1000 chillums a day!! Mad for 'em he was, absolutely refused to toke on a joint, but chillums he NEVER refused! Always laughing his maniacal laugh in between bouts of coughing up his lungs. And at age 37, with his thick, tightly curly beard and wrinkled face, we all had him pinned for somewhere between 50 and 70, he looked so old beyond his years. Joshi, well he is probably the coolest men on the planet. He is actually aged somewhere beyond 70, but is as fit and agile as any of us, and along with Irishman Clem, we had 2 self-appointed Manali tour guides, joint providers, and wisdom providers.
This wonderful man, when I mentioned in conversation that I wanted to buy a couple of chillums (one for me, the other a gift), first of all offered to help me choose one in a shop, then for me, give me one his for free. It's an amazing pipe, with an awesome carving of an old, wise, dreadlocked Sadhu on it and a really nice stone inside. I couldn't accept it for free, and offered him a few hundred rupees for it, which he accepted, but then also gave me a cleaning stick, mixing bowl, chillum pouch, and a lump of 7or8 grams of charras. I had to give him something else, this was just too much!!!, and so gave up my sunglasses, which he looks like such a dude wearing!! It was really such a sweet and touching exchange - this wise old man befriending us, talking to us, and not asking anything from us the whole time, and then makes such an awesome gift,.......the guy is too cool for words.
We would sit at this cafe for hours on end, getting sooooo stoned, laughing hysterically, and uncontrollably at times, to stories told of travels past and local characters. To our credit, at some stage of each day, we would, at Clem and Joshi's prompting, get out and about somewhere - a cool waterfall, or a Buddhist temple in a pine forest. We had lunch at a pizza place, sitting in the veranda watching the mountains, with wild pot plants growing not 2 feet away from us. And it served up probably one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. Seriously.
Joshi took us to the Indian Kali temple down by the river for a spot of culture and pretty photo ops, and while down there inviting us all into an ashram to smoke some more chillums around a fire with 1/2 a dozen Sadhu's, in devotion to the God, Shiva.
There was sooo much more we did, drinking in a few local bars including an old school Indian drinking den, but it's all such a smoke haze now. Honest to God, we'd be up at 9ish, and keep going till well after dark. I admittedly called it quits early most nights, but the Scots lassies and Clem apparently usually passed out somewhere around 2am, and then be going again first morning - I couldn't keep up.
So yes, it was extremely lucky that we were able to extract ourselves from the Vashisht scene, otherwise it would be "Bye Bye Tony" !!!!
After a quick 7 hour night-bus ride, we are now in Bhagsu, a couple of Km's from Macleod Ganj, just outside Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and his Government-in-Exile. I've just found out today unfortunately that he was in town briefly after his U.S.-France tour, but is off again for a few weeks, so my chance to meet him has disappeared in a waft of charras smoke, but I can console myself with having heard him speak in Melbourne last year.
The Sky Pie Guest House in Bhagsu has been a continuation of Vashisht, although on a much lower scale of consumption,.....thankfully. It's so nice to wake up in the morning with either nothing to do, or maybe just one errand to run, and sit on a balcony listening to music, reading, chilling out. We made one brief stroll to Macleod Ganj yesterday, but other than have not moved.
More on Macleod Ganj after I’ve had a proper look.
Mon, 3 Nov 2003 20:39:52 +1100 (EST)
chillin' in Bhagsu
Well, I've been in Bhagsu (a small village 2Km from Macleod) almost a week now, and to be honest, haven't done a whole lot - just a milder continuation of the madness that was Vashisht. So this'll be a relatively short email..... ('thank god' I hear some of you sigh!! ;-) )
As previously mentioned, the main objective of coming to Dharamsala/Macleod Ganj was to hopefully get an audience with the Dalai Lama, but he left the day after I arrived for Japan (busy man!!), so that idea was shot.
what to do instead?
* sit around the Sky Pie Guest House cafe, listen to cool music on the stereo, drink chai tea and get stoned? Sure, why not.
* go for a 20 minute walk up a hill to 'Shiva Cafe' , drink chai and get stoned while checking out the Bhagsu Waterfall and the view down the valley? Sure, why not also.
* sit in a cafe with the tele on watching the Aussies whip the Indians in a cricket match while drinking chai and getting stoned? mmmmm, okay.
* how 'bout walking down to Macleod Ganj to wander around the Dalai Lama's temple and residential grounds, and check out the awesome and amazing Tibet Museum which was curated by 11 former political prisoners of the Chinese state. yeah, I could do that too....and get stoned afterwards....
And that's pretty much all I did, in the company of a pretty cool group of Aussies, Scots and Israeli's. In fact, it's the Israeli's who are setting the scene in terms of copious amounts of smoking. In one of the rooms there is all manner of smoking apparatus - chillums, bongs, bucket bongs as well as the usual plain and simple joint - going around almost constantly. it's great!!
To give you an idea of how nuts these guys are, one of them told a story of being in the Israeli army, and getting so bored that they would smoke joints thru the barrel of an M-16 rifle, and make ashtrays from disabled landmine cases and used machine gun clips!!!
But the fun and madness can only last so long, and to be truthful, can also get a tad boring, so I think I’ll move south to Rajasthan in the next day or two.
Fri, 7 Nov 2003 17:39:14 +1100 (EST)
roads and rail in India
G'day, India is enormous. That fact is a given. However, it is made immeasurably larger for the traveller by the roads, and rail systems here. I've just arrived in Jaipur, Rajasthan yesterday, after a 21 hour journey. Leaving Macleod Ganj at 3pm,on schedule, on a local bus, we got as far as Dharamsala (nothing more than a large market townreally - glad I was in Macleod Ganj), 10Km down the road before we stopped for a rather lengthy period of time. Why? Well first of all, there were about 50-60 high school kids that had to cram onto the bus. This made it a pretty crowded affair and reminded me of my school days cramming onto the bus home. Fair enough.
But also, incredibly, it seems that India's local buses also double as the inter-city postal vans!! Seriously, we parked out front of the local mail distribution centre where about 50 enormous sacks of mail and large packages were shoved in the back door onto seats that were previously occuipied by aforementioned school kids. They had no choice but to bunch up even tighter, and made my already limited personal space pretty much unbearably non-existent. This whole process took almost an hour, then we were off again. After a period of time, the school kidsexited and I could breathe again. we stopped several more times for more mail pick-ups, and all was smooth sailing....until, just after dark, we reached the border of Himachel Pradesh and Punjab states, signified by a very long bridge over some body of water.
we were halfway across when we, once again,stopped. it seemed there was a TATA goods truck coming in the other direction, and the road wasn't wide enough for the 2 vehicles to pass each other!!!! I couldn't believe it, they hadn't made the bridge wide enough for a bus and truck to pass each other - who is in charge of the road building/planning here!!.....so, we had to reverse some 100metres or so until we got off the bridge so that the truck could pass. in the meantime, we'd caused somewhat of a traffic jam, and had to wait about 20minutes for the bridge to clear of traffic. Nuts. Finally, (I seem to use this word in almost every email!!!) I reached Chakki Bank, where I was to catchan express train direct to Jaipur. All was well with the overnighter, slept well, but when I woke up about 4.30am realising the train had stopped, we were in Delhi!! - a place I wanted to avoid until absolutely necessary. A quick query of the conductor revealed a last minute itinerary change - nice of them to let us know!! Fortunately the train was continuing onto Jaipur, and I didn't need to change tickets or trains.
Looking at my guidebook map, and seeing a direct Delhi-Jaipur train line, I went back to sleep. Only to wake up 2 hours later at some random station. Another look at the map, and I discover the train had taken a rather more indirect route, almost in completely the opposite direction of Jaipur! It did swing around eventually, and after some 16 hours on the train, I arrived. I plan to spend a few days here, catch a Bollywood flick at reputedly India's finest cinema, and checkout the 'Pink City' that is Jaipur.
Tue, 11 Nov 2003 21:37:06 +1100 (EST)
Jaipur the Pink City
Jaipur, the 'Pink City' was so nicknamed because way back in 1876 the ruling Maharaja ordered the entire place to be painted that colour, traditionally associated with hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales.
I dunno if its since been repainted or what, but these days it has more of a reddish-orange tinge to it. never mind tho, it still looks great, and is amazingly photogenic. in 3 days there, I took more than 50 piccies.
I loved Jaipur, a teeming, buzzing metropolis of just under 2million people, with the focus being on the old walled city. It's filled with brightly clothed men and women in richly decorated sari's and turban's selling there wares on the main street, all manner of fruit and veg vendors competing for space with a mishmash of tacky trinket stalls and motorbike/cycle and whatever-else-is-broken repair shops. It all spills out onto the road, and with little, if any, space to walk on the pavement, pedestrians are forced also onto the street, ducking and dodging and weaving in and out and under auto rickshaws, camel carts laden with all sorts of produce, taxis, bone- rattling death-trap local buses, motorbikes, and of course the always to be seen, never to be messed with, holy cows. Forget about the old road rule of 'whatever's largest has right of way', even the buses and trucks do everything within their power to avoid hitting them, for to kill a cow, even by accident, in this hugely Hindu-religious country, can earn you a death sentence.
I just wonder whether the cows actually know this, because they do literally wander out into the middle of traffic without a care in the world, in many cases simply plonking themselves down on the most comfy looking piece of asphalt they find, invariably at the head of a major intersection. I also think that Western tourists have the same kind of power here, because whenever I needed to cross a street or intersection, I would simply stick my hand out in a 'Stop' fashion, and weave thru the traffic till I reached the other side. Kind of empowering actually!!
There's a fair bit to see In Jaipur, but as most sites of interest are contained within the Old City walls, it's pretty easy to cover it all in 3 days. The City Palace, an old Raj-era building, with ornate, and perfectly symmetrical architecture was a highlight, containing museum pieces of old army weaponry, 300-year-old intricately and delicately woven rugs, and period-clothing, including dining attire of an old Maharaja who was 200cm tall, 120cm wide and weighed in at a paltry 250Kg's. Needless to say, the outfit was huge. I pity his poor wife in the bedroom!! Out in the courtyard on this hot and bright sunny day, the sun beamed off the rich red-orange walls, and with a honeycomb yellow clock tower and vivid blue sky to complement, made for a photographers paradise. A Polish girl I had met up with, an arts student, and I, were revelling in it.
Next door is an ancient outdoor Astronomy observatory, built in 1728 (everything's so old!!), to such exacting and precise measurements that, although no longer in official use, is still deadly accurate. It also contains the worlds largest sundial, at 27metres high, whose shadow cast moves 4m per hour.
Then there is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) building. Not really a building as such, but more a facade of a building, built back in 1799, 5 stories high, overlooking the bustling main street, to enable to the ladies of the royal household to watch the everyday life of the city, without being seen themselves. It's one of Jaipur's major landmarks, and now open to the public, entering via back street and climbing to the top, it does indeed give amazing views of the street and the surrounding city.
Away from, and overlooking the city, is Tiger Fort, built in 1734, and an awesome place from which to watch the sunset and city lights. Myself and Karolina, the Polish girl, wandered the 2Km winding footpath to do exactly this, and also to listen to the city and its inhabitants live. A city of 2million folk can certainly make a noise!! I loved it.
Later this night, we walked across town to the Raj Mandir Cinema, to catch the latest Bollywood flick in town, Khel. An experience it certainly was, all in Hindi bar the occasional sentence or 2 spoken in English, and a plot so convoluted it made American daytime soaps seem childlike in simplicity in comparison, and with the leading lady and macho hero breaking into 5minute long music video clip scenes that bore no relevance to the film whatsoever (with obligatory Indian male fantasy wet-sari clad beach scenes) that the movie ended with neither of us really comprehending what it was all about. but I loved it nonetheless. It was funny to see the audience break into a raucous cheer when one of Bollywood's superstar actors made his first appearance on screen, and boo the bad guy in crucial moments - they get so involved in the film, its awesome.
As I mentioned 3 days was enough here, as wonderful as this city is, and a 4 hour bus ride later I was in Pushkar.
Sun, 16 Nov 2003 03:25:20 +1100 (EST)
For the last 4 months I have been pretty well winging it as far as planning my journey goes, with my only timetable restrictions being the few flights I've had to make.
I'm now into my final 3-4 weeks and for the first time I’m having to plan my schedule in advance. It's not something I like doing, and is making me feel as tho I’m a little rushed. And then when I meet someone who makes a recommendation about a place that "you absolutely must visit", and squeeze that in also, well it makes that schedule even tighter. My last two destinations have been from travellers recommendations, Udaipur, and where I am now, Mount Abu.
Pushkar was also highly recommended to me by several backpackers along the way, and I spent 3 nights there. I arrived late in the afternoon of the final day of Pushkar's annual Camel Fair, the town's highlight and claim to fame. It's a small place of about 20,000 or so, but swells to several hundred thousand for a week in October or November, depending on the Lunar Calendar. It's basically an enormous trading fair of, you guessed it, camels - but other livestock get bought and sold as well. It's an event that has been going on for centuries and is a hugely important part of the local's lives as Indian traders come from hundreds of miles around top be involved.
Pushkar is also important as a holy pilgrimage site for Hindu's as the lake around which the town revolves is of special importance. Apparently while Brahma was fighting and killing a demon, he dropped a lotus flower, 3 of the petals falling to the ground from where 3 lakes sprung up, 2 of them a few Km's out of town, and the main lake is where Pushkar was built around - a dip in the lake cleanses you of all sins. It is especially more reverent if you take your bath during the last 5 days of ****** holy month, coinciding with the Full Moon, which incidentally is at the same time as the Camel Fair!! So you've got camel traders, religious pilgrims and hundreds of curious tourists all congregating in this pretty little village for one week of the year. As you'd expect, as a spectacle, it really is quite something, and as almost the busiest place in all India, accommodation prices soar accordingly.
As I mentioned, I missed all of this, and I’m kinda glad in a way. Apparently, it can also be somewhat of a nightmare, with the handicrafts/curios/local produce market-stall vendors becoming quite pushy and even a little aggressive, and just trying to casually stroll thru the village takes superhuman effort.
By the time I arrived, most of the crowds had disappeared, and the village was almost back to normal. Rajasthani handicrafts in the markets were still at inflated prices, and the vendors still pushy, so even tho I was told 'this is the place to buy your souvenirs and gifts', I didn't spend a single penny there. A wander up a nearby hill at sunrise to Savitri (one of Brahma's wives) temple provides pretty speccy views of the village and the surrounding desert, and the Brahma temple itself is said to be the main site of worship of this god.
Udaipur, population 300,000, said to be Rajasthan's most romantic city, described as 'the Venice of the East', was my next stop. In the surrounding desert there are almost infinite supplies of marble, and the cities British Raj-era architecture is chock-full of it. There is an enormous lake, and a massive and palatial island hotel smack bang in the middle of it, and a river running thru town, which I guess is where the Venice tag comes in. There is also an old palace on a hill overlooking the city, Monsoon Palace - a great place to watch the sunset. I wasn't entirely enchanted by Udaipur as others have been - a pretty enough city to be sure, but the romanticism was lost on me somewhat - if I was with a cute blonde, maybe, but I was hanging out with a 30-year old hairy Israeli-American!! No romance there!!!!!
Udaipur's cinematic claim to fame??? - the old Roger Moore-era Bond flick "Octopussy" was filmed here, the Monsoon Palace and the flashy hotel as integral set-pieces, and every second cafe/restaurant was screening it nightly. I hadn't seen the film before, and on my second and last night in town, had a nice rooftop-city-view dinner, and pissed myself laughing at all the corny lines coming out every second scene.
Mount Abu is Rajasthan's only hill station, a bit of a getaway from the desert heat, and a great opportunity to escape the crowds as well. It's also a main Indian tourist spot as well, so it wasn't completely inescapable, but it's about as close as I’ll get to one. The main religion around here is Jain-ism, and the marble temples here, built around 1000AD are absolutely spectacular. They aren't particularly large, but the intricate detail in the carvings of religious scenes and the latticework in the archways is beyond compare. Just to think that 1500 people took 14 years to chisel out the finest patterns and figurines is mind-boggling. One of the staff at the guesthouse I’m staying at has a sideline in guiding backpackers on little walks about the town (he took us on the 5Km walk to the Jain temples), and into the surrounding hills for a bit of wildlife spotting - we didn't see anything, but the walk was so peaceful and relaxing. There is also "Sunset Point" and an old Maharaja's palace to visit as well - tomorrow.
Monday, I'm heading to Jodhpur - the "Blue City".
Fri, 21 Nov 2003 04:47:36 +1100 (EST)
Jodhpur - "The Blue City"
Two weeks left in Asia, and my head is spinning. I'm having a great time during the days here, soaking up all there is to offer in India, but once I hit the sack at night, I find it nearly impossible to get to sleep. With my mind thinking about landing in London and catching up with friends and relatives there, then zipping around England doing more of the same, hitting Scotland for my best mates wedding and having the role of best man, and of course the 12month working visa awaiting me in Ireland, it's all so much!!! I can't wait for it, but at the same time, I don't want to leave here just yet......
Anyway, I left Mount Abu 3 days ago, with the final night watching the sunset over the plains below. When I say sunset, it wasn't the usual kind you expect. with so much pollution around this country, there was a thick haze of smog reaching quite a ways above the natural horizon, and formed its own horizon and set behind that. Once it had dipped behind the smog, we could see just a faint outline of the sun until it set fully about 15minutes later.
Jodhpur, a 6 hour bus ride away, and Rajasthan's 2nd most populated city (around 750,000 folk) is known as the "Blue City", but not for the reason you might immediately think - it does not have a thriving porn industry!!. Basically, within the Old City walls, the majority of the concrete-built houses and buildings are painted a pastel blue colour. As its located on the edge of the Great Thar Desert, apparently this helps keep the inside temperature down during the heat of summer and also works somehow as an effective mosquito repellent!! In times past, having a blue-painted house indicated you were of the "Brahmin" caste, the most prominent and wealthy of all the Hindu castes.
When you climb to the top of the old Maharaja's fort which dominates the city, it also makes for a pretty spectacular photo. The fort itself was built in 1459AD, and during all the centuries of warring between the various Raj states, was never successfully penetrated during invasion attempts, a fact the locals are proud of to this day. It's an amazing structure, built on top of the highest hill in town, with high walls defended by cannons and thick, solid cast iron gates. The Royal residences within are grand and opulent with such luxurious ornamental adornments, some of the rooms having the usual British Influence, that I can hardly imagine what it was like to be living during the periods of dominance that they did for centuries before the British moved in.
Also in Jodhpur is an old marble palace, said to be "the Taj Mahal of Marwar (the area this place is located in)" and also said to be a major influence on the design of the actual Taj in Agra. Although in no way on the same scale as Taj Mahal, it is still pretty grand, and is used as a mausoleum for the last Maharaja.
I've met up with an English couple and a guy from Belfast, and we spent the day wandering about the fort and palace, and checking out the local markets here, and are leaving with them for Jaisalmer tomorrow. The past 2 days I’ve pretty much done nothing, relaxing at my hostel, going for little wanders around to take care of a few errands, and watching the Aussies beat the Indians in the cricket last night. One cool little spot we found, just on the outside walls of the market, was called The Omelette Shop. Basically, this old Indian fella has a wooden shack chock full of cartons of eggs and a small kero-fuelled cooker, and from 9am-10pm he whips up tasty little omelette sandwiches, and claims to go thru over 1000 eggs per day. He's quite famous now and has even earned himself an entry in the Lonely Planet.
Another quirky little find of India has been their cigarettes - what they call "Bidi's". These are basically one large tobacco leaf rolled up into little cigarettes, no filter, with a tiny strip of cotton to tie off the end. Now, I'm not normally a smoker, but check this for a comparison. A packet of 20 Marlboro lights back home costs about A$10 I think. Here, they're 50 Rupees (less than A$2). A pack of 25 Bidi's is 5 rupees!! (A$0.15cents) 5 bidi's therefore is 1 Rupee, and the Aussie dollar gets 32 Rupees!!! I've been smoking these as a bit of a novelty more than anything else, and the locals are amused and get a laugh when they see a Western backpacker light one up. It could also be argued that, as they have no filter or artificial burning agents in them that they are a healthier option (not healthy, but healthier) than regular fags. I'm quite tempted to buy a carton and give them to mates when I hit the UK.
It's been nice to chill here - I've needed the rest as my energy levels have been a bit down the past week or so. Whether this is due to 4 and a 1/2 months of solid travelling, or the feeling of anticipation I mentioned earlier (or perhaps both), I don't know. But it is nice. There's not a lot to do here, but Jodhpur's a cool place to hang out.
Fri, 28 Nov 2003 18:43:54 +1100 (EST)
Jaisalmer - The Golden City (or 'Hey, the English finally won something!!')
In Jaisalmer at the minute, on the edge of the Great Thar Desert, and about 100Km or so from Pakistan. One could be excused from getting a little bored with forts in Rajasthan, as upon reaching Jaisalmer I reached yet another ancient city with yet another centrally located and very imposing looking fort. But I have to say, this is probably the pick of the places I’ve stopped at in Rajasthan. The main difference here is that rather than just being a museum of sorts, the Jaisalmer fort is a living breathing mini-city, with about a quarter of the towns 50,000 inhabitants residing within the city walls. And there's a real sense of it being straight out of an '1001 Arabian Nights' fairytale, with a maze of tiny golden sandstone laneways meandering about the fort, and a buzzing cacophony of street stall wallah's hawking jewellery, trinkets, Raj-style blankets and rugs, and little 10-year old boys trying to entice you into their fruit juice stands - "FRESH FRUIT JUICE, NO WATER, NO ICE, ONLY FRUIT!!!"
The city's nickname, as with all other coloured cities, is derived from the colour of it's buildings, and when the sun sets down on Jaisalmer, it certainly does give off a rich golden honeyed hue, especially upon the ramparts of the fort's entrance.
Walking thru the market here, I was pleasantly surprised to find the stall hawkers weren't jumping down my throat trying to entice me into their shop - the fruit stall boys being an exception - (this tactic invariably guarantees that I will avoid that shop completely, regardless of what they sell). As I'd avoided the shopping hassle in Pushkar, and never really looked about in Udaipur or Jodhpur, Jaisalmer was my last chance for some classic Indian Rajasthani souvenirs and cool looking gifts. I went nuts, increasing the Kg's of my rucksack immensely - but still only spent about A$100!! I bought photo books, bronze statuettes, a couple of small drums, and a double bed Rajasthani-styled embroidered blanket. This last purchase was a classic moment in impulse buying.
I had just spent all day in a restaurant watching the World Cup Rugby final (more on that later), and afterwards stopped in at the "Government Authorised Bhang Shop", which specialises in bhang-cookies and lassi yoghurt drinks. For those of you who don't know, Bhang is a derivative of marijuana, so I don't know how, given that products' legal status, the words "Government Authorised" comes into the shops title. Anyway, I was semi-pissed still and munching on one of these cookies, looking around the shop at the paraphernalia on the walls. This is where I spotted the rug.
"Excuse me, is this for sale?"
"Sure, why not"
I'd been looking around various shops earlier on, pricing stuff, and this was in the ball-park of my budget, and certainly not a rip-off first price.
"I'll give you 1000 Rupees"
"No Sir, this came from my brothers shop and he has a shop around the corner, why don't you look in his shop also, maybe he has cheaper blankets"
"I quite like this one tho, what's your best price?"
"Sir, my brother's shop is fixed price shop - no bargaining, we only give real price first time" (that's a first if I’ve ever heard it!!)
After some more discussion, while I was actually standing on a seat trying to untie it from the wall fittings, I finally got it for 1300Rupees (A$40) (so much for fixed price!). There were also 3 of my pals and some other Bhang shoppers inside, and I was creating an endless amount of amusement for them "What IS this crazy Ozzie geezer getting up to?
Normally, impulse buys when your pissed can be quite disastrous, but I looked at it the following morning and still liked it, and was quite chuffed! It wasn't brand new, altho still in good nick, but had character and now also a good story behind it.
Now, about the Rugby. What a great day (even tho we lost!). To be honest, I’m not a huge rugby fan - this is true of most Melbournians, and was only watching it coz Australia were in the final. I was still hanging out with the English couple, Paul and Angela and the Belfast lad Richard, and we'd found a cute little restaurant in the fort called Little Tibet that actually had the Star Sports cable channel and rendezvoused there at around 1.30pm for the kick-off. In the end there was about 10 or so England fans and me, the sole representative of Australia in the restaurant. I'd had a 100Rupees (A$3.30) bet on with Paul, so along with the fact it was the World Cup final, made the game a little more interesting for me. The requisite banter and ribbing and beer consumption were rife the whole game, which I have to admit was a pretty thrilling affair as it was so close and so tense. Happy to hand over the 100Rupees when we lost, Paul made me sign it, declaring he would never spend this cash, but instead would frame it and wall mount it for prosperity. So on one side I wrote "CONGRATULATIONS ENGLAND, 20-17 RUGBY WORLD CUP FINAL 2003" and on the other "FUCK OFF YOU ENGLISH BASTARD"!! Needless to say the drinking and ribbing continued on well into the night, until finally we left and I went blanket shopping in the Bhang shop.
The following 2 days I went on a camel safari into the Great Thar Desert, with 3 Swiss folk and our guides, Rajeet, and 12-year old Ishua. The little guy was amazing, riding and leading the camels as if he'd been on them since he could walk. He's been working on Safari tours for 2 years, and before he'd started had zero English, had never been to school, and now had almost a perfect grasp on the language!!
It's a pretty novel experience I have to say, riding a camel, and very, very sore on your butt. We were driven out by jeep about 30Km from town where we met our guides, then rode for about 4 hours thru desert scrub, passing by several hundred-year old Jain temple ruins along the way. We then stopped in the heat of the day for 3 hours or so, resting under the shade of some desert-hardy trees while Ishua prepared our chapati's from scratch (flour, water and salt) and Rajeet cooked up our dahl and curried veg. Mid-afternoon we took off again for another couple of hours until just before sunset where we set up camp at the foot of some sand dunes.
Now I have seen some pretty speccy sunsets on this trip, but I have to say there were none better than this one, watching the sun drop out of the sky behind enormous sand dunes, with the wispy clouds in the sky providing awesome reflections of pink, yellow, orange, purple and blue as the sun slid further and further beyond the horizon. That scene was then equally matched by a night sky brilliantly filled with stars, made all the more brighter by the fact that there was no moon out. It was here that I munched on some more Bhang cookies after dinner (rice, chapati's and dahl) watching the stars and went to sleep under blankets on the sand
under the clear night sky.
Next morning, up at dawn for the sunrise, and on our way almost immediately after breakfast, back up on the camels for the journey back. I have to be honest here and admit that I didn't ride all the way back, opting to walk about 1/2 the day. I was getting some pretty sore chafing on the inner thighs, and had developed a large-ish pimple on my backside, so bouncing in and out of the saddle caused no small matter of discomfort!! Nonetheless, it was a pretty enjoyable 2 days. I was happy to get back to the guesthouse tho, and get into a shower, coz I have to say......camel's stink!! I'm not sure which is worse, their breath or their farts, it's a pretty close call - but they do fart a helluva lot, no question, and it's not too pleasant a smell at all.
I had a pretty amazing time in Jaisalmer, and Rajasthan as a whole and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone as an ideal destination if contemplating a short 2-3 week holiday in India. I'm just waiting for time to pass now until I get my train to Delhi, a tidy 21hour overnight journey.
Mon, 1 Dec 2003 17:36:36 +1100 (EST)
what's so bad about Delhi? Agra sucks tho.
I've just left Delhi yesterday after 2 1/2 days in India's capital, which followed a 21hour overnight train from Jaisalmer. I'm now in Varanasi.
Nearly everyone I've spoken to, who's been to Delhi, probably 95%, has hated it. I didn't think it was so bad. Perhaps if Delhi was your first stop on your first time in India the culture shock, the pollution (which is pretty bad) the intensity and density of people, and the poverty may hit you in the face, but I’m kinda used to it by now.
I arrived at around 1pm and spent my first 1/2 day resting up and then wandering the Pahar Ganj backpacker/market area to familiarise myself. It's pretty bloody hectic, a more intense, condensed, smoggy and dirty version of Kao Sahn Road in Bangkok. But cheap, oh my God it is so cheap. I did some more last minute souvenir and gift shopping and spent barely more than A$20.
There are quite a few major sites in Delhi that attract the tourists, The Red Fort, Hamuyan's Tomb, and Jama Masjid (Mosque) being the main ones. There are several other important sites there, but as I had only 2 full days, and dwindling funds, I restricted myself to these 3. I'm down to my final week now, and still have to travel half way across the country to Kolkata, so I’m basically at the stage where I just get in, see the main sights and get out of each city I visit.
As you approach the Red Fort from Chandni Chowk, Delhi's congested, highly polluted main street (good Indian sweets shop tho - Gantewala's - been around for 200 years, yum yum), you are confronted by Lahore Gate, the forts main entrance. This is probably Delhi's most recognisable symbol, much like the Opera House is to Sydney or Big Ben to London. The Red Fort and its 2Km of surrounding walls, was built of red sandstone (funny that!) between 1638 and 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, It's very imposing and awe-inspiring, a grand landmark.
The Jama Masjid (mosque) is the biggest in India, also built by Shah Jahan from 1644-1658, and another very imposing looking building, with its onion shaped minaret towering above, and it's open air design can hold 25,000 people at any one time.
Hamuyan was a Mughal ruler in the 16th Century and his tomb was built by his wife as a dedication to his life and death. It was a precursor to the Taj Mahal, with many of the design features used, on a much greater scale, in Agra. Hamuyan's tomb by itself is a pretty amazing building, set in a large, green, open space several kilometres out of the bustle of Delhi, and was a nice retreat for a couple hours.
It totally amazes me looking at these ancient edifices, leaving me dumbfounded at the detail and sheer effort put into designing and constructing the architectural marvels. Why don't they make buildings like this anymore.
Agra - population of 1.1million, and the only thing going for it is the Taj Mahal, and perhaps the Agra Fort. It's pretty much a dirty, polluted, industrial wasteland shit-hole with rip-off merchants around every corner waiting to fleece stupid, naive tourists. I'd planned to just spend the day there, and get an overnight train onwards to Varanasi. I left Delhi on an early morning 3hour express train, got a auto-rickshaw straight to the Taj, all the while fending off the driver's persistent attempts to lure me into marble shops and gem emporiums.
The Taj Mahal itself is incredible. What's even more incredible is that the thick, heavy smog and foul smelling pollution of Agra is not too prevalent here. As you enter the grounds through a giant sandstone minaret shaped archway, you are immediately presented with 'that' view, India's defining symbol. Standing there, taking it all in, and trying to get 'that' shot with my camera, I was surprised to see it back-dropped by clear, blue skies - albeit with a hot midday heat haze. I was expecting some kind of ugly smog coloured sky.
The city's rulers have to be congratulated for enforcing a 4Km buffer zone forbidding motor vehicles from entering this area, and a ban on any further industrial developments in the area. This has helped maintain the Taj as a decent tourist site. I just wish that it so expensive - at 750 Rupees (A$25) it's kinda steep, considering most other tourist hot spots in India charge around 100Rupees (Red Fort, Jama Masjid).
Another Shah Jahan construction, it took 22 years to build from 1631 to 1653, and has been described the most extravagant monument built for love, dedicated to his second wife who died during childbirth. The grounds are quite nice, set in open green space, with the watercourse leading down from the entrance, giving off a perfect mirror reflection. The design of the grounds is a perfect exercise in symmetry, with white minarets gracing the four corners of the Taj which itself is built on a raised platform of pure marble, a mosque to the left and an identical building to the right (unusable as a place for prayer as its facing the wrong direction to Mecca). An hour and a half or so is all you need tho, once you've walked the grounds there isn't much else. Like I say, a tad expensive - even tho it is the Taj.
I then got my rickshaw driver to take me to the Agra Fort and was going to enter and check that out as well, but at 250Rupees (A$8) on top of the Taj fee, it was all a bit expensive. I just took 2-3 photos from the outside and left. My driver by this stage had lost all interest in me as I wasn't going to visit any of his friend's shops, and even tho I had agreed on a price for a days hire, he made his excuses and left me after I had paid him 1/2 what we'd settled on. I was glad to be rid of him actually, but now I was about 4Km from the train station, with 4 hours to kill before my train left. I thought I’d walk. Big mistake - for my lungs at least, for the route from Agra Fort to the station was through the aforementioned industrial wasteland area of town. Walking down main streets with auto repair shops, with extreme decibel ear-drum bursting generators running. diesel fumes belching from auto rickshaws, cargo trucks and local buses, I could barely see 20feet in front of me the pollution was that bad. when I got to the station at dusk, I went to the loo, had a look in the mirror, and my face was filthy, almost black with the thick grime of pollution etched into the lines and creases. Horrible. I couldn't wait to leave.
I still had about 3 hours of waiting on the station platform, and by this stage had developed a bit of a bad mood, a bad cough, and a bad headache. Agra really affected me badly. So when countless shoeshine boys, food hawkers and general beggar-type folk tried to flog there wares or plead for rupees, and wouldn't take no for an answer after the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, even 5th time, I cracked it. "Listen, I don't want you to shine my shoes!, I've tried to be polite and say no, I've said no, thank you 5 times now, but you don't seem to know what no means. Now I'm going to be rude.....FUCK OFF!!!!!!"
There was one little street kid, about 8 or 9 years old, on the platform tho who cheered me up. He was wearing tatty shorts and a tattier t-shirt with a jacket about 5 times too big for him over the top. I'd seen him earlier get a bit roughed up by an older street kid and ran off crying, but then 1/2 an hour later he was back grinning his cheeky grin, doing his little begging song and dance routine. He was funny. I called him over and asked his name - "Sonil". I was little peckish for food and bought myself and him some deep-fried vegetable pakora snacks from a station hawker, and took a couple of photos. I was instantly his best friend and kept me company till my train came. I’m glad I met him, coz he cheered me up immeasurably.
more soonish, tony
Fri, 5 Dec 2003 01:38:06 +1100 (EST)
I tempted fate - and I’m shit out of Lucknow - part 1
I fully anticipated writing my final email out of Asia today, but as luck would have it, it isn't. I've got another week. I missed my flight from Kolkata to Dubai, and with Royal Brunei flight schedules being the way they are, only flying certain days between certain destinations, the next earliest flight I can get is December 11th.
what happened? I tempted fate. I jinxed myself. this past week or so I’ve been composing an email in my head, stating that I had been pretty lucky - not just having a great time, but also doing it pretty smoothly, without any major problems, disruptions, delays or bad health.
Then, on the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi, I travelled 3AC class, which as well as being more comfortable (you're given decent bedding and you get fed also) it also gives more security to passengers as its blocked off from the rest of the train. there are warnings in the Lonely Planet about professional thieves operating on trains and buses into Varanasi. The Air-Con gave me the sniffles a bad head-cold and a sore throat, which got progressively worse over the following couple of days. so much so that after arriving early afternoon, I slept the rest of the day away, only rising for dinner and a short night walk to use email, find a chemist for some medication. I then slept the night away with a slight fever, stacking the layers on to try and sweat it out.
The following morning after gulping downing a gaggle of pills I felt a bit better and walked down to the river. Varanasi, said by some to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, is one of the most holiest places in all India, and the Holy Ganges River is the main focus point of this town. Hindu's come here to bathe and wash away their sins, but what makes this place even more auspicious according to Hinduism, is that dying here liberates you from the cycle of birth and death. So, down by the river, along with the usual bathing ghats and dhobi (clothes washing) ghats, there are burning ghats, where families cremate their dead loved ones and scatter the ashes down the river. As Hindu's do not have too many qualms about death, all of this process is done in a very public manner, and while photography is completely forbidden, it is okay to watch these ceremonies take place. In fact, this is what draws many tourists to Varanasi.
Unfortunately for me, the pills wore off after a few hours and I began to feel quite ill again, with the shakes, a chill, and feeling very faint, so I had to return to my guesthouse without fully exploring the riverside. I was quite disappointed because one of the things to do here is hire a boat for an hour or so, and cruise down the Ganges, particularly at sunrise or sunset, getting a birds eye view of the locals performing prayers, and generally getting on with life by the water - a wonderful photo op.
Once again, I slept, this time from 4PM to 9AM, and woke up feeling weak but otherwise over the worst of it. After chilling a few hours, I went to the station mid-afternoon for my final overnight train journey to Kolkata before flying. or so I thought.
read part 2 to come for a real good laugh at my expense.
Fri, 5 Dec 2003 01:44:40 +1100 (EST)
I tempted fate - and I’m shit out of Lucknow - part 2
Generally I've been pretty lucky with public transport in India. Pretty much every train and bus I’ve caught has departed on time. It may arrive late (never a problem in "shanti shanti" ("slowly, slowly") India), but I could always count on turning up to the station and leaving when expected. Not this time. Thankfully by this stage I was feeling a whole lot better, almost perfect in fact, after the past 72 hours of feeling like dog-shite, because otherwise I don't know how I would've coped with the coming events
Sitting at Varanasi Junction Platform 9, I hear an announcement that the Doon Express to Kolkata has been delayed 2 hours. Never mind. I see another lone backpacker sitting at the station and strike up a conversation. Roughly 2 hour later a train arrives on Platform 9, we ask a local if this is the right train and receive an affirmative nod, and hop on. The train doesn't move for about another 30minutes, and then finally jolts into action. Richard is going to Gaya, the jumping off point for Bodhgaya, the birthplace of Buddha, for a 10day Buddhist teaching. This stop is about 4 hours down the line, Kolkata a further 8. No conductors came around to check our ticket (unusual), and around 3 /12 hours in Richard asks a local fella, about 20 and with excellent English, how far away we were from Gaya.
"I think you're on the wrong train, this train goes to my home town, Lucknow"
"Is this the Doon Express? Train 3010?"
"No, this is Marudhar Express to Jodhpur, via Lucknow"
"Oh, Shit,......ummmm, thanks, what should we do, get off next stop and get a return train? Taxi?"
It's now about 9pm.
"Noooooooo, this is countryside sir. No trains stopping here, and no taxis. I suggest you get off Lucknow, with me, at midnight, and get a train direct Kolkata."
(slightly panicked) "But I don't have that long, I have a international plane to catch tomorrow midnight!!!"
"OH MY GOD, then you are in trouble"
Unbelievably, 20 minutes later the conductor walks past, sees us, and says authoritatively "Where are your tickets!?!"
"We're on the wrong train, I want to go to Kolkata"
"OH MY GOD, then you are in trouble"
Hearing this same phrase twice in 20 minutes didn't help, least of all as I came from a railways official. We asked him about the Doon Express. Apparently, it came and left on the opposite Platform 8, our train was waiting for it to come in before it left. Doh!
We spent the next 3 hours or so discussing contingency plans. We have no idea what time trains leave from Lucknow, all direct trains to Kolkata go via Varanasi anyway, and finally decided to take a gamble, wear the cost, and get a taxi the 300Km back to Varanasi.
Arriving a little late, 12.30AM, at Lucknow, which I've re-christened "Shit-out-of-Lucknow", after confirming no early morning return trains to Varanasi, and with the help of our new Indian friend Ashish, we discussed taxi prices at the "Official Government Taxi Rank". It was a little more than even we had guessed. No negotiations were to be entered into, it was a fixed rate of 8Rupees per Kilometre - 2400Rupees (A$80). Thank God that Richard was there, and was equally desperate to get to Bodhgaya (altho he acknowledged my situation was a little more urgent than his), and willing to split the cost because that's quite a bit of money. Also, and probably more importantly for my state of mind, because if I was going thru this alone, I don't quite know what I would have done. I have to say I am proud of myself for keeping so calm, cool and collected through all this after my initial bout of panic-stations.
Finally accepting the fare, we got into the taxi. Now, this wasn't a regular old beat up Indian piece-of-crap car, this was the finest example of the old-school Ambassador cars of the British Raj era, which they still make now, and was almost brand new, with polished white-walled tyres, velvet cushioned bench seats, curtained windows and a veneer of class. If we were paying eighty dollars for the ride, at least we'd be driving through Indian countryside at 4AM in style. And quickly too (by Indian standards at any rate). We arrived back in Varanasi just after 6AM, barely 4 1/2 hours later. The only problem was, we didn't have enough Rupees to pay the driver, and the guy, for some reason, didn't want our US Dollars. If only we had a TV camera crew with us, we could easily turn this into a very funny reality-travel episode. We drove to the Radisson Hotel where we were told we could change our useless US Dollars. Imagine the look of the Concierge’s face when, just after dawn, 2 scruffy-ass looking Western backpackers come in asking to change money.
"I'm sorry sir, it's company policy to exchange money for Hotel guests only"
"Please, this is an Emergency...." I began and told him our story in the politest terms possible, appealing to his sense of kindness, goodwill and social responsibility. Once again, I was proud of myself. Absolutely shattered with exhaustion inside, looking decidedly rough on the outside (I haven't shaved in more than a month), what was coming out of my mouth were words of a proper English gentleman. He could easily have turned us out on our ear, but instead, "I believe your story, I'll make a phone call, and see what I can do. I promise I will try to help you". The Hotel's lower-end sister 3 blocks away's Manager could do it on the sly.
All was going along smoothly, and we were quietly confident now. At the train station however, we found that a Kolkata had come and gone about the same time we were entering town, and there would be no others till the evening - too late. Brainwave! "WHAT ABOUT THE BUS!?!" Trudging over to the bus station down the street, we were corralled by a rickshaw driver.
"Hello, sir, where you go?"
"We want to get a bus to Kolkata, I have a plane at midnight tonight"
"OH MY GOD, then you are in trouble!" That phrase again.
"No buses to Kolkata sir, roads in Bihar State are too bad" Bihar is India's poorest state, full of poverty, corruption and banditry. I don't know why we believed him, but we did, and our tired minds didn't think to double check this information at the Info Counter.
"I can help you if you want, sir. You take my rickshaw to Mughal Serai town 25Km away, is train junction station there sir, and you can get to Gaya in 3 hours, and Kolkata by 8-9PM. 250 Rupees". Once again our tired minds were reluctant to think, and we accepted, not even negotiating the price. We were on a wing and a prayer now, taking a bold risk. We were also feeling enlightened by how much help we had been given by Ashish and the Concierge, and riding our good fortune so far, thought we could trust him.
We rode 25Km of the bumpiest, butt-numbing roads through the roughest looking industrial wasteland neighbourhoods I have seen in all India, to a dire decrepit and filthy railway station. And there I found out that there was a Kolkata bound train, at 11.50am, but was a local train, stopping at every 2-bit town along the way and took 16 hours. Too Late.
Richard fared better, he could jump on a train in 30minutes and be in Gaya by Noon. It was at this point that I conceded my plane would be leaving without me, and definitely not wanting to stay in Mughal Serai a minute longer than I had to, decided to go with him. I'd phone the airline from there, change my ticket to the following day and arrive in London 24 hours later.
Believe it or not there's still more....part 3 to come. tony.
Fri, 5 Dec 2003 01:46:25 +1100 (EST)
I tempted fate - and I’m shit out of Lucknow - part 3
hi, part 3 of the trilogy of blunders, bloopers and bad luck (interspersed by good bits - this is not
a sob story),
At Mughal Serai station, trying to get truthful, factual, information was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Just finding out which platform the Gaya train was leaving from involved asking at least 5 people, and even then, once we'd found the correct platform, only 2 of those people gave us the right answer.
This train was like no other I’ve travelled on here. Not to say it was bad, just that all of my journeys have been long-distance ones, and have been comfortable and clean-ish. This was a local train, and even tho we booked 2nd class, it was spacious enough, but it was hard wooden slat bench seats and all manner of luggage on board - much like the local buses I’ve written about. Luckily it wasn't 3rd class, otherwise the 5 people on my bench would have been 10, and crowded to hell with standing room only.
I actually really enjoyed this ride, travelling through the countryside with a breeze blowing through the open windows and doors of the train. Gaya and Bodhgaya are deep in the heart of Bihar, and even tho it may be India's poorest state economically, it is probably one of its richest spiritually. Buddha was born near here, and reached enlightenment In Bodhgaya, and there are many, many Hindu sacred sites in the State. Watching the people working tirelessly in the fields as our train ambled by, and realising how much of an important part religion plays in their lives and keeps them going gave me a heart-warming feeling. Richard is quite into his Buddhism, and through our many conversation on the subject, perhaps some of his karma was wearing off on me. It also gave me a couple of good local Indian photo ops, and an insight into their lives. the whole journey cheered me up immeasurably, and rather than feeling resigned and dejected by the turn of events, I felt really quite happy.
In Gaya I booked my onward ticket to Kolkata, at least that was sorted, and so on we went to Bodhgaya. So one of us has made it to his destination, then! We spent the afternoon wandering around the town, soaking up the atmosphere of the place, and, even tho I’d barely slept a wink more than 4hours in the past 36, I felt wide awake. it was like there was a natural energy to the place. It's not surprising so many people come here, coz I felt really alive, when I really should have been dead asleep with exhaustion.
It's funny to say this, but I was planning to stop here when I arrived in India way back in august but cancelled the idea when I went to Darjeeling instead. As Richard said "Perhaps it was meant to be, even if only for 1/2 a day" Catching the wrong train, and missing my plane, all in order to reach one of Buddhism most sacred sites, where we could see the Bohdi tree under which Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment. And as today was the first of 10days of teachings on Buddhism, there loads of people about, and monks on red robes galore. Outside the Mahabodhi Temple, there was a stage set up with what I could best describe as a monk orchestra, with drums, horns and bells, and monks sitting in the lotus positions singing their mantras into microphones. It sounded awesome and I was totally mesmerised by them.
If I ever come back to India, I sure hope I do, I'm gonna have to give Bodhgaya another visit - 1/2 a day was not enough. It almost was longer, because for a short moment it looked like I might miss my Kolkata train. After we'd had dinner we said our goodbyes - I wanted to make a couple more phone calls and use email, and he wanted to sleep (naturally enough). When I'd finished it was just after 8PM, and when I went looking for a rickshaw back to Gaya, I could find none. Gaya is 13Km away through farmland and poorly lit roads, so apparently they stop around 8. I'd just missed the last of them. Back to my panic mode briefly, I found a couple of guys willing to help me, and one entreatied his mate to drive me back on his motorbike - at a cost, 100Rupees. I had no choice but to agree, and my dwindling, last days in India cash supply was looking decidedly meagre now.
My train was at 9.30PM (the Doon Express - same train as the previous day!) and I got back with plenty of time. Phew! I could rest easy. Actually, I could rest a LOT easier, as I found out my train was running 2 hours late. 11.30PM comes and goes, no train. I ask at the enquiry counter again - now it's 3 hours late! It eventually came in at 1.15AM, 3hours 45minutes late. Now that's a lot of time sitting around waiting at a rather dark, poorly lit, and gloomy train station in the cold early hours, in the middle of India's poorest, bandit riddled state. But I was a guy and had met up with a Japanese guy also catching my train. Earlier, I saw a meek looking young Korean girl sitting all by herself, staring into the middle distance, completely bored. The 3 of us then finally got the train into Kolkata, arriving at 1PM.
So I'm here now, with a week to kill. The past week or so I had been really psyching myself up to leave, readying myself for the cold and cost of the UK, and accepting the path ahead of me. The past 48 hours shook all that up, have cost me a bit of money, and as I write I should be in Dubai. It's not all bad tho, I love India, and Kolkata's not a bad place to be hanging about, and I'm not 100% completely unwilling to stay.
I know the last 3 emails were quite lengthy, but I hope you enjoyed them nonetheless.
Wed, 10 Dec 2003 16:25:43 +1100 (EST)
Adios Asia - Take 2
Let's try this again shall we! Adios Asia.......
As previously mentioned I'd pretty much written this email over a week ago, before I absentmindedly boarded a train going in the opposite direction to my intended destination.
Today tho, I finally do leave - bound for London via 2nights in Dubai.
I've had a wonderful time. I met some amazing people and made solid friendships. And I’ve achieved a helluva lot in terms of personal ambition as well. On my previous excursions into Asia, I've left with a sense of unfinished business, usually because of lack of funds. This time tho, I left for Asia with plenty of cash, and before I left, I drew up a kind of a personal checklist of sorts of things I wanted to do while away this 5 months, to realise some long-term dreams (up until this point, pipe-dreams) - and I’ve done the lot.
In no particular order of favourites, this is that list;
* SCUBA Diving in Thailand. I originally intended to do only my Open Water Certificate, but loved the sport so much I straight away gained my Advanced Cert as well. I managed to squeeze in 16 dives in 11 days at Ko Tao, and Pulau Perhentian in Malaysia, and can't wait to get in the water again. Perhaps the Red Sea, Egypt in September next year?
* Trekking the Himalayas - ever since I was about 15, the Himalayan Range has held a fascination for me, and to be finally walking amongst the clouds at over 5000metres, on the Annapurna Circuit, was a dream come true.
* Everest Base Camp - this was a part of that Himalayan dream, and was my original trekking goal. Instead I made it to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp, albeit driving in by Landcruiser 4WD, which I felt was cheating a little bit. Nevertheless, seeing, from 5220metres, the world's highest peak right there in front of me, so close I felt as though I could reach out and touch it, gave me such a thrill and buzz.
* Tibet - For almost as long as I've dreamed of the Himalayas, Tibet has also captured my imagination. This flourished when I saw a couple of Tibet-activist slideshows, and the movie Kundun, at Uni. When the opportunity arose, while in Kathmandu, to tour overland to Lhasa, I jumped at it. Driving across the Tibetan high plains in high-altitude desert-like conditions was a highlight of my entire trip.
* Dharamsala/Macleod Ganj - the home of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, and the Dalai Lama. Ever since my fascination with Tibet arose, I've wanted to visit this small Indian Himalayan town, and perhaps to have an audience with His Holiness. Unfortunately he was out of town when I was there, but I can console myself with the fact that I saw him speak in front of 25,000 people, and volunteered for the Tour organisers, when he was in Melbourne in 2002.
* Camel Riding in the Indian desert - I've often wondered what it would be like to be a part of an Arabian-Nights-era camel caravan, and this is about as close as I would ever get to that experience, however short. I got a sore bum and sever inner thigh chafing for my troubles over the 2 days, but it was worth it.
Another couple of highlights for me, on a personal level, were volunteering for a few days at the Kathmandu Hopeful Home orphanage, and at the Mother Theresa Hospital for the Dying and Destitute. I really felt this these two experiences really did broaden my experience and round out my trip, and gave me an insight into the reality of 3rd World Asia. It's not just a playground for relatively rich 1st world-ers on a backpacking party circuit - there are real people here living lives of real hardship, the likes of which I could never imagine, and I felt it important for me to at least attempt to see this. Heart-wrenching it was, but I’m glad I did it.
My trip hasn't all been sweetness and roses tho, I have had to deal with the general day-to-day hassle that comes with being in India especially, the constant attempted scams and rip-offs, and the blatant lies, all with the intent to try and part you with your money. It's like that old saying "A fool and his money are soon parted", and Indians see us backpackers as the fools. Sorry buddy, but I just ain't that stoopid! Yes, I have lost my temper at times and screamed and yelled at people who have infuriated me, but the usual reaction to this is laughter, and you realise that this is not the way to get things done here and is pointless.
The best possible philosophy for me is to just fully embrace the country, it's madness, the chaos and the poverty, and accept it for what it is - which is exactly what I have done, and why I have enjoyed myself so much.
Of the 3 trips I've now made into Asia, this has by far being the most rewarding, exciting and fulfilling. But now, it's back to reality, to the cold, and to the cash-sucking 1st world of the UK and Ireland, and another chapter in my life.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about my Asian exploits as much as I have in living them.
Tue, 16 Dec 2003 00:24:08 +1100 (EST)
Ol' Blighty at last!!
Well, well, well. I made it at last! I arrived in London early early Friday morning, but as I seem to be getting in the habit of doing recently (and a little too frequently for my liking), I made life somewhat difficult for myself along the way.
I spent my last day in India hanging out with Canadian's Travis and Michelle (the guys from my Tibet-Nepal time) who arrived in Kolkata en route to Burma. Quite nice it was to just wander around the city as I had done on my first day - a good way to bookend things.
My flight out was a late one - scheduled at 20 past midnight, and so after one final beer, at 9.30PM I jumped into a cab for the hour-long ride to the airport. So far, so good. Until my cab's radiator overheats and the engine blows up about 1/2 way in. Seriously. The driver popped the hood, with the classic hot steam boiling over and out of the engine. Oh dear. I still had plenty of time, but that didn't stop me from having a mild panic. Without thinking too clearly, I bailed out of the cab with my luggage, flagged down and commandeered another cab already 1/2 full with passengers, leaving my old cabbie high and dry in the middle of a busy busy thoroughfare, and without a penny in payment. I felt bad afterwards when I realised I hadn't given him anything, not even a token amount for the 1/2 completed journey, but after the drama's of last week, I just wanted to get to the airport.
There was no need to rush - it was delayed 90 minutes and was now scheduled to leave at 1.45AM and didn't take off till close to 2AM. After a an uneventful, but restless and mostly sleepless flight we got into Dubai, on the coast of the Middle Eastern country United Arab Emirates (I mention this because, for a long, long time I didn't actually know what country Dubai was in, so I figure some of you may not have known either).
I had booked a hotel over the internet for the duration of my stay here, at the not-so-tidy price of US$40 per night. Back to the real world now. I was hoping to pay for only 1 night, but I was only on stand-by for the flight that night, and so all day was walking about with my fingers figuratively crossed. I had met a Londoner, Tim, on the Dubai flight and he was confirmed onwards to London, so it'd be nice also if I had some company. My room was a was a twin room, and so I offered Tim the other bed in my room for the 12 hours or so he had to kill, but the oh-so-surly and unhelpful reception dude rudely advised that has would also have to fork out the same amount, US$40, even tho I was paying for the entire room myself. Obstinately, he wouldn't even entertain the idea of a discounted rate for the short time frame he would stay, easiest money they'd ever make, and we got into quite an argument over it, and Tim declined to stay (but cheekily did use my room for baggage storage). I'd been in the country barely 5 minutes, and already I encountered what I thought was a stereotypical volatile-mood-ed Arab. Thankfully, regarding Arab hospitality and friendliness, he was the exception rather than the rule, and everyone else I spoke to in my oh-so-brief time in Dubai was spectacularly kind, friendly, helpful and generous, and adhered to the Muslim adage that "a visitor is a gift from God" - and we were treated accordingly.
I was desperately keen to get on that evening's flight, and so after a short kip at the hotel, returned to the airport to try and get confirmation, and after being told to ask again after 4PM, we ended up faffing about for nearly 3 hours. This is stating the bleeding obvious, but airports are hellishly boring places. I don't know why some rich entrepreneur hasn't come up with the brilliant idea of cinema's in airports - I have, but I ain't a rich entrepreneur. It makes so much sense - if you've hours upon hours to kill in between connections, what better way to spend, watching a film. It sure beats wandering aimlessly between duty-free shops, bookstores and bland cafe/restaurants.
Anyway, I got the confirmation I wanted - the flight was to be at the sociable hour of 2.15AM. Joy. With more time to kill, we thought we'd wander down along the promenade to Jumierah Beach and check out the world's only 7-Star Hotel, the 'Burj Al Arab'. I'd previously seen photos of it, and heard other backpacker tales about it. It is designed in the shape of a sail, resplendent in glass, and set out on a small man-made island just off the marina. The word is that the cheapest room was around US$1000 a night and the skies the limit for the most expensive, apparently some rooms with their own helicopter pads!!
By this time it was early evening, and to put it bluntly, we hadn't exactly made great use of our time during the day and missed the opportunity to see Dubai properly. But we thought we'd wander the beach at night anyways - lovely, clean beach it was too, and the first I'd seen since Singapore. Then, within striking distance of the hotel - as scruffy and poor as we looked, we were planning to approach the reception desk and confirm these prices and conditions - our conversation had turned to passport photos, I reached for my wallet to show Tim mine, and I didn't have it on me!!!!! Oh No!!! Where the f**k is it. Panic. When did I last have it, use it, when did I last open my wallet for a purchase. I couldn't think. Abandon hotel visit plans, taxi straight back to my hotel - maybe I'd left it in the room. Back at the room, it's not there. Did I leave it on the airport bus? At Royal Brunei offices? At the cafe where we had lunch? I decide to ask the hotel reception guy........he had it, with all the arguments we had I'd forgotten to retrieve it after check-in! Phew!! One thing I didn't need was to lose my passport hours before my London flight in the strange Middle Eastern city of Dubai. Like I said at the beginning, I seem to want to make life difficult for myself and put myself under undue stress and pressure at the most inopportune times.
With little time left to kill now, we headed for the airport at 10.30PM, only to discover our 2.15AM flight was delayed to 3.00AM, and we were reduced to doing the ol' duty-free - bookshop - dodgy cafe circuit. Nevertheless, we got on the plane for the 8 hour flight to London, and did our best to sleep. To be honest it wasn't that hard, not with the entertainment fare they had on offer movies-wise - "Charlie's Angels 2" and "Extraordinary League Of Gentlemen" (one of the worst films not only of this year, but of any I have ever seen).
Arriving in London in the early hours I had a whole day to kill until I met David my Sydney-sider cousin living here, and so I wandered.......and even doing nothing in this city I haemorrhaged cash. It was like someone stabbed me in the hip-pocket with a butcher's knife and I was bleeding pound coins and notes. Just buying a tube ticket, a mobile phone SIM card and credit top-up, a coffee, a pint, and a movie ticket hurt me more financially than 2 weeks on the road. After 5 months in Asia living on less than $20 a day, I'm just gonna have to get used to that feeling I guess.
It's now Monday morning, and I've spent pretty much almost the whole weekend in pubs catching up with old friends and making friends anew. It's been great. But I do say "almost" the whole weekend, because I did spend 1/2 a day in London's fabulous Tate Modern Art Gallery. This is a huge behemoth of a building, formerly a PowerStation, converted into I'd dare say one of the grandest art exhibition spaces on the planet. It's enormous, it's fantastic, it's ultra-hip-and-cool in that (post)modern art way. And it's free!! I loved it. There is a lot of great artwork, sculptures, installations and the like, and I may not have liked all I saw, or understood half the artworks on display, but I sure as hell appreciated the space, and the idea of it - it actually made me feel kinda art-cool in that pretentious-art-wanker ironic mode, especially doing the people-watching thing, which I can do for a few hours (I was doing it with that sense of irony - but looking at some people, they take themselves far too seriously!)
Anyway, apart from dealing with the cold (it really is) and the cash-flow dramas, I'm loving it here. I'm liking London a whole lot better than I did last time, but I leave tomorrow, for Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. more on those cities later.
Tue, 23 Dec 2003 22:25:55 +1100 (EST)
BB - not Big Brother, but Bristol-Birmingham
Bristol. I could live here. It's one of those cities which is not too big, but not too small, with a nice mixture and blend of the old historical character of centuries old buildings, cathedrals and expansive gardens, and the bright new modern funky architecture of the 21st Century. It's a University town as well, with an art and design focus, which gives it a bit of an 'edge', loads of pubs, clubs and bars for young, hip and chic student types, not to mention dodgy foreign backpackers with just a tad too much facial hair.
The city itself is founded on a port which was bustling as a major centre for trade for centuries, until roughly the 1960's, and the marina fell sharply in decline, until recently. The millennium sensation which gripped the world has, I’ve found, been a major booster for a lot of cities. While seeking to celebrate the coming of a new era in style, many cities around the world scoured their lands to find suitable locations to build or design some kid of monument. Run down dockland marina type spaces proved to be perfect (Melbourne being a good example), and so it was with Bristol - over the past few years there has been a major rejuvenation of the area, transforming it from a seedy, dangerous cesspool into a space rich with contemporary art galleries, cinemas, science museums and the like, all built around open public squares with bronze sculptured statues, along with loads of aforementioned bars and clubs - all with that modern/futuristic architecture design that is so in vogue these days.
Despite being mid-December and very cold, Bristol put on it's finest display of weather, with crisp, clear blue skies and a bright sun - the best weather I’ve had since arriving in the UK, and very conducive to a casual stroll. Walk just 10-15 minutes away from the 21st Century marina and I’m surrounded by glorious 12th Century cathedrals and 15th Century University buildings. I also had lunch a pint in Bristol's oldest pub, circa 1500. That kinda puts things in perspective, in realising people have been drinking in this pub for 300 years longer than white civilisation in my country.
Back to London briefly overnight to catch up with more friends on a whirlwind pub tour, then another 3 hour bus ride to Birmingham. Poor old Birmingham, it's just got such a bad rep in England for being a dirty, boring, dull-as-dishwater city, and I was questioned as to why I chose to go there on my tour. The reason was Mabs, an old Welsh mate I met in Malaysia back on my 1999 Asia trip, who I hadn't seen since he visited Oz later that same year. He works for Marketing Birmingham, a company dedicated to promoting the city to tourists - the hardest job in Britain according to some people!! Nevertheless, what better person to tell me about what in fact there is to do here!
Honestly, there's not a great deal to do, and judging from the tourist map walking tour I did, it's pretty much just one enormous shopping centre. Altho to be fair, they have made serious attempts at sprucing the city up, particularly around the Canal Waterfront area, with lots of clubs and bars (and shops!). And what kind of English city would it be if there weren't absolutely millions of pubs!?!?!!?!? And what kind of self-respecting Aussie would I be if I didn't sample some of them, with Mabs as guide? I always find it funny sitting in old-man's pubs and chatting with the bar-fly’s, especially when they proclaim, with the greatest of conviction and belief, that Birmingham as the biggest and greatest city in all of Europe!!!
MMmmmmmmm, not sure about that one!
Thu, 25 Dec 2003 00:21:52 +1100 (EST)
Phew! it's been a mad 3 days in Manchester to say the least. I'd planned my itinerary so that I’d be here for a weekend coz I’ve heard it goes off. And when you've got my mates Andy, Stuart, John and Laura showing me town, it's bound to get messy. And it did.
The only thing I did of a tourist nature the whole weekend was to visit Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United FC. The rest was a blur of pubs and clubs and 6AM finishes.
I rocked up to town around 9PM and was told to meet my pals at one of those swanky young designer hip places, so straight out of the bus station with my rucksack, shitty clothes, hippy beanie and 2month old beard I walk into this place absolutely jammed with Friday-night-after-works drinkers. needless to say I got a few looks.
went back to Andy’s for a shower, a change, and a few whiskeys, then onto a student bar. But none of us are students.....but I do have a dodgy Bangkok fakey student ID, and with a bit of sweet-talking to the bouncer about me being from OZ and only in Manchester for the weekend yada yada yada, we blagged it in. And stayed till 1AM closing, reluctant to leave after admiring all the pretty young things from Manchester for hours. It may be winter here, but the girls don't seem to realise and are dressing for the heat of summer!!! i.e. - not wearing very much at all. Not that I don’t mind that of course!!......
The traditional visit-to-the-kebab-shop-after pub routine followed, and after being in Manchester only 4 hours, I had the long arm of the law in my presence. My mate Stuart had a dispute over payment for a pizza he'd ordered and got into a shouting match (he paid, I saw him, the staff begged to differ). I tried to step in a calm it all down, being very polite, cool, calm and collected (believe it!) and for my troubles had the manager shouting in my face and calling me a f***ing liar!!!! They called the cops......over a £5 pizza!! The half-arsed cops that turned up obviously didn't care one iota and thought it ridiculous they were called in over £5 (quite rightly on that point), but said it was their word against ours, and left. Stuart never got his pizza and has vowed never to go back.
Next afternoon was the Man United visit, which was pretty bloody cool to be honest. Getting toured around the Old Trafford stadium, taken into VIP facilities, and the players dressing room (where Fergie and Beckham had their dust up last year), I could vividly imagine what it would be like game time, especially a Champions League night match, with the roar of the crowd and all the songs being sung - magical I’ll bet.
I timed my arrival in Manchester perfectly, as Saturday night was Andy's works' Crimbo do, and I got an invite to that too, involving lots of free food, a tequila shot on arrival and 4 free drinks, and copious more, with drinking games turning things very silly very quickly.
We decided to leave that before it all got too messy, and went clubbing. My first club night out since June. Once again my Aussie-in-town-for-the-weekend pitch worked its magic. Club Venus' entrance is very nondescript. Just a painted black door set in from the street with a small 'V' above it. You'd never believe their was a pumping dance club downstairs. It looked closed. We knocked on the door, and a couple of beady eyes peered through a slide-door-shutter. "You Open?" "Yeah, but its full"...but he seemed to vaguely recognise Stuart, who used the whole Aussie thing, and we were let in, down some dark stairs and into a cavernous room full of men and women wearing even less clothing than the girls in the student bar, dancing like mad to crazy mad house tunes.
Looking around, a few subtle enquiries, and we acquired some e's. Nice. I paid for 3 (one each - me, Andy, Stu) and all I had to do was buy the guy a whisky and coke!!!!! UP FOR IT.....GEEZER!!!!!!!! At this stage it was about 1AM and Venus was just kicking off. 1/2 an hour later and so were the e's. This bar was open till 4AM, and come that time we heard about another that opens!! at 4AM!! Still totally up for it, we necked another e and went there. This was becoming epic. But it didn't last. 6AM I go to the loo to do an e-poo, and am nearly falling asleep in the cubicle - that's a sign its time to go home.
Sunday. Andy's a mad Tottenham Hot Spurs supporter, Stuart's Man U all the way. They're facing off down in London that afternoon. Feeling a little worse for wear after last nights exertions, we head down to the local to watch the match on SKY. Hair of the dog Guinness is going down a treat and Man U are whopping Tottenham butt. I'm neutral. The game ends, 2-1 Man U, but the fun hasn't stopped and my pals have arranged to meet up with other folk for Crimbo drinks. Before we know its closing time again. Another 10 hour sesh in the Guinness bank. Phew.
It was a mad, mad, mad, up-fer-it, weekend, and the boys certainly showed me that Manchester knows how to party. It'd been a long while since I’d gone that mad on a weekend bender, and it was good to get one under my belt, in preparation for the Christmas-Wedding-Hogmanay triple I'm headed towards in Edinburgh.
To Andy, cheers mate - that was fab.
Adios all, merry Christmas. Tony
Wed, 24 Dec 2003 23:02:22 +1100 (EST)
merry Crimbo and a jazzy new year
just a quick little message to all (unlike my usual 'war and peace' efforts) to say g'day, merry Christmas and all the best for the new year.
my 2003 has been fab, I hope you were entertained by my emails, and thank you to those who replied with feedback and positive words.
2004 will for me be spent in Ireland, the land o' leprechauns and pots o' gold, and that famous nectar of the gods, Guinness. Mmmmmmm, beer! I can't possibly go wrong!
cheers and happy hangovers, tony