Posted by: yellownblue | August 26, 2010

Mongolia, and the way home

The train pulled in to Ulaanbaatar bang on time, to the second, (13:50) how that’s possible I don’t know, but it worked. All through that morning since we had woken from our comfortable nights sleep, we had noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably outside so we were starting to get a bit cold. The clothes we have left if our backpacks are quite unsuitable for anything lower than about 21 degrees celcius and so with plenty of layers on we entered into this new somewhat ugly -from first impressions-  city. Through the agency which we had booked the train tickets with in Beijing, we had a free transfer from the station and one night accommodation booked at the very comfortable ‘Miami’ hotel. We didn’t have much time to get comfortable though as we had a 4pm appointment with ‘Ger to Ger’ a Community based nomadic travel agency based somewhere in the city, and after quick showers we headed off looking for the office. Mongolia uses the Cyrillic alphabet similar to that of Russia but the way the streets were named left us baffled, however once we’d found the ‘State Department Store’ (and ran in to buy some warmer clothes) we navigated the streets easily to the appointment.

After the meeting we were pretty tired but quite excited after learning what the trip entailed, (we had booked over the internet a month or so earlier but not had much chance to look into it in great detail) and learning some basic language and customery rituals. We met up for a goodbye drink with our excellent cabin buddies Peter and Tanya before getting a very good nights sleep. We were to be at the bus station at 7.30am the next morning to catch a local bus out westwards to the Bulgan province.

The bus station was bustling with local people who wore the most amazing clothes, long brightly coloured silk overcoats with large patterns and cowboy hats! The bus ride was pretty comfortable too, even during the bit where we had to leave the road (as it was being repaired) and travel in the field next to it for about half an hour. Apart from us two, we were to be joined by an American couple, Jeff and Maggie who were on their honeymoon. From our bus stop we were transferred into a minibus and left the road completely, driving at high speed through dirt tracks running through endless, fenceless fields. The trip entailed us staying for three nights with three different nomadic families and we were to travel by horse between each family after staying the night. Our first stop was with a young family who were just so friendly and nice, they had two adorable children who we played with outside our very cool ‘Ger’. The family had many horses, goats and cows and we sat with them for a while talking (through the use of books which we had with English and Mongolian in it) it was polite to ask questions like “Are you having a good summer?” or “Are your goats fat?” which they nodded to enthusiastically. In the middle of the Ger was a stove which we stoked with dried horse (or cow or goat) dung and began to ferment some horse milk to make vodka, while that was brewing we headed out for a short ride on the horses. The scenery was just incredible, an enourmous blue sky which seemed to go on forever hung high above us constarsting with the rich green of the fields and m0untains in the distance, animals grazed all around us, we passed through a small stream and headed up the hill to an old statue for a great view of the surroundings. It was so, so quiet. We just stood there in silence saying “amazing” every two minutes. Returning from the ride, our backsides already staring to ache from the uncomfortable and notorious ‘Mongolian (wooden) saddle. We gingerly sat down to enjoy the vodka and some very bizarre looking food, sort of dried cheese or something with some cream. Some of it was quite good. Before dark we helped to round up the goats for milking (Silke did a good job) before letting them all loose again, then they let the dogs loose so that they could protect the animals from wolves in the night, the goats seemed to like headbutting our Ger as we dozed off to sleep.

We slept so well, even though the two of us were cramped onto a small single bed, all of that fresh air was just so good. Sadly we had to leave our first family and we set off towards Ger number two, a three hour ride away. By now it was boiling hot and the amazing landscape became drier and more desert like. Upon reaching them, we went through the same ritual as meeting the first family “Are your goats fat etc?” before heading off into the huge sand dunes that we now found ourselves by. By now we were all suffering badly from the saddles and we were glad it wasn’t far. Once there we picked berries from the trees for the family. That night after some excellent goulash we kicked a football around and watched a horse being milked, and enjoyed another superb sunset before sleeping well again.

The next day we dreaded how far we would have to ride, but it was no more than an hour, we did quite a bit of galloping which helped – that was amazing, racing through those fields, it was real freedom! The final family were older again and lived in a hut rather than a Ger they had two older children who studied so communicating with them was a little easier. We were to go out for a walk to a lake but this time not by horse (Yes!), but by “Machine”. The “Machine” was an old blue van which we sat in the back of as we trundled throught he fields up to their ‘winter camp’ in the hills, and from there we embarked on a good ramble for a few hours, enjoying the views, the local plants etc and even encounterd a snake, it slithered off though without any trouble! The lake was tiny and not really the highlight of the walk, the bizarre temples in the middle of nowhere were the coolest part. On our return to winter camp, the “Machine” we were told was broken, so we had to walk back, that was enjoyable too though as the sun began to set, giving the whole landscape a beautiful blue and pink shade as our shadows grew longer behind us.

Next morning after breakfast we were picked up by two men in a 4×4, and after a customery shot of vodka, we left heading for the centre point of the whole of Mongolia. Not long after leaving the house they stopped the car turned around to face us and opened a can of beer with big grins on their faces handing us plastic cups, we decided it was better if we drank then they would drink less, as one of them was driving us!

Finally after a great visit to the monument and the centre of Mongolia, a few beers, and a taxi ride back to Ulaanbaatar (the bus was full) we were back to real life, we were exhausted but had to change hotels as the ‘Miami’ included in our package was way too expensive for us, so we moved to the very homely Golden Gobi hotel where we would spend the next two nights. Our last day in UB we spent wandering around the suprisingly pleasant town centre looking at a few museums and Chengis Khan momuments before relaxing in the warm summer afternoon sunshine with a cold beer to reflect on our adventure through the wilderness. What a life they lead, just so simple, hard work, but simple family life, out there in the middle of nowhere with all of their animals, amazing.

The following day, we gathered some supplies and headed to the railway station to catch our train to Moscow. When the train pulled in we were happy to find Jens, a friendly sensible 20 year old Danish lad in our carriage and the 4th berth empty, so we had plenty of room to relax, we were also happy to find our ‘provodnitse’ or stewardess for the trip was a fiery bright red-haired woman who was very stern yet frinedly. We were happy, and looked forward to 4 days of rest and relaxation.

The 4 days passed much quicker than we imagined. The shorter than expected, but rutheless security checks at the Russian border, the huge crystal clear water of Lake Baikal, the fun of jumping on and off the train at random stations to buy supplies, the cheerful trolley lady from the restaurant car, then endless villages and rows of trees in the Russian countryside, the reading and swapping of books and stories with Jens, the chess games, the vodka, not to mention the drunk russians who got on in Omsk all added up to a very pleasant and quite unforgettable journey. The time was also good just to sit, look out of the window and reflect on what has been a quite unforgettable year, a journey like no other that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, it was also a good opportunity to prepare ourselves for reality, going back to work and real life, and look forward to meeting friends and family again.

In Moscow, the smoke from the fires had lifted so we had a really nice day for our arrival. The hostel we were at was nice and we arrived just in time for their ‘Summer party’ to which we were all invited. It was a good laugh and provided me with the perfect opportunity to get rid of my extra Mongolian money, swapping it for Euros with a couple of Dutch dentists heading in the opposite direction. Next morning we were out early amongst the reformed smoke to take a city tour, which pretty much showed us all we had wanted to see of Moscow, but we still had a few more days there so took our time in wandering this great, huge city. It’ fine architecture, amazing underground metro system, the kremlin, St. Basils cathedral, which really does make you feel like you are in a fairytale (one to come back to in winter when it’s covered in snow).

Following our pleasant stay in Moscow, we left by train on the 17th August, making our way north to Riga (Latvia) on yet another night train. One day and one night was enough time to enjoy the kind of quiet toy town that is Riga, lots of stunning architecture, beautiful people, cafes and restaurants and some pretty good shops too. We eagerly disgarded some of our more ‘well travelled’ clothing (rags) for some new stuff – oh the joy of shopping! Next morning (19th) we headed out from Riga in the rain by bus to Vilnius (Lithuania) the lush green farming land and quaint wooden huts looking more and more like Germany and home. Vilnius is also a very pleasant town where we decided to indulge in some good food and wine in a nice restaurant, this was after all to be our last night out on the road. Our final resting place was a really good hostel with just six clean double rooms and breakfast (in bed) included. It felt like a fitting finale to a brilliant year.

From midday on the 20th August until 5pm on Saturday the 21st August 2010 we took a number of trains, travelling first from Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland, then a night train from Poland to some really unpronouncable town from where we crossed the border on a packed two carriage train into Germany. From there it was a series of short distance trains of which Silke had worked out all the timetables amazingly so that we never had to wait for more than two minutes before the connecting train. And then as if by magic “Nachster halt Günzburg” (next stop Günzburg) was announced. Ironically we hadn’t noticed how close we actually were and so had to scramble to get off the train with all our bags – we’d never missed a stop or a train, bus or plane up to that point so that would have been very embarassing.

There on the platform waiting to greet us was Franz and Mary (Silkes parents) it was great to see them again, happily we rode the short journey from the station back to their home where we are now. It feels odd to be static, but it has been nice to get rested and prepare for our ‘real lives’ again, we’ve just sat around, read a lot, met with various friends and family members to begin re-telling our adventures, and we’ve eaten a lot too – I’ve already put back on half of what weight I’d lost. Tomorrow we fly home to England, miraculously we seem to have already found ourselves a nice fully furnished flat in a nice part of town and our jobs will be waiting for us. The next chapter of our lives is about to begin.

And so there it is, the end of our journey around the world, 367 days, 23 countries and numerous (I will calculate one day) kilometers travelled. We’ve seen so much, learnt so much, met so many people and had such a great time. Now I feel we should say something profound but at the moment that escapes me, except maybe to say that “The world is a fine place full of so much beauty and mystery, when you travel things happen on a day to day basis that never fail to excite or amaze, you feel alive. This world IS a wonderful place (the news only talks of the bad stuff) and life is very short, you should see it for yourself”.

Love and peace, Mike and Silke.

Ps, Thanks so very much to everyone whom we have met on this journey, to friends, random strangers, and especially those who’ve let us stay with them – Uncle Ian and Naomi, Kier Jade Theo and Xavier, Anna and Steve, Bryan and Tara.

Posted by: yellownblue | August 9, 2010

China

2nd August 2010

China is massive. It’s a monster, huge, staggeringly big and just full of people, so so many people, and at the rate that this place is consuming and growing, you have to wonder where the resources will come from, it is already hoovering up most of its neighbours’ resources – where next? When 1.3 billion people start to become ‘modernised’ the thought of that much consumption really is quite frightening. At every turn there are just people, they’re everywhere. But as nice as Chinese people may be, they can just be so damn annoying, they are loud, they’re in your face with no sense of personal space and we constantly seem to be fighting with them for space – the rush to get a seat on the metro in Shanghai was just hilarious, like musical chairs when the music stops. So with this in mind, and not to mention the language barrier nor being able to read anything (although the metro is well signed in English) we have had quite an adventure getting to this point in Beijing from Vietnam.

Leaving Hanoi, was such a frustrating experience. We had no option but take a taxi out to the railway station, and we’d tried to avoid them as much as possible as they are awful, they are the biggest rip-off merchants we’ve come across, and yet again on this occasion they didn’t disappoint. First of all the meter was running way too fast taking the fare to almost double what it should have been, and after arguing and eventually paying, we realised he’d brought us to the bus station, not the train station! With only an hour to go before departure we frantically tried to find another driver – he agreed to take us for 20,000 dong (about 1US dollar) but what a joke, the station was around the corner! We gave him 10,000 and walked into the station, very annoyed.

Getting onto the train was amazing. There was soft piano music playing and the carriages where great, very comfortable, clean and well organised. This is China! We relaxed. A few hours in, we stopped at the Vietnamese border got off the train and took care of the formalities – amazingly there were only 20 passengers on the train, and 17 Chinese railway staff, who marched into the station office and stood in a row as the Vietnamese inspected them, very funny. Not long later we passed through the Chinese border and a similar Communist style march off of the train took place, once through the border we got back on the train and slept.

Emerging from the station into the heat of the day, Nanning, (a southern Chinese city that we knew nothing about) appeared before us. And it was huge! Wow, this was a very modern city with pedestrianised shopping streets, fast flowing traffic on streets 6 lanes wide, and electric motorbikes wizzing around, is this communism? We had no idea. This was just a transfer stop though, so we just had time to browse the shops, make a payment through the post office to Beijing (for our train ticket home) – which was a painfully slow transaction, but we got there in the end. For dinner that evening we found a nice looking place and asked for the menu, first on the list? Dog meat. Errrr, no thanks, we’ll take the chicken. When it arrived we inspected it thoroughly, well it looked and smelt like chicken, and was very good too.

The next day we were on the train again for the short 5 hour trip up to Guilin, and once we arrived we decided that we could still travel a little more so jumped onto a bus headed for the town of Yangshou, this was our first taste of Chinese driving, which we have more recently voted as the worst in the world!

Yangshou is a Uber touristic town surrounded by amazing hills and rivers, it was packed full of Chinese tourists, hotels, restaurants (with English menus, yes!) and tacky shops selling about everything you can imagine. It looked a bit like Disneyland, but we liked it. We booked into a nice place for a few nights and the following day set off on a 5 hour hike – following the Li River (and crossing it 3 times by bamboo raft) as it took us along the most amazing scenery of dramatic green spikey peaks. The path was very random and not always well signed but we found our way down to Xing Ping, from where we took a Bomboo raft back home. That was two hours of pure relaxation as we drifted down the river, the reflection of the sky and mountains in the water was unreal, a great day. The following day we hired bikes to head out to another river and the famous Dragon Bridge, the ride was breathtaking, through rice paddies along the river banks and dusty tracks, we were loving it and then ……… I got a puncture. We were only about 1km from the bridge so had to push it the rest of the way, the heat now unbearable without the breeze from riding. At the first chance we tried to fix the tyre but it was burst so badly, there was no chance – we’d have to take another Bamboo raft back home along the river, mind you it was equally as breathtaking as the previous day, but a little pricey. We limped back home pushing the bike back up the hill, then they charged us for the tyre! Grrrrr.

Following Yangshuo, we transferred again in Guilin (after some unreal traffic congestion, they really don’t know how to drive!) and headed out to a small traditional village in the Longsheng district – here we found ourselves amongst the most amazing rice terraces up in the mountains, a real feat of human engineering which stretch as far as you can see, and we were lucky too, that night it was some sort of festival and so they lit hundreds of candles in the terraces, amazing! The next day we again took to the hills this time hiking for about 6 hours back to a more accessible village, it was just amazing, as we walked right through the terraces, through little villages in the middle of nowhere where life carried on as it would have years and years ago, and we only got lost once! Back in the main village we managed to get ourselves onto a tour bus for the journey back to Guilin – the driver was terrible, how we didn’t kill anyone, we have no idea. Back in Guilin, we decided that although it was a massive place, there’s nothing much there, so we tried to change our train tickets for the next day – to Shanghai. Now the trouble with so many people in one country is that they all seem to travel on the trains that we want – they got us a very cheap ticket (only 17 UK pounds each) but in ‘hard seat’ for the duration of 23 hour journey. Lets just say, we made it to Shanghai and leave it at that, maybe in time we can think about that journey again. But it was very cheap!

Shanghai was fantastic, it felt like the future. It felt like spaceships were going to arrive alongside the countless shiny highrise buildings and offload passengers like buses do – it was like Star Wars or something! The sky was a brilliant blue with beautiful white puffy clouds for the duration of our stay, adding to the wonder of the place, we spent the days wandering the Old Town, and the French Quarter, wandering the promenade marveling at the new modern skyscrapers across the river and looking in wonder at the old colonial buildings which are remarkably similar to Liverpool. We even took a trip up to the 88th floor of one building at twilight – what a view!

Shanghai was busy though. Even more so than anywhere else we’d been as it is currently holding the World Expo. So we went for the day to have a look around. The queues we’re unreal – 300,000 people a day are visiting, so we didn’t get chance to visit inside many pavilions, especially not Germany or the UK as they had a 4 hour wait to get in, and the ones we did visit were pretty boring inside. The buildings from the outside were amazing though and we also saw a brilliant Shaolin Warrior performance. We didn’t really ‘Get’ the whole thing though, and were sort of left wondering what the point of it all was.

From Shanghai we continued north by train up to Beijing, the trains were all full so we were left with only a standing ticket for the 13 hour overnight journey, amazingly we got a seat each – but jammed in between a Chinese family with these two terrible boys (little Emperors) about 8 years old who were uncontrollable yet their mothers did nothing and at night cradled them like babies. It’s all part of the single child problem, these kids get pampered like crazy as the only children and it’s hoped that they will get good educations and in return, support the parents and grand-parents. The problem is that many teenagers can’t handle the pressure of it all, they’re not used to the ‘real world’ and depression and suicide is a riding problem.Anyway, after 13 hellish hours we arrived into the grey, 35 degree C, pollution filled air of Beijing.

We spent about 8 days in Beijing, getting our train tickets and Russian transit visas sorted, before visiting all of the major sights – Tianaman Square, the Forbidden City, Olympic Park and getting out to see the ‘Great Wall’ – it was fantastic, part restored and part original, the walk along it seemed unreal, almost familiar. The polluted air was even all the way out here, but luckily it lifted just in time for us to be able to see far into the distance as it wound its way across the mountains into the distance. We also spent about 4 days staying with friends who we’d met in India, they had invited us to stay with them once in Beijing and so we took them up on the offer. They are working as teachers and live in a huge complex of high-rise flats it a gated community with gym facilities and swimming pool, it was a great way to see a bit of the real Beijing away from the tourist areas, we felt like locals! It was hard work though, as it was so hot, humid and grey. Beijing is a strange place and hard to get familiar with, well it is about the size of Belgium with about 15 million people!

When the time came to leave on the Trans Mongolian train, we were more than ready to go. We made it to the manic train station in plenty of time and found our carriage, and comfortable 4 berth cabin. We were very happy to find a really nice German couple (Peter and Tanja) were to be our cabin buddies for the 29 hour trip into Mongolia, and settled in for the journey. For the first 7 hours or so the landscape was pretty dull, quite like most of the China we had seen from the train, very industrial, ugly, and still smog filled, however, as we furthered ourselves from Beijing and got closer to the Mongolian border it all changed. How can that much nothingness be so amazing? The land just rolled and rolled over grass covered hills and fields with horses and camels appearing, it was all quite spectacular, and we found plenty to do to occupy our time, wandering up and down the train, checking out the restaurant car and just looking out of the window. As night fell, we arrived at the Mongolian border, it was about a 3 hour wait, but there was the changing of the wheels to look forward to. Except Peter and I were in the shop on the platform buying a few supplies when we turned around to see Silke and Tanja disappearing on the train as it rolled away. They said the changing of the wheels was really good fun, as the train was lifted into the air the old wheels rolled out and the new rolled in before being lowered down again. Disappointed, Peter and I sat on the platform for the hour or so that it took and drank a beer!

When the time came for the train to roll out of the station, the Chinese anthem played and the loud speaker announced “You are now leaving China” the guards marched out and lined the platform saluting as we rolled into Mongolia.

Posted by: yellownblue | July 12, 2010

Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam

28th May Bangkok – We arrived back into Bangkok from Myanmar to a city which was still recovering from the troubles, and there was a feeling in the air that was tangible. Thailand is so modern, this was even more apparant after the last few weeks – so as we glided into central Bangkok along the busy motorway we looked forward to some comfort and good spicy food. Thailand has to be up there as the best country for food that we’ve visited, so much flavour and variety.

So we spent the next few days staying in the Kho San road area, soaking up the atmosphere, eating at street stalls and wandering the stalls where you can buy just about anything you want, from hiking boots to university degrees (all fake of course). We took the obligatory visit to the royal palace and wandered the central district too where signs of the protests still lingered, with burnt out cars, shopping centres, we even saw a big line of protesters being marched out of the police station into a van. This was also where we tried to get our Russian visas, we’d applied for all the forms, filled them in and walked into the embassy hopeful, with the intention to try and bribe them in need be. However we were turfed out without any hope of getting the visa we needed “Absolutely not, no exceptions” we were told. Our whole journey home was now ruined, we couldn’t get back as we wanted on the Trans Mongolian train, we were miserable.

The atmosphere was still tense in the city which added up to us making the decision to leave Thailand and head into Laos – we’d have to visit northern Thailand some other time.

1st June. We took the  night train north from Bangkok to the border town of Nong Khai, arriving at 10am we decided to spend the day here at an amazing hostel on the banks of the Mekong river, our first glimpse of the mighty brown water brought shivers of excitement to us, we would be following her all the way down to Vietnam from here. That afternoon we took a bike ride to an amazing sculpture park created out of concrete. Some of the pieces were 40 meters high and the Hindu/Buddhist inspired designs were just crazy, this was more like it! Purely bespoke and original, we’d never seen anything like it. A highlight of Thailand.

We crossed into Vientianne, the sleepy captial of Laos on the bus over the frienship bridge. This was more like a small town than a capital and really not much going on. Laos really lives up to its ‘slow living’ reputation. With not much to see or do here we spent a day getting our Mongolian visas (by now we’d organised the train through Russia with a tour agency who could get us the visa for Russia) and a day sitting in a bar on the banks of the Mekong looking back over to Thailand watching the fishermen go about their daily business, drinking the exceptionally good Beer Laos.

Our next destination was the charming town of Louang Prabang, about a days bus ride north from the capital. The peninsula was awash with French colonial buildings, Buddhist temples and great markets with the added bonus of Baguettes! Thank the French, they are good for something. We took our first trip up the Mekong to visit a cave, but the journey along the orange/brown river was much more spectacular than the destination. Here we met Matt and Annette, an English/Australian couple who were going to be going the same way as us for the next few weeks, so we joined up with them for a while.

Leaving Louang Prabang the four of headed to the town of Phonsavon, south east of Louang Prabang. The journey took most of the day in our minivan without aircon – although it was aircon according to the driver! It took most of the day as we twisted and turned into the most spectacular countryside, up and down mountains up to about 1,200 meters. Laos is fantastically green and mountainous, more so than we ever imagined, although it’s being deforested at an alarming rate by the Chinese.

At Phonsavon we went together on an amazing day trip – one of the best we’ve been on, with Sousath travel. Our guide was exceptional taking us around the local area. Here we learnt all about the bombing of Laos – Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the world? During ‘The secret war’ America dropped millions of bombs on the east of Laos hoping to hit the Vietnamese who were heading south down the ‘Ho Chi Minh’ trail, many of the bombs didn’t explode and still lie in the hills and fields all over Laos. Many people, especially children are still killed by these bombs even today – either whilst farming or collecting the bombs as scrap metal to sell.

After walking through a field full of unexploded bombs (one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever done – but our guide was excellent) we visited many other war sites, caves, tanks, airstrips to name a few before making our way to the main event of the trip, ‘The plain of Jars’. This was unreal, around 4000 years old this field we visited was full of huge jars carved from rock, an amzing site. There were many theories to their existance but the most probable theory is that ancient nomadic tribes used them to burn the possessions of the dead as offerings to the Gods in the Jars, the bigger the jar, the more you had to burn. The site lies on a magnetic field where lightning strikes often – this takes the spirit up into the sky, nice. More jars like this have been found as far away as India and Indonesia.

Now steadily making our way south we left Phonsavon on the local bus and headed back to Vientianne (there is no other way) before taking another local bus the next morning to Kong Lo cave. These bus rides are unreal, they are so slow, they break down all the time and we have been crammed into our seats surrounded by all sorts of things – even a motorbike! Yes there was a motorbike in the isle of the bus and two motorbikes on the roof for one particular journey, as well as all the other boxes and bags and chickens etc!

So, eventually we got to the magnificent Kong Lo cave where we enjoyed a 7.5km boat ride right through the mountain in pure darkness stopping at a point where the lights were turned on for us to view amazing stalagmites and stalagtites. Apparantly the biggest spiders in the world live in this cave! Good job it was dark.

After the boat ride, we continued down river but this time with our luggage as we were heading to the village for a homestay. With the five of us the water level was about 1 inch from coming into the boat and our stuff was getting totally wet but still we quietly drfted down river passed some amazing village life, Buffaloes bathing, women fishing and naked children running along the river banks waving at us, this was real life, as basic as it gets. We spent the night with a local family who fed us well before taking us to the ‘local pub’ for a beer, there we tried the ‘bar snacks’ which were some sort of flying insects with chilli, we just had to pull the wings off and eat. Quite nice actually.

Next morning we walked through the rice fields to catch the bus which would take us south to Pakse. We left at 7am eventually arriving in Pakse – just 250kms away at around 8pm. We had to go slow when it started raining as the bus had no windscreen wipers! Honestly, travel in Laos is slow, hard and very tiring, patience is a must, and you just have to laugh along with the locals as you wait and wait and wait……………

From Pakse we took a day trip up to the Bolaven Plateau to see the coffee plantations and some local tribal villages where we experienced some remote village life. Many of Laos’ people live in villages like this of which there are many different ethnicities and cultures, this is a very poor country and life is very basic, very traditional yet beautiful too. From Pakse we continued to follow the Mekong south heading for Cambodia, we stopped briefly at ‘4000 islands’ sold in the guidebook as a place to relax and enjoy the tranquility – however what we found was an overcrowded tourist trap full of what we called the ‘Vang Vieng crowd’. These consisted of mainly English ‘travellers’ who are maybe 18-23 years old, who all wear the same uniform of vest and shorts proclaiming that they have been ‘Tubing’ (floating down a river in a tractor tyre getting drunk) in the beautiful northern town of Vang Vieng. That quaint town has been transformed into a sort of mini Ibiza, with roudy drunken antics going on – not in Loas please!!! Go to Spain. Do we sound old now? But anyway, the annoying Vang Vieng crowd had made their way south to ‘Don Det’ on 4000 islands, getting here on the VIP bus (no independent travel needed) and were just so annoying that after a days cycling around the much nicer ‘Don Khon’ we moved on. It had not been relaxing.

We crossed the border into Cambodia on the bus, it was very easy, our visa issued at the gate. All of a sudden everything became 1 U.S Dollar. This is where the Mekong starts to spread out into the Delta, and Cambodia is as flat as a pancake compared with Laos. We travelled all day reaching Siam Reap by midnight just finding any accommodation for the night, it was clean enough. After moving to the lovely ‘Mommys guesthouse’ a family run establishment, we spent a few days just doing nothing, hanging around town watching some world cup games which were shown at 9pm ans 1.30am taking advantage of the very cheap beer (50cents) and  building up our energy levels, ready for our two day tour of the amazing temples that we’d come to see.

We saw so many diverse and amazing temples during those two days, always under a burning sun and temperatures into the 40’s our favourites being the unbelievable Bayon City and of course Angkor Wat, which we were lucky enough to see with a rainbow soaring above it as we left.

Moving on we headed to the town of Battambang, west of Tonle Sap, the biggets lake in South East Asia, we wanted to see some of Cambodia outside of just Siam Reap and Phnom Penh, and we weren’t disappointed. We took a great day trip to see the amazing countryside with a really nice guide who knew so much about Cambodia and its history – here we began to hear about the atrocities of the war in Cambodia in the 1970’s under the dictatorship of the evil ‘Pol Pot’. Two million Cambodians were murdered by his communist party in just four years of rule – a truly horrifying war where educated people and city folk were slaughtered for being ‘corrupted by the west’ in his quest for a country of self sufficient peasants and farmers.

From Battambang we headed further south to the capital, Phnom Penh. A charming city which is still reviving itself from that war. Almost all of the Cambodians we have met or even driven by have greeted us with warm smiles that light up their faces, they are quiet and humble people who have suffered incredibly, how they can go on is quite remarkable. The country is still very poor and struggling to find its place in the world, yet still life went on in the capital which we found to be intersting and fun. They eat anything here, if it moves, they eat it. I tried crickets from a street stall, the whole thing! I’ve had nicer things in my life. In Phnom Penh we took a cooking class, visited museums, prisons from the regieme and the horrific ‘Killing fields’ where many Cambodians were slaughtered, a very sombre day that was.

But aside from the darkness of the past we found PP to be culturally rich and dynamic, we visited an opening of a photographic exhibition at the Arts School where we were handed free wine and food and saw a performance from the amazing Battambang circus – we have to do this more often! We also watched England crash out of the World Cup at the hands of Germany, which delighted Silke, especially as we were in a pub full of English!

After a brief yet very nice visit to Cambodia it was time to move on. Vietnam was calling. We made the last part of our journey with the Mekong on the river itself, spending a day on a boat, cruising south east to the border with Vietnam. Here the river was vast and much more blue than the muddy waters of Laos, and after the formalities with the passorts were made, we meandered down a small vein of the river past villages and floating houses all the way to the town of Chau Doc, this was a special journey for us, and it was sad the following day to jump aboard a bus a leave our friend and guide, the mighty Mekong as it slid further south into the sea.

Arriving in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) we were amazed at the number of motorbikes – five million of them, like ants they move across the city making the place seem like its actually moving itself. Vietnam is big, we’d forgotten what it felt like to be amongst so many people after the relative  small populations of Laos and Cambodia, Saigon is huge and sprawling and crossing the road in itself needs a major plan. Apart from the motorbikes and the heaving traffic Saigon was a great place and a place for us to dodge the down pours by visiting museums about the Vietnamese war. We also visited the Chu Chi tunnels about 30kms out of town where the vietnamese had made home underground in their war against the Americans, we got to walk (crawl) through one of the tiny tunnels – what a life that must have been.

By now we had organised our trip out of Beijing through to Moscow and we had a date set for the 3rd of August when we had to leave on the train, this meant we had to move fast in order to spend some quality time in China, so we made the decision to head north from Saigon making just one stop on the way to Hanoi from where we would cross the border. We decided on a place called Qui Nhon – off the beaten track, but a growing tourist destination with a beautiful beach, or so the guidebook said. We took the night train, arriving at noon the next day. What a let down. This was an industrial town, with nothing going on, a busy street next to an average beach with murky water and huge tanker ships in the bay. It took us all of 5 minutes to decide that we’d made a mistake, there was no way we were staying here for 2 days! We turned and hailed the next taxi, but he didn’t understand where we wanted to go and took us to the wrong place, not the railwaystation, we got out without paying and hailed the next taxi, he said he understood but then took off in the wrong direction! Eventually we got to the station, there was then a big debate about the price – Vietnam has been the one place where we really feel like we get ripped off all the time – they see you, the price doubles. We’re like walking ATM machines to the vietnamese, yet we’re hardened to the scams and work hard to keep our money.

Back at the station it’s hard to communicate where we want to go, eventually we organise a train which leaves in a few hours, from there we can wait a few more hours and catch a train north to Danang – nothing more than a transit town. While waiting for the train to Danang we find an English speaking lady behind the counter of the station, she is very helpful and organises another ticket for us from Danang to Hanoi (by now we’d abandoned all hope of stopping anywhere, just get us to Hanoi) tickets were hard to come by as all the students in Vietnam are heading to Hanoi for exams! Finally our train arrives and we’re heading to Danang, yet we have a ticket to Hanoi which is where this train goes, we find someone who speaks english and try to get the guard to let us stay on the train. “Sorry, you can’t”. Arriving in midnight in Danang we decide to wait in the station until 4:45am when our train arrives, but the station is closing, so we spend the night at a little street stall sitting on plastic chairs watching the stalls for the ladies who run them so they can sleep. We don’t get any customers, so we drink coffee, eat noodles and play cards until 3am when the station re-opens. Our train is delayed. It arrives at 6am, we are exhausted. We are seated in carriage 12. We walk to carriage 12, but then carriage 12 is taken away from the train by an engine!!! This is hilarious by now. It eventually returns and we are happy to learn we have a cabin for 6 all to ourselves, we relax but stay awake so we can enjoy one of the most beautiful train journies ever, along the amazing coastline with the ocean panning out into infinity. It is a beautiful morning without a cloud in the sky, the hills are so green and it’s just perfect. As the train heads inland, we fall asleep.

That night we are in our room in Hanoi, a shower, aircon, clean clothes and a bed. Thankyou God.

Hanoi is a much more beautiful city than Saigon, with lovely tree lined streets, less traffic, and a nice lake in the centre of the the old quarter which is where we are based now. We’ve spent the last few days idley wandering these quaint streets absorbing the capital of Vietnam. The people here are louder than Cambodia and Laos, yet still as friendly.

We’ve spent the last 3 days cruising around the beautiful Halong Bay on a nice big boat which included fantastic seafood meals. We met up with a nice spanish couple onboard Jordi and Karen and enjoyed some board games on the boat in the evenings, for all its beauty though, Halong Bay is a major tourist attraction and up to 500 boats are working in the area. It makes for a quite congested beauty spot.

12th July 2010

So here we are, in Hanoi, our last day in South East Asia. We struggled to stay awake last night to watch Spain win the world cup, and tonight we take the night train into China, an adventure we’re really excited about. This also signifies the journey home for us, making our way only north and west from here, this trip has been amazing so far and has gone so fast but we look forward to seeing everyone back home.

The last few months here have been brilliant and we’ve seen so much, learnt so much, experienced great food and met many beautiful people, it’s been unreal. Where else in the world can you see a cow being transported on the back of a motorbike?

Posted by: yellownblue | June 2, 2010

Quite unlike any place – Myanmar (Burma)

We arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) without a clue of what this country would be like, all seemed quite normal and efficient at the airport and the “visa on arrival” signs were quite surprising, yes, you can now fly to Myanmar without pre-ordering your visa – however we did hear that you’ll be pressured into taking government tours and hotels for your stay……. We’d arrived with the intention of giving as little money as possible to the Military led oppressive government.

Rudyard Kipling wrote that Myanmar was “Quite unlike any place you know about”, and he was right. The first curious thing we noticed on our transfer to the hostel was that the majority of cars, and nearly all buses are right hand drive, like in the UK, yet they drive on the right as in Europe. This meant that getting on and off the bus required the passengers to dodge the traffic in the middle of the road, and drivers turned their necks constantly to see what was going on around them – I thought the driver was just staring at me!

We met Stine, a Danish girl in the airport who was also staying at the same place as us, so we shared the taxi ride into town with her, we ended up spending most of our trip in Myanmar with her too, that was good fun and a nice change from just the two of us all of the time.

Geographically Myanmar sits inbetween India and Thailand and it was obvious to see that here those two cultures merged together to create one unique and diverse culture – quite unlike any place you know. Yangon is the crumbling former capital city (the generals got spooked by a fortune teller and decided to build a new capital called Nay Pyi Taw about 300kms north) leaving Yangon to rot and decay, the pavements, buildings and roads are well in need of some repair, yet the people seemed to go about their business in a very normal fashion. Street vendors take up most of the pavements along the long avenues, colonial buildings from the British era poke out of unsuspecting corners, churches, Hindu and Buddist temples appear and tea shops (with their mini stools) also line the streets, men and women wear ankle length longyi’s similar to the Indian lungi, the woman are also covered in thanaka (traditional make-up) making their skin super white in big blotches and everyone seems to chew the red betel as in India. The elderly population here were always so keen to chat with us and help us out – as they were educated when the British were here, they were so nice and charming, one of the special qualities that all Myamnmar people share. The food here though is predominantly asian though, and they certainly know how to cook. After changing our crisp clean US dollar bills into Kyat (chat) one dollar equal to 1000 (we changed 300 dollars!) we spent an afternoon wandering the streets ‘downtown’ and spent most of our time looking bemused asking “what’s that?” – an early night was in order though after a really long day and we had booked a long bus journey the following day.

Spent the next morning squinting our eyes trying to see the unbelievably bright and dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, the defining image of Yangon and a symbol of Burmese identity for 2500 years (I stole that bit from the guidebook), before boarding our bus heading north towards Bagan. The bus departed at 3pm and not long after we departed the suburbs of Yangon we found ourselves on the most unusual road – it was a toll road, a 3 lane motorway in each direction only there were no cars on it, only a handful of buses. This baran super highway continued north all the way to Nay Pyi Taw without any signs or sign of a entrance or exit, neither did we pass a town or village or city, where was everyone? What is this road? Shortly after we passed the dazzling lights of the new capital, (which glowed in the night like no other place in Myanmar ever could – well how could they, apart from the new capital there are numerous powercuts everyday and night, purely random and sometimes long, it can make for uncomfortable living, especially when there is one when you’re in the shower!) we realised what that road was, it was a link road for the generals between their old and new capital (Yangon is still the economic hub) a way for them to steam up and down the country in the most ridiculous manner while the rest of the population trot by along dirt roads with their horses and carts.

After the super (pointless) highway had faded away, the road became a single track that wasn’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass withjout running off to the side, so as it became time try and get to sleep, it became very hard to sleep as the bus swayed and rumbled along. Arriving in Bagan, the taxi drivers were waiting for us, only this time they had horses and carts to take us to our hotel – this was a bizarre and bleary eyed experience – are we really in the 21st century? We checked in and lay down to rest – Bagan had just had a heatwave, over 40 degrees C for the last week and even by 5am it was starting to get seriously warm in the room, the air con kicked in and we put the fan on full blast, and then…… powercut! We lay there until about 10am roasting.

The reason for coming to Bagan was to experience the unique landscape, 4000 temples from 800 years ago, dotted around an area of 42 Square Kilometers – it really is quite a sight like no other. On our first day there we took a horse and cart tour around the area, to get a feel for the area – however as there a so few tourists here at the moment (low season) we ended up being surrounded by the tourist touts and sand painting salesmen all too often, which was pretty draining after the first couple of stops. After about 6 temples, we were back our room for an early night, please let us have electricity tonight! The following day the 3 of us hired bikes and toured around the temples as we pleased, it was like being in an Indiana Jones movie, we chose the temples off the beaten track, witout anyone trying to sell us anything, we had the whole wonderous place to ourselves, it was amazing, especially the temples that we could climb up, allowing us 360 degree views of the spectacular surroundings. It was a very special day.

With only 11 days in Myanmar, we had to push on and so the next morning (3am) the bus picked us up. It wasn’t the most comfortable bus in the world, Silke and I just about squeezed into the seat – only 12 hours to go! The journey was much more fun than the first though as we passed through villages and mountains, watching the world go by us in Myanmar time, beautifully simple, yet hard.

Inle Lake is surrounded by mountains which reflect the water in a way quite unlike you’ve seen before, the lake is home to villages which sit on stilts and grow row after row of tomatoes in their floating gardens, it’s a magical place, a watery world where fishermen row with their legs while casting their nets, it’s a place which you couldn’t imagine exists today. We had a couple of days here and spent our time cycling along pathways meeting children who ran out of their homes to meet us, passed semi submerged buffalo in the rivers and passed villages where the kids rode the cows!! A world that time forgot. Our first trip onto the lake was with a villager who agreed top take us and our bikes across to the other side, so we could finish our ‘bike trail’ the water level was so low, the rain was yet to arrive, in some place only a few inches deep! On the other side lay a village all on stilts, we had coffee in a cafe that had to come and collect us on a canoe.

We had a couple of extra days around the lake, and spent time relaxing, wandering the quaint town talking to local people (they really are so super friendly and smiley) just trying to work this place out – everyone seems happy here in such hard conditions, and the people we did try to broach the political situation (it’s illegal for locals to talk to foreigners about politics) spoke positively about the government “our leaders” one man told us. Well I’d say that too with the risk of being arrested for saying anything bad about the government! It was all too short and time for us to leave, I don’t think they wanted us to go though, as along the way out of Inle to the bus stop, first a snake attacked our motorbike taxi, then someone cut a tree down across the (only) road right in front of us. With only half an hour until our bus left we had to jump iover the tree and arrange to get to the next town on the back of a tractor, in the trailor with the potatoesa of course. I told you, Indiana Jones!

Back in Yangon and with one day to go we strolled out early in the sunshine to go and visit the northern part of the city. By noon though it beagan to rain. And rain, and rain and rain, for about 4 hours non-stop heavy rain, which brought the whole city to a standstill. The roads were flooded with rain water and filthy black water from the overflowing drains, cars with their bonnets up sat paralised, and no-one would take us back to our hostel, we really were stranded for a while until one bike driver took pity on us and took us home, smiling and laughing all the way. I guess that’s the way you have to be if you live here – in the face of adversity, hardship and poverty, grin and bear it. Let’s hope that the peolple of Myanmar can find their voices soon and speak for themselves, they deserve it.

Posted by: yellownblue | May 17, 2010

Malaysia / Thailand

We booked ourselves onto the 6am ferry leaving Tioman to make sure we got to Mersing in time to catch our 10am bus to Kuala Lumpur. The journey took 90mins to get out to Tioman but ended up taking 3hours and 55mins to get us back, engine trouble and a severe rain storm hindering our entry into port, this left us 5 minutes to collect our pre-booked bus ticket and get to the bus station. We were first off the ferry into the torrential rain, we grabbed the bus tickets and dived into a taxi, go go go….. we got onto the bus with seconds to spare, we relaxed our seats as the bus pulled away, then Silke realised her camera was missing, she’d left it in the taxi! What now? Next second the bus pulled up, a dripping wet taxi driver boarded the bus with the camera in hand, what a hero. There really are some beautiful people in this world.

We met a couple from Finland on the bus who were good enough to donate some fruit to us on the long trip along the endless palm tree plantations into KL, we’d planned on getting more cash out in Mersing but the race to the bus left us no time so we were penniless. Next day we were on a mission – get the Myanmar (Burma) visa, and check out the prospect of a Chinese visa. We eventually found the Myanmar consulate which we were surprised to find was little more than a shed in a car park however the application process was easy, we hung around and found the Chinese consulate which was unbelievable – more like a spaceship than a visa office, how different these two places were. The Chinese were as efficient as you can imagine and getting our visa there would be no problem, yes. Returning to the Myanmar consulate, we were handed our passports back with the visa sticker inside, a successful mission.

After handing our passports into the Chinese we had 3 days to kill, there’s not that much to do in KL, but we had a good time wandering around, taking random train rides around the city and dodging the 4pm rain storms that arrived everyday like clockwork we eventually got around to visiting the Petronas Towers too which was cool. So after 5 days we left KL with the visas we wanted heading west to the peninsula island of Penang. We weren’t too impressed with Penang (except for the amazing food in the food market) so only spent a day there before moving north to the holiday island of Langkawi, which we were also quite unmoved about. We were in prime position though to make the border crossing into Thailand via ferry, which was the main reason for coming this way, and so we made the 2 hour journey to the border town of Satun leaving Malaysia and its friendly people and brilliant food behind.

From Satun, we took a bus up to the stunning setting of Krabi, a town that sits amongst lush green hills and limestone peaks, this place reminded us of Ecuador in so many ways, it was beautiful. Krabi is the launching place to the islands in the Andaman sea and after spending a few days amongst this great landscape and getting into the super spicy food, kayaking and island hopping, we headed out to the famous island of Ko Phi Phi Don – perhaps made famous by its second island Ko Phi Phi Leh which is where the iconic movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed. Phi Phi Don is certainly a stunning place but is over run with tourism, it is low season at the moment but even so the island heaved with tourists a pretty young crowd too very much into the buckets of booze and fire parties on the beach at night, and sun bathing to a crisp by day. Of course we joined in for an evening of free buckets (whiskey or vodka with coke in a sandcastle bucket and big straws) and fire dancing on the beach, but the next day we wanted to escape the crowds and so headed out on a trek over the island to what we hoped would be a deserted beach. We were right. Just 6 other people were on this side of the island, our exhausting trek over the middle of the island had paid off, we were lucky though to run into the ‘drinking water factory’ halfway through the trek as they gave us plenty of much needed water for free. We had a great day relaxing on our beach, feeding the tropical fish and enjoying the shade of a tree before wandering back to the town this time around the side of the island.

For our last day on Phi Phi, we took a day trip around the island, it was one of the best trips we’ve made, the landscape of the limestone islands, the water and beaches were just amazing and it was full of adventure too – Silke had to be rescued from a beach after a Tsunami warning was issued, everyone else made it to the boat including me – I thought Silke was there too but she heard the warning early and got out of the water – the guys from the boat brought her back on the kayak – then a whole group of us had to be rescued by kayak after the water current we were in got too strong, we were out by an island snorkelling, looking for sharks – we didn’t see any though. The finale of the trip was a trip to Maya bay, where ‘The beach’ was filmed and it didn’t disappoint, nor did the stunning sunset, the flying fish or dolphins that we saw on the way back. It was a stunning day.

Leaving Phi Phi, we planned a mammoth travel day, taking the ferry back to Krabi, taking a bus north and across to the east coast before taking another ferry to the island of Ko Samui. The journey took up most of the day and was pretty easy, except when the bus dropped us off and we realised we only had one hour to get to the ferry which turned out to be 60km away – the taxi divers were rubbing their hands but we managed to get in a shared minibus – still for an extortionate price, and made it onto the ferry with just minutes to spare. Under a firey red sky like no other we’ve ever seen we left the mainland and headed toward Ko Samui. Just 90mins later we arrived and with no real plan of where to stay, we pretty much closed our eyes and pointed in the guidebook. We ended up in a beautiful bungalow close to the beach in a very German/Austrian touristy area – Silke wasn’t keen on that, but the beach was pretty even if the waves were a little strong. We spent a couple of days in Ko Samui – which is enough, and hired a moped for a day to explore the beaches and inland areas – the beach areas we didn’t like, just so built up and touristy – built for the masses arriving from via the airport yet the green inland areas were much nicer although the watrefall we trekked to was so dry, barely a trickle fell from it. We decided at this point to abandon the trip north to Ko Phangan, we’d seen enough ‘beachlife’ and all this lying around with burning holiday makers wasn’t very inspiring.

The trip from Bungalow to Bus station to Bangkok was seamless, yet still took around 24 hours, the  overnight bus was comfortable and had enough bizarre stops to keep us amused – like the free dinner where all the passengers jumped off, sat around tables with revolving tables of different dishes to try, we ate, jumped back on the bus, and we were away. We arrived in Bangkok the morning after the Army had given the protestors an ultimatum, however the bus station seemed calm and normal, we were there for a little over 40mins before we were on our way west to Kanchanaburi and the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’. On the way we saw a dead motorcyclist, lying in the road with a huge pool of blood surrounding him, Thailand is so modern, with really good roads and big fast cars, yet many motorcyclists don’t wear helmets – I bet this guy wishes he had, poor fella.

Kanchanaburi is a quiet and charming town yet with a troubled past, there is a large cemetary dominating the centre of town with over 7000 allied troop graves, all victims of the Japanese during the Thailand Burma railway construction in WWII. It was one of the best kept graveyards we’ve seen, they were constantly attending to it, it looked beautiful. Our room overlooked the River Kwai, and we spent a good day out elephant riding, bamboo rafting in the morning and in the afternoon visiting ‘Hellfire pass’ a notorious section of the railway where many soldiers died, the scenery here was lush and green with a great valley reachin west out towards the border mountains of Myanmar which we could just make out in the distance. Back in Bangkok the troops were ready to move in on the protesters, so we decided to take a more expensive minibus back that way that would take us directly to the airport, missing out any potential dangers. It worked fine and we spent a comfortable night in a really nice hotel by the airport. 5am the next morning, we were on our way to Myanmar.

Posted by: yellownblue | May 13, 2010

South East Asia – Singapore to Tioman

13th May 2010

We arrived into Singapore on the 15th April, we’d flown from Chennai via Hong Kong where we were just so excited by the order, the cleanliness and the modern shops – back to reality!!! And so now we were in Singapore, the polar opposite of India. We made our base in Chinatown, the super modern MRT (metro) took us almost to the door of our hostel right at the heart of the district, easy. Whilst wandering around on our first evening  we experienced a reverse culture shock, where was the noise, the pollution, the mania? It left us strangely uneasy, had India changed us this much?

What we were really looking forward to though was some Asian cuisine and more importantly …meat. And we found it in abundance right around the corner from our hostel at the ‘Peoples Food Court’ that first bite into chicken and pork was a joy to behold. We spent four pleasant days wandering around Singapore which we found to be sufficient, if you’re on a tight budget this isn’t the place for you, amongst the endless amount of shopping malls we found plenty of things to do visiting the botanical gardens, Little India (just for a laugh) the Muslim district, the super modern waterfront, the beautiful colonial district and the very very good Singapore zoo which has a ‘no cage’ policy, so the animals have islands to themselves. We found lots of interesting food to eat at the numerous food halls, we even succumbed to the waft of Burger King one afternoon for a burger extravaganza! Singapore is quite an odd place though, with a ‘Business Park’ feel to it, like a country that feels like a city which had been sculpted rather than grown. It was just what we needed though, and we were now looking forward to our little ‘holiday’ where we promised ourselves some time off from all the sight-seeing and constant moving. Dan and Beth, our friends we’d met in India had told us about Tioman Island off the east coast of Malaysia, a beautiful relaxed island where we were sure to find what we were looking for. We went looking for it.

Taking the 6.30am bus out of Singapore, we arrived at the modern border crossing into Malaysia about 3 hours later, it was 5 minutes on the Singapore side, 5 minutes on the Malaysian side and we were on our way again, heading towards the harbour town of Mersing. It wasn’t long until we noticed that the natural environment in Malaysia had a slightly monotonous feel to it, it was the trees, the palm trees, every tree was a palm tree. Now this may sound very tropical and beautiful, but this isn’t a jungle, this is serious farming, very serious. For miles and miles and hours and hours there were rows and rows of palm trees in various states of growth, occasionally we past the scarred fields where natural rainforest has been cut down ready to plant more plam trees, it’s a shocking sight. This is all in order to meet the demand of Palm Oil which is present in so many different foods and toiletries it’s quite unreal, I won’t go on, but if you want to read more about this problem click this link – http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/forests/palm-oil 

We arrived in Mersing with an hour to spare before the ferry left, however we had no Malaysian currency and we knew The part of Tioman we were headed to had no banks or ATM, so I quickly dashed to the nearest bank only to find it wouldn’t accept the card, I ran back and got a scooter ride from a friendly local who worked at the ferry terminal to another bank which luckily gave us the cash we needed for our stay. Got onto the boat with minutes to spare…… and relax. Salang was our destination, the last stop on the ferry, and we weren’t dissapointed as we rolled up to the pier. Thick jungle clad mountains rolled down to the white sandy beach, and crystal clear waters surrounded the bay, you could see the ocean floor even when it was 5 meters deep. Our bungalow was set back from the beach, a 3 minute walk along a path that crossed the river where huge monitor lizards swam around and slithered onto the riverbanks, further into the garden where we lived, monkeys ate the fruits fallen from the trees and a sense of pure peacefulness descended upon us, we were on holiday. We ate fish straight from the boat and onto the barbeque for dinner that night, a real tasty treat and as fresh as is possible to buy. We spent 5 nights on Tioman, resting, relaxing, sunbathing and swimming, with lots of snorkelling too, but this was THE best snorkelling ever! We saw a black tip shark, green back turtles and countless amazing tropical fish amongst the dazzlingly beautiful coral. We took a few boat trips too (couldn’t resist) around the island that left us in no doubt, that we really were in a tropical paradise.

Posted by: yellownblue | April 28, 2010

India part 5

The flight up to Darjeeling was short and comfortable and we arrived into Bagdogra by 3pm. From here it was still 90km up to DJ, so we took a ‘Jeep taxi’ for the 2 and a half hour journey, the views were spectacular as we climbed higher into the mountains, almost every field was growing tea and we passed many women carrying baskets of tea leaves along the road. The people here are different too, they appear more Nepali rather than Indian, and the climate was a very welcomng cool temperature. We booked into a nice guesthouse with a very friendly and helpful host, our room was nice and we almost didn’t know what to do with the duvets, until it got cold at night time of course. It was nice to have a blanket, and not have a fan whirling  above us through the night. It was so peaceful there too and we had a great rooftop terrace with a great view. Unfortunately though during our whole stay, the cloud refused to move and so we never got to see the Himalayas, from the pictures on the walls they looked so close and so spectacular, it was the second time in a week that we had been cheated of what we had come to see.

We spent a really nice 4 days in DJ, we drank tea, ate new and interesting foods, visited a Tea Plantation, took the Toy train – which runs along a road through narrow streets to a place called Ghoon, (the highest station in India), people covered their faces and ears from the soot from the engine and the loud hoot of the whistle as we crawled by – the tracks are so narrow, it really does feel like a Toy train. We also visited  the very sad zoo, we wanted to see a Tiger just to make ourselves feel better after the safari let down, but it really was a poor zoo in poor condition and sad looking animals, but one of the worst things was the way some of the people there behaved,  some Indian people can be very insensitive, to nature and the environment, I had to shout at one man to stop him from throwing water at a Tiger to get it to move!

So after an all too brief stop at Darjeeling it was time to leave. We got up at 5.30am to have one last look from the rooftop for the Himalayas, but no luck and so we made our way back to Bagdogra and flew back to Kolkata. Meeting up with Dan and Beth again, we went for a few drinks to ‘say goodbye to India’. Next morning we were on our way again, this time taking the train from Kolkata to Chennai – on our way to the station we took the ferry, but as we approached the boat began to depart, we thought we’d missed it but some people on the ferry were pointing to the other end where the boat was still close to the dock, shouting to us to get on, and so as the gap between port and ferry began to grow, we jumped onto the side of the boat hanging onto the railings as we sailed into the middle of the river. With all our bags on it was hard to climb over the rails but the other passengers helped haul us on, it was pretty exciting though and not something that you’d see anywhere in Europe for sure – Health and Safety anyone?

We travelled the 26 hours to Chennai in luxury as we had booked 2AC, the second best class possible, it was quiet, clean and comfortable just what we wanted. We left at the exact time we were supposed to and arrived in Chennai 10 minutes early – fantastic. Our final day in India we spent sweltering in Chennai in the very same room we’d stayed in upon our arrival, the rickshaw drive to the airport was as hair raising as ever and he did try and drop us off 200 meters from the actual airport, nothing ever changes. And so that was it, the end of our Indian adventure, it has been amazing, frustrating, mind blowing, educational and fun and we’ve learnt a lot about this great Sub-Continent.

A conclusion;

India is a big, big place, it is beautiful, it is horrible, it is full of wonder, magic, surprises and horror. It is scorching hot whether you are north or south and for us the further north we went, the more intense the country became. The south is more beautiful, with a slower pace, things are easier and the food much nicer, as we travelled north things became harder, there are more people, more scams, and more hassles on the well travelled trails.

There seems to be a caste system that operates in India, now I don’t know if it is official or not, but it is obvious. From the top to the bottom of this hierarchy everyone seems to know their place, what they can or can’t do or where they can or can’t go. This seems to divide the people, but also a certain level of respect between folk is followed. If someone is out of order, someone will speak out and that person will be backed up – the ‘offender’ takes the telling off – and that is that.

The people in general were nothing but good to us, honest, friendly, helpful and kind, of course there were many occasions where touts, taxi/rickshaw drivers were concerned that it was a bit heated, but that happens everywhere. We were often treated like ‘celebrities’ – lots of people stared at us, sometimes like we were from outer space, they shook our hands, took our pictures asked us to take pictures of them, they went out of their way to help us and asked us many many questions. Usually the same ones too, and sometimes, the same questions were asked too many times a day! For example: Where are you from? What is your name? What is your age? Are you married? What is your occupation? What is your salary? What is your opinion of India? – On one occasion we got all these questions from a man who poked his head into our rickshaw while we were stopped for 30 seconds, it was like a quickfire round in a quiz! He thanked us for our answers and left. We were left totally bemused.

Indian people also have some very strange and pretty disgusting habits. Spitting happens everywhere, and usually contains red ‘Paan’ tobacco, mostly men but women too, burping loudly is also a normal custom, as is snorting very loudly as if to clear your nose, followed by a loud gathering of phlegm in the throat. Those are just a few.

Personal space doesn’t exist here, whether in a queue, on a train or anywhere where sitting or waiting is required, someone will be so close to you, that they are literally touching you, it can be very frustrating – a few times when I got to the front of the queue in the railway station, there were arms all around me and bodies pressing me into the counter, lovely! On the subject of queues, there are none, well there are, but not like the queues we know – people just go infront of you, right to the front, you have to shout at them or do as they do otherwise you could just end up waiting for days. You have to be hard, or just get left behind.

Another strange custom we witnessed were a great majority of men who walk around holding hands with other men, or with their arms around each other as they walk – or even picking each others ears! We don’t know why, maybe because affection with females is frowned upon in public? But male ‘friends’ are very very friendly with each other.

Probably the worst habit in India though is litter throwing, it happens everywhere all the time. Sitting on the train, a meal is served in a aluminium tray, it goes straight out of the window, no hesitation. We were so shocked when we saw this, but cans, bottles, nappies anything goes straight on the floor. It’s a real problem.

This leads to the real problem in India – apart from the terrible poverty, corruption and crumbling infrastructure – the environment is a disaster. Litter is everywhere, rivers smell so bad and are full of rubbish, open sewers line the roads in the towns, water looks toxic, the idea of conserving historical buildings or looking after their environment seems to be non-existent or very laughable in its attempts, its a real shame because India really is a beautiful country, if only it could be looked after properly. One man asked me on a train “What will you do for India when you return homa?” I replied, “It’s not about what I can do from my home, but what you should be doing in yours.” That made us think that there is a need for people to be educated about helping themselves and their own communities, rather than waiting for outside help.

I could probably go on and on here, but to try and conclude it is best to consider India as one huge contradiction, it can be so bizarre that it is hilarious, like being in a Monty Python film, yet so damn serious in the blink of an eye – and as hard as we are trying, to do this wonderful country justice in this blog is never going to be enough. Our experience has been fantastic, hard, but amazing – at the moment we are glad to be back in the ‘real world’ but in time we know it will be one of the highlights of the year. This place cannot be explained, it won’t allow it, it is a place to be discovered for yourself.

Posted by: yellownblue | April 16, 2010

India part 4

The Taj Mahal, Agra to Kolkata

We got up at 5am so that we could get the tickets in time for sunrise at 6am. We were the first in the queue, and when the gates opened we were first to make our way to the Taj. The first thing that strikes you when you see the Taj Mahal is its size, it is a lot bigger than you think a very grand the way that it sits upon its marbel platform. The most important thing about  the Taj is its symmetry therefore the best pictures are from right in the middle, this position became a real rugby scrum between all of the tourists – the tour buses were there in full force and they are the worst type of tourist, they only have a short time to take their pictures and so are the most aggressive. We had all the time in the world and so took our time to stroll around the grounds, the Taj from close up is the real treat, the detail in the marbel is fantastic. In total, we spent 2 hours just wandering around, we had to justify the Rs750 entrance fee.

Later that day, we took a ‘cycle rickshaw’ to visit  the ‘Baby Taj’ a much smaller yet more intricate tomb and well worth visiting, our rickshaw driver looked like he was about to pass-out and die though as he struggled to get get us there, he was so skinny and looked like he should have retired a long time ago. He was determined to get some more money out of us, so he waited for us  to finish at the ‘Baby Taj’ and took us to the riverbank on the opposite side of the river from where we could watch the sunset. We sent him home then though as the thought of him trying to get us back up the hill into town was just too much – he would have surely collapsed. We were a bit stuck then though, but managed to haggle our way back to town – that was an adventure in itself. The sun setting on the Taj was nice, but nothing special. That evening we ate at a family run restaurant who made us the best food we’d had for ages, gorgeous ‘Malai Kofta’ and the best Roti (thin bread) in India. We had a few days in Agra, as we couldn’t get aa train out of there so we had a couple of days to relax – but Agra isn’t the nicest place to spend that much time so we ended up sitting in cafes most of the time. We did visit the amazing ‘Agra Fort’ which in our opinion was one of the highlights of India so far, it was very well preserved and the architecture was quite amazing. After 4 days in Agra we were more than ready to move on, we were booked onto the night train to Varanasi, a place on the River Ghanges which is a holy place for Hindus to be cremated or even come to to die. In our train compartment was an old woman who, we think, was being taken to Varanasi by her family to die. We didn’t know this of course as when we got onto the train it was dark – but it wasn’t long until we were sitting up from our beds wondering, “what’s that noise?” Next morning we realised that the ‘Chewbacca’ like gurgle was coming from the old woman, it was so wierd.

Varanasi railway station is full of  the most intense ‘rickshaw drivers’ in the world, surely. We were like raw meat to a lion as they saw us come out of the station, we got aggressive with them as they pushed around us and demanded to know where we were going, whilst quoting wildly over the price that we knew we had to pay. Eventually, we got what we wanted, that was hard work.

After settling into our room, we wandered down to the ‘Burning Ghat’ that was close by, this is where the bodies are burnt. We were surprised at the lack of ceremony that was going on, there must have been at least 10 bodies burning when we arrived and more arrived, carried on bamboo stretchers and covered in cloth, the more cloth the wealthier the person. A pile of wood was waiting for the body which was placed on top, more wood on top, before being promptly set alight. All this is done by people who work at the Ghat, there was a distinct lack of ‘family’ and so each burning was done without much emotion. Dogs, cows and goats roamed amongst the burning embers, and kids played next to the huge pile of ashes from the previous burnings before being shoveled into the river. A strange smell wafted through the air as we observed, we decided to move on and at 7pm we stumbled upon the evening ceremony taking place at the main Ghat – that was a really good ceremony with music, burning inscence and crowd participation – a daily offering to the Ganga.

The following day we strolled along the many Ghats (literally steps down to the river), seeing many different events, people bathing, swimming, washing clothes, more burning bodies and countless offers of boat tours, it was a very interesting day, yet a draining one, this is certainly a unique place – the smell of burning bodies will stay with us for a long time, I’m sure.

For our last day in Varanasi we took to the river at 6.30am on a boat ride organised by our hotel, the light at that time made the river look so magical, with all the pilgrims coming  down to worship and bathe it really was a great site. We were taken across the river too to the sandy bank where bodies lay partly decomposed and skulls bobbed around in the shallow water, these were  the bodies of those who had not been burnt before being dumped into the river, for these bodies were already holy, and didn’t need to be burnt. The purpose of burning of the bodies and placing into the Ganga is to remove the person from the cycle of re-birth into the world and so they reach Nirvana. Holy men, pregnant women, children, lepers, people who die from cobra bites are already ‘cleansed’ therefor are not burnt. It is their bodies that end up on the river banks to be left to decay, or get eaten by dogs. It happens.

After breakfast (because we were really hungry now right?), we met Dan and Beth (our friends who we met on the way to Agra) and together made our way back to the train station – commence struggle with horrible rickshaw drivers – and made our way to Bandavgargh – the National park where we wanted  to go on safari to see Tigers. It was a long journey which didn’t get us into our rooms until 2am, 14 hours after leaving varanasi, we were all exhausted.

After a good lie in, we awoke in a really nice complex, with a handful of rooms surrounding a courtyard full of jeeps, our veranda allowed us to take breakfast outside in the warm sun, we booked ourselves onto 3 safaris, one in the afternoon and 2 the following day – it was whilst we booked the safaris that we learned about ‘Gate 1’ and ‘Gate 2’. The former being totally booked up for the next 2  days, and so we had to the “overflow gate”, Gate 2. Each safari cost us about 12 UK pounds per person, really cheap eh!

Our first trip was a bit of a let down – the jeep we were in kept overheating and so we had to stop all the time to literally let the engine blow off steam and cool down, then we got a puncture, but this is India right and it’s so cheap, we have to expect this.

As far as wildlife goes, we saw plenty of spotted deer, sumner deer, wild boar, monkeys and birds but no Tigers. After 3 hours of driving around and looking, we returned back to the hotel disappointed only to hear stories from other people who had been into Gate 1, of seeing 3 or 4 Tigers. Gate 2 began to look like a bit of a con.

Next morning with renewed enthusiasm, we headed out to Gate 2 again, this time in a better jeep. We again saw the deer, the monkeys, the birds, wild boar and even what looked like some action….. As we sat in the jeep looking over the meadow towards the watering hole, we could see vultures coming into land one after the other, there must be a fresh  kill, made by a Tiger last night? We waited, and waited, and waited until, once again time was up. No Tiger. Once again tthe people booked into Gate 1 had stories of Tigers, this is getting ridiculous – we’re starting to dislike pre-booking on the internet, because that is why Gate 1 was so full, you could book 90 days in advance!!! That afternoon was our final attempt, we weren’t optomistic and rightly so, it was the same story – we tried bribing the driver and guide to take us to a better spot, we knew that around the corner the Tigers were hanging out, just on the other side of the meadow, because that was where Gate 1 was, but they wouldn’t take us. Very disappointed we left again, Tigerless. We really were so down, we were so close, yet so far away, it was so frustrating.

It was our last day with Dan and Beth too as we had to move on, we had to get to Kolkata as we had a flight booked to Darjeeling up north. At 2am we got up, took a taxi to the station in order to catch the 4.22am train to Varanasi, that got us there at 6pm, where we had about 3 hours to kill (we teased some rickshaw drivers for a while, about taking us to posh hotels before just crossing the road for some food, Ha!)  At 9pm we took the night train to Kolkata, that was going to be 15 hours so we bought ourselves a littlebottleof vodka for the train, we had to make sure we got some sleep or we would go mad – it worked, and after a few shots we were nodding off, we slept well throughout the night. At midday, we reached Kolkata 34 hours after leaving our hotel! That was quite some journey and Kolkata was hot, as hot as we’ve experienced, believe me we smelt bad, and didn’t look too good either.

Kolkata is full of really great ‘ambasador taxis’ they make for quite a nice journey, and heading into town, we drove over what is supposed to be the busiest bridge in the world. Yes, it was busy. We had met some English people on the train who had a room booked so we tagged along with them to see if there was any more rooms, there were and they were quite good too, except for the walls not reaching the ceiling in the bathroom. After a nap and a good shower, we headed out for a quick wander before meeting up with our friends for dinner – that was a real battle with a rickshaw driver who was blatantly trying to rip us off, we’re no mugs now though and so we made sure we got to where we wanted to go for the right price, eventually. Bengali food is different to the rest of India and so it made a nice change to try something different, to get back, we simply took the tram for a mere Rs4, easy.

The next morning we were up and packed by 10am and on our way to the airport, Darjeeling was waiting.

I’ll have to finish here, my fingers are getting tired. We’re currently in super modern Singapore, a world away from India, and quite frankly, I need a beer. Will finish off the India story soon, honest, the internet works here.

Posted by: yellownblue | March 29, 2010

India part 3

29th March 2010

Into the desert.

Before I begin we’d like to apologise for the lack of pictures so far, we are trying but finding good internet in India is not easy, or that fast! I also think that we skipped over quite lightly our time in Mumbai in the last blog, but I’m sure you’ll all forgive us.

So we booked ourselves a 2 and a half day, 2 night camel tour which cost us about 27 Uk pounds each. Early in the morning we were whisked out 35kms into the desert where we found our two guides and three camels. The english speaking guide was named ‘Del Boy’ (??) our other guide, we don’t know, the camels were called, ‘Raja’,’ Raju’ and ‘Rocket’ – luckily we didn’t have to ride him, he was mental! So without any introduction or induction we were told to sit on the camels, you were swayed backwards, then forwards and then straight up. These camels are big too so we were above 2 meters up when sitting. It was quite easy though and before long we were into the flow. The desert here was quite rocky and bare but we saw some huge  eagles flying right above us, we saw loads of deer and skeleton bones of dead animals, our guides led on foot. After 2 hours, we wandered into the shade of a tree for lunch, our guides made us tea, a curry with chipati bread which they made from scratch. By then it was 12.30pm and pretty hot, so we were told we would rest for a while. It was nice and relaxing, so peaceful, a few shepherds wandered by with goats or sheep otherwise we were alone – far away from the madness of India. After a while we were ready to go again, the guides went to get the camels which were left to roam free (legs tied together), they were gone for an hour, we started to get worried, then annoyed, I wandered to a hill and looked through my binoculars and swear I saw them sitting under a tree smoking. When they returned we were not amused and they new it.

We rode for a further 3 hours into the sun, the desert we crossed was quite varied, with grasses and trees, or rocks. Just before sunset we arrived at some nice big sandy dunes were we were to bed down for the night. We watched the sun go down before eating, as it got dark, hundreds of dung beetles appeared out of the sand crawling everywhere, then a scorpian scuttled by, the guides took off their sandals and beat it to death, we were now a bit worried as we were to sleep on the dunes with just a blanket beneath us and over us. As we lay down there was an ocean of stars above us and the sky was as black as could be, before long we both nodded off and slept well. In the morning the whole area around us was full of tiny prints from beetles and god knows what else, not far away, snake tracks!

Next morning after breakfast we rode again for about 3 hours, that was plenty as our backsides were starting to die, we arrived in a remote village where the camels could drink and feed, it was a great place, the locals went about their business carrying water and dung around on their heads, we were surrounded by children who wanted to touch Silke’s hair and trade our watches with theirs. After a while we moved on, stopping again for another good lunch and ‘relax’ under a tree. That aftrenoon, we passed through some absolutely amazing desert, just the size of it, wow what beauty. We passed a road which was the border road into Pakistan just 100kms away, “Not that way, we saidwe tried to take good pictures as we rode but it’s not that easy on a camel as you sway back and forth so we missed getting shots of most of the best bits as it was too difficult to get pictures.

Our camels were gorgeous, such beautiful faces and so relaxed and well behaved, except Rocket of course who was always complaining – they did smell a bit though, mind you we probably did too. At the end of the second day we were given the option to sleep on a rooftop of a shepherds building next to a well and some more nice sand dunes, we opted for the rooftop. Whilst the guides cooked our tea we went up to the dunes to take some great photos in the sunset before retiring onto the roof. It was amazing, we had such a great view of the surrounding area and it was the most silent, peaceful place we’d ever been too. And the stars, well…… fantastic.

The next morning we watched the sun rise and drank ‘Masala Chai’.

By mid morning we were back to the main road where the jeep picked us up from. Then it broke down and we had to wait for another car, but by noon we were back in our hotel, clean and fed and ready to visit the fort of Jaisalmer. People still live within the fort making it the oldest inhabited fort in the world (we think) but as amazing as it was, it is crumbling. The impact of the residents is bringing the fort down around them – come on India, think! Sometimes this place is like a comedy.

So we spent the day wandering the streets and bazars picking up a few gifts, there are some really beautiful crafts here, patchwork quilts, camel bone boxes and great fabrics, the whole place was a bustling hub of colour and activity. We had great fun bargaining hard for our purchases.

The next day we had a train to catch out of the desert into Delhi. Our carriage had no door at the front and so as we hurtled through the desert we got covered in sand and dust, it was horrible. The journey took about 19 long hot hours but we managed to get some sleep overnight.

As we trundled into Delhi, the train got fuller and fuller, slums appeared at the side of the tracks which stretched for miles and we could begin to smell the city approaching. As we arrived the passengers jumped off the moving train onto the platform like parachutists jumping from a plane – hilarious!

We arrived into Old Delhi, so had to transfer via the brand new, super clean and efficient metro, wow we thought. From New Delhi station it was an easy walk to our hotel which was okay, cleanish anyway. We had a few hours to kill so we wandered to the ‘Central business hub’ ‘Connaught Place’ well that was a let down. Just a vast expanse of building work, a few bars, cafes and shops but nothing special, disappointed we decided to have a chicken kebab to cheer us up. We’ve been vegetarian since we arrived in India except for a couple of occasions in Kerala, we decided that quite quickly after catching sight of a few butchers shops and seeing some of the conditions animals are kept in at the markets, so we were ready for some meat at this ‘Lonely Planet’ recommended establishment.

The next day we headed out sight seeing, the impressive Red Fort, the biggest Mosque in India and the place where Ghandi was cremated. Whilst trying to get to the latter we were quoted our most ridiculous sum ever for a rickshaw, he wanted Rs500 for the 2km trip. Outrageous! We almost fell over, we’d heard that rickshaws were hard to bargain with in Delhi but this was taking the biscuit! We managed to get one for Rs100 in the end, still too much we thought. After our visit to Ghandi, we decided to walk back, save some money, what a bad idea, the roads were choked, no pavements and it took over an hour in sweltering heat, when we reached the bazar close to the hotel things were worse, it was so crowded, shop owners, rickshaws, hawkers everyone it seemed wanted our attention – we just wanted to get back, Delhi was beginning to sap our energy, we got irritated and I began to feel unwell.

That night I was awake most of the night with sickness and diarrhea (it was awful) the next day though after a lie in, some rehydration sachets and good looking after by Silke I was ready to go out again, this time we got to the Indian parliment, India gate (a bit like arc de triumph in Paris) and the impressive Humayans tomb, similar to the Taj Mahal yet in red sandstone, and that was enough of Delhi for us – we wanted out, it’s just saps the life out of you. New Delhi railway station is the worst railway station in the world. It’s huge, there are thousands of people, and no-one knows anything. Eventually we found our platform, then no-one knew which train was which, confusion spread all over the platform as a couple of trains came and went, eventually, one hour late, our train to Amritsar arrived, it was bedlam. We forced our way onto the train, not knowing which carriage we were getting on as it wasn’t displayed anywhere, people took every square inch of space, then the charts went up, so everyone did know where they were meant to be, another scramble ensued, people climbing on and off at the same time. It turned out we were on the right carriage, but we then discoverd that our seats (101, 102) didn’t exist – there were only 90 seats on the carriage. Indiaaaaaaa!!!!!

Luckily a nice Sikh family let us sit by them and their kids say up on the luggage racks so we didn’t have to stand for the 9 hour journey. We got into Amritsar late, so we took a hotel by the station, it was dirty, but we didn’t care, we were exhausted. Next morning we checked out and made our way to the ‘Golden Temple’ the sole reason we had come here. Amritsar is in the far north west of India, close to the Pakistan border in the state of Punjab, around here Sihkism is the main religion and the Golden Temple is their holiest place, thousands of people make pilgrimages here all the time. Arriving into the busy temple grounds we made our way to where we’d read we could stay within the temple grounds, it was a grimy shared dorm though and not what we thought it might have been, so we took a good room around the corner. The temple itself was amazing, the outside covered in pure gold, with marble surrounding the huge water tank that encased it all, very impressive. We wandered around for a while, having many pictures of us taken with Indian families, babies being thrust into Silke’s arms – she looked like Madonna in her headscarf and sunglasses, very funny. We took lunch in the ‘free kitchen’ a place within the temple which serves food to everyone and anyone. You walk in, sit on the floor with your plate, place your hands out for your bread, and curry is slopped into your dish – thousands eat here every day. Afterwards we watched hundreds of volunteers outside peeling hundreds of potatoes, onions, garlic whilst hundreds more washed plates and cutlery.

There’s nothing much more to Amritsar, it’s very congested, very busy and  very loud with open drains. We did stop to see the memorial grounds where a massacre of Indians took place by the British, showcased in the film ‘Ghandi’. We had a few days in Amritsar so spent some more time around the Temple before taking a train back through Delhi and into Agra, home to the Taj Mahal and where we are now. We met some nice fellow travellers on the train who we’re making plans with to go and see some Tigers next week, can’t wait. Tomorrow we’ll take a trip up to the main attraction, we have seen it from the rooftop restaurant we ate at before – it looks good, will let you know.

Posted by: yellownblue | March 27, 2010

India part 2

Saturday 27th March – Amritsar (Happy Birthday Phil)

Hello everyone, sorry it’s been a while since the last post, sometimes finding the right time and a decent computer is hard to come by in this country, but here we go.

While in Palolem we decided to hire a scooter for the day, so we could escape the masses, arriving there had been so different from the rest of India, almost like we’d stepped out of India into some other place. We took the scooter for the day and headed north, the roads were quiet and it was really easy so we had great fun meandering up the coast stopping at the beautiful Agonda beach and passing through lush green hillsides, villages and farmland eventually arriving at an old Portuguese fort. We nosed around for a while before making it back just before dark, the sunsets we saw from this coastline were just fantastic.

From Palolem we organised an overnight bus trip inland to the town of Hampi, a place where many many old ruined temples stood amongst some of the most bizarre landscape you’ve ever seen, round boulders like huge marbles scattered the landscape and followed a meandering river, the whole weekend we spent there was just like stepping into another time let alone another place, it was easy to imagine  what life might have been like here back in 1336 when Prince Harihararaya chose this place as his new capital. The big mistake we made, was travelling there by bus – there were no seats, only beds and because the roads were so appallingly bad we spent most of the night being tossed into the air almost hitting the ceiling, sorry trains we won’t do it again, we promise.

From Hampi we made our way back (via train) to Goa, this time heading to the Portuguese influenced capital of Panaji (Panjim), this was a really nice surprise, it was reasonably clean, quiet and laid back with narrow lanes with pretty houses on either side, even the street signs looked Portuguese, it was great. We spent about 3 days staying in Panaji, spending a day visiting Old Goa, the former capital with its grand churches and taking a quite unforgettable bus trip to a spice plantation which turned out to be a real disappointment – very touristy, very overpriced with average food and an average tour, we will be very wary of  ‘tourist attractions’ from now on.

Leaving Panaji we took the bus to the railway station – well sort of. We were dropped off on the railway bridge and instructed to just ‘scramble down the banks to the railway line’ the station was in the distance, so all we had to do was walk along the tracks – easy.

We booked an 3AC class carriage, posh for us, but the journey turned out to be a bit uncomfortable, Silke was sick for a start (not nice with Indian train toilets) it was really cold giving me a fever and the other passengers snored like mad, so that we were not feeling that great when we arrived into Mumbai at 5am. Our room was a shoebox, no windows, boiling hot with a ceiling fan that had 2 settings –  cyclone or off (the usual). We were offered a part in a Bollywood film as extras – but we had to refuse as we both felt a bit rough, but after a sleep we managed to wander the streets a little looking at some of the amazing architecture there – all built by the British of course. We expected Mumbai to be a little more manic than it was, but I think we had just over prepared. We found it difficult to get around the huge expanse of the place and walked a lot seeing most of the sights, we also found time to visit the courthouse, we could actually go in and watch a case unfold, we didn’t understand much though. We took the local train a few kilometers north to visit a huge outdoor laundry and meandered our way back stopping at a few other places – we enjoyed very much the maiden oval, a huge green space in the middle of the mayhem designated purely for the playing of cricket, and there was plenty of that going on. On our last day in Mumbai we visited Dharavi, just one of the many huge slums, and home to more than a million people. The tour took us through unbelievable lanes where whole industries existed, people bashed out metal tins, people melted plastic, people recycled paper, it was where most of the recycling in India ends up and many of our old mobile phones, electronics etc. It’s a huge business, but of course corrupt as hell, the conditions that the workers were in was appalling, they work 12hours every day for Rs100 a day – that’s about 1 uk pound and 50p. We next visited the residential area of the slum before leaving again – it was quite a visit and interesting for Silke and I to be able to compare it to the Favela we had seen in Rio de Janeiro. The most shocking and memorable image we saw though was as we left.

As we crossed the railway bridge leading out of the slum, we came across a man lying on a thin piece of cardboard, severely disabled both mentally and physically, he lay on that cardboard on that blistering hot bridge with outstretched hand, fingers missing, his back arched terribly and his legs  useless – he lay there begging when Thomas, our guide told us the real story.

He was carried to that place everyday by other members of the slum to beg, he was left there all day long, suffering in the heat and at the end of the day, they would return, take what money he had earned and carry him back into the slum, giving him simple food and water. It was unreal, how can humanity live like this? It was so disturbing, yet the reality in a nation with such poverty. I don’t think I will ever allow myself to feel hard done by ever again – how could I? Ironically, planes took off and landed in the distance.

Moving swiftly on, we took a train out of Mumbai north to Jodhpur, it took about 19hours but we had some nice company for the journey as there was a group of students heading home for holidays whom we had great fun chatting with. We stayed just the day in Jodhpur (the blue city), a city with a great old town, with lots of character, markets, an amazing Lassi shop (sort of a yoghurt drink) standing high above the city is a great fort overlooking the whole place. The  view from the top was quite spectacular – the city below really is blue as all the houses are painted in this lovely blue colour. We were now in Rajasthan, desert country. A hotel by the station let us leave our bags there for the day and let us shower and change after our day around Jodhpur, at 11pm we took our next train, the night train to Jaisalmer. We took 3AC again this time we both slept like logs and awoke just as we arrived. It was so hot, over 40 degrees c with a wind like a hairdryer.

Things are different here, the people are different, the culture and religions too. India is mainly Hindu, yet here close to the border with Pakistan there are more Muslims and Sikhs, it just feels different, and much more manic than in the south, traffic clogs the streets, fumes choke you and the sound of horns deafen. We had come here though for one reason, to get out into the desert, on camel safari. This will appear in part 3. Bye for now.

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