Monday, 8 October 2007
So, I landed back in England almost two weeks ago, Wednesday 26th September, exactly 10 months after leaving. I just thought I should give the blog some kind of closure, rather than leaving it dangling helplessly somewhere in India. Now I shall be throwing myself back into the real world. But, more importantly it means that all those who were reading the inane babble at work will now actually have to go and do some of that work. So, go on, be off about your business and I'll let you know if I decide to skip the country again anytime soon.
Because, at the end of the day, you would think that a hefty stint as a dirty backpacker would get the travel bug out of my system. Not so. I think I can say with some certainty that there's more travelling to be done yet. I've seen a fraction of the world. When you start a book, you don't tend to stop after two pages do you?
Friday, 21 September 2007
Current social group comprised of (from top to bottom): Phil and Carly, who I used to be at university with and just happened to pass me in a restaurant. Surprised would be the word. And also a couple of cockneys, Adam and James.
All I can say is, if it stays like this, it will be bloody difficult to try and leave next week. There's even a trance rave in a waterpark that we're all going to tomorrow, you couldn't beat it with a really big stick. And another thing, every day that I've been in Arambol there's a steady increase in the amount of pretty girls wandering about. What's going on, am I being punished for having to put an end to the backpacker life? I had to come home at some point, what kind of cruel God would do this to a poor boy? Well Ganesh seems to be in charge around here so that's who I blame.
Before I got here it though, it all went a bit unnecessarily hardcore on the travelling front. I came into India from Nepal which was right over the other side from Goa, where I was aiming for. From Kathmandu to Mumbai went as follows: 12 hours on a bus which was delayed numerable times to Nepali border. 3 hours from border town, Sunauli to Gorakphur in India where I can get the train. Gorakhpur was not a good first impression of India, the station was more like a refugee camp. And my train was at 5am. I got there at 10pm. Slept on a bench in the train station. 37 hours on the train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai. All very silly, I think you'll agree. So, after a day and a half in Mumbai which is a nice enough place, I got a 14 hour train down to Goa and enlisted the help of (read: followed) an Indian family going the same way to Arambol. Trust me though, it's worth it!
So, see you all soon. I'll be the old git in the corner whinging about how much cheaper everything is in Asia. "Why, you can get a car and a house for about 35p in Nepal I tell you, it's all too expensive here bla bla bla...."
Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Three Nepali women in red
Q. How much fun can you have getting from Pokhara to Kathmandu?
Yesterday I needed to make said journey. One way to do it was to go on a direct coach from one city to the other. But the far better choice was to get a bus part of the way, then do some white water rafting and then get another bus the remaining way. Even better though is when you realise there is no organised bus from the rafting end-point to Kathmandu but that the Nepali guys are just trying to hitch a ride for you on a bus going there. And that there's no room inside the bus so you can ride on the roof! I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive at first seeing as the bus/lorry drivers here seem to have a mild death wish but riding on top of buses is definitely the way to go. Although my arse would not agree, I think it was suitably numb and bruised after 5 hours sitting on a roof rack.
Pokhara was also the place from where I'm now travelling alone properly for the first time as Haya has headed for North India, while I am going in a more southerly, beachy direction. Thinking about it I did have four days on my own in Byron Bay, Australia but I always knew that Nick would be waiting for me in Brisbane with both arms wide open.
So it's India tomorrow (touch wood, as I haven't booked a bus ticket down there yet) and off towards Goa and Mumbai. I'll probably leave Goa til last so that I can spend about a week doing as little as possible on a beach before I face up to coming home and do stuff like getting a j-o-b. Eeek.
Oh and now Mark is 23 too. Which means Mark can speak about himself in the third person. Mark had a fun birthday in Kathmandu and went out for an expensive meal (by Nepal standards) which was paid for very kindly by his parents on the now decrepit credit card. Then Mark and a bunch of other people went to a bar called Tom and Jerry's and had a drink or few while the DJ played "classic" tunes from the 70's and 80's. Most of the others were closer to 3o than 20 so while Mark could have pointed out that many of the songs were before his time, he also wanted to live to see 24 so thought better of it.
A note on cynicism. Of course a healthy dose of cynicism helps when travelling as not everyone you meet is always genuine. But too much non-trust can also lead to you missing out on something that you otherwise might not see or experience. A case to illustrate this point was me walking through Thamel, Kathmandu last week. I'd deliberately got myself a bit lost as I find that's one of the best ways to see a city, kind of semi-aimless wandering. Anyway, I'm taking a picture of a cow or something (they just walk the streets here as they're sacred to Hindu's so can do more or less what they please) and a Nepali guy starts talking to me about this and that and walking the same way as me. I'm waiting for him to tell me he's a trekking guide and ask me if I have any friends that want to do a trek. But instead he starts telling me about an orphanage he runs. He asks me if I want to go with him and see it. So I say sure, why not.
All the way there though I'm still waiting for some kind of sales pitch or spiel at which point I'll politely say goodbye and find my way back. But it doesn't come. We just walk to his orphanage, and he shows me round. The kids have just finished school, and it turns out they're all Tibetan children aged roughly between 4 and 11. We chat for a while about things like charities and government aid (of which there is little or none in Nepal), drink some tea and he asks if there's any way I know of in which I can help. I gave him my email address, took his details and said I'll see what I can do when I get home. And I fully intend to.
The point of this story is that I've met countless people while travelling that wouldn't have let the guy get far past an initial hello without cutting him off or saying they needed to be elsewhere. Maybe on a different day I would have done the same. Maybe on a different day, a different guy would have just been trying to sell me some crap. But going around expecting everyone you don't know that's friendly to be trying to screw you over is missing the half the point of travelling in the first place. How do you think Lenny Henry finds all those places that need his help every two years for comic relief? You think he has a large BBC research team doing all that work for him while he sits at home feeding Dawn French? Of course not.
Tuesday, 4 September 2007
A little girl in Gyantse.
I wanted to add more photos to this blog but the computer, as is it's prerogative has decided against it. I had SO many good 'uns too.
Seriously though, Tibet and Everest have to be among the most ridiculously stunning places on Earth. Unbelievable. Mountains everywhere, big rivers, small rivers, huge valleys, more mountains and the friendship highway that passes through a fair few of them on the way from Lhasa to Nepal. You can just spend hours looking out of the window of your jeep/bus and not get bored.
There was even a desert in the middle of Tibet, we drove through it on the way to a small monastery town called Gyantse. Having had no idea that we would be driving through a desert in our 4x4, or that deserts existed in Tibet, you could call it a nice surprise. Like having extra jam in the middle of your doughnut.
While we were in Lhasa we became creatures of habit in our eating patterns, in that a group of us would inevitably end up in a restaurant called ‘Tashi 2’. On our last night there, we were playing cards after more bobi’s and momo’s and maybe even a Lhasa beer or two when a, let's say slightly inebriated, Tibetan guy comes in, goes into the kitchen and starts singing with the staff. Turns out he's singing a song about freeing Tibet. Which may not sound like so big a deal but it can actually get you arrested in Tibet, as can wearing an image of the Dalai Lama around your neck. This guy had had a few so didn't seem to care and told us with a mixture of hand gestures and one or two words of English that the Dalai Lama was good and China chased him away. Again, this doesn't sound like much but imagine if you could be arrested in England for something similar e.g. political protest. Either way, after a few beers with us he staggered off on his way home and left us to agree that such random encounters are such a great part of travelling.
No doubt everyone reading this knows it's my birthday in two days time - I'm going to be celebrating it in Kathmandu, Nepal! Seems like there's the odd bar or two here that stays open late so there shouldn't be too many problems there then. Please don't send all the presents to my house at once as they'll just be taking up space until I get back...
Kathmandu is an interesting place after China and Tibet. It's been a destination of people travelling through Asia even before smelly hippies first started making their way here in the sixties. Back then there probably wasn't a hundred guys trying to offer them treks, tiger balm or (in a very hushed voice) "the ganja". It's also got more of a ramshackle feel to it than anywhere in China. I think some of those who were the hippy inhabitants way back when are still hanging around too, there is a much greater age range among those who aren't local. What I mean by this is that, you go to Thailand, and virtually all backpackers are in the 18-30 bracket. Here, you've got them from the young and excitable to the old and crusty, I saw a guy earlier who looked like Santa with a long-term crack habit.
So in conclusion, add seeing Mount Everest to one of those stupid lists of "things to do before you die" as well as all those other things we're supposed to do like swim with dolphins and the like. Maybe managing to watch anything presented by Russel Brand without wanting to tear off your own arm just so you have something to throw at the television is on there too? Is he still incredibly annoying? Let me know.
Tuesday, 28 August 2007
Ni Hao from Lhasa, Tibet - the highest capital city in the world! The good old Chinese government doesn't make it the easiest place to visit if you're not Chinese but a short flight and a Tibetan travel permit later and we're here. I would have to say it's very much worth it too.
Before getting to Tibet, our last stop in China was Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La. The hostel that we stayed in there was possibly one of the best I have stayed in, in Asia or Australia. Called the Dqing Area Tibetan Youth Hostel, it had everything that a good hostel should have. A bar/restaurant with an open fire, good cheap food, it even had a basketball court. The showers were like little wooden saunas, the whole place just had a much more personal feel to it than some of the places you end up in. My only complaint would be that they played Dido too much. Dido is pants. But this was made up for by the fact that we met a very tall German guy there who sounded exactly like the policeman in 'Allo Allo' who spoke with a terrible french accent...
While Lhasa is a beautiful place, I can't help but feel I would have liked to have seen it 40 years or so ago, before the Chinese moved in. Okay, it is a valid argument that the Dalai Lama was a religious dictatorship that left the country way, way behind the times and incredibly poor, but with economic progress you lose some of what makes a place unique. Especially with Chinese economic progress, they are moving along so fast you're not sure if they really pay any attention to the past when they're looking so much to the future.
For example, before we came to Tibet, one place we stayed for a couple of days was Lijang. Which was a nice enough place but quite false at the same time. It had a kind of Chinese Disneyland feel to it in that a lot of the buildings were meant to look old and quaint but quite clearly weren't. Whatever was there before was not Chinese enough or not attractive enough to bring in tourists and so was replaced with ornately carved wooden shop fronts. However, in a place like Lijang or Zhongdian it is still possible to find the old buildings and relatively untouched places if you just take a walk elsewhere so maybe I have no cause for such whining and should just keep it stum.
Whilst in Asia, there have been a fair few visits to various temples, monasteries and pagodas. None more impressive than Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But the Jokhang Temple comes pretty close. Whereas Angkor was an area full of ancient ruins, the Jokhang is still an active place of worship for Buddhists. You walk in and everything feels old, like it has been around for centuries, as it has. Inside it is dark and a bit musty, lit by huge candles made from yak butter. The place is full of brightly coloured statues of the many different deities that are a part of Buddhism. To be honest, if I was a monk, I think I would get fed up with a thousand tourists a day (95% Chinese, half of them wearing brightly coloured cowboy hats) roaming about in my temple but they seem to just get on with things. When you see a couple of monks laughing together about something, you wonder if they are making fun of all these people who barely know their Buddha from their Bodhisattva...
I should give a special mention to the Chinese family that gave us ice lollies the other day when we were sat on a riverbank. About three generations of Chinese or Tibetan, (my Chinese isn't really of the standard where I can ask where they come from) all sat around with a picnic and doing their clothes washing in the river. We even had semi-conversations, despite the fact that they could not speak English and we couldn't speak Chinese.
As I'm hungry now I'm going to wrap up, before possibly having a momo or a bobi for lunch. A momo is a kind of deep fried-thingy which can be filled with meat, vegetables or the ones that we are all getting fat on the fried apple momo's. Bobis are kind of like fajitas, you get given a few flour-based wraps and put all the stuff you want inside them before rolling them up and shoving them into your face. And they taste goooooood.
Saturday, 18 August 2007
The walls of Old Dali at night
Lijang (Did I mention I love my new camera?)
Guess who's in China now? ME! Land of 1.3 billion people and counting and at least half of them really hock one up when they need to spit. Spitting was fairly common in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (as is the man-bra style of t-shirt wearing: the men rolling their t-shirts up to just above the belly) but here they let you know about it. So far though I'm still to find a place that does sweet and sour. Maybe it's called something else. I must investigate. Or learn Mandarin Chinese. Hmmm...
Now we are in a town called Lijang, very picturesque, loads of cool looking old Chinese architecture. Cobbled streets, little streams running through them, you know the type of thing, you've probably seen it in a badly dubbed kung-fu film. Very much the old traditional style China.
Which is completely different to Kunming, the first major city we got to after crossing the border from Hanoi. Kunming is a perfect example of the speed at which China is growing, and why America knows it's days as the world's economic superpower are numbered. Kunming isn't even one of China's big cities as such, (only 3.5 million population) although it is the capital of the province we are in - Yunnan. The only problem is that you are in constant danger of being run over by a stealthy scooter. As with a lot of Asia, scooters (or moto's) are all over the place, they are a good, cheap way of getting around the city. But in Kunming they were ALL electric. Which means you will never hear them coming until you sense you are about to be run over at the last minute. And the Chinese are usually too polite to beep at you to get out of the way!
Ah politeness, a human trait which I nearly forgot about in Hanoi, Vietnam. I think I have found a place that I dislike even more than Eastleigh! (C.F.I.P.) If I can some it up in a nutshell, it's just a crap city filled with people that want to scam you and rip you off in one way or another. One example (although I filled about 3 pages of my journal with an anti-Hanoi rant) is that no-one ever just smiles and says hello to you in the streets of Hanoi because they just want to say hello or talk to you. You're lucky if 1 in 10 of the Hanoi people give a shit about anything other than the contents of your wallet. Anyway, enough negativity, Vietnam was an amazing, often beautiful and consistently unique place. It's just that Hanoi was utter arse.
But you haven't read all this way because you enjoy it. You've seen the title of this entry, become intrigued, and want to know about me having my testicles grabbed by a police officer don't you? I can tell. So, gather round and I'll tell you a tale... It all started when my camera got stolen in Hanoi by the lake. I have a new one now, obviously. Anyway, thinking it was the obvious next step, I went to the police. Just to try and get a police stamp for my insurance claim mind, I didn't expect them to actually do anything about my camera being stolen. But it seemed the stamp which I required was some elusive magical object which the other police station across town could help me with. Or they just flat refused to help and told me to go back to my hotel. So, that night after zero success with the local "police" I was in a bar, chatting to a German guy who, as it happened, was part of a team that trains the police in Vietnam. He suggested I bribe the police, just a few hundred thousand dong (about a tenner) to get the stamp I needed. Good idea I thought, maybe they are so stupid, corrupt and lazy that money is the only way a tourist in their country can get some help.
So, the next day, with renewed enthusiasm, I went off to the police station which the previous day had been the least shite, to offer an "administration fee". (This is what the German guy told me to call it). Upon me waving a bit of my dirty western money about, I at least go a reaction of semi-interest. So they ask me to go on a bike and point out the exact spot where I reckoned my camera was half-inched. Wow, I seemed to be getting somewhere. Off I go on the back of a bike driven by a police officer. On the way he starts to talk to me about England, his English isn't much so it consists mostly of Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, etc. Then he mentions how English men are much taller than Vietnamese, also with arm movements up and down to illustrate. Then he says how English men are much 'bigger' than Vietnamese if you know what I mean. How does he illustrate this point? He just reaches back and gives me a cheeky grab of the meat and two veg! Twice, in case I didn't understand his point the first time! What can I do, tell a police officer that it's not normal behaviour to cup the balls of those on the back of his bike?!?
Dodgy policemen aside, now we're heading North through southern China and should be taking a short flight to Tibet on the 23rd. It's already getting colder, I had to wear proper shoes yesterday rather than my dirty backpacker sandals which are now rapidly dying and held together with superglue. Love every minute of this travelling stuff...
Saturday, 11 August 2007
As you can see, before he buggered off back to England, me and Tom went surfing in China Beach. It used to be popular among the American GI's when they were given leave as a place to surf too. These days it's not exactly Apocalypse now with all the helicopters flying overhead as we rode the waves (or tried to) but it still allows us to say "back in Nam when I was surfing" and that's all that matters. Obviously.
You may have noticed my reference to Tom leaving, yes he's gone as well now, leaving me forced to talk to Haya for the forseeable future. Although for the next three days I am killing some time in Hanoi as I wait for my Chinese visa. Why do I need a Chinese visa? Because next on the list is Tibet, possibly at the same time as the Shoton Festival aka Festival of Yoghurt. There's a good chance that I'll be going to the Mount Everest base camp where I can walk in the footsteps of the great one, Brian Blessed. He just climbs it for fun every now and then apparently. So this Monday I leave Vietnam for China. I can't leave any later than this because my visa runs out, something I didn't realise until the other day and then thought, 'hmmm maybe I should actually plan where I'm going next as I have to leave the country'.
Having not really had any problems so far travelling through Asia, and doing the odd group tour here and there, it was inevitable that we would see how things can go slightly wrong sooner or later. Basically we went on a 3 day, 2 night tour to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, which were beautiful places themselves, it's just that everyone invloved in the tour from the booking agency, right through to our tour guide were completely corrupt! I won't go into massive detail but - long story short - we ended up having to go to the police to try and get them to do something about an agency that has obviously been scamming backpackers for a while. The "police" weren't remotely interested as they must have been suitably bribed a long time ago. But the tour did unite our group in a pretty sturdy hatred of our "tour guide". I think he flipped a coin each time before he spoke to us: heads he lies, tails the truth. Oh we had a lot of names for him, most of them four lettered. You hear plenty of stories about other people getting shafted, so once in a trip isn't something I'm going to worry about. Although I would like to see the receptionist of the Cat Ba Plaza tied up and bent over in an enclosure with an especially randy bull...
One of the best things about backpacking is the random experiences that are competely unplanned but utterly welcome. One such event was a few nights ago when we were celebrating the birthday of an Irish friend, Leanne. After we had hit a couple of bars we needed a new one and were walking along a road in the old quarter of Hanoi. When a large group of Austrian exchange students come along and tell us their Vietnamese/german guide is taking them for a lock-in at a bar called Half Man Half Noodle. As our friend Dave put it, a bar with a name like that sounds too good to be true. But it did exist and a lock in with a load of Austrian economics students we had.
Finally this week, I'm slightly worried. I need a haircut, but I'm in Vietnam. I need to find a barber shop that can speak the level of English I need to be able to tell them how I want it cut. This seems unlikely so I may just print out a picture of myself from two months ago and point to that. Next time you see a picture of me, I may have the haircut of an eighties footballer. Eeeek.
P.S. The picture format of the blog is a bit screwy again because Vietnamese computers think they know best. Wouldn't know best if I took a hammer to them...
Wednesday, 1 August 2007
Alcohol and water? Perfect combination, hand out free shots of a something that tastes like crap to everyone!
The old Kho man from a Lat Village plays the Kambuot
Ok, so the blog has a different look to it this time because that is what this computer has decided. After a bit of fiddling around and swearing I have decided that the computer can have it's evil way. Until next time...
Anyway, since the last blog we've been blazing a trail up the east coast of Vietnam. By blazing a trail I mean taking our time to stop and visit all the best places of course. Since I can't check my last blog for some reason (aren't computers great and never at all frustrating?) I can't remember if I told you about our trip up the Mekong Delta. Some vague light of recognition in my cobweb addled mind says I did so I'll skip to Mui Ne. Actually, I've just remembered I mentioned that already too, so on to Dalat. (Something says I should never have a career in a position of life or death importance. Like Homer Simpson running a nuclear power station).
So, Dalat, yes. Dalat was the first time I've had to wear a second layer of clothing in a long time. It was up at fairly high altitude so it's possibly the coolest place, temperature wise, in Vietnam. Which isn't to say it's cold because this is Vietnam, not the UK, but all the locals were wrapping up warm in scarves and thick coats when it was still around the 20 oC mark. While there we went on a tour with an Easy Rider, one of a group of guys who owns a motorbike and drives about the town looking for people such as ourselves to offer a less touristy kind of tour to. Normally I don't accept offers from suspicious looking bikers, this is Tom's pass-time but the tour turned out to be amazing, especially the Lat village that we went to. I could have listened the old guy there (pictured above) all day, he had endless stories about being a doctor during the Vietnam war and all the local customs and traditions. The village that he was a part of are a catholic minority within Vietnam, a predominantly Buddhist country, I think influenced by the French. And, this is the best part, when he got married he cost his wife's family 5 buffalo! Seeing as we don't have many buffalo in England I may put my price at about 7 horses or 16 badgers.
More bizarre was a place we stopped called Crazy House, an ongoing project to build a hotel that looks like a warped nursery rhyme. The owner and creator is the daughter of the man who was Vice President when Uncle Ho Chi was in charge back in the 1960's. We were told she went to study architecture in Moscow and then began this hotel in 1990. She may well have studied architecture in Moscow but I imagine she also indulged in a side helping of Hans Christien- Anderson and more than a few hallucinogenic substances. We saw her wandering around at one point and if Little Red Riding Hood was 50 and wearing a lot of make-up then this is where she lives.
Now we're in Hoi An, after a slog of an overnight coach journey. We came from Nha Trang, nice enough place but nowt to do other than the beach and a boat trip which was as much a booze cruise as anything. Ask the Australian guy that was carried off the boat with his shorts round his ankles at the end of the day.