Australia: life uʍop ɹǝpun

Perth - Australia

We flew from Bali into Perth International Airport and had to pass through the notorious Australian border control – luckily we didn’t have a stash of fish heads or snake skins in our luggage and the drug-sniffing dog ran over our bags without hesitation so our passage was easy enough – we cleared the declaration point and were ready to start our year-long adventure down under.

Our friend Gail kindly volunteered to be our welcoming party and put us up for the first wee while – it was such a great help to get us started, and luxury to be in a home after so long on the go.  On our first night, despite the winter storm outside, and at my insistence, we were treated to our first aussie BBQ, in the dark.

Western Australia is the largest of the 6 Australian states and territories, taking up the entire western third of the country.  It is the world’s second largest producer of Iron ore, and what seems like every other person works “fly in, fly out” to the mines – Perth is a happening place with a large international community.

Perth CBD from the Swan river

The first month was spent setting things up, bank accounts, a place to live in Fremantle (‘Freo’) and a steady income.  Marian worked in The Black Truffle, a lovely wee deli that serves the best coffee in Freo, as well as delicious sandwiches and Italian grub.  She also worked for The Seventh Duchess, a luxury tea company with some of the nicest tea I have tasted (we were not short of a cup of tea or bread and olives).  I was already registered to work as a nurse in Australia, thanks to our months of effort filling in forms and relaying emails before we left, and I was able to start work, despite refusing to sit the English language test (which I would have had to pay for, and couldn’t guarantee that I would pass!)  I soon got jobs at two hospitals working for the relief staff, although I worked pretty much full time in the oncology/medical ward and Hospice in one of the hospitals.

Perth CBD.1

We enjoyed living in our tiny one bed unit in the middle of Freo.  Fremantle is known for its heritage buildings and is the main port that serves Perth.  Both Fremantle and Perth have been built on the sandy wetlands of Western Australia, around the Swan River.  Freo has a population of around 25,000 people, while Perth, Australia’s 4th largest City has a population of 1.83 million.  Freo is the home of the Aussie Rules’ Fremantle Dockers, Cicerellos fish and chips (below), the Little Creatures Brewery, a great little sandwich place called subway® and the Freo Markets.  One of our favourite places, the Markets were built in 1897 and have over 150 stalls selling all sorts, from kangaroo t-shirts to fresh fruit and vegetables.  Marian and I would regularly be found here on a Sunday afternoon negotiating for our week’s vegetables.

Fish and Chips at the harbour

Sophie and Me on the boat to Perth

Our six months in Freo was flying by, and during our time here we were lucky to be visited by Sophy over the UK summer, and for Christmas by Alice and Sean.  These were great opportunities to take a break from work and do some touristy things.  With Sophy, we took the boat up the Swan River to Perth city, past all the exclusive riverside suburbs – it’s a nice ride, but at 20 times the price as the train and nearly 3 times as long a trip we only did it once, although you do get a free cup of tea.

We spent a few days down in the Margaret River region, a beautiful wine area south of Perth.  Home to at least 140 wineries and a handful of breweries, we took advantage of one of the well-established tours taking you to the cellar doors for a few free glasses of wine.

wine tourAnother Wine tour

Nearby is a network of more that 150 caves, some giant and others no more that 10cm tall.  We visited Lake Cave and Jewel Cave, both with incredible stalagmites and stalagtites and sequence of caverns.

Cave

P1080114

Our trip with Sophy coincided with the winter migration of whales up the west coast to their breeding grounds – we couldn’t resist the temptation to go and see a few whales and dolphins, and spent a chilly couple of hours out spotting immense humpbacks and a southern-right whale and her calf.

Humpback whale

We also visited a National Park north of Perth, the Pinnacles desert, an area of unusual 30,000 year-old stone formations protruding from the ground. Australia has all sorts of different landscapes, though the sheer size of the country allows for that – Australia is 50% bigger than Europe and is the world’s largest Island.  You can see barren red dessert, unique pinnacles, and vast gum tree forests.  We loved the southern forests of tall Jarrah, Karri and tingle trees, and had some amazing drives through them.

P1080817Pinnacles.1

Christmas in Perth was a killer 38 degrees and the only thing to be done was head to the beach for a bbq, down at Margaret River.  We cooked roo and shrimps (which, by the way, nobody here actually calls shrimps, they say prawns, and certainly no-one says, “struth, throw another shrimp on the barbie”), and sausages, along with Alice’s legendary potato salad.

Cooking Christmas dinnerChristmas Day and Chrimbo socks

Alice and SeanWest Coast Sunset

Another great attraction, closer to home, was Freo Prison.  In the 1800’s the locals (settlers from the UK) in Freo and Perth had it hard, the land was tough and the work was back-breaking, so they requested labourers to be sent from the UK to assist.  All of these men, some of whose only crime was stealing a loaf of bread, had to work long days in unforgiving heat building their own prison.  The prison opened its doors in the 1850’s and, unbelievably, remained a prison with little structural improvements until 1991.  Now as a tourist attraction the prison is on the Unesco World Heritage List and entertains all of its visitors on different tours with stories of attempted break outs, ghosts and aqueducts that run deep under the prison and the city of Freo.  We even climbed down into the tunnels under the prison, the primary water source for the city for a long time, and we paddled around in boats in the dark which was fun (with some random tourists, below)!

Freo PrisonP1080939

tunnel tour freo prisonP1080287

We also enjoyed our trips to Kings Park, right in the middle of Perth, it had great views over the city, and free barbecue facilities!

P1080090yet another BBQ

It turned out that our friend Cat, who we’d met in India, lived in Freo, which was great as she helped us get to know Freo and we had a brilliant weekend with her at ‘Rottofest’, an annual comedy festival, on Rottnest Island.  ‘Rotto’, as the island is known locally, is 18km out to sea from Perth, and is home to the quokka, a kangaroo the size of a cat.

Rottnest IslandP1080543

Marian and I treated ourselves to a stay in a lovely place called Cape Lodge for our anniversary – I don’t think our future anniversaries will be so luxurious, but it was a good start!

honeymoon spotHoneymoon

The coast-line around Margaret River is stunning – with gorgeous beaches and rugged rocks.

forces of natureWavey Rock poolP1080330deep in thought

Before we left Freo we managed to take a lesson in Kite surfing on the Swan River with Alice and Sean – it was a lot of fun although I did expect there to be some actual surfing involved.  Apparently that is reserved for lesson 2. Here’s a picture to illustrate what it’s all about – we didn’t (quite) get this far, but it was still an experience.

kite-surfingThat pretty much sums up our working lifestyle in Australia – not a bad way to spend 7 months and earn enough to hit the road for the next 5!  To see what we got up to on our mega road-trip, check out the next blog entry (when I get around to it).


Scotland to Singapore overland: the final leg


Let’s re-cap on our journey so far: we left Scotland at the end of October last year and headed south to London for a few days of farewells before taking the Eurostar to Paris exactly one year ago today, on 5th November 2011.  From there, we struck east via Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Russia, before turning south once in Asia and venturing down through a chilly Mongolia as the full throes of winter set in, and emerged into a fresh-feeling but grey-looking China on my birthday just before Christmas.  Thwarted in early January by the up-coming Chinese New Year, preventing us from travelling any further by bus or train, we quickly changed plans and made for the south of India and altogether more sunny climes at that time of year.  Thus began the second leg of our mega overland journey, which took us north through India, Nepal, and Tibet, and back into China, before we looped east and south again through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia to Singapore.  As the map illustrates, we then made a stop in Bali, Indonesia, before making a beeline south to Perth, Western Australia, in early June this year.

Our overland adventure from Scotland to Singapore via the Subcontinent in numbers:

  • 7.5 months
  • over 16,000 miles
  • 40 trains
  • 1 ferry
  • 33 buses
  • Numerous rickshaws
  • A couple of jeeps

We strove to do as much of the journey as we possibly could overland, and succeeded in doing so for over 75% of the distance covered en-route to Australia. It turns out the only viable international border crossing to/from India and the rest of the Asian continent (to the north and east at least) we could make use of was via Nepal and Tibet. Realistically, we only had the time, money and inclination to do that route in one direction, and so in order to take in India on this trip we resorted to the skies and took a one-way flight from China to the south of India. Considering our relatively short flights from Singapore to Indonesia, and then the hop on to Australia in the equation, it wasn’t a bad effort as far as overland journeys go. We saw far more than we would have done had we flown between countries, and had a far better experience for it.

We’ve rested our heads after all the exciting places we’d seen each day in over 100 different places:

  • 78 beds in hostels and guest houses,
  • 20 bunks on sleeper trains (including one ‘hard seat’),
  • 5 overnight bus journeys,
  • 1 ferry berth

…and you might understand why we were ready to settle in one place for a while!

To pick up our trip where we left off in the last post, which was on the train back into China from Tibet: we arrived into Chengdu and a China emerging into summer and promptly went to the nearest international post office to offload all of our now redundant cold-weather gear – thermals, winter-woolies, fleece-lined boots and down-jackets were despatched home via slow-mail (and fortunately arrived 2 months later!).  From here-on south, it would only get hotter and more humid (until we hit Australia and the southern-hemisphere winter, but that would still be really warm, wouldn’t it?).  In Chengdu we went and did as all visitors to Chengdu are obliged to, and had a spicy Sichuanese hot-pot!  Oh, and visited the Giant Pandas.  Both were an experience!  The hot pot was certainly a lot livelier than the pandas.

Given the limited time on our Tibetan permits to remain in China, we unfortunately didn’t have long enough to visit the places we wanted to in south-west China, and so we headed directly south to Kunming and then on to the southern jungle-region of Xishuangbanna, bordering Laos and Burma.  We spent a few days exploring the villages and markets in this relatively remote corner of China, safe in the knowledge that we had easy access to get out of the country quickly before our permits expired.  Although we didn’t venture too far off the beaten track, this region is populated by different groups of people compared with the rest of China (around a third are Dai, another third are Han Chinese and the rest belong to various other minorities and hill tribes), and even in the fairly accessibly towns and villages we made it to, it was so interesting to see the demographic variations.  Unique languages, traditional clothing and jewellery, and preserved ways-of-life, as yet unaffected by the fast-developing Chinese economy and lifestyle.  Still, new roads were evident even in this remote corner, which is unsurprising given the Chinese Government’s likely wish to strengthen access to its neighbours in this region.

We enjoyed exploring the colourful markets in Xiding and Menghai, watching the locals bargaining and shopping, and wondering at all the weird and wonderful ‘edibles’ on offer, as well as counting our lucky stars that we didn’t have any dental-needs.

Just before our time in China ran out, we hopped on a bus that took us across the border and on to Luang Namtha in Laos.  At the Laos border (a building by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere), the official took issue with the lack of China-visas in our passports (entering through Tibet meant that we were only furnished with a sheet of paper detailing our permit to be in China, something which was stamped and confiscated when we left China, instantly removing all record of us ever having been in the country – a strange system really).  The Laos official wouldn’t let us in without seeing an exit stamp from China.  Presumably we could have fixed this problem by handing over a few Yuan or Kip to the stubborn (or opportunistic?) official, but instead we persuaded the bus driver to take me back to the China border post 5 minutes drive back along the road, where the fortunately very friendly and helpful official was happy to make a photocopy of our stamped Tibet permit for us, which the Laos border official accepted with evident disappointment and granted our visas.  Phew.

Our ten days in Laos can be summed up in two words: lychees and leeches!!  The northern region is well set up in eco-tourism, and we took the opportunity to do a 2-day trek into the jungle to visit some of the more remote tribal communities.  By happy coincidence, we stumbled into a trek-operator to shelter from a monsoon downpour at the same time as two lovely Quebecers and a cheery Aussie lass, who instantly became our trekking partners for this excursion.  It being the start of the rainy season, the rivers were still very low (too low for any journeys by boat unfortunately), but unknown to us, the rains brought out the nastiest little creatures on earth – leeches.  Although dancing around on the path trying to flick the wriggly little monsters off our shoes every couple of minutes slightly overshadowed the first day’s walking, we ended the day in a wonderful little village of wooden huts on stilts, home to people of the Khamu tribe, and with a swim in the river to cool off.  We played all manner of energetic games with the local kids, before enjoying a delicious supper of sticky rice, tomato and tofu, and beef and ginger and lying out under the dark skies spotting shooting stars (or, err, satellites!).

Fortunately day 2, through narrow jungle tracks and alongside the river, was less leech-infested than the first, and we made it back to Luang Namtha for cold showers and an experimental taste of dog before an evening at the night market devouring bowls of noodles and gorgeous fresh lychees.  The next day, we caught an early bus south to Luang Prabang, with a rough estimated journey time of 5-7 hours.  The road condition deteriorated as we wound around the valleys and up and down hills, before stopping for what we were told would be a quick 20-minute lunch-break.  An hour later, on enquiring exactly when we would be leaving, the driver said that he was watching the boxing and we would depart when that was over!  So symptomatic of laid-back Laos.

We arrived into Luang Prabang over 10 hours after leaving Luang Namtha, and spent the next few days exploring the lovely old town and its temples and cafes, and the surrounding waterfalls.

With Alice and Thomas, we hired bikes for the day and pedalled around the local sights and to a waterfall a few kilometres from town for a refreshing lunch-time dip!

It was a beautiful old colonial town, on the banks of the Mekong river, full of atmospheric old temples and a fabulous night market selling colourful crafts.  The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, and it is an awe-inspiring sight, even at the end of the dry-season when it is at its lowest.  You can imagine the lifeline it gave – and continues to give – to the Lao people.

Vang Vieng was our next stop en-route to the Thai border.  It was really hotting up now as we moved further south, and so what better than a morning cycle through the karst (limestone) scenery to investigate a cave in one of the peaks and enjoy a cool-down in the lake afterwards?  The only problem was the cycle back again in the midday sun!  People come to Vang Vieng to go tubing – and drinking – on the Mekong, and the town itself is not a pretty place, but it made a good stop-over for us on the way to the capital, Vientiane, and our journey on into Thailand.

Laos was so well set up for tourists and backpackers (dedicated minivans shuttle foreigners between all the major towns, removing the need to get unreliable public transport, and tours are offered at every opportunity) – but it was, in a way, more difficult to get to know the real country and its people.  Having said that, we spent only 10 days there, and visited just 3 of the more popular places, and I’m sure with more time and a bit more effort you can get off the backpacker trail and experience the true Laos, such as that we glimpsed at a weekly cock-fighting gathering we stumbled upon.

It was great to be back on the rails as we boarded the service shuttling across the Mekong, marking the border between Laos and Thailand.  Stepping off the train at the other end of the line, a mere 5 minutes later, we went through immigration control at the station before finding our berths on the sleeper to Bangkok.  Luxuriously spacious, even in second class, this was by far our most pleasant overnight train journey yet.  With our own little 2-seater booth, converting into generous bunks with curtains, sheets, blankets and pillows, it was a surprising comfortable and convenient way to travel, and proved to be the norm for the subsequent journeys we made, in south-east Asia.

Pulling into Bangkok the next morning, ready for a day of shopping to replace our worn and faded clothes, we dumped our rucksacks at the hotel (a treat from cheaprooms.com!) and headed out to catch up with Ilan and Nat in the fancy new state-of-the-art shopping malls.  It was immediately apparent that we couldn’t afford to replace our wardrobes in the shops within, so we crossed the street to the old discount market malls and found a few bargains there.   After a plate of noodles from a wonky table on the street, we bade goodbye to our Chilean friends and there was just time for a dip in the rooftop pool of our hotel before it closed.  The next morning, we were back at the train station where we enjoyed plates of Pad Thai before boarding our train south to Penang, Malaysia.

Penang was our stop-over en-route to Singapore, and after catching the ferry across from the train station in Butterworth, we whiled away the afternoon in the shops and catching up on our emails thanks to Starbucks wifi.  We probably missed an opportunity to see what Penang has to offer, but without a guidebook or any sort of tourist information, we were at a bit of a loss to know what to do.  That evening, we caught the sleeper down to Singapore, marking the final leg of our overland-journey from Scotland.

We had a fantastic couple of days in Singapore, staying with our lovely cousins, a wonderful way to end our journey.  What an idyllic city – clean, with public transport that works like clock-work, and if you can bear the heat and humidity, it’s a surprisingly easy place to explore on-foot.  And with incredible food, though we had to agree that the pepper crab was better than the Singaporean special, chilli crab – a messy but massively satisfying taste-test.  Thanks for the fabulous stay and meal out guys :)

We wandered around little India and China town, and found our way along the quay to the iconic high-rise buildings of the central business district, and then made our way up to the old colonial part of town, home to Raffles Hotel.  There was also time for an amble along Orchard Road lined with shopping mall after shopping mall, air-conditioned to the max.  We treated ourselves to a laptop, and said thank-you-very-much for the tax-refund as we departed for Indonesia.

We spent 10 days in Bali, doing not a lot really.  Zooming around on our scooter, visiting beaches around the southern peninsula, taking in a visit to the cinema, and relaxing by the pool in our little guesthouse.  Bali seems to be to Australia what Ibiza is to the UK.  It’s also a surfer’s paradise.  The highlight was perhaps the Balinese cookery lesson we did with a lovely local lady, and the feast Lucy and Umbi cooked up on the barbeque, complete with delicious tuna ceviche.   There we have it, our last few days of leisure before we hit Australia and it’s back to work to earn some now desperately needed funds.


On Top of the World: Nepal and Tibet


Our bus dropped us at the Indian border town of Sunauli and we set off on foot to cross into Nepal.  Our plan was to catch a series of onward buses to our first stop in Nepal, but (and this may sound strange) we first had to find Nepal, or at least the official posts for getting our exit and entry stamps in our passports.  Having joined the chaotic stream of trucks, carts and people on the road seemingly leading into Nepal, we still hadn’t come across any normal border security checks for either country so decided to stop and ask in the tourist office.  It turned out we had been in Nepal for at least a few hundred metres!  We headed back into India in search of an official to issue our exit stamps. It was a small ‘office’: essentially a table behind a curtain at the side of the street, crammed in-between two shops, with no sign-post at all!  Having already crossed once we returned to Nepal and received our visas from the little wooden immigration shed set back from the road.  With this, the least stressful border crossing, out of the way we set off on our Nepal adventure.  We thought Indian public transport had been a bit hairy and disorganised, but the Nepalese made it seem like a military operation of the highest safety when compared with their own!

We arrived into Tansen, old town, with warm and friendly people and our first taste of meat and beer in about 10 weeks. Not a lot to do here so we decided to set off on a warm-up hike to prepare us for our trek into the Himalayas.  It being spring and the end of their dry season, the skies were very hazy so unfortunately we didn’t have amazing views of the surrounding hills or distant mountains, but we wandered through little hilltop settlements and saw where some beautiful local handicrafts were made – the weaving factory was particularly colourful and noisy.

We caught a bus further north to Pokhara; 120 kilometres in 5 hours on a bus filled to over flowing (literally), the scenery would have been spectacular if we’d been able to fully appreciate it; instead we were crammed in the central aisle trying to stay upright, while the conductor was giving out plastic bags to nearly everyone around us, as we hurtled along the small winding roads snaking along the valley sides.

We arrived into Pokhara and having gotten over the little incident of me leaving my bag on the bus (and having to set off in chase on the back of motorbike) we made for the lakeside, an area of town built for travellers: filled with tourist shops selling fake north face, pashminas and buddhist ornaments, and, of course, catering to the hundreds who come here to trek in the nearby Himalayas.

We visited a few trekking companies in search of a guide, and even considered doing it alone, but, partly motivated by the fact that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and it would be a way to give something back, and partly influenced by our uncertain fitness levels for such an endeavour, we decided this was an ideal opportunity to employ the services of a local guy named Kabel.  We didn’t regret it for a second.

We opted to do a ten-day circular trek to Annapurna Base Camp, below Annapurna I, the tenth tallest mountain in the world.  It is a popular trek, but for good reason.  It was spectacular.  The route has little guest houses and villages scattered along the way, amidst amazing scenery. During the trek we had the opportunity to meet the people who live in the mountains every day.




Although it wasn’t at all crowded, along the way we met many other trekkers, which was fantastic: a wonderful family of Canadians that taught us bid-whist and spoons (two very addictive card games), a fella called Raf that was content staying in the hot springs for about a week, lovely Jo from Scotland, and Richard, an Aussie bloke who thought it would be a good idea to run most of the way up the trek and back, to name just a few.

The trek took us up and down valleys and steps, and up and down, and up and down some more.  An early highlight were the views from Poon Hill at sunrise, when we climbed to 3200metres for spectacular panoramas over Dhaulagiri Peak, 7th highest in the world, and one of only 14 mountains over 8,000metres, and the Annapurna range.

We trekked for about 6 or 7 hours each day, usually making it to our day’s destination before the clouds rolled in and heavens opened.  Though I did have to sport my pale pink poncho on a couple of occasions!  We fuelled up on dal bhat every night, the traditional Nepali staple and a dish we came to love – consisting of rice, lentil soup, potato curry, pickles, spinach, and papadum.  Kabel kept us informed, in high spirits, well-fed, and, importantly, on the right track throughout the 10 days.  He was brilliant fun, joining in our card games, keen to take photographs along the way, carrying our sleeping bags and supplies, and even teaching us the words to a Nepali folk song about a silk worm (even if I did have to use similar-sounding english words to be able to remember it).

As we climbed higher towards Base Camp, the temperature cooled, and we crossed avalanches and finally the snow-line on the final approach.  We arrived at Annapurna Base Camp (4130m) on a spectacularly clear day, with 360 degree views of snow-capped mountains – it was awesome.  Once at the top we waited for our dizzy heads to clear and looked for somewhere to stay.  At first we thought we might be camping out in the dining room, but thankfully a room became available, which we shared with Maarten, a lovely guy from Holland.  The next morning we got up and spent an hour taking it all in, the panoramic views were indescribable (not great for a blog).  Most of the way down we spent our time with Andy and Christina, two Americans who kept us energised with peanut bar energy biscuits (once we had finished our own hobnobs and cereal bars).

Following what can be noted as some of the best experiences we’ve had on this trip, we finally made it back to civilisation, thanks to our wonderful guide.  Some of his insightful advice for climbing steps was to “walk like a snake”, which worked a treat.  Back in Pokhara we thought the best way to celebrate our achievements would be to meet up with everyone we met along the way for a visit to the steak house with a nice cold beer.

A couple of days later, it was onto a bus to Kathmandu, armed with our fried egg sandwiches (filled with left over steak) for the journey.  We spent a couple of days in the capital, exploring the old markets and narrow streets around the square, and organising our planned trip to Tibet.

While we waited (with fingers crossed) for our Tibet permits to be granted, we headed to nearby Bhaktapur to meet up with James and Magda and enjoy a big annual festival. The ancient town of Bhaktapur is enchanting, filled with monuments and hundreds of years-old buildings made from stone and wood; everywhere you look there are palaces and temples with detailed carvings and the small streets are a maze of lanes and courtyards.  Our visit fortunately coincided with ‘Bisket Jatra’, the Neplaese new year celebration (its currently the year 2069!).

This was a massive event in their year, and thousands of people came to join in the festivities.  We witnessed what can only be described as a giant chariot tug of war.  Two sides of the town compete to pull a huge wooden chariot to their half of the town.  It was a lot of fun to watch amongst thousands of excited locals, but unfortunately a couple of people died at the wheels of the enormous chariot (as they do every year) as the night wore on, but this didn’t seem to put the locals off their celebrations.   The tug of war determines who will be blessed with good fortune in the coming year.

Also as part of the celebration we saw the felling of a ‘tree’, a massive wooden pole with a bush attached to the top: crowds of people stood in one of the town’s squares and witnessed (dangerously close) this tree being released and falling to the ground.  Then as it barely touched the ground they all rushed in and grabbed the greenery from the top.  The festival was accompanied by much drinking and music, and was a fantastic time to be in Bhaktapur.

Back in Kathmandu we prepared for our onward journey.  Having been denied the first time around, we managed to confirm our permits to the “Tibet Autonomous Region” of China on the second attempt.  We were lucky to be granted permits, as the Chinese don’t hand them out readily, and many others weren’t so fortunate.  There was time for a visit to the Swayambhu “Monkey” temple in Kathmandu before we left Nepal (and fortunately we came away unscathed by the monkeys!):

Tibet

It was a 5-day journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa by minivan and we shared the adventure with three others, an Irish couple called James and Paula and Liam, or “single person” as he was known to our guide (who didn’t ever learn our names, even after 7 days).  Our group was small and perfectly formed – ideal for the journey; we had a great time and pulled together to make the overland trip worthwhile and memorable.

Tibet: the ‘Roof of The World’ as it is known, is the highest region on earth, and a land of incredible scenery.  From the high, flat, dry, red-brown plains, to even higher towering snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Tibet has an average elevation of 4,900 metres, and we crossed several ‘passes’ (high points of the road) over 5,000 metres, the highest being 5,220 metres in altitude – breathtakingly high!  We had views of Mount Xishapagma (8,012m – 14th highest in the world) and the biggie, Mount Everest (8, 848m) and Mount Cho Oyu (8,188m – 6th highest) beside it.  Impressive?  Not particularly – in the distance, they blended in with all the other incredible snowy peaks around us!

The route took us along the main highway through Tibet, stopping overnight in Nyalam (3,600m), Lhatse (4,050m), Xigatse (3,900m) and Gyantse ((3,950m) before arriving in the capital, Lhasa (3,650m).  To put this altitude business in perspective, the vast majority of the world’s capital cities lie at less than 1000 metres above sea level (and most of those are under 500m), a few examples – London is at 14m, Ottawa at 74m, Prague at 244m, Madrid at 588m, Ankara at 938m, Kathmandu at 1298m, and only La Paz, in Bolivia, is a higher capital city, lying at 3,660m.

The scenery was incredible – the barren plateau stretching out on either side of the road, with villages dotted in the landscape every now and again, dwarfed by the plains and mountains surrounding them.  We passed farmers grinding out a living from the land, guiding their yak and ploughs through the red soil, or keeping watch over their flocks in the field-less expanses.  As we neared Lhasa, we passed the beautiful, huge Yamdrok Lake, with emerald green-blue water glistening in the sunshine.

One day, we were happily driving along through this vast, empty landscape, when suddenly and unexpectedly there came into view a group of people creating a road block and preventing us from passing.  They demanded money.  Alarming?  Not in the slightest – these were a group of jostling women, chattering away and tapping on our windows.  Whilst we sat bewildered in the back of the van, our driver and guide discussed what to do.  Eventually they handed over 1 yuan (around 10 pence) and the women stepped aside!

We visited some of Tibet’s most important temples and monasteries, reading up on each place with the help of our smuggled-in guidebooks, and learnt from Liam (the memory machine), who told us what he had read on Wikipedia (unfortunately our guide was utterly hopeless and spoke little English, but we won’t dwell on that).  The Monasteries were huge, tranquil complexes, like little villages within a boundary wall, but were illustrations of times gone by – now almost deserted, they stand as empty symbols of the heart of Tibetan life that has been destroyed by the Chinese regime.  We could imagine the bustling activity that once went on in their alleys, temples, courtyards, kitchens, corridors and prayer halls – environments in which now only a few brave monks persevere.

 


After 5 days on the road, we made it to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, and once home of the Dalai Lama until he fled to India in 1959.  Commanding over the city is the soaring Potala Palace, previous home of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Government and a busy Monastery.  It no longer fulfils any of these purposes, but serves as a huge tourist attraction to the thousands of Chinese who come to Tibet and hoard through its doors and corridors.

As well as Potala Palace, we visited two major Monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism, Drepung and Sera.  Drepung Monastery was once the largest monastery in the world, with around 7,000 resident monks at its peak.  Now, they number in the hundreds, and we saw a few busying themselves in daily tasks, cleaning yak butter from the candle bowls, sewing monks’ clothes, and rehearsing mantras or reading scripture.  Many Tibetans (and mostly women) were visiting the temples in the Monastery, praying in front of each of the statues, Buddhas and scriptures, and brining offerings of 1yuan or 1 tenth of a yuan to each one, and pouring a little from their flasks of melted yak’s butter into each candle urn.  It was reassuring to see signs of Buddhism continuing to some extent.

We enjoyed our visit to Sera Monastery, founded in 1419, where we watched the Monks’ daily debating session, something they all seemed to enjoy and where we suppose they can speak freely about their faith – if we understood correctly, more experienced Monks ‘challenge’ the younger ones to answer questions, and there are a series of hand gestures and claps to signal whether they agree or disagree with what the other says – things certainly got very animated!

Not a lot of Tibet remains untouched, and the Chinese have certainly left their mark, with a flawless tarred road sweeping across the country, linking Lhasa with Nepal, and new infrastructure under construction in all the major towns along the way.  It is also the most densely militarised place in the world, and we stopped at road-side checkpoints several times a day.  There are even fake policeman (or some sort of official) perched at the side of the road at sporadic intervals, perhaps to remind everyone of China’s watchful eye on your every move in Tibet.

However, it is still possible to find local people and experience the Tibetan way of life, though we only caught a glimpse of this in our time here, and we hope to return for a more remote expedition into the Tibetan countryside.  The people clung to their heritage, albeit with the air of defeated acceptance of the Chinese presence, but it was good to see that their traditional clothing and daily habits hadn’t all been eradicated:

After a few days in Lhasa, we took the train out of TIbet, a 48 hour journey from Lhasa to Chengdu, to begin the final leg of our overland journey.  The Chinese-built railway across Tibet is the highest railway in the world (crossing up a maximum elevation of 5,072m, requiring extra oxygen to be pumped into the carriages), and really is a feat of engineering – more than 500 kilometres are over permafrost – and the scenes were incredible:


A Monkey Stole My Toothbrush: India Part 2


We pick up our Indian adventures in Goa, India’s smallest state, which is located on the west coast with an average temperature of about 30 degrees.  The place was packed with western holidaymakers (and we went to the quiet beach).  We only stayed one night before catching a train to Mumbai (Bombay).  With a national population of 1,156,897,800, India is a massive country. Mumbai is home to a staggering 14,000,000 of those people.  We arrived at 11.30pm and despite being promised food by the good people of the YWCA we went to bed hungry.  The following day was spent walking through the city’s downtown looking at the beautiful colonial buildings and watching teenagers playing cricket in the street.  For lunch we treated ourselves to Maharaja Macs at Mcdonalds.

That night we hopped onto a sleeper train to Ahmedabad from where we took a bus to Udaipur, home of Octopussy (the palace on the lake), in Rajasthan.  The hotel, former summer palace, covers an entire island on Pichola Lake.  One night, with a discount, will set you back $375; the guesthouse we stayed in cost us about $5 and we got a fairly nice view of the summer palace.

Udaipur is a laidback, friendly town with lots of tourist shops, and a huge old Palace and fortress where the local royal family once lived and governed from.

After a couple of days we set off to explore more of Rajasthan; it was back onto another train to take us to Chittorgarh.  When you hear stories about India you hear about buses and trains filled to the point of dangerous over-spilling.  We hadn’t experienced this in our first few weeks, that was, until now.  Apparently once a month there is a religious festival in a town between Udaipur and Chittorgarh and it seems that everyone from the local area makes a pilgrimage to a small temple there.  This happened to be the day we were travelling!  At first the train was busy, with all the seats taken and the passageways filling up, but after several stops the occupancy had doubled and we started to worry.  We had standing positions near the (open) door.  By this point, the entire carriage was jam packed, people literally pressed up against each other, with every inch of floor space taken up by feet, it was impossible to move a muscle.  “Well at least no more people can get on” were the famous last words.  How we underestimated the Indian people’s desire to get to a festival.  By the time we pulled into their station, there were 10 people hanging outside of each door fighting for a handle-hold.

Ten minutes further downthe line, we were in Chittorgarh.  We didn’t have long here between trains but were keen to see the largest fort in India, so we negotiated with a rickshaw driver and set off on a whirlwind tour.

Chittorgarh fort sits on a hill 180m above the town and spread over an area of nearly 700 acres.  There were some amazingly intact remains of the once impressive fortress.

Onwards to Bundi, a much less touristy Rajasthani town, where all the houses are painted blue and an impressive castle and fort stand on a hill over looking the town.  We enjoyed exploring the deserted hilltop fortress with Soumali from West Bengal – and almost getting lost trying to find our way out again!

We walked to the rest-house where Kipling wrote the jungle book and visited several large religious wells dotted about the town.

We randomly bumped into fellow travelers Scott and Lisa who we had earlier met in Gokarna.  A lovely American couple, who last time we saw them were frantically trying to book trains and planes to go to a last-minute wedding of a friend in India.  It’s always great to meet up with friends on the road.

Here are some snaps of a few of the Bundi locals, who we had fun photographing (usually at their request):

Bundi, like all Indian cities, is filled with cows, sheep, goats, hens and pigs, and is also home to millions of flies (although as the locals told us the flies only stay for about 1hour a day).  Bundi also has its own 5-legged cow that is driven around the city in the back of a truck, a particularly holy cow that people make offerings to.  The rooftops of the palace and fort are home to thousands of monkeys that visit the city and can be seen leaping between buildings looking for food. While we were out of our hotel one day, we left our window open ever so slightly.  When we returned we noticed a few thing were out of place, the bed covers had been moved, my bag was on its side and my toothbrush was missing. At first we thought a person from the hotel had been in our room, that was until we discovered the little tooth marks in the strawberry flavored soap on the floor and my toothbrush sitting on the window-sill (also with tooth marks). We closed the window and began to clean up when a hairy wee brown hand pushed at the glass – the monkey had returned to the scene of the crime!  From that point on we kept the window firmly closed!

From Bundi we caught a bus to Pushkar on the world’s oldest bus and drove on one of the bumpiest roads, the potholes were the size of VW beetles.  Somehow we arrived and amazingly so did the bus.  Pushkar is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, with a large lake in the centre of town where people come to bathe and make offerings.

We bumped into another couple here who we had met in Madurai, at the very beginning of our Indian trip.  The lovely Scottish-Polish duo, James and Magda, who had found a great hotel with large rooms and a swimming pool, which we swiftly joined them at!

After several very relaxing and enjoyable days we set off to Jaipur, to catch a train north to Amritsar.  We arrived at 1930 only to discover that the 2130 Amritsar train had been cancelled.  When we tried to enquire as to why we were met with a distant look.  The station master made some fighting gestures and the word ‘protest’ suggested some kind of civil unrest en-route.  Trains to Amritsar were cancelled for the foreseeable future, so we made a hasty Plan B which would take us north to Himachal Pradesh via Delhi.

We planned to take an early morning train to Delhi, spend the day there, before catching an overnight bus to Dharamshala.  We asked the guys working in our hotel in Jaipur where the various train and bus stations in Delhi were, but they were unable to offer any clues.  One of them told us, quite unapologetically, that he had only ever been to Delhi (India’s capital, 4 hours away by train) once, along with one visit to Agra, and the other had never been at all.  We thought about our trip, which was taking us all over their country, and it was very humbling.  Our day in Delhi was spent at the Red Fort, not one of India’s best attractions compared with everything else it has to offer, and exploring the fascinating little bustling bazaars nearby.

As the day dawned on our journey up to Dharamshala, we woke to huge snowy mountains and steep valleys through the windows of our bus.   What a country of contrasts – we’d just come from the hot, dry plains of Rajasthan.  We made our way on to a little suburb further up the mountain called McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama and the location of the Tibetan government in exile.

McLeod Ganj is also home to a charity that Marian’s uncle Walter supports, www.tong-len.org.  Set up by a Tibetan monk, its aim is to help local Indian children in the slum communities. Uncle Walter sponsors two boys, who we had the great pleasure of meeting.  The charity gives some children from the slum area an opportunity to attend one of the local schools full-time and stay in a purpose built home during term time.  They also operate a tent school in one of the slums, which gives children access to basic education where otherwise they wouldn’t necessarily have it.  A third programme runs a series of health clinics, which provide services in immunization for the very young, an under fives clinic which advises and helps prevent malnutrition (which is a massive problem with children eating raw meat and dirt) and a general clinic that offers advice and a range of treatments to all ages in the slum.

We were able to see all of these projects in action, which was fantastic.  We couldn’t recommend more highly the work carried out by Tong-Len and encourage you to consider sponsoring a child who can benefit from their life-changing school/hostel programme.

While in McLeod Ganj we were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to listen to the Dalai Lama speak: we woke up before 6 and set off for the temple, where we found a place to sit and waited as the place filled.  People came in their thousands, from all over the world as well as locals. As we got talking to a friendly American couple we discovered that the talk would be in Tibetan, not in English, and so after 3 hours of waiting for proceedings to begin, we thought we had blown it, until the couple offered to lend us their spare transistor radio so we could listen to the English translation of the speech!  As the Dalai Lama spoke, he was passionate and entertaining, and when he made jokes, his laugh was totally infectious.  It was an amazing experience and a definite highlight.

We also took a break from Indian food (which my tummy was thankful for) and enjoyed MoMo’s and thenthuk, both traditional Tibetan dishes.

From McLeod Ganj we took an overnight bus through the Himalayan foothills to Manali.  Just over 10 years ago Marian came here with the Borders Exploration Group to volunteer in a wee hillside village nearby.  On that trip, they renovated the village hall, tidied up rubbish and dug toilet ‘facilities’.  We wanted to revisit the village to see how everyone was doing and how it had changed.  In the intervening years, a major dam had been built in the area for hydro electric power, and the village that had once been a day’s hike to get to could now be reached in 40 minutes by road!  We hired a jeep to take us up there, but hadn’t bargained on everything being under 6 feet of snow – the village was deserted with everyone still wintering down in the valley.  There were a few new houses and a spanking new village hall, to complete the transformation.

From the northern mountains, we headed south again, via the colonial hilltop town of Shimla and the fun little toy train down to Chandigarh.

From there, we took a day-long train to Agra to visit the magnificent Taj Mahal.  It was breathtaking.  We went at sunrise to beat the crowds and the heat, and were mesmerised by the famous monument.

From Agra, we made our way east to Allahabad, another of India’s vast cities, on a mission to find a less-famous monument, this one to an ancestor of Marian’s who had served here under the East India Company’s Bengal Army in the first half of the 19th Century.  Unfortunately, our search was in vain, and we were left thinking that ‘the handsome white marble monument’ had disappeared (notice the empty plinths and missing plaques in this memorial cemetery).

Our last stop in India was Varanasi.  With a population of 1,400,000, it is also India’s oldest city.  Hindus believe that to die in this holy city allows the person’s soul to go straight to heaven, so millions make a pilgrimage here at the end of their lives to the River Ganges, the holiest river in the Hindu faith.  Others come here to bathe in the river and more (like ourselves) come here to visit this spectacular city, to soak up the scenes and atmosphere.  The sheer number of people in the markets and on the streets is quite daunting.   One experience that will never be matched is witnessing the burning ghats (steps beside the river), where people are brought by loved ones to be cremated.

In Varanasi, we met up with our Chilean friends, the fabulous Nat and Ilan, and enjoyed a short boat trip down the Ganges and some delicious meals, before journeying on to Nepal, to mark, incredibly, our tenth country since leaving home.


Incredible India!

From China we flew to the south of India.  During our stopover in Mumbai we knew we had to change terminals, and we had about 3 hours before our connecting flight so thought there would be no problem.  That was before we were informed, on arrival in Mumbai, that the domestic terminal is in fact a completely different airport!  After several queues for security and immigration purposes, we found our way to the taxi stand, stowed our bags on the roof (as you do here) and hurtled through the streets of Mumbai (at normal speed for any vehicle in India) to the domestic airport.  Needless to say we made it with very little time to spare, and jumped onto our flight to Madurai in the south-eastern province of Tamil Nadu.

Madurai is one of the oldest continually lived in cities in the world, 2500 years old.  The temperature was a cool 30degrees (in complete contrast to our trip up until this point!).   The city is famous for two main reasons, one of which is that it hosts one of the most beautiful temples in India, attracting around 115,000 people a week.  The second reason is because it is here that Gandhi started wearing his “lungi”, a ‘skirt’ for men, used mostly by farmers and the poor.  It wasn’t long before I bought myself one of these lungis, just in the interests of fitting in with the locals, you understand.  The biggest event in the Tamil Nadu calendar is the Pongal festival, which we arrived just in time for, completely by accident!  Pongal is a four-day-long Hindu festival celebrating the harvest of the year.  One of the local villages put on a good show for us (tourists), with dancing, fire spinning, martial arts and of course, in typical Indian fashion, lots of music, drums, bright colours and food.  On our second experience of the festival we were witness to Jallikattu, or ‘bull taming’, an event that is hard to explain, because it is so crazy a concept.  Basically, a is bull released along a corridor that leads to an arena filled with about 200 local young men, where it launches out at high speed and the men try to leap on to its hump (yes, a cow with a hump).  The aim is to stay on for as long as possible in the hope that the bull gets bored and stops trying to get rid of you by galloping and bucking around.    The Jallikattu was attended by thousands of people, the highlight of the festival, and fortunately there were no serious injuries while we were there, though it is not an uncommon occurrence.

Back in the main city while eating dinner at a roof top restaurant in our hotel, an old Indian lady walked over and looked at Marian and I, and without warning she grabbed hold of Marian’s chin, pinched it, and then slid her fingers off and kissed the tips of them.  She then did the same to me and turned and walked off smiling.  We looked at each other highly bemused. The waiter who had been watching this walked over and told us that the lady has been coming to the hotel for 40 years and that this gesture was a sign of welcome and affection, and that she was so happy that we were visiting her country.  We were to meet such friendliness and welcome wherever we went in India, though in ways we were more familiar with!

While in India one of the hardest thing to come to terms with isn’t the sheer number of people, sitting at about 1.2 billion, and it’s not the rubbish that is everywhere; it’s not even the constant noise (although I won’t miss the sound of horns), and it’s not the endless streams of traffic; it’s the animals that roam the streets and inhabit bus stations, restaurants, temples and every other public place: cows, goats, pigs, dogs (in their thousands), rodents, camels and elephants.  In the UK we have road signs that say, “yield” or “caution Children playing”, in India they have signs such as ” Elephants have right of way, do not obstruct them.”

From Madurai we headed to the most southerly tip of India, Kanyakumari, the point at which three bodies of water meet: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.  It was an interesting place to visit, mostly because this is a holiday and pilgrimage destination for a lot of Indians, and while we were there we felt very much an attraction ourselves (not for the first time on this trip).  It is also the beginning of the longest train journey in India, from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh in the north of India, a 3 and a half day journey over 4286 km, which we did not do ourslves, instead we headed for Allepey, only a little way further up on the west coast.

Allepey is a gateway to the ‘backwaters’ of Kerala, with mirror still lagoons and canals.  We paddled along the water-ways between palm trees that lined our way and had the opportunity to witness the hidden day to day life in the countryside. Allepey is a seaside town with local kids who have unbelievable frisbee skills. I on the other hand do not.  If we go back I will not be asked to play with them again!  Too many times I had to dive into the sea to retrieve the frisbee!
We didn’t drink very much alcohol while we were in India, mostly because it’s not widely available, but when we did it was often offered as something secretive.  One place we weren’t really sure what we were ordering.  So as to disguise the beer they covered the 660ml bottle with a napkin tied around it.  One other place we visited served beer in a tea pot, all this effort in spite of the obvious liquid in our glasses.
Further up the Keralan coast is Fort Cochin, a little like china town in London, it is like a wee touch of Europe in India.  Although we still ate Indian food the enviroment was very laid back, the traffic was light and there wasn’t a cow wandering the street in sight.  While we stayed here we attended a cookery course and learnt the secrets to Indian curries and sauces.  Kerala is famous for a form of dance called kathakali.  The word means “Story-Play”, where the actors dress in large, elaborate makeup and costumes.  The main form of acting is carried out with head and eye movements, a bodily feat!
We made a detour from the coast, heading up the winding bumpy roads to beautiful tea plantations in the hills around Munnar.  We hired a motorbike for the day, and took off around the hill roads amongst the tea to a fantastic viewpoint looking over into Tamil Nadu.  The bike gave us great freedom to explore the area, and we visited a lovely couple who we’d just met at their old tea planter’s station-turned guesthouse for some, well, tea.
We continued on north to a still undiscovered beach near Kannur, in the north of Kerala, where we built bamboo shelters to protect us from the midday sun and lazed at the sea side for a couple of days, taking dips to cool us off.  The best thing about Kannur, however, was our early morning (we got up at 4.30am) visit to see a ‘theyyam’, an incredible ritual that only takes place in this local area in India.  Theyyams involve difference ‘characters’, and the two we saw danced around a fire in bright colourful costumes, one with a torches of fire attached around his body, going into a sort-of trance before blessing the locals who had come to watch.  It’s a ritual that pre-dates Hinduism and has been passed down the generations, and was fantastic to see.From there we headed inland to Wayanad National Park, where we went on a jeep safari and saw 1 and a half wild elephants, monkeys, deer, bison, giant squirrel and the thing that seemed to be the most impressive to the guides, the wild chickens!  We also saw fresh tiger prints including those of a cub! It’s not surprising that we didn’t see any tigers, particularly given the jeep that was packed with 30 school kids that absolutely erupted when they saw us drive past.   On the second day we went on a day’s hike to the bat cave.  It didn’t disappoint: millions of bats swooping and generally hanging about.


While we drove to Mysore on the local bus we managed to see more wild elephants than we did on the safari.   Mysore was a beautiful city with lots of culture and history.  Like in Madurai, we went to a sound and light show at the palace, figuring that the palace in Mysore is much larger and with more history, and that the show here should be better. The “sound and light” shows are set in the evenings and entail a story of the palace accompanied by impressive lighting rather than actors.  Unfortunately this sound and light show was not in English, so after about 3 minutes when the light effects had run their course all we had was someone shouting at us in Hindi.

Somewhere in between Mysore and Hampi I managed to pick up a bug and developed Dehli belly, with catastrophic effects.  I wasn’t able to be more than 20ft from a toilet at anytime.  It’s a good job Hampi is a small place.  But it’s a UNESCO heritage site with a big history, and the people there have been maintaining the ancient  bazaar since 1336. The place is like a scene from the Flintstones, everything is made from stone, and the ones that haven’t been turned into building material sit as massive imposing boulders looming over the small town unmoved for millions of years.  The world’s largest statue of Ganesh (Hinduism’s God of Knowledge, an elephant) sits on the hill overlooking the town of Hampi, it is also thought to be the largest statue made from one piece of stone.

Finally getting over my little issue Marian and I went on a cycle tour of the surrounding area.  We visited the underground temple and a few of the many temples and ancient buildings in the area.

On our last day we managed to get up early enough to see the elephant from the working temple having his daily bath, it was fun to see him play in the water and splash around.  Rivers in India play an important role in the lives of the Indian people, they are considered holy by a large proportion of the population, and serve as baths and washing machines and unfortunately as toilets (for the elephant at least).

From Hampi we took an overnight bus to Gokarna, leaving at 6pm and due to get to Gokarna at 6am the following day, with an hour or two’s wait until places began to open in the morning.  Instead,  we arrived at the deserted beach at 3.30am and were told that we had to get out.  So with no roof other than the stars we camped out at the top of the steps to the beach, after a french girl told us that the packs of wild dogs and snakes could be dangerous if we went to the beach at night.   The sky was clear and the ocean was calm and the moon was full, so it wasn’t a bad few hours until daylight, other than the dog sized rat than ran across our feet and woke us from our doze.  We thought we’d stay in our idyllic beach hut just metres from the sea for two nights but the pull of the quiet, warm blue Indian ocean was too great so we stayed for 4 nights, it was bliss!  We didn’t do much: we read in hammocks, walked to neighbouring beaches, and ate, it was very enjoyable.  It was a shame that we had to move on, especially when we ended up in a busy beach in the south of Goa, filled with drunk Europeans.

Our Indian adventures continued in the north of the country, to be blogged soon.


It’s all a bit grey…

From Beijing we traveled 715 kilometers south-west to smog-filled Ping Yao.  It was definitely the worst journey we have made on our whole trip – unfortunately there were no sleeping berths left, so we optimistically agreed to travel ‘hard seat’ on the overnight train.  Showing up at Beijing West train station an hour before the train’s departure time, we found a sea of people packed into the enormous waiting hall for our train.

There must have been thousands waiting to board, and we joined the swarm towards our train when the gates opened.  ‘Hard seat’ turned out to be a pretty accurate description – though doesn’t capture the other delights of travelling on the cheapest ticket: lack of leg-room, lack of shoulder room,
noise, bright lights, too many people – at just over 12 hours, it seemed like one of the longest journeys we’d made!

Exhausted, we turned up in the achient walled city of Ping Yao the next morning, welcomed by its seemingly endless packs of wild small dogs roaming the streets. The air pollution is caused by people burning coal; China is the world’s largest producer of coal and they use almost all of it themselves.
 
  The city walls were constructed in 1370 AD and protected the then capital city of China from the Mongolians.  The walls are 12meters high and 4 meters thick.  The walk around the wall was nice but the view was limited!
Near Ping Yao was Zhangbi Underground Castle, a 1,400-year-old network of tunnels burrowed into a cliff beneath a small 800-year-old village.
There are nearly 2000 meters of tunnels on three levels below 30 meters of rock and ground dirt. With a guide, we went down into the sections of tunnel that have been cleared and reinforced, popping into caverns that were used as storage rooms, kitchens, sleeping quarters and even stables under the village.  We also visited another castle, this time above the ground, built by the Wang Family; it is a sprawling home (but more like a village) dating from the Qing dynasty in the mid-17th century with a maze of 123 courtyards enclosed by massive stone walls. There were temples, school rooms,  tea rooms and living areas.
Behind the Castle there are several caves where people have made their homes literally IN the hills and today thousands of people still live like that in China.
From one walled city to another, Xi an, most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, but in my opinion more impressively one of the world’s largest music/water fountain shows!  According to the Chinese tourist board “it will move you in many ways”.  The terricotta army dates from the 3rd century BC and was discovered in 1974 by some local farmers.  The warriors were built by Qin Shi Huang, the founder of China’s first empire and the man responsible for starting the building of the “Great Wall”.   He created the warriors to protect him in the afterlife, and killed the same number of soldiers so that their souls could inhabit the stone warriors.  There are around 1800 unique warriors buried underground; the completion of the army took over 720 000 people 37 years to build.
After sampling some of Xi-an’s fantastic street-food, we spent New Years Eve on an overnight train to Shanghai, China’s largest city and its most multicultural with both modern and traditional Chinese features.  While in Shanghai we had definitely the most expensive meal of our trip so far: all you can eat and drink habatchi and we ensured we got our money’s worth, it was brilliant.  We explored the old ‘French Concession’ district, and wandered along the ‘Bund’ (river) at night, looking over to Shanghai’s lit-up high-rise business district.
After Shanghai it was off to Tunxi and the nearby villages of Hongcun and Xidi, where they filmed the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or as Marian calls it, hidden tiger and jumping rabbit. 
The white-washed villages are both declared world heritage sites by UNESCO.  There are many well preserved wooden residences from the Ming and Qing dynasties with beautiful carvings. The more attractive of  the two villages was Xidi, origionally called Xichuan (West River), and the river is divided into lots of little waterways and lakes flowing through and around the village. 
Back in the town of Tunxi we visited a restaurant that didnt have a menu, instead you walked along a counter and pointed at a plate filled with uncooked food and they prepared it for you.  
Next it was off to Huangshan, the yellow mountains.  We climbed the 1600 metre steps and walked around the top of the mountain – it is a large area with about 72 peaks.  The mountain is particularly famous for its scenery, sunsets, unusal and precariously balanced granite peaks, pine trees, and views of the clouds from above. It has been the inspiration for many traditional Chinise paintings and poems, although unfortunately we only caught glimpses of this wonder, infact at times we could barely see our hands in front of us due to the fog and the ice!  
The yellow mountains are one of China’s main tourist desinations and during our visit there we felt like we were too!  After spending a night in a hotel at the top, we began the long – and fairly treacherous – descent down again, not only were the steps designed for chinese feet, but they tilted forwards slightly and were covered in ice!    Every step of the way all I could think about was the large comfortable warm cable car that ran from the top to the bottom. But then we would meet local porters staggering up the steps carrying sacks of rocks on poles over their shoulders, one even had a kitchen sink!  That made us realise that we were still taking the lazy option.

Our plan was to continue on to the south of China, from where we could cross into Vietnam for a short time before re-entering China for the second part of our visa.  But oh no.  Chinese New Year was approaching, though still 3 weeks away, and we couldn’t get a train berth or bus, and never mind hard seat, we couldn’t even get a standing ticket anywhere in that general direction.  It was unbelievable.  We knew that people make their way home to their families for Chinese New Year (the biggest annual migration on earth), but we didn’t bargain on it happening so far in advance of the holiday.  Disheartened, we made the decision to escape to the south of India and warmer weather!  One high-speed train back to Shanghai (304 kph!) and we were at the airport a few days later, off to begin the next leg of our trip.

Welcome to China.

Following the dramas of the border crossing we had a very refreshing encounter with a lovely Chinese man who was able to put us in a taxi to the bus station so we could head off to the capital of China.  It was a 12 hour journey on a sleeper bus filled with beds, 3 rows of 10 bunk beds. Everywhere we looked we could see little piles of sunflower seed shells, chicken bones sucked of all meat, people smoking in their beds and those who were a little late at the dinner stops being left behind and having to hitch a lift to catch up!

Beijing is huge.  It has a population of over 20million people (the total population of china is about 1.3 billion people; it makes up 20% of the world’s  population). To try to put that in prospective, Northern Ireland has less than 1.8million people and Scotland has just over 5million. The Olympics has done wonders for navigation in Beijing – tube stations are now all sign-posted in English and it’s very easy to get around that way.  Very few people, however, speak English.

We arrived into Beijing at 3am and headed for a hostel (which a certain Northern Irish person described on skype – infront of the owner – as a horrible place that didn’t look very nice!). The only downside was the cold. The hostel was an old hutong, a traditional courtyard residence that would have housed several families all with their own rooms for sleeping but shared living space and cooking areas. Our first day in china was also my 30th birthday, so to celebrate we headed out and ate scorpion and “stinky” tofu (chòu dòufu) which is fermentation in brine and meat or shell fish for several months and served as a delicacy.  YUCK!!

While in Beijing we visited our second pickled dictator – Chairman Mao – in his Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square (that’s 2 down and 1 to go).  Tiananmen Square is the third largest city square in the world, but most famous for the massacre of pro-democracy protestors in 1989. There are still lots of army and policemen in and around the the area with check points at every entrance.

Beside the square is the Forbidden City – the world’s largest palace covering an area bigger than 20,000 rugby fields. In the walled city there are lots of temples and old buildings where the emperors and their wives and girlfriends lived. From the back door of the palace we climbed the hill in Tjingshan park, which had a great view of the City. This is the spot where the last Ming Emperor hanged himself.

As usual our stomachs lead us into interesting places and one dinner did not disappoint; while looking for a particular restaurant that was recommended by our guidebook we noticed a young girl waving from a door inviting us in. It looked clean and there was a family already eating there, and one other table. There was no menu so we began to point at the other table and use our translator app to ask for food. Finally we ordered and felt pretty happy with ourselves until Marian turned and in a whisper suggested that we were not in a restaurant. I also came to a similar conclusion as the cook served us our meal and then returned to her family dinner! The family were light heartedly giving the young girl a hard time. The food was amazing and very cheap!

What better way to spend Christmas day than to climb the Great Wall of China (that is not visible from space). Some of the Chinese visitors to the wall where more interested in getting photos with us than of the wall itself! For Christmas dinner there was only one option, Peking Duck, in a restaurant that served Tony Blair only one month
before.  Delicious.

Beijing is not only a city with a huge population, but the buildings and the industry is massive as well. The layout is constantly changing – unfortunately at the expense of the traditional old single-storey hutong, in favour of endless high-rise buildings.

On our last day in Beijing we visited the Temple of Heaven, which is said to be the meeting point between heaven and earth. The surrounding park is filled with people practicing their ballroom dancing moves, doing tai chi and wu shu with swords, groups playing badminton, people flying kites, elderly people playing cards and we even saw a women in the middle of a bunch of trees singing at the top of her voice. We popped into the circular Whispering Gallery where Marian stood on the east side and and I stood a long distance away on the west side and when we spoke our whisper carried around the wall to each other. Some of the locals didn’t really get it and were yelling at each other so the wall wasn’t really needed for them!

Further installments from China to follow…


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