India

Days spent – 18 days (13 December 2016 to 24 December 2016 and 29 December 2016 to 6 January 2017)

Places visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai

Books read – Shantaram

Things done – Red Keep, Jama Mosque, Nagarwhal Fort

Highlight(s) – Shantaram

Lowlight(s) – Ill!

Cost – £536.40 (£29.80 per day)

India was quite similar to China in that you hear a lot of stories before arriving.  It’s the kind of place that everyone likes to talk about because they either love it or hate it.  I hear how dirty it is (heard that about China too), I hear how unfriendly the people are (heard that about China too).  But things happen before I go that lead me to believe that perhaps I should approach India with trepidation and caution.  Firstly, the visa process is a bit of a nightmare and I end up having to get two.  Secondly, there’s a cash crisis in the country.  The government have banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in an effort to crack down on fraud.  Very altruistic except the new notes won’t fit in the ATMs!  Oh India…

So to conclude, I’m a little nervous about going.  This is country number seventeen on this trip and it’s the first time I’ve felt like this.  To start with, my fears are allayed.  Delhi airport is every bit as modern as other Asian airports that fight their way to modernity, it puts the airport in Kathmandu in the dark ages where it belongs.  There is even a direct railway link to the main railway station in the centre of Delhi and very close to where I’m staying, easy (except getting cash to pay for it!).  It’s quite fast, it’s clean.  As it turned out, it’s the only place in India with rules.

I get off the train and am hit by an onslaught of craziness.  The smells of what-on-earth-is-that, the drivers of what-are-those-things all clamouring for the trade of the foreigner that’s clearly just arrived, the why-are-these-people-without-shoes begging for my money.  I’m suddenly thankful that my pockets have zips.  I must also give thanks to Cat – for once I arrived at my hostel she was the voice of reason.  She said things such as “The cash situation isn’t as bad as it was.”, oh good and “The trains are always cancelled or late at the moment because of the weather”, oh India…

But that said, two of the three things I did in India I did in Delhi on day two with Cat so thanks for that, my second best day in India!  After Delhi I decide to head to Jaipur as it’s quite close and on the way to Mumbai.  Because the trains are a problem I think a bus is the best idea but I’m advised against it by the people in the hostel.  It’s nine hours and I’m going for it, I head to Dhuala Kuan which is supposedly where the bus leaves from.   I head outside and look for it but I can’t understand the writing nor do I have any language skills…  I head back in to ask security and they say it’s outside.  Ok.  I go back out thinking how the hell am I going to find this bus?  I go to where I was before which at least looks like a bus station.  Upon arrival this time there’s a guy leaning out of a bus door shouting “Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur…!”  Hmm, maybe this bus goes to Jaipur.  I go over and ask in a questioning tone “Jaipur?”, he nods.  What a stupid question, he’s only just said it fifteen times.  He must think I’m stupid, perhaps he’s right.

Anyway, I get on.  It doesn’t stop but that’s just the way things are here.  I think there must be a rule, maybe unwritten, that means people can only get on buses that are moving.  After getting on I have second thoughts, this bus is older than I am!  It soon becomes apparent that the indicator system is people shoving their arms out the window.  I have visions of the acceleration system being Flintstone’s style.  I shouldn’t complain, indeed I won’t because it got me Jaipur.  It even stopped on the way so I could relieve myself which I’d heard is not always the case.  Near the end of the journey, on the outskirts of Jaipur I see the slums for the first time, oh India…

I’m not quite sure what to make of the slums.  On the one hand they appear to be the depths of human misery and suffering, but on the other hand it’s just like every other form of human settlement.  There’s a shop selling goods and children are playing in the alleyways.  Instead of playing with iPhone 7s, they’re playing with a plastic bag tied to a piece of string.  I’ve seen poverty before but not like this.  Before, the phone in my pocket has been worth about what people these people made in a year.  Now, the same value can be attributed to the shirt on my back.  Oh India…

Jaipur is a little different from Delhi.  The few creature comforts that were on offer in Delhi have disappeared. The only form of solitude here is the hostel, it becomes a sanctuary, it’s an oasis of calm in a desert of exhausting effort.  Walking down the street is an effort itself, not only does one have to contend with the stifling heat but the people selling you things, the traffic that tries to kill you at every turn and the people that want to rob you if you let your guard down.  It’s here that I wander to the centre of town, there’s a park there with an impromptu game of cricket.  The game halts to let me play…

I have to bat first, that’s bad news of itself because I’m more confident regarding my bowling.  Everyone has crowded round because there’s a white guy batting so I have about thirty fielders to contend with, I feel my only option is to go over the top.  The first ball comes down and it’s quite full outside off stump, I have a chance.  I take a massive swing, and miss it.  To my indignation, I get a ferocious round of applause for that, I thought it was a dreadful shot!  I nick another in the third-man region (maybe I do take after my Dad!) but before long I’m caught by one of the fifteen-or-so fielders stood at cover.  Ah well, language is a problem so I’m beckoned for a bowl rather than asked, ok here we go.  I manage to keep them relatively straight, indeed one even hits leg stump.  I say stump, it’s the nearest vaguely straight tree branch stuck into the ground.  It was nice of the batsman to just leave it, I sense some favouritism to the white guy.  At least England managed to get one up on India somehow last winter, I had not much else to cheer about.

Onwards from Jaipur is to Mumbai as this is where I fly home for Christmas from.  I land at the airport and head for the taxis to take me to where I’m staying.  There appears to be an efficient system where I get a ticket at a counter.  Ok, now I have to find the number plate of the taxi to take me there.  I find it, the driver asks me where I’m going, I thought I’d already done this bit.  I show him on a map, but he refuses to take me.  “Hindi, Hindi” he keeps saying, yes because I look like a guy that speaks excellent Hindi, let alone Marathi which is the actual language spoken by the Maharashtrians. I have to argue with someone that speaks vague English, the driver agrees to take me to the nearest landmark which is a big shopping centre.  Upon arrival, he wants more money, yeah right mate!  Oh India…

The lowlight: I was in India for eighteen days and I was ill for thirteen of them.  It was just Delhi Belly I presume but I never recovered until I left the country.  Travellers talk about places being dirty and I’m glad I’ve been to India because now everywhere else in the world will seem clean.  It’s horrendous, people say you either love India or hate it, well I hate it.  But people said the same about China and I loved it.  I was also ill on entry to China, I thought about not going back but I’m glad I did.  So stupidly, I applied the same logic to India, it’ll be better the second time around.  Err, no it won’t.  Oh India…

But it’s not all bad, although it’s not great either!  When your highlight is the book you were reading you know you haven’t had a good time!  In terms of food the best thing is probably lassi, but in Delhi I had one of the best coffees I had on the entire trip.  It was apple crumble coffee which sounds weird, but was divine.  Anyway, the book, is wonderful.  It’s another one, along with Wild Swans, that I’d recommend to anyone.  It tells the [true-ish] story of an Australian convict’s escape from prison and flee to India. He experiences life living in the slums and meeting his friend’s family in rural India.  It’s a wonderful read that covers all aspects of humanity, he eventually ends up working for Mumbai’s equivalent of the Mafia.  But I’m going to quote one of the main characters from the book, “[In India] sometimes in order to win, you have to surrender.”  My response is why would I do that when I can go somewhere and win without surrendering?

After my sixth or seventh straight day of being ill I’ve decided to go home.  Flights are now booked and it’s cheaper for me to go via Paris.  The main problem is that I’m still ill, I take some pills to try to stop… that…  It’s a bad idea…  The pills are trying to stop it but I want to go.  As a result, it’s like my intestines are playing snake with themselves, it’s turmoil in there and horrid, especially at over 30,000 feet.  We land at Charles de Gaulle; I’m tired, ill and pretty irritable.  It then gets worse, much worse!  

I get off the plane looking to connect to my other flight to London.  I ask they security guys where everyone goes through the visa checks and am told to go straight ahead to connections, that makes sense.  I can’t get my boarding pass printed off the machine so I go ahead anyway.  At this point I go through security, I don’t know why. I ask the security how I’m supposed to connect to terminal three and I’m told I need to catch a bus.  On arriving there I’m told there is no bus to terminal three and I’m sent back to immigration. Once there, I can’t get through because I don’t have a visa at which point I say “I don’t need a visa because I’m British.”  The guy looks taken aback that I know what I’m talking about.  I wonder why he’s so unhelpful and then I remember he’s French, it seems to go with the territory.  Oh France…  

I see red and storm off, by now I’ve missed my flight.  I unhook the things that makes everyone queue in a snaking fashion and throw them over my shoulder and storm towards connections again.  The police catch up with me and take my passport number.  Fine, fucking have it.  At this point I’ve had my little toddler tantrum meltdown and calmed a little, but only a little.  I then spend about ten minutes talking to the police and security.  The security speak English, the police don’t.  They say I need to calm down before I can achieve anything, they’re right.  I say if you weren’t so useless I’d have no reason to be frustrated in the first place, I’m right.  I get security to translate a message to the police that I have no problem with them and accept they’re just doing their job.  I then tell them that they’re completely useless.  To this day, I don’t understand what they do.  I say “security”, is that necessary when everyone goes straight to immigration?  I wish I’d done that, I would have caught my flight!  Their purpose certainly isn’t to be helpful anyway. 

I go through the rigmarole of going through security and heading for the buses again.  This time the guy at the desk there escorts me through the airport to the train that links the terminals.  Why couldn’t that have happened the first time?!  By the time I get to terminal three, I’ve missed the flight so I have to book another (€100) for tomorrow.  That means I have to stay in the airport hotel (€100).  I crash on the hotel bed, tomorrow is another day…

On the plus side, I got those amounts refunded as France accepted responsibility for being idiots.  Of course it took several emails without reply before they actually paid me the money. Oh France…  Oh India…   It was honestly like they were competing for which country can piss me off the most.

But I don’t want to leave my last blog on that note.  Instead I want to say thanks to everyone that made the trip special, I had a blast.  Now, as I write this blog, I’m in the same city as one of them!

Strawbs – written 17 to 23 April 2017, published 23 April 2017

Jama Mosque

The Red Keep

Nepal

Days spent – 25 days (18 November 2016 to 13 December 2016)

Places visited – Kathmandu 

Books read – A Day to Die For, Distress Signals

Things done – Everest Base Camp trek, Swayambhunath Temple, India visa application

Highlight(s) – Trek

Lowlight(s) – Kathmandu

Cost – £563.07 (£22.52 per day)

Firstly, a note on cost, it really is that cheap but they do rob tourists for the flights to and from Lukla (not included). A different format for this blog for this is no ordinary country visit!

Pre-trek – 18 November 2016 to 21 November 2016

I arrive at Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu.  I thought all capital international airports were the same, I was wrong.  This airport, confusingly, seems to have somehow been built before planes were invented.  No screens, no clocks, no duty free.  Praise god, there’s coffee though.  The visa-on-arrival process is surprisingly painless except for the bit where I have to part with forty dollars.  A group of us share a taxi to Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, and a couple more dollars disappear.  I intend to trek so I start to plan for it.  This consists of deciding where to go and how to get there, obtaining the permit and getting the gear I need.  The first bits are easy, the second is wondering which knock-off North Face merchant will rip me off the least…

Kathmandu is crazy, minibuses that are designed to carry sixteen, carry forty. The lucky ones have their heads out the window breathing the dust and the pollution, the unlucky ones are inside breathing the sweat and body odours.  I try to start my Indian visa application process so that it won’t take so long when I get back.  The day before flying to the trek I wait for over two hours only to be told they won’t accept my form because my middle names aren’t on it. Livid.  After getting a few final things I realise I forgot to get Diamox (anti-altitude sickness medication), back out I go…  In the main ‘square’ of Thamel, I get hit by a motorbike.  It sounds dramatic but it isn’t and I’m fine.  It had to happen at some point!  I feel like it’s almost at right of passage for a traveller in Asia.

A crowded bus in Kathmandu

Trek day one – 22 November 2016

Morning, it’s 04:30, ouch.  We’re on the first flight to Lukla.  I say ‘we’, we are myself, Carolyn and Mark.  Carolyn is British by birth and has lived in Canada for seven years, Mark is Australian.  We all have been, or will be, travelling long term.  We met at the hostel, trek together and never really left each others’ sides.  Lukla is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.  Lukla is at 2,800m, twice the height of Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain) and twice the height of Kathmandu.  A quick Google will bring up the disasters that have occured there.  Anyway, let’s not dwell on that and off we go…  We take off in this plane which is more akin to a washing machine with wings.  Somehow we get off the ground and have stunning vistas of the Himalayas to our left.  All passengers can see into the cockpit and through the windscreen. About half an hour into the flight a runway appears carved into the mountainside.  We’re going to land there?  Okay then.  The tiny piece of tarmac slopes to slow the landing planes and speed up the departing ones.  This is good because it finishes with a wall that has backup in the form of a Himalayan peak.  After a much needed breakfast in Lukla we’re off.  A six hour trek with Monju being the target.  It’s not that easy a day as we cover quite a distance. We arrive at a guesthouse which seems quiet as does the trail, the benefits of shoulder season. The water is beautiful, the sky is blue and we’re happy if a little cold.  At dinner we check our maps and I make an observation…  “Hey guys, how much do you think we climbed today?” Carolyn and Mark were unsure in their responses.  “We descended five metres!” We all had a good laugh at that whilst secretly maintaining our own thoughts about what was ahead of us.

The view from the washing machine with wings


Photos cannot do justice to the colour of the water

Trek day two – 23 November 2016

We’re in a triple room and I’m in the middle bed.  Carolyn and Mark are awake before me, they sit up every few minutes or so and look at each other.  This goes on for a couple of hours, I’m a really good sleeper!  The legs feel ok first thing which is encouraging.  We aim for an early lunch because it’s the only place on the way to our target, Namche Bazaar. Before we know it, we’re climbing the infamous hill to Namche Bazaar.  Due to missing lunch, snacks are the order of the day.  We’re effectively zig-zagging up the valley which means we cross the river repeatedly.  Some of the bridges are quite high and test my nerve once more. Part way up this hill is our first view of Everest and here she is…

The roof of the world


Namche – main town of the Khumbu region

Trek day three – 24 November 2016

It’s our first acclimatisation day, we’re now at 3,400m.  For acclimatising we climb to 3,800m to Everest View Hotel which has a nice view of, yeah, you guessed it…!  Unfortunately, Carolyn is unwell.  She comes on the hike but, err, feels a little nauseous half way up. Oddly enough she wants a photo to remember this occasion!  She does really well to make it there and back.  At the guesthouse I decide this is probably the last good opportunity to wash my clothes so I set about the task.  The only problem being, I accidentally wash my clean pants!  They’ll now take about eighteen hours to dry…

Photobombed by this cheeky thing


The view from close to Everest View Hotel (with me ruining it), peaks left to right: Taboche (6,542m); Luri (the snowless one straight above my head); Everest (8,848m or 29,029ft); Lhotse (8,516m – fourth highest in the world); Ama Dablam (6,812m)

Hike day four – 25 November 2016

Hash brown with cheese for breakfast, mmmm.  Meals for the day are varying combinations of potatoes, rice and noodles.  After having just a day pack yesterday, my full pack seems such a burden once more.  I say goodbye to such luxuries as free wifi and free showers (you pay for both up here), meat (above a certain altitude it has to be carried up altitude and is therefore less advisable to eat), beer and coffee (both are diuretics which dehydrate you which isn’t clever at this altitude).  Must these mountains take everything I love and hold dear?! It’s a bit of an up and down day which finishes with a big climb to Tengboche. Carolyn is still feeling unwell but manages to make it with us. Quite incredible, because if it were me I know I’d still be lied up in Namche!  Then again, these illnesses hit us harder, right fellas…?!

Back down the valley the other way isn’t bad either…

Hike day five – 26 November 2016

Our target is Dingboche, which is 4,400m where we need to acclimatise once more.  On our way today we pass three times the height of Ben Nevis.  The days are getting repetative, they go as follows: wake, eat breakfast, hike, eat lunch, hike, find somewhere to stay, eat dinner, sleep, repeat.  The landscape is changing, we’re now above the tree-line. The wind has picked up so the jacket has had to come out whereas previously just a shirt was fine.  The main issue with the wind is that it makes the dust a problem. Thankfully, we all seem to be coping ok with the altitude and none of us are exhibiting the unhealthy coughing habits of our fellow climbers on the way down.

Dingboche 

Hike day six – 27 November 2016

It’s cold here, so cold that I get my sleeping bag out for the first time.  As a result I don’t sleep well because I can’t move my feet and apparently I like to sleep in the foetal position which I obviously cannot get into.  Perhaps that’s to try to get warmth also.  We climb to 4,800m for our acclimatisation trek.  We are now beating our own altitude records each and every day and will hopefully continue to do so.  The owner of the guesthouse here is very funny.  Each evening she goes around with a massive container of hand sanitiser. As she squirts a bit into each persons’ hands she says “Washy, washy!”

No trees so this is the fuel, it comes out the back end of a yak


The method for heating water during the day

Hike day seven – 28 November 2016

So the morning of this day was very eventful.  At 05:23 we had a five-point-four Richter Scale earthquake and the epicentre was close to us.  It must have been quite serious because I woke up! Mark jumps out of bed exclaiming “What the hell was that?!”, I reply “Earthquake…” nonchalently and go back to sleep.  I’m a really good sleeper. I listen for a rockfall, nope, ok we’re good. According to the locals they keep getting these aftershocks after the big 2015 quake.  The staff run out to tell us everything is fine but most people stupidly misinterpret the running as panic!  Unfortunately, a sherpa was making a summit attempt on Annapurna I (8,091m – tenth highest in the world) at the time of the quake and he lost his life. The weather is slightly different today. Instead of the wall-to-wall sunshine and blue skies we’ve been enjoying thus far the morning starts out very misty.  The mist moves with the breezes and mountains can literally disappear in seconds, it’s very strange to see.  We finish for the day in Lobuche, which is at 4,800m, and sleep there.

The mist chases us…

Hike day eight – 29 November 2016

To start the day we head for Gorak Shep, which is at 5,100m.  We find a place to stay, it isn’t great but nowhere will be up here.  The toilets are blocked because it’s too cold for running water.  We dump our stuff and sort our day packs as we are going to climb Kala Patthar for sunset which we’re informed is the best time. The peak is at 5,550m (about 18,400ft), this is the highest we will go and is over four times the height of Ben Nevis.  I partly wish I was Dutch though, it’s seventeen times their highest point (Vaalserberg)!  It’s also a 1,150m climb in the two days since we last acclimatised and we’re starting to struggle.  Who’s taken the oxygen?  The oxygen levels are the same up here but the pressure is lower which means you can’t breathe in as much.  At the start of the trek we were losing about a third of the oxygen that’s at sea-level, at these heights we’re losing about half.  But don’t feel too bad for us, at the peak the climbers lose two-thirds of their oxygen as they can only take in an effective percentage of below seven, at sea-level it’s twenty-one percent.  This is why the real climbers spend a month acclimatising at Base Camp…  On this climb I think about how far we are below the peak of Everest (over 3,000m and about 10,000ft), we’re nowhere near it and struggling!  It’s so worth it though, such amazing views with Nuptse competing with Everest for the tallest mountain crown (Nuptse looks higher because it’s closer – in fact it’s only 7,864m – the twentieth highest peak in the world).  As the sun sets, it throws the last of its light over the top of Everest, proving its title.

Everest (with light) and Nuptse on the right without it


Myself and Carolyn on the Kala Patthar summit.  Ross – I’m sorry but my arm is around your girlfriend’s waist.  We’re scared of falling off as the drops either side aren’t funny.  The truth is I can’t fall off because Carolyn is sat on my foot!   In the background is Pumori (7,161m).


The panorama isn’t bad either…  Peaks left to right (ignoring the very far left which is just close): Khumbutse (6,640m); Changtse (7,543m); Everest West Shoulder; Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse


Hike day nine – 30 November 2016

After breakfast, our first task is our mission objective, we’re going to Base Camp.  It’s just over 200m higher than Gorak Shep and not as high as Kala Patthar, easy right?  Wrong!  The problem being that we have to climb higher and then descend to the camp.  I thought after yesterday we’d be coping better with the altitude and its associated difficulties, we aren’t. Everything is a real struggle up here, this is also the first time the path hasn’t been clear and we don’t go as directly as we could have done.  Apparently, everything over 5,000m is just hard.  We get there though, we’ve done it, we’ve made it.  No guide, no porter.  The truth is, it’s a little anticlimactic, more a photo opportunity with the stone than anything else.  But that doesn’t matter, it’s more the immense feeling of self-achievement that makes it worth every minute and second of arduous climbing, torturous effective oxygen levels and fraying tempers.  The other main highlight is how close we are to Khumbu Glacier, this is the glacier the actual Everest climbers must ascend through (repeatedly) in their efforts to summit. We arrive at about 10am.  The sun is just starting to work and we can hear the glacier creaking, cracking and melting. We are even fortunate enough to see a small avalanche.  We are just a few miles from the Chinese border, will someone please just take me to China?  I wonder if they’d notice if I snuck in?  After the photo formalities are done, we start our long descent.  We go from Base Camp to Pheriche which is like going from the Moon to Yorkshire (credit: Carolyn!), it really is quite odd! It’s a long way as well, Pheriche is visible from quite far away but it seems to take an age to reach it and it’s a relief when we do.

Proof of the achievement!


It’s chilly up here…


… Ok, I’ll do a proper one!

Hike day ten – 1 December 2016 

Today we head all the way back to Namche Bazaar.  After lunch the weather turns misty and cold.  My hair gets wet and then the water freezes, it makes for a funny selfie.  I’m looking forward to arriving because I can have beer, coffee and meat again.  In fact, we stay at the same place we stayed on the way up.  I can remember seeing the yak steak that someone else has ordered, it looked good.  Carolyn and I order it, we can hear them tenderising it meanwhile I’m salivating…  It was worth the wait.  I’m still not allowing myself pizza because that’s what we’re having for our celebratory meal in Kathmandu.  On arrival in Namche we have a problem, the wifi and phones are down, this means we can’t contact the airline to rearrange our flight.  Luckily, it starts to work again a couple hours later.  That’s good because we’re exhausted and didn’t really want that hassle.  We celebrate our return to Namche with a beer in the world’s highest Irish Bar!

Apologies for the selfie overload

Hike day eleven – 2 December 2016

The long, long, long jaunt back to Lukla. It seems further on the way back.  There are no worries or trepidation about what’s to come except perhaps some nervousness regarding the flight.  In the morning, I skid on some dust and I’m down.  I guess that had to happen at some point.  It’s annoying because although I’m unhurt I’m more dusty than I was before and I was quite dusty anyway!  We’ve all had enough now really and start to get a little tetchy.  This wasn’t helped by ordering lunch, which took over an hour to come, ordering momos was stupid.  On arrival in Lukla we celebrate with cocktails.  We just have to make it to the airport tomorrow (in theory), that can’t go wrong can it?!

A short word on these guys: they’re incredible.  The loads they carry are immense and I’m complaining about my backpack.  Get a grip Strawbridge…

Hike day twelve – 3 December 2016

Just the flight to go, our flight is scheduled for 08:30 but we’re advised to get to the airport for 07:15…  Ok.  This isn’t your usual airport, there are no departure boards, no flight numbers. Just a guy in a high-vis jacket pretending to know what he’s doing.  Ok, we go next, we take off at 10:30.  That sounds bad but it’s better than waiting for days like some people have to.  We were so lucky with the weather at all times more or less.  But that’s it, over, done.

Lukla Airport

Post trek – 4 December 2016 to 13 December 2016

Unfortunately, we fly from Lukla on a Saturday morning.  That means I have to wait until Monday before I can even apply for my India visa again.  It’ll be the following Monday before I can collect it. I don’t like Kathmandu that much so that means time to kill.  I read my book, A Day to Die For, a book about Everest which I’m glad I read after the trek! Everyone else is reading Jon Krakauer’s version of events which is well documented in Into Thin Air, but I’m not one to follow the crowd.  If you want to really know what happened (regarding the 1996 disaster on Everest) I’d suggest reading A Day to Die For.  I walked past the cemetary on my trek, the names are now familiar to me before the reading of the book.  Graham Ratcliffe’s conclusion to the book is brutal.  Personally I thought it was a little over the top, although I can see from his point of view why he used those words.  I hope Rob Hall’s family hasn’t read it though…  On handing over my passport for my India visa I have a problem.  They’ve only granted me a single entry visa.  I need at least double entry because I’m going home for Christmas.  Damn, this application really isn’t going well.  I end up having to get another separate visa which costs sixty dollars extra on top of what I’ve already paid (which was also excessive because I’m British).  Why did I book the flight home from Mumbai? This is not a good start India…

Cheeky monkeys at Swayambhunath Temple

Strawbs – written 24-27 December 2016, published 19 January 2017

These damn photobombers…

Vietnam

Days spent – 12 days (6 November 2016 to 18 November 2016)

Places visited – Hanoi

Books read – Chickenhawk

Things done – Vietnam History Museum, Sapa Tour, Ha Long Bay Tour

Highlight(s) – Ha Long Bay 

Lowlight(s) – Hassle

Cost – £386.86 (£32.24 per day)

Good morning Vietnam.  After thirty days in China, my plan for my twelve days here is to see a few things and chill. Therefore, lots of coffee has been consumed sat in a nice chair is some of Hanoi’s coffee shops.  It’s not a bad way to live life really.

One of the things of interest I did was my Sapa tour.  To get there it’s an overnight train from Hanoi.  Damn, I thought I’d left those trains behind in China!  Ah well, I’m used to them now.  Although if you’re in the ‘upper bunk’ here the train rocks as it’s going down the tracks and that sensation takes some getting used to.  The train arrives at 05:30 and it is hammering down.  Oh great.  We dash for our awaiting bus whilst trying to avoid getting wet through.  Our first step is a hotel for a potential shower, but more importantly, a buffet breakfast.  A buffet ‘anything’ is always well received by me.  Some Western food and fried rice and noodles.  All is well.  Thankfully, the rain has abated slightly and we can leave voluntarily as opposed to being dragged along.

We meet our guide at the hotel, she’s tiny, shorter than five feet!  We’ll be trekking through the village she grew up in but she now lives with her husband and three-year-old son.  She’s twenty-one.  We set off from Sapa where they’re building a new eyesore of a hotel to cater for tourists like me…  Soon we are on this trail that’s slick from the rainfall. There’s an Irish guy in our group wearing very unsuitable footwear.  He basically skis down.  Luckily, we are assisted by Vietnamese ladies who must have mountain goat somewhere in their previous bloodline.  They guide us expertly over this terrain which is actually quite difficult.

We get to this village where our guide grew up.  There’s a school which she of course attended.  Suprisingly, it’s a boarding school, and the kids are aged up to about nine or ten.  Our guide explains that often the kids will be left to cook for themselves.  High school runs from eight until eleven, after that it’s off to work.  It’s a hard life out here.  Our eldest ‘helper’ is forty-five, she looks at least seventy.

We spend the night in a ‘homestay’, although every accommodation source seems to call themselves that.  At least ours doesn’t have wifi!  Our beds have mosquito nets.  Shit!  Should I being using these?  It’s winter, probably not. Hopefully not.  The weather closes in a little on day two.  Visibility due to cloud is generally no more than fifty metres, we were so lucky on day one.  We get the night train back to Hanoi.  An 04:35 start tomorrow, sigh…

The lowlight of Hanoi is the hassle.  I can’t explain why but it really, and I mean really, bothers me.  If I want a bike, I’ll ask for one.  If I want a doughnut, I’ll ask for one.  If I want my shoes cleaned, I’ll ask you to do it.  If I want to buy your rubbish, knock-off merchandise, I’ll show an interest in it.  I got to the stage where I stopped saying “No, thank you” and just blanked them, this saddens me. I better get used to it I suppose, I’m going to India…

There’s a crazy market here too.  On Sunday evenings the main shopping street gets filled with even more knock-off merchants under rigged up tarpaulins and bright lights.  The street gets very busy.  I’m due to Skype home but I’m late because my hostel is on this street and I have to fight my way through the crowds.

In Vietnam, I read Chickenhawk.  It’s a novel written by an American helicopter pilot.  Not much of it has stuck with me to be honest.  It’s interesting and quite sad at times but I feel a story from one of the grunts on the ground may have been a better read.  It’s interesting to hear him describe landing in the hot landing zones.  He uses the word ‘ting’ for when bullets hit his helicopter.  I lose count of how many tings there are in the book. Reading him describe when his friend crashed and died and after (and during) the war the affects of his PTSD wasn’t easy to read.

I was a little underwhelmed by Vietnamese food to be honest, maybe I didn’t go to the right places enough.  My first meal, which costs thirty thousand dong (just over a pound), is bun cha (accents are too complicated for me here – sorry!).  This is grilled meat with vermicelli and vegetables, alongside is the ever-pressent nuoc cham which is supposed to be poured over everything, but I didn’t know this yet, I’m having it ‘neat’!  It’s sweet, sour, spicy and fishy at the same time, very nice but pretty strong neat!  One evening at my hostel I get chatting to Jackie and Mike.  We have some of the free beers and then go hunting for food and end up at this great place that does duck that’s cooked in front of you.  It’s really great and you get served free rice wine which the proprietor obtains from the farm where he gets the ducks.  One litre is a dollar! This goes down a little too well…  It’s a great group (I think the Irish girl in the photo below was worse for wear before me), we are joined by two Japanese ladies, it was nice to get my Japanese out again but I’ve forgotten so much!  Come ten, I’ve had it, my hostel has the quilt rolled up at the bottom on the bed.  It hasn’t moved, my legs are on it, my head’s on the pillow.  I wake up fully dressed.  Ooops.

The second of two things of interest I did was the Ha Long Bay tour.  Ha Long translates as descending dragon, cool name.  This is a better group as it’s a little less ‘couply’.  We have a great guide called Dem who I’d highly recommend.  It starts with a four hour bus jorney from Hanoi during which we introduce ourselves.  We have all the I’m… and I’m from… and I’m in Vietnam for X weeks.  Ok my turn, I’m Ian, I’m English, I’m travelling the world and I’m five months in.  Which is received by oohs and ahhs.  It’s too easy to forget that what I’m doing is pretty cool.  The bus is weird because there’s barely enough room to walk the aisle! The fat Spanish woman on our tour struggled.  That’s right, a fat Spaniard, there’s a novelty!

We arrive and put on lifejackets for the two minute transfer to our ‘big boat’ which we’ll sleep on tonight.  After a decent and varied lunch we go to Hang Sung Sot (Amazing Cave), which nearly lives up to its name.  After that it’s kayaking in a lagoon where boats can’t go and there’s wild monkeys which I’ve never seen before.  We head back to the boat as the sun sets over one of the islands.  The sun throws its rays in a massive arc, it must have been impressive because Dem’s taking photos and he’s here twice a week!  As we’re on the boat deck enjoying a beer the (super)moon, not to be outdone by its celestial counterpart, tries to compete with its own rise over the star-strewn sky.  Bliss.

Dem informs us that we are to be up at six!  Six!  I thought I was on holiday!  This was supposed to be my relaxing time. I’m actually up a little earlier in a vain attempt to see the sunrise.  I peek out between the curtains but it’s already daylight, bugger.  I head to the top deck (that’s right I have more than one…), according to others it wasn’t much to see anyway.  The main highlight of the morning was watching other boats pass us.  People in their rooms don’t realise we can see them, they’re naked!  After that excitement we go to Ti Top Island, here we get great panorama shots of the bay but it’s very busy up there!  It’s an action day, after climbing to the top of that small island we head to the main island (Cat Ba Island), here we go cycling and jungle trekking.

I’m relieved as night two is spent in a hotel, you’ve already seen the view… Bliss…  For dinner we go to a local restaurant, beers here cost six thousand dong (twenty-two pence).  Bliss…  Day three is simply retacing our steps (or waves or tracks) back to Hanoi.  To keep us entertained Dem does a cooking class and shows us some tricks with cards and cups.  The tour concludes with the inevitable bus back to Hanoi.  As we approach one junction Dem says we can turn right which is four hours to China or we can turn left which is four hours to Hanoi.  He asks for a show of hands. Mine is the only vote for China.  Don’t try to tempt me Dem…

Strawbs – written 11 December 2016, published 12 December 2016

Amazing Cave

The view from the hotel you’ve already seen…

Us cycling on Cat Ba Island

One of the lakes in Hanoi

Ok so after the Sapa trek I needed my shoes cleaned…

China

Days spent – 33 days (9 September 2016 to 12 September 2016 and 7 October 2016 to 6 November 2016)

Places visited – Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Lijiang, Qiaotou, Chongqing, Wulingyuan, Shanghai, Guangzhou

Books read – Wild Swans

Things done – Great Wall, Yonghegong Lama Temple, Confucius Shrine, Forbidden City, Beijing Summer Palace, National Museum of China, Xi’an City Wall, Big Goose Pagoda fountain show, Terracotta Army, Shaanxi History Museum, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Baisha Village, Three Gorges Museum, Spring Temple Buddha, Shanghai Museum

Highlight(s) – Yao, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Spring Temple Buddha day

Lowlight(s) – Chinese customs, pollution

Cost – £1,043.45 (£31.62 per day)

Warning: This blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.

China, China, China.

Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China. I’ve got my mojo back!  It’s Sunday the thirteenth of November.  I left China on the sixth, just a week ago.  I miss the place.  I get sad and nostalgic thinking about writing this, again whilst planning and one final time when writing it.

Firstly, a note on pronunciation.  ‘X’ reads as ‘sh’, ‘q’ sounds like ‘ch’ and ‘zh’ is more like a ‘j’ sound with a hint of ‘z’ about it.  Now go back and read the places visited and things done again, because, be honest, you read them wrong, didn’t you?!  The problem is pronunciation is important here.  A lot of words have different meanings, depending on how one says them, and a lot have four.  A flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone and and tone that falls then rises.  Some pronunciations are quite gutteral or nasaly, sounds we don’t really have in English.  It’s all quite complicated.  I try my best, over a month in China and I learn as much as possible because I never know when I might need it.  China is big so plenty of long train journeys are required meaning I have time to kill, let’s learn Mandarin.  On one train, me and Mimi (a Swiss girl I met) meet this really nice Chinese couple and we teach each other languages.  I’m fully confident having spent hours learning on the app.  Ok, let’s count.  One is yī, which sounds more like ‘eeee’.  ‘Eeee’ I say, no ‘eeee’. ‘Eeee’, no.  This back and forth continued for about fifteen minutes, after which we graduated to two…  Sigh, more work required…  As you can perhaps tell from what I’ve written I still don’t know the difference and I still don’t think I’m saying it correctly.  On another train, I talk to a student from a university in Xi’an.  He asks if I know any Chinese to which I reply ‘ni jiáo shénme míngzì’ and not only do I learn his name, I also get congratulated on my pronunciation, yay!

As you can probably tell from the opening lines of this blog, I love China. But, there are downsides it helps to be prepared for.  Many of these you hear about before arriving: the Chinese are horrible, everywhere is dirty, you’ll get ill.  Everyone seems very quick to insult and belittle China and its customs.  If you want western culture in all its ‘glory’ go to south Spain in summer with all the other drunken Brits and Germans who weigh over fifteen stone but inexplicably think they look good without a shirt.  I wonder if some of those that criticise China have ever actually been.  Alas, they’re sort of right.  On arrival you are likely to be struck not only by the complete craziness of everything (hello culture shock), but by the clearing of throats and spitting, everywhere.  It doesn’t matter if one is indoors or out, or even on a bus or a train.

I can see why they do it though, everyone is ill, permanently.  For China is polluted, very polluted.  On my second arrival in Beijing I exit the subway and I can literally taste it.  By the time I get to Xi’an I’m clearing the throat and spitting like the best of them, can I have a Chinese passport now?  I hear about China being dirty, but only once did I see excrement in the street, I think it was human.  Don’t judge, there’s more excrement of the canine variety on London’s streets.  Seeing children going to the toilet in the street is strange but you do get used to it.  In some public toilets there are no barriers between the squatees.  Seeing other men defecate is something I can’t get used to… Thankfully, only once did I have to use one for the sit down thing.  I’m not used to this, my muscles seize and I can’t get up again!  Ahh, now I have to touch something!  There’s a reason that the best friend of a traveller in Asia is hand sanitiser.  Also, putting a hand to ones mouth when coughing isn’t a thing here. On a bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou I got a shower I really didn’t want!  The lack of respect for personal space and the queue jumping also take some getting used to.

Another downside is that I let myself get conned of about thirty pounds in Beijing. I get approached by a middle-aged (I consider this to be older than myself these days) lady speaking perfect English in Tiananmen Square.  That should have been my first red flag because no one that old speaks English here as a rule. We end up getting coffee and snacks and I end up footing a triple price bill.  I’m not annoyed about the thirty quid (ok, maybe a little), but I’m annoyed I didn’t stand up for myself or make a fuss. I played along in my meek, dumb tourist role.  What’s the worst that could have happened?  A night in a Chinese prison? It would have been an experience if nothing else…

I’ve had my fix of thrillers in Russia, Japan and Korea.  In China I choose to read Wild Swans by Jung Chang (pronounced Yung of course!).  I looked at a few books to read and chose this one because it’s banned in China!  I now want to know what’s in it.  I log on to VPN and download it.  It’s banned along with Google and Facebook and several other apps and websites.  International rivals to Chinese firms are blocked.  The Great Firewall of China, as it’s dubbed. The Japanese all drive Toyotas and Nissans.  The Koreans all drive Kias and Hyundais.  In my opinion it can just be a culture thing.  Anyway, on to the book, like China, it’s brilliant.  Everyone should read it.  It’s a real insight into China, both old and new and one of the best accounts of what happened there in the last century.  A country ravaged by turmoil, war and oppression.  It’s brutally honest and that makes it a hard read at times, especially as it’s real history.  Some things really hit home. After the famine during the Great Leap Forward came the Cultural Revolution and the persecution and denunciation of both of Jung’s parents.  Her father is an incredible man. Just read it.  I finish it on the plane out, probably in Chinese airspace.  Only then do I realise Jung’s mother lives in Chengdu and I could possibly have met her.  Damn.

Anyway, enough of that, let’s talk about now.  Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China.  Food, well Chinese food obviously but in China they just call it food!  In fact one of the first meals I have isn’t Chinese.  I’m in a southeast Asian restaurant in Beijing (thanks Molly for showing me the place) and have mee goreng, so nice.  I now have to go to Malaysia and Indonesia for this…  Lots of fried rice and noodle dishes are consumed because they’re cheap.  In Chongqing the famous local speciality is hot pot, we get the least spicy option. Thank the lord, it’s so spicy.  One day I want to try the spiciest one just to see if I can avoid hospitalisation.  The photo below was taken after we’d finished crying…  Not one of my favourites but good practice for Indian spiciness. Central China is very keen on its spicy food making ‘no spice’ one of those essential Chinese phrases to learn.  Of course it’s not possible to go to China and not eat something crazy.  For me it’s chicken’s foot.  Popular in a soup and as a snack in Chongqing.  It takes a while for me to pluck up the courage but it’s quite good!  The following day, on the train out of Chongqing, I’m sat next to someone snacking on chicken’s feet. Yesterday this would have horrified me, today not so much…  In Shanghai I get complimented on my chopstick use. Chopstick level: expert.

The next step after Beijing is Xi’an which is close to the Terracotta Warriors so a visit is in order.  In Chinese, the army is known as 兵马俑 .  Ooh, I recognise the middle Kanji character, pronounced mă, it means horse, very exciting, but not helpful.  That’s the thing with language learning, you learn things you don’t need and not things you do, it’s a little annoying…  It was ordered by the first emperor to unify China, Qin Shi Huang. This literally translates to First Qin Emperor, remember that Qin is pronounced ‘chin’, hence China!  Ahh, it all makes sense…  Well, nearly.  This army guards him during the afterlife. However, in life he was a bit of an tyrant, which seems typical of those in power in China.  The army was top secret, it’s said that each warrior is different because once made the maker was killed to protect the secrecy.  He also had three thousand concubines.  But he got things done, he built roads, unified China, had his army constructed and initiated the Great Wall.  All before 200BC, quite impressive.  All Britain has of that time is Stonehenge and we don’t know what it’s for or why it’s there!  When one sees it, it’s hard to believe how old it is.  It’ll take another seventy years or so to restore them all, good luck to them.

After Beijing I start to feel tall, in Xi’an, even if I’m a step below someone on an escalator I’m still invariably higher than they are.  Also in Xi’an I see another example of the contrast in China.  Xi’an is a former capital and has the most intact city wall in the world.  One can still walk all the way around, or bike if speed is more of an objective. Surrounded by over two thousand years of Chinese history, there’s a Chinese band covering an Ed Sheeran song. Below are two pictures of the same place: Chongqing.  In Beijing, a shop is selling iPhone 7s in all its white lighted magnificence.  Next door is an old lady selling some sort of broth from what looks like a cauldron. Could she be a witch I ask myself?  I wouldn’t rule it out…

No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall.  Many thanks to Molly for taking me here and showing me around on what was only my second day in China.  I wouldn’t have gotten very far on my own armed with just níhăo and xièxiè!  The quandary regarding the wall is which part to go to. Where it’s still intact?  Where it’s dilapidated?  Hmm, intact it is, hopefully with some nice views.  It’s quite a climb to even get to the wall and this is when I wasn’t feeling very well so it’s a bit of a struggle!  Thanks again to Molly for putting up with me during this time. It’s over four thousand miles long, maybe one day I can walk it, that would be fun.

In Chengdu I look into going to see the Leshan Buddha but on looking into it I decide I’d rather go to see the Spring Temple Buddha.  This is partly because it’s the largest statue in the world.  I go from Chongqing and after I go to Zhangjiajie, it’s a bit of of a mission, I should have gone here from Xi’an.  My train arrives at Leshan at 02:10, that’s a stupid time!  I just have to wait for my bus.  I haven’t slept and I didn’t sleep, it’s cold.  After burning a little in Tiger Leaping Gorge I’m now freezing. At seven I can’t stand it and get the bus, there are already some schoolkids on the bus and they’re surprised to see me. Maybe not many westerners do this.  To that end, I have to do all photographic duties with the Chinese tourists!  It’s probably the only time I’ll have my photo taken over twenty times in one day.

At one point I go past a family with two young children, the youngest is a girl of about four.  They’re slow so I get ahead of them pretty quickly, shortly after I can hear the kids running after me, they stop just before me and I can hear them stalking me.  I’m walking towards the Bell Tower which has this massive bell! We arrive at a similar time and apparently I’m the main attraction, no one cares about the bell.  After toying with the idea for a long while the girl plucks up the courage to say níhăo.  I reply in kind.  Without saying another word she grabs my hand (which was in my pocket) and we’re posing for a photograph.  Mum appears as if from nowhere with the requisite camera.  But that’s not all, Mum wants a selfie too!

Back at Leshan I’m eating at this place and getting several strange looks. Whilst eating I look around and catch another girl trying to take a sneaky photo of me. Haha, busted!  She’s maybe about six and is slightly embarrassed initially then breaks into a massive grin.  After this we exchange glances and she’s grinning from ear to ear each time, cheeky mite! I decide I like her so I let her have a proper photo of me because the one she has must be rubbish.  Only then does she go all shy, maybe she’s surprised I’m speaking broken Mandarin.  In the train station a teenage boy stares at me for the whole time I was there (maybe fifteen or twenty minutes).  I need to look at something on my phone, he looks over my shoulder and then watches as I write four Kanji characters in my notepad.

In Beijing, I go to the Summer Palace. The main problem is you can’t see it anymore because Britain destroyed it. Sorry China.  But we did help build it… I also go to the National Museum of China. I get stopped by security, I have to drink some of my water to prove it’s not petrol or anything weird, ok.  The first exhibit I see is a statue of a mother depicted with her head thrown back in anguish, she’s holding her dead baby.  It’s called The Shattered Family and the caption reads “Never returns to son killed, never returns the husband buried alive, sorrow drowns the wife raped, heavens…” Heavens indeed.  This refers to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, a real horrible thing.  I then figure out how overcrowded China is.  I’m advised to get to the train station two hours early, what is this an international flight?!  When I get there I can see why, it can take an hour to collect your ticket!

I need a haircut, I’m in Beijing, what could possibly go wrong?!  Níhăo, níhăo, níhăo.  Ok, now what?  Firstly, of course, I have to point at a map to show where I’m from.  We have plenty of language problems with lots of gesticulating and pointing at hair and beards.  In the end I show him my passport photo which gets some laughs, yes I want to look like this. Ok, on we go.  First I have my hair washed because apparently I’m skanky (probably true).  Then, it begins and it doesn’t end for a long, long time.  It’s light when I enter and dark when I leave. Clippers then scissors and every hair is double and triple checked.  After, my hair is washed again, I then go back to the chair for more perfectionism.  I start to wonder if I’ll have to skip a meal! After using some spray stuff (I now smell girly), it seems to be over, phew! Possibly the only time in my life without a hair out of place.

Everywhere in China, markets are rife. They are quintessential China to a certain extent and offer me so many unknowns and strange sensations.  It’s an assault on the senses, thronging crowds, unusual sights, contradicting smells, a cocophony of sound and a risky taste if one is brave enough to try something.  Something can smell divine before five metres later it’s overridden by something that smells horrendous. I’m never brave enough to try anything and it’s normally overpriced anyway. The picture below is one of the abnormal sights.

In Chengdu I meet Mimi, who is my travel twin.  We both quit our jobs to travel.  We both took the Trans-Mongolian.  We both have older siblings and we both have nieces and nephews of the same age.  We’ve both also gone from Beijing to Xi’an to Chengdu and we’re both looking to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The only problem is it’s so far from anywhere else in China.  Ok, bullet bitten, train booked, we’re going.  It’s worth it!  Such a great place and my first glimpse of the Himalayas.  This is the highest I’ve ever been (nearly three thousand metres) and the first time I’ve seen a peak over five thousand metres. It’s called Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, cool name.  On our second day of trekking we get the Sky Ladder from the river back to the hostel.  I’m not that good with heights so I’m not sure at what point I thought this was a good idea.  We climb from the river for a bit to get to get to the ladder.  The climb is about three hundred metres.  After less than one hundred metres we’re on the ladder.  Oh god, does this thing go to the top?!  Thankfully, it doesn’t because I’m taking ages to climb because I’m holding on for dear life.  The bus out isn’t much better.  I’m sat on the back left seat and we’re driving on the edge of the gorge. So close that when I look down, I can’t see the edge of the road, that’s scary. But, that aside, I love the place and it’s been the first place on this trip that I’ve been sad to leave.

I was also sad to leave Shanghai.  In Chongqing I meet Yao.  We both arrive too early at the hostel to check in so we exchange hellos.  Crikey – she’s pretty. She has long black hair and dark eyes. I’m a sucker for dark eyes, eyes where I can’t tell where the pupil ends and the iris begins.  I spend a long time looking at those eyes and I can feel that everything is reciprocated.  Those eyes are looking right into my soul too, I’ve never felt like that before.  Everyone in China has dark hair and dark eyes but hers are different, because they look at me like that.  The following day I get back to the hostel early to make sure I’m there when she gets back (is that weird? Creepy?  Maybe).  She sits behind me so I move to talk to her.  We exchange the usual, name and place of origin etc.  I’m just about to ask if she wants to come to Chongqing’s viewpoint with me (that’s romantic, right?) when a Polish guy scuppers the plan, he wants to get dinner.  We’ve already eaten but agree to go along and have a beer.  I’m there, Yao’s there, it’s a start…  The Polish guy is stereotypical extrovert and seems to think I care about his life (right now, not so much…), he makes all the conversation.  We get back to the hostel and Polish guy goes to bed, my prayers have been answered!  After that, everything is seamless.  You know when it just works, no games.  I like her and she likes me.

I’m not sure why because things like this don’t happen to me.  Is there something wrong with her eyesight?  She doesn’t seem to be visually impaired.  I try to refer her to a psychiatrist but she insists she isn’t crazy.  I think she is because she doesn’t think she’s pretty, silly girl, what a weirdo.  We have ‘the night’, you know like they talk about on Friends when Chandler falls for someone (which is weird because I’m basically a real life Chandler).  We talk rubbish, I wonder if one day we can have our Golden Retriever that we think should have an English and a Chinese name.  It’s to be called jiăozi (dumpling).  Maybe it’ll have one name but we can use the other when we don’t want the dog to know we’re talking about it.  Eighteen hours later she has to get the train home, she lives just outside Shanghai. My plan from Chongqing is to go to Lushan to Zhangjiajie to Guilin to Yangshuo to Guangzhou.  But I go to Shanghai.  Have I found my Aouda?  I wonder if she misses me as much as I miss her.  Maybe I should go back to China?  Beautiful, wonderful, amazing Yao…  Oops, I mean China.

Strawbs – written 13-24 November 2016

Tiger Leaping Gorge white water

The Trans-Mongolian train being jacked up to change the wheel gauge on first entry to China at the border

Is any China blog complete without a bit of Chinglish?

South Korea

Days spent – 11 days (26 September 2016 to 7 October 2016)

Places visited – Seoul, Sokcho, Busan, Jeju Island

Books read – The Girl on the Train

Things done – Museum of Seoul History, Guenjeonggung, Heuginjimun, Korea War Museum, Seoraksan National Park, Mount Hallasan, De-militarised Zone tour

Highlight(s) – Korean War Museum, DMZ tour

Lowlight(s) – my mood

Cost – £450.27 (£40.93 per day)

I made it from home to Beijing without flying.  It’s over five thousand miles (that’s over eight thousand kilometres for those of you that measure things sensibly).  Chinese visas are hard to get so a little planning is required. Transport in and out are a must.  The twelfth of September, day ninety-seven is my first flight (beijing to Tokyo via Incheon), one flight, or two if you count the connection as separate.  As I have to go to Japan (to meet Tom and see Babymetal – kind of the point of the trip), it only seems sensible to stop by Korea on the way back to mainland Asia.  I know South Korea isn’t an island, but for me, it may as well be given its neighbours to the north!  On my way out of Korea I fly Incheon to Beijing via Qingdao, this is on October the seventh.  After three months without flying I’ve now taken five flights in less than a month, seven if one counts connections as separate!

I never used to like flying but it’s growing on me.  There’s something very safe and fimiliar in all airports, English is rife.  Sometimes, flying is just the most sensible option.  I flew from Jeju Island to Seoul for under thirty pounds, it took just over an hour.  A nice, cheap, late-booked, domestic flight.  A shame they aren’t available everywhere!

On Jeju Island I climb Mount Hallasan, which is the highest point on the island. It’s six thousand four hundred feet (or one thousand nine hundred and fifty metres), but I think this is the highest I’ve ever knowingly been.  The guy at the hostel warns against me going because of the weather, there’s a typhoon coming…  Google says it’ll start to rain at three and I’m gone by eight.  It should take three to four hours to climb apparently.  The weather is fine, the sun even tries to peek through, but alas its tries were in vain.  I’m at the top in two hours and twenty minutes.  I’m sweaty from the climb but my life is it cold up here.  The mist is so thick I can’t see anything and the wind is blowing it at me at a rate of knots.  I can’t stay long (but there’s nothing to see anyway!), I have to head down out of the wind and to relative warmth.

In Seoul, I visit another of the better museums I’ve been to, the Korean War Museum.  This details the to and fro of the war from 1950 to 1953.  Initially, the north invaded the south, the south weren’t prepared (having been struggling to stand alone after Japanese rule) and Seoul fell quickly. But the south fought back strongly after obtaining help from UN forces, mainly from the USA but also from twenty or so other UN representatives including the UK.  Seoul was recaptured and the northern forces were pushed back nearly to the Chinese border.  But the war took another twist as the north was then able to obtain help from a newly Communist China who provided millions in manpower despite losses they’d suffered recently at the hands of the Japanese also.  There seems to be no end to leaders’ appetite for war last century, does there?  North Korea took Seoul once more…  In 1951 a stalemate was reached but it wasn’t until 1953 that a ceasefire occured because the north refused to hand back prisoners of war from the south.

The museum has a 4D recreation of the amphibious drive of UN forces from Incheon.  There are signs warning against pregnant women to go.  I laugh it off, but I can now see why.  It’s basically a rollercoaster!  It’s similar to the City of Ruins exhibit in the Warsaw Uprising Museum but better.  Sadly, Seoul was also a city of ruins.  The also have the original Korean flag that was raised in Seoul on its liberation.

After Seoul, I head for Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park.  My first hike since leaving, I already posted about this because the weather was supposed to be good but wasn’t.  But it wasn’t all bad, lower down was much clearer and allowed for some decent photographs. Also, I could satiate my waterfall obsession.  I like to observe peoples’ fitness on hikes.  On the way up I overtake most.  Sometimes I take two steps at a time and others look at me as though I’m an alien (not because I look different for a change!)!  On the way down I try to be encouraging to those that are nearly there.  There’s also always that one person…  They’ve had it, knackered, struggling, they haven’t got to the climb yet either!

On my first night in Seoul, we head out for a Korean barbecue, where you cook the meat yourselves on a BBQ in the middle of your table, quite nice.  Along with strange flavoured crisps like honey, they also have sweet flavoured beers like grape and mango.  Mango was my favourite.  Kimchi gets served as a side dish with virtually everything so you can’t avoid it.  It’s ok, not my favourite thing though.  There are nearly two hundred varieties but most of them are spicy and/ or garlicy so I console myself with the fact that my parents would hate it.  I also try bibimbap which is rice served with vegetables and sometimes an egg.  Very simple and surprisingly nice and flavoursome.  Juyeong – who I met on the descent of Mount Hallasan – kindly introduces me to Korean fried chicken, mmmmm, it’s great.  Thanks for that, and thanks for the company going down the mountain!  Chopsticks are here also of course, but they’re different!  Ahh, just as I was getting the hang of it!  They’re metallic and thus heavier and also harder to use in my opinion.  Chopestick level: amateur.

No trip to South Korea is complete without a trip to the de-militarised zone, commonly referred to as the DMZ.  This is a strange experience for tensions are still very high between the north and the south.  We must carry our passports and they are rigorously checked even though we aren’t to cross the border.  Passports are checked on the way out of the DMZ too, just to make sure no one is trying to defect to the north!  On trying to enter, we are turned away twice, a problem with the checks.  The first thing we see is Freedom Bridge, an odd name I think. But, this is before the guide has explained that this is the bridge the South Korean prisoners or war walked across upon their release.  Ok, the name makes sense.  Next we head to the third infiltration tunnel.  Towards the end of the last century, tunnels were discovered with the north had dug in order to launch a surprise attack on Seoul.  It’s eighty metres underground so it’s quite a climb back out!

^ The North!

The last stop is an observatory where you can, well, observe, North Korea.  It’s five hundred won (about forty pence) to use the optics.  Rude not to…  The observatory is located so that it looks upon a fairly large North Korean town. It’s so strange to see people going about their lives under such oppression.  We are told to look for the North Korean flag but it can’t really be missed.  It’s on a pole that’s higher than that of the south to show the superiority of the north… Apparently, it’s the fourth highest flagpole in the world.  There’s an alternative tour you can go on where you go to somewhere called the Joint Security Area (JSA), you can actually set foot in North Korea here.  I can’t do this because there is military training on whilst I’m there.  If you do this tour, you have to wear trousers and they can’t have holes in.  This is because the north will take photos to use for propaganda purposes saying things like “Look at these poor foreigners, they can’t afford proper clothes.”  I found this fascinating.

Whilst on Jeju Island, I suffer another typhoon.  Luckily, the worst is overnight, I hear it at three am.  Sadly, that means most tourist attractions are closed the following day as trees and phone lines etc. are down.  This is particularly frustrating because after about eleven it’s a gorgeous, sunny day!  As a result I go to the museum in Jeju City to see exhibits about the places I was going to see.  It isn’t quite the same…!

My mood here isn’t great, only eleven days spent in Korea.  It doesn’t matter how small the country is, one can only scratch the surface of a place in that time.  Also, I’m finding that when I’m about to leave a country, I start to look forward to the next one and stop enjoying where I am.  That’s a weird thing…  Never mind, I’ll get my mojo back…

Strawbs – written 7 November 2016, published 8 November 2016

Changing of the guard

Funky deities

Oh hell no

It’s free if you dress like this!

Just going to hop on the train…

Japan

​Days spent – 14 days (12 September 2016 to 26 September 2016)

Places visited – Tokyo, Kyoto

Books read – The Girl on the Train (unfinished)

Things done – Cosplay cafe, Imperial Palace gardens, National Museum, Meiji Shrine, Pokémon Centre, Babymetal gig, Shinkansen!, Kiyomizudera, Sanjusang- endo, Fushimi Inari shrine

Highlight(s) – Japanese people, having a friend!

Lowlight(s) – Illness, cost

Cost – £1,019.81 (£72.84 per day)

Welcome to Japan, please remember to take your shoes off at the door.

It’s not a good start, I’ve gotten ill in Beijing.  The main travellers’ problem, commonly referred to as Delhi Belly but for me it’s Beijing Belly, non-rhyming but alliterative.  Thankfully, I manage to survive the flights in via Incheon, with a three hour wait!  This unfortunately means I don’t feel like doing anything for the first four days before Tom arrives. Which means I’m confined to Tokyo, hemorrhaging money and feeling awful in general.  I’ve not met anyone yet and due to being solo resulting in me looking after myself, thus probably dehydrating myself meaning I take longer to recover. The last couple of days I consider going to hospital but luckily the day before Tom arrives I start to feel better and eat and drink properly again.

The other downside to my Japan experience, and probably most peoples’, is that it’s very expensive, the very cheapest hostels are around twenty pounds per night.  It’s comparable to the most expensive regions of Europe.  If you go to the ‘wrong’ place you can pay a thousand yen for a beer, which is about seven pounds and fifty pence, the right places aren’t much cheaper.  Food isn’t quite as bad but it isn’t possible to find anything less than five pounds.  On arrival I land at Haneda airport quite late.  I head straight for the subway but the machine won’t take my card so I have to get yen.  By the time I’ve got yen the last train has left!  I ask at information and apparently my only option is taxi, nine thousand yen (sixty-five pounds) instead of six hundred (five pounds), damn it.

The real reason that Tom and I are in Japan is for Babymetal, one of my favourite bands of the moment.  As gig day arrives our plan is to take the subway to Tokyo Dome (there’s another one thousand yen gone), we head for the merchandise, it’s ‘Black Night’ and I don’t own a black shirt, at least not with me in Japan!  Also, I have to get a Japanese Babymetal shirt, right?  The flip side of this is that the queue to get merch takes a couple hours and it’s lashing down!  In our infinite wisdom, we’ve decided to go to Japan in typhoon season, it rains most days, although I blame Babymetal’s scheduling.  Finally we have our shirts and it’s lunchtime, due to the weather the closest place will do, it’s TGI Fridays…  Not very Japanese but convenient.  It’s also the closest place to the Dome which we go to at five. Yes, doors are early here, especially as there is no support act.  After some (inevitably expensive) pre-drinks we decide we are both feeling a nice little buzz for the gig.  We get in and find our seats which sounds easy but isn’t because we’re in Tokyo.  Right, let’s find a beer, we haven’t seen anywhere selling any on the way so we ask.  No beer.  Iie bi-ru I query in my best Japanese, my expression aghast, iie bi-ru.  There’s no beer.

As Englishmen we don’t know what to do in this situation, so we sit and wait for Babymetal like lost children.  We can look around the Dome which is quite impressive.  I take the picture below before realising that photography and video is banned as they’re filming this for a live DVD, hopefully before the gig is ok as I don’t want to offend the Japanese.  The gig is good but it’s a little strange because it’s all seating.  I’ve never been seated at a gig before.  It just isn’t quite the same…  The band are great.  It’s weird because the crowd just copy what the girls do, although it’s cool to see because the capacity is fify-five thousand.  One of my favourite bands has a song called Ten Thousand Fists and the lyrics are ‘ten thousand fists in the air’, but this is more like one hundred and ten thousand fists in the air! Despite Babymetal being awesome I left feeling like I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have done.

Mmm, Japanese food.  Although they have a habit of putting uncooked egg on some dishes, which isn’t well received by me after my illness.  We try sake (which is pronounced sa-keh not sa-kee), it’s not nice and I’ve subsequently learnt that Korean and Chinese rice wines aren’t very nice either.  The Japanese whiskey however is on point, but that isn’t even the best bit!  For here, they have a drink called STRONG!  It comes in cans in convenience stores and is vodka flavoured with pineapples or grapes or lemons etc.  It’s nine per cent, two or three cans is enough!

Fortunately food ordering isn’t as difficult as you might think because there are generally pictures or even 3D plastic replicas of the food.  What’s surprising is that curry is a big thing here, it’s very mild and usually comes with a cut up chicken or pork cutlet on top.  I’d be grateful if this idea got exported to the wider world. Coincidentally, I also have it on my flight to Korea, as least Asiana Airlines are trying to help!  It doesn’t rain all the time (just most of the time), but when it doesn’t it’s hot and pretty humid which enables me to try crazy ice cream flavours.  Green tea is weird but purple sweet potato is pretty good.  Of course I’m now in chopstick territory, which makes life more interesting.  Apparently these came into use because they are supposed to be an extension of the fingers.  I’m just not sure how out of all the implements that can be chosen how chopsticks won…  Chopsticks level: beginner.

Four days into my Japan stay, Tom arrives.  This is strange, I know this person!  Travelling as a twosome is so different from being solo.  Instead of fighting with yourself which direction or which line to take on the subway, you fight with someone else!  It was great to spend a whole week with one person (first time since I left), although in an odd way, when he left I felt a mixture of sadness and liberation.  Travelling solo for a week or two isn’t long enough, but travelling for a month plus you learn things about yourself you didn’t know before.  Thanks for coming to see me, we can tick seeing Babymetal in Tokyo off of our lists!

To get from Tokyo to Kyoto, we take the shinkansen, in Western circles we call it a bullet train.  I don’t like it, and I love trains.  It’s too fast, although confusingly it doesn’t feel as if you’re going that fast (over two hundred miles per hour).  It’s more akin to taking a plane.  You don’t see or a appreciate what you’re passing.  This isn’t what travelling overland is supposed to be like…

I said on Facebook when I was travelling to Japan that I was expecting weirdness. I found it in a cosplay cafe.  For those that don’t know what these are, they are cafes that have waitresses that are dressed as French maids, they are ‘trained’ to call customers ‘master’ and be submissive as they give you water, serviettes etc.  But wait, that isn’t the weird part!  The weird part is the clientelle, there is a man here who is in his mid twenties.  He has two toy sheep on his table.  Yes you read that right.  He takes great pleasure simply in moving these sheep on his table, turning them around, making them look in a different direction.  Upon leaving he picks up the sheep but on the way out he thrusts the sheep at the maids whilst bleating.  It’s hard not to laugh.

Language is interesting, they have not one but three alphabets.  I’ve been practising my Japanese for two months but I only know one of them.  Not overly useful in and of itself but I can speak a little.  As in all major cities these days the subways are in English too, but Tokyo has a lot of overland trains too and it also has a complicated subway in that not all the lines are straight-forward (some of them fork, and one is a circle with a stem like an elongated Q, work that one out!).  It’s nice to know some language so that you can have conversations even if they aren’t proper ones!  It takes Tom six days to learn arigatou.  Although even that is limited in it’s usefulness because Japanese people are so polite they rarely say thank you and always say thank you very much!

Which brings me nicely on to the highlight, Japanese people.  Us British like to think we’re polite and some of the world agrees with us.  It doesn’t matter what language I use I tend to say sorry (gomennasai) about twenty times per day!  But we have nothing on the Japanese.  When you walk into a shop or restaurant there’s a chorus of irasshaimase (welcome) by all staff coupled with a frenzy of bowing.  Desu isn’t really a word in Japanese, it’s just used to express politeness so every sentence ends with it!  What’s your name (anata no namae wa nan desu ka?)? Even the response has it: my name is Ian (watashi no namae wa Ian desu) and I’m English (watashi wa Ingirisujin desu), ok, you get the idea!  But the climax of this great hospitality comes when we went out for drinks in Tokyo.  Bars aren’t that obvious here and many are located in apartments above the ground floor, they’re very cosy affairs.  Tom and I have been joined by two Germans who have made the trek from across Tokyo to Shinjuku to join us (thanks Fabi and Thomas), in typhoon weather also of course.  We’re sat at this four-person table and are painfully obviously non-Japanese.  After our first drink a group of Japanese people enter who are, let’s say, jolly!  We have a great time.  We practise our broken Japanese and they demonstrate their good English.  Not only do we leave the ar at six am (it’s daylight), but they pay for all our drinks! I know…  Toyo – if you or your brother are ever in England, please let me or Tom know and we’ll look after you. All I can say is…


ありがとうございました日本

Strawbs – written 24 October 2016, published 26 October 2016


Fushimi Inari shrine gates


Skytree – second tallest building in the world


Literally a random shrine we happened upon


The world’s busiest pedestrian crossing – Shibuya


The view from Skytree – didn’t enjoy the glass bottom bit…!


Get the beers in…


Beautiful Tokyo

Mongolia

Days spent – 8 days (1 September 2016 to 9 September 2016)

Places visited – Ulaanbaatar

Things done – Tour

Highlight(s) – Cheapness

Lowlights(s) – Tour

Cost – £492.92 (£61.62 per day)

Warning: This blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.

My last border crossing feels as though it was on the other side of the planet.  I guess it sort of was, only thirteen days in Russia but vast distance covered.  The Russia-Mongolia border is worse than the last one.  This is because the Russians like to check you on the way out also and the Mongolians of course check you on the way in.  About three minutes after getting through customs, I get stung by a wasp.  Sudden panic.  Have I been stung by a wasp before?  I don’t know.   Where is the nearest hospital?  I don’t want to know.  But after five minutes the pain subsides and I seem ok. Panic over.

The only real way to see Mongolia is on a tour, so by the next morning I’m on one! The going is slow as most of it is off-road so there is a lot of travelling.  In fact, I’ve travelled for over forty hours in the last four days.  That’s enough really…  That evening we stay in a ger, which is a circular nomadic tent with a hole in the roof for sunlight and ventilation.  Here lives a family of nomads. They have a girl of about eleven and a boy of about four. The boy is a pretty cool dude.  He doesn’t have much but entertains himself with a rope and interacting with passing tourists.  He wanders into our ger after dinner, he looks around and takes in the surroundings whilst thinking what to do as kids of that age do.  We wonder what he will do, he then pours us all a tea. Bayarlalaa.  He then unceremoniously kicks the cat out of the ger and off he goes.

Part of this tour is a ‘free’ camel ride, which is an experience.  Firstly, they smell.  This is my third day without a shower but I think I’ve found something that has a worse odour than I do.  It’s a bactrian camel which means I’m sitting between the humps.  The rear hump isn’t as comfortable a backrest as you might think, and the ride in general is about as comfortable as you’d imagine. Luckily, it’s only forty-five minutes to the dunes and the same back, which is bearable.  But the worst bit is that all the camels are tied together in a train and there isn’t much room for maneouvre so more often than not your leg is crushed between your own and the adjacent camel.  Getting back to camp is a bit of a relief.

The food in Ulaanbaatar is great and cheap.  Everything is a combination of meat, rice, vegetables and cheese.  The tour food is subject to how good your guide is at cooking!  On that score our group gets a little unlucky, but more on that to follow.  On our tour we try airag, which is fermented horse milk and it’s what the nomads get drunk on.  It’s disgusting, I didn’t think it would be possible for something to make lemon taste sweet.  On our tour the food is hit and miss so as a group we pay to get a goat killed.  Our share costs just over four pounds each!  Bargain.  They kill it by cutting a hole in its underbelly and then reaching in and squeezing the heart, the blood erupts up the arm of the man whose duty it is to do the deed.  The first meal is goat barbecue.  They cook it by heating up stones in a wood fire and then throwing them in with the meat and putting the pot on the gas.  Before the barbecue we try goat heart, stomach, liver and other obscurities.  None of it is particularly horrible.

Time isn’t a fact, it is very much a concept here.  Dinner is when it’s ready, we leave when everyone is here, buses leave when everyone that wants to go has gotten on.  The train out was the only thing on time in Mongolia and I wonder if that’s just because it’s run by the Chinese!

Another point of note is that you can be miles from civilisation.  Light is powered by car batteries, to turn it off one just takes the clamp off the battery node. Once done the darkness is total, go outside and look up until your neck hurts.  Because you will, for the night sky is fantastic.  Until you’ve seen the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other you haven’t seen a good night sky. I think about just how insignificant we really are.

I should mention costs because Mongolia is the cheapest place I’ve been to so far. There’s a good reason for this, it’s quite a poor country.  Day one, I get lunch at a roadside cafe, I get a taxi about four miles to central Ulaanbaatar (shared with an American) and I get dinner in a middle-range (but fancy for Ulaanbaatar) restaurant.  Total cost of that is seventeen thousand five hundred tugrig, it sounds a lot but it works out to six pounds.  The tour however, is not quite so cheap.  I take a million out of the ATM (I know – but the exchange rate is two thousand, eight hundred and ninety-five to one!), most of that goes on the tour although to be fair I probably spent ninety per cent of my time in Mongolia on the tour.  For this reason, the total costs are a little unfair, but it’s really the only way to see outside the capital city.

As you may remember, I succumbed to a thriller, Gone Girl.  I finished it in Russia but forgot to write about it in that blog! It’s good, very good.  In fact, I’d say it has the second best characterisation of any book I’ve ever read, second only to The Beach by Alex Garland (the film was an adaptation of this book but the film was rubbish).  The only downside is the ending is a little bit of a damp squib, although it does leave the door open for a sequel…

So, with most of my time on the tour I feel I should tell you about it.  To this day, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Some aspects of the tour were great, some, well, weren’t!  On the downside, the food was indifferent.  One evening, after spending ten hours of that day on the road and having not eaten for seven of those hours, we were given one bowl of soup for dinner.  I felt that took the piss a little.  Did I mention we travelled for ten hours that day?  Yes, twice in fact I believe.  Unfortunately, everywhere is so far that every day is at least six hours on the road.  If only the Mongolians had heard of infrastructure!  But, the straw the broke the camel’s back (how appropriate is that phrase for this blog?!), came when we were at the dunes.  We are to head for the highest dune at six and climb it to see the sunset. In typical Mongolian fashion, six comes and goes, then we have dinner… Eventually we’re off and have fifteen minutes to climb this dune.  Has anyone ever climbed a dune?  Good lord, I thought my heart was going to explode as the goat’s had earlier just of its own accord. Anyway, long story slightly shorter, we only miss the bloody sunset!

But the tour wasn’t all bad.  It was a great experience and a good group with great people.  We saw some interesting things even if it took days to reach them, but that gave me chance to learn some card and memory games!  At one point, crossing the Gobi Desert, looking out of the window and listening to Jeremy by Pearl Jam, I nearly got that Lake Baikal feeling back, but not quite.  Below is a picture of our group, good times, although I’m unsure as to why Alexander has his arm around me and not his wife!

Strawbs – written 13 October 2016, published 15 October 2016

Sukhbaatar Square, yeah that’s Genghis…

The Brits and the guide in a random cave

The dunes 

Hungover as hell when I took this the morning after

Tiring work this camel business…