From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Sunday, August 22, 2010


This blog is no longer being updated. All contents have been moved back to:

If you click on the "III: Asia, Again" at the top of the page, you can find all the contents, with the addition of some photos from our trip.

Thanks for following.
Brian and Rebecca

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Arrival

Remember the package with our cold-weather gear, that we shipped to northern India after leaving Nepal? The one that never arrived, leaving us in chilly, mountainous Ladakh wearing t-shirts and flip-flops?

Well, yesterday I got a message from our guesthouse in Varanasi, stating that it just arrived there, presumably marked "Returned to Sender".

So that's convenient.

The plains of India in should be positively steaming in Varanasi. Nevertheless, if anyone is in that area and looking for some toasty fleeces, knit hats, gloves, and worn-out trekking shoes, let me know and we'll work something out.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bathams On Hold

Our train ride to Shanghai was long but enjoyable...three straight nights on trains. Shanghai? A huge city, lots of new mixed with old. Our last five days were spent there, the final two in a five-star hotel in the city centre (thanks to hotel points leftover from my working days). We were upgraded to a deluxe suite; it was paradise, bigger than the last couple apartments I've lived in!

There's actually very little else to report. We wandered, we ate meals, we hardly took any photos. Yesterday we left: slept in the airport, a 8.5-hr flight, 4 hrs in Dubai, a 7-hr flight to Birmingham. Rebecca's parents awaited us at the airport and drove us home.


A friend commented on an earlier update, questioning my criticism of China's development, asking whether we're seeking the past instead of appreciating the present.

The answer is no, not really. It was more of a don't visit the UK and hang out in Birmingham or Milton Keynes; you go to old Oxford or London or Cambridge or Edinburgh, and stick to the preserved parts of those places, trusting that these old parts don't get razed for modern developments. It's that disappearance of "old" China that's somewhat bothersome to observe (from a visitor's perspective). But: we were still excited about each new place and had a great time through it all!


So here we are, back in the UK. We'd requested the Wildings to stop at a pub so I could get a Bathams Bitter (a West Midlands ale, my favourite!) and a fish and chips shop so Rebecca could and chips. A long journey, too many airport meals, and my stomach getting Shanghai'd by something I ate a couple days ago meant that we skipped these detours and came straight home last night. We'll fit this stuff in in the coming days.

It's a cool, overcast Sunday, and the grandmas are soon heading over for dinner. We've been up early, unpacked our bags, and been off to a car boot sale already. Six months (plus a week) of travel are now behind us; time in England, Minnesota, and a move to Vancouver, Canada are all on the way.

We'll probably do an update in the next weeks to post some of our top photos on the site. If anything else interesting happens along the way, we'll mention that, too.

It's been fun.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tai Chi'd

The last week's been beautiful. We spent it practicing tai chi at a monastery up in the forest on the side of a mountain.

Tai Chi? It's a martial art that doesn't really look like one; it's all about slow, controlled, focused movements.

The setting? Well, a monastery. No electricity. Male/female segregation. A giant bone-rattling bell that clattered from 5.30am onwards. Chanting and incense that filled the air for many hours each morning, afternoon, and evening. Vegetarian food eaten communally with strict rules on conduct: we were issued a bowl and a set of chopsticks when we arrived, any grain of rice dropped had to be eaten, no leftovers permitted, no eating until the master had begun. Mornings began with a jog down to a nearby stream, followed by finding a rock to carry on your head, back to the monastery. Our training ground was a small clearing in the woods; five hours per day were spent stretching and practicing our routines. Each day, old women passed through the area, having picked handmade basketsful of wild mushrooms in the nearby forest.

It was fantastic to stay at an active temple, falling asleep to evening prayers, living this relatively slow-paced and unstressful life. A by-product of the stay was that we've been whipped into shape a bit, and the tai chi really helped to further develop my cat-like agility and grace.

We're back in Dali. We've been in this area for nearly two weeks now, and have gotten to know a lot of people. Recently, we were out to eat and ran across a Chinese guy we'd previously met. He invited us over to his friends' table, and though we'd already eaten, we were implored to join in cleaning up their feast, which included a pyramid of platters, among them: fried flowers and milk sheets, minnows, raw lake shrimp, duck necks and feet, pig intestines, and strange roots that look like grubs. Rice and plum wine accompanied, and we ended the evening at a small pub, listening to a haunting performance of a local musician. Perfect...


Everything begins to unwind. We spend the next three nights on the train, a long, long voyage eastwards to Shanghai, where we'll end what we began so long ago in southern India. I love the symmetry: our first couple weeks in an Indian ashram, studying/practicing yoga; our penultimate week at a Chinese temple, studying/practicing tai chi.

We are looking forward to our time on the train, the busy city of Shanghai, and everything in between. Our trip is down to eight days...and counting.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

China's Yunnan

Wow, where to start?! A lot has happened in the week and a half. Best if I just dive in...

That super-comfy train journey left us off in southern Sichuan province at the sprightly hour of 4am. A 3hr wait in the dark preceded a 9hr bus journey across some pretty rugged country. I'd previously raved about the beautiful, clean Chinese countryside. This journey was a bit of a counterpoint to that. Gorgeous scenery - in theory: towering hills and lush green-ness, fields of young rice and corn. But really scarred. Horrible concrete buildings, a nuclear power plant with homes a stone's throw away (and on a hill, level with the cooling towers' nozzle), crumbling secondary roads that looked post-apocalyptic, gray monstrous-looking factories, and lots of trash strewn everywhere. This is the other, uncharming, side of China, built in the 1970's/80's (my guess), a brutal-looking attempt at much from that era would be better off completely erased I think - actually, most construction pre-2005 for that matter.

Anyway. We enter Yunnan province - nice place! First stop: Lijiang. The town's lined with canals and pretty bridges and cobbled lanes and striking facades that look like pictures from old China. Those photos...they don't quite capture modern-day Lijiang...if they did they'd be too full of tourists to appreciate! Regardless, the place had charm...getting lost in its old town, walking around before the crowds woke up, finding its local produce market, wandering at night amid the glow of red Chinese lanterns hung from awnings. And undoubtably, it was all very picturesque.

Our current location, Dali, is like Lijiang in that there are a lot of tourists and souvenir shops about. In contrast to Lijiang's narrow alleys and canals, Dali boasts wide lanes, a few tall towers, and a bit of reconstructed wall (that once surrounded the city). On one side of town, a huge lake; on the other side, big hills that have been enshrouded in clouds since our arrival. It's been a great place to hang out. We've found some fantastic places to eat, and enjoy our daily walks in the old town.

Between Lijiang and Dali, we've sandwiched in a few other destinations far from the crowds. First, Shaxi, a cute village described by a local (well, from Shanghai) travel writer as "what Lijiang was like 20 years ago." There, we stayed at the end of a skinny flagstoned lane, just beyond a cluster of chickens and a pig stable. Our loo was a hole in the ground out back by the garden. When we first arrived, as if as testament to its picturesqueness, a film crew and cast was blocking our path, evidently making a Chinese TV series just down the alley from us. Not far away, rice fields and a Buddhist temple and a pretty main square.

And Shuanglang, a nice little fishing village on the opposite side of the lake from Dali, where we stayed at a water's-edge hostel full of Chinese backpackers and had some lovely food.

And our highlight: Weishan (described by the aforementioned Chinese guy as "what Dali was like 20 years ago"). This place was fantastic! Medieval towers, old lanes and crumbling facades, and NO tourists. As everywhere in China (and much of India...and all of Europe), there was modernity surrounding the quaint old section of town... But it was still wonderfully authentic: said lanes were full of barbers and noodle-makers and family-run eateries and residences. Against the wooden buildings were street-food vendors and guys playing mah jong or Chinese chess on squat tables and stools, and singing birds hanging in cages from rafters. We visited a Ming-era mansion with a small courtyard surrounded by fantastic wooden outbuildings. Happy dogs wandered about. People smiled and laughed at us (not an uncommon event as white-skinned people in China, but much more frequent here!). At 8pm, hundreds of the town's women got together in the central square and danced together - for no one but themselves, just for the fun of it. We had some of the loveliest food we've had here as well...cheesy-tasting jaozi (steamed dumplings) and noodles cooked/served in clay pots.

We tried our damnest to track down a market reckoned to take place each five days in the city, where colorfully-dressed Hui and Yi minorities from the surrounding hills come down to buy and sell wares (we've been to two such markets in other areas in the last week), but this was enormously unsuccessful. We've no Mandarin phrasebook or dictionary, and I speak just enough Chinese to where people think I know what they're saying when I clearly don't. Despite numerous conversations and pantomiming, even drawing a marketplace on a scrap of paper, we succeeded only in being pointed to two different daily produce markets in opposite parts of town, not the big, more irregular market we sought.

But this is the fun of travelling in China...being in a place where no one speaks English, lost and bewildered and happily frustrated. All you can do is laugh.


We've ordered most food by the "point at that dish" method, but I did finally talk Rebecca into ordering blindly the other day. We found a hidden courtyard full of Chinese and sat at a table, then chose three cool-looking strings of symbols from a mind-boggling 14-page menu. We didn't do too badly: a large omelet heaving with veggies, a cold noodly plate, and a heaping pile of green chilis (okay, this one wasn't quite ideal). Along with a wooden bucket full of steamed rice and a pot of green tea, it was pretty good. Actually, we did worse the next day at the same place when we tried to order something specific. We'd memorized the word for mushrooms to get at least ONE plate we'd know in advance, and ended up with stir-fried beef or pork lung (we think).

This is actually great fun, though. Normally, you order your food and a restaurant and then wait in anticipation, wondering, "How's this going to be done, how will it taste?" Here, you simply ask, "What the bejeezus did we order? I hope it's not dog, or intestines (again)." It adds a nice degree of excitement. Rebecca gets nervous at this, but we're both easy eaters so it's all generally been a success, aside from the fried lung which we ate, but only half-heartedly.


China continues to prove it's changed so much!

Communism? Ha. Only in some strange political sense. Somehow, I think that the Chinese Marxist groups that banded together in 1921 to form the Chinese Communist Party would not be altogether pleased with this country's present state. The place is (seems to be) a conglomeration of a huge government, capitalism, and extreme cronyism, minus freedom of information (rather: selective information). Marxism? This country is a materialist wonderland! An ultra-rich Party official/friend on one side; on the other, those that make his rich life possible: a rural peasant, or the street vendor scraping by by selling fried things on sticks, or the old woman rummaging through trash to salvage plastic bottles. Shouldn't they have (more or less) identical incomes? What would those old revolutionaries think of the new bourgeouis, this emergent class of rich urban dwellers? Aren't the privileged (how different, exactly, from the old emporers, or the Kuomintang, other than there are probably just a larger class of them, with modern weapons and communication to hold things together?) precisely what communism sought to eliminate? The poor proletariat has been left in the dust; it's largely a land of have-a-lots and have-very-littles (probably a billion of the latter!). Then again, I'm only an outsider, so what do I know?!

After traveling quite a lot in both countries in 2002/03, I concluded that in a decade India would be largely the same place, while China would be completely transformed. It's only been 7-8 years, but that prediction seems spot on. India? Hotels cost more, the price of bananas has risen. That's about it. The place is still a disaster - and it always will be (but that's part of what makes it an interesting place to travel). China, however, has moved on - and efficiently (if at times misguidedly but with good intention). A big government with seemingly-infinite strength has made it possible to squeeze decades of progress into a span of mere years - the modernization I mentioned in the previous update.

One by-product of that is that travel here has gotten easy. An example. Back in Chengdu, message boards, travel information, and even a special "Tibet Travel Desk" at our hostel indicated that a trip to Tibet is THE thing to do. Get a group together, get a permit, get a flight (or now: a train!) to Lhasa. It's apparently still hard to travel independently there, but otherwise it all seems so...easy! One ad showed a three-week standard (and expensive) itinerary including Mt Kailash and the far West of Tibet. That's a standard itinerary? In 2002 a similar odyssey cost me a few cold, harsh, solitary weeks - I hitchhiked around and froze my ass off and slept on boards and got stranded. Yeah, I felt like I was falling apart after a few weeks and it was abyssmally uncomfortable - travel was TOUGH - but, it was true adventure (in so far as that exists in this modern world)... Elsewhere in China, travel wasn't AS hard, but it still presented a challenge.

The episode is just a microcosm of travel in China. Tourism, like the places, has developed. Modern China is becoming less interesting (the tool of progress here is the bulldozer...for a great but sad example, see this (and better yet, read the accompanying National Geographic article: ...the old city of Kashgar was one of my absolute highlights in 2002!); old things have been razed, tourists are very present, things have gotten far simpler and better connected and more comfortable.

We've still had some great mini-adventures and, admittedly, have not really veered far off the beaten track in China. But even if we'd had more time and made more effort, I feel like a lot of the "adventure" in China is gone. And it's gone expensive. These nice hostels cost a lot more than they used to. Transportation's gone up at least 50%, I think. Admission fees in this country are ridiculous - in many cases more than you'd pay for an equivalent site in Europe or North America. Funny enough though, if you limit yourself to not crossing large distances and entering touristy sights, you can still live cheaply. In small towns, clean hotels are cheap - cheaper than an equivalent in India, even. And food...if you don't care for an expresso and pizza, you can always tuck down a backstreet and find a bowl of noodles or a plate of something mysterious (or not) for peanuts. Beer, too, is fabulously cheap, as is plum wine.

In summary to this aside, yeah China has better roads and plumbing, but I prefer the adventure and ruggedness of days that are apparently bygone, or fast becoming so. The change is happy for many, probably sad for many. I'm generally annoyed by people who talk of "the good old days," so I'll stop there; in conclusion, I just feel fortunate that I saw what I did when I did, and that we're seeing at least some more of that now! In one MORE decade, I'm 100% certain India will still be a cool place to travel. China, I'm not quite as sure. In any case, it's still a fantastic country, and I/we look forward to watching its progress!


Back on short, we continue to whole-heartedly enjoy this period in China, exploring the small chunk of China that we set off to visit. Not only is it like a vacation after all that time on the Indian subcontinent, it's really enjoyable!

World Cup. The USA - Ghana game? England vs. Germany? No comment.

No souvenirs for us. Most of what's around anyway is kitsch. We did spend 18 yuan (about $2.70, under 2 quid) on a little glazed teapot from a dude at a market. And a pot of fresh honey from a Bai woman.

I hock and spit sometimes, just to feel like I fit in (EVERYONE does this here - often and loudly). Rebecca doesn't (she doesn't slurp her noodles, either). She doesn't really like that I do, but she can't really berate me when a thousand others are doing worse.

A new adventure for us begins tomorrow. We enter a monastery up in the clouded green hills...and begin some formal training.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Steamed Buns and Things on Sticks

Thailand. After leaving our island, we boated back to Phuket, which I never tired of pronouncing phonetically. A day in the city gave us a chance for some great Thai street life and street food...stuff that's lacking on a touristy island. [Those who have seen The Beach would recognize our hotel in Phuket's old town (and incidentally Ko Phi Phi, the island we were on for a week, is the island in the film).]

We flew back to Kuala Lumpur, missing the US-Slovenia match en route but catching the England-Algeria one a couple hours after we landed, at 2.30am (we slept in the airport).

Next day: flight to Chengdu, China, in the heart of Sichuan province, far far inland.

I'd been here before, and to me the city was unrecognizable. In the intervening years, a big but somehow quaint and walkable city centre had somehow morphed into enormous multi-laned roads, pedestrian flyovers, and modern shops of the Louis Vuitton variety. All new, all big and imposing and impressive. But so very far from what I remembered.

Another thing I'd enjoyed some years ago was the Sichuan opera...old men with wispy beards chatting over afternoon tea while on a stage masked singers screeched and sang and acted out stories. This, too, had changed. Now evidently, the only option to see the opera is to buy an expensive ticket to a staged evening performance that is more akin to a variety show for the short attention-spanned. We skipped it.

While I'm speaking of changes, I may as well mention the hostel where we stayed. Luxurious. DVD player and TV in the room. Free internet (I used to hunt down internet on back lanes, seeking out the Chinese characters that indicated an internet cafe - which would inevitably be full of young kids playing online shoot-em-up games). Free fresh fruit delivered to your room in a basket. Great shower. Super clean.

China? The China I remembered was so much simpler and different.

This place has been turned upside-down...or right-side up, depending on your perspective.

One nice change is that new construction in China seems to have taken a turn for the better. Instead of white-tile-and-blue-glass buildings that look terrible and seem unlikely to last more than a couple decades, what's new generally looks good. We found a few brand-new streets done up to look ancient; obviously set up for tourists (mostly

Chinese) but it is at least adding character of a certain manner, compensating for some of the tradition that was probably bulldozed to make way for all the modernity.

But I keep digressing...We spent a few days in Chengdu; Rebecca immensely enjoyed her introduction to the country. Wandering the backstreets was great fun (a lot more streets and things are labeled in English now, but it can still be bewildering). Meals were bowls of noodles, assorted steamed buns and dumplings, and fried and boiled things on sticks; we never saw an English menu. Among other things, we visited a Buddhist monastery and a Taoist temple. And...we saw pandas (not in the city; for this we had to take a short trip out)!

Very cool. They're big and white and black and playful and immensely fun to watch.

After a haircut (at 15 yuan - just over $2 - it was far more expensive than my average of 25 rupees - 60 cents - in India, but included a wash before AND after, plus a blowdry, and an obligatory photo with the barber who had obviously never cut the hair of a white guy before), we left the city.

And leaving the was posh! We'd booked a Hard Sleeper class train journey. This sounds like roughing it, but it isn't. The carriage was posh. And after India, quite a beggars/cripples sweeping under your feet and asking for rupees, no chai wallahs. Bedding. Comfort. Cleanliness. Order. Little/no invasion of personal space. And outside: instead of brown plains it was green and bright, with stunning rivers and gorges, as we wound our way southwards through Sichuan.

Actually, in some respects the journey (and the train station itself) was SO organized and comfortable that it seemed almost drab, but that's probably just because we're still somewhat used to India (and after India, few places on Earth wouldn't feel a bit sterile in some way). That overnight journey cost us more than a trans-India first class journey would have, but we appreciated it for what it was - an enjoyable way to connect points A and B.

13 hrs after we'd begun, the train dumped us off at 4am in a city called Panzhihua. Straightaway we hit the bus station, for a continuation of the journey, a 9-hr bus ride into Yunnan province, where we're currently stationed. More on that in the next update!

Now, we're off for a beer (we picked up a can each of lychee and pineapple-flavored lager for an evening treat).

[Postscript: this update is being uploaded by our friend Chris. China does not allow internet users to access Blogspot. More on this...and a lot more that I/we may have to say about China in general in a future update!]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Only Problem With Paradise

Things have been really great. The air temperature...perfect; the water temperature for frequent dips in the sea...also perfect. Our private stilted bungalow...fantastic. Views of sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, and another jagged island across the way...stunning. Our favorite restaurant on an adjacent beach, 3 minutes' walk away...spectacular food. It's rainy there are relatively few tourists about, and deflated prices to match...and aside from our very first day here (and today) we've had unseasonably clear, sunny, blue skies.

In all, a week of sublime weather and scenery and food, being shirtless most of the time...can't ask for more.

Really the only complaint is that mosquitos harass us each morning and towards/after dusk which limits the amount of time spent hanging in the hammock on our bungalow porch. I guess a few itchy insects are a small price to pay for what is otherwise paradise, though. Also less than perfect is the fact that the Americans failed to beat England in the first World Cup match. Alas, we settle for a tie I guess.

We've read a handful of books, got some color (Rebecca, brown; me, more of an off-white), had a Thai massage (which, in my experience, is voluntarily paying to have a meaty Thai woman pummel you with her hands and feet and elbows, with some acrobatics that border on the intimate thrown in for good measure), and I've poked beached jellyfish with sticks (Rebecca says she outgrew this when she was five; me? well, I grew up 2000 miles from the sea so never did this when I was young and even if I had, I wouldn't give it up. no way! it's fun!), and spent a fair deal of time studying the movements of hermit crabs and spider crabs (though Rebecca tells me there must be more than 5000 types of crabs and that these are probably some other type, which is likely true - but regardless, I like watching them and sitting really still until they decide I'm okay and crawl out of their holes - why do they dig these? - and go about their business unfettered).

We're rested and recharged now, ready for the final phase of our trip.

In a few hours, we leave the island of Ko Phi Phi by ferry (provided it's running...after a week of sun, today it's storming...good timing!) back to the larger resort island of Phuket. There, we have a flight back to Kuala Lumpur (tomorrow), where we'll spend a night in the airport ahead of Saturday morning's flight to...China.

When we began this trip, China was not part of the plan; but then, neither was this stop in Thailand. A web of visa issues and discounted airline tickets dictated this course, and we're happy to follow.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Feeding Fish

Rebecca has officially bailed on writing these updates. She just doesn't want to. So for her friends and family tired of hearing from me, I guess it's Brian or nothing, or perhaps you can complain via email to her and see if that helps.


Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was brief. It was hot and muggy, but a nice respite from chaotic India. In a span of only a few hours, Rebecca tried multiple new fruits: rambutan, mangosteen, dragonfruit, salak, and the smelly-but-tasty regional favorite, durian.

We'd planned to visit one "sight" during our one full day in the city: the Petronas Twin Towers, until 2003, the world's tallest building(s). But being Monday, they were closed. Instead, we explored Chinatown. Fruit sampling aside, the highlight of the visit was paying a few ringgit to dip our feet in a "fish spa," where hundreds of 2-3" long fish nibble your feet, eating the dead skin. It's supposed to be therapeutic in some way. Certainly it's weird - and very ticklish.

The following morning we flew to Phuket, Thailand, and we're currently relaxing on the island of Ko Phi Phi. That's it. We await the start of the World Cup and the USA - England match. Football/soccer aside, the course of the next week-plus is: eat and stagnate on this beautiful tropical isle.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The End of India

Rebecca, to me on the plane today as we're leaving India: "Next time we travel, I'm going to have more say on the destination."

She exaggerates, though; she loved it, at times more than I did - certainly there were days she handled it better. But we were both ready to depart...had we really been on the subcontinent for just a few days shy of 5 months?!

We left off in Srinagar, Kashmir. Contrary to popular opinion, we genuinely believe that the danger of Kashmir isn't Kashmir itself, but getting in/out of it! As stated previously, a day or two after our arrival from mountainous Ladakh, an avalanche took out the road on that section. We exited a different route, southwards, for Jammu - meant to be about 8 hrs. This day, I describe as "interesting," Rebecca calls it "the journey from hell."

Why? Oh, a trishaw overladen with steel bars tipped over just in front of us. We were stuck in a steep valley for 2 hrs waiting for a crew to remove a flipped petrol tanker (on passing, the narrow highway was still soaked with gasoline; I turned to our driver and stated, "no smoking!"). Another road jam held us up a further hour. Lunch was shitty. It rained. It hailed. We got stuck for a half hour waiting for an impromptu parade of 100's of buffalo plod past. Then, at dusk, a crazy sand/windstorm hit. Trees were falling in the road, something landed on our jeep, a heavy rain made visibility appalling. We arrived nearly 12 hrs after we'd begun.

A slightly less eventful day saw us arrive in Amritsar, a Punjabi city near the Pakistani border. Back into the heat of India proper. But it was great. Few beggars, a city where white travellers can still be somewhat of a novelty, lots of smiles and genuinely friendly people. And the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs (a large % of the men in the city wore the colored turbans indicating their creed). We spent 4 days in the city. Finally saw a Bollywood film at the cinema. Found one of the best 4 lassis (yogurt shakes) in India (for details, or to know the other 3, email me). Great paneer butter masala and butter naan. Free meals at the community kitchen at the Golden Temple. Amritsar was great, and was perfect for our final "real" stop in India.

Then: departure. Our train ticket to Mumbai, 32 hrs away by train - and much longer by bus...we'd booked tickets 5 weeks ago, but it was full and we were waitlisted. As the day of departure (and our eventual flight out of India) grew closer, our trepidation increased. On May 31st, we went to the station. No luck - still on the waiting list. Many conversations, a few officials, several offices, and finally a visit to see the "Divisional Traffic Manager" got us on the train - apparently they reserve a few seats on each train for VIPs and emergencies, and we qualified (somehow).

[This train deal was WAY more stressful than this simple paragraph can demonstrate. Had we not miraculously gotten on that train, we'd have faced a 3-day-ish true night-and-day hell-odyssey to get to Mumbai before our flight out of India. Despite that multi-week advance booking, we did not know that we had berths until a mere 2 hrs before the train's nighttime departure!]

OK, then. 32 hrs on the train. Piece of cake. We had friendly neighbors, and a sack full of fresh mangos and lychees to supplement the meals served on the train and bits purchased from station platforms en route. Outside, the landscape was pretty dire: hot plains and hot plains and pretty much just hot baking plains. Inside, friendly neighbors, a good book, and relative comfort.


And: MUMBAI! For Bollywood and beach? No! For A/C and comfort and hot showers and a laundry machine: my friend Mike and his family live in the northern suburbs of the city. He made his home our home, and for our final 4 days in India we scarcely left the comforts of that refuge/sanctuary/insulated palace. I'd previously met my friend when he'd lived in Burma and Turkey, so in addition to some creature comforts completely foreign to us in recent months, I had a chance to reconnect with an old friend. It was fantastic.

We left this morning. A flight brought us to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Landed about 4 hrs ago.

Thoughts? This is a WEIRD place: no wandering cows and goats, no one honks their horns, intersections aren't filled with scooters and autorickshaws vying for position, people obey traffic regulations, there seem to BE traffic regulations, buildings generally look like they'll still be standing in 15 years, nobody hassles us, things are orderly.

We're still getting used to all this newness.

India is now behind us. In all those months, just a few illnesses (Rebecca: two, Brian: one) and a lot of great experiences.

Kuala Lumpur, our current destination, is just a way station. 36 hrs from now, we'll be on another plane to somewhere even more comfortable, we think...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guns, Goats, and Carpets

Kashmir, our home since the last update. We left cold Ladakh, and headed west, somehow hitching a ride in a completely empty bus for several hours. That spat us out in Kargil, a town that saw Tibetan Buddhists swapped for Muslims.

That very night, we got the last seats on a bus heading down into Kashmir. Our "seats" consisted of a narrow bench located directly - that is, inches - behind the driver. Great views, but incredibly uncomfortable. We had no backrests; instead, some uncomfortable bars. I had a cabinet located just to the left of my skull. The road was terrible. The journey lasted some nine or ten hours through the night, crossing a sketchy pass that remains closed (snowed in) for most of the year.

An hour out of Kargil, for a while we closely paralleled the Line of Control with Pakistan. It's safe now, but road signs ("SKILL X WILL X DRILL = KILL" and "WARNING: YOUR MOVEMENT IS UNDER SURVEILLANCE OF THE ENEMY" [Pakistan]) hinted at past problems - the neighboring country was on the hillside just above the dark valley to the north.

Sleep was pretty much out of the question. Each time I/we nodded off, one of the roads heavy jolts banged our heads/backs into metal bars behind us and that damn cabinet on my left side. It was like losing a fight. We emerged from that journey with bruises, literally.

But what a journey! Curves, mountains, and dark. A road that clung to cliffsides and inspired gasps at times. Snow drifts 1.5 times the height of the bus carved away to make way for traffic. A constant drizzle (thankfully, not freezing). The whole time, me peering over the driver's left shoulder, and Rebecca the right - a bird's eye view of all the scary drops awaiting us if anything went wrong.

And after hours and hours of toiling upwards to the snowy pass, we descended into the Kashmir Valley. It was like crossing from Afghanistan (most of Ladakh looks like any photo you've ever seen of that country) and dropping into Switzerland: green, stone cottages, constant hairpin turns, a deep valley framed by tall mountains, shepherds and goatherds and ponies and horses slowing traffic, stone cottages and green, hand-tended fields. If it weren't for the long beards and the skullcaps of the men here, it would have seemed a rustic, faded glimpse of Old Europe.

[A sobering footnote: a day or two after we crossed, a snowstorm closed the pass, stranding some people for several days. Two were killed in an avalanche that destroyed part of this tortuous road.]

OK, so we ended up in Srinagar. It was awful. Rain. And incessant shouts and hassle: houseboats! rickshaws! beggars! shikaras (Venetian gondola-esque boat rides)! baksheesh! carpet and pashmina shawl emporiums! a sh$%load of Indian tourists! Those things aside, the city is not bad. It has a spectacular setting, located on Dal Lake and surrounded by Mughal Gardens and snow-capped peaks. And a fantastic climate, being a mile high in elevation.

Little did we know then, Srinagar would be our longest stop in any city on this entire trip.

We'd long wanted a Kashmiri silk carpet, and this was the place to find them. Negotiating the shops was an experience: sleaze, lies, mostly evil salesmen, "escapes," and free tea (and Kashmiri "kahwa" - cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron tea) and biscuits. But during the eight days it took us to seal a deal, we became experts in assessing quality of these carpets. And along the way, we had many interesting meetings, ate fresh trout (from one salesman that turned bad), had food from a wedding feast (at one of Kashmir's most prominent and wealthy families). We got driven around old parts of Srinagar and saw winding lanes and mosques that we never would otherwise have seen, and saw factories, and carpets washed/clipped by hand. Fascinating...

We ended with two carpets. An expensive time (about the same as what we've spent during our WHOLE time in India), but we are thrilled with these eventual additions to our eventual home in Vancouver....eventually.

Meanwhile, that rain that had initiated our first days in Srinagar had turned to sun, making the past week a wonderful, warm, sunny one. Aside from the guns and soldiers that roam the streets of now-calm Srinagar, it is a reasonably welcoming place. Like on all extended visits to a place, we have our favorite dhabas (eateries) where we are welcomed once or twice each day with big big smiles and eat our favorite curries and chais.

We had planned to leave Kashmir immediately after completing our carpet purchase, but part of our final deal was that we were offered a night on our salesman's family's luxury houseboat (a five-star floating hotel - three rooms only - full of carved walnut, sumptuous decor, and a stunning lakeside location). OK, for this...we will stay another day! We did. It was amazing. A four-poster bed, a wonderfully soft and warm feather duvet, a private chef, and a veranda facing the lake and the mountains to the east.

OK, after this, we leave Srinagar. But no: stuck again. We met a friendly American woman and end up the next day on the houseboat she was staying at. A shikara ride through the canals of Old Srinagar, a lot of socializing, a completely new (and water-based) look at the city that we've now been in for twelve days.


Srinagar turned into a saga. Safe if at times unsettling (all Western embassies still advise against coming here so there are few white faces around). A chance to savour some final moments in a cool climate before descending into the steaming plains of north India in summer. It was an unlikely "longest stop" for us, but it was good.

We leave here in an hour. Jammu - our next destination - was 46C/114F yesterday. So much for pleasant climate...but that is just a quick stop. Our exit from India is just around the corner now, but we've quite a way to travel before then...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ladakh = Little Tibet

Ley was not "closed," of course. The day after our previous update we flew from Delhi to Leh, tucked deeply into the western Himalaya. It was a stunning flight-voyage...from the plains to a blindingly white crumpled mountainscape, ending in a high altitude valley.

And wow, what a change from India! Rosy cheeks, smiles smiles smiles, warm hearty authentic hello's (here in Ladakh: "joolay!" - conveniently, this same greeting also means goodbye, thank you, you're welcome, and how's it going). No beggars, no hassles. The people of this part of the world are ethnically Tibetan, and this is the heart of the region of Ladakh. It didn't feel like India at all. What's more, the heat and haze of the lowlands was swapped for brilliantly blue, sunny skies, and refreshingly cool weather.

Speaking of that weather, after exiting Nepal many weeks ago, we'd posted our shoes and all of our warm-weather gear to Leh, so that (a) we wouldn't have to lug it all over steaming northern India, and (b) we'd be equipped for the cold once more. A cunning plan. In theory. However, our f-ing package was lost by Indian Post. Snow-capped mountains all around, nippy weather...and us wearing flip-flops and t-shirts. This wasn't really ideal.

We persevered. And bought yak-wool socks (and me a pair of Chinese-made shoes that began to self-destruct within two days).

One of the first things we did was rent a motorcycle and tour up and down the Indus Valley. We chose a Yamaha over the more-romantic Enfield (having owned an Enfield seven years ago I knew full well that it's outward appeal is countered by a dismal tendency for breakdowns). The trip was fantastic: mountains, parched terrain, flowering apricot trees, people driving zhos (beasts of burden, like a cow-yak mix) through terraced fields...and gompas (Tibetan monasteries) perched on hilltops or burrowed against vertical hillsides. Tibet doesn't "do" monasteries that aren't spectacularly located it seems. Within those dimly-lit gompas, bright paintings of heaven and hell and dragons and bodhisattvas, gilded and cracked giant Buddhas, smoke and candles and drums and chanted prayers.

Meals were traditional - momos (stuffed dumplings), temok (steamed heavy dumplings), thukpa (heavy noodles in a soup)...if you haven't noticed, it's all various combinations of wheat noodles/dumplings/broth. Starchy, hearty stuff complemented by our stash of dried apricots and nuts.

Accommodation varied widely but was always interesting. One night we stayed with a monk at a monastery; most nights we stayed at simple family homestays, eating meals together with our hosts. Often we were offered a dozen cups of tea per day: milk tea, Kashmiri tea, (traditional) butter tea. Our "homes": red/white mud-brick structures, dirt floors, rustic kitchens/dining rooms with plates, pots, ladles, and neatly-stacked copper and brass pots. Animals housed in the lower section of the house. Cow pats (for fuel) drying atop walls, stacked/bundled hay lying on rooftops, ladders connecting the rabbit-warren structures within a family compound, Tibetan prayer flags hanging everywhere. Sleeping was on rug-covered thin mattresses that doubled as floor/sitting cushions during the day (not too clean), with dusty pillows and heavy duvets that you hoped were free of bedbugs.

It was very peaceful. Most nights, the silence was broken only by donkey bellows and the odd dog or rooster.

Other than the motorcycle trip, we did some hitchhiking (once with four monks) and several days of hiking through spectacular country in snow leopard country (but we saw neither them nor the elusive yeti). We helped one family flood their field in preparation for barley and vegetable planting. Tough life here: long hard winters with little contact with the outside world. Cut off by road from the rest of India for upwards of 2/3 of the year.

For the most part, we saw no tourists. It was great to meet so many genuine people, to trust and smile at them without having to wonder (as in the rest of India) how they were about to try to screw you over. The Ladakhi-Tibetan people won our hearts.

Our last stop during just over two weeks in the region was in the village of Lamayuru, a seemingly four-dimensional construct beneath a monastery that looked as if it were about to topple off an eroded hilltop. A vertical maze of crumbling homes, tangled stairways, mud and hay and steep footpaths.


After a pair of nights in that final destination, we walked to the "highway" and waited for transport - heading West. We were cold, and it was time to descend a bit.

Our final thought on yeah, the sloping dirt floor toilets weren't ideal, but as you're squatting over a concave, gaping hole below and trying not to fall in, you can at least look out a windowless opening and see 6000m+ snow-capped peaks.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Leh is Closed"

Greetings. This is Brian again. I know that I promised that Rebecca was writing the next one, but she didn't want to, so it's boring me...

Mt Abu, that hill station we were just heading to after our last posting, was a dive. I liked it; Rebecca didn't. It was full of holidaying Gujarati males. Minnesotans: it was like an Indian Wisconsin Dells; Brits: it was like an Indian Blackpool. Kitsch, photo booths, horse rides, a decent climate, lots of restaurants, and even a lake with cheesy plastic paddleboats for rent. Only two nights there.

Then: Jodhpur, our final stop in deserty Rajasthan. We loved it. Got an A/C room. Had makhania lassis (saffron-flavoured yogurt shakes) each day, I worked, Rebecca went out for takeaway lunches and fruit. Life was good.

We got back to Delhi just two days ago. Logistics: picked up our passports (they were at an embassy these last weeks), bought some cookware and housewares, posted a large box home, and...that's it. Mixed between all this, I got to see some cool new neighborhoods I'd never seen on my previous four visits to the city. It's a fascinating (if incredibly crowded/polluted/filthy) place.

Tomorrow bright and early, we fly to Leh. This is a Tibetan town far in the north, a region called Ladakh. When we arrived at our hotel in Delhi, the receptionist enquired our next stop (something that must be filled in each time you check into a guesthouse here). When I said, "Leh," he said, "No. You cannot. It's closed."

OK. So Leh is "closed." He was referring to the fact that all roads to Leh are snowed in for eight months of the year. Most travellers heading there go via Manali; the road this way takes 3-4 days from Delhi and usually doesn't open until June sometime.

Thus, Leh should be empty of tourists. And quite cold. We'll be showing up in the mountains in flip-flops, fingers crossed and recrossed that our shoes and warm gear (that we purchased before our trek in Nepal) are there - we posted this stuff to Leh once we crossed back into hot hot hot India several weeks back.

So, soon off for one last North Indian dinner, and an early night before a 4am taxi to the airport. That's it for now!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Rajasthan, Etc, According to Brian

I (Brian) am writing this one alone. Rebecca's doing the next...

Okay, here we are in Udaipur, India's "most romantic city," southern Rajasthan. Yes, it's hot here. The lake, part of Udaipur's ambiance, is almost entirely dry. We see animals grazing there (even two elephants yesterday), and in the mornings and evenings Indian youth play cricket in what used to be lake. Gone is the Udaipur I saw 7 years ago - colorful women washing laundry and people bathing on the lakeside ghats, water everywhere.

All of this we can see from our lakeside room, which has nice ceiling paintings and stained-glass and A/C! Being off-season, we got a steal on the place. Still a splurge, but a reasonable one: Rs600/night ($14/9 quid). Mornings here, we alternate who goes out for a quarter-litre of fresh, cold milk from a corner shop 200m up the road. Then we sit on the divan next to our lakefront window, set up our bowls on the squat wooden table between us, recline on pillows, and eat our cornflakes (North India lacks the nice un-fried breakfasts of the south, so we've opted for this lighter option...ah, to have idli -fermented steamed rice cakes - again!).

And that's Udaipur for us. Since the city's a travellers' hub, it was a good place for us to swap books, replenishing our supply. Far from the tourist zone, we have a place we go for fantastic Gujarati thalis. The palaces, the lake - all secondary, I suppose, a nice backdrop but not a reason for being here.

Other recent destinations have been like this, too. In Orchha, we skipped the central sights. Instead: a walk, find an abandoned chhatri to climb, sit on the roof and watch riverside bathers and colorful kingfishers and bright green parrots, and vultures perched atop the other chhatris (temple-like monuments) surrounding us.

In Delhi: the procurement of train tickets, applying for Chinese visas (for later - I guess we won't be the whole half year on the subcontinent after all). In Agra: the Taj Mahal, of course. And it was wonderful. But too, we mixed in other things: I filed my US taxes, we found the best banana lassis (yogurt shakes) in India.

In Bundi, a slightly off-the beaten track destination in Rajasthan, we hung out for five days, spending our nights in an old haveli (mansion) converted to a guesthouse. There, I worked a lot on editing my book and we did walks in the early mornings when the weather was tolerably cool - walking up to a hilltop fort devoid of tourists (or ANYONE, for that matter), wandering alone among crumbled palace ruins amid pools and pavilions...bat guano, marble columns, paintings, tilework, stunted trees, metal-studded wooden gates still hanging from their original hinges. Very atmospheric. Lunches there in Bundi were mangos and almonds and raisins and grapes and bananas bought from the market.

These last few destinations have been good to us - 4-5 day relaxed stops instead of the relentless grind of the road.


We are now past the halfway point of our trip. There was never any danger of a repeat of 2002 - when I departed the USA for "a year" and didn't ultimately return until the latter half of 2006. Maybe because I'm older, I don't know. Travel seems less monumental than it did then - not as heavy or life-changing. Fun, good - yes - I don't mean to downplay it at all. It's a great way to give you perspective, solidify desires...but in the end, travel is a temporary indulgence from which you know you'll return.

Rebecca and I continue to learn how to deal with each other (and with India). We get weary of Indians some days. There's a shirt on sale in Delhi that says, "No rickshaw, no hashish, no rupees, ..." The list goes on. A hundred or a thousand times a day you're approached, hassled. It can be so tiresome, but it's part of the whole experience. Dealing with it is a challenge, an opportunity.

Travel for us is more about adapting to a different type of life than about sightseeing: how best to fill a day, to enjoy life, to find the proper mix of movement and relaxation. We haven't kept up with the yoga - rooms too small, days too hot, or simply that we're too lazy? All goes up and down; two weeks ago, Rebecca was just barely tolerating India. Today, she's loving it more than me.


For better or worse, life beyond the trip is never really far away. We still have to deal with logistics (Australian and US taxes, for example, and bank accounts and interviews), and we're still dealing with post-trip plans. In fact, just two days ago we had a celebratory dinner. I've been offered a spot at grad school for September, in a country Rebecca's never visited, a place that I went to once 15 years ago on one blurry day. So there's that - and soon (no decision yet made) maybe finally we can answer the question, "What are you guys doing after the trip?"


That's it. Tonight is our last in Udaipur. We're taking a four-hour cooking class. We both absolutely love the food in India (aside from the slight tedium of all the North Indian deep-fried snacks), and are excited to learn a bit more! Tomorrow, we're off to Mt Abu, a 1200m/4000' hill station. Though not originally part of our plan, it was a heat-inspired decision; daily temperatures these last few weeks has seen temps of mostly 40-44C (104-112F). It's meant to be cool there.

We're excited! And not long after, we're heading into mountains once more. But that will be another story...


"...the blessings of leisure - unknown to the West, which either works or idles..." (EM Forster)