Agra town, India

Friday, 3 December 2010

Downtown Kolkata

Under the sheets of tarpaulin covering the glut of food stalls around BBD Bagh, a hum of Bengali lingers above the lunchtime crowd of white-collar workers. A slit of a walkway is left for the passing traveller to wind their way through. We see men and women packed deep on low benches and tables. In front of them silver compartmentalized platters divide soft roti from lentils, which glisten in a thin acid-yellow gravy. Pretzel like snacks are fished from the depths of a deep wok brimming with stinking hot fat. Spent corncobs skirt the stall's fringe and fill the already litter-heavy gutters. A bewildering array of food is on offer, from full meals to quick bites, the choice is unbelievable. The ubiquitous chai (Indian sweet milky tea) is served in miniature terracotta cups, many of which lie discarded and smashed on the nearby pavers. Every second to third stall is a Kati-roll shop. It's a two to three man affair. One stands abreast the circular flat plate, another over a heap of dough - the colour of ivory. The roller rolls the dough into rounds and fires them onto the hot plate where the cook flips it with egg. The third man handles the rolls post-plate stuffing them with onion, chili sauce, potato, mutton and chicken. The choice depends entirely on your pocket. These rolls are a West Bengal speciality – in fact the potato variety is the closest I've come this trip to a chip butty. Ace.

The smells invading your personal space range from the divine whiffs of blended spice and garlic to the malodorous aroma of the numerous public urinal, to the rancid oil spitting in the deep pans, to the piles of waste choking the gutters, to the fresh zip of lime and ginger squeezed through hand-pulled mangles for on-the-go drinks, to the air hung heavy with metallic fume and drops of seasonal rain, to the pungent patches of sweat circling worker's armpits to the block punch of aftershave that follows swift on it's tail.

Assaulting your ear holes simultaneously is a complete philharmonic of squeaks, trills and blare from some of the most frighteningly fearless inner city traffic I've ever had the misfortune to try and cross. Buses, taxis, motorcycles, decrepit pushbikes, jeeps, trucks and the odd hand-pulled rickshaw compete for a place on the scrappy tarmac. The lowly pedestrian is alas way down the greasy pole of importance. To honking briefly, the government machine is attempting a ban on the habit, with good reason. It's bloody annoying. But to little avail, as far as I can gauge from this visit and the last there's little significant change in India's volume YET! The honking continues, ears bleed on....

Spectres of a lost city

Kolkata's look is a rough smash of ancient and modern; one part faded memory, another part building site - see every large metropolis here. The architecture certainly reflects the wealth of religious and social diversity in residence.

Character-devoid white concrete multi-story boxes mix it up with richly rainbow hued mosque; pedestal's flourished with marble and stone iced gems. From the dregs of the night emerges the prayer cry of an imam; singular voice moves through the early quiet gathering with it the bright elements of the new day. Tiled shrines to the Hindu deities appropriate street corners, bedecked with garlands of celebratory orange and yellow marigolds to honour Ram and Sita, phallic stone to symbolize the creator, nurturer and destroyer Shiva.

Look down another packed thoroughfare and glimpse a catholic spire. For the presence of these as well as the numerous green areas and broken down mansion-houses, you can look to the British connection. As capital once-over to the British Imperialists, flaky remains of their tenure are strewn all around the central areas - in particular closely clustered around BBD Bagh.

The expanse of parkland wedged tight to the river Hooghly’s eastern bank - the vast Maidan is a Raj leftover complete with numerous gents club for everything. So too are the rotting exoskeletons of ex-administrative and governmental buildings wrecked and semi-abandoned.

60 years of decay has visibly tamed the lion's roar; wild bush sprouts unchecked from the fluted pastel pink balconies and rows of previously elegant windowpanes are cut through with potholes. The grimy fascia of recent additions tacked hastily to the grand foyers denigrates the tired buildings a few yards further into the abyss. The best areas to catch a glimpse of vintage Raj are top end Park St, near Park St cemetery, Royd St, Elliot St and the imperial sounding Old Court St.

Old habits die hard and though the tangle of streets and alleys have long since shed their imperial tinged appendage, the ghosts linger on. Ask a resident where BBD Bagh is and you may well be shown the way to Dalhousie Square.

Hello my friend..

Our pace in India has slowed to a leisurely dribble of travel here and there. The first visit in January of this year was in comparison a mad goose chase from one city to the next. It seems lunacy now that we saw four cities and traversed three massive states during those three short weeks. Granted this is our final or should that be last leg(s). Our cash is ebbing away see too our energy.

Looking back, we were bowled over but then India has that effect. It is gross understatement to say that it's a crazy overwhelming place!

From the minute you step off the plane, bus, yak, however you get here, you'll know it. Whether you're caught up in maniacal traffic jams, being hauled against your will from one eager tout to the other. Negotiating pavements stuffed with people, farmyard animals, food carts, dog crap, cow crap, human crap! Half laid pavers, paddling through mechanical, joiner's and plater's workshops disgorged from the shop to the pavers to the road - every inch of space is staked and claimed. Plus there is the fun of accessorizing everything to the red beam of your permanently sweaty face.... Mein gott.

Despite some significant leaps in economic growth and major changes within India's social stratum throughout the last 20 years, the frenetic busy-ness of life on the street rages on. Co-existent yet seemingly a distant planet in relation to it's sister world; the monied world closeted behind office blinds, property boundaries and darkened backseat windows, the vibrancy of India's city streets is unparalled in the other countries we have visited during the trip. The latter way of life incidentally belongs to the emergent affluent Indian upper and upper middle classes for whom the action has decisively switched from the outer to the inner. The gulf is wide and widely felt. Nothing hidden, everything on show, all of India's triumphs and disasters, freedoms and injustice hanging out front rather than concealed in the back. It's bloody maddening.

Passage to Kolkata

In India, the Highway Code consists of only one rule, the larger your vehicle, the more road you have. That's it. Its just recklessness fuelling the other ten million people on.

I'm impressed by the tenacity of our driver who has ingeniously managed to squeeze the saloon through a slight gap opened up between two battle scarred ancient local buses. The taxi - a bright yellow Ambassador, is built like a tank so we're not unduly worried, nevertheless the twists of shrapnel protruding from the adjacent metal carcasses skim eye-gougingly close to the backseat windows.

We travel along a two-lane freeway but it carries easily four times that amount, plus goats and the odd garbage-seeking cow.

The noise is ear-splitting.

Its 7am, Monday morning...Welcome to India my friend!

We've flown into Kolkata - not part of our original plan... We had hoped to be coming in overland through Nepal and thence through the hills of West Bengal, stopping off at Darjeeling but providence...nah our budget intervened so that little escapade was packed off to the Great Escapade graveyard in the sky. With little money left in our pot 'o' gold, the only option left was to fly direct from China.

Only this is never the easy option as we're both stinking yellow-bellied cowards when it comes to the wonder of flight. I spent the two, yes TWO, flights (we had to transfer at Kunming) rubbing my non-existent rosary beads (I'm not remotely Catholic but Methodism, even lapsed Methodism doesn't do comfort) and praying that the pilots were actually flying the plane, and not dealing up a fresh hand of hold em' whilst puffing on a meaty Havana as my sleep-deprived imaginings had it.

So we're here initially for a week, a brief primer to settle and then a longer visit after the hills. If the money situation is looking better we will be heading to Mumbai earlier.

This would be very nice.

So to Kolkata or Calcutta as formerly known. My general knowledge of this great east coast city is honestly pitiful. I know exactly this - it was home to one late Mother Teresa, a notorious hellhole of poverty and hunger, ex-capital of the British Raj...

Our temporary home is Sudder St - Kolkata's centrally located haven of budget hostelries, restaurants, travel agencies, exchange bureau and traveller's bars and cafes. It's a great place to find your feet and settle in. Rooms are 300rps (4.50 pounds app) cheap provided you don't mind sharing a bathroom and your bed with the obligatory budget bugs! (I recommend those off the main st, preferably with a courtyard to reduce street noise!)

We stayed at the Tourist Inn, three stories of colonial wreck dead centre, Sudder St and in our ignorance were ripped off for a big room with nay A/C. Wiser and cooler, following the break in Darjeeling. (Cold weather does wonders for the brain activity no!) We returned to the same hotel but bargained for a cheaper and naturally smaller pit which cost the not unholy price of 250rps (4.00pounds app) with common bath and toilet and ceiling fan.

The local cafes, Blue Sky and its opposite number Fresh & Juicy across the road are ok traveller hangouts providing the basics and a usually raucous atmosphere at decent prices. Blue Sky was good for a western style breakfast if you're craving decent coffee and toast.

Fresh & Juicy does excellent veggie dishes in the evening. 120rps (1.70 pounds app) for two dishes, rice, bread and drinks. There are plenty other quality cheap nooks in the area around Sudder, it's worth a rummage around the triangle encompassing the New Market, Mirza Ghalib Rd and Esplanade. Khalsa around the corner from the Fairlawn hotel serves up excellent chow with friendly service and explanation of dishes...

Friday, 17 September 2010

A Bum Deal

Asian toilets seem to me to follow the track of the sun, from a splendid rise in the East to a no less extraordinary fall in the West. This most fundamental of necessities has opened our eyes to the mouthwatering range Northern Asia has to offer...If only colostomy bags were available over the counter in Boots.

The good

We couldn’t afford much in our short time in Japan; eating regularly: challenging. Drinking: even the low grade sake passing itself off as beer (a notorious brewer’s tax dodge over there) was a fortune. Travel: the cost of one night bus would see us right for four days in China but man they do have nice W.Cs, Non! Make that great WCs.

Think Picard’s roomy lounger on the bridge of the Enterprise and you’re there. Seriously your butt will feel like Little Lord Fauntleroy once it’s frequented these beauties. Truth is that Japanese loos are every bit as polite and discreet as the folks!

They have not wasted time on ornamental gold plating and porcelain. Their toilets are pristine gadgets. In fact they look like they’re about to take off. Flanking your seat are two arms or the ‘control panel’. There are various buttons; the nicer places, i.e department stores and the posh bars we couldn’t afford but pretended we could when nature called had more ‘options’. But what are these options you ask??

First up heat! Because warming your be-hind on the radiator of a cold morn is so last century. Thermostat presumably built in!? Next, a button to simulate the sound of flushing guaranteeing you cast iron discretion whilst you go! As if this wasn’t enough, the thoughtful people in one large Tokyo department store had an instructive sign in the commode advising you on the best way to wash your arse! Just in case the gadgetry becomes a little too overwhelming....

There is ritual here too in the shape of separate bathroom slippers provided in the hotels, ryoken, some restaurants and the onsen. I got the impression the Japanese do not ‘gasp for the loo’ too often given the chances you might accidently wet yourself whilst you’re popping your toilet slippers on.

Swish toilets! Happily one of Japan’s few affordable luxuries!

The bad

Unsurprisingly the toss up was between China and India.

Both have some truly awful facilities. Given the average heat of the summer months in both these countries, your water consumption may find you frequenting the squats more often than you would wish. Both countries favour the traditional model; basin and hole with ridged feet bays either side. What fun working out which way to face, the wall or the door?...wish you luck with that!

In the long run they are more hygienic than a seat although you’ll be missing that U-bend once your nostrils catch a heady whiff from that ominous open hole. India’s streets are distinctly male dominated and you will see a glut of public urinals in the shape of low three-sided cubicles planted in the middle of the pavement for a lovely roadside view.

Public facilities, numerous as they were, were occasionally ignored by Indian’s themselves. It didn’t occur often but one elderly lady deftly hitched her sari up one sunny evening and spent a pound in the middle of the pavers. Can’t pay enough for that sort of image emblazoned infinitum on your retinas.

The ugly

The award for Northern Asia’s worst spending a penny belongs rightly to China.

The place: Jinyin monasteries communal toilet halfway up Mount Emei. The bathroom was an outhouse set away from the main house (with good reason). Once in, there were cubicles with saloon style swing doors and within those doors a distinctly uninviting dark concrete shaft. Aside from a wealth of collateral damage, the place was a hive of black fly and mozzie hell. My naive presumption that monks might keep an orderly toilet went down the pan with the idea that I would ever attempt to make this journey in the black of the wee hours. I wondered briefly what Bear Grylls might do in my position, which was a complete waste of time as he would easily get on with the job at hand likely stopping on the way out to gather up a few of those mozzies in a jar for a light nutritious meal pre-zeds.

Same mountain but a little further down, the loo’s were a sociable semi-circle with low concrete walls allowing you the freedom to chit chat unabated with your neighbours. As I wandered in dazed after a good eight hour hike there were at least five or six tiny Chinese ladies in congregation at the concrete altar.

Oh the humanity...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A very English slice of heaven

As tourist activities go, I'm sure there are nicer places to be visiting, parks, museums, galleries; all three commonplace in any city. It is possible however to find all three in one unique place; part greenery, part weird social museum, a gallery of a kind...a quiet spot really. It's sick I know, but I rather like visiting graveyards.

Is it normal to want to spend the afternoon with a bunch of dead people you have no familial or friendly link to? Who knows? I do know that these domains of eternal rest, especially of the foreign variety hold a basic allure.

Here in Kolkata, the creme de la creme of ghoul-yards is the cemetery at Park St. This is in itself an unusual place aside from all I have written above. The Hindu's cremate and the Parsi lay theirs out in ivory towers for the vultures to pick clean. The Muslim's bury but this is not a resting place for the city's Muslim communities. Rather this haven of slumber is home to a glitterati stretching back into the late 18th century. This is where the British Raj's human remains rest.

The cemetery lies on the far eastern end corner of Park St at the junction with the frenetic AJC Bose Rd. Originally situated on the border of a large murky bog, Park St itself evolved to it's current manifestation from an original pathway across the mire allowing the living to safely transport the dead without getting dead themselves.

Kolkata's raging August heat has put the kybosh on quite a few of our planned excursions but walking through the high outer gates and into the main avenue, a coolness clams down on our beading foreheads. It's like wandering into a cool exotic greenhouse. The wide avenues are marked out with edging slabs and darkened sand. It has recently thrown down a vicious shower of rain and the jungular canopy of palm and bamboo has trapped the wet creating a delicious breeze as the wind rolls through.

The avenues are kept in an admirably overgrown state, in between the tombs the grass is just about kept in hand. The traffic noise quietens to a distant drone behind the high pastel blue outer walls and is superceded by the surround sound squeak of a thousand crickets, mozzies and midge.

The manner in which differing cultures honour their dead has always been of interest to me. Amongst these ex-pats, with the blood and hellfire of rampant imperialism coursing through their vessels, bigger was certainly better. The tombs are a grim ode to conspicuous consumption, all around there are colossus' of mourning; loss spelt out in 20 foot sandstone.

One celebrated beauty from the 18th century, a Miss Elizabeth Anderson, a lady who 'broke the hearts of all the gentlemen she encountered' has a tomb fit for 50! A vast stone pyramid resting in a secluded corner. She journeyed to India in the late 1790's and pegged it two years later at the ripe old age of 23.

She and other famous residents have had a nip and tuck job done on their tombs, their plaques bear freshly cleaved out inscriptions. Other not so celebrated residents dwell in decay; plaques eroded to a point where ownership is impossible to tell. The not so humble plots of peace are a weird and wonderful cornucopia of design. Hexagonal pillared mausoleia to Greco-style collanaded houses, pyramids to gothic cream marble columns reaching skywards. Distasteful as it all is, it really could be plucked whole from a fairytale.

The plaques themselves tell a great deal about their owners and the exclusive circles they lived in. Their graves offer a brief but insightful peek into their lives and those of the wider British elite resident in India at that time. The inscriptions still legible have a formulaic poetic style. Note the accepted wording of the time. Ladies were 'Loved in life, long lamented in death', 'the best of wives, mothers and friends' as well as naturally being a 'goodly christian woman'. This last tribute is particularly interesting given the ladies attitude towards ‘the natives’.

The average life span was a short one, the cause of death is not given but on the whole few made it past their 20's. The women in particular died young, many died shortly after arriving in the country. This is perhaps no surprise given the frequent outbreaks of cholera and malaria on the subcontinent; both classic Raj purgers, childbirth and then the old demon; TB.

It's a strange place, exotic and if taken at face value, rather lovely. It had also the added advantage of being the sole spot in Kolkata where you could find an elusive hour of peace! On the other hand it renders no better the already tarnished reputation of the Anglo-Indians. They come out of it as exclusive a sphere as ever well pleased with themselves and the little corner of England they managed to carve out.

In life these empire builders, looters, flagrant profiteers and eventual ruling classes demanded and lived in separation from those they ruled over. In death, walled up inside this pastel blue cocoon they have it still.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The mountain.

Doh! Blame premature senility, final word in China.....

Prior to quitting China for India, we spent three glorious weeks in the far western province of Sichuan. We were already parked up there early July in it's capital Chengdu to prepare for Tibet. When it eventually sunk in that Tibet was not to be, we were miserable as canned ham.
However Sichuan was the perfect place to be at this temporary block.

You can think of this province as the closest you'll get to Tibet without the political strife.
Sichuan borders the plateau on it's western flank. It has the culture, the panoramas and the days where you'll experience all four seasons in one 24 hour period. It's a jewel of a province.
If you're looking for adventure, amazing sights, landscapes to blow your mind, a place to chill, excellent partying, the spiciest hotpots in the country.....I would seriously recommend some time here. With this in mind, we went up a mountain.

Mt Emei Shan - Mist-wreathed Buddhist peak, home to a large community of monks, nuns and criminally minded Macaque's. We spent a week; some of the high and low-lights..

Day One
The premier backpacker haunt in Baoguo. The legend of Peasant Andy. Mosquito trauma.

Day two
Early start, bus, vomit, boiled egg, an elite tour group, up to the summit on an egg, no room at the inn, back to the start, eaves, pot noodles, pissing in a bottle. Am I sleeping yet?

Day Three
LEGS!! Monkey fear, a corn and an egg, here cometh the dutch, are we there yet? bad onions, a drenching, Spanish philosophy, monkey's in the mist, the love shack.

Day Four
Leg mutiny, safety in numbers, breakfast is for wimps, the long march, where the bloody hell is it? End in sight. Ahhhh beer....

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Longest Night

Distances that'll have you weeping into your plastic sick bag, an unforgiving travel schedule - 'it's fun to take the night bus'..NO IT ISN'T, sparse or should that be no comfort and rest? you can forget it..

The realities of travel in the monster that is China.

"So why do it, you berk!" you may well say! Easy......China's the bomb.
It is a bountiful banquet of unbridled joy, a super-sized crispy pancake of hoi-sin flavoured wonder, a spicy hotpot of pleasurable sensation.... I'm out of kack superlatives but you understand ja? IT'S GOOD.

The tough nights; usually the ones spent sleeping rough outside some hobo-riddled station cursing your existence or trying fruitlessly to mould your body into those plastic interconnected chairs in Maccy D's/KFC in a last grasp attempt at sleep, are all part of the necessary gauntlet of pain you must work through friends..

Our route through China has been a haphazard one to be sure, drawn and then endlessly redrawn according to the diktat of our ever-shrinking budget. Necessary sacrifices included
Hong Kong, Shanghai and the majority of the east coast. Swings and roundabouts. If we'd gone to Hong Kong and everywhere else we wanted to, we'd have been home by the 1st of July.

Our final route(!) cut a line east to west through China's central band of provinces, through Jiangxi and further west into Hunan. These provinces represent the backwater, China's rural heart. Hunan spawned one of this countries most influential and infamous political and ideological leaders, Mao Zedong. Consequently there are many towns and villages dedicated to his 'worship' around here, but we didn't let that put us off.
Jiangxi was another rural incubator for the rise of Chinese communism. At Nanchang, the provincial capital, the commies came together in a big way. Our guide book highlighted Nanchang's staunchly red history recommending westerners to perhaps give it a miss but we ended up there for a nights kip. Funny for a load of communists, they sure like eating in McDonalds.

Jiangxi was the first stop after our 'night' spent in Shanghai. We got a really crappy bus six hours west to Wuyuan, a national park famous for it's half a dozen heritage hamlets and small market towns whose original architecture and way of life has been lovingly retained. There's a pricey fee of six pounds each to enter the individual villages. This charge covers admission into various historical sights situated therein, but mainly it's (and I would agree after visiting) a necessary charge for the damage, wear and tear caused by the neverending trail of domestic tourists and the odd international speciman who flash in and out like roadrunners on crack.
You can stay in each place, most have guesthouses but a few locals also rent beds if you're so inclined. We stayed in two places, a small town Qinghua, and the village of Little Likeng.

The L. Planet guide on Qinghua: 'probably the least captivating of all the villages in Wuyuan'. It's true, on first inspection, Qinghua ain't too pretty. Then there are the touts....or a gaggle of men who await your arrival with glee.
They have fingers in many bowls of rice..You want a ride somewhere? they can take you, you need rest? they know a place.
Your best bet unless you urgently need their ride somewhere, is to walk away to a quiet area until you get some bearings. Particularly adept at making a disorientating situation ten times worse. They crowd, shove and shout in your face until the only way out in your confused/tired mind is to give in and hand over your money...or block them one..Tempting.

Given its tourist tag, Qinghua happily lacked gimmick and the over-egged twee atmosphere present in the other villages. The responses we have had in the sticks are rarely hostile, a little wary on occasion, but mainly surprise, a kind of bemused curiosity. The babies just burst into tears.

Regardless of our local freak status, most people we've encountered have been incredibly warm and amiable. A recent conversation we had with a globe-trotting Kiwi alighted exactly on this very point. Another survivor of backpacking in Japan, I thought he summed it up very well, saying "the Japanese are friendly because they feel perhaps they should be, but the Chinese are friendly because they want to be".
We can certainly relate to that. The restraint noticeable during our encounters in Japan melts away. Likewise the Confucious-driven indifference experienced many times in South Korea. We have met many Chinese nationals, young and old, during our travels and they were all alike in their eagerness for a chat or a photo. China has been welcoming visitors since the early 70's, with communication resurfacing towards the end of the Mao era but for some here, especially in the rural provinces, international tourists are still few and far between. The people we met were keen to talk, curious to know where you were from, and what you thought about China and it's people. The kids were keen to practise their English and were not shy about coming over, grabbing you and asking for a picture. This usually ends up more like a photoshoot as suddenly more considerably larger lenses appear from nowhere in front of you; chinese tourists taking snaps..

God I love China.....

Thursday, 5 August 2010

'We're American, we don't do stairs!'

The idea of the Great Wall of China being in any way 'secret' frankly borders on the ridiculous, but this tour of the 'secret wall' organised through the Leo Hostel, Beijing aims for a quieter, less commercialised excursion abroad Ancient China's interesting foreign policy.
We were sold on this and the promise of a decent hike along a 10km stretch of partially restored wall.

We're away from Beijing at 7.30am the start of a 2.5hr journey to our destination. It will be longer if traffic is bad - naturally it is.....never attempt a Gt Wall visit on a weekend, as Taggart would say 'muurder'.
After three jerking, cramped hours aboard transport which had known better days, we arrived slightly north of the hills at Badaling. The onboard TV screen; no discernible braking system but miraculously a working television(!!?)had looped documentaries of the Wall's history along the way. This filled in nicely for the youthful guide whose faltering but reasonable grasp of English was, when projected through an exceptionally tinny microphone, indecipherable.

The first look and mexican soundwave of 'ahhhh's' came at tourist-rammed Badaling. This section, restored in full to it's Ming-era glory, is also one of the most heavily photographed - chances are, if you have a print at home, it was snapped here.
I had wondered prior to our visit whether the Wall might be rendered less extraordinary having seen its image a thousand times before on telly, prints etc. Happily though in it's natural and proper context it is a truly marvellous sight, instantly seductive. Hadrian? Blow it out your arse! The Wall peaks and troughs over steep ridge and rolls deep into valley basin over and over far into the horizon. Perfick.

We were dropped roughly 20 minutes west of this busy patch and mini-buses drove us on to the secret wall proper. Incidentally the narrow winding path we took was being resurfaced for better accessibility, the interest for unrestored gen-you-ine wall evidently being on the up! Another tick box for the domestic tourgroup merry-go-round.

A climb of 70 to 80 steps up awaited our arrival, the effect of which led one of our American compadres to holler up 'we're American, we don't do stairs!!' to all round chortles. Gord bless 'em...
Our group numbered 15 peeps and encompassed a diverse rash of nationalities: Germany, France, Scotland, East London;)the U.S and Canada, a walking western wundergroup.

After the agony of the many steps up, we were dismayed to come upon a whole bunch more. Instead of the rock and rubble we imagined, there were instead reams upon reams of wooden steps which lay over their collapsed stone forebears. Falling off the wall here is an all too real hazard! Some of the steeper sections were largely overgrown with triffid-like weeds and wildbush forcing you onto the precipitous edges. The landing space below? A thorny void. NB: flip flops are a big no-no.

As the morning progressed, and the sun got hot (BLOODY HOT) the group gradually splintered into sprinters, pacers and plodders. One guy shot off solo from the start. Quickly nicknamed 'the mentalist', everybody thought him a German (God knows why? Vorsprung durch technik?). When we did eventually catch him up, he was actually a Yankee living and working in China as no surprise here, another arbitrator of ESL! (Like bloody locusts they are!!!:) Sadly he turned out to be a rare monosyllabic specimen and untempted by ours or anybody elses conversation was off again at a strident pace.

Our position teetered somewhere between the sprinters and pacers, not exactly in the doldrums of fitness but still could do better. The cockney boys caught us up midway and kept us entertained with their culinary adventures at the Donghuamen night-market (see earlier blog - Beijing, breath of fresh air?) They sampled the skewered baby scorpion - 'like crisps' they yell in Mitchell-esque vowels. They have brought a flag, (typical Brits, never the first but always harbouring a union jack). Another girl, hailing from Scotland but working in China teaching grad students, filled us in on the Tibetan's predilectation for all things yak.

Our final push down a steep muddy path adjacent to an particularly unnavigable rubble-strewn patch completed a challenging and exhilarating hike - possibly not as far as 10km mind....

Oh one last unexpected gem..LUNCH. Lunch actually sucked arse but everyone perked up when for reasons still unclear, a fist-fight broke out between our guide and the restaurant owner. No animals were harmed but the owner lost his vest. Ahhh..

'Secret wall' is a grrrreat tour if you want Wall without the usual tat and bustle. A worthwhile extravagance. The day cost us 50 quid tops and included transport, guide and lunch..

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Beijing - breath of fresh air??

Our opening comment at the Leo Hostel following our admission of taking the slowboat from Korea was 'Oh! so you're the masochistic variety of backpackers, are you???!'
The person uttering that immortal line is an intensely fat man, a yank who looks as if his
usual mode of travel involves limited use of limb and sinew. I'm feeling a warm glow, he screws his cheeks up amazed we haven't flown in from Seoul.
Fucking flashpacker.

The ferry is to some (fatter-walleted) travellers a last resort, or certainly the least sophisticated mode of transport between countries. You can see their logic, for one it takes a bloody long time - 26 hours on an overnighter. I on the other hand, would argue if you're travelling on a tight budget and you have precious time on your side, the boat is prime. Cheap: 120 quid for the 2 of us, fun and very much an experience in itself; the sunset was magical, worth the fare alone.
We were the only western kids on the boat; basically it was us and 300 touring chinese geriatrics. Strangely enough they were visiting Korea to pick up electrical gadgets and beauty products, boxes of the stuff! Customs was great, when we weren't being gassed by the cabbage-tainted farts from the recent lunch service, our ankles were being hacked off with said boxes.(this early run in with the chinese tour group would prove essential primer later on..)
They were fantastic though, very affable. Having no surviving grandparents, I wanted to adopt the job-lot.

Post-boat, my sea-legs took a little too well, my middle ear was swaying on the crest days after our arrival in Beijing.

A quick warning. Be sure to carry some currency with you over the water. There is nowhere, I repeat NOWHERE to change Pound/Dollar Travs Chqs around Incheon on the Korean side or Tang-gu on the Chinese seaboard. Also just to totally fuck you over, no ATMs. This was the second time we were caught with our troos about our ankles and not a single rooble of exchangable currency in our pockets. The result? A long hot walk from the port to the nearest collective of shops and a lucky hustle with a Travellers Cheque. The two trainee concierge were convinced it was a $100 note we were exchanging for Chinese RMB, we bloody legged it before they could make sure.

So to may be wondering about the title of this blog. Well after the cultural/historical vacuum that was South Korea, catching sight of the towering Zhengyang gate outside Tianenman Square sub station was enough to know we'd hit the motherlode. Hellooo China.

Beijing is a great city in which to start your Sino odyssey. We spent the quickest week here during in which we scooted round some of the more famous in-city sights; Tiananmen, Forbidden City and some of the outer-city sites such as a certain Wall.
Unusually for a capital, there's still an awful lot ancient about it. Beijing has (for now!)retained it's traditional hutong. These are the warren-like narrow alleyways which intersect large parts of the city centre. Get lost off any main road and you'd think you had stepped back in time and furthermore into a different city. Here the Beijingers are happy to take the weight off their feet and gab into the night with their neighbours. You will notice men young and old but mainly rotund in my experience..:)exposing their midriffs in the summer swelt, gambling with cards, dominos or wooden tablets on mah jong tables (a flat, baize covered table). The females gather in groups around low stoops or lounge in decrepit deckchairs and chat. Getting off the tourist trail and amongst life in the hutong is one of Beijing's most pleasurable activities, don't let anyone tell you any different!

A couple of days in we hired bikes, again we used our excellent hostel, the Leo but as the awful Melua woman warbles you won't be stuck. We paid three pounds a day and hared round the centre like loons.

We did Tianenmen. Twice. The paranoia hit us the second visit. All of a sudden you'll become wary of sitting too close to strangers just in case they're memorising key words. Endless security checks in and out of the square, a spirit sucking police prescence and a stark joyless atmosphere overrun with reams of flag-following chinese tour groups. It made me first want to scream then run amok chanting 'Mao, the original ring-head' until arrest and tongue-removal. As OTT as this is, I wouldn't give it too much of your time.

If you like markets, I would eagerly recommend the Donghuamen night market just off Wangfujing's main shopping arcade. Operational between the hours of 5pm to 9pm, the 20+ stalls are an 'ooo', 'ahh' and 'erghhh' gallery very much for the tourists, selling off the wall, unusual snackage for those hungry enough. Most likely to hear: "Sir you like penis?". Least likely to hear: "I'll take one for the road". Treats include: Starfish lollipops, bbq'd sheeps penis and a whole pantheon of creepy-crawly kebabs. Scorpion, silkworm, spider and seahorse(!***!)...
Enjoyably spleen-wrenching.

As to the quality of it's air, the Beijing summer is typified by a sweat-inducing suffocating fog. A heinous combination of ever increasing exhaust fume, intensive industrialisation/manufacturing and seasonal humidity its maker. Hot stormy nights follow hot stuffy days. Four out of the seven we stayed we drifted off to a torrent of water beating the hell out of our tin-pan roof.

Beijing fabulouso... HIGHLIGHTS!!!!
HUTONG!! Lose your bearings and your troubles in the city's lively hutong.
With the thinking that two wheels is better than a footful of blisters. Hire bikes and whizz round Beijing's city centre, no pressure to hum along to Monsieur Distel.
Getting to grips with Chinglish menus: 'the international friend partial to the vegetables' roughly translates as sweet and sour pork with veg. Other dishes we encountered were the sinister 'fries the liver' and my fave 'explodes the stomach'.
Avoiding the armies of domestic tour groups around the big sights. I'm convinced the greatest hazard in Beijing and perhaps all of China is getting mown down by their 'take no prisoners' approach to sightseeing!
Donghuamen Night Market - maybe have your tea beforehand...
Go see the Wall - Nuff' said.
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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Excuse me, what the F**k is this?

The Korean's love many things; cigarettes, canned coffee, raw fish but none so much I believe as Kimchi.
They eat Kimchi as many Brit's do ketchup - plenty of it and served with EVERYTHING. Now it's not that it's not full of spicy boiled cabbage goodness, undoubtably it is. Kimchi is one of those 'only in Asia' dishes that you'll either take to your heart or hate with a passion, the very mention or sight of such will reduce you to bouts of violent shivering and involuntary gurning.
I belonged to the latter category - if purgatory were a restaurant, that restaurant would be Korean and serve up Kimchi in vast unfinishable bowls.

Korean fare is certainly rich in nutrition but personally its not fare to salivate by.

An example or 2 for you.....
Hongeohoe - not a yardtool or lady of ill repute, this is one of Korea's Southwestern speciality dishes. Slices of raw fermented Skate. Short a frying pan and full of flavoursome ammonia, this delectable offering is served up with a thick red chilli derived paste...mmmm

San Nakji...or live baby octopod.
The trick with this dish is to slice off the tentacles and eat right away. The wiggling sensation is a tongue-tickler, down in one is the best bet before the suckers catch onto your epiglottis.

Bibambap - A large bowl of boiled rice with a load of other random slimy garbage underneath. Topped with a raw egg.

Samgyetang - Whole baby poulet broth. Sometimes flavoured with Ginseng. This is better but soft bone marrow and other gibly bits is not my personal favourite cuppa soup.

There are thankfully a number of golden exceptions.
Gimbap, pronounced with a K is glorious as is Korean rice porridge. The porridge is actually a thick comforting(after raw skate....)soup thickened with lots of rice. Comes in lots of tasty flavours, spicy beef, tuna veg, chicken ginseng. Delish.
Gimbap is seaweed wrapped long rolls of rice, similar in look to sushi. They are wrapped with pickled veg, egg and usually some meat, ham etc. Usually eaten as a snack in the morning, they're cheap (50p) filling and healthy.
Two culinary joys discovered tragically late into our Korea sojourn. Gimbap consumption was at outrageous levels just before we left- if I didn't get my 3 long rolls a day, I was cracking skulls...

China looms next, a land topped with hills of egg fried rice, dumplings and steamed meaty buns, come on yoo beauty....

Dog Alley

Monday 24th May- our first day proper in South Korea and yours truly's birthday. What better day to search out that So Ko speciality. Dog.

We're staying in Busan, Korea's bloody HUGE container port in the south. Our first stop of the day was Gupo market in the north of the city, a good place to gain a flavour of the city.

The market is sprawling and busy. An hour passes in the business of peering in cabinets and inspecting bloody chopping boards for evidence. Then quite suddenly we come upon, by chance an unlit portion of covered market. Set away from the main bazaars we can just see light at the bottom end and conclude it must be a short cut back through. It takes seconds to process that our camera-laden prescence is an unwelcome one.

If the previous stalls were a jumble of colour and chatter, this is an alley of shadow curtained beneath a heavy quiet. The quiet is punctuated only by the odd tremulous bark from a far corner. Squinting in the direction of the barks, I can see a dozen shambles, all with pens containing perhaps half a dozen large dogs. Not shabby fleabitten strays but clean healthy looking animals. They lie slumped one on top of the other, a heaped pile of shivering fur and limb. The fear is palpable. As the fattened beast is thought to sense the butcher's purpose so these dogs seem fully conscious of their situation.
The few human inhabitants greet us with stony silence, some sharply turning their heads away gesturing no photo, no photo.
One male trader is particularly aggressive and shouts what I'm certain is not an invitation to tea.

A minute or so later (a long minute) we are back, as if by timewarp to the bright swell of the main market. Everything sounds louder as if our ears had popped back in the alley, the banter and bartering working as a most welcome balm.

That brief visit to the dog-pots of Gupo stuck with us over the next couple of days. It was clear from the beginning of our inadvertent stroll down dog alley that this was one holiday snap the residents don't want publicised. We set off some pretty angry responses amongst the traders and butchers.
More research revealed that Dog or Dogtang(soup) has reputation as more of a backroom dish rather than one served up for Sunday lunch. A sea change fuelled by younger Korean's who see the practice as cruel and antiquated.
The South Korea we have experienced so far is one with modernity fixed firmly in its sights, asthetic is everything. The traders here work within a rapidly disappearing tradition, this is one picture of Korea you won't find on a postcard.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Onsen hopping in Kyushu

From Hiroshima we catch a day bus down the southern coast and then a ferry onto Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. We're on our way to Beppu, a small city nestled cosily between the Sea of Seu and the lush forested mountains of Oita province.
Beppu's one and only (as far as I'm aware) claim to fame is it's proliferation of celebrated onsen. The city and adjacent mountain villages overlie a rich volcanic spring and tourists and locals alike come to bathe in the springs and lap up the health giving benefits.

Onsen bathing is one of Japan's gems, put it on your must do list - you won't regret it....
Finding a mixed spa (if you prefer to take a bath together..) was tricky, most were separate. BUT you can hire private rotemburo (open air baths) for relatively little yen, if you're unsure 'bout exposing your bits to all and sundry of your own sex.
As with most things in Japan, there are a few golden rules.
1. You bathe in your birthday suit.
2. You wash before you bathe but more about this in a sec.

The first we tried was hidden up in the Myoban hills, the so-called 'hidden caves' (anyone who makes it up there without gagging surely has iron-clad nostrils. The springs radiate fumes of sulphur as a waste deposit, the aroma of rotten eggs was INTENSE)
Through the linen curtains and safely ensconced in your designated changing area, strip off and head for the washing area. Here a thorough scrub is called for. Any mingers diving straight for the spring unwashed will be swiftly reprimanded and sent back to the washing area. I tried my best to look like I was a pro and knew what the hell I was supposed to be doing but that's not all that easy when there's a coven of ancient Japanese ladies observing your every move as well as your milky bits.
Resisting the temptation to flee, I stuck it out, washed and then wandered casually into the murky green water, and then dived straight back out! I learnt a valuable lesson that day, that lesson being kids not to jump straight into lava heated water.
N.B once you are acclimatised, the hardest part is definitely prising yourself back out.
If you have triumphantly maintained a mask of casual nonchalence during your bathing experience then well done. You are on your way to a higher better place.

I know it'll come as a shock but there can be downsides to naked public bathing. Andrew had to sit through one guy's naked sauna exercises. Apparently the thigh squat was used to devastating effect. Retinal scarring aside, it's all good.

Recapping still..Black Rain, Hiroshima

It's grey, grim and raining, it's also early, 6am to be precise. A goddam ungodly hour when the only sleep has been snatched between toilet pitstops and the strange twinkly musak heralding our arrival into another anonymous sprawl of town.

The packs always feel double the weight when you're knackered and this morning the shoulder straps are digging down something viscious. With the main pack on my back and smaller day sack clipped on my front, I'm balanced in a fashion although completely helpless. Should any early bird mugger chance it, aside from a sumo style belly bounce, I am a sitting duck.

The city itself is not quite what we had expected, I had read it described as vibrant and modern, yet the view is row after row of drab concrete blocks set on a grid - a city built around the cars which tear past us on wide four lane boulevards. There is little character or charm for the eye to warm to and zero sense of history as you might expect.

Our initial plan last night as we caught the night bus from Kyoto was 'balls to sleeping on the bus, we'll grab some kip in the park tomorrow' (the sun was shining in Kyoto).
The park was a puddle so we made a run instead for the Hiroshima Memorial Centre, really our primary reason for visiting the city. If you are planning a trip to Japan, definitely book time out to visit this museum. It takes around half a day t
o see the full exhibition and the admission is cheaper than a can of coke, but 50p!

As a history lesson, the focus centres on Hiroshima's history as an army stronghold, it's selection as a target and the technology and development of the A bomb. There are some strange omissions, the attack on Pearl Harbour and Japan's role and purpose in WW2 are not covered at all.

More successful was the poignant retelling of events on that day in August 1945 and the reframing of the bombing as THE modern tragedy. One that shows the mindnumbing potential for total destruction, a nuclear war would inevitably bring about.
Winter is hard already, a nuclear winter is frankly the stuff of nightmares.
There were many mementoes of those who perished, some leaving behind just a lunch box still holding its incinerated contents to signify its owners passing.
The most harrowing for me were the wristwatches, stopped dead at the time of impact - 8.15am, recording in macabre fashion the moment old Hiroshima disappeared forever.

Leaving the museum, the concrete eyesores and car ridden streets are transformed into visceral reminders of a once beautiful city razed until the land and its people were nothing but radiation and char.
As the years go by, and slowly the Hibukusha (those who survived) die one by one, the bombing becomes a distant memory. The museum seeks to keep it firmly in the modern eye, forefront in the nuclear discussion.

Visit Hiroshima if only to remind yourself of the fragility of life, the power of choice and the chance, the hope for a better way ahead.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Japanese scran...

Tokyo, it's no cheap y'ken...first few days were a blur of handing cash over and not getting much back in return, Maccy Ds filled in and Mister Donut was a lifesaver (endless free top ups of cawfeee).

We did manage a few decent feasts, the first being recommended to us by the hostel owner. Cool little place west of Nishi Kawaguchi station. This was Chinese cuisine with a Japo spin, we got a big bowl of noodles or Ramen. Essentially a thin soy-flavoured broth, the standard has a mass of soft glutinous noodles lurking in the bottom and shoots, sprouts and greens on the top...this is bog standard food, peasants food but fooking amazing....exactly what you need to cut through jet lag and a belly that doesnt know which planet it's on, never mind time zone. That and the stick of meat (no idea what beast this came off, it was fatty and V tasty)coated in a seriously hot chilli marinade was IMMENSE....

Chopsticks...early attempts laughable usually ending up which whichever proprieter throwing us forks out of pity, however am getting along preety peachy now!! although my hand will time to time revert to wanting a fork..damn u hand!
The culture in Tokyo is very much eat and go, the locals don't stick around to munch.
It was here we found the vending machine ristorante. We only tried one (they're cheap and well....) you order and pay from a vending machine inside the lobby, 5 minutes later foods up, it's not the best but inexpensive and will keep you from starving or living out of KFC....

Breakfast was included at the JGH:))this is Japanese brekkie proper. Veggie omelette, pickled fruits and veg(they eat loads of this!!)rice and miso soup. I've never eaten rice for brek before but it's dead good marra..The cook at JGH, Koiory speaks great English having gone to uni in Hawaii and explains the expense of Tokyo and Japan is in part down to overpopulation, 20 million alone in the centre of Tokyo! She's an original from actual Tokyo but left with the lightening quick changes taking place there, 'too much change, too fast, too many people'.

Kyoto: We found a hidden treasure at the far end of the Ponto Cho, IR IR, a small canteen with rainbow lanterns wavering outside. This place on first impressions is a little down at heel compared with the upmarket eateries on the actual Ponto, but make no mistake, it's the dogs...
We ate twice here, the first on Drew's birthday..we'd supped a few cans by the riverside(slice of budget romance there for ya...;))and headed up for some bevy blotters. Laid out like a american diner, there's 3 tables by the window(great view of the river) and a long bar set directly in front of the stoves. We recommend the bar! This is seriously fast food... from ordering to the dish sat steaming up your spectacles, you get the best view in the house, watching the chefs cook it...we had on the first occasion
Dumplings, Tempura prawn, Baked prawn in batter with chilli...
and on the second..
Fried noodles with veg, egg and prawn, BBQ'd mutton and rice....AW'SOME..
They have an English menu but no English themselves, the best and perfectly acceptable way to order is to check out your neighbours dish and point out that that's the one you'd like....

The only sushi we had in Japan was from the supermarket(for shame..) but not an all bad compromise, it's still pretty good and CHEAP!!
The best rice we tried was wrapped in bamboo with meat and steamed over a volcanic hot spring, this was also the place of the steamed/smoked egg(!!)a bit strange yes, but if you can deal with hot hard boiled egg it's good and real healthy...

Monday, 24 May 2010

Let me recap.....

Christ I need to update this more often!!
South Korea is the second destination in Northern Asia for us, have spent the last 12 days in Japan, bit whistle-stop admittedly considering most of the other travellers we encountered were giving the land of the rising sun at least a month(or six for one canadian guy we bumped into)....yep we gave it 12 days(sorry Japan, you were just toooooo damn expensive!)our budget is slim, 20 english pounds a day slim, and anyone who knows Japan knows 20quid buys you pretty much sweet F.A..

Tokyo was our first stop, and the JGH hostel, great little hostel/shack located in the northern suburb of Nishi Kawaguchi. This interesting mash of bamboo, melamine and concrete was our first 'home'. Toshi, the owner, speaks some English (which not many Japanese warned) and extended us a very friendly welcome; we're appreciative through the blur of jet lag and backpack weariness. Transport is where most of your cash will go in Tokyo, we found this getting to and fro our budget hostel, it's definitely worth staying closer to the centre and having the option of walking between sights.

Tokyo didnt get close to the sensual effect we experienced in India earlier this year, that country being akin to a bash-hammer on every level. Tokyo is perhaps too similar to home with relation to the lifestyle, hygiene etc, but the people are surprising in quieter ways. Those we have encountered are very polite, reserved but above all really affable and interested. You get a sense of quiet restrain running through life here. There are extremes sure, the Harajuku girls for one example.

Fashion seems to be a way of channeling, Tokyo fashion, (suburbs of Shinjuba and Harajuku for the crazy shit) is incredible...innate for most we saw, loads of tiny skirts and knee high socks as you might expect if you watch any anime, blazers, biker boots, they mix it HATS, they love hats, boaters must be big this season coz all the boys and girls had them on....the girls all wear their hair in the top knot with big fringe..ace..

The Beetle....

Sunday 23rd May.....
So the aim was to catch a night ferry from Fukuoka, Japan and arrive in Busan, S Korea with the Sun but our hope of transport/cheapo accomm was not to be..we ended up taking the Beetle which is less a bug more a ferry on rollerblades. From the off i was ill at ease, the situation not at all helped by the onboard televisions proudly showing the oversized jet ski skimming away at high speed(considering I love travelling, I'm rubbish at the actual travelling).

After our earlier disappointment of the night ferry(basically there isn't one)we managed to cadge the last two seats on the Beetle. This is the fastest transportation for the japan-korea hop, 3 hours!! We enter South Korea with no money and nowhere to stay....

Monday, 10 May 2010


Ate last bacon and egg sandwich this morning, last bath(im officially a bucket gal from this moment on)for quite some it is northerly winds are on the way!!! think we may js get away..