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Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

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All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

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10 Years

Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.

I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.

In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.

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In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”

China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.

After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.

China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”

But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.

David with Mount Fuji and Ice Cream

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Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

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Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

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Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

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Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

Backwaters north of Varkala
The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

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Confusing Colonialism in Cochin

I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.

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Much has changed, but the sunset would have been just as beautiful centuries ago.

Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.

One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.

My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India…  or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems

After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.

On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.

The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.

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At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.

As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.

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On the Tiger Trail – Periyar National Park

From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.

Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.

I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.

The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.

A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.

The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.

“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”

I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?

I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?

It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.

We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.

That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.

By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.

The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.

“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.

Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.

On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.

I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.

I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.

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Retreating to the Hill Stations – Kodaikanal and Munnar

During the long colonial period, the various Europeans who lived in India found the summer heat oppressive and escaped to what they called “hill stations” – areas of comparatively cool climates up in the mountains. There are hill stations dotted all over India, and here in the south is one of the most famous, Kodaikanal. Although it is winter now, the more than thirty degree heat at sea level is oppressive enough, and I was eager to venture into the highlands for some decidedly cooler weather. More than that, however, I was eager to escape the crowded, polluted cities that, although they yielded much in the way of culture, were reminding me a bit too much of China.

My trip to Kodaikanal involved another agonizing series of bus rides. On the map, only a little over seventy kilometers separated my destination from Madurai, but the journey took nearly six hours as we wound slowly up perilous roads towards the plateau where Kodaikanal is located. When I arrived, I immediately felt the difference in the pleasantly cool air, and I barely broke a sweat on the thirty minute walk to my hotel.

Now that my feet were feeling better, I soon ventured out on my first hike. A very short walk through scenic – almost European – little villages on winding country roads brought me to a small waterfall in the middle of a forest. I was a little disappointed that it only took fifteen minutes to get there. After all those hellish bus rides, my sense of distance and time had evidently become completely warped.

There was little to see at the waterfall except for piles of trash other tourists had kindly deposited, but there was a group of college kids from Coimbatore who seemed eager to talk with me after I broke the silence by saying hello. Like so many people I’d met in India, they were very friendly and curious about life in other countries. They peppered me with dozens of questions until I turned the tables by asking them about themselves and their lives.

When I asked what they studied, one of them said, “What do you think? We study computer engineering like everyone else in India. Through a stone in this country and you’ll hit a computer engineer.” I hadn’t wanted to perpetuate any stereotypes, but a significant number of the people I’d met in India were indeed computer engineers.

When I asked for advice on where I could travel, they were surprisingly downbeat about their homeland. “India is boring to us. How many temples have you seen already? Too many. That’s all there is to see here – temples and more temples. And everywhere you go, there are so many people pushing and shoving to get the best selfie.”

We talked for about fifteen minutes and I was honestly quite impressed by how negative they were about India. Back in China, if you meet anyone, they’ll ask you the same series of annoying questions that always work up to the big one: “What do you like most about China?” Then they’ll tell you what they like best, which is usually one of the following:

  • The food, which is the best in the whole world
  • The culture, which is the best (and oldest) in the whole world
  • Their president, who is the best in the whole world

I suppose, being from Scotland, I have an innate distrust for anyone who lacks a capacity for self-deprecation.

Over the next two days, I continued to hike further and further from my hotel into the mountains surrounding the little tourist town of Kodaikanal. My first long hike began the next morning as I ventured west, past a number of little churches (India is much more Christian than I expected) and away from the main roads into thicker forests along progressively smaller paths. Every now and then, I would see a small group of people – usually college students – hiking and we would talk for a while before parting ways, but mostly it was peaceful. Sometimes I would see monkeys come down from the trees, and a few interesting birds. But there wasn’t much of a view as there were clouds all around. This just made the cool air even colder and more refreshing.

The further I walked, the quieter it became. I was delighted. Although India had offered up fantastic rewards, the price for these had been the crowds and traffic. Out here, I could hear only the birds and monkeys. But then another sound drifted through the forest. It was a sound that filled me with a sense of dread – the music of Jack Johnson. He is to tourist douchebags what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg movies. Soon I reached a small village of homestays and guest houses all filled with young foreign tourists. As I appeared, it seemed as though they all turned and looked at me and my Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt with disgust. They all had dreadlocks and nose piercings and wore Indian clothes probably made from organic cotton. The little shops that lined the narrow dirt street all advertised avocado toast.

What was this place? I wondered. I had come so far into the middle of nowhere and stumbled into some kind of hipster hell. If I wanted this kind of crap, I would have gone to Goa instead. I kept walking and soon disappeared down a tiny hiking trail that mercifully took me away from the little lost commune of assholes. I soon began to feel more comfortable. The trail led through the forest and down the side of a mountain. Occasionally, there were old men and women selling water and crisps, but mostly it was once again just me and my thoughts.

Sometimes I stopped at interesting or peaceful places but there was never much of a view because of the clouds. Occasionally they would part just enough to remind me that there was a world outside the mountain, but for the most part it looked like an old Japanese painting – more white space than actual paint. Once I stumbled upon a gaur – also known as the Indian bison. It is a dangerous but rare animal which inhabits these hills. Absolutely massive, with a large hump on its head, it looks menacing from any distance. However, I was determined to get a photo and attempted to get close to the great beast. I was confident that it would not charge me as I am quite familiar with photographing supposedly dangerous animals. It is true what they say – it is man who is the most dangerous animal. When you show other animals respect, they seldom pose any threat.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that there was a man nearby, and he chucked a rock at the gaur to scare it out of his path. The gaur rushed towards me as I dived out of the way. Thankfully, I was not gored, nor did I fall to death off the side of the mountain. But nor did I get my photo. I ran down the mountainside after the terrified animal, but it was like chasing bigfoot through the redwoods – I ended up with nothing but blurred shots of fur and trees.

*

The next day, I set out on another long hike through the hills, following a circular route that appeared on a map to be a pleasant walk in the forest. Unfortunately, I had misread my map and it was a road rather than a path that I walked along. I was also unaware that it was Independence Day and so any time I passed anything of even the faintest interest, it was obscured by twenty tour buses filled with loud Indians. Every viewpoint, every cave, and every interesting looking tree had a few hundred people crowded around. Of course, when my white face passed by, each person would turn and attempt to engage me in conversation, and then ask politely for a selfie.

“Where are you coming from, my friend?”

“Scotland.”

“Oh yes, very good police.”

I heard that about a dozen times over the course of the day. It finally dawned on me that they were referred to Scotland Yard, which is of course located in London.

When I returned to the town after twenty-five kilometers of interrupted hiking, it was to a new hotel. The first one, which was rather pleasant, had cast my out after my two night booking expired, and I was forced into a “budget hotel” that was actually far more expensive than any I’d previously stayed in. Whenever I inquired about an amenity – WiFi, hot water, bed sheets – the owner would smile and say, “No, sir. This is just a budget hotel.” I was amazed my room had a roof over it. The hotel was rather inconveniently located opposite the bus station, and all night I was treated to the loud honking that the drivers felt was necessary open entering or exiting the station, or indeed even just while staying parked. At five in the morning, I was awoken again by the sound of two Indians having a friendly conversation on the stairs outside my room. Just like the Chinese, Indians sometimes feel it is necessary to shout at the top of their voice when speaking to someone just a few feet away.

When morning came, it brought even more noise and I quickly checked out of the hotel and boarded a mini-bus for another hill station, Munnar. Located in the neighboring province of Kerala, Munnar sounded like it was more of the same – a cool, somewhat quiet retreat in the mountains. As I was sick to death of public transport, I opted for the far more expensive option of a minibus. I couldn’t bear the thought of another unnecessarily long and cramped journey.

Unfortunately, the owner of the minibus (which was actually just a large family car) had booked seven people into a car which could only hold six at most. My fellow passengers argued vociferously with him as I kept quiet. There were a few reasons for my silence. First and foremost, out of seven people, I was the only person travelling alone and therefore the most likely to be kicked out of the car. Second, I had quietly snuck into the passenger seat when the space issue first arose, and I didn’t want to give it up. And third, I am a coward and quite content to put up with unreasonable situations rather than confront anyone about the matter.

I watched in awe as an English radiologist calmly but forcefully refused to go anywhere in such a crowded vehicle, and demanded a refund if nothing was done about it. In the end, the owner backed down and two people were switched to another car. I was impressed and relieved in equal measure. We hit the road with five people in the car and plenty of legroom.

The bus ride up the mountain had been long and painful, but the ride down was entirely different. It was terrifying. I immediately began to regret sneaking into the front seat. The driver took the hairpin corners at breakneck speed, even though one wrong move would have sent us hundreds of meters down the side of the mountain. In true Indian style, he would approach a slower vehicle and beep his horn before blindly overtaking. If another car came in the other direction, it didn’t matter. Indians seem to think that the horn bestows magical powers on them. It is, in fact, a quirk of drivers all across Asia, and something that probably explains the horrendous number of deaths from car accidents across this bizarre continent.

Even though Kodaikanal and Munnar are just fifty kilometers apart, the route down one mountain and up another extends this journey so far that it took us an incredible six hours to reach our destination. Six hours of utterly reckless driving to the sound of Indian love ballads that came from the car radio. The views were probably stunning from beginning to end, but I spent most of my journey with my hands over my eyes or my head between my knees, alternating between blind terror and carsickness.

When we arrived in Munnar, I felt that my ordeal was over. I stumbled out of the car and went out to find a hotel. It seemed that every second building in Munnar was a hotel, guesthouse, or homestay. How hard could it be to find somewhere to sleep?

Four hours later, after trekking from one end of town to the other and back several times, I finally found a small and grossly overpriced hotel that had one available room. It was only double the price of the next most expensive place I’d previously stayed but by this point, even if the manager had asked me for a kidney, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I wanted to go to bed, not because I was tired but because I wanted the day to end.

Using the hotel’s mediocre WiFi, I arranged a better hotel for the following day. It was highly rated online, located in the quiet hills just outside of town, and marked down to well within my budget. I was delighted. The next morning, I set out for a short hike to some nearby tea fields and reveled in the beauty of the artificially manipulated landscape. It was a stunning sea of green – and best of all, I somehow stumbled into an area with no other people nearby so I could sit and enjoy it all in peace. Things were looking up for my stay in Munnar.

Irritatingly, when I returned to my hotel to pack my things and go, just a half hour before I was due to check in at the new hotel, I received an e-mail saying that they could no longer honor my booking. Those bastards, I said to myself. Those complete and utter bastards. I looked again online and could find absolutely nothing comparable. In the twelve hours since I’d booked, almost everything else had been taken. Instead, I booked a modest room in town and pledged to get the hell out of Munnar the next morning. Beautiful tea fields or not, Munnar could get fucked.

I angrily shoved my things into my backpack and set off on the long walk back through town to the southern end of Munnar, where my hotel was located. When I arrived, I found that my backpack hadn’t been fastened properly and I’d left a trail of clothes stretching two kilometers back along the dusty road. It was, as they say, one of those days.

After confusing the locals by slowly winding back through town, picking up dirty socks and underpants off the filthy roadside, I hunted down a small hiking trail near my hotel and climbed up through the tea fields to the top of a large mountain. It was a long climb, but I had a lot of pent up anger to get out, and the exertion felt good. When I reached the top, I was inside a cloud and there was a gentle breeze. All around me the scenery was beautiful – just the outline of the mountains were visible through the haze. From down below, you could just hear the sound of cars leaving Munnar as the Independence Day holiday drew to an end. But I didn’t care about what was down below anymore. I spent an hour climbing large boulders and scanning the landscape, before just sitting on a big rock and letting all the stress melt away in the wind.

Here’s the thing about travelling in India – it’s not easy, but you should never expect that it would be. If you want a calm, relaxing holiday in a lovely environment, there are countless places in the world to do it. And if you really want to see the best of India and avoid all the shit, you could probably pay for that, too. Instead, some of us travel the hard way in search of something we don’t even know. We chuck some things in a backpack, head for the rickety old local bus, and stay in roach-infested hotels. If you let it, this can all get you down pretty badly. But you need to learn how to rise above it, and when you do, what you find is that you emerge into a better world than anyone else could see. In Thanjavur I had witnessed a busload of fat Americans half-heartedly sticking their iPhones in the direction of incredible carvings and snapping a photo without even taking a look at what was there. They had probably seen so many temples and other historical locations that day that Brihadeshwara meant nothing to them except maybe a few likes on Facebook and Instagram. My time in India had been challenging, but when I look back on it, I will remember the highlights all the more for the effort I put into getting there.

Posted in travel

Madurai

After seeing the stunning Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, I hopped on another bus, this time headed for Madurai – a larger city to the southwest. The journey was not as bad as the one from Puducherry to Thanjavur, but it wasn’t great, and I was already growing weary of public transport in India. I amused myself along the route by looking at the various traffic signs (all of which were in English, strangely) that warned drivers not to drink and drive. They generally fell into three categories:

  1. Bad puns: “Safety on road is safe tea at home”
  2. Bad rhymes: “Drink whisky, Drive risky”
  3. Bad English: “Don’t drink, Don’t drive”

At Madurai, the bus dropped me outside the city and I reluctantly took a rickshaw into town. The driver offered to show me some hotels, and again I reluctantly accepted, as I hadn’t booked anything in advance.

The first place we looked at was on the sixth floor of an ugly building on a narrow street that was mostly used as a toilet by rickshaw drivers. The room itself had clearly just been vacated, and there were empty crisp packets lying everywhere, and crumbs all over the bed. The young man who showed me the room casually brushed some of the crumbs off the bed and gestured at the room as if to say, “Ta-Da! Isn’t it wonderful?” I turned and left without saying a word.

The next place was a little better, and I took it rather than spend the rest of my day looking at ugly hotel rooms. I then went out to explore the city on foot, walking around the large Meenakshi Temple in the middle of the city. They didn’t allow cameras inside and I didn’t trust leaving my new Nikon at the front desk, so I walked around and admired the building from the outside. To be honest, it was nothing special after Brihadeshwara. In fact, the whole city seemed rather drab and dusty, not to mention absolutely filthy. Still, I was determined to avoid getting on another bus and so, when I finally got online, I found a hostel a few kilometers to the east and the following morning I made my way to the Lost Hostel, in the west of the city.

Although there was even less to see in the west of Madurai, I paid for two nights and planned on resting during my second day. After too much walking, I had huge and painful blisters on my feet, and a day spent reading was just what the doctor ordered.

However, I’m no good at resting and so by nightfall I’d already walked right back into the city for another look at the temple. Meenakshi Temple may not have looked very impressive from the outside, but I’d heard that inside it was spectacular. And I had not been misled.

In the late evening, when most of the tourists had vanished, I ventured inside what turned out to be a giant Hindu temple. It was the first time in my life that a religious building caused me to feel absolutely overwhelmed. In the first section of the temple that I entered, incredibly high ceilings and huge, carved pillars took my breath away. Then, venturing further inside, I saw an area with more than a thousand uniquely carved pillars and other statues of Ganesh, Krishna, and Shiva. Further inside, the temple was even more impressive, with every surface covered with some ancient inscription or depiction of a deity, from tiny and barely noticeable to vast and powerful. Some even seemed to come alive as you looked at them. The air was thick with the smell of incense and burning ghee, all of which actually smelled a lot like ground cloves. I could, for the first time in my life, actually understand the religious mind for a few moments. I could hardly imagine the effect it would all have had on visitors long ago, before they’d installed electric lights and bright signs.

The reason I’d come to visit in the evening was that there was a ceremony that supposedly happened around eight o’clock each day. The temple is devoted to Meenakshi, the wife of Shiva. In the inner sanctum of the temple lies a statue of the Lord Shiva that is removed each night and led by a parade of chanting monks and pilgrims to the temple of Meenakshi. All this is done by flaming torch-light and in a flurry of wild music, and the people go into a frenzy. I waited for hours to see it as all the other tourists left, but around ten o’clock it began with the ringing of a bell, and then people were following the statue to its resting place for the night. It was an incredible sight to behold.

The following morning, when I left Madurai, I felt glad that I’d made the effort to revisit the Meenakshi Temple and wait so long for the ceremony to begin. It had been another fascinating insight into Hindu culture.

Posted in Photography, travel

Brihadishwara Temple, Thanjavur

After just an evening in Pondicherry, I was happy to move on to my next destination – Thanjavur. Located about 150km southwest, it is one of the most important destinations in Southern India because of its temple, Brihadishwara, which is also appropriately known as “Big Temple.” Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola Kingdom, and was popular also with subsequent rulers in Indian history.

From Pondicherry bus station, I managed to get a bus to Chidampuram, and then onwards to Thanjavur. The journey was, honestly, quite difficult. The public bus was crowded and hot, and the noise from the constant sounding of the driver’s horn was difficult to tolerate. Indians are as bad at driving as people are in neighboring countries, and will overtake straight into oncoming traffic with absolutely no thought to the consequences.

After what seemed like an eternity, but what was actually more like six hours, the bus arrived in Thanjavur, and on the way in I could already see the history of the city. Ancient walls merged with slightly less ancient bus stops and shops. Thanjavur is interesting in that way, yet it is also a typical modern Indian town – busy, dusty, dirty. I stepped off the bus and went looking for a hotel. They weren’t in short supply but it did take a while to find a suitable one, which I did eventually on the main drag.

After checking in, I went out to see the “Big Temple” as I’d heard it was best to see when the sun was going down. I raced to get there but it was crowded and checking my shoes at the entrance took some time, so by the time I arrived, I had missed the sunset by a few minutes. Still, the sky was red and it cast a beautiful red light on the already impressive stonework. I managed to plug in the wrong settings to my new camera and so quite a few potentially good photos turned out not so great.

I stuck around the temple until well after dark, taking in the atmosphere. I was amazed how many people kept arriving. From all over India, folks in all sorts of traditional dress appeared. Most of them lined up to go into the main temple itself, while others prayed to the giant cow statue, or the smaller cow statues, and some just sat and talked with their families. Many lit candles or incense, and it felt incredible to stand in the middle of it all and just watch.

In the morning, I returned again. I wanted to take some better photos and to see the temple in the light of day. The magic of the previous night had vanished, but it was now easier to see the intricate designs on the temple walls.

After spending another hour and a half looking around Brihadishwara, I took a brief walk around the rest of Thanjavur and then jumped on another bus, this time heading further south to Madurai.

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Posted in travel

Auroville and Pondicherry

After spending a day in Mamallapuram (or is it Mahabliapuram? – ah yes, both are correct), I didn’t feel like there was much need to stay longer and instead headed out down the coast to Pondicherry, a small city that was once a French colony. I booked a hostel online that was actually outside of Pondicherry itself – a little to the north in a place called Auroville. I’d heard other backpackers talking about Auroville and thought it might be quieter and more pleasant than central Pondicherry, so it sounded fine to me. I walked to the bus stop on the edge of town, expecting to take the ECR south but after five minutes a car pulled up and offered to take me for the same price as the bus – and for an extra 100 rupees to take me to the hostel in Auroville. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the extra 100 was a great deal, as normally cars and rickshaws will charge closer to 400 or even 500 for just the last few kilometers of the journey. I had finally gotten a good deal on transportation in India!

It turned out that the Blue Lotus Hostel was rather hard to find, but we got there eventually and I checked in. The proprietor was a friendly Spanish man called Ruben and the guests were equally chilled out backpacker-types. I felt immediately at home there. The Blue Lotus doesn’t have much around it, but that’s the appeal. There are a set of bicycles that you can use for free, a few bits of gym equipment, a couple of hammocks in the trees, plenty of friendly cats and dogs roaming the property, and a badminton court marked out in the dirt. At night, far from any other lights, you can see many stars, and the only sounds are birds and other animals in the trees. It was a welcome relief from the big city.

Starry sky
My attempt at photographing the night sky with my D5600.

With one of my new roommates, I set out on a bicycle to explore the surrounding area. Auroville is an experimental hippie commune of sorts. It was founded in the 1960s by people from more than a hundred countries, under the guidance of a woman they called The Mother. (Yes, I realize it sounds a lot like a cult, but it’s not.) Their aim, in-keeping with true sixties idealism, was to create a near utopian society where race and gender and religion were no reason to discriminate against one another. Cycling around, you can see it is still peaceful and tolerant, and populated by mostly elderly hippies. There aren’t many businesses, but those that exist sell “healing” crystals and organic/ vegan/ gluten-free foods. In the middle of it all there is a large golden sphere, called the Matrimandir, in which the locals “concentrate” (I’m told that mediation is a misinterpretation of its actual purpose). I didn’t get a chance to look inside because it was booked up for days, but instead went to the viewing area and admired the sphere. Actually, I was more interested in the huge banyan trees that grew all around. Banyans are unique in that they grow roots down from their branches to form new trunks that support the tree, allowing one tree to grow tens of meters in diameter.

In the evening, I lay in a hammock and watched the stars come out, and the next day I explored the area on my own. I wandered off into the neighbouring villages to look at some temples and see what life was like. That evening, by strange coincidence, two people I’d met at Zostel Chennai showed up at Blue Lotus and we talked into the evening.

*

After two nights at Blue Lotus, I decided to push onward. It would be too easy to stick around in a quiet environment like that, but I came to India to explore, and my idea was to go further south before heading north again through Kerala. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it, so I booked another hostel, this time in Pondicherry itself, and then walked there.

Yes, I said walked.

15km in blistering heat.

Stupid me.

Anyway, I arrived more less alive and well, and checked in to the Valentine Hostel in the heart of Pondi (as some call it). Although I could easily have just gone to sleep, I set out to explore the city before moving on the next morning. First stop: Pondicherry Botanical Gardens.

I have no photos from the Botanical Gardens because they were so terribly disappointing that I never at any stage felt the need to take my camera out and point it anywhere. There was simply nothing to see. Founded more than a hundred years earlier, they have not been cared for much recently. People still work there, but what work they do aside from collecting tickets is a mystery. Most of the park is overrun by weeds and all the greenhouses and glass houses are closed and don’t look like they’ve been open in a long time. Still, it is the only green space in the whole town and the entry fee was very cheap.

Pondicherry beachfront

Next, I wandered through town to a bookshop and bought some reading material, then headed for the beach area. Pondicherry is often marketed as a French colonial town but really the only sign of that is in the street names – everything is “Rue” rather than “Road”. There are no pavements and so walking the busy streets is rather treacherous, but that’s true in much of India (and Asia, generally). I worked my way to the coast and saw the Mahatma Gandhi statue, then had a bite to eat from the only food truck I have seen in this country, which served a fantastic paneer tikka katti (although, to be fair, absolutely everything I’ve eaten in India has been fantastic).

DSW_0439
Schoolboys cycling past Mahatma Gandhi statue.

My next challenge was finding a route south to Thanajur and then Madurai…