Posted in travel

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.

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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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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…

Posted in travel

Chennai and Mamallapuram

The route from China to India was a long one, departing my home on Saturday lunchtime and arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning. However, an extended layover in Kuala Lumpur gave me time to get reacquainted with one of my favourite cities. I took a stroll in Chinatown and then explored the botanic gardens. About six or seven years ago I saw a water monitor eating a large cat there, but this time the scene was somewhat different, with a large number of families holidaying.

When I arrived in Chennai, I made my way to Zostel, my hostel in the middle of the city. In the morning, I took a walk towards the beach. Having walked some twenty-five kilometers in Malaysia the previous day, I soon became tired and eventually relented at the prompting of one of many rickshaw drivers. “I’ll take you around the city and show you everything for just one hundred rupees,” he promised.

Needless to say, he showed me almost nothing and when I got back to my hostel later in the day, I was thoroughly pissed off. Chennai is not really much of a tourist city. It is ugly and crowded and dirty. But I hadn’t expected much, and would have been fine exploring on foot. I had walked by myself through some slums and met friendly and interesting people. Instead, I was fleeced by a dishonest rickshaw driver.

Fortunately, in the evening I made some good friends among the other tourists staying at my hostel, and we stayed up late sitting on the roof of the hostel, listening to music and being devoured by mosquitoes. They all said they were heading in roughly the same direction as me, but different times, and perhaps we will meet again down the road.

In the morning I was ripped off by another rickshaw driver en route to finding a bus south. (In fact, from now on, just assume that any reference to rickshaws involved getting ripped-off.) I arrived at a random roadside and fortunately a bus soon came by and I was on board, flying south along the East Coast Road (ECR). Amazingly, the bus was totally empty except for me – not what I had expected of travel in India. When I got off, the driver asked for 200 rupees, which was more than double what I had been told. Oh well… This was (and continues to be) a recurring theme.

My destination was Mamallapuram (which is just one of the spellings for this hard-to-pronounce place), a tourist hot-spot fifty kilometers south of Chennai. It is famous for an old temple and some Hindu carvings. I was taken by my rickshaw driver to a run-down guesthouse near the beach, and then set out to look around. The beach was not exactly pleasant but the Shore Temple, which is Mamallapuram’s most famous attraction, was really quite nice. It dates back to about 700 AD and was once a part of a chain of similar pagoda-shaped structures that may have acted as navigation aids. Now the Shore Temple is all that remains. It is surrounded by statues of cows (which are famously revered by Hindus) and entrance for foreign tourists is 500 rupees, which is rather steep given that there’s not a great deal to actually see or do there.

In the late afternoon, after a bit of rest back at my guesthouse, I went on another walk, this time to the park that lies west of the main town. Here, the main attraction is known as Krishna’s Butterball – a giant rock that appears to be precariously balanced on a slope, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The area around it was so crowded with people that it was actually not very interesting, but the park itself was filled with old Hindu carvings. The sandstone had been carved into cave-temples and other structures, including a large relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. It is one of the biggest bas-reliefs anywhere in the world, and stands right next to a busy intersection.

While in the park, I was approached by a shy young man who asked in broken English for a selfie with me. I agreed and suddenly a queue formed of some seventy or eighty Indians all asking for selfies. It was bizarre. In China, people always point at me and take photos, and very occasionally someone will ask for a selfie. However, there are very few foreigners in China, and here there were many white people. Granted, I was the only white person in the park… but still, it was a surprise. Most of the people were in family groups and appeared quite poor. Some of them, particularly those with children, wanted me to take their photo with my camera, even though they didn’t have e-mail addresses or social media accounts for me to send the picture on. Later, a boy asked if I was working with a Scottish newspaper, and it occurred to me that perhaps word had gone around the park that I was some sort of journalist and these people wanted their picture in a foreign newspaper.

The late afternoon and early evening I spent in the park more than made up for all the scams and rip-offs I’d experienced everywhere else. It reaffirmed what I had previously hoped to be true – that the people in the tourist industry were unscrupulous vultures, but the average Indian was friendly and decent.

The next morning I set off for Auroville, outside Pondicherry, a few hours to the south. I’ll post more in a few days.

Posted in Photography

A Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival as it’s also known) is pretty famous all around the world. If people know one thing about it, though, it’s that the Chinese celebrate New Year in late January… or sometimes even February. That’s because they follow the lunar calendar, whereas most of the world goes by the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese acknowledge the Gregorian calendar through much of their daily life, but when it comes to celebrating New Year, they are understandably traditional and stick the the old ways. As such, New Year’s Eve is a bit of a dull affair in the Middle Kingdom.

Last weekend I travelled with my girlfriend to her father’s house near Hefei. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of New Year celebrations but when everyone went home at seven o’clock and her dad headed to bed about an hour later, I got the impression that it wasn’t exactly going to be like Hogmanay back in Scotland. Oh well. Who needs late nights and hangovers anyway? I’ve seen enough New Years not to care that much any more.

After a rather boring New Year’s Eve, we took off in the morning for the countryside. Vera had told me many times about where she grew up but I’d never actually seen it before and so I was looking forward to it. We grabbed a black taxi out to a little town and then walked from there to a small village about a mile away. Every few minutes she pointed at something and remarked on how much it had all changed.

Walking through the countryside in China can be quite pleasant, especially compared with the pure chaos of the cities. Unfortunately, on this day (and for the past few weeks, in fact) the air pollution was so bad that we really couldn’t see very far. However, what we did see was quite nice – an old man sitting on a bull, a fertility shrine in a rice field, and more than a few large ponds. Beyond that, we could see cluster of trees but through the smog it had a rather ominous look.

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The smoggy grey hell of Huainan, shortly before New Year.

We arrived at her little village and then went looking for her grandfather’s tomb in the nearby forest. She had brought flowers to lay on it, although she never actually knew him. He had fought in the Korean War against the Americans, and apparently was a great man. Supposedly, he had met Mao Zedong and was given some sort of award for his achievements–a sword, I think–but this was stolen from him during the Cultural Revolution. We looked around a few tombs but couldn’t find his name, and then finally found a pile of dirt, almost unnoticeable in the forest. That was his tomb. While all the others had been upgraded to marble, his had simply been forgotten. It probably hadn’t been tended to since Vera’s family left the village more than a decade before.

Vera with flowers

Next, we ventured back into the village and went around a few houses, speaking with the old people. Vera referred to them all as grandmothers and grandfathers, although none of them were in the strictest sense her actual family. This is quite common in China, where despite the One Child Policy having made siblings somewhat unusual, people claim to have dozens of brothers and sisters, and a ridiculous number of cousins, aunts, and uncles.

We stopped in at the house where she was born and grew up. It was a small brick building with a bedroom where everyone slept and a living room which doubled as a kitchen and everything else. It had fallen into disrepair. After leaving the house, her family had not even bothered trying to sell it, so everything of valuable was taken and the house used mostly for storage by neighbours. It was hard to imagine actually being able to live in such a place for an extended period of time, especially given the harsh climate here. No heating, no air conditioning, no running water or toilet, and just a single lightbulb… It is a world away from what I knew as a child. Yet I suppose this is, for most of the world’s population, actually very normal.

We continued to visit her “grandparents” and met some very interesting characters. One was a tiny woman with leathery skin who lived next door to her. She was barely four feet tall, yet apparently had a ferocious temper and repeatedly fought with other villagers:

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Another old woman recognized Vera, despite not having seen her in more than ten years. She loudly shouted, “Well f*** my mother’s c*** I haven’t seen you in f***ing years! How the f*** have you been?” (Old Chinese villagers tend to enjoy swearing.)

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We met two old people who Vera seemed to know very well. They were sitting outside their house, cutting radishes with giant knives. They had a small field of cotton plants which they’d picked to make a blanket. As soon as they saw Vera, they immediately gave us the blanket. We were, of course, very touched by this generous gesture. They had planted, tended, and harvested a whole field of cotton for a year and then just given away the resulting blanket.

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Clutching the giant homemade duvet, we moved on to another town. This involved a long walk and a very crowded bus ride. In this new town, we met one of Vera’s actual grandmother’s – her father’s mother. She was, like all the others, very friendly and interesting. She had a simple house, but much larger than the others and with indoor plumbing. None of her teeth appeared to be real and I wondered how old she was. She looked about a hundred, but she told me she sometimes would walk ten miles in a day to see her friend.

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Despite the old woman’s insistence that we stay for dinner, we had to head off on a long journey back to Huainan. Travelling even short distances in China is exhausting and frustrating, so it took us a long time to get back, but eventually we arrived home. We’d left in 2017 and returned in 2018.

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Just two days later, we got our first snow of winter. It seldom snows here, and usually only a light dusting of snow that lasts maybe a day before melting into black slush. Needless to say, we were surprised when it kept on coming down, piling higher and higher until it reached about 15 inches. It was so much snow that almost every tree in our neighbourhood buckled and snapped under its weight. We could hear them all groaning and breaking during that first night, and the next day the devastation was just extraordinary.

Of  course, snow is incredibly beautiful when it first arrives. Vera was excited and we went out to look around the morning after the heaviest snow and it really was magical… for about five minutes. After you can no longer feel your fingers and your boots fill up with water it really starts to lose its charm.

I bought a new camera just after Christmas and, although I can still barely use it, I took it tested it out in the snow.

Hopefully I can get this camera figured out before I travel to India this weekend (and then back to Sri Lanka after that). Follow this blog to be notified when I post in future. I’m sure the India trip will offer up many photos and stories.

Posted in Photography

My Favourite Photos of 2017

It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.

Here are a few of my favourites:

First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.

Leopard

I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.

Birds

This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.

Lots of fish

My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.

Vera at Mount Fuji

I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.

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Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.

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Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.

Red fox in a field

I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.

Roe Deer

This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.

A statue of Rubens in front of cathedral

There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.

Tower in Bratislava

This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.

Budapest at Sunset

It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.

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I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.

Some yaks on the plateau

This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.

Shangri-La marketplace

Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.

Meilixueshan at night

Posted in travel

2017 – A Year in Travel

It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.

Vera at Mount Fuji

It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.

A statue of Rubens in front of cathedral

After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!

After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.

In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.Meilixueshan peak

What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.

Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.

Posted in update

Autumn in the 小区

It’s very nearly December and here in eastern China the weather is finally turning cold. In the middle of the day, it’s still warm but at night it is getting perilously close to zero. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees now as the autumn winds kick up. Sadly, people don’t view the fallen leaves as beautiful, and sweep them away almost as fast as they can fall. But for the few weeks while the hang on the trees, and for the hours that they lay on the ground, it is actually quite beautiful. Autumn is probably my favourite season in Huainan, although it is exceptionally brief, sandwiched between the excruciatingly hot summer and the biting cold of winter.

I live in a quiet (by Chinese standards) little 小区 (that means “community”) here in Huainan. It’s actually a rather pleasant little enclave in an otherwise quite ugly city. I think at this time of year, it is about as nice a place to live as one would find in China.