Posted in travel

Long Bus Rides Through Thailand

After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.

I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.

The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.

I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.

In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.

Thailand Secret Beach
My own private beach.

I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.

An hour passed.

And then another hour.

Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.

Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.

At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.

Secret beach, Thailand
Another private beach.

The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.

I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.

*

That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.

After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:

Cool hotel design, Thailand
My funky hotel.

I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.

The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.

I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.

*

The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.

Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…

I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.

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Posted in travel

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.

DSW_1085
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.

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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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

The Sacred Tibetan Mountain: Meili Xueshan

After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.

From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.

Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.

Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.

Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.

We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.

We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.

*

The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.

The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.

Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.

Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.

*

At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.

We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:

Me: Hi, I have a reservation…

Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?

Me: Yes.

Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.

Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.

Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.

Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!

Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.

It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.

We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.

There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.

Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.

*

The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:

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View from hotel window, shot with GoPro.

After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”

That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.

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The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.

*

The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.

Posted in travel

From Lijiang to Shangri-La

High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by soaring mountains, is the dusty little frontier town known as Shangri-La (or xiang-ge-li-la, as the Chinese call it). You may think that the name rings a bell, but you’re probably thinking of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, from the novel, Lost Horizon. In his famous novel, Shangri-La was the name of a utopian society somewhere in Asia. Since then, it has become a stand in for perfection. “My own Shangri-La,” you might say of a place that is impossibly beautiful.

The Chinese, always short on innovation and never ones to pass up an opportunity for intellectual property theft, came upon the staggeringly cynical idea of renaming a town called Zhongdian back in 2001. They called it “Shangri-La” and expected the tourist masses to come knocking on the door. Amazingly, they did. Or rather, as many as you could expect to trek way out into the middle of nowhere – because that’s precisely where you’ll find Shangri-La.

An Interrupted Bus Ride to Shangri-La

Getting to Shangri-La essentially requires travel from Lijiang, which itself is quite a remote place. It’s more than a day’s journey from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and Shangri-La is another four hours by bus from there. Along the way, expect to be accosted by police at road blocks. They come onto the bus, take your ID and process it. China is no Land of the Free, that’s for sure. On our little bus, one poor man’s ID was flagged and the police made him go for a urine test – which they announced to the whole bus. As I cursed the police state that caused these unnecessary delays and impinged upon human rights, the people of the bus began denouncing the poor guy. It didn’t matter that his test came back clean – to the people he was now labelled a drug addict and promptly shunned.

Just behind us, a little boy asked his dad what the hold up was. “The police are protecting us from bad people, son,” his dad explained. I seethed with anger. China has become the perfect police state as no one even cares that their freedoms are eroded. No one here knows about Tianamen Square… and if they did they’d probably tell you those stupid students got what was coming to them for questioning the wonderful government.

In any case, that was strike two against the bastards the seat behind… they’d already let their son piss on the floor and the puddle had very nearly doused my bag. Needless to say, I was keen to get as far from the tourists as possible.

Exploring Shangri-La

When we arrived in Shangri-La it was a relief to get off the bus and find myself in what felt like a different country. The area is also known as the Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is geographically, culturally, ethnically, and even politically Tibetan, yet it is not part of the Chinese province (as it sadly is now known) of Tibet. Everything was different here and the awful Han Chinese acted very much as they were in a foreign land. There were fewer of them and more dark-skinned people in colourful clothes. There were probably almost as many visitors from Europe as eastern China. Animals far outnumbered people, too, with yaks, goats, and boars roaming wild all over the land.

We hopped in a taxi to the Old Town (a well-preserved area of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings) and found our hostel for the night. We then proceeded to explore the Old Town on foot, taking in the Buddhist temple and the fascinating wooden architecture. Across the part of China, the various minority groups developed different but similar means of constructing buildings that are totally different from what you find elsewhere. In particular, we really liked the simple roofs with chunks of wood pinned down by large stones. They don’t look remotely watertight, but they certainly are different from anything I’ve ever seen.

We also took the chance to sample some local food, which was delicious. I wonder why I’ve never heard anything about Tibetan food before. It’s as good as anything else I’ve encountered in this part of the world.

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Tibetan food – butter tea and zanba.

In the evening, we sat at a bar window looking out on a square as a little old man in a cowboy hat began to dance. Soon he was joined by a few more people… then a few more… then more and more… At some point even I was in the middle of the square, dancing to Tibetan music with these oddly synchronized dance moves that all came from the cowboy. Everyone was looking to him. Old ladies in pink and blue Tibetan dresses appeared and joined in, yet even they looked to this ancient cowboy for inspiration. He whirled around with a cigarette in his mouth for two hours before the people began to disperse.

Hiking ShiKa Mountain

The next morning we set out towards ShiKaShan – the nearby mountain. We took a taxi there but when we arrived the guards told us that hiking wasn’t allowed and that we must take a cable car to the top. We angrily walked away, intending to sneak onto the mountain, but soon wandered through some nearby valleys and onto the NapaHai – a sea of grass and red flowers home to vast numbers of yaks. As we walked we experienced something that almost never happens in China – peace and quiet. There were no people anywhere. We had come to the edge of China, more or less. In the town there were tourists, but not many, and out here there was simply no one. Wild horses and great hairy yaks wandered about. At first they were frightening but then we realized that they are terrified of us. Big black wild pigs and goats also scuttled around. Streams poured down off the mountain snow and everything was peaceful.

On the walk home – across many miles of grassland – we saw something even rarer than peace in China. We saw a huge unbroken double rainbow stretched over the whole of Shangri-La. Truly, it was the rarest and most unimaginable thing we could have seen. In a light rain, we stood staring at it from the grass. An old man in a tractor chugged by with a massive smile on his face, pointing excitedly at the spectacle.

It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and indeed the end of our time in Shangri-La. The next morning we jumped on a smaller bus on a bumpier, steeper road heading for the very limits of this vast country – into and above the clouds and towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar.

Posted in update

Travelling Europe for Cheap

My readers know that I spent part of this summer travelling around Europe, and people who’ve read this blog for a long time probably know that I like to stretch out my journeys by travelling on the cheap.

I teach in China and between my employers and the government, it’s hard to know when I’ll have my visa ready to leave the country, making it difficult for me to plan my travels in advance. This year, I didn’t know when I’d leave China or where I’d go until a day before I actually left! All that makes it pretty damn difficult to travel cheaply or even get excited about the journey ahead.

When I finally did leave China, I headed back home to Scotland for a few weeks with my family. I had a great time there getting reacquainted with the area where I grew up, taking walks around the coast and shooting some photos of the local wildlife.

As much as I’d have liked to stick around, I also felt the insatiable urge to get out and travel some more, but where to go…? I really wanted to get back to Africa but it just wasn’t feasible on my budget or timeframe, so I put that trip on hold for a while.

After a lot of searching for ideas, I settled on a trip around Europe. Ever since I graduated from university a decade ago, I’ve been travelling Asia and the United States, and so I don’t really know Europe as well as I should. I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam and another from Budapest to Hefei (which is near where I live in China). It took me a while to pad out the details between those flights but it ended up looking like this:

europe map

 

After a short flight into Amsterdam, I spent a few days taking in the art galleries before heading to Belgium and the city of Antwerp. Next, I embarked upon an unpleasant journey across Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where I explored the capital of Bratislava. Finally, I took another bus ride to Budapest, where I spent some four days wandering around one of the world’s most interesting cities.

Thanks to hostels and Flixbus, the journey wasn’t as expensive as it could have been. After I left Budapest, I returned to China for a two-day stay and then hit the road (or rather, the air) again for a fortnight in Thailand. Stories and photos from that journey will be posted very soon.

Posted in travel

Two Days in Antwerp

After a short, pleasant ride on the Flixbus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, I hopped off in the main square by the train station, and made my way towards Kabas – my new hostel. As I walked through the city, it felt as though I’d travelled more than two hours. Here, things were completely different. For a start, everyone was Jewish! All the men wore long black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and even the little boys had huge curls of hair at the sides of their faces.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Antwerp. It was a city I knew little about, except for a small amount of time spent on Wikitravel. My first instinct was to walk about and simply take in the new city, but hopefully to look at some museums or art galleries. I’d also heard that it had the highest concentration of bars and pubs anywhere on the planet… But first, to check in at my new hostel.

Kabas Hostel

I found Kabas by using my maps.me app, which guided me along the two kilometer journey from the train station. Kabas is a relatively new hostel, and it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood. In fact, the hostel itself used to be just a normal house, but with a few minor renovations it became a place for backpackers to stop off in Antwerp.

Inside, there are a few different rooms on three floors, with a garden out back that’s full of chickens. A friendly young man checked me in and showed me to the third floor, where I got a bed under a skylight. The house is very simple, but comfortable. The floors are wooden and creeky, with narrow hallways, which all gives it character, and there’s a pretty good free breakfast each morning. There are towels, decent showers, lockers in the room, and wifi. The wifi, unfortunately, is atrocious, but the rest of it is pretty good.

Exploring Antwerp on Foot

I rested up the first night as, after walking some 50km in Amsterdam, my feet were blistered and I thought it best to give them a break. The next morning, however, I set out to explore the whole of the city by foot, armed with my GPS and a tourist map I got at reception. After less than thirty minutes wandering through the old residential area of town to the south of the city center, the skies erupted into an almighty downpour, and I was forced to take cover in a bus shelter for the next hour. The weather forecast had said there was no chance of rain, but the hostel owner warned me, “In Belgium, it can rain at any time with no warning.” Not unlike Scotland, I thought.

When the rain let up a little, I set out in my raincoat to explore further, walking up the bank of the River Scheldt to Het Steen (a small and very old castle), and further to a harbor, at which point I turned back towards town and began meandering aimlessly along the winding, narrow streets. There seemed little point in consulting a map of any kind now; Antwerp’s streets are notoriously disorienting. Unless you can see one of the big church or cathedral spires, you are not able to navigate.

The old town of Antwerp is really quite beautiful, even under dark skies and a fine rain. The old cobbled streets and tall, narrow buildings have a unique charm, and every so often there are really incredible old brick buildings of various sorts. The most imposing, of course, are the churches and cathedrals. The city has just grown around them, so you stumbled upon them and they seem sort of out of place, despite having been there so long. There are also hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes with little tables and chairs out on the streets. It all feels very… European. I’m tempted, actually, to say that it feels “French” because that’s what one thinks of when sitting at a café in the sun (yes, it eventually came out), sipping a beer and listening to an old man on an accordion. But this is Flemish Belgium. They very definitely don’t speak French here, nor do they want to speak anything but Dutch. Asking for anything in English gets a derisive snort. Which again seems rather French to me…

One of the highlights of my aimless rambling was stumbling upon yet another red light district. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s famous streets with girls behind windows with red light pouring out into the evening sky. However, lesser known is that Antwerp also has a small zone where prostitution is tolerated… and evidently it’s open all hours. When I walked through it was ten o’clock in the morning and things were very different from Amsterdam’s red light district on a busy summer’s evening. In Amsterdam, beautiful young women tapped gently to get the attention of men passing by; in Antwerp, gigantic fat old women pounded on the glass and pointed at big red signs saying, “ANAL 50% DISCOUNT.” I suppose there’s no call for subtlety in the cut-throat world of mid-morning discount prostitution.

After yet more walking around and admiring the old buildings and exploring some beautiful parks, I settled at table outside a café on the edge of a bustling little square and nursed a few beers as the world passed by. Belgium is one of the world’s beer capitals and even the cheapest thing on the menu – a De Koninck – made for an excellent afternoon beverage… or two. The menus can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to realize that you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. These people have been making beer for millennia and they’re pretty much perfected it.

I staggered home in the early evening not from drunkenness but from pain in my feet. I’d racked up about twenty kilometers in my wanderings, and my feet were suffering badly.

Antwerp’s Museums

During my only full day in Antwerp, I mostly walked about and drank in the scenery (and the beers, of course). However, the next day my bus out of Antwerp didn’t leave until nine in the evening, and so I essentially had another full day to explore. The thought of walking much more made my poor feet ache, so I planned a day of museums and beers.

First off, I hefted my giant rucksack to the train station and stored it in a locker under the main stairs for €4.5, which seemed an exorbitant fee, yet one I was more than happy to pay give the choice between that and dragging a 15kg bag around for the next nine hours. Then I set out for the Rubenshuis – a house that once belonged to the great artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I’d anticipated paying an entrance fee of some kind, but apparently on the final Wednesday of each month, entrance is free!

The Rubenshuis was designed by Rubens himself, and today is set up as a museum of sorts. There aren’t actually that many of Rubens’ own paintings there, but rather a collection of paintings he owned by other artists. There was an abundance of information in English and the house itself was fantastically preserved, making for a wonderful excursion. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden for a while as people came and went, and admired the beautiful old building that hardly seemed it was in the middle of a big city.

Next, I found what was billed in certain travel guides as a “Brueghel Museum,” but which was actually another old house filled with art – this time the collection once owned by Mayer van den Bergh. There were several Brueghels there, which I suppose is why it was listed as a Brueghel museum, even though it clearly wasn’t. Still, it was another interesting old building with different styles of paintings hanging on its walls. Yet again it was free, although this time I was glad I didn’t have to pay as I left pretty quickly. There wasn’t much information in English and the paintings weren’t particularly interesting.

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Flixbus to Bratislava

After my museum visits, my feet were once again in agony and I sought out a pub near the Cathedral of Our Lady, where I sampled the local beers and listened to an old man play on an accordion. After all the walking and museums, this was the highlight of my Antwerp trip. Sitting there and watching people stop by to sing with the accordionist, under the imposing figure of that giant spire, was exactly what I wanted from my Belgian trip, even if I hadn’t known it until then.

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(Here’s a video, shot on my iPhone:)

Eventually, it was time to go. I hobbled across the city to the train station to retrieve my bag, and then waited for the Flixbus.

Then I waited some more.

And some more.

And longer.

The Flixbus showed up 35 minutes late, which wouldn’t be a big deal at all if there were any way to let its customers know. However, at a random bus stop, you have no idea whether the bus will show or not, or – what’s worse – that perhaps you are in the wrong place and the bus already arrived somewhere else.

Eventually, I got on board and tried to make myself comfortable. It was, however, to be a difficult journey. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where my final destination was Bratislava. It was cheap, yes, but not the pleasant trip I’d hoped for. The wifi didn’t work, the seat was uncomfortable, and the bus only stopped for passengers to rest three times. I would highly recommend Flixbus for short trips of up to five hours, but for a twenty-two hour journey it’s a really, really bad choice.

Oh well… travel is nothing if not an adventure, and I did get to watch the green fields and even the stunning slopes of the Alps go by as we made our slow way towards the next destination, Bratislava.

Posted in travel

A Weekend in Amsterdam

I recently spent two days exploring Amsterdam on foot, clocking up nearly fifty kilometers as I wandered the ancient cobbled streets that line the canals which make up this odd and beautiful city. Staying at the ClinkNOORD Hostel, I circumambulated much of the city (a good test for my new Brasher hiking boots, purchased just before leaving Scotland) taking in the atmosphere, architecture, and artwork – or as much as I could fit in.

 

Amsterdam on Foot

Although Amsterdam is a massive city, most of what you want to see as a tourist is, technically speaking, in walking distance. Granted, most people probably wouldn’t want to walk twenty kilometers in a day, but you still don’t have to do as much as that to get around if you plan carefully. The narrow streets can be disorienting, though, and it’s easy to tread more ground than anticipated.

When I first arrived, I went out for a walk just as darkness was beginning to fall. Amsterdam is, of course, famous for its nightlife. I walked around rather aimlessly, not having a map at this point, and found in equal measure quiet streets, sophisticated restaurants and cafes, lively bars full of drunk Brits, and, of course, the city’s famed (or infamous) red light district.

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A crowded red light district.

In Amsterdam, prostitution is perfectly legal, and here you will find women in their underwear standing behind windows, attempting to get the attention of the men who pass by. This is all staggeringly out in the open. Evidently, the red light district is not some seedy out-of-the-way location that creepy guys look for, but rather it’s right in the heart of the city, among the bars and restaurants and tourist sights. Sometimes it’s just one single window in the middle of an otherwise “normal” street.

In addition, Amsterdam is also known for its legal marijuana, dispensed at “coffeeshops” (I don’t imagine they sell much coffee) around the city. However, although the tourist books say it’s only to be smoked in these designated areas, in fact people smoke pot everywhere. On every street, the pungent odor drifts in the breeze, and the police walk around without any interest in it.

The following morning, I set out for a much longer walk and attempted to see Amsterdam by daylight. It certainly did have a different character with the red lights turned off, although people still walked happily about the streets smoking joints and the coffeeshops appeared to be among the first businesses open. In the soft morning light, the canals looked much more beautiful, and I was able to appreciate the ornate old buildings that lined the cobbled streets. People flew about on bicycles, making walking sometimes treacherous. A few times it would rain suddenly for five minutes and then just stop, making the cobbled streets slippery.

Over the next two days I continued my more or less aimless walking, zig-zagging back and forth between the little streets, stopping in bookstores and museums, exploring parks and admiring statues, and people-watching from outside a few beers when I got tired and stopped for beers. A particular highlight was Vondelpark, a huge sprawling area of greenery where people engaged in a vast array of sports and a few fascinating birds flew around the trees.

Rijksmuseum

My main objective in visiting Amsterdam was to take in some art. Back in China, I’d been working on a book about the travels of Allen Ginsberg, and during his trips through Europe he obsessively visited museums and art galleries, taking in the great works of art. Naturally, he visited Amsterdam and saw works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Reading his vivid descriptions and seeing how inspirational these works were on him as a person and an artist, I felt eager to do some museum-hopping.

I’d read online about a few passes one can buy before visiting Amsterdam to get discounts and possibly skip queues, but when I actually looked into it, it didn’t seem worthwhile. The two museums I really wanted to visit were €17 each and a pass was about €60-80. I didn’t think I’d realistically have time to see enough to make it worthwhile. (I had wanted to see the Banksy/Dali exhibit at the Moco gallery, but the queue was too long.)

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Rijksmuseum.

So on the Saturday (my first full day), I bought a ticket for the Rijksmuseum and ventured inside to explore. The museum is housed in a beautiful building in the “museum quarter” of Amsterdam, and is very well presented, although somewhat complex in its layout. It is divided into countless rooms covering different artists or movements over the history of Dutch art. The centerpiece, of sorts, is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” This giant painting by arguably the country’s greatest artist even has its own special hall, allowing for adequate views of the immense masterpiece.

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Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”

The volume of art in the Rijksmuseum is overwhelming and after nearly five hours I left, exhausted. I hadn’t seen everything – or if I had, I hadn’t given it all the time it deserved – but I felt satisfied that I had engaged with a thousand years of Dutch history through its staggering artwork.

Van Gogh Museum

The next day I returned to the museum quarter to visit the Van Gogh Museum. At the Rijksmuseum I had seen at least one Van Gogh, but there was a whole museum next door devoted perhaps the world’s most famous painter.

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Ok, actually this was in the Rijksmuseum…

Much smaller than the Rijksmuseum, it only took me two hours to walk around the Van Gogh Museum and appreciate what there was to see. It was amazing to visit the original works of which I’d seen so many prints during my life, and to learn about his tragic life. However, I was far more taken with the paintings I saw during the previous day.

Perhaps the problem was here that the museum was also just too crowded. While a huge queue awaiting staggered entrance times kept it under control, it was just too hard to appreciate the art with so many people standing around. The Rijksmuseum had been big enough to accommodate its visitors, but the Van Gogh Museum got claustrophobic quickly, and after I’d seen everything, I didn’t feel like going back to take a second look.

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ClinkNOORD Hostel

During my short visit in Amsterdam, I stayed at the ClinkNOORD Hostel. On the surface, its location appears quite unfortunate, as one has to take a ferry from Amsterdam Centraal to get there. However, the ferry runs 24/7 and is completely free, so it was not a problem. Besides, being away from the chaos of the town center is no bad thing.

I’ve been staying in hostels for many years, but this was the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a giant laboratory once owned by the Shell company, but turned over and renovated into a surprisingly classy hostel experience with what seems like a million rooms.

The place was immaculately clean, with a decent bar, 24/7 reception, super-fast WiFi all over the place, and several USB chargers in the dorms in case you forgot your adaptor. How handy is that? It can get a bit noisy at night, of course, being a big and lively hostel, but they have free ear plugs at reception.

Flixbus

On Monday morning, when it came time to leave Amsterdam, I headed for Amsterdam Sloterdijk, from where I took a Flixbus to my next destination, Antwerpt, in Belgium.

Flixbus is a relatively new transportation company offering cheap bus rides around Europe. I’d stumbled upon them by chance online last week while planning out my trip and was seriously impressed by the prices. My journey from Amsterdam was just €8, and a trip I’ll take in a few days to Bratislava – a 20+ hour bus ride – only cost me €50. What a deal!

I was not sure what to expect, but when I got to the bus depot – thoroughly soaked after a long walk in the rain – I found a line of very new green buses with friendly drivers, comfortable seats, USB chargers, reasonable WiFi, and air conditioning. Travelling Europe just got a lot more affordable.