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.

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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.

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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.

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Four Days Exploring Budapest

After a brief visit to Bratislava, I once again hopped on a Flixbus and headed southeast to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Budapest is a large city in Central/Eastern Europe divided by the Danube River. Actually, it was once two cities – Buda on the western side of the river, and Pest on the eastern side. They retain a somewhat different character but are now merged into one large and tourist-friendly metropolitan area that is repeatedly voted one of the most worthwhile destinations in Europe and even the world by various travel publications.

Walking Tour of Budapest

Whenever I visit a new city, I like to walk around. It’s not that I’m entirely opposed to taking any form of transportation, but rather that in cities with a walkable centre, you really get to know the place better. During my first day in Budapest, however, rather than walking around the city itself, I joined a walking tour on the advice of a Facebook friend who had visited a few years earlier.

The tour group met up in Vörösmarty Square, where we were divided into groups. We then visited a few locations around Pest before crossing into Buda. In Pest we saw the waterfront and St. Stephen’s Basilica, and in Buda we walked around the Castle District. The guide was mildly informative and amusing, but I was not overwhelmed by the tour. To be honest, the other tour groups appeared to have better guides, judging by their reactions and the excitement displayed by the guides.

At the end of the tour, which finished near at the Royal Palace, I set off to explore Buda by myself, and had a much better time slowly wandering about and taking in the sights. On the tour there had been no time to take photos and mostly we just listened to not-so-interesting stories about the city’s history.

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Buda

For me, Buda was the most scenic and interesting part of the city. After the tour ended, I walked around on my own and snapped some shots of the stunning old buildings and statues. Although I didn’t bother going inside, Buda Castle was exceptionally beautiful from the outside, and from the areas around it one can take in stunning views of Budapest and the surrounding regions. The cobblestone streets lead along Castle Theatre and the Old Town Hall to Matthias Church, which is 700 years old, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which was built in 1905. Again, the views are staggering, particularly of the bridges and parliament building.

Pest

I spent most of the rest of my trip in Pest, where I stayed at Avenue Hostel on the Octagon. The hostel’s location is perfect for seeing the city, but the rooms are swelteringly hot even at night, and it’s far too loud to sleep. Unfortunately, I had booked four nights in advance and had no choice but to stay there until I left Budapest.

In the daytime I escaped the hostel and wandered Pest’s intriguing little streets, periodically dodging the heat of the day by getting beers at the many cafes and bars that litter the city, and visiting a few of its more than 200 museums. In Budapest, the beers are pleasantly hoppy and cheap compared with those in Antwerp and Amsterdam, which I very much enjoyed.

I explored City Park, where there’s a hidden statue of Ronald Reagan, and where interesting birds live among the trees. Then I walked around the central touristy area to Liberty Square, where there’s yet another statue of Reagan. I wondered what the hell reason this country had to be so fond of an awful American president, but later I visited the Museum of Terror and found out about Hungary’s brutal suffering under the control of communist forces. (The museum, sadly, was very underwhelming and overcrowded.) I guessed that they probably had developed an enthusiasm for Reagan due to his leadership against the Soviets in the 1980s. Later, a friend explained that it might have been due to pressure from the nearby American Embassy in a spat with the Russian Embassy.

Finally, near the statue of Reagan walking (the more famous of the two statues) is the Hungarian parliament building. This building is based upon the Houses of Parliament in London, but it slightly larger. In fact, it’s the third largest parliament building in the world, and used to be the largest. Walking around it, one is awestruck by the ornate neo-Gothic designs.

Gellért Hill

On my last day in Budapest, I crossed back into Buda and climbed up Gellért Hill just before sunset. From the top (and many locations along the way), one is afforded stunning views of the city below. I snapped a couple of shots and then grabbed a few beers as I waited for the sunset. Golden Hour turned the whole city a range of magical colours before the sun finally dropped below the horizon. Despite bringing along several cameras and my tripod, the best photo I took all night (and possibly the whole of my European trip) was shot using the panorama feature on my iPhone!

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As it got dark, I continued trying to capture the city as it lit up and shadows turned into darkness. However, I’m no good with night photography.

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I also tried my hand at making a gif of the nightscape:

budapest-nightscape

Leaving Budapest

The next day I checked out from my hostel and wandered around one last time, before heading to the airport. Foolishly, I left far too early. It seems Budapest had recently upgraded its airport transportation and the long journey turned into a very easy (and cheap) hop on an airport express bus. I ended up getting to the airport a full five hours before my flight. Annoyingly, there is nothing to do at the airport and very little space. There were only a dozen chairs and so people stood around or sat on the floor.

This all would have been a minor annoyance had my flight at Istanbul not been delayed for many, many hours… and then the subsequent flight at Guangzhou. I ended up getting back home nearly a day late, having not slept for two full days. Back in China, I had only enough time to wash my clothes and take my girlfriend to the airport as we set out for a trip together to Thailand… Although I was obviously excited for the journey, I was less than enthusiastic about getting on yet another airplane.

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Final Photo from Scotland

On Friday morning, I took a walk with my mum at the beach near Kingsbarns, just along the coast from St. Andrews. Later that day, we drove to the airport at Edinburgh and said goodbye. I took off on a flight to Amsterdam, where I spent the weekend taking in art galleries and wandering alongside the numerous canals. Right now I’m in Antwerp, Belgium for a few days, before going to Bratislava and Budapest. I’ll post further reports from the continent soon.

Here is my final photo from Scotland. I’ve previously posted pictures of deer, foxes, and walks along the Fife coast and at Maspie Den. I like this shot because it was totally unexpected. The rain suddenly began to fall and I was about to put my camera away when we got close to this long-abandoned building. I shot a number of photos that looked terrible at first, but when I brought this one up on my computer it actually looked pretty good.

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Posted in Photography

Another Wildlife Spotting

I love shooting wildlife. And by that, of course, I mean shooting them with a camera. Wherever I go, my camera is slung over my shoulder, waiting to be pointed at whatever animal comes my way. It’s been with me around Africa as I tracked lions, rhino, crocodiles, and hippos. It’s been with me in South and Southeast Asia as I went in search of leopards, komodo dragons, and elephants. And while in Scotland, it’s also served me well as last week I was incredibly fortunate in spotting a red fox chasing a rabbit through a field.

Around Scotland, you’ll often find deer in the forests and on the hills, but they’re sometimes difficult to see. At best, you can expect them to appear virtually on the horizon, and if you get any closer, they’ll bound off out of sight in a heartbeat. They are beautiful but very shy animals. I see a lot of them in my walks when back home in Scotland, but even the 42x optical zoom on my camera struggles to capture them adequately. However, yesterday I managed to get a closer experience.

I was out walking on my own over Lucklaw Hill when suddenly a small roe deer appeared in front of me. It was perhaps about fifty feet ahead. It clearly hadn’t noticed me, and when it turned away I stalked closer. I was able to shoot a few dozens photos, but as the light was poor, not many of them turned out well.

This was one of the best:

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The next photo I took was a bit better, and captured the animal as I finally noticed me:

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When finally it realized that I was a person and that it had better not hang about, it turned and ran up a steep hill, making an odd barking noise just once, and then disappeared into the trees.

Posted in Photography

Walking from Elie to St. Monans

Yesterday, on a windy but warm summer day, I walked from the little harbour town of Elie to another little harbour town called St. Monans with my mum. The coast of Fife – and indeed much of Scotland – is dotted with these little picturesque fishing towns comprised of old stone houses that are often painted in bright colours, narrow winding roads, and flower pots dotted around. In the harbour itself there are invariably boats either bobbing in the water or resting on the sand.

We arrived to a busy car park and headed out into the cold, but soon after starting out the coast cut off the worst of the wind, and in the sunshine it was actually quite warm. The walk along the beach was pleasant, and soon we moved up onto the little path, passing by many others who’d spotted a good opportunity for a Sunday walk.

The pleasant scenery made for a good day taking photos:

 

My favourite, however, was a shot I took of St. Monans harbour:

St. Monans Harbour

Posted in Photography

Summer Walks in Fife

For the past week and a half I have been back home in Scotland for a wee visit. It’s been three years since I was in Scotland during the summer, and I’ve been making the most of it by getting out on some long walks. Mostly those walks have been near my parents’ house, but I’ve also been to Maspie Den, near Falkland.

The scenery there is very pleasant, and includes the nearby Lomond Hills:

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On my walks I’ve been fortunate enough to spot some interesting wildlife:

There have also been a few deer spottings but I have no good pictures as they’ve always been too far away. But the absolute highlight was a red fox I saw yesterday while out hiking with my younger brother.

Red fox in a field

Aside from Fife I also got over to Edinburgh for a catch-up with an old friend. We mostly spent our time in the bars so there aren’t an abundance of good photos to share. However, I liked this shot of Edinburgh castle behind a thistle.

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Posted in Photography

Back in China

Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.

This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.

Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.

It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:

Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.

I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.

My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.

Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.

We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…

We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.

We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.

It is brilliant.

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Final Days in Sri Lanka: Snorkelling and Whale Watching

From Matara to Hikkaduwa

On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.

The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.

First Day in Hikkaduwa

After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.

I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.

Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.

I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.

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Lion – the local lager

Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef

When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.

I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:

An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.

After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.

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The view from my room at Sunny’s Guest House.

In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.

I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.

Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.

I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.

Whale Watching from Mirissa

At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.

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Mirissa harbor

I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.

It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.

A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.

This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.

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Whale poo.

On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.

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It’s a whale shark. Trust me.

Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?

It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.

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A rare sight – two sea turtles mating.

Final Days in Hikkaduwa

Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.

After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.

Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.

With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.

Leaving Sri Lanka

Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.

Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.

Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.

Sri Lanka had been a great adventure.