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We arrive into Shenzhen station shortly after sunrise. It feels strange to have travelled down the east coast of China during a single night’s sleep. After spending so many months on dubious and slow moving transportation, the fast and efficient Chinese trains are a shock to the system. It almost feels like we are cheating a little.

A flood of people flow from the train and onto the platform. They move with precision and purpose down into tunnels designed for a prompt exit. We are the last to leave owing to our now enormous packs that can only be removed once the other passengers have departed. Fortunately Shenzhen is the final stop so there is no need to rush. I have no idea of how to reach Hong Kong so with less purpose and more faith we follow the others. It just feels natural to keep walking for now and see what happens. We exit into a main hall and much to our relief spot a sign for Hong Kong.

 

Arriving at Shenzhen station

Arriving at Shenzhen station

Even though the British returned Hong Kong to its rightful owners back in 1997, the Chinese have kept it detached from the mainland for now. To go into Hong Kong we must go through immigration. It also means that to get back into China we must get a new visa while staying in Hong Kong. I am not sure why an international border has been kept in place but I think money and commerce must have something to do with it.

It’s not often you walk through the bowels of an underground railway station following signs to another country…well almost another country. It does have its own currency after all. Yuan are exchanged for Dollars, passports stamped on both sides, but we are technically still in China. Every time I cross a border I can’t but help to look for signs of a new country. Some are dramatic while others are subtle. I notice the Chinese convenience stores stocking packets of Chickens feet are replaced by 7-Elleven’s selling Chicken crisps. They are only separated by a hundred meters or so…can peoples taste in snacks really change so suddenly after crossing an imaginary line?

We pass a counter selling “Octopus” cards. Apparently all modes of transport in Hong Kong can be paid for with a swipe of the card so it seems a convenience worth purchasing. At the top of the stairs is a metro train that takes about 40 minutes to reach Hong Kong. Felling a little bleary eyed I study a route map of coloured lines and names of stops that mean nothing to me. I decide that “Central” sounds promising. Our aim is to find our friends who live somewhere in the most densely packed city in the world. Just need to find a place with Wi-Fi so we can check our emails as our account has been blocked in mainland China.

MTR Hong Kong

Heading into Hong Kong on the MTR

Sometimes it can feel when you’re travelling that luck goes against you, but not this morning. As we crest a stair case and emerge into a strange new city we see in front of us a Starbucks. It looks like St Peters gates with a beam of light shining on the logo. Food, coffee and at last an unblocked email account. Thirty minutes later we arrive at Matt and Dorota’s apartment in some place called Wanchai. It’s nice to find ourselves in a home and not a hotel for once. To be greeted by old friends and not front desk reception. No need to show our passports here.

Hong Kong is sweating under a summer sun. Even the skyscrapers and apartment blocks look to be wilting in the heat. I am reminded that we are now back in the tropics and will be facing extreme temperatures and exhaustive humidity for the remainder of our journey. The charming double decker trams imported from cooler climates in Scotland long ago crawl along the streets looking like fatigued relics from the past. Hong Kong almost is a relic from the past. A time when colonies and empires stretched far and un-wanting into foreign lands. But the handover to China has not been met with joys of liberation and perhaps oddly most of the locals don’t want to be a part of mainland.

Glaswegian trams in Hong Kong

Glaswegian trams in Hong Kong

Compared with the new developments in Shanghai, Hong Kong looks a little tired and in need of a good wash. But hiding in every alley and lane is a vibrant city that is more mature, alive and independent. The restaurant and bar scene is extensive and well hidden. There are some obvious choices but most residents seem to spend a large portion of their time discovering subtle culinary gems and free flow bars in back streets. The choice of food is endless as is the pursuit for new places to visit, new friends to make, and new business deals to be struck. Among the expat scene the buzz word is networking and here in Hong Kong everyone is doing it.

StarFerry in Hong Kong

Star Ferry

We cross the harbour on a historical and much loved Star ferry. For $2.50 HK or around 30 cents it must be one of the cheapest cruises anywhere in the world. Across the harbour Kowloon feels more like China and less like a former colony. But among the Cantonese neon signs and touts selling tailored suits sits the Peninsula Hotel. Perhaps one of the most famous and historical hotels in the Orient. Inside the elaborate foyer a string quartet is playing while that most British of meals is served…High Tea. I can’t decide what is more traditional, tea and biscuits at the Peninsula or Yum Cha in a Kowloon tea house. I guess they both are and that is what Hong Kong appears to be. A fusion of Asia and Britain to some extent.

High Tea at Peninsula Hotel

High Tea at Peninsula Hotel

What is certainly not a fusion are the old ladies that can be found under a flyover on Hennessy Rd in Causeway Bay. There among the fruit sellers are a group of old women who for a small fee will put a curse on someone you don’t like. A mistress that your husband is seeing or perhaps a bullying boss. But a curse it appears can’t be finalised until an effigy of the offender is pounded into a pulp by a slamming shoe. It seems odd but comforting to know that in a city where billions of dollars are being traded in office blocks, little old ladies are selling curses for $6.00 USD on the street.

DSC01484

Before we leave Hong Kong we have lunch with Peter whom we met back in Kashgar almost 11 months ago while waiting for the bus to depart to Pakistan. Sadly most of the people we meet while travelling we shall never see again so it’s nice to see someone after so much time has passed. Kashgar feels so long ago now, so much has happened since.

Time to move on

Time to move on

It’s time to leave Matt and Dorota in Hong Kong and travel back into mainland China. We pick up our bags and say goodbye at the door and walk to a public bus stop. I stand watching the other passengers who are probably just going home. I guess we are going home too… it’s just taking us a little bit longer.

 

It would seem our visit to Shanghai has been well timed as far as the weather is concerned at least. It’s a miserable morning of low cloud and drizzle. I can only hope our taxi driver is taking us to the south bus station as there is much conjecture and hesitation before setting off. It’s always difficult to know how much time to allow in getting to bus and train stations, especially in a foreign city the size of Shanghai. Guess work and a fair amount of contingency for unforeseen circumstances are required. The general formula is… the less time allowed equals heavier traffic. It always seems to be the way and this morning is no exception. We crawl along an elevated freeway for several miles anxious and cursing our optimism… or was it laziness.

The traffic eventually untangles and we arrive at the front of what I hope is the south bus terminal. The driver flicks of his meter before we have time to swipe our travel card. Small disaster and definitely not required when running uncomfortably late. The driver asks for cash but we are wanting to use the remaining credit on our travel card so it doesn’t go to waste. He resolves the issue by flag falling the meter three times and swiping the card, which I’m sure is more than the original fare but at least we have used up the remaining credit.

Our destination today is Tunxi a small Chinese city six hours south of Shanghai. Up until a week ago I had never heard of Tunxi. The reason for going here is that it serves as a gateway to Huangshan or the “Yellow Mountains” as they are translated in English. Most people outside of China have probably never heard of them either but they have been an inspiration for Chinese artists for centuries and as such present an iconic image of China.

Shanghai South bus terminal

Shanghai South bus terminal

Seated next to me in the bus is a friendly fellow who has immeasurable bad breath. He can’t speak a word of English but he doesn’t let this linguistic hurdle prevent socialisation. I think what I like about the Chinese is that they don’t give up. Some of them will persist in speaking Mandarin expecting that you must know some words, or perhaps if I say it louder you will understand me. My chap today ranks among the best of them. I begin to understand what is must be like for a non-English speaker as we are by far the worst offenders. In a country where communication is limited I treat such exchanges as precious but I wish he smoked less cigarettes. I take out my guide book and open the section on Mandarin pointing to a few phrases. He takes the book from me and starts thumbing through the pages occasionally pointing and naming certain cities. He must think me an idiot as I nod and grin each time. I feel awkward so return speech in English which seems to amuse him.

He points down to a bag between his legs and opens it. I peer inside and notice something moving in the dark. I open it a little further revealing five large brown toads. One of them is staring up at me and blinking. He laughs loudly pointing at me and then pointing to my stomach. Then starts patting and rubbing his own stomach and making sounds like a mother trying to convince a baby to eat. I think I may have identified the missing ingredient of his bad breath. I feel guilty about my thoughts of disgust as he is just a pleasant man being friendly to a foreign visitor. His ways here are correct. It would be like me inviting him back for a roast beef sandwich I suppose. I pat my own stomach gingerly with a pained face indicating illness and hope he understands. I’m just not ready for toad.

eating toads

Toads for dinner

By the time we have reached Tunxi a few hours later the rain has eased a little. My travelling companion picks up his bag of toads waves goodbye and disappears forever. Like so many others along our journey I shall never see him again. Such an inconsequential encounter but one I shall remember from time to time as an unrequired act of kindness on his behalf. The taxi drivers in Tunxi seem more willing to pick up foreign visitors than their counterparts in Shanghai which is a relief. The ride from the Bus Station to the old town costs 10 Yuan; a short distance of about 10 minutes. After surveying a couple of hotels we eventually get a room for 150 Yuan or $25.00 USD in the Old Street youth hostel. China is proving to be expensive when compared to her many neighbours. As implied the old town is where a collection of Ming and Qing dynasty houses remain. The street is lined with Chinese lanterns and makes for a picturesque scene.

Tunxi Old Street

Tunxi Old Street

Strolling along the many shops I notice one that catches my eye. A line of people sat on leather sofas with their feet resting in fish tanks. A stout loud lady outside catches my interest and starts talking in Mandarin beckoning us inside. We follow her in and peer into the small tanks. Each one contains around 50 fish who are eating the dead skin off people’s feet. Some tanks have small fish others have medium and large fish. We are motioned to two empty tanks both containing… large fish. As we look down into the water they swim to the surface mouths open in anticipation. On the other hand I am unsure what to anticipate. Well you know what they say…No pain no gain. With some trepidation I plunge my feet into the hungry waters. The famished fish don’t waste any time and starting biting immediately. It is at first a very strange sensation and I doubt I shall last more than a few minutes let alone thirty. One fish who should be in the extra-large category carefully takes his time but delivers near fatal bites to my big toe. I expect to see the waters turn red with blood any moment now.

fish eating skin off feet

Feet eating Fish in Honcun

Our presence in the shop has drawn attention from the many domestic tourists passing by, who much to my surprise seem equally squeamish. The owner seems to taunt them a little yelling and pointing to us. I imagine she is saying something along the lines of “even these foreigners are doing it, what is wrong with you”. The shop is soon filled with locals who are staring into our tanks and laughing. I contemplate what the word for commission is in Chinese. We leave the shop with clean feet and big toes intact and go looking for some dinner among the many restaurants. All this biting and nibbling has made me hungry.

In between the Tunxi and Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) is the small traditional village of Hongcun, pronounced (Hong Schwan) as I am later to learn. Contained on three sides by a small river and backing onto a hill covered in forest it is well over 800 years old with many original buildings and ancestral halls dating from that period. Unlike many other heritage areas in China this is a living community and not just a collection of tourist shops. The elegant stone bridge that spans the river to the entrance of the village was used in the opening scenes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Walking the through the narrow streets is like stepping back in time.

The Bridge from crouching tiger hidden dragon

The Bridge from crouching tiger hidden dragon

The buildings are white washed plaster with dark and ancient Chinese tiled roofs, sloping and curved with upward pointed ends. This is fairy tale China… just how you imagined it should be. We find accommodation with some ease given the many houses that have been converted to small hotels and homestays. One lady shows us a wonderful room with a view of the bridge but 300 Yuan is more than we are hoping to pay so we take the downstairs room for 180 instead. That night she cooks us a simple but tasty meal of fried pork with tomatoes and peppers and some steamed rice with a little chili.

Hongcun

Hongcun

Hidden in the tight lanes we discover during a night-time stroll an old hall that has been tastefully converted into a coffee shop. The sign outside says “best coffee in town” and given its size this seems highly possible. Such a claim must be investigated. The owners are American Chinese who live in Seattle but spend almost half their time in tiny Hongcun, which is not difficult to understand. They also make delicious waffles with chocolate sauce and milkshakes. Feeling full from dinner we return the next morning for breakfast. I am embarrassed to say that after being introduced I forget to write down the owners name and now can’t remember it, which is unfortunate as he kindly offers to drive us one hour north to Tangkou at the base of the Yellow Mountains. We thank him at first and politely decline but after hearing we will have to wait over three hours before the bus goes we take up his offer. I wish I could remember his name but I can’t. All I can say is, if you are ever in Hongcun make sure you pay a visit to the Granary for without doubt the best coffee and waffles in all of ancient China.

Hongcun China

Beautiful old buildings in Hongcun

When we arrive at Tangkou there is no sign of the pine clad and misty peaks that feature so heavily in Chinese art, just a rather ordinary small city. The entrance to Huangshan Park is so far revealing little. Taxis and cars are not permitted in so we part farewell to our unnamed barista and take one of the blue park busses another 8km up to the start of the Eastern stairs. The entrance fee is as steep as the stairs to the top (of which there are many) 260 Yuan each nearly $45.00 USD. We begin the 7km ascent rising over a 1000m in elevation in warm cloud. An hour later and the temperature has noticeably dropped. The clouds and mist clear a little giving us a glimpse of the stunning cliffs and landscapes. There is no indication as to how far we have come but we continue up the unrelenting stairs feeling surprisingly good. I think Nepal and Tibet are still paying dividends as we pass many fatigued and worn out souls.

We reach the top of White Goose ridge in just under two hours, just in time to see dense grey cloud settle over the mountains blocking any views. Just as well that we have planned to stay two nights at the top which is highly advisable if you don’t want to be disappointed. There are several large hotels located on a few ridges on top of the mountains. All seem to have signs giving directions except for ours. Most of the signage is in Chinese as you would expect so I should be grateful for the odd hint of English even if it’s more confusing rather than confirming.

Huangshan the yellow mountains

Huangshan the yellow mountains

We head towards to the West sea Canyon and come upon the Xihai hotel. Try pronouncing that to Chinese while searching… it goes something like (She High) which I later discover means West Sea. Anyway the rooms are very good but the food is terrible and overpriced. The coffee shop that looks so promising never opens during our entire three day stay but none of this really matters, it’s the views we have come to see. But I do wish I could get some of that fried pork and waffles from Hongcun again.

Huangshan China

Early morning mist

The next morning is greeted with dark cloud and disappointment but we head out early into the gloom regardless. Gathered at the edge of a vast void of grey is a small group of optimistic types hoping the cloud will lift. Huangshan it seems is a place of tolerance and patience so we wait anyway slightly disgruntled. One Chinese man says hello to us. His English is excellent, turns out he is from Ashfield in Sydney our home city. Our patience is rewarded the sun burns through the cloud to reveal wonderful views in the morning light. The valleys are filled with fog, the peaks are veiled in mist as far as you can see. No wonder this scene is depicted on the back of the 5 Yuan note.

West sea canyon

The west sea Canyon

Twisted and abnormal shaped pine trees cling to the steep peaks with such names as…Flower blooming on a brush tip, Beginning to believe, Purple cloud and the rather out of place and more recently named Mobile Phone peak. We descend lower into the west sea canyon on a stone staircase that clings to the cliffs; dropping ever deeper into a dense green almost prehistoric chasm. Towers of rock rise high above with huge boulders resting in precarious positions. One such structure is named the camel for obvious reasons.

Yellow Mountains China

View from beginning to believe peak

The western stairs are twice as long as the eastern version and although feeling fit and strong I am glad when we finally reach the bottom that we are not going up. We pass people who are either masochistic or completely ignorant as to what lies ahead. I genuinely feel sorry them as many look ill prepared and simply not capable of such a strenuous ascent.

What lies ahead for us is an overnight train to Hong Kong…

The Shanghai Express departs Lhasa shortly before lunch on a Monday morning but despite the swift name implied we won’t see Shanghai till two days later on a Wednesday afternoon. I suppose to be fair we do have to traverse over 3600km and the world’s highest rail pass. I can only be grateful that such a journey is not being embarked upon in a bus. It will be to date the longest and most economical segment of our trip. To cover as much ground in any of the other countries we have travelled through would have taken a week and possibly longer.

Lhasa Train Station

Boarding the train at Lhasa

At the end of the carriage is an electronic board that shows our current speed and altitude. I can’t think of too many trains that display altitude but then again this is no ordinary train. The Tibet Qinghai railway is the highest train line in the world, rising to a height of over 5200m or around the same height as Everest base camp. The carriages are supplied with supplementary oxygen to aid the many passengers who suffer from the rapid climb into thin air.
The Tibetan plateau is bleak this afternoon. I think at first the dull ceiling of clouds above to be low in the sky but then I realise its more that we are high. The jagged mountains are gone now with only a few small hills making any impression on the surrounding plains. Having said that, these small unremarkable summits are higher than any peak in the Alps or Rockies. Grazing by the tracks is a vast army of yaks. They watch with little interest as we pass, chewing on sparse patches of grass.

Tibet Plateau

Heading North across the Tibet Plateau

Beside us I can see a marker on the road that reads 3391…3391km to Shanghai. It seems so far, can we really get there in two days. Our current speed suggests otherwise but we are after all going uphill. Eventually we climb so high that even the clouds must surrender to the land. Outside its dark and grey and it begins to snow. I would like to say it’s beautiful but there is little visibility. I can still make out the occasional yak and a few trucks crawling along the wet road that runs beside us.
I start to make more regular trips to the small video screen and note 5208m. I wait for some sort of official announcement that we are now cresting the highest section of track in the world… but none is given. Fifteen minutes later we are at 5150m so I guess the big moment has come and gone. I think the People’s Republic of China has missed an enormous opportunity for propaganda here and quite frankly I am a little surprised.
As the sun goes down we make our way to the dining car. It might all sound very civilised until you discover there is no one who can speak English and no menu to order from. We take a seat and survey the plates of food being consumed around us. One girl is sucking dimpled skin off a chicken’s foot and spitting the refuse into a tissue. Another man is slurping some type of soup with unknown floating objects. I can see another dish of something but am unsure of its origins. This is certainly not the Chinese food you come to expect at home. The hardboiled egg containing a chicken embryo is certainly out. Finally I spot a dish that looks familiar. It appears to be stir fried pork with red and green peppers.
We order two plates and some boiled white rice which we season with brown vinegar provided. When the pork arrives it has the added benefit of some cashew nuts added which is a pleasant surprise but also comes with something else that looks to be fried pig skin. Fortunately we are able to pick out the unwanted items with our chop sticks. The locals seem to find it surprising and amusing we can use them. One chap smiling picks up a serving spoon and starts showing us he is able to use our implements as well. I congratulate him with a smiling nod and continue to remove the pig skin from my dinner. Certainly there is no chance of getting fat on this trip.

Dinner Tibet Railway

Pork with pig skin

It’s been many months since we last slept on a train. I think the last time was on the way to Bodhgaya in northern India. While falling asleep I notice that the trains in China are much quieter than those in India. That familiar clicking and clacking of wheels is missing and the rails are so perfectly aligned that there is little movement in the carriages. Inside the passengers are much quieter as well and while this is a blessing I do miss the always affable but noisy Indians.
The next morning and I draw open the curtains to uninspiring landscapes. Semi Industrial scenes and eroded hills lacking any colour. To make matters worse we are now in a depressed channel with embankments on both sides affording occasional glimpses of the surrounding mediocrity. It persists for most of the day and by late afternoon I am convinced that this part of China at least has to be one of most disappointing regions in the world. I can only hope that Day 3 will provide better results. It doesn’t!
An hour before arriving into Shanghai we thankfully have some exciting moment in geography and cross the third longest river on earth. The Yangtze is only marginally shorter than the Nile but is much wider. It appears to be half a mile from one bank to the other. Like us it started its journey up in the Himalayas. It’s a significant moment to sight this huge river for the first time.
Shanghai is the eastern most point on our entire journey. The long path to the Pacific Ocean that started almost a year ago in Turkey is over. I can recall that afternoon so well when we left Adana on a bus, travelling east through fields of tulips. It all seemed so far away then with so much time left. Now I am reminded that our trip is getting closer to the finish. From now on we will be travelling in a southerly direction down through south East Asia to Singapore.
We disembark into a world completely different from the one we left 50 hours ago. The first thing that strikes us is the heat and especially the humidity. We exit the station amid towering apartment blocks and dense traffic. It is at first very disorientating and remains so for some time. It’s bizarre to arrive into a city this size as a complete stranger who can’t read signs nor speak the local language. More so is that unlike other countries, most people here can’t speak our language and are generally not interested in doing so. I think as an English speaker we are normally given the luxury of others speaking English for us… but here in China that does not happen so much.

Shanghai Train Station

Leaving Shanghai Train Station

We hail a taxi and say Nihao, which is Hello in Mandarin. I then ask Nanjing Rd, which is the central retail area in Shanghai and close to the hotel we have booked. It’s like saying Time square in New York but the taxi speeds off with no attempt at trying to understand. This happens another six times. What is going on? One driver waves his hand rudely and motions for us to move aside and let another man get in, which he does without hesitation or the slightest regard. This has me desperate and fuming. There is nothing else to do but go across the road to McDonalds and regroup.
After two days of eating white rice and picking out pig skin from our meals we are ready for a Big Mac. It will be in fact my first since leaving Egypt and a much awaited experience after the disappointments in India where only a poor poultry version was provided. It might seem odd but being here while lost in a foreign city consuming familiar food in air-conditioning is like a sanctuary. The culinary foreign embassy of the golden arches.
One of the girls serving is able to speak a little English, so we ask if she can write in Mandarin that we want to go to East Nanjing Rd. She writes down our request on the back of the sales docket. Having fed and rested we pick up our bags and enter the fray now armed with a desperate plea scribbled on a fast food receipt. A few taxis reject us before we have time to show them the message but the next driver is pleasant and patient enough to take the message and read it. He smiles and motions for us to get in. It’s a huge relief but it does leave me wondering about just how difficult travelling through the rest of China will be.

Peninsula Shanghai

Top of the Peninsula

Shanghai used to be described as the Pearl of the Orient and the Paris of the East. A bustling metropolis of bright lights, jazz bars, opium dens, and prostitutes. It was a magnet for those seeking opportunity and fortune. Modern Shanghai has replaced the opium dens with night clubs and removed the Union Jacks that once fluttered over banks along the Bund but the rest is the same. Shanghai is making a comeback and experiencing a renaissance. There can be no doubt this is an exciting city, a happening city. The Huangpu River is flanked by the elegant buildings of the past on one side and quite possibly one of the most beautiful and dramatic collection of Skyscrapers the world has ever seen on the other. It’s a striking opposition of past and present dressed in dazzling lights.

The Bund

The Bund in Shanghai

 

Grand Hyatt Shanghai

Hanging out at the Grand Hyatt

It’s difficult to conceive that we are still in a Communist country where the only reminder is the red flag of China flying over old colonial buildings. It looks very much out of place among all this decadence and commercial glamour. I wonder what Chairman Moa would think of his China now. Our thoughts are to celebrate in style and so the daily budget is slashed and abandoned which is just as well as drinking in Shanghai doesn’t come cheap. Almost every building on the Bund has a roof top bar affording superb views of the city. We start off at the Peninsula, then move across to the Ritz Carlton in Pudongbefore eventually finishing off at the Grand Hyatt. In one debauched evening we have spent over a week’s budget on cocktails and Martinis which is why we end the night for dinner at Subways.

Subway

Fast Food dinner better than pig skin

Any foreigner wanting to see Shanghai must leave their hotel armed with an essay of requests written in Chinese or you can master the metro which we undertake the next morning. The taxi situation is futile and annoying. Once it gets dark they refuse regular fares and insist on vastly inflated prices and that’s if you’re lucky. Our attempts at purchasing tickets are also futile as the screen is completely in Chinese.

Old Town Shanghai

Old Town in Shanghai

Then we notice hidden in small print at the top right hand corner English. We touch the screen and the metro map is converted to recognisable characters but it’s still puzzling and confusing. By now a long line or cranky Chinese is forming behind us. I can feel panic and terror setting in. It’s no use asking for help and we just stand aside feeling defeated. But there is one last chance. I remember reading about a travel card that can be used on busses, taxis and the metro. If we can purchase one of these we won’t need to buy a ticket each time we travel. I open our guide book to the section on travel card which conveniently is also written in Chinese. I point to the page and ask a few locals where I can get one. Ignored several times we persist until one lady point us around the corner and down a flight of stairs. I point to the picture of the travel card and request two by holding two fingers then take out a two 50 Yuan notes. She seems to understand and you might think me condescending for being surprised but I have come to find that the Chinese are rubbish at playing charades.

Pudong Shanghai

Pudong Skyscrapers

Life in Shanghai just got a whole lot easier. Now with just a single effortless swipe of a card we can go anywhere we please on the metro which I have to say is excellent and easy to navigate. Later that night we spend another week’s budget on drinking and nightclubbing before dinner at McDonalds. It’s a pattern we seem to follow for the next few days. Sightseeing during the day followed by drinks in lavish hotels and cheap fast food dinners… although the amounts spent are greatly reduced owing to fear of bankruptcy.

Ritz Carlton Shanghai

Top of The Ritz Carlton

Without doubt the most stylish and certainly historical residence for any guest is the Peace Hotel. It is to Shanghai what the Ritz is to London or the Waldorf Astoria is to New York. Recently restored and reopened in 2010 it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco. Once inside the foyer you step back into the heyday of 1930’s Shanghai. Jazz and swing music waft through the corridors like ghosts from the past. It’s easy to be transported back in time. I guess that’s what travel is all about. To find yourself in a different place and even in a different time. If time and especially money were of no concern I should want to stay longer in Shanghai, but we must as is so often the case leave a place we have become accustomed to. We leave Shanghai behind and head south towards the Yellow mountains and onto another great city of the world…Hong Kong.

When we first reached Kathmandu at the end of February the capital was still blanketed in late winter fogs and a cold breeze persisted during the day. It’s now the middle of May and the city has begun to swelter. The spring trekking season has come to an end and only a trickle of tourists now remain. The summer monsoons are not far away, but we are still here waiting for our Tibetan permits and Chinese visas to be approved.Crossing the Himalayas into Tibet and China is our only option if we are to reach Singapore without flying.

We must go north. The east is blocked by Burma which currently has no border crossings open. So it is with much relief that we finally receive the good news of our approval from Pradip. It has taken a couple of weeks longer than expected and put us behind schedule but our path to Singapore seems finally clear. This was possibly our last great concern, from a visa point of view at least. For the first time I begin to sense that we are going to make it.

A four wheel drive is waiting downstairs to transport us to the Tibetan frontier. For the second time on our journey we are forced to take an organised tour. The other being the three days we travelled through Turkmenistan to the Uzbekistan border. It’s not in accordance with how we wanted to travel but the rules of entering Tibet are simple…No independent travel permitted, an approved guide and private transport is required.

Rick is coming with us as far as Lhasa but Matt is flying back to the UK. Our time with him in Nepal has been too short but his visit much appreciated and a wonderful and unexpected surprise. He had promised over a year ago when we started in Africa to see us somewhere on the journey and he managed to keep his word.

Having spent almost three months here we are naturally sad to be leaving. Nepal has been a combination of difficult but rewarding days trekking over passes. Colossal views with cold mornings and colder nights high in the mountains. Long lazy days in Pokhara having long lazy breakfasts at Olive café. Sitting by the lake under the shade of Frangipani and Mango trees, contemplating what to do next. Fire and Ice pizzas, K-too pepper steaks and real chocolate milkshakes.

Leaving Nepal

Leaving Nepal

I think about all the people we have met on the trails. Jaylan the young boy from Adelaide who crossed a pass that many men turned back on. His older brother Liam and parents Sue and Phil. It’s impossible not to think of that trek without thinking of them. Nasir and Habib who returned to Pakistan many weeks ago now. Then there was Jeremy from New Zealand and Chris from the US who were both at times so sick on the Everest trek but battled on regardless. Robbie and Marie from Scotland who were so happy and complimentary we made it over the pass, despite their own disappointments. August from Sweden who fell off a plastic chair in a tea house when one of the legs broke. They have all left, already thousands of miles away in distant countries and now it’s our turn, but our departure will be much slower and gradual than theirs.

We wind our way through Kathmandu’s tight streets sadly one last time and head north through fertile green valley’s towards the Tibetan border. The sun climbs higher in the sky waking a chorus of insects. The heat builds and the haze intensifies. We pass through many checkpoints more than is expected for Nepal. Our driver tells us this is due to the sensitivity of the Tibetan border or more officially the Chinese border. The road is in terrible condition and possibly one of the worst we have travelled along for many months. It’s as though Nepal doesn’t want you to leave and is trying to prevent your departure by physically blocking your way. The efforts are so intense that I manage to hurt my neck in the process.

Nepal

Lush Nepal valleys

Four hours after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at a collection of multi-story run down hotels and the Nepalese immigration. It looks so sterile and not at all like the office we entered when we left India. The staff on the other hand are warm and helpful. They inspect our many documents mainly Tibetan and Chinese to ensure we won’t be sent back. Scrutinised and approved we are sent up a grubby road to a concrete bridge that spans a narrow gorge. Friendship bridge as it is known seems anything but. On the other side is Tibet or as it is now the People’s Republic of China. Half way across the bridge is a white line patrolled by two stern looking Chinese soldiers. Nepal it would seem is happy not to be represented.

They inspect our passports motioning us one at a time to proceed to the immigration building at the far end of the bridge. It’s a cold and disciplined greeting, efficient, organised and brief. Inside our bags are scanned and searched. We are asked by one officer if we have any books. I decline then change my mind and respond… not sure. This seems to amuse the officer who checks regardless but somehow misses the small bag on my back. Much to Rick’s annoyance his recently purchased copy of the Snow leopard is found and confiscated because it makes references to Tibet.

Waiting for us is a tall slim Tibetan man. His hair is blow waved and slightly receding. His jeans hang low on his slender hips. If not for a tight belt they would probably fall to the ground. His name is Jamyong and he will be our official guide while in Tibet for the next 8 days. Our bags absent one less book are transferred to back of another four wheel drive. The buildings on the Chinese side of the valley are generic and unremarkable and for the first time in 10 months we are back to driving on the right hand side of the road.

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

The road once out of town climbs steeply. The forest gives way to low spindly bushes and eventually open grass lands. The temperature drops dramatically. With every hairpin we lose a few degrees. In just 36 kilometres we gain over 2000 meters in height. It’s hard to believe that just a few short hours ago we were sweating in the heat of Kathmandu. The green valleys and crops are gone now, this is an utterly different world.

The sterility of the Chinese border town is replaced with more aesthetically pleasing Tibetan villages. Flat roofed white washed buildings adorned with decorative painted wooden beams, door frames and windows. Colourful bunches of prayer flags complete the charming abodes. The villages may be Tibetan but the roads are very much Chinese. Smooth and unblemished, no one can discount their abilities to construct world class infrastructure in remote locations.

Tibtan Plateau

Welcome to Tibet

We stop for the night in Nyalam a village 3800m above sea level. Our time trekking in Nepal should ensure we are acclimatised but our last 10 days were spent in Kathmandu at the relatively low altitude of 1100m. We are a little unsure if this may be a problem. Our itinerary outlines that we will spend the first night in a… very basic guesthouse. The fact they have seen fit to emphasise the word very is noted and we all laugh with nervous anticipation. The room comes as a surprise and is better than expected with comfortable beds and an ample supply of floral printed blankets. The common toilet would be best described as… very disgusting and thankfully is not attached to our room.

The next morning we leave early. It’s again a relatively short drive owing to the steep climb in altitude. We reach Tingri at 4200m well before lunch. It’s another… very basic guesthouse this time with an… exceptionally disgusting toilet. We go looking for some snacks preferably chocolate or any form of crisps. I gaze at hundreds of strange products in each shop searching desperately for a brand I recognise, just a Snickers bar would do… but there are none to be found.

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That night we are woken to a chorus of canines howling and barking. They have spent most of the day asleep under cars getting ready for a busy night ahead. The barking goes on for hours but is so constant and regular that sleep is eventually possible. I discover the next morning after talking to the others that this is a view shared only by myself. I walk to the breakfast room praying for cornflakes on the menu but it’s just a cruel self-imposed torture. After a disappointing and lack lustre meal of noodles and a lifesaving but oily fried egg we head for Everest Base camp.

Cho Oyu

North face of Cho Oyu

We turn off the sealed road and head across a lunar surface. In the distance we can see Everest or Qomolangma as it’s known in Tibet, Mother goddess of the Earth. It seems a more fitting title as opposed to a British surveyor. More dramatically and immediately in front of us is Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world. It feels strange to be seeing it from the north when only two weeks ago we were looking at the south face in Nepal. I can’t describe why but I feel a longing to go back. I take in as much as I can almost fearful I shall never see it again.

It’s a bleak road ahead that stretches to base camp. Bleached and baked by an unrelenting sun that floats in a deep blue sky. The sun is warm but the air is cold and dry. The cough that plagued me for several weeks in the Khumbu quickly returns. My ribs are still sore from the ordeal, it’s like being stabbed in the back with several sharp knives. I begin to day dream about warm moist air and a hammock stretched between two Palm trees. It’s amazing what altitude can do to the mind. We are now back over 5000m or 16,000 feet and despite being well acclimatised we all begin to suffer a little. Ambitions and aspirations are dealt a discarding blow by thin air.

Eversest base camp

walking up to base camp

Three kilometres from the base camp is a collection of Tibetan nomadic tents that have been set up as accommodation for tourists. They are surprisingly comfortable, spacious and most importantly kept warm by a central stove. Our hostess has a kind face and extremely red cheeks. Her skin looks tough and wrinkled from the years spent at high altitude. Lying in a cot is small boy perhaps 10 months old. He seems curious to our presence and tries to pull himself up for a better look. He might be small in stature but already his heart and lungs are performing much better than the gasping guests in the village.

We take a short rest before walking up to the official base camp. Owing to the road it’s a gradual climb and not too difficult. The strength of the wind however is cutting, large plumes of snow and cloud are being ripped from the summit of Everest. The North face is exposed and more of the mountain can be seen from the Tibetan side than from Nepal. It appears completely different in shape but still dwarfs all its neighbours.

Inside the tent

Inside the tent

Waiting at the base of a small hill is a large armoured personnel carrier. Inside are three very impatient Chinese soldiers. The sun is going down and casts a pink light across the mountains. The soldiers seem unaware or perhaps uncaring of nature’s work and start blaring the horn to signal it’s time to leave. This would never happen in Nepal or India where uncaring takes on a different meaning.

The next morning and we all awake with a decent headache. Nothing too bad but enough to desire a quick departure. After backtracking to Tingri we reconnect with the friendship highway and head towards Shigatse, Tibet’s 2nd biggest city. Tibetan cities and towns seem to follow a pattern. The new and unimaginative Chinese part of the city that rapidly envelops the old and charming Tibetan quarter…Shigatse is no exception. But despite the Cultural Revolution and an ever increasing presence of Han Chinese Tibetan culture persists. The Tashilunpo monastery is the home of the Panchen Lama but Jamyong tells us he spends most of his time in Beijing now.

Jamyong our guide

Jamyong our guide

I find Tibetan Buddhism highly confusing. Dali Lamas and Panchen Lamas, Future Buddas, Compassionate Buddas, Blue Buddas and Green Buddas. The eleven headed Budda and the thousand armed Budda. Reclining Buddas, standing Buddas and Buddas seated in the lotus position. The rituals of burning juniper, prostrating and pilgrimage all stem from Bon beliefs which was the indigenous religion of Tibet before Buddhism swept the lands in the third century.

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Six days after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Atop a small plateau sits the unmistakable shape of the Potala Palace. But there is very little that is ancient nor even old about Lhasa these days. A once mysterious and forbidden city is now rushing into modernity at an alarming rate. Thankfully just east of the Palace is the old Tibetan quarter that still retains much of the cities former charms. At the centre is the Jokhang Temple which dates back to medieval times. Contained inside is a statue of the Budda said to be over 2500 years old and blessed by the Budda himself. It sits in a dark alcove, face golden and eyes staring at the faithful who have worshiped here for centuries. They regard the statue with wonderment as if it were the Buddha himself. Jamyong tells us it is the 2nd most important statue in Tibetan religion. They seem to find rankings very important.

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At nearly four kilometres above sea level and with over 300 steep stairs to ascend, our visit to the Potala Place must be one of the most asphyxiating tours on earth. The palace once inhabited by monks and The Dalai Lama is now occupied by tourists and their guides. Most impressive is the tombs of the previous or prior incarnations of the Dalai Lama. The fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb is gilded with more than 4000kg of gold. I can’t help but to think how a religion dedicated to meditation and enlightenment evolved into tombs cover with Fort Knox. But it seems to be a pattern with world religions. Despite being possibly a fiscal waste there is no denying the Magnificence of the finished product.

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

Ten Kilometres from the city centre is the Sera Monastery. I am not certain where it ranks among Tibet’s hierarchy but it does every afternoon host a bizarre event. The Buddha originally believed that teachings and philosophies should always be questioned and examined before one can accept them. With this in mind the monks gather and for several hours argue about the teachings of the Budda. Some men sit and propose ideas while the standing monks refute and argue the claims passionately with hand slaps and personal remarks. Occasionally small rocks are thrown and even the odd face slap made. But it’s mostly all in good fun. One particular battle rages close to us for over an hour. At first it seems difficult to gauge who is winning but eventually the standing monk goes into a flurry of mocking laughter and repeated slaps of the hand. His opponent looks dejected and defeated. He calls for reinforcement but it’s too late and the standing monk see this rightfully as a sign of weakness. We never do learn what tenants of Buddhism are discussed.

Sera Monastery

Mad Monks?

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It’s now our last day in Lhasa and our last day with Rick. For the second time on our trip we say goodbye. It’s hard to separate when you have spent so much time together, but it’s time for us to move on. We board a train bound for Shanghai. It will take almost 50 hours to travel over 3400km. By far the most efficient mode of transport we have taken since starting in South Africa. As night descends on the high plateau my mind drifts back over the last few months spent in the Himalayas. When we disembark two days later, we will enter a very different world…

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The Manaslu Circuit

The sky is still speckled with stars, it’s 3.30am and I’m struggling to eat a poor excuse for porridge. Today we cross the pass and whilst I’m looking forward to the prospect of going over, I can’t help to be a little apprehensive as we shall be the first group to attempt the crossing this spring.
The Larkya la is notorious for being difficult to cross, especially in March owing to heavy winter snows that persist on its slopes. None of us had expected the constant daily flow of groups returning down the trail defeated owing to bad weather and impassable conditions. Their faces etched with a mixture of disappointment and resigned acceptance.
A group of four polish men had first alerted us to the situation on our second day of trekking. They all appeared very strong and capable, so their turning back was alarming for all of us. We calculated that we would reach the point where they retreated 9 days later and so hoped that conditions would improve, but every day we were met by more groups returning right up until yesterday when a small group of four had turned back at Samdo, which is half a day’s walk from Dharamsala. They had in fact been the first to reach this point but decided not to continue up to the high camp.

Manaslu Circuit

Manaslu Circuit

In the last few days we have teamed up with a family from Australia. Phil and Sue, Liam the oldest son is 18 and Jaylan who is remarkably only 9 years old. We decide as a group that the snow conditions look difficult but achievable if we commit to a very early start. The walk up to Dharamsala proves manageable and we were able to stay for much of the time on top of the frozen snow and reached camp just as it began to melt. The final hour was diabolical but we reached high camp in just under four hours.

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With our good friends and fantastic mountain guides Nasir and Habib from Pakistan here with us, I feel a sense of comfort at least. I finish the last mouthful of porridge and deliberate if I’ve eaten enough to sustain the crossing. In my pockets are granola bars and I go through my bag to ensure all my essentials are there. Today we estimate the trekking time will be around 8 hours maybe an hour or so more given the snow conditions. I pull my balaclava over my head and secure my head torch and walk out into the cold night.

Larkya La

Getting close to the top of the Larkya La

The snow crunching beneath my feet I try to keep a steady pace whilst regulating my breathing affected by the thin air. The moon bright tonight, revealing the mountains in the most beautiful cool light, it’s hard not to be distracted, but I try and keep eyes fixed on the back of Habib who’s a few feet in front. Walking in a straight line and closely together, we come to a sloped area that feels a little icy and I quickly lose my footing, cursing I wish I’d packed some small crampons. I make a mental note as I pick myself up to always ensure that I have them in the future, it’s crazy that none of us have a pair.
Fortunately the climb up the pass is not too steep but traversing across the smooth hard packed snow is difficult and we all take turns in slipping and sliding down the gulley a few feet. We are lucky so far not to have encountered too much ice and it is only due to this blessing that any attempt is possible. It’s impossible to know what the ground is like and we remind each other to be careful, it would be easy to make a mistake and twist and ankle with such unstable footing.
I look up ahead and see Rick, he’s falling into all sorts of deep snow and sits down to take a break. I myself am making progress but am continuously dropping again and again into knee deep snow. The pass going up may not be steep but it’s never ending false ridges tease and break your heart.

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After a couple of hours the sun rises behind us. Sunglasses go on and down jackets come off. Within minutes the temperature soars. The snow which is already struggling to support our weight gives in and becomes a powdery mess. Our progress is now reduced to crawling out of holes, every third step and sometimes less. At times it’s so bad that your hands also sink and you have to wriggle out using your torso. In desperation we take to jumping across from one rock to another. Occasionally we miss the target and sink down again into the white prison. All you can do is curse and laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. As I reach another ridge, I can hear above me everyone’s happy chatter, and it can only mean one thing… this is the top. It’s taken just over five hours to reach. The guide book assumes it normally takes around three to four at most.
Congratulating each other on what has been a taxing morning our attention turns to the descent on the western side of the pass and it looks incredibly steep. What’s more unnerving is how hot it is already and how badly the snow has started to melt, something we’d been fearful of.
Nasir and Habib tell us they have never encountered this kind of snow before. “It’s so powdery” Habib say’s. Normally in Pakistan the snow is much more firm and stable. He tells us how on the way up he had nearly fallen into a lake, he had been very lucky. I can’t even remember where there might have been a lake, maybe a good thing for me that I wasn’t aware of this precarious situation.

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Rick looking tired as we head down

We slowly begin to make our way down. I look to my right and see a steep slope where any loss of traction would soon see you sliding onto the glacier far below. Further down Greg and Nasir are in a hazardous situation. I watch horrified as Greg drops into waste deep snow and Nasir self-arrests as he slides rapidly down the slope. A large slab of snow has broken free and tumbles down the slope. There is a moment between them as they look at each other worried. Nasir shouts up to us that the snow is really unstable and we need to be really focused. I start to wonder what we’re going to do if there is an accident but dismiss these thoughts as I realise that I have to remain calm and concentrate on the task at hand. Everyone looks a little frightened.
My throat is dry from heavy, nervous breathing. I realise that we are committed to getting down. There is no way we can climb back up now. We must keep going and we must do it safely. The slope is so unstable that I lean into my metal pole to support myself and as I pull it back out to move it has been bent into a shape that resembles a Urie Gellar illusion.
Sections leave me breathless and my forehead hurts from the muscles tensing up from clenching my jaw and frowning. This is the most physically challenging task I have undertaken. Rick shakes his head. Shouting up to me he asks for my thoughts on how we’re going right now. I shout to him “one word springs to mind…ordeal” he shakes his head again and agrees he to thinks this is the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Thank God it’s not just me. I look at everybody else and see the strain on their faces. I know we will get through this but right now I am seriously wondering what I am doing. I must be nuts…..

Larkya La Pass

Heading down the Larkya La

Every third step I fall into thigh deep snow and as I come to an icy section, terror pulses through my body. My pack feels so heavy and is weighing me down so much and pulling me off balance. I see the boys below sitting down and sliding down a shallow gully spreading their body weight across the snow. I take their cue and do the same. I am sure I saw Bear Grylls do this once on his TV show and it seems to be doing the trick. I cover ground much quicker though stopping is somewhat tricky. I have to dig my heels in hard to arrest the slide.
Greg shouts up to me that we’re nearly there just a few more sections to go and we’ll be on dirt again. I am so relieved to have finally reached bare earth. I sit for a moment to slow my breathing. I am so thirsty my lips are cracking from dehydration. I throw myself down and lie on my pack, gulping water it’s been over 8 hours of continuous slog and I am very thirsty. We all change out of cold weather gear and cool down. We have another 3 to 4 hours of walking until we get to the town of Bhimtang.

Bhimtang

Entering Bhimtang

Everyone is ecstatic to have crossed the pass. We have done it and celebrate and start talking about the food and the drinks that we will have when we get to Bhimtang. I have around half a bottle of water left, if I sip conservatively it should be enough. Legs shaky and bodies aching we make for the last section it seems to go on forever. As I take my last sip of water Greg points to an area where small buildings are dwarfed by a giant mountain. I decide on sight that I will finish my water, we’re only an hour a way I think to myself. When we get there I will have a nice cold can of coke.
As I drag my feet through the last section of town. I see the boys all sat outside a tea house. As much as I find the idea of a welcoming committee a nice gesture I find it odd. But as I draw closer I see no joy, no laughter, nothing and then I realise why. I can’t utter the words to myself it can’t be true…. Nothing is open, the town is shut! We can only deduce that because no one has crossed the pass this year and with so many people having turned back, the tea house owners have remained shut waiting for the snows to abate before opening. I am in shock. I can’t believe this is happening and I sit down deflated and despondent.
We seriously contemplate breaking in and paying for any damages caused later, we are that desperate and tired. It becomes a serious option that is discussed but our guide Dilly is not confidant this is a good idea. The next town is still another 4 hours away but already the sun is starting to disappear behind the mountains. In the next hour or so it will be dark and cold. We have run out of food and have no water left.
I am reluctant to continue. I’m worried that we will arrive at the next tea house and that too will be closed. But what are we to do, we are forced to continue. We’re all so cold and tired but we put our backpacks and head torches on anticipating the fading light to come. We talk of the possibility of wild camping something I am becoming increasingly in favour of. We walk past a few small caves, stop and look but resign to carry on. We stop near a river gasping for a drink and take the gamble to fill our bottles with the stream water. My overwhelming thirst diminishes any kind of concern. I just hope that the water is clean enough not to make me sick. The sterilisation tablet should work under normal circumstances.
Not a morsel of food has not passed any of our lips for nearly 5 hours. My stomach is so noisy that its rumble can be heard over the sound of our footsteps. Night envelopes and we take a break to discuss what we should do next, should we continue or just lie down under a tree. We look at the area we’re in, it seems ok. But as we look at a moon being draped in clouds we debate what we would do if it were to rain during the night. Our down sleeping bags would be soaked. No we must push on and keep going. I know that this makes sense but physically my body is fighting every decision I make, it simply wants me to lie down. We press on.

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Hours pass and we try to keep each other’s spirits up. I can’t help to feel sorry for Habib and Nasir this is supposed to be a holiday, a time to hang out with us, enjoy a relaxing trek. Nasir tells me that he and Habib have never had such a challenging situation. They too are now exhausted. Our conversation halts as we see a torch light coming towards us. Dilly has seen ahead a building. A jubilant cheer erupts. But there is a hitch…of course. The building is just a shell there is no one there no windows, no doors, no food and no beds but there is a roof to provide shelter. None of us care we will sleep here tonight and tomorrow continue to the next town. I don’t even care that I won’t be able to eat. I am passed that need. All I want more than anything right now is to get in to my sleeping bag and sleep. I don’t even care that I am sleeping on planks of wood. My eyes are heavy I look out at the stars and a moon washed with fleeting clouds and drift into a deep sleep.

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn't turn back

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn’t turn back

The sound of talking awakens me. My body is stiff from sleeping on hard wood. I have a tingling sensation running up and down my back. Outside a fire has been lit and the boys are sat around warming themselves. I pack up my things and climb down the ladder from the second floor. It’s amazing how hunger can motivate a person. We are hopefully just a couple of hours away from the next tea house. Of course we have to hope that it is open given what happened yesterday in Bhimtang. But we must continue regardless we have no choice.

The half finished house we slept in

The half finished house we slept in

I sip what remains of the river water in my bottle, so far this has not caused any of us to be ill. We set off through some of the most pristine pine forest I have ever encountered. The floor of the forest is soft with fallen pine needles that have built up over the centuries. It’s so beautiful that I am momentarily distracted by a rumbling tummy that has had no food in over 18 hours. We walk past ancient trees covered in moss, every now and again breaking into open areas where gigantic mountains soar high above.

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Two hours later we sight a small collection of houses on the far side of river. We cross a small bridge but can see no sign of activity. The first few houses are empty so we continue up a small slope and around a bend. There sitting in a charming garden is Habib, Nasir and Dilly. I can see a lady wiping down tables inside the dining room. We have made it. Thirty hours after leaving Dharamsala we can at last relax. I feel relieved to have reached a soft bed and warm food.
We spend a few more days trekking down to the road head. I feel so fortunate to have made it over and not have turned back. We could so easily have missed out on all of this. We set our sights on Pokhara and a long recuperation before heading east to the Everest and beyond…

Food at last

Food at last

 

We arrive at Varanasi station cloaked in darkness. Despite not the slightest hint of light to the east the station is already heaving with people. Many of them lie discarded on the platforms having spent a chilly night under thin blankets. Others less fortunate huddle together with shirts wrapped around their heads to keep warm.

Varanasi Train Station

Waiting for the train at Varanasi station

As yet there is no expected time of arrival for our train to Gorakhpur. The swelling crowd seem ambivalent and more interested in obtaining chai. I go in search of the station master’s office. During our travels through India I have always found them extremely helpful and eager to guide a hapless foreign traveller. This morning is no exception. A loud man with a thick moustache and a straining belt directs us to the train’s conductor. He informs us that the train is delayed but is expected to arrive within the hour. There is nothing to do but find space on the crowded platform and join the others in search of chai.
Two hours later the train finally arrives. The conductor waves to us and nods. I think they feel sorry for us, almost knowing we are not used to pushing through crowds and fighting our way onto trains. We have been spared significant dramas in the last few weeks, but as if knowing this is our last train ride in India we are dished up one last epic battle. As the train slows the normally passive Indians panic and surge toward the open doors like frightened livestock. Standing back and waiting is tempting but also risky as you may not get on before the train departs. We pick up our bags and enter the fray one last time.
It’s a strange experience for us westerners. We would normally associate pushing and pulling as acts of aggression but here it’s just required survival and nothing personal. The idea is to smile remain calm and fight harder than the person next to you. For us it’s not always easy but with practice you start to get the hang of it. I glance at my opposition most of whom are several inches shorter and many kilos lighter than I. A few well timed pushes and arm blocks and we are on the train. Having built up the required skills it feels almost a shame to be leaving now.

Varanasi Train

Crowds rush to the train

We head north through farm fields and flocks of yellow flowers. I take one last opportunity to stand in the open door. It will be several months before we are on a train again and possibly none will allow you to open doors and sit on the stairs. We arrive into Gorakhpur station 6 hours later. By now it’s well after lunch and we still have a 3-4 hour bus ride to Sonauli at the Nepalese border. Motorised and manpowered rickshaws descend upon us as we exit the station. Apparently its several kilometres to the bus stand and too far to walk. A helpful policeman directs us to a corner about 100 meters directly in front of the stations main clock tower. A statue of a once important man astride a horse sits in the centre of the intersection. There waiting among goats and cows are several busses. One driver immediately spots us knowing almost every westerner in Gorakhpur is heading to the Nepalese border. He shouts out Sonauli, Sonauli and ushers us onto the bus with false promises of a quick departure. The bus is about half full so his claims appear at first possible.
An hour passes with only a trickle of passengers joining. To pass the time I go in search of oranges and decide I shall leave India having secured the best price for them on the sub-continent. I just want to try and get the better of a vendor once before I leave. I succeed in passing time but remain marginally ripped off. The bus remains idle, its engine cold and unwilling to start. It’s now almost 90 minutes and even the locals are growing impatient and angry. One passenger is shouting at the driver and then appeals to me in English that this is scandalous and criminal. He is well dressed and I notice he is carrying a leather briefcase. I am guessing he is a businessman of sorts. He continues to berate the driver and conductor in loud bursts while speaking to me in a calm but condemning voice. He even apologises for what he claims is a national disgrace. I like the Indians and I love the way they use our language to great and sometimes colourful exaggerations.

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

When the driver starts the engine and blows the horn we receive an immediate surge of interest from people on the street. The empty seats fill up quickly. Why he did not do this almost two hours ago is completely beyond me. With practiced tolerance and a pretence of cultural understanding I assume there is a good reason but the businessman’s shaking head has me returning to the belief that it’s just simple stupidity. With great difficulty he performs a U turn and heads back up the broken road a 100 meters before stopping. He then makes in the narrow street a 7 point turn that takes almost 5 minutes to complete before coming to stop and killing the engine. It’s all too much for the businessman and he immediately erupts into a volley of abuse and fist shaking. I like having him here. There is no need to get angry, I have a proxy who is doing a splendid job. Several other passengers join in and the surge of condemnation is finally too much for the driver to bare. He starts the engine up, spits out the window and pumps his musical horn before setting off.
Four hours later our bus sighs, hisses and stops among the littered streets of Sonauli. We wait to make sure we have reached the last stop. The driver waves his hand and shouts Nepal border. We retrieve our bags from the back storage area of the bus, a blessed rarity in India. A few bicycle rickshaw men offer to take us to the border. As usual we are told it’s too far to walk, in reality it’s only a couple of hundred meters away. I feel a nostalgic urge to dwell and accept their services as I know we are now spending our final moments in this wonderful country.

India Nepal border

Walking to the India Nepal boreder

The flow of human and motorised traffic is unabated at the border. Indians and Nepalese are free to cross without passport and formality. As such the immigration office is rather non-descript and unassuming. The immigration officer almost looks relieved and keen to be of use. He stamps us out and bids us goodbye. We pause in no-man’s land to take a photo. Ahead is a white arch with a Buddhist chorten and a sign that says “Welcome to Nepal” A small group of foreigners are gathered inside the Nepal Immigration building. We fill in a form and hand over $100.00 USD each for a 90 day visa. Within ten minutes our passports are returned and we are free to enter what was once a forbidden Kingdom.

India Sonali Immigration

India Sonali Immigration

The streets on the Nepalese side of the border seem less littered although it’s a bit hard to tell in the fading light. The sun has set as we go in search of a hotel. It’s always best to leave a border as quickly as possible but Kathmandu is still another 10 hours away. The first few inspections are a little depressing but we eventually find a satisfactory room for 1500 NPR. Conveniently the Nepalese Rupee is currently trading at 99 to the USD dollar so adjustment to the new currency is made easy.
Downstairs the restaurant is overstaffed and empty as our stomachs. We order a vegetable fried rice and an aloo or potato curry with two cans of coke for just under 500 NPR. I survey my surroundings with a combination of satisfaction and relief. It’s always comforting to have crossed a border. A feeling of progress and achievement on our journey. This time tomorrow night we will be in Kathmandu. Our travels towards Singapore will for a few months cease as we spend time trekking in the Himalayas.

India Nepal Border crossing

Crossing into Nepal

The next morning Sonauli is blanketed in thick fog. I open the curtains. Below me a lady is burning juniper branches and a chant is being played on a loud speaker. Despite the excitement and prospect of reaching Kathmandu I feel tired and lethargic. Yesterday’s early start and the long delays in reaching the border have caught up with me. I test the shower optimistically for hot water or tatto pani but none is forthcoming. Outside I can hear bus engines starting up and a chorus of horns. By the time we pack up and walk down to the street they have all but left. One pitiful example remains rusting and empty. The taxi drivers circle around me like some weak member of the herd that has become separated from the others. I feel willing to succumb to them as I just don’t have the energy to wait for another bus and face a 10 hour journey. An immediate departure and a promise of 6-7 hours is too much and we cough up 8800 NPR. The starting price was 9000 and I pitifully manage to negotiate a $2.00 discount! The car at least looks clean and I run through several justifications for taking the taxi instead of the bus which would have been 600-800 NPR each depending on service offered. It’s a rare moment of laziness but I still feel a bit guilty.

Sonali Taxi

Jelly Bean head

Our driver has a head shaped like a jelly bean and I find it difficult not to stare at him. He is friendly enough but not overly talkative. I am still a little annoyed at paying $88.00 USD to get to Kathmandu so I engage him in Nepal’s current economic costs. He explains that the cost of cars is very expensive when compared to India. I have no way of knowing this is true but nod agreeably. Our progress is slowed by the fog. Above the sun is trying to break through. The road is slick and shines like a mirror. So far there is no sign of the mountains for which Nepal is famous. Just flat plains and patches of mist.

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Within an hour the early cloud breaks and we see the lower foothills of the Himalayas ahead. Large forested mountains that rise about a 1000 meters in height. The white giants further to the north are for now hidden. A couple of hours later we connect with the main road that runs between Pokhara and Kathmandu. We stop for some food, but opt for a can of soft drink and packet of chips. This seems to have become our staple diet during the day at small and suspect restaurants. My brevity for testing out local food has somewhat diminished knowing that we will start trekking in a few days’ time.

Lunch

Lunch

The rolling green hills of Nepal are a visual feast. Lined with terraces and dotted with charming houses and livestock. We start the climb up a long and winding pass. The road degrades into terrible condition. Trucks and busses send up large plumes of dust that force us to close the windows. Overtaking becomes difficult on the narrow broken surface. In the five years since we last came up the pass there has been no improvement at all. This is to use the Indian Businessman’s words a real National disgrace.
We snake our way up, overtaking where possible and sometimes where not. The vegetation changes from thick jungle to pine forests. Finally we catch a glimpse of the Himalayas. Among the huge bank of clouds to the north icy tips manage to break through. We crest the pass and Kathmandu comes into view. In the distance I can see a huge Chorten on a hill with a golden peak. True to his word our driver with the jelly bean head has us into Kathmandu within 7 hours of leaving. I feel a little satisfied at least in knowing we passed the busses that left early in the morning a few hours ago.

Nepal Village

Nepal countryside

We enter the tight busy streets of Thamel and get dropped off at the Kathmandu Guest House. Almost every souvenir and trekking shop has the chant Om Mane Padme Om playing and the air is filled with smoky juniper incense. We sit in the courtyard of the hotel too tired to check in and order a sweet lassi, feeling very excited and relived to have at last reached Kathmandu…

Thamel Kathmandu

The tights streets of Thamel in Kathmandu

A farewell to India

Despite an abundance of time and an endless source of inspiration, we find ourselves hopelessly behind in keeping our travel diary up to date. I feel compelled to try and recall every precious moment from attempted burglary to humbling acts of kindness but with only a few days left before we make our way to the Nepalese border that seems almost impossible… but we shall do our best.
Goa and Hampi…
We leave Mumbai in the dead of night on a train bound for Goa. The attendant hands out sheets, a thick blanket and a disappointingly thin pillow. I ask him for another but he ignores me. Perhaps he didn’t understand my request so I ask again but get the same silent outcome. I wait for him to move into the next carriage and then liberate one from the linen closet which he has left unlocked.

Palolem Beach

Palolem Beach

We arrive in the morning at Madgoan, a small station enveloped by jungle thirty kilometres north of Palolem beach. The rickshaw drivers are as ever keenly waiting. We ask to be taken to the bus station which is 2km away. The driver has other ideas and insists on taking us all the way to the beach for 700 rupees. Apparently there are no direct busses, in fact we are told we shall have to endure the inconvenience of changing twice. He seems perplexed and angered by our apparent lack of faith and verbally scolds us several times in his native tongue. The bus costs 30 rupees each and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly runs direct all the way to the beach without so much as a single transfer.

Beach Cows

Beach Cow

Palolem Beach is a pleasant cove of Palm trees, brown sand and colourful jelly bean shacks. I feel immediately disconnected with India. I won’t deny that it has its charms but this could be anywhere in the world. A generic beachside backpacker’s playground of deck chairs, pool tables and bars selling cheap beer. There is the occasional wondering cow and one staff member who wears a Ghandi shirt just to remind me of where I am.
Despite a lack of genuine sub-continent culture we are fortunate to meet up with a number of interesting people. Dan and Sophie from Australia, Hillary and Dan from the United States who were on our bus, and Imogen, whom we met 9 months ago while travelling on the crippled train from Zambia to Tanzania. Seeing her is at first a surreal experience. It reminds me of just how far we have come since we last saw her on another continent that lies thousands of miles away across the Indian Ocean. She introduces us to Shaun a dry humoured and quick witted Brit who is attempting to lose weight with a diet of gin and strawberry cigarettes. His philosophies are pleasantly independent and truthfully crushing.

 

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy a friend from the US is currently waging a verbal war against him and accuses Shaun on a daily basis of being a Pirate. From what I gather a Pirate is an aging old man who has become institutionalised by the beach and walks around bare chested trying to pick up ladies of a younger generation. Imogen and Jimmy have even nicknamed his motorbike the Black Pearl and relentlessly mock him with a “piratical” voice. As I said this place has little to do with India but despite some contempt and overpriced beach shacks we have a pleasant week among the palm trees and the soft thud of waves dumping on the sand at night.

Boat ride Goa
Five hours east of Goa on a slow moving train is a small settlement set among the ruins of a much older civilisation. The landscape is dominated by millions of broken and weathered boulders. Some of them appear placed in impossible positions as if discarded by some giant from a bygone era. Among the jumbled rocks are palm tree groves and rice paddy fields filled with white cranes. It’s a soothing scene that begs exploration. We hire some small fixed gear motor bikes for only 150 rupees a day which is just over $2.00 USD and go exploring the back roads with our friends from the bus back in Goa. The roads are in terrible condition but most of the traffic is restricted to slender white cows decorated with flowers and pulling wagons loaded with harvested crops. Most of the drivers are children and they wave excitedly with each passing.

Hampi Ruins

Hampi Ruins

It’s not long before the dishevelled road claims its first victim. Dan from Australia drops the chain while going over a bump. I think back home this would prove a small disaster but here in India help and improvisation are never far away. Within moments expert chai wallahs and mechanics of dubious experience surround us. We take a seat at the request of our hosts on some old plastic chairs provided and sip some masala chai. In between cups the chain links are pounded by youths wielding Stone Age tools. I have complete faith in their methods and perseverance but no so much in their time frame. By sheer coincidence one of the bike rental owners is passing by and stops. He phones back to the shop and within thirty minutes another bike is delivered. Our situation is saved and we are free to continue getting lost in the Hampi landscapes.

Sons of Hampi

Sons of Hampi

Kerala…
I wake each morning to sound the sound of Brahman chants. I get a sense of their general direction but their exact location is difficult to determine. They seem to permeate a forest that is alive with the chatter of birds and bells ringing from afar.
The Gowri Guesthouse is a Mecca for mosquitos. Its meandering paths are pleasant and shaded by an assortment of tropical trees. The tiny vampires seem to thrive in such conditions and make a regular feast upon my ankles and arms. I have tried using Deet but this only dries the skin creating an uncontrollable itch. Outside the entrance on a busy street is a wagon selling fruit. I have developed a liking for his oranges which come cheaply at 6-7 rupees each depending on their size. Every morning and sometimes in the evening he hands me a small bag for 30 rupees. They are easy to peel and very sweet. Since our time in Pakistan I have been gaining weight despite my best efforts not to do so. Perhaps I am hoping a citrus intervention can arrest the problem. Emma on the other hand has suffered no such gains but she regularly insists she is becoming flabby from lack of exercise. She coins the phrase skinny fat for her current condition.

Kerala Backwaters

Kerala Backwaters

I survey my breakfast while slapping my ankles with slight disappointment. I think it is difficult for other nations to prepare food that is foreign to them. I am sure most Australians would fail miserably at making Masala much to the amusement of our current hosts. They on the other hand seem to struggle with toast. It is never toasted long enough and arrives limp and cold. Warm bread with a slight singe is the best way to describe it. The pineapple juice by comparison is a masterpiece. Out on the street men bang throw and twirl doe into paratha with apparent ease but something as simple as toast is a struggle. I probably should be having a local breakfast but I can’t bring myself to eat Indian Takeaway three times a day.

Chinese Fishing nets

Chinese Fishing nets

Kerela waters
Our reason for coming to Kerala is to explore its world famous backwaters. A series of lakes and interlocking canals that stretch for over a 100km along the coast of the Arabian Sea. A vast flotilla of house boats plough the waters. Their appearance range from cheap and gaudy to chic and traditional. We inspect several disappointing vessels that have had plaster boards and aluminium windows installed. It’s not the image we had in mind but then we discover Spice Coast Tours. Their boats have been kept traditional with exposed knots and wooden beams. The floors are covered with sea grass mats and the windows are shaded by bamboo screens. Not an ounce of modern tacky building materials to be found.
Life along the backwaters is a serene experience. We spend the next few days with Dan and Sophie watching Kerala life gently slip by.

Kerala Backwaters

Our Boat

Spice Coast Tours

Kerala Sunset

Cruising backwaters

Dan Emma and Sophie

Tamil Nadu…
The Western Ghats or spine of India is a mountain range that runs all the way down to the southern tip of the sub-continent. We seem drawn to this point of land where India runs out and we are confronted by 10,000km of open water that stretches unbroken all the way to Antarctica. It feels like a significant moment on our Trans global journey, almost like the topping out ceremony of a building.

Cape Comorin

Most southern person in India

Emma places her feet in the sea and for one short moment she is the most southern person in all of mainland India. Not bad when you consider there is over a billion people. To our right and far to the south is the Cape of Good Hope where we started almost a year ago. To our left and across a turbulent sea is Singapore, but our way there is directly behind us. We turn our backs on the Indian Ocean and head away from the sea on a northward journey that will take us back up to the Himalayas and the roof of the world.

Tamil Nadu

Riding the rails in Tamil Nadu

Our skills in acquiring rail tickets are improving but our destinations in Tamil Nadu are proving difficult to pronounce. I stand in a busy line with some degree of stage fright knowing my big moment is fast approaching. The Tamil language is laced with a tongue tying amount of syllables. As a result they have learnt to speak at an incredible speed. I practice my request over and over desperately trying to increase the speed of delivery but how is one expected to say “two tickets from Tiruchirappalli to Tiruvannamalai” in two seconds. Despite my rehearsals nerves get the better of me and I spew forth a rapid fire nonsense of T’s without the slightest comprehension and meaning to the recipient. I resort to passing through a note book with a written request, and lucky for us most of the India rail staff can read English.

Trichy Market
On his journey across Asia centuries ago Marco Polo described Tamil Nadu as the finest Provence in all the world. The British considered it the jewel in their Empire. So fertile are the lands they yielded three harvests per year. The southern cities of India are dominated by vast Hindu temples with towers that are encrusted with thousands of colourful gods, goddesses and demons. They are unique to the south and possibly the most impressive is great temple of Meenakshi in Madurai.
To enter through the gates early in the morning is like stepping into another time. Like ancient Athens where locals stop and pray to the city’s female deity on a daily basis. The grand corridors are lined with vast stone columns that support a decorative and colourful roof. Early morning sun light punches through the smoke from incense and as always musicians beat drums and blow horns.

Madurai

Madurai

The doorway to the inner sanctum is flanked with fresh banana leaves and carved reliefs of gods that are smeared with clarified butter and spices. A Brahman priest chants verses from the Rig-Veda. The air is perfumed with flowers, this is a mysterious place filled with energy and most of all devotion. We watch with fascination as the rituals are performed.
Bursting out of the calamity is an eruption of bells. A fully grown Elephant strides around the corner and walks past us. She is adorned with strings of bells that ring out like machine gun fire as she passes. She comes to a stop and pilgrims stand in front of her to receive a blessing. She curls her trunk takes the money and then taps their head with her trunk before placing the money in a bucket. We wait in line and hand her a coin but her trunk remains still. It seems that foreigners must pay with at least a note. How she can distinguish and determine who can use a coin and who has to use a note is mystifying. I look to see if the owner gives her any signals but he is not even looking. As with all costs in India we relent and hand the racist elephant 10 rupees. Her trunk lifts and gently thuds on our head.

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

On a bus somewhere in India…
The Indians seem unaware or incapable of evasive action. There are no potential problems or at least when it comes to road rules. Our bus is hurtling through a corridor of trees, shaving motor bikes, branches and pedestrians. Tanned skin and rusted metal are separated by mere millimetres. Just a few steps back would allow room for error, but none are ever taken. No eye contact is made, no acknowledgments given. They are either uncaring, fatalistically trusting or perhaps they just have superior judgement of distance and speed. Even the dogs seem ambivalent and remain fastened to the road, yawning while five tons of angry metal bare down upon them.
I have noticed that most of the bus horns in the south of India are less musical than their northern cousins. A few days ago one sounded a like a dying duck but today’s version is definitely akin to an enraged goose. We enter a small village at breakneck speed. The buildings and traffic close in. The outraged goose honks loudly in protest. More emotionless eyes and expressionless faces. It’s hard to understand and I remind myself that this is India, this is a just a part of how other people live. A life that is at times very different to my own, yet surely they must value this life, or are we too careful and defensive. Avoiding a speeding bus is probably a poor example but it does get me thinking. One thing is certain when it comes to playing chicken and showing no sign of fear the Indians are the world champions.

Hindu priest

On a train heading north…
The kilometres are ticking by, kilometres closer to Singapore, kilometres I won’t see again. The present quickly becomes the past. We are passing through lands that are foreign to me. Lands that are in no way connected to my home. There is a small boy who can’t be more than 6 years of age wearing a red shirt. He is guiding a buffalo more than twenty times his size with nothing more than a small thin stick. The large grey beast dutifully obeys without protest. The boy seems to enjoy his delicate position of power and gives it a whack just for good measure. Leaving Chennai the fields at first are fertile with crops. Tall stringy palms dot the country side along with electrical towers. The dense forests of Kerala are far behind us now.

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

The green rice paddies dance and swirl in the afternoon breeze. The corn stalks rustle and lean over to one side. We pass shallow pools of water and small flocks of white cranes that scatter in all directions as our train gives a blast of its horn. Unlike the busses it’s a distant cry, a comforting and romantic tune of travel; of making progress on our journey. The world loves trains and Indians are no exception. People hear it coming and rush to their doors to watch it pass. They often wave. I see people of all ages flashing by me. For a few seconds we connect, make eye contact, smile and then they are gone. If only they knew how far I have travelled to see them.

Thanjavur

Thanjavur

The sun starts its daily descent towards the western horizon. A stout man walks past the garbage bin and throw his paper plates smeared with curry and rice out the open door in which I am standing. It catches on the metal handle and he bends down and flicks it into the lake below us. He asks me where I am going without any shame or concern. I tell him we are travelling to Jalgoan. How many days you in India? This is a common question that is asked. I tell him four months. He appears a little shocked which is a common response. His English is not so good but I appreciate his efforts to communicate. The Indians are a friendly and inquisitive people. With every new stranger that makes my acquaintance I can see Hussein smiling at me. I can feel his grip as we shook hands through the window when the train pulled out of Jaipur. We Indians are very accommodating peoples and indeed they are.

robin
Jaisalmer…
Not since leaving Egypt in early July have we seen any lands that resemble desert. I pull the curtain across to see a magnificent sunrise over a golden stretch of dry land. As we pull into Jaisalmer station I can see the castle for which it is famous rising out of the desert like a tired travellers dream. It appears to have been built using gigantic buckets of sand.
We are met by Johnny a tout who works for the Deep Mahal located inside the citadel. We have no real idea of where to stay so taking a look at Johnny’s place seems a good start. The rooms in Jaisalmer are some of the best value in all of India. Sweeping views of the old city and the Jain temples with soft beds and authentic decorations. The Deep Mahal is excellent value with rooms around 500-600 rupees for a double. We continue our search which eventually takes us to the Suraj Haveli. I never discover if Gukal is the owner or simply works there but he takes me to a stunning room with 8 stone pillars that is over 400 years old. The walls are covered with fading art work and the ceiling has original wooden beams. The room opens on to the tight alley below with 3 massive windows that are shielded by wooden doors and drapes that hang from the ceiling. It is an incredible room but I try to look impartial.

Our room in Jaisalmer

Our room in Jaisalmer

I manage to keep my negations tough but friendly and our staying for 5 nights helps to secure a good price of 1500 rupees per night or around $30.00 USD. I think this to be one of the most atmospheric and best value rooms I have ever stayed in.
The same must be said of Jaisalmer itself. We fall instantly in love with the beauty and character of this charming city. Almost every building is constructed with the same honey coloured sandstone and the overall effect is simply exquisite. Waking up every morning in our magnificent room, opening the shutters and looking out over the Jain temples is a daily pleasure.

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The locals in Jaisalmer are as beautiful as the city in which they live. The men wear bright coloured turbans and sport vast moustaches. The women are draped in silver chains and arm bands. Their tough and worn feet are adorned with shiny ankle bracelets and toe rings with semi-precious stones. Their noses are pierced with large rings that are connected to their earrings with chains.

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The fort was once protected by soldiers, but is now guarded by six ladies. They have taken position at the entrance to the fort. No tourist may pass into the citadel without exposure to a robust sales pitch. They seem to have developed and deployed an attack based on guilt and future promises to return later. With each pass I am admonished for breaking a promise I never made. They are charming and good natured and eventually our defences are weakened. We buy a pair of chunky ankle bracelets for 300 rupees. I can’t be sure if this is fair or not but it’s a lot less than the starting price of 700!

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Varanasi…
After many months we return to the banks of the Ganges River. It feels a long time ago that we swam in the Ganges at Rishikesh. The water here in Varanasi may be less inviting to the tourist but not so for the millions of Hindus that live in India.
The streets are chocked and dirty with mud and manure from last night’s rain. I survey the tangled mess, it looks like an aneurism of automobiles mixed with a coronary of cars. Despite these critical symptoms there is no sign of the city suffering a stroke. The resilience and persistence of society is at its most extreme here in India. I am reminded how tenacious life can be. We retreat into the tight alleys where Rickshaws and cars cannot follow, but this doesn’t stop the motorbikes. The horns are deafening. We find a boatman and take refuge out on the water, at last we are in a place of calm. The sun is trying to break through a dense fog. It eventually succeeds and glows golden on the water. It’s our penultimate day in India, where did four months go?

Sadhu in Varanasi

Sadhu in Varanasi

I think about the morning we crossed a white line at the border with Pakistan. Ahead was a sign with one word… India. It was a new country with adventures yet to be discovered.
To me India will always be loud horns, confident cows and stray dogs looking for love. The clatter of rickshaws engines, the shouting of Chai wallahs and chanting of priests and pilgrims. Spicy food, stuffed tomatoes and delicious saffron lassis. Head wobbles and warm smiles. Stupidity and improvising genius but always curiosity and hospitality. No more will I watch a magical world of colourful saris and fields filled with golden flowers flash by from the open door of a train in the morning… and for that I am sad.

The Ganges at Varanasi

The Ganges at Varanasi

I take in the last of this beautiful and extreme country that has been our home for four months. I think about Mr Butt up in Kashmir, Mrugank and Shridhar in Mumbai. Our new friends Sophie and Dan who made travel in southern India so much fun for four weeks. US Dan and Hillary who convinced us all to hire motor bikes. Matt in Madurai who was a bundle of infectious energy and then there are so many people who came into our lives for just a few precious moments. Who took the time to point us in the right direction, or helped carry our bags off a train. The crazy bus drivers, the persistent off road rickshaw men and even the hotel touts. They all helped to keep that long peel going.
So with this in mind we would like to thank you India. It seems fitting that as I write these last words I stand before the burning Ghats in Varanasi. The river is alight with candles and the black night is filled with glowing embers. We shall miss our time with you very much, but it’s time to leave and continue on our journey.

Mehndi

Thank you India for taking us in and showing us an amazing time

There will come a time when our luck runs out but that time it seems is not tonight. I receive a text telling me that our seats for Mumbai are now RAC or “reservation against confirmation.” I have no idea what this means, so I call Mrugank to find out. My hearing is not the best and listening to his accent over a mobile phone with station announcements in the background is not helping.
We first met Mrugank and his friend Shridhar four years ago while trekking in Nepal. We were playing cards at the high camp on the Annapurna circuit and they asked if they could join us. Say what you will of Facebook, but if anything it is an excellent way to stay in touch with people you meet while travelling. But we never expected to be invited to Shridhar’s wedding in Mumbai as a result.
Mrugank explains that RAC means that one of our sleeping berths have been confirmed. It allows us to board the train and share the berth if necessary. It might also mean that at the last minute the other passengers on RAC will not turn up and then we get a berth each. The intricacies and classifications of India rail continue to confound me. Mrugank laughs over the phone. Yah it’s even difficult for us to understand don’t worry.
I spot a couple of other foreigners sitting in the gloom at the end of the platform. Ryan is suffering from a bad stomach and looks grateful to be hidden in the darkness. He also happens to be my other RAC partner. Emma is paired up with an unseen Indian lady who is 65. We only know this because it’s on the seating chart stuck to the side of the carriage. Amy doesn’t have a berth confirmed at all. She asks what they should do. I tell them with full confidence to just get on the train and the conductor should be able to work something out.
We pull out of Udaipur forty minutes before midnight with four people sharing 2 berths. The 65 year old Indian Lady never shows. It’s not long before the conductor turns up. Emma is in the clear and technically has her own berth, but in reality the situation is that we might have to share and let Amy and Ryan have his berth. Fortunately the conductor has room for Ryan in another berth and manages to get Amy a berth until seven in the morning. After this we shall need to share again. It’s a fair result given the predicament. I think about the station master in Jammu who lectured me in the power of positive thinking. I originally received his teachings with scepticism but I am beginning to think myself a convert now.
I wake early the next morning. Sometime during the night and in between a fitful nights sleep we passed through the tropic of cancer. I could hear the train horn faint and constant in the distance. I flip the catch on the lock and open the door of our speeding train. I buy a masala chai for 7 INR and watch India flash by in the morning light. The first thing I notice is an increase in humidity and an abundance of Palm trees. The dawn fogs that had settled over Rajasthan are now gone.

Bollywood Girl

Bollywood Emma

The sun is directly above us as we pull into Mumbai. We say goodbye to Ryan and Amy and look around for Mrugank. I am not entirely sure I will recognise him. I needn’t worry as a voice calls out my name. He is much taller than I remember and looks very different to his profile photo. This is a result of having to conform to his company’s personal appearance standards. The long hair and neat beard are gone, but he laughs this off. He drives us into an area of Mumbai known as Kemps corner. On the way we pass by an office block that is actually the private residence of the richest man in India. The building is over 30 stories tall and is the most expensive home in the world.

Colaba district in Mumbai

Colaba district in Mumbai

Arriving into Mumbai is like entering another country. It is completely different to the India of the north. There are large billboards with the latest Bollywood babes and gothic style apartment blocks covered in grime. The taxis have meters that work and the drivers use them generally without question. They even manage to some degree to stay within the lanes. The traffic is dense in parts but nowhere near as manic as that in Delhi or Jaipur. Mumbai has an essence of many other cities. It’s like a tropical version of London. The university and its clock tower are like a south Asian account of the Houses of parliament and Big Ben. The wide boulevards are reminiscent of Paris with Palm trees. There are New York nightclubs mixed with the bustle of Bangkok and domes from the Middle East Yet despite all these foreign familiarities Mumbai is very much an Indian city with its own identity. The more time we spend walking the streets the more we both feel draw in by her charms

Gateway to India

The Gateway to India

Possibly the greatest of these 19th century masterpieces is Victoria Rail Terminus. Built by the British in their own image, it was to be a symbol of the Empire for centuries to come. Now it sits among the palm trees and pepper vines like an aging expat overdressed and sweating in the tropics. Its legacy now belongs to the people of India.

Victoria Terminus Mumbai

Victoria Terminus

We meet up with Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopold’s for some reminiscing and beers. We muse over our time in Africa and back to our meeting in Nepal. More importantly we get a briefing on the wedding plans. Our current wardrobe is a little ragged and not really appropriate for weddings, but the guys have solved this problem and organised some traditional clothes for us both to wear… if we are game. The chance to see a real Indian wedding in Bombay wearing local clothes is an exciting prospect. We visit a friend of Mrugank who has some dresses for Emma. Mrugank who is much taller than myself must have dug into some of his childhood wardrobe. Actually Indian clothes are very forgiving. The pants are meant to gather around the shins and the tunic hangs just a few inches lower than is normal.

Leopolds Bar Mumbai

Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopolds in Mumbai

It’s the day before the wedding. I wake early as I do every morning in India. The daily ritual of sweeping, shouting and banging of just about everything echoes in the corridors. I am convinced that the Indians are incapable of quiet. This is of course an asset when it comes to festivals, parades and cultural ceremonies, but not when one is trying to sleep. Every morning at an ungodly hour we are woken by domestic tourists leaving their rooms and staff that shout instructions to each other down stone stairwells. I glance at the clock, its 6.00am. The barrage continues to around 7.30 when for some inexplicable and untimely reason it all becomes calm. In my opinion the worst offenders are young boys, who are making as much noise as possible before maturing into men and middle aged women, who seem to be making up for lost time and a childhood spent in relative silence. Whatever their motivations they are the principals of noise.

Worlds most expensive home

Worlds most expensive home

Ten Kilometres north of Colaba is a small area of Mumbai known as the Dharavi Slum. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a question mark regarding slum tourism. In fact the word itself is a little distasteful when you think about it. However these slums are an important part of life in Mumbai and other parts of the world. Around 65% of Mumbai’s population live in slums and this certainly does come as a surprise. We are not overly keen on taking a tour. Personally I don’t like the idea of being led around in a group, especially if it makes locals feel awkward. We decide instead to compromise and visit on our own.
We walk to Churchgate station which is a pleasant kilometre stroll from Colaba. It’s midmorning when we arrive, the peak of traffic has passed but Churchgate is buzzing with activity by most cities standards. The ticket to Mahim which is the closest stop to Dharavi only cost 10 rupees. A rather fat train pulls into platforms 1 and 2. This is so people can exit on both sides. The interior of carriages appear partially stripped of seating allowing for wider doors and vital standing room. The metro trains in Mumbai have clearly evolved to cope with high volumes of passengers. Despite the vast interiors people still cling to the outside of the doors as we depart. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Mahim. I examine the rail map and each station carefully to make sure we don’t go too far.
We exit to the left of the station turn right and walk about 500 meters up a non-descript street before climbing some stairs that take us over the tracks. From the bridge we can see the sprawling rusted roofs of Dharavi ahead. We descend the stairs and enter one of the world’s most famous slums. The main street dissecting Dharavi is not unlike most you would see in India. A tangle of rickshaws, cows and overloaded carts. Men shouting over the top of metal workers hammering tin and copper. Fruit and vegetable vendors display their goods on blue tarpaulin. There are even a few fish mongers with an audience of mangy cats gathered around their feet.
The end of the road is bound by a filthy canal. The putrid water sits still and stagnant among rotting rubbish. It is by far the most disgusting body of water I have encountered. The smell forces us to retreat. We turn right and see a narrow dark entrance in between the buildings. A stream of people coming and going like ants into a nest. We follow them in through the narrow crack. The alley floor is covered with metal pipes, and dangling just above our heads are dozens of black electrical cables. It takes our eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. The alley twist and turns, occasionally the walls of the buildings separate a little but mostly they press against each other like peak hour commuters forming a manmade cave.
Despite the entanglement of infrastructure I am surprised to discover the alley is unexpectedly clean. We pass by houses that have trap doors open at the top of short staircases. The small rooms inside have tiled floors with painted walls and are far more liveable than I expected. Small children play on the stairs in clothes that have been washed and pressed. One young girl with yellow ribbons in her hair and a pristine white Shalwar Kameez greets us in perfect English and wave’s good bye as we pass. The locals seem a little surprised at first to see us alone and wandering in the shadowy corridors. Our passing causing only a small commotion of laugher. They seem happy to see us and some even bring their babies out to greet us. Our confidence grows and we delve deeper into the dark passages.
What we are seeing is not a slum or at least not what I was ignorantly expecting a slum to be. This is a community, a well ordered society with family, friends and neighbours. People who work in white collared jobs choose to live here and I am beginning to see why. If anything I am the one who feels dirty and unwashed in back packer clothes.
We emerge back into the light feeling a little hungry, but despite our new assessments we are not quite ready to tackle street samosas just yet. Instead we buy some bananas and oranges and eat them as we walk. I spot a barber shop oozing with old world charms. The timeworn chairs have cracked black upholstery and a squeaking pedal that adjusts the height. A small transistor radio is playing versus from the Koran. I stare at a scruffy reflection and ask for a full shave and a trim. The barber nods and forces my head back with firm hands. He sprays water of an unknown source over my face. I think about the dirty canal and press my lips together tightly. He then squeezes some cream in a stone bowl and begins stirring it into a lather. The foam is applied with a thick brush and dabbed into all my facial recesses. I begin to wonder if he is going to shave the inside of my nostrils. Time seems to be of no concern as the application of foam to face lasts over ten minutes.
He reaches for the razor and proudly unwraps a new blade making sure I am aware of its use. He presses a thumb to my temple and squeezes pulling the cheek tight. The razor descends with a tiny crackle leaving a trail or perfectly smooth skin. It’s a wonderful sensation. He wipes the mixture of cream and whiskers on a towel before proceeding. Such clean strokes, you can hear hundreds of whiskers being severed, the thin blade of metal against your skin, only a few degrees of angle preventing a blood bath. He completes the cheeks and neck leaving only the moustache. He asks again if I would like this left, almost resolute not to remove what is a national symbol in this country. I nod and he pinches my lips together, I can feel his thumb pressing into my mouth as he applies delicate short strokes to my upper lip. Outside a small group of men have gathered at the entrance. They watch with great interest a foreigner being shaved, but I think even more entertaining and unusual is the presence of a woman sitting in barber shop.
The first shave is completed. He unwraps another fresh blade and exchanges it. Holding it in front of me to make sure I can see no expense is being spared to ensure I get a quality service. He repeats the process and then more blast of water are sprayed onto my face. He then picks up a block of ice and rubs it all over my cheeks and neck. Another blast of water, then some cream is dabbed and rubbed into the skin. More squirts of water followed by a dusting of talcum powder. He reaches up to a shelf and pulls down an ancient bottle of after shave. It smells like an original batch of Old Spice. This he splashes into his hands and then slaps me about the face. Finally he starts to rub my scalp in order to solicit a massage. I tell him it’s very nice but I don’t have time. Despite my protests he continues. I decline a few more times and he eventually concedes. The whole treatment with hair cut has cost 120 INR or around $2.00

Wet shave

A close shave

We leave the slum with very different impressions. In the three hours we spend here not one person from the oldest man to the youngest child ever asked us for anything. No money, no pens, no sweets. Just warm smiles and kind greetings. This is a wonderful place, a place that has spirit and I do not mean to say this in a condescending way at all. It’s simply a good place to live. Perhaps other slums are different and three hours by no means makes you an expert, but from what we have seen Dharavi appears in no way a slum, a place without purpose or hope. To think of it this way would be completely wrong.

Mehndi

Sneha’s beautifully decorated hands

The day of the wedding starts early but not so much as it does for the bride and groom. They were both up at 3am receiving special blessings. We enter a hall that has been personally prepared for the service. On a stage is a small gazebo that has been bound with flowers. The bride and groom are wearing elaborate and colourful garments. Their faces are surrounded by strings of pearls. A few seats are occupied by only the eldest members of the congregation, everyone else is standing around and mingling. The order of ceremony seems very different to that we experience in the west. It appears that here the couple arrive first and wait for their guests. Just to add to the confusion it seems despite the activity on stage people do not take their seats but just stand around like we do once the ceremony is over, talking and taking pictures. Mrugank explains that they are going through some blessings by a Brahman priest before the main ceremony begins.

Indian Wedding

Sneha and the Shridhar the happy Bride and Groom

I am escorted to a seat where men are tying the heads of male guests in a turban. I bite on one end of the cloth while he pulls tight and embalms my head in layers of vibrant cotton. The transition from blessings to ceremony is not totally clear to me. No one ever really takes their seats. Then the wedding vows start. I can only assume that they must be of a steamy nature. The audience are in raptures with each line spoken. A series of unknown foreign promises met with excited gasps, applause and laughter. Then finally a part that is familiar, the throwing of rice but even this is done with extreme enthusiasm. They are both pelted over and over occasionally having to take cover.

With Mrugank

With Mrugank

Like most things I experience in India the ceremony feels chaotic and beautiful. Far more open and less stiff than our western ceremonies. The partying begins from the moment you enter the room. There are no clasped hands and hushed whispers. People are free to move around and come and go as they please.
We have had a wonderful time in Mumbai or Bombay as the locals still call it. We both feel very grateful to have been shown around by Mrugank and been able to attend the wedding of Sneha and Shridhar. When we started our trip we had no way of knowing 10 months later we would be at an Indian wedding. It’s these unexpected experiences that make travelling this way so exciting. Our time in Mumbai is now over and we must continue south to the beaches of Goa and onto Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I am certain that some bus drivers in India seek the position in order to exercise an uncontrollable urge to make as much noise as possible while menacing fellow motorists. It only takes a few kilometres to establish that our driver today counts among those with a most severe and chronic condition.
The road to Ajmer is straight and runs alongside dry fields filled with flowers. Our driver is locked in a battle of gear changes, blasts from the musical horn and self-mutterings. He swats a fly while shifting to third in one impatient movement. Even when the road is clear he still insists on warning phantom cars of his presence. In any other country this condition would arouse concern but our fellow passengers seem completely unaware that the driver is now talking to himself and sounding the horn on an empty road.
Ajmer itself is not a place for tourists to linger but rather serves as a connection to Pushkar which is only 20km away. The depot is heaving with people today. I had been expecting an easy transition but apparently there is a local election which explains the high volume of people that are coming and going. It takes us a little time to locate where the busses for Pushkar depart. Indians are not very exact when giving directions or rather we are very poor at interpreting their instructions. As time goes by I am inclined to believe the former. Pointing is simply not in their repertoire of gestures. They are willing to help but not able to be precise. They simply flick their writs in a vague movement. Left, right and straight ahead all blend into one non-descript motion. I find myself questioning the gesture and offering up a more accurate option, but this is always responded to with a warm smile, and the same puzzling action.

Ajmer to Pushkar bus

Travelling from Ajmer to Pushkar with Jack

Waiting at the stand is a young man wearing dark glasses whom I at first take to be Indian. He seems a little impatient with the locals so I switch my assessment to possibly being a Brit with Indian heritage. He looks tired and distressed but is still polite enough to smile and say hello. As it turns out he is French and has no Indian heritage at all. He is also suffering with stomach problems and a headache. He introduces himself as Jack and we shake hands. A taxi driver on the prowl offers to take us all to Pushkar for 800 rupees which is about $15.00 USD…we decline the offer for now.
One of the ticket sellers flicks his wrist at a bus that has just arrived. It is already packed and a small army of people are trying desperately to get on. We make no attempt and the taxi man circles around for another pass. Fifteen minutes later a second bus arrives but this time we are better prepared with packs already mounted on our back. There is a small scuffle at the door but nothing as bad as we experienced getting on the train in Delhi. We even manage to get a seat and the cost is only 10 rupees each.

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar in Rajasthan

Pushkar is small enough to see in a day but charming enough to remain for longer. An enjoyable blend of authentic Rajasthan culture and touristic comforts. The small town consists of pastel painted buildings and temples wrapped around a lake devoted to the creator god Brahma. We pick our way past white cows and hungry dogs to the unsuitably named Everest Hotel. Despite having a wonderful roof top terrace there is absolutely no chance of spotting the world’s highest mountain, which I guess to be more than 3000km away to the north east. It does however afford wonderful views of the town and the surrounding desert and mountains. In the sky and clinging to the breeze is a swarm of colourful kites attached by string to children who play on the surrounding roofs.

Brahma temples in Pushkar

Brahma temples in Pushkar

The rooms at the Everest are spacious and clean and great value at 500 INR for a double. The foyer is guarded by Lion, a playful Labrador which I am beginning to believe is India’s preferred choice of pet. I find it odd that they would spend so much money on a pure breed dog when outside are any number of loveable rogues searching for a home. I suppose we are no better and just keep our unwanted dogs behind wire fences facing death row. At least here they are entitled to a life of some sort.

Pushkar Dogs

Pushkar Dogs

Each morning we stroll through a narrow alley where men boil and scrape curd; dip dough into vast black pans filled with boiling oil. Gathered around their feet is a small pack of dogs who are patiently waiting to be fed. They torment their targets with carefully coordinated and unyielding stares. I am pleased to see their patience is rewarded and eventually a tasty morsel is thrown their way.

Begging for scraps

Begging for scraps

Jack’s time in India is drawing to a close but before leaving he is keen to try out one of the infamous bhang lassis. I am a little confused as to what bhang actually is. I had assumed it was cannabis (which is illegal) but here in Pushkar it’s openly sold in most restaurants. The locals insist it is not cannabis but I think it’s just been renamed in Rajasthan to avoid illegalities. We meet up at the Out of the Blue restaurant with Jack and Myrthe a Dutch girl who plays rugby and is now wearing a neck brace courtesy of an unfortunate night’s sleep on India railways.
Given her injuries and the possible side effects Myrthe opts out. I have no such excuse and am simply not interested but Emma is feeling adventurous and offers to go halves with Jack. Our waiter enquires as to what strength should be prepared. Jack requests a strong one based on the rational they are sharing. The waiter smirks a little which I ominously note. He returns five minutes later with a tall glass that looks to be filled with yoghurt and grass cuttings. The appearance of the brew is not terribly appealing but this doesn’t prevent Emma and Jack from downing half the contents each without any visible concern. Twenty minutes later and I rather randomly enquire as to whether there are any effects? Jack has nothing to report but Emma is not so convinced.

Out of the blue Pushkar

Out of the blue Pushkar

She delivers a slightly hesitant evaluation, as though standing on the edge of a precipice much larger and vast than expected. Ten minutes later and Jack erupts into laughter. Clearly things have changed. Emma is also now in hysterics and so an interesting evening begins. Over the next hour laughter subsides and a state of paralysis takes over. First effecting the legs and eventually working its way up the body until finally reaching the mouth. Emma and Jack are now deep in the clutches of the Bang Lassi. We decide or rather suggest it may be time to adjourn to the guesthouse but both bang recipients require a practice walk on the terrace before setting off. Coming down the stairs is a major expedition with much coaching and reassurances given.

Out of the Blue Pushkar

On the roof at Out of the Blue

Out on the street the sights and sounds of Pushkar are amplified and contorted. Wandering cows, temple bells, and the fragrance of incense are apparently dazzling the senses. Jack seems concerned with Emma’s choice of quietness and insists on breaking radio silence with a series of ground control announcements. Emma only responds with laughter and goes back to concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other. Eventually we reach the Everest Guest House where Emma submits and retires to bed. Jack continues his battle against the lassi in good humour for another hour or so before eventually calling it a night.
The next morning their condition is much improved. They both vow never to consume a bhang lassi ever again… well at least not a strong one anyway. Armed with experience and better sense Jack bids us goodbye. He has been a good companion these past few days. An energetic and friendly guy whom we shall miss. In a few days’ time he will be back in France but for us our journey south down the length of the Indian sub-continent continues.

Ajmer Railway Station

Ajmer Railway Station

The train station at Ajmer is delightfully bare when we arrive. Winter is coming to the north of India and this morning an early morning fog persists. The platform is empty when the train to Udaipur arrives. It would seem we did not heed Hussein’s warning regarding general class, but today our gamble has paid off. The carriages are mostly vacant.
Most cities in Rajasthan seem to be associated with a colour but Udaipur is simply devoted to love. The city is bound by Lake Pichola and a chain of picturesque mountains to the west. Adjacent to the city palace and stretching along the eastern edge of the lake is an area known as Lal Ghat where most of the tourist hotels are located. Every inch of space is carefully accounted for. The streets are narrow and cogged with tourists and frustrated rickshaw drivers who regularly take revenge by sounding their ear splitting horns. I spot the hotel we stayed in four years ago. The Jagat Niwas like so many in Lal Ghat promises unrivalled views, and nightly rooftop screenings of Octopussy. It feels so strange to be back after so many years. I walk up the stairs past a picture of Ganesh. No one is in attendance at reception so I continue up another flight. Waiting at the top is a young man whom I instantly recognise. He looks a little heavier and is now sporting a moustache but his smile and eyes have not changed.

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

Sunset from Lal Ghat in Udaipur

So many times I have felt that I will never see some of the people we meet on our travels ever again but now four years later here in Udaipur that at least is wrong. I give Gopal a firm handshake, he seems a little surprised by my warm greeting so I explain that I remembered him from a previous visit. His head wobbles a few times and his smile widens. I point to the room where I stayed before but it’s already occupied. The room next door where Karen stayed is free but it’s a bit small for two people. After a longer than normal search we book into the Poonam Haveli for 1260 INR a night. It’s more than we are used to paying but very good value.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The Lake Palace in Udaipur

The next morning over breakfast I see Gopal on the roof across the road. He waves excitedly and points to the room I enquired about yesterday indicating that it’s now free. I shake my hand and smile but I feel a little ashamed and guilty. The room is much cheaper at 600 INR and we really should be trying to save money. I can’t explain why I don’t want to go back but I feel like I have betrayed Gopal a little and lower my head.
In the middle of the lake and not too far from Lal Ghat is the aptly named Lake Palace. It is possibly one of the most eye catching scenes in the world. Completely surrounded by water it has now been converted like so many other palaces in India into a luxury hotel. Only guests are permitted to visit the beguiling island. Like a floating antithesis to Alcatraz the exclusivity is driving me crazy. I keep justifying the expense in my mind with comforting clichés such as you only live once and when will you get the chance again. My spoilt and greedy inner voice is eventually victorious and we make a reservation for the following day.

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

Jetty Taj Lake Palace

We arrive at the wrought iron jetty of this extraordinary hotel in a very ordinary rickshaw. The driver insists on a hundred rupees which I surrender without a fight. I am already feeling a little self-conscious about our mode of transport and don’t want to cause a scene in front of the staff. After checking our reservation we are directed down the jetty to a small boat and taken across to the Lake Palace Hotel. Our arrival is heralded with a shower of rose petals and a salute from a man with a very large moustache. I wonder if I am supposed to salute back.
Inside is a lovely courtyard and a lily pond modelled on a Moghul garden. The swimming pool is surrounded by white lotus arches and has wonderful views of the city palace. The front terrace faces to the west. We claim a table before sunset and watch the sun slowly sink over the lake and behind the mountains aided with some very expensive cocktails. I think about all the austere times on our journey. We discuss the night we crossed northern Kenya in that crowded 4WD. All the dirty hotels with hard beds, thread bare sheets and the toilets that smelled of stale urine. I wouldn’t change any of it but it’s certainly nice to recall such precious memories in an opulent hotel with a masala martini in hand.

Pichola Lake Udaipur

Pichola Lake

Tomorrow night we are supposed to be leaving for Bombay on the train but our reservation is still not cleared. It could be the sunset or the cocktails but we are both relaxed and nonchalant. I think it’s because this is India and anything is possible. As Hussein said in Jaipur… we Indians are very accommodating peoples. We take that thought to bed confidant that all will be fine.

Jaipur commonly known as The Pink City is the capital of Rajasthan. Though a bustling metropolis, the old world charms of a different time are evident. We take a rickshaw from the train station to the Pearl Palace; a budget hotel that is clean and traditional. Waiting outside in the hot sun is a murder of Rickshaw men. I think this an appropriate collective noun for such a gathering.
I like to believe that under most circumstances I remain a passive person but when it comes to Rickshaw drivers I find that grace deserts me. Maybe it is the way they always try to convince you they are your best friend and only have your happiness and wellbeing at heart. Or it may be the false smiles and rehearsed lines… okay good price for you 300 rupees… when you know it should be 40 Rupees. Needless to say this can become tiring and even the locals will tell you…if you want to get a fair price you have to bargain, it’s just the way it is, but after some time we have begun to embrace a different strategy.
Firstly we establish the local cost of the trip. Usually we ask a few different sources; hotels and shops to ensure we are getting the right price. We have established that in a major city a rickshaw should be around 10-15 Rupees per kilometre, certainly never more than 20. No respectable Indian would ever pay more than this. On a few occasions when we have been fortunate to encounter an honest driver this has proven pretty accurate. For example the cost of a ride from our hotel to the old town should be 30-40 rupees, we are therefore happy to pay 50 but the drivers want 200-300rps.

Pink City

Ajmeri Gate

I have heard many tourists say what does it matter, we have more money than they do…don’t be so tight. Well it does matter, it matters a great deal. We create a black hole in the economy where everything is geared towards a foreigner and disadvantages locals who can’t afford the inflated prices. It also teaches people that it’s okay to rip foreigners off and creates a negative image. Others tourists who are not prepared or can’t afford to pay the inflated price have to argue over the rate before eventually conceding fifteen minutes later. It is a great source of frustration and simply not practical if you want to enjoy your time in India. The cartel that runs this street are bullies and own the area. They never allow other rickshaw men to wait for a ride or undermine their prices. Intruders are not tolerated and chased away.

Out on the street it’s not much better. Tourists with deep pockets and no resolve have seen to that.
The “murder” are quick to react whenever potential prey leave the hotel. Hello Madam where are you from…Oh Australia… Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oi oi oi. I want to kill the idiot who enlightened you with that brilliant little gem of Australian culture. Kangaroo…great country very nice people, very generous peoples. Mmmm… is that right!
There is no point negotiating with them and the alternative is far more practical, economical and less frustrating. We just get in the rickshaw, state where we want to go and never discuss the price.
I can tell that our driver this morning is pleased. No negotiating at all, he is really going to rip us off. When we reach our destination I get out and start walking. Greg hands over 50 rupees thanks the driver profusely and in one quick movement turns and walks. No looking back! No checking is that okay. It’s done… the rickshaw driver knows he’s been given a fair price and in that moment of hesitation it’s over. What can they do, call the police and complain they got an extra 10-20 rupees on top of what the price should be. Explain to the officer that their meter is not working or they refused to put it on. What they can do is complain loudly and refuse to accept the money offered, but its best to just keep walking and treat the performance as simply that. Occasionally some drivers will chase you and feign disgust in what you have offered them. One such man engaged other drivers and a security officer at a shopping mall. The security man told us that we had to pay him 150 INR. Greg enquired as to whether he was a rickshaw driver or police officer. Being neither he was told to arbitrate in matters with which he was proficient. You simply need to stand your ground but I have to say most drivers will accept the amount given graciously as they know it’s correct.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal or Palace of the winds

Now of course the “Murder” at the Pearl Palace begin to converse with each other and word gets around that we won’t pay the inflated prices… we become the enemy and a power struggle develops. They ask us where we want to go but we politely decline their services. It’s important to stress that this method of payment must be carried out with a smile and good grace. It really confuses them and helps to defuse the situation. Greg even gave one persistent man a hug and a pat on the back before saying thank you we will never forget you.
I begin to notice one of the men who smiles every time he sees our exchange and it becomes apparent that he is amused by the fact that we are not budging. He comes to me when the others aren’t looking. These men are very greedy. You see this. I am not greedy. I am not like the others. I will give you the correct price. But you come to me always…The cloak and dagger deal is struck, loyalty given and both parties are happy.

Amber Fort

Amber Fort

We set out for a half day trip to the beautiful Amber Fort which is about 12km out of town. It is one of the most breathtaking forts in Rajasthan. Originally the capital before Jaipur, the fort itself was built in 1592 by Raja Jai Singh from which Jaipur takes its name. Though very old, it is still an imposing piece of architecture. Perched atop a huge hill, the entrance winds up a long battle rampant. Should you wish, you can be carried up by beautifully decorated elephants. We decide not to as I am always unsure if they are treated properly, although as I let them pass me at arm’s length they do appear well cared for. A long line of pachyderms proudly trudging up the hill, a turbaned mahout (driver) sits astride their heads.
As they make their way past me I see how diverse each elephant looks physically. They are dressed in their finery with beautiful colours painted on their tough bristly skin. If it weren’t for the tourists sat atop you could almost imagine what it might have been like when it was a working fort. Inside the palace opens up to show beautiful rooms with elaborate mirrors. Columns of marble and latticed windows embrace the cool breeze that drifts from Lake Maota which is brimming after the monsoon. I decide to treat myself to the audio tour which is a fantastic way to shut out the noise and immerse myself in the entertaining commentary.

Decretive Indian Elephant

Decretive Indian Elephant

The old city of Jaipur is uniformly pink but divided into areas specialising in particular goods and services. We pass an alley where stone carvers work on marble blocks. Their hair and beards are caked in white dust from the stone they are cutting. Further along we are surrounded by jewels and bangles. The shop owners are very proactive, giving answers to questions that have not been asked. Our selection is very large and you can decide for yourself. What can I decide for myself?
I have to say this is the India I love. Wondering through a bazaar and listening to each shops sales pitch. They are highly creative and skilled in getting noticed. We have the finest silks here madam. Well, no one is going to say we have the 4th best silk shawls in Jaipur are they. The locals receive if anything a more robust version with hands and wrists often grasped. I try to imagine how such an approach would work back home. Oddly enough when one does make an enquiry, the answer is deferred until stools are sat upon and tea is provided. Something as ugly as price can never be discussed until friendships are forged.
By mid-afternoon we pass the beautiful Palace of the wind. The Indians really know how to add romance to their architecture. Despite being winter the temperature has soared and I am desperately hoping we soon come across the area that sells water. Up ahead we spot a cart selling oranges. The owner consistent with the multitudes pre-empts a sale and offers a few pieces which are sweet and very juicy. Our thirst is such that we purchase six and consume them all in quick succession.

Safron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

Saffron Ladies at the Hawa Mahal

We pass by an old Haveli that has a roof terrace and restaurant. To gain entrance we walk through a twisting dark corridor that is guarded by a mangy dog and up some old wooden stairs that creak with each step. A man at the stop of the staircase informs us that the restaurant is closed. A lady who is sat in corner surrounded by several people stands up and walks towards us. She has tears in her eyes and in broken English makes her best attempts to apologise for the closure. It is clear she is distraught and points to a picture on the wall. Her husband has passed away very suddenly. Her face is desperate I can feel my heart breaking for her. Although in the company of friends and deeply grief stricken she continues to apologise and assures us the restaurant will be open in a couple of days’ time. She has taken my hand and does not let go and nor do I want her too. Her face is searching mine. Searching for some reason why this happened Searching for help. I am suddenly reminded by the millions of unknown stories and lives we pass through every day. Lives we will never know. We leave the restaurant after offering our deep condolences. Back out in the bright sun vendors and shoppers are going about their business and life goes on, but just a short distance away is a personal tragedy that no one knows about. I feel unsettled by the experience but in an odd way I have been touched by a stranger. For ten minutes our lives come together at a time of crisis just because we walked into a restaurant.
We leave the old city via the decorative Ajmeri Gate and walk along MI Road until we reach Lassiwala. Outside a man is stirring curd in a large flat wok that is charred and blackened. It simmers and bubbles. He scrapes the bottom with a large metal ladle to prevent it burning. The cream that rises is skimmed from the surface and allowed to cool. This is then mixed with evaporated milk and infused with fruits and spices of your choice. Rose water and Cardamom, Banana cinnamon and my personal favourite Pistachio, raison and saffron. I am sure there is a fair amount of sugar added as well. The lassi under most circumstances could be considered a meal on its own but we order a couple of vegetable samosas just to be sure. They arrive on newspaper with plum sauce dolloped on yesterday headlines. The entire meal is only 90 INR or around $1.50 for both of us.

The Palace of the winds

The Palace of the winds

After a break at our hotel our new found friend and rickshaw driver takes us to the Rambagh Palace, now a hotel, but in its heyday a working palace occupied by The Maharaja and his ethereal wife Rajmata Gayatri Devi, named the most beautiful woman in the world by Vogue magazine in 1940. We take a seat on the terrace in deep cane chairs and treat ourselves to some delicious cocktails. We are served by a tall man in his late 60’s. His face is still handsome and he moves with effortless style. Every order placed is received and complimented with a slight smile. The hotel manager kindly lets us wonder through the hotel, each room draped in rich fabrics opulent furnishings and exquisite objects owned by the royal family. The palace is magnificent and radiates an unmistakable sense of history that transcends time.
We learn how over the years Rambagh has been host to several illustrious guests, such as Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles, Jackie Kennedy to name but a few. As we leave this beautiful hotel I take one last look back and try to capture this moment in my mind.

Jaigarh Fort

Jaigarh Fort

Tomorrow we continue our journey south mindful of the wedding we are going to attend in Mumbai on the 11 December. Our next stop will be Pushkar a small city famous for its annual camel festival and temples dedicated to the creator god Brahma. The Murder refuse to take us to the Bus station in a final act of disgust but that’s okay we just walk 100 meters around the corner and take one for 60 rupees.