A Travellerspoint blog

South West China, Macau and Hong Kong

Happy New Year from the Far East!

Apologies for not writing before Xmas but I hope you all had a good one and wish everyone a ‘prosperous’ New Year…

I’m writing this from Hong Kong, probably the most iconic city in Asia and aside from being terrible for a vegetarian (they even use powdered chicken rather than salt) definitely gets placed as one of the greatest cities in the world for me, it feels like a wondrous amalgamation of New York, Rio and Singapore. Its acquisition is one of Britains most shameful moments in history; basically the Chinese wouldn’t buy British goods so the Brits tried turning the Chinese into addicts by illegally flooding the country with opium instead as they owned huge poppy fields in Bengal and elsewhere. When the Chinese authorities tried to stop this the British responded by sending a huge fleet and if they weren’t otherwise occupied elsewhere in Asia could have taken up the whole of China as a colony. However, when Britain handed it back in ’97 they handed back arguably the single most successful colony of anywhere in the world. The Chinese had long been looking jealously across at the territory’s success and anxious not to lose its momentum and agreed on a ‘one country, two systems’ approach where they won’t change any political or economic aspects of the territory for 50 years.

It’s reminiscent of Singapore in that everything works perfectly, from the street cleaning to what’s widely considered the best public transport system of any major city in the world and even the novelty of the mid-level escalators which take you up the slopes of Victoria Peak behind the city. When you get to the top, looking out on one of Manhattans only rivals for the best skyline in the world and its entrepreneurial, hardworking citizens you can’t help but feel it’s a city Ayn Rand would look on approvingly at.

But it’s also an incredibly beautiful place, most of the territory is made up of forested mountains and like in Rio you have 7 million people living both very densely but with superb access to nature. I spent the days wandering around the various districts of the city and at 30 cents a journey taking the best value cruises in the world- the local ferry system across the harbor. New Year was made up mainly of an OK rather than amazing firework display but I made the slightly strange decision to get up at 7am and walk off my hangover doing the 100km MacLehose trail that runs through the New Territories (so called since the British acquisition in 1898). The trails in HK are something of a walkers dream with abundant signposting and starting at the beach before crossing the mountainous spine behind Kowloon the trail was a great way of seeing some more of the territory. I did have one very scary moment when crossing through a nature reserve at night however when for the 2nd time this month I got surrounded by some stray dogs. Like that scene with the Rottweilers in The Omen when they noiselessly get into an attack formation it’s really quite terrifying. When it happened before in Tibet we ran down a hill into the nearest village but this time I was 3km away from the road so could do nothing more than arm myself with a rock (the method of animal discipline across Asia) run, and hope for the best. Thankfully only one of them came after me and he gave up after 50m or so. Whilst I’d been traveling with other people for most of the last 3 months and was quite enjoying being by myself again sometimes solo traveling isn’t always for the best and sleeping out rough is definitely one of those times.

Before I came to Asia if I was to pinpoint any moment when my yearning to go traveling again was at its strongest, it was in the slightly surprising form of when I first heard the BBC theme tune to the Beijing Olympics; in truth though probably since the age of 17 or so whenever I hear Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence the desire to come East is definitely awakened and I feel just very happy to be fulfilling it.

After recklessly never taking any anti-malarials yet always drinking the water I left South Asia with no doubt a fair few parasites for company, I first went to Tibet (which I'll write about when I leave China) and then headed to Sichaun and Yunnan in China's South West.

Unfortunately the agency we had to take the Tibet tour with lied to us about being able to extend our Chinese visas (we couldn't) and so we had to travel rather quicker than we would have liked through one of the most interesting parts of China. Yunnan is a beautiful mountainous province on the edges of the Himalayas which contains most of Chinas ever marginalized ethnic minorities, as you get near to the borders with Vietnam and Laos it felt like I was stepping back in time by a year as the ubiquitous Han Chinese identity faded amongst the different hill tribes. As in the border areas of Laos and Vietnam the people don't speak much of the national language, dress totally different wearing their luminously colored traditional clothes and just generally don't fit into the national identity. The most enjoyable way to get round and seeing some life was by renting a bicycle and meandering through some of the local villages, perhaps the most memorable part was seeing a Bai (tribal group) funeral which looked uncannily like a KKK procession as a standard bearer is followed by the coffin then the family all wearing white (the color of death in China) bed sheets around their head with the triangle shaped hoods! On this side of the border they're are also famous for their incredible terraced farming techniques. I saw some incredible rice terraces near the beginning of my trip in The Philippines and whilst the ones in Yunnan weren't as steep they were far more expansive in scope and at this time of year made for a fantastic photo spectacle as the combo of perfect blue skies and the crops being underwater made it look like thousands of individual infinity pools going down the hillsides.

Another equally impressive landscape was the breathtaking (and Eh? named) Tiger Leaping Gorge in the North of the province.

Depending on how it's measured it's one of if not the deepest gorge in the world and hiking through it is probably the most famous trail in China. After how tough the ones in Nepal were it felt very easy physically but looking down at the roaring Yangtze then up the near vertical cliff sides to 5500m peaks is a view which you really won't see many places in the world, although the trek will become lodged in my mind for one of the strangest incidents I can remember on my travels anywhere.

... We'd been walking for about a day and a half along the gorge and the previous night our guesthouse owner had warned us that ahead some villagers had commandeered parts of the path (after the government had already charged a fiver for entry to the gorge) and effectively demanded a toll for you to continue, if you didn't pay they'd been known to get violent (but only with foreigners). After a few hours an oldish woman tried getting us to pay 80p but we stepped beside her and carried on. We only got a few mouthfuls of abuse off her but a bit later I'd got ahead of my companion and came to a very narrow part of the path just above the water where I was met by a woman a couple of years older than me. She stepped in front of me and asked for 10 Yuan (= $1.35 or 2 loaves of bread) I tried stepping round her at which point she pushed me hard enough to knock one of the lenses off my sun glasses, unsurprisingly I wasn't too happy so gave her a mouthful then stepped forward to pick up the lens. At which point she started really laying into me, as in hauled me back by my t-shirt then started throwing as many kicks and punches as she could. At this point the path was no more than 4ft wide with nothing but a sheer cliff 50m or so down to the river below, but even thinking back to it makes me gasp was that she was doing this with a 4month old baby in her arms!!!

I've always been quite good at staying out of trouble and have never got into a fight but baby or not (it soon went flying) she genuinely seemed to be trying to kick me off the edge and as I had visions of Holmes and Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls I was in a bit of a moral quandary as to whether I should fight back. Thankfully I just about had enough presence of mind to stop her (she was only a small Chinese woman) rather than hit her and pinned her back at arms length and screamed my life time's quota of 'What the f**k are you doing(s)?!! at her to try and get her to stop. It didn't work. I tried walking away but then she threw a baseball sized rock which hit me on my back then spat at me, when she did this again and picked up another rock I thought that's enough and gripped her by the back of the neck to stop her so she bit me in response (I still have the scabs). At this point I made a more successful getaway and with my whole body shaking in a state of shock just thought I hope I never see such an act of extreme greed as to risk your own baby's life for the sake of a quid. Truly one of the strangest incidents of my life.

Because of the visa issues I had to make a long journey to Macau where I made the Wildean error of being in a Communist country for the 2nd Christmas in a row, but in Macau 'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning" which makes a neat summary of my very enjoyable Christmas. Macau was a Portuguese colony until as late as 1999 and is a fascinating place to see where East meets West in its religion, food, architecture blah blah blah- the real attraction are of course the casinos. I don't really get gambling in the sense that I know the odds are stacked against me and therefore feel no urge to play but the Chinese don't see it the same way. Wherever you are in the world if you want to find some Chinese- head to the local casino. Perhaps no other nationality seem to enjoy gambling as much as they do, one of the most frequent sights you see all over China are people playing and gambling at cards, checkers or lotteries at all times and in all places. They’re bewilderingly superstitious and all over China you see shops selling nothing but lucky charms as well as shops, restaurants named things like 888 hotel (it’s a very lucky number here). Apparently it stems from Confucianism where the best thing a man can be isn't honest or hardworking etc but lucky. Probably right, but unlike drugs or alcohol it is a hidden but genuine social problem and stories abound of family fortunes being lost in one night as well as supporting much of the business for the Triads. Either way in a culture where so much emphasis is placed on long term goals and the accumulation of success over time the obsession with gambling does feel more than a bit out of place.

Macau has been a casino resort town for over 150 years (and coincidentally has had a thriving pawn shop business for just as long), whilst most of the punters are from Hong Kong it is truly 'Asias playground' and there's a fortune being pushed around. Whilst it's been termed the Vegas of the East the term really should be applied the other way round as Macau has long since overtaken LV as the worlds premier gambling spot. The minimum bet on any of the tables is $25 but most of them are $65 and seeing one guy lose around $250 in 4 bets in the space of 2 minutes I was tempted to nudge him and say "You do know the odds are against you?".
And they were soooo much fun to wander round and people watch, like all the best drugs the constant visual stimulation felt very moreish and I had a bit of a mental struggle to convince myself to leave as staying up til the small hours in a casino every night probably isn't good for you. A few years ago they let the big American ones come in, from the slick Sands, Wynn and MGM Grand to the very touristy but wonderfully over the top Venetian. They contained everything you'd want in a casino- lots of very rich men chaperoned by lots of very beautiful women, ATMs everywhere and empty, overpriced designer stores where the staff look like the most bored people in the world, and all in overly ornate surroundings. Fantastic, although I also loved the grimier, old fashioned Lisboa where the rougher looking punters get ever more raucous as the night wears on under a thick fog of cigarette smoke. One area where Macau really does lack in comparison to Vegas is entertainment; in Vegas the hotels, restaurants and shows etc have now become so developed that the actual gambling only constitutes around a quarter of the hotels revenue- in contrast in Macau, it's all about the gambling. Whilst they've tried unsuccessfully introducing the Cirque de Soleil and a couple of other acts I just don't think the Chinese would be interested in Siegfried and Roy style acts or even bars/nightclubs when there's gambling to be done- I spent a particularly pathetic 20 minutes in the Wynn searching for a bar, when eventually found it consisted of nothing more than 3 small tables...

..But I have enjoyed a few beers this month as culturally, in a lot of ways I've definitely enjoyed the switch to the Far East...
Whilst I haven't quite become a dipsomaniac yet, being in a country where a beer doesn't cost more than your bed for the night and where 'nightlife' involves something more than listening to stray dogs barking has just been wicked and joyously taken advantage of. After so long with no real opportunities for going out it turns out I really quite like getting drunk and certainly being in a club with a beer in one hand, a tab in the other and a huge smile on my face whilst I Like It by Enrique Iglesias blares out has been a great part of my first few weeks here. Some races react really badly to alcohol (Mongolians, Aborigines, Maoris etc.) but the Chinese seem to go up about 5 gears; one of the main differences of the last month compared to my previous visit to China in 2003 is how much less interested the people are in me. Back then people would crowd around you and try and speak to you all the time but this time round they've been almost totally indifferent; until they start drinking and then they become immensely friendly and generous. I love how sociable the experience of eating and drinking is in China, you don't order a dish for yourself but one that can be shared amongst all your companions and they do the same, similarly you don't buy a drink for yourself but beers are gradually shared into smaller glasses and you do rounds of communal toasts. And they just will not let you pay no matter how much you drink, complete strangers who speak no English will drag you over and just refuse to accept money- on one long and drunken night out in Kunming we didn't pay for a single drink between us. The ability to indulge my embarrassing musical tastes aside it has been nice being somewhere a bit more relaxed too where people don't stare at you for minutes on end and after 9 months where I had I think one conversation with a local woman (the daughter of the family I stayed with in India) it does feel noticeably different walking around and interacting with people under a more relaxed unwritten behavioral code.

Some things haven't changed all that much though; when abroad it's long been a policy of mine that ‘when in Rome act like a Chinamen’. This has been very useful as it gives me carte blanche to spit, piss or perform virtually any other bodily function in public without a trace of shame. Having been in Asia so long I'm not exactly unused to seeing manners that would disgust my Mum but in China it feels more than a bit out of place. It's starting to become debatable as to whether China can still be considered a developing country, there are great road, rail, electricity and water systems and people have much better clothes and far more disposable cash than virtually all of the bigger countries I've been to on this trip but as my traveling companion described it "It's like cavemen with mobiles". When you're on a fairly comfortable train and the guys on the seats opposite you pick at a dinner consisting of nothing but pig hearts or chicken feet (both fried of course) washed down with moonshine like whiskey, throw the remains on the floor then spit and burp repeatedly for the next hour you can't help but think 'come on guys'! And 'offences' can be committed by anyone, more than a couple of times I've heard a hawk and spit that a Clydeside docker would be proud of only to notice it's been performed by a dainty looking girl clad in D&G. They are trying to change things, the local government in Beijing gave the locals lessons in how to behave in a more civilized way in front of foreigners before the Olympics and HK has a smoking ban whilst Macau now has a $75 fine if you're caught spitting on the street but, with their disgusting bathrooms and eating habits I think it'll take a few years for their manners to catch up to their wallets.

Whilst things are somewhat more expensive here, after 9 months in South Asia I'm really appreciating being in a more developed country. Having 24hr electricity, running water, pavements and a road system that works very much ups your quality of life, the 'intensity' of everyday life is much lower and I find myself much calmer and relaxed than in S Asia.

Tomorrow I’m heading back into China where this increasingly epic trip continues.

From Hong Kong,


Posted by carlswall 14:07 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

Eastern Nepal

Hello for the final time from South Asia, after having followed up the Annapurna Circuit by doing the Everest Base Camp trek my advice is that if you're having any 'weight problems' forget about wasting money on expensive health foods and arguments with your trainer over whether you've lost 3 or 3.5lbs after 8 months on WeightWatchers- just go trekking in the Himalayas. My non fat (he's French) companion on the Annapurna circuit lost 5kgs in 2 weeks and despite binge eating for the last week I now have a body which looks like Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn or The Machinist. Not attractive.
Which isn't a good description of uniquely flagged Nepal, despite being here for 2 months it really doesn't feel like it as I've spent over a month of it lost in some of the most memorable scenery you'll find anywhere on Earth. And even in a country which doesn't play any sport (what they talk about I don't know) it feels like a very fitting place to end my time in South Asia.

Its somewhere I can't say I ever really got pinned down in my head, in just about every respect- ethnically, culturally, religiously, linguistically, even down to the food they eat it felt exactly like it looks on the map ie squeezed between India and Tibet. A strong Nepalese 'flavor' never really presented itself to me, it always felt like something borrowed from its neighbors and it's definitely the incredible natural scenery which I found most memorable about the country.
Geographically Nepal probably isn't what most people would imagine; unlike Bolivia or Tibet which have huge plains at very high altitude that the population can eke a living out of, this side of the Himalayas are just too steep (in places rising 7000m over just 20km and skiing's not even possible) and have virtually no flat areas whatsoever once the hills start. Therefore the vast majority of the population live in the lower valleys ie at <2500m altitude with Nepalese highways (walking trails) leading up to ever smaller communities the higher you go.
The steepness of the mountains and the poverty of the people means Nepal is one of the most environmentally fragile countries in the world. Apart from the need to clear land for agriculture it obviously gets very cold during the Winter and trying to maintain the countrys forest cover is a constant struggle. When you chop down trees in mountain systems it causes lots of environmental problems. The soil loses the tree roots which act as the 'glue' to keep it together, in turn this causes landslides which both silts up streams and rivers ruining agricultural land and also means trees can't regrow on the slopes so villagers have to look elsewhere for fuel causing problems elsewhere- a vicious circle which Haiti for example is at the absolute nadir of.

However, despite having a rapidly growing population and being dirt poor Nepal is doing a great job in preserving and managing what they have and planning for a precarious future; aside from the help they've received from international NGOs and the like the lions share of the credit must go to the wonderfully humble and incredibly hardworking people. Definitely a feature of the country I've grown to love about the country they almost strike me as 'highland Thais' in their positivity and warmhearted natures and aside from the outstanding scenery it's much of the reason why the country has such a high repeat visit rate from tourists.
But as in Bangladesh and India one of the most frequent sights you see here are posters advertising visa services with "Come and live and work in Canada/Australia/UAE etc." as Nepals population has ballooned to nearly 30million and economic opportunities are very limited. It's one of the poorest countries in Asia coming in the bottom few on almost all development indicators (infant mortality, GDP, literacy rates etc.) and as several Nepalis have told me their ability to develop is largely out of their own hands being landlocked between the 2 great competing powers of India and China. As one local put it "If we do a deal with India, China gets angry and vice versa".
For decades under the staunchly Hindu monarchy they'd been reliant on Indian help to develop their infrastructure in exchange for resources but India has never really responded and most Nepalis are now strongly in favor of increasing ties with the Chinese under the influence of the Maoists in Parliament as the Chinese will tend to get things like bridge and road building done much faster. This is of course very controversial as Chinese plans to extend the Tibetan trainline all the way to Kathmandu and to dam up various rivers and therefore harness their awesome hydroelectric power will take little consideration of the environment, or anybody further downstream. However, in a country where even the capital regularly suffers 16hr blackouts and the vast majority of the population live on <$3 a day
serious efforts have to be made to find a way to develop whilst sustaining the countrys vital natural resources.

The hills and valleys have left a series of strong largely untainted tribal cultures of which the best known in the West are of course the Sherpas and the Gurkhas; the Sherpas aren't just porters but an ubertough Tibetan like group from the Everest region who quickly gained fame not only for their indefatigable climbing and carrying exploits but also for their pride in their culture which even amidst todays mass tourism on the trekking routes is still very visible- I particularly liked the distinctive septum rings which the women wear.
A bit more controversial are the Gurkhas and more specifically their positions in the British army which have long been open to any Nepalis not just the Gurkha tribe. In terms of status, becoming a member of one of the Gurkha regiments is virtually the highest thing ordinary Nepalese men can aspire to and the selection process is monumentally competitive as boys will spend several years in training specifically to pass the rigorous assessments budding recruits are subjected to. The reason it carries such a high status is partly the honour of being a soldier in the regiment etc but mainly financial. As with nearly all Asian countries working children will send a huge percentage of their pay cheque home and due to the salary earned being nearly up to British levels Gurkhas will often send home +75% of their wages so its no surprise families will throw week long parties when their sons are accepted as effectively the family is financially 'made' and there are plenty of stories of parents forcing their daughters into marrying Gurkhas for nothing more than the financial security it entails. And this is where social problems have arisen; the consequences of an individuals success/failure were explained to me during a couple of chats I had with local guys and their experiences of trying to get into the Gurkhas. One was a porter on the Everest Base Camp trek and was a couple of years younger than me, he told the story of after 3years training as a teenager he was rejected by the Gurkhas at the first round of testing because he was 2cm too short. He was carrying a load of no less than 110kg (they get paid by the kilogram so will carry up to 150kg or roughly 2.5x my weight) and could only walk short distances before having to rest as it was such a heavy load. He explained that the only other work option was as a subsistence farmer or perhaps another form of labourer and I couldn't help but feel very, very sorry for him as he trudged away. At the other end of the scale whilst on a bus journey the middle aged guy next to me told me he was an ex-Gurkha and taking advantage of the change in the law a couple of years ago was about to move to Hampstead of all places; he readily admitted that in a country as poor as Nepal the prize of success in getting in is now far too high and whilst it would be an exaggeration to say its life ruining if you're rejected, your options in so many areas (job,marriage prospects etc) look pretty bleak. Whilst Joanna Lumley et al obviously meant well in demanding equal rights as British soldiers the social situation that's been created here is just not fair.

Once again the main focus of the month was a trek, this time the 19day route around the Everest region. Most people make the trek much easier (cheating) by flying in to a point about halfway on the trek then renting porters to carry their stuff but I did it the hard way, walking 4 days in and out and carrying my bag the whole time. And it was tough. Whilst the profile of the Annapurna circuit was gradually up, over the high pass then gradually down, EBC was much more undulating. For example on the first day I had to ascend 1000m then descend it all straightaway followed by a tortuous 2nd day where I climbed 2000m before descending 800m. I appreciate those numbers might not mean much to many people but take my word for it when I say that's very tough. And then I got to altitude. In the Andes you'd be beginning to climb the higher peaks and anywhere else in the world you'd be in the clouds but 4 times on the trek I hit 5500m or so. If you've never been at serious altitude it does strange things to your body: you have only 50% oxygen as at sea level to play with, you're constantly thirsty as you're panting so much which means you lose a lot more fluid than at sea level, 'once every six seconds' becomes 'around once every six days' and sleeping is really hard not just with the cold but the unwanted requests from your bladder to empty it into outdoor toilets which at 1am at 5100m is not fun let me tell you. But whilst the nights suck it's the days where you get rewarded; about 10 years ago I seem to remember the newspapers announcing that Everest would be henceforward known as Chomolungma (the Tibetan name) but thankfully the needlessl PC change didn't stick as Everest simply couldn't sound any better. In sheer size as well as height its a gigantic mountain and up (fairly) closey it's daunting to see. The top is so high that it's actually out of the atmosphere and the 250kph winds which can hit strip the mountain of snow so the high parts are more of a chocolate brown color than the white you'd expect, indeed the most famous description of the mountain is "Like a grossly fat man in a room full of beautiful women". I really didn't agree with that as whilst the Everest Base Camp isn't all that great (you can't even see Everest's peak from it) the surrounding ice flows leading up to the mighty mountain are just breathtaking. However, probably my favorite part of the the trek was from another peak where we had perfect views of the beautiful Gokyo lake, the gigantic Ngozumba glacier as well as Cho Oyu (6th highest mountain in the world) Makalu (5th highest) Lhotse (4th highest) and Everest itself. I did the trek with a Dutch companion and looking out at the top of the peak I couldn't help but exclaim "In terms of mountain scenery this is surely the most spectacular region n the world".

On the way out I got really quite ill on another horrible ascent and after practically passing out on the path begged a local family to let me stay with them. Thankfully they did and after giving me the most welcome cup of tea I'll likely ever have I made a great 15hr recovery after feeling like 'Sancho Panza after the rose water' for a while. I then utterly thrashed myself to get back to a road and took the single most scary bus journey I've ever taken. Worse than the death road in Bolivia it was more of a sheep track than a jeep track and the driver lost control on the mud bath of a road so many times with nothing but 1500m+ drops down the cliff face to steady any falls. At times truly terrifying it was eventually 5hrs late which in Nepal is about par for the course. They have quite different ideas of time here, its currently the year 2067, its the only country in the world that I'm aware of that uses a '15' min measurement (ie Nepal is at GMT+ 5.45) when trekking if you ask how long to the next village '2hrs' would tend to mean 3-4 and literally the 'best' bus journey I've taken in Nepal was only an hour late. It's gotta rank as the most frustrating place I've been in for getting around as 4hrs become 9, 6hrs become 10 or 7hrs become 13 and entire days get lost. Conversely the one night bus I took turned up 3.5hrs early to arrive at 3.30am so had to sit around in the dark for 3hrs before the day began. But in truth I'm just thankful I've somehow spent just under 9mths in South Asia without being in a road accident of any sort. If it feels like I've written too much about how bad the roads are in this part of the world it's an indication of just how much your quality of life is lowered by them. Your are 30x more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in Europe and whilst lessons and the testing system in most countries have created a situation where 95% of drivers are well aware they have a potentially fatal weapon in their hands and take care accordingly, in this part of the world they just do not have this concept at all. A motorized vehicle is simply to get from A to B as quickly as possible and the bigger your vehicle the more clout you have and its everyone else's problem to get out the way. It's also a miracle I've not got into any fights as I've never given out so much abuse to people (drivers) as I have in the last few months- even when we're playing Brighton. Like mosquito bites you simply never get used to the feeling of cars or motorbikes missing your ankles by a few inches as the drivers constantly take wild, extreme risks with your life to save no more than a few seconds. Kathmandu could be a very nice place to be but it's image of a shangri-la has long since vanished due to the traffic. It apparently holds the terrible record of having the truly disgusting (and laughably 'sacred') Bagmati as the most polluted river in the world running through it and has one of the lowest air quality ratings of any capital city in the world. The streets are rarely more than 8-10m wide and with vehicles going both ways not following any sort of rules aside from a vague 'drive on the left' like virtually all cities in S.Asia it's simply very stressful walking around. I realized I'm subconsciously having to give myself pep talks to get up and face the streets and it's definitely the thing I'm most looking forward to leaving behind in South Asia.

That's because I'm now in a very excited mood as I'm off to the Far East tomorrow beginning in Tibet; so far things have been generally very easy traveling in Asia. In terms of languages whilst they're very difficult in just about everywhere there have been enough people who speak English so getting around just hasn't been a problem, in fact the only place I had to pick up some local lingo was Indonesia and that's widely regarded as one of the easiest major languages in the world! Perhaps best of all though has been the prices, with the exception of Taiwan at the very beginning and Singapore everywhere has been cheap and whilst in some places (Bangladesh, Indonesia) you get a quality that reflects that, in the likes of Vietnam or Malaysia you pay a bit more and the quality of things is fantastic. Certainly in terms of value for money Asia is miles ahead of any other continent particularly in accommodation and of course the amazing food. They do make a lot of money back on visas though as when Bangladesh charge $65 for a month or Nepal $100 for 2months a quick sum shows me I've somehow spent 8% of my total budget on visas! I have at least been able to get them however and I'm a little bit worried moving onwards at the increase in costs and starting to get rejected for visas in the route home I have planned.
Hopefully the good stuff will continue though as I head into China but as with Myanmar please, please, please don't write anything remotely sensitive. As I understand it they filter emails looking for certain phrases ie Dalai Lama, Tianamen Square massacre etc so if you're gonna email me don't put in anything too controversial as stories of the Chinese authorities 'bombing' email accounts and the like abound and obviously I'd like to avoid all that. Keep well.

From Kathmandu,

Posted by carlswall 14:05 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Western Nepal

Iris Murdoch once wrote "There are two types of people, those of the sea and those of the mountains". Obviously that's nonsense (what if you're Mongolian?) but I think I definitely prefer life in the mountains. Nepal is almost unique in never having been conquered by anyone else. The British of course tried and failed (so asked the Gurkhas to join them) but despite being able to see the worlds highest mountains from the Indian border Nepal was strictly closed to foreigners and as late as the 1950's very little was known about the country. Under an all powerful King Nepalis weren't allowed to leave the country and any sort of development was strictly prohibited even to the extent that road construction was banned. As a result the various tribal cultures stayed virtually intact, protected by the country's mountainous geography, so perhaps only Tibet features more prominently in the Western idea of the hidden or mystic East.

The problem with cutting themselves off for so long is that modernity has arrived very fast and in many ways the country just isn't geared up for it. As late as the 1970's there was no electricity, motorized vehicles or roads and so whilst most countries have built their infrastructure and organizational systems up over a long period in Nepal it's had to happen very quickly. As a result things don't run as well as they might so getting things done isn't always easy and in the cities it can be a surprisingly stressful place to be which I wasn't expecting after India.
As you're probably aware one of the unfortunate side-effects of this surge to modernity was a 10yr civil war between a peasant based Maoist group and government forces which finished in 2006, it devastated the economy and as much as 1/3rd of the population fled to India to escape the fighting. The Maoists eventually won the war and gave up their arms in favor of the ballot box although the country is currently in a political deadlock with no government formed for over 100 days after very close elections. Knowing all this Nepal seems quite a strange place for a Communist uprising to occur in the first place.
I realized a long time ago that seeing 'poverty' doesn't really upset me but seeing unjustifiable rich poor gaps really does. This can take different forms, from the barbed wire and armed guards to keep the poor out of rich neighborhoods in South Africa to the disgraceful conspicuous consumption in The Philippines where if people have the money they will buy those flashy pair of Nikes or build that gaudy concrete mansion, totally oblivious to the grinding poverty around them. None of that applies at all in Nepal; something likes 2/3rds of the population live on less than $3 a day and you simply do not see any ostentatious displays of wealth or even many people who look/act wealthier. About half the bus journeys I've done in Nepal have been on the roof because each and every bus is crammed to the rafters- because barely anybody can afford a car. There isn't a 'landowning class' to rally against as the King nationalized all forests and parklands in the 1950's so it definitely feels likes an odd place for Communism to be successful.
The Maoist justification for starting the war was that for years Nepal was run by an overly powerful occasionally corrupt succession of Kings but the Royal Family aside it's hard to see who their ire was aimed at. The Royalists didn't really do themselves any favors however when famously in the midst of the fighting in 2001, the Crown Prince got drunk, got hold of a machine gun and downed almost his entire family after his parents rejected his choice of bride. Afterwards he turned the gun on himself but Royalist Nepal drew international ridicule when they crowned him King whilst he was in a coma, which he didn't come out of. Not really a surprise they didn't last much longer.

If anything the real economic gap in Nepal is between tourists and locals. Since the end of the war visitor numbers have shot back up and a few large 'tourist ghettos' have formed in a couple of the more popular places. In these areas whether you use the internet or buy a haircut or an apple the locals will quote you prices which are simply ridiculous relative to what the locals can afford. As in the poorer countries in SE Asia (Laos,Cambodia) you come to realise there's a dual economy in operation and once again I felt very uncomfortable in shops and restaurants where the only locals are staff. Food is where you notice the divide most as Nepalese restaurants normally only serve the very limited chowmein, momos (Tibetan word for dumplings) and rice and dal; but if you go to a tourist restaurant you can get things like pizzas and nice cakes- but at minimum 3x the price. The profit margins on food are so high that they've perhaps come to expect too much and even got greedy- particularly on the trekking routes. Certainly signs in your hotel saying 'If you don't eat in our restaurant you room bill will be charged x10' or hotel owners coming into your room at 10.30pm demanding to know why you haven't eaten dinner yet (we'd sneaked out) isn't something I expected in Nepal.

I have done some really cool little things this month- seeing 3 scarily massive rhinos in the wild in a national park and 'completing the set' of the 4 holy Lord Buddha sites (birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death) being particularly memorable. But of course the main attraction to tourists in Nepal is trekking and that's what I've spent half my time doing. This is one area where Nepal have got themselves very organized and are pretty much the world leaders in setting up trekking routes and facilities. The two most famous are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna circuit which join the likes of the Inca, Appalachian and the Santiago as the most popular treks in the world. I didn't actually know it before I came to Nepal but Oct/Nov is peak season and after deciding to do the 2wk/250km Annapurna circuit there were a few points where you lost the 'wilderness feel' amidst the crowds. But that's only the most mild of grumbles in what was a truly outstanding couple of weeks. Unlike virtually everywhere in South America there are nowhere near as many opportunities to see amazing natural sights in Asia but those couple of weeks really bucked the trend. On the first day I got very lucky and met a very amiable Frenchman who walked at the same pace as me. As you trek up through fields of cannabis (which made the nights so much more bearable) and begin to see wonderfully fluffy yaks which do great cheese and you find yourself having to fight the urge to steal the insanely cute Tibetan children you feel wonderfully free in the indescribably beautiful landscape.

Following a request from my Gran I switched the format of the email from the Sunday Times to the Daily Star so I hope you enjoyed the shortest email I've sent on this trip. I can't see the next one being miles longer as I now head off to do the Everest Base Camp trek so will have no email contact for a while.

From Kathmandu,

Posted by carlswall 14:02 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Northern India

Hello after my final month in this crazy country, where the women dress so vibrantly and wear an aurific amount of jewelery and the men are styled so bewilderingly badly- the look of choice is sandals, skin tight jeans, a grandad shirt with a 'tache and side parting to top it off. I don't know how much coverage the Commonwealth Games are getting but I'm in Delhi now and the city is abuzz with the preparations. It's good to see they've kept their word in delivering a 'truly Indian games' with the phrases 'corruption, delays, inefficiencies and unfit for human habitation' appearing most frequently!
It's been a fittingly eclectic mix this month where I found myself in a riot, saw the Dalai Lama and definitely realized 'I love my India'.

After the tranquility of the Golden Temple I fancied a change and headed up to Kashmir; which aside from being one of the greatest guitar rifts of all time is apparently rated by all the security agencies as the world conflict most likely to cause a nuclear war. It's been a terrible Summer there as I'll go on to show but the story begins all the way back at Partition in 1947.

Whilst the British did many good things in India (railways, an effective administration etc) their role in India's independence and it's partition was not a positive one. They complacently thought India would remain part of the Empire forever and as late as the 1930's were still building New Delhi as the new capital of the Raj. After WWII however independence became inevitable and the British found they'd prepared no functional plan to allow the most diverse country in the world and its many possible problems to leave the Empire peacefully. After setting an independence date of 1948, religious and racial tensions between communities grew over who would hold power in the new country, in particular the Muslims were worried that the Hindu majority would freeze them out of all power and they would effectively become second class citizens. They demanded their own state and the Brits hurriedly and somewhat disastrously brought forward independence by a year to 1947 with the country splitting into 3, with the new Muslim state of Pakistan forming Western and Eastern parts.

In the build up to independence literally tens of millions of people moved across the country to where they thought they would be safe, Hindus and Sikhs to what would be the new India and Muslims to what would be the new Pakistan. The loss of their homes, property and businesses understandably created huge resentment amongst the refugees and as the 2 groups left their homes and crossed each other half a million people were killed in riots and skirmishes in a terribly bloody period in India's long history. Many other problems were caused by this huge movement of people and for example the famous famine in West Bengal in the 1940's was caused essentially by the state being unable to feed the extra 4million Hindu refugees who'd crossed from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Attempts in the 20th century at drawing arbitrary lines to separate groups based on religion were spectacularly unsuccessful in Palestine and Ireland amongst others but by far the attempt to carve out a Muslim state in India was the biggest, and certainly in terms of numbers of people affected the least successful.
Peoples identities are formed by many things including ethnicity, language, the work they do and many other factors; nowhere is this more true than in India and the idea that religion could somehow trump all these factors and unite disparate groups was always very unlikely to work- for example nobody could describe Bangladesh as being 'Islamic' ahead of being 'Bengali'.
India's different religious groups were settled in pockets literally all over the country and whilst India under Nehru and Gandhi promised a secular society where state was separated from and took no interest in peoples religion, the leaders of the new Pakistan were quite clear that it would be a 'Muslim only' state. To compare the 2 countries since partition shows India in one of its most positive aspects whereas it's easy to see why Pakistan has become one of the worlds least loved countries.

India has a constitution similar to the US and many of the positives of American civil society have been replicated here. India is the most religiously and culturally diverse country in the world and the methods they've used to keep the country together and for the most part happy is really quite admirable. Many countries in Asia are also diverse and have competing claims for power from smaller groups but whilst many of its Asian neighbors like Indonesia, Myanmar and most famously China simply send in the army to start hitting people when they start requesting self determination, India has gone the other way. It has devolved power on most things ala the USA to a state level so that minority groups have access to decision making that Tibetans or the various tribes in Myanmar can only dream of.
Whilst there's definitely not enough states (only 28 for over a billion people) and they're terribly uneven in size- Sikkim has 500,000 people whilst Uttar Pradesh would be the 6th biggest country in the world with 170million people, the system is still a model that much of Asia could and should follow.
Whilst the 2nd biggest political party the BJP is adamantly pro Hindu it's still remarkable how united the country is regardless of religion and whilst in India no-one seems to care that much that the Prime Minister is a Sikh or that the 2 biggest Bollywood stars are Muslim. In Pakistan however, the countrys best cricketer is coerced into converting from Christianity to Islam in the face of public criticism from politicians and death threats from members of the public and the country is on the fast track to becoming a failed state.

For most of its history Pakistan has been run by little more than a series of corrupt gangsters (sometimes in army fatigues, sometimes not) and the non-Muslim world and India in particular can take a great deal of schadenfreude at seeing what a country which with no sense of irony decided to call itself 'The Land of the Pure' has become.
The Muslims in the Pakistan side of Punjab had been the driving force in the push for independence but quickly decided that they didn't actually want to share any money or power with any of the new arrivals from elsewhere in India and sent them to the furthest, poorest parts of the country. Amongst other things they've continued to be very poor, have founded the Taliban and due to infiltration from competing clerics from Iran (Shias) and Arabia (Sunnis) with their different messages, Pakistan has effectively been the frontline in the civil war within Islam for the last 30 years.
Similarly just mention the word Pak-i-stan to the normally incredibly placid Bangladeshis and watch them explode in anger. The political elites in Punjab dominated Pakistan couldn't suffer Bengalis to speak their own language rather than Urdu and after East Pakistan declared independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistans leaders made the decision to instruct the army to slaughter 2.5million Bengalis aiming firstly for those with education in an attempt to give the new country no chance of growth, more famously they also authorised the mass raping of 500,000 Bengali women in a disgustingly vindictive farewell to whom they called their 'brothers'.

As with the French in Indochina and the Dutch in Indonesia the British were also guilty of leaving the new country based on administrative boundaries rather than reflecting who actually lived there. One of the things I've been most surprised about Indians is that it's very difficult to tell where people are from based only on their looks, I couldn't really pick any physical characteristics which say someone is from the North or South. They pretty much look the same, except in the part of the country which sits incongruously above Bangladesh and in the Himalayas in the Northwest, and broadly speaking if they don't look Indian- they don't want to be. The Indian army has been fighting a variety of rebel armies in the North East which don't attract too much world attention but its the Kashmir issue which has really led India and Pakistan to be deadly enemies rather than neighbourly rivals over the years.

At partition all princely states had the choice of which country to join but Kashmir voted for neither wanting to go independent, however, because Kashmiris are majority Muslims Pakistan believes the territory should belong to them and indeed Kashmir is the 'K' in Pakistan.
Therefore after partition they invaded the valley at which point the Kashmiris asked India for help...but they never left, claimed the valley is 'India' and so began 60+ years of on off skirmishes over the area with the 2 sides split across a line of control. A few years later China also stole a part of the territory and the locals have been caught very much in the middle of one of the most politically volatile areas on earth.
They call it 'Paradise on Earth' and it is a beautiful area in the foothills of the Himalayas with fertile soils, gorgeous lakes and distinctive architecture making it marvelously photogenic and attractive to tourists. However, the continued army presence has led to it becoming a hell for the locals and have become increasingly vocal and violent about fulfilling their dream of independence. Apparently the rioting works something similar to gang violence in northern American cities like Chicago or Detroit where it's simply too cold in Winter to be out doing anything and then in the Summer things kick off. And as you probably know if you've been following the news it's been a terrible Summer in the valley, the trigger incidents were the army shooting dead a 8yr old boy and the alleged rape of a local by 2 soldiers but the chronic unemployment amongst the population and virtual police state now in place means there didn't really need to be a trigger. Over 100 people have been killed in rioting and the inadequately trained Indian army operating under a ludicrously ill-thought out policy of martial law just cannot get a grip on the situation, almost daily managing to kill teenagers and arresting hundreds of others who are doing nothing more than throwing stones in defiance of orders to stay inside.

When I got to the capital Srinigar they were on a 1 day week (Friday naturally) with the army maintaining a curfew the rest of the time. I was staying on a wicked houseboat on the lake near the old town and I somewhat foolishly ignored the family's advice and ventured into town on the Friday. It was fine up until about 3pm when I saw some people running towards me and obviously something was happening. I was near the gigantic Jama Masjid (main mosque with a capacity of 33333!) and thought unless the army fancied a bloodbath I'd be safe in there. Then I heard what I thought was a gunshot (I saw on the news later it was a tear gas round) and waited for 15mins but there was still plenty happening and people running around all over the place. The main street by the mosque was covered in rock and stone debris ala Palestinian riots with troops in riot gear facing off the stone throwing protesters. When I looked round and saw a teenager with what looked like a broken nose I thought that'll do and desperately tried to find a rickshaw to try and get out. Thankfully I did very quickly and we sped the other way... only to find ourselves stopped by another protest. This one was led by women which is a pretty common tactic in India to try and stop the army getting violent in protests but again something happened and I don't mind admitting my heartrate went through the roof as the crowd started stampeding towards us. The driver very calmly said 'Just stay inside don't worry' and about 30 seconds later he had enough space to sprint through the gap between the rioters and a besieged army post. It's fair to say I wasn't unhappy when we made it out to the safety of the lake where I was staying. Whilst it was scary enough what added another element of danger to it was the fact I was the only Westerner anywhere near things and I was afraid that whilst they hate Indians more, the protesters may have gone after me a bit. This is because for many years Pakistan has sent infiltrators across the border to act as agent provocateurs in the starting of riots in a religious tone. Every local I spoke to just wants independence from India and definitely don't want to be part of Pakistan but in "the continued export of terrorism" from Pakistan as David Cameron put it recently they've tried to turn the issue into a religious one. Whilst some anti-Pakistan politicians will claim that Kashmir is an 'inalienable part of India' it's quite clearly nothing like that on the ground, culturally it's completely different and the people look much more like central Asians than Indians with much lighter complexions, grey green eyes and noses that a Rabbi would be proud of- they even drink their tea differently! As with China and the troubled North Eastern states, India claims that if they let the area go independent Pakistan would simply annex it and there is a degree of truth in this. However, India also knows that aside from the strategic importance of the area located between India, China, Pakistan and Central Asia if they let it go independent the whole structure of India could begin to collapse as a domino effect of independence movements across the huge country could take place.

I've never been somewhere with such a big military presence, certainly not over such a large area and it does ruin the landscapes. Often you'll emerge on top of a beautiful pass only to see the next valley ruined by the barbed wire and khaki colors of an army camp with the endless streams of army trucks needlessly engaging in the national pastime of honking their horns every 4 seconds. But apart from the visual pollution as is often the way with conflict zones I couldn't help but think what a terrible waste of resources it all is. Kashmir is one of the most expensive borders in the world to maintain and to give a spot example- the Siachen glacier is an area near the line of control which costs India alone $4million to maintain a military presence. As you can probably imagine nobody can live there as it's too cold and for 2 countries as poor as India and Pakistan to spend so much money 'protecting' an area where they're not even wanted is an unforgivable waste of money- it's not surprising the rest of the world really didn't want to give any aid to Pakistan during the recent terrible floods. It was reminiscent of the Falklands Islands issue for Argentina (though not as extreme) in that neither country has that strong a claim on the territory but it's been the perfect vessel to act as an issue around which the populations of the two very diverse countries can rally around. Despite the pleasant surroundings and late Summer climate it was a sad place to be and at the very least India have got to reduce the hated army presence and remove the martial law in order to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants.

One definite positive side effect of the army presence is they've created a miraculous road network in some of the most difficult landscapes to build in on the planet. Despite its size I wouldn't describe India as a particularly beautiful country, off the top of my head only 4 landscapes really stand out in the country as most of the land is used for agriculture on floodplains. However as you head East from Srinigar the landscape becomes mindblowing as you go through different smaller ranges of the Himalayas with the road closely following the magnificent glacier fed Indus as it heads down the mountains. They've built most of the highest passes in the world in order to give supplies routes for the army up to the highest, the awesome Khardung La. At 5600m it's so high you need an acclimatization stop as you ascend and even in early September parts of the road were frozen over, it's a remarkable piece of engineering to have first built it and then to keep it open all year. At the top looking down on the amazing road I found myself reflecting it was a shame Phil the Greek wasn't with me as "It doesn't look like it was made by an Indian". As you can probably imagine you could never go much faster than 20km per hour but after a hard 2 day journey you reach the Buddhist area of Ladakh. Aside from being very high (pretty much everywhere is 3500m+) it gets a level of rainfall similar to parts of the Sahara desert. Nothing can grow on the slopes of the mountains so the landscape is something like a mountainous desert with only a few spots where life is sustainable on the riverbanks.
Once you've obtained a pesky permit from the army you're allowed to visit a few isolated valleys and I spent a few cracking days hiking from village to village, once again I was just overawed by how steep the Himalayas are. Even the Andes didn't feel the same with mountains here shooting up to 3000m to the white tops seemingly directly above you- it's a landscape that almost feels scary as your eyes can't stop looking up and around you. Despite the normally miniscule rainfall about a month before I arrived for the first time ever apparently there had been a terrible flash flood which utterly destroyed many of the houses in the main town of Leh. They were made of mud brick and so simply couldn't stand any pressure from the floodwaters which was very sad to see as whole neighborhoods were having to live in tents as the debris of their homes still lay around them.

The road South towards Delhi was washed away by the floods and so any transport had to do an extra day detour to get down, officially the road closes on the 15th September and I turned up to the bus stand at 4am on the 14th hoping to get a passage out but was informed that all the buses were full for the next couple of days so I had no obvious means of getting out other than by plane. Then one of the drivers jokingly said 'Well you could sit on the floor!!' so I instantly said 'Yes' and realising he could make quite a bit of money out of me drove for 22hrs over the next 2 days with me sat on the floor of the minibus- my back hurt at the end of it. It was quite an adventure as we broke down about 9pm about 3500m up on one of the passes, it was absolutely freezing and being an hour away from the nearest settlement we eventually had no choice but for the driver to freewheel it all the way back down to the nearest village, which in the dark on single lane unpaved mountain roads was a lot of fun.

When we got down it was into the lower foothills of the Himalayas which have become very famous and turned into a hippy paradise since the Dalai Lama arrived to claim asylum in 1959. Several hundred thousand Tibetan refugees have followed him and whilst they've settled in India wherever there's altitude, it's in the area around the Dalai Lama's residence in the oddly named McLeod Ganj where they're most visible. On my last day in Leh I was actually lucky enough to hear the great man speak and you can get really close to him though he has to have several bodyguards around him 24/7 as the Chinese keep sending spies into the Tibetan community! Whilst I couldn't understand his speech (it was in Tibetan) it was a lot of fun watching the crowd. They went crazy when he appeared bowing in homage for 10-15 minutes and the lady to my right spontaneously started crying in an indication of just how much his presence/guidance means to them in their dispossessed state. Whilst it's probably not the right place to write about the Tibet issue, seeing the various exhibitions and museums of what they've been put through is really quite shocking and it's a thing of wonder how positive they remain on both a day to day level and also that eventually they will get their freedom- which doesn't look likely in the medium term. The arrival of the tourists has given them a way of making money selling handicrafts etc but Indians from the plains have noticed this and moved up to try and claim some of the business creating a remarkable comparison between the two peoples. Tibetans have a real air of dignity about them as they quietly sit counting their beads, serenely contemplating getting off the wheel; in contrast the Indians are the same as on the plains below constantly hassling any foreigners with the usual "My friend, my friend come and see my Free Tibet souvenir shop". Whilst this obviously doesn't show Indians in the best light the fact they've put the Tibetans up and given them a safe refuge (unlike much of the rest of the world in the face of China's economic might) for 50 years now shows a great deal of magnanimity and once again shows India in one of its more positive, inclusive lights.

Before I made my final stop in Delhi I visited the fantastic city of Chandigarh- India's only major attempt at being a civilized country. At partition the Punjab was split down the middle and the main city Lahore went to Pakistan so a new capital was needed to accommodate all the refugees. India commissioned the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to construct it and if you haven't had the misfortune to be dragged round an exhibition on him by me,between 1930-1960 or so he was the world's foremost modernist architect. And I loved it! Everything works, there are no traffic jams or stray dogs and there are parks and huge sculptures dotted around the city. A fantastic antidote to pretty much every other Indian city sat by the lake on my final evening there with classical music piping out of the greenery behind me I had to pinch myself to remember I was actually in India rather than a garden city in Hertfordshire on a late Summer evening.

Then I got a return to normality as I somewhat illogically finished off my time in India at the nations giant capital of Delhi which for some reason is virtually the only major city which has retained its Anglicized spelling. The overwhelming impression I have of Delhi is that it's a city where your experience of 'space' hits the extremes; it's been 'rebuilt' 5 times and the older parts of the city are almost unbearably cramped and dirty. In contrast New Delhi was designed by the British less than 100 years ago and there's just too much space with all the major parts of the city too spread out to get around by foot. Whilst it has great sightseeing and beautiful bright green pigeons instead of grey ones it was ultimately a fairly unsatisfying place to end my time in India. It's got a really unpleasant climate (it can get to 50 degrees in Summer) and is another city where the gap between the haves and have nots is truly woeful. Whilst the poor live in the tented shanty towns found all over the city the rich live in shiny towerblocks (their maids and drivers live in dorms in the basements) and shop in the grotesque A/C malls which I've increasingly realized is the symbol of the rich poor gap all over Asia. India probably faces a more diverse set of problems than any other country in the world whilst I've tried to describe but I think trying to improve the quality of life of the poorer sections of society over the next 20-30yrs must be the most pressing one for me. I don't always feel that optimistic about problem riddled countries I've been to (Haiti being the most extreme case I've seen on my travels) but despite it's problems India is definitely somewhere I feel pretty positive about. Bouyed by its terrific economic growth and a political system which certainly tries to give everyone a chance I can definitely see it achieving its desired superpower status in the coming years.

I've now been in India for over 5 months which is probably as long as I'm likely to travel anywhere, unsurprisingly I think I feel about 20% relieved to be leaving a country which has "...no electricity, drinking water, sewage treatment, traffic controls or concepts of honesty, discipline, courtesy, personal space or personal hygiene". Trying to get anything done is inescapably difficult, for example I had to see 4 people over 1.5hrs just to send a small package home from the Post Office as "We don't have envelopes or marker pens here- you need to go to the market".
Whilst most of the above I can deal with OK some things I just never got used to in India, there are a lot of frustrating things about the country that can't really concern a visitor like the dowry and caste systems or even the immense hypocrisies of the society as a whole (treatment of animals, portrayal of sex in the media etc).
However, the way people interact with you here is something I've never really adjusted to on a day to day level. Delhi has a very new and fairly good metro system - but if ever a people don't deserve a decent metro it's here. In India they incredibly don't have the concept of letting people off before getting on-board public transport- everyone tries to get on/off at the same time and in such an overcrowded city the rush hour is utter carnage. You've literally no choice but to forcibly wrestle people out the way to get on or off the trains and whilst I'm bigger than most Indians and more importantly get much angrier at the whole situation, every time I stumbled out of the maelstrom I found myself incredulously muttering to the nearest bystander "How can you live like this?".
Whilst the vast majority of Indians I found to be very good natured their social skills really differ to Western expectations; it's probably the only place I've been to where I think its better not learning any of the language. Everybody always want to know as much about you as possible through the endless rounds of conversations which just don't go anywhere and most of all being stared at all the time. A few nights ago as I waited for my train to Delhi a middle aged bloke came and stood 3ft away from me and stared at me for a solid 10 minutes, not saying anything just staring. Whatever you're doing and wherever you are in India as a white person you will ALWAYS have people watching you and I've never learned to deal with this. Whilst in Bangladesh I found myself fairly forgiving because they're so isolated both geographically and culturally, in India they're not and even in downtown Delhi or Mumbai where there are lots of foreigners there for all kinds of reasons people are fixated by you in an ultimately unsettling way. For various reasons India is not a great place to travel by yourself and I REALLY wouldn't recommend the same to girls!

But 80% of me is very satisfied too. There's a saying that "You hate India for the first 2 weeks and love it for ever after" and in mine and my Mums case we detested the place for the few weeks before we arrived as through a combination of red tape and outright dishonesty from various Indian embassies both my Mum's 2 wk holiday and several months of my trip looked ruined. In fact but for a handful of days my entire stay in India has been done so illegally and its only thanks to the incompetence of a couple of immigration officers that I've got away with it. Once I did manage to get in though I've loved the place from the word 'go'. India has a cultural breadth and depth to it which no other country in the world possesses and being here for so long and seeing so much of the place has been both instantly stimulating but also cathartic too as the traveling has progressed and I've seen the different sides to the country. I found the sensual experience of traveling in India stronger than anywhere else I've been, and whilst that includes the smells of wandering cows, the endless cacophony of car-horns and the sights of extreme poverty it also includes many, many positives. From the cliched swirls of the saris and scents of the spices to the incredible food and the amazing sightseeing, both in the historical buildings etc sense but also just constantly seeing how life goes on in this indescribable country. Indians would often ask "What's your opinion on India?" and I could never give them an answer; as you can probably gather from the tangential nature of these emails (sorry!) I found India to be one of the most intellectually stimulating places I've been to. I found opinions I have on lots of things constantly challenged as people live a life with completely different priorities than we have in the West, which I guess is much of the reason why I enjoy traveling so much. Aside from the 'bigger' picture I also found there were loads of little things I loved about India, from reading the Times of India with my umpteenth chai of the day, the fact it has 3 cricket channels and reading through some of the fantastic literature the country has produced since WWII- I even got through the 1,349 page A Suitable Boy!
It will take a bit of getting used to not hearing the Hindi love songs constantly blazing out from radios and the overwhelming colors that make up the mesmeric streetlife in India- I will miss it greatly.

But tonight I take the bus to Nepal where I'm guessing the assault on the senses won't be quite so great.
From Delhi,

Posted by carlswall 13:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

North Western India

Hello once again from this strange place where rats and monkeys are worshiped but the most sacred animal of all the cow is lb for lb surely also the worlds stupidest, after spending some time with them in the desert I definitely think the amazing camels should have a higher profile.

I've spent most of the last few weeks in the wonderful desert state of Rajahstan which along with Goa is probably India's most tourist friendly state. Whilst much of that is down to its proximity to Delhi, despite it's desert setting it's surprisingly colorful and boasts several beautiful colour coded cities. I went to a couple of cities painted blue to show the the inhabitants are Brahmins and they're cracking places to wander round. Many of the houses are built as mansions round courtyards called havelis and the streets are tiny alleyways which all look the same in blue so it's like wandering round mazes.
When I was in Jodhpur they had a kite festival where the entire town goes up to their roofs and start drinking beer and flying kites in the late afternoon. It was like a scene out of the Kite Runner as literally thousands of kites filled the sky and just an amazing slightly old fashioned feeling spectacle. I also saw some Bond pilgrimage sights in Udaipur (Octopussy was filmed there) before I headed onto Jaipur which is painted a distinctive pink as a welcoming color to visitors. It's an extremely atmospheric city flanked by steep hills on 3 sides with imposing forts on top of them. One afternoon I climbed up to one of them when it started to rain; it's been the monsoon season here for the last couple of months and at times it can really get you down.
Often it will start raining mid-morning and just not stop til early evening which means more than a few times whole days have been lost amidst an ongoing battle to keep things dry. The rain that fell when I was in Jaipur didn't seem very strong but wouldn't stop after a couple of hours so I had to descend before it got dark. When I got to the bottom I was shocked to see the city underwater past my knees. It took me 2hrs to wade about 2km and most of it was in the dark as the power had gone out too. It was initially quite fun until I saw a dead floating rat then I started wondering what I was stepping on. All the locals were ecstatic saying it was the best rain they'd had in 5yrs or 8yrs or even 60 yrs as one guy reckoned but all the roads got ripped up so it left loads of potholes and I wasn't surprised to hear a bloke drowned after he got swept down a drain and drowned after his scooter crushed him. Poor lad eh?

Being back in a more touristy area brought back uncomfortable reminders of quite how much you can get hassled in India. Whilst I've learned that you can't have any sort of personal space in public like when drinking a tea or reading in a park; at times in Rajahstan it honestly feels like every single person is trying to invite you into their shop, hotel, restaurant etc with the same crappy "My friend, how are you today?" chat up lines. There's an oversupply of everything: hotels, restaurants etc and with unlimited supply of cheap labor as 'salesmen' seemingly everyone is desperately trying to make a buck off tourists. I long ago perfected how to say no without speaking or looking at them (hand up, fingers outsplayed and wiggle your wrist) but speaking to foreigners who've not been here long Indians don't seem to come across very well. In the words of a German guy I met "This is the sh***iest country I've ever been to. In 2 weeks every conversation I've had with an Indian has involved them asking for money". Whilst that's almost certainly a slight exaggeration I can well believe if you didn't get far off the Golden Triangle (main tourist area around Delhi) you could think 80%+ of Indians are just lying ne'er do wells. The Indian Tourist board recently did a survey of foreign visitors and rather than the beggars or the dirt the hassles from touts was rated overwhelmingly the worst thing about the country for visitors. Whilst I find Indians are overinvasive and often simply irritating I have also found their hearts are for the most parts in the right place too and as in most of the rest of Asia this can be seen in the lack of crime.
Unsurprisingly I often find myself comparing my long trip in South America with the one here. One of the main conversation topics amongst travelers in Latin America is crime and everyone has unpleasant stories they've heard or have had happened to them. To give a couple of personal examples, I spent a few days in Peru with a Swiss girl who got raped 2 weeks later and my sister spent some time with a German girl in Ecuador who was later tragically murdered. In Asia, with the exceptions of a little bit in The Philippines and Vietnam you hear hardly any of these type of stories and without doubt the lack of crime and more importantly the lack of fear of crime has been one of the best things about traveling here for so long. When I get on public transport my hand doesn't instantly cover my pocket, you don't have to constantly keep an eye open on who's around you and I cannot even remember the last time the 'danger sixth sense' kicked in. In the last email I compared Mumbai somewhat to Rio or Jo'burg but walking in Mumbai at 4am felt completely safe whereas a similar experience I had in Sao Paulo was extremely scary. It says a lot of good things about the strength of communities and also the Asian concept of saving face where if you dishonor your family, community etc you'll be disowned.

However, the huge flipside to this is that aside from the period when I worked in Brixton nick I've never been lied to anywhere near as much; if the lack of crime is one of the best things about traveling in Asia then the constant low level dishonesty over money is the worst. India is another Asian country where the first rules of taxi school are: 1. 'Even if they're not showing any interest or are even walking into a building, if you see a foreigner you MUST shout: "Taxi, Taxi. Hey you! hello! hello! you want taxi?" Do this as loudly and as often as possible'. 2. Always start with a price at least twice but preferably three or five times the actual rate. It's not that foreigners are that much likelier to want one, the depressing truth is that they simply think they can rip you off and it's therefore worth the extra effort shouting at you so much. Obviously I've been in India a while and know how much things cost pretty well, therefore it really gets mentally tiring having to constantly argue with people trying to charge you double the right price for things which definitely have a set price like cups of teas and bus tickets rather than handicrafts or things with a disputable value. I've found this immensely hypocritical all over the continent as in virtually every country I've been to they bang on about how religious they are. All religions preach the same 'honesty is good, stealing is bad mantra' so Indonesian officials will have their offices covered in verses from the Koran/posters of Mecca etc but then will point blank refuse to do any work until you've given them extra baksheesh. Similarly I couldn't understand in Buddhist countries how people could almost simultaneously give alms to passing monks then turn round and brazenly lie about the price of something. I constantly find myself cynically thinking where does that leave your karma/slate with Allah etc. In truth Vietnam was the only place where people would actively tell you lies to get you to use their service and whilst it's of course worse in the tourist areas even in places like Bangladesh they would still do it where they'd very likely never served a foreigner before. It perhaps says something about cultural ideas of whats 'wrong' where Europeans get very angry about it but to the locals its not a big deal whereas other types of behavior e.g. wearing shorts or showing any signs of affection to people is frowned upon. In India and Sri Lanka they even have something called the MRP (maximum retail price) printed on products and so when you're only given 20 Rupees back from a 50R note when the price is clearly marked at 25R, it's very hard to keep your temper and I find it can really get you down dealing with it every day. I find I'm just generally a bit bemused at why people would want to live a life involving this constant cycle of minor points scoring and actively trying to deceive people.

In India I think I partly put the hassling down to the 'competition' everyone faces to make a living and what so much of everyday life in the country has become. For many years India had a growing population problem and barring a disastrous attempt at enforced sterilisation during the 1970s successive governments didn't get a hold on the problem, with a conservative mentality of 'No (discussions about) sex please, we're Indian' very much restricting the debate. The family is the key institution in India and as in many places a big family is seen as a positive thing. Whilst this point of view can hardly be criticized and India is a big and bounteous country, it's not that big and whilst population growth is now down to 1.5% the horse has already metaphorically bolted and at well over a billion people the country is without a doubt overpopulated. Whether it be land, food or more frequently and most seriously water, India has reached a stage where near everything has to be fought for and you can see this in various ways in daily life here. On Indian roads for example nobody will ever give way or adopt an 'after you' policy, it's always a race for the space and the loser just has to break hard. Similarly the inhuman scrums which form when they're getting on public transport or the huge numbers of people that die getting electrocuted or falling off the roofs of trains is all over the fact there just isn't enough space for everyone. They also seemed to have 'devolved' to the stage where they're incapable of forming queues; around tickets windows or stalls people naturally form fan shapes rather than lines and there's no concept of pushing in being wrong. When buying a train ticket yesterday three times I had to ask the guy behind me (there were metal railings thankfully) to take a step back as he was breathing on my neck but each time within 30 seconds his chin would be back on my shoulder as he couldn't bare to be that extra 5 inches away from the front of the queue.

I realize I've become desensitised to a lot of things here which would simply be unforgivable behavior in other parts of the world and this was rammed home during an enjoyable few days I spent traveling with a guy who was an English teacher at a boarding school in the Midlands. He hadn't been in the country very long and despite him being 10yrs older than me several times I had to break up near fights he'd got into over things which have to happen here to keep the 'chaos moving'. He hadn't adjusted to seeing policemen hitting dogs or even beggar children with sticks and the constant raised voices and physical pushing and shoving which come from just a normal walk down the street.

One of the most worrying aspects of all this competition for resources is that there's a very strong danger of people splitting off into smaller groups based on religion/language etc and turning to violence to obtain their needs. It's yet another major problem the country faces and the results of the census currently being undertaken are eagerly awaited next year to see how much of a squeeze on resources the country will face in the years ahead. After the rain in Jaipur I was delighted to head West out of the rain and into the desert via the city of Jaisalmer which is yellow because all the buildings are made out of sandstone and so the huge fort looks like the worlds biggest sandcastle. The Great Thar desert doesn't have the looks of the Arabian or Saharan versions as it's more desertified scrubland than a rolling sea of sand but it looms quite large in the Indian consciousness as it forms much of the border with Pakistan and is where India tested its first bombs to become a nuclear power in the 1970's. The pace of life in India can at times get really quite unbearable and being able to rent a camel and guide and go out into the desert for a few days was so much more therapeutic than I could have imagined. Not seeing anybody at all barring the camel wallah and hearing nothing but the camels farting and braying was just bliss after a few Indian cities and my journal of one of the nights sleeping on the dunes sums it up nicely. "After the magic hour before sunset we had dinner then chatted about different ways to do the hajj over a couple of beedies (Indian cigarettes). Erkamel (the camel wallah) wanted me to sing him an English song so I taught him the words to Jerusalem and we sang that out over the desert sky a couple of times before going to sleep on the sand".

Then it was onto the Punjab, home of Nick Griffins favorite ethnic minority the Sikhs. For some reason all religions seem to like beards but for me there would only be one winner if righteousness came down to who has the most impressive beards. Even Sheik Osama and his boys simply couldn't stand up to a group of elderly Sikh men and I made doubly sure I was completely clean shaven before entering their holiest city of Amritsar. It's one of my favourite cities Ive been to in India and played host to a couple of the most important moments in modern Indian history. In 1919 the British empire had one of its lowest moments when General Dyer decided to mow down 400 peaceful protestors in an enclosed space for no real reason and this is seen in India as a decisive moment in the struggle for freedom from Britain as it turned the majority of Indian attitudes towards the British from "Please treat us better' to 'Please leave'. For me though India has slightly rose tinted spectacles over its freedom from the colonial past and the frequent use of the phrase 'Our glorious struggle for freedom' at all historical sites (including in Amritsar) I find pretty ridiculous. Independence wasn't achieved for nearly 30yrs and that was largely down to external factors like WWII and the end of empires generally, certainly the story doesn't compare to the struggles Ive seen in other places on this trip like Vietnam or East Timor. More recently though it was an attack on Sikhism's holiest shrine the incredible Golden Temple which stands out as one of the biggest moments in Indias post independence history. Unlike the Hindu temples where people just ask you for money too much and the Mosques where too often they glare at you for being an infidel too much the Gurdwarhas in India have been great places to visit. You're allowed to stay and eat in them for free and whilst donations are appreciated there's no pressure at all on you. The Golden Temple is a gorgeous temple built in the the middle of a tank (small pond) and the remarkable structure around the edges of the tank sleep thousands. However, it's the amazing kitchens which I'll remember most; at busy times they can produce 100,000 meals a day and just seeing the size of the dall and rice pots and the sheer number of people working in the washing up room is something I've never seen the like of. Eating communally is a big part of the religions routine so sharing a meal with 500 people several times was a great experience.

The history of Sikhism is very bloody and over time have suffered a few holocausts and fought countless wars against Muslim and later Hindus trying to eradicate their faith. Somewhat unsurprisingly the ideal being in the Sikh consciousness is that of a pure (no drinking/smoking etc) warrior soul and is much of the reason why they figure so disproportionately in the Indian army. However, as with most of the ethnic groups at the fringes of India, many Sikhs have long wanted their own state independent and at times have resorted to violence to achieve this. Most famously in 1984 a group of freedom fighters launched a series of attacks before being forced to seek refuge in the Golden Temple. It says a lot how important the family is in India (and also how much Nepotism there is) that three generations of the Nehru/Gandhi family have led the country for a whopping 37 out of 63 years between them. Even now the latest generation Rahul Gandhi is widely tipped to be the next Prime Minister when Manmohan Singh retires despite "Never having given a notable speech or even outlining any of his political philosophies' as one newspaper columnist recently put it.

Whilst Nehru was the safe hand on the tiller after independence, his daughter Indira Gandhi was probably the most controversial leader India has had. During her tenure the country became a nuclear power and slowly started to grow economically but she was also completely power crazy getting to the situation where in the supportive media and much of the public simply called her 'She'. More reliant on astrologers than public opinion in deciding policy she even ignored corruptions convictions and would simply send in the army to retain her hold on power. She did have amazing hair though, Google image her- she looked like Cruella De Vil. In 1984 she ordered the army to attack the Golden Temple in the infamous Operation Bluestar and whilst the mission was successful and the freedom fighters captured/killed they also managed to destroy part of Sikhisms holiest shrine. She then had the arrogance in thinking everyone supported her actions to insist on a public bodyguard made up only of Sikh soldiers... who promptly killed her. This led to widespread reprisal attacks around the country from the Hindu community and for a while the country was in a state of real crisis.
The reason why Nick Griffin likes the Sikhs is because they're widely regarded as industrious and like Indias other other smaller religious communities the Parsis and Jains they've been economically very successful around the world. India could never let the Punjab go independent as it supplies nearly half of India's rice and wheat supplies and it kind of tells to look at the people. By Asian standards Sikhs are big people and with the beards, turbans and the fact they're always armed with a knife (it's a religious thing) means I think only Afghans that I've seen can perhaps look more effortlessly tough. Punjab cuisine is amongst India's richest and satisfying but the food here has just been outstanding wherever; from the dosas in the south to the biryanis in Hyderabad and the sweets in Bengal traveling in India been something of a food odyssey. From the lowest street stall selling pav bhajis to the great value thalis in plastic chair restaurants and the more specialised dishes in posher ones it's all been great. The cuisine here is much more flexible and lighter than the heavy rice and curry dinners we get in England and I don't think twice about curry for breakfast at all. At times I've felt like writing about nothing but the food (maybe the emails would've been more interesting) and it's been really hard restricting myself to 3 meals a day. Trying to do any exercise in an Indian city is a non starter due to the traffic/crowds/heat etc and as a result I'm now in the worst physical condition I can remember. Therefore it's with a slight sense of fear I now head up into the Himalayas for my final few weeks in this awesome country.

From Amritasar,

Posted by carlswall 13:42 Archived in India Comments (0)

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