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And no you can't see it from outer space (China)

A tour of China and Hong Kong

sunny 36 °C
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Beijing in 1989 was in a small way the inspiration behind taking this trip. Not so much because of the student uprising that took place and the subsequent events that unfolded in and around Tiananmen Square at the time but because we, had our own circumstances permitted, could easily have been in Beijing at that very time. With my parents posted to Beijing in the Foreign Office the opportunity was certainly there, had it not been for the birth of our second child. So China was sort of unfinished business.

London to Shanghai is just short of 10,000 kilometres and eleven hours flying time from Heathrow to Pu Dong. The much modernised Shanghai was our starting point on a tour of China which would end in Hong Kong.

China&HK2016 (1)

China&HK2016 (1)

Our first real sight of the city after landing took us to the waterfront with its modern and futuristic buildings on one side of the Huangpu River and the old and more traditional Bund on the other. We took a harbour cruise that evening which was a great way to start to see it. It’s slightly chaotic as you would expect and the inability of the Chinese to queue for anything was something that we would have to come to terms with over the next 19 days; hopefully without causing an international incident. Anyway, tickets bought and place secured on the boat we enjoyed an hour watching the multi-coloured lights of Shanghai dance around the buildings as if showing off its latest outfit.

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China&HK2016 (20)

We spent time walking the promenade on the Bund side of the river the following day. The sun had ramped the temperature up to around 35 degrees and, with humidity being high, China in August was clearly going to be a challenge and it didn’t take long for us to instinctively seek out any shade.

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China&HK2016 (34)

Shanghai is an exciting city and, away from the waterfront, Nanjing Road in the traditional old town, with its ancient Hu Xin Ting Teahouse, and the classic Yu Yuan Gardens is the place to shop. We also saw the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple, just about the only place that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in the entire three weeks.

Just outside the city is a town called Suzhou, well known for its gardens. This beautiful 2,500-year-old city is famous for its landscaped gardens, narrow channels and traditional Chinese architecture. Built on a network of interlocking canals, Suzhou's waters feed the series of classical gardens. These date back as far as the 10th century, and have been restored to their former glory with a few listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On route from Shanghai to Suzhou our coach was trundling along quite happily when an alarm sounded inside the bus. The problem turned out to be an air-con failure. Beyond swift roadside repair, we waited patiently in whatever shade we could find while a new coach was sent to pick us up and complete the remaining 35 or 40 minutes driving to Suzhou.

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China&HK2016 (67)

We eventually visited both the ‘Lingering Garden’ and the ‘Humble Administrators Garden’, both very classically oriental with ornate walkways, bridges, ponds and Lotus flowers being a feature. In between the gardens we took a trip on the local canal which gave us our first real sight of everyday life in China. Modest canal side houses with small extensions or terraces on the back which teetered on bamboo stilts overhanging the canal, many decorated with plants and Chinese lanterns but which failed to disguise the damp looking walls on each of the properties. It was an interesting insight and in stark contrast, just one road back, was a very smart-looking commercial shopping street visible between some of the houses that could have been a part of any city in the UK.

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China&HK2016 (76)

Back in Shanghai we went out for dinner. So far the food had been very good although very much a case of “what would you like with your sticky rice today??” Green or Jasmine Tea were also regularly on the agenda with beer offered rather than wine.

From Shanghai we took a short flight to Wuhan before catching a train to Yichang where we would board a boat for our 4 days and nights of cruising on the Yangtse River. We took an upgrade on the boat which gave us a cabin on the Promenade Deck, all our meals in the Executive Dining Room, free soft drinks, tea and coffee throughout the day and a free happy hour every evening. It turned out to be well worth it.

The cruise from Yichang to Chongqing routed us through the massive Three Gorges Dam project. On board, there were all kinds of presentations including Chinese medicine, Mah Jong, Acupuncture, Snuff Bottle Painting and Tai Chi to name a few while in the evenings there were cultural fashion and dance shows all included. It was all good fun and added to the variety of the trip. It’s typical “confined living’ as you would expect on a river cruise but for sleeping and the occasional use of the balcony the space in the cabin was fine. The gorges themselves, namely Xiling Gorge, Wuxia and Qutang make for some lovely scenery and we were lucky with the weather. Along the way we stopped at Badong, took a ride up the Shennong Stream tributary, and visited the Shibaozhai Pagoda and Temple.

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China&HK2016 (84)

We docked at Badong and those of us that didn’t choose to take the optional excursion had time to wander into the town and explore a little. It was more a village than a town and while it didn’t look or feel like the most prosperous of places to live there was evidence of work going on to smarten the place up, especially riverside where a new walk was being laid which would link the village and the piers by way of steps up from the river to an adjoining square and then up further to the main high street. It was an overcast day which took some of the ferocity of the sun away and eventually the first drops of rain were felt. We continued our walk through the village a bit further and found a small local market where fruit, vegetables, rice and more general household goods were being sold and where a shopkeeper was making tofu which was then transported around the village and surrounding areas on the back of a scooter-cart to be marketed to the locals. The people seemed friendly and certainly weren’t shy of the camera but we couldn’t really go too much further and the rain was getting slightly heavier so we turned and headed back to the boat for the onward journey.

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China&HK2016 (99)

The Shennong Stream is a narrow tributary of the Yangtse for which we transferred on to a smaller boat. It is lovely scenery and after about 45 minutes of cruising we pulled in and climbed numerous steps to reach a small square surrounded by buildings that included a shop, a small museum and a theatre. The theatre was putting on free cultural shows and with one just about to begin we followed the introductory drumbeat, pulled back the tarpaulin-like curtains acting as doors and also screens from the sun and found ourselves at the back of the theatre with standing-room only. It was absolutely boiling in there but was still a preferred option in order to firstly see the show and secondly to be out of the direct sunshine for a while. The show lasted half an hour or so and the various songs told a story which could be followed to an extent with the scenery supplemented by acting at stages right and left as a related sideshow to the singers and musicians but was obviously lost on us as far as the language was concerned.

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China&HK2016 (106)

We also stopped at Shibaozhai and walked up the hill and down through the main street to the ‘Drunken Bridge’ which led to the Shibaozhai Temple. The bridge was safe enough but was constructed using wooden boards on secured cables and this allowed a flexibility so as people walked over the bridge it moved with the pressure of each and everybody’s footsteps creating a wobble underfoot and a few laughs as we struggled across. The pagoda has 12 floors and again the heat made it more challenging but there’s an ‘out’ at the ninth level that most of us took to see the inside of the small temple before going back down via some outside steps. There were some good views from the temple and the bridge with the low level of the estuary being highlighted by a couple of boats stranded on higher, dry ground that would have to now wait for the water level to rise before being capable of floating once again.

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China&HK2016 (115)

Back on the boat, as we exited the third gorge the scenery faded away from the picturesque and imposing mountainside to the flatter and more industrial sights as we approached Chongqing.

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China&HK2016 (158)

Chongqing is China’s largest city, emerging over the past 20 years from a medium sized town to a population of 34 million people. It wouldn’t be top of the list for sight-seeing but was a conduit for us reaching Chengdu and, among other things, seeing the Pandas!! However, before leaving the city we did at least do it some justice by spending some time in Erling Park watching people having their ears cleaned (seriously!), getting massaged and playing Mah Jong (not all at the same time) while we sat, chatted and drank Green Tea. We also saw Chiang Kai Shek’s house and went for a stroll in Qicikou Old Town before continuing the journey by high-speed train to Chengdu.

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China&HK2016 (166)

Chengdu is a tidy city with a newly-modernised feel to it, like much of the China we had so far seen. But our first morning in Chengdu would be spent at the Panda Breeding Centre. On arrival in Chengdu we had been greeted by rain but that was a blessing in disguise as the cooler weather that followed greatly improved our chances of the Pandas spending more time outside of their houses. The Breeding Centre is a fantastic environment for the Pandas – basically a forest of Bamboo and other trees and greenery – with the required medical and care enclosures as the staff work to proliferate the numbers of Pandas in existence. It was a fun morning despite the fighting for space with the over-excited Chinese. The Pandas performed for us and it was great to see them from basically birth through to adult in the different rooms and enclosures.

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China&HK2016 (170)

It was always going to be difficult to top seeing the animals on this particular day but we still had time to have a wander around Jinli Sreet. It’s very commercial but also very colourful and representative of Chinese traditions. Of course there are shops and stalls selling toy pandas and chopsticks but you get the feeling that these would be there even if tourists weren’t permitted. The food and drink outlets are interesting as you rarely see a menu or pricelist in English so it really is a case of point and hope, with the food anyway. We bought a Panda by the way!

Having spent a massive 20 Yuan (£2.40) in Jinli Street we moved on to a local park where we drank more tea - Jasmine Tea this time. Back to the hotel with just enough time to freshen up and eat before going out to the theatre where we had tickets for the Chengdu Face-Changing Show. The show was around ninety minutes of music, comedy, Chinese opera and the Face Changing act; quite challenging at times as you can probably imagine but still good fun and very cultural and colourful PLUS we had more Green Tea!!!!

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China&HK2016 (179)

A good night sleep was needed after a busy couple of days and before we jetted off the following day from Chengdu Airport to Xian. Almost everything, coach breakdown aside, had so far moved along like clockwork but the Chengdu to Xian transfer kind of spoiled things a bit, temporarily. The flight, ours plus a few others to different destinations, had an indefinite delay. With a variable like that it’s difficult to know precisely what the best course of action is but our Tour Manager (who was excellent throughout) gathered as much information as possible and then arranged for us to be checked into a hotel close to the airport and given lunch while we awaited further news. We lost four hours that day but thankfully (a) didn’t have to stay the night in the hotel, and (b) didn’t have to eat any more of their food there. So, all was well. The delay meant that we couldn’t visit the Han Tombs after arriving at Xian as originally planned but a small rescheduling resulted in the visit remaining on the itinerary. Instead, we visited the city walls and, similarly constructed to the Great Wall, it was possible to walk or cycle along the top of the walls if you wanted to. We took a tandem and travelled from the South Gate to the East Gate which took about 25 minutes allowing for a few stops to take some photos as the sun set. It was a fun way to end what had been a disrupted day.

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China&HK2016 (205)

Xian used to be the Capital of China but its international appeal now is really due to the worldwide exposure and acclaim received for the finding of the Terracotta Warriors so, after dinner and a restful night we set off for Li Shan Mountain to see the 6,000 soldiers, horses and chariots found by a farmer digging a well in 1974. For me, whilst it was still great to see and an amazing story, the sight of the Terracotta Warriors probably had less of a visual impact on me than anything else on this trip to the Far East. It was basically everything I expected and had seen in photos and on T.V.; nothing more, nothing less.

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China&HK2016 (212)

From the air-conditioned hangars of the Terracotta Army we made our way back to the city to see the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and also see some Calligraphy. The pagoda is located in a small park/garden and is in the classic style but the idea of climbing to the top simply didn’t appeal at the end of what had been a very hot day in Xian. So, a few photos later we were heading for what turned out to be a lesson in Calligraphy. Under the enthusiastic instruction of our teacher we were all challenged to copy some Chinese characters using the Calligraphy Brush on Rice Paper. There was also a marketing element to the exercise with various artwork and calligraphy on sale including the opportunity to have family or friends names written in calligraphy and taken home as presents, which we did.

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China&HK2016 (208)

We still had the Han Tombs to fit in before we left Xian so it was decided that we would get up an hour earlier the following day and, on the way to the airport for our flight to Beijing, China’s Capital, we would arrive at the tombs as they opened for the day and see the artefacts that had been found. Similar to the Terracotta Army but a more recent find, the Han Tombs revealed numerous smaller but less detailed ceramic figures along with farm animals, carts, cartwheels and pots. It was good to see, especially as we soon realised it was something that we had heard and read about for the first time shortly before we left the UK. So that was Xian, a nice city in my opinion and probably my favourite on the trip. Next stop Beijing!

The Chinese Capital carried an added interest for me as my parents lived and worked in the city for a year back in 1989 so I was keen to see roughly the area where they lived and the location of where they worked. Whether they would recognise much now, 27 years later, is doubtful as the city has developed enormously since then. For example, back in 1989 Beijing had just two Ring Roads. In 2008, when they held the Olympic Games there were four. Today they are finishing off Ring Road number seven! Having said that I am sure that the centre of the city remains largely unchanged.
The weather intervened on arrival in Beijing so our plans were tweaked again and rather than visit the Summer Palace which, by definition, didn’t align with the rain, we diverted to the Temple of Heaven where decent weather mattered less. The approach is made on foot through a neat and tidy park with many trees and ornate covered walkways leading to the steps from which you reach the large circular arena that holds in its centre the Temple of Heaven.

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China&HK2016 (1322)

The surrounding buildings and the temple itself are typically attractive and in keeping with all other similar buildings that we have seen in China. Their use of colour, detail and design is a very attractive aspect of the Chinese culture.

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China&HK2016 (1325)

The Chinese, primarily the women, love an umbrella and, it seems, regardless of the weather. They love an umbrella when it rains and they love an umbrella equally when the sun is out. Personally, I’m the wrong height to be anywhere near one umbrella let alone several hundred. However, it does make for some interesting photographs and that was certainly the case at the Temple of Heaven where the rain hadn’t put any visitors off.
Before heading to the hotel we stopped close to Tiananmen Square in Tiananmen Street to simply spend some time walking one of the main thoroughfares, stopping at shops as we pleased until we reached the top end of the street, nearest the square. Tiananmen Street gave the impression of recent refurbishment with many smart shops and a series of sculptures/statues dotted along the street on both sides depicting various Chinese Trades such as Calligraphy and Paper Making.

The modern architecture in Beijing, like in the other cities, had a touch of Feng Shue about them and none more so than the building shaped like a twisted lowercase “n” that the Chinese refer to as ‘the underpants’.

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China&HK2016 (1354)

I suppose many peoples highlight of a trip to China would be a visit to The Great Wall and I expected it to be one of mine. Whether it would simply be just another of those iconic sights that are exactly as you expect them to be remained to be seen as we left our hotel after breakfast the following day and headed for the Badaling entrance to The Great Wall.

It took us just under a couple of hours to get from the centre of Beijing to Badaling and although we were there early, we weren’t the first – by a long way!!

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China&HK2016 (223)

We were presented with two options; the easy route or the harder route and after thinking about it and looking at the crowds we decided on the harder route which was far less populated and, as pointed out by our Tour Manager, the first three sections on the difficult side weren’t too bad in any case – and as we weren’t contemplating going as far as completing three sections then we should be ok.

It was another hot day but to balance it out a bit the location of the Great Wall, atop the mountain range, attracted a nice breeze which, when coupled with some rare shade, was really welcome during our hour and a half or so on the Wall. So, with the first of the steps in front of us we set off. Varying gradients, inconsistent step heights, uneven cobbles, and people simply ‘getting in the way’ one way or another added to the challenge and the fun. Railings on either side of the wall certainly helped if walking in the middle started to become a struggle. We completed the first section which was our original target but decided to press on as far as we could. There turned out to be a convenient platform, half way up the second section, where an nicely positioned tree on the mountainside also provided the shade required to match with the cooling breeze. We stood there for about twenty minutes before beginning our walk down.

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China&HK2016 (220)

The Great Wall more than met my expectations and despite me having seen many photographs and a lot of video footage of it the sheer size (as far as you could see) coupled with some of the extreme terrain and the gradients, curves and corners that had to be constructed makes it a far more impressive achievement (and sight) than I had given it credit for. Amazing. And here’s a statistic; the complete length of the Great Wall is 500 miles longer than the distance between London and Beijing!

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China&HK2016 (232)

After lunch we headed back towards the city via the Sacred Way (Avenue of Statues). The path, which (like others we have seen on the trip) is slightly curved to fool evil spirits, is lined on either side with willows and carved stone statues of both warriors and animals. It’s the best part of one mile long but is a short respite away from the crowds.

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China&HK2016 (228)

Despite everything that we had so far seen and done there was still a gap or two in our Chinese experience as far as I was concerned. And one of those gaps was to be filled by Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City on the following day.

1989 sticks in the memory for me not just because of the iconic photograph of the student and the tank but for the fact that my parents were working for the UK Government at the time and, along with others, suffered several days of angst while safe passage to Beijing Airport was negotiated, allowing them to fly out to Hong Kong and, as it transpired, never return to China. It was an interesting few days for us and, unable at the time to visit them on post, Beijing felt like unfinished business for me.

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China&HK2016 (246)

Tiananmen Square is huge and in way a little bit soulless with its buildings on each side of the square being so far apart. Tiananmen Tower and the Gate of Heavenly Peace are on the north side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China on the east side of the Square, the Great Hall of the People on the west side and Zhengyangmen Gate Tower marking the south end. In its centre, a Monument to the People’s Heroes.

After walking to the centre of the square, past the huge queue that had already formed to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao (Zedong) we proceeded towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace over which Chairman Mao still presides as if still alive and in power. This gate forms the entrance to the Forbidden City. All I can say is that the Chinese public are certainly making up for lost time as this turned out to be as crowded as anywhere we had been in China. At times, our attempt to admire the buildings that house the Imperial Palace was a real test of both temperament and patience but we persisted and prevailed, enjoying the occasion more on reflection than in the moment. It is such a vast area and living in such an environment would have obviously been in extreme contrast to that of the general population. I am glad that we saw it.

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China&HK2016 (258)

Away from the hordes and back on the bus in air conditioned heaven we drove to another part of the city to see the residential alleyways and houses of Old Beijing known as the Hutongs. The best way to see these is on a Bicycle Rickshaw so this is what we did. The calf muscles on our Rickshaw driver were testament to the years of hard graft that had been put in to scrape a living and he must have been hoping for two short and very light people than the one very short and light person plus me that clambered into his Rickshaw that afternoon. Regardless, he drove us through the lanes where we stopped at a family home and were shown around – another insight into regular Chinese living. The owners had a pet Cricket in a tiny cage, a couple of pet birds and three cages containing White fluffy rabbits. I instantly worried more for the future of the rabbits than I did both the birds and the cricket.

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China&HK2016 (288)

Our route back to the hotel took us via the Olympic Stadium (we call it ‘The Birds Nest’; the Chinese call it ‘The Toilet Seat’). It still sits alongside the National Aquatics centre (‘The Water Cube’) but according to locals neither is extensively used any more.

And that was that. We drove past the British Embassy as darkness started to fall and after dinner collapsed into bed ahead of a very early start the following morning and the final ‘independent’ leg of our Far East tour – four nights in Hong Kong.

It is a three hour flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, now almost twenty years under Chinese control but with a further forty years until the former British colony is a fully-fledged member of the People’s Republic of China. It had been an early start but this meant that we had at least half a day still to explore once we had checked into the Harbour Grand on Kowloon. The hotel had a free shuttle-bus that operated in both directions every twenty minutes between the hotel and Tsim Sha Tsui (next to The Peninsula Hotel near to the waterfront and the ferry) and this turned out to be a massive benefit over the four days.

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China&HK2016 (299)

Without any kind of plan for our first few hours we jumped on the Shuttle Bus and headed for the waterfront. We wandered around, got our bearings, skirted around a noisy but passive protest about organ harvesting, researched the Star Ferry and then found a restaurant for some pasta - anything really that didn’t include sticky rice!!!! After that, we enjoyed watching the lights of Hong Kong come on from our hotel room overlooking the harbour.

After breakfast the following day we boarded a minibus for a half day tour of Hong Kong Island. It included the funicular up to The Peak, a boat trip around the floating village in Aberdeen Harbour and a visit to Stanley Market so a few boxes would get firmly ticked as far as Hong Kong is concerned and that would leave the remaining three days to do exactly what we wanted and without any definite plans.
Having said that we had an idea of possibly going to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, Old Hong Kong, Temple Street Market and Lantau Island so we made a conscious effort to get to these places but didn’t know either how or when at this stage.

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China&HK2016 (307)

The view from The Peak is a ‘must see’ and one of those iconic images that are associated with a specific place. Now regarded by many as the richest city in the world nobody can doubt its other claim of having the greatest number of skyscrapers on the planet. It was then a fairly short drive, past Repulse Bay, to Aberdeen Harbour where a combination of Sampans, Junks and Luxury Boats live in close quarters. We took a Sampan ride through the harbour and between the house boats that make up the floating village, home to thousands. As a backdrop to the harbour, the high rise ‘Pigeon Houses’ stand imposingly as evidence of the extent of the confined living that exists in this part of the world.

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China&HK2016 (314)

By way of their behaviours the people of Hong Kong place themselves somewhere between those of China (with its strict discipline) and the UK (with its democratic freedom). Not that surprising really as the former British colony is almost 20 years into a 60 year transition from British governorship to total Chinese control. It will be interesting how the next forty years pans out, both in Hong Kong and on mainland China where surely there will be some ‘give’ as well as ‘take’.

Free from the organised touring we were now on ‘free time’ so needed to decide our next move. We made a decision over lunch to buy an ‘Octopus Card’ (similar to London’s Oyster Card) and immediately tested it by using the Underground to get over to Hong Kong Island and the area there which is typically ‘Old’ Hong Kong. And it does have a different feel to it - with its market stalls selling antiques, the narrow streets, older traditional trades, colourful shop fronts and advertising extended in competition with one another over and above the road. We wandered around Hollywood Road and its adjoining streets and alleys taking photos while at the same time looking for the Buddhist Man Mo Temple.

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China&HK2016 (322)

The temple was a good find with so much colour inside being enhanced to the extreme by strong beams of sunlight arrowing diagonally through the interior but the influence of Buddhism certainly felt stronger in China than it did in Hong Kong which given its history is probably not that surprising.
Leaving the temple we made our way back down in a general direction of where we felt we had arrived on the Underground. Along the way there were numerous market stalls, many selling antiques, some selling posters of Mao and copies of his Little Red Book and others trading more general items. We also came upon a really nice Coffee Shop called The Roaster (not a Starbucks!! Yippee!!) being run by a couple of local girls who took great pride in their work and the quality of what they were offering (and rightly proud of the press reviews that had been written and that they displayed on a part of the café window). A friendly man and his young daughter waved and said goodbye as we sat having ordered our Cappuccino and Hot Chocolate; both drinks noticeably missing from the diet of the previous two and a bit weeks.

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China&HK2016 (329)

Rested and refreshed we carried on with our walk back to the Underground Station we passed a ladder, totally made of Bamboo, leaning against a wall …… in Ladder Street! Eventually, back on the main street the narrow trams were busy going about their business. We had reached the underground station and decided to walk on down to the Star Ferry terminal and catch the ferry back across the harbour to Kowloon BUT it was still daylight and what we wanted to do was travel across with Victoria Harbour lit up for the evening. So, we noticed that the ferry terminals also had eateries within them and therefore took the decision to take a table in Watermark, a nice looking restaurant that overlooked the harbour. It wasn’t the cheapest – it wouldn’t be would it – but it was a really good decision. We had two courses plus drinks and in addition to watching the lights come on over at Kowloon we had also bought ourselves enough time to guarantee that on our Star Ferry crossing we would be able to see all of the lights of both Hong Kong and Kowloon (known as The Symphony of Lights) plus the start of the PULSE 3D Light Show that was being presented two or three times each night during the Summer from the Kowloon clock tower. It effectively saved us the cost of taking the harbour cruise at night.
Back on Kowloon and leaving the Star Ferry behind we made our way to the raised area from where PULSE was being played out. We waited the ten minutes until the start of the next show and then enjoyed it and the music at close quarters.

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China&HK2016 (337)

From here it was a short stroll back to The Peninsula where we could get our Shuttle Bus back to the Harbour Grand. It had been a really good day.
After breakfast the following morning we decided to use the public transport again and find our own way to Lantau Island. Not only was this good fun but we also saved a lot of money compared to the cost of an excursion and also some time. We took the Shuttle Bus again down to Tsim Sha Tsui as usual and walked the short distance to catch the Star Ferry over to Pier 7 on Hong Kong Island. The Lantau ferry used Pier 6 so it was an easy walk by foot to disembark the Star Ferry and take our seats on the Lantau Ferry with the cost still being covered by our Octopus Card.

A visit to Lantau Island appealed because it was different to what we had so far seen in China and Hong Kong. It also had the Po Lin Monastery, the big Bronze Buddha, and Tai-O stilt village to sight-see. The boat from Pier 6 to Lantau took about 45 minutes and drops you by the bus station from where the bus (No.2) to Ngong Ping runs regularly. The journey of about another 30 or 40 minutes takes you through scenery reminiscent of a Caribbean island and there is surprisingly little traffic to prevent our bus driver from tearing round corners as if he was pushing for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

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China&HK2016 (347)

Ngong Ping is the location of both the Po Lin Monastery and the big Bronze Buddha. With little real knowledge of either we headed for the Monastery before taking on the 210 steps leading up to the Giant Buddha.

Po Lin was a great surprise. The smell of incense gradually wafts into your life as you walk the long path towards the entrance where there are several large burners spreading their jasmine scent or whatever else was smouldering and smoking. A series of steps lead up to the doors of the first temple room in a building with fantastic symmetry and colour. Inside, more vivid colour, more artwork and in pride of place, three golden Buddha’s. The space on the left side of the room was dedicated to worship and prayer with a number of rows of square kneeling pads and beyond here and behind the main screen that provided the backdrop to the three Buddha’s was a rear entrance/exit that led to another large building fronted by more steps and even more colourful and attractive detail that framed the front doors to one of the most opulent rooms of its kind that you could expect to see. Five large Golden Buddha’s were the focal point at the back of a room dominated by the colour gold but with multi-coloured patterning on the ceiling beams and the walls and platforms. This had been an unexpected highlight – and now for the Giant Buddha.
There really isn’t a choice. The steps may look daunting but once you are there it simply has to be done. Slightly more than 200 steps - there are convenient platforms that break up their flow and offer the chance of a breather if you need it. And it doesn’t take long. Once at the top the size of the Buddha is impressive as are the views, especially if you climb the extra few steps to the elevated walkway around the statue.

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China&HK2016 (352)

We couldn’t find a bus stop at the top like we had been originally told so after spending some time we made our way back down the steps, past the group of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs plus the more tempting cold drinks and ice cream, and back through the main entrance to the bus stops where we arrived. Our next destination during our short visit to Lantau Island was the stilt village of Tai-O. It didn’t take long for the next bus to arrive; far quicker in fact than the timetable suggested and the ride to Tai-O was equally as frenetic as the first up to Ngong Ping. Having taken the local transport rather than an organised tourist bus we found ourselves ‘downtown’ in terms of being nearer to the local market than anything remotely ‘touristy’. This actually suited us and to wander through the local market and to see what was being bought as general produce rather than us simply being processed through a network of stalls geared to foreigners looking for souvenirs or ‘original fakes’ was a lot more interesting. Exiting the market we found ourselves in the streets and alleys of Tai-O with the harbour immediately behind the properties on the left side. We continued walking, searching out shade at every opportunity as it was so hot, until we found a side alley that led towards the water. From the water’s edge the stilt village was immediately visible. Wooden properties propped up over the water on slim and fairly fragile looking wooden piles that had been driven into the bed of the harbour, providing an elevated foundation for their homes. The numerous houses were effectively conjoined, no doubt providing an added strength and stability during difficult weathers and at times when repairs must be required. The entire stilt community was linked to the more permanent looking residences on ‘the mainland’ and their market and public buses by a bridge across the water to the nearest stilt house. I found it fascinating and seeing it reminded me of the experience that we had at Lake Titicaca in Peru when we saw the Aymara people and how they lived on the Reed Islands.

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China&HK2016 (374)

We caught a bus back up to Ngong Ping to then walk through the village to the Cable Car which would take us on a 25 minute ride down to the main town, Tung Chung, where we could then get the Underground back to Tsim Sha Tsui after stopping for a late lunch.

Back at the hotel we had a few spare hours and then we went out in the evening in Kowloon, local to the Harbour Grand, for something to eat. This time we found a German Restaurant (still avoiding Sticky Rice!!) just a couple of roads from the hotel which made for an easy circuit of the area including the Whampoa ship that sat bizarrely a long way from any water between high rise residential blocks. This turned out to be a leisure facility including a restaurant but we had no time to explore it further unfortunately.

We were now just one night of sleep away from our final full day tomorrow. The list of things that we wanted to do was now down to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, The Avenue of Stars and Temple Street Night Market. Disappointingly, the Avenue of Stars was closed for refurbishment but there was plenty that we could do if we needed to fill time.

China&HK2016 (382)

China&HK2016 (382)

The breakfast at the Harbour Grand was fantastic so it made sense to make the most of it both today and before we leave for the airport tomorrow. So, we planned a route via the Underground to the area where Kowloon Walled City Park was. It was also the location of the Hau Wong Temple which we now had time to visit before we went to see the Park.

The temple was quite tiny and had a couple of attendants who presumably opened it and closed it each day and made sure that things were as they should be in-between. It’s a Grade 1 historical building built about 300 years ago and certainly worth spending a little time. Literally over the road is Kowloon Walled City Park.

China&HK2016 (378)

China&HK2016 (378)

The site was used by Chinese imperial officials since the 16th century. In 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, Kowloon Walled City was already a garrison and was reinforced by the Chinese Government. The fort’s fate changed in 1898 when the New Territories were leased to Britain for 99 years. Although the walled city remained Chinese territory by treaty, their troops and officials were forced to vacate the site just one year later. This left a power vacuum that was filled by criminals, and the garrison became a city within a city and fugitives and other criminal elements flocked to the lawless enclave from that day forward. Beyond the reach of the law, the area mushroomed into a squalid maze of illegally constructed buildings, where everything from drug trafficking and prostitution to unlicensed dentistry flourished in a labyrinth of dank, dark alleyways.

China&HK2016 (380)

China&HK2016 (380)

In 1987, with the agreement of China, the colonial government finally took control of the no-go area, resettled its inhabitants, and replaced the slum with a park. Today, the Chinese-style Park preserves traces of the walled city including the imperial government administrative building (known as a “yamen”). The garden–style of the park now offers visitors a chance to appreciate nature in a place where the darker side of life once flourished.
Not far from the Walled City Park is the Mong Kok business district and the Ladies Market. This and Temple Street Night Market would be our final opportunities to pick up any last minute gifts to take home the following day.

Mong Kok is an amazing looking area with its colourful advertising suspended above the road from both sides of the main street. It’s very busy and very commercial but was typical of what I expected from Hong Kong. Ladies Market is one road back from the main street and offers no more and no less than you could guess would be available from a market that primarily (but not exclusively) targets female shoppers and their children.
It was early-afternoon by the time we got back to our room and decided on some time in and around the rooftop pool followed by a snack in the hotel, before heading out in the evening.

China&HK2016 (387)

China&HK2016 (387)

It was dark by 6:30 to 7 pm every day while we were in China and Hong Kong so it would easily be getting dark by the time we got to Temple Street. The route was easy; we just had to get on the underground and find Jordan station which was just one stop on the line from Tsim Sha Tsui where the hotel’s Shuttle Bus stops and picks up.

Emerging back at street level the area around Jordan station was predictably lively and we asked a friendly face where Temple Street was. About a 2 or 3 minute walk as it happened so again it couldn’t have been easier. And you can’t miss it because it has its own ‘Temple Street’ gateway over the road. It’s very much a conventional market but with a focus also on street food being offered by vendors on the corners of the roads near the main entrance. And by the time we exited the market, having bought various bits and pieces to take home as presents, the street was crammed full of people sat eating and drinking with barely a spare seat or table in sight. However, we did find a table where we rested for a while with the largest and cheapest beer we had had during the entire trip. It was a nice way to end.

China&HK2016 (399)

China&HK2016 (399)

China and Hong Kong had been eventful and memorable in equal measure and not even the four hour delay to our taking off at Hong Kong airport (after boarding the plane for the journey home) could detract from the great experience and memories that we took back to the UK with us. The sheer numbers of people, the quite different behaviours, the extreme weather and of course the visual impact of some of the things that we saw will long stay in the memory. 2,400 photographs had been accumulated over the three weeks and for the next few months there would be time spent sorting, deleting and cropping these while at the same time reliving it all.

Posted by david.byne 12:48 Archived in China Tagged landscapes mountains lakes bridges art buildings skylines people trees animals sky night boats trains architecture rivers religion city Comments (1)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (1)

Part 1 - India

sunny -38 °C

It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
A_Delhi_001 (120)

A_Delhi_001 (120)


It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
A_Delhi_001 (18)

A_Delhi_001 (18)


From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)


The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
C_Jaipur_001 (39)

C_Jaipur_001 (39)


City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
C_Jaipur_001 (85)

C_Jaipur_001 (85)


Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
C_Jaipur_001 (106)

C_Jaipur_001 (106)


We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
D_Agra_001 (4)

D_Agra_001 (4)


We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
D_Agra_001 (26)

D_Agra_001 (26)


Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)

E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)


Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
F_Amritsar_001 (9)

F_Amritsar_001 (9)


The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
F_Amritsar_001 (44)

F_Amritsar_001 (44)


Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
G_Wagah_001 (17)

G_Wagah_001 (17)


A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
H_Amritsar_001 (43)

H_Amritsar_001 (43)


The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
J_Varanasi_001 (31)

J_Varanasi_001 (31)


Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
J_Varanasi_001 (124)

J_Varanasi_001 (124)


Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
J_Varanasi_001 (159)

J_Varanasi_001 (159)


A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
J_Varanasi_001 (171)

J_Varanasi_001 (171)


We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

Posted by david.byne 12:58 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises buildings people animals birds boats trains religion Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (2)

Part 2 - Nepal

sunny -27 °C

The flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu is less than an hour and after the slightly painful form filling and queuing required to obtain the entry visa at Nepal’s main airport we were met by Buddish and his driver Sunit. It was April 15th and yesterday was New Year’s Day in Nepal ………………….. in the year 2071!!!!!
Our hotel was the Soaltee Crowne Plaza in Kathmandu and the facilities were perfect for the next three nights. Nepal already had a less chaotic feel to it and we were glad that we had seen India first followed by Nepal rather than the other way around. It had been an extraordinary twelve days so far and we were able to relax and enjoy free time for the rest of the day but tomorrow we would start to explore the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and some of the seven UNESCO World heritage sites located in the valley.
K_Kathmandu_001 (23)

K_Kathmandu_001 (23)


Our first full day in Kathmandu was day 13 of our trip. Buddish met us in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza and before lunch we would have a good look around Kathmandu city. The first stop was Durbar Square which is full of temples and palaces and was the seat of royalty before Nepal ceased to be a kingdom in 2008. The architecture is amazing and while the square was busy it was much calmer and more orderly than what we had become used to in India. We visited Kumari Che, the temple where the current Kumari (Living Goddess) lives during her time in the position. Basically, a young girl of appropriate background and free from any scars or other physical blemishes is selected to be Kumari at the age of 4 and given up willingly by her family until she reaches puberty when a new Kumari is selected for the position. During the 8 years or so that she fills the role she stays inside the Kumari Che on all but 13 days of the year when she is seen outside as a goddess at the different festivals that take place. That apart, she is occasionally seen for a few seconds only each day at the small window in the courtyard of Kumari Che in Durbar Square. We were fortunate to arrive at the right time to see her appear for probably no more than 30 seconds - strictly no photographs allowed!
K_Kathmandu_001 (12)

K_Kathmandu_001 (12)


The Kumari temple is old with very ornate wooden balconies and window screens, not untypical of many of the buildings in the city which tend to be of wood and brick compared to India where marble and sandstone are mainly used. After climbing the 9-story pagoda and having great views of central Kathmadu from the top we were driven to the temples and stupa at Swayambhunath which is situated on the top of a hill just on the edge of the city. Locally known as the monkey temple (another one!) there is a large tribe of monkeys which you need to be wary of if you visit. We visited in the afternoon when they tend to be a bit quieter and less hungry and although we saw a few they weren’t any bother at all. The temples and stupa at Swayambhunath were well worth the visit and also provided more views of Kathmandu city.
K_Kathmandu_001 (213)

K_Kathmandu_001 (213)


We had another early start the following day to catch a short flight around the Himalayas to see Mount Everest before breakfast. We left at 5 a.m. and headed for the Domestic Terminal at Kathmandu Airport. The previous day all mountain flights had been cancelled because of heavy snow and poor visibility but our flight was called and we boarded the small bus that took us to the steps of the Buddha Air plane. We then sat on the bus and were told that there would be a delay of 15 minutes but this only put off the inevitable “All Mountain Flights Cancelled” announcement. It was a blow but once again for the right reasons; heavy snow and poor visibility. The following day the news filtered through about 16 Sherpa’s losing their lives following an avalanche just above Base Camp on Mount Everest.
So we headed back to the hotel for breakfast minus our Mount Everest experience but we still had more to look forward too over the coming days. Buddish explained that today we would visit the giant stupa of Bouddhanath, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, then Pashupatinath (Temple of Lord Shiva) and Bhasmeshvar Ghat on the Bagmati River followed by the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.
K_Kathmandu_001 (251)

K_Kathmandu_001 (251)


The giant stupa of Bouddhanath was massive. One of the largest in the world it is surrounded by a circular parade of temples and traders selling different Nepali and Tibetan products. Rows and rows of colourful prayer flags angle down from the top of the stupa to its base while the many visitors walked clockwise around the base or explored the different levels of the giant white structure. We entered a temple, located between the traders on the perimeter, and watched as two children struggled to get a massive prayer wheel turning. Inside the temple two tourists were being blessed by one of the Buddhist Monks, no doubt for a fee; something that is generally frowned upon by the Buddhist community. It was hot around the stupa and with little shade outside we took brief respite inside one of the shops and then sat for a demonstration of Tibetan artwork inside a Thangka House.
K_Kathmandu_001 (348)

K_Kathmandu_001 (348)


Still in Kathmandu we moved on to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the Bagmati River which is considered by some to be the holiest in the world. It is also the site of Kathmandu’s equivalent of the cremation ghat on India’s River Ganges that we had seen a few days earlier at Varanasi. Holy Men, long hair, faces daubed with colour sit outside a temple willing to have their photos taken - but again only for a few Rupees. Compared to the ghat at Varanasi, this one on the Bagmati River is more enclosed and as a result arguably more intimate. It felt more ‘purpose built’ as a place of cremation with many separate platforms for the public funerals. But like at Varanasi, there was a steady activity both on the platforms and on the ghat with a body being carried in to the area from the town while another was being prepared for cremation while a family looked on and as we walked around.
Separated only by a river from Kathmandu, Patan is full of Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments and it was here that we bought a Singing Bowl as our single momento of Nepal. Buddish, our guide, was doing a great job showing us around the valley. His English was excellent and he was good company and he found us a lovely place for lunch, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the main square and temples. Having missed out on our flight to the mountain a bottle of Everest beer was as close to the world’s highest mountain as I would get.
K_Kathmandu_001 (388)

K_Kathmandu_001 (388)


At the small medieval town of Bhaktapur we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and slowly climbed to the main square where we found what appeared to be the entire town out in force and celebrating one of their many festivals. Groups of women dressed in colourful and different costumes queued to make offerings and bands played while ice cream men did a good trade under the afternoon sun and two balloon sellers argued over their ‘turf’. More photos! It’s difficult to work out where (of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) one stops and another starts as they almost merge seamlessly into one city but each had its own style and were worth seeing.
L_Pokhara_001 (21)

L_Pokhara_001 (21)


Our three nights in and around Kathmandu had been great. More relaxing than India and perfect as we edged towards the last few days of the holiday. Our final stop in Nepal would be Pokhara, a short hop by plane from Kathmandu. Buddish and Sunit dropped us off at the airport where the 25 minute flight took us along the edge of the Himalayas which in itself was a trip worth taking. At Pokhara airport we were met by Dipak and taken to Fishtail Lodge; literally a five minute drive by car. The lodge is on the edge of a lake and only accessible by rope-pull raft which meant it was secluded and quiet and perfect for the final couple of days. More tropical than anywhere in India that we had been or Kathmandu, Pokhara town is a tidy place with Tibetan influences and sits right on the edge of the Himalayas with the Annapurna range looking down on it but with the skyline dominated by the slightly smaller but closer Machupuchre (Fishtail Mountain).
L_Pokhara_001 (43)

L_Pokhara_001 (43)


Dipak would be picking us up at 5:15 the following morning to go and watch the sunrise over the Annapurna range from Sarangkot but before then there was a lake to explore. We paid for a boat that afternoon and this took us halfway up the lake to a small island with a temple on it. Quite an attraction for locals and the few tourists that were about, the island was quite busy but worth a brief stop before our boatman rowed us back to the lodge. The noise coming from those visiting the island was in stark contrast to the general environment and as we slowly made our way back down the lake to the hotel it was noticeable how suddenly peace had been restored. On the previous day a storm had broken in late afternoon – something fairly typical in April we were told - and some of the boats had capsized, so we were keen to do the trip and get back as early as possible to avoid something similar. As it happened the day remained fairly still and hazy but at the same time the visibility in the direction of the Himalayas wasn’t great to be honest.
L_Pokhara_001 (131)

L_Pokhara_001 (131)


The Fishtail Lodge is a lovely relaxing environment and something that we now wanted to take advantage of at the end of the trip so when we met up with Dipak early the following morning and he explained the itinerary for the day and we agreed that with everything so close together we could see it all before breakfast and thus have the entire day by the pool. Buddish (in Kathmandu) had already told us that the sightseeing in Pokhara would take two hours maximum and so it proved. We reached Sarangkot before 6 a.m. and acquired best seats on the terrace for the view across to Annapurna’s 1 to 4 plus Machupuchre. Gradually, the skyline lit up and the range came into view and it was then just a simple matter of taking in the view and watching it change with the light as the sun appeared over the ridge. More photos, move on.
L_Pokhara_001 (76)

L_Pokhara_001 (76)


A quick tour of Pokhara town revealed a comfortably populated, neat little town in a lovely location in the valley with decent facilities and a Tibetan refugee community residing in their own camp. We visited Devi’s Fall, Mahendra Cave and also Bindhyabasubu Temple. Devi’s Fall and Mahendra Cave were on opposite sides of the main high street in the centre of town. We were in the dry season so Devi’s Fall wasn’t falling too rapidly. In fact it was almost totally dry but the shapes carved in the rocks by the water in the rainy season were amazing and gave an indication of the power of the water when in full flow. From Devi’s Fall, the water travels underground again, literally under the main road, and appears across the road in Mahendra Cave. Inside the cave the air is very humid as you descend to the lowest point where you can see through to daylight at Devi’s Fall.
Bindhyabasubu Temple was the next and final stop. Basically this was another small temple in the centre of town but a very active one with queues waiting to make offerings to Shiva as a very pungent incense filled the air. These were by now common sights for us on this trip so the real highlight here was the terrific view across town and down through the valley towards the snow-capped Himalayas. Then, it was back in the car for the drive back to the lodge. On route Dipak showed us a bit more of the town including the Tibetan Refugee Camp and some of the oldest houses that have so far escaped modernisation.
L_Pokhara_001 (123)

L_Pokhara_001 (123)


As planned we were back at Fishtail Lodge in time for breakfast and already you could tell that it was going to be a hot, sunny day and the prospect of doing absolutely nothing for almost the first time in three weeks was perfect. By late afternoon we had had enough sun. We could also see clouds rolling in and before long the sky was a blend of grey and black and stormy. The occasional flash of lightning was quickly followed by thunder as the clouds did battle around the valley. We had almost no rain but watched it all happen over the Himalayas and, apart from dinner, the day was effectively over but the benefit of the storm was spectacularly there to see when we woke up the next morning. The sky was cloudless and for the first time we had a clear view from our room of the Himalayas. We grabbed one of the last outside tables for breakfast and enjoyed the view for the one and only time. It was a great way to end our stay.
L_Pokhara_001 (157)

L_Pokhara_001 (157)


Within the hour we were back at Pokhara Airport and boarding the flight back to Kathmandu. Again, the storm had done us a favour and we took Buddish’s advice and got seats on the left hand side of the plane towards the back for outstanding views of the mountain range on the 25 minute flight back to the Nepali capital.
M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)

M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)


Buddish was there to meet us (on his day off) with our main luggage and we went for a coffee with him before saying our farewells and flying back to Delhi. Tomorrow we would be heading home and leaving behind the difficult but fascinating country that is India where everything seems to be in extremes and Nepal, the quieter neighbour next door where life and the people are slightly less frantic.
L_Pokhara_001 (163)

L_Pokhara_001 (163)

Posted by david.byne 12:57 Archived in Nepal Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes buildings skylines people snow planes religion Comments (0)

Victory for Semana Santa and Malaga CF

Andalucia : Easter 2012

all seasons in one day -20 °C
View Malaga : Easter 2012 on david.byne's travel map.

Andalucia has long been familiar territory for us but for this trip it was important to make it different – to make it feel new. So, the plan was to see some snow in Sierra Nevada, get some sun (the easy bit), attend the Semana Santa celebrations in Malaga and also go to a La Liga football match for the first time.

It was a ten day visit and we flew into Malaga airport just a few days before Good Friday. This gave us a few days to do local things before heading into the city on the Friday. So, after lazing around for 24 hours we had a quick wander around Nerja and also Frigiliana before, on the Thursday, taking the drive towards Granada and up to Sierra Nevada.

Early April is very much the end of the season as far as Winter sports are concerned but it was worth a try and there were still a few ‘runs’ open with skiing and boarding enthusiasts making the most of the last of the snow. For our part, after taking a few photographs it was time to find somewhere for churros and chocolate – our only excuse being that it was cold!!

From Sierra Nevada we drove on up to the peak at Veleta but as we neared the top it became obvious that the clouds were going to win on this particular day as visibility became suddenly limited. It broke occasionally but really wasn’t worth getting out of the car on this occasion so we free-wheeled back down the mountain and took the road back to Vinuela via the coast at Salobrena. This makes a nice change from the sometimes difficult and windy country road between Vinuela and Granada via Alhama de Granada. The Granada to Motril (Salobrena) road is fairly new and offers great views over the newly contructed and very impressive dam and reservoir on route. And there are some other lovely landscapes as you skirt the western side of the Sierra Nevada range with the Alpujarras on the other side as you drive.

Good Friday soon arrived and the plan was to get to El Palo in late afternoon before heading into Malaga city for the Easter processions. This gave us enough time to pay a quick visit to Comares in the morning where a walk and a drink at the small bar in the square kills time in the nicest possible way. Comares has undergone some improvements and general tidying up over the last few years and the ceramic footprints lead you in a circular route around the village and past a row of houses where you need to be lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) to avoid the elderly ladies who insist on hijacking your stroll and inviting you into their homes where they will show off their home-grown or home-made produce in the hope of a sale of olives, almonds, sherry and similar.
Frigiliana

Frigiliana


It’s an easy drive to El Palo, just on the eastern edge of Malaga, where we would be staying over on Good Friday after the Semana Santa processions. Just half an hour drive, door-to-door, and we were soon getting organised for taking the bus into the city – parking the car would not be a sensible option!! In the centre of Malaga, temporary seating was being arranged along the prescribed routes with extra-comfort being provided for various dignitaries and officials at various key points of the procession. The weather was a little unpredictable and had been this way since we landed on Monday but the general consensus seemed to be that the weather was never great in Malaga for Semana Santa – but nobody seemed bothered by the threat of the very heavy and fast moving clouds above and the already damp looking streets; evidence presumably of an earlier shower.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

Having arrived in Malaga, and not being worthy of a pre-booked seat, we joined the ever-growing throngs of people that were simply wandering the streets, occasionally stopping at cafes or bars in couples, groups of friends or family gatherings. And eventually, the seemingly aimless dawdling paid off as the sounds of trumpet and drum became audible in the distance. But from which direction??

We didn’t have to wait long to catch a glimpse of our first Semana Santa procession as it made its way through an unlikely part of the city on its journey to the cathedral. The procession itself was a very stop-start affair as members of the brotherhood took responsibility for keeping the various role-players the correct distance apart and at the same time moving at a slow but steady pace in time to the rather gloomy music being poured out by the accompanying band.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

At first sight the conical, face-covering hoods of the brotherhoods present a fairly sinister image and immediately conjure up thoughts of the KKK as the wearers of the costumes peer spookily through the eyeholes of either the black or white material.

Semana Santa, Malaga

Semana Santa, Malaga

From the very young to the very old, each procession (and we eventually saw five) involved an impressive number of people. Brotherhood members, band members, the numerous carriers of the extremely heavy-looking religious floats, incense carriers, candle bearers etc, etc. And the young among the watching general public had their own way of participating as it soon became apparent that children, rushing forward to greet those in the procession carrying the huge lit candles, were in fact approaching with a small ball of tin foil which they then proceeded to collect the dripping candle wax on, thus slowly accumulating an ever-growing wax ball as their souvenir of Semana Santa 2012.

As the sun and light disappeared for the day we interrupted our procession hunting for a while with firstly a visit to Bar El Pimpi to share a bottle of Malaga Dulce and then a little later we found another bar where we enjoyed beer and tapas. It can be a tough life at times!!

Our final procession of the day (although not THE final procession which started around 10:45 pm and finished around 4 am!!) required us to follow the crowd and get as close as possible to the cathedral which we did and from here we were able to see the entire procession file past and somehow, with what seemed like millimetres to spare either side, squeeze the processional float through the main doors of the cathedral and inside.

With this done, and the photos taken, we made our way back through the crowds and to the nearest taxi which could take us quickly back to El Palo. It had been a really good evening and very different to anything we had seen before.

Twelve hours later and we were back on the bus into the centre of Malaga. Not for anything specific, just a mooch around the shops and the occasional coffee stop before having lunch in the newly opened port area where shops, stalls, bars and restaurants now sit alongside modern walkways and gardens overlooking the sea and the expensive looking private yachts (and on this occasion the new and massive Aviva super-yacht).
Central Malaga

Central Malaga


From here, we said goodbye to Malaga and returned to our base at Vinuela where Sunday would Easter Sunday be reserved for doing very little ahead of our return to Malaga on Monday for the La Liga match between Malaga CF and Racing Santander.

With kick-off not being until 9 p.m. on Easter Monday we had plenty of time to do stuff during the day. We needed to park in the centre in good time before the match so after spending time locally around Vinuela in the morning we headed back along the Mediterraneo and found the El Agujero Dam and Reservoir to the North of the city after stopping for lunch at a nearby Pantano (El Tunel). The Botanical Gardens were unfortunately closed (Monday) but it was probably a good move to head straight into the city to La Rosaleda and park in readiness for the match.

The area started getting busy around 7 p.m. and we were in a short queue to get into the stadium about fifteen minutes before the gates opened at 8 p.m. The stadium, recently improved and updated with significant money having been spent, is impressive and by kick-off time was full with the Malagunenos hoping to see their side push on with a victory that would bring Champions League football next season a little bit closer to reality.
Malaga CF, La Rosaleda

Malaga CF, La Rosaleda


Within two minutes, Malaga are awarded a penalty and nearly relegated Racing Santander are reduced to ten men. Moments later and the penalty has been saved and the home side have to wait another twenty minutes to break the deadlock and give them a half-time 1-0 lead. The second half saw further pressure on the visitors goal with just the occasional breakaway interrupting the inevitable. The second and third goals preceeded the final whistle and the 3-0 win strengthened Malaga’s position in La Liga, moving them above Valencia into third.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of an overseas football match and, with Malaga being my adopted team in Spain, it was good to at least see them play. Quickly back to the car, we picked our way through the traffic and out of the city and back to Vinuela.
Vinuela

Vinuela


Our flight back to the UK was early on Thursday morning so that left us with two full days to spend locally. Various ‘domestics’ took care of some of the time and before we knew it we were packing for our return to journey.

This had been a good trip and despite our familiarity with the area and several previous visits (mainly in July and August which will in future be avoided!) we achieved the aim of filling our time with doing things that we hadn’t done before. It was also good to see the landscape in Green rather than its usual summer hue of Brown and enjoy comfortable daytime temperatures instead of spending so much time protecting ourselves against the searing heat of Southern Spain in August. Until the next time ................................................

Posted by david.byne 09:51 Archived in Spain Tagged landscapes mountains lakes beaches churches buildings people sky snow night boats religion Comments (0)

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