Paradise

The fact that I’m writing this blog sat on the beach with a beer, just after sunset, instead of the usual long distance transport, goes to show the paradise we’ve found in the sleepy town of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s south coast. We’ve spent days lounging on the beach lined with palm trees, and enjoyed regular swimming breaks in the huge waves rolling of the Indian Ocean. T-shirts and footwear have been an unnecessary commodity, and even a pair of flip flops feels like an alien concept.

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Our beach antics have often proved a little too tiring for some, as I’m sure you can imagine, and Flakkers’ exhaustion clearly got the better of him.

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We have managed, once, to tear ourselves from the beach and indulge in a spot of whale watching. We rode some serious waves out into the Indian Ocean, which for a few people sparked the onset of sea sickness. Luckily, our stomachs held up to the onslaught and we were able to spot a huge Blue Whale not fifty yards from our boat. After watching it swim along the surface, blow spray and flick his tail into the air for the best part of an hour, we departed for shore, much to the relief of the debilitated passengers amongst us. At this point I’d like to thank everyone who has reached this far into this post, as I’m sure you’ve had to resist the urge to close the window and repress the thought of a tropical beach in order to survive the ordeals of a British winter. Don’t worry, I’m sure you can take heart in the fact that I’ll be joining you in all it’s rainy misery within a week.

Our time in Sri Lanka hasn’t always been as beach bums, and our first week was spent in central Sri Lanka, absorbing the culture, sights and horrendous bus journeys. We were quickly inducted into these journeys, with a three hour journey from the airport to Kandy, the heart of central Sri Lanka. Three hours for £1.25 should have set alarm bells ringing, but we hopped aboard regardless, and were greeted by the ear-deafening Sri Lankan karaoke which is apparently standard on buses nationwide. I couldn’t get my headphones in fast enough. Meanwhile Dav had taken the last seat available, which was obviously between two of the biggest men I’ve seen in the last three months. His face was hardly a picture of comfort, and every sharp corner the bus was thrown around by the driver, who was half watching the Karaoke, I wondered if my friend was about to burst.

Thankfully, we arrived in Kandy in one piece, and set about making plans to head north to visit two sides of the so called ‘Cultural Triangle’. We hired a tuk-tuk, and set about visiting Sigriya, a huge 200 metre rock with a monastery situated at the top. Unfortunately the absurdly high $30 entrance fee put us off – something that is common across Sri Lanka – and we opted instead for another rock of equal stature a few kilometres away. After a steep hike followed by scrambling over the last few rocks we reached the top to be greeted by a panoramic view of surrounding countryside, and Sigriya itself. What’s more, we had the place to ourselves, a fact made even better when we spotted the queue of tourists waiting to reach the top of Sigriya. Thirty dollars well saved I’d say. image

After a few more uncomfortable hours with three of us squeezed in a Tuk-Tuk we arrived at the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa. Dating back 3000 years, they’re still in reasonable condition and we coughed up the ridiculous entrance fee to explore them for a few hours before finishing the day with the trip back to Kandy. We made a brief stop in Ella, famous for it’s tea plantation in the middle of the Sri Lankan highlands. Unfortunately, being off season, it rained like clockwork every lunch time for the remainder of the day. We did manage to get halfway up Ella Rock before the clouds set it, and, again, the views were worth every step.

Our final stop before the golden beaches of the south coast was Yala National Park, and the lure of potentially spotting a wild Leopard. After the struggle of getting out of bed at 4:30am, we arrived in the park for dawn and the hunt was on. One hour came and went, before suddenly our driver dropped the car a few gears and sped away. He’d been tipped off by a friend who’d spotted a Leopard in a tree. As we arrived we joined what can only be described as gridlocked traffic jam, one the M25 would have been proud of, and slowly battled our way towards the front. Clearly his ‘mate’ had tipped everyone off within a twenty mile radius. Forty-five minutes later we reached a clearing full of jeeps, and people clambering all over them, jostling for a view. We spotted the Leopard, watched it climb down from the tree, including a ten foot jump at the end, and those few minutes made the madness to reach that point worthwhile. But the whole experience was far from the serenity I’d expected on a safari.

With the safari finished, we headed back, laughing at the unbelievable positions Dav managed to sleep in on the bumpy dirt track. We continued from their onto Mirissa where we have extended our stay for a week. Hard to tear yourself away from Paradise. And that’s Sri Lanka so far, and with my birthday and the England Cricket game to come, the final week should prove to be a good one! On that note I’ll wrap this blog up, after all, this beer isn’t going to drink itself…

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‘God’s Own Country’

Kerala; hugging the Indian Ocean and boasting lush,  colourful scenery and a fantastically relaxed local population. It’s easy to see why the locals have christened this part of India ‘God’s own country’, and I haven’t even mentioned the uncountable number of rugged, unspoiled beaches yet.

Unfortunately our time constraints only allowed us to visit one of these beaches, and we spent two days relaxing on the sandy beach of Varkala. Sandwiched between a towering sandstone cliff and rolling waves from the heart of the Indian Ocean,  Varkala feels, and to many extents appears, secluded and isolated from the outside world. Restaurants and Juice Bars populate the cliff edge, but nearest road is invisible, and perhaps more importantly,  unheard and straight away the stress and strains of the big Indian cities began to become a distant memory.

Perhaps we relaxed a little too much too quickly, and after a day on the beach our English skin had turned a very angry shade of red. We had vested our trust in the beach worker’s umbrella, but that turned out to be as much use as a chocolate teapot. Aftersun was, and is still being, applied by the bucket load and I went to bed for the first couple of nights dreaming of a bed full of the stuff.

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Varkala Sunset

Such proximity to a tropical sea has provided Kerala with copious amounts of all types of exotic seafood. From Prawns as big as your forearm, to f five-foot Swordfish, you can have it all and a stroll along the cliff-top scouting out the best seafood for an astronomically low price always marked the beginning of our evening.

After three nights in Varkala, we followed the coast north to Alleppy to pick up a houseboat for a relaxing cruise around the famous backwaters of Kerala. After settling for a two bed boat, with top deck for extra relaxation, we set out for an overnight trip around these tranquil waters.

After crossing a lake that at first we mistook for the Indian Ocean, we traded in the big houseboat for a canoe and a one hour tour of a local village built on the banks of a canal. As we departed, Raju, our houseboat guide, thrust a large ring into Emma’s arms, clearly fearing her ability to reach the bank should we capsize.

The canal was the centre of all the activity for the village; washing, cleaning, swimming and socialising.  A relaxing place to explore for an hour or two, and even more so as I didn’t have to paddle.

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Backwaters Canoe

We reluctantly docked back into port the next morning and faced the realities of returning to civilisation Indian style as we journeyed to our final stop in Kochi. A colonial style town with strong Dutch and Portuguese influence,  we s0pent our time wandering the quiet streets and cycling through the spice markets of Jew Town.

The Chinese fishing nets were the main attraction and have been employing the same method of fishing for centuries. You do feel, however, that their methods could do with a touch of modernisation as the two examples we saw pulled out a handful of small fish and a shopping trolleys worth of weeds along with an assortment of miscellaneous items. A bit like fishing in the Bridgewater Canal. They did, however, provide a great spot for another beautiful Indian sunset, not quite like the Bridgewater Canal.

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Chinese Fishing Nets

Still, the restaurants’ lining the harbour are packed with top quality sea food, although I can’t imagine the Chinese fishing nets were the source. Being Emma’s last couple of nights in India before flying home, and mine before the final stop in Sri Lanka, we splurged on dinner, paying the ridiculous price of £6 for main for some seriously tasty seafood.

Five weeks in India has flown by in a cloud of diversity, from the Himalayan foothills to the Keralan coastline with the immense cities and deserts of Rajasthan in between.
The food has been even better than expected, and I’ve discovered dishes from Punjab to Kerala, each different from the last, but equally as tasty. I’ve also found out the hard way that Indian’s love Cottage Cheese more than a northerner loves gravy, and for those of you going to India in the near future the words ‘Palak Paneer’ should be remembered and subsequently avoided.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most iconic temples, mausoleums and forts in the world. Yet I’ve not even scratched the surface of the county, with the holy city of Varanasi, Goa and the tea plantations of Darjeeling some notable absentees from this trip.

India, it’s not a case of if, but when, I’ll be back.

Downtown Baghdad

Diwali, the festival of lights, the biggest celebration in the Hindu calendar and celebrated with earnest across India with entire families gathering together for perhaps the only time in the year.

Sounds brilliant I’m sure, just like Christmas Day with a tropical twist, and I’m sure in the right family environment it would be a great festival to be a part of.

My experience, however, was more like Diwali: the festival of giving children an unlimited supply of fireworks and a free reign to set them of as they please. As we walked around Jodhpur we were jumping more than a horse at the grand national. Half our time was spent either dodging groups of children or leaping behind cars and slamming our fingers in our ears. Clearly somewhere along the way, the magic of the festival was lost.

Fortunately, this nerve shredding fire cracker experience only lasted for three days and our visit to the Taj, our first on the onward journey through Rajasthan, was not punctuated with loud bangs.

Emma had joined me from the UK for a three week break and we’d left the Delhi chaos behind straight away and made the four hour journey to Agra and the Taj.

After hearing mixed things from other travellers, the Taj Mahal did not disappoint. Despite arriving for sunrise the tourist crowds were still out in force, but the beauty and intricacies of the building made it more than worthwhile. Perhaps if we’d have visited during the heat of the day when the tour corridor apparently roll in faster than waves on a beach we would have a different perception, but after spending a good three hours there we left fully satisfied.

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The Old Taj

Jaipur was our next stop, and despite having a great fort and interesting observatory, still had the feel of a big Indian city with heaving traffic and plenty of pollution. Our heritage hotel, Devi Niketan, was beautiful, run by ‘the Admiral’ a retired Indian Navy Admiral who ran his hotel like he’d have run one of his ships. When a Tuk-Tuk driver wouldn’t leave us alone the Admiral said he’d take care of it, and despite being best part of 70 years old I didn’t doubt him for a second.

Ranthambhore National Park and their famous Tigers was the next port of call; two safaris in open top jeeps searching for the very elusive animal. Our first attempt at tracking a tiger proved to be tantalisingly close, thirty seconds to late apparently,  and our guide seemed to take great pride in being so close.

Not to be deterred our second safari we hit the jackpot, and on the road in we saw a big old male sleeping under a tree roughly twenty yards away. We got to spend half an hour watching him thrash around at the flies buzzing around his face, something I can relate too, and left having spent time up close with on of the most incredible animals on the planet.

We left Ranthambhore for the city of Jodhpur, otherwise known as the blue city. Although, we did nearly make the journey a bag lighter, after Emma left her rucksack in the 5am Tuk-Tuk at Jaipur’s train station. Of course I had to sprint after it, with two rucksacks and a holdall in tow, and caught up to the errant bag near the exit, much to the amusement of everyone who was around to see the spectacle.

Despite this early morning aerobics, we caught our train, and arrived into Jodhpur to see Mehrangarh fort towering over the many houses painted in their famous sky blue; a picture perfect city.

Our guide, Llait, truly made our Jodhpur experience unique, showing us sights hidden away in the old town no tourist would have been able to locate without an expert eye. The picture below was taken from his roof, which boasted one of the best views in the whole city, which he explained in earnest while his wife cooked us a tasty traditional breakfast.

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Jodhpur

The best thing, however, was the zip wire set up around the fort and crossing various lakes and gorges, providing spectacular views of both the old city and sunset. Boris Johnson, of all people, provided the ringing endorsement, with his quote about feeling “like Batman” plastered all over the pamphlet. Who knows, maybe this is a sight into the future and Boris will be dressed like the caped crusader, zipping over London. Now there’s a thought.

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Zipwire

The arid Rajasthan desert had started to open up around us, and this became even more apparent as we journeyed west towards the Pakistan border and the fort city of Jaisalmer. Built on a protruding, flat slab of rock in the heart of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer as a functioning city is a miracle in itself. Every part of the fort is designed to collect every drop of water, rain being such a scare commodity.

We began our Jaisalmer stay with perhaps the highlight of the whole Rajasthan trip, a camel ride into the depths of the desert before a night sleeping in the open under the stars.

We arrived just in time for the breathtaking desert sunset, the sun a glowing red disc over the sand dunes. The night sky was incredibly clear, and I had my best nights sleep for weeks before being woken for an equally astounding sunrise.

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Thar Desert Camel Safari

The total peace and calm provided a stark contrast to the bedlam that encapsulates the cities of Rajasthan and it’s hard to put into words how much you can appreciate the lack of constant car horns and (once again) children with firecrackers.

After a further relaxing few days staying within the Jaisalmer fort, a feature that made it unique within our trip, we left for our final stop at the city of Udaipur.

Built on a lake and famed and fabled as the romantic city of Rajasthan, Udaipur had set high standards in our imagination which unfortunately were never attained. This wasn’t because the city was poor, but the romance of Jaisalmer seemed to dwarf that offered by Udaipur. Well, that and the city palace, which was more disappointing for me than receiving a years subscription to ‘Good Housekeeping’ as a Christmas present. Our time in the place seemed to be spent queuing for the next room, only to walk down a musty corridor and join the next queue in the following room. Truly captivating, as I’m sure you can imagine. The lake, with its bars and restaurants surrounding it, did provide great spots to relax and view the old city in all its glory, but, in my experience, it is definitely best seen from a far.

Sandouk tailors alone made our trip to Udaipur worthwhile though, and for a fraction of the UK price, both me and Emma came away with top quality tailored items. My trousers did need extra attention, however, after trying them on and realising they were almost certainly leggings and probably, much to the horror of everyone present, left little to the imagination. Thankfully this was quickly altered and my leggings became a respectable part of a very nice suit.

Our time in Rajasthan is now complete and I’m currently writing this in Mumbai airport on the way down to Kerala. I’d try and write some well articulated summary of the last few weeks but I’ve just taken a bite of an airport Samosa that seems to be hotter than the surface of the sun so I think I’ll wrap this blog up and attend to my blistered tongue. Time to swap the beautiful, hot, dusty cities of Rajasthan for Kerala and it’s famous, hopefully firework free, beaches. Which, right now, can’t come quick enough.

Monkey Madness

Sat in the Himalayan foothills is the town is Shimla, with its striking colonial British architecture and deceptively cold temperature, you could be forgiven for assuming you were in the Peak District.

Well, apart from the monkeys that roam freely over the town, running over buildings and snatching any possessions left unattended. In fact, a few moments ago, one ambitious monkey snatched at a plate of food from the third floor window of the cafe I’m currently propagating, scattering customers in all directions.

The monkey factor has also led to all hotel balconies being fully caged in, a real prison experience. When I checked into my guesthouse, the owner asked me to keep the bathroom door closed at all times. Later, after a thorough inspection, I discovered the glass from the window to be missing and therefore every toilet trip required me to tentatively open the door and sweep the room MI6 style before going about my business, half expecting to be jumped by a gang of monkeys. Maybe I’ve been watching too much ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’?!

On the whole though, Shimla has been relaxing. A welcome break from the furnace of Delhi and a chance to recharge the batteries before descending into the madness of Rajasthan. The views were spectacular and I did not much else than wander though the steep and narrow streets, trying to convince myself that I was really in India and not in fact Matlock.

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Shimla from my Balcony

Before my trip into the mountains, I’d spent my time in Amritsar, a Punjabi city close to the Pakistan border and home to the famous Golden Temple.

Now this is no ordinary temple; made of pure gold, sat in the middle of a holy lake and surrounded by intricately carved marble walls and footpaths. We were lucky enough to catch it at sunrise when the light was perfect. No light, however,  was prefect for my Bandana – a necessity for entering the temple is to cover your head – but this didn’t stop me feeling like a total mug.

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Golden Temple Sunrise and a dodgey Bandana

Somehow I managed to coincide my arrival with the biggest festival of the year; the birthday of the fourth guru of Sikhism who founded the city of Amritsar and the temple itself.

I donned my turban, leaving the Bandana at home and plumping for a cheeky orange number to vaguely go with my t-shirt on the advice of our guide Jesse. We found the temple packed out with Sikhs from across the world, with the path surrounding the holy lake full of pilgrims offering their homage. The temple had been illuminated with thousands of candles, and, after the prayers had finished, was lit up with a huge firework display. A unique night, I’ve never been so readily accepted into a religious festival, especially in a holy place which is so pivotal to a given religion.

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Golden Temple Festival

All of this was organised by Sanjay, the owner of Jugaadus Eco-Hostel, who has created one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. After four nights there it felt as close to a home as I could possible imagine when backpacking. The atmosphere is perfect to meet fellow travellers, and the tours Sanjay has put together speak for themselves.

Aside from the Golden Temple, the Punjabi food tour was certainly a highlight, with eighteen dishes in ten restaurants spread across a ten kilometer city walk. A lot more like Man Vs Food than a gentle tour of the local dishes, but worth every step and every bite!

Punjabi food, as Sanjay warned us, is dairy based and we were swiftly advised to not calorie count for the duration of our stay (not that that’s a cornerstone of any backpackers diet). The food, however, was incredible, out of the eighteen dishes only one I wouldn’t order again, and without Sanjay’s insight we probably would have passed each place as a certain for food poisoning.

My brief tour of northern India is now over, and it’s time to swap the mountain chill of Shimla for the desert heat of Rajasthan. A heat that currently seems appealing after barely having sensation in my toes for the last five days, but after one morning of being baked alive in Rajasthan I’m sure I’ll be dreaming of Shimla and it’s hordes of dangerous monkeys.

Did I really get run over three times?

I’m going to start this blog, like Delhi itself, thick and fast.

Nothing I have seen could have prepared me for Delhi, specifically the old city, despite numerous warnings from fellow travellers. Kathmandu? A long lost memory, that now seems to resemble a quiet English village rather than a sub-continental powerhouse like Delhi.

Constant traffic at a complete standstill, with the queue made up of everything from cycle rickshaws to carts pulled by cows. Stalls and shops line the high street and temporary spice stalls litter the pavement, with boisterous crowds all fighting for the best deal (and sometimes I do mean literally fighting). Taking more than five steps in a straight line is an impossibility.

Yesterday, while exploring the spice market and the bazaar that make up the heart of this vibrant city, I was run over.  Three times.  Nobody batted an eye lid. Why? Because life stops for nothing or nobody in Delhi, even for the tourist sprawled over a poor man’s stall.

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Old Delhi Chaos

When I say run over I should clarify (for my mother’s sake) that it was only a cycle rickshaw and two delivery floats full of spices pushed by five indian blokes (you’d have thought I’d have learnt after the first one eh?!). It wasn’t like I was getting mown down at 70mph like an extra of Die Hard.

Thankfully, for my sanity and physical wellbeing, the tourist attractions in Delhi provided a welcome break from the madness. Jama Masjid, the ancient Mosque in Old Delhi, is set in a huge courtyard where Indian Muslims gather to pray and socialise, making it the perfect people watching spot. Hunyuan’s tomb gave us an introduction to the breathtaking Indian architecture that is famous throughout the world. A must do in Delhi, the whole complex is staggering.

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Jama Masjid Mosque

One thing that is inescapable in Delhi, tourist attraction or not, is the heat. When we looked in advance we laughed off the 38 degree warning, surely not in october?! Well it felt more like 48 degrees and our English skin took a battering. Didn’t help we had to wear trousers to get into the majority of the sights. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise the English rose of the group, Flakkers, has left us for Malaysia, his skin would have melted faster than Manchester United’s defence this season.

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Hunyuan’s Tomb

Now Delhi is full of characters,  either people trying to get a piece of the proverbial tourist pie, or on the odd occasion genuinely going out of their way to help you. We met plenty trying to cash in at our expense, from rickshaw drivers to government officials. You certainly need your wits about you, ready for the next ploy, at times I felt like a ‘mark’ on The Real Hustle.

Ani, however, was one of the good guys. We met him over a beer one evening and he not only insisted on paying the entire tab, but met me at 6 a.m to help me navigate the notoriously difficult Old Delhi Railway Station and get me on my Amritsar train. Perhaps his greatest deed came when he gave me a helpful push on the platform, nudging me out of the way of a small pile of human excrement that my trainer was about to make contact with. What a hero.

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Me, Dav and our good friend Ani

I’m currently writing this on the train to Amritsar. Old Delhi railway station is an experience and I have no doubts I would have struggled without Ani’s help. If anyone hears me complaining about British Rail just gently remind me of this blog entry. Give me Euston, Victoria or Pic Piccadilly rush hour everyday of the week.

As we pulled out of Delhi station I relaxed, my heart rate back to normal as the chaos subsided to become just a memory. Rajasthan will be busy, sure, but Delhi is unquestionably on a whole different planet.

Despite ageing ten years, being run over on multiple occasions and sweating unfathomable amounts I am leaving Delhi with a fondness I thought not possible upon my arrival. A city full of sights, smells and characters (for better or worse), Delhi is constantly throwing challenges your way and all you can do is enjoy what is largely a very entertaining ride.

The Roof of the World

Unfortunately, this blog has taken a lot longer to write than I’d have liked. I should try to pin the blame on the regular power cuts which have left us celebrating if we have been able to get above 20% battery on any device, but in reality it is because in Nepal there is no such thing as to much fun.

Our arrival in Nepal marks our arrival onto the subcontinent. Traffic with no apparent rules or regulations on roads that seemed more mountainous that the Himalayas, shops selling anything and everything for a price that’s always up for debate and street food on every corner, the incredible smells temporarily masking the numerous offensive odours. Yet despite all this, people live in a tight community within such a small space without any issues. Ironically, order in day to day life has flourished within a country where no set order appears to exist.

Our time in Kathmandu was spent wandering around the streets of Thamel, checking out the trekking shops, searching for the best ‘genuine fakes’ as the locals so aptly named them. The monkey temple, despite a monkey trying to steal my bag off my back, was another highlight and gave great views over the sprawling capital.

The city of Bhakatapur was a short trip down the Kathmandu Valley, and unlike the valley’s namesake, has retained much of its ancient structure and way of life. At Bhakatapur’s Pottery Square, for example, the locals still create, that’s right you guessed it, a variety of pottery in the same traditional manor they have used for centuries. We spent an afternoon wandering around the narrow alleys and gained an insight into how the different kingdoms lived and ran the Kathmandu Valley alone, never mind the entirety of Nepal.

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Bhakatapur Square

Perhaps, for men anyway, one of the highlights of these countries day to day is the work of the local barbers in delivering the perfect cut throat razor shave for next to nothing. Shave and massage for under £1.20, talk about a bargain. It is slightly disconcerting, however, having your neck exposed to a Nepali Barber with a cut throat razor.

Now no trip to Nepal is complete with sampling the local cuisine Momo, perhaps my favourite local food from any country I have visited. Small pieces of spiced chicken wrapped in pastry, deep fried and served with a spicy curry like dip, they became a staple of our Nepal diet and unquestionably a highlight of everyday.

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Fried Chicken Momo

We arrived in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, surrounded by the Annapurna Himalayas and sat on the picturesque Lake Fewa. Pokhara is much more relaxed than Kathmandu, full of Reggae bars and restaurants boasting incredible views of the lake and mountains.

We rented a rowing boat and navigated our way across the open water to a little known waterfall on the far side which was perfect for jumping into the plunge pool it had created. Unfortunately the only way down was a tricky walk over slippery rocks, and Flakkers decided this was too much for him and simply walked down through the river in his trainers.

Bold I hear you say? Well, the looks he got at dinner when he rocked up in his walking boots would probably make him think twice about doing the same thing again.

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Hidden Waterfall at Lake Fewa

We were due to head of to Chitwan National Park, however an unforeseen bout of Delhi Belly snuck up on us all and despite eating Immodium like they were smarties (probably not for the last time this trip) we were unable to make the bus. Pokhara stay extended for three extra days, we set about trying to see all the additional sights without ever straying too far from a bathroom.

With these days we hired motorbikes and set out too explore the local area. A bumpy ride along the lake shore certainly tested our nerves, especially for poor Dav who was breaking his motorbike virginity, and as a result drove it like your Grandma drives her mobility scooter. The views were stunning when anyone had the nerve to take their eyes briefly of the road as the picture below demonstrates.

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Ride around Lake Fewa

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Pokhara view from Sarangkot

Our unintentional stay coincided with the most important day in the fifteen day Nepali festival. Govinda, our Guest House owner, invited us to join his family’s celebrations. We met his extended family, including his mother, who genuinely can’t have been taller than four foot. The hospitality, again, was incredible and we departed feeling lucky to have been able to take part on the festivities, but also shattered after a 5am start.

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Govinda’s mother and myself

I can’t finish this blog without a mention of Govinda, an absolute hero, who took care of anything and everything for us and of course invited us into his family home for the Nepali equivalent of Christmas Day. Dav, however, perhaps showed his appreciation slightly too much after opening his bedroom door in full birthday suit only to find Govinda on the other side.

Sometimes people say memories are tainted when an experience is repeated, never quite living up to the memory. I can categorically state that Nepal not only lived up to my memory, but also exceeded all expectations in coming back.

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Lake Fewa Sunset

If Carlsberg did Countries…

Tibet; packed with mountains, lakes and high plateau’s, not to mention the Buddhist culture that is so pivotal across the whole region makes for a unforgettable trip, packed with jaw dropping sights.

Unfortunately with these sights being at such high altitude (ranging from 3750m to 5245m above sea level) they caused us a few issues and we continually found ourselves breathing like Darth Vader until we managed to acclimatise.

Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, was our first stop and we explored the city whilst struggling to breath. Built on a hill in the middle of the city, Potala Palace is not only the focal point of the city, but also of all Tibetan Buddism. The palace was the Dali Lama’s residence until he went into exile, and the various tombs of former Dali Lama’s fill the heart of the palace, with the most impressive made up of 3700 kilograms of gold and decorated with uncountable numbers of gems and various other precious stones. We left the palace awestruck and for me it was unquestionably one of the best places I’ve ever visited.

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The breathtaking Potala Palace

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Potala Palace with a view of Lhasa

We left Lhasa and began the road trip taking us all the way to the Nepalese border. Needless to say the scenery was continually breathtaking as we traversed the region, and quite a pleasant change to driving down the M6.

Our first days driving took us over a high pass, which had been temporarily closed due to snow. The views were of course fantastic and the drops off the edge of the road, which our driver seemed to flirt with, terrifying. As we crossed the pass we got our first views of Yamdrok Lake. Held as a holy lake in Tibetan Buddhism, its easy to see why, with the lake extending into the distance and surrounded by snow peaked mountains while the water is so clear and unpolluted it appears perfect turquoise in colour. The photos don’t do it justice.

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Holy Yamdrok Lake

Later on we stopped at another equally breathtaking lake, although this one was man made.

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Tibetan Lake

The downside to this rugged, remote landscape was, like the majority of that part of the world, the toilet facilities. Thankfully our guide Pasang agreed with our assessment and regular nature stops were scheduled. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many toilet breaks with such breathtaking views. Thank you Tibet for turning what could have been a traumatic experience into a very memorable one!

After trekking to Everest Base Camp on the Nepalese side in 2011, I was looking forward to checking it out from Tibet. The Tibetan Base Camp is more accessible, and its possible to drive there, although the 82km of broken road gave us broken backs.

The weather wasn’t great, but we did get a view of the highest point in the world which capped of a week of stunning scenery. We visited the highest monastery in the world before spending the night in a big tent just below base camp, the fire kept us warm and an unnamed American member of the tour kept us all awake with his snoring. Thanks mate.

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Stupa at Everest Base Camp

I’ll finish on a slight error in the title to this blog. Technically speaking it should read ‘if Carlsberg did autonomous regions’. Tibet, of course, lost it’s independence and became ‘reunited’ with China. However,  the Chinese and Tibetans are, to use an old a analogy  chalk and cheese. Different culture, beliefs and language are to name a few striking differences.

As we drove across Tibet it became obvious the Chinese Government were doing all they could to suppress any national sentiment and restrict population movement. It’s incredibly hard to get a permit to the region, and even once we’d obtained it, police and army checkpoints were a constant hassle on the road.

Nevertheless,  Tibet is an amazing place, one of the most incredible places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and a must for anyone who wants a completely unique experience. On to Nepal and some uncensored internet. Thanks very much for your help in China Ask Jeeves, but I think I’ll be back to Google once we cross the border.

Sichuan Hotpot

After the last blog, I can thankfully write that this post isn’t coming at you from another horrific train and no there are not any infants within sight or ear shot. Although we are about to sleep rough outside an airport to catch our early flight to Tibet.

Chengdu and Xi’an have been the order of the last week. We’ve taken in the Giant Buddha, the Giant Panda Breeding Centre and the world famous Terra Cotta army.

I’ll kick things of with this Giant Buddha and when I say giant I’m not kidding, sitting at 71m tall we endured a particularly humid climb up to his head. Originally carved out of the cliff face by monks as a way to calm the dangerous river currents, he’s now a massive tourist attraction for the locals. Our time was split between admiring the statue and having photos taken with Chinese tourists. What a way to take it all in!

Now this prolonged photo shoot brought to our attention the Chinese love of English statements printed on their clothes.  No problem with that I hear you say, except for the crucial fact that none of them make any sense, for example: ‘A is for red’ was on one puzzling tee shirt. Now I’m no Gok Wan, but surely they could try and make some sense?! As a travelling English man, however, it doesn’t half make you laugh.

Im sure, however, the locals were laughing at our clothes after we’d had our experience with the Sichuan Hotpot. We arrived full of anticipation for the local delicacy and left not long after drenched in sweat and clutching our throats.

Now I’m a big fan of spice, but it’s no exaggeration to say that it blew my head off. The broth is left on the boil in the middle of the table and you cook your meat accordingly. Our broth was packed with chillies and angry red in colour,  the kind of colour you associate with the devil and hell itself.

At one point I did wonder if I had been transported there, but regular refreshments (beer) maintained our sanity. I’m proud to say me and Flakkers conquered the hotpot, but I can genuinely say I don’t think I’ve ever seen more sweat on two men in my life.

A long sleep and a lot of purposely bland meals later, we went to see Chengdu’s most famous sight, the Giant Pandas. Despite looking like they’d give you a great cuddle, they’ve got the strength and the claws to maul you in seconds,  as a few tree’s found out in quick succession.

Pandas are great,  but they aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t aren’t a result don’t breed. Human intervention has prevented their demise, but to get them breeding the centre has had to resort to all sorts of measures – including playing Panda Porn (honestly, I’m not kidding) to try and get them in the mood. Not quite what you want to see at any point of the day, never mind just after breakfast.

Another brutal train ride brought us to Xi’an and the home of the world famous Terra-Cotta Army. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to it’s reputation in our eyes. Obviously the quality of the warriors and their preservation was incredible,  but the hordes of tour groups who battled elbow to elbow for a better view, and each tour leaders description via megaphone left us partially deaf at certain points. A must see in China, but you won’t last more than an hour there.

Spare a thought for the poor guy whose land the horde of valuable warriors were found on though. You’d think he retire a with millions, if not billions, in the bank after literally finding buried treasure. Nope. The Government ‘acquired’ the land from him upon their discovery. His reward? A job for life working at the tourist site. Ouch.

Our time in Xi’an is done, and the Beijing to Xi’an leg has been a real experience. Incredible sights and a fascinating, if a little intense, culture have been the order of the last three weeks. I am, however, ready to leave the smog behind. Next stop Tibet, and hopefully some bright, clear blue sky!

Taxis, Trains and Terrible Toddlers

It would seem fortunate to some, that after writing my last post from a (rather comfortable) luggage rack, that for my next long journey from the sleepy city of Hangzhou an hour outside Shanghai, across much of central China to Sichuan, and it’s capital Chengdu, that I have a seat.

That’s right, a seat. Fifteen hours of pure sitting comfort. The small detail I’m missing out? Apparently my seat is located in the heart of the nursery carriage.

Nothing like a few toddlers sipping red bull at 7:30am (that’s right, red bull) to ruin a journey. It hasn’t given these children wings, but instead shoe’s apparently full of lead, perfect for stamping up and down the carriage and on the seat next to me.

A particular highlight, so far anyway, was when the child next to me on his mother’s lap decided a perfect time to scream in my ear would be when I was sound asleep. Even earplugs don’t block that out, trust me.

I must confess, this journey didn’t go to plan before I sat down with these sugar hyped angels. For reasons best known to Hangzhou taxi drives, we were unable to book a taxi to the train station the evening before, so we woke at 5am to try again. No luck. Cue a short sprint, full baggage in tow, with arms flailing at every passing taxi. Thankfully, despite being continually passed, we managed to convince a driver to take us the forty minutes to our mobile nursery that would transport us across China.

Unfortunately this hasn’t been a Hangzhou one off, we’ve struggled to get taxis in every city we’ve visited. Any taxi journey has been tricky, and foreigners, especially westerners, seem to be a no go. Perhaps Chinese propaganda has labelled westerners in taxis as the true cause of Ebola, or maybe it’s because we are (especially the three of us) twice their size. I’m sure they have their reasons, and I’d love to know them, but it isn’t half frustrating.

I’ve touched on the two minor downsides of the last week, but so far neglected all the positives. After a packed Japan itinerary and nine days in Beijing and smoggy Shanghai, we were craving some down time and more importantly something away from a big city.

We found exactly what we were looking for in the West Lake Youth Hostel. Set in the scenic hills around Hangzhou we found our escape. A humid walk through the forest and tea plantation took up one day, and a cycle around Hangzhou’s famous lake another. Cycling in China, like general life, is dog eat dog. Having scooters coming down the pavement straight at you isn’t a rarity. Duck and weave was the mantra of the day.

A unintended Tuesday night out came about after we’d asked the receptionist for a quiet bar and she’d sent us to a very upmarket club. Feeling very under dressed (shorts and sandals were common place) and after looking at the menu, very under financially acquitted, we took up our given table near the dance floor.

I quickly excused myself for the mens room, took up my spot, but before I could get down to business I felt hands on my back which promptly began to massage me. Que massive stage fright.

Apparently this is a service offered in all toilets in Chinese clubs – a bit like the person offering you some aftershave in a club in the UK. After overcoming the Chinese language barrier to explain to him that no, I didn’t want any sort of hands on me while I went to the toilet, I rejoined our table and a good night was had all round.

A few more relaxing days and we felt ready to take on the next two big cities before we hit Tibet. Train tickets booked, we were all aboard the express nursery cutting through central China to Sichuan province and, what seems like the promised land at the moment, Chengdu.

A combination of Bob Marley, earplugs and every ounce of patience will get me to Chengdu, but aren’t these the kind of experiences backpacking is all about? Testing your character, putting yourself out of your comfort zone in a totally alien environment?

If they’re not, then please don’t tell me, at least not until I’m off this train, it’s the only thing that’s going to get me through.

Culture Shock

I’m currently writing this from the luggage rack of a Chinese night train from Beijing to Shanghai, which is serving as my bed for the night. A bit of a change from the Japanese Bullet Trains we’d become used too as part of everyday travel.

Despite expecting our ‘culture shock’ to arrive in Japan, it struck with a vengeance in Beijing, our first stop in China, and it hit home long before I swapped my bullet train seat for this luggage rack.

When we arrived in Beijing it became quickly apparent we were in the capital of a nation with over one billion citizens; from constantly packed subways (and before you say it, London in rush hour doesn’t even come close), too heaving streets from sunrise until the early hour’s. It all seemed very dog eat dog to us wide eyed westerners.

Well, except for my arrival. Having travelled separately from the others, I arrived in the city to what can only be described as Biblical rain. I braved the ten minute wade in full waterproof gear from the subway, and with water pouring over my shoes I wouldn’t have been shocked to see Noah and his Ark come floating around the corner.

Our first impressions of Beijing was not all together positive. Even though the majority of the smog had cleared with the rain, it still posed an annoyance to my throat which had been damaged by a serious Japanese Karaoke session. Queuing is unheard of; call me British but Chinese man after Chinese man pushing in does start to wear slightly thin, and seeing children using the street as a toilet, and I’m not just talking the less offensive number ones, wasn’t what we’d envisaged. We were wondering what we’d let ourselves in for.

As our original culture shock began to subside, we got to see Beijing for what it really was. Packed with culture and imperial legacy, and great for exploring.

Tianamen square, the heart of the country, is built outside the Forbidden City, the palace of the imperial age. It’s a battle just to get into the square, with the ridiculously heavy police presence, but knowing its significance in twentieth century history made it worth every check.

The summer palace, a complex spread over ten square miles and set around a rather large lake, seems like a perfect way to spend a summer. Especially when it’s the reserve of the Emperor and his wife!

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Summer Palace

We wandered away from the crowds into the Hutongs, the Beijing ‘old town’, where with a couple of people from our hostel, we found a local restaurant with a fire pit built into the table. A leg of lamb was produced and we set about cooking and carving it with limited success, but it was great fun, especially with the cheap beers! The renowned Beijing duck was good, but this was, in my opinion on a different level.

The Great Wall was exactly just as breathtaking taking as we’d imagined and we got our sweat on scrabbling up the steep inclines for the best views.  They didn’t disappoint, of course, and we sat mesmerised watching the wall snake over mountains into the distance. Couldn’t help but feel sorry for the workers who constructed it, how they did it I’ll never know.

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The Great Wall

After a visit to a Chinese master of herbal medicine and a night on the beers (not necessarily in that order) we left Beijing with heavy hearts. Wouldn’t have thought it after the first few days,  but when you can begin to get your head around children using the pavement as their potty, China, and Beijing specifically, doesn’t half grow on you.

After a near train ticket disaster we boarded the train for Shanghai. I took up my luggage rack seat, it sounds bad but I can’t complain, I can lie down, poor Dav is sat with five schoolgirls who can only seem to continually laugh at him. As a distraction he’s plumped for Alex Ferguson’s autobiography and for those who don’t know football or Sam Davill, that’s the equivalent of getting a member of the BNP to read the Quran. He’s in for a long night.

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Dav’s home for the night