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The Blue Cities of Rajasthan

India photos

One of Rajasthan’s most evocative allures is to see the “Blue City”… though few people know there are two cities that covet this label. Of the two, Jodhpur is the internationally famed destination, renowned for its staggering fortress as much as the blueness of its old city. Located at the geographical heart of Rajasthan, Jodhpur is invariably included on itineraries through North India and consequently the traffic-choked city is rather touristic. Few people though venture to the comparative hamlet of Bundi, a serene escape from the big cities of India. I travelled to both Jodhpur and Bundi, though visited Udaipur in between (next entry).

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After five days of relative peace in Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, I was rudely brought back to the reality of Indian cities upon arrival at Jodhpur. I was approached on the train platform by supposedly benevolent locals, who claimed the old city was in the exact opposite direction to its actual location. However, these conniving tuk-tuk drivers were no match for a man with such an impeccable sense of direction… or at least 21st century technology in the form of Google Maps. The streets of Jodhpur were heaving with traffic, occasionally preventing any movement whatsoever for vehicles and pedestrians alike in the compact old city. Maniacal motorcyclists blared their horns so loudly and unnecessarily that I could literally feel my ear drums being damaged. I hopped between murderous motorists, enormous cattle, vicious dogs, beggars, excrement of various descriptions and endless piles of garbage to reach my guesthouse. I was beginning to question the worth of visiting this gritty, overcrowded city. But my doubts immediately evaporated when I ascended to the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse and viewed the colossal Mehrangarh Fort.

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Mehrangarh Fort rises magnificently above the Blue City of Jodhpur in a similarly dramatic and imposing fashion to Edinburgh Castle, though on a larger scale. The fortress walls are literally carved from the rock of the hill it occupies, creating a virtually impenetrable barrier for invading armies. Indeed, the maharajas of Marwar can proudly boast their stronghold was never conquered until the proliferation of foreign tour groups. Within the robust defences of the fortress is a sumptuous palace festooned with delicate Rajasthani carvings on the facades and elaborately decorated Indo-European rooms inside. Like most historical attractions in India, unfortunately visiting the fortress is prohibitively expensive for many backpackers. The entrance ticket is roughly the equivalent of Western prices and grossly disproportionate to other costs in India (and the infinitesimal local fee). This extortionate behaviour is demonstrative of the contempt India systematically has for “cheap” tourism (in comparison to competitors like Thailand and Vietnam). The government can charge whatever they fancy for the Taj Mahal because of its international fame. But I would bet that anyone reading this entry who has not travelled to Rajasthan has never heard of Mehrangarh Fort, despite its World Heritage status. Consequently, many backpackers struggle to justify paying these ludicrous fees repeatedly since India is littered with fortresses.

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The central bazaar area of Jodhpur, while colourful from the merchandise and women’s clothing, is certainly not recognisable as “the Blue City”. Perhaps only one in five of the old, crumbling townhouses are actually painted blue, leaving many tourists disappointed. But if you venture further into the narrow residential areas that surrounded the vertical slopes of Mehrangarh Fort, the streetscape gradually becomes more vibrantly blue. Indeed, in the oldest neighbourhood tragically unfrequented by tourists, almost every dwelling is painted different shades of blue. The houses are like miniature compounds, with only charismatic wooden doors and small windows breaking the monolithic blue stone walls.

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While ambling aimlessly through such areas, one local attempted to usher me back to the touristic zone by suggesting I follow an alley leading to a traditional spice market. Aware that he was trying to stooge me, I still decided to walk in that direction in curiosity. Five minutes later, I noticed that he had been stalking me and was making phone calls. When I arrived at a busy junction, I was approached by a man who claimed to be the cook at my guesthouse (I had foolishly mentioned the name to the first chap)! Amazed at the audacity of their lies, I sarcastically complimented his preparation of a delicious lunch (it actually was rather good). He quickly redirected conversation to the enthralling spice market around the corner that I simply had to visit right at that moment (5:30pm on a Sunday night). I then noticed the original turd-cake was failing miserably to watch our conversation discreetly from a corner shop. I thanked the fake cook for his advice and said I may visit the following day, but in irritation he warned me the market would be very busy then (as if visiting an empty market was a preferable alternative). I giddily exclaimed that would be perfect and scurried off, though loitered at a distance to catch the fake cook gesticulating with the original turd-cake about my departure. I walked past the fake cook again the next day and he denied ever claiming to work in my guesthouse while trying to lure me into his souvenir shop.

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My journey to Bundi was certainly a hellish bus trip. Two bus trips actually, because contrary to the advice I received at the bus station the day before travelling, there were no direct buses to Bundi due to Diwali celebrations. Instead, the same duffus I had spoken to suggested I take a bus to a town I had never heard of and then transfer to a bus bound for Bundi. My initial expectation of a five hour journey ballooned out to eleven hours overall. Nevertheless, the first bus was uneventful and the transfer relatively smooth thanks to an English speaking benefactor at the terminal. It was the second bus that was particularly unpleasant. I was squished with my 18kg rucksack and 6kg day-bag into one place in the very back corner, completely deprived of leg-room (or an escape). As the bus became overcrowded, a group of about ten men, both seated and standing, began staring at me, chatting in Hindi and laughing about me. Something I loathe about Indian culture is their propensity to stare endlessly but never to return a smile. After the usual mundane question of “where are you from?”, they disconcertingly inquired about whether we use dollars and what the exchange rate is. One of the men, fascinated by the appearance of a tall, white man on this rural, government bus, managed to slip in beside me and proceeded to creep me out for the next 90 minutes. With no command of the English language, all his communication was through pointing and poking. First, he noticed a fresh scar on my knee and poked it with his filthy fingers, forcing me to wrap my jacket around my legs. He made a bizarre comparison between my stubble and leg hair, attempted to hand-fed me a lolly I had given him, seemed to stroke my leg not accidentally and insisted I take a selfie on my phone with him. It was the first time in more than two years of backpacking I felt genuinely uncomfortable on public transport, though I was eternally grateful not to be a single woman in that situation. The strange man’s departure was an enormous relief and I was ecstatic when we finally arrived in Bundi, albeit after dark.

I really, really liked Bundi, the hidden jewel of Rajasthan. The city’s fame pales in comparison to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, but Bundi is arguably more beautiful than the lot of them. Despite a relatively small population of 100,000, Bundi boasts a surprisingly expansive old city which is excellently preserved and radiantly blue and golden. The “Blue City” moniker is certainly more apt for Bundi than its rival Jodhpur. Countless Hindu temples with honeycombed rooftops dot the winding alleys of the old city, while grand Mughal gateways align the fortified walls and main thoroughfare. Situated on a thickly vegetated slope directly north of the old city is Bundi Palace, an enchanting structure that has been left to crumble, decay and be conquered by bats and monkeys. The slope on the opposite side of the valley affords magnificent views of the old city and palace. The most pleasant aspect of Bundi is that extraordinary Rajasthani architectural heritage can be enjoyed the incessant traffic and honking of other cities. I stayed in a centuries-old haveli (traditional Rajasthani upper class abode) beside an ornamental lake bordered by frangipani, lawns and crumbling ruins. Astonishingly, for just $6 I had a double room featuring period furniture and decoration and with three stainless glass windows overlooking the lake.

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The people of Bundi were especially friendly… or perhaps just a little bit too friendly. Every shop owner and tuk-tuk driver seemed to want to have a genuine chat – beyond the usual sales pitch. But since walking around Bundi required passing through one major thoroughfare, I found myself passing the same people several times a day. Their ceaseless efforts to engage in small talk became rather tedious and irritating, especially when I needed to attended a lavatory. While ambling around the colourful backstreets of Bundi, children would spot me and gleefully pounce at the opportunity to have their photograph taken. Their mothers would often request I send them copies, though unfortunately when they always wrote down a postal rather than e-mail address, so they shouldn’t get their hopes up!

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Indira Gandhi’s progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to liberate the masses by officially abolishing the caste system. Yet to my surprise, the caste system stills defines India’s social structure, especially in conservative and rural areas (like Rajasthan). Hindu society is generally divided into four castes: Brahmin (priestly caste), Kshatriya (warrior and administrative caste), Vaishya (merchant caste) and Shudra (labour caste). Below the castes are the “Untouchables”, who work menial jobs like cleaning India’s incomprehensibly wretched drains, live on the fringes and must avoid all physical contact with members of the higher castes. Outside of the cosmopolitan mega-cities, marital unions between people of different castes are totally unacceptable; and honour killings can be a disgraceful response to such occurrences. Castes are not completely analogous to classes, because they are defined not by socio-economic factors but by religion. Nevertheless, the caste system is simply another manifestation of an elite minority ingeniously subjugating a marginalised majority. The Brahmins have successfully coerced the Hindu populace into believing in reincarnation, and that the form someone reincarnates into is determined by the fulfilment of their moral duties (defined by their caste). Hinduism is thus a mechanism to avert the rebelliousness of the lower castes and preserve the status quo advantageously for the Brahmins. I suppose its not too dissimilar to Christian clergymen hypocritically babbling on about sin and the commandments while indulging in a gluttonous and, for some of them, contemptible lifestyle.

The Brahmins are easily the wealthiest, healthiest and most educated in Indian society. Their houses are easily discernible in traditional areas because they’re typically painted blue. When I walked around the “Blue Cities” of Jodhpur and Bundi, children would often run out of their large, beautiful residences begging me for rupees, pens or chocolate – in plain view of their disinterested parents. I found this particularly galling, because much poorer parents in other countries I have travelled to usually have the dignity to scold their children for hassling tourists. Evidently, traditional Brahmins shamelessly believe they are entitled to privilege. An example of the privileges Brahmins enjoy is their dominance of professional cricket in India. I’ve often wondered why a country of 1.2 billion people totally obsessed with cricket cannot produce an utterly unbeatable team. The caste-system is the simple explanation. Only the Brahmins can afford coaching, only Brahmins occupy important administrative positions and therefore only Brahmins and members of the highest castes are selected for the national team. Indeed, almost every star Indian cricketer in history is a Brahmin. Interestingly, Brahmins traditionally don’t do physical occupations, which may explain why Indian cricket teams are notoriously mediocre at fast bowling, fielding and running between the wicket; the athletic components of cricket.

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If you can learn the English translation of twelve Hindi words, you can basically decode any North Indian menu. Aloo = potato, baigan = eggplant, chana = chickpeas, dal = lentils, gobhi = cauliflower, kofta = balls of food, korma = nut-based sauce, malai = creamy, masala = spicy sauce, mattar = peas, palak = spinach and paneer = cottage cheese. Virtually every vegetarian curry in North India (meat is hard to come by outside of Sikh and Muslim neighbourhoods) is simply a combination of two of the aforementioned words. Needless to say, after a while they begin to taste rather similar. My favourite curries are palak paneer, chana masala, aloo gobhi and malai kofta. Palak paneer features cubes of cottage cheese cooked in a tantalisingly rich gravy of pureed spinach, tomato, spices and ghee. Chana masala is a wet curry of chickpeas served in a spicy gravy. Aloo gobhi is a dry curry consisting of chunks of potatoes and cauliflower shallow fried in spices. Malai kofta, which I found to be very hit and miss, is usually balls of mash potato and cottage cheese served in a creamy tomato gravy. However, one of the best curries I ate in North India was a humble, delicately spiced dry pumpkin curry in Bundi. Unfortunately, Indians typically destroy their curry concoctions by adding putrid coriander leaves; it was always tremendously upsetting when I neglected to request “no coriander” and the meal arrived smothered in the poisonous leaves.

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Rajasthan’s Blue Cities of Jodhpur and Bundi were both intriguing cities to visit. However, Jodhpur is only a “must-see” destination because of Megrangarh Fort; Bundi has a much more pleasant and colourful old city vibe.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 22:45 Archived in India Comments (0)

Thar Desert

Rajasthan, which literally means “the land of kings”, is often cited by Indians as the place where the “real India” continues to thrive. I assume Indians are referring romantically to things like the continuation of regal Rajput traditions, the prevalent use of camels, the elaborate turbans the men fashion and the famed Rajasthani handcrafted textiles, rather than less pleasant aspects of the state like the high levels of poverty and illiteracy and the resilient strength of the archaic caste system. So ignoring these inconvenient truths, Rajasthan is celebrated as India’s most touristic regions, with evocatively labelled attractions such as the Pink City, Blue City and City of the Lakes. Rajasthan reminded me somewhat of Morocco, with its colour-coded cities, enthralling bazaars and edge-of-the desert atmosphere. The culturally defining Thar Desert sprawls across the north and west of Rajasthan and into Pakistan. I spent the first week of my loop around Rajasthan in the Thar Desert, visiting the cities of Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

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Rajasthan is the homeland of the Rajputs, warrior clans that were renowned for their unparalleled bravery and honour. The Rajputs established more than a dozen principalities in the region and constructed magnificent fortresses as their capitals. The Rajputs continuously fought between each other for pride and independence. Tradition demanded that when defeat in battle was inevitable, a ritual mass suicide was required. The warriors would ride out to battle in saffron garb and face certain death, while the women and children would burn in the flames of a funeral pyre. Due to the disunity of the Rajputs, the principalities were eventually absorbed into the Mughal and then British colonial empires. However, the militancy of their unique culture enabled them to preserve some autonomous powers. After Independence, the Government of India was forced to pay allowances to the Maharajas for their allegiance to the newly formed country, though this and their titles were officially abolished by Indira Ghandi in the 1970s. The maharajas still retain property, wealth and influence in their home cities.

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Bikaner is basically a microcosm of all that is inherently wrong with Indian society (I could ramble on for days on this subject). Despite a relatively moderate population of 700,000, Bikaner is swarming with horrendous traffic, particularly moronic Indians on motorcycles – my pet hate. Like elsewhere in Asia, Indian motorcyclists drive recklessly fast and give no indication what direction they are travelling in (other than at you!). But the most galling aspect about Indian motorcyclists is their penchant to honk ALL THE TIME, usually needlessly and often without taking their hands off the horn. I seriously think my ear drums are damaged just from dodging traffic on the roads (remember, no footpaths in India!) of Indian cities. Bikaner doesn’t boast the burgeoning tourism sectors of other Rajasthani cities, yet the locals have certainly mastered the art of hassling. One guy managed to find me thrice in the same day in different parts of the city, determined to book my train ticket. I stayed at Vinayak Guesthouse, where the owner tried to coerce me into changing my travel plans to Jaisalmer to join his camel safari, wanted me to upgrade rooms because he was clearly irritated by the price I paid online and pressed me to write a positive review on Tripadvisor in gratitude for the bargain. Instead, I’m writing this in annoyance at being encouraged to leave in the morning with all my luggage when I had a late evening train to catch. The locals demonstrate total disregard for their environment with rubbish and shit (mainly from cows) strewn everywhere. Bikaner does have some redeeming qualities, like the grandiose red sandstone Junagarh fort, home of the former Rajas of Bikaner, and the mysterious winding streets in the old town with colourful houses and some intricately detailed facades. Overall though, Bikaner is a dusty, gritty and unpleasant city, absent of the magic and charm of other Rajasthani centres.

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I travelled to Bikaner specifically to visit a very unusual attraction in the nearby village of Deshnok: Karni Mata, or the Temple of Rats. The temple is indeed swarming with thousands of rats, with the residents of Deshnok believing that the holy rodents are the reincarnated forms of their ancestors. Despite general open-mindedness to foreign cultures, clearly we all have limits; the Temple of Rats was undoubtedly the most repulsive, barbaric, insane and disgusting thing I had ever witnessed – until the shameful election of Donald Trump. The temple appears to be relatively harmless from the outside, with kitsch pink walls separating a clean public space from the horrors lurking inside. Visitors are required to dispense of their shoes before entering the temple, though thankfully tourists can wear a (flimsy) feet cover. Indians believe that if a rat runs across your feet or perhaps even takes a nibble, its especially good fortune, though I obviously had no intentions of allowing that to happen. Passing through the entrance gate immediately commences an unforgettable nightmare. Every nook and cranny is literally filled with rats, which scurry quickly and unpredictably in all directions. Indians amble around the temple grounds oblivious to the squalor, sometimes feeding the rats and sitting beside clusters of them nonchalantly. Like other Western tourists though, I was mortified by the sights and smells. The occupants of the temple are particularly decrepit rodents, partially hairless and rather gaunt, which is surprising considering their auspicious statuses and diets. With each step I needed to summon the courage to proceed further into the compound, petrified of the rats but fascinated by this ridiculous “religious” site. I discovered that the rats never scurried into the sunlight, fortunately providing me with a refuge when things became too overwhelming. That was certainly the case when I delved into the inner sanctuary, which had such a high concentration of rats that I couldn’t last more than a minute or two at a time. However, one thing was completely inescapable: the uniquely putrid stench emanating from the combined excrement of the rats and flocks of pigeons that also inhabit the temple. Probably the most horrific scene I witnessed in the 40 minutes I could tolerate in the temple was dozens of rats drinking simultaneously from a large bowl of milk.

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Jaisalmer was an appropriate antidote to my previous five days in chaotic Indian cities. I wouldn’t say “perfect”, because the murderous motorcyclists were still prevalent, but at only 90,000 people Jaisalmer is a comparative hamlet in this humungous country. A hamlet defined by a stupendous fortress literally rising from the interminable flatness of the desert (analogous perhaps to Uluru) and resembling a life-size sand castle. The 850 year old Jaisalmer Fort is preserved well cosmetically, though its foundations are severely threatened by the unregulated use of water for touristic purposes. The fortress features an imposing stone wall of 99 fairy-tale like watchtowers and an opulent palace, the former abode of Jaisalmer’s maharajas. Hidden within the winding streets of the fort are souvenir shops attempting to rip you off and Jain temples with priests attempting to rip you off. I haven’t had the time or botherance to learn anything about Jainism, other than 1% of India’s population subscribe to the religion, they control a disproportionately large amount of wealth while rejecting the caste system, and cosmology is rather central to their beliefs. Jain temples are distinguished for their incredibly detailed designs, with all internal and external surfaces covered in intricate carved sculpture or painting. The temples are thus somewhat overwhelming artistically, yet still refined unlike gaudy Hindu temples. The atmosphere is kind of spoiled by the stalking behaviour of the priests, who guide visitors to donation boxes and give unsolicited descriptions of the temples – playing for tips (and not receiving any from me!). The sandstone buildings of the old town that surround the fort radiate a beautiful yellowish colour, giving Jaisalmer the apt moniker of the Golden City.

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I joined a Norwegian couple for a three day camel safari into the Thar Desert, led by the self-proclaimed “Real Camel Man” (replete with a purple turban and grey Rajasthani moustache) and his nephew. The Real Camel Man offered an obscenely cheap price for his services, as he cut out the middleman (all accommodation and travel agents in Jaisalmer gleefully arrange camel safaris) to the chagrin of my guesthouse. Despite some apprehension about the quality considering the price, the safari was actually rather good, though the Real Camel Man did have an irritating preponderance to redirect conversation back to his financial plight. I have no doubt his intentions were to incite sympathy and perhaps earn some donations from these generous, golden-hearted Westerners, but of course he was barking up the wrong trees. Norwegians are notoriously frugal people despite their unfathomable wealth, while I'm desensitised to crying-poor stories coming from people living relatively comfortably for their context.

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The Thar Desert is regarded as the most “lived in” desert in the world, which is certainly understandable since we passed villages, herds of livestock and wind turbine farms with unexpected regularity. The desert is almost blanketed with dry shrubbery and even trees, with only splotches of rolling sand dunes interrupting the greenery. It therefore doesn’t quite provide the quintessential desert experience of utter nothingness, aridity and isolation, though it was still a welcome escape into nature from the crowds, noise and pollution of Indian cities. It was also exciting to be riding camels once more, easily the most impressive, fascinating and graceful creatures on the planet. Riding the camels was not as painful as my ordeal in Morocco, as my legs did not chaff or cramp in agony. I needed to hold on vigorously though when the camels stood up or sat down; they’re very sudden and jerky movements. We rode the camels for a couple hours at a time, rested in the heat of the day and slept on the sand dunes under the stars. Fortunately the Real Camel Man seemed to treat his camels with respect and care; they were only required to work for four hours a day lugging us around and were then released to graze in the desert. I was amazed how the Real Camel Man’s nephew was able to track down the animals each morning after they had wandered more than four kilometres away overnight.

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Indians typically eat a thali for lunch or dinner, which is a multi-dish meal consisting of 2-3 vegetarian curries, dhal, raita, pickled lemons, salad, roti, papadum, rice and sometimes a sweet. Each state of India features its own variations of the thali, usually with different vegetarian curries served. I sampled several traditional Rajasthani curries in humungous thalis including a curry of chickpea flour balls served in a rich gravy and a dry curry of vegetables similar to green beans and grown in the desert. The only notable street food I had in Bikaner or Jaisalmer was aloo tikki, which are patties of mashed potatoes mixed with chana masala (chickpea curry) and chilli sauce, fried on a hot plate and topped with crispy bits.

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Thus ended the first stanza of my Rajasthani tour!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:20 Archived in India Comments (0)

Punjab

The Punjab vies with Bengal as the most significant historical region of the Indian Subcontinent. Located on the north-western frontier of Indian civilisation, Punjab is a melting pot of Hindu, Sikh, Afghan, Persian, Mughal and British cultural influences. Its 150 million native speakers are now spread across two countries. I visited the cities of Chandigarh and Amritsar, the only destinations of touristic notoriety in the Indian Punjab. Just like Canberra and Brasilia, Chandigarh is a planned capital city created for political reasons and designed by one of the twentieth century’s most prominent architects. I briefly studied the work of the Swiss genius Le Corbusier at university, so I was quite eager to stop briefly in Chandigarh en route to the Himalayas. After two and half weeks in the Himalayas, I returned to Punjab by travelling to Amritsar, the homeland of the Sikhs and antithesis of Chandigarh. Amritsar reminded me of Cairo: a city I was eager to leave as soon as I arrived. Yet like Cairo, Amritsar provided not one, not two, but three WOW factor travel experiences and the more I reflect on it, the more I consider my time there as one of my highlights ever of travelling.

When independence from the British Empire was achieved in 1948, the Raj was divided along sectarian lines to create India and Pakistan (which included Bangladesh until 1971); stymying the desires of the father of Indian sovereignty, Mahatma Gandhi, for a unified nation. Punjab was split in half, with the predominately Hindu and Sikh eastern portion incorporated into India and the Muslim western portion joining Pakistan. Tragically, half a million people were killed in the chaotic aftermath of Partition as people abandoned their homes and attempted to flee to which ever newly created countries they belonged to religiously. While millions of Muslims still live in Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab is now almost totally devoid of Hindus and Sikhs. The two largest Punjabi cities, Amritsar and Lahore, are only fifty kilometres apart but are now located on opposite sides of an international border.

Without a doubt one of the weirdest spectacles I have ever witnessed is the elaborate ceremony that occurs at the Attari – Wagah Border. Every evening, India and Pakistan’s border guards attempt to prance more bombastically than their opposing numbers, a tradition dreamed up inexplicably during the seven decade existence of the border crossing. About thirty minutes prior to sunset, dozens of guards on both sides march to the border gates, fashioning whimsical millinery that make them resemble peacocks more so than military personnel. The gates are momentarily opened to allow for a single peacock from either nation to enter no-man’s land (5 metres length) and shake hands, which commences the ceremony. The peacocks then strut to and fro from the border gates in synchronised and overly gesticulated strides as they attempt to lift their feet higher than their heads. I suppose its preferable for these two nuclear-armed arch-enemies to compete in this nonsense rather than who can create the largest mushroom cloud. The ceremony concludes when the national flags are drawn down from their masts in no-man’s land, a procedure which they obviously over-complicate and dramatise. The event is a matter of national pride and the atmosphere is very similar to a cricket match. On either side of the border, grandstands accommodate thousands of patriots and tourists eager to attend this unique performance. Flags, souvenir T-shirts and face painting in the national colours abound in the crowds. Before the ceremony commenced, legions of Indian women gathered in the open space below the grandstands to dance to Bollywood music, while women on the Pakistani side sat restrained in their seats. On both sides of the border, announcers attempt to rev up their respective audiences by inciting chants analogous to “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! … Oi, Oi, Oi!” For what its worth, I think Pakistan won the day: the architecture and landscaping of their half of the “arena” was much more refined, their uniforms more stylish and, most importantly, their peacocks managed to lift their legs slightly higher than the Indians.

After Partition, Indian Punjab was further split into two states, Haryana and Punjab. Curiously, the two states share Chandigarh as their capital, yet the city belongs to neither (Chandigarh is instead considered a “Union Territory” administrated directly by the federal government). Chandigarh is completely incompatible with any pre-conceived notions about what constitutes an Indian city. The urban layout of Chandigarh is a vast grid, with each of its rectangular sectors designed to be self-containing. Most of the commercial activity occurs in Sectors 17 and 22, which are mostly pedestrianised and pleasant to amble through (for anyone who has travelled to the Subcontinent, the thought of an Indian city being “pleasant” to amble through is really quite shocking). The buildings in these sectors are vestiges of Le Corbusier’s 1950s vision for Chandigarh and his obsession with reinforced concrete. Le Corbusier was particularly renowned for celebrating and exposing the use of reinforced concrete in his buildings, rather than hiding it as the forgotten (although critical) structural material. His architecture is a more aesthetic version of Brutalism, a style that originated in Great Britain and graces Melbourne in the form of the commission flats. The buildings in these areas are so similar in design and evocative of horizontality that they appear to form singular, winding structures rather independent edifices. The buildings have gradually decayed over their lifespans as vegetation has taken root, giving them an intriguing tropical twist to counteract the sterility. Chandigarh’s most iconic structures are the government buildings; huge, monolithic and sculptural, they occupy a vast, lifeless space save only for the dozens of eagles soaring overhead. While aimlessly meandering through Sector 17, I encountered an “only in India” sight. Two rows of at least 50 desks were positioned on the side paths, with people writing legal documents using typewriters. My surprise at witnessing this antiquated practice was matched by their surprise at me photographing their work.

Dozens of villages were destroyed in the 1950s in order to construct Chandigarh. Scrap materials from these villages, ranging from concrete and smashed tiles to broken bangles and tyres, were used by a local transport official to create a secret garden on a vacated block of land. For two decades, Nek Chand worked on his masterpiece obsessively at night to avoid prying eyes. Eventually though, city officials recognised the worth of his endeavours and the Nek Chand Rock Garden has since become Chandigarh’s premium tourist attraction. It is actually a series of rock gardens, each of different dimensions and themes. They feature mosaic floors, cascading fountains and, most notably, thousands of sculptures ingeniously crafted from rubble.

Chandigarh’s modernity, logical layout, relative cleanliness and orderly traffic are juxtaposed by the dusty, congested and Old World vibes of Amritsar. The city is actually rather new, founded in 1577 with the establishment of Sikhism’s holiest site: the Golden Temple. Yet the tangle of impossibly narrow bazaars and lanes that fan out from the Golden Temple (virtually unnavigable without the aid of Google Maps), the fleets of cycle-rickshaws and the decaying edifices are suggestive of the city’s timelessness. The congestion in the old city is absolutely ridiculous, yet local motorcyclists insist on speeding through with reckless abandon. When traffic is brought to a standstill, pedestrians are also unable to move because side pavements are virtually non-existent in India. Consequently, exploring the old city is both exhausting and rather dangerous, but worth enduring for the ethereal Golden Temple.

Sikhism was founded in the sixteenth century in Punjab as a reaction against Hinduism’s caste-system and the encroaching military threat of Islam from the west. Sikhs are monotheistic, believe in universal equality and reject knowing the absolute truth. Punjab is the homeland of the Sikhs and Amritsar is their unofficial capital. Consequently, the city is awash with bright colours from the women’s magnificent saris and the men’s turbans.

The Golden Temple is the most extraordinary religious site I have ever been to; a vast complex constantly open and constantly crowded with tens of thousands of devotees (24/7). The Pool of Nectar is the primary focus of the site with the glittering Golden Temple, built with 750kg of the precious metal, at its centre. The Temple contains the Sikh holy book and priests and and musicians maintaining a continuous chant that permeates the entire site. Devotees and some very committed tourists queue for up to four hours to entire the inner sanctum (certainly not me – that was too long to forego a meal in India’s unofficial capital of food!). Visitors to the site circumambulate the Pool of Nectar, creating a continuous and reflected stream of colour. I spent hours just sitting on the white marble floors surrounding the Pool, watching the remarkable flow of humanity pass by. Many of the devotees bath in the holy waters, while at sunset they light candles on the Pool’s edges. The Sikhs are renowned for their hospitality and every Sikh temple features a Community Kitchen. At the Golden Temple, 200,000 people can be served each day for FREE in what is surely one of the world’s greatest logistical efforts. Batches of thousands of people carrying their silverware enter a large hall and are seated in long rows on the ground. Rapidly, dhal, vegetable curry, rice, chapati and sweets are slopped onto the plates and the diners dig in. After twenty minutes, everyone rushes out to allow for the next batch of people to enter. The silverware is then washed by volunteers in an industrial-sized facility: it has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps if the Catholic Church provided traditional, home-cooked meals to the congregation rather than cardboard and the privilege of watching greedy old priests swigging all the red wine, their halls would not be so embarrassingly empty.

Many of India’s most iconic dishes originate from the Punjab: tandoori meats, chicken tikka, butter chicken, naan, dal makhani, chana masala (chickpea curry), paneer butter masala, palak paneer (paneer and spinach curry), malai kofta, aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower curry) and lassis are just some examples. A typical Punjabi thali consists of dal makhani (intoxicatingly rich stew made from black lentils and chickpeas and cooked with cream and butter), rajma (red kidney bean curry cooked with cream and butter), paneer butter masala (paneer cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with butter), a mixed vegetable curry (loaded with butter), chapati with butter, raita (yoghurt with diced vegetables) and rice. Perhaps you can notice a common ingredient?! Almost everything in Punjab is cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee and consequently it rivals Hungarian as the unhealthiest cuisine I have encountered (despite its predominantly vegetarian composition). I joined a brilliant walking food tour from my hostel in Amritsar of the city’s famed hole-in-the-wall institutions, sampling sixteen dishes. We started with the city’s traditional breakfast of kulcha: a flat, crispy bread stuffed with cheese, vegetables and spices, smothered in butter (or as our guide liked to refer to it cryptically as “delicious”) and served with chana masala and tamarind chutney. Next stop, we gorged on jalebi (deep fried rings of batter soaked in sugar syrup) and gulab jamun (dense, milk-solid balls soaked in sugar syrup. We progressed to a corner shop whipping out paneer bhurji, which is paneer scrambled with an obscene amount of butter, tomato, onion and spices and served with bread and mint sauce. For lunch, we ate at Amritsar’s most famous restaurant, a century-old traditional curry house. We had dal fry (lentils swimming in ghee), palak paneer (paneer with a buttery, spicy pureed spinach gravy), flaky bread and kefir, a milk rice pudding flavoured with pistachos. But the overwhelming highlight of the tour were the lassis. Amritsar is famous throughout India for its lassis, which are unadultered by the sacrilegious (to Punjabis) addition of fruit. Lassis in Amristar are unbelievably rich and creamy made only from curd and either sugar or salt and topped with a scoop of soft cheese and a slice of butter. Once you have drunk Amritsari lassis (I was drinking up to three a day), you’re view of the world’s most delicious beverage changes forever. A proper WOW factor culinary experience.

I can’t be bothered writing a menial conclusion so…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 20:04 Archived in India Comments (1)

Sham Valley, Ladakh

There’s nothing quite like walking into a snow storm on a mountain pass 3,900 metres above sea level with no shelter in sight, no companion – and wearing a pair of shorts. Perhaps I’m embellishing the actual danger I was exposed to slightly, though only to reflect my paranoia in that situation. Never before have I genuinely felt like my life was potentially in peril and its existence could hinge purely on a decision between two bad options! As I later relayed my story of diabolical circumstances to locals and other travellers, I was most disappointed not to receive dotting sympathy but rather gruff responses like, “he can’t handle the cold”, “chickened-out” and “excuses, excuses”. Indeed, I probably panicked in the moment and took the conservative – though not necessarily intelligent – judgment to turn back. But lets start from the beginning…

The primary reason why tourists travel to Ladakh is to trek in the Himalayas. I arrived in Ladakh in early October, purportedly an optimal time to trek at the end of tourist season and just before the winter weather strikes. For pure convenience, I intended to sign-up to a 5-day guided group trek through the Markha Valley, the most popular trek. However, the travel agent, who coincidentally is sitting at the restaurant table right beside me as I type this paragraph, was irritatingly lackadaisical about confirming the departure dates and route plans, so I decided to cancel my involvement in the group trek. And since many backpackers complete the treks independently, I thought why shouldn’t I do the same and save some money too?! At my lovely guesthouse in Leh, an affable German named Harald, a veritable encyclopaedia on trekking in Ladakh, strongly recommended the Sham Valley as an alternative option for independent trekking. He vouched for the authenticity of the homestay experiences in the Sham Valley, in comparison with the overly-touristic Markha Valley, and noted that no mountain passes in the Sham are above 4,000 metres (versus the highest pass in the Marka at 5,300 metres). Convinced of its relative ease, I committed to trekking in the Sham Valley; though I inadequately prepared for the resulting weather...

I departed Leh brimming with confidence that I could complete the 4 day trek in 2.5-3 days; as I would not be delayed by frustratingly repetitive and unnecessary breaks of slower companions. The weather in Ladakh had been gloriously warm in the preceding days with a blazing sun and uninterrupted blue skies, so I anticipated the same conditions would prevail throughout the trek. Ignoring the manipulative advice from taxi drivers, I caught the supposedly non-existent morning bus (the seating arrangement was obviously custom-made for the four-foot tall local populace) to Likir, the first village in the Sham Valley. I walked to Likir’s gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), which was annoyingly a one hour detour in each direction from the village. The monastery is rather large and seemingly floats above the surrounding terraced landscape at the bottom of a valley. Unfortunately by this point I was becoming rather gompa-ed out, because Tibetan Buddhism has not really demonstrated a flair for architectural variety throughout the ages. I returned to Likir village for lunch, but was disappointed to find that all the home-stays and restaurants were closed. This did not bode terribly well for the villages I intended to stay at in the Sham Valley. I settled on purchasing a packet of cream biscuits from a tiny store for my sustenance for the day.

I commenced the trek through the Sham Valley from Likir toward the small village of Yangthang. German Harald had led me to believe the trails would be potentially difficult to find, but it was actually rather easy and intuitive. The trek was also physically easy, with only minor ascents and descents. The Sham Valley is essentially a series of interconnected valleys separated by passes ranging from 3,500 metres to 4,000 metres, rather than a neat, continuous divide between the mountains. I couldn’t label the Sham Valley as the archetypal Himalayan landscape; the mountains are completely stripped bare of vegetation, which expose their ochre red bedrock. The only traces of life are the clusters of trees surrounding the trickling streams and the omnipresent cows that are inexplicably sustained by the mountainous desert environment. In the mid-afternoon, I approached a farmstead where the local family eagerly welcomed me in, no doubt to acquire some business. They attempted to convince me to stay the night by suggesting Yangthang was at least two hours away, but I politely declined and paid for the chai they forced upon me. Hardly to my surprise, the remaining section to Yangthang only took one hour to traverse and I arrived just before the temperature plummeted with the Sun departing the sky at 5pm.

Yangthang is a pretty village of white painted, slate roofed stone buildings perched high above the confluence of two trickling streams (which presumably rage in spring). I stayed at Padma’s Homestay and was the only foreign visitor lodging in the household of 12. I was surprised to be given a separate bedroom with a comfortable mattress and powerpoints, though I wasn’t thrilled by the paper-thin plywoods walls (rooftop add-on) and consequent lack of insulation! While ambling around the village, I was pleased to encounter a Swiss couple; quashing my fear of being the only tourist attempting the trek. Before darkness cloaked the valley, I braved the plummeting temperatures to have a cold bucket shower and then hibernated in Padma’s dining/living area for the rest of the evening. The warmth of the kitchen welcomingly heated this richly furnished stone-walled room. A row of low tables with corresponding cushions were arranged along the length of the room, while a large cabinet at one end proudly displayed the family’s collection of huge Ladakhi pots, decorated tea thermoses and other accoutrements. Several members of Padma’s household spoke English and they were substantially more worldly than I anticipated. Most of them actually lived in Leh or Jammu for work or study; they simply return to the home village for the weekends. In the wintertime, Yangthang is inundated with snow and they claimed that the elusive snow leopard is often sighted nearby.

The Swiss couple informed me about a detour to Rizong Monastery, which I had no previous knowledge about but promptly decided to visit. In the early morning, I hiked down a valley leading from Yangthang to Rizong Monastery, scrambling up and down pathways traversing loose scree and hopping from stone to stone across the relatively dry river. The scenery was much more impressive than the previous day, with sheer cliffs of red ochre rock imposingly defining the narrow valley. I arrived at Rizong in the late morning. Aside from the magnificent setting and the monastery’s scale, I wasn’t overly impressed by Rizong; it was just another gompa. The unnecessary venture to Rizong left me significantly off course, requiring me to cross a mountain pass on a very steep and dusty trail. The weather remained stubbornly overcast and cool despite the recent tendency in Ladakh to clear and warm by midday. The 90 minute ascent to the pass was tremendously scenic with the exposed rock of the mountains appearing to fold over each other. When I finally reached the pass, I was dispirited to see the Sham Valley draped in thick, ominous black clouds. But I could also see my target village and figured it was about one houraway, factoring in the astonishingly steep trails I would need to descend and then briefly ascend. So I pressed on, hoping like hell it wouldn’t rain before I arrived in the village.

I wasn’t threatened by rain though, but rather a snowstorm. Suddenly a piercing wind blew a gust of ice into my face. Perplexed at first, I scanned the valley and realised there was a thick wall of snow hurtling in my direction! I was shocked and horrified by this most unexpected development, especially since I was wearing just shorts, a T-shirt and a light jacket. Advice from Lonely Planet flashed through my mind: its not recommendable to attempt mountain passes at 4,000 metres and above in Ladakh without a guide because the weather can change so rapidly. The temperature certainly changed rapidly, as I was now freezing from the pummelling wind and the snow saturating my flimsy clothing. On the verge of panicking, I had to make a quick but rational decision between two undesirable options. I could risk hiking through the storm for nearly an hour to the village, the closest form of shelter, or take the much longer route back to Rizong and hope the storm fails to cross the mountain pass. I chose the later option, because I was already familiar with that trail and I decided staying in the Sham Valley with wet and insufficient clothing would be futile anyway. So I scampered back to the pass while the wind and snow’s increased in fury, half expecting the fear of death would give me another gear to power through the exhaustion of the ascent (mythbusted). When I reached the pass, I began jogging down the trail and was relieved from the unbearable wind. The black clouds though had breached the pass and continued to dump snow on me. However, the snow seized once I was 100 metres down and 20 minutes later, the sun blazoned in a bright blue sky. Dejected from the ordeal, I was intent on abandoning the trek and returning to Rizong to take onward transportation to Leh. I like to think this was a wise decision, because black clouds hovered around the pass thirty minutes later.

The other guests and staff at my accommodation in Leh hardly expressed convincingly genuine sympathy for my hardship when I returned. Perhaps that’s why the guesthouse felt like my “home” in Ladakh. I would like to note that none of the others bothered trekking simultaneously or later, because of sheer laziness… or wisdom.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 01:19 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh, Ladakh

Leh

Ladakh is venerated as the “Land of Monasteries”, a remote region of stunning Himalayan scenery, Tibetan Buddhist culture and uncharacteristic peacefulness and quietness for India. One disenchanted viewer of my Himalayan photographs summarised my travels in this region as “stereotypical backpacker experience “escaping the real world” scenery.” Perhaps she was just having a bad, or excruciatingly normal, day at the office while nobly “sustaining the metropolis of Melbourne with fresh, clean drinking water.” Sustaining water and eco-awareness are incidentally defining features of Ladakhi culture. The region is tremendously dry and infertile, with water sourced only from glacial melt and traditional crops limited to barley and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, few settlements of significant size exist in this isolated corner of India. Leh is the exception: the former royal capital of Ladakh and a relatively large city for the context at 30,000 residents. The preservation of water is especially noticeable in Leh, with an elaborate network of channels funnelling precious water through the properties and streets of the city. The visibility of the channels creates the false impression that the city is abundant in water, while certainly enhancing its immense tranquility. Like most other travellers, I based myself in Leh while exploring Ladakh for nine days.

After the previous day’s difficulties in travelling from Kaza to Keylong and aware of the touristic popularity of Ladakh, I feared the bus from Keylong to Leh would be full. Instead, on my epic 13 hour journey I was accompanied only by the bus driver and the ticket attendant; a very much unexpected and somewhat awkward situation. We departed Keylong at 5:00am, with the driver commencing the treacherous ascent to Baralacha La (4,950 metres) in pitch black darkness. The bus was poorly insulated, and the driver left his windows open anyway, exposing us to the sub-zero temperatures of the early morning, high altitude climate. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, which was eyed enviously by the ticket attendant (he later attempted to persuade me into leaving the sleeping bag instead of paying a $12 ticket – probably the most extreme rip-off ever proposed to me with seriousness)). The scenery throughout the journey was staggeringly impressive; utterly barren valleys and plains bordered by craggy mountains with snow-capped peak and Cappadocia-style eroded rock formations. Halfway through the day, we came to a stand still at a bridge that was being repaired. About half a dozen men were trying to secure sheets of metal down (the bridge’s deck), while in typical Indian fashion a hundred other men stood around pretending to be interested but were not actually doing anything. We finally departed and successfully crossed the bridge an hour later, which was apparently a short delay for the Leh – Manali Highway. Later in the day, we scaled the Taglang La, which at 5,328 metres was the highest point on Earth I had been to.

I arrived at Tsetan’s guesthouse just prior to dinner and felt like I had intruded on a funeral. Although Tsetan and his parents were very welcoming after my long journey (despite making it very clear I was receiving special treatment in being served dinner without prior ordering), the other guests in the communal dining room greeted me with scolds or disinterested glances. Aside from also newly arrived British Niall, who tried to stimulate discussion in the group by remarking on the pleasantness of the interior decor. I later discovered that the cold reception was not a personal rebuke, but rather characterised the awkward opening twenty minutes of our evening meals together. It became somewhat endearing. I shared a room with resident rebel Niall, who continuously broke household protocol by using the upstairs Western throne, flushing the toilet paper, always forgetting to order meals he rocked up for and smuggling alcohol into the dining room. Describing Niall as an interesting or troubled character would be putting it mildly. He’s certainly experienced an unusual life-story, which has perhaps contributed to his reverence for the religion/philosophy he adheres to and prattled on about constantly. After 10 days, I still could not figure out if Niall zealously believed in what he was preaching or whether it was an elaborate hoax he was pulling over me. I never wanted to express belief in either side, to avoid upsetting Niall of embarrassing me!

By Indian standards, Leh is a remarkably spacious and peaceful city, free of the insane traffic, stifling air pollution, harrowing poverty and constant hassling of other cities. Leh is surrounded on three sides by stark, craggy mountains that rise to above 6,000 metres. Leh Palace is the defining edifice of the city, a mud-brick structure similar to the Potola Palace in Lhasa that occupies a hillock directly above the centre of Leh. Half of the city is composed of traditional Ladakhi mud-bricked dwellings that are packed together and separated by winding streets. The other half of Leh is green and lush, with large, whitewashed households occupying properties with small plots of agriculture. The streets are full of cows and yaks with enormous horns, which stare ominiously at you as you walk past.

I visited the Nubra Valley in Ladakh’s north on a two day jeep trip from Leh with four Indian tourists. After just one hour into the tour though, two of my companions needed to disembark because of acute mountain sickness. They had failed to adequately acclimatise in Leh (3,520 metres) in preparation for our ascent of the world’s highest motorable pass, Khardung La at 5,359 metres. Once we were above 4,500 metres, the terrain was completely covered in snow, which caused havoc for the traffic. All the vehicles needed to chain their wheels, yet some were ill-equipped and continued to slip and cause blockages. We eventually reached Khardung La and squelched our way through thick snow for photographs under a big sign incorrectly announcing we were at 5,602 metres. We arrived in the Nubra Valley in the early evening, with the journey taking twice as long as intended due to the snow-induced delays. The Nubra Valley is framed by snowcapped mountains and features a expansive plain of streams, bush and, bizarrely, sand dunes. In the morning, we rode furry two-humped camels into the dunes.

On my final day in Ladakh, I felt compelled to visit two more gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) despite my ambivalence to these rather monotonous institutions. Hemis and Thikse are touted as two of the largest and most beautiful gompas in Ladakh and are easily accessible from Leh, so with a spare day I visited with Israeli Jude and British Niall. Jude was clearly enamoured by the architectural details at the gompas and the displayed artefacts in the museums, while Niall, despite his supposed spiritual fanaticism, unsurprisingly demonstrated contempt for cultural experiences by childishly powering through the monastery halls, sulking in the courtyards and bemoaning the absence of food and tea. Admittedly, the monasteries were rather impressive edifices; certainly the largest I visited in northern India. I'm always slightly confused by the preponderance for Buddhist temple interiors to be stock-piled with massive statues of the Buddha, opulent gold and silver ornamentations, intricately carved furniture, colourful flags and elaborate murals; is this not a philosophy that espouses immaterialism? The highlight of our gompathon was listening to an extraordinary musical performance in a temple at Thikse, with dozens of monks chanting and playing numerous Tibetan instruments, including horns several metres long.

While travelling in the Himalayas and visiting innumerable monasteries, my respect for Buddhist monks gradually deteriorated. Sure, they’re amicable people, but they’re not really contributing much to society by sitting around chanting and perhaps sweeping the courtyard floors occasionally. I noticed that manual labour conducted at the monasteries, such as carrying very heavy stones up steps for construction purposes, was often performed by poor local women. I think this is symptomatic of religions globally; they seem to be a mechanism for men to feast and sit around while heaping ever more work onto women. I also didn’t appreciate their penchant to loiter near me whenever I came within proximity of donation boxes. I had absolutely no intention of supplementing their hedonistic lifestyles in their palatial monastic complexes towering imperiously above the vernacular dwellings of the adoring locals. This rant has reminded me of departing Sri Lanka when a lady at the counter indicated I needed to move so a monk could queue jump. Needless to say, I was livid by this situation. I believe the burden of respecting local archaic customs can be dispensed of once inside an international airport. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely move out of the way for pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly – but an able-bodied young male? And to think he had the audacity to accept the invitation to saunter on past me!

Mutton momos. Vegetable momos, vegetable and cheese momos, cheese momos. Fried momos, steamed momos. Ladakhis certainly love their momos. Unfortunately The Emperor does not share this passion. Momos are basically shitty versions of Chinese dumplings. Which is essentially how Tibetan cuisine could be characterised in general. The best food I ate in Ladakh was definitely the lovingly home-cooked meals prepared at Tsetan’s Guesthouse. The mother and a 14 year old Nepali worker would spend the entire afternoon delicately preparing momos, the ribbon-like noodles for thukpa (noodle soup) and tigmo, a type of fermented and steamed bread rolled into scrolls.

Ladakh proved to be the perfect antidote to the freneticism and stress of travelling in other far more populous regions of India. I intended to stay longer in “Little Tibet”, but the weather started to deteriorate with falling temperatures and the imminent threat of snow. Before departing Ladakh though, I did attempt one trek, which will be discussed in the next entry...

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys

After just five days in the utter mayhem and stifling heat of modern Indian cities, I escaped to the cool and sparsely populated mountains and valleys of the Indian Himalayas. It was spine-tinglingly exciting to be travelling into the world’s greatest mountain range, far exceeding any altitude I had previously been to and entering the abode of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Geologically, the Himalayas are an infant mountain range formed by the Indian subcontinental tectonic plate colliding with the Asian tectonic plate. The resulting peaks are of astonishing and unprecedented heights and continue to grow each year (all 110 of the world’s peaks that are at least 7,000 metres above sea level are located in the Himalayas or mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau). The Himalayas and adjacent Tibetan Plateau, collectively referred to as “the roof of the world”, have historically formed a natural barrier between the two defining civilisations of Asia: China and India. The people that have traditionally inhabited this barrier zone spanning Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian states of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh share ethnic and cultural similarities, especially for their reverence of Tibetan Buddhism. The cynic within me stymied efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment in this auspicious region, though I certainly met several kooky Western chaps who believed they were more successful (more on that in subsequent entries). I travelled through Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys and Ladakh, which are some of the most desolate and least populated regions on Earth (yet are counterintuitively part of India).

I journeyed up to the foothills of the Himalayas on the Kalka – Shimla “toy-train”, a World Heritage-listed railway recognised as a marvellous feet of engineering. Construction of the railway was instigated because Shimla served as the capital of the British Raj when the colonialists found New Delhi a trifle too hot (so for half the year). The route is traversed in quaint matchbox-sized carriages, although the quaintness of the experience was lost on me due to my annoyance at the difficulties in finding my seat (Indians seem to have a knack of over-complicating the simplest of matters). The historic area of Shimla stretches for two kilometres along a ridge with two, thankfully pedestrianised, boulevards lined with colonial buildings. The ridge affords magnificent views of Shimla’s pine-clad suburbs that cascade down the mountainside. Ultimately though, Shimla is mostly a ho-hum destination and swarming with Indian vacationers. It mainly served as a transit point for me as I organised a five day jeep tour through the isolated Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys.

Shortly after departing Shimla, I was very grateful not to be relying upon buses to explore the region. The roads were extremely rough, with gradually increasing precipitous falls. Every few kilometres we were reminded of the treachery of the route by signs claiming, “You are driving on the world’s most dangerous road” (although I think there are a few claimants to that distinction). French Canadian Mathieu joined me on the tour and we were led by Ladakhi Hassan and driven by Kashmiri Kamal. I particularly marvelled at the skill and caution of our driver in navigating the ostensibly two lane road, which was barely wide enough for a single buggy. The scenery on the first day became more dramatic with every passing hour, as the mountain peaks continuously rose and the chaos of Indian civilisation dissipated. The residents of the Kinnaur Valley look more Chinese than Indian and wear cylindrical hats with green, gold and purple bands. In the late afternoon, we arrived at the tiny village of Kalpa; evocative of the quintessential Himalayan setting. From my balcony, I had a perfect view of the snow-capped 6,050 metre mountain of Kinner Kailesh rising above Kalpa on the opposite side of the valley. The village consists of stone and wood buildings, colourfully painted and connected by winding stone pathways. Two modest Tibetan Buddhist temples occupy the centre of the village and the ethereal sounds of chanting monks and horns emanate from them. The slopes surrounding Kalpa are thickly covered in pine trees and also feature terraced apple orchards, bean fields and grazing goats.

The landscape became substantially more desolate as we continued further north-east into the Himalayas. The trees eventually disappeared completely, save only for irrigated apple orchards, as we increased in altitude and travelled further from the coast. Stripped bare of vegetation, the mountains in this region appear to be enormous and unstable piles of scree which threaten to collapse from epic landslides at any moment. The mountains are incised by the raging, milky waters of the Sutlej River flowing through the bottom of the Kinnaur Valley. Unsurprisingly, we passed through villages with much less regularity than in previous days. Due to the proximity of the Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys to the Tibetan border, military installations are instead the most visible form of civilisation (we required permits to travel in this region, no doubt to ensure we’re not Chinese spies, although I think my face gives that away) and therefore the roads were intermittently quite good. We stayed in the stunningly located village of Nako at an altitude of 3,600 metres, the highest point on Earth I had been to (which I repeatedly surpassed over the following week). The Kinnaur Valley’s width at Nako is expansive, which almost creates the impression that Nako is within a vast caldera rimmed by snow-capped peaks rather than a river valley. The village is essentially an oasis within the mountainous desert, with potato plantations and thick groves of willows shading an aqua lake designated as “sacred” by the Dalai Lama. Nako is a Tibetan Buddhist community composed of mud-brick dwellings and replete with a modern monastery. The incredibly atmospheric five-coloured flags and banners (red, green, yellow, blue and white) synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism flutter in the wind throughout Nako. I think these flags are my favourite religious decorative motif; simple but astoundingly beautiful in the Himalayan context and effective in conveying a spiritual “vibe”. They festoon bridges, temples and isolated stupas throughout the region.

Shortly after departing Nako, we entered the Spiti Valley, a region of foreboding mountains, stark lunar landscapes and utter dryness save only for the Spiti River. The extreme isolation of the valley (during winter, Spiti is permanently inaccessible from the western approach and can be completely inaccessible if snowfall and landslides block the other end) has helped preserve its distinctly Tibetan-influenced culture. The few inhabitants of Spiti reside in clusters of large, white-painted mud-brick houses, intermittently and surreally appearing on the lifeless slopes. It defies belief that many of these settlements have existed for centuries; how did people possibly live in such remote, empty and frigid (winter) environs without road access and electricity? We visited the small but broadly spaced town of Tabo, situated at the bottom of the valley (so only 3,000 metres in altitude) and hemmed in by scree mountains. The austerity of the buildings and dull atmosphere hide some of the finest examples of Tibetan art in the world. The Tabo Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) was founded more than one thousand years ago and its dark interiors feature intricately detailed and colourful Buddhist murals, remarkably well preserved for its age. We also visited Dhankar Gompa, which is probably the most spectacularly located building I have ever seen. The 1,200 year old monastery is perched on an eroding pinnacle a thousand feet above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as one of the “100 Most Threatened Monuments” on Earth, so I even took the extraordinary step of donating money to a religious institution. The monastery buildings are partly hewn into the rock and feature small temples, winding stairwells and passageways and rooftop terraces with staggering views. The monastery is painted white with black and red trimmings on the outside and yellow and red on the inside. From the monastery, we hiked up to the aqua Dhankar Lake at 4,200 metres in altitude, which appears like a mirage amid the monotonous brownish-orange of the landscape.

Kaza is the only proper town in the entire Spiti Valley and was the termination point of my jeep tour, as I wanted to explore the area independently. Near Kaza, the Spiti River is more a vast floodplain with meandering streams than a conventional river, creating a juxtaposing landscape of interminable flatness bordered by Himalayan mountains (Shilla rises to 7,026 metres). I hired a taxi with a German guy to visit the high altitude villages close to Kaza. We stopped at Ki Gompa, an almost circular compound picturesquely situated on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River floodplain. It reminded me somewhat of the capital of Rohan, as depicted in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. We then ascended to Kibber at 4,200 metres, a village of large mud-brick houses on a plateau overlooking the valley. Just near the village is the skeleton of a bridge crossing a 300 metre gorge, which has remained unfinished for over a decade. Alternatively, the locals cross the gorge by an open, wire cable-car with no harnesses or safety equipment whatsoever. We next visited Langzha, a tiny village perched below a quintessentially pointy Himalayan peak (6,300 metres) with a massive modern Buddha scanning the valley. We continued to the village of Komic, which was noteworthy only for its claim at being the highest motorable village in the world at 4,513 metres. To complete the tour, we sent postcards from the highest post office in the world in Hikkim at 4,440 metres. The lack of replies from home suggest perhaps there were issues with the delivery.

The Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys hardly constitute a trip through culinary wonderland. The region’s extreme remoteness and minimal agricultural output have precluded it from developing a cuisine matching the glorious repertoire of kitchens in India’s central and southerly regions. Omelettes, stuffed paranthas (similar to roti, stuffed with spiced potatoes or onions) and uninspiring renditions of lassis were my conventional breakfasts. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate dhal or a lacklustre chicken curry, or one of the ubiquitous triumvirate of Tibetan dishes that have seeped across the border: momos (similar to Chinese dumplings, just blander), thukpa (noodle soup) and chow mein (essentially just Chinese fried noodles). The only thing of intrigue I tried was tea made from sea-buckthorn berries; vivid orange berries (touted as a super food) that grow natively in the mountainous deserts of the Spiti Valley.

My journey out of the Spiti Valley took a long and somewhat eventful full day. In order to catch the only west-bound bus from Kaza, I was instructed to arrive at the bus station half an hour before scheduled departure at 6:30am. I punctually adhered to this advice and found several groups of locals loitering around the bus in the pre-dawn dimness. I discovered the early formations of a queue awaiting an attendant at the ticket counter and placed myself fourth in line. When the attendant eventually came (late), he was mobbed by the locals and the queue immediately disappeared. While the locals displayed barbaric manners in their efforts to secure a seat, I determinedly maintained decorum - to my loss. The attendant unapologetically ignored me in the mayhem and shrugged his shoulders at my sudden plight in being unable to secure a ticket on the only bus heading outta town that day. I may have directed him a couple deserving F-bombs in my bemusement (there are certain advantages to being three times taller than most Indians). Fortunately though, there were a few other tourists stranded, so we hired a jeep at relatively considerable expense and were on our way. The route was predictably awe-inspiring, highlighted by crossing the 4,551 metre Kunzum La mountain pass. Greenery reappeared in the landscape and the scenery seemed somewhat more familiar and earthly. The other tourists were travelling south to Manali, so mid-afternoon I disembarked at a junction called Gramphu, hoping to catch a passing bus north towards Ladakh. With a surprising absence of, well, just about anything, I wasn’t terribly confident in my prospects. A “real hippy”(so very very rare) Puerto Rican guy already waiting at the junction did not share my cynicism though and began waving down any passing vehicle heading in my direction; military not exempted. Within ten minutes I was tucked into a tiny white car driven by a kindly, though seldom speaking, long haired local man. After three hours, broken conversation and hitching another ride for the last five kilometres, I arrived in Keylong just before dusk; ready for the famed road trip north to Ladakh the next day.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 19:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi

India photos

I intended to forego the tiresome burden of writing this blog and simply enjoy the bliss of a stress-free, work-free trip in India. But when I revealed this proposition to Grandma, her distraught facial expression compelled me to reevaluate my plans. So begrudgingly, I will again sacrifice countless hours to deliver accounts of my travel exploits; hoping to write in a more succinct manner than previously, but knowing such efforts will be futile.

In total contrast to my characteristic and slightly abnormal custom of excessively researching travel destinations, I flew to India just one week after booking my flight with virtually no plans other than to visit Delhi. However, I rectified this somewhat unsettling situation after fifteen hours straight of intense Lonely Planet study, formulating a loose itinerary that restricted my travels to North India. This was despite the distractions of the requisite outrageous behaviour by nearby passengers onboard both of my flights en route to Delhi. For nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, I suffered through the maniacal cackling of a mother-daughter combination sitting behind me that successfully redefined my idea of what constitutes a total bogan. As they gasped for breath in hysterics over comments of an embarrassingly unhumorous nature, they blew $15 a pop on scotch and coke and subsequently spilled their beverages everywhere – including on my elbow. Needless to say, they failed to respect onboard etiquette by repeatedly grabbing and pushing my seat each time they needed to relieve themselves of their drinks. As a squished 6’3” passenger, I still manage to slither in-and-out of my seat without manhandling any others, so I therefore don’t accept the need for stumpier people to disrupt my comfort! On my flight to Delhi, the petite lady in front of me seemed shocked at the aggressive kneeing unleashed into her seat when she reclined it back – I’m rather territorial about precious leg space and always well prepared for such battles!

India is characterised as a “subcontinent” not only because of continental drift theory, but also because of the country’s extreme cultural and environmental diversity. Indeed, describing India as a singular country is somewhat misleading, because each of its 28 states are remarkably distinct with their own languages, ethnicities, traditional clothing, cuisines and customs. India is therefore comparable to the entire continent of Europe, although its population is more than double the size. As the federal capital and fifth largest megalopolis on the planet, Delhi serves as the melting pot of this vast nation, with its myriad of regional identities and religions present in the city. Delhi was the logical starting point for my trip in India – not least because of the astonishingly cheap airfare I was able to book!

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Contrary to popular belief, New Delhi and Old Delhi are not independent cities, but rather staggeringly different neighbouring districts within one humungous megacity. Old Delhi is among the most densely crowded areas in the world, a labyrinth of bazaars stockpiled with every imaginable product (except bottled water!) and congested by flotillas of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and trucks. Conversely, New Delhi evokes space and order with wide boulevards, monumental government buildings, manicured lawns and sterile stores for Western brands. Delhi’s boundless suburbs sprawl in all directions surrounding these two central districts.

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Backpackers typically stay in the derelict hotels in the neighbourhood of Paharganj, which is notorious for scams, crime and the occasional tourist murder. However, contemporary hostels have recently popped up in the suburbs of South Delhi; considered to be the “posh” area of the megalopolis (though still a far-cry from our leafy Eastern suburbs). I stayed in a hostel around 30 minutes by metro (outstanding system) from the centre of the city, but enjoyed the relative peace of the area free from the incessant hassling and chaos rampant in Old Delhi. I discovered an expansive forested park near my hostel where local Indians and expats exercised; some strenuously, some not so much. I went for a run each morning through the park and became utterly saturated within seconds due to the 30+ degrees heat and 85-90% humidity.

Exiting the metro into the utter mayhem of Old Delhi was my first proper experience of India – and what an overwhelming experience it provided! Never before have I witnessed such extraordinary traffic; it becomes so incredibly jammed that the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles literally touch that of neighbouring vehicles. Crossing the road is actually rather safe because of the seemingly perpetual standstill. Old Delhi consists of winding streets lined with decaying though architecturally unremarkable buildings. Many of the streets and alleys specialise in particular types of merchandise (such as gift cards) and are overly crammed with products. Old Delhi is ground zero for some of the worst hassling on the planet and I was woefully out of form with dealing with them on day one. Fortunately though, I quickly returned to my impenetrable best the next day, employing my usual tactics of either playful sarcasm or totally ignoring them (I have an excellent face for poker, just not the game).

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Delhi was originally founded by Hindu rulers, but a succession of Muslim dynasties stretching for 600 years bestowed upon the city its most impressive architectural wonders. The Qutb Minar Complex, located in the far south of Delhi, is the archaeological ruins of the first Muslim settlement. The site is dominated by a slender 73 metre high Afghan-style tower, which was constructed to proclaim Islam’s victory in North India. The structure and its intricately carved sandstone bands are remarkably well preserved after more than eight centuries. The ruins of mosques, tombs and a madrasa (Islamic university) also dot the site, but the other astonishing feature of the Qutb Minar Complex is a humble iron pillar. The pillar is a metallurgical mystery, because it has not rusted after 1600 years. It has yet to be discovered how the pillar was cast with such purity using the contemporary technology (such technology was not developed in Europe until the nineteenth century).

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The Mughals established India’s greatest Islamic empire, conquering most of the Subcontinent and constructing some of its finest edifices. Humayun’s Tomb is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical imperial mausoleum. The structure is both monumental and serenely beautiful; a red sandstone prototype for the Taj Mahal. Clustered behind the vast ornamental gardens of Humayun’s Tomb are a tangle of crowded Muslim bazaars selling flowers, religious offerings and… kebabs. Hidden within the bazaar tunnels is a marble shrine dedicated to a Muslim Sufi saint. When I visited the compact shrine precinct at sunset, it was heaving with devotees garbed in pristine white Islamic clothing. My entrance was met with warm welcomes and questioning scolds; I certainly noticed I was the only non-believer there! Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famed for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal, was also responsible for the foundations of Old Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Red Fort to serve as the new capital of the empire, with the bazaars and religious buildings of Old Delhi subsequently growing organically to the west of the Fort’s walls. While the imperious red sandstone walls were impressive, I found the interior buildings and gardens somewhat underwhelming.

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British presence in India commenced from 1600 with the East India Company establishing trading posts at ports along the Subcontinent’s coastline. Using private armies, the company grew to dominate almost the entire Subcontinent, before the British Parliament transferred the rule of India directly to the Crown in 1857. The British Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 because of increasing rebelliousness in the Bengali metropolis. The British constructed their administrative centre south of the rambling and derelict Old Delhi, an overwhelmingly spacious area demonstrative of imperial might somewhat comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Neoclassical government buildings crown a hill overlooking a monumental two kilometre avenue (the Rajpath) leading to India Gate, which commemorates the deceased Indian soldiers who fought in World War One. Fanning out from the Rajpath are well planned districts of wide tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings, ornate gardens and expensive shops.

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I can proudly boast of departing Delhi after four days without acquiring its eponymous “belly”. It was certainly not for lack of eating. As the capital and multicultural melting pot of arguably the world’s most diverse country, Delhi is predictably a foodie’s paradise. Old Delhi is studded with famed centuries-old snack stalls and Mughlai kebab dens, which I hopped between on multiple delicious food safaris. Lassis from a hole-in-the-wall shop were easily my highlight – to think we’re only exposed to mango lassis (the world’s best drink) and salted lassis in Australia! I sampled almond and saffron lassi that was so mindbogglingly luxurious I was compelled to return an hour later for the rosewater lassi – equally extraordinary! While rice is often considered to be synonymous with Indian cuisine, bread is actually the dominate staple of the North Indian diet. The typical breakfast meal is parantha, which is essentially roti bread stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or paneer cheese. I visited a tiny alley in Old Delhi famed for deep-fried paranthas and sampled pea parantha, potato parantha and lemon parantha served with pumpkin curry, potato curry and banana chutney – superb. Dahi vada is a delicious snack food, consisting of fried chickpea-flour balls soaked in yoghurt and topped with sweet chutney. The culinary legacy of the Mughals in Delhi is the obsession with kebabs in the Muslim areas of the city. I feasted on seekh kebabs (spiced mutton kebabs similar to kofta), Mughlai chicken (a rich, fatty chicken curry) and naan bread at legendary Karim’s. Unlike the rest of Asia, India boasts a phenomenal repertoire of desserts and sweets. Probably the most indulgent of their sickly sweet treats are jalebis, which are deep fried flour batter shaped into pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup. Rabri faluda is a traditional ice-cream dish consisting of cold vermicelli noodles covered in a sweet milk mixture spiced with cardamon – a superb flavour addition to desserts.

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Delhi has a rather poor reputation on the traveller circuit, as most people attempt to leave the city quickly or avoid it altogether. But I buck the trend because I actually quite like Delhi. Staying in a relatively wealthy residential district probably contributed to my enjoyment of the city, because it allowed me to escape the hassling and crowds of Old Delhi. Or perhaps it was simply because I felt like a celebrity in Delhi, with legions of Indian tourists desiring a coveted photograph beside The Emperor with his much admired hat.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:39 Archived in India Comments (1)

Dubai

Dubai photos

The shiny, sterile and culturally depleted cities inexplicably rising from the interminable nothingness of the Arabian Peninsula characterise a region I have minimal enthusiasm about travelling through. The cities are touted as ultra-modern centres of globalisation, yet draconian misogynistic attitudes and racially-defined class systems continue to flourish. The ruling elite seemingly float through the masses of South Asian workers like demigods in their pristine white garments and bling. Their obscene wealth fails to inspire admiration from this Western observer, since it is entirely and lazily derived from oil and natural gas reserves. The United Arab Emirates is reorienting its economy toward tourism (to offset the depletion of its fossil fuel resources), but what do cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer to visitors other than gimmicks? I reluctantly decided to sacrifice two days to investigate this question with a visit to Dubai, while transiting between Stockholm and Colombo. To offset my hesitation, I focused on the likelihood I would have regular access to extraordinary renditions of the world’s most delicious food: hummus.

Dubai is a horrid mixture of outer suburban sprawl, Gold Coast-esque monstrosities, incessant commercialisation, rampaging highways and isolated neighbourhoods. Dubai is therefore the {insert antonym of prototype, whatever that may be} for twenty-first century urban planning; a car dependent metropolis lacking integration, communities and green spaces. However, the negatively connoted label of Dubai as “artificial” is slightly misleading, because essentially all human settlements are artificial creations. What differentiates Dubai from other cities worldwide is that the construction of multi-billion dollar mega-infrastructure projects are initiated to generate new demand, instead of catering for existing or projected demand. The Emir is attempting to mould Dubai into an utopian centre for international finance, trade and tourism and obtain the coveted status as a “global city”. But to me, Dubai is simply a manifestation of the innate failure of rampant, unregulated capitalism. Dubai is defined by gross inequality, evidenced by opulent five star hotels and corporate headquarters towering over dusty and wretched residences of low-wage workers. I refuse to believe the ubiquitously overweight Emirati men, driving flashy Mercedes-Benz vehicles, work a tenth as hard as the South Asian workers in Dubai. The city depends upon a modern-day form of slavery because labour unions, collective bargaining and strikes are illegal, human rights abuses pervasive and the pathway to citizenship nonexistent for migrant workers. The West regularly lectures potential foes such as China, Russia and Iran about human rights abuses, but exemptions are seemingly granted to key military and economic partners rich in black gold.

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While most of Dubai characterises the dystopian reality I have thus far described, there were two small enclaves I admittedly rather liked: Deira and Old Dubai on opposite sides of the Dubai Creek. The area is promoted as the historic centre of Dubai, but most of the buildings are actually modernist structures or replicas of traditional, mud-brick dwellings. The area resembles other cities in the Arab World, with maze-like street plans, atmospheric souqs, tiny shops jammed with exotic merchandise and the requisite hawkers. The domes and minarets of numerous mosques rise above the relatively low-level streetscapes, creating impressive vistas beside the aqua-coloured Dubai Creek. The only mode of transportation across Dubai Creek is by small, colourful wooden boats that depart the docks on either side every few minutes. Its pleasantly surprising that such a traditional and simplistic system has managed to survive in Dubai. Old Dubai features several pedestrianised precincts of mud-brick buildings with traditional vernacular architecture. While the precincts were entirely constructed for touristic purposes (boutique hotels, shops and dozens of small free-entrance museums – each specialising in different aspects of Dubai’s history and culture)), I actually rather liked the atmosphere as they felt reasonably authentic or at least refined and not gaudy. Old Dubai and Deira are absent of the ostentatiousness pervasive throughout the rest of the city and stimulated fond memories of other places in the Arab World; the area is essentially a very tame taste of the Middle East.

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Deira

While Deira and Old Dubai are relatively compact, newer areas of Dubai sprawl for several dozen kilometres south of the Creek and form neighbourhoods thoroughly unsuitable for pedestrianism. No wonder why the Emiratis are so unfit. Nevertheless, I attempted to walk between major attractions to avoid my pet hate (waiting for buses), but this only made me irritable as I severely underestimated distances, was scorched in the desert heat, listened to vehicles blaring past at 100km/hr and repeatedly encountered “no pedestrian access” signs to prolong my journeys. The road network of Dubai is basically just a crisscross of ugly highways; the concept of “Main Street” or “High Street” seems to have been ignored during Dubai’s sudden rise. The endless strip of skyscrapers are mostly distasteful aesthetically, except for the iconic Burj Khalifa. Okay, I suppose the Burj Khalifa is merely another one of Dubai’s collection of gimmicks, but as a civil engineering student I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the world’s tallest building. Fortunately, the remarkable height of the building is tangible because it appears to be twice the height of neighbouring towers. However, I decided to renege on paying $50 to have a panoramic view of Dubai’s ugliness from the observation deck, since its not even located on the top level. I did at least enjoy a phenomenal sound, light and water display in the evening from the world’s largest fountain below the world’s tallest building and adjacent the world’s largest shopping mall. I’m sure that sentence pleased the Emir’s tourism board.

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Burj Khalifa and fountain display

By far my biggest priority while visiting Dubai was to indulge in heavenly mountains of smooth, delectable hummus. Immediately after dumping my luggage at a hotel, I ambled rather briskly to a target eatery, an inexpensive Syrian restaurant. For breakfast, I enjoyed an intoxicatingly delicious serve of hummus with marinated lamb: oh how I missed hummus with an equal ratio of chickpeas to tahini, typical in the Middle East. I also had a bowl of fuul (stewed fava beans with copious amounts of olive oil and citrus juice), freshly-baked flat bread and fresh mango juice (particularly savoured after six months in cold, tropical fruit-depleted Europe). For lunch, I was ushered into a packed Pakistani dining hall and ate green lentil dhal, mutton and naan bread. I ventured to another Syrian restaurant for dinner and feasted on superb hummus with plates of flat bread, pickles, vegetables, mint and salad leaves: so simple and healthy yet so delicious and fulfilling. I also ate a dish of lamb kofta with tahini sauce baked in a clay-pot and covered with crispy bread: also a stupendous dish. I bought a massive container of hummus (despite requesting a small) and smashed it down just prior to passing through immigration at the airport. While Emirati cuisine does exist, the cuisines of South Asia and the Levant are much more accessible and popular in the city (so hummus convinced me not to bother with the local fare).

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Hummus with lamb, fuul and fresh mango juice

Been there, done that. I feel that way about very few countries I have travelled to, but I really have no aspirations of returning to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates or any country on the Arabian side of the Gulf. Far more interesting countries in the Middle East command exploration!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Dubai photos

Posted by Liamps 13:32 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Swedish Lapland

Sweden photos

The wild, desolate expanse of Sweden’s remote north beyond the Arctic Circle was my final destination in Scandinavia. After the completion of exams in Stockholm, I caught a seventeen hour train journey to Abisko in the northernmost corner of the country to commence a five day exploration of Swedish Lapland. Although I travelled during the darkness of night (which lasted virtually the entire seventeen hours), it was noticeable at each station that the snow gradually became thicker and the temperature lower; a foreboding sign of what was to be expected in Lapland. When I arrived in Abisko, I encountered a temperature twelve degrees lower than anything I had experienced previously and a landscape totally covered in snow; a proper WOW factor moment. I spent three days in Abisko enjoying the sublime natural beauty of its unblemished environment and two days in Kiruna, one of Europe’s northernmost and coldest towns.

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Abisko is located within the World Heritage listed Laponian Wilderness, a vast collection of protected areas considered one of Europe’s last great natural environments. Abisko is a tiny community situated on the outskirts of its namesake national park. The dramatic approach into Abisko circumvents a vast, partially frozen lake and enters a valley of snow covered mountains (not particularly high). Abisko is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and the starting point of the famed King’s Trail, an epic 440 kilometre trail through the central spine of Sweden. Consequently, the community’s existence is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The village is composed of spacious timber red-and-white houses encircling a train station that looks somewhat like a gigantic barn. The constituent forms of transport during the long winters are snowmobiling and skiing, which compact the snow on the paths and make them easy to walk on. However, stepping off the paths results in submerging your knees below snow; which came as quite a shock the first time!

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I stayed at an excellent hostel in Abisko that was managed by a mixture of quirky locals and seasonal workers. The hostel consisted of several timber buildings scattered around a large property. The dormitories were located in a building that essentially functioned like a house, creating a communal and homely vibe. I shared a dormitory with English Mark, Danish Christian, German Sylvia and a bunch of unrelated Chinese tourists, who were all coincidentally studying in France. Abisko seemed to be a particularly popular (and slightly random) destination for Chinese tourists, who dominated the foreign presence in town. Snowsuits were provided by the hostel, which made exploring the Lapland wilderness comfortable and warm. By wearing the snowsuit over my existing layers, I was able wander outside easily for hours. In addition to the snowsuit, I also wore snow boots, thermal socks, thick woollen socks, long johns, skins, jeans (supposedly an unsuitable garment for the Arctic, but I had no issues!), a thermal top, a T-shirt, a skivvy, a woollen jumper, a light jacket, a thick jacket, a scarf, a beanie, cotton gloves and leather mittens simultaneously, depending on how cold it was..

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Dogsledding was not an activity I expected to excel at, but I proved to be an utter natural. I joined a group of fifteen for a two hour (became three hour) dogsledding tour of the landscape surrounding Abisko Hostel. Each person commanded their own sleigh, with four huskies assigned to the most talented (or just heaviest) members of the contingent. Before our departure from the mounting yard (?), our Czech leader bombarded us with a slew of instructions that I was certain I would either forget or fail to master. She explained how to break (by stepping on a metal bar that would grate the snow) and that when ascending slopes, we would need to aid the huskies by pushing off from the ground with one leg (with the other firmly rooted to the sleigh). We assisted the guides in assembling the sleighs, which was a rather intimidating ordeal as the huskies barked manically, attempted to bolt off and even attacked each other. We were to sleigh in single-file but were supposed to stay together as a group. Unfortunately I was positioned at number thirteen in order, which condemned me to long waits behind slow-pokes and duds. Indeed, there was an elderly American couple who both annoyingly and amusingly served that role.

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Once we commenced sleighing, I quickly found it very easy. The huskies simply followed the pack, so the only responsibility I had was to control their speed and stopping/starting. I also needed to ensure I moved correctly with the sleigh to avoid stacking, though this was quite natural. Controlling the huskies was hardest when the group stopped as they were eager to charge off. When we could move, the huskies would bolt away suddenly, which were the most difficult moments to stay on the sleigh. However, throughout most of the tour my four dogs were very lazy, preferring to dawdle and smell other dogs’ shit. Consequently, I was required to aid the huskies for roughly a third of the trip, which was incredibly exhausting with a snow suit and a dozen other garments on. Meanwhile, other participants claimed they didn’t need to aid their dogs whatsoever. At least half the members of the group crashed at some point from momentary lapses in control. One lady however was completely unable to handle her huskies, resulting in numerous crashes and long delays. Eventually, the guides ceded to her overtures of giving up and allowed her to ride in the back of a snow-mobile trailer. After the tour, we had the opportunity to enter the husky pens to pat these wonderful, semi-wild creatures. The dogsledding tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to a Lapland, an exhilarating and somewhat authentic way to see the landscape.

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The wilderness surrounding Abisko was one of the most enthralling areas for hiking that I have ever visited. Perhaps not so much for mesmerising vistas (although they were quite impressive) but for the sheer exoticism of trampling through an environment completely smothered in remarkably thick snow. Trails lead in all directions from Abisko, discernible from the boot marks and ski tracks in the snow. Following the trails into the desolate, inhospitable winter landscape was both exceptionally eerie and exhilarating, because of the interminable silence, stillness and lack of people. I went hiking for five hours on each of my final two days at Abisko and found it surprisingly exhausting, due to the clothing and occasional off-path wandering through knee-high snow. I vigilantly kept note of the time, to ensure I wasn’t caught out in pitch black darkness. I hiked through birch forests of grey skeletal trees spiking through the snow. I hiked across flat, open spaces that were probably frozen waterways, but I was often not sure. On one occasion, I encountered what was definitely a frozen lake and eventually mustered the courage to cross it (with a couple cracking sounds underfoot on the way!). I also encountered a frozen river that the trail evidently crossed and debated whether to also. Fortunately I decided not to, because I later noticed a couple hundreds metres upstream gaping holes in the ice sheet covering the river! I hiked mostly within shallow valleys surrounded by placid mountains of black rock and snow and enjoyed panoramic views of the perpetually white scenery.

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The opportunity to see the Northern lights is the constituent reason why people travel to Abisko; supposedly the best place in the world to view them. Witnessing an Aurora Borealis spectacle though is inherently unpredictable and not guaranteed. Consequently, there was an unofficial understanding among everyone staying at the hostel that if the lights were spotted, the alert was to be raised; regardless of the time. During the first (20 hour) night at Abisko, everyone in my dormitory was over-excited about the prospects of seeing the lights, after glowing reports from the previous days. In turns, we wandered outside hunting for the lights, until giving up completely by 2am: no lights. At around 6pm the next evening with everyone defrosting in bed, we suddenly heard a random hunter cry, “Lights! Lights!”. Within a nanosecond, we all jumped out of our comfortable perches and in a desperate hurry began the excruciatingly long and tedious process of gearing up for the external elements. Our fears of missing the lights were abated when we dashed outside and saw… grey cloud-like formations. I won’t lie, it was probably the single greatest anticlimax of my entire life, narrowly eclipsing my homemade roast chicken gravy for Christmas 2014. I was rather shocked by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses I was hearing from other light-gazers and wondered what I was missing. While I only just detected a tinge of colour, I was surprised to discover that photographs taken with very specific settings depicted the lights as vividly green. The phenomenon only lasted for twenty minutes, prompting our quick return to the warmth of bed. At around 9:30pm, lights were again spotted. On this occasion, the lights were substantially more impressive; though my fantasy of brilliant green light dancing across the night’s sky still hadn’t materialised. It was nevertheless a dynamic spectacle of formations that were obviously not clouds, with strands of feint green light gracefully folding through the sky. Mark and I braved the numbingly cold conditions for about one hour until we were satisfied the lights were not going to become any more enthralling; and returned to the warm refuge of the hostel.

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While I experienced bitterly cold temperatures in Abisko, it was even colder in nearby Kiruna. Abisko’s weather is relatively “temperate”, due to its location within a protective valley. Kiruna, however, is more exposed and can therefore experience much lower temperatures. When I visited Kiruna, the temperature hovered between -17 and -25 degrees. Since I was without a snow suit in Kiruna and depending purely on clothes bought from Primark, this temperature difference was certainly palpable. I had no issue walking outside in -17 degrees for hours, but exposure to -25 degrees for more than forty minutes was completely intolerable. My body’s reaction to conditions of -25 degrees was quite intriguing, because I found that for thirty minutes I would just be “aware” of the temperature, but then suddenly and rapidly I would feel very cold and need to find heated shelter. If you ever thought there’s nothing quite like an air-conditioned room on a hot summer day, wait until you travel to the Arctic!

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Kiruna is the largest Swedish settlement north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s transportation hub. The town exists in this incredibly inhospitable environment because of a gargantuan iron ore mine, the largest in Europe. The mine’s continual expansion will literally swallow Kiruna, which has resulted in the construction of a new town five kilometres away. However, the scheduled relocation to the new town has been delayed because of China’s economic slow down and therefore the lower demand for iron ore. The inevitable destruction of Kiruna will be rather saddening, because aside from the sterile concrete centre, its actually quite a pleasant town. Kiruna’s most attractive structure is the town’s main Lutheran church; a hulking, triangular wooden building that is often voted Sweden’s most beautiful. Kiruna’s neighbourhoods are composed of quaint timbers houses sporting a variety of colours (though mostly the maroon-red typical in Sweden); the vividness of which are accentuated by the unblemished white snow carpeting roofs, gardens, roads, cars and trees. Although the snow coverage was probably just slightly higher than in Abisko (nearly waist height, off the pavement), it seemed significantly deeper because of the surreal context of being inside a town rather than wilderness. I stayed at a lovely “hostel” in Kiruna, which was basically just an elderly woman’s very cozy house with guests sharing the bottom level.

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Kiruna Church

The internationally famous Ice Hotel is situated in the unassuming village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna (where it gets even lower). Unwilling to fork out $500 to freeze to death in my sleep, I opted to merely peruse through the hotel during the day (though for a still rather hefty $45) when all the rooms are accessible for public visitation. The Ice Hotel is constructed every November and melts away completely in May. Artists from throughout the world are invited to sculpt the hotel’s furniture and ornamentation from ice. The one-storey hotel only partially looks like an artificial structure; it certainly doesn’t feature a typical façade. But that’s because the focus is on the internal space, where jutting from a grand foyer are six corridors that lead to dozens of dazzling ice bedrooms. All of the rooms consist of an ice double bed covered in animal hides, with guests sleeping inside advanced sleeping bags to survive the night. The larger and more expensive rooms boast elaborate and distinctive designs, while the cheaper rooms are bare and generic. Some of the most impressive spectacles included a huge peacock in a wall replete with neon lights, elephant sculptures, a room full of quirky sheep and a creepy room full of human heads. While I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this remarkable building, I was also pleased to drive back to Kiruna for a warm night at the hostel!

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My typically high culinary standards changed completely in Swedish Lapland. Rather than attempting to sample traditional cuisine, my constituent objective was to counteract the extreme cold by achieving maximal calorie intake for minimal expenditure. I suspect the local population share this motive, because surprisingly affordable carb-and-meat-heavy food was readily available. The “dagens lunch” special offered by the only restaurant in Abisko was a buffet of two main dishes, potatoes, bread, pasta and salad bar. I chose strategically to attend the buffet at 2:30pm each day to avoid wasting precious daylight and to cover my lunch and dinner. My voracious appetite, which was exacerbated by the temperatures, was on full display. I also attended a brunch buffet in Kiruna that featured all the traditional Swedish favourites, including smoked salmon, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar and salt), pickled herring, potato salad, egg salad and roasted moose (quite delicious, richer than beef). Also in Kiruna, I sampled the Lapland version of (apparently) Sweden’s most traditional style of pizza, which features thin crust pastry, tomato, onion, cheese, slices of doner kebab (not exactly Swedish) and spicy garlic sauce. Perhaps for the novelty factor rather than improving the taste, the doner kebab was replaced by smoked reindeer.

Swedish Lapland was definitely one of the highlights of my nine month journey, a fitting (and cold) way to conclude my time in Europe. The five day trip was loaded with surreal experiences, including dogsledding, hiking through knee-high snow, walking across frozen lakes, observing the northern lights and enduring extremely low temperatures. The incredibly short days were also rather exotic and the only time I sighted the sun was when I was awaiting my flight at Kiruna Airport...

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 14:48 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

Northern England

UK photos.

Travelling to Northern England was merely an afterthought, as I realised the Scottish Highlands was probably not an ideal destination to visit in the early January dreariness. Consequently, I decided to travel south from Edinburgh and spend the final four days of my Christmas break in English cities. I also thought that since I had visited London thrice, it was pastime I explored another corner of the country. I chose York and Manchester as my target destinations, two cities that epitomise the old and new Northern England. York is often referred to as the “capital of the North”, due to the city’s regional preeminence from its Roman foundation through to the industrial revolution. York is now a relatively small city with an excellently preserved medieval core, offering the visitor a glimpse of a bygone era in English history. Meanwhile, Manchester’s significance was entirely fostered by industrialisation, which stimulated rapid population growth and transformed the city into Northern England’s largest metropolis and commercial hub. Northerners proved to be very friendly people, with a relaxed rural-like attitude in comparison to Londoners.

York no longer enjoys its former status as a major political and economic centre, yet its history and architectural legacy have ensured it remains one of England’s most venerated cities. York was established by the Romans as a major fortress on the Empire’s frontier in 71AD. Vestiges of the ancient Roman wall survive as foundations for York’s remarkable medieval wall, which almost completely encircle the Old Town. I circumambulated York by walking on the walls, which provided magnificent views of the Old Town and rich people’s gardens. York was conquered by Danish Vikings in the ninth century and became the capital of a Viking kingdom. York was eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of England and was designated a archbishopric (the Archbishop of York is the second highest office in the Church of England). The archbishop’s seat is York Minster, the city’s most iconic structure; a colossal Gothic cathedral with ornate exterior decorations. However, I was compelled to protest the outrageous entrance fee of $20 and not enter the cathedral. Instead, I went to a pub and spent $20 on a ploughman’s lunch: far better value for money. Close to the Minster are the picturesque ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, which was once the richest monastery in Northern England and occupied a huge precinct. The monastery’s wealth was seized by Henry VIII during the Reformation and closure of the monasteries.

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The Old Town of York is a compact, relatively small but still atmospheric centre of winding, narrow streets and quirky crooked buildings. The Old Town is bisected by the River Ouse, which served as an important conduit for trade during medieval times. When I visited York, Northern England had experienced terrible flooding in recent weeks, causing the River Ouse to burst its banks and flood many of the low-lying buildings. York features an assemblage of architectural styles, though its tiny Gothic churches and Tudor buildings particularly stand out. Traditional English pubs abound throughout the city and they all proudly offer at least half a dozen “real ales” on tap. Several ghost tours are conducted in the evening, reflecting the belief that many of the buildings in York are haunted. One apparent sighting was of a legion of Roman soldiers marching through a cellar near the Minster; it was later discovered that a Roman road passed through the site.

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When the constituent purpose of travelling to a city is to exploit a cheap airfare, you cannot have high-expectations about what the city has to offer. I therefore travelled to Manchester without expecting to encounter one of Europe’s most enthralling cities, which was certainly wise preparation. Manchester lacks a historic “old town”, which is somewhat inexplicable for a large European city. The centre is therefore comparable to Melbourne, a mixture of nineteenth century and modernist buildings sprawled across a large area. The legacy of the industrial revolution has particularly shaped Manchester, with converted warehouses, canals and iron bridges abounding throughout the city. Most of the major structures in Manchester are composed of red brickwork, which gives the city a distinctive appearance. Manchester is obviously famous for its sporting culture, though I opted not to visit the city’s iconic stadiums (expensive) and instead visited the National Football Museum (free). The museum was a moderately interesting introduction to football with impressive displays (including the FA Cup and the EPL trophy), though it was excessively kidified. I also attended a museum about democracy and the labour movement in Britain, which had the potential to be an excellent museum but most exhibits were closed for renovations. Otherwise, Manchester’s primary highlight seemed to be an enormous shopping complex in the centre, which I actually spent considerable time at stocking up for my trip to the Arctic.

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Both York and Manchester are filled with excellent pubs, but unfortunately the pubs are not filled with excellent food. On consecutive evenings at different establishments, I ordered pies with short-crust pastry and on both occasions my meals were clearly microwaved: an absolute outrage in Melbourne! York is internationally famous for Yorkshire pudding, which is a scone-shaped side dish made from batter and dripping and traditionally eaten with roast beef and gravy. At the haunted Golden Fleece, I ordered a giant Yorkshire pudding with beef and gravy smothered inside it. The pudding was nice but unfortunately it was pre-prepared, giving it a cardboard like texture. My highlight dish of Northern England came at the Art Nouveau pub Mr. Thomas’s Chophouse in Manchester. I ate corned beef hash, which is basically pieces of corned beef, sautéed potatoes, onion and spices cooked together and served with a poached egg and HP sauce: salty and delicious. British cities are dotted with mini-supermarkets seemingly on every corner and they all sell a bewildering range of surprisingly delicious sandwiches (perhaps to compensate for a lack of bakeries).

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My four days in York and Manchester was merely just a sample of what Northern England has to offer. I was forced to skip the region’s famed national parks, due to time constraints and inclement weather. I was slightly underwhelmed by York, which is considered one of England’s top touristic destinations outside of London. It’s a pleasant small city, but certainly less beautiful and interesting than comparable small cities in southern Europe. Meanwhile, Manchester failed to exceed my very low-expectations; I’m glad I visited but I see no compelling reason to return.

That’s all for now,

Liam

UK photos.

Posted by Liamps 19:24 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Edinburgh

UK photos

I travelled to Edinburgh at the end of 2015 to witness the city’s internationally famous New Years Eve celebrations, the two-day Hogmanay festival. It was also the first time I visited Edinburgh, which was one of the few capitals in Western Europe that had yet to host an imperial tour. I was accompanied by recent Globo Trip protagonist Irish Claire, Globo Trip regular Danish Nadia and Globo Trip novice Irish Suz. A series of unfortunate events seemed to befall Suz on her trip to Edinburgh, but on each occasion she responded with remarkable resilience and positivity; a lesser person (such as myself) would have failed to exemplify such an impressive attitude. Despite its diminutive size of just 500,000, I thought Edinburgh was just as intriguing as many of the great capitals in Europe and boasted far more to see and do than expected. Consequently, I stayed for two additional nights (for a total of five) after the departures of Claire, Nadia and Suz to further explore Great Britain’s most beautiful city.

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While the Scottish people voted to stay in the United Kingdom in the 2014 referendum, this decision was clearly spurred by economic convenience than a passionate embrace of their British identity. The Union Jack, British coat of arms and royal paraphernalia, which are pervasive in London, are almost entirely absent from Edinburgh. The cityscape is instead dominated by the blue-and-white Flag of St. Andrews, the Scottish purple thistle and the Scottish red lion. Quintessentially Scottish stereotypes abound throughout Edinburgh, with bagpipes being played on every corner, old men ambling past in kilts, tartan patterns decorating storefronts and haggis plaguing every menu. This overt nationalistic pride in Scottish identity and rejection of Britishness leads one to question whether economic considerations were sufficient justification to remain apart of the United Kingdom; or was it simply a case of the Scots lacking courage to claim their own sovereignty?

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Scotland and Ireland are both small Gaelic countries that have experienced centuries of political and cultural domination by England, but their histories are markedly different. Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland was a united and relatively powerful kingdom that even possessed the capacity to threaten the northern regions of England. When Scotland was eventually incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, it was through political acceptance by the Scottish Parliament rather than by military conquest. Conversely, medieval Ireland was never united under a single, native-born monarch and was instead divided into several petty kingdoms. The English invasion and subjugation of the country occurred more than five hundred years before Scotland relinquished its independence. Yet the country that fought relentlessly and eventually achieved liberty from English rule was Ireland; while Scotland, with its proud military heritage, still passively complies to the will of Westminster. The long-term outcome of Irish independence has probably stimulated, rather than hindered, the Irish economy, which is now one of the richest in the world.

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Claire, Nadia, Suz and I joined an excellent free walking tour of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Our enigmatic guide introduced us to the city’s incredible architectural composition, colourful history and unusual layout. Located directly in the centre of Edinburgh is the remnants of an extinct volcano, an imposing basalt crag known as Castle Rock. Numerous settlements and fortresses have occupied Castle Rock since prehistoric times, and today the immaculately preserved medieval Edinburgh Castle is perched on its top. The royal fortress is reckoned to be one of the world’s most heavily besieged structures, though its dramatic location and colossal walls give it an aura of impregnability.

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The Royal Mile runs from the apex of Castle Rock to Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh) at ground level and the Old Town clings to the steep slopes on either side of it. Despite the aesthetics and World Heritage status of the Old Town, Edinburgh is a relatively young city in comparison to most other capitals in Europe. A royal “burgh” connected to Edinburgh Castle was not established until the twelfth century, when Edinburgh began to function as the capital of the Scottish nation. The city’s development was restricted to the medieval fortified walls until the eighteenth century, which resulted in ten storey high buildings; the forerunners to modern skyscrapers. Unfortunately, most of these structures were replaced by Victorian buildings in the nineteenth century. However, the dark tones of the stone used in construction, the prevalence of slate roofs and the impact of weathering in the Scottish climate have created the impression that the buildings are much older. Edinburgh’s Gothic churches, centrally located cemetery (the names of many of the entombed were adopted by JK Rowlings for the Harry Potter books) and preserved medieval layout of narrow and hidden courtyards have fostered a somewhat dark and sinister atmosphere in the Old Town.

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Edinburgh’s New Town was designed in the eighteenth century to accommodate the city’s upper class, who sought to leave the cramped and derelict conditions of the Old Town. The New Town and Old Town are separated by a gulley of parkland and rail-yards, which features magnificent panoramic views of both districts and Castle Rock (from a low-point, counterintuitively). The rigid, orderly plan of the New Town is a manifestation of Enlightenment ideals, which Edinburgh was a centre for during the eighteenth century. The area features wide boulevards, beautiful Georgian architecture and symmetrical gardens. Institutional buildings exhibit Greek Revival architecture, which has earned Edinburgh the moniker, “Athens of the North”. Calton Hill was to be transformed into the city’s equivalent of the Acropolis, though structures such as the National Monument (modelled after the Pantheon) were not completed because funding dried up. I suppose Calton Hill is still so somewhat similar to the modern-day Acropolis: a picturesque collection of Classical ruins with excellent views of Edinburgh.

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Hogmanay in Edinburgh is one of the world’s most iconic New Years Eve celebrations and supersedes Christmas as Scotland’s biggest celebration of the year. The tradition of Hogmanay is likely rooted in ancient Celtic or Norse custom to commemorate the winter solstice. In the evening of the 30th December each year, Hogmanay commences with a torchlight procession through central Edinburgh. Claire, Nadia and I braved the cold to participate in the procession, along with tens of thousands of other tourists. We were given proper wax torches, which were lit progressively through the crowd like a series of Olympic torch relays. The procession route took us from the Royal Mile to New Town and concluded at the summit of Calton Hill. It was quite a surreal experience to walk through the atmospheric streets of Edinburgh alongside thousands of flickering flames. The event was concluded with a spectacular firework display above the National Monument. On New Years Eve, we attended the Hogmanay Street Party, which occurs in a cordoned off area of central Edinburgh. The tens of thousands in attendance congregated around different stages, although DJs played the music rather than live bands. As the clock approached midnight, surprisingly John Farnham was honoured with the penultimate song of 2015 as “The Voice” galvanised the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. The firework display at midnight above Edinburgh Castle particularly enthralled Danish Nadia, since such performances are a total novelty for her (slightly backward) country. However, I wasn’t so easily impressed as the display was really a meagre offering compared to the extravaganzas in Melbourne and Sydney. Claire and I were unable to enjoy the fireworks anyway, as we urgently needed to attend the lavatories. So the moment the last mediocre firework burst in the sky, we stormed towards the nearest pub.

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When fried mars bars and minced sheep innards are the iconic dishes of a country, you know the local population have spent little time pursuing the art of culinary endeavour. Our tour guide passionately defended the virtues of Scottish cuisine by promoting the abundance of fresh seafood and high-quality dairy products and lamb. But I don’t care how outstanding the bounty is, producing superb ingredients is not tantamount to a rich culinary tradition! Haggis is literally the only dish of noterietay (or notoriety) unique to the Scottish kitchen. Invented by shepherds to improve the edibility of sheep innards (supposedly), haggis consists of intestines and other disgusted bodily parts that are minced, very heavily spiced, wrapped in stomach liner and boiled. The resulting mixture is traditionally eaten with “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes). Claire was game enough to order haggis and saved everyone else the ordeal by offering tasters. Astonishingly, I actually rather liked haggis! While the gristly bits are quite off-putting, the mixture is otherwise tasty because the excessive spicing is obviously intended to mask the not so pleasant flavours! Virtually all other dishes served at Scottish pubs are standard British fare… with haggis added to them. I brunched on a full “Scottish” breakfast, which was essentially just a traditional fry-up with fried haggis. I also dined on Balmoral chicken, which consisted of chicken stuffed with haggis, wrapped in bacon and served with a cream sauce.

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Haggis and mash

Experiencing one of the world’s most iconic New Years Eve celebrations has always featured on my bucket list, and has now been satisfied. The torchlight procession was particularly surreal, forever seared in my memory. Thanks to Claire, Nadia and Suz for providing amiable company… another city next time?. Even without Hogmanay, Edinburgh would easily rank among my favourite European cities – perhaps even top 15!

That’s all for now,

Liam

UK photos

Posted by Liamps 16:34 Comments (0)

Ireland III

Ireland photos

Travelling to Ireland during the Christmas period was certainly an optimal time to visit, as the country exuded a jovial spirit stimulated by the return of loved ones from abroad. Ireland has the highest percentage of its native-born population living overseas of any OECD country, so virtually everybody knows relatives and friends living elsewhere. The Christmas period is particularly special because it’s the one time of year that many emigrants return home. Consequently, the Irish were in a celebratory mood and the pubs were tremendously atmospheric and crowded at all hours. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the news and radio commentary were dominated by the returning sons and daughters of Ireland. In pubs and cafes, you could barely pass a table and not overhear a discussion about someone returning home from Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The mass emigration of Irish youth was instigated by the crippling debt crisis of 2008, that infamously busted the booming “Celtic Tiger” economy. But the subsequent era of gloom and austerity has seemingly ended, with the economy rebounding and emigrants permanently returning home for new employment opportunities. Not yet at least for Irish Claire, who returned to Ireland purely for a Christmas visit (to the sadness of her family). Rather than spending a cold, bleak and lonely Christmas in Stockholm, I was welcomed to County Cork to spend Christmas with the very hospitable Hayes family.

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While the Hayes were engaged in preparations for Christmas Day, I decided to head into Cork City and gallivant around town. Cork is Ireland’s second largest city and promotes itself as the “real” capital of Ireland. The city is reminiscent somewhat of Gothenburg, Sweden; an unpretentious understudy to the actual sovereign capital, with a rich maritime tradition and nineteenth century architectural composition. The centre of Cork is actually a large island within the River Lee, which regularly floods and causes immense damage to low-lying property (it was flooded during my visit, with the “biblical” December rainfall). The centre is relatively pleasant with bustling streets and nice, though unremarkable, buildings. The ceaseless traffic in the area is best to be avoided, though Claire failed to exhibit such common sense at the end of our road trip. En route home to Ballincolig, we unintentionally drove through the centre; resulting in Claire expressing an encyclopaedic knowledge of expletives that was really quite staggering. The centre of Cork is bereft of major tourist attractions, aside from the unusually named English Market. The market is lauded by Rick Stein as the best covered market in the UK or Ireland, although competition is certainly lacking in this part of Europe. The market stalls are densely compacted inside a stylish arcade and sell fresh produce, seafood, meats and dairy sourced from the rich farmland and waters of County Cork. An upstairs café overlooks the main market hall and offers traditional dishes prepared only with ingredients from the market (hint, hint, Queen Victoria Market). I enjoyed a delicious lamb and root vegetable stew with mash and fruit crumble with custard: proper comfort food at Christmas time.

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The festivities commenced on Christmas Eve with drinks and finger-food at Claire’s uncle’s house. While I was initially overwhelmed by the enormous size of her family, in retrospect I think the Hayes Christmas gathering was somewhat similar to a typical Stevens gathering. The generous (and probably reluctant) host suddenly inundated by the simultaneous arrival of an entire clan; food, dessert and hot drinks served efficiently and rapidly with no time to pause; and the even more abrupt mass exodus, resulting in inevitable quips about people’s parking abilities: sound familiar? Perhaps not so much to the (significantly smaller) Gregory family. Nevertheless, the Hayes family were all very welcoming of the random Australian; if slightly confused by my presence! Similar to Australia, Christmas dinner is traditionally eaten at lunchtime in Ireland, though unlike Australia there is minimal variation in what the meal entails. Claire claimed the high-pressure responsibility of preparing the turkey, ham, potatoes three ways (that’s not a joke) and vegetables. Although I can vouch for Claire’s cooking skills, I was slightly concerned about the prospects of our food as she danced around the kitchen like a maimed turkey all morning. Nevertheless, my worries were soon allayed by the delicious dinner, with Claire’s radical (for Ireland) new entrée of roasted mushroom stuffed with black pudding, goat’s cheese and onion a particular highlight. I was quite surprised by how quickly we progressed through the dinner. As soon as the entrees were finished, we immediately tucked into mains; and while I was starting my second plate (I think they were quite shocked by the Stevens appetite), the rest were hoeing into sherry trifle! All eaten within sixty minutes, a far cry from the staggered five hour epics on Christmas night at home! We then retired to the lounge room to watch the Christmas soap opera specials. With Claire having corrected my lackadaisical attitude to manners, I was sure not to use my iPad or iPhone in the lounge room again: considered the height of rudeness in Ireland! As the evening progressed, we devoured an amazing blue cheese (actually it was just me… Cashel blue, excellent quality) and awaited the arrival of Claire’s sister’s excitable young children. One of the twins eventually overcame her fear of the tall foreigner in the room and began babbling away incessantly to me… though as usual I had major difficulties understanding the Corkish accent, especially high-pitched!

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Christmas with the Hayes

While Claire attended more family and friends events post Christmas, I departed County Cork and ventured to Dublin for three days. Dublin is often derided as inherently skippable and not representing the “true” Ireland, but in Europe I think its best to visit the capital to gain a proper appreciation for a country. And I actually rather liked Dublin; I thought it was a pleasant medium-sized city with nice (though not spectacular) architecture and buzzing atmosphere (certainly more so than Stockholm).

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River Liffey

Dublin was initially founded by the Vikings in the ninth century as they expanded their trade network throughout the North Atlantic. Dublin was conquered by the Normans in the twelfth-century, ushering in seven hundred years of English rule over Ireland. The Normans constructed Dublin Castle as their fortified base in 1204, thoug its now an underwhelming melange of architectural styles. Ireland was not directly ruled by the English Crown, until the Tudor conquest in the sixteenth century. The Tudors aimed to Anglicise the country by repressing Catholicism (which ultimately failed) and the Gaelic language (which largely succeeded). Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both constructed nearly a millennium ago, were forcibly converted to Protestantism. This has resulted in the modern-day anomaly of Dublin’s two most prominent churches being Protestant, despite an overwhelming Catholic population. Dublin’s most iconic attraction, the prestigious Trinity College, was founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1592 to strength Protestantism and English language, culture and law in the city. The main campus is located in the centre of the modern city and is composed of beautiful old buildings and ornate lawns. Dublin’s population and status boomed as the English centralised the administration of Ireland. This is reflected in the eighteenth century Georgian architecture, coherent urban layout and relatively wide boulevards that predominate throughout central Dublin. Only small pockets of the original medieval core remain. When the Act of Union occurred in 1800 and the Irish Parliament was dissolved, Dublin lost its political importance and the city went into decline as it failed to become a centre of industrialisation. ublin’s significance reemerged with Irish nationalism and when Ireland finally gained independence in 1922, Dublin was re-established as the capital of a sovereign Irish nation.

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Trinity College

Dublin is bisected by the narrow River Liffey, which is the defining feature of the central area’s layout. The river is crossed by numerous quaint bridges, plus the only bridge in Europe that has a greater width than its length (I was impressed by that fact, even if you weren’t)! The winding, cobblestone streets and medieval buildings of the tourist precinct Temple Bar are the exception rather than the norm in central Dublin. Instead, the inner city’s layout is functional and modern and the architecture quite generic. Consequently, Dublin does not really boast an idiosyncratic appearance, aside from its Georgian architectural heritage and the iconic Guinness Storehouse, which I was compelled to visit. I actually rather enjoyed ambling through this hyper-touristic attraction learning about Guinness; apparently there’s a correct way of smelling the Guinness and swooshing it around in your mouth. Dublin’s identity is rooted in the countless and timeless pubs that are scattered throughout the inner city… and perhaps also the tacky souvenir stores.

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Thus concluded my all too brief visit to Ireland, a country I like to take pride in as an ancestral homeland (certainly more so than England). I would like to return in pleasant weather, though ially I’m not sure if that’s possible in Ireland. There will be a next time though, as I only travelled to five of the thirty-two Irish counties! Thank you again to Claire for the road-trip and to the Hayes family for inviting me to your Christmas celebrations!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 10:11 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Ireland II

Ireland photos

The Irish have successfully forged an identity of quaintness and quirkiness beloved throughout the world, although their behaviour, customs and mentality would be described as inherently daggy. This is a country where locals shamelessly fashion omni-coloured and gaudily decorated Christmas jumpers in public in the lead-up to the big day (although I am now a very proud owner of such a jumper). A country where FM radio programs are broadcasted from airports during the festive season and devote half their coverage to interviewing emotional wrecks awaiting the return of their sons and daughters from abroad. A country where returning citizens are showered in the arrival halls with free, quintessentially Irish products such as Taytos. A country where hourly discussions about the correct method of roasting a turkey and the virtues of black pudding occur on the wireless. A country where children burst into pubs and destroy the genial atmospheres with horrific renditions of Christmas carols. And a country where “thanks a million” makes sense. But these oddities are what make Ireland so special and serve as reminders that perhaps we’ve all become far too pretentious elsewhere in the world. They also helped explain the origin of Irish Claire’s rather eccentric (to put it politely) characteristics.

Claire and I continued our road trip to the Dingle Peninsula, which was my personal highlight of Ireland. Until the discovery of the Americas, the Dingle Peninsula was literally the edge of the known world as the most westerly point of Europe. The extreme isolation of the region attracted Christian monks to establish monasteries on the peninsula and the surrounding Blasket Islands during the Middle Ages. The stone ruins of these medieval Christian communities, as well as prehistoric structures (which date to more than 2,000 years ago), are now littered throughout and haunt the peninsula. The landscape is rather difficult to characterise, because although it is defined by the calm, vivid green rolling hills that are synonymous with Ireland, it evokes a sense of desolation and inhospitality. Placid sand beaches straddle both sides of the peninsula, but give way to dramatic sheer cliffs, gnarly black rock formations and raging waters near the peninsula’s head. The remoteness and utter loneliness of the Dingle Peninsula is most palpable here, though inexplicably a small village clings to the steep slopes facing nothing but the seemingly endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Dingle is the archetypal rural Irish community, a compact town of cute, colourful box-shaped buildings, very casual locals and a slightly excessive number of pubs. We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast with magnificent views of Dingle and the bay it borders. The owner informed us that breakfast would not be served until at least 8:30am because they enjoyed a sleep-in; kiboshing our plans for a hectic morning itinerary. But what an extraordinary breakfast worth waiting for! Our full Irish breakfast was accompanied by an enormous buffet spread (for eight people) of yoghurt, scones, bread and butter pudding, fine cheeses, poached fruits and sponge cake.

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Dingle was entirely absent of foreign tourists in the mid-December low season gloom and seemed like a ghost town. That was until we left the desolate streets and entered the crowded pubs. We started our evening at one of the few pubs in town serving food and enjoyed hearty fish pies. After finishing our meals, an elderly, blind-drunk farmer sat down at our table and began rambling away (needless to say, I found it rather difficult to understand his drunken, rural Kerry accent). Claire later remarked that such incidents occur regularly in Ireland, though her deplorable response to the situation suggested she lacked experience. While I attempted to maintain decorum in conversing with the poor, lonely man within eyeshot of the landlord, Claire blatantly burst into uncontrollable hysterics right in his face. After that embarrassing ordeal, we ventured to the oldest of old school pubs and a favourite haunt of A-list Hollywood stars (the walk of fame at the front is testament to that), Dick Macks. Unfortunately the lack of music or people created a rather mediocre atmosphere, but the rustic, nineteenth century interior was quite cool. Dick Macks was also the site of two of the funniest incidents of the trip. While I was teaching Claire the card game gin (with great difficulty), I suddenly noticed a hilarious banner posted beside us (see below). Not what I expected to see in rural Dingle. I think the “limited space” referred to on the poster could only refer to the aerial contraption Ilonka occupies, rather than places in the class. After ten minutes of laughter, I began (failing) to teach Claire another card game. Cue the three primary school children bursting into the pub screeching random lines of Christmas carols at the patrons. The children sang different carols completely out of tune simultaneously and shoved money boxes into peoples faces. Claire, with her back to the door, looked utterly confused by the mayhem that was transpiring. Meanwhile the mother stood back watching the chaos nonchalantly, as if this was a perfectly normal activity for the children to partake in. I thought the performance was quite shitty so didn’t give them anything, but others contributed probably so they would leave. We moved onto another pub and finally found where the crowd was at: the local hardware store! As mentioned in the previous entry, rural pubs in Ireland often have duel purposes, which is especially true in Dingle. It was certainly the first time I have drank at a counter with hammers, screw-drivers and nails on sale! We eventually found a pub with a live band, although unfortunately it wasn’t “trad” Irish music. I believe Claire was intentionally stymying all endeavours to see/hear such music.

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Who knows what the fake hippies will think of next...

With very limited time (partly due to the aforementioned late breakfast), Claire and I made a rapid visit to County Clare to see one of Ireland’s most iconic attractions: the Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs savagely cut off County Claire’s landscape of (surprise, surprise) rolling green hills, descending over two hundred metres vertically down into the raging Atlantic. The winds are ferocious at the Cliffs of Moher, so ambling near the edge is incredibly treacherous. Since only a small section of the path following the edge features a barrier, numerous deaths are recorded here each year. Consequently, Claire convinced me against an epic hike… although I was tempted :P . Claire often derides the Great Ocean Road as inferior to the Irish coastline, bit I’m not sure if the Cliffs of Moher… no, actually I won’t partake in that childish activity of comparison and simply admire all of nature’s unspoilt splendour!

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Galway, a small and vibrant city of pubs, trad music and craic, is often cited as the cultural capital of Ireland. Indeed, the city was buzzing with frivolity in the days leading up to Christmas when we visited (they even had a Christmas market). Galway is actually a similar size to Bendigo, but in Ireland that constitutes a major city. It certainly felt like a major city, with the excessive traffic encircling inner Galway. The pedestrianised centre of Galway is like a typical Irish village, with colourful two-storey buildings, winding streets and an endless choice of drinking establishments. The fast flowing water of the River Corrib flows through Galway into Galway Bay and are controlled by weirs and canals. The whitewater is popular with slalom kayaking, an unsual sight in the centre of a city.

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Connemara is a vast, starkly beautiful region to the west of Galway and one of the few places in Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language. We completed a one day loop through Connemara and witnessed several magnificent rainbows adorning the landscape. Soon after questioning Claire about finding leprechauns near rainbows, Claire suddenly stopped the car in the middle of the road. She hopped out and began flapping her arms about like a lunatic. Perplexed, I thought perhaps she was moving a sheep on. She returned to the car and gravely announced that she had shoed away a bunch of cheeky, invisible leprechauns… I have to pay that one to her, I was totally confused. Connemara features brown-golden fields of grass, the ruins of medieval churches, pockets of forest and rocky, pristine beaches. The excellent movie “The Guard” was filmed here.

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Irish fare is often scorned for its lack of culinary pedigree, but I was consistently satisfied with the quality (and portion size) of food in Ireland, certainly more so than in Great Britain. In Ireland, even remotely exotic ingredients are entirely shunned and the cuisine is instead characterised by simple and honest comfort food prepared well. My highlight dish in Ireland was bacon and cabbage (the name is not exactly suggestive of a particularly sophisticated cuisine) in Galway, which consisted of thick slices of meat (kind of similar to Christmas ham), boiled cabbage and mash potato smothered in creamy parsley sauce. Seafood chowder is another excellent Irish dish that I regularly ordered as an entrée. Seafood chowder is an extremely rich, cream-based soup with generous servings of seafood (usually smoked salmon and white fish of some description) and vegetables. While the concept of “Irish stew” is internationally famous, in Ireland typically two variations predominate. Beef and Guinness stew is prepared by slow-cooking beef in Guinness beer (and other, less prominent, ingredients), which creates a heavenly concoction of tenderised beef in a rich gravy. Lamb stew is notably lighter and fresher, as the lamb is stewed with vegetables and herbs in a clear broth rather than beer. Unsurprisingly, potatoes are prepared a multitude of ways and one of my favourites was in a dish called champs. Champs consist of mashed potato with spring onion and cream and is often served with pork sausages and brown onion gravy.

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Bacon and cabbage... and Claire

Claire and I returned to Ballincolig from Galway, concluding our five day road trip in south-west Ireland. Fortunately, Claire channelled her inner Christmas spirit for the long journey back, creating a jovial and highly conversational atmosphere. While south-west Ireland is relatively small, I thought that five days was grossly inadequate to properly experience the region. Every town or village in this remote, pristine and constantly beautiful region invite exploration, while there are countless cosy, rural pubs to frequent also.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Ireland photos

Posted by Liamps 09:41 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Ireland I

Ireland photos

Ireland, isn’t it just lovely? Oh yes, its grand. Its fecking gorgeous! The Irish people, a predominantly rural bunch, prefer to keep things rather simple and use just three adjectives to describe literally everything (lovely, grand and gorgeous). This philosophy results in clear, direct (though somewhat repetitive) responses, which essentially stymie intellectually stimulating conversations. Characterising an experience, scenic view or culinary dish beyond the boundaries of these three words comes across as ostentatious in Ireland. So for my Ireland entries, I’ll need to avoid writing obscure superlatives to keep it bland and simple for the Irish folks’ approval. Despite its fertile soils, tall poppies cannot grow in Ireland!

My tour guide in Ireland was Australianised Irish Claire, another veteran of the Africa tour, who introduced me to the country’s lovely scenery, grand nightlife and gorgeous culinary traditions (seems like the Irish vernacular is rubbing off on me already). Not prepared to experience another hot, sunny Christmas in Australia, Claire returned to Ireland to enjoy the festive season the proper way – in bleak, cold and excessively moist conditions. Usually I bemoan perpetual dreariness and rain, but nothing else would feel authentic in the Emerald Isle. The locals insisted the weather was unseasonably rainy, though I suspect they were just embarrassed by their country’s routine climatic conditions in the presence of a sun-drenched Aussie. Claire was also obviously returning home to visit family and friends… so I was somewhat intruding on their reunions! Nevertheless, the Hayes clan were incredibly hospitable and seemed very enthusiastic about my Irish adventure (unless they were just acting to be polite; I’m certainly not averse to adopting such a strategy).

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Claire’s two years in Australia have reportedly weakened her Corkish accent (ok, I know the word is “Corkonian” but I’m not a fan; so I’m adopting the “sounds better rule” on this one), which is probably why I can understand her. I regularly needed Claire’s translating services when conversing with Corkishmen, as they speak too fast and strangely and are too witty for this slow and thick Australian. Claire’s vocabulary has also apparently expanded while in Australia. “Can I order an English breakfast tea please?” was a question Claire would often pose to bemused waiters, wondering what the feck “English breakfast tea” was. “Ooooh, look at her, comes back to Ireland and thinks she’s all fancied up!” Remember, no descriptive terms are permitted in Ireland, with the exception of the aforementioned Holy Trinity of adjectives.

Claire hails from the sleepy town of Ballincolig on the outskirts of Cork City in County Cork. She picked me up from Cork City Airport bursting with exuberance as always, partially compensating for my drained and lethargic state (I was suffering my fourth cold in six months!). After departing the airport, I was immediately exposed to stereotypical Irish scenery: rolling paddocks of intense green hues, thick hedge fences… and a sky of monotonous grey. After dumping my luggage at the House of Hayes, we ventured to County Cork’s most iconic attraction, Blarney Castle. The ruins of this moderate-to-smallish sized fortress rise above a gorgeous landscape of interminable greenery, fern gardens, meandering streams and a quaint village. I doubt the fortress was ever a particularly opulent abode for its occupants; nor did it strike me as impenetrable for invaders. So what was Blarney Castle’s purpose then? To become a beloved tourist attraction where patrons have the opportunity to kiss a random stone on the rooftop. After partaking in the ritual, we visited purportedly “the largest Irish shop in the world.” Cue the loud American. Attempting to be funny (but failing dismally, as Americans often do) with the disinterested shop-assistant, he launched into how much he hates shopping, but proceeded to spend three hundred euros on souvenir junk. Perhaps his philosophy was the more things he buys, the more likely he’ll acquire something useful. I think I prefer the Stevens penchant for buying nothing and being happy with the savings. In the late afternoon, we drove to the small fishing village of Kinsale on a very convoluted route as Claire’s directional skills are rather pathetic even in her own neighbourhood (I needn’t fear Claire’s wrath at that comment because she doesn’t even read the blog (true friend hey?)). The village centre borders a small bay and is composed of lovely, colourful buildings and winding, narrow roads. As darkness descended, we sought refuge in a cozy, hilltop pub to enjoy fish and chips and real Irish cider!

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The next day, Claire and I commenced a six day road trip through Ireland’s lauded south-west coast. I was rather concerned about Claire’s driving ability, but fortunately it improved to a moderately safe standard by journey’s end. Prior to departing, Claire’s mum prepared a traditional Irish breakfast, consisting of egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and (most harrowingly) black pudding and white pudding. Surprisingly, I found the black pudding palatable and really enjoyed the white pudding. Our first destination was the coastal town of Glengariff, where we stayed at Claire’s sister Helena’s holiday house. The house is surrounded by lush, muddy paddocks and perched on a steep slope overlooking Glengariff’s island-studded bay. However, I was unable to enjoy a panoramic or brilliantly clear view due to thick fog. They assured me the view is truly magnificent in pleasant weather, though I’m not sure how frequently each decade that occurs. Although Glengariff is a relatively large settlement, the area feels quite naturalistic as the buildings are embedded within heavily vegetated surroundings (which conjured fond memories of Airey’s Inlet) and many of the structures are composed of locally sourced charcoal-coloured rock (please don’t ask for a more sophisticated geological description – I tend to tune out when that topic is covered in my civil engineering degree!). The town is separated from the waterfront by glistening temperate forest. We ambled through the forest, got totally saturated and spotted one seal and numerous inquisitive robins.

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Glengariff serves as the gateway to the Ring of Beara, one of several scenic coastal loops in south-west Ireland. The peaceful, vividly green paddocks characteristic of Ireland gave way to a landscape of stark beauty perhaps reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The Healy Pass is a steep, winding road that cuts through the Beara Peninsula and affords sublime views of the rugged, mountainous terrain (the weather partially cleared for us!). The barren landscape of clumpy, yellowish-brown grass is conducive only for sheep grazing, and we passed many such creatures roadside (or on the road) while driving in south-west Ireland. The land is defined by crumbling stone walls, while mysterious stone ruins (some thousands of years old) are randomly scattered throughout. After driving through the Healy Pass, we followed equally windy and treacherous roads that hugged the peninsula’s dramatic coastline. The sense of utter remoteness is almost chilling in the tiny hamlets of the peninsula. We stopped in one to acquire a six-pack of Taytos (a beloved but massively overrated brand of Irish chips) and Claire promptly scoffed five, leaving just one for me! We spent the late afternoon and evening in the town of Castletownbere, where a slew of A-list celebrities have stayed to shoot films. We drank at a fifth generation family-owned pub that epitomised the intriguing quirks of rural Irish establishments: duel-purposed (pub and convenience store), no meals served (quite a modern development for Irish pubs) and the intimate, community vibe. Astonishingly, Claire noticed an advertisement for a performance by a musical artist she had seen in Melbourne just a few months previously (no doubt this occurred due to my presence; strange coincidences are always happening around me because of the energy drawn from my psychic skills). So we attended the performance that evening in a small gallery with the local town’s folk. I can’t actually remember his name (something Flannery I suspect) nor any of the music, though I do remember thinking this isn’t really my style. I suspect it was probably depressing and exhaustively philosophical. The real star was an affable, rotund man with a monstrous grey beard who was running the show and proposed we all return to the pub for a pint – after the requisite encores.

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The following day, we crossed into County Kerry, where I noticed the accent suddenly became even more indecipherable. We stopped for lunch in Kenmare, another lovely Irish town of colourful, unpretentious buildings and quirky street signs. In the afternoon, we arrived at a scenic lookout over Killarney National Park and enjoyed grand views of its forests, scrub and lakes ringed by mountains. As we descended through the national park, we stopped intermittently for short walks, with Claire occasionally joining me. Claire seldom exhibited enthusiasm for walks, save only for walking from the car to a café for tea and cake, a convenience store for chips or a pub for food and ample beverages. Sometimes we would need to visit all such establishments before Claire’s mood lifted after anything more than a ten minute stroll! Having apparently failed to exercise in four months (she touted this with such regularity that I’m assuming its publishable (though not necessarily true – she’s prone to gross exaggeration)), Claire clearly had no intentions of resuming activity in Ireland! We spent the evening in Killarney, yet another lovely Irish town of colourful, densely-packed buildings and winding streets. Since we visited on the weekend before Christmas, Killarney was especially atmospheric and its multitude of pubs were brimming with patrons.

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In the morning, we drove through the Gap of Dunloe on a minor detour. Ireland’s highest pass is sandwiched between dramatic mountain peaks, with the road squeezing around black-coloured lakes. Unfortunately, we then missed the correct turnoff to our next destination and completed a major detour. Navigating Ireland’s network of roads is rural rather difficult in the almost total absence of signs… and lack of concentration. But it wasn’t a complete disaster, because we enjoyed magnificent scenery on the back roads of the Ring of Kerry. When we were completely lost, we asked a local farmer for directions. The farmer apparently cracked a hilarious comment, though it was completely lost on me due to his Kerry accent. Eventually, we unintentionally reached Claire’s childhood holiday destination, Glenbeigh. Gleenbeigh is a pleasant village with a clear stream connecting to a wild Atlantic beach. We then returned to the correct route towards world's end...

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I suppose my portrayal of Ireland, the Irish and especially Irish Claire have thus far been rather brazen, but don’t let that mislead you! Ireland’s countryside is truly gorgeous; its one of the only countries I have travelled to where the scenery is constantly impressive off the major expressways. The Irish people and the atmosphere in the village pubs were just grand during Christmas time, evoking a homely, welcoming spirit for their returning brethren. And Claire was a lovely host, excessively generous and provided competent guiding services (though I usually needed to consult the internet for my endless stream of questions).

That’s all for now,

Liam

Ireland photos

Posted by Liamps 11:39 Archived in Ireland Comments (1)

London IV

United Kingdom photos

An incredibly short entry for an incredibly short visit to London (for the third time). As the title denotes, I have already written extensively about this remarkable city, so there is little more discussion for me to cover anyhow. Within six hours of my final class at KTH in mid-December, I was on a plane bound for London, eager to escape the dullness of Stockholm as soon as possible! My constituent destinations for the four week Christmas break were actually Ireland and Edinburgh. But since I needed to transit through England, I thought why not stop in my favourite city for a couple days and visit British Dave (especially with the incentive of free accommodation in this notoriously expensive city… though I may have come bearing an appreciative gift). So en route to County Cork I made a brief three night stop in London, bookended by stressful navigating of the city’s stupendous but incredibly complex public transport system. Despite the criticism London cops for its weather, the temperature of ten degrees seemed comparatively paradisiacal after Stockholm in minus five.

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I finally checked off an item that has persisted inexplicably on my London bucket list: a guided tour of the home of cricket, Lord’s Cricket Ground. I visited Lord’s when my interest in cricket was probably at an all-time low; indeed, as I write this entry high above Iran (which I had intended to travel to right at this time! So close yet so far. But that’s another story…) without access to internet, I really could not say what happened in Test cricket over the summer. I assume we defeated the West Indies and… New Zealand I think the other opponent was? I suppose my thoughts regarding sport have invariably gravitated back towards the extraordinary and ongoing glory of the Hawthorn Football Club, and who can blame me?!

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But back on topic. Despite my recent disinterest in cricket, the brilliant tour conjured many memories of famous incidents and statistics that are apparently still ingrained in my head. It helped of course that the guide was exceedingly passionate, a member of the MCC and old enough to have met dozens of cricketing icons. He introduced the group (composed of Australians and Indians) to the Ashes, which is as small, insignificant and yet eminently powerful as you might expect. I didn’t know that the vessel containing the Ashes is simply an empty perfume jar. We entered the Pavilion, ground zero of the cricket world and empty of the modern trappings that characterise stadia globally. The Pavilion is the only venue in the world where Test players still pass through a crowd of people to enter the field, in what I think is the equivalent of the MCG’s long room. The guide said the most atmospheric the room had ever been was when Tendulkar strode out to bat for the last occasion at Lord’s; chasing a hundredth international century and first at Lord’s. We entered the player’s dressing rooms, which are astonishingly cramp and spartan. Yet the guide claimed that no cricketer would trade playing on the hallowed turf of Lord’s for more luxurious facilities. Indeed, he relayed a story of an Indian player Sreesanth in tears just for having the privilege of being there. It was all tremendously emotional for everyone. Security of the dressing rooms is very strict, as even Steve Waugh was denied entry to catch-up with former teammates. We toured around the other grandstands of Lord’s (very small compared to Australia, with a capacity of just 27,000) and were within one metre of the field. The renowned slope at Lord’s is certainly discernible. Interestingly, the laws of cricket were not the only rules to be enshrined at Lord’s; the laws of lawn tennis were also officially established there. Previously, different rules had existed at clubs throughout Britain. To create a standardised game and noticing the success of the MCC’s laws of cricket, the tennis clubs requested the MCC to write the laws of lawn tennis also.

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While Dave was occupied with a rather unpleasant sounding activity called “work”, I spent my time ticking off other less interesting things from my London bucket list. I ventured to King’s Cross Station and was so underwhelmed by the architecture that I didn’t bother staying to find platform nine and three-quarters. I stumbled across the National Library, which was surprisingly worth the visit as it featured the Magna Carta and several very early Christian bibles on display. I walked around the shopping precinct of Regent St and Oxford St. Dave had encouraged me to visit a famous toy store, so expecting antique toys, I reluctantly complied. However, it was simply a Toys ‘R’ Us equivalent, so I felt like a creep walking around the store with a camera hanging prominently around my neck (I departed very quickly!). I walked past the US Embassy, a militaristic compound that is probably the ugliest building in London and completely out-of-place in Mayfair. After the obligatory sightseeing pilgrimage to Buckingham Palace and Westminster, I visited London’s neo Byzantine Catholic cathedral. Never before have I seen so many appeals for donations inside a place of worship (they failed to persuade me). I spent ten minutes inside Harrod’s, half of which was spent finding the disappointingly average lavatories, before departing through boredom. I made a brief visit to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and was outraged by the insipidness of the British reproduction of a German Christmas market (after visiting Cologne the previous week). As usual, I severely underestimated the distances in London and was required to run to meet up with Dave at the correct times on both evenings.

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Dave and I ventured to a handful of pubs in central London, which were particularly atmospheric in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Many revellers were fashioning Christmas jumpers that would be considered unbelievably daggy at any other time of year. I was quite saddened actually that we don’t have such a tradition in Australia. When Dave’s parents hosted me for dinner, I was able to view the bombastic Christmas lights display that Dave had repeatedly and so passionately described. The Bridges household blazes in the otherwise pitch-black borderline countryside village, aside from the neighbouring abode (with a resident electrician). Dave warned me gravely about my upcoming trip to Ireland, with an attitude clearly motivated by stereotypes and British superiority. He was convinced that the Irish would ceaselessly laugh at me, as an Australian, and that little more would be achieved (or permitted) in Ireland than drinking obscene quantities of alcohol at the pubs. Only half true.

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There was only one culinary objective for my trip to London (since I knew I would have plenty of stogy pub fare in Ireland): hummus. Obviously excellent renditions of this magical, golden substance was not gong to be difficult to obtain in London, with its large Middle Eastern population. On my return visit to Camden Market, I had a delicious feast of hummus, falafel, feta, pickles, fried eggplant and Arabic salad. The next day, I dined at “Hummus Brothers”, which is one of those “healthy”, modern fast-food franchises similar to Grill’d or Schnitz. “Hummus Brothers” specialises in serving hummus as a simple but filling meal complemented by condiments, which is exactly how it is supposed to be eaten (hummus is NOT merely a snack or appetiser in the Middle East!). I ate a delicious batch of hummus with stewed eggplant and lamb.

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Another very enjoyable trip to London further convinced me that I could happily live there. Thanks again to Dave for hosting me.

That’s all for now,

Liam

United Kingdom photos

Posted by Liamps 16:51 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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