Friday, 20 February 2009

Random memories...

Varanasi.... the river Ganga, sunrise, from the rooftop of the Shanti Guesthouse.

Sitting cross legged on the second floor of a Varanasi bakery, one of those places that i suspect was "twice as old as history" - no, but isn't that everyone's favourite quote on Varanasi? I made another one up while in India -there are two types of people on this world, those who have been to India and those who have not been to India.

Ok the place was probably, judging from its peeling paint, lobby magazines (circa 1980s) and signed guestbook, a throwback to the heydays of the 70s where hippies sought paradise beside the great mother Ganga (or the river Ganges, more commonly, but amongst the Varanasi folk at the Shanti who linger for weeks/months, dabbling in language lessons, yoga, ayuverda, tablar/sitar classes, it will always be the former - it actually even feels like home, now)

Still, the bakery was one of the best places to eat in Varanasi. We chewed on tough, homemade wheat bread with yak-cheese from the Himalayas, downing tall glasses of heavenly, iced coffee, talking and teaching/learning languages - over the sound of the excruciatingly loud coffee machine, swapping travel plans and stories, planning to meet up again in Kathmandu, another legend on the road to nirvana.

The crowd in India, especially in the (weirdly late) monsoon (and apparently they, the Indians, bet on the monsoon) is different from the mainstream, gap year party crowds that you see in Thailand or Vietnam. Here, virtually everyone travels alone, for months on end, freaks of the 00s, and every other lone traveller you meet is a friend, a co-traveller, co-experiencer (cliche cliche but i really met a lot of amazing people who were so warm and open and full of insights and so unpretentious.) We would have these lazy, long talks, discussions, debates over meals that drag on for hours - US presidency being topic of the month. As we all know now, Mr Obama won (and i lost...)

Beloved Varanasi.... why i came to India in the first place...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Football in the mountains...

Playing football in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, Macchapucchare's snowy peak in the background. Running in jeans with borrowed, ragged boots, 2 sizes too small, on a pitch that was more swamp than grass, thanks to the monsoon. At least they said i looked like Cantona, even if i obviously don't play like him. And we had to (illicitly, i suppose) climb down a large drain to get into the field - reminds me of those good old days in Malaysia =)

The Nepalis, like the Indonesians, like to "buang" (clear) the ball from defence, punting it up for their strikers, who seemed to have mastered the first touch, pushing the ball instantly past you at an awkward angle and then sprinting after it. And boy are they fast.
We lost - i think the score was 2-0, and i played terribly - after too many steak and wine evenings on Lakeside, i suppose, but everyone had fun, and it was good exercise prior to tackling the base camp trail. I really was in terrible shape - the "triathlon" with my Dutch friend up the World Peace Pagoda, just on the outskirts of the lake - a challenging row, climb, and (almost) swim (if we had flipped the leaky wooden boat...) approach left me stoned and half-dead on top of the hill - polishing off Shantaram, sharing a smoke and talking with a wizened old Nepali farmer, who it seems, had a brother in Malaysia - which instantly makes you their new best friend, like cool (or was it the smoke). And then us rushing back again before 3 - the official time when the skies open, punctually, and inundate everything in sheets of water. Its funny, one of the first question everyone asks when they first arrive in Nepal mid-monsoon is do you think it will rain tomorrow. The answer, invariably: Yes. 3 o'clock. Why? How do you know? Guy points to the sky, wobbles his head and smiles. And tomorrow, at quarter to 3, when you smile to yourself and think ah but he is wrong, (damn i wished i had went paragliding today) the sky empties. Without warning. No thunder, no lightning - just sheets and sheets of (alpine) water sweeping down over the town, over Pokhara, creating so many silvery ripples in the flat-mirror surface of the lake and falling leaves....

Long termers count the number of monsoons they have been through. My neighbour, the Russian (with his cute 2 year old daughter) is a 5 monsoon-er. I am now a one-monsoon guy. And i absolutely loved it, the rain, everything. It was magic.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Loreena McKennitt - Nights from the Alhambra

Caravanserai. Raglan roads. The mystic's dream. Cymbeline. Marco Polo. Dante's prayer. the Bonny Swans. Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance.

Putting the CD on, lying down on my bed for a siesta on a hot, timeless Malaysian afternoon, the last orange rays of sunlight permeating in a warm glow from the drawn curtains, somehow, too sweet, already cold but nevertheless great teh tarek on the battered wooden desk where i used to assemble my plastic scale models, attracting armies of ants (black, tiny, and acrid-smelling when you squish them). Its funny but this is what i think of, of Malaysia, and home, when i am abroad - that cosy room that is too hot (and orange-y) in evenings, the call to prayer at 5 in the morning just as i start to get into bed, having fun making supper at 2 a.m., pasar tanis (morning markets) with my father, the chilly morning air on my face, driving, picking greens...


I had let my thoughts wander and it instantly, always, runs back to magical Nepal, a flood of memories - that night in Belahiya, getting drunk on Royal Stag whiskey and coke, celebrating "graduating" India (What happens in Belahiya, stays in Belahiya), strolling the lakeside at Pokhara with a few really cool guys and gals, staying on for 2 weeks, lazy late breakfasts at the Pumpernickel Bakery's pretty garden by the lake, a 10 day journey up into the heart of the Annapurna Range, an awe inspiring amphitheatre of ice, snow and giants rising out into the sky. The route up was psychadelic, from the Macchapucchare base camp (i hope almost a year after Nepal, i can still spell this right. I used to pride myself for being able to spell, and pronounce it correctly, instead of the lazy ol' "fishtail", as it is also known.) on, walking through the shifting clouds, swirls of mist dancing around tors, a sea of flowers, red and yellow and purple and pink, and me, walking/floating through it all, no end and no other person in sight. Psychadelic, amazing, breath taking - its what i only use those words for now.

Above: My home in the clouds - notice the little cabin, bottom left... Taken 9 June 2008, Macchapucchare Base Camp - which isn't really a base camp cos you arent supposed to climb it. The locals consider it sacred, the abode of Gods. It wasn't hard to see why.

Above: Macchapucchare looming magnificently right in front of us. See the tiny people at the bottom of the photo? The awe, the grandeur... 9/6/2008

Above: A beautiful dream. Through the clouds on the way to Annapurna base camp. 9/6/2008

And also legendary Kathmandu, the end of the road for me, and the hippies who made it, 30 years ago, overland, from Europe. A fanless room at the south end of Thamel, next to Thamel High School (???) and breakfasts at Helena's rooftop - 99Rs (a dollar and a half for 2 eggs, sauted potatoes - which are the best, ever, and a banana, grilled tomato, sausages, toast, jam, butter and tea/coffee...), going for those long walks out of town into the Kathmandu valley, to the Swayambunath monkey temple, Patan, Pashupatinath...

p/s - the CD was bought for 30 Nepali rupees at a music shop in Pokhara, near Camping Chowk.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

The hobbit

It has been one and a half years of travelling and blogging - I thought a change would be refreshing, hence the new layout (themed the hobbit - kinda reminds me of my adventures, leaving my little, cosy hobbit hole with a rucksack and thats all and heading out into the world. Just a kid with his rucksack on his back. (and Sting. No, of course not =)).

So adieu boxy 90s template that i've had for the past one and a half years - it has been a great time, but its also time for a new start. Just to be picky the font is a bit on the small size, and there are perforated lines around all my pics, for some reason. Other than that i quite like the clean new interface and the pasture-green (is this a colour? i mean, since peach is a colour...) background and the font.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Mission: Istaanbul

Just 8 months ago i was in a dingy Delhi guesthouse room suffering from (appropriately enough) Delhi belly flipping through some glossy magazines - and this caught my eye. Suave. =) I wished i could go to Istanbul - just the name itself sounded magical, exotic, faraway.

And its barely 3 months now before Istanbul. Mission begins 8 May 2009.

I will be doing the classic Istanbul to Cairo route, and then back again, in about 7 weeks. And i have circumvented my Israeli problem - apparently there is a ferry from Aqaba in Jordan to Egypt, Nuweiba, where i will make my way through the Sinai to Cairo, and then take a looong ferry ride to Cyprus and then on to Turkey. Or as my friend suggests, do the long way round by flying to Germany for a coffee (and free lodge) with some friends and then flying back to Istanbul, inexplicably cheaper at 150 euros or less than to fly direct for 20. Weird. And the best part: I just realised i don't need a schengen visa!!! How cool is that? I mean, the whole application can take up to months, even a full year, so i realise how lucky i am. (and how lucky us Malaysians are not to be slapped with a visa requirement for the UK even though we are not exactly a rich "first world" country...)

Oh and as an aside i really want to get Rory McLean's Magic Bus to relive the "magic" (in more ways than one) journeys in the 70s that started in Istanbul all the way to paradise in Nepal, but i don't think it's available yet here. Oh well, i might just have to get it online. Check out the journey here.

Current things to do:

1. Get a (real) ISIC card. I had wanted to get one in Bangkok (Oxford law faculty) along with a false passport to placate those dodgy guesthouse owners who insist on safekeeping your passport in case you do a runner (who probably have a lucrative sideline forging "books")...

2. That tetanus jab that has been postponed for years owing to my very manly fear of needles.

3. Renew passport - darn lucky i checked and found that Turkey has recently imposed a 1 year validity requirement for all visitors. Wouldn't want to end up with a Pasport Kecemasan (emergency passport) and pissed off embassy staff.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

You know you have been in rural Southeast Asia too long when...

1. You instinctively hesitate, just for that split second, before throwing the piece of toilet paper into the toilet. Should i or should i not? A lesson learnt from overflow(n) toilets in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, where the pipes don't digest toilet paper too well and choke on it. The result, a wet floor which further (desperate) flushing in the hope of clearing the system only aggravates.

2. A patch of overgrown grass and you think to yourself "Achtung minen". And then smile stupidly (ah those fond memories) to yourself while other people stare at you as you try to take the safe way across by skirting the overgrown clumps and stepping on the worn bits, walking in zig zags with a silly self indulgent smile on your face.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

I can't believe it

Was just surfing the web looking for flights to Mongolia and pulling my hair out thinking of ways to circumvent China's visa rules (i needed a double entry - i figured i'd tell them i was visiting Hong Kong/Korea where i'd go by train to Mongolia instead, come back to Beijing and then continue down the railroads across the Himalayas to Tibet). It sounded like a great trip - except for the Chinese visa, and the costs of the flight to Ulaan Bataar. Which was like 1200 SGD. I then checked Malaysia airlines - 404 dollars to Beijing, not bad, but id have to spend a day at Peking international playing terminal man. Which i really wouldnt mind - for 300 dollars since the Air China flight to ULN tomorrow was still a shocking 500 dollars. Anyways i reminded myself of that time i slept at Agra Fort train station - sweet dreams with cockroaches running around the dusty, sticky concrete floor pasted in decades of split chai. Peking was going to be a breeze - that was, until i found out, taking the virtual tour of the airport, that the passport control (along with the veterinary inspectors) were right outside after you exited the aircraft, and the way to the transfers area involved an immigration check, ticket check, health check etc etc (in that order, as specified, no, kindly reminded).

So that leaves the 1200 SGD option of the (notoriously late) Air China flight to ULN, with a one hour transit in Beijing. Definitely not a good plan, and at that price i wasn't going to play around. I went back to the Malaysia airlines website. Bored. Played around, tried flying to Jeddah, Buenos Aires etc etc. And then i clicked Istanbul - a magical name, the 70s Istanbul-Cairo hippie trail comes instantly to mind, the pudding shop, the blue mosque, cheap Istanbul fleapits. And the price - 700 SGD to IST. I almost fell off my chair. With all the plus pluses it was still a 1800 return trip, much more bang for my buck than 1300 a pop to Mongolia. I clicked, entered my data and clicked. The MAS website lagged. My mom called - hey have you checkd out Qatar Airways? I googled. 1400 dollars return. I saved 400 dollars because MAS had some problems with their website. Thanks MAS for the lag, though i was really looking forward to flying with my national carrier for the first time, but nevertheless, WOO HOO! Turkey here i come!

Thinking of overlanding to Cairo, the famous Istandul-Cairo route (and back) but there is just the small problem of Israel being most inconveniently between Jordan and Egypt, last time i checked my map. I will either have to swim, or go via the Saudi Arabian desert - which im sure is pretty tough too. But the good thing, small distances in the Middle East as opposed to China/India. And the best part yet - i'm going! Oh God this is amazing. Just a day ago i was shit bored thinking of ways to get my Chinese visa permits and how dreary the whole China big smokey industrial city idea of an adventure was. I don't think i'm gonna sleep tonight - it's 3 now and i'm too happy. (and i have a class tomorrow morning).