China: The Verdict

Guilin, 6 November

Duration: 40 days. Distance (land): 6,000 km. Stops: 14.

Total duration so far: 99 days. Distance (air): 20,437 km. Distance (land): 9,075 km. Distance (water): 115 km. Total distance: 29,627 km.

Since we’re checked in to our final hotel in Guilin, munching on cheese baguettes and drinking lychee and bamboo tea (yup, we are tea snobs now), it means our time in China is almost over. Over the last 40 days we’ve visited 9 out of 26 provinces, while experiencing all sorts of different food, landscapes and culture. Now it is time to tally up the scores!

First for all you thirsty (and thrifty) holidaymakers out there, let me give you the low-down on the pint situation. Unlike Sri Lanka and India where you’ll drink what you’re given, China has a lot of different beers to choose from, readily available in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants up and down the country: Tsingtao, Harbin, Yanjing, they’re all terrible. Though its supermarket pricetag of ¥2.50 (30p) per can may appeal, stay esspecially clear of Snow Beer; Unnaturally yellow, flat and with an all round unpleasant taste this would have to be the China’s worst brew.

Your typical Chinese lager has an alcohol percentage ranging anywhere between 0.5 and 3.5 or 4 if you’re very lucky. Rather than the big brands, to enjoy a good beer in China you best try the micro breweries. In the major cities you will find pubs with excellent local ales, lagers, ipa’s and stouts on draught, but make sure to bring a healthy wallet; a good pint will set you back about ¥40 (£4.50), pretty much the same as back home in Edinburgh.

Alternatively, among other European beers, Hoegaarden is commonly imported and we even managed to buy three different types of Delirium from a local supermarket in Fenghuang, at a very reasonable ¥21 a bottle. Full marks go to China!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for, it is time to present to you China’s final scores, as awarded by our most irreproachable, evenhanded judge Lauren! Enjoy!

The people score 8/10. The Chinese have been extremely kind and helpful, in spite of the language barrier. They are hospitable, generous and made us feel welcome pretty much everywhere we went. Chinese people have a big soft spot for small children and babies, and while some of our helplessness at times may have evoked similar motherly feelings, I would like to believe they are simply warm, welcoming people.

Having said that, the loud clearing of the throat followed by spitting has been slightly more underwhelming, as has the sneezing without covering up or not using headphones on a crowded train.

Finally, since it goes so much against everything that is good and holy in Britain, I’m talking of course about proper queuing conduct, at first it was pretty annoying to have people constantly try and push their way out in front of you. Now 40 days later we’re cutting queues like a pro and cheer on anyone who cheats their way up front. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Gonna be awkward when we’re back home..

The food scores 6/10. Being a bit unconventional here with the scoring, as Chinese food is actually my favourite, but I can’t get around the fact that we’ve seen critically endangered Chinese giant salamanders up on offer at several restaurants around the country, not to mention that eating dog and cat (fragrant meat as its called), turtle and bamboo rat are a thing here too. Fair enough, it’s not for us to decide which animals are too cute to be consumed, but lay off the endangered species, will you China? Apart from that, Chinese food is entirely great and I’d go back to Sichuan just for that!

The transport scores 9/10. Hands down, China’s winning this one! The fast trains have been superb; not a minute late, clean, smooth-riding and easy to use. The metro system in the cities is well thought-out and appears futuristic compared to some in Europe and the US. The bus system has been slightly more difficult at times to figure out, but have been good as well.

So without further ado, I am proud to announce that China is the latest lucky recipient of Lauren’s coveted certificate of excellence! Hear hear!!

A relaxing time in Phoenix Water Town

Fenghuang, Hunan Province, 29-30 October

Our journey south towards sunny weather brings us to the ancient town of Fenghuang. Also known as Phoenix, this old town on the Tuojiang River was built in 1704 during the Qing Dynasty and has preserved its appearance ever since.

Fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix, is a bird found in East Asian mythology that reigns over all other birds. Like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, Fenghuang has been reborn as a touristic hotspot.

Originally a Miao settlement, Fenghuang is a gathering place for Miao and Tujia ethnic minority. Not far from town, the southern part of the Great Wall of China was originally built there to prevent the Han Chinese from invading the Miao, while nowadays Han are the ruling ethnic majority. A few older women we see selling flower garlands still wear the Miao traditional clothing, although this may be more of a gimmick for tourists than cultural preservation.

Walking through the ancient town, most of the old houses have been converted to shops, restaurants and hotels and during the mornings and at night, when the town is brightly lit up and all the bars are open, Fenghuang is overrun with tour groups. From our balcony we’re having fun watching all the Chinese tourists dressed up in traditional attire pose for photos.

Perhaps the best way to experience some of the ancient way of life is to walk by the river around midday, when the tours have all gone. The streets become deserted but for a handful of cats and dogs napping in the shade and local men fishing by the side of the river, with the occasional gondola passing by.

The unique wooden houses (Diajiaolou) built along the riverbank have been designed to protect from flooding and appear to be hanging over the river.

On the banks food is prepared by the numerous restaurants in much the same way as it has for centuries. A local favourite is fish Miao-style: fish pickled for 3 weeks until the bones are soft, inside a container of special soup, rice powder and sweet corn powder. Alternatively you can pick just about any animal, living or dead, from the aquariums and cages stacked up in front of the restaurants.

A pig’s face and some honeycombs.
A couple bamboo rats.

While we’re checking them out, one very smart bamboo rat pretends to be dead so we won’t buy it and eat it, but then one of the waiters comes running out and pokes it with a stick until it starts moving again. Wake up you, there’s customers! Way too cute to eat though, they’re like giant hamsters.

It’s nice to get lost for the afternoon walking around the narrow, winding streets of the old town, with plenty more to discover. We bear witness to some locals’ karaoke session in the public park and eat some of the best rice noodles we’ve had on our travels.

All in all we had a good time in Fenghuang. Slowly our journey through China is beginning to draw to a close. Next up we’re travelling further south still to the city of Guilin.

On the Giant Panda trail

Chengdu, Sichuan Province, 18-20 October.

Today on the high speed train we cover a distance of over 1,000 km to get from Luoyang to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, home of spectacular spicy foods and adorable panda bears!

With an urban population of over 11 million, Chengdu is one of three most populated cities in Western China, and the largest in Sichuan. Due to the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed in the year 256 BC, the Min and Tuo River, two branches of the famous Yangtze river, supply an irrigation area of more than 700 square kilometres. This furtile land is why Sichuan Province is called Tian Fu Zhi Guo, the Heavenly State.

In this province Hotpot was invented, a cooking method where a simmering pot of soup stock is placed on the dinner table and hotpot dishes such as thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings or seafood are cooked tableside, similar to fondue, but hot enough to numb your tongue and lips for the rest of the day!

In Sichuan cooking Sichuan peppercorns (Ma) and dried chillies (La) play a central role. The dried chillies produce some serious heat on the Scoville scale, while the peppercorn causes the tingly lip-numbing sensation, lovely! Though deadly when prepared by the inexperienced chef, in reality not every dish in Sichuan cuisine is extremly spicy, but it’s always fragrant and usually delicious. It’s been my absolute favourite food on our travels so far!

The hostel we stay in is pretty comfortable. Just off a busy road next to a metro station, the inner courtyard is a pet lovers paradise; we count 5 cats, 2 dogs, some gold fish and even spot a turtle. We’re staying on the fourth floor. A gaping hole with no door at the end of our corridor leads to a rickety emergency exit stairway attached to the side of the building – pretty glad we’re not staying here in winter.. From the top of the stairs we look right into the garage of our neighbour, who runs a pretty professional looking illegal casino from there, the Chinese sure love a gamble!

We decide to give the temples here a miss and catch up on some much needed rest while in Chengdu. This city has a lot of expats and the quarter finals of the rugby world cup are on, so we spend a lot of time at the Shamrock Pub which is showing all the games. Most of the rugby fans we meet are in Chengdu for teaching, the go to gig for the native English speaker.

It’s nice to be able to speak with other people since our Chinese is not quite the level required for a good old existential debate (or even small talk for that matter..) Besides hello and thank you, and a few words for different foods, we know good morning (zao) and good afternoon (chi guo ma, lit. have you eaten?), plus one our Irish friend from the pub taught us: sha bi, which you can use on the public bus when another passenger snorts their nose and spits the contents out in the little bucket.

No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a visit to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. A short drive out of town, this is likely where the two faulty pandas who refuse to mate in Edinburgh Zoo are from. The centre consist of a huge park imitating the natural habitat of the giant panda, as well as nursing houses for the baby pandas, a training centre, playgrounds and research laboratories. It is home to about 83 giant pandas and red pandas, including their young.

When we arrive in the early morning the park is already crowded. Most people are queuing up for the shuttle buses which operate inside the park, but we decide to follow a quick-paced group of walkers who seem to know their way around the park. It’s best to arrive early not to miss feeding time and because the giant bears are most active in the morning. Come 10 AM they usually hunker down and sleep away the rest of the day.

Bamboo has little nutritional value, so the pandas are usually too tired to play, fight, mate, or simply stay awake. While they may lack an active lifestyle they certainly do have the cuteness factor!

Seeing the red pandas on the other hand is a lot more interactive. These little fellas are quite playful and curious. At the Research Base you can step right into their enclosure for a close encounter!

Chengdu has been pretty good. It’s easy to get around, a good place to meet a few expats and eat good food, plus the Panda Base is well worth a visit. After spending a lot of time in China’s big cities it’s time to discover the countryside. Our next stop is Baoguo village, just south of Chengdu.

Stepping inside of the Jungle Book

Bundi, 20-21 September

It takes only four hours to get from Jaipur to Bundi by car over a quiet highway with the odd cow sleeping in the middle of the road. The exit off the highway quickly changes to a dirt road when I direct our driver to our guesthouse. Soon the dirt road becomes a dirt path with cows standing idly by and pigs getting mud baths in big rain puddles, and then the car gets stuck. We’re literally off the beaten path.

After a few local boys help the driver free the wheels and we’ve said our goodbyes, we’re off on foot for the final part of the journey. First impressions of Bundi are good; it’s an extremely friendly place, very colourful, with loads of little side streets with painted murals, and full of life. We find the guest house just before the rain comes back on.

After the hustle and bustle of Agra and Jaipur, being in a small town is exactly what we both needed and just like that we can relax. It is said that Bundi’s Rajasthan inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his Jungle Book, and you can visit his summer house on the lake where he was known to work on his writings.

As it’s still early in the day we decide to go out and explore. A steep, cobblestone path from town leads to nearby Garh Palace, or Palace of Bundi.

Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, gray towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than men. – Rudyard Kipling

Also described by Kipling as an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge, this vast structure consisting of a palace and fort above it, almost seems to grow out of the rocky hillside it is built on.

Although its foundations were laid in the 13th century, Gahr Palace, which actually consists of different palaces built by rulers from different times, was established mostly in the 17th and 18th century. Today it’s left in a decaying state inhabited by bats. Overgrown by jungle, it vaguely reminds us of King Louie’s Ancient Ruins from Jungle Book.

Hathi Pol, The Elephant Gate.

Beside the structure itself, the palace is also famous for a vast collection of faded turquoise and gold murals, its chief treasure, depicting a variety of subjects, all of wonderful detail: the life of the Maharaja, drunk elephants dancing and fighting, gods smoking opium, giant parades, a tiger wrestling a bull, a langur checking inside a fish’s mouth, and much, much more.

So far in Rajasthan this has been my favourite place, and the level of architecture and decoration is almost overwhelming. It’s no wonder Kipling liked to spend time in Bundi. We spend the entire afternoon discovering Garh Palace and wish we didn’t have to leave!

The sightseeing in Bundi already blew us away and now we find out it has a pretty vibrant night life too, complete with cool rooftop cafe’s, Italian food and Bhang Lassi’s, a drink made of yogurt, nuts, spices, rose water and cannabis! We love it here, but there’s so much more to see in Rajasthan. Tonight at 2am we’re catching the night train to Udaipur, the White City.

First taste of North India: Visiting Taj Mahal

Agra, 15-16 September

Sunday marks a big step in our 7 months on the road. We’re waking up at 5AM to travel 2,500km from Cochin in the south of India way up to Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. While the train to New Delhi takes 3 days (not including delays) our flight takes us there in just 3 hours, after which another 3 hours by train sees us to the home of the Taj Mahal!

While the south of India is known for being pretty easy-going, the north on the other hand is a lot more intense. The same way that Sri Lanka was a great introduction to South India, we figured South India would ease us into Rajasthan/Uttar Pradesh. Let’s hope it does!

Arriving at Delhi airport things already move at a much quicker pace. In less than half an hour we clear security, retrieve our luggage and get on board the metro to the train station. Delhi’s urban area is the second largest in the world and with over 26 million inhabitants it dwarfs Scotland and the Netherlands’ total combined! A milky white veil of smog covers the sky (it might be a nice day, we’re not quite sure?) but we’re not planning on hanging about.

In Alleppey, Yeti, our new friend from Delhi has shared some interesting stories about travelling in the north, which has prepared us at least a little for the scams, poverty and selfies we’re about to encounter at Delhi train station today.

We have already been asked to pose for a few selfies in India, but in the south it was usually families taking photos with us, and we both quite enjoy the idea of randomly ending up in the odd family album. In the north it’s an entirely different game: It’s almost always a guy on his own, or a group of guys, who essentially want to take a picture with Lauren so they can boast about it to others later. On the short walk between the metro and the train station we stupidly agree to one picture with a guy and seconds later we’re being pure fenced in by a crowd of men all waving their phones at us! Not sure where those pictures will end up, not in a family album I suspect. Ah the price you pay for being a famous blogger! 😉

The poverty is a bit more difficult to deal with. Though it’s only midday, being at Delhi train station is like being on the worst imaginable version of a night bus back home: People are lying sprawled out on the ground everywhere, drunks try to talk to you and ask for money, there’s no seats, it smells of raw sewage, and the floors are sticky. Now add to that some serious humidity, heavy bags, selfies, an entirely illogical station layout with severe lack of sign posting and kids following you around begging, that just about sums up the experience.

Similar to the selfies, we’ve been advised to ignore anyone asking for money. Begging is a big business in India, often run by cartels and it is said some beggars go as far as to maim themselves just to make more money, pretty gruesome stuff.. In Sri Lanka, by a local’s example, we’ve given money to the odd beggar, in North India begging is a lot more widespread. Between the time spent at the station and the train journey to Agra alone I’m asked for money by at least ten different people, but clearly it’s only tourists they engage.

Then finally there is scams. Just before the train arrives to Agra, we’re asked for our tickets by a random guy in a shirt, who’s clearly not the conductor. A friendly Sikh we’ve been sharing our carriage with quickly tells him what I assume is something along the lines of: Beat it, these two are with me, as he points to us and then himself, and the guy legs it. Scams are rife in the north so we better get wise to it quickly. The cheekiest one we’ve heard so far is from another tourist who was told to pay 1,000 rupees for a 20 rupee bottle of water!

When we arrive at the hostel we can conclude it’s been a successful day, we’re in Agra!

Taj Mahal

In Agra we’re visiting two major sights, both of them buildings from the Mughal era. First up on our list is the famous Taj Mahal on the banks of the river Yamuna, one of the big ticket items in India and voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Once again we get an early start to our day to arrive at the site before sunrise. Our hostel is a convenient 10 minute walk away from the Taj, which was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, also housing the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. At its height, the Mughal empire was one of the largest empires in the history of South Asia, and the Taj Mahal is definitely impressive!

Taj monkey, a second before it lunged itself at Lauren

Agra Fort

In the afternoon we visit Agra Fort. This was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638. Once in ruins, it was rebuilt in red sandstone by Mughal emperor Akbar by 1573, and later partly remodeled in white marble by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan to match the nearby Taj Mahal.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling to our first of the three painted cities, Jaipur in Rajasthan!

The return of the King

Munnar, 11-13 September

Today is Thiru Onam (Sacred Onam Day), the most important day of the annual harvest festival in Kerala. Yesterday the hotel owner has left to Alleppey for a family celebration so we’re locking up after ourselves before travelling by bus to Munnar.

We hear the legend of King Mahabali aka the Demon King, whose spirit visits Kerala at Onam: Mahabali once ruled the entire world and his reign was one of peace and prosperity: All of his subjects had a roof over their head and enough to eat, and there was no division based on caste or class. He was so loved by his people they started saying Thank the King, instead of Thank the Gods, which naturally didn’t go down too well with the latter. And so it was that Vishnu decided to take on the form of a little boy and visit the King to end his rule.

Upon their meeting, the king, known for his generosity, told the little boy he could have anything he wanted. The boy then asked for three feet of land, which was granted. It was then that Vishnu grew from a little boy into to a gigantic figure, who measured the Earth using one foot, and the entire universe with the next. Mahabali, knowing that his time had come, let Vishnu place his third foot on his head, causing him to drown in the netherworld. The king’s final wish was to return once every year to make sure his people are still prosperous and happy. Today people celebrate Onam by purchasing new clothes for their children and elders and sharing a big feast with family.

After hearing no division based on caste or class, suddenly something clicks. We’ve seen communist symbols all over Kerala: the hammer and sickle, portraits of Che and Fidel. It makes a lot of sense now. And communism to an extent seems to work here. For instance we’re told that poverty in Kerala is less compared to the rest of India. Though partly because of tourism, and partly because a lot of Keralans have jobs in the Middle East, but also because the state creates jobs. The state ferries have been an absolute joy, and every major town has a District Tourism Promotion Council office, but perhaps the weirdest initiative is that the state employs tuktuk drivers, who, for a nominal fee, take you to all the major tourist sights in an area, and receive extra payment in kind if they can get you to agree to enter either a state run spice garden or tea shop. You don’t even have to buy anything, simply stepping in to the shop means rice for your tuktuk driver!

So when we walk to the bus station in Kumily, preparations for Onam have already begun and everyone’s in their Sunday best. Munnar in the Western Ghats is about a hundred km north, which should be about a 4 hour drive over winding mountain roads, but unfortunately, due to heavy rainfall which has caused a landslide to block off the main road, our bus is stopping at Pooppara, a tiny little village about 30km from Munnar. After a few attempts we find a local bus to take us on the scenic 60km route to Munnar where we arrive before nightfall.

Munnar is in the heart of tea country, and nicknamed the Kashmir of South India, but the town (a big, giant eyesore) and the surrounding area (valleys draped in a rich tapestry of tea plantations) are like night and day.

The electrician awoke. Thankfully it was only a bad dream.

Suffice to say we’re not spending more time in town than we have to and book our tour with the Tourism Council, which conveniently takes us to all the worthwhile sights – and every dam, there are a lot – in the area.

Kerala has been a great start to our India adventure, next up we’re preparing to explore the opposite end of the country: Rajasthan.

In the home of Tigers

Kumily, 9-10 September

A two hour ferry journey, followed by a four hour bus journey takes us from the backwaters of Alleppey to the elevation of the Cardamom Hills. We’re staying in a place called Kumily, which is a small gateway town between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also where the entrance to Periyar Tiger Reserve is.

After the heat and chaos of Alleppey, visiting the cool and quiet hill country is an absolute treat. The name of the Cardamom Hills comes from the cardamom spice that grows here alongside pepper, coffee and of course plenty of tea. Passing by some breathtaking scenery on the way here it’s no wonder this is a World Heritage Site.

Not only the climate is better, compared to our last stay the new hotel is a breath of fresh air too. The balcony has an actual view this time and there’s loads of cheeky bonnet macaques running about in the gardens. Add a hot shower in the mix and Alleppey is nothing but a distant memory anymore.

In September, all National Parks in India are closed for the season, except for Periyar. The protected area covers 925 square km and is home to as many as 40 tigers. Obviously we would love to see one, but given the fact we’re only trekking for one day, we’re still in the rainy season, and the park is humongous, this proves to be too much to ask for. The park is beautiful though and we manage to spot Malabar Giant Squirrels, Nilgiri Langurs, Sambar Deer and Indian Bisons, and a lot of Elephant droppings, but just no Elephants..

We finish off a day well-spent with a lake cruise inside the park, held up by a group of Germans (not so punctual on holiday are they?)

As night falls on the pleasant little town of Kumily we’re preparing for what will already be our final destination in Kerala. Tomorrow is the big celebration of the Onam festival and we’re travelling north to Munnar.

Lessons in patience

Alleppey, 7-8 September

So far our experience with India is that in order to enjoy it you first have to fight it. Our time in Alleppey is a perfect example of this. After our grand entrance on the ferry begins our battle with India’s Little Venice.

Prior to our arrival we had romanticized Alleppey quite a bit. It’s described as a backpacker’s paradise known for its beautiful backwaters as well as its nice beach. We’re staying at a place advertised as beach hotel with a private balcony with a view, but in reality it’s a homestay with a view of the seedy little back street it is on. Though nearby, the nice beach area is more dirty than nice, as well as completely deserted. All of the nearby restaurants are shut and when we finally settle for a cold beer instead of a good meal on our first night, it feels like a pretty big win.

The next morning, in spite of a healthy dose of fresh resolve on our part, Alleppey keeps throwing curveballs. It’s 10AM Saturday morning and all we aim to do is take out cash and eat breakfast – not asking for much here! In the light of day the beachfront is as depressing as the night before so we quickly head into town. Traffic-congested and polluted are words that do not begin to describe the scene we’re walking into when we get to Alleppey town. It’s like the wacky races: a free-for-all of tuktuks, motorbikes, scooters, buses, cars, lorries and worst of all offenders: police patrol vehicles, producing big, billowing clouds of black smoke to the beat of frantic beeping. I will never complain about how busy Edinburgh gets on a Saturday ever again..

In the scorching heat we navigate roads without sidewalks, avoid massive puddles created by rainfall overnight and try to not to die in the onslaught of out of control vehicles, while being hassled to death by touts. For over two hours we try to find an ATM that works. Just when we’re about to give up, Bank of Baruda saves the day! It’s been a stressful morning, but nothing burgers and cocktails can’t fix, we’re still fighting fit.

At this point we’re not sure if we want to stay but decide to power through the final day. We’re told this running joke: The only Indian train ever to arrive on time is one that got delayed 24 hours. Dealing with India definitely requires a fair bit of patience, and, to quote our yoga instructor: (being) in harmony with your surroundings (or simply going with the flow).

Back home when a car beeps violently at you it usually means you’re about to get hit by it, so, constantly, my initial thought is to jump out of the way (about a hundred times a day). I’m now beginning to notice that the beeping here is more like a language: you can beep to say hello for instance, beep because you’re happy, or beep just because you haven’t beeped in the last five seconds. With this in mind it sure gets a lot easier to just ignore it and go about your Sunday (in harmony with your surroundings). Now that we know where the cash is at, we return to the same ATM for another injection (our future selves will thank us), find a great coffee place, hang out in the shade by the water and get drunk with a girl from Poland and a guy from Delhi, who give us some excellent tips for our upcoming visit to the north of India.

So Alleppey, did we beat it, or did it beat us? All we know is, we came there, we encountered resistance, we took control, once again the British and Dutch colonised the shit out if it! Time to trade in the coastal heat for the cooler elevation of the Cardamom Hills when we are travelling to Kumily.

We’re on a boat! (ft. KSWTD)

Kollam to Alleppey, 6 September

Despite yesterday’s discouraging note we manage to leave Munroe Island train station without an issue. Our train is supposed to be here at 8:00, but when we get to the station at 7:50, the delayed 7:00 train is just ready for boarding. There we go. A measly 10 Rs gets us to Kollam where we hop on the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s (or KSWTD’s) public ferry to Alleppey. The total distance is about 85km, which will take roughly 7-8 hours through the amazing South Indian waterways. We’re in luck: the weather is bright and sunny and we’re about the only passengers on the boat! Private cruise anyone?

Soon we leave the mangroves that protect Kollam’s shores, pass under the bridge at Thevalli Palace and reach the open waters of Ashtamudi Lake. Suddenly loads of birds come flying up to us to catch fish in the motor’s slipstream. We’re on the top deck and get some great views of egrets flying alongside us.

We pass more of the Chinese fishing nets we’ve seen in Cochin and wave at fishermen speeding by in their small boats.

Before long we’re on the backwaters. Between the bright blue skies, the reflective brown-green water, all the palm trees and the colourful boats and houses, this place is something special.

In the afternoon we see herons, and lots and lots of eagles catching fish.

We stop off for Chai tea and a little slice of home: these bad boys that look and taste almost identical to Dutch oliebollen.

After an entertaining day on the water, finally we’re seeing the famous houseboats go past, which means we’re in Alleppey. Thank you KSWTD, we’ve had a blast!

A warm Munroe welcome

Munroe Island, 4-5 September

In the late morning we take a short train trip from Varkala to Kollam in the north. The train we’re on originates in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, and goes all the way to New Delhi, a whopping 52 hour journey. Glad we’re only one stop away.. It’s our first experience travelling in Sleeper Class, which for a short journey isn’t entirely unpleasant. Once at Kollam, a tuktuk brings us to today’s final destination: Munroe Island.

Munroe Island is a small inland island group located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River. It was named in honour of Scotsman John Munro, Resident Colonel of the former Princely State of Travancore and we’re here to visit the picturesque backwaters.

When we arrive at the homestay around mid-day, our lazy morning quickly turns into a rollercoaster ride of Munroe Island’s famed hospitality. We’re greeted by the owner (strangely looking exactly like the Indian version of our downstairs neighbour), who, after giving us just enough time to put our bags down, takes us along the road on the back of his motorbike to his brother’s retirement party!

We’re sat down at a large table in the garden with a group of about fifteen men who are extremely amused to see us, while the women, equally excited, wave at us from inside the house. In mere seconds someone puts a big banana leaf in front of us, another scoops up rice, the next one dishes out curry, then pickled mango, sambal, bananas, and so on. All the while everyone’s laughing, taking our picture and trying to talk to us at the same time in broken English – we smile and nod and pose, trying to eat with our hands like the others (our right hand that is, don’t want to gross anyone out!)

Back at the homestay we think we’re relaxing on the patio, but that’s not happening. First there’s a ton of paperwork to fill out for the Indian authorities (required at each hotel, although it’s always different), and in the meantime the owner has already drummed up a pal of his to take us onto the backwaters by boat. We quickly throw a water bottle and our phones into a wet bag and set off on the waterways!

This is what we came here for and we’re not disappointed: the backwaters are absolutely stunning. We’re the only boat out on the water and everything is totally quiet except for the pole going into the water, birds chirping and the boatman’s uncontrollable coughing fits – he’s old, but hardy.

In three hours on the water we see a lot of birds: eagles, kingfishers, herons, ducks, and loads of other birds we don’t recognize (our guide doesn’t speak English except for the word ‘down’ he yells at us whenever there’s a bridge ahead), plus a water snake, mangrove trees and lots of coconut trees, as well as the odd person washing their clothes in the murky water. We’re enjoying every second of it, it’s peaceful and beautiful out here, so much so that we decide to stay here for a second day.

We’re allowed to relax on the patio now and also go for a bike ride around the island. Tomorrow we will try to get a train back to Kollam (the note below we found stuck on a shut ticket counter today, but the 8AM train is hopefully still running) and then an 8-hour public ferry to our next stop: Alleppey.