Tracing the origins of the Silk Road

Xi’An, 11-14 October

An easy 3 hour train ride takes us from the Shanxi Province to the Shaanxi Province. We’re now roughly 1,100 km southwest of Beijing at our second major stop Xi’An, capital of Shaanxi, and a city world-renowned for the Terracotta Army.

At first glance Xi’An is not exactly winning any beauty contests. As expected of a city with a growing population of 8.7 million people, it has plenty of skyscrapers and ongoing building development. Most of the landscape passing us by on the train today was hidden from sight by a thick blanket of grey fog and Xi’An is much the same. While the air pollution may be why so many (usually older) Chinese love, and I mean really love, to hock a loogie (loudly clear their throats and spit out the contents), it does not however explain why they also burp and fart in public with impunity (men AND women), or smack their lips when they eat, or devour whole pieces of raw garlic, but let’s not digress.

Our hotel, So Young, is situated on the 12th floor of an apartment complex inside the old town square with views over the city. It has a rooftop bar with two resident cats, and our comfortable room even has a television with pretty terrible but funny shows airing on the state channel CCTV.

Our view from the room.
Some interesting wiring next to our hotel.

It’s still quite early in the afternoon once we’ve made some plans for the next few days, so it’s time to head out and get a bit more feel for Xi’An. Similar to our previous stops of Beijing and Pingyao, Xi’An is a city which has a long and rich history. Though under various different names it was the capital city of some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang, and is therefore named one of four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and, as mentioned, home of the Terracotta Warriors, made during the Qin dynasty.

With over 3,100 years of history in Xi’An we assume that here might be a good place to browse around a few antiques markets but are left wanting. In place of shops and stalls we find a building site for what no doubt will be another skyscraper or apartment building. Sad, but perhaps no surprise as in recent years Xi’An, as part of the economic revival of interior China, has re-emerged as an important center for research and development, national security and space exploration.

Change is made rapidly in Xi’An and that which used to be is easily forgotten, as even the locals seem confused to find there ever was an antiques market in the place we’re standing. Lauren uses an app, which translates written English to Chinese characters and spoken Chinese back to English, which has been very handy. While one guy is helping us, a bystander joins in and soon they’re arguing over where the market may have gone. After ten minutes we’re none the wiser, so we thank them both for their efforts and decide to give up on this one, but the two men, perfect strangers before they met today, walk away as friends, chatting happily to eachother! Not such a bad result for an afternoon.

On our way back we find the pub street with Old Henry’s Bar, where we’re hoping to watch the Rugby on Sunday, and we end our day with street food from the Muslim Quarter. This network of streets offers all kinds of delicious foods which are prepared on the spot and is popular with both tourists and locals. You can find anything here, from fresh juices to spicy tofu to whole crab kebabs. We try out the Rou Jia Mo, or meat-in-a-bun, which tastes an awful lot like stovies, before some candied apple on a stick and frozen rice candy. Though satisfied for today we’re sure to return here later to try a few other things.

We’re saving the Terracotta for after the weekend to avoid some of the crowd, so on Saturday we go out to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

As part of the Da Ci’en Temple of Great Kindness and Grace, this Buddhist pagoda was originally built during the Tang Dynasty for the study of Buddhist scriptures, then following an earthquake in 1556 it was renovated during the Ming dynasty. Today the temple complex is still in use by monks.

Interesting about the Pagoda’s architecture is that its 7 storeys are built with layers of bricks without cement, in bracket style.

The Pagoda is closely connected to China’s Silk Road, as in 652 AD, the temple’s first abbott Master Xuanzang brought the precious sutra and other relics from India along the Silk Road to China and translated the valuable Buddhist text here, to be kept safe inside the Pagoda.

Monks carrying treasure up to the Pagoda.
Temple wall depicting Silk Road.
Throwing coins into the big teapot for good luck.

In the afternoon we explore the town centre. In Chinese history from Ming Dynasty each city had a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower. In old times the bell was sounded at dusk and the drum at dawn.

Xi’An Drum Tower

The Da Ci’en temple has their own smaller version of these towers, which were used to give the monks instructions throughout the day, and we find out what they look like on the inside.

Big drum and walls covered in resonating plates. The sound is supposed to resemble a lion’s roar.

On Sunday we’re taking it easy with a nice leisurely stroll along the city wall. Known as the Fortifications of Xi’An, the wall encloses an area of about 14 square km and is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved city walls in China. Built in the 14th century as a military defense system, it still exhibits the complete features of the rampart architecture of feudal society.

Typical Xi’An day with low levels of visibility.

There are four gates in total of which the south gate is the largest and most decorated. Each gate has three gate towers, called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outermost gate is Zhalou, used to raise and lower the suspension bridge. Jianlou is the middle gate with small windows on its front and sides, and was used as defensive lookout. Zhenglou, the inner gate, is the main entrance to the city. The Jianlou and Zhenglou are connected by the wall. Soldiers were stationed in the area between these towers, called Wong Cheng.

Eastern Zhenglou with sloped horse passages leading up from Wong Cheng.
Eastern Jianlou.
View from one of the front windows at eastern Jianlou.

The vantage point of the city wall provides an interesting contrast between the old and the new city.

We finish our walk at the main gate on the south side of the wall.

Traditional neighbourhood viewed from the south wall.
Southern Zhenglou and Jianlou.
South gate entrance

The Terracotta Army

We’re saving the best for last with our visit to the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of clay statues from the late 3rd century BCE, which has captivated audiences all over. Here in Lintong County, just outside Xi’An, they were discovered by local farmers back in 1977, and have since been displayed throughout the entire world.

The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, and were buried alongside him to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is estimated that the three pits containing the Army hold more than 9,000 figures.

The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. They include warriors, chariots and horses. Other, non-military figures, such as acrobats and musicians, were also found.

The wooden chariots have all disintegrated.

Each figure is uniquely different and some even bear the artist’s signature.

Excavation work is still being carried out, even during our visit. Every complete figure has been painstakenly re-assembled usually from hundreds of broken pieces. Esspecially the faces require a lot of restoration, which is why a lot of figures are currently headless.

I can definitely recommend visiting Xi’An, we’ve had a great time here and the Terracotta Warriors have been a big highlight for us on our China trip! Tomorrow we’re taking the slow train eastward to Luoyang in the Henan province, another one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.


Greetings from the Imperial Capital

Beijing, 5-8 October

After visiting the Great Wall we continue to explore the lives and times of China’s emperors in the capital city. Located in the northeast of China, Beijing is the third most populated city in the world and one of the world’s leading centres for culture, politics, business and technology, but also one of the oldest cities in the world, with a rich history dating back three millennia. Welcome to Beijing, where the old meets with the new!

The first walled city in Beijing was called Jicheng, built in 1045 BC. After the First Emperor unified China, Jicheng became a prefectural capital for the region, but it wasn’t until much later that Jicheng (Beijing) would become the powerhouse it is today.

In 1213 the city was besieged by Genghis Khan and razed to the ground, to be rebuilt two generations later by Kublai Khan. Centered on the Drum Tower, the city now became more important than ever before.

Drum Tower and Bell Tower

Finally on 28 October 1420, Beijing was officially designated the primary capital of the Ming Dynasty after completion of the new imperial residence, the Forbidden City. By the end of the 15th century Beijing had taken it’s current shape. Once the Qing Dynasty had taken over in the 17th century only slight modifications to the city were made, and to the northwest of the city the Summer Palaces were established.

On the 1st October 1949, Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China from atop Tian’anmen, where in 1976 the cultural revolution was brought to an end. Today Beijing is a thriving metropolis we’re excited to get to know a little over the next few days.

Tu’Er Ye, or Old Man Rabbit, the unofficial Beijing mascotte

Day 1: Joining the Party

Retracing our steps back from the Great Wall to the city we meet an American guy on the subway who happens to work near our AirBnB and delivers us right to the door, where we’re greeted by the owner, a very sweet lady and her amicable brown poodle Cookie. Things are running smoothly so we have ample time to go out and explore a bit on our first day.

We’re hoping to dive right in and sample Beijing’s street food scene, but are faced with our first reality check. Recent urbanization has brought about the loss of historic neighbourhoods and Wanfujing Snack Street is sadly shut down, to be re-developed into a shopping mall.. After settling for fast food then, we set out to find a bar in one of the famous hutongs, narrow alleyways in the cities traditional housing style, only to be foiled again: the bar is permanently shut down. Not the best. It’s beginning to get dark too so we need a new plan. We sit down by the side of the road when a big crowd of people with national flags painted on their faces and holding red banners pass us by and we decide to go with the flow and find out what’s happening. Before we know it we’re in the middle of a queue steadily pushing for Tian’anmen Square.

Four days ago on the first of October China celebrated its 70 year anniversary of the People’s Republic, and because this week is a national holiday, folks are out in numbers to visit the birthplace of the Republic.

We see the Working People’s Cultural Palace and Altar of Earth & Harvests beautifully lit up in the midst of an excited crowd, before making our way back to Tian’anmen Square, where we realize an entire metro line is shut down for tonight’s occasion. A few hours later and with sore feet we arrive at a German bar for a much needed pint before heading back to the apartment.

Day 2: Lama Temple & craft beers

In the morning we visit the Yonghe Temple, or Lama Temple, a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism converted from a Ming residence for court eunuchs in 1722 during the Qing dynasty by the Yongzhen Emperor, who’s body was buried in the temple following his death. His successor gave the temple imperial status by replacing its turquoise tiles with yellow tiles, which were reserved for the emperor. The monastery became the national centre of Lama administration and residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks, which it still is today.

After the temple we go in search of a tea shop which presents us with another new reality. Beijing’s authentic tea shops are more and more becoming a thing of the past. In its place, craft beer is getting very popular however. Sure it’s only twelve but when a cafe appears out of nowhere we seize the opportunity. (When in Beijing and all..)

Given the time of day it’s no surprise we are the only customers when we walk into Beer Girl 77. It’s very much a hipster place and serves loads of different craft ales, lagers, stouts and ciders from their own micro brewery. The bar staff lets us taste a few and we end up staying for most of the afternoon. Between the beers, a translation app, their growing confidence speaking English and our trying but failing to learn Mandarin, plus some good will, we manage to connect on many levels with these nice guys and have a great time!

Day 3: Shopping & Temple of Heaven

Today I find a few of my preconceptions about China do not quite hold up. First of all, once again today it’s a beautiful, sunny, smog free day in Beijing while we’re headed out to do some shopping, and the roads are quiet. We’re looking for a French supermarket in another hutong, but can’t seem to find it. When we ask an older lady sitting on a plastic chair in front of her house for directions, within minutes no less than ten people are banded around us, all trying their best to help us out. Who ever said the Chinese are standoffish?

Yesterday we were told that a few years back a lot of businesses were moved from the city centre to the outer rings to create more breathing space for everyone. I suppose this explains why we haven’t been able to find certain shops and bars, and why there’s no real overcrowding and subsequent bad pollution, which may in turn shed some light on the fact that Beijingers are not exactly short, quite a few of them are taller than I am! That’s my prejudices out the window, consider me schooled.

After shopping for souvenirs, we find a shop that sells baguettes, and actual Gouda cheese and sliced ham! We have been fantasizing about this for a few weeks now, it’s the little things right? We relax for a bit by a lake in the city’s biggest green space, Chaoyang Park, where you can ride a giant rubber duck.

With a few more hours of daylight left in the day we decide to visit the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple complex which was constructed around the same time as the Forbidden City, between 1406 and 1420.

First built by the Yongle emperor, the complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven in the 16th century, and renovated in the 18th century. With the downfall of Qing, the temple was left in disrepair, but since 1918 has been open to the public. It’s symbolic layout and design have had a big influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.

In ancient China, the emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven. To be seen to be showing respect to the source of his authority, in the form of sacrifices to heaven, was extremely important. The Temple of Heaven was built for these ceremonies, mostly comprising prayers for good harvests.

Hall of Prayers
Harvest receptacles
Altar of animal sacrifices

Twice a year the Emperor and all his retinue would move from the Forbidden City to stay in the temple complex and perform a procession and ceremonies no ordinary Chinese was allowed to witness.

Mahjong players in the Long Corridor

At the end of a successful day we feast on noodles and dumplings at a proper family-run hole-in-the-wall type restaurant where our translation app once again proves its worth.

Day 4: Ending Beijing in style

We wake up to big plans for our final day in Beijing, as we still have the Forbidden City and Summer Palace to visit. The area we stay in is quite lively with a few convenience stores as well as a few nice bakeries by the metro station. The portuguese style egg custard pastries are delicious and make for a good breakfast today. Afterwards we start off with exploring the coveted Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (1420-1912). It served as the home of emperors and their households and was the political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. The emperors clearly liked their real estate as the complex consists of a whopping 980 buildings spread out over 72 hectares of ground, and today most of it is sprawling with tourists.

Ancient tree in the emperors garden

We spend our afternoon on the Summer Palace, a short journey out of town to the so-called Fragrant Hills. Between this and the Forbidden City we’re transitioning from Ming to Qing and from extremely busy to pleasantly quiet. Much like the emperor himself back in the day we escape the hustle and bustle of town and find a place to relax.

Having said that, I’m pretty sure we’re being shadowed by guys wearing earpieces throughout the afternoon.. I guess by the end of it they realized we’re really not that interesting. Much unlike the Summer Palace, where you could spend an entire day from start to finish and still not see it all!

The Palace was built around 1749 by the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday (nope, it’s definitely not the thought that counts), and is centered around the Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity (I’m sure she lived long to express her son a lot of gratitude). Best to let the pictures speak for itself here.

So we’ve stood on the emperor’s wall, we’ve trudged through his home, explored his most sacred temple and chilled out at his summer palace, what better way to end our Beijing trip than by eating the emperor’s own food: Peking Duck! We find this succulent Chinese meal at Li Qun Restaurant, a favourite among famous Chinese actors!

Beijing was a great experience and hopefully a sign of good things to come for the rest of our journey through China. Next we’re travelling to the Ancient City of Pingyao!

Goodness gracious, great wall of China!

Xishuiyu, 3-4 October

In the early morning on the 3rd of October our plane lands without a hitch, we’re in The People’s Republic of China!

It took about 24 hours to get here from New Delhi, but we’re feeling kind of fresh because it’s 7am and we managed to get a few hours sleep on the plane. China was always the country I worried about visiting the most just because of the language barrier, but we’re off to a great start. Immigration is cleared in seconds, we get a local SIM card, then an IC card for public transport and just like that we’re on the metro to Dongzhimen, Beijing.

When we applied for our Tourist Visa back in Edinburgh, it was mentioned that a government official may visit us at our hotel within 48 hours of arrival, however we are on our way to the middle of nowhere, also known as the little town of Xishuiyu. I’d be very surprised if anyone comes knocking!

First we take the bus from Dongzhimen to Huairou, then get a local bus all the way to the end of the line to reach our destination around noon. As expected, our English is useless here, but with a little help from technology we manage to find our hotel.

Xishuiyu consists of only two streets as well as a big car park the size of the town. We’re here to visit another of the 7 New Wonders of the World, China’s Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China is the collective of fortification systems built across the historical northern borders of China to protect its territories against nomadic groups from Central Asia, Mongolia and what is now Russia. Building dates back to as early as the 7th century BC, however the most well-known sections of the wall were constructed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The entire wall measures out to be 21,196 km and stretches from Liaodong in the east to Lop Lake in the west. Rightly it is recognized one of the most impressive architectural feats in history.

The part of the Great Wall we’re visiting is called Huanghuacheng, which is the only lakeside section of wall in the Beijing area. Huanghua means yellow flower and in the summer the village is covered in a sea of yellow. The local mountainous terrain strategically places it as the northern gateway to Beijing and nearby Ming Tombs.

When we make our way to the ticket office the weather has shifted from a sunny 30 degrees Celcius the day before to a rainy, miserable 14 degrees today. At least most of the tourist have stayed away so it’s not very crowded.

We get talking to one of the guards at the first viewpoint, who explains that most of the wall at Huanghuacheng has fully been restored, but you can still see parts of the crumbling, unrestored wall in the background. Friendly guy, and not a bad photographer to boot.

A lake was formed because of a nearby dam and water has found a way through the wall. Better hope the Mongolians don’t swim, am I right?

After an arduous morning of climbing steps we’re rewarded with amazing views from the watchtowers.

Finally we reach the top and overlook the land we hope to explore and conquer in the next 40 days. Here we come China!

Stopover in Singapore

Singapore, 2 October

Today is one of the biggest travel days for us as we’re flying from New Delhi to Beijing to kick off our China adventure! Since we’re travelling on a budget, we end up booking our flight with an 8 hour layover at Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is near south Malaysia, so a pretty big detour.

Changi Airport has to be a serious contender for the title of ‘best airport in history’. It recently opened the world’s biggest indoor waterfall, or rain vortex, made from collected rainwater, which has a daily light show!

The airport offers free daily sightseeing tours of Singapore for travellers stuck in transit (sadly fully booked by the time we arrived), but there’s plenty other facilities on offer, such as a free movie, showers, beds, and loads of lounges, restaurants, bars and shops. It even has a butterfly garden!

We leave Delhi at 9AM local time and arrive in Singapore at 5PM local. The time zone here is GMT+8, same as in China. Since our flight to Beijing is not until 1AM, we decide to visit the famous rain vortex and enjoy our first soup dumplings. Look it up if you’ve never had them, they’re amazing! As Sri Lanka and India have no real supermarkets of mention, simply being in one at Changi Airport feels great. It’s always fun to check out some weird items sold abroad, such as melon flavoured crisps and chocolate covered gummi bears, which are actually pretty tasty!

Time flies at Changi Airport and in the blink of an eye we’re on our way to China!

India: The verdict

New Delhi, 1 October

Time spent: one month. Distance travelled (land): 1775 km. Distance travelled (air): 2500 km. Places visited: 13.

So the time has come to look back and reflect on our month spent in India. As is our custom, let’s start with the price of a pint.

This explains a lot..

The beer we drank in India is called Kingfisher. It comes in either a 500ml can, a big, or a small bottle, and offers a choice of lager at 4.8% and ‘strong’ at ‘less than 8%’. The most we’ve paid is 350 rupees (£4) for a can of lager, the least 170 rupees (£2) for a big bottle of strong. Is it something we would ever drink back home? Probably not, but on a warm day an ice cold Kingfisher goes down a treat nonetheless.

Then for the final scores as awarded by our lovely judge Lauren:

The people score 7/10. Even though we’ve met some amazing and wonderful people, it’s hard not to also remember India for the annoying selfies, the aggressive tuktuk drivers, and the scam artists at temples. Pushkar is infamous for its so-called Pushkar Passport. Someone puts a bracelet on you or shoves a flower in your hand and then orders you to make an outrageous donation to the temple i.e. their own pockets. We are waiting in a queue at an ATM when we spot some guys handing out these ‘passports’. One of them approaches us. As usual he starts off by asking where we’re from, but Lauren, wise to the scheme, sighs and just says: “What do you want?” You can tell the guy is taken aback a bit and he mutters: “flower for you madam.” To which Lauren replies: “Absolutely not.” And that’s the end of that. Legend.

The food scores 9/10. Even though we finally did end up with Delhi-belly, the Indian food is pretty amazing. There’s a ton of choice and the cooking is not too spicy and very flavourful. Coming from two diehard carnivores, we both actually fell in love with the vegetarian food options. Best dish: Paneer Masala and everything we ate in Bundi. Worst dish: The dodgy goat that made us sick.

The travelling scores 7/10. Though travelling through Kerala was as convenient as Sri Lanka, busses and trains in Rajasthan are not exactly comfortable. Even when reserving the expensive AC seats, the travel isn’t relaxing because Indians love putting their phones on loudspeaker. Love it. Seriously I don’t think anyone up north has heard of headphones. On one train journey I remember a guy entering our carriage a few times around 6am just to make a loud phone call.. We used an app for tuktuk rides which is necessary in Rajasthan if you don’t want to be overcharged, but on the other hand the taxi hire for long distances was great and we managed to some great deals for that.

Best animal: This would have to be the black-faced langur, hands down. Though known to push napping, elderly people off of ledges on occasion, this langur is not generally dangerous and extremely cute with its wee humanlike face, plus some of them are trained to protect people from the more aggressive red-faced macaques, pretty awesome right?

Though I can’t see us return anytime soon to the places we’ve visited this time around, India has been an amazing experience and one that pushed our boundaries a bit too, which is not a bad thing. A trip to the far north and north east of India might someday be on the cards for us and at any rate we would love to come back one day to see tigers in the wild.

Overall, India passes the mark and receives Lauren’s certificate of excellence! Good times!

Reunion in the City of Lakes

Udaipur, 22-24 September

We’re taking the night train from Bundi to Udaipur, second of the three painted cities in Rajasthan on our itinerary and known as the White City. Famous for its palaces and lakes, Udaipur is considered to be the most romantic city in India. Welcome to the Jewel of Mewar!

Our first experience on a night train is pretty good. The train is already 24 hours in motion by the time we’re getting on it, and since it’s 2AM all the other passengers are fast asleep, so we quietly find our bunks in the dark and get a few hours sleep ourselves.

Although unaware of it at the time, by chance we’re dropped off at our hotel by the owner’s brother, who also very kindly arranges our next transportation out of Udaipur. We’re staying at Mewari Villa, a stunning hotel overlooking one of Udaipur’s seven lakes, where we’re booked in to one of the budget rooms. Though our room may not have windows, the rooftop terrace offers great lake views and the hotel is very comfortable.

We meet the owner who tells us we’ve met his brother, and it turns out the owner of our previous guest house in Bundi is an acquaintance of his as well, such a small world! Later that day he invites us to a cultural performance taking place on the hotel rooftop, but in the evening an unrelenting monsoon rain starts and continues throughout the night. We don’t mind at all, but the owner, feeling bad for having had to cancel the event, gives us a free room upgrade instead. Ya dancer, we got a room with a view!

Time then for a bit of sightseeing, and the City Palace seems like an excellent place to start.

Located on Lake Pichola, the palace was built over a period of nearly 400 years, with contributions from several rulers of the Mewar dynasty. Unlike Bundi Palace, its interior with its balconies, towers and cupolas exhibits immaculately preserved, delicate mirrors, marble, murals, paintings and coloured glass, as well as sharply dressed guards.

After the palace we bump into a guy we met in Jaipur, and minutes later a couple we met in Bundi! We spend the rest of the afternoon and evening drinking beers and swapping travel stories on the roof of a hostel.

Waking up late with a slight hangover means we’re taking it easy the next day, which is easily done in Udaipur. Most of our afternoon is spent relaxing in the shade by Lake Pichola looking at the boats go by and eagles circling for prey against a backdrop of the water palaces of Taj Lake Palace and Jagmandir.

What we’ve learned so far on our travels is that India is always full of surprises. With the sun gone down and the lights come on, as we’ve said our goodbyes to Rajasthan’s Venice, an elephant suddenly appears around a street corner. Just a normal night in Udaipur! We thoroughly enjoyed our time here.

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!

From the beaches to the rainforest

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, 7-8 August

The bus from Galle takes us to the tiny town of Deniyaya in roughly 4 hours. The roads seem to consist of only hairpin bends with mostly blind corners (with the occasional stray dog casually napping in the middle of the road) and takes us higher and higher into rapidly changing scenery to the rain forests eco region of Sinharaja AKA Lion’s Kingdom (no lions here though sadly).

Once off the bus I make the decision to walk to the Rainforest Lodge with gear strapped to our backs and fronts, since the air here is a bit cooler, but soon grow to regret it. The sign may say we’re only 1km away but we’re walking for what feels like an eternity. Soon the sounds of local kids greeting us fade away to be replaced by just birds chirping and Lauren cursing me under her breath. But it’s all worth it when we finally get there!

We are the only guests here and in fact appear to be the only travellers in this part of the country. The owner gives us directions to a nearby Buddhist jungle temple built inside a rock, and so we’re off exploring again, minus 25 kilos of luggage though.

Next morning we wake up early and excited for a day of trekking through the reserve. We meet up with our guide Suminda at the gates, are also joined by a local dog which we name Scout and who decides to tag along, and together our merry band sets off into the wild.

Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s last area of tropical rainforest. It’s home to a treasure trove of endemic species of trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. And did I mention it also has a shit ton of leeches, which, unlike the mosquitos which bite only Lauren, are attracted only to me.

On our trek we spot amongst others Sri Lanka’s national animal the giant squirrell (bigger than a house cat, though tiny looking next to the giant leaves), the country’s most dangerous snake the pit viper, an endangered purple-faced leaf monkey and a gray langur, besides a whole lot of waterfalls.

We’re home, kinda

Galle, 5-6 August

Yesterday we arrived in Galle, the largest fortress in Asia built by European occupiers, fortified by the Dutch in the 18th century. We’re staying in the old town, in a place appropriately called Old Dutch House. Its shaded courtyard garden is the perfect hideaway from the midday heat and a place where squirrels gather at the dedicated squirrel shrine – can’t run a serious hotel in Sri Lanka without having one of these!

Between being shown pictures of his grandson, we’re given the entire history of Galle by the old jeweller next door. All paid for by the Dutch taxpayer -the man can’t stress enough- his family home survived a tsunami thanks to the town’s fortifications (crazy Dutch just can’t help but build dykes!). We also learn a thing or two, (or possibly everything there is to know) about the local irrigation system.. Tax money well spent I should say as Galle is a picture perfect little town!


Esspecially for the fam back home, here’s a picture of the local Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, and now it’s officially a holiday!