Visit to Turtle City

Pingyao, 9-10 October

Our first stop after Beijing is one of China’s four best preserved old cities, the Ancient City of Pinyao, famed for its Ming and Qing urban planning and architecture, temples, and a grand City Wall.

Located roughly 600 km southwest of the capital in the central Shanxi Province, Pingyao was first recorded around 800 BC and considered an important financial centre of the Qing Empire in the late 19th century, controlling most of China’s silver trade. In 1997, together with the nearby temples of Shuanglin and Zhenguo, it was inscribed a world cultural heritage.

Pingyao is called Turtle City because of its city wall. Along the wall are six gates, four of which are symmetrically placed on the east and west sides to resemble the turtle’s legs. The Southern and Northern Gate are its head and tail respectively, while the crisscrossing lanes of the city form the patterns on the turtle’s shell.

It’s cold and dreary when we step off the train at Pingyaogucheng train station, but a bus is stood waiting to take us to our hotel without delay. Though Pingyao is a quiet city of only 50.000 people there’s four lanes leading to and away from town. There’s no such thing as small in China. In 30 minutes we arrive at Jiaxin Guesthouse, which is full of character and settle in quickly.

The next morning we set out to visit a few sights. The driver of bus 108 is a total badass playing loud drum ‘n’ bass and smoking cigarettes from behind the wheel. Without much trouble we make it to Shuanglin Temple, a large Buddhist temple founded in the 6th century and notable for its collection of over 2,000 decorated clay statues from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. We’re about the only people here and have a great time checking out all the incredibly detailed and lifelike sculptures. This would have to be one of my favourite stops so far.

After the polished, restored ancient buildings in Beijing it is welcome to see a temple both well-preserved and well-worn over time, rather than done up. And one that isn’t overrun with other tourists either!

After such a great morning it shouldn’t be a surprise that the other sights in the Ancient Town are a little underwhelming. Pingyao is pretty touristic and there’s more shops than actual sights. In fact, every building that’s in a good nick is either a shop or restaurant, and everything that’s not a shop or restaurant is a total wreck. It makes for a nice afternoon stroll nonetheless before we head back to the hotel to plan our next trip to Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Army.

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.

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.

Nestled atop a cliff

Varkala, 1-3 September

It’s September now and we’re officially in our second month of travelling. In every new place it takes a bit of time finding our feet and today we have to figure out our first train journey in Kerala. Unlike Sri Lanka, trains in India are best booked in advance we’re told, at least if you want a decent seat, and after a few attempts we successfully reserve tickets through an app. We get comfortable seats in an airconditioned carriage for our 5 hour journey, God bless technology!

Snacks on the train are as cheerful as they are cheap: we’re having succulent, deepfried and battered jalapenos and bananas. Lauren gets a thumbs up from the other passengers for gobbling down her very hot jalapeno snack like a hungry seagull. So far the food in Kerala has been an absolute treat.

Varkala is a touristy seaside town and we’re staying in a cheap hotel on its red sandstone cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea. In recent years Varkala has attracted more and more visitors, but right now we’re in the low season so it’s pretty quiet. It also means the hotel pool is not operational, but we’ll survive somehow.

A bit templed-out, we’re giving most of the local sights a miss this time, taking it easy instead. We go for breakfast and dinner on the cliff, have a beer at the hotel, get hissed at by a trespassing monkey and watch eagles catch fish.

This time of year the sea is too choppy for watersports and nearby Papanasum beach is a holy site which means sunbathing isn’t allowed either way. The sea water here is believed to wash all of a person’s sins away, and at the beachside temple today we witness a very naughty teenager’s baptism, a ritual sadly also involving dumping a plastic bag full of flowers, or sins, into the sea..

Tomorrow we move on to Munroe Island for a short stay, but Varkala gets top marks since *drum roll* we found a restaurant which does a pretty good mac ‘n cheese, made with actual cheddar! All is well in Kerala.

We’re in India!

Cochin, 30-31 August

The end of our visit to Sri Lanka couldn’t come at a better time: The only semi-decent restaurant near our hotel in Negombo is permanently shut. Faced with the prospect of another lentil curry from a dirty shack, and already dealing with some serious mac ‘n cheese withdrawal symptoms, it is here that one of us finally cracks up. Not even Pizza Hut can save us this time, we’re dining on crisps, chocolate and cream cheese on crackers. Goodbye Sri Lanka, India here we come!

Our flight to Cochin in the south of India takes less than an hour. You’re supposed to either love or hate India, and we’re off to a bad start because our travel cards don’t work. A credit card finally allows us to take out a small amount, enough to get us away from the airport at any rate.

We’re staying in the Fort area of Cochin, a pretty cool harbour town in the state of Kerala. Fort Cochin is a bit rough but also has a hipster vibe to it, not unlike Leith back home, rain included. September marks the end of the South West Monsoon, which manifests itself in short spells of torrential rain and it’s humid like a greenhouse.

Once we’re settled in we manage to stretch our funds enough to get in a few beers and a Tibetan meal with new friends from the hotel.

In the mornings we have our very first yoga lessons on the rooftop of our hotel. Sanoj, our instructor, is the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. Whether it’s the stretches or the breathing exercises (or just his positive reinforcement), we feel fresh and ready to fight the good fight. “Now you are in harmony with your surroundings.”

We sure are, we even find an ATM that works, so it’s time for a bit of sightseeing. Not unlike a few places in Sri Lanka, Fort Cochin is known for its Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial architecture, and its Chinese style bamboo fishing nets at the beach.

The public ferry takes us to nearby Vypeen Island for the cost of only three rupees (about 4 pence). On nearby Bolgatty Island we visit the Dutch Palace, the former home of the commander of the Dutch East India Company, which has been turned into a fancy island resort and golf course. We come rocking up in our flip flops and sweat-stained clothes (mostly me) and are a little surprised security lets us through the gates just like that -white privilege, anyone?

Once inside, we stumble onto a filmset doing a piece on the upcoming Onam festival in Kerala with a famous Bollywood actress and actor, or so we’re told after we accidentally stroll right into the shot! At least the bartender gets a good laugh out of it when we tell him he may see us on the news tonight!

Late afternoon we walk to the nearest harbour to get a ferry back to Fort Cochin. There’s plenty of boats alright, but none of them are ferries. We ask around and end up on a boat we’re told is taking us to the Fort. Once the tickets are bought, the boat takes off, the party music turns on, then a guide comes up to the deck and suddenly it appears we signed up for a party/sightseeing cruise, which evidently will not be going to Fort Cochin. No panic though as India isn’t very regimented and the Indian people are very helpful: The crew go out of their way to drop us off safe and sound where we need to be at the end of the cruise. Lauren even has the pleasure of having our guide, a big guy with an even bigger gut, hold up his belly and give her a private dance show, while I’m away taking pictures in the front of the boat. Don’t get that on the ferry, do you? Lucky gal!

Next stop: Varkala

Sri Lanka: The verdict

Negombo, 29 August

Time spent: 29 days. Places visited: 14. Distance covered on land: approx. 1300km.

We’ve arrived at our final hotel in Sri Lanka, conveniently close to the airport to catch our flight to India at 9.00 AM tomorrow, and thought it would be nice to summarize our first month away for you.

As we’re from Scotland where else to start than with the price of a pint! We’ve had two different Sri Lankan beers: Lion and Three Coins. They’re both lagers from the same brewery and are priced the same. Three Coins is the better tasting one, but most places only have Lion aka the “best beer in Sri Lanka”. A bottle (625ml) is sold for as little as 80p in shops, and between £1.40-2.80 in restaurants. Then there’s Lion Strong, 8.8% ABV, which gets you drunk pretty quick (can’t remember the price, just the hangover). So much for the important stuff.

Now here’s the final scores as awarded by Lauren.

The people score 8/10. Very friendly and helpful, but a couple creeps let the team down here, preventing a perfect score. On the other hand, we’ve never been greeted as much by strangers on the streets as we have here. Very nice people.

The food scores 7/10. It’s been fragrant and not too spicy (except for the breakfast pastries which are little tiny balls of fire), but not very diverse. It’s curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Personal favourites are curried potatoes, savoury onions doughnuts and the pumpkin curry. Plus we’ve had kottu, which is actually amazing and cheese roti. After a few mediocre curries you can really do with a change.

The transport scores 9/10. The buses get top marks, they’ve been frequent, quick, and never dull. The trains are the dissonant here: slow, late and crowded.

In short, Sri Lanka earns itself the official Lauren’s certificate of excellence. Well deserved, Sri Lanka!

Safari in Wilpattu

Wilpattu National Park, 27-28 August

The bus from Anuradhapura drops us off at Wilpattu Junction in under an hour. Today’s bus is decorated with pictures of Christ, which means we have a complete set: We rode on Buddhist, Hinduist, Islamic and Christian themed buses!

We’re in a homestay with an amazing garden, and the owner is the nicest we’ve met so far. He’s fully arranged our safari for the next day, including breakfast at 5.30 AM and packed lunches to bring along with us. We end up staying up a bit too late that night and wake up excited but knackered the next morning.

Wilpattu is the largest and oldest wildlife park in Sri Lanka, and world-renowned for its Leopard population. Because of its dense vegetation however it’s not very easy to spot the animals, and therefore the park is not crowded with tourists either.

Compared with our visit to Kenya, today is total luxury: Instead of being crammed into an old Nissan van with 5 other people, it’s just the two of us in a comfortable Jeep! Over the next 8 hours we see water buffalo, deer, mugger crocodiles, mongoose, monitor lizards, a huge amount of birds such as painted storks, serpent eagles, a spoonbill and the Sri Lankan junglefowl.

The big highlights of the park however are its elephants, sloth bears and most importantly its leopards. Visitor access is limited to only 25% of the park, as the remainder is dense forest, so unfortunately we don’t see elephants, but in the end we manage to track down a leopard. Our personal favourite however is a close encounter with the endangered sloth bear we find walking on the road to a pond, giving its fuzzy big heed a good wash, then crossing beneath the road by our vehicle.

So this concludes our sightseeing in Sri Lanka! Tomorrow we’ll be travelling back to the airport in Negombo, where we’ll spend one final night before boarding a plane to Cochin in Kerala, India the day after. Watch this space for more updates on our adventures!

Into the Sacred Heart of Buddhism

Anuradhapura, 25-26 August

It’s just over 100km on the bus from Trincomalee to Anuradhapura, and it marks the start of our journey back to Negombo international airport on the west coast, where we’ll be catching our flight to India at the end of the month.

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura, a world heritage site, is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization. It is considered sacred to Buddhists and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The ancient city covers an area of about 40 square km, so we plan to visit some of its major sites by bicycle the next day. For now all we need to do is procure food after skipping breakfast earlier in the day.

We’re staying a bit away from the town, and not wanting to push my luck any further with Lauren today since I have already made us climb over a barbwire fence en route to the hotel, we’re looking for a restaurant on the nearby main road. The first one we find sports a promising sign that reads “beer garden and Chinese restaurant”. It’s eerily quiet when we sit down on plastic chairs in the middle of a gravel stone clearing, barren but for a gigantic, disused water feature in the corner, which tells us this must be the beer garden (of the type where dreams go to die). A man appears from the nearby building, clearly shocked to see visitors. After some hesitation he serves one kind of beer, Carlsberg. When we ask about food, he simply replies: Food?? You want rice? Or noodles? We’re too stumped to respond right away, and he comes back with a menu, which contains about 800 options, but only two are available, you got it, rice and noodles. We’re happy to accept a Carlsberg, but the whole place is a bit too odd to hazard a meal here. Naturally, the next restaurant along is even worse, it’s the filthiest looking all-you-can-eat buffet on the planet. At this point I’m hungry enough to start filling up a plate with curry and flies, but for Lauren to talk some sense into me, bless her heart. Being the brains of the operation, she instead finds a Pizza Hut that delivers not bad pizzas.

The next morning we set out by bike in good spirit. The steering wheel comes with a phone slot for hands free navigation and I have done my homework presetting the sights we’ll want to visit. We grab a quick lunch from a bakery and off we pedal to the ancient town.

Dome-shaped structures called Stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism and pop up everywhere on the island, and the ones in the Sacred City are the most impressive.

Jetavanaramaya was the tallest Stupa in the ancient world standing at 400ft, and was built during the 3rd century. It is believed that part of Buddha’s belt is enshrined here.

Ruwanwelisaya is said to contain the largest of Buddha relics anywhere in the world (shame you can’t go inside, no matter how much Lauren searches for a secret door). This one was built around 140 B.C. The kings architects designed the dome to resemble a bubble of milk (though looking at a stupa’s general shape perhaps the female form may have been of some inspiration too?)

Finally we trace back the Buddha’s Tooth relic to its original custodian, the Abhayagiri Stupa, which does beg the question how the tooth was extracted from the enclosed dome to end up in Kandy. Again, no secret doors found.

Other major sights we visit include the Bodhi tree, grown from a sapling of the very tree beneath which Buddha found enlightenment in India and the oldest planted tree in the world. Its grandeur is measured more by the size of the crowd than the tree itself.

The massive Elephant Pond was used as a bath for the 5,000 priests of the Abhayagiri Monastery. Water is supplied by a tank through underground canals which to this day are still in working order. The Twin Ponds are a smaller, but more intricately designed version of ancient Sinhalese pool.

The ancient town covers a huge area and new excavations are still in progress. Perhaps the best part of our visit is where we go out and explore the ruins of lesser buildings, overgrown by plants and a favourite hangout spot for stray dogs and different kinds of monkeys.

We’ve had a great time in Anuradhapura, we’ve not fell of our bikes once (maybe once), and our visit to Sri Lanka is beginning to draw to a close. There’s just one final stop at Wilpattu National Park where we hope to see Leopards and Sloth Bears on safari!