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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Our first stop in Rajasthan, Jaipur, is the capital and largest city of India’s royal state. Together with Delhi and Agra it forms the western part of the Golden Triangle tourist circuit and it is the first of the three painted cities we’re visiting in India. Jaipur is named after its founder Maharaja Jai Sing II, ruler of the kingdom of Amer, and was designed to be and established as the royal capital in 1727. After seven weeks of backpacking we can do with a bit of royal treatment ourselves, so it’s the airconditioned reserved seats on the express train getting us from Agra to the Pink City by nightfall.
Usually when booking a hotel we follow a simple rule set: get the cheapest private room, with a private bathroom, along with a decent rating and in a central location. In Sri Lanka and India, with prices for this type of stay ranging from £5 to £15 a night, you just know there’s almost always something wrong with it. Mostly it’s just minor flaws such as a couple loose wires, missing towels, no hot water, etc, but other times, for example in Agra, you find out your hotel doesn’t change the sheets between stays and charges extra for using toilet paper, but they’re also out of toilet paper.. At any rate, it’s very unusual to come across a budget hotel where everything is spot on, it’s just a roll of the dice.
The hotel we have booked in Jaipur is called Rawla Mrignayana Palace. We arrive there late, already a bit weary because we just came off a crazy taxi ride across town with driver Rahul, who is a bit of a character: clearly coked off his face and talking to himself out loud, Rahul was in no fit state to find the hotel without our help. But we made it, the lobby looks nice and we’re just eager to get the paperwork done so we can grab a bite to eat.
With all the forms completed we expect to be shown our room, only to find the receptionist has now disappeared from his desk. Suddenly music starts playing and the same guy, resurfacing on the balustrade, waves at us to follow him upstairs. Halfway up Lauren gets a good fright when out of nowhere we’re being showered in flower petals. The balustrade leads us into a candlelit courtyard where we’re greeted by a full complement of staff and given bindis and flower garlands, not bad for a budget stay!
After the welcome ceremony we’re swiftly guided along, deeper into the hotel. The courtyard leads to another walkway, which opens up into another courtyard. Stairs take us up to a big balcony with a stone fountain and this where we finally find our room. We have to pinch ourselves, did we end up in the wrong place perhaps? It’s completely surreal, this hotel is actually kind of magical. Our room is huge, luxurious and simply stunning, fit for a king and queen. We can’t believe our luck, looks like we booked ourselves an actual palace!
Waking up the next morning we learn it’s not too far from the truth either. Rawla Mrignayani is part of an 18th century Haveli, commissioned by Rai Kripa Ram, former prime minister of the then state of Jaipur. At some point the Haveli was gifted to the nobles of Karnot and it’s their descendants who still own Rawla Mrignayani today. Apart from the hotel, the immense property also houses a school and the owner’s residences. After three nights we’re still discovering new parts to it and the rooftop terrace has wonderful views of the city.
The Pink City
During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh I, in 1876, Jaipur was painted in its trademark pink colour to welcome Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, hence its town centre is nicknamed the Pink City.
Amer Fort and surrounding area
On our first day we visit the Amer Fort and Palace, 11km from Jaipur, which was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and built in the same style of Mughal architecture we’ve seen in Agra.
Afterwards our tuk-tuk driver brings us to the nearby Step Well, built to collect rainwater as well as being a Langur family’s favourite hangout, and Jal Mahal, the Water Palace in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, to conclude a successful day of sightseeing.
The next morning we stay in the city and visit Nahargarh Fort, built in the hills overlooking Jaipur. Its original walls extended over the surrounding hills all the way to the Jaigarh Fort in Amer where we visited yesterday.
Having seen all the forts, we dedicate the afternoon to figuring out our next mode of transportation. We’re getting off the beaten path which is the touristic Golden Triangle to make a side step to Bundi, a tiny village down south. Although we know there’s supposed to be an AC bus going to Bundi, it proves impossible to find it, so this morning we’ll be collected by a private driver instead. We’ve done Jaipur in style and it was great!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.