Tag Archive: Buses


Tips for travelling in India

For a full tıps lıst, also read our tıps on Nepal.

1. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet wıll tell you, you can, especıally ıf you are two or more people travellıng together, budget for well under ten pounds a day. We were averagıng between 6-8. For thıs we would get a double room often wıth a bathroom as well as three meals a day and sıght-seeıng.

2. Bookıng ahead for hostels can be dıffıcult as people for some reason wıll tell you there are no rooms when there are several avaılable. Persıstence ıs the only solutıon – ın one place we turned up, they saıd ‘No rooms’, we lıed and saıd we had a bookıng and lo and behold there were loads of rooms spare.

3. Always agree a prıce before gettıng ınto a rıckshaw, or gettıng any food.

4. You wıll be reassured that thıngs are ‘okay’ or ‘no problem’ a lot, but sometımes ıt ısn’t okay and there ıs a problem, and ıt’s faır to kıck up a fuss or at least ask some more people – otherwıse the chaır you’ve been gıven to waıt ın for someone may turn out to be ın the wrong room or even the wrong buıldıng, and you’ll sıt there forever.

5. When ıt comes to traıns, though, you’re gonna have to waıt. For a long tıme. Unless you fancy takıng a rısk, don’t book more than two traıns for one day. Traıns relıably run late (less than an hour and the announcement wıll be that ‘the ınconvenıence ıs regretted’, more than an hour and ıt ıs ‘deeply regretted’…) and so make sure you have several hours between connectıons. When we were ın Bhopal a traın was cancelled because ıt was a whole 24 hours late…

6. Traıns are more comfortable than buses, but much more hassle to organıse. You can just turn up and get on a bus, whereas wıth traıns you have to endure the tortuously complıcated bookıng process. Once you,re on the traın though, there ıs food and drınk easıly avaılable and toılets are not long-hoped-for stops.

7. As our frıend told us soon after we arrıved ın Indıa, eıther you have to accept that Indıa ıs lıkely to be the most frustratıng place you’ve ever been to ın your lıfe and let ıt go over your head, droppıng the frustratıon, or you wıll spend your whole tıme tearıng your haır out.

8. As another of our frıends poınted out, there ıs a ‘fluıd’ concept of tıme. Fıve mınutes does not mean fıve mınutes, ‘soon’ may not mean soon ın the slıghtest, and ‘tomorrow’ may well become ‘next week’. We made thıs observatıon ın Nepal, but ın Indıa ıt ıs far worse.

9. If you ıntend to do stuff ın Indıa, be prepared for ıt to take about ten tımes longer than you mıght otherwıse expect. If you sımply want to bum on the beach and do yoga, you shouldn’t encounter thıs sort of problem!

10. Always ask at least three people when tryıng to fınd dırectıons – go wıth the majorıty rule.

11. ‘Eve-teasıng’ ıs the name gıven to the harrassment of women – there are women-only coaches on traıns to attempt to avoıd thıs. Every traveller we met had met someone who had been affected by sexual harrassment of some sort. Basıcally, don’t take any shıt. It’s not acceptable, and Indıans who aren’t perverts (everyone mınus a tıny mınorıty) don’t fınd ıt acceptable eıther. If you’re not comfortable wıth a sıtuatıon, don’t accept ıt because you’re ın a ‘dıfferent culture’ and ‘people are more tactıle here’ or anythıng lıke that.

12. Sayıng thıs, you won’t avoıd beıng stared at, especıally on the beach. People takıng photos of you ın your bıkını, however, ıs not normal. One gırl reported a man for vıdeoıng her cleavage and he spent a nıght ın a cell.

13. A few places ın whıch you don’t need to spend more than a day to see everythıng – Kanyakumarı, Trıchy. Mamallapuram ıs VERY tourısty, as we already mentıoned, and ıts food suffers as a result. Bhopal ısn’t a nıce place, go there for the Sambhavna Clınıc and to fınd out about theır amazıng work.

14. A few places and thıngs that, ıf you’re ın the area, you should go to/do – ın Kerala, defınıtely do a canoe backwaters tour, don’t just stıck to the bıg boat waterways. In Ooty, pay the money to do a tour of the tea plantatıons, they’re really beautıful – the mountaın areas between Kerala and Tamıl Nadu are lovely, partıcualrly to get out of the heat. There are lovely beaches ın Karnataka whıch are lıke Goa before ıt got lıke Goa ıs now.

15. Carry toılet paper ıf you ıntend to use the toılet.

16. When orderıng from a menu, always have a second and thırd choıce. Often you wıll fınd that whatever you have chosen ısn’t avaılable and neıther are half of the other thıngs on the menu…

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After finishing our 4 day holiday, we thought we would throw ourselves right back into the mix, i.e. incredibly stressful, sleep deprived, exposures to the true horrors of India, etc…

Things started as they would go on – frustratingly and difficult. Due to our limited mathematical skills, we had wrongly worked out when we would arrive in Bhubaneswar (BBS) – which would form our jumping base for the next week. As a result, we turned up there 2 days early cutting short our holiday completely unnecessarily. We had been in touch with our contact in BBS and told him that we had made a mistake and would it be ok to come a few days early. He reassured us it would be fine, but when we arrived it turned out that he wasn’t going to be there for two more days. Oops. Minus one Basic Communication Point…

No matter. He told us that we could go to the office and do some research. After the hassle of trying to get to Puri, we also thought we would book our train tickets earlier this time. We found a train for the 5th (the only train that wasn’t Wait –Listed [1]). This was a few days before we had wanted to leave, so we phoned our contact to check if he thought we would be able to get everything done in this shorter time. “No problem,” he told us. “Go ahead and book it.” 2 days later, he asked us if we were going to still be in BBS on the 5th as there was a very big meeting taking place which we should attend..! Minus 3 Basic Communication Points.

After booking the train, we headed for the office to do some much needed research. Unsurprisingly, when we arrived no-one knew what information we were after, and we didn’t have specific requests as we’d been assured there was loads of stuff we would be given. But with some help we found more than we could digest and got stuck in. The scale of the agricultural crisis in India is phenomenal, but this will be discussed in further blogs…

After meeting our contact on the 30th, we had our itinerary for the next week. Stop 1: an interview with a toothless man who has been involved with fight against ‘modern’ (non-sustainable market driven – chemical pesticide and fertiliser heavy) farming techniques and the struggle for the promotion of traditional (sustainable, organic, farmer led) methods. He also is in charge of a seed sharing project – they have collected 350 varieties of indigenous rice (a tiny proportion of the original amount). Apart from the fact that he did not directly answer any of our actual questions, he was amazing. He talked virtually non-stop for an hour, covering a variety of topics from the birth place of rice, climate change, dams, multi-national corporations and alternative agriculture.

Stop 2: North Orissa and a farming community promoting sustainable farming. We had to wake up at 5.45am to get here so we hoped it would be worth it. We were told there would be someone to meet us at the train station; they would know who we were because we would be the only white people. A ricksaw didn’t seem possible, so all 3 of us climbed onto our guide’s motor-bike (a common sight in India) and made our way to the meeting hall. “Don’t worry,” our contact had said when we asked how exactly we are supposed to interview 45 people all at once, “we wouldn’t put you in a difficult situation.” Luckily, as it turns out, it not that difficult to interview 45 people all at once (minus one Basic Communication Point)…

We got ushered into a meeting, being greeted with lovely flowers, and were told to sit at the head of a growing group of people. We sat and we sat and we sat and nothing was said – people seemed content just to stare at us – and then we were beckoned to leave and were given a bunch of food, then invited back to the meeting. We spent the next 2 hours doing a QandA with the group. We were then treated to local organic lunch on plates made of leaves. Embarrassingly, I was unable to finish mine. It seems that desperate “no” signals when offered a second enormous portion of rice, only drives them to give you more!

After lunch, we interviewed 3 farmers back-to-back. Concepts of a break don’t seem to exist. On top of this the interviews took 3 times as long as most interviews I’ve conducted as we did not share a common language. The farmers discussed how they had either always used traditional methods because it was what their forefathers had done, or how they had tried to use intensive methods but had found they didn’t work – they did not have the funds for the fertilisers, the pesticides, the seeds themselves and the irrigation, plus they didn’t really like the taste of hybrid crops.When we had bought the train tickets to this destination, our contact had told us to book returns (in India you can’t get returns so you get two singles) so we did. We were therefore confused when we headed to a town an hour and a half away to sleep… We ended up getting ‘top-up’ train tickets. Minus 2 Basic Communication Points.

The following day was always going to be grim, but it started much earlier than we had expected. “Josh, I think that’s the fire alarm!” Lucie squawked at 5.05am. “Don’t be silly, they don’t have firm alarms in India,” I replied. But she had a point. There was the constant ringing of a bell, which was accompanied by terrible and very loud music. Still believing this had to be something other than absolute stupidity, Lucie got up to see what was happening. It turned out there was a man in a yellow robe ringing a bell in the lobby of the hotel – which was opposite a temple blaring out tunes from its loudspeakers straight into the hotel. The music went on till 6.30am!

In the morning, I asked what the music was about. “For the temple,” responded the hotel manager. “Does this happen every morning?” “Oh, yes,” he said smilingly, utterly oblivious to the fact that some people who pay to stay in his hotel might not find this an endearing feature.

We had planned the day before to meet up with the secretary of the farmers’ community group and discuss stuff at 9am. At 9.30am he still hadn’t turned up. We called him and were told someone would come and pick us up “immediately”. At 10.30am someone turned up with a note saying that the secretary was sorry he couldn’t meet us, but something urgent had come up and he had had to go, but someone would come and pick us up at 11am and take us to their office, where we could do some research. Grrrr….We went to the office, but no one had a clue what we wanted. “What documents do you want?” “We don’t know, we were told there was stuff we could look at, we thought the secretary would be here, he was going to chat to us…” I think the people we met through-out those few days thought we were a bit stupid because we would turn up at a resource centre and not know what we wanted. The problem was, we were told (every time by someone who wasn’t there when we arrived) that the people at the centre would know what we wanted and we should just ask. FRUSTRATING.

After getting some documents, we caught the train back to BBS. We had a night bus to catch at 9.30pm. Our contact had told us “it might not be like UK night buses, but you get a good night’s sleep. I catch it all the time. You can wake up in the morning and get on with work”. I admire him for being able to do this. “Sleep” is not the correct word to describe what I had to go through that night. Cold, uncomfortable and stressed, we “woke” at 4.30am and stumbled of the bus. Yes, the bus arrived at 4.30am. A hotel had been booked for us, which a rickshaw driver took us to. You can check in in a few hours, we were told. “What!? Fine we’ll sleep on your sofa.” The hotel manager both took pity on us and achieved some amount of rationality and so let us move into our room a couple of hours early.

The next day (6 hours later, though Lucie had to wake up at 9am to ask the interviewees if they could come at midday instead of nine thirty…) was by far the hardest. Of course, no-one was there to meet us at midday. At 1.30pm a farmers’ trade union leader finally appeared in our hotel. It seemed he didn’t want to be seen with us (understandable as people on the front line of challenging the state and multinationals regularly end up face down in ditches or just banged up in prison under false charges) so we went to our hotel room. 5 hours later we were able to leave this room. In the meantime several people had entered it and expunged the entirety of their thoughts on the agricultural crisis in India upon us. We emerged shaken and exhausted having had to refuse a late comer: “No, I’m sorry, but no, no more interviews!”

Our work was done, but our endurance had to be stretched a little further the following day when a train which was meant to take 6 hours ending up taking (including waiting for it) 9. Pretty standard, but a long day… Luckily, there’s nothing I like more than reading in a train station and occasionally getting shat on by pigeons…

We are now officially going on holiday again (Tamil Nadu and Kerala), but will fill you in in much more detail on everything we have learnt in the past week.

One final point, while our contact’s communication skills were somewhat lacking, it should be said that this was made up for by all his hospitality, political insights, passion and commitment to this cause.

[1] The train system in India is, when you first arrive, excruciatingly complicated and confusing – the train stations moreso. Once you know it, it’s just irrational and frustrating (the stations remain totally confusing whatever you do, it seems). Tickets are available, wait-listed (meaning you can hope that the tickets the big travel agents have bought will be sold back to the train service), or RAC (dependent on someone’s cancellation). Available is obviously the best option. You can also opt for TATKAL, an emergency (not really an emergency) option 48 hours before departure, or FTQ (foreign tourist quota) if you’re lucky enough to be in a “metropolitan” capital (not Bhopal!) from which they can book them. This complicated system is saturated in bureaucracy, and you will probably have to fill in at least 2 forms just to get to the ticket counter! On top of all this, you can no longer book tickets online if you don’t have an Indian debit card…

Our holiday

After four months of travelling, including over three weeks in Bhopal, we needed a holiday. While everything so far has been an experience, we felt more physically and mentally tired than before we left. Sometime you just need the experience of not really doing anything. And in a relaxing way, rather than in a on-a-train-for-30-hours way. With this in mind, we did what all good holidaymakers do and headed for the beach. It wasn’t a beautiful beach, it wasn’t even a particularly relaxing beach, but it was a beach nonetheless. Puri is one of The holiday destinations for middle-class Indians, particularly from Kolkatta, plus middle-aged Westerners. That sounds perfect, right?

As usual, the train took longer than expected, and after a gruelling thirty hours, making friends with a liberal-minded Indian whose eyes didn’t fall out of his head when he found out we are a couple but not married, eating lots of channa masala (which is not chickpeas in sauce, but chickpeas in salad and lime) and Lucie getting her breast grabbed through the train window by a sad-act sleazebag, we arrived.

Our hotel – Z hotel, check it out – was exceptional. It was the old home of the person who ran the town (I can’t remember what that’s called) and had the obvious grandness implied. Our room basically had a four-poster bed, and  there was also a TV room (with selection of movies for the evening), a veranda, and an awesome view from the roof, overlooking the sea. Tourist heaven.

Puri itself has little to offer, but a combination of sand, sea and fish was good enough for a 4 day holiday. If you’re ever in the area, go to Raju’s for freshly caught from the Bay of Bengal kingfish and mackerel. Unfortunately, the fishing business seems to be totally trashing the turtle population: every day we would walk across the beach and find numerous dead turtles washed up, with crows pecking at their eyes and dogs chomping their entrails. If you can put this out of mind, the fish tastes damn good…

One possible outing from Puri is to Chilika Lake. Here you can see some famous dolphins playing in the shallow lake, spurting water from their mouths and generally larking about. This makes it sound quite exciting, but to be honest the experience is quite fleeting, and you may find yourself spending more time desperately trying to take a photo rather than actually enjoying the moment. On an important note, TAKE THE TOURIST BUS. Seriously. We made the poor decision, laughing at the foolish tourists who pay so much more than we did so, of choosing to go by local bus. A 48km journey took four hours on the way home. This works out at about 7.5 miles PER HOUR. You could cycle faster than that… The road isn’t even particularly windy or hilly. I actually have no idea how it took so long.  Lucie said that in Midnight’s Children there’s a bus where the bus driver suddenly decides to go to Pakistan and gets off the bus, leaving it full of passengers, who spend two hours clinging to their “hard-earned places” before they realise he’s not coming back. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. The people standing up on that bus probably took the delay as totally standard!

Having had a few days off, we headed off to Bhubaneswar to begin our careers as investigative journalists… We’ll tell you all about the horrors of GM and the heroes fighting it soon enough. In the meantime, check out www.stopgm.org.uk.

The bus driver to Tansen (and sorry if any kids are reading this) was a complete dickhead. He initially tried to charge us too much, but that is quite standard practice. We then stopped and I jumped out to ask if there was time to pee.

“No.”

I ignored this and found a loo, which several other men had also found at the same time(!), returning rapidly to a bus which sat stationary for over 10minutes. Lucie was in a bit of a situation as she also needed to pee, but thought she did not have time. As the minutes ticked away frustration grew…

At the next available opportunity, Lucie jumped out, asking the bus driver if there was time to use a toilet. He nodded, so she dashed off. During her pee time (not long), the driver got bored and started to leave. It was only due to my pee companions and myself, that we managed to stop the bus from leaving Lucie with her pants around her ankles!

Then there was lunch.

“20 minutes” we were told when we asked how long this break would be. Enough time to get lunch. However, as soon as our chow mein arrived in front of us the bus started to move. We stuffed our noodles into plastic bags and then waited another couple of minutes for the bus to actually leave.

The icing on the cake was that we had paid to be dropped in Tansen, not the town at the bottom of the enormous hill that Tansen is at the top of. Bastard! Someone could have at least told us this before we started off up the road, oblivious to the huge climb ahead of us.

Once we had huffed and puffed our way up tiny windy paths, we finally reached the actual Tansen bus stop. Tansen is the steepest town I have ever seen (probably even steeper than Durham). At the very top is Shreenagar Hill where there are more great views. Other than that, its almost the lack of anything to do which makes it so pleasant. This is very real Nepali town, with lots of interesting Newari architecture – the windows are covered in ornately carved wood. Being a real town, there are no touts trying to sell you anything, but also no places to eat anything but Daal Bhat, apart from one bakery/restaurant.

After 3 nights in Tansen, we woke up at stupid o-clock and caught a bus to Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha in 563BC. On what is now the site of the Mayadevi temple, his mother (Maya Devi) bathed and suddenly went into labour – it’s been proven that he was definitely born here. Maya Devi is supposed to only have had time to grasp the branch of nearby tree before the Buddha was born in a stance reminiscent of the John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (only more wise).  Since then, it has been decided that Buddhist temples from countries all over the world should be built in the “Lumbini Development Zone”. There are the more obvious ones such as a Japanese temple and a Chinese temple, but then there is also a German temple and French temple…

Lucie commented that Lumbini reminded her of going to visit Legoland as a kid. Many of the rides were not yet open as the site was still under construction, and whilst there were a few exciting things, what she remembers most clearly is the jacket potato she had for lunch. Lumbini may not have been quite the same, but it’s the holiest building site I’ve ever seen. It’s fulfilling the “Master Plan” of a Japanese designer from the 1970s – gradually, as donations come in, more bridges are built, more water features created. Some temples are spectacular – the Chinese temple looks like they borrowed it from the Forbidden City, and the German (!) temple could have come straight out of Tibet (if Tibet had more money). However, the majority of the temples are still in their bare concrete form, which is quite interesting in itself.

It was one of these concrete temples that housed us: to rival the Chinese temple, Korea (presumably South) is building its own spectacle across the road. At the moment, it is entirely grey – yet to be painted or tiled, the concrete is quite brutal! Regardless of this, we thought that given we weren’t going to be celebrating Christmas, we should do something “religion connected” for the occasion. So we woke up on the morning of the 25th to the sound of the breakfast gong in a Korean Buddhist temple, which rings far too early in my opinion.

The rest of our Christmas day would be taken up by traveling into India. On the way to the border,  in a massively over-crowded jeep, Lucie had the pleasure of having a man sit on her lap, while I was repeatedly offered drugs – not exactly what you want to be carrying when crossing a border..!

So at 2pm on Christmas Day, we entered India. Onwards to Varanasi!

As my mum left Kathmandu, our friend Sean arrived in Kathmandu, though not quite when he intended. He flew with Air India – a very bad idea – and after waiting 3 hours on the plane in Heathrow was told the plane was not going anywhere that night as there had been “technical difficulties” (a problem he also experienced when trying to leave Kathmandu – lesson don’t fly with Air India). So the next day he returned to Heathrow and we met him the same day at Kathmandu airport. While we thought that Sean would pack light, it seemed odd that he had arrived without any bag at all. In turned out that Air India had believed that half an hour was long enough to transfer all the passengers and their bags from one flight to another when they changed in Delhi. However, they had been wrong and so while the passengers had boarded the plane, the bags had not. So the following day, Sean had to go back to the airport to retrieve his bag.

With him and his bag now in Nepal we began to enjoy ourselves – well, as much as possible in Kathmandu. We got into a lengthy chat with some camping shop worker. He told us how when a stupid rich westerner came in and asked if they had any better quality items, they would go into the back of the shop, get exactly the same as what was at the front of the shop in a different colour, and then charge 4 times as much. He wondered how such rich people had become so rich. An age old question. We then chatted about the difference between relative and absolute wealth, while Sean explained how beautiful the mountains are, a subject upon which he had a tendency to wax lyrical when he was in Nepal.

Unfortunately, bad things tend to come in threes and within 48 hours of arriving, Sean had come down with food poisoning which we believe was gained in a Korean restaurant – I would not like to say whether it was from the North or South…

As good friends should do, after giving Sean lots of water and biscuits, we left him to throw-up and headed for Bandipur.

However, getting there proved harder than expected. Given the load of bags we had, we decided to catch a taxi to the bus station.

“Bus station for Bandipur” we told the taxi driver

So after travelling for a couple of minutes our taxi drivers suggests he could take us to Bhaktapur for a friends price.

“Bandipur, not Bhaktapur” we reply.

So we continue for a another few minutes and then the driver again suggests he can take us to Bhaktapur. A problem seems to be developing. So the taxi driver drops us at what he hope is the bus station for Bandipur, but of course, its not, though buses to Bhaktapur do go from here. Luckily, we meet an incredibly helpful local who takes us via foot and bus to the correct bus station and doesn’t even ask for any money (though we still give him some).

We negotiate a price for the bus to Bandipur (no bus prices are fixed) and set off. However, half way through the journey the ticket inspector asks us for 3 times what we agreed to pay. Another unwanted hassle, but to their surprise we don’t budge.

So eventually we arrive in Bandipur and everything looks a lot brighter for us (if not for Sean). Bandipur is a one road Newari village set in the hills between Kathmandu and Pokhara. While the village caters for tourists, it is by no means a tourist town. The guest-house we stay at is a old Newari building that was built by the grandfather of the woman who now runs it. She insists on calling us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and tells us to call her mother ‘mother’. When I needed to get the key she instructs me to go downstairs and say “Mother, give me the key”. Amazing!

The view from our window is incredible. As far as the eye can see there are rolling hills, while on the other side of the house there are the mountains – quite different from Kathmandu where we could see a building site, although to be fair there were mountains behind that.

One of the highlights of our time in Bandipur was watching the sunset from the hill just above the town. The sunset was so lovely in fact that we ran straight down the hill (after running up it in fear we would miss the sunset) and emailed Sean informing him that he must come here and watch the sunset the following day, which he did.

Now being with Sean, and Adrian (a Dutchman Sean had met on the top of a jeep), we all headed into the jungle below Bandipur to seek out the caves. In my usual fashion, when we arrived at the caves, I argued with everyone that we didn’t need the guide that was waiting at the entrance. But after making 3 mistakes within 30 seconds of entering the cave I changed my mind. Lucky I did to as these caves were massive and unsurprisingly, very dark. Sean, Adrian and I had never been in proper caves before, so the entire experience was new and fascinating. There were enormous chambers (which we climbed to via a rickety ladder), glistening ceilings, pure white rock formations and bats. I don’t think we would have found our way out very easily or with all our ankles un-sprained without our guide!

We left the caves with an appetite and continued down the hill to the village below for veg chow mein. Not wanting to walk back up the hill to Bandipur we tried to hitch a ride and within a couple of minutes found ourselves on the back of a tractor which was carrying massive chunks of rock for a building site. This wasn’t the most comfortable of rides, but was pretty spectacular. We also got laughed at quite a lot my local people as we slowly drove past.

Having had a brief break from city life, we left the over-whelming beauty of Bandipur and headed off to Pokhara, with Adrian becoming the latest victim to food poisoning.

The most dramatic change in landscape occurred in the change from the
Tibetan plains, where dust storms roam the land, to the lush greenness
of the valley below as we reached the border with Nepal.

We attempted to convince the jeep drivers in the border town to give
us a reasonable price for a lift to Kathmandu, but they stuck to their
5000Rs demand (about 50 quid). Given that the bus was only three
pounds, we went with that option. We befriended a Chinese woman and
her American husband, and we bantered our way through much of the
journey.

When we were sitting on the bus, waiting for it to fill up and leave,
some teenagers got on and asked to see our ticket (one between four of
us). We cautiously handed it over, wondering what sort of scam this
was.
‘How much you pay for this?’
‘Uh, 320 rupees.’ Is this some attempt to get us to pay again?
‘Too much. Local price 295. You get money back.’
Rather surprised, the couple we had just met were guided back to the
ticket office where the Nepali teenager argued with the ticket man
until he gave us a refund! How often does that happen?

The first time on a Nepali local bus is certainly an experience –
crammed between people’s sides, backs and crotches, hoping
desperately that your bag isn’t being surreptitiously unloaded at
every stop, as the bus jolts and judders its way alongside sheer
drops… It didn’t help that once again Lonely Planet let us down on
the timings, so we were expecting a 3-4 hour journey and we arrived 6
hours later, dehydrated, hungry and I had pretty bad stomach pains.
The unpleasantness of arriving was increased by our having turned up
in the dark in a madly busy bus park, and Josh was throwing up in a
drain out of dehydration and tiredness.

A confusing phone call with a man whose English was not very good with
my Nepali being nonexistent (fine when you’re face to face but
difficult over the phone!) later, we were met by Tej who guided our
taxi with his motorbike to Aishworya children’s home. We were met by
Ama, the woman who set up the home, who is a big, welcoming but
formidable character. She initially took in two children that she
found as orphas, having taken them to an orphanage but been appalled
at the standards there. They lived in her house, but she realised she
wanted to expand. So she gave up her job as a driving instructor, sold
off her inherited land, bought a big house and started taking in
children. I think there are about 30-40 kids there at the moment,
between the ages of 3 and 16. Pramila, Ama’s daughter, is usually also
at the home, but she was off on a mission at the border of Tibet,
trying to return children from factories back to their families.

The children were amazing – it was difficult at first to really know
how we could be of assistance as they are so self-sufficient. The big
kids look after the little kids (the smallest of whome are called the
banana bunch – they all sleep on one mattress like a bunch of
bananas). It’s quite something to see a nine year old carry two
rucksacks to school so that a five year old doesn’t have to (that’s an
obvious time when you can do something)! One girl and her big brother
were in charge of the kitchen – she would get up at 6 in the morning
to cook daal bhat. That’s the standard food for Nepali people, it is
eaten twice a day. It involves rice, lentil daal, spinach, and then
often curries and pickle. Jack gave us our Nepali names – Josh is Ram,
hero of the Ramayana, and I am Sita, reincarnation of Laxmi, wife of
Ram (I’ve always wanted to be identified as a appendage to someone
else…).

Ama told us that discipline is most important with children, and the
children certainly respected her and did many useful things in the
home. But it made me appreciate how important play is for kids,
however old they are. There were several times when we came downstairs
to find the younger kids all sitting quietly not doing anything other
than occasionally shushing one another, and the older ones seemed to
believe that they had grown out of games completely. More of them got
involved the more we played though! It took a while and some
convincing for us to be able to just be silly and play the hokey
cokey, musical statues and bumps, and ninjas. The longer we played,
the more they taught us games too. Coming to the home, we were
slightly uncertain as to how we could really be of use – we wouldn’t
be there long enough to really get to know everyone and properly help
out, and on the flip side we wouldn’t be comfortable with staying too
long as we’re not sure it’s really good for kids to form real
emotional bonds with people who then disappear from their lives never
to return… Providing an opportunity for the children to just have
fun for a bit was, I think, a good thing.

Another time when we felt like we were really helping out was when we
moved house, which was the most chaotic experience we have had for the
whole of our trip so far. Random stuff simply got moved from one house
to the front yard of the new house, where piles and piles of things
built up and up. Inside, several people were performing the ritual for
new houses, involving building a fire, reading lots of script and
making offerings (I think to Parvati, Hindu goddess of the household).
That day we had a special festival meal with pounded rice and
marzipan-like balls of sweet stuff. Eventually all the beds got moved
in, so we were as finshed as we needed to be – any remaining stuff got
put in the garage.

We only stayed at Aishworya for one week, which was a big shame. We
had hoped that being at the home could give us a sense of purpose and
something to do that wasn’t indulgent site-seeing for maybe three
weeks or more. But in the end it came down to money – we have been
trying to budget in relation to each country as I personally only had
four grand at the start of the trip to get me through nine to twelve
months. In relation to staying and eating elsewhere in Kathmandu,
staying at Aishworya was prohibitively expensive, particularly as we
had to find extra meals elsewhere to supplement the rice and thin daal
the kids have to live off. It absolutely makes sense that a poor
children’s home cannot afford to have much variety in food, or even
much food at all that isn’t rice, but we wanted to not lose loads of
weight (I don’t have much spare!) and we wanted to save money, and we
were paying to eat there. Maybe it sounds really stingy for us not to
recognise that relatively we have loads more money and maybe we could
afford a bit more, but it put us in a weird position, and that wasn’t
enjoyable. Ultimately Josh and I staying for one week paid a
considerable proportion of the month’s rent. So I guess that’s another
good thing that came out of our staying.

When Merilyn, Josh’s mum arrived, we moved out of the home to hang out
with her and go on various amazing trips.

Our experience of China was…mixed. That is not to say there weren’t positives, but there were certainly negatives as well.

While there was no fresh tap water, there was hot water everywhere. As this water had been boiled it meant that you could get free drinking water almost everywhere, including train and bus stations, hotels and shops. In England there are many places where drinking water is not available, but is an alternative usually provided? Also, hot water is much more useful than cold – although we’d thought we would never look at another pot noodle again, they’re pretty handy train food.

Due probably to the fact the people piss everywhere, there are free public toilets everywhere. You can’t go more than 200m without finding one (at least in the big towns – in the small ones there are simply walls that people seem to go behind). The condition of them is another matter, but at least they are there. However, this doesn’t stop children from pissing and shitting everywhere including train stations. Parents put their children on their knees and away they go…

Once you are outside of Beijing the landscape is generally incredible. “From another planet” as Lucie described it in Quiko. There is a lovely combination of mountains, rivers and greenery. It was a bit odd to get used to the fact that Xining sits against a backdrop of stunning mountains (this happened more and more as we entered Tibet). However, the locals don’t seem to appreciate what they have as far too much of it is being used as a landfill – the beautiful hillsides are often scarred by streams of rubbish.

While Beijing would certainly fall into one of the cons in our experience (although many of the people we met thought it was great), the underground there is amazing. Its reliable, fast and cheap. Plus, since the Olympics were held in China’s capital they re-vamped the entire thing. The stops are announced in English, and there is even a light to signify which side of the train you should get off at! ‘Where’s the fun in this?’ Asked a Dutch guy we met at our hostel. After the bonkers Metro in Moscow (this was incredible for different reasons, as we’ve mentioned), this was amazing. On the flip side, everyone else seems to have also realised this and therefore it is always busy, but nonetheless a positive.

Unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the positives and the rest of this blog, will be devoted to the negatives.

Spitting is incredibly prevalent. Everyone spits, everywhere. In the major cities its not that surprising given the amount of pollution, but this does not detract from how disgusting this habit is.

In Xining we were reassured that not only do you have to have a licence, but you have to pass a test to get it in order to drive in China. Before that, we hadn’t been so sure. Lanes don’t seem to mean anything and neither do red lights. Honking seems obligatory.  As we have written previously, pedestrians have no rights.

The generally shared mentality that, as a Londonite who has lived in China for the past eight years put it, ‘if you get there first you win’, makes a lot of everyday experiences more stressful. This covers the driving (and the tendency for people to simply overtake on roads if someone slows down in front of them, which led to complete gridlock one day when four lanes of traffic were all facing in the same direction – the police had to come and encourage the cars onto the right hand side of the road…), the queuing (which does happen as a standard practice, but it is just as standard to find that someone slips in front of you just as you reach your destination) and the dash for the trains at every station (the queue starts half an hour before the gates open, and then people literally run for their seats. The only reason we could fathom as to why this could be rational is to get there when there is still space in luggage racks). Occasionally people were exceedingly friendly – a man went totally out of his way to help us onto our bus, writing things on a clip board as he understood written English better than spoken, and on the sleeper bus to Xi’an the man in front of us kept offering his food, insisting we partake in cakes, gum and bananas, but these were the exceptions to the rule.

Staring and lack of non-verbal communication have already been discussed and certainly form a negative.

The negative consequences of smoking don’t seem to have reached Chinese lands yet – at least not for men. No women smoke, and all the men smoke. Again, they do this everywhere. Buses, trains, restaurants… Makes you become all nostalgic for those days in the past when we went into pubs when the smoking ban had begun!

Neither of us are keen to go back to China in the forseeable future, but we’re both glad we’ve been. We’ve even gained a T-shirt with pandas doing martial arts. Awesome.

From Beijing to Xi’an

Pingyao

Our introduction to Pingyao was a little tuk-tuk which picked us up from the train station. Cramming our bags into the front, we were whisked off into the morning air. Almost immediately, our driver was in the middle of the road, honking his little horn. He then proceeded to go the wrong way around the roundabout as we clung to each other behind him. Perhaps this will be like Beijing after all..?

Once we arrived within the old city walls, which are pristinely preserved, we realised that this would be nothing like the hecticness of Beijing. There are even ‘pedestrianised’ (vehicles with two wheels still allowed) areas! It’s a bit of an odd town, although I guess it makes sense from a capitalist perspective – since it’s beautifully preserved, the Old Town comes with a full onslaught of tourist tat and tourist-priced restaurants to match. The biggest downside was that in order to see any ‘historically significant’ buildings you have to buy a twelve quid pass to all of them, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we spent our time wandering the streets, meeting other travellers and making our best investment yet – a flask (with filter to catch the tea leaves). Most of the people we’ve seen seem to carry a flask, since hot water is available almost anywhere – bus and train stations, on buses and trains, in restaurants and tea shops… At first, this seems an obvious way to deal with the fact that there is no safe drinking water here, but in public places in England there are often signs saying that you shouldn’t drink the tap water, but is clean water offered in its place for free? Not normally. So that makes it even better.

From Pingyao we took three buses to Qikou, a tiny little rural town. Here we had properly epic staring experiences… It’s quite standard to get gawped at in the street, but this was next level. When Josh and I sat down to eat some (stupid-Westerner-priced) noodles, a two-deep semicircle of observers gathered around our table. Literally. ‘What do they expect, for us to shove it up our arses or something?!’ demanded Josh, who is becoming ever more intolerant of starers. They gradually lost interest, but then when we stood up again, this was apparently worthy of another gawping session…

A much more pleasant experience of the same ilk was on the bus. The old, toothless man sitting next to us was staring in an amiably curious way, and asked lots of questions (in the local dialect). He compared each of Josh’s layers of clothing to his own, being particularly impressed at the silk thermal trousers, pulled questioningly at Josh’s wristbands asking why he had not thrown them away, and then realised how hairy Josh’s arms are.

‘Bolo! Bolo, bolo!’ he exclaimed. I guess that means ‘fur’. He compared his own hairless arms to Josh’s and laughed. Then he pointed at Josh’s legs.

‘Yep, they’re even hairier,’ Josh said as he lifted his trousers. The man found this completely hilarious. He pointed from his own chest to his feet.

‘?’

‘No, not my entire body! Well, not yet, anyway…’

Lijiashan

From Qikou we headed to Lijiashan, which is pretty incredible. The landscape looks like something from an 80s sci-fi movie, as the hills have been carved into layers to make them more easily cultivable. They’re a bit like a large-scale Gardener’s World wedding cake or something. Beautiful.

We stayed in a traditional cave dwelling, although we’re not sure what the place that we stayed at is called, as we asked our taxi driver to take us to a particular place but instead he just dropped us off at the place to which he was already driving! Either way, it was a fiver for lodging and three meals a day, staying in a room which is carved into the hillside. The only tourists who make their way out there are students from art schools who come out to paint the landscape, so on the first night we were joined by about 20 kids from Inner Mongolia. The next morning they all left, so we had the place to ourselves to wander the sloping paths, pick apples, find dates that had been dropped from the huge harvest baskets, and to stare at the enormous crates of chillies drying in the sun.

Xi’an

Getting from Qikou to Xi’an turned out to be a bit more unpleasant than we had expected. The Lonely Planet guide had told us that it would take 8 hours on the bus. 8 hours after getting on it, we looked out of the window from our beds (on the bus! never had that before…) to see a sign saying that Xi’an was 422km more. 8 hours after that, we arrived. I was so dehydrated that I was wiped out for an entire day, unable to stomach anything more solid than shots of water, sugar and salt…

People only really come to Xi’an, it seems, to see the Terracotta Army. But after weighing up our budget against the mad entry price (the people who run the ticket booths also know that people only come to Xi’an for this), we decided against doing that, instead opting to hang out in the Muslim quarter a lot, surrounded by bustle, kebabs and so much tofu! This was one of the first times we’ve been in a hostel with a big common area, so we finally managed to meet a whole bunch of people, which has definitely been good for my mind. On the Trans-Siberian we met a couple and the woman talked almost constantly. I wasn’t sure whether maybe that’s because she just generally talks all the time, or if it was because she hadn’t really had anyone but her partner to chat to for weeks. Now, given my own babbling behaviour, I am much more inclined to believe it was the latter! Having said that, thanks to everyone for your comments on here, apologies that we don’t manage to reply personally to everyone’s…

‘Friend’s Price’

Josh previously wrote about the incredible gap between starting prices and finishing prices when haggling, but today really took the biscuit. Wandering amongst cashmere scarves, ‘Oba Mao’ T-Shirts (with pictures of Obama wearing traditional Chinese Communist Party garb – the best one in my opinion says ‘I Voted For Obama and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt’) and rip-off North Face rucksacks, we asked how much some cushion covers were.

‘These good quality. Silk. Good design. Good colour,’ said the woman, typing 680 into her calculator. That’s 68 quid!

Josh couldn’t help but let out a guffaw – ‘What are they made out of, solid gold and unicorn hair?’ – and the price quickly dropped, but we thought we’d share what ‘friend’s price’ can really mean. We finally haggled some others down to Y30 – about 1/23, or around 4% (I hope I’ve got my maths right on this one)  of the original suggestion. I don’t think that’s us being mean, either! ‘

One third of the asking price’ definitely doesn’t always work…