Neha in Gujarat

Gujarati culture is renownednot only in India but around the world, as a colourful celebration of  pretty much everything. Festivals such as Navratri (the dance festival), Makar Sankranthi (harvest festival), Holi (festival of colour) and many, many more are relished here with such zeal and energy that the experience will captivate your memory for years.

Situated over 196,204 square kilometres on the north western coast of India, the state of Gujarat is home to some 62.7 million residents, a number of iconic places from India’s history and indeed a part of its future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Minister of Gujarat for many years and stood at the helm of its transformation. The independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar, a coastal town to the north of the state. The Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha (translation: non-violent protest) was a revolt against an impossibly high tax rate at a time of crippling famine and the famous Salt Satyagraha (salt marches) took place in Dharasana (I still can’t forget the horrifying images from the film depiction).

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I was fortunate to hear first hand from a freedom fighter, seventeen at the time, talk of the unrelenting cruelty and suffering imposed on the nation. It horrified and amazed me that these were not stories but once a reality. Yet the local hero refused to be called a hero. “Five fingers make a fist”  he would repeat. He saw nothing spectacular in his protests and stints in prison, of the torture and beatings he had to endure simply for voicing his opinion. He spoke of his efforts as casually as a grandfather would telling stories to his grandchildren. There was no malice, no hatred and no anger.

The scar of the British rule that I was expecting to see no longer exists; rather it has seemingly nurtured a unifying respect for Bapu, as he is locally known. In every town we visited there was some form of homage to the father of India; numerous statues, schools, government buildings and parks were named after him. He is absolutely never forgotten and it’s testament to the respect and adoration that the nation will always have for him.

2015-02-18 18.11.41What struck me most, visiting after fifteen years, was the transformation that the state had made, specifically Ahmedabad (Amdavad if you’re a local) on a road trip from Surat in the south to Rajkot in the middle. I wouldn’t recommend driving a hire car yourself in India, especially for long journeys like the ones we did. The roads can be tough to navigate and drivers abide by an entirely different set rules from the west (if at all!). It’s quite common to hire a driver with a car for the long road trips. We were transported on fantastically wellmade and maintained highways, comparable to those in the west.  Passing us by were countless brownfield sites being rejuvenated by the recent surge in industry and, the image that will never leave my memory, lush green expanses of rice paddies, wheat fields, vibrant red tobacco plants and sharp pink flowers stretching into the horizon. Colours I have never seen more vividly in my life. I was entranced. Gujarat is a state transformed, the forefront of change that we will no doubt see across the country in the near future.

I was fortunate enough to see the vastly different regions of the state. My trip began in a remote village near Navsari, Surat; population 200. Dirt roads that wind through the village, a grandfather sitting crosslegged on a dusty tiled porch, children clutching kites huddled around the iron bars of a glassless window captivated by their neighbour’s TV. There is no running water here; water is pumped through a tap for 40 minutes every morning as the sun rises. Using buckets and saucepans we would scramble around each other every morning to fill the tank. Water is heated over a fire fuelled with yesterday’s vegetable peelings. Many of the locals have dug their own wells and have electric water heaters but we had been waiting months to experience this entirely different morning rush and chose to live as simply as possible. I’m so glad we did. We grew accustomed to being woken up by the neighbour’s audacious radio that woke the entire village before the sun had risen. In the distance, the sound of tambourines from the morning prayer at the temple followed by another neighbour hollering to let everybody know that the water has arrived: grab your buckets.

2015-02-10 14.56.37I discovered a completely new understanding of relaxation in the village; something I’d never experienced before. There’s a tranquillity that strikes after the sun has risen, the cockerel has crowed, cows milked, floors swept, three meals cooked, clothes washed (by hand), and my favourite, the ostentation of peacocks has swept through the village looking for food. Most mornings we were greeted by a new visitor from a neighbouring village bringing fresh gossip or a ripe mango from their back garden. During the day we shopped, we sat, we played cricket, hopscotch and drew chalk murals in the streets with the children in the village. If this sounds a little out of your comfort zone, I recommend this specifically for you. I completely lost track of time that week, being cut off from technology was the best mind detox I have ever had.

The city of Rajkot is a far cry and a stark contrast to the tranquil slur of village life. Time whizzes by. Overloaded scooters weaving through traffic (we saw a ladder and a door being transported vertically between two passengers), street sellers pushing their wares down the road under the exhausting beating sun, luxury cars with tinted windows beeping constantly to force their way through a throng of cars, rickshaws, dogs, cows and people. Like most cities in India, Rajkot is densely populated and fantastically diverse. It never sleeps. Rajkot offers everything; sumptuously luxurious apartment buildings, seven star restaurants for the wealthy middle class and the famous shopping district on Dr Yagnik Road where you will likely meet in every shop, Rajesh kaka (uncle) the sari salesman. He immediately becomes a part of your family and sells you sari upon sari; “first class” quality (and good enough for his daughter to wear at her wedding, why not you? You will look fabulous in all 20 of them; take them all). Most outfits look great but have loose threads or missing diamonds so before you purchase it’s worth inspecting each piece carefully and asking the in-house tailor (every shop has one) to do the finishing. They usually have it ready within a day or so and many shops deliver to your hotel.

2015-02-09 11.17.38One image I will never forget is the poverty and homelessness. It’s a brutal life, especially for children. It’s a wonder that the people can be so generous when they have so little. I returned not so much grateful for what I have but devastated at what they didn’t have. We gave apples and water to a young boy, aged around seven. Born on the streets, he would spend his day scavenging for food with his toddler brother in tow. The soles of their bare feet were caked in mud, their faces covered with dirt. The boy gave the food to his younger brother and they happily skipped away having finally been fed. They still had an air of innocence despite their life on the streets. The injustice hits home hard and whilst many say learn to harden up or ignore the poverty, I say actively seek it out. Help a child in whatever way you can; they are infinitely grateful for the smallest things. They deserve to know what life is like beyond the harsh realities of the slums.

I was still enchanted with Rajkot and thoroughly recommend a visit to anybody. The charm of the city lies in the hundreds of street vendors that line the pavement selling fresh vegetables, hawking chants and bargaining with passers-by. Street food is fantastic in any part of India but Rajkot was my favourite purely for the variety. Stalls are very popular with the locals and I thoroughly recommend trying one out wherever you go. To save your stomach I’d suggest trying something fried; petis (fried balls of spiced potatoes and peas, doused with sweet, spicy chutney) or for those with a sweet tooth, jalebi (bright orange fried squiggles of wheat flour soaked in sugary water).  There is generally very little consideration of allergies and intolerances so I would recommend being careful wherever you go. Often the simplest food is the best. Yoghurt and dairy is a risk but masala tea is a must; I am yet to experience equally authentic tea outside of India. If you’re willing to take the risk try sugarcane juice mixed with fresh ginger and lime. The sugarcane is passed through a mangle turned by hand; most vendors will let you try using it; nobody that we asked, objected.

2015-02-13 12.03.20The chess quarter was my favourite, on Kalawad Road. After a very late dinner party which finished at 2 in the morning, we drove past a small square of brightlylit green grass where squatting elderly men were engrossed in games of chess, staring intently at fading boards or holding cards. In the evenings and early mornings we passed children and teenagers playing cricket in the small open spaces whilst the next generation would be circling the ground walking and grandparents practicing yoga under a tree. It was at that point that I had that crystallising moment of appreciation for Rajkot, Gujarat and India. I was charmed.

Neha

Photo credit: Rosso Art Company

Colombo Matrix

Food – 1.5

People – 1

Ambience – 2

Sights & Activities – 1.5

X-Factor – 1.7

Total – 7.7

Country Bio: Bolivia

Bolivia is a land of astonishingly diverse natural beauty. In its southwest lies the stark brilliance of the Salar de Uyuni, and in its northeast the mighty Amazon Rainforest. In between, there is Potosi with its bleak working silver mines and the surreal basin-shaped landscape of the world’s highest administrative capital, La Paz, at an elevation of c. 3,650m. Add in Death Road and Lake Titicaca (South America’s largest lake), and you are left with a country with almost everything on its doorstep. What mustn’t be forgotten is that this is also South America’s poorest country. Seeing it will be eye-opening, and you are bound to come away with all your senses awakened by an experience like no other.


BEST CITIES


1)   La Paz (4 days)      
The largest city. Lively and cultural.
2)   Sucre  (3 days)
Medium-sized, colonial and picturesque city.
3)   Coroico  (2 days)
Small town with brilliant views of Death Road.


BEST ACTIVITIES


1)   Visiting Salar de Uyuni
2)   Cycling Death Road (near La Paz)
3)   Visiting the Amazon Jungle via Rurrenabaque
4)   Visiting the silver mines of Potosi
5)   Trekking on Isla del Sol


IDEAL ITINERARY (3 WEEKS): APPROX. COST £600

Day 1     Arrive La Paz 
Day 2     Death Road- Coroico
Day 3     Coroico- La Paz (3 hour bus in evening)
Day 4     La Paz
Day 5     La Paz- Rurrenabaque (via 40 min evening flight)
Day 6     Amazon
Day 7     Amazon
Day 8     Amazon-Rurrenabaque-La Paz
Day 9     La Paz- Sucre (12 hour overnight bus)  
Day 10   Sucre
Day 11   Sucre  
Day 12   Sucre-  Potosi (4 hour bus in morning)
Day 13   Potosi
Day 14   Potosi- Uyuni (3 hour bus in evening)
Day 15   Salar de Uyuni
Day 16   Salar de Uyuni
Day 17   
Salar de Uyuni- La Paz (12 hour overnight bus)
Day 18   La Paz- Copacabana (4 hour bus)
Day 19   Isla del Sol
Day 20   Copacabana- La Paz (4 hour bus)
Day 21   Depart La Paz


WEATHER

1) High Season: May to October
Sunny, dry and cool. Prices are generally higher at this time.
2) Low Season: November to April
Rainy and hot. Lower prices, but difficult to do overland journeys .


BE A LOCAL

Drink
Pisco Sour/Chuflay/Somo

Food
Pique Macho/Saltenas

Language
Spanish/Quechua

Sport
Soccer

Music
Folk

Clothing
Women: Pollera (skirt) and bowler hat
Men: Poncho and Chulla (Hat)

Customs
Greet with a handshake
Leave a 15% tip
Don’t eat with your hands
Predominant religion is Roman Catholic


YUGENGO RECOMMENDS

1)   In Rurrenabaque, there is a choice of pampas or jungle tours. If you want more wildlife in a dry savannah setting, choose pampas. If you want the Amazon jungle experience, choose jungle.

2) Fly to Rurrenabaque from La Paz, the views are stunning. The bus ride is quite dangerous and extremely bumpy.

2) For Death Road, Vertigo was a good operator.

3) The altitude means 60% oxygen levels compared to sea level. Don’t overdo the aerobic activity initially.

4) Choose the three day tour of Salar de Uyuni, not four.

5) Sucre is a good base for Spanish lessons. Bolivian Spanish is spoken slower, and is a good place to practice.

6) Bring clothing to cover all weather.

Ven in Antarctica

“Antarctica, Antarctica, it’s cold and full of ice. Antarctica, Antarctica, you’ll freeze your balls off!”

This was the anthem invented by a crazy bunch of travellers with whom I bonded over the course of the 10-day expedition to the coldest and most isolated continent on the planet. My trip to the final continent was not originally bookmarked in my South American travels. It happened approximately six weeks in, after I had landed in Ushuaia and made myself at home in La Posta Hostel. A fellow traveller who had just returned from his trip to Antarctica merely questioned whether or not I had come to Ushuaia for the final tour scheduled in a week’s time. With luck as my faithful companion, I managed to get in touch with a tour operator as well as sort out my finances for the trip. I was able to book one of the last places on the final expedition for the season – little did I know, I had just booked the best trip of my life.

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My Journey to Antarctica: The Drake Passage

The first two days of this trip were spent at sea; the first day was a lot better than the second. The trip began by setting foot on the expedition vessel known as the Ushuaia. After dropping my bags into the cabin and spending some time mingling with the other travellers, we were given welcome drinks and a short introductory presentation by the crew. Our boat eventually left the port, and we had to do a safety drill as the sun started to set behind us. After dinner, we mingled for a bit longer before hitting the sack for the next day, which ended up being a memorable day at sea.

For those of you who do plan to visit Antarctica, prepare yourselves for the second day. This is the day that you will enter   Drake Passage. Now, I for one do not recall ever being seasick or even getting a queasy stomach whilst being on a rough boat journey. But then again, I have never been on Drake Passage.

Drake Passage is the quickest route to Antarctica. This fearsome stretch of ocean took down the majority of the passengers on the ship. Even though we were lucky with the weather (apparently) and the sea was relatively calm (or so the Captain said), I still stayed in bed for the majority of the day, rolling from side to side in sync with the ship.

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Aitcho

I had always imagined Antarctica to be a snowy place filled with rock and ice. So on the third day of the trip, when it was our first zodiac excursion onto the island of Aitcho, I was somewhat let down. There was no snow or ice, only plenty of rocks. However, when I actually stepped foot on Aitcho, I was greeted by hundreds of penguins scattered across the island, my brief disappointment quickly disappeared and was replaced with excitement. I had never seen so many penguins before, that too in the wild. These friendly creatures are one of my favourites among sea creatures. Whether they were waddling along going about their business or accidentally walking onto ice and slipping all over the place, their comedy was constant throughout the trip – this gave the trip a good start.

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Antarctica: Day 1

The next day I woke up and saw the snow outside – I finally felt that we had reached Antarctica. I woke up to a snow-covered ship and whales swimming beside us. Massive white icebergs surrounded our ship as the Captain navigated through such a beautiful landscape. The view was simply breath-taking.

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Antarctica: Day 2 – The Perfect Day

During my tour of Antarctica, there was one particular day that I will always recall as the perfect day. On this day, I experienced Antarctica in all her beauty. I woke up on this day to watch the most stunning of sunrises. With clear blue skies and a snow-covered landscape; this view was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Cruising through, I could have spent hours just watching and getting lost in all of nature’s beauty.

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After breakfast, our itinerary for the day was similar to that of the day before. We made our way to various islands with awe-inspiring views. After exploring the islands, we took an hour-long zodiac cruise around the icebergs. This part was particularly enjoyable as it was the perfect way to soak in the views. With the wind in my face on such a beautiful day, going around multiple icebergs of all shapes and sizes, I was enjoying the moment – this is when I realised that I am one of the few lucky ones in the world to have ever visited such a majestic place.

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Our afternoon excursion allowed us to visit the Ukrainian Antarctic centre. We spent some time exploring the base and talking with the crazy/genius folks who spend up to 8 months here by themselves. After checking out the place, we went to a different island, climbed up the hill and absorbed the view from the top – a bright blue sky and an ocean filled with plenty of icebergs. One particularly-massive iceberg actually turned upside down, causing all the nearby penguins to jump into the water. We eventually made our way back to the ship, cruised in between icebergs and then made our way back for dinner.

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This day ended with a sunset over the horizon; the untouched beauty. The water was so clear that it looked serene and magical. As the sun was setting, we assumed that the perfect day was coming to an end. While the Captain navigated through a channel with a cliff close by, we were all admiring the sights on the bow of the ship when suddenly, the top of the cliff beside us broke off. As the block of snow came hurdling down, it caused a mini avalanche. It crashed into the ocean and the impact caused the wind and the snow to travel in our direction at high speed. The moment drew closer, the moment in which we were about to be swept away by the winds filled with snow. Instinctively, every single one of us on the bow of that ship were raising our hands in the air, shouting at the top of our voices and dancing around. We were living in the moment. In that moment, we were all alive. It was one of the greatest moments that we could have lived. Such an experience would never happen again. The emotion ran through me as the wind began to freeze my body (I was wearing shorts at the time) – it was simply epic.

The perfect day ended with the perfect night. We took a walk outside, looking up at the clear sky above. The dark sky above us was filled with the brightest of stars. It was a fitting ending for the perfect day. A day that I will never forget.

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Antarctica: Day 3

It was difficult for this day to follow the previous one. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a memorable day. Among the beautiful scenery and the wildlife that Antarctica had to offer, there was an island on which something occurs that I was not aware of previously. Penguins, as funny as they are, do not know that they can swim. On this island, I witnessed a group of about 70 penguins, standing next to the water. They wanted to go in but looked afraid. It wasn’t until one brave little penguin slipped into the water and unleashed its latent talent, that the rest of his kind followed. One by one, they all jumped into the water and swam elegantly. Zipping in and out of the water, these beautiful creatures were enjoying their first swim. It was certainly a sight, and not something you would be able to see anywhere else.

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The afternoon trip was spent cruising around a shipwreck that had happened many years ago. Due to the weather, the ship was in great condition but we were not allowed to climb aboard it. Afterwards, we visited this cove. After spending some time walking up the steep hill, I found a nice spot and planted myself there. I looked out and imprinted the image into my memory. At the top, we watched some blocks of snow break off and fall into the water. When it was time to go back for dinner we sang the anthem with pride before sliding down the hill on our arses (multiple times). We then made our way back to the ship for a barbecue. Yes, that’s right – a barbecue in Antarctica.

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The night ended with a crazy toga party with the group of travellers who I had bonded with. The party started in the bar, moved into a staff-only area (in which the crew used to hang out) and then finally outside onto the deck. It was certainly a night to remember.

Good Things Must Come To An End

After an epic few days we were stuck due to some bad weather. It was unsafe for us to go out onto the zodiacs and we could not visit any islands. This particularly sucked as I was looking forward to sitting in the hot springs in Antarctica. The rest of the day was spent playing a mixture of games, sorting out photos and lying on the sofa at the bar – all due to the rough tides.

With no possibility of seeing any more islands, it was finally time to make our way back to Argentina. Remember the ‘peaceful’ Drake Passage I mentioned earlier? Well, the Captain was correct about it being peaceful on our way there. On the last day before we reached Ushuaia, we had to go through Drake Passage once again. But this time, Drake was pissed and came back with a vengeance. Our small ship against the fearsome Mother Nature. Going outside onto the deck was out of the question, unless you wished to be swept away and never to be seen again. As I looked out the window through the Captain’s room, it felt like I was in the perfect storm. It was a surreal experience to watch the ocean engulf our boat with its massive waves crashing against the ship. We could barely move forward due to the intense weather going against us. In these moments, the cool and composed looks of the Captain and the staff made us feel at ease and allowed us to enjoy the experience. Even though this was quite a manic storm, this was something they had experienced before and we knew that it was their experience that would get us back to Ushuaia. Not much else was happening outside apart from the storm, so we all decided to play games and cards to pass the time whilst enjoying our final moments together as a group before we all went our separate ways the next morning.

Going to Antarctica was a trip that exceeded my expectations in every single way possible and will be remembered for the good times that were had. It was a trip filled with views that I had not seen before and experiences that I have not felt before. It was truly a beauty like no other and will never be forgotten.

Ven

Colombo Matrix

Food – 2

People – 2

Ambience – 2

Sights & Activities – 2

X-Factor – 2

Total – 10

The Guest: Priya in Sichuan

The southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan is a basin surrounded by mountains, with unchanged borders for over 500 years. The region is known for the famous Sichuan spice in its cuisine, giant panda sanctuaries and expansive green and blue mountain landscapes. To the western side of the province you will find a Tibetan plateau with local culture and language. It is here that on occasion, Tibetan protests have occurred in China, though the region itself is particularly safe, with the government largely focussing on Sichuan as a hub for growing its tourism.

There were many Chinese travelling from all over the country to Sichuan, to visit its beauteous scenery in peak time (July). As one of a few foreigners, particularly, as a British Indian woman from outside of China, I received a lot of attention from Chinese locals. Be prepared for people taking photos with/of you every day. You will hear the word ‘Laowai’ (‘foreigner’) being shouted at you often, though this is largely in a positive light with a smile and shouldn’t be taken as an insult, though it may seem that way.

In terms of language, Mandarin is spoken in the region, however, the dialect differs from standard Mandarin in its pronunciation. Be sure to take a translation app (google does not work there) or a phrasebook. English is not spoken in the region. Not knowing this or much Chinese, we flew to its centre, Chengdu, unaware that (even within its hostels, hotels, menus and especially its taxi drivers) not knowing the local language, would end up being our greatest challenge.

Chengdu

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The city of Chengdu, the capital of the province, is a good base to get a taste of Sichuan life. It is here where it is the best time to try the infamous Sichuan pepper hot pot, visit teahouses, its ancient town Jinli Street, the Tibetan quarter and visit the Giant Panda Research Base. We booked a tour through our hostel which was a blessing in disguise, as our driver took us early to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding when the pandas were outside for feeding time between 8.30 and 10am. Those arriving after noon only caught a glimpse of one or two pandas, the rest being seen indoors, whilst we saw them outside, in their natural conservation surroundings. Walking around the greenery we caught Giant Pandas from birth in incubation, two year old cubs, youths playfully fightingand fully grown adults eating bamboo and bathing. The museum had an insight into its unique history with a portrait of pandas, leopards and tigers being trained and used by emperors in war, as well as panda diplomacy, the giving of giant pandas as diplomatic gifts to other countries.

Leshan

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From Chengdu, we travelled to Leshan to visit the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 71 metre statue of Buddha, carved into a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty. Be prepared to queue for up to two hours to see the UNESCO world heritage site. It is worth the wait. The vast towering vision of peaceful Buddha is particularly powerful from its feet with many lighting incense and kneeling on cushions in prayer. Walking around the grounds you will see gardens, carvings and temples with monks in learning and Buddhists lighting lamps in worship. A sentimental first experience into Buddhist China.

Mount Emei

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Initially staying in a hostel in its base town Baoguo, we planned a two day hike up Emei Shan, one of the four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. This for me, was one of the most memorable experiences for reasons I could not imagine on starting. We began by taking a bus up to Wannian, hiking the first day to Buddhist temple Elephant Bathing Pool, and then hiking from there the second day to the Golden Summit. We underestimated the number of steep stairs you have to travel up. At times it feels like it does not end.

The mountain is known for its monkey ecological zone. These monkeys however, are particularly aggressive. We were given conflicting advice as to whether to shoo them with our bamboo sticks or hit the sticks on the ground to get them away. We never found out which one was correct. Having almost reached Elephant Bathing Pool, we were excited to hear that we were finally seeing monkeys. This was followed by a loud shriek and scream. A monkey in front of us had just attacked a Chinese woman, her arm covered in blood as she was led to the temple.

After the chaos of what we just saw, we finally reached Elephant Bathing Pool and booked a basic temple room for the night. We woke up in the morning to see our hallway invaded by thousands of moths, having to push our way through them to get out. The following hike was wet. It rained heavily the whole second day and despite the beautiful Golden Summit being covered in mist and fog, the trek was well work the view from the top.

Having come down the mountain back to Baoguo by bus, we unwinded with a visit to the local Hot Springs, open until around midnight, resting our muscles in the steamy natural waters.  A much needed evening after the tiring hike.

Shunan Bamboo Sea

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Travelling to more Southern Sichuan, we were curious to see the bamboo forests of Shunan Bamboo Sea, known for shooting many infamous film fight scenes, including House of Flying Daggers. The ecological bamboo sea has many sites including waterfalls, temples and forests, its landscapes largely being used as imagery in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Ceremonies. We were particularly lucky to go on a monsoon day with light rainfall and fog meaning the bamboo forests seemed mystical. Without many people, the fog meant we were often all alone to climb Dragon Temple’s spiral staircases and see temples perching on the cliff side with intricate stone carvings, even being able to stop for street food of potatoes with Sichuan pepper. Sichuan pepper is particularly unique in its ability to numb and tingle your tongue.

Dujiangyan

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The historic road in Dujiangyan town has many Chinese visitors. It is an intricately built ancient town on the Minjiang River. It is here where we had the most authentic Sichuan food with chilli, had tea along the riverbanks and met the most friendly group of Chinese locals offering to spend the evening with us, having drinks and showing us around.

We had a bizarre hotel on the outskirts of historic road, one in which we did not see a single person, but could hear karaoke playing until four in the morning and cards for call-girls were slipped under our door every night by someone unknown. 

The following day, we visited Qingcheng Shan, one of the ancient cradles of Taoism in China; a mountain with many Taoist and Buddhist temples. On advice from locals, we visited the back route of the mountain, hiking through the green forests, rivers and waterfalls.

Songpan

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Heading north from Dujiangyan travelling by bus through the mountains, we were entering the Tibetan region of Sichuan. Songpan is a town filled with Amdo Tibetan culture. It is also here you may find the minority Muslim Chinese community in a colourfully small mosque. Scaling the town walls, you get beautiful views of the town in a basin of mountains. We hired horses for a one day horse trek, giving us some of our most scenic mountain landscapes to a empty Tibetan town where we were fed delicious thick Tibetan noodles. Speaking with some local women, I was asked my age and if I was single, and was told at 24, in their village, I would be married with children. Here, the temple roofs were covered in gold and temples were painted with vibrant colour and Tibetan prayer wheels. The horse trek back to Songpan led to my horse riding me into a tree and throwing me off onto the rocks so it could drink water from a stream. Lucky for me, I only received a few bruises and cuts leading to the hostel owner Emma giving me some of her dad’s Yunnan herbal medicine. Emma was a particularly helpful contact to have, as she knew the area really well.

Jiuzhaigou

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A bit sore from Songpan, we took a bus to Jiuzhaigou, to a Tibetan homestay with the sweetest of hosts, Zhuo Ma. She let us into her home with a hug in open arms, into a quiet village in the mountains. The perfect day to rest in her seated garden with a book and recover my leg in the sunshine alongside her many animals: chickens, rooster, cat and dogs. Delicious Tibetan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner were all homemade from vegetables in her own back garden including honey from her own bees. All this food was served in her characterful lounge with wood burning stove serving smoky Tibetan tea and her Tibetan wine made with barley; a place I would thoroughly recommend staying at as it was the perfect final resting place.

Our final site to visit was the wondrous Jiuzhaigou National Park. The nature reserve was particularly busy with expansive queues to enter, as it was peak time (July) when all the lakes were filled, and the scenery was at its most beautiful. Travelling to the top by bus and following the paths down, you are met with the most surreal turquoise blue and green lakes and waterfalls in the Minshan mountains. It is known to be a stunning natural phenomena shaped by its glacial and tectonic activity. Towards the end of the day, we were able to find quieter lakes nearer the entrance where we could fully enjoy the end of our trip with the natural wonder of the landscapes.

Sichuan province was a truly vast, diverse and picturesque region of China where I would gladly be lost in translation again and again.

Priya

Colombo Matrix

Food – 1.5

People – 1

Ambience – 2

Sights & Activities – 2

X-Factor – 2

Total – 8.5

Prem in Rwanda

The Land of a Thousand Hills- thus Rwanda is rather romantically named. This however is probably not what this landlocked jewel of the African continent is known for. Along with its neighbour Uganda, it has become synonymous with the majesty of the mountain gorillas that reside within its verdant perimeter. This, and more pertinently, the horrific events of 1994 in which approximately 1 million Rwandans lost their lives in the genocide.

To summarise the events of 1994 briefly: Decades earlier, Belgian colonizers split the population of Rwandans into Hutus and Tutsis. They were denoted not by some cultural or physical facet, but by the number of cows owned. Those families with over 10 cows were Tutsis. During Belgian rule, Tutsis were thus handed privileges such as land, often taken from wealthy Hutus, and an ethnic divide formed. Even following the colonisers’ return to Belgium, this rift was cultivated over 30 years until the early 1990s, by which time the Hutus had gained political power. Under a prism of deep resentment developed towards the Tutsis, their elimination was devised. For 100 days from April to July 1994, the massacre came to fruition; including babies, women and the disabled. Machetes were often the weapons of choice, and torture the method.

You would be forgiven in thinking that such an unimaginable tragedy would better be separated from this country’s tapestry. Spending some time here, speaking with the people, you notice that the cultural divisions that caused the genocide have been completely eradicated. Speaking to a passenger on the bus, I jokingly referred to myself as “mzungu”; a term colloquially used to describe foreigners within East Africa. This was however met with: “No, there is only one race here, we are all human”.

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It is difficult not to be overcome by such a sentiment, given that almost all of the current population would have been affected in some way; a father murdered, a friend orphaned, teeth shattered (as was the case with our driver into Volcanoes National Park). This, and the fact that my experience showed Rwandan people are the most generous and gracious beings I have met anywhere in my life. As if determined to put this event deep into the annals of history, this country and its people are now as one.

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Kigali

We arrived in Kigali, the capital and epicentre of the revival. Immediately, I was struck by how green my surroundings were.  The road was immaculately paved and the sidewalks lined like an avenue with trees and clean space. Kigali, like Rwanda itself, is contoured across a series of undulations in the land.  It is therefore blessed with a number of elevated vantage points allowing inhabitants and visitors to take in, and in the case of the latter, capture the vibrancy of the city. The neighbourhood of Nyarutarama, a leafy suburb that is ambient and peaceful, is my recommendation. The first port of call was the currency exchange. Rwandan Francs cannot be purchased in the UK, so take US Dollars for this.  There was not a foreigner in sight, and so it was as if the road we stood upon was red carpet- expect the same. We had however learnt aspects of the local language, Kinyarwanda, via the usual online sources. Greeting the locals with “Mwiriwe” (“Good afternoon”), we were subsequently welcomed with appreciation. We sat down for some food and a drink with some locals overlooking the inclines and a round of Miitzig, Rwanda’s premium beer, certainly did not go amiss amongst our company.

Being vegetarian, food options were limited. Saying that, there are some top quality offerings around. Khana Khazana offered a full array of aromatic Indian cuisine in a rustic, open-aired environment but was expensive in relative terms (probably about £10-£15). However, this was enchanting food with a couple of the dishes (the Malai Kofta comes to mind) being easily of the better standard found at home. We also tried Zuri, the Chinese equivalent of Khana Khazana, and equally as good. One surprise was the lack of authentic local offerings in Kigali. Rwanda itself does not have a signature cuisine as such, but we did try some excellent ugali (a maize-based dish in an aubergine and tomato sauce in this case) later in Kivu.

We went out in the night to see what Kigali had to offer. Papyrus is a high-ceiling atmospheric space set around the bar its centre; it is set out in the hills and was an excellent warm-up before heading to one of the nightclubs in Nyarutarama. K-Club was nothing elaborate, but of course it’s up to you to make your own good time. One of the more memorable evenings we spent was in Car Wash, a recommendation of many locals. Climbing on the back of two mopeds, we set off together but arrived very separately as my driver got lost. A hairy moment I thought would ensue as we stopped amongst a very large group of very capable young men in bandanas. But in true Rwandan style they directed us straight to the place no questions asked. Car Wash is literally at the back of a car wash, being an absolutely huge concrete area smattered with steel tables and a bar at the very back. A Sunday night spent with the locals, highly recommended.

Kigali’s main sticking point is undoubtedly however its memorial to the genocide. It is right up there with the War Remnants museum in Vietnam for its poignancy in portraying human existence at its most grotesque. The display inside is accompanied by a well-manicured garden outside, before coming across a sign signalling that beneath a large area of stone in front of us lay the bodies of 250,000 Rwandans that had lost their lives in 1994. The true horror really hit home at this point realising that bodies in the hundreds of thousands had seemingly been laid to rest in an area fit for significantly less.

Gorillas

Kigali having left its mark, it was now time to fulfil one of my dreams. The journey to Volcanoes National Park (VNP) meant we experienced the local bus terminal for the first time. Chaotic is one word that comes to mind, frenzied another. Chickens in a battery house? Maybe too far. We went to the desk and bought our tickets (a two hour journey for £3) and again with the incredible assistance of a local found our bus. There was definitely not enough room for a comfortable journey on first glance, especially with our bags in tow.

Now the Land of a Thousand Hills showed itself. It was a truly beautiful sight, enveloped in a meadow-like vivid green landscape. The time passed quickly as we arrived in Ruhengeri (our base just outside the National Park). We found some local cuisine; beans, rice, potato and cassava which went down very well. Ruhengeri is a small town sprawling either side over a half-kilometre stretch a road. There was really not much more to it than as a base to visit the National Park. Nonetheless, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of its inhabitants have never stepped beyond its perimeters.

The price for locals to obtain a gorilla permit is around £30. For foreigners, this becomes about £500 ($750). In nearby Uganda, the price is £400 (USD $600) but the experience is different in that the gorilla families are lower-lying and so the end of the day features an arduous trek back up the valley. Additionally, to reach the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where they reside is probably a two day journey from Kampala, compared to the two hours we had just undertaken. In Rwanda, there are 8 gorilla families that can be visited. Per day there is a restriction of 64 permits, that is to say 8 people per gorilla family. The decision about which to visit hinges mainly on how high up they reside. This was not a factor for us so instead we sought the advice of the company we booked the jeep into VNP with (another $80). He mentioned an impressive 27-year old silverback named Charles and a baby two month-old gorilla in the Umubano family and our decision was made. Bosco, a 46-year old man who genuinely looked 26 came to pick us up as we incredulously laughed when he told us his age. As mentioned above, his teeth had been destroyed by a blunt-forced attack with a bayonet during the time of the genocide. In a display of human chivalry however, two guests he had previously driven had flown him to America for full treatment.

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The journey into the park from Ruhengeri took 45 minutes, with the last 20 being like driven through an exploding minefield as the road turns to hand-sized cobbles. We were greeted by a welcoming 15 minute drum and dance performance by a group of 20 men and women (and for a brief moment myself as I was summoned up). Affectingly, some of them had been at the forefront of genocide attacks and had since reformed.

The trek then began through the tea plantations amidst a backdrop of the mountains glinting in the sun. As we ascended the thick rainforest, the stunning views soon became apparent. I was feeling pretty lucky at that moment. After a one and a half hour testing climb in the heat, an unmistakable black figure waded through probably ten metres in front of us. Just like that, I was living out my dream. Over the next hour, we were statues on the precipice-like slope whilst around us the gorillas went about their daily business. You are not allowed to make any physical contact and must remain 7 metres away. However, at times the younger and more curious gorillas approached our group, and you must stand perfectly still in what had to be the most surreal experience of my life. Other highlights included the first sighting of the 7-foot silverback Charles, who looked exactly as I had imagined. Also unforgettable was the sight of one of the blackbacks barrel-rolling down the hill and almost taking out the mother like a bowling pin and the exceptionally cute baby as a spare; and being admonished with a thunderous grunt, startling enough I lost balance and fell into the bush.

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Eventually, the time came to descend, and the heavens opened up. The next two hours became gruelling, as the group attempted to remain standing. Two spectacular falls later, and indebted to a guide who anticipated every impending fall with the horrified expression on my face, we arrived down after an unforgettable experience. We tipped our guides (discretionary but in practice necessary) and myself still in dazed euphoria bought a t-shirt of a gorilla resembling Che Guevara. As we arrived back, our hotel offered to do our laundry free of charge, including my white trainers which were now resembling dark chocolate, and they returned spotless.

Lake Kivu

The last days of our trip were spent by Lake Kivu to wind down. Another two hour bus journey followed into Gisenyi and into our hotel by the beach. Our location was a 15 minute walk from the border with the dangerous Goma, a bordering town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the background on our first night, the distinct sound of gunshots echoed- but we had no problems at all in the time we spent by the lake. 7 km around the cliff in Bralirwa was a brewery open to the public one day a week (Friday). We went on Saturday. Onwards then to the hot springs, where we expected the same thing you’re probably picturing now. We were met by a corn-on-the-cob sitting in some water about 7 inches deep. However, with the help of a student on his way back from university, and another whose father had been murdered in the genocide, we came to some more conventional hot springs set against the lake. The walk back was memorable as we passed through the small fishing town along the banks, and behind us gathered a crowd of small children exclaiming “Hello, good morning”.

Rwanda 2 It was on the way back we found the restaurant serving ugali. We ordered additional food and took it with us as we continued on. Again, the rain started as I desperately protected the bag of food by doing my best impression of the lead in the Disney classic The Hunch-Back of Notre Dame. We came across four kids heading in the opposite direction, and gave them the bag. Their elation was palpable, and as we rounded the cliff it added to the ambience created by the overhanging trees on one side, and the perfectly still lake stretching into the horizon on the other.

There was a great place we frequented every day called Thai Jazz, with the area around our hotel being quite quiet. It is an open bar-restaurant overlooking Lake Kivu and served by Eric and Frank, who became two of our closest friends. Eric took us out one night, maybe at 4am, to a club called Border Guesthouse which was a “15 minute walk”. 45 minutes later having walked through an abandoned ghost town in pitch-black darkness and regretting our decision, we arrived at the border of DRC Congo to find a closed Border Guesthouse and an armed guard. We shared a couple of friendly greetings but never found out the fate of the Border Guesthouse. Frank is a teacher who moved here from the DRC in search of a job, but ultimately in the mean-time had to take this job to earn some money. Two of the friendliest people I have ever met, and we remain in touch.

Fittingly, on our return to Kigali to catch our flight, it was the overwhelming generosity of the Rwandan people that became our last memory.  We met Wilson on the bus home, and having spent the first hour working his charm with the lady sitting beside him, he gave up and turned his attention to the second-prize foreigners sitting in the row behind. He insisted we came to his bar when we arrived, and duly we went up before he offered us drinks on the house. As we boarded the plane home, having thought that it was the mammal with which we share 98% DNA that would be the highlight, it was matched by the experience we’d had with a species far more familiar.

Prem

Colombo Matrix

Food – 1.5

People – 2

Ambience – 1.5

Sights & Activities – 1.5

X-Factor – 2

Total – 8.5