Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Some foodie tips for Paris

Over Thanksgiving D. and I met up in Paris, and since we'd both been there plenty before, I decided to do my research and try out some of Paris' "bests"... if you are into food and have any intention of going to Paris, then read on. Otherwise, tune in next time for an update from Portugal.

Best day trip - Ok, you can go to Versailles or you could go to Chartres, but really, if you have a day to do an excursion from Paris, don't you want to use it to track down amazing country cheese? Cheese always tastes best fresh from the source, so it's best to find the town where it's made and head there. Luckily for us, the region around Paris is known for brie. This is not the bland brie you buy in the store here. It's a fairly strong but soft and gooey cheese available in several varieties. So we headed out to Coulommiers, a town in the middle of the brie-making region, where we visited the Sunday market. It quickly became clear that tourists were not a common sight here, but we persevered and bought a couple kinds of brie - brie de melun and brie de coulommiers (the famous kind is brie de meaux), which we had for lunch. Both were delicious but the melun (I believe) was a bit stronger and perhaps even a bit too strong for some palates.

But the real treat was the unique experience of brie noir. This is brie that is left to age for a long time until it gets dark in color and somewhat hard in texture. We had heard that this brie was terrible, but it had such a reputation that I just had to try it, and of course you can only get it in this particular town. When we opened the wrapping, the best way I can describe the smell is that it reminded me of when you put your wet swimsuit and towel in a plastic bag and forget about them, and then you open it up a week later and put your nose in. However, intrepid food adventurer that I am, I decided to try it, and once I got over the smell, the taste was actually kind of nice, though it burned my throat a little on the way down. We did as we had read the locals do and dipped it in coffee before eating it, but I actually didn't think it improved the cheese.

Favorite restaurant - As a vegetarian, my options for French food mostly revolve around cheese. I was very excited to find La Grolle de Montmartre (rue la Vieuville, 28) tucked away on a side street on Montmartre. This small, atmospheric place is run by a couple clearly transplanted from the south of France, who make delicious and authentic southern French delicacies including the requisite fondue savoyarde, but also two dishes called persapin and berthoud, which are unusual and wonderful. The berthoud was our favorite, based on abondance cheese with garlic and white wine. This place wins for atmosphere and quality, but it filled up fast, so a reservation is recommended.

Runner up - Pain Vin Fromage does a more modern take on fondue, with the traditional kind on the menu, but also several variations including the fondue Normande, with camembert and other Norman cheeses, which was delicious. This place definitely feels more trendy, but they do excellent cheese. Les Fondue de la Raclette also does great traditional fondue and raclette with a creative heating system built into the tables, but it feels distinctly more touristy and the cuisine is not all that imaginative.

Best madeleines - I admit I stole this recommendation from others on the web, but I'll put out another vote for them: Blé Sucre on Square Trousseau makes amazing madeleines and a little rectangular cake called a financier that was great. They have shelves of pastries that would keep me coming back every day to try something different if I lived in the area. Don't miss this one.

Best caramels - If you think you know what good caramels taste like, think again. A good caramel practically melts in your mouth, and A L'Etoile d'Or (30, rue Fontaine) collects the best of them from around France and sells them in their store near the Moulin Rouge for easy tasting. We tried a "tarte tatin" caramel that I swear when you put it in your mouth, it tasted like eating a bite of grandma's warm apple pie. While you're there, pick up a bottle of the Caramel Beurre Salé, a heavenly spread you can put on anything.

Oddball Museum - This isn't food related, but just to throw it out there, we decided to visit the rather off-the-beaten-path Musée des Egouts de Paris, where you can tour part of the modern sewer system of Paris and part of the ancient one that was one of the first of its kind. You are introduced to the ways in which they dug the tunnels and cleaned them and how they ensured the safety of the workers and the citizens over the centuries. It's definitely not the first stop on your first trip to Paris, but it was actually an interesting slice of history if you've already hit the major sights.

I think I'll leave it there for now. We managed to hit about 10% of the places I had on my list, but I guess that just means there's plenty left for next time. Next stop is Portugal, where I am looking forward to plenty of port wine and pasteis de nata. Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday and enjoying some well-earned time off!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ending with the Russian Capitals

Folks, it's over. I've finished my journey and am back home again, and you probably guessed I've been a little busy and so my last update is coming several weeks after the end of my trip. But better late than never, I always say. The last couple of weeks in Russia were less of a wild adventure - I crossed into the European part of the country, and things definitely got more developed. People were just a bit blonder and the food options were a bit more varied (try Georgian food if you get a chance), and best of all I got restocked with clean clothes that did NOT include my torn up hiking pants.

I spent a few days in the Golden Ring area not far from Moscow. This is a bunch of small towns that were originally the seat of the leaders of Russia, before Russia was a country. Now the towns are known for their historic quaintness and their wealth of colorful, onion-domed churches and monasteries, of which I saw more than I can count in Vladimir, Suzdal and Sergiev Posad. I sampled medovukha, the local specialty brew made from honey, and wandered through the gorgeous countryside.

Moscow was not what I would call a particularly charming city, but it wasn't as bad as some other communist capitals. The highlight for me was the stunning St. Basil's Cathedral, a Disney-esque explosion of multi-colored onion domes, plopped right at one end of Red Square, which also features dead Lenin (a disturbing and waxy sight - see him while you can, as they are considering burying him in a few years) and the graves of Stalin and many others of his cohorts, and borders the biggest and swankiest mall in the city on one side and the Kremlin on the other. After repeated warnings about the police and the scams they like to pull on tourists, we were impressed by how many of them were around but they did leave us alone.

We stopped in Novgorod on the way up north, mainly the site of more churches, including the one that started the onion-dome trend way back when.

Two overnight trains in a row and a round trip hydrofoil ride took us to the island of Kizhi, in the far north of Russia, where the second (and sometimes first) language is Finnish. Perhaps the finest wooden church in Russia is located there, and although I was a bit "churched out" and didn't expect to be very impressed, I must admit, it was breathtaking. Returning to the nearby city of Petrozavodsk for our train, we decided we had to try the local "tex-mex" restaurant out of sheer curiosity. Aside from surprisingly good food, they had a hilarious English menu including such gems as "The United States is famous for the skills to cook fast... Attention! Fast food can lead to unexpected death! Bon appetit!!". Between our scantily clad waitress and the offensive and definitely un-PC place-mats featuring crack dealers in Tijuana, we laughed all the way through dinner.

And of course the one-time capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, was the most charming city I saw in the country. This is not entirely surprising, as Peter the Great, its founder, went to Europe and attempted to bring back European customs and ideas to Russia, basing the design of his city on them. So it's not quite such broad avenues and boxy buildings as the other Russian cities are. There is an amazing food scene - we came to think sushi was actually more Russian than borsch - and of course the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov), where I talked D. into sitting through both an opera and a ballet. We spent the better part of the day at the Hermitage, a place I had always heard about when reading about and visiting other countries, because I had often seen the reference: "this piece is now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg." So it was a treat to finally see where all those works and artifacts had been collected. We also spent a day wandering the gardens of Petrodvorets, which houses a palace and several smaller buildings formerly used by the Russian royalty.

St. Petersburg was a city where I could have enjoyed spending a full week or more, with a wealth of museums, from famous to obscure (they have one with a collection of two-headed fetuses and children's arms and heads tied up with lace and preserved in jars, and another in which they have whole woolly mammoths that they dug out of the Siberian ice, and yet another we didn't visit that houses Rasputin's reputedly mammoth penis), plenty of cultural activities, and excellent food options. Plus the metros in St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were built to double as bomb shelters, so they have the deepest escalators I've ever seen! Although people were not friendly, and we got a ticket on the first day for bringing our luggage onto the metro without paying extra, it was a fun and very charming city to visit.

And that about wraps it up. Russia far exceeded expectations, and although I was nervous about visiting it, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it now that I've been there, though learning the language would be infinitely helpful if you are going to the eastern part of the country. You'll be hearing from me once more when I get my photos online, which might be a while, but the travel stories are going to be quite a lot calmer from now on, as I buckle down to my studies Thanks for tuning in, and I hope I've inspired some of you to go out and see someplace you've never been before.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway

Over the last couple of weeks I've travelled more than 6000 kilometers by rail, crossing 5 time zones. Some would call it an epic journey through the world's biggest country, on the world's longest continuous railway track (although to be fair, I did not ride the entire length of it by any means).

Interestingly, for most people the journey itself seems to be the point of it all. Most travellers get on the train at Moscow (or earlier) and continue on straight through to Beijing or Vladivostok, a 7 to 10 day journey, though some stop at Irkutsk or Ulan Bataar briefly. I hear from them that the joys of rail travel -- attempting to converse with the Russians on the train, sharing your food, playing chess -- are what make the trip worth it. Perhaps these people are rail enthusiasts, as this was not the case for me. In fact, I found Russians on the train to be summarily unfriendly, the journey itself to be hot and relatively boring. For me, riding the train in one shot all the way to Moscow would have been an utter waste of time. The joy, however, lay in the stops along the way.

Siberia, I was somewhat surprised to find out, is not a snowy wasteland. In fact, it is characterized by taiga - a dense conifer forest - and in the summer can reach incredibly high temperatures. Much of it is uninhabited, although several indigenous peoples still make their home there, and of course the population soared when the government got the bright idea to send convicts (many of whom worked on the railway) and political exiles there, and later populated the area through forced migration.

I entered Russia by way of Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatia, a region dominated by Mongol people, not surprisingly, given its proximity to the border. Ulan Ude was your typical communist-looking town, with sprawling avenues and boxy buildings, its biggest claim to fame being the world's biggest Lenin head (seriously) in the main square.

From here I went to Irkutsk, a charming city in itself, where I ended up staying with a family and being shown utmost hospitality by them and their kids, who insisted not just on taking me grocery shopping but on helping me pick out each item that I bought. Never have I been so self-conscious about my pot noodles! Siberian homes are usually either log cabin style or ornately carved wooden houses (for the richer people), and many of the latter can be seen in Irkutsk, often belonging to political exiles such as the Decembrists. It's a great city to get a feeling for Siberian style and history.

I used Irkutsk as the jumping off point for Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the world's deepest lake, reaching an incredible 1637 meters at its deepest point, and containing one fifth of the world's unfrozen fresh water. Expecting just another big lake, I was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was, with soaring cliffs and jagged rocks rising out of a perfect light-blue surface that went on forever. This was also, however, the site of my first real "Russian experience."

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Russians are famous for their love of alcohol. The guidebook claims that when Russians offer you alcohol, it's almost impossible to refuse, and once you've started, there is no stopping. Hard to imagine till you've tried it...

I stayed in a little guesthouse that was very basic (i.e. no plumbing), rather than in the big resort on the island. The first thing I noticed was that the house's cat had very short ears - which I later found out was because in the Siberian winter they freeze and break off! As luck would have it, Sergei, a stock broker from Moscow, was also staying there to celebrate his 33rd birthday. For some reason I didn't understand, he came all by himself, so he decided that everyone staying in the guesthouse would be his guests at the birthday party, whether we liked it or not. I arrived one afternoon and was met with a bottle of cognac, which luckily was almost empty, as he and his new friend Sasha had been drinking since 3am, so there were only(!) 3 shots left for me. There was then a break till 10pm, when a big table was set with many local goodies, and shots of vodka were distributed all around. All in all there were 4 bottles of vodka for about 10 people. And the toasting began.

Since I am female, I was off the hook for taking my vodka a whole shot at a time, but if I didn't drink fast enough, I'd get urged on by those around me. In the end, the old Buryat woman who owned the guesthouse decided that she was my "buryatka mama" and wouldn't stop kissing me and putting her cheek out for me to kiss her. And then there was Sasha, who was the author (as he wouldn't stop telling us) of what, as far as I could deduce, was a new-age, philosophical, self-help book that made reference to everything from New York City to Al Capone. (Olkhon Island is considered an important center of Shamanic energy, so it attracts all sorts of characters). One of Sasha's key tenets was that if you stand on one leg with your eyes closed for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other leg, you achieve the "Golden Middle"... of course he insisted that I try this after I don't know how many shots of vodka, and actually I think I did pretty well (though honestly I don't remember very clearly...). And then, after Sasha kissed me on the cheek, too - "for good luck" - we all went out to a local disco. A French couple who were with me the entire time both protected me from Sergei and can attest to the fact that nothing inappropriate happened... Amazingly I wasn't hung over the next day... though I did still feel a little drunk. Not something I'd want to do very often, but now I can say I've experienced the real Russia!! (Oh, and I do have a copy of one of Sasha's books for anyone who reads Russian and is curious...)

After Irkutsk things calmed down a little bit. I spent a few nights on trains, visiting the large cities of Krasnoyarsk and Yekaterinburg. The latter is in the Ural Mountains and is a source of many precious minerals, which were on display at a funny little museum where I ended up getting a private tour. Then I went to visit the ice cave at Kungur. The cave is unique because the cave formations (stalactites, etc) are made of ice, rather than stone. In the first bit of the cave they were pretty spectacular, but unfortunately I think it would be better visited in winter. On the way out of here, though, I met some incredibly nice and helpful people, including one guy who seemed sad that I hadn't bought any souvenirs and gave me a little wooden sculpture of a dolphin who is, I believe, drinking a cocktail.

Another overnight train put me in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan is known as the "Istanbul of Russia," a place where Europe meets Asia, and this turned out to be true in many ways. Mosques mingle with onion-domed churches, and the architecture seems somehow to have escaped the ugly influence of communism.

Russia is actually a mishmash of various semi-autonomous republics and many ethnic groups, as a result of centuries of expansion, migration and invasion. These republics have had varying degrees of autonomy depending on who was in charge of Russia at the time. One of the most interesting things about travelling across the country has been to see how the faces change. At first it was a lot of Mongolian-looking faces mixed with some blondes, and then it became more blonde, and then an interesting mix of Muslim/Turkish looking, as the Tatars are a Turkic people. The Tatars even have their own president, laws, and language, which is on all the street signs above the Russian, and they are campaigning to change to a Latin, rather than Cyrillic, alphabet.

Actually Russia has surprised me in many ways. I think what I expected was a fairly developed country of unfriendly and pushy people (thanks to my experience at the consulate and reports from other travellers), and a relatively barren landscape all the way across Siberia. In fact what I have found is that Russian people (importantly excluding all those who work in train stations or in the service industry, who are, as the Lonely Planet accurately puts it, "obstructive goblins" at best) are incredibly kind, friendly and hospitable, and that there is no single face or ethnic look that can sum up a Russian (though love of vodka does seem to be a universal trait!). Of course there is a predominance of tiny, blond, European-looking people (and the women do live up to their reputation - in fact, if anyone knows how you tell an actual prostitute from a regular Russian woman, I'd be interested to know...), but there is also an incredible mix of Mongolian, Turkish, indigenous and otherwise. And interestingly, in many ways the country is quite advanced, though it is still mired in ridiculous bureaucracy left over from the communist days, and I've been amazed at how many people in their early 20s I've met who don't even know how to use the internet!

So Russia has actually been an incredibly fascinating and enjoyable place to visit so far. Rather difficult with only the tiny smattering of Russian I've got, but definitely a place I'd like to return to after I study the language a bit. I have seen only two other tourists in the past week or so, and it's been at times unbelievably frustrating but also remarkably rewarding. My rail journey is not over by any means, however, and the last leg of my trip takes me to the more famous and touristed parts of the country. I'll be back with one last report in a couple of weeks...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mongolia: Land of the Blue Sky

What do you think of when you think of Mongolia? Prior to coming here, I had a vague notion of it as a place at the end of the earth, but not much more. I knew it was the home of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, but I had no idea what to expect. And although it is definitely a country that requires some work and a lot of patience to get into, it turns out to be well worth the effort.

So a little primer on Mongolia. It is the most sparsely populated country on earth, with just 1.4 people per square kilometer (compare to 200 to 300 per square km in most European countries), and a 13 to 1 horse to human ratio. Around 50% of the population is nomadic, living in mobile gers (yurts) and using herding as their primary means of sustenance. Most of the land in the country is simply unowned, meaning that you can wander around and camp almost anywhere you please. The country is so far inland that its climate is not affected by the ocean, so the seasonal differences are dramatic (Ulaan Bataar is the world's coldest capital, in fact), and from personal experience I can tell you that the thunder and lightning storms are worthy of a Hollywood movie.

All this means that travelling here is quite an adventure, as there are less than 2000 km of paved road in the entire country, so your average speed as you bump and jolt through mud in an ancient Soviet van is around 30 km/hour (18 mph). So it takes a while to get anywhere. On the other hand, Mongolian hospitality is legendary, and you can literally just walk up to any ger and you will be served milk tea and either dairy products in some form or homemade noodle soup, and they will inevitably let you camp next door and take advantage of their guard dogs. I think the weirdest thing I ate while here was airag, a type of local, homemade beer, made from fermented camel milk. It was surprisingly not disgusting - sort of like home brewed beer mixed with milk.

Of course most people start with a visit to the Gobi Desert, which I did too. The Gobi is actually quite varied, with quite a bit of grassy grazing land, some dried out areas that resemble deserts at home, huge sand dunes, and a red desert where many dinosaur fossils have been found. There's even a canyon that has a glacier all year round, despite the summer heat. Of course my most lasting memory will be when we left in a rush during a sandstorm at the dunes because our driver had drunk half a bottle of vodka and then realized we were short on time, and as we flew through the desert in the dark, the back of the van opened, my backpack fell out, and by the time we realized it, my camping mat had flown away in the strong winds. After we got the doors closed again, the driver was so drunk he almost flipped the van over, and then we camped (without my mat) on the most uncomfortable ground I've ever slept on because he literally couldn't drive anymore, and all the while he was laughing hysterically and grabbing people inappropriately... Our Japanese companion, who seemed a lot younger than she actually was, told us it was too much adventure and she wanted her mother.

After the Gobi we headed through the ancient capital of Kharakhorum to central Mongolia for some horse trekking around lovely lakes. In this area yaks were a much more important part of the herd animals, and most of the dairy products we ate came from fresh yak milk. There was also a preponderance of marmots, which you see running across the road all over Mongolia (and which Mongolians hunt and eat). Cute, but they actually carry the bubonic plague. I didn't even know that was still a problem, but apparently every year there are several cases of it here. I knew when I saw "marmot plague" in the list of important health terms in the phrasebook that I was in a different kind of place!

We then headed up north into the Darkhad Depression, where we attended the Nadaam celebration in a tiny town called Renchinlkhumbe. Nadaam is the biggest celebration of the Mongolian year, where competitions are held in the "three manly sports": horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Although the archery was pathetic, the other two were impressive to see. Horses are raced by young boys (aged 5-12), riding with no saddle, stirrups or shoes, and whooping wildly. Some of the horses inevitably arrive sans rider at the finish line. The wrestlers are even funnier, wearing red and blue outfits with speedo-type bottoms and open-fronted tops. Before they wrestle they have to do an eagle dance, in which they flap around like birds and pray to the gods. There are no height or weight classes, so sometimes the matches are quite uneven, and mostly they consist of grabbing on to each other's clothing and pulling with all their might. Much butt-patting is involved. It was definitely amazing to see the spectators, many of whom were watching on horseback. Actually this part of Mongolia reminded me of the American "wild west"... it really seemed like how we picture those times, except with Asian faces and Mongolian traditional dress.

So this was the highlight of the time in Mongolia. We followed that with a few days riding horses around Hovsgol Lake, and then back to Ulaan Bataar to clean up (only three showers in three and a half weeks!!) and get ready for the next leg of the journey. Though I did get a chance before leaving UB to see a concert of khoomei, or throat singing. I'd always wanted to hear it, and it's quite amazing. You hear the men singing in an impossibly low, throaty bass, and then at the same time they have this eerie, high-pitched whistle that I couldn't produce even if I wanted to. This kind of singing also exists in a region of Russia, but it is typical to Mongolia.

So all in all, Mongolia was an amazing country. Beautiful landscapes, wonderful, hospitable people, and endless opportunities for adventure make it a place I definitely want to return to. However, I also learned that it's near impossible for a solo traveller here, due to the nonexistence of public transportation, so it's best to come with a friend (or three) who have the same goals and limitations as you do. Otherwise you have to piece together a group from whoever happens to be in Ulaan Bataar, and then you never know what you'll get.

As always, there's much more to tell, but now I should go get my papers in order for tomorrow's bus ride to Siberia...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A bit of everything in Turkey

Turkey is one of those places that I had heard too many great things about before going. This made me think: 1) my expectations are so high that they could never possibly be met, and 2) everyone else has already been there, so maybe I shouldn't go. Well, I was wrong. Turkey is one of the most varied, beautiful, and romantic countries I've ever visited, and well worth a visit, even if it's rather on the "beaten path."

I crossed the border over land from Bulgaria (an adventure in its own right, watching customs officials battle locals over the dozens of eggs and fur coats they wanted to carry in to Turkey at midnight), and I had a day to wander the markets of Istanbul. I was disappointed by the Grand Bazaar, which looked more like a shopping mall than like an Arab market, though interestingly it's been that way for centuries, not just built for tourists. I did manage to catch a glimpse of the endangered Van cat, with one blue eye and one green eye, and some other stray cats lounging around in the market, and I sampled some of the local food, which was delicious (even for vegetarians there are wonderful mezes, cheese, bread, and olives, though I got a bit tired of the same few dishes over and over for two weeks).

I met up with D. that evening and we went on to Safranbolu, where we stayed at a beautiful, old caravanserai (where the camel caravans would stay in the old days). Safranbolu is a well-preserved Ottoman town, but the highlight of our visit was our side trip to Yoruk Koyu, where one of the old Ottoman houses has been turned into a museum of Ottoman life with perhaps the wackiest tour guide I have ever seen. This old woman spoke not a word of English, but through a few words I had learned of Turkish and a LOT of charades, she still managed to give us a tour of the house. As we went on, she got progressively more and more forward, at the top ordering us to sit down and put on the hats that were in the room and take pictures looking serious. Whenever D. would start to smile she would hit him, pretty hard, on the head, to the point that I couldn't stop laughing, which put a damper on the serious faces.

We headed south to Cappadocia, which is famous for its weird landscape full of huge natural stone towers, known as "fairy chimneys." Unusually, for almost 2000 years people have been making their homes in these chimneys, so we were able to see huge monasteries, churches, castles, homes, kitchens, banks and more carved into the rock, some with incredibly well-preserved frescoes from hundreds of years ago. It was definitely like nothing we'd ever seen before. I cashed in on an old IOU and we took a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, which was just gorgeous - we had perfect weather, fields full of blooming poppies, and lots of other beautiful balloons to admire. To top it all off, we stayed in a gorgeous cave suite, after being upgraded for free because the season has been quite slow. Lucky us!

We did a beautiful hike through the Ihlara Valley, visiting small rock churches and having a snack break at a pillow-covered table in the middle of a river, and then we headed down towards the Mediterranean coast, stopping along the way at the Mevlana Museum in Konya. Konya is the home of Sufism (the order of the whirling dervishes), and the Mevlana Museum is the mausoleum of the movement's founder. Unfortunately we were not able to see the dervishes this time around, though we tried hard.

We stopped briefly at Chimaera, where natural gasses escaping from the earth ignite spontaneously, producing a hillside covered in flames, and at Myra, an ancient Lycian city with fantastic cliffside rock tombs, a well-preserved amphitheater, and scantily-clad cruise boat tourists pretending to get some culture. Then on to Kas, a refreshingly un-tour-bussed town on the coast, where we took a lovely boat trip to visit the castle at Ucagiz and the sunken city ruins at Kekova and swam in the crystal clear (but freezing) Mediterranean waters. We could have stayed here a week, but sadly time did not allow...

After a brief stop in Fetiyhe, we headed up to Pamukkale, a huge hillside covered in calcium carbonate formations that used to be really amazing before they built too many hotels in the 80s and 90s. They are desperately trying to fix them back up now (after bulldozing the hotels), but with little water left, they don't bear much resemblance to the postcard photos. The next-door ruins of ancient Hieropolis, however, are quite impressive, and not far away are the ruins of Afrodisias, which were probably the next most impressive after Ephesus.

Of course Ephesus is the most famous of the ruins in Turkey, and for good reason. Only a small portion of the original city has been uncovered, but it is probably the most well-preserved ancient city I have ever seen, including some two-story houses with intact mosaics and frescoes. It was well worth fighting the crowds to see this amazing site. We made a stop also at Pergamon (you might know it from the museum in Berlin, which has stolen a bunch of the artifacts), where the Asclepion is located. The Asclepion (named for Asclepios, the Greek god of medicine) is one of the world's earliest and greatest medical centers. Although the diagnoses were based on dream analysis and the treatments were rudimentary at best, some of the advances in medical science made here thousands of years ago remained the basis of western medicine until the 16th century!

Not much was left of the ruins of Troy, but they were still interesting to see because, well, it's Troy. We also visited the Gallipoli battlefields, which were depressing and probably best appreciated if you are Australian or kiwi, so we cheered up gazing at the blooming fields of poppies along the coast on the way back to Istanbul.

With three days in Istanbul, we were able to see the extraordinary (and huge) Topkapi Palace, complete with a harem for 300 women, the Aya Sofia, a feat of architectural engineering in its time, and the Blue Mosque, built by a 14-year-old sultan to one-up the Aya Sofia. We wandered around a few of the neighborhoods, took a boat on the Bosphorus, and visited an enormous underground cistern that provided water to the city for many years. But for the most part, the best part about Istanbul is wandering around and soaking up the culture - eating the amazing food (baklava from Karakoy Gulluoglu is out of this world), wandering through the markets, watching the world go by from a cafe. It quickly became one of my favorite big cities in the world (I don't usually like big cities much).

So all in all, Turkey was quite different from what I expected. We only visited the western half, and I imagine the eastern half is quite different, but what we saw was surprisingly European. Things seemed quite well-developed, the hassle factor was low, and infrastructure was good. We were amazed at the range of activities, from adventure sports to sunbathing, ancient ruins, natural wonders, markets, and food -- there was really no danger of getting bored. Turkish people were incredibly friendly and hospitable, and we found it an easy and very romantic place to travel. The flip side of this is that in certain areas there are a lot of tourists, particularly on the coasts where the cruise ships come in, and it's expensive on a par with Eastern Europe. A great place to go with a partner or on a mid-range (or higher) budget, but a place I got the impression would be more difficult as a backpacker. On the other hand, what I read of the east sounded like it was perfect backpacking territory. Hopefully I'll be back soon to find out!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stepping back in time in Romania and Bulgaria

Some of you may know that originally during this time I was supposed to be in Madagascar. Very sadly, for me and mostly for them, they had a coup a couple of months back and the country descended into some measure of chaos, so at the last minute I changed my plans and quite randomly ended up in Romania. Since I wasn't expecting to be here, I had no idea what to expect or where I would go, and although it started off a little slow, it's turned out to be quite more of an interesting destination than I expected.

The first few days of my trip I actually spent in Bulgaria, which immediately impressed me with its post-communist crimped hairstyles and neon outfits straight out of the American '80s. I got a chance to practice reading Cyrillic, but otherwise I was surprised at how much Bulgaria resembled western Europe, and I was at first a bit disappointed. I visited several churches and monasteries and found the styles of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be quite different from those at home, but otherwise the attractive old towns and castles reminded me a lot of Belgium and France.

I entered Romania via Bucharest, a fairly unattractive city, and met up with an old friend. We spent some time in Transylvania learning about the "real" Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, who has been touted by some Romanians as a great defender of the country, but unfortunately did so using unspeakably horrific tactics. Actually I knew virtually nothing about the history of Romania before coming here - it's quite a bloody history, with various groups invading, killing, impaling and deporting other groups for centuries. It's only been one united country since the 1920s, and it only joined the EU in 2007. It remains the least-developed country in the EU today. But it is evolving fast, with the younger generation learning English and taking on western European habits and styles (though they, too, are largely stuck in the '80s). In Transylvania we did see various relics of "Dracula," but mainly we were impressed with the gorgeous medieval towns and fortified churches - churches that were built with fortress-like defenses, so that the town could hole up in them in case of an attack. Interestingly, the area was settled by Saxons from Germany many centuries ago, so we found many people who spoke German, but few who spoke English.

However, the highlight by far of Romania was when we rented a car and went up to Maramures, the northernmost province of the country, where - believe it or not - people still live the way they did centuries ago. It is dotted with tiny little villages, each of which has an ancient wooden church (and several newer churches), and the people, or at least the older people, still dress in traditional clothing. Horse carts are more common than cars, and cows and chickens are far more common than tourists, of which we were the only ones we saw. The interior of the wooden churches is usually completely covered in paintings, often quite graphic descriptions of the various torments you will face in hell for earthly offenses (for instance, a woman is forced to eat her aborted baby - they were more grotesquely imaginative than you would think in the 1700s).

We also visited the "Merry Cemetery" at Sapanta, where a particularly creative artist made very colorful gravestones with painted portraits of the dead (often in the act of dying being run over by a tractor or some such) and carved cheeky poems about them on the wooden tombstones. On the eastern side of the northern portion of the country are the painted monasteries of Bucovina, a collection of monasteries from the same period that are fully covered in detailed paintings both inside and outside. Amazingly, on the non-windward side, much of the painting has survived, and they are quite unique to behold (in fact, they've even inspired a color that is now part of the international palette: "Voronets blue"). We also did some hiking in the Bicaz Gorges and rode the last remaining steam-powered logging train in the world (or something like that) at Viseu de Sus.

But I think what most endeared Romanians to us was their kindness and hospitality. Even though most of the time we couldn't speak more than a few words to anyone, they are probably the warmest, kindest people I have met in Europe. It's been a linguistic challenge, and I've had a chance to use pretty much every language I've ever studied except Mandarin, but mostly the lingua franca here has been a big smile and an even bigger thank you. We have felt incredibly welcome, and everyone has gone out of their way to help us out, from German-speaking cowherds to one-toothed church keepers to folk-dancing school teachers. I truly hope that this character doesn't disappear as Romania is assimilated into the European Union and moves into the 21st century for real. Get here while you can...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ending my Time on the Subcontinent with Rhinos and Colonialism

Time has gotten away from me a bit, and though I actually returned from Asia last Thursday, I haven't had a chance to recap the end of my trip. Actually there's not all that much to tell, because we were so exhausted from the trek that we decided to take it easy and not try to pack too much in. We headed to the south of Nepal to Royal Chitwan National Park, where we spent a day on a jeep safari, during which we saw rhinos and I learned that they look an awful lot like hippos - most of them were almost fully immersed in water and just sitting there to avoid the heat! We also saw monkeys and various birds, wild boars, and even a bison! I didn't think those existed in Asia... The next day we did another safari, this time on the back of an elephant. We had mixed feelings about this, but the elephants seemed to be well cared for and happy, and we figured that having four people sitting on top of them is roughly the equivalent of my carrying a small backpack, so it's probably not too terrible. Well, our elephant driver did a good job and got us in front of the pack, so we got to see rhinos from a few meters away (they aren't scared away if you are on an elephant, as opposed to a jeep, which makes them run away), but the elephant was not well trained to carry people, so we spent most of the time being hit in the face with branches, which were all covered in some kind of white fungus, such that by the end, we were also covered head to toe in junk. And since it was first thing in the morning, we also got the privilege of knocking down all the spider webs that had been formed overnight... with our faces. At some point, as I was trying to remove a big spider from D.'s back and realized that we were stuck together by the spider's web, there was just nothing to do but laugh, which D. didn't appreciate much, since it delayed my removal of the spider. Nonetheless, it's the closest I've ever been to a wild rhino (or to an elephant, for that matter), so it was still kind of a good experience.

We also visited the elephant breeding center, where we saw adorable twin baby elephants and one very sociable young elephant who was coming up to all the visitors and asking for food. And of course you can't miss the elephant baths: every day they bring the elephants down to the river to wash them, and people can pay to sit on their backs and get sprayed with water, while the elephants' owners give them instructions essentially to dive into the water until the people get knocked off into the river screaming. We didn't participate, but it was definitely funny to watch!

Anyway, this was followed by some well-deserved R&R in Kathmandu for a few days, and then I headed off to Calcutta, where I was connecting to go home. Calcutta was having a heatwave unprecedented since the 1950s, and so it was almost impossible to do anything except stand under a cold shower. Nonetheless, I managed to wander around and was struck by how visible the British presence was compared to everywhere else I'd visited in India. Calcutta was the capital of the British territory in India for most of the time the British were there, so they built huge monuments and British-looking buildings all over the place. This also led to some of the most visible, abject poverty in India, as people left their farms to move to the city and work for the British and then were left jobless and eventually homeless when the British reign came to an end. I don't think I was expecting Calcutta to be so different from all the other places I had visited in India, but it was. It was at once more western, with American fast food chains and fancy restaurants, and more poor, with people living on the streets (and worse, burrowing homes into garbage heaps) everywhere you look. There is a huge volunteer presence there, but the work to be done seems almost never-ending. It was definitely food for thought.

And then next thing I knew, my two months were up and I was back in Belgium, happy for a little cool weather and a washing machine and a clean "sitting" toilet. It's the little things, sometimes. And then that was gone in a flash, too, when I boarded a plane for eastern Europe this morning to begin the next leg of my trip, which promises to be VERY different from my time on the subcontinent. Till next time...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

Ever since my friend Ellen put the idea in my head back in 2001, it's been a dream of mine to trek the Annapurna Circuit, which is a 16-18 day-long hike in the mountains surrounding the Annapurna section of the Himalayas in Nepal. It was one of the first things D. and I ever talked about together, and we were really happy to finally see it come true. So two weeks ago we set off on a crazy jeep ride from Pokhara, during which two seemingly pre-adolescent boys took turns climbing on the outside of the jeep and then hopping into the driver's seat to continue driving without stopping the car, and very happily were dropped off in Bhule Bhule to start our trek. The walk started fairly low and apart from the first day we were blessed with gorgeous weather, blue skies, and amazing mountain views of some of the tallest mountains in the world.

The Annapurna Circuit is a "teahouse trek," meaning that you walk between small villages where you stay in little guest houses rather than camping. This made it much less rugged, but also more culturally interesting, and it was much appreciated as it started to get higher and colder. It also meant that we often shared the trail with goats and donkeys, the latter carrying loads of supplies to the villages higher up on the trek. As we got farther up, the villages thinned out along with the air, and it started to get more and more basic.

The focal point, in a way, of the trek is the day you go over Thorung La pass, at 5400 meters, so you have to take a good amount of time to acclimatize before arriving there. This was not a problem for us, but I was anticipating the continuation of my lifelong curse: every time I go up a mountain or over a mountain pass, I get caught in a tremendous blizzard, which makes the hiking significantly more difficult. Of course this time we had sunny, warm weather every day so everyone assured me that the pattern would be broken.

On day 9 we arrived at High Camp in the afternoon, and soon after we arrived the snow started to fall. Looking out the window of our room and shaking from head to toe from the cold, I knew my curse had followed me to the Annapurnas. I got two bottles of boiled water to heat up my sleeping bag and waited. Sure enough, it continued to snow all night, and by the time we left early the next morning, we were walking up the mountain in two feet of snow. The way up was tough but it cleared up by the time we reached the top of the pass, so we got some nice views and feeling back in our fingers for a little while. Then we headed down the other side.

As we started to descend, the snow storm started again, this time reducing visibility at times to very low and almost erasing the marks that showed us where the path was. The way down was quite steep and became very icy and slippery, so most people spent part of the way down in a sitting position, sometimes even voluntarily. The often graceful slips and slides of the hikers going down the mountain would have been hilarious if they weren't so dangerous. The crowning point of the semi-hilarity, however, was when a pack of donkeys came down the pass. I will never understand why they didn't just give the donkeys the day off, but down they came, sliding wildly down the snowy hillside with their two front legs extended in front of them, directly at us. We scattered urgently off the side of the hill and they narrowly missed us. We realized later that if we hadn't been too terrified to take a video of the whole affair, we could probably have made quite a sensation.

Anyway, we eventually made it down to a village, and from there the sun came back and the going got easier. One guide told us he'd gone over the pass 43 times and never had a snowstorm like ours. I take full credit for the change in his luck. Our snowy adventure also gave me the opportunity to visit a local government hospital, which was an adventure in itself (I'm up to four continents now, for those keeping tabs). The latter side of the pass was more like a desert and not nearly as nice (in my opinion) as the first half. On the Jomsom side they have built a road almost all the way to the last village, and as you get closer to civilization, the road gets busier and more unpleasant. So we ended up skipping the last couple of days of the full hike (after Tatopani) and heading back to Pokhara. Actually, they appear to be working on a road that will extend almost the entire length of the circuit (minus the pass), so while it's still totally worthwhile to do this hike, if you want to do it, I recommend you go very soon, as I think in a few more years it's probably going to be ruined. We thoroughly enjoyed the amazing mountain scenery, though, and even with the road construction we still found it rewarding to walk almost the entire way.

A couple things I wish I had known beforehand - we did not go with a guide or a porter, and we felt it was fine to do it this way. The path was easy to find, and though our shoulders were tired from carrying our bags, it was totally doable. Also, asthmatics often have trouble (usually at altitude asthma gets better, not worse) because (I think) of the wood fires heating everything and because of burning trash along the way. A mask helps with this, so it's worth bringing along. And there are "safe drinking water" stations regularly along the way, so it's good to bring a reusable water bottle so that you reduce your plastic waste, as plastic bottles from trekkers are one of the biggest sources of pollution in Nepal.

So now we are at Chitwan looking for rhinos and tigers. I'll check in when I get back to Europe next week and let you know how the end of the Asian adventure goes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jewels of the Kathmandu Valley

I'm regretting a little bit now going on so much about how wonderful it was in India, because now I'm afraid you wont believe me when I tell you that Nepal is even better. The first thing I had to do when I arrived in Kathmandu last weekend was adjust my meanness level - all of a sudden the hassle died down and people got so much nicer. My defensive stance was both unnecessary and unappreciated, and I quickly changed my attitude. The other thing you notice at once is the air quality. Kathmandu is one of the most polluted cities in the world, to the point that by the end of the first day my head was spinning and I was coughing even more than before. I soon started wearing a face mask around, as do many other people here, and that has helped a lot.

One thing that really surprised me is how many people seem to either hop up here for a three day visit during a short trip to India (what a waste, in my opinion) or fly over and just go trekking, missing out on the joys of the Nepali culture and people. I spent the week mostly doing day trips to other towns in the Kathmandu valley, and I was constantly surprised that I was the only foreigner around, or one of very few.

I spent a few days just hanging around Kathmandu, which is quite charming, if very touristy. The first day trip I did started in Pashupati, which is the Nepali equivalent of Varanasi. A big temple complex with cremation ghats next to an almost non-existent river, I witnessed closer than I wanted to the funeral rituals of the local people. Just when I was looking at a guy poking at a pile of burning straw and thinking I must have been mistaken because there was no way a person was in there, a charred leg appeared, and then the rest of the body followed. It seemed a little bit undignified, really, to burn bodies like that in full view of passers-by, but that's probably just my western cultural perspective talking.

I walked from there to Bodnath, which is a major center of Tibetan Buddhist exiles. I had great Tibetan food and wandered around the huge stupa and the gompas (monasteries) scattered around town. At one point I sat down for a rest and then heard lots of horns blowing and drums beating inside the gompa. I walked up to look inside, and two monks made me pour ceremonial water on my face and put a rock on my head (wish I understood why) before I could peer in the door, where I saw row upon row of maroon-clothed, shaven-headed monks sitting and chanting.

After this I went to Gokarna, where there is a major Hindu temple with an "A to Z" of Hindu gods in statues around the temple. There were several bored policemen guarding the temple, and by the time I got halfway through the statues, I had an entourage of about 6 people following me around, telling me about the gods and cracking jokes. I think they got more of a kick out of me than I did out of the temple!

The next day I visited Patan and Bungamati, both Newari villages that have beautiful, ornate courtyards and little temples and shrines scattered about. In Patan I went to the main temple in Durbar Square, and as I entered I saw a bloody horn on the ground and thought to myself, "this can't be good." I climbed the steep stairs and found a bunch of men sitting on the ground, chanting and drumming, and a buffalo lying on the ground in front of the altar. Don't ask me how they got the buffalo up the stairs. Fortunately there was enough of a wall of people that I didn't have to see full on what happened next, but I could see enough to realize they slit the buffalo's throat. I decided to leave, and when I walked past the temple later, a crowd was gathered around, and I saw the buffalo on the ground outside the temple, still whole but separated by about a foot from its head, and a guy supervising a giant blow torch that appeared to be searing the hide or cooking the buffalo whole... I'm not entirely sure what they were doing, but I did find out they only do this once a year, and I just happened to be lucky and witness it!

On several people's recommendations, I visited the touristy town of Bhaktapur, which was my least favorite place in Nepal. They charge one of the highest fees I've encountered in the subcontinent just for the privilege of walking around the town, and while you are walking around, you are constantly besieged by begging children, tour guides, and souvenir sellers. If anyone is considering going there, I would strongly recommend against it until they put that ticket money to better use - like building schools or providing food for those children I saw begging all day.

I got the heck out of there and went off to Nagarkot, in the hills at the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, where I spent a cold night and then hiked back down, enjoying a beautiful view of the Himalayas on the way. Half way through my hike I passed through a tiny farming village (where they grow wheat on terraces like rice!) and was stopped by a group of children who wanted to talk to me. Soon someone my age came over and convinced me to come to his house, and I went and was given tea and sat to talk for an hour. I think most of the village came over to stare at me and try to talk to me, from 2 year olds to 80 year olds. I was invited to come back and stay, and I was infinitely touched by the kindness and generosity of the Nepalis (this is just one of many examples this week). I did have to go, though, and I walked down to Sankhu, where there's an underwhelming temple, and on to Changu Narayan, where there's a more impressive temple.

The next couple of days were spent in Kathmandu, seeing some sights, hanging out with friends, and trying to plan my onward travel. Tomorrow Damien and I head to Pokhara for some trekking, so it'll be a few weeks before I check in again. There's so much more I could tell you about this week in Nepal, but I fear I've run on already, so if you want more, you'll have to ask when I see you. Anyway, I think Nepal might just be one of my favorite places in the whole world, and I don't say that lightly. If you get a chance to come here, I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Delhi to Varanasi

My last update was from Jaipur, which didn't impress me too much. The following day I saw the large and maze-like Amber Fort and the "monkey temple," where hundreds of monkeys converge at dusk and come up to you asking for food. In fact, I went with a friend who bought a bag of peanuts for the monkeys, and one actually jumped on his back to get the nuts. It scared both of us!

I arrived the next morning in Delhi, and my first surprise was that, despite it being the capital and an international transit point, almost nobody spoke English. I had received all kinds of dire warnings about Delhi and was expecting to be hassled and groped all day long, but in fact it wasn't so bad at all. The city is big but has a certain charm, with lots of markets scattered around and some interesting monuments. I visited the place where Gandhi lived his last days and where he was assassinated, and they have put together a very interesting exhibit on his life.

From Delhi I went to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, and I must admit that despite the hype, it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. I went in expecting to be disappointed but actually it was wonderful to see it in person. Agra also has some other monuments, including a huge palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri, about an hour away, which are well worth visiting. Mostly I was very impressed once again by the kindness of strangers, as a person I met on the train ended up inviting me to his home for dinner, and then showed me his (Sikh) temple, which was a first for me. I felt honored to be invited in and to receive a blessing from the priest.

From Agra I went to Orchha, a small and relaxed town full of temples and old palaces. I only had a day there, but I could easily have spent a few. Onwards to Khajuraho, famous for its gorgeous and intricately-carved temples, with scenes from the Kama Sutra carved all over the outside walls, which range from shocking to hilarious. I'll be posting the pictures eventually. This town also had the greatest concentration of French people I've seen so far - coincidence?

Short on time, I went straight on to Varanasi, India's holiest city. This is where Hindus come from all over the country to burn their dead and scatter their ashes in the Ganges. It's an amazing sight just to sit in town and watch the people, who come from all walks of life, in all different costumes and colors. The first day we walked up the ghats (the bathing areas) watching people bathing in the Ganges, beating their laundry in the water, praying and meditating. We arrived at the burning ghat, where people are cremated, and were accosted by two men who looked like they meant business, and we were not able to get away without paying money. It was very unpleasant and we resolved only to go back there on a boat.

So later on we took a boat out on the river and were able to watch the burial rites. Young children, pregnant women and sadhus are dumped into the river unburned and tied to a stone, and snake bite victims are wrapped in banana leaves and floated down the river in hopes that someone downstream can revive them. Everyone else is burned and their ashes scattered in the river. It's an amazing experience to witness such an old tradition, but it also gives you pause when you think that just a few meters away people are bathing and doing laundry in this water, which is also the repository of all the raw sewage of the city. The water is incredibly polluted, and yet still they eat the fish out of the river and bathe in it every day.

In the evening we went to watch the big puja (prayer ceremony) at the main ghat. Five Brahmins, dressed in orange, waved a series of flaming and feathered objects around, rang bells and beat drums. We put a candle in a lotus flower afloat on the river and made a wish with everyone else. Not a bad way to end a month in this amazing country.

So after my month in India, I guess my best summary is that the country is a total sensory experience. The smells and colors and tastes all somehow feel more vivid than they do elsewhere. Despite the inevitable hassle, the Indian people have been some of the friendliest people I've encountered anywhere. It's a place that makes you want to stop and stay a while, relax and not do too much. It's not a place, for the most part, that I feel you come to "see the sights"... most of what's so great about being here is just hanging out, meeting people, eating wonderful food, getting to know the culture, and watching a vastly diverse set of people, animals, and vehicles scramble past you in the chaos of the city. People come for a variety of reasons - some for sight seeing, some on a spiritual journey - and I think some people find they love it here, where for some it's just not their cup of chai, but for me, I felt immediately at home. It's a place I hope to return to many times, and for a lot longer.

And tomorrow off to Nepal. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Colorful Rajasthan

Well, friends, my time in India is flying by. I can hardly believe I've been here three weeks already! I have spent the last week in the state of Rajasthan, in northwestern India. The area where I am is known as the Golden Triangle, which means there are lots of famous sights and altogether too many tourists. It is also a bit of sensory overload, with the women decked out in brilliantly-colored saris, and intense colors and smells everywhere you go.

I started the week in Udaipur, famously the site of the filming of Bond movie "Octopussy." The city is known for its fairytale Lake Palace, but last year's monsoon wasn't great, so now it's more of a puddle palace. I honestly found the town rather overrated, though I enjoyed a side trip to Ranakpur, one of the biggest Jain temples, with 1444 white marble columns, and had an interesting cooking class at the Spice Box, where I learned to make chapati (and succeeded in making mine round rather than shaped like India), and a few kinds of curries, and, very importantly, masala chai, on which I am now hooked.

I spent one day in Jodhpur, expecting touristy but finding that tourists only stop by the famous Meherangarh Fort and pass the rest of the town by. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City, because of its Brahmin blue houses, and I was impressed as I exited the train station onto a major road at dawn and had to dodge cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, camels and even a guy riding an elephant, in order to cross the road. I wandered the small lanes of the old city as the town slowly woke up, and I watched people feeding chapati to the cows (chapati for breakfast, trash for lunch) who wander freely through all the streets of India. I did see the fort, which is also the home of the maharajah of Jodhpur, and a few other sights, and spent the afternoon wandering through the crazy streets of the market and admiring the apparently controlled chaos.

After a night spent on the train, I arrived in Jaisalmer, a desert town famed for camel safaris, which I did not do. It, too, has a famous old fort the color of sand, and in Jaisalmer it houses several Jain temples, the maharajah's palace, and lots of handicraft vendors. There are also several old havelis, big, ornate houses, outside the fort, and I visited a few of those, including the former prime minister's house, which was a study in primitive defensive tactics. Mostly the city was distinctive for me in that every guy I met seemed to think he could get me to sleep with him, so I wasn't too sad I had opted to leave after only one day.

Another night and morning in the train landed me in Pushkar, which if you don't look too closely, you would swear was in Israel. I knew there were Israeli backpackers chilling around here somewhere, I just hadn't found them yet. Hummus (and bhang) was available in all restaurants, and more signs were in Hebrew than English. However, Pushkar is also an important Hindu pilgrimage town, home of one of the only Brahma Temples in the world. It is centered around a lake with holy bathing ghats where pilgrims wash themselves, including one where Ghandi's ashes were scattered. But mostly you go to Pushkar to chill out and shop.

I, however, was there to watch the Hindu festival of Holi, one of the two biggest Hindu festivals of the year. Celebrating the beginning of Spring, on the first day there is dancing and huge bonfires, and the following day there are "colors" - vast amounts of colored powder that people throw on each other as is, or mix with water and spray or pour on people. The festivities range from all in good fun to vengeful, as sometimes things like acid and glass are mixed with the liquid colors, or people will try to smear it in your eyes, which supposedly burns for days. They also will rip your clothing to shreds, leaving people, only boys as far as I could tell, naked in the street. The festival is often fueled by various drugs, which only adds to the craziness.

So obviously my goal was to find a good vantage point and watch, though many foreigners also participated. However, I didn't get up early enough and on my way to my safe haven was smeared with purple color all over my face and arms amidst cries of "Happy Holi!" The guy did try to smear it in my eyes, but luckily I had been warned and had my sunglasses on. A minute later a band of children pretty much attacked me, grabbing my arms and legs and throwing pink and blue powder on me. When I got away, I ended up asking the next person I saw for directions and thankfully being invited in to watch from his balcony. So I spent the whole day holed up with this guy and his mom, watching people get assaulted and colored from the safety of the balcony. I was infinitely grateful for that, and as a side bonus had a chance to learn a lot about Indian life and culture as we chatted all day.

Anyway, I was sad to have to leave Pushkar, but time constraints being what they are, I headed off to Jaipur, where I am now. I honestly don't understand the draw. It's a big, sprawling city with package tourists here to see the overpriced City Palace (home of the maharajah) and the world's biggest sundial in a park full of strange and huge astronomical measuring devices. There is fairly huge area composed of various bazaars where you can buy lots of handicrafts, and a ton of hassle. So all in all, I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I knew this was on the tourist circuit before I came. It's interesting to see what the other backpackers have to say up here, too: last week they loved India and couldn't get enough, but up here in the tourist triangle, everyone seems to have just about had it with India.

So from here to Delhi and then Uttar Pradesh for my last week in India, and then off to Nepal!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mumbai and Gujarat

Mumbai (Bombay) was supposed to be a stopover to take care of some practicalities and get a brief sense of the economic capital of India (Mumbai is to India as New York City is to the U.S.), but it turned out to be much more interesting than I would have thought. It is a big city like any other, although unique in the number of cows roaming the streets amidst the crazy traffic, and the most interesting sights, I thought, included Dhobi Ghat, the "largest human-powered washing machine in the world" - essentially it's a huge compound where thousands of people hand wash laundry for Mumbai's inhabitants - and Haji Ali's mosque, built on an island that is only accessible at low tide.

Most interesting was a visit to Dharavi slum, now made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, but to be honest I felt like I visited it despite having seen the movie, rather than because of it. Dharavi is home to more than a million people, and from what I can tell, it's not a typical slum. It is defined as a slum because people are squatting there in makeshift housing in tiny alleys, but they mostly earn a living, they have free education and hospitals in the slum, and there are more than 100 NGOs working to improve conditions there. So I didn't get the impression it was entirely representative of Indian slums. Most remarkable is the amount of industry in Dharavi. People say nothing ever gets wasted in Mumbai. If you throw out a plastic bottle, someone will come along and pick it up and take it to Dharavi, where someone will melt it down into little plastic pellets and sell those to manufacturers, who make other goods out of it and sell it back to you. They recycle not only their own plastic, glass and paper waste, but tons of ours that is shipped to India. The working conditions are of course unsafe and unsanitary, but the people have jobs and don't have to beg. It's an amazingly efficient system that has grown up there.

I left Mumbai on a 16 hour train ride to Ahmedabad, followed by 9 more hours to Somnath, on the little-visited southern Gujarati coast. My train rides were plagued by cockroaches, crawling over the walls and on my bunk (and on me), which made them two of the most horrific train rides I've ever taken. However, when I arrived, it was worth it.

Somnath is home to one of India's major Hindu pilgrimage sites, the most sacred of the 12 Shiva shrines. Upon arrival I was treated to a beautiful pink and orange sunset behind the temple, and as the sun went down I was able to enter the temple and take part in the prayer ceremony. As you walk in you are overwhelmed by the loud beating of drums and the crush of people inside clapping, and you feel you've walked into an ancient ceremony. You immediately walk past a large, painted sculpture of a cow, and then up to the front, where a priest is waving a candelabra and another is fanning incense around. Then you join the throng while the ceremony continues, and afterwards they pass a flame around on a plate and everyone tries to touch it. I don't pretend to understand the meaning behind it all, but it was quite fascinating to see and to feel like I had stepped thousands of years back in time. However, being the only foreigner around, I sometimes seemed to be more of a spectacle to those around me than the service.

The next day I made my way to Diu, a former Portuguese settlement that is now a cute beach town with a huge fort. After a harrowing overnight bus trip and a strange conversation with a guy who worked in a call center for US National Bank, I arrived at 5:30 am the following day in Palitana, the most sacred of Jain pilgrimage sites.

Palitana is the home of Shatrunjaya, a complex of almost 900 Jain temples built on the top of a hill. There are 3200 steps to reach the temple complex, and as the heat builds, you feel each one of them. If you are lazy or ill, you can be carried up the hill in a dholi, but I chose to walk. With views over the surrounding desert for miles and miles, it wasn't a bad walk. At the top you first come across a Muslim shrine, where women deposit small cradles if they want to have a baby and inhalers if they want to cure their asthma (I was tempted). The caretaker showed me around and anointed me with some strong-smelling oil that he said was for "protection by God" but I had to wonder if it was because I had spent the night on a bus without showering and then walked up a big hill in the blistering sun. Anyway, you then walk through some of the hundreds of small Jain shrines, trying not to burn your bare feet on the hot ground and admiring the intricate carvings and ceiling artwork.

Jains believe that constructing temples earns them some kind of merit, and as a community they tend to be very well-off, usually businessmen, so whenever someone has money enough they construct a new temple at Shatrunjaya. Actually, Jains have a serious policy of ahimsa, or nonviolence, and that extends to killing animals or even insects, which means they are strict vegetarians, avoiding even onions, garlic and potatoes, which grow under the ground and might, therefore, kill an insect if you harvest them. They time what they are allowed to eat with what is growing well at the time, so it's a very environmentally friendly philosophy. And Jains are some of the nicest people I've met here in India. One adopted me when I arrived fresh off the bus and exhausted, treated me to breakfast at the place where Jain pilgrims eat, and then made sure I had all I needed before he sent me on my way.

From Palitana I headed north to Rajasthan, where I have been for the last three days. Unfortunately I am back on the tourist circuit, which means it is much less pleasant than Gujarat, but it's interesting in its own way. However, I've already written so much that I will save Rajasthan for next time.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Kerala - A tiny taste of southern India

It has become very clear to me that if I wanted to begin to really feel I had "seen" India, I would need at least 5 months here. Unfortunately, I have only one month. So I have cherry-picked a few places to see in that time, trying to get a little flavor of the south, which I hear is very different from the north, but still hitting a few of the northern must-sees.

So I spent the last week in Kerala province, which is the southernmost province on the western side of India, stretching almost down to the tip of the country. Because the country is so vast, I could not possibly generalize about it after one week, but I will generalize about Kerala. After many warnings about what I should expect here, I could hardly believe how easy the traveling is. Compared to some other places - the closest comparison I have from my own experience in terms of culture and level of development is perhaps China - the people are incredibly friendly, the harassment factor is low (though definitely still present), the mood is laid back, and most of all, there seems to be a sense of respect among the people here. Maybe it goes back to so many religions coexisting in one place, or perhaps it's because the main religions include Buddhism and Jainism, which are both quite peaceful and respectful religions, but there seems to be a general regard not just for other human beings but also for animals, which is really refreshing.

So I can definitely see why India is a backpacker paradise. Not only is it super cheap, but as a woman traveling alone, I felt particularly safe in Kerala. Women here look out for each other. We have separate seats on buses, and separate carriages on sleeper trains. Men will give up a seat to let women sit together, and sometimes there are even separate queues for women. Some people might look at that as old-fashioned, but for me it's great, because it reduces the grope factor, and even better, the worry factor.

As for the food, it redefines "spicy" for me. Not spicy in that it burns your mouth, since really it hasn't been particularly hot so far. However, I have never felt such intense and varied flavors before, even in the Indian food I have had at home. And talk about a vegetarian's paradise! If you think vegetarian food = rabbit food, I would suggest coming to India to get re-educated.

So as for what makes Kerala worth a stop, mainly it's beaches that are the main tourist draw, plus yoga and ayurvedic medicine and massages. There is a huge network of backwaters that you can cruise on, and up in the hills is one of India's biggest tea growing regions. In fact, the visit to the tea plantations of Munnar was probably the highlight of the week, although relaxing on a gorgeous beach after being massaged with hot herbs (that admittedly smelled a bit like dinner) was not so bad either. The coastal portions of the region are rather over-touristed (mainly, it seems, by French and Germans), but I was amazed how even in those places the locals have been generally friendly, and once you get inland a bit, they are some of the most welcoming people I've met.

In a few hours I fly to Mumbai, the end of my tour of southern India. I am sad to have my time in the south cut short, and I know I have missed many, many highlights. If there is one thing I know for sure after this week, it is that I will one day be back to see them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Foodie Tour of Alsace - Munster Valley

The foodie tourism continues this week with a visit to the Munster Valley, in the Alsace region of France. This region is famous for wine - primarily Riesling and Gewurztraminer - which makes sense, given that Alsace is on the German border. In fact, the dialect spoken there is a variant of German, rather than French. The wines, however, in my opinion are far superior to their German counterparts. We stopped by the Schoenheitz Winery, who claim that their wines are different because their grapes are grown at the highest in altitude of any in the region, and sampled several excellent wines.

You may have guessed that the other famous local product from the Munster Valley is Munster cheese. Let's get one thing straight - the "munster" that we grow up on in the U.S. is not the same thing as an AOC munster from Alsace. Where ours is tasteless and rubbery, with food coloring giving it that typical red rind, real munster cheese is one of the stinkiest, strongest-tasting cheeses around. It has a smell that knocks you over. Real munster is made on a small farm from unpasteurized milk, and it is washed three times a week with a cloth that previously washed an older munster, thus passing down from generation to generation the bacteria that make the cheese so delicious. We stayed in a farmhouse that we highly recommend, Chez Chantal et Dany, and visited their dairy in the morning.

Dany told us of the many woes of the modern cheese farmer in France, mainly that European regulations are strangling traditional cheese production and encouraging cheese to become industrialized. If you know anything about cheese, you know that when it comes from a factory, the taste can't begin to compare with cheese from a small producer. And to see the work and love and tradition that goes into making these cheeses, it felt tragic to hear Dany talk about how his children would most likely not be able to continue his work. So I encourage everyone to visit these places and support the small farmers - maybe France is too far away, but this is a problem everywhere now.

Anyway, we did a little tour of the lovely small villages in the area, full of colorful, old half-timbered houses, and lots of French countryside atmosphere. Randomly, the artist who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Bartholdi, came from Colmar, one of the towns we visited, so there was a mini-Statue of Liberty outside the town. I think our favorite town was Riquewihr, but for food you can't beat Strasbourg (also home of the European Parliament). We had an amazing meal at La Cloche a Fromage, home of the biggest cheese cloche (the big glass bell they put over cheese) in the world - they are actually in the Guiness Book! Walking in the door, the smell of cheese hits you in the face, and they have a cheese expert there who ages the cheeses herself and picks the ones that are at the height of their maturity for you to try. The only one on the plate we couldn't stomach was the Epoisse, which was too strong even for me.

We also tried a local "winstub", a traditional Alsatian restaurant, and though they made me a terrific dish of munster melted on potatoes and onions, we had to suffer through everyone around us ordering the local specialty - tete de veau (calf's head). They don't bring it whole, but the brain is clearly visible on the plate, which is not very appetizing to be sitting next to! Well, it was a "cultural experience"...

So, now that I have had my fill of wine and cheese, I head off to India tomorrow, where the cuisine (and everything else) should be drastically different. I'll keep you posted...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tips on traveling for cheap

Well, folks, Journeys Around the World is going to have one last spike in activity before quieting down for a while. As of this coming August, I am making a pretty giant career change, and as a result, I'll be trading in my backpack for a white coat. That's right, in a few months I'll begin my new path as a "non-traditional" (read "old") student at one lucky, and yet to be determined, US medical school.

In the meantime, however, I plan to put my last months of independence to good use. The itinerary has not been finalized yet, but it begins with two months in India and Nepal, and hopefully ends with riding a train back across Siberia. I'll be keeping you posted throughout my adventures, but since things will be quiet for the next month until my last major journey begins, I thought I'd write about something else today.

One of the questions that I get asked most often when people find out how much I travel is "how in the world can you afford to do that??" usually preceded by "you must be terribly rich." This is always a little bit awkward, and I do my best to explain that when I go backpacking, I generally spend less money in a month of traveling than I would in a month of living in New York City, or often even than I would spend in rent alone! If I sublet my apartment and work freelance jobs from internet cafes while I'm gone, I can almost break even. How is this possible, you ask? Here's my basic list of tips and tricks to travel super cheap.

1. Travel in the developing world. You get a much bigger bang for your buck: hostels are cheaper, food is cheaper, and the rules are more lax.

2. Be flexible and open minded. You can save a lot of money by staying in a hostel rather than a hotel, in a bunk bed in a dorm rather than a private room, or even in a campsite rather than a hostel. In some countries, you can even get away with "wild" camping for free.

2a. Bring your own sheet, towel and shower shoes. This lets you stay in very cheap places without worrying (too much) about the inevitable grime and germs. And you avoid charges in places that charge you for sheets and towels.

3. Be friendly and get to know the locals. They will point you to the best places to go, and often they'll give you a tour, a place to stay, or a bite to eat. They'll also be able to help protect you from local scams and overcharging that are inevitable wherever tourists are.

4. Learn the language. Or at least learn a little of it. The more you understand, the harder it is for people to cheat you. And it will open up options that are not open to the standard English-only tourist (plus you have the chance to meet people and learn all about the culture).

5. Cook your own food. Many hostels have kitchens you can use, and you can save lots of money by buying boxes of pasta and some vegetables and cooking your own dinner.

6. If that's not possible, eat local food. Tourist food is made for tourists, and so are the prices. If you want to eat cheap, eat what the locals eat, in the places they eat it. But be sure to look for popular places with lots of turnover, as that decreases the likelihood of your getting sick from the food.

7. Spend time, not money. Being in a hurry to get a million places in a short amount of time is the biggest possible suck on your money. Plan a trip where you hit fewer places, and waste some time waiting for the bus instead of getting a private driver. In some places it's even relatively safe to hitchhike, which is, of course, the cheapest and slowest form of transport. These are also good ways to get to know locals.

8. Get really good at bargaining. In most developing countries (and some developed) you can bargain for just about everything, even when it seems like you can't. Find out ahead of time, or from other backpackers, what the local custom is, and then haggle like your life depends on it. Many times the prices of tours, souvenirs, even hotel rooms are actually a third to a half of the original asking price. And don't feel guilty about this - your aim is to get a fair price, not to take advantage of anyone.

9. Key into the backpacker network. Stay in hostels and talk to other travelers. Find out where they stayed, what they did, and how much they paid for it. Check the thorntree forum, and make good use of it. It's an excellent resource.

10. Use the Lonely Planet guidebooks. No guidebook is perfect, but I have tried pretty much all the series of guide books out there, and in general the Lonely Planet books are the best. They have by far the best maps of any of the guides, and they are geared towards budget travelers taking public transportation (though I hear this is changing in some of the books).

11. Hoard frequent flyer miles. Always get credit for miles you've flown, and try to fly on the same airline or its partners. Get a credit card that gives you miles, and pay all your bills with it. Do offers online that give you miles. And then use all those miles to get free tickets to other countries.

12. Learn to sleep on buses and trains. This is a tough one, but if you can manage to do it, you can not only save a night of hostel charges, but also a day of travel time when you are going long distance.

13. Hook up with other like-minded travelers. Nothing saves money like sharing with another person. Find someone on your same budget with similar tolerance, and share costs.

and last but not least....

14. Don't be scared! The biggest hindrance to all of these points is the overwhelming fear that strangers are going to do bad things to you, the food will make you sick, you'll get lost or get eaten by insects, you'll be uncomfortable, or something terrible will happen to you. I'm not going to tell you it won't, but the chances of that happening are so much slimmer than the chances of you having an amazing, life-changing adventure, that I'd say it's worth a shot.

Adventure map for 2009...