Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Personal Top 10 List of backpacker hangout destinations

These are not in any ranked order. I've grouped them roughly by geographic location.
  1. Kao San Road, Bangkok
  2. Chiang Mai, Thailand
  3. Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
  4. Dali/Lijiang, Yunnan province, China
  5. Varkala, Kerala, India
  6. Alice Springs, Aus
  7. Moab, Utah, USA
  8. Kauai, HI, USA
  9. Banff/Jasper, BC, Canada
  10. Panajachel, Guatemala

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Contrabrand in Dali

The first couple of times it took me by surprise.
I turned back. It was a matronly Bai woman in her traditional blue dress and a frilly white headband, walking up to me. She came very close and whispered, “Smoke ganja?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Maybe hashish?”
“No.” I smiled to take off the edge. She walked away.

We were in Dali, in southwest China. In the 2-3 days that we were there, essentially this same exchange played itself out about a dozen times. I took me a while to get over the incongruity of it – kindly-looking older women, so far removed from my stereotypes, peddling drugs. It was always women and they were all old, though I had difficulty in guessing the ages of Chinese women of certain age. Some were old enough that they reminded me of my grandmother.

Often they would sidle up to me so quietly that I wasn’t aware of them until they were at my arm. The way they said it was ‘Smoku ganja?’ There is a fairly large sight-seeing area around Dali, but all foreigners stayed in the two or three touristy streets in the Old town. So, in Fuxing street or Renming or the aptly-named Foreigner street, you’d meet everyone sooner or later. Some of these women would ask me multiple times a day. Once or twice I was tempted to ask the price purely out of curiosity. But I didn’t want to encourage the ladies and have them harangue me further. Also, I didn’t know what the penalty in China was for possessing narcotics.

After a few times, I became better at spotting the peddling grandmas, waving them away, always with a smile. Some of the ladies would see me and nod without approaching, knowing I wasn’t a customer. Others were quite persistent and came up to me and asked every time I passed by even though I always said no.

“Hey Rupal, are any ladies trying to sell you marijuana?” I asked my wife on our last day in Dali. Even when my wife and I were walking together it seemed that the Bai ladies managed to isolate me and ask.
“No. Not even once,” Rupal said.
I never learned what it was about me that made those ladies think that I’d be interested in their products.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Likable Things About Travel in Israel

  1. The nugget-sized country means that most intra-city travel is not much more than 2 hours. (Surprisingly, most buses took less time than what the schedule showed.)
  2. Good public transportation meant that we could do the day trips ourselves, instead of depending on Travel Agencies.
  3. The fact that they print out a whole week’s bus schedule when you ask for the next bus. (Very useful to plan day trips)
  4. Tel Aviv’s all-day bus pass (Hofshi Yomi) which is just about the price of one round-trip ticket. (Why don’t Jerusalem and Haifa have this?)
  5. Ubiquitous falafel stands for pita sandwiches on the go
  6. Kosher restaurants that won’t mix milk and meat in the same dish – great for us lacto-vegetarians

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Israeli Strudel

Sometimes, while traveling around, you get to pick up some neat trivia. While in Israel, I learned about the ‘Strudel.’

Back around 1890, Hebrew wasn’t a common spoken language. Like Latin or Sanskrit, there were many who knew it, but it wasn’t spoken daily. Ben Yehuda, born in the Russian empire who moved to (then) Palestine decided that the diaspora needed a common language and that it would be Hebrew.

For a language to flourish, it has to quickly adapt and assimilate many new words. And since there was no word for the symbol ‘@’ the Israelis decided to call it the Strudel, because it looked like their pastry.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Self-Parody Israel style

As soon as you land in Israel, you can pick up the palpable undercurrent of tension in the air. In all the young army people toting heavy rifles, in the ubiquitous metal detectors and in the unceasing questioning wherever we went. It took me a couple of days to learn to move that into the background and focus on the many other aspects that Israel had to offer.

So, in light of all this no-jokes-allowed backdrop, it was particularly enjoyable to see the T-Shirts on sale at Jerusalem. The Israelis seemed to poking fun at themselves a bit.



ISRAEL – UZI DOES IT.” The army recruits are required to carry their rifles at all times, so you see these Uzi rifles all over.

And finally, knowing that the US supports Israel every year to the tune of $3 Billion in economic aid:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lijiang - through Simon Winchester's eyes

We were in the delightful town of Lijiang recently, and only when I was there did I recall that a writer I admire, Simon Winchester, had passed through the town a decade or so ago and had written about it in his book, The River At The Center Of the World. Once I returned to Chicago, I went back to the library to see what he'd written. Here's what I found:

The town of Lijiang is one of western China's true gems — one of the very few way stations in the Middle Kingdom on what, archaically perhaps, still known as the Hippie Trail. Youngsters from around the world come to Lijiang, en route between the equally delightful towns of Dali and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and Yang- shuo in Guangxi province. They are on a circuit — the same people who visit the back streets of Chiang Mai, Kathmandu and Lhasa, or Panajachel, Goa and Trivandrum, end up with equal enthusiasm and curiosity and camaraderie in towns like Lijiang. No matter what regime is in power, nor what rules are in force, there is a universality in the appeal of such places — laid-back, easygoing, with colorful people and cheap and wholesome food. In the normal and depressing order of business, the youngsters come to such a place first as rucksack-carrying pioneers and discoverers; the tour buses come next; and then the airports and the big hotels.

Lijiang is currently poised delicately between the first two phases of this evolution — the youngsters are still making it here, but on buses as well as by hitchhiking (1 picked up two young Israelis, taking six months off from their kibbutz, and they were typical of the breed); and the hotel lobbies have notices offering the day’s program to the tour groups of Dutch and Belgians who have found out about the local delights. No groups of Americans or Japanese, nor of Chinese "compatriots" from Taiwan and Hong Kong, not yet; no airport yet, either, though one was due to open, imminently); and no Holiday Inns or other chains, although I met an unpleasant Frenchwoman who had plans for a Sofitel, once the airfield opened. The developers are eyeing Lijiang, greedily and warily at the same time.

Of course, that was 12 years ago. Yes, the airport is there now. There is KFC, right outside the old town, and judging by the crowds, it is very popular with the Chinese teenagers. Lijiang's Old Town had the feel of completeness to it (which we didn't find in Dali.) So it looks like the developers that Simon bemoans have come, done their work and left.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traveler IQ Challenge

I first came across this quiz sometime in late 2007. Due to its popularity, it was featured in WSJ. I like many aspects of it -- the breathlessness with which it throws the next question at us, the fact that it uses both accuracy and time to score, and also the visual count-down timer.

There are many groupings to choose from, but I usually attempt the World geography quiz. If you haven't seen it yet, you should check it out.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Centimeters short

As we traversed the southern part of China, going east to west from Hong Kong by plane, trains and buses, I was struck by how many young people approached us (on their own) and tried out their English.

We met Winnie, who is in her third year in college on the train from Guilin to Kunming. It was an overnight train, and it was the morning after when she came over, sat across from us, smiled at Rupal and myself and started talking. We were not very far from Kunming.
She wanted to know where we were headed. We told her our itinerary. She was going with her boyfriend (who didn’t speak English) and a small group of other travelers to the same places. Her mother had to work, and couldn’t join them. To me it seemed that more and more of the Chinese middleclass, with their new-found money thanks to the booming economy, were taking vacations.

Winnie, who said she was majoring in “English translation” hadn’t traveled too far beyond Guilin. I was trying to downplay our travels, afraid that it would seem boastful in comparison, but she was very curious and asked us a lot of questions about the places we had visited.
We also told her how much we liked China and how friendly we found its people. And then she surprised us with a tough question.
“Which country has the most un-helpful people?” Both Rupal and I looked at each other, struggling to answer that one.
Cop out responses like ‘They are all friendly people,’ or ‘It depends on who we end up running into,’ didn’t satisfy her at all.
“But who is least friendly?” she persisted.
We still wouldn’t name any country. None came to mind, really.
“What about the Japanese people?” Winnie asked us. She was leading us. We were less than a day’s journey away from Nanjing, and I knew that the two nations had had a turbulent past.
“The Japanese people we met while traveling there were very reserved,” I conceded. She smiled and nodded, satisfied.

“Once you have a job, which places will you visit?” Rupal asked Winnie.
Hong Kong! I will go to Hong Kong for shopping!” I thought it a little ironic that a girl who lived in the hinterlands of China (“the manufacturer for the whole world”) wanted to go elsewhere to buy things.
“And I will go to America, maybe.”

In the morning light, the most striking feature of the landscape we were rolling past was the greenness of the countryside. Mile after unremitting mile of paddy and corn fields. The fields had been cut and leveled right up the small hills, all to feed the huge population. Our talk then turned to the Summer Olympics, which were less than a week away.
“You are not going to Beijing?” Rupal asked her.
“No. I have never been to Beijing. Very expensive.” She paused and then added, “Many girls from my college were selected for the Beijing Olympics.”
“You didn’t want to go with them?”
“Yes, I wanted.” Winnie passed her hand in front of her face, making a circle around it. “But you must be very beautiful.” To me, she looked attractive, but I guess the officials who were selecting girls from all across China had exacting standards.
“Also, you have to be 1.65 meters tall. I am only 1.6meters.” She smiled ruefully.

Before we got off the train, Winnie wanted to have her picture taken with us. She called her boyfriend over to take the photo. The shy guy didn’t speak English, but he too wanted his picture taken with us. In a short while we all arrived in Kunming. At the station, we asked her to write ‘Dali, tomorrow, lower berth’ in Chinese on a piece of paper. We used that to buy our onward ticket.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The fortune teller of Xi Shan

One evening last week, we were wandering in the Xi Shan (western mountains) near Kunming. We had time to kill since were taking the 11pm overnight train to Dali. After checking out of the hotel and leaving our bags with them, we had made a day trip to the mountains nearby, a popular tourist destination.

“Hello. You are teacher!” A man seated in a low stool, with some astrological charts spread out in front of him was trying to get my attention.

“You are teacher,” he repeated. “I am fortune teller!”

I was stunned. Not because he had called it correctly (he had not) but at the risk he was taking. I knew he was guessing, but it was crazy that he would play such poor odds in the hope of landing a customer. If I was the fortune teller and saw an Indian guy wearing glasses in a foreign land, my first guess would be that he was in the IT field, that he worked in some office with computers.

“She also teacher,” he said, pointing to Rupal. This guy was 0 for 2. Even if I had any desire to have my fortune told, I wouldn’t go to someone with such an abysmal record.

I shook my head No, to indicate that we weren’t teachers. In fact, at the moment, both of us had no profession, being gainfully unemployed, trying to live out our possibly juvenile notion of trying to get by without working at all.

The man smiled, acknowledging that he had been wrong. He quickly turned his attention to the Chinese tourists, who were, presumably, more tolerant of charlatans.

Where does Wanderlust originate from?

While this book can't be said to be where my wanderlust originated, it surely fed to it. I was rambling around for years before I read Paul Theroux's 'The Great Railway Bazaar.' But the book definitely changed the way the I look at maps. When I see two places, I first wonder if it is possible to go from one to the other by road, traveling closer to the land.

It made me enjoy traveling by land (trains and buses) a lot more than simply flying in and flying out of a city. A lot of our trips are open-jaws (start in one city, end the trip at another and fly back) and this too was partly the result of reading TGRB.

In this book about his enviably long railway odyssey, Theroux starts out in London, and keeps going all across Europe and Asia, ending up in Japan. And then, he turns around and does the whole trip back to London, via a different route (Trans-Siberian). His astute observations and unpretentious style of writing make this, perhaps, my favorite travel book of all time. (Though I know that Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard is firmly perched as the number one travel book among scores of people.)

I own this book, but I actually listened to it as an audio-book the first time. Frank Muller (the narrator) doesn't merely read the lines, he performs them. I remember that for 2 weeks or so, I used to eagerly look forward to my commute to and from work which is when I listened to it.

If you love travel and haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 8, 2008


I first learned of the term Bluelist and its use from Lonely Planet, though we've been doing something similar for quite some time. At the beginning of each new year, Rupal and I would each independently write down the names of 3 countries we wished to visit that year. We'd stick the list on a cork-board, and try to make it to some of the places on our list. If a country repeatedly showed up on the list, we'd try and get to it sooner than later.

So here then is my personal Bluelist as of August 2008:

Near Term (before Dec 31 2008)
Columbia and Equador
S. Korea
Kyoto area in Japan
Peru (Machu Pichu)

Mid Term (six months to 2 years)
Sri Lanka
Sikkim (India)
TamilNadu in 3 months (India)
East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)
Central America (Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama)

Long Term (in the next few years)
The length of Trans-Siberian esp. Lake Baikal
Kazhakstan (Central Asia)
Traverse the Silk Road
West Africa (sub-saharan: Mali and Niger)
Tibet (via the highway from Katmandu)
South Island (New Zealand)