Sunday, May 31, 2009

Leh Palace

Set on the Tibetan plateau, Ladakh is one of the most staggeringly beautiful provinces of India. The capital city of Leh offers a rare insight into what Tibet was like before the Chinese invaded the country. It also boasts the highest golf course in the world at the Indian army base (at about 3,200m). Permission can be sort to play a round. Similar to the Gulf, you carry a piece of artificial turf around and aim for the "greens", which are actually brown - a mix of oil and sand which offers a seriously challenging putting surface.

The palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century, but was later abandoned when Dogra forces took control of Ladakh in the mid-19th century. The royal family moved to Stok Palace. Leh Palace is nine storeys high; the upper floors accommodated the royal family, the stables and store rooms were in the lower floors.

The palace, a ruin, is currently being restored by the Archeaological Survey of India. The palace is open to the public and the roof provides panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas. The mountain of Stok Kangri in the Zangskar mountain range is visible across the Indus valley to the south, with the Ladakh mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.

A Chinese Princess - Wen-Cheng

I was sitting at Lhamo´s enjoying a lemon soda on the roof-top when two travellers arrive in the company of a young Tibetan guy. One of the young women is a loud American who has just come from a Thai massage. Her masseuse tells her an interesting story.

The Thai woman had a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama who was staying at the same hotel as her in Bangkok. She didn´t really know who he was at first, but felt a “connection”. She asked the the hotel receptionist who he was and he informed her it was HHDL. She looked him up on the Internet, found he was based in McLeod Ganj, and decided she needed to see him again. She wrote to HHDL´s office and scheduled a private audience. On meeting him she told him of her strong connection she felt with him. He advised her to spend two years to research Tibetan history.

The Thai woman followed the Dalai Lama´s advise and set about her studies. She came across the story of Wen Cheng, a Chinese princess who married the King of Tibet in 638AD. Indeed, China have used his story to lay its claim to Tibet. She claims to have extremely clear memories of her past life, including the ability to name her ladies-in-waiting, the scent she used and descriptions of the palace.

Why is it that past-life memories often involve such a heightened sense of grandeur? An aunt of mine went for a regression and was told she was one of the original disciples of Jesus.

Asked how the massage was, the loud American replies “it was really crap”.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

On The Streets

Becoming a Buddhist Nun

Ani Jangchup Chokyi – my meditation Guru explains how to become a Tibetan Nun. Spend a year as a pre-novice and serve three years as a novice. Easy huh?

The journey hasn´t dithered a number of middle aged and elder westerners becoming Buddhist nuns. They are often seen on Temple Road or in the Mega-store buying large quantities of Toblerone. There are several nunneries specifically geared to Western devotees in neighbouring towns including Palampur and Sidpur.

There is plenty that originate in Australia and the nuns seem to outnumber Western monks by about 4 : 1.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Back in Town

Hong Kong was really great, but it was definitely time to return to McLeod Ganj. I have been out of town for a month and suddenly the library has disappeared and two new restaurants have opened up. Indeed there is even a new Parliament in place, although i´m not expecting anything amazing from the Congress Party.

There was no water in the apartment (a travellist left their tap on for two days) and electricity has been erratic. Dharamsala is keeping up with it´s record-breaking “Wettest Town in India” award, for although the mornings are usually bright, it rains and/or storms in the afternoon and/or evening.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Views From The Balcony

Bringing in Supplies

Before leaving Bogotá, I had a special bag made up to transport my stuff around. It was made to order at the specification for an aeroplane hold (1.40m x 1.20m x.0.70m). To take advantage of the opportunities in Hong Kong I travelled with my “special” bag.

Kev sent me back to Dharamsala with several packets of ground coffee and a Bialetti espresso maker. He also passed me a copy of Dawkins´”God Delusion” which I have been unable to track down in India. Me Ma bought over some marmite, Turkish delight drinking chocolate, Telma chicken soup mix and the ubiquitous matzah meal. Meanwhile I stashed up with Helmanns mayonnaise, raspberry tarts, cuppa soups, rosemary, Colman´s English mustard, zip lock bags and toilet cleaner tablets.

With a new CreativeMP3 and my Olympus “Tough” 8000 as presents for myself, I found the ultimate Hong Kong gifts for my Editor and students at Temple Street Night Market.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blogspot Curtailed in China

According to the South China Morning Post there are over 50 million bloggers in China. Many are upset at the moment as those using gmail blogspot accounts have not been able to access their sites for more than 12 days. The Great Firewall of China strikes again. Chelsea, my spy in China will keep me posted if this situation changes.

City of Life and Death

After more than a four year absence, I finally made it to a cinema – nuts, for I love watching movies. Ching-Ching is a very special local HK friend and a favourite movie partner; she will attend everything I ask, no matter how artsy or absurd. This time however she is in charge. She suggests City of Life and Death, written and directed by Chuan Lu, with fine performances from Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao and Hideo Nakaizumi. This vivid dramatization of the rape of Nanking in 1937 is beautifully filmed in black and white. I know the story well, but the film really drives it home. The film takes the angle of a Japanese soldier and is not surprisingly shocking stuff! The film is over two hours long, although it doesn´t feel like it which is always a good sign.

The film is shown at Broadway Cinematique in Yau Ma Tei, one of my favourite cinemas in Hong Kong with plenty of arts and low budget local and international films. The café and bookshop next door is excellent.

an excellent movie partner

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Must Dos in Hong Kong

During the 90´s when I was a Hong Kong resident, the average stay for a tourist to the Territory was 32 hours. Such a shame, for Hong Kong has a lot to offer, apart from the quality dining opportunities.

A trip on Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour is a must, and is still the best bargain in town. The views day or night are exceptional.

A trip on the tram to The Peak leaves from Garden Road. The viewing platform is good and the 40 minute walk around Jardine´s Bazaar offers a great birds eye view over the Island.

For some traditional urban life check out Kennedy Town (HK Island) or Sham Shui Po (Kowloon).

The History Museum has been expanded and improved. Found at 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui from 10am (closed on Tuesdays) it is free to visit on Wednesdays. The museum boasts displays on the natural environment, prehistoric, Chinese dynasties, folk culture, Opium Wars and the Japanese war-time occupation.

Walk off those extra pounds on one of Hong Kong´s many walking trails. Combine it with a trip to an outlying island – Lamma is good and Cheung Chau awesome.

Unfortunately, pirated software is much more difficult to find. The South China Morning Post reports that piracy continues to drop dramatically in the Territory. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan now top the charts for software piracy. It´s possible you may have some joy around the Golden Arcade in Sham Shui Po.

Suit touts abound around Tsim, Sha Tsui. A few bargains for made to measure suits and shirts can still be found cheaply. For high quality, expensive Chinese-style clothes, visit Shanghai Tang on Peddar Street, Central. For cheesy souvenirs, you can´t beat a visit to the night market in Jordan Road / Yau Ma Tei.

Check out the Restaurant Guide below for a range of eateries.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Star Ferry

The Star Ferry across Victoria harbour is the classic recommendation of "Must Dos" in Hong Kong. I´m busy compiling a list of others which I´ll publish shortly. The video comes courtesy of my new Olympus "Tough" 8000.

Some photos are sorted and can be viewed at

Cityscape of the Day

Central, Hong Kong Island.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cityscape of the Day

Taken with my new pointy shooty digital Olympus camera. The Star Ferry on Hong Kong Harbour facing the Island.

Gastronomic Hong Kong

Although Hong Kong has a Chinese population of more than 97%, it offers a wealth of excellent international restaurants. Below, I have selected a few choice options.

Hong Kong Island:
The Orange Tree - 17 Shelley Street next to the escalator, Central:- This is one of my all time favourites, this Dutch restaurant has deservedly remained open for a long while. The real wood finish and olde worlde photos on the walls add to the Dutch ambience. Their signature dish of fillet lamb and eggplant pie is always cooked to perfection and the assorted desserts are great if you still have room at the end.

Beyrouth - Lyndhurst Terrace/Hollywood Road: - Another deserved long-timer, this Lebanese outfit offers the best shwarma in the territory. Prices have remained static for the last 5 years -HK$50/55 for chicken/lamb. Real classic kebabs! Puts other more populace places to shame.

Habibi's - 112-114 Wellington Street: - This Egyptian eatery offers an excellent array of authentic middle-eastern cuisine. Prices have remained fairly reasonable. The meatballs are great as is the haloumi cheese salad. If you are lucky you may catch one of the belly-dancers.

La Pampas - Staunton Street, Central: - This Argentinean eatery offers freshly imported South American steaks - need I say more? This one isn´t cheap!

China Tea Club - 1fl, 12 Peddar Street, Central: - A great HK institution: a wide variety of authentic Chinese and Asian dishes are served up in opulent colonial surroundings. The Hunnan chicken is delicious, although the Asian dishes in this place is for ginger-lovers only. A little heavy-handed for my fussy tastes.

Archie B's Deli - LG/F, Staunton Street, Central: - offers an authentic New York deli experience, their matzoh ball soup is almost as good as my Mum's and an interesting collection of sodas.

Jaspa's - Staunton Street (and Sai Kung): - offers consistently good Asian fusion dishes. Doesn´t seem to matter what you choose from their extensive menu - it´s gonna be tasty!

Cru - Staunton Street, Central (and Sai Kung): - Run by the same owners of Jaspa's, their HK$85 set breakfast is superb. They offer a wide variety of omelet fillings, tea/coffee and fresh fruit juices. The asparagus, chicken and cheese omelet was wonderful!

The Peak Look-Out (formerly the Peak Cafe) - 121 Peak Road, The Peak: - Another touch of the old colonial past. The menu is varied, and both the curries (Indian and Thai) as well as the barbecue are really good.

Davis, 1 Davis Street, Kennedy Town: This new tapas bar is both very trendy and serves up a wealth of traditional and non-traditional portions. Their Mars bar cheesecake is sublime!

Kyber Pass - Block E, 7/fl Chungking Mansions: - Chungking Mansions is a world unto itself and a backpackers paradise. The building is decaying, the ambiance unsavoury and is as hygienic as a public toilet in India. Yet, it´s a gastronomic enormity. Consistently high quality curries to suit all palettes and all for reasonable prices.

chicken shahi korma at the Kyber Pass

Spring Deer - 1/fl, 42 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui: - A Beijing style eatery,the Beijing duck is a signature dish (HK$288 per duck) served with pancakes and plum sauce is wonderful and the fried lamb and beef and green peppers are highly recommended.Book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hong Kong Ketchup

My computer has now been returned to me for a second time. Sony have now fitted a second motherboard which have clearly frightened off the locusts that had appeared to have moved in. With just two days left in Hong Kong, I'll probably wait to upload the photos in Dharamsala next week.

Ma and Pa really enjoyed their trip in Hong Kong - they hated it on their only previous visit in the '90s. Indeed they have enjoyed it so much so much they have requested a 1st class London - Hong Kong flight to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in three years time (and to also include another tea at the Peninsular. I guess it is possible i might actually be earning some money by then. Fortunately my three brothers can also share the burden on this one.

The Sunday barbecue was a huge success. About thirty guests turned up from 1.30 onwards, many of which were old aquaintances and friends. The lamb was swiftly demolished as was Kev's legendary green chicken curry pie. Wong bought over a Beijing duck which i reluctantly shared with other guests.

I'm meeting up this afternoon with some Mr G. graduates for an excursion of the Hong Kong History Museum. For some, it is their last day of IB exams - too frightening to think that so much time has passed - i remember when they were all knee high to a grasshopper. I'm really looking forward to it.

Tonight is curry night at the imfamous Chungking mansions with old colleagues at the Kyber Pass. The food is of consistently high quality, despite the somewhat unsanitary conditions that it is prepared in. An authentic curry experience for just a few dollars. I'll endeavour to complete my shopping at Temple Street night market. I want to try and find some souveniars for Lobsang (my editor), Panden and Rinchen, (my Tibetan students), and Mahinder, my apartment manager.

Dr Gloves has recommended a Peking Duck restaurant for my last supper in town for just a select few. Can't believe I have waited so long for this - I love duck pancakes!

Rumours were rife that i was here to return to Hong Kong on a permanent basis. I am blessed with a network of very special friends who have spoiled me rotten, but i haven't been in McLeod Ganj for close to a month, and i'm really looking forward to my return.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

High Tea at The Peninsular

I might have missed the opportunity to swank it up in colonial luxury in Darjeeling, but tea in The Peninsular has made up for it.

The Peninsular has been a Hong Kong institution since 1928. Being situated on the Kowloon waterfront, it offers excellent harbour views. An extension was added in the 1994 and the Felix bar on the top floor quickly established itself as the Top Dog venue, but it is pricey and has a strict dress code. I once tried to gatecrash Bruce Willis' private party. I did catch a glimpse of the host (this man is huge!), before being swiftly ushered out by two burly bouncers for the wearing of open-toed sandals. The views from the bathroom are exceptional. The hotel boasts the largest fleet of Rolls Royce, all specially painted in Peninsular Green.

I'm in sandals (and traditional Indian linen) again as we spend half an hour queuing up for tea in the foyer. Fortunately Dr Gloves and my parents are looking much more respectable. Table bookings are not accepted.

An orchestra plays traditional jazz and Beatles' covers from the gallery above. My Dad insists on me bro. and I indulging in the full works which includes scones (with jam and cream, mini-quiche (excellent, but too small), assorted sandwiches (with cut-off crusts) and assorted cakes (the lemon sponge being a little disappointing). The coffee is particularly weak. It doesn't come cheap, but it is a special experience.

Ma, Pa and Dr Gloves living it up!

Four hours later, Auntie J joins us for yet another meal - this time at La Pampas, an Argentinian steak joint in Central. My parents love to eat, but as delicious as it is, (all their meat is freshly imported), I have reached bursting point.

Kev's barbecue is running from 1pm today, and I have been put in charge of the leg of lamb. It has been marinaded in garlic, onion, rosemary (from Kev's garden), lime and honey, and has been cooked at 80 Celsius for over 24 hours. Kev has made his house special (Thai green curry with chicken pies) and salmon tortillas and we have enough sausages and burgers to last late into the evening. No doubt I'll be grazing like a famished yak. I'm gonna be the biggest lard-arse in Dharamsala next week.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nam Wa Po Revisited

Not satiated by his hike on Lamma, Boy is up for another despite a 5pm flight for Bali. Having visited my the Fish Farm in '96 (a rented farmhouse in Nam Wa Po, he is very interested in checking it out, followed by a hike up Cloudy Hill. Situated directly opposite Nam Wa Po, this is Hong Kong's third highest peak, and is part of the challenging Wilson Trail. Who am i to deprive Boy?

It's a very early start heading up from the Island to the northern part of the New Territories.

Nam Wa Po was settled in 1952 following the reclamation of Taipo Harbour. Predominantly consisting of Hakka fisher folk, they were forced inland and didn't really know what to do - not much fish to be found in the hills. To make matters worse, their new village location was quickly inundated with deadly poisonous blue snakes. The village Head (The Lam family dynasty,)quickly consulted a feng shui master who instructed the building of place of worship. Despite their Taoist roots, a church was built in 1953 instead of a temple, and miraculously no blue snakes have been seen in the village since.

The old village really hasn't changed much at all. The river bed is wider and the river just as pungent. All the front facing houses have remained untouched, although the Fish Farm has been made into two flats, all tiled up and shows no recognition of it's previous incarnation. I presume Mr and Mrs Ko, my delightful if very strange landlord and lady, must probably have long departed this world. However I lack the courage and a present to knock on their door. It was noted however that the front and the side of their house was equally as messy and still filled with rusty chicken cages.

The village has won the prestigious Most Beautiful Hong Kong Village award - although Mr Lam, the village Head, may well have bought this with hard currency. It also boasts traditional celebrations of the Lantern festival. The village square is decorated and families bring out food to share with their neighbours. Bamboo and paper hot air balloons are constructed and released skywards although not always unsuccessfully.

A quick photo shoot, but we are still late for our ascent. To try and save time I try a shortcut, but fail miserably, so we double back on ourselves to the track. We soon realise that a full ascent is unrealistic given our time constraints. We pass by some more World War Two memorabilia (this time in the form of corrugated iron shelters) and through hillside shrines, until we reach the crossroads for the reservoir.

The Boy brings out a pack of cards and we play one of the unique Groves family games. Called A Thousand, it is a real classic, but unfortunately it seems to be unintelligible to others. After a few hands we make a pleasant stroll back down. It's always good to catch up with Boy, and even better to beat him again at A Thousand.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lamma Island

The Boy is up for a hike and had heard that Lamma Island was THE place. In my humble opinion it is not the best of the out-lying islands, but it does offer great scenery, much needed wind (the humidity is rising now) and a couple of interesting hiking trails.

We catch the Lamma ferry from Central terminal and the crossing now takes between 30 and 40 minutes. Arriving in Yung Shue Wan, Main Street offers a host of relatively cheap seafood restaurants. It's like running the gauntlet. The menus and prices are pretty similar to each other, so take your pick.

I won't eat anything that has been swimming in Honk Kong's polluted waters, and manage to find an authentic Szichuan chicken packed with red chillies, The Boy takes a scrummy mutton in Beijing onions and N. takes the chicken in cashew nuts. It comes in a set which includes rice and drink and we eat enough to explode for HK$220.

Heading off Main Street to head up to the Viewpoint, there are a number of shops selling hippiesque clothes the path meanders along to a couple of small, clean and tidy beaches with an excellent back-drop of the Lamma power station. Pretty surreal!

The path across to Sok Kwo Wan goes past two pagodas and toward the final inlet you can see the kamikaze caves used for Japanese defense purposes during World War Two. At the entrance of the village is an interesting Tin Hau temple. The walks takes about 50 minutes at a leisurely pace.

My favourite restaurant in Sok Kwo Wan - the Wan Kee, has closed down, so we just grab a drink at the Fuk Kee, before heading onto the Family Trail. This does a short circuit around the central part of the Island. We enjoy the sunset over the power station, before heading on the 7.20 to Hong Kong Island which arrives back at Victoria just in time to see the 8pm nightly laser show.

No time for a visit to Cheung Chau unfortunately. This outlying island offers a much more traditional and authentic experience. There are plenty of trails around offering great vistas, small fishing villages and even a few old pirate caves.

A Tour Guide in Hong Kong

With Dr Gloves and Auntie J. tied up in work, I become the official tour guide for The Boy, Sis in Law and Parents. Fortunately they are easy to please.

The ride across Victoria Harbour by Star Ferry remains a highlight of anyones' visit to the Territory, and for just HK$2.30 for an upper deck voyage (about thirty US cents) has to be the best travel bargain. On arrival onto the Island it is a short taxi ride to Garden Road for a Peak Tram trip to the quintessential Peak. I can't believe how long it takes to shepherd my family around.

We enjoy a very la-di-da lunch at The Peak Look-out restaurant (formerly the Peak Cafe). Portions are very generous so we head for a stroll along Luard Road - one of the most scenic walks to be had and offering unparalleled bird's eye views of the city skyscrapers.

My computer is ready for collection. The motherboard was blown and my warranty from South America rendered useless. As predicted, it's expensive enough although it doesn't warrant purchasing a new lap-top. Can't believe the money I'm burning through. I'll be living on dal and rice when i get home.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On A High

Night View from Kev's Penthouse

I’m now staying with Kev, one of my earliest friends from Hong Kong. He owns a split-level penthouse on the 20th and 21st floor on Hong Kong Island which offers outstanding harbour views. There is no smoking in the apartment, but the roof-garden, complete with Japanese water-features, Chinese Buddhas, sub-tropical plants, (including palms and dragon trees), bamboo, rose bushes, vegetables, herbs, et al. is a pleasure to visit frequently.

It was somewhat different when we arrived in the Territory in August 1992. We were the only gweilos – (literal Cantonese translation - white ghosts, referring to non-Asians) in a tiny rural New Territories village a few miles south from the Chinese border. I was starting out at my first international school, and Kev at a local Chinese school. We both loved the village which constituted of about 300 people, the majority of which were Hakkas, a tiny minority group with a history of farming and fishing.

Whilst Kev had a typical village flat in the newer part of the village, I was staying at The Fish Farm, a 1950s two story farmhouse. It was pretty unique living environment - especially for a white ghost. Actually I liked it so much in the village and at the school, I stayed eight years.

Kev never enjoyed working as a NET (Native English teacher) and I was very pleased for him when he decided to quit teaching and set up his own business. Despite no formal training, he has always had an eye for the aesthetic and recognises quality when he sees it. He is now a very successful interior designer. His current residence is a show-case for potential clients, and it is like staying in a museum.

We have travelled extensively together through Tibet and Ladakh, and both enjoyed journeys to far-flung destinations including Bhutan and Easter Island. It should also be noted that he is also a souvenir junkie, so the flat boasts several Tibetan cabinets and chests, moai heads and Bhutanese bows and arrows.

Kev is one of the loveliest people I know - a great friend and enjoyable travelling companion. He is unfailingly honest, kind, compassionate and reliable - a man of real integrity. That said, he is totally crap at checking his personal email.

After running around HK like an amphetamine junkie, catching up with friends and family since I arrived, this morning I just want to slob out. He always tells me to root around and help myself to whatever I want. Opening up the fridge this morning is like entering an Aladdin’s cave for the gastronomically deprived - I don’t know where to start! To me it looks like a New York deli. There is fresh bread, cheeses, four varieties of olives, bagels, cream cheese, mayonnaises, mustards and homemade pickles.

More regular readers of this blog will know I can get somewhat obsessive about coffee. Kev is truly a connoisseur. His espresso maker had to be especially imported from Italy via Australia. He has recently purchased a coffee bean roaster and a unique coffee-bean grinder (which apparently massages rather than grinds – much better). Total respect!

Kev is famed for his regular parties, although these days they have morphed from college-style drinking sessions with a few nibbles to become highly sophisticated barbeque and wine-drinking soirees. A large leg and racks of lamb, South American beef and Beijing ducks have all been brought in for a Sunday social with a bundle of old friends.

I’m going nut here!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Unexplored Hong Kong

Whilst many might assume Hong Kong is nothing more than a concrete jungle,the Territory is predominantly green. Indeed 70 per cent is made of of National Parklands. The Territory is hilly and the ground predominantly granite so it already boasts natural deterents for the property developers.

LJ and I had a bit of a late session last night, but we get up early to hike through from Ma On Shan to Sai Kung via the Ma On Shan National Park. It's a very pleasant hour and a half stroll through this virtually deserted area. Small waterfalls, lush vegetation, and sub-tropical blue-winged butterflies abound. A large lizard with an erect yellow and black tail scurries along the side of the path. And all within 10 minutes from an air-conditioned Starbucks in yet another New Territories shopping mall.

I do find it somewhat disappointing that the government concretes over all the footpaths through almost every National Park. It is somewhat of an eye-sore, and takes away any sensation of being in the wilderness. Nepalese hiking, this is not.

I will upload some photos if and when I get my lap-top back. As it was purchased in Colombia I am told the warranty is invalid.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swine Fever

Fascinating to be back in Hong Kong again.

Arriving at Chek Lap Kok was like SARS revisited. Every airport worker is wearing a face-mask, infra-red cameras are scanning new arrivals, bilingual Swine Fever information pamphlets are left at every flat service and all arrivals have to fill in "I haven't got Swine Fever" declaration form.

A group of some 280 people were quarantined for seven days in the Metropol Hotel in Wan Chai after a Mexican guest fell sick with Swine Fever. Mass celebrations for them on their exit last night. Road were blocked throughout this normally notoriously busy thoroughfare.

Dr Gloves is late so I skip over to Burger King in need of beef. We head over to his swanky pad in Sai Kung. We head in Auntie J.s open top car to the village square for some serious snacks at Jaspars - an excellent modern bistro with a fusion menu. After a long time in the Indian subcontinent, it seems like a gastro paradise. Good food and pleasant company

I attempt to turn on my laptop but it fails to boot this morning. This is coming from Sniff's flat before heading on to the Sony centre in the the metropolis of Mong Kok. It should be under warranty, but i predict i will still be a charged a phenominal wad of cash, but will they be able to sort it in 14 days?

Friday, May 8, 2009


It is with much trepidation that I slowly approach the immigration counter. There are about ten officers at their counters looking pretty bored as they so often do. Not a nice job methinks. I fear this is going to be a bit of a hit and miss affair. I opt for an elderly gentleman with a large amount of henna in his hair. He picks up my boarding pass and peruses it for a while. I am sure he must have seen one of these before. He then turns to my passport page and begins examining each page. He seems pretty triumphant in finding my current visa and i´m thinking maybe that is all he needs to see and he´ll stamp me through. I wish. He then starts again of the back of the passport and begins reading aloud all the stamps in my passport. There is an obscene amount considering it is only three years old.

The immigration officer begins looking more perplexed and asks me when my arrival into India was. I inform him and he begins the arduous journey through all the stamps again. I try and stand there acting all innocent; I think he should find out that there is no Indian immigration stamp in the entire passport, no matter how many times he goes through my passport.

He asks where I entered India and I tell him Sunali. He looks up at me quizzically and I try various pronunciations of the word. No recognition whatsoever. He keeps on saying Manali, and I keep on repeating Sunali. To help him on his way, I find the exit stamp from Nepal for him. “But where is India?” I inform him it is next to Nepal, but he is now clearly concerned. He stands up to find a higher power. He locates a young guy with a trendy goatee and glasses as thick as the Hubble telescope. They babble in Hindi to each other ferociously and the word Manali is mentioned several times.

“This is not good,” say Goat Boy. I try to enquire as politely as possible what can be done, but he just ignores me, scratching his head. After a couple of moments I repeat again. He stonewalls me, mutters something under his breath and disappears forever. I am no nearer to getting my passport or boarding pass stamped.

Mr Henna next calls over the officer at the next counter. I explain my woeful story again; fortunately I see a glimmer of recognition in his eyes at the word Sunauli.
“I am sorry Sir, they really don´t know what they are doing down there”. He instruct Henna to stamp process immediately, which he duly does. "I´m so sorry for wasting your time" says Henna. How charming. Take off in an hour!

Illegal Immigrant

It´s 5.20am and I have just remembered that I am an illegal immigrant here; I never received an entry stamp at Sunali – a land crossing point between Nepal and India. It should be interesting at immigration at Indira Ghandi International. I just hope I can board my flight.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Sort of Homecoming

Hong Kong. Loud, brash, beautiful, humid, modern and efficient.

It´s time to renew my permanent resident card, something I guess i´ll be doing every three years until I either move back there in desperation to top up my savings or die. It took me seven years to secure my residency and I am loathe to let it elapse. I had an amazing 12 years in the city, and the opportunities it provided me both in international schools and extensive Asian and Australasian travel were invaluable.

Not only do I get a chance to ketchup with many quality friends, both local and ex-pats but I still have close family members their too. Dr Gloves is back working at the University of Science and Technology, whilst Auntie J. still does some freelancing in the city. My parents and The Boy will be flying over there to meet up too. A real family and friends reunion.

My shopping list is vast and I fear I am in danger of spending more in 2 weeks in the metropolis than I have spent on the Indian subcontinent in 10 months.

A new MP3 player is vital following the slow death of Zen and I want to buy a small digital point and shoot camera that is able to capture good quality video footage and possibly be able to go underwater. There will also inevitably be a few choice food-products heading back up to Dharamsala.

Unfortunately there is some “nut and bolts” that needs my attention. There´s banking (HSBC are just top quality), a check-up at my old dentist (I just can´t bring myself to go in India), and sort out my laptop which will need to go in for servicing – it sounds as if a hoard of locusts have moved in to my hard-drive.

Blogs may well be sporadic and/or spartan, but I will try and capture some quality images despite the inclement weather there at the moment.

The Train To Delhi

This is an interesting first for me; a blog from the train to Delhi. My compartment contains two Israelis, and Indian couple with two badly behaved infants and, Sonam, a Bhutanese travel agent working in Delhi. Another 12 hours to go, but it is really is very comfortable in 3A class – beds and chairs are comfortable, the food – a lot of it and really quite edible, and the air-con is very much a welcome relief. If only I could get the kids to shut up.

Darjeeling Highlights

I never had a clear morning, but you can see the legendary potential of Tiger Hill for the classic sunrise in the mountains. The walk back through Ghum is gorgeous.

For steam buffs, the UNESCO World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, is a must. Even though the “season” is at an end, two daily steam train joy rides are available to Ghum – departing 10.40am and 1.20pm from the centrally located railway station. They cost Rs240 for any passenger over 5. Alternatively you can get a day tour packet to Kurseong for Rs 800.

Many travellers I spoke to raved about the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre (open dawn to dusk Monday – Saturday. As an illegal resident of McLeod Ganj and a little pushed for time, I didn´t really feel the urgency to visit.

Lloyd´s Botanical Gardens provides a great respite from the town centre; a great place just to chill. Another great hang-out and place to people-watch is the centrally located Chowrasta. Plenty of both Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims make their way through here to the temple on Observation Hill. The walk around the hill offers plenty of potential viewpoints.

Those interested in the Mount Everest summit assaults should pass by the Mountain Institute. Some great memorabilia to be found. The Zoological Gardens adjoining it is well-maintained, although there are plenty of very noisy Indian tourists upsetting the animals, (despite all the posters requesting quiet).

Gompa fanatics can enjoy plenty of local Buddhist temples, although I was a tad disappointed that so many were quite recent additions.

For food and sustenance, there is quite a range. Definitely my favourite is Glenary – the cakes and pastries are great (I particularly the chocolate tart) with the advantage of computers and stunning views from the ground floor tea-shop. They offer pretty poor quality coffee in a pot. The restaurant at the top is even better. The delicious tandoori dishes arrive quickly and is very reasonably priced.

For some great set breakfasts, Soham´s Kitchen, just down from Andy´s Guest House can´t be topped. Although service can be very slow when crowded, it´s a great hangout point. The hash browns are the best in India, fried eggs cooked to perfection and their espressos are strong and bitter.

Darjeeling being a tea centre provides little respite for coffee junkies. Trying to get a decent cup has been a challenge. However, I have been saved by Coffee Day Café situated at the Rink Mall.

Joey´s Pub is a good place if you like something stronger or want to watch live English premiership action. A sign near the bar informs the patrons that “women will not be served.” It has a certain pub-like feel to it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Run Out of Steam

The clouds have encompassed the whole town as I head my way down to the delightful railway station. It is not looking good for photography.

It transpires that the train I am to take has a steam rather diesel engine after all. I enter the 1st class coach which consists of ten rather orange and exceedingly comfy armchairs. There is already an Indian tourist family of four and an older Australian in the carriage with two “customer service” guys. With plenty of steam belching from the funnel and over-zealous whistle blows, the train departs exactly at 10.30am.

The train shunts along at the speed of my fast walking pace for 800 metres and then stops abruptly as the three engine bods scurry off with some urgency. Fortunately, it is just a water-fill up from a parked tanker. One of the stooges comes over, apologises, and explains that there is a water shortage here at the moment. Suffering from one in Dharamsala, I ask him for how long has there been a shortage.
“Oh, about 20 years”.
The reservoir hasn´t been altered since the British left, and the population has increased more than tenfold since then.

After fifteen minutes the train moves off again towards Ghum. The tirade of whistle blows continues as it skirts between curb and shops and market stalls just inches away. Pedestrians block their ears – there are at least six different trains each day to my knowledge; shopkeepers and market stall holders must be going deaf and/or nuts! Despite the noise there are lots of waving toddlers, school children, and babes in arms of a sibling, parent or grandparent.

After travelling a smooth and comfy hour, we finally arrive at Ghum covering a grand distance of 9kms via the attractive war memorial and park. The enshrouding cloud has turned from white/grey to grey/black and visibility is minimal.

Strangely, all the other passengers in the executive lounge leave the carriage. The “steward” comes over with some green tea and a china plate whilst the “guide” Khunhinda brings over some tasty cakes and pastries in a box. After a short ten minute stop, we chug off again. The steward lights up a cig so I follow suit and we´re all having a bit of a naughty school-boy smirk. Now this is starting to look like good value for money.

As the train descends, so drizzling begins. I can hardly see the shrubbery at the roadside, let alone the beautiful snowy peaks behind it all. The train continues on past Sonada, where there might possibly be a colourful roadside vegetable market and the pretty village of Tung. More green tea and cigarettes ensue.

We pull into our final destination, Kurseong, just before 2pm. At 4864ft, considerably warmer than Darjeeling, and although the cloud hasn´t left, it is whiter and there are a few glimpses of rays trying to break through.

Khunhinda escorts me to a waiting van and we drive across to the Makaibari tea plantation. He tells me this is the most famous tea plantation for selling the most expensive tea in the World. They might not be the organic suppliers to Harrods, but their top quality silver buds will set you back a cool US$20 for 50g – about 2 cups worth.

I whizz through this “factory” at an even faster pace than my trip to the Happy Valley plantation – I am a real tea expert now. I am disappointed that they don´t provide free samples. Khunhinda wisely arranges to meet me back at the station while driver is instructed to take me to the “Look Out” point. We pointlessly drive up into the clouds. The road is blocked so I even more pointlessly walked the remaining 800 metres. The view is very white cloud-like.

It´s time to head back onto the train to return. A very decent cheese curry, veg rice, french fries and ball-puff dessert is already waiting for me. I polish it off quickly and I am immediately brought a jam sandwich It´s raining again, and it continues all the way back to Darjeeling at 6.40pm where lightening awaits.

I pick up a newspaper at the station. The Telegraph informs it´s readers that there were three new snow leopard cubs born yesterday at the local zoo. Quality work.

Having spent the day on a train I am now going to have to spend 38 hours on one between New Jalpaiguri and Delhi. And I won´t have my own armchair!

It´s a 5am start tomorrow. Ouch! It´s not all fun and games on the road.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Losing The Plot – The Darjeeling Railway Station

I´m generally a pretty patient guy. Many years of working long hours as an early years teacher, has further accentuated this gift. I´m not proud to say that today I kind of lost it.

On my second day here I went to the railway station to book the train back to Delhi. Lonely Planet inform me that even though my train departs from New Jalpaiguri this can be done at the local railway station at Darjeeling. True story, but it doesn´t prepare you for the wait that this might entail, even though the booking office can be almost deserted.

There are two main counters at the station. They are divided as one for the fun Toy Train booking office and the other being for all other trains bookings. I go to the appropriate line.

Now the booking forms required to be filled in by every passenger are kept officially with the clerk behind the smash-proof glass. Two signs are posted in front to him. One asks passengers to “Honour The Que” (sic) and the other says “Only one form”.

On Saturday there was just three people in front of me. New people arrive, but seem to push in the line to collect the booking form and manage to put in questions or two to the clerk before being prompted back into the line. It took me an hour and fifty minutes to finally make my reservation.

Today, I wanted to book the Toy Train ride on a steam engine to Ghum and back. There are two trains available each day. Only one person is in front of me at the the toy train booking counter. Great! This surely can´t take too long.

Oh how wrong! The guy in front of me is clearly making a booking from Siliguri. He asks for four options of train, and the clerk disappears.

I get the train number i need ready for her form and extract Rs240 exact fare from my pocket.

She returns 10 minutes later. The customer now wants the prices for each different class of each train. This takes her away for a further 20 minutes. I need a ciggie, but no smoking allowed. The customer makes his choice, but now he doesn´t have enough cash on him, tells her he will be back in 5 minutes and he heads off.

At last – my turn. The clerk decides she´ll wait for him to come back and quickly disappears out of the booth. She only returns when the original customer comes panting back to the counter. He sorts his cash for the clerk and she recounts slowly, and hands him his ticket. Great – my turn.

“Can I have a toy train ticket to Ghum for this morning please?” I ask politely.
“NO!” she barks.
“Oh really? Can I go this afternoon?”
“All sold out”
“Oh Dear! Are there any tickets for tomorrow?”
Great! “I´ll take a ticket for tomorrow then please”.
“I can´t sell it to you. You will have to go to the counter there”.

She points out a queue of three people in the same kiosk that I had queued on Saturday. I´m about to start whining at her when as quick as Concorde, she suddenly bolts through the back door of her booth and vanishes for good.

I wearily make my way across to the adjacent counter. And wait...and wait...and...

In fairness to myself, since I have remained in my “cheapest room in Darjeeling” so I really I haven´t had hardly any sleep since Delhi, almost one week ago!

After 20 minutes, I am still no closer to the counter. “Oh FUCK IT! I announce in my booming voice to the queue, and probably half of the passengers on the platform. I stomp off out of the railway premise for a Gold Flake cigarette. Maybe I have just been in India too long.

Five minutes later and with greater inner peace, I walk back into the station. There on the other side of station is an old table, a floral table cloth and a woman from Joy Travel. She´s selling tickets on a train heading to the picturesque town of Kurseong 32kms away. It is named after the unique Kurson Rip - a rare white orchid.

The train is diesel rather than steam, but it runs the same 2ft narrow gauge tracks - it is actaully a UNESCO World Heritage site. It´s an eight hour trip, that stops off at several scenic points and another tea plantation. All refreshments are included! It´s Rs800, more expensive than the Ghum trip, but I have already been through Ghum. It´s lovely there but I can make the journey on foot quicker that the four hours the steam train takes.

Everything is sorted in five minutes. Crazy!

Observatory Hill

I finally made it up to Observatory Hill, the flat path around the bottom is usually too appealing to resist and takes in some great views. This holy site is quite unusual in that it is a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus. Before the summit there is a small cave in dedication to Mahakala, a Buddhist deity as well as an angry incarnation of Lord Shiva. Very cool!

The path meanders up through giant Japanese cedars with huge signs warning of vicious monkeys, beautifully illustrated showing a gang of primates assaulting a Punjabi family. There was plenty of Indians, but I didn´t see one monkey. There are plenty of interesting pilgrims, including this toothless older woman.

The summit is stunningly decorated by shrines adorned in colourful prayer-flags. I dread to think of how many prayer flag photos I have taken in the last nine months! I might make a huge encyclopaedia of them.

The Happy Valley Tea Plantation

Down below Hill Cart Road, the main artery of the town, a very pleasant walk will take you to the Happy Value tea plantation established in 1854. It´s best to visit in the morning when they are at their busiest.

The path-sides are decorated with large poster – “exclusive organic green tea producers for Harrods”. A twenty minute tour (by donation of Rs20 per person minimum), is conducted by an eager young guide, who explains the process from the picking, drying, shaking, baking, and sorting. The guide is happy to have three tourists; an Austrian couple and myself. He seems very pleased to have a “Londoner” on board – well no-one has really heard of Watford, and it´s close enough. He informs me that "Harrods is in your great city". He has his rap to a sharp patter. Excitedly, he turns to me and points to an industrial-sized oven. “Look Sir, this machine is made in Belfast!”

They sell tourist samples packs (100g) at the end of the tour. Organi black sells Rs200 whilst I splash out Rs220 for the top quality green. I hate the stuff, but I think Dr. Gloves and Auntie J. may appreciate it. Much cheaper than getting presents from Harrods, and you get the same top quality.

Bhutia Busty gompa

The Lonely Planet map of Darjeeling is crap, makes no sense and most travellers are grumbling about it.

Having said that, it is a difficult town to navigate as steps and paths twist up and down the hillside, but every non-Indian travelists (a composite of traveller/tourist) are going around the town lost. Best to keep asking.

Unfortunately I can´t remember the Bhutia part of the name. I find myself cupping my chest as I am asking local men and women if they know the "Busty gompa". I get quite a few strange looks.

Alright, I know I said I wasn´t going to temple myself out yet, but I just had to do a pilgrimage to Bhutia Busty gompa.

Set on a breath-taking outcrop (on crystal clear days you can see Khangchendzonga, India´s highest Himalayan peak), this temple´s claim to fame is awesome! – it holds the original copy of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”.

Unfortunately you need “special permission" to view this Buddhist classic masterpiece.

The external murals are typically fierce (shown below) and the quality of the paintings inside are top notch. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside. Although locked on my arrival, a couple of laymen come scurrying over to open up the temple doors for me.

It used to be sited at the top of Observatory Hill, but was relocated piece by piece in the 19th century.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tiger Hill, A Walk Through Ghum and Avoiding the Strange Weather Non-Patterns

After eating in the hotel´s restaurant last night I adjourn up to the roof-top for a cigarette. Finally the clouds have departed and there is a starry night sky overhead. I prepare myself to get ready for a 4am sky check again, although it´s past 1am before I fall fitfully into sleep.

Still all clear at four, so I head down into town in search of a Jeep that ferries tourists to Tiger Hill, some 13kms passing Ghum on the way. A driver quickly coerces me into joining 8 other Indians for Rs80/100 single/return journey. It´s too early in the morning for me to barter and I opt for the former. The driver clearly fancies himself as a Jenson Button and heads across at break-neck speed, overtaking most of the huge convoy also making the same journey. We arrive close to “Pavilion viewpoint” and it is jam-packed. There has clearly been a backlog of tourists awaiting a clear morning; about 90% of the 500 or so people are domestic tourists. Coffee and postcard - sellers snake around the crowds with plenty of takers for both.

Whilst it is clear above us, there is haze and cloud where the mountains should be. The sun emerges into view on the horizon and there is a half-hearted round of applause. Local tourists quickly bombard Westerners with requests for group portraits – young blonds being particularly popular. Suddenly two huge orange/pink peaks can be seen in the distance, as if floating in mid-air. Even with my 300mm lens and polarising filter,it can´t pick them out. And within three minutes they fade back into the clouds and sunrise is now officially over. With such a disappointing mountain shoot, taking pictures of locals taking pictures offers some compensation.

I wait for the hordes to descend in their Jeeps and begin to meander through a gorgeous bamboo-strewn path.

I walk the road from Ghum (Ghoom) back to Darjeeling with four other travellers. The route boasts several relatively new gompas. They look pretty garish from the outside so we decide we can´t be bothered to enter them. I´m planning a gompa tour of Lahaul and Spiti in June and I don´t want to gompa myself out!

The first gompa you will come to is also the oldest. Built in 1850, the Yiga Cholong gompa contains a 5 metre high of Maitreya Buddha.

The largest of the gompas is the palatial Druk Sangak Choling, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1993. It has about 300 monks, studying philosophy, literature, astronomy, meditation, music and dance.

It´s about 9.30am when we arrive back to Darjeeling – it feels like we have done a whole day´s worth of trekking. We order a blitz of a breakfast at Sonam´s Kitchen, but they can only cope with one order at a time, and by the time our last breakfast is served, the clouds roll back in dramatically.

My Rs150 room has caused quite a commotion amongst my new companions, they can´t believe there is a room so cheap. They quickly concede that cheap is not always best.

The thunder and rain quickly descend on the town again, but a nap seems impossible on my bed. This could be my Somerset Maughan moment – especially as I´ve saved money on accommodation. I grab my laptop and head down to the “Planters Club”, a Raj antique with lounge, library and billiards room. Unfortunately, I am informed that the day membership has been closed for the last three months and I am refused entry. Feeling somewhat paranoid - maybe it´s because I look kinda scruffy - I call the number on the card, put on my most “English” voice and am told the same story.

The sun is back out again, and there are now mountain views from the Glenary Coffee House as I write this up. If you haven´t figured out already, the is a new “Works In Progress - Darjeeling” that can be accessed by clicking here.