Summary of the trip: Mainland Euroasia

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip and this is the award for the final third of the trip. As well as this I will follow this post with some overall awards which will include some additional awards as well. That post will follow this evening UK time.

Best site

The Great Wall, China, the Great wall was stunning, especially seeing it snaking off into the mountains – apparently 20% of the entire Chinese population worked on it at one point, meaning it probably wasn’t the great military success it was supposed to be.

Honourable Mention

Taj Mahal, Agra Although Agra and frankly the rest of northern India isn’t exactly the nicest part of the world to travel in, the Taj itself is absolutely stunning. Angkor Wat was pretty damn cool as well too.

Best museum

Hermitage, St Petersburg, although some of the artwork wasn’t amazing a large proportion of the artwork spread over 400 rooms was stunning, the rooms it was kept in were pretty good to look at as well.

Honourable Mention

Shaanxi Museum, Xian, this museum gave an excellent overview of Chinese history – excellent.

Best tour company

No Winner, all of the tours I have been on in this part of the trip have been significantly flawed though I have to admit I haven’t been on very many.

Best city

St Petersburg, Russia, St Petersburg is absolutely stunning to look at and it is great to see a European city that hasn’t been ruined by plate glass like Oxford has for example. The European style buildings that exist throughout the centre are stunning and the streets are wide enough as well.

Honourable Mentions

I thought that Singapore was going to win the best city award as there was enough to keep me busy for the 8 days while I was there, that was until I got to Beijing, which was frankly better as it has two world class sites within its city limits. It was then pipped to the prize itself by St Petersburg. This is undoubtedly the top 3 however.

Best non-Family accommodation

Etour hostel, Shanghai, I was going to give it to the Beijing Novotel but they offered a dodgy tour to the Great Wall so I’m not granting it to them, but Etour hostel was well located behind the JW Marriott on People’s Square. It also had a great lounge with good food and drink – and excellent staff and th

Best food for under US$25

Food court, apm, Beijing, after eating far too much Western food in China it was good to get some Chinese food for a change, and the apm food court in central Beijing was excellent.

Honourable mention

Singapore and Malaysia’s foodcourts for being consistently strong and cheap too.

The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger

Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.

Rice Burger @ MOS Burger, Singapore, this was gorgeous, disappointing I had to wait until Singapore before I could understand the menu enough to get to try a rice burger. The burger was delicious too – can we have a branch in Oxford please.

Best nightlife

St Petersburg, Russia, because clubs in half finished buildings are cool and the ballet was pretty solid as well.

Best Activity

The acrobatics, Shanghai Centre, Shanghai, this was absolutely awesome and kept me riveted to my seat for 90 minutes.

Friendliest People

The Russians the Russians always seemed to be friendly and went the extra mile to help pretty damn frequently, given their limited resources it was great to see.

Best Transportation Company

No Winner, nothing particularly stood out, but China rail, the metros in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and the buses in Xi’An were all pretty damn good.

Best bargain

“Russian” coat from Giordano, ¥299 for a coat that would probably be the better part of £100 in the UK was a great deal.

Biggest rip-off

The tour to the great wall for costing probably 3x as much as just doing it yourself on public transport with the Chinese and then taking us to a dodgy medicine centre on the way back.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

The winner is Milk, a great film on American gay rights – and given the “great” state of America at the moment, maybe it has wider importance to all the other issues in the country.

Further photos uploaded

I decided to get my computer time finished this weekend and I’ve uploaded and named all the photos I’ve uploaded over the past couple of days.

A final reminder, personal photos require having a Flickr account and me as a friend, view the help page for how to do it, though its not completely intuitive it is worth persevering on.

I’ve updated the instructions a little to make it a little more than a link and send me an email if you have any problems, as someone who wants to work in computer programming its important for me to be able to get this stuff right.

PS I should note I’ve met and helped people who’ve had problems switching off the flash on their digital camera and that is always incredibly easy, so I won’t bite your head off for asking for help :p.

Chennai (Madras)

First the really good news. Chennai is much nicer to visit than the north and is much more laid back and fun to visit. It was still not totally easy but far more comparable to Viet Nam for example.

After arrival I wandered around the airport to find the station to get the train into town. The given directions weren’t clear but the station can be accessed by walking across the carpark between the domestic and international terminals. Once on the train it is usually not too bad especially if you travel first class like I did. I also found it quite difficult to always actually find the ticket office to buy a ticket and once found they were expensive at 76 rupees (US$1.50) to get to the airport first class – this is probably to cover the probable overwhelming majority of people riding for free. I also had my first experience of the traditional indian method of crossing a railway which is over the tracks to make my way to the station to catch the train into town.

After getting to the centre I first went to the tourist office to see if I could go on a tour but none were available for the day. Then I walked through the interesting Muslim district to have lunch at the excellent Saravana Bhavan. For lunch I had a vegetarian special suggested by the waiter and it was delicious (guess what – he got a tip). It was pretty hot but not unbearable so he got that one right too! The chain also has restaurants in London and New York among other places which are would be a great place to try southern Indian food send me an email or make a comment if you want the phone numbers.

After lunch I made my way to Georgetown fort which was the old British fort in the town. Inside the fort I went to the chapel and museum both of which were pretty interesting. After that I wandered around Georgetown itself before catching the train back to the centre of town for a delicious supper at Vasanta Bhavan. This was a bit different from lunch as no cutlery was provided meaning you had to eat with your fingers – given how much you use your fingers it was surprisingly hard. Much more difficult than even chopsticks.

After this I headed back to the airport on the train which was a little busier but fine in 1st class. At the airport I found India is having issues with fuel meaning I timed my departure well!

Taj Mahal and Agra

On Wednesday I took a tour from my hostel to the Taj Mahal. We left early at 7:30am and made our way on the 5 hour bus journey to Agra. This was fairly uneventful if slow. I chatted to an Indian from Mumbai (Bombay) who spoke excellent English on the journey.

After arriving in Agra we first went to the very impressive Agra fort which was built around the same time as the Taj Mahal itself. Though the fort was actually built by four different kings and the Taj was built by a single king in the middle of this period. After this we headed to get some lunch and for a shopping opportunity where I got a marble Taj mahal model for 1100 rupees (US$23) – whether it is real or not I’m not 100% sure but as the tour was booked by the Indian YHA it should have been kosher (though actually there were some issues later). After this we headed to the Taj itself where we got to spend an hour looking at it’s stunning beauty. It actually really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and is up there with the Grand Canyon, Maccu Pichu and Iguazu Falls. The building is literally completely built out of marble and even after seeing all the photographs it still took my breath away. Even the gates surrounding it are impressive. We got views of it from far away and up close and even got reflections. We also went inside the maulsoleum itself to see the stone coffins inside. They are probably the only thing not built of marble.

The other interesting thing about the Taj Mahal was that even though it is a wonder of the world there were far less European and American tourists than at the other sites I mentioned. Probably even including the Iguazu falls which is far less well known than the other three. It wasn’t exactly unbusy though – lots of Indians had made the journey there. It was good that that didn’t spoil it however.

After this we headed back to the bus quickly but it was in vain and we managed to be first back (though it’s the Taj so I’m not convinced that is a good thing!) and we headed to the birthplace of Hindu god Krishna which was very interesting to see I also had some delicious warm milk and sweets before returning to the bus once more.

This time it wasn’t so great and we headed to a dodgy set of 5500 temples nearby. I went with the English speaking group and we were asked to donate large sums of money to the temple we were taken to. I basically told them to fuck off though not using those words so we didn’t lose any cash. What was more shocking was that the main group of Indians got this treatment which although this isn’t that dodgy as my experience in India went it’s something I’ve never experienced on a coach tour before in any country. Even the tour was fairy cheap at US$9.50 that is comparable to what Sinh Cafe charge in Viet Nam for one day tours and they offer far better service as they have more comfortable fully AC buses and give you loads of information enroute about Viet Nam as well. It was also booked through the Indian YHA so should have been 100% ledgitimate.

After this diversion we got back to Delhi very late and I only got a couple of hours sleep before my flight to Chennai in the morning.

New Delhi

After a lazy morning I went out on Tuesday afternoon to see some of the sites of New Delhi. First I went to Safdarjung’s tomb which is a beautiful building a bit like the Taj Mahal. After having a wander around the beautiful gardens and after seeing this I headed to the excellent Indra Gandhi museum which described her and her sons life very well. It was better than the other museums I’ve seen. After this I went to the Nehru museum which was more anti-British retoric.

It does seem from reading the wikipedia articles on Indian economics that the British probably did damage the economy as growth was only an average of 0.1% a year from 1700 until 1925. Though I’m sure the continued resistance as well as changes in the world economy as probably hurt India more than most. The British restriction of trade to the empire and their lack of granting of Dominion status (which made states largely independent of the UK) for a long time as well as not moving the currency to the gold standard were all errors by the British which would have damaged the Indian economy.

There is also the fact that even today over 800 million people live on less than US$0.50 (20 rupees is the figure given) a day which is shockingly low.

I should note that none of the museums that I have visited quoted any of these facts.

PS sorry for getting all political. I’m not used to seeing such critism of the UK that I knew nothing about the issues of.

All information sourced from Wikipedia.

Delhi

So I flew into Delhi on Friday evening and then went straight to bed and got up moderately late on Saturday morning after checking my email and breakfast I headed out for the day. Unfortunately first I got waylaid by touts including one with fake government ID but no harm came of me aside from the time wasted and I then headed to Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid mosque. I basically fell for it as I was walking in the same direction as this other guy “towards” Delhi railway station according to my hotel (but we were actually going in the other direction.) I managed to take the wrong road from the metro station so I had to walk about 3 times further than necessary but I did eventually make it. Old Delhi is an interesting place. The streets are completely full so although the fastest way through them is by scooter or bicycle, walking manages to beat every other type of transport. So eventually the mosque poked it’s head out from the Delhi smog but by the time I got there it was time for lunchtime prayers so I went off to a nearby restaurant to grab some food. Then I headed into the mosque itself and had a look around the fairly beautiful building before heading off on foot to the nearby Red Fort. This is a giant Mughal fort right in the centre of Old Delhi and it was a beautiful place to relax. As it wasn’t free to get in there were no touts which was relaxing. A woman walking down the stairs with a small child was very happy that I was prepared to wait and let them go down first.

There were some museums in the grounds as well but they weren’t very good. The grounds also included a museum on the history of British rule which was full of hatred for the British. It whined that we hung their people who failed to uprise against the British at various stages as well as complaining we weren’t fair on the poor and we didn’t educate them. As we behaved the same in our own country at that time I don’t really see the problem – obviously the killing of 1000 innocents by General Dyer just after WW1 was covered and that was one of the few genuine complaints mentioned. I’m sure if the museum had kept things in perspective it would have been great like the war museum in Sai Gon talking about the Viet Nam war and especially Agent Orange. I’m not totally sure on what most Indians feel about British Raj rule (though I’m sure they are glad to be independent) though clearly the government resents it a lot due to museums like this and the places that have had their names “de-Rajified” (I am more than happy to be corrected on this if the British really were terrible people to India and were worse than other rulers.)

After returning to my accommodation at Smyle Inn to be threatened about not using their tour company I changed my accommodation to somewhere else where I slept much better and the people running it were some of the few people in the tourist industry who were friendly like most other Indians seem to be.

The next day I headed off to New Delhi for the day. First I headed to the National Museum which looked like it had a lot of great stuff though the information was either inadequate or like a University essay and far too long and boring. It was also fairly dirty and dusty like the rest of the country. I wish they spent the money they gained from the tourists paying 10x higher entry fees (though I got on with student discount so only paid 1 rupee or £0.02 which gave me access 300x cheaper than other tourists.) on cleaning the museum up the as well as summerising the museum text better. Sadly though I suspect the extra money from tourists is mostly wasted.

Anyhow after that I walked to see the nearby India gate, along the day I was hassled by taxi drivers who I think were very surprised to see a white tourist walking. The gate is beautiful but was surrounded in fog/smog from the pollution. After seeing this I took an auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place where I tried to get into the park but wasn’t allowed due to having a camera but I still managed to see a lot from the outside. I also managed to get shit dropped on my shoes (the scam is that they rob you while cleaning it off -according to the Rough Guide and other Indians). I ran off so I didn’t lose anything and went to clean it off. After this I returned to my room for the night.

The next day I arranged to leave India earlier than expected and went to stay in a hostel in the embassy district away from most of my fellow travellers. This enabled me to have lots of conversations with Indian travellers staying there, all of whom were very friendly. I first talked with some students who were very surprised I didn’t know any Hindi. I suppose one of the issues is that it is expensive for Indians to travel abroad as well as difficult for them to get visas (apparently for the UK and the Shengen EU region they require an interview like you need for the US unless you are on visa waiver.) so they don’t see other perspectives on the world.

It is definitely great to get to talk to the locals here but it is sad that in the tourist areas that they always seem to want more than conversation. There are also a lot of travel shops and others claiming to be official government bodies. I think the Indians should invest in tourist police and street sweepers for these areas to clean them up to remove the worse of the scanners and make it more healthy to bring the standard up to that of other developing countries that I have visited.

It would enable them to charge more too as although the accommodation in Delhi is cheap it is also of poor quality given what it costs compared to other countries I have visited. This would also allow the shops and restaurants to be more overt with selling there wares as often it is difficult to find what is available as you are closed off. This reduces me to going to Western Restaurants even though I like Indian food. It also means I haven’t enjoyed myself in the tourist areas and it looks like most of the honest locals there resent that we are aloof and distant towards them as we can’t easily tell who is honest and who isn’t. it’s only been in the YHA away from most other foreigners and the scammers that I am able to interact with the interesting people around me. I am sad that I need to leave early as it is clearly a great country with a huge amount of great stuff to see (I think it is probably comparable to Italy if not more interesting.).

Hopefully with some work Delhi and probably other parts of the country could be more welcoming to tourists because if it doesn’t improve sadly I don’t think I will return.

PS Tomorrow I am off to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is) which looks like it’ll be a long day. I leave at 7am and return late in the evening.

Getting seriously weirded out here in India

I’m getting seriously weirded out in Delhi India by my accommodation (Smyle Inn) practically forcing me to book tours with them (and blatently saying “when are you booking a tour with us”, never seen that before.)

Many other people seem to be acting very strangely and pushing far heavier than I’ve seen before (even in South America, Thailand and Vietnam.).

PS I’ll keep you guys updated.

Arrived in Delhi

I just arrived into Delhi last night, and I haven’t had time to do anything yet. Delhi is very noisy and chaotic, and I’ve even seen a cow in the street. Now I’m off to get some breakfast.