At the moment I’m a place called Manang on the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himilayas. I hiked for 6 days to get here; it takes about 15-20 days to do the complete Circuit which involves hiking over the Thorung La Pass which at 5400 metres, it perhaps the world’s highest. It has snowed pretty heavily over the past couple of days which means that the pass is inpassable for the next few days, which doesn’t really matter because Manang is pretty damn special. Manang is at 3500 metres and is in a valley surrounded by 5000-7000 metre mountains. The Annapurna Circuit is a cultural trek, which makes it pretty easy as there are guest houses in Nepalese villages each night of the trek. And I have been enjoying the apple crumble! Many of the trekkers I have met treat the Circuit as some sort of endurance test, but I think I will take my time and explore the mountains a little more as I have all the time in the world.
I have spent the past week in Rishikesh in the state of Uttrakhand in Northern India. It is relaxed and chilled here, a backpacker backwater of the 1960s hippy trail. The town is surrounded by mountains on either side with the clear and fast-running Ganga slithering between it connected by two wobbly suspension bridges.
The dominant theme here is Yoga and spiritually along with the convenient interpretation of these pursuits by glassy eyes, naval gazing Westerners young enough to know better. Still, when in Rome, do as the locals , so I have been indulging in some of the local Pancake Therapy. I have found the pancakes on this side of the Ganga much better than the ones of the other side. And as a seeker of truth, I know there are many more pancakes to sample and I have yet to find my pancake Guru. If the pancake is made at sunrise, dipped in the Ganga, stretched and chanted at, and mixed with special lassie, then it is well on the way to reaching the zenith of pancake nivana.
Yesterday (after a pancake) I did my first ever Yoga class with a charming young glassy eyed yoga instructor. I went to the 6 PM class, but there was no one else there, it was just me and the slinky, smiley, skiney, instructor. Admittedly as a yoga nubile, I did find it a challenging , especially the breathing bit, and I almost passed out . I had spent the previous day trying to book the Kafka express train online and as a consequence, had smoked two packets of cheap Indian cigarettes But after an hour or so of hard-stretching, breathing, peddling and chanting I emerged enlightened by the experience, so much so that I walked thr 3 Kilometers downstream to the second suspension bridge to seek another pancake.
Today I work up with hives! But I wasn’t sure that it was hives. I thought that it might be rabies. Or even Malaria. Or perhaps even Typhoid. What are the symptoms of Typhoid again? I was worried because I had spots all over me and I spent half the night scratching. I threw my blankets on the floor because I was convinved it was fleas. Or perhaps bed bugs. And it was cold. Rishikesh isn’t quite warm as yet.
And I looked at my bed and I blamed the 1960s. It was all the dready people that had been in my scruffy little room before me. It was their fault! And the Beatles. It was their fault too. They didn’t wash enough. Where’s a Modernist when you need one? They wash two times a day, sometimes more. And they floss. The world according to a Modernist is divided into cleanliness, a hierarchy of cleaning products without a Brahman in sight.
In the morning I got out of bed and opened my door overlooking the Ganga and contemplated upgrading to the ten dollar rooms. No bed bugs in them. But what are bed bugs again? Perhaps it wasn’t bed bugs, perhaps it was hives as the scratching was moving and the bed was long gone.
So I look up ‘hives’ on the internets and all the symptoms match. And it says it is caused by ‘environmental conditions’. I ponder environmental conditions for a moment. This could mean anything. This is India. It is all environmental conditions. It could have been the smokey Sardu I talked to last night, or the cheap thali I had for dinner, or the permanently oily massage, or all those sickly sweet teas I had in Agra that I got from Robbie the friendly chai walla. Or it could have been the cow that sniffed my crotch whilst hunting for decent coffee (still looking) or the sleeper bus/boat I took to get here that promised everything including sleep.
The article I read on hives said remove the underlying conditions and the hives will go away. But where do I start? Perhaps with the British. It is their fault. They took all the cleaning products and left Indian Modernity to fend by itself. Or Nehru, the architect of post colonial India and Pakistan. Diving India info Hindus and Muslims was bound to end in tears and distract people from cleaning my room.
And so I am still scratching (seriously). I have an Indian itch that just won’t go away and the more I scratch it the more it persists. Damn!
Budget Travel: London
Independent travel (or backpacking) is undertaken by many thousands of people each year, and for the majority of travellers in Europe and elsewhere, London will possibly be included as a exciting stop-off at some stage (I’ll be there soon!). However, many independent travellers dread the possiblity that London will drain your wallet due to how expensive the city can be, especially if you are unaware of the transport options.
London’s transportation system is vast and extremely efficient, but some modes of transport do come at a hefty cost. The famous London cabs for instance are renowned for being very expensive, especially if you get one into Central London from one of the airports (see the Daily Mail). So, what are the budget transport options when arriving in London?
Use the underground tube!
If you are arriving at London’s main airport, Heathrow, then a simple and inexpensive way to get into town is via the underground tube. Trains go directly to Kings Cross and other stations in Central London and operate throughout the day and night. Tickets are affordable and day tickets allow unlimited travel around London (and here is a map if the underground)
Get the bus..
Buses are the least expensive form of transport and operate from the airports. They are also a good way to see the London scenery, including the infamous traffic jams (be warned!).
You can hire a car at the airport
Car hire may be seen as a luxury for independent travel, but is possibly the most cost-effective way to travel across the UK. At Gatwick Airport, at both the north and south terminals, there are valets that will conveniently pick hire cars up for you (see: Parking4Less ).
I have been away for almost one month and after a few cluttered days in Kolkata, I am now in one of the most intense and colourful cities anywhere in the world; Varanasi on the Ganga. This is my fifth trip to India and my third tine in Varanasi. I first came here circa 1993 and I am now retracing many of the steps I took during that initial life-altering introduction to India (including reading the same hippy-trail books!)
During my first trip to Varanasi I recall running around in the morning desperately searching for a decent coffee that wasn’t instant Nescafe brown Ganga puke. And, yes, I did the same thing yesterday. There are cool looking expresso machines here but many of the cafe owners simply use them to heat the milk or water and then place a spoon of instant coffee in the concoction (thus I have been getting killer headaches from coffee withdrawal…a uniquely Melbourne problem perhaps).
Some of my greener travel companions have asked how India changed since I was first here some 20 years ago, but I’m not completely sure. It depends on what century you reference (as I ride to the train on a peddle driven rickshaw, book the train ticket on a shiney new Samsung Tablet, and have an intense conversation with a young Bengali on whether the Queen stole the Star of India diamond, whilst watching thousands of muddy people throw idols of the god of learning and knowlege in the Ganga in a religious ferver).
And he past three nights I have been sitting on the pissy-smelling concrete rooftop of the hotel where I have been staying with a charming young architect from Poland calls Tomesz. We can see the misty Ganga with wooden boats beneath us, chanting and chimes as the soundtrack and the menacing sound of the Varanasi roads as base . We have been drinking exactly 3 cans of beer berween us which we got from a secretive establishment about 1 kilometer walk away called “chilled beer”. I am sort of glad that the Indian masses (and I mean masses), haven’t discovered alcohol because it must be easier to land a jumbo at Heathrow than control a vehicle on a Varanasi road.
The perspectives gained in India are always hard to communicate. Especially to those from counties such as my own that can never be anything other than Modern.
Today I am on a train to Khajuraho to see some temple porn.
I first started coming to the Island when the Island was cool, or was this when I was cool, not sure, surely there was a time when we both aligned. When the full moon was young I danced on the beach to techno and trance, drank out of buckets, and slept under nets. But not much has changed. Utopia usually only has two dimensions, or maybe three if you endulge the mushroom shake.
I have now been to the island five times, and I am not sure why I still come, it is always at the beginning of something, never at the end. Ko Phan Ghan is a capitol of 90s Libertarianism, the curse of my generation. Libertarians know how to put on a good party but never how to clean up after it. The collapse of the Berlin Wall persuaded many in the European labouring classes that freedom is a new sort of hedonism as opposed to an old form of Marxism. Or perhaps it is just an old form of youthful rebellion and that it eternal.
I sat in a restaurant yesterday next to a young man with a celtic tattoo who was complaining that the food was spicy. It made me feel glad that I didn’t have the money to get a celtic tattoo way back at the beginning of the lunar cycle. Its all part of the spice of life I suppose, the faded symbols of rebellion, often against the man that has long left the straw bungalow.
I am not sure if I will come back to the island again, and I have possible said this many times before. It is spectacularly beautiful and sophisticated in its own tesalated Thai tourism sort of way, but it is an island and islands are full-stops, not sentences. People come to islands to escape from things and you only need to escape if you are first in prison.
Kolcutta is next…
I purposely started my slow journey to South America in Thailand, partly because Thailand is (sort-of) close to Australia and partly because it has always been a relaxed segue to the rest of the world (but for many Utopian seeking libertines, it may be the only destination). I first came to Thailand as a young backpacker in the early 1990s on my way to India, the same path I am retracing now, but I won’t stay long.
Thailand is an easily digestible destination simply because it is inflicted with all the tedious travel narratives of an exotic utopia (and the place is still full of pirates). But, unless you dig deep, there are perhaps not too many experiences and perspectives to be had in Thailand that will really rattle your bones (although I am sure that there are exceptions to the rule). The amount of travellers and tourists that come to Thailand is in the many millions which is sort of ironic because everyone is trying to be so very unique and alternative. It is sort of like Berlin in this respect.
The main backpacker strip in Bangkok is called Koah San Road and in all my experience of 1960s hippy-trail backpacker haunts, nothing comes close. It is enormous, taking up a few blocks of the city; packed with scruffy sartorially challenged 20-something nubiles all year around (and yes, there are so many hideous variety of mens shorts in the world). There is not much to do apart from eat and drink (and satisfy a few other basic human functions) but many of Bangkok’s tourist money-shots are within walking distance. After spending the first three days of my trip eating and drinking, eating and drinking, eating and drinking, I escaped the hedonistic museum and walked the 10 KMS to Chinatown.
And Chinatown in Bangkok is wonderful. There is a main strip full of pirates gold (jewelries) with lots of small alley-ways branching off, packed with treasures from all the workshops of Asia. There are literally thousands of small specialty shops bloated with stuff that would take many hours to fully ponder the reason for being. This is especially the case in the food section; so many varieties of fish, fruit, vegetables, and meat, all canned and curated in a myriad of different ways.
When I was walking home to my dank little cell room in Lucky House in Koah San Road, I stumbled upon the gun district of Bangkok. I was especially taken by the lightweight Colt Defender handgun. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but legal to buy and it would fit easily into my backpack. It would have made the process of dealing with the touts in India much easier, but it only came in brushed silver and didn’t match my shorts at the time.
I am now on an Island in the South of Thailand. It took 18 hours to get here, including a long journey on a spew-boat. And it is raining. I want my narrative back.