Saturday, January 14, 2017

India diary part 1

November 5, 2016, Mumbai

I make the following observations during the taxi ride from Mumbai Airport to my hotel: A group of men stood in the back of a small van trying to remain upright and in the vehicle, a girl on the back of a motorbike talking on her phone in the thick of the traffic with horns blaring non-stop – needless to say she isn’t wearing a helmet, a take-away advertising the softest kebabs in the world, a shop called Selfie Hairstyle, trees full of lights from the recent Diwali festival. I see a man stood by the central barrier taking a photo of his family standing on the other side of the road as traffic hurtles between them. As we near the hotel the driver stops twice in as many minutes to ask directions. Even I can tell where to go the second time but he insists on quizzing a couple of pedestrians before bringing me to my destination.
If the traffic is bad when you're in a car, it is even more terrifying if you're a pedestrian. After checking in to my hotel I go in search of dinner. I come to a busy junction and make a dash when a small gap appears. Other pedestrians stroll across as vehicles tear back and forth.
After a filling and reasonably priced vegetable thali I return to the hotel. This means crossing the road again. This time I find a set of traffic lights and cross on the green but that doesn't stop a moped from screeching round the corner towards me.

November 6, Mumbai

I continue to be alarmed and dismayed by what people get up to on the roads and taxi drivers’ poor geography. On the way to the Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum the driver repeatedly gets out to ask directions while brandishing my guidebook. On one such stop I see a man sat on the back of a motorbike carrying a car windscreen.
    The museum is a fascinating collection of artefacts in an ornately decorated building. The park it’s located in is less attractive with a collection of zoo animals in woefully decrepit conditions. It is particularly sad to see the elephants rocking back and forth at the back of their bare concrete enclosure.





November 7, Mumbai


I visit Haji Ali – a mosque at the end of a long promenade stretching out to sea. It’s a colourful and busy place with a stream of visitors and worshippers going to and fro. It is a wonderful location to watch the sunset.


    The taxi driver who takes me back ploughs through the traffic. At one junction there is a constant flow of traffic three vehicles thick. There are no gaps yet somehow the driver manages to bulldoze his way through, horns honking in all directions until we get over to the left lane.

November 8, Mumbai


In the morning I explore the caves and stunning views of Elephanta Island, about an hour’s ferry ride away from the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s port area. On the way back we have to board one ferry and then cross over onto another one moored alongside it. As a girl ahead of me steps between the two boats her cardigan slips from her waist and falls in the water. A crewman puts his hands on either side and lowers himself down, grabs the garment with his feet and returns it to its owner.
Monkey on Elephanta Island

   In the evening I meet my friend Ashok and we travel together on the train to Pune, his hometown and my next stop.


With Ashok on the train to Pune

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Houseboat cruise in Allepey, Kerala


Kerala is a region with plenty to explore. Most tourists start in Cochin where there are enough sights and attractions to last a week or more. But the backwaters of Allepey offer a more gentle pace and outstanding natural scenery. Escaping the bustle of the city to cruise the rivers while enjoying the best Keralan cuisine should a part of any traveller's visit to the area. Read more



Bird life




Life by the river


Going home on the school boat


We stopped off early on the cruise to pick up a bottle of toddy, a beer made from coconut water which gets stronger during the day as it ferments.

Cheers
A Keralan banquet on the houseboat


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mumbai

When you leave Mumbai Airport you know you're in India. My black and yellow cab drove onto the road in the late evening into a hectic cavalcade of fumes and metal. Ahead of me a small truck had its back door open, revealing a group of young men trying to stay up right and in the vehicle. Foolhardy motorcyclists wove among the traffic with every driver ready to plough forward at the slightest hint of a gap in the gridlock. I passed a woman sat on the back of a moped calmly talking on her phone. I don't know how she managed to hear anything over the constant honking. Indian drivers use the horn as much as the gas and clutch. Larger vehicles encourage horn use with 'Horn OK Please' written across the backs of their vehicles, in case any driver might be thinking it was impolite to blast their horn every few seconds. As a passenger and pedestrian Indian traffic is something you quickly learn to endure. I'm not sure you ever get used to it.

 Beneath the crowds, mayhem and smog of Mumbai there lies a fascinating and friendly city with a variety of architecture, lush green parks and a multitude of cabs to carry you cheaply and easily between the many museums, sights and attractions. I spent three days in the city enjoying the following highlights:

Malabar Hill



I spent my first morning in this quiet neighbourhood. In the hanging gardens residents sit and stroll among a muddle of flowers, trees and various attempts at topiary. It is home to a lot of birdlife too. The area also offers fine views of the city and coastline.









Mani Bhavan





This former home of Mahatma Gandhi gives a detailed but easy to digest account of Gandhi's life and work through photos, letters, quotations and artefacts. Seeing the father of modern India's possessions and carefully preserved living quarters makes you feel close to this peaceful and inspirational political figurehead.


"You must be the change you wish to see in the world" – Mahatma Gandhi




Clap talk

 


Clap Global is a scheme which gives travellers the opportunity to visit schools for a cultural exchange with pupils. During my talk I showed pictures of my hometown, Cambridge, explained how we mark Remembrance Day, which was coming up in November, and sang All You Need Is Love by The Beatles. I also had to answer no end of questions about my life, interests and country and was taught how to introduce myself in Hindi. It was really rewarding to see how keen the pupils were and how much they learnt. I recommend taking part if you get the chance. Clap Global is expanding to other cities in India and other countries. 

clapglobal.com



 

Haji Ali

 


Constant crowds come and go at this mosque is at the end of a long pier. The mosque is a pretty fine building but the sea views and sunset are outstanding.









Elephanta Island

 

An hour-long boat trip from the Gateway to India takes you to this island inhabited by monkeys and home to a series of incredible caves carved out of rock. There is an optional train ride from the quay to the bottom of the hill. About 600 metres of step stone steps take you up the caves. The way is sheltered and lined with souvenir stalls making it a steep and narrow shopping mall. The caves and striking sculptures are fascinating to explore while the monkeys are an entertaining side attraction, as long as they don’t steal your food or possessions. There are also terrific views. 
Gateway of India & Hotel Taj Mahal viewed from the boat to Elephanta Island














Friday, June 26, 2015

Castell Coch


Castell Coch stands above the village of Tongwylais like a French chateau – its spires rising out of the woods that cover the surrounding hills. It is easily reached by bike from Cardiff following national cycle route 8. Heading past the Millennium Stadium from the station I picked up the route on the path running on the west bank of the River Taff. Bute Park provides a green corridor through the city and the route sticks by the riverside most of the way passing fields and wooded sections. A short stretch along roads takes you to the village and the only strenuous part of the ride up a steep hill to the castle gates.

The castle was originally built in Norman times but the building that stands today is a reconstruction completed by the Third Marquess of Bute in the 19th century. It's an impressive fort from the outside but inside it is more homely with lavishly furnished rooms including the ornate chapel and dining room and fairytale decor of the Lady Bute's bedroom.



The kitchen was fully equipped with bowls set out on the table like the Mary Celeste. To one side there were some windows looking through to the dining room. I saw a man in uniform come striding purposefully towards me. He thrust his head through the window and said: "While you're in there you couldn't do me a sausage and chips?" A moment later he entered, looking around as if something might be missing. Then gave an impromptu talk on the characteristics of medieval kitchens, pointing out that what appeared to be cupboards in the walls were in fact ovens. Apparently one oven wasn't enough in those days. It was a lively alternative to the somewhat unreliable audio guides.

On the whole the place is far to cosy for medieval times, the only exception being a staircase tucked away in one corner leading to the dungeon, a dark, bare cell deep underground.

An hour or two is sufficient to explore the charming but compact castle and when I next go I'll leave time to explore the walking trails in the surrounding woodland.



Sunday, March 1, 2015

Iceland

From the whiff of sulphur when you turn on the hot tap to the snow covered mountains surrounding Reykjavik Iceland is a destination when nature’s raw power constantly impresses with sights and sensations.  

I left the airport (possibly the most unattractive sight in the country) and was soon travelling through a vast expanse of moss covered lava rock, mountains rising up in the distance. The prospective crew members for the mission to Mars should just go to Iceland instead. The air’s fresher, the landscape’s just as alien and it’s easier to get back home.


My first stop was at one of Iceland’s most touted attractions the Blue Lagoon. The vast thermal baths with sky blue waters were a great place to relax after an early morning flight. I was afraid I would have to dash through sub-zero temperatures before being scaled in boiling hot water but an indoor section of the bath leading outside eliminated this and the air and water temperatures mostly balanced each other out though from time to time a blast of arctic wind would freeze your face or a wave of extra hot water would make your skin start to sizzle.


Sitting in the warm water sipping a beer bought from the poolside bar (your wristband acts as a digital wallet) it was hard to believe less than 12 hours earlier I had been sat at a bus stop in Newport at 3:30am with a girl in short sleeves patting her skimpily clad friend on the back who had taken a bad turn at the end of a heavy night out. I hadn’t even got to the hotel yet and Iceland was looking and feeling awesome.
 
 
A few flakes of snow fell while I was at the lagoon which turned into blizzards that night and the following day. I found Reykjavik a pleasant city to stroll around in-between heavy blasts of snow which teams of snow ploughs calmly dealt with meaning none of the panic that such conditions would cause in the UK. It does not feel like a capital city – more like a large, cosmopolitan village which isn’t surprising considering the entire population of the country is less than 330,000.


I glimpsed snowy mountains across a stretch of water down one side street and nipped down to take a closer look. It took a bit more nipping than I had anticipated. One street led to another which ended with a steep slope leading into a housing estate. I walked round via another street, was blocked by an embankment, found my way round, crossed a busy road and waited for another group of tourists to move before I got a clear view, but it was worth it.


The following day I took a tour of the golden circle – a popular group of attractions near Reykjavik, though it was more of a white circle as the snow continued. The incredible views of the rift valley were an early highlight. There was also a beautiful ice encrusted waterfall though it was only a snow globe version of the mighty Gullfoss we encountered later.

The Rift Valley


Gullfoss
Geyser was also rewarding with the one regularly active geyser doing its stuff. Having taken a few photos I watched the spectacle without the distractions of a camera. It had gone off twice in five minutes but the third blast took it’s time with the water sloshing about occasionally to tease the gathered crowd. Then without warning the water gathered into a huge blue ball which exploded in a 15 foot jet of steam. We returned to Reykjavik in a heavy blizzard, white clouds slowly erasing the world outside.
 

The following day I ventured further afield on a road trip to Hofn near Skaftafell National Park in the South East. A network of airports makes planes a good way to get around the country with flights sometimes being both quicker and cheaper than the bus. But if you have time to drive the scenery is worth it.

Green hills, snowy mountains, waterfalls dashing down sheer rock faces, volcanos, vast monochrome plains of lava, rugged coastline beaten by rough seas. We saw them all in an ever-changing landscape as the weather varied between sun, heavy rain and thick blizzards. 



After four hours of jaw dropping scenery we were still blown away when we passed Jökulsárlón, a lagoon full of blue icebergs from a nearby glacier which had us veering off the road to take a closer look. 
 



We visited the glacier the following day for a tour of an ice cave. Entering this temporary vault was like going inside a huge diamond illuminated by incredible blue light. We passed through the cave to be surrounded by huge cliffs and rising plains of solid blue and grey ice – the grey caused by volcanic ash. The glacier moves and changes at a visible rate. Even in a couple of years the area we visited will be unrecognisable and vast though it seemed it was just one tiny corner of this amazing structure.


On my return to Reykjavik I had hoped to go on a tour to see the northern lights but it was cancelled for the third time that week. Instead I finished the trip as I’d started with a bath - this time at the public baths in Reykjavik. The old baths are not as glamorous as the Blue Lagoon but at 650 krona they are excellent value and offer both a conventional indoor pool at a comfortable temperature and open air hot tubs.

Iceland delivered a tremendous five days of new and unforgettable experiences and is a country I thoroughly recommend visiting.