Posts Tagged ‘train’
Junagadh is an ancient city dating back to at least 250BC when it was the capital of the Maurya empire under Ashok. It is built around a huge Mughal on a central hill. Close by is an impressively-tall holy mountain, and while dry, the city has a certain greenness too it and feels somewhat cooler.
We rode an autorickshaw through an ancient gate and along several narrow streets up into the old town to the house of another one of Derek’s old friends, Iqbal Vora. They originally met in Veraval, but I remember meeting Iqbal and his family in Junagadh at the house of Razia’s (Iqbal’s wife) parents. I have a couple of photos what I took then of Iqbal and his two young daughters, Shaheen and Shohanna, on the roof of that house.
Razia and the girls, now grown women, met us at their apartment. Shaheen and Shohanna were still quite recognizable although it was somewhat stunning to see them as adults. This has been the pattern for this trip: adults have gone on to middle age and children have become adults. It’s quite fascinating to be able to return to such a place after a decade’s absence.
There is also a new addition: Sohil, Iqbal and Razia’s 8-year old son.
After lunch, some writing and a short rest, we went for a walk around the town, oogling the old buildings and narrow twisty streets, vegetable stalls and chai-wallahs. We climbed up into the fort shortly before sundown and peered into bottomless step wells, apparently 2,000 years old, and at canons taken from a Turkish fleet defeated by the Portuguese in the 16th or 17th Century. Saturday night is the time for locals to head out as Sunday is their day off, so parts of the fort were mobbed. We watched the sun dip down, then wandered back into town eventually meeting Iqbal at his three-wheeler supply store, Speed Auto Agency (Derek helped with the name some years back). Iqbal, like everyone else, has aged and now looks middle-aged, but is still bright-eyed and warm.
After chatting for a while, he closed up shop at around 8pm and the three of us pile on his motorbike only to have it run out of gas after a few hundred meters. We walked down the street pushing it down a dusty busy road for a few hundred more until finding a gas station. Soon we were home for dinner.
The food was tasty little pastry triangles, noodles (Razia’s family spent time in Burma), sweets and jello. A couple of things about meals still take getting use to. The first is that men always eat before and separately from the women even though the women have prepared the meal. I always get the sense that women are stuck with the leftovers. Often they eat in the kitchen too. Second is that almost every meal has been taken sitting cross-legged on the floor, which takes some getting used to. Invariably one of my feet will fall asleep and I’ll hobble to a chair after standing up, hoping that I won’t stumble on my numb appendage and fall into the dinner.
After some chatting and playing karems (a game like shuffleboard), we went to bed and I slept very solidly.
I woke up feeling very refreshed for the first time in days and was alert for much of the day. We had a bit of time before our 11:50am train, so we went to visit Razia’s family in their wonder old courtyard house, then four of us – Iqbal, Sohil, Derek and I piled on his motorbike and drove into the hills outside of town into cool, refreshing air. We went to the town at the start of a famous walk that circumnavigates the mountain, about 37kms in total. During one particular festival, coming up shortly, 500,000 people do the walk at once! I’d like to do the walk someday, but certainly not in that kind of company.
With time getting short, we rolled back down to the apartment, collected our things, said good-bye, then Derek and I and our bags piled into an auto to get to the station.
We had reserved seats for the trip into Ahmedabad in 2nd class sleeper, which mean sitting in an open compartment facing a row of people across from you, will a couple more across the aisle. The back of the seat flips up to make a sleeping berth and there is one more above one’s head. We sat with three young IT techs on their way to Pune after visiting family in Gujarat. Two wives and one young nephew were also there. The three fellows spoke very good English and we chatted for a fair bit of the way.
The journey was quite enjoyable; it wasn’t too hot and there was plenty to look at out the open door – the flat landscape with acres of cotton and banks of cactus, minor rural stations and bustling urban ones, cows and herders and ox-carts. I listened to music and enjoyed watching the world go by.
The trip took about 7 hours and we arrived to total chaos in Ahmedabad. The train was continuing onwards, and there was the usual detraining mayhem as people piled on while we tried to get off. Fortunately we had size and momentum, and some help from a kindly fellow, in our favour. I felt very bad for our travelling companions who had 14 large boxes with them (full of food from home) and a very tight connection to their next train. Last we saw they had three porters helping them get their stuff for the right platform.
The train station was an amazing scene. Masses of people walking and sitting everywhere and massive diesel locomotives pulling in and out, pulling carriages full of more people piling on and off trains. Everything was sooty and loud and gritty and surreal.
Our auto ride to the hotel was a real treat. Our septuagenarian driver was incredibly skilled, smoothly and dexterously weaving around buses, autos, bikes, cars and cows. Never once was it jerky and rough; rather it was being carried in water through rapids. I think that I may have even hooted with the enjoyment of it all several times.
It’s 8:15pm and I’m on the Special Express train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I’m in 2nd class A/C sleeper, and my companions are three young Buddhist monks. Originally I was seated one section forward, but by some mishap a single young woman ended up among the monks and that was deemed unacceptable by the conductor in his banana republic military colonel uniform, so I was asked to swap places and am now among the holy folk who seem happy to sit cross legged on their chairs, and travel with matching brown gym bags (with the name of their temple screened on the side?) and saffron and green soft shoulder bags. The train trip takes about 14 hours, so I should roll into Chiang Mai around 9:30am. This is the same train that I rode to Chiang Mai last year.
Alex didn’t end up joining us last night as he was tied up in endless meetings. Thor and I had an excellent meal at a nearby restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, an usual name that reflects the fact that it’s a social enterprise run by PDA, the biggest NGO in Thailand, who promotes reproductive health and HIV prevention. It was quite an elegant place, in a large, tastefully-lit outdoor courtyard. A woman in a traditional outfit played soothing zither melodies. The food was really top-notch. I started with a fresh lychee juice, and we shared rich musamun curry and deep-fried prawns covered in dried or fried garlic. Even the steamed rice was flavourful. For dessert, I had my first mango sticky rice – mango slices, glutinous rice and coconut milk drizzled on top – of the trip.
My shoulders were aching after schlepping around my camera gear all day, so I went in search of a thai massage place. Thor had to leave very early the next morning for Singapore, so we said our goodbyes and promised to track each other’s blogs. Finding a massage place that wasn’t simply a rub-n-tug in the Nana Soi 4 area is not easy, so I headed across Sukhumvit road in search of more savoury establishments. I discovered an Arabic quarter and felt myself transported to a completely different city populated by portly Arab men, women in full chador, and curious Thais looking at rotating shwarma. I found a massage place full of men, women and children getting foot rubs, shaves and facials, so I figured that it would probably be OK. I requested an hour on my back, shoulders and head. I changed into a set of Thai massage pajamas, and the masseuse went to work. A few of the full-force elbow digs into my sorest spots caused a few watery eyes and cries for mercy, but overall I think that it did the trick.
I made it home through the mayhem of Nana and slept quite soundly (although I am still wrestling with a cold).
Today was pretty inert. I took care of getting a plane ticket to Luang Prabang at the hotel travel agent, picked up some supplies, did email, and such. I met Thomas Achilles, the regional director of CUSO (now merged with VSO), for lunch at a local restaurant as VSO’s offices are just on the next soi from the Atlanta. He helped coordinate most of my photography projects during last year’s trip, so it was good to catch up and talk about where we were each at. I was also important to talk about Nic Parenteau, the CUSO cooperant that I photographed last year and was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident during the winter. It was meaningful to hear that Thomas had used a number of my photographs in a book about Nic that was given to his family.
Thomas also procured my train ticket for me, and here I am rolling northward. I think that we are finally getting close to the outskirts of Bangkok. Not long ago we rolled past the old Don Muang airport.
I’m feeling somewhat satiated after finally getting my mango sticky rice. I arrived in Chiang Mai almost 24 hours ago, but it took until breakfast this morning to get some. I’m spending my time in Chiang Mai photographing a project by an NGO called NEED which promotes sustainable local development and human rights issues. The initiative is called the “Food Security and Human Rights Awareness Project.” The subject of my documentation is actually a young Quebecois volunteer who is funded to do work here by CUSO. The project he is leading is the creation of a small farm which will be used to train Burmese in practices of sustainable organic agriculture and educate them about human rights issues. Nicholas, the volunteer or ‘cooperant’, is very passionate and driven about the work, putting in long hours seven days a week in most cases. He is working out of the NEED office here in Chiang Mai. The office is an open-air house that is actually home to about six Arakanese Burmese, from the state of Arakan in the far west, right next to Bangladesh. All are in Thailand illegally and will face 10 days in jail and deportation if caught by the authorities. All arrived here independently of each other.
The farm itself is 20km from town. We got there on motor scooters on some of the more chaotic but actually reasonably safe roads. To call it a farm is a bit of a stretch; it’s only about 3 acres or so, and has one bamboo house that they built together, but it makes sense that it’s small as it should replicate conditions back in Burma. The land is mostly planted in rice from seed that they scavenged and collected. There is some mixing of crops, too: beans, okra, pumpkin, banana, mango and herbs all grow in raised beds among the rice. It is harvest time, so I watched Nicholas and two of the Burmese harvesting the rice with sickles. One, Kyaw Aye, was a real pro and could gather up great bushels in short order. It was hard work, though, no doubt. Nicholas was right in the middle of the action, and he spends every day out on the farm. He seems to really thrive on the work, though. He certainly doesn’t take the easy way here, working alongside the Burmese farmers. His intention is to stay for 5 years. We all spent a great late afternoon in the fields, and I think that I got some decent shots in the warm, low-angle light. Back in town we socialized over some beers in a local Thai watering hole. Six big bottles of beer and snacks came to about $11. My treat.
We’ll be going out to the farm again over the next few days. Tomorrow will be a big work day – I’ll hire a car (they have a very limited budget) and we’ll take all the Burmese folk out to the farm. They plan to raise beds, and harvest and thresh rice. Should be an amazing experience. Jeremy arrives on saturday. I hope to take him to the farm, but we’re not likely to spend a ton of time here before heading east to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Getting to Chiang Mai was a bit of a whirlwind experience. Flying on Cathay Pacific, I landed in Hong Kong on sunday night and made my way by public bus to Kin-yi’s apartment in Tsuen Wan. She’s on some mysterious trip to the UK, from what I know. A good night’s sleep and I was up and running errands around Hong Kong – getting memory cards, portable hard drives, and dropping things off at Joseph Yao’s shop in TST. It was a bit surreal, obviously.
That night I flew to Bangkok and arrived at midnight. I put myself up in the KT Guesthouse at CUSO’s suggestion. It was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it was convenient to their office. After a lousy sleep, I stumbled to the subway and rode a couple of stops, then walked to the CUSO office, which was even more in the middle of nowhere. There I met with the regional director, Thomas Achillles and we planned out my trip and contacts in various places. He treated me to a great lunch in a nearby eatery.
I collected my things from the hotel and zipped downtown on the subway then skytrain to the Sala Daeng station, where I met Simon Larbarlestier, an English photographer living in Bangkok whom I’d met through a couple of online forums. Being a small photographers world, we also know quite a few folks in common. We had a good long chat, joined partway through by another local friend (a painter), over ploughman platters and lager in an Irish pub. I’ll see Simon again in Siem Reap in a while.
A short subway ride and I’m at the train station. CUSO provided me with a ticket on the night train to Chiang Mai, which was a great experience. I love trains, especially sleeper trains. It’s a narrow-gauge railway, so there weren’t separate compartments, just semi-ingenious fold-down bunks and convertible seats. The train pulled out at 7:35pm. I read The Great War for Civilization, then crawled into my curtained-off little bed area. I slept very well, bouncing down the rails. We pulled in to Chiang Mai at 9:45am and I took a tuk-tuk to the Roong Ruang hotel by the Ta Phae gate, where I stayed two years ago. Good location and decent enough. Nicholas met me there, and we set out on our day.
I’ve decided that it’s really easy to be a travel writer because when you travel, it’s inevitable that things happen to you that are worth writing about, like my train ride from Guilin to Hanoi.
I realized that it was going to be interesting when I picked up my ticket at it was entirely in Chinese, Cyrillic and German.
The train was about 1/2 an hour late, nothing too serious. I sat in a smokey Waiting Room No.2. Music was playing, and I recognized the tune, and after about 10 minutes, I realized the same song was still playing. It was somehow skipping, but each skip was around 2 minutes long. If the train was any later, I realize that I might have gone mental.
I was relieved that my ticket actually worked, and I was able to get on the train when it arrived. I found my doily-encrusted first class compartment, and was soon joined by a couple from Ireland, Rory and Jenny, and a computer programmer/skier/climber from Ohio named Brian. Everyone was on long trips around Asia, spanning months, and in fact, Brian was working remotely as he travelled. Not a bad life!
In the hallway, I met a fellow and invited him to join us. Peter is a Swiss railway enthusiast. Enthusiast is putting it mildly. He had a quiet passion for trains. In fact, he was most of the way from Portugal to Ho Chi Minh City, all by train. What was his job? Why, working for the Swiss railways, selling train tickets. I guess that he didn’t believe in getting away from his job. He pointed out that our peculiar train tickets were issued in Swiss Francs. Did it have something to do with Switzerland being a neutral country?
The Irish couple, Brian and I decided to seek something to eat in the “dinning” car, so at around 5pm we wandered over. We sat there for an hour watching the entire crew of the train eat in shifts, then we were allowed to order. When our 2 dishes came, we realized that there wasn’t going to be enough food, so we tried to order more. We were told the kitchen was closed. Not only that, there was no beer to drink, only Pepsi and a bottle of rose wine that served as more of a decoration on the table. Nonetheless, we opened the bottle and found it to be Kool-aid like sweet wine with a rose flavour. Ack. We were to have an hour-long stop in Nanning, so we figured that we could get some more food in the station. Wrong we were.
When we pulled in at around 8pm, they showed us to a fancy new waiting room with huge leather chairs and locked us in. There was a snack bar, so we bought beer and nuts and crackers. The Irish couple decided to use up as much money as they could, so they bought 8 beers and lots of nuts.
We were released from the waiting room after a bit less than an hour, and our polyglot bunch made our way back to the train which was reduced to a mere two cars. Back in our compartment we played cards and I lost in record time, so I decided to go to bed.
At about 2:30am, we were waked up and our passports checked by the Chinese authorities. Before long, we pulled into Dongdang in Vietnam and piled off into the station with all of our bags. We had the place to ourselves, and border staff outnumbered us, I figure. There were several people at one window giving out entry cards, several people changing money and selling snacks, and about 5 checking each passport and taking into a back room for closer scrutiny. The best was the quarantine check, which cost 2000 dong (about 14 cents). The fellow behind the counter stuck the same electronic thermometer in everyone’s ear, pretty well guaranteeing that if one person had some terrible disease, we’d all get it.
After about an hour in the waiting room under Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s portrait, a new two car train pulled up (Vietnam has a different guage) and we got on. I slept until the sun was up, then watched the Vietnamese countryside roll by for the last hour of the journey. It was clear that we were in a different country now. Locals were working the lush fields in conical hats, motorcycles and bicycles rolled by in profusion, and the architecture was no longer tiles and glass like in China, but more ornate, decorative and colourful.
Hanoi is lovely and exciting. The narrow curving streets are jammed with masses of scooters, bicycles and motorbikes, all honking madly. Women with conical hats are selling flowers, fruits and vegetables from their carrying poles, and men drive by wearing those classic green pith helmets. People generally want to sell you something, but are friendly and pleasant. There is no shortage of great things to buy for not many dongs, either, such as paintings, silk, clothes, lacquer ware, and so on. I didn’t find much to buy in China, but here is a different story. Well, off to explore more of the city.
Jeremy Tan arrives tomorrow, then we’ll probably head south, or maybe north into Sapa.