Tuesday, December 26, 2006

24 hours in a paradise called Ladakh

Ladakh, Kashmir (India) - Sept 2006

It was a ten day bike trip I had planned in Sept 2006..3 guys, 3 bikes..the wind in our hair and the sky as our limits...over the previous 9 days, we had conquered 3 of the world's highest motorable roads..overcoming some of the worst roads of the planet, harsh and cold weather conditions, altitude sickness, bike problems and terrible fatigue as we biked day after day over the awe-inspiring Himalayas. But we were not discouraged.

It was the 9th day of our trip. A local Ladakhi friend suggested we try to reach the unofficial world's highest motorable road at Marsimek-La, around 18,640 feet above sea level on our last day. Since we had conquered all other peaks without much trouble, he felt that we must try this too before we ended our trip. He said that apart from our 3 bikes, he would come along with us too driving his jeep. At the very onset, the entire plan was risky and dangerous. Not only were we going to attempt what only few have attempted and succeeded in doing over the past several years, we were also going to push our luck since we had only 24 hours or so left before our flight out of Leh back to New Delhi. If the so called roads were bad so far, the route that lay ahead for this journey had no roads at all. It was going to be a test between man and machine. It was game on.

6am: As the sun rose behind the majestic mountains on our last day, we set off with a silent prayer, shivering from the cold, though we were all covered from head to toe with all the necessary, warm and protective gear. I had no clue what lay ahead, but the excitement of it all was tremendous. We had a long, long journey to complete in around 20 hours and it was not going to be easy. At noon, we reached our first major stop of the day - Pangong Lake, the worlds highest salt water lake situated at 14,500 feet above sea level. The beauty of this stunning lake has to be seen to be believed. But that is a story for another day.

2pm: The true test had begun. We were off-roading over gravel and rough terrain on the Bullet 500cc beast of a bike. We would have to do this for the rest 50 odd kms upto Marsimek-La, the Unofficial World's Highest Motorable Road. The going was getting tough as each kilometre was overcome. Slowly but steadily, we were climbing from 14,000 feet and the altitude was already getting to us. The bikes charged on but it was evident even they were slowly collapsing over the lack of oxygen. Having the Jeep behind us was hardly any emotional support. A few stops and some fine tuning of the bikes to adjust the fuel-air mixture helped, we were once again on the mission but it was also becoming dark steadily. But the heart and mind urged us on, we had to see what lay ahead.

4pm: I was face to face with one of the steepest inclines I had come across in these 10 days. What made matters worse was the terrible condition of the terrain, with loose stones, huge boulders, slush, mud and everything else in between. I tried my best to navigate this stretch and the bike responded beautifully until it could no more. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere on an incline with a bike that would not move. Thankfully, help was half an hour away and with the help of a detour, we were back on track. But not for long.

5pm: 2 of the bikes would budge no more. The terrain was unbelievable and it was going to be foolish to go any further in our bikes. Our destination was still a kilometer away. Both of us jumped into the Jeep, while the lone biker charged on, his Bullet apparently had more life in it than all of us combined by now! Finally...we reached Marsimek-La as the sun was setting..it was a wonderful achievement and perhaps to compliment us, it started to snow..a full blown snow storm. Nothing could be more satisfying than this feeling. A few armymen from the lone army post in Marsimek-La (Marsimek-La is very close to the China border) congratulated us at what they felt was a astonishing attempt by us!

5.30pm The job was only half done, though. It had taken us around 11 hours to reach our destination but what about getting back? We had to return back to our lodgings in Leh before 5am atleast to catch our 7am flight. That gave us 12 hours more in hand. It seemed like a mind-boggling and near impossible task to complete our return trip in the current condition.

What happened finally?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Laugh And The World Laughs With You..

Beijing, China (2006)

During my stay in Beijing, I happended to meet a great guy called Andrea from Italy. His English had the famous Italian accent and he basically was a fun & funny guy to hang out with! We were also part of a larger group that scaled the Great Wall of China for a 5 hour trek. After the tiring trek, that night I suggested to Andrea that we try out the famous Chinese massage which was available at a parlor near our hostel. However, by the time we had dinner and finished chatting and hanging out with the others, it was late. We decided to try our luck, and it was 1am when we were called in for the massage.

Now I must give a general explanation of the ambience in the massage room, which was at the back of the parlor that handled everthing from manicures to foot massages. There was soft lighting, with two flat beds side by side complete with the area to put the face into (I hope you get the picture) and both of us lay there on our bellies and two chirpy Chinese girls came to do the honors. Though it was very late for them, it was an absolutely excellent one hour massage session. They stretched every inch of leg, limb and back and by the end of it all, both of us were totally relaxed! But more than that, the session was an eye-opener into the life they led.

From their limited English, we learned that the two were 21 and 22 years of age and had been working there for few years. They both were not from Beijing, but another place a little far off. They worked in the parlor from 10am to 2am (around 16 hours), 7 days a week, all year. No weekly offs or leaves except during the Chinese New Year. The good thing was that they happily admitted that even with such a gruelling schedule, they were not mistreated or abused by their boss, and were happy to work as work was their life. They sometimes listened to music during work hours and that was their only passion. However, I was shocked by what came next. Inspite of being in Beijing for so long, they said that they had never been to the Great Wall yet! Apparently, they never got the time though they wanted to. And I had already seen it before them!

Both Andrea and me were silent as they said all this. Of course, there are sadder tales than this around the world that one hears. But this was one of the few cases that I had myself come face to face with. I had a knot in my throat, perhaps Andrea did as well. Mind you, they were not complaining to us, they were just happily opening up a bit coz we were friendly towards them and we were initially making a lot of silly jokes so I presume they were just comfortable with sharing..

All through this, the massage was going on non-stop and in sequence and tandem, and one of them suddenly thought of brightening up the mood and suggested that we sing a song for them! After the initial resistance and surprise, it was fun! Andrea started Italian opera songs with the full accent at the top of his voice, driving the girls into a giggle frenzy that soon turned into crazy laughter, and when it was my turn, I started belting out trashy Bollywood tunes and songs for them! Soon it was total mayhem as our backs were being pounded and songs were being sung by all.. The girls sang as well, I must admit they had great voices and though I dont understand Chinese, it was lovely. Of course, the funny thing was that between the 4 of us, none of us understood the others songs. Best of all, their boss let us create a ruckus in there as we were the last customers there and no one else was in at that time! :)

Around 2.30 am, we were done with the massage but what was more important was that me and Andrea had given the girls 40 minutes of simple fun and the chance to express themselves - something that they normally werent used to. As we left, they went non-stop with a sweet "Pleese com ageeeen"..

I couldn't help feel a little bit better after making the girls laugh. Andrea also felt the same. It was a small gesture from our side that had paid off in a big way, and as we walked on, we were thankful to God for our better lives.

I said a little silent prayer for the hardworking, sweet girls as we walked into the cool Beijing night.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

An evening in Cairo..

Cairo, Egypt (2005)

On my last evening in this historial city, I was admiring the view of the beautiful River Nile in the heart of the city (see picture on the right) when an Egyptian guy standing next to me (also just looking out into the river) started a casual conversation. The usual questions, the usual introductions took place and he told me he was a student of art and had a small gallery nearby. We chatted a while more about general stuff, his English was pretty good and I must admit he came across as a well educated and well informed guy. However, time was running out. I had to get some lunch before catching my train, so I had to make a move and said so. He insisted I pay a short visit to his gallery which was "on the way" anyways. I was suspicious but thought I'd play along for awhile, after all, what is life without a bit of risk, aye?

What started off as a "short walk" to see his pieces of art ended up as a walk that would never end, it took a full 45 minutes. After the first 15 mins I knew this was a scam, but inspite of me wanting to leave he just would not let me go and persuaded me to atleast "SEE" the place. It was not dark, and we were still in the heart of the city, and I still had an hour to catch the train so I thought I'd oblige, sacrificing lunch for the moment. But of course, my pockets were zipped and sealed as I knew what was coming!

He takes me to this shop (not gallery) at the basement of a building in a run down street. The place is in total darkness but with all the shopkeepers inside standing idle, and as soon as I step in all the lights go all on and suddenly everyone is smiling and offering me a zillion things to buy and see all at once. It took me a few moments to gather myself.

I smiled and greeted them back, my senses were all alert by now and simultaneously ignoring the works of "art", the "fine" papyrus scripts and what have you that was being offered from all sides. I did notice that all these items were outrageously high priced though, compared to the prices in the regular markets.

I told my new "friend" politely that I had kept my part of the deal, I had indeed "seen" his place, but now had to leave. Immedietely I heard cries of, "No, you have to buy, you come here to buy!" and a couple of arms grabbed mine trying their best to not let me go.

Before anyone could object anymore, I wrestled myself out of the place, my pace just a little quicker than what it normally is.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Should I have or shouldn't I have...

Macau, 2006

After spending a brilliant few days in ex-Portuguese colony Macau (now a Special Administrative Region of China), I was on my way back to Hong Kong (airport), where I was due to catch a flight in the evening. After purchasing my fast-ferry ticket direct to the Hong Kong Airport for HK$ 200, all I had left in my pockets was HK$ 20, my passport, some chewing gum, digi-cam and my pack of Marlboro Lights. And well, I also had around US$ 100 in unexchanged reserves but tucked away safely. There were a few hours left for boarding so I ventured out to click some last shots of beautiful Macau.

Almost immedietely, a well dressed man who I assumed to be from the Indian subcontinent approaches me. First question, "Are you from India?". I nod. "You see, I'm in a mess. I came to Macau yesterday from Hong Kong on business and was due to return today. However, I've lost my wallet along with all my cash and cards and I've no option but to ask someone money for my return fare. I run a business in Hong Kong and can return the money when we get there. I was looking around for Indians to ask for help as the locals dont understand English and arent very eager to help".

I hear him out before responding, "Firstly, this is the last day of my trip, and I have just enough to last myself till the evening before my flight (well, I didnt feel like even mentioning my reserve US$ to him). Also, I'm not going to HK Central, I'm going to the HK airport directly. I'm sorry, but I guess you should find someone else!" He repeatedly asked me if I was sure I didnt have any money on me? If I was sure I couldn't lend him any? He even told me if I was flying that night, then he could transfer the money to me in a few days. I politely repeated myself, showing him my HK$ 20 left in my pockets, and added that perhaps he should ask someone he knew in Hong Kong to tranfer the money to him rightaway, so he could make his journey back. He said he had already done this, but the problem was that it was a Saturday and the only Western Union money transfer outlet was closed till Monday! He didn't even have any money to stay that night in Macau and was helpless. I had to shrug my shoulders, apologize once more, wish him all the best and walk away.

But my mind was thinking.

Now, regardless of not being able to pay or wanting to pay him personally, I wondered about the truth of his story. In India, I have personally come across numerous such incidents, where smart alecs convince you of their plight and make you part with some money, even change..and make a jackass out of you in the end. I've never got fooled as I generally dont believe any story of this kind. But this incident, when it happened in another country far far away from India, in a place like Macau where you dont normally see Indians, felt a little different.

For once, I felt that perhaps his story..this particular story could have been true.. and if it was, then did I do the wrong thing by walking away? Should I have given him a little of my US$ reserve and helped his genuine case perhaps? What if I (or for that matter, you) were in his shoes tomorrow somewhere and no one believed our story thinking we were crooks? Also, if I had parted with my reserve, and I suddenly needed it later for some reason urgently, what would I do? (Actually, the interesting fact is that very day, just before my flight, a lot of things went wrong for me and only my US$ reserves saved me!)

I wish I knew the answers to these questions.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Globalization for you and me!

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I was doing some research on globalization recently when it struck me as to how much this phenomena is influencing most of our lives these days. Of course, it also depends on how "open" the country you live in is with regards to trade with other countries, but generally, it is quite interesting. Ever thought about it? Here goes my version:
  • I wake up in the morning from a bed made in China, which rests on a cot made in Sweden.
  • I brush with a toothbrush made in the USA and using a toothpaste made in the UAE.
  • The teabags I use are made in Sri Lanka, the breakfast bread in the UAE, the butter in Denmark and the jam in Malaysia.
  • The car I drive is Japanese and the office I work in is headquartered in the UK.
  • The lunch I eat is Indian, the evening coffee powder I use is Ethiopian with the biscuits made in Indonesia.
  • The TV I watch is made in Korea and the diet Pepsi I buy from the Iranian grocer below my apartment is made in the UAE.
  • The dinner I eat is sometimes Arabic, Italian, Thai or Chinese but mostly Indian.
Thats already 14 countries in one day! Of course, there can be much more to add, but you get the picture! Think about your daily life similarly, feel free to share it in the comments section!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sounds of a night in Macau...

Macau, 2006

For those of you who did'nt know yet, Macau is a Special Administrative Region(SAR) of China with its own flag, currency and visa procedures. It was a Portuguese colony till 1999 and still retains a lot of that flavor in its buildings, street layouts (like you seen in this pic; a street) and structures.

I found myself in Macau looking for a cheap place to stay for a night, and the only real budget place in the middle of the small town was the San Va Hospedaria Guesthouse in a pretty street called Rua de Felicidade. I got a single, sparsely furnished room for US$ 10 and was content. All the rooms had thin, almost cardboard material type(little more thicker!) walls which only rose just upto 3/th of the ceiling, the rest 25% was open space shared by all rooms commonly. This was apparently some Portuguese building style, and strange as it seemed, I didn't bother too much as I was only there for a night. The rest of the place was fine, with shared bathroom facilities.

Until I went to bed.

Now I have to share this with you all, Macau is famous for its Grand Prix (not F1), pretty streets, delicious Portuguese egg tarts, gambling and prostitution. While I indulged gladly in viewing the streets and gobbling up the tarts, the last two options were not for me, though I must admit I was all eyes at the casino where both of the latter could be found and ogled at in abundance. After all of that, I had tucked myself in bed around midnight. And then the sounds started..

I heard the most disgusting of all snores begin to hit my ears from a neighbouring room(remember, the ceiling is open and common to all rooms!), from what I assumed to be an old Chinese man with EVERY chest and lung disease in the world. God help him with his congested lungs, but it was absolute pollution to my ears as I was forced to hear out every chord and crescendo of the blissfully snoring bugger. I've heard some pretty bad snores over the years, but NOTHING could beat this, it was almost scary! At 1am, just when I was beginning to console my ears into accepting my fate, started the most tantalizing Oooooh's and Aaahhh's that I have ever heard. From a female, I might add.

Oh yes, I already had the pleasure of being surrounded by a horrible sounding loud snorer but now, as an addition to the musical night was an orgiastic hooker who I bet was in all probability belting out well practised artificial moans and groans as they did the DEED. Add to that, by the sounds of her whimpers and whines, I assume her client was a sado-masochist beast (hope I spelled that right!), I think he was making her repent for all her previous sins!! Ah, what delight to my virginal ears, this was the truly the most weirdest kind of audio porn I had ever heard, if you may call it that!

Complain to the reception, I hear you say? On a lazy, sunny afternoon, I would never spoil the fun for both them and myself. But at 3am in the morning, when I was not having any fun, I finally went to the reception. I was told to turn over, shut my ears and sleep as this was "normal". And thats exactly what I tried to do. Until the bed bugs began to bite. Ah, a memorable night in Macau.

Would I ever go there again? Of course! But next time, before I tuck myself in, I'm gonna remember to buy lots of those lip smacking egg tarts, insect repellant and a good book..

Did you notice I didn't mention ear plugs? :P

Monday, May 15, 2006

Train-ing in China!

Beijing, China (2006)

In Chinese trains, a passenger has two options while deciding how to travel, sometimes three. One is the regular seats (not found in all long distance trains) and the other two options are the soft-sleeper and the hard-sleeper. While planning my trip, I was adviced against using long distance trains within China, specially the "hard-sleeper" berths, as the journey would be long and difficult. I took two trains, the first from Beijing to Guilin (23 hours) and the second was from Guilin to Shenzhen (12 hours). I chose the hard sleeper on both, as I did not want to shell out the extra 40-50% for the tickets on the soft sleeper. I was pleasantly surprised. The berths were very clean and comfortable, with soft pillows and comforters provided! It wasn't hard, neither was it soft, but it was nice and I had no complaints! You can see this from the pic above, which I took from my comfy middle berth!

But thats not all. The hospitality and facilities on both trains was out of this world. As the picture below suggests, each compartment had a crisply uniformed female attendant/ticket collector on duty(all extremely beautiful as well, I might add!). She had her own small cabin which doubled up as an office. Throughout the journey she was always around to ask for help, though in my case we were both helpless as I did not know Mandarin. But again, the language barrier is usual in China anywhere!

I found out that the Chinese are very fond of instant noodles during long journeys, so there is always boiling hot water through a tap in each compartment to prepare your noodles! There are LCD TV screens for each coupe which feature short programs or Chinese MTV, and digital display signs flash the current temperature, date and next destination. Each berth bed has a small hanging lamp and coat hook provided and there is a flask and waste bin for each set of 6 berths in a coupe. Soft Chinese music is played from the morning to evening, and its volume can be regulated in each coupe if you want to. All lights except the night lamps are switched off at 10pm precisely, after which one can use the lamps provided. There are common washbasins whose decor can rival any restaurant's, but the toilets are basic and are cleaned every hour or so. I did find a few toilets uncleaned and was not able to enter!

Hawkers are not allowed inside the trains, but there is everything from perfumes to coke sold inside by licensed, uniformed sellers. A full fledged restaurant compartment can also be found. The security inside the trains is impeccable. At most stations, there are large boards displaying the current time and the departure time of the train on the platform, with corresponding alarm bells and warning whistles to alert the people who left the train to buy something. A few minutes before the train departs, the stairs collapse into the floor of the compartment and all doors are automatically shut using a special key by each attendant. Very sophisticated, and the journey was fast!

So were there no problems at all, you ask? Well there were a few. For starters, the smoking! I took a pic of this official sticker on a train compartment wall and found it very amusing! The Chinese are generally very heavy smokers and it gets annoying after a while. Smoking in trains is allowed only between compartments, but since the doors were always open the smoke always wafted in to my berth, which unfortunately was the first in the compartment. Also, another great pass time for the Chinese is playing cards or board games, and if you are unlucky, you might end up having a small crowd in your coupe playing or observing a game seriously. But all in good fun!

The trains are slower than a flight, of course, but what better way than to journey ACROSS China than by a train? Most importantly, both trips, inspite of these excellent facilities didn't cost a bomb.

And that's the beauty of travelling in China!

Beggars can't be choosers...

Chandigarh, India (2005)

I was hanging around in Sector 17 one evening (the only real "happening" place in Chandigarh), penniless and doing nothin but watching life go by as people went about their business, when I happened to be literally accosted out of nowhere by a pushy child beggar just outside a swanky nightclub (You need to experience it once to know how pushy they can get!). For some reason he thought that I was the son of a Sheikh (ahem..what can I say). He kept following me for a while with his well practised dialogue, trying to squeeze me out of my money(I only had loose change on myself!), and I kept putting him off for awhile telling him he was chasing the wrong person.

And then these three stunning women walked by me towards the club strutting their stuff..The little runt made a beeline towards them, screwing up his face with the same dialogue of "I've been hungry all day, please give me some money"...I watched with interest, eager to know what their reaction would be. What I saw next stunned me. One of these girls, actually cornered this 8 year old boy dressed in rags, and complimented him on his "acting" and asked him who his favorite actor was. She told him that he would get some money from them ONLY if he could shoot off some dialogues from his favorite actor Shah Rukh Khan (the superstar in Indian movies). By then, the child was smiling, taken aback by this unusual behavior from a stilleto-wearing, cleavage-popping, club hopping girl. He belted out a few dialogues and was quite impressed by his own capacity. The girls heard him, laughed, and behind them all, I was smiling too..he really had some talent! The girls gave him some change and left, and he was left standing there in a stupor, a BIG smile pasted all over his face which refused to go away.

I had to walk up to him, and I asked him if he suddenly wasnt desperately hungry anymore? Didn't he want to rush and get some food in his belly quickly anymore? He nodded conveying to me that he was still very hungry, but with a smile, he just sat down. I squatted on the pavement near him too and thats when it struck me..it wasnt about the money, it wasnt about the hunger..what this child was really missing in his dreary life was a genuine smile, some happiness. He was already missing the joys of childhood because he was forced to beg in order to survive ..and today, when these girls gave him a rare chance like this, it was like a fresh breath of air for him..

Think about it. Do we really spare a thought for such beggars or the homeless, ever? I mean, we always try to put them off, or give them some change and try to get away as quick as possible..and then they are forgotten..but today, what i saw was something different..someone DID try to stop a while and make a difference in this little childs life. It was not out of any compulsion or any real necessity..it was just a good gesture from an unexpected quarters..

I stood up to leave, giving him all the change I had left in my pockets.