xxx


 
   3084 views   
JOURNEYS
Sierra Leone; home to the Bounty Bar beach, charming locals, and an odd airport transfer...
posted by Richard Green on 28/02/2017

A beautiful and deserted beach in Sierra Leone. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I visited Sierra Leone in 2009 in order to write an article about what the place was like after the country had spent years known abroad only for its horrendous civil war. I was bowled over by the place and its people and plan to return. The country is has been declared free from Ebola since November 2016.

The following is a version of the piece that appeared in the Sunday Times in 2009.

***

"Would you like to be carried to the speedboat or do you prefer to wade?" is not a question I've had to face before on an airport transfer - but this is Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries, and there's no bridge from the international airport to the capital city.

So, glancing down at my leather shoes, and looking along the beach at two local businessmen in suits, ties and the arms of local fishermen, I opted for a carry-out, too.

One of the most bonkers airport transfers I've ever taken. Photo My Bathroom Wall

There are other ways to get from the airport, but they are a lot less appealing than a 30-minute skim in a speedboat: a tediously slow ferry that leaves only when jam-packed; an unreliable former Isle of Wight hovercraft; and the most dangerous, an airline that uses former Russian military helicopters.

You may think these matters ridiculously beside the point, considering that I'm talking about Sierra Leone, a country famed for boy soldiers, blood diamonds and precious little else. The locals, though, will quickly point out that the war finished in 2002, that there were free and fair elections, and a peaceful transition of power 18 months ago, and that a tourism boom must be just around the corner. And perhaps that's not as crazy as it might sound.

The prewar fundamentals are still here: fabulous beaches and reliable winter sun, plus mountains and monkeys, slave forts, unspoilt islands and colourful markets. And getting to Freetown is easy, with nonstop BMI flights from Heathrow that take seven hours, only 30 minutes longer than those to The Gambia. There's no jet lag, everyone speaks English and even the three-pin plugs are the same.

Just 14 miles south of the capital, on the magnificent powder-white, if prosaically named, River No 2 Beach, the tourist potential is glaring. It faces west and spans miles of undeveloped bay, backed by palms and lush jagged hills, and is bisected by the green water of River No 2 on its sidewind to the sea.

Of all the beaches in all the world, this was the one chosen to feature in the old 'A Taste of Paradise' adverts for the Bounty Bar. In truth the beach plays second fiddle to swimming costumed models taking slo-mo mouthfuls of the chocolate bars, but the beach looks alluring too. 

My chalet facing No 2 Beach brought back the best of backpacking memories. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

I was the only guest at the one development on the entire beach: a community project where the whole village chips in to run seven beachside chalets. For £34 per night you get a large room with a big veranda, B&B - they are concrete and tiles, but have batik wall hangings, a clean bathroom (no hot running water, though) and a comfy double bed with a big mosquito net.

After a day walking along the beach, swimming in the sea, talking to the fishermen, eating a fine fish dinner for a fiver and taking a boat trip to a rock pool by a waterfall, I flicked on my iPod and watched the sunset from my veranda.

Keep it simple simple; the good life at No 2 Beach. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I'd backpacked a lot in the 1980s and 1990s, and being here kindled powerful memories of my first forays to Thailand and Bali, Fiji and Goa. It's not what I had expected of Sierra Leone, but there I was nonetheless, rediscovering the potency of a sunset seen from a beach hut, wafted by the subtle scents of sea spray and hibiscus, with towel and togs drying on a line, cold beer in hand.

Fishermen bringing home the catch to No 2 Beach. Photo My Bathroom Wall

But this place still has a way to go. For example, some of the roads in Sierra Leone are shocking - Freetown's tarmac hardly reaches the city limits on the main road south to the beaches, which turns an 11-mile drive into an infuriating hour's slog. There are good paved stretches further down the peninsula, but the lack of infrastructure is a big brake on tourist development.

Busy market scene along the road to Banana Island. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It hasn't stopped the locals preparing for an influx, though. Take Tommy, the bare-chested, 40-year-old owner of the Hard Rock Restaurant at nearby Lakka Beach. When I asked him about his place, he said: "I started to build this during the war, in 1997. It took me eight years - slowly, slowly. Before the war there were 500 French people here every week, but after the war it is quiet. I hope new tourists will come soon, though."

I looked both ways along the beach. There wasn't a single tourist in sight. I asked what he would suggest for lunch, and glancing over his shoulder towards the fishing boats, he said: "I have some nice barracuda."

Moments later, a young guy dashed down the sand and rushed back with a big fish. Cooked as a kebab, with rice and a mildly spicy onion and tomato garnish, it was delicious.

The next day, on a boat heading to Banana Island from the tiny hamlet of Kent, a greying young man in a green and white African-style suit asked: "Excuse me, may I ask what nature of endeavour brings you to my country?"

He was David Jones, the Kent head teacher, and his was typical of the omnipresent courtesy of Sierra Leoneans.

Everyone passes with a "Good morning, how are you today?", or in the local Krio language, a "How de day?" or "How de bodi?".

There were a lot of how de bodis lobbed my way on the short walk from Dublin Wharf - basically two large cotton trees and a couple of canoes - to the eight rondavels of the island's guesthouse. It's another community project, this time with more thoughtfully decorated huts, hot water, lighting provided by solar panels, and fantastic views back onto the mountains and beaches of the mainland.

The arrival and departure hub for Banana Island, Dublin Wharf. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

I walked around the tip of the island with Michael, a local lad who showed me the overgrown foundations of a Portuguese fort and the village well (still in use). He couldn't remember when the Portuguese were here, so he took me to his uncle, the venerable Lord Moo. I sat on a bench on the tidy patio of his titchy house and waited for the old man to emerge from tending his cassava plants.

The affable and wise Lord Moo. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Hobbling over, he sat heavily and reclined next to me. With a wonderfully resonant voice, he told me that during the American war of independence, the British had promised to free any slaves who joined them in the fight, and how 50,000 of them had done so, some of whom were subsequently liberated and shipped to Freetown. "That is why we have so many British names for villages - Waterloo, Wellington, Hastings, Wilberforce - it is gratitude from the slaves who came here as free men."

Lord Moo didn't like Freetown. "People in the city," he said, pointing up to a big, green bunch of bananas in his tree, "they can't leave anything to ripen. Those bananas are not ripe. They will be perfect in maybe three more days, but in Freetown they are taken to market too early, to exchange for money. That is how people in the city live. They cannot wait for anything."

View from in front of my rondavel at the Banana Island Guest House. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On my last night in Sierra Leone, I stood at the bar of Freetown's best nightclub, Paddy's. I looked out to sea and thought about Lord Moo and his garden.

I couldn't agree with him about Freetown, which for my money is the prettiest town on the West African coast - good beaches, fine old colonial buildings and the mountaintop suburb of Hill Station, sprinkled with wonderful old stilted bungalows. Of course it's ramshackle, with terrible traffic and some grinding poverty, but if you like West Africa it's friendly and feels quite safe.

In fact, it's been a while since I last got so attached to a place so quickly. When it came to leaving, I checked out of my hotel with big handshakes all round, vowing to return. Then, in shorts and sandals, I waded out to sea and into the waiting speedboat for my trip back to the airport.

Sunset on Banana Island. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours.

04 Reasons to be cheerful: there is now a more reliable link between Freetown's Lungi Airport and the city, though the journey still involves a bus and boat journey, via Sea Coach Express. The 30 minutes on the 'ferry' can be bumpy, but if you do suffer from seasickness, the road journey from the airport to the city can take four hours, so you may want to take your chances on the boat. It's strongly advised that airport transfers are booked in advance of travel too. UK based tour operators Rainbow Tours and Undiscovered Destinations both offer tailor made tours to Sierra Leone. Or Overlanding West Africa and Dragoman run overland trips through the country.
   
30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.
   
31 Getting there: there are direct flights to Freetown from Paris with Air France, Brussels with Air Brussels and Amsterdam with KLM. Other routes include Royal Air Maroc from Casablanca, Kenya Airways from Nairobi and Accra, and Air Côte d’Ivoire from Abidjan and Monrovia.
   

 


 
   711 views   
JOURNEYS
Two holidays for the price of one; the art of the stopover...
posted by Richard Green on 03/08/2017
 

It’s long made sense to slice the slog in half and recuperate along the way, but a stopover is also a great money saver. Often it doesn’t cost you any more to get off the aircraft for a day or two – aside from hotel and sightseeing expenses. Some airlines even offer discounted hotel rates to encourage you to stay, and either way a stopover lets you experience somewhere new for a fraction of the cost of a separate trip.

You can book stopover flights via websites with ‘multi-sector search engines’ but this is one of those times when a travel agent can really ease the passage. They can search out the best deals on more complex itineraries and help with hotels and tours, too.

Taking the long journey between Europe and Australia as an example, while the most popular places to break your journey in are Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and increasingly Dubai, there are actually at least 20 other stopovers destinations to choose from.  

Aside from flying to Australia, it makes good sense to think about stopping off on the way on any long haul trip. On a holiday to Hong Kong it works like this. For a start, forget BA or Cathay Pacific who fly direct - where’s the fun in that? Think instead of all the places between the UK and where you’re going that you have always wanted to visit. If it’s Sri Lanka you’ve thought of, then Sri Lankan Airlines will happily oblige, if it was Dubai, then Emirates will be only too pleased, and if Istanbul, try Turkish Airlines. These are just three, but there are plenty more airlines out there, eager as anything to offer you a holiday on your way.

Just think of the benefits of two-holidays-in-one. You’ll save a packet compared to visiting both separately, squeeze more precious tanning time from your annual leave, and cause a dinner party plate-wobble when you say you’re off on a 10 day trip with a twist next week; “oh yes, for a spot of Safari in Kenya, and a dive or two in the Seychelles”.

Their haste might well land you in Vancouver, Mauritius or Istanbul; but instead of making a bee-line for the baggage carousel and the beach, you’ll be just changing planes there, probably nose-pressing the windows and daydreaming about what might have been.

 

Practicalitiles: Suss the weather in both places (there’s little point stopping off mid rainy season), check the waiting times at the stopover airport (you don’t want to be hanging around for half a day on the way home), beware of bank holidays and festivals that might make hotel rates skyrocket, and ask whether you’ll need a visa. Also, remember that it might make more sense to stop off on the way back – you might not feel like Hong Kong after a week on a Sri Lankan beach, but the other way round is perfect.

Stopover friendly airlines: airlines with specific stopover programemes - that will ensure you won't pay extra for stopping on the fare, and will sometimes help with cheaper hotel rates and excursions too - include Air China, Air France, Emirates, Etihad, Finnair, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Japan Air Lines, Singapore Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, and Turkish Airways.


 
   2891 views   
JOURNEYS
Where train turns mountain goat; Ecuador's extraordinary 'Nariz del Diablo' railway...
posted by Richard Green on 12/03/2017
 

Ecuador’s main railway line runs from its Andean capital Quito, along the high plateau Avenue of the Volcano’s, to the busy Pacific port city of Guayaquil - from a high point of 3,600m to sea level, along 280 miles of track. The project to connect Ecuador's major port city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, was launched in 1885, and while the line down the Avenue of the Volcanos presented relatively few problems, and the same for the route inland from Guayaquil, the engineers hot a mountain-sized snag 130 kilometres inland at the neck of a valley where a rock face rises called the 'Nariz del Diablo', or Devil's Nose.

The ingenious solution was to have the track ascend the mountainside using a 12-kilometre zig-zag route, so that the train twice reaches a precarious dead end before reversing direction for the next section of the ascent or descent. From a distance the ledges cut to lay the train track on make the shape of a Zorro like slashes on the side of the mountain.                                                                                                                                                                                 

After years of neglect, the line has re-opened using smart new Train Cruise carriages with comfy seats and an open sided viewing car at the rear. The whole length takes four days with sightseeing stops, but it’s the spectacular section from the little railhead town of Alausi, 170 miles south of Quito, that you should aim for if you are pressed for time.

It’s here that the railway engineers almost met their match – as a precipitous dead-end valley blocked the way. The bold and bonkers solution was to carve a zigzagging ledge down the 800m side of the semi-sheer mountain dubbed the Devil’s Nose; along which the whole train moves forwards, then backwards, then forwards again.

The fussy gait of the little locomotive and its wooden carriages is amusing for the first part of the ride, not unlike riding a pleasure railways anywhere else in the world. But it's not long before the ground falls away on the right hand side of the train, and gives way to a steep valley that very soon becomes worryingly steep and deep.

The decent of the Devil’s Nose is astonishing: more suited to mountain goats than to trains. The carriages shuffle alarmingly in their tracks and after one especially alarming jolt, I scuttled to the other side of the carriage - away from the precipice - and tried to calm my vertigo by sitting tight by the solid rock face side of the train, where I opened the window fully and scanned the passing bushes for branches strong enough to jump out and cling onto in case the train plummeted down the gorge. 

04 Reasons to be cheerful: the return trip from Alausí to the bottom of the gorge takes 2 ½ hours, including a 30-minute stop at the bottom. There are three trips daily, costing £15pp. The cute little station and museum in Alausí is well-run and efficient. And though there isn't much to see in the town, it's a pleasant enough place for a coffee or snack if you happen to arrive there early.
24 You can't always get what you want: it's hard to believe, but not so long ago the draw for many people to ride on the Devil's Nose railway was in order to sit on its roof. This became very popular, especially - but not only - amongst the backpacking fraternity, but a fatal accident in 2007 when two tourists were killed by hanging telephone wires while standing up, put an end to the practise.
puzzle Fitting the Devil's Nose into a holiday: the vast majority of tourists visiting Ecuador head straight to the Galapagos Islands - which are parked about 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. However, the mainland has high mountains, volcanos, Amazon jungle, and surf beaches. It's a brilliant destination in itself, or can easily be combined with Galapagos.
31 Getting there: There are several buses a day from Alausí to Riobamba and Cuenca. 
weather When to go: Cuenca enjoys fairly Spring-like weather year round, with daytime temperatures averaging 21°C. It's up at about 2,500 metres above sea level, so days are warm rather than hot, and nights are often a tad chilly. There's a nominal rainy season March-June, but the rain happens late in the afternoon, or overnight.
35 Further information: on the train see Tren Ecuador, and for the country in general there is Ecuador Travel
30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

 
   3266 views   
JOURNEYS
Walking in Montenegro with the folk who devise the routes for walking holidays...
posted by Richard Green on 24/02/2017
 

Montenegro's poster boy island of Sveti Stefan, now the upmarket Aman Resort

I opened the expensively heavy curtains of my suite, barely resisting the urge to sing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ – and gazed out over the most perfect Mediterranean view. A smile-shaped beach. A giant yacht resting at anchor in the bay. And, rising to the right, a picture-book jumble of red roofs. If the Adriatic Coast is a beauty, this stretch was 24-carat supermodel-sensational.

Croatia? Not quite. Slovenia? You’re getting colder. Yet trust me when I tell you that you’ve seen those russet tiles in scores of brochure snaps and poster shoots over the years. This is Montenegro, and if that piece of information leaves you non-plussed, well, that’s the point – I wanted a holiday that would take me far from the madding-ding crowds. This tiny coastal country stands on the cusp of becoming a major Mediterranean player, as popular with tourists as its big-name neighbours; for the moment, though, it’s largely unknown. And it’s possible to have significant chunks of the place to yourself.

Nowhere is its cusp status clearer than here at Sveti Stefan. A miniature outcrop attached by causeway to the rest of the coast, the islet slumbered away 500-odd years as a fishermen’s village, barnacled with cottages like something from a child’s storybook – until the post-war years of Hollywood stars and voyaging royalty, when the Communist rulers of Yugoslavia reinvented it as a resort for celebs on the Med. Holiday here in the ’60s and ’70s and you’d have heard the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Princess Margaret echo in the cobbled lanes – interspersed with the Vesuvian arguments of the Burtons, Richard and Elizabeth. This summer – after a scouring renovation by Singapore-based luxury hotel company Aman Resorts – it’s ready to cast more glitter over Montenegro when it opens at the end of May, those cottages painstakingly reworked into 50 suites of sumptuous-but-muted Aman-appeal.

The private beach for guests of the Villa Milocer at the Aman Sveti Stefan. photo My Bathroom Wall

On the beach there was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks I got a taste of what it will be like (and took in its beauty from a distance) as I breakfasted at Villa Milocer, on the shores overlooking Sveti Stefan. Built in the ’30s as a holiday home for Yugoslavia’s Karadordevic royals, the villa was later swiped by Communist president Tito as his summer pad. A couple of years ago, Aman Resorts restored it as a bite-size preview of Sveti Stefan, out in the bay. As I quaffed egg-white omelette and guava juice, shaded by Milocer's vine-covered terrace, insects whirring in the early morning heat, I concluded that Montenegro is perfection. But it’s the kind of perfection that costs – the villa's 12 suites will knock you back upwards of £600 a night each – yet it’s so quiet in these parts that a feeling of exclusivity isn’t exclusive to those who are paying for it.

What you do get for your money is a sandy beach, 800 olive trees, and something that Sveti Stefan’s suites will never deliver:a Flickr’s-eye view of the island itself. Breakfast over, I strolled to the adjacent Queen’s Beach (‘for guests only’). There was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks from a little cabin. It’s rare to find such a pristine slice of peaceful paradise in the modern Med – and who knows how long it will last in Montenegro? This diminutive country, home to just two-thirds of a million people, is beginning to appear on the world’s radar, even if many of us couldn't place it on a map. Madonna has visited, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have been house-hunting, and a Monte Carlo-style marina is taking shape.

And beyond Villa Milocer and Sveti Stefan? I was keen to explore – but not in the Madonna-worthy black Mercedes S Class that the villa uses for airport transfers, and which would clearly mark me out as a tourist among the beaches and wilderness. On offer at the car rental company was a dented Chevrolet Spark with three hubcaps missing. Gingerly I signed along the dotted line.

Cruise ships call into the fjord-like inlet at Kotor

I wound down the windows, slipped on sunglasses and fumbled for the radio. There wasn’t one, but who cares? Remote, romantic expanses were mine from the first bend. Wide and cliff-hugging, the coastal road took me north, swooping into the town of Budva, which – dare I say it – already felt a tad commercialised, with bobbing yacht masts and a thronging walled Old Town, rather like a mini Dubrovnik. Soon I was happily back on my own, my next port of call Kotor, just a few kilometres from the Croatian border, but a world away from that country’s manicured honey pots. Lying at the end of southern Europe’s largest fjord, the town delivered glimpses of international invasion – a London-registered super yacht at the quay side dominated the Mediaeval city walls – but the cliffs flanking the town soared hundreds of metres skywards, rendering everything man-made fragile and fleeting.

Switchback road winding up from Kotor to the mountains, and the Gulf of Kotor. Photos My Bathroom Wall

It was quiet, but I wanted utter peace. In search of more isolation, I pointed the Chevy inland. A squiggle on the map traced four hairpin bends, which turned out to be 27, and as the tyres squealed on the bends, I realised how the hubcaps had gone missing. At the last curve I looked down: beyond the fjord and Kotor town, shimmering far off in the hazy Adriatic, was an armada of mega-yachts. This was Porto Montenegro. I’d read about it in glossy magazines. Touted by its billionaire backer as the ‘Monaco of the Adriatic’, the site is in fact a former Yugoslav naval base. Gazing at it now you see a swanky near-future. Transformations are ushering in a 600-berth marina, upmarket holiday homes and – for the benefit of the Michael Douglas/Madonna crowd – a shiny, pricey new hotel.

As quickly as the vision materialised, it vanished. One tunnel, three bends and the sea was out of sight, as Montenegro-beyond beckoned me back into a pretty, pine-scented Adriatic past: forests of evergreen, shady cypress trees and, suddenly, the entrance to the mountaintop mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš. I parked the car and walked the last bit through needles of sunlight, to a soundtrack of my own scrunching feet.

The mountin top tomb of local big man Petar II. Photos My Bathroom Wall

European summit: the view from Petar II's tomb (Ivan Blazhev) Almost seven foot tall, Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš made a big impact on Montenegrin history. Polymath, prince-bishop, poet and sharp-shooter, he had a great party piece – asking guests to lob a lemon into the air, which he then blasted to bits. His solemn, sculptured tomb is fittingly OTT, glinting with gold leaf and black marble, and set loftily atop the country’s second-highest mountain. At 1,660m, it is huff-puffingly challenging to reach – many of its 461 steps (I counted!) have been tunnelled through solid rock. Once I’d made it, I drank in the views over the almost-treeless mountainscape, savoured the solitude and contemplated. This man was a singular Montenegrin, a very big fish in a very small pond.

There’s more to discover about him 12km on, in the mountain stronghold of Cetinje. It is home to Biljarda, Njegoš’s former palace-home, which translates as Billiard House and rolls out 25 rooms without losing its rustic appeal. The curious name alludes to the billiard table he ordered to be carted up here – and in the upstairs front room you can find the eponymous item. One careful owner, excellent condition.

You’ll love little Cetinje if the Duchy of Grand Fenwick means anything to you. It was the name of a fictional alpine mini-state featured in comic novels by Leonard Wibberley. The tiny nation was pitched into ludicrous situations whereby it became a power-broker between the world’s great nations – most famously in the 1959 film The Mouse that Roared, starring Peter Sellers, in which they come to own a bomb that can destroy the planet.

Lord Byron thought this ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea' Untouched by modernity, Cetinje has a similar filmic, fairytale appeal. Its population is barely 20,000 yet, between 1878 and 1918, it was Montenegro’s capital. It is a town that invites you to wander – past fading facades and along tree-lined avenues, all steeped in an ambience of sublime tranquillity.

Before the country was swallowed up by Yugoslavia, the great powers wooed it with emissaries and embassies.

The latter are still here – almost a dozen of them, cute and comical, pinpointed by helpful maps in the town centre.

The French example is a rather grand fin-de-siècle affair (now part of the national library), the British (these days the University of Montenegro’s music department) is a lovely pink-coloured building with a tarnished coat of arms above the door, and the Bulgarian is a modest restaurant.

The former embassies in Citenje; clockwise from top left, Ottoman, Italian, British, Russian, Bulgarian and French

I walked and walked and – a very happy hiker in this leafy corner of the Adriatic, keen to find the quiet heart of the place – continued to walk, through forest glades into the pretty town of Rijeka Crnojevica, where a splendid old stone bridge stepped delicately over the little river Crnojevic in three loopy spans.

It was impossible to stroll by the The Stari Most cafe/restaurant and not stop – even if the young waiter with the sculpted physique and impressive height wore a bored expression that suggested the Communists had never left. The outdoor tables and delightful view of the bridge implored me to stay awhile, as did the excellent food: a plate of local cheese and ham, then fish soup, made from lake-caught carp out of nearby Lake Scutari.

Laid back Rijeka Crnojevica, a gateway to boat trips on Lake Skadar. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I could have idled for hours in this bucolic throwback, but I’d arranged for a boat to return me to the spot where I had parked the car. The said vessel arrived at the appointed time, and down the river I drifted, to the gentle thrum of the old tub’s diesel as it followed a channel of water through a lake of giant lilies. With a mountainous backdrop and cormorants flick-diving in the foreground, it felt as if the 20th century had yet to arrive, let alone the 21st.

A boat trip on Lake Skadar, before an impromptu swim. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Suddenly a large hand grasped my shoulder, shocking me back to the present, and the old boatman wheezed, ‘You want swim?’

I had no bathing trunks – I was wearing khaki shorts – but I jumped at the chance and, my man having tied up at a landing stage, I leapt in. Lulled by the lunch, I bobbed about in waters that were deliciously cool and reviving, savouring a Montenegro that might not exist in a couple of years. The poet (and celebrated swimmer) Lord Byron called this part of the world ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’ – and, for the moment at least, it very well might be. But go now, before boatmen stop offering unscheduled swims just because it’s a beautiful day.

***

I travelled as a guest of HF Holidays. Other tour operators to try include UK-based Headwater Holidays, Authentic Adventures, and the The Natural Adventure Company. For more information see Visit Montenegro


 
   2466 views   
JOURNEYS
Sikh and ye shall find...community, piety and fun, in Amritsar's Golden Temple...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

A few years back I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and wrote the following piece, which appeared in the Sunday Times.

The flat, dusty streets of Amritsar, 250 miles northwest of Delhi, were choking with traffic and hawkers. The temple gates were almost within reach and the postcard-pushers knew it. I’d been polite so far, but now I waved my arms about and shouted, “Shoo!”

I walked into the temple compound, still swatting the air, but suddenly the midge-like hawkers were gone. It was as though an invisible force were stopping them from entering. Glancing back, the most pesky postcard-seller caught my eye and briefly interrupted his Churchill-Churchillian sulk with a smile.

I relaxed immediately.

At a busy row of benches, a greying lady in a rose-red sari mimed that I should take off my shoes and socks. She removed hers, too, then scooped up mine and bustled over to a long counter. Exchanging them for tokens, she hurried back and pressed a metal disc into my palm, closing my fingers around it as though it were precious. My grandparents used to do that when treating me with a five-pound note: I’d not thought of that for a long time.

She gathered in her sari and led me to a sawn-off oil barrel. It was full of head scarves. The few men not already wearing turbans were pausing to grab temporary head cover, a requirement for entry to the temple. My helper was more diligent, though — rejecting several scarves before teasing out the right one, Ali Bongo-style. It perfectly matched my shirt, and a tall Sikh boy with an insurmountable grin stopped to tie it on. My self-appointed chaperone single-clapped in delight.

Next, she led me to the entrance proper, where we paddled through a shallow pool to cleanse our feet. She held my elbow for balance and we climbed the steps together.

At the top, she leant against a column and proudly pushed me forward. There, framed by the white arch, was the 400-year-old Golden Temple of Amritsar. It was familiar to me from pictures in countless Punjabi restaurants, but in real life it was much more impressive. Shimmering in the heat, it loomed lightly, like a mirage. Its giant gilded strongbox glared bullion-brilliant, and paradoxically appeared to float at the centre of a giant olive-green pool.

My companion sighed contentedly, namaste‘d me goodbye, and walked off along the marble poolside path.

Emerging from the inner sanctum, where Sikhs were filing past their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, I walked by a formal grassy area. Having just bathed ceremonially in the pool, men were drying their long, long hair in the sun.

Further on, a crowd milled outside a large brick building, where a toothy man handed me a large metal thali tray, big and round as a hubcap. A young girl in western clothes said hello and asked me where I was from. She explained that this was the langur hall, where free meals are served round the clock.

It was a two-storey building the size of a Victorian school. Catching my bemused look, the girl launched into an explanation. “Fifty thousand people a day eat here, can you imagine? Guru Nanak, our founder, started it so that all Sikhs should eat together and show we are not agreeing with the caste system, like in Hinduism, and that men and women aren’t keeping separated, like in Islam.

“The people cooking and serving are volunteers, too,” she continued. “All sorts of people, you’ll see. We are calling it seva. It is the voluntary work we are doing at a temple.”

A bell rang and the heavy wooden doors opened. We shuffled inside and sat cross-legged on hessian mats, at least 1,000 people, I reckoned. There was a tug on my sleeve: two wily little kids with worn-through clothes and quick movements asked my name, shaking my hand energetically. Opposite, a portly gentleman with a magnificent beard adjusted his sword and bowed his head minutely in welcome.

Sumpreet, the sassy girl from outside, explained that the boys were poor and possibly came to eat every day, while the man was a rich businessmen. A little shyly, she added: “I am studying for a geography degree, and come only when an exam is nearing and I am needing extra luck.”

A line of servers scurried in from behind. They slung chapatis and dished out dhal with hilarious inaccuracy, but they were volunteers, and already the next sitting was agitating at the door. It’s the same in gurdwaras everywhere; rich and poor, young and old, men and women, all eating together. The food may be basic, but the symbolism was fine fusion.

Without Question, the Golden Temple has all the grace and beauty of the Taj Mahal. It’s not as big or as grand, but it is certainly as stunning. And while the Taj is a mausoleum, moribund except for the swarms of tourists and touts, the Golden Temple pulses with the energy of a thriving living community — the spiritual and temporal centre of the Sikh faith.

It is hardly visited by non-Indian or non-Sikh tourists, but there is an information office. After a cup of tea, information officer Sundeep Dalbir Singh (Retired) led me on a free tour of the temple.

Mr Singh was an old man with a forthright chest and bow legs. He had served in the Indian army before independence and referred to the Raj constantly, usually while staring into space, as though he were remembering a long-dead pet.

I followed him up the narrow steps to the museum, where walls were crammed with paintings. They were of the Sikh gurus and their followers, teaching, fighting and suffering, but mainly suffering.

In front of one particularly gruesome canvas, my guide scrunched up his face excitedly, like a schoolboy recounting an infamous scrap, saying that these three martyrs were tortured “very extensively, very extensively indeed”. Each “very” was projected loudly, like when a giant first appears in a bedtime story.

Another picture showed a Sikh being sliced in two with an axe — lengthways; and another panel brimmed with black-and-white photographs of Sikh youths who had been shot by the Indian army. They were like school portraits, but madly macabre, and “very extensively” began echoing all around.

So much for blood and guts, bricks and mortar — I had a killer theological question that I wanted to air. So I asked: “What’s the main difference between the Sikh salvation and the Christian heaven?” He thoughtfully twizzled his thinning grey beard and fell silent for a long time. A very long time. Then, with eureka certainty, he said: “The Christian heaven has better facilities.”

It was mid-afternoon when the heat finally won out and, overcoming my shyness, I “went local” and joined some other pilgrims snoozing in the dependable shade of a loggia.

Lying on the marble was refreshingly cool, like face-pressing a fridge door in a heat wave; and wafting over the water on a jasmine-scented breeze came hypnotic chanting amplified from the temple roof. I fell asleep.

Suddenly, a young boy in a white dhoti was frantically prodding me awake, shouting: “The water is coming; the water is coming — look!” Advancing at a slow walk were at least 100 people. Sikhs were scoop-filling buckets from the edge of the tank, then passing them on to the next person in the chain. The pails swung across the crest of the crowd, water spilling and pails clattering. When they reached the last person in the row, the water was hurled over the marble. It was like watching a Sikh Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Then the crowd engulfed me, too. It was like a childhood summer — foot-stampingly happy days spent spraying friends with garden hoses. By the time a teenager tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a heavy pail, I was laughing aloud. “What on earth is going on?” I asked with a happy shrug.

“We are cleaning the pathway. Here,” he said, handing me a full bucket. I took the weight, then hesitated and looked around. This couldn’t really be allowed, could it — in what is the Sikh equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral? I lunged forward like a first-timer in a bowling alley and the water arched through the air, splattering onto the white stone. The youth beamed, grabbed back the bucket, then rushed off to the pool.

This was a long way from my village church in Derbyshire. All I remembered from there was frustrated fidgeting and drowsy daydreaming. What a shame that they never let us help wash the aisles.

***

I travelled as a guest of CTS Horizons.

Geting there: Amritsar's Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee Intenrational Airport has flights with Air India to Birmingham and Delhi, with Air India Express to Dubai, Indigo to Delhi, Mumbai, and Jammu (beginning May 2017), Jet Airways to Delhi, Malindo Air to Kuala Lumpur, Qatar Airways to Doha, Scoot to Singapore, Spicejet to Delhi, Dubai, Mumbai and Srinigar, Turkmenistan Airlines to Asgabat, Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent, and Vistara to Delhi and Mumbai.

More information: for more on the temple itself see www.goldentempleamritsar.org, and for more on Idia, see incredibleindia.org


 
   2710 views   
JOURNEYS
All aboard the Trans Siberian Express - for trees, clean windows, talk of a moustache ban, and more trees...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

A long distance train journey is an easy way to lift a simple city break trip into altogether more rewarding. Often cheap and comfortable, a long train ride shows off the sweep of a region's scenery. Onboard life has a rhythm to it; talking to locals, to other travellers, finding the buffet, and washing.

An Indian train journey is hard to beat for its atmosphere, but there are great options in throughout  Europe, the Caucases, South East Asia and beyond. And then there is the buttock and brain-numbing, yet brilliant experience of the Trans Siberian Express.

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, and the compartment of a 'local' train from Moscow to Perm. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Flickering past the train window are birch trees and patches of spring snow. And this ever-changing yet never changing scenery has become the surprising highlight of my time on the Trans Siberian Express. It’s slow travel at its best, where the chief thrill is the journey itself: the cosy carriages, on board camaraderie, and the constant edging forward across the vastness of Russia.  

The whole trip from Moscow to Beijing is a journey of 4,736 miles, which takes six days on an ‘ordinary’ through train, or 16 days on the Tsar’s Gold tourist train, which makes sightseeing stops along the way.

This German-run ‘cruising on wheels’ experience is for people who don’t fancy tackling the language barrier on regular Russian trains, or don’t have the £9,600 one-way fare for the most luxurious train on the route.

I boarded the Tsar’s Gold train in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Ural Mountains, for a three-night ride to Irkutsk, not really knowing what to expect.  

Cities soon give way to ramshackled wooden villages, and trees. Photo My Bathroom Wall

We chugged out of the city and passing the tiny kitchen at the end of the carriage, I entered the toasty dining car and began meeting the jolly group of about 20 English speakers. Most passengers on the train are German, but the ‘English’ group on this trip were Brits, Danes, Dutch, Italians, Americans, and a Spaniard. We were together for meals and tours.

It was nice to warm through, eat a hearty meal of fish salad, cabbage soup, and ‘beef in Russian Monastic Manner’, and move on from the gloomy spots that I’d visited before boarding in Yekaterinburg. In 1918, Tsar Nikolas and his family were shot, mutilated, and then dumped down a well there.

I learnt that it wasn’t just the imperial family who’s enforced journey eastwards was doomed, when after dinner, Larissa, the guide for us English speakers gave her evening talk on Siberia.

“It’s been a place of exile for 300 years, with perhaps 21 million inmates passing through the gulags in total”, said sparky Larissa. The majority of people were sent east during Stalin’s time, when he expanded the isolated prison camps. “Even on the trains” said Larissa, “There were gun emplacements on the top of the carriages and hooks underneath to kill anyone trying to escape”.  

I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances in this wilderness. Between the cities there was barely a sign of life; save for a meagre hut or two close by the train tracks every few hours.

Typical Siberian homestead, silver birch forests, and sunrise east of Novosibirsk. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I’d imagined that the size of towns would grow smaller and cuter as the train trundled further into Siberia, but Novosibirsk, the first stop after Yekaterinburg and 2,000 miles east of Moscow, was big and bombastic. Soviet era buildings here included the country’s largest opera house and a prominent Lenin statue flanked by five heroic workers.   

The imposing train station at Novosibirsk, 3,385 kilometres east of Moscow. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At Krasnoyarsk, while other passengers were having a city tour, I asked train manager Hans for a peek in all the carriages. Squeezing past a large man with a small vacuum cleaner, I entered the Classic category of cabin - a basic compartment with two bench seats that convert to four bunks, with shared toilets at either end of the carriage. It costs about £4,000 one-way per person.

“All of our classes include the same meals, and sightseeing”, said Hans, as we moved briskly down the corridor. The windows of the Nostalgia cabin, with one shower shared between two cabins, were being cleaned inside and out – “so our guests can always take good photographs”, he explained. At the front of the train were swish modern Bolshoi Class compartments with double beds and an en suit toilet and shower.

Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, Siberia. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I caught up with the group walking towards the city with local guide Irena. Siberia may conjure an empty freezing wasteland to us, but almost 25 million people live here, in an area about the size of China.

Down by the river promenade, the spring sun was enlivening everyone’s spirits.  Sitting on the open deck of a large pleasure boat I fell into a backslapping beer-fuelled chat with some young Russian lads about football and pop music.

On my last night aboard the train I returned to my compartment tipsy from a robust vodka tasting evening with Larissa and the group. I fell asleep wondering if she had really said that Tsar Peter the Great had made dancing and moustaches compulsory?

We joked as the train approached Irkutsk – “yes Peter the Great really did that” beamed Larissa. Then after my 100-hour stint on the train, I popped back to the compartment for a last stare into the birch forests.

The monotony had become magical, the carriages homely, and several of the group were now friends. What a cracking experience, and what a wrench to leave for my six-hour flight back to Moscow.

***

I travelled as a guest of The Russia Experience

Some practical advice...

There are several Trans Siberian Express train services. They run along a series of tracks that that were started in 1891 and instigated by the Tsar Nicolas, who wanted to connect his imperial capital in Moscow with his eastern port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Over the years branch lines were built to connect Russia’s far east to Mongolia and China - Moscow to Beijing via Russia’s east is called the Trans Manchurian Route, and dipping south sooner through Ulan Baatar is the Trans Mongolian route.

Which route to take? Well for me there’s a strong pull from the historic and original 6,000-mile route from Moscow to Vladivostok, but aside from its location at the end of the line, Vladivostok has little going for it in a tourist sense.

However, the most popular tourist routes by far are from Moscow to Beijing, which allows you to visit another of the world’s great imperial capitals. A whole week on a train is a bit much for anyone, and on the trip above I only travelled east as far as Irkutsk. The scenery to is monotonous east from Moscow, but it perks up considerably - so I'm told - on the Beijing route  through the Gobi Desert, but still you'll be cooped in a small cabin with few creature comforts, and dreadful coffee.

Most people make a couple of stopovers; in Irkutsk for Lake Baikal, and Ulan Bataar for the Terelj National Park.

What type of train? This question sort of answers itself once you see the price of the private trains. They are run to a very high standard, with sightseeing at each stop, all meals and a good guide to passenger ratio, but you are looking at about £11,000pp, without flights at either end. 

On the other hand, a trip on the regular train starts from about £1,300pp, with two nights accommodation in Moscow, three in Irkutsk and three in Ulaanbaatar.

Tour operators offering the posh Trans Siberian private trains include Regent Holidays and Steppes Travel. For the option of the ordinary 'local' trains, or the private tourist trains, there's the Russia Experience or On The Go Tours.

You won’t have to take instant coffee, powdered milk, and a mug – well advised on the regular passenger trains  – if you splash out on the Golden Eagle or Tsar’s Gold luxury tourist trains of course. They run just a few times per year, but offer comfortable 2-berth cabins (some even en suit) and off train sightseeing, air conditioning, and smart bar and restaurant cars.


 © 2016-2018 Richard Green. All Rights Reserved. All digital assets shown on this website remain the copyright of their respective owners.
  • "The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth"
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet and aviator