The Argonauts: An Exploration of Life

Hannu’s Adventures

Hannu is a 32 year old Swedish male who as been on the road since April 1998. He has visited the Middle East, Africa and now south Asia, and then the rest of the world. Currently he is backpacking Asia and teaching English as a second language. Watch for updates on Hannu’s whereabouts, thoughts and experiences. This is one of the few examples we have left of travelogues prior to the invention blogs and social media. Even though email made communicating almost instantaneous and effortless, it was still impossible to reach a large audience. So The Argonauts collected snail mail and email and posted them online for everyone to see.

It’s a funny thing about life: If you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it. ~ W. Somerset Maugham

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Travelogues in reverse order:

Hannu Shares His Thoughts on North Korea

Location: North Korea
Date: 2001-05-16

Back in Beijing after a hectic week of touring in North Korea. It was definitely the weirdest place I’ve ever been, and worth every cent. When crossing overland from China to North Korea, your watch has to be set an hour forward – but at the same time it feels like going back forty years in time. Architecture, design of neon signs and the way they display articles in shop windows — it all looked like something that was modern and futuristic according to the Soviet Union in 1962. The only advertisements you see are the revolutionary posters, murals and billboards all over town. Workers with stern faces and raised fists, The Great Leader Kim il-Sung smilingly waving to the cheering crowds, hammers and sickles and stars and a lot of red colour. Everything is GREAT and GRAND and BIG in that country — statues, monuments, buildings, you name it. They certainly know to put their money where it benefits the country most. Wide highways are almost empty of cars, 47-story hotels have about 3 floors of guests, expensive bronze is used for statues instead of cheaper domestic granite, lavish buildings are built where a smaller one would suffice. Sometimes construction isn’t even finished — like the 1995 abolished project of a 105-story triangular glass-covered hotel in central Pyongyang, now only a concrete skeleton with a crane on top of it. The country has had two leaders since 1945: The Great Leader Kim il-Sung, and his son The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. These chaps are seen as gods by the people, and their photo’s hang in every house in North Korea. The Great Leader had his ideas about what he called Juche, which basically translates as “self-reliance”. The Juche Monument in Pyongyang is 170 meters high with an electric-20-meter flame lit up every night on top of it. Juche has even got its own time, Juche one being the year that The Great Leader was born, so that today, 2001, is Juche 90 in North Korea. I had my fair share of submitting to the godlike status the leaders have as well. I had to bow to the statue of The Great Leader overlooking Pyongyang, and in a museum I had to bow to A WAX DOLL of him, while revolutionary music was played in the loudspeakers. Bursting into laughter then would have been considered a great insult!

We had jam packed days of going from A to B to C to D visiting revolutionary monuments, statues of The Great Leader Kim il-Sung, official buildings, sites important from the revolutionary history or the Korean War 1950-1953. In North Korea, you are not allowed to stroll around on your own; a guide must be with you at all times. Taking photos is only allowed if these guides/guards give you the okay. All the time you are fed with weird facts and easily detected propaganda and even lies, but you have to play the game.

Great kitsch souvenirs to buy: A photo book called “Glorious 50 years” with some pretty nice photos from 1945 to 1995. Another book titled “The leader of the people” with paintings of The Great Leader amongst his countrymen, helping them with a bumper harvest (when did North Korea have one of those?) or giving one of his many on-the-spot guidance’s to workers at some factory, or The Great Leader leading his armed forces against the enemy lines; pins are very popular in North Korea, and you can buy a lot of different ones – albeit not the ones that are compulsory for every North Korean to wear: a pin with either The Great Leader or The Dear Leader, or both; books explaining the Juche idea, other books upon political issues written by both The Great Leader and/or The Dear Leader; 3D postcards of the sort that I remember being popular in Sweden in the seventies; stamps with revolutionary motives, and even stamps with Princess Diana and Prince of Wales; notes and lyrics to Revolutionary operas, anti-radiation Tonic in honey (especially good for people working in nuclear plants read the label); CD’s with songs titled “I love an unmarried disabled soldier”, “May comrade supreme leader enjoy good health”, “We live in the embrace of the leader”, “40 million people sing of the leader”, “We are disciples of the leader”, and the more mysterious title “I’ll block the next pill-box”.

People are brainwashed into believing they live in the workers paradise and that theirs is the greatest place on earth to live. Political resistance doesn’t exist, and with 30 percent of the GNP going for to the army, nothing seems likely to change very soon. The worst case of how people are brainwashed and forced to perform for the system was when I visited the school children’s palace, where kids supposedly voluntarily come after school to practice or try whatever they like. These poor kids are drilled to perform one act absolutely perfect, and so they show visitors like myself what they have “learned” to do: singing, dancing, gymnastics, playing an instrument, calligraphy, tae-kwon-do. Before the show starts, kids (the same age as the ones going to act or perform) sit quiet and still for more than ten minutes waiting for the curtain to go up — no talking, no stirring in the chairs.

By the way I didn’t meet the Swedish Prime Minister.

Anyone who is thinking of going to North Korea — do it! It is worth the hefty price. There’s no place like it, and will never be again, one hopes. I would never go on a tour I thought, being the eternal backpacker, but in North Korea I was actually quite happy to have some sane people to talk with at the hotel in the evenings.

Having come back to Beijing I felt like I was back in the west, with no control of the individual. I heard about the news that The Dear Leaders son had been caught in Japan for having tried to enter the country with a fake Dominican passport in order to show his son Disneyland. That says something about the state of mind of the leaders in that country!

And on May 22nd I fly home from here. Bye bye Beijing (or BJ as ex-pats call it) and back to — reality? I still can’t fully comprehend it. I’M GOING HOME!

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The long and winding road to North Korea…

North Korea must be the most difficult country in the world to get to. You can not just get a visa at the border, nor will any of their few embassies around the world issue a visa to you for only a nominal fee. So how does one do to get there at all?


First, you must go to a travel agent approved by the North Korean government. There are as far as I know only 2 in the whole world, one being the official state owned one, and the other being a company called Koryo tours here in Beijing. They both operate out of Beijing. Basically, the official North Korean travel agency has so few customers, so that the staff is hardly ever there and the office mostly closed. Once you manage to get hold of them over the phone, they send you on to the other travel agency – Koryo tours. This is actually not a “real” travel agency, it’s just a side project of a British landscape architect working here in Beijing. He does these trips to North Korea with foreigners a few times a year; either tourgroups around May workers day, October national day, and I think it was in August as well, for the celebrations of the former Great Leader Kim Il-Sung’s birthday. These tours number, in total, around 50-100 people/tourists a year. In addition to this there is about 10-40 more who go there independently – thereby getting a complete doze of the paranoia and politically weird weird country by not even having sensible persons to talk with in the evenings, when you’re back at your hotel after a day of sightseing at model schools, model factories, huge patriotic statues of the Great Leader, museums about the fantastic achievements by the state, party and workers; etc. etc….

But more about getting there: Once you have approached the travel agent you need to write them a paper stating who you are, why you want to go there, and give them info about your passport, your workplace, your birthdate/-place, phonenumbers home and to work and also another phonenumber in case of an emergency, etc. etc ad nauseum…. Your employer also needs to send the travel agency a fax written on your employers official officepaper (logo’s etc. are good if they are there); stating that you are employed by them, what you do there, how long you’ve worked there, your employers telephonenumbers address faxnumber email – etc. etc. All this because they are so fanatically afraid of getting a journalist into the country (But, if one WAS a journalist, this could all be faked anyway, right? [see important note about this at the end of this mail!!!!]). So in my case, I wrote an A4 introduction letter myself, and had my Postal Master boss fax the travel agent here with details about my work.

A few days later I got an email from my parents saying that they had had a phonecall from a “Che” (No, that is not a name taken in honour of communist comrade/compadre revolutionary Che Guevara; Che is apparently also a Korean name) at the North Korean embassy in Stockholm. He spoke Swedish and wanted me to phone him up to ask me a few questions. Why am I supposed to phone them? My parents told them I am in Beijing, and phoning from here is difficult for me because I’d have to phone in the afternoon or evening – and that’s when I am teaching here! So instead I sent them a fax, saying as it is that I am a backpacker already in Beijing, that they/he (Che) can email me OR phone me here OR ask the questions via my parents that can then email them to me OR fax the travel agent that can state my story is true OR….. Bureaucrasy; I hate it…

The fax arrived to the North Korean embassy in Sweden/Stockholm. The embassy didn’t email me, nor phoned me or faxed me. Instead, this guy Che phoned up my parents again, and said they would allow me into the country – They would only need the equivalent of 30$ for various fees, so that they could fax their reply of approval to their embassy here in Beijing. This is the embassy issuing the participants of this 28/4 – 6/5 tour with their visas. OK, so my father asked if he could pay this money to a bankaccount? Or to a postal giro account? Or wire the money? No way; it had to be paid in cash at the embassy itself… Luckily my father had already taken half a day of from his work in Sweden to go to the dentist, and so could also the same day drive into Stockholm city to pay them this fee and get things going. When my father was there paying the 300 SEK, he insisted on a receipt for it. Big confusion at the embassy and nobody knew how to react. Finally my father got dictated for him what to write on a piece of paper, and then the young assistant behind the counter (not the Mr Che that had phoned up my parents a few times), warned my father gravely that one MUST go via the official state approved travel agency to go to North Korea.

Nicholas Bonner, the Brit that runs Koryo tours here, said that Che, or someone at the North Korean embassy, must need some money for a few beers or something – this fee is extremely likely just something they came up with at the spur of the moment, to cover some costs for that bancrupt country… But Nick is cool and said he would deduct the fee from my tourprice – he’s a really nice guy…

As Nick also said; what good is all this faxing and paperwork for? Apparently one of the participants of this tour I’m going on is a Brit working and living in Hong Kong. This guys introduction letter, and statement from his work, Nick had faxed to Britain/London, where N. Korea has a consulate or something even smaller (as the diplomatic relations between Britain and N. Korea is just about to open again since the Korean war in the 50’s). The diplomats there had faxed the papers back with a stamp of approval on them (without any extra fee as in my case), but what had they really checked up on about a guy working and living in Hong Kong? NADA, of course. It’s all just bureaucrasy…


So now it’s all about money: These North Korea tours don’t come cheap. For an individual tour you’d have to pay 300 USD a DAY, all inclusive!!! Going on a tour with others significantly reduses the price, but still – 1490 USD for a week all included. OK, you get 5-star hotel and all (apparently according to Nicholas Bonner the best hotel he has ever stayed at anywhere in the world), all meals (to be taken at the hotel – no strolling around on your own outside the hotel without a guide); all transports, train in and (an reputedly almost empty) old Russian plane out of the country returning to Beijing on 6:th of May…


I have heard that Goran Persson, the Swedish prime minister and at the moment also chairman of the European council, is on his way to North korea too. He will be there at the same time as I, coming in for top political meetings representing EU on the 2-3 of May. He’ll apparently be staying at the same luxury hotel (only one in Pyongyang) as I and the tour will be housed in. Wouldn’t that be great if I’d meet him there and I’d be able to say in the future “Well, actually me and Goran are long time friends. We met in Pyongyang”…?


On the 27:th of this month I will hand in my passport to Koryo tours to get a visa for the country (on a separate peace of paper). Then it’s departure on the 28:th…

It sure will be an adventure to round this 3-year trip up with.


Note for journalists thinking of going to North Korea:

DO NOT try to hide the fact that you are a journalist from the travel agent – they can find other solutions for you to get into the country! If you do, you risk the safety of the whole tourgroup (that might be expelled out immediately), the future of Koryo tours, and the lifes of the Korean guides, that are personally responsible for not bringing in the wrong people into the country. Nick from Koryo tours told me that 3 years ago a Channel 5 journalist from Britain came on the tour without informing him about his real work and real intentions. Once in the country, he had asked to be taken to orphanages etc. to get the real picture of the country… He then spent the following six moths in a re-education camp working on the countryside in that wonderful workers paradise that North Korea is…

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Still in Beijing, China

Yes, yes, yes, I’m still here in Beijing, and I’m still teaching Chinese people oral English. January and February were slow months teaching wise, but it’s picking up rapidly now as we are in full spring. For some reason the Chinese want to study when the weather is warm and nice, and prefer to be outdoors during the winter when daylight and heat are sparse. This winter was apparently one of the coldest in Beijing for a long time, with temperatures sometimes reaching minus 15 C. Not much snow though, just enough slush to ruin my suede CAT-shoes, bought for $12 at a typical tourist market here in BJ. Well, they are starting to fall to pieces now and I am looking for new and higher quality ones. Hard to find western sizes though…

Actually teaching is starting to suck. The schools curriculum is rather ridiculous, as I have told you guys before. It’s basically repeating loud in chorus after the teacher, which creates parrots rather than creatively thinking speakers capable of communicating in English. But, it’s an easy course for the teacher to follow. Once you’ve done one term of it (which is 2 months or 35 day/lessons) you know how to do it, and can repeat it all including small private comments on the exercises for the next class/term you start teaching. You just turn up and do everything by the books, and the employer is happy and it gives you money. Good money, even. Not in January and February when my salaries weren’t bigger than 400-500 dollars a month; barely enough to survive on (if one wants more in life than just food and lodging). But now in March and April salaries were and will be about 1300 dollars each. A nice little stash.

But not only teaching has given me an income here. I also did a ten day intensive training with a Chinese woman who wanted to rehearse her story for the Canadian immigration officer she was due to meet for an immigration interview/test. That was a new challenge for me: what on earth might such an interview be like? I thought for a while, and in a few days I was asking her all the questions I imagined the immigration officer might ask her; over and over again and in many different ways so that she could reply to anything that might come up. She paid me about 150 dollars for my helping. In the end she passed the test/interview gallantly, the officer even telling her she was very well prepared. It was a great experience for me too, to do this coaching, and it gave me some insight into what it must be like to move to another country but having to go through the process of proving you’re sincere about it and not just after the “easy life and the money of the west”. The way it works here in China is actually that the person who wants to immigrate have (in almost all cases) already been to an agency and forked up something like 2500-4000 dollars to them to check them for the possibilities to get a visa. Then, if the person gets more than 60 assessment points according to a set list made by the immigration bureau, for such various things as educational background, experience, English skills, age group, etc., the agency will send the person on for an immigration interview at the embassy. That is where the interviewer checks them for personal suitability. “Can this Chinese person become a good citizen of Canada?”. The immigrant needs to get a total of 70 assessment points at this interview to get a visa. That is, the minimum 60 points that the person first got by the agency’s check – to even be sent to the embassy interview, then another 1 to 10 points at the interview itself to get a minimum total of 70, which is what you need to get a visa. So what I trained my student in was to get her act together when it comes to telling her story about herself, and to make sure she wouldn’t say things like “I just…” or “maybe” or “I think” or “only” when describing her work or education. And not to contradict herself as she did one day when we talked about the whole set of reasons why she wants to go to Canada. First she said “one reason why I have chosen Canada and not the U.S. is because it’s a multicultural country; more so than the States where people live more segregated”. The minute after, when I asked her what she thinks about black people, she said “Oh, I don’t like them”…

That view isn’t that uncommon in China…

Yes, quite interesting it was, this training of mine…

It also turned out that I had an opportunity to meet up with relatives from my mother country Finland. In January my cousin from Finland, working with telecommunications (No, not Nokia!), was sent here by his company, and so we met up again 7 years after we’d last seen each other – here in BJ! We don’t have much contact over the Baltic sea in my family, so it was amazing to meet him here and not in Scandinavia. He stayed for a month, via him I met a whole bunch of other Finns from my hometown in Finland (all working for the same company), and in BJ, of all places, I have actually met 0.1% of the entire population of that small town Lohja, with only 35000 inhabitants… And I have practised my Finnish much more then I have learned Chinese… Every weekend, going out maybe a bit too much, maybe drinking a bit too much, definitely meeting too many foreigners compared to Chinese people…

I have decided to do a third term of teaching here, and finish the job in May. Thinking back on the time here (5 months now!), I do regret one thing, and that is that I haven’t made a bigger effort to learn Chinese while I’ve been here. I never planned to stay this long; if I would have known in October, then I would have put some energy into learning the local language. Instead, I have been too busy partying and meeting ex-pats and trying to get to know people – westerners, not chinese, unfortunately… I don’t know why, really. Laziness, perhaps, more than anything else… It’s easier to meet someone from your own culture, but it makes your life here very secluded. You’re not really part of it all. If one could speak Chinese, one could meet the locals in a completely different way, go out with them, laugh with them, party with them, talk with them, get to know them… I’m ashamed to say, but I can’t really say I know China that well myself, despite me having been here for a total of 10 months of my life (including previous trips here)…

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So where do I go from here?

All good things come to an end they say, and this one hell of a trip of mine is getting close to just that. I intended three years when I left Sweden, and on the 12:th of April it will be 3 times 365 days I’ve been going. I would have liked it to continue, but I recently received an email from my work back home (from where I have been on a three year unpaid leave) that they will not extend my leave with another year as I had proposed, but that they expect me back behind the postal counter on the first of June. And I will go…

It’s been simply amazing. I have been able to take three years off from reality to go and do whatever I have wanted to do, day after day of endless almost completely unplanned fun. I have been to great places, I have met so many wonderful people, I have seen such incredible things, it’s been a dream come true to have been out there on the road and taking days as they come, lazing, hiking, riding on trains, buses, camels, waves, boats, bicycles, rickshaws, taxis, hitchiking, flying – anything to get from A to B.

And time seems to have been flying away. Where did all those days go? Where are all those people today? All those friends I’ve made – they must be numbering in the hundreds. The mailing list I have on my Hotmail account nowadays is close to 200 people, and to those comes all the people I’ve met more briefly than getting to the point where one exchanges email addresses. Where are they all today, indeed?

Going home too will be what one normally is confronted with when going abroad – a culture shock. Will I manage? Will I be able to become a “Mr. Smith” again? Routine, rules, appointments and the days regulated by the watch – it all seems so distant and far away from my reality of today! I will probably not be able to cope very well for a while, and will soon long to get back on the road again, standing with my thumb up by some isolated mud track in some far distant corner of the world, not knowing what will happen that day or where I will eat or sleep or whom I’ll meet – but I will feel alive! Well, let’s not think too much about the sadness of returning home now…

One final travel I will make though, before Sweden. It’s another 4 weeks of teaching here in BJ, and then, the 28th of April, I will go to the worlds least visited country on a weeklong tour. North Korea. 1490 US dollars it will cost, but that’s the only way one can get there – they don’t allow backpackers or people on a budget. The country has less than 500 visitors a year, and I think most of them must be foreign politicians and diplomats. Tourists? Maybe one or two hundred… That will be my 65th country to set foot in, a fine farewell to the life on the road that I have so enjoyed, and something special to round it all up with. I’ll get you guys a report about that when I get back from there – either written and sent here in Beijing, to where I return from N. Korea, or then from my parents place in Sweden…

Take care and keep tha flags raised!

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What’s it like teaching and living in Beijing, China?

Location: Beijing, China
Date: 2000-08-23

Yes, some of you might be wondering, and I’ll try to describe what’s happening in my life here…

Since about a month and a half I have been teaching English here in Beijing. My intention was initially to go from China to Korea, to do the teaching there (making more money), but things and opportunities change quickly when you’re on the road……

Suddenly I had this phone number in my hand, given to me by someone who got it from somewhere, and it was to this school that was looking for English teachers. Someone else said “come on, why not try instead of going to Korea and found out there?”, and so I phoned. I told the guy in the phone I am not a native English speaker, but he said “well, I can’t hear the difference”, and so we arranged for a meeting…

The next few days I got an introduction to this particular school’s curriculum and teachers’ books and general layout and methods. I was supposed to be teaching 3 hours every evening, Sunday to Thursday, and I calculated that this would be enough to sustain my life here, but not to get rich on. But what the heck, I’d do it for the experience, I thought…

I extended my 3-month tourist visa with another month, paying 13$ for this, and then I waited a couple of weeks more for the new term and my teaching to start. Terms run 6 times 35 days a year, going from level 1 to 6, with about a week’s break in between terms, and also breaks for Christmas/New Year’s, for Chinese New Year coming up at the end of January, and various other holidays of about 8-10 days length… Anyway, I was eagerly awaiting what was to come, meanwhile forking out money from my own pocket on punk/rock concerts and beer and spending time with friends Neal and Joe; fellow travellers that had ended up in Beijing after long travels as well, and who were supposed to start teaching here too, although at other schools than mine…

Comes the 13th of November and my boss tells me I can only teach 2 hours every afternoon, and that it is in a public school for 16-year olds. Only 160 Yuan a day (20$), and I start wonder what the f*** this was? Turns out enrollment has been low for the winter term, and I start to feel pissed off. Now I will have to pay 100-200$ from my own pocket every month just for the benefit of staying and teaching…

First week with the 16-year olds is great, I like them and they seem to like me. The books and curriculum we have to follow is dead boring, with me reading out sentences for them and they repeating either in chorus or individually, but hey, that’s apparently the way kids are taught here in China. And I can’t change the curriculum, or I’d be sacked. So I do my job but boredom quickly comes into it. The kids hate the books as well, they repeat after me but clearly take advantage of me not being (able to be) as strict as their Chinese teachers. Instead of using their brains to figure out from the cues given by me how to reply, they read out loud from their books although I tell them after a few examples of an exercise that they should now close their books. They also talk in class, eat snacks and therefore aren’t able to answer pronouncing the words properly. Some of them understand what it’s all about, others don’t even understand what I say to them even when I speak very slowly word by word, and clearly find the lessons boring and totally uninteresting… I feel more and more pissed of with the job, and since my visa would run out on the 11th of December I thought “that’s it, I’m gonna leave for god knows where. I’m a traveller, not a teacher, and, ah… f*** it – just do it! Get back on the road Hannu!”…

Then one day my boss calls me to my hotel where I am staying, and says that from that day on I can start teaching adults at their own school, 3 hours every evening Sundau to Thursday. OK, a bit of more income and I still had the opportunity to say “Hey, I’m outta here!” after a week of trial what it would be like teaching adults – people that are motivated, that have chosen themselves to come and learn English.

And it turns out I love it! The adult classes are all great, they try hard to struggle through the boring books (outdated since the 70s if not before then, with words like “phonograph” and “record cabinet” and American expressions such as “Boy am I hungry!” to be learnt by new beginners!), and if there is time left after that we talk about various things for the remaining time. China, travel, relationships, Christmas traditions in the west, Sweden – these are some subjects that have come up. It took me only a week to decide that I wanted to stay in Beijing teaching, and so on slightly dubious ways I arranged for a 6 month visa to be put into my passport. It’s a guy that charges you 300$ for this, he takes your passport for 2 weeks, and when you get it back the visa is there. There are no files on you at the police office, but the stamp is real, and so now I have a flashy business visa until the 11th of June next year in my passport. Everything is possible in entrepreneuring China…

It took less than 2 weeks of teaching adults before they invited me out for a dinner. Very nice restaurant, great food, we sat in a private room with a karaoke TV and so I was forced to sing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. Well, anything for a laugh… It was a great evening, and the students all want me to teach them up until level 6 (they are now on level 1). I can’t promise it, but if it continues this well and life in Beijing is this great in a few more months…? Who knows where I might end up?

My greatest sorrow is the 16-year olds in the afternoons, students and classes no other teacher wants to touch. I’m having a hard time, but over the last week or so I have become VERY strict when it comes to actually closing the books, and also the exercises – no matter how boring they are – now demands them to think more and more by themselves how the cues are to be put together into sentences that make sense. These students had an exam just 2 weeks into me teaching them (they had started with another teacher first, but he had given up on them). Out of 47 students 17 failed – the exam was to hold a 5 minute conversation with a friend, the dialogue containing certain words and grammatic things. Then politics came into it all: turns out I have failed too many; I had followed the scoring sheet and according to that these 17 had failed, but in order for “my” language institute to keep the contract with the public school where I go Monday to Friday, I could only allow 5 to fail. OK, so they had re-exams a few weeks later. They had all borrowed the exam dialogues from their friends that had passed a few weeks before, and learnt them by heart, and so everyone passed according to getting minimum 60 points out of 100. What I did then is that I gathered all 17 that made the exams again in the classroom a week after the exams, told each and every one what their specific problem is – “pronunciation but I understand you are really trying”, “Skipping class going playing pool instead”, “talking in class”, “skipping the listening lab so you don’t know how to pronounce the words in the exercises”, “Not studying exercises at home the evening before so that when you come to class you have no idea of how to do them and class drags on for over 50 minutes” – etc., etc… THEN, after 10-15 minutes of preaching, I told them that they had all passed… Passing exams is the only thing they care about in China; to actually learn is not that important. BUT: They have also all been told that exams for level 2 (as they all now study) comes in just 2 more weeks of studying, and those exams require them to speak English already. They are all but 1-2 in every class gonna fail that test…

Ah well, now I don’t have to teach them again until February. They get a long break over Christmas, New Year’s and Chinese New Year… What happens with the poor bastards after that I don’t give a s*** about. Someone else will have to take over if they are supposed to be allowed to pass on to level 3; my morals just can’t take that…

The adults will start again on 2nd of January, though, and that I am looking forward to. This last week they have been flooding me with gifts, and I have given them various things as well, such as Swedish ginger biscuits that my mother sent to me, or showing them a chocolate Advent calendar a friend in the States sent me, thus explaining what an Advent calendar is and being able to offer them a piece of chocolate each, or offering them Swedish hard rye-bread that was also sent to me by my parents, and giving them a booklet each that I got from the Swedish embassy; a booklet in Chinese about Sweden and Swedish culture. They like me, I like them, each lesson takes 60 minutes instead of stipulated 50 with a 10 minute break for me in between, and the last evening lesson usually drags on until 21.40 or 21.50; thus being 20-30 minutes longer then I’m paid for. But what the heck; I like to talk with them and they like to talk with me!

Thursday I was paid and I had done better then I expected myself. After taxes (I work illegally but pay tax!), I got 8407 Yuan; about 1000$ or 10.000 Swedish krona. This, plus 1000Yuan/125$/1200 SEK that I have made already and been paid for already for some free talks I have hold for 17-year olds in another public school for 4 Saturdays now, makes the pay here very good. But January will be less though, with thi\s term finishing around 10th of January, and then having a week’s break, before the new term barely starts and is then halted for 10 days because of Chinese New Year coming up 24th of January… Ah well, I will survive, as the song goes…

These free talks on Saturdays, by the way, have been quite fun. I come for 2 times 55 minutes to talk with fairly well speaking 17-year olds about anything they and me want to talk about. Great. So far we have discussed what they want to be, what do you need to do back home before you go travelling (i.e. what kind of bag, money passport, what items to bring along…), and about music. It’s fun. I brought my Chinese punk-CDs and tapes and asked them to translate the lyrics for me. I brought photos from my travels and showed them…

But now it’s Christmas break for me. I have a ticket to Shanghai for the 18 o’clock train tonight, 4 hours from now, and I will go there to meet a friend who also arrives there tomorrow morning. Then I’m back here in Beijing for new years. Firecrackers have been forbidden here for New Year’s, in an attempt to clean up the air for Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. Still, there will be a party somewhere in town…

Parties, yeah… Maybe a bit about that scene here too. Beijing is actually not a bad scene at all when it comes to going out and enjoying a drink or two, for concerts and all kinds of events. It’s expensive though; a beer in a kiosk costing 2 Yuan but a pint in a western oriented bar costing 35, but… There is quite a few expats here, and also quite a few nuevo riche Chinese.

I still live in a dorm in a hotel in southern part of Beijing, but since it’s low season now and very few tourists come here, I’m alone in it quite often. And who minds the company of travellers that cane tell you about what life is like out on the road? There is not always privacy, I have my stuff in an ever bigger messy heap on the floor – the dorm is BIG – but I prefer to stay there anyway. My language institute could offer me an apartment to share with another teacher colleague (and thereby being able to cut down my salary?) , but after having met some of my colleagues I have decided to stay away from many of them as much as possible. One guy is DEAD boring, another one is religious, another one that I haven’t actually met but was told about by my evening students (who had him for their first week) is apparently teaching as a robot, never smiling and strictly holding 50 minutes exactly lessons – “You have a question? Sorry, time’s up – take it up tomorrow”. So many people/teachers that I wonder about why they are here? To survive themselves only, or because they also like teaching? Or have they no opportunity to go back to their respective home countries? God knows. For me this is just temporarily, be it for a few more weeks or for a few more years… But at the moment life is good, money is plenty, nightlife shakes, beer tastes well, Beijing rocks with concerts and punk, my very good traveller friend Joe is here in Beijing too lighting up my social life; in general – Life is wonderful and I try to live it fully!!!

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From Lhasa to Beijing and life here…

Location: Tibet and China
Date: 2000-11-18

So I was in Lhasa, spending my last few days there before taking the bus (masochistic?) to Sichuan-province and Chongqing. The last days in the capital of Tibet I spent in the excellent company of Aussie Tim and Britt Joe, and the three of us had a lot of fun going to nightclubs and discos, dancing with the local girls, renting electric go-carts on the Potala square and then racing around amongst people there on the square instead of staying in the designated area for the cars (the owner running after us shouting “No No!”), playing pool in the park, going bowling (first time in 17 odd ears for me), going to the pub, and in general just enjoying being on the road and not having to go to work the next day…

The bus trip was said to take 80 hours, but I was counting on closer to 100. It would be lying on a bed (yes, they have sleeper buses for these long journeys – otherwise NO WAY I would have done it), or rather a mattress that it turned out I had to share with a spitting, chain-smoking Chinese. The bed was too short as well, the breaks few and far in between (i.e. for food; everyone had to take care of their natural needs which we did stop for every now and then). One meal stop a day, a longer one for about 2 hours, but then it was back on board and snacks until the next day. And 30 other passengers littering the floor with sunflower seeds, wrappers, rubbish…

When on the third day we were approaching Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, I decided I had had enough. I had paid 560 Yuan for the ticket to Chongqing, another 5-8 hours away, but since it was 4 pm I made up my mind there and then I just wanted to see Chengdu again as well. Last time was 1994. Besides, Chongqing is said to be rather boring whilst Chengdu has some sights of its own. So off I jumped, lost 60 Yuan on the ticket price, but it was worth it. Chengdu turned out to have become almost as modern as Hong Kong, with high-rise buildings, shopping malls, everything new new new and shiny. Still, some parts of town still retain their old atmosphere. In Chengdu I also noticed another change from 1994: As some of you might now from own experience, China and the Chinese haven’t always been seen as very friendly towards visitors. Rip-offs, the old (now abolished) system of charging “foreigners’ price” for train and plane tickets and entrance fees, the rather unhelpful ways of Chinese. people when you did try to talk/ask them something… But things are changing. Quite a few people in Chengdu spoke English (young students, that is), not one single time did any shop owner or the like try to rip me off, and on walls in the town was painted big slogans saying “welcome friends from abroad and home” and similar things. Attitudes change…

Panda’s and shopping around and just experiencing the street life was all I did. Life-size Arnold Schwarzeneggers met me everywhere (cardboard ones in shops); he’s making big bucks by lending his face to adverts for any kind of Chinese electronica: VCR’s, DVD players, tape recorders… Bet though he hasn’t got anything else but Sony and Panasonic at home himself. Outside a row of clothes shops they had a truly odd way to get customers to go in to have a look at least: Every shop played loud pop-music, and then each shop had a guy on a stool outside, dancing away in just his normal outfit of shirt, tie and trousers, all the time waving his arms and pointing into the shop in tune with the beat. Ridiculous it looked, but apparently it works. Would it back home? I doubt that…

Mobile phones and everything that comes with them is absolutely the biggest selling item in China. In Chengdu, there is a whole block (if not two?) where all the shops concentrate on mobiles. Maybe around 100 shops next to each other. On the streets outside these shops street vendors sell “leather” cases for the toys, and holders, and anything else used with them. For a while I wondered what the people with lists of numbers were offering for sale, but later it was explained to me that what they sell is mobile numbers and beeper numbers. Even though China is getting very modern very fast, the superstition about good and bad numbers is still very much alive. For example, number four in Chinese is “si”, with the “s” spoken with an almost “z” sound (hard to describe in written form to you guys). The word for “death” is also “si” in Chinese, with a very small difference in pronunciation from the sound for “four”. Therefore, no Chinese person wants a phone number (or street address or car registration plate or…) with the number 4 in it! Also, number 8 is “ba” in Chinese, what it sounds similar to I don’t remember but it’s very good to have “8” in your mobile phone number. Therefore there is apparently a market and a living to be made from offering people the number they want!


I left Chengdu on the newly built highway, and in a super deluxe Volvo bus I was in Chongqing in less than 4 hours. I had heard in Chengdu you could and maybe also should take this bus in the morning, buy a ticket for the boat trip down the Yangtse river which I wanted to do, and then see what little you might want to see of Chongqing town that same day. True, the town didn’t look very interesting. Already at arrival outside the train station I saw how just a small area of old buildings remain there on the first hill that the town is built on, and surrounding it there is all these skyscrapers and shiny metal and glass. So sad to see, but the Chinese haven’t got much of a taste. Everything just has to be ultra modern and preferably with Chinese characters in gold, wherever appropriate and needed…

The boat ride on Yangtse river through the three gorges is said to be one of the highlights of a visit to China, and true, they are rather impressive to go through. Chongqing was full of agents and companies selling tickets for their/these boats, but since they all seemed to charge the exact same amount for the tickets, I settled for a company with friendly staff. I decided to go in a 3rd class, 6 persons dorm, while a British couple I had met there in town went for a 1st class cabin for the two of them. Another reason to go with that specific boat and company; spending 48 hours on a boat not being able to speak with anyone can be a bit annoying, but now I at least had company. So off we sailed at 7 pm from Chongqing, me having gotten a Dutch couple into my dorm (the Chinese tend to put foreigners and Chinese people in separate rooms if possible – and true, thank god for not having to share with, most likely, 5 chain-smoking Chinese men; probably they would also have turned up the volume on the TV in the dorm to maximum, as Chinese tend to do. God, do I sound like a racist? Hope not, I’m just trying to give a true impression of what China and Chinese can be like). Anyway, the evening we set of the weather was nice, but then the first morning we woke up to rain… It was grey and boring and cold and so that whole first day was spent in the cabin. Never mind; it’s day 2 that takes you to the gorges. Since that day was rainy too, though, the gorges were maybe not as impressive as they could have been. Also, when we mid day were supposed to do a side trip to the (said to be even more impressive) three little gorges, we on board were told they were flooded due to the rain. Instead, we were supposed to go and see something called “two little gorges”. We five westerners were herded the same way the Chinese enjoy to be lead when sightseeing, by a CITS (China International Travel Service) guide that took us to one minibus out of 15, and so of we went up the hills for an hour, before we were taken down a steep hill on steps, until we came to the banks of a smaller river. This is where we and about 10 other westerners, together with 100 Chinese in their uniform typical sightseeing plastic caps, that they always dress up in when they go touring in groups, were supposed to get into long narrow manpowered boats for 40 minutes of rafting. Yes, the two gorges we passed were even more narrow and spectacular then the three bigger ones that the passenger boats can pass through…

In nine years from now the dam will apparently be completed, and then waterlevels will rise up to 70 meters on the Yangtse. More than 2 million people will have to be relocated, and all along the river trip I could see how water level markers were already pointing out where the new water level would be. Under these water level markers there was often a village/town that would disappear, and above the markers there were shiny new bathroom tile-covered buildings that the people would have to move to. It’s an enormously gigantic project, and even international experts have said it is madness to put so much money into one single project as China is doing here. Still, it’s going to provide China with 20% of its electricity. But what if, just if, the dam cracks one day? Basically all of central China would be washed away, and tens of millions of people would drown. Shanghai, the 15 million inhabitants town, would be washed away into the ocean. Still, the Chinese are a stubborn race, and so they might pull it off…?

Anyway, they still haven’t reached the point of no return on the work, and through the construction site of the dam I sailed into Yichang town after 50 hours on the boat. Yichang was not that special; all I did was book a ticket for Beijing for the next day, and after some Internet in the morning I boarded train 49 towards the capital. I had opted for hard seat of all things, as I thought this would be my only train ride in China this time, and I thought “well, I made 74 supposedly hard hours on a bus, why not 21 on a train?”. Plus, the ticket was half price compared to hard sleeper. I was surprised though, when I got on board: seems like the days of complete chaos on the hard seat carriages are over, at least on the major routes. Hard seat used to be sold to anyone and as many as there was passengers, which on some routes meant you had to share your three person seat with four others, while at the same time trying to avoid the guy(s) sleeping between the feet of the ten people sitting facing each other there. Aisles were full of sitting/sleeping people on pieces of newspaper, people were jam packed, sometimes there was no space to sit down, one just had to stand up the whole journey. People also smoked all the time, and rubbish was dropped right there and then when you needed to get rid of it. Spitting, one main hobby of the Chinese it seems, was practised by everyone and everywhere on board…

Now though, there was only so many passengers as there was seats, and signs on the walls told everyone “no smoking” and “no spitting or rubbish throwing”, with easy to understand symbols. And blimey, it was respected! The usual attitude amongst Chinese when it comes to smoking is that it’s a very manly thing to do (96% of Chinese men smoke), and not being able to “take it” is seen as something weird. One man sitting opposite me on the train tried to light a cigarette, but when I pointed at the sign on the wall above me he smiled and left for the area between the carriages. There was a constant row of women with trolleys much like air hostesses walking the mid aisle of the train, with food and drinks for sale. There was no blaring Chinese music or talk shows on any loudspeakers (compared to 1994 when sleeping on a train other then during the 10 PM to 6 am break was impossible), and so my 21 hours on board went by quite smoothly… I even managed to nod off a few hours…


The capital Beijing… It’s so very much a showcase for the Chinese. This is not “China”, this is just a city that the Chinese use to show the rest of the world that China is modern, good, part of the rich countries. It has become VERY much more modern since 1994, and the central parts are full of shiny new glass buildings – although, they are not that tall. No real skyscrapers as in Hong Kong; why I don’t know as the capital is very widespread and so building upwards could save some space? Anyway, it’s quite pleasant albeit the modernities and the sometimes very sterile buildings. Do you remember how west used to laugh at the communist countries with their wide streets perfect for military parades but oh so empty of cars and traffic on other days? For China’s part that has changed too; the Beijing rush hour is horrible and what during daytime might take 20 minutes in a taxi takes 60 minutes in the late afternoons…

My main aim in Beijing was to find out how I could get to North Korea. A country with less than 500 western tourists a year just has to be seen, and besides: it’s the last chance to see such a Disneyland. I spent a week checking with their enormous embassy here in Beijing, checking with their official travel agency about times and prices, and also asking the Swedish embassy for advice. Turned out their embassy doesn’t issue visas here, one has to go via their travel agent. So I did, and found out that a 5 day tour would cost… 1545$! OK, I knew it’s an expensive country, but since there is no other way around it if one wants to get in I was prepared to pay. Five days would actually turn out to be day one arriving at 2 pm, and the fifth day I would have departed at 7.30 am, so 5 days would in fact have been 3 1/2. OK, that would have to do. But, what finally made me not go was the fact that I don’t have a return visa for China. True, China has an embassy in Pyongyang, but as the Swedish embassy pointed it out to me: IF something makes me NOT able to get a visa in 1 day, I’m in seriously deep shit in a very unpredictable and expensive country…

So I guess it will have to wait then. Even though that country is starting to open up, it will according to my resources, take ages before anything really changes there. It will not be as with east and west Germany, no, North Korea is so very much poorer than east Germany ever was that the South Koreans are very afraid of a fast reunification. So the country will still be there in half a year or so from now. I have time to go later…

For anyone who wants to read some stuff about that weird country, here’s a link: “http://www.stat.ualberta.ca/people/schmu/nk.html”


Another one of my aims in Beijing this time was to find out a thing or two about the apparently vibrant music scene. Already more than a year ago, somewhere along the road on my travels, I read an article in a Newsweek magazine about the punks here in town, and so I had decided to seek them out and see what’s happening. Via some websites I managed to read about various groups, I managed to find out about a concert here in town, and went to see mainly crap female bands play. Following night I went to see one of Beijing’s bigger rock bands called “Thin Man” play at the same venue, and there I also met an American-Chinese guy called Kaiser. Turns out he is the guitarist in band “Tang Dynasty”, that I bought CDs with when I was here 1994 already. He also works for the website “Chinanow.com”, and so two days later I am invited to his office to get some freebies. A Thin Man t-shirt and cap (Chinanow is their main sponsor), a guidebook for Beijing, and a card that gives me 10-20% discount in some of this towns pubs and restaurants. Thanks, Kaiser!

On Halloween I went to see my first real punk concert, 18 bands were to perform that night! The room was jam packed, but the bands took too long time in between before they changed. At 5 am when band number 12 was on stage I just had to take a taxi back to my hotel… Still, before that I had heard bands like Reflector, Ouch!, Unfilial son, Uncivilized… Many of them quite good actually. Good 1977’s happy fast punk rock. Some of the bands even feature westerners in them, such as Sakari from Finland on drums in Uncivilized, and a Texan guy on base in Brain failure. One has to do something on ones spare time, while studying Chinese here… Well, one must say the Chinese. have got the green hair and the spikes, the leather jackets and the chains, the attitudes and the pogo dancing and the music. They are not many, but they are there…

I have also seen experimental music, indie, pop, metal… The picture is getting clearer: There IS “alternative” music out there, but it’s hard to find and not that popular or common. CDs are not out, a few bands are released on cassettes, mainly compilations. Still, fun to have and to listen to…

And so I thought I was soon to leave Beijing, but one thing has led into another and now it seems as if I might be staying here for a while. I have actually got myself a job here. Yes, believe it or not but I am now an English teacher. It all started with me meeting, by chance, a Kiwi guy here that I had originally met in Pakistan a few months ago. He just happened to be in the right bar the right evening and became the manager of that place. He gave me the phone number to a guy who monitors a school here in Beijing, and so when I phoned I was more or less instantly hired as an English teacher. ORAL English that is; I don’t know jack shit about grammar, but just reading out from a book pronouncing things perfectly is fine, even manageable by a Swede. I don’t make a lot of money, but hopefully, soon, enough to sustain my life here. It’s dead boring to teach, I already think after a week of it, but I felt I wanted to try at least. We’ll see how it goes, I’ll give it another week or two and then I have to decide whether to extend my visa again or whether I leave for South Korea. Until then I start getting settled here in Beijing. It’s funny having stopped for this long. People on my hotels street, in their shops, recognise me by now as a “new neighbour”, and wave their hand and say hello when I pass. I start to get to know the town better, and know by now where places are…

And Beijing really seems like a place for old backpackers to hibernate over the winter. Not only me and Jack, the Kiwi guy managing the bar, but also Joe from Lhasa have turned up, and so has Neal (who’s also teaching English here) whom I met in Pakistan too (but never at the same time as Jack). Me and fellow musketeer Joe will probably continue make the town and it’s bar street (yes, there is a street called just that, and that’s where the western style bars are) unsafe, and the bar owners there richer.

Now this email has to be considered written and done, and will be sent. It’s time to go out for a drink, maybe? It’s Saturday, after all…

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Various aspects on Tibet and China…

Location: Tibet and China
Date: 2000-09-26

First an update, then some thoughts upon being here…

So I went to Mt Everest. Getting a permit allowing me to travel there wasn’t all that hard, after all. Until end of 1999 it used to be the Shigatse PSB (Public Security Bureau, i.e. the police) one had to approach as an individual traveller in Tibet. In Lhasa and other places you can only get a permit by joining a tourgroup and cough up a few hundred dollars for that. The police in Shigatse have stopped issuing them though, after orders from further up in the hierarchy, and have also put up a sign on their building saying “Foreigners are forbidden to go inside”. But the CITS-office, the official Chinese touristoffice, does the same service as PSB used to do – for an additional 100 Yuan (13 US$).

As soon as I had my permit I started hitching to get to the mountain as soon as possible – the permit only being valid for 14 days, I had to rush a bit. Hitchhiking in China isn’t all that easy – officially it is even forbidden. But what driver can resist some good extra money? The drivers also know where the police has set up their permanent checkpoints, so avoiding getting caught isn’t that hard. And in my case I was lucky: I got more or less instant lifts all the time, and no one ever even checked my permit (So I could have saved that money…), and in just 2 full days of bumping on the back of lorries I was at 5000 Meters at the foot of the worlds highest point…

I spent a total of three days at the monastery there (World’s highest monastery as well at 4980 meters), stayed in their dorm and ate the boring food of the nearby restaurant. The guy running it could make a fortune there, having no competitors nearby, but he insists on such a meager menu that no one eats more then necessary there – pancake, fried potato, omelette and fried rice with egg – that’s the whole menu. But still, the place is the warmest venue around having a stove that they sometimes lit (firewood doesn’t grow all around at that altitude), and so in the evenings everybody staying at the monastery’s dorms or camping (!) on the lawn sat and talked with each other in there. It was a mixed group of people and quite funny to observe. Some of the American ladies disinfected their beerglasses with some of those tissues you use to clean scratches and wounds with, before pouring up. The same ladies also insisted on wearing their make-up even when trekking the 1 1/2 hours to the basecamp proper of MT Everest. Ian the Brit made everyone laugh with his jokes and comments. Two Dutch men in their 50-s had left their happy wives home and come for a 2 month trip to Tibet – “We are both happily married to women who love to see us go, and love to have us come back”, as they explained…

We all sat in the restaurant, eagerly looking out of the window every now and then, waiting for the clouds to clear. MT Everest’s base was visible, but it was the top we all wanted to see. The weather is very unpredictable on this altitude. At six in the morning, when going out for a morning pee, I saw that the mountain loomed as a black shadow in the distance, with a starstudded sky above it. Today, I thought, today I’ll see it. I decided to set my alarm at seven, get up and walk to the basecamp proper at 5200 meters, and then see the first rays of sun lighten up the top…

But when I got out of bed one hour later the situation was completely different: It was snowing, it was nearly a storm blowing, and I couldn’t see 50 meters away down to the restaurant. Anyway I was awake, and went there for breakfast. As I had done already for two days, I sat there eating my pancake and looking out of the window muttering and swearing that I would have to stay another day… I wouldn’t leave without having seen MT Everest!

Another hour passed by and now it was clear blue skies. What a change! So off I went, and 1 1/2 hours later I was at the basecamp proper, looking at the mighty peak now only 3648 meters further up. That would have to do though: The previous day, when the clouds had ALMOST let me see the top, I had had energy enough to walk a further kilometer or so beyond the basecamp, to maybe 5400 meters altitude. But today my coughing had gone from bad to worse, and so I stopped and stayed at basecamp itself. Still, the views were great even from there, and I hope the photos will turn out well.

Then after a few hours there everything happened quite fast. A truck turned up, going down to Rongphu monastery and the restaurant, and I got a lift. Since they were about to continue further down and away from MT Everest, I decided to quickly pack my bags and go with them. They took me halfway to the entrance of the MT Everest region national park, and after a few more hours of waiting there a Landcruiser came through the village where I had already expected to be sleeping that night. That Landcruiser then took me another 50 km or so to the first town outside the national park. Those 50 Km where quite magic: I was the only westerner in the Landcruiser, the rest being Tibetans, and when we passed the 5000 meter high Gur-La pass, the car stopped for the Tibetans to put more prayer flags on the lines and poles already up there for that purpose. It was about eight in the evening, already dark, and since it was a clear sky and the halfmoon reflected the sunlight well, I could see the whole Himalayan mountain range in the distance. I think I could make out which of the tops was MT Everest, and so stood looking into the darkness while the Tibetans wandered around me on the top, mumbling their prayers with deep dark voices…

The rest of the way to Lhasa was easy. One more hitched lift, and then there was public transport onwards. I visited a few more towns and villages, having a look at some more monasteries (I’m getting rather sick and tired of them by now though), and a few days ago I arrived in Lhasa town – the only town of any real size in the whole of Tibet. It’s nice to be able to eat good food and drink again, to get whatever you want from the shops, to be able to have a hot shower when you want to, and in general just to relax after all the adventures. I’ll spend a few more days here, trying to get fully recovered from my cold (it’s been almost two weeks of coughing now!), and then it’s China proper. More from there!


India might be great for the use and abuse of the English language, but China is in many ways far worse. If they insist on writing in English on goods in shops, wrappers, in the media – wherever – would it be too difficult or expensive to hire someone to check for mistakes? Here are some good examples:

Why not start the day washing your hair with “Hateline schampoo”? Or a shave with a disposable Gillette copy that on the packet says “Nanshile inductive razor shaking the whole whole world” and “Let you feel lighter and easier when changing blade”. Have a glass of “calcium milk powder for mid-senile” if you feel your going that way. Put on your shoes called “All you”, that you might have bought after reading the add for them saying “All security offering you thousand charm”. Watch TV and amaze at the add for a breastenlargement cream named “UNION cream chubby breasts”. Or get vital from the “Beyoung” tablets. For snacks? Why not some peanuts from a bag saying they’re so good “It will make you cannot stop thinking of it every time”. Maybe pistachios instead – but why does the bag containing them say “American grapes”? Or go for a meal at Lhasa’s only fast food joint, trying hard to imitate McDonalds and KFC at the same time, having traypapers saying “Service is top ranking. Courses are the first. Superlative quality. Delicious taste. Environment is posh. Having dinner comfortably popular consume. Advanced enjoyment.”

Talking about restaurants: here are some good misspellings from a few of their menus. Why not go to the one with a sign outside saying “Your presence is cordially requested”? Flip through the menu and try to decide what to go for: “Grilled chicken paws”, or “Fork shreds with pickes soup” or “Saute unedible fungus with marsh room” or “Sweet and fork” or “Boiled buck”? Why not have a “too cold beer drink” with it?

And where else could one stay in Lhatse town, then at the “Tibetan farmers adventure hotel”? What’s the included adventure? An hour behind a yak at the barley field?

Having written all these examples down, I hope that I have avoided any terrible mistakes myself…


When I on my way to Lhasa stopped in Sakye, to have a look at the monastery there, I bought some interesting tablets in a red box that the monks were selling inside it. There was 15 small pills, about 2 mm in diameter, and with an instruction sheet saying the following:

Sakye religious sect’s “CHEME YONDOL THOZI” pill’s description and directions in nutshell

INGREDIENT: Mummified particles of Buddhas and semi-buddhas, high lamas, saints and those attained Nirvana, elephant’s brain, saffron, rhinoceros’s horn and about 118 other things.

EFFECTIVENESS:1. Make your body magnificent and lustrous, will not get old quickly, prevent white hair growth, wrinkles and preserves one’s body fluid. Generally it prevents sickness, particularly chronic diseases. 2. Remedy speechdefects, improve oral power so that others easily obey 3. Make your mind peaceful, prevent excessive sleep, clear the mind, prevent accident, prolong your life, create compassion, draw essence of mind and soul, stop food poison and purify the mind to access of NIRVANA.

…Yes, I’ve tried them, but I felt no different…


Lhasa is a fascinating city to wonder around, with quite a few sights to wonder at, the Potala palace probably being the most famous one. It’s more impressing from the outside then the inside though, I’ve heard, and so I might save the 6$ entrance fee and not walk up the many steps to see the more then 1000 rooms, almost all of them empty. Otherwise there’s also many monasteries to marvel at, but even just walking around on the streets presents a lot to see.

In the Tibetan part of town monks sit on the pavement and act as soothsayers for Tibetans paying a few Yuan for them to throw the dice’s and tell them about their future. They wear their traditional monks outfit of a red robe, some of them even a yellow monks hat, and when having no customers they mumble their constant neverending prayers for themselves.

At the market one can buy a golden or silver cover for one of your front teeth – something very popular amongst Tibetan women, almost everyone of them having a glittering smile.

At Barkhor square dozens of Tibetans are prostrating themselves in front of the Jorkhang temple. They have a piece of a mattress on the ground in front of them, and two oval pieces of cardboard, one on each side of that mattress. They stand up and start with putting their palms together, then move their hands from over their head to their forehead to their heart, then they get down on their knees with their hands on the cardboard pieces. The cardboard easily slides on the smooth stonepaved ground, and they then get down lying on their stomachs on the mattress. They stretch out fully before they get up and start all over again, and again, and again… For hours, sometimes. Some of the prostrators have even tied their legs together at their knees, all to make it more difficult for themselves. But what an explanation I heard a Chinese guide give to a group of elderly American tourists there: “We Chinese, we do exercise in the parks of China, for example Tai Chi. The Tibetans, they do this to stay fit.”. Did the tourists believe that? I hope not…

Some monks play a simple game that a guy has put up on the ground in front of him. He’s got 4 dices that costs 1 Yuan to throw, and you win something every time, according to what the dots add up to. The prime target is to get 24, and win the plastic camera, but there’s 23 other things to be won. They are all laid out on a piece of cloth in a circle, with numbers drawn on the cloth. As an example, number 14 wins you an ear-cleaning spoon. How about that?

The three monks take it in turns and win a small bag of hairbands (very useful for a monk with half a centimeter of hair left), and a yellow balloon to blow up, and yet another bag of hairbands. They laugh a lot and seem to be happy anyway… Well, they could also have won a plastic comb, or a box of matches, or a pen, or something similarly useful…

It is easy to see that the Tibetans doesn’t benefit very much from the Chinese invasion. The Han-chinese run almost all of the businesses and shops, and so far all the beggars I’ve seen on the streets are Tibetan. It’s rather depressing to see how rudely the Chinese act towards the Tibetans, and it will unfortunately not take long before the Tibetans are a minority in their own country…

The political control is hard as well, and even the internet cafe where I sit and write this have a handwritten sign on the wall saying “Please don’t use the Internet for political or other unintelligent matters”. Some friends of mine, who flew into here from Shanghai at the east coast, had before their flight gone to the tourist information bureau in Shanghai to get some info on Tibet. They were given a map of the region, with some useful written info on the backside of it, one of the notes under “Behaviour” saying “Don’t talk with the Tibetans about sensitive issues, such as politics”. My friends were also told by the guy working at the Shanghai tourist bureau “Not to talk with Tibetan people at all”!

On top of the Drepung monastery, one of the three main monasteries in Lhasa and Tibet, there is a Chinese red flag on a pole. When I was walking around in the monastery complex I found a painted face of Mao on one wall. What good has that guy ever done to any Tibetan monastery? I thought of the cultural revolution and the mad destroying of almost all the Tibetan monasteries that took place during those years (down from 1600 functioning monasteries to just 10!), and I shivered…

Yesterday I also heard from a girl who’d been working in the country (and so should have correct information), that all the Tibetans working as guides for the travel agencies in Tibet have been ordered to find themselves new jobs. The Chinese have apparently realised that it is not a good idea to send Tibetans able to speak good English of on tours together with the westerners coming here – of course the tourists find it interesting to talk about politics and Tibet with those guides! So apparently it will soon be only politically correct Chinese taking around tourists to see Tibet, and one will even more then before be only an outside observer of Tibetan life…

It’s not a wise thing though as a tourist to openly show support for the Tibetans and their issues. A boxed text in the Lonely Planet guide book tells about an American couple that smuggled in three tapes with speeches by Dalai Lama into Tibet. They handed one of those tapes over to an English speaking monk at a monastery, only to later be pointed out to the Chinese police by that same monk – now in civilian clothes. Their hotel room was searched, the two remaining tapes found and the couple deported to the Nepalese border. There are apparently lots of (Tibetan!) spies amongst the real Tibetan monks in the monasteries, and those are the ones asking for Dalai Lama pictures and other material that could be fatal for your stay here… One better be careful if one wants to stay free.


Well well well, another lengthy email. It’s time to stop typing now, to go out on the street and walk around in town a bit more. On the 1st of October China celebrates national day, and I might want to stay here in Lhasa until then – just to see how tight security will be. I imagine some nervous show of military power by the Chinese. One day though, I hope that Dalai Lama will be able to return to the Potala palace with his government, and that the Tibetans can change the flag on Drepung monastery for their own…

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Tibet the hardcore way

No XXX — But Steven Segal!

Location: Tibet
Date: 2000-09-12

So, I’m back in civilisation after a month of HARD travelling in western parts of this occupied land twice the size of France. Only 2,2 million people live here, and most of them in central and eastern Tibet, so the western parts are very isolated and barren. But I’ll start in Kashgar, Xinjang province, from where I was to be smuggled into here…

Smuggled, I say, and that is because the Chinese try to do everything to rip you, the tourist, off – as much as possible. To get here the official way costs you about 200$ extra if you go by bus from Golmud (the state north of Tibet). If you are flying in, that to will cost you extra – just because you are a “foreign friend”. Well, thanx a lot my Chinese pal’s… Other roads and routes are more or less efficiently closed for foreigners, and the fines for one self and the driver are quite severe…

The lorrydriver I’d first spoken to in Kashgar turned out to ask for a ridiculous price for the service, so I waited ’til the next morning to take the bus to the last city open for foreigners – Yecheng, about 4 hours away. There I, and German guy Jens that I had hooked up with, was met by the taxidrivers outside the busstation shouting “Abba”, “Abba”. No, they didn’t think I was a Bjorn or Benny lookalike, nor were they interested in 70’s discomusic. Abba is the truckstop from where the trucks and cars towards Tibet leave…

Me and Jens spent 2 days and one night there at the truckdrivers hotel, trying to convince someone to take us. One was too afraid of being busted, others just said plain no although they could make 2 times 50$ extra income that way, but finally a lorry and landcruiser in convoy dared to take us. It was actually a tourist-tour crew, returning back to Lhasa after having dropped of some tourists in Yecheng, that finally took us along. Good for us, as one of the guys spoke English – otherwise not common at all in China.

So of we set on the Xinjang highway, which is a grand name for a mud track. First day wasn’t too bad, but the following three… The road quite quickly goes up to 4500-5500 meters altitude, which makes it one of the worlds highest roads. (I’ve read in so many guidebooks now about various roads in Himalaya being “the worlds highest” – the Manali to Leh one in India, the one leading still further north from Leh, the Karakorum highway between Pakistan and China – so that I don’t believe any words about “highest” any more). Anyway, high it was and it caused me severe headache for 24 hours. Lack of oxygen gives you AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), but for me it never developed further then headache, so I was safe. What could I have done if it would have gone worse? The only cure is firstly rest, and then to get down to lower altitude, but how do you do that on such a road once you’re on it?

We bumped along on the back of the lorry, sometimes flying high when we rallyed over a pothole, sometimes falling over each other. Our bodies ached, it was dusty one day and muddy next day. Several other lorries were stuck in the mud, some had fallen into the rivers that the road sometimes followed. At one lorrystop (a wooden shack with boiled meat and noodles for dinner, and Tibetan yak-buter tea to get it down with, we saw when a lorry fell over on its back when trying to drive past another one. Another day we got stuck in the mud ourself (despite the fact that we were not very heavily loaded), and had to dig ourselves loose. On our third day, our lorry helped 3 Tibetans out that had been stuck in the mud without food for 3 days. Imagine that on such an altitude; the nights are COLD! Luckily, our lorry’s and Landcruiser’s team felt rich enough to sleep indoors at truckdriverstop shacks, costing a bit over a dollar, so we never had to sleep on the back of the lorry in our sleepingbags, as we had first expected. Good for me, having such a crappy sleepingbag (0 degrees or maybe even 3+). Often I wondered to myself “what on earth am I doing here?” and “Why do I undertake such a journey?”. I had no good answers, just myself to blame for being there…

Noodles to eat for 4 days, very dirty and dusty, shaken to pieces, all my intestines in disorder, tired from a little bit too little sleep and the thin air, we finally arrived to the Chinese town of Ali in western Tibet, on the afternoon 4 days after having left Yecheng. Ali has about 5000 inhabitants, two roads, one junction, restaurants and shops with meals and goods we hadn’t seen since Kashgar. A metropole for being Tibet. There are also hotels, both of them with no toilets and no showers – not even running water. How can you run such a hotel? There is one (1) public toilet on the main street, and this is the horror of Ali. The Tibetans are not well known as the cleanest and most hygienic persons in the world, and the many many brown lines from “clean”-smeared fingers on the walls gave me shivers… One day me and Jens bought freshly baked bread from a baker on the street, and 30 minutes later Jens saw the same baker, in the public toilet, with no roll of paper to accompany him… We did find hot showers though, at the electricity companies compound for 8 Eon (1$). Lovely after the lorryride. We also met quite a few other westerners that had been smuggled into Tibet via Yecheng, and from them we realised how lucky we had been to get there in ONLY 4 days – they had taken 7,8,11 and 18 days respectively, getting stuck in the mud for days, having to sleep outdoors at 5500 meters, not having gotten anything to eat for sometimes a full day… And we, me and Jens, had also paid the lowest price for our trip, about 50$ each… Well, sometimes you just don’t know how lucky you are…

Ali is basically a military outpost, with a nice commie star decorating one of the surrounding hills. The military also attracts a lot of other business into town. Never had I seen so many hairdressers in a row, and true, the Chinese soldier is usually clean-cut. Nah, pretty soon I realised that the knitting (!) bored women sitting outside hardly knew how to use a pair of scissors on a scalp. Rather, they waited to fill one of the booths behind the hairdresser chairs, one of the booths with flimsy plywood walls and a curtain or in better places a plywood door, the only furniture inside being a bed. What a disguise, and there must be an overproduction of knitted sweaters in Tibet…

In Ali we also had to go to the police to report ourself, or if not they would sooner or later come for us to our hotel, the hotels in China having to report foreigners staying at them to the police. Ali PSB (Public Security Bureau, i.e. the police) is famous amongst independent travellers for actually fining you for the illegal entry with a smile, while at the same time issuing you with an “Aliens travel permit” for western Tibet, or at least for Ali district. Same day we had arrived, we had gone to Mrs Dekki and Mr Li (actually mentioned by name in some guidebooks, but not Lonely Planet) at the policestation. Dusty and dirty we stood in front of their desk while they filled in the travel permits for us, we travellers laughing about being there and having made it into Tibet, saying we would have to go for a beer afterwards. Mrs Dekki, if it was her behind the counter, didn’t even look up from the papers in front of her, but said “I like beer. I come with you?” We just laughed and paid the 300 Yuan, 38$ fine, and the 50Y, 6$, for the travel permit. There is no public transport in western Tibet, and hitchhiking is illegal, but Mrs Dekki told us to get down to the bridge very early in the morning and try to stop a lorry. What a helpful police officer she is…

A few days later, after having stocked up on (again) instant noodles, dried beef jerky (Chinese style), cookies and goodies, we stood at the above mentioned bridge at the start of the road leading to the southern route through Tibet. It was 5 in the morning, pitch black and cold, and my Chinese army long johns didn’t help much. No luck at all that day… An enormous amount of taxis had passed us while we waited, circling around in the small town that takes only 10 minutes to cross from one end to the other, but we had seen far fewer lorries. At 10.30 we gave up, the lorries that were leaving town had refused to even stop, or then not understood where we had wanted to go. Back to the hotel for some more sleep, and up again the next day at the same time…

Next day we were luckier. A jeep took us two, and 2 Belgian guys that had turned up in Ali after eight days on the Xinjang highway (We had actually seen them leave Kashgar 3 days before us, but me and Jens had obviously passed them when they were stuck in the mud somewhere) – all the way from Ali to Darchen, a small town at the foot of Mt Kailash. Mt Kailash is the holiest mountain in Asia, sacred both to Tibetan Buddhists and Indian Hindu’s alike. From Darchen we too wanted to do a 53 km pilgrimage circuit of the mountain, lasting 3-4 days and passing Drolma-la pass at 5636 meters. The jeep actually dropped me and Jens about 3-4 km outside Darchen, by some camping Tibetan pilgrims, and there we spent the night in Jens’ 1-man tent. It was actually good that the jeep didn’t take us all the way into Darchen, as we wanted to avoid paying the 50 Yuan fee for not being Tibetan and wanting to do the walk (thank you dear Chinese friends, again). This way, the next morning, the Tibetan pilgrims took us on their overloaded truck rented for their pilgrimage, and then dropped us of just 1 km before town, so that we could cross a field and avoid the whole town…

The walk around the mountain is spectacular, and although I hadn’t been able to leave any of my stuff in Darchen, and so was carrying close to 25 kilo, I truly enjoyed it. Tibetan Buddhists believe that encircling the mountain once takes away the sins of a lifetime, but circling it 3 or 13 times is even better – holy numbers in Tibetan Buddhism. The ultimate is to go around it 108 times, which guarantees you a ticket to nirvana. Once would have to do for us though.

We passed Tibetans prostrating themselves the whole way, circling the mountain by putting their palms together, putting their hands above them, at their forehead and at their heart, and then stretching out on the ground. Afterwards they got up and walked to where their hands had been while lying down. Circling the mountain like this counts for doing it 8 times, but it takes you about 3 weeks says the guidebook… If you’re a true Buddhist you better do it…

The first night we slept in a Tibetan monks room at a monastery, spending the evening teaching him English words for things he found and pointed at in his room. In the end we used his taperecorder to record me pronouncing the words – that way he can listen to the tape later! At bedtime, he was clearly surprised at us just getting into his sleeping bag, and made us hold our palms together while reciting after him: “Om mani padme hum”, it sounded like – at least that’s what I heard and repeated – but isn’t that the Hindu prayer? Ah, it can’t matter too much, if there is a god I think he got the message…

We also met some Indian pilgrims on the circuit. The Indians have to pay 500$ (!) to the Chinese state to be allowed into China, and with the tourprice’s they pay on top of that from wherever they live in India to Tibet, the total price ends up to roughly 1400$ – a hell of a lot of money for any Indian. So naturally, most of the Indians doing this (apart from some real sadhu:s and holy men) are older, less fit, and fatter people. At one guest house that we arrived to in a hailstorm at 5 p.m. (luckily the only really bad weather during our trek), a man from Gujarat, sitting having breathing problems because of the high altitude, met us at his dormitory door. He was protesting to have to share the room with anyone, saying “No no” to us getting in, and later, when we forced us into the room, he said “God is great”. He truly is, you bastard, I thought… Half an hour later he was our best friend, letting his friends take photos of him holding his arms around us, giving us his businesscard and inviting us to visit him in Gujarat. Sure I will, sure I will…

The assault for the 5636 meter high Drolma-la pass was truly tough – with our 25 kilos each to carry. At 5330 meters people are supposed to symbolically leave their old life behind by various means, most popularly by leaving some piece of cloth there. Me and Jens did the even better considered thing of cutting of some hair there (cutting yourself and leaving some blood is considered the ultimate, but we were not that devoted), and while I saw it spread for the wind I thought for a few seconds about how this trip has changed me already. Hmm, well, now the old me was left behind even symbolically…

At 5636 meter there was an enormous amount of Tibetan prayer flags on a pole and along the stones, and we took a rest. It had been hard, but I had done it! Soon some miserable Indian pilgrims came up there too, many of them being too weak to walk and riding yak’s to the top. Some were even lying down on them trying to hold on while puking on the hairy beasts… Poor guys…

The rest of the trek was easy-piecy (How the hell do you spell the second part of that expression?), and the next day we were in Darchen. Some other travellers had just arrived there, and after a lunch of Tibetan momo’s (dumplings filled with, in this case, meat) we talked briefly with them while trying to organise transport to lake Manasaraovar about 35 km away. That lake too is holy to Hindus and Buddhists alike, and another pilgrimage is supposed to be made around that. What the heck, I thought, while I was on it, why not continue being tough and hardy? I’m not much of a trekker, as you might know, but… Hey, the Tibetan nature is spectacular, and if I didn’t do it this time, when would I be back? So: finally a truck agreed to take us there, and 1 1/2 hour later we were at the lakes shore at Chiu gompa (gompa is Tibetan for monastery). From there one can actually see the whole trek: all 88 km from start to finish! Is that possible anywhere else in the world?

And there was hot springs! Although a bath was outrageously expensive at 2$ (well, expensive for Tibet), it was worth sinking down in a tiled bathtub and let the sulphur-rich water heat your body up…

Jens was waiting for perfect weather, to be able to see some of the snowcapped mountains surrounding the lake, but I was impatient, and so after 2 nights at the monastery I set off. It’s not much up and down, one basically follows the lake shore, but the first day I had to cross a semi-swamp with endless rivers flowing into the lake for the last 3-4 hours. Finally I gave up the constant take-of-shoes-sometimes-trousers-cross-river-water-to-the-thighs-get-dressed-5-minutes-later-do-it-again, and so I walked on in t-shirt and underwear. Ah, there was nobody around… Day 2 and 3 of the trek was less watery, I met some Tibetan pilgrims, some Chinese roadworkers (yes, in the future you’ll be able to do a relaxed pilgrimage around the lake in a car!), I passed monasteries, stayed at one of them for the night, lived on snacks during the day and oodles of noodles for dinner, and basically had another wonderful naturewalk. Back at Chiu gompa (where I had left 15 kilo of my stuff; this time not carrying all of it on the trek) in the evening, I had another bath in the hot spring’s bathhouse, and the next day it was time to start getting out of western Tibet and back into civilisation…

It took me a day to advance 45 km or so to the small settlement of Hor Qu, which was also where I had spent my first night on my walk around the lake. I was unlucky with getting lifts (only one PSB-jeep had passed me for 3 hours), but finally some Indian pilgrims took me in their minibus. They were all amazed about the altitude and nature in Tibet, and all fairly ill prepared for the cold in too thin jackets and no real hiking boots. They also seemed fairly unaware of how high altitude affects you and how to get used to the thin air. One of them, a doctor, recommended his friend to “run 20 meters, get tired and rest, run 25 meters, get tired and rest, etc. etc.”. Another man, from Calcutta, asked me if standing in the sun was better then sitting indoors – he felt better in the sun, his headache being less painful – does the sun affect the oxygen level? I told him it was probably just the fact that he was not used to the cold…

Yeah, I got to Hor Qu, where I met the same bunch of people I’d met in Darchen before leaving from there. Some of these other travellers had already been in Hor Qu for 3 days trying to get a lift out – unsuccessfully. Oh shit, I thought, will I be stuck here for that long? Clearly, we’d have to go 2 by 2 onto the trucks that sooner or later would be willing to give us lifts, but they were few and far in between…

But already next day we were lucky: an elderly German couple, on their return way towards Nepal, was willing to take us with them, and so were their crew in a lorry and Landcruiser – they could even take all six of us! Hor Qu was the last town that our permits bought in Ali was good for – from now on and 1000 km eastwards all the way to Lhatse we would have to hide from the PSB at their checkpoints, of which we knew there was roughly 3-6 on the way. We got in at the back of the lorry and got ready for some more hardcore travel…

Talking about rip-offs, by the way: the friendly Germans had paid 3500$ EACH for their 4-week holiday in Tibet. Really a Chinese friendship price…

Hardcore travel, yes: Bumps. Mud. Rivers to cross. Bridges that had been swept away. More trucks lying with their wheels in the air. Rain. Punctures. Well, you know by now what the roads and travel are like in western Tibet, actually one of Asia’s most distant and difficult areas to get to. The Germans tour-crew was cool, though. Some checkpoints we didn’t even have to hide at: the tourleader, Tashi, told the PSB that we were from another tour, but that our Landcruiser(-s) had broken down en route, so now we were taken back. At other checkpoints we kept our heads down and silent, while the driver did the paperwork at a roadside table from where the PSB officials were too lazy to get up from to have a look into the truck’s back. Good for us…

The nights we spent in small towns en route, and me and Mark from Texas, the two oldest guys on the truck, raised hell in almost every city. We bought firecrackers and roman candles and had duels on the main street, pointing the roman candles at each other as guns, or shooting at the towns citizens. I even shot at a passing soldier – might be the only time a tourist gets away with shooting at a soldier. Dogs in the towns were not safe either, nor were children. We really had a fun time. Roman candles cost only 3 Yuan (40 cent) in one town, and they last for about 90 seconds – value for money! We also used these to shoot with against cars we passed, and later on we turned to throwing firecrackers at them. Once a truck even stopped because they thought they got a puncture… Anything for a laugh…

The trip took us 4 days to Lhatse, which is the first town on the Friendship highway between Tibet’s capital Lhasa and Kathmandu in Nepal. That last checkpoint is said to be the hardest, so our driver let us of 1 km before the actual checkpoint and we had to walk through it. If the driver was to be caught he risked a fine of up to 2000 Yuan; 250$. But again we were lucky: there was no one by the checkpoint, and we walked right through. Maybe the guard had gone for a piss? Who cares; soon we were in Lhatse, with it’s paved road and Chinese architecture. Bathroom tiles and blue windows on 2-storey houses along the road – looks really good next to Tibetan-style houses… Not. But there was shops and restaurants with decent food again, and from now on we didn’t have to hide on any truck! We were in areas open for tourists!

The next day was plain sailing on a minibus to Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, and that’s where I am now. The rest of the travel-mates from the truck left for Lhasa yesterday, while I stayed here taking a hot shower, checking my email (I had 83 mails in my inbox when I came here yesterday – after one month away from the digital world!), and writing down this has also taken time. My other mission here is to try to find out whether I can or can’t go to Mt Everest base camp without a permit – that would be my last illegal thing here, before I’m ready to stay on the right side of the Chinese law and leave Tibet. We’ll see where I go in the next few days: South to the worlds highest point, or north to one of the worlds highest capitals…


A little something I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook for Tibet: There’s this boxed story with the title “Tibet chic”; about how Hollywood has taken up the Tibetan issue. There’s a story about how Harrison Ford read the script for “Kundun” to Dalai Lama, about Richard Gere’s speech at the Oscars gala in …1996, was it? But the most ridiculous thing of them all is that one of the Tibetan Buddhist sects has found out that one of the Hollywood action actors are in fact a reincarnated lama (Tibetan monk): No less than ponytailed Steven Segal!!! Oh, really?


Anyway; that’s all for now folks! All the best to all of you!

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All set to go in Kashgar…

Location: Northern Pakistan and China
Date: 2000-08-15

HI GUYS!

So, I left Peshawar, disappointed by the fact that the Afghan taliban government refused me a visa. A really long bus ride (26 hours with one change in Rawalpindi) took me to Gilgit, and once again I was on my way to cooler climates. Met up with some fellow travellers I’d met before in Pakistan in various cities, and sat waiting for a few days for the road to Skardu to open. Landslides are common in northern Pakistan (as in many mountain areas), and now Skardu was impossible to reach with a bus. I was staying at the same guest house as in 1994 when I was in Pakistan for the first time, contemplating whether I would or wouldn’t spend a month of my visa-extension there in Gilgit, working for the guest house as they were looking for staff. But in the end I just felt a need to get going again. The Skardu landslides didn’t get cleared in 3 days, to work in a backpackers hostel for a free bed and food didn’t really sound that interesting, and so I went to higher altitudes and further north on the Karakorum highway…

I stopped 3 hours from Gilgit by bus, in Karimabad, the former Hunza emirs capital. The views towards one of the worlds higher mountains, approx. 7700 meter high Rakaposhi, are stunning, the surrounding villages with their terraced fields are just beautiful, people are very friendly and many are English-speaking, the temperature is perfect. The only thing I can think of to be on the negative side is the tapwater: it comes down the mountain behind the village, being mainly melted glacier water, and it is GREY. FULL of silt, and not really the stuff you’d like to get yourself unthirsty from. Still, there are other things to drink, as I will soon describe to you… Karimabad town itself has grown, due to tourism, and the main street is nowerdays full of tourist shops. Still, it can only be considered “very touristy” by Pakistani standards – as there are still not THAT many white faces around in Pakistan, as compared to many other countries worldwide, Karimabad isn’t that bad. I found a really nice place to stay, Garden lodge, and the greyhaired owner there was a bit of a character. First evening in the hotel restaurant where I had my dinner he was forcing some of us guests to try the “Hunza water” he had in a 1.5 liter bottle. This is what I was coming to when I wrote there are other stuff to drink in Hunza and Karimabad then the tapwater: although the people there are Muslims, traditionally they have always made their own apricot wine and mulberry arrak. “Hunza water” is the approximately 35% mulberry stuff, coloured grey as is the tapwater, but definitely with a much sharper taste. It surely got me going, and also the owner who staggered around offering everyone glass after glass. He was getting more and more bluryeyed (correct spelling?), admiringly over and over again touching my soft blond hair and generally making us guests having arrived that day feel very welcome. Next morning he apologised for maybe having been behaving a bit annoyingly, but I assured him he’d been all right, and the same procedure was repeated that evening as well…

After Hunza and Karimabad and a one night stay at Ultar meadow by a glacier, I didn’t really know what to do or where to go. I had still not fully overcome the fact that I was refused an Afghan visa, and my travelplans were in a mess. You do get weary from travelling for a long time, and now I was a bit derailed and not sure about what to do. Should I rush straight for China? Should I stay in northern Pakistan where I truly feel at ease and welcomed and love the nature, for another 2 months as my visa would last? I revisited a few more villages in the north, places I had seen in 1994, went for the same daywalks I’d done then, and pretty soon I had come to the conclusion I should head for the border. I went to the border town Sost, made sure I spent exactly the correct amount on stuff I would use later on (i.e. walkman batteries, snacks for the busride over the border), and then I was prepared. On the 10th of August it was bye-bye to Pakistan and I was going to enter communist China for my third time…

The 2 days one night busride over the 4700 meters high Khunjerab pass is really spectacular. On the Pakistani side the mountains are rising up sharply next to the road, and sometimes the drop at the side of the so called “highway” is equally abrupt and steep. The road passes through the Khunjerab pass national park, where I spent my last 216 Pakistani rupees for the entrance fee to get through (what could they do if one only had travellers cheques there – In Sost one formally exits Pakistan before entering the bus, getting ones passport stamped and everything, so would you really be sent back for the sake of 4$…?). Anyway, I paid. The bus windles its way on the often broken road (landslides being the main problem here too), and just at the Khunjerab pass there is the actual border. The bus stops and lets the tourists take a photo of themselves standing there with one foot in each country, right by the bordermarker, and then you are on the wide Khunjerabplateau. Suddenly you see hairy camels walking around, and the people look different from Pakistan as well. Tajics, Kyrgiz, Uygur and many other central Asian Muslims live on both sides of eventual borders. The only han-chinese you see are the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) borderguards. The Chinese authorities probably are afraid to let the various Chinese minorities get a foot and some insight into the controlling police and army. In that sense China is still a communist state…

The bus arrived too late to the Chinese border town of Tashkurgan, for the customs had closed and the foreigners on the bus were taken to a preassigned hotel for that night by the customs official and one had to be contempt with what they offered. They insisted to give us a 35 Yuan (4$) dormitory, but after some haggling I managed to get them to admit that there was indeed a 2.5$ dormitory as well. This is often the case in China: they see you as a foreigner, therefore you must have money, and so what you are offered is always the more expensive alternative. In this cheaper dorm though, I was lucky enough to meet a Chinese backpacker (Yes, they do exist – a new phenomenon in China!). He had left his job and was now travelling around in China for as long as his money would last. He told me a lot about the apparently very vibrant Beijing music scene, and now I am looking forward to go to clubs and pubs there, exploring Chinese rock and punk bands…

Next morning we westerners went to the customs again, as soon as they opened, and after some delays we were given our passports and our luggage was checked and off we went again towards Kashgar.

Ah, Kashgar! Far away from everything oasis! Much has changed in the past 6 years: the streets are wider, there are more cars, and the shops are full of just about anything you can imagine. In this sense China is NOT communist; the motto seems to be “the more you shop the happier you get”. And they do shop, and what is on display is nowerdays much more imported goods then before. Kashgar seems to more and more become the Hong Kong of western China…

I saw the famous Sunday market again, this time in a more relaxed way because I was not as busy with my camera as last time here. I just enjoyed the hordes of people coming from all over central Asia to trade with each other. Too bad they still sell snow leopard skins and hats though (and that some tourists buy them!!!), trying to pass them and other fur objects of as lynx, fox or even dog (!). The cattle market was maybe the best part to see, with people testriding horses and donkeys. On another part of the market Uygur men get the latest fashion haircut (which amongst them has stayed the same shiny bald head for hundreds of years). In yet another market area a man wanted to try out a new pair of shoes, but had to put his foot in a plastic bag first, and then stand on one spot inside the shoebox instead of walking around finding out whether the shoe was comfortable or not for walking – just able to stamp on one spot with it. A few restaurants in a row try to draw customers by showing put-together violent fight scenes from various movies, and this with the volume turned to maximum. But people seemed to enjoy watching endless different shootings and kung-fu fights…

Since Sunday I have been busy trying to organise a lot of things: I have by now overcome my weariness and had made up planes on how to continue from here: instead of going to Xinjang states capital Urumqi, and then eastwards to Beijing (I came that way in 1994), I have decided to try to sneak into Tibet from here. It’s apparently not impossible, and with the help of a Chinese speaking Austrian guy, some friendly Chinese, a lot of info from other travellers, and a bit of luck, I hope to get to Lhasa in a month from now. In two hours from now when I write this I’ll set of from Kashgar, sitting on the back of a lorry. The last officially open (for foreigners) city will be Yecheng tonight, and from tomorrow it will be 3 to 7 days hiding on the back of yet another lorry before I am far enough into Tibet to be sent back to Kashgar by the police at the various checkpoints. It will be COLD and HARD and I’ll get mean and lean before I am there. The road goes over some 5400 meter high passes, there might even be snow, the road itself is often flooded and one gets stuck for days or weeks, the nights are freezing and the food is limited and boring. But: It’s adventure. The worst thing that can happen is that I get jailed and deported, but that is very unlikely: what is more likely is that I get fined and then can continue… We will see; you’ll hear all about it in a month or two when I see a computer again… I’m prepared with my fancy Chinese army long-johns and my German travel companion having a stove and a tent. We’ve filled our bags with noodles and dried meat, biscuits and snacks. I’ll get through, I’m sure…


Long mail again, and this time I won’t have time to correct it to see if there are any misspellings or too long or even non-understandable sentences. Hope you get something out of it though; I have to rush back to my hotel, get my bag and then rush to the lorry depot! Wish me luck with the PSB checkpoints (and that is NOT Pet Shop Boys; but Public Security Bureau).

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Very Very Disappointed…

Location: Afghanistan Consulate (Peshawar, Pakistan)
Date: 2000-06-28

Just a few days ago I wrote to you guys that my next destination would be Afghanistan. Well, so were my plans, but not the Talibans’. When I went to the Afghanistan consulate on Tuesday morning, after having even waited one day longer then the 7 they had told me it would take, I was surprised to hear that my application had been turned down. Me, a Swede? We are so famous for always being neutral, never annoying any government? The reasons they gave me was “the quota is full” and “Kabul can not guarantee your safety”. All of this was of course utter rubbish. People that had applied for their visas a day before me and a day after me, got their visas. Together with these I went back to the consulate and said “Why not me?”, but it didn’t help. I have talked to the vice consul a few times, and to people working in the country, people that I have got to know here in Pakistan and Peshawar. Via contacts these people have I and they have tried too, but… Today’s final reply was “You can definitely not get a visa here in Peshawar. Try in Frankfurt or London”… As if that was an option…

I have thought and thought over again and again what could have been the reason. I have no stamp from Israel in my passport, I don’t look like a freak, I smiled and acted well when applying, I dress in a local Pakistani/Afghani dress, I took my earrings out when visiting the consulate… Everything in vain…

So in a day or two I’ll head north to China instead. That too will be nice, coming to a country where beer is sold freely and one can talk to both sexes again. Afghanistan would have been an adventure, but… Some other day. I haven’t stopped traveling yet. I’m still alive for a while…

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A Travel Update and What’s Next — Part I

We visited a few monasteries in the surroundings, but when there is no festival going on in them the monasteries are all very much the same, so after 4-5 of them I got bored to visit any more. Still, they are nice, and some contain great and beautiful buddhastatues. The one in Thikse, for instance, where we were given a folder on the place by the monks. After the visit to the monastery when we sat in a restaurant down below the monastery hill, an old woman came buy and picked up Kathrin’s leaflet from the table, just to have a look. When she saw the picture of the buddha, she raised the pamphlet to her head and closed her eyes in a touching silent prayer for a few seconds. When Kathrin then gave her the paper she seemed VERY happy…

We had decided to fly from Leh to Jammu town, instead of taking the bus which would have taken us 3 days (minimum) via Srinagar. After all, Kathrin was only on a 4 weeks holiday. We had bought our tickets for the flight in Manali; therefore having to pay an extra 25 just to get them (90 of 65). This seems to be common practise; the travelagencies in Manali and Leh buy a lot of tickets for outgoing flights, and then re-sell them with a profit. Our tickets for instance had a stamp on them saying “blabla something travelagency, New Delhi”, and then a date from a few days before we had booked our tickets in Manali. Only our names had then been written in by hand, and as promised been confirmed with Indian Airlines in Leh so that we surely would get on the flight.

Now it was the morning of the 3:rd of July, and we were at Leh airport. Only we 2 and 4-5 Dutch people were lining up; the rest of the passengers being Indians who were now shouting and screaming up at the front counter, where a man tried to keep them abay with the help of armed guards. But we had confirmed seats; we were safe; we thought… Not so: Soon it dawned on us from what different people said to each other that the plane was overbooked and that it was a matter of getting a boarding pass from the airport manager (the man up front) to be allowed on board. Flights from 3505 meters can not take of with full load, but still Indian Airlines sell all the seats in the plane. Apparently Leh is always this chaotic when it comes to leaving, but with our sharp elbows we had soon got boarding passes. Maybe it’s the airlines policy to help tourists, but what happened to the poor stranded locals? Back home and wait 4 days for the next flight, only to then have to bump other passengers out of the plane… What a chainreaction! Before you are allowed on board you must go through security check after security check. Well, the area (J&K) is prime target for Kahmiri separatist groups, so better one security check too many…

After a 55 minute flight over the himalayas, that abruptely came to an end at the fields of Jammu, we were back in the heat at almost sealevel. SWEAT! Bus to Amritsar, where we then stayed in the Sikh’s golden temple. The Sikh religion states that every pilgrim shall be given a place to sleep and food, and so one can stay there for free (maximum 3 days) and eat as much chapati-bread and cooked dhal-lentils as one wants. A donation is not pressed for, but much expected and should be given. Walking around the temple, barefoot and with the head covered by a golden scarf provided at the entrance, is a magic thing. The Golden temple itself stands in the middle of a waterfilled tank, with a causeway leading to it, and in the temple 4 sikh priests resite from the sikh’s holy book from morning to evening. This is then played out in loudspeakers all over the templearea, and also broadcasted from the sikh’s radiostation in Canada (!). People visiting the temple wish to take a photo of/with you, sikh’s want to discuss their religion with you, the whole whitewashed area (apart from the gold-covered temple itself) is so peaceful… It is a special thing to be there, and a must when in northwestern India.

The next day we shared a taxi to the India-Pakistan border togehter with a Dutch-American guy we had met at the temple. When we arrived at the border there were already a young frenchman (we learned about his nationality later) waiting, but he avoided contact with us…?!? The tree of us sat down at another table, soon more people arrived, amongst them a japanese couple of whom the girl was dressed in a tanktop. I asked Kathrin to tell the japanese girl that she should cover her shoulders – after all, Pakistan is muslim, and not covering up is not only insulting but it also gets you into more trouble then you would want. The japanese woman put on what she had handy in her bag – a black nylon raincoat, perfect on a sunny cloudless day like it was…

Soon the border opened and we rushed in. This is the only landborder open between Pakistan and India, and here the boarderguards try to outdo each other and give as good as possible an expression of their country. On the Indian side everyone was asked to fill in a few comments in a book about how the service had been, how fast one was let through etc. etc. Me and Kathrin came to the customs department just when they were checking the French guys suitcase (No backpack?). In the suitcase was a few items thrown in: a waterbottle, a couple of books and magazines, a calculator, and an alarmclock. That was it. No extra clothes, no toothbrushes etc… The customguys were wondering where the rest of his clothes were, but he only pulled his shirt from his chest a bit as to say “this is it”, and eventually they had to let him go… Today I still wonder what he was smuggling…

Soon we were through on the Indian side and passed the stands they are now building on the Indian side of the border, right by the actual gate and borderline drawn on the tarmac. These are built for the people coming every day to see the border closing ceremony. Friends have told me that apparently 1000:s of Indians (and a few 100 Pakistanis) gather at their sides of the border every afternoon, to cheer at their own troops lowering their flag, marching around and eventually closing the bordergate, all the while while booing at the opponents soldiers… Quite childish, but I’d love to see it one day…

Ah, back in Pakistan after 6 years. First impressions from the taxi between the border and Lahore’s busstand was that Pakistan seems to be better of economically than India, at least judging from the slightly higher standard of busses (far from all of them, but quite a few at least), and the fact that more shops than in India have real windowdisplaying and are not just a hole in the wall. And then the new superhighway between Lahore and Rawalpindi! It was almost surreal to get on such an autobahn after the roads in India. Built in 1997, it has 3 lanes in each direction. Smooth going, an A/C delux bus of western standard, and highway restaurants that could have been anywhere within the EU. It seems like the fee’s for the road are too high for most traffic though; there was hardly any cars on the road.

One night was all I spent in ‘Pindi. We had heard rumours that there was going to be the yearly horsepolo game between the villages Chitral and Gilgit on the comming weekend, so off we went towards Chitral. That turned out to be a too long journey to complete in one day (or rather night, as we set of in the late afternoon), and so at 7.30 pm we were dropped off in a place unknown for us, by some guys collecting roadtaxes from passing cars. With the help of some englishspeaking guys passing by they managed to explain to us that we should just wait; at 11 pm the buses between Peshawar and Chitral would come through, and we could then get on one of those. Now it was 7.30 and we were offered seats by the road…

And we waited and waited. The taxcollecting guys picked up the receipts thrown out from passing cars, people came and wondered who we were and the minutes passed ever slower. Some policemen patroling the street came by and smoked a few joints with the men sitting under the rainshelter, and when Kathrin saw that they were starting to fool around with a gun that the taxcollectors had in a draver of their table, we felt it was time to leave – although none of the passing buses had had more then one seat free, if any at all. When a bigger bus stopped in front of us we got onboard an went for the next town, which at least was towards where we were going… We didn’t make it far and were unceremonically dropped of by a man sitting on a bed by the street in a similiarly small town just 30 minutes from where we had boarded the bus. Now it was 2 in the morning, we started to get really tired, the man on the bed didn’t speak much english and we feared we would have to take it in turns and sleep on my campingmattress on the steps in front of a shop right there. But then Pakistani hospitality struck: the man on the bed, who had managed to explain to us that he was some sort of guard, took us to his concrete “bunker” where he offered us a mattress on the floor, and his bed. Exhausted we fell asleep immediately…

The man woke us up at five already and of we went after many thanks. A minibus took us to Dir, where we had to change to another minibus going over the 3100 meter high LOvari pass to Chitral. The views from the pass were great, the air was comfortably cool and over all the trip went well in the new company of friendly locals and a British and American guy who had turned up in Dir. Just before Chitral we passed the headquarters of the Chitrali scouts, the borderpolice (The North Western Frontier Province; NWFP; as this state of Pakistan is called, is close to the Afghani border), and were welcomed by their slogan on the wall surrounding their compound: “We desire death more than you desire life”. Alas, you feel in no way threatened as a tourist in the region. Quite the contrary: The people up here are a mixture of Pashtuns, Afghani refuges, tribal Kalash people and a few more groups, and they are worldwide famous for their extreme hospitality. As a guest in their country, you are treated as a king. A local would do ANYTHING, even die for you, to help you and make you feel welcome. Theft is virtually non-existent, prices are almost always honestly quoted to you without any attempt to rip you off, and many many times you are invited to sit down for a chat over a tea, or to join a meal. True, women might feel a little uncomfortable in such a strict muslim society, but as long as one plays by the rules of the locals, you are in no way treated badly.

Now we had travelled almost without breaks for four days, and Kathrin was understandably tired of spending so much time on transports. We decided to split for the weekend, me going to Shandur pass and the horsepologame, she joining the American and British guy from our minibus on a trek to the Kalash valleys. I set of in a jeep up the windling gravelroad to Shandur, and 7 hours later I arrived at 3700 meters. The Shandur horsepologround is the highest one in the world, and every year thousands of people go there for 3 days of camping to see a polomatch a day. It was like a rockfestival there, with tents everywhere, although no beertents or music from loudspeakers. But foodstalls, occasional dancing by the locals and a festive but extremely dusty atmosphere. I had come just for the last day’s finals, and so stayed only 24 hours from Saturday mid-day until Sundau noon, but some people had no showers for 3 days. Using the few icecold communal showers was almost futile – one hour later you had a cover of fine dust all over you again. For the night I was luckily offered to share a tent with an american guy, otherwise it would have been quite windy and cold outside…

On the morning of the 9:th of July the finals would take place. As a westerner I was allowed by the beautifully dressed up Chitral scouts to sit on the VIP stands built by stacked stones, together with most of the 75-odd westerners. From there I had a splendid view of the field. A few military helicopters that came and landed flew over the tentcamp and caused a massive dustcloud and all the tents almost flew away. We all wondered if this was Pakistani military leader general Perwez Musharaf that came to see the finals? Rumours had said he would turn up; they had also said that the sultan of Brunei had been invited, but that the sultan didn’t have enough time to pack his bags, having been given only 15 days notice. A caravan of cars drew past to the back of the VIP-seats, and everyone stood up (to the despair of the guarding Chitral scouts), and tried to get a glanze, but I couldn’t see anything. A red carpet decorating the stairs next to me was brushed clean by a scout, but it was soon full of footprints again when people passing from one side of the stands to the other trampled on it.

Pakistani paragliders and hanggliders came flying in from the mountain slopes surrounding the field, most of them missing to land on the field itself as intended, instead dissappearing behind the audience crowds that were standing on the small hills around the field. Inexperience or was it so difficult to steer in the thin air?

The players rode in and the judge went out on the field saying something to them, before returning towards the carpeted steps, and then all of a sudden he was standing there next to me – The general himself. The judge saluted him, gave him the ball, and so Perwez was given the honour of starting the game by throwing in the ball on the field.

What a game! Action! Full speed ahead, abrupt stops and a vigorous fight to hit the ball with the clubs. It was WILD! Never would I have imagined that I would ever like any kind of horse-sport. But this was fun!

After the first 25-minute half Gilgit was leading over Chitral with 5-1. There was dancing, the general himself getting out on the field and clapping the beat, before returning to the stand. Then he held a speech thanking especially the foreigners present for coming and giving the show such colour. And then the second half, just as hectic as the first. Finally, Chitral came back and won 7-6 in a magnificent style.

As soon as the game was over there was a massive exodus to the readyloaded jeeps. Everybody was in a hurry to get home before the working week. I was lucky to get a frontseat in one of them (very appreciated if you are a tall guy). There was soon a long caravan filling the windling road down back to Chitral, and everywhere along the road children from surrounding villages stood waving to the passing cars. The rumour of the victory, the first one for Chitral in 4 years, had spread. We made a break halfway back for a late lunch, and the driver of the car talked with an 50-55 year old machinegun wearing policeman who he claimed was his uncle. After the lunch everyone from the car went upstairs from the restaurant, including the policeman, and then the driver rolled a spliff that was then passed around. I took a great photo of the policeman posing with his gun, sitting on a bed next to the jointrolling driver… Pakistan is, together with neighbouring Afghanistan, very famous for the “Afghan black”, and it’s all part of the local culture and tradition. We have our alcohol, the muslims have their hashish…

Back in Chitral to where Kathrin returned a day later, exhausted but happy. The next day it was my turn to go to the Kalash valleys, and so we parted for good at the junction where I started walking towards Rumpur valley (there are 3 valleys where the Kalash people live, and Rumpur is said to be the most beautiful one, so – I went for the best). Kathrin had to get back all the way to Delhi for her return flight to Sri Lanka, and had to do this in 3 days of travel. Sigh; why must parting always be so hard…?

The tribal Kalash people are unique in the way that they are a non-muslim tribe in a sea of islam reaching all the way from Turkey to Kashmir in India. There’s only about 3000 of them left, and many of them are more or less forcefully converted into islam. It probably makes life easier for them, but their culture is clearly dying out. Their men don’t dress very different from other mountain Pakistanis, but their women wear black dresses with colourful decorations and kilo’s of orange, yellow and red necklaces. On their head they have a very specific looking “crown”, that I will try to describe: it is like a crown with a just as wide tail hanging on their back all the way to the waist. This “crown” is decorated with seashells and buttons sewn on, and also with other shining silverpieces, colourful threads etc. They don’t cover their faces, and so are a curiosity for visiting Pakistani tourists from (mainly) Punjab state. Apparently the Punjabi’s come to stare at them, and to snap photos in the most unfriendly way, and so the Kalash women tend to dislike any attention given to them. I had a splendid time there though, staying with a Kalash family of whom the man had an odd name – Enginer. He explained that his father had got the titles of the British wrong (remember, they were here only about 50 years ago), and so named his son what he so often had heard brits present themselves as. Enginer is himself a teacher, and also told me that 2 years ago he made an alphabet for the Kalash language – thereby trying to preserve their traditions and culture. Kalash has apparently until now only been spoken…

I went to Peshawar after Rumpur/the Kalash people, and started out my latest quest: to get a visa for Afghanistan. Over the last month I have met people both live and on the internet, who have been or will try to go to Afghanistan. The guestbook in my hotel here is full of hints (there are no guidebooks available for that country), and more then a few persons seem to have made it there and back. The talibans have at least brought one good thing to that country – Peace and order in the areas where they rule. Here in Peshawar I have also met people that are working in the country, and judging from them the country is quite possible to travel around in.

The picture of Afghanistan in the western media is rather black and white (articles on taliban brutal rule sells), but to get the full picture I think one has to go there oneself. As a friend of mine put it yesterday: actually the talibans aren’t doing anything new. What they are trying to do is to implement in the urban areas what the rural areas have been living by for 500-600 years. Women has always been hidden away in the houses on the countryside, it’s just the way it has always traditionally been; why is the world awakening to it now when the towns of Afghanistan will have to obey the same thing? Why no protests earlier?

Anyway, I could write so much about what I’ve now heard about the taliban’s and Afghanistan that this mail would be of double length, but as it is already mastodontic, I’ll let it be. I will go there, insh’allah (god willing), and make my own picture about it, and then when coming back from there I’ll write to you all about it. There’s no internet cafes in Afghanistan, so it will have to wait until I’m back in Pakistan. Next week I’ll get my visa (if they issue me one), and then I’ll be ready to go a few days later. I’ve been growing a full beard over the last month (it actually quite suits me), I’ll take absolutely no photos of women (and be very careful so that no one sees me take other photos either), no walkmans or tapes (music is condemned unislamic by the talibans – funloving people, eh?), and dressed in my Shalwar Qamiz (traditional very loosefitting Pakistani and Afghani dress, excellent in this heat): having made all these preparations I am ready to meet the true interpreters of the quran…

Otherwise here in Peshawar I’ve made a few daytripstp the surroundings. This area was a very troublesome spot for the british while they ruled British India, and at one stage half the british troops in India were stationed here. Attacks from the Afghani side of the border was a constant threat, and even today this part of Pakistan is not fully under the control of the Pakistani government. Peshawar town is safe, but surroundings are tribal areas where buses sometimes still get robbed, villages make money from the drugs and arms trade, conflicts between people are settled within the tribes rather than being reported to the police, and so on. There is a gigantic smugglers bazaar just on the outskirts of town, where anything in the world can be bought at very low prices. There’s even a Marks and Spencers supermarket selling genuine stuff. Buying cigarettes is cheap, but watch out – often it’s counterfeit copies. Guns, hashish and smoke heroin are sold quite openly (although, this part of that market is sealed of for foreigners), but getting a taxfree camera or stereo is easy-peacy. Many of the people working here regularly frequent this market…

A few days ago I also visited the southern village of Darra, which makes it sole living from copying all kinds of weapons from all over the world. Officially you need a permit from the police to go there (nowerdays unobtainable because of the slight risk involved), but by bribing the police that met the minibus when arriving I was allowed to take a one hour guarded tour. Everywhere small factories make anything from James Bond-like penguns to Kalashnikovs. Even bazookas are rumoured to be manufactured, although I never saw that. 10000 weapons a day are made, but god knows who is buying them all? For 13 was allowed to be Rambo for 3 seconds and to shoot 30 bullets with a Kalashnikov into the air. So much for former views on pacifism and “I will never hold a gun in my hands”…

 


MY GOD that became a long mail! Now I’ll still have to re-read it and correct all the mistakes; I sometime feel I write too slow for my brain and so might have jumped or forgotten some important details. If you’ve had the patience to read this far, thank you so much for showing the interrest. WIsh me luck for my trip to Afghanistan and for my safe return, and in about a month or so I should be by the keyboard again…

All the best to you all.


P.S. Something funny happened when I went into a shop in Chitral town. They were not only selling the local newspaper “Frontier post” (where there on the economy page was an article about how Gillette had recently launched two new toothbrushes on the Pakistani market – BIG financial news, eh?); but also postcards. Flipping through them I found a few that depicted the nature and villages there. A river in a valley, high snowcapped mountains in the background, a road with a passing car. But there was something that was wrong: the car was driving on the right hand side, the traffic signs looked a little bit too well maintained, and the couple walking away from the camera dressed in shorts…? I asked the shopowner where in the Pakistani mountains this was, and he replied that this was not in Pakistan at all – The postcard was from Switzerland! True, northern NWFP is said to be the “Switzerland of the east”, but to sell Swiss postcards? “Same same but different”, as a popular travellers proverb goes…

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A Travel Update and What’s Next — Part I

Location: Delhi, Manali, Pakistan
Date: 2000-06-22

Last time I wrote a mass-email I was in Delhi. Well, I’ll take it from there…

I spent a total of 10 days in monsoon-hot Delhi, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees in the afternoons. Luckily it rained a few times and that cooled things down momentarilly, but as soon as the sun came out from behind the clouds again it was all the same oven. I was waiting for a friends arrival from Sri Lanka, and as soon as she had landed we would set of for the mountains. Finally the days had passed, She got herself a Pakistani visa as fast as possible and we could leave. Our last evening in Delhi we sat on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, comforting a middleaged Swedish woman who came talking to us. She had arrived in Delhi that very day, this time travelling alone for the first time after her divorce, and she wanted to go back home already tomorrow! She just needed to hear that she should give the country a few days before changing her return flight, and after a few hours she thanked us for our support, happy that she was going to Agra and Taj Mahal the next day…

We slept in the first morning due to an alarmclock that never rang, and so we missed out train up to Shimla. Too bad, it would apparently have been a windling trip on narrow-gauge line. Instead, we got tickets for an overnight bus for that same day’s evening, going all the way from Delhi to Manali, which would have been our second destination after former british hillstation Shimla. We relaxed during the day, waited in the hotels reception for the last 45 minutes, and wondered how the punkgirl changing money there was received by the Indians she met: she was dressed in a short tanktop reveiling her belly, and post-hippie trousers with a very low waist. To add to that she had a messy dreadlock/punk hairstyle with several colours, and was peirced on several places of her body and head. Why did she look like that when going abroad? I thought about myself and how I used to dismiss people reacting on my own punk-outlook ten years ago, and how I used to demand respect for me as a person – not for how I choosed to look like, and then I started to wonder wether I am getting old, now disliking this girls looks..? Hmm, but surely it is best to dress in an appropriate way when you visit other countries…

Finally it was time for departure. It took the bus 2 hours to actually leave Delhi proper, driving around picking up more and more passengers, and the conductor for some reason refused to put on the minifans on board. Utter confusion and frustration, but eventually we did leave the capital…

It was a long 17 hour trip to Manali, which is on 2200 meters, so the temperature there was just perfect. There is Manali, old Manali and the village Vashisht which is 4 km north of Manali proper, and we choose to stay in the latter – away from the Indian honeymooners who seem to prefer the noisy and rather polluted (well, comparatively – compared to Delhi not, but being a small village in the mountains it is) Manali proper, with its hustle and bustle, and also away from the young backpackers (mainly, it seemed like, israeli) backpackers in Old Manali, where they sit in restaurants listening to technomusic, talking to each other and smoking endless joints. Vashisht on the other hand is more geared towards people who like to enjoy the silence and nature, and we had a lovely view from our room. The river Beas, Kullu valley, and on the other side the houses of old Manali…

Yes, marijuana is everywhere in Manali, the area of Kullu valley being the main Indian drugmafia’s farmingland. When you walk into town you pass fields full of it. After having checked into the hotel our hotelmanager was quick to inform us that he also could supply us with charras (a sort of handrolled hashish), and/or cannabis. People (well, mainly tourists) smoke it quite openly in the streets, and we even saw a few older local men sharing a pipe while a policeman walked by them… The culture and habits are quite different from Sweden here…

Manali is full of restaurants catering for the western tourists, and so we ate ourselves fat on good food. Although, I managed to burn some of that fat when doing a 5 days paragliding course. Well, every adventuresport has to be tried out. It’s rather cheap to do in Manali, less than 100 a “week”, as they call the 5 days. So of I went to Solang valley a short busride to the north, with the aim to learn how to fly like a bird…

But in fact you don’t learn more than the basics in 5 days: you learn how to get the paraglider from lying on the ground and up in the air, how to steer it in the air, and then you do fly but only from a 50-60 meter high slope, down to a field about 100-150 meters away. The whole flight takes about 30-45 seconds. If you do a 10 day course, you will on your last day make a “proper” flight from a starting point higher up, lasting for maybe 20-40 minutes, circling around in the air like a bird before you land. But as for me, I had no time for that. In the end I made only 3 days of my initial 5, since I realised that I would not learn or do anything more than I already knew or did. Yes, after 2 hours of groundtraining on the first day I took of from the slope – and I flew! It is wonderful, but… I don’t know if something is wrong with me; anything adrenalinepumping I have tried out is not VERY fun after a while (Some things are even too scary for me to repeat – i.e. skydiving, of which 21 jumps is enough in my lifetime). I’m probably not ment to be an adrenalinejunkie, at least not in this life…

And the lack of security and peoples attitudes DID irritate me. O.K., my instructor was good: he knew what he was talking and teaching about – but other people there… Indian tourists walk up and down the slope that the paragliders are jumping from (I was far from alone there), they have picnics and play cricket on the field where you are supposed to land, the other “proffessional” paragliders take people for tandemrides and because of that the whole family has to come up the slope to cheer when the brave familymember takes of; thereby blocking or at least making the area more dangerously clustered for other paragliders waiting and wanting to start their flights… Quite a few times I was close to land on top of people walking on the grass where I was supposed to land, and since a paraglider is not a surgeonically precise tool to fly; especially while still being a student; it was often pure luck no one got hurt. But people just laughed and thought it funny that I was landing so close by… Also, the guys doing the tandemjumps want to make as many jumps as possible in a day (400 rupees a jump is good money in India), and so they too ignore the risks that there are. They spread their paragliders out almost on top of each others on the slope, and ruch to rig up and get ready to go, no one really keeping track of who’s in turn to jump.

There was indeed a smaller accident happening one day to a 10-12 year old boy, who’s father wanted his son to do a tandemjump. The paraglider collapsed (due to a slightly too strong sidewind; my instructor had told me, standing ready, not to take of yet), and the boy and “his” paraglider fell about 10 meters into a creft where the father could not see what the eventual injuries were. Other tandemparagliders ran there and soon assured the father, anxiously looking in that direction from where he and I stood, that the son was O.K. So what does the father do? He sends of his daughter with the next paraglider… She did come down well, but didn’t the son’s small accident make the father think twice…?

The Kullu valley, in which Manali is situated, is beautiful, and we also made a few trips from Manali itself to other villages in the valley. Naggar with a few small museums; one on local culture and the other on fascinating russian artist Roericht, who came and settled there in the first half of the last century. And the Beas river cuts very beautifully through the whole length of the valley…

After a week it was times to go on again: A 2 day bustrip up to Ladakhi village Leh, on 3505 meters. This road is said to be one of the most beautiful roadtrips in the world.

The bus leaves Manali at 6 am and arrives, hopefully, next day in the evening – if no accidents or breakdowns happen. On this trip we were about 12 westerners, about half of them israelis. Well, you fellow travellers probably know what a reputation israeli backpackers have, and how they indeed often behave rude. The busticket cost 1000 indian rupees (roughly 23 0, and on top of that a man who secured the luggage on the bus rooftop wanted 5 rupees (about 10 US cent). I tried laughing to avoid that by carrying mine and Kathrin’s bags to the rooftop myself, but no – everyone had to pay. This did not please the israelis though, of whom one aggressively refused to pay the older man his breadmoney. Kathrin and another german woman tried to calm the young guy down, but he shouted at them too that he “had lived in Bombay 2 years and so knew that everyone in India want’s to cheat you” (good argument for being unpolite towards the locals, eh?). He sought refuge amongst his fellow countrymen, all of them grumpy about the extra 5 rupees. I feel sorry for the “good” and “proper” Israeli travellers; guys like these are in a big majority amongst the travellers from that country. 20-22 years old and straight out of the 3 years army, now roaming the world wreaking havock everywhere they go. That in no way justifies bad behaviour though, and is even a bad excuse for it…

The scenery from the buswindow was magnificent, stunning, with ravines, snowcapped mountains, alproads winding their way through passes in the mountains. But although it was a luxurybus, one’s body is not ment to sit down for 2 days. The bus made quite frequent stops en route though, and don’t ask me why but during some of these I tried to give some better impressions to the raving israeli guy, although me and Kathrin had gotten our fair share of his morning anger. Maybe I tried to be some sort of messias, maybe I thought I could be nice myself and MAYBE he would realise and learn something – I could saw a seed in his mind… But afterwards I don’t know what might have gotten through to him. It turned out after a while that he had actually not lived in Bombay 2 years; he had only a few times visited his father there when his father was working there. A few more ridiculous things was said, and I felt it was of no use talking to this guy…

We spent the night at 4700 meters, and Kathrin now shook violently from the AMS-symptoms; Accute Mountai Sickness; that is. The air is thin up there, and every move makes you gasp for oxygen… An Australian woman was really bad, puking and having headache, but myself I had no problems at all. AMS is a strange sickness: you might have had no problems during 20 visits to high altitude, but the next time it hits you – you being superfit or not. There is nothing one can do but to get down to lower altitude and/or relax… Soon your body will get adjusted though, after a few days. None of the israeli guys suffered from this though, and so in group they attacked the tentcamp owner about the high (?) prices for the tents – 100 rupees, about 2,4 per person. Well, they knocked the price down 50 cent each after having surrounded and argued with the campmanager for 15 minutes.

Me myself I couldn’t be bothered to make an effort, or to make myself unpopular…

After having settled in our tents, but before dinner (I would eat, Kathrin stayed in the tent shaking in her sleepingbag), the israeli guy I had talked to during the day came up to me and asked a few questions about various things. When I told him Kathrin was sick he wondered if I was angry, and me thinking he ment about what I had seen of the israeli’s behaviour, answered truthfully “yeah, I’m sick and tired of israelis always having to argue about peanuts”. But it turned out he had wondered if I was angry because Kathrin was sick, and when that issue was sorted out and I had replied “of course not”, we had another discussion about the ways of israeli’s. His view was that israelis on average spend more money than the everyday backpacker, “for instance israelis always buy mineral water, but I have seen Canadians purify tap water”. That and similiar arguments as to why Israelis may behave badly finally made me realise that the guy was beyond saving…

Anyway, The next day on the bus was just as spectacular as the first, although the landscape now became more barren and rugged. Only following along the rivers in the valleys we passed there were grass and trees, the surroundings were all brown and grey stone. People we saw had changed too, from “typical” Indian to Tibetan, both in features and clothes.

Finally we arrived in Leh and found ourselves a guesthouse with good rooms for a modest price. We were to stay a week in Leh, just relaxing and doing daytrips from Leh itself to surrounding villages and Tibetan monasterys. The short summer makes Leh surprisingly warm, even hot, during the day, and shorts and linen can be worn. Although, tibetan monasteries wount let you in wearing that. The people are extremely friendly and you are everywhere met with a smile and a “Yule”, which is Ladakhi for “Hello”.

Ladakh is part of muslim Indian state Jammu & Kashmir (Actually, is that the name of two states or the combined name of one state – Does anyone of you guys out there know?), but in Ladakh 90% are Buddhist. J&K has recently been promised more autonomi from the central government in Delhi, but this has lead to demonstrations and strikes in Leh, where people fear that if autonomi is granted, then buddhism and buddhists will suffer more than if decissions are made in Delhi, as they are now. During our week there there was a demonstration and strike. For a full day ALL business went down in town – no shops, no restaurants, no taxi’s no nothing! Only airplanes landed and took of, and restaurants in hotels catered for their guests, but if you stayed in one without a kitchen… Luckily, everyone warns each other on the previous evening about the strike the following day, so one should not be caught out…

On this day of striking, people walked through town midday, carrying a doll of J&K leader Farook; a doll with a whiskeybottle at the waistbelt – clearly an insult to the muslim stateleader. Later the doll was burnt at the pologround, people cheered, and then everybody peacefully walked home…

Both me and Kathrin got stomachproblems in Leh, and so we went to a local tibetan doctor who gave us some rabbit-shit-like (and taste!) medicine for 5 days. They almost made me puke when I chewed them, and god knows what they contained, but at least I’m rid of the problem now…

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A Bus Adventure and Other Stories

Location: Gujarat State, India
Date: 2000-06-14

So; I left Varanasi with a train on the 13:th of May, heading for Gujarat State. Gujarat is situated between Rajastahn and Bombay/Mumbai, and so is frequently overlooked by most travelers who don’t even make a stop-over there, much less explore the state. But I wanted to see some of the things mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook and so, 36 hours later, I stepped out on the platform of state capital Ahmedabads railway station. That was not a very interesting town, and the few mosques there worth seeing I saw in a couple of hours, so I left already next day for Palitana, the small town at the base of Shatrunjaya hills. Here, 3000+ steps lead up to a gigantic temple complex, built by the Jains. Here an explanation would be in place:

There are not only Hindus in India, although they are the majority. There are also Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrianists, Christians and Jains. The Jains number only 4.5 million out of India’s population (that is now even officially over 1 billion), but their influence is much greater then their numbers. Generally, Jains are very successful in business and social life, and one of their main good deeds is to build temples for their “thirtankars”, or teachers, of which there has been a total of 17 (correct me if I am wrong) over the years the religion has existed. In their temples there are one or several white marble statues of these teachers, seated in a lotus position very much like a Buddha, but not with Buddha’s sleepy eyes. Instead they have staring eyes made of shiny metal, glued (?) on the face of the statue. The Jains are also very strict vegetarians and there are actually Jain monks that are so afraid of harming any life that they cover their mouth in order not to swallow even a fly by mistake. Some extremely orthodox monks even reject using clothes, but then they always stay inside the walls of a monastery…

That about Jains. So I started to climb up the steps, after having rented a robe to wear at the foot of the hill (no bare legs or arms allowed), and after having read the sign promising that there are “more then 862 temples on the hilltop” (There is 863). After 1 hour I arrived to the top where there is indeed one of the most impressing temple complexes I’ve ever seen: The Jains surely build the most beautiful temples in India! Fine details, good craftsmanship.

After having come down my knees hurt from the up and down walking… And I thought of Adam’s peak in Sri Lanka with its 5000+ steps that I had climbed only a month before. Still, I had one more hill to conquer, as you will see…

I then went to Diu, a small 13 by 5 km “big” island. Just like Goa, this used to be a Portuguese colony until 1963, when India re-took it in a short, unnecessary “war”. The Portuguese, since long time no more a world power, would have been only too happy to get rid of the island, but for some reason the Indians had to attack and bomb the airport there. Seven Indian soldiers lives wasted, all for an island they could and would happily been given… Politics… Today, a monument in Diu town commemorates the heroes.

Anyway, the good thing about Diu these days is the free flow of alcohol- there are no taxes, and so a beer costs about a third of what it costs in many other Indian states. The state of Gujarat, that surrounds Diu on the mainland, is a totally dry state, with no bars nor alcohol shops (Diu is actually not part of Gujarat but instead a Union territory under Delhi administration, therefore the possibility of cheap alcohol there-just over the bridge from Gujarat and the mainland). But to take any alcohol with you to the mainland and Gujarat is forbidden: the police searches everyone’s luggage (admittedly not very thoroughly) when one is leaving the island. This results in heavy drinking taking place amongst some Indians visiting the island: the fact that Gujarat is a dry state doesn’t mean people stop drinking. For instance, I once saw in a restaurant a man sitting alone drinking one of the oh so popular really strong beers here in India; one in the same category as beers named “Knock out”, “Punch” and whatever they call them. His own money seemed to be finished, because he asked the couple at the next table to buy him his next beer, and since he didn’t seem to be drunk or wasn’t in any way annoying, they did so. After having emptied half the new bottle in a few minutes he thanked them by puking on the floor in between his and their table…

Diu itself is, as I said a former Portuguese colony, but hasn’t got as much to remind you about it as does Goa. A few churches that are either falling apart or as in one case is converted into a hospital, that’s about all. But there are some decent beaches, a nice fishing village at the western end of the island, and wall surrounding Diu town and a few other things, and I explored the island one day on a rented moped. Went around it twice and had lobster-colored arms and legs from the sun…

I then went on to Junagadh, where I was supposed to once again climb up steps, this time more than 7000, up to some more temples on hills. Oh, why did the Indians prefer to build their temples on hilltops? Well, no pain no gain I guess, and maybe some god up there will be happy I made it… I made a few drink stops on the way up, and thought of the poor sellers carrying the stuff up here on their backs every day! No wonder they charged a little extra for the Pepsi… I couldn’t help feeling a little bit disappointed at the top, finding only a half-meter high statue of a Hindu god up there, surrounded by three high sadhu’s asking me to join them in their smoking session. Well, the clouds were breaking up and the views were good. On my way down I had a chat with a modern Bombay guy aged 22, who wanted to know what kind of tablets I was taking to get so big calves, what soap and body spray I used, what workout I did to stay so fit, how well equipped “my” gym was… He was surprised I didn’t do any workout at all, he was convinced everybody in Europe did it-he had read that in a magazine! Well, carrying a backpack is enough to make anyone fit, I reckon…

In Junagadh I was also treated to something that has never happened to me anywhere else in India. As I said Gujarat state is very little visited, and probably because of this, people are very friendly towards you as a tourist. Even the guys that are normally the tourists worst nightmare: The rickshaw drivers (And you who have been here know how annoying they can be!), were nice-I even got two free rides in town!

Yes, Junagadh was very much my favorite town in Gujarat, also because the architecture in town, the easygoing people, the calm atmosphere, the friendly hotel owner who let me use his private computer for internet. No internet cafes around… Too sad though that the Sassan Gir lion sanctuary was closed for counting the lions. As with the rhino, there is an African and an Asian version of the lions too (no big difference but even so), and I would have liked to see them here in their last wild place in Asia…

I then went to Jamnagar for no other reason then to visit the temple currently holding the world record for chanting. They started on 1:st of August 1964 with saying “Sri ram sri ram jaj jaj ram” in various melodically ways, and they are still going strong, night and day… A sign in the temple announced it now being 13076:th day in a row they were at it… Quite a thing to see the crowd of 30 or so people in the temple going on, while a few of them played on Indian instruments to accompany the chanting…

The whole town is very proud of them being in the Guinness book of records for this slightly, at least for western eyes, crazy reason. It also seem to have grasped some of the inhabitants and spurred them to new fantastic deeds. When walking towards the temple several people had stopped me and without any questions just pointed and said “the temple is this way”. One of these men who stopped me turned out to be a record holder himself: Very proudly he explained to me that since two years back he held the current world record for floating in water; “36 hours with arms and legs tied together”. Amazing, I thought to myself, what an extraordinary achievement…

Then it was time to get real far out from it all: To Bhuj in the Kutch or Kachchh desert, and close to the Pakistan-India border. According to the Lonely Planet, the surrounding villages to the north are well worth a visit, and the necessary police permit was said to be free. But: the same day I was at the police station to get the permit they told me that from that day on a permit costs 300something not even the previously visited Tourist Information had had a clue about. The villages might be well worth a visit, but not 30.. Instead I went to a village south of Bhuj to see what it and the local tribes people were like. The women are almost as colorfully dressed as the women of Rajastahn, and I had a nice day, talking to shop owners and passersby and customers, smiling at the tribal folks and town dwellers alike…

And Bhuj itself wasn’t such a bad place, with a nice palace and adjoining museum. The ongoing draught in Gujarat had emptied the lake in the center of town, just like it had done in Jamnagar with the temple, and so it wasn’t as picturesque as it could have been, but anyway…

Also, food in Gujarat is very delicious due to the Jain’s vegetarianism. A Gujarati thali is a gourmets feast. Thali’s might be known by you as the food of the south (of India), where they are very common. Basically, it is a metal plate (or in simpler places a banana leaf), with a heap of rice, 3-5 vegetable dishes in smaller heaps, a few chapati breads and maybe a little something more-i.e. a sweet or some curd. In Gujarat a thali is never served on a banana leaf (no banana trees in Gujarat), slightly more expensive then in the south, but it’s better tasting and most vegetable mixes taste slightly sweet. I had one almost every day while in Gujarat…

Also unique for Gujarat are the black Indians, called siddis; a subdivision of the untouchables (the cast system still exists in India with the untouchables being the lowest on the scale, doing menial labor like cleaning the streets, butchery etc.). India and Africa have for 100:s of years have a big trade between them, and not only did Indians move to the east coast of Africa like Kenya Tanzania and Uganda; black people were also brought to India (probably as slaves although I haven’t read anything on the subject). Even today they are not mixed with the Indians but clearly look like Africans, the only thing being they are since generations Indians. One of the bigger immigrants groups in India, I’m sure, India not having very much immigration…

It was time to leave Gujarat and I did so on a bus to just across the border into Rajastahn, where I went to the cool Mt Abu, Rajastahns only hill station. With a temperature much cooler then the plains below one could walk in long trousers. But I was the only white face: the only other tourists were HOARDS of Indian honeymooners walking up and down the streets and down by the lake, going hand in hand and in pairs to popular sunset points were they meet about 200 other pairs looking for privacy… Or having their photographs taken by the lake in the center of town by one of the street photographers. If one wants to, one can then have the photo manipulated so that the two faces are hovering in the clear blue sky above the picturesque lake; or why not have your two faces smiling in an empty champagne glass? Quite kitsch, I thought. A few times I was asked to join people (never couples though) in their photos-something that only happens in a non-touristy area. I wonder though, what happens to the photos later? Is it really exciting to show a photo of a westerner to your friends and family and explain that “when I went to Mt Abu, I met this Swedish guy by the lake…”? However, Mt Abu does have something worth going there fore (apart from escaping the heat): one of the best temples in India, also a Jain one. Not 863 of them, only two that are really outstanding, but never ever have I anywhere in the world seen suck marble carvings! Too bad photography is forbidden since 6 years back, though…

My plans then were to go to a few more places in and around Rajastahn before ending in Delhi a week later, but instead I met such nice people in my first stop Udaipur (which I also visited in 1994), that I ended up staying there a week. It was low season, many hotels were closed and even more restaurants so, I didn’t re-see anything I saw in 1994, instead I sat on the same rooftop restaurant day after day playing chess, cards, talking, eating, relaxing… One day though, Kenyan Jan showed me how to ride a 350 cc Indian Enfield Bullet motorcycle, and with me at the steering wheel we went about 20 km west of town, on narrow roads up hills and through very small villages. A nice ride and a nice day, and I also learned that a new bike with some extra equipment and new front wheel with more powerful break costs less then 20000Something to contemplate for my next trip here… On a bike one really gets to not-so-visited areas, and I must say I envy Jan and al other bikers for that. Well well, next time…

I took an overnight bus here to Delhi, and only 5 hours before departure it turned out that Aussie Steve from the Udaipur rooftop restaurant had booked himself on the same semi deluxe bus. We had both paid 220 rupees instead of cheaper 200; we both wanted to manage as much sleep as possible on the bus in order not to arrive half dead in Delhi 12 hours later. Departure was at 6 PM, and together we took a rickshaw to the bus company’s office. No bus at 6 and the Indians hanging around started to drop off… Soon our 2 tickets were changed for 2 new tickets, and we were shown around the corner to a bus that didn’t look much like a semi-deluxe bus. But we were in good mood and only laughed at having been tricked on board a crappier bus then we had paid for. “It’s India”, we said to each other. After all, it was low season and maybe “our” company didn’t have enough passengers for their bus? Turns out the seats would not recline, and the sign outside the bus company’s office promising “no video no music” (knowing what western tourists dislike) was wrong-although the radios volume wasn’t annoyingly high. Also, the original fare for the bus was 175 rupees, so the bus company had cheated us off 1 US . But the bus was leaving and we were still laughing about it all between us… Some of the Indian passengers (the rest of the bus) were getting grumpy though… And al during the night more and more Indian passengers got more and more upset. Not only was this not the promised bus people had originally paid for (we all seemed to have been fooled into this bus from various bus companies), it was also much slower then the bus that was first promised taking 12 hours. This was a 17-18 hour trip, and some passengers would now miss important appointments. For instance, a young girl explained to us two that she had exams in Delhi at nine next morning. A man was shouting at the driver at every stop, and the crowd was getting very irritated. The only two calm people were me and Steve. True, if I would have been alone on the bus, I too would have been swearing and sweating over the issue (for no other reason than the fact that I hate being fooled; not because it was important for me to arrive in Delhi at a specific time). It was a good experience though; makes one realize that it is not only we white people that are being cheated here in India, as many backpacker tend to think. It happens to everyone, Indian and foreigner alike. Dog eats dog, as they say…

And now I have been to Delhi for more then a week, getting visa for Pakistan and investigating where to go next. Soon I will leave for Himalayas and the mountain cool in the north of Delhi, and after a month it’s Pakistan. Then we will see if I can make my dream come true and get into Afghanistan or Maybe, just maybe, “With a little help from my friends” as Beatles sang… More about that in the future!

All the best to everyone!

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Travel update and some funny reflections

Location: Varanasi, India
Date: 2000-05-12

Hello there everybody!

First an update and then some travelers reflections upon travel…

I am in Varanasi, India, at the moment, and it is really TOO hot, temperatures reaching almost 40 degrees Celsius in the shadow in the afternoons. As you might remember, last time you guys heard from me I was in Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. I think that when I wrote to you last time, I was about to climb the Adams peak the coming weekend. Kathrin, a girl I had met in Colombo, came to Kandy for the weekend (she works in Sri Lanka), and we set off with three different buses to get to Dalhousie, where more than 5000 steps leads up to the top. The peak itself is holy for many religions. Christians believe this was the mountain where Adam first set foot on earth after having been cast out from heaven. Hindu’s think it is the footprint of Shiva. Buddhists thinks it’s the footprint of Buddha himself. We (the 5 tourists staying in the same guesthouse in Dalhousie) got up at 2 in the night for a light breakfast before we set of, amongst hundreds of locals doing the walk up there as a pilgrimage. But, having read our Lonely Planet guidebooks only too well, the group of us tourists scrambling up the steps only thought of the nice sunrise up there totally forgetting to get into the small temple at the top to see the famous footprint in the rock. Completely wet from sweat we arrived up at the top (2224 meters) after 2 hours 10 minutes, and luckily two other tourists in our group had spare clothes to give me and Kathrin it was FREEZING cold! Anyway, back down again at the guesthouse, the owner there showed us a homemade video from the mountaintop, and also the footprint. It’s almost 1 meter long, so Adam, if it is his footprint, must have been a real giant.

Me, Kathrin and a Venezuelan Brit. John, all of us having stayed at the same guesthouse in Dalhousie, got a lift to Hatton with the other 2 guys who had stayed there and scrambled to the top with us. From Hatton we got the train back to Kandy, and John being excellent in talking with and convincing people, managed to get the staff in the restaurant wagon to buy us some beers we could consume while riding the train for 4 hours. Normally beer isn’t served on Sri Lankan trains, but as I wrote, John was good at getting extra service here and there… A couple of days in Kandy resting our aching legs, and then it was time to say goodbye to Kathrin, who had to go back to work in the capital, Colombo. It’s oh so sad to say goodbye…

Then I traveled a loop on Sri Lanka to see some ancient cities and Buddhist caves and monuments. I bought a round trip ticket for these places in Kandy, as it is cheaper to buy a ticket for 8 different sights there then it is to pay for the individual sights at the spot. Still, not exactly cheap at 32.50 US but as they say on Sri Lanka when faced with a problem: What to do?

So I set of in company with this Venezuelan Brit. John, and on the first day went through the 5 caves at Dambulla, where there are reclining Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, painted Buddhas on the walls and ceilings, etc. etc. Impressive. Then on to Sigiriya, where once upon a time the Sri Lankan ruler built a fortress on top of a 200 meters high cliff on a plain. Anything to escape the invading Indians. There is not much left of the ruins on top, but the breeze was excellent after the sweaty climb up there. Before sunset me and John had managed to hitchhike our way to Polonnaruwa as well, but that one we left to be seen on the next day. Polonnaruwa was seen in about 4-5 hours, and then we got to the bus station to get to Anuradhapura. The bus took time to arrive even to the bus station, and while waiting John felt he was ruined out, and so took a bus back to Kandy. I finally got on an Anuradhapura bus, snoozed for the four hour trip, checked in to a hotel and dropped dead on the bed.

Next day I spent almost entirely on a rented bike, cycling from 7 in the morning until 15 in the afternoon. More ruins, but not so much of castles or temples as in Polonnaruwa, more of dagobas and stupas (Buddhist monuments) scattering the landscape. Hot and burned nicely lobstered I then took a bus, not to Kandy as first planned, but instead to Colombo for a last goodbye to Kathrin. The next morning she was due to fly back to Germany, getting a taxi to the airport very early at 4 am, and I actually managed to stay awake until then. But the bus ride back in to town, and the bus later on between Colombo and Kandy — I fell into deep and well deserved sleep both times.

In Kandy again, where Indian bureaucracy made me have to wait for my new Indian 6-month visa for a full 7 working days. I had applied already on the 20th of April, but with Good Friday and Workers day, 7 working days came to 12 de facto days, including the weekends. Now I went to the embassy already after 5 working days, hoping that they had already received an, O.K. from the Indian embassy in Stockholm. A message that they could indeed issue me with a new visa (Indian embassies always check via fax that you have to pay for with your home country, that it is O.K. to give you a visa). But no, they had not yet received a fax reply from Sweden. I had the following dialogue with the madam at the reception: No reply, but come back on Tuesday, then we will give you a visa regardless if we have a reply or not?!? So, if it is in fact not necessary to await a reply, why can’t you give me a visa today then…. No sir, that is impossible.

So much for flexibility. I killed time quite well in Kandy though, going to the Pub for western style dinners paying with the plastic card, chatting away with the other guests at the Pink House Guesthouse and in general just relaxing. When I finally had my visa stamped into my passport, a second problem awaited me — the fact that all seats for the flight from Colombo to Trivandrum in southern India were full. Air Lanka wanted me to pay extra for business class, which always has free seats, but at that moment a certain, not too common, flash of intelligence occurred in my brain. I asked how much extra it would cost to fly to Madras/Chennai instead, and as it turned out to be cheaper, of course I booked a seat there for the next morning.

And so on the 3rd of May I was once again on Indian soil. I got a train to Bhubaneshwar, Orissa state, and as soon as I could I left the rather dull city of Madras. I saw the many typical Orissan temples of Bhubaneshwar, but being a non-Hindu, I could only look in from a platform built right by the surrounding wall around the most impressive temples. The same platform was once upon a time built for Lord Curzon, and is still in use today. Impressive temple structures in there. On to the most famous one of the Orissan temples that very same day. The huge sun temple of Konark. It must have been a very impressive building once upon a time, as it still is today, although most of the carvings on the sides are rather worn down by weather and wind. Still, some of the erotica, resembling what there is to see in more famous Khajuraho, is well worth studying. It really makes you wonder if people were more gymnastic/elastic in those days. Some of the positions displayed are just a little bit too advanced to master without breaking a bone or two in your body.

I stayed two nights in Puri, also on the Indian East Coast and also part of the so called “Orissa state triangle,” which is what most people see of Orissa state. The hot pre-monsoon weather has scared away most of the tourists though, and Puri was almost empty of them. Then I took the train here to Varanasi, where I once again met up with my friend David, the Dutch chef/globetrotter whom I first met in Uganda in November. Good to see each other again, but yesterday evening he left for Khajuraho. I’ll have to kill this day and tomorrow somehow, and then I’m off to Gujarat state. A state that the Indian press describes as having a severe water shortage at the moment. We’ll see how I’ll survive. In worst case: no showers for the next coming weeks.


I have written it before and I’ll write it again: one of the best places to meet ordinary Indians (as compared to the touts, rickshaw drivers, hotel owners, self-acclaimed guides etc. that are always pestering you), is on board the trains. On the train from Puri here to Varanasi, I shared almost the entire carriage with a group of 50 tamils from Coimbatore, in Tamil nadu state. They were on a one month pilgrimage tour, and had only just started with Puri. I myself had been a bit unlucky, not managing to get a confirmed berth on the train, but they helped me to plea for the conductor, and so I got a berth amidst them. We then sat talking with each other on and off during the afternoon and had a good time. It turned out that they had brought their own chef with them, so later on when the cook and some of the pilgrims helping him went through the carriage carrying big pots from which they scooped up food on the pilgrims respective plates, the pilgrims also managed to find a plate for me. The cook gave me some food, but most food I got from the pilgrims sitting in my group of 6 berths. Everyone of them offered some of their food to me, and so I was eating a delicious south Indian meal. A small boy of maybe ten even came from another “compartment” a bit further away with one of his chapati breads, and gave it to me while putting his hand on my shoulder saying “eat!” Afterwards we sat talking a little bit longer, until at around eight p.m. all the pilgrims went to bed at almost the same time. I too crept up to my upper berth. But the sleep that I got didn’t last long. An hour or so later I was woken up by the nasal voice of a man walking through the carriage waking everybody up with his loud “CHAI! CHAI!” This didn’t please the sleeping pilgrims, who stopped the man midway through the carriage, explaining to him that we all wanted to sleep in peace. So from then on until the next morning, no seller dared to open his mouth in that wagon again. What a relief! At four thirty in the morning the pilgrims got of the train and I was, for the first time ever, in an Indian train that was almost completely empty. That too felt odd.


When I was in Pondicherry, in Southern India, about two months ago, another funny thing happened to me. I was walking down the street in the evening in company with a Dutch girl called Helen, when a roaring and growing noise from behind made us turn around. From around the corner came a guy on a big motorcycle of a well known brand. Black metal, lots of chrome, and a high handle. The driver was wearing black Levis 501’s and black sunglasses although it was already about nine o’clock and dark. He had a big black beard and his hair was black too, with only a few strays of grey, and it was pulled back in a ponytail. He stopped his bike right in front of us and let the powerful engine die out. He had big red stickers with swastikas both on the front and the back of the motorcycle, and at least he LOOKED a bit frightening. Hells angels? Should we have started to run? No, this was in India, and the man was just a devoted Hindu who had come for his evening prayers in the temple that Helen and I had just passed. With a smile he asked if we wanted to come with him inside of it?

Half an hour later all three of us were sitting in an ice cream parlor. Now the man had started to become rather annoying. In a more and more pleading way he was trying to convince Helen that instead of leaving town tomorrow, she should join him for a 5 day meditation course. He kept talking about how “her aura” was sending out signals that she should stay, “I can feel it!” He also said that it wasn’t just coincidence that had made her choose to come to India, something bigger made the choice for her. Helen tried to stop his argumentation by saying that she had actually won the flight ticket in a competition, but that made the man even more excited. With wildly opened eyes he pushed himself away from the table and towards the back of his chair, looking her straight in her eyes and saying with great excitement: “GOD HIMSELF has chosen you to come to India!”

Soon after that we left him in the ice cream parlor.

Oh, the well known brand of the motorcycle? No, not a Harley-Davidson. An Indian Enfield Bullet.


Lets go even further back in time and I’ll tell you what happened on the boat “Mahsood” while cruising a river in Bangladesh. This was in beginning of March this year.

“Mahsood” plies a route between capital Dhaka and Khulna (and vice versa) in Bangladesh, and the service is also called “The Rocket.” Not so much because of the speed, I guess. The boat is a paddle wheeler, although nothing compared with the ones on Mississippi. Still, it is a relaxing 24 hour trip to do when you either have entered Bangladesh from India and Calcutta, or when you are about to leave the country to that same town. I had reserved a berth in a two-person first class cabin. When we set of from Dhaka at 6 p.m. sharp (first and only time in Bangladesh anything ever got going exactly on time), the dinner was soon served in the air conditioned dining room, from which doors led to the 12 first-class cabins. The staff was dressed in their uniforms and there was an air of luxury hanging in the air, at least an air. Next morning when I woke up, I decided to take a closer look of the boat. I left first class and mingled with the poor Bangladeshies in third class, squeezed together everywhere where there was an empty space on the floor. I went down to have a look at the impressive engines (not covered at all, resulting in a great noise and, no doubt, someone sooner or later having an arm ripped off or crushing some fingers in the moving parts of the machine). But an even higher noise came from the back of the boat.

There, two alleged thiefs were bound with their arms behind their backs, and now the crowds were demanding justice. A man told me that they were accused of having stolen 7000 Taka from a fellow passenger (approximately 140 US0, and that passenger was now the one who was to deliver the punishment. An old man in the crowd handed this younger man his walking stick, and so the younger man started to beat the thieves in a quite brutal way. Still, the walking stick wasn’t really efficient enough, the “judge” decided, and so someone brought a big bamboo stick to him. Over two meters long and with a diameter of about 4-5 centimeters. The thieves were now lying down on the ground, knees pulled up to their chins. “Mr Justice” pulled the lungi (sort of male skirt you wrap around your waist, very common in Bangladesh, south India and Malaysia for instance) and underwear of one of the thieves, and kept beating them, now with the much heavier and stronger stick. When the almost naked thief started bleeding from his buttocks, the oppressor put his finger in the wounds (AIDS? What is that?), and then smeared the blood into the thiefs eyes and face. Fellow passengers seemed to enjoy the show; I saw several of them smiling at the scene, and some helped the man to beat up the assumed thieves when he himself needed a break. Someone brought the brave avenger a plastic jar of drinking water, while another man stood on the stomach of one of the thieves, slightly jumping into the air to get more weight behind his punishment. The thieves were crying and coughing, they had problems breathing but the stick was mercilessly pushed to their stomachs while the punishment kept going on for maybe half an hour.

All of a sudden from around the corner came a short man who went straight up to the punisher and tried to wriggle the bamboo stick out of his hands. I first thought it was another passenger who wanted to have a go at the thieves, but the stick wasn’t handed over. Instead, from around the corner, came maybe five more men, and they all jumped on the guy who had earlier been beating up the thieves, and whom everybody, as far as I could understand, had seen as the poor victim of a crime, only measuring out his punishment. Now it was his turn to be beaten. The five men literally jumped on his back to get him down on the floor, one bit his ear in his best Tyson-style so that it started bleeding, while the stick and peoples elbows were used to hit him in the back. Soon the young man was forced down in a small boat that no one had noticed had anchored right next to the paddle wheeler that had by now stopped. The young man looked very confused, clearly not having expected to be beaten himself, and was now taken to the shore where I could see some policemen waiting for him.

Well folks, I guess that has to be it. Back out into the beating heat,
Hannu

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Postcard from Sri Lanka

I’m in Sri Lanka, a beautiful egg-shaped island southeast of India. Long sandy palm beaches, nice waves, cooler up in the hills, smiling short people. But before I got here, I was in Calcutta, which is where you last heard from me…

I took the train to Madras/Chennai to meet up with a friend I met in Johannesburg last year. Odd to meet again after such a long time, we both agreed, since she had been working in Dublin and I have been traveling endlessly. We spent a few days together seeing Madras, Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry before she decided she’d rather travel on her own. Nothing wrong with that; I prefer traveling on my own too; after all, you get to experience more by doing that.

In Mahabalipuram I stayed in the same place I had stayed in back in 1995. “Erwin Danussi Cottages,” run by 59 year-old Frieda. She’s a bit of a mother-type, takes good care of you and makes sure you are happy. And, most amazing: she remembered me from 5 years back! Not immediately, but after I told her I had stayed there 5 years ago and said I was from Sweden, she burst out “The postman! Where is the parcel you promised to send?”

True, I had indeed promised to send a box of Swedish stuff to her, but as most of you know by now, my diary from that time (with her address in it) was stolen in 1995. The same diary that was given back to me this year in Calcutta, by the man who in 1995 found it on the Varanasi-Calcutta train. Now I showed Frieda my old diary and what I had written in it at the time, and she showed me her visitors’ book from 1995 with my comments. Well, this time I will make sure she gets a Swedish packet with some goodies…

Well, from Pondicherry onwards I traveled on my own to Trivandrum in Kerala where I met up with the Dutch chef/globetrotter David, whom I had first met in Uganda in November of 1999. Nice meeting up again and I got his guidebook for Sri Lanka, from where he had just arrived back to the mainland, plus loads of info. I then booked a ticket on the fully booked flights to Sri Lanka. I had to wait 9 days for a free seat, and so David and I spent a few days on the beach of Kovalam, before he took off for Calcutta/Nepal and I spent my last days in India in Kodaikanal, at the cool altitude of 2000 meters.

On the 7th of April I landed here, and got 30 days to see the Island. I went to the gem city Ratnapura and found out what star-rubies are all about – a Sri Lankan specialty; gemstones that show a star when lit up!

The following loooooong weekend I spent on the beaches of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. At Hikkaduwa I did a dive, but this time I definitely decided it is NOT my cup of tea. I got down with great pain in my ears for the first 5-10 minutes, and came up with my nose slightly bleeding. Unawatuna is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. And it sure looked like paradise…

And I also celebrated: on the 12th of April it was two years since I left Sweden. A cold beer and a good dinner, I think I deserved it…

It was a long weekend because of the Tamil and Hindu New Year on April 13 and 14. People went back from the towns to their home villages to meet up with their families and relatives. Sri Lanka is said to be the country with the most public holidays in the world. For instance, every full moon is a holiday for religious reasons. So are the Christian holidays such as Good Friday and Workers Day. All these holidays mean you have to really plan your bank visits and when to go to museums and when to go and see sights and attractions.

Since then I have been up to the hills for a while. The monsoon is soon to arrive in Sri Lanka, and temperatures at sea level are HOT! The hills of Sri Lanka are cool though, and the big parts are covered with that most famous of Sri Lankan exports – tea! Rolling hills as far as you can see -beautiful! And in Haputale, where I spent a couple of nights, old Mrs. Queenie Daniels became my mother for a few days, calling me “son” and making sure I ate enough of her home-cooked specialties. Probably gained a kilo or two there…

The train is the nicest transport you can use in Sri Lanka, going along hill slopes and through endless tunnels through mountainsides, with awesome views. I took the train to Kandy after Haputale, and that’s where I am now. Here there is a temple where they have one of Buddhas tooth’s in a gold casket; I’ll see it tomorrow. Or at least it’s said to contain a tooth – story goes that the Portuguese, who ruled here years ago, once stole it away
and burned it in Goa/India. “Not true,” say the Buddhists though, “that was just a fake one” – the real one is still in the casket. Who knows? One is not allowed to check…

Anyway, it’s been a long day and Internet costs money too. I hope to get back to you guys soon!

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Calcutta India Again

2000-08-03

A little bit on Bangladesh…

So I am back in India and Calcutta, after 3 1/2 weeks in Bangladesh. It feels good to be out of it actually. I’ll explain why…

In Bangladesh ordinary people got on my nerves… Sorry to say, but it’s true.

At the end I just could not cope that well any more with the constant staring and shouting and following around of, or at, you — the foreigner. Yes I know, it’s all done out of curiosity and sure it’s meant to be friendly, but… I felt a bit stressed by the end. In Bangladesh, there’s nothing wrong with staring at someone, and naturally you are the month’s big attraction when you turn up in town.

But crowds of 30 following you around, looking at everything you do, cramming in on you and encircling you as soon as you stop… Phew, it does get annoying after a while. Nothing is private. If you stop to have a look in your guidebook, everyone on the street peers over your shoulder, if you stop to look in a kiosk, everyone comes rushing to see what you will buy.

And also the constant shouting as you walk down the road. Someone on the other side of the street shouts “Hello, friend!” and when you turn your head someone passing you on a bike says (or rather shouts to you) “what is your name?” while whizzing by, and before you have smiled and waved back at the first guy someone from a shop on the other side of you shouts “Hello! Come here!” to you, probably to invite you for tea, and by now you have waved and smiled at the first guy and start turning your head to the shop owner, but before having shook your head “No thank you” to his invitation, someone runs up to you from behind and starts walking next to you. That person starts asking the same tedious questions as everyone in Bangladesh that knows a little bit of English, and you sigh and answer “Sweden”, “Hannu”, “Yes, I am just a tourist here”, “My fathers name is Kurt”, “no I am not a muslim, I’m born christian” etc. etc… This is about all the discussion most people in Bangladesh engage you in… While you are answering these questions some people who want to hear the answers come rushing and start following. They probably just want to hear you talk — most likely they won’t understand English and the person speaking with you will have to repeat it all in Bangla to them. Some of the persons who came running and who DO speak English start asking you the same questions over again, still others shout to you from the sidewalks of the street going “Hi Englishman” or “Hello! Hi!” or “Hello uncle/bother/baby(!)” and there’s just no end to it….

So, PHEW, it’s a release to be in Calcutta where they have seen a foreigner before and you can actually walk in your own thoughts…

Anyway, I am happy I went there but I don’t think I’ll return. At least not in the near future.

There is not that much to see or do in Bangladesh, and few people go there. I think I met about 6-7 other tourists while there. Even the tourist bureau admits this — their official posters say “come before the tourists come”! And I can see why people don’t come: there just isn’t much to see, especially with such a magnificent pearl as India to explore next door. Historical temples and mosques are almost all left to fall into ruins. Same with the Raj-era mansions. There’s no great nature and wildlife. The food is very bland and as I’ve written above, people WILL get on your nerves…

In 3 1/2 weeks you actually have time to see almost all of the sights there are. Some of the best sights I saw though, were of the more “no-touristy” type: like the shipwrecking beaches north of Chittagong, where big tankers bought up from around the world are driven on shore and then dissembled – almost entirely by hand! It takes about a year to completely destroy a tanker, and everything from inside them are sold in shops along the main highway between Dhaka and Chittagong. One shop sells sinks from the kitchens, another one flags, a third sells all varieties of chairs from the bars and restaurants on board, a fourth sells pipes, a fifth sells life jackets, a sixth sells toilet seats… It’s amazing how many things are on a ship. And at the end, big thick steel plates from the ships body are loaded on trucks and driven away to be melted down and reused…

Another great thing to have seen are all the bicycle rickshaws in the capital Dhaka. There is an estimated 400,000 rickshaws plying the streets, and that makes it the rickshaw capital of the world — by far outnumbering any city in India. The rickshaws here are also the world’s most decorated ones, with metal sheets at the back with prints from Bangla movies, and the canopy is decorated with patterns and flowers of canvas and on the canvas, while the rest of the bike is just full of brightly colored plastic stripes and brightly painted flowers etc. And to see mainly them causing a massive traffic jam for kilometers of a six-file road is truly something to see from a walking bridge above it. And to hear as well! The sound of not that many car horns, but from hundreds of bicycle bells!

Bangladesh is also riddled by big wild strikes, called hartaals. Actually, it was Mahatma Gandhi who invented this form of protest. In his time it was a means of showing the British that ALL the Indians were serious about their demands. Basically, the idea was that EVERYBODY laid down their work for a full day; absolutely NOBODY worked or opened their shop or drove the bus or did ANYTHING. Must have been a peaceful great silent massive protest in those days…

But today Gandhi would probably rotate in his grave if he knew how it works in Bangladesh. There, it is the political parties fighting each others that call for these strikes, to get the ruling party to step down and get into power themselves. The opposition says that day so and so there will be a hartaal, usually from 6 am to 6 pm, and they want nobody to work that day — no matter whether you vote for the opposition or support the ruling party! To make sure this happens, they send out groups of bullies on the streets, that sometimes do anything to ensure people don’t go to work. If they find you on the street they might humiliate you by forcing you to undress completely, or they might beat you to death. Shop owners don’t dare to keep open, the bullies might smash the windows. People don’t drive and buses don’t go anywhere — the vehicles might get smashed. Riot police are there to protect every street corner, but still things happen. It’s just total anarchy, one could say. There was a hartaal in the country, called for by the opposition party while I was there, on the 28th of February. Since I was told it’s safe for foreigners to walk the streets — we are obviously not going to work — I went out on the streets of Dhaka. The strike was not a full success, although the opposition party insisted so in the papers the next day. The streets of Dhaka were only half empty of traffic (almost no private cars though), and quite a few of the shops stayed open. There was police everywhere, but I saw nothing more than a loud demonstration take place. In the papers the next day I could read that 4 people had died from bombs thrown into buses in the capital, but otherwise the day was quoted as having been quite calm. From other people — NGO’s and others whom I met that were there for a long time — I heard that Bangladesh has great economical problems because of these hartaals. A lot of working days are lost, 30 of them in 1999. Which is said to have been a year with exceptionally few strikes! Business contracts from abroad are broken because the country’s factories can’t deliver in time, and a missionary couple I met up in the north of the country said that a couple of years ago there was an almost completely successful hartaal going on for a month!

Finally I’ll tell you a funny story that a Swedish missionary I met told me. He had been in the country for 10 years and so spoke the local language almost fluently. He was stationed in the north, and told me what happened a few years ago…

From the distant and isolated villages on the other, northern side, of the river, and closer to the India-Bangladesh border, an older man came to see the missionary. He told him that a foreigner had turned up in his village a few days ago. A white man who claimed he was Scottish; therefore his not so easily understood English. The Scotsman had explained that he had had all his money and belongings stolen, and now he was walking from village to village begging money for a busticket to Dhaka, so that he could get help from his embassy. The villagers had, of course, taken pity on him and had given him food and a place to stay for a while, and also some money. “But why doesn’t he come here, to the town”, the missionary wondered, “We would help him”? The old man said they had suggested that to the Scotsman, but he had replied he didn’t want to go to town. Very strange, the missionary thought, and kept talking a bit more with the villager about the case. Suddenly it dawned on him what it was all about: It was indeed a white man, but not a foreigner, walking around amongst the northern villages. Instead, it was an albino that had found a way of income! The missionary told the old villager to go back to his village and tell the ” Scotsman ” that the people from the missionary house would come to get him the next day. Of course the “Scotsman ” had left as soon as that was mentioned to him…

Well, well folks, I’ll stop there. Tomorrow I’ll leave for Chennai where a friend of mine will be arriving from Europe on Sunday morning. I’ll write more to you about my adventures soon…

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A few reflections on everyday life in India, as a traveler.

2000-02-17

Hi there everybody!

FINALLY I have managed to find an Internet cafe with a connection, so now, a few days delayed, I will send this message. Hope you enjoy it. (GOD it became a long one!)

One of the delights of being a man in India is the economical possibility of a real old-time shave at a barbershop. I have no clue what it would cost to have a barber shave you in Sweden, but in India the cost is very low indeed. Depending on if you are in a town or smaller village, inside a real shop or out on the street holding the small mirror up yourself while squatting down, the cost varies between 12 to 45 US cents (1-4 Swedish krona).

First of all, lather is richly applied to your cheeks and chin. Then a new sharp blade is put into the razor (better be sure about that part due to AIDS!). Then the shaving starts, so close to your skin it almost hurts. When this is done once, lather is applied again and the process is repeated. If you have a goatee and a moustache, like I do, then the borderlines of it is shaved very exactly, with great care taken to the shape of the beard and moustache and their outer lines. You are even shaved the millimeter between you nose and moustache, the millimeter between your moustache and upper lip, and the millimeter between your lower lip and beard. The barber feels with the upper side of his hand if he has missed anything anywhere on your cheeks and chin, and if he has, plain water is applied and that area is shaved again with extra care, stretching the skin out as if your face was made of rubber.

Then soothing cream is applied, in dots, not only where you have been shaved, but also on your nose and forehead. The barber massages the cream into your skin, quite briskly, giving your eyebrows and forehead a separate massage. Then your cheeks and chin gets the same attention. Finally, after-shave is applied, and you may leave the saloon/street-side stall barber feeling smoother than ever before. It actually takes you a day or two to feel the straws grow out again.

Aaah, it is a lovely feeling.


One could actually, if one would like to and at least in theory, live one’s whole life on Indian trains, only leaving them for a wash at the platform taps during a longer time on some bigger station. What I mean is that everything is supplied for by salesmen running through the trains, both at and between stations, and they are offering anything imaginable to the passengers. First and foremost we have the chai, or tea sellers. Chai is, once you get used to it, quite alright, but the first few times one tries it one might think it’s TOO sweet or TOO milky. Chai is basically tea boiled with milk and sugar for a few hours before it’s sold and drunk, but it does warm you up on cold trips. And, I must admit, I am starting to like it. But there is one thing I will never get used to — the fact that these guys are let on board the train at any hour to go through it shouting CHAI! CHAI! With an irritably high-pitched or weaning voice that could wake up dead. Sometimes, when they see a foreigner sleeping, they might even stop and wake you up, just to ask if you didn’t actually just dreamed about a nice cup of chai…

And of course selling other edible things train attendants serve: cold drinks, biscuits and snacks, railway meals (often rather mashy), snack mixtures of peas, onion, lime juice, puffed rice and god knows what else spices and herbs and ingredients in newspaper cones…

Then there is the tobacco and snuff guys, also selling the Indian pan. Pan is a leaf smeared with some kind of juice and then filled with betel nut, spices, herbs, in classy shops (not on trains though) even with gold or silver leaf (yes!). Then this leaf is folded and put into the mouth to be chewed. The betel nut juice colors your lips and mouth “nicely” red, and your saliva production increases by 10,000%, so that you constantly have to spit out big splashes of this red juice. No, I haven’t even tried it myself; it just looks disgusting.

And then last but not least the fourth type of salesmen competing for the passengers attention. (It’s incredible how much one person can carry!) These guys have specially sewn vests or jackets, with about 50 pockets or so each to fill with (mainly, I’d say), junk, and then a bag on their back and both hands full, before they set of through the crowds in the carriage. Watches, binoculars, telephones, trainers, walkmans, radios, torches, waterpistols, batteries, calculators, cameras, TV-games (!), nylon stockings, underwear, safety pins, jackets and trousers, blankets, mini organs, flipflops, tigerbalm, padlocks, battery rechargers, pens and pencils, laser pointers, necklaces, scissors, tummy trimmers, lighters, 50 cm big dolls saying “mama” and “papa” when you squeeze their belly, alarm clocks, bags, family packs of 6 neon green combs. You name it. These guys have it!

So don’t leave the train. It’s not necessary. Just sit and wait and you’ll get what you want.


I am in the northeast of India now, far away from the well-beaten tracks of “the main triangle”, as India’s shape is. Three of the seven states up here were opened for tourism in 1995, before then having had too much problems with rebels demanding independence, and these states are still very untouched. Four states are still considered too dangerous; the ones bordering China and Burma; but to see the other three is better than nothing.

So on the 7th of March, I left Calcutta for the 24 hour train journey to the Guwahati state capital of Assam and gateway to the whole region. The train was 5 hours late that night, and so I arrived at around 21 and the town was going to bed. Although India is such a large country, all of it has the same time zone! This makes areas like the northeast having sunrise at 5, and sunset at 5, and so the inhabitants are running their lives to this schedule, rising up early and going early to bed.

Already walking from the platform to my hotel I realized they still have a lot of security and rebel problems up here. The station had posters everywhere about not picking up parcels or bags left alone, instead alerting the authorities, and also propaganda paintings against the rebels. Soldiers were everywhere, and right outside the station there was a guard behind sandbags with a machinegun mounted, and the first house on the left was a house for army staff coming to this area on transit.

I stayed only one night there, as I knew I would have to come back through the town anyway, and took the bus to Kaziranga national park next morning, to see the one-horned Indian rhino. Of course I wanted to compare it to the African one, before it is extinct. Because it might actually be in the future. Chinese medicine demands for rhino horn puts hard pressure on the remaining 1500 animals, and for a poacher the lure of big money (up to 40,000 dollars per kilo!) might be too big a lure.

It was the same thing at the bus station as the previous day at the train station: soldiers and propaganda everywhere. The staff was very helpful though, and clearly surprised to see a tourist there, and people at the station, waiting for their buses, openly stared at this much taller and blond stranger amongst them. The ones that spoke English approached me one by one, immediately attracting a crowd to come and listen (but probably not understand?) when I answered questions about “wherefrom?” and “why here?” etc. etc. But one could feel that the questions were genuinely curious, not there to start up a conversation before the punchline about selling something.

Here it might be appropriate with a little explanation about travels in India, at least for the ones of you who have never been here or even never been travelling.

Unfortunately, large parts of India is ruined by the efforts of abusive backpackers and tourists/salesmen/rickshaw drivers/commission guys alike. Quite a few travelers arrive here on maybe a little bit TOO tight a budget, and so have to think about every single cent spent. Over the years, Indians dealing with tourists have realized that we are indeed rich (and we ARE always rich compared to the average Indian!), and so have developed different schemes and scams to squeeze the most out of you, either in a friendly or in an openly abusive way. This is, hardly surprising, most common in the tourist visited areas. The constant hassle in these places is indeed very annoying, but unfortunately this has made, and makes, some (most?) backpackers very hostile to ANY Indian person approaching them, resulting in the fact that no ordinary Indian in tourist areas can be bothered much about the tourists any more. And the tourists are very often only meeting “the bad guys” while here, getting a false impression of Indians in general. It is sad but true.

But here up in the northeast it is totally different. Some of the states here see less than 100 tourists a year, and the hospitality and friendliness of the people you meet is true and, as I wrote, genuine. This is what it must have been like being a traveler in the days before mass tourism.

But back to where I was going; Kaziranga National Park. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.

It took me 5 hours to reach the park head quarters, and a little bit reluctantly they let me stay in the 15 rupees dorm (30 US cent) instead of continue to insist on me taking a room for 5 dollars. But I have to let other people stay there too, if someone would arrive, they made me promise. As if that is not the rule with a dorm! But, I was alone for the 2 nights there.

I walked around in the surroundings, attracting long looks from passersby and smilingly answering the same sort of questions again as before in Guwahati. I had a shave AND a haircut for 50 US cent, and ate a good local thali in a restaurant, chatting away with the owner of the place, who was openly quite delighted having a foreigner eat at his place. A thali, I should explain, is not really ONE sort of dish, instead it is a plate with rice and a few, 2-3 up to 6-7 (that many is more common in the south of India), different vegetable and/or meat dishes. The bowls of vegetable and/or meat dishes are filled up if you want more to eat, and so a thali can be a very economical meal!

The next morning I went on a safari on elephant back at 5:30 in the morning. There was about 20 of us in total, 2-4 on each elephant, and also 3 other foreigners. But they must have been staying in the tourist lodge and having their (certainly much more expensive than mine from the previous day!) meals there, as I hadn’t seen them around “town” the previous day. I talked with an Indian family of 5, the man speaking English, and of course once again asking the same questions. They found it a disgrace that I, as a tourist, had to pay more than 10 times as much as the Indians for the entrance fee, elephant ride and camera fee. That’s sometimes a rule in some countries and parks in more poor countries — as a way to get more money for maintenance — I hope — and not into the pockets of the local politicians. But it wasn’t THAT expensive anyway. 20 dollars all in all for me. They were friendly enough to invite me to join them on their 2-hour jeep safari they would do right after the elephant safari, which was going to last for only 1 hour. At first this disappointed me, but at the end of the riding I was happy it wasn’t any longer – elephants are NOT the most comfortable form of transport I have taken!

The ride/safari itself was good though, and we got quite close to several rhinos on several different occasions. I also saw sambal deer and wild buffalo, wild boar and several species of birds. I was satisfied. I hadn’t really counted on seeing tiger, although of course I had been hoping.

The jeep safari didn’t actually start right after the elephant ride. At first, I and the family went to the tourist lodge where they were staying (and where I now in the dining hall got proof of where the other tourists stayed) and had breakfast, and although it was comparatively pricey, I ordered toast and hot chocolate and corn flakes with cold milk. Then the jeep took off back into the park and I asked the man in the family how much my part of the rental of the jeep would be (I wouldn’t want to have to pay entry and camera fees more than once). But he just shook his head and said “oh no, you are the honoured guest of my country, and besides, if you wouldn’t have been with us I would have paid the same money anyway”. That kind of comment is unfortunately almost unheard of in India (and indeed anywhere in the world!) today.

The safari didn’t bring any new animals in sight, but it was nice going further into the park than on elephant back. The midday, I spent resting, before in the afternoon again I went for another 2-hour jeep safari at sunset, but still no tiger. This time I had to pay my share though; 3 dollars; and the Indian family this time just didn’t know how to behave on a safari: talk and laughter doesn’t really attract wild animals.

The following day I left for the biggest river island in the world: Majuli in the mighty river Brahmaputra. The main reason to visit this island are the so called “Satra:s” there; religious schools or ratehr monasteries for hindu teaching, of which there are several. 200.000 people live on this island, and a big part of them are plain tribe people (as opposite to hill tribe people, living in the hills). Actually, this change of people’s looks had already started in Guwahati, Assams capital: not all people looked “Indian” any more (as if there was only one Indian look.). Up here more and more people start getting slanting eyes and more yellowish skin. Remember, we are getting close to Burma, Thailand and Southeast Asia!

On the boat across to the island I met a man of the Mishing tribe, Harang Kanta Pegu, and he was friendly enough to invite me to come and stay at his house in his village on the northern side of the island (we were approaching from the south). Maybe some other day, I said, and wrote down his name on a piece of paper, but that night I would stay at the islands capital Garamur; the man’s village being another few hours very bumpy bus ride away and me being very tired.

There are no hotels on this island. The only place to stay is with villagers, or in the so called Circuit house in Garamur. This is a place to stay for the government workers coming to the island, a system left to the Indians by the British, who, when they ruled the country, didn’t want to stay with Indians in Indian hotels, but in more “British style”. Nowadays, the upper class Indians — often the same as thing as government workers — have adopted the same system with special places for them to stay (and often even the same houses as the British built), so called government bungalows, so that they too wouldn’t have to meet the average Indian. Normally these places are almost empty, but I was unlucky now: There was local elections going on Majuli, and the place was full with VIPs and their employed secretary’s and staff, and probably also their families. What to do? The manager, though, took pity for me having arrived so late (18 o’clock) and having nowhere to go, and so would see what he could do. Meanwhile, he ordered the chef to bring me, after I had admitted being hungry, some tea and snacks on his own expense.

It all ended happily for me: the manager convinced a younger office worker to move out of his room and into a room to share with his friends, in order to give me his room at least for that night. I asked the manager if this wasn’t asking for a bit too much, but he replied “you are my honored guest and I must take care of you”. Splendid. Excellent. But would we do the same thing for tourists in our countries? Anyway, I slept like a log after the hard day of travelling.

Early next day, after the morning showers in COLD water, I checked out and asked how much I would have to pay for the room, and the enormous thali I had been served the previous night – one dollar total. I asked if I may leave my big bag there for the day, while I went to see some of the Satra:s, and there was no problem with that. I stepped out on the street and wondered how to get around — the island had only public transport between the main villages, and an auto-rickshaw or taxi for the whole day would cost 12-25 dollars. Oh well, I started of by going to the Satra there in Garamur village, about 2 kilometers away. It was a nice road through a forest with houses by the side of the road, and I smiled at all the wondering people. Some people stopped their bikes and walked along with me, chatting away, and they also helped me find the Satra. It wasn’t maybe the greatest Hindu sight, but the students and priests eagerly showed me around the place and were very friendly.

Back to Garamur “city”, where I bought some cakes and tea and Kit Kat for breakfast. While doing so, a young man approached me and asked the usual questions, and when I said I had come to see the Satras he asked if he might come along. If this would have been in, say, Rajastan, he would probably have been someone only pretending to be a student but actually wanting to lead me to his uncle’s/father’s/brother’s shop, so my first reaction was, unfortunately, (because I don’t want to react like that!) to say no. But within a tenth of a second I realized where I was and said “O.K”. If he would turn out to be a burden having around, I could always ask him to leave me later, I thought.

His name was Mon, and he was a 22 year old student. We took the bus from Garamur to the town nearest to the next Satra I wanted to see. The bus was going to Kamalabari (and to all you Finns out there; the last “a” in the name is pronounced long, so the name in Finnish sounds like, translated into English, “terrible bar”), and already on that bus I got proof of Mon being a nice guy and me NOT being squeezed of money: he insisted on paying the small busfare for us both. In Rajastan (if I might say, the maybe most tourism-ruined state of India) the guy would have expected the rich tourist to pay for everything during the whole day.

In Kamalabari, 20 minutes later, we started a 5 kilometer walk towards the Satra, equally quite simple in its design but the students there being very friendly, showing us around.

And so the day continued. We walked a lot, maybe a total of 20-25 kilometers, and I saw a total of 4 Satras, then deciding they were so much alike I needn’t see them all anyway. In one village Mon borrowed one bicycle from a friend, but we were just too big together to ride it the Indian way: one cycling and the other sitting on the strut between the saddle and the handle, so he returned it to the owner. Instead, an Indian man on a motorcycle gave us a lift for 5 kilometers. We walked back through the fields, waving hands (at least me) to the villagers, or, if we were close enough, greeting them the local way with palms together saying “Namaskar” (which is Assamese; in Hindi language it is “Namaste”). Mon walked quietly next to me, and I sometimes wondered what was the great adventure in it for him. But he enjoyed borrowing my walkman listening to Pet Shop Boys for a while, and just generally tagging along. And the things he did say made sense, and were not just small talk.

It was past four o’clock in the afternoon before we returned to Garamur and I collected my bag from the Circuit House. VIPs were running in and out of the house, and small fifties-style Indian Ambassador-cars with election propaganda flags and stickers and posters on them were coming and going. I had made up my mind during the day to go to Jangraimukh village and Harang Kantas house with the evening bus at six; since I was only allowed to stay one night at the Circuit house. Mon and I had 1 1/2 hours left for a late lunch/early dinner, and I had decided to invite him, as a thank you for showing me around and being good company during the day. Mon helped me order a vegetable thali in a restaurant, but when the servant appeared with only one plate I got surprised and asked Mon if he didn’t order any food for himself? No, he said, and I had to say “please, I want to invite you because you were so friendly today”. His reply once again made me aware of where I was: “I only did my duty to you.” But I did manage to convince him it was okay with me to order himself food. After all, he too had been living on biscuits and snacks the whole day…

In the end the cost for the two meals ended up to a mere total of 45 US cent…

The bus came and I thanked Mon profoundly, and said goodbye to 7-8 other students that had gathered around me while I was waiting for the bus. They all laughed and were truly happy just from having met me briefly. In the bus a man approached me, and after the usual questions were answered, he, after having heard where I was going, Said he was going there too. He promised to help me find Harang Kanta’s house, although he thought I might have gotten the name wrong as it didn’t sound familiar to him. And he should know the inhabitants of the village – there are only 200 people in the whole area living in Jangraimukh.

It was a VERY bumpy 2 1/2 hour trip, and only one kilometer from the village the gearbox broke down. Luckily it didn’t happen earlier! All the remaining passengers had to walk. At the village “center,” named (in English) “3-junction” (of course logically, because 3 roads meet there), there was only one shop open, and the man from the bus asked around. Some other, non-English speaking, passengers from the bus, also stayed along and tried to help figure out who Harang Kanta was — the name just wasn’t familiar. One man walked away for 20 minutes, and when he returned he explained that Harakanta, a man he knew, was probably whom I was looking for. Unfortunately, though, he had left for another village 5-6 kilometers away and would not return before tomorrow, but I would be shown to his family’s house, and they would for sure take care of me. We walked off, and yes indeed, they took care of me! About 10 people; brothers and sisters in laws and nephews and Hara Kanta’s old mother; were all delighted to have a foreigner in their house, and asked if I was hungry or thirsty or needed anything. Only 2 men there spoke English, but everybody smiled and greeted me with “Namaskar”. Neighbors and friends gathered as the rumor of my arrival spread, and soon I was looked upon by 25 people or so. Everybody smiled and the English speakers translated as quickly as they could. I was forced to accept a bowl of rice vodka at least, after having explained that I had eaten a lot before the bus ride, in case everybody was already sleeping, and everybody wondered what I thought of it. I have never felt so welcomed, anywhere! Some of the people around me kept asking if I was Italian, which at first surprised me, but it turned out that the previous male tourist who had come through the village was an Italian man, and so they wondered if I was him. As that was 2 years earlier, I might have changed my looks…

Soon everybody but the family said goodnight, they all mostly being farmers and having to get up early next day. I was shown to Harakanta’s room, and the bed was made. I fell into deep sleep, tired after all the walking during the day.

The next day Robin Pegu, Hara Kantas nephew, started showing me around to the river and the villages. Almost everybody we met asked him something in Assamese when we came passing by, and Robin’s answer was always “Sweden”. We got people tagging along almost the whole time, when someone left us someone new came along. Just to look at the newcomer. I was invited into 2 different houses for tea and biscuits, and was treated as the king coming to town.

At the riverbank, we saw a boat crossing the waters, and when getting closer we saw it was Hara Kanta arriving back from where he had been last night. We walked back to his house where he quickly washed himself before we set of around the surrounding fields and villages again. Harakanta met relatives all the time; he said he had somewhere between 60-100 relatives in the villages nearby, and every time they wanted to invite me/us for tea, at least. And I drank, more than ever. People were more than happy to be photographed, while weaving, pounding rice, or just sitting around. I think I got some perfect portrait pictures there.

We walked a lot, as I wrote, and talked a lot too about various aspects of life. It turned out that although we came from totally different cultures and had totally different backgrounds, we often agreed on a lot of things… We both liked each others company, I could feel…

And so the day went on. The village center, “3-junction”, was full of election propaganda that day, and I joked with the parties and their spokesmen in their booths, going in visiting and asking about what they planned to do for tourism in the area . After some mumble-jumble about “promote” and “increase” the party spokesmen often excused them selves and had to leave the office for some other business… Hmmm… I was also invited into a shop for tea, and spent an hour there chatting away with the shopkeeper.

Back at Harakantas house, his brother in laws wife had especially prepared a vegetarian thali for me. Fish is otherwise, quite naturally, the main food on the island, but as I am not particularly fond of it I had told them during the day, in as nice a way as I could without offending, that I was a vegetarian. Although I am not, and I had at least tried the fish they had offered me. Now, the woman had boiled a potato stew especially for me, and I thanked her profoundly. Then after the meal I invited everybody for a photo session. The women wanted to dress up in their finest clothes, made from the woven cloth I had seen so many village women work on during the day. Of course I didn’t mind waiting for that! Some of Harakanta’s brothers were missing, but there was enough people to photograph anyway, some friends having turned up. Probably very few of them had ever been photographed, and I promised to send copies to each and everyone.

Unfortunately I felt I had to leave the next day already. I have a slightly tight schedule at the moment, and it was too bad I didn’t arrive to the village at the 16th instead, when there would be held a festival of some sort. But, after dwelling in the village for 2 days, I had to get on. But I thanked Harakanta very very much for having invited me, and I feel I might have a friend for life there.

Another thing that affects me in the receiving from the family and the welcome they gave me was also the thing of never feeling that the people around me were more than curious about me being able to travel for so long and so far away. Sometimes when I tell local people about my travels one can feel how my story builds up the image of west being the paradise, me having so (in their eyes) incredibly lots of money to spend on days without having to work. I, myself, just can’t make up white lies about me being a poor student and the length of my travels and the amount of money I saved up etc. etc, in order to conceal my relative wealth and not give people a false impression of the western world. Instead I tell people openly about my life, but I try to explain that this sort of life is not common in the west. It is only the result of my being so very determined and obsessed with travelling, having worked my ass off, never spending money back home, not having much possessions (but, of course in their eyes, owning a lot of things), not having a family to feed, not living in a fancy house or having a car, and so on. And in the case of Harakanta and his family, I felt no jealousy or awe at all — just plain acceptance. That too added to the pleasant feeling.

And now I am back in Assam’s capital, Guwahati. I managed to find this newly opened internet café; (with 2 computers!), and so decided to spend some time here. Turned out I’ve been here for 8 hours, answering letters, writing this, checking Swedish newspapers. But it’s not very expensive here — 1.4 dollars an hour. And you guys are worth a long letter every now and then, aren’t you?

Anyway, it’s nine o’clock in the evening and we’ve had connection problems. Hope I get this sent away, before I go to bed. Tomorrow morning at six I’ll leave for another state here in northeast, the semi-Scottish Meghalaya and it’s capital Shillong, at 1490 meters. Might also go from there to the wettest place on earth. A nice contrast to all the desserts in Africa.

So good night and hope to hear from you soon!

Hannu

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