Java – The Story

And So To Java. We pedalled away from Jakarta’s bus station in the early morning. The Garmin did a good job of finding a quiet way out. Jakarta was quiet – too quiet. Our relief at being away from Sumatra’s hills, and then the end of Ramadan, was short lived. Ramadan is immediately followed by Eid al-Fitr, which is by definition a religious event, but substantially experienced as a transport event; everybody in Java is on the roads. Java’s land mass is structured around a few massive volcanoes, the main roads weaving through on the flat bits in between. Alas, the smaller roads often don’t join up, so to get anywhere, everyone, including us, had to use the main, but only 2 lane, highways. Really, it was madness to cycle at that time. Cyclists would be best off spending Eid¬†holed up, especially if they can join in the festivities.
It calmed down after about three days. Java’s crowded, narrow, bumpy major roads are at least relatively flat, and still¬†alive after a week of good progress, we took a couple of days off in the historic, and more or less geographical, centre of Java, Yogyakarta, before continuing on to catch the short ferry to Bali.
Java has a big population in a not-so-big space.. Drivers are not so deliberately homicidal as Indian drivers, and they’re more inclined to look where they’re going, but the traffic is a lot denser, as Indian main roads are hugely bigger. As usual, it’s the bus drivers who are most aggressive and unwilling to share space or time. Well, they’ll happily ‘share’ your lane if they’re going the other way and want to overtake something. But the drivers are mostly ok, it’s the motorbike riders who are nuts. Well, more likely they’re happy, carefree folks who have no worries about any possibility of collision. Overtake a truck on the inside on a narrow blind bend – no problem. Overtaking is probably the Indonesian national sport, and often would earn many points for artistic flair and imagination. On the whole it felt less safe even than India, which is saying something. However, it was a lot less noisy than India, with only brief blasts of horns used beneficially. It got a bit less hectic as we worked our way east, taking loops via minor roads when we could.
Dear reader, you might get the impression that crossing Java by bike is a dumb plan: That’s about right. Whereas Sumatra, whilst being very tough, felt a worthwhile adventure. Bali’s roads we only experienced from the ferry to Denpasar, the capital, travelling mostly on the main road. It was somewhat less hectic than Java, and, crucially, the road was both a bit wider and in better repair. The last 40km or so on Bali’s minor roads were lovely, full of things to see.
So where are the photos?

 

Camera Club Special – Let’s Play ICM in a Cave!

Post dedicated to all our friends at Worthing Camera Club.

The limestone caves near Phetchaburi are lit up with coloured tubes. Beside the cave temples, there’s plenty of interesting drippy rock formations. But how to make a picture of them?

Needs to be a bit more alive, perhaps…

Ok, but only ok. And quite tedious, in a cave, without a tripod or flash gun. Hey, unlike an English cave, tripods aren’t banned ūüôā But I haven’t got one. My camera’s tiny detachable flash is, err, detached. And anyway no help, far too weedy,¬†boringly white, and boringly stuck on top of the camera. So thank you Olympus for making a tiny lens that’s f1.8, that saved those photos. But I still had to get Clare to stand still for way longer than is normal. And can only shoot from an ideally placed stalagmite. And they’re not terribly exciting.

Which got me to remembering some¬†of Worthing Camera Club’s winter lectures a few years back. Intentional Camera Movement is a respectable (ish) discipline that isn’t only “I forgot¬†to bring my tripod¬†to the bluebell wood”. So here are my Thai rocks:

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PS: Most of those are colours as shot. A few are rather mucked about with in Lightroom.

Thanks for looking!

 

Cheap As Chips?

A tiny blog posting – a Micropost!

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries we pass through compare economically. Thanks to Wikipedia, it’s pretty easy.

Here’s a chart showing the Per Capita Income in each country we’ve passed through, or hope to pass through.

GDPUSD2015.png

And here’s the same chart, adjusted for the cost of living in each country (called Purchasing Power Parity, or ¬†PPP).

PPPUSD2015

PPP seems to have the effect of making the people in middle-income states better off. And Singapore.

We can even divide one by the other, to give us a rough Cost of Living Cycling. However, this is a bit rubbish, as in most of Europe, costs¬†were kept down by camping. From about Bulgaria/Romania onwards, it felt a bit insecure rough camping, and hot – we really appreciated the comfort of a shower, so mostly¬†stayed in guesthouses and cheap hotels. In tourist cities, that was often pretty cheap, but out on the road, I would guess that it very often was close to $20/night for a room for the two of us, irrespective of country. So far the most expensive nights have been¬†Uzbekistan ($70 for a yurt), India (~$70 for a tent, ~$40 for a palace (really it was, gorgeous)), and Myanmar ($50 at two of the hotels, trading on scarcity). Not normally regarded as high-cost locations. The Caspian Sea ferry was also an expensive night, but did cover a fair bit of ground as we slept. The Tajikistan Toyota Tour was by far our most expensive week, but wasn’t exactly integral to the trip. And it didn’t include the (cheap)¬†guesthouses!

CostOfCycling

Turkey, Uzbekistan and India have been most costly for souvenirs, not because of prices, but because of the wonderful handicrafts, and their availability, and perhaps more stop days, and maybe the timing of Christmas.

End of micropost!

(Note to self – master spreadsheet stored on cloud, in case plans change!)

Alternative transport tried and tested

On leaving Yangon airport, after our flight from India, it was like stepping back into normality albeit with a sauna full on. The taxi had four – count them – wheels, and four – listen – cylinders, real springs, and the driver’s style had only a soothing effect on our blood pressure. Other cars travelled along marked lanes with the occasional brief hoot as we listened to the purr of motor car engines. Motorbikes are banned! Buses cruised along. All very orderly and blissfully peaceful. Melodic bird song returned to our ears.
The city itself was, by comparison, clean, although as we explored further we found many similarities with India: crowds, street vendors, wires draped along the buildings and criss-crossing the streets, surface drainage channels and food stalls filling the pavement. But no cows, no hasslers, and the wares now carried on shoulder poles. And did we mention, no hooting? We visited quietly busy pagodas and restocked on memory cards and a few bike bits.
Our plan for Myanmar was designed to show us some of the country, bearing in mind that we’d flown into almost the “end” of it, near the Thai border. So, we used alternative transports to backtrack about halfway up the country, back towards the border with India. Not that riverboats or Myanmar trains go much faster than a bicycle, but they do keep going for longer and don’t collapse from exhaustion.
Decidedly top heavy, perched on a one metre wide gauge, the sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan lurched and jolted along, frequently caterpillar style whilst wobbling from side to side. Sharing the carriage with Anton from Germany and the many bugs and mosquitoes, left us all with ample space but the mossies seemed rather greedy. Gid resorted to a bug net overnight, carefully tucking me in as well. Lurching along in the train we were submerged in village life: fields being watered or tended to, traffic waiting for us to pass, children, and those young at heart, keen to wave. Vendors tempted us with their wares peering into our gaping windowless chasms, other locals sat just biding their time or peeking from behind their doors but all were near to be seen.
The river boat from Bagan to Mandalay was not as interesting as the train trip from Yangon to Bagan. Bustling along the river that was  a good half mile wide, despite winding our way back and forth avoiding the shallows, we were rarely in touch with the people. Dancing dots on the horizon appeared to be children playing on the bank. Others were attending laundry or fishing nets, just distinguishable in the distance. Photos taken require dramatic cropping to give a feel of the people and scenery around us. River traffic trundled past but was frequently industrialized; clearly not from the villages that periodically line the banks.
On the boat itself there was an on going game of musical chairs as views versus the sun battled for the prized seats first facing one way then the other.  With about 20 tourists aboard (and one local passenger), there was a chance for some chat. Especially as Nicolas and Elise were also cycle touring. Navigating through the sand banks that were intermittently marked, was highly technical.  Two people stood on the bow of the boat elegantly welding depth gauge poles, arm actions directing the helmsman left or right.
Motorbikes are banned only in Yangon, elsewhere in Myanmar¬†they are ubiquitous. Like India, they’re all small, if a little newer in design. Unlike India, there’s an assumption of observation, and a concept of right of way, ¬†so hooters are used sparingly. Sometimes one can hear a motorbike approaching by the voices of the people on it! We’re still trying to take this on, after immersion in India for three months. In Mandalay, it was our voices, as we took motorbike taxis at one point. They also gave us helmets, but had they just got their motorbikes and wanted to practice? The two times we went on the back of Indian’s bikes, helmetless and three up, admittedly in the middle of nowhere, the riders were much smoother and assured, whereas our Mandalay taxis, two times two up, felt a bit wobbly and less secure. Were we paying for their learner petrol?
Our second train trip, Mandalay to Tsipaw, notable for two feats of engineering back in the early 1900s, was also marked by higher levels of sophistication seen in the farming. Although still mainly small scale stuff with every last patch of fertile land cultivated,  the watering cans on shoulders and the ox ploughs had been replaced by rotavators, hose pipes, sprinklers systems and strimmers.
Unbelievably¬†the train jolted to a halt then went backwards. It was plenty slow enough surely it didn’t need to cover some bits twice. It gradually became obvious; as day was breaking we could see the track layers beneath us. We were gaining height up the side of a mountain onto a plateau, the train can’t do hairpin bends, so it had to switch direction for each zig or zag. A panoramic view opened up before us, lined with receding hills.
The second spectacular event was marked by people peering out of the windows and cries of, ‘There it is’. Fleeting glimpses developed into a full view until the train stopped just before we curved round to cross the Goteik Gorge viaduct. Crowds clambered down onto the track for a better view framing the ‘must take’ photographs.
Think that’s about covered it: Plane, taxi (4 wheels), train, riverboat, motorbike, train. Oh and then¬† in Tsipaw, tuk tuk, hiking, and in Lyaung Shwe, long tail boat.

Bye-bye, ta-ta; Farewell to India

It is with very mixed feelings that our time in India draws to a close. Different it certainly is! One minute we’re loving the chaotic bustle and vibrancy together with the curious, smiling, friendly people who crowd around us when we stop. ¬†At the next we can’t stand the incessant head drumming noise, crushing crowds and¬†appalling drivers. Not to mention the¬†persistent touts, swindlers and beggars at many tourist attractions and sacred sites we’ve visited as we’ve¬†laced our way across a strip of India.
Of course, more than any other country we’ve visited, there’s a feeling of “well we haven’t seen X”, but that’s why it’s called a subcontinent. Probably two years would be needed to explore the whole country, whereas we’ve trundled across it in three months, riding only half the time.
We’ve almost enjoy seeing the cattle, goats, dogs, less frequently pigs, ever present in the streets, or the pesky monkeys swinging overhead. All up for a vegetable stall raid if a merchant has dropped their guard. The cattle nonchalantly block the road or a passageway. Gid had a narrow escape meeting a bull who was ‘hoofing the turf’. A moment or two after he squeezed past, it hoofed again¬†before¬†tossing a 20kg cement bag up into the air where it got caught on overhead wires, trickling its contents in a shower back down to earth. Thus we learnt to recognise a bull in this mood, and avoid it! Most, however, are very tolerant of being moved along with a quick ‘ha!’ or simply squeezed past.
The mess and muck we’ve grown used to as well as the frequently present stench of ‘street’ toilets where well-dressed Indian men will only approach the general area before adding to the problem. No idea where the ladies go when they’re out in town! ¬†Amusingly, in Bodhgaya there’s a street sign – Please use toilet. It was truly incongruous to see jewelled bare feet squelching through slime and muck after an unseasonal down pour. But we got used to it, although you won’t see us in flipflops!
It’s hard not to be disturbed by the visible¬†poverty. It’s far more evident than in, say, Kyrgyzstan, despite the countries having similar per capita incomes. It probably testifies to India’s immense inequalities. However, Indians generally seem in very good spirits. It seems in England, everyone’s miserable because they are feel short of money and time. Can’t see why India should follow that model, and it doesn’t.
We encountered begging in tourist areas, with a peak at the Buddhist pilgrimage sites.¬†The Hindu holy men are supposed to be a cultural fixture, and sustained only by those around them, but they seem to make a beeline for tourists.¬†Having seen one old guy score basically a day’s wages in one hit, from four Thai pilgrims, it’s not hard to see why. Urchins often put their hands out, and in Bodhgaya and Varanasi there was real medieval stump-waving, but it’s impossible to work out what’s real – locals usually advise not to give.¬†I passed a lady walking by the roadside in the country, and she lifted a hand to me: “Rupee, rupee”; yet she had about $400 worth of silver bangles on that arm.
In many ways India has seemed to be in a time warp. It’s been quite stunning to see so many ancient machines and techniques still in use where ox carts and man power still dominate. In the country, there are lots of new tractors, but apart from that everything looks pretty archaic. We passed the sugar cane harvest in Madhya Pradesh, a prosperous state. The factories filled the skyline, chimneys billowing out thick black smoke, but it was scythes and ox carts out in the fields that fed the mills. In towns, half the market’s spread out on the floor, and cobblers, tailors and puncture repairers have plenty of work, while roadside corn grinders and milk boilers are busy too. Aside from the animal hauled transport, some of the stuff on the roads seems crazily archaic. The tuk tuk is a fine piece of 1940s minimal engineering (sez Gid), but there are still motor tricycles running, that appear barely any advance on Carl Benz’s original 1886 tricycle, with the machinery (belts, chains) taking up nearly a cubic metre. But it’s juxtaposed with sleek new Suzukis, mobile phones and satellite dishes together with, adverts for ECGs and medical labs, and in the papers, India’s just tested a new, longer range, nuclear missile.
‘We’re not like your country, we’re relaxed.‘Without it it wouldn’t be India’, are a couple the claims I’ve overheard. And no one follows any of the laws that are passed for the safety of your citizens, I could add. ‘No, we don’t follow any rules,’ one lad chuckled as he agreed. Road traffic regulations are blatantly ignored resulting in the worst driving we’ve experienced and leading to one of the highest death tolls on roads in the world, as well as being¬†a topic of frequent debate in the newspapers. We’ll make a separate posting for Indian drivers!
India is widely known as the world’s biggest democracy. But curiously, it feels more like a police state than anywhere else we’ve been. Not only are there heavily armed police all over the place, but there are rules, rules, rules prohibiting all sorts of things. No wonder Indians generally don’t attend to them. Passports are needed more than anywhere else, and numerous¬†forms to be filled. Unlike everywhere else though, we can read the newspapers, and see the very public, and venal, politics (oddly, it reminds Gid of Irish newspapers and politics, dominated by the crookedness of the politicians).¬†There are hugely snarled up checkpoints and taxation at the borders between states. We only realised while here, how separate the states are, and of course, with their own politics, perhaps like the USA. Maybe that’s one reason there’s an impression that the Delhi government says “jump”, and …it doesn’t work out the way the “Centre” intended (planned would be too strong a word, perhaps). It does feel as if the country is tied in a bureaucratic Gordian knot of its own devising, although some might comment that the British helped devise some of it!
The British often claim to be an exceptionally tolerant nation. But Indians seem much more so. They put up with – smile through – what seem to us the most appalling behaviour and difficulties.
Cricket, India’s unofficial national game, has¬†filled the tiniest of crevices in passage ways and the busiest of road sides – fielders posed on the other side of the streaming traffic – to spare fields, parks and the ‘promenade’ of the Ganges, where yet again fielding was an issue. With the high levels of enthusiasm and skill displayed, it’s no wonder they’ve just thrashed England here,¬†in the latest Test series… And One Day… And T20. Probably a good job we never managed to get to any of the matches.
Just before we flew in, the Indian government abruptly invalidated the two larger main banknotes, and prohibited cash withdrawals larger than roughly ¬£23: “demonetisation”. Result, utter chaos in this cash economy. Enormous queues at the few ATMs that got stocked with new notes. Like other tourists we spent days hunting hotels that take (foreign) cards, working ATMs, and queueing for endless 2000¬†Rupee¬† withdrawals. And the banks simply lapped up the flat rate charges they levy when people make small transactions abroad, like a 10% tax. So it¬†caused a lot of hassle and wasted time, we saw others in real distress, and a lot of Indians really fell foul of it as it killed the casual labour economy dead in some places. That plus the impact of the Brexit vote on the pound’s value, made a real difference to our budget here. Unfortunately we only worked that out after we’d stripped Rajasthan of souvenirs and posted them home on Concorde.
The other money issue is the swindling. Led by the India government, which charges foreigners typically ten times what Indians pay to see sites, there’s a culture of gouging in some sectors. It’s also common to quote one price at the start of a transaction, then try to charge a lot more with unexpected add-ons. There seems to be complete tolerance of swindlers who claim to be collecting for charitable purposes, but are not. There¬†are different amounts of swindling in different sectors: 100% of boatmen, 50% of auto rickshaw drivers, whereas most shopkeepers seem pretty honest.
There’s generosity too. Free tea stops, the odd free meal…. Nice people about, especially away from the tourist trail.
We’ve seen spectacular sights in India, and found the present and past both fascinating. Much of the culture, to us has seemed, unique and other worldly. There were frustrations and dropouts with all the electrics, but¬†most days we had WiFi or phone data, and rather wobbly electricity was available every night. The winter weather is nice, guesthouses plentiful and cheap, our tums have managed ok so far, and the roads are mostly flat and smooth. And yet….. It’s felt a struggle being here. Has India beaten us, or¬†does surviving count as a win?

Thoughts on leaving Rajasthan

In amongst our kilometre crunching days, crossing Rajasthan, first retracing our steps east, then veering south, we’ve taken some delightful back roads. It’s always been the case that the minor roads reap the most rewards in terms of seeing rural life and countryside. Rajasthan has been no exception.

Our first detour was to Ranakpur to see the great Jain temple. Garmin was well up for a cross country jaunt and had three attempts at turning left off the highway. At the first two locals were urging us further along the dual carriageway before turning left, flapping their hands to make it clear. At the first we didn’t take much convincing as it was a dirt track; another gem from Garmin. The second looked more promising but no, we must go further on. Fortunately we did as the main road, according to the colouring on our map, started well enough but soon deteriorated into a pot holed narrow lane. Along it there were many elderly men in Indian dress with deep red turbans, herding cattle or sheep together with the odd camel. The views of ploughed fields, the odd village here or there and just the general lush greenery were beautiful. We had now truly left the desert behind us.
Around Ranakpur we, or rather our legs, realised we were cycling in hilly terrain – the first since, err, um, Azerbaijan in August. But the roads were smooth, well graded and the hills minor, so we had a gentle reintroduction to our lower gears.
It was on this route that we discovered, in Rani, that Indian towns don’t have to be squalid dumps in terms of rubbish and muck around the streets. Rani was spotless. It is a reasonable sized town but there was no litter or rubbish to be seen, just a road sweeping lady, that Gid nearly collided with, as she thrust her barrow directly into the stream of traffic, just as if she was riding a motorbike.
Women are frequently employed as road sweeps working away with their stick brooms, dust pans and wheel barrows but it’s the men who drive the dust carts. Very often the men are standing or sitting around while the sweeping goes on. This pattern seems to be establish at an early age with girls and boys in the household, unless perhaps we’ve not spotted that these girls are not family members but servants.
As well as the more traditional role of domestic chores – collecting water in their clay or metal pots which are carried on their heads, child rearing etc, women are frequently working alongside men in building projects. We’ve seen them digging channels with over sized rakes in road building projects, clearing rubble from the newly built central reserve, and chipping away at the edge of the road surface (not quite sure what this one was about). Equally, they quite frequently help out with building projects: mixing cement, delivering the mixed cement on their heads to the men who are laying the bricks, and generally bustling about. And at the blacksmith’s, it’s Mrs who wields the hammer, while Mr holds the workpiece. All this is done in their wildly colourful filmy saris; presumably not their best ones. It’s worth adding that India has elected two women as prime minister, too.
But the gender divide still seems to be firmly ingrained. A few women drive scooters or cars. They take other women as passengers but never a man. We’ve hardly ever been served by a woman in a shop or restaurant, except at checkouts in the few western style supermarkets. In Udaipur I was surprised to see one lady in total control of the traffic, dressed in uniform and wheeling an arm about as she blew her whistle.
As we dashed through one village a mother and daughter were on the steps of their house. The girl was doing school work in an exercise book on the top step, while mum was a step or two down beating up a shirt; with the stone step as a washboard she vigorously attacked it with soap. I wondered about the school child and what opportunities her education would bring her. In India, the female literacy rate significantly lags behind that of the males, so there may be extra barriers for her.
An hotelier, whose chalets are looking shabby and didn’t provide breakfast because there is no chef, explained that the previous owner had got too old to keep it all going. He’d only had daughters, who would take over his business? It had gone rather to ruin (since Lonely Planet’s 2011 glowing review), so now this new guy had just taken on the lease. He had sons.

 

Various other things are clearly slow to modernise such as road rules, manufacturing materials and methods, and digging holes. In some ways it seems stuck in a time warp with manual labour replacing the machinery we’d expect to see back home. ¬†This is exaggerated for us as Indian English has diverged from English (and American) somewhat, and, Sir,¬†some constructs archaic to us are still normal here. Lorries mostly look like 1960s leftovers: But the cars look modern.¬†Almost everyone has a mobile, a smartphone unless they’re elderly. There’s construction going on almost everywhere, satellite dishes poke out of straw roofed shacks, and modern things keep cropping up. What an interesting place!

Bye bye Bishkek, Farewell Central Asia

Tomorrow morning we fly to India. Here’s a final mini-blog¬†for Bishkek.

At the AtHouse

Where we’ve been so wonderfully put up, and put up with. And met so many other travellers.

Between the snowfalls

With today’s and yesterday’s snow

That’s 16th and 17th November, for posterity.