We have touchdown so signing off…

52 weeks later, we’re back to where we started, amongst the engorged cows of the Rhone-Alpes, the manicured countryside of Helvetia. I can see the cows from where I sit, precariously perched on the hill about 200 metres above the house, with a view of the valley. But as Seetha and I look at each other with ‘what now’ looks, I can’t quite dislodge the pain of Liyaan not being here with us. It stains like a bruise, colouring everything – it dulls the sky, the apples in our trees, the warmth of the breeze.

London was a different matter. London and the Olympics were bathed in sunshine. It felt like a summer of love (no, not the film). Everyone we knew seemed to be around, many more came to town – it felt like a renewal of our ties, a gathering together of so many different lives we’ve led.  We’ve all been our ways, ridden the treadmill, found ways in which to be happy, to cope, to live our lives.  But the true ounce of self, naked and open, found the old ones come to us the way they had in the past, and felt drawn to them, as we had been when we first met. There were really too many people to list here and even more we simply did not manage to meet – Lani now back in her lovely Eng-er-land, had too many places to go to for her exeat weekends.

Mum Says bye to Liyaan

The whole Sarwal clan came together around Shyam Tayaji’s death bed. Mum was there and so was Karan uncle, the brothers and sisters and cousins prayed wherever they were. I felt Dad looking down. After years I felt the whole Sarwal clan, again, together as one.

London was when we were still moving, when we had some wind in our sails. Now, at home, it feels as if we have reached dead calm. The occasional gust of wind makes the sails flap, but there is no movement. I can only hope the momentum of the journey will continue on land. I am determined that it will, but it will take a different kind of energy I feel. People ask us for the high points, the low points, the lessons.

First of all it’s been unexpected, immense, a real gift – something that I’m so grateful for. So many times it felt as if there was some hidden hand just ensuring we had a great time. Apart from the people who we already knew and generously opened their homes to us, we were met by incredible people, our angels as I like to call them, who opened their worlds to us. It has always been better seeing places through the eyes of those who live there, and this year we saw even the most remote places through the eyes of those who seem to appear miraculously for us. Even in Outer Mongolia!

Then despite paying humungous insurance premiums to cover ourselves against every eventuality, diving in 3 different locations, sailing the Atlantic, climbing, skiing, swimming in shark-infested waters, collectively we didn’t even stub a toe!  Only Liyaan (once) caught a cold in Buenos Aires. And despite my best efforts (leaving my iphone on buses and a wallet fallen in the street ) we didn’t lose anything of significance.  Well, we did lose all Liyaan’s precious Galapagos photos thanks to a technology issue and some laundry in Shanghai that never came back…The lone truly rude person we met on the journey across the entire world was the lady who looked at our boarding pass as we boarded our last flight back to Geneva on Easyjet! 

Sure, my entire wine collection is gone, we have depleted all our savings and re-mortgaged the house, but I think truly and forever, our eyes have changed. I’ll never forget the warm wind of the Ocean in my hair, or what it felt like to cuddle a Llama, or see Liyaan lie under the water in the hot springs in Chiang Mai. And  that’s what both excites and frightens me now. I am Tarun again. We are as close as we have been as a family, ever. We’ve learned once again what makes us tick and why without the pressures, the compromises, the sedentary lifestyle. Our barn has over 120 boxes full of our essentials (!) – do we open them and gorge ourselves – or do we live as we are now – lightly, as clouds floating across the sky?

One final thing – we’ve had almost 14,000 views of the blog. This has made us feel so incredibly supported and cared for I cannot explain. Thanks to everyone who looked in and for all the comments you sent. We never ever felt lonely because of you.

Signing off…..

Dad Says Bye to Liyaan

 

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Metropolis on Sea

We flew in to Venice via Riga in Latvia. It was as magical as ever. Our lovely apartment, far from the madding crowd on Guidecca island was only two vaparetto stops from San Marco. As Tarun the romantic says ” We promised ourselves a long time ago that we would end all our holidays in Venice and when we get on the Vaporetto and glide towards Guidecca, the reason is clearly apparent. The blue of the sky, the pink of the buildings, and the green of the sea push me back into silence. Once again I can only imagine the age that gave birth to all of this. How did art, money, religion and politics come together like this – if it has been done elsewhere, then please let me know. “

We were in Venice to join an enormous cruise ship for a week’s tour of the Greek isles. Apart from Tarun’s mum, none of us had ever been on a ship of that size: it was overwhelming. As Liyaan said, “Mum, it’s like going on holiday with 2000 other people, it’s a bit scary.” As we cruised the Ionian Adriatic and Aegean seas and visited Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos and Katakolon, it became apparent that this was a floating self-sufficient city. Every possible variety of food on tap 24 hours a day, a spa, casino, shops, lavish evening entertainment, lectures on everything from Ancient Greece to acupuncture. We learned how to avoid the pool deck with its enormous mounds of human flesh drenched in sun lotion and we were all able to choose how to pass our time. Grandma and grand daughter rather liked the bingo and I really enjoyed the fiercely competitive trivia quiz .

What a journey it has been for Greece from the wonders of Ancient Greece to it’s current state of Euro distress. Tourism, it is clear will survive. The landscape on all the islands except Katakolon was arid and sparse, not enough green for me at all. It was fun to see the site of the Ancient Olympics at Olympia especially as we were soon going to be in London the witness the modern version. It was an action-packed week and there was something for everyone so a good holiday formula for multiple generations but a week was more than enough and I am unsure that I would want to go on another big cruise ship again. It is interesting to reflect on the many boat trips we have done this year and each one has been very different. The first was our week learning to sail off the coast of Gibraltar on Nix, the 40 foot Janneau, then the epic 2 week voyage across the Atlantic on the 72 foot Challenger, One Hull. In Ecuador, we first explored the Galapagos on the Coral 2 with about 20 others and then the Amazon river with 6 others. The adrenaline rush as we sped right up underneath Iguassu falls in Brazil and the high speed transfers from Belize city to San Pedro and Koh Samui to Koh Tao in Thailand were in complete contrast to the incredibly peaceful Yangtse river cruise on the Victoria Jenna, the fascinating historical journey on the Moscow river and the ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay, on the Rio del Plata, the widest river mouth in the world . I think I prefer river cruises with smaller numbers of travelling companions and definitely prefer my metropolis to be on land!

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What Happened in London – sorry out of sync

Summer in London is like a girl’s smile and we wake, hoping we will be bathed in her heart-stopping warmth. But she is sad one day, indifferent another…..I have never loved summer more than in England and when, unexpectedly, at the end of the week I feel the soft embrace of the sun on my arms, I am once again smitten.
Liyaan has come to choose a school, but we do not realise at first when we look at Haileybury and then Bedales through her dreams and fears, that we are visiting and re-visiting our own. What have we become, did our own schools prepare us for our yet unfulfilled dreams, how did we sweat and struggle sitting at those desks, playing on those fields ? I feel that perhaps too much water has passed under the bridge. Although the Haileybury timetable is identical to Bedford’s 30 plus years ago, the children feel at once both older and then younger than I have ever felt. Liyaan loves the schools, but as for most 14 year olds, the children are intimidating. The schools themselves have been selected for us like some cosmic joke. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

http://www.haileybury.com/

Please check out for pictures. Although there aren’t very many.

The huge quad at Haileybury was put down when George III still sat on the throne, and the East India Company needed the right kind of people to administer India. Rudyard Kipling and our own (he was headmaster at Mayo, my first big school) JTM Gibson were students here. But unlike the stern uniformed men that look down from the portraits in the dining room, everyone we meet is kind and caring. It seems , at first, as if time has stood still on the large cricket fields, in the freshly mown grass.

Bedales was built expressly in opposition to schools like Haileybury – it marks the shift from the Victorian notion of the child as the devil to be beaten into shape, to the  current belief that the child is an angel (who came up with this?!) and all you had to do was to give him or her wings. It is jaw-droppingly amazing, with children getting together to bake bread and play music in informal groups, in a campus that seems to grow organically like a honeycomb. It is both extremely liberal and creative but the children, they feel different, in Bedales, in their casual wildness they feel less like angels, in Haileybury, demure and understated in their uniforms they feel less like devils.

We spend two days in suspense, while we wait for the results from Haileybury – will Liyaan, who has really struggled with her Maths, hasn’t attended school since June 2011, get a place ? We sit, tense and completely strung out, the ridiculousness of our situation becoming increasingly clear to us as the place at La Chat in Geneva also comes through.

The decision between the schools masks the bigger decision – whether Liyaan should go to boarding at all simmers under the surface; all of us knowing how close we have become this year, how we  turn to each other, to share, to confirm every idea, every observation. Of course, it breaks through as everything seems to, in tears and shouting. We are acutely aware that when we do finally get off Planet Sarwal it will not be as we first intended, the planet will not be the same anymore and our primary concern is to make the best possible choice for Liyaan.

I think Liyaan decides based on where she thinks she will be most at ease, so when Haileybury offers her a place, she does not want to even take the exams at Bedales. We talk to Bedales and they would like her to come; we are ourselves a bit conflicted – the mind says Bedales, but the heart says Haileybury. Bedales feels like a leap too far, too much like university than school, too loose, especially after a year off. For the rest of the day we oscillate between our thrilled-ness and sad-ness that our little Lani will not be there when we wake up every morning. If she wants to scream at us in the morning it will have to be via skype.

Meanwhile in another part of town

I see the email, the feedback on the script. There are 14 pages of feedback, on 103 of script. Feedback on all of the hundreds of hours of work in libraries, bedrooms, planes, boats, across the world. I have been bracing myself for the onslaught, and here in forensic detail all the limitations of the script – about characters that don’t work, premises that don’t stand up, the quality of the dialogue. I read the 14 pages with my heart in my mouth as if they are a indictment of the whole project, of the Gap year, of myself. Then I find I can slowly sigh with relief, in fact it doesn’t tear me to shreds, it just gives a really good critique. It feels almost like a victory. I feel insanely happy, if you can describe happiness as knowing that I will have to go through hell and back again, to make it work. But, best of all they have selected it for sharing officially with the film community, which means that this influential group of writers will send it around the industry – once it is re-worked.

It feels this week like all the world is changing. There were two deaths recently. We go with Mawa and Avva to meet Daya aunty in Burgess Hill. It is impossible to think of the house without Arul, in every plant, in every blade of grass, his spirit is still there. We all feel as if he is in the room with us. His two sisters are there and we have a lovely visit from Yves and Loulou. The Chinnappas and Durais friends since Daya aunty and Mawi were college room mates over 50 years ago have always felt like the same family – part of my larger family.

We also hear that Kamal Tayiji has passed away in London. Our thoughts inevitably go to Shyam Tayaji and the boys and Poonam. To see them over the years, both living in Kew, spending time in the gardens, with the family has been lovely. The family is pulled together by grief, we do not manage to visit them before we fly off to Beijing.
We go to Drummond street, with the entire Chinnappa family for some dosas. Of course I have to pop into our favourite Raavi’s to pick up some Haleem. It has been our favourite ever since we were at university. Everyone goes to the vegetarian restaurants but there sitting in between, grubby and forlorn sits Raavis. It has always looked like the poor relation but unknown to nearly all of London, it has always has the best Indian (well Pakistani food) available in London. And there sitting in front of a poster that resonates with us we see this lovely lady, reading Anna Karenina. She is the owner’s daughter, full of life, thrilled to hear about our adventures. She wishes she could join us and wants to do a long trip with her family. I don’t know why it makes me so happy to meet her, it just does.


We also meet the gang in a new resto behind the new St Pancras station. It is Maznah’s birthday; we are meeting her after years. Vipul sis also there as are the Subjallys, Dodhias and Wickremasinghes. I swear this place used to be an old S&M bar, but all we do tonight is drink too much, behave badly, get told off by our spouses and leave happy that some things, like Dodhia’s jokes never change.

 

We spend a wonderful evening with the Durdys. Cameron and Liyaan were at nursery together, at Daisies. After an early supper we all head off to see the launch of The Shard, the latest skyscraper on the London landscape. The excitement is that we will be attempting to witness the official laser show from an unofficial place – Matt’s office in Guy’s hospital, right next door! What fun we had as we ran through corridors and up and down stairs looking for the best vantage point. We never did find a good spot but that did not stop us from feeling that no one was closer to the Shard that night than us.

It feels like we have come home but then tomorrow, we leave for Beijing.

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Summer in Siberia

My contributions to this blog have been rather like summer in Siberia – a rare event, feeling the need to pull my weight, so here goes.

Early July found us back in Beijing to board the train to Moscow. Actually, it turned out to be 3 trains. One of the myths about this journey is that there is a single train called the Trans Siberian. In fact, the original name in Russian is for the railroad route – The Great Siberian Way and there are multiple trains covering the route. You can begin the journey from Beijing like us on the Trans-Mongolian via Ulaanbaatar (UB) or Trans-Manchurian via Harbin or start from Vladivostok on Trans-Siberian only.

Our first train was # 23 a Chinese train that left Beijing at 8 am on 10th July and delivered us to UB at 1320 the next afternoon.  Several hours were taken up in the border crossing where our passports were checked and the whole undercarriage replaced with a narrower gauge, 10 cms different. The train was fairly basic but comfortable with clean linen and we had a compartment of 4 to ourselves. Our carriage was bustling with excitement, mostly tourists and all of us knew we were setting off on an epic journey. Our route via Mongolia would cover 7621 kilometres and cross nearly 10 time zones. The Atlantic crossing was only half this distance.

I really knew little about Mongolia before we arrived. The archetypal image I had was of yaks and yurts but modern Mongolia sounded intriguing as Sean had told us about the enormous copper mine that had been discovered. Our arrival coincided with the opening of the biggest festival of the year – Nadaam, kind of like the Mongolian equivalent of the Olympics and Independence Day. Their sports consist of wrestling, archery and horse riding, nowadays the only reminder of what a fierce warrior race they once were. UB itself is an ugly concrete town but it was filled with happy smiling people just enjoying the festival spirit. So we forgave the enormous traffic jam as we tried to leave town for our Ger camp and just enjoyed the colours and people watching instead.

We knew we had left the city behind when the van stopped and we had to transfer into a large tank-like vehicle to continue. Then it became off-road or rather, up hill, down valley and through river till we reached Tuul Riverside Lodge, our home for the next two nights.

Recommended by the Hintons as the best camp in Mongolia because it has en suite facilities and good food, it certainly lived up to its promise.

We could feel the efficient German hands behind the camp and on our last day met the wonderful Suzan Samandari and her husband for ourselves. Suzan went beyond the call of duty and invited us into her lovely home to use the internet as we waited for a show at the Opera house (folk singing and dancing and throat singing and an amazing variety of instruments from the National Orchestra), before boarding the train. Nearly two decades in Mongolia, they are the ones who run Nomad Tours now, the company originally set up by the Hintons as newlyweds and it was inspiring to see a glimpse of their fulfilling lives. Thank you. Later, bumping into old friends of the Hintons from Sydney, Silan and his son Rehan made us realise what a small world it is really, for certain types of people who are always chasing new frontiers. Although the copper rush is going to be significant for the Mongolian economy I could not help feeling that the gentle, simple nomadic way of life is dying fast, although Tarun and Liyaan who had an afternoon with a nomad and his seemingly rather wild horses may disagree.

A beautiful young Mongolian guide Tsetseg Jargal, befriended Liyaan as she was trying to paint the landscape and painted our names in Ancient Mongolian.  We will treasure this reminder of an ancient land and fearless people always. Go soon.

Our second train was a modern Russian one – # 363 left UB at 21.10 on 13th July and arrived at Irkutsk about 8 am on the 15 th. Actually, after two nights on the train, no dining car and Moscow time being observed everywhere – when we were clearly nowhere near Moscow, our body clocks and minds had begun to lose track of time and space.

The provodnitsa (attendant) on the train looked forbidding but was in reality very sweet and Liyaan thought the train was really cool because it had sleek upholstery and hidden compartments.

Definitely a step up from the Chinese train. As we drove away from Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, my knowledge of geography was about to be vastly improved. A visit to the museum at the limnological institute on the shores of Lake Baikal taught me that 20 percent of the world’s fresh water can be found in Lake Baikal, at 1637 metres, the deepest lake in the world with over 2600 endemic species.

Lena our guide took us to our homestay in Listvanskaya  village.  Apparently, Galina’s modest wooden cabin, is the most luxurious in Listvanskaya village because it has a shower and hot running water. This journey has certainly reminded the three of us of the many things we take for granted in our everyday lives of privilege and hot showers and laundry facilities are high on the list.

Nigel and Linda our Kiwi neighbours from the train continue to the homestay with us and we enjoy their stories about living in Japan for 3 years and Tarun is intrigued by the idea of attending a job fair, instead of retiring, ” just to see what happens”, as they did. Wandering around the village on the first afternoon I was struck with how such a beautiful place could also be so bleak, even in the summer. The weather was cold and grey and wet and Siberia, even in summer was living up to its reputation of being the end of the earth, where everyone was sent as punishment just like the Decembrists.

Is the link between the weather and character fully examined and documented somewhere? Or was I just being unkind and forgetting the luminosity of the evenings and the people picnicking and bathing?

Moving on to the last train – # 63 which left Irkutsk at 19.10 on the 15th and arrived in the early hours of 21st in Moscow. It was a basic, rather old-fashioned Russian train with wooden fittings and our fellow travellers were all Russian.

I was bitterly disappointed to find that my knowledge of Russian from my teenage years had all but vanished. I could still read everything and understand a few words here and there but absolutely no chance of a conversation. This was in many ways the most difficult part of the journey and also the dullest. The Siberian scenery is monotonous and the towns are drab industrial wastelands. The stations are not exciting like Indian ones either, no decent food and only vast tankers of oil and sombrely dressed people with mostly dour faces.

We had plenty of time to reflect on our 44 weeks and laugh and cry at the treasure trove of memories we have collected. The combination of too much sleep and not enough food (I don’t think I can ever eat another pot noodle again!) and the stark realisation that our Planet Sarwal adventures must end soon made it an emotionally charged few days full of reflection. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was NOT the right choice of book for the journey either, it was too raw and too bitter. I wish I had chosen to re-read Anna Karenina instead as Tebby had suggested.

Rather like a character in a Chekhov play, I started longing for and dreaming about Moscow, wondering whether we would ever get there. Suddenly, in the middle of the night we arrived. My last visit was the summer of 1981, a wonderful carefree student summer spent with my uncle and aunt Lali mama and Maya aunty and my cousins Nandu and Pavan who were living in Moscow at the time. The garrulous taxi driver who picked us up at the station insisted on giving us a wonderful tour of Moscow by night and I marvelled at seeing the brand new luxury shops and restaurants along the broad boulevards and the size and beauty of the old iconic images of the Kremlin, the Bolshoi and St Basil’s cathedral.

Tarun’s mother had arrived at the hotel just before us from Delhi. She turned 83 last week and Russia has always been on her list of places to visit – it is a relief that our careful co-ordination of visas, flights etc. has yet again miraculously worked out.

The next morning, as I wandered around Moscow, looking for a hairdresser and later, on our guided walking tour exploring Moscow’s rich literary and cultural heritage, I was struck by how easy it is just to wander around now and how 30 years had changed Moscow beyond my 18 year old self’s imagination, then gripped by the politics and propaganda of the Cold War. A deep sense of well-being has somehow returned and in retrospect the journey had a lot to do with it.

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London Calling

This dash to London will be the longest emotional journey of our year and like a giant blue streak across the atlas it feels like a violence to our wandering. But, we will be back in 10 days in Beijing to continue where we left off. And so, as we land I think of that as a small treat this lies in wait for us. I will keep it at the back of my mind.
Meanwhile, we have to confront our choices, as they seem to gather in London, one on top of the other, like some upside down emotional pyramid. Liyaan has to sit for tests, to explore schooling options; we have to confront living apart from each other, depending on the outcome. I am expecting feedback on my script and will go in and see the BRCS to talk about the return to Geneva. Seetha will think about her own work and career, we will look at the Camberwell house and decide whether to put it on the market.

We stop to pick up much missed treats at the M&S in Earl’s Court and watch the early morning walk to work. New eyes and the early morning light make each person a character, each journey a story. The Londoners have put on their shabby best, telling themselves in the mirror that it will do. In the shirt that is not quite tucked in, the pink tie with the dark suit and a bag that will not match with anything else all the character floods through. Most are thinking about what’s to come, some are already on their telephones, but one girl is walking slowly replaying a happy memory, one boy is walking his younger brother to school ( he clips him around his head) then they smile and seek each others hand, an old lady looks worried for some others.

As we pass the embankment our own memories return, of a whale lost and stranded in central London, of the hallowed ground (for me) where I would pick up and bring Liyaan every day after school. The buildings look old, grimy brick and grubby concrete, but London wears it true colours on the inside. I imagine I see, and then feel myself, the joy of a beautiful London day – singing in my heart. Fluffy white clouds scudding across blue skies and the long green grass tousled by a playful breeze.

We reach Pimlico, where Moose and Zuleikha are there to welcome us. I go down to the basement to park the Kia. There is a Porsche to the left and a vintage Bentley to the right, a Maserati around the corner, all gathering dust, waiting for their owners to come and give them a spin in the summer. I feel like I am in a 70s movie and that a moustachioed man in a black turtle neck will suddenly appear with his dolly bird and drive away.

Upstairs, hanging over the balcony we look out at the Thames as it slides past the window. It feels contained, controlled, fit only for purpose, quite unlike the Yangtze. Cyrus is also in town and a few minutes later we are all hugging each other – pushing 50 and fat, but so easily we slip back into being our 20 year old selves – even the jokes have not changed. Moose smiles – we are at home. Liyaan, her emotional antennae on high, senses that we are having a moment.  Our reunion sadly lasts only a couple of hours, then Moose leaves for Denver, Cyrus to spend time with Dinu and Dolly before returning to Bombay. We say bye to Zuleikha and cross the river to go to Camberwell for a very welcome home cooked family meal at Radha’s.

As the light continues well into the night and we return to look again over the river, despite all our wanderings, for a moment, it feels like the centre of the universe, like Cuzco for the Incas –  as if all distances are measured from here.

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Planet Earth calling Planet Sarwal

The days seem numbered all of a sudden. That delicious feeling first thing in the morning that you do not need to rush out of bed is tinged with an afterthought – this is about to end.   And despite all that I have promised myself, it takes the shine off the light. The last weekend at the end of a very long summer and I cannot stay lying in the grass.

Which is a pity because we are in Chiang Mai, where those who worship the lotus will come to feast. This is not Shanghai where they will put up buildings in a matter of weeks, it is not the West coast, the birthplace of ideas that will take us into our future, this is a place, where simple pleasures, momentary and everlasting, lie in wait to catch you unawares. Mervyn who has been in over 60 countries knows that is why he chooses to call it home.
I stop taking notes for the blog, it seems like too much effort in the dwindling light. But then I see Liyaan, her eyes closed,  lying in the stream letting the water wash over her face. Later as we climb the stairs it seems like somehow we are being pushed upwards. Then from the Buddhist temple nestled in a cave, looking down on the rainforest, time, for a moment seems to stand still, as if at some level, everything stays still, despite everything that goes on, everything we are doing, have done.
When we get back we join the throng walking up and down the night market, it feels less like a place to buy and sell, but to be. Most around us are Thais, taking the air on a Saturday night, eating from the small stalls, having their feet massaged. It is a moment of loveliness. The sign on the way up to the temple said ” to live in the moment” . This is what they seem to know how to do in Chiang Mai, there is no desire to be elsewhere, no desire to be different, other, they know deep in their souls that at some level time stands still for us all.
In the morning we have to get up on time, do some work before we go explore. We end up fighting and screaming. It is like getting up from the long summer grass and going indoors. We will be in London later this week. It feels like a world away, 52 weeks of summer coming to an end – but hopefully we take some of Chiang Mai with us.

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Chinn’s blog on China

Trying to write this sitting in a lovely chalet at Sensi Paradise, Koh Tao aka Turtle island, Thailand – a one hour flight followed by a two hour ferry ride from Bangkok. Tempting to listen to the gentle waves  off the Gulf of Thailand or snorkel, swim or best of all just dream!! But have to get on with Blog Backlog apparently! Just a few random thoughts on China to contribute follow here.

It was with a little trepidation that we took our first steps with the Sarwalian Planeteers. We could not make South America but had a soft landing in China. Seetha met us at Beijing Airport on 26th June after a routine almost boring overnight flight from Bengaluru via Bangkok. The airport was a fabulous curved building – vast and functional at the same time aesthetically pleasing – lots of curved wooden ribs on the roof, like the inside of a whale?  Plenty of very helpful staff – even a small keyboard to assess the Immigration officials or complain. We learned later that people actually look at this data – someone who travels often had complained a few times and was picked up out of the line when he next came in and asked about his criticisms/suggestions. Somewhat frightening as it means Big Brother is always around. The New Otani Hotel where we were booked, was  Japanese owned, well appointed but dated.  I mentioned in the appraisal form that many of the staff did not know enough English – before we reached the Airport our tour guide got a call about it from the manager of the hotel! Our guide Shirley worked for Ritz Tours and our Beijing agenda was packed. We started at Tiananmen Square, so vast it can hold a million or so, The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, the Olympic Site (Birds Nest stadium, the Water Cube), the Ming Tombs, the Temple Of Heaven. Rani will never forgive me for making her walk for over an hour on the Great Wall. Over 4 days we were given enough time for a good look around but as always could have done with more.There were plenty of tourists but I would say over 90% were Chinese – very well behaved and almost always in neat groups lead by flag waving guides all with individual loud speakers – these were too noisy. Plenty of uniformed staff, loudspeakers with piped music and announcements in public areas, parks and monuments. Excellent Roads, never saw a pot hole, some 8 lane highways with service roads and signage in both English and Chinese. Everything was clean, neat, no sign of litter – someone always around sweeping /cleaning, lots of useable free toilets- a few up to international standards. We had one free day and we spent it in the Hutong Area with the Sumanth family, fellow Coorgs from California. These are the alleyways of old Beijing, full of shops, restauraants and old houses. Lots of food including strange edible insects like crickets and even scorpions!! Reminded one of some areas of Delhi.

Later, we did our cheap clothes shopping in Yashow market – like Fashion Street in Bombay with Electronics. This is the Capital of the Knock off world of Fashion – Gucci,Armani and more. We had to bargain furiously -Tarun did it so well that the shopkeepers almost beat him up!!! The shop keepers will insult you and ask you to go away if you ask for ridiculous prices. It was interesting to see lots of Tamilians in a group, shopping – men in hitched up Mundus and women in glittering sarees – like Singapore was some 20 odd years ago. Right next door to this mall was the genuine designer mall, all leading brand names but fewer shoppers. Lots of restaurants and we had a great Western meal.

Shirley, was over-efficient, over-enthusiastic but kind and ever considerate to her honarary GrandMa and Grand Pa. Shirley was with us for the full two weeks aided by local guides in all the places we visited. Seetha chose the tour well thanks to the Sumanths, who also booked their China trip at the same time.

31st May to 3rd June was the YANGTZE RIVER CRUISE. After the flight from the national terminal at Beijing Capital Airport to Yichang we were taken to the cruise ship VICTORIA JENNA. All the transfers were painless and well organized. All local guides including drivers expect to be tipped – 3 to 5 dollars per person per day. No bones are made that it is a large portion of their earnings. Very comfy ship and definitely ship shape – 200 passengers and a similar number of staff to look after us. Very similar to our previous cruises, this is a new ship, 10,000 tonnes. Good choice of food, even for vegetarians like me, no Indian though! All buffet style but if one is prepared to pay extra, a la carte available in a different restuarant. Massage, exercise, entertainment, bars, library, all available. We disembark for the high pointof the trip – the 3 gorges dam site – mind boggling in every way, tour arrangements were perfect. Lots of climbing was avoided by banks of escalators ascending over 300 feet, sprawling viewing areas, excellent landscaping and great visual charts maps and descriptions in English. Lots to learn for us Indians – will we ever??

After our return the ship was moved by five locks up nearly 200 meters.Watching the water fill up in the locks was a full time occupation for many. In the morning we were at the largest man made lake in the world. Chairman Mao was credited with dreaming, planning and making this a reality. He is still revered and always referred to as Chairman. His portrait is everywhere and the little red book is a tourist must buy!

Chongqing- we came to this enormous but ugly city to see the pandas. In contrast, the pandas were very cute indeed and as it was raining lots of them were out and about to entertain us. Next stop was Xian to see the Terracotta warriors. Excellent museum/warehouse, so well kept, almost as if artificially manufactured for the adoring Chinese tourists and wondrously ooh-aahing foreigners like us. Again, massive crowds, extremely loud guides and click-clacking cameras and iphones. The visit to the large wild goose Pagoda was enhanced by chanting Buddhist monks and nuns. In-between we had lunch where we watched noodle preparation and dinner was followed by a Tang dynasty dance performance in a splendid old fashioned music hall.

Guilin was all it was said to be – mist veiled mountains seen from a silken Li river as we sailed to Yangzhou - with every day life all around – fishermen, farmers and of course small boats selling fish and vegetables of all sorts. Shanghai certainly a world class city on all counts – I am sure Tarun will be more eloquent so back to him while I go back to relaxing!

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