Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Back to Ha Noi 24/4/2016

back at the Khách Sạn Thịnh Vượng (or Prosperity Hotel in English) Lan had been in contact with one of the bus operators that ran a service between Ha Long and Ha Noi and with our hotel placed directly on the side of the main route through (Highway 18),  she arranged with the driver for us to be picked up outside just a short while after. We grabbed our bags from the hotel lobby and waited outside by the edge of the carriageway whilst a barrage of vehicles raced frantically by, spewing dust clouds up into the air ready to be inhaled into our lungs. Just before 4:30pm a coach came roaring up the road and then broke hard to a screeching halt. Our bags were then grabbed and thrown on board and we were hurried onto the bus, the vehicle already moving away again before my foot had made it onto the first of the steps.

We were led down through the aisle to the back of the bus, bouncing off the arms of the people and chairs as it weaved its way back onto the road and accelerated back up to speed. Our bags were propped up and crammed wherever space could be made behind us and the steward gesticulated for another man to switch from his seat to another so that Lan and I could at least sit together. At this point the exchange that had been ongoing between Lan and the steward seemed to be getting more heated, apparent to me only by the look of nervousness shown on the faces around and Lans frustrated demeanour.

The trouble with Vietnamese is that to my ear it's often difficult to decipher the underlying emotion of a conversation. As the words rattled back and forth faster and faster and faster it became impossible to second guess what was actually going on, the whole thing reaching the point where the speed and the tone of the volleys being fired back and forth bore a striking resemblance to the alien dialect in Tim Burtons Mars Attacks. With the shots of verbal gunfire now rattling dangerously close overhead I ducked down for cover and waited for a break in bombardments. It was fair to assume by this point that Lan herself wasn't happy, and I was about to find out exactly why that was.

The bus that had picked us up wasn't the bus that Lan had arranged for us to be on. The reason this bus had roared up so quickly and then rushed off again twice as fast was seemingly down to the fact that the driver had taken the opportunity to "passenger grab" from the bus that we should have been on that was trailing up behind. When the bus had pulled up outside of the hotel earlier, the steward of the bus had lied and bullshitted to Lan, rushing us on board before it was too late for us to do anything about it simply in order to cheat the fare from the bus driver following. What a bastard. Whilst Lan continued to seethe she took the time to phone and explain the situation to driver of the bus that we hadn't managed to catch, before then engaging with a lady across the aisle in Vietnamese in order to clarify exactly what was going on and make sure the destination was the one that we wanted to get to. I swilled out my mouth from a bottle of water in order to wash away the dust and the dryness and slipped down a little further in chair in order to try and find comfort where little was forthcoming.

Highway 18 between Han Oi and Ha Long is described by one particular writer on Trip Advisor as "One of the ugliest, least scenic roads in Vietnam", and it's hard to mount any serious defence against those words. For the next 3 hours and 48 minutes as the light faded from the sky I felt nearly every bump and dip of the road with nothing visually to distract me through the dirt covered window. It was a relief when the the barren darkness outside eventually gave way to the brighter welcoming lights of Ha Noi, on the signs, on the the buildings and even the traffic.

After a short taxi ride from the bus drop off to the Old Quarter and getting checked in to our hotel, there was just enough time for us to head out and get some food. At just before 10:30pm whilst we headed the  short walk to the small convenience store close to the hotel, the sky was lit up blue by a  flash of lightening, shortly followed by another, and another. Our window of being able to stay dry was closing fast.

With the nighttime snacks and drinks bagged up we hurriedly started to head back to the hotel, getting a minute into a 2 minute walk before our fortune for the day finally decided to run out. A few seconds after the first drop of rain had seeped through the cover of cloud above, the heavens fully opened and the torrential downpour began. Lan in her wisdom decided to make a run for it leaving me and the bags to fend for ourselves.

A few seconds out in that kind of rain is all it takes for you to be as wet as if you had been strapped to a stool by angry villagers in rural England a dunked into a pond and for that reason I looked to take shelter under the overhanging canopies of the buildings nearby. These provided only slim cover from the rain with frequent gaps between the current refuge and the next as well as the occasional rip leaking water directly down as though it was coming from a fully opened tap. There was no cover however from the pools and streams that were beginning to flow under foot and each time I stopped it  would only be a short time until I was forced to move off again.  With bikes lining the pavements in front of the buildings it was impossible to get close to the hotel without occasionally having to jump out over puddles and into the street to get around them, or occasionally just clamber over if there was no other way but with no sign of the weather letting at all, desperate times called for desperate measures.

It took me between 10 and 15 minutes to navigate that last 100 meters or so to the "Lucky 2" hotel and by the time I arrived I was completely sodden, maybe even more so than if I had just bitten the bullet and just walked back initially when the first droplet fell.

But the way I did it was a little bit more fun and gave me another experience to commit to memory, and finally to paper incase that bit ever fails.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Yen Tu Mountain - 24/4/2016

.......or "Khu di tích Danh thắng Yên Tử" to give its Vietnamese name.

I knew nothing about this place before we arrived. We got there within a half hour taxi drive from the busy roadside mosquito ridden hotel at which we had stayed, through long and wide country roads with only the briefest of stops on the way to buy some Banh Mi for breakfast in what turned out to be an almost wholly deserted cafe. I thought we were just going to see a temple before heading back to Ha Noi.

At the base of a hill surrounded by stalls selling everything from brushed off lumps of root ginger to hats and keyrings we left our taxi and caught a little electric buggy to the entrance proper. Here, inside a large pagoda like entrance were more items available to buy, mostly aimed and maximising tourist revenue but also local delicacies such as duck eggs and coffee. I definitely needed the latter.

With the heat already beginning to rise into the late twenties and the sun beating viciously down, I thought about buying a hat to replace the one that I had lost the evening before. Lan however was not hanging about and before I had the chance to signal my intent she was halfway around the courtyard housing partially completed large temples and was making her way out of sight. Dusting my heels to catch up with her I just had time to have a moan at her about dashing off without me before we reached the bottom station of a cable car system that was in place to carry tourists such as us up the hill. We brought a couple of tickets from the trip fund, joined the "no queue" queue and then entered into the barrel shaped carriage to begin the long ascent.

It didn't take long for the view to blow me away, the canopied tops of the green trees against the steep slope of the hill passing far underneath. In a lift encapsulated by glass as the scenery fell away below, my enthralment was a stark contrast to the feeling that Lan was now experiencing. It seemed that my vietnamese buddy had suddenly developed a case of acrophobia, or a "fear of heights" for anyone who can't be bothered to access Google.

We exited the station at the top of the ride onto a small stone courtyard, layered with the occasional waft of smoke that drifted across from the offerings being burnt in front several statues off to the right. At the far side a small exit led onto another small yard where a set of crooked stone steps led up to another level behind, the elevation crowded with people of all ages and ability ascending and descending its steep variable curvature, some with the aid of sticks and supports, some carrying food, some carrying others, almost all wearing hats. By the time I had made hard work of the climb to the top I was already starting to sweat profusely and and immediately went about seeking some shade from the sun and and a wall to support my tired legs. I then grabbed my bottle from my bag and took the opportunity to take on some much needed fluids at the top of the  climb. Except it wasn't the top. It was pretty far from it.

Walking up and around to the right of the temple we passed more small refreshment stalls, selling such things as sausages, ice cream and drinks. The pathway sticking to the contours on the side of the hill took us up and down steep sets of steps and wound around taking in natural waterfalls where people could use the fresh flowing waters to cool themselves down and clean off a little. 5 minutes walking later and half a gallon of dispersed sweat more, we arrived at the base of the second lift, jumped into the available car and one of us looked out again as we gracefully slid up against and above the side of the mountain, over the trees before being completely engulfed by hillside cloud. The other one sat with her back pressed against the back of the seat inside waiting for it all to be over.

At the top station everything was glum and wet, the cooler air causing condensation to drip from every available beam on to whatever object happened to lay below,  be that concrete flooring, wooden tables or an uncovered coffee cup. Outside we walked through the grey blanket air along the well kept path lined with long grass and flowers as it again followed the lie of the land, with each climb that followed on from the previous dip becoming more tiring than the one before it. Eventually, we wearily came upon a small crop of crooked buildings that lay amongst the scattered remnants of ones that had stood there before, with the outlines of walls still visible with exposed tiled floors, all under the gaze of a giant bronze buddha that looked down upon them. In the still standing buildings refreshments could be brought, sweetcorn was being boiled and consumed whilst a man brutally hacked sugar cane to size to be fed it into a press for squeezing every last ounce of juice from within it. Lan took the smart decision to take on the liquid required. I however as a diabetic decided to give this one a miss on this occasion, partly playing it safe due to the "sugar" tag in it's name, but also partly due to the fact that to me, well, it really just didn't look all that appealing.

Looking up from that point past the buddha you could just make out the top of the mountain menacingly cloaked by the shifting mist and cloud that caused it to be often more than partially obscured. We debated the option of going up for the few minutes, Lan seemingly torn between tiredness and opportunity and with me no stranger to walking away from things (that don't really matter), the odds were probably stacked against us carrying on, but the opposite happened. Having spent so long getting up to this point and with the likelihood of neither of us ever returning we decided we would push on as far as we could, accepting that it was probably going to be a painful last push, but also harbouring the notion that sometimes it's better to live a fuller life rather than just a long one.  Personally I have no idea why you have to choose!

It didn't take long to question the wisdom of our actions, as Lan started to struggle up every new set of steps which had started to come upon us increasingly frequently and my two top system of t-shirt under polo shirt became increasingly heavy and wet due to the combination of the moisture in the air and my own perspiration, The mood however was being markedly lifted by the almost constant greetings that were now being extended, sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in Vietnamese but always conveying the same tone. This wasn't the the kind of greeting you might get elsewhere, where friendliness can be used as the doorway to sell you anything from a hat to a suit to tour. These were everyday normal vietnamese people being everyday normal vietnamese people and I was non vietnamese person doing something not many non vietnamese people do away from the normal tourist trail. After the feelings of frustration that had started to creep in over the previous few weeks in some of the more the built up areas and cities, this was probably the kind of experience that I needed to have to bring everything back to reality. As seemingly the only western person to be on that mountain at that time, the warmth from the Vietnamese people that I crossed that day wasn't because of any desire to monetise, exploit or use me for their personal gain, it was just simply just to make me feel welcome, to extend the hand of friendship and occasionally have the chance to have their photograph taken with a real life giant.

The final push to the very top involved clambering up over steep angled rocks, carefully using infrequently placed carved foot holes the further the climb agains those that were beginning their descent. At the very top was a limited space where the Dong Pagoda sat and people could take time to offer up prayers against the smoke fronted alter whilst the whole place somehow purveyed a sense of calm chaos, people perching upon the raised up verges as they waited for an opportunity to worship.

On the stones below groups of people sat, talked and ate the food they had dutifully carried up, some enduring the trek all the way from the base of the mountain without the need for cable car assistance to reach the peak. No matter how we had managed to get there though, many of us displayed the same traits of exasperation and contentment. The view from the top is as breathtaking as you might expect and the feeling from being there is almost that of stillness and enlightenment, which just happens to sit neatly between those of achievement and exhaustion.

Now all we had to do was get back down.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Images of Asia and Indonesia

I'm trying to write up the last entries of the travel blog, to amply wrap up a project 2 + years in the making, It's not as easy as you might think, well, not for me anyway. This is something that has consumed me for a long time and now spat me out decisively from the other end, but even as I jot this down I'm not entirely convinced that this thing is completely over, but without funds or a way of making money at the moment, it's fair to say that it's definitely over for now.

It's a struggle to hit the right notes, the correct tone to truly convey the final part of this journey. I want to reflect on the experience as a whole and not on the feelings that I have been battling against since my return, a cocktail of frustration and exhaustion mixed with coffee and junk food. Luckily I don't have any Gin nearby. That I feel....would be bad.

Anyway this isn't a supposed to be a full entry, but rather a brief update to point towards the inter web location that I have uploaded some of the more interesting images that were captured on my (now expensively broken) camera. I have tried to add a mixture of content, add keywords, and break it down into region in order to make it interesting and varied and it's been incredibly difficult to pick out the ones that I think others might find appealing. In just 5 and half months of travel I took far in excess of 10,000 photographs, entranced by the places that I found myself in, the objects, the people, the life. the imagery.

This started out as an adventure and became a labour of love and I think that comes across in both the images I have uploaded and in the words I have (often clumsily) written. It has by no means been a smooth ride. It has cost me all of my finances and left me with little unscathed, has broken me physically several times and has been mentally taxing but if I could do it again I would.

Because for every tough moment, there were dozens of positives. For the one confrontational Burmese man there are the legions who made me feel welcome in their respective countries regardless of nationality or religion. Every physical break has repaired, everything material I lost I can live without.

The struggle is now finding what to do in the here and the now......and that's the bit that is causing me an issue.