Sai wan Swimming Shed: One of lesser known best Hong Kong Sunsets

Sai Wan Swimming Shed is merely a 15 minute walk from the nearest MTR Station in Kennedy Town. Yet, it looks like decades away from all that Hong Kong is thought to be. Say Hong Kong and people across the world get images of a city of skyscrapers, of concrete and glass, of neon lights lit harbours.

Sai Wan Swimming Shed at the sunset
Sai Wan Swimming Shed at the sunset

And here is that beauty from the 1960s that must have seen thousands of hardy swimmers take a plunge into the South China Sea. This is also a place that gets perhaps the best sunsets in the city. Almost Always, a rarity in Hong Kong with its crazy and cloudy weather full of thunderstorms, and of course typhoons.

Another View of Sai Wan Swimming Shed
Another View

Once there were many in the town, scattered around city’s really long coastline. Then came the swimming pools and they started disappearing with Sai Wan Swimming Shed being the only one left. Hopefully it will survive as it has both: it’s loyal swimmers from decades and a new group of lovers: Instagrammers. Yeah, the modest swimming shed has become such an instagram sensation that one has to queue for hours to reach get a chance to walk over the beautiful shed.

That's how busy the new Instagram sensation gets!
That’s how busy the new Instagram sensation gets!

Yet, the effort and the wait is absolutely worth it.

Pro Tip: Choose a weekday and you may cut the waiting time shorter by at least an hour.
Pro Tip 2: Respect others, specially the swimmers as they have the first right to the shed. Also, do not take more than 15-20 minutes at the actual walkway as it inconveniences others. Also, do not peek into modest changing huts.

You can add to the adventure by adding a 2 hour long hike in the adjacent Mount Davis Hiking Path strewn with war time relics from the World War II. The place also marked the city boundary of the City of Victoria- the official name of Hong Kong then and you would find milestones marking that, old Army Batteries, structures, a private cemetery of the Euroasian community in Hong Kong (Bruce Lee is from the community). The hike is easy and rewarding especially on clear day for reflection pictures. A detailed post on that later.

Getting there: Take Exit B from Kennedy Town MTR  station, then hop on any of the buses No.58, 58A or 59 and get off at Caritas Jockey Club Hostel Mount Davis. Then look for the Entrance as in the picture below.
You can also walk along Victoria Road from Kennedy Town MTR station if you have time for taking in more views. It takes around 15-20 minutes.

The Entrance: Take the steps down, remember that they are a little steep
The Entrance: Take the steps down, remember that they are a little steep

And at the end, do not forget to bow down to the God Of Land, curiously blessing visitors in a swimming shed!

Land of God in the swimming shed...
Land of God in the swimming shed…

Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street: Xiamen’s Gem

When in the city, everyone goes to the Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street. They say that over a billion people pass by this street every single year. Over a billion, to just one street. The Boy from Babhnan had to go. 

He was in Xiamen, formerly Amoy, one of the coolest cities in South China. A city which got its name changed and restored so many times as few others in the world would have. A Ming rebel Zheng Chenggong had set a military base here and changed its name into Siming- meaning remembering the Ming in 1650. Later, when the Qings took the city back, it was back to be Xiamen. After the Xinhai Revolution that established the republic in 1912, it was back to Siming. Come 1933, it was back to, again, what it is now. Interesting, no? 

This is a city that sits just across Taiwan and one can in fact see the rebel island across the strait from its beautiful Gulang Island. Gulang island was a beautiful vehicle free escape from the urban rush, alas, the island is now getting crushed under tourists’ weight. 

Back to the Pedestrian Street. Dating back to 1925, Zhongshan Lu is the oldest commercial street in Xiamen. The over a kilometer long walking street is filled with pretty shops, big department stores, chic cafes, restaurants specialising in the cuisine from world over, and so on. 

Most interesting part though, is that smoking in not allowed in the street! The boy was surprised to the core! He had seen smoking to be the normal even in these times across the South East Asia including China. There still remain restaurants one could enter with a lit cigarette even now. He had always associated this with seafaring being one of the very basis of economy here. So ban on smoking in a public street was surprising for sure! 

The street is one of the ultimate examples of the East Meets West cliche- with McDonalds sitting next to traditional Chinese eateries and shops selling tea- a hundred kinds of teas. One could buy them in whichever form they want- as loose tea leaves to prepacked ones. Ditto for the food items- be they dried crab, squid, fish, pork floss, or otherwise, nuts, durian, pineapple and mango candies, mooncakes of different flavours, roast duck and more.

Tired, the boy went to grab a quick bite of the street food. Fujian province has its own cuisine markedly different from the rest of the Chinese variants. The boy had noted that the focus on seafood in Fujian sits along lots of vegetarian options- a wonder in China. Rarely had he been happier while travelling in the South East Asia. 

The signature experience in the street, though, is many of the jewellery stores making necklaces made of pearls harvested from live oysters right in front of you. He decided not to have this one. 

Another thing that strikes about Zhongshan Lu is beautiful amalgamation of architecture styles- Victorian, Venetian and traditional Chinese. Many of them were in fact shop houses, or Tong Laus, as they are called in Cantonese. In these, the ground floor used to be for shops, while the merchants and the family lived above. The boy remembered Babhnan- his Kasba with similar houses. Of course very basic, not grand. Babhnan is no treaty port after all, it is a blurry kasba even within the district! He then remembered the Tong Lau(s) of his new home- Hong Kong, fast disappearing. 

Home, he thought of. 

Yangshuo: Silk Ribbon of rivers, jade hairpins of hills

Unending series of karst mountains stood tall, seemingly rising straight out of the river. Wispy-bearded cormorant fishermen set their birds off to get the catch in a while. The boy from Babhnan was on a bamboo raft, cruising in the Yulong river in Yangshuo. 

Bamboo rafting in Yulong River
Bamboo rafting in Yulong River

A short Google ‘research’ before setting out to the sleepy and beautiful, almost mystical city had thrown up Bill Clinton’s famous statement after visiting the region in 1998. Visibly flabbergasted by the beauty, he had then said: “I heard of the name of Li River long ago. Today I visit Li River. It is more vivid and genuine than what I thought before. Nowhere is like Guilin. It makes me think of the traditional Chinese paintings.”

West Street in the morning
West Street in the morning

He had got it partly right. Had he drove a little further down or had talked to the locals, he would have known of the local wisdom embodied in a saying. “Guilin has the best scenery under the heaven, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful.” He missed it by a whisker. Understandable though, world leaders do not often have that much time with them. 

Yellow Cloth Shoal- the picture behind 20 Yuan notes
Yellow Cloth Shoal– the picture behind 20 Yuan notes

The boy had much more time on him, though. One doesn’t get to escape Hong Kong, a maddening city in its centre, everyday. Particularly not in China, getting even more urbanised with crowds that can put even Saigon traffic to shame! Yet, there is a city with no malls. Even Xiapu had one- a humongous WallMart! Yeah, the Tourists have started taking over this hitherto muse of the Chinese poets and painters for centuries, and the travellers, especially backpackers’ hideout after the country finally opened up. 

All set for day's cycling, hiking and rafting
All set for day’s cycling, hiking and rafting

The sun has risen on the city that lies at the confluence of the Li and Yulong rivers, forming part of a waterway system that connects the Yangtze with the Pearl River Delta.

So what if 20 Yuan note has Chairman Mao on the front, I can also pretend!

The boy was in the West Street sipping his coffee and munching on the sandwitch- the really scenic centre of the town with small canals crisscrossing beautiful houses, most converted in cafes and shops now. And it is noisy, busy and crowded any time of the day- the exact opposite of the scenic beauty outside the city- rustic, rural and laid back. Yet, it is worth a visit every evening till you are in the town. Best thing? The legend has it that more English is spoken in the West street than in the rest of China taken together. 

XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)
XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)

It was time to head to Yulong Bridge for Bamboo rafting in the Yulong River, equally scenic but far less touristy than the Li river. It was to be a lovely day. West Street, out of the town, cycling through the paddy fields to the Moon Hill. Then leave the cycle and go for the short hike to the hill so named because of a natural, crescent shaped arch with beautiful views of the town below. Get back, move on to the Big Banyan Tree, believed to be 1400 years old. Go further and explore some caves if you wish. And then to the Yulong Bridge for the best steal- bamboo rafting on the river so serene and clean that you can see the all the way down to its base! All this as the Karst Mountains look on smilingly. Get back to the West Street and unwind with dinner and wash it down with Liquan, the famous local beer brewed in Guilin. 

A couple by the Yulong River
A couple by the Yulong River

Get up the next day for the famous RMB 20 exploration. The boy was so confused in the beginning with every second person selling him that tour- then he got it. This was to the place which is so famous for its beauty that China prints it on the back of 20 Yuan notes! The traveller in the boy never liked these tours. So he got the maps and the basics- went to the local bus stand. He was in XingPing, an ancient looking village some 45 minutes after. Lost in the rusty charm of the village he had almost forgotten what he came there for. He thanked the aunty when she showed him the Note with Yellow Cloth Shoal on the back and asked- no go? Yes Go, Now go- he almost screamed, thanked her profusely, paid the bill and ran! It indeed was a majestic view. 

Of love and photo shoots
Of love and photo shoots

Next in line was Fuli, the birthplace of the traditional painted Chinese fan, just about 8km out of town. The boy had time on him- so he then went to the village’s pier and set off to Dutou, another village, aboard yet another bamboo raft! Aah, the beauty! Back on the land, an ancient village, 800 years old Liugong right on the banks of Li river was calling. One of the least touristy in the whole area and rather well preserved historical buildings like the Moon Pavilion and Home of Senators, what else could one ask for. Or one could, Near the village were the famous three-color ponds, evidently with three different colours of water supernatural tales. The locals believe that water levels in the ponds remain the same throughout the year, no matter what season it is or how much is the level of the Li River. 

Serenity
Serenity

It was time to head back to the town. To come here again and again. Being in Hong Kong, just 4 hours away allows this, the boy thought and smiled. He had found his paddy fields yet again! 

West Street in the night

He had read about Han Yu’s description of the area 1200 years ago- “The river winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are like jade hairpins.”

New Cafe in the ancient village
New Cafe in the ancient village

Xi’an: A return to where Xuanzang came from

Happy birthday, Mr. Paanadey- the girl at reception said extending him a glass of fireball cocktail. She was clearly struggling with the last name of the boy from Babhnan. The twinkle in her eyes and happiness on her face was absolutely real though. The boy though was mighty surprised. How did you know, and realised! Oh, she would. She was checking him in with his passport. So that was why he was made to wait- she had some way to tell her colleagues and get him the drink! Xi’an had had begun on a high- both metaphorically and really! 

Welcome drink for the birthday boy in the hostel.
Welcome drink for the birthday boy

The boy had first known about the city in his history books documenting the travels of Chinese monk’s travels in India centuries ago. Hsüan-tsang was the name he knew him by. How could someone walk thousands of kilometers on feet, he wondered. That too for going to a country he knew nothing about, not even its language. And he lived in India for 17 years. The boy was fascinated. He started dreaming of making the journey back, to the place Hsüan-tsang, known as Xuanzang in his own city. 

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to

He was there, finally. He knew, now, much more about the city though. Its rich history, the famous Terracotta Warriors, Pagodas, palaces, and monasteries. Chang’an (Perpetual Peace), as Xi’an was earlier known, was the capital of China for 13 dynasties and 73 emperors- for over 1200 years. Think, if you can, of any other city. Wait, did the boy tell you that the city is home to the biggest ever palace built anywhere in the world! The Weiyang Palace, the main imperial palace of the Han and many of the later dynasties. It was built in 200 BC, just a few years after The Terracotta Army, depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China buried with him for protecting him in his afterlife.

The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army

Back to the palace, it covered 4.8 km² (1,200 acres), about 11 times the size of the Vatican City for comparison. Sad that little, if anything, remains of that.

Of course, he first ran to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, the last home of Xuanzang to pay his respects. He went in, paid his homage, chatted with him, and came out. Then he noticed that the pagoda visibly leaned to the west. He was surprised at the same not having gotten the name “Pisa of the East” as every such similarity gets! 

The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang
The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang and his pagoda

The evening had started descending, in the city and that birthday of the boy. It was time to head towards the City Wall- first built in 190 BC and built and rebuilt ever since till 15th. The legend is that if you do not do three things before you die, you are not a real Chinese. The three are- climbing on the Great Wall (The boy did), walking/cycling on the Xian City Wall (the boy did), and finally- bamboo rafting on the Li River (the boy did). Gosh, has the boy from the Ganga basin become Chinese or what!! 

Cycling on the City Wall
Cycling on the City Wall

The setting sun had turned the wall golden, a lovely golden rarely seen. The city looked beautiful. The boy cycled. Till he could. Soaking in the view, the history, the happiness. Cycling away to glory, and history!  Just like he would, decades ago on the muddy roads of his small villages thousands of kilometers away. This city was to stay with him, within him, forever. And yeah- temperature was Minus 7 degrees. The first time the boy from the plains had experienced subzero temperatures. He was to have many more. 

The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background
The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background

The sun had set. The city below was glowing below, like a river of colorful lights. It was the time to return for that night- not knowing that yet another surprise was waiting for him in the hostel. The rather warm staff had prepared vegetarian dumplings for him- for the final birthday celebration. How warm their hearts were- just like the dumplings! 

A scene in the Muslim Quarters
A scene in the Muslim Quarters

Aah Xian, my love! Those lovely days. Though never enough to live the city to the fullest. The Terracotta Army alone can keep one engaged for a full day. 

Oh, how did the boy forgot the Muslim Quarters! So bubbly and vibrant that one could just fail to notice that this was the starting point of the Silk Road! Yeah, Xian is the city from where started the Silk Road, and the Muslim Quarter its exact location! The boy had seldom seen such a medley of cultures! And spices, of course! 

Interestingly, the Muslim Quarter begins just after the Bell Tower and ends with the Drum Tower- both so Chinese! Aah, the amalgamation of the cultures!

The Grand Mask of Xi'an: the first mosque of China
The Grand Mask of Xi’an: the first mosque of China

And the Grand Mosque- the first-ever of China. The mosque has an entry fee for tourists- they refused to take from the boy,  thinking that the boy was a Muslim. He thought of telling them that he wasn’t. Then he decided not to. Ultimately they all are the same. He put the money in the donation box instead. 

Naans, Sheermals... Food
Naans, Sheermals…

 

Wan Chai: Bay, Bars, Brothels and a battle

There was no way one could walk without touching another. Yet, there came an ambulance and the crowds parted like a wave, making for a video that would be watched by millions and millions. It was worth it, the world rarely gets to see such blending of anger, resistance, and compassion. The boy from Babhnan was walking, nay, marching in protest to Tamar Park, the site of the government offices of Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China. 

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In one of the Hong Kong protests

Over 2 million HongKongers had taken to the street that day. Few knew that this would be one of the last protests in the city with people not covering their faces. One of the last ones to be peaceful too. They would soon metamorphose in pitched battles between Police firing real bullets in decades, and students replying with Molotov Cocktails, petrol bombs for the uninitiated. 

Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway.
Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway

Wan Chai was not always known for this though. The area, now one of the poshest in the megapolis has a rather interesting, colourful and intriguing history. A history that starts from a small bay and went to become the city’s first red light district and then the centre of governance. Red light district still exists, by the way, the stigma does not with everyone minding their own business. 

Very few Chinese settlers, all of them fisherfolk, lived in the area by the end of the 18th century. Almost all of them lived around the Sea God “Hung Shing Ye”‘s temple.

China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and resultant handover of Hong Kong island to the victors was to change it all. With Central being the unofficial capital of the one city British colony, Wan Chai too began to grow. Came in a British merchant Lancelot Dent, with a huge mansion around the 1840s, and the area suddenly became upmarket. Many colonials chose the area as home for both: them and their businesses. Dent went bankrupt by the 1870s and that brought in the local Chinese people. 

Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab
Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab

Wan Chai as we see it today was getting born with bustling businesses, shipyards and even a waterfront hospital built by the British firm Jardine’s. British royal navy bought it in 1873 and converted it as Royal Navy Hospital. Ferry piers for the sailors and soldiers followed. The Red Light district was born too by the first few decades of the 19th century. Many of the brothels displayed huge street number plates to advertise themselves so their area became known as Big Number Brothels. Decades later, US-Vietnam War would contribute even more to the sex work in area with US soldiers returning from, and going to fight in the Nam, at Fenwick Pier, now demolished. 

Former bay now, in the night!
Former bay now, in the night!

The Big Numbers did not disappear though. They just metamorphosed into shopping arcades, malls and markets in the area still carry the numbers. The City’s biggest computer market, 298 Computer Centre is one of them, perhaps. 

The curious mix of the people and activities another added layer to the area. It soon started becoming the most multicultural one in the town. Taoist temples standing next to Buddhist ones, city’s first Sikh Gurudwara built in 1901, HK’s first Hindu temple built in 1953, a church all standing next to one another!

A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns
A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns

The boy remembered the happier days in the life of the city. Into history and architecture- he would go for the heritage trail. Beginning with colourful houses from the colonial times with green, blue and yellow ones being the most famous. The trail would then take him to PAK TAI TEMPLE  built in 1862. Former Wan Chai Post Office (1912) would follow suit. Then Guangzhou Verandah style shophouses and finally the Hung Shing Temple, with “Shiwan” ceramic pottery roof decorations.

Tired, he would head to the nightlife area- now catering to both- sex workers and officegoing pub hoppers unwinding for the day. Adding to the curious mix would be families living just above the ‘nightclubs’ with having nothing to do with either! All three would keep aloof from one another. He would hit a pub, or just stand at one of the intersections seeing life go by. This is one signature thing to do in the Fragrant Harbour, aka Hong Kong.  

A slogan with a clenched fist up in the air broke his chain of thought. The march was passing by the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre- where the famous handover of sovereignty from Britain to China took place in 1997. The protestors would soon be in the Golden Bauhinia Square Golden Bauhinia Square, so named for a beautiful sculpture of the flower which is also Hong Kong’s emblem. Then the Legislative Council called LegCo. It would be a long drawn resistance. And it would win. It did!

He cannot wait to explore the area even more even if the pubs and bars are shut down. The city is not in a lockdown, you can always roam around maintaining distance and wearing mask! This weekend, perhaps! 

Vietnam: Journeys of Shiva, spices and Samar

Lord Shiva looked at the boy from Babhnan visiting him. Don’t get surprised, we all have had our journeys, long and beautiful, he seemed to have said. Both smiled amidst the heavy rains. The boy was in Mỹ Sơn, the ancient temple site of the the Champa empire that ruled what is now central Vietnam from the 4th to 18th century AD. The ruins tell a gritty tale of the journeys that brought first Shiva and Hinduism and then spices to the region.

In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Interestingly, Hinduism reached Champa through neighbouring states like the Khmer empire in Cambodia and Funan, or Nokor Phnom. Even more interestingly, not much is known about Funan, not even its original name, Funan is what the Chinese calligraphers and historians called this indianised state, a loose network of states, Mandala.

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Vietnam has always fascinated the small boy growing far away- actually three seas and an ocean away. He first learnt about the country through his father. His father was an ardent admirer of Ho Chi Minh, the only Asian man who militarily defeated two colonial powers, France and USA. His eyes would shine with a pride emerging from the idea of solidarity, the boy would note. He read about the country in Geography books as history ones would have little of it. Look East was yet not the official diplomatic line of the governments then- despite very friendly relations with them. India was one of those very few countries which helped the Viets in their war against the USA.

Lady Buddha, Da Nang
Lady Buddha, Da Nang

It was natural, then for the boy to run to the country, yet another soul place, on the very first opportunity. He started safe with Hanoi and was amazed at the warmth of the people and place. Countless trips to museums, including The Hanoi Hilton, as US prisoners of war called Hanoi Prison would end with the traditional Bia Hoi- gallons of freshly brewed beer served, literally, out of gallons in unassuming streetside shops. Aah, to be in Vietnam is bliss, to be in Bia Hoi just divine. Divine, the atheist boy feeling divine in a communist country sipping beer- journeys, he thought of and smiled.

Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates
Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates

Hanoi would take him to the The Văn Miếu , roughly translated as the Temple of Literature. It was Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 AD and dedicated to Confucius. A university built in 1070, that too in Asia, the boy was impressed. Though no longer functional, students still come to the Temple of Literature to celebrate their graduation. 

No photo description available.
Halong Bay

Halong Bay was the next among countless trips taken in and from Hanoi. The bay, literally translated as the “Bay of Descending Dragons”, has thousands of limestone hills rising from the sea look like someone has built a wall on the sea! Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the very touristy way is a must see, go early or stay in the town to beat the crowds but do go. 

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A girl in Ao Dai

Next for the boy in the Nam was Hoi An, now overshadowed by the nearby megapolis Da Nang at the coast of East City turned into a resort city. Give that a miss though, nothing much to see or explore there. Go to Marble Mountains instead- a cluster of 5 mountains of hill and limestone with beautiful caves with temples whom Viet Minh turned into bunkers to fight first the French and then the US forces. Buddha next to bullet holes, journeys, again, the boy thought. 

In the famous Cu Chi tunnels
In the famous Cu Chi tunnels

Hoi An, a beautiful Universal Heritage city was once the commercial capital of the Champa Empire that controlled the spice trade at its zenith. The boy was back home, the land of Shiva. Hoi An, one of the world’s most important ports from the 15th to 19th century is exceptionally well preserved despite the two decade long wars Vietnam suffered. The city’s importance waned sharply at the end of the 18th century. Some believe it that Tây Sơn Rebellion opposed to foreign trade was the reason, some claim it was silting up of the river mouth rendering the port worthless. Whatever is the truth, nearby Da Nang soon became the new centre of trade and the city got almost forgotten. That was a blessing, perhaps. 

A gallon full of beer!
A gallon full of beer!

Lost among the lanterns, the boy was tired and sleepy. To get ready for Hue, another ancient capital of the Nam, a long journey next morning. Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, were the next on line. He waved his byes to Lord Shiva, promising that he would come back soon. Hong Kong is just 2 hours away, after all. 

Uttar Pradesh: A descent in decline

The boy from Babhnan looked at the vast, magical, colour changing expanse of the landmass below. The land of mythical Rama and Sita and historical Buddha, both worshipped across the world by millions. The lands of once the home of the Mahajanapadas of the oligarchic republics of ancient India. All but a blur now, a forgotten blur. A magical one, nonetheless. 

Take a flight from Hong Kong in January or February, and the wheat and mustard crop growing in the fields would paint it green and golden yellow. Come in April and it would all turn into bright yellow. A month later, and with the crop harvested, it would be a brownish blur. Come in late May and June, and one would find it difficult to make the fields from ponds with all of them filled with water in preparation for the paddy cultivation.

The boy would keep looking back at the flight map trying to locate his village, one of the thousands below. He would fail, invariably. There is nothing much in his village to differentiate from countless other ones. It was not supposed to be. His village, like others around, has been there producing food for humanity for centuries. Rice, wheat, pulses, oils, mangoes- name it. And producing food was never sexy enough for the rulers to build monuments honoring the producers. 

People also build their monuments, but not for this very mundane, yet, essential for survival activity. He could identify Lumbini if the flight took a detour by the Stupas, but not even Gorakhpur from Basti- district headquarters all looked the same. Unless there was a river below. A mighty river, to be precise. The small tributary by his village would not qualify as one. 

He had grown up in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, traversing fields that led to his school. It was a long and arduous journey, often also an unpleasant one. It was a journey to decline, to have been, just like the state. Yeah, a journey from the world’s most ancient republics to becoming one of the BiMaRU (sick, literally!) states of India by the end of the twentieth century. 

By the time the boy from Babhnan grew, most, if not everything in the state, was a story of have beens. Eastern UP of Buddha and ancient republics was now a den of caste-based mafia groups with nothing much to boast about. He would see tourists and travelers from across the world going to Kushinagar, where Buddha breathed his last, not even give a blink when the city would pass by. He would go to Shravasti, the sixth largest city of the country in Buddha’s lifetime and his abode for years, and the story would be the same. A nondescript Kasbah full with people from across the world, but with hardly any facilities! 

His study would then take him to Allahabad, and he would find his university, the University of Allahabad as ‘the had been’ Oxford of the East. Yeah, the university established in 1887, fifth in the Modern India which attracted the best of the minds at its zenith was reduced to a mediocre place manufacturing provincial civil servants at the most. His activism would take him to Benaras and the story would be the same for both: world’s most ancient continuously inhabited city and the university that takes its name from the city. 

But for its splendid monuments, Lucknow, one the showpiece of the Ganga Jamuni Culture through both: its architecture and culture looked the same as any other city in the North. There would be one saving grace though, the Mughalai Cuisine would still taste the same. So did the folk glories- the quintessential Litti Chokha of the East. 

The small boy had started his journey just like the one that the state had. Born in a hospital in Faizabad, the first and original capital of the Nawabs, he went back to a village. The similarities ended there. His was more of a journey forward, from his Awadhi speaking area to Gorakhpur, in UP, though more in Bihar, culturally speaking. It even spoke Bhojpuri. The joke, very few of ones which are gospel truths as well, has it that Bihar is not a state, it is a state of mind. It was back to Allahabad from there where he really grew up into a young man chasing his dreams. Where he would sit by the Sangam, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna thinking of the days of the glory of his home state, gone down the drain to earn a sad moniker: BiMaRU.

He would see the land of Buddha slowly changing into the biggest sectarian flashpoint of the world with Ayodhya, his own Ayodhya becoming its epicenter! He would experience it first hand as well- in western UP during the 2013 riots. It was so different from his own UP, in language and culture, unfortunately, united by the politics of hate in those times, though! 

He knew, though, that journeys do not end in decline. One can always go back, rebuilding all that is lost, just like one can go ahead to seek newness. He would, he thought.

Tai Po: The home three oceans away

You have been living in Tai Po for over a decade, even I have not lived here for so long- said Mr. Cheung, the boy from Babhnan’s new landlord. They both smiled with cheers- he emigrated to Scotland long ago and lives there only. But for the coronavirus lockdown, he would have been back weeks before. 7 in one village, She Shan Tsuen, the boy added.

Lam Tsuen River
Lam Tsuen River

Tai Po is home far away from home he left behind in the Gangetic plains. When he first landed in Hong Kong 13 years ago, he knew that he got to find his hideout in this jungle of glass and concrete. He knew that he would not survive in the matchbox sized flats in the heart of the city, just like those incense trees which gave this city its name. Yeah, they, also called Agarwood, were the mainstay of city’s economy 400 years ago. Their aroma gave the city its name- Heong1 Gong2 (香港) – the Fragrant Harbour.

That lake of light was my earlier village- She Shan Tsuen
That lake of light was my earlier village- She Shan Tsuen

The boy soon found Tai Po- so part of the bustling city yet so different. An area which still sustained farming in one of the world’s finance capitals. A place which still had walled villages- reminiscent of the times gone by. One where most of the villagers know one another sheerly by the long term associations. 

Farmers and the fields
Farmers and the fields

Ping Long in Lam Tsuen was his second home in the city, first in the area. Soon the real first, in Kak Tin village was just a pleasant memory- at times longing for the short walk to the nearest superstore from there. Now the nearest one is almost 4 kilometers and a 20 minutes bus ride away. He remembered his village some 3,300 kilometers away. It doesn’t have a superstore nearby even today. The good grocery shops are all at least 3 kilometers away there as well.

Camping in Tung Ping Chau, an abandoned island
Camping in Tung Ping Chau, an abandoned island

So are the roads, dividing agricultural fields on both the sides. And the greetings, the language barrier might have ensured that you don’t know each other by the name, but you both have lived in the village long enough to sustain a wave, and a conversation with gestures. 

View from my window
View from my window

Tai Po, in fact, is much more than the Lam Tsuen. One part of it is an industrial area, with hundreds of factories. Many of them, of course, abandoned with most of manufacturing shifted to mainland China over the decades. Yet, quite a few chimneys still blowing smoke in the skies, one of the biggest signs of civilsation. 

Tai Mo Shan waterfall
Tai Mo Shan waterfall

There, then is the Lam Tsuen river which walks you through to the sea. A river just about 5 kilometers long, originating in the Tai Mo Shan, the tallest peak in the city and emptying itself in the Tolo Harbour. Even Manvar, the river that flows by his village is much longer, the boy remembered. He remembered Tai Mo Shan too- a hike with over 5 waterfalls, unbelievable for the most who know his city only by the post cards they get and the channels they watch. This is a hike which brings people from all over the city. Also the one which took him over 5 years to take upon as the base of the hike was just about 15 minutes walk from his home- would do someday! 

Elderlies in the Triangle Park
Elderlies in the Triangle Park

And the islands that technically fall under the district despite many of them being over an hour and a half away by ferries. At least two of them, Tung Ping Chau, the abandoned island and a geopark of world importance and Tap Mun are far more closer to the mainland than the city. The boy had to know, once he got a super inflated phone bill after all. When he inquired with the service provider, he was told that he was using roaming data from China. He had seen Shenzhen on the other side of the sea, he had forgotten to turn off roaming though! 

And then there is the Wishing Tree- 10 minutes from his home where the whole city descends during the Chinese New Year making wishes and throwing mandarins up in the air. Wishing, also, that they get stuck on the tree, and guarantee that they come true. Just like the Peepul tree back in his village people flock to. Languages, cultures, rituals- all may be different. Yet, there are a few things that fundamentally unite the humanity and the humans.

Love you, home! 

Sapporo: The Song of the snow

 

The small boy from Babhnan was shivering, excitedly. It was the first snowfall of his life. He had seen rivers of snow in Rara, Nepal. He had also seen a little bit of snow in Xi’an, China, a reminder of the late night snowing when the temperature went sub zero long enough for snowing. But he had never seen it snowing, with the cotton like snowflakes playing with his skin. Born and brought up in the Gangetic plains, he was not likely to! 

In front of International Youth Hostel
In front of International Youth Hostel

And it snowed with the sun out in full glory. Sapporo is going to be some fun, he thought. It was, when a bus driver happily handed him his cap and the driving seat for a quick picture, of course with keys taken off! He remembered their conversation for over half an hour with him knowing no Japanese and the driver knowing no English. The world is indeed beautiful. 

The old government building
The old government building

Sapporo. The great, dry river, as per its meaning in the aboriginal Ainu people’s language. It was indeed. A river of snow, dry and chilling. And Fifth in so many things that one could be forgiven for mistaking its meaning to have something to do with the number 5! It is the fifth-largest city of Japan, on its 5th largest island Hokkaido, and northernmost. Sapporo people joke that one can see Russia from its shores on a clear day. And yeah, they perhaps can.

Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower
Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower

It is also the Alps of Asia, its unofficial winter capital. Renowned the world for its ski resorts and onsen(s)- natural hot springs, travelers seek a slice of the city throughout the year. Yet, come February and the New Chitose Airport gets really really busy with unending lines of visitors for its famed winter festival. The boy from Babhnan was a little early with winter festival still a couple of weeks away, but he could sense the city gearing up for the carnival. 

TV Tower modelled on the Eiffel Tower
TV Tower modeled on the Eiffel Tower

The first thing that surprised him in the city was the cushioned seats in the metro, aka the subway system. He was to know why soon when he accidentally touched a bench by the footpath in subzero temperatures. He also saw the rubber tires of the trains- only one of its kind in all of Asia- this time he did not need to ask why though. 

The canal in Otaru
The canal in Otaru

He was back in Otaru where he had seen his first snowfall, a neighboring city, and once a very important Japanese port decreed by the emperor for trade with the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The decline in the coal industry took away its financial glory but not the beauty of it. Just 25 minutes away from Sapporo by the metro, it has now emerged as a bedroom community as well with many people living there and working in the capital. 

Bigger view of Odori Park
A bigger view of Odori Park

For a city of fewer than 200 years of history, it was officially established in 1868, it has a lot to offer. Including the Eiffel Tower, okay, the Sapporo TV Tower modeled on the more famous one. And Skiing resorts. Dare a little more, and natural onsen(s) are calling you across the province. High in spirits? Go to the beer museum, the city is home to Japan’s first beer, by the same name. Once warm enough, get back to Odori Park- blocks and blocks of trees gelling so well with the urban landscape. The best view, though, is reserved for the observation deck in the TV tower. Do not miss the former Hokkaido government building as well. 

Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan
Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan

And museums! Of modern art. Of the island’s history. A whole village rooted in its past. Head to Hokkaido for a break from the plains. It will not disappoint you. And once settled there head to Moiwayama, or Mount Moiwa. Take the cable car or climb, like the boy did, and soak in the city views. Go there in the afternoon though, to get the best of both- day and night views. See you there, soon. 

 

Rara Taal: A retreat like none other

The boy from Babhnan had skipped a beat, or two, aboard that 10-seater Cessna Caravan. It was such a surreal experience. No safety demonstrations, none asking to switch off mobiles. The pilots sat right ahead of him, setting up GPS, as radar system doesn’t work in the Himalayan mountains! 

At Talcha Airport: Look at the runway
At Talcha Airport: Look at the runway

Don’t worry; this is just a truck that flies, said Ashok Singh, a friend who was with me on this trip. The plains of fertile Terai were soon behind us, and the snow capped mountains ahead. Karnali, the river that becomes Ghaghra in India, the river in my district, flowed below majestically. It was a scene to die for, just that he was too scared to appreciate the abundant beauty. No one aboard a small aircraft flying dangerously close to the mountains would with sudden gushes of wind throwing the plane away by meters. 

Rara Lake from the plane
Rara Lake from the plane

And then came the descent, a steep descent seemingly into nowhere. The plane was losing height, dangerously, and he could see no runway. He looked back, the 9 others seemed calm so he reassured himself. The plane, suddenly, took an almost impossible 90 degree turn and there it was, Talcha Airport. The runway strewn with small pebbles. The first things the pilots did after getting off was checking the tyres! 

Yeah, believe it or not, this is plane and the people ahead of me pilots!
Yeah, believe it or not, this is plane and the people ahead of me pilots!

His eyes settled on the wreckage of two similar aircrafts, neatly packed on each side of the ‘runway’. Aaah, no one died in that crash, Ashok, sensing his unease, volunteered. They both did not mention the other one. The trip of a lifetime had begun. It is just that he was to take the same flight back a week later. Climbing up, he also realized that the runway had no electricity.

Rara Taal

They left their luggage to be taken to Gamgadhi, the district headquarters of Mugu that was a 6 hours trek away, and started for Rara lake, the biggest in Nepal and second highest sweet water lake in the world. Lying at an altitude of 2900 meters and surrounded by snowy mountains, it was the most beautiful one too as he was to learn later. The 6 hours (three for locals) hike had begun. 

Bheri River, an aerial view
Bheri River, an aerial view

A kilometer into the trek and there came a river of snow, the first of his life. A war broke out shortly, with snow missiles being thrown at one-another. They, in the human rights movement, did not often get to make merry. For them, whose days began with stories of extra-judicial killings and ended at starvation with everything else thrown in between, the snow was a welcome break, a very welcome one.

River of snow
River of snow

Back on the trek and they just encountered the first human beings. A few Nepali workers looking at them, intently. They boy asked for a photograph, and got a stubborn no as the answer from a woman. She must be a Maoist, Yubraj later speculated. They are the only ones who have the guts to say no to such requests coming from apparently affluent Nepalis, he argued. That fact that the boy was in the heart of the region that gave birth to Maoist insurgency was slowly dawning upon him. Soon they crossed an army post as well.

Did not know that the kid was posing, not even that Ashok was clicking us
Did not know that the kid was posing, not even that Ashok was clicking us

Rara was there, in its unabashed glory, right there. Speechless is not the word that can define the sheer beauty of it all. They stayed in Dafe Guest House proudly displaying a ‘clean Rara Green Rara’ signboard. Not that they had any choice, this was the only place to rest. The food was simple and bland, boiled potatoes with salt and chilli with rice, some strange daal and a local spinach. Hardly did he know that this was going to be the menu three times a day for next week. There was no dearth of alcohol, though.

Morning by the lake
Morning by the lake

We sat the night, okay a part of it, out chatting with western backpackers and local guards listening to the stories of daring raids that the Maoists conducted, of the sellout thereafter and the ‘transition’ the country was going through. It was a long night. And a very chilly one too as the temperature goes sub zero in the night. I had never woken up to such melodic chirping of the birds as I did the next day.

Where do you go from here: landslide asked?

We, then, had to leave for another trek to Gamgadhi. It was supposed to be a 4 hour one though I could cover it only in 8. The scenic beauty was the same with rivers of snow crisscrossing the trek. Tall pine trees stood their guard, lovingly watching over everything that passed under them.  There were mules too, no ordinary mules though. They were in the service of the World Food Project transporting rice to this chronically food short region. And then they found the trail washed out by a recent landslide! The way out was climbing on a tree and trying to negotiate the washed out section. They did it.

Gamgadhi

Many such small tragedies and breaks later, they were finally in Gamgadhi, a place more politically charged than any the boy have ever seen. A week of encountering the truths- from beautiful to horrible was ahead. 

The district headquarters

And then getting back to Rara taal. For another day, or two, of escape from all the horrors of life! 

Rara Taal
Rara Again.
Talcha Airport ATC office
Talcha Airport ATC office
Dafe Guest House
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