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.
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.
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.
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.
And at the end, do not forget to bow down to the God Of Land, curiously blessing visitors in a swimming shed!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The boy from Babhnan knew that this encounter was inevitable, that there was no escape. One has to fight his demons, after all. He had braced himself up. Yet he could not take it when it really happened.
He was standing in front of the Killing Fields, slightly out of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The execution centre of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 and killed around two million Cambodians, almost one fourth of the total population. This is where the purged from party cadre imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) were brought to get killed. Often with all of their family. The boy had been to S-21, a former school converted into first prison, and now a Genocide Museum! What a sad journey!
The trip had started on a positive note. The boy was there to participate in a United Nations workshop on rebuilding the rural communities. The days were filled with the discussions of hope, of looking ahead. The evenings with real yummy street food- though he could dare try one of the most famous of them all- red ants chutney! Early part of the nights was even more hep and happening- exploring many night markets that dot the capital. Phnom Penh Night Market was his favorite despite the jury preferring the Russian Market more. By the way, you can buy almost anything in the Russian Market barring a Russian! It got the name not for selling them, but because at the height of cold war, Soviets, the biggest, and welcome, expat community in Cambodia visited this market.
It was also about long walks by the Mekong Promenade and dining in one of the myriad of Indian restaurants. The ‘vegetarian’ boy from Babhnan was ‘culinarily’ home in the South East Asia for the first time. He thanked the UN which had taken over the country- along with the Vietnam backed liberators for rehabilitation in the post Pol Pot era. They brought Indian curries, the reverse, cuisine colonisers of Europe with them. “Indian” restaurants followed.
There was only a limit to which the boy could delay the inevitable. So there he was. In front of the Choeung Ek- the killing field with Sophary, his colleague.
It was a revolution gone horribly wrong and revolutionaries gone paranoid. It was a dream shattered. Not in my name, the boy could hardly tell himself.
It is not your fault, said Sophary, gently holding his hands.
Being in Cambodia is like time travel. A country stuck in times gone by, running decades behind the most of the world. It had to be- after the year ZERO, or 1975 when Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge snatched the country from a US puppet regime. They abolished the currency, evacuated the cities and ordered everyone back to the villages. Four years of mayhem ensued. Mayhem that included US carpet bombing against the communists in Indochina- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam killing millions. Communist Khmer Rouge added another million to the tally.
Ironically, the latter had their own completely understandable reasons for getting paranoid. US led forces were not only bombing Indochina to get rid of the Reds, they were also killing communists with CIA made lists in the countries with allied governments in the region. Indonesia, for instance, had witnessed the killing of half a million members of communist party!
Ironically, once communist North Vietnam supported forces defeated the Khmer Rouge and ousted them, US immediately allied with them and kept supporting the Pol Pot led government in exile as the legitimate representative of the country in the United Nations! It ended up sheltering him too, where the UN indicted war criminal finally died peacefully!
Yeah, truth is far more stranger than imagination. So is history! History that changes Tuol Sway Priyala School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeung Ek orchard into killings fields and a die hard communist Pol Pot into an American protegee!
Later, resting at the steps of magnificent Wat Phnom, Sophary told him that the younger generations of the country hardly remember the horrors their parents and grandparents lived with. This gives me hope, she giggled, hope that nothing is beyond redemption. It also scares me, she sombrely added- we need memories to guard us from falling in the same pit again.
They agreed and went on the memory trip: the Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom, both night markets, the National Museum.
And being friends with locals, a gem unknown- a RO RO Ferry trip to the other side of the Mekong- at least 30 years back in time! Don’t miss the last one!
It was so surreal. Bamboos rose out of the sea, all the way till eyes could sea. The boy from Babhnan was in utter disbelief a second time in China. Yet to come out of rice farming on the mountain terraces in Longji, and here the sea had become farmlands growing Bamboo… Like how come, he asked Lin, his driver and the guide in Ningde, the coastal prefecture in China famed for perhaps the most beautiful mudflats in the world!
Lin had a hearty laugh. They are farming seaweed, not bamboos, bamboos are there merely for drying weeds. It makes the autumn harvest easier.
Mudflats, also called tidal flats are many things. Found in coastal wetlands, they are a very important part of the ecology, a refuge for many species both of flora and fauna. The last thing one could imagine about them, though, was beauty, breathtaking beauty to be precise! What can be so beautiful about long expanses of mud, just mud, the boy had thought before undertaking this journey. He had nonetheless as he was intrigued by the pictures scattered across the internet. Pictures screaming that these were perhaps the most beautiful mudflats indeed.
They proved to be. They were a delight for photographers, even for the amateurish ones like the boy who would often keep the DSLR aside, daunted by its hundred controls and take recourse to his phone. Comes the sun, and the rays turn them into paintings capable of putting even the best of the abstract painters to shame! Former Sea Gypsies, the human ones, start their work walking on the mudflats, and they start looking magical! Whole villages, of course floating ones, on the sea. And the miraculous Kelp, a type of seaweed, that grows over half a meter a day and is sort of the hinge on which mudflats lives hinge upon.
And of course, they were a refuge for escaping the maddening chaos called metropolitan cities, a gateway to the times gone by.
Mudflats are also an opportunity for a mere human to emulate Jesus, and all others known for the legends like walking on the water! Comes the high tide and they disappear despite being firmly there- walk on them and those looking at you from far away can take you to be the next prophet. Not a bad thing, no?
Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavor that can move the mountains as cliche would have it. They can also farm the sea, the boy was to know in Ningde. Yeah, all kinds of seaweed along with fishing and crabs and what not. All of this in beautiful gear in super vibrant colors, all of which are locally innovated. They could also build whole villages on the sea, a properly functioning ecosystem.
Why did they choose to live on the sea, it is not easy, the boy suddenly realized. Lin came handy. His English was very rudimentary, my Putonghua did not even exist. But we were both armed with the magic called smartphones with Baidu App though- you speak into it in English and it translates that into Putonghua and vice versa. As expected, the gut feeling of the boy proved to be true.
They did not choose to live on the sea. No one does, knowing the vagaries of nature. They were rather forced to as they were Tanka people. The Outcasts of China, with many theories of their evolution. The most plausible one of them identifies as the descendents of one of the ethnic minorities, meaning non-Han Chinese people, from the first millenium BC and condemned to fend for themselves ever since. That they did, and did with elan. Exiled from the lands, they converted the seas into farmlands. They were denied a life, they built another.
Tanka people are not treated badly anymore, Lin volunteered. They were brought back in the mainstream after the Peoples’ Republic of China came into existence, he added. You support the party, I asked Lin. A boisterous laughter was the reply- we do not talk about politics here in China.
I am definitely coming back here, the boy from Babhnan thought, six days were just not enough for a place this enchanting. There was so much left to know, like that colourful parade he came across. Lin had made him tick them all. Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian, the ancient town whose name he forgot. Yet he got to come back. To celebrate human endeavour. To salute the Boat People!
Richell’s smile was infectious, her hope audacious. The boy of Babhnan was in Manila, the pearl of the East, as they called it because of its strategic location in the Asia Pacific region. They were chatting in a yellowy darkness that reminded the boy of his village some 4,500 kilometers, two oceans and several seas away. The ambience was eerily similar, reminiscent of those 200 watt yellow bulbs that hanged precariously in decaying holders and gave a twinkling yellow light that sickened more than illuminating. They hanged on, nonetheless.
So did Richell, the bright and beautiful young girl. Sitting in the verandah in front of her room that she shared with seven others. All she had of her own was a bunker bed with no privacy other than a big and coarse curtain that could lock her 6 into 6 feet space out of others’ eyesight but could not stop noise, or even light from seeping in. Yet she laughed, and laughed a lot. She dragged the boy inside to have a ‘feel’ of her life and once inside, proudly showed him the teddy bear she had bought, no got as she corrected herself, a few days back. Her eyes twinkled when she talked of her dreams. She had no qualms against sharing them with me, a rank stranger until just half an hour ago.
Manila was going to be different, very different, the boy from Babhnan thought. He decided to give monuments a miss this time. He would meet people instead.
Richell’s dreams seemed so out of place in that dingy verandah.Yet,she had the courage to chase her dreams. The girls of his village would dare not, or they would be sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy for the ‘crime’.
His ride to their ‘home” had been tough and uneventful. Having decided to dump a cab ride, he had taken a bus followed by a signature Filipino Jeepney and then a ride in that claustrophobic tricycle that cages you on small shaded compartment attached to a motorcycle or a cycle. The route ran, almost along the seashore that defines the boundaries of Metro Manila, as the national capital region is known there. It passed by Freedom Islands, ironically named so, that are home to the boathouses and the skyscrapers coming next to it, which would gulp the boathouses soon. Notices are already out and served on them.
Richell’s journey was much longer and tougher. Masabate, the city she calls home, is not merely geographically distant from Manila, it is almost a different country, poorer and lacking of opportunities. But then, her old and ailing parents lived there, they still do, and it was there where she was pursuing her college degree in Information Technology. Ask her what brought her, then, here and what you get is another burst of laughter that could hardly conceal the pain seeping through her eyes. No work there, why else, she replies. Ask her about the IT course that she left midway and she points towards a roommate, she has an IT degree as well, no use. The roommate nods, giggles and then all of them burst into a collective laughter.
Laughter, the boy was soon to realize, is not born merely out of the sheer audacity of their hopes. It was their weapon too, to reassure them that they have not lost everything, The laughter and the hope kept them afloat in a country that alienates them from their own labour, from their own bodies. It is intoxicating. It gives them the delusion they need the most.
You have a boyfriend; the boy suddenly asked Richell and saw her blushing for the first time. The reply, hastily put together with an invitation to have dinner with the group, is a coy ‘not yet’.
The story was the same; be it Irene, a single mom. Or Maribel, a fisherwoman in ironically named Freedom Island. The government was trying to relocate them to mountains, she informed. And giggles, fisherfolk to mountains, the government got some good sense of humour!
And Leya, an activist. And Dayan, my colleague. Or Freddie, a vendor in the Rizal National Park. I have been living here since 1972, Freddie tells me. My wife died here, he adds. He had slept in the makeshift bed inside his stall ever since. Wanna try, he asks the boy. He readily agrees.
The boy did manage to go to some of the monuments, just for the pictures’ sake. And he stole a trip to Taal Volcano, a live one. The boy from the plains seeing the lava of a volcano! It is mere 100 kilometers away from Manila, and one thing you should not miss if you ever happen to be in Manila.
And of course there are more places, one of the most beautiful of them being Manila Bay walk. I have passed by many of them, but not quite visited. Just like locals who hardly wink at touristy places in their own cities. People there become far more important than them.
Richell’s laugh was the souvenir the boy brought back from Manila, a laughter so uncontrolled and unabashed. And her belief in the future. The audacity of that belief which can make anyone believe in humanity. Can we save the smile for our children, the boy asked himself. He had no answer!
Rice fields on hills? In small serpentine terraces cut over centuries? Small boy from Babhnan was in the Longji Rice Terraces in the Longsheng County of Guangxi, surprised to his wits end. Coiling terraces rising up from the foothills and going up all the way to top of the mountains is fine! Where do they get water though, he was thinking, perplexed. Growing rice needs a lot of water, after all.
Surprise slowly gave in to nostalgia. He had grown up by the rice fields, a food grain central to the civilisation feeding over half of the world’s population. But the rice fields he has known, and has a few of his own, are all in the Gangetic plains. One which could be easily mistaken for giant ponds from preparation to planting! He remembered the days he would run to them and jump in the muddy rice fields, filled with ankle deep water. He would then have to run away from mom, hiding behind grandpa to escape beating. Layers of rice shoots had led him to layers of memories, longings and losses.
He was missing his own rice fields back home some 3,000 kilometres away from Longsheng. Rice, along with other crops, was the currency his ancestors had. Cultivating rice would get them their livelihood, their luxuries, howsoever scant, their travels, everything. Rice would get the small village boy education and set him on this journey.
Rice would take him to Lucknow, the first big city he got to know. A city known for its Tehzeeb, culture, and the monuments, both built by the surplus its rulers, the formidable Nawabs, got from rice cultivators. A smile had made its way to boy’s lips. Monuments built from rice surplus to rice terraces built by sheer human endeavour… Journeys!
His ancestors had fought among themselves to get the most low lying lands, preferably closest to the water bodies. That they were also the farthest from the roads and they repent now for that is another story for another time!
Longji too had become home. And its people, Zhuang and Yao from two minority communities in China, his own people. The Zhuangs are native to the area. The Yaos originated in Hunan and came here fighting persecution and became native. Oh the journeys! The boy from Babhnan to Lucknow to Delhi to Hong Kong to Longji, Yaos from Hunan to same place!
Then, they started constructing the terraces- the Zhuangs in Ping’an and the Yaos in Dazhai and Tiantou in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Turning hills after hills into rice fields big and small, they continued until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the hills had all become fields! Rising from the river bed that sits at 380 meters above the sea level and rises, with the coiling terraces up to whopping 1180 meters!
Where do you people get the water for the rice from, the boy from Babhnan asked Qin,his friendly hostel owner (basically a traditional 3-story stilted woodhouse converted into a hostel)? He smiled and asked the boy to come behind. The boy did, going all the way up to the one of the most scenic terraces, me again, tired, yet excited with his running commentary which I would otherwise never had known- that’s my aunt’s house, built 200 years ago, that is the home of a friend who migrated to US and so on. The boy was getting to know even the people now.
See that huge flat thing on the top of the hill, Qin asked! The boy, ever the son of the farmers, did not need a single word more. He has got it, with eyes wide open with surprise! The people had cut the top of the hills into flat bodies first, and then dug them into huge ponds to store water during rains! They then dug winding irrigation channels accompanying rice terraces! How did they do it? He wanted to ask, but did not. He was in awe of these people who rose to mighty mountains some 800 years ago, armed with primitive axes and shovels at the most and made fields out of them! Humans can indeed move the mountains, he smiled.
The boy from Babhnan had fallen in love. He has been coming to the fields year after year, season after season. To see the hills become rivers in the spring with terraces filled with water in preparation for sowing paddy. In summers, to see them turn into a sea of green shoots, neatly arranged. Then to see them turn into gold mines in the autumn, with ripe paddy ready for the harvest. He is yet to make it there in winters though, when the mountains turn into a frozen mystery with white snow all over! Soon, he would.
He is sad, though, seeing the terraces falling to tourist trap since he first visited them in 2015 and hiked his way to Tiantou. There was no road to the village then, the reason he chose to stay there and not in Ping’an or Dazhai that had already fallen. He had then hiked his way up to the hostel enjoying the beauty and paying respects to the elders who created it. He saw a road being constructed to Taintou too, when he was there at last- in 2018.
Go, before it is too late. The boy from Babhnan would be happy to help with suggestions and inside secrets.
The boy from Babhnan looked away, trying to hide his welled up eyes from his mom. They were standing at the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the capital of the great Malla kingdom till the 15th century, a place he had fallen in love with over his numerous visits to Nepal. Nothing looked the same this time though. The horrible 2015 earthquake, also known as Gorkha Earthquake had obliterated many a buildings he loved to frequent. Vatsala Durga temple was one of them.
The scene was the same all over Kathmandu valley consisting of three ancient cities. They were all capital of Nepal over centuries under different kingdoms- Lalitpur aka Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. All three had, still have quite a lot left, their own Durbar squares. The quake did inflict a huge loss on all of them yet it could not flatten them all. A lot with which the boy from Babhnan identified still stood tall. His welled up eyes slowly gave away to a smile of hope.
His relationship with Nepal went a long way, literally. His village is in Terai, an area common to India and the Himalayan country divided by a man made borders. Take the proper concrete road routes and you would be crossing one just 150 kms away.
Go by the ones ‘smugglers’ took in the era India was still a closed economy, and nearest one would be just about 70 kms. He had known many of these ‘smugglers’. One was the husband of his house help he called Mami (aunt) and thus he was Mama. The boy, grown up into a man standing at Durbar square remembered how eagerly he waited for him to return. He remembered the polyester shirts, cotton had yet not become a fad he would bring back. And the Nike shoes, real or fake, as India did not even have Action shoes (remember them?) by then. And so on.
The smile was fully back on his lips. He had first gone to Nepal when he was just 14. To Pokhara, from where came a classmate of his, Akhilesh Barnwal. His father was one of the biggest ginger wholesaler of the kingdom with a really huge house. And a distinct smell of ginger lingering in the air. Over his stay with them for about a week, the boy from Babhnan had fallen in love with both: super yum dishes Akhilesh’s Bhabhi cooked and the smell of ginger.
Oh, life, you cheat! You never told him that the mountains would soon become another home. And they did.
Over the course of his work visits to the republic just born out of the ruins of the Kingdom. It’s capital would soon be a city in which he would stay in a home, of a colleague cum dear friend, not in hostels or hotels. The longest stint being a whopping 28 days in a row with long scooty rides at times doing household chores. A definite ‘local’ feeling.
He would soon know its bylanes just as well, if not better, as he knows of his Mofussil Kasba. In which he would take the shortcuts to escape the maddening traffic, and would find himself, at times, stuck in some lane recently closed. Of course with other smart asses like him. Believe him, this is the most authentic local feeling one can ever have!
He would soon be advising others about hidden gems of the valley: The every night Arti at river Bagmati, behind the Pashupatinath Temple on the other side of the river. It is an experience to die for in itself. Watch it from the Shamshan Ghat just behind the temple, and it becomes surreal. A tale of life and death and life again, together with devotees dancing to the beautiful hymns!
Or the evenings at Boudhanath Stupa. And the mornings at Swyambhoo. Yeah, specific times when they look like they do not at any other time. And the Budhanilkantha Temple with a stone statue of Lord Vishnu, perhaps the largest stone carving in the country inexplicably floating in the water. Okay, there are a few scientific theories but religion does not allow them to experiment with. The legend has it that any Monarch visiting the temple would die so no King after Pratap Malla (1641–1674) ever visited the temple. Monarchy died anyway, aah irony! Do visit the Kopan Monastery too.
Of course there are regular suspects- Thamel that still retains some of the original Hippy vibes, all the Durbar Squares and so on.
Do pay my respects to the boy from Babhnan’s other home though. Please also pray for all that he lost in 2015 earthquake, both people and places.
Statutory Warning: This post might read very narcissistic as it is essentially about a very personal journey.
The small boy from Babhnan was very sad looking at things happening in India, 3700 kms away from Hong Kong. Lakhs of migrant labours thrown on the roads in the middle of the Covid 19 lockdown, people starving, doctors being abused and attacked, slums in eerie silence,a religion being vilified and his own friends- urbane, middle and upper middle class locked in, getting depressed.
It was essentially a journey back. From India to Bharat.
Sounds strange? As the constitution asserts that it is India that is Bharat, no? Yeah, in the constitution it is. Just like untouchability is banned and is a cognizable criminal offence in the same constitution. Believe it or not, traveling to India from Bharat is perhaps one of the longest, and the most arduous journeys, one can take upon. Even the far more fortunate ones like the small boy from Babhnan who ticked every box right barring one- so called upper caste? Right, in fact in a landed, locally dominant family. Male? Right? Father in government service? Right, actually a professor, even mom is a school principal. Born in a big town? Sorry, NO.
Yeah. It was a long and arduous journey even for a boy from a privileged family. The one who slowly scaled all the peaks and reached where he wanted to, living a life chasing his dreams- which did never go beyond, ironically, backpacking. The boy never fancied hotels, hostels were where he belonged to- meeting fellow travellers, sharing notes, jokes and often beers too! A fallout of having lived in hostels perhaps, as a boarding student, since he was just 12.
He was wondering how difficult this journey back to Bharat for those on the roads must be. And he remembered his.
Going to Gorakhpur at mere 12 as a boarding student. Then Allahabad, at 17. And from Allahabad to Shankargarh where he worked with the Kol Tribals and Snake Charmers, and often slept on the only cot in Balanath’s family- with snakes in their baskets below it. It was a journey of no return. A journey which seldom gets recognised, let alone reaching travel stories. It was to a myriad of slums, teaching children, dreaming of a better future for them.
Then to Jabalpur- meeting fellow travelers- the unconventional ones. From there it was to almost every nook and corner of India: going to Hyderabad for some labour protest, Ranchi for right to food agitation. Often missing the must visit places, though.
From there it was to JNU: that was to change him even more. And a journey undertaken like none other- a bus journey demanding Right to Employment. 52 days, 12 states from Delhi to Maharashtra and back. Hundreds of places- big and small- sleeping in villages under mango trees- a throwback to the summer vacations in his village by the Manvar river decades ago. The journey succeeded, by the way, with the passing of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. The small boy from Babhnan smiled, after very long, thinking of this.
The journey was interesting, along with many jailbreaks- no not the iphone ones, real as they happen with activists. Basti, Allahabad, Nuapada, Kochi, Palanpur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Raipur, Amarkantak, Bhadrak, Chennai, Bhuvaneshwar, Agartala, Bishrampur, Shillong, Palakkad, Lansdowne, Kaithal, Indore, Solan, Gaya, Ranchi, Nagpur, Goa, Puruliya, Guwahati, Bhilwara, Jammu, Ropar, – he remembered some of the stops, in no order though. It was a journey full of horrors, of being in boats on what were villages, full of living people and all that come along with them, now submerged by some dam. It was a journey full of hopes, of Niyamgiri people successfully saving their lands for decades.
From there it was to Hong Kong, and then many places- including Kathmandu- home for over a month!
An anchor shrieking broke his chain of thoughts. He was back to the millions of journeys taking place from India to Bharat again. Journeys full of losses. Of jobs, dreams and hopes. No one wants to leave home, after all. If so many people from rural India did that, they did it under sheer compulsion. Be they privileged like the small boy writing this, or desperate- forced into distress migration. It is urban India, mostly metropolitan alone, which is their only escape route- a chance of finding a job, a life, a home- howsoever small- a shanty in a slum, home nonetheless.
This too shall pass, they would be fine. The boy tried to reassure himself. Amen.