Tag Archives: #AtoZ2020

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.

Ningde: Where the sea became farms

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! 

In Xiapu's Most famous sea farm
In Xiapu’s Most famous sea farm

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. 

See the girl in the mudflats?

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? 

A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!
A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!

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. 

Receding tides, leaving day's catch behind
Receding tides, leaving day’s catch behind

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. 

Village on the sea… These huts you see are real homes

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. 

Sam and the Seaweeds
Sam and the Seaweeds

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! 

With Lin.
Lin, the local

Manila Meandrings: Audacity of hope

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.

With Children in Cavite
With children in Cavite

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.

With Richell and her friends and colleagues
With Richell and her friends and colleagues

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.

City Hall, built in 1939

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.

Leya does a Rizal, national hero of the country

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! 

Museum in Rizal Park
Museum in Rizal Park

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. 

Jeepney: US Military jeeps modified into passenger whatever

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. 

Lava in Taal Volcano

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!

Hope…

Kathmandu: The Legend Lives On

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. 

Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019
Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019

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. 

Boudhanath Stupa from a window
Boudhanath Stupa

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. 

Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel
Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel

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! 

Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side
Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side

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.

Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple
Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple

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. 

Jakarta: A city of jarring juxtapositions

Garuda Indonesia. The name sent a shiver down the spine of the small boy from Babhnan. Yeah, he knew that it was once one of the most dangerous airlines of the world with unrivalled crash record. Then he remembered his flight to Mugu, deep in the mountains in Nepal in a 10 seater Cessna Caravan, which the pilots flew with the GPS as radar doesn’t work in mountains and checked the tires on landing! Garuda is fine, he told himself with a smile! 

Jakarta was the first place where I saw HIjabi women in bars!
Hijabi women in a Bar!

Jakarta, it was to be. The city which took its name from Sanskrit, Jay Krita or victory accomplished.  The city which was there in books since forever as the capital of Indonesia. What dragged him to the city, rather country to be honest, was a lesson in his Hindi textbook of standard 7th or 8th- a lesson about Sumatra and Bali- still Hindu majority in the world’s largest country by Muslim majority. He had to go there.

A picture of women shopping from street side vendors
Women shopping

And he was there. On his way to the hotel, for a change from hostels, at 1 am. Lots of eateries were open with a sizable presence of women too. Just like rest of South East Asian countries, he thought. Hanoi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Phnon Penh- the first thing that struck him was this- the sense of security for the women. Do they too worship women, he thought and shrugged, no time for sarcasm. 

This city is love, he was to discover soon. It was pain, when it came to the traffic, he was to discover too. It is a contradiction. Where else could one find Hijabi women in a bar, even if drinking mocktails? Or Muslims with names like Sukaron and Suharto! Jakarta holds one of the biggest (and first of the world) Ramayan Fair, also the most popular tale in the country told in a thousand ways from plays to puppetry! 

Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague
Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague

Puppetry reminds me of another contradiction: they make their ones with the skin of dead buffaloes or cows. Imagine our deities on that- I am sure it could force us to put the bigots on trauma induced heart attack watch! 

And the Apsaras roaming in the streets in full costumes and an accompanying band! Mostly of youngsters! Beware though, they may seek money so keep some change, small notes with you! As it is, they have notes of millions meaning nothing! 

Jakarta, I mean Indonesia, is repressive, it allows the police to keep people in remand without even producing them before a judge for a whopping 60 days. The boy from Babhnan saw thousands assembling right in front of the Presidential Palace protesting for a myriad of things for a full week, everyday! 

A protest in front of Monas: Or Monument of Independence

 

Biggest of them though is coexistence of religions captured perfectly by the Istiqlal Mosque, fifth largest mosque in the world with a capacity of 1,20,000 people right in front of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Jakartal. Look from a little distance, and the towers of cathedral and minarets of the mosque seem to be part of the same structure! This, in fact was the idea behind Sukarno, then president deciding to build the mosque to celebrate Indonesian Independence right in front of the cathedral. 

Fruit seller by the canal
Fruit seller by the canal

And they both welcome people from all religions. The boy from Babhnan had gone there in a group with 2 women wearing shorts- they were immediately given a kaftan kind of thing to cover. A guide was assigned to the group who took us inside and gave us great details! And his name was Indra! 

Kota Tua aka Old Town, Batavia- an oasis of museums and life

It was a visit for work so he was little hard pressed for time. The traveler inside him was enterprising though, he stole as much time as possible and saw the city like a local. He bowed to the Monas Tower (National Monument celebrating the independence of Indonesia) in memory of all those who made sacrifices, small to supreme fighting against the colonials. Just like in our own India. 

Cycle wallah in Old Town Batavia
Cycle wallah in Kota Tua

He went to the Passer Baroe- a lovely flea market established in 1820 and bought everything- from Batik to biscuits! Just like locals would! He went to Kota Tua aka Old Town Batavia, the colonial name the Dutch gave to the city when they ruled it and traced the city, and country’s history in the Fatahillah Museum. Old Town Batavia is really charming, worth a whole day of museum hopping coupled with loitering in Cafe Batavia. Wish he had that much time on him! 

Monas Tower from my hotel
Monas Tower from my hotel

And more to visit Chinatown

There’s always a next time, though. See you again, Jakarta!

 

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

Blogchatter

A to Z challenge, 2020
AtoZChallenge2020

Hong Kong: Home Coming to a Harbour

It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home. 

Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.
Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.

Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares. 

Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.

Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.

This is an aerial view of the Ocean Park, the best theme park in Hong Kong.
An Aerial view of the Ocean Park.

 

The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon:  a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.

He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them. 

That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city. 

Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai. 

Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory 'establishing shot' for HKSAR.
Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory ‘establishing shot’ for HKSAR.

Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.

Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side
Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side

Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by. 

The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun. 

The BOnsai Mandarin plantation right out of the window of my bedroom

A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.

Bride's Pool Waterfall
Bride’s Pool Waterfall

Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Bride's Pool
Bride’s Pool

And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that! 

Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village
Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village

And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work. 

The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau
The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau

Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars. 

Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home. 

Ghazipur to Guangzhou: The opium trail

Magnificent Canton Tower in Guangzhou, briefly the tallest building of the world, stood in front of me. Inquiring, it seems, why I looked so familiar. 

It wasn’t because I came from Hong Kong, just 129 kms away, I told him. Yet, I had to look familiar as the real, left behind home of the boy from Babhnan is a mere 190 kms away from Ghazipur. A small sleepy town the boy knew so well. A Kasba he has been to many times for things big and small- from family weddings to a pit stop on the way to Varanasi- a major pilgrim centre. 

This is the Canton Tower, briefly the tallest building in the world.
Canton Tower

This is where this story started. A story that would change the world. It wasn’t one of those beautiful stories of the travellers and knowledge seekers who went from China to India- their Buddha’s home. 

This was not a story of great scholars like Faxian or Xuanzang. It was a story of the Opium and the Raj. A story of wars and blood. Of Colonials and the Natives. Of victors and the vanquished for centuries to come.

Yeah, the story formally began in Ghazipur, still one of the single biggest opium producers in the world. It began with ith the Ghazipur Opium Factory, established as Benaras Opium Agency, an East India Company entity in 1820. The idea of exporting opium to China was that of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India, in 1780. Yet, the first few shipments, hardly found any takers. Ten years down the line, the scene had completely changed with scores of Chinese already addicted. The Qing dynasty was already cracking down threatening death sentences to smugglers, including the foreign merchants. 

This was an almost unbelievable sequence in the Chimelong International Circus! My heart skipped a beat many a times!
An almost unbelievable stunt from the Chimelong International Circus

The British opposed this in the name of Free Trade and parity of the nations (sounds familiar, no?), and continued engaging in the illegal trade. 

By the early 1820s, opium processed in Ghazipur would be sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for auction, then smuggled to the south China coast via the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Canton was the only port through which the Chinese empire allowed, and regulated, foreign trade for centuries. Macau was the only exception with a small concession for a Portugese post in 1557, but not allowed to trade in China. 

The skirmishes over opium escalated. The Qings sent Lin Zexu, from Fuzhou (aah, the world is so small) as Viceroy in 1839 to crack down on the illegal trade. He would appeal to the conscience of the Queen Victoria to stop the trade in a letter that would never reach her. He would try to forfeit opium offering tea in exchange, the British won’t listen to him. He would then use force: and a war would break out- the First Opium War- with the Qing’s defeat in 1842. The Qings would sign the Treaty of Nanking granting indemnity and extraterritoriality to the foreigners in China, would open 5 more ports and cede Hong Kong, my home now, to the British in perpetuity. 

All I could get was this horrible photo despite trying a `100 times! Those were the days!
I tried so hard to get this! Beat if you can! That’s Pearl River…

Oh Ghazipur and Gwanjhou, you changed the history of the world. And also personal history of the small boy from Babhnan. Had you both not played your role, Hong Kong would not become a British colony and would be one of the most unlikely places he could call home! This even as Charles Cornwallis, then Governor General of India sleeps in his grave overlooking the graceful Ganges in Ghazipur! Talk of the journies! 

Anyways, back to Guangzhou, with a history of over 2200 years. Though the Canton part is perhaps the most fascinating part of its life, it is not the only one. Neither is the modern megapolis- one of the biggest foreign trade centres in China again! Sitting in the heart of Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou too has been one of the earliest cradles of the civilisation, with all its bounties.

Once in the city, start with a stroll by the river. Then go up in the sky, in the Canton Tower, and watch it flow down with grace. 

Miss the old Circus days? You are at the right place, provided you could make that morally difficult decision- and vouch for yourself if animals, and humans are treated well. Once done, head to Chimelong International Circus, and/or Safari and/or resort. Want to imagine what Canton looked like? Head to Shamian Island- a major abode for the foreigners- a European oasis in the orient! 

Don’t miss the over 2000 year old Mausoleum of Nanyue King Zhao Mo, discovered only in 1983! Nanyue, incidentally was an ancient kingdom encompassing parts of southern China and northern Vietnam And is considered to be a Chinese one by them, and a Vietnamese one by them.

This was after watching a circus performance in decades!
After watching a circus after decades!

Squeeze in some time for Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall as well and pay tributes to the city that played a major role in changing  the history of China, and the world, yet another time with strings of revolutions against the Monarchy followed by the establishment of first, Republic of China and then, Peoples’ Republic of China.

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

BlogChatter

Fuzhou: A fortunate surprise

Fuzhou was not really in my bucket list. To be honest, I hardly knew about this city, like most of the travellers and even more of the tourists. This, despite it being the capital of Fujian province and one of the biggest cities in South China- my neighbourhood for last 8 years now.

This is one of the entrance of Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the "three lanes and seven alleys" aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China! Founded in 708 AD, the 40 hectare complex has been home of over 400 of China's richest and most powerful!
Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the “three lanes and seven alleys” aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China

But one fine day I found myself in Fuzhou. I had just spent a few days in Yongding county famous for its community houses called Tulous whom the USA mistook for nuclear reactors at the height of Cold War. (You can read about my travels to Tulous here). Next in line was Xiapu, beautiful beyond words for its scenic mudflats and life on the sea- with entire villages on sea! (My Xiapu Mudflats memories are here). And the road connecting them passed through Fuzhou making me wonder why not give the city a chance as well! 

And lo and behold: It turned out to be one of the best of the decisions I had made in ages! Here I was in a city with a history of over 2200 years with the first settlements recorded here in 2nd century BCE! 

Some of the restored houses in Sanfang Qixiang decorated with lanterns
Buildings decorated with lanterns in Sanfang Qixiang

And then there is over 1400 years old Sanfang Qixiang- roughly translated as the “three lanes and seven alleys” aka  Beverly Hills of Imperial China! This one complex, slightly over 40 hectares in total area, founded in Tang Dynasty (618-907) and inhabited ever since is what over 400 of Imperial China’s the richest and most powerful men called home. Sadly, men alone as I found no mention of women despite repeated ‘family houses’. 

Inside Lin Zexu Memorial Hall: Remembering the man who destroyed Opium Trade and thus caused the First Opium War
Inside Lin Zexu Memorial Hall: Remembering the man who destroyed Opium Trade and thus caused the First Opium War

Talk about the man who sparked the First Opium War, Lin Zexu, a Qing official, Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar who translated Darwin’s theory of natural selection in Mandarin or Bing Xin who translated our own Gurudev, Ravindranath Tagore: they all called this complex home! 

Lin Zexu: The man who started the opium wars!

Ironically, many of these historic houses had been abandoned and become subdivided squatter homes before their restoration in late 2000s, a telling comment on the power of time. 

I had entered the complex doubting the famous saying that “One Sanfang Qixiang equals half of China’s modern history,” kept returning to it fully convinced. Exploring the lanes and alleys throughout the day and then a couple of drinks in one of the bars dotting An Tai Canal, marking the boundary of the Sanfang Qixiang. 

Then there is a majestic manmade lake West Lake- excavated in 282 A.D. by Yan Gao (Yán Gāo 严高), an official of Jing Dynasty. Yeah, in 282 A.D.! Go to the lake in the morning and it would be a riot of colours both on the water turned golden by the morning rays and people: People practicing Tai Chi, aunties learning ballet in groups, the elderly reading, couples on morning walks! Name it! They are there! And true to Chinese quirks when it comes to traveling- they have built a Dinosaur Park at one corner of the lake! Believe it or not, I could not hold myself back from getting clicked with one of them! 

majestic manmade lake West Lake- excavated in 282 A.D. by Yan Gao (Yán Gāo 严高), an official of Jing Dynasty. Yeah, in 282 A.D.! Go to the lake in the morning and it would be a riot of colours both on the water turned golden by the morning rays and people: People practicing Tai Chi, aunties learning ballet in groups, the elderly reading, couples on morning walks! Name it! They are there!
West Lake

Fuzhou has so much more to offer, sadly the small boy from Babhnan was short on time. So he passed by the majestic mosque so many times, yeah Islam is not banned in China despite whatever morons claim! In fact one of the most happening places I have ever been to in China is the Muslim Quarters of Xi’an with a huge, centuries old mosque that looked more a pagoda than a mosque!! 

Fuzhou Mosque: :Legend has it that Prophet sent emissaries to Fuzhou in 628 A.D.
Fuzhou Mosque: :Legend has it that Prophet sent emissaries to Fuzhou in 628 A.D.

There is Drum Mountain in Gu Shan revered for its Buddhist Temple at the top, about half an hour away from the City Centre. In the very centre of the city are 3 mountains and a lake- which actually is a river Min! 

A rather cheerful Chinese restaurant owner served me Onion Bhaji and Butter Naan and then sang a beautiful Bollywood song! Aah you gem of a woman, I miss you!
Butter Naan , “D”nion” Bhaji and live music : What else could one ask for?

Do try to steal a visit to China Shoushan Stone Museum for having a rare look at Shoushan stones and understand its history- how they are mined, carved and so on. These stones, also called agalmatolite are rare treasures and one carved stone may fetch millions of dollars in today’s market.

Of course the small boy from Babhnan could not squeeze the last two in his sojourn in Fuzhou. Mudflats in Xiapu were calling him. As it is, one life is never enough to see it all, but Fuzhou is close enough for a second visit! 

See you again, Fuzhou, and you too, mates, perhaps in Fuzhou! 

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

Blogchatter

Delhi: A View from Babhnan

Delhi. It was not a city I chose. It was one forced upon me. I  had cleared both: NIMHANS in Bengaluru (then Banglore and JNU- now everything negative!). And the “Party” I was working with ordered me to join JNU, so I ended up in Delhi, the national capital.  

Delhi was lovely, not even an inch threatening as I was made to feel. It had all the space for a boy from Babhnan, who high schooled from Gorakhpur, and graduated from Allahabad, and came for his M Phil and Phd from the city. 

The boy from Babhnan loved the city and thought it was reciprocal. 

It was. Till he met his first girlfriend. Her elder sister was in love with someone not from her caste, and it was a hell unleashed on all of us. The girlfriend called me, in the dead of the night, and all the boy from Babhnan had to say was come to my room. They did. It was a reverse learning curve for the boy. He had grown with the guns. Licensed, and more so, with unlicensed ones. He never liked them. But he loved his mom- and his mom was the one, who once sent him with his uncle, Ramnath Chacha, go and teach him how to shoot, Ramnath, when he was just 12.

So this boy from Babhnan was in Delhi, in JNU. not knowing that JNU would change him. For now, and forever. He did not know that the posters on JNU walls would affect him so much. He had done all this in Allahabad, after all.

He did not know that he would start experimenting in love here, that he would fall for a Jat girl from nearby. And then a Bengalan. And then a Tamil. And then he got married. With the Tamilian girl. And then he realised that he loves a Punjabi girl.

It was a break in the journey of the small boy from Babhnan.

The girl he never knew, despite her being friends with many of his close friends. She always asked, as I knew later, why is this man always angry. She would ask others, but never the man. 

The man too did not know her. Even when she was his life. 

Delhi, you mean city, you kept them apart, for so long. 

 

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

Can Tho: Call from the Mekong Delta

The boy from the River Manvar banks was back in Mekong Delta, ditching Da Nang, the up and arrived beach destination in Asia for the second time in a row within an year. No, he had nothing against the Seas. They always fascinated him. He now lives by the sea, in Hong Kong. 

Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta
Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta

But the rivers are where the boy feels at home. Born and brought up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Gangetic plains also called Doaab, deltas are the place he belonged to. Places where everything revolved around the water earlier, most still does. He remembered the Monsoons: longingly waited for and scared off. Come, folk songs would plead the Gods of rains, but just enough to get us super crops, not to drown us, cut us off from the rest of the world for months. 

As it is, he had realised that at the end of the day, every travellers seeks to find the home left behind somewhere deep within. Oh yeah- a quick note on Doaab- it literally means 2 waters- do is 2 and Aab is water in Arabic. That’s why Punjab is Punjab at both sides of the border- 5 waters, meaning 5 rivers. However much borders try to divide, rivers find a way to sneak out and unite. They just know how to.

This was what had brought the small boy to Can Tho, the biggest city in Mekong Delta and the fourth largest in Vietnam. The delta, like all other delta, has a fabulous history. Prehistory, actually, as almost all of the earliest human settlements started in deltas only just like the Indus Valley one. 

The most fascinating thing about Can Tho, though, is that its past has a bridge to reach its present- a bridge called river  Hậu River, a distributary of the mighty Mekong with its floating markets just like they were 300 years ago! Okay, the boats have become motorised, the wholesale ones jetties, many of them are now electrified and there are even floating (on the boats) petrol pumps! Everything else is the same: predawn rush of the wholesalers to these real floating markets with a bamboo pole with something hanging on the top- denoting what is that boat selling. If it’s fish then fish, vegetables then vegetables and if nothing- then boat itself!!  Then come the boats selling breakfast and boats of retailers. Oh yeah and now also many tourists and some travelers too! 

Cai Rang floating market in full glory. This one is the biggest in Mekong Delta and essentially a wholesale market. Just a 15 minutes boa
Cai Rang floating market in full glory

Same are the orchards inside, well connected with beautiful, almost mystic canals shaded by the coconut and palm trees, and the villages making rice paper, and so many other things, enough for one to get lost there alone for days.

Canals linking villages, lives, economy, everything

Can Tho is not only about these floating markets though. It has equally enchanting night markets 4 of them- open all night, by the way, unlike many night markets across the word, Go and eat traditional delicacies there like a local. Or head to the cacao farms reminding you of your own mango orchards lost in the villages left behind, many even having homestays- basic enough to take you on a trip down the memory lane. 

Then there are magnificent temples, really intricate and different from one another unlike most of our run of the mill Shivalas and Mosques you can’t even differentiate from one another. 

Doing all this, you would pass by the Can Tho Grand Prison many a times. Hardy enough to believe in justice. It is for you. A backpacker drunk on youth, or a tourist which ended up there in a tour: do go, it would sober you down. 

Did I even talk about the hidden gem? Remember the 1992’s French Erotica Movie, The Lover, that took the world by storm, nay, sensuality? That helped bringing erotica inn Most of it was shot in Can Tho, in a small town some 17 kms away, in an over 150 years old house that remains the same even today!I had seen The Lover as a young adult, with the tape tucked inside my shirt smuggled into a friend’s house in 1997 or so in Allahabad. There I was in the house, I knew ever since.

This was the locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: It is called as Binh Thuy Ancient House, and also Binh Thuy Communal House
Locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: Binh Thuy Ancient House

Gosh! I forgot Ninh Kieu Wharf, I went to every single day there! Overlooked by a really tall statue Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is called across the country? It runs parallel to the river with a beautifully decorated bridge to itself, not going anywhere, just, to walk by the river and remember your own Manvar, 4400 kms away. 

#atozchallenge
http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/
https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/
https://www.theblogchatter.com/the-road-runner-challenge-blogchattera2z-is-here/

« Older Entries