Monday, 29 July 2013

The Asian Kitchen - Part 1

Something I was really looking forward to when I was waiting to start my travels was the food.  I love Asian cuisine! All of it (except for Laos...)!

I had a good idea of what to expect but my first experimentation was not until Singapore where I had Kudul curry.  It was under the fish section so looked interesting.  When it arrived it had the look of tripe.  And the texture and taste that I would have expected from tripe.  A quick Goole search suggests that it may actually have ben something from, well, shall we say a bit further down the line...?  It is most definitely not fish!

I had a good guess of what to expect from India, except that I would be mainly be experiencing food from a single region.  In order to avoid being ill I also decide to try something hithertoo anathema - a vegetarian diet.  Who would have thought that cheese would go so well in curry!  But I have come to love Paneer in all sorts of curries now, both creamy sauces and more tomatoe based ones.  The biggest surprise was I have actually started to enjoy cauliflower, although this may be restricted to its appearance in curries.

Something I have loved though is having curry for breakfast.  I got used to this in Malaysia but went overboard in India - puri with potato curry, paratha stuffed with cottage cheese with lime pickle and curd!  The homestay in Jaipur did pancakes with banana blended into the batter which tasted gorgeous.  It's definitely a good way to start the day!

I have surprised myself with developing a taste for tea.  OK, this may not be out of the ordinary for most people but I have never got on with tea - I find it leaves a dryness on the palate which is not pleasant.  But the tea in India has changed my opinion.  Firstly I was introduced to a saffron, cinnamon and coriander tea from Kashmir which was, frankly, a taste sensation, and then to chai. This is a milky spiced tea, quite sweet and very nice! Now I seem to be trying all sorts to catch for lost time!!

I am now in Nepal and have discovered a couple of very tasty treats!  Firstly, Momo's - a steamed dumpling filled with spicy vegetables, chicken or buffallo with a curry dip (still on the veggie diet so only had the veggie ones!).  You get ten of these little things to a serving, for just about 1 pound and they make a very enjoyable lunchtime snack! (I have just noticed that foreign keyboards may not have a Sterling key!)

The second discovery is Sandeko.  This is a marinade of various things, but primarily a selection of finely chopped tomatoe, garlic, onion, chilli, ginger and coriander with mustard oil.  It's very much like the South American cerviche marinade, and goes particulary well with potato, which helps to soften the chilli, and peanuts, where the ginger and chilli are free to blow your taste buds away, especially with a drop of lemon juice!

I am really looking forward to our next stop, Malaysian Borneo, as Malaysian cuisine holds some of my favourite meals and I can't wait to see them done properly, and also to discover new unknown tastes!

India - Part 2: Rajasthan & Relaxation

Now, where were we?  Ah, yes...

Ram dropped us at Ajmer train station to travel to Jodhpur, the Blue City.  It was a long, slow, and generally uncomfortable journey that would have ben so much worse if not for the air-con.  On arrival my first tuk-tuk of the year took us to the hotel.  This would not be worth mentioning were it not that at night these things still speed through the streets as though it was a live action Mario Kart!

Jodhpur has two main attractions - the Mehrangarh Fort which sits atop a sandstone hill and the predominately blue paint on the buildings (thus the nickname...).  I thought we had seen a lot of forts, but this one tops the lot.  It is a large complex almost entirely carved from the local sandstone - the detail on the window screens was amazing.  The views over the city were worth the entrance fee alone, but the fort also housed an impressive museum.

Jodhpur itself is a sprawling maze of blue painted bulidings.  It is very easy to get lost in & I am sure that we missed out on some treasures!

Our last stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur, where the Indian sections Octopussy were shot (except the shot of the Taj Mahal, many hundreds of miles away, and Veranassi, many hundreds more).  Possibly because the tourist section of the city is not where many locals live it had a very different feel to anywhere previous.  The hawkers were pleasant and not pushy (ie: they understood what 'no' meant!).  They were so good we got persuaded into buying some stone elephant carvings from a craft showroom.  We had been taken to other places when on the guided tours but I felt too pushed into them and pressured to buy something.  On this occasion it was a free choice and I was more than glad to part with my cash!

The sights here are limited.  The City Palace rises above Pichhola Lake and the tour of the palace winds through what appeared to be the servants tunnels, exploring the history of the palace, which until Indian independence was still in use.  This was not the best palace we had seen and the decoration was of a much lower standard..

The other main sight are the palaces (now hotels) that make the set for Octopussy's palace in the aforementioned film.  Sitting in the middle of the lake, one is used for the external shots while the other was used for the internal locations.  And of course we watched the film in a restaurant while having dinner.  Well, you have to, don't you!?

In the morning we went horse riding around the countryside.  I had never been on a horse before.  My feeling was initially one of trepidation, followed by consternation, abject terror, acceptance and finally pure enjoyment.  The countryside was beautiful and not something we would have been able to see any other way, winding through little villages down  to a small lake.

My horse was called Rose.  Apparently she was very docile...

The final stop in India was chosen quite late.  Udaipur was not easy to get out of.  Finally the decision was made to spend a few days in Rishikesh, in Uttarprakand.  Getting there was still not straightforward...  Indian airport security require you to take all metal items out of your hand luggage to be screened seperately and to have a luggage tag attached.  They weren't this zealous in Moscow!  We took a car to Rishikesh and wer very thankful to get out when we arrived - he was not as safe as Ram!

It is near Rishikesh that The Beatles attended the ashram, and met the guru, which, it could be said, changed the face of music in the '60's.  We didn't go to the ashram...  What we did do though, was relax.  We did yoga daily (much more strenuous than imagined, especially as I have done pilates!), go on a few short walks along the valley and partake of more amazing food (more of that later).  The Ganges flows through Rishkesh and two months before our visit had flooded due to the monsoons.  Many cafes & guest houses close to the banks had been washed away not only by the waters, but also the fridges, furniture and vehicles that the river brought from upstream.  Many thousands of people had died in the flooding.  It even brought down a 100 foot statue of Vishnu!  When we were there the river was much more peaceful, and on our first walk across the river a mist was slowly rising which made it so atmospheric.  The weather was to give us another treat a couple of days later when we got to watch a lightning storm overhead during dinner on the guesthouse rooftop!

After three days it was time to leave tranquility and embark on a Asian must do - the night bus!  It was supposed to be a 'luxury sleeper'.  I suppose the terms are relative...  Our taxi to Haridwar where we were to catch the bus tried to leave us in a dark square to wait for the bus.  For 2 hours.  We made him take us to the travel agents office - a small office at the end of a less than salubrious dark alley.  At least we felt safer.  They took us back to the square at the appointed hour and we waited while the driver started to fill the bus.  And I mean fill.  Entire families were squeezed into the overhead sleeping compartments.  I'm so glad we booked reclining seats!  Credit is due to the driver though - him somehow managed to take two hours off the journey time back to Delhi!  Which meant an even longer wait for the plane to Kathmandu...

But that's the fun of travelling!

Friday, 19 July 2013

India - Part1: The Golden Triangle

Needless to say, the Little India's of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore did not prepare us for what awaited in Delhi...

As the first part of my travels is effectively Sally's holiday she had decided to book a tour for our first week.  How good an idea this was became very quickly apparent.

Our driver, Ram, met us off the plane and took us the night time traffic to our hotel in the heart of Delhi.  No matter how many times you see images of this on television, it will never prepare you for the reality.  Traffic came from all sides, at all speeds, beeping a mass variety of horns.  The darkness made it seem as if was all coming from nowhere, but in effect isolated us from the reality of the next morning.  There appears to be no rules on the roads.  Just find a gap that your vehicle will fit into and beep your horn.  Priority is given to the larger or faster vehicle, so tuk-tuk's and mopeds just have to hope.  And there doesn't seem to be any reason to go the right way along the road either...  However, we soon had complete faith in Ram and (somewhat scarily) now view the chaos as being completely normal.  Although it may be best not to pay too much attention to it.

Our tour proper started the next day, visiting the Jama Majid (the largest mosque in India) and a rickshaw trip the the alleys of Old Delhi.  It was fascinating to get our first view of real India (citywise). The city was redesigned by the British with many open boulevards and roundabouts, large colonial palaces for the embassies and a vast presidential palace.  This didn't sit well with the tent villages set up on any flat ground large enough and slums set up in decaying buildings. Old Delhi by contrast was a hub-bub of activity, hawkers, tuk-tuks, people going about their business everywhere.  It made us want more, but it was not to be in Delhi.

Our our of the first day took us to Humayun's Tomb, a quite wonderful piece of architecture, and Qutub Minar, built by the first Mogul king on top of a Hindu temple.  We also saw Shakti Sthal, the cremation site of Gandhi after his assassination in 1948.  The memorial is simple, a fitting tribute.

The Gandhi Museum we saw the next day was not.  The ground floor was an endless chain of information boards, which seemed to have some time gaps and to which we were initially instructed to start at the end.  While informative is was a bit of an overload.  Upstairs however was bizarre...  They had set up interactive multimedia displays where buttons were pressed in increasingly novel ways to highlight Hindu beliefs and Gandhi's ideals (phrases highlighted in water by optic fibre - why?).  The most bewildering was a train where you could do a virtual trip from city to city, but only as an icon on a map.  I have no idea what knowledge they were trying to impart as the guide we had could not speak English well enough to enlighten us.

Our tour of Delhi ended with a walk around the Lodi Gardens.  At noon.  In 35 degree heat.  Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that...

The following day we travelled to Agra.  Our first trip on the open road.  The state people were living in in villages along the way makes me wonder if India is too large and too far gone to ever see Gandhi's dreams be realised.  In doing so though its character may be lost.

Agra is home to the very impressive Agra Fort, but also, and more importantly, the Taj Mahal.  Photographs do not do it justice..  It is simply breathtaking.  Every little detail is awe inspiring.  A true monument to love and devotion.

Our journey then took us to Jaipur, the Pink City - so named after the red sandstone that most of the old city is built from.  I must point out that our accommodation so far had been far from sparse, but we were left stunned by the home stay we had to ourselves in Jaipur.  A suite, with a lovely mezzanine level, the courtyard and staff at our beck and call!  Almost like royalty!  There were a few attractions to be guided around, and therefore more guides to be tipped, starting with the Amber Fort.

We had an elephant ride to the fort and felt the ugly side of tourism in India - hawkers hounding you all the way to the top with no possible escape, just trying to ignore them.  I know they are only trying to make a living, but they can really ruin a day!  The fort itself was beautiful enough to help us forget them in the end.  A trip to the Jantar Mantar observatory followed.  It is an ingenious if eccentric collection of instruments to tell the time and planetary positions, made to be walked all over.  A rest in the hotel was in order as the day was hot and we were to delve into the city that evening.  We were not prepared for the assault on our senses.  It was truly crazy.  Tuk-Tuks and motorbikes from all directions, horns blaring indiscriminately, hawkers everywhere touting business, the ful spectrum of colours in the market stalls, smells from the food stalls, spice merchants and open sewers - all bombarding you at once!  A hasty retreat was made after an hour to our oasis of tranquility.

The final stop of the first leg of India was Pushkar.  A holy city, believers of all religions can come here to be blessed and purified.  Being an atheist I was less than pleased at being coerced into said rituals and I was still wheedled out of a 'charitable donation'  and yet another tip...

It was, however, a good way to end our first week here as some of Gandhi's ashes were scattered in the lake.  I really must read more on this incredible man.

The next day we said goodbye to Ram and started our journey alone into India.  I highly recommend using a tour operator for a first foray into India.  We used India By Car & Driver ( who will cater to your every whim (and deal with any complaint about a hotel amazingly quickly!!)

Wow!  We did a lot in one week.  Time to chill out a bit...

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The City Breaks

I'm presently waiting at Changi Airport, Singapore.  I thought I'd take the opportunity to update you on the last week before I fly out to India which is where I feel this journey really begins.

I left Norwich with the most tearful of farewells 11 days ago.  3 flights, 17 hours and some awful in-flight food (beef in something brown - thanks Aeroflot) I arrived in Hong Kong, my unofficial base for my travelling.  I love Hong Kong. It's an amazing city.  This was now my third vist and it still delivers the goods.  It helps to have friends here, especially Sally, my travelling companion for the next 7 weeks..  They get me drunk so I barely notice the jet lag! Once again I was straight into the action with an all you can eat & drink champagne buffet.  So I did.  I can't recall much else, but it was fun.  I made new friends, caught up with old ones and supremely failed to catch up with others.  But I'll be back...

The first real stop of the journey was Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days.  This is a city to live in.  There is not much to do or see.  We walked around Chinatown, but having come from Hong Kong this was not very special.  We did Little India, but as we go there next I'm sure it will not live up to the real thing.  The highlight of the visit was finally getting to see the Petronas Towers.

They are the most beautiful buildings, especially at night, and dominate a skyline that would otherwise be rather dull.  All this was done in 5 star luxury which I'm trimg not to get used to.  A free bar for 2 hours every night was fully utilised!

Singapore was much of the same, which was a dissappointment.  It's very clean and green.  And pleasant.  That's the best that can be said.  It's also very expensive!  Again we did the sights - Chinatown & Little India were better than Kuala Lumpur, but still not wowing us, althoug the curries in Little India have whetted my appetite for what's to come.  We had the obligatory Singapore Sling at Raffles - the most expensive and unamazing cocktail I have ever had.  White Russians still rule!  Still, good times were had, especially watching the Lions beat Australia in an Aussie bar.  A very expensive hangover!

Anyway, my flight is being called so I will depart.