Watch the latest leg of the St. Pierre Family’s travels on NBTVTODAY.
Kerala, Fort Kochi, South India
By all accounts our arrival in Southern India, in the province of Kerala, has brought about a change of pace. Still many people, tons of them if fact, though no where near the madness of New Delhi, and though the traffic is still up there in terms of “near chaotic” by all means the Keralans are more relaxed than their counter parts. Kerala is situated near the bottom tip of India on the western coast and is known for the relaxed pace and easy way of it’s inhabitants. They say that days will turn into weeks and one will not notice the passing of time…(I can attest to the truth of that statement as nearly 2 weeks have come and gone as I sit here, now, on the shores of Goa 1200 kilometres away). Some recommend a stay in southern Kerala as an introduction to mad India before venturing up north…it’s suppose to ease you into the the beat of the country.. Too late for us and as they say “been there and done that” but nevertheless we’ve surely noticed the difference …
To give you a little added insight: the province of Kerala has the first and only freely elected communist government in India and also, contrarily to the rest of the country, the culture has it’s roots deeply anchored into a past matriarchal driven society with all the influences that come from it. I, for one, have noticed a big difference not only in my interactions with others but in the more the subtle and quiet way found in everyday life. Perhaps it’s the general mood of the place or the way that a respectful attitude seems to permeated the air and the pace of life. I don’t know but I like it. Women still do the bulk of the work but they are also business owners. I’ve talked to more women since my arrival in the state of Kerala than the rest of my stay in India.
Our first stop in the Province of Kerala is the old British port town of Fort Cochin. We have booked 3 nights at Beena’s which is a home-stay (India’s version of B&B) the new, hip and cheap way to travel in India. Warm, welcoming and quiet it’s a little gem of a place with the owners taking time to chat and clue us in with all kinds of information about the town, sightseeing and things to do while in the region, not to mention the absolute marvellous breakfast and supper she feed us everyday!!! Our three days here are spent leisurely strolling the old settlement town scattered here and there with old colonial style plantation homes, in a maze of side streets filled with small stores, restaurants, internet cafe, travel agents and coffee or ice cream shops. This is also were we saw those amazing “chinese” fishing nets lining up the shore, a performance of Khatikali, (an old Indian art form of communication) and spent a day at Cherrai beach taking in some rays (me) and playing Frisbee with a bunch of locals (the boys)! Short and sweet but left us with many great memories!
Alappuzha and the backwaters of Kerala:
Our next stop is Alappuzha (a couple hours south of Cochi).The call to fame for this little town is the magnificent river boats you can hire for a day or two and meander through the maze of canals that make up the backwaters of Kerala! An experience not to miss! They come with a captain, a chef and an attendant! The boats are as simple or as luxuriant as you are willing to pay! We decide to go over budget (just a little) and opt for a two night stay in a two bedroom mini palace… mind you all is relative n’est-ce-pas? The two bedrooms are small, simple, clean, come with a fan and on-suite bathrooms. The seating area has a loveseat sofa, four loungers, a table and four chairs, flat screen TV and Bose speakers! Along the railing is a sitting area covered with mattresses and cushions that make it the perfect view point and our favourite to sit and while away the hours. It’s absolutely decadent compared to some of the places we have stayed or at least we think so! Upon arrival we are greeted with a welcome drink: a freshly opened coconut with a straw. Quite typical in an area that proliferates with the tree but unusual for us and quite refreshing!
The scenery is like nothing I have ever seen before and comprises a 77 square kilometre lake interspersed with kilometres of waterways, canals, submerged rice field lined with demi bricked in retainer walls and strips of land, along which the smallest have single strands of coconut tree. Those strips of land become more substantial throughout the system of canals, for no rhyme or reason that I can see, and small clusters of very basic bungalow type houses, (that really can’t be called villages as there are too few) are lined up along the bank, in single file with the canal water as front yards and submerged rice paddy for back yards. A very narrow path joins the different houses on different strips of land but to get from one place to the other the primary mode of transportation is by small ferry boats that travel up and down the canals or the more common basic canoe!
They are the most peaceful two days I have spent in a long time with nowhere to go, no plans to make and no internet research to do for our next destination. Camera at the ready, I could hardly pick my book during the day for fear of missing something extraordinary. The scenery so mesmerizing and hypnotizing that my days are spent gazing out in wonder at how a people ever come to live is such a place. Coasting along we had little peaks into the daily life of this watery world where people step out of their front door, walk a few step to take their bath, wash their dishes, do their laundry and where the children are found gleefully swimming around or having water fights! Totally unexpected we come around yet another bend to find a church…a full blown church, right there on one strip also surrounded by nothing but water! Simply amazing! Come to find out it is a private church and for the personal and exclusive use of one family but that they have moved away and only come once a year to celebrate some occasion or another (Christmas perhaps) and leave again.
Tonight in the distance, dark clouds are gathering for what promises to be quite a storm. In the meantime we witness one of the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. Palm trees reflected upon calm waters that surrounds us for miles with a kaleidoscope of colours splashed upon a watery canvas as the sun retreats behind the distant clouds. The odd canoe, seemingly making a break before the impending storm, scoots past us intent on his destination. We are not disappointed when a few minutes later a downpour the likes I have rarely seen ends a very perfect day. It’s an easy night, tonight, to slip into a world of dreams listening to the rhythm of the rain beating down on the canvas of our roof cocooned in our houseboat, very safe and very dry!
My first morning in our new home, well at least for the next ten days…lol! Found this amazing little hotel and for 23.00$ per night per room we have each a balcony with oceanfront view!AMAZING!
Okay! I am IN paradise! There is no mistaking, I’m sure of it: This morning finds me sitting on my balcony staring at an expanse of grey, translucent and almost mirror-like water that seems to have no end as it meets and kisses the horizon in the distance…One can’t tell for sure as there is no way to tell where one begins and the other ends as the clouds and the water are all playing with different hues of the same colours. Barely 50 feet from where I sit is a drop of at least 100/150 feet! The whole village is perched waaaaaaaaaay up high on top of the cliff hugging the narrow path (with no guard rail might I add) that separates it from the drop. Accompanying this visual masterpiece is a full symphony of sounds from the waves as they come thundering and crashing down on the rocks below.
It is barely 7am but the place is slowly showing signs of wakefulness. To my surprise the little restaurant, where we had our meal last night, also serves as sleeping quarters for the waiters and cooking staff. (Wow!!! Can you just try and imagine that done in Canada?) The restaurant is two part: the outdoor terrace which has loads of character and where blue checkered tablecloth, cover plain wooden tables sit scattered amongst palm trees, adorned with flowers and candles at the ready. Smack in the middle, nestled between two of the trees, one single hammock swings back and forth to whatever rhythm the wind decides to play. It’s also Miguel’s favourite spot to while away the hours listening to some tunes on his itouch . Along the four sides, framing this quaint little picture, a small brick wall-come-flower pot filled with flowers and greens alike adds the final touch. The second part is found right next to the terrace on the second floor of a pretty dingy looking building topped with a serrated tin roof that’s probably worn out as a tarpaulin has been carelessly thrown across. A good option (if you can get pass your first impression), to rainy days, too much sun or for better viewing of the rolling waves and crashing surf. You couldn’t find a more basic, simple though very clean and straight forward little place. The staff is warm, friendly, welcoming and we have been the recipient of the most amazing service since our arrival in India. Last but definitely not least and most importantly the food is amazing, presented exceptionally well and very cheap. What more could you ask for? Oh, almost forgot, as an added bonus we come to find out the staff are all from Nepal!
My room, also on the second floor, is in the hotel behind the terrace, and just off to my 1 o’clock is the restaurant-com-bedroom. In the morning I can see them stirring from their sleep, all lined up on mattresses across the floor or on the few tables put together that has become a makeshift bed. At first one arm peeks out from under the covers, then another, followed by a full blown stretch, slowly, almost in slow mode and probably due the hardness of the “beds”, he finally gets up and gives one more stretch for good measure. Soon that little ritual is followed by another and another, then in a flurry of activity everyone is up and about, the mattresses are put away, the tables are reset…open for business! I think!
As I make my way down to ask if they are now truly open for business (I’m seriously in need of a cup of something warm) I come across the owner of the hotel sitting outside at the entrance, still sporting his morning attire: he’s an older gentleman, dressed in the matching white shirt and flowing wraparound sarong that most men seem to prefer, topped off with a sleep turban, wrapped tightly around his head, that he quickly slides of as I approach. Looking at me expectantly I direct my question (of needing a cup of something) to him…”Oh…no worry, they bring to you”. So here I am, back at the beginning of my story about being in paradise and the morning finding me sitting on the balcony, enraptured by the view before me, as I am brought the most perfect cup of tea! Introduced to us during our stay in Nepal and now served to me in India by our new found Nepalese friends. Masala tea: a tea made with cinnamon, cardamon and other spices, boiled with milk for a couple of minutes (so the spices will have time to seep into the mixture) served pipping hot with just a touch of sugar. Paradise indeed! It’s the little things in life that make it so precious and worth living… just like this perfect morning (even though it’s raining) and this perfect cup of tea brought by a very attentive and caring staff.
We’ve spent the bulk of our time here at Hill Top hotel hanging out on our balcony (it’s been raining just about everyday…yet.. it’s still paradise!) sipping tea, coffee, the occasional beer and eating a couple of our meals everyday at this restaurant, which by the way, has become our favourite hang out. It’s a quaint little spot to watch the world go by, people watch not to mention the view that actually is quite spectacular. It’s also fascinating to gaze down at swimmers and surfers alike braving the waves, though, at this particular beach, the undertow and currents are dangerously strong and will pull you out to sea if careless. To that end, unfortunately, every year some tragedy occurs to those who do not heed the warnings to play it safe and keep close to the shore.
One glorious afternoon ( there have been a couple) sitting at our “usual” table (next to the railing of the balcony in the restaurant, no more than 12 feet from the drop), sipping a beer, waiting to be served our meal and for our private entertainment (at least I like to think), crows and other birds (that I can’t identify) flit-er about, while further out, fishing eagle are playing the air currents that embrace the shoreline. In all, we count 15 of those majestic and powerful eagles going around in circles in that up-draft, hardly beating their wings to stay aloft in that unique and effortless way only birds of prey have. At times it seems they are following this one fishing boat, out there on the water but really, I imagine, they are just entertaining themselves in this one air current that’s going the same way. During the course of our meal some strayed so close to where we sat that we got to see them from above ( interesting perspective) yet others still would swoop down at eye level and if you were paying attention caught a quick glimpse of the piercing, searching eyes as they hunted for their prey. I have never seen so many eagles assembled together. Intent and absorb at the display in front of me I am caught totally unawares when a para-glider scoots right in front of me, barrelling along, hugging the cliff and no more than 20 or 30 feet away from us! He was so close I thought for sure he would get tangled up in the few trees that hang precariously here and there along the edge of the cliff, and crash to the ground. Nothing so tragic happenned of course except in the recess of my vivid imagination… for he kept playing along with the eagles travelling up and down that air current seemingly as intent on the game as they, swooping ever so close to the edge only to retreat again.
This morning, for the second time since our arrival in Varkala, we have a sunrise in a near cloudless sky and a beautiful one at that. Sitting on my balcony I’m looking at the morning sky unfolding itself like the un-wrapping of a gift in a tapestry of colour. We are coming to an end of our stay, here in beautiful, rugged Varkala and what a wonderful parting gift! During the past few days I’ve only had a few glimpse at the eagles and only from afar as the weather has not been conducive to proper air drafts nearer the cliffs. Such a disappointment as I’d quite taken to spending hours watching them, trying to capture them on film so mesmerized by their flight. Until this morning, perhaps on the whims of the gods at play, one last display: one cocky crow, surely up to no good, must have angered one of the eagles as it came pursuing the crow with intent right up to my balcony not 10 feet away! I nearly spilled my tea!
And of course no camera at the ready!
Nepal! (The first email since our entry to Nepal!)
Bhaktapur (to be specific!)
November 7th & 8th
Starting from the end and making my way back to the beginning…
Usually a story starts at the beginning and makes its way through to the end with tales as twisted and complicated as a murder mystery or as simple and unassuming as a tender love story… just as the author wishes. So this time around I’m taking the liberty to fast forward to our last couple of days in Nepal before making my way back to the beginning of the story in the proper time frame.
The boys have retired early, both exhausted with accumulated fatigue of the last month. There has not been much time to rest! So tonight finds me alone, sitting in my tiny little room that only has enough room for a double bed, (and even that is a luxury that I have not enjoyed of late…) no furniture but thank goodness an ”en-suite” bathroom: which only means I don’t have to go down the hall or go outside to do my business! Small mercies! My bed, worn out by the many previous occupants, has its shape and groove carved out into the mattress and is slightly leaning away from the wall… No matter I’m compensating with pillows tucked here and there and sipping on the “famous” Apple Brandy from Marpha (the telling of that tale for another email).
So here we are in the medieval town of Bhaktapur. And what a picturesque town it is. Mind you, even before even setting foot inside the town, you must pay a fee of 10.00$ per person. I’m not sure if it’s to limit the amount of people visiting or a way to make money…no matter! It’s well worth it. The town is a mishmash of alleyways interspersed with ponds. Not in the term we think of ponds but rather man-made cement structures, square or rectangular in shape and of different sizes: I think the ponds are a gathering place for people and for the winnowing of grain. Aside from the ponds two main squares are found in Bhaktapur. Actually the most famous square here rivals the Durbar Square in Katmandu for its beauty, intricate details and carvings in stone or in wood. Both have temples and old historical buildings with incredible architecture and one can tell the passage of time has trickled by instead of gushing right on through.
Time has somehow halted here, or so it seems. Old women dressed in the most colorful of saris sit stooped inside their shop, some quite decrepit, and spend their days on menial tasks, crushing grains, preparing food or doing their washing at the communal water well as running water is not the norm. Old men squat, here and there, playing cards, smoking or even taking a snooze and will away the hours. Life is harder here for the womenfolk!
In the minor Square vendors selling antiques, jewelry, carvings, wall hanging, saris, food and all kinds of trinkets keep an attentive eye on the comings and goings of potential buyers. You a chance a quick look when you think no one will hassle you to buy and out of nowhere, here they are, right next to you asking “how much?” “You like”? Shopping in Nepal is not for the browsers or window shoppers unless you have a steely attitude, a decisive manner and are not easily influenced or swayed. You can get pretty wrapped up and tangled into the world of bartering and before you know it you are walking away with a carpet or a wall hanging that you never intended to buy in the first place…but the price was such a steal!!!! LOL.
So back to Bhakatpur and the reason I’m making an exception to the timeline of the story… Tonight, of all nights, is a special time to be in Bhaktapur. The Square is alive with life and celebration as the Nepalese are celebrating and welcoming year 1131…It’s New Years Eve in Nepal! Nepal Sambat is based on a unique lunar calendar that includes the name of the country where it’s celebrated. It was started in 880AD after a local merchant from Kathmandu, Shankhadar Sakhwa, paid off the debt of the common people thus emancipating thousands of people from serfdom. From what I’ve been told, and from what I can see it’s their biggest celebration of the year. Imagine a holiday encompassing Easter, Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Labor Day all rolled into one. Kids of all ages, some as young as 4 if not younger, go from house to house or from business to business singing songs and performing intricate dances that all adults take time to appreciate and encouraged … and only move on when they have received a treat or some money for their effort. It’s a cross between caroling and trick or treating.
The older crowd, teenagers and young adults, are singing, dancing, clinging cymbals, drumming rhythmic songs accompanied with a chorus of voices all the while, in the back ground, the sound of firecrackers are going off at regular interval. A parade of motorcycles (up to 4 per motorcycle…people that is! LOL) and truck loads of people (20 people + per truck) standing in the back, hanging from the sides or sitting on the roof are in full party mode, playing any kind of instrument that makes noise, the louder the better. The drivers are honking non-stop as they are making their way through the square, just a few feet from our Guesthouse. It’s a great big oupla! For the rest of the “oldies” they stand back and enjoy the procession of revelers and probably reminisce on better times.
Tonight is celebration time and most restaurants and businesses have closed early to prepare for the celebration. During the day vendors were selling dye (red, yellow, orange) and flowers and advising everyone (especially us foreigners) ”tonight we close early for we must receive Dashain Tikka from our sisters”. Tikka being the colorful “blessing” that adorns the forehead …a gift and a sign of love bestowed from one member of the family to another. It’s a family celebration! Throughout the town the women folk are scurrying through the small cobbled street dressed in their best saris carrying plates of food to share with their families. It’s very cool being here at this time.
As sleep finally catches up with me to and I turn off the lights I am lulled to sleep by the echoes of voices singing, celebration and the occasional (but very loud) firecrackers. Throughout the night I am aware of the continuing festivities, as sleep, for me, is rarely without many wake full moments. Nevertheless it’s comforting to know that this particular night the Nepalese are celebrating and feasting together!
Namaste (meaning: I greet the divine within you)
I think, maybe, that first impressions count for something, then again maybe not…but one thing is for sure: I have fallen completely and totally head over heals in love with Shanghai! Thump, thump; thump, thump; thumpety; thump, thump… goes the beating of my heart!
China may be a huge working machine consisting of arms, limbs and lungs and yes, by all means, Beijing may be the capital of China but truly the heart of the country is in Shanghai. The city is vibrant and buzzing with pent-up energy! Like one of those spinning tops you wind up and as you are slowly getting closer to last few twist, you feel the accumulated vigor, then, … whoosh, off it goes and… “Where it stops nobody knows”!
Truly, if Shanghai be the heart, then it’s resting pulse rate, (should you be able to take such a thing) would be over 100 beats per minute; fast, strong, alive and pulsing with ambition! I’ve forever heard that the movers and shakers make their camp in cities like New York, Munich, Milan and, and, and…Well, now I may have had a small glimpse as to why and all I can say is WOW! The city is impressive and in so many ways.
We arrived on Friday the 24th of September, late afternoon, and made our way from the airport: a long, seemed-to-go-on forever winding and spread-out conglomeration of streets, stores, factories, warehouses, houses and apartment buildings, but mainly high-rises and a full hour ride into the city without ever leaving the periphery of Shanghai!
In the distance the famous Pearl Tower and SWFC tower (the latter being the 3rd tallest building in the world and the worlds highest observatory) sits in the distance on the horizon, seemingly never far away. With arms open wide, the city welcomes you into her arms and wraps herself tightly and comfortingly around you. Like the embrace of a “welcome home”! Unexpected from a huge city of 20 plus million people! Is it the sight of the river Bund zig-zagging through the core of the city? Is it the feeling of openness that comes from being a port city? Or the accompanying smell of water that brings all those feelings of hominess? Who’s to know. But I do love the feeling of rightness that comes with the place.
As we wandered the streets from late afternoon into the night, our sense of awe spreading from mild fascination to intense enthrallment… the same, as you would while being catered a five course meal by a world-renowned chef who wants to showcase his talent and creation! He begins with the appetizer, soup, salad, entrée; forever teasing you with luscious little bites, working and building up the excitement towards the crescendo of the evening, the main course! So it is with Shanghai, a feast for the senses: horns honking, boat horns a-going, a festival of lights spread onto tall humongous buildings that are turned into gigantic TV screens and advertisement posters, a show of multi-colored lights of different designs are flashed from skyscraper to skyscraper with upcoming events of all kinds. An ongoing stream of lit, vibrant, multi-hued river cruise boats, (also poster showcase for one company or the next), traffic galore; a gazillion people talking, walking, taking pictures, an “in your face” scream for attention! Overwhelming to say the least but hypnotizing also! The smells too are different from Beijing and seem to crest on a smaller scale but nevertheless very much present: probably due to the constant breeze that accompanies the downstream current of the river!
As you step away from the hubbub of downtown Shanghai and venture into the side streets that certain underlying energy- more subdued but still there- surround you as you walk through the innards of the city far from the core. Fascinating city indeed!
Most mornings find me up at the crack of dawn with the boys still asleep. Computer and glasses in hand I make my way to the lounge downstairs to enjoy a cup of coffee and catch up on the mail, Facebook pictures and my journal… It’s my quiet time. We are located a stone’s throw away from the River Bund, actually across the street (thank God for Skyauction.com) and the sight that greats me every morning is heartwarming. The hustle and bustle begins at 5am with a plethora of people walking, jogging, and running along its shore or casually taking a stroll in their pajamas for the morning business of their dogs! There is time and space for Tai Chi, and from what I hear every morning, at precisely the same time. I have yet to see what must be some sort of group doing exercises with what sounds like the pace of military training… the commands and shouts of acquiescent that sounds like Hou-Ha (think American army movies here…lol).
Even today I witnessed a most fascinating thing: this older gentleman, dressed in his pajamas came up the stairs onto the walkway that makes it’s way along the river and began playing an imaginary game of air tennis (racket and no opponent) but with all the back and forth movements you would find during a real game! On and on he went quite intent on the game he was playing! Then just a little while later, the game of tennis still going on, (and I still can’t quite figure out who is winning) someone else quietly untangles a thick ball of thread and just like that, a medium size kite is in the air, flying in all of it’s glory with the greatest city skyline for its background! This entire production all taking place before or around 6am… surely as a way to beat the crowds that are sure to follow come 9 am. Like I said, fascinating city indeed!
Having made it all the way to Shanghai, a trip to the Expo is a must. We reserve a full day and decide to wait out the weekend as we have been told the crowds are like nothing we have seen before and weekends are just that much worse! Just to put things into perspective we did some quick math… Here is the picture: 190 participating countries in an area of 5.28 square meters, the duration of the event is 6 months… They expect 90 million visitors during that period (broad assessment). That adds up to 500,000 thousand visitors per day, everyday for the next 6 months… another way of look at it is imagining the whole population of Quebec City, then squeezing it into 5.28 square kilometers, every single day for the next 6 months. Talk about wall-to-wall people! UNBELIEVABLE! Of course we were not disappointed even for a Monday morning: crowds galore!
We did a marathon of nearly 12 hours of strolling around and still did not manage to see everything. The waiting line, for the more popular pavilion, was up to 9 hours each! And some you could not even cue as a VIP pass was required. Refusing to stand in line for 4 to 9 hours per, we resolved our lack of time dilemma by concentrating on the lesser-known pavilion, some of which were still quite spectacular nevertheless. One exception to the rule was broken and that, for the Canadian Pavilion: Proudly in line did we stand, heads held up high humming along the National Anthem, (Yes! Really, all 3 of us singing along. Can’t you just picture it?) displaying the purchase of our Canadian flag sewn on our backpacks and grinning like fools; Go Canada! The boys actually convinced me to make a stop at the “Canadian” restaurant and buy a “poutine”!!! Have no fear the Quebecois style poutines reputation is intact! A tad different due to the lack of cheese curds and it did cost like 14 bucks for 2 small poutines (that’s usually the budget we spend on food for a whole day) but what the hey! They were happy campers. After nearly 12 hours we had our filled and finally returned “home” to quickly pass out from exhaustion! A day well spent all the same!
It would be remiss on my part not to mention how the space, in such a crowded environment, was found to accomplish such a feat. Keep in mind that the location of the Expo makes its way along both sides of the River Bund, a 15-min. cab ride from where we are- so very close to what is considered downtown! That the duration of the event is a mere 6 months and that near 20 million people live in Shanghai and the greater Shanghai area…which really is just one long unending city. Altogether, a neighborhood consisting of 18,000 families, 270 factories (where 10,000 workers had gainful employment) was destroyed to make room and the people were “displaced and re-educated” (the governments terminology) and moved to high rises, spread out every which way and loosing their community. We heard the same thing happened for the building of the Birds Nest and other areas for the construction site of the Olympic where 10,000 people were moved and re-educated! The Hutongs (remember…small communal alley ways that have become the peoples “living space”) was destroyed, with not a word to say, and whole neighborhoods were re-located into “better” and “bigger” places. There is always two sides to every story and I should not neglect to say that though the community at large was unhappy, many others welcomed the move to more current and up-to-date locations with running water and the likes! Such is life in Communist China!
Before leaving Shanghai there was just one more thing we wanted to try. We read in the Times Magazine about “Ten to do while in Shanghai “. Most of them we covered: climbing to the top of the CWFC tower, the 3rd highest in the world and the world’s highest observatory, strolling along the Bund River, visit the Shanghai museum etc etc etc… but the one that caught our attention was number 6: To get a green massage: I must point out at this juncture that my love of getting massages has unwittingly created an unexpected result: My oh my, we have created a monster in the name of Miguel. Son number two has developed a fondness for massages that are unparalleled even to my own. Every other day is “ can we get a massage hey mom? Can we?”
Now keep in mind that for 60Yuan (less then 10.00$) you can get a full hour body massage or a good 45-minute session of reflexology for half that price! Green massage is a Traditional Chinese acupressure session and since it had been recommended in the Times Magazine we decided to go check it out. Upon arrival, this huge swinging door that brings you inside first greets you. Once in, a dimmed atmosphere of candles, running water down a long brick wall into a little canal where flowers are floating to the rhythm of the waterfall, soft music prevails and you automatically breathe a sigh of relief…ahhhhh, peace your body seems to say! The attendants are many and at your elbow the minute you walk in with tea and offers of assistance. They then escort you to change into these luxurious silk pajamas and direct you into this spacious but peaceful room where individual beds line up each sides. The mood is quiet and the atmosphere calming; a five by eight foot Chinese type lantern/lamp in subdued white hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the room acting like a divider separating both sides. I feel like a princess at this point…and so do the boys as they have accompanied me step by step. Water is offered to drink and then you are directed to sit and soak your feet in a concoction of tealeaves and medicinal herbs water filled basin that is all ready for you. Ahhhh the session begins! I think it is the most sinful, exquisite and decadent two hour I have ever spent!!!! The boys concur!
I still do not know where the time of two hours went but it was over before I knew it: two hours of cleaning, rubbing, kneading oil and cream into worn out feet, moving on to the back and tired shoulders with manipulations and massages that sometimes felt like caresses but managing still to take away the stress and tightness of the muscles…All of this for the amazing price of 500Yuan (app. 80$, so 27$ dollars each) the three of us were treated like king and queen to a combination of green massage (one hour), reflexology (45 minutes) and 15 minutes of God knows what. Of course the latter requires some explanation and as tendency would have it, Miguel seems to be the recipient of “interesting” moments to live since the trip has begun! I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the “add-on” we decided to tag onto our already amazing package but it was suppose to remove “accumulated toxins” from the body… Another typical Chinese treatment along the same line as “cupping”! So why not! With tool in hand they proceeded to scrape our backs, not quite unlike a back scratch but more intense and near uncomfortable! It was not the most pleasant of experience but none the worse for wear we still wondered what the purpose had been (other than removal of toxins!) The next morning as Miguel is splayed out on the bed the covers fall and his back is exposed! OMG! Bruised all over and tender to the touch… Stefan and I both had something like that but not to same the extent! It looked raw and painful. Of course we took pictures and will certainly remember never to have that treatment again, nevertheless it is one experience we will never forget! The only good we’ve been able to deduce from that little experience is for Miguel; in that he got out of carrying the daypack for the next couple of days! LOL …need to keep an optimistic look on things!
That about brings our Shanghai moment to an end. We left in style and made our way to the airport in the Maglev train. Unbeknownst to me, until now, the maglev is a system of transportation that uses electro magnetic field to propel vehicles, usually trains at great speeds. It took us an hour to make our way to the city center by taxi, upon arrival. Traveling at speeds upward to 405 kilometers our return trip was made in less than 7minutes… Amazing! Leaving Shanghai on a high!!!
Next stop…Katmandu, Nepal…
Still in Beijing, Colette and the boys visit the historic Tian’anmen Square on this week’s episode of Journey of a Lifetime.
Another funny thing happened to us at the Beijing train station: On the advice of the staff and manager (I think that’s what she was!) we left early so that we would have plenty of time to get around once we got to the station.
Tonight, as “luck” would have it, the proprietor of the hostel escorted us, to facilitate the hailing of a cab! We made quite the quaint picture, the three of us, in full rain gear, (the first night time rain since we’ve arrived and have had to go out) trotting along behind him, riding his bike with only a wide brimmed hat, pulling a cart behind him with our three packs pilled up like a minor pyramid…hop, hop, skip, skip, trot, trot then run to catch up to him, and the routine would start over again! Too funny! Being a rainy night, all the cabs are full and trying any longer seems pointless. We had been at it for a good 20 minutes! A better idea might be to make a dash for the metro, which would give us better odds of making it on time! So off he goes on his bike and we begin, again, our little dance…hop-hop, skip-skip, trot-trot, run to catch up to him, hop-hop, skip-skip, trot-trot and run to catch up to him! LOL! At this point if the boys were with me while I am writing away at 6 in morning, they would point out that it was only I, doing this particular night’s recital! But as I am producer and conductor of our little l performance I choose to remember it this particular way! A brisk 15-minute walk away and we finally arrived to our destination, not too wet and not too tired seeing the hard job would have been to carry those packs! Only ten metro stops to go! Wouhou!!!
We make it with lots of time to spare. What a chaotic place to arrive to, at 10 o’clock at night for a midnight departure! Once there, the first thing you notice is the people! People, people, people, everywhere people. It’s like arriving to a carnival and the gates have just opened and the crowd surges towards the open doors… there is a rush and a pressing of bodies all pulled magnetically in the same direction. Once inside the station its more of the same: People waiting in line, sitting down, leaning against the wall, squatting down or sitting on those little stools they seem to carry everywhere they go, but especially, most especially is the people lying down, helter skelter, everywhere! You find them along the wall, in the middle of the hallway, on newspapers, across the few seats that are available…and not just sitting down but squarely passed out! Smack in the middle of the walkway. Imagine arriving at Grand Central Station in New York, in the main hallway just below the billboard announcing arrivals and departures, where the huge dome is and everyone (or so it seemed) is lying down on the ground taking a nap! It’s truly an amazing sight to see! Unfortunately, being me and a little more than Canadian by culture; apologizing for everything and always feeling like we take too much space for everything! Lol! I just cannot convince myself to take pictures…Often times with camera in hand; I feel like I am intruding on their privacy, that I am somehow witness to something intimate and personal! I’ve seen some amazing things since my arrival but taking pictures whenever I see something striking seems like peeking into a window, as you do when you drive by at night when all is dark, and you get a glimpse of something: you know you are sneaking a peek into someone’s else’s life that you would just not see otherwise! Though strange to us, this is their life; this is their culture and not an easy one! I’ve gotten a little more brave in my picture taking since my arrival and to a compromise of sorts: I now ask permission, which makes me feel better and not like I am secretly invading their privacy!
In any case… here we are, surrounded by people, hardly, no completely, unable to read any of the information we need as everything is in Chinese character. No idea where the right waiting room is, from what platform the train is leaving and how in God’s name are we going to know when it is time to board!!!! HELP!!! LOL ! English is very little spoken and so asking for information is another story altogether.
With our new talent at charade and acquired acting skills we nevertheless, finally, manage to figure it all out, find a place to settle down and wait it out! The deck of cards is pulled out and after deciding what game to play we begin in earnest. Not 10 minutes goes by that we start drawing a crowd! At first a lone man leaning against the wall starts looking at Miguel’s’ hand, then another. Next this younger man plops down in this little seat, the one that everyone seems to carry along and parks himself squarely between Miguel and I. Next thing you know we have a crowd surrounding us; old ladies leaning on their canes, old men on their rickety legs, young couples arm in arm and once parents get in there the children quickly follow suit… everyone is trying to figure out the rules of the game we are playing; going back and forth from one player to the next as we are laying down our cards and picking up new ones, trying to make sense of it. Not an easy thing to figure out when the rules nearly do not make any sense to me! But they are persistent and the Chinese love to watch an ongoing game that catches their attention. Walking along, seeing people gather around a foursome, playing a serious game of majong is not unusual! The bigger the crowd, the more people are pulled towards the game, out of a sense of curiosity to see what is being played or who is winning!
Ok… getting back to the story at hand…
Train travel in China is like nowhere else in the world. Once again the Chinese have managed to take the whole concept of train traveling to a whole other level. There are 4 categories of train traveling in China: Soft sleepers, hard sleepers, soft seats and hard seats! We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel in the comfort of soft sleepers and will be able to boast (a little boast mind you) that we have done hard sleepers also. But for the rest, I will count my blessings that I did not take part in that particular style of the Chinese train experience. Let me explain.
The soft sleepers are the epitome of traveling for comfort and style “Chinese Chic” made up of a private cabin, shared by 4; so two bunks on the top and two bunks on the bottom, that come at two different price range: more for the bottom less for the top! Very much like our own system except you get to share your cabin with two strangers. Your places are pre-reserved and the cabins are supplied with pillows, duvets, white tablecloth covering the itsy bitsy tiny side table and a service of hot water throughout the journey day or night. All very nice! No toilets though, so you still have the inconvenience to haul your ass out of the room and make the journey down the hall, to the end of train wagon and squat with the best of them. The squatting, on its own, is a feat to be proud of, let alone in a moving train (bragging rights! Lol)
The hard sleepers are a bit more rough and ready: just an opening, divided by cubicle style walls, but from floor to ceiling, with 6 bunks on the left and six bunks on the right. No doors enclosing the compartment in which you are lying down so you are very much aware of everything. Throughout the trip you hear of the back and forth of other passengers: embarking and disembarking, trips to the bathroom, getting up and down from the two other top bunks, stretching of legs, yawns, coughs, burps, clearing of throats, spitting in bags and last but not least (forgive my French) farting notwithstanding! The train officers add to the cacophony of sounds with their back and forth going on from one cart to the next, checking in new passengers and exiting passengers or the bringing of hot water to waiting travellers. Conclusion of the matter… no peace and quiet whatsoever! Not quite the restful environment to grab a few zzzz during your night ride through the country. You save yourself one night of hostelling but then need to take into account the wear and tear of the journey!
Another thing about those two options is that only ticket holders of soft sleepers and hard sleeper have access to the dining car (I’m pretty sure anyways), which, to our experience, is best left un-experienced! Imagine getting up to a bowl of watery lukewarm millet base porridge, one fried egg; burnt on the bottom and not quite cooked on the top, three slices of some sort of ham/salami/baloney tasting meat and three clumps of bread with a strong bitter after taste! Ugh!! We sort of went without that first time and swore it would be our last…I guess bad food, in trains, is universal after all…lol.
Moving on to the soft seaters; very much like what we have in Canada in terms of sitting and comfort levels except there are 3 seats to each sides so a bit more squished for the ride and it’s on a first come first served basis… so not much to say there!
Now comes the hard seaters…well, you have to see it to believe it, my goodness, just unbelievable! Four days ago, when we made it to the Beijing train station, we wondered about the “cattle being led to the slaughterhouse” mentality! It was unreal… an hour before boarding people started lining up (if you can call it that) and when the gates opened??? Free for all, rush through the gates, every man for himself; like the start up for the Boston marathon, (in terms of numbers), and like the Kentucky Derby in terms of onslaught of bodies, suitcases, bags, strollers etc…Crazy, crazy, crazy! We didn’t really understand the push and shove attitude of everyone and only after getting off the train and were talking to some other fellow travelers, did we find out about this poor young couple from Wales, that actually had to stand for nearly all of the 17 hour train ride from Beijing to Pingyao, did it finally all click into place! Hard sleepers are oversold! So there are never enough seats and they are also on a first come first come served basis… so if you get there last and there are no seats left, then there are no seats left! Tough tidily wink for you! People are left to stand, lie down in the alleyways between the seats or where the train wagons connect or worse case scenario will have to stand up to wherever they are going! What a nightmare! When we tried to book our train tickets to Shanghai (a 23 hour train ride) we where told that there were only hard seaters left! I immediately booked 3 plane tickets! Enormous sigh of relief!
Ok this about wraps it up for this time around as I’ve more than abuse you with the length and detail of this email…
I should be up-loading a couple more photo album to Facebook….so take a peek!
PS… on another note… we later learned that had that poor young couple shown their tickets to the wagon master they would have had a seat… They actually sell “no-seaters” for Chinese people…so someone had a ride on them! That’s another example of what the language barrier can do!