We’ve nearly finished packing before tonight’s flight to Shanghai. All I have to do is to find place for these little eats in our carry on. One cannot imagine leaving home without three packets of khakhras, two of bhakris and a box of sonpapri. Can one?
Those terrible people at the security made me leave behind my thermos full of chhaas on my last trip.
There are just a couple of days to go before we jump head-first into China, and I discover a new twist. The last time I was in 中国 (Zhōngguó, the middle kingdom) about the only part of my normal web-world that I could access was gmail. So, having finished most of my planning, I decided to check out what I am likely to be able to be able to access on-line this time.
It turns out that google is banned in China. This was news which I had seen but not registered, and it brings my travel plans crashing. Gmail is one of my main communication channels to the world. I was planning to use google translate and google maps to get around. The first reaction is OMG. The second, "What about VPN?" Of course, I’m not the first one to think of this. There is an ongoing battle to control VPN traffic, and it seems that this is not likely to work either. As I try to salvage my life in the next few weeks, I realize that the problem is of my creation: I let my life be taken over by a single corporation.
The first time I encountered the E-sharp note, I had the same sense of confusion: do I really know a keyboard at all? And slowly: do I really know music? Now I have a similar feeling. Of course, the immediate problem is caused by the government of China trying to shut out alternative viewpoints. But at the same time, I need to look outside the comfortable corner of the web I had allowed myself to be locked into. This is good. The problem is time.
China does not censor the whole web. I think I should be able to post to this blog, and do some of my reading on wordpress. As far as I can check, I should be able to get to most yahoo services. I could shop on Amazon if I wanted to. Whatsapp should work, I think. I can switch to Bing search, though I’ve never tried it before. A few days ago I tried out my chinese language skills by watching TV serials on youku, which is a working alternative to youtube inside China. If only I can figure out mapping and translation sites which work inside China before I leave, I can get part of my travel plans back up again.
Like many Indians, I’m used to spending a day travelling from one city to another: either stuck in traffic getting to the airport and then circling the destination airport because of air traffic, or stuck in an uncomfortable train as it chugs along slowly changing landscapes. As a result, when I visit another country I tend to think of it as relatively small. In Switzerland, you may not want to doze off in a train unless you want to wake up in another country. Japan and Korea are definitely small. Even France and Germany seem small because the trains are fast.
It is when you get to China that the vastness of a foreign country strikes you. Of course you know that China is thrice as large as India. But then (unless you are going to western China) you may look at the map and think that this is not such a long way from Beijing. You will be mistaken.
The Family and I thought we would take a weekend during our time in Beijing to see Xi’an. Our constraints are that we have to be in Beijing for work till late afternoon on Friday and from the morning on Monday. So our first thought was that we could fly. The price structure for flights in China is quite different from that in India. India is a buyer’s market: a two hour’s flight will not cost you much more that INR 6000 or so, often cheaper. In China it will not cost you less than that. It is clearly a seller’s market, with the price going up thrice or more in peak hours! Friday evening out from Beijing and Sunday evening back is clearly the Everest of peak hours.
So we started looking at trains. Beijing to Xi’an by a normal train takes around 12 hours. That is about the distance between Mumbai and Nagpur, which could cost you about INR 1000 or less, in India. In China it costs around thrice as much! And, needless to say, we may not be able to spend 12 hours each way just travelling, unless we do it overnight. Then we would have to take a sleeper, either the "hard sleeper", which is like the Indian III AC (see the picture on the left), or the "soft sleeper", which is similar to one of the European Wagonlit coaches (see the picture on the right). Of course, the prices for these can begin to touch the level of the cheaper flight tickets.
This is China, so there is yet another option, which is to take a high speed G class train. These travel at 300 Km an hour. This would cut the Beijing-Xi’an travel time down to 5 hours. Of course it costs as much as a cheap flight.
Between the prices and the distances, travelling in China is not so easy. Perhaps the average middle class Chinese earns significantly more than a middle class Indian. Or maybe they travel less frequently. I guess I will begin to find out more by this time next week.
If the Alliance Francaise chooses to advertise itself in Mumbai by setting up a kiosk where you can get yourself photographed against a picture of Mont St Michel, then this must be the most easily recognized sight in France. Goodbye Eiffel.
My trip to Kumaon ended a little painfully. I slid down a slope and twisted my ankle. It was annoying, I was really enjoying myself and I didn’t want this problem. I sat in the temple at the bottom of the slope and pretended that there was no problem. I forced The Lotus, The Family and Sundar Singh to go on with what they were doing and leave me alone. I couldn’t move, so I used this enforced stillness to photograph butterflies. I also managed to get a photo of this nice hairy flower.
I hadn’t thought of disabilities and accessibility seriously before this. Now I started noticing it. General conclusions: hotels have varying accessibility, airports are very good, doctors have extreme accessibility issues.
It seemed like a long way back to the car, even with The Lotus helping. Modern car seats are well-designed. I had no difficulty getting in or out. The problems started at the hotel in Binsar. There was absolutely no wheelchair access. I had to climb about sixty stairs to get to my room; it was possible with a stick, but tiring. It was impossible for a person with only one good leg to use the bathroom without help: every bit of plumbing was leaky and the whole floor would get wet after a shower. This hotel was designed badly for disabled access, but the staff was super helpful.
We had three nights left before we returned, and once I realized that the injury was a sprain and not a fracture, I decided to treat the remainder of the holiday as a restful vacation where I would just eat, read, sleep, and keep my leg elevated. The next morning we were supposed to move to a hotel near Pangot. Soon after the accident I called the owner-manager, who assured me that the hotel was accessible and there would be people to help me. We reached to find a 110 meter climb on a slippery rubble slope. On top of the slope the staff had placed a plastic chair where I could sit after the climb! The hotel was not designed for disabled access, and the owner was the opposite of helpful. He refused to give us even a fractional refund saying that we should have cancelled our reservation the previous day when we called.
It was the diwali weekend, and we had to look for another hotel in a hurry. We called the B&B in Naukuchiatal. They were full, but recommended a hotel nearby where we could get two rooms. This had only three stairs to climb. The bathroom was fine even for a one-legged person. It had a great verandah with a view of the lake, just a lovely place for a relaxed two days. I spent the days in a planter’s long-arm while The Family did a little more birding. She and The Lotus scoured the markets of Nainital and got me one of the wonderful carved wooden walking sticks which is a Kumaoni specialty. This hotel was almost fully accessible, and the staff was wonderful.
The next stop was Delhi airport. I’d asked for a wheelchair, and it was ready when we reached. Disabled access in the airport was very good. The airport security was very considerate, and I had not problems getting to my seat. An arthritic lady who was also wheelchair-bound had a problem in the craft. Unlike me, she did not have a front-row seat, and the aisle was too narrow for the wheelchair. Accessibility of the airport was great, but of the craft was very poor.
Getting off the craft in Mumbai airport was a problem. The descent was not a ramp but stairs. I could hobble down, but the old lady had a really bad time. It is time all airlines change to boarding ramps. The rest of the airport had good accessibility. Mumbai airport has toilets with wheelchair access.
I had to travel for work quite frequently in the succeeding weeks, and I found airports to be well-designed. The check-in process and security were always considerate. Wheel-chair availability varied from one airport to another, and boarding or de-boarding were wildly different between airlines. I was really happy that my workplace had reasonably good accessibility. Unfortunately my flat has poor accessibility. Hotels in cities were reasonable with accessibility: usually ramps were available instead of stairs. I had to see doctors and physios for some time, and not a single one of them sat in an accessible location (the newer hospitals are accessible). Movie halls and restaurants seemed to have better access than doctors!
Mumbai is structurally disabled-unfriendly. I once spent over 30 minutes trying to flag down a taxi. Each taxi would go ahead before stopping, and then someone else would hop in while I hobbled towards it! During this half hour I kept wondering why there is no taxi-rank in Mumbai. Even buses do not stop at bus stops but a few meters away.
We are very far from discussing universal design. It is badly needed, but maybe in India we could start with a few simple changes which would make life easier for the wheelchair bound:
add ramps and lifts where there are stairs; where possible, remove stairs,
make sure that doors can be opened from a wheelchair
We’ve finally come to the point where we have to get real. What do we pack for a month in China?
The weather will be with us, so normally I would go very light on clothes. Europe has laundromats, India has really cheap dhobis. What about laundry in China? Is it easy or hard to find a cheap and painless way to do laundry? From what I read, you can find options which are cheap or painless, but not both.
I suggest to The Family that we take a lot of cheap clothes which we can just discard after use. She says no, we’ll pack small sachets of detergent and wash the clothes ourselves. That’s not such a new idea, it seems. It is good to know that most hotels have a clothes drying line in the bathroom, but I’ll also keep an eye out for signs which say 洗衣店 (xiyi dian, meaning laundry). That’s more or less the end of the problem for me. I’ll also throw in a large volume of disposable clothes, a couple of shoes, an umbrella, my chargers, cables and travel adapters, camera, laptop, Kindle, and phone and I’m ready to go.
Ever since The Family’s handbag was stolen in Duesseldorf airport, with her passport, we have always had hard copies in our checked in baggage and scans in our laptops. There is one thing we will pack especially for China: a spoon and a fork each to transfer to our backpacks once we get to China. This is as important as the rubbing alcohol.
The Family has another question. How expensive is Indian food in China? The surprising answer is, about the same as a mid-range restaurant in Mumbai. The Indian embassy maintains a web page on Indian restaurants in Beijing. Still, she decides to take some masala tea, theplas and khakhras, and some heat-and-eat packets of biryani and vindaloo. I try to argue that in China we can eat her favourite style of food: chinese.
But then I realize I don’t need to argue. This is actually great. Now both of us have a scheme by which we lighten the amount of stuff we need to carry back. Which means that she will pick up silk and hand bags, and I can bring back porcelain and tea!
Like many other parts of India, Kumaon’s history is that of constantly shifting borders. Recorded history tells of migrations and the intermingling of a variety of people, including the Rajputs from the west and the Gorkhas from the east. In 1815 the British took this district from Nepal. As one can see from the remains of colonial bungalows and estates, this became a favourite haunt of Raj-era expatriates even after the fierce fighting during the 1857 war. Writings from that era seem very racist. The gentleness of Jim Corbett came much later. As a result, there is very little recorded about Kumaonis going about their ordinary lives.
One of the interesting things about traveling is people watching, and Kumaon is as good a place for that as any other. When you are an obvious tourist, you are watched pretty closely yourself, so there is not much chance of you catching a person totally unaware of you.
The person whom I first watched in Kumaon was this man rowing his boat quietly across Bhimtal. The lake was deserted and quiet at sunset, and the only sound was that of the water gently lapping on the shore, and the muted splashes of these oars.
On the day of diwali, we were returning from Kausani to Almora and passed a little village where people were enjoying their holiday. These three pensioners were chatting outside a shop. When I stopped to take a photo one man sat up straight while another started looking theatrically at his newspaper. They relaxed and smiled back at me after I’d put my camera down.
A day later we were on our way to Ranikhet and stopped for chai at a dhaba on a cross roads. This old man was sitting near the stove waiting for a bus, chain-smoking and coughing away. He would have been aware of me, but I think he did not know exactly when I took his photo.
These children were noisily eating at the same dhaba while their mother stood outside at the bus stop. One of them had finished his plate of Maggi noodles and was clearly eyeing his brother’s plate. When children are caught up in their lives they are completely themselves.
I found women in Kumaon were shy of the camera. They would either turn away or cover their faces when they saw me taking a photo. Since their reaction was so extreme, I did not try to photograph them from far away.
The sky was clear, but the view was murky, when our alarms went off fifteen minutes before dawn. We gamely waited for the sun to rise, and saw the Nanda Devi peak faintly. As we sipped our early morning tea, the man who brought it told us that the view was brilliant a couple of weeks ago, but had turned murky since cyclone Hudhud struck the coast. I’d taken a record shot of the peak, and a little image processing could elicit this view.
We left for the Binsar sanctuary immediately. Just before we got into the car, The Family spotted a gray-headed warbler. It was a twenty minute drive to Binsar, and we had to wake the gatekeeper once we reached. There is an entry fee to the park but it turned out that you have to read the fine print carefully and argue the interpretation of the various rates at the ticket counter. We did not know this, and just paid single-entry fees. Just as we prepared to drive in two yellow throated martens streaked across a meadow in front of us. I thought to myself “Mongoose”, but did not voice it because I knew it was too large to be one. We identified it by a chart we found at the gate.
The gatekeeper told us to go to the Tourist Department guest house where we could find a guide and walk up to highest point in the sanctuary: Zero Point. We drove up slowly, keeping an eye out for the birds we could hear all around us. Most of the way the road stuck close to rock walls, allowing only limited angles of view. We saw a couple of whistling thrushes before we arrived at the beautiful sunny meadow you see above. There was water trickling down one side, and the combination of trees and open grass meant that this could be a good spot for birding.
It was. We kept coming back to the place and saw a large part of our eventual bird list here. I see that we noted down mountain hawk-eagle, Himalayan buzzard, Himalayan vulture, gray-backed tit, brown-fronted woodpecker, scarlet Minivet, streaked laughing-thrush, white-throated laughing-thrush, rufous Sibia, great Barbet and a dark-sided flycatcher as being in this one place in one day! Three of them were lifers.
We approached the meadow from three different directions on the succeeding days with our guide around Binsar, Sundar Singh, and saw black-headed Jays, Eurasian Jays, red-billed blue magpies, green-backed tits, a crested serpent eagle, and a white-tailed nut-hatch. This was also the meadow where I lost my footing and slipped down a slope to sprain my leg and bring the holidays to an end. But that was four days later, and just a day before we were supposed to leave.
But on our first visit we continued up to the guest house and asked for guides. One told us to order our lunch before going off on our walk. We did that, and then he told us to have tea before going on a walk. It was getting pretty late, and we were impatient. While we had tea The Family asked the chaiwalla whether there was a guide who could take us up immediately. That was how we met Sundar Singh.
The protected oak forest of Binsar is not where you go to view mammals. Rather it is a lovely place for birds and insects, and walks. The easy 500 meter walk to Zero Point was a good start. The shaded path is bordered by mossy trees, and in the leaves and mud around, you can spot insects and slugs, if you pause to look. The morning’s haze had got worse when we reached the top, about 2500 meters high. The high Himalayas were not visible at all. In fact, we never got a good view of the Nanda Devi range during the week. We walked back in time for lunch. As we waited, we saw an Eurasian Jay for the first time in our lives, and a black-headed Jay soon after.
Being able to spot something in the wild is a matter of practice. In the last decade The Family has grown adept at spotting birds. I forget to look unless I’m with her, and even then I often do not spot the odd colours and shapes that are tell-tales for her. But I’ve become used to following a butterfly with my eye as it flutters by to see where it lands. As a result I managed to photograph this pale clouded yellow (Colias hylae) while telling her to look at it. She looked at the camera display and back at the bush before she saw it.
We loved Binsar and kept going back to it. The next day we climbed up to the Zero Point and then followed Sundar on a six kilometer hike through the forest and back to our favourite meadow. After the first view of the martens we did not see any mammals for a long while. From Zero Point we heard the distant cough of a leopard in a valley. Occasionally we heard the bark of the Muntjac. On our fourth day in Binsar we saw a leopard kill by the road. A family of jackals was feasting on the remains but ran away when it saw our car. I tried very hard to take a long shot of the jackals, but they were too wary.
Instead we saw more birds: spectacular Koklass pheasants with their green heads stalked a slope, unaware of us standing on the road to watch them, and two scaly-bellied woodpeckers, the male with a red head easily told from the black-headed female, foraging in the grass, unconcerned by the car standing nearby. There were many butterflies to be seen, from the ubiquitous Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), sulphurs, grass yellows, to the unsual and unidentified. Binsar remains a place which we could visit again.
Bhimtal during the day did not look nearly as romantic as it did during the sunset. We left it behind and took the road to Bhowali, where we wanted to join up with the main Nainital-Ranikhet road. Not having researched Bhowali, we did not know that it has a “beautiful fruit market which offers to the tourists [a] rich variety of fruits” as a tourism website puts it.
We stopped just before the crowded junction of the Bhimtal-Bhowali and Nainital-Ranikhet roads, just out of the zone where traffic policemen were enforcing a no-parking rule. On one side of the road was a little stream which had become a sewer, but the other side was lined with shops selling a staggering variety of fruits and nuts. We stocked up on many things which we recognized, and one (see the photo above) which we did not. It was mildly astringent, and could have been unripe. Can anyone help with this? What is it called?
A couple of hours on we found that one side of the road dropped away into a reasonably broad river valley. The river itself was running pretty dry in October, when we visited, and the banks were full of tumbled rocks. The hillsides had mixed forests. So this was bound to have great diversity of birds. Unfortunately there was no way down to the river. We stopped for lunch after crossing a high bridge and passing the confluence of two rivers (see the photo above). Lunch was delicious and fresh: rotis hot from the oven served with pungent onions, a simple but delicious moong dal with lots of local greens thrown into it, and a chutney which incorporated some other local herbs. Of the four or so tables in the tiny dhaba two had tourists carrying long lenses, and the others seemed to be full of Kumaonis.
There was no network, so we could not figure out which river we stood by. Later we found that the river was not even marked in Google Maps, although switching to a satellite view does show the river bed. We figured from the infrequent signage that this was either the Kosi river (and clearly not the flood-prone Kosi which runs through Bihar) or a tributary. Interestingly, this Kosi does not figure in Wikipedia either.
After lunch we loitered for a while trying to spot birds. This is the kind of landscape where we would expect to see the brilliant blue-green plumage of Verditer Flycatchers. We scanned the trees and rocks. No sign of flycatchers, nor of redstarts. By now we had left the mixed forests behind and were inside pine forests, and I suspected that this was the reason we found no birds.
The chir pines are local, but were first systematically cultivated across the region by the British. Even now economics continues to dictate the spread of pine forests in Kumaon. One problem with this is that pine forests reduce the diversity of species growing within them. As an example, there are very few pests of pines, which is good for those who cultivate it, but which also means that there is little for birds to feed on. As a result, birders and butterfly or moth enthusiasts would do well to avoid these. Some villages have begun to make efforts to repair this destruction of habitats by replacing pine forests with more productive forests anchored by the local varieties of oak.
We drove for a large part of the afternoon and reached Almora in good daylight. We did not need to go into the town, but we did. After taking a long drive through Almora we came back to the Almora-Binsar road and continued on to our hotel. We completed our check-in as the sunlight turned to liquid gold. Our rooms faced Nanda Devi, but there was too much haze to see the peak clearly. What we saw was a Verditer Flycatcher! There was also a Great Barbet sitting in a tree near the balcony. Our tea arrived as we soaked in the atmosphere.
The sun set as we finished our tea. Before the light faded from the sky we decided to take a little walk in the woods around the hotel. During this walk we spotted an uncharacteristically quiet Himalayan whistling thrush, and a chattering Himalayan bulbul. A grey-backed shrike posed for us on a little post next to the road. Then, just as the light was about to fade completely, a fluttering in the bushes caught my attention. There was a jewel, a day-flying burnet moth, the Campolytes histrionicus. The bad light forced me to use an image enhancement setting on my camera which blurs the photo a bit. But it was a good end to the day.
Naukuchiatal is a terribly short drive from Bhimtal. The sky was still pink when we climbed past the kitschy Hanuman mandir and the Club Mahindra resort on to our B&B. We were greeted by two dogs: Sherry and Brandy. A third, named Tarzan, opened an eye and inspected us from its comfortable place on the rug when we entered the living room.
There was a nice big deck overlooking the lake. Naukuchiatal means the nine-cornered lake. The local belief is that if you see all nine corners from one spot you are going to be specially lucky. With a little craning of necks we thought we could see more than half the corners: semi-lucky us. The Lotus plopped down on one of the chairs on the deck and stretched out his legs. We had the second tea of the evening, and The Family brought out the cakes and biscuits she’d got from the bakery in Haldwani.
We sat there in the cool silence, watching the sky turn dark and little lights spring up all over the hills. The crickets kept chirping as mosquitos in large numbers tried to trade our blood for a soporific. The cook had prepared a wonderfully heavy dinner designed to knock us out. The Family supplemented this with local chocolates she had found in Haldwani.
We took a little walk after dinner. The road was pitch dark. People sleep early in the hills. The only place open was this restaurant which also did duty as a taxi rental and travel agency. Our driver passed us on his way to a pre-dinner tipple; he and the cook had agreed to eat late. We made our way back by starlight and phone.
In the morning we found that the stairs by the deck led all the way down a jetty on the lake. The water looked crystal clear. On later reading I discovered the enormous effort that goes into keeping the lake waters fairly unpolluted. We appreciate now that the battle is slowly being lost, but on that morning we were happy. Almost the first thing we saw in the morning was the bright blue of a Kingfisher; you can see it sitting on the rope near the boat house in the photo above.
As we climbed back up we saw a brightly coloured bird in front of us: bright orange breast and a brilliant blue top, colours like a Kanjeevaram silk saree. We had never seen anything like this before. It hopped around from tree to tree, defeating my camera. It was a blue-fronted redstart.
We had not given ourselves a lot of time in Naukuchiatal, which is great for birding. We saw a familiar sight near the water: a white-capped water redstart. We could hear the maddening cry of a whistling thrush, recognizable as a lovely tune which is cut off abruptly. A gray-backed shrike put in an appearance. As we had tea on the deck of the house, we saw a Himalayan bulbul and a yellow-breasted tit. We walked along the lake again and saw a tribe of monkeys grooming each other.
The lake district is around 1900 meters high. We planned to go a little higher. Our destination near Almora was not far off, but the road would be slow. At breakfast we realized we had crossed over to the country of alu parathas. We had to leave in a hurry because we had an appointment with Peter Smetacek. His book on the butterflies of the Kumaon is a much-needed addition to the small canon of nature writing in India. Peter runs a small but very good butterfly museum out of his home in Bhimtal; it is well sign-posted and easy to find. He turned out to be a very articulate man, passionate about nature. We had an instructive hour-long conversation with him. Then we were on our way.