Category Archives: Asia

Seminyak

We rented a driver to take us from Ubud to Seminyak, which was supposedly more of a beach resort kind of place. The drive took us through Kerobokan, a kind of overcrowded crossroads for the neighbouring cities, and then down into the snails-pace gridlock of cars and scooters that is Seminyak.

Our residence for the next few days is a couple of rooms off a walled courtyard tucked down a secluded alleyway off the main street. The bedrooms reeked of moth-balls, which was not surprising when we discovered that both en-suite bathroom floors were liberally scattered with the toxic chemical. We swept them out into a bin and blew a fan through to get rid of the head-thumping fumes, and then realised that the door of the bedroom that we had intended to give to Berrima opened out directly onto the sunken pool (and I mean directly, a single step would have you in the water), so we had to scratch the idea of a quiet night in a bed of our own.

The pool is only a step away from the bedroom

The pool itself is a bit of a curiosity. It would make an excellent and relaxing koi pond, perhaps the centrepiece of a miniature Balinese garden, but instead it is supposed to be a swimming pool a little over two metres long and far less than that across. It was at first hard to fathom who it might be intended for (apart from precocious 3-year olds), but on the other hand the house’s interior decoration of whisky adverts and old spirits bottles might suggest the life-style of the usual clientele.

The ‘full kitchen’, rather charmingly situated outdoors, consists of the tiniest microwave ever made, a stove top and a couple of battered pans, but certainly enough to make coffee in the morning, so we’re all set there. 

We headed up the lane to see the delights of Seminyak, passing between the friendly tat salesman and the shyly smiling young girl with the withered arm who was peddling vodka-bottles full of moped fuel at the entrance to the alley.

Wherever you go, fuel is always sold in vodka bottles.

Perhaps I was jaded by the Bali-Belly that I picked up in Ubud, but I found nothing at all to like about downtown Seminyak. It was just a row of tourist shops selling the same tat that they were selling in Ubud, and presumably for higher prices, because we had already driven past all the artisanal streets in Ubud where the stuff seems to be made. 

Feeling distinctly out of sorts, I had a lie down in the apartment, and my magical wife arranged for a scooter-borne Balinese masseuse to arrive on the doorstep. This is one tourist attraction that Bali does really well, and I felt much more cheerful afterward. 

On the next morning, we were up with the neighbour’s rooster, hence off to an early breakfast at a local eatery for a really quite lovely meal. The food is noticeably better in Seminyak than in Ubud. Over Balinese coffee, we planned a walking route down the high street, across to the famous Seminyak beach, along the strand to 66 Beach, returning back to the high street from the other end of town. 

Trying to locate the beach access track, we found ourselves in a hotel bar with no obvious route down to the sand. We initially sat at a sort of circular sun lounger, but were told that there was a minimum 1 million rupiah cover charge. This seemed over the top for a cup of coffee, so we moved to a smaller, less pretentious table. We waited for somebody to come and serve us but to no avail, so we got up and left and, having secured directions from one of the many security guards, found our way onto the sand.

This is supposed to be one of the main attractions of the town, and we had picked our second stay in Bali to give Berrima some beach time. However, when we arrived, the tide was in and both the surf and the “do not swim” flags were up.

The thin strip of gritty volcanic sand was packed with bar tables, sun loungers, umbrellas, and litter. Walking along the small strip of tide-wracked rubbish, the occasional wave washed up over our feet and then attempted to rip us out to sea into the crashing breakers.

All dressed up with no place to play

It really wasn’t very pleasant at all, and we were glad to find an alley between stacks of beer coolers which led back into town.

As travellers go, we can be pretty stubborn in our pursuit of the ‘real world’. Finally, though, we had to accept the obvious; that the whole island of Bali is given over to a particular kind of spend-by-day, party-by-night tourism, and that the tourist industry is the centre of the culture.

Admitting defeat, we spent our final day at the Waterbom fun park, riding the flumes. The experience was surprisingly inexpensive and very enjoyable for all. The queues were short, the rides fun for adults and children alike, the staff delightful, and the food excellent.

At the end of the day, tired and happy, we were attempting to negotiate a return fare with a taxi driver in the street outside. We had reached an impasse where our highest offer had been rebuffed, when a passer-by suddenly leaned in and said that he would take us for that price. He turned out to be a Waterbom employee on his way home, and in short order we found ourselves cocooned in his tricked-up hot-hatch with lurid orange leather trim and violet highlights. 

After a quick change of clothes, we went straight to the acclaimed tourist restaurant Jackson Lily’s for an incomparable steak dinner, easily the most enjoyable eating experience of the whole trip. If you can’t beat them, join them. 


Restaurants in Ubud

Although we enjoyed our cottage hotel in Ubud, with its idyllic setting and friendly staff, we were quite disappointed with the restaurant. Whatever we ordered, it was overcooked and flavourless, and after a while I realised that there was a correlation between eating at the restaurant and feeling ill for the rest of the day or night.

It wasn’t just the hotel restaurant; in general, we found the food in Ubud to be insipid and uninspired, which was curious considering that tourism is their only industry.

Suckling Pig

One of the local delicacies is suckling pig, which involves slow-roasting an unweaned piglet over a wood fire, a dish that we were really looking forward to. In the days before we became disenchanted with our hotel restaurant, we gave them the required 24 hours notice for preparation, and hurried back in the evening to enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately, it was very disappointing. We surmise that the 24 hour preparation time was for the chef to defrost the pre-cooked pig meat and then boil it to within an inch of its life. It was almost inedible, and came with a kind of warm floppy coleslaw. We didn’t even have the heart to insist that Berrima try it, as she pushed it around her plate and ate bread, rice and fruit instead.

Balinese Coffee

One of the other gustatory attractions of Bali is supposed to be its coffee; after all, it’s grown locally and ‘Civet cat poop’ is a big tourist draw. It was curious, then, that initially we struggled to get a decent cup. Eventually we came to realise that you can order ‘Balinese Coffee’ anywhere, even though it is rarely on the menu, which is made by simply pouring boiling water over very finely ground beans to produce a fine, strong-tasting brew. We were even happier when we found that the baristas at the local speciality coffee house The Black Eye, which does not offer Balinese Coffee on their menu, were more than happy to mill some of their espresso beans to the correct grind so that we could have a morning cup from the comfort of our four-poster bed.

Crispy Duck

One morning, after a couple of cups of Balinese Coffee over which we watched the staff collecting flowers for the hotel’s shrines, we got our driver to drop us off in downtown Ubud to see if we could find something decent to eat. He dropped us off at a place that he recommended, but it was really just an expat burger and pizza joint. After a short walk we found a more traditional restaurant, the Warung d’Ubud, that promised Balinese crispy duck and a variety of local soups.

Crispy duck at the Warung d'Ubud
And finally, something to write home about

It was all rather good, with a lovely selection of delicate flavours and some excellent crispy duck. In fact, we were so replete after lunch that we decided to draw a line under any further tourist activities, and spent the rest of the day lazing at the pool.

Curry at the Indus

After a cocktail at the hotel, we headed across the road to the pretty Indus Restaurant, where we ate an acceptable but bland meal of mixed curry dishes overlooking the rain-forest of Tjampuhan ridge, a steep ravine that leads down toward central Ubud. We suffered a bit from the ants and flies that swarmed over, under and on the table, and were somewhat surprised when the bill was about the same as for an equivalent meal in Australia. It’s supposed to be the second best restaurant in Ubud, but we didn’t go back.

Gluten-Free Schnitzels

One afternoon we found an unlicensed taxi-driver sitting in the street outside the hotel, who cheerfully accepted our offer of 50k rupiahs (about $5) to take us wherever we wanted to go. Our destination was the Gluten Free Kitchen, formerly known as the ‘House of Schnitzel’ and thus a perhaps unique blend of grain-free cuisine and Austrian (and Australian!) fast food.

When we got there, we found that there was no power to the street, so we could only pick items on the menu that were made without electricity. This became a bit of a game, but after a while we established that there was no coffee or smoothies, no pan-fried items such as meat and burgers, nor any boiled food such as vegetables. In fact the only appliance that was running was the gas-fired deep-fryer, so we had what turned out to be a rather nice lunch of pork and chicken schnitzels, accompanied by empanadas and onion rings.

Empanadas, onion rings and schnitzel at the Gluten Free Kitchen
Empanadas, onion rings and schnitzel at the Gluten Free Kitchen

Canting Bali Cooking Class

A few years ago, we’d greatly enjoyed a local cooking class in Penang, so we’d booked what we hoped would be a similarly enjoyable and illuminating Balinese cooking lesson.

A small group of us met up at the local market, where we were introduced to the raw ingredients that we were going to use. Then we moved to a paddy which was almost ready for harvest for a discussion about the life and times of rice workers, then on to the school where we joined up with about 30 people to prepare a feast.

Rice is almost ready to harvest in Ubud
The rice is almost ready to harvest

We had a fine time pounding spices, extracting coconut oil, and chopping (and chopping. and chopping) vegetables and roots, initially preparing a basic sauce and then expanding it into a number of different dishes.

We ground up tuna and barbecued it on skewers over coconut-shell charcoal, curried tempeh with vegetables, put together a soup of chicken and enormous oyster mushrooms, and steamed fish inside packets of banana-leaf. The resulting meal was very pleasant, and we were certainly all ready for it after a morning of preparation.

Salad

About half way through the holiday, my guts turned to water and I spent a considerable amount of time napping between doses of pills while the girls went swimming. At length, feeling a little better, I reckoned I could face dinner if it was going to be simple fare, and we planned to go into Ubud to find something special. However, we’d waited too late in the day and our little treasure grumpily insisted that she wanted to eat in the awful hotel restaurant, largely I suspect because she enjoyed feeding the fish in the Balinese garden.

Enjoying the traditional Balinese Garden at the hotel
Enjoying the traditional Balinese Garden at the hotel

But if I just chose a salad, how bad could it be?  The headline green salad was off today (which should have rung alarm bells!), so I ordered the ‘grilled vegetable salad’ instead.

There are no other words; it was truly disgusting. As far as I could tell, the chef had taken a jar of pickled vegetables, poured it into a saucepan, and boiled it until soggy. I gave up and went to bed, and suffered the most horrible symptoms and fevers, over which I shall draw a respectful veil.

Still weak the next morning, I had a bit of a lie-in, and then we all trundled out of the door and a few buildings down the road to the Elephant Restaurant where I nearly cried with pleasure over a perfect green salad, with a root juice on the side, on a peaceful veranda overlooking the Tjampuhan ridge.

Afterward we sat over perfect Balinese coffee, watching squirrels climbing inside the tree-top mango fruit and nibbling out the soft centres, and wished that we had discovered this gem a little sooner.

Mason Elephant Park

The idea of an Elephant Sanctuary on Bali is a bit odd on the face of it, because they have no elephants there. However, you can do pretty much anything you like if you are a foreigner with money, so a local businessman set about “rescuing” work elephants from Sumatra and setting them to work pleasing the tourists in Ubud. We went to visit them at the Mason Elephant Park.

The elephants – over fifty of them – seemed happy enough with the deal, and some of them were breeding with the ornery old bull that they kept chained up in a corner of the large and very pleasant grounds.

General view of Mason Elephant Park, from the coffee shop.
Mason’s sanctuary doesn’t seem a bad place for an elephant to retire to.

Bronwyn and I have ridden and swum with elephants before (most notably in India), but this was a first for our little daughter so we purchased the “wash, feed and ride” option.

We gave our elephant a good hose-down and scrub, which she endured stoically until I found a nice bit to brush behind her ears.

Bronwyn and Berrima hose down an elephant
A bit wet behind the ears

The family pose with an elephant
Family pose

At the feeding station, you can purchase baskets of cut fruit for a line-up of ever-interested animals. The large ones were a bit daunting for children, so Berrima got to feed a baby elephant.

Feeding the elephant
Time for a snack

Then it was time to saddle up for a ride. Bronwyn and Berrima went on one elephant, and I went on a much larger one. Ensconced on a hard wooden howdah only thinly disguised by blankets, we ambled slowly around the extensive grounds, pausing to look (at eye level!) at coconuts and jack fruit hanging from the trees.

The ride of an elephant is not jarring but there is a fair amount of side-to-side sway. Occasionally both mahouts would stop for a photo opportunity, posing each animal in the obligatory tourist pose that we have seen the world over, with the trunk curled and raised.

The riding elephant poses for a picture
Smile for the camera!

Bronwyn and Berrima going for a wade with the elephant
Amphibious vehicle

At the end of the ride, we found ourselves by the rather thick green waters of the bathing pool. We have swum with elephants before, and knew to some extent what to expect, so we had declined that particular package. However, we stopped to watch a number of brave souls get submerged on top of their elephant.

Tourist going for an elephant dunk
The elephant goes for a dip, with passenger on board. Note that the mahout is staying as dry as he can.

The elephant-poo collector
What she didn’t see… this is the man with the full-time job of catching the poo in the bathing pool

Ubud

We landed at Denpasar airport with the intention of spending a few days in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. After an easy and friendly Customs clearance, we emerged into the main building, an interesting construction of what appear to be modern glass-and-metal tubes running through the decoratively carved red stone gates and walls of an old temple, although in fact the entire structure was recently built as a whole, due to a local bylaw that states that all buildings must have at least some elements of traditional architecture.

Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport
Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport

Our driver arrived and loaded us into his car. The capital city around the airport is scattered with extremely impressive and flamboyant sculptures of heroic scenes from Hindu mythology, sometimes the size of buildings.    The traffic reminded us of downtown Kuala Lumpur, if not India, with families of three and four on little scooters passing us on either side, the ladies often riding side-saddle.

As we reached the outskirts of Ubud, we started to see mopeds carrying entire pop-up food stalls, and in one memorable case, the pillion was steadfastly carrying at full vertical arm’s length not one, but two intact car windscreens.

Out here, there appeared to be at least one temple every few hundred metres, all intricately carved towers and gates. It wasn’t until much later that we realised that these were not temples but regular houses, because every house has at least one “home shrine”, and it is not unusual to have many more.

A Hindu home shrine near Ubud
A home shrine (or two) in the garden

The roadside was packed with artisans, not only a bewildering number of stone-masons who seemed largely to have the same repertoire of metre-high Hindu gods, but also quarry stonemasons with enormous piles of hand-cut volcanic rock, and wood merchants with sections of hard-wood tree wider than the spread of your arms.

Woodworker teaching his son in Ubud
Passing on the family business

Our hotel comprises a number of thatched chalets scattered amongst rice paddies, coconut palms, and endless statues and flowering trees. It was very picturesque. Our chalet boasted a family-size kidney-shaped stone tub, and an enormous solid wood four-poster bed with thick cotton mosquito-netting.

Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud
Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud

The staff were very friendly, very relaxed, yet very focussed on making the place look beautiful. Hinduism is the major religion here, and so there is a continual whirl of colour as small baskets of flowers and food are placed thrice daily before each of the ubiquitous shrines, and every day new flowers are tucked into crevices on the myriad stone statues.

Every morning, we were woken to the sound of sweeping, as the staff combed the site for fallen frangipani and other tree flowers, gathering them for use during the day.

Collecting fallen flowers to decorate Hindu shrines and statues yin Ubud.
The morning flower collection
Tropical carpenter bee Xylocopa latipes
Flowers being visited by a tropical carpenter bee, one of the largest bees in the world.

We had hired a driver for the week, Komang from Abracadabra Tours. He had planned a thorough itinerary from which we cherry-picked the more toddler-friendly options.

One day, he took us to see the volcano. This was not Mt Agung, which is famously still erupting and out-gassing, but Mt Batur which hasn’t done anything much since the sixties, although it is still classed as active. We understand that the trek to the top to see the sunrise is a popular pastime, and in the past we would have done that ourselves, but on this occasion we took the child-friendly option and planned to view the peak and the caldera from a ridge-top restaurant.

From the moment that we left Ubud, the road climbed steadily. It was a striking drive, because the flags were still flying from the recent Independence Day celebrations.

The road up from Ubud took us from the sea-level rice-paddies and banana palms, to the higher altitude orange plantations. We stopped at a roadside shack to buy some small sweet tangerines, and also a handful of hard-skinned purple fruit that we ate by sucking out the pith, not completely unlike a pomegranate in flavour.  Possibly they were a kind of passion fruit, but nobody we asked seemed to know what they were called. One great hit, though, was the snake fruit, so-called because of its scaly skin, which had lovely firm white flesh reminiscent of a lychee.

We were glad that we’d stopped at the roadside vendor to enjoy the fruit, because when we got to the viewpoint (roadside entry fee applies), there was only a dodgy buffet to eat in the supposed restaurant, on wobbly chairs overlooking a cloud-shrouded peak in the far distance.

The volcano Mt Batur
The volcano Mount Batur, from the “restaurant” lookout.

Somewhat underwhelmed both intellectually and gustatorily, we drove back down the mountain to visit another tourist destination, the Kellalalang terraced rice-paddy fields, which seemed like an odd idea because we’d been driving through and walking around terraced paddy fields for the whole day.

Nevertheless, it was one of the region’s attractions, so we drove up to the village (an inevitable roadside entry fee applied) and entered the village. It consisted of a single road lined with wall-to-wall retail outlets all selling exactly the same tat, looking down on what obviously used to be rice paddies but were now an exceedingly well-worn set of concrete steps interspersed with over-priced cafes, children selling postcards, and what seemed to be a recent craze of rope swings slung between palm trees. We handed over our ‘donation’ and clambered down the track, past more child card-sellers and photo-opportunity “rice farmers”, and then, confronted by another donation booth, clambered back up to the retail outlets.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Tegallalang Rice Terraces

We’d arranged to meet Komang at the driver’s car park a little out of town, and when we arrived we were confronted with a large government sign which warned against the locals soliciting donations, and strongly recommended not descending into the paddies as it “destroyed the unique heritage site”. It would have been nice to have known that ahead of time.

Donation for trekking and taking photos at Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Another donation booth

One morning, we booked ‘breakfast with the orang-utans’ at Bali zoo. On our arrival, we were ushered into an outdoor area filled with trestle tables, with a couple of ropes looped overhead for a young orang-utan, and a couple of elephants leaning in over a low fence.

Breakfast with the Orang-Utan
Breakfast with the Orang-Utan

It was quite fun. As well as the usual buffet food, there were short-order chefs sorting out omelettes and so on, and the opportunity to get up from the table and hang out with the orang-utan, elephants, parrots, and even a somewhat nervous pangolin.

Breakfast with the elephant
Breakfast with the elephant

Later we toured the zoo itself, which tended heavily to Sumatran and Benghal  Tigers, and a wide selection of gibbons. It was quite pretty and the animals seemed in good shape. One nice touch was that all the enclosures were decorated with rock-carvings and the ubiquitous pillar shrines of the rice paddies.

Tiger and small girl
Breakfast with the human


One great aspect of Bali was the ready availability of seriously good massage. Wherever we went, there was always somebody who could come to your room, or drive you to their spa, and then for a handful of notes subject you to a wonderful 90 minutes of pounding and squeezing.

Another facet of the culture is that if you have a car, then you are a driver for hire. Haggling with an official taxi driver outside a water-park one day, we were interrupted by a worker at the park who was going home in his tangerine-and-purple hot-hatch, and offered to drop us off at our hotel for whatever price we cared to pay.

There was no benefit in taking a “proper” taxi anyway. On another day, it started to rain while we were in downtown Ubud. Suddenly all the previously ubiquitous kerbside taxi-touts dissolved out of sight, but we stopped a passing official cab. Once we’d agreed on a price, the driver set off firmly in the wrong direction. It turned out that not only did he not know our hotel, but he didn’t even know the road it was on (ie the main street past Ubud museum), and in any case he didn’t seem to know which way his taxi was pointing.

He had two GPS units but one wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to be able to use the other one. Finally Bronwyn fired up her own GPS and gave him directions, but at every turn he shook his head and demurred “one way” although it clearly wasn’t, until he smiled in shocked amazement when we popped out on the main street, facing in the correct direction.


Taj Mahal

We were up and out at half past five in the morning for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Although they were clearly geared up for large numbers of tourists, there were only a few dozen people in sight, and no queues.

Touts for rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tongas clustered around, insisting that the entrance to the Taj was over a kilometre away, which of course it wasn’t. We took a tonga anyway, a carriage drawn by an old and skinny horse with an uneven gait,and were relieved to find that the journey was only a few bone-jarring hundreds of metres around the next corner.

All aboard the Tonga Express

All aboard the Tonga Express

Intensive handbag checkpoint

Intensive handbag checkpoint

After being frisked and scanned through yet another security check, we ran a small gauntlet of prospective guides and photographers. In the end we allowed a particularly persistent photographer to attach himself to our group on the grounds that he didn’t want any money unless we chose to buy his photographs.

It was first light, very humid and sticky. The Taj loomed mysteriously from the mist. It is obvious why it’s regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. It really is quite beautiful.

The Royal Gate

The Royal Gate

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate

The Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) is a mausoleum, built in the early 17th Century as Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife. It stands in an elaborate garden containing four reflecting pools, and is flanked by a mosque and a guest house. It has a beautiful dream-like presence that can only be hinted at in photographs.

Probably the classic Taj photo, across one of the reflecting pools

Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo

Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo

Our own photographer had us posing here, posing there, with madam, without madam, standing up here, sitting down there, hands in front, hands behind… Until both Ankur and I cracked at the same moment and cried “Enough!”

Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot

Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot

Bronwyn is slotted into place for another classic

Bronwyn is slotted into place for yet another photo

After we’d got rid of the photographer, we had a pleasant and uninterrupted wander around the grounds. As we approached the Taj itself, we realised that it is much bigger than its ethereal looks convey.

Ankur, Tanu, Amaira and Bronwyn approach the looming Taj

Approaching the looming wall of the Taj Mahal

Reflections of Tanu and Ankur

Tanu and Ankur reflected in the pool

The interior, while encrusted like everything else with inlaid semi-precious stones, is a simple dark open space containing the sarcophagi of the king and his wife. It has an amazing echo, and although there were only a handful of us moving quietly and respectfully around the tombs, the dome amplified the sound to a multitude of hundreds. It must be really loud in there during the peak tourist season.

Inside the dome of the Red Mosque

Inside the dome of the Red Mosque

Looking out over the Yamuna River

Looking out over the Yamuna River

Exploring the upper level courtyard

Exploring the upper level courtyard

Every tiniest detail is intricately carved

Every tiniest detail is intricately carved

Sweepers work continually to clear the marble courtyards

Sweepers work continually to clear the immense marble courtyards

As the sun started to beat down and the tourists began to flood in, we took our leave. On the way out, we dropped into the photographer’s stall and discovered to our surprise that his pictures were rather good, so we bought them. Then we ran the gauntlet of marble trinket salesmen and, avoiding the clamouring tonga touts, made our way back to the hotel for a pre-breakfast nap.

The Road to Agra

We planned to do a circular tour around Northern India, and our Punjabi friends Ankur and Tanu wanted to come too, because they’d never had a chance to be tourists in their home country. In true hospitable Indian fashion, Ankur instantly arranged a car and driver to take us all on a huge arc through Rajisthan and Punjab.

After a full day of exploring Old Delhi, we woke refreshed at our hotel. I was keen to have dosa for breakfast, a traditional South Indian pancake, but the chef, aware that I am a coeliac, warned me that his version contained wheat flour. Then he cheerfully made up a new batch from pure gram flour, and served it with spicy potatoes and a fiery sambar soup.

After this most excellent start to the day, we caught a taxi to meet our driver, Happy, who would be doing all the hard work for the next few days.

Together with Tanu, Ankur and five-month-old Amaira, we piled into Happy’s people-carrier and hit the road for Agra.

Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. There are few road signs in India, and the accepted method of navigation is to shout questions out of the window. Even then, it seems to be part of the Indian psyche to make something up or to tell you what you might want to hear, rather than to admit that you don’t know. We therefore took a straw poll of half a dozen rickshaw drivers before finding two answers that  matched.

These guys are probably lost too

These guys are probably lost too

Eventually we found the toll road, and apart from the regular police checkpoints (security fencing across the road that constrict the traffic into a slalom but which are otherwise ignored), we seemed to be the only vehicle moving, something of a shock after navigating the crowded streets of Delhi.

On either side of the highway, boggy land was being drained and the clay dug out and fired into bricks in the hundreds and hundreds of little kilns spread out across the landscape.

Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra

Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra

The clay was being dug to a depth of about a metre, with walls left standing around every square acre or so. It looked as if water (and perhaps night soil) was then being pumped into each rectangular plot, which was then being planted with crops. The produce was later stored in thatched and mud huts.

Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi

Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi

Eventually we arrived in Agra, where the traffic was just as chaotic as in Delhi. All we had was the postal address of the hotel, so Happy navigated by asking people every few miles if they’d heard of it.

Traffic in Agra

Traffic in Agra

The randomness of the answers intimated that nobody had, but we passed many miles of shack hostels leaning up against local shops, before passing through an area of impressive government offices, which opened out into a sprawling confection of turrets and crenellations which turned out to be our hotel, The Grand Agra.

The Grand Agra Hotel

One small wing of the Grand Agra Hotel

As well as the now familiar check for car bombs (a mirror on a stick under the chassis, and a poke around under the bonnet), we also had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer, and watch as our luggage was unloaded through an airport X-Ray machine, before being allowed to check in. Once Inside, the hotel was impressively palatial, and indeed at one end they were building a ‘presidential suite’ with its own helipad and views over the Taj Mahal.

Grounds of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite under construction in the centre

Gardens of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite (the brown bit) under construction in the centre

We had originally intended to visit the Taj at sunset, but we would have had to rush to get to the ticket office before it closed, so we decided to go at dawn the following day, giving us the excuse to relax with some pleasant beers in the bar as the sun went down.

Not a bad little bar, this

Not a bad little bar, this

Later we ate a splendid meal at the restaurant, which we had to ourselves apart from a legion of waiters and a sitar player. Very very stuffed, we waddled out into the darkness and through the water garden to our rooms, surprising a trio of men with rifles who are presumably the night watch.

Old Delhi

What can I say about driving in old Delhi? There are cars and trucks and rickshaws everywhere, all mixed up with pedestrians and bicycles and porters. There are no valid road markings and few signs. Horns sound continuously, but not in anger, just to alert other drivers that you are inches behind them, because nobody uses mirrors.

A minor discussion about negotiating a junction

A minor discussion while negotiating a junction

Bronwyn and I had just emerged from Red Fort with our friends Ankur and Shalu, who had engaged a couple of rickshaws to take us all on a sight-seeing tour of the old town. Our driver was brilliant, pedalling us up and down the tiniest of soukh alleyways, panting and puffing under what I imagined to be the unexpected weight of two tall westerners. However, while waiting at the top of a particularly steep hill, our driver laughed good-naturedly at his colleague labouring along behind us, because neither Ankhur nor Shalu are particularly tiny either.

Struggling uphill

Struggling uphill

Some rickshaws are tidier than others

Some rickshaws are older than others

Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi

Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi

Downtown traffic

Downtown traffic

Porters at work

Porters at work

Pile 'em high

Pile ’em high

Room for one more

Room for one more

We visited a thousand-year old temple with hundred-year old mosaics, belonging to a strict Hindu sect that didn’t allow any leather inside. Shalu volunteered to stay outside with our shoes, belts and bags while an elderly toothless monk showed us around. We couldn’t take any photos inside either, but it was an old space filled with kitchen cupboards and old chairs, with occasional rather spectacular mosaics and sculptures. Overall it was a very nice little temple.

The street of the old temple

One of these door leads to the old temple

This lass was ironing on the street outside

This lass was ironing on the street outside the temple

We had a good time at the spice soukh, chatting to the merchants who were more than happy to allow us to taste their wares and let us take photos of their produce. We stocked up on chai tea and some really good quality spices.

At the Old Delhi spice soukh

At the Old Delhi spice soukh

Our rickshaw drivers then took us up some rickety stairs above the market, past tatty-looking legal offices and stepping over sleeping people (there are sleeping people everywhere) to the rooftops where we had an unrivaled view of the old city. Locals were having a good laugh flying kites from the roof, it was a relatively cool and breezy place to hang out.

The rooftops of the spice market

The rooftops of the spice market

High above Old Delhi

Climbing up above Old Delhi

I guess this stuff eventually falls to earth

I guess all this stuff eventually falls to earth

Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque

Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque

Man at work behind the Spice Market

Man at work behind the Spice Market

We were starting to feel more than a little hungry, so Ankur asked the drivers to drop us at Karim’s, a famous restaurant catering for “non-vegetarians”. Karim’s consists of an open-air triangle bounded by tiny cafes on each side. We were led up a wooden staircase to a balcony above the kitchen, where we were served some of the best Indian food that I have ever tasted. Mutton Queerma (Korma), an incomparable Butter Paneer, and an awesome and apparently nameless rice dish.

As evening drew in, Tanu arrived in her car with six-month-old Amaira, and drove us out to New Delhi to see the nightly water show at the temple of Akshardham. It took us some time to make sense of the mass of milling and excited bodies by the ticket office, being herded here and there by whistling and shouting security guards, before we realised that we didn’t need a ticket at all if we didn’t want to visit the temple building, which anyway was just closing. There was however an enormous list of banned articles, including cameras and phones, food and drink, any kind of bag, and some odd things such as USB drives and, amusingly, ‘drunkards’.

This meant in turn that there was another immense jostling crowd for the cloakroom, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting as people tried to store their bags. Instead we dropped all our prohibited items back at the car and joined the queue for the queue for the security check. There was still lots of pushing and shouting and attempts at queue-jumping, but in an amiable kind of way with lots of laughter. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the security guards at the head of the queue lifted a rope and everybody surged forward, sprinting to join the back of the next queue.

Here people were separated by whistling guards into separate lines, who maintained order by solidly body-checking anybody who tried to change queues. Eventually we made our way through the scanners and into the temple gardens, which were very serene and scattered with water features and sculptures of mythological figures.

As dusk fell, we were herded gently out of the gardens into the main courtyard of the temple itself, an incredibly impressive recent building built mainly by volunteers from pink stone and white marble.

With Shalu, Amaria, Ankur and Tanu at Akshardam

Akshardham tourist photo with Shalu, Amaira, Ankur and Tanu

The courtyard consisted of a wide area of pools and fountains, and we found a place to sit amongst the families perched around the low retaining walls. As darkness fell, the ceremony began with blessings accompanied by a large swinging brazier of flame. Then the music began, synchronised with playing fountains underlit by dancing coloured lights and lasers. The crowd stilled, and we all stared in awe. It was beautiful, haunting and mesmeric, a gorgeous spectacle. There is a short promotional video here which doesn’t do it justice.

After the half-hour show, the main temple opened to non-ticket holders, so we left our shoes at the front desk and wandered in. It is very impressive, and to my Western eyes reminiscent of walking into a large cathedral but with the statues of saints replaced by swamis. The temple was built by the richest sect in India, and it shows. Every surface is intricately carved and gilded, and instead of a golden Buddha, there is a statue of the man himself. Around the walls, colourful mosaics depict scenes from the Swami’s life, revealing a pleasant man doing a lifetime of nice things before dying peacefully of old age. Compared to other religions, his is certainly a pleasant and refreshing story.

Red Fort

There was a very long queue for tickets at the Red Fort in Delhi, but we noticed that there was a sign above the desk that read ‘Gentlemen’. It turned out that there was another queue designated ‘Ladies’ with only two people in it, so Bronwyn nipped over to get our tickets.

The Indian flag flies above the entrance to Red Fort

The Indian flag flies above the Lahani Gate

Entering the Lahari Gate

Entering the Lahari Gate

Although the fort is essentially a series of ruins containing a small museum and some tourist shops, it is guarded by soldiers in sand-bagged machine-gun nests. Once we were past the security check at the Lahari Gate, we found ourselves in a covered courtyard which once housed a silk and jewellery bazaar for the royal household of the Mughal era, but which now holds somewhat more prosaic emporia.

The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar

The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar

Entrance tunnel

The entrance to the Chhatta Chowk arcade

The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall

The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall

An impressively scalloped audience hall led us out into the main body of the fort, and through another gate under the Drum House, an impressively sculpted building – now a museum – where musicians used to play. Only royalty are allowed to ride through the gate, but luckily we had neglected to bring our horses with us.

The Naubat Khana, or Drum House

The gate under the Naubat Khana. Only royalty were allowed to ride through.

The gate under the Naubat Khana.

Inside the main fort complex are a scattering of harem and palace buildings, all beautifully decorated with carved marble, along with numerous ponds, fountains and channels, one of which runs right through the harem. Although these are currently dry (and now provide seating for security guards), it must have been quite a paradise in its day. In fact a pair of archways to the Hall of Private Audience are inscribed “If heaven can be on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Diwan-i-Khas interior

Cooling water would have run through the Rang Mahal

Hanging out with Ankur, outside the harem

Hanging out with Ankur while they renovate the harem (this could take some time)

The centre of the fort is taken up by the ‘Life-Bestowing Garden’, originally 200 square feet of gardens, but these were destroyed during the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. All that is left is a dry reservoir with a marble pavilion at each end and a red sandstone building, the Zafar Mahal, in the middle.

The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)

The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the central reservoir of the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)

We were beginning to gasp in the unrelenting dry heat surrounded by all these memories of cool running water, so we retraced our steps through the bazaar, and headed out into Old Delhi for lunch.

Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur

We were hanging out at The Andaman, our favourite luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi off northern Malaysia, and we needed to get to Kuala Lumpur in the south. Since we we had just come off the Trans-Siberian through Russia, Mongolia and China, we decided to continue by surface transport instead of flying.

But first, several days of luxury at the wonderful Andaman, always our home from home when we pass through this region.

The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel

The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel

Tempted to have a cocktail?

Tempted to have a cocktail?

The table is laid for dinner

The table is laid for dinner

Our friend Kim had flown in from Thailand, and we whiled away the time swimming in the balmy sea, paddling kayaks around Datai island, eating perfectly prepared cuisine and drinking far too many cocktails and bottles of wine. Bliss.

Kim circumnavigating Datai Island

Kim circumnavigating Datai Island

One interesting feature of Datai Bay is the remains of the fringing reef, which was smashed in a storm some years ago. The broken pieces all washed up in the shallows near to the beach, and each piece settled down to become a mini-reef of its own. There are staff whose job it is to wade out into the debris every day, collecting specimens and putting them in an artificial reef behind the hotel. This acts as a breeding ground and hatchery, with the ultimate intention of rebuilding the original fringing reef. In the meantime, if you are careful you can wade out at low tide and see reef life that you would normally not see without diving gear.

The eyes of a clam embedded in a coral head

The eyes of a clam peeping out from inside a head of coral

An anenome on the fringing reef

An anenome on a broken fragment of reef

Eventually we had to to return to real life, so we dropped Kim at the airport and headed down to the quay for the first leg of our journey, the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. We waited in the terminal and watched the approaching front of a gathering rain storm. As the heavens opened, our gate opened, and the terminal degenerated into semi-organised mayhem. The 300 or so of us who were lucky enough to have boarding passes pushed down the cramped gangway, stacking our luggage in a pile at the front of the cabin, and crammed into our plastic-clad seats.

Outside in the fog we could see a queue of other ferries being pummelled by the waves as they waited for us to clear the dock. The crew hurled more and more packages aboard as still more passengers arrived, screaming into their mobile phones. Even as we cast off and pulled away, a steady stream of new arrivals were still leaping aboard, stevedores flinging their luggage unceremoniously onto the roof of the cabin.

A line of arrivals waiting for the dock

A line of arrivals waiting for the dock

We’d noticed previously that the forward end of both passenger decks were protected by rows of welded steel plates, and we soon found out why. As we hit the rolling swell, the bow buried itself deep into the quartering sea. The pilot did a great job of zig-zagging to try to give us a more pleasant ride, but inevitably on each turn we were pushed back under water.

After three and a half hours of corkscrew progress, we disembarked into warm rain and humped our packs up to our favourite Georgetown hotel, the Yeng Keng. Since our last visit they’d built a cafe on one side of the courtyard, and – damp and hungry – we snuck in five minutes before closing and scoffed a very satisfying Malaysian meal washed down with white wine.

The sidewalks of Penang

The covered sidewalks of Georgetown

Detail of a temple archway

Detail of a temple archway in Penang

After a good sleep and an enormous breakfast (two complete servings of Nasi Lemak, and why not?), we headed out into the stunning heat and humidity for the short walk back to Georgetown jetty. We were had been on the car ferry to Butterworth before, and it is pleasant to stand in the open structure of the car deck and feel the warm wind on your face as it makes the short and scenic journey across to the Malay Peninsula. It’s even nicer because, in this direction, travel is free.

Approaching Butterworth

Approaching Butterworth

Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at the dock

Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at Butterworth dock

We had already purchased first class rail tickets from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur, so we ambled unhurriedly in the direction of the rail terminal. The station turned out to be closed for redevelopment, and we were redirected to a temporary structure which was largely closed. After a little searching, we found a small courtyard bar, which was also closed. However, the ceiling fans were running over the battered trestle tables, and there was a snack stall so we settled in to wait with some cans of soft drink.

There were a couple of cafes fronting the courtyard, both firmly closed with rolling shutters. While we sat there, the owner of one of them arrived and cracked open his shutter, pouring a tray of food in front of the gap. A whole family of cats and kittens emerged and began to eat, presumably this was his answer to any possible rodent problem in his stores.

Some local kids came and sat nearby, complaining to each other about their parents’ backward attitudes, and how they wouldn’t allow their children to get ahead. It was intriguing, but we never found out what they were talking about because it was time to head back to the temporary station, which had just opened. It was full of disgruntled passengers who had been told that the daily train to Bangkok had been cancelled and had been replaced by a bus service. Frankly I wouldn’t have complained, as we gathered that the reason that the service had been cancelled was that it had been derailed.

Boarding our own train, we found ourselves in one of those rather tired and battered carriages which are typical in Malaysia. Travelling first class just means that you get an assigned seat, and a pretty girl who brings you water and a piece of cake when you board. However, our seats were at the front of the carriage with copious leg room, and thankfully the flat screen TV did not seem to be working. This was fantastic news because usually they run a loud and endless loop of irritating advertising jingles.

We settled back to enjoy the ride as we travelled the entire length of the Malay peninsula. The windows were actually too dirty to see through, but by scrunching down in doorways I could get a reasonable view of this beautiful, fertile, and above all jungle country.

Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah

Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah

Arriving finally in Kuala Lumpur, we immediately headed out for food, and were once again stunned by the Malaysian attention to cuisine. A simple bowl of chips is a thing of beauty, and once you settle down to a good fish dish, you’ll never come up for air.

A simple bowl of chips in a roadside bar. Beautiful.

A simple bowl of chips at a roadside bar. Beautiful.

Suitably refreshed, we finished our trip at our favourite KL bar, the Hap Seng Belgian Beer Cafe. It’s not overwhelmingly beautiful and there isn’t much to see apart from passing traffic, but the stools are comfortable, the staff are attentive and the beer is perfect. What more could you ask for?

Under the Petronas Towers

Under the Petronas Towers

At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe

At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe

Trans-Manchurian to Beijing

Boarding the Trans-Manchurian train in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).

Our Trans-Siberian first class carriage

Our Trans-Siberian first class carriage

Warning in our semi-private toilet

Warning in our semi-private toilet

We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.

The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.

The endless steppe

The endless steppe

We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.

And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…

At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.

Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.

Jacking up the train

Jacking up the train to release the old bogie

Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.

The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.

Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.

Stone terraces along the Yongding River

Stone terraces along the Yongding River

Tony gets very excited about breaking his fast

Tony gets very excited about breaking his fast

The lower reaches of the Yongding River

The lower reaches of the Yongding River

I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera's GPS wasn't working

I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera’s GPS wasn’t working at the time

The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.

Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.

Beijing railway station in the smog

Beijing railway station in the smog

Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.