India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽‍♂️

Trains from Agra to Mathura were late and super busy. We had only general class tickets though managed to get an upgrade (for cash) on the ride. It was less than an hour and we had arrived – as usual some people demonstrating a complete lack of manners e.g. Let me on the train first before you can get off 🤬🤬🤬

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We stayed in Mathura the day prior to holi as there is afternoon procession here after the morning festivities in Vrindavan (see blog in blue box below for details).

Holi festival

Is the most an ancient hindi festival also referred to a festival of colours, spring festival or festival of love. It is celebrated in march though on varying dates depending on when full moon occurs. It is mostly celebrated in North India and Nepal with key locations being Mathura & Vrindavan (birth place & place of youth for Krishna) in Uttar Pradesh and Pushkar in Rajasthan. This blog provides excellent detail for Mathura.

This years holi was on the 21st March (2020: 9th March) with celebrations in the morning (start as early as 7am) where everyone gets smeared with colours though much of the party already happens the night before culminating in bon fires (holika bonfires). The latter signifies the burning of the devil.

 

We kicked off by a form of staged holi and we were invited to join a group of people filming for holi – colours galore, dance, laughter… All fun. Just we regretted not to have a good dust cover for the camera and ourselves 😉🤣🙏🌈 It was also the only place with a somewhat normal male / female mix. The holi in the streets seems to be an exclusive event for Indian men – probably due to the high level of harassment (see below). 🤔🤷‍♂️

We continued towards a holi place by the river – the Vishram Ghat – and from there. To holi gate. We were joined by a group of Swiss, Dutch and US fellow holi-goers. By holi gate we had finally caught up with the festivities (having wondered earlier where the heck it was).

 

Equipped with colours we headed back towards the river to see the main procession. Trucks and tractors came along with bumping beats and loads of people. Selfies with half india followed 🤳 🇮🇳 🙏.

 

Harassment pure

Amidst a lot of happiness, indian men showed their nasty side again. All girls got groped all over their body. No respect. Poor manners yet again. It is obvious that many use holi to explore some of their sexual fantasies and some even hatred towards the white race. They see it as a ‘legal’ way to vent emotions along the lines of “buran a maano, holi hai” (“its Holi, take no offense“). It doesn’t concerns westerners and locals alike.

I felt helpless

Holi dangerous for women

 

We skipped the bonfires (around 11pm) and headed home (after dinner embarrassingly dirty) completely drenched in colours. On top, we found our room flooded. Ultimately we got camera & rucksack clean. Laura’s former white t-shirt has been promoted to an official holi souvenir and my blue cloth might recover in a washing machine.

 

As we slept in next morning and our room was flooded again, i got going late. Laura had enough anyway and stayed in. So no Vrindavan today either, but a stroll through the streets.

 

The colours of Holi – toxic stuff?

The dry colours are also called Gulal. They used to be made from completely natural ingredients. Since the Holi has been commercialised, they now include loads of toxic elements. So thankfully this event is only annual.

Meaning of the colours 

  • Blue – water element & colour of Lord Krishna, signifies affection, faith, and spiritual growth
  • Red – energy, excitement, ambition and auspiciousness
  • Green – pride, positiveness, freshness, and coolness
  • Orange – new beginnings, spiritual path, and knowledge
  • Yellow – prosperity, health, and peace

 

There were still parties here or there, but the city was generally in cleanup mode. The ashes of the burnt bonfires and colourful streets a reminder of parties in the previous night. Some guys still sleeping off their night.

 

Time to go. Nothing holds us here anymore other than a very late departure of the overnight train 🚂 to Varanasi – another holi place. Thank god we have 2AC tickets confirmed – the station was absolutely packed.

A few snaps of Mathura

Mathura has some decent spots (by the river, especially on the other side it seemed), but is generally very dirty.

 

At the train station we met a few nice people – many of which apologised on behalf of their rogue fellow countrymen. Good vibes to say goodbye to Holi.

 

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India 🇮🇳: A packed train 🚂 to Agra & Taj Mahal

It was a pleasant afternoon in Agra. We just came back from Taj Mahal and were lured into Mr Honey’s roof top restaurant. Very enjoyable the view from the roof terrace and we were promised a good, home-made meal.

It was a bit annoying to have the boy and girl fighting in the corner with a scissors – did he want to cut her hair and she refused? Who knows. However, the gentle sound of horns of cars and tuk-tuks and motos as well as the singing of the Muezzin made up for it.

Time to reflect on a crazy train ride and the impressive Taj Mahal. And there was time to chat with a Venezuelan globetrotter as well.

Packed train ride – 2nd class standing

Our journey from Jaipur to Agra was scheduled to take 4,5h. Since it was daytime, we opted for 2nd class seated with a reservation. At first that worked well and we got our seat. Comfortable.

Next stop more people got in and the train was absolutely packed as half india travelled to gather for the annual Holi celebrations (21 March). Movement hardly an option, not to mention with luggage like us.

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It was only now that someone reminded us that while we sat on the right seats, we were in the wrong waggon. Damn it!

Standing on the menu for the next 30mins. Thankfully an Indian gentleman got up for Laura. Interesting conversations followed. About indian cows (their genes differ from Jersey / Holstein cows and their milk is meant to be healthier due to different proteins – A2 type. See here), religion and much more. Especially on religion i need to learn a lot for i know nothing and couldn’t relate to much of what he said.

Once we had the chance, we moved down one wagon to our seats. They were taken by a young family with two children. Naturally i didn’t claim my spot, but the husband made space for laura.

Laura visibly enjoyed talking with the mother (25y old and 11y in relationship 🤔) and did a bit of virtual sightseeing by way of showing her photo gallery.

Once the train cleared, Shaquib (and later his buddy) joined us for more discussions. Both of them are from Kolkata. According to them it seems i picked a good spot to hike in india – Sikkim. Let’s find out.

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Majestic Taj Mahal

It is with some irony that the most famous Indian building is first muslim and second surrounded by sheer poverty. So while foreigners pay U$20 to get in, people in the street struggle. Don’t pay a guide to get you past the crowds. It is a scam as there are separate (short) queues for foreigners.

Taj Mahal basics

Taj Mahal means ‘Crown of Palaces’ and is actually not a palace, but a mausoleum for the king and his favorite wife for which he built the Taj. His wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child.

It was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and took 21y to complete. 20,000 workers were involved and the cost, in todays prices, was above U$800m (white marble doesn’t come cheap).

The Taj Mahal, regarded as the prime example of Mughal architecture (indo-islamic architecture), has been Unesco world heritage since 1983 and in 2007 was part of the list of new 7 wonders of the world.

Agra – not much else to see but poverty

Most hotels in Agra are based close to the Taj and there is little need to go into Agra itself. There isn’t a whole lot else to see anyway other than Agra Fort (we passed gladly having seen so many in Rajasthan, India 🇮🇳: The hill forts of Rajasthan 🏰).

A reminder of how tough life can be where the shanti towns right opposite the fort. For me it was soon enough and so we headed back to the hotel for a 🍻 and 🏊.

Pics from the railway track

Leaving Agra behind wasn’t hard and offered a few more opportunities to capture life in and around train stations and along the railway track. While close to cities you often witness poverty up North in India, once the countryside opens up it is very beautiful and, judged from a bypassing train, also very peaceful.

Sri Lanka 🇱🇰: Magnificent Kandy-Ella train journey & Ceylon Tea Basics

After our time in and around Kandy, it was time for our second train journey on what is advertised as a most spectacular route (some say the most beautiful in the world).

Message from Anatoly, St. Petersburg 🇷🇺: ‘I have a friend, she was in Sri Lanka and said “if you didn’t travel by train, you didn’t see that country”.’ We agree wholeheartedly!

Route basics

The route from Kandy to Ella takes about 7h to cover something like 150km – yep, about 20-25kmh on average. There are options to jump off in many places on the way to explore tea plantations and hike in the lush green hills. We went all the way.

As usual, you have three classes on offer. 1st is usually booked up weeks in advance. So we opted for 2nd (about 1USD each) well knowing that it might mean standing for the entire journey.

Timing wise, there are two trains completely in day time – 8.30am and 11am. We were told to get to the station early to get a ticket and take the early train. Not sure if that is true, as the 11am train couldn’t have been much busier!

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Getting on the train

All passengers were keenly aware that seats are limited. So some positioning games on the platform unti the train arrived. To the surprise of most, the train and in particular 2nd class was already full. Damn!

So 3rd class it was. Standing. By the open door. Generally it is best to be on the right hand side of the train for the first half and left for the remainder (in direction of travel). Further, the train gets gradually emptier as time passes.

And now… Take in the scenery

Green valleys with tea plantations, cosy villages, ever often a tuk-tuk on a nearby road and lovely old school railway stations don’t fail to impress as the train meanders slowly through the hilly landscape. Pictures speak a thousand words…

People on the journey

Below a selection of portraits and other shots showing people in their life – be it in the train, the tea plantations or else.

A word of caution

It is very popular to hang on the train for cool pics using the permanently opened doors. People get hurt and die doing that, one girl only the day before we travelled (in response, there was a safety officer in each wagon now). So if you do it, hold on well!!!

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Tea of Sri Lanka

Tea production

Let’s start with a few facts. No-one will be surprised to hear that tea production is a key industry for Sri Lanka and most of us will have tried it (knowingly or not). Tea is a U$1.5-2bn trade, a key source of FX revenues and employs c1m people directly and indirectly (vs. 22m population and 8m employed population).

Tea was introduced by Brit James Taylor in 1867 who understood the excellent tea growing conditions – humidity, cool temperatures and rainfall – in the central highlands. Kandy region is the main area and at the time of Taylor, also still the cultural center of Sri Lanka with c1/3rd of the population and the last kingdom until 1815.

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In terms of production (about 340m kg per year), Sri Lanka is no4 producer globally (after China, India and Kenya) and second largest exporter having lost the top spot recently to China).

Types of tea

The main tea of Sri Lanka is black tea, which is considered a subgroup of the Indian black tea. The below infographic breaks it out superwell (just zoom in enough). This blog breaks it out really well (top right in the poster are Sri Lankan black teas). There are also green and white teas available (green tea is from the same plant yet not fermented meaning it retains more antioxidants). Quality of teas are divided into many subcategories from BOP (best) to DUST (worst). See here for details. 

Arriving in chilled out Ella

The train suddenly emptied as we arrived at our destinations and 7h journey time. Tuk-tuks already waiting for their many guests.

After quickly refreshing ourselves we headed to town for some good food, a foot massage and some life music. Really decent vibes here. And the fog that moved in at night created a mystical athmosphere. 🐺 🌕 🌫

Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: 3 days in & around delightful Hoi An

Distance this section: 90km |Distance total: 1,400km

Staying in Hoi An was as different an experience in Vietnam as Cartagena was in Colombia. Huge amounts of tourists fill the streets as they explore the well-preserved old town and the lantern lit river & buildings at night. Truly amazing although with a very touristy feel (many Asian travellers here, feels a lot less Russian/Chinese/backpacker as in the South). Anyway, really good to see how different a Vietnamese city can look like with a bit of smart management.

Laura’s comment: Hoi An was a very different city from the previous ones. Its streets are still preserved and keep much of its great history. Unfortunately there are many tourists, but that was no problem to enjoy in the local bars, with some beers and sometimes happy balloons 🤪😁

Exploring Hoi An

Hoi An’s old town is an exceptionally well-preserved trading port from the 15th century onwards. Many cultures have influenced it over time, most notably Chinese and Japanese. Since 1999 it is listed as Unesco world heritage. To see the old buildings, you must acquire a Hoi An pass for 120,000 Dong (USD5) that gives entrance to 5 of i belive 18 possible buildings. These are mainly chinese made pagoda’s or japanese style houses of business men. Nice to visits while you hang out in streets full of shops like tailors etc.

At night, Hoi An really begins to shine as the lanterns are lit, the night market invites you to snack and a game of Hoi An bi go awaits. Lovely atmosphere – let the pictures talk.

Villages around Hoi An

We visited several villages around town such as Tra Que, Cam Tanh and Cam Kim (where stayed for the last night). All these are usually offered for day trips by bike, but aren’t that spectacular. You get some good views of the rice farmers though, which we liked a lot and insights into other crafts.

My Son hindu temple complex

My Son temples, different to many new Buddhist temples in Vietnam, are centuries old. They were built over time between the 4th and 14th century in fact. Located about 40km outside hoi an, there are plenty of tours or just go by moto. It is worth the visit.

Vietnam 🇻🇳: Three days in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon)

After a hectic Xmas break, it was time to pack the bags once more and jet off to Vietnam. Laura was already waiting in Asia after a seemingly endless journey from Colombia and, for a few days, Daniel came over from Bangkok to join us too. Side note, as of the time of writing i am still jet lagged! 😴

Happy New Year from Ho Chi Minh

After catching up ourselves not having met since July in St. Petersburg (Back in St. Petersburg), we met with a Vietnamese business partner of Daniel and went for food and beers in Pham Van Hai – a nice district with trees alongside a canal. The beer drinking culture is pretty strong here and ordering a whole crate of beer is completely normal. Cheers! 🍻🍻🍻

In the evening we visited my friend Jan. In theory his apartment was only 10mins away by car yet the traffic was horrendous. Car not an option! So all three of us got on separate motorbikes (you can hire them with ride sharing app Grab). What a crazy journey! Got to hear that a metro project for HCM is underway – dearly needed!

In the end we arrived in time for new years. Last i had met jan was last year in Bangkok for NYE (Hello Thailand & Koh Phangan: Muay Thai training begins) and by now his wife had given birth to their daughter. Fun evening with a bunch of expats. Happy new year everyone!

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The traffic back was much better and we hit the bars and clubs nearby our hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area. One notable trend were the laughing gas balloons that many people consume here (read here) similar to what i saw in Amsterdam and Suriname. We also tried and it gives you a short rush (like 30sec). Trendy stuff!

War Remnants museum: Cruel history on New years day

We enjoyed a slow start into 2019 after the late night and hit a nearby food market to get something into our bellies. I like these markets with lots of fresh food and tasty juices and smoothies. Daniel joined us too for a coffee.

First up, we decided to get some massages nearby the hotel to relax. They are quite economic here and USD5 gets you 30min foot massage. Happy endings are extra 😉

Next stop was the war Remnants museum, which is probably the no1 place to see in HCM. It shows the Vietnamese side of the US – Vietnamese war that finished with the capture of then capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, by the communists led my Ho Chi Minh who renamed the city after himself.

For sure it is meant to be a form of propaganda yet one wonders after the visit how any american can be regarded a hero for Vietnam war efforts. To me it is just a senseless show down of the cold war and crime against the people in Vietnam. I hope that efforts of the Vietnamese to get war reparations, especially for agent orange, will be successful. At last, they have been for US army personnel.

Read more about the Vietnam war here. 

Exploring Saigon a bit more

There are only so many things you can do in Saigon. Museums are good, but there are a few more highlights of such as the magnificent post office in Colonial style, a few churches (Christianity is 2nd religion here after Buddhism), the waterfront along Saigon river with its many boats, an impressive Hindu pagoda and the night markets. The latter are definitely a tourist thing, but are vibrant with tasty food choices.

Our last evening kicked off with yet another dinner. This time with the boss and the sales department of Daniel’s partner here. They took us to a large Vietnamese restaurant with no tourists in sight. We sampled lots of local dishes (i just don’t get why snails are that popular!?) and, of course, more Saigon beer. Afterwards  .. well, an eventful night near the hotel 😈👿.

Cu Chi Tunnels: Entering Viet Cong zone

From HCM you have two main tours outside the city. The Mekong delta (we plan to do on 🛵) and the Viet Cong tunnels located some 60km outside the center. If you are early, you can book a bus half-day trip for as little as EUR8.

On the way to the tunnels we stopped at a factory for kind of mosaic paintings done by disabled people – many of which suffer in the aftermath of agent orange.

The Viet Cong were the guerilla force based in colonial south Vietnam yet part of the communist forces of the north. They digged out 250km of tunnels running from Saigon to Cambodia. This network provided for protection (especially once chemical deterrents like agent orange came into the game) and camouflage – the enemy that can’t be found.

Quite impressive to see though pretty overrun with tourists as one of the key attractions of the historical Vietnam.