Epilogue of Indian Trip & 2017 Review
Passage of India 2017 (uploaded on May 27, 2018)
Today, I sit comfortably at home in Hong Kong to reflect on my passage through India six months ago. Too much has happened. My journey comprises three distinct legs. I began with a 9-day pilgrimage and spiritual trip with the Buddhist Compassion Organisation from Varanasi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal. Next, I joined three girlfriends on a 16-day packed organised cultural trip from Agra to Mumbai through Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Finally, I descended on South India on my own wandering from Kerala to Fort Kochi before taking an overnight train to Goa.
This is my sixth trip to India with the longest stay and most extensive coverage. From Kathmandu, Nepal to Kovalum, Kerala, India is about 2200km. I guess I might have travelled close to 3000km by road and about 500km by rail in addition to four flights. During my last five visits from 1978 to 2013, I travelled in six states (out of 29) namely Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. This time, I travelled in seven states including five new states (Bihar, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh). It is impossible to capture my experience in a few paragraphs. I therefore decide only to drop down some lasting thoughts about this memorable journey.
First, it is an educational trip. India is the world’s second-most populous country and seventh largest in terms of land area. I believe it is one of the countries one must visit. After a longer stay, I appreciate even more its long and rich history and diversity in terms of people, food, architecture, culture and religion. I have learnt a bit more about Hinduism and the main Hindu gods, and Jainism.
Second, it is a blessing to visit the main sacred sites associated with Buddha including Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Gridhakuta Hill and Kushinagar. It’s a pity that I was unable to stay longer in each place. One day, I may return on my own to visit Varanasi and all the eight Buddhist sacred sites in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best Buddhist art works are preserved in the Ajanta caves. It is fantastic to be able to visit these caves as well as those in Ellora and Kanheri Caves.
Third, I have visited over a dozen World Heritage Sites. The most impressive ones include Nalanda, Khajuraho, rock paintings in Bhimetka, Sanchi, Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves and Old Goa. The most disappointing one is Taj Mahal, Agra which has been ruined by pollution and mass tourism.
Fourth, I have discovered some beautiful places worth revisiting. Orchha, Mandu and Maheshwar are romantic with history and lots to see. Fort Kochi where Vasco da Gama was buried from 1524 to 1530, is a jewel with a nostalgic feel.
Fifth, India is country of stark contrasts. It will soon overtake China as the most populous country in the world with a young population, a significant and important IT industry, smart businessmen (some of them are super rich), a booming filming industry, and a growing educated middle class. It is rich in tourism resources boasting 35 World Heritage Sites (I have visited 19 so far). I have visited on this trip some of the richest states including Goa, Kerala and Maharashtra. I have also seen visible poverty in Bihar when driving from Varanasi to Patna.
Despite its rapid economic developments in the past decade, the infrastructures are underdeveloped. In China, I have travelled some 1000km by high-speed train in less than four hours. An extensive highway network has linked up the whole country. But in India today, a short distance of 350km between Aurangabad and Mumbai, takes some 7 hours whether by road or rail. Most of the so-called national road between north and south India is still 2-lane: the road between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra is poorly serviced with pot holes and without street lights. I understand better and modern national highway is under construction.
Based on my limited experience, I find Kerala and Goa more promising. The whole region looks tidier, cleaner, organised and more prosperous. But the road to Munnar is a horrifying experience. The narrow mountain road built over a century ago, is totally inadequate to cope with the traffic today.
Six, what horrifies me most is POLLUTION. I was greeted by repugnant chemical smell as soon as I stepped out of the plane in Delhi. Particles could be seen from the hotel window the next morning. Most of the cities including Varanasi, Patna, Agra and Mumbai veiled in smog looked grey. Taj Mahal has lost its purity and glitter looking sick. Garbage is scattered along the road and there is no proper sewage especially in Bihar. When I was in South India, things were much better. People care: litter is not a serious problem. What are the Indians doing? ACTION NOW!
As a backpack at heart, I thoroughly enjoy India. I know I would be returning a few more times to discover this fascinating country. But it would make progress in tackling pollution and brutality including gang rape of children and young girls.
2017 Review (uploaded on June 1, 2018)
It is not my practice to write an annual review. But 2017 has been a most eventful year in terms of travel. I therefore try to complete this task when memories remain fresh in my mind.
How many days were I on the road in 2017? 188 nights in 14 countries in total. The longest one was to Europe from August 1 to October 3 which had been cut short when my passport was stolen in Madrid. The shortest one was a five-day family trip to Kunming in October to meet the family of the fiancée of Wai Leuk, my nephew. Of the 14 countries that I visited, only Uruguay was new. The remaining 13 countries included Japan, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, China (Qinghai, Tibet and Kunming), Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Monaco, India and Nepal.
My days aboard are mostly filled with joy thanks to the kind people I meet on the road, things I learn every day and beautiful landscape and scenery. Occasionally I run into trouble that presents challenges and danger. Nonetheless, they also provide unexpected opportunities for new experiences and self-training and development. Indeed, I did many things whether I like it or not, for the first time in my life.
First and the foremost, I reached an elevation of 6000m in Ojos de Salado in Chile (the second highest peak in South America at 6,893m) on March 11. As my hip and knee problem has worsened since, this is also my last time to take on serious and long-distance treks.
Second, I spent my first night in a hospital while I was on the Classical Mont Blanc hike. I am allergic to bugs. On August 5, I was bitten and had to be taken to the emergency centre in Chamonix, France. My blood pressure and oxygen level stayed at 80/50/70 for three hours. It was a scary and expensive experience. Luckily the hospital fee and medicine were covered by the insurance company. But I had to meet the accidental cost myself. On return to Hong Kong, I consulted a specialist. After having taken several tests, the doctor suspected wasp was the culprit. Looking back, I realise that this was my third bite by wasp (first in Nanjing and second in Yosemite National Park). The fourth bite could be life-threatening. As a result, I must carry an epi-pen which is expensive with a short validity.
Third, my wallet was stolen in the Madrid metro on September 16. I lost my passport in addition to my HKID card, credit cards and cash. Without a passport, I could not fly that day to meet up with my friends, Bing, Ellen and Kylie for a driving holiday in Iceland. I felt sorry for messing up their travel plan and they had incurred extra cost owing to my absence. I changed my travel plan too and returned to Hong Kong on October 3 instead of 24 to apply for new ID card and passport and visas for India and Nepal.
Fourth, I attended a same-sex wedding. While on pilgrimage from Tui to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Aliana and Kai had to go to a clinic for consultation in Pontevedra. Isabel who was in the clinic for a consultation, came to our rescue and translated for us. When she discovered from my website that I was stranded in Madrid, she was the first person to email me offering comfort and help. I was moved. She invited me to stay with her family and attend her wedding on September 24. I therefore returned to Pontevedra as soon as I got a temporary travel document from the Chinese Consulate. I had a most wonderful time with my adopted family: Isabel’s father and mother, Raymond and Carmen are amazing. I met her wife Maricela and her Mexican family from Texas. The couple’s family, relatives and friends are warm and welcoming. Isabel has moved to Texas and I wish the couple a happy life.
Fifth, I went to the Monaco Yacht Show on September 28. I was invited to this world-famous show just before I was about to leave Hong Kong for Europe in end July. As this is a rare opportunity for a person without means to see some of the largest and most expensive yachts, I accepted Robert’s invitation and went with Alice for this event. I cancelled my trip to Poland and bought another ticket to fly from Iceland to Nice. Of course, I wasted this ticket when I got stuck in Spain and had to buy yet a Madrid-Nice return ticket. All the troubles are worthwhile. I had a short but fabulous time with friends and had two wonderful dinners. It is a real treat to see the toy of the rich and famous that I have never even dreamed of!
Apart from the unforgettable ‘first-time-in-my-life’ experience, I also had three spiritual journeys. I am not religious, but I respect all religions. First, I spent New Year in Kuman Sanzan, part of a pilgrimage route with World Heritage status in Japan. In August, six friends and I followed the Portuguese Way from Tui to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It was the second time I walked over 100km on this popular World Heritage pilgrimage route. In November, I joined an organised pilgrimage trip to India and Nepal and visited the most sacred sites associated with Buddha’s life 2500 years ago. I felt peaceful and spiritual while walking along these century-old paths.
Nature, landscape, scenery and people have always defined my travel experiences. 2017 has been exceptional in this regard.
First, I have been to the Atacama Desert in Chile in 1999 but I remain captivated by its surreal landscape and San Pedro de Atacama. I am happy to return to this region for the third time.
Second, I had been to Argentina three times but never visited its northern part. I am most impressed by the history, landscape and colourful mountain ranges in the Jujuy Province and the magnificent scenery and invaluable fossils of dinosaurs in the La Rioja Province.
Third, I have seen some most impressive scenery during the Classic Mont Blanc camping trek, one of the world’s iconic and most popular treks. The ride on the ‘Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi’ and the ‘Panoramic Mont Blanc Gondola’ from Chamonix to Point Helbronner (3462m) is the best cable car ride in my life. The landscape and scenery are breath-taking, magnificent and unearthly beautiful. The engineering achievements of the French and Italian are awesome.
Fourth, the Dolomites are equally magnificent. My trek here was enjoyable, more comfortable in a four-star hotel and less challenging as compared with the longer Mont Blanc trek.
Fifth, I have visited Qinghai and Tibet, China several times. Familiarity does not breed contempt on this occasion. I still find the landscape, scenery, people and culture as fascinating as ever.
Finally, wonderful people can make a big difference. They sometimes can change a bad experience to a good one.
Had I not met Alice and Robert for dinner in Hong Kong out of the blue in mid-July, I would not had gone to Monaco for the yacht show. I fully appreciate Robert’s generosity.
Had I not lost my passport, I would not have had my European trip cut short. As a result, I was able to join my brother Lawrence and Sally, my sister-in-law, on their trip to Kunming to call upon Isabel’s family in a hilly part of Yunnan. Her parents gave them the consent to get married in end December 2018. How wonderful!
Had I not lost my passport, I would never had spent a week in a Spanish family and attended Isabel’s wedding. Though I cannot speak Spanish, I communicate with Carmen and Raymond who have told me their home is my home. Now I have a family in Galicia which seafood is one of the best in the world! Isabel and her parents have been my guarding angels in Spain.
All in all, 2017 has been a memorable and eventful year!