Saturday, 23 January 2021

"Don't go at the weekend"

 People will tell you not to go to places at the weekend. It's too crowded.

In some ways they're right. I like the Louvre on a rainy Thursday afternoon, for instance, or Venice early in the morning, half past six with the sun just rising out of the mists. I like Bermondsey Market when it's still nearly dark and the sizzling of bacon is only just beginning to make that meaty, salty aroma rise from the breakfast stand.

But visiting Jerash on a weekend was wonderful - apart from the fact that no one asked for my ticket going in. Jerash was full of Jordanian families enjoying themselves.

Little girls pelted across the great oval colonnaded entrance to the city playing football. Little boys tried to climb up every pile of rocks in sight. One climbed a pillar and jumped off, and then suddenly all his friends were doing it, flying, arms spread, for a brief moment before hitting the ground with the thump that pushed all the breath out of their lungs.

Men sat on tartan or tiger-striped picnic rugs smoking their shishas and looking over the ancient hippodrome towards Hadrian's gate. Young women posed for the camera in front of the Nyphaeum; a young man climbed as high as he could on the temple of Zeis, to the highest point of the city, and sat completely unafraid of the precipice below.

And through the whole city wandered flocks of goats and sheep with their herdsmen.

As the crowds died down I wandered towards the gate. The two men sharing a shisha were still there; we had a little chat. One little girl was left kicking a football, but her older brother grabbed it, and her, and off they went. It was a nice, low key, end to the day.

Or so I thought. But just outside the gate were the bright lights of a funfair; how could I resist? 

And to my great surprise, I heard my name being called. It was the younger of the two shisha smokers, and he wanted to show me his sister's new baby. I've never seen a prouder uncle, or a man more in love, even though there was, I'd guess, at least a 25 year difference in their ages. The whole family had their portraits taken, and then uncle was left, literally, holding the baby as sister and her husband decided to take a ride on one of the more sedate attractions. 

That's Jerash at the weekend. It was much more boring when I went back the next day.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

A country in two icons

Sometimes you can sum up an entire country in an object. I've picked two that, for me, say an awful lot about France. These are:

  • The Citroen Deux Chevaux, and 
  • the Duralex 'Picardie' glass.
Duralex. A classic but modern design. It came out at a time when other countries' glassmakers were all trying to make pseudo-'crystal' glassware, that looked like it came from a Victorian brothel. This is uncompromising modernity. But the elegant curves prevent it feeling brutal or cold.

Economical. This is a glass everyone could afford to have in their kitchen. Let me refer to the principle of égalité: the equality of citizens in France isn't just about 'equal before the law', it goes further than that. It's about schools that ensure everyone has the same basic cultural references, about cheap restaurants offering good, solid French cuisine for a working man's (or woman's) lunch. Getting good design for a few francs - that's practical equality.

Tough. This is good industrial design too. Not always a given in France - French gardening tools always disappoint me (except their pruning saws and mushroom picking knives, which are fantastic) and most door handles these days are rubbish. But this is a tough, reliable, quality item. (I don't rely on it to bounce if I drop it on the floor... but I have dropped one, and it did bounce.)

...égalité again. When the British made a car for the masses, it was the Mini. A design classic, but look at the subtext; a car you have to get down into. A shrunken car. A car in which you drive along with your bum only a few inches above the tarmac, while Milord in his Bentley can look down at you from a great height. A car which, I'm afraid, is cramped and uncomfortable. "You get what you pay for," say the Brits, albeit the Mini does look very cute in The Italian Job (original version, which if you haven't seen, you should).

But the 2CV commands the road. It has space. Enough for two sheep in the back, someone told me once. You don't give way to the big black Traction Avant, you look it in the face. 

Liberté too. Why stay on the road when the 2CV's suspension lets you go down a green lane or a field track? I asked French friends whether the story about the 2CV being designed to carry a box of eggs on the back seat down a bumpy farm track without breaking any was true, and they all said 'yes'.

And the design. Again, striking, and again with some lovely curves. Robust. 

Most French people these days use drinking glasses from Ikea - though a couple of years ago one supermarket had a special offer of coloured Duralex glasses and they proved quite popular. And if they drive a Citroen, it will be a Berlingo or a C4 Spacetourer. 

But these icons are part of France at a deep level. And they illustrate something about the country and its values.

Thursday, 2 April 2020


I got back from Jordan to France a week before the lockdown. That will be my last travel for a while.

For a while, we'll all be travelling only in our minds and in our memories.

And it's odd how the places I remember aren't always the ones that came with five stars in the guidebook, or that I thought at the time I'd remember.

I'm sitting at my desk, thinking of the Burana Tower, an hour or so on the bus from Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic. I'm thinking of the friendly taxi driver who took me there, and on the way back, stopped so that I could go into the fields and see the strawberry farmers, and eat handfuls of freshly picked strawberries.

I'm thinking of the broad and open plains of the Chuy valley, and the shivering poplars, and the oddity of a fighter plane parked on a roundabout.

I'm thinking of the Uzgen minaret, way south of Bishkek, and the view down to the valley, over a tumbled mass of slope scattered with the black-painting iron railings of graves. The little fairground next door, with the lady who reached over to take a little boy's arm and help him 'fish' the rubber duck out of the pond which entitled him to a prize, after many fruitless and frustrating endeavours - her gentle smile and his great wide grin.

I'm thinking of the lovely gentleman who sold me a book on melons and sang to me in the park in Bukhara. And a family building a house in a village near Wadi Rum, who filled my water bottle and poured me sweet tea and showed me the way to the canyon I wanted to find.

And I'm thinking, too, of my favourite salon de thé in Paris. Which, for the time being, is just as inaccessible and loaded with just as much nostalgia.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Bodh Gaya: A Tour of Asia in Miniature

Buddha was enlightened here, under the great bodhi tree. More than two millennia later, the tree is still here - or rather, one of its descendants, a cutting brought back from Sri Lanka, from a tree that was itself a cutting of the original. The great Mahabodhi temple, built a hundred years or more after Buddha's death, is still here - or rather, the temple that replaced and expanded emperor Ashoka's first building, and this temple itself much restored over the centuries. Everything remains, yet nothing remains; a striking illustration of the Buddhist tenets of impermanence and flux.
Bodh Gaya attracts Buddhists from everywhere. There are Americans - Californian New Age Buddhists who combine a meditation regime with an Instagram account full of dakini pictures and requests for everything with avocados; serious Koreans; slight Thai ladies who circumambulate every stupa in sight and leave flowers; clusters of white-clad Sinhalese Buddhists with their saffron-robed Venerables; Bhutanese monks in robes the colour of dried blood; and stateless Tibetan refugees who fly south here for the winter and return to Dharamsala in the spring, men in dark tunics, women with brightly striped aprons and crooked smiles.
All of this gives Bodh Gaya another singular attraction; there are monasteries here from most Buddhist nations, so that effectively you can take a tour of Buddhist Asia in a single town.
I'd already had a foretaste when I visited the Korean monastery in Sarnath, a wonderful cool building with polished wooden floors where I was welcomed courteously and shown the library. Sheltering from the dry heat of the afternoon, I read up on temple etiquette; how to eat "without attachment," holding the food bowl up to hide your mouth as you eat. The detailed, precise usage of the four bowls (balugongyang, "four bowls containing food"); one for rice, one for soup, one for kimchi, one for water. The bowls are unwrapped and laid out; the food is served, the water is served, the diners eat in silence. At the end, each bowl in turn is cleaned with tea and a piece of kimchi; the water in the smallest bowl is used to rinse the other three, then tipped out, and the bowls are placed one inside the other, and finally wrapped up in grey cloth to be put away. It is orderly, frugal, respectful, simple. (And very Korean.)
Here in Bodh Gaya I stayed in the Burmese monastery; simple, clean, and full of extravagantly coloured cockerels. Huge pots simmered in the kitchens, and the temple was a hotchpotch of fuchsia, lime green, acid yellow, and robin's egg blue, a typically Burmese colour scheme. The Buddha had a rich lipstick pink mouth and gloss porcelain ivory skin.
But in the Japanese temple (one of two) the Buddha was golden, huge, flat-faced, inexpressive. The statue dominated the simple space, all air and dim light and gleaming wood that had been planed to absolute smoothness. Zen: economy of means, lightness of spirit.
I grew to love my Burmese monastery. Unlike many Indian temples, everything was clean, remarkably and truly clean. The toilets were slushed down with water every five minutes, the kitchens were spotless, the pots scoured bright every day, plates washed down with huge amounts of water in the garden. I only stayed there three days, which the monastery says is the maximum allowed; but an American in another room said he'd been there a month, and was studying the sutras, and "You can really stay as long as you like, if they think you're serious."
Seriousness may be in short demand, though. Later on, when I went to Rajgir and stayed in the Burmese monastery there, one of the monks complained about the pilgrims, who, he said, were just tourists with a Buddhist veneer.
"Ten years ago it was so difficult for our people to come," he told me. "When a pilgrim came here, you knew he had really made an effort, that it was important for him, that he was serious-minded. Now it's so easy for them. They buy a ticket, they fly, they come in a bus, they buy hats with silly messages and souvenir t-shirts, they make noise in the monastery, they eat too much, they don't get up in the morning, they treat it as a holiday, just a holiday."
While Japanese and Korean monasteries value calm and simplicity, Tibetans have a very different style. In one of the Tibetan compounds, a monk with a wrinkled face and goofy smile played football with three little boys; in another, little yapping white dogs with curled-over tails like ostrich plumes ran about excitedly, trying to impress a caretaker who regarded them with tolerant amusement. The Tibetan temples glow with colour - warm reds, bright yellows, green, blue, primary colours taken from a five year old's poster paint box in incredible profusion. Every mandala, every halo of flames, multiplies and complicates outlines, introduces new richness into what's already a rich melange of colour and form. This is a world of thousands of Buddhas, of flames and clouds, a universe deep and full and always changing. Wrathful deities have extra arms, extensive rows of heads, each head with extensive rows of fangs. The simplicity of Zen is cut loose; in the phantasmagoria, every threat, every protector, every thought has its deity, the struggles of the mind in meditation enacted in a world of primal drama.
Compared to this, the Sri Lankan temple feels like an outpost of the Ambridge Mothers' Union, innocent and respectable. Piles of biscuits are heaped in front of the Buddha as offerings (and the brands appear to be a Sri Lankan selection, as India's love affair with Parle G biscuits is not in evidence here), with flower arrangements and cellophane-wrapped hampers. There's a celebration going on to commemorate the relic of Buddha's tooth, and there are flowers everywhere, and everyone is in white dresses and white suits.
The Thai temple is readily recognizable, with its upturned eaves ending with gilded, sinuous dragons. But there's no one there when I visit. By contrast, the Bhutanese monastery is bustling; monks are hard at work making butter sculptures, bringing in buckets of cold water, and - in a corner - boiling kettles and making tea. Just one of them speaks English, and tells me the preparations are all for tomorrow: "Come and see us tomorrow at the big stupa," he instructs me.
So I turn up, and they are all there, sitting on the platforms facing the temple, with all their butter sculptures set up on an ornate altar in front. They're chanting at breakneck speed from the scriptures; a pair of great trumpets blasts bass harmonies which roar and growl under the chanting, while oboes squeal and bleat, and all the while the front row of six drummers set the pace, with a rainstorm of red drumsticks on taut skin. The music is savage and unrelenting. And suddenly, there is silence.
It's break time. Monks who have sat immobile for an hour stretch, then turn to each other to chat; two young boys carry round a teapot. The English-speaking monk leans over and gives me tsampa, which is like Rice Krispies rolled in butter, and motions the lads to pour me tea, rich and buttery and oily in the mouth. A minute later, the boys are collecting up the teacups and the drums crash into action, and here we go again.
There's a Bangladeshi monastery here, too. It's a big, rectangular room, with three cusped arches at one end, and prayer mats. It feels like a mosque, only in what might have been a mihrab there's a small Buddha.
And there are Hindus. (In fact, the governing body of the Mahabodhi temple has a majority of Hindus on the board.) Which may seem strange till you remember Buddha is claimed as an avatar of Vishnu, and so he is worshipped here in a slightly different way, and long-haired, bearded sadhus mingle with the shaven Buddhist monks and nuns. So even while I'm touring Asia in Bodh Gaya, I'm well aware that I'm still in India, still within the Hindu mainstream.
I missed one thing in Bodh Gaya though. My mini tour of Asia showed me a lot of styles, a lot of ways of living, even quite a few different cuisines. What it didn't show me, in this very poor state of Bihar, was the immense contribution of Buddhist charitable work. One of the Japanese temples runs a kindergarten and a free medical centre; another Buddhist organisation treats leprosy cases. Compassion isn't just a nice feeling but a goad to practical work. (That's why bodhisattvas exist; beings which have deferred Buddhahood in order to help suffering sentient beings.) I found out about all this later.
And everywhere in India that there are Buddhists, there are Tibetans. There are hard-as-nails Tibetan women who are the world's most expert and persistent bargainers; no merchant in the Istanbul spice bazaar, no insurance or double glazing salesman, would last a minute against their skills and obstinacy. There are monks. There are wizened old men in chubas and young men in jeans and Ray-Bans who run momo stalls and have grubby photos of the Dalai Lama pinned up in the corner. These are the Tibetans who fled their country when the Chinese took over - some more recently - and their children and even grandchildren, all stateless till, very recently, the High Court in Delhi ordered the government to give those born in India full nationality. That makes Bodh Gaya, in one of its incarnations, a huge refugee camp.
There is always more to a place than you see. I started with a tour of the picturesque that was perhaps little more than visiting 'France en Miniature' or Legoland Windsor; I ended up with a tour of the human heart. Bodh Gaya is at the same time everything I had expected, and a huge surprise. I wonder if it's like that for everyone.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Petra off the beaten track

The Treasury is what everyone comes to see. Its red stone, its broken pediments, its delicate ornamentation: everyone knows it from photographs, it's the one thing you have to see even if you spend only an hour in Petra (though at 50 JD a ticket, it's an expensive hour).

And that's a bit of a problem. There is one way in, the narrow Siq, a kilometre of walking in a narrow defile. In mid-morning the deep opening containing the Treasury is loud with the shouts of vendors, the buzz of conversation, tour guides talking at the tops of their voices, carriage wheels on the stone-paved road.

But Petra is huge. To walk from the Siq to the Monastery (Al-Deir, another Nabatean tomb on the same roughly Hellenistic lines as the Treasury) is about 8km; and the corrugated, mountainous terrain forces trails to wind and snake around wadis and over cols. For the more adventurous traveller with a good head for heights (or the determination to ignore their increasing uneasiness and vertigo) there are a number of alternatives to the cauldron of the Treasury.

  • First of all, get up early. The site opens at six. One morning I found myself walking the Siq in complete solitude. The quiet won't last long, but you will never forget the hushed gloom of the Siq, the serenity of the Treasury in dawn light.
  • Secondly, take the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice and then come down Wadi Farasa. The steps leading up from near the Theatre are steep enough to deter most from making the effort; the track winds up the side of a narrow wadi, then crosses to the neighbouring peak and climbs again towards the High Place with its amazing views. From there, the trail descends the side of Wadi Farasa, with almost unvisited rock-cut tombs - a wadi that has a gentleness and charm absent from some of the more spectacular sites. 
  • Another trail ('Al-Khutba') leads from the end of the Royal Tombs up to another High Place, and then to a tea tent with a superb view over the Treasury. From here, the din of the crowds shrinks to a low hum, as if the hollow place has become a Tibetan singing bowl. When I was there, about ten people had made it this far, and we were being entertained by two very cute kittens.
(By the way, on the Al-Khutba trail, when you encounter an official brown sign giving the direction as straight on, ignore it - go left instead. There's an arrow painted on the ground a bit later on; you descend broad steps to a valley floor and then take a right turn down the valley. It's a much easier way to get to the Treasury viewpoint.)

I didn't take the third marvellous trail, but I wish I had. The problem is that you need to get your Petra ticket first, and you have to go into the visitor centre in Wadi Musa first. 'Petra through the Back Door' starts at Siq el Barid, 'Cold Siq' or 'Little Petra', and then takes a relatively easy track through desert and rocks to the Monastery - from where you can walk down to the centre of Petra, and out past the Treasury to the town of Wadi Musa. (It's part of the Jordan Trail, which runs all the way from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south.)

I am sometimes disappointed by the reality when I go somewhere I know from photos. The Taj Mahal I found underwhelming; likewise Abu Simbel. But Petra is far, far more than the classic photo of the Treasury, and the more I wandered its trails, the more I loved it.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Stay longer, pay less

I'm just back from a very enjoyable trip to Jordan, where I hiked Wadi Rum, visited both a crusader castle and an anti-crusader castle*, saw Byzantine mosaics and Roman theatres, and hung out with Jordanian army bagpipers and Jordan's only Duke.

And I found that among other surprises, Jordan has implemented a policy I've long wanted to see - making it cheaper for tourists to stay longer.

The Jordan Pass discounts admission to Petra together with the Jordanian visa, and admission to many other interesting sites such as the Roman city of Jerash. Given Petra is Jordan's prime tourist destination - the one thing that every visitor wants to see - it's a pretty good deal.

But it gets better. To add a second day visiting Petra to the Pass costs $5 more. Two days, $10 more. Given that the one day version of the pass already costs JD 70, that's incredibly cheap. (If you buy your Petra tickets on site, the calculations are similar. One day is expensive - three days good value.)

Most of the people I know who stayed longer in Petra decided to walk trails off the beaten track, like Wadi Farasa or the Al-Khutba trail. That takes pressure off the "must see" Treasury and the main trail through the site. And of course, while they're staying in Wadi Musa, these people are contributing to the local economy through their hotel room rate, restaurant visits, and taxi rides.

Why did Jordan implement this policy? I suspect it has a lot to do with two major factors. First, Jordan is heavily dependent on Petra. And secondly, it's an Arab country which has a unique relationship with Israel, which means quite a few people visit it on a daytrip. The Jordan Pass and the Petra ticket structure aim to change daytrippers into longer stay tourists.

I wish more places would implement similar schemes. There are a number of towns which really should consider it - places like Toledo, which is often visited as a day trip from Madrid but really deserves two or three days to itself, or Fatehpur Sikri, which gets daytrip business from tourists staying in Agra but has more than enough interest for an overnight. Giving people a real incentive to spend more time in these destinations could help improve the prospects for tourist businesses there - and help offset the stresses and overcrowding from the "if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Angkor" brigade.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Central Asia - what I learned

My summer visit to Central Asia came about because various family commitments led to my cancelling a South American trip, and choosing a location in a bit of a hurry once I could get away. So I was less prepared than usual, though with a few ideas. But I learned a lot over my travels.

  • First off, Central Asia is massive. Kazakhstan could be a continent all on its own. Distances are immense, trains and buses are slow, roads are not great. It's easy to spend an entire day on a bus just to get from one place in Kyrgyzstan to another. And half the time, there are no buses, and you'll spend three days working out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. Next time, I'll take a motorbike.
  • The distances mean it's best to be ruthless about focusing on where you want to go. I know I missed some interesting trips. But given my time again, I would spend more time in southern Kazakhstan, and a lot more time at Song Kul, and I wouldn't, probably, bother with Issyk Kul (a heresy would upset many of my Kyrgyz friends).
  • Secondly, while Uzbekistan has Disneyfied many of its major sites, you can still get off the beaten track to places like Chor Bakr, near Bukhara, where pilgrims enjoy feeding the tame pigeons, or the quiet Bahauddin Naqshband mausoleum with its engaging signboards carrying quotes from the Sufi in Persian, Uzbek and English. I was surprised just how few travellers even manage to cross the road from the Registan in Samarkand, but there are some beautiful small mosques off the main drag.
  • People are wonderful. Uzbek grandmas made me dance. Kazakh families took me off on a pilgrimage that involved jumping naked into a freezing river, put me up overnight, and made me drink tea with jam in it (for which the British Tea God punished me with indigestion). On any local bus you will find a grandma, a student, or a local elder who will take care of you, even if you don't share a single language between you. Whenever I was in trouble, I could find someone who would help. All I had to do was look lost, start to cry, or kick something.
  • The food is dreadful. I had roadkill shashlik in Khiva - fifteen separate shards of bone in a single mouthful of chicken. I know, because I counted them as I spat them out. Take a good knife and you can buy succulent melons; get figs, apples and plums from the markets; but don't count on restaurant food to make your life worth living.
  • On the other hand, the green tea is always good. 
  • Vegetarians, note that according to most cooks in central Asia, sausage is a vegetable.
  • Then I found ashlanfu. Two kinds of noodles, plenty of chili, plenty of vinegar, 30 cents a dish. If only the eastern Kyrgyz could convert everyone else in central Asia to eat ashlanfu, I'd be happy.
  • Language. Russian is invaluable. There will always be someone who speaks Russian. Younger people often speak English.
  • Mastercard. Don't take it. For some reason this is a Visa zone.
I learned some non-practical things, too. For instance, how Islam here is blended with the animistic and shamanic beliefs that were here before. Kazakh pilgrimages involve squeezing yourself through tiny holes in the rock, climbing up rocks using footholds slippery with age and the feet of thousands of pilgrims, jumping into rivers, drinking from sacred fountains. Sacred sites in Uzbekistan have notices forbidding worshippers from making sacrifices, which is a bit of a giveaway that it's something that people needed to be told not to do. At Shahrisabz, I saw pilgrims in one shrine pouring water on to a tombstone; when it collected in the hollow at the end of the stone, they scooped it up in tea bowls and drank it, and put what remained after everyone had drunk in a thermos flask to take it away.

I learned that Kyrygz chocolate is amazing, and Kazakh chocolate is cheaper but comes with sour cherries in it. I loved both. 

I learned that the downside of staying with nomads is that every time you step outside the tent, your boots will get covered in animal shit. Again.

I learned that Almaty has Costa Coffee and Marks & Spencers and Mercedes showrooms, but it was bloody hard to find an ATM. I learned that Almaty is full of Indian medical students, because it's where you go to study if you can't afford the US or UK. 

And I learned that there is an old man in the Samani Park in Bukhara who will sing to you, and kiss your hand when you go, if you chat to him (and are female: men get a handshake or a hug).