India was incredible. It’s so overwhelming in its vastness, yet can be so friendly at a smaller scale.
There is nowhere we have experienced a broader range of moods. The many highs are unforgettably etched in your brain, just next to the pungent lows.
And in our fourth week of a big circuit of southern India, it continued to surprise us. It’s surprising that it works at all. It’s a global blessing that it’s all relatively peaceful, given the religious, cultural, and regional diversity. Let’s really hope this does not change.
It’s also fascinating to see how people have adapted to cope with it’s challenges. Vagueness and bureaucracy are endemic and seem to be the enemy of progress. Yet the dynamic new tech and innovation sectors are amazingly efficient. Two worlds.
One surprise of this visit to me is the fact that so much of the old world and customs still dominate life outside the metro areas. I thought things would have changed a bit more. Municipal services still don’t seem to be strong. Public spaces are not cherished and although cleanliness in the home is paramount, keeping common spaces trash free is still a difficult thing to experience for people used to more proper sanitation (and much more consumption per capita, but just better hidden!).
But as much as I have been intoxicated by the new metros, sights, sounds, and conversations with so many kind and interesting people, I was equally aghast at the state of road transport. It’s hostile, aggressive, dangerous, and classist. The National highways are death traps and have 30% of fatalities despite only representing 2% of the road system. Our last week really highlighted this as we had 3 road transfers in a row to navigate the center and east coasts of Tamil Nadu. In some cases, buses were an option (with additional transfers on each end), but the buses are also dangerous.
So my advice to future travelers is to avoid the roads as much as possible…book your trains early and plan your trip around them. When you do need a car transfer, only do it by daylight and make sure the car is decent and has working seat belts. I can see why people choose a nice driver or transfer van tour option. Of course you can ask your driver to drive slower or take fewer passing risks, but this can tough to overcome with language barriers and the endemic mania that are the norm of Indian roads.
And to be honest, a majority of people in cars were just plain mean, and generally have low respect for pedestrians. It was pretty horrible and stressful, and degraded the quality of life in places such as Ooty. It is unhealthy to body and mind. And as Cheryl likes to note, it has the biggest impact on women, who seem to be the majority of pedestrians walking on roads to conduct their daily duties…. and there are many duties.
It’s a tragedy of the commons. We did see a few feeble attempts to influence behavior with messaging, but unless a massive and systemic change is made, it may only get worse as more cars are added to the mix.
But we are so glad to have made the journey back to India. it’s added to our understanding of its challenges and boosted our appreciation again of the daily struggles of so many. It gives us both hope and fear for two disparate futures.
Thanks to all those who shared their kindness along the way, and we wish you all the best. Keep in touch.
Transportation continues to be a big topic of discussion for us. And a big source of frustration. Our stay in Fort Kochi was nice, the fort and beach area is away from the city itself, and a chill area with big trees, some small streets and lanes to walk, and friendly people.
But like everywhere else, with cars and scooters dashing and honking, people on foot get short shrift. You are the bottom rung of the transportation ladder, and you know it.
We learned very quickly to go out early for our walks. Before breakfast. Not only is the temperature cooler, but there are fewer cars and scooters about, so less wrangling for road space. Notice I say road space since sidewalks are pretty uncommon outside any city center commercial street- and even on some of those streets. When we caught a predawn taxi to the train station we realized the locals got out very early to walk and jog the quieter streets.
The trains are popular since the alternative for many of these destinations is driving. We really try hard to stay off the roads in cars. The driving is tough. Not for non locals I think. And we try even harder to stay off the roads at night, other than short auto rickshaw trips in towns. On this trip we have hired a car and driver for several transfers, and it’s no picnic either. We sit in the back firmly belted in and try not to watch what’s going on as cars and scooters and buses overtake and honk and swerve. We always let our driver know we are in no rush and much more interested in safety over speed.
We were super happy with Rich’s choice of accommodation in Kollam, the Ashtamudi Villas, right on the lake. Even though all we could book was a non AC room we were fine. And we had a lovely neighbor, Karen from Plymouth UK, with whom we went out on tours facilitated by the guys running the lodge.
It was a good time for us to come to India. After my breast reduction surgery we knew I wouldn’t be able to bike or do anything very strenuous for a while, so India was a good fit. I haven’t carried my backpack yet, on transfer days Rich wears his backpack and carries mine, but most transfers are door to door, or train station to taxi to door, so not too much toting for Rich. But, even me, always willing to lean into sloth, I want more activities that will require muscles over motors. We are accustomed to much more active lifestyles.
Stay tuned for more India. As we say to each other, the being places in India is lovely, the getting there is the challenge.
So one thing we are noticing as we travel through parts of Southern India is the clear growth of domestic tourism since our last visit: It’s been refreshing to stay places and not be surrounded solely by European or other “western” tourists, as this makes the travel experience a bit more rewarding.
The rising middle class of India is over 200 million strong and growing, and they are influencing travel and tourism here more than ever. Foreign visits are still below 2019 levels, but domestic tourism and travel continues to grow substantially. So does India really need (or want) foreign visitors? And what happened to many of the business that catered mostly to foreign tourists?
The short answer is that many of them closed and have not reopened. In the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty, many of the pre-Covid travelers cafes and restaurants listed in guidebooks and online had closed. And service at the ones that survived suffered serious interruptions. But fret not weary traveller, as they are being replaced by new trendy cafes, restaurants, and other businesses that a western traveller will enjoy, but will need to learn to share with local (and much hipper) Indians.
The modern growth and poverty reduction in India over the past 16 years is a great thing, and classic traveller towns of Asia may be legendary and great fun to meet other travelers, but they are always a curated experience. Plus, modern Indian cities and the rise of tech and related services are just as important as understanding the symbolism of old temples IMO. And modern India is going to have a big influence on the world over the next century with one of the fastest growing economies and large population growth.
And of course you have always been able to meet “real Indians” at lower cost lodging, but often there are too extreme differences in socio-economic factors to have a relatable conversation based on common frames of references. And English is often limited to middle and upper classes or people in the tourism trade. Sure, we cherish our interactions with any local, no matter how brief or limited, but to us, it is also equally fascinating to learn about the lives of other other educated professionals in a very dynamic place.
Or maybe you are lucky enough to have close contacts, business ties, or even family here….that is always the best experience, and you are probably meeting lots of people. But one resounding theme in the South has been how nice everyone is, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So after 4 nights in Mysore, we finally headed to more remote areas near Masinagudi by hired driver/taxi. There are no train options and the vague bus info I could find involved 2 transfers. And with Cheryl still unable to carry her pack and 35c heat and sun… you get the idea. Car transfers here are affordable and often take out massive stress of uncertain buses and rickshaw connections. We’ve learned not to torture ourselves excessively in our second visit to India. It turns out this car trip included a route through the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and was delightful, as we saw two wild elephants up the hill from the car as we passed through beautiful landscape. (FYI- It was about INR5,500 or $US65 for a 2 1/2 hour trip with coffee/tea/bathroom stop…maybe 4,000 rupees if you shop around but we let our hotel arrange and the little sedan and driver was nice.)
We stayed 3 days at the “Jungle Hut” next to the Mudumalai Reserve, which is part of 4 national parks and reserves which make up the Wester Ghat Mountains biosphere. It’s a UNESCO global diversity hotspot (one of 36) so protecting the endangered and endemic species is a priority. We loved the Jungle Hut, with its great guides, food, vibe, and staff engagement.
It also appeared that the area was being managed well, with a balance of needed tourism dollars and protection of the environment. Perhaps a little more regulation of safari jeeps outside the reserve is needed, but it seemed many area residents are directly involved in the local reserves, or at least reap some of the benefits of money coming from tourism into the their villages. (There are 8 smaller villages that are part of Masinagudi). India has done a good job expanding and managing natural reserves and animal counts are increasing for tigers, elephants, leopards, panthers, bears, and other large fauna. But it’s not easy. We also saw serious anti-poaching patrols.
So we sadly left the Jungle Hut once again by car transfer to Ooty,, “Queen of the Hill Stations”. But as we made our way up the 36 marked hairpin curves to Ooty, all I could think was wow, what an amazing Tour de France stage this would make -:).
Oh, but the logistics! And logistics are what often takes a toll on independent travelers in India. Unless you go the 5 star tour route, doing just about anything in India always seems to come with unexpected challenges or complications. (And a 5 star tour does not buy you safe roadways or clean air outside your AC cocoon.)
Being fiercely independent travelers, we love to find our own way, but recognize sometimes a guide or car transport is needed. But in most cases, all could be done by independent travelers if there was more information provided. Traveling in almost any other country has been easier, including recently in Morocco and Turkey (especially Turkey…a joy), as interactions are more straightforward. There are cultural differences that are hard to adapt to, even after weeks or months here. The local tourists do much better I suspect, as there is more comfort with the systems, customs, and still strict class structure.
So as Cheryl likes to say repeatedly when I complain about a challenge here, “Square peg, round hole!” We are clearly more comfortable with predictable mass transit, cycling, and walking. And I am always torn about guides, as appreciate guide roles provide jobs, but so many times, guides in museums or other tourist sights are just a replacement for any form of curation, or often just repeat what you read on Wikipedia. Wildlife guides are essential and a huge benefit.
But in my naive American perspective, it seems that if India made things easier for independent tourists, more would visit, and spend even more money. Right now, many places are just too challenging to deal with to bother with, linger, or explore further.
One positive change from 2006 is the introductions of E-visas, which has increased tourism visits significantly. But that’s only the first step, as there was still a baffling amount of forms to fly to and enter India. We first submitted all our personal and trip information to get a Visa, including photographs. Next was the mandatory info on the airline app, yet we still got caught out at check-in missing the Air Suvidha form, which was added in January for entry from “high risk” countries. We knew (and somewhat understand) the added PCR tests due to China”s surge in cases, but can’t imagine any scenario in all of India where this form will prevent one case of COVID post entry. Most governments have realized the futility of such measures when COVID is all about in country, but it shows action for politicians.
So we have detailed e-visa with photo, the Air Suvida form, and all other COVID docs, and then get to immigration and are directed to a confusing side desk for E-visas….but first, fill out another manual form with the same info. The few (half dozen) foreign Nationals were all confused and then trying to share the agents one pen and understand why a fourth form was needed….then to immigration desk for questioning….where we were going, my job, was I young to be retired? And immigration officers seemed to be baffled by a tourist listing a hotel as address in India. We’re tourists! Cheryl somehow got less of a rigamorale. Maybe it was the purple hair. Maybe, it seemed, he was trying to be a bit playful and curious, but after all the forms, I wasn’t really in joking mood. Plus, you NEVER joke in immigration or customs unless prompted!
Then to customs ( no one there…walked through?). We then managed to get lucky and find the lone ATM inside arrivals that had cash. (Runs out later in the day apparently, so then you are forced to change cash at poor rates) And then to the one SIM card booth where were lucky to be first in line and getting two Vodaphone SIMs which took about 20-25 minutes, including new digital photos. The time was not the staff’s fault, as they had to enter endless info to register us, as apparently SIM cards are tightly controlled here out of security concerns. The SIM cards work fine and were very reasonable cost 1000INR for 28 days with 1.5GB/day plus bonus on weekends. But note that Airtel has a better network, but getting SIMs outside the airport can have additional challenges.
Next we decided to use the official Airport cabs….which, oh boy, had no one waiting (red flag!). We got in and asked about the meter….as I then noticed the official one seemed to be upside down on the floor and he showed me his phone which had a “meter”. Ughh….and no seatbelts. Ok, but at least he was fairly mellow, preferring to straddle two lanes on the highway most of the way to our modest hotel in Indiranagar. The fare was 2100 INR….more than double than fares listed by Ola or Uber, which explains the lack of line and what all the locals were doing waiting outside the terminal. Welcome to India. But the good news is that a metro is being built to the airport! (Which you know we will take.)
I realize to most natives and past visitors to India it feels as if I’m a man waving fist at seagull. Futile. But India could attract more tourists if some things were more user friendly. The above airport process in Taiwan took 1/4 the time and 5% the stress.
Another issue is the train reservation system for the national railway, IRCTC, can be figured out, but it takes a LOT of patience and working out the payment system for international credit cards. The website (App promised for years…) is twitchy with overlays, ads, videos, and pop up windows. Cmon India, this is your national railway…a more streamlined booking platform and App similar to most modern railways and airlines would be great.
As Cheryl noted in our last post, there are plans to modernize and expand railway service, but will it be fast enough to keep up with the explosion of car ownership and discount air travel. These modes are definitely now the preferred way of travel for the middle and upper classes. But at a huge cost to the environment. The car ownership growth here is a time bomb, and already crippling cities, big and small, as well as killing 160,000 people a year.
And although intercity buses fill a big transport need, most run at night only, and the many decent booking apps don’t take foreign credit cards…..still trying to crack this travel challenge with Google/Amazon Pay or PayPal. But you can generally find something the day before or last minute, but it may not be your first choice for time or comfort. But we are lucky, as we can always buy ourselves out of most situations, even if it means an expensive car hire to the next destination. Flying is often an option too, but we have vowed not to fly in country as much as possible.
So if you are still reading this rant, please know that I think India is a truly unique and fascinating place and we are savoring all the experiences as we head through Kerala now. A cultural and social anthropologists dream. A political and global force. An incredible mix of hundreds of cultures and languages that somehow keeps it together as the worlds largest democracy.
But you don’t make it easy India, and maybe that’s what it’s all about. Happy travels!
Rich and I last traveled in India over 16 years ago. He and my friends will attest that I did not have a great time that last trip. As interesting and unique as I found the country, there were things younger me couldn’t get past. The inequality, for women and for those less fortunate. The crowds. The traffic. Never being left alone to enjoy anything in peace. The poverty. It was a lot.
I think many travelers and tourists are overwhelmed on their first trip to India. Why, friends asked, are you going back? Well, I replied, we were only in the north in our last trip and people say that North and South in India are as different as in the US. Our first good chat with a local gentleman at our first dinner in Bengaluru confirmed that. He went to North India once, he said, from his native Bengaluru, and it was so different. Like a different country. And, I’m older now, more mature, lots of grey hair. Less likely to attract negative attention. Ok, so I did have my hair dyed purple before leaving Bangkok which means no grey is showing, and I have bright purple hair. Attention? Yes. But it’s my fault this time.
So, can my older wiser self settle in to enjoy India more than I did 16 years ago? I think so. It helps that Rich is an enthusiastic traveler in addition to being the best travel planner. We both love experiencing a place as independently as possible. Walking and taking transit as much as we can keeps us happy. Our only taxi in Bengaluru was from the airport to our hotel. All other trips were metro and walking.
Our last four hotels have all been within a block of a metro or subway line. Taipei, Taiwan, two different hotels in Bangkok, one above the MRT and one by the SkyTrain, and now Bengaluru, a block from a purple line station of the Metro. Not an accident, just good planning from Rich. We share a pretty healthy dislike of having to rely on taxis. Every car trip added to a city is a bad thing. For the air, for people’s safety, and for noise pollution. In India the noise is mostly of beeping horns, the scooters are quieter here than the motor bikes in Bangkok – thankfully. But the beeping! Incessant.
Since I’m still recovering from breast reduction surgery Rich is carrying both backpacks. Thankfully, the train station connects to a metro stop with a dedicated walkway so for our train ride to Mysore we again avoided a taxi trip. To enter the metro system you have to put your bags through a scanner, and then be wanded by a security guard, men to one side and ladies to the other in a small curtained booth. My first time I actually stopped for the wanding, but my second time I followed the lead of the local in front of me who didn’t even break stride as she passed through the curtains.
Our destination, Mysore, is less friendly to walking trips. For starters it’s hotter here, up to 90f/32c in the afternoon, and sidewalks are not standard. We feel a bit like square pegs in round holes, but we persevere, heading out in the morning to walk to what we can, and taking auto rickshaws back in the heat of the day.
A friend in SF sent us a link to a map of step wells in India (thank you Gisela!), and we took a taxi to this one a bit outside of town. This is a fairly simple stepwell, many are much more ornate. Built to capture water and as temples, construction of these stepwells hit its peak during Muslim rule from the 11th to 16th century – per Wikipedia.
Built in the 8th century this Kalyani, or stepwell, was cleared of garbage and restored in the past few years.
Stepwell visit complete, we had our taxi driver head back towards town and drop us off to wait for the train museum to open. Sitting on a wall in the shade and watching Sunday morning activities was actually quite nice. On our last trip to India I don’t remember being able to sit unmolested by curious or begging locals. Here in Mysore, although there aren’t many tourists back yet, most folks walk by us with only a curious look (Rich is quite tall and I have purple hair, so not unexpected.), a smile, or an offer of an auto rickshaw.
It pains me to be reminded that so much of the history tourists are encouraged to see and celebrate in India is colonial history. The railway has its roots in British rule. From an article by The Wire.IN “Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.” However, we were pleased to see what to us are very familiar planning presentations for the ongoing improvements and upgrades to Indian Rail.
Although Mysore requires more auto rickshaw trips we are managing to walk to some destinations in the morning. The zoo. The Mysore Palace – which is the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, apparently.
We went back to the palace on foot one morning. The neighborhood across the street from our hotel fascinates us. One thing I have found that I really enjoy when traveling is making eye contact with women, particularly women my age, and exchanging smiles. Sometimes the smile only come from me. Americans smile a lot, and if you ask other cultures we smile for no reason and it’s weird! I always make a special effort when I see women in a Niqab, the veil and face covering which leaves the eyes clear. Five years ago Rich and I were in Indonesia and both struck up independent conversations with a couple (bathroom at a train station), and she was wearing a Niqab. It made me wonder how often women in Niqab are overlooked, or even ignored, by folks who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a women who veils or covers. In Indonesia we all laughed to see our partner walk out of the restroom chatting with their partner. When I make eye contact with a woman, of any age, and nod, and she nods and smiles back, I feel like I’ve made a connection, however small.
Our walk to the zoo took us through this neighborhood, and our walk to the palace. It was fun to see the children being packed into auto rickshaws for the trip to school. I counted nine children in one rickshaw. Ladies, I assume maids for the houses, were sweeping and watering down front stoops and steps, and drawing elaborate rangoli or korams in rice flour.
You can understand how a simple 15 minute walk to the zoo turned into a tour of its own.
So am I better at travel in India this time? Yes and no. We are more experienced travelers, but India doesn’t really suit our travel style. It’s challenging to be independent travelers here, which is why we see so many tour groups at our hotel being loaded into an AC bus after breakfast. It’s hard to book trains, or figure out local buses, and it’s challenging to walk many places. Rich has been working out in the hotel gym, but since I’m still recovering I can only walk. No yoga or arm workouts yet, so I’m feeling antsy. But the highs of India are indeed high and I’m glad we’re here. I love seeing and learning about new things. Tomorrow we leave Mysore and head to a lodge stay near a nature reserve. It’s not great tiger viewing season, but we can always hope, and the bird watching is supposed to be amazing.
This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!
So much amazing food. So many fun places to go to eat good food: shopping malls, night markets, little hidden restaurants in office building basements.
From our first meal we were captivated. We are so happy to be able to travel in Asia again. Taiwan only opened back up to tourists in October 2022 with no 14 day quarantine required. This is our first trip to Taiwan and yes, we are already talking about when we’ll come back. Hopefully for a bike tour. We mention that to everyone we chat with to get as many tips and recommendations as possible.
We’re walking and taking transit everywhere we go. Walk, museum, walk, snack. Walk, lunch, walk, bubble tea.
Taipei is justly famous for its night markets. We’ve gotten to four so far, and the mix of food and goods for sale, families, groups of youngsters, bright lights, and divine smells is intoxicating. Ok, I admit that when passing a stinky tofu stand the aroma is a bit overwhelming, but we did try the stinky tofu with lunch one day. Not bad. The taste is milder then the scent.
四兩刈包-台北創始總店/Si-liang Taiwanese Gua Bao, in the Zhongzheng District was our choice but many places make versions of this.
Taipei is also loaded with tea stands. Bubble tea. With boba. With jelly cubes. With any base tea or fruit juice you could hope for. Green tea, black tea, milk tea. Again, such patience from the staff. It’s nice to be in a place not overwhelmed with tourists. Type of tea, level of sweetness, quantity of ice. Be ready with those decisions.
Ok, another night market – this one really at night. And a Saturday night to boot! We expected crowds, and crowds there were. It was a bit overwhelming, but we dove in and immediately got in line for Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅). Don’t let the lines discourage you, they move quickly and the staff have this down to a science.
Saturday at the night market was crowded. But people here are good with crowds, very collaborative.
A note on all the masks, Taiwan lifted the outdoor mask mandate December 1st, 2022. Would you have guessed that from our photos? Probably not. People don’t seem all that eager to unmask outside yet. We mostly follow the crowds and mask when we’re in busy areas or in line for food, but when it’s just us walking around we go mask free.
We have so many more photos and experiences to share, but I’m going to wrap up this post with one last food.
Eating our way through the markets reminded us of our recent time in the Basque area of Spain, and wandering the towns eating pinxtos. Similar ease of ordering, point and gesture if you don’t speak the language, hand over money, thank you and step away.
Is the Camino del Norte tough? Yes! Yes it is. Long days and lots of up and down. Add to that some rocky, muddy, rain soaked trails and you have long days that feel even harder than 15 miles/24 kilometers should.
We had cloudy weather, but still mild. We hiked in some light rain, and some nice sun. It warmed up as our week went on, and by the time some of us hiked all the way into Bilbao on Saturday, it was warm. 80f/26c
Wait, some of us hiked into Bilbao? Yes some of us. One of us, me, Cheryl, ended up with tendinitis in my left foot. The day from Guernica to Zamudio was increasingly painful so I took a train the last short day to Bilbao, with Cecily.
When we decided to leave San Francisco and travel it was our hope we would be able to meet up with friends and go on adventures together. This was an adventure, and we were so happy to share it with such good friends. Christine and I met the first day at University a good many years ago. The joy of long time friends.
Rich and I will be in Lisbon next, after a few days enjoying Bilbao with Christine and Cecily, and on to New York City and New England. Visiting friends and family there and in Chicago, and then, Thanksgiving with family. Looking forward to that very much. Happy fall.
It’s been over a year since we’ve been nomading, vagabonding, wandering – whatever it is we’re doing. The transitions can be very challenging, city to county side, country to country, bike touring to backpack travel again. How do we do it without burning out, or driving each other bonkers? Our secret superpower is a home base in France, thanks to wonderful friends who hopefully know how much we appreciate it. There we can swap gear, relax in familiar and comfortable surroundings (Oh, comfy couch, we love you.), and actually be in different rooms from each other! For hours!
We are super fortunate to have a private home where we can recharge, but we also have places which are familiar and comfortable that provide the same mental break. Bristol, in the UK. A city we love and have been to three times. Hove/Brighton will be one of those places as well. Both have good public transit, lots to do and see and good for getting around the area. Izmir, Turkey is probably one of the places we’ll go back to again and feel happy knowing our way around, and what we like to do and eat. Our home town of San Francisco, of course. A place where you can navigate without a map and know the bus routes and bike routes. That feels great, wherever it is.
But wait, how did we get here? As Rich mentioned in the previous post, Hove to the Haute Savior takes about 13 not always easy steps, with loaded touring bikes. Trains, a ferry, rides to and from hotels, to and from trains, trains to trains, and finally a lift the last few steep miles. We love the UK, but the French have really zoomed ahead of the British with safe, comfortable bike facilities, especially in urban areas and to connect town and cities. From getting off the ferry in the dark and rain, and directly on to a protected cycle way to our hotel, to the next morning riding the riverside path that led us into Caen for our train to Paris, it felt easy and relaxed. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Oh yeah, this is fun! Bike touring with no safe route is so stressful. Bike touring with lovely pathways and signage? A joy.
Let’s take a moment to recognize what an amazing transformation Paris has undergone. 10k at rush hour with loaded touring bikes and it was not at all stressful. Even though we probably caused some near misses as we stopped at red lights and the cyclists behind us kept going – there was no cross traffic so they were being safe, just not expecting the big old loaded American touring bikes to actually stop! We got the hang of it. The quiet of Rue de Rivoli was like a forest bath. The sound of voices and bike tires. No loud engines. No car horns. Just the lovely sound of people. I’ll say it again, cities aren’t loud, internal combustion engines are loud.
So, now that our legs, backs, and bottoms are totally adapted to bike touring, after four months of travel by and with bikes, let’s mix it up!
While down in town at the weekly market, where we walked with our packs which have scallop shell Camino patches on them, a young man said to us – you have a long way to go. And then after I used my one good French phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”, he said it again in English. (Oh, to be bilingual.) Why thank you for thinking we could and would walk all the way from the French border with Switzerland to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, but no. We will actually fly to Bilbao.
We try quite hard to not fly places. This will be our first flight since returning from Turkey in May. Unfortunately, avoiding air travel means you must have time, and more money than the cheap flights cost. But, we do what we can, and sometimes our chosen lifestyle means airplanes.
With packs on and trekking poles in hands we started walking. And walking some more. Hopefully we’ll be in good enough hiking shape for the long Camino days.
What a place to be able to train for the Camino. The Lower Alps are simply stunning. Varied terrain, nicely signposted routes, amazing views. And beautiful cows. Making all that delicious cheese.
By the time you read this we will be headed to Spain. We’re meeting dear friends from California to hike part of the Camino del Norte. Adiós y Buen Camino!
Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.
Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.
Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.
But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.
The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)
We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.
There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.
The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.
One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.
Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).
The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.
All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)
We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.
Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.
The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.
So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.
The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.
The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.
But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!
When traveling long term, you strangely become both more tolerant of discomfort (especially when out of your control), and obsessed with small comforts. And sometime the smallest things can give you a feeling of satisfaction in an often disorienting lifestyle.
For example, our little down travel pillows always provide a modicum of comfort, even over the hardest “pillow” found in some lodging. Carrying our own salt, pepper, picnicware, and hot sauce brightens otherwise dull meals or take out on the road.
Another way to ease the stress of constant travel is to return to a place…maybe a few times. It’s always easier once you know the lay of the land, favorite neighborhoods, and how to get out of the train station in the right direction. In the past year we’ve been lucky enough to visit London and Paris multiple times, in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you can venture deeper into new places, see obscure sights, and generally settle in with the more relaxed lens of a quasi-local.
As we left the Netherlands for the UK, the warnings of an impending heat wave across Northern Europe were growing, so we thought about where we could ride it out as we approached the next leg across of our planned 4 month summer European cycling, train, and boat tour.
Our primary goals in the UK were to see our friends in Wales, and connect to a ferry to Ireland, so we did not plan on too much cycling. The heat wave clinched the decision to settle in somewhere for a longer stay. So we looked back on places that we could (somewhat) easily get to with our bikes on trains…our train from the ferry landing in Harwich went to London, but London would be too hot(100+) and is $$$ in August, plus we wanted to get further west where it would be a bit cooler, and closer to a house sit we had scheduled in Gloucester.
So we decided on Bristol for a third visit, via a single train transfer in London. The only catch was one train came into Liverpool Station and the other departed from Paddington. But no problem on bikes, as the 10km ride across London on a Saturday morning was a pleasure due to all the new cycling infrastructure. London’s wide new paths, protected lanes and bike signals have made cycling a much more viable alternative in the Capital.
Bristol was also a good base for some day cycling trips and we could go back to our favorite falafel stand, noodle restaurant, and cat pub!
And yes, we could go back to the S.S. Brittanica and Brunel Museum…and for free! Ha, even the staff was impressed (and a bit surprised) when Cheryl pulled out our printed tickets from last year, which they sell at the relatively high price of £20 each, with the caveat that the tickets are good for a year.
Of course, most non-locals never make it back within the year…but these frugal Americans did! (Thanks to Cheryl -:) We enjoyed seeing more of the museum that we missed on the first visit due to school groups and also took another walk through the ship. This was a small satisfaction for these frequent travelers!
We spent one warm night in the top floor of a old school hotel in leafy Clifton (nicely near the Suspension bridge), but then strategically moved to an air conditioned room downtown for the peak days of the heat wave.
It WAS hot and the Hilton Garden Inn’s British AC system could barely keep up, especially when the sun bore down on our windows in the afternoon. Luckily we like this hotel due to its adjacency to a small park with nice mature trees that cooled it down a bit.
This heat wave set all-time records throughout the UK…43c/104f in a land not adapted in culture, architecture, or A/C systems to such heat. Southern England is now experiencing a drought along with about 50% of the rest of Western Europe. The adaptation to the climate change that seems to be happening is going to be difficult, expensive, and disruptive to life as we know it….and of course, we are the lucky ones that can afford to move and adapt, while other poorer and more impacted nations suffer unduly for greenhouse gases they contribute little to generating.
But let’s move on to happier topics, like house bunnies. We had a nice 70km cycle from Bristol to Stroud, a pleasant historic canal town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It was a little hectic getting out of Bristol as the cycle infrastructure is spotty and confusing to the first time user.
But the ride was generally pleasant, and Stroud made a good overnight stop, with the convenince of pub lodging….drinks, dinner, sleep, breakfast…check. We then rode back to the Gloucester Canal via the Stroud water, where we house sat for a nice young couple for the weekend, with primary duties looking after their two bunnies. The bunnies were super cute and lots of fun. Who knew rabbits had such personalities!? And Gloucester has an interesting revitalized docklands area and a spectacular cathedral.
So one of the surprises of our first cycle touring days in the UK was the fact that it wasn’t that bad! After spending the better part of last winter in the UK, we had not deemed the roads, drivers, or train system too hospitable to bikes and basically decided that we’d use our precious cycling time elsewhere where the cycling seems safer and offered more freedom to discover. However, a critical law enacted in February mandates passing clearances of 1.5-2m for cars, as well as improved cyclist and pedestrian rights at intersections and crossings. Way to go UK!
There is a also nascent national cycling network (with gaps), as well as local tourism loops and other marked routes in many cities and towns. But it’s hard to find online cycling maps and data, despite downloading and paying for the Ordiance Survey (OS Maps) App at the premium level. We had to piece together routing from Komoot, Google, and some of the National and local signage to find a good route. It should be easier.
And many of the A or B roads are still absolutely no go in my view. For example we crossed a few primary roads (A roads) that Google had routed us on, and spent a km or two on some, but quickly bailed or found an alternate route as they were just too high speed with no shoulders. Some have bike lanes that disappear or are just way too narrow for traffic speeds.
As we alway say, England is a pretty crowded place and car use has run rampant since the 1970s, without the concurrent development of connective cycling infrastructure. It’s a similar pattern to the USA; the cities have led the way, while the suburban and rural areas have been neglected or fallen through the planning/funding cracks. In the UK, the physical challenges of the narrow roads are also harder to overcome, whereas in the US it is often more a lack of political will.
On the quieter backroads though, the cycling can be very rewarding as the small scale and undulations of the historic road system is perfect for cycle touring. And millions of British cycle frequently and we saw many out there….but they are mostly in high vis vests and it feels like a bit of a road warrior mentality that is not going to get the other 98% of the population out on bikes.
The other huge positive was that almost all the drivers are respecting the new laws, so this did make it feel safer and more pleasant on many roads. However, heading up a steep narrow road with 5 cars stuck behind you waiting to pass safely is still not exactly the relaxing experience of a 5m wide Dutch cycleway. So we decided that we will try out a bit more of the National cycling network next time through the UK in September.
So we headed out of Gloucester by train to Carmarthen, Wales, where our kind friends picked us up in their van for the final leg to Tenby. It was great (as always) to see our friends and we still are so thankful for their kindness in providing us some grounding for our European travels. Cheryl has known them for almost 40 years, and we feel especially close as generations age and kids turn into young adults. But somehow, we stay the same age, right?
The swimming in Tenby was particularly pleasant in August and we enjoyed recuperating a bit before moving onto our next adventure; cycling and exploring Ireland, so we packed up our bikes and gear and our kind hosts shuttled us again to the Stena Line ferry in Fishguard, Wales for the 4 hour trip to Ireland. I’ve heard the Irish are pretty friendly too, but more on that next time.