I will miss the trees. We visited a lot of gardens and parks to see cherry blossoms, but the blooms aren’t the only attractions. The trees, the green moss, the water features. Although Japanese cities were not all blessed with a lot of parks or green space, those that exist are so well taken care of.
I’m going to miss the small streets, with restaurants and shops that cluster together, usually near a train station. Each city has its share of large arterial roads, with plenty of car traffic and sometimes intolerably long signal phases, leaving you standing for minutes waiting for a pedestrian walk signal. But, when you find the area of small streets the entire nature of that city changes. Narrow and mostly car free or very car light, the small streets give you an opportunity to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Within these fine grained streets, with corners hiding the next view, are the amazing small restaurants. I’ve mentioned the awkwardness of sliding open doors and facing a tiny space perhaps already packed with customers. It can be cringe inducing, but so rewarding to be able to eat at a restaurant that is run by people who focus on one thing. This type of food – we do this and we do it well. You will wait the required amount of time, you will likely be served on hand thrown ceramic plates, and the food will be exquisitely displayed.
If it’s possible to desperately miss something you only got to do twice then we will desperately miss the Yatai of Fukuoka. The Tenjin neighborhood has small food stands, Yatai, which set up each night to serve up food in a space half the size of the storage unit holding all of our possessions back in the US.
The number of Yatai was shrinking, but in the last few years they’ve enjoyed a new renaissance and there are about 150 now. In addition to dinner at one we spent a hilariously fun evening drinking at a Yatai bar. Everyone is friends at a Yatai bar which measures 10×8 feet.
What else will I miss about Japan? The safety. The ability for Japan to have nice things that people respect and take care of. Public restrooms which are clean and stocked with rolls of TP which are not stolen. And the quirky things. Things you see and go, oh yeah, that makes sense to have.
You will always feel you missed out on experiences and places when traveling. We immediately have a list for “next time”. It says a lot about a place that you want to come back, soon. Regret is a rear view mirror. So what do I regret about our time in Japan now that we’ve moved on?
This is when Rich and I say to each other “I used to do important things.” Recalling our previous professional lives where we earned money, and made multiple decisions a day that impacted people and projects. And we laugh at ourselves. Another regret? Hotels in Japan supply you with pajamas. Really. Instead of a robe you get pajamas or a button up nightgown contraption or a yakuta, a light cotton kimono. Somehow the pajama tops and bottoms fit both me and Rich, sometimes with pretty funny differences. Do I have a single photo, let alone a collection of photos? No. If you go to Japan learn from my mistake and take photos of yourself in the pajamas in your hotel rooms. And take a notebook to collect the stamps.
No regrets that we visited Japan. Such a lovely place with wonderful people. Goodbye Japan. Hello Korea.
We’ve been so thoroughly enjoying every day in Japan that we haven’t had much time or energy left to Blog. It’s a fantastic place to travel. But no place is perfect, and Japan has its weaknesses too, especially in the bike and pedestrian realm.
We’ve been travelling our preferred way by train, bus, ferry, streetcar, subway, and bike. With a lot of walking to the beach to explore and get to our lodging. We’ve been luxuriating in the clean, punctual, and extensive intercity train system. And the local public transit is always clean and reliable, if not always fast.
So here are a few transport observations. For you transport wonks and mega walkers, they may give you the same joy and a maybe bit of frustration if you visit.
1. JR Rail Pass- Unless you are going to only visit a few cities or rent a car, then it’s a no brainer to get one of these passes subsidized for tourists. We bought two three-week passes and planned our trip to max its benefit to a 4 week visit by setting the activation for the day we left Tokyo and expiring when we get to Fukuoaka, where we are spending our last 3 days. This way we were able to exchange our vouchers at off peak time at Shinjuku station and avoid the mob we saw at Narita airport trying to exchange them to use immediately from the Airport. We instead bought $20 local rail tickets to central Tokyo. It was then easy and cheap to get IC (tap) Transit cards to get around for a few subway and loop rail trips in Tokyo until leaving Tokyo for Kanazawa.
2. IC Card – Good for transit in most major cities. There are a dozen or so “brands” by region and they can mostly be used in other cities, although acceptance is a bit hit or miss outside the home zones. Don’t put too much on it initially, 5,000 yen ($40) is my recommendation, as you can always top it up but it’s hard to get a refund. You can also use them at many convenience stores.
3. Train Seat reservations – With your JR Pass, you can make free seat reservations for most higher speed trains (and Shinkansens). I found that I could get our choice if I booked at least 2 days prior to our next trip. You can do it at green JR Ticket machines in almost all JR stations. So I’d often get our seats for our next leg when we arrived to a city. If you book too early and want to change your trains later, you won’t be able to do it at a machine if the new journey overlaps with the old one. You will have to go to a JR ticket office which could take some time at busier times and stations. But, you can alway board in the unreserved cars, so no serious worries other than maybe sitting apart or standing for a bit.
4. Buses and Trams – they run on schedule (especially buses). You board at the back door and tap your IC card if available or if not, take a little paper ticket from a dispenser that indicates your boarding zone. You always pay at the front door as you leave, calculating your fare from the easy digital sign at the front. Put your stop ticket and fare in the box or machine. They can always make change. This also applies to some of the small independent (Non JR) local trains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straightforward (Especially with IC Card), but it seems pretty inefficient at crowded times as many people still pay cash fares. There is a flow from the back of the bus towards the front door, but it doesn’t match the ease and speed of a proof of payment system.
5. Walking – You will do a lot of walking in Japan which is mostly great, and wandering the alleys, hidden temple stairways, and quiet back streets is one of the great joys of Japan. One downside though is that the arterial traffic signal timings are long, so get ready to wait for for 2-3 minutes at some crossings. It’s very annoying, and really delays walking trips across town. The only time you see Japanese run is for crossings, as they know it’s a long wait if you miss the light.
Also, pedestrian crossings can be spread out on major arterials, with occasional overhead or underpass ped crossings in lieu of at grade crosswalks. It seems like a legacy of 1960s traffic engineering that continues in philosophy today, but stairwell underpasses are not good for an aging population.
So what about Jaywalking? A few people, especially in larger cities will jump a signal or cross midway, but 98% of Japanese wait until the light is fully green. As time has gone on in our travels here, we are getting less and less patient, and will cross at will when it makes sense and traffic is clear. We are surely going to incite a pedestrian revolt here!
6. Bikes: There are many more than you think, especially in flatter cities. But the bikes share most sidewalks and it’s all a bit chaotic, which could be solved by more on street protected lanes. Cyclists routinely cut corners and swerve across intersections and are an outlier to order on the streets. (Yeah cyclists!)
So my quick transport report card for Japan based on our scientific analysis:
Trains – A-….ok, amazing at a high level, but deductions for lack of App based e-tickets/seats please…and stringent bike policies keep it from A+
Buses: B+ Reliable; on schedule, and fair pricing but they get stuck at long traffic lights too, so can be slow in cities. And there are few express buses. BRT?
Walking: B- Wider sidewalks are needed in many places. Alleys and many quiet urban streets are very pleasant and low stress to walk, but many arterial sidewalks are a bit narrow or degraded by detectable rubber strips. I appreciate that these assist the vision impaired, but sidewalks are just not wide enough to accommodate them and side by side walking space. There seems to be a legacy of traffic lanes and road capacity. Giving more road cross section to peds, bikes and tram boarding is needed. Smart traffic signals could be used to mitigate lane reductions. Many heavy pedestrian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other larger cities have nice wide sidewalks in a new generation of streetscape designs, but many places still have a 1970s-1990s feel.
Cycling: C+ Quiet back streets and sidewalk cycleways do the trick, but more on street protected bikeways are needed everywhere
But enough nitpicking. As a traveler, the lack of personal safety concerns and good transport frees you up to focus on the unique culture, sights, and most of all, the food and friendly people. And oh man the food is SO good.
And it’s good value for most lodging and food, as long as you are willing to give up western norms and keep some distance from the tourist hot spots. The yen has weakened against most currencies over the past 5 years, so it’s a great time to travel here. Except in Tokyo, there are great 3 to 4 star Hotels in the $100-$125 range, and a bit more on the weekends, especially Saturday nights. And most include breakfast.
If you go for more modest 1-2 star hotels, then you can find many in the $70-$90 range. Remote or resort area hotels (often with Onsen or Rotemburo baths) are definitely higher in the $150-$300+, so will be a splurge if on a budget. It’s definitely better value than most of the US, and similar to Europe, although I think a bit cheaper overall. A few other lodging tips. Book some nice Ryokan or Onsen properties well in advance as they are lovely, but don’t do anything but go up in price or sell out. Small or exclusive places are not into last minute bargains.
And big western brand hotels in major cities here often 2-3x as expensive as local alternatives for a similar (or better) product. Avoid them, unless you only have a week and a surplus of loyalty points to burn. (For example, during the Sakura of late March, Marriott properties in Tokyo ranged from $600-$2000/night!). Big waste of money.
Another tip. Many western style rooms are cosy in Japan, at 120-180 sq ft, but if you book a twin instead of a “double”, the rooms are larger at 180-250 sq ft. They have two full or queen beds that can usually be pushed together. So you have a lot more space, often for just a bit more money. “Twins or Quads” seem to sell out first as locals know this too,
But as great as it is to travel here, it’s not all easy, as travel in Japan has its own breed of travel stress due to constant language and cultural nuances. And the country faces a battery of challenges, including rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and a location in an increasingly volatile region, just to name a few.
But we are judging against a high bar, as we are already talking about coming back to bike tour, renting an apartment for a month in Tokyo, or even a car tour to see more rural sights that are tough or impossible by public transit. If you do want to rent a car in Japan you will need an international driver’s license.
We are excited to head to South Korea next week, but first we are going to eat as much amazing food as we can in quirky and cosy settings, served by some of the most dedicated and friendly people in the world.
Our arrival in Tokyo happened to coincide with an early cherry blossom season. We had already made our flight and room reservations when a representative from Japan Meteorological Agency stood beneath a signal tree at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine and announced the season to be underway.
Unfortunately, it was a rainy stretch in Tokyo as the fun got underway. Fortunately, we don’t melt. Parks and gardens are prime blossom viewing spots of course. So off we went. First was a night time cherry blossom event where the trees were lit up. It was beautiful, and wet. Very wet. But picking through the mud puddles was worth it to see huge trees and bamboo lit up with dramatic intensity.
On a dry Friday as we wandered parks filled with blooming trees we overheard other blossom peepers talking about what variety of cherry trees we were seeing. There are over 100 varieties of cherry trees in Japan, a few are wild and native to the forests, but most are cultivated. These trees don’t produce edible fruit, but flowers are pickled and used as tea and in other confections. We love seeing a forest mountain dotted with blooming trees mixed in with conifers and maples.
Blooming trees are not confined to parks. As we walked around Tokyo we found allées of blooming trees, or simply single trees, putting on a show worthy of admiration.
We left Tokyo for Kanazawa where we had a new batch of parks and gardens to explore. And a lovely castle. And more cherry blossoms to photograph.
You find new ways to view the blossoms, hyper aware that the blossom season is fleeting. People are super friendly and nice about snapping photos of each other. Cherry blossoms bring you all together in one place, for the purpose of admiring the beauty, and recording this fleeting moment.
Hemeji, which was a day trip from Kobe for us, has one of Japan’s most stunning castles. And with the blooms it was a crowded site. Rich got us there as early as we could, and it was worth braving the crowds. I’m particularly taken with the old trees – gnarled trunks, branches propped up with bamboo poles.
After the bloom comes the time of Sakura snow. The petals blowing off and drifting, or, if it’s raining, sticking.
Being here in Japan for Sakura was a happy accident. We assumed we would be too early to see the bloom in Tokyo, but Sakura has been earlier than usual the past few years. If you do come to Japan for Sakura, be aware that hotel prices go way up. Rich booked our place in Tokyo before the season was announced, post announcement he looked to extend our four night stay and a single night extra would have cost as much as the four nights together.
We’re in Japan for two more weeks before moving on to Korea. We feel so lucky to have seen Sakura in a variety of cities and landscapes. Cherry blossoms and a Japan Rail Pass, what more could we want?
Somewhere around week two in Sri Lanka I announced that I missed abundance. It’s ironic since part of our decision to pack up our lives and travel was the desire to experience a less cluttered life. To have the freedom to shoulder our backpacks and go wherever we want. Well welcome to Japan, where abundance is always an option.
We made our first trip to Japan in 2007, before smart phones with translation apps. This time, we were ready for all Japanese menus. Our index fingers and thumbs were all warmed up for google camera translate. Uh huh. We bought SIM cards from a vending machine at Narita Airport but had not installed mine correctly yet, and Rich was using our US cell phone data sparingly until he got his new SIM installed. Well, long story short- the first restaurant we walked into we failed to navigate the confusing situation and quickly abandoned ship! Thankfully we found a small place with on screen ordering and settled in for our first meal.
The automation is fascinating to see. As with many countries Covid accelerated cashless payments and waitstaff free ordering, but in Japan you get a fun mix of traditional and modern.
A Sakura (cherry blossom) post will follow with many photos, but this is all about food. We were craving Japanese food for the past few weeks so we’re thrilled to walk and sightsee and eat. Our walking mileage has gone up sharply which helps with the eating. We took a train out from Tokyo to Koganei Park to visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. There was a festival going on despite the rain so we snacked our way through that.
With four nights in Tokyo we had a chance to try to get into a small neighborhood izakaya restaurant on Friday, and when it was full up, make a reservation for the next night. Another good travel hack, especially in places where you either have no local phone number or where calling is beyond challenging due to language barriers. Two folks working the small restaurant, no fancy automation here. We were grateful for our young server/owner’s help. We always find the further out from the heart of a tourist district the more patient and helpful the locals are.
After four nights in Tokyo, and a longer stay running into Sakura prohibitive pricing, we hopped on the trains to head to Kanazawa. Our JR Rail passes will be getting a work out this trip as the Japanese train system is beyond amazing.
Our first night in Kanazawa we struck out three times, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a closed waiting list, an unagi (eel) restaurant which was closed despite the hours listed showing it should be open, and another full up sushi restaurant all by 8 pm. We figured out it was spring break week for schools so things were quite crowded. We finally saw a small tempura stand restaurant and got two seats at the bar. Another kind and helpful waiter sat us, got us an English menu, and took care of us the entire meal. We had a great view of the chef working his tempura fryer with chopsticks and tongs.
So far no breakfast photos, you might be thinking to yourself. Well, we’ve been having hotel room or apartment breakfasts of Musilix and fruit and yogurt, but we did get out early for cherry blossom viewing and then had a second breakfast our first morning in Kanazawa. Cafe Tamon is a small easy to miss but for the help of a passerby who saw us looking in confusion at our phones, pancake specialty cafe.
Remember that conveyor belt sushi place with a closed waiting list at 7:40pm? We went back the next night at 6:40 and put our name on the list. About an hour later we were in! The nice thing about being the only tourists willing to figure out the drill, was that the host knew who we were – not one of many tourists: the only slightly confused looking non locals.
Conveyor belt sushi has had a hard time recently, apparently from a social media trend that has attention starved youngsters misbehaving and filming themselves. Insert eye roll here. I’m not sure if the screen ordering is a result of that stupid trend, but it worked out just fine for us.
Our third and final night in Kanazawa we were determined to try the unagi (eel) restaurant again. The Japanese name came through Google translate as eel welfare. We marched over at 6 this time and the lights were on! Yay! We went in and congratulated ourselves on being some of the first customers of the evening. One gentleman was just leaving, and another man came in and placed a to-go order. The sole proprietor sat us at the counter, gave us a menu and bustled about behind the counter. We got two draft beers and settled in.
Our eel man turned away a group of five Japanese, and then two western tourists. What is going on, we wondered? This is a frequent state for non Japanese speakers here. Confused but pressing on! When it came time to order all became clear – he only had two pieces of eel left. Ah ha! That’s why he had been closed two nights before- he closes when he sells out of eel. Two pieces of your best (only) eel, sir, and some tempura. So many times as a tourist a mystery remains a mystery, so we were happy to have this one solved.
It’s been a good start to our four weeks in Japan. We’ve honed our perception and empathy skills since our last visit here, and we know how quickly the world can change under your feet. (Poor conveyor belt sushi restaurants. ) We feel empowered by google translate, but a few key phrases in Japanese learned on line (link in our link page) quickly telegraph both our helplessness and our desire to be polite and thankful. There is so much more to experience and share, but for now itadakimasu! Let’s eat!
What is it that we love best when traveling? Walking and biking, of course. Sri Lanka has challenged us with the need to do taxi transfers and tuk tuk trips to avoid daytime heat or nighttime elephants, or to get from a hotel or guesthouse to a site.
Our first morning in Sigiriya, we had our guest house owner drop us at the west entrance and Museum to buy our tickets by 6:45 am, so we could explore and climb the rock before it got too hot.
First a capital for King Kashyapa AD 477–495, and then a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
We were staying close enough to be able to walk back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast, which made us happy. Any time you walk in Sri Lanka you do have to decline a lot of tuk tuk offers, especially at a popular tourist site like Sigiriya Rock. But we press on and enjoy the walk.
Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Starting in 300 BC the Kingdom began to construct reservoirs and tanks. The Sinhalese people were among the first to build artificial reservoirs to store water. These irrigation systems of the ancient world are still intact. Sri Lanka has ten thousand man made bodies of water, lakes, reservoirs, tanks, ponds, and stepwells.
With temperatures reaching 90f/32c in the early afternoon, our walk opportunities were limited to mornings and after 4pm. Not only is the heat and humidity oppressive, but the UV levels will burn this pale human in 15 minutes. Sunblock, long sleeves, umbrellas, that’s the only way I can get out and about.
Walking the small dirt roads is not without obstacles though. Sri Lanka has so many dogs, some wearing collars and belonging to a specific house, but many many more simply stray street dogs. Most ignore you after a hopeful glance for snacks, but some bark and come rushing towards you. Not fun. We accidentally solved the dog stress problem when I deployed my collapsible umbrella while walking by a dog and it recoiled in horror. Ah ha. Shade giver and dog deterrent – the humble collapsible umbrella.
Our second full day in Sigiriya we spent visiting the ancient and Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. We had a car and driver to take us the 45 minutes to the site, and once there we rented bicycles to explore the site and it’s many amazing artifacts. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries between the 11th to 13th century after the destruction of Anuradhapura Kingdom (which we’ll also visit) in 993.
Riding bikes around this ancient site was such a unique experience, but we did wish for better curation of the experience. Even the museum, which we visited at the end of our ride around, didn’t do a great job of giving you a sense of how people lived in Polonnaruwa. We didn’t hire a guide, which most of the visitors did, so perhaps that was a mistake on our part, but we so much prefer doing things at our own pace and we know we’re happier without a guide. From what we overheard from the guides I don’t think we missed out on much information beyond what we had from our guide book.
The area around Sigiriya is not only an archeological sanctuary site, but also has elephants and rice farmers. We saw an elephant from the road when being driven back from Pollannaruwa. Our long walk took us alongside many rice fields. We were fascinated to see the methods the farmers use to either keep the elephants out of the fields, or to alert an overnight watcher of the presence of an elephant so an attempt could be made to deter the elephant using loud noises.
You never know what you’ll see walking around small rural roads. Local folks were unfailingly friendly and helpful. We reminded ourselves that the small children had possibly never seen tourists, the three years of very little to no tourism meant that their wide eyed stares were not a comment on our hot sweaty state. It can be a bit daunting to wander the back roads, but so rewarding.
Taking trains is a big part of our travel joy. Riding trains with open windows and doors, winding through tropical jungles and tea growing areas, feeling the soft warm air on your face, seeing life as the train winds along – that is magnificent.
Our go to train advice site, The Man in Seat 61, recommends sitting in the non AC carriages to take advantage of the open windows.
From what we’ve read the trains got much more crowded starting June 2022, when the rising cost of gasoline and bus tickets increased train ridership by 50%. As tourists we are able to buy our way into the comfort of the reserved carriages, but we do wonder why ticket prices for foreigners aren’t higher, as one encounters at museums and archeological sites. There is much need for upgrades to the rail system and new trains and higher tourist prices could help fund that.
We don’t want to sweep the problems Sri Lanka is going through under the rug, and post only fun photos without acknowledging the challenges the country is facing, but in many areas you don’t see the difficulties as a tourist. You can live your tourist life blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of struggle many are still facing. If you pay attention to little things, while in line at the grocery store for example, you recognize the stress on parent’s faces as they watch the register add up, and you hear from men who worked in Dubai but came home during the pandemic and are now working towards getting employment in Japan or Korea.
One of our drivers was taking Japanese classes. He had calculated that five years of work in Japan would be enough for him to come home and start a solid life for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters. As Americans who admire the bravery of immigrants, who come from a country of immigrants, we understand the determination and hope that the hard working people we meet find a way through and forward.
We have a few more places to visit in Sri Lanka, and I’m sure a few more rice and curry meals to eat. We wish we could support every single small business we come across, buy every trinket, and eat at every restaurant, but failing that we will tell you all that Sri Lanka is an amazing place to visit. We’re in Sigiriya now, more on that to come. Happy travels.
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.
As we pedaled along a few days ago and did the math, we realized we’d been bike touring for 48 days. That’s our longest trip ever on bikes. As I write this, on a train from Tours to Dijon, it’s day 50. It’s certainly a lot of work, not the pedaling part although that can be tough at times, but the moving most nights. The unpacking (I call it the bag barf, where I simply turn my panniers upside down and let everything cascade to the floor.), the packing, and of course the travel planning done exclusively by Rich. Each day he checks terrain and weather and towns that look nice for a stay, one night or two, the feeding of two hungry cyclists – thank goodness for hotel breakfasts – whoops, watch out for Sunday, everything closes about noon, be ready for that!
But everyday at one point or another, while looking at the river, or a chateau in the mist, or collapsed on a bench for a tea break, we look around and say to each other- wow, this is amazing and we are so lucky.
The things that we notice while traveling the speed we can pedal are so detailed. Wild boar in the forests on the way to Chateau Chambord. Hunters in orange vests ranged out alongside a forested patch near the river, hunting boar we assume. We stopped to watch, heard the hunting dogs baying, and saw a deer come running out of the forest across a field, followed by a hare who ran so fast and so far – completely spooked and relived that the men in orange were not after him. Gunshots rang out, we checked our brightly colored rain jackets were on for increased visibility, and pedaled away. Just another day on the bike tour, but one I hope we’ll always remember.
At a Sunday stop at a bakery for sandwiches we chatted with a super nice British couple who’d been living in France for 30 years, he was a cyclist and wanted to chat about our American made bikes. As Rich described our route and we mentioned that we had taken some train hops he shook his head and his partner said, oh, he thinks trains are cheating when you’re bike touring. We don’t. We haven’t owned a car in 21 years, we’ve earned these train hops.
We’re headed back to our French “home base”, looking forward to some time not moving, cooking for ourselves and hiking in addition to biking. We’ll leave the bikes there, swap our our luggage and head by train to Paris, then to London, and then to Tenby, Wales.