A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter #16: Epilogue

Traveling for 8 months around the world

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Dear all,

I am back home, in my lovely Switzerland. I am quite confused about what has happened "lately": I am in my normal and usual reality, but it definitely feels different. There is this window in my mind that sometimes opens up wide and a stream of images, moments and emotions comes rushing out. I try to grasp what all of them are, but it's... too much. Only when scrolling through my blog or reading a few lines out of my travel journal I come close to realise that... I circumnavigated the whole world, an expression I used in my first chapter. I did it, and it feels incredible =)

I guess you can imagine how difficult for me it is to even start writing about it, but I guess I will give it a try. There are two perspective I can take when reviewing the journey: one about what I did, and another about how I feel about it. Let's start with the easiest one:

What and where did I travel?
"Statistics" say that I traveled for about 84'000 km, or put it in another way, I traveled around the globe for more than 2 times! I spent 240 days on the road, visiting 14 countries, taking 20+ flights, countless buses, tuk tuks or bikes. But mostly, I have walked. And walked. And walked... every day, for hours. By putting on paper the itinerary in my journal, I've counted about 90 "beds" where I slept, giving me an average of 2-3 days in each bed. Considering that I counted weeks-long cruises like in the Galapagos and Antarctica as 1, the reality is that rarely I stayed for more than 2 nights in each city... and that reflects more the fast pace that I kept through all of it. This is why at the end I was pretty exhausted. But always happy, as that was the way I wanted to travel. I had this curiosity that I wanted to satisfy, and I can definitely tell you that in this regard my journey was a huge success! I had my moments where I refused to get out of bed, but in the majority of the cases I was simply too excited go out of the door and start exploring everything the place I was staying had to offer. And I did experience quite a lot around... I drank tequila at new year's eve in Mexico, I dove with a swarm of hammerhead sharks and sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, I witnesses the healing ritual of a shaman in the amazon forest of Ecuador, I saw Machu Pichu emerge from thick clouds in Peru, I got surprised to see hundreds of pink flamingos in the coloured lagunas of the Bolivian highlands, I ate the juiciest meat in the local inns of Buenos Aires in Argentina, I sat on the ground surrounded by thousands of penguins in the glacier heaven of Antarctica, I met for the first time a new branch of my family in Chile, I cycled around the island of Rapa Nui under the watchful eyes of big stone heads, I kayaked around the crystal waters of Bora Bora in French Polynesia, I casually stepped into the garden of Bilbo Baggins's house in Hobbiton in New Zealand, I got personally introduced to two real geishas in a tea house of Kanazawa in Japan, I walked on the Great Wall close to Beijing in China, I walked around the stupa of Bodhnath together with hundreds of pilgrims in Nepal, I swam in the Gange together with some sadhus of Varanasi in India, I got four-hands massages in an ayurvedic centre in Sri Lanka. All of this, and much more, in one single trip.

How do I feel about this?
Overwhelmed. This journey has been... quite a lot to take in. I am still in a phase of processing, that I guess will last for a while. But I am aware already that what I just did was the adventure of a lifetime, and that it has taught me more things that I could have ever imagined. I do believe I am different now, in a better way. I knew things before traveling already, but when you live them with your eyes, your ears, your skin, your mind and your heart, that is when you feel you finally understand them for real. I would love for this reason to share some of the lessons that I have learned, that I will humbly try to translate into messages for you:

1// a smile goes a long way, and it is the only universal language
When you smile, the world changes. It changes the way you see everything, and how everybody sees you. Nothing like a smile connects you instantly with another person, independently of his race, skin colour or religion. If you smile, it does not even matter if you don't speak the same language... you'll find a way to understand each other. So often a smile allowed me to get to know somebody, be her a lady selling cheap jewels on the streets of Jaisalmer with whom I ended up drinking tea, or a young monk in a Buddhist monastery in Lumbini with whom I shared a lunch in the canteen. Consider a smile the key to people hearts, and be amazed by how beautiful it is to live our lives with such a joyful attitude. And by the way, it is free.

2// everybody is the same - everywhere
Of course everybody knows this, it is the correct way of thinking. By talking to people around the world, by sitting down with that old man in the streets of Tokyo, by playing with kids in the back alleys of Macas, you understand that is the only way of thinking. Of course, we do not share the same languages, cultural backgrounds, or religions. But every language we speak is there to convey the same emotions that everybody has, the cultural backgrounds are a simple result of being born in a certain place - you would have been the same if you had moved there when born, and all the religions point to the same light. Kids try to have fun with their friends everywhere, boys and girls tease each other non stop everywhere, young adults try to make a living and start a family everywhere, adults care and try to provide for their kids everywhere, and older people get pissed off at everybody else everywhere.

3// traveling is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer
This quote has been my favourite all along the trip. Nothing is more true than this - traveling has become more expensive over the years, but there is nothing that you could ever buy that would be worthier than it (I might be a bit biased, but still). How can you put a price to having the whole world as your teacher? The more you travel, the more you will. For every country you check out of the list, you will add two. The realisation that there is a whole world that you can discover will open your horizons, and every experience you will live through is gonna teach you something, especially about yourself.

I would have tons of more things to say, but I think these three messages convey what is most important to me. You might not perceive them as shocking revelations, but it was important for me to share some of these final thoughts, as they are some of the most precious things this journey has given me.

I cannot believe this will be my last post. I can still remember every computer I sat at for hours to write each chapter, trying to express all the emotions I felt at the moment, and add some of the pictures that best captured the beauty of this world. I am grateful to everybody that has been following me on the blog over these last 8 months, as you were my true motivation. Traveling for the most part alone left me without the opportunity to share some of the best experiences I had, but by writing about them for you made me feel inspired to discover more and more so that I could tell you about it at some point. I not only hope I could get you a bit interested in my journey, but also to have inspired you in pursuing your own and creating your adventure of a lifetime.

So what are you waiting for, pack your backpack and leave, there is a whole world to discover =)

From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU.
Giacomo

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Posted by jack87jack 29.08.2013 08:20 Archived in Switzerland Comments (3)

Chapter #15: Beach-hopping is a thing!

Enjoying a (still for me) unknown Sri Lanka

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Dear all,

Luckily for you, this is a "mini-chapter" as it covers only 10 days of travel. I am happy to write about it though not only for sake of completeness, but also because it really was a good time.

Sri Lanka is a marvellous place, full of culture, stories and interesting places... or so I've heard, as we (me and my beautiful girlfriend Terry) haven't seen any of it! And I am happy this way =) After two times she visited me around the world and I dragged her around temples, hikes, dirty alleys, I promised her I would strictly follow her plan this time - beaches, one after another. There was even a very nice Buddhist temple close to our beach a day, and I was forbidden to visit it... and I was oooook with it! Let's be honest, I've been visiting my good share of temples in the last 8 months, it was time now to step down a gear or two and start relaxing a bit, before coming home.

And so relax it was! We started close to the capital Colombo at the beach of Mt. Lavinia, where we struggled for the first time with the strong currents of the Indian ocean. But it was definitely enjoyable - good weather, good grilled fish, lots of people with their kites at sunset. I even found again a Buddhist bracelet I lost between the waves and that I cared I lot for, and that really looked like fate/karma or something! What a happy start! We then moved on to Bentota, where the "forbidden (for me) temple" was and where an infinite and empty beach opened up after a short free ride with a boat from the pier of our hotel. There, we enjoyed one of the best activities ever: drinking a cold beer at sunset still is one of my favorite things to do. However, the very wise and experiences traveler jack was able to get completely sunburned the day after - good job! Luckily for me this beauty got a beautiful tan and still stayed by my side even if I am skinnier than usual (I lost 4kg up to now) and red as a lobster:

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Next stop was Umawatuma, a bay that had finally some calmer waters, nice bars and restaurant on the beach. Honestly we did not do anything besides having a good time at the beach... but I guess that is enough, right?
Finally we reached the final destination, that more than a beach was a "beach resort", a centre for ayurvedic treatments in which Terry's mom was staying and that cordially invited us for a 4-days cleansing and re-energizing of our body. It worked like a charm =P A daily routine of acupuncture, 4-hands oil massage, herbal treatments and strict vegetarian diet according to some personal characteristics did a better work than any pill or western treatment could have ever done. Additionally, the setting up these cliffs, with yoga at sunset, birds in the morning and pleasant paths in the nature were absolutely charming. Ahhh, wasn't that what we really needed? For sure, I did.

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After another ride on the Sri Lankan railway, we got back to Colombo, to enjoy a final gift from Terry: a night in the luxurious Hilton Hotel. Am I being spoiled a bit lately? YES, and I am totally enjoying it =P Ocean view room, sushi restaurant in-house, buffet for breakfast...oh well, how could I say no to that?

Finally, the cherry on top - family reunion. My beautiful cousins recently moved to Sri Lanka, and we got a day to spend together at the beach and at their new place. What a pleasant and funny day! Even if Sri Lanka is a marvelous place as I said, and everything I cited above (or all that I did not visit yet) are a reason why I would like to come back, these people are absolutely the reason why I will try to be back as soon as possible! I wish them for the moment a lot of cool adventures and beautiful moments!

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And now, I am heading back to Mumbai a last two days of Indian "intense life". And then, home. I get shivers only thinking about it, I missed it a lot. When back in my room I will write the final chapter of this blog, with a lot more about what I have been feeling during this months instead of what I have been doing. I still have no idea how I will react once back... I guess it's going to be interesting! I hope I'll see you all soon ;)

But for the time being... let's travel just a bit more, till the end!!! =)

Cheers to you all from Mumbai,
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 25.08.2013 00:47 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (5)

Chapter #14: Holy Cow!

Nothing like a visit to India can shake your grounds

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India.

The place all travelers leave fascinated after a thousand and one experiences, but also the place that is most feared when approached for the first time. There is definitely nowhere like India. Many are the stories to be told, even though I stayed for a short month that literally passed as quick as it came. Might be because I knew it would be the last of the "big" chapters, but also because life in India is simply so intense. Everyday feels like jumping into a pond, but do not stop swimming or else you will inevitably drown, pulled down by the insistence of the shopkeepers and their grabbing hands, by the dirt in the back-alleys to be washed off in the evening, by the poverty that hits you in the face hard as a hammer or by the cows that silently threaten with their horns. However, when back in your peaceful guesthouse, maybe drinking a warm cup of chae, you come to realize a few things: what you bought from the shopkeeper are actually fantastic souvenirs (for which you probably overpaid, but still - peanuts for such great items!), the back-alleys were a mysterious maze that you enjoyed exploring and that surprised you with some amazing encounters, the visit to the poorer areas of the city has given you some of the most wholehearted smiles (especially when you take your time to get to know people, instead of turning your head away) and the cows fondly remind you of your own dear Swiss cows back at home. India is a place that never fails to get deep into your bones, be that for good or bad reasons. I am happy I could finish my journey with this fascinating country, as the experiences I have had are some of the most life-changing (or at least those that finalized a personal development that has been happening over the last 7 months) and that I will gladly remember as most vivid when back home.

Of course, one month is not nearly enough to say "I visited India". I only traveled from Kolkata to New Delhi, going through Rajasthan and up in the north to Amritsar. India is huge, and so different. Moreover, there are so many layers in each place that even by staying put in a city for a month would not allow you to grasp it completely. Nevertheless, I visited at least a bit of it, and got a general idea about what India could be. I will not tell you that much of it, as it is simply too much and you should live it on you own. This is the place where people travel for 6 months and say that they could go on for other 6 easily because there is still so much to see. This is a place that even after reading books about Hindu religion will still confuse you with its thousands practices related to their millions of gods, some of them with a elephant trunk (Ganesh), some wearing necklace of chopped heads (Kali). This is a place where society was originally divided into castes (Bhramins - the priests, Kshatriyas - the warriors, Vaishyas - the merchants, Shudras - the labourers and finally the caste that is not a caste: the Untouchables, "those who clean the streets") and is still nowadays partly affected by it, where marriages are in the majority of the cases arranged by the parents, where you are supposed to use your right hand when meeting another person or eating (the left is... for something else!). Many are the traditions, many the customs - India is a world in itself, that allow for a never-ending exploration. Of course I cannot write an essay on India, but I will gladly tell you a few stories about my India: one about the spiritual Varanasi, one about some of the most amazing temples I have ever seen, one about life on a train, one about the city of Pushkar and a last one about a special girl I met. I've got many more, but I guess that these are the ones that mostly made my journey through India what it was.

The one about Varanasi

Varanasi is the definition of a holy city. Everything revolves around the sanctity of the temples and especially the Gange, said to be born from Lord Vishnu's feet. One of the main feature of the Varanasi & Gange's combo is that dying in Varanasi and have one's ashes spread in the river's waters will free his soul from the never-ending cycle of rebirth. It is no surprise then to see many dead bodies being carried around the small alleys to be cremated at the burning ghats (steps leading down to the holy river), where families pay the expensive price of cremation according to the type and how many kilos of wood are used. The rest of the city is a maze in which small and bigger temples are hidden, but the unique spirit of Varanasi is to be found at the numerous waterfronts where the life of citizens and pilgrims revolves, be that by a puja (prayer) in the morning ending with a candle sent floating in hope for good luck (mine always tipped over after a few seconds), be that by washing your clothes in a water that in my opinion is even dirtier than the clothes themselves, or by splashing around with your young friends. However, you need to go and look for these "moments" as Varanasi has turned into a tourist machine, and this overshadows its famous spirituality in favor of expensive boat rides and insistent souvenir shopkeepers. I did enjoy this place a lot though. One morning I visited a popular ghat at 6.00am so to enjoy an original puja, with each person interpreting it differently, but always with a close relationship with the Gange. This sadhu was probably the person that struck me the most, with a strong solemnity in performing his prayer:

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You can imagine how interesting and engaging this public ritual was, so much that... I had to go into the water myself. How can you not dip yourself in the waters of the Gange when it is standing right there? When you do it it is highly advised however not to think about the burning ghat upstream and the level of pollution in the water. Another morning I enjoyed whas when I got to some less known ghats and the alleys nearby. First me and a Spanish couple spent half an hour lifting kids after kids up in the air, simply playing - and I put "simply" because those kids asked for no money afterwards, and who has been in India in touristic cities knows how much of a let down it can be to enjoy some good times with the kids and being asked for money afterwards. We were disturbing a game of cricket among the older kids with our playing around, so we left but... it was such a fun moment!

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In the back-alleys I stumbled upon a meditation session with the words of a famous guru coming from Mumbai being broadcasted in the streets filled with people in meditative pose. I was also led up to the main altar under the eyes of all the participants, but besides being tremendously awkward I was offered some sacred food by the "organizer" of the event, which I gratefully accepted. These, all together, definitely made my Varanasi a highlight in my Indian journey, especially because they represent a slightly more hidden face of the city than the touristic one you get by riding a boat ride in late afternoon.

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The one about the temples

India is for sure on the top list when it comes to beautiful temples, not only because of their beauty but also because of the peculiarity. It is no surprise that I will talk a bit about temples then, but only about those that impressed me the most. Or better, I will show you some pictures. Let's start with the main attraction of India: the majestic Taj Mahal of Agra, a white marble mausoleum built in the 17th century by a Mughal emperor in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, something that can definitely be defined as a jewel of Muslim art. I was afraid that I would be surrounded by hordes of tourists, but luckily at 6.30am it was not the case - on the contrary, it was relatively peaceful. The only bother was being stopped half-way in drawing a sketch on my travel journal by an official, as apparently it is forbidden to draw a picture of the Taj. This, when 30 people around me were taking pictures with their camera. Still today I do not know what the reason behind it was.

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The second are the unique erotic carvings of Khajuraho. It is not sure if they depicts the famous Kama Sutra, but nobody can doubt that their fantasy and agility is hard to beat, especially for the "head stand position". This should not diminish the piece of art that these carvings are, or how beautiful the temple architecture is, but let's be honest... most come here for the sex on the walls!

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Another interesting temple is the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, also called the "Rat Temple". The reason for the name is simple: Karni Mata's son drowned in a pond, and following the prayers of his mother the god of death granted him and his friends to be rebornas rats, now roaming free in thousands in the temple. I cannot say it was very hygienic to walk around barefooted, but at least I got to see the extremely holy (and rare) white rat. What a blessing!

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Probably the nicest in my opinion, the Ranakpur temple is a circular Jain temple punctuated by hundreds of white marble pillars creating a vast array of smaller and larger halls and domes. Strolling through it, more than once, does not diminish the fascination you get when the light passes through the pillars and creates different shades of white. If lucky, such light will hit a extraneous body, turning it into a colored beauty in a white cloudy world:

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The last of this series is the shining Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest place for the Sikhs, a religion typical of the region of Punjab up in the north. Its structure is unique, with this Golden temple in the middle of a sacred pond surrounded by white buildings and a walkway where pilgrims stroll around or dip into the waters. I got goosebumps in the evening when during the final prayer everybody stood up around the pond and chanted together facing this precious temple. The atmosphere is even more characteristic given the typical garments of Sikh men, with their turbans, the long beards and especially their knifes/daggers/swords.

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The one about life on a train

Traveling by train in India is an experience itself. There are many classes available, upper classes with AC are more expensive, but also more anonymous. If you wanna dive deep into the chaotic India, go for the second-class and enjoy all different kinds of people that will swirl around you. The stations also provide their form of entertainment, as they seems to be a place where everybody can take shelter. Just visit a train station in the night, wherever, and you will find dozens of people sleeping on its grounds, maybe waiting for a late train, maybe just enjoying a pseudo-clean floor on which to relax. In the trains voices and screams will never let you really sleep, kids will scream for their candies, men will shout in their phones to their buddies, but everybody will be silenced by the boy selling tea and shouting "CHAEEEE, CHAEEEEE!!!". And what a good tea it is! Some of the most interesting encounters were with a couple of sadhus coming from the mountains, that had rarely seen an iPod (or a foreigner for what matters) - it was a fun moment to hand it over to one of them and watch him wonder where and how he should put the earphones! But we managed it, and together they enjoyed a small bit of western music!

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Many are the the people I met on those rides, many the times I had to fight for a place in a crowded carriage, many the times I got woke up by the chae-kid. But it was always a fun experience, and even though I did not see those famous trains with the people on the rooftop, I can definitely say that I got a good glimpse at the Indian railway universe!

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The one about Pushkar

Pushkar is a small city in the middle of Rajastan, famous for its holy lake sacred to Lord Brahma (hence comparable to Lord Vishnu and the river Gange), where pilgrims come to receive blessings by the Brahmins and perform holy pujas, as I also did (the typical brown/yellow bracelet is the proof), to ensure happiness in your life. Even though it has become a touristic city, the atmosphere is definitely more laid back than in Varanasi and it is very enjoyable, as it is walking around the lake without being harassed by touts or anything. I stayed in this city the longest, mainly for two reasons. The first is a foundation of which I will talk in the next section, the second is yoga. I found a very pleasant yoga teacher, Prakash, with which I met at 6.30am and 8pm for an hour focusing on the Pranayama style of yoga, i.e. breathing exercises while sitting. I simply loved it, I loved his style, and I loved the location with a view of the lake where we could calmly go through the exercises with nobody bothering us. I was originally planning to spend a few days for a yoga retreat in the famous Rishikesh, but why go to a class led by a random teacher with 10 people when you can have a real spiritual experience near a holy lake? I gave up yoga in Rishikesh and enjoyed my yoga in Pushkar. Moreover, the life around the lake provided me with some more good moments, like when I met this girl with beautiful green eyes that allowed me to take some good shots. Well, I discovered later that she is quite a "clever girl" and that thanks to those eyes she always manages to sell a few ankle bracelets or a music cd in which she sings with her uncle playing the ravanhatta. Whatever, I got some pictures and she sold me some bracelets, win-win situation.

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Still, some moments are priceless. I was walking along the gahts, and I came to this pool were local people were washing their clothes and bathing. I started having some laugh with a group of men as we were trying to communicate but nobody could understand each other, so we kept on laughing. Then there was this kid that was washing himself with a small bucket, but when his sister came along it turned into a water fight between the two. It might sounds weird to hear, but it is such a pleasure to found yourself in the middle of a genuine slice of local life!

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The one about the special girl

I met a special girl, her name is Lalita, she's 10 and comes from the small village of Chavindya. I met her because she is a student at the school Fior di Loto, which is also the name of the organization that founded it. The school provides education to more than300 girls from the area of Pushkar that given their family situation would never have the opportunity to go to school (Rajasthan is the region of India with the greatest disparity between sexes in school attendance) . Even though the government says public schools are free, the reality is far from it, especially for families with lots of children or difficult financial situation. In the case of Lalita, her father died of AIDS a few years ago, her mother is mentally unstable and she has got five sister - that is why this organization is providing her with a life-changing opportunity. So do not let yourselves be fooled by the smiles in the pictures, that school is often a bubble of happiness compared a harsher world back at home. A sponsoring system allows the girls to receive education, transportation, school uniforms, lunch at school, a pretty dress for a special festival in autumn and especially medical insurance. After visiting the school several times, visiting the village Lalita is from, talking with the founders and simply getting the feeling that what they are doing is the best way to support the development of a country (girls + education = progress!), I decided to get involved and became the "sponsor" of Lalita.

When I will be back home I would like to organize a fund raising for Fior di Loto, as they have finally received a piece of land on which to build their own school, and I would like to support them in their project. I was imagining a photo exposition, as my pictures and my stories are the only thing I can give in exchange for small donations, but I still feel unsure about it. Would anybody be interested in attending such a thing? Please let me know so that I can get the confidence to go through with it, and in the meantime you are welcomed to check out Fior di Loto's website =)

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Alright, these were a few of my stories. India has been for sure the most intense country I visited, and the one that touched me the most. It has disappointed me, surprised me, disgusted me, fascinated me. It can be said that if you manage to travel through India, the other places are a piece of cake, as here there is a lot to be learned about travelling, but also about the world and yourself. Even the monsoon season was not that much of a hassle, as the rain is often refreshing and keeps away the masses of tourists.

The end of my journey is coming closer, I will get on my last plane from Mumbai the 27th of August, but before that I still have a 10 days Sri Lankan holiday with my girlfriend, to whom I promised I would not plan any visit to a temple or countryside but would stay quiet and relaxed on the beach. Sounds good to me, I am becoming quite exhausted from changing bed every 2 days and spending every day walking around an unknown city. I miss home and my beautiful life, so I guess the timing is right. I will see most of you very soon, and I am very much looking forward to it!

I wish you all a beautiful summer day,
cheers from Delhi!!!
Jack

Posted by jack87jack 13.08.2013 03:35 Archived in India Comments (5)

Chapter #13: Top of the World

The many faces of Nepal

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Dear all,

What to say about Nepal: it surprised me, as it was different from what I expected. Somehow I always associated Nepal to the Himalaya, so I though of Kathmandu as a city built up a hill with a style reminding me of the Swiss chalets back home. Let's be honest - that was very naive. The Nepal I discovered had many more sides, and the one related to the Himalaya might not be the most characteristic, even though is what drives the tourism economy down here.In my opinion, the country shows itself in different ways, so let me tell you about these "faces of Nepal":

Face nr. 1 - The cities: Kathmandu & its Valley

The Kathmandu Valley is an amazing place, one of the few places worldwide that can count 7 world heritage sites all together, both of Hindu and Buddhist origin. Kathmandu itself is probably the reason why I said that Nepal was different from what I imagined, but it still managed to fascinate me, as I am a fan of chaotic cities where streets pulse with life, smells and colors overlap each other and traffic threatens to kill you if you start being careless. The ethnic mix is extreme variegated - besides people with strong Chinese and Indian roots, Nepali differ greatly among themselves as well. One thing that seems to be common to them, might be their typical hat, the Dhaka topi. Being ethnicity not enought, the religion mix is also added up to the game: Nepal is the place where Buddhism and Hinduism meet and, as far as I know, peacefully coexist (Buddha is an important figure in Hinduism as well). Scattered among the city are many temples to be found, some Buddhist, some Hindu, and some that are a combination of the two faiths. Some of the more typical structures of Kathmandu are either the heritage of Buddhism and of the Tibetan community (that widely spread in Nepal after China came down on them in the 50s and and saw themselves forced to flee), or of the Hindu religion. My favourite is probably the site of Bodhnath, the largest stupa in Asia, around which people walk (clockwise) in the late afternoon making the prayer wheels spin, under the everywhere-looking eyes of the Buddha.

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The center of the city is however Durbar Square, definitely more related to the Hindu religion, which shows different architectural forms and less Buddhist prayer flags (obviously), but that still manages to attract a large community of pigeons with which kids play around the whole time, making historical and cultural centers come alive. The Durbar Square of Kathmandu was however not my favorite one (also because the so-called local guides kept on bothering me all the time, partly ruining the atmosphere). More intimate and proportioned is the Durbar Square of Bhaktapur, that consist in several smaller temples, gates and historical buildings:

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Face nr. 2 - The Himalaya: Annapurna

The Himalaya is one if not the reason why the majority of people come to Nepal. A place where you can easily trek for days amidst soaring peaks covered in never-melting snow, and gaze to some of the tallest mountains in the world. Close to the laid back city of Pokhara, is the Annapurna region, where I decided to do a short trek. Due to limited time, I chose to get to the Annapurna Basecamp (4130m) and get back in around 6 days, even though people usually take 8-9 days... we managed it in 5 days. I even got my Nepalese guide to be out of breadth, so that was a satisfaction! I guess that walking everyday for a few hours for the last 6 months did keep me in shape! However, the trek was different than what I might have thought before informing myself - only the very last part of the trek was amidst the soaring peaks, with low vegetation and wildflowers; most of it was walking in a green valley, below tall trees typical of a rain forest, and fresh waterfalls. The fact that this was in full monsoon season added more green to the valley, more vegetation around us and definitely, definitely more water - from the waterfalls, from the sky and from the wet mud below our feet. "Monsoon season" carries a very much hated 3-letters word with it: "fog". The first day me and my guide arrived in the so-called Annapurna Sanctuary (as you are surrounded by peaks like in an arena) I saw... a beautiful grey wall of fog. Huge disappointed, bu I knew it would be part of the game. The strategy of waking up at dawn the day after did not deliver better results. However, when you less expect it, BAM! The fog cleared up for 20 mins and there it was, The Himalaya, the mountains we all walked for 3 days to see:

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We were excited as kids, because we knew that many people had come up the basecamp in the last days and saw nothing, so... I really felt luck was on our side. Coming in the regular season (Oct-Nov) is of course better - no fog. But you get 200 people instead of 7 like we were, completely ruining the atmosphere, creating queues on the trails, and making you wait for your Dal Baht (rice+soup+vegetables = the power for 24 hours!) for two hours. So, what is better? I was happy to be there now: a few people to share an exciting moment.

Face nr. 3 - The rural life

I don't know what the reason might be, but whenever I get in contact with the rural life I feel like I am getting one of the the best faces of a country. Maybe it is because that is a world only slightly influenced by the tourism industry, maybe because it is a glimpse in the past of what developed countries used to be, or maybe it is because I am fascinated by a lifestyle that still considers nature and the environment as a partner, instead of a slave. Whatever the reason, Nepal is a great place to have contacts with it, as the majority of the population still lives by working rice fields and keeping a flock of goats or buffalo. It does differ from region to region of course, and the two extremes are the rural life in the mountains on one side, in which everything needs to be carried up on your back (or that of a donkey sometimes) by taking countless steps on never-ending stairways:

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and on the other is the plain countryside rural life, where endless rice fields need to be attended to. Now it was right the moment of the year when the rice is planted in the water (more like mud though). By travelling from one city to another I was fascinated by the contrast of this green fields and the colorful clothes of the people (mainly women) working in the fields, shielding from the sun with umbrellas and spending day after day planting rice plant after rice plant, by hand:

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Face nr. 4 - The wild Nepal

This was quite unexpected. Never I would have thought of going to Nepal to see single-horned rhinos and mount elephants. But it happened in the Chitwan National Park, in the south, and it was a great time! Two things I will remember for sure: the first, chasing that rhino. We were wandering with our guide in the forest, when we met some farmers that told us a rhino was nearby after having fought with another, and that they had to jump into the water to protect themselves of being seen and charged. We followed some trails, extremely excited, and there he was, majestic and proud:

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We were of course separated by a course of water, but still... we were sweating cold! The second experience was the elephant bathing time, were tourists like me can enjoy a fresh shower of brown water in the face, while mounting a big pachyderm. It was so much fun, and when you least expect it the owner of the elephant gives him a command and splash, the elephant turns on the side and let himself fall into the water, with you on him. Good times!

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Face nr. 5 - The mystery of Buddhism

Buddhism has always interested me, even though was for a long time a mystery. Everything revolves around the figure of this Buddha... but who was he? Was he a god? Was he human? And in what do Buddhist really believe? I took this chance to get a deeper understanding of these questions, and having found some partial answers, I can definitely says that Buddhism is not for me. The concept of rebirth (samsara) that involves the karmic cycle is of course very interesting, but the idea that to achieve true happiness one has to renounce to most of the things that could cause him pain does not appeal to me. I understand that by giving up material life one can live a better and more serene life far from the slavery that is typical of our business- and technology-driven world, but I cannot accept the fact of giving up ambition, dreams, family and love for the sake of happiness. I am a very emotive person, and whenever I feel strong emotions is when I feel the most alive, be them positive or negative. I still need to work on these thoughts though, they are more complicated than it sounds... it is part of the whole self-discovery that is happening during this round the world trip. Moreover, I am finally reading Siddharta by Herman Hesse, one of my favorite books ever, which partly showed me the difference between me and the Buddhist belief. This doesn't however mean that I am not fascinated by and do not respect this religion, and by the people who practice it. That is why I am reading a book about the life of Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, to learn more about his story, its enlightenment and its reaching of the nirvana. To briefly answer the questions raised before: Siddharta was 100% human, but he was also the final reincarnation of thousands of previous lifes that brought him to be the perfect being (the final "stage" of a process of lifes that lasted for thousands of years), finally ready to detach himself from the cycle of life and hence reach the nirvana, a state of eternal cosmic peace. Siddharta Gautama was the "last" Buddha, the one of our generation (even though he was born in the 6th century BC), and he is the person that taught his followers the way of life the current Buddhists follow.

In Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, I got to visit the world heritage site where a stone is placed where it has been established Siddharta Gautama was born, now an important location of pilgrimage. Besides the interesting (but so exaggerated sometimes) story of his birth, the place is not that special... but the visit to a nearby monastery was, where a new generation of monks is being trained. I spent hours with them, we talked about what are their lectures, why they ended up there, what they think of the monastery life, and I also got invited to share a meal with them - of course, it was Dhal Bhat. Interesting to see how young people might behave in the same way as everywhere, even though they wear a monk robe:

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This little guy was the youngest of the crew, and he was simply so cute running around with its robes a bit too large for his size! When I named him "mini-Buddha" I caused a whole bunch of other kids to burst into laughs, that was a good moment =)

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Face nr. 6 - Supporting the new generation

Nepal is considered one of the least developed countries worldwide. It is in fact very poor, and was recently slowed down by a civil war, that resulted in the deposition of the King and the communist party to be in power. Those that are now or will soon suffer most for this lack of development are of course the kids. When staying in Pokhara I slept in a guesthouse that devolves part of its earnings to a foundation that builds orphanages and day cares for children in need, and I got to visit one of them. You can imagine how touching and moving was to see all of these kids, but I still had a great time playing with them for a while... once I started lifting one of them in my arms and shake him (sounds weird but was fun!) they ALL wanted to do it, so I had to do the trick for all of the other 30. Later in the afternoon I went back with a huge cake that definitely made their day, but also mine... It was one of those experiences that makes you think. And think again. And they change you. I am glad to read that many organizations are doing their best in Nepal (and worldwide) to support these children and their future, and I hope that their actions will be extremely successful. I hope that my desire of being part of such a project will not be drown by the life that is expecting me back home, but will stay strong in my heart and become concrete! I don't wanna further articulate it because I don't want them to be words thrown out there without any real action following them... that would be too easy. But I wish it for myself, that someday I could be involved in making these kids keep on smiling. Just it.

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This was my Nepal. Maybe short, but I had the chance to see all these different "faces" that I just described, and the picture is that of a great country, with great people. This is what makes the difference in the end, the relationships with the people you have when travelling - I got invited for dinner by a family in the countryside when cycling around, I got to speak about Buddhism with a senior monk in a monastery, I got surrounded by laughing kids at the orphanage, I got to try to carry one of those heavy basket of leafs with my head with the owner laughing at me, I got blessed by a tiny woman that sits the whole day outside of the Bodhnath stupa (see below). And so I also bless you, and wish that everything back at (your) home is fine and you are having great times! I'll fly shortly to India, where the next journey start... more about it in the next post!

Cheers from Kathmandu,
Jack

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Posted by jack87jack 14.07.2013 21:22 Archived in Nepal Comments (3)

Chapter #12: The Country of Dragons

Travelling a month around China

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Hey everyone!

The moment to write about the last month has finally come. I decided to stick to this hostel bed in the (in)famous Chung King Mansions in Hong Kong today, one of the countless I slept in the last 6 months, till the blog gets done. It will be though, as I have the story of a whole month in China to tell you about.
A story that starts in Beijing, where I landed after a whole other month in Japan. The cultural shock was hard. The differences between the two countries are big, from the "system" to the people part of it. I'll honestly tell you that at the beginning, it was hard to appreciate China. Japan was clean, its people were kind and polite, their language melodic, the sky blue. The first impressions showed me that China wasn't... any of those. However, after a few hours/days of adjustment, the feeling of exploration take over, and what it was presented to me was a marvelous country in which cities and their apparent mess hide lots of mysteries, the habits of Chinese people are so different from the West that you can't avoid seeing them as comic (especially when they all together spit on the floor), their language is so much of a riddle with thousands of different sounds and the sky... well, you get used to its grayish color. China has been eventually a lot of fun and great experiences! Moreover, dragons are everywhere here, and I love dragons! Let me tell you about my adventures then:

Beijing and the Great Wall

Beijing is definitely the "big city" of China. It is very traditional compared to the other big cities of Shanghai or Hong Kong, masses of people fit into its different neighborhoods, revolving around its center defined by Tienanmen Square on one side - the heart of China's communism, represented by Chairman Mao Zedong's mausoleum but also the location were the student protests leading to the unprecedented Tienanmen Square Massacre of '89 took place:

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and the Forbidden City to the other side - the cultural center of the city. Home to the emperor of the Ming and Qing dinasties for 500 years, from which commoners were forbidden to enter (hence the name) and whose immense wealth and glamorous life inspired legends and myths.

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The person you see in the picture with me is also one of the reasons why I came to enjoy China so much. After I traveled for a while on my own, being able to share everyday with such a pretty girl definitely made every experience worth remembering! Considering that this girl traveled from Switzerland to meet me wherever I selfishly decided to be in the world for the second (and not last) time, well... how can I not love her? Together we set ourselves to discover other parts of the city, and one that we found particularly interesting was the 798 Art District, home to a thriving artistic community: countless of galleries, graffiti, public exhibitions, live photo-shooting and pretty cafes make it a open-minded and colorful place that we never thought could be found in the more traditional and chaotic Beijing:

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And of course, we went to see the world wonder of the Great Wall, or at least one of the pieces remaining that was also partly rebuilt so to look like the original. I can only say that is very impressive. Walk on it and realize that it stretched for kilometers make it so even more!

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Shanghai

Shanghai is one of those cities that has limited offering when it comes to pure sightseeing, and become special when it is "lived". We took it easy in this city, so I will simply show you the walkway on The Bund, the more characteristic sight of Shanghai, with a fantastic view on its skyline (I wish I had photoshop to stich my panorama pics together!)

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The modern and flashy side from The Bund changes when approached in the first hours after dawn, where groups of elderly perform their Tai chi routines, walk backwards for kilometers (still don't get it) or amaze with more dynamic acts, like this flying dragon:

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For the rest, we enjoyed walking arouns the city, enjoying the food, the shops, and again the food.

Sichuan

Capital of the region is Chengdu, and the main reason we went to Chengdu is the following fluffy black & white fellow:

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The area around Chengdu is the only place where Pandas still roam wildly, even though their decimated number and diffidence towards humans make an encounter almost impossible. However, visiting the Breeding Research Base gave us the opportunity to meet these funny bears face to face, and I mean... how can you not fall in love? It's cuteness overload!

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In Chengdu was also easier to come in contact with the more traditional China when we visited some temples, as well as some interesting people:

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From Chengdu we moved to one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, Emei Shan, where besides the "hiking" ( = climbing endless stairways) up to the middle of the mountain and coming across some marvellous temples and monasteries in which monks live and pray and eat, the thing that fascinated me the most was the opportunity for us as tourists to sleep in some of those. Dining at their mensa with vegetarian food and having the whole and tourist-empty temple for you alone, maybe with some monks still chanting their melanconic prayers, was definitely one of the top experiences in China.

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Next brief stop was Leshan and its worldrecord 71m-tall stone Buddha, that although surrounded by the usual swarm of loud Chineses tourists, did not fail to impress with its majesty.

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Guanxi

This region is one of the most scenic of all China, so much that the back of the 20 RMB note displays a view of the Li river close to Xingping. However, the first exploration of the region was related to the other wonder of Guanxi, the Dragon Backbone's rice terraces, an endless series of rice fields climbing up and covering whole valleys. We planned to spend the night in a small village atop one of those hills, and by "we" I mean me&Terry and my good friend David with his girlfriend Andrea, on their way from Singapore to Mongolia, with which we were able to cross paths in the middle of China! Having even more people with which to share the journey was definitely a pleasure, and even though we traveled together for only one week, we had a good time! Also because with David I found somebody that was willing to tag along when waking up at 5am to hike up the hill and take pictures of the rice terraces at sunrise, something I think my girlfriend would not be enthusiastic to do!

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The jurney continued to Xingping, where we hiked along the river first, to then return to te village aboard one of the many bamboo rafts, to then climb the peak near the city and sit in awe at the wonderful sunset in front of our eyes, painting the never ending karst landscape with soft lights and shades. I believe this was the most beautiful sight in the whole trip around China.

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The best afternoon has however been the one in Yangshuo. Tired of always sharing places that require a calm atmosphere with hordes of tourists, I got on the famous bike trail along the Yulong river and then... turned left. Just like that. I started riding into the countryside, looking for something or somebody that I could be "my" China for the day. And I found it... first, I had the happy meeting with a small school in a small village I came across, where I entertained myself playing rock-paper-scissor with the always smiling kids,

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then moved on to get a glimpse of some more original rural activity, and definitely got some while pushing my bike at the edge of rice and vegetable fields, and interacting with some of the farmers

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But the best still had to come. The old lady in the picture gestured me to keep going in that direction, even though I had no idea why. Later, thanks to her (I would have definitely stopped before otherwise), I reached what in my travel journal I called the "secret spot": a calm river, surrounded by bamboos, karst peaks, green fields, and a water ox enjoying some good time in the refreshing waters. And me. Nobody else... I got goosebumps, believe me. I finally found that little corner in China that would be only mine for the day (but also of the two almost toothless farmers living in a shack nearby that I discovered later). The pictures really do not make justice to what that place really was:

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Ah yeah, after a while... an umbrella floated by. I have no idea where it came from, but somehow... it really made a nice picture.

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Zhangjiajie

Next stop was the city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan, that we reached mainly beacuse of Tianmen mountain, famous for the longest cable car ever and especially for a unique walk on a glass pathway above a few hundreds meters of cliff... I usually never suffer heights, but this one was really something!

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Hong Kong

After an overnight train ride from Zhangjiajie and a goodbye to my friends, I got to Hong Kong! And here, it has been all about the fun for the moment. First day I wanted to go to the Victoria Peak and take a sunset shot, but ended up in the swimming pool with a beer of a cool guy living in a very nice crib on the peak! So I only got night shots... and wow, Hong Kong in a clear night is impressive!

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The day after I went to see the dragon boat races at the waterfront together with an American guy I met in the hostel, and we did enjoy them! Boats? Cool! Free beer? Cool! Dragons? Awesome!!!

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Then we got approached by a local girl and boy, with which we went to the nearby beer fest. After a few beers (strictly free, never paid for a beer the entire weekend thanks to the coupons we got), we enjoyed some local food in Temple Street market, some drinks in Soho, and then before we knew it... we were skinny dipping at Deepwater Bay! Great night, but unfortunately no pictures about that =) The day after, we enjoyed some acts of local singers, like this apparently famous guy from Taiwan, and some good DJs, thanks to whom we got to dance as if at a rave and became quite the show for the locals!

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So... yeah, this is it. At the moment I am still in Hong Kong, waiting for my Indian visa, and at the end of the week I'll finally leave for a destination I've been looking forward for a while: Nepal!
This was a long resume of what happened last month while travelling around China. I hope you liked it, and that will keep on following me till the end... which is coming close! It is very weird to think that I've been gone for 6 months and that now only 2 are missing... I hope there is still somebody waiting for me back at home!

Wish you the best and cheers to you all, leave a comment if you feel like it!
Giacomo

Posted by jack87jack 25.06.2013 06:42 Archived in China Comments (9)

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