There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Sunday, 15 April 2018

Hong Kong History Museum, Dim Sum and Mongkok: Part 5 of Hong Kong and Macau

This is a new post though it describes the events of the 27th of November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days

We last visited the Hong Kong History Museum over a decade ago. Nothing in this city stands still, so a second visit seemed overdue.
With the weather showing a welcome improvement we set off on the short walk, down Nathan road and past the end of Nanking Street. On our first visit in 2004 we had stayed in Nanking Street so we detoured to see how it looked now.
This area has seen no major changes, but alterations have been incremental and continuous, so my 2016 photograph….
Nanking Street, Kowloon, Nov 2016
…shows a tidier scene and rather different scene from the 2004 version. Not having the earlier photo with me I inadvertently stood 50m further back, but this really is the same street.
Nanking Street, Kowloon, July 2001
Walking down Nathan Road and turning left into Austin Road, we found the museum easily enough though the entrance eluded us for a while.

Hong Kong History Museum
The museum was certainly larger and more comprehensive than I remembered. Beautifully laid out with clear explanations in English and Chinese, it started with the geology and prehistory of the area and then traced the territories development from the first human arrivals to the present day.

Stone tools found at Sai Kung (our destination tomorrow) and elsewhere suggest the first inhabitants arrived some 30,000 years ago in the early stone age.

Hong Kong became absorbed into the Chinese empire during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) but the grave goods on show were rather more modest than the Qin Emperor’s Terracotta Army.

Grave goods, Hong Kong History Museum
In the 13th century the Mongol Invasion gradually eroded the Song Dynasty’s grip on northern China until, in 1271, Kublai Khan proclaimed himself first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. The Southern Song survived until 1279 and for a time their capital was on Lantau Island, now part of Hong Kong.

The capital of the Southern Song was briefly on Lantau Island

We looked at some early ceramics…

Early pottery, Hong Kong History Museum
…and the folk culture of the Hakka (we met them in Fujian where some still live in their traditional Tulous), Hokkien, Punti and Tanka, all regarded as indigenous peoples, though the Hakka and Hokkien mainly arrived in the 17th century, the forerunners of a tsunami of migrants driven first by the Taiping Rebellion. 1850-64, (see the Nanjing (2) post) then a series of famines, outbreaks of unrest and finally the Cultural Revolution.

We took a coffee break as we reached the Opium Wars which resulted in Hong Kong becoming British in 1841, though they were far from the British Empire’s finest hours.

Refreshed, we took a walk through the birth and growth of the modern city, the Japanese occupation of 1941-5 and the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. ‘One country, two systems’ has worked reasonably well since, though not as seamlessly as the Museum would like you to believe and with Xi Jinping now effectively Chinese President for life and flirting with the idea of a personality cult, the future looks troubled.

The museum covered politics, but also looked at the lives of ordinary people with reconstructions of a port scene and a bank, tailor’s, grocer’s and herbal medicine shops, a tea shop and a pawn shop among others.

Hong Kong History Museum
We had not expected to be spend three hours there, but there was much to see and it is a model of what such a museum should be.

We left in warm sunshine with the intention of having a dim sum lunch and allowed ourselves to be captured by a tout on Nathan Road. Our idea was not particularly novel for a Sunday lunchtime, but there was one table available. The more people you have the more variety you can order and the better dim sum becomes, but there were only two of us so we did our best ordering steamed pork dumplings, prawn spring rolls, fried beef, cakes and custard buns. I thought it was a lovely light lunch, though Lynne would later take issue with my concept of ‘light’.

Dim Sum lunch, Nathan Road, Hong Kong
In the afternoon we walked north along Nathan Road….

Nathan Road, Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
…to Mongkok, a densely populated rectangle of land that was once the most northerly point of urban Kowloon.

130,000 Filipinos live and work in Hong Kong - the territory’s largest ethnic minority - and many, perhaps most, are women working as domestic helps. All spare cash goes to their families back home so on their day off they need a cheap way to socialise. Many congregate around the outer islands ferry terminal, spread blankets on the pavement, have a picnic, chat and play cards. Not wishing to risk our lives crossing Mongkok Road we used one of the linked the footbridges and found another place where they gather, a large, friendly, unthreatening crowd. carefully leaving space for those using the bridges for their intended purpose.

A little further north we left Nathan Road to walk through the Goldfish Market. Aquariums are popular in Hong Kong and this is where their denizens – and not just goldfish - are bought and sold. We walked down the street looking at the fish in the shop window tanks…

Fish tank in a shop window, Goldfish Market, Monkgok
…and at other tanks which seemed inappropriate for their non-fishy residents.

Terrapins, Goldfish Market, Mongkok
Many fish are sold in plastic bags hung on boards outside the shops, like the fairground prizes of my youth, though a far greater variety of species are subjected to this unnecessary indignity.

Aquarium fish sold in plastic bags, Goldfish Market, Mongkok
The Flower Market is a few streets further north and here, at least, there are no problems with the welfare of the merchandise. Twisted bamboo…

Twisted bamboo, Flower Market, Mongkok
… pitcher plants, and more regular flowers and shrubs were available in abundance.

Pitcher plants. Flower Market, Mongkok 
I am not sure why we walked round Mongkok Stadium, a 7,000-seat stadium shared by two of Honk Kong’s Premier League football clubs, to Boundary Road. Until the New Territories were leased from China in 1898 this was where Hong Kong stopped. Much of Kowloon’s extended urban area is technically in the New Territories, but further north there are large rural areas.

Boundary Road, Mongkok, once the end of the world
Beyond the stadium we turned back south into the bird market. Cage birds have always been popular throughout China and on those increasingly rare occasions you find yourself among traditional-style housing, every front door will have a cage with songbird hung over it, and elderly men will take their birds for an evening stroll in the park.
Mongkok bird market
Neither of us liked the overcrowded cages…
Overcrowded cages, Mongkok bird market
…or, indeed any birds in cage, even the traditional style Chinese cages. So why had we come here?
Traditional Chinese birdcage, Mongkok bird market
After a long day and a lot of walking we took the MTR back to our hotel.
Lynne was reluctant to go out to eat in the evening after our big lunch – which was not quite how I saw it. We compromised by sharing a single dish, though once we had picked a restaurant and settled down she insisted on sweet and sour pork – pretty much like we get at home. Grumpiness was displayed.
Hong Kong and Macau

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Breakfast Thoughts in Udaipur: Interlude in Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post is an ‘interlude’ in our journey round Rajasthan. The incident described took place in Udaipur at the most southerly point of our route, but it could have happened anywhere in India – and we saw something very similar in Sri Lanka in 2015.

We were in Udaipur in central southern Rajasthan

As we plonked down our fruit juice and tea cups to 'claim' our morning breakfast table we noticed a lonely bottle of soy sauce standing sentinel on an adjacent table. By the time we had returned from the buffet it had been joined by a stack of pot noodles, and a waiter was approaching bearing a large jug of boiling water. A party of a dozen or so Chinese tourists had occupied a long table behind us and the Chinese tour manager sat behind the soy sauce and noodles doling them out on request. It is easy to mock, and indeed we had a quiet smirk, while acknowledging that British tourists can sometimes be notoriously inflexible, and not only when faced with ‘spicy food’ - I know a restaurant in Portugal that advertises 'all day English breakfast' and is rarely short of custom.

On the other hand, many travellers of all nationalities make it a point of honour to eat local, though maybe I am a little hardcore in eating local lunch, dinner and, particularly, breakfast. In France I eat croissants (doesn’t everybody?), in China I enjoy noodles with vegetables and soy sauce and today from the Indian section of the buffet I had selected sambhar with idlis and coconut chutney - perhaps a touch south Indian for Rajasthan, but let's not be too picky.
Sambhar, idlis and coconut chutney

But most European visitors eat a largely European breakfast. This generally includes Lynne, and once in a while me - I occasionally yearn for a comforting fried egg. We have stayed in several non-tourist orientated hotels in China where only a Chinese breakfast was available, but generally, throughout Asia you can choose between a local breakfast or something more or less western*. And so it was today, there was a choice between Indian and western, the western option being overwhelmingly taken by western customers - indeed I might have been the only European (or North American or antipodean) to take the Indian option.

I thought this post needed more pictures, but apparently I rarely photograph my breakfast. This one is from Marari Beach, Kerala
The fruit would suit everyone, Indian, European or Chinese, but only the Indians seem to have spotted that a squeeze of lemon turns papaya from ho-hum to magnificent....but I followed this with....

But what about the Chinese? There was no option for them. At the time of day when many people feel the need for something familiar, they were offered nothing, so they brought their own pot noodles. It looked odd, but I understand and, to a certain extent I sympathize (but I still think they should try the sambhar and idlis).
....largely the same breakfast as at Udaipur, though with a dosa instead of the idlis
*In China (and elsewhere) this usually means sweet, flaccid bread, a scrape of something yellow which certainly won’t be butter, and jam whose only discernible flavour is sweet. It is always worth avoiding, as is the glass of black, unsweetened Nescaf√© which well-meaning Chinese waiters occasionally try to force on tea drinking Brits.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Bikaner, Sweets and Palaces: Part 3 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 4 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.
Today's Journey, Mandawa to Bikaner across northern Rajasthan
In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a curtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, have supplemented their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.
Next morning, we left the haveli at Mandawa and set off for Bikaner some 180 km east across the Thar desert. At first we followed a minor road, wide but heavily patched, running straight across the arid scrub to Fatehpur.


The minor road from Mandawa to Fatehpur
We had not been going long when Umed suddenly brought the car to a halt, pointed to our right and said 'nilgai.' I did not like to admit I had no idea what 'nilgai' meant (Lynne tells me she was less ignorant) so I followed his finger and saw that his sharp eyes had spotted a group of antelopes in the shade of some trees. The nilgai (blue bull) is endemic to the Indian sub-continent and is locally common.  This group were all females, we saw a male a little further on, but too far off to photograph [update: we did better at Ranthambore – coming later]. They are larger than the females, surprisingly bull shaped and really are blue(ish) hence the name.


Nilgai by the Mandawa -  Fatehpur road
Fatehpur (not to be confused with Fatehpur Sikri the purpose built Mughal capital near Agra) is 20 km from Mandawa and has one notable haveli controversially restored by the French artist Nadine le Prince. The wholesale repainting of murals has upset some but her haveli stands in sharp contrast to the once elegant but now sad, broken-down havelis around it. Fatehpur generally looked a sad broken-down town, the road surface disappearing for several hundred metres and water (where did that come from?) had collected in a dip to form a small muddy flood.

The town centre was more lively, and on the southern outskirts we re-joined the main Jaipur - Bikaner highway.

Fatehpur town centre
The remaining 160km was on a good road and we reached Bikaner in time for lunch. Umed drove us straight to the Lallgarh Palace.

Approaching the Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner

The Rough Guide describes Bikaner as a 'smog filed commercial city'. Built on land as flat as a pancake it seemed, at first sight no worse, or better than other Rajasthani cities. Rao Bika founded the city in 1486 and named it after himself, following in the footsteps of his father Rao Jodha, King of Marwar, who had named his new capital Jodhpur.

Rao Bika was the first of 22 rulers of the Bikaner State, which later became a vassal of the Mughal Empire and then of the British Empire. His successors were granted the title of Rajah by the Mughal Emperors in the late 16th century, and Maharaja a century later. In 1947 Maharaja Sadul Singh led the rulers of Rajasthan's princely states in joining the new Republic of India. The title was officially abolished, in 1971, but Sadul Singh’s grandson Ravi Raj Singh holds the courtesy title. He is a Jaipur based banker, while his sister Rajyashree Kumari, owns and lives at the Lallgarh (or Lalgarh) Palace, Bikaner.

Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob designed the Laxmi Niwas Palace for Maharaja Ganga Singh and building started in 1896. It was later extended to become the Lallgarh Palace and part of the complex is now a heritage hotel.
The Lallgarh Palace Hotel, Bikaner

Checking in to a palace feels slightly strange, and our room was certainly palatial. We hardly had time to hike its length and breadth before grabbing a lunch of mixed pakoras and setting off with Umed and local guide, G, to Junagarh.
Our room in the Lallgarh Palace Hotel

Rao Bika built Bikaner’s first fort, but by the 16th century something larger and stronger was required so Maharaja Rai Singh oversaw the building of the Chintamani Fort. Completed in 1594 (though many additions were made in the following centuries), it is vast, walls 4m thick and 12m high, once surrounded by a moat 6m deep, defended an area of 5ha. The only major fort in Rajasthan not built on a hill or rocky outcrop – Bikaner has no such thing – it was attacked several times but never taken. By the late 19th century the comforts of a modern palace were more attractive than the security of a medieval fort, so the Lallgarh Palace was built and Chintamani was renamed Junagarh (lit: Old Fort).

Junagarh, Bikaner

With several courtyards, six mahals and a garden I apologise in advance for any omissions or misplacements.
We entered the main courtyard through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate). Beside the Daulat Pol are the red handprints of 41 royal women who committing sati, joining husbands killed in battle on their funeral pyres. First mentions of the practice date from the 3rd century BC, but it grew in popularity (if that is the right word) between the 5th and 9th centuries among the warrior nobility, the very people who would rule Rajasthan, before spreading throughout India. At first tolerated by the British, pressure from Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers led to the practice being banned in West Bengal in 1829 and throughout India in 1861 with little opposition. B did not show us the handprints, I do not know why.
Sandstone end of the main courtyard, Junagarh

The mahals largely surround the main courtyard which maybe sandstone at one end but has a Mughal style pool in Carrara marble at the other.
Marble end of the main courtyard, Junagarh

The highly decorated Karan Mahal…. 
Decorated ceiling, Karan Mahal, Junagahr, Bikaner
…was built by Raja Karan Singh (r1631-67) to celebrate a victory over the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Above the raja’s throne is a punkah to keep the great man cool, though now the room is air conditioned the punkah-wallah has had to find another job.
Throne in the Karan Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
We crossed another courtyard…
Courtyard, Junagarh, Bikaner
To the Anup Mahal. After his initial defeat Aurangzeb did not back down, deposing Karan Singh, installing Anup Singh in his stead and promoting him to Mahajara. The Anup Mahal is the grandest room in the palace. The carpet in front of the sumptuously decorated throne was made by the inmates of Bikaner jail, a manufacturing tradition that survived until recently.
Anup Singh's throne, Anup Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
The walls of 19th century Badal Mahal (Cloud Palace), more a wide corridor than a hall, are painted to representing a sky suffused with monsoon clouds threaded with snakes of lightening.
Badal Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
Up the stairs we entered a room full of oddities, the medals given to the local rulers by the Mughal empire who did not mess around with little things to pin on your chest…
Mughal medals, Junagarh, Bikaner
…and various beds of nails and swords….
Swords for standing on, should you so desire, Junagarh, Bikaner
…used by sadhus to demonstrated whatever it is they demonstrate.
Sadhu standing on swords, Junagarh, Bikaner
We passed the maharaja’s swing (apparently his slide, roundabout and dodgems not on show) on our way to…
The Maharaja's swing, Junagarh, Bikaner
…the Chandra Mahal which includes the royal bedrooms. The low bed prevents assassins hiding beneath it, while strategically placed mirrors ensured the maharaja could observe any who approached.
Chandra Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
A window gave a view of the gardens as we made our way downstairs to the 20th century Ganga Mahal.
Palace Garden, Junagarh, Bikaner
In the twilight years of India’s ruling maharajas, Maharaja Ganga Singh (r1887-1943) - General Sir Ganga Singh - was a colossus. ‘He was a general in the English Army,’ G told us, slightly awestruck. My inner pedant wanted to tell him there has been no such thing as the ‘English Army’ since the Act of Union in 1707, but I suppressed the irritating know-all. Ganga Singh joined the army in 1898 and fought for the British in China during the Boxer rebellion. He formed and led the Bikaner Camel Corps which fought in the Somaliland campaign (1902-4) and in Egypt during the First World War. In 1917 Lloyd George appointed him to the War Cabinet, a group of 12 men (no women) who met throughout 1917 and 18 to discuss the nature for the post-war British Empire. The cabinet included Lloyd George himself and the Primer Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa while India was represented by the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces and Ganga Singh, the only non-white face at the table. He later represented India at the Versailles Peace Conference and at the League of Nations.
War cabinet 1917 (and aides), Ganga Singh is second from left, middle row with resplendent Maharaja's moustache
Quite how he came to acquire a de Havilland bi-plane during his First World War exploits is obscure, but it is currently exhibited in the Ganga Mahal.
Ganga Singh'a de Havilland bi-plane, Ganga Mahal, Junagarh, Bikaner
At home, he responded to the 1899-90 famine by building an irrigation system to ensure it never happened again, he established a Supreme Court with independent judges, established limited local democracy and promoted the education of girls and women. He was an all-round good egg, who devoted his life to the service of Bikaner, India and the British Empire, but found time to build himself the vast and comfortable Lallgarh Palace.
More than once G had mentioned the excellence of Bikaner’s sweets so it seemed a good idea to hunt some out. Umed drove us into the city centre and G led a short walk past some vegetable stalls…
Vegetable stalls, Bikaner
… and several havelis, some in poor repair, others carefully repurposed…
Restored havelli, Bikaner
… and near the Ashirwad Eggs Zone…
Adshirwad Eggs Zone, Bikaner
… was the city's foremost sweet stall.
Sweet stall, Bikaner
We perused the goodies on display and at G's suggestion bought a couple of Rasgulla, fluffy white balls of cottage cheese steeped in rose water. ‘Give them a pinch.’ G suggested, ‘to squeeze out the excess rosewater then pop then in your mouth.’ We did, they were lovely, but at 10 rupees each over far too quickly. At twice the price we tried their larger yellow cousins flavoured with saffron. They were even lovelier, so we bought some more.
Eating saffron rasgulla, Bikaner (I don't know why the fellow on our left is regarding us with such suspicion)
We arrived back at the Lallgarh Palace as the light was beginning to fade but had time for a walk round the gardens and a look at the statue of the redoubtable Ganga Singh, who built it all.
Maharaja Ganga Singh at the Lallgarh Palace
Rejecting the buffet in favour of the √† la carte at dinner we choose laal maas (or maans), the same dish, we discovered, that we had eaten under a different name in Jaipur. Laal Maas, red lamb, is a local stew, the meat slowly cooked in a rich sauce packed with fire and flavour. A good Laal Maas should put sweat on the brow, and this one did, though we eschewed the bowl of yogurt supplied in case our tender foreigner’s palates needed some fire-fighting. With it we ordered ker sangria. According to legend, ker, the berry of a wild shrub and sangria, the bean of the Khejari tree, were only eaten in time of famine, then someone put them together, cooking them with chillis, asafoetida, turmeric ajwain, mango powder and coriander and created a local favourite, served at every Rajasthani wedding.  A dry dish it went well with the laal maas with its ample sauce, its flavour mild but unusual, though the ker berry was a little sour for my taste.
Lynne, laal maas and ker Sangri, Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner
Rajasthan, Land of Princes