We’ve been on the road (or more often than not the train tracks) for three months now, a journey that has taken us overland from Beijing through China, Tibet, Nepal and India, before taking to the skies to reach Saigon, and meandering our way up Vietnam to Hanoi where we currently reside. Now seems like the perfect time for reflection, here are some top tips and travel trivia from our trip so far…
Lessons from far away places
How to drive like you mean it:
I was sitting in the back of a rickshaw the other day when it suddenly dawned on me that honking before over-taking is obviously the best, and in fact only, way to signal your intentions to the driver in front…. Isn’t it? Hold on, why is it then that people aren’t constantly honking their horns on the roads of England? What do I normally do when over-taking? Oh that’s right, I use an indicator! You know you’ve been away too long when you forget the existence of things like indicators. However, I do feel that the use of the horn on hairpin bends on hazardous mountain roads is completely justified, in fact I would positively recommend it. For a crash course (hopefully not literally) on driving in Asia you need to adopt the following attitude: Why brake when approaching blind bends, that would only slow you down! Why overtake just one vehicle when you can overtake two? In fact, why stick to just your side of the road at all?? Basically put your foot down, your hand on the horn, and drive like you mean it!
What defines quality?
Obviously standards vary from country to country but we have established a good set of benchmarks that define a “quality” establishment in any given country. These basically revolve around the toilets, the one common feature everywhere you go. In China a place may be considered “quality” if it provides a western style sitting toilet. In Tibet you simply need physical dividers between the holes in the ground to qualify! Whereas in Nepal it would probably be somewhere that you don’t have to dispose of toilet paper in a separate bin. In India, the mark is hit by an establishment that will provide you with toilet roll free of charge (and in the case of multiple toilets, in each cubicle as opposed to a single common roll for all). In Vietnam the bar is set slightly higher with both the presence of toilet paper and absence of drainage odour required in order for somewhere to meet specification. I hope this helps some of you in the future!
Don’t do it. Basically queuing appears not to really exist outside of the western world. There’s some evidence of it India (perhaps as it was once a British colony?) and apparently Beijing hosted queuing awareness days in the run-up to the Olympics, but I don’t think it stuck. Essentially just join the crowd and push your way to the front.
How do we rate our packing skills?
The five best things we packed:
- Silk sheet sleeping bags – they’re soft, light and easy to clean! Perfect for any place with questionable bedding, cool and comfortable on hot Indian nights whilst adding extra warmth to a regular sleeping bag in the chilly Himalayas.
- LifeAdventure microfibre travel towels – they’re large enough to wrap around your body but fold up to the size of a book. These towels are ultra absorbent yet lightweight and quick-drying, perfect for being on the move.
- iPhones – Where to begin? Well I’m writing this on my phone right now, amply demonstrating the ease of blog and email writing anywhere at any time, ready to deploy the minute we come within range of wifi! Aside from the obvious advantages of being able to stay in touch with the outside world, listening to music and taking photos, the plethora of apps available means that the iPhone can become your guidebook, currency converter, map, GPS, translator, taxi meter and board game amongst other things. I honestly don’t know where we’d be without our phones (seriously, we wouldn’t have google latitude would we?)!
- Flip flops – Ok this one is mine alone as Simon hasn’t got any, but I’m particularly grateful for these as they were the last thing I packed (thanks Mum!). Flip flops are great for shared bathrooms, beaches and basically any situation too wet for suede sandals or walking boots (e.g. flood waters – just watch they don’t float off). They also make a nice change from the footwear you’ve spent all day trudging around the city or countryside in.
- Hand sanitiser (otherwise known to us as handisan) – the perfect way to clean your hands in situations where soap and water are lacking or sanitary conditions are unfavourable.
- Roll-on mosquito repellent. Ok, I know I said top five but I couldn’t leave this one out! As Simon has discovered, spray-on mosquito repellent seems to be more effective at coating your airways with DEET rather than your skin. Roll-on repellent, whilst being slightly more unpleasant to apply, is definitely less hazardous to the (human) health and keeps those winged vampires at bay.
The five things we most regret bringing:
- Three white T-shirts. Needless to say, none of them are white any more! I know that Simon is feeling nice and smug about this one, having brought only one white T-shirt with him, but to me it seemed like a good idea at the time! My (flawed) thinking was that white goes with everything, is great to wear in the heat and as my friend Vic pointed out is great for showing off a tan! As it turns out white is (perhaps unsurprisingly) good at showing up dirt, and necklines and sleeve edges take on a grubby orange tinge from sun lotion. Oh well, at least it provided me with the perfect excuse to buy a new purple T-shirt in India!
- A few too many books. Now it’s my turn to feel smug having brought out one book to Simon’s four. Books are of course a great way to while away a few hours on long journeys but are also a bit of a dead weight when you can only read one at a time. At least I’ve benefitted from Simon’s library and his Mum would be proud!
- Nope, that’s it! Turns out we actually packed pretty well.
A couple of helpful items we’ve picked up along the way:
- An umbrella. I’m not sure I truly appreciated the humble umbrella until I began travelling in a hot climate. Umbrellas are just fantastic, and so versatile! They keep you (and your bag) dry in monsoon rains whilst allowing you to remain cool, a feature you’ll appreciate once you’ve sweated it out in a raincoat. Umbrellas also double-up as a sunshade, providing relief from the burning sun whilst offering the perfect way to hide from the persistent invasive stares of Indian men.
- A local SIM card. Local SIMs are a cheap and convenient way to ring ahead and book accommodation, allowing the phone to fulfil its true calling. They also permit the use of data for when you just can’t live without internet connection!
And finally, some highs and lows…
Best meal – Boneless chicken masala and vegetable jalfrezi with Kashmiri rice and naan at Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, Jaipur, India.
Worst meal – Strips of fat in Beijing, China.
Best hostel – Little Hanoi, Hanoi, Vietnam. Nice clean 6-bed dorm, big beds, free fruit and drinks in common area, free wifi, breakfast included and the loveliest, most helpful staff. All for £4 each per night.
Worst hostel – Family Peace House, Kathmandu, Nepal. Perhaps a little harsh, the place was adequate, good location and free wifi but fairly indifferent staff and grotty rooms. The bathroom felt a bit like a prison cell!
Best room – Cabin onboard the Golden Star Junk in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Nicely fitted out, good decor, clean and with the most spectacular views!
Worst room – Hotel Bobina, Gorakphur, India. Expensive, dirty and mosquito-ridden.
Best journey – 42 hour train journey from Beijing to Lhasa. Nice compartments and excellent company – thanks Solveig and Gardar!
Worst journey – Bus from Kathmandu to Langtang, Nepal. The worst roads ever! Navigating terrifying landslides with the bus teetering on the edge definitely made us question our mortality.
Best toilet – Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, Jaipur, India. Beautifully adorned with decorative blue and white tiles, clean and complete with toilet paper. Definitely worthy of the distinction of “quality”!
Worst toilet – Everest base camp, Tibet. Three holes in the concrete floor with no partitions and delightful smell of composting human waste.
Best sight – Jodhpur fort. A majestic hilltop fort with beautiful glowing stained glass, and spectacular views over the blue city.
Worst sight – Pushkar lake. A big disappointment, surrounded on all sides by concrete and pushy “holy men” asking for donations.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post congratulations! That’s all for now, roll on months 4-6!