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22/03/10 - 21/06/2010

TRAVELS 2010

In October 2009, having just returned from a short trip to Singapore and Malaysia, I began to wonder whether, amongst years of travelling around central and eastern Europe, I had somewhat ignored the travel potential of Asia. After all, so many aspects of this continent had held my fascination for years: Everest and the Himalayas, the subcontinent of India, the completely different cultures of China, and the backpackers lure of South-East Asia. I quickly came to the conclusion that it was the right time to take a long period of leave from work, pack my bags and begin to explore Asia. I could realise my dream of seeing Everest, and take the time out from work and routine that I so badly wanted. Within about two weeks, I had booked three months off work - from March to July - and got myself a place in a group heading to Everest, and also found a great travel partner for India, in Lawrence. Three months of organisation, deliberation, research, booking flights, sorting visas, and getting vaccinations followed, and on Monday, 22nd March 2010, I boarded a flight from Dublin, bound via Amsterdam and Bahrain, to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. ...and it happened almost exactly like this...

22/03/10 - 20/04/2010

KATHMANDU

03/04/10 - 17/04/2010

EVEREST BASECAMP

20/04/10 - 13/05/2010

INDIA

14/05/10 - 31/05/2010

CHINA

01/06/10 - 18/06/2010

CAMBODIA

18/06/10 - 21/06/2010

THAILAND

KATHMANDU nepal

On my first day in Kathmandu, Nepal, I wandered down towards (Palace) Square, the main tourist area of the City. The square is full of Buddhist and Hindu temples, but quite honestly, I hadnt a clue what was going on and was sitting there looking a bit lost, when approached by a guide, who offered to give me a tour of the square. This is supposedly common here, and youre generally warned that it probably isnt the best way to spend your money, but having talked to the guy for ten minutes (more about trekking and Nepali politics than guided tours), I figured it would be worth six or seven euro for an hour or so to learn a bit more from somebody local. We finished up about five hours later... having seen every temple in the place, witnessed the start of and annual harvest festival procession, and seeing the Kumari... The Annual Harvest festival consisted of a huge chariot with big, solid wooden wheels, which locals and children had spent all morning preparing. On top of the chariot, there was a very precarious wooden, leaf-covered spike, pyramidal in shape, about 30 metres high, but just one metre squared at the bottom. To huge cheering, throwing of coins and flowers, and setting fire to leaves and incense and juniper on the streets, the chariot was pulled by rope, very slowly, through the narrow streets around Durbar Square. I discovered that last year, within the first 10 metres of moving, the spike fell over and smashed through the Palace Roof, causing untold damage. Hence the general scenes of hysteria and panic as the procession rumpled underway yesterday. I also got to see Nepals famous (and apparently brutal) Gurkha Army.

The Kumari Temple is home to Kathmandus Living Goddess, a four year old girl who is chosen as a very young female (through a fairly horrific selection process, involving checking of 32 physical attributes as well as having to endure scenes of 108 live animal sacrifices, and a night-long in a darkened temple being taunted by men in monstrous masks (if you can endure that at the age of three, youre considered to have what it takes to be a living Goddess)... Then, she is taken from her family (who can visit her a few times a week) and looked after by a group of Hindu priests until her first period, when she is set back into normal society... So this girl appears at the window inside the courtyard of the Kumari Temple after four oclock every afternoon, or appears on the streets, in a golden chariot, about 12 times a year. As it was the festival, though, she came out yesterday for a look. I was standing amongst throngs of people as she passed, sitting there, glancing around very regally (impressive, for a four-year old). As I took a picture, she looked straight towards the camera - it was one of those rare shots where everything works out despite the fact everything should go wrong - and is almost haunting. Shes the same age as my niece and yet has thousands of people flocking to see and worship her.

Today, Ram and I went to two Buddhist Temples (or Stupas), one called the monkey temple (or Swayambunath), and one called Bhoudha Nait, which is apparently the largest Buddha Stupa in the world. I learned what felt like everything there is to know about Hindu and Buddhism (but what is probably 1% of what you NEED to know to know anything!). We then went to Pashupatinath, I think the largest Hindu temple in Nepal on the banks of the River Bagmati. This huge complex includes what are called the Cremation Ghats, which is where a huge proportion of the people living here wish to be cremated when they die. It was the most extraordinary, and yet peaceful place Ive ever been. By and large, my camera was kept tucked away, as you are literally standing across a narrow and horrifically polluted river from families, as they say goodbye to their cloth-wrapped deceased and then, very slowly and very somberly, set them alight on the banks of the river, in the middle of this huge temple complex, as other visitors, mourners, or tourists like me, look on. Very sobering.

Halfway back to Kathmandu, Ram and I got off the bus, and decided to trek down into the valley, across the Bagmati river, and up the other side through the small villages of Khokana and Bungemati. The trek was about 5 or 6 km, passing through rural agricultural land where garlic, potatoes, wheat and other crops were being grown. It was absolutely beautiful. The two villages we passed through were amazing - incredibly rural for somewhere within six or seven kilometres of Kathmandus outskirts. The streets were unpaved, and goats, ducks, sheep and dogs wandered through the streets amongst the general goings-on. There were no shops (in the sense that we know them) but the places were really hives of activity. The people living in this area of Nepal belong to the Newari group, who have their own culture and even language. My impression was that most of the people in this area (but outside of Kathmandu) looked more Tibetan than the Indian appearances of many of the people in the city. We decided to find somewhere to eat in Bungemati, and found a tiny house to have lunch. The shop front was a tiny doorway in a very old building, and we passed through into an almost completely dark and tiny room at the back, with a table large enough to almost fill the whole space, lit by a single candle. There were about ten men sitting on benches set against the walls around the table, smoking and drinking out of shallow, wide tin bowls. The floor was dusty concrete and covered with everything from dirty Coke crates to washing-up bowls full of tin containers, with ducks noisily picking any food they could find out of them! We ordered some (luke-warm) Chang or rice beer (which was served out of an old tin kettle into shallow tin bowls), and then had some sort of rice-flour pancakes with lentil stew, a plate of barbecued and finely-chopped water-buffalo cooked in chillies, and dried, beaten rice, along with some very spicy chilli-vegetables and lentil soup. I threw caution to the wind completely, and decided that I could recover from any ill effects today if necessary, but it was the best meal Ive had since getting here.

I think I also provided the local people here with huge entertainment, as Im guessing VERY few Westerners have ever eaten there before. They all sat there watching me eat, occasionally turning to Ram and asking something, then nodding, and looking back to stare at me again. They were fascinated hearing me speak, and asked Ram what language it was. He told them it was English, but had to clarify this by saying that it was the same language that they spoke in America. The novelty wore off eventually, though, and they went back to a very animated discussion about politics and the Maoist politicians.

On Thursday, I met up with Ram again, and we took a local bus from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur - another UNESCO World Heritage site. The contrasts between here and Kathmandu are extreme - it is a quiet, almost rural, and architecturally extremely beautiful city, 15 kilometres further south of Kathmandu. Getting there was a drag - the Japanese are funding the construction of a new road between the two cities, but it would appear (from my brief experience of building roads) that its being built in a very piecemeal, inefficient and laborious manner, not helped by the fact that the construction site for the road is also multi-tasking as the current road, so traffic mayhem, dust, construction and diggers all thrown into the mix. Which made getting to Bhaktapur all the more rewarding. As we arrived, there was a big festival taking place, which from my understanding appeared to be the equivalent of a first holy communion or something similar at home. Needless to say, this involved more animals being slaughtered, and for better or worse, I found myself at the very front of the crowd as a huge water buffalo was being slaughtered. Literally having to jump out of the way as the animal flayed... almost a bit too much for me. Having seen animal slaughters at the weekend at Dakshinkali, I suppose you could say I was slightly more used to it, but here, it felt less spiritual and, given my proximity, quite brutal. However, this is part of the culture and, once cleaned, the meat is used to feed a feast for the childs family and relatives, and again, the whole thing is consider a sacred and religious part of the festivities.

Yesterday, I went with Ram to Godavari - hometown to both the Royal Botanical Gardens, and Ram and his family. He invited me to his home for breakfast, which I was extremely grateful for. His house is located in a small part of the village on the hillside, overlooking Godavari town, and surrounded by the homes of his brothers. The houses here are very primitive, but I was made feel really, really comfortable, not to mention being made feel a real novelty for his children, nieces, nephews and, most of all, his 78 year old mother! There is no doubt that the people here are very poor, and material possessions might be considered, particularly among the rural people, to be very few and far between. But sitting on the bare concrete ground in that very simple house yesterday, eating Dhal Bhat and fruit and being surrounded by Ram and his extended family, it was quite special to see such a happy, smiling and loving family life, and the friendliness of the everyone there, and their love for each other, was just fantastic. The kids, who were beautiful, were so cheerful, interested and interesting, and to be honest, I didnt want to leave! However, we did, and Ram, his 10 year old nephew, 13 year old daughter and 16 year old son took me around the Royal Botanical Gardens, about a 35-minute trek from his home. I guess once youve seen one botanical garden, youve got a good idea of what theyre all like, but this one, so near to the chaos and smog of Kathmandu, was such a peaceful, pleasant breath of fresh air... maybe Id leave it for others to comment on how good a garden it is (botanically speaking), but it was a lovely place to be for an afternoon, particularly just before having to head back to the city to get everything ready for the trek.

EVEREST BASECAMP nepal

There is really no way I can go into enough detail about my 17 day trek from Lukla to Everest Basecamp and back, but on Saturday, 2nd April, I met up with the group of 11 other trekkers, comprising three Australians, two Americans, two Irish, and five English (9 girls, 3 guys). Id been concerned about how the group would work, but as soon as we all went for dinner that night, it was obvious, I think, that pretty much everybody was very like-minded and would get on well.

The following morning, we had an extremely early start for a flight to Lukla, renowned as being the most dangerous airport in the world! The runway lies perpendicular to a narrow mountainous valley, so planes (mostly single or twin props) need to fly into the valley and make a right angle turn onto an extremely short runway (so short, in fact, that it is inclined to 12 degrees, to both slow down landing planes, and assist planes taking off in acceleration). From Lukla, after a small bit of time to collect the nerves again, we met up with our five porters and three assistant guides, as well as Prakash, our lead guide, and set off into the hills.

Without going into detail of each place, we generally followed the river valley of the Milky River up towards basecamp over eight days, including two acclimatisation days, climbing a total of 3,500m to Everest Basecamp (just over 5,300m). I could never have anticipated the toll that altitude could take, seemingly more on the boys in the group (aka blouses) than the girls! Everything from splitting headaches, to middle-of-the-night panic attacks, to vomiting and diarrhoea... non-stop for all but three or four of the group! The day we made it to Everest Basecamp, one of the guys was so ill that he was on the point of being carried back down by two of the porters, ironically enough in the same place where, tragically, two days before, a porter had collapsed with, and died from, acute altitude sickness. It subsequently emerged that, except in the most extreme of emergencies, where we were at that point is generally considered inaccessible for even helicopters. It was funny how little things stuck me as we progressing higher towards basecamp... whatever about there being no cars (obviously), it occurred to me that, after three or four days, there were no trees - just the burnt purple of dried juniper shrubs, the slaty shale rock and the endless, swirling clouds of dust. I just couldnt wait to see trees again! Although, truth be told, the priorities fast became some decent food (never let me see Dal Bhat again), a western toilet, and a shower that didnt involve somebody pouring warm water into a roof-mounted bucket...

The Himalayan porters are incredible workers, whether they be porters for trips/groups like ours, or carrying provisions, supplies or even building materials to the primitive teahouses where we ate and slept. The tried-and-proven means of carrying everything is on the back, but rather by straps on the shoulders or around the arms, all weight is supported by a thick, rope-bound strapping around the forehead, and the load carried by leaning far enough forward to hold the weight by the head while also balancing it on the back.

For me, the definite highlights of the trip were the group with whom I shared it... definitely people there that I would really hope to stay in touch with a remain friends with, but also, as far as the trip goes, reaching both Everest Basecamp, trekking the Khumbu Glacier and witnessing 1st hand the Khumbu Icefall, but also making it, at 6:00 in the morning at -10 degrees, to the top of Kala Patthar, a smallish (5,550m) hill directly in front of, and with extraordinary views of, Mount Everest. To see the sun rising, peaking up from the valley to the left of Everest, with air so cold and so thin I could barely gasp it standing still, has to be what epitomised that trip for me. As someone said the night we got back to Kathmandu, it was the best, and worst, two weeks of my life!

INDIA

Having flown from Kathmandu, arriving in Delhi (with Lawrence) was a bit confusing; we were told on the plane that it was 45 degrees Celsius, yet it didnt feel too hot (a dry, non-humid climate makes all the difference). We were told that arriving in India can be a shocking and overwhelming experience, but the airport was huge, pristine, air-conditioned, efficient and easy (with the exception of Lawrence scrawling his arrival info onto his Indian passport-visa, rather than his landing card, which created some consternation for the immigration staff!!!). Even the journey into the City Centre (Paharganj, where we had decided to stay) was impressive, with well-moving traffic, some beautiful colonial architecture, clean and tidy roads... the shock that I had expected from India was completely eluding me! But then you get to Paherganj, a run-down, crowded, yet tourist-area of Central Delhi north of Connaught Place. It didnt help our impressions that Paherganj (like the rest of the city) is being dug up and rebuilt for the Commonwealth Games in September (one of the plans is a brand-new overground/underground metro system to the airport... looking at its current status, I think theres NO WAY itll be ready in time, but as they say here... this is India!). So Paherganj consisted of narrow side-streets running off the main bazaar, which was literally heaped a metre high along its length with rubble, but everybody just carried on as normal, walking on top of, around and through it!

As we stood outside the hotel getting our bearings, though, Delhi (almost) hit me... standing outside a dingy street-side caf, I heard a loud splat on the ground not six inches away from me, and looked down to see the biggest, blackest rat Ive ever seen, struggling back onto all fours having fallen right beside me from some height and, then, after what I swear was a grin up at me, proceeding to make his escape through my legs. Welcome to Delhi! Our first night in Delhi was quite uneventful... for a backpacker or tourist, Delhi is not a place where you will meet tourists everywhere, nor find tourist oriented cafs or bars. In fact, it pretty much shuts up by midnight, and as we would later discover, finding somewhere to drink after that is something you do at your own peril! The next day (Wednesday), we got up and walked down to Connaught Place from the hotel, which like I mentioned, is essentially a building site in preparation for the Common-Wealth Games in September. Then, having negotiated our trip to Agra the following day with the official (government-run) tourist office (ha!), we got hailed a tuk-tuk and the tuk-tuk driver got his business for the day... First we went to the Gateway of India, which is very big and pretty spectacular, and then went from there south to the Humayan Tomb (essentially, a red-brick Taj Mahal!). Anyone going to Delhi should set aside at least two hours to visit it though. After that, we moved southwards to the Loghi Gardens, which our driver seemed to think we needed to visit (he wasnt quite clear, but there was something about peace and quiet, and lots of girls!). Anyway, there werent lots of girls, but it was the most peaceful place I found in Delhi, and we literally spent an hour just walking around, looking at the gardens and birds (weird, in India, all the ravens and crows walk around with their peaks wide open all the time! Must be a dehydration thing!).

That evening, after eating in the same place in Paherganj we had found the first night (and where we would eat the following night too!), we decided to head to a fairly exclusive club about 6 or 7 miles out of the City. We got a tuk-tuk there, only to discover that they didnt like the look of our flipflops! So back in a taxi, back to Paherganj (getting lost along the way, with me having to tell the driver how to negotiate Connaught Place to where we were staying), on with the shoes, and back to our waiting cab. Which didnt start. We tried pushing it, but to no avail (God bless us, the young fella driving, genuinely, didnt have a clue!). At that point, it all got too much for Lawrence, who blew it, suggested the driver get out, and hopped in, started it for him and revved it so hard I was waiting for it to blow up!!! After that, the driver had a new sense of urgency about him and drove like a demon back to the club, ignoring each and every speed-ramp, almost decapitating me in the process, and propelling a fastasleep Lawrence clean off the back seat onto the floor in the back, twice. The club wasnt worth it. It was terrible. Well, thats probably not fair, but it was definitely not our scene. We were the only Westerners in there, it was 90% blingy men over 40, and a sprinkling of suspiciously young-looking girls. Im not sure what the mobscene is in India, but this certainly would have been the place to find out! We only stayed because our cover charge covered about 40 euro worth of beer, which there was no way I was leaving behind me! We left there after a few beers, and decided to call it a night in Paherganj, with me sitting on the rat-infested footpath in Paharganj, drinking a beer in a brown paper-bag and eating Pringles, while Lawrence convinced the JCB driver working on the street that he should drive, and the road-works foreman carried on as normal, directing Lawrence in his new-found duty as JCB driver in clearing up the rubble from Paherganj at 3am, while me, a shop keeper, three street kids and about ten mangy street dogs looked on, somewhat bemused... Lawrence is keen to get his CV updated to say that he worked on the reconstruction of Delhi for the Common-Wealth Games.

The following morning was an early start... pick up from the hotel to drive some 250km to Agra. I slept for the bulk of the journey, only to be woken by sporadic screeches from Lawrence in the front, the most dramatic of which came as we sped down a dual carriageway in the fast lane, only to be met by a waterbuffalo-drawn carriage, bumbling along towards us in the very same lane. A few other minor events, notably due to the fact that roads cross dual carriageways with very little indication or regard for right-of-way... Agra itself is a fairly run-down, bustling place, but obviously the main point of our getting there was to see the Taj Mahal. Weve all seen the pictures and read to descriptions, but after 5 hours in a car, I felt a bit sceptical. But for what its worth, the Taj Mahal, when you see it for real, is the most incredible thing. Its more beautiful, whiter, more magnificent, and certainly smaller, than you can ever expect. Having taken pretty much exactly the same photograph of it 56 times, we moved onto the Agra fort. Too tired by then though... big fort, lots of bits to it, loads of Indians... lets go home! That night, after dinner, we went for a beer in a rooftop caf/bar in Paherganj called Club India, and just watched the happenings in the street below us. Lawrence was dead right in saying that everywhere, something is happening, even at 11 in the evening. Groups of men sitting, smoking and chatting; young guys doing dealings of some sort or other; rows of homeless in vests and shorts sleeping down for the night; herds of cows sitting amongst chaotically-parked cars, buses, tuk-tuks and carts... every square inch has some activity in Delhi.

We seemed to have timed Goa remarkably badly, because there wasnt a soul there to speak of, all the resorts, restaurants and bars were either closed for renovation or harbouring minute gatherings of locals who all seemed to be inbred and male. Luckily, none of this was very relevant to me, as I spent the entire first day in bed, apart from 10 minute interval trips to the loo either getting sick or trotting water. Our one day-trip involved getting a taxi around some of the sites in Goa, as well as taking a boat safari along the Mandavi River, visiting the Sahakari Spice farm and the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary. All this before an overnight train to Mumbai (much sooner than planned, but still not soon enough)...

My lasting memory of Mumbai, apart from some good partying in Leopolds and the Mahesh Lunch House, will be arriving very early on the morning of the 27th April into CST train station and getting a cab to look for our hotel. As we drove through the early morning dawn, I was amazed to see the number of people, with no mattresses, covers or shelter, lining the pavements, fast asleep. But of all these, the one person that struck me the most was a baby, who could not have been more than a year old, completely naked, asleep on the base concrete of the roadside. I dont think Ill ever forget that image. Mumbai is a bustling, business-like city, with the extremities of wealth and poverty for which India is known. Its a city where the hustlers recognise you long after youve forgotten them, where they know who you are with and where youve been, despite your not having any recollection of having seen them before... Our time there gave Lawrence and me a good opportunity to savour some good Indian food, visit some of the more cultural offerings of India, and spend hours catching up after not having seen each other for too long.

Having seen Lawrence off, I headed from Mumbai, alone, to visit Sravan Kanukuntla, a former Indian work colleague. I arrived safely in Hyderabad early on the 3rd May (4 hours late) and met up with Sravan no problem. It was good to see him and his new place is fantastic. Sravan and his extended family were the perfect hosts during my stay in Hyderabad and Secunderabad after leaving Mumbai: As I wrote to him after I left: It was so lovely to come and see you, not in Ireland, but in your own hometown. I was also absolutely honoured by the hospitality and kindness that you all showed me, in taking me into your home and treating me like a real guest. Your house is absolutely fantastic (Well done!) and it was also so nice to meet Sharmilas family and spend time with them. I really dont think Ill ever forget it! Also, thanks so much for taking so much time and effort to show me around Secunderabad and Hyderabad - both are fascinating places with fascinating things to see. Thank you again!

From Hyderabad, I eventually plucked up the courage to head to Kolkata (the former Calcutta), Bengal, on my own. I think Kolkata will always remain my favourite place in India. From my arrival, after 30 hours in a train compartment with a threegeneration family, including three under ten year olds, I realised that it had an energy and buzz that I think I went to try to find in India. While this may have included nearly being killed in the taxi from the train station, and the driver then getting completely lost and chucking me out in the middle of a slum after dark, it also included fantastically friendly Indian kite flyers, brilliant co-travellers, amazing sites, and incredible food. It was amazing to visit the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns established by Mother Theresa, and to see where she lived, and died, in her time in Kolkata. Kolkata is a fascinating, if very poor place. I met up with a German guy (Jens) when I arrived so I went out with him and some others for a lot of my time there. It was hot as hell there, with all the Indians continuously complaining, moaning and passing out! Kolkata was everything I expected, but hot and humid!

CHINA

I flew from Kolkata to Beijing, via Singapore, on Thursday 13th May and found that I really struggled to make my self understood anywhere! Very, very, few people, even in Beijing, speak enough English to have a basic conversation (ordering food, booking hotel rooms, etc.) so it was pretty challenging. I had a contact for a tour-guide (Niu Ze Min) from some friends in Kathmandu, so I was able to link up with him and met him (and then, Maggie Pan, another guide working for him) on Saturday, and went to see the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, both of which were amazing. After that, I spent a day looking around different parts of the City itself, which is very varied, but predominantly very modern, big, and clean and efficient, largely, I guess, due to the Olympic Games 2008. However, this is contrasted by the alleyways of an older City (called Hutongs). On my last day in Beijing, I had planned a fairly quiet day, with plans to go to an art museum to learn a bit about Chinese art, but on the way to breakfast, I was approached by a Chinese girl in the street who wanted to practice her English (lots of people do that here, just stop and chat to you for ten minutes). Anyway, it seemed a shame to waste the company, so I asked her to go for coffee. Breakfast, coffee, 3 glasses of wine, lunch, a walk in the park, 4 beers, and dinner later, she saw me off on the train at 9:24 last night! Her English was great and it was really nice to have some company for the day!

I had had a long discussion with my guide about where to see the Great Wall of China. He offered Badaling first, but I had read that it was super-touristy there, so we drove about 3 hours north-east of Beijing to a fairly remote part of the Wall at Jingshanling, to trek along a crumbing, remote and empty 10km of the wall to the littlemore touristy Samutai. The wall in these areas has been only partially repaired, which makes for a somewhat more genuine impression of the original wall. I spent a few hours trekking along it, with pretty much nobody else around but me and a local guide, who was a local farmers son, 22 years of age (but a father nonetheless, of two children). Ive never been so amazed by anything, nor have I ever taken exactly the same photograph so many times over...!

From Beijing, I took an overnight train journey to Xian. I slept like a log in what was like 5-star luxury compared to the trains in India. One of the people in the sleeper compartment on the train was a girl who lectures electronics in the University there, and I chatted to her for ages, and she drew me a big map of Xian with all the different things that I should go and see. I had been warned that Xian was very touristy, but that, to me, was a good thing at that stage... I spent most of my time in Xian exploring some of the museums there (including the Forest of the Stelae Museum, which houses over 1,000 stone pillars carved for commemorative purposes, called Stelae), pagodas (including the incredible Great Goose Pagoda), walking the city walls and exploring the streets for art or other bits and pieces. I reckon the appeal of China isnt as immediate as India (which you either immediately hate, as most people do, or immediately love, as I did), but I really think giving it a chance is worth it.

A visit to the incredible Terracotta Army, some 20km east of Xian, is an incredible experience. The sheer number of soldiers, and the very fact that they are still being dug up and meticulously reconstructed to this day, is truly awe-inspiring. The assembled army in the first pit, as they would have been over 2,000 years ago when they were built to guard the tomb of ruler Qin Shi Huangdi, is vast, and a site to behold. I wondered, however, if the presentation and preservation of this site might have been rushed by the Chinese after the discovery of army in the early 70s by local farmers. Entering the pits feels very like walking into an aeroplane hanger, and the overall site that houses this amazing discovery feels more like an industrial park (complete with KFC) than a world class cultural heritage site. Having a book signed by the very farmer who discovered the army, however, was ample consolation for my disappointment in that regard...!

On the overnight train from Xian to Shanghai (hard-class, which is the lowest class, but still miles better than the highest class in India!), I met a great Chinese girl on the train who I spent pretty much the whole night talking to, and she gave me some really good tips on where else in China to visit. She also wrote out the name of the my Shanghai hostel in mandarin. When I got a taxi to the address, we drove up and down the street about three times looking for the hostel, before realising that the rubbled site of a recently demolished building corresponded to the address. The taxi driver was bemused, but insisted that wed reached the destination and wasnt too interested in any further dealings with me. Having been chucked out, I wandered around looking for somewhere else to stay, 30kg of luggage on my back. I eventually found a lovely hostel on the Bund (expensive, being Expo), but with a lovely en-suite room. I met an Australian guy at another hostel I tried, who was travelling on his own, so went for lunch with him, and also later on for beers and food.

Shanghai appeared completely different to Beijing and Xian. The shopping and city itself, the Bund, the Shanghai Museum, and the Yu Gardens and Bazaar, all kept me entertained for three days, and a miscellany of bars and restaurants around the Bund area, as well as the somewhat ominous C-Club, in the company of other backpackers, kept me adequately entertained during the evenings...

I went to Expo for a day before leaving Shanghai, which surprisingly was quite cool. The exhibition area is vast, so selected pavilions needed to be chosen with care I went to the Ireland Pavilion (which was really, really impressive), along with the German, Nepal and Indian ones, and an Urban themed one, which was also very good. But the bulk of the day was spent queuing and it was actually a bit septic, so, good experience, but glad to get out of there!

I got a 24 hour train from Shanghai to Guilin (I wasnt sure if it would go, as that exact line was one that had crashed the previous Sunday, but they had cleared it, so it ran). Guilin, characterised by dramatic limestone mountains rising out of the landscape, usually shrouded in a damp mist, was cool very touristy, very wet, but seemed very nice! I spend a day around the town, followed by a very rough night out in Guilin, involving an impromptu gig with an American guy in an Irish bar, before getting the boat down the Li river to a small town called Yangzhuo, and staying there for a night.

The following day, I hired a bike and headed south from Yangzhuo towards a temple called Jianshan and a series of underground caves. The road was full of Chinese kids and couples out cycling for the day, and as the only Westerner on the route, I feel like I definitely became a bit of a novelty for the day!

CAMBODIA

Having flown from Nanning in Southern China to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, I took a six hour bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, near the Thai border, to meet the cycling group and to set off cycling around Cambodia. Seeing the country from the bus was frightening, and we stopped in a village on the way up for a pee-break, and its honestly the first time since Ive been travelling that Ive been afraid of the beggars. Rural Cambodia is still riddled with land mines from both the Khmer Rouge and the Americans (a good reason to move around with a guide rather than trying to do it on your own), and the number of land mine victims you see is horrendous. But this one aggressive guy tried to stop me getting back on the bus, begging, he had one leg, no hands and his whole face, including one eye, had been completely burnt away... he made a point of poking me with his stump wrists and putting a very distorted face right up to mine... I got freaked! Siem Reap was brilliant and the cycling group I met up with were great, though a little unusual age-wise... a 64 year old Aussie guy, a 56 year old English guy and a 31 year old Aussie girl, but all good fun and the cycling was amazing, as were the hotel and restaurants (all inclusive). Our first couple of days were spent cycling around the vast complex of temples that is Angkor. The temples were built over a period of about 600 years from 800 AD to 1400 AD, but then lay in ruins from the end of the Angkorian period to its discovery in the 1800s and subsequent restoration in the mid 1900s. This means that many of the temples were completely engulfed by the forest, and now have huge tree trunks growing around, through and amongst them like giant snakes... amazing.

There are a number of floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, directly South of Siem Reap. On the second day of the cycling trip, we got a boat down the river and out onto the lake to visit the floating village of Chong Kneas, inhabited mainly by fishing families. It was a fantastic thing to see, despite the fact that the area as full of tourists, it was dull and rainy, and the river connecting the port to the lake was so low that the tour boats were constantly running aground, requiring the services of local kids to push, haul and then narrowly dodge the spinning propellers at the end of booms astern of the boats. As we arrived at the village, we were greeted with tourist-wise kids sporting snakes around their necks and posing for photographs in return for money, solicited by their somewhat aggressive mothers.

The day before we arrived in Phnom Penh, the cycle was long and really hard and, resulting from a combination of tiredness and not being used to the heat, we made slower progress than I think we were scheduled to have, meaning that dusk was setting in before reaching our destination for the day. Our guide decided that we would finish the day getting a Bamboo Train to where we were going. We arrived at a very makeshift train-station, with a huge group of Cambodian kids running around, hugely exciting by us and the expectation of accompanying us on the train ride. When the train arrived, it was little more than a platform of tiedtogether lengths of bamboo, with a diesel engine and two sets of train wheels. As we mounted and whizzed through the Cambodian landscape at dusk, surrounded by kids and mopeds, I really felt like I had gone back in time, and pretty much forgot about everything for that (somewhat uncomfortable) 30 minutes.

Phnom Penh is a bustling and not very pleasant city, starkly revealing the contrast between Cambodias extreme poverty and politically connected wealth. However, while there, a friend I had met when I first arrived and I got out to visit S21, which was the school that the Khmer Rouge converted to a torture camp in 1975 before taking almost 20,000 people to be killed 12km north of Phnom Penh at the so-called Killing Fields. It was absolutely harrowing... While in Phnom Penh, the cycling group also saw the Killing Fields and, along with a book I was reading about the Khmer Rouge (First They Killed my Father), it left me feeling pretty devastated by the whole thing. Its shocking what this country has been through, and even more shocking to realise how little appears to have been done to bring those responsible to justice.

As we headed down to southern Cambodia, including Kep / Kampot / Sihanoukville I realised that in many ways, Cambodia is one of the best places Ive ever visited...! In Kep, we stayed in the most incredible complex of lodged (one per person), and ate the best seafood Ive ever experienced in a corrugated iron hut overhanging the beach.

My last destination in Cambodia, and of the trip prior to heading home via Bangkok, was on the south coast of Cambodia in a place called Sihanoukville - lovely beaches but the town was a kip! Full of 18 year old backpackers and drop-outs who are probably there for all the wrong reasons...! Despite that, it was one of the easiest places Ive found it to meet people. A group of us (two German girls, a Welsh girl, an English guy and I) got a fishing boat to one of the Islands off the coast, and spent the whole day swimming, snorkelling and basically chilling out and doing very little (barbecued fish on the beach was pretty cool, though!). Went for drinks and dinner with the three girls and spent half the night drinking beers on the beach talking. Other past-times in Sihanoukville included 90 minute massages from a blind masseuse (youre allowed that after cycling 650km) and spending a considerable amount of time at the Starfish Bakery and Caf, which was an NGO run complex of craft shops, a bakery, a caf, and a massage parlour. Prior to heading home, I spent hours here writing notes, drinking coffee, reading, and generally reflecting on what has most definitely been the experience of a lifetime...

THAILAND

It took seven hours and four different minibuses on a wet and misty afternoon and evening to get from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailands infamous capital, the South-East Asian hub for backpackers, and my last stop before flying home. My three days there are a blur of re-packing my things, picking up a few last minute gifts, exploring Bangkoks renowned Khao San Road, and seeing the Grand Palace and reclining Buddha. It sounds terrible to say this, but the combination of exhaustion and still being somewhat overwhelmed by what I had seen in Nepal, India, China and Cambodia, meant that Bangkok served purely as a rest-stop, and a place to get ready to fly home. As I sat drinking beer and eating food on my last evening in Bangkoks Chinatown, on my own, I tried to prepare mentally for flying home and seeing my family again. I wondered what I was most excited about - catching up with them, showing them my thousands of pictures, telling them embellished stories about things Id seen, or giving them the little bits and pieces I had picked up for them? I couldnt wait for any of this, but after 90 days traveling, I realised that in truth, what I was most excited about, was arriving home and just knowing, myself, that Id done it. That these were the adventures Id dreamed for years of having and that now, Id gone out there, and experienced them for myself. Nothing can change that now. JM July 2011