New Delhi and Jaisalmer, India (April 2010)

After more than two months of traveling, we think we’re getting a bit better at it. When we got to Delhi, we used the Delhi police station pre-paid taxi stand, where the driver doesn’t get paid until they present their official voucher back to the police, but we still managed to get ourselves stuck with a scam artist driver. On our way to the Pahar Ganj area (backpacker cluster) our driver, after a few tricky twists and turns down dark streets, brought us to a road that was blocked by a pile of rubble, explaining that he didn’t know another way to get to our guesthouse. He took Daniel into a nearby sketchy “tourist information office” and was going to have them, rather than us, make a call to the guesthouse (presumably to tell us that the guesthouse was closed). The guy at the tourist information office told Daniel that everyone had been having trouble getting to that area, that all the roads were closed off and it would be impossible to get there (most likely they would have had a suggestion of another place to stay, from which they would receive a commission for delivering us). Daniel smartly lied to them, saying that that was funny – we were meeting friends there and they hadn’t had any issues arriving. The information office guy said a quick word to the driver in Hindi, definitely not enough to be alternative directions to the guesthouse, and the driver proceeded to take us directly to the door. Take that, jerks.

We spent the first few days in Delhi nursing a nasty cold that we had picked up at our hostel in Beijing and feeling a bit travel weary and sort of homesick. It was also over 100 degrees out every day, and staying in the backpacker area we were hounded by touts and travel agents every time we left the guesthouse. One wouldn’t let us go and when we finally said okay to his business card, he wouldn’t give it to us but had us come inside instead and read testimonials. When we tried to leave, he started making accusations and getting really aggressive yet telling us to relax and not be in such a hurry, to not be afraid of him because he was a human being, too, which of course made me feel terrible. Finally we just left. Another guy followed us up and down the street talking to us while his friend followed us from about ten feet behind for quite awhile (unnerving because we were actually looking for an ATM, although most likely they were just taking turns harassing us). We did check out some of the area’s many rooftop restaurants, open air or draped in thin, sarong-like tapestries, above the chaos of the street below, eating dal and chapati, vegetable biryani, hardboiled egg curry (delicious), incredibly salty pickles, and a few “thalis”, combination platters with tasty things on them that we couldn’t identify. We even got to see a marionette show and some fireworks, but never made it to any of the city’s famous sights. We did, however, learn a few jingles on TV from commercials for air conditioning systems, which I think is a pretty useful thing to know.

We decided to go to Jaisalmer in the state of Rajasthan, principally because we heard it was really relaxed but also because it was a small enough town that we could walk across it. We purchased our tickets at the New Delhi train station; inside of the insanity of touts everywhere and lines piled up behind service windows with undecipherable signs there is a little office for non-Indian tourists to buy train tickets, air conditioned with sagging sofas and helpful people behind desks. To our surprise, it was fantastically easy to buy the tickets. We took the subway, which was really nice, to the Old Delhi Junction, after a Delhi taxi driver had helpfully told us it would be easier and cheaper to use than a taxi ride! The station itself was huge and filthy, with trash and feces blanketing the tracks and flies everywhere. Sitting on the ground of the platform were dusty children with poor mothers, fat ladies in sparkling saris, and men in crisp shirts and cheap plastic sandals. On our return trip to Delhi there was a huge pile of rifles on the ground (someone’s luggage?), as well as three monkeys on the stairs (why in the train station I’m not sure, since we didn’t see any other monkeys in the entire country).

We were expecting something similar to trains in China, with clean sheets and pillows and our own place to sit. Not so. The train quickly became packed full of people with unreserved tickets– 5 or 6 people on the bottom bunk crammed in all together, standing in the aisles, hunching over on the top bunks, sitting two-deep on the side bunks. I think I heard people thumping around on the roof, although I may have imagined that. It was hot and sticky, and although we like to think of ourselves as pretty relaxed travelers in general (despite a few moments of freakout here and there, almost exclusively on my part), it was a bit uncomfortable until someone explained that people would start getting off around 10pm or so, and we would actually get our bunks back at some point. Ironically, the toilets were actually fairly clean, simply because they emptied out directly onto the tracks (which you could see whizzing past if you looked into the toilet)–although I commend the locals, as in China and Thailand, for their apparent grace in the skill of using a squat toilet on a moving train. It’s quite hard. The people in our berth were really friendly, especially the man across from us who made a real effort to speak to us in English. We regret not having a map of the US with us, to show people where Minnesota is. We’ve had to explain a lot that it’s not actually located within the state of California.

Outside of the windows of the train, barred up against intruders, we passed by homes made of tarps, the poverty of the people living in them omnipresent and overwhelming. Miles of piles of trash lined the tracks, and we passed by a lot of men and boys squatting and shitting, watching the train go by, their genitals dangling in the dust. Makeshift livestock farms were here and there, emaciated cows, goats and chickens mixed in with stray dogs wandering around. Things became cleaner as we got farther out from the city, and by the next morning the air smelled much better.

By the time we got to Jaisalmer about 19 hours later, glued with sweat to our plastic beds, everything was covered in a thick layer of fine sand, and the air in the train seemed hazy with it. People started coming by and asking us where we were staying, trying to convince us to stay at their guesthouse. When we got off the train, we were mobbed by more touts than I have seen getting off a train or plane anywhere on this whole trip so far–we were two of maybe three tourists on the day’s single incoming train, and since it’s hot as hell and in the middle of Jaisalmer’s low tourist season, people were desperate for customers. When we got separated by the crowd and I called out to Daniel, a tout started yelling, “Daniel! Daniel!,” trying to get his attention and a sale. It was impossible to calmly inquire about prices for rooms and we blindly got into the back of the car of someone who said he worked for the guesthouse we had decided to stay at. We later realized that he had been one of the people on the train asking us where we were staying, and just parroted the name back to us to get us in his car, and proceeded to take us to a completely different guesthouse. Daniel called him on it and accused him of lying, and the man had the nerve to keep claiming it was Jeet Mahal, even though the sign said Hotel Henna (which we had heard some pretty scary things about online, including threatening to confiscate people’s luggage who didn’t take their camel safari). We started to get angry and the tout passed us along to his brother, who also had a taxi, and while delivering us to Jeet Mahal, tried to sell us yet another guesthouse, and was going to take us there until we demanded to be taken to our guesthouse (we weren’t even sure we wanted to stay there, but at this point it was a matter of principle). I’m pretty sure he waited outside for us, hoping to get us to come to his place–not likely. Despite not having wifi as promised, or a functioning rooftop restaurant, the place was pretty nice, with pink walls and stone arches around the window, tattered but relatively clean silk-like bedcoverings. They even had a generator for the frequent power outages (all across India the electric infrastructure isn’t strong enough to deal with the needs of the country, and the power failed daily while we were there).

Once in Jaisalmer, things were much calmer than in Delhi. It’s a small town, maybe 1.5 kilometers across, with little winding hilly streets squiggling around the city’s yellow stone fort. It’s a living fort, with homes and shops and restaurants all active inside, and looks fantastic and exotic at sunset. Horned cows with barrel-shaped ribcages meandered in the streets, wart-hoggy pigs with bristly hair slept in the square drain system and adorable piglets played in the cow pies. It smells much better there than in Delhi– just dust, hay, incense, and the relatively inoffensive smell of cow manure.

We decided to take a camel safari, which Jaisalmer is famous for, although we hadn’t actually known that when we chose to go there. We took a very bumpy jeep ride out to a small village included in the tour, and when we got off the truck little kids ran up to us saying, “Rupee? Pencil?,” asking for gifts. We gave them a few rupees in exchange for a picture. When we made it out to the base camp in another village, it was the wind, rather than the sun, which was fiercely beating down on us. We used our sunglasses as sand goggles, and wrapped our faces in scarves and bandannas, covering our mouths and noses. We watched the jeep driver and the camel boy outfit the camels with layers of quilts, ropes and a wooden saddle covered in padding placed on the hump. Getting on a camel is easier than getting off: you pull yourself onto the camel’s back and grip the saddle’s metal nub, lean back and squeeze with your legs while the camel does a knobbly-kneed awkward hoist up. On getting down, the camel boy pulls on the reins attached to a painful-looking spike through the camel’s nostrils, saying “Jhu! Jhu!,” and after fighting it for a while the camel gives in and falls to its front knees (a long way down and rather scary), then to its back knees and finally to its chest.

We rode the camels out past scrubby dry foliage, dry animal bones, and over the smallish sand dunes to a little ring of huts where we were supposed to stay for the night, but it was so windy that you couldn’t see the sky (and subsequently, the sunset or the stars either, the main selling points of the tour). We couldn’t sleep outside as originally planned, or build a fire to cook on. We were pretty disappointed; the decision was made to go back to the village, and we were glad that we did.

The building was simple, hand-packed clay painted white and pale teal, with three rooms for people, two rooms for hay feed for the family’s livestock, and a main central area open to the sky. We sat in a room near the door, and through intermittent power outages watched the oldest woman (although she was probably not over 40) peel potatoes with a paring knife, crush and roll and peel garlic on the floor, muddling it with a mortar and pestle, slicing tomato and cucumber, soaking rice and lentils and cooking it over the fire. Another younger girl, quite pregnant, ate skinny green beans and fed the fire, while a third sifted flour and salt and mixed it with water for chapati dough. She broke the dough into balls, rolled it out with a ridged rolling pin on a small, round piece of wood which she stabilized with her toes, and cooked it on a small concave pan moistened with water, rotating the bread with the palm of her hand. All three had on colorful patterned saris, worn and faded with age, plastic bangles embedded with rhinestones, gauzy scarves casually tossed over their heads or shoulders, sparkles in their ears and noses, rings on their fingers and toes, polished toenails, and anklets that tinkled when they walked.

They cooked spicy vegetables, rice and chapati, and we ate on a rug on the floor, drinking chai made over the hot fire with milk straight from the cow–rich, spicy and grainy (maybe a little sandy). The beer we had was another story–the next day the camel boy informed us we owed him 240 rupees for it, which he failed to mention when he gave it to us, and everything was supposed to be covered by the amount we paid to take the tour. The food itself was decent, much better having watched them prepare it.

We slept on cots with aged quilts under the open sky, our backs to the wind. We could see a few stars despite the wind and it was refreshing to feel the cool night air after the 110 degree weather of Jaisalmer. When we awoke, we picked the crusty sand out of our eyes and noses and climbed up to the roof where the family slept on blankets. We sat on the wall of the roof with our legs hanging over the side, watching the village wake up–little kids playing in a nearby tree, the women and older children feeding their cows, batting at them with sticks until the piles of hay were properly separated. A man herding black and white goats came over the ridge, zigzagging back to collect those that had strayed from the group. For breakfast we had more of the amazing chai, hardboiled eggs, oranges, bananas, biscuits, toast and jelly. We got to ride the camels a bit more before taking the jeep back to Jaisalmer for another night. We took the train back to Delhi and spent a night there before getting up at an ungodly hour to catch a flight to London.

China, part 2 (March and April 2010)

We arrived in Xian early in the morning, and got off the train to what seemed like a city with not too many people. We followed the map in the guidebook Abbie lent us, looking for the city’s central Bell Tower, where we were due to rendezvous in 14 hours with a guy we met on We didn’t have a plan for the day (which is pretty much how we start most days), and with all of our luggage we didn’t really want to do a lot. We walked past mobile breakfast stands with flat fry pans that the cook uses to make a round of bread so thin it’s nearly translucent, followed by an egg that gets broken up with a spackling knife, green onions and some mysterious, delicious spicy sauce, all deftly folded into an easily transportable meal that gets inserted into a thin plastic bag. There was an old man practicing Tai Chi in a deserted mall plaza, lots of fluffy little stray dogs pooping on the sidewalk, and street cleaning trucks that played Jingle Bells, ice cream truck style. Past the Bell Tower we found a sweet little plaza, a grid of manicured gardens filled with petunias enclosed by little white fences. Middle aged men in grey sweat suits stretching, jogging (both forwards and backwards, curiously), and massaging their muscles, occasionally shot us bemused glances, while a grown businessman nearby flew a long string of mini kites.

Xian turned out to be a much more populous city than it seemed at our early morning arrival, and in fact was more overwhelming in the density of people than Beijing was. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to us that there are a lot of people in China, but it was still shocking to deal with the people everywhere–masses on the sidewalks and in the streets, dodging cars in intersections and motorbikes on the sidewalk, maneuvering around stalls selling belts, pantyhose, pineapples, puppies, bunnies in tiny cages, turtles in cups, fried breads, dumplings, kebabs, wind-up toys, cigarettes and lottery tickets, stepping over amputee beggars sprawled out (intentionally) face down on the filthy sidewalk, sneaking behind musicians who had brought out guitars and portable amps. Shopkeepers scream out until their voices go hoarse, waving you in, or if it’s a larger company they have hired young women with headset mics and a speaker on their belt to advertise their wares. Cars honk loudly and incessantly, buses blast their stop announcements outside of the bus, and people yell and play music from their phones.

One of the more interesting, albeit equally chaotic, places in Xian was the Muslim quarter – west of the train station inside of the city’s ancient walls. The narrow streets bustle with shoppers (as well as rickshaws and motorbikes with quiet electric motors that sneak up on you with startling horn blasts), vendors in headscarves sell dried fruits and candied ginger, red, green and yellow spices in burlap bags, tables on the curb are piled high with giant, wooden-looking purple livers, wheelbarrows sit full of livestock’s stripped ribcages, open flames shoot out of oil barrels cooking snacks. While there were some delicious looking street foods here, it was actually relatively difficult to order them if there were any choices to be made about the ingredients– we could say hello and thank you, count to ten and ask how much something cost, but if there were any followup questions we couldn’t understand them and couldn’t answer. At a restaurant in Xian one evening, we managed to order ourselves a plate of peanuts for dinner (and that was even with the help of an English menu), which we sat and dejectedly ate with chopsticks.

We took a day in Xian to do something more officially touristy, since we didn’t make it to the Great Wall, and saw the Terra Cotta Warriors. While an interesting find from an archaeological perspective, we weren’t really impressed and felt like the sight was too expensive (it cost 90 yuan per person entry fee, and we were working on a 200 yuan per day budget shared between the both of us), overhyped, and more interesting to read about than to see in person, in addition to having so, so many other tourists that it was sometimes difficult to stay standing up due to the people crushing in from all directions. Without elbowing some kid in the head, it was almost impossible to get to the front of the crowd to see any of the exhibits. The warriors themselves are separated into 3 pits, with pit 3 the smallest, 1 the largest, and 2 in the middle. Pit 3 is small enough that you find yourself mostly underwhelmed, and pit 2 is still mostly unexcavated, so we found little to interest us until reaching pit 1 – also the most crowded of the three. We didn’t stay for very long.

We stayed with Lars, our couchsurfing host from the UK, who is living and teaching English in Xian, and had a good time with him even though we didn’t get to spend too much time together due to his work schedule. Lars lives in a fairly nice apartment in Xian, on the 7th floor of a mid-rise building. The entrance wound past a half-size basketball court, which was usually busy at night; basketball is quite popular in China, and many Chinese are fans of the NBA. Like many buildings here, the style was Soviet influenced and mostly concrete, with unbelievably heavy metal doors to each apartment; they seemed more appropriate for a bomb shelter than a residence. We spent our days wandering Xian, and then came back to the apartment when Lars was finished with work and talked, mainly about the differences between American, British, and Chinese culture (especially fast food restaurants). Although we would have liked to spend some more time talking with him, we were ready to leave Xian when the time came.

We had gotten our train tickets in advance, after writing out all of the information in Chinese characters copied from Lonely Planet and praying that they were legible, even if appearing to have been written by a child. When we got to the Xian train station, we couldn’t locate a platform with our train’s number on it. We approached a uniformed attendant and awkwardly gestured around the station, trying to ask where to go. A young Chinese guy happened to come up to her at the same time, presumably asking the same question, and she indicated for us to follow him. We walked up the stairs to a waiting room and sat down, and he tried to tell us something, maybe about the train which was still not showing on the departure display (we also by this point had learned the phrase “I don’t understand”). We sat in silence for a while; he got up and came back with 3 bottles of water to share, and he and Daniel proceeded to have a short and extremely slow conversation translating from pinyin (Chinese words written in Roman characters) to English and back again, using a Chinese dictionary on Daniel’s phone, one word at a time. He sat with us the whole time we waited for the train, which was reassuring since our train didn’t show up on the departure board until 5 minutes before departure and the crowd surged the platform, and he even walked us to our car. We tried to thank him as much as possible with our limited vocabulary, and got on the train.

We had purchased “hard seat” tickets to Lanzhou, rows of two and three soft seats (go figure) facing little tables, and even got to sit next to each other despite not having the proper tickets for that, thanks to the kindness of a young woman who took pity on us and managed rearranging all the other passengers. We sat near a group of youngish Chinese men playing an intense card game that involved slapping the table and yelling, as well as sneaking cigarettes in their seats when the conductor wasn’t looking. On this train, as well as everywhere else in China, we tried to get used to people flat-out staring at us wherever we went for much longer than we would expect (which is incredibly unnerving), or walking by us shouting out “hellloo!”

Abbie picked us up at the train station, and generously gave us a copy of the keys to her apartment, which worked despite apparently being made by a drunken key maker. We spent most of our time in Lanzhou relaxing: sleeping in on the foldy bed, eating, and going for walks in the city which was approachably small and nestled in a valley between mountains, but not too small. We walked along the Yellow River, Huang He, taking photos of the dusty, broken down houses, piles of dust, debris from old buildings, and honeycomb shaped charcoal briquettes. We walked East along the street that Abbie and her husband Afton live on, by masses of schoolchildren wearing matching tracksuit uniforms, toting noodles and soup in little plastic bags. We took the bus to a park North of the river which snaked up the side of the mountain. The park was deserted (which was surreal since everywhere else we had been in the entire country was full of people)–there was a little amusement park with bumpercars and rides, but no one riding them. Closer to the top of the mountain the view of the city was fantastic and the day we went was clear for Lanzhou–it was pretty dusty most of the time, and on the last day we experienced a dust storm, cold and dry and we couldn’t see the mountain from Abbie’s window anymore. We spent a lot of time with Abbie and Afton in the evenings, making dinner or going out, Daniel helping out with some computer issues. It was so good to be with friends.

It was fun eating with Abbie and Afton, since we benefited from their language skills as well as their gastronomic trial-and-error. It was better to have them order what they knew was good than point-and-hope at the menu, or to try and decipher the English-language menus, offering such goodies as “speeid fried rice yahoo,” or my favorite in Beijing, “pork with nausea sauce.” We ate niouroumian, Lanzhou’s specialty spicy beef noodle soup made with fresh noodles, spicy paste, oil, pink turnip and green onion floating on top, which we have been craving since we left. It was fascinating to watch the chef make noodles, skillfully scooping up a pale blob of dough, pulling and combing it with his fingers until he had a handful of homogeneous noodles (with unreal speed, this all took maybe ten seconds) and tossing them into the soup pot to his side, barely looking. We had Muslim ka rou, meat on a stick with a gritty, flavorful paste on it and a carefully placed piece of fat on each skewer, and hot fresh cumin bread and sweet black tea. Breaded and fried eggplant in a thick sweet sauce, spicy chicken with peanuts, mushrooms with bok choy, and hot water or mild green tea with every meal. We had hotpot (a little like fondue) in hot spicy oil with heavy and delicious lamb ribs, sweet potato and tofu, fresh noodles and bunches of long, thin mushrooms. The takeaway streetfood stands, dangerously close to the apartment, served folded bread: thin like a pancake and slightly eggy with spicy sauce painted on and green onions or peppers hidden inside. Skewered fruit kebabs, with sour apples, kiwis and oranges, encrusted to the stick with glasslike caramelized sugar. Seven treasure tea with green tea leaves, goji berries, sour apples and maybe a nut, and big chunks of crystalline sugar.

China, part 1 (March and April 2010)

We arrived in Beijing’s international terminal, after circling around in the air for 30 minutes waiting for our turn to land. The airport there is huge and modern, much cleaner and better organized than Bangkok. After an uneventful trip through customs we met up with our Danebod friend Abbie Clarke-Sather, who’s been living in China for a little under a year now; together we hopped on the Airport Express subway train (an absolute joy, after dealing with the airport taxis in Thailand) and connected with the main subway system, riding it all the way to the area where we hoped to find a guesthouse. Easier said than done though, for foreigners – many budget Chinese guesthouses can’t legally take non-citizens, and we were turned down by 4 different places before we gave in and grabbed a room at a comfortable (but very expensive) chain hotel. We went out with Abbie and her Beijinger friends to a restaurant and got some kind of soup with all the ingredients separated into little metal bowls, flipped into the broth with flair by the waiter’s chopsticks, and then went to bed early to get ready for the next day.

Beijing is hazy, cold and rainy this time of year, kind of a relief coming from muggy Thailand. The city itself if pretty clean apart from the smog, with shiny high-rises as well as little hutongs snaking throughout the city, narrow streets with more traditional homes and shops as well as more personality. Babies are ridiculously, adorably bundled against the cold with nothing but their fat ruddy cheeks showing up top and their squishy bottoms popping out of the split in their pants designed to make going to the bathroom (anywhere) easier. Men hack and spit loudly and without abandon, something we never really got used to the whole time we were in China, and city workers sweep the streets with huge, twiggy brooms and pick through the garbage, sorting out all of the recyclables. Women wear cafe-au-lait colored leather boots, sassy shorts with black opaque tights underneath on top of sky-high heels, tailored jackets in velour and modern tweed, little bits of lace and decorative hearts on every cuff and lapel, brightly colored Converse shoes with skinny jeans. Younger men dress with similar style and confidence, and we saw a few guys on the subway who could give David Bowie a run for his money. Some couples even had matching hairstyles.

It was much harder in China than in Thailand to get around not knowing any of the language (it was also surprisingly unnerving to not be able to read Chinese characters), and so it was fantastic to have Abbie there the first few days in this huge and overwhelming city to help us figure out where to stay, how to use the subway and the bus, to order a meal or read a street sign, and to help us get train tickets for the next leg of our trip. It was also really nice to see a friendly face and have someone other than ourselves to talk to–traveling just the two of us can get surprisingly lonely sometimes.

After Abbie left to go home to Lanzhou, we met two Chicagoans at our hostel, Susan and Rylan, newlywed artists on a trip similar to ours. We spent a few days with them, going out to eat and having light, crappy beers (I’m under the impression that there is no good beer in China), talking about life and work and travel and food. We saw Mao’s tomb in Tiannamen Square, a really oddball tourist attraction and incredibly weird experience overall–after a security check, the “line” (in Beijing, lines everywhere are really just pushy, budgy mobs, and Minnesota Nice gets you nowhere) surges into this room that seems like a low-end hotel banquet hall. You leave the plastic flowers you purchased for Mao, no doubt sold and resold every day, in a giant pile of identical plastic flowers, and ride the wave of people into the room where Mao’s body is kept in a glass box, bathed in unearthly orange light. He is supposedly frozen for 20 hours a day, and raised up to be viewed only in the mornings from 8am to noon. We went to 798, the art warehouse district–twice, actually, once with Abbie and once with our new friends–a huge network of studios with modern Chinese sculpture, paintings, prints and photos, possibly one of the coolest places in Beijing. We also went to the Capital Museum, a sparkly, architecturally impressive building with 6 floors of exhibits on Chinese history and enough English signage to get by.

After saying goodbye to Susan and Rylan, we took the subway to the chaotic train station to board our train to Xian. We got into the “line” that we thought was for our train number (luckily presented in Roman characters), alongside people of all ages with suitcases and huge woven plastic bags full of their belongings, and hoped that none of the announcements being shouted out by attendants with passengers following them applied to us. The train system in China is extensive–at any given moment there are over 10 million people riding trains. The train ride itself was rather pleasant; we had purchased a sleeper class ticket for the overnight train, and the sleeper cars have little cabins in them with six bunks that have sheets, blankets and pillows. The conductor comes around at the beginning of the trip and exchanges your paper ticket for a plastic card, and exchanges them back again when you near your destination.

During the day, you can sit on the bottom bunk or on a little seat in the aisle by a tiny table, watching the huge cities and countryside go by, moving your knees anytime someone needs to walk by you. We played Rummy 500, and a group of middle aged men quickly crowded around us to watch the game, checking out our hands and giving us advice that we couldn’t understand, making approving noises when the person they were betting on won a hand. They lost interest when we started playing Zioncheck, whose rules change every round, and which we had no way of explaining to them. All of the train cars have boiling water spigots (which is fantastic because you always have access to drinkable water, even if you have to wait for it to cool down), and while the lights are still on people are wandering up and down the aisles, making instant noodles and tea in clear plastic infusers, eating cucumbers and cookies and sunflower seeds, and chain smoking in the area between train cars.

The lights went out at 10pm, without a warning that we had understood, and we clambered over the legs of our bunkmates to the top tier and went to sleep.