We’ve hiked in the Cangshan Mountains in China and crossed the world’s third highest motorable pass (by car) in the Himalayas. We’ve seen the Dalai Lama in Leh, the newborn pandas in Chengdu, the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Great Wall of China.
We’ve danced in People’s Park with elderly Chinese couples, sang along to Hotel California with a Vietnamese taxi driver, waded through the Varanasi floods with Pramod, a gentle smiling Indian man, and met the world famous Dr. Ho, the ancient Chinese holistic doctor in the tiny village of Baisha.
We’ve visited four countries with a couple of suitcases and two laptops, baggy clothes for India, warm clothes for China and tanktops for Vietnam and Thailand and these 82 days on the road have been packed with sensations, sights, smells and sounds that will remain with us forever. While it’s hard to pick favourites, here are my Top 10 from India, China, Thailand and Vietnam (in no particular order).
1. Leh – This stunning town perched in the Himalayas was our first destination after a couple of days in Delhi. Our hotel room at the Spic ‘n Span looked onto snowcapped mountains and it was here we discovered, much to our delight, that the Dalai Lama was in town at the same time. It was also here that we drove to the crystal clear Pangong Lake across the Chang La Pass (17,590 ft) on a road so steep and scary that I couldn’t take my eyes off the road or my white–knuckle hands off the door handle. Bursting with colour from mirrored tapestries, hand woven Tibetan clothing, Pashmina shawls and turquoise jewellery, the town embraced us with its warm and wonderful people and kick-started our adventure by taking our breath away (literally and figuratively, due to the elevation).
2. Udaipur – It was here that Octopussy was shot, and they won’t let you forget it since they screen the James Bond movie several times every day in bars and cafes all over town. We arrived in Udaipur planning to visit for a couple of days and ended up staying five. Serene, beautiful, gentle and fun, Udaipur is the town where we rode a cable car to the top of the mountain, got Ayurvedic massages from an Indian chap and his son and had one of our best meals in India (with champagne, overlooking the lake by candlelight).
3. Jaisalmer – Much of this beautiful Indian city is located inside the ancient Fort and it is here that we stayed in a 500 year old haveli (an old mansion/castle) in the Maharaja Suite (for a mere $29). The town itself is stunning. Cobblestoned roads, crumbling gold coloured sandstone buildings embellished with intricate carvings and warm, smiling people like the brothers who own a saree shop and invited us for tea while we waited for Mukesh (a friend of a friend who happened to live there). It was outside Jaisalmer that we spent one of our favourite nights of the entire trip – sleeping on mattresses under a star-filled sky in the middle of the sand dunes of the Thar desert after riding camels under a scorching sun.
4. Dali – This little town in the foothills of the China’s Cangshan Mountains is a delight. The Old Town is a winding labyrinth of cobblestone streets, packed with cool cafes, funky bars and street vendors selling brilliantly coloured embroidered bags and clothing. It’s also where we found one of the loveliest little public parks where three elderly men played classical music, groups of people turned tiles in mahjong games and tiny birds twittered in the trees. Hiking in the mountains was one of the highlights (since we were lucky in getting a clear, warm day) as was our daytrip to the little town on the lake where Skip became the target of an elderly woman vendor dying to sell him a group of ceramic tortoises.
5. Shanghai – We weren’t planning on going here but wanted to take the bullet train to Beijing and ended up falling in love with this city and extending our stay (and cutting back on Beijing). Parts of Shanghai made us feel as though we’d stepped into the future, with its supersonic transport system, sparkling skyscrapers and incredible art and design (all spotless) and we loved the sophistication and burst of adrenaline it gave us to walk along the streets and see the glittering skyline across the river. It was here that a man on the subway called me a fairy and we saw the incredible Chinese acrobat show. We meandered through People’s Park where residents practised tai chi and karate and posted matchmaking signs for their children and we took a ride on the world’s fastest train, the Maglev (magnetic levitation) to and from the airport to experience the rush of this incredible technology.
6. Baisha – In complete contrast to Shanghai, the tiny village of Baisha in Yunnan province felt as though it was empty most of the time (specially after 7pm when everything was closed, forcing us to buy tubs of ramen noodles to eat in the hotel room since there were no restaurants open for dinner). And that’s what we liked best about it. Along with the stunning snowcapped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain that we could see from every street, and the fascinating world-famous holistic doctor, Dr. Ho, who gave us bags of odd-tasting herbal concoctions that would supposedly make us healthy and pain free.
7. Kanchanaburi –Thailand wasn’t on our schedule when we planned the trip. But when my other half (Skip) had an encounter with a malaria-bearing mosquito in India, our plans changed direction. After he spent a few days in hospital in Bangkok, we needed something gentle, relaxing and beautiful. Kanchanaburi – only 2 ½ hours from Bangkok – fit the bill. We stayed in a beautiful resort on the River Kwai, spent a lot of time by the pool and getting massages and wandered round this historic, attractive little town on the river which was bombed during World War Two and the site of the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.
8. Hua Hin – Another destination not originally in the plan (as with the above). I found Hua Hin when looking for a location close to Bangkok that would be good for recuperation and ended up loving it. We stayed in a beautiful little resort on the outskirts of the town and loved the ocean beaches, good seafood, plethora of outdoor activities (which we didn’t do) and the funky open-air restaurant where we were served by a fabulously camp and posturing ladyboy.
9. Hanoi (and Ninh Binh) – We’ve been to Hanoi before and love the city for its vibrancy, winding alleyways of the Old Quarter and best cuisine in Vietnam. Thanks to our friend, Philip Arthur Moore, we found even more good food this time and celebrated my birthday with oysters, scallops and tiramisu. This time we also were pointed toward Ninh Binh (by a Lonely Planet poster) when we wanted a place to hang out while Typhoon Haiyan was headed up the coast. There’s not much to do in the town but the area is stunning in natural beauty. We floated on a boat between towering limestone cliffs, climbed 185 steps into a prehistoric cave, cycled in the beautiful Cuc Phuong National Park and hiked through the jungle with Phuong, a gentle soul who, as luck would happen, worked in our hotel and was a guide in the park for 14 years.
10. Hoi An – Our final destination, Hoi An was a lovely surprise. We stayed in a hotel on the outskirts and, on our first night were enchanted when, walking through the ancient city, we discovered the river to be flanked with twinkling lights on both banks and gently illuminated by coloured silk lanterns strung in the streets. Vendors sold candles inside tiny paper boxes for a dollar so I bought one from an old lady and gently placed it on the river where it floated downstream along with dozens more in a gorgeous gleam of light. The food was great and we celebrated our anniversary here, rented motorbikes to explore the deserted parts of the region and, in one of the more memorable moments, I got left behind on a mountain by one of the Easy Rider motorbike drivers.
(Bonus: Varanasi. While it won’t fit into most people’s “Top 10” destinations to visit, for us Varanasi was both the highlight and lowlight of our trip. It’s a heaving mass of people. Smelly, crowded and sweaty. But it’s the religious epicentre of India and the spiritual home of millions and I’ll never think of India without thinking Varanasi. It’s a place that had intimidated me for years but it grabbed my heart and soul, wrung it out and handed it back to me wrapped in a marigold garland.
Visiting during the time of dreadful floods where we had to wade through knee deep filthy water to get to our hotel, we saw Varanasi through the eyes of Pramod, our friend of a friend whose home was underwater and whose means of making a living had halted. He literally took our hands, led us through the water and showed us how beautiful and heartbreaking life can be when you approach it with an open heart and a smile.