Useful Information

Do You Know It’s Ethiopia Time?

So as the weeks became months, then the months had accumulated into a full year, a full year which has seemingly passed me by since I returned to the U.K. I thought it was time to have a break from the cycle of of living week in, week out, waiting for things to change, waiting for the weekend, waiting to give my liver a good kicking on a Saturday night, waiting for Christmas, waiting for derby day. And so I’ve decided to book a flight to….Ethiopia, yes Ethiopia.

Here’s a few examples of people’s reactions when I tell them I’m going to Ethiopia:-

Normally…

“Ethiopia?”

Proceeded by one of the following :-

“I hope you’re taking plenty of food”
“You taking your running trainers?”
“You going to stay in a mud hut?”
“Watch out for Ebola”
“You’re going to come back thin as a rake, covered in flies, sporting a pot belly”
“Don’t get a lip plate”
“What are you going to do there? ”

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Ebola tester at Addis Ababa airport

It’s interesting to hear many people’s stereotypes about a country that is all too famously associated with band aid and Bob Geldof. Now I’m going to be honest, what gave me the idea to come here was watching a BBC documentary on primates which showed a breed of baboon that only live in the Ethiopian highlands. I done some research and I realised that Ethiopia is a whole lot more than just war and famine. Here is where the roots of Ras Tafari spawn, it’s also where anthropologists have traced the beginning of mankind, one of only two African nations to have never been under a European rule..the more I researched, the more obsessed I became and I realised that independent budget travel would be entirely possible.

Getting a visa for Ethiopia is very straight forward. I just sent my passport with all the supporting documents to the Embassy in London along with a cheque for £22 and a three month multiple entry visa was issued and back in my hand within three days.

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I won’t be taking much food apart from my Christmas Chocolates, I’ll be taking some hiking boots but no running shoes, I probably will end up staying in a mud hut, I don’t want Eh-bo-la (try saying that with a Yorkshire accent) and to be fair, I don’t know what I’m going to do just yet, but I do know, it’s Ethiopia time.

Categories: Ethiopia, Useful Information | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Mood Of Masood

After returning from Nagaland, it was time to make our way down to Tripura, but not before stopping off for a few days in the most boring hill station in all of India, Haflong. To get there we had to spend a night in Lumding town, rather than go looking for a lodge we opted to try out the railway station’s retiring rooms, and for less than one pound we got a triple room, which was ironically the nicest room we tenanted in months…

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Lumding train station platform

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Scenic train to Haflong

The state of Tripura was to be the last stop on this epic journey through the North East. Agartala the state capital, has few sights, the main attraction being the Ujjayanta palace, which was the former royal headquarters of the Kingdom of Tripura, until it merged with India in 1949. The palace is so white it almost blends in with the raindrop hoarding clouds that linger above, a true painter and decorator’s nightmare. After you get bored of photographing skinny Indian rickshaw drivers bathing in the palace’s lakes, there’s not an awful lot to do in Agartala city, but after the food disaster of the tribal states, it was nice to simply be in a town with some facilities and decent eateries.

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After walking the globe in my three year old Birkenstocks, they were on their last legs and time to be fed to Oscar the grouch. But a true budget traveller never throws anything away, it’s amazing what a street side cobbler can do with a piece of rubber and some industrial glue!

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Sandal repairs aside, the real reason we were in Agartala was to arrange our Bangladeshi visas. I could find no up to date info online about the procedure of getting a visa in Tripura, the guide books are also pretty vague. Here at likethewheels, we care about informing wandering vagrants on the problems they may face when applying for visas and such in foreign countries, so here is my version of what went down at the visa office. Was it to be another bureaucratic nightmare?

Getting a Bangladeshi visa in Agartala, Tripura

First of all the visa office has moved, it is now situated in a small ally with a State Bank Of India ATM on the corner, just off VIP road. Ask the rickshaw wallah for circuit house. Their new number which I also had a quest to obtain is 0381-2324807

I had heard reports that this visa office only handed out short stay 15 day visas, a pittance compared to the two month one you automatically receive if you fly into Dhaka, so I was slightly worried about what would happen here. We were asked to sit down and wait for the visa officer, Masood. I couldn’t help but associate the name with Eastenders’ own loveable postman, Masood Ahmed. Masood entered the room with his pile of undelivered letters and explained the procedure –
deposit $65 into their bank account, return with the bank stub and completed application with three photos, wait one hour and that’s it, done. Surely that can’t be it? I asked Masood if he would issue a 60 day visa, this would be ample time to do everything we wanted without having to go through the hassle of extending the visa, he said he would ‘try’. After about ten minutes he came back with the two month visas and it was only then after he had returned the passports that he began to grill us on certain things, ”What’s your job? How do you have all these stamps in the passport? Are you a journalist? Who is funding this trip? Are you a spy?” Whatever you do, don’t let these people believe you’re visiting Bangladesh for any type of media related purposes, they don’t seem to like that. I guess what I’ve written in the content of this blog about Masood is media related, but anyway we left with the two month visas we requested in hand.

The overall procedure was a lot easier than expected, and to be fair, Masood seemed like a friendly enough guy. But I honestly believe that the duration of the visa you want comes down to one thing, the mood of Masood, thankfully we caught him on a good day…

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If you catch Masood in a good mood, you’ll get whatever visa you ask for, hassle free

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If he’s in a bad mood, you’ll have to fight for a 15 day visa

And so that almost drew an end to what has been an unbelievable but trying trip in North East India, Bangladesh is only 3km away and what awaits over that border, Allah only knows…

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Which mood will you catch him in?

Categories: India, Useful Information | Tags: | 2 Comments

The End Of The Road

Arunachal Pradesh sits in the far North East corner of India and shares a large land border with China. The Chinese have on a few occasions tried to claim AP as their own, so the already fragile Indo-Tibetan border is heavily guarded, there is a strong military presence throughout the state but the peaceful atmosphere remains. This is probably one of the least explored parts of the country and is often dubbed ‘the final frontier’ of India, certain places in the state are still to be named and mapped so the idea of delving into the wild is appealing to me. Let’s hope that the 50 quid I’ve shelled out for the inner line permit to come to ‘The Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains’ will be worth it…

Dirang was a long drive from the Assam border, and we really only stopped here to break up the journey to Tawang. Dirang has only a handful of fly ridden eateries selling nothing but fried rice, but on the other hand almost half the shops in town are hole in the wall alcohol joints, so even though you will go hungry in Dirang, you will never be without a bottle of Bagpiper whisky. Old Dirang is a long walk from the new town, or in my case a 5 minute drive if you can hitch a ride from someone who assumes you’ve met David Beckham, just because you’re English. Old Dirang’s tiny stone Monpa houses reminded me of the village scenes from ‘Cadfael’ the 16th century crime solving monk, and there were more goats than people. Back in new Dirang we checked out the Yak Research Centre, the chief professor kindly showed us around the labs where they are attempting to create a genetically modified super yak that can live in warmer climes. I didn’t mention that I’d eaten yak meat only a couple of weeks ago…

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In Hinduism, a deity may be a rock in a cave, a tree growing in an orchard, a cow wandering the streets…or even a banana…

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or a goat…

Arunachal’s roads are in a word, appalling. Bus travel here is rare so everybody uses shared Tata sumo jeeps to get around. The roads, if you can call them that, are very muddy, so combine this with the mountain terrain and it’s understandable how it takes an eternity to get anywhere. You can forget about sleeping, reading or doing anything else to pass the time as the journey will be extremely rough, so all you can do is sit and wait, whilst being stuck in the same position with the eleven other passengers. The distance from Dirang to Tawang is a mere 170km, it takes 8 hours. The road twists and turns up and over the 4176m Sela pass and down into the valley. The ‘highway’ continues for some time, the smell of the cannabis plants that line both sides of the road being the only comfort. A final ascent is made to Tawang where you reach the end of the road, literally. It’s just as well this town doesn’t have a football team as a trip to Tawang F.C would be a nightmare away day…

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One of the better roads

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Normal sight on an AP highway

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The trucks have eyes in Arunachal

Tawang was founded in the 17th century and is the last major settlement on the ancient trade route to Tibet, I’m guessing there were a lot of banjo strings sold here and that’s where the town generated its name from. The monastery here is reportedly the second largest in the world after Potala Palace in Lhasa and is a must visit pilgrimage site for any Indian Buddhist. Monasteries can act like schools for young monks who wish to dedicate their lives to finding spiritual enlightenment. The young boys eat, sleep and live here whilst doing all their lessons including Maths and English, just like any other school, bullying is not unheard of as I found out when I witnessed one monk receiving a ‘chalky’ on his robes by the rest of his cohort. Inside the prayer hall is a giant statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, maybe this is where Black Grape got their inspiration for the song ‘Shake Your Money Maker’…

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Afternoon prayers

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8m high statue of Buddha Shakyamuni

Urgelling gompa, a nice walk further into the valley, is the exact spot where the 6th Dalai Lama was born. The small, colourful monestry has a rather eerie set of hand prints that are worshiped by devotees, I just thought it was pretty cool having a cuppa in a former Dalai Lama’s bedroom…

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The Tawang valley is predominantly inhabited by the local Monpa tribe. Some of the older traditional woman can be found hanging around the bazaar selling cow’s blood and sporting yak felt headgear, which looks a little like those cheap Rastafari wigs you can buy at Camden market…

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Tawang is Dalai Lama mad

Come to Tawang if you ever want a truly ‘off the map’ experience, no internet, no telephone and most of the time, no electricity. A little further afield from banjo sound, is what they call ‘the lake district’ a series of high altitude lakes near the Tibet border. Unfortunatly foreigners are not allowed any further, as it is too close to China and anything the Chinese are involved in is never simple. So, having reached the end of the long road that started in Madurai, it was time to turn around.

(Up to date info on how to get a permit for AP. It is possible to do it yourself and pay only $50, but this is a lot of hassle and means spending time in either Delhi or Kolkata to make numerous, time consuming trips to their respective AP houses. Whatever anyone says, it is impossible for a foreigner to get it on your own in Guwahati. I strongly suggest just biting the bullet and paying an agent to do it, the extra fee is worth it to eliminate the stress. Shop around for different prices, I was quoted between $80 and $130 dollar per permit. I ended up settling with Rhino travels in Guwahati although it’s possible to find cheaper agents in Arunachal itself but this means possibley having to do bank transfers to pay the fees.)

Arup Barua – Rhino Travels
+91 9864021303
Rhinotravels@gmail.com

Christopher Michi – Apatani Cultural Preservation Society
08014012558/09402048466
christophermichi@hotmail.com

Categories: India, Useful Information | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Buying Train Tickets in China

Buying transport tickets in a strange country with an alien language can be a daunting prospect, some people ask ‘how do you do it?’ I could never find much useful information on the internet or guide books on the cheapest and most pain free way of buying tickets in China, so I have managed to do enough research via word of mouth and other sources to put together this simple guide for buying train tickets in China , without being pushed to the brink of insanity.

First, some information on the types of trains and tickets available.

Types of Train

All Chinese train numbers are usually prefixed with a letter, this tells you the category of train

C-type Ultra-speed express
D-type High-speed express
G-type High-speed

These three types of train are new and luxurious trains which rapidly shuttle between major cities, the best way to travel but also the most expensive

K-type Fast train
T-type Express
Z-type Direct express (overnight)
Number Normal train

Over night Z trains are not as fast as the bullet trains but still rather comfortable. K and T are older and more basic. Trains without a letter prefix are old and the worst (but cheapest) available.

Types of ticket

On the C,D and G type trains there are two types of ticket available:-

•First class – has all the luxury features such as TVs, laptop dock, very comfortable seats etc

•Second class – is still good and probably comparable to a normal train in Europe

Z,T,K and number trains have five classes:-

•Soft Sleeper – four beds in a private cabin, decent bedding

•Hard sleeper – six beds per berth, no door, less bedding, half the price of soft sleeper

•Soft Seat – Similar to second class on the high speed trains, over crowding is not permitted

•Hard Seat – Not actually hard, but as I have mentioned before, hard on your sanity, very crowded at times with people standing and sleeping in the gangways

•Standing room – Last resort ticket where you will stand in the hard seat area or in between carriages with the smokers

How to buy a ticket

By using the internet to check availability of tickets first, you can save yourself the hassle of trying to get a ticket which is sold out, when the clerks don’t speak English this can be a difficult one to work out. Never try to book online, or you will be charged more than the ticket is actially worth. I use these three sites for checking ticket prices and availability China travel guide, China highlights and China tour. The reason for using three is that some smaller stations may be listed on one site but not on the other two, but I find China travel guide the most convenient. Type in your departure station, arrival station and up will come a list of trains available, listed the shortest journey time first.

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Here is an example of our route from Pingyao to Hefei, with a transit in Tiyuan. The site will work out automatically if there are no direct trains and you need transit. Click the select class drop down menu for prices and number of tickets available. Here you can find out how many seats there are on the date and class you want to travel. Simply write down the travel dates, train numbers, departure and arrival stations and the class tickets you would like. Also write in the station names and class type in Chinese characters which can be found in your guide/phrase book. Alternatively have someone write it down for you.

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Simply hand the paper over to the clerk who will type in the details and show you the price on the screen, which you should already know. Then use a few hand signals to let them know how many tickets, if you would like a top, middle or bottom bed in sleeper classes, produce your passport, the clerk with show you the final details on the screen and there you have it, a stress free Chinese train ticket. The easy part is done, now you just have to push your way through a very busy station to your platform and cope with actually doing the journey.

A few things to know:-

•Tickets can not be purchased more than ten days in advance

•Soft Sleeper and even more so, Hard Sleeper, sell out first. If you try to buy these tickets on the day of travel assume they will all be gone, so plan ahead, especially for popular routes

•It is possible to upgrade your ticket once on the train, if they are available

•There is a slight difference in price with the top, middle and bottom bunks, the website will display the most expensive. Some people have a preferred bunk

Finally my advice for travelling on a budget, always buy a hard seat ticket to keep the cost down if travelling through the day, and buy a sleeper for travelling through the night. You can try hard seat through the night if you really want to save a few quid and don’t mind being pushed to breaking point.

Hope you all find this helpful and enjoy your China rail journey!

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Categories: Budgeting, China, Useful Information | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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