Bihar, India – Part 2

The next day I wanted to visit the ancient university of Nalanda. It was a long walk to the bus station in Gaya, but I got an early start. I crossed over a dry river bed (it is the dry season) and I was surprised to see a few people trying to wash clothes in the few puddles of water left.

It was a couple hours by bus to get to Nalanda. Next, it was another long walk to get to the actual site. There were horse carts, but my patience was wearing thin trying to share one. It was a few km away, so I walked past the farms until the brick ruins of the over 1000 year old university that held over 10,000 students. I also visited the archaeological museum and the Xuan Zang Memorial Hall, which fitting to come to the final destination of this ancient Chinese traveler and his 17 year trip to get to India and back. (photos)

The way back to Gaya was not so easy. I was able to share a horse cart this time for the first leg, then I had to get a local bus to the next biggest town of Rajgir, then I had to wait an hour or so for a bus that passes by. There was one bus, but a lot of yelling and pushing and fighting for people to get on. I kept my distance and waited for the next one. This one wasn’t much better, but I got on and and to stand for most of the two hour trip. There was one good news, one local person helped me share an autorickshaw back to the area near my hotel. It would have been impossible to share and pay the local price without his help.

The day after, I visited Bodhgaya by autorickshaw. I paid the foreigner price to go all the way there, but of course it wasn’t a simple direct ride there. There was a change of driver halfway through and he couldn’t just take me, but had to wait around and fill up the whole thing.

Bodhgaya was filled with people from around the world. I saw Japanese, Chinese, Westerners, Thai, and Tibetans. The Tibetans move in to the town for a few months and I had a chance to eat at a seasonal Tibetan restaurant. On the way back to Gaya, I was able to share an autorickshaw for a good price.  (photos)

I spent an extra day waiting for my train in Gaya. This time a AC Sleeper bound for Puri, Orissa.

Bihar, India – Part 1

I was on the Nepal side of the border when I woke early in the morning. It was maybe an hour walk to get to the border, so I woke up the hotel staff, checked out, and they unlocked the door for me. I knew it was going to be another long day for me.

I got my passport stamped then walked across the border and looked around to see what to do next. I didn’t see any immigration office because it was closed. I had to wait around for someone to show up. After the officer stamped my passport, he asked for a gift or bribe. I didn’t give him anything, but it was a hint of what was to come in the poorest state of India.

My goal for today was to get to the city of Patna. I walked to try to find a bus. One man tried to get me to buy a bus ticket, but I said no. People said there was a 6:30AM bus and it was almost that time. Some men brought me to a an agency and said I could buy a ticket here and get picked up. They said it was a nice bus, direct, not too many hours, air conditioning, sleeper bus, which were all lies, of course. I really wanted to walk to the bus station, but the bus showed up and I had no choice but to buy the ticket and get on the bus. He didn’t have the change, so I demanded it before I sat down in the seat.

I had a window seat until a man with with a couple kids kicked me out and I had sit on the edge of the seat in the aisle for a couple hours. I’m liking kids less and less during this trip. The narrow roads were pretty rough, but as the bus got closer and closer to the big city they got bigger. I searched for a long time to see if travel by train was possible, but there was no direct train so I had to take the bus. But of course, everyone got kicked out of the bus and was forced to go into another one half way.

Eight hours later, the bus crossed the Ganges river which is very wide at this point and I made it to the long distance bus station of Patna. I decided to walk the rest of the way into the city but a autorickshaw stopped with one woman passenger already. It seemed they wanted to share. My defenses are so high now, I refused to get in without an agreed price in writing. However, this state has the highest illiteracy rate in the country, I’m not sure that would work. After getting a few people involved, the price was agreed at 5 rupees, as was written down on the paper. When I got off,  I didn’t have exact change so I had to go to a store and buy something. The other woman paid 5 rupees and then when I paid he said no. I took out the paper and pencil, and he writes a “0” next to my “5.” I’m thinking you can’t do that! 5 is now 50? I just paid 5 Rupees, walked away, and it was a good thing he didn’t give me a lot of trouble.

Next I had to find a room. After a long walk I found the street with all the cheap places to stay. Most said they don’t take foreigners. The others said they were full. After a couple hours, things were not looking good. The only thing I wanted to see was the Patna Museum, and it was going to close soon so I thought now or never. After walking all the way there, all the gates were closed and it looked like the museum has been closed for a while. No signs or explanations. So much for learning about this 2500 year old city.

I had planned to spend one night and then get on the train in the morning. I had already bought my ticket. Now I decided to leave the city and go to another city tonight. I had to fight the crowds at the train station to try to figure out how to get a ticket. There were two other cities I could go to: Raigir and Gaya. The problem was both trains leave at the same time, so I would have liked to get on the train that was less crowded. I decided on Gaya, bought a ticket that no one checks for anyway. On the low class trains, I don’t understand why they don’t check for tickets. Maybe because they are so crowded it is too hard to enforce.

Waiting for the train wasn’t too comfortable since the platforms were filled with smoke from burning garbage next to the station. The the train arrived, people were throwing items through the windows onto the seats. Apparently, this is the only accepted rule in India. If your item lands there, you get to sit there. Then there was all the pushing to get a seat and luckily some people made some room for me. It got so crowded, one man climbed up to the luggage racks next to the ceiling and laid down there. I’ve never seen that before anywhere.

On trains, in stations, on the street, many Indian men like asking me questions. Things like what am I doing in India, am I here all alone, what do I think about India, do I like India. For the last question, in my mind I want to say I wish nuclear holocaust on this land, but I couldn’t say that. So I say there are good things and bad things. At least I cannot speak Hindi or ten times as many people would bother me constantly.

When I arrived at Gaya station I was shocked by the number of people sleeping on the floor. I could barely walk out of the station. I was scared, if there were this many people sleeping inside the station, there is probably  no chance of getting a room to myself outside 9:00 at night. But I tired and I was surprised there were rooms available and for an acceptable price too. I was happy to just have a bed with a blanket.

Kathmandu, Nepal

I did my research ahead of time and was able to find a hotel with Wi-Fi in Kathmandu for $5/night. In the middle of the world famous Thamel backpackers area, it was quite a relief after the previous places I’ve stayed. The only downsides were daily brown outs and no heat.

The Thamel area had a lot of restaurants and shops in addition to the guest houses. It seems the popular foods here are Thukpa (noodle soup) and Momos (dumplings; buffalo is the most common filling). I ended up staying 5 nights in Kathmandu.

As for sightseeing, I visited the crowded Durbar Square. It is strange here, you pay for admission, but all the local people can drive their cars and motorcycles through the square for free. Kind of crowded and chaotic. (photos)

After Durbar Square, I climbed the hill up to Swayambhunath, an important stupa. (photos)

A couple days later, I made a trip out to the old town of Bhaktapur. (photos)

Then I made a stop a Bodnath. If I ever come back to Kathmandu, I think this would be a good area to find a guest house. (photos)

Nepal to India

Leaving the city was not so easy. I wanted to get back to the Indian boarder, so I needed a bus to Bhairawa. I asked at some of the travel agencies, and they said there were night buses and day buses. I wanted a day bus and I bought one ticket for a 6:30AM bus. I went to the biggest, most professional looking office. The travel agent said there are big slow buses and fast mini buses. This ticket is for the fast one.

The next day, I checked out at 5:30AM, took a taxi (used the meter), and got to the dark long distance bus station. I was going to walk but I wasn’t confident enough to walk that many kilometers down some dark unknown streets. After a while the electricity turned on at the bus station, but it was cold since everything was outdoors. There were some people huddled around a fire inside a barrel. My receipt said to go to ticket window number 24, but no one was there. I waited until the departure time of the bus, still no one was there. I wait an hour more, and still no one to help me. Finally, another bus company talks to me and makes a call and says get on a different bus. When I see the bus, it looks like one of the big slow ones. It finally leaves at about 9:30AM. I think I remember saying I’d never use a travel agency again after going to Vietnam, but I did again here and it seemed I got ripped off.

According to the map, it doesn’t look like it is too far to the border. But the bus doesn’t go this way. It makes a loop around half the country first. And of course there is a lot of waiting. About three-quarters of the way through the trip, everyone was kicked off the bus and forced into another bus like a herd of cattle. So much for even a slow direct bus. I got stuck next to a woman and her two children. All three of them were in one seat. And I was squeezed between them and another westerner for a couple hours. I was thinking this is a nightmare, it is bad enough in a crowded bus, but kids bothering me too. In total, it was about 11 or 12 hours on both buses.

After this experience, I think I’d have to say Nepal has the worst bus system in the world. Even most parts of India is better because they have a state run systems. It is always trouble when you’re forced to choose between a few private bus companies that are all trying to rip you off and treat you like animals.

At the border town, the other westerners on the bus headed for the Indian boarder. I decided to stay on the Nepal side and wait for the morning.

Lumbini, Nepal

 

Crossing the boarder

After a half day on the bus from Gorakhpur, the bus stopped near the border. I needed to pay for a Nepalese visa and I was concerned that I didn’t have exact change in US Dollars. There were some money changers at the border, but the rates were horrible. I decided to take my chances and walked across the border. It was probably the easiest border crossing in my life. No security, no one asked for my passport. It seemed open for everyone. I didn’t want to risk going around without a visa, so went in a building to get that. They took Indian rupees as payment (although I had to pay more). I needed some Nepalese money and I didn’t want to use any money changers. I tried one ATM, but it took Visa only. I had Mastercard. Luckily I had enough money to get in a shared jeep to the next largest town. But after this I only had a few cents left. Cutting things a little close. I did find an ATM that worked and had my first meal in Nepal.

Lumbini

I talked to a couple westerners on the way and asked me if I had a reservation in Lumbini. I said no. They said there is a big festival starting today and there are no rooms left. I got on a bus and took my chances. I did find one room, but it was expensive. I didn’t have a choice, unless I wanted to sleep in a tent with the Tibetan pilgrims who flooded the area. I was planning on spending a few relaxing days here, but because of this fesitval, I could only afford to spend one night. I rented a bike with a broken seat and tried to see as much as I could before sunset. The Nepalese people here seemed friendly. (photos)

The following morning, I bought a small package of crackers and got on the 7:00 direct bus to Kathmandu. I asked the ticket seller how long it takes and I think she said about 8 hours. Twelve Hours later, I arrived in Kathmandu. Most of the time just waiting around for more possible passengers.

Note about Time Zones

Most countries have a nice round time zone, such as +5:00GMT or -7:00GMT. India makes it a little more complicated, the whole country is +5:30GMT. Nepal is even more unusual with +5:45GMT. I’m not sure if this extra 15 or 30 minutes is worth the trouble.

Uttar Pradesh, India… Again

 

Kushinagar Express

This train was my first chance at spending the night in Sleeper class in India. This means you get no pillows, no sheets, no blankets, no air-conditioning, no privacy curtains, and you get to share your space with people on the waiting list.

When I first boarded the train, it was packed. I could barely find a place to sit. The floors were covered with peanut shells and other garbage. It was hot inside with so many people and I couldn’t imagine how it would feel in the summer time. After a while, I climbed up to my bed and used my backpack as a pillow. One man was walking through the car pounding on each bed and yelling about something. I had no idea what he was saying.

As the hours past, it got colder and colder since it was the end of November. The doors and some of the windows were open the entire time. By about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, it was too cold to sleep. Looking around the car, I could see I was the only one who had a bed to himself. Everywhere else I could see two men sleeping in one narrow bed. I guess I was lucky. I can also see why I don’t see women in Sleeper class. Too bad the Kushinagar Express doesn’t actually go all the way to Kushinagar, but to Gorakhpur, a loud, dirty city.

Gorakhpur & Kushinagar

The train arrived at 7:00 in the morning and I walked across the street to the guesthouses to find a room. Most were full since people were not checking out yet, but I did find one room that was right next to the noisy road and was not cleaned. I didn’t mind too much to sleep in a dirty bed, I’ve slept in worse places (for example, just the previous night).

In the morning, I decided to go to Kushinagar by bus. I found the bus station and noticed the first bus that direction was full so I decided to wait for the next one. When the next arrived, it was a battle filled with yelling and pushing to get on board. I think this was my first bus for this visit to India, and first in Northern India. I did have some help from a university professor who saved me a seat. It was about two hours of a really bumpy road and the bus was so crowded people were standing too. It was terrible, but I could always find something worse. This was the university professor’s daily commute.

I did make it to Kushinagar to see some of the interesting sights there. A lot of local Indian students talked to me and took pictures of me. Some asked why I came to India. I thought, I was myself that same question everyday. After walking for hours, I had to get back to Gorakhpur. It seemed like there were little to no buses. I talked to a local person and he said the buses don’t stop here because so many students try to get on board without paying. However, there was another option, a shared jeep. Unfortunately,  this was so crowded it was painful. The driver of the car would refuse to go unless everyone was very uncomfortable. It was about an hour and a half ride, but there was not any other choice besides walking. Probably the worst trip I’ve taken in India. (photos)

Back in Gorakhpur, I just had to spend the night and then leave on a bus to Nepal in the morning. I had read in my guidebook that the mosquitoes were bad in this city. Luckily, I found a mosquito coil a few days earlier. You light it with a match and it fills your room with smoke and the mosquitoes do not bite you. The only downside is you’re breathing smoke all night.

Madhya Pradesh, India

Sanchi

The AC sleeper train went smoothly but it wouldn’t stop at Sanchi, so I had to get off at the next largest city named Vidisha. From here I asked around about buses, but everyone was saying it was a far walk to get to them. I decided on an autorickshaw to get me all the way to Sanchi. I traveled through the rain and found a place to stay.

When the rain stopped, I visited the local musuem and walked up the hill to the great Sanchi stupa, one of the most impressive stone carved structures in the country. It was the only thing to see here, so the following day I decided to leave. (photos)

Sanchi to Khajuraho

Day 1

I started the rainy day by walking to the train station, buying my ticket (I had to search the whole city for change since the station only took extact change) and getting on the local train to the larger city of Vidisha. Then I got off and bought a 2nd class unreserved ticket for Jhansi, an even larger city yet. With this ticket, I could only go inside an unreserved car. When the train arrived, it was so full people were hanging out of the doors and I couldn’t see how I could squeeze on board. I decided to wait for the next train to come by. After another hour wait and some help from some local students, I stood in the rain and prepared for another chance. This time I didn’t see all the unreserved cars, they were at the other end of the train! There were about 18 cars on the train, and it stops for 2 minutes. Impossible to make it.

I didn’t know what to do. Every train passing by was overfilled, there were no buses going to the next city, there were no hotels with vacancies in this town, so I decided to go back to Sanchi where I knew I could stay and maybe reserve a better train. It was a total of 6 hours waiting at the Vidisha train station for nothing.

Back in Sanchi, I tried to reserve a ticket at the station but the man said the system goes offline at 4:30 and I made it there a few minutes past 4:30. I’d have to wait until tomorrow.

I tried to go back to the guesthouse I stayed in before, walking through the mud in the pouring rain only to get turned away. I did find another guesthouse for the night.

Day 2

I reserved a ticket (again, had to go ask everyone in town if they would make change) to Bhopal, the largest city in the state. It is in the wrong direction, but they have a 1st class train that goes all the way to Jhansi. So in the morning I took a crowded 2nd class seat to Bhopal and had some lunch there. Not much to see in this city, it is only known for the Bhopal disaster.

In the afternoon I waited for the 1st class AC train, arriving an hour late, which is normal in India. It seems like they would put more padding in between the trains. Bhopal is the last stop of this train and according to the schedule, it departs the other direction 30 minutes after arrival. So if the arrival delayed 1 hour, the departure will be delayed at least 1 hour too, doomed to never catch up.

This was the nicest train I’ve been on in India. They give you water, tea, mango juice, a sandwich and electric outlets. I was finally on my way to Jhansi, but still that was only half way to Khajuraho.

I arrived in Jhansi at about 9:00PM. Next I had to wait for my train to my final destination, scheduled at around 3:00AM. This was my opportunity to spend the night in an Indian train station. Luckily, I found an upper class waiting room that had some chairs, TV, and electricity. I just used my PC to pass the time. Other people began coming in and sleeping on the floor. One man sat beside he and stared at my computer for hours which was kind of annoying me. And to give a measure of how interesting my computer is to Indian people, on the TV news they were showing over and over a video of a man committing suicide by throwing himself into fire.

Day 3

As it was getting close to the time for my train to arrive, I went out to the cold platform and waited. Of course the train was delayed at least an hour. I found a dirty place to sit down next to the rats before boarding the train. I watched some Indian mothers instructing their children to squat down over tracks and use that has a bathroom. No wonder people fly to Khajuraho.

Khajuraho

I got a few hours of sleep on the train before the train arrived in the morning. Unfortunately, the train station was quite far away from the city, so I needed an autorickshaw. There were no buses or anything. After getting inside, another man from a hotel came inside and kept asking me to see his hotel. I kept saying no but finally I agreed to take a look and the room wasn’t too bad.

In the afternoon, I decided to rent a bicycle and see some of the temples in this ancient city. I walked down the main street to look for some bicycles, dodging all the people trying to talk to me. It is common to hear “Hello, my friend!” Sometimes I have to respond, “I’m not your friend!” As I was getting my bicycle a kid started talking to me. And then he started following me on his bicycle. I read in my book that these kids are up to no good too, since they try to lure you into a school and extract money from you. So I was being chased by a kid, but good thing I could ride fast so I got away from him. The whole day seemed to be running away from tour guides, sales people, and kids.

The next day I had some good news, the main temple complex had free entry because of some special week. At noon I went back to the train station to head back to Jhansi junction. Again, the train arrived and departed late, even though it was the end of the line. After 6 hours or so (was not asked for my ticket the entire time), I was back in the same train station I spent the night in a couple days earlier. This time I only had a few minutes to get on the next train I had reserved. I did make it on board and was heading north back to Uttar Pradesh and towards Nepal. (photos)

Uttar Pradesh, India

Sarnath

Among the patrons at the guesthouse was a scholar from Oxford University working on translating Indian and Tibetan texts. After experiencing so many hours of no electricity at this guesthouse, I decided to check out after one night.

This city is supposed to be the quite and peaceful alternative to Varanasi, but it seems a little too close to it’s bigger brother. I was expecting scams at every corner. For example, I entered a park with old ruins and one man asked for my ticket. He tried taking my entire ticket, not just the stub. I remember reading a sign a few minutes earlier that warned of the high fine issued to those found without tickets, so I insisted to keep half my ticket. Can’t trust anyone. (photos)

Sarnath to Varanasi

Apparently there was a bus that went between the two cities, but it was infrequent, slow and crowded. At the advice of the guesthouse owner I took a shared autoricksaw. This involved squeezing as many people as possible into this tiny vehicle, but the price was good. It takes two people to operate it. One to drive, another to walk around and find people. I only had to change to another shared autoricksaw half way in another town. This was acceptable until all traffic on the road stopped due to construction and the driver kicked everyone out. I had no map of this town and no idea how to get to the place where the shared vehicles and buses are, so I just started walking. After about an hour of wandering around the city, I didn’t get anywhere. Finally I gave up and got a normal autoricksaw to the Varanasi train station.

Varanasi

If I had to pick one city as the worst in the world, I’d say it is Varanasi. I had to take another autoricksaw to my guesthouse, so I used the prepaid stand at the train station, although you actually pay afterwards. I didn’t see a single bus in this city and I also made sure I had my earplug in the whole time. I saw some slums as I got near my guesthouse. It is almost like living on a landfill here with houses made out of garbage and cows wandering around eating the rest. I tried eating some street food and then I tried to ask where to put the plate. The Indians were confused, because here this is no such thing as throwing something in a trash can, so I had to throw it on the ground. Later I walked along the ghats, or steps, beside the Ganges river. Some people were bathing and a lot were asking if I wanted a boat ride. Later I saw piles of firewood. And finally I saw fires where dead bodies were being cremated.

There was one positive thing about my guesthouse: free Wi-Fi. That is when there is electricity outside of the scheduled brown outs. I stayed about three days and took a train out of town. The Varanasi train station is terrible. There are no chairs at all on the platforms, there are cows wondering the platforms, and people are forced to sit on the dirty floors. (photos)

Sri Lanka to India

Colombo’s International Airport is quite nice and modern. Unfortunately, getting there isn’t so comfortable on the public city bus. There is a new train station there, but it hasn’t been opened yet.

I took a flight on Mihin Lanka, a new budget airline, to Varanasi, India. I was one of 7 passengers on the Airbus A320, which has a capacity of 152 passengers. It was so strange, I felt like I was on a private aircraft. I was also surprised when they gave me free mango juice and a meal.

I’ve was fearing the day when I had to land in India. I’ve been researching how to get from the airport to the city, hoping there is some kind of bus. When I arrived, the international terminal of the Varanasi airport appeared to be smaller than the total area of the airplane I was exiting. Next, I needed some money. There were no ATMs at the airport, so I was forced to use a money changer service. The rate was poor and there was a huge commission, but I had no choice.

Next, I walked out of the airport and saw no bus, no cheap auto rickshaws, only taxis. It was evening and the sun already set. My first choice was bus, my second was to share a taxi, but with only seven passengers that seemed near impossible. The people outside said the pre-paid taxi stand has closed too. But I did get a verbal agreement on a price of Rs. 500 to Sarnath, a smaller city outside of Varanasi. Again, I have no choice. I got in a taxi and after a while, the owner of the taxi got in the car, he showed his ID and kept telling me not to worry. When someone keeps telling you to trust them and to not worry, it sends a red flag to me.  The owner tried get me to hire the car for the following day and also tried to get me to stay somewhere else. I told him, “You don’t tell me where to go, I tell you where to go. I’m the customer.” A while later, the owner says he needs to pick up his father, and he gets into the car as well. Finally, I did arrive in Sarnath and he said the price was Rs. 800 because the taxi had to bypass some construction. I thought no way and went out into the town to try to get exact change and pay that. I pay Rs. 500, walk into the guest house and lock the door. He follows and knocks on the door, not giving up. I think we finally agreed on Rs. 650 (about $14) with the help of some people inside the guest house and he left.

Sri Lanka

Earlier this year I almost visited this island country, but the final months of a civil war were underway. In November I had another chance to travel to Sri Lanka since it was convenient to visit on the way to India. My impression is this country is almost exactly like India, except there are more bakeries and supermarkets.

Colombo

The capital and the airport is located an hour to the north. On the first day after arriving at the train station, I planned on getting a train ticket, but I learned it was a holiday and all the trains were crowded. Some people tried to help in the front of the train station, but you can’t trust them. The official government tourist travel office tried to sell an expensive tour including a driver everyday. I finally was able to reserve a 1st class seat for the following morning, but I had to spend the night in a terrible room near the station. I didn’t spend too much time in this crowded city.

Anuradhapura

This city is of historical interest since it is the location of the first and longest kingdom on the island. Anuradhapura is littered with stone columns and bricks throughout forests and mountainous stupas, some rivaling the pyramids of Egypt. I decided to tour the sites by bicycle, but this didn’t work out too well since it rained most of the day and I was soaked. I thought I planned out my trip to bypass the two monsoons by going in between them, but instead I got to experience the monsoons coming from both the southwest and the northeast. I skipped the $20 ticket price by just riding past the outside of most places. (photos)

I took a side trip to Mihintale, an interesting mountain peak about 8km away from Anuradhapura. When you arrive, you see a very wide stone staircase with flowering trees hanging over both sides. Many of the local people walked up barefoot. On the top there is a good view of the countryside, few ancient stupas, and some monkey.

Polonnaruwa

Next, I took a bus for a few hours to the location of the 2nd big kingdom of ancient Ceylon. The guesthouse here was surrounded by animals, including two different kinds of monkeys and a mongoose. When it came to touring the ancient ruins, I made the mistake of trusting a tuk tuk driver in an attempt to bypass another $20 ticket. He said he would show me everything while bribing the security. When he didn’t bring me to the most famous place, I paid 25% of what he asked for and walked away, checked out of my hotel, and waited for the bus out of town. After chasing me down and almost getting in a street fight, he came back with 3 of his friends to try to get more money out of me. I tried to get away by jumping on a bus, but they followed and kept the bus from leaving. This was all apart of a scam to get unknowing tourists out of money and I didn’t want to be cheated. They said they want to go to the police, but I’m pretty sure they are corrupt too, so we agreed on 50% of the original price and I was allowed to leave the town. (photos)

Dambulla

Another few hours by bus and I visited an old cave. I wanted to see how it compared to some of the other kind of cave temples I’ve seen in China and India. I think it was kind of disappointing for the $10 ticket price. (photos)

Kandy

After a crowded bus ride, I made it to Kandy. Elsewhere it was very hot, but Kandy was a little better since it was up in the mountains. I visited the elephant orphanage, an hour or so out of the city. I was shocked to see the ticket quadrupled in price in the past couple years compared to what my guide book says. So I decided to not pay the $20 to go inside and see some elephants. Luckily, all the elephants had to cross the road outside to get to the river for a bath, so I was able to see them for a few minutes for free.

The guesthouse, Lake Bungalow, was the best room during my stay. Up on a hill overlooking the city and lake and it had a lot of wooden furniture everywhere. One morning, a lot of monkeys started climbing all over the guesthouse and looking in the windows. During my stay in the city, I visited the Temple of the Tooth. (photos)

Unawatuna and back to Colombo

It was roughly six hours by train to make it to Galle and then to a nearby beach town called Unawatuna. The trains in Sri Lanka are probably the oldest I’ve seen anywhere. It isn’t a smooth ride along the old tracks. (train photos)

At the beach I found a guesthouse with wireless internet, which was the first time in two weeks of finding this. Most of the time it was raining at the beach, so it was a short visit and then another train to Colombo to see the National Museum. The following day I had a flight to Varanasi, India.

Sri Lanka has a little bit of everything: ancient cities, beaches, mountains, and forests. But thinking of the weather, high entrance fees, and experiences with tuk tuk drivers, this country isn’t high on my list of favorite places.

Anhui Province, China

It was a 20 hour train from Beijing to Huang Shan town in Anhui Province. Too bad there were no sleepers available, so I had to sit from 11:00AM until 8:00AM the next day.

Hua Shan Mysterious Grottoes

I first read about this strange place on the web six years ago. So maybe this is the first place I wanted to visit in China, but it took me until now get here. There is a small mountain with a number of hand cut caves and they are not mentioned in any historical record. I was able to walk inside two. Grotto No. 2 has had 60,000 cubic meters of stone removed and Grotto No. 35 had 100,000 cubic meters of stone removed. There is no clue to where this stone was taken, other than a river near the caves.

No. 35 is the most interesting, I think. The entrance is near the top of the mountain and then as you walk inside the floor gets lower and lower. Why not just cut in the side of the mountain and make the floor level? Also it is so clean inside. There is no graffiti, no black marks on the top of the cave from fire. After visiting, it does seem like it was all hand carved.

I wanted to find out if this was just a modern quarry or something. Later I talked to a local person and he said he came here when he was a kid but the caves were full of mud.  Some researchers suggest the caves were dug out in the Warring States Period (476BC – 221BC). They are the largest ancient artificial caves in China and maybe one of the largest in the world. (photos)

Mt. Jiuhua

One last mountain. I ended up going with a tour group because I wasn’t sure about the places to stay there and there were not many convenient buses. Unfortunately, the tour didn’t go to all the way to peak of the mountain. It was still ok. There were a lot of interesting temples in the middle of the mountain. Also interesting to note I saw a 99m statue of Ksitigarbha bodhisattva at the base of the mountain under construction. I was the only western person I saw there. (photo)