Walking the Nile-book review

As the world’s longest and most famous river, the Nile possesses an significant aura of legend, mystery and fascination. Being the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, the Nile has had a role in recorded human history since almost the beginning. But few have ever walked along the entire Nile, which is where British explorer Levison Wood comes in. Starting from the source of the Nile in Rwanda, Wood trekked along the river over 6,437 kilometers (4000 miles) with various African guides through Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan to its end in Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This journey is the subject of Wood’s Walking the Nile.

The journey starts off in Rwanda, where, contrary to popular belief, the Nile begins from a humble forest spring that becomes a river flowing to Lake Victoria, where the source was previously thought of as being. During these early stages, Wood and his brash and jaunty guide-turned-friend Ndoole Boston mostly trek through forest and swamp, as well as stay on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are brief pauses at cities like Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Uganda’s capital Kampala. Wood provides a somber overview of his impressions of Rwanda and its attempt to move on from the horror of the 1994 genocide. While the country has succeeded in becoming an orderly and stable nation, it has also turned into a security state with shades of authoritarianism.

There is also a fair bit of commentary on the history and politics in other countries like Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan, which to me is refreshing. I think that while exploration and travel are great for knowing more about the world, this should include current events or history or politics of places. In a continent like Africa, with its mix of ethnicities and cultures and the impact of colonialism, it’s even more fitting to know more about local history and developments.

Things begin to get really hard as Wood moves northwards. At one point, he is joined by a couple of journalists who plan to walk with him for a week and report on it. Tragically, during an extremely hot day, one of these writers, Matthew Power, gets heatstroke, collapses and then dies. Wood calls for an evacuation and he is understandably shaken. Wood soon resumes the journey while still having some doubts in his mind.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents an extraordinary challenge as it was (and still is) in the grip of a savage civil war. Lots of cash and official help were what got Wood into the country and even then, it was a precarious situation. Wood travels through the Sudd, a large swampland, where he stays with a river cattle-herding tribe, the Mundari, and is bested by them in wrestling. But after reaching the town of Bor, he encountered fighting between rival factions, which forced him to abandon part of the trek. He flies to Sudan and continues it from there. It was sad to read about the savage fighting and dire conditions in this fledgling country, which itself was borne out of war after having fought for its independence for decades against Sudan. It’s hard to feel any optimism for South Sudan.

Sudan does not get much good press or have a good reputation in the world (though this might be changing with the recent peaceful overthrow of its longtime leader). But civil war and conflicts like Darfur aside, Sudan was home to grand ancient civilizations like the Nubian Kushite kingdom. Wood highlights Sudan’s own pyramids in Meroe (capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush), which might be smaller but no less fascinating and certainly much less crowded than Egypt’s. Part of the journey sees Wood and his companions, including two friends of his, travel through the eastern edge of the Sahara, the Bayuda, which the Romans had ventured thousands of years ago.

When Wood reaches Egypt, things settle down and the journey becomes a steady progression. Walking the Nile is a fine travelogue that combines adventure with current affairs, archaeology and anthropology. It’s not surprising that Wood went on to do further treks through the Himalayas, Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Central America. The man is as intrepid as they come.

 

Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- book review

Nestled in the deep northeastern corner of India lies Arunanchal Pradesh, the “land of the dawn-lit mountains,” and one of the least explored parts of the country. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent went on an epic motorcycle journey into the state where she explored thick jungles and mountains, met and stayed with remote tribes and gained insight and experience into their fading traditions and customs. Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- A Journey across Arunanchal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier is the result of Bolingbroke-Kent’s intrepid journey.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s “Seven Sisters,” the group of seven northeastern states that border China and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land, the 20-40 km wide Siliguri Corridor. The entire region is still quite isolated and visited by few people, however Arunachal Pradesh is very remote, with visitors needing to apply for a government permit to enter. Given that the state borders Tibet, it is also a very strategic border region for India, due to its vulnerability to invasion from China, which actually claims the province as its own territory.

Bolingbrooke-Kent set out in a counter-clockwise journey from neighboring Assam, looping into Arunachal Pradesh and riding from east to west. Along the way, she stops at several points, sometimes even venturing for days deep into the interior and far borders of Arunachal Pradesh while leaving behind her motorcycle. She meets tribal elders, shamans and even kings, observing ceremonies and festivals and even mithun (cattle) sacrifices. The tribes include fearsome warriors with a historic reputation as headhunters, nomads, and former Tibetan vassals residing around the old mountain fortress of Tawang. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh’s history includes past interaction with Tibet when it was an independent entity.

The book also shows serious challenges faced by the tribes. It is clear that modern life is gradually eroding a lot of the tribal traditions, especially as young people are lured by education and jobs in big cities. There is also a fair bit of ethnic tension between tribal people and Indians from outside the state, who have moved into Arunachal Pradesh to settle or work. The tribal people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indians, with some of them having more in common with Myanmar, where their ancestors came from.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is a fascinating, moving, and entertaining account of one of Asia’s most unknown remote regions.

Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The mountainous interior of Sri Lanka, Hill Country, is full of mountains, picturesque towns, and hillside plantations where the country’s famous tea is grown. Among the largest towns in the Hill Country is Nuwara Eliya, considered the centre of the country’s tea industry. As a former British colonial hill station, Nuwara Eliya was a favorite holiday retreat for British officials, hence its wooden bungalows, a charming post office, and a horse-racing track that is still used today.

The town is a good base for visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the nearby hills, as well as Horton Plains National Park (several hours away by car), where you can visit World’s End, a cliff edge with a massive drop of 4,000 feet. Nuwara Eliya itself features Single Tree Hill, and a small lake, as well as Pidurutalagala, the country’s tallest mountain.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking up Single Tree Hill, so called for a lone tree at the top (not actually true), provides great views of the town as well as the tea plantations on its slopes. It’s a relatively easy hike because most of it is along a small road which is not too steep. At the top, you can either go back down the way you came or clamber down not-so-clearly-marked trails through residential neighborhoods. Watch out you don’t accidentally trespass onto a tea plantation as I did!

To actually visit a large tea plantation, just go outside Nuwara Eliya to Pedro’s tea factory (3.5 km away). You can get a guided tour of the factory to see how they sort and process the tea, and then walk around the tea plantation outside the factory. Very conveniently, just opposite the road from Pedro’s is a trail that leads to Lover’s Leap waterfall, a 30m-high waterfall on a cliff. I took a tuktuk from town to Pedro’s, then after completing the hike, I took a local bus back to Nuwara Eliya.

How to get to Nuwara Eliya: Take a train to Nanu Oya station, then a tuktuk into town. If you want to be fancy, hire a local car and driver to take you from cities like Kandy or Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
View from Single Hill Tree
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Thailand travel- the ancient capital of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, Thailand
I’ve been to Thailand numerous times, but it took me five visits before I visited anywhere other than Bangkok. This was Ayutthaya, which was the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. More specifically, Ayutthaya was the capital of the Thai kingdom of the same name from the mid-14th century to 1767, when it was sacked by the invading Burmese, which then led to the capital being moved to Thonburi (now part of Bangkok). Ayutthaya is actually quite close to Bangkok, being about one hour away by train, so I went there on a daytrip.

Ayutthaya’s massive centuries-old temple and monastery ruins and monuments lie scattered within a sprawling historical park next to a modern town, making it different from Angkor in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar, both of which exist in rural areas. There are well over a dozen large temples. Most of these sites, all red or white, were heavily damaged by the Burmese so you can see a lot of destroyed Buddha statues and walls. I visited the following sites below (each site has a separate admission fee).

Wat Ratchaburana has a towering prang (temple spire) and is one of the most impressive sites. It was built by King Boromaraja II in 1424 to hold the ashes of his two brothers who died fighting each other in a duel on elephant-back for the throne. You can climb inside the prang and go up for a higher view of the surroundings. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet (first photo at the top of this post) is another impressive site, featuring three distinctive white chedis (Buddhist domes) that contain the ashes of three kings.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Ratchaburana
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat’s famous and eerie smiling Buddha head
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Lokaya Sutha

Wat Mahathat was one of Ayutthaya’s most important temples but it was sacked by Burmese invaders and is full of damaged prangs, headless statues and broken walls. Ironically, this gives it a certain attractiveness. It is most famous for a smiling Buddha head, chopped off from a statue by Burmese soldiers, stuck in a giant clump of tree roots. Wat Thammikarat is an interesting temple complex, with an indoor reclining Buddha, the outdoor ruin of a hall missing its roof, and a quirky hall devoted to chickens in the form of dozens of green and black rooster statues. Wat Lokaya Sutha features a giant white reclining Buddha outdoors as well as a solitary leaning prang. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is an monastery complex that features a chedi and dozens of Buddha statues.

There are many other temples as well as several former European and Japanese settlements (where foreigners of those countries resided when Ayutthaya was a flourishing city) to check out, but I didn’t have time to do so.

I went to Ayutthaya by train from north Bangkok, but you can also take the train from Hua Lamphong, the city’s main station. When I arrived, I ignored the tuktuk drivers at the station and crossed the river via a short boat ride, then walked to the main sites in the historical part of Ayutthaya. However, it was very, very hot and after visiting three sites, I gave in and hailed a tuktuk to drive me to the other sites.

If you find yourself in Bangkok and have time, make sure to visit Ayutthaya. A couple of good online resources about Ayutthaya to check out are this website and this blog.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat (above and below)
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of Wat Mahathat’s Buddhas

Ayutthaya, Thailand
Chicken shrine at Wat Thammikarat
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Ayutthaya, Thailand
It’s a sad sight because of the immense strain on the elephants.
Train station, Thailand
Northern Bangkok train station, the most casual train station I’ve ever been to

A brief return to Toronto

Toronto, Canada
Toronto is one of my favorite cities in the world, not because of traveling, but that it is probably the best city I’ve ever lived in. As a university student, I spent several years in Canada’s biggest city, and this came after many visits as a kid and teenager to see my grandma and other relatives there. Toronto is clean, safe, and prosperous, which makes it seem boring, but it’s also very diverse and multicultural. You can meet and interact with people from all over the world, whether it’s the Caribbean or Asia or the Middle East or Africa. Almost half of its population was born overseas, which is more than New York City or London. Anyways, since graduating from university and coming to Asia, I hadn’t been back to Toronto until last year.

While I saw some of my relatives and visited my grandmother’s grave (she passed away in my final year), I also spent time walking around downtown and checking out some sights. It was a strange feeling playing tourist in a place you’ve lived in for years but it was also pleasant. The time went by fast even though I spent five full days in total there as I balanced family visits and travel.

Toronto was as pleasant as before, but it seemed to have gotten more upscale and has more shiny buildings and skyscrapers. It even has a new, fast train between its Pearson airport and downtown that is just as modern and convenient as any airport train in Asia. Of course, its subway system is still rather modest (trains were newer but the lines were the same and the new card system was a bit inefficient), but as they say, some things never change.
CN Tower, Toronto, Canada
The CN Tower was the world’s tallest structure and tower up until 2007 and 2009, respectively. Having been
up the CN Tower several times when I was younger, I didn’t bother to this time
Toronto, Canada
Ripley’s Aquarium, next to the CN Tower, did not exist when I was in Toronto.
Toronto, Canada
Chinatown mural
Toronto, Canada
Union Station, Toronto’s main train station and airport train terminus, and the CN Tower
Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Royal Ontario Museum and its “Crystal” front extension
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
The ROM was just as fascinating as when I last visited, sometime in the early 2000s!
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada Toronto, Canada
Nathan Phillip’s Square, featuring the two curved buildings of City Hall
Toronto, Canada
Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre stands out on Yonge Street (Toronto’s main downtown street
but which actually runs 56 km from Toronto to Lake Simcoe)
Toronto, Canada
Another shot of Union Station and the CN Tower at night
Eaton Centre, Toronto, Canada
Eaton Centre, iconic downtown shopping centre
Toronto, Canada
Massey Hall, one of Toronto’s most well-known arts performance venues, which was built in 1894