There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Rameswaram: Part 9 of India's Deep South

This a new post though it describes the events of the 3rd of March 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.
 
It took a while to disentangle ourselves from Madurai's urban sprawl. Once free, we drove southwest along a straight, flat road through palm fringed farmland with golden straw stacked in the harvested rice fields.

Lynne slept for a while, but woke at coconut time.
 


A refreshing morning coconut south of Madurai
Nothing is more refreshing than coconut water on a hot day but Indian coconut vendors can be frightening. In Sri Lanka they sensibly hold the coconut on a chopping block or tree stump and whack it with a machete, in India they hold the nut in their left hand, knife in their right and strike with all the vigour of their Sri Lankan neighbours. I habitually count the fingers of Indian coconut vendors; so far they have all had ten, but there must be some with fewer, and I really do not want to be the person who scrabbles in the dust to reclaim a severed digit or two.
 
Please mind those fingers
We continued through Paramakudi and Ramanathapuram. The scrub became more stunted and the palms more windblown as we headed out onto a sandy peninsula which eventually tapered to a point just beyond the small town of Mandapam.
 
Ramanathapuram

The 2km Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge seems almost a natural extension of the land. Built in 1988 it crosses the Pamban Channel to Pamban Island, often called Rameswaram after its main town.

The start of the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamban Island 

From Pamban, Adams’s Bridge, a 50km string of limestone shoals leads to the Sri Lankan island of Mannar which is connected to its mainland by a causeway. Some of the shoals are above water, others a metre or two below. Temple records suggest it was possible to walk from India to Sri Lanka as recently as the fifteenth century but storms gradually deepened the channel and the reef was finally broken by a cyclone in 1480. The India-Sri Lanka border follows the median line through the strait, reputedly crossing an exposed part of the shoal. Those few metres form the world's shortest land border between two countries.

The name Adam's Bridge which appears on most maps is presumably of Muslim origin though it first appeared in print on a British naval chart of 1805. Hindus, the overwhelming majority in Rameswaram, call it Rama’s Bridge.
 
We head from Madurai to Rameswaram
Signs suggest drivers should not stop on the bridge but in India human nature always trumps official signs. A dozens cars and buses were parked at the windy spot where the view was best; the police hovered around, not moving anyone on, just ensuring everyone behaved. 
 
A windy spot on the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamdan Island
Some fishing boats bobbed at anchor off Pamban Island, which gave a good impression of a tropical paradise,…  
Fishing boats off the tip of Pamban Island
 …while others fished beside the bridge.
Fishing beside the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamdan Island
Alongside the road bridge is The Pamban Railway Bridge, built by the British and opened in1914. From above it looks alarmingly close to the water, but although it is actually 12.5m above sea level a storm surge in 1964 did overturn a train killing all 150 passengers.
The Pamban Rail Bridge
Rameswaram town is in the far side of the island, but low density urban sprawl starts from the end of the bridge. Rameswaram is a holy place and a Hindu pilgrimage centre, but receives few western visitors – we saw no other Europeans on the island - and our accommodation on the town’s edge was not an international class hotel. The welcome, though, was warm and the room clean and comfortable so we forgave the television for working just long enough to prove it had no channels in any language we understood, and the WiFi for declining to connect.
 
The hotel restaurant was the only lunch option; it described itself as 'Pure Veg' but in a temple town we expected to go without meat (and beer). Most Hindus are vegetarians; ‘non-veg’ food is available in international hotels and establishments run by Muslims or Christians - in practice Muslims, as few Christians own restaurants. We had not had a thali on this trip yet so that was what we ordered. A thali consists of a number, in this case 9, dishes of curried vegetables or condiments, a poppadum and unlimited rice. They served a particularly fine thali, though you cannot tell the quality by looking at it, nor by the price – that varies mainly with the restaurant d├ęcor. The vegetables themselves are secondary; a thali maker’s skill is in the spicing. Each bowl should be different but all should be complementary producing a tinkling arpeggio of spices, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
 
Lynne and a vegetarian thali, Rameswaram

After lunch Thomas drove us to the Ramanathaswamy (or Ramalingeshwara) Temple, in the heart of the town.
The car park was some way from the temple. Leaving bags and cameras in the car, we walked with Thomas through the narrow streets, dropped our shoes off with a minder and finished the journey barefoot – not a particularly comfortable experience.

 
Rameswaram, rivals Varanasi as the most important pilgrimage site in India, partly because it features in the Sanskrit allegorical epic, the Ramayana. Rama, (an avatar of Vishnu) was married to Sita (an avatar of Lakshmi). Sita was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana and taken to the island of Lanka. Rama followed Ravana and with the aid of the monkey god Hanuman and his simian army built the Rama Bridge, crossed to Lanka, killed Ravana and rescued Sita.
 
On their way home Rama and Sita visited Rameswaram to worship Lord Shiva and seek forgiveness for killing a Brahmin during their battles with Ravana.
 
Unlike the Madurai gopuram those at Rameswaram are not gaudily painted.
 
One of the gopuram, Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram
 European faces are so unusual here we soon attracted the attention of a white robed Brahmin who introduced himself as the Temple Secretary and offered to show us round.
 
The temple’s 16-18th century outer section - all that is officially open to non-Hindus – consist of 'a spacious closed ambulatory flanked… by continuous platforms with massive pillars’ (Rough Guide to South India). The corridors are 205m long and there are 1212 pillars all brightly painted and topped with yalis (mythical beasts). I had no camera, but later, in the streets, we found a stall selling laminated photographs of the ambulatory - pity the focus is not quite as sharp as I would like.
 
The ambulatory, Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram (commercial photograph)
 

As guests of the Temple Secretary we found ourselves ushered into the much older Hindus-only section. After visiting the shrine of Ganesh where the priest smeared ash on our foreheads we approached the first of the temple’s two most sacred Shiva lingams. People were queuing with their offerings by a lingam allegedly brought from the Himalayas by Hanuman. The priest held up the holy flame and, for a donation, devotees could pass their hands through it and take the blessing upon themselves. Nobody seemed to mind our presence though we were careful not to intrude.
 
The second lingam was fashioned from sand by Sita herself as Rama could not wait for Hanuman’s return from the north, and we saw it being bathed with milk in the inner sanctum. Lynne was given a piece of coconut as a blessing from Lord Shiva.
 
At another shrine a priest marked our foreheads with a red tilak and after being purified with a splash of holy water we were allowed to touch the base of the main gopura.
 
Outside we paid off the Temple Secretary.  His fee was steep and he was reluctant to bargain - whether or not he donated the money to the temple I have no idea.
 
Thomas returned to the car to fetch bags and cameras while we watched two men building a temple chariot for a forthcoming procession.

Building a temple chariot, Rameswaram
Thomas is a devout Christian, like a quarter of all Keralans he is a member of a church that claims to have been founded in the first century by the apostle St Thomas. We felt privileged and honoured to have been allowed into the very heart of the temple, but Thomas was less comfortable inside the inner sanctum. No great fan of the way Hinduism is practised, he dislikes seeing poor people giving money to priests that would be better spent feeding their families. People rely too much on the gods, he said, and make too little effort to help themselves. He might describe himself as a 'Catholic' but he has a robust understanding of the ‘protestant work ethic’.

When he returned we strolled towards the sea following a distinctive group of brightly clad pilgrims.

Pilgrims, Rameswaram
The beach is marked by a decorative archway populated by the usual array of calves and goats.

Archway by the beach, Rameswaram
By now our group of pilgrims might have been thinking we were stalking them.
 
Are we stalking them? Rameswaram
 We watched people bathing – the women as always inching carefully into the water while fully dressed…

Bathing, Rameswaram
…photographed a cute kid….

Cute kid, Rameswaram
…and had a paddle in the luke warm sea…

Paddling in the warm water, Rameswaram
…by which time the saffron robed pilgrim was stalking us.

Now is he stalking us? Rameswaram

The Gandhamadana Parvatam, 2km north of the temple and just outside the town, was built around the footprint Rama made when he landed on his return from Lanka.
 
It sits on a low sandy hill, the approach surrounded by stalls. The stallholders might be cheerfully optimistic….
 
The approach to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 …but the shrine itself looked sad and neglected.
 
Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 We climbing the stairs….
 
Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 …and then onto the roof to look down onto the footprint. No photos were permitted, but I can report it was as convincing as Buddha’s footprint at Wat Phabat Phonsan in Laos, which was not at all. The temple gopuram looked good from here, though…
 
Looking back at the Ramanathaswamy Temple from Gandhamadana Parvatam
….as did the north end of Pamban Island so here are pictures of them instead.
 
The north end of Pamban Island from the Gandhamadana Parvatam
Driving back towards our hotel we stopped at the temple and tank of Rama Tirtham Gandamadana. Tanks, as they are always called, are important to Hindus, providing both spiritual and physical cleansing. It was here that Rama rested on his journey to Lanka and it looked particularly attractive in the rays of a sun that was beginning to set.
 
The Tank at Rama Tirtham Gandamadana
Back at the hotel Lynne ordered vegetable soup and rotis claiming she did not really want to eat, but that did not stop her sharing my vegetable biryani and aloo gobi.
 
Later we had a nightcap from our diminishing stock of Dubai airport duty free. We will need to seek replenishment tomorrow, or at least before we return to semi-dry Kerala.
 
We would leave Rameswaram in the morning, it may have been a short stay it had undoubtedly been a highlight.
 
I have enjoyed visiting places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, but you know that on the day you will be one of several thousand tourists.
 
But there are places still within the ‘tourist envelope’ where you are not one of thousands. In a post on Kashgar, the city, nearer to Beirut than Beijing at China’s extreme western tip I wrote ‘Surrounded by Uigher buildings and several hundred people, none of whom were in western dress, we felt that we had finally arrived somewhere foreign and very alien to our normal experience.’  and elsewhereany European who can stand in Kashgar’s Id Kah Square and not feel the thrill of being somewhere totally foreign and utterly remote should probably have stayed at home.
 
Madurai, whilst not as remote as Kashgar, provided the same thrill. Rameswaram, however, is a step beyond, an island outside the tourist envelope and it was spine-tingling just to be there.
 
I felt the same in the market at Upal a village 50km outside Kashgar, but it is bittersweet tingle. Of that experience I wrote ‘Tourism is forever doomed to kill the things it loves: the fishing village in a secluded cove becomes a five mile stretch of high rise hotels, slices of paradise are packaged, denatured and sanitised to suit the tastes of the rich. Kashgar is hardly Benidorm, but we were not the only foreigners at the Sunday market and it sits inside the horizon of tourism. At Upal we had slipped over that horizon, but human beings, like sub-atomic particles, are changed merely by being observed. Mixed with the exhilaration of just being there was the fear that we were the latest link in a chain of foreigners relentlessly dragging that horizon behind us.’
 
For ‘Kashgar’ read ‘Madurai’ for ‘Upal’ ‘Rameswaram.’
 
I apologise for the preachy bit at the end, but thank you for reading this far. If you would like to leave a comment in the box below even if just to say ‘I’ve been here.’ I would be delighted.


India's Deep South



Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Nanjing (2), The Presidential Place and the Massacre Museum; Part 2 of South East China

This a new post though it describes the events of the 13th of November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

 
We are stone
high five
(Slogan seen on a tee-shirt in the Presidential Palace, Nanjing)
 
After a better night’s sleep but an identical poor breakfast, we set off with S and Mr D for the presidential palace in central Nanjing. Originally a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) palace, we were told, it had also been used by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the leaders of the Taiping rebellion, Dr Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. During some of that time Nanjing (lit Southern Capital) had been the capital of China, but when the communists finally won in the civil war in 1951 Mao chose to move the capital permanently to Beijing (Northern Capital).
 
Tourists milled around multitudinously, but apart from us all were Chinese; westerners, it appears, rarely visit Nanjing. For 20 years after the civil war, the government had no interest in Chinese history and Mao actively encouraged the destruction of ancient monuments. In today’s China, regional governments over-reacting to their earlier vandalism are assiduously restoring, rebuilding and faking the past. This may explain why, despite the palace’s size and pulling power, it rated only one line in my twelve year old Rough Guide. I look forward to a more balanced approach.
 
Lynne outside the Presidential Palace, Nanjing
At the western end is the Ming garden. A traditional Chinese garden has four elements, stones, water, buildings and finally, almost as an afterthought, plants.
 
Ming Garden, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
This garden certainly qualifies, it even has a stone boat to rival the marble boat of Beijing's summer palace, though the crowd meant we did not see it in the quiet seclusion envisaged by the designers.Beyond the garden are Dr Sun Yat-sen’s offices….
 
Stone boat, Ming Garden, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
 …and outside is a statue of the great man himself.
 
Dr Sun Yat-sen
First president of the Chinese Republic
 Inside we saw various rooms including his modest private office...
Sun Yat-sen's office, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
The sign on the desk has his name as Sun Zhong Shan, the modern pinyin version, but he has gone down in history under his Wade-Giles transliteration so I am sticking to Sun Yat-sen
 ...and the meeting room.
 
Sun Yat-sen's meeting room, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
 We moved on to Chiang Kai-shek's offices...
 
Chiang Kai-shek's Offices, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
 ...where I had to wrestle with the crowd (the Chinese sense of personal space is not the same as ours, but when in Nanjing….) to get a photo of the inside of CKS’s office. It is not a great picture, but I worked for it, so here it is.

Chiang Kai-sheks' personal office, Presidential Palace, Nanjing
After Mao won the civil war, CKS retreated to the island of Taiwan. Here he set up a rival Republic of China glaring at Mao's People's Republic of China across the Taiwan straits, each faction claiming the territory of the other. With American support CKS's Republic of China held China's UN seat and position as a permanent member of the Security Council until 1971. The authoritarian CKS died in 1975 since when Taiwan has progressed to multi-party democracy and prosperity. It still claims to be the 'real' Republic of China but has agreed the '3 noes' policy with the mainland, ' no unification, no independence and no use of force'.
 
Round the next part of the garden is the Taiping area. The way the historical sections are adjacent but not overlapping confirmed my suspicion that this is more a carefully constructed museum than a real palace.
 
More of the Ming garden on the way to the Taiping throne room
Presidential Palace, Nanjing
In the 17th century the Ming dynasty ran out of steam and was replaced by the Qing dynasty in Beijing in 1644, extending their rule to Nanjing in 1683. Peaking in power in the late 18th century, the Qing rulers ran into difficulties in the 19th and faced several uprisings. The largest was the Taiping rebellion of 1850 when a group of farmers and land owners seized control over a great swathe of southern China and set up the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom under Hong Xiuquan, the younger brother of Jesus Christ (or so he claimed). They chose Nanjing as their capital and the throne room of Hong Xiuquan has been lovingly restored - or recreated.

 

Throne room of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom
The current official line approves of the Taiping Movement describing it as nationalist/proto-communist. Their kingdom, though, was 'heavenly' in name only, the 14 year rebellion and civil war being marked by great brutality. With estimates of the dead ranging from 20 to 70 million it was the bloodiest civil war and largest conflict of the 19th century. The Qing forces were ineffectual until in-fighting weakened the Heavenly Kingdom and in 1864 the Emperor eventually regained control with the assistance of the French and British including the ‘Ever Victorious Army’ led by General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon (later better known as Gordon of Khartoum).
 
The Qing Empire petered out in 1912 and Dr Sun Yat-sen briefly became president of a new republic.
 
We left the presidential palace via more gardens and the stables.
 

Stables, Presidential Palace, Nanjing

Americans date the Second World War from 1941 when they were attacked by the Japanese; the Chinese date it from the Japanese invasion of 1937. Shanghai fell in August 1937 and the invaders moved on towards Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital. CKS did not want to make a stand here and retreated 1,400km up the Yangtze to Chongqing which would become the war time capital. Mao and CKS paused their civil war to fight the Japanese (resuming it in 1945).
Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing
In pinyin transliteration 'q' is pronounced 'ch'. The older Wade-Giles system referred to Nanking and Chungking
The Japanese reached Nanjing in December 1937. The massive medieval walls provided little protection from a modern army and on the 13th of December, after several days of air raids, they breached the walls and took the city. There followed six weeks of destruction, looting, mass murder and gang rape, an event known as the Nanjing Massacre.
 
The Massacre Museum and memorial to the victims is near the presidential palace, behind a massive if not entirely successful sculpture of a mother holding a dead child.
 

Memorial outside the Massacre Museum, Nanjing

The pebbles represent the multitude of the dead, and in the subterranean museum the story is told in stygian gloom to a soundtrack of bombing and shooting. The figure 300,000, the number of the dead, is repeated everywhere as the story is told through pictures, artefacts, the testimony of survivors and, occasionally, even of the perpetrators. Like the killing field in Phnom Penh or the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, it is a place to shake your faith in humanity.
 
The pebbles as numerous as the dead, Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre
The Nanjing Massacre created an unlikely hero. Most of the international community left Nanjing before the Japanese arrived, but some stayed including Siemens' representative in Nanjing, John Rabe, who was German and a Nazi party member, and several American missionaries. Under Rabe’s leadership they negotiated with the Japanese to set up the International Protection Zone where they safely sheltered some 200,000 non-military personnel.
 
Rabe returned to Germany in 1938 and continued to press the Chinese case until he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was released by the influence of Siemens for whom he worked for the rest of the war. Post-war he was denounced as a Nazi, lost his job and was put on a 'denazification programme'. He died in poverty in 1950.
 
John Rabe (picture nicked from Wikipedia)
Humanitarian and Nazi - an epitaph he shares with Oskar Schindler (and nobody else)
We finally emerged into the sunlight beside the footprints of some of the survivors. There are just over one hundred officially recognized survivors left, one less than yesterday, so S told us. The death of a survivor makes the news in Nanjing.
 

The footprints of the survivors

For the sake of balance I should add that the official Chinese figure of 300,000 dead is disputed. Some Japanese nationalists deny there was any massacre, and there has never been an official apology, which rankles with the Chinese in general and Nanjingers in particular. Independent estimates put the figure anywhere between 40,000 and 250,000. The true number is unknown and unknowable, but even 40,000 is a lot of innocent people. Suffice it to say it was one of the worst atrocities carried out by a regular army in modern times and there were those who could, and should, have stopped it. War crimes trials were held later but most senior officers escaped prosecution.
 
Finally we passed through two cavernous halls where the remains of several thousand victims have been found. Partially excavated, their bleached bones look up at you reproachfully. I am not sure that it is how I would have treated the dead, but everybody filed through in solemn and respectful silence.
 
I felt emotionally battered but also a little troubled. In The Railway Man, Eric Lomax wrote of his mistreatment by the Japanese on the Burma Railway 'we must never forget, but we must now forgive.' It is not up to me to offer forgiveness on behalf of British PoWs, still less the people of Nanjing, but I would have liked to see the memorial take at least a token step in that direction. Of course the Japanese could help by owning up and apologising.
Exiting the Massacre Memorial, Nanjing
In the world outside the birds were singing and the sun was just warm enough to tempt me to remove my pullover. 'What would you like for lunch?' S asked, completing the strange change of gear. After yesterday’s salt water duck it was time for Nanjing’s other specialty, what guide books call duck blood soup and S called duck’s bloody noodles.
 
S suggested a noodle shop near the Yuejiang Tower, so afterwards we could climb the tower get the view of the Yangtze Bridge we could not find yesterday and then walk home.
 
The noodle shop was in a sparsely attended shopping mall. Next-door was the Cheese Pub, its outside tables and chairs unoccupied. I have no idea what they sold, but I doubt it was cheese.
 
Noodle shop, Nanjing
S ordered for us and insisted we also have a steamer of pork dumplings, because that is what you eat with the soup. Then she left us to enjoy.
 
S queues to order our noodles while Lynne hangs around
The noodles were covered with a broth in which floated some tofu, diamond shaped pieces of scarlet jelly, presumably the duck blood, and various other cuts off the fowl - liver, gizzard, finely chopped intestines etc. I should like to report that it was unexpectedly delicious or as disgusting as it sounds. In fact it was neither. It was pleasant enough, but hardly memorable - a good way of using up trifles that would otherwise go to waste.
 
Duck blood soup and a steamer of dumplings
The red splodges in my bowl are chilli sauce from the pot on the table, not blood
From the restaurant we could see Yuejiang Tower on the top of its hill. From this side the steps up to the ticket office were obvious, and there were plenty more steps afterwards.

Yuejiang Tower, Nanjing
The tower typifies the current Chinese attitude to antiquities. Standing inside a corner of the city wall which here does a northward bulge, it was designed in the 14th century along with the wall, but the emperor ran out of money and it was never built. When the city authorities started rebuilding parts of the wall destroyed by the Japanese they decided to build the tower as well. It was opened to the public in 2001.
 
S had warned us that our path would bring us to the tower at second floor level and that we had to go down some steps to enter. These narrow steps were hidden by foliage but indicated by a sign, the English version of which read 'Therewith to the Floor.' We may not have interpreted that without S’s warning.

Inside the Yuejiang Tower, Nanjing
What S did could tell us was that the lift would be out of order. Yuejiang mean ‘enjoy the river’ so we slogged up all seven storeys to the viewing platform to be rewarded with a view of the river, the world's longest double decker road/rail bridge and the port of Nanjing - sizeable container ships have no difficulty making it this far down the Yangtze.


The Yangtze, the bridge and shipping, Nanjing
And on the other side we could look over the haze (or pollution) shrouded city.
 
Nanjing shrouded in mist
We could see where we went wrong yesterday and the route home. Although the sign posting was not always helpful we found our way without mishap.
 
S talking us into dumplings as well as noodles meant we did not want to eat in the evening, so instead we walked up to the local Carrefour to see what a French supermarket chain was making of the Chinese market. They sold all the things you might expect including a range of French wines at high but not unreasonable prices and there was a big promotion on olive oil - well, the British have taken to it, so why not the Chinese?
 
South East China