Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train

Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.

Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.

Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.

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Sunset from Monastyrsky Island

So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.

Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.

I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.

Gabe

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Dnipropetrovsk: Gogl-Mogl

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Time to statue!

I promised myself (and of course all you tragically bored readers) that I would finally get this blog up and running again, and that I would be so on the ball that said ball would slip out from underneath me and I would crack my head open on the Dnipropetrovsk concrete, in a manner not too dissimilar to an exceedingly drunk club-goer I stumbled across in the midst of having his pockets ransacked by a bunch of burly gangsters pretending to help him last night.

As the mercilessly hangover-inducing unfiltered lager of eastern Ukraine flowed through my veins (that’s not good is it?), I stumbled up to this helpless man, passed out face-down on the concrete, while I waited for Jake and Elliot to emerge from the already-infamous Club Rio on the banks of the Dnieper River, its unusual girth measurable only by the blurry twinkles of streetlamps over a mile away on the opposite bank. As I stretched out a tentatively violent foot to nudge him (or kick him depending on my inebriated lack of judgement), two skinhead men appeared from behind a tree, and with an almost routine-like efficiency, power-walked up to the man, knelt down at his side, and rootled around in his pockets, stuffing his copious wads of Ukrainian hryvnia into their own coat linings, before locating his phone and tucking that into their waistlines. After that, they helped him to his feet, slapped him in the face to wake him up, and vanished into the darkness, leaving our drunken victim drooling long chains of saliva down his own shirt and onto the feet of a statue of Taras Shevchenko.

While I imagine this is the kind of story you were expecting a lot of in a blog about Ukraine, this is just about the only moment of genuinely reprehensible behaviour we’ve witnessed in our time here. I mean granted it’s only been four days, but it must be said that – what with everyone questioning our choice to head to a recent war zone – Ukraine is no more dangerous than any other country in Europe, unless you feel like taking a couple of shells to the face in Donetsk or Luhansk. The vast majority of this country is perfectly safe. Sure, the infrastructure is a little shonky and it does feel somewhat impoverished in places, but it’s not Mogadishu – people aren’t going to kidnap or murder you for being a foreigner.

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Shevchenko Park, Dnipro

So, after about 24 hours in Kiev (during which time I of course had a chicken kiev), we took the six-hour train to Dnipropetrovsk at 7am, weaving through the floodplains of the Dnieper across the flat interior of this vast country. We decided to spend the extra £3 to get a first class ticket, complete with reclining chairs and a buffet car unfortunately called the WOG Cafe. After knocking back a couple of hot dogs and watery americanos on our arduous march across the former UkSSR, we shuffled down the aisles and off the train, squeezing past the buffet car’s trolley service which we affectionately dubbed WOG-On-Wheels.

Dnipropetrovsk is an interesting city. It’s got a really post-industrial, post-Soviet hinterland vibe about it. It’s in the middle of nowhere, stranded hundreds of miles from the coast, with one big wide avenue (named after Karl Marx, of course) slicing through the middle of the city. Thick black smoke billows from the chimneys of factories that flank the edges of every panorama of Dnipropetrovsk, their corresponding high-rise apartment blocks for workers visible in their shadows. However if there was one trait I had to select as the most noticeable in this city, it’s that the Latin alphabet is nowhere to be seen, and if you’re hoping anyone can speak English, dream on, friend. In most Eastern European cities, signs will be written in their native Cyrillic, underscored by the Latin version, so us heathens can have a crack. However, in Dnipro, there is no Latin alphabet – it’s just thick, imposing Cyrillic, and there’s somewhat of a British mentality about your average Ukrainian’s attitude towards the English speakers of this world; if they don’t understand your language, say it again, and louder. We’ve had Ukrainians repeat phrases we already don’t understand twice as loud enough times to truly understand how infuriating it must be when English people do the same to unassuming foreigners trying to ask for directions.

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The sign in the background says Gogl-Mogl. We felt it deserved some reverential respect.

And no scenario saw as much heightened repetition as when our beloved Jake proceeded to leave his Sainsbury’s bag of valuables in the back of the taxi taking us from the bus station to our AirBnB. After rushing back to the station to find the driver, we found that he wasn’t there. He seemed like a nice enough guy and were convinced he wouldn’t steal someone’s stuff, so we approached another driver who saw us get into his car and asked if we could phone him. After the longest phone conversation in modern history, we were told in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that the driver was asleep. Then that he was driving around. Then that he was at home. Then that he had the bag. Then that he didn’t. Then that it was still in the boot. After about half an hour, a different taxi driver showed up with the bag. In our euphoric relief, we ransacked the bag to discover that Jake’s phone wasn’t in it.

Oh typical, bloody taxi drivers giving back the bag but pocketing the most valuable item in it. After it slowly dawned on us that he may have stolen the phone, we continued to quiz the other drivers about the whereabouts of the phone. Yet again, we were told that he both did and didn’t have the phone, that he was both asleep and awake, that he was both at home and still out driving around. Defeated and a phone down, we trudged back to the apartment to unpack. I hung up my clothes, did some laundry, drank some beer, and then unfolded the sofabed to reveal underneath a sight all three of us both wanted to see and didn’t want to see at the same time; Jake’s phone. For God’s sake.

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A disappointed selfie on Jake’s newly-found phone.

Gabe

Gatwick Airport: Lazybones

Yes, you read that right. The blog that nobody asked for in the first place, and that nobody pined for in its absence, is back. Though this will be one of my shorter blog posts as a half-hearted re-introduction of Hidden Gabe, it still needs to be said that I have been tragically lazy in recent months, in a manner that is unbecoming of an aspiring journalist.

The days of my weird and wonderful round-the-world trip are long behind us, and I have reluctantly hurtled myself back into the menial trivialities of life in the frighteningly middle-class terraced-house corridors of East Dulwich, I have been ‘travelling’ in a somewhat less explicit manner since then. For instance, I took a trip to Spain in June. It was undeniably a trip that was jam-packed, however it was mostly jam-packed with red-wine-laden family card games, and silently creeping further and further towards a melanoma diagnosis. And who wants to read scheduled updates about how many Catalan words I can mispronounce per day? I sure as hell wouldn’t, even if I had written them myself.

Then there was the Georgia trip. Now that was legitimately too busy and full of insanity for me to even pause for a moment. From winning over a grand on the Europa League final, to necking four glasses of wine with our own taxi drivers halfway along a poorly-maintained mountain road in Kazbegi, to helping clear a highway of debris from a truck that had recently disintegrated after tipping over on a sharp turn, Georgia was fast, furious, and fantastic. Hence, I just didn’t want to miss anything by taking time out to write paragraph after paragraph detailing every single event of the day. I just wanted to live it, not analyse it. Yes, that is as wanky as I have ever sounded on this blog.

And so, in 45 minutes I will be boarding a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. I will be spending 16 days touring the country with my companions Jake and Elliot (who are not on the same flight as me which is a pain), and really at this point I can only speculate on what’s to come. And I’m not going to do that because people don’t want to read blogs that tackle subjects that can only be written about by guessing. Oh wait, I forgot about Brexit.

Expect more soon.

Gabe

 

Delhi: The End

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have reached this point you’ve done pretty well in all honesty. This will likely be my last post from the road. I’ll almost certainly do a post-trip roundup either once I’m home, or while I’m flying back, but as for reporting from the ground in faraway lands, this is the end.

I almost certainly should have written more this week than I have done, but there are two reasons why I’ve been silent. First off, I’ve been doing literally nothing all day every day for the past week. I’m not sure if you’ve seen (it made some national news), but parts of India have hit 43, 44 and even 45 degrees Celsius. The country is in the grip of a pretty brutal heatwave that has killed over 100 people as of the publication of this post, and Delhi is one of the city to have been hit the hardest. Thus, it’s almost impossible to actually do anything – stepping outside in the day to that heat/smog combo is absolutely unbearable (and dangerous), and stepping out at night is a one way ticket to either lodging yourself in the grill of an erratically swerving tuk-tuk or getting your pockets knifed open by little Artful Dodger street urchins. So I’ve done literally nothing that’s worth reporting. This is also compounded by the fact that exploring Delhi is pretty comfortably at the absolute bottom of my wish list at the moment. And that ties into the other reason I haven’t written anything in a while; I hate it here.

Earlier in the week I had maybe one of the worst experiences of my entire life, and it frustrated and upset me so much that I simply didn’t feel like writing. If not simply for the fact that a blog post at that point would’ve manifested as a seething library of pure hatred, it also struck me that I would probably offend some people in the process. So I decided to wait out my anger and write this post when I had calmed down a little. However, that hasn’t happened, so strap yourselves in for some choice words about my experience in what is, without doubt, my least favourite of all the destinations I’ve ever been to. And yes, I do mean not just on this trip, but ever. This is a sparkling compendium of a list that is splattered with such worldly fecal matter as the awfully soulless Liechtenstein, the offensively jingoistic Nagasaki, the painfully boring Helsinki and the timewarp bomb site of Blackpool. India – or at least the fairly sizeable chunk of it that I’ve seen – has got them all beat. And here’s why:

It gives me absolutely nothing. It may sound entitled or arrogant to say, but literally every country, city, town or village I’ve been to, probably in my entire life, has something to offer me for the effort and money I put into it. I make it to a major capital city, I’ll be greeted by amazing sights, beautiful streets and a great atmosphere. Likewise if I head up into say, the Alps or the Andes – I get amazing vistas combined with stunning, cozy little villages where you can relax and feel at home. India has neither of these.

Let’s start with the cities. I’ve been to three. It’s not that many, admittedly, but I feel I have a right to comment on the state of Indian cities simply because if you’ve been to three major cities in any country, you can safely say you have at least a bit of experience of cities in that country. I dunno, maybe that’s a very small-country Eurocentric angle to take. However, another reason is that – while every single person who ever swooped through this godforsaken city will tell you that Delhi is little more than a stain on the surface of humanity – they’ll also tell you that Jaipur is infinitely more beautiful, and that Agra has an enormous list of amazing historical places to visit. But that’s the thing – it’s all just as crap as the last place. Doesn’t matter which city I’m in – when it comes to India I cannot bring myself to like it, or even acknowledge why others like it, to be honest.

Really, it seems to be an issue with me more than the country itself. Every dreadlock-clad, harem-panted moron from Chertsey I’ve met on this whirlwind adventure of shit has done little other than gush over how awesome this nation is. How its spirituality makes you question your beliefs. How its smiling natives make you question the point of your material wealth. And while we’re at it, listen, you might be doing yoga and know the names of a couple more Hindu gods than the average Brit. You might have changed your name from Peter to Lakshmana and have sworn off alcohol, but that does not mean that I should strive to do the same. You know why I have such faith in my material wealth? Because it affects literally every aspect of my existence. I find it extremely patronising that people think otherwise – sure the little kid in the sidestreets of Agra may grin and wave at the backpack-wearing Westerners walking past their house, but that smile doesn’t hide anything. It doesn’t mean they’re not living in a country with extremely limited access to clean water, or with massive illiteracy rates, or with a population of well over a billion yet also with a life expectancy of 66 – a full 16 years lower than the UK.

That’s one way in which India has influenced my way of thinking; it makes me realise how lucky I am that I had the opportunities I did by being born in the fully developed world. Yes there are obviously very rich people in India, but an insanely large percentage of people – for a nation this large – live well below the poverty line. It makes me realise how much I cherish that exact material wealth that many others choose to reject once they set foot at Indira Gandhi Airport. It’s that wealth that stops me from getting typhoid when I try to drink tap water. It allows me to communicate with other people all over the world at the touch of a button. It allows me access to healthcare services that don’t involve slipping in puddles of blood on the waiting room floor. It allows me to not have to walk past mountains and mountains of garbage at the side of every street. It allows me to have a quiet night in my house in London with a bottle of red wine and Match of the Day. It allows me to even be here – it allows me to come to India and to see what it’s like with my own eyes, and that is the reason I don’t have to unequivocally praise it. Maybe that’s the greatest facet of my material wealth – it offers me a generous and vast arena of travel, from which I can form my own opinions, not just regurgitate the desperate, pseudo-spiritual self-righteous nonsense you pedal in the belief that you’ve broken the glass ceiling of Western society, and ‘seen beyond’ whatever it is about it that you inexplicably chose to turn your back on.

I had so much hope coming to India. It’s one of the world’s largest and greatest societies. Thousands of years old, filled with amazing food, drink, culture and history. I was willing to give it a huge go, even though I knew it might be a bit of hassle. And it’s just disappointed me so so much. For instance, I just went outside to get some dinner, and what happened was just kind of… India in a microcosm, summed up perfectly. First off, it was 11pm and still absolutely agonisingly hot. I made it to the main street and a man on a motorbike came flying down the pavement and almost hit me. Then a tuk-tuk drove into the back of a bus and smashed its own windscreen all over the street, and just kept driving. I got to the corner I needed to turn round, and from somewhere came the most intense smell I’ve ever experienced. India’s full of nasty smells, but this was a whole new ball game – it was like a rotten egg that had been dipped in sulphur and then excavated from a rotting corpse’s digestive tract. It’s the first time a smell has literally made me gag in the street – it was unreal. I turned the corner and the street was covered in unpopped popcorn. I mean literally thousands and thousands of corn kernels. All over the street. And people were just walking and driving through it all.

Random stuff as unexpected and strange as that would be endearing anywhere else, but here’s it’s just another weird annoyance. I barely broke stride before getting accosted by a bunch of children tugging and my shirt and asking for money. Sorry, I don’t have any. They tug again and give it the big puppy-dog eyes. No, I’m sorry. Then again they pull at my clothing and stand in front of me, looking all sad. F*ck off kids, I’m not interested. How many times do I have to say no before you get the picture? Go collect money for your cartel from someone else. And lo! Once they realised I wasn’t giving them anything, they ran off to a nearby restaurant, sat at an outdoor table with a bunch of men they obviously knew and started eating with them. Oh yeah you really needed my money, didn’t you? What a load of bullshit.

I got to the square with the food stalls, approached one of the vendors and asked for a bottle of water. Usually they’re about 20 rupees (20p). He said 100. I just looked at him like ‘how much of a mug do you take me for?’. Without me saying any more, he said ‘OK 70’. So not only did he know I knew he was ripping me off, but he then attempted to ‘be fair’ by offering me a price still way higher than the going rate. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’45’. I said ’20’. He said ’30’. I said ’20’. He said ‘OK 20’. He handed me the bottle and it was warm. I’m not talking room temperature – this bottle was actually giving off heat, like a hot water bottle. Which I guess, in a sense, is what it was. I handed it back to him and told him where to go. Trying to rip me off and then can’t even be bothered to give me a cold bottle. The stall across the way then gave me one for 20 straight off the bat, and it was freezing cold. That’s all I ask man, just because I don’t look like you doesn’t mean you have to try to steal my money.

That one ten-minute trip was just so filled with stress, filth and unnecessary arguing that it just makes me wonder what anyone gets out of this place. In fact, that’s the exact thought I had around a week ago, so I booked a trip up to the Himalayas, to get away from what the Himalayan people call the ‘Lowlands’ of India – basically all of India that isn’t mountains. However, my experience up there was something I thought I would never ever want to write or even talk about, so utterly terrifying was it. But hey, it makes for a good story I guess, as it affords me a platform to describe the effects of – and bring awareness to the dangers of – AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness.

On Wednesday, I took a brief 55 minute flight to Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, in the extreme north of India. This isn’t the India you see on TV – it’s mountaintop monasteries punctuating a vast, barren desert, surrounded by gigantic jagged mountains and populated by locals that are far closer to the people of Tibet in ethnic makeup and culture than the people of Lowland India. Leh is somewhere I’ve wanted to go for many years. It’d be silent, reflective and a gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery that the entire planet can offer. But it didn’t work out like that in the slightest. 

As every guide book or travel website will tell you, Leh is pretty high. It’s not super crazy insane high, but for a major town it’s pretty high. It’s 3,500m (11,500ft) above sea level. That’s toward the top end of many ski resorts. Above 2,500m the body starts to behave a little differently due to there being less oxygen in the atmosphere. You’ll barely even feel it around that altitude, however. It’s once you push the 3,000m barrier that you’ll actually notice your body having a little bitchfit. Basically, when you go skiing, or when you go to Leh via the road that was closed when I went there, you acclimatise. You gradually deplete your body’s oxygen levels by slowly bringing yourself up to altitude, meaning your body adjusts like the fader on one of those fancy alarm clocks that’s supposed to make waking up super calm. I had to fly there. Delhi is at 100m above sea level, so as a result I jumped 3,400m in just over 50 minutes. Travel articles suggest that you don’t fly if you don’t have to, but if it’s your only option, you just chill in bed feeling a little sleepy and funny for 24-48 hours (depending on who you ask) and you’ll be alright. However, they also make it clear that even if you’re a healthy, fairly slender 24 year-old like me, that does not remove you from the blast zone of the bomb of randomness that is severe altitude sickness. While most people have the ‘feeling a little funny then feeling fine’ progression of symptoms when they quickly ascend, there are some people to whom that doesn’t quite happen. And they get hit by AMS. I’m one of those people.

I arrived at Leh airport at 8am on Wednesday morning. I stepped out into the absolutely freezing oxygen-depleted atmosphere and felt strangely refreshed. It had been so hot in Delhi that this was a welcome change. Being a worrier I spent my time at the baggage belt breathing deeply to try to adjust myself to the surroundings. I felt fine, but then as I turned and walked toward the exit, I suddenly got a little wave of cloudiness, like I’d had a shot of weak alcohol. I thought it was quite funny that I could actually feel the altitude, as I kind of assumed much of it would be bullshit. I hopped in a taxi with a strange man who kept bowing his head in a nervous tick every five seconds, including when going round blind corners and when navigating junctions. I held on for dear life as we drove through Leh to what can only really be described as my disappointment. Sure, the scenery was nice, but the town itself had the same old shitty, run down buildings everywhere, the same piles of rubbish and the same hoards of mangy stray dogs roaming the streets as the Lowlands. I sighed, realising I hadn’t quite ‘escaped’ some of the things I disliked so much about India, but thought I’d be happy if I pushed on, got through these difficult two days of acclimatisation, then got out into the Himalayas to see the local sights, such as the amazing Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri Lake, and the world’s highest paved road, the latter two of which are close to 5,000m in altitude.

I arrived at the only affordable hostel in Leh – the Leh Ecology Hostel – and holy shit what a surprise that was. A large glass-fronted yet extremely old building way outside the town centre, on the side of a hill, overlooking the city, was where I would be staying for the next twelve days. I arrived to total silence, but it was below zero outside and I desperately needed to start my resting, so I approached the house next to the hostel and knocked on the door. Out stepped a little Ladakhi man in his pyjamas, who proceeded to give me a tour of the hostel. There were no heaters. There was no tap water. There was no hot water. There were no toilets. There were no normal plug sockets. There was (almost) no wifi. What the hell had I done. As I completed the tour, my earlier grin having slowly morphed into an emotionally pained grimace, I was led to my room – a wooden box with two twin beds, a lightbulb and nothing else. As he was about to leave, I turned to him and said ‘… Am I the only guest?’, to which he heartily laughed, proclaimed ‘Yes!’, and left, leaving me in an empty building in the Himalayas, 10km from the nearest shops, with no way of charging my phone or contacting the outside world. I got into bed and fell asleep.

I remember having an exceptionally vivid dream where I was drowning, and struggling to breathe, when suddenly, boom. I woke up, jolted upright in bed and realised I wasn’t actually breathing in real life. Its fine, I know sleep apnea occurs at this elevation, I just wasn’t expecting it. I attempted to drift back off to sleep, and after a long struggle of my brain vs my lungs, I managed it. Being affected by 3,500m altitude is extremely normal – it affects 70-80% of people who ascend too quickly to that height. It’s usually a mild headache, a little bit of breathlessness and feeling sleepy. And I knew this. So when I woke up three hours later feeling like I had a bear trap around my chest and a giant air pocket in my brain, I immediately got up out of bed in panic, at which point I then stumbled, banged my head against the wall and had to stand there breathing heavily for five minutes. I went outside to ask the hostel guy for some water, and he took me into the kitchen, where he uncovered a bowl from under a towel filled with boiled tap water that had a layer of strange minerals on the surface. He gave me a glass of it and it was so fresh from this botched pasteurisation that it was still incredibly hot. So when the guide books say drink litres and litres of water, I felt I was falling a little short with a 250ml glass of boiling scumwater.

I headed back to the room, where my laptop and both phones decided to run out of battery. I sat and stared at the wall, when suddenly a strange little shape appeared in my vision. It was like when you stare at the sun or another bright object and it burns into your retina. A strange sort of deformed star appeared in the middle of my vision and wouldn’t go away. Turns out this is the precursor to a retinal hemorrhage, where the blood vessels at the back of your eye expand and put pressure on your optic nerve before rupturing and bleeding into the back of your eye. I just kind of rode it out and fell asleep again, this little imaginary star shape permeating my dreams. Then, problems.

I woke up in the middle of the night and felt like death. I could barely see anything, felt like I was going to vomit, and had a headache that would’ve killed a small cat. It was absolutely insane. By this point I had been there for 20 hours – there is no way my conditioning should’ve been getting worse by this point. I was on a mountain in the Himalayas, alone and freezing cold, genuinely worried that something terrible was going to happen. I had spent a day and a night in a spinning room, trying not to throw up, cut off from the outside world and not being able to see or do anything without either bumping into the wall or collapsing like a wheezing Type II diabetic. It was the worst 24 hours of my life, hands down. So I woke up the hostel guy and asked him to order me a taxi for 6am to head to the airport and buy a ticket for the first flight back out of there. I did not care if it was going to get better if I persevered – right now the £30 to get straight back down from this hellhole was comfortably worth it. Again, I tried to sleep, and somehow managed it in between strange fits of not breathing and feeling like there was a knife in my head.

I headed downstairs to wait for the taxi when the hostel guy appeared. He asked how I was, at which point I said ‘I’m actually feeling terrible. I feel much worse’. Now for my entire time here, this guy had been extremely cavalier about AMS. Everything I said, he’d just go ‘Ahh it’s OK/It’ll be fine/It’s nothing’, but at this point, even he couldn’t help but freak out. His eyes widened, he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘This is not good. You should feel better by now, not worse. Are you going to the hospital?’. No dude, I’m going to the airport and getting the f*ck outta here. We parted ways and he went back to bed. I knew the taxi would pull up on the other side of the gate into the hostel, so I went to open it. It was locked. The wall surrounding the gate was one of those makeshift bullshit anti-trespasser row of pieces of jagged glass. I was stuck. Still very much unable to walk 10ft without getting out of breath, so what did I do?

I felt too bad about waking up the hostel guy again, so I found a small gap in the glass and – with my giant heavy suitcase in tow – scaled the wall. Feeling like Edmund Hillary scaling Everest, I perched on the top and dropped my bags over the other side just as the taxi arrived. Then I made the mistake of not lowering myself down, but instead just casually jumping down. Something had seemingly gone very wrong with my nervous system in my time here, so I hit the ground only for my knees to give way and I crumpled into a heap in the path of the oncoming taxi. My reaction times were so shit that I couldn’t actually stop my face from hitting the ground. This part of the world is an exceptionally dry desert, so as I impacted the ground, a giant plume of dust kicked up like an atomic mushroom cloud and floated off over the town. Through the headlight-lit dust, the taxi driver came running towards me and helped me up, and with two hands around my shoulders he walked me – looking like a terrorist attack survivor – toward his car, bits of rock and dust falling off my face and clothing as I continued to breathe like a fat person was sat on me. He piled my stuff into the taxi and sped off down to the airport. After the slowest security procedure and some of the most unfriendly staff I’ve ever experienced, I got on the plane and it pressurised. Holy shit I could actually feel the pressure in my head and lungs dissipate in a matter of seconds. Suddenly I could see and breathe normally. I grabbed a coffee, relaxed and headed back to Delhi.

I love mountains. I always have done. I love the Alps, the Andes and everything in between. So I had been buzzing about seeing the Himalayas, and throughout this whole ordeal there were gigantic mountains and some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen, and I just did not give a shit. That’s how bad the whole ordeal was.

So now I’m in Delhi, the shittest city on Earth. But lo! It’s still in the throes of a giant heatwave, so going outside is not really an option, and also I’m waiting for my round the world flight guy back in London to sort me out with a ticket out of here, so I can’t leave Delhi in case one comes through. If he doesn’t manage to find a free seat, I’m stuck here until the 28th. And in all honesty I’d rather shoot myself in the foot.

Gabe

Delhi/Jaipur/Agra: The Unholy Trinity

Part I: Delhi

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Yo.

I’ve been in India for a week now, and I have to say – save one night with my good friend Jasdeep – it’s been a bit of a disaster. While sitting on the roof of the crudely-named ‘Lord Of The Drinks’ bar in Delhi, knocking back cheap Indian whisky with Jas was obviously a most excellent way of spending time, the rest of my adventures across Delhi and Jaipur have been arduous to say the least.

This is the first time on my entire round-the-world trip where I’ve been completely and utterly shocked by how incorrect my predictions had been about a prospective destination. Sure, Tahiti was surprisingly bleak, and Easter Island surprisingly mindblowing, but India has just totally undone me. I mean, let’s be realistic; we all know India is a developing nation, and struggling with a population of over 1bn while attempting to put together a viable nationwide infrastructure for even the simplest facilities is a huge undertaking, but I have to admit I did not expect it to be at such an early stage of development.

Because of it’s purportedly rapid ascent through the gears of infrastructural advancement, people often refer to India as one of the select few countries that fall under the category of ‘second world’ – which I’ve always seen as a bit of a vague catch-all or a cop-out. As far as I can tell, it simply defines a country as ‘not as technologically or infrastructurally advanced as the first world, but with enough industry, democracy and, say, paved roads, to not be considered third world’.

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My parting gift to Changi Airport

It’s because people are now afraid of saying the now-apparently-insulting ‘third world’ that this new category has been clumsily wedged into modern Western parlance. And India, for me, will always sit at the pinnacle of this wave of pretentious revisionism – it is the nuclear warhead at the tip of the rocket of righteousness. In Western eyes, I’ve always found that India rests in this bizarre bubble of worship, and any criticism of it is often called out as racism. There’s an undeniable cult of India. People gaze upon its grand expanses of natural beauty and its enviable ancient religious aesthetics with unrivaled awe, and so they should; India is a vast nation of hundreds if not thousands of different cuisines, languages, religions and landscapes. Yet at times I feel some people go a step too far and mistake quantity with quality.

The number of people I’ve met here (or people who have been here in the past) who choose to unequivocally praise every aspect of this complicated, confusing nation is staggering to me. It’s total nonsense; India’s social, economic and infrastructural problems are numerous and vast, and it’s utterly ridiculous to pretend they’re not. Why would you even attempt to simplify such a complex place into ‘it is good’? Is it your guilt over the British Raj or some other unspoken bollocks? All this attitude does is serve to make you look like you’re either an idiot or are so wrapped up in your new-found ‘spirituality’ that you choose to see past the hoards of people shitting in the street. Which is ironic considering how many of said people talk of feeling ‘enlightened’. Enlightened to what? Believing only what you want to believe?

India is so intense that it retrospectively makes Japan feel about as exciting as Eastbourne. Stepping out of the extremely delayed plane onto Indira Gandhi Airport tarmac, I was hit by the most suffocatingly thick mist of smog and sadness. Delhi is an absolute assault on the senses, the most notable being smell. Spend more than a few hours there and you’ll have your own personal cloud of exhaust fumes and human excrement buried deep inside your sinuses, because, I’m afraid to say, Delhi is a godforsaken shithole. The most foul-smelling, eye-wateringly stuffy and unfriendly city I have ever been to, even its long list of pristine temples and shrines are not even close to compensating for the mountains of shit you have to put up with. And I mean that literally; after getting an Uber from the airport to my hostel, I stepped out to a dude just squatting right there in front of me, next to a dead dog and an overflowing sewer. On the street. Then just pulled up his pants and walked away.

I mean – and this is the first time I’m gonna use this word without censoring it on this blog – what the fuck. Just shitting in the street? What kind of developing nation is this? Something I found particularly amusing was that I then walked past a news kiosk with a magazine that referred to an interview in which some Indian celebrity was quoted as saying ‘I find it insulting that India is referred to as a developing nation. It is developed’. Yeah sure mate, you keep believing that.

Entering the hostel, I was hit by a wave of ferocious air-conditioning, which was sweet relief from the 41 degree heat outside. After a night there, I attempted to head out the next morning to explore, but, as all guidebooks and fellow travelers will tell you, this is not really a ‘thing people do’ in Delhi. Aside from the absolutely brutal heat, the roads are also insane deathtraps, and the people of Delhi are pretty interesting. Or should I say ‘interested’. They are absolutely fascinated by Westerners, whether just to intently stare at, or to scam money out of. You step out of your hostel and ten people will come straight up to you with their shitty little auto-rickshaws, screaming ‘Where you going?! Where you going?!’. At first it seems the logical option is just to wave at them in a ‘no thanks’ gesture, or to politely decline. But by the time you get to even the end of the street, you’re practically elbowing them out the way and screaming things at them that you never thought you were capable of. To some of the more persistent ones who will not take ‘no’ as an answer, you have to just shout at them, or swear at them, and they’ll get the idea. Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, I bailed on Delhi as soon as I could. That city is the shame of India. I went to Akshardham Temple which was pretty cool, but the queues combining came to 3 hours of standing around, shouting at queue-jumpers and sweating until I was at -100% body fat. I went back to the hostel, cruised across town in another luxury Uber, then got on a bus to Jaipur.

Part II: Jaipur

Disaster struck as soon as I arrived in Jaipur; within about 5 minutes of stepping off them bus, I knew I would hate it just as much as Delhi. It’s cooler than Delhi, it’s quieter than Delhi, and it’s less intense than Delhi, but by the rest of the world’s standards it’s still absolutely batshit insane. Rather than being just spoken to by everyone on the street, I actually had people grabbing me as I walked past, pulling my shirt, stepping into my path and holding my forearms to try and stop me, all while spending most of my waking hours jumping over puddles of raw sewage and dodging suicidal motorbike drivers as the careen onto the pavement to avoid the emaciated dirt-encrusted cows that rule the streets. Contrary to the theory that Jaipur is more palatable than Delhi, it’s still absolutely filthy. And the city’s claim of being the ‘Pink City’ is absolute bullshit; without meaning to sound incredibly middle-class, it’s not pink, it’s terracotta.

On the first day, I got up in the morning, headed to the (admittedly amazing) Jantar Mantar observatory, then to the Amer Fort, Jal Mahal, Hawa Mahal and City Palace. And then it was 11am and I realised I’d exhausted the entirety of what Jaipur’s tourist board could offer me. So I headed back to the hostel and realised something needed to change. Something about India was really not working for me. Well actually it was many things about India that were not working for me. So I took a big risk. I booked a trip to Ladakh, extending my time in India by two weeks. Come Wednesday I’m flying up to 4,000m, surrounding myself with mountains, monasteries and buddhists and basically living as a hermit for 12 days to finish off my intense round-the-world trip. Sounds good to me.

However, this meant I was now going to be in India for longer than the UK government suggest you should stay in India without vaccinations. So after much research and deliberation I headed to Jaipur Hospital to ask what the situation was, as hospitals in India seem to be lagging well behind the email age. I was told that I could come back the next day and they’d sort it for me, for £3 per vaccination! That’s insanely cheap compared to the UK, where you’d be spending well over £100 on the same thing. I left the hospital very cheerful, but then began my walk home, during which I saw some of the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen in such a brief period of time. Here we go.

I turned onto the main road, where I saw a man driving a camel-and-cart backwards down the street. I don’t mean he was going up the wrong side of the road either, I mean he was literally reversing a camel up the road. Just turn the goddamn thing round, man. Next block, a row of guys chatting to each other while synchronously shitting in a ditch. I skipped past them as fast as I could, to turn the corner and see a perfectly working public toilet that they could quite easily have been using. A dog then bolted inside and after much splashing and canine panic, it emerged with a live pigeon in its mouth and proceeded to rip its wings off by shaking it violently in its jaws. I crossed the road and entered a small market where a man with polio went scooting past, dragging his ass through the dirt faster than I was walking, then darted into the bank I was about to withdraw money from. I went inside and saw that the ATM wasn’t working, so I turned to the bank clerk to ask if I could withdraw money via him, to the sight of said bank clerk sitting behind the desk with a full-face crash helmet on. I asked him about the money and he addressed me totally normally, muffled through the helmet as if nothing was unusual about him sitting in a bank looking like he was expecting a mortar shell. After being told I couldn’t get the money, I left and went past a number of small shops containing people preparing meat with gigantic cleavers. One of them chucked a big leg of meat out into the dirt of the pavement, a couple inches from a pile of burning feces. I assumed he was discarding it, but then proceeded to follow it out of the shop and begin preparing it actually on the pavement, inadvertently rolling it around in the shit and dirt before chucking it back on the pile with the other meat. If there was ever an advert for not eating from untrustworthy food sources in India, that was it. I walked past to see that they also had a pile of sheep heads with the corresponding pile of sheep brains next to them, dangling off the edge of the table, and a few of the little things had thrown themselves off the side completely, where a small chicken was pecking at them. Godspeed Dr Chicken, I assume you’re next for being rolled around in the dirt. I made haste across the road, but suddenly a middle-aged man sat in a plastic school chair in the central reservation stopped me and asked where I was from. I said London, and he went off on the most baffling tangent about how Indians named London; apparently the UK didn’t have a name for London, so they asked their overseas subjects to submit prospective names for it, all of which were rejected. Then, after this happened (which it didn’t), India stepped forward (which they didn’t), and said ‘what about London’ because ‘London’ means ‘dick’ in Hindi (which it doesn’t) and they were tired of the UK always asking India for names for things (which they weren’t), and so the name London is just one big Indian in-joke (which it isn’t). I told him that I’m pretty sure the name London long predates the British Raj, and can be traced back to at least the Roman name Londinium. He didn’t understand me so I left. As I got to the other side, a tuk-tuk driver asked where I was going, as they always do – nothing weird here. But then after he sped off, I bumped into him again about a kilometre down the road. I started walking past him from behind, and just as his face came into view, I realised he was chugging a massive bottle of whisky. In an exaggerated upward sweep, he shook the last few drops out into his mouth, then chucked the glass bottle into the gutter where it smashed and showered shards all over my feet, and zigzagged his way down the thankfully-wide avenue, almost hitting a one-eyed man who was sat cross-legged in the middle of the road. While contemplating how incredibly lucky I was for not having gotten into that particular tuk-tuk, a man shouted at me from across the street – ‘Ey! Ey! Marijuana?!’. Way to be subtle about it dude. Not only was he shouting it at me across 6 lanes of traffic, but it was also the middle of the day. I feel his conspicuous dealing technique may not go down so well in other countries. He’d be first for the old cane (and maybe a little hanging) in Singapore, I tell you that. In India, you often see guys at the side of the road with giant churning cog-laden machines that they feed sugar cane into to produce sugar juice, and next to Mr Marijuana was one of these guys. Just as he was halfway through his third rendition of ‘Ey! Ey! Marij-‘ a large fragment of sugar cane came bolting out of side of the mechanism and slapped him upside the face. He shot to his feet and ran at the sugar man, who proceeded to also just… run. He left his machine running and just sprinted off into the distance, drug dealer in tow. I decided it’d be better to get a taxi home, so I jumped in the nearest one and headed back.

Next day I turned up to the hospital nice and early for my jabs. The receptionist told me to sit in the waiting room, which I did for 40 minutes. Halfway through, a surgeon, complete with blood-stained scrubs, approached me – a dude sat in the corner wearing sunglasses and listening to music – and said ‘Hello! Are you doctor?’. ‘Huh? Am I a doctor? No, of course not’. He shook his head with a bizarrely huge grin on his face and walked off. The nurse came in and said ‘The doctor is refusing to give you the vaccinations’. What?! Why?! ‘We don’t have them here. Go to the government hospital’. For God’s sake, fine. As I stormed out of the exit, the surgeon ran to the door behind me and waved me off with a hearty ‘Farewell doctor man!’.

I wound my way across town to the government hospital and… in all honesty the scenes were difficult to put into words. It was the most depressing, disturbing hospital you could ever hope to see. I felt like a less helpful Florence Nightingale after the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was absolute chaos; a mix of dried and fresh blood on the floor, dead people being wheeled around on gurneys, hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a tiny waiting room, and the smell of rotting flesh mixed with vomit. I’ve never seen anything like it. With my sleeve covering my mouth and nose, I waded through the sea of people before arriving at the reception desk. Surprise! He spoke no English. He then led me to a different guy in a different building. That guy then led me to another building, then another, then another. Then after wandering around for over an hour, dodging the strangely-located queue of elderly male amputees in the ‘mother and child’ department, I found a guy who spoke perfect English. An Islamic man with a gigantic beard, I asked where I could get these jabs from. He walked me all the way across the neighbourhood to a totally different building, and led me to a small door and said ‘vaccinations are done in here! But it’s closed today’. I almost had a heart attack.

Part III: Agra

I have nothing to say about Agra. It’s very dull, impoverished, hot and ugly. The Taj Mahal was undoubtedly impressive close up, but that’s about all this city has going for it. The famous ‘Red Fort’ was absolute shite, and I’m glad I didn’t pay anything to get in (take that you bastards – how dare you charge £0.15 for Indians and £5 for foreigners). However, you might not know this (because photos are strictly forbidden inside), but the interior of the Taj Mahal is totally bland. It has pretty much nothing in it. It’s a mausoleum, so naturally it has a couple of graves in it, but the walls are just plain, smooth marble, and is fairly small. It’s also tiny, so in 42 degree weather with seemingly the entire population of Uttar Pradesh crammed into it, it became the most intolerable little sweatbox imaginable.

Also directly across the street from my hostel is the Jalma Leprosy Colony.

No, I’m not joking.

Gabe

Singapore: The Changi Delusion

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but Singapore was so jampacked by endless activities that I barely had a single moment to rest/write. I attempted a couple of times but failed on every occasion. I’m actually in Delhi now, and have been for a few days (in fact I’m actually leaving Delhi on a bus to Jaipur as I write this), so I’ll try to write retrospectively about my time in Singapore; five days of non-stop fun.

First things first; I love Singapore. When the time comes that I have to hang up my travelling boots and return to England, I’ll be compiling a list of all the places I’ve visited ranking from best to worst – a list which Singapore will sit very near the top of. If you’ve never been to Singapore, you must go. And that’s not a general ‘Oh you must go because it’s nice’, it’s a ‘you must go because there’s nowhere else like it on Earth’. Singapore has all the charm, weather, food and culture of Southeast Asia, but also has one big weapon in its arsenal that separates it from all the countries surrounding it – it’s filthy rich. Singapore can afford to flaunt its amazing cuisine and rainforest-like landscapes while also having universal access to clean drinking water, an excellent subway system and absolutely pristine streets.

In fact, that’s one thing that really sticks out in a slightly odd way – everyone knows about Singapore’s OCD approach to cleanliness, but it’s not until you’re there that you realise just how insane it is. It’s kind of unsettling walking around an entire city without seeing a SINGLE piece of rubbish, or a blocked drain, or an overflowing bin, or even a piece of dirt. Singapore’s government obviously goes out of the way to not only lumber its city with incredibly strictly-enforced anti-littering laws, but to power-wash every square inch of pavement, wall and road to oblivion. Everything is so shiny and neat. I know it makes it sounds kind of inauthentic and fake, but it’s really rather thrilling to be somewhere so tidy. It even makes Western Europe seem shabby. And I know the city’s level of cleanliness is brought on by a kind of bizarre draconian way of deterring offenders, but in all honesty I don’t care.

Singapore is a libertarian’s worst nightmare. There are jail sentences, fines and other punishments for just about everything within its tiny borders. Spitting on the street? $1000 fine. Smoking in public? $5000 fine. Drinking or eating anything on the subway? $1000 fine. Smuggling or supplying drugs? Mandatory death penalty. Everything is regulated, everyone is watched. It rings a little bit of a police state from the outside. I mean, to put it into perspective, chewing gum – a totally harmless little product – is banned nationwide. It’s genuinely illegal. Which is kind of mad. Yet, Singaporeans are so happy. All locals I met were at once proud of their little country, tolerant and welcoming to outsiders, and also just seemed genuinely thrilled to wake up every day and realise they’re Singaporean. It was awesome. I guess coming from one of the richest nations on Earth probably has something to do with that.

When I referred to ‘other punishments’ earlier, I’ve got one in mind that really sticks out. Taken from Singapore’s WikiVoyage page:

“For some crimes, most notably illegal entry and overstaying your visa for over 30 or 90 days, Singapore imposes caning as a punishment. Other offences which have caning as a punishment include vandalism, robbery, molestation and rape. Having sex with a girl under the age of 16 is considered to be rape under Singapore law, regardless of whether the girl consents to it, and would land you a few strokes of the cane. This is no slap on the wrist. Strokes from the thick rattan cane are excruciatingly painful, take weeks to heal and can scar for life.”

I mean… what the hell? There’s so much wrong with that one paragraph that I can barely choose where to start. First, how on Earth does Singapore believe rape and molestation are on the same level as overstaying your visa? Also I’m not a big fan of caning for illegal entry. That’s like saying “How dare you try to come to our lovely country, we’re gonna deport you straight back to your home country, but first we’re gonna smack you with a cane a bunch of times just for the f*ck of it’. Yet perhaps the most troubling thing there is Singapore’s definition of rape. A 16 year old what? Girl? What about boys? Does this law not work both ways?

But rather than dwelling on the negative, I should concentrate on the positives of a wonderful little city-state tucked away in Southeast Asia. I’ve never been anywhere so colourful – all the buildings are painted in lovely vibrant primary or secondary colours, and are lit up tastefully at night. I met a bunch of people from the hostel to hang out with for pretty much the entire time I was there. We did some intensely hot jungle trekking, went up the absolutely enormous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, went on a scooter tour, saw two light shows, and of course, drank the original Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel. This was quite an experience, it must be said. After trekking around the city in blistering heat all day, we headed toward the hotel to cool down. After asking a local for directions and my friend then hilariously telling said local that he spoke very good English (Singapore is an English-speaking country), we found the hotel, went upstairs and found an enormous queue of Chinese tourists, led by a loudmouthed little tour guide who kept shouting at us to go away to the back when we attempted to look inside. We get it you crazy midget, we’re just having a look. Don’t you be telling the English how to queue.

After waiting around for about 20 minutes, we got a table by the window. This place was awesome. Obviously extremely colonial in architecture and decor, the walls were lined with a dark brown mahogany, and we sat in ornate little armchairs. I was told by one of the group that the Raffles Hotel is the only place in Singapore where you’re allowed to litter openly, which was highlighted by the shell casings of peanuts literally all over the floor. And I’m not talking the odd peanut – I’m talking you’re literally kicking piles of them out of the way as you walk around. With our drinks we were handed a big bag of nuts ourselves, and somehow made it through the entire thing, culminating in being sat knee-deep in peanut casings for the rest of our time there.

We also went to Singapore National Museum, which was thorough and informative – I personally learned soooo much stuff about Singapore that I never knew before. Obviously we all know about its war history, and that we were forced to surrender it to the Japanese because we ballsed up our defence of the island. But I certainly didn’t know that in 1963, Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya to create a new nation; Malaysia. Then, after two years, they split again, leaving Singapore and Malaysia as the two separate nations they are today. The merger brought into light too many cultural, religious, ethnic and ideological differences between the two nations, and Malaysia decided, following severe race riots in Singapore in 1964, to expel their new compatriots. This entire plan was the brainchild of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore following its full independence from Malaysia in 1965, and we were shown a recording of a speech he made on national TV following the failed merger, which was absolutely stunning – one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. It was so heartfelt and apologetic, and so filled with disappointment and genuine guilt, yet at the same time it was laden with hope and optimism for the future of a solo Singaporean nation. I actually clapped at the end. I looked like a mental case.

And so after five days of awesome food, awesome weather, awesome sights and some much-needed history lessons, I flew to India. On the way out of Singapore, I coined a term that highlights one of Singapore’s great flaws – The Changi Delusion. Changi Airport, Singapore’s only airport and one of the busiest in the world, constantly wins just about every award going. Any award that an airport can win, you can bet Changi’s won it, and numerous times too. Look online and you’ll see it’s got a swimming pool, a gym, a flower garden, a butterfly walk, a games station, a football viewing area and just about any shop you could ask for. Actually go to the airport and you’ll realise that’s all bullshit and none of it works. It is simply the most overrated, shittiest airport I’ve been to, and I’ve been to some seriously shitty airports. The wifi doesn’t work, the games don’t work, it’s ridiculously expensive, the pool and gym are only available to some sort of membership card holders, and the staff are utterly retarded and some of the rudest I have ever met. Balls to that airport, I hope a plane crashes into it.

I will report more from India when I’ve recovered from my 3 days in Delhi – arguably the biggest shithole on this planet. Piles of human waste, dead dogs lying in the street and the smell of cancerous pollution have been ever-presents since I touched down here, which is why I’m leaving for Jaipur as we speak. Will report more later.

Gabe

International Airspace: Commoners

Japan is somewhere I have always, always wanted to go. Its location, its culture and its landscape have all played major roles in making me wish I could visit the Land of the Rising Sun since I was about ten years old. It always seemed so mysterious, intense and, most importantly, it looked like it would be so much fun. I know people who have been to Japan before – all of them unanimously praising this strange, demanding little group of islands in the Far East. And, more so than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip, I had people telling me how incredibly envious they were of my Japan jaunt.

And they’ve a right to be envious. It was quite an experience, and really has been the two most intense weeks probably of my entire life. But – and I’m sure you knew a ‘but’ was coming – I have to admit, I’m very glad to be leaving. I saw some amazing things in Japan. I rode the bullet train the entire length of Honshu, I climbed a mountain on an island in the East China Sea and I visited the sites of the only two nuclear weapons to have been used on civilians. I went to a karaoke booth, a pachinko arcade, a sumo arena and a million Shinto shrines. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, I love travelling, but this is the first in my life where I’ve really hit a limit. And I mean a serious, immovable brick wall of a limit.

In my first blog post from Japan I very briefly touched upon the concept of culture shock. Culture shock is something that I have obviously always believed in, and I thought I had felt it at various points in my life before. But after just two weeks in Japan, I now know how incorrect I was; I now know what culture shock really is. Japan is really hard work. And I don’t mean simply on a physical level, nor do I mean it’s simply a bit of a head-f*ck. I mean it emotionally.

No matter what walk of life you come from, no matter how much patience for other cultures you have or how much luxury you can afford to holiday in, I have a very brief PSA: Do not come to Japan alone unless you are very comfortable with your own company. This is not me attempting to exaggerate for humourous purposes either. That is a genuine warning. I’ve travelled on my own before. I’ve been to Canada, the US, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Finland, Serbia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Easter Island, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia totally alone in the past few years, and every time they’ve been great fun. I’m very happy to spend time on my own, and I find socialising in hostels and bars pretty easy; in all the places I’ve visited, it’s been easy to strike a balance between meeting locals, meeting other travellers, and sightseeing alone if you need a little break. Japan, however, is not like that. First, let’s look at meeting locals. Actually rather than discussing it in depth, I can say two words to sum up your chances of that happening; good luck. Barely anybody speaks English, and those who do speak an incredibly limited amount. Moreover – and I’m sorry but it’s true – the cultural and social differences, for me personally, were just too vast. If I ever did come across a Japanese native my age who spoke a little bit of English, the conversation would stutter and die over and over again as we tried to find things we could both talk about. I think both of us would expect the other to have a frame of reference closer to our own, but in reality the UK and Japan are just worlds apart in so many ways.

Then, there’s meeting other travellers. I met some people in my Tokyo hostel just fine, cos it’s Tokyo and there are foreigners everywhere; you’re bound to meet at least a couple of people to grab a drink with, even if you do have to dodge the hoards of solo middle-aged white men who have decided that a youth hostel in Japan is the place they want to spend their remaining days before inevitably offing themselves. There were some great nights in Tokyo, wandering around until dawn, but in most other places (save one night in Hiroshima), the kind of people you’d actually want to hang around with were few and far between.

There’s a word that the Japanese use, ‘Gaijin’, meaning a westerner who comes to Japan. While it literally translates as ‘outside person’, in reality it’s often used in a pejorative manner; it’s used to describe people who come to Japan that are socially awkward or ‘weird’ in some other way. During my stay in Japan, jumping from city to city and hostel to hostel, I met maybe eight people – max – who were not ‘Gaijin’ in the truly negative sense of the word. The number of lisping, leery, lanky losers I met across the entire country was astounding. They’d turn up alone to Japan, just like I had done, but then either refused to socialise, or attempted to but just been too weird to hang out with. Don’t get me wrong, I can take a bit of weirdness as long as there’s some humour or self-awareness, but these people had no redeeming features. I felt for the ones who were so scared of socialising that they couldn’t get a sentence out without stumbling over every other word and sweating all over their crusty anime shirts. It’s good to chat to them sometimes because they can reveal themselves to be nice people underneath that awkward exterior.

But then there are the ones who you just wish would disappear. In Nagasaki, I checked into a hostel to a totally empty room. Awesome, I can make as much noise in the morning as I want (I had a 7am start the next day), and don’t have to wear my headphones for my music. Then, at 11:30pm, when I was in bed, a guy probably in his mid-30s with two lazy eyes came storming into the room and turned the light on. Nice entrance mate. I said ‘Hi’, to be polite, and he said, with a bizarre lisp, ‘Hi. Where are you from?’. A half asleep dude, in his underwear, in bed, with the light off – is really the guy you’re gonna go to for a chat right now? ‘England’. ‘Me too! Whereabouts?’. I told him I was originally from Brighton, but had lived in London for a few years. ‘Oh I’m from London too (I didn’t say I was from London) but I moved away. Where do you live? How expensive is it?’. Jesus man give me a chance. ‘I live in Dulwich’, ‘I don’t know where that is’. You’re a Londoner and you don’t know where Dulwich is? He continued ‘It’s just too expensive these days. It’s so nasty too, filled with foreigners, that’s why I moved to Slough.’

Ohhhhhhhh how I laughed internally. Though I didn’t crack a smile, it felt like I was about to have ten hernias at once; the veins in my head probably looked like the outside of Pompidou Centre. Sure, you can believe Slough is superior despite John Betjeman’s famous poem about how shit it is, but don’t call where I live ‘nasty’, just in the same way I didn’t laugh in your face when you talked about how great Slough is.

The conversation died and I turned over to sleep, only for him to suddenly continue; ‘Why are you here?’. I mean there are certainly better ways of asking that question, but I told him I was on a round the world trip, and that I’d done South America before here. ‘Oh I did South America too! What did you think of the girls there?’, he asked. ‘I dunno man, they’re just girls’. He replied ’Yeah but they were so easy. Everywhere I went they were so easy. So beautiful and so easy’. From the way this guy spoke, I could tell he was the kid people would give a dead leg for fun on the way to class, or a firm punch on the upper arm – there was no way this guy was drowning in girls in the manner he attested to. I also found it a little odd that he kept talking about how easy they were; that’s not a universal ‘guy-thing’ that’s gonna get me to respond. It just makes you sound insecure and fairly misogynistic. If anything, I’m gonna tell you to shut up because I’m trying to sleep, I’m not going to suddenly become Finchy from The Office and start making up bullshit stories about hundreds of Hispanic girls throwing themselves at me. I don’t travel for that kind of wannabe-macho crap. And anyway, I’m not exactly Ryan Gosling, but if that wasn’t happening to me, it sure as shit wasn’t happening to Captain Crosseyed over here. I told him I wasn’t really looking for that, and he responded with ‘Yeah but they’re Argentinian! All you have to do is talk. They love the English’. I think someone needs to go read a history book. The final nail in the coffin, the straw that broke the socially-inept camel’s back, was this quote from out of nowhere; ‘I love travelling in Japan because people aren’t common’. Huh? Not common? There are people everywhere, you meet them all the time. I had no idea what he meant, so I asked, and he said ‘Like common people. A lot of people can’t afford to come here so you don’t have to meet any common people’. Holy f*cking shit. My jaw on the floor, I sat there in total silence, staring dead at him, waiting for him to find a way to redeem himself after such an abhorrent comment. Yet, despite my reaction of horrified incredulity, he just paused for another 30 seconds before almost silently stuttering out ‘… y’know like chavs’. I got out of bed, switched the light off and went to sleep without another word.

Yesterday I made a gigantic balls up. My train from Nagasaki all the way back to Tokyo was booked for 14:20, arriving at 22:40. I got to the station early and asked if I could change to the 13:20 train instead, and I could, so now I was due in at 22:10. At my first of three interchanges, however, I had a 50 minute wait for my Shinkansen, so I got on an earlier one – I have unlimited rail travel so it doesn’t matter how I get around, right? Turns out the Shinkansen has a number of varieties, two of which are not covered by the JR Pass, including the Nozomi service. I accidentally got on a Nozomi bound for Tokyo, but after the first stop the conductor told me I couldn’t be on this train. I played the stupid foreigner card and he told me to get off at the next station. Ah well, I’ll just wait for my original train. I have no idea which station I was at, but after waiting around for 20 minutes, I stood and stared as my original Shinkanen – the one I was booked on – went zooming past at 200mph. Oh dear. I ran downstairs to check the timetable, and took my jacket off as it was so hot, at which point I realised I had also left my brand new hoodie on the original Nozomi train.

I threw my jacket back on, ran to the ticket office and asked what they could do about it. Turns out they could phone the individual trains. Awesome! But what happened next was such a comedy of errors on both sides that I was left with my head in my hands for most of the conversation. I told them I had left my black hoodie on the train. They thought I wanted to know when the next train was. I told them again what had happened. They thought I meant just a hood (I wouldn’t even know what this means). I corrected them. They thought I meant my jacket, and pointed at the jacket I was currently wearing, saying ‘but you’re wearing your jacket now’. I told them thanks for the astute observation, but that it was a black hoodie I was looking for, using wild hand gestures. They finally understood and asked where I was sitting. I told them I was in carriage #1, which I was. They asked which seat. I hadn’t checked this, but was in the very front row of the carriage, in the window seat to the far right, so said ‘1-D’, which logically makes sense, like on a plane. The little woman behind the counter phoned the train and had a long conversation. I stood and waited, feeling like I was watching my life draining away. She hung up and told me it wasn’t there. I said it literally had to be there. She asked again which carriage I was in. I said #1. She assured me that that’s what she had told the conductor on the train, saying ‘I told him to look in the first carriage’. I told her no, I meant carriage #1; the train had just reversed at Hakata terminal when I got on, so was running backwards, with carriage #1 at the very back of the train. She looked shocked, apologised profusely, and phoned again. I could see now that the next train I could get on was in 12 minutes, and I was quickly running out of time here. Again, she hung up and told me they couldn’t find it. I told them that was literally impossible as I was telling her exactly where it was. She deliberated for a minute before asking if the seat number was definitely right, getting out a little diagram of the seating plan. I pointed at the seat I was sat at, saying ‘1-D, right down at the front on the right’. She told me no, the seat I was pointing at was seat 18-A. I asked her how on Earth that could be right. She said that the train has reversed, so the seats have reversed numbers as well as the carriage, and the letters A to D have been mirrored to reflect travelling backwards. Thinking this was literally the most illogical, needlessly complicated system to ever have been used in a seat-numbering system, I put my hands on my knees in a sort of existential despair, and told her that yes, under that ridiculous system, I guess that must have been my seat. She phoned again, this time with an exceptionally long conversation. I looked around to see that I now had 4 minutes until my train. She hung up and asked me what colour it was. I told them, again, that it was black. She phoned again and hung up after two words, telling me that yes, they had found the hoodie. Did she really need to hang up in order to ask me what colour it was? Two minutes until the train now. I thanked her profusely and asked where I should pick it up. She didn’t understand me. I asked where I should collect it, making a symbol of ‘collecting’ with my hands, though I’m not sure what it must’ve looked like to her. She did understand me though, but then drew a total blank with her English, flapping her hands up and down. She obviously knew what she wanted to say but didn’t know the English for it. She said it in Japanese and I just looked at her with a face of panic and confusion. My train was now pulling into the station. One minute until it left. I shrugged at her, and she scrambled to get her phone out of her pocket. She opened Google Translate and frantically typed away. 30 seconds left. She turned it around to show me; ‘Osaka Station Lost & Found’. I shouted ‘Doumo arigato gozai maaaaaaas’ and went sprinting down the station concourse and up the escalator. I made it across the platform but the door shut on my suitcase as I was pushing it into the train in front of me. I wasn’t taking this bullshit so I just forced the door back open with my foot as a guard down the platform cried out in horror of my conduct. The doors closed behind me and I collapsed to the floor of the carriage, sitting there until I could catch my breath. I made it.

I got to Osaka after a few more train changes, short of breath and a little drunk after taking the edge off with a couple of Asahis. I had a full half-hour to make my connection, this’d be fine. I looked up at a sign reading ‘Lost & Found’, with an arrow pointing up, meaning forward. I walked forward and about 100m further down I saw another one, so continued walking. I walked for around five minutes until I had reached literally the end of the station. I walked outside for some reason in the hope it may be there, and was greeted by a bunch of taxi drivers shouting for my business. I ran back inside and headed back to where I had come from, where I saw another sign for lost property with a ‘down’ arrow next to it, facing the other direction. Turns out an ‘up’ arrow in Japan means behind you. So I frantically scrambled across the concourse with my now wheel-less suitcase until I found a small door with ‘Lost and Find’ written on it. I slid it open to reveal a guy sat behind a tiny desk, who immediately stood to attention.

“Black hoodie?” I said, hopefully. His response, in apologetic Japanese, indicated that this conversation may be rather difficult as he spoke no English. I made the same hoodie gesture as before and he asked where it was. I said it should be here. He gestured that he had no idea, but before I could reply he ran off and grabbed a colleague who could speak limited English. “Where you hoodie?” he said, to which I frustratedly replied “Here! It should be here!”. They both made a simultaneously inquisitive hoodie gesture to check that I was definitely on the same wavelength. They told me no and there was nothing they could do. I told them the other guys said it was here, to which they told me it might be in Tokyo. I said I don’t have time to collect it in Tokyo. They said they’d send it to me. I told them I was leaving Japan the following day. They told me they couldn’t ship internationally. I told them I knew that as there was a giant sign behind them stating that exact clause. They said “Hoodie?” one more time, to which I said “Yes! A hoodie! In Osaka! It will be here!” to which the guy suddenly went “Ah!”, and disappeared for a second into a side door before returning with my hoodie in hand.

I mean seriously guys, what the Christ. You had it all along and I’ve been stood here for 15 minutes with you telling me it’s in Tokyo?! Jesus. I thanked them and again found myself sprinting for the train, making it with around 30 seconds to spare this time. Phew.

I’m in Singapore now, so will report more from here maybe tomorrow, but for now, that’s the Japan portion of my trip done and dusted. I am so exhausted it’s not even true. While it was experience I will never ever forget, it’ll also always be one that I would heed many words of warning to others before attempting. It’s hard work.

Gabe