Sunday, March 21, 2010

21st march, creel

Had an amazing day. I rented bikes with the German girl and the two Hungarian guys, and spent the day exploring the area. We covered some of the same ground as yesterdays tour, but it was much more interesting from the bike. I got a much better sense of how everything fits together, and saw so many more beautiful houses nestled among the cliffs. I'm not sure why I find it so strange, but there are so many people walking all over the countryside.

We rode through the valley of the frogs and mushrooms, and past the mission tht we saw yesterday, but then continued on a few more kilometers to the valley of the monks/phaluses. It was magnificent: huge rock spires at the top of a beautiful valley. Limestone I think.

From there we rode through the forest to a large lake, where we rented a boat for 60 pesos ($5) for an hour. The German girl headed back to town to catch a bus to Chihuahua, and the three of us headed down theist beautiful valley I've seen so far, along a dirt track on the faded flat grassy velley floor between high limestone cliffs with Tarahumara houses nestled at the bottom. We criss-crossed the river for 5km until we couldn't ride any further, then left the bikes and walked further, hoping to reach the same waterfalls I'd visited yesterday, someone had told us that this was an alternative way there. We passé a couple of small falls, but never reached the large falls, and turned back because we didn't want to run out of daylight. I realized later that it was a totally different valley and set if waterfalls. I'm still gla we ventured that way, it was so beautiful and fun riding.

I spent the evening at the hotel feeling exhausted and sun-baked. A Swede ha taken the German girls bed, and there's a bunch if older French people who I spoke to for a while, using French tht I've not spoken for years. Somehow the whole drug gang violence doesn't seem so bad when you're trying to explain it to someone else in a language that's a struggle to remember.

I found an article about what happened. Pretty heavy. But reading it makes me feel safer. It doesn't seem like te kind of thing that would spill over to tourists. It makes me feel better about being so conspicuously touristy! No one could mistake the gangly hiker with the bright red backpack for a member if the military or a rival gang member.

Tomorrow I'm planing to take the bus an hour west to Divisadero on the edge of the canyon. It's a very popular stop on the train with a $100 a night hotel. I'll get there early enough to hike down into the canyon to camp for the night. I hope it's a bit warmer there. It's pretty much freezing here at night, but very hot in the day.

Apologies for the bad spelling/capitalisation/etc. This is all being typed on my phone.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

20th march. Creel

It's a really strange atmosphere. As I arrived in Creel on the train I came upon three crowds.

The first was the smallest: the people greeting the train trying to get the tourist business. This was much less intense than I expected, certainly not as pushy as I've experienced in Thailand. (on a tangent I've been thinking a lot about Thailand, which led to thinking about the constant comparisons with Thailand and this trip. It's a bit like dating someone new after a big breakup. As much as you want to enjoy the new girl/experience purely on it's own merits, it's impossible not to make the comparisons. Tangent over.) I already knew which hotel I wanted to stay at (casa margarita) and immediately found the guy for there, got in their minibus, and was driven less than 20 meters! I guess the minibus is just a cattle pen, to stop the stupid tourists from going astray.

After sorting out my room (100 pesos, or $8) and a tour for the afternoon (250 pesos) I came across the other two crowds in creel.

I'd heard about the brightly colored clothing of the Tamuhara women (the indigenous people of this area) but had not expected to see so many in the town. There were girls and ladies everywhere, but about 40 clustered around the bank. I learned later that the government was giving out some kind of money that day, so people had come from all over the area to get it. On the tour that afternoon I saw many of them walking miles back out of town.

The third crowd was a funeral. There was a procession leaving the church next to the hotel, accompanied by a military vehicle with 5 soldiers standing on the back. Later that evening a German girl staying at the hotel told me that seven people had been killed in Creel the previous evening as part of a drug war that's happening. I'm not sure if this is true, or if the funeral was related to that, but I'm a bit freaked out.

However, before learning all this, I spent a great afternoon on a tour, being driven with three Mexican tourists around some beautiful parts of the region. The horseshoe lake (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts), a rock shaped like an elephant (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts), rocks shaped like frogs (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts), rocks shaped like mushrooms (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts), rocks shaped like phaluses (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts), and then the real highlight was a really beautiful high waterfall (with Tamuhara women selling beautiful crafts). It was a mile or so up a rutted track, past women washing their clothes in the stream and lines of brightly colored clothes drying on fences, skinny donkeys, beautiful cliffs, pine trees. And the falls were magnificent. And although it was a bit odd having people selling stuff everywhere we went, it is such amazing craftwork. They make baskets woven from dry grass, beautiful jewelry, snakes from bent sticks, wooden spoons. I'll definitely take some home.

I spoke to the guide at 3 Amigos. He cautioned me against going into remote canyons alone because people involved in growing drugs wouldn't welcome a stranger. But he thought that going to divisadero and hiing down into thecanyon there would be fine. Going to bopitalas and asking about the situation before hiking should also be fine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Barrancas del Cobre/Copper Canyon, Mexico

I'm heading off to hike around the Copper Canyon area of Mexico from the 19th to 29th of March 2010. I've no idea what the internet situation will be like there, but if I can, I'll write some updates while there.

Some background info:

Map: This is the area in Google
General info: Wikipedia article

I'm going armed with a little more information than that, but there's not too many details available. I have a guidebook from 1994, a compass, a GPS, and a schedule for the beautiful train that runs through the area from Chihuaha. I'm hoping to pick up some proper maps when I get to Creel on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Childlife Website

If you're interested in finding out more about the children's centre that I visited near the end of my time in Thailand, they have an English-language website at

And there's some photos of our visit at;talk - if you look carefully you might spot me hovering in the background...

I'm back in Edinburgh now. It feels pretty strange to be back!

Things are pretty crazy - catching up with friends and work, but I'm slowly working through the 1500 photos I took, so I'll put a select few online when I can, and I'll try to write up a bit about the fantastic time I had in Tokyo.



Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Photos of Sydney

Sydney Opera House
Originally uploaded by Thomas Turnbull.
I've uploaded a few photos of Sydney. I had a fantastic time there eating delicious food and being a tourist. I've now arrived in Tokyo and am staying with my sister. It's an amazing place - very different to what I expected. There's all the tall buildings and fluorescent lights and crowds as made famous by Lost in Translation, but walk a few metres away and you're on quiet tangled streets with houses only one or two storeys high.

I'm planning a visit to a place where you can eat as much pudding and cake as you want in 90 minutes for £7... It's been nice knowing you all.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thursday 16th Feb, Sydney

After a wonderful last few days in Thailand travelling around with Tone and his friends, I'm now in Sydney staying with my friend from uni, Nicky (the same person I was visiting in Hong Kong).

Tone and his friends had travelled up from Bangkok to take a load of donations of food, clothing, toys and money to a school that a young guy set up for kids from hill tribe families that had become homeless for various reasons. I found it really shocking that the Thai government doesn't support them in any way. People from the hill tribes aren't considered Thai - they don't have Thai ID cards and get no welfare at all. So these kids are living in a tiny group of buildings among the paddy fields, and the school is totally reliant on donations. I'm finding it really difficult to explain what it was like to be there. On one hand it was really uplifting to see how happy and well balanced these young kids were. But at the same time there was something quite draining about visiting and making friends with them and seeing how happy they were with everything that the group had brought, and then driving away again after spending a few hours there.

The other amazing thing I did with the group was on Monday - a big Buddhist religious holiday. We got up at 5.30 and drove for an hour or so to a really remote village, which is unique in Thailand because the monks there ride on horseback to collect their morning offerings. So along with a couple of hundred Thai people that had come to make their offerings for the festival, I stood in this hillside settlement and watched in the crisp morning sunshine as the seven monks came riding over the hill through the forest in their beautiful saffron robes chanting. The head monk was the most striking person I have ever seen. He sat on his horse, smiling happily and calmly among the crowds of worshipers making their offerings. He was quite chunky and his body was covered in intricate tatoos. He was followed by another older monk, an dthen by five young novice monks, each with tatoos. They'd be far too young to get tatoos in the UK!

I'd brought some food, soya milk and cartons of orange juice, so I stood in line with everyone else and made my offerings. The main monk was quite amused to see a farang there.

Tone had to go back to Chiang Mai to work, but the others gave me and my bike a lift all the way back to Bangkok! I was lucky that they were so kind, because I would really have struggled to get a space on a bus or train with the holiday - I'd not realised it was happening.

And after a journey that was pleasant thanks to a co-passenger who spoke good English, and scary thanks to a driver who drove adrenaline-drainingly fast, I arrived at Bangkok at 1.30 in the morning. I left my bike and all my stuff except my wallet and passport in left luggage and got a taxi to Khao San Road (backpacker central) and after a few attempts, found myself a room at 3.30 am. I felt I ought to make the most of my last night in Thailand, but despite it's party reputation, absolutely nothing was open at that time, and they stop selling beer in the shops at midnight. I got chatting to a group who were drinking on the pavement - a Canadian called Ty, an Australian called Jimmy, and six crazy japanese guys. They informed me that you can still buy beer illegally in the shops - just smile, and give them 100B, and they might keep the change as a bonus (though in my case they just charged me the normal price of 50B).

After some in-depth and drunken conversations about the state of Thailand, the two of the crazy Japanese guys started pushing each other around and shouting, and a Thai taxi driver threatened to call the cops, so bearing in mind the strong need not to get on the wrong side of Thai police, me, Ty and Jimmy made a hasty exit to our respective guesthouses. It was time to sleep anyway - it was past 5, and we were the last people on the street apart from the hookers.

After very little sleep I got up to make the most of my last day to do some shopping. I have discovered the best way to get around Bangkok: the motorbike taxi. It is so fast because they can dodge up the side of the traffic jams like a bike, but it's faster than a bicycle thanks to the motor. And it is so much fun! And because I'm a passenger I can take in all the scenery that I can't when I'm cycling (because I'm having to watch the traffic) or when in a bus or taxi (because the roof gets in the way). I went to the bike shop and sorted out a box for my bike, then hit the MBK mall and spent lots of money on software, DVDs and a shiny new digital camera (Pentax Optio WPI 6 mpx for anyone that's interested), then headed out to the airport, dismantled my bike and checked in with no problems at all - they didn't even charge me extra for the bike!

The flight to Sydney was pleasant - I was sitting between a well travelled middle aged Australian from the same suburb as my Dad's cousin who I'm off to see tomorrow, and a young Spanish guy who's birthday it was that day and was off to live with his girlfriend for three months. I got the train into the city centre and discovered that rather than being scorching hot and in the 30s, it was raining.

I found Nicky's flat on the edge of Chinatown without any problems and was welcomed by her boyfriend Rowney. I knew he was big into cycling, but it turns out he's REALLY into cycling. He's an ex-pro racer, mostly mountian biking, and competed in the olympics! He was pretty famous in the late 90s when mountain biking was at it's biggest. I'm sure I must have come across him when I used to read the biking magazines religiously as a teenager. He's got three absolutely amazing bikes in the flat. He now sells Yeti bikes - his road bike frame was custom made for him. He took me out for a ride around Sydney and at one beauty spot up on the cliffs an old American guy came up to us and was suitably awed by it. I don't really know much about high-end bikes, but even I am impressed. What impressed me was how seriously fit he is. We rode about 30 miles and he was clearly taking it extremely easy as I struggled to keep up. It was a great way to see the city. We rode past the parliament buildings, and then suddenly arrived at the Sydney Opera House and harbour bridge. Then we went past the botanic gardens and east through Kings Cross, Double Bay, through the posh suburbs with the occasional stunning modern house and lots of dull pillbox houses, watched the bmx-ers at the skate park at Bondi Beach, then stopped to see his friends at a bike shop. Rowney very kindly fixed up my bike a bit - including changing my drop-bar handlebars to be at the correct angle. i've spent the last six weeks with them set up wrongly! Doh! It's totally changed the handling, and feels much more comfortable. We had a delicious veggie burger, then headed back through a huge park (centennial park) and back to Nicky's flat.

In the evening when Nicky got back we drank some delicious Australian beer and wine, and Rowney made tasty babaganoush, followed by fantastic gnocchi. Nicky's got herself a good man here! I'm really enjoying good western food again. I love Thai food, but I got kinda sick of having rice and veg so often as the only vegetarian option in the many villages I was passing through. But I know that in a couple of weeks I'll be aching for it again.

Today's been an interesting rambling exploration of Sydney. I wandered around downtown looking at the shops and bizarre mix of architecture - bland skyscrapers, elaborate neo-classical collonial, and the occasional unexpected art-nouvau facade or gothic revival church. I did the touristy thing of going up a tall tower to see the view, and wandered around the beautiful botanic gardens and learned all about orchids - a plant that was amazingly prevelant in Thailand, but which I struggle not to kill in Edinburgh.

I ended the day by wandering around the Opera House. Yesterday I'd been seriously underwhelmed by it. It's one of those buildings that has occupied a place in my imagination for a long time thanks to it's very striking architecture, and having seen so many beautiful photos. So when I actually saw it there was no way that it could possibly live up to that. The same thing happened when I first saw the Pantheon. But this evening as I walked around it in the bright, pre-thunderstorm light, I fell in love with it. The shapes are so beautiful, the views change so much as you get closer, or move to another angle.

As the thunderstorm hit I felt very glad that I wasn't one of the people doing the walk over the arches of the bridge, and ran for a bus back to the town hall, where Nicky had booked us tickets for an evening lecture about sustainable building. It was an interesting lecture, even though it barely scratched the surface of the issues. The atmosphere of the lecture was very different to similar events I've attended in the UK. Much more chilled out and informal, with people swearing occasionally and cracking jokes that were actually funny.

We wandered home past Darling Harbour admiring the night time views of the unsustainably-illuminated skyscrapers. I feel like it's a pretty nice city from my first impressions. Flicking through the free live music paper is breathtaking - there's so much happening. People seem pretty friendly for such a big city. It's quite an under-stated place - it's not breathtakingly beautiful like Edinburgh or Florence. But it does still have a certain beauty about it with the opera house, nice public spaces and sculptures. But it is ridiculously large. Cycling 30 miles yesterday I hardly saw any of it. I'll see a lot more of the suburbs tomorrow evening as I head out to meet my relatives. And because of it's size and it's rather poor public transport the car really is prevelant here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Thursday 9th Feb, Chiang Rai

Didn't sleep too well for some reason. So I got up at 5.30 and went to see the market. Lots of the local hilltribe women there in the beautiful traditional dress. Again I was wrong about it being just for the tourists. Had a breakfast of coffee and deep fried dough, then wealked up the hill to watch the sunrise.

Set off at 8ish - a few very steep hills, some pushing, then a wonderful ridge and long descent back down to the plains and rice fields - the mountains dissapearing into the haze and memores.
My plan had been to cycle north to Mae Sai - the northernmost point of Thaialand, then cycle to Chiang Rai the following day. But while cycling today I saw a signpost and realised it was the same distance to Mae Sai and Chiang Rai - both along the main highway 1. ANd a few folk had said that Mae Sai was nothing special, so I decided to make today my last day of riding and chill out in Chiang Rai for a couple of days before meeting Tone.

The ride along the highway was fine. It was funny to pass all the stalls selling the same thing agian. At first it was oranges for five miles. Then it was pineapples for 10 or so miles. It was funny because I'd just been thinking an hour before that the one thing I'd miss by not spending time in Bangkok before I go would be pineapple because I'd notseen it for sale in the north. So I was glad to eat some.

But the road passed quickly - dead flat, gentle tail wind, averaging 15 mph. I made an 8km detour to see the heavily advertised Karen Long Neck Village. It was a total fake, as is all the Karen Long Neck stuff. The whole 'village' had been built entirely for teh tourists, with different sections inhabited by different hill tribes shipped in specially. And as you approached they hurriedly put on their traditional costumes. But at least I didn't feel guity about taking photos.
So now I'm in Chiang Rai - a much smaller and quieter place than I'd expected. Spent the afternoon at the hilltribe education centre learning a bit more about the people I've seen over the last few weeks. It was a good exhibition, though some of their stuff about the slash & burn agriculture was rather academically out-dated. They had an interesting exhibition on opium, which included a short article on the early use of herion as a way to get people off opium addiction!

Had a good green curry in the adjoining restaurant - cabbages and condoms - a charity that aims to make condoms as widely available as cabbages.

Spent the evening shopping at the night market - bought some beautiful handwoven bags and watched some dancing, then experimented with wierd food - the best of which was the spicy papaya salad - very tasty, but left me struggling to breath.

Wed 8th Feb, Mae Salong

This morning I fell in love with the town of Thaton. I went to a wee roadside stall for a breakfast of coffee and American-style pancake, with which I sampled loads of the lady's home-made jams. I got chatting to a German who lives there for 3 months a year, who recommended a walk up to the temple, so I did.

It was exhausting, but absolutely amazing. Because it is in such a beautiful, popular location it gets lots of donations from rich Thais from Chiang Mai and Bangkok. And also, according to the German, one of the top monks in Thailand lives here - apparently he's rather irreverently called the Hi Fi monk due to his un-Buddhist love for the best hifi equipment. So all this money has led to a big complex of buddhas, temples, stupas and accommodation for themany monks, spreading up the hill.

The view, even from the first wat, was amazing - the low morning sun over the paddy fields and river, the low cloud. After half an hour of walking through all this up the steep hill I came to a massive new stupa they were building - the beautiful colourful patterns and gold bands shining in the sun. They were playing Buddhist music (tibetan). Below me the cloud was blowing up the steep forested valley past the tiny huts of the hill tribe villages in Burma, over the ridge, and down to Thaton. It was so, so, beautiful. It really moved me. I'm sure I have seen more beautiful places in my life, but something about the context, the timing, the music, my emotional state, my conscioussness, made that a very special moment.

From there I descended to the misty ridge to see the final site - a standing gold Buddha. I returned to the stupa, where I got chatting to teh guy who was doing the aluminium sculpting on it. As I went back down the mountain I stopped at the main Wat area for one last look at the view, and got chatting to a young monk, who asked if I would help him withi his English studies. So for half an hour or so we went through his textbook, me correcting his pronunciation (and the occasional mistake in the textbook!) He was really interesting to chat to.

Then I headed back to Thaton for a second breakfast of scrambled eggs, and hit the road at 10.30.

The ride ambled pleasantly along the valley for 15 miles or so through the orange groves (stopped for some freshly squeezed), then I hit thi hills. I tired myself out a bit on the first one in my stubborness, so stopped at a village that was being run as some sort of ethical community tourist project. I got a guided tour, but it all felt a bit staged - the "village blacksmith" who'd clearly just lit the fire moments before, the three pristinely dressed women playing music and dancing around a log, etc. But it was interesting, even if only to see an attempt at ethical tourism. But the craft shop was brilliant. I ended up buying two beautiful handwoven cushion covers with embroidered geometcial designs. I found it funny that I bought them - I had cushions as decorations.

I struggled to find a veggie lunch anywhere along the road, so ended up with junkfood.
The last 10 miles or so were really tough - v. steep - lots of 1st gear, lots of pushing. Took almost 2 hours. But very pretty to be in the mountains again.

Eventually reached Mae Salong - a very long straggling village. It's Yuannanese (Chineese). I'm staying at a friendly, beautiful, and ridiculously cheap guesthouse (Shinsane) for 50 B! Had a hot shower, then chatted to a friendly Israeli guy who'd passed me pushing my bike earlier. He's been travelling in Burma and loved it. I took a walk to one of the many tea shops and drank tea with a group of old ladies. The ritual was interesting. They put the leaves in a small pot, add boiling water, and drain straight away into a glass jug, which is used to fill teh tall thin china cups and the small round cups to preheat them. The second fill of the pot is then poured into the jug, and into the tall thin cups, which we then pour into the round ones, and sniff at the empty tall ones, and then drink from the round ones. The pot is repeatedly filled and poured into the jug, which is used for constant top ups. Very delicious. It was the family's freshest tea - just ready that day.

I asked if I could buy some, but a customer had already tried it and bought the entire batch. I got chatting to the owner, and was asking him about his plantation and business, so he took me out the back and talked me through the process. They pick the leaves and put them in the hhot sun forfive minutes to ferment, then bake them, tuble them, compress them, tumble, compress, etc, then dry them in hot blown air. All this taking a day or so. And then it'sready to be drunk! He took me onto the roof of his house to show me his fields on the mountainside above and below. They also make soy sauce the traditional way, and were drying the beans on the roof.

I went back to the guesthouse for a delicious meal of fried mushrooms and veg done in northern Thai style, then chatted to the Israeli guy again and we went for some food at a place claiming to be vegetarian, but wasn't particularly. He got me very enthused about cycling in Mongolia... So the list is now New Zealand, Nepal, Laos, Iran, Indonesia, and now Mongolia.