24 hours in Yangon

IMG_1254

Myanmar’s largest city, the vibrant metropolis of Yangon is one of Southeast Asia’s most absorbing, but least appreciated, destinations. Following democratic reforms the city is now edging cautiously into the modern mainstream but still preserves plenty of quirky character and time-warped charm, offering a rare glimpse of an old Asia which has now largely vanished from other major cities in the region.

A walk around the old downtown city centre is an experience in itself, its crumbling colonial-era streetscapes providing a memorable setting for an eclectic slice of Burmese life. Wander the streets and you’ll see crowds of Yangonites perched on tiny plastic chairs at the innumerable foodstalls which clog the city’s pavements, backed by shoebox shops and with quaint little mosques and temples wedged between the houses, while crocodiles of red-robed monks weave between the traffic, alms bowls aloft. Just north of downtown, few visitors pass up the opportunity to visit the stupendous Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the world’s greatest Buddhist temples, its vast gilded stupa looming high above the city, glowing with a rich golden lustre by day, and brilliantly illuminated after dark.

ONE-DAY ITINERARY

Sule Pagoda

Start at the Sule Pagoda, whose gleaming gold stupa rises from the dead centre of the city, providing downtown Yangon with its most striking landmark. All roads in the city seem to converge here (as does much of its traffic), though nothing detracts from the majestic pagoda itself – claimed, according to legend, to enshrine one of the Buddha’s own hairs – which rises serenely above the swarms of traffic and people swirling around its base.

Sule Pagoda

Around Mahabandoola Gardens

Walk east from the pagoda along Mahabandoola Road, past the flamboyant City Hall of 1924, its municipal severity tempered with quirky Burmese-style decorations. South of here stretches the welcome green rectangle of Mahabandoola Gardens, centred on the city’s obelisk-style independence monument, with the huge red-brick pile of the old colonial-era Supreme Court rising to the east. Look out too for the imposing building opposite the northeast corner of the gardens, formerly the famous Rowe & Co. (now a branch of the AYA Bank), a kind of Burmese Harrods and once the finest department store between Moscow and Melbourne.

City Hall

The Secretariat

Continue along Mahabandoola Road to reach the vast Secretariat, Occupying an entire block just east of the centre, the huge red-brick complex served as the former seat of British power in Burma and also as the country’s first parliament building following independence – it was also here that General Aung San, architect of Burmese independence, was gunned down in 1947. Largely off limits since the military coup of 1962, the huge building (the size, it’s said, of the Louvre in Paris) is nowadays seriously run-down but still mightily impressive – a majestic ghost of colonial Rangoon’s old glory.

Secretariat

South to the Strand

Turn south down pretty Bogalayzay Street to reach Strand Road, facing Yangon’s rather ramshackle waterfront – although the Yangon River itself is obscured behind a mess of building, trucks, containers and cranes. Turn right (east) and head along Strand Road to reach the grand old Strand Hotel, opened in 1901 and now restored to its former five-star splendour. Further along, just past the junction with Pansodan Street, look out for the quaint old red-brick Custom House facing the river.

Custom House

North along Pansodan Street

Turn north up Pansodan Street, downtown’s most imposing thoroughfare, a broad boulevard lined with an eye-catching array of colonial-era landmarks including the tower-topped Myanma Port Authority, the seashell-encrusted Inland Water Authority (once the headquarters of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company) and, at the junction of Merchant Street, the fancy Sofaer’s Building, built by Jewish entrepreneur Isaac Sofaer in 1906.

Diagonally opposite here, the Rangoon Tea House is a great place for lunch or a drink, serving up an eclectic menu of traditional Rangoon-style Burmese, Indian and Chinese food in chic modern surrounds.

East along Merchant Street

Continue east along Merchant Street, past the bottom of Mahabandoola Gardens. Continue for six skinny city blocks and then turn right up narrow 29th Street. Another classic colonial-era thoroughfare, the street has a pronounced subcontinental flavour, dotted with pretty buildings including a couple of Indian temples and the crumbling premises of the old sea-green Bombay Burma Printing Company.

Burma Bombay Press

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

Continue north to the end of the block, then turn west along Mahabandoola Road. Hidden away on 26th Street at the junction with Mahabandoola, the easy-to-miss Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is one of Yangon’s hidden treasures and another memento of its remarkably multicultural past, when the city was home to thousands of Jews from Iraq and India, attracted by the capital’s booming commercial opportunities.

Theingyi Zei Market

Immediately north of here, the chaotic Theingyi Zei Market offers a memorable slice of traditional Burmese life, with innumerable market stalls packed sardine-tight in a pair of old buildings dating back to the early twentieth century. The market was originally founded by traders from Gujarat, and is still home to numerous Indian traders, particularly on the north side, close to Anawrahta Road, where you’ll also find the colourful little Sri Kali Hindu temple.

Bogyoke Market

A block north of here, the touristy Bogyoke Market offers a very different snapshot of Myanmar’s mercantile life, with hundreds of upmarket gold, gem and handicraft shops in the imposing old Scott Market building, constructed by the British in 1926. It’s not the most authentic taste of Burmese life, but can’t be beaten as a place to shop for souvenirs.

Good outlets include Botun (at back of the market next to the main alleyway), for traditional artefacts and collectibles and Yangoods (right next to the main entrance), for colourful traditional designs reinvented in a range of bags, pictures and assorted bric-a-brac. Next to one another upstairs at the front, the Heritage Gallery and Yoyomay are superb places to hunt out heirloom-quality fabrics, lacquerware and other collectibles.

Stop for a break. There’s a fun collection of no-fills cafes in a covered courtyard on the west side of the market itself, or alternatively walk a few yards east down Bogyoke Aung San Road to reach the modern Bar Boon coffee house.

Bogyoke Market

Shwedagon Pagoda

Jump in a cab and make the short drive north to the stupendous Shwedagon Pagoda, the world’s most spectacular Buddhist temple. Dominating the city skyline, the pagoda’s vast gilded stupa rises high above the surrounding suburbs like some enormous golden lighthouse.

The temple is unforgettable at any time of day or night but is particularly beautiful in the cool hours towards and just after sunset – when the stupa is magnificently illuminated. Aim to arrive at around 4pm and spend a couple of hours watching darkness fall.

Start at the southern entrance, from where a long covered staircase starts between a pair of huge chinthe (a kind of mythical creature somewhere between a lion and a dragon), climbing up between lines of colourful stalls selling religious offerings and assorted trinkets, with the offices of palmists and astrologers between.

Reaching the top you’ll come out at the gleaming marble terrace surrounding the stupa, home to an extraordinary array of shrines, statues and further stupas topped in a pin-cushion profusion of tall thin spire-like roofs.

Chinatown

Catch a cab back to town and head to 19th Street at the heart of Yangon’s vibrant Chinatown. Somnolent by day, the strip bursts into life after dark, lined with no-frills cafes and dozens of food stalls serving up a huge array of Chinese and Burmese food – all washed down with considerable quantities of beer. A quintessential taste of Yangon streetlife, and a great place to end your day.

Other things to do in the city

  • Check out the temples of Chinatown, including the pretty Guanyin Gumiao and the even more flamboyant Kheng Hock Keong, facing the Yangon River and decidated to Mazu, goddess of the sea.
  • Admire the memorably huge reclining Buddha at the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda and the fantastically decorated seated Buddha at the nearby Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda.
  • Visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum, in the atmospheric colonial-era home of Myanmar’s charismatic former leader (and the first childhood home of his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi) and then go for a sunset stroll around idyllic Kandawgyi Lake
  • Explore the imposing Botataung Pagoda in eastern downtown, centred on a huge stupa said to contain body relics of the Buddha himself.
  • Take the short ferry ride across the Yangon River to the rustic little town of Dalah – an extraordinary change of scenery just ten minutes from the busy streets of the downtown city on the other side of the water.

20170219_174251

 

Unlocking London

The largest city in Western Europe, London is big, busy and not a little bit baffling, packed with far more attractions and activities than even the most energetic visitor could hope to experience in a single trip. If you need a bit of help making sense of the megalopolis, or are looking for ideas for new or unusual places to go, check out the ideas below. These include a trio of two-day tours, one for first-time visitors, one for families, and another for couples, all covering sights both famous and slightly less familiar – although many of the attractions are interchangeable and could do equally well for a fun family day-out or a romantic date.

London, England
Houses of Parliament, River Thames and the London Eye (Visit Britain)

Tour One: London for first-timers

A two-day tour for first-time Londoners.

Day one

If this is your first visit to London, there’s no better to place to start than Trafalgar Square, bang in the centre of the city. Here you’ll find the iconic Nelson’s Column and (flanking the north side of the square) the superb National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk), home to one of the world’s greatest art collections.

The area south of the square is the undisputed heart of country’s spiritual and secular power, full of pomp and circumstance and with a series of headline attractions. Walk down Whitehall, past the house of the British prime minister at 10 Downing Street, to the stately Houses of Parliament (www.parliament.uk/visiting), best visited during one of the – sometimes rowdy – debates in the House of Commons. Right next door is historic Westminster Abbey (www.westminster-abbey.org), one of country’s most venerable churches and last resting place of many British monarchs and other world-famous figures in the arts and sciences.

Stroll across St James’s Park, the prettiest of central London’s many green spaces, and finish your day by dropping in to Buckingham Palace (www.royalcollection.org.uk) to tour the magnificent royal state rooms and superb picture gallery. From here it’s a short walk back down the tree-lined Mall to Trafalgar Square.

buckingham palace gardens
Buckingham Palace (Visit Britain)

Day two

London wouldn’t exist without the stately River Thames, and day two explores just a few of the city’s most famous attractions on or near the water. Begin with a spin on the London Eye (www.londoneye.com), offering unrivalled views of the city centre. From here, it’s a superb half-hour ramble along the pedestrianized South Bank, with marvellous views of both sides of the water, to the Tate Modern (www.tate.org.uk), the world’s most-visited modern art gallery, located in the dramatically converted Bankside power station. Close by, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (www.shakespearesglobe.com) is a lovingly crafted recreation of the Elizabethan theatre in which many of the great playwright’s works were first performed. Head finally to the far side of the river and end the day by visiting the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral (www.stpauls.co.uk), one of the world’s largest churches, whose vast dome dominates all views in this part of the city.

Globe_theatre
Globe Theatre (Visit Britain)

Something different

  • Tours aboard London’s open-top tourist buses remain as popular as ever, although for something a bit more authentic (and a lot cheaper) hop on any of the city’s classic red buses and see where it takes you – sit on the upper deck for great bird’s-eye views of the streets below.
  • If you don’t fancy the crowds and inflated prices of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, hunt out some of the city’s superb collection of Renaissance churches built in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666, many designed by London’s greatest architect, Christopher Wren.

Eat, sleep

Travelodge Waterloo Hotel One of thirty-odd Travelodges spread across the city, all offering simple but adequate lodgings at super-competitive rates. Doubles from £70. 195 Waterloo Rd SE1, tel: 0871 984 6291, http://www.travelodge.co.uk.

Masters Super Fish Classic no-nonsense British fish and chip shop – a real taste of the capital. 191 Waterloo Road SE1, tel: 020 7928 6924.

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand One of London’s oldest restaurants, with heaps of time-warped character and dependable (if pricey) British culinary classics. 100 Strand WC2, tel: 020 7836 9112, http://www.simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk.

Tour Two: London for families

A two-day tour for families

Day 1

Start your tour at the Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon) exploring the castle’s extraordinary history and admiring the stunning crown jewels and other royal displays, then head over to iconic Tower Bridge (www.towerbridge.org.uk) nearby, where you can admire the view high above the river while standing on the bridge’s stomach-churning glass floor.

From here it’s a fun half-hour walk along the river. Attractions en route incude the Millennium Bridge (famously destroyed by death-eaters in the film of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) plus a pair of famous boats: HMS Belfast (www.iwm.org.uk), a perfectly preserved World War II light-cruiser, and the Golden Hind (www.goldenhinde.com), a replica of the Elizabethan galleon in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577–1580. Further down the river, take a ride on the London Eye for further superb city views or finish the day at the nearby Sealife aquarium (www.visitsealife.com/london), full of spectacular marine creatures from around the world.

The_London_Eye
London Eye (Visit Britain)

Day 2

Spend the morning exploring two of London’s finest, and most family–friendly, museums. The huge dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk) are a guaranteed crowdpleaser, while the adjacent Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk) is crammed with fascinating interactive exhibits.

Catch a tube up to beautiful Regent’s Park (www.royalparks.org.uk) – brilliant for a picnic lunch in good weather, with perhaps a quick paddle on the boating lake before or after. Then take a walk on the wild side at the London Zoo (www.zsl.org), the world’s oldest zoo and now home to almost twenty thousand animals representing more than eight hundred species.

Something different

  • One of a dozen or so “city farms” scattered around London, Hackney City Farm (www.hackneycityfarm.co.uk) offers a fun taste of rural life in one of the city’s grungiest and most left-field inner suburbs, with a farmyard full of pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys and more.
  • The city has plenty of creepy history and attractions. Everyone knows the famous celebrity (and increasingly tacky) waxworks of Madama Tussauds, but for something different try the kooky mannequins and displays of the creepy London Dungeon (www.thedungeons.com), highlighting the more gory side of British history. Brave souls might try one of the city’s many ghost walks, such as those led by Richard Jones (www.london-ghost-tour.com), London’s self-proclaimed “master of the macabre”.

Eat, sleep

The Nadler Kensington Large, competitively priced and family-friendly rooms, all with mini-kitchen, in an attractive converted townhouse in upmarket Kensington. 25 Courtfield Gardens, SW5, tel: 020 7244 2255, http://www.thenadler.com. Family rooms from £170.

Bodean’s Popular “BBQ smoke house” serving up burgers, steaks, ribs and pulled pork galore. Branches close to the Tower of London at 16 Byward St EC3 (tel: 020 7488 3883) in the West End at 10 Poland Street W1 (tel: 020 7287 7575); http://www.bodeansbbq.com.

Wahaca Lively Mexican chain with tempting tacos, more-ish quesadillas and platters of Latin-style street-food, ideal for sharing. Branches citywide including Soho, Covent Garden and the South Bank; wahaca.co.uk.

Tour Three: London for couples

A two-day tour for couples.

Day one

Hop on a boat and ride the river down to Greenwich (www.visitgreenwich.org.uk) – far and away London’s most memorable journey, with unrivalled views of the city waterfront on route. Greenwich itself is one of London’s most historic areas with attractions including historic Greenwich Park, the world-class National Maritime Museum, the magnificent old nineteenth-century Cutty Sark sailing-ship, and the Royal Observatory itself, location of the prime meridien, with an iron bar set in the pavement marking degree zero of longitude – few visitors can resist the opportunity to have their photo taken standing astride the bar, with one foot in each hemisphere.

River Thames at Dawn, The City, London, England_VB_Britain on View
River Thames at dawn (Visit Britain)

Day two

Begin the day amongst the boats of Little Venice (Warwick Avenue tube) on the Regent’s Canal, home to a colourful collection of old houseboats and barges. From here it’s a fascinating walk of around an hour along the canal, skirting the northern edge of Regent’s Park (with views of the enclosures of London Zoo) and then on to Camden, one of London’s funkiest suburbs, particularly famous for its eclectic market selling anything and everything from retro clothing to secondhand grandfather clocks.

Finally, hop on the tube and ride north a few stops to visit the marvellously atmospheric Highgate Cemetery (www.highgatecemetery.org), last resting place of numerous notables including Karl Marx, George Eliot and Michael Faraday, with hundreds of magnificent old mausoleums buried amid lush woodland – at once faintly spooky and strangely romantic.

Something different

  • Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard (www.the-shard.com) has swiftly become one London’s most recognized landmarks since its completion in 2012. Views from the 72nd-floor observation platform (www.theviewfromtheshard.com) are as stunning as you’d expect. Alternatively, hunker down over a drink on level 52 at swanky Gong (www.shangri-la.com/london), the highest bar in London.
  • Get a unique view of the city from a hot-air balloon on one of the flights run by Adventure Balloons (www.adventureballoons.co.uk). A true once-in-a-lifetime experience, although the difficulty of launching balloons over central London means that flights run only for a few months each year, and only when weather and wind conditions are just so.
Camden market ©VisitBritain  Britain on View
Camden Market (Visit Britain)

Eat, sleep

Hotel 41 Gorgeous little hotel close to Buckingham Palace, mixing quirky charm with five-star facilities and impeccable service. 41 Buckingham Palace Road SW1, tel: 020 7300 0041, http://www.41hotel.com. Doubles from £310.

Clos Maggiore Shamelessly romantic restaurant, serving upmarket French cuisine in its intimate wood-pannelled dining room and pretty little garden patio. 33 King Street, WC2, tel: 020 7379 9696, http://www.closmaggiore.com.

Hakkasan One of London’s most spectacular restaurants, with lavish Chinoiserie-style décor and Michelin-starred Cantonese cooking. 8 Hanway Place W1, tel: 020 7927 7000, http://hakkasan.com.

Further afield

The world’s largest botanical collection, and a perfect escape from the city, magnificent Kew Gardens (www.kew.org) was founded in 1759 and is now home to over 30,000 plant species along with numerous other attractions including a pair of magnificent Victorian greenhouses, Japanese pagoda, and a superb treetop walkway

Slightly out of the way but well worth the effort, the outstanding Horniman Museum (www.horniman.ac.uk) has won innumerable plaudits for its brilliant interactive displays and eclectic exhibits ranging from rare musical instruments to stuffed animals, including the museum’s famously fat, one-ton walrus. Train to Forest Hill overground, 13min from London Bridge overground station.

Explore the beautiful parkland around Hampton Court Palace on two wheels with Mind the Gap (www.mindthegaptours.com) – a gentle eight-mile ride aboard vintage bikes, and with plenty of time to explore one of Britain’s most absorbing royal palaces (www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace) before or after.

Fast facts and travel tips

  • London’s antiquated underground railway (the “Tube”) remains far and away the fastest means of getting around, although trains get packed during morning and evening rush hours. Fares are steep, too – save money by buying a Travelcard or Oyster card rather than individual tickets.
  • Arriving at Heathrow you can catch the tube or (much faster but more expensive) take the Heathrow Express direct to Paddington Station. Taxi fares into town can be exorbitant, and the journey slow.
  • Admission prices to major attractions are generally high, and queues long. Many places allow you to pre-book online, saving time, and sometimes offering discounts and special offers too. The London Pass (www.londonpass.com) can save you money and help you jump the queues.
  • London’s museums are great news for cash-strapped visitors, and entrance to many of the city’s finest (including the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A Museum and Museum of London) is absolutely free.
  • London Planner magazine has heaps of event listings and other London essentials – download a copy for free from http://www.visitlondon.com, which is also a useful source of information
  • Overseas visitors can sometimes claim a twenty percent VAT tax refund on shopping and business expenses. See http://www.premiertaxfree.com for full details.
Brick Lane
Brick Lane (Visit Britain)

London facts

  • Nobody knows where the name “London” comes from.
  • Over 300 languages are spoken in London, more than in any other city worldwide.
  • In 1811, London became the world’s first city with a population of over a million, and remained the planet’s largest metropolis until well into the twentieth century.
  • More than half the London Underground railway network is actually above the ground.
  • The old London Bridge of 1831 was sold to American entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch in 1968 and now stands in the middle of the Arizona desert – urban myth claims that McCulloch thought he was actually getting the iconic Tower Bridge instead.

 

First published in Msafiri magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History in the Making

Zany architecture, multicultural melting-pot and record-breaking attactions by the dozen – welcome to the weird and wonderful world of modern Dubai.

IMG_2086My taxi driver had lived in Dubai since 1987, and even he was lost.

At first everything had gone swimmingly. Stepping out of the airport, jumping into a cab, handing over the name of my hotel and settling back to enjoy the ride as we plunged into the city’s exhilaratingly freeform rush-hour traffic. Outside the grand spectacle of Dubai began to heave into view: massed clusters of needle-thin, impossibly tall skyscrapers; dusty palms framing glimpses of the Arabian Gulf; curry houses and halal cafes; Emirati men in flowing white dishdashas and expat wives in chic Chanel suits; designer logos in gigantic neon and huge billboards for everything from Rolex watches to Islamic banking services. And then, just as I thought we must be about to arrive, sudden confusion abruptly descends.

“New hotel, old problem,” as my driver laconically put it some time later, after we had spent twenty minutes attempting to find my lodgings for the night. That my hotel was new I vaguely aware. What I hadn’t realized was that the street the hotel was located in was also new, as was the city block in which that street was situated. In fact, not only hotel, street and city block, but the entire mile-wide suburb around which we were now driving in ever-increasing circles, and which, according to my perplexed driver, had apparently sprung into being in the past fortnight or so, or perhaps a little more recently.

Dubai Marina, cranes
Dubai Marina, cranes

This sort of thing happens rather a lot in Dubai. Head out to the desert one morning (the urban legend goes) and on your way back that same evening you’ll find a new motorway intersection, shopping mall and a couple of skyscrapers blocking your way where that morning there had been nothing but sand. Maps are outdated even before they’ve gone to the printers, guidebooks and road signs likewise, while driving anywhere is to feel like a laboratory rat being forced to navigate a particularly infernal and constantly changing labyrinth. Every day there’s a little bit more to Dubai than there was the night before – a city not so much in a hurry as in a mad, Usain Bolt-like sprint towards some unimaginable future.

Say what you like about Dubai (many people have – sometimes not very politely) but it’s never dull. The world’s tallest building? Largest shopping mall? Fastest lift? Highest mosque? Biggest fountain? Largest man-made island? Just a few of the city’s more eye-catching recent additions. Giant skyscrapers built in the shape of London’s Big Ben and a piece of Swiss Emmenthal cheese? Alpine ski-slope in the middle of the desert? Artificial archipelago constructed in the shape of a map of the world? All present and correct. And so on and so on. Plans to construct the world’s first underwater five-star hotel, modern replicas of the ancient seven wonders of the world and a theme park full of life-size animatronic dinosaurs may have been temporarily put on hold, but this is Dubai, and who knows what tomorrow will bring, except the unexpected.

The following morning (my increasingly harrassed driver having eventually located my missing hotel after a thirty-minute street-by-street search), I set forth, out-of-date map and superannuated guidebook in hand, to ride the city’s stunning modern metro to Emirates Towers station and then walk down Sheikh Zayed Road, wondering what new landmarks had sprung into being since my last visit to the city.

IMG_5099If you want modern Dubai in a nutshell, Sheikh Zayed Road is the place to come – and as close to a vision of history in the making as you’ll find anywhere on the planet. Looking south down the road provides one of Dubai’s quintessential views: a great roaring fourteen-lane highway hemmed in on either side by an unbroken line of teetering skyscrapers, like some gargantuan postmodern urban canyon stuffed full of a memorable mixture of the beautiful, the quirky and the downright weird. Pause to admire the Emirates Towers themselves, a pair of soaring triangular super-towers, their razor-sharp edges and aluminium-clad facades burning brilliantly in the clear desert light. Then head south, passing in rapid succession the kitsch, Big Ben-alike Al Yaqoub Tower (although at 328m almost three times the height of its London original), the huge Chelsea Tower, topped with what looks like an enormous toothpick, the exquisite, pencil-thin Rose Rotana hotel (until recently the world’s tallest hotel until trumped by the nearby JW Marriot Marquis) and the unmistakable Dusit Thani hotel, allegedly inspired by the prayer-like Thai wai greeting but looking for all the world like a gigantic tuning fork thrust upside down into the ground.

Sheikh Zayed Road
Sheikh Zayed Road

It might all look like the deranged scribblings of an architectural convention after a few too many beers, but it’s difficult to not be at least a little impressed by the sheer zaniness of it all. Look carefully and you’ll also see something of the equally eclectic urban culture which has sprung into life along the strip. French patisseries and branches of Starbucks rub shoulders with lively shisha cafes, filled with crowds of expat Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians wreathed in the smoke of innumerable waterpipes, while Western businessmen and tourists mingle with native Dubaians in flowing head-dresses and robes. Hang around after dusk and you might catch sight of a Lebanese popstar and their entourage tumbling into one of the strip’s more exclusive clubs, while taxi drivers from Kerala tout for custom outside, jostling for space with Filipina waitresses, Mumbai businessmen and Russian bellydancers.

And this is where Dubai becomes really interesting. Not just an architectural but also a cultural melting pot – an unprecedented attempt to create a city of two million people from almost nothing in the space of just a few decades. It’s not all just supersized shopping malls and seven-star hotels either. Explore the area around the Emirates Towers and you’ll discover dozens of galleries showcasing the very best of Middle Eastern contemporary art wedged in beneath the shadow of the Dubai Stock Exchange, the power behind one of the world’s great emerging financial centres. The headquarters of the International Cricket Council are here too, along with a clutch of top-notch restaurants supervised by a stellar array of international culinary talent and dozens of local and international business start-ups looking to establish a foothold in one of the world’s most dynamic new business centres. No one would claim it’s perfect, but as an attempt to create a peaceful, prosperous and refreshingly tolerant haven of commerce and culture in one of the world’s most turbulent regions it has qualities it’s not always given credit for.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Continue south and ride the lift up to the observation platform of the staggeringly huge Burj Khalifa. Three-quarters of the way up the world’s tallest building and the ground is so far below that it’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, with buildings and streets beneath reduced to the miniature dimensions of an architect’s drawing. Look north to the bristling skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road, their summits now as far below one’s feet as they were previously way above one’s head. To the south you can make out the massive, sail-shaped outline of the Burj al Arab, probably the twentieth-first century’s most iconic and instantly recognizable building, the ocean lapping at its base and the massed high-rises of the Dubai Marina beyond. Inland, the view is of innumerable cranes and construction sites, and of further gargantuan edifices rising out of the desert – and then the desert itself, further beyond, empty and flat at the very edge of the horizon. An incredible sight, although not as incredible as the fact that twenty years not a single building in this entire, eye-popping panorama existed.

And out there, somewhere, is your hotel. And all you have to do is find it again.

 

Dubai: 5 essential experiences

Ride an abra across the Creek There aren’t many things you can do in Dubai for less than a dollar, and this is easily the best. Hop on board one of the city’s traditional wooden abras for the five-minute boat ride across the breezy Creek in the heart of the old city, with unforgettable views of mosques, minarets, traditional wind-towered houses and dozens of superb old wooden dhows en route.

Explore the souks of Old Dubai Get lost in the endless souks of the old city centre, from the beautifully restored traditional Textile Souk, the aromatic Spice Souk and the dazzling shops of the Gold Souk through to the bustling modern bazaars of Deira, loaded with everything from cut-price saris to the latest mobile phones.

Sup afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab Soaring high above the coast of the southern city, the vast sail-shaped Burj al Arab “seven-star” hotel is Dubai’s most instantly recognizable landmark. Admire the building’s stunning exterior, then head inside for an opulent afternoon tea in the building’s eye-poppingly multi-coloured interior, plastered with some 1800 square metres of 24-carat gold leaf.

Take a stroll through Madinat Jumeirah Explore the winding alleyways and waterside walks of the extraordinary Madinat Jumeirah, a gigantic leisure complex built in the form of a complete Arabian Nights-style medieval city, with hundreds of picture-perfect wind-towered buildings, ersatz traditional bazaars and beautiful canals lined with cafes and restaurants – perfect for a late-afternoon stroll and sundowner.

Discover the desert It’s far from pristine, but the desert around Dubai still makes a fun destination for an afternoon out of the city. Ever-popular half-day “sunset safaris” provide a cheesy but enjoyable mixture of dune-bashing, sand-skiing and so on, followed by a meal, shisha and the obligatory bellydancing, although it’s the sight of the emirate’s huge dunes and endless sands rippling away into the distance which is likely to linger longest in the memory.

Days out from Dubai

Just 10km down the coast from Dubai, Sharjah is the most conservative city in the UAE but compensates with a superb collection of cultural attractions, including a world-class Islamic museum.

The UAE’s largest inland city, Al Ain (a 90min drive from Dubai) boasts dozens of shady oases dotted with mud-brick forts, as well as a well-known Camel Souk and the soaring Jebel Hafit mountain.

The UAE’s unspoilt east coast in Fujairah emirate provides a popular weekend-break from the madness of Dubai, with miles of deserted beaches nestled in the shadow of the craggy Hajar mountains.

Two hours down the coast from Dubai, the national capital of Abu Dhabi is smaller and more traditional than its brash neighbour, with attractions including the lavish Emirates Palace and the vast Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Places to stay

 

One&Only Royal Mirage Arabian Nights romance at its finest, with opulent Moorish beachfront accommodation nestled amidst thousands of palms. http://royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com; from around $625

Atlantis Dubai’s largest – and one of its wackiest – mega-hotels, situated 4km offshore at the far end of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island and complete with its own huge waterpark, dolphinarium and the kooky Lost Chambers, a spectacular aquarium dotted with the ersatz “ruins” of ancient Atlantis itself. http://www.atlantisthepalm.com; from around $475

Raffles Super-cool city-centre hotel, occupying an spectacular glass-topped pyramid interior designed in a weird but winning mix of Far Eastern Zen-chic and ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics. http://www.raffles.com/dubai; from around $550

Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Popular with visiting film stars and pop idols, the Zabeel Saray is pure theatre, looking like an opulent Ottoman palace with superb beachfront grounds and one of the city’s finest collection of restaurants under a single roof. http://www.jumeirah.com; from around $550

Al Maha Desert Resort For a real break from the Dubai rat-race, head out to the serene Al Maha Resort, situated in the middle of its own immaculate desert reserve full of delicate oryx and other rare Arabian wildlife. http://www.al-maha.com; from around $1400

Dubai did you know?IMG_2092

  • At the height of the city’s building boom in 2006 it was estimated that a quarter of all the world’s cranes could be found in Dubai.
  • Nineteen of the world 100 tallest buildings can be found in Dubai (with another four down the road in Abu Dhabi).
  • Only around 5% of Dubai’s current population were actually born in Dubai – and around 60% of the city’s inhabitants are actually from Indian and Pakistan.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Dubai’s wealth has been built largely on trade, not oil – the city has estimated reserves of just 4bn barrels, a fraction of those owned by neighbouring Abu Dhabi, with has around 92bn.
  • In 2013 around forty percent of all the world’s gold sales were traded in Dubai – equivalent in weight to some 350 elephants.

The things people say…

Most people talk, we do things. They plan, we achieve. They hesitate, we move ahead. We are living proof that when human beings have the courage and commitment to transform a dream into reality, there is nothing that can stop them. Dubai is a living example of that. Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai

Dubai is about nurturing Arab dignity through success not suicide. As a result, its people want to embrace the future, not blow it up. Thomas Friedman

Throw a lucky man in the sea and he will come up with a fish in his mouth. UAE proverb

Published in Msafiri magazine, February 2015

High and Mighty

Jungles, deserts and mountains – plus the occasional tiger. Rajasthan is home to some of North India’s most memorable landscapes, guarded by a chain of rugged hill forts offering a living link with the region’s glorious – and often gory – past. 

No tourists, my driver cheerily informed me on the road up to Ranthambore Fort, had ever been eaten by a tiger – so far, at any rate. Although best to be on the safe side, he added, dropping me by the roadside, indicating the route up to the fort and suggesting it would be wise not to stray from the designated path unless I have a particular desire to turn myself into big-cat chow.

IMG_8692It’s a steep scramble up to the fort itself, climbing six hundred roughly hewn stone steps trampled into lopsided angles by countless generations of feet. Behind me a huge swathe of tangled subtropical jungle gradually comes into view, now incorporated into the Ranthambore National Park, home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of wild tigers (I had seen one myself the previous day, ambling majestically down a park track, while several busloads of Indian and foreign tourists had snapped away in stunned excitement). Above, sits Ranthambore Fort, brooding on its rocky hilltop, still rarely visited by foreigners but every bit as memorable as a close encounter with a big cat in the jungles below.

IMG_8716The first thing you notice – as with every hill fort in Rajasthan – are the walls. Looking to either side a massive circuit of sheer bastions extends as far as the eye can see: soaring ramparts and watchtowers snaking and looping across the craggy hills for almost five miles, switchbacking up and down impossibly steep gradients. In a land in which incessant warfare was once an everyday fact of life, these massive defences offered valuable life insurance to the thousands of people living within them – and a clear statement that unexpected visitors were most definitely not welcome.

If the exterior is all bristling ramparts and military machismo, the interior of Ranthambore Fort is unexpectedly rustic, like some sprawling village with sandy lanes running between fields, scattered houses and shrines. A resident priest takes me on a brief tour of the fort’s famous Ganesh temple whilst enumerating the many remarkable qualities of that much-loved, elephant-headed god.

“And does the Lord Ganesh also protect his followers from tigers?” I ask.

“Of course,” says the priest solemnly. “Even a tiger will never attack an elephant. Also,” he adds, grinning at me with a mouthful of engagingly crooked teeth, “nowadays they prefer mainly the taste of tourists.”

IMG_8703

oOo

Ranthambore is one of six hill forts – along with Chittorgarh, Amber, Jaisalmer, Kumbhalgarh and Gargon – in the North Indian state of Rajasthan recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. Built upon outcrops of the rocky Aravalli Hills which dot Rajasthan, all six forts provide remarkable examples of Indian military architecture and traditional Hindu culture combined, with vast bastions enclosing self-contained walled citadels, each a massive monument to earlier and more turbulent times.

Life in medieval Rajasthan was not for the faint-hearted. Wedged between the all-conquering Delhi Sultanate to the east and the volatile border regions to the west, Rajasthan was for many centuries one of India’s most turbulent regions, fiercely contested and often bitterly fought over. Hard times called for hard men, and none came harder than the region’s ruling inhabitants, the legendary Rajputs, a fiercely independent Hindu warrior caste with a pronounced taste for death and glory married to an exaggerated and frequently suicidal sense of collective honour. Fighting to the death was a Rajput way of life for both soldiers and civilians, encapsulated by their notorious practice of jauhar. When the enemy was at the gates and could not longer be repelled, huge communal funeral pyres were constructed and set ablaze, and the womenfolk of any particular fort or town would put on their finest saris and fling themselves into the flames rather than fall into the clutches of the enemy. After which their menfolk would sally forth to face the enemy, fighting bitterly until every last one of them had fallen in battle.

It wasn’t all death and glory, however. When battles were not being fought, a remarkably sophisticated culture took root within these heavily embattled citadels. Elaborate temples and magnificent palaces sprung up within the towering defences, while painters, poets and religious dreamers contributed to the region’s fecund artistic and cultural life – a distinctive combination of the militaristic and the mystical which still gives the hill forts their peculiar appeal.

oOo

There are no tigers in the desert fort of Jaisalmer – although rather a lot of camels. The smallest and most beautiful of the six UNESCO-listed forts, Jaisalmer originally grew rich from trade caravans crossing the surrounding Thar Desert and the modern city’s economy still rides on the back of the dromedary, even if the goods now being transported are no longer salt, spices and saris but visiting tourists setting out into the Thar on one of the town’s ever-popular desert safaris.

IMG_8874
Puskhar Camel Fair, Rajasthan

To ride through the sandy hinterlands of Jaisalmer allows the modern visitor the illusion of something timeless, travelling quietly at the speed of the camel rather than the car, seeing Jaisalmer as traders and travellers saw it in centuries past: the honey-coloured fort a mirage-like smudge on the horizon, almost indistinguishable at a distance from the sands out of which it originally sprung.

Other insights (as I discovered about ten minutes after setting off on my own overnight safari) are also to be had, though rarely advertised by tour operators. The camel’s remarkable ability to simultaneously walk whilst emptying its bowels, for example (beware that swishing and now rather smelly tail), or their Olympic-standard spitting abilities (although the “spit” is not saliva but regurgitated stomach bile). Most of all, the realization of quite how uncomfortable your average camel can be when one is obliged to sit on it for five or six hours at a stretch as it slowly pitches and rolls across the Thar, farting lugubriously whilst gradually sandpapering the skin off one’s inner thighs, and pounding unprotected legs, back and buttocks into a state of numbed paralysis.

Just as memorable – and certainly a lot less punishing on the posterior – is the fort itself. Inside the walls is one of Rajasthan’s most picture-perfect architectural showpieces: a fairytale streetscape of miniature squares and labyrinthine alleyways honeycombing between venerable sandstone buildings. Enormous turbans coloured in various shades of pink, yellow and red remain the headgear of choice, while shops and streetside stalls are piled high with rainbow-coloured patchwork tapestries and tie-dye fabrics, with the occasional cow staring incuriously on.

IMG_8946At the heart of the fort stands the sumptuous palace of the Maharawal ringed with assorted ornate havelis (Persian-style courtyard mansions) and a cluster of eye-poppingly ornate Jain temples, their sandstone pillars and domes whittled away by nameless master-masons into shapes of astonishing delicacy – statues layered upon statues, ringed with intricate friezes and vaults, resembling not so much solid stone as the incredible icing on some supersized wedding cake. If the fort’s sturdy outer walls were built to be survive cannon fire, the interiors of these temples are so seemingly delicate that you fear the whole lot might be brought crashing down with a single over-enthusiastic sneeze. Or an averagely loud camel fart.

oOo

Further hill forts await. Touristy Amber, on the outskirts of the city of Jaipur, with its elephant rides and gorgeous palace interiors including the fabulously mirrored Sheesh Mahal, walled with thousands of shards of glass. Or rustic Kumbhalgarh, with its vast enclosing sweep of walls weaving for no less than 36km around the surrounding hills, like some Great Wall of Rajasthan. Or the remote and little-visited Gargon, its low-slung ramparts magically moated within the watery confluence of the Ahu and the Kali Sindh rivers. Or especially Chittorgarh, perhaps the most iconic of all Indian hill forts thanks to its long and – even by Rajasthani standards – unusually blood-soaked history including three sieges and subsequent jauhars, during which tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants perished either in the flames of the fort’s mass funeral pyres or at the hands of the enemy.

IMG_9127
Amber Fort

All six of the newly UNESCO-listed hill forts have their own distinct personality and atmosphere, tinged with the melancholy memory of former jauhars and graced with examples of Hindu and Jain architecture in all their flamboyant finery. From bustling Jaisalmer to the peaceful and virtually undiscovered ramparts of Gargon, UNESCO’s listing promises to protect what is already known, and to bring new visitors to places which are not.

Just watch out for the tigers. And, if you do decide to ride a camel, be sure to wear an extra pair of pants.

A brief history of UNESCO Heritage

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site can be one of various things: a building or monument, or a landscape feature such as a forest, mountain, lake, island, desert. As of mid-2013, 981 sites in 160 countries are listed, split between “cultural” sites (759), “natural” (193), and “mixed” (29). Sites are nominated by their own countries and these nominations considered by international experts and finally entered on the World Heritage list if they are deemed to be of “outstanding universal value” according to one out of ten set criteria. Italy has the largest number of sites (49), followed by China (45) and Spain (44). Kenya currently boasts six sites including the cultural monuments of Fort Jesus in Mombasa and Lamu Old Town alongside natural wonders including Lake Turkana National Park and Mount Kenya.

The origins of the scheme date back to 1954, when the Egyptian government’s decision to build the vast Aswan Damn threatened to submerge various major ancient monument, including the world-famous temples of Abu Simbel. A successful campaign to save the temples was launched, leading subsequently to further international projects which helped safeguard other threatened sites including the rapidly sinking city of Venice, the ruins of Mohenjodaro in Pakistan, and Borobodur temple in Indonesia.

The official UNESCO World Heritage treaty was ratified in 1975 and the first sites selected in 1978, including the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park, Aachen Cathedral in Germany, the Rock Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and Senegal’s Île de Gorée. The six hill forts of Rajasthan – Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Ranthambore, Gagron, Amber and Jaisalmer – represent India’s thirtieth World Heritage Site, joining other iconic subcontinental masterpieces like Agra’s Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort on the UNESCO list.

 

 

Visiting the Rajasthan hill fortsIMG_9119

Rajasthan is one of India’s leading tourist destinations, and a tour of the UNESCO forts takes you on a more or less complete circuit of the state, making it easy to combine hill forts with visits to other leading attractions, as well as the Taj Mahal, just over the state border in Uttar Pradesh, which is easily visited en route between Delhi and Jaipur. Travel by road can sometimes be slow, and it’s more fun – and often faster and more comfortable as well – to get around on Indian railways, which reach most corners of the state.

Delhi is the obvious starting point for any tour. Regular express trains connect Delhi and Jaipur (4hr 30min), where you’ll find Amber Fort as well as the myriad attractions of Jaipur itself. From here it’s a short (2hr) train ride south to Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore Fort. The next fort on the circuit, Gagron, just outside the town of Jhalawar, is slightly trickier to reach, best visited by spending the night at Kota (1–2hr from Sawai Madhopur by rail), home to an impressive palace-fort of its own, and then doing a day-trip by bus or taxi to Jhalawar.

The next fort, Chittorgarh, is another short hop from Kota by railway (2hr 30min). From Chittorgarh take a train to the beautiful lake city of Udaipur – well worth a day or two in its own right. Kumbhalgarh Fort can be easily visited as a day-trip from here. Alternatively, hire a taxi and visit Kumbhalgarh then continue onto Jodhpur – home to yet another magnificent fortress – and spend a day or two there before catching the train across the Thar Desert to the last fort at Jaisalmer (6hr 30min). It’s a long train journey back from Jaisalmer to Delhi (16hr) and well worth stopping off at the city of Bikaner, home to the superb Junagarh fort and other attractions, perhaps continuing via the magical towns of Shekhawati, home to thousands of floridly painted havelis.

Published in Msafiri magazine September 2013

IMG_8950
Jaisalmer, from the fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poya day in Tissamaharama

It wasn’t even midday, and most of the male population of Tissamasharama was already drunk.

The monthly poya (full-moon) day was upon us again. Poya days are held sacred in Sri Lanka by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhists, who form the majority of the population, and are considered an occasion for religious contemplation, fasting and visits to the temple. Monks retire to their chapter houses to chant Buddhist scriptures and confess their sins, while little old ladies dress in their best white saris and visit the local shrine to pray and make offerings.

IMG_1373The younger and more male section of the population, however, regard poya days principally as an excuse for a 24-hour drinking binge – the quiet sound of one half of the island settling down to worship and meditation is largely drowned out by the noise of the other half cracking open bottles of arrack and launching into alcohol-fuelled song. Sri Lankans love a party, and we had already seen a fair few local festivals, plus assorted weddings and birthday bashes, but for uninhibited, blood-curdling exuberance, nothing matched poya day in Tissamaharama – an occasion more reminiscent of a raucous Latin American fiesta than a Buddhist religious holiday.

Establishing ourselves in a lakeside restaurant, we settled down to observe the fun from a safe distance. As we watched, the crowd of local lads milling up and down the street suddenly burst into an exuberant medley of songs, delivered with enormous gusto (and unexpected tunefulness), accompanied by energetic rhythmic thumps on an empty petrol can. After about an hour they all started rushing about trying to rip each another’s sarongs off before jumping into the lake, splashing around crazily and trying to drown one another. By mid-afternoon every male in town under the age of forty seemed to be either drenched, insensible, or both. Those who still commanded the use of their legs jumped on their bicycles and rode unsteadily around the lake ringing their bells and bellowing at one another, while everyone else piled into minibuses and roared off to the shrine at Kataragama to pay their slurred respects to the Lord Buddha. An uneasy silence descended, broken only by the faint tinkling noise of people falling off bicycles, or the distant splashes of others tumbling into the lake.

IMG_1377

oOo

Perhaps not surprisingly, we seemed to be the first people awake in Tissa the next morning, arriving early at the following morning at Yala National Park, the most famous reserve in Sri Lanka, celebrated for its elephants, birdlife, bears, crocodiles and, especially, its leopards. Our allotted guide, Sarath, may well have had excellent wildlife-spotting credentials, though these were somewhat obscured by the fact that – following the previous day’s celebrations – he appeared to be nursing a serious hangover.

We raced off into the park in a cloud of dust, whilst Sarath rubbed his temples, mumbling incoherently as we bumped past great flocks of brilliantly coloured birds and querulous monkeys, then subsiding slowly into a quiet stupour. Some time later a sudden squealing of brakes roused him from his slumbers. Sitting in the branches not five metres ahead a leopard regarded us with supreme disinterest, then descended gracefully from the branches and padded quietly off into the undergrowth, a superb flash of orange and black amidst the grey-green foliage.

leopard-515509We congratulated ourselves smugly on our absurd good fortune. Our driver grinned like a Cheshire cat. Even Sarath managed a queasy smile. Buoyed by our unexpected success, I handed over a tip far larger than I had originally intended. Sarath looked at the banknote with bright eyes in which the promise of another hangover was already materializing, and staggered happily back to his village.

Published in Rough News, 2004

 

 

 

Looking for Leviathan

whale-1180729.jpgThey’re the largest creatures ever to have lived on Planet Earth, reaching lengths of 30m and weighing 180 tonnes or more – bigger even than the biggest dinosaurs. Their hearts are the size of a small car, their major blood vessels large enough for a human being to crawl through and their underwater calls louder than a jet engine. Given their stupendous size, what’s perhaps most remarkable is that they should have proved so difficult to find.

The story of how Sri Lanka emerged over the space of less than a decade to become one of the world’s leading whale-watching destinations is one of the most remarkable wildlife developments of recent years – a kind of maritime treasure hunt for the ocean’s mightiest but most elusive creatures, whose migrations can stretch from the poles to the equator. Sightings of whales in Sri Lankan waters had often been reported by local navy sailors and fishermen, but exactly when and where these whales could be found remained unknown – much to the frustration of local aficionados and tour operators alike. “We saw nothing,” says Sri Lankan wildlife expert Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, one of the island’s whale-watching pioneers, when describing his early forays. “Gazing out to the featureless open sea I realised it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. It seemed like a hopeless task.”

That, at least, was the situation until the early years of the millennium, when British marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson proposed a startling new hypothesis, based on whale-strandings in the Maldives and other local sightings. Anderson’s theory suggested that whales might migrate on an annual basis between the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, heading around the warm coastal waters of Sri Lanka en route between December and April. He also suggested that the best place to look for whales would be close to the southernmost point of the island, where the continental shelf is at its narrowest, with ocean depths of 1km within 6km of the coastline – ideal whale-watching territory.

The uncanny accuracy of Anderson’s theory was rapidly confirmed. Back on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, guides at the newly established Mirissa Water Sports – set up in the wake of the 2004 Asian Tsunami to help unemployed youngsters – had begun training for sea-fishing trips, during which they had also begun stumbling across remarkable numbers of whales. Details of their sightings were carefully recorded and relayed to Anderson, who then travelled to the island in April 2007 to see for himself if his theory was true. He climbed to the top of Dondra Head Lighthouse, towering above the southermost point of the Sri Lankan coast, and almost immediately recorded his first glimpse of a majestic blue whale in the waters below. “My predictions were based on solid data, so I was confident that I would find whales when I finally visited,” he says. “Nevertheless, spotting one in just 15 minutes was a tremendous thrill.”

Subsequent research has demonstrated that southern Sri Lanka is now one of the best places in the world to see blue whales, while sperm whales are increasingly common. Sightings either singly or in pods are almost guaranteed during the main south-coast season from November to April, while so-called “super-pods” comprising up to fifty sperm whales have recently been reported – an astonishing sight. No less than 27 other cetacean species have also been spotted in the coastal waters off the coast of Mirissa, including humpback, false killer and Bryde’s whales, while huge pods of acrobatic spinner and bottlenose dolphins are often seen in the waters.

Using Anderson’s theories, other local whale-watching hotspots are being discovered, as experts gradually piece together an increasingly detailed picture of the migrations and feeding patterns of these mighty creatures as they trawl around the Sri Lankan in search of nutrient-rich waters. The eastern town of Trincomalee has emerged as one such important destination, with most sightings between March and September, meaning that it’s now possible to whale-watch somewhere around Sri Lanka for around ten months out of every twelve. “It’s incredible that such numbers of the largest animal alive, so close to shore, should have gone unremarked for so long,” says Anderson. “But that just shows how little we still know about the natural world.”

Opportunities for tours now abound and wherever you depart from, casting out to sea in search of whales is a memorable, almost primeval experience. Trips leave in the cool of the early morning aboard a range of 20- to 50-foot vessels equipped with powerful engines which whisk visitors at exhilarating speeds out to the prime whale-watching areas between three and six nautical miles out to sea. As the coast diminishes to a fine grey line on the horizon behind, the engine is throttled back, and crew and passengers hold their collective breaths, scanning the waters for tell-tale signs of cetacean life.

At first, there may be a towering plume of water – the so-called “blow” – up to 30 foot high, which the mighty blue whale shoots out of its head after resurfacing (and is easily distinguishable from the more angled and bushy blow of the sperm whale). Or perhaps you may see the bluish-grey bulk of a basking blue, or the only slightly less massive outline of a sperm whale, with its distinctively block-shaped head, like an enormous battering ram. Most of these massive creature’s bodies remain hidden tantalisingly below the waves, except for that marvellous, unscripted moment when the whale breaches the surface, lifting its vast tail clean out of the water before plunging into the deep in search of food. It surely ranks as nature’s greatest spectacle.

 

 

Published in Gulf Life, December 2012

 

Welcome to Hollywoodge

Films, factories and men in bowler hats. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Lodz. 

The first problem with Lodz is the name. To those unfamiliar with the finer nuances of the Polish language, the spelling is not so much unhelpful as provocatively misleading. Say “Lodz”, “Luds”, or anything remotely similar, and you’ll get nothing but the blankest of stares. The actual pronunciation is something like Woodge – the kind of woooo-ing sound one might make whilst falling over after a few too many glasses of the city’s deceptively potent Lodzkie Mocne pilsner. Lodz, one quickly realizes, is a slippery, surprising and frequently surreal sort of place, one in which nothing is quite what it seems, least of all its name.

Which perhaps explains how, on my first morning in Lodz, I found myself on the topmost floor of an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city, perched high up amidst a tangled bird’s nest of rattling metal catwalks and staircases. As I watched, a black-suited man in a bowler hat and a girl with an oversized red suitcase wandered enigmatically amongst piles of coal dust and scraps of rusted metal, surrounded by the festering remains of stalled machinery – a compellingly surreal vision of Soviet-era industrial verismo cum Magritte-inspired dreamworld. And before you accuse me of having had one too many glasses of Lodzkie Mocne pilsner myself, let me explain.

lodz_factory copyThe factory was one of the locations for a new film, Zuzanna, being shot in the city by students Daria Kopiec and Monika Kotecka as part of their final-year diploma project. Daria and Monika are two of the aspiring cineastes studying at Lodz’s world-famous film school, whose stellar array of former students reads like a virtual Who’s Who of Polish cinema, including Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski (of Three Colours and The Double Life of Véronique fame). More recently, Lodz’s crumblingly atmospheric industrial landscapes have attracted the attention of David Lynch, who shot large parts of his latest film, Inland Empire, in the city. No surprise then that the city is often referred to as Poland’s Hollywood – or, to be perfectly precise, Hollywoodge.

Hence the factory, the film, and the bowler-hatted spook. Lodz’s dramatic industrial landscapes have always loomed large in the imagination of the film-makers who have worked here. As Krzysztof Kieslowski himself once put it, recalling his own student days in Lodz: “The whole world around was very sad. It was not even black and white, it was just black, or maybe gray. Lodz is photogenic because it is dirty and crappy. The whole city is like that. In a certain way, the whole world is like that. And people’s faces are like city walls: sad, full of a drama in their eyes.”

Of course things have changed a bit since Kieslowski’s time. The people of Lodz are no longer nearly so sad, and the city a lot less grey, but the factories remain, the legacy of the Lodz’s days as Poland’s industrial powerhouse, until the collapse of communism in the 1990s finally silenced the city’s great cotton mills for good. Their decaying remains now ring the city centre like mementoes of a vanished era: derelict red-brick collosi dotted with soaring chimneys, at once impressive, melancholy, and also strangely beautiful.

“I grew up here,” says Zuzanna’s producer, Agnieszka Wasiak, “and I’ve always been in love with these beautiful old buildings. We spent two months scouting around for locations for the film and discovered the most amazing sights. People from other parts of Poland think that Lodz is just grey and depressing, but you’ve got to say they don’t really understand the place at all.”

“It’s true,” adds Zuzanna’s director of photographer and co-creator Monika Kotecka. “My own first impressions of Lodz weren’t good. It just looked gloomy and dirty. But later on I started looking for my own map of the city. Gradually I came to realize that Lodz is a very magical kind of place. There’s something wild about it, something dramatic. It’s a unique city, for sure, the people are very special, and the atmosphere is completely strange.”

“Exactly,” says Agnieszka. “Only in Lodz could men fly around an old cotton mill in bowler hats . . .”

lodz_manufakt copyAnd yet the winds of change are beginning to gust optimistically through Lodz’s crumbling cotton mills. Following one of the largest urban regeneration projects in Europe, the city’s famous old Poznanski factory complex has now been renovated and reopened as Manufaktura, a massively popular leisure and cultural complex, while other factories are being gutted, scrubbed up and converted into loft apartments, museums and cultural centres. David Lynch himself recently snapped up an abandoned power station, which he plans to convert into film studios and a cinema.

The new face of Lodz can be seen most clearly along the magnificent Piotrkowska Street, touted as the longest shopping street in Europe, which cuts arrow-straight through the heart of the city for almost 5km, lined by an eye-catching array of flamboyantly decorated mansions which have earned the city a further soubriquet as the so-called “Vienna of the East”.

It’s along Piotrkowska that you get the sense of what Lodz is swiftly becoming, and which puts the stereotypical image of the city as a place of grime and crime firmly in its place. Lodz’s reputation as one of Poland’s most culturally progressive cities is being steadily re-affirmed. The beautiful old mansions are slowly being restored and turned into bookshops, galleries and cafes catering to the city’s enormous student population, who give the whole place a vibrantly youthful air, as well as providing steady custom for the hundred-odd bars which line the street (membership of the elite One Hundred Club awaits those who suceed in supping in each and every one – though not, presumably, on the same night).

And now, one suspects, is the time to visit: while the old factories survive in all their crumbling glory, and before the city is discovered by tour groups and the bars of Piotrkowska are overrun by stag parties. For the time being, Lodz provides a fascinating study in contrasts. Old men in grey suits and flat caps play chess in parks and trams clatter past towering Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, while around the corner crowds of students sit in chi-chi modern cafés sipping frappucinos and practising their English to a soundtrack of Beyoncé and Blur. At one end of the street its 2008, and at the other it’s still 1975. Confused? Well, yes, so was I, and yet this is all part of the wonder of Woodge: that for a lot of the time you don’t quite know where you are. Or when you are either, for that matter.

Meanwhile, back at the Textile Museum, the next Zuzanna shoot is already in progress. The lights are casting eerie purple shadows onto the dusky walls of the looming factory buildings, while five bowler-hatted actors are performing a bizarrely choreographed sequence which looks like an attempt to recreate Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch at the end of a long night on the tiles. We watch this final slice of quintessentially Woodge-like weirdness for half an hour then head off, feeling slightly surreal ourselves, for a final night in the bars of Piotrkowska.

And make mine a pint of Lodzkie Mocjne, please. Woooo….

lodz_flats copy

Lodz: a legacy in film

The Promised Land (Ziemia Obiecana; 1975) Definitive cinematic portrait of Lodz during its industrial heydey directed by seminal Polish director and Lodz film-school graduate Andrzej Wajda, who was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2000.

Inland Empire (2006) Characteristically enigmatic David Lynch movie, partly filmed in Lodz and starring Laura Dern and Justin Theroux. The surreal action centres on a schizophrenic actress (Dern) and features the usual array of Lynch grotesques, including a one-legged woman and a trio of characters with the heads of rabbits.

The Pianist (2002). Roman Polanski, Lodz’s most famous cinematic son, returns to his Polish roots in this masterful World War 2 epic following the travails of Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Although set and shot in Warsaw, the film gives a harrowing sense of what life in the enormous Lodz ghetto would have been like.

 

Published in Ryanair magazine, June 2008