vickygoestravelling

my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations


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in which we eat lots of yummy food in Taiwan

Ross and I at Din Tai Fung

Ross and I at Din Tai Fung

Food glorious food! Singaporeans come to Taiwan just to eat, and having spent a week there, I understand why! And it’s not only visitors who love to eat – it’s the locals too – every day there were hundreds of Taiwanese queuing for afternoon tea in our hotel, renowned for its tea-time spread, not tea as we know it by the way; and the breakfast buffet mirrored that. Delicate, slim, bejewelled and perfectly-groomed business ladies, piled their plates high course after course. One morning this tiny woman put away 6 slices of papaya, a mound of deep fried fish, a pile of beef and green vegetables, then topped it all with some french pancakes, swathed in syrup…A kinder person than I said perhaps that was her meal for the day!

How to cram so much taste into a blog is a challenge, so here goes….

First stop was Din Tai Fung’s original Taipei restaurant which has set the benchmark for all its outposts including in Singapore. We were welcomed by a gorgeous girl, who advised on our (poor), choices, steering us to the favourites, Xiaolongbao, or pork dumplings. Din Tai Fung 1Despite the formica table tops and the 1950s original decor, we had a fine feast. A great welcome to Taipei.

The next-door restaurant, Kaochi, recommended by the hotel, was much less good, despite the benefit of numbers, expert local advice and fluent Mandarin, as we went with Ross’s team from Novartis. It was the only time in Taipei that we had poor service, with rather un-charming waiting staff and indifferent food – the big seafood stew/steam boat was insipid and the deep fried prawns decidedly soggy. The drunken chicken, a local specialty, was cold and rather disgusting. Oh well…

Looks good at Kaochi, but...

Looks good at Kaochi, but…

Another recommendation by the hotel was far more successful: rather exhausted by a long day out, we asked for a local seafood restaurant and were directed round the corner (next to the Welcome hotel if anyone tries to find it) to a family restaurant where we had a fragrantly flavoured steamed pomfret with a squid, and a mushroom and basil stir-fry – the squid was crispy and smoky and the mushrooms dried and pungent. We noticed, as the other customers left, they all had ‘carry-outs’ – and not left-overs. Inquiry revealed this restaurant specialised in selling bags of dried anchovies, which I found on sale later in Chiufen. Another local delicacy, obviously.

steamed pomfret

steamed pomfret

stir-fried squid with mushrooms and basil

stir-fried squid with mushrooms and basil

But venturing out on our own, whether to Tamshui where, although we didn’t eat (having had an indifferent self-service lunch at the Ju Ming museum), we came and saw the locals enjoying a grand day out.

the century eggs...

the century eggs…

The local specialities are the century eggs, seen here, and some rather disgusting looking snails, being bought by the cup.

Taiwanese Molly Malone...

Taiwanese Molly Malone…

The Taiwanese have a very sweet tooth, and here we found a stall selling a wide variety of nougat in all sorts of hues. It felt like a feast day, but I guess Sunday is always like this, crowded streets and families all enjoying themselves.

Nougat ahoy!

Nougat ahoy!

Taiwan is of course renowned for its Night Markets and street food. One rainy evening we ventured out by MRT, Taiwan’s super-efficient metro system, to visit Shihlin, the most famous night market of all. Our colleagues were surprised we were going there to EAT; they had gone simply for a post-prandial shop, but as shopping is generally low on my agenda (although I did come away with a US$5 Longchamp rip-off, which is almost perfect), it was the food we were most interested in.

The safe BBQ stall, pork wrapped around broccoli and squid, all cut up and placed in a  bag with chilli sauce

The safe BBQ stall, pork wrapped around broccoli and squid, all cut up and placed in a bag with chilli sauce

Bowled over by the garish amounts of junk on display – shop upon shop of cheap clothing, shoes and bags – we finally found the food stalls. Untrue to say it was a tantalising array as we were nauseated by the most terrible smell, which we worried was of fat rancid from over-use, so were stuck (after one misadventure, a greasy deep-fried egg in batter thing that Ross ate) to BBQ squid and pork, and a safer-looking pork bun. we later found out that the smell was stinky tofu ‘tasted better than it smells’. Ha!

The safe pork bun stall - here we see her making them. Delicious!

The safe pork bun stall – here we see her making them. Delicious!

And of course, as in any Chinese food market there are what I call the unmentionables, which we always steer clear of. If you dont recognise it, dont eat it.

This is the largest assortment of innards I have seen for a while

This is the largest assortment of innards I have seen for a while

Another favourite place for local delicacies is the Chiufen ‘old’ street market; to some extent this is a tourist area, served by hundreds of buses containing visitors from the PRC,

raw pork buns on sale

raw pork buns on sale

but like the Taiwanese, they love buying the sweetmeats that are made here, especially the pineapple cake. I bought some oolong tea at a fraction of the price I saw later at the airport

peanut brittle is shaved and put into crispy pancakes

peanut brittle is shaved and put into crispy pancakes

Specialities here included yam, taro and sweet potato dumplings with red bean sauce (not for me as I don’t have a sweet tooth) and row upon row of raw pork buns which people buy to take home. I was hungry but could not find anything I recognised so missed lunch!

Taro, yam and sweet potato dumplings

Taro, yam and sweet potato dumplings

I know its unadventurous, but do remember I was a vegetarian for a long time and remain squeamish, especially in Chinese cultures where organic and animal-friendly rearing are unknown phrases. Shark fin is ubiquitous here, as are tanks full of the most enormous groupers, lobsters, crabs and even octopus.

Taipei 101 grand dining room

Taipei 101 grand dining room

So from the cheap to the the lavish – a banquet at Taipei 101. The second tallest building in the world – and the tallest before the Burj al Arab – we simply had to go. The only way to avoid the massive queues to get to the top is to have meal, admittedly at NT$ 1960, excluding wine, not the cheapest, but US$50 for a 9 course feast is not that bad frankly, and all in a art deco dining room, resplendent with Wedgwood and Noritake chinaware, chandeliers and an 86th floor view.

View from Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

Annoyingly the menu came on an iPad which even the waitress, complete with mask – always a bit off-putting as not only could we not read the menu but we couldn’t understand a word she said – could not work, so we took the easy option and plumped for the set menu.

Grouper at 101

Grouper at 101

Scallop with seaweed noodles

Scallop with seaweed noodles

It may not have been exactly what I would have chosen, but it was all good and worth every penny for the ambiance.

Replete after 9 courses and a bottle of La Postolle sauv blanc - well-priced for the record

Replete after 9 courses and a bottle of La Postalle sauv blanc – well-priced for the record

But perhaps the highlights of our trip were dining with Ross’s colleagues – not only for the camaraderie, but also for their expertise. On the last evening to celebrate the end of the job, we were taken to Taipei’s ‘in’ place, Ding Wang Spicy Hotpot.

Ross and Jennifer watching the expert adding to the hot pot

Ross and Jennifer watching the expert adding to the hot pot

Here you can have a shared seafood/veg broth and a meat one, spicy, robustly flavoured with duck’s blood – and yes I did try that (rather like liver in fact); you then choose your added ingredients, ranging from tofu and bean curd, to scallops, abalone, calamari, crab and fish balls, slices of meat and so on, finishing off with some fresh veg at the end.

Ding Tang hot pot

Ding Wang hot pot

The principle is the same as for fondue. It was delicious, although I do prefer the more fragrant Cambodian variety – lemon grass, fresh herbs, mint and lime leaves as predominant flavours in oriental cooking.

making the crispy bread - rather like a tandoor

making the crispy bread – rather like a tandoor

The last breakfast was just round the corner, Ku Hang, up some stairs and typically Taiwanese. Great bowls of sweet soya bean milk (rather like baby rice, so not very nice!) and a salty bean curd porridge, with crispy soya bean (better), but best were the delicious home-made crispy rolls, some with onions, some halved with fried eggs plopped in the middle, and egg pancakes.

Breakfast Taipei style

Breakfast Taipei style

Normally queues snake out the door but today (we were good and early) we only had to queue for a few minutes.

A fine end to a gastronomic journey.

Ross with Sean (left) and Han Wei (right)

Ross with Sean (left) and Han Wei (right)


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in which we visit Taiwan (part 2) and I go solo

in Sanhsia 'old street

in Sanhsia ‘old street

Being accompanying spouse this week meant I had a lot of time on my hands. Undaunted by my previous solo forays, I booked a couple of tours to while away the time in between reading and cataloguing my mother’s letters (by the way we have reached 1957, and I am born to much excitement after 11 years of marriage).

Taiwan part2_02

turn of 19 century house, Sanhsia

I hit gold on the first outing, and had W all to myself. W, who in the temple as we were looking at our Zodiac signs – being 55, I was a pig, asked, ‘Am I 46 or 58?’ ‘Oh 46,’said I gallantly. ‘Heh heh,’ he chortles ‘ 58, dye my hair yesterday’. Such a character, and 12th generation Taiwanese.

Sitting beside him in the front seat I was privileged to learn much about Taiwan, its people and its politics. How the KMT, despite winning the last election (by a slim margin) is very disliked – the President only has 13% popularity rating – and they only got in because many businessmen with interests in China told their workers to vote KMT, whose mantra is ‘One China’. The fiercely independent original Taiwanese do not want to become a province of China – this is after all how they feel the world considers them, as they are not recognised in the UN.

Sanhsia Tsushih Temple

Sanhsia Tsushih Temple

The current trouble with the Philippines has exacerbated this sense of isolation – Aquino is treating them as an unimportant scion of the greater power, hence the Taiwanese aggression: ‘We should fight them, we have armies and weapons’, says W. After the war many – doctors and teachers especially – went to Japan rather than live under the KMT yoke.

As part of this One China campaign, the government opened up travel to Taiwan two years ago – every day 6000 Chinese come in by plane. The Taiwanese fear this is another means of the PRC trying to control their economy.

Carved temple guardian - even ball in his mouth is from one piece of stone

Carved temple guardian – even ball in his mouth is from one piece of stone

Apart from the Chinese en masse having few manners – as I had noticed already, see Taiwan part 1 – some of the tour operators have also upset the locals by not paying their bills, so it’s a cash only basis now! Another great injustice, in Taiwanese eyes, is the $30,000 per month paid to Chinese students to study here. This does seem outrageous, as Taiwanese students get nothing

Our objective was Sanhsia, home to an old Ming dynasty Taoist temple, made from elaborately carved stone and camphor wood, and one of the last remaining ‘old’ streets in Taiwan, now cleaned up and kitted out for tourists, but uncharacteristically tastefully so. W told me a lovely story about an Afro-American woman, who worked in a restaurant in the US, and who had a regular Taiwanese customer, to whom she always gave extra large servings. Eventually he asked her why she did this. ‘Oh, when I visited Taiwan and all the temples I was thrilled to find it is the only place in the world where the Gods are Black.’ ‘And it’s true’, exclaimed W ‘they are Black, but only because all the incense has made them so!’

The yellow paint is where the gold will go later

The yellow paint is where the gold will go later

Next stop a porcelain factory and showroom, where I meet the artists who decorate the vases with elaborate designs, including in gold imported from Germany, and learn about the various firings that result in the high quality ware that is on display. Inspired by the National Palace museum exhibits, I am thrilled to find some modern day celadon ware and buy a teapot and matching cups.

The master-craftsman: 30 years

The master-craftsman: 30 years

The factory charmingly has a workshop for folk to come and paint their own designs on china, and I meet an engaging 80 year-old who is sticking gold and diamante sequins on to her intricately painted peacock vase.

The 80 year-old, with her gorgeous vase

The 80 year-old, with her gorgeous vase

My tour group by the Nanya rock formations...

My tour group by the Nanya rock formations…

My second tour to the Chiufen Gold Mining Village was interesting in other ways. This time, ironically, I was part of a Chinese tour, although Danny also spoke English and gave briefings for my benefit. Five ladies, two from Singapore, three from PRC and a gay guy: but I worked out that these were more up-market visitors than the normal busloads we meet, as there were no flags or megaphones, and they also spoke a little English.

in the 'old' street at Chiufen

in the ‘old’ street at Chiufen

Our route took us to more wretched rock formations, where I was photographed by some ladies from Tamshui, who told me I was ‘beautiful’ – well, that made up for the ‘attraction’, and a couple of uninteresting stops, until we wound up to the old gold-mining village, which boasts a mile-long ‘old’ street, not unlike the Shilin Night Market we had visited the night before, complete with food stalls – contents ranging from disgusting innards to delicious-looking pastries,  and other local delicacies, purveyors of leather and clothes, and a more up-market variety of shop selling oolong tea and nicely wrapped sweetmeats.

Hundres of tourists mill around in Chiufen

Hundres of tourists mill around in Chiufen

Ladies pose in front of sweetmeat stall

Ladies pose in front of sweetmeat stall

Yet again, besieged by hundreds of visitors and many, many tour buses navigating the winding U bends in an alarming manner, horns blaring at poor unsuspecting walkers like me!

In between my tours, I went to the gym which was full of elderly gentlemen exercising, including one old boy who beat his chest in order to emit loud belches! Perhaps it was him I witnessed the next day hawking and spitting in the pool, or perhaps he was the one practicing his putting poolside!

Emperor eggs - as they are and 'gift-wrapped'!

Emperor eggs – as they are and ‘gift-wrapped’!

One thing is certain – and I asked all the chaps in our group, the Taiwanese women are among the most beautiful in the Far East. Many of them are tall and willowy, with long legs, often clad only in the shortest of skirts or hot pants. Paleness is a sign of great beauty here, so many of them have milky-white complexions and are beautifully coiffed and made-up. Sorry, no photos!

In between my adventures I deigned to go out with Ross – to the Shilin Night Market, Taipei 101 and to various eateries, all to be revealed in next blog, for foodies!

People seem to love it here – whether it’s due to the charming people or delicious food I am not sure. Interestingly I was told that, like China, where there are still one-child restrictions, some professional families in Taiwan CHOOSE not to have children as they are so career minded. Not unlike the new breed of Superwoman in Singapore, who choose to remain single. I must investigate all of this further – for another time.

School kids saying Hi! THe ubiquitous 'peace' sign

School kids saying Hi! THe ubiquitous ‘peace’ sign


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in which we go to Taiwan (part 1)

Sunday crowds in Tamsui's old town

Sunday crowds in Tamsui’s old town

Arriving in Taipei in a drizzle only added to its aura of greyness. Even when the sun shines (and it hasn’t much so far) it appears slightly dingy and down-at-heel. Many of the houses and apartments are tiled, once white, now grimy and dirty. But the people are wonderfully friendly, welcoming and smiling, even if they dont speak much English. As a Taiwanese colleague says, ‘in Taiwan, its not about what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside’. A big contrast with Singapore’s perfunctory and controlled politeness and pristine buildings.

the Sheraton buffet area where people queue for tea

the Sheraton buffet area where people queue for tea

Had to pack an awful lot into the weekend. Up early (not early enough as it transpired!) to visit the National Palace Museum, which contains treasures from China which were transported around the mainland by various rulers from the Ming and Qing dynasties to prevent them falling into enemy hands; then back to Nanjing to escape the Japanese invasions, before finally  being sent to Taiwan in 1948 for safekeeping from the advancing communists. But the invaders from the mainland are back in force, to see what Taiwan has ‘plundered’ from their heritage and also, we were told, to see ‘how the other half live’. It was almost impossible to see the exquisite ancient jade, porcelain and intricate ivory carving for the hordes of tour groups, each led by a flag-waving Führer, complete with megaphone linked to all members of his/her respective groups. What a cacophony of sound, what pushing and shoving, what trampled toes, what lack of apology! WAH!

It's my 100th birthday and all this is for ME!

It’s my 100th birthday and all this is for ME!

The weekend Jade market, Taipei

The weekend Jade market, Taipei

And this was the pattern for the whole weekend: whether in the Holiday Jade and Flower Markets – this time Taiwanese enjoying their two favourite hobbies – collecting jade and buying plants;

Cactii at the holiday flower market, Taipei

Cactii at the holiday flower market,

or visiting the hot springs via the crowded yet cool MRT, emerging into the baking hot and steamy Xin Beitou suburb, where the best show in town was the 100th birthday celebrations of a local man, complete with dragon dancing,

The dragon's mouth!

The dragon’s mouth!

kung fu demos and and speeches (we didn’t hang around for those as we were expiring from heat and lack of food).

Another strange crowd phenomenon in Taipei is the daily queue at the Sheraton for ‘afternoon tea’. Hundreds – yes hundreds – of people snake through the main hotel lobby (this is the busiest hotel I have ever stayed in, throngs of people, like a railway station) in order to partake of the daily buffet tea; a real aspirational activity here.

Not as strange as the Japanese businessmen’s whisky drinking ceremony we witnessed the other night: bottles of Chivas Regal lined up, waiter pours over ice, then adds distilled water with the finesse of a Japanese geisha, and gives it all a swizzle. Stranger still was the abrupt end to the evening when all the men bowed and departed, leaving untouched whisky on table! Vat a vikid vaste as my Czech grandma would have said. I digress..

And on Sunday, yet more crowds as we went with 50 other tour buses (90% of tourists in Taiwan come from the PRC) to visit the Yehliu Geopark, a collection of unusual but not scintillating rock formations regarded as a great national monument by the PRC tourists. We arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and it was a sea of umbrellas as afar as the eye could see;

Lovely ladies at Yehliu

Lovely ladies at Yehliu

nothing deters the mainland tourist! or us Brits for that matter…

The ‘attractions’ are individually named after prosaic everyday objects – BBQ chicken drumstick; fairy shoe; ice cream rock; candle rock; pineapple rock and so on.

Hordes of PRC visitors at Yehliu geopark

Hordes of PRC visitors at Yehliu geopark, the Queens head centre-stage

Umbrellas as far as the eye can see

Umbrellas as far as the eye can see

So it was with relief that we were transported to the Ju Ming Museum by our tour guide – supposedly English-speaking but only on the subject of tennis, as he was a pro when he wasn’t driving us. Our tour therefore had a magical mystery element as the booking confirmation was all in Chinese and we had to deduce where we were going by consulting the map. Just as we arrived somewhere we would be told where we were!

Ju Ming collage, part of  Rippling Roaming Emanating exhibit

Ju Ming collage, part of Rippling Roaming Emanating exhibit

‘Two and half hours’, he gesticulated, showing us a watch. Dismayed as it seemed a long time, we were soon delighted and absorbed by this homage to Taiwan’s foremost artist whose pieces de  resistance, you might say, are life-size figures cast in bronze from a polystyrene sculpture, mainly military in form – armies in battalions, fighter pilots and navies

Ju Ming is Taiwan's foremost artist, whose speciality is life style bronzes made from polystyrene sculptures

Ju Ming is Taiwan’s foremost artist, whose speciality is life style bronzes made from polystyrene sculptures

(to celebrate Taiwan’s escape from Communism perhaps?) but also reflecting Tai Chi, what he calls the ‘Living World’ plus some marvellous sandstone sculptures, metal installations, from figures to a vast ship complete with  navy in attendance. His collage paintings reminded me of Louise’s work for the London College of Fashion. How she would have loved it. How I wish she could…

Ju Ming is Taiwan's foremost artist, whose speciality is life style bronzes made from polystyrene sculptures

Ju Ming is Taiwan’s foremost artist, whose speciality is life style bronzes made from polystyrene sculptures

By Fort San Domingo, northern tip of Taiwan

By Fugui lighthouse, northern tip of Taiwan

The best thing was that it was almost empty, completely devoid of tour buses, probably because it was up a very steep and windy road.

From there to the northern tip of Taiwan and a windy wander round to the Fugui Point lighthouse, where I was surprised to find wild lilies growing.

Wild Lily

Wild Lily

And then to my great surprise and delight, we visited Tamsui, where I had in fact wanted to go on the weekend but had been over-ruled! Easily reachable by MRT, it was in fact simpler to be driven there, and we very much enjoyed visiting the ancient Portuguese Santo Domingo Fort, which changed hands variously along with Taiwanese fortunes, between Dutch, Japanese and British; and the handsome nineteenth-century British consulate, complete with original furniture.

But best of all we loved promenading together with most of Taipei taking their Sunday sea-side outing, watching the food being served fast and furious, the families enjoying ice creams, the proud dog-owners with their handbag pooches (very ‘in’ at the moment) and even larger varieties such as this extraordinary beast – is it a lion we wondered? Everybody laughing, good humoured, but bustling!

Lion or dog?

Lion or dog?

Why has Dad got the ice cream?

Why has Dad got the ice cream?

Sitting on the temple steps

Sitting on the temple steps

Hip couple strolling in Tamsui - check those heels!

Hip couple strolling in Tamsui – check those heels!

You may have noticed, no mention of the culinary delights (and very yummy food here!) – that deserves a blog all on its own, and will come at the end of our stay!


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in which I receive more visitors and go to Little India

My three visitors on the bum-boat -Marina Bay Sands hotel in background

My three visitors on the bum-boat – Marina Bay Sands hotel in background

Arrived back from Mumbai to very welcome news that two of Louise’s  school-friends, Kim and Charlie Sachs and their friend Sarah Johnstone would be coming to Singapore en route to Vietnam for a few days.

our tiny second bedroom, home to three girls... (mattress on floor only comes out at night!)

our tiny second bedroom, home to three girls… (mattress on floor only comes out at night!)

Of course they must stay, even though our tiny serviced apartment only has a minute spare bedroom.

When they arrived we also met  up with another London friend, Andy (our age!), and had a delicious Chinese meal – after several pink gins, as taught by Mumbai friend Cindy (half/half soda and tonic water with the gin and bitters).

with Charlie and Kim on the bum-boat tour (had a had cut after I saw this!)

with Charlie and Kim on the bum-boat tour (had a had cut after I saw this!)

The second morning we walked down Robertson and Clarke Quays to pick up the bum-boat to do the river tour of Singapore; grey day and windy….wah, my hair!

Old shop houses in Little india

Old shop houses in Little india

Then off to Little India, where I had never been. Going from the real thing to the Singapore version was a great disappointment: firstly there seemed to be more Buddhist than Hindu temples, and more shops Chinese than Indian, apart from right at the end when I discovered the food market (by the MRT station.) Now I know where to get fresh curry leaves, alphonse mangoes and baby aubergines.

Lovely leopard (?) outside a Buddhist temple in Little India

Lovely leopard (?) outside a Buddhist temple in Little India

Nevertheless we had a good lunch – a thali for me, and veggie lentils for the girls – and enjoyed the 24/7 hypermarket full of tat. IMG_2180Interestingly we followed the Lonely Planet foot tour and, now, checking some names in the Footprint guide, it seems we missed out on a whole load of more authentic stuff. Will have to re-visit.

So while the girls were doing their own thing – a chum of theirs’ is in town for Singapore fashion week, a hunky male model, and I have sworn not to share some of their photos but can attest that Singapore is not quite so sterile as one might be led to believe judging from the evidence – and Ross was over the border in Malaysia, I went out with Andy for a yummy Chinese in the Goodwood Park hotel; Peking duck as it should be. Andy particularly liked our gorgeous waitress!

Peking duck - hand-rolled pancakes, thank you - using only crispy skin.

Peking duck – hand-rolled pancakes, thank you – using only crispy skin. The meat is fried up with rice and spring onions

A vist to Singapore is not complete without an outing to our new ‘home from home’ – the Tanglin Club, where I took the girls for drinks and dinner – to see how the other half live. We had a lively discussion with one of the ‘old-timers’ about the glass ceiling and the need to give parents tax breaks to stay at home. ‘All children should be brought up by at least one parent – being brought up by a nanny is a great disadvantage.’ ‘Do  you have children?’ I asked innocently – for dear reader, this was a woman speaking. I only found out later that David Cameron has being banging on about this – so it was neither original nor enlightened thinking! Small society can addle the brain.

So goodbye to the girls and to Singapore – we venture to Taipei tomorrow for a week.


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in which I visit the largest slum in Asia

Curious slum child - head shaved for lice

Curious slum child – head shaved for lice

Mumbai is certainly a city of contrasts. From the moment I arrived and saw Katherine Boo’s airport slum as described in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, it was impossible to escape all the pavement dwellers and beggars. The wretched of the earth, Frantz Fanon called them. It is heartbreaking to see hundreds of people camping on the streets, cooking, eating, sleeping, playing, and even laughing and joking. And yet a recent survey shows that Mumbai is ranked  6th in the world’s billionaire cities, with 26. Probably the richest of these is Amitabh Bachan or ‘AB’ as he is fondly known, who has built the most expensive tower block in the city – just to live in.

AB's monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

AB’s monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

Then there’s the Bollywood aspect. Everyone is star-struck: queues of people mob Shah Ruck Khan’s house (just below where I stayed at Bandra); he is the most popular star in the world  – his fans run into billions, as does his fortune!

extras - or starlets? - on set

extras – or starlets? – on set

When we came across a film crew on the sea front, the traffic (including us naturally) stopped to see who was there. ‘Ah that’s Abhay Diol – not a big star yet’ observed driver Mehtab, as we were chased away by officious security guards. I think he meant on Shah Ruck Khan scale as his bio reads as a major success story for a 37 year-old!

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

My week in Mumbai would not have been complete without a visit to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia and where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We went with an NGO Reality Gives (www.realitygives.org), who invest 80% of the fees charged into projects to help women and children in particular, to provide schools, medical advice and care (especially on childbirth, birth control and disease). We are allowed into the slum only because we are with the charity – as a result there is a strict no photo policy although friend Cindy as a three-tour veteran is allowed to take surreptitious shots so long as she doesn’t look through the viewfinder…so some of the photos here are taken from waist height and through pot luck!

Deya

Deya

Our 19-year-old guide, Deya has his own sad tale: mother desperately ill and he was being laid off the next week, prior to the monsoon. Life is tough in India.

After an early breakfast at Leopold’s, made famous by Shantaram, we met our fellow visitors, a South African couple, the Butcher of Hermanus and his wife, both died-in-the-wool Afrikaners; totally uneducated and therefore interesting they had chosen to come. Many comparisons all day to Khayelitsha…of a rather superficial nature it has to be said.

the dhobi ghats

the dhobi ghats

Our route to the slum took us via the dhobi ghats where the city’s laundry is done by 5000 migrant men in tiny booths, earning $3 a day; and the red light district where we craned our necks for prostitutes, obvious through their fancy clothes and heavily-made-up faces. 9 am is a little early for a working girl, however, and those we did see were camera shy.

We learned that a girl is bought for Rupees 30-40,000 and then spends her life trying to repay her buyer with her work. With a fee of as little as Rupees 250 a time it can take forever, and their forever is now about 39 years old. HIV ad AIDS is endemic; we learned from a Canadian woman, who works with their children, that they have had to give up on the mothers as they are simply not interested or able to be helped.

snapped these two shy prostitutes

snapped these two shy prostitutes

But their kids at least have a chance, although once the stigma of being a prostitute’s child is known, they often have to change school.

Deya knew his stuff all right and the facts are incredible. Dharavi is over 170 years old and was built on a mangrove swamp; it covers an area o175 sq km and is home to over 1m people. As 55% of people in Mumbai live in a slum it is not surprising that Dharavi contributes $665m to Mumbai’s productivity a year, thorough 10,000 businesses. How? You might well ask.

Dhravi 133 copy

Plastic being sorted on the roof ready for melting down and being made into tiny beads for re-selling

If you have read Boo’s fascinating account of life in the airport slum (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) you will know that recycling is the key to it all. It seems all Mumbai’s waste (in fact 80% is recycled) arrives in Dharavi – bottle tops and aluminum for smelting in giant vats; plastic – not just bottles, but chairs and large items are made into tiny beads and are put in enormous sacks; paint tins are painstakingly stripped of labels and scrubbed; iron is put in cauldrons over a furnace and is made into ingots. All of this is carried out in dingy, airless rooms, with toxic fumes and no mind to health and safety.

sorting the aluminium

sorting the aluminium

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Sitting in a sea of plastic recycling

The workers are peasant farmers from Uttar Pradesh who migrate to the slum for 9 months of the year, returning only during the monsoon for planting. They work 12 hours a day, eat and sleep in these cells, leaving only to defecate, either in one of the disgusting public loos, or in the ‘air-conditioned’ toilet in the mangrove swamps. Plastic workers earn $2-3 per day; the iron crushers $4. But with 2012 seeing the worst drought of recent years, these men have little choice if they are to support their families and buy seeds for the planting season. The rate of suicides in agrarian communities caused by debt has never been higher.

There are other industries too – cloth dyers, potters, tailors and tanners – the largest leather works in India is in Dharavi.

Leaving the industrial area for the domestic quarters seemed like a relief – at least we were not being roasted by open fires and by the sun, which was burning in the high 30s. First we entered the Muslim area, where there were home industries such as bakeries (supplying the whole of India and even exported!) and a disgusting black soap made from unmentionable ingredients judging from the smell. But the streets were narrow, over open sewers and, in some cases, completely dark. Kids were everywhere, including a smiling but severely handicapped boy who reminded us of ET, with bulging eyes and shrivelled legs. He was being lovingly cared for by his older sister.

The elder siblings are often the carers

The elder siblings are often the carers

On the odd street corner there was a tiny shop, its plastic glittering in the dark. We wound round and round until we came to an open area – which was in effect a rubbish tip of smouldering, stinking detritus, with young boys playing a boisterous game of cricket and some even younger kids playing shop, making little pies out of dust and piling them high. Facing on to this nightmare were the public loos; the smell was stomach turning.

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Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking rubbish heap

On, on we went, stopping to step over two dead rats, over open sewers, alleys awash with rubbish and stagnant water, pausing by the slaughter house which even the Butcher declined to enter – the smell of rotting and recently killed meat proving too much for him. ‘I don’t actually kill the animals – I only cut them up’, he told us.

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Muslim boys on their way to Friday prayers

Now we were in the Hindu area, houses slightly larger – these are the homes of the millionaires we were told. Larger than the standard 10sq meters, which rent at $60 pm or can be bought for the equivalent of R1m (£12,000), some had several floors. ‘The millionaires are happy here as the authorities don’t come; they don’t pay tax, and they choose to live here because of the sense of community; many have lived here for generations,’ Deya told us. In fact only 4% of the population pays tax, but some of these guys probably should!

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Bicycles are about all that can pass in the streets

The Hindu women’s home industry is papadom-making, rolling them out after expertly snipping just the right amount from the long dough sausage using a toe, one hand and some string. Then they are put out to dry in the sun. While we watched a small girl decided to squat over an open drain and do her business, right next to the drying papadoms; father then came to rinse her off – meanwhile she started helping herself to some of the drying condiments. ‘These are sold all over India’. Yikes! Never will I eat one again without ascertaining where it is made. We were all rather revolted by this episode it has to be said. But it is normal life in Dharavi…

Pots drying in the GUjerati area

Pots drying in the Gujerati area

Ironing is a profession

Ironing is a profession

From there we made our way through the Tamil area, which was mostly shops, including those selling alcohol and, finally, to the Gujarati potters, who are churning out earthenware water and milk containers on their wheels, which are then baked in extremely hot kilns. Again a cottage industry.

It’s hard to describe the vibrancy of it all – the people milling around, the naughty children giving you high fives: ‘Hi, Hi,’ they all shout and wave as we wander by. The women, whether in Shalwar Khameez or sari, looking colourful, but most appear careworn and tired, either thin or with the obesity of poverty. I am not surprised – a woman’s life is very hard, whether on the street or in the slum. They are hugely outnumbered by men, and seem to have an endless supply of children who all need looking after, and all of this in addition to their work.

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

Animals are everywhere – goats, chickens, cats, rats – dead and alive; the occasional vicious dog rushing at us. Satellite dishes abound, and many houses have TV blaring out at us. In modern India it is a must-have for family life, and brightens the lives of the generations who share one small room, complete with a washing area and a cooking area, leaving room only for nose to tail sleeping.

Dharavi is an extraordinary place, a city within a city, self-sufficient in all ways, with no need for its dwellers to leave. But it is unsanitary and filthy, a poisonous hive of activity, however much its inhabitants purport to love it.

PS I added a few of Cindy’s nice shots into the Gallery – thanks Cindy for letting me use some of your photos for this blog. It would have been dull without it. And thank you for being such a good hostess!

outskirts of Dharavi

outskirts of Dharavi

a rather wider slum street!
a rather wider slum street


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in which Vicky goes to Bollywood

view from Bandra apartment

view from Bandra apartment

Yes, here I am in Bandra, overlooking the homes to the stars. Shah Rukh Khan – ‘the world’s biggest movie star’, according to the LA Times – has a house just below me, Sachin Tendulkar is to the right, and just there is young John Abraham’s swanky revamped ‘bungalow’ as they call houses here, facing on to the Bandra Bandstand and ‘Walk of the Stars’. We even saw a film in action -m see photo gallery!

IMG_1874But the real Bollywood star is Chorti Billi Chomal of Bombay – my hostess Cindy’s rescued street kitty who is as bewitching and beguiling as any Indian actress. As Cindy says ‘She is the story of how a little bit of love and affection can make a huge difference.’

Chroti BIlli

Chroti BIll

Cindy is animal-mad and she has a pack of regular stray dogs we feed on Bandra beach.

Cindy with her street gang

Cindy with her street gang

This solo trip has been a bit of a cheat, as I have been staying in a gorgeous –internally anyway as the exterior is swathed in bamboo scaffolding precariously erected by men with no harnesses before our very eyes – Bandra apartment with sea views, thanks to Cindy and Guy who have moved here for three years.

Having a driver here is compulsory, so Cindy and I have been whizzing round, visiting the sights – South Mumbai and the Gateway to India, the Taj Hotel where the bombers massacred so many people; Leopold’s café of Shantaram fame, Chowpatty beach, Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) with its hotch potch of looted temple antiques, knick knacks and fine furniture and, of course, the shops to stock up on kurtas and, in a fit of impending domesticity, some table mats, napkins and dishcloths for our new Singapore apartment!

Cindy at the Gateway to India

Cindy at the Gateway to India

Chowpatty beach

Chowpatty beach

old houses in the Chor Bazaar

old houses in the Chor Bazaar

Aladdin's Cave - Chor Bazaar

Aladdin’s Cave – Chor Bazaar
the shrine we were ejected from, brined fish in foreground, what a pong the shrine we were ejected from, brined fish in foreground, what a pong

sorting the fish

sorting the fish

The highlight of my excursions (apart from the visit to Dharavi slum which is the subject of the next blog) was a visit to Versova beach and its Koli fishing community. Waiting for Cindy, who had an appointment, and with a couple of hours to kill, Metab took me, first, to an Islamic shrine, where we were expelled, amusingly, for him entering a women-only area! Ironic really – and he is a Muslim!

Then we happened upon some women sorting and flaying brined fish, ready for drying. They need the fish during the monsoon when no fishing is possible. The smell of the rotten fish was quite overpowering, yet these women seemed immune, as did their children. Welcoming smiles, but the pretty girls were abashed at being photographed.

two shy girls

two shy girls

Next stop Versova port itself, accessed through winding alleys, which we would never had found without the help of the local bobby. Charming and helpful, he observed to Metab that not all policemen in India deserve their terrible reputation. I have to agree in this case; at first he even refused the 100 rupee tip I slipped into his had as we left.IMG_1934

Metab with the friendly policeman

Metab with the friendly policeman

We were lucky: the larger fishing vessels, which travel for 3-4 days into richer waters, had just returned to port. Skinny, strong men were carrying plastic buckets overflowing with fish, several varieties of prawns, squid and crabs off the boats and up the beach where they were transferred into waiting lorries. Not a block of ice in sight – and again the stench of the fish in the midday sun, combining with rank sewage and general beach detritus was overwhelming. Not sure I would rush to eat seafood in Mumbai…nor papadoms after I saw how they are made in the slums, but more of that in the next blog….

on the beach - no swimming!

on the beach – no swimming!


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in which we go to Hyderabad

At Golconda

At Qutb Shahi Tombs

Indiaaah! Here we are again! Arriving late at night, whisked to Westin Mindspace Hotel – it is after all in Hitex City, Silicon Valley of the east, Gateway to the North/South depending where you are from, or just plain Cyberabad – along a toll road and with NO traffic!

sexy bedroom

sexy bedroom

Second good news is fab hotel with see-through bathroom and comfiest bed ever slept in. Zzzzzz

After delicious brekkkie of dhosa masala – death for la bella figura but unmissable – we decided to go the whole hog and get a guide and a driver for the day. Enter Mr Kumar! Small and skinny, with a luxurious moustache, he gave us all the important facts on Hyderabad as we negotiated our way out of Jubilee Hills, the Beverley Hills of India.

Cyberabad

Cyberabad

In a nutshell, Hyderabad and Bangalore (our last stop in India, not my favourite place, see previous blog) vie for 5th largest city (8m people) and hi-tech accolades. Hyderabad might just win being Microsoft’s largest centre outside the USA and hosting major firms such as Facebook, Novartis, Accenture, Amazon, IBM, Verizon, etc etc. It is also much more pleasantly laid out and not quite so huggermugger as Bangalore.

What attracted us is its history – partly gleaned from William Dalrymple’s White Moguls – which goes back to at least 11th century, with the old capital Golconda (see below), source of the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The new capital transferred to Hyderabad in 1591 with the building of the

Charminar

Charminar

Charminar by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah…and our first stop.  Extraordinary building in middle of bustling square which, by midday on the Saturday we were there, was chockablock. Being the Muslim centre, burkas in abundance. Fabulous views from the top. Having been a Muslim-ruled centre under the Nizams until Partition, Hyderabad still boasts a Muslim population of 35% vs Hindus with 50%.

Ayurvedic hospital seen from Charminar

Ayurvedic hospital seen from Charminar

‘Oh yes, India is a secular country, no problems,’ opines Mr Kumar. But later, when he feels at ease with us and we talk politics, as all Indian love to do, he gets very excited. ‘There is too much democracy in this country. We are too nice to the minorities. Hindus only have 2 children in the family and Muslims have 10! They are killing us for no reason. We Hindus are peaceful people.  Pakistan is influencing them. Look what happened there where the innocent Indian man [bomber] was killed in prison. Here we spend crores [a crore = 10 million] of Rupees on arresting the Bombay bombers and we hang them. Legally! In Boston they just shoot them!’

The mildest of men, once he got going, he was unstoppable. A BJP supporter and avid Hyderabad separatist – the BJP has undertaken to make Hyderabad into a separate state should they get in in 2014: ‘The problem is the politicians, they are not interested in doing things outside their own constituency. So there is no progress. We hate Congress, only one family ruling in India since 1947 [with one small break in 1989], all Brahmins, only 15% of the population. Caste is a big problem and getting worse. When Dalits come into power they still have no social position or respect. Even if they have money.’

30 years later, buying some wedding bangles

30 years later, buying some wedding bangles

Then on foot to the Chowmohalla Palace via the Laad Bazaar, or bridal bangle market, with everything the Indian bride could need for her wedding. Gold, glitter, glass galore.

Elegant buildings are set around courtyards with fascinating museums reflecting the life and times of the Nizams of Hyderabad, including a

Chowmahalla Palace

Chowmahalla Palace

pillared Durbar room with enormous chandeliers, and a collection of marvellous vintage cars and motorbikes.

The grand Durbar hall at Chowmahalla Palace

The grand Durbar hall at Chowmahalla Palace

Before the heat (40C) dissolved us completely, we managed to locate two tiny and unsung attractions – the Badshahi Ashurkhan, a Sufi shrine with mosaics from 1595, but sadly unloved and uncared for, as was the Purani Haveli, now in the grounds of a girls’ school, the Silver Jubilee museum of the 6th Nizam created to show off all his gifts – silver of course – and which houses the largest walk-in wardrobe in the world at 73 sq m! Can you believe he wore new clothes every day of his life, and gave all his used clothes to the poor?

16 century tiles, Persian style in the Sufi shrine of Badhsahi Ashurkhana

16 century tiles, Persian style in the Sufi shrine of Badhsahi Ashurkhana

Hyderabad is the home of biryani so to sample this we went to Paradise, a four-story food court buzzing with families on a Saturday night. We were sprayed by a fine mist throughout our meal – we were sitting outside – but our dinner (R 1050) cost less that 2 glasses of post-prandial wine at the hotel!

Tandoori kebabs and biryani at the Paradise

Tandoori kebabs and biryani at the Paradise

The next day and Mr Kumar escorts us to Golconda Fort, along with a very detailed description if its history. I got confused so you can look it up. The current structure was built by the first of the Qutb dynasty, starting in 1518, on the site of an ancient mud brick fort. It reminded us of Great Zimbabwe, an impressive structure, set over an area of 40 sq km, built of hand-hewn granite blocks, slotted together with no mortar. Here we have grand halls of justice, zenanas, royal audience halls, all linked by steep steps, which we toiled up in 40C. The views of Beverley Hills and Hyderabad in the distance were stunning and worth it. Practically the only tourists there, the place was nevertheless teeming with Indian visitors, picnicking, playing badminton in the sacred portals, and leaving offerings at the various shrines.  Also asking us to pose for photos with them! Never have I been in such demand….

Ross and Mr Kumar at Golconda

Ross and Mr Kumar at Golconda

The staircase up to the Fort

The staircase up to the Fort

at Golconda

at Golconda

From there to the Qutb Shahi tombs, the only necropolis in the world where all members of a single dynasty are buried, comprising 7 tombs of the Kings and numerous hangers-on, including the founding female, Queen Hayat Baksh Begum, and Quli Qutb’s wife, after

Tomb of Queen Hayat Baksh Begum, wife of founder of Hyderabad

Tomb of Queen Hayat Baksh Begum, wife of founder of Hyderabad

whom the city of Hyderbad is named, and who was daughter, wife and mother to three of the generations of rulers. Based on Isfahan, the tombs incorporate onion domes, Persian and Indian motifs: they were decorated with majolica ties and precious stones, all now looted, but the ornate plasterwork remains and the granite will last for infinty.

Detail form Quli Qutb Shah's tomb

Detail from Quli Qutb Shah’s tomb

the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad - tomb of Mohammed Qutb Quli Shah, the founder of Hyderbad

the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad – tomb of Mohammed Qutb Quli Shah, the founder of Hyderabad

Again, a spectacular sight, Quli Qutb’s tomb being likened to the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad, but like all Indian monuments covered in litter and badly maintained. No hope of UNESCO status till they sort this out, I’m sure. Mr Kumar says the problem is that Central government allocates funds but these are outsourced and huge cuts are taken along the way so the resulting money spent is pitiful. In his wise words, ‘Politics and bureaucracy are the problem of India.’

Three little friends who wanted to chat

Three little friends who wanted to chat