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Just Me Travel

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Category: Asia

HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS IN MONGOLIA

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres…

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising and a payment of money to appease the men who supply wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

I was mortified by my wrongdoing. Even though this occurred a number of years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I was not new to international travel and would have described myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us on local customs before our 2-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep sense of appreciation. And that of relief; that I was not going to commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I have a strong belief that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First up, our guide requested we not immediately take photos of the family but to get to know them a little first. This, I felt, was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were then informed that we can ask any questions we want, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak any English. I suspect this also gave the guide the inadvertent opportunity to ‘censor’ any inappropriate questions – a good filtering system.

And…

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, go back to the door and then go to the right.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder as to do so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you do touch a person’s feet unintentionally, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing and throwing a tissue in the fire is contaminating the fire. This was important to know as one by one we were coming down with colds.
  • Whatever is offered (that is, food or drink) must be accepted and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can put your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air. Thereby, flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • When offered something, before taking it, touch it with your right hand while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered or giving a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, eg temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.

The children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Whereas boys will have their first hair cut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because it is believed they are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its own unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture; representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. It is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents earth; being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life; of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but is only used in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect; the ultimate offering. To give a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I would often see sheep and horses with a blue khadag tied around their neck. Our guide explained this is showing respect for the animal and it can’t be killed/eaten.

 

Mongolian cairn with blue khadags

The cairns (shrines) throughout Mongolia are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.
Photograph by Speak Photography

 

The cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) that dot Mongolia are festooned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism still remains an integral part of Mongolian life. The cairns are erected by locals and travellers as a means of providing offerings to the local spirits; thus, showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune or for much needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, etc or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.

My conclusion? Don’t forget to know before you go.

 

For more about Mongolia:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

Fossil Hunting at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

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FOSSIL HUNTING AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT

Dear Pip, Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs. At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly…

Meg at Flaming Cliffs

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert

Dear Pip,

Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs.

At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly remote.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there are no signs or landmarks that I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me!

However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red colour, are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922.

According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

Also known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, more and more bones are exposed through erosion. This excited Meg who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!) fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across what could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Apparently, when you lick bone your tongue sticks to it but not to stone when licked. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you…

It is said that Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil; a swashbuckler. It is believed he was the inspiration behind the film character Indiana Jones.

Love,

Joanna

Meg licking dinosaur bone

Bone or stone? The lick test!

 

Wanting to learn more about Mongolia? Click on the links to read about:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

How to Prevent Cultural Errors in Mongolia

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A PHOTOGRAPHIC TOUR OF GEOFFREY BAWA’S GARDEN

With Sri Lanka being named the destination for 2019, tourism will only increase in this teardrop shaped nation. Finding places to visit away from the maddening crowds is a very good…

With Sri Lanka being named the destination for 2019, tourism will only increase in this teardrop shaped nation.

Finding places to visit away from the maddening crowds is a very good reason to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s garden as it is largely undiscovered by tourists, being something different from the ‘usual’ tourist attraction.

Not to be confused with Brief Garden – the former estate of Geoffrey’s older brother, Bevis.

Who was Geoffrey Bawa you say? He was Sri Lanka’s most well-known architect. In fact, he is deemed to be the most influential Asian architect of his time (dying in 2003). For those architect enthusiasts out there, he was one of the founding fathers of the architectural style known as, “tropical modernism”. Bawa is probably best known for designing Sri Lanka’s Houses of Parliament.

Living permanently in Colombo, Lunuganga Estate, situated on the banks of Dedduwa Lake in Bentota (midway between Colombo and Galle), was Geoffrey Bawa’s country retreat. Here, on 23 acres, he spent 50 years turning this abandoned rubber plantation (and prior to that, a cinnamon plantation) into gardens of multiple shades of green.

We explored the gardens with the Head Curator on a 2-hour private tour.

Don’t expect to find manicured gardens of colourful flowers, neat borders and gurgling fountains. But do expect a tamed, tropical wilderness of sudden vistas, intimate groves, sculptures and wide landscapes. I found Bawa’s garden to be a place of peace, tranquillity and restfulness.

Come take a stroll with me on a visual tour of Geoffrey Bawa’s garden.

Hen House

Hen house

The Hen House – in the same style as Sri Lanka’s Parliament House

Bawa designed Sri Lanka’s Parliament House and then designed his hen house (chicken coup) on the estate in the same style. Take from that what you will!

Sandela Pavilion

Sandela Pavilion

Sandela Pavilion where Bawa had his office

Sandela Pavilion is an open, airy space and served as Bawa’s office. From here he had a lovely view of the lake and could see anyone who arrived at the main gate.

The Red Terrace

Red Terrace

The Red Terrace

The Red Terrace derives its name from the red laterite ground surface, produced by the decomposition of the underlying rocks.

The Water Garden

Water garden

Water Garden where Bawa would sit

The water garden pond is shaped like a butterfly and covered with water lilies. The area has a number of sculptures and a bench seat beside the pond in the shade of trees. Here Bawa would sit and ring the garden bell for his gin and tonic to be brought to him.

Sculptures

There are a number of sculptures around the garden.

Sundial sculpture

Sundial sculpture in the water garden

'Hindu' Pan

Sculpture of the pagan god, Pan

 

 

The sundial sculpture (above left) in the water garden has an air of decline and abandonment. While the sculpture of the pagan god, Pan (above right) was called “Hindu” Pan by Bawa. No reason was given as to why he called it such.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

Ming jars dot the landscape in an area know as “The Plain of Jars”

In a setting of sloping grassy plains with the occasional tall tree, the Ming jars that dot this part of the landscape were added here by Bawa.

Jack Fruit

Jack fruit

Jack Fruit – a tropical fruit growing on the Estate

 

The estate is set in Sri Lanka’s wet tropical zone.

So tropical fruits, like the Jack Fruit, are not unknown and grow to large proportions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinnamon Hill House

Bawa's studio

Cinnamon Hill House

Cinnamon Hill House was used by Bawa as a studio from where he created his architectural designs. It was the last addition to the Garden.

Geoffrey Bawa’s Home

Bawa's former home

Geoffrey Bawa’s former home on the Estate

 

On Cinnamon Hill sits Geoffrey Bawa’s former home on the estate.

Lunch on the wide veranda of Bawa’s former home, with its views over the lake and a set menu of traditional Sri Lankan curries, was a visual and gastronomic pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gardens are open to the public and the buildings on the estate are run as a country house hotel. Should you like to have lunch whilst visiting the estate, a reservation is essential. For more information, go to the Geoffrey Bawa Trust website and click on “Lunuganga Country Estate”.

Wanting to know more on what to do in Sri Lanka? Click on the link to read about my walk along the railway line: Walking the Line in Sri Lanka from Ella to Demodara

 

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WALKING THE LINE IN SRI LANKA FROM ELLA TO DEMODARA

When my son was little, his grandmother told him to say, “The devil made me do it”, whenever he was in trouble. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka with…

When my son was little, his grandmother told him to say, “The devil made me do it”, whenever he was in trouble.

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka with my sister and brother-in-law, my sister decided it would be an adventure to walk the 3 kilometres along the railway line from Ella to the iconic Nine Arch Bridge. From there we would decide whether to walk back to Ella or continue a further 3.5 kilometres along the railway line to Demodara train station, catching the Kandy-Colombo train back to Ella.

With all in agreement, and knowing the expected time the train departs Demodara, we set off at 8.20am after an early breakfast for our possible 6.5-kilometre walk.

Walking the railway line

Walking the railway line in Sri Lanka from Ella to Demodara

So, you ask, what’s the connection between walking a railway line in the hills of Sri Lanka and a grandmother teaching her grandson how to get out of trouble? Read on and the dots will be connected.

Just after stepping onto the railway line near our hotel, we were confronted with the sign, ‘WALK ON THE RAILWAY LINE IS PROHIBITED’. I immediately decided that when stopped by the railway police, I was going to tell them, “The devil made me do it”. I wonder how well this translates into Sinhala or Tamil? If that didn’t work, I was going to blame my sister, the hotel manager and guide books because they all suggested this escapade – a “must do” in Ella; to do as the locals do

I stopped worrying about ending up in a Sri Lankan prison when, about 5 metres further down the line, it became evident the authorities had given up telling people that walking the line is prohibited because there was now a sign advising that walking the railway line is dangerous. I relaxed. ‘Dangerous’ I can handle, but ‘prohibited’ goes against my ‘good girl’ nature.

However, ‘dangerous’ became a not-so-friendly companion again upon entering a tunnel that was impossible to see any light coming from the other end. Blindly feeling my way through the tunnel with my feet against the railway track, I wondered aloud what action should be taken in the event of a train coming whilst we are in the tunnel. Luckily, my brother-in-law had been thinking ahead and had consulted with the Hotel Manager; finding out what time we might come face-to-face on the Nine Arch Bridge with the train from Kandy.

Exiting tunnel

Exiting the tunnel at Nine Arch Bridge

Feeling relatively safe in the knowledge I was not about to be squished by a train, the walk through the tunnel became a devil-may-care adventure filled with excess adrenaline running rampant through my body. I imagined I was breaking new ground, being the first person to walk through a railway tunnel.

I may not have felt quite so safe, and would definitely have run out of adrenaline, had I known the tunnel exits right on the Bridge.

Pip and Wayne on Nine Arch Bridge

Walking the railway line on Nine Arch Bridge

The Nine Arch Bridge, a popular tourist attraction, spans a deep gorge and is surrounded by a vision of green; of tropical forest interspersed with tea plantations. And so-called because it has nine arches or spans. Very imaginative! At 91.44m (300ft) long, 7.62m (25ft) wide and 24.38m (80ft) high, this railway bridge is deemed to be an engineering marvel as it is made entirely of rocks, bricks and cement without a single piece of steel. Not knowing anything about engineering, I have to concur with the experts. What I do know is that its height and all those arches, plus the environment in which it is erected, make it one pretty and impressive bridge.

Here comes the train

Here comes the train down the line from Demodara

We had timed our arrival at the Nine Arch Bridge to watch the 9.15am train from Kandy cross the bridge. All the information you read about Sri Lankan trains tell you they rarely run on time. However, this one – my thanks to the driver – was on time and came down the line just after we crossed the bridge. Stepping off the tracks, I expressed my thanks with an enthusiastic wave to the driver and all the passengers. I was reliving a childhood experience. Mind you, one that I have never had. I have walked a gas pipeline before but never a railway line and have never been close enough to a train driver in a moving train to wave to him.

The Nine Arch Bridge is the midway point between Ella and Demodara stations. Having got this far, the decision was made to continue our walk along the railway line to Demodara to catch the 10.40am train back to Ella. I was on a mission now to reach Demodara in time to catch that train as I was not walking the 6.5 kms back to Ella.

Demodara Station

Waiting on Demodara Station for the train back to Ella

 

We made it to Demodara by 10.20am but weren’t allowed to purchase our train tickets immediately; being told to wait until 10 minutes before the train is due. No explanation was forthcoming as to why this is so. However, Demodara is such a pretty station, with its many potted flowering plants lining the station, we were happy to wait to be ‘allowed’ to buy our train tickets. When I did front up to the ticketing window, I thought I had misheard when asked to pay 30 Sri Lankan rupees (the equivalent of 30 Australian cents) for 3, one-way tickets from Demodara to Ella (10c each). I was so impressed with how cheap it was, I shouted my sister and brother-in-law their tickets.

Train ride to Ella

Train ride from Demodara to Ella, with locals hanging out the doors

The train was practically empty. Not what I had expected. This made choosing a seat difficult due to having too much choice. Which seat was going to give me the best view of the scenery as it passes by outside the window? In the end, I chose to stand in the doorway like a local.

The train ride, although short-lived, was fun and the highlight of my day. Anyone would think I have never ridden a train before!

This walk along the railway line is touted by guide books as a ‘must do’ activity when in Ella. However, we came across no other tourists except at the bridge itself. Is it too far off the beaten track for most tourists? We were the only non-locals walking the line. I had to smile whenever we passed a makeshift stall by the side of the rail tracks – they cater for people’s needs wherever they can!

Train on Nine Arch Bridge

Our train from Demodara to Ella crossing the Nine Arch Bridge

 

The walk had actually been very easy. It was flat all the way and you get into a routine as you lope from sleeper to sleeper. The constant views of tea estates, valleys and mountains made for a very pleasant walk. And the company was good too – not one disagreement!

Note: You can get to the Bridge by taking a tuk-tuk from Ella or by walking through the jungle. Or, do as a local does and walk along the railway line.

Read more on what to do in Sri Lanka:

A Photographic Tour of Geoffrey Bawa’s Garden

 

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UNIQUE HORSEMANSHIP SKILLS ON SHOW AT A MONGOLIAN HORSE FESTIVAL

Dear Pip, We spent the day sharing in the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, not far from Tsaidam Ger Camp (our accommodation for the night)….

Ready for competition
Mongolian horsemen ready for competition with their uurgas (lasso poles)

Dear Pip,

We spent the day sharing in the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, not far from Tsaidam Ger Camp (our accommodation for the night).

Learning to ride almost from the day they can walk, Mongolia’s history, culture and peoples are intimately linked with horses. Perhaps inevitable in a country where there are 13 x more horses than people. Throughout the day, I came to appreciate the strong bond the nomads have with their horses.

After Meg shared snuff with the old men and our guide explained what the horse festival entailed, we found a pozzie amongst the locals to watch and photograph the men, dressed in traditional garb, compete in a number of events; events that showed off the nomads’ unique horsemanship skills and the strength of their horses.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about stampeding wild horses being lassoed but did laugh with the crowd when a competitor would manage to lasso a horse, only to end up on his bum, being dragged some distance by the frantic horse. I needed to remind myself, this is their way of life; their culture.

Men riding bucking wild horses elicited shouts of encouragement from the crowd and laughter as they fell off. One man who managed to stay on his horse delighted the crowd as he and his horse disappeared into the way blue wonder. 

I particularly enjoyed watching the men grabbing an uurga (long pole with a lasso on the end) off the ground from a galloping horse. I’m in awe as to how they stayed on their horse as they would be well down the side of the horse, around its fast-moving legs. Some of the younger men even had a go at grabbing a cigarette lighter off the ground from their running horse – some more successful than others.

A great day to remember.

Love,

Joanna

A competitor and his horse
Picking up an uurga off the ground from a running horse
Lassoing wild horses
Lassoing wild horses
Bucking horse
Ouch! Falling off a bucking wild horse
Picking up lighter
Picking up a cigarette lighter off the ground from a galloping horse


For more about Mongolia:
Fossil Hunting at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert
How to Prevent Cultural Errors in Mongolia
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LUXURY AFLOAT ON THE IRRAWADDY – Avalon Myanmar

Cruising down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River aboard the Avalon Myanmar is my idea of ultimate relaxation. When this is done on a ship that I can only describe as ‘the height…

Cruising down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River aboard the Avalon Myanmar is my idea of ultimate relaxation. When this is done on a ship that I can only describe as ‘the height of luxury’, my relaxation and experience become sublime.

To call the guest accommodation on the Avalon Myanmar ‘cabins’ is a misrepresentation of what you can expect. At 22.7 square metres (no matter which deck you are on), they are beautifully appointed suites, larger than many a hotel room I have stayed in. Each suite is appointed with a king-sized bed; a desk with chair; a two-seater couch; bedside tables; plenty of hanging space; and a large bathroom with a shower recess bigger than any of mine at home – and still has plenty of space to move around. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall opens two-thirds of the way to transform the room into an open-air balcony; truly allowing the outside in.

Whilst the restaurant is basic in appearance, there is nothing basic about the cuisine on offer. The buffet breakfasts and lunches and the à la carte dinners cater for all palates.

The combined flavours of noodles, vegetables, meat, broth and sauces used by the chef in his noodle soup created taste sensations I have not experienced before. Each time the noodle soup was on offer at lunch, I would go back for 2nd and 3rd helpings until I was so sated I was only capable of waddling back to my cabin for a ‘nanna’ nap.

Whilst the sun deck would benefit from some shade, the outdoor lounge area provides all the shaded fresh air wanted in lounge chairs you sink into. The indoor lounge area is inviting with its natural light, pastel fittings and functional but comfortable furnishings; creating a relaxing atmosphere for a quiet read, a game of cards with fellow passengers or a drink with friends.

With a maximum of 36 passengers and a crew/passenger ratio of 1:1.5, the ship boasts a high level of personal service and care whilst on board. From the on-board slippers to wear whilst your shoes are being cleaned after each shore excursion to knowing how I take my coffee by day 2 so that I never have to tell them again, that personal care and service is achieved with seamless, good natured ease, and always with a genuine smile.

The Cruise Director tells me Avalon is building a ship for sailing on India’s Ganges River; expected to be launched in 2017. Where do I book?

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THE WALLAWWA – a boutique hotel in Colombo

WHAT Imagine relaxing by the pool and being able to buzz for bar staff to attend to your needs. Or playing croquet on the manicured lawns before partaking of complimentary…

WHAT

Imagine relaxing by the pool and being able to buzz for bar staff to attend to your
needs. Or playing croquet on the manicured lawns before partaking of complimentary
tea and cakes at 3 o’clock on the wide veranda. This is just a taste of The Wallawwa, a
luxurious, boutique hotel whose former life was a colonial manor house. Set in acres of
lush gardens scattered with day beds and couches, the hotel’s 17 spacious rooms,
furnished with king-sized beds and incorporating large polished concrete-lined ensuites,
are comfortable and cool, with each room opening onto a secluded veranda and tropical
garden. The staff are friendly, efficient, attentive and helpful. The restaurant serves top
class Asian cuisine, with much of the produce used coming from the hotel’s organic
garden. And the deserts are to die for. If you must leave this piece of tranquillity, the
hotel can arrange excursions for you.

WHY

A secluded, oasis of tranquillity close to Colombo.

HOW

Rooms from $301 AUD per night, including à la carte breakfast.
thewallawwa.com

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