A travel writer tries to blend in with birders!

I can’t even say I’m a cuckoo in this international nest – after all, a cuckoo is at least another bird – I feel like a completely alien species. I’ve read the Steve Braunias book ‘How to Watch a Bird’ so was sure I was well-prepared. It soon became obvious – I’m out of my depth.

It first became clear on the bus from Gujarat‘s Ahmedabad airport where, in the middle of the night, I meet a Welsh couple who have written a best-seller bird book and a South African birder, all presenters at this gathering – they’re talking a different language to me.

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Hours later, after a slow, bumpy trip, I’m checked into the Jamnagar hotel as “Vikitoria from Ukraine” then, after less than three hours sleep, at breakfast it becomes even clearer that I’m an imposter.

Steve says birders are passionate people and I start to see what he means. Beside most settings, along with the coffee, fruit, cereal and curry, was a piece of equipment. Olive green or black, obviously well-used, some with sticky-tape repairs, are huge binoculars. I’m pleased my little opera-type glasses are still in my suitcase – I don’t want to be outed so early. Telescopes and tripods lean against tables, chairs and walls. As I eat, a bird call fills the air: one of my table companions answers his phone, the bird stops singing. It seems a birders accessory is a bird call ringtone. My phone has the factory setting ring, it confirms my out-of-my-depth-ness: I come clean.

I tell everyone I meet I’m a kiwi, ‘quite likely the only person here named after a bird’. I also confess to not being a birder but a travel writer, there by invitation to cover the Global Bird Watchers Conference. Some 500 people have ‘flocked together’, as the conference title declares, in Gujarat, India, a mostly vegetarian, low-alcohol use state and birthplace of Gandhi, for some bird talk. I wonder, do they, will they, also twitter or tweet?

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Evidently bird watching is not only one of the biggest hobbies in the world; it seems avitourism is a niche activity among, often well-heeled, travellers. Sadly, as bird watching increases, the numbers of many birds are declining and soon presenters are telling us “we have not been able to halt the decline of bio-diversity”.

It seems twitching, a subset of birding – rather like train-spotting – raced around the world in a godwit-like migration. Birders, like trainspotters, are often obsessively ticking off, or creating lists. Most of the enthusiasts attending the conference know their exact place on the life-list ranking; a list of birdwatchers showing the number of species of birds they have seen during their lifetime. It appears there are over 9,000 bird species and according to the website Surfbirds, many have seen many more than 7,000 of those feathered creatures.

I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat's Chief Minister)
I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat’s Chief Minister)

I decide to tick off the birds I see, and appoint Alan, a travel writer, photographer and birder – as my go-to-person to identify birds in my photos. No longer will they be ‘a large black and white bird with pink legs and tail’ or one with ‘a cute hairstyle’, The first Indian bird I learn to name by its long v-shaped tail is a black drongo. No-one but me thought that was funny: it seems its only we down-unders who use the term ‘drongo’ for dim-witted and which I was now feeling.

While everyone seems supportive of each other in this particular flock there is no doubt birding is a competitive sport with people, or teams, trying to spot large numbers of species within a specified time. Others compete by attempting to increase their life, annual, national, or county list. No-one asks me about my status – after all, I’ve only just started ticking the bird book I’ve been given. They smile indulgently at me, a virgin twitcher: I’m slipping over to the ‘other side’ but I don’t know their language.

Travel writers learning to be birders
Travel writers learning to be birders … note the bird dog!

I overhear conversations about someone being ‘gripped’: it seems it has nothing to do with groping or being grabbed but being first to ‘tick’ a bird on a trip, especially a ‘lifer’ or a ‘mega-tick’. Evidently some of these people are not cooing doves, but hawks. Rivalry can sometimes mean they intentionally ‘grip’ a fellow birder with deliberate misinformation, or even scaring the bird away – I have a lot to learn!

While we crass travel-writers are looking at people, food, or lions, searching for stories, the birders have their bins – as I’ve learnt to call binoculars – trained on a spot in the distance, or pointing skywards.

One of the experts, American Ben King tells me birding is not usually a fatal disease but “it’s even worse than an addiction – it’s an obsession”. He also tells me some amateurs go bird-watching in white tops, ‘the very worst colour’. Two hours later I glance down and realise I’m wearing the offending colour.

My companions recount tales of birdwatchers who spent their lives trying to see most of the world’s bird species. They rarely died in bed. One spent her family inheritance travelling the world before dying in a road accident in Madagascar; another, who was leading a bird tour, was killed by a tiger; and yet another was killed in an air-crash in Ecuador. Clearly, these so-called ‘bird nerds’ don’t lead boring lives!

The Welsh couple I met on the bus, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, gave up their jobs and sold their home for a year-long twitching trip, resulting in a book “The Biggest Twitch”.

It’s interesting to be surrounded by this flock of mostly interesting, sometimes obsessive, people from all over the world, keen to see Gujarat’s resident and migrant birds. It’s obvious more and more bird tours will arrive there, and around the world, for twitchers to add to their many lists.

Ted Floyd, American Birding Association, says in his blog, “Birding is “just” a hobby, I realize. It’s mere sport, some would say, or avocation. Yes, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of life. Birding brings out the best in us, imagine if there were far more birders. Imagine if birding were to catch on in a huge way in, say, Israel and Palestine. Imagine if everyone in Washington and Tehran were birders. No harm could come of that. In all likelihood, it would do a world of good.’ I wonder.

I finally meet ‘Vikitoria from Ukraine’. She is young, blonde, and gorgeous: I tick off some 100 birds but it seems I’m just a ‘dude’ – a casual birder who prefers pleasant surroundings and nice weather.

Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat
Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat

Visiting one of the oldest Tulou: China’s ancient earth buildings

During my trip to Fujian province in China we visited the Nanjing tulou area which I found absolutely fascinating. Built between the 12th and 20th centuries these earthen buildings are unique to the Hakka people in the mountainous areas of south-east Fujian.

very thick walls ... this one is 5 stories high
very thick walls … this one is 5 stories high

These, mostly round, enclosed buildings with thick rammed-earth walls, are many stories high, and can often house about 800 people.

Forty-six tulou sites were inscribed (2008) by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and as “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment.

Self explanatory
Self explanatory

We only spent a few hours in the area, and as I knew nothing about them before visiting, I will let my photos do the talking – hover over the  picture to see the captions.

However, Wikipedia tells me that the one we visited is called “Yuchanglou (裕昌樓) is a five-storey tulou located at Nanjing County, Shuyang Town, Xiabanliao Village. It was built in 1308 Yuan dynasty by the Liu family clan. It is one of the oldest and tallest tulou in China. Yuchanglou has been nicknamed the “zigzag building”, because the vertical wooden post structure is not straight and perpendicular, but zigzags left and right. It was built that way due to an error measuring the building materials. But in spite of this apparent infirmity, this tall tulou withstood 700 years of natural elements and social turmoil. Yuchanglou’s outer ring is 36 m in diameter and boasts five storeys, with 50 rooms on each floor, 270 in total.

Each of the 25 kitchens on the ground floor at the back half of the circle has a private water well beside its stove. This is the only tulou in all Fujian with such convenient water supply”.

 

I’d certainly visit here again, and stay longer if possible – apparently you can be hosted in one of the tulou.

The Prince and the bogus guru. India

 “Come with us” the Prince said, and with a royal invitation I feel compelled to follow him and three other men.

Down the ancient steps, past Ahilya temple, past widows, their hands out for alms, past stones identifying extreme monsoon levels, and further down, we reach the 300-year old ghats where women are washing clothes. Others proffer water, in cupped hands or in a container, towards the sun, and as the water runs through their fingers they are reciting sacred verses.

Beside Nandi the bull and Shiva lings that mark the cremation sites of various nobles, we climb onto a flat-bottomed, traditional boat on which white plastic chairs sit. The prince is taking us upstream to another temple that belonged to his ancestor.

Mediatation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.
Meditation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.

Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Prince Shivaji Rao Holkari Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen (died 1795) renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built Ahilya Fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, allows a few guests in his fabulously restored palace. After weeks of backpacking, I value the luxury.

part of the palace from the holy Namada river
part of the palace from the holy Narmada river

Another guest in this boutique, royal-homestay, is Sam Adams Green who, incidentally, introduced Andy Warhol to his muse – society girl Edie Sedgwick – and also gave him his first exhibition when he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Now founder and director of Landmarks Foundation, which works at protecting global sacred sites: our destination is one of those sites.

Two young men, standing at the rear of the boat, move us upstream with large paddles; we have tea and biscuits that the prince produces from a picnic basket, watch life on the riverbank and cattle cooling in the water, as we glide towards Kaleshwar Temple, a 12-century temple complex. “It has been a site of Hindu pilgrimage destination since the beginning of time and memory,” Sam tells me.

There are 7 holy rivers in India, including the Ganga in the north and this one, the Narmada, in the south – it divides the north from the southern peninsula of India.

The southern bank is ancient Gondwanaland, which, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass. Between the two, a rift valley was created and through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world. The north – where the palace and temple are – is made of hilly sedimentary sandstone while the southern bank, peninsular India, is flat igneous basalts.

Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the holy Narmada traditionally takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. Starting 3000 feet above sea level and finishing some 1300 miles later at the Arabian Sea this is the only Indian river where a parikrama of the entire course is performed. (the top photo is of a young pilgrim)

In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own sacred journey began in 1993) says: ‘depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire, Vibhatsathe the terrifying one, and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.’

Prince Richard tells me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped for he is the only god who has the tranquillity to calm her

Approaching Kaleshwar, we see two sackcloth clad, and orange wrapped devotees standing on stone fortifications that have tumbled down from the temple to the waters edge after a high monsoon.Prince Richard of Indore has ambitious plans for the rejuvenation of this ancient temple and dharmasala – a pilgrim’s rest house – and those who make donations over $US5000 towards its restoration are invited to tour the princely state of Indore and stay as his guest in his 18th century palace home.

Currently a bogus guru is holding up the process, effectively denying a free place to stay for some 50,000 pilgrims annually.

A couple of years ago this ex-army man asked the prince if he could stay at the temple for a few months. Soon he had set up a health clinic and was giving fake injections to cure many ills. Eventually chased out of town, he came back, ran up many bills, was run out of town again and when he next appeared was wearing the saffron robes of a holy man. Moving back into the temple, he has gathered a few devotees around him and intends to stay: it seems squatters have rights here and he cannot be evicted. Money has been offered for him to go but even this honey has not sweetened a move.

Prince Richard and the Landmark Foundation must be feeling like Henry 2nd when he said of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ as they too wonder what to do with this man who happily poses for my photos – an incongruous guru with a mobile phone hanging from his neck.

Back at the rivers edge the holy men who are walking the length of both banks of the river have washed and re-covered their bodies with ash.

India is vivid and varied, a melting pot of religions and people from central Asia, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions and here, with a, prince, a fake guru, and genuine devotees” it’s just as Sam said: ‘these guys could have walked straight out of central casting for a Bollywood movie.”

Duishan Art District, Xiamen, China

 

The Duishan Art District, near Jemei University in Xiamen, China has a gallery to display contemporary work by regional, and prominent, artists. Like the art I saw at the University was thought provoking and different to our (my) expectations.

Our group, all coffee aficionados, were also happy to drink the excellent coffee served at the café.

Despite the coffee, tea plays an important part in the artists lives – each had a tea ceremony area in their studio.

 

 

The King is dead – Thai people will be mourning their much-loved leader

Hearing of the overnight death of Thailand’s 88 year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, makes me think of the day, in Bangkok, that I was invited to become part a ceremony which was celebrating the King’s 79th birthday, and when 79 men became monks in his honour.

He was the world’s longest-reigning monarch, has died after 70 years as head of state. My condolences go to all the Thai people, who I’ve met over many years, who absolutely loved him.

 

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will be the new monarch, the Thai Prime Minister has said.

Under the gaze of a photo of their King these men gather to be ordained as monks.

 

I too take a snip of hair from each man

Great art at Jimei University, Xiamen, China

On my recent trip to Xiamen, China I was interested to see local art and, as our Kiwi tour leader, Janet Andrews, had attended the Arts Academy at Jimei University as an exchange student just a few years ago we were lucky enough to visit the Fine Art College there.jemei-unijemei-uni

She was treated like a visiting rock star and we rode on those coat-tails. An exhibition of the students end of the semester work was very different to our preconceived ideas about Chinese art.

Here are some of their work and the fantastic artwork around the University grounds.

If you have the chance to visit this Uni, grab it!

My next post will be about the Duishan Art District and some of the artists, who graduated from Jemei Uni, and have studios there.

 

NOTE: thanks for the  assitance to travel in this region as part of the cultural delegation from Xiamen’s sister city Wellington, New Zealand.

See more here –http://www.wellingtonxiamen.com and check #Xiamen for photos on Instagram, and in this blog for many other posts about my great week there.

Xiamen: tea ceremonies in Wellington’s sister city

Wikipedia, that oracle of facts, tells me that we Kiwi are not big tea drinkers: seems we are 45th in the world – way behind Turkey, the Irish and British. The Chinese put it on our culinary world map in the 10th C when they began drying, then steeping, the leaves of the Camellia sinensis.

International Tea Day is December 15 and it seems tea is the most widely used drink  – after water.

On my recent trip to Xiamen, China, (as part of a cultural group from its sister city Wellington, New Zealand) we drank tea daily, often many time daily – many times at tea ceremonies.

Here are just a  few of those tea drinking events.

Note: I travelled to Xiamen as part of a cultural delegation from its sister city Wellington, New Zealand. Thank you for the help for me to take part in this trip.

See more here –www.wellingtonxiamen.com and check #Xiamen for WXA photos on Instagram.