Surrounded by the cacophony, squalor and chaos of New Delhi station, Roger turned to Hilary and said “I can’t believe later today we are going to be seeing one of the most beautiful buildings in the world”.
We reached Agra in time to stand at sunset on the riverbank across from the Taj Mahal. It seemed the perfect place to celebrate Hilary’s birthday.
With a hotel just yards from the ‘wonder of the modern world’, we were then through the segregated gates (by race and gender) at dawn. Even though we’ve seen it in so many pictures, it was amazing to be here. It simply is sublime, and much bigger than expected. Also, to be here is to appreciate for the first time, the Taj Mahal’s place within a wider complex of other Mughal temples, the gardens and the Yamuna River.
And you have to remind yourself, it’s essentially an Islamic mausoleum for a favourite wife who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child.
Constructed by a workforce of some 22,000 labourers over 21 years, the marble came from Rajasthan, and the inlaid semi-precious stones were brought to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China, and the Indian Ocean.
Potentially our toughest travelling will be the gap year finale. Our 22nd country is a travellers’ enigma.
India is the stuff of dreams, colour, smells, extremes, contradictions and sacred cows.
English authors and historians have been trying to sum up the country for the last 300 years, never quite capturing it. We are looking forward to our own individual experience. What will the next three weeks hold for us?
To help our planning, on our last afternoon in Kuala Lumpur, we popped out to get a guide book.
We met Julissa and her boyfriend Graham back in March on a hike in Banos, Ecuador. They were vibrant, career young and so positive about life, it was catching, so we were delighted to have dinner with them.
Six months later we sat in a cafe in Central Kuala Lumpur with Julissa enjoying a great catch-up, all thanks to Facebook. Julissa spotted we were in KL, sent us a message and three hours later we were having a long breakfast which rolled into lunch.
Julissa is travelling the world with a new start-up called Remote Year. In return for a fee, she and her cohort of about 60 digital nomads get accommodation and business centres in 12 different cities around the globe for a year, so they can carry on their job, with the added benefit of a global perspective and personal networking. Julissa was totally loving it.
We talked about everything and anything to do with travel. Even to the extent that Julissa gave us both a lesson on how to take the perfect selfie.
Shame Graham wasn’t there too, he’s back in the States teaching at school. But we hear they’ll be living together next year, and planning future travels. Hopefully, they’ll look us up in England.
A few minutes walk away from our hostel in Kuala Lumpur, there is a Malaysian food extravaganza.
Plastic tables and chairs, food frying in large pans, waiters thrusting menus into tourists hands. This is Jl Alor, better known to the tourist community as “food street”. It came alive well before dusk; a cacophony of smells, sounds and sights, eating at its most authentic.
Food is cheap here. Tourists tucking in. Washed down by beer. Attentive waiters taking your picture. A few drops of rain? Don’t worry we’ll simply put up a parasol before the downpour.
We had been in hotels for the last couple of weeks – since very cheap and excellent value – but now we wanted to be more sociable and interact with some young people.
So we booked up Special Bedz Hostel right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Hostelworld described it as a clean, great location with a friendly atmosphere. The entrance was not promising, with a dark stairwell off a very busy, not very affluent street, with a band playing loud music outside.
However, once up the flight of stairs and having taken our shoes off, we were made to feel instantly at home with the two receptionists, fun and friendly Fatin and Iera, who couldn’t do enough for us.
The communal area was full of a multinational group of young people, mostly conversing in English about their travels past, present and future. This is what we miss at hotels; the fascinating exchanges with lots of very positive young people, many at the start of their travelling lives.
What makes Melaka interesting is its privatol role in the history of SE Asian colonialism. In 1511, the Portuguese arrived and displaced the local sultans. 130 years later the Dutch evicted the Portuguese and imposed a trade monopoly. And then in the late 18th century the British took over the administration.
The prize was a port bridging the east and west, a trading post between the spice islands and the European markets, ensuring Melaka, during the Dutch period, became one of the wealthiest ports on the planet. Today, it’s hard to believe. Melaka is a city of 0.8 million people, but looked to us like an industrial and trading backwater. It’s a tale of two cities; the British always preferred their other port down the Malacca Straits – Singapore.
As it’s called a highlight of Malaysia in the Lonely Planet guide, we stopped for two nights in the historic port city of Melaka (also known as Malacca).
In the past decade, there’s been an attempt to transform the town centre and its riverside into a tourism destination. There’s charming old streets and buildings for sure, but generally the place feels a bit run down and tired, with lots of unloved hotels. There’s a sense the tourism push hasn’t delivered.
Melaka’s an enjoyable place to wander around, sit in a riverside restaurant or take a short trip up the river, but with the sea now removed from the historic centre (due to land reclamation) it’s hard to picture the historical importance of this place. We’ll cover this tomorrow.