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Entries about mountains

Description of Town and Life in Gulabgarh

The town is surrounded by towering snow covered mountains, pine forests, steep rock walls, etc.

View of bridge leading to Gulabgarh
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Unfortunately, like so many small towns in India, it is full of garbage on the streets, and in the narrow alleys near the houses. Tashi has said that he has organized a clean up a couple of times, but within a few weeks the place looks the same. People just don’t seem to get the concept and importance of cleanliness, and are content to live amongst the garbage and the shit, both cow and human alike, because that is what they are used to. Many houses seem to have some kind of rudimentary septic tank, but obviously not all. There is no town wide sewage system.

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Alley leading to Tashi's house
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Along side the main street is a three foot deep ditch with plenty of garbage, and so I have to watch where I step at all times. Cows and many stray dogs roam about chewing on the garbage.

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There are 40 or 50 small shops selling everything from food and clothing to cell phone sim cards. There is even a “Peace Hotel,” with “semi-deluxe" rooms, though I wouldn't want to stay there. Despite all the rain, the main street is dusty, especially when trucks arrive from Kisthwar. Making it here along the extremely narrow and boulder strewn road is a feat unto itself.

The town has about three thousand residents, some of whom return to their mountain villages for extended visits to family members, or to help out on the family farm.

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The Himalayan Culture School occupies a prime spot on a small hill in the center of town with prayer flags fluttering all around.

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Unlike other schools, this one operates from March to November because it is simply too cold during the winter, and there is no source of heat in the classrooms. Even now, in late April, it is still quite chilly here, especially at night in the uninsulated, concrete houses with minimal sources of heat. I can imagine what it would be like here in mid-winter, at 6000 feet. Many of the the children who reside with relatives here in the summer, return to their parents in their villages for the winter. These villages are higher, 9000, or 10,000 feet, far more remote than Gulabgarh, and there is usually snow all winter long. Animals and people keep very close company, ie, in the same room, in an attempt to keep warm.

Mountain view from school yard
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Relative to these villages, Gulabgarh is a metropolis with creature comforts, and yet life is still primitive here. Bathing is a luxury I have not had for a number of days, and everyone else bathes very infrequently because it is such a chore to heat up the water on an open fire, Doing laundry is also a major production, and I have more or less worn the same dusty clothes since I arrived. I am hoping to wash out some clothes today, or have someone in the village do it. If I can wash them soon, perhaps they will have time to dry in the sun.

After a week, there is no longer any more bottled water to be found in the shops. There was only one place that had it, and they have now run out. I have some trepidation about using the crude filtering system that Tashi has in his house. Thus far I have managed to avoid any major stomach problems.

We are also running out of toilet paper, and Tashi went to see if he could buy more. It seems like there is none left in the whole town, and at least one person said to him, in Ladakhi, “What’s that?”

Perhaps on his return from Jammu, he can bring some. He intends to go soon to check on construction materials for his house.

Drinking, eating, and sitting around the smoky wood stove are really the only forms of entertainment. Most nights seem like a party, as everyone knows everyone, or is related, and they often drop by to talk and drink, at least the men, and I feel some pressure to keep up with them. Tashi was complaining about it to me, although he drinks as much as everyone else. He also mentioned the lack of privacy in the town. These are my words, not his, but he feels that there is pressure to see everyone and check in, especially if he has not seen them in a while. He said he thought that there was extra partying going on as a form of congratulations, because he has started building his new house in Jammu.

I frequently take short walks in the town, and I am very noticeable. Kids openly stare and others just obviously wonder who I am and what am I doing here.

Two gentlemen in local shops
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I may be only one of a handful of foreigners to come here. Two others than I know of, Alex and Mari, have also taught at the school because they know Tashi, but clearly there has not been an influx of tourists. Now that I have been here a little while, I feel incredible respect for Mari, who spent about a month here, longer than I will spend, and while she was here Tashi was absent for almost the entire time. And then she came back again for another month. This is not an easy place to be for anyone not used to doing without western conveniences, but for a woman alone without having anyone to talk to for a month, now that is impressive. Okay, she is 20 years younger than I am, but still....

Posted by jonshapiro 06:24 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains postcards living_abroad Comments (3)

Munnar

We are in another isolated place high in the Western Ghats, much greener, cooler, and more rugged than Wayanad. It is surrounded by tea plantations, cardamom fields and rocky peaks.

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The place we are staying in is a two story house, and we have the upstairs honeymoon suite, my nomenclature, with two rooms and a balcony, overlooking a spectacular mountain valley. Unfortunately, Regi, who I have been communicating with for several months, does not actually stay here, and the only folks that do, the caretaker and a Tamil woman with a baby, have very little English. So when I wanted stronger coffee this morning, I made a muscle with my right arm. Hard to tell whether that made any difference.

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Food has been a problem, as they ordered veggies and rice for us from a restaurant several klicks up the road, and it was greasy and gave us both indigestion. Breakfast of idly was marginally better, as it was homemade, but they are clearly not set up to serve meals, despite what I had been told earlier.

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We feel a bit marooned, and I suspect that there have been few, if any, Westerners staying here, especially without a car, as we are about 12K from Munnar, on a narrow, winding road.

Earlier today, we went on a hike with a guide. We thought we would be climbing one of the nearby mountains, but got a late start,and he seemed reluctant to take us up the highest peak because there are "wild elephants up there." It seems that if the Naxalites are not hiding out on the peaks, then the elephants will get you. We spent most of the time in a nearby forest, and in and out of tea plantations.

Tea pickers
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Wild Morning Glory
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On another day, he agreed to take us up on the ridge line of a lower mountain, and I hope to be over my nasty head cold by then.

We also took a tuk-tuk into Munnar, and ate lunch at a thali place that received good reviews. Unfortunately, neither the town, nor the restaurant are worth writing about.

Despite the isolation at Regi's place, and the rock hard bed, which reminds us of China, the sunsets are as brilliant as I have seen anywhere, as is the view from our balcony. We have enjoyed sitting out there, drinking a beer, listening to world music on my travel speaker, and just gazing out at the last light of day. The sun goes below the clouds as the sky turns pink, and then the mist descends, so that it is hard to tell mountain from sky. Subtle shades of grey and orange dominate, as the outline of the ridge line above merges with the darkening sky as dusk turns to night.

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Posted by jonshapiro 11:03 Archived in India Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains photography Comments (4)

Kalpetta, India

We are now in the hill town of Kalpetta, near Wayanad National Park. Hitesh and Ruchi, who we also met in Ladakh and last saw in Delhi six years ago, met us here. When they arrived, it felt as though no time had passed, and we had the same instant connection that we felt the first time. Now in their late 30's , they looked the same, and they felt the same about us.

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The guest house here has just two adjoining rooms with a sheltered terrace surrounded by tropical vegetation. It is located just far enough off the main drag of Kalpetta to be quiet and peaceful, except for the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our host Mary, a Christian, is taking good care of us and is obviously well educated, as is her son Sunil, who spent 20 years living near Toronto. This time of year, Wayanad doesn't get much rain, although we have had a few showers. There is still a lot of green, but plants and trees look a little parched. It is also much hotter than I expected, quite different than the hill towns in Malaysia. Nights are fine, but afternoons get very warm.

On the first day we hired a car to take us around to some of the local sites. The first and most interesting place was a bamboo factory. It was run by an NGO, and there were several Nigerians studying building techniques with bamboo, which is also plentiful in their own country. Just by accident, we learned that this same NGO was building a nearby eco-resort, also out of bamboo. As it turned out, we had heard about this place from Henry, the Swiss architect, who was staying next to us on Thottada Beach. We had wanted to visit, and found it quite by accident. Though incomplete, a few of the basic structures were in place, which gave us a good idea of how it will eventually look.

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There is also a separate house, where the architects are currently living. It is quite an unusual design, looking vaguely like a Swiss A-frame with a Chinese twist. It is built directly over a small pond to keep the place cool in the tropical heat . Henry's idea.

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From there, we went to the "Wonder Caves," which didn't quite live up to its name. It is privately owned, and the proprietor more or less insisted on showing us every rock and plant on the mountainside, until we persuaded him to speed it up, and finally got to the top of a rocky outcropping with a fine view of the valley below.

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Then we rode 20K or so to a waterfall, which, despite the 1k walk to get there and the admissions charge, the place was packed with Indian families. It was, after all, a Saturday. Due to the crowds whooping and hollering, and most likely peeing in the water, the swimming did not seem inviting. It was a very Indian scene, with men in singlets and underwear, and women in full saris, standing or attempting to swim in a few pools of water underneath the falls.

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The drive back through tea plantations with Chambra Peak in the distance was the highlight of the day. The tea plantations have a different feel than those in Thailand and Malaysia, with their orderly rows. Here they are somewhat more chaotic, and the plants different shapes. Perhaps this is a statement about the Indian temperament, or maybe it is just because they grow different varieties of tea. Or both?

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Kalpetta is not a particularly attractive town, with the usual run down shops and potholed streets, along with a large assortment of auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks, by another name, as well as Tata trucks.

Even with the incorrect spelling, I couldn't resist this sign of an umbrella shop
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There are also hammer and sickle banners flying about in various spots, representative of the Communist Party, although they are no longer in power. There is clearly poverty here, but most everyone has enough to eat, and there are few beggars on the streets.

CP parade outside of town
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Yesterday we attempted a climb of Chandra, at 2200 hundred meters, the highest peak in this part of the Western Ghats. Unfortunately, we were told we could not go beyond the small heart shaped lake about half way up. We tried to sneak past the guards on two different occasions, but they caught us each time, after we got a little way up the treeless ridge line. Very visible I'm afraid. We were told that there are Naxalite terrorists higher up on the peak. This seemed completely absurd to all of us. Most likely someone got hurt higher on the mountain, and the local officials got blamed. They are obviously unprepared to launch any kind of rescue. They also told us not to go into the forest. Wild elephants might attack us.

Elephant forest in foreground, Chambra ridgeline in back
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While there were some other people around, it was still enjoyable to hang out by the small lake and dip our feet in, until we were told that that too was not permitted. It seems they are quite big on rules here in Wayanad. Whatever happened to good old chaotic India?

Hitesh wading in the pond
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The views were impressive, and the hour climb with maybe 500 meters of vert, gave us our first bit of exercise in two weeks.

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Today we decided to forgo the car, and set out across a tea plantation to see what was there, and to look for a small stream that both Mary and Sunil had mentioned. We walked up and up on a narrow road, getting hotter by the moment, but unfortunately the only stream we could find was barely a trickle at the edge of the forest. On the way back, we saw these school kids out on recess, and then managed to snag a tuk-tuk about half way down, to avoid some of the long walk back into town.

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The only liquor store in town is tucked away in a small alley, in a place we would never have found on our own. There was a long line, and of course, no women, but luckily we were able to send Nanette and Ruchi to the front of the line, simply because they were female. We have spent most nights imbibing beers, and gin with sprite, since there is no tonic available, and have discussed just about everything from politics to babies. One night we enjoyed an excellent tandori dinner in town, and last night Mary cooked a great meal with various local specialties, including a cucumber, coconut curry whose name I can't recall.

At the moment, I am sitting out on our terrace, and a nearby Hindu temple is playing some Hindi, or more likely Malayalam music (the language of Kerala), in an apparent attempt to one up the mosque. Our white noise machine has proved quite handy at night, while they are battling it out. Thank you Bill and Suzanne for this. We never leave home without it. Tomorrow we head out on a long car ride through the mountains and back to the Arabian Sea, to an area of northern backwaters, less touristy we are told than Alleppey, which is further south.

Now this last pic could very well turn out to be a collector's item. Somehow, when I uploaded the photo to my tablet from the camera, David Hasselhof, from Bay Watch fame, showed up in the background. We, of course, had no idea who he was, but later learned that it was some kind of April Fool's prank. Several photos were corrupted, but luckily I only uploaded a few on that particularly day.

Nanette, Ruchi, and yup, you guessed it, David Hasselhof
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Posted by jonshapiro 08:50 Archived in India Tagged waterfalls mountains people Comments (2)

Malaysian Borneo

We have just come back from a few days around and near Mt Kinabalu, a two to three hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters, it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. We gave some thought to climbing it, but the steep price tag put us off, as well as time restraints. It is a fairly serious undertaking, though not technical, with some 8000 feet of vert. Most people complete it in two days, although we met some young bucks who had managed it in one, partly in order to save money. It is also a bit dicey with the weather, as it is often socked in by rain and clouds that rise up from the tropical south China Sea.





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The area around it is very lush, as it is more or less a rain forest that sees precipitation on many days. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with tree ferns, enormous dipterocarp trees, many variety of orchids, rhododendrons, and even carnivorous Pitcher plants. One of these almost got my friend Debbie on the way in. (just kidding)

The four of us took some short hikes through the very dense forest around the perimeter.

We also had a bit of an adventure with our rental car. Bill tossed me the key, which I missed, and it fell to the ground. It had been taped together, and the two parts separated with the fall. After putting it back together, the car refused to start. It was getting dark and starting to rain. At first, we couldn't figure out the problem, but then realized it must have something to do with the "smart" key, which had become stupid, because of the tiny chip which had fallen out. With the help of park staff, we were able to call the rental car company in the city, who agreed to send someone to drive up into the mountains with the only spare. In the meantime, we were able to walk the mile back to the main road, where, just outside the park entrance, was a decent restaurant. After warming and filling up, we then walked to our guest house, luckily just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sure enough, later that evening our man showed up with the key, and gave us a lift back to the car. The next day, Nanette and Debbie returned to the scene, avoiding the Pitcher plants, and surprisingly, managed to find the chip. It worked fine after we reinserted it, but we noticed that the spare key was also taped together. Obviously, although the car itself was fine, the keys were not. Perhaps this was why the rental car company didn't give us an argument about having to drive up with another one. It had happened before.

Getting the car started enabled Bill and I to drive part way around the mountain to the Mesilou trail, which sees much less traffic than the main route. Our plan was to go for a long day hike and see how far we would get.



Bill on a bridge on the trail
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On the Mesilou trail
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It is very steep and muddy, with many ups and downs in both directions, gaining and then losing vertical, until the final pitch to a trail junction, where it meets the more heavily traveled path from the other side. Sensibly, with the near constant rain, Bill turned back before I did. I continued on through the gloomy cloud forest, which became increasingly stunted as I gained altitude. I made it most of the way up to the junction, before being turned back by drenching rains, and near white out like fog. On the return, I met a number of local kids who seemed like they had no business being on the mountain, given their lack of equipment, obvious inexperience, and hypothermia inducing weather.






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A rare sunny moment
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Mt. Kinabalu at sunset from a viewpoint near park entrance
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Before returning to Kota Kinabalu, we were fortunate to get a glimpse at the world's largest flower, the rafflesia. It blooms infrequently, and then only for a few days before decomposing. We just happened to be there at the right time.






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For our last day in Kota Kinabalu, Nanette and I went out to Sapi, a small offshore island, to do some snorkeling. Sitting next to us on the beach was a mother and her daughter, who are Chinese-Americans. The daughter, a lawyer, lives in Hong Kong, while her mother, a very spunky lady, our age, remains in Michigan. We quickly hit it off, and later went out to dinner with them and our friends, in the large, outdoor food market.

Vendors were furiously barbecuing everything imaginable, and an aromatic cloud of smoke hung over the market and extended out to the adjacent harbor. In very Chinese fashion, the mother quickly took charge, told us where to go, and which fish looked the best, even arguing with the cook about the exact ones she wanted and how fresh they were.




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Malaise in Malaysia

Overall, Malaysia has been a mixed experience. Perhaps this is because of the ethnic and religious divisions that are so much a part of life here. The Straits Chinese, roughly 20% of the population, tend to control much of the economy, and are largely Buddhist. Seven to eight percent of the population is Indian and Hindu, and they also have an outsize impact on the economy. Ethnic Malays, a somewhat diverse group themselves, are roughly 60% of the population. They are increasingly religious Muslims, and though they control the government, seem to resent the other two groups because they are generally poorer. In 1969 there were race riots in which several thousand people were killed.

On an individual basis, the Chinese and Indian Malayasians, seem to be reasonably cordial, if not that interested in getting to know us. However at a number of hotels, and not necessarily the cheapest, the service has been sorely lacking. Maybe this is because of ethnic tensions, but often the staff never offer to help with bags, and don't seem to have a clue as to how to treat guests. Our present hotel, Eden 54, in Kota Kinabalu, is a delightful exception, possibly because the owner was educated in the states.

Even some Malays have confirmed that the service industry is lacking. There seems to be some kind of problem with the work ethic and the educational system. One young man that I met while hiking on Mt. Kinabalu, an educated, ethnic Malay, told me he thought it had something to do with the colonial past, but I said to him that certainly the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians have even more reasons to be resentful, and yet they don't appear to be. Of course, they don't have the same ethnic divisions as Malaysia. He didn't respond to my comment, though he was very friendly and generous, and insisted on giving me a sandwich, because I had a long walk back and very little food.

These recent quotes illustrate some of the problems.

"The Malays have been left behind as they lack feelings of shame, discipline and are not hardworking, charged former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today. (Malaysian Insider, January 7, 2014.)

"The raid (of a Methodist church charity dinner) may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.

According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only the Malays may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, the Malays have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.

As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions. (Al Jazeera, Aug 25th 2013.)

A note to my loyal readers: This marks the end of last year's excursion, but stay tuned, because we leave for southern India on February 20th. I will be gone for three months, and as usual, will blog on my return, after taking copious notes and photos.

Posted by jonshapiro 14:26 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people Comments (2)

Tanah Rata, Malaysia

Making our way to the Cameron Highlands took the better part of the day, with a long hot layover in the scuzzy bus station of Ipoh.The town of Tanah Rata is not particularly picturesque, despite it lovely surroundings. They are building like crazy, and putting up huge high rise hotels and apartment buildings in between several obviously abandoned and half built edifices. There doesn't seem to be any restraint on where, how much, and how high, they can build. The streets are packed with vacationing Malays, as well as a fair number of western tourists. Despite this, it is still small enough to have a relatively relaxed atmosphere, and is full of good restaurants.



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We were fortunate to be in town to witness a Hindu celebration, with dancers decked out in full regalia, drummers, musicians, floats, and fruit and sweets given out to all.




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Photo by Bill Wertz
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This Caliban like figure was riding high in a float and blessing babies
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And the moon made it pure magic.

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For the past couple of days we have been happily encamped at Father's Guest House, which is a low key place largely for western backpacking types. Father, aka Gerard, picked us up from the nearby bus station. The staff here is the opposite of the Anjungan, friendly, and helpful.

As it was for the Brits ,who established this town as a tea growing hill station, the climate is positively bracing compared to the rest of lowland Malaysia. A very nice change for us northerners. Every day so far we have had some sun, mist, and late afternoon thunderstorms. We have gone on some enjoyable hikes on the extensive network of trails. In between, we have had some memorable meals, especially the Malaysian version of hot pot.

Yesterday was by far the most challenging walk, with a gain of at least 2000 steep and muddy vertical feet to the top.




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A little disappointing and anti-climatic, the summit had several building and an assortment of cell towers.



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We walked back down on a narrow road on the other side, past verdant tea fields and strawberry farms.




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The views across the steep fields were stunning, especially the sunlit rows of tea bushes against the black sky of an approaching thunderstorm.




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And the tea workers kept picking and planting until the last moments before the storm.

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We took shelter in a small Hindu temple not far from these houses, just as the rains hit.




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After a half hour or so we continued on through the mist, and ended up in the dead end of the Boh Tea Plantation, after having been directed down the wrong road. It was getting late, and we were a long way from town. Luckily, a Straits Chinese man offered to take one of us back to his hotel. The car was too full for him to take all of us , but 20 minutes later he returned for Bill, Nanette and I. We were then able to call a cab to take us back to Fathers. An altogether enjoyable day, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

The Malays have been a mixed bunch in terms of friendliness. Some, like the previous gentlemen, have gone out of their way for us, but others do not want to be bothered even to make contact. We have heard it has something to do with their work ethic, which seems to be lacking.


Another day, another hike, and we ended up in Tan's Camellia garden quite by accident.



Photo by Nanette
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I, of course, took this one.

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Yes, this is a pina, also in Camellia's garden
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Tomorrow we return to KL once again, where we will fly to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, for the final leg of our journey.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:13 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people photography Comments (3)

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