Thursday, 1 June 2017

In praise of the "second city"

Travellers often focus on tick lists of the most important destinations. Tuscany means Florence; Spain means Madrid and Barcelona; Portugal equals Lisbon; India is the 'golden triangle' (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).

But somehow I always seem to enjoy the second city rather more - the city that's overshadowed by its more famous neighbour. Second cities are generally a bit less touristed, but that's not the real difference. They seem, often, a bit richer in general interest, in streetscape and odd corners, as if not having to live up to top billing left them able to develop a richness and diversity that the more celebrated city doesn't have.

  • Siena, for instance, is a city I could wander all day. It has its sights - the amazing, incomplete Gothic cathedral with a Renaissance scholarly (and papal) library built into it, and the Piazza del Campo with its palaces, fountain, tower, and horse race - but my favourite places are odd corners like the Fontebranda, where Gothic arches reflect the dazzle of moving waters, or the squares where the contrade have set up statues of their emblems, or the canyon-like square at the back of the cathedral where I've watched young lads practising their flag-waving a month before the Palio. By contrast, Florence strikes me as a city with plenty of interesting sights but not much character. (And Siena has better ice cream, too.)
  • Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands once, a long time ago, and its soaring cathedral spire and elegant Renaissance palaces reflect its status. But that was a long time ago, and now it's just a rather nice large town, and all the better for it. Its Rubenses may not be as prolific or as good as those in Antwerp, but you can see them in completely deserted churches. Antwerp had wonderful bars, but in Mechelen I actually stayed in a brewery. And everyone in Mechelen has time for a chat, too.
  • In Morocco, tourists head for Marrakesh or Fez. But Meknes has a discreet charm that the larger cities lack. Like Mechelen, it has an imperial past - Moulay Ismail started huge building works here that would have more than rivalled Versailles - but its present is more laid back and low key. The mix of huge projects and unassuming neighbourhoods is rather wonderful.
  • Rajasthan attracts tourists to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. But while all these cities have wonderful sights, my favourite place is probably Bundi. The palace rises above the town; the fort rises above the palace; all this is reflected in a tranquil tank below; there are stepwells, and old havelis, and there's a samosa stand in the main street of the old town that starts frying at about seven in the morning, just as the keeper of the Jain temple opens up to start cleaning the idols... And there are some of the most delicate and lovely paintings in the whole of Rajasthan, showing scenes of the life of Krishna. And an excellent kulfi bar in the market down the hill.
  • Barcelona is a superb city. I love it. But Girona, a short train ride away, has so much to offer; hilly landscape. a marvellous cathedral, small Romanesque churches... maybe no Gaudi, but no hassle, either. And yet no one ever seems to go to Girona even if they spend a week in Barca. Why?
And finally... I'm a proud citizen of the fine city of Norwich. For some reason the guide books seem to suggest that it ranks somewhere between ninth and eighteenth of the UK's cities in terms of interest. This is a lie. Its cathedral is one of the best in the country, and the pairing of Norman castle and cathedral is unique - both built in the finest stone imported from Normandy; there are a couple of dozen medieval churches, there are cobbled lanes, there are a number of truly excellent pubs (including a two-time CAMRA national Pub of the Year) and two seriously good beer festivals (three now that the national Winter Ales festival has taken up residence); there's a great live music scene, and some marvellous shopping. But you don't want to go there, do you? Because it's not London, Oxford, or Cambridge... 






Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Personal packing lessons

I'm looking back at my travel diary from my first trip to India and find, at the back, a list of "lessons to learn" for packing for future long trips. It makes interesting reading.

  • Bring a torch. Power cuts when you're in the shower; roads that are unlit at night, even in major cities; architectural sites where the interior of temples is not well lit - a good small torch is a godsend. 
  • Buy an Indian mobile phone or SIM card on day one. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd done this. There's bureaucracy to get through... but it would have been worth it. Relying on Skype plus antiquated phone booths doesn't really cut the mustard.
  • Take a good roomy handbag, not a daypack. It's easier to access things on the go, it doesn't shout 'tourist' at quite such high volume, and with the exception of the occasional big hike like Parasnath or Mount Girnar, it's just as comfortable.
  • Make sure all the trousers and shirts you pack have pockets. This might not apply to everyone, but as a keen photographer I need somewhere to put a lens cap, a spare SD card, a filter, when I'm actively taking photos - having to put things back into a bag when you know you'll need them again in a minute or two is a nuisance. Either this, or pack a flak jacket with zillions of pockets ... but that's not a look that is particularly pretty.
  • Pack plenty of socks. I have big feet even for a European. In India and south-east Asia they are giantess feet, and almost impossible to buy socks for. Oh, and make sure they are cotton or wool, not poly. (Of course you can omit the socks completely and just wear flipflops. But in which case, Girnar might be a very uncomfortable trek indeed.)
  • Prescription specs or contact lenses? Pack the prescription. I was able to get a new pair of specs at short notice in Pune. I probably could have got an eye check if I needed to, but having the prescription made it easy for me to get a new pair quickly.
  • My jagbag was a lifesaver. Grubby sheets and blankets in Indian hotels are no problem when you have one of these silk sleeping bags; used as a bag liner they'll also keep you from having to wash a heavy sleeping bag (impossible to dry out afterwards!). After six months of nightly use mine did have to be mended in a couple of places by the tailor in Orchha, but then it just kept going... they really are tough.
To that relatively specific India list you can add the general packing tips I've learned in a long life of travelling. Bear in mind I'm a real hard little so-and-so; I spent three weeks in Iceland with carry-on luggage, and that included my tiny, 1kg tent, and I've spent three months in south-dast Asia with only a daypack. If you love your creature comforts these tips are possibly not for you.
  • Get organised and use a packing list. If you don't, you're sure to forget something. If you're flying, take a look at the relevant aviation authority/airport/airline websites to ensure your luggage is the right size and weight, and you don't pack anything that's going to be problematic or get confiscated. 
  • Sort out your priorities. As I'm a travel writer and photographer my key priorities are a good big notebook (yes, I still take notes by hand, and draw little pictures) and photographic equipment; I will travel with only one change of clothes rather than not take my best telephoto lens. Pentax kit in particular is very difficult to source when you're on the road. Your priorities might be different. I met one musician who takes a uke everywhere - whatever else has to go to make it possible.
  • Pack, take everything out, lay it out on the bed, throw as much as you can away, and repack. This may need to be an iterative process if you are really having difficulties getting everything into your bag.
  • Pack clothes that you can wear in layers, particularly if you're backpacking different climates.
  • Organise your stuff for easy access. I use waterproof bags (which is useful if I'm trekking across glacial rivers, for instance). Camera kit and tablet goes in one, underwear in another, toiletries and contact lenses in a third. I have another bag for paperwork,including maps, notebook, tickets. If I'm only staying one night somewhere I don't even need to unpack.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why I hated Ubud

I had wanted for a long time to go to Indonesia. I loved India; loved Thailand, loved Burma, found Laos frustrating but interesting. Indonesia surely would be another fascinating place to visit.

It wasn't. There were patches of joy; wandering the docks and fish market in Jakarta, the delights of Malang with its tea houses and little street food alleys, the high art of Borobudur, and a Buddhist temple where I stayed for free and drifted to sleep accompanied by the soft tones of a gamelan.

But Bali... the best moment was the sight of the island at sunrise from the ferry. Clouds louring over mountains on both sides of the channel, the grey water shot through with blood red. It never got any better.

Ubud, I was told, was not 'beach Bali', not full of shops selling sex-related t-shirts, not a place I'd find fish and chips and bargain booze. It was the centre of Balinese culture. Temples, art, noble houses, backyard shrines.

As it turned out the most fun I had was watching someone being burned.

First of all, half the temples are closed. Atmospheric enough views from the outside, but no way in. There's one that wants to charge you a ridiculously high amount of money to see it. Another is completely barred by railings. And what there is seems often to be four or five years old - there are new gurning monsters being added all the time, usually in concrete.

Secondly, the service standards are dire. You pay £15 a night - it's not dirt cheap - and you get somewhere that looks okay, but then you find there's no running water, and the attitude is either "You can go to another hotel to use the shower" (yes, but how do I flush the bog?) or "You didn't *ask* for running water, so it can't have been important". One hotel showed me the room and agreed a price - then there was no one there when I went back with my bags.

Getting around Bali is a nightmare in itself. There are tourist buses which cost the earth and which I never managed to book on to; they were always full. There are taxis. (And there are buses that tourists are never told about which the locals use, but of course they go from town centre to town centre and don't deliver you to the places you want to visit; it's as if there are two completely different transport systems, indeed two completely different islands.) Taxis have to be hired by the day, so this is really a backpacker haven where you need to budget £20 a day for taxis. Not, in other words, a backpacker haven at all.

I readily engage with the transport nightmares and discomforts of rural India because I can get to little towns where there's no tourist trade, where I can shop for fountain pens or visit local metalsmiths or spend time with little girls who show me how to walk under the big Nandi bull sculpture and make a wish, or tailors and pharmacists who engage in conversation about English cricket and English food. In Bali, you're just headed from one tourist trap to another.

I took the 'high walk' out of Ubud into the hills. Rice paddies, trees, fieldside shrines. It was nice enough, but I felt I was filling in time. This wasn't a real trek, like Girnar or Doi Suthep, it was a one hour out, one hour back stroll.

I hired a bike. It had a sharp spike sticking out of the saddle that nearly ripped my thigh open, till I stopped at a printshop and acquired enough duct tape to wrap the bike up. There's no signage on the roads, and while there are some places you can go along the flat, the corrugated landscape forces you to ascend and descend steeply if you go in the other direction, and the road is always slippery, so I came off at bends all the time. In the end I gave up.

I was having an utterly miserable time when someone said the one thing that makes anyone even more miserable.

"Where is your Bali smile?"


Oh yes. I'm supposed to be happy, because Bali makes you happy.

I twist my features into a rictus. When a dog 'smiles', it's growling. I feel much the same.

And the worst of it all? The worst thing, without a doubt, is the spirituality. Because, don'cherknow, Bali is a deeply spiritual place for spiritual people. It's got tantric massage, it's got reiki, it's got acupuncture and acupressure and it hits your spiritual aura right on the chakra; there are Buddhas and Shivas and kabbalistic letters and mandalas, dreamcatchers and crystals and horoscopes and copies of Nostradamus. It's the Aquarian age, dude, and you can get a t-shirt telling you that, too.

So this is all authentic Balinese tat, that you could buy in any new age shop anywhere on the planet. Dreamcatchers: Native American. But you can't buy sage, and there are no sweatlodges, and I doubt any of these spirituality teachers can tell a Cherokee from a Chippewa. The Buddhism on sale here doesn't seem to belong to any tradition, with smugly smiling Thai Buddhas next to Nyingmapa yab-yum sculptures; Buddha apparently says "chill out." (The real Buddha, faced with his imminent extinction, told his followers that they were each individually responsible for their own salvation, which is a long way from a generalised it's-okay-dude message.)

There are detoxes with increasingly nasty ingredients. There's massage everywhere, delivered by oily blokes, trim girls, and, sometimes, masses of tiy nibbling fish. (I'm English enough not to like being touched all the time, and that goes for massage, though I gladly make an exception for the large ladies of the Budapest bathhouses, who'll thump you, stretch you, and turn you out limp, limber, and sorted for the next few months. You wouldn't get that kid of massage in Bali.)

The nearest I got to real religious practice was the small temple behind the market, where I sat for half an hour or so and watched (mainly) women come with small trays of offerings, and light incense to the ugly brooding deities.

And then there was the cremation. I was wandering along a back street when I saw the tower; eleven storeys, I think, of bamboo and paper, reared into a fragile skyscraper on a bamboo raft. The mourners were already beginning to assemble, men in black-and-white check sarongs that look like malformed tartan kilts, women in embroidered blouses. One man held a suckling pig on a platter on his shoulder; he was smiling broadly and dancing on the spot. There was a big red bull with a big red pizzle, made out of velvet.

They started off; forty men or more holding each of the bamboo platforms, the tower and the bull swaying down the road. At each junction they turned the tower and the bull round and round, scattering the bystanders, confusing the dead man's spirit; every time they stopped a gamelan played, not the meditative classical gamelan of Yogyakarta but a noisy, rhythmic one that drove for faster and faster climaxes with all gongs ringing and drums bashing out the pulse, and then stopped, suddenly, as if something had broken. The tower nearly hit the electric cables that crossed the road; a new gamelan started up, since it's such sweaty work they were playing in relays.

Down the procession went to the cremation ground, in the 'monkey forest', but the monkeys had more sense than to get in the way. Suddenly the pace picked up; the men carrying the tower were moving at a run, the gamelan was banging away, there was a surge up the earthen pathway like a wave running up the beach. Then, just like the gamelan, they all stopped. We were here. Time for the rites; taking the coffin out of the tower, circling the bull three times with the coffin, taking the body out of the coffin and packing it into the bull, which had been made a few centimetres too short, necessitating a little wiggling and bending of the dead body before it would fit; anointing the corpse, packing the bull with offerings, chanting.

After this, if this were India, the eldest son would touch a burning straw torch to the kindling. But this is Indonesia, and here is progress; asbestos slabs were set up on either side of the coffin, and a huge gas burner roared into life. And at this point, everyone lost interest, and drifted off to what looked like a cross between a picnic and a prayer meeting, sitting on the floor between the slabs that mark the sites of earlier cremations.

And of it all, the thing I most clearly remember is an Italian tourist jumping up on to the bull so that he could stick his telephoto lens into the corpse's face. And (because I should be honest) my own selfish reaction, that I had missed the best picture of the day.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Indian sweeties, Italian pastry, and nuns' farts

One of the delights of travelling is being able to taste different countries' cuisines. If you have a sweet tooth (and I do) sweet shops and pastry shops are a particular temptation, and one definitely not to be resisted.

I remember getting up early in Pushkar and wandering down the still dim street leading towards the Brahma temple, as confectioners stirred their huge cauldrons of halva, and the sugary steam hazed the air. Sweeties are prasad too, a standard offering to the gods, who love them as much as we do. Stick around an Indian temple for a while and a small child will probably come up and press a sweetie or two into your hand.

Indian sweets are almost all milk-based - the cow is central to Indian culture and milk, cream, paneer and ghee are focal points of Indian cooking. I was pleased to see an identification guide to Indian sweeties recently; though it misses out wheat halva and carrot halva it's good on the various types of milky treat. Then many towns have their own specialities - a crescent of crunchy fudge in Chittorgarh, little dragee-style disks in Chanderi.

In Venice, I discovered a tiny pasticceria that made castagnaccio, a rich chestnut flour cake with a deceptive hint of chocolate. It's not a Venetian tradition so much as one from the Apennines, where chestnut trees spread their bright foliage across the mountain slopes. While you'll find panforte di Siena or Italian ice cream in many grocers outside Italy, castagnaccio seems to have refused to spread beyond its homeland.

Having discovered castagnaccio, I found plenty of other ways of using chestnuts - soups, chestnut and sage with pasta, chestnut risotto. Originally a cheap source of foraged food, the chestnut has become a luxury, but the recipes are still faithfully recreated.

The delights of French patisserie, of course, are well known. But besides the taste, there's a further amusement - the names of different cakes. For instance, the Paris-Brest, a sort of doughnut-shaped eclair filled with praline cream and scattered with toasted nuts and icing sugar, commemorates a cycling race - encapsulating at the same time the French frenzy for competitive cycling and the national affair with patisserie. There are langues de chat - cat's tongues, little tongue-shaped biscuits.

The ancien regime survives in religious cake names - the Jesuite (three-cornered like a Jesuit's hat, I'm told), religieuse ('nun', made of a small chou pastry ball on top of a larger one, filled with cream and topped with ganache), and, best of all, pets de nonne - nuns' farts.

 

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Slow Museum

A lovely article in the New York Times advocates 'slow' museum visits rather than the pressured "must-see" approach.

I particularly like the idea of a thirty second look at a work of art as equivalent to looking at a book jacket and claiming that you've read it. Actually *looking* at art or architecture rather than simply *seeing* it takes time, and it requires you to be actively engaged.

So regard a museum visit not as a snakes and ladders like race from the entrance to the exit, picking up a handful of renowned masterpieces en route, but as a more sophisticated game. In art galleries for instance you can play quite a few games besides those suggested in the article.
  • Spot the truly bad pictures. This is a silly game, but once you start thinking about just why those pictures are so bad, it's quite enlightening. It's particularly interesting when you can put together a pair of 'great' and 'pants' paintings - it's wha your smartphone's for.
  • Follow the pointing finger. So much art works on the basis of gestures - but what's really going on? What are the people in paintings pointing at and looking at? The answers are sometimes intriguing.
  • Find a massive picture with a lot going on, and start looking for the details. The cat hiding under the table. The man looking through a door in the background. The half-eaten apple on the table. The detailed painting of a lace ruff or a brocaded skirt. The cracks in the plaster on the wall. The way the light hits the edge of a cup.
  • The eyes have it. Find portraits whose eyes really challenge you or inspire interest. Look at how the eyes are painted - the highlights, the hollows, the eyelashes, the colours, how they relate to the rest of the painting. Think about how the treatment of eyes has changed through art history. Take a photo of just the eyes. Would you recognise the painting from it?
 In the museum:
  • Explore the small rooms with not many people in. Get acquainted with the intimate side of life - ancient Egyptian toys in the British Museum, a whole case full of medieval locks and keys in the Musee de Cluny. Sometimes you get closer to a culture this way than looking at the grandiose statues of Pharoahs or huge altarpieces.
  • All the angles - look at the big artefacts from different perspectives. A worm's eye view, a sideways view, close up or from further off. Each different view will give you a different appreciation of what you're looking at.
  • The mechanics - how was a thing made? how did it work? thinking about these questions can deepen your knowledge. For instance, how was a Roman mosaic laid? what colour did the mosaicist start with? how fast could he work? (I found out recently that some mosaics came ready-made, laid out on a substrate, ready to be installed.) Just taking the time to look hard at an early clock and work out how the gearing of the time train operates gives you an understanding of the subject you can't get from books.

Above all, give a great museum its time. It's so easy to think if you're in Paris, you have to visit all the museums and pack four or five into a day. All the newspapers and magazines, all the tour operators, all the guide books will tell you to do this. Bugger that. It's like going to a Chinese buffet and simply piling food down your gullet without tasting it at all.

Either spend your first day sampling museums, then go back to the one you found most interesting - or simply decide you will see two that you have a particular interest in. Like medieval art? Never mind the Louvre - head for the Musee de Cluny and spend all day in the middle ages, then spend a day looking at Notre Dame, the Sainte Chapelle and a couple of the oldest churches in the city. Into modern art? Then head for the Musee d'Orsay and the Beaubourg, and if you have time add the Branly for an insight into the different art of other societies, which influenced many twentieth century artists and helped them challenge tradition.

Remember, too, that revisiting can be even more of a pleasure than your first visit. I've been visiting the British Museum for ... well, I think it must be more than thirty years now, and there are still whole galleries I haven't visited, as well as a good few exhibits that I now regard as old friends.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Slow travel and the art of context

I have a friend who has 'done' India. Taj Mahal, check; Jaipur, Amber, check; Red Fort, Delhi, check.

Well, there are several responses to that. Apart from the fact that the 'Golden Triangle' isn't India, and that he hasn't seen a single decent Hindu temple, or any of India's Buddhist heritage, he's missed all the enjoyable small towns - Orchha, Mandu, Bundi...

But I think the biggest problem with that kind of speedy highlights-only travel is that you miss out the context. Even with the Taj Mahal, there's a whole load of context that people miss. For instance, the tiny but elegant tombs of two of Shah Jahan's other wives that occupy matching corners near the entrance (one is now used as a depot for bits of old stonework, carpentry tools and other maintenance essentials, though I managed to wander in while the gate was open); who knew that Mumtaz Mahal wasn't the only one?


But there are other contexts, too. For instance, visiting the tomb of the first and arguably the greatest of the Mughals, Akbar, is instructive; it's a massive, brutal pile, with strange little chhattris stuck on top, creating a weirdly turretted silhouette as well as mixing Hindu and Muslim architecture in the typically eclectic style of this multicultural monarch. Nothing in it prefigures the Taj - except for its lovely gardens, quartered by causeways in the Mughal style, and now home to tiny tame squirrels with tails like licorice allsorts, and elegant antelopes. The fountains of the Taj Mahal are silent, and the only noise you hear in the gardens is that of tour groups - it's in Akbar's gardens, surrounded by young courting couples who come to feed the squirrels, that you understand why the Mughals saw the garden as an image of Paradise.

Wander around the back streets of Agra and you find other Mughal tombs, much smaller, and in the typical red sandstone of the area rather than the tremendously expensive white marble of the Taj. But in every case, the geometry is the same; a square or octagon with a done, within a containing wall. Some are locked up behind chicken wire, others open to visit; one is full of feral cats. None of them are worth the air miles on their own - but once you've seen them, you understand the ideas behind the Taj, the earth, so to speak, from which it springs. And its genius then seems even more amazing.


You don't need weeks to take this approach; visiting every Mughal monument of note in Agra would take three or four days. Not everything you see will be a highlight; but you'll understand the highlight much more once you do finally see it. (I was quite glad my first three days in Agra were filled with freezing fog; it made the Taj all the more impressive once the skies cleared.)

But the other thing that's wrong with a 'highlights' tour is that if you're not careful, you miss some of the flavour of the country. I know well the sheer size of India, having taken a two-day train from Mumbai to Kolkata and another stunningly long journey from Chennai up the coast to Bhubaneshwar. It was boring in some ways, enlightening in others - a chance to talk to Indian MBA and engineering students going back to university after the vacation - but above all it instilled in me an appreciation of the immensity of the country, and the way everyone always seems to be on the move. Taking the toy train in Sikkim is more interesting to a railway buff, but it doesn't give you that insight into India.

So, suppose you have only three weeks to 'do' India? Be mindful of the context. Give yourself enough time to know one place properly; get a bicycle and wander around Hampi and Anegundi, or settle down in Leh and hike the surrounding hills and gardens, or just get a hotel room on the ghats in Varanasi and start wandering. You'll learn far more about India that way than just seeing the highlights.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Three sparse cultures

England is very rich. By which I mean not that GDP is high or that everyone's got millions, but that it has a very rich and diverse flora and fauna almost everywhere. Look around Norwich and you'll see flint, brick, thatch, tile, wood, all used in different ways on different buildings; look at traditional foods and you'll see cheeses, meats, different vegetables and cakes and breads. Lots of diversity. France, where I spend a lot of time, is the same; around us in Eure-et-Loir there are huge fields of wheat and barley, but also miscanthus (for biofuel and compost), beef and dairy cattle, goats, colza (for oil) and strips of apple trees (traditionally for cider). Variety is the spice of life.

Sparse cultures are very different. They grow up in marginal lands, where the terrain or the climate (or both) prevent there being such a rich variety of foodstuffs and building materials. Sparse cultures have a very strong flavour; and I rather love them. They're under threat, sometimes from globalisation and the introduction of a cash economy which doesn't match traditional life, sometimes (as on Formentera) from high property prices which make a traditional lifestyle with its small scale agriculture uneconomic.

Formentera is a marvellous island. It's rocky and sandy, hot, dry, has no snakes (only tiny iridescent green and blue lizards), is less than 20 km long. It was an island contested between Arabs and Catalans for years, and Arabia has left a few influences - notably the mixture of mint and sugar in the traditional flao (cheesecake).

Of course there were always fish - hung up to dry on driftwood poles. The smaller boats were run up little wooden slipways into ramshackle boathouses. Inland, farming was only made possible by engineering the land so that rain runs off from rocky bare areas into cisterns, one for each house - tiny whitewashed cubes that are one of the characteristics of the island. The houses, each with a little porch, sometimes with towers, are also whitewashed; rarely more than a single storey high, and rough-hewn in their looks.

In a sparse culture, things have to do double duty. So the fig tree is not allowed to grow as it likes, as it might in the South of France, and just produce figs. It's trained into a huge umbrella, with its branches supported on planks, so that livestock can shelter from the sun under its fragrant shade.

Unfortunately Formentera is now becoming an overspill for Ibiza. People are building ranch-style, chalet-style, horrible Eurotrash houses and demanding that the traditional house gets made over into a hotel-style apartment with eau de nil accents and a spa-style bathroom. But some of the local residents still manage their small mixed fields of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and (next to the house) flowers, and the prickly pear still grows wild, though somehow, I've never managed to be on the island for the prickly pear season.

Ladakh is all about making oases in the high altitude desert. Fields are scooped out of river valleys; sometimes terraced, but never in the extreme way you'd see in the Philippines or Indonesia - this terracing is just about making the best of gentle slopes. Willow and poplar grow around every village and are the main building materials apart from rock; tamped willow rods form borders around the top of the wall, while the poplar provides beams. There are apricot trees, and dried apricots are one of the staples; otherwise, it's grain, with a short growing season, and whatever you can get to grow in the vegetable patch. And there's yak butter - milk doesn't keep, I suspect - to put in your tea, and there's beer made with fermented grain, and that's about it. It could get very boring. But somehow there's an intrinsic joy to Ladakhi life that stops it becoming monotonous.

Oman is the last of the three sparse cultures I've visited. Rocks and sea and sand; that's about it, unless you go as far as Dhofar with its frankincense trees and dripping khareef monsoon season. Rocks and sea and sand, and mostly rocks.

The traditional Omani building material is dirt. Huge forts were built with mud brick walls, and a new coat slapped on every few years to protect the fragile material against wind and (infrequent) rain: where buildings have been left uninhabited and unaided, they start to slump and sag, and eventually become just piles of dirt.

Roofs and ceilings are made of palm tree branches and palm leaves. Dates make oil as well as being a staple snack. The palm tree, omnipresent in every oasis, is used in every way possible, for building, eating, even for killing your enemies by pouring boiling oil on them from the fortress battlements (although no one does that any more).

The oasis uses the palms to shelter lower growing crops; but a lot of the space is used up growing greens for livestock. A system of waterways, the falaj, carry water from the high mountains down to the oases, and sluices give every field and every farmer fair division of the water. (Many of the falaj are now being replaced by black plastic tubing, but the system remains pretty much the same.) High efficiency, dense agriculture, but limited in its scope and locations.

Then there's coffee, which doesn't grow in Oman but is every Bedouin's invariable beverage. Three cups to welcome a guest. Always kept in a big thermos, to be ready for guests at any time. Coffee with cardamom - because Oman is a sparse culture with a surprise: it was on the trading routes from India to East Africa, and even, at one time, owned Zanzibar, so spices became part of its DNA.

And, for perhaps the same reason, or perhaps because there are so many Indian and other subcontinental guest workers in Oman, the national dish of choice nowadays appears to be chicken biryani.

By contrast, India is another rich culture (obviously, with the exception of Ladakh). Whatever it is, India has a diversity of it - religions, languages, climates, styles, foods. And yet... it's still India, still indefinably, inevitably, unmistakably India. But I'd better leave that to another post...