Saturday, 30 April 2011


Ancient Greeks would have been better to have thought of this area of the Himalayas near Pokhara as their home of the gods. Mount Olympus has got nothing in comparison. Three of the world’s top 10 tallest peaks lie here, dramatically rising over 7,000 metres. Here, it is believable that gods and beasts lurk in the high peaks that cast a shadow over the city. At the same time, the mountains line its pockets from the many travelers who come here to trek or just enjoy its tranquility. Until the 1960s, the only way to get here was by foot, making it even more of a notable and mystical getaway than the Kathmandu beloved by followers of the Hippie trail, and in the face of mass tourism, it still retains some of that mysticism. There is the lake and the mountains and the legions of Tibetan refugees who have made this part of Nepal their home, most of whom live in four refugee camps around Pokhara, each with their own schools, monasteries and temples. While the road for travelers is much easier than it used to be, getting here still has its difficulties. You go on buses that only just justify the name that lurch through canyons, perilously close to the edge of huge chasms, along roads that are only barely just roads, one-laned, tight cornered, pot-holed graveled behemoths that test drivers and better quite a few based on the vehicular carcasses that line the road.

Graffiti on the wall at one of the Tibetan settlements we visited.
It’s an adventure getting here and adventure is to be had here. While a large part of the lure of Pokhara is based on trekking, an increasing number of tourists come to enjoy the other adventure sport opportunities offered in the area. Paragliding is one of the more prominent and popular activities on offer, giving you the feel of a latter day Icarus, but one who is confident in the fact that their wings won’t melt as you soar high into the sky. Most of the paragliding ventures start off from a viewpoint known as Sarangkot (a trifling sized hill at 1,600 compared to the monoliths in the area). The views are stupendous, over the lake and over to the mountains. But we didn’t go up for the views, no, we were going to run and jump off a cliff (luckily, we went tandem and my guide was an experienced paraglider from Britain who followed the thermals worldwide). It seems absurd to jump off a cliff, supported by nothing other than a few belts and buckles and thin, plastic wings. I guess it is no less or no more absurd than jumping off a bridge with rope tied around your ankles or jumping out off a plane, both things I had previously. Adventure sports all have their quirks, especially when it comes to feelings of danger. As we approached the edge, last minute instructions and last minute equipment checks done with, I could only think to myself in a type of mantra, feet don’t fail me now. My fear was that I would face plant myself on the ledge. Embarrassment inspired more emotion than possible death.

Last minute check or maybe regret.
Once I had ascertained that I had made it off the cliff, it took me a few moments to relax. Unlike skydiving where you rather sedately came to ground after your freefall is halted by the opening of the parachute, paragliding is all about fighting gravity, trying to stay up in the air as long as possible, using wind and knowledge to accomplish this end. You are only held on to your guide and therefore the glider by a few buckles, your feet dangling precariously below you, houses, terraced farmland and trees far beneath you and getting further away, the lake and mountains in the distance. You know that children are watching you from the ground but you are so far up that they are barely visible. It’s quiet up here, just the chatter of your guide, the occasional rustle of the wings of your glider, a creak from the strings tensed against our combined body weight. The only thing keeping us up in the sky, beside the skill of the guide and the seemingly thin sheet of brightly coloured plastic, are the thermals, warm air rising up from the earth. The thermals were weak this time of year, meaning that we had to do tight circles to get enough lift. These tight circles led me to wish that someone had warned me beforehand that paragliding can give you a serious case of nausea. Six weeks traveling through India and Nepal hadn’t exactly done wonders for my stomach (although I did get to know the bowel motions of my sympathetic and similarly stricken travelers quite well).
The Himalayas.
Birds of prey, eagles, kites and vultures utilize the same thermals. Some companies have pioneered the use of raptors in their paragliding, in a twist known as parahawking. People can fly with specially trained birds (Egyptian vultures and Black Kites); feeding them strips of meat when the bird alights upon them in mid-air. However, our company wasn’t in that line of business but sometimes in life and in travel, you get lucky. After all, up here, maybe 2000, maybe 5,000 feet off the ground, we are in the raptor’s environment. From up here, they can glide effortlessly, taking their chance to snatch up birds from the air or mammals from the ground. There are some big birds floating around up here, steppe eagles, griffon vultures, birds with huge wingspans. One griffon vulture seems to not know we are here or maybe it’s playing chicken. Either way, it seemed to take all the skill of my guide to just avoid a mid-air collision between avian and glider.

Griffon vulture.
After a while, my guide let me have a go controlling the glider, turning sharply to the left, to the right. He then does a few tricks, which unfortunately, play tricks on my stomach. 30 minutes of daredevilry has me wanting more but has also resulted in quite a nasty upset stomach. I want more but I don’t. It’s a smorgasbord of want and desire. Anyway, my time has to end and after almost entirely mangling my landing, I’m on solid land again.
About to hit terra firma.
I can look up and admire the heights from which I descended, admire paragliders still in the sky who are feeling the same emotions as I did. This is one hell of a way to enjoy one of the most impressive places on Earth. For a while, it seemed as if I had the power of flight, high above places that even Gods should fear to tread.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


The area we were staying in in South Africa reminded us of where we come from in New Zealand; lush, green hills as far as the eye can see used by dairy and sheep farmers. The difference here is that sheep farmers face real threats, both human and animal. Caracals, jackals, hyenas and maybe even leopards are still in the area. Lambs and sheep make an easy target for these creatures. Sheep are also conveniently sized for human poachers, you can strap a sheep onto your back but it’s hard to do that with a dairy cow. It was Christmas Eve as we set out for Lesotho, and signs written in Zulu hung from some of the farm gates expressing the availability or not of Christmas lambs.
The order of the day was to take a trip into Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. Lesotho is made up almost entirely of Basotho people, 99.7% of people identify as being Basotho, making Lesotho one of the more homogeneous countries in the world. As well as being breathtakingly beautiful (admittedly an impression made from only three hours in the country), it is extremely poor with many of the population surviving on less than a buck 50 a day. HIV is endemic, with the prevalence at around 23%, one of the highest in the world. Many of Lesotho’s most notable facts relate to its geography. It is a geographical curiosity, given that it is entirely landlocked by South Africa and as such is the southernmost landlocked country. For the record, it is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1,400 metres (4,593 ft) in elevation. Its lowest point of 1,400 metres (4,593 ft) is the highest lowest point for any country (if that makes sense). Over 80% of the country lies above 1,800 metres. It may surprise you that South Africa didn’t swallow up Lesotho but it wasn't (some would say it was saved) because they were a crown colony of Britain, rather than being administered by either the Cape colonial government or by one of the Boer Republics. It remained a colony until its independence from Britain in 1966. Of course, its economy remains closely linked to South Africa’s, with water sold to that country and the remittance of workers (both legal and illegal) from South Africa, are both major contributors to Lesotho’s economy. However, the agricultural sector is still the biggest player in Lesotho.

To get there, our first port of call was to go to the Sani Pass Hotel, where we would meet up with Ruan, our guide and driver for the day. You can’t drive yourself, at least not in a sedan. The way to Lesotho from this part of Kwazulu-Natal is via the Sani Pass, a treacherous 9km stretch of road that winds through the Drakensberg mountains, in a no-mans land between the South African and the Lesotho immigration that sane people say requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle and a lot of nous to navigate it (Luckily, Ruan was behind the wheel of a pretty robust looking Land Rover). The Sani Pass is the highest road in Africa and is reputably the third highest anywhere in the world, rising to 3,000 metres above sea level.

Many rivers to cross.
We set off along the bumpy track that was only going to get bumpier. Fortunately, in Ruan, we had an experienced driver who probably drove the Sani pass in excess of 100 times a year. He could navigate past potholes that looked like meteor strikes and ruts that looked like the handiwork of giant earthworms. At the South African border, we handed our passports over to Ruan. He took care of the formalities, leaving us to mingle with some migrant workers going home for the holiday season. If we thought our conditions were cramped, these guys were much worse off. 15 or so people in a van filled to the brim with gifts and luggage can’t have lead to a pleasant journey up the pass.

Waiting at the SA immigration office.
After the immigration office, the road got progressively worse, the incline steeper. The Sani Pass was created following the trail made by pack animals carrying goods into Lesotho from South Africa that in turn were made by following the migratory paths of animals etched out over centuries. It was finally extended into its only just vehicle friendly nature in the 1940s. We forded small streams, gazed up at waterfalls and took in the scenery of the Drakensbergs, one of South Africa’s prime nature spots and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We could make out our destination, the top of the Sani Pass, someway off in the distance. Here and there, birds would flit past, rollers and sunbirds, birds of extravagant colours and ridiculous tails. We were on the look out for bearded vultures, a rare bird in this region now. We stopped at one lookout, where we found a hyena track and saw some shy baboons, far removed from the inquisitive and aggressive beasts we had seen on the Cape peninsula. Leopards had been spotted recently but there was to be no such feline sighting for us. Proteas, the strangely beautiful flower that serves as a symbol for South African sports teams post apartheid, grew here. We were buffeted with fierce winds, an indication that we were getting some elevation and that we were trapped in a wind tunnel of a valley where the weather could be capricious. Ruan took us around every rut, through well-worn paths that I’m sure tested him and would have exposed the inexperienced driver. Towards the top, we climbed via a succession of kickbacks, going past one of the overloaded vans we had seen earlier (gear on the side off the road, people presumably taken in other vehicles in an attempt to get home before Christmas). At another point, we passed the remnants of a long broken down SUV, and passed another that had seemed to have overheated on the way up. Despite the sharp corners, Ruan managed to take them all in one go, which given their sharpness, it wouldn’t have been a loss of face if he had had to resort to a couple of attempts to get around some of them. It was both a relief and a disappointment to reach the top, although I didn’t fear for my life as my companions did. I’m not sure if that is a sign of strength or stupidity.

She's steep alright.
At the top of Sani Pass was the Lesotho immigration office, which consisted of a solitary, small building with Immigration, Welcome to Lesotho daubed on its white wall in black paint. It didn’t need to be high-tech. Lesotho doesn't attract huge numbers of tourists and the Sani pass is a hell of a way to get into a country. After a quick pit stop, toilet break and obligate photo under the Sani pass sign, we continued our journey on into Lesotho, known affectionately as the roof of Africa. We went past a small village, past a school building donated by Canada. The biggest building was the large, communal shearing shed. Agriculture is definitely the king here, and sheep farming is the trump card. In fact, 75% of the population of Lesotho is still rural. We passed shepherds who watched over their flocks, the sheep grazing without boundaries. Ruan said that the shepherds just had to obtain the consent of local chiefs to graze and that the annual movements were often repetitive, flocks following the same route year after year. The shepherds were young men, some orphans, willing to work for little, often to help buy off family debt. They were dressed in gumboots and all of them carried the traditional Lesotho blanket for warmth. 

Shepherds, sheep and a dog.
Shepherd with a sick sheep.

Some of them had fierce looking dogs with them, who looked like long haired golden labs on steroids, bred both to herd sheep as well as protect the flock from predators and poachers. We drove past one shepherd who was walking down the road carrying a sick sheep to who knows where. We drove for about 10 kilometres, until we found a spot to enjoy our packed lunch. From here, we could see for miles around, including the peak of the tallest mountain in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3,482 metres. I went for a walk but soon turned back, the strong head wind made progress difficult and cut through my flimsy coat.  Some of the shepherds noticed us and we watched them approach us from a distance, their long, languid strides eating up the difficult terrain, their blankets flowing from their shoulders in the strong wind. When they reached us, they initiated in conversation using those universal travelers questions, where are we from, how long would will be in the country, how old were we. We chatted for a few minutes, they showed us their cell phones (it always surprises me the spread of modern technology) and we gave them some rand and some food as a gesture of Christmas goodwill. I’m always a bit wary of giving money to individuals, preferring to give it to charities, but these guys live a lonely life in a pretty hostile environment and deserved a helping hand.  
Our three wise men on Christmas Eve.
After this, we got back into the truck and headed back towards the pass. Just before we arrived there, we stopped at a small village comprised of about 5 houses, all in the round Rondavel style, made from mud, stones and dried dung. The round lines help protect it against the strong winds that have seen many Western style houses crumple. Some older looking shepherds were hanging around, looking cozy in their traditional blankets. School aged children were reading or studying, the older ones helping the younger ones, with their reading. Pre school children were playing with what pass for toys here, rocks and an old 1.5 litre Coke bottle. The contrast between these children and the children of the family we were staying with in South Africa was immense. Our hosts children, while not spoilt, had toys to play with, books to read, DVDs to watch. In Lesotho, the children played with trash because they didn’t have toys to play with. We wondered why toys and books hadn’t been brought up from South Africa but in the end, South Africa has its own social problems to deal with and many of the children there would be no better off than the children we saw in Lesotho.

Kids reading.
We went into the front rondavel where we met a young lady who gave us some bread (very delicious) cooked over a dung fire and some alcohol (not so delicious, it reminded me of bad rice wine). We chatted with her, with Ruan acting as interpretator. We admired her radio, powered by solar panels. We traded some South African rand for Lesotho loti, bought some bread from her and purchased some cheap handicrafts. Ruan told us later that of the several companies who stop by the village, his is the only one that gives money to the villagers. All of the other companies exploit the villagers, adding to the authenticity of the tourist’s trip but give nothing back in return. The villagers (the ‘host’ for the day rotates among the woman who live here) just hope that the tourists will buy something. Sometimes they don’t, which means that they lose money from the bread they have baked. I found it shocking that tour companies didn’t pay any money to these people whose life was intruded upon so tourists could feel validated. We paid a not insubstantial sum of money to visit Lesotho and it made me sick that other companies didn’t feel the need to pass some of that money on to people who really need it.
Dung fired bread.
Last stop in Lesotho was the Sani Pass Chalet. The Sani Pass Chalet is said to be the highest pub in Africa, 3,000 metres up.  The views make that claim easy to believe, as you look back down into South Africa back down the pass, over the Drakensbergs and further out to what I imagined could well have been the Indian Ocean coast. It’s certainly the highest altitude where I’ve enjoyed a beverage, a Maluti beer, one of Lesotho’s finest.

Enjoying a bevvie at Africa's highest pub.
On the way back down the pass, Ruan mentioned how there are now plans afoot to tar the road. The reasons given are mainly for the benefit of trade and commerce between the two countries, although given the steepness and windiness of the road, big trucks would find it impossible to make it up. I’m sure that the Taxi van drivers would sure appreciate a tar road. Opponents of the tar scheme feel that it will degrade the road and the environment and make the icy winter conditions even more treacherous than they are now.  However, as a tourist, I appreciated the remote of the place and the difficulty of the drive. However, tarring would take away something of the wonder and sense of accomplishment (however shallow that sentiment is seeing as you were just a passenger in a vehicle) from reaching the top. Given that the project was supposed to start in 2006 and hasn’t yet, there might be a reprieve to tourists who want to brave this pass. The drive and Lesotho are worth it.

Monday, 18 April 2011


While I’m not religious, religion interests me. What I miss out on in spiritual understanding, I feel I gain from observing without prejudice, whether it is art, song or written expression being used to illuminate particular religions or philosophies like Buddhism. Throughout Asia, Buddhism is a major influence even in places where its significance has waned. The place where Prince Siddhartha Gautama (later known as Buddha) found enlightenment is far from Lumbini, Nepal where Buddha was born and spent the first part of his privileged life. After renouncing his position and status, he traveled south into India, where at a village now known as Bodhgaya, he found enlightenment while meditating for three days and three nights under a fig tree. This tree was later to be called the Bodhi tree, perhaps the most famous tree in the world. After enlightenment, he is said to have spent several weeks in the area, the first spent meditating under the tree, the second spent standing and staring at the Bodhi tree as a way of giving thanks for the shelter it gave him during the process of enlightenment. The tree and surrounding area now rank as the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.

Monks meditating in Bodhgaya
250 years later, Ashoka, the great Indian emperor, who was the first person to rule over most of latter-day India and a convert to Buddhism, visited the site and erected the Mahabodhi Temple, marking the spot of enlightenment. Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism ensured that the followers of Buddha and important Buddhist sites were protected. The temple at the site now dates from the 5th-6th Century AD, although a great deal of reconstruction happened in the 19th Century after it fell into disrepair following the Muslim invasions and subsequent decline in Buddhism in India. After seeing some of the ornate Hindu and Jain temples of Rajasthan, or the Sikh’s Golden Temple at Amritsar or even the erotic temples of Khajuraho, Mahabodhi is distinctive for its basic design. The brazen sheets of gold that top temples in Thailand or Myanmar are not for it. It’s as if the significance of the site means that it can be understated, more notable for its sharp architectural lines than for over the top ornamentation so common to temples in the region.

The elegant Mahabodhi Temple.

Nowadays, Bodhgaya is a village of approximately 30,000 people that seems solely to exist to serve the pilgrims and other interested visitors. The people of Bhutan, China, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam have built other temples, statues and monasteries. These buildings reflect the architectural style and decoration of their respective countries, adding a dash of colour and exoticism to Bodhgaya. Similarly, there are a number of foreign restaurants, meaning you can try something other than Indian or the staid foreign food choices that seem to be shared by every budget hotel in India.

Gift from the Japanese people.

Shaved headed monks and nuns in saffron, maroon, brown. yellow, grey or black robes from Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, as well as the occasional European monk, conspicuous in their rarity, walk slowly through the town, holding prayer beads and playing with prayers wheels. Many will visit their home countries temple but the big draw card remains the Mahabodhi temple and the Bodhi tree, a lightening rod for monks, many of whom sit in contemplation or lie prostrate on the ground, hoping that the location and their dedication will improve their piety. I’ve read that laying as low as possible before a sacred object is of great importance in Buddhism. There are boards beside the temple that are used by the monks to pray. Often, they say a mantra or say a pray with their arms raised towards the sky, before lunging down onto the board, arms in front of them like they are performing some sort of cosmic breaststroke before standing to repeat the process again and again and again.

Monk near the Mahabodhi temple.
Of course, with religion, comes disputes and the Mahabodhi Temple is no different. Hindus contend that a) because Buddha is said to be a reincarnation of Vishnu and b) because a pedestal that some say is actually a Shiva lingam, some Hindus believe that they should be allowed into the temple to pray. It is not impossible that the temple was made up of remnants from Hindu temples. The mosque in Ayodhya destroyed by an angry Hindu mob in 1992 was believed to have been built on the foundations of an old Hindu temple. Buddhists do argue that the pedestal is actually the base of a Buddha statue and that claims that Buddha was a reincarnation of Vishnu are Hindu attempts to express primacy of their religion over Buddhism.

No helping some people, no enlightenment here.
The history of the Bodhi tree is even more complex than that of the temple. Ashoka (remember him, the emperor) held a festival to honour the tree every year. Legend has it that one of his wives grew jealous of this inanimate object and ordered its destruction (using poisonous mandu thorns). Fortunately, seedlings or cuttings had been sent to Sravasti, India (done when Buddha was still alive) and to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where a cutting was planted in 288 BC by one of Ashoka’s daughters. The original at BodhGaya may have survived its prickly attack (or a tree may have been replanted using cuttings from either Sravasti or Anuradhapura

This tree at the Sri Mahabodhi temple in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is grown
from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya.

The tree in Sri Lanka grows at the Sri Mahabodhi Temple in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of the island country, where Buddhism is still the predominant religion. It is said to be the oldest angiosperm in the world and is definitely the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Grown from a branch of the original Bodhi tree, it looms large over the Sri Maha Bodhi temple, a white washed temple replete with prayer flags and written messages. Languid langur monkeys look over the temple walls as throngs of people move around the hot sand in bare feet. The temple but more so the tree, was looked after even during the Tamil occupation of Anuradhapura. Unlike in Bodhgaya, where people were prostrating themselves, the Sri Lankan counterpart had a more peaceful vibe. Here, families had gathered, some chilling in the sun, others taking advantage of the shade that the old tree offers. We certainly enjoyed the shade that it gave us from the hot Sri Lankan sun, heat exasperated by the hiring of bikes to get ourselves around the sprawling site. Cuttings and seedlings from this tree have found their way to many temples around the world, meaning that the original Bodhi tree will live on in some state for a long time to come. But just as these cuttings are slightly different from the original, no temple I have been to quite matches the intensity of feeling that Mahabodhi temple has. Here, voyeurs mingle with pilgrims, who stand in the spot their spiritual guide once stood around 3000 years previously, many hoping to undertake a similar thinking metamorphosis as Buddha himself did. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011


On the eve of Sachin Tendulkar’s hundred hundred (it’s been a long eve, 22 innings and counting) and coming after India’s memorable and deserved World Cup win, there has been a distinct push to anoint him as the world’s greatest ever batsmen. Not best now, or most prolific or best in the last 20 years but best ever batsman, the Greatest Of All Time. Of course, in any discussion of this nature, the white elephant in the room will always be Sir Donald Bradman, the owner of the game’s most famous batting average (99.94), the player that Tendulkar may have usurped in the eyes of many. Recently, this push has not only come from his adoring Indian public but also from fellow Australians. In a book published that collated the views of test cricketers concerning the greatest Australian XI, no fewer than 4 ex-players decided not to include Bradman in their team at all. Reasons for his non-inclusion included his dressing room divisiveness (it’s fair to say that he wasn’t universally loved by his team-mates) while some cited concerns that he would have struggled in today’s game.  I’m sure that these four were much better cricketers than myself but that doesn’t mean that their views are correct. In my mind, this is an incredulous decision. For me, Bradman remains firmly ensconced on his throne as greatest of them all. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why Bradman deserves to maintain his crown and why Tendulkar has to be content with playing second fiddle. 

Tendulkar and Bradman.

Reason # 1 Hundreds per innings
Tendulkar has scored 51 test centuries (and another 48 in ODI cricket, a format of the game that wasn’t around when Bradman played). This is far and away the greatest number of test centuries scored, 11 more than Jacques Kallis from South Africa and 22 more than Bradman. However, Bradman scored his hundreds in only 80 innings (it took Tendulkar 159 innings to score his first 29 hundreds). Bradman scored a hundred in 36.3% of his innings, at double the rate of any of the other players who have 29 or more centuries (Tendulkar is next best, scoring a hundred in 16.6% of his innings). Another startling Bradman stat is that he converted 12 of his 29 centuries into 200s (a conversion rate of 100s to 200s of 41.4%). 15% of his innings led to a double century. Only 2% of Tendulkar’s innings have resulted in him scoring 200 or more runs. 

Bradman scored at a fast rate and  made huge scores on a regular basis.

Reason # 2 Average compared with contemporaries
It’s often argued that Bradman’s stats are inflated because the quality of bowling and fielding he faced during his career was poor. Fielding has certainly improved rapidly over the past two decades but the extent that it has limited or reduced the scoring potential of batsmen is not easily quantifiable. It’s often said that the bowling was poorer during Bradman’s era, the bowlers slower and less aggressive than they are now. However, this doesn’t quite match with players like England’s Harold Larwood, of Bodyline fame, who is estimated to have been a 90mph bowler, a match for some and better than most of today’s group of bowlers.  Even if this were the case, it would be reasonable to expect that other players who played around the same time would also have similarly inflated averages. Looking at the averages of their contemporaries shows that this is not the case. Both Bradman and Tendulkar have scored the most runs and centuries of any player who played at the same time as them. Where the difference lies is comparing their averages against those of their contemporaries. Of players who scored more than a thousand runs during Bradman’s career (he scored 6996), no one has a better average than his (that famous 99.94). The closest anyone gets to this is fellow Australian, Arthur Morris, who averaged 74 in 17 tests from 1946-1948 (over all tests, Morris’s average dropped to 46). To illustrate Bradman’s dominance, the next best player still averaged 25 runs less than him, and could only maintain such statistics for a short period of time, not over 20 years like Bradman. To further illustrate the point, of the top 15 run scorers during Bradman’s career, only 3 players averaged more than 60. In comparison, while Tendulkar has scored the most runs, 1 of the top 15 run scorers during his career (Kallis) actually averaged slightly more than him. Some people more cynical than I might even ask whether Tendulkar is the greatest batsmen in the current Indian team, a question probably not asked often of Bradman.While people bemoan the quality of bowling during Bradman’s time, there are similar concerns over the quality of bowling and the pre-dominance of batsmen in the current era. For example, in the 1980s, an era of quality quick bowlers, only 6 players averaged over 50, in the 1990s, seven. By contrast, in the first decade of this century, 21 players averaged 50 or more with a further seven averaging 49. It seems that it wasn’t just Bradman who played in a batsmen dominated era. Tendulkar, of course, has batted in an era of covered pitches, shorter boundaries, protective equipment and video analysis, all of which make batting easier. Bradman had to deal with uncovered pitches and no protective gear. In perhaps one of the toughest series of all time, Bodyline, Bradman had to deal with tactics deemed so negative and dangerous to players that they were soon banned but still averaged 56, which is Tendulkar’s overall career average.

Tendulkar; the best of the modern era but not better than the Don just yet.

Reason #3 Playing in different countries
Cricket is maybe unique in that home advantage confers much more than just crowd support. Pitch conditions differ heavily from country to country and it takes a special player to excel in all of these conditions. Tendulkar is one of these special players. He has played test cricket against 9 countries in 10 different countries, averaging at least 40 in every country he’s played in. On the other hand, much has been made of the fact that Bradman only played cricket in two countries (England and Australia) and only played against four teams (England, South Africa, West Indies and India). It is possible that Bradman might have struggled in the sub-continent. After all, Ricky Ponting, the closest to a Bradman- like figure in recent Australian teams, only averages 26 in India and 43 in Asia, well below his overall average of 53. Bradman was known to struggle initially in his innings against high-quality spin, as best exemplified by his dismissal in his final test innings, to Eric Hollies, the English leg-spinner. It remains a classic what-if. In Bradman’s defence, Australia only played six tests outside of Australia/England during his career, a five-test tour of South Africa in 1935/36 and a one-off test against New Zealand, a game where they bowled New Zealand out for 42 and 54. Australia didn’t tour the West Indies or India until 1955 and 1956 respectively. Given the respective strengths (or lack of) of India, the West Indies and New Zealand at the time, you could argue that Bradman would have filled his shoes, like modern day batsmen do against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh now and boosted his average even higher. Would it diminish Tendulkar’s legacy if Afghanistan, Kenya and Ireland were admitted to test cricket in the next 20 years, countries that he would have never played in and therefore never scored runs in? No, it wouldn’t, so why should Bradman’s achievements be lessened by where he could play test cricket.

Sachin celebrating another milestone.

4-External pressures
It’s often said that Tendulkar bats with the weight of a billion people on his shoulders, that he lives inside a bubble, unable to enjoy things like going for walks without getting mobbed. It’s said that it is this pressure that places Tendulkar above Bradman, because Bradman didn’t have this weight of expectation. While Bradman didn’t have to cope with the expectations of a billion, he did have to cope with being a national hero during the Great Depression, to bat against the English when they employed their now infamous Bodyline tactics, and then lead a team to England and try to raise the morale of both Australia and England after the Second World War when his best years were seemingly behind him. Bradman, like Tendulkar, had a great deal of pressure to cope with in his career. Bradman also proved to be a capable captain. Captaincy didn’t seem to affect his batting as he averaged slightly more as captain than his over-all career average. Tendulkar, on the other hand, never seemed to be a comfortable captain and averaged 51 during his captaincy, still respectable but less than his average of 57 when he wasn’t the captain (his average was similarly affected when he was the captain of the one day team, averaging 37 as captain compared to 46 when not).

Bradman was the centre of attention wherever he went.

This is not a rant on how bad Tendulkar is. It’s clear that he has been the standout batsman of the last 20 years and probably the best since Bradman. Bradman himself said that Tendulkar was the player who reminded him the most of himself. Tendulkar far exceeds Bradman in the mass number of games he has played. In 20 plus years, he has played 170 Tests, 453 One Day internationals, some 20/20 games as well as about another 100 first class and list A games. Add in the fact that he has done a lot of travelling, playing matches in over twenty countries and without missing much cricket through injury, his performances (and he is performing as well as ever even at the age of 37) are magnificent. Bradman in contrast only managed to play 52 tests,(his career shortened by World War 2), playing 232 first class games in total during his twenty-year career. This was limited due to injury, illness, the paucity of cricket played and the war. ODIs and 20/20 cricket and their associated rigours didn’t exist during Bradman’s time. 

All I wanted to show was that Bradman is a type of sporting freak. Wisden, cricket’s famous almanac, said Bradman was “the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all ball games”. Statistician Charles Davis analyzed the statistics for several prominent sportsmen (Ty Cobb, Pele, Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordon, Bjorn Borg and others) by comparing how far they stood above their contemporaries.  His study showed that “no other athlete dominates an international sport to the extent that Bradman does cricket”. In order to be as dominant as Bradman, a baseballer would have to average close to .4 and a basketballer would have to average 43 points a game over their career. A tennis player would have to win 20 grand slam titles in 10 years (although Federer got close to this with 16 titles in the past nine years). A golfer would have to win more than 25 major titles. A soccer player would have to average a goal a game over 100 games. To show how rare Bradman is, you would expect statistically, that there would be someone of his quality in one of every 184,000 batsmen who play test cricket (in 130 years of test cricket, less than 10,000 players have played which statistically speaking means it would take about 2,500 years for someone as successful as Bradman to come along). Bradman is a statistical freak, unlikely to ever be match. He remains an icon of cricket and of Australia where he has been honoured and eulogized in song, plays and movies. When Nelson Mandela first met an Australian after his release from prison, his first question was whether or not Bradman was still alive. That shows how big a deal Bradman was and still is. All I know for sure is that Tendulkar is the greatest batsmen I’ve seen so I know Bradman must have been extraordinary. 

Thursday, 7 April 2011


For the most, our short trips around Asia usually consist of seeing three places in a country; usually the capital or largest city if they are not the same, the second city and an ancient capital. There are variants to this theme but this is the pattern and this is what we did when we went to Myanmar. We started in Yangon (until very recently the capital of Myanmar, at least until the junta decided to build a jungle retreat and move the capital there), moving on to Mandalay (which doubles as both the second largest city and as an ancient capital) and ending our trip in Bagan, an ancient capital that is now a quiet, rural town far removed from its former days of splendour. The rickshaws and tuk-tuks, the hustle and bustle of Yangon and Mandalay were replaced with bicycles and horse drawn carts. Entertainment seemed to consist of men playing kickball using small rattan balls, a game that is popular throughout South East Asia. 

Playing kickball
Few foreigners make it to Myanmar. The country receives relatively few international visitors (about a quarter of a million compared to 14 million who visit Thailand). Of those few who do come, only a small number make it to Bagan. You could sense that the market seemed to get few visitors. As soon as we entered the market, the vendors smelt fresh blood and went into a fighting frenzy to get our attention. Blood might have been spilt, teeth may have been lost in the process. A cacophony of pleas erupted "Hey lady, hey mister, you come here, I give you good price for you, first customer" but their vigour proved too much for Mary who for the first and only time in her life, ran away from a shopping opportunity. The only break to the small town vibe was when a group of about 200 maroon clad monks walked down the main street, protesting against the military dictatorship (our holiday happened to co-incide with the monk protests that received so much international exposure in 2007). At night, there wasn't much to do so we got massages. The first night, we got masseurs to come to our hotel room, I was hoping for a couple of beautiful Burmese women. Massage is as much for titillation as it is for curative purposes. However, much to my disappointment, we got a couple of women closer to 80 than 20. That disappointment soon turned to contentment as those experienced hands worked wonders, clearing my shoulders of knots and getting rid of a day of back pain. And all this for less than $5 an hour. Turning my back on the potential of a younger woman, I welcomed the crone back the next day for another fantastic round of massage.

Massages and monk protests are not what Bagan is famous for. Bagan's biggest drawcard is that it is home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. Many are in various state of disrepair; some are standing in near original condition whereas others are almost completely ruined, near forgotten remnants of great facades now left to decay. While between 2,000 and 4,400 temples and stupas remain in some form, (there is a lack of consensus of how many structures still remain) it's believed that at its peak, Bagan was home to 13,000 temples spread out over 42 square kilometres. Enough of them still stand that you can understand Marco Polo's description of Bagan as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". As the Myanmar Lonely Planet says “gather all of Europe’s medieval cathedrals onto Manhattan Island and you’ll start to get a sense of the ambition”. As you make your way through the plain, you can see stupas and temples in all directions, some standing in clusters, others standing alone and isolated. They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and styles. Some aren’t even Buddhist at all but Hindu. At places, you can look up and see twenty to thirty peaks, more when you climb up onto the top of one of the structures, like the Shwesandaw Paya or Pyathada Paya. If you remember to pack a torch, you can check out the frescos and mosaics or the Buddha statues that are found in almost all of the intact buildings.

Stupas on the plain.
While you could easily spend a week here and still not find all of Bagan’s gems, most people stay for a day or two. We spent two days here. On our first day, we got around on a horse drawn carriage, for about $10 a day. Our driver made sure we hit all the important hot spots like Ananda Temple, the so-called Westminster Abbey of Burma. Vendors were everywhere, selling cold drinks and water, ice cream and trinkets, statues and lacquer ware. Children competed with one another, trying to sell postcards and paintings. 

One of the child vendors.
We left the carriage for an hour or two, seeing some of the sights of Bagan from the river. We visited a monastery, talking to the monks, some of whom had probably been participants in the protest we had seen the previous day. I traded notes and coins with one, discussed the Premier League with another. That night, we watched the sun disappear from the plains, disappear from the buildings and descending out of sight over the Ayeyarwaddy River. The next day, we hired bikes, to hit up some of the more remote sights that we hadn’t seen the day before. While biking is hard work in the sun, especially because there’s hardly any shade, it’s worth the effort. Move away from the main sights and you can go to sites that are rarely visited. You can enjoy spectacular buildings all by yourself (and of course, the omnipresent vendors). Because vehicles are in the main forbidden to drive around Bagan, the roads are quiet and biker friendly. If you do go off-roading, watch out for thorns as they can either scratch you up pretty well or give you punctures.

One of the bigger temples in Bagan.
Bagan was established around the 9th Century with much of the building down in the 10th and 11th Century, the time when Bagan served as the capital for the first Burmese Empire. Bagan was the capital but also served as one of the major centres in Myanmar for religious training, attracting monks and scholars from around Myanmar as well as from India, Sri Lanka, Thai and the Khmer Empire. The golden age of Bagan came to an abrupt end in 1287 when it was sacked by the Mongols (after the Burmese king refused to pay tribute to Kublai Khan). After this, its political status declined but it still flourished as a place of Buddhist worship, scholarship and contemplation. The ravages of time and earthquakes like the severe one in 1975 caused the edifices of many of the temples and stupas to decay, but the sheer number left in some form is amazing. In a blow to the preservation of the area, UNESCO failed to include Bagan on its World Heritage list, citing a lack of authenticity on some of the recent rebuilding by the junta. It is true that some of the reconstruction hasn’t followed original architectural styles and using modern materials. For example, Bupaya Pagoda, one of the older and most revered pagodas in the area, was completely destroyed in the 1975 earthquake and rebuilt in concrete instead of brick, gilded in a more modern style than the original. It also doesn’t help that the junta has sold off land to developers, opened a golf course and built a tall watchtower in the middle of the historic area.

Bagan rates as one of South East Asia’s premier destinations, alongside Angkor Wat, but remains largely off the tourist radar. Hopefully, given the magnificence of the site, it can be hoped that the differences between the junta and UNESCO can be sorted out for the betterment of us all and the protection of the site.