Sunday, November 9, 2008

Japan - Kyoto

The local train from Osaka only took half an hour, good job as it was so busy I had to stand the whole way! Anna had a nice comfy seat though... We got to Kyoto's glass house of a station mid morning so we had plenty of time to sort out our onward tickets to Tokyo for two days later.

After several attempts we eventually managed to get hold of our guesthouse owner who insisted we caught a taxi to her place at her expense! So after a ride in a lace doily clad taxi, complete with uniformed cabbie, we arrived in a narrow back street right in the centre of the city. Miss Tani Jr met us and paid for the cab. She then led us up a couple of flights of stairs to a room/appartment so small it was comical. It was all we needed though and surprisingly homely.

We dumped our gear and headed out on foot to tramp miles round the backstreets of Kyoto visiting several temples during the remainder of the day. We even spotted a couple of women dressed as Geishas, they'd probably paid a fair amount for the priviledge! Footsore we returned to our mini-pad to crash onto our futon.

The next morning we set off early to try and beat the crowds at the Golden Pavillion. Unfortunately everyone else had the same idea and the bus there was rammed with school kids and pensioners on their way there too!

After a quick tour of the Golden Pavillion we caught a bus and a train to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha temple. This was one of the most impressive we saw. Its paths are lined for about four kilometres with bright orange Torii arches. They're packed so close in places they almost block out the light!

For dinner we went to a local sushi train restaurant which was excellent. Anna's not so keen on raw fish though so she had to settle for the smoked duck which was pretty good! Tired out from all the walking we crashed early again!


Japan - Osaka

Our first stop in Japan was Osaka. After an overnight flight from Singapore we arrived worn out at the city described as the 'Manchester' of Japan. Not as big as Tokyo but still impressive. We caught a local train to near our hostel in an allegedly homeless area of the city. In all fairness though we only saw a few on the street and I think they were only hanging round waiting for the Christian aid centre to open up.

After catching a few zees we navigated quite easily the underground system to the Namba district to search for food. The Rough guide recommended this as a popular area and it certainly was on a murky Saturday afternoon. The streets were overflowing with people, plenty of them dressed up like it was Halloween already!

We found a little Okonomiyaki restaurant which didn't look too busy or too pricey and after a bit of pointing at the menu we got our cabbage pizzas cooked on a griddle in the middle of our table. Later, we did a bit of exploring and found a 100 yen shop near our hotel where we picked up supplies for dinner.

The next day we were up early to see the Castle. One of the most visited tourist sites in Japan, harshly said because there is not a lot else to do in Osaka. Which we found not to be true! As it was raining our plans of visiting temples in the afternoon was scuppered so we headed to the fabulous Osaka aquarium.

We spent several hours meandering from the top round the spiral descent past tanks that span several floors on the outer side and the inner main tank of over 4 floors! The main tank was incredible. There were all manner of sharks and rays swimming about in it, including a pair of gigantic whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays to name just a few. It really was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

That evening we headed to a 'food theme park'. An entire building on Dotonbori street has been renovated to resemble traditional Osakan street stalls and restaurants. Each serves one or two styles of Osakan cuisine such as okonomiyaki (cabbage pizza), tako yaki (squid balls), gyoza (mini fried pasties) and potato karoka (fried mash).

With empty wallets we headed back to the hotel to get ready to head to Kyoto the next day.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cambodia - Siem Reap & Angkor Archaeological Park

Our alarm went off at 3am on Sunday morning. We both had bad food hangovers from the excesses of Old Airport Road hawker centre. We had made the mistake of letting my old colleague Jason and his fiance Suzanne order for us!  By 8.30am we were eating breakfast in our hotel in Siem Reap having been picked up by Mr Han and his trusty tuk-tuk. 

Our guide Mr Now arrived around 9am to escort us round the 'Old Market' which is a real local market complete with live fish, chickens with heads and feet attached, veggies galor and a wide variety of smells ranging from nice to extremely nasty! Having bought a souvenir or two almost our first of the entire trip, we were taken to 'Artisans of Angkor' an organisation dedicated to improving rural Cambodians' quality of life though arts and crafts. 

We were shown round the apprentice workshops where villagers are trained to create high quality items to sell in the attached gift shop and other stores across the country. Normally we'd give gift shops a wide berth but the items on offer were really quite nice and we ended up parting with more cash than we intended!

After a spot of lunch we had to retire to the coolness of our room to catch up on some sleep before heading out to the Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP) to pick up our passes and check out the sunset from Phnom Bakeng. We joined the hoard to climb up to the top of this crumbling temple to try to snap a shot of Angkor Wat and its surrounds as the sun set in the distance. The earlier rains had left some reslient clouds though so the colours weren't quite what we'd hoped for. It was still good to get an idea of the geography of the area we would explore in more detail on the following day.

Once the sun had dropped below the horizon it got dark rapidly and without a torch the climb down was a little daunting to say the least. We met up with Mr Han again at the bottom to ferry us back into Siem Reap. We decided to check out the night market which is billed as being aimed at tourists and it lived up to its reputation. The quality and prices were higher than the Old Market but we still bought a few trinkets and early Christmas pressies!

We had another early start the next morning to beat the crowds to Ta Prohm. We left the hotel by 6am and were following Angelina Jolie's (Tomb Raider was filmed here) footsteps through the decaying temple complex before too long. We had the place almost to ourselves, we only saw three other tourists the whole time we were there. The jungle is trying to reclaim lost land and seeing trees growing out of the temple ruins really is awesome.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast while the crowds were on their way to Angkor Wat. By the time we'd finished and headed there ourselves the crowd had thinned significantly and although it wasn't as quiet as Ta Prohm we only had one Korean tour group to contend with. Mr Now kept up a constant stream of information that to be honest I'm struggling to remember already. Lots of stories of Vishnu and King Suryavarman II, there were so many it was hard to keep up. We were joined by some trainee tour guides too who kept things entertaining though. 

After several hours of wandering around in the heat we were ready for a break and some lunch. So we stopped at a rest area overlooking Bayon. Here we watched as the tourists swarmed out to head back to their hotels and the town for lunch as we munched our packed lunches. By noon the place was deserted and we almost had the place to ourselves again.

Bayon was superb the towers were all covered by faces on each side. We had a lot of fun taking daft pics before moving on to Bauphon and then other parts of Angkor Thom whose names I forget, except for the Terrace of the Leper King, which I thought was a cool name...

By now we were hot and tired so we headed back to the hotel for a well earned drink and rest before the evening entertainment of an Apsara show started. Apsara are the celestial nymphs depicted all over the Angkor area in carvings and statues, all are topless but for modern modesty the real ones we saw dancing were fully clothed...

We really enjoyed our stay in Siem Reap although we only wish we'd had longer to explore even more of it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Malaysia - Perhentian Islands

From Adelaide we flew to Singapore for a wild weekend with old friends there. On the Sunday night we caught the train from across the causeway in Johor Baru to Wakaf Baru (the nearest station to Kota Baru) in North East Malaysia. The sleeper carriage we were in was a bit like a huge travelling dormitory with bunk beds running down each side of the aisle in the middle. As people got on and off at each stop through the night we didn't get a great deal of sleep even with our trusty earplugs and eye masks on.

We arrived in Wakaf Baru around 8.30 on Monday morning and although all the guide books and travel guides suggest this is the best place to catch a taxi to Kuala Besut there was in fact only one waiting. So after a fair amount of haggling and a good deal of silence as both sides tried for a win-win situation, we hopped in the rusty bucket of a cab for the hour long trip to KB. On the way the cabbie had to stop for oil and petrol just in case. The fake leathery plastic seats and no aircon made it a very sweaty experience even so early in the morning and with all the windows wound down.

The cabbie stuck to back roads and tracks so we didn't see any sign posts for KB until only a few kms out. This always makes me nervous and stupid thoughts of jungle robbery spring to mind! But he got us to the jetty in one piece and before long we boarded the big speedboat filled with other travellers. We were almost the last people off so we got a good tour of the islands while the boat dropped others at accommodation ranging from very basic to five stars.

We'd decided to stop at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil (pronounced per-hen-t-ian ke-chill not perhenshian kesil as we first tried) the small island. We figured as most places were closing for the end of the season (monsoon season is on the way) we stood a better chance of finding somewhere still open. We ended up at Mohsin Chalets which were up on the hill overlooking the beach. They were clean enough and had power between 6.30pm and 7.30am so the fan worked while we were asleep! The room did have 24 hour water though which was a real selling point as a lot of places didn't.

We spent the rest of the first day relaxing and eating lots of tasty Malay food. The next two days we went on snorkelling tours round the two islands (Kecil and Besar, small and big). We enjoyed it so much the first day we had to do it again the next. Both days we saw at least 3 or 4 different green turtles, more than ten black tipped reef sharks and tons of other tropical fishes including clown fish (nemos) by the bucket load. On the second day we even got a chance to see the turtle sanctuary and saw some just hatched baby turtles which was magic. Both evenings we ate at restaurants on the beach serving fresh barbecued fish and other goodies.

On the boat back to Kuala Besut we met an Australian couple going back to Kota Baru too so we shared a cab with them to the city, and spent the afternoon with them (mainly eating and drinking) before we all caught the night train back to Singapore.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Australia - South Australia

After the long drive along the Great Ocean road we briefly stopped in Mount Gambier for a night. We stayed at the Old Jail hostel, where we slept in an old cell turned into a double room. We had to double check we wouldn't be locked in when we shut the door! It has got a lot of potential as a hostel but is in need of some serious TLC.

We were up exceptionally early the following morning to get to Adelaide before midday. We were staying with our friends James and Emma in their new house in a lovely suburb there.After a quick tour of the house and garden we all headed out for Sunday lunch and some wine tasting in the Maclaren Vale region a short drive away. Thankfully Emma drove us home so we got to sample tons of tasty tipples and even ended up purchasing a fortified shiraz that was too good to refuse!

We spent the next few days,
our last in Oz, chilling out and preparing to leave. We still managed to squeeze in a trip to the excellent Cleland Wildlife Park, a tour of the market followed by a picnic in the park and a nice lunch with Linda (one of Anna's relatives). All of these were packed in around a lot of playing with James' toys; the Wii and pool table were real time wasters! And lots of fun.

Our time in Adelaide disappeared way too quickly and before we knew it we had to pack our backpacks and head off to catch our flight to Singapore.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Australia - Victoria

Our first stop in Victoria was Lakes Entrance. It was a big drive from Batemans Bay which meant Anna had her first go driving the 'big car'. We stopped for a couple of nights there to chill out. One lazy afternoon we played a round of 'Pirate' mini-golf. We drew the game but Anna fluked a hole-in-one on the 18th which won us a voucher for a Subway sandwich! We couldn't do much more Lakes Entrance excitement so headed on to the bright lights of Melbourne.

Our hostel in Melbourne was in the suburb of Richmond, it was actually in the basement of a posh-ish hotel. It felt odd strolling in with our rucksacks into their fancy foyer! But at least the car didn't look out of place in the car park. We had a couple of days to explore Melbourne which is quite a cosmopolitan city with loads of great eats. We found a great Indian that did proper Masala Dosas, really crispy! We also really liked the Queen Victoria market where we stocked up on supplies for a picnic in the Botanic gardens for the price of a couple of sandwiches...

After Melbourne we followed the A1 past Geelong and eventually hit the Great Ocean Road, the world's longest war memorial. The road mostly hugs the coast between Torquay and Warrnambool. We stopped halfway along at a tiny hamlet called Princeton, which consisted of a backpackers, a campsite, a pub and a shop! It gave us a good base to explore the most photographed part of the road, the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. We spent sunset one day and the morning of the following driving along stopping for every brown sign pointing to yet another glorious view. London Arch (Formerly London Bridge) and the Grotto were the other side of Port Campbell so we didn't see them till the second day. The scenery was spectacular even if the weather was bitter at times.

Our time in the smallest mainland state was over quickly and we were soon to arrive in South Australia, completing visits to all five mainland states for me!


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Australia - New South Wales

We celebrated Anna's birthday in Byron Bay with a posh fish and chip dinner, including oysters and calamari! We had nice ice creams by the lighthouse while trying to spot humpback whales from the clifftops. We didn't see any whales but we did see a pod of dolphins hunting a school of fish nearby and a turtle lolling around in the surf at the bottom of the cliffs!

The next day we carried on towards Sydney, stopping off at Coffs Harbour for the night. We arrived mid-afternoon so managed a trip to the botanic gardens where we'd heard rumours of wild koalas having been spotted. We didn't manage to see any though...

We spent another day on the road getting to Port Stephens. We stayed at a lovely YHA hostel called the Samurai Beach. It was out in the bush and made up of individual cabins with a bush kitchen in the middle and had a resident huge fluffy german shepherd puppy. The owner lent us her binoculars and showed us where to see a wild koala and baby in the grounds which was awesome! We explored the area during the remainder of the afternoon and did a short walk to a lookout that was a bit overgrown so couldn't really see a lot!

We arrived in Sydney after a fairly short drive (only 2 and a half hours). Stopped off in Palm Beach to watch a spot of filming for the infamous Ozzie soap opera 'Home and Away'! We had an ice cream again as the crew and cast took several 'takes'. They mustn't have had any talent scouts around as we weren't asked to help out...

We were staying in Manly, one of the many suburbs of Sydney. Its a very chilled out sort of place. We caught the ferry into the city as it was more scenic than the bus. You get great views of the Opera house and bridge from it anyway! I'd bought Anna a bridge climb tour for her birthday, so we were up bright and early to join the commuters on the ferry. We arrived early to the climb centre so we got bumped to an earlier tour and after a half hour or so of preparations we were on our way to the top of the bridge.

It was great fun climbing up above the eight lanes of traffic and two rail lines. Our guide was quite new but still very competent. Although one of the guys in our group corrected him when he said most of the steel used came from London, allegedly it came from Stockton... The whole climb took about two and a half hours, not including the time taken to clamber in and out of our flattering grey jumpsuits, headset radios and other safety equipment.

When we'd finished at the bridge we had time to wander down to Woolloomooloo to Harry's Cafe de Wheels for a 'Tiger Pie'. They don't have real tigers in them, but they do come with mash, peas and gravy all on top of the pie. Genius.

After all the walking and climbing we returned via the ferry to Manly. I was so tired I even had a sneaky forty winks on the ferry until I woke myself up snoring much to Anna's amusement.

The next few days we spent hanging out in Sydney, wandering round the shops and botanic gardens. Taking lots of pics of the bridge and opera house and eating another Tiger pie!!!

Our last stop in NSW was Batemans Bay at another YHA. This time in a converted caravan that was surprisingly well decorated. We'd imagined some nice 70's oranges and browns! We only stayed the night before heading on towards Melbourne.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Australia - Queensland

Our couchsurfing hosts Jason and Jenene were kind enough to pick us up at the airport in Brisbane and treated us to a delicious dinner at their house. The next morning they took us round the sights of Brisbane, the river City-Cats helped us get around quickly and cheaply. Before sunset we squeezed in a trip up to Mount Cooth-tha to get a better view of the city and the river meandering through it.

The next day we stocked up on supplies for our trip up to the Whitsunday Islands, such essentials as sun-screen, board-shorts and an underwater disposable camera! As we were going to be on a boat for 3 days we thought some extra food would be needed to keep us going in case the rations were a bit stingy. I get cranky if I don't get enough to eat!

Our flight up to Airlie Beach was short and sweet. When we arrived our luggage was driven out on little baggage carts and left for everyone to rummage through searching for their bags! Even the most primitive airports I've been to have had carousels, this was a first for me! The boat was leaving fairly early the next morning so we had an early night.

At 8.30 the next morning we were waiting at the marina with our one green re-usable shopping bag each of clothes, a six pack of 'Tooheys New' and a 4 litre box of 'Crisp Dry White' wine, better known to other travellers as 'Goon'. Other green bag toting people (everyone was given one) floated up over the next half an hour until our full compliment of 12 shipmates had arrived. Quick intros we made before we all made our way onto the boat. Our baggage disappeared below decks as we lounged around waiting to be allocated our bunks. Anna and I had booked a shared double meaning we should have had a room with a double bed in as well as a pair of bunks to be shared with others. When we were called below we were given the only private double one the boat, as the two Dutch couples wanted to stick together. Worked well for us!

Over the next three days we had a blast, sunning ourselves, chatting with our shipmates, snorkelling every day, eating loads of tasty food prepared by 'Daimo' our Ozzie boathand and being taken to some breathtaking places by 'Fabian' the boat's Captain. The snorkelling was world class. Every spot Fabian picked for us was different and fully of marine life. There was an abundance of hard and soft living coral in a myriad of colours. Fish of all shapes and sizes, parrot fish, clown fish, bat fish, wrasse as big a dogs! and some many more I couldn't begin to name them all. The highlight though was watching a green turtle being cleaned by fish only a few metres from our faces. He didn't mind being watched one bit and took his time, probably wondering why a huge school of black skinned fish were watching him ( We had to wear wet-suits thanks to stinging jelly fish and corporate greed).

All too soon we were back on dry land and feeling a little land sick as everything wasn't moving with the waves any more! It was a great trip, although I'd not recommend the 'Goon', it's called that for a reason...

Back in Brisbane we had a bit of a faff picking up the car. I won't go into details but will just say, if you ever hire a car from Avis make sure you print out the confirmation of the price they agreed before you go to pick it up. Otherwise they may try to double it just to keep you on your toes and then laugh at you... Thankfully we had Jason and Jenene to rescue us and all was eventually sorted out. We now have a massive Mitsubishi 380 VXR about four up from what we requested. It's rapid to say the least and more than once I have nearly been caught speeding! Can't push it too much though as it drinks fuel as quick as you can get it in.

We had a nice day out at the Australia Zoo, home of the unfortunate Steve Irwin. It's a bit of a shrine to him now but still a pretty good way to spend a Sunday. The Koalas were pretty cool they just hung out in trees looking completely wasted, funny. The croc show was spot on too. After the zoo we cooked a thank you dinner for Jason and Jenene before a marathon session of 'Flight of the Conchords'. We were sad to leave but we needed to continue on if we are to get to Adelaide by the 5th of October. Next stop New South Wales and Byron Bay...


Sunday, September 14, 2008

New Zealand (South Island)

Another soggy greeting awaited us in Picton as we docked in the South Island Ferry terminal. We stayed the night in at a nice hostel in the town so we wouldn't have to drive any distance in the dark..

We'd booked a whale watching tour in Kaikora a couple of days later but the weather wasn't playing ball at all so we ended up driving to Christchurch earlier than expected. It was a particularly dicey drive. The so-called main roads in New Zealand are little more than sealed single carriage ways. When the rain hasn't stopped for several days the hills at the side or below the road often give way and either cover the road with debris or leave gaping holes where the road once was! Several times we were forced onto the opposite lane to clear such obstacles. Flooding also made the drive interesting, thankfully we were in a rally bred Mitsubishi Lancer Station Wagon and it coped superbly with all nature had to throw at us! The road was closed the day after we got through so another stroke of luck meant we weren't stranded in Kaikoura for days!

We only stopped a night in Christchurch before following the better weather reports further south and west to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo. The weather still didn't play along with our plans, Lake Tekapo was covered by a low level cloud that totally obstructed our view of the famous Mount Cook and neighbouring mountains. The drive to Queenstown wasn't quite as tough as the previous day but it was a long one (about 6hrs). There were a few hair raising moments as we crossed the Lindis Pass thanks to ice and grit on the road. As we got closer to Queenstown the weather started to clear and it continued to be fine for the few days we stayed there.

Queenstown is NZ's capital of adrenaline junkie sports, there are untold options to nearly kill yourself and part with bucket loads of hard-earned travel cash. We took the fairly restrained approach and went skiing for two days. Anna hasn't skied much at all so she took lessons the first day, while I took myself around the Cardrona ski area. The runs were really good and not too overcrowded. After two days we were seriously tired and stiff thanks to no preparation and two hour round trips to the mountain.

As the good weather was continuing we decided to head to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. We took our time the next day driving the 2 hours up to Milford Sound to catch the last boat trip of the day to avoid the bus tours from Queenstown.

We spent a night in Wanaka after Te Anau, but there wasn't a lot going on there so we continued the next day to Franz Josef. On the road there the weather turned again for the worse and it didn't stop raining for the next 3 days, which was all the time we could realistically spend waiting to climb the glacier... So with a single sad glimpse of it through thick cloud we continued up the West coast to Greymouth. We stayed at a lovely big old hostel called Noah's Ark which was warm, welcoming and deserted, so we chilled out with the hostel's golden retriever puppy with full control of the TV (a real coup when staying in hostels!).

To get to our next stop, Hamner Springs, we had to cross the snowy Lewis Pass. After stopping for a quick snowball fight we warmed ourselves up in the thermal hot pools that Hamner is famous for. We spent the evening in the cosy hostel playing board games with a group of kiwi and aussie girls.

As the weather forecast was looking good in Kaikoura we made a beeline back there to re-schedule our cancelled trip. When we awoke the morning of the trip it was a glorious sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. We checked in for the trip. Then came the announcement 'The Boat Captain has cancelled the 10:00 and 10:30 trips due to wind and large swells...'. It looked like we wouldn't get to see whales after all. Gutted. As we were collecting our refund the lady suggested we try 'Wings over Whales', which was only $15 more than the boat trip. So we headed to the i-Site, booked ourselves on the 11:00 flight and sped to the airport for take-off.

The 8-seat prop-plane, took off and began its search pattern almost immediately. Looking down on the vast expanse of ocean below us covered in white crested waves I wasn't convinced we'd see any whales. After nearly 10 mins of the 30 min flight we still hadn't and I wasn't hopeful until the pilot pointed into the distance where two helicopters were circling. Our plane joined the dogfight over a black streak in the water. Finally, a sperm whale! I wonder what they must make to the flying circus above them every time they surface? We stuck around long enough for him to dive back into the depths. Then almost immediately the three fliers joined again in a spiral over a second whale. This time we didn't wait for the dive, there was a third just a bit further away. The helicopters stuck with the second so we had plenty of time over this one on our own. We had to wait a while until he eventually dived to feed again. It was a great experience to finally get to see these amazing creatures.

Satisfied, we drove down the coast to Christchurch for the remainder of our time in NZ. We had a nice day out to Akaroa the French colony and spent an afternoon at the Arctic experience with the Little Blue Penguins, a mock arctic storm room which was chilly to say the least.

5000+ kilometers and a month since we picked it up we gave the car back to the lovely people at Backpacker Campers. Even though the weather has been rubbish and we've not been able to do all we wanted to, it's safe to say New Zealand is an amazing place and we look forward to returning. Next time will be in the Summer!!


Monday, August 25, 2008

New Zealand (North Island)

A wet start to our month in New Zealand saw us spending our first day in Auckland holed up in the Library, where we got our first disappointment, NZ is a bit behind when it comes to offering free Wi-Fi. We ended up on the desktops they had available for 30 mins at a time. We did get up the Skytower briefly but as the weather was pretty miserable we quickly descended. The rest of our soggy time in the largest city in the North Island was spent trying to buy warm clothes on the cheap!

We decided pretty quickly to head further North to see if the weather would be better up in the Bay of Islands, it was a little. We did some cultural exploration visiting the Waitangi Treaty grounds where the Maori and British signed their agreement to share NZ and for the Queen to provide protection for them.

As we hadn't planned to stay long in the North Island we quickly continued our whistle-stop tour and ended up staying with Jen and Dave who we'd met in Samoa. Jen didn't stop feeding us from the minute we arrived till the minute we left! It was great catching up with them both, they really showed us the meaning of great Kiwi hospitality!

>From Jen and Dave's we did a side trip to the Waitomo Caves to see the glow-worms, thanks to the rain it was partially flooded so we got in half price which meant we had enough to visit a kiwi sanctuary on the way back. We also stopped off at an Angora farm to see some bunny bondage (see photos for graphic pics...).

On the day we departed from Jen and Dave's we woke to a flat tyre on the hire car so after changing that we said a sad farewell to our new friends in Te Awamutu and headed off to the stinky place known as Rotorua. We had been warned but nothing prepares you for the stench of this volcanic town. We had a wander round the even stinkier Wai-O-Tapu before a soak in the Polynesian spa in town.

Very relaxed we continued on to the east coast to see my friend Abi from home, her hubby Hamish and her little lad Jacob. It was great catching up with them and having a nose round Gisborne and the unspoilt coastline north of the town. The two nights we stayed with them passed too quickly though and we were sorry to leave their cosy house but we were back on the road down to Napier for a night far too soon. We continued quickly onto Wellington to stay with Anna's bro's friends place (tedious link). Danny and his girlfriend Penny were great hosts.

We had a walk up to Mt Victoria the first evening which got our hearts pumping! The next day we visited the Te Papa museum which is NZ's national museum and a great place to while away a few hours out of the damp afternoon. We particularly liked the earthquake simulator house.

On Sunday we had a nice veggy brunch cooked by Danny and Penny before setting sail for Picton and the South Island..


Tuesday, August 12, 2008


We arrived in Apia, the Samoan capital in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and were met by our transfer 'team', three big Samoan guys had been sent to pick us and another couple up from the airport to take us to our accommodation. We watched the sun come up as we passed sleepy villages and packed local buses of various vibrant colour schemes on the nearly two hour trip across the island to the Taufua Beach Fales (pronounced: fa-lays). Each fale was basically a raised platform with a roof and tarpaulin sides to keep the rain out. There was enough room in ours for a pair of single mattresses and our gear. Mosquito net was provided but thanks to the 98% DEET we'd brought with us we didn't suffer at all from bites!.

We had arrived at the beach in time for breakfast which was not only good food but a lot of fun too. All eighty odd guests sit down to breakfast and dinner together each day at two long tables to share the great food that is swiftly brought to the tables by the owners family members and other local villagers. We made some great new friends during these shared meal times and I think they are an awesome idea to help mingle with other like-minded travellers.

Although basic and a touch close together, the fales were right on the best beach of Samoa! The snorkelling was up there with some of the best sites we've ever had the pleasure of swimming. The coral was alive and well thanks to no boat use of the beach and there was an abundance of marine life much of which was new to us. We saw to name but a few; angel fish, parrot fish (blue and green varieties), blue starfish, plaice, black and white clown fish and plenty of others which we need to Google!

Each day at the beach was spent in a similar fashion along the lines of: eat breakfast, apply sunscreen, wait for high tide, snorkel for a while, snooze, snack, snorkel some more, read, shower, pre-dinner happy hour drinks with friends, dinner, more drinks, bed. Rinse and repeat for 4 days and you don't want to leave when the time comes. So much so we extended an extra day at the expense of seeing a bit more of Apia. We had a great time at Taufua Beach Fales and were very sorry to have to leave.


Los Angeles

After the fiasco of getting here from Austin, our car collection and hotel check in were both very smooth. We arrived exhausted so after a quick bite hit the sack ready for a day of exploring the following day. We drove up the coast to Santa Monica beach passing Venice beach on the way. We took a stroll along the beach when we got there. It looked just like Baywatch; people skating and cycling along the prom, surfer dudes waiting for the next big wave, lifeguards poncing about with their orange buoys, all that was missing was 'The Hoff' and a soft rock theme playing in the background.

After that bit of nostalgia we jumped back in the car and headed the long way up to Hollywood and Highlands via Sunset Boulevard, passing Beverly Hills and other posh superstar neighbourhoods. We could tell this by the guys offering to sell us a map of their houses at every set of lights! We didn't feel like doing any stalking though so we were in Hollywood before lunch. After a quick burger and shake in Jonny Rocket's we set off back to the hotel to catch up on some planning for New Zealand and Samoa.

Tuesday morning we checked out of the Royal Century hotel at 11, and headed to do some last minute shopping for Samoa and NZ. First, we went to a 'Recreational Equiment Inc' (REI) store in Manhattan Beach. My kind of shop full of gadgets and gizmos for travelling and adventures. I managed to pick up a new t-shirt as one of mine has been wreaked by the washing machines we've used recently. Also picked up an MSR water micro-filter treatment pump to save us from buying bottled water everywhere. After some other retail therapy we headed to another Mall, this time we ended up watching a film to pass the last couple of hours in the US of A. The Dark Knight was the only film that fit our schedule so we enjoyed that before heading to LAX for our flight to Apia, Samoa.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Austin, Texas

Dave; one of my housemates from Uni picked us up at Austin airport on Wednesday afternoon. Dave got married in January to Donita, but we couldn't attend so it was nice to see him and his new bride. Unfortunately their two children were travelling with their Aunt so we didn't get to meet them.

The first night we were treated to a tasty BBQ cooked by Dave, beer can chicken is a great invention! The net day in an effort to be a little sporty we tried out a new sport called 'Disc Golf' which is basically the same rules as golf but with a frisbee instead of clubs and a ball. Turns out its a good laugh, although the heat of Austin doesn't exactly help with the fun. We had a dip in the local river afterwards to cool down, as the nearby 'river pool' was shut for cleaning. That evening we headed to an restaurant that also had a games complex attached where we played various fun fairground type games for tokens. At the end of the evening between the four of us we had barely accumulated enough tokens to get a cuddly toy... We had a lot of fun though.

The next day we went for a walk in McKinney National Park, which was hot to say the least. Luckily there was a nice natural pool at the end to take a dip in. The water was quite warm so we weren't as cooled as we'd hoped. The four of us went for tasty steaks at a Salt Grass steakhouse. The steaks were so big we had to share one per couple! Very tender too, they just melted in your mouth.

A visit to Texas wouldn't be complete without a trip to a Tex-Mex restaurant, so after spending Saturday lounging round at Dave's like the good ol' days we topped up on the previous days indulgences with burritos, fajitas and tacos. Afterwards we went to see Jurassic Park at a theatre where people commentated on the film like Mystery Theatre 2000 we used to watch. Quite funny in places especially pointing out the continuity errors. We were lucky to be allocated a balcony box where each couple got their own lazyboy-couch to lounge on some more. This I've decided is the only way to watch films at the cinema!

Sadly our time is up in Austin and we're trying at the moment to get to LA. At this point however the poor planning of American Airlines has meant we've spent 6 hours waiting for a plane to take us there. It doesn't look like its going to be ready any time soon either. A comedy of errors by incompetents has meant that our plane needed a part that was in Dallas, which was loaded onto a plane heading this way, that plane broke before it left Dallas too. So they put the part on a second plane out of Dallas only to find out when it arrived that they'd loaded the wrong part! American Airlines are worse than pants at customer service, we've been given $10 (GBP5) as compensation for wasting the best part of a day. Rubbish. I don't think we'll be flying American Airlines again anytime soon, even if they are the cheaper option.

Update: we finally arrived in LAX seven hours late, only to have to wait another 40 mins for our bags to arrive after a change of carousel too. Fed up with all things American Airlines we finally got to our hotel about 8pm tired and annoyed.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rocky Mountains National Park

After a late arrival in Denver, we picked up our hire car and crashed at a nearby motel. The next morning we packed up early and headed to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We stopped off for a quick bite in Boulder on the way which was a nice sleepy town (all the students were away).

We had a wander round Estes Park, the resort town where we were staying before heading into the National park for the remainder of the afternoon. We strolled around Bear and Sprague lakes which are both stunning. We caught our first glimpses of park wildlife at Bear lake, I thought it was a chipmunk but it turned out to be a ground squirrel. We did see chipmunks at Sprague Lake though! On the way back out of the park around sunset we added a pair of coyotes to our wildlife spotting tally.

The next morning we were up early to drive along the Trail ridge road, the highest paved continuous highway in the United States. The road peaks at over 3900m and took us over 2 hours to drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake including stops at the Alpine Visitor centre and other viewing points along the way, including one where we could climb on a small snow field.

On the way back we stopped at 'Rock Cut' for a picnic lunch. There were several yellow bellied Marmots lazily grazing just by the road side. Their more sprightly friends the picas were also abundant at this spot. After taking tons of photos we continued back down to catch up on some chores in Estes Park. We decided to head back into the park for sunset again this time entering by a different route. We didn't get to see any Bighorn Sheep, but as we were trundling along we spotted a group of cars pulled up and people with cameras everywhere, always a good sign of wildlife nearby. Lo and behold there was a large herd of Elk grazing right at the edge of the road, not at all concerned by the traffic jam they were causing!

This morning after a quick final tour and a small walk up to Nymph lake we reluctantly drove back to Denver, stopping again at Boulder for lunch. Ready now to go to Texas to see Dave and family.


Syracuse and Upstate New York

My old friend Matt met us at Syracuse airport on Tuesday last week. We stayed at his and his wife Jen's place the first two nights as Jen's parents were looking after Caleb (Matt and Jen's 8 mth old son) and Maggie (their dog) so they could show us round Syracuse (including a tour of the Uni campus where Matt works). Tuesday evening the four of us went into town to Dinosaur's BBQ, a biker bar and excellent BBQ food we all had ribs and various side orders. There was so much food we were still eating the ribs the next evening!.

On the Wednesday Matt and Jen drove us up to Niagra Falls which is about a 2 hour drive from their place. It has to be said that photos don't do the place justice, the falls are amazing, I've never seen anything like them before. We crossed over to the Canadian side to get a stamp in our passports and a much better view than the American side. The weather was better in Canada too!!!

The following morning we headed off early to Lake Bonaparte, where Jen's folks have a house right on the lake shore. We spent the next couple of days chilling out, swimming, drinking Bud-Light Limes, making banoffee pie and generally larking about. Great fun, Jen's parents spoilt us silly. We didn't seem to stop eating or drinking the whole time! It was great spending time with Matt, Jen and their family, especially Caleb who even at such a young age is seriously entertaining. We were very sorry to have to leave so soon. Next time we will have to stay a lot longer!


Saturday, July 26, 2008

New York, New York

It was steaming hot when we arrived at JFK airport. Used to Singapore efficiency as we are, we were surprised at the lack of it at one of the worlds largest airports. There were queues everywhere, we had to walk outside in the scorching sun with our bags just to get to the 'Skytrain' which is hyped as the link to public transport into Manhattan. However we wanted to get a bus to the '3' subway line as it made more sense to use that as it passed right by our hostel and according to wiki-travel was the cheapest way of getting away from the airport. As independent travelers this can often be our biggest expense, thanks to poor public transport links and expensive shuttle/taxi options....

We tried desperately to get hold of Metro-cards in the airport as these can be used on trains and buses throughout New York. However, thanks to some pretty piss poor planning you can't buy them in the terminals! So, we went to get the bus anyway and found the stop fairly easily, we knew by now that we'd need exact change so we had $4 in notes (the correct fare for both of us) and managed to just catch the driver's attention before they pulled away. We'd all but boarded when we were foiled; we were not aware that we needed the rare as rocking-horse poo 'one-dollar-coins', we'd never heard of these before and no information had prepared us. Hot sweaty and seriously fed up with a convoluted system, we eventually managed to get hold of some fabled $1 coins thanks to a nice woman in the money changer's office.

So back we trudged to the bus stop to wait another 20 mins for the next bus in the stinking heat. We squeezed on with the rest of the crowd, conspicuous amongst all the local workers for the 45 min plus un-airconditioned journey (Wiki-travel said it took 20, lies.). Once off the bus the journey on the subway was better, at least it was air-conditioned, although we were traveling through some rather shady areas, thankfully it was still mid-afternoon by this point!

We stayed at the Continental Hostel on W95th, near Broadway, and by the state of the temperature pretty close to 'Hell's Kitchen'. Before arriving we had envisaged a rat infested dungeon, as it was cheap and the reviews poor. We were pleasantly surprised by the recently renovated decor, clean rooms and bathrooms, no signs of rats and a cool underground basement chill out area with free wifi.

Our time in New York flew by, our first evening was spent at the 'Top of the Rock', watching the sun go down over the Empire State Building and the familiar Manhattan skyline. The next morning we were up early to catch the ferry to Staten Island and back for free, then wandered up to the Brooklyn bridge via Wall Street and many other familiar named roads. The afternoon passed with us sweatily wandering round China Town and Little Italy. We finished off with a quick photo stop in Grand Central station before an early night as we were both shattered. The next morning we did a spot of shopping on Broadway followed by a picnic lunch in Central park and a lazy stroll around the lakes and promenades. For dinner we went to Gray's Papaya, a famous NYC hotdog shop where we got 2 hotdogs and a drink for $3.50. Bargain! We then headed to Times Square to take obligatory photos at night and run before being mugged or conned into seeing some rubbish comedy show!

We had to be up silly early the last day as we needed to get back to the airport. We bit the bullet in the end and used the 'approved' method of getting there on public transport. To be fair it was much better than our way in, even if it did cost a little bit more


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hema's Wedding (Trinidad and Tobago)

We arrived in Tobago in the middle of a tropical downpour which never really stopped during our week long stay. We did get the occasional respite which meant we managed to squeeze in a couple of trips to the beach in between showers. We were staying at "Kia's across from the Beach" which is really across from the bank and down the road from the beach. Karen, the owner was very warm and friendly and made sure our stay was as comfortable as possible. We hired a nice Mazda 3 (zoom zoom zoom) and took a drive round the island on the only full day of sunshine we had. We visited a few nice beaches including Englishman's bay and Speyside. We were able to snorkel off the beach at Englishman's bay which was a bonus.

Hema and Patrick's wedding celebrations were our main reason for coming to Tobago so the poor weather didn't really bother us. They threw a welcome BBQ on the Sunday after we arrived which was a lot of fun. The Caribbeans really know how to party. One of Patrick's uncles is a dab hand at rum punches, needless to say there were a few sore heads the next morning! The wedding itself was spread over two days of Hindi blessings and the ceremony itself. Neither of us had attended a Hindi wedding before so it was a great experience being part of their big day. The second day was a mixture of Hindi and western/Caribbean styles, the party continued late into the night. We were well oiled with rum punches and the odd forced shot of sambuca (Hema's idea to liven up the already lively event). There were drummers and a steel pan band making it a very tropical affair!

Yesterday afternoon, still very hung over, we left Tobago for the 20 min flight to Trinidad. We saw the happy couple at the airport on the way to their honeymoon, they didn't look as bad as we felt! The flight over was so efficient we had landed before we were due to take off! We stayed at a small B&B in Trinidad where a local couple took great care of us in their lovely home. A perfect start to the second leg of our trip.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flo's Wedding

Last Thursday we travelled to the south of France to a small village not far from St. Maxime. We flew into Nice from Liverpool and were met by Richard's (the Groom's) sister; Christine. She was also collecting an old colleague; Toni and another friend of Flo (the Bride); Irina. As the flight was a late one and the village was a good hour's drive from the airport we didn't arrive at Plan de la Tour until after 11.30pm. By the time we'd dropped the others at their very tasty guest house it was gone midnight. We were camping and I was anxious to put up the tent by this point. However, we couldn't find the site in the dark! So we ended up in Richard's parent's garden in a huge Moroccan tent that was like something out of a Lawrence Olivier film!

The Mistral decided to blow in around 2am and as the tent had no door we got little sleep before Flo and Richard kindly helped us to find the campsite the next morning. Some of Richard's Canadian relatives were staying in a nearby villa. We bumped into two of them; Cathy and her daughter Amanda on our way the campsite office. They took pity on us and kindly took us to St. Maxime's market in the morning, and then to a supermarket to stock up on essentials! We'd met most of the other Canadians in the market so we were all acquainted by the evening when we joined them all at the pizzeria attached to our campsite. The wine and conversation flowed late into the night. Cathy's brother Steve and his girlfriend Kim have convinced us to visit if not emigrate to Canada! They have been warned we will accept their hospitality!!!

The day of the wedding we woke with minor hangovers and parched beyond belief, the tent quickly became a sauna in the Mediterranean sun so we dozed in the shade during the morning. The civil ceremony took place in a cramped sweatbox of a room in the town hall of Plan de la Tour. It was all in French, my rusty ability only just kept up with the quick pace of the mayor's patter. Flo and Richard both looked amazing, in white and cream outfits. You can see from the photos how happy they both were. There were more than a few damp eyes in the room as Flo declared not only did she agree to take Richard as her husband but that she 'absolutely' did!!

With the photos outside over, 'Les Anglo-phones' headed for the nearest cafe to toast the newly-weds. A few of us piled in Andy's soft-top to go for a little picnic in between ceremony and reception. Luckily we did as dinner didn't start until well after 9pm. There were canapes and aperitifs when we arrived at Richard's parent's place again though. When we eventually sat down for dinner there was the usual confusion with wine as to whether there was one per course and if so which went with which. Being all Brits on our table we resorted to drinking what we liked! I enjoyed the red, Anna went for the Rose with Andy and Liz, before we all finished the white and the Champagne later on!

We'd forgotten how the French love to stretch their meals out, unlike us unsophisticated Brits. Even by French standards the wedding meal took longer than any of us expected. We were still enjoying our deserts as the clock struck one in the morning! The food was exquisite and was enjoyed by all at our table. There were various distractions during the cheese course, a presentation by Richard's friends Nicolas and Yves, the main purpose to show old embarrassing pics of Richard, set to sound effects, quite professionally!

There was also a quick game of Mr and Mrs, most of the questions were answered correctly by the newly-weds. Before we knew it was time to leave though and we sadly took our leave of the Bride and Groom and all the new friends we'd made. Steve and Kim gave us a lift back to the campsite which was great as we would never have found it in the dark!

Andy and Liz picked us up bright and early the next morning with the top down for the run back to Nice. We slapped on the sunsreen surrounded by our luggage and were back in the captial of the Cote D'Azure before lunch. We got in some quick sightseeing before visiting a small creperie for dinner. Surprisingly a lot of places were open, which shows times are changing in France. When i lived there it was almost impossible to do anything on a Sunday!



We've spent the last few weeks manically dashing around the UK with a side trip to France to boot! (blog entry to follow). On our arrival we were stunned by prices that have risen considerably since our last visit to our native land only 6 months earlier. The papers were and still are full of headlines regarding the inflation of food, petrol and just about every consumer item one can imagine, including lemons of all things!

Our first encounter was at the airport where we attempted to buy a bottle of water priced just under £2 with a £10 note only to be told the shop had no change. At the airport? We complain about other countries lack of customer focus... A girl in the shop next door restored our faith for a bit with a nice tip about getting free water with a newspaper purchase. Our regained faith was then shattered by the prices of public transport, £3 for the two of us on the transit bus to the nearest train station and another £8 to get back to Anna's Mum's house the other side of Liverpool. Crazy. We were then stung by the price of petrol, then 113.9p a litre, now 115.9p, Britain it seems is heading for a serious bit of financial difficulty, thankfully we leave it tomorrow for the next 4 months!

Since our initial shocks we've continued to become accustomed to being poor, and decided to purchase a tent to keep down the costs when visiting the Lake District and my parents place down south. This has been the best purchase of our time in the UK as we've used it loads. On its maiden outing we made sure it was up to high winds and rain in the Lakes thankfully the weather was very accommodating. Another windy night followed a week later at the farm.

We had a day in London on the way down south which was nice. Anna's brother and Lorraine had arranged for us to see 'The 39 Steps' in Piccadilly which was great. We had a slap up meal nearby at an Italian he'd found on toptable,com. Very reasonable on our meagre budget! All the big museums are free now too, so we spent a bit of time in the Science and Natural History Museums before a wander through Hyde Park and a nice catch up meal with my cousin on Southbank.

Whilst down south in between catching up with my family we squeezed in visits to Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton. Time flew and before we'd managed half of what we'd intended we were back on the dreaded six and a bit hour drive back up North.

With our side trip to France out of the way we've spent the last few days panicking about what we've forgotten to pack or book already. We thought we'd have had time to think more about what we intend to do in NZ and Oz but it just hasn't happened. With ten days on a Caribbean Island coming up we hope we'll find time between all the snorkeling and cocktails to do some planning!!!


Thursday, June 12, 2008


We spent the last couple of days of the first stage of our trip relaxing in Riga. We arrived an hour late or so we thought (the clocks had gone back at the border but we didn't notice), having gone through a much easier border crossing than the way into Russia.

We were 'surfing' (see here for details.) with Rebecca, Kris and 2 yr old Konrad. Their apartment was right in the middle of the old town, which made sightseeing very easy for us. This meant we had plenty of time for snoozes in the park and beers on the terraces!

We've been hosting people in Singapore for a while but this was our first experience of being hosted, and it was fantastic. Couchsurfing is such a great concept and one that we've had a lot of good experiences with, its so nice to get a local perspective on somewhere rather than just following the tourist propaganda.

We were treated to an impromptu dinner party on the first night with some of Rebecca and Kris's friends. Kris cooked a splendid traditional Latvian feast for us all. We washed it all down with some good Latvian beer and wine. We were given a good insight into local life and their perception of us English (especially those disrespectful enough who pee on or moon their Freedom monument...). Sometimes our fellow countrymen are embarrassing when we travel.

Our last morning we were up early to say goodbye to our hosts before they left for work and play-school. We had a quick stop in the supermarket to grab snacks, vodka and heavy Latvian bread before boarding a crowded local bus to get us to the airport on time for our first flight since Singapore to Hong Kong. We spent our last Lats on more vodka and some chocolates in the airport. Our Ryanair flight bound for Liverpool was full of Latvians, no idea why they were all going to Liverpool? Maybe they're interested in the Capital of Culture.. Who knows?


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

St. Petersburg

Russia's northern capital greeted us with sunny skies early on Thursday morning. We had a fairly long walk to the hostel so that was our first stroke of luck! We checked in and decided to grab showers before going sightseeing. I bumped into an American professor who gave us a great tip; the Hermitage has free entry every first Thursday of the month. So we changed our plans and headed straight there! Stroke of luck number two!.

We spent a good four or five hours immersing ourselves in the Hermitage's extensive collection of fine arts, with no less that 2 whole rooms of Picassos alone it was no wonder the place was full of tour groups being led round in all major European languages. We just kept our ears open and enjoyed being able to stop when we wanted.

As we were wandering round we saw a concert stage being set up in the square outside, with the help of a free guide we deduced it was a Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) gig the following night. It turned out that the concert was a free gift to the city so we decided we'd attend!

The next morning we badly needed to catch up on washing our clothes, we'd heard about a cafe-bar cum laundrette which sounded like a good concept. As there were no closer places we trekked across the city with our dirty laundry to check it out. The place itself wasn't up to much, just a run down bar with student types hanging about. After 3 hours of sitting around sipping coffees and beers our washing was finally clean and we scooted back to the hostel for a quick change before heading back to the Hermitage for the concert.

As it had been advertised as starting at 7pm we were there early to get a good spot, as it turned out the band didn't come on till well after 9pm. The show was superb, made even sweeter by being free. I was given a can of what i think was Vodka-Redbull type drink by a lad in front of us in the queue, as he couldn't manage the four cans he'd brought with him (no alcohol was allowed inside the perimeter). So I was buzzing for the first hour or two, but after nearly five hours standing in the same spot my back was starting to give me grief! The band saved the crowd pleasers for the encore; 'Brick in the Wall' and 'Comfortably Numb' being the last two songs of the evening.

The crowds leaving took over the streets leaving the square and we were caught up in it all. Good fun though. Had to stop for food on the way back as we'd not managed to get anything beforehand! Didn't manage to get any photos though as it was chucking it down by then.

Saturday, we went to visit the Dostoevsky museum, which to be frank was a bit of a let down. I'm reading 'The Idiot' at the moment and I was hoping for more insight into the writer, unfortunately most of the exhibits were in Russian. There was a good food market across the street which we enjoyed as the vendors let us try all sorts!

We spent the afternoon strolling round the Summer Gardens and the Mars field nextdoor as the weather was good again although the wind had changed direction and was now bitterly cold! We warmed up in a Blini restaurant for dinner.

This morning we got up late as it's a moving day, checked out the Peter and Paul fortress, then wandered round the Tavrichesky gardens soaking up the sun on park benches and enjoying a tasty ice-cream, our reward for so much walking the last couple of days. St. Petersburg public transport isn't the easiest we've come across.

Tonight we're catching the train to Riga doubt we'll sleep well as we cross the Russian/Latvian border some time early in the morning...


Thursday, June 5, 2008


We were helped on our arrival by Mel and Donna's friends' son; Brad. He and his Russian girlfriend Luda assisted us in purchasing our onward train tickets to St. Petersburg and from there to Riga. Much to our embarrassment the queue took forever to go down. Then when it was our turn the tickets turned out to be more than double the guide books and internet suggested price. Brad and Luda thankfully lent us the difference until we could get to the ATM again as the station didn't accept credit cards!

After all the faffing in the station we were escorted by Brad and Luda to our hostel. Mel and Donna were also staying at the same place. We're so grateful for all their help and patience! Later that evening after gathering ourselves we went for a cheap dinner with Mel and Donna at a place nearby the hostel. We were all tired so we grabbed an early night ready for a full day's sightseeing the next morning.

We were up bright and early on Tuesday morning and despite the weather looking ominous we headed out to Red Square and the Kremlin, passing St Basil's Cathedral on the way. We were in the Kremlin fairly early and spent a good while admiring the architecture not realising the tour groups were soon to arrive. By the time we were ready to start checking out the museums so were the tour groups. We'd managed to see a couple so beat a retreat to Arbat street to get some lunch.

Arbat Street had been hyped as the place to get souvenirs and cheap food. We did manage to grab some cheap local food at Moo-Moos (My-My in Russian). The Borscht was tasty and hot, a lot of our other choices were on the sweet side though... As for souvenirs we weren't that impressed, we did bump into 'Matching Tracksuit' - couple from the Trans-Mongolian. They were staying with their Uncle Boris no less.

After our big lunch we decided to walk it off by following a long walking tour along the river past the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which was very tiring but worthwhile. We eventually wound our way back to the hostel just in time to avoid the downpour that had been threatening all day. Phew!

We weren't so lucky the next day as there were frequent showers all day, so after sorting our stuff out ready for leaving later we headed out into the rain. We got a good soaking so dried off touring the Metro system taking photos of all the ornate station decor. Not a bad way to waste an afternoon, seeing as though we only used 1 ride each as we didn't leave the system.

We got to the Leningradsky Station quite early and ended up having a broken conversation with a babushka in the seat next to us. There were a couple of station cats performing daredevil stunts high above the crowds below which helped us pass the time until the train was ready for boarding.

We were sharing a four berth cabin this time and as we'd booked late we had two top bunks. They were extremely narrow and being of more wide berth requirement i was dubious about getting any sleep. I shouldn't have worried. Thanks to the beloved eyepatch and earlugs I was out for the count soon after leaving Moscow not to wake until almost at St. Petersburg.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Trans-Mongolian (Beijing to Moscow)

After a pretty lousy night's sleep we were ready and raring to go before the alarm went off at
5:45am. We headed across the road to Beijing's Central station and joined the rest of the crowds waiting to board the train. As we'd decided to fork out the extra cash and splurge on a private 2-berth 'deluxe' cabin, we thankfully didn't have to share our 2m square compartment with the local traders and their cargo. The train departed bang on time at 7:45 and by half past ten we were ready to claim our free lunch in the Chinese dining car. The afternoon was spent snoozing as we'd been forewarned that we'd reach the Chinese-Mongolian border around midnight and would have to disembark while they changed the bogeys and completed immigration procedures. With our remaining Yuan we treated ourselves to some Mongolian vodka at the border supermarket, which turned out to be pretty tasty. Back on the train we were then subjected to the Mongolian customs and immigration process, conducted by a woman wearing an enormous hat and aided by another woman in a surgical mask and shower cap! It was after 2am when we finally cleared customs and were able to go to bed.

We woke up in the middle of the Gobi desert. After a bit of camel spotting we got chatting again to some of the other travellers in our carriage. Dave, the guy next door to us, had been sharing his cabin with a Chinese woman who was alighting at Ulaanbaatar. He didn't get much sleep the previous night as his cabin mate apparently could have been the Chinese snoring champion on an away match to Mongolia. Holly, another English lady further down the carriage, had had to endure a night with not one but two Mongolian traders who'd joined late in the evening accompanied by a substantial quantity of watermelons. They didn't even offer her any. We did later reap the rewards of the unusual arrangement when our conductors shared their spoils on the way into Moscow.

Holly and Dave joined us for lunch in the Mongolian dining car as we'd heard that it would be disconnected at Ulaanbaator (as it turned out it wasn't) . The food was ok and not overly expensive (US$10 for a bowl of noodle soup and a Mongolian beer). We watched the scenery go past for a while before heading back to our cabins for more snoozes as we'd read the Russian border crossing would be a late one again.

The reports were correct. The Mongolians weren't really as interested with us on the way out of their country, no shower capped, surgical masked women looking in the cabin going 'yes' this time. The Russians however took things a lot more seriously. Several hefty camo-clad beauties boarded the train, demanded forms we hadn't completed, then stood over us and badgered us into filling them in quicker, all the time chewing gum as her shot-putter of a colleague was prancing with great ease up and down the bunks checking every nook and cranny. It was all very James Bond-esque, floodlights, dogs, men with guns, quite exciting really.

The excitement continued for a good while as they took all our passports away for processing, leaving the customs people to rummage through the train. Donna and Mel, our Canadian friends, were put under the spotlight for a long time when the inspectors mistook the 4 gallon bottles of water they had for Vodka! When the inspectors realised their mistake they weren't so interested. They kept us all locked up on the train during this time and as we were stopped our toilets were locked. As you can imagine this had consequences to any of us that had had even a drop to drink that afternoon. To get some idea of the anxiety caused; try locking your bathroom, and any exterior doors for 4 hours after drinking just 1 pint of water. You get the picture? The dash to the toilets when the train door was opened after our passports had returned was comical. The woman charging for using the toilets had some cheek, luckily one of the two American guys paid for Dave and I (US$1 for three of us bargain!).

Eventually around 1am the train finally got going again, but the damage was done. We were late. This had a knock-on effect for the next day or so. At each subsequent stop the scheduled break was shortened to try to claw back time, which left us little or no time to pick up provisions along the way. By the evening we were glad when we finally got a break long enough to run to a small group of kiosks to grab bread, what I thought was OJ, some chocolate and several beers. The Russian restaurant car hadn't been up to much during the day, expensive and seriously poor quality and quantity.

We awoke the day after the Russian border looking out over Lake Baikal the World's deepest lake, it contains no less than 20% of all our drinking water, a nice thought that the Russians are polluting it daily with all sorts of nasties from the various factories around its shore, nice one Mr Kruschev. Its still good to look at though and with the mountains the other side of the train the morning was spent watching the last of the really good scenery drift by. Lake Baikal is so big we didn't leave it till nearly lunch time.

We spent the rest of the time watching Siberia float past the windows ( its surprisingly green, but quite repetitive, trees and huts, trees and huts), chatting with other passengers and drinking with them! The OJ turned out to be alcoholic-fanta by the way, it put me to sleep for most of the following afternoon...

Time flew once we were in the routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, counting kilometre markers, looking out of the window and jumping off and buying stuff whenever we stopped. Donna made some great purchases that she shared with us all, smoked fish at Slyudanka 1, Pro-gies at Malinsk we were more of the beer and crisps school of purchasing... Before we knew it, we were packing up our stuff and pulling into Moscow Yaroslavsky station, having swapped contact details with all our new Trans-Siberian buddies. All in all it was a great experience and in case any of you fancy doing it yourselves, we plan to put together some more detailed tips and info whe we get chance.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Beijing (Part II)

Saturday we'd planned for a lay-in and a lazy day. As things turned out we had neither. Our lay-in was spoiled by the lack of curtains in the room (stained glass windows are pretty but not effective). Our lazy day turned into a bit of a trial when we decided to follow a lonely planet tip for lunch only to find that the Beijing town planners had had other ideas. The street where the restaurant once stood is not there any more. So hot and tired after searching for a while we resorted to main street Beijing where we cooled off in an aircon mall.

Later that evening we stumbled upon a street food market, we didn't really fancy any of their delights though so headed for some more Peking duck at a posh place to treat ourselves. It was very tasty!

Sunday morning we were up early to visit a flea market we'd heard about which was nice, we could have spent a fortune but with a lack of funds and space in our rucksacks we managed to avoid any frivolous purchases.

To remove ourselves from temptation we caught a bus to the Temple of Heaven as we'd heard it was worth a visit. It is. The park surrounding it was great, full of local people enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon. Dancing and playing they looked like they were having a lot of fun. We then caught a bus back to the hostel. The pubic transportation in Beijing is pretty dire at the moment, I pity any tourist coming here for the games they will be forced to use shady taxis a lot. We've just about got by with a lot of confusion at times.

We found a tasty Sichaun restaurant for dinner where we ate till we were bursting for a few pounds before an early night.

On Monday we were up early and on another bus this time to the Summer Palace. The summer playground of Emperors and princes in the Ming and Qin dynasties. The palace is more an elaborate series of ornamental gardens and buildings surrounding a lake enlarged to look like the West Lake in Hangzhou. It was hard to tell the similarities though as the polluted haze made it difficult to see from one side to the other. The parks and gardens were nice and the influences from the Forbidden city are obvious. To be honest though we're ready to move on and are both excited to get on the train tomorrow to Moscow.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beijing (Part I)

Our last stop in China and our longest. We're in Beijing now until Wednesday next week. Having spent Tuesday night on a train again we arrived here Wednesday morning an hour later than expected. We managed to find the bus to our hostel without too much difficulty although Anna did have to use some of her Chinese skills to ask directions from some friendly Police officers.

We'd decided to use Wednesday to catch up on a few chores, pick up our Trans-Siberian tickets etc. As it turned out both took much less time than expected. The ticket collection was far too simple. We shall see if things are ok next week! So with the chores out of the way and as we were already downtown we had a stroll through a park near Tiananmen Square before walking along the edge of the square itself which is enormous 400,000 sq metres to be precise! Bumped into the American lad we'd been to the Warriors with, he stands out in a crowd here with his ginger locks...

That evening we went to a restaurant recommended by the hostel where they serve authentic Peking Duck for a reasonable price. So we indulged in some fine dining before seriously cheap beers in the hostel.

Thursday morning saw us rise with the early birds, to get to the Forbidden city before the crowds arrived. It would appear the crowds had the same idea as they were there before us... Thankfully we could avoid them as they were herded through the centre of the city leaving us free to explore the side courtyards relatively alone. The Forbidden City is exactly what it says on the tin; a city within a city, off limits to the Public for 500 years and where the ruling classes seldom left. There are 9999.5 (Half a room less than the Jade Emperor's palace) rooms in the palace, needless to say we didn't visit them all, but we did get lost in the city for over 4 hours. We've since found out that the audio tour is narated in English by none other than Roger Moore, if we'd have known that we'd have gladly forked out the extra RMB40 for it!

We continued our exploration of Beijing by leaving the Forbidden City by its North gate and into Beihei Park to see the White Dagoba, before meandering round its huge lake to the Hou Hai bar area for afternoon refreshments. It was fun sitting watching the antics of the rickshaw drivers, sleeping, chatting, playing cards as we supped our beers. They all scattered when a boss like figure arrived complete with his walkie talkie...

So we decided to amble back through the dusty hutongs to the hostel. The hutongs are where daily life unfolds for millions of inhabitants of Beijing, these dusty cramped streets are thriving from dawn till well into the night. Many have no plumbing or power, its hard to imagine living like that in such a large city.

One of the major reasons for our visit to Beijing was to walk the Great Wall which we managed to do on Friday. We joined a group from the hostel in a minibus for the 1 hour drive to Mutianyu, a quiet section of the wall which has been somewhat restored. As we only had 4 hours to enjoy it we caught a chairlift to the wall itself, before walking along it for an hour and a half, past cool guardhouses dotted along its length. The sun was quite strong and before long we were both pink and sweaty from the exertion of walking up and down the inclines as the wall follows the contours of the mountains it sits on top of.

We met some really nice people on the trip and we even bumped into Alan an old friend of mine from Singapore who was there with his wife and daughter... Small World.

An unexpected finish was the metal tobbogan/luge down from the wall, which was a great end to our Wall visit, even if Anna did nearly break a Spanish bloke by ramming him...


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


On Sunday morning we joined the 3 English backpackers we'd met the night before and a Texan lad called either James or Paul, we never did figure his name out. The six of us were led by a Chinese guy called 'Bruce'. Bruce it turns out is an avid fan of the sit-com 'Friends'. So by the time we'd given a few tricky explanations of the meanings of such phrases as 'creepy pretzel vendor', "I'm a little turned on right now" and my personal favorite "He's a randy old goat" we'd arrived at the first stop for the day; Banpo village. Apparently of great archeological value as the first neolithic remains found in China, and as such is very interesting to them. We'd come to see the warriors though and were impatient to 'get down to business' (another of Bruce's translation problems).
Before we managed to get to the Warriors though we had the obligitory stop at somewhere trying to sell us something. This time it was the genuine counterfeit warror factory and outlet. Having taken photos and avoided purchasing a lifesize warrior for the price of a small car we left. Apparently shipping would have been no problem... I wasn't convinced.

The warrior site is immense, the rebuilt models line the first of the three pits that have been excavated so far. Many remain in tatters though awaiting their turn to be put back together. I'd always thought they had been discovered intact. How naive I am... From their reasearch the Chinese equivalents of Indiana Jones have deduced that the warriors were lined up in trenches in battle formation before being covered by huge timbers, fine matting and soil. It would appear the timbers rotted a long time ago and crushed the warriors below.

Its hard to imagine the effort that must have gone into creating such a vast quantity of figures, estimates suggest 10s of thousands were made over a 38 year period! Unfortunately, the Emperor Qin's tomb has not yet been explored for want of funds. Would be interesting to see what he has in there if he needed such an army to protect it...

We finished our tour with a meal fit for a King, between the six of us we still didn't manage to finish it all! Bruce left us at the hostel a more enlightened man, or at least his English has gained some more colloquialisms and we had learnt a lot about ancient Chinese history.

After such a tiring day we decided to have a quick wander around the Muslim quarter to sample some of the tasty snacks. We ended up with Kebab type things followed by an aniseed, soggy crouton filled, mutton soup, which was suprisingly very tasty.

Recharged the next morning, we hired bikes on top of the Xi'an city wall. The wall encircles the city and is over 600 years old. Although parts are newer and it has been recently renovated, it was still a bumpy hour and a half all the 14km round. We both really enjoyed the ride though! We're now a little pink though.

Later on we went in seek of the two famous pagodas of the Little and Big Wild Geese. We failed miserably with the Little Wild Goose one, as it shut before we managed to find it... So we went for food opposite before trying to catch a bus to the Big one. This was easier said than done. We found the correct Chinese characters on the timetable, counted the stops from where we were to where we were going, and boarded the bus. Paid too much for our tickets, counted stops, got off. Wrong place. Boarded a second bus, after checking how many more stops to go. Counted again, got off, wrong stop, reboarded the same bus much to amusement of the other passengers. Eventually got to the right stop. Decided to follow the crowds as there was a light show scheduled. When we got to the square in front of the Pagoda there was some sort of demonstration/rally going on, chanting and candle lights everywhere. So after skirting the crowds as best we could we managed to get a bit closer to the Pagoda, only to here the end of a count down in Chinese and everyone around us stopped still, so we stopped too. We think it was all to do with 3 days of National mourning for the deaths in the recent earthquake, but have no idea why the crowds or the chanting...

On Tuesday morning we went back to the Muslim quarter to pick up a single mini-warrior souvenir and some postcards before checking out of the hostel and heading for the station and Beijing.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shanghai to Xi'an

The next morning we had breakfast in the park before stocking up on supplies at a local supermarket, which was more confusing than you'd think. Do these pot noddles come with a fork? Are they spicy? Really spicy? Neither of us knew but picked at random a purple and a red coloured box each. Luckily only one was mildly spicy...the other nearly blew our heads offAnyway, we managed to catch the train to Xi'an without any issues, arriving an hour or two before departure normally means that's the case. We have noticed a lot of the trains actually depart early!

We had the four berth compartment to ourselves for the evening so in between stops we ventured to the dining car. Lulled into a false sense of security after our previous good fortune on the train from HK to Shanghai. Sadly our experience wasn't as pleasant, although it was a lot more amusing. Especially for everyone around us.

We at first must have seemed reluctant as we hovered trying to figure out protocol. We eventually managed to find some seats opposite a non-plussed young man who smoked continually as he and we ate. Once our seats were secured we attempted to gain the serving girl's attention. Unluckily for us she spoke no English and after much mirth from the pistolled guard and his friend scurried off to find someone who did.

Our saviour then proceeded to question us; BEEF? CHICKEN? RICE?. We ordered one of each beef and chicken, and two rices, and being a bit bolder now asked for 2 beers. One beer arrived, I can only asume he misunderstood us, or drank the other. The food was good when it arrived and we scoffed it down, watched carefully by our now entourage of merry makers.

After an hour or so we'd had enough of the stares and the smokey atmosphere so headed back to the relative sanctity of the compartment. We managed to drift off to sleep while chatting, before being joined by two bewildered looking Chinese people staring at me as I awoke.

The girl who joined us left before we woke the next morning. The guy, however we determined though pidgin chat was going to Xi'an as well. A few more attempts at conversation left us feeling awkward for the next 6 or 7 hours before finally departing the train.

Our second over 20 hour train journey completed we arrived quite tired at the BackPax hostel in Xi'an. BackPax can only be described as a little odd. Its very well decorated and the staff are very friendly, but it still feels a bit like the luxury spa it once was. We've got a bath in our room next to the bed...

We did meet some nice sane English people in the bar, having had our plans to visit the Muslim Quarter washed out by a suprise thunderstorm. Off to see the Terracotta Army in the morning so early start.