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Inle Lake

This is a 2017 post and not a 2014 post like most of the others. Having run out of money and going home to be adults and work for a while we saved our pennies and came back to Myanmar. This time to catch the bits we missed and see some of the things that were under construction or renovation on the first trip through. And the big ticket item that we missed was Inle Lake.

Jill was looking for a bit of pampering on this leg so the accommodation was significantly more extravagant than we normally use. We stayed at the Novotel and to be fair…it was both very nice and well priced for what it was. As usual in a western hotel in Asia…the food sucked. The buffet breakfast was good but the a-la-carte fusion thing just never works and this was no exception.  But it had (as I have been told) the bathtub to die for, a swim up pool and views across the lake that really shone at around sunset.

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The lake itself is about 26 km long and 10 km wide at the widest point. And Dr Google tells me that there are about thirty species of snails and fish that can be found nowhere else in the world. But for most of us it is just pretty. The commuting by longboat water taxis makes for an interesting time and there is so much to see and do around the area. That said, it will cost you a lot of money to do it (especially by Myanmar standards).

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Everything here is more expensive. The taxis, the boats, the food, the beer…everything. And this is without even factoring in the Novotel factor (which adds extra onto the bill if  they find out where you are staying). But it is pretty and is certainly worth the  trip.

A major factor of interest around Inle Lake is the rolling markets. The markets alternate on a five day cycle between the little townships and villages along the shore (Heho, Nyaungshwe, Taunggyi, Minethauk, Shwenyaung). This means that every morning you can head off by boat to a new township and see a different market. There is the obvious tourist junk that is at every one of the markets, but there is also a local flavour to each of them and each one is just a little bit different.

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The other thing of note with the rolling markets is the sheer beauty of taking  the boat rides to get to them. Needless to say over the years we have been to any number of floating villages. For the most part these have  been tourist traps designed to part you from your dollars. But here on Inle lake, they are almost all floating villages. It is not a gimmick it is the lifestyle…and it is charming. So the boat rides to the various markets see you riding along past ramshackle residences and shops all perched on stumps above the water.

Another major attraction of coming to the lake is to meet with the Kayan people of Myanmar. For those  that do not know they are the group that place brass coils around their neck. Most often they have been seen on the Thailand border (having fled the former fighting) the Kayan people have largely migrated back closer to their original home base. They have been referred to in any number of ways, that not surprisingly they find  somewhat offensive. Names like giraffe women and long neck women are less than appreciated. They are however  more  than comfortable being referred to as the ladies with the long elegant necks.

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Another unique thing about the lake is the local fishermen and their rowing style. They perch on the edge of these insanely narrow and shallow boats while casting and retrieving  fishing nets and simultaneously rowing the boat using their legs. This is a sight not to be missed and for us mere mortals, a zen like demonstration of both concentration and balance. The fishermen come in two varieties…the actual fishermen who use modern nets and the touristy ones that use bamboo nets as perhaps was done once upon a time.  The second type just do it to pose for tourist photos and stage capturing fish by throwing them into their nets after the fact. Both types are highly entertaining.

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And lets not be silly…it is Myanmar so there is no shortage of stupas, pagodas, temples and monasteries to go to. The lake is littered with them. You can cruise the lake stopping at any one that you like.

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And other than this…almost everything that you can imagine happens on the water. The weeds are harvested manually and are used for fertiliser for crops. The lake itself is turned into a massive hydroponic tomato cropping area.  The lake bed is dredged manually for dirt and building materials, the banks are used to distil rice down into what passes for the local hooch. In short there are so very many things to see and do on Inle Lake.

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But the most impressive of all…is the people. This is as true for Inle Lake as it has been throughout Myanmar. It is impossible to walk down the street without being met with a huge smile and somebody greeting you with the local “Mingalabar”.  This is even more evident with the little ones. Shy kids (generally) under the age of 4 will be beaming and waving as you go past. They will try a ‘hello’ if they are old enough or they will merely beam a huge smile and wave.

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And lastly, as we always do…we eat local. We ignore the hotels and we find dodgy little shacks to eat at.  Our options this time around were a little limited as we were in an out of the way location. But a short 2km walk away was the long jetty at Maing Thauk. This is the location that you could come to to get a boat for the day if you did not want to add  the ‘Novotel’ premium to your price. But it is also the location of some local fare that is just delicious. The jetty itself is quite the tourist  attraction and makes for some stunning sunset photographs along with some very tense moments in the dark as you wander along in the pitch blackness hoping not to hear a big splash meaning that Jill or I has hit the water.

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But we didn’t…and we found about 4 different restaurants along the jetty serving local food, cold beer and heapings of smiles and hospitality. Plates give way to lily leaves and the local salads come to the fore. The local avocados are the smoothest and creamiest that I have ever tasted and the other offerings that they put forward are tough to beat. And needless to say, for a village on the lake…they know how to cook a really good fish. We tried many incantations of the fish and they were magnificent.

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So if you are a traveller looking for a place to come, Inle Lake should be high on a list. It is on the pricey side (activities) for those on a tight budget but it is definitely worth a look…if you can swing 5-6 days here you will get to sample each of the townships and the markets. The big hotels are well priced  by western standards (half to one third of back home) for the rooms but comparable on the food and drinks.

 

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We live in WA now…

So we are here…in Perth…it has been a monster journey and we have seen and done so very much along the way.  Before we get into the world of Perth we will have a little summary of what it is we have done in the preceding 18 months…

We both left well paying jobs in Canberra to share our adventure together.

Overseas – We ran away offshore and spent 433 days backpacking through Asia. Hit 13 different countries, slept in 121 different cities and visited many more. We saw sights, climbed mountains, and sampled the local foods, beverages and culture at every step of the way.

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Australia – We bought a new car, drove almost the full height north to south and did drive the full width east to west. We saw family and friends and even tried living in a tiny remote town. All up we drove over 14,000 kms in a 8-9 week window and that included a 3-5 week block of time in the middle where we went nowhere.

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We got back to Australia with nothing but each other and debts… within a reasonably short period of time…we both found well paying jobs again, have cleared our debts and have racked up a wide variety of experiences along the way. I guess the moral of this story, for us at least, is that it is very possible to run away, give up all semblance of our former lives and careers and leave everything behind. Then once you have sampled sections of the globe you can come back, settle in a new place, both start new careers, in different industries, earning collectively as much if not more than you were before…and not miss a beat.

And now life continues…

We left the last post with us having driven into Perth and with me job and house hunting. Jill’s new job was working for an aged care company and as we rolled into town they gave us bridging accommodation within one of their facilities while we found a place to live. In short…we were living in a retirement village.

To be fair I had no concept, knowledge or experience of what a retirement village was like and my knowledge was limited to TV shows that depicted depressing, institutionalised looking places that looked like hell on earth. Jill had long been interested in this area as the boom area of the future and over the last decade we had embarked upon numerous conversations about the future of aged care.

These conversations led to the facts that with the retirement of the baby boomers and the first real generation of self funded retirees coming through that the industry focus has been shifting from the stereotypical versions I had imagined to an almost hospitality model where the client is used to levels of service and value for money.

Clubhouse 2And this is what we found… We stayed in a manager’s unit that was centrally located within a retirement village above “the clubhouse”. They are not called retirement villages but rather they are independent living units but for my purposes retirement village works just fine. In reality it was a suburb of about 160 townhouses surrounding a centralised community area. Each townhouse was freestanding, fully independent and spectacularly maintained and the communal area had the clubhouse that contained a gym, library, pool, bowling green, putt putt course, pool table, art and craft rooms, an industrial kitchen and heaps of dining and recreation space.

Being independent units, the cooking was generally conducted in your own home but each Saturday they would hold an optional communal event for those that wished to attend. This was organised by the residents and rotated each week. There were raffles, drinks and pleasant company and for about $5 they organised various food option nights…things like fish and chips, chicken, pizza etc. On the odd night about once a month they held a special night when some of the ‘menfolk’ took over the kitchen and prepared a monster feast.

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Every afternoon at 3pm (just after the scratch lawn bowls game) the bar would open in the clubhouse and beer, wine and soft drink was available for the ridiculous prices of $1 for a wine and $2 for a beer can or bottle. Needless to say that after job and house hunting through the day, this became a regular home for me while Jill was still at work. And of course my beer sampling continued…including some uniquely  local brews.

While we were on average 15- 20 years younger than everyone else we found some great friends here and were inspired by what life in such a village was actually like. While having a beer one evening I casually inquired about golf. By noon the next day somebody had sourced a set of loaner clubs for me and a group of us headed out to the local course for 18 holes.

People there basically kept doing the things that they had done and enjoyed before moving in. But now they shared the activity for those that may be interested. We met a lady that was a fitness instructor before she retired and she became the host of water aerobic sessions each morning for those that wanted it. There was workshops and now men’s sheds for the wood and metal workers, sewing  and knitting rooms. It was all organised by the people there and they were all ‘opt in’.

In short it was great and led to the why wouldn’t you get into one of these joints as soon as you turn 55 (the eligibility for entry) conversations.

perth aerialAnyway…I found us a place to live a job for me. Our home is walking distance to everything the CBD has to offer and has a restaurant strip walking distance in the other direction. We are about 250 meters from the Swan River as the crow flies and half way across the the river is Heirisson Island (a landscaped nature reserve) that contains a mob of Western Grey Kangaroos. This is a favourite for tourists as it is a leisurely 2km circuit walk around the island and you are almost guaranteed to see the roos.

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Perth waterfront is lined with parkland and green space which means at most angles looking either in or out from the city the views are stunning.  On the city side is Langley Park, a 900m x 100m rectangular open park that was used as an airstrip in the 1920’s and is now used to host any number of riverside events. On the south Perth side is Sir James Mitchell Park which was named after the 13th Premier of WA and the park is similarly used. There are running and cycling tracks along the length of both sides and huge open areas that are full each weekend.

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On the western end of the city atop mount Eliza is Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre park on the fringe of the city that is made up of grassed parkland, botanical gardens and 2/3 of the grounds are conserved native bushland. From here you can see some of the best views of Perth and for a short period I got the opportunity to work closely with the CEO of the park and set up my makeshift office out of the boardroom of the park…with magnificent views overlooking the city and the distractions of random backpackers stripping down to bikinis to soak up the WA sunshine…right outside my window.

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So we settled in…started bashing our debts over the head and in less than a year we were back in the black and saving for our next adventure…We will keep blogging as we go… we have fallen in love with the beauty and variety that the West of our country has to offer…and rightfully so.

 

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The Journey summarised

Well the initial adventure (the planned one at least) is over…As we have landed back in a country with no ties and a world of opportunities ahead of us…as such the adventure will continue. We will keep the BLOG going and will continue to push the boundaries of exploration but perhaps in a more localized manner…So before the Australian leg of our adventure begins it is timely to assess what we have achieved over the last little bit.

So here goes…

We left Australia on 13 October 2013 and returned on 20 December 2014…that is a 433 day Asian odyssey that saw us hit some spectacular highlights and tick off so many bucket list items that it was not funny. Some of these “Bucket List” items were the obvious ones that we all know about or have heard of like climbing Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal or walking the Great Wall of China. Others were ones that the travel channel or documentary watchers may have seen and added. And some were 100% unknown to us but in hindsight these things truly were that special. And there were others that we knew nothing about but have since learned of and now have extended our own lists.

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In total we technically visited 13 different countries…I say this because I remain jaded that Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong all just count as China. Further to this, while we zigzagged the India-Nepal border popping in and out numerous times, we cannot in all honesty claim Nepal…as much as I may want to.  We spent the night in 121 different cities while day tripping, transiting and sight seeing a great number of others. The countries and locations were:

Thailand – Bangkok and Phuket

Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Pursat and Battambang,

Laos –  Vientiane, Luang Prabang

Myanmar – Bago, Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, Manana, Penang and Georgetown

Brunei Darussalam – Bandar Seri Begawan

Vietnam – Danang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Phu Quoc and Can Tho

Sri Lanka – Mirissa, Galle, Colombo, Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Pinnawala and Sigiriya

South Korea – Seoul and the DMZ

China – Beijing, Shanhaiguan, Harbin, Dalian, Dandong, Jinan, TaiShan, Qingdao, Pingyao, MianShan, WuTaiShan, Taiyuan, Datong, Hohhot, Yinchuan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou, Xining, Xiahe, Mount Everest, Lhasa, Shigatse, Kashgar, Urumqi, Jiuzhaigou, Chengdu, Guiyang, Anshun, Dali, Shangri-La, LiJiang, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Kunming, Guangzhou, Yangshou, Guilin, Wuhan, Chongqing and Xian.

Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek

Philippines – Manila and Taal volcano

India – New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai (Bombay),Goa, Mangalore, Fort Cochin, Alleppy, Thiruvananthapuram, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Metupalaiyam, Ooty, Kolkata (Calcutta), Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Hampi, Aurungabad, Bagdogra, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Amritsar and Shimla.

 

We explored the natural wonders of Asia, saw architectural marvels, ornately carved churches, mosques and temples, checked out exotic landscapes, vibrant cultures, gastronomical delights, languages spoken, experienced fairs and festivals and generally immersed ourselves in a world of different cultures. We stopped in on traditional tourist spots as well as off the beaten path gems (and duds). We experienced both the best and the worst of humanity…often within minutes of each other.

Some of the trips to countries were merely teasers for future travel while others were fully fledged explorations of the countries visited. Some were so fantastical that we were left needing and craving more…whilst others were more than enough. As a general rule it must be said…the traditional tourist destinations were by far our least favourite spots. They tended to be trashy, commercialised, more expensive than everywhere else, painful, full of really pushy touts and generally just unpleasant to be in.

China was the place that we spent the most time, with about 215 days in China all up. Believe it or not…this was not enough. China is like Australia…it is huge and each region is unique. So while we saw more of China than most Chinese will ever see…we were still left wanting more and ruing the fact that we had run out of time and money.

TRAINS

It became clear very early on that my wife had developed a train obsession and loved almost all things train related. As such we did innumerable train journeys…especially if there was something a little unusual or quirky about the trip. So we rode the worlds fastest train (the Maglev in Shanghai which hit 433kph), we rode the worlds highest train (through the Himalayas which includes the Tanggula which at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) is the world’s highest railway station) and we rode some of the famous railways of the world (both steam and other). We hit the rail bridge over the river Quai, the destroyed train bridge between China and North Korea and the shot up train in the demilitarised zone between north and South Korea.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Some of these journeys were truly memorable possibly the greatest for me was the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. This was a 5 hour (50km) journey in a steam powered, rack and pin train through the blue mountains of India. The train stopped at tiny little stations to refill with water and when the mountains got too steep the rack and pin would kick in and literally crank the train up the hill. As it turns out this also happened to be my mother’s mode of transport to get to and from school as a teenager.

Another of the major highlights was the Sri Lankan rail journey between Colombo and Galle. Three hours of cruising along in air conditioned comfort parallel to the ocean was simply stunning.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a toy train that snakes its way through the Himalayan mountains as the train criss-crosses the road and runs through the heart of the towns. The train goes so close to the town buildings that you could honestly steal from the shops by merely reaching out the window and taking things off the shelves as the train goes by.

Myanmar gets the title for the worst trains in the world. The train started with an insect and arachnid riddled upper class sleeper cabin and got much worse once the wheels started to move. The train bumps, jumps and rattles its way through some beautiful countryside but will leave you beaten, bruised and bloodied.

ANIMALS

Along the journey we encountered any number of animals (at least partially due to my mini obsession with visiting zoos). We went to many different zoos in many different cities and had massively different experiences in each one. The positive experiences saw us marvelling at pandas in Chongqing and Chengdu and the negative ones saw Indian patrons abusing animals and huge tigers in tiny concrete cages.  We got to see a range of animals that we had not seen before both within the zoo setting and generally wandering about in our travels.

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We saw cobras in baskets being charmed by tourist hungry Indians, panda babies, rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffes, all manner of birdlife, yaks, more monkeys than you could poke a stick at, crocodiles, orang-utans in the wild on Borneo, lions, tigers, fat bottomed sheep, incredible convoys of ducks and the usual zoo type fare.

Not only did we get to see the animals but on occasions we got to ride on them too.

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TRANSPORT

If you can imagine it we used it…almost. We used just about every type of transport available to man. From hauling along at 433kph on the maglev train to putting along on steam locomotives, to riding elephants through the Laos jungle, rubber duckies along the waters off Borneo, Junks in Halong Bay in Vietnam, tuk tuks almost everywhere, camels through the Indian desert, longboats through Thailand’s canals and along the floating markets of the Mekong, rickshaws, trishaws, trams, motorbikes, jeepneys, horse carts, camel carts, ute backs, bamboo rafts and bamboo railways and every now and then we even rode in a car or flew in a plane.

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GASTRONOMY

Lets not be silly here…the food was spectacular. We had the amazing opportunity to travel through some of the culinary centres of the world and sampled the local fare every chance we got. The key meals throughout were meat on a stick and curry… whether it was Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian or Malaysian…curries were a staple. And for all the differences between them…they were magnificent…all of them.

China did not have a curry equivalent (that we found)…but we did have smorgasbords full of fantastic meals all the way throughout. Each region was different and this variety just ramped up the experience. For the ultimate foodie paradise then Penang is my choice…it has the best of all things…Tibet is by far the worst…serving up a terrible mix of yak jerky, two minute noodles and hot water.

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Highlights

Obviously the bucket list items were highlights…the great wall, Angkor Wat, the Terracotta warriors, Mount Everest, the hanging monastery, cruising Halong Bay etc…but there were so many more. They were the unknown (to us) gems such as Jiuzhaigou (China’s blue lakes) and panda breeding centres…further to that there were the human interactions and the unexpected artistic elements that we saw along the way. I cannot fully explain the joy we felt when we walked around the corner in Datong and saw the large naked fat man hanging from the wall of the city.

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The other of the great pleasures was catching up with our friends along the way…walking the great wall of China with my cousin, going to the Hong Kong Rugby 7’s with best friends from school or catching up with Canberra friends in Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Experiencing things with the wife was great…but sharing them with friends is even sweeter.

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The journey for us is continuing…but the next little bit will be here in Australia…so I hope you maintain interest and follow along the  rest of the way…

 

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Brunei Darussalam

Leaving Labuan we hopped the ferry to go to Brunei Darussalam. The main reason for this was to tick up another country…we were only a 90 minute ferry ride away so why wouldn’t you. The first thing that must be said is that Brunei is strictly Muslim and is dry…the whole nation…no alcohol to be bought…anywhere. It would be a short visit. The next most important fact is that Brunei has the largest oilfields in Southeast Asia…so Brunei hasn’t turned its rainforests into palm plantations. Darussalam in Arabic apparently means ‘abode of peace’.

So we hopped a ferry and headed to the capital Bandar Seri Begawan or BSB for most. The ferry ride was fine and clearing customs and immigration was a relative breeze…other than the visa cost was 4 times that which was quoted in the travel guide…but hey it was about $20 each so no real damage done. We hopped off the ferry and headed to the bus stop for the shuttle to take us to town. We knew that this was an infrequent service but talking to the locals it had not run for the last 2 days. No reason given…it just didn’t turn up.

We decided to cut our losses and caught a black list taxi (the only guy nearby offering to take anyone even near town). And $35 later we arrived at our accommodation. This place was GOOD, VERY GOOD…and the staff were possibly the nicest we have encountered in all of our travels thus far…this is high praise after a year of hotels. For those planning a trip you honestly can not go better than the Capital Residence Suites which are a 300 metre walk from the Royal Regalia Museum and 700 metres from the mosque.

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As we arrived in the late afternoon we hit the road walking to the main tourist spots. Stopping at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque cruising along past the Kampong Ayer (the water village) and stopping for icy cold (non-alcoholic) beverages as this place is hot. January is Brunei’s coldest month when it gets down to a frigid 30.4 degrees. We zipped around and made it back to the hotel for its nighttime free shuttle to the Tamu Kianggeh (food night market). We cruised the market where almost everything cost a dollar. We ate, we looked and happily sampled the local delicacies.

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On the drive to the market we passed the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which is the largest in Brunei and was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. It is massive. On the way back we conned the shuttle driver into stopping for photos. Upon returning to the hotel we then got the hotel staff to tell the driver to take us to the Istana Nurul Iman which is the residential palace of the Sultan. Alas you can only really get decent aerial photos of the palace but the hotel was happy to allow us to use their driver and van as our own personal tour guides…at no cost.

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The next day we would leave but in the morning we headed to the Royal Regalia Museum (Bangunan Alat Kebesaran Diraja) which displays the royal accessories used during the coronation, and the various gifts received by the Sultan from all dignitaries etc from around the world. Now this is a fascinating concept…what do you give to the man who has (or can afford) everything. The entire museum is filled with gifts and trinkets from all over the world along with the carriages, uniforms, and regalia used during various official functions.

From here the hotel once again offered us the shuttle bus to take us back to the ferry terminal…at no cost. These guys were lovely, every staff member from the desk, driver, restaurant and the cleaners were incredibly nice and were genuinely interested that we had enjoyed our stay. Luckily I met with the general manager of the hotel over breakfast and was able to tell him how good his staff were. We have not previously recommended anywhere to stay as this trip is not about that…but these guys were so far and above everything else we had encountered that we had to give it the wraps.

Oh…and all this was for about $50 a night…breakfast included.

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365 days…

Well today officially marks 12 months since we left Australia on our midliferadventure. We flew out on 13 October and here we are a year on… Both of us fitter, skinnier, more tanned, better travelled…and yes more broke. Some of you think that we have been on a long holiday which in part is right but the counter point to this is the fact that this sort of trip transcends a holiday and becomes hard work.

I got into a Facebook drama with my sister Karin about this point as she seems to think that this has been one very big, very easy jolly…which it has not been…she seemed to be further supported by my other sister and KAT. Perhaps some of you will never be convinced of such a fact but this has been hard work. We have gone past the holiday and are firmly into traveling…a nuanced distinction many of you will probably not make but trust me it is a very real distinction. Especially when you are married to a slave driving, mountain goat such as my wife.

Don’t get me wrong…I would not trade this experience in for the world and we have done some incredible things along the way…we have ticked off some major bucket list items… Including some that were never even on the list. So a year into the trip it is time to take stock and see what it is that we have actually done. Needless to say at times Jill and I have had different views on the best and worst bits of the trip thus far.

So this post will be a snappy recap of the best and worst bits and some basic stats on just what it is we have done over the period away from friends and family.

Number (#) of days – 365

# of countries – 8

Actually a bit dirty on this number…Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet in my mind are all different countries but officially they all only count as China.

# of cities – 101

This obviously does not include the transits.

# of photos taken – 18,682

We had previously done a 9 week honeymoon through Europe and Egypt and came back with 36 photographs. So this number represents a major shift in philosophy on our part.

# of different beers – 135

This only includes those that I have sampled on this tour…but it seems like a worthwhile thing to continue.

# of plane flights – 48

Wow…even I had not thought that the number had gotten that high. We are frequent fliers on almost every airline group that exists these days.

# of airlines – 17

# of train rides – 52

This is only the long hall transit type train journeys and does not include the metro rides within a city. The shortest was one hour long (excluding the maglev) and the longest was 26 hours. The fastest hit 431kph on the maglev in Shanghai while the slowest was under 10kph on the Ooty train.

# of bus rides – 20

Once again this does not include airport transfers, local busses or the various short journey chicken busses.

Highest point – 5248 metres above sea level

Best and Worst

Category Jill Richard
 
Best Day Taj Mahal and Fort Halong Bay
Worst Day Sick in Jaipur Climbing Tai Shan
Best Experience Cant split between Hampi, Everest or Jiuzhaigou Food glorious food
Worst Experience Bhubaneswar Mt Everest – nearly killed me
Best Country China China – variety won
Worst Country India India (also had some of the best bits)
Best City Hampi Penang
Worst City New Delhi Bhubaneswar
Best Airline Indigo Air Asia X
Worst Airline Spice Jet Spice Jet
Best Hotel Garden Hotel Datong Garden Hotel Datong
Worst Hotel Sri Shyam Calcutta Sri Shyam Calcutta
Best Driver/Guide Tappa (Hampi) Tappa
Worst Driver/Guide New Delhi driver Most Indian Tuk Tuks
Best Toilet Xiamen Airport KL Airport
Worst Toilet Mt Everest Base camp Mt Everest Base camp
Best Meal Crab in Mangalore or feasts ordered by Frank in Beijing Too many to narrow down
Worst Meal Anything Tibetan Yak meat in Tibet
Best Sunrise Sri Lankan Beach The ones I sleep through
Worst Sunrise Kanyakumari The ones spent transiting
Best Sunset Sri Lankan Beach Alleppy houseboat
Worst Sunset Kanyakumari Beijing Smog

Most expensive / cheapest

Category Expensive Cheapest
 
Country Australia Vietnam
City Hong Kong Hanoi
Tourist Attractions Sri Lanka (Government run) China free museums for foreign passport holders
Coffee Urumqi airport $20 for nescafe instant Indian Railways 13c a cup
Beer Korea – Aussie nightclub prices Hanoi – beer hoi 40c for a big glass
Meal Hohhot (Lamb leg worth every penny) Hanoi $2 a head including beers

Most Overrated attractions or events

Couldn’t decide between the terracotta warriors or Yangtze River cruise.

Notable friends made along the way

Ruwan and his wife in Sri Lanka

Heath – Our real estate selling mate that we found lost in Shangrila and who showed us all around Jinan.

Emily and Simon – the Brit couple we met in Urumqi and caught up with again in Kyrgyzstan. Got to share good times, meals and drinks.

Foons – The two Aussie Paramedics cycling from Melbourne to Edinburgh. A familiar accent and sense of humour when we were furthest from home.

Cindy – The Canadarian / Chinese, rock climbing Mt Everest dynamo

Jills Favourite Pics

 

Floating markets Can Tho Vietnam

Floating markets Can Tho Vietnam

View from top of Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

View from top of Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

St Sophia's in Harbin

St Sophia’s in Harbin

Mount Everest plus prayer flags

Mount Everest plus prayer flags

View from the train to Lhasa

View from the train to Lhasa

Camel in Kashgar square

Camel in Kashgar square

Sunset on the beach at Phu Quoc Vietnam

Sunset on the beach at Phu Quoc Vietnam

Fat bottom sheep at the Kashgar Sunday Market

Fat bottom sheep at the Kashgar Sunday Market

Snowcapped mountains from the plane

Snowcapped mountains from the plane

Jiuzhaigou blue lakes

Jiuzhaigou blue lakes

Jiuzhaigou snow capped mountains

Jiuzhaigou snow capped mountains

Jiuzhaigou stream

Jiuzhaigou stream

Chinese pond with stone bridge

Chinese pond with stone bridge

Prayer Wheel and burnt remains of Shangri-La Old Town

Prayer Wheel and burnt remains of Shangri-La Old Town

Stone Forest Kunming

Stone Forest Kunming

Pagoda in Hangzhou

Pagoda in Hangzhou

Feeding the Koi

Feeding the Koi

Varanasi by the river

Varanasi by the river

Jodhpur the Blue City

Jodhpur the Blue City

Fat Man of Datong

Fat Man of Datong

Mt Everest plus Yaks

Mt Everest plus Yaks

Ruins in Hampi

Ruins in Hampi

Camels plus Driver in the Jaisalmer Desert

Camels plus Driver in the Jaisalmer Desert

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Lighthouse in Galle Sri Lanka

Lighthouse in Galle Sri Lanka

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Kashgar

 

Having left Kyrgyzstan we returned to Urumqi to find that all hell had broken loose. We landed at about 4pm to find that a terrorist bomb had been detonated that morning about 500 meters from our original hotel. The bomb had killed 39 and injured 94 and surprisingly the security had gone into overdrive throughout the city. The baddies drove 4WD’s into the crowd before lobbing hand grenades at a petrol station.

The issue is between the Muslim Uighur minority and the Chinese proper (mostly the Han Chinese). The two groups just do not seem to play nicely together. This part of China has been such for over 1000 years so it is not a turf thing but more a divergent lifestyle kinda thing. This has been the 4th such attack in the last two months and the death toll is over 100 now. The one that happened just before we landed in Urumqi last time was a bombing in a train station. As people fled the blast a second group of baddies were outside with knives and were stabbing those running from the explosion…charming.

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Either way we were only transiting and hopped a flight the next morning to Kashgar. Alas this is within the same province with the same ethnic minority and the security was through the roof and the tension was palpable. In excess of 100 armed troops and police in full riot kit were stationed outside the peoples park along with tanks and troop carriers etc. the looks on the faces of the locals was threatening and very unlike anything we have experienced thus far throughout China. The Uighur are renowned for their brick carving so the buildings around the old parts of the city were spectacular.

Possibly the three standout memories and experiences of this place are all food related…not really surprising coming from me but the number one memory will be the multitude of bakeries making and selling fresh bread from the street stalls. The second will be the butchers…everything is mutton here and a wander past the butcher stall will have 1-5 live sheep out the front (depending on the time of day), the remainder hanging unrefrigerated on the street with the sheep heads lying on the ground to prove the freshness. And the last is the aromas from the spice trade.

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Like Urumqi this city is heavily Muslim and the faces are almost entirely central Asian/middle eastern and the Chinese influence is negligible.  This part of the world is much more influenced by the Turkish part of the world than the Chinese.  The food and clothing reflect very little of the China we have experienced thus far. We hit the Bazaar (Sunday Market) and wandered the streets sampling some of the very different fare on offer. The Sunday Market in Kashgar is renowned as the biggest market in central Asia and has been a pivotal trading point along the Silk Road for over than 2,000 years. Jill was in heaven when we found the man with an entire table of date nougat…he who would happily cleave off big chunks for less than a dollar.

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We arrived here in stunning sunshine and blue skies aplenty. Alas overnight a sandstorm hit (we are on the edge of the desert) and that was the end of blue skies and respiratory pleasure for the next 3 days. The main reason for heading here was to attend the livestock markets that take place every Sunday. These are like no other on the planet so were a must see. Prior to this we hit the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China, People’s Park, and saw the 18 m (59 ft) high statue of Mao Zedong. But the livestock markets were the highlight by far. Kardashian sheep as far as the eye could see, horses, donkeys, cows, camels all being tested, prodded and poked.

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The horses were being put through their paces by bareback riders amid crowds of bidding Arab types yelling, screaming and chanting. The manner of testing the quality of a sheep was troubling at best…as the fatty deposits on the rear are the prized bit…there was a bunch of Arab types goosing these poor defenceless sheep. It reminded me of the old Rodney Rude learning to drive joke of…

Q. can you make a U-Turn
A. I can make her eyes pop.

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At the end of our time at the market we decided to head back to the bazaar as Sundays were the busiest day. The ride to the bazaar was in the back of a three wheeled open air motorbike ute thing and on arrival Jill managed to catch a pickpocket trying to get into her backpack and pinned shut pants pockets. Now this was fun…as she bashed him over the head with her water bottle…yelling I know it was you you dirty thief. He slunk away meekly while trying to ignore the bottle hitting him on the noggin. I will finish this post with three of our favourite photos from this leg of the journey…the fat bottomed sheep were just funny and a highlight of the region and Jill was overly enamoured by the puckering camel.

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Urumqi

So leaving Jiuzhaigou was an experience. Our flight required a 5am departure for the 90 minute drive to the airport. The airport is surrounded on three sides by snow capped peaks and it was stunning. It is nearing summer here and to have snow on 3 sides was pretty darn impressive. As the plane took off we could see the cloud layer below us and rising above the clouds was the dark layer of rocks and trees of the mountains and then the glistening snow layer.

Unfortunately airlines are a little funny about using telephones on take off and landing so we did not manage to get any photos of this but believe us when we tell you it was spectacular. In fact our entire trip to this part of China has been amazing and anyone planning to travel should have this place high on their list of things to do.

Our next stop was to the town of Urumqi in the north west of China. This place is the local provincial capital and due to the way the transport system works, we will be in and out of Urumqi quite a few times over the next few weeks. The flight into town skirted the Tian Shan mountain range so the view from the left hand side of the plane was that of snow peaks as far as the eye can see.

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Urumqi translates to beautiful pasture and is yet another stop on the northern section of the Silk Road. While the name means beautiful pasture it is anything but… Urumqi has been recorded as one of the most polluted cities on the planet (in 2007). In its defence the city has cleaned up quite a bit since that time but is really just a big industrial centre in the west of China with not too much going for it.

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Urumqi is actually in the Guinness book of records as the most inland city on the planet…meaning the furthest from any sea or ocean in the world. The closest body of water is over 2500 kilometres away in any direction. As a city it is big and ugly. For those old enough to remember the commonwealth bank money tins we got given back at school… that is the housing here…row after row of these ugly multi-storey boxes. Being China they still do a good park and the open spaces between the ugly buildings is quite nice but it is not a place high on the destination sakes.

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The area is largely Muslim but the eclectic mix of facial features here is possibly the most varied we have seen anywhere in China thus far. The traditional Chinese features are here but it mixes with the Tibetan, Middle Eastern, Indian and Russian facial features and the various hybrids that occur over time.

Being a largely Muslim area the food is very different to most of China…and is fantastic. We hit the street stalls and had a Muslim version of a pastie with lamb, beef, onions and spices…which was great and cost between 30-40 cents each. The lamb kebabs and naan are a fantastic and are available everywhere…it is a bit like getting a good coffee in Melbourne. There is the obligatory night market with food stalls aplenty and the bazaar which is a cornucopia of all things regional with spices, fruits, foods and the usual tourist trinkets.

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I got into essentially a flattened and roasted chicken that is cleaved into bite sized pieces and served with a chewy style of dry naan and spices. This was sold everywhere throughout the bazaar and was on the stand with the whole roasted sheep, and the stand next door to the sheep heads and entrails. Anyway…Chook, fingers, bread…tuck in. Would have been nice to wash it down with an icy ale…but it is frowned upon right next door to the mosque…go figure.

We went to the Xinjiang Uygur Regional Museum which is a tribute to the minority communities in the area. According to the museum there are over 47 nationalities or cultures residing in the Urumqi area. Thus explaining the variety in facial features. We did the normal tourist spots (parks, pagodas, temples etc) which were fine without being startling.

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Jill loves tulips and at this time of year they were in full bloom everywhere throughout the city.

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The Cathay Pacific HSBC Hong Kong rugby 7’s

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DAY ONE

Jill, Chris and I started the wander up the hill to the stadium for a 1pm start to day one of the rugby 7’s. We were there early and got prime position in the southern stand (the party stand) and marvelled as the day unfolded. It took quite a while to fill as the day had loads of qualifying games which included the teams competing to be permanent members of the competition… teams like: Spain, Portugal, Kenya, Russia, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Cook Islands, Zimbabwe, Chile, Barbados, Tunisia, American Samoa, Uruguay and of course Hong Kong.

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Also on day one was the women’s final (which was unfortunate that this was the only women’s game that we got to see cos they were great). More women’s games at these sorts of events really is needed as the quality was high and the crowd really supportive. In the evening each of the core teams had one game. Other than this the day was about the stadium, the costumes, the singing, the drinks and the characters.

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DAY TWO of the rugby and we were joined by Jeff and Bec Ballinger another rugby and school mate that I was lucky enough to stand up for when they married…way back when. We split up and the girls went sightseeing while the boys went to the footy. The Saturday at the 7’s is manic…fully sold out, everyone in costume and the southern (party) stand full before 9am and locked down by about 1pm. We arrived at about 11 and it was already a 5 hr wait to get into that stand…we boycotted and hung out in the main stands watching the games (and the antics) instead.

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At 11am the sky started getting dark, by 11:30 the entire sky was pitch black and the heavens opened in a monsoon that can only happen in the tropics. Quite a sight to see and experience. Two hours later the sun was shining and it was as if it had never happened.

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Watching the sevens from the eastern and western stands is quite a different experience as it is impossible to watch the rugby and enjoy an ale simultaneously. As such a proportion of the day was spent behind the stand watching a small television screen. Added to this these stands are full of school children wearing wildly non-age appropriate costumes and drinking heavily as the bar staff do not ask for ID’s. This had the obvious and foreseeable effects as the day wore on.

DAY THREE

The Sunday saw the finals day of the rugby and Jeff, Chris and I again attended along with Bec (who we managed to get an extra ticket for from a scalper without selling children or limbs)… we got there early and landed in the southern stand, set up camp and did not move until the day was over. Bec lasted a few hours before bailing to catch up with Jill, the rest of us did the hard yards that was 3 days drinking in the stands.

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The Cup Title was claimed by New Zealand

The Plate went to South Africa

The Bowl to Scotland and

Kenya Took the Shield

Japan won the Qualifying games and earned themselves a spot with the core teams. I am not exactly sure if this means that one of the lower sides has to drop back to be a qualifier next year but if so Spain, Portugal and Sri Lanka may be hunting for their spot back next year.

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This is an event that I had wanted to attend since I was in my late teens and I am so glad that I was able to do it and share the experience with old friends. I must admit if I had come here in my 20’s I am unlikely to have seen too much rugby as there is way too much else going on. Unlike the others when the games finished each day we headed for a meal and a sleep while we often found the younger ones the next day on the steps of the streets having their sleep and wearing their meals. This is a great event that I would seriously consider revisiting every 2-3 years. The expense and the liver may preclude every year.

 

 

 

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Hong Kong and Shenzhen

The order of this post is a touch out of order as we are heading back to Xiamen for Jill to do her assignment but nevertheless on we go. We took our first flight with dragon air which is a Cathay pacific affiliate and other than huge delays due to Hong Kong weather and air traffic control it was pretty good…newish plane, smooth flight, pleasant flight attendants, nice tasting food, range of entertainment options.

Got into HK and went cruising around town, doing our usual mix of sightseeing and eating. It must be said very early on in this post that Hong Kong is incredibly expensive when compared with the rest of China. It remains about half of the Australian price but is a lot more than what we have been paying for everything on the mainland. Food is about 4-25 times more expensive depending upon which joint you hit.

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We headed over to Kowloon to get our backpacks mended (due to some damage inflicted by dodgy Indian baggage handlers) and generally just poke around. After our chores we hit Nathan road which is a major shopping district on the Kowloon side then on to the park, the mosque (interesting to note that after dark near the mosque the streets turn into markets selling vibrators and ice pipes), then down to the water for a walk along Tsim Sha Tsui, the city light show and the avenue of the stars walk.

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PAUSE – We paid a lot of money for our Osprey brand backpacks and the experience of having them mended justified the expense. Jill’s bag had violently skidded across every Tarmac in India and had a couple of minor holes from intense scuffing and my trolley handle catch was not releasing properly. Two emails each way and all sorted…no fuss no bother…no cost. The extra money buys you top quality and customer service.

The next day we headed back across to mainland China to the city of Shenzhen where we caught up with Chris Rea an old rugby friend and Laurie’s boy who had spent a long time living in Asia. We wandered the city and saw how easy life could be if you had the language skills that Jill and I are still struggling to manage (I swear that there is a switch in your brain somewhere that we just can’t find). We all headed back to HK together for the rugby the next day (rugby gets its own post).

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On day 2 we were joined by Jeff and Bec Ballinger long time friends dating back to school. The boys went to the footy while the girls apparently went to the Chi Lin Nunnery, the Nan Lian gardens, Hong Kong park, hit the computer market, and had high tea at the Azure hotel. Then we all hooked up for a lottery dinner and a few drinks at the end of the day.

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Sunday was all about the football for the boys and Bec for the early part then she bailed on us and went with Jill to see the Bruce Lee exhibit at the heritage museum the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery.

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Monday was a group day where we wandered town stopping for yum cha brunch at the oldest place in town (Lin Heung Tea House). There is a Michelin star rated dim sum place in HK that is the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world but alas we never got there.
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We caught up with Chris again in the afternoon and all had a farewell drink before Chris headed off to china that evening, we returned to Xiamen the next morning and Bec and Boof were due to head back to Rockhampton the day after. A great week, good times and awesome friends.

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Taal Volcano and then Manila Airport

The trip to the volcano was entertaining to say the least. The drive from Makati out to Taal was fun but uneventful as was the boat ride over to the island. Upon landing we were met with the choice of walking (hiking) up the mountain or paying 500 pesos (about $12) to ride the rattiest looking horses on the planet to the top of the mountain. There was a group of 6 of us who had left the backpackers together. As poor sad backpackers money was an issue, as fat buggers the health of the poor horse was of greater concern. So we chose to hike the hill.

Under normal circumstances the hike is about an hour each way and it is a fair work out….however we picked a day when a monsoon hit the island. Around 10 minutes into the hike the heavens opened and remained open for the next 40 minutes. This had the net effect of turning our dirt path into a river of mud about 4 inches deep while we went up what at times was up to a 40 degree incline and the erosion grooves could not be seen underfoot.

Despite this we continued on, being passed by old Korean women on horses, because we were the only idiots who chose to hike the peak. Jill in her poncho me with nothing. About 25 minutes into the rain patch I had the revelation that my phone, wallet, passport and international drivers licence was in a pocket that had reached saturation point within the first 2 minutes of the monsoon start. We pointlessly paused under a tree to transfer the sodden items to under the poncho and boxed on to the top of the hill.

Upon arrival at the caldera of the volcano the rain miraculously stopped. We were met by the ubiquitous Filipino ladyboy holding a golf club asking if I would like to use the lake inside the volcano crater as my personal driving range. After an appropriate period of time admiring the active volcano (and catching our breath after some quite steep bits on the way up) we decided to head down. I was enthused to see that 2 other idiots chose to walk up as we were heading down. Other than that the rest sat atop ratty nags.

And we returned to Manila. It was our last night in Makati and we had a 3am departure from the hostel to get our 7am flight to Beijing. We jumped a cab that had been negotiated by the hostel staff as using the meter and as soon as we drove off he asked “how much you pay last time”. NO… TURN ON THE METER was the reply. This went on for about 200 meters until I opened the door and got out while Jill stayed in the Cab until I had the bags safely removed. We got into the next cab who promptly turned on the meter and the rest was simple.

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