Best of

After travelling for 350 days, visiting 136 places in 19 countries* across 106,659km, and having a couple of months back home in Sydney to reflect on our ‘year without seatbelts’, there were a few stand out experiences, places, meals, rides etc. Here, then, is our ‘best of’ list – the superlative account of the trip, or the account of our superlatives.


Most memorable runs

We bought ‘five fingers’ barefoot sports shoes at the start of our trip which, with each toe separately encased, look like foot gloves – or Muppet feet. You may recall that the owner of a guest house in Dana, Jordan, thought I had special needs when he saw me wearing them. Our theory was that – since they pack down small, and adjust your running style to cause less strain to the body – we’d substitute running for the exercise we do at home (I commute to work on the bike). In fact we didn’t run as much as we should have since it always seemed to be too hot / too cold / too dark / too isolated – but there were some memorable moments nonetheless.

  1. Running through the millet fields near Mikumi National Park in Tanzania was liberating, especially at the thought of leopards and lions lying in wait nearby. The millet was head high, so running along the dirt paths through the fields effectively meant we were locked in. Sarah was initially using the thought of a wild cat on her tail to motivate her speed, but got so worked up by the thought of being chased that she fell, which is just what the pursuing beasts would want. I heard a yell in the distance behind me and circled around to find her sprawled on the ground with a bloody knee but thankfully not with a wild big cat attached to her jugular.
  2. Kara in northern Togo felt a long way off the beaten track and we went even further off it with a run through the grasslands dotted with Baobab trees. As with the run in Mikumi, it always feels slightly unsettling to be running through the African bush, as though you’re a mouse attracting the eyes of a predator with all of your scuttling around. On this run the most pain came through our ‘five finger’ shoes from the sharp little rocks on the path – but the views of the rolling hills, nearby mosques and sunset-bathed atmosphere were worth it. We got some encouragement from a group of farmers taking a rest from their work; at least, that’s how we took their smiles and shouting.
  3. Sarah enjoyed running in Cuba, despite the humidity which knocked me out. One of her favourite runs was heading along the Malecon harbour wall in Havana, with the locals strolling and singing and whistling and busking around her.  Another was passing goats, chickens, horses and Russian trucks serving as buses, in the rural village of Santo Domingo near Castro’s hide out in the overhanging mountains – while I stayed at the guest house and smoked a Cuban cigar (as you do). She noticed that pretty much everywhere she ran, though, in a variety of countries, young men would run alongside her for a moment, mimicking her shuffling style and encourage or laugh at her (or both).


  1. We took in a lot of great mountain scenery on our trip but the official highest point was in the Spiti Valley in northern India, where we reached the dizzying heights of Kibber village which is 4,270 metres high and surrounded by even bigger mountains. The sky seemed an even darker shade of brilliant blue up there but the river ran brown through the rocky landscape. Baby yaks nibbled on grass in the village green while we ate lunch above them.
  2. I found it surprising that Banff  in Canada is only 1,463 metres high, a mere minnow in relative terms. It’s surprising because the mountain scenery in the area is so striking and spectacular that it feels higher. The Rockies certainly stand out for their sheer majesty.
  3. At 1,800 metres, Yaylalar in the Kackar mountains of Eastern Turkey was the most snow we got on the trip. It felt like we were the first visitors of the season after winter and, driving to the end of the road, it became like a snow tunnel with the white stuff piled twice as high as the car on either side.


While not normally a ‘best of’ kind of category, we went to the lowest points on the surface of the earth that you can reach without going underwater.

  1. The Dead Sea is a remarkable place. It has it’s own little micro-climate which made it feel like summer when for the rest of time in Jordan we had been rugged up in coats. The water is ridiculously salty which makes it handy for reading the paper. It’s 423 metres below sea level which is as low as you can go.
  2. At only 83 metres below sea level Death Valley in California doesn’t really compare but it is the lowest point in the United States and it is remarkably hot. They run an ultra-marathon here for reasons that escape me. It’s a remarkable landscape but the free water for overheating engines that dot the landscape are a reminder of how harsh it can be.


  1. The hottest place we visited was – unsurprisingly – Death Valley which has the second highest temperature ever recorded in the world. When we were there in early autumn it only got to 46 degrees celcius which is enough that you notice it. The locals working in the national park office said it was a cool day for that time of year.
  2. The next hottest place was Delhi which got to 43 degrees in the shade. It was a dry heat at least but definitely not good weather for wandering around ancient landmarks. At the Delhi Observatory I hid in the shade of a bush like an overheating bird.
  3. It’s not all about highest temperatures as those familiar with the evils of humidity can testify. The place that felt the hottest to me was Ouidah in Benin, home to the voodoo festival. We stayed in a small hostel and the room overlooked the backyard kitchen and grill. There was no air-conditioning so we just had the overhead fan on full blast above us all night.
  4. Sarah felt hottest in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with humidity at 85% and a heat rash courtesy of anti-malarial tablets and too much sun on Mafia Island. She lay awake for most of one night with burning arms, before settling on a system of using unopened cans of cold drinks to cool down.


Sarah is my canary in the coalmine for cold weather. She travelled with a mini hot water bottle and would whip it out at the slightest chill – including asking random people at restaurants and guest houses to borrow their kettle. These are the places where the hottie got a workout.

  1. Thankfully the coldest place we visited was also the most well heated. Iceland has no shortage of heat – it steams and bubbles out of the ground and is tapped with hot water heaters and the sublime thermal swimming pools and hot tubs. It was with anticipatory pleasure that we got cold in Iceland, knowing we’d warm up in an instant at the end of each day. Truly blissful.
  2. You wouldn’t expect Jordan to be a cold place but in November the cold wind whipped off the desert and chilled us to the bone. Unlike Iceland there were no hot tubs waiting for us at the end of the day. In fact, at one hotel they had to turn the petrol generator on for us. It was probably the coldest we felt on the trip.
  3. In Eastern Turkey it was coming into spring, not that you would know it. Erzurum is the biggest town in the eastern region and is known as the freezer of the East for its low temperatures. We caught it in a more mild season but it was still freezing. There was snow in the hills and its iciness was transported directly to us on the biting winds. We had to wait for the heating in the hotel to come on at night and we just huddled together until then.

Most enjoyable people

The trip reinforced for us one of the things we love about travel – that people are kind, welcoming and interesting, all over the world; it really is a global village. But there is also a national psyche that you can pick up on in different countries. The Canadians can’t help but all be Super Nice, but with Sarah’s family and friends scattered across that great white land, I’d be accused of bias (or stating the bleeding obvious) if they were to make the top three.

  1. Turkey certainly wins for having the most considerate locals, from the taxi driver who undercharged us to the teenager on the bus who said nothing but bought us a chocolate bar each. They are not effusive but downright decent.
  2. Despite its scary image, Africa had the most open and friendly locals on our trip. Honest and warm, almost everyone we met was a delight.
  3. People in Jordan were super-friendly and honest. Again, this belies the media portrayal of Middle Eastern countries being humourless and hostile to Westerners, but the locals really do take being hospitable as a point of pride.
  4. Sarah notes that she was amazed by the courtesy between locals and towards us in India and China, given the massive population of each and almost constant crowds – there was hardly any pushing, shoving, shouting, and (based on road rage at home) it would be hard to imagine Aussies packed that densely being so polite to each other.

Best meal

  1. The standout meal in my opinion was in Mexico with the Gonzalez family. They took us to a local restaurant where the salsa was freshly pounded at the table by the waiters. We were presented with a sizzling t-bone which we sliced ourselves and put into soft tacos with the salsa and a variety of other fresh ingredients, all washed down with excellent tequila. There were also delicious breakfast options and other taco meals, including cactus.
  2. We had a fancy meal in Istanbul for Sarah’s birthday which was relatively cheap but top dollar for Turkey. It was sensational Turkish food with modern sensibilities. Lamb kebab with charred plums, delicious dips and fresh seafood, all with a gorgeous view over the Bosphorus. The bread in Turkey, which I devoured at every meal, is worth the price of admission alone.
  3. Some of the best food meals on our trip came from an unlikely place, the coast of Ghana. We stayed at a small resort with thatched cottages owned by a Nigerian and French expat couple, whose exacting food standards combined with the fresh produce led to some superb meals of fresh fish with flavourful tomato, and yoghurt with millet for dessert.
  4. A special mention has to be made for China whose rich food history results in cheap, delicious and varied fare. Every region has a distinct meal, style or ingredient. From northern noodles and fresh dumplings, to Peking duck, to spicy Sichuan hotpots, to Central Asian lamb dishes to Vietnamese-style Yunnanese fare (including flower salads) – Sarah and I looked forward to every meal.

Worst meal

  1. There weren’t as many bad meals as you would expect. I think the worst was on one of our first nights in Ghana where we had the traditional dish of fish stew with fermented corn paste. The paste tasted like uncooked dough and the fish looked like the type that we saw in markets, dried in the sun and covered in flies. Later on, across Africa, we had the paste (ugali or fufu) and it was fine, though on the bland side (like rice or pasta) if not eaten with a curry or sauce.
  2. A meal that gives you food poisoning doesn’t necessarily taste bad, but sadly the fish dish in Havana that caused me to spew up horrible green bile the next night was also rank tasting. That should have been a warning sign but sometimes you’re just so hungry that you finish anyway. To add insult to injury the street cat under the table sneezed on my leg after I had palmed half my dinner off to him.
  3. It’s not often that you leave a hotel because of the food they serve but the hotel restaurant in Mbeya, Tanzania seemed to have stopped caring. We were in a vegetarian phase but the vegetable curry they served up was just so ordinary that life was too short to experience it again.
  4. Dishonourable mention has to go to Cuba in general. Whereas China has a rich food tradition, Cuba seems to have focussed their attention on singing, dancing, music and rum, which they do very well. The food is not totally lacking fresh ingredients but there is just no imagination shown in any of the cooking. Everyone does the same meals across the island. I have since developed an aversion to guava juice and eggs for breakfast.
  5. A second special mention goes to the dried cod chips in Iceland. You buy these in the supermarket like a bag of crisps but freeze dried chunks of raw fish is not my idea of a good time. I couldn’t even finish one piece; kudos to Sarah who had two. We didn’t get a chance to try the local traditional dish of putrefied shark, partly due to it being the wrong season, and partly due to the incredibly expense of eating anything in Iceland. We ended up sticking with supermarket purchases and making our own – although you could buy sheep heads packaged like any other meat cut, direct from the supermarket and ready to cook at home.

Best natural scenery

  1. Iceland is a stunning country. There are so many moments that stand out as the sun set over the mountains in the early afternoon. Add glaciers, black sand beaches, volcanoes, natural thermal pools, winding mountain roads and no one else around, you get somewhere that feels unique. The island is slowly being pulled apart by tectonic forces so go and see it while you can.
  2. Tanzania hands down has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The diversity is incredible, from the beautiful wide open savannahs of the Serengeti to the mountainous areas like Kilimanjaro, Arusha, the Usumbaras and the Southern Highlands, and then the exquisite white sand / turquoise blue water beaches of Zanzibar.
  3. The Himalayan region of India is mind blowing in scale. There is nothing like a huge mountain range to make you feel like an ant in both time and space. The Spiti valley was huge and remorseless; dry, high, dusty and stark.

Best man made scenery

  1. Even though it was made a long time ago, the Roman ruins in Jerash are still gob-smacking, even crumbling as they are now. The scale and detail are like nothing else we saw, apart from…
  2. the Taj Mahal. This gleaming edifice is breathtaking. Even being de-sensitized to its general shape from seeing it over and over in the media doesn’t dull its impact. Definitely a building that lives up to the hype.
  3. In many ways the city of New York is a modern wonder. Built on an inhospitable and swampy island it now has the most recognisable skyline in the world. We’d both visited before, but still love it. And further, the buzz of life, art, food, action, architecture there is a big part of why the scenery is so intoxicating – it’s inhabited scenery.

Most surprising destination

  1. Iceland was the best surprise we had on the trip. All I really knew about the place was the Blue Lagoon and Sarah just wondered why we were going at all. We discovered a stunning and unique country that we could have spent a lot more time in if it wasn’t so damn expensive.
  2. We were also surprised to be surprised by China, given how much is written and talked about it. Intellectually I know that the place is modern and growing and has great artists, but to see it all bundled up with the history and food and scenery is something else again. Sarah was expecting to be intrigued and interested by China, but was surprised to be emotionally engaged by it too. Wonderful place, and not just because it is carrying Australia’s economy!
  3. We didn’t have a firm idea of what Zanzibar was like before this trip but it was a revelation. The blend of African, Arabic, Indian cultures and languages and food and history together with amazing meals and scenery made this one of the most interesting places we visited.

Worst illness

  1. Sarah only had one bad illness but it gets the prize for the worst. The altitude sickness in Mexico hit without warning, but hit hard. Like a really bad flu it gave Sarah fever, diarrhoea, nausea, loss of appetite and worst of all, sleeplessness – which meant all she could do was lie there and complain to me. Somehow she managed to survive the trip through Mexico City traffic and the bus to Patzcuaro but there wasn’t much moving for the week after that. It only released its grip when we descended to the heavy sea air in Manhattan.
  2. My food poisoning episode in Santiago de Cuba was probably not helped by taking gastro stop in the mistaken assumption that it was some kind of diarrhoea cure when in fact it hinders healing. My dodgy stomach hung around for a good couple of weeks and just as I recovered in Havana I got a second dose of food poisoning (refer to questionable fish meal and sneezing cat above). I was not a happy camper.
  3. The last illness I got was in China. A beast of a lung infection, it hit while we were climbing thousands of stone steps on Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and had to wake at 4:30am to see the sun rise. It had me feverish and bed bound for a week and hung around as an irritant long afterward.

Being sick overseas is easily the worst part of travel. We just dreamed about Vegemite toast.


Best wildlife

  1. It’s hard to go passed the gorillas (literally).  Seeing a wild animal up close with no barriers, especially one as close to humans as gorillas are, is a magical experience.  The feeling of crouching beneath a chest thumping silverback will stay with me for a while.
  2. There were so many amazing safari moments in Tanzania.  The herds of elephants and giraffe in Mikumi, the lions walking towards us in the Serengeti, and the huge herd of elephants we had to drive madly passed as they wandered up the dirt track.
  3. The pandas in Chengdu are not quite as wild as these African animals.  Even if they were in the wild you get the impression they would still be chilling out on their back munching their way through a clump of bamboo.  They are definitely the cutest.

Top memes

When you’re spending almost literally every waking hour with another person you develop a special language based on some of your shared experiences. These are the top memes from our travels.

  1. “Awww stinky!”. This was said in the accent of a young Australian boy and was expressed at foul smelling bowel gas. Stinky was a dog we met on the beach in Ghana. Sarah thought it was a cute name as he sat near us at the beach restaurant until she looked closer and saw all the scabs and fleas. For some reason, Stinky (the actual dog) and this phrase stuck with us.
  2. Guzelyurt (pronounced Ger-Zel-Yurt) has become our secular replacement for ‘bless you’ when one of us sneezed. It is a town in Capadoccia, Turkey that really has no link to sneezing.
  3. “You know what I mean” said in an adorable French-Canadian accent. Sarah’s cousin Julie’s son was trying to explain something to his sister in the car but couldn’t quite convey the meaning. In the end he resorted to saying “you know what I mean!” over and over while his sister giggled and said “no I don’t”.
  4. “Right there!” was uttered every so often by Connor, Sarah’s cousin Steph’s son. In itself this is not remarkable but Connor’s voice is as gravelly as a pack a day man which is incongruous coming from a toddler. Add a cute Canadian accent and you have the beauty of “right there!”.
  5. Our safe word was “Woolloomooloo”. If either of us slipped this word into conversation it was meant to indicate a dodgy situation or vehicle that we should exit as soon as possible. Sarah would sometimes ask “Is this a Woolloomooloo situation?” to which I inevitably shrugged. Now that we’re back in Sydney we might need to come up with a new safe word.

*Canada, USA, Mexico, Cuba, Iceland, UK, Jordan, Israel, Dubai, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Rwanda, Tanzania, Turkey, India, China, Singapore, Bali – and yes, we can now list these in one breath!

The Gear

When you travel for a year there are a small number of objects that become essential to your happiness. When Sarah thought she lost her head lamp in Kigali her distress was not because she lost a ‘thing’ but something that was vital in certain situations and not easily replaced. She held similar fears when we accidentally left behind her travel pillow in Capadoccia, an object that rescued us from many sleepless nights. In the end the pillows for the rest of the trip weren’t too bad, but not having that pillow in Africa would have been a nightmare.

So here’s list of what we found useful – equipment, time to take a bow:

Camera – IXUS800 and SX220

You can’t really blame our old camera for conking out. We just wish it had picked a more convenient time than the middle of our first safari. We had taken tens of thousands of photos with it and lugged it through some extreme conditions so it wasn’t a huge surprise that it became unable to zoom and focus at the same time. The IXUS served us well and we stuck with Canon to get the SX220 which has an incredible optical zoom for a compact camera and some cool effects. It’s a bit ropey with variable lighting conditions but we got some great shots with it.

Netbook – ASUS Eeepc

I’m a big fan of the little netbook style of computer and this little guy was a trooper. It came almost literally everywhere with me as I wasn’t comfortable leaving it most of the hotels and hostels that we stayed in. Tucked into my backpack it caused me no small amount of back ache after a day of sight-seeing but it never let us down despite the extreme heat in some places. It was only when we got back to Sydney that the OS decided to throw a fatal and unrecoverable error, much like the car in the Blues Brothers falling apart when they get to their destination. Having an SD card slot made it easy to grab photos off the camera and we spent many evenings editing photos or watching a video of Mad Men or Game of Thrones. It also enabled me to write the blog on the go.

Netbook charger

I have to give a special shoutout to the netbook charger which accepted an extraordinary variety of weird currents and converted them into nice, safe power for the netbook to consume. In the end the tip of the charger got bent and we needed a replacement by the time we got back to Australia, another sign that our time was up. I got a really nice travel plug set from somewhere as well that accepted US and Australian plugs and had adaptors for every country we visited.  It made life much simpler and didn’t take up too much space.

Sleeping sheets

Before we left I had purchased some incredibly cheap silk sleeping sheets from Vietnam. They were incredibly cheap because they were satin which we didn’t pick up on until Sarah used one of them in Cuba and drastically over-heated. We bought a proper silk one for Sarah in Jerusalem and I got a cotton version. They are great for using when the beds don’t seem too clean or you want a bit of extra warmth when your feet stick over the end of the bed. I didn’t find that they kept bed bugs out as when denied access to my body they just seemed to crawl up to my face instead.

Travel pillow

These pillows by Nemo are genius. They are light and fold up into a very tight package. There is a layer of foam but you can also blow air into them. After a bit of experimentation during which it felt like sleeping on an old waterbed, our heads bouncing from side to side, these pillows were the height of comfort and saved us from many sleepless nights.

Ear plugs

A sadly necessary travel item, the humble ear plug got quite a workout in many places on our trip. You would think quietness would be a more common feature in hotels but it’s more of a rarity than the norm. I have two varieties of ear plug: the putty style plugs which I find worked best for sleeping in (foam ones often pop out of my ears) and the fancy customised plugs made by an audiologist which fit my ears perfectly and are perfect for cutting the ambient noise down, such as in a West African bush taxi playing music at ear bleeding levels.


The ultimate travel accessory, the kindle was worth its weight in gold. We stored travel guides on it and enough books to keep us entertained all year. We downloaded books from many unlikely countries and the whispernet connection could be used to check emails. Long battery life is a bonus. I used the kindle app on my phone which is like walking around with a guidebook in your pocket.

Android smartphone – Galaxy S

The phone had a variety of uses. We used Google Maps for navigation, the kindle app to use as a travel guide, Hapi podcast app for long journeys, I played Angry Birds while waiting, we used the XE app for currency conversion and astrid tasks for creating to-do lists or just recordings items for the blog.

eKit Global SIM

This is a great concept – one SIM that connects to phone companies around the world allowing you to make calls and texts from around the world. They can be topped up online. The execution is not so great. Calls sound like you’re phoning from Mars and texts can take a while to be delivered. To its credit the SIM connected in almost every country, in fact I can’t think of anywhere that it totally failed, but we still ended up buying a local SIM in most places which isn’t very difficult and the clarity is way better.


These in-ear style headphones are great for blocking outside noise and gave good sound quality. Losing one of the buds in Dubai airport on the way to Africa was a pain. I had to improvise padding with a spare foam ear plug until we could get a replacement.

Headlamp – Petzl Tikka Plus 2

We each had one of these and they were brilliant. I bought USB rechargable batteries for them so we could just plug them into the computer to recharge. Africa is quite a dark place so they were espcially useful here. They have a red light mode for night use when you don’t want to wake your travel companion, two levels of brightness and a flashing mode which we didn’t use a lot.

Travel towel

We had two of these towels each and they do come in handy. So many hotels around the world only seem to supply one towel, or none at all, so having an ultra absorbant and quick drying towel is essential.

Day pack

Origianally Sarah’s, I stole this off her before we left and it came everywhere with us. It’s still going strong so we know it’s tough and comfortable.

Large pack

Unlike Sarah’s pack which had wheels (great for her until we hit stairs when I would lug it up and down for her), this old pack has lasted since 1999 and is still holding together. Big enough for my needs I would hoist it on my back when we moved accommodation.

Packing cells

A simple idea, these packing cells were useful for keeping all our clothes in one easily accessible place rather than stuffed randomly in our bags. I don’t think they helped much keeping my clothes wrinkle free but unlike my last big backpacking trip when I came back with clothes stuffed at the bottom of the bag that I hadn’t used all trip, these cells kept everything in sight.

Cable bag

I stole this bag as well from Sarah’s parents when they visited us in Jordan. My original bag was tearing but this one lasted the journey and is vital for keeping all the cables in one place.

Water bottle filters

None of these survived the trip intact but they worked ok. We bought two at the start which had a charcoal filter in them that you suck the water through. This filter gets clogged pretty fast and it becomes difficult and frustrating to get any liquid, but it was better than nothing in a lot of places and saved a heap of plastic bottles.

Food bag

Sarah picked up this recycled plastic bag with a zipper in Ghana. You wouldn’t think that it would last very long but it did the hard yards in my day pack and is still going strong. We kept snacks in here for emergencies.

Money sporran

This money belt was almost permanently attached to me. I don’t know how its odour remained so inoffensive. It was comfortable and secure.

Passport holder

A kind gift from my sister and family this woolen passport holder definitely stopped my passport falling apart before its time.

Perth: the far side of Australia

Full set of Perth photos

We got our cultural cringe out of the way early at the airport in Denpasar waiting to board our flight to Perth. A more bogan bunch of Aussies would be hard to find and we felt the exoticness of the past year fade away, especially when the news on the plane, even with the sound off, was obviously droning on about the same political issues as when we had left. Nothing had changed and after experiencing so much ourselves this feeling jarred.

Of course, there were wonderful aspects to being back, drinking water out of the tap being high on the list, but also seeing our friends and family. Our friend Lisa met us at the airport with the sign we had been looking for since getting off the plane.

Lisa and Damian cooked a fantastic fresh salad with chicken and we met their two lovely Burmese cats, Akira and Mishka who won us over in no time in that friendly Burmese way.

Lisa kindly took the next day off work so we headed to Kings Park to take in the Perth panorama. This was my first visit to the city and after all the talk of a booming town and mining millions it was nice to see a lot of heritage buildings around the CBD as well. It feels like a small but growing city with a fantastic setting. Kings Park has to be one of the best city parks in the world with killer views and a vast expanse of greenery that will hopefully stay development free.

We headed down to Fremantle next and tried to grab some winter sun sitting outside at Little Creatures brewery, which cooked the best hot chips we had eaten in years and some pretty nice pizza and beer to wash it down. We got a tour of the brewery which runs through and around the restaurant.

The day had started to get away from us so after a quick walk along the beach at Cottesloe, famous mainly for the ferocity of its sharks, we got ingredients for dinner and made a dash back to the coast in time to see the sun sinking into the sunset clouds on the horizon. The crispness of the air was in stark contrast to our time in China and India and made us feel lucky to be living in such a privileged country.  Thanks Lisa and Damian for being wonderful hosts.

Full set of Perth photos

Singapore and Bali

View the full set of Singapore and Bali photos

We stopped over in Singapore for a few days to meet up with my sister Rachel, my brother-in-law Tony and their two kids, Grace and Harry, who just happened to be on their way to France for a holiday. It was great to see them.

Singapore was a lot less hot than the last time we were there so we spent less time sheltering in air-conditioned malls. We went along to the famous zoo which we had missed last time. It was nice but after you’ve been on safari the zoo has less of a thrill. The orangutans have a great enclosure because it’s actually not very closed in. They ramble in the trees that hang over public paths so you really walk through their habitat. The big hit with the kids was the water park within the zoo grounds which has a cornucopia of watery delights, the most scary of which is the giant elephant bucket which at periodic intervals tips over, dumping an enormous amount of water everywhere. It’s startling even for an adult the first time you experience it, so Harry did pretty well not to totally freak out when he was innocently inspecting something and suddenly his whole world turned into flying water. Luckily the water landed all around him without taking him out but he avoided that area from then on. Grace and Sarah took a few water beatings while I nursed my cold on the sidelines.

While the kids were being babysat at the hotel and the girls were getting a beauty treatment Tony and I wandered down to Gardens by the Bay, a new park built-in typical glittering Singaporean style which has these incredible looking solar trees. I have no idea what they’re for but they look very nice with their fern covered metal trunks and bright leaves.

When we bid farewell to the family and got our own flight to Bali it was with the intention of relaxing rather than exploring. While Bali is undoubtedly an interesting place, a lush island with one of the most religious populations in the world practising a brand of Hinduism, we figured we could come back at some point when we had more energy. We threw ourselves into India and China but before heading back to Australia we just wanted to unwind.

And what a place to do it. A villa among the rice terraces 15 minutes outside the town of Ubud was perfect. It was private and overlooked a lush valley. It felt like we were sleeping in nature and most nights we ate in our private pavilion and took it easy. Our one big excursion was a bicycle tour where you ride down a volcano, although it’s an old volcano with lots of villages and farms rather than one spewing lava over a denuded landscape.  Before the ride they show you a nearby active volcano that, judging by the scarified slopes, erupts reasonably frequently. The ride itself was great. Bali really is a beautiful place and gliding down the narrow roads, with rice terraces on either side and little statues marking shrines, was a marked contrast to our last big cycle in Gokceada. There are a huge number of temples in Bali and it seemed like the hotel needed a huge number of staff to cover people popping off to the temple a few times a day. The temples feature ornately carved stone gates and towers depicting Hindu gods, dragons and lions. Most of the houses seem to have their own small temples and the homes are compounds that house the entire extended family.

The first part of the tour took in a spice and coffee farm where we bought up big on civet coffee, that famous brand where the coffee bean is refined in the bowels of this weasel-like creature.  We don’t drink coffee anymore but Sarah gave it a sip and declared it smooth.  Our coffee drinking parents seemed initially less keen when we presented the gifts back in Australia but after a bit of coaxing they too have declared it an excellent coffee.

Soon enough our Bali jaunt was over and very nearly our world trip, if not for a stopover in Perth which was lovely.  As I had never been before I’m counting as part of the journey.

View the full set of Singapore and Bali photos

Huangshan: Climbing steeply, mountain torment

The Huangshan mountains are the kind of mountains you imagine when thinking about China: craggy, covered in pines growing at odd angles out of the rock, shrouded in mist and peppered with bamboo on the lower slopes. To get there we stayed in the nearby town of Tunxi which has one old street where the tourists and hawkers gather to exchange money for goods. Near the old gate a Chinese orchestra was playing, which to my ears sounded pretty average, but perhaps it’s an acquired taste. It could be that with so much other great art to focus on music got left behind, sort of like cooking has in Cuba. Still, the old folk in the orchestra looked like they were enjoying themselves.

At the hotel in Tunxi we tried testing the great firewall of China. I typed in Tiannamen Square and got the wikipedia page. Egged on by Sarah I typed in Free Tibet and Google returned results, but then everything went weird and a screen came up asking for our room number and password. Now maybe this was just the standard hotel website login form kicking in, or maybe it was something more sinister. We never got to the bottom of it, preferring to creep ourselves out with the idea that we were being monitored and actively blocked.

We ate at an absurdly popular restaurant, quite a big two-storey place with a golden carp filled pool separating the food eating area from the food selecting area. The ordering system was so convoluted it’s amazing we got anywhere in this place. We were handed a sheet of paper and pencil on entry and directed to a large area in front of the kitchen where samples of all their dishes were laid out for selection, the idea being that you wander around and mark on your paper what you would like to order. Sarah did this, presuming that she was putting it all in the correct columns under the Mandarin headings. It was elbows out time as we bustled around the old ladies. It was definitely not the most serene ordering process and we were ruffled by the time we sat down in the waiting area for a table to become free. We had been assigned a number in Chinese but had no idea what this would sound like when the maitre de announced it. Sarah asked the people around us how the number was pronounced but it sounded like a different answer each time. As there was only one other foreigner in the place we were pretty sure the staff would figure it out and sure enough we were seated and enjoyed great food at the usual cheap price.

We got a bus out to Huangshan and walked up from the entrance. When I say walked up, I’m talking about the concrete stairs which cover the mountain completely, including going right up to the high peaks.  It is ludicrously steep.

What they call Huangshan mountain is actually a series of peaks that you spend all day climbing up and down through the thick forest, thankfully cooler in the altitude than lower down. This was not a good day for me to start coming down with the flu. Someone described Huangshan as like being on a stairmaster all day that you get off every 20 minutes and say “Wow…look at that view!”. The views are incredible.

As we struggled uphill the crowds increased when we got to the dumping point for the chair lift. Our smug feeling at having walked up wore off fast as we elbowed our way through the crowds once again. It got to the point where we were caught in a people jam as we waited for the crowds to squeeze through a narrow uphill section.

When at last we made it to the hotel after what felt like to me the hardest days walking of the year, our pain wasn’t quite over. There are no roads to the upper levels of Huangshan so everything has to be carried up by porters with calf muscles as big as melons. This inflates prices so that an ordinary hotel room costs $300. We sucked it up and had booked a bed in the much cheaper dorm rooms instead. Dorm rooms are never pleasant and despite a promising start with quite tidy rooms, the beds turned out to be a fraction too short and had mattresses that were harder than wood. Sarah and I were split up into different rooms because of our gender. I lucked out with just one other room mate and Sarah was looking to be in a similarly lucky position, but after we ate dinner and came back to the rooms Sarah found a family camped in hers who proceeded to watch TV at full volume while they ate their noodles. The male members of the family came and left frequently, often ringing the very loud doorbell which I could even hear in my room through ear plugs, and without fail slamming the door as hard as humanly possible. Then there was the yelling in the corridor which was piercing. I don’t know if these people were the Chinese equivalent of yokels but they seemed to have no comprehension that other people might be trying to sleep. They even reached over Sarah while she was in bed to charge their electronic devices. This all might have been bearable if Sarah wasn’t planning to get up at 4.30am to look at the sunrise, a famous activity in mountainous regions of Asia. I had already subjected myself to this in Taiwan some years ago and was busy looking after a fever, so I just had a fitful sleep until 4.30 rolled around and all the local tourists started yelling at each other in the corridors again and banging doors.

While Sarah went to take photos of the completely fogged in scenery, which was beautiful in a different way, I lay in bed mentally preparing myself to walk down the mountain at least as far as the closest cable car station a few hours away. Thankfully the fever broke long enough for me to have some instant noodles and the booty Sarah stole from the buffet breakfast. It was atmospheric walking through the mist but we were thankful we had experienced such a clear day yesterday to capture the scenery. I struggled down to the cable car which was a spectacular ride to the bottom of the mountain, then we got the bus back to Tunxi and a bicycle rickshaw back to the hostel where I collapsed for the next few days, very capably and kindly looked after by nurse Low. The receptionist at the hotel was apparently very keen for me to visit the hospital and get some salt water injected into my veins. I passed on that offer, preferring to lie very still and sweat a lot.

Nurse Low took a day off one day to take a short trip to Hongcan, a lovely little village full of artists painting pictures of it. Nearby is the bamboo forest where they filmed the famous scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sarah didn’t do martial arts at the top of bamboo but she did ride on the flying fox through the forest, while it was raining. And she was the only customer. That’s just the kind of girl she is. For some reason at the bottom of the flying fox there is a haunted house, which of course Sarah had to subject herself to as well. After all that she found herself in a car park in the middle of nowhere with no obvious way to get home, but the ladies at the ticket booth organised some kind of unoffical taxi which got her home, bless them.

My boring illness eased a little and we got a bus to Hangzhou where the famous West Lake resides. I planted myself at the restaurant of a hostel for the afternoon and tried to hang in there while Sarah rode a bike around the lake, which from the photos looks quite nice.

When it came time to leave we once again found ourselves standing in the rain on the corner of the street trying in vain to hail a taxi to take us to the train station. The one taxi that pulled over indicated that we should get a bicycle rickshaw, so short was the distance. Eventually we paid over the odds once again for an amateur taxi ride to the station and another walk through the rain to get inside. It’s lucky we were heading home because travelling had officially become a pain in the ass. Once back in Shanghai we bought some Chinese sweets to share with family and friends (which it turns out were very odd) and got on the plane to Sinapore to meet my sister and family who were stopping over on their way to France for a holiday.

Shanghai: Hijacked by culture

Complete set of Shanghai photos

We left you in the last post as we headed back to Beijing from Chengdu.  You can read all about our adventures in Beijing in one convenient blog post. We left Beijing via high-speed rail and sped out of there at 310km/h. This rail link is quite a piece of work, though not without its costs in terms of destroying neighbourhoods and the huge amount of concrete and steel used in its construction. The track has used twice as much concrete as the three gorges dam project and 120 times the amount of steel used for the Beijing Olympic Stadium. These sorts of numbers make Australian mining magnates rub their hands in glee but the train has not been a total success.

Although in theory it can roll along at 380km/h, with top speeds in testing of 487km/h, the service reduced its top speeds after a horrific accident where two high-speed trains collided, although ironically they were doing under 100km/h at the time. 40 people were killed but the Chinese government did one of their special cover-ups. This time there was an outcry from the media and on Chinese social media which led to the top speed of all high speed trains being reduced and a slowing down of the construction of more tracks.

We had an smooth and uneventful journey, although it wasn’t the fastest we travelled by rail. In Shanghai they have a train called the maglev which we caught to the airport on our way out of China.  It has a top operational speed of 431km/h. Maglev stands for magnetic levitation of course, but I’ll leave you to investigate the science of this on your own time.  Suffice it to say that we cornered at 250km/h and didn’t go flying off the tracks.

We were spat out into the Shanghai metro system, the longest in the world, at Friday night peak hour in by some measures the most populous city in the world. Imagine every metro system you’ve ever been in and double the number of people in it and you have some idea of the crowds. It got particularly interesting when two streams of people intersected like two atoms falling through each other.

Shanghai is a very different city to Beijing. Where Beijing has centuries of history as the capital of China, Shanghai grew more slowly but steadily and gained in importance as a port city over time. It is now the biggest city in China and has the busiest port in the world, taking over this mantle from Singapore and Hong Kong. It felt like a very different place to us culturally as well with the Shanghainese being much more boisterous and the air even thicker with rain and humidity than Beijing.

Walking down towards the Bund one night after a lovely Taiwanese dinner we went past the ballroom dancers doing their thing on the pedestrian avenue before emerging into the full glory of the view of Pudong at night.

There was no shortage of people there to enjoy the view with us. In fact getting to the edge of the barricade near the river was like being at a gig and elbowing your way through the mosh pit. Luckily I stood a good foot taller than most of the people there so could take in the lights from a respectable distance, including the Oriental Pearl Tower an odd looking building during the day which really comes into its own at night when it cascades with lights.

The best attraction in Shanghai is not the excellent bars and restaurants or the bright lights built by Shanghai’s financial clout, but the deceptively simple building that houses the Shanghai Museum, a truly remarkable collection of objects showcasing the wealth of a nation that led the world for most of civilised history. My favourite room was filled with jade which has been mined and polished in China since 5000BC. Jade is a hard material and difficult to work with so the designs being produced through China’s long history are even more stunning.

The pottery rooms were surprisingly varied, showcasing the quite plain colours up until the famous Ming pottery blues which then heralded the arrival of superb glossy red vases. After that things got really crazy beautiful as the artists seemed to get free rein to do whatever they liked with the techniques that had been developed over the centuries.

The other famous strand of Chinese art, other than the amazing calligraphy and painting which we had our fill of in Beijing, is the bronze work which, while functional, became incredibly intricate as Chinese metal workers mastered the techniques. Dragons are the most popular motif by far and they adorn bells, urns and weapons.

A different, smaller but very cool, museum was filled with Chinese communist propaganda art. When I say museum it was actually a well-lit basement room in a nondescript apartment building. The security guard at the gates, obviously used to bewildered looking tourists, handed us a business-sized card with a little map for guiding us to the correct building. Inside there were gaily colourful posters depicting muscled Chinese workers beating wizened and pathetic looking capitalists. The museum also featured posters of the original Shanghai girl, some of which are quite racy. Ironically for a museum about communism they had a shop selling a huge variety of products styled with these images. We picked up a couple of unusual posters which you might see in our bathroom if we ever have a house of our own.

Walking back from the museum Sarah snapped a photo of a cricket cage. The Chinese people have a long history collecting and breeding insects, which turned profitable when their expert cultivation of the silk worm cornered the world market. Crickets were kept for their song initially but people soon used them for fighting which they bet on. This was banned under the Communists, those killjoys, but has made a comeback.

Complete set of Shanghai photos

Leshan: Buddha’s largesse

Complete set of Leshan photos

While we were in Chengdu we took a day trip to see Leshan’s Giant Buddha a couple of hours away by bus.  The statue is the tallest pre-modern statue in the world – how’s that for a claim to fame.  It has to be one of the prettiest from any era.

It is said to have been constructed to tame the confluence of the rivers at its feet, the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers.  While the waters were calmed it is thought that dumping a huge amount of rubble in the river had more effect than whatever influence Buddha’s calming forces may have had.

Chengdu had been less hot than the rest of China but we hit the heat again in a big way in Leshan which was unfortunate as there were a lot of stairs involved.  We sweated our way up and down and through the incense and crowds, peered into the statue’s ears and inspected his toe nails.  The scale is preposterous and is hard to grasp from the photos.  Suffice it to say the I’m as tall as his ear lobe.  There were other temples hidden in the lush forest but the humidity did its worst and I threw in the towel a quarter of the way up the stairs to yet another temple.  Sarah left me grumpy and covered in sweat while she went to check out the view and associated Chinglish signs.

The day ran like clockwork with all our buses connecting beautifully, as we came to expect in China.  We got the last tickets on the coach back to Chengdu but even if we didn’t there was another coach leaving at the same time anyway.  I guess it helps when there are over a billion people trying to get around.  Adding two more to the ample array of transport on offer causes not a blip.  Taxis are another story.

Complete set of Leshan photos

Chengdu: Panda land

The complete set of photos and videos are here

When we booked the 11:30pm flight from Xi’an to Chengdu along with an executive apartment style hotel we had no idea what a bad combination this would be. A word on air travel in China first: it’s best avoided. Despite a plethora of humongous airports the system is jammed and delays are common, maybe inevitable. We boarded our plane on time but then sat there for another 90 minutes waiting for approval to take off. At least there was a trashy Chinese historical drama to watch but after a while all the male characters with wild beards and hair merged into one and we really just wanted to sleep.

The flight got in at some ungodly hour, 2:30 in the morning I think, but the taxi queue was still humming and we jumped in one. We used an online service to book the hotel and they sent a text message to Sarah’s Chinese SIM in mandarin with the address on it. Sadly our driver couldn’t read but we hadn’t left the airport yet so he got the taxi queue attendant to translate. We were on our way but without much confidence which was confirmed when we pulled up outside what looked like a dark office building. Sarah got out and confirmed it. We hailed a passing construction worker (yes, they are still going at 3am) and he seemed to think we should be a couple of streets over. So we drove there but with no luck. Huge trucks were roaring by but we managed to get the attention of some more construction workers who indicated that we should go back where we had just come from. The taxi driver seemed to be losing his temper by this stage, so we cut our losses and hopped out of the taxi with our bags on the quietened street. At least it wasn’t raining.

We roused the security guard at the office building and showed him the address on our phone. He pointed us further down the street where we asked another random security guard. We were definitely getting closer because he pointed us into a reception area which was lit, it just had no-one in it, only a couple of lifts. We tried ringing the number for the hotel but they only spoke Chinese so we had to give up on that. After a brief pause to gather ourselves we went to the fancy hotel next door and showed them the text message. The receptionist kindly led us back to where we had just been, got us in the lift and then left. This was definitely getting us closer but we still didn’t know what floor we were going to and the receptionist had run off to man his hotel. We tried the first level we could get to, 17, but this was fruitless.

So we came out again, much to the bemusement of the security guard who must have been wondering how much help these foreigners needed. We wandered off down the street a bit looking for a map that might explain where we were going wrong. We encountered yet another helpful security guard who didn’t speak much English but was keen to help us solve our problem. So we rang our hotel and put him on. He seemed to figure out where we needed to go in no time but he couldn’t communicate this to us. He just pointed back the way we had come and indicated that we should go higher. We left him with thanks and headed back to the lift. We examined the text message more closely and saw that there was a number in the Chinese version of the address that wasn’t included in the English version: 2712. We were so tired that this seemed like a useful lead. We headed up to level 27 in the hopes of ending this living riddle and found Flower Garden Hotel, not the name of the place we booked with but the same telephone number. So we headed in and got the young night worker out of bed to communicate with us via the blessed Internet and Google Translate. We seemed to have the right place and got a key, a very nice room on the 31st floor, and most importantly a bed, and all before it hit 4am. We collapsed into sleep.

We didn’t come to Chengdu to wander the streets late at night, entertaining though that was. The main draw-card for Chengdu is the Panda Breeding and Research Centre, but before we got there we managed to amuse ourselves with some of the other lesser, but no less amazing, attractions in the capital of Sichuan province.

First up was the Wenshu temple built in the Tang dynasty which had beautiful statues and architecture along with the usual mountain of incense being burnt.

As nice a place as it was I was more interested in the lunch afterwards which was a little degustation (ordered with the kind help of an English speaking gentlemen) full of chilli, noodles and dumplings. It went down a treat.

We followed that up with some Chinese opera. I was apprehensive to be honest. As great as many aspects of Chinese culture are, traditional music is not high on my list of likes. It often sounds like a cat being strangled to death. The opera we saw was not all that traditional.  It was aimed more at the tourist crowd which meant stunning lighting and visual effects, acrobatics, knife throwing and a decent attempt at comedy, along with a traditional orchestra and lip syncing. The costumes were a highlight, with the changing of face masks being a traditional part of Sichuan opera. There are multiple masks which are ripped off with hidden string at key moments. The effect is startling. In the blink of an eye one amazing face mask is replaced with another. The best acrobatics were the couple who gracefully swung around the stage on a length of cloth. I can’t do it justice with my description but it was lovely.

Then it was off to a popular looking restaurant on the way home which turned out to do hotpots. The staff seemed delighted to see us, no doubt because they were planning to add a little tourist tax to the bill, which still came in under $15 for two people, the sweet spot for most of our meals in China. We really had no clue what to do and there was no English being spoken but they just took us to a separate area which had bundles of meat and vegetables all ready to be dunked in the two types of broth bubbling away in the centre of our table. Once cooked we were instructed to dip the items in a bowl which had sesame oil, a heap of crushed garlic and chilli. It went down a treat with a few beers.

Chengdu also has a great park which is very Chinese in style, landscaped to within an inch of its life and just jam-packed with activity. In one corner there was a crowd of people line-dancing to extremely loud pop music and competing with the guy in the next spot over who had attracted a crowd singing traditional Chinese songs. There are people playing badminton, practicing calligraphy with water and brushes on the pavement, karaoke machines galore with people singing opera, flying kites, flag bearing dancers, people in boats on the lake, and yes, some more people dancing over there. It was kind of a relief to get to the teahouse where we only had to deal with the touts offering a massage/ear cleaning combo. Being the daughter of an audiologist Sarah couldn’t let anyone stick something smaller than an elbow in her ear although she would have found getting them cleared out a very satisfying experience. We settled for a chrysanthemum tea and a lemon tea which was delightful to sip in an old teahouse while overlooking the lily pond.

Enough faffing around, it’s time for the pandas! The research centre is in a lovely setting full of trees and mist on the morning we were there. In fact we got there before some of the pandas had emerged from their beds (and yes, they do have beds). Some were lying in their air-conditioned rooms, although they did get out of bed to lie on their backs on the floor and nibble a bit of bamboo leaf to get warmed up for the main meal. We wandered further uphill to find some enterprising young pandas already attacking the day as only a panda can, on their back. They are truly the couch potato of the animal kingdom. Homer Simpson is their role model. They eat lying on their back and are missing only a stubby and the cricket on TV to complete the image. They camp themselves next to a big pile of bamboo, strip the leaves off with their teeth till they have a big bunch, then hold it in one hand as they munch on it. Then the stem gets some treatment with the bark stripped before the core is munched up. There was a younger panda nearby who hadn’t cottoned on to the seriousness of bamboo eating and was more interested in playing with his food. Other pandas hadn’t fully woken up yet. They were out of bed but lying limply in trees or wooden platforms, presumably until hunger forced them to get up. Bamboo doesn’t give you much energy so pandas are in the same boat as our own koala bear in having just enough energy to eat their body weight in food before sleeping for the rest of the day.

The favourite videos we took are the fight over bamboo and the dedicated eater

They are an adorable animal and you can see how once a young guy leapt into their enclosure to give them a hug only to discover that they have teeth and claws that can be used for other purposes as well. Their cuteness is really just a cunning tactic to draw you within striking distance:  And you really have to watch out if they covet your jacket.

In China it is customary not to tip, which I love. It makes everything so much simpler. Here is the price, you pay, and they bring change. We even had a waiter chase us when we left a very small amount of change to make up for an order mixup. This followed a waitress at another restaurant chasing us for two blocks to return a cheap umbrella I had left behind. It’s hard to imagine this happening in many large Western capitals.

We had dessert at a place which did enormous ice-cream sundaes (the one with green tea and red bean was awesome) but this place was also churning out plates of Western-style roast meat and veg – little corn cobs and a few slices of carrot with meat and gravy. It was full of trendy hipsters much like an exotic new Vietnamese place would be here.

We left Chengdu on a rainy afternoon when all the taxis seemed to be taken and the few that looked empty weren’t stopping for us. Just as time was getting tight to make it to the airport in time a young guy in a black car pulled up, part of the unofficial transport system that seems to spring up at the best moments when you’re travelling. We don’t normally get into unmarked cars, except in Africa when that’s the only choice, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Sadly, in terms of an exciting ending to this post, the trip was uneventful and we scooted back to Beijing where it was raining cats and dogs and the taxi driver tried to massively overcharge us. We paid him a fair amount and walked through the rain on this warm summer’s night near midnight back to Rich’s apartment where we let ourselves in and rested once more.

The complete set of photos and videos are here

Xi’an: Warrior style

The complete set of Xi’an photos are here

Xi’an is one of those towns that loom large in a tourist’s mind for one attraction only, in this case the Terracotta Army. The city of Xi’an is no slouch though, having been around for, well, let’s just call it a hell of a long time. As with all the Chinese cities we visited Xi’an is gleamingly modern and massive in scale. The new city spills out for miles but in the core of Xi’an they still have a very attractive bell and drum tower. Traditionally the bell was rung at the start of the day and the drum beaten to signal the fall of the sun. Now they are just very impressive landmarks, the bell tower being so integrated in modern Xi’an that it’s located in the middle of a roundabout and accessible via pedestrian tunnels.

The other main attraction in the centre of the city is the Great Mosque which we whipped through on the way to the airport. It’s a strange building architecturally, very much in the Chinese style with sweeping, tiled roofs and many courtyards. Here and there you see signs of Islamic influence, such as in the Islamic gold script written above doors, although even this has a Chinese flavour to my eyes. The history of the place is supposed to have started in 742AD, although it’s not explained how Islam managed to get a mosque started in the middle of the Chinese empire at that time. No doubt there’s an interesting story there somewhere. The buildings that are there now were built in the 14th century during the Ming dynasty and are still used today by the city’s Muslims.

Before we get to the great Terracotta Army mention must be made of the noodle restaurant we went to which had the lovely gimmick of a three metre long noodle. I’m not sure mine quite made it to that length but I was chomping on it pretty ferociously.

For the main attraction we headed out in the morning, trudging around in the warm rain trying to find the right bus. The bus took the scenic route but we made it in the end to a fairly nondescript parking lot which we were assured was the correct place. We wandered past shops, along a fence and through the car park before finding the ticketing office. It was definitely an AAAAA-rated attraction so we paid top dollar for the tickets (about $30 each I guess) then headed to the toilet before going in. What happened next is contentious but from my point of view Sarah went into the toilet with her ticket and when she came out it had disappeared. Somehow this became my fault as Sarah claimed she gave me the ticket before entering. Either that or the young American girl who was also in there and nervous about entering a Chinese toilet picked Sarah’s pocket. I think it’s more likely that the ticket was dropped somewhere and swooped on by an eagle-eyed attendant. We just sucked it up and bought another ticket. It was worth it.

The scale of the Terracotta Army is matched only by the halls that the Chinese have built over the top of them. Everyone rides in a golf cart even to get to the entrance and on the way out there are kilometres of shops to walk past. Once you finally get to the aircraft hangers that house them the scale of the enterprise that the first emperor of China undertook is truly staggering. Not content with conquering the living world he required an army to take on the underworld as well. There are roughly 8000 soldiers, 100 chariots and 600 horses. Not only is the scale unbelievable but the level of detail is mind blowing as well. These are not mass manufactured cookie cutter soldiers. They all look different in some way. Apparently there were eight face moulds used which gave the basic shape, then individual characteristics were tweaked – hairstyle, the sweep of a belt, the collar of a shirt – they all look slightly different.

The site was only discovered in 1974 when a group of farmers were digging a well. It has to be the most stunning archaeological find in modern history. The site now has three pits of varying sizes, the largest being vast in scale. Dating from the 3rd century BC and involving up to 700,000 workers, some of whom were interred along with the fake army, the site gives a visual scale of the scope of the Chinese empire at the time. Still, the first Qin emperor sounds like a complete bastard and I’m sure his people would have appreciated a bit more attention paid to their needs rather than this extravagant underground army.

It’s good to know some things don’t change.  Our friend Mike got this exact same photo taken years and years ago.  They’re still going strong.

The complete set of Xi’an photos are here

Pingyao: Putting the old back into fortified walls

Full set of Pingyao photos are here

The one drawback to train travel in China is that it’s hard to buy tickets for a journey if you’re not located in the city you want to start from. We couldn’t buy train tickets for the journey from Datong to Pingyao until we arrived in Datong, by which time there weren’t many tickets left. Chinese hotels do a great job at arranging to buy the tickets on your behalf which does save some hassle, but we still ended up spending more time than necessary chasing this process. Still, we got tickets on the day train to Pingyao, about 8 hours away, and blissfully they were in the hard sleeper section (apparently soft sleeper is not as nice as it sounds). Not that we really had to sleep on a day trip, but it was nice to nap in the heat, review some photos and read a book without feeling sick as you might on a bus. The day drifted along in a summer haze as if we were having a picnic by the banks of a river, which it was in relative terms compared to some of the travelling we had done recently.

Pingyao is famous for escaping the communist’s propensity for knocking down old structures, such as the Beijing walls. I can’t find any information on how Pingyao avoided this fate, but the town is rare for having its city walls intact, and they are the real deal unlike the many reconstructions you see around the place. Walking around the walls is great, not only because you feel like an ancient Chinese soldier, but because it’s the best place to get away from the crowds. We arrived in Pingyao on a public holiday weekend and the normally busy main street was heaving with domestic tourists buying the local specialities. I don’t know what the local specialities are because they are elaborately packaged in extravagantly decorated boxes with only Chinese writing, but I’m sure this area is famous for something which the domestic tourists can’t get enough of. Pingyao buildings in the large old town have a lot of character and at night, when you escape to the back streets which are still decorated with glowing lanterns, you can imagine life in a Chinese walled city before modern life arrived.

Pingyao really trades on its “ye olde” image.  Every second house is converted into a shop or museum of some sort.  There was the bank museum, the art museum, the martial arts museum and many others that we didn’t pop our head into.  The classical architecture is certainly lovely with the rooms arranged around internal courtyards, but the exhibits didn’t hold our attention for long.  Even the massive Confucian temple felt a bit vague, the best bit being a display of modern photos.

Pingyao also had the indomitable Mrs Deng, who, with her husband, ran the hostel we were staying at. Sarah took at instant dislike to Mrs Deng who talked over people and was kind of rude, but also had a lot of power as it was through her that travellers got their onward tickets. We overheard people at dinner that night in a restaurant in a different part of town bitching about her with the theory that she made it difficult to get onward tickets so that people would have to stay at the hostel longer. I tend to think it was hard to get train tickets because it was a holiday weekend but for whatever reason Sarah had her suspicions and emphasised to Mrs Deng very strongly that we had to get to Xi’an urgently as we had plane tickets booked, which was true. In the end we bombed out on the train and had to get the bus instead, which we had heard was a very smoky experience in China. We probably got overcharged for the bus but at least we escaped. We caught an electric rickshaw to the highway which had a top speed of about 20km/h. We were being blitzed by the other traffic but we got to out appointed spot in time only to be joined by a convoy of firework wielding lads who proceeded to let off bursts of little crackers on the road leaving sooty scars on the tarmac. There was a bit of hijinx with firecrackers being surreptitiously lit while someone else was holding them resulting in them being flung away in horror. I suspect beer was involved.

When the bus arrived we were shoved on but the journey was smoke free, enhanced by a Jackie Chan movie and surprisingly smooth along the deserted six lane freeway.

Full set of Pingyao photos are here