A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: stuartfinch

Talking Timorese

Three weeks in Timor Leste

sunny 32 °C

Arriving at Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport without the seventy US dollars in cash required to purchase our visas was a little short-sighted of us. But instead of being ushered out of the queue and into an interview room, we walked straight past the border guards, security checks and passport control to the airport exit where we could use an ATM just so long as we promised that we’d ‘come back to get our stamps’ when finished.

Traveling in East Timor was clearly going to be informal, friendly and unlike any other country we’d previously experienced.

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Dili is not an easy place to like. It is small, crowded and dusty and, thanks largely to the influx of NGOs with staff paid on western wages, hugely over-priced. You’d be hard pushed to find a hotel room for less than $50-100 a night, dinner might set you back $10-15 each and a beer can be as much as $5. But you certainly don’t come here to experience the food and nor is there a ‘destination’ hotel to draw you. Instead it’s the unspoilt beaches, the superb reefs and the friendly, relaxed people which encourage you to stay.

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As South East Asia’s newest nation, Timor Leste is not yet firmly on the tourist trail for very many backpackers. It’s troubled past and in particular the bloody independence struggle from Indonesia has left its mark on both the country’s infrastructure and population, not least in the languages spoken here. Most people we met are at least bilingual, speaking a local language (most commonly Tetun) but, dependent upon their age, at least one other from Bahasa Indonesian, Portuguese or English – a constant reminder of the foreign influences both historical and present. It’s also this same history that has kept most tourists at bay leaving the white sandy beaches undeveloped and unused save for a few guesthouses, homestays and the occasional hotel dotted around the country.

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Almost the instant you leave Dili the pace changes – the air clears, the traffic disappears and replaced with rural scenes of small fishing villages replete with livestock wandering freely along the road. Within a few kilometres and a 15 minute drive of downtown Dili are the quiet sands of Ariea Branca and the amusingly named Jesus backside beach, the latter of which you are almost guaranteed to have to yourself. A drive eastwards further along the spectacular northern coastal road reveals a seemingly endless string of beautiful beaches, coves and spits, each fringed by an extension of the same coral reef and all perfectly deserted.

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We had been warned by Dan, the British owner of East Timor Backpackers (Dili’s only real budget accommodation option) that ‘you need either a lot of time or a lot of money to travel in Timor Leste.’ Fortunately we had the former. It took us a week and a lot of patience to travel the 300 or so kilometres to the far eastern end of the country to visit Timor Leste’s only national park and the beautiful, uninhabited Jaco Island.

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Sealed roads and, consequently, transport options are fairly limited outside of Dili. We used public buses and mini-vans called mikrolets when we could, each crammed to the gills with the usual array of goods, livestock and people. The chain-smoking men and women, mouths often stained red from chewing (and spitting) beetle nuts, were always very chatty and inquisitive about us. We gleaned some very useful local knowledge each time. In addition, we also relied upon blagging rides on delivery lorries which stopped every few kilometres where they acted as mobile shops and the occasional lift in the back of a pick-up from sympathetic tourists or NGOs. Pre-dawn departure times were the norm and just once, our only option was an 8km, two and a half hour uphill hike starting at 5am.

At each stop along the way we were rewarded with something special. There was the spring-fed lido built into the side of the hill and excellent Portuguese steaks at the Pousada de Baucau. In Com, the sunsets were only beaten by the beauty of the sunrise over a distant Indonesian island of Wetar. Whilst around Lospalos and Tatuala the traditional stilted houses of the Fataluku stood proudly over the more modern buildings adorned with revolutionary graffiti. And of course, there was always a beach, guaranteed to have pretty good snorkelling.

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It is in and around Lospalos that the scars of the Indonesian ‘occupation’ are most palpable. Here, the resistance forces remained active the longest and it was here that Indonesian retribution after the vote for independence in 1999, was at its most harsh. The crumbling shells of buildings, burned by the Indonesian troops as they withdrew, are still visible on nearly every street. A final atrocity towards a country that had been ravaged by a famine and had seen the population fall by around 20%.

In one village, after being dumped unceremoniously from our delivery truck only a few kilometres further down the road from where we’d been picked up, we were shown the graves of 14 ‘heroi de patria’. Adorned with national flags, plastic flower arrangements and several bovine skulls, these were war heroes and revered as such. Despite communicating in different languages, it was clear that three of the graves belonged to relatives of the man waiting with us and all, he claimed, had been shot by the Indonesians.

It’s not surprising then that as we shared a cramped mikrolet on the bumpy two hour ride back into Lospalos that one woman proudly explained that they spoke 42 different ethnic languages in Timor Leste but that ‘around here, no-one speaks Indonesian’.

Posted by stuartfinch 17:19 Archived in East Timor Comments (1)

Set the controls for the heart of the earth

Climbing Mt Bromo and Ijen Crater

sunny 5 °C

Somewhere at home, in storage box, alongside some school reports and BAGA certificates, there is a project titled ‘Rocks by Stuart Finch aged six’. On the front is a crayon drawing of a cone shaped volcano spewing red and orange lava down its slopes, threatening the lives of the crudely drawn dinosaurs at the base. It is only now, more than thirty years after that drawing, that I have actually had first-hand experience of an active volcano.

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The Indonesian island of Java, sitting on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ is dotted with many volcanoes and Mount Bromo is one of the most visited and photographed of them. Easy to hike and set in a spectacular caldera, across which you can get inspiring sunrise vistas, a trip to Bromo can sometimes feel more like an ordeal as visitors are herded in great convoys of jeeps along the same route. We aimed to avoid the crowds by travelling slower, staying longer and walking to both the crater and sunrise viewpoints. For this effort we were rewarded with a far more contemplative experience and saved ourselves a fair amount of money too.

How we avoided the crowds at Bromo:

Firstly, we did not take a jeep tour. We walked to the crater from our Cemoro Lewang hotel, setting off at 8am as the hundreds of jeeps were heading back from the crater to allow their occupants to grab some breakfast before leaving. The walk took just over an hour and as the mist lifted we had great views across the desolate ‘sand sea’ to both Mt Bromo and its inactive neighbour, Gunung Bator. By the time we had passed the Hindu temple and climbed the steps to the lip of the crater we had the place pretty much to ourselves; the billows of steam rising in slow motion from the unseen depths. By walking, we saved ourselves the frankly extortionate park entry fee (recently tripled in price to in excess of 200,000 rupiah per person)

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The following morning we walked to Serumi Point (or viewpoint no.2) which was easy to find with the map provided by Café Lava. To arrive in time for the spectacular dawn across the caldera, we left our hotel around 4am. After a moonlit walk through the fields of vegetables and up the side of the caldera we had a clear view of Mt Bromo and Bator with the smoking giant, Mt Serumi in the background. Serumi Point offers virtually identical views to those from the higher but very crowded Gunung Penanjakan, instead we shared it with just 12 others and a couple of ladies offering a very welcome hot coffee. Without being tied to a jeep tour, we were able to linger way past sunrise and still make it back in time for breakfast at the hotel.

We completed both walks on consecutive days but you wouldn’t need to be superhuman to manage both in one morning – a good idea if you want to avoid staying two nights in the overpriced hotels of Cemoro Lewang.

Much less visited but in many ways so much more spectacular, the Ijen Crater is famous for its turquoise crater-lake, sulphur vents and the eerie blue flames. It is arduous but not impossible to reach Pos Paltuding and the start of the trail to the crater by public transport but again, most people choose to visit as part of an organised tour. Having left our hotel in Bondowoso at 11pm we attempted to grab some sleep in the car before starting our climb at 2.20am. For safety reasons we were not allowed to begin walking any earlier than this and had to wait for an hour in the car park at the bottom for the all clear.

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It soon became apparent that this concession to our health and safety was justified as the sulphurous fumes stung our eyes and throats as we climbed the 3km steep path up the side of the volcano. Lit by a nearly full-moon and stopping frequently in any patch of clear air, we were soon joined by local men who make a living collecting the sulphur that condenses around the vents near the bottom of the crater. They would make this trip two or three times a day, seriously risking their health, carrying loads of sulphur weighing sometimes over 70kg for what seemed a pittance. To supplement this income most would try to sell you small sculptures made from the pungent yellow stone but what use did we have for a sulphur turtle?

As we arrived at the edge of the crater the moon illuminated a monochrome world that would only really reveal itself as the sun rose later that morning. For now, the pre-dawn darkness meant that we had great views of the blue flames burning continuously around the sulphur vents. As the miners continued their descent into the crater we stayed a respectful distance back, mindful of the warnings of increased volcanic activity we’d received earlier and the news that two tourists had been hospitalised by the acrid fumes the previous day. This must surely be the original fire and brimstone.

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As we were slowly warmed by the first rays of the sun, the blue flames faded and the scale of the sulphur works were revealed. Ladders, tubes, hand-rails, baskets and huts were visible dotted across the boulders at the edge of the lake from which the gases belched like giant exhausts. It took just moments and the slightest change in the breeze, for clouds of fumes to cross the crater-lake and envelope the collectors and tourists alike so that they might temporarily disappear from our view. And as the quality of the light changed, the lake itself appeared to change colour from grey to green to an opalescent blue; set against the red morning sky and sulphur stained rocks, it made for a pretty spectacular sunrise.

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Peering down into the smouldering depths of an active volcano may not be on everyone’s bucket list and the effort required meant we’d had little sleep but this achievement has been a real highlight of the trip. We headed to Bali with the intention of sitting by a hotel pool or on the beach for a few days…

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Posted by stuartfinch 06:53 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

A long night in a longhouse.

Celebrating Gawai Dayak with the Iban.

rain 29 °C

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Realistically, Kapit can only be only be reached by a cramped four hour boat ride in the rather ominously nicknamed ‘flying coffin’. A busy market town, Kapit suffers traffic jams and crowds just like anywhere else but the surrounding roads here lead out into the jungle where they come to an abrupt end – not linking with the rest of the road network in Borneo. It was after a hairy 45 minute drive from Kapit, in the pouring rain, that we came to such an ending.

‘Welcome to my longhouse!’ our guide and host, Peter, shouted as we ran, rain-soaked, across a small wooden bridge and up the steps in through the nearest door. In fact, this Iban longhouse was where his wife’s family lived but he, like us, was here to celebrate Gawai Dayak, as his own Kayan tribe did not observe this particular harvest festival. By all accounts he had been celebrating quite a bit already. Along with most of the longhouse residents and family members, he’d been drinking since last night and had yet to have any meaningful amount of sleep.

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Celebrated mostly by the Iban tribe across Sarawak, Gawai is a bit like Christmas in so much that people head back to their family homes in the countryside for a great social event that lasts several days. The longhouse is like a terraced street with a covered communal room stretching the length of it, which 25 or so families share. Some Longhouses are modern, made of concrete and can have up to 80 families sharing the space but the one we visited was made of traditional ironwood and had all the rickety charm you’d expect, despite being less than 40 years old.

Upon our arrival we were immediately welcomed by Peter’s family and introduced to the two chiefs of the longhouse (complicated story of longhouse politics that we were drip-fed over the night as people became more inebriated!) The party had already started so we joined in. This mostly meant sitting around on the floor with all the other men, chatting and downing shots of rice wine under the gaze of various tribal antiques - swords, spears, gongs, shields, woven cloth, beadwork and a few human skulls! The skulls date back ‘over a hundred years’ to when the Iban were still headhunters and killing a man was a rite of passage. The skulls hold significant spiritual meaning and are revered objects despite the government attempts to have longhouses remove them.

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There were a few ceremonial duties to perform as well, people got dressed up in traditional clothing to sing and dance and we all got to wear an array of amazing woven hats. There was the slaughtering of a pig in which we all stepped over the pig as it took its last gasping breaths before we downed more shots of rice wine. Later on offerings were made to the harvest gods, all accompanied with copious shots of yet more rice wine, and Neil was taught how to correctly assemble the food offerings (and drink more rice wine).

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As we moved in procession from home to home up and down the longhouse the party got bigger and we ate food, drank, some people slept, whilst new people arrived - organised chaos. The signal to move onto the next home came when family member from that house invited you by rubbing a live chicken over your head and by which time it was polite to have finished all the food and drink given to you by your previous hosts. I got adept at avoiding the free flow of beer and rice wine as it was still only just after lunch!

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Rice wine is an acquired taste. Every family brews their own and it can vary in colour, taste and alcohol content. Some were sweet but most were quite ‘yeasty’ and often cloudy (we joked that they resembled an extremely worrying urine sample) and they soon began to take effect. Fortunately, before it got too messy and because the rain had finally stopped, someone suggested a quick, sobering swim in the river.

The party went on all night, ending with the expected free-for-all dancing you’d get at any large family gathering. We crashed out sometime after midnight but by the next morning it was starting all over again (rice wine hair of the dog?!) We caught a lift back into Kapit by mid-morning, before everyone was too drunk again to drive and headed straight to a hotel for a shower and bed, where we stayed most of the day. It was truly the weirdest, most fun we’ve ever had! The people so friendly, generous and welcoming; several times Neil and I would catch each other’s eye and with a knowing glance acknowledge that we were sharing in something special.

Salamat hari Gawai Dayak!

Posted by stuartfinch 03:12 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Jungle is massive

(Wicked Wicked)

semi-overcast 33 °C
View Somewhere Over The Urals. on stuartfinch's travel map.

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If the countries visited on this trip could be summarised by just one word (and believe me they justifiably can’t be) then our experience of Malaysia would be “jungle”. We have spent more days climbing, trekking, swimming, boating, slipping and sweating our way through thick forests here than in any other country since August.

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We had a gentle introduction to the strenuous nature of jungles following a few easy trails in what’s left of the forests in the Cameron Highlands. More developed into a domestic agro-tourism destination than billed by some tour operators, the regions cool climate has been exploited for the production of (some very tasty) tea, vegetables and fruit – most notably strawberries. This has been at the expense of the forest trails which are now largely ignored, in poor repair, closed or enveloped by the spreading urban sprawl of a few ‘villages’.

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Taman Negara is billed as the world’s oldest rainforest and, by comparison to the Cameron Highlands, it can certainly feel both wild and untouched. Our entry to the park was a three hour boat ride up the Tembeling River to the small village of Kuala Tahan where we found our accommodation across the river from the park entrance. As we dozed in the shade of the boat (it had been a very early start that morning) the journey upriver only added to our sense of exploration.

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There are many paths in the park that suit all abilities; easy boardwalks lasting 30 minutes to treks lasting several days to summit the nearby Mount Tahan. Not wishing to over-exert ourselves (!) we took to the easier paths first whilst taking our time to appreciate the surroundings. Consequently we saw a surprising amount of the wildlife along the way; macaques, monitor lizards, birds and insects but, thankfully, no leeches (they came later, en masse, in Lambir Hills National Park). Our evenings were spent trying each of the different riverside restaurants before being entertained by the orchestra of cicadas that would dive-bomb their way through our hotel corridor.

In Borneo the term ‘jungle’ takes on a whole new meaning.

We spent time trudging our way through virgin forest in at least six different national parks and nature reserves. Each offering a slightly different experience but all hot, humid and very sweaty! After each day Neil would invariably ask to be reminded that next time I asked him to ‘go for a walk’ that he should say ‘no’ but, secretly, like me, he enjoyed the accomplishment of the challenge and a decent shower at the end of it (or in the case of Kinabalu Park, a day soaking in Poring Hot Springs).

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Seeing proboscis monkeys, wild orang-utans, the nocturnal tarsier and a (very fast) slow loris along the Kinabatangan River made the few days spent there the absolute highlight for me. Appealing to my inner David Attenborough we rose early to view birds, primates and the occasional crocodile from the safety of a boat, whilst at night we were guided by torch through the forest spotting frogs, snakes and sleeping birds.

This concentration of wildlife has come at a cost to the forest. It really only exists as the surrounding land has been quickly appropriated for oil palm plantations. The debate over palm oil will continue for a long time, it finds its way into much of the (processed) food we eat and can be used to make biodiesel, with lower CO2 emissions than fossil fuels. Malaysia has pledged that no more than 10% of its land area to oil palm plantations but the quick return on the investment is very attractive and it’s difficult to put a price on biodiversity. Driving through Borneo, it can seem like that the whole 10% is here!

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We didn’t make it to the remote Mulu National Park as this involved a flight but we got our fix of jungle caves at the smaller Niah National Park. Here, some of the earliest evidence of human habitation has been found dating back over 60,000 years having been well preserved under several meters of bat and swiftlet guano, a commodity so valuable that it made fortunes and helped secure empires. Today, the market for guano has been replaced with artificial fertilisers but the swiflet nests are still collected, under license, by men with a good head for heights who climb the rather precarious looking wooden ladders dangling from the cave ceiling. Their spoils are available in Chinese stores locally and on the mainland, sold to make the rather glutinous ‘bird’s nest soup’ (bowl of bird-spit soup, anyone?)

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The two-hour trek through the cave system by torch-light was sweaty and slimy. Under a near constant rain of bat and bird droppings, you quickly learned not to look up and to keep your hat on at all times. Our reward at the end was a few faded cave paintings in which you could just about make out some ochre animal and human forms, as well as the remains of some boat-coffins dating from who knows when. But it was the forest that truly gave us the reward - the limestone here gave the jungle a whole different set of niches that were filled with the weird and wonderful.

Probably our most memorable visit was to the jungle surrounding Kapit, in Sarawak, where we celebrated the harvest festival in a tribal longhouse. But that’s a story for another time (and my next blog post)…

Posted by stuartfinch 08:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Travelling from El Nido to Coron

sunny 30 °C

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Looking to travel from El Nido to Coron? We wanted to do the same and met a mass of conflicting advice online about how best to cover this route. What follows is a summary of what we found and a description of our journey.

Firstly, the Fast Ferry Service by Montenegro Ferries (http://www.montenegrolines.com.ph/ ) no longer seems to run. If running this would be my number one choice so but otherwise you are left with several other options.

2GO Large Ferry from Puerto Princesa to Coron (http://travel.2go.com.ph/) This is a cheap option but only sails on Saturday and you would have to get to Puerto Princesa to catch it – 6 hours away from El Nido by road.

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Daily ‘outrigger’ ferry boat. - More expensive than 2GO or Atienza ferry options as this is a tourist service (about PHP2000 each) and there are several different named boats that run, they vary in size and quality (full list here: http://www.lakas.com.ph/2013/02/boats-from-el-nido-to-coron-and-vice-versa/). The journey takes 8 - 10 hours and there are mixed reports about these. Clearly many people safely make this journey as there are daily sailings in season but there are some scare stories.

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-south-east-asia-islands-peninsula/topics/warning-for-el-nido-coron-boat

http://www.dutchpickle.com/philippines/coron/el-nido-to-coron-palawan-by-boat.html

Cargo Ferry Atienza – I found it hard to get accurate information online about this option but here’s a blog about the journey. By all accounts it’s slow, crowded and cheaper than the outrigger boats.

http://www.legalnomads.com/2009/06/atienza-cargo-ferry-from-el-nido-to-coron-not-for-the-faint-of-heart.html

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Flying Fish Safari by Tao Philippines (http://www.taophilippines.com/tao-trips/flying-fish-safari) - New for 2014, this is a speedboat / island hopping experience combination thing. It’s expensive at around 4000PHP each and doesn’t run every day. The speedboat has no shade on it and you’re required to have a dry bag for your belongings. I couldn’t quite determine the exact route that the speedboat takes and wonder whether you’d end up visiting some of the same islands already visited if you’d been on an island hopping tour from El Nido

The company also offer a 5 day sailing tour from El Nido to Coron and that would set you back even more but sounds like a great experience if you have the time and money.

You can fly... To do this you’d have to transfer back to Puerto Princesa and fly to Coron via Manila or, if money really were no issue, you could charter an aircraft.

We travelled using the daily ‘outrigger’ boat service on a Monday which is served by a boat called MBCA Overcomer - the tickets were purchased from ‘Seahorse Charlie’s’ for 1800PHP where we were given some sage advice for the journey.


• Eat a good breakfast before you leave; you are given a meal but it’s not much
• Take some snacks and water on board but buy them the night before as few shops will be open in the morning
• Take a travel/seasickness remedy beforehand
• Take a light jacket in case of poor weather (not a life-jacket as we initially heard!)
• Wrap valuable electronics in waterproof bags
• Take a good book, a pack of cards or something like it for entertainment

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We headed to the port after eating a healthy breakfast and decent coffee at The Alternative which opens at 6.30am and where we had ordered breakfast the night before to ensure that we made it to the port by the required 7.00am (for a 7.30 departure). Arriving just in time to clear security - you are not allowed to carry shells, coral, sand or other sea creatures no matter where they were purchased or picked up - and pay the port fee. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the MBCA Overcomer was not an ‘outrigger’ and larger than expected but not the size of other ferry services found in the Philippines.

Once the bags were in the hold we claimed our seats inside. The simple wooden benches were all under cover and could seat three but as the boat wasn’t full we were able to spread out in an attempt to doze, the lifejackets provided doubling as useful cushions.

The journey took eight, long hours.

The advice from Seahorse Charlie proved invaluable – especially about the food provided, which was billed as Chicken Adobo with rice but amounted to little more than a spoonful of cold rice with a few barely identifiable pieces of brown meat. We didn’t need our light jackets despite getting caught in a couple of downpours, clear plastic covers were quickly rolled over the open windows to keep the worst of the rain out, although I was glad that I had packed all electronics in waterproof bags.

Neither did we need to use our life jackets. The journey got a little rough at times and although we hadn’t taken seasickness tablets, no-one suffered despite previous ‘late night with rum’ shenanigans! I’m not sure that we were particularly lucky with the weather but the size of the boat certainly helped reduce some of the motion.

Time passed slowly. We were all pleased to arrive in Coron, just a short tricycle ride to Coron Town Proper and a decent, motionless bed!

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Posted by stuartfinch 22:13 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Following the herd, down to Greece?

‘It’s more fun in the Philippines!’

sunny
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It’s been a while since my last blog post but I’ve been somewhat distracted. Having a holiday.

We’ve had a holiday from the ‘no flying’ rule; a holiday with great friends and reading books whilst lazing on beaches; a holiday from backpackers and, of course, it’s been Easter – a holiday in the original sense of the word.

Whilst many of you will be planning your next holiday right now, this post is all about tempting you to make that destination the Philippines. I need to say very little, instead let the following photos do the work instead.

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Posted by stuartfinch 02:30 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches.

Island hopping in the Andaman Sea

sunny 32 °C
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After the hectic late nights of Bangkok, I was looking forward to some relaxing time on the famous Thai beaches. There’s been plenty written about the choices people have when it comes to beaches in Thailand and mostly it’s true. The beaches are lovely, some of the best I’ve ever experienced but you can, and should, choose your location to suit the ‘beach vibe’ that you’re after.

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We decided to avoid the east coast entirely – mostly due to time constraints but partly because we had no inclination to join a Full Moon Party. Our first island stop was Koh Phi Phi. We made this choice because we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Personally, it didn’t appeal and still doesn’t, although I think I’m probably too old to be jumping a skipping rope on that’s fire.

We quickly made our way to Koh Lanta.

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Traditionally much more a backpacker hangout, recent development has meant that Lanta is much busier than friends had remembered. Still, much quieter and more conservative than Phi Phi, Lanta provided us with the few days of nothing that we required. Empty beaches, some good restaurants, cheap accommodation and a friendly beach bar.

We then decided to try ‘upmarket’ for a while and caught the ferry to Koh Ngai. An island that, apart from the resorts, is uninhabited. It provided the four star luxuries that you’d expect (even if they were a little frayed around the edges) and a pristine coral sand beach that was picture postcard perfect. Delightful, if a little soulless.

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A lengthy and bumpy speedboat ride away was Koh Lipe, our final stop in Thailand and the up-and-coming / already ruined (depending on who you asked) southern-most Trang island. I imagine this was like Phi Phi was a few years back, a mix of drinking and diving that catered for most tastes from families to gap year backpackers. I liked Lipe the most. With a small amount of effort you could walk to the far side of the island, away from the bars and boats crowding the shoreline and find a cove which you could have to yourself.

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Our next port of call was across the border in Malaysia. Langkawi is a world away from the hedonism that you can find in Thailand but as a duty free zone life is a little more liberal than mainland Malaysia. The beaches are just as beautiful with a fair amount of development but here it was our guesthouse that made our stay. An incredibly social place, Zackry’s provided us with several late nights of fun and all just a short stroll from yet another stunning beach.

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Finally we headed to Penang, not an island famed for its beaches, instead it has a renowned food scene. It has served as a great introduction to Malaysian food and became a stepping stone back to the mainland from where we headed into the jungle… Currently listening to the sounds of thunder rolling around the world’s oldest rainforest.

Posted by stuartfinch 04:58 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Getting back into the swing of things

sunny 32 °C
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The start of February heralded the sixth month anniversary of our leaving the UK and nominally the half-way point (in terms of time, at least) of our journey to Oz. We marked this milestone with a trip through a seven kilometre cave system by boat.

With six months under our belts we have learned new routines to make our lives flow. Simply, travelling like this is not one long holiday; instead it requires constant work and consequently we take on specific roles just like we do at home but instead our chores are generally more enjoyable. We still have to do laundry, manage the accounts and do the shopping but booking guesthouses, deciding routes and researching restaurants is infinitely more fun than day to day life at home.

Living out of a single bag takes a bit of planning too, especially if you are used to a large wardrobe and choice of Jo Malone fragrances, but again a routine sets in. Packing the bag gets easier and more efficient (despite our over-packing at the start), each taking responsibility for different shared items of luggage. In short, we have become slick travellers, able to pack up and move on at short notice and with minimal stress.

This anniversary was also the day we knew that we had to return home – something that we both had hoped would never happen.

Even with such a short flying visit to the UK it was always going to interrupt these routines. The shock of the cold in Manchester was a rude awakening and burst the self-absorbed bubble we had been inside for months. Seeing family and friends again was lovely, we both laughed and cried in equal measure.

We returned to Bangkok a little over a week ago and needless to say it’s been noticeable that we’ve been away from travelling. Gone was any sense of restraint and we have both enjoyed all the nightlife that Bangkok has to offer. Expensive restaurants, rooftop bars, loud music and at least one all-nighter until 8am. We slept by day and partied by night. We broke the budget every day.

After four (days and) nights we were tired, so we extended our stay in our Bangkok hotel and vowed to actually see some sights.

As I write this post, we’re sat on a train trundling back into Bangkok after a day visiting Ayutthaya, the ancient capital. With centuries-old crumbling ruins and temples full of the chanting devoted, it hasn’t a patch on Angkor but reminds me of what we left behind just three short weeks ago. I’m smiling because I’m reminded of the reason why we travel and I begin to notice those little idiosyncrasies that make this adventure so much fun; the relentless dust and heat, the taxis coloured the same as Refreshers, the odd fact that everybody wears skinny jeans with flip-flops.

I’m glad to be back on a train, sat in third class next to an open window with all the dust and smoke from the shacks hugging the train line filling the carriage. I’m glad that we have booked another train journey for tomorrow and the day after. It means we’re getting back into the swing of things...

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Posted by stuartfinch 07:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Stop. Hammock time.

U can’t touch this.

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After all the Christmas and New Year festivities, as well as full days touring temples, we both felt we were in need of a holiday. This may sound strange as many of you will regard this whole trip as one long holiday but, you know, we needed a week or so of doing nothing.

So we headed to Laos.

Known for its laid back atmosphere, cheap rooms, sunsets and not much else. I am surprised that 4000 islands isn’t on more backpacker itineraries. Just over the border from Cambodia, here the Mekong slows to split into numerous channels creating thousands of small sandy islands, most of which are uninhabited or unvisited.

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We arranged transport direct from our Kratie hotel to Don Det, the liveliest and most frequently visited of the islands. Despite the only proof that we had paid our way was a note scribbled on a scrap of paper, this ‘ticket’ seemed to work on all four forms of transport that we took. A seemingly, “unlikely to work” chain of transport took our group of eight international tourists close to and finally across the border. With the usual baffling array of extra charges passed to the guards on both sides of the border and a few stops to deliver some white envelopes to men in brown uniforms, we reached the town of Nakasong, a single stretch of concreted road, lined with shops, that led to a small wooden jetty and crates of empty beer bottles stacked taller than me.

I felt a little concerned that perhaps now that ‘the party is over’ in Vang Vieng that instead the party had moved here. I wondered whether we should really have aimed for the quieter and more sedate Don Khon. And as we piled on board the longtail boat that would take us to Don Det it was clear that some of our fellow travellers shared the similar worries.

Upon landing at Don Det, the newly arrived are presented with a choice – you could either walk down the eastern ‘sunrise’ or western ‘sunset’ side of the island. With the highest concentration of bars, restaurants, guesthouses and bungalows found at the northern tip of the island, both sides offered accommodation in a range of standards and prices to suit all. The general agreement was that most of us were going to head down the quieter ‘sunrise’ side of the island.

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There really is little to do here, except to lie in a hammock. Which is exactly what we did for six days. I read three books, finally finishing the Dostoyevsky that I had intended to read whilst crossing Siberia, caught up with emails as well as completing photobooks of our journeys in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. We hired bikes one day to cycle around the neighbouring island just to make sure that we raised out heart-rates above 40bpm. We even moved to the sunset side as it was clearly better and not at all busy or noisy.

Our next stop? Tad Lo. Here you can lie in a different hammock next to a waterfall. And if you can really be bothered (and I mean really) you could always take a short walk up the valley but really, why? Laos is about taking time.

Stop. Hammock time.

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Posted by stuartfinch 02:09 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Christmas in Cambodia

We’ve got stars directing our fate…

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I’ve picked up an annoying habit whilst Cambodia so that every time I read or hear the word ‘Cambodia’ all I hear in my head is Robbie Williams singing it to the tune of ‘Millennium’ followed by the short burst of strings sampled from Matt Monroe’s ‘You only live twice’. And considering that Cambodia’s eponymous national beer is advertised on almost every street corner, this has become my soundtrack for the past few weeks.

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The plan was always to spend Christmas day on a beach, so we headed to Cambodia’s prime beach resort town of Sihanoukville. The town, spread out over a hilly prominentary that juts into the Gulf of Thailand boasts seven different beaches. Often derided for being ‘brash and trash’, Sihanoukville certainly lacks charm in some places – see ‘Girlie-bar Street’ or JJ’s beach bar whose motto was ‘Let’s get f****d up!’ – but this does not represent the wide range of beach experiences on offer here.

We based ourselves near Sihanoukville’s more popular Serendipity and Ochhueteal beaches. This area is clearly undergoing a lot of large-scale development as there are new hotels, restaurants, bars and related infrastructure shooting up all over the place. The beach itself runs for several kilometres with the more northern ‘Serendipity’ end being the busiest, its wide yellow sands provide ample space for all the lounge chairs and umbrellas required by the predominantly western tourists. Here the beach bars start late and finish early, enticing you in with free shots, buckets of booze and the obligatory fire-dancer. There were also plenty of opportunities to buy handheld fireworks and Chinese lanterns if you felt the urge to join in the pyrotechnic mayhem.

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As we walked further south the bars are replaced by local restaurants with numbers for names, which provide what can only be described as ‘total shade’ for Cambodian tourists. And then the development stops, leaving the beach to stretch almost deserted for another kilometre or so. We headed to the last bar on the beach… Cheryl had thoughtfully brought some Christmas hats and tinsel with her from the UK, so as we settled on our sunbeds Neil adorned them with some festive cheer. This clearly inspired our waiters and soon a fully decked Christmas tree appeared from somewhere and had been planted next to us. Christmas day in Cambodia was, for us, a slightly surreal experience!

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We subsequently tried a different beach every day (all in the name of research of course) starting with what turned out to be one our favourites. Almost continuous with the southern end of Ochhueteal, Otres beach is divided into two by a large expanse of beachside cleared of all bars and shacks to make way for a massive resort. Sold to a developer “with connections to the government” the space has lain empty for two years, meaning that Otres still remains mercifully undeveloped. The thin strip of white sand plays host to a more relaxed set of bars and beach shacks where the beer is served cold and a bed for the night on the beach can go from a few dollars to a few hundred in one of the more ‘boutique’ shacks. This is where you can find professional beach bums (probably called Olly or Marrianne) tending their boats waist deep in the crystal waters looking every part ‘Sal’ from Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. The two ends of the same beach, called Otres 1 and Otres 2 respectively, all offered the same chilled out and relaxed feel where bar owners cared enough to learn your name and had no sense of urgency whatsoever.

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Sokha beach, named after the beach resort that privately owns 80% of it, is arguably the prettiest of them all. A wide beach with freshly raked sand greets you; the added security provided by Sokha means this beach remains deserted of anyone except hotel guests. Part of the Sokimex group, Sokha beach resort and hotels are maligned for ‘owning Angkor Wat’, which is not strictly true, although they have become a political stick for the opposition to beat the government with. The Sokimex group does run the ticketing and security at the world’s largest religious site, symbol of national pride and international tourist draw but for just 15% of the ticket price. I bet that this seemed a great deal for the government when it was negotiated in 1999 but with annual visitor numbers now in excess of two million and a minimum entry price of $20 each, the fortunes have somewhat reversed.

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Finally we headed for Independence beach with far fewer western tourists it was therefore much quieter in general. There were only a few sunbeds, very little in the way of hawkers offering bracelets or a massage, instead just lots of white sand. One end of the beach is used privately by the revamped 1960’s glory that is the Independence Hotel but this amounts to less than 100m which has a brackish pool running along the back of it. A few minutes walk from the small stretch of restaurants and you have the beach to yourself, where you can lie on the sand in the shade of a pine tree and feel like you’re on a deserted island, all without actually having to clamber on board a small wooden boat with a horde of other tourists who are all, ironically, seeking the same.

For those of you paying attention (and doing the maths) I should point out that we didn’t go to Victory Beach (the description that it ‘looked out over Sihanoukville port’ put us off) or Hawaii beach as it is the ‘bridge head for the new Techo Morakot Bridge’. They may be as lovely as the others we visited but I doubt that.

Posted by stuartfinch 20:38 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

A slow meander through the Mekong delta.

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Getting off the well-beaten track is not so easy in Vietnam - the number of foreign tourists here, unsurprisingly, far exceeds the density found anywhere we have previously visited on this trip - but these last few days in the Mekong delta have provided such an opportunity. After an aborted attempt to get to the Con Dao islands by ferry we chose instead to use the time to travel through the languid backwaters from Ben Tre to Tra Vinh.

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Ben Tre is only two bumpy hours by public bus from Ho Chi Minh City’s Mein Tay bus station, this small Mekong province is sandwiched between two arms of the river and until recently only linked to the rest of the delta via ferries. Although just one short step further than the popular day trip destination of My Tho, we saw just a handful of other tourists here. A perfect place to lose yourself along the quiet country roads, paddy fields and coconut groves on bicycle. Travelling farther into the delta by cargo boat seemed like a suitable next step.

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We climbed aboard and nestled our bags amongst the boxes of eggs, piles of baskets, large bags of vegetables and what looked like a large quantity of beer. As we set off we claimed a spot on the pitch tar roof, leaning against a stack of brushes, as the place to watch the riverside action and catch a refreshing breeze in the morning heat. The slow pace of the boat meant that this was going to be leisurely travel.

The Mekong and its related tributaries and canals are largely still a working river with vessels ranging in size from gargantuan container ships and RoRo ferries to one person canoes used for fishing and personal transport. Most boats were similar in size to ours, a deep-hulled wooden construction with a pair of eyes painted on the bow to ward off evil, and often loaded to the point that their skippers could barely see their way over the top of the cargo despite being perched on a high platform at the back.

After crossing one of the main arms of the Mekong, we estimated at least a mile wide at this point, we headed south through smaller channels flanked by tropical jungle on both sides so dense that the ‘put-put’ of the boat’s engine echoed back at us. At quieter moments you could hear the noise of birds in the trees or the occasional cockerel crowing from the houses hidden on the banks, it felt like our own journey into ‘the heart of darkness’ (just without the horror).

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We made one short stop at the market town Mo Cay, to load up some sugar products, where we managed to grab an ice cold drink and some fruit from a café in the lanes nearby. The riverbanks surrounding the town provided plenty of moorings for boats to load and unload coconuts for processing. Teams of people, working by hand alone, could be seen sorting coconuts by weight, removing the husks and cracking the coconuts to cook and sugar the flesh into coconut candy. In other places swathes of the banks were covered in a layer of drying husks slowly being baked and raked into bales of coir fibres. This province truly has a coconut economy.

Five and a half hours after we had departed we approached the small quay in Tra Vinh where we were allowed to disembark before the cargo. Having covered just over 40 miles on a journey that would have taken a couple of hours by bus and ferry, this was certainly slow travelling. There are even fewer tourists in Tra Vinh and little do except wander the markets and pagodas of this Khmer influenced town which can only be described as off the beaten track.

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Posted by stuartfinch 07:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

You don't learn that in school

Some hints and tips for travelling in China

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The following is by no means comprehensive or in any order of importance, they are just a few lessons learned during our seven weeks here. I hope that it gives you an insight into travel in China, inspire you to come and maybe help you with the planning of your trip. China really has been worth the effort!

1. Travelling by train is good. The new high speed trains are often quicker, cheaper and more pleasant than flying low cost airlines. We also travelled both hard and soft sleeper on slower, more local trains which we found to be OK (although the toilets could leave a lot to be desired). See the excellent www.seat61.com for full details of train travel in China – we found this site indispensable.

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2. Long distance buses always leave full but are cheap, efficient and (mostly) comfortable. Long journeys involve a stop for food and toilet break every few hours (carry small change for these). The most popular routes can get booked up and, so sometimes, it’s worth booking your seat a few days in advance but otherwise turn up and buy your ticket on the day. (Be careful of seat numbers above 40 as they tend to be on the back row and have less legroom; always ask for your seats to be together). Local town or city buses will take you almost anywhere for 1 or 2 Yuan.

3. Don’t be fooled by the impressive reception area at a Chinese hotel. Whilst this may give the impression that the hotel has many facilities, they may not be operating – we came across coffee shops with no coffee, bars and services long since closed and plenty of tired and grubby rooms. On the other hand we stayed in some fantastic hostels, B&Bs and homestays which, at their price, beat these hotels hands down.

4. The Chinese like to eat early – lunch is often eaten before or around midday and dinner from 5.30pm This means that local restaurants can close by 1pm in the afternoon and by 8pm in the evening

5. Smoking, whilst banned is many public spaces, is tolerated almost everywhere. A smoking ban is effectively enforced at some national monuments such as the Forbidden City and in national parks where there is a fire risk but even in Hong Kong where the ban is more strictly adhered to you can smoke at tables directly onto the street.

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6. Beer is cheap but the entrance fees to monuments and parks can be prohibitively expensive. Jiuzhaigou National Park and Huanglong Geopark were £30 and £20 entrance fee per day respectively meaning we had spent £100 in just two days before food, travel or accommodation – something that you must consider when travelling on a budget.

7. The rules of the road can seem indecipherable in some places and outright non-existent in others. When crossing a road as a pedestrian in cities, walk slowly and with confidence (preferably shadowing a local Chinese person) - the bicycles and silent electric mopeds will part and flow around you.

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8. Don’t underestimate how busy it gets during ‘Golden Week’ around the October 1st national holiday. The Chinese domestic tourism industry is really taking off and it seems like everyone heads away during this week; prices go up, crowds get thicker and hotels get booked out. Plan carefully and book your accommodation well in advance – we opted to stay put in Shanghai for the week and stayed with friends and here they had the army on the street nightly to control the crowds along The Bund!

9. Access to the internet is almost everywhere via wifi but Google can be slow and the ‘Great Firewall of China’ limiting. We found other search engines and a range of English language versions of Chinese sites tended to be more reliable.

10. The language barrier is ever present but not impossible. Even learning rudimentary Mandarin was useful but moving to another region, with its own tones and even dialect, often made our efforts unintelligible again. Nothing quite beats a good sense of humour, patience and a lot of pointing when it comes to ordering food/tickets/shopping! We were told by a graduate in Chinese Studies that Mandarin is a spoken language and we’re prepared to believe him, however, do learn the characters for ‘Gents’ and ‘Ladies’ toilets.

11. Chinglish (Mandarin or Cantonese translated in English) produces some wonderfully bizarre phrases that provide continuing entertainment. ‘Water your foot’ at the bottom of an escalator – we think, somehow mistranslated from ‘Watch your step’. Or how about ‘Self Enema’ on a restaurant menu in Beijing? Doesn’t bear thinking about…

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12. Some of the best things in China are free. Markets are fascinating, so is people watching in the park with the rows of dancers, singers, marching bands and even catwalking. Some museums are free such as the Shanghai Museum, as is the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square and walking up Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. China isn’t all expensive.

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Posted by stuartfinch 00:48 Archived in China Comments (1)

Searching for the authentic China.

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I admit that like many people, I rely on guidebooks when planning trips abroad and it can be difficult to avoid the apparent ubiquitous monopoly of ‘Lonely Planet’. Their recommendations can quickly become swamped (often deservedly) with English speaking travelers all searching for the best and most ‘authentic’ experiences of that destination. Europeans have been travelling to and writing about China since the days of Marco Polo, each with their own perspective and agenda; with the aid of the internet it is now possible to access all these different accounts, both historical and contemporary, with ease.

So what is the most ‘authentic’ Chinese experience? We have visited places that would feature on many people’s “Top 10” list for China (or even the world) and many have been recognised as important by their UNESCO world heritage listing.

Gate of Heavenly Peace,Tiananmen Square

Gate of Heavenly Peace,Tiananmen Square

The Hanging Monastery, Tian Shan

The Hanging Monastery, Tian Shan

Terracotta Warriors , Xian

Terracotta Warriors , Xian

Sometimes we were joined by crowds of other tourists, others we had the place to ourselves to quietly contemplate what it all meant but we often struggled to identify with the authenticity of where we were visiting.

Given the age and expansive history of China it’s not surprising that many sites have been remodeled, rebuilt and restored. The Great Wall was built over many hundreds of years and started as a mud bank – the current brick fascia and ramparts weren't added until the Ming dynasty, 400 years ago. In places these have been restored so that it’s possible to walk on the wall and imagine yourself repelling (unsuccessfully) Mongol invaders, in others it is left crumbling and impassable. So which is the ‘authentic’ Great Wall experience – wandering along the original mud embankment?

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Looking out over The Great Wall

Looking out over The Great Wall

China’s new wealth has seen many towns and cities invest in new infra-structure. Images of Shanghai’s towering skyline are well known but it has seemed like nearly all cities in China are in the process of a building boom. Huge, 30 storey, lego-block apartment buildings are appearing on the outskirts of most cities to meet the needs of the growing population. Old quarters of towns are razed to make way for modernity and, in some cases, brand-new ‘ancient’ buildings.

In Datong, Shanxi Provence, the city government are in the process of investing in tourism by rebuilding the entire ancient city – knocking down any building taller than three stories, replacing them with copies of Ming and Qing dynasty low-rise housing (although they will actually to be used for retail) and rebuilding the city walls to the exact plan from 600 years ago. The original walls were removed as the city expanded and life become more peaceful, the stone used to build more housing. Local officials have offered money to buy back these stones for the reconstructed walls but needless to say, few people have been willing to part with what has become an essential part of their homes.

Instead the city walls have been rebuilt using brand-new stone, which gives a certain Las Vegas or Disneyland quality to the overall effect. Although there is the greater problem that the original walls had passed through what is now a communist party building, who are rather reluctant to move... So the city has just three of the four ‘defensive’ walls rebuilt.

There are many more examples of local government investment into rebuilding ancient buildings to lure in the tourist. Some look like and are used as sets for TV and film, others are plain replacements for relics lost in the cultural revolution, many have been over-restored (including, in my opinion, parts of ‘The Forbidden City’) and there is, of course, a significant chunk that were built ‘around 2008’.

The Laughing Buddha

The Laughing Buddha

Rooftops at Wang Family Compound

Rooftops at Wang Family Compound


Ancient streets of Pingyao

Ancient streets of Pingyao

Like the road-sweeper’s 40 year-old broom that has been completely replaced, in parts, over the working lifetime of its owner, few places are truly original and nor would we want them preserved. The guidebooks may describe places and ‘ancient’, ‘like it was years ago’ and even 'hoary' but the truth is that the lines between new and old are blurred in China and neither is more (or less) authentic than the other.

Posted by stuartfinch 02:55 Archived in China Comments (1)

What noise does an angry Mongolian tent make?

Ger.

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Not a yurt and pronounced to rhyme with her, hair or here - the ger is a lot more spacious than you’d think. Inside there are usually some of the mod-cons you’d expect of a 21st century family; satellite TV, telephone and other solar powered electrical items. Yet the ger is essentially governed by the nomadic lifestyle their owners live.

Ger on the steppe

Ger on the steppe

Ger at sunset

Ger at sunset

Ger

Ger

A central wooden wagon wheel is held up by posts to provide height, whist the often intricately decorated spokes and the wooden lattice-work walls give the ger its shape. Covered in layers of felt and cloth it is quite weather proof and can keep you very snug and warm when it’s blowing a gale outside, especially when the fire is lit inside the metal box that sits immediately in front of the door. The ger can and is dismantled several times a year and moved on the back of an overloaded truck or yak to fresh pastures.

After a few visits to a ger we realised that there are some common features and customs to all gers. The internal layout follows a similar pattern with door facing south, beds on either side and further furniture (dressers, wardrobes, chests, tables) at the back. It always includes a small shrine adorned with Buddhist images and texts, family photos and an array of rather kitsch horse statuettes; the type that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my Gran’s sideboard.

Ger structure

Ger structure

Horsehair in ger

Horsehair in ger

Ger life

Ger life

Considering the nomadic lifestyle and reliance on their livestock as a source of all food, there would invariably be a range of different foodstuffs and instruments to aid in their production visible in the ger. A huge vat of fermenting mare’s milk (‘airag’) by the door, trays of drying curd cheese, a wooden contraption to distil ‘vodka’ from the fermented milk, ritual wooden spoons to flick milk offerings to the sky every morning, unidentifiable parts of goat or sheep hung to cure from any convenient hook and a large metal bowl of slowly simmering mutton provide you with a complete picture. Yet it is the smell that lingers. Close, I imagine, to that of a sweaty, smokey dairy that had been wrapped in a massive blanket to fester for a while, I got quite used to it!

When inside we were expected to follow a few simple rules. Leaning over or standing on the threshold was considered rude, as was crossing your legs when eating. We slept with our feet towards the door and respected the family’s treasured possessions, especially those on the altar and the horse hair hanging from the central anchor rope – each taken as a memento of a favourite horse. Other, more ‘western’, social norms were not observed. You entered without knocking and could expect to share the food and drink available – Mongolian hospitality is rightly renowned.

Curing meat

Curing meat

Our hosts for the night

Our hosts for the night

Inside a ger

Inside a ger

I have many fond memories of nights spent in a ger; sharing a single bed to keep warm, watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Mongolian, the stars, the poos with views but right now my lasting memory is a lesson learned on our final night in a ger. If you should trip, the metal fire box that keeps you snug and warm, should not, if at all possible, be used to break your fall…

Ouch!

Ouch!

Off to China nursing sore hand.

Posted by stuartfinch 07:33 Archived in Mongolia Comments (1)

Overheard conversation

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Our long-distance train journeys have changed subtly as we have ventured east as they have become increasingly filled with international travelers. Consequently, what started out with what felt like an intrepid journey alone, where we had to learn train etiquette the hard way, it is now a more social activity comparing plans, notes and previous experiences with fellow passengers. On our most recent trip across the border into Mongolia we shared a carriage with French, Swiss, German, American, Austrian, Indian, Dutch and Chinese nationals to name a few. Invariably the language of most international conversations is English, which resulted in this overheard conversation…

“Oh yes! You can get Starbucks in China”
“Really?”
“Yes, the Chinese love the Americans”
“You mean all things American, not all Americans”
“Except Google”

I was reminded that less than 7% of the world’s population will travel internationally this year and no matter how homogeneous we become as a global population, I am one of a very fortunate few to experience this.

Posted by stuartfinch 22:23 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

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