David has a travel journal which can be accessed through the link below, with entries searchable month by month. Most (apart from the latest) entries are also posted further down this page.
We'll also post some photos on the way - these can be found through the links to the left!
Click here for David's travel journal
Celia and David
DAVID'S TRAVEL JOURNAL - to 3 September 2004
Friday, 3 September 2004
Belize - a quick taste of the Caribbean!
After arriving in Belize City we took a speedboat taxi for an hour to Caye Caulker - a small island on the Carribean.
This was a nice place to relax, was not too overun with tourists (mainly Italians) and had some lovely restaurants with great food. Celia was quite ill for the first couple of days, but we got some medication and moved to a better hotel to enjoy the rest of our stay. The surrounding turqoise waters were crystal clear and we enjoyed some snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef (2nd largest in the world) including a quick visit to "Shark and ray alley". This was the most spectacular sight we had seen underwater for some time, with dozens of huge sting rays gliding around us, along with pretty large nursing sharks. Caye Caulker was a good introduction to the Belizeans relaxed approach to life, but as it did not have have a beach we decided to move further down the coast to Placencia.
This involved long, hot and cramped journeys travelling (sometimes on unpaved roads) by 'chicken buses' (old American school buses) with no air-con while being blasted by belizean radio and the locals singing along! Placencia was tiny and the beach was a little dissapointing, but at least we find a large cabin right on the beach and enjoyed some great food at one of the few places that had not closed down as it was at the end of the tourist season!
After a couple more days in Belize, we thought we would go up to Mexico, our last country before we head back to the UK. That was after a frantic search in the capital for a guidebook to Mexico - there was not one and few places to actually buy any books in the whole country itself! Very strange, especially because Belize is supposed to have quite a literacy rate. Having said that, it really is not geared up to independent travellers with most visitors arriving by cruise ships for a few hours near Belize City.
Saturday, 21 August 2004
Flores and Tikal, oh and a very scary flight!
We decided to fly from Guatemala City to Flores, the nearest town to the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal, to cut down on journey time and also because we had read that there had been some armed hold-ups of tourist coaches on the route by land.
Hmm, it did not feel too safe flying there either! We got bumped off the flight with TAG airlines at the last minute and got put on a flight with RACSA, an airline we had tried to avoid as it uses older, propeller planes. Things started getting worrying when we approached the small hangar/check-in area - the building was in disrepair and RACSA was written in rope lighting. I kid you not! At least we avoid a huge bill for overweight luggage, before going on a small plane (30 seater?). After praying a lot during the hour and half flight, the highlights of which were the stewardess bringing "Sunny Delight" and often dissappearing behind a cheap plastic concertina door to the cockpit, we arrived safely.
There is not much to say about Flores, other than it was small and shabby with few worthwhile places to eat. Not something we expected for somewhere on the doorstep of one of the most famous world heritage sites at Tikal. Our very early morning visit to Tikal was great though, and we headed straight for the highest temple (Temple IV) at the far end of the main site and climbed up the steep steps and ladders to the top. This gave us a view over the top of the surrounding jungle and, as the mist cleared, the roof combs of the other temples in the complex appeared. This was absolutley beautiful and easily the best part of our visit to Tikal, whose temples are, in my opinion, nowhere near as impressive as thoses in and around Angkor Wat. That is part of the problem we face on such a long and varied trip - it can sometime make some things not as spectacular as the may be on individual trips.
Tikal was our last place in Guatemala and we headed towards Belize City on yet another dodgy highway, this time remote and unpaved towards the border...
Wednesday, 18 August 2004
Panajachel, Lake Atitlan & Chi Chi Market
Now on to Panajachel, another example of Gringolandia in Guatemala!
Although it is quite western-orientated it has a great market for local goods and has an amazingly beautiful setting next to Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by huge volcanoes. We went on a couple of excursions in the area, a visit to the twice-weekly tourist oriented market at Chichicastenango (chi chi) and a boat tour of the lake and some of the villages around it.
Chi Chi market was huge and had some wonderful things to buy, but it was far less authentic than the one at San Francisco El Alto. Still it was great to do a bit of haggling and watch the locals (and tourists) go by from the steps of the main church. The indigenous people of Guatemala, particularly the women, dont like their photo taken so you have to ask first, take general pictures or be very discreet from a distance. Hopefully I did get a few decent pics to capture the vivid colours of the frantic scenes before us!
The boat tour around the lake was, unfortunately long and boring. Lasting 7 hours (the lake is huge!) it took us to three villages of varying size: San Pedro (v. small, quite local and relatively unspoilt), Santiago (a bad tourist trap and a prime example of the horrible dichotomy of very rich tourists and poor locals) and San Antonio (another small place with locals desperately selling local products at impossibly low prices). I would not reccommend doing this if you usually try to avoid the blatant tourist traps and activities, but at least it was a very cheap tour if you did not pay for a guide!
Saturday, 14 August 2004
Xela and around!
Ho hum, travelling in Guatemala can be a bit tricky - in order to go to Xela we had to go back to Guatemala City which is completely in the opposite direction! The capital city is decidedly dodgy and seems to have many armed guards for businesses, even including an ice cream parlour! On the way through to Xela, our bus (an old american greyhound) was stopped by armed police and all the guys, including me, had to leave the bus and get searched! I think that they were probably checking for guns as Guatemala has a bad reputation for armed hold-ups, particularly on the highways in and around tourist areas.
Anyway, now on to Xela. This is much more like it! Yes there are Gringos, but this is also a 'real' Guatemalan working city. It's nice and clean, but doesn't have the same initial surface beauty of Antigua. But then again, you can meet Guatemalan people and eat Guatemalan people much more easily!
We used Xela as base for visiting the surrounding areas and used a great small tour company called Andrenalina tours (http://www.adrenalinatours.com) , run by a Belgian, who used small minibuses with a few passengers.
Tour 1 - first a quick look at a co-operative glass making factory, and then visiting the beautiful church at Zunil and also San Simon - a pseudu pagan saint around the Highland areas. San Simon (aka Maximon) appears and is worshipped in several of the highland villages in Guatemala and is, at least for most westerners, a completely bizarre and incomprehensible sight. The life-sized effigy with obscure powers in Zunil is basically a shop dummy or blow-up doll that is completely clothed in vivid and colorful material that is woven using pre-Hispanic techniques, along with a hat, sunglasses etc. We saw mayan people give San Simon offerings, often food spirits to drink and also food - at one point two women tipped San Simon back and gave him something to srink - we were not sure where the liquid went! Outside the home of San Simon was a mayan priest that did a huge amount of chanting in an indigenous language and spitting all over a woman - very different to the sort of ceremonies we had seen on our travels so far! After Zunil, we went for a dip in the "hot" springs at Fuentes Georginas, which were a little dissapointing and then on to a small local market.
Tour 2 - This was a particularly great tour as it was just Celia and I and an additional, this time english speaking, guide! More churches today, with a visit to San Andres Xecul - a wackily decorated church in yellow with figures and activities representing its surroundings - and San Jacinto, the oldest church in Central America at Salcaja. We also visited a Guatemala cemetry, another market and also watched fabrics being woven and threads being dyed to give an idea of the local industries.
San Francisco El Alto - this is easily the biggest market in Guatemala and possibly in Central America where people travel for many hours to attend the market each Friday. It was absolutley staggering to see what was on sale - basically anything and everything! The highlight was easily the animal market where just about anything with two or four legs was for sale. It was easily the most colourful market we had seen in our travels, but we didnt take our cameras as it is also notorious for pick pocketing. Luckily, we did take a little money and picked up a few textile gifts that were much cheaper than anywhere else as there were very few tourist visiting.
Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Hola to C. America & Guatmela!
Blimey, a cultural shock as soon as we arrived in Guatemala City!
Back to 'real' travelling again and to start us off in good stead, the woman at Immigration wasn't too chuffed with us, and only stopped asking us questions when she realised that our Spanish was appalling! Never mind that we later discovered that she'd stamped our passports with a 2003 date and then hand written that it was meant to be 2004! Things just got better - our planned hotel pick-up just didn't! When we phoned and took us to the hotel, they were full and didn't have our reservation. Never mind, they dropped us off at another place, still in Zone 13 (one of a few areas in G. City that isn't a no-go area) for a nights kip!
In the morning we went over to Antigua and the head of the family (and his wife) drove us there in an old mercedes - quite luxurious. That is until smoke started pouring out of the gear stick area and we broke down in front of 3 lanes of traffic! Luckily, we were near their daughter's house and we swapped the car, for another old mercedes that poured a load of liquid out when it reversed. Still, it was a special car and we were very lucky to be sitting where the Pope sat when he visited Guatemala in the 1980s (hubby was high up in National security - we saw the portraits in the family sitting room). Anyway, what's good enough for the Pope is good enough for us and we got to Antigua in one piece eventually!
I wasn't too keen on Antigua - it is very beautiful and worthy of it's World Heritage Site listing, but it's also absolutely chok-full of tourists and, well, a bit fake. The restaurants were very expensive and it was difficult to find affordable Guatemalan food - actually there didn't seem to be much Guatemalan about the place. Not really why we were visiting Guatemala! So, after a couple of days we left on our way to Quetzelanango (Xela) - the main city in the Highlands of Guatemala.
Saturday, 7 August 2004
Mardis Gras madness and Miami Beach...
Wow, it's steamy in New Orleans! The weather was very changeable, between very hot and sunny and then some really flash flooding with several inches of rain dropping in a few hours!
We did quite a few touristy things in Orleans including:
Touring around the French Quarter and Cemetries
Cemetries are big business in New Orleans - there must be at least 20 business offering tours around the french quarter, haunted tours and of the cemtries. I think they're probably all similar and, like the star tours in Hollywood, money for old rope. We attempted to go with one of the more reputable companies, but when just one guide turned up at the meeting place there were around 40 people wanting to go. We go our money back straight away - way too many people to hear what's goin on! Luckily for us, it started poring down minutes after we left, so we had a lucky escape. We went with another company the follwing day with just 6 other people and although the tour was cut short due to the heat it was still quite interesting and good to see Marie Laveau's grave (a high priestess of voodoo) and wander around the old buildings of the french quarter.
Jazz cruise on the Mississippi
This just had be done! Crusing down the Mississippi river on an old-fashioned paddle steamer while eating a bit of local food and listening to one of the local jazz bands. Not much to see along the banks, but a nice way to spend Sunday afternoon!
Drinking along Bourbon Street
We thought Las Vegas was debauched, but it was merely an introduction to Bourbon Street, full of bars, music places and strip joints. This is one of the few places in the world where you can get and alchoholic drink to take away and then walk down the street, stand outside another bar and listen/watch the live music without going inside. Almost everywhere had music and there was lots of different kinds, but our favourite was 'Howl at the Moon' where they had two 'duelling pianos' facing each other and brilliant pianists cracking jokes and taking requests! Oh and we had some bourbon and a few frozen Margharitas!!
Miami - South Beach
This was just a quick visit en route to flying to Guatemala City - to sort out a few things and do some posting home. In between the huge downpours we took a quick peek at Ocean Drive (beautiful art deco buildings) and the huge, but busy Miami Beach. Not really much else to do there, but we needed a rest anyway!
The USA was great fun! We were absolutley exhausted, but we saw some fantastic cities, went to places we'd always wanted to and ate really well - even the appalling check-in and security lines at the airports might be soon forgotten!
Sunday, 1 August 2004
Las Vegas or is it Venice, Paris & Cairo?
Blimey. We're getting even more extreme in the States.
This place is mind-blowing! Nothing beats seeing Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) for the first time at night. The lights and sights are dazzling! We stayed at Circus Circus ( http://www.circuscircus.com ) - one of the cheapest hotels on the Strip and not a bad location, and it was great to have a large private room and decent bathroom AND towels. (You cannot underestimate how great that is after staying in hostels in OZ and NZ!) The hotel had a circus theme which meant it was absolutely full of brats. Luckily we kept using an exit that bypassed most of them!
So, let me go on about the Casinos. Yes, there's lot of gambling, yes the House always wins, yes it's almost impossable to find the exits, yes they're probably immoral, unethical etc. but they're FUN!! Where else can you get free drinks of any kind while just playing on 2 or 5 cent machines - a usual tactic of ours was to sit down near the waitresses and pretend to put money in, cash it out, and then slowly play until you get a freebie. What else can you do on a tight budget and still have a great night out until 3, 4 or 5am? Mind you, it's a good idea to move to another Casino when you've spent a couple of dollars...
Another way to save money is to eat at the casino buffets - if ever there was a prime example of glutony, these would be it, but at least you barely each during the following day! Theyｴre of a pretty high standard and really good value - we ate the Sahara buffet for around 9 dollars and the Hilton buffet was around 13 dollars which included unlimited wine and beer. We had to leave Vegas, as we really would put on too weight though!
Highlights of Vegas included:
The Strip - fantastic. All the lights, free shows, an Egyptian pyramid, the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty all blow your mind.
Bellagio - one of the poshest places to stay, but I thought that the interior was a bit tacky. Great gin & tonics though and the huge fountains set to music are truly magnificient.
Venitian - An amazing place, with a wonderful Venitian themed exterior and interior. Where else would you find a recreation of the Grand Canal inside AND upstairs, complete with gondalas and singing gondaliers. Oh, and did I mention a huge recreation of St. Mark's Square is also inside? This is the place I would stay if I had the money...
Caesar's Palace - probably one the best 'older' casinos and some good free drinks. The interiorof the forum shopping arcade has a 'sky' that constantly changes from day to night and back again!
Downtown - worth taking a trip in a taxi. This is where it all started and many of the older casinos such as the Golden Nugget are downtown. It's more serious in the gambling sense, but is much less self-conscious than around the strip. A great place to people watch, especially some of the croupiers who look like they've never left the place and, well, like death warmed up! They have also covered a whole street with a giant video screen that shows bizzare images every hour, quite disorrientating when you've had a couple of drinks. Speaking of which, some places really do ply you with free drinks and so it was a good job we left downtown to our last night with a 6am start for the flight to New Orleans. Having said that, I donｴt we got to sleep until 2 or 3. But that's Las Vegas for you!
We had a great time, but were glad to leave after 3 nights - I don't think my liver, stomach or senses could last for much longer! You really have to visit it at least once and you don't have to gamble too much to enjoy yourself.
Tuesday, 27 July 2004
Hooray for Hollywood!!
After SF's laid back life, we fancied a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz and a bit of showbiz. What better place to find all of that, than in Hollywood!
Cheap places to stay aren't easy to find in the States, when compared to Australia and New Zealand but we found one, possibly in the best location in Hollwood. Orange Drive Hostel (http://www.orangedrivehostel.com/) although a bit run-down is 2 minutes away from Hollywood Boulevard and the pink stars of the Walk of Fame.
After strolling down the street of stars you come to Mann's Chinese Theatre which is famous for Hollywood stars' foot and hand prints on the paving stones outside. Further along, is the Kodak Theatre (http://www.oscars.org/kodaktheatre/) the new permanent home for the Oscars ceremony - we took a brief tour of the theatre and was lucky to be able to walk on the stage and face out to the audience, just as the celebratory, victorious, glamourous and crying people had done before us. I don't care how shallow it all is - you can't help but get caught up in it!
We also visted a couple of museums in Hollywood. The Hollwood Museum in the former Max Factor building ( http://www.thehollywoodmuseum.com/ ) is great for a bit of old-fashioned glamour - lots of costumes and dresses from old greats such as Mae West and Marilyn. These, together with the costumes and sets from more modern films, make an ecletic collection of Hollyood memorabilia. Well worth checking out! The best bit though had to be walking along the recreation of the original set of the cells used in the Hannibal Lecter films. Pretty spooky!
The Entertainment museum (http://www.hollywoodmuseum.com/ ) was, however, disapointing. The only worthwhile thing seeing, and really only if you're a fan, are the original sets from Cheers and the old Star Trek series. Never mind, at least it didn't cost too much as we had bought a City Pass ( http://citypass.com/city/hollywood.html ) ticket for all the major attractions at a cheap price. This also included a 'star homes' tour in a bus which was also a load of rubbish - great for looking at the gates of random houses in the hills and being told that a star that you'd never heard of lived there. If ever there was an example of the phrase 'money for old rope' this has had to be it. Mind you at least we got to see Rodeo Drive and to see where Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting, where George Michael was arrested (!) and where some famous stars such as River Phoenix died. Sometimes there's too much interest in celebrity life!
The best attraction in Hollywood though had to be visiting the Universal Studios theme park www.universalstudioshollywood.com It was fantastic! Nothing beats suspending disbelief as you cruise through the lost world of Jurassic Park in a boat with moving dinosaurs, the 4 dimensional Terminator film (with dodgy live acting mixed in) was also brilliant. As was the live demonstration of the fire effects used in the Backdraft film and the crazy stunts (which went wrong the first time we saw them) of the Waterworld show. (I've still no idea how they got a plance to fly and crash into the water in the arena!) The tour of the studios and sets were also interesting - the set of the Town Square from the Back to the Future films was brilliant. All in all, great fun and a good mix of rides/demonstrations/semi behind the scenes stuff.
Saturday, 24 July 2004
San Francisco & Alcatraz
We had a great time in San Fran, SF, or whatever you want to call it! It is one of the most laid back and easy going cities I've ever been, with everyone pretty much allowed to do (or be) whatever they want.
Wandering around the steets, walking along the Golden Gate Bridge, soaking up the atmosphere of Union Sqaure, Little Italy, the Gay neighbourhood of Castro and the best China Town outside of China was great fun! SF is full of surprises and has completely different areas (and faces) around each and every corner. Many of the buildings and homes are absolutely beautiful and the streets really are as steep as you've seen in films. One of the best things to do is hanging off the side of the cable tram as it trundles down streets at a fast rate!
Another must do is visiting Alcatraz. We chose to do it by night for added spookiness and had to book to book a couple of weeks in advance (http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com/html/alcatraz_.html) as it is so popular. And with good reason! To be able to wander around the cells while it is dark listening to former inmates talking about their experiences on the audio tour is a poignant experience. The cells are tiny, and the sense of isolation must have been incredible, especially given the location of Alcatraz away from the mainland in San Francisco bay. We learnt that sometimes when there was a big celebration (e.g. New Year's Eve) and the wind was blowing in the right direction.it might just be possible to hear the outside world. Probably the most poignant moment was when we had a demonstration of how the doors to the cells were locked remotely - closing your eyes and hearing the crash of metal against metal. Imagine hearing that day after day...
Sunday, 18 July 2004
Up up and away and thermal wonders...
What visit to New Zealand could be complete without some antics in the air? After shying away from doing a bungy jump we both decided we'd go a bit higher and do a skydive over lake Taupo!
It was brilliant!
We went with the smallest company in the area - Skydive Taupo (http://www.skydivetaupo.co.nz) and got picked up in a white limo to take us to the airport. We were both not too nervous as we signed our lives away and then got strapped up in very attractive skydive suits before our journey up to 12,000ft. It was snug fit in the plane with the 3 of us (Ceals, myself and another girl harnessed to the 3 instructors) but was absolutley freezing as we neared our jump height. I was second to jump after the other girl and that was when I got a bit nervous - actually the first couple of seconds of jumping out of the plane was the most nerve-wracking bit.The 45 seconds of the wind blasting my face and body as I hurtled towards the ground at 200 Km/h went so quickly and I relaxed and enjoyed the view to such an extent that I forgot the whole parachute thing! After a big jolt we serenely cruised around the sky for a few minutes until we landed - a good for a beer! Would I do it again? - yes but only if somebody else paid, as it is quite an expensive few minutes and I'm not sure if anything could top the first time...
Now firmly on the ground, we enjoyed the thermal wonders around Rotorua (the last place before Auckland and leaving New Zealand.) Although obviously very touristy we enjoyed looking the geysers spouting water up 300 degrees C, the boiling mud pools and the other effects of the thermal waters and minerals on the environment over thousands of years. Wai-O-Tapu (sacred waters) thermal area was absolutley beautiful and we were lucky to avoid some of the crowds by going so early in the morning. We also watch a Maori cultural performence at the arts and cultural centre in Rotorua.
We're flying out of Auckland tomorrow after planning our quick zip across the states. We loved NZ and had a great time here - we'll have to come back and see the things that we missed out on because of the wintry weather another time!
Wednesday, 7 July 2004
Boulders, up to Wellington and then Napier
Bah humbug! The weather was a little ropey on the east coast of the south island and we missed out on swimming with the dolphins. Might have to give up the whole dolphin thing. Still, we had great weather to view the Moeraki boulders on the way there. These perfectly round boulders have been fashioned over tons of years, although some people believe that they are from another planet. Whatever the reason for their existence, they are amongst the the most beautiful set of rocks I've ever seen.
We crossed over to the North Island after a long and slighly bouncy ferry journey from Picton to Wellington. This was a nice city (though I think Christchurch is much more pictoresque) and we spent ours in the 'Te Papa' (our place) national museum learning much about the history of New Zealand. We also had some great food out and had few drinks while listening to a pretty miserable-looking Irish music band. Nothing like imparting warmth from the stage then!
On the way to Napier, which has many buildings in the Art Deco style after being totallyrebuilt following a huge earthquake, we visited a conservation centre and finally managed to look at a Kiwi bird in a nocturnal enclosure. Tick that box! It's a funny looking bird and much bigger than I thought
Thursday, 1 July 2004
More wildlife on our travels!
After Queenstown we moved on to the east coast of the South Island to the city of Dunedin which, given that it's name is Gaelic for Edinburgh, a decidedly Scottish flavour.
Our main reason for going to Dunedin (apart from traipsing up and down the steep hills and also the world's steepest street) was to see the wildlife on the Otago peninsular. We'd heard great things about the Elm wildlife tours (http://www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz) and were not dissapointed. We were very lucky as we saw the rare royal albatross fly overhead, then cute fur seals, the much more scary sea-lions and then the tiny yellow-eyed penguins coming back to their nests in the late afternoon. It was amazing to be part of a small group and get so close to these rare animals, and it was also top good to learn of Elm's conservation efforts.
Sunday, 27 June 2004
Wanaka, Queenstown and Milford Sound
Well, it started to get a bit sunny after the all the rain in Franz Joseph - it's still cold though, but what do you expect in Winter?!
Wanaka was a lovely place to?do a bit of 'mooching around' - eating and relaxing and walking around with beautiful lake and snow-capped mountain views. We visited the 'puzzle world' nearby and kept getting lost in the large maze that included towers and bridges and then going into hall-of-mirrors and other rooms with optical illusions. We also went to the쟫ocal small cinema (Cinema Paridiso http://www.paradiso.net.nz ) which had old sofas and even a morris minor to sit in while watching the films, and there were freshly baked cookies and home-made ice cream during the interval. Yum!!
Queenstown was really busy as we arrived just before the start of it's winter festival and the opening of the ski fields. We had a great time at the free concert that opened the event and enjoyed some great food from the outside stalls.
Not content with being cold in Wanaka, we thought we might as well go and freeze oursleves even more by giving skiing a go for the first time. The first day we had two lessons booked at the Cadrona resort in between Wanaka and Queenstown and I was lucky in that things went pretty well. Ceals had a bit of trouble with the learner ski tow and was a bit despondent by the end of the day. We decided to make up for it by trying again and going to the 'Remarkables' skifield and I had another lesson which meant that I could go on the beginners slope, while Ceals started again and had a much more productive time. The visibility was shocking that day with a large dump of snow, but we still enjoyed ourselves and it was a much cheaper introduction to skiing than if we'd gone to Europe from home. Can't wait to do it again - it means that I have another expensive new hobby to add to the growing list!
Milford Sound - this was a long day by road as it's quite tricky to get to from Queenstown what with all the mountains and huge lakes in the way. We had a two hour cruise on the Sound and although the wintry weather meant that we couldn't always see the tops of the mountain peaks around the water, the wispy clouds added an ethereal atmosphere to this beautiful place.
Saturday, 19 June 2004
Up the Alps with a paddle!
Yes, we're in sunny New Zealand. Well, sunny for the first 2 or 3 days then rainy and then more rain!!! We arrived in Christchurch on the East Coast of the South Island to sunshine that lasted until, oh, maybe 4 O' Clock. Yep it's Winter here and I'm feeling it as I write this (via satellite) in a red bus being pounded by rain near the Franz Joseph glaciar!!
Christchurch was lovely and was very much like an older English town with beautiful older buildings a great arts centre in what used to be the former Canterbury University. We enjoyed the weekend crafts market and I really enjoyed the international food vans! We also made our plans for touring both Islands and basically plumped for the cheapest bus option and are going arond with the 'Magic' bus company and will just get on and off where we like!
Our travels have started by crossing the Southern Alps on the 'Tranz Scenic" train. Unfortunately the weather was pretty dire and we couldn't see many of the peaks. Never mind, we had much better weather in Greymouth when we decided to go 'Heli Rafting"' That's getting taken in a weeny helicopter, just 2 of us and the pilot at any time, into the mountains to the top of a fast river and then white water rafting it back (a bit tamer than our previous time though)... We hadn't planned on doing any more rafting, but we had to do it cos it was at a really cheap standby price and we had never been in a helicopter before!
Now, the weather has turned on us. So bad that we decided not to pay a load of dosh to walk on the Franz Joseph glaciar. We were lucky though and in a 1 1/2 hour break in the rain we managed to get a bus down to a car park near the glaciar and then hike up to the terminal face - it was stunning!
Now further south, towards Queenstown...
Saturday, 12 June 2004
Melbourne and leaving Australia
Just a quick one on Melbourne as we were only there for a few days. Perhaps we had been spoilt by Sydney as we didn't appreciate Melbourne as much as we thought we might. It's a nice place to stay, and the Victoria market was wonderful, but it doesn't really have many other big things for a backpacker (cheapskate!) tourist to do - probably better for locals I think, as there is a lot of culture there...
My lasting impressions of OZ: I have to say I was surprised as I thought (after being told by lots of people) that I would much prefer the west coast to the east, but it was, overall, the other way around! Highlights were definately Sydney, white water rafting near Cairns, and the red centre.
We probably spent too long on the west coast, which didn't really have huge amounts to see considering the amoun It would have been great to see the great ocean road and Kakadu, but all in all, I think we saw pretty much most of the country!
Now on to leaving Oz for New Zealand.
Tuesday, 8 June 2004
Down South in Sydney!!
What a fantastic place Sydney is!
It's an international city that lives up to expectations. The harbour is amazing and to we have seen the iconic Opera House and the Bridge from more views than you can imagine, including climbing the bridge itself. Although a little bit expensive, the views from the top are well worth it and it wasn' too difficult to do.
The architecture (as is everything else) in Sydney is much more varied than in the other Australian cities that we visited and we found ourselves enjoying big city life more than we expected given that we've 'escaped' from London for a year!
Other highlights of Sydney included:
The Dixon Street asian foodcourt - loads of cheap restaurants in a bustling environment. Great food and some of the best since we left Thailand and China - so cheap we went there 3 times!!
The'Harry's pie cart on wheels' - a pie cart for the famous that's been going for decades. Some mash, mushy peas and gravy on a nice pie. You can't beat it!
The ferry trip to/from Manly - great views of the Harbour especially on our return back at night. The food and wine festival at Manly was a bonus!
Blue Mountains - a lovely area a couple of hours away from Sydney for some great walking, looking at the 'Three Sisters' rock formation and coming back to the fires of the best hostel we stayed in Australia - the Katoomba YHA!
Bumbing into our friend Clare - unbelievable, the last time we saw her was in China, over six months ago where she works! We spent the day crossing the Sydney Harbour bridge, going on the rides in Lunar Park, eating the odd pie and taking a quick look at the Kings Cross area...
Friday, 21 May 2004
Bites on the boat...
Ah, there's nothing worse than carrying something in your rucsack for several months and not using it when it counts.
We brought sleeping bag liners made of silk, because as well as keeping us warm on Chinese trains etc. they apparently are also good at keeping the bugs out! Shame we didn't take them with us on board the sailing boat we took around the Whitsundays with a company called Prosail, especially when there was mention of a 'bed bugs' problem on the checking in form. To cut a long story short, Celia and I were really badly bitten - with my bites appearing a few days later and we have complained to Prosail about it.
That aside, the boat (Independent Endeavour) and the crew were great and we enjoyed wonderful food and good snorkelling while cruising in the sunshine for 3 days...
Friday, 14 May 2004
Water all the way on the east coast
Yep, finally on the east coast, in Cairns.
It's a lovely small city surrounded by mountains with bags to do - not least visiting the Great Barrier Reef and white water rafting a couple of hours drive away. Oh, and you can do sky diving, bungee jumping etc. We only had the time, money and it's fair to say, the nerves to do the first two.
We spent a whole day white water rafting on the River Tully which is apparently one of the best places to do it as there are many grade 4 (quite fast!) rapids along it. It was a great day and we both got absolutley soaked at times. I was at the front of the dinghy which meant that I was usually the first to see the fast water and the steep drops and the one that probably screamed the most! Well worth doing....
We decided to just take a day trip to the G B Reef rather than a multiday 'liveaboard' trip to save some money and spend it on a better boat around the Whitsundays. We went cheap and I think got ok, although we both thought that the two snorkelling/dive sites that we went were not particularly spectacular. I think this is partly because of our fantastic experiences in Thailand and also because we might have been unlucky in where we were taken.
Now, using our greyhound passes and overnight buses south, towards Airlie Beach the gateway to the Whitsundays Islands...
Tuesday, 11 May 2004
Into the centre...
Wow, it's pretty red and really in the middle of nowhere!
We flew into Alice Springs and went on a 3 day camping tour to see King's Canyon, Uluru and the Olgas with a company called wayoutback safaris. We chose them because they offered small groups and used 4x4 vehicles to get people around. I was the only guy, other than the guide, in a group of 9 which was quite a turn up for the books - never mind they were all nice!
Highlights of the trip:
King's Canyon - this was absolutely beautiful even if it was very tiring walking up steep hills and cliffs, especially after a 5am start on the first day. To cool off, we went for a quick swim in the 'Garden of Eden' which was absolutely freezing, but well worth it as there was a stunning view of sheer multicoloured rock into the valley beyond.
Uluru - several people I'd met had said that they were a little dissappointed when they visited Uluru (Ayer's Rock) so I have to admit that my expectations had been tempered. For no reason! It was absolutely amazing to see for the first time and all the way around the base walk of about 10 km - all the different colours and textures of the rock, combined with the aboriginal significance and a few glasses of bubbly at sunset, made for a memorable time. Although we visited with the likelyhood of not climbing the rock, having heard that the aboriginal community are against it, we were surprised at how strong and clear the message is. This is especially evident in the nearby cultural centre. Obviously, it is up to individuals to decide if they want to climb but I don't think they could claim to be unaware of this objection.
Katu Tjuta (the Olgas) - this means 'many heads' and these rock formations were also really spectacular - especially the 'Valley of the Winds' walk where the photos I have taken do not do justice.
The camping! - although we were dissapointed at the lack of remoteness of the two places we camped (too close to shower blocks and facilities when we thought we'd be a bit more isolated) we still had a great time cooking on open fires and sleeping in our swags (a kind of sleeping bag & tent combination) under the stars in a clear night's sky.
Finally, just some thoughts on Alice Springs... I have to say I thinks it's a weird place - it's larger than you think and centres around tourism (not surprisingly) and cattle ranges. What is weird (or maybe uncomfortable) is that the centre is very much geared to tourists with lots of very expensive art galleries and shops shelling 'authentic' aboriginal work, with absolutley no aboriginal people working in them. Many are outside and in the parks watching tourists load themselves up with souvenirs. Not a particularly comfortable environment as it seems to be very segregated and we found some people to be openly racist.
Thursday, 6 May 2004
Further up the west coast
And so the long journey begins something like a 3000km round trip from Perth to Exmouth and back again. Still, it is a huge country!
Highlights included sand boarding down the dunes at Lancelin (Lancelin lodge was the best place to stay on the west coast) and Geraldton. Great fun and pretty fast after waxing the boards, and we had a spectacular wipeout with 3 of us on one board at one point. Sand gets in parts of the body you never thought it could reach and I'm sure that I keep finding more every time I have a shower!
The main reason we travelled up the west coast was to visit the Ningaloo Reef between Coral Bay and Exmouth - many parts of it can be seen by snorkelling directly from the beach, although I have to say that a lot of it has been destroyed near the shore, probably through people touching it. That said, there was still bits that were very beautiful away from the more touristy area and there was a large variety of sea life including loads of fish (some I han't seen it Thailand), sting rays and giant clams. We didn't see them, but others saw reef and leopard sharks in the water! We also went on a Catamaran out of Coral Bay for the day to do some more snorkelling (even better further out) and for lazing in the sun with freshly barbecued fish - a touch of luxury to make up for the long days of bus travel!
All in all a pretty good 2 weeks up and down! Now on to the red centre...
Sunday, 25 April 2004
A shock to the system and budget in South West Australia!
Finally out of Asia and into OZ!!
After 4 1/2 months into our travels we were getting a little 'asiaed out' and were looking forward to the welcoming arms of the Ozzies. It's nice being in Western environment and life, in some ways, is much easier and less hassle than travelling through comparitivly alien environments. The only problem is that it's far far more expensive and we are paying much more for one person's night in a dorm than for both of us having a nice private ensuite room to ourselves! Hostelling is a bit of a shock to the system as is having to now cook our own food instead of always eating out. Yes, that's what we have to do at home, but it is harder as you don't always have the basic ingredients or a decently equipped kitchen!! Never mind, it's all part of travelling and at least the naff boxes of wine are really cheap at around 4 quid for 4 litres....
We decided to spend far longer on the west coast than we had planned as we met so many people who said they preferred the relaxed pace of life, the people and the natural sights than that on the east coast. We booked ourselves on tour of the south west with 'Easyriders' with the option of jumping off and spending more time at some of the places. Highlights included:
Visiting the dolphins at Bunbury - normally you can swim with them, but a calf (baby) had just been born and was with her Mother so people were only allowed a little into the water. It was lovely to see these elegent creatures moving aroung a few feet in front of us!
The YHA at Dunsborough was great as it was actually on the beach and we enjoyed a few days rest just before Easter, but the best place we stayed had to be at the black cocaktoo in Nannup (http://www.blackcockatoo.nannup.net). This was really peaceful and just like spending time at someones house and just relaxing - we stayed in the 'Tiger Room' which was really nicely furnished and completely different to staying at a grotty hostel in Margaret River. At least we sampled a load of wines on a tour of the local vineyards to make up for it!
Then we stayed at Denmark and Albany, nice enough places but very little to do if you don't have a car. Finally back to Perth and then straight on a bus tour up the west coast towards Exmouth and the Ningaloo reef. More soon...
Saturday, 10 April 2004
The dizzy heights and lights of Tokyo
It's strange being in Tokyo, having seen so much of it on television.
From the lights and the crowds crossing the roads diagonally in Shinjuku, the dark and dodgy red light district areas of Shibuya to the crowded parks during the annual cherry blossom viewing. It's all overwhelming to the senses and quite easy for the visitor to feel in an alien environment.
This is a city where you could probably do anything you wanted! We were terrorised by a monster on the loose in a theme restaurant where you can be chained and locked up in cells for safety! I learnt how bad I was at singing by trying my hand(voice) and other peoples' ears at Karaoke - one thing maybe worth leaving for a while! We saved some cash by pretending to visit the roof top bar on the 43rd floor of the Tokyo Dome hotel and riding the glass lifts outside for a free view of Tokyo! While this and and laughing at some of the weird things on display (including barbie type dolls in lingerie in a childrens' toy shop) was great fun, we didn't really warm to Tokyo.
This was largely down to the people, which were generally very unfriendly. Yes it's a busy capital city and yes people usually keep themsleves to themselves in capital cities, but this was to an extreme degree. I think it's fair to say that we felt almost invisible for the first time during our travels - it's nothing personal - but I think that the Tokyo people as well as ignoring each other, really do view foreign visitors (and long term ex pats) as outsiders. We spoke to a westerner who had been living there for a few years and was fluent in Japanese who still had an odd reaction when people realised he was foreign when they turned around. Someone suggested that there might be a culture of emabarrassment in talking (or not being able) to foreigners - something we haven't encountered anywhere else. In China lots of people didn't speak English but were almost always willing to help, engage in the use of international sign language(!) or were pleased in our cack-handed attempts to speak their language.
All this is not to say everyone in Japan is unfriendly - people we know have found them to far more friendly in the smaller towns - but I have to say Tokyo will probably only ever be a lightning visit for me in the future...
Monday, 29 March 2004
Quickly through Malaysia & Singapore
We didn`t spend much time in Malaysia - just a couple of nights in Georgetown on the island of Penang (to break up our journey after several hours stuck in a minibus with a suicidal driver) and 2 nights in Kuala Lumphur.
Can`t say that either place was particularly interesting or noteworthy during our brief visit, other than KL`s budget accommodation being amongst the worst we`ve encountered so far! Unfortunately we missed out on going up to the middle walkway between the Petronas Towers as it was shut, but they were spectacular to look at from the ground.
Singapore was miles better and we were glad that we went there earlier than expected. It was great to be somewhere that was clean, safe and the people were really friendly with english widely spoken. It was kinda like how the UK should be and a chance to relax for a few days after being in Asia for so long! We stayed in a brand new hostel in the centre of the city and soaked up the atmosphere (and food and drink!) of the nearby quays. We also popped into the Long Bar at Raffles and enjoyed a Singapore Sling cocktail - well we are tourists aren`t we?! We also visited the Lord of the Rings exhibition at the science centre and also the night safari at the zoo - a bit of a gimmick and not really a safari but great fun watching animal behave differently at night. We also went shopping mall crazy and ended our 6 nights in Singapore absolutley tired from walking around so much - still, we got a few cheap clothes and I got a digital palm device for around half the UK high street price!
Singapore was one of the first places that we have been to where I could see what the attraction is for ex-pats living there - a definite revist is in order!!
Thursday, 18 March 2004
Thailand part two...
Well, been back in Thailand for two weeks or so. Mainly visited Kanchanaburi and some Islands of the South East coast.
This is the location of the Bridge over the River Kwai, which was part of the 'Death Railway' commissioned by the Japanese and built by POWs. We visited a very moving (and well organised) museum located near 'hellfire pass'' - one of the worst/most difficult places along the route being built. Many people were worked to death and some of the most moving exhibits in the museum included the curt/brief letters from the relevant army officials to say a soldier was a POW and also death notifications. Very moving and well worth a visit to understand more about (and this seems to a recurring theme) another atrocity in recent times...
Now the fun/gimmicky bit! We stroked some tigers! Yep, big ones not on a lead, chain or in a cage. Why not? Well, I think of a number of good reasons, but you just had to be there. Celia even took one for a walk (or rather it took her for a walk). As for how they feel - like a big cat really...
A quick visit to Koh Samui - an absolutley massive island with the main Beach and resort around 6 Km long. It wasn't horrible, but not really our cup of tea so we headed on to Koh Tao, about 2 hours away by boat.
Koh Tao - stunningly beatiful with crystal clear water and clean fine sandy beaches that were almost empty during the day when most people are out diving. Celia passed her PADI open water divers course, I had to give up as it didn't quite suit me. Maybe sometime later, but I had a great time snorkelling and seing hundreds of beautiful fish and coral. Ceals was really lucky as she saw a whale shark (5-6 m long) on her 3rd dive - an event that that those in the know got very excited about!
Koh Pangnam - famous for its monthly full moon parties, but really quiet when we visited outside of that. Still a bit noisy and we had some accommodation issues culminating in me having to attack a load of cockroaches in the bathroom of our hut on the rocks overlooking the sea and beaches!
And that's it for Thailand...
Thursday, 4 March 2004
Battambang and leaving Cambodia
Just a quick entry about our brief time in Battambang - our last stop in Cambodia before going back into Thailand.
Battambang is quite a small place and doesn't really have much to offer the tourist, but is a useful base to explore the surrounding countryside. This is exactly what we did - we bumped into a really friendly guy (Salon) who gave us a good price for exploring the area with two bikes and drivers.
First of all we visited an orphanage, one of several in Cambodia run by monks. Several of the children had been there for years and over 500 had been helped since the centre started in 1992. Several of the children had lost their parents to AIDS or been 'given away'when the parents couldn't cope - it was heartbreaking and positive at the same time. The monks and the local community helped to feed, clothe and educate the children and their was also money from foreign charities. Occasionally foreigners would sponsor individual children and there would be some really great success stories where children became doctors etc.
We then visited a couple of temples and then, perhaps more interestingly, we went to Salon's home and met his beautiful young daughter with the most amazing smile. Salon's wife had recently had a miscarriage with their third child and was resting with her mother. It was clear that the medical bills (and education of his children) cost Salon a lot of money, earnt mainly as a driver for tourists. Salon had had Polio as a child and had a pretty bad limp, so this would probably be one of the more easier jobs for him - we just don't know what we take for granted sometimes. That said, he was a very positive person and never complained about his life!
We then visited a mountain and some temples used by the Khmer Rouge (in the final years) to interrorgate and murder thousands of Khmer people, primarily by throwing them down deep caves - skulls were collected in cages by the entrances to the caves. We then ended our tour by travelling on the 'Bamboo Railway' back to Battambang - locals use the main line (when no trains run!) to transport themselves on their private trains (a deck of wood on four wheels and a motor) - great fun!!
Finally, my thoughts about Cambodia as a whole: It was tiring and very uncomfortable at times, but the culture and the people were wonderful. Lay (Siem Reap) and Salon (Battambang) were so helpful and gave us so much. I hope that the politics of the country get sorted and that the people get (as far as you can) a more benign Government in the future and have the medical care and education that everyone deserves.
Sunday, 29 February 2004
Getting grounded towards Batttambang!
ah well, just when you thought travelling through Cambodia couldnt get stranger, or harder...
try a 9 hour (we were told 4) boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang at the end of the dry season. Oops, there's bugger-all water and we (along with 6 others) had to get out of the boat 3 times to move it after being grounded in the middle of the Cambodian Countryside! The first time we were waist deep in water and thick mud above our knees - good job I managed to manhandle Ceals back into the boat by her backside. The old Cambodian women on the boat thought it was hilarious - as we did when we finally arrived, absolutley exhausted, into Battambang. It was a difficult journey, but something different and the surrouding scenery and village life was absolutley stunning - the best so far by river.
This trip, and the condition of some of the roads, put pay to any discussions we were having as to whether Cambodia is a developing country!
Friday, 27 February 2004
Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor
Wow, the temples are amazing and Siem Reap is not too bad either!
First the Temples - we got a 3 day pass for 40 dollars and hired a guy called Lay for a few dollars more to take us around on his motorbike trailer. He was one of the drivers touting our business when we stepped off the bus from Pnom Penh to Siem Reap (a tortorously bumpy journey sitting on the the back seat of a bus above the engine for 8 hours, but I digress). It cost us 8 dollars per day to travel around, with extra to visit temples out from the main complex.
To stop oursleves from being too templed out, we decided that we would have relatively laid back days and chose the temples we most wanted to visit and started later and finished earlier. The higlights were as follows:
Angkor Thom - a massive complex, including Bayon where giant stone carvings of faces stare out from all angles. Each column had faces showing from each of their four sides. We visted there twice, both in the morning (1st day) and afternoon (3rd day), as we wanted to see the changing light on the stone and see it with fewer tourists around.
Ta Prom - also known as the jungle temple, due to the dacaying ruins being destroyed by trees and vegetation growing in and around them. Ive never seen destruction so beautiful. We thought that it was so atmospheric that we went there again, but there were big tourist groups there the second time which ruined the effect quite a bit.
Angkor Wat - the big daddy of them all. The view of the five corn-on-the cob towers is spectacular when you see it for real. We didnt linger too long on the images of the bas-reliefs around the 3rd enclosing wall - for those you really need an expert guide to help explain them. We did climb to the top (3rd level) to admire the the towers in closer detail and to take in the surrounding forest view. On the second day, we went to the back of the temple to view the sunset behind the towers, and we left the hotel at 5:30am to view the sunrise over the temple being reflected in the northern pool, in front of it - a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Banteay Strey - a beautiful pink sandstone temple, with possibly the deepest carvings in Angor. This temple, also described as a womans temple, is a bit further out from the main temples so was rathertranquil in the morning sun.
Kbel Spean - something a little different. It was much further out from Angkor and could only be reached by a very bumpy and dusty road - a very difficult 90 minute round trip and by far the worst we've had so far in Cambodia. Then a 30 minute uphill woodland walk (not leaving the path as it's a heavily mined area). Well worth it to see the carvings in riverbed rocks, but unfortunately being the dry season, there was no water in the river that would normally flow over the carvings of mermaids and other images and this made it a little less spectacular than it might have been as it was intended.
Preah Khan - my favourite Temple as a whole. The huge labyrinth had everything - part ruined, partly roofed, vegetation growing out of the stones on places and some wonderful carvings. Absolutley stunning!
We also visited several other temples, all of which had their own interesting features. I would try to visit sooner, rather than later, before controls are put on the numbers of people visiting and before package tours dominate the market. Also, while recontruction of the temples can be a good thing, preserving them so that future generations can enjoy them, sometimes some of the character of the ruins is lost.
Seam Reap itself, had a much more relaxed feel to it than Pnom Pehn and we had a great time, enjoying the local restaurants and the delights of the old local market!
Sunday, 22 February 2004
Phnom Pehn & a shocking History.
Phnom Pehn is an interesting mix of modern buildings and colonial architecture with some rough and ready streets and suburbs thrown in. Much of the city was destroyed when the Khmer Rouge invaded in the 70s, and many people were driven out of their homes.
We visted a number of places in Phnom Pehn including the National Museum (with sculptures and treasures from all over Cambodia), The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda to the emerald buddha (both beautiful, but not as spectacular as the larger originals/inspiration in Bangkok) and a couple of the bigger Wats or temples (In Wat Ounalom, we sat talking to a monk after visiting a shrine which apparently contained a buddha eye brow hair. Ceals is now getting stalked by this monk by e-mail!).
But probably the most interesting and shocking place we visited, was the Toung Sleng genocide museum. This was originally the Toul Svay High School, but from 1975-1979 became the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21 where between 13 and 20 thousand people were detained and interorrogated before their death. Some of the cells, inside the buildings were absolutely tiny and were left, complete with shackles and changes as they were found when the city was liberated by the Vietnamese army - a truly shocking site. Many pictures of each and every victim line the walls of some of the classrooms, with paintings by an ex-prisoner showing scenes of torture used to produce confessions adding a further shocking effect.
To complete the experience we hired a driver to take us out of Pnom Penh to the place where many of the S-21 prisoners were executed - Choung Ek - also known as the most famous of the killing fields. A memorial, containing the remains of nearly 9,000 victims exhumed from the mass graves, stands in the middle of a peacful meadow with grassy mounds and excavated pits marked by small wooden markers indicating how many bodies were found in each one.
Thursday, 19 February 2004
Out of Nam and into Cam...
After a disappointing 2 1/2 day Mekong River Delta tour in Western Vietnam we travelled, by speedboat, into Cambodia to Pnom Penh.
After a couple of days soaking the atmosphere and checking out the National Museums cultural and historical artefacts, we decided to have a break and head down to the South Coast which faces the Gulf of Thailand. It was a pleasant place to stay and we were lucky to get a wooden bungalow on the hillside (Diamond Guesthouse) with fantastic sea views for 9 dollars a night between us. There was a lovely breeze, like natural air conditioniong, and the large bed was realling comfortable. Still, we were close to nature and shared our basic bathroom with frogs, beetles and the odd cockroach in the middle of the night!
The water and the beach (Serendipity Beach) were both clean and very warm and we had a relaxing few days there, including a boat trip to some nearby islands for snorkelling. There were a lot of hawkers there and we tried to buy some items (bracelets etc.) from a few different people to spread the money around. We had an official fruit supplier called Dara, which means Star in Cambodian and she told us both that she had been selling fruit for nearly 8 years and that she, like many Cambodians, had not had much education as it can cost a lot of money. This, and the fact that her sick mother wouldnt go to the doctor as it cost too much, gave us a lot to consider about how lucky we are in other countries.
Saturday, 7 February 2004
What's all the fuss about Saigon then?
Hmm, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it's officially, but rarely, called) is an odd city.
On the one hand it's very modern, with sleek buildings a symbol of increasing prosperity and, often foreign, investment. On the other, it's pretty dirty, noisy and areas full of great poverty. It's pretty hot and sticky and we are often getting hassled by street hawkers - in one meal alone, we had 20 enquirees as to whether we wanted books, chewing gun or newspapers. Still, at least, we didn't get the weird combination of cigarettes and tampax offered by one shop in Hanoi!
The one tour that we did go on was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong fighters hid and fought from a series of tunnels totalling around 200km - a we were able to crawl through some of them. The muesum was very informative and we learnt how the tunnels were dug by hand, how they cooked without the smoke escaping a being noticed by the enemy and how the injured soldiers were treated in an undergroung hospital. It was shocking to see some of the booby traps laid by the resistance fighters, but before we could dwell on anything too serious, some of the other tourists were able to fire real bullets from a wide variety of real guns including machine guns in the hope of winning a face officers' cap. Is nowhere sacred?!
We haven't really had time to see the other sights of Saigon so probably can't give a fair hearing (unfortunatley the one museum we wanted to see was closed at weekends) but it was still a useful place to sort out our air tickets and Cambodian visas and to arrange our 3 day tour of the Mekong delta and our boat to Pnom Pehn, in Cambodia.
Wednesday, 4 February 2004
Suits you Sir, in Hoi An
What a great place – the best in Vietnam so far. The food is fantastic and so are my new suits. A lucky couple of tailors out of the 200 or so in the town made me 3 Suits and 5 handmade cotton shirts for just 70 pounds! Oh well, bang goes the budget. Mind you, maybe I’ll finally be smart at work when I return…
The main highlight of Hoi An, aside from the multitude of wonderful restaurants was a visit to a village 15km away. We had met a guy in his 60s, who invited us to come to his village. So, the next day Ceals and I were on the back of a motorbike through stunning scenery (and the manic Highway 1) to his house. We had lunch with Mr Phong and his wife and learnt a bit more about Vietnamese culture, especially about family life and rituals. His family was classed as small, as it only had 200 people in it, with 50 still living in or near the village – the compared to 1500 for the largest family with people all over the world.
We also met his neighbours and the rest of his family. It was very moving to listen to his older Uncle, a well-decorated war hero for the North Vietnamese army, fighting the Americans in an important battle near the village. We couldn’t help but think about how many people he must have killed and about how many of his comrades died. He made it clear, through Mr Phong’s interpreting, that he thought war was (and is) terrible. As it was only Celia and I at the village and the fact that Mr Phong doesn’t take that many tourists there, we felt very privileged to see rural Vietnamese life away from large and noisy tourist groups.
Downwards to Saigon...
view :: updated Saturday, 7 February 2004 11:43 AM GMT ::
Sunday, 1 February 2004
All the way to Hue
After a pretty tiring overnight journey by bus, we arrived in the historical city of Hue. There wasn’t a great deal to see there, other than the Imperial City inside the walls of the old Citadel. Apparently this was modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing, but through a combination of most of t being flattened during the ‘American War’ and that we had seen the original a few months before, we were not particularly impressed! Ah well, good job we took a wander outside Hue – firstly with a tour on motorbikes and then by ‘cacky package tour’ to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Going on the back of the bikes was fantastic fun, whizzing around the countryside visiting temples and tombs. Amazing scenery with only rice fields, at times, for company. Can’t say I’ve traveled through an animal market on a motorbike before either – yes, with chickens… One particular highlight was watching monks and novices praying at one of the temples. The young novices (some as young as 10) stay until around 18 and are only allowed to leave the temple for 3 days a year, during Tet, to visit their family. I think rules are a little stricter here, than in Laos.
Visiting the DMZ was one of the main reasons we traveled to Hue. The problem was that it was impossible to travel as part of a small group, so we had the whole ‘travel for 4 hours, get off for 5 mins for photos, travel again etc’ experience. However, it was very moving to read the visitors book at the museum right by a major battlefield – it had comments from American veterans putting some ghosts to rest. It was also interesting to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels – where local people spent up to 5 years underground to avoid the American bombing attacks, with each family only having the space of a single bed to stay in. It took villagers 3 years or so to dig the tunnels (up to 20m below ground) and I couldn’t help but admire their ingenuity and persistence.
view :: updated Saturday, 7 February 2004 11:28 AM GMT ::
Sunday, 25 January 2004
Avoiding the (bird) flu in 'Nam...
Well, one outbreak after another - can't say that I'm that interested in chickens at the moment. Good job there's lots of other things to eat in Hanoi...
I think that there's a new way to gauge the nation's mentality before arriving - just try and check in or board a plane into the country with local people. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese seem to push and shove as if there is no chance of getting on and it's kinda like that when you arrive in Hanoi. The old quarter, where we stayed, is hectic and what you would describe as bustling - or, for that, read manic. There are motorbikes everywhere and you just have to hope that you don't get hit when crossing the road - best to always keep walking! The place is very intense and intoxicating and what an Asian city should be like - Laos was very laid back and Thailand much more Western. But you still need your wits about you, as with Thailand. We stayed in a great hotel at a cheap rate and were not surprised that we didn't have a room when we returned back from a trip to Ha Long Bay. We know others who have been turfed out when more money is offered by other tourists. I have even had peas in tomato suace passed off as baked beans even though we'd seen others have the real thing in the same place! Still, there 's always other places to go...
It's not hard to like the place though, with its women in their conical hats carrying all kinds of fresh produce in streets that have traditionally specialised in all kinds of goods and handicrafts at pretty reasonable prices. We were also lucky enough to be around for the huge festival of Tet, with the New Year coiniciding with the Chinese peoples'. Thousands of people were around the lake in Hanoi, enjoying picnics in their Sunday best, and watching gymnastics, clowns and people singing on stages. We sat chatting with a Vietnamese family overlooking the lake and the fireworks at midnight - they were the best explosions of light we'd ever seen with all kinds of colours and shapes being formed. Afterwards we joined the crowd down the street and watched people as they burned wads of 'ghost money' in the streets to bring prosperity, and displayed fruit and chickens (hopefully sans flu) as offerings to bring good fortune. An amazing site to see and feel .
We alsoenjoyed the scenery of Ha Long Bay on a 2 day boat trip. The boat itself was comfortable with decent food, but the guide didn't speak English so we didn't learn much about the hostory and myths surrounding the almost 2000 limestone rocky outcrops in the bay. It was too cold to go swimming and we were glad that we hadn't paid for an extra day to go walking in Cat Ba Island's national park. The experience and view was well worth it though, especially as were snug in our fleeces. I'm sure we've spent far longer in cold places than warm ones!
Other things we took a look at in Hanoi included the Army museum (bit stale and uninformative), watched the water puppetry (weird but brilliant) and visited Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Uncle Ho, as he's affectionatley known, is a tiny, frail figure lying there as you walk past and it's hard not to comprehend how important he is to the Vietnamese people. He looks pretty good, but then so would anyone undergoing a bit of maintainence over the every Oct/Nov for the last 20-odd years. Onwards, and downwards, by long bus to Hue...
view :: updated Sunday, 25 January 2004 07:52 AM GMT ::
Saturday, 17 January 2004
Vang Vieng & Vientaine
Things got slowly better and we were able to enjoy the delights of Vang Vieng - not a particulalry interesting place as it catered mainly for westerners, but the people were lovely and the setting, by the river and limestone karsts, was also lovely(!).
We went floating down the river for a few hours on a bright pink tractor inner tube - the done thing in VV- and that was great, if a little slow. Dragon flies and butterflies were all around and it was very relaxing (apart from the occaisional rocks and rapids sections) and, as a London worker, it meant a new way of tubing... We found a great guesthouse and I also enjoyed some nice western food - the first in a long time and a welcome change.
Then on to Vientaine - the capital of Laos, by a much better and flatter 3 hour bus journey. It gets a bit of a bad press in the rough guide, in that it's very small for an Asian capital city and that there's not a lot to see, but we thought it was great. There's an excellent choice of food and we got a clean and modern en-suite room for 5 dollars which was a far better price than we expected. We chartered our own tuk-tuk today for a whistlestop 4 hour tour of some of the sights, including the weirdest attraction - the Buddha park 25 km from the city. It's a small meadow, full of concrete/ferrite Buddha and other figures, by the Mekong river. A bit of a folly, built in the 1950s, but good fun and we got some good pictures of us next to the sculptures.
Now on to Hanoi - by air. Didn't fancy the 27 hour bus journey in the end. Can't think why!
some thoughts on Laos:
much more developed than I thought - plumbing, electricity and some of the roads were pretty good, as were the guest houses.Would love to come back and explore the other areas when it's safer and easier to do so. The people are almost always friendly and helpful and don't seem to be as pissed off that relatively wealthy foreigners (although not that many do come) visit, like some of the Thais seem to be.(Quite understandibly though). I hope it stays that way...
view :: updated Saturday, 17 January 2004 11:22 AM GMT ::
Tuesday, 13 January 2004
Pigs nearly flew...
Crikey. I knew that it would be a bad day. It started off bad, got worse and then got terrible... Still, if you try and send a shed-load of stuff using the Laos postal system first thing on a Monday then you've only got yourself to blame. It seemed ok at first - the doors to the post office opened on time at 8am and the staff were smiling, both mine and Celia's stuff were expertly packaged and the first one (Celia's) sent and paid for. But mine was just a little too heavy - almost double the weight - and had to go to a special counter, where 'Captain Happy' had still not turned up half an hour later. Bearing in mind we had a bus to catch in less than an hour this was starting to be one of those days. Finally 'CH' turned up and I was finally filling at least 4 times the forms C had to do and then came the issue of money - 4 times the cost of C's package, even though it was less than double the weight - aaagh. Never mind, 40 dollars is nothing, no Siree, not when you've only been paying 3 dollars a night in a guest house...
Still, it was only 6 hours by road to Vang Vieng. Not a problem. Except that we both felt a little quesy before setting out and if you know what the road is like, you know that's not a good thing. Let's the just say that 90 % of the journey was up, down and around mountains - I thought that flinging myself off one in Turkey would have been good training but it wasn't. And not just that, I had a grandstand-180 degree-panoramic view of the road as I was sat next to the driver. Who, by the way, was a maniac. Yep, every narrow mountainous bend was taken at speed. Still at least the driver was happy, at least I think he was. The view was spectacular though, but just as you started relaxing, there would be overtaking around the bends and the squeal of the tyres would resume. That I could live with, it was the suicidal pigs that kept crossing the road in front of us. Oh and the kid with a shotgun by the road and the occasional 'military folk'...
Still, we managed to keep oursleves together until we arrived in VV and promptly spent most of our time (one way or another) in our room. Thank Buddha that Lao plumbing is so good.
view :: updated Saturday, 17 January 2004 10:54 AM GMT ::
Sunday, 11 January 2004
Slow boat through Laos
We left Thailand by making a 5 hour journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, right on the border. This will be a place that we'll never forget - not because Chiang Khong had great scenery, great bars, or great monuments. No, because it was weird - think Northern Exposure - think Twin Peaks - and you might just get there. 'Miss Popular' who could also be called 'Miss Scary lady-boy with the highest pitched voice ever but could also turn nasty' ran the guest house and tour agency taking us over the border!
After a sleepless night with a heavily bolted door to deter Miss Popular and the dodgy karaoke emenating from the Thais next door, we crossed over the Mekong river into Laos, in the early morning sun, ready for our 2 day slow boat down to Louang Phabang. The first day's boat was a pain in the arse (quite literally!) with very thin wooden bench style seating, but the views and the rivers were beautiful. We stayed overnight in a small Laos village (Pakbeng) in rooms with bamboo walls - had to be careful what we said!
The second day's boat was much much better with more room and cushions on seats and meant that we could enjoy the scenery even more - the River itself was spectacular - with a strong current, eddies, whirlpools and rapids - it won't be long before someone comes up with the idea of offering bamboo rafting down it. On the way we visited Pak Ouo caveswith loads of buddhas. Interesting, but not as spectacular as the guidebooks suggest and we were glad that we gave the the boat crew a small amount of money to visit them on the way, rather than chartering a boat trip later.
Now in Louang Phabang - a UNESCO world heritage site that has been described as a place where every day is a Sunday. It's very laid back and we stuck around for a few days enjoying meeting the friendly Laos people and spending loads (in terms of budget!) of money on really good handicrafts at the day and night markets. We got our own tuk-tuk to visit the main waterfall 35km away on a rough gravel road, very dusty but we got an insight into Lao life with its small villages and animals all around. The waterfall was on many different levels, with gerat places for swimming, but a little too cold for us to be tempted to do so. I climbed to the top of the main part to enjoy the view.
Now on to Vang Viang, a dodgy, curvy mountain road for 6 hours, for a few days R&R. Should hopefully be able to pick up our passports (with vietnamese visas) next week in the capital, Viantiane...
view :: updated Sunday, 11 January 2004 05:39 AM GMT ::
Sunday, 4 January 2004
Chiang Mai and trekking
After a rest for Christmas, we thought we crack on with our route towards Laos and this meant a 12 hour bus journey to Chiang Mai - Thailand's second city - in the far north of the country. After looking at the guesthouse that we had been 'sold' to, we checked out a few other places reccommended by Rough Guide and settle on the Libra guesthouse. The room was fantastic and after reading recent positive visitors' comments we booked a three day trek with them, starting on Jan 1st!
We met up with the rest of the trek group on N.Y. Eve and went out for a few drinks by the city's main gate where there was 'live' music from lady-boys and from a Thai Elvis and stayed out a lot later than we thought we would. The trek itself included 2 nights sleeping in hill tribe villages around 3 hours away from Chiang Mai - the first of which had relatively few tourist visitors as only our guesthouse went there as part of their treks. Both nights we spent on the floor of the village leaders' hut and had great food and drinks around the campfire. As well as walking we visited a huge cave, went bamboo rafting (a tiring but fun 3 hours) and rode elephants - well worth doing and well organised!
Chiang Mai is a much more relaxed and attractive city to Bangkok, with an excellent night market. A good place to while away a few days! Onwards to Laos and travelling by slow boat down the Mekong river...
view :: updated Sunday, 4 January 2004 07:45 AM GMT ::
Sunday, 28 December 2003
Bangkok and Christmas in Koh Samet
We flew to Bangkok and immediately enjoyed the heat. Finally we were somewhere warm! We stayed at great hotel, but the location near Ko San road (Banglampu) wasn't the best. As with a lot of places besieged by drunken and bolshy tourists, the locals wer not particularly friendly! Can't say I was a fan of the notorious Ko San road itself which wasn't really a great place for drinking, eating or shopping as it tried to combine all three in a neon-lit hell hole. Think Costa Del Sol without the class and it comes close! Having said that, it would probably be fun for 18 year olds and for big groups...
Although we weren't great fans of Bangkok with its pollution and extensive expressways leading to it being tagged as the Los Angeles of the east, there were things that we enjoyed visiting. The temple of the emerald buddha and grand palace both had richly decorated architecture that was stunning, the Chinese quarter was bustling and travelling around to places by boat was a welcome bit of tranquility. After travelling through China, we thought we'd treat ourselves to a bit of warmth by the sea for Christmas on the island of Koh Samet - about 4 hours away from Bangkok.
We stayed in a hut (cold shower!) about 30 seconds from a white sandy beach, for about a week. It was strange to celebrate Christmas in the heat, but we found somewhere to have a more traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas eve and had a great time eating with people that we had met earlier the week. The island itself, while no unspoilt paradise, wasn't too busy and people were very relaxed - the only stress was thinking about which fresh fruit to pick from the beach vendors! Onwards and upwards to Chiang Mai...
view :: updated Sunday, 4 January 2004 07:33 AM GMT ::
Saturday, 20 December 2003
We both really enjoyed Hong Kong which had a mix of a western capital city and a bit of old China. It was the first time in weeks that we had seen anything of a build up to Christmas, and felt pretty strange to see school children singing carols in the sunshine.
The view of Hong Kong island's skyline was truly spectacular and was made even more amazing at night with the additional Christmas nights. Going up the Island's peak on the tram was a great experience as it travelled roughly at 40 degrees and you had to hold on tight - a bit different to travelling on the tube in London. We ate well and pretty cheaper at some of the Chinese fast food places - choosing which meat or fish to go with rice or noodles. Much better than McDonalds. The night market was indundated with westerners (again, we hadn't seen many over the last few weeks) which made it hard to bargain and the police had obviously cleared away some of the vendors selling fake gear. Much better was the day market further away from the centre, where the prices were more flexible and more choice of 'genuine fakes'.
Hong Kong was great, but it was sad to split with the rest of the group - some going home and others continuing their travels elsewhere. As for China, we loved it!The people were, by and large, very friendly and very tolerant of us, even when it was difficult to communicate. The trip was tiring, so many sites and so much distance covered, but it was well worth it. Go and see for yourselves!view :: updated Sunday, 4 January 2004 06:10 AM GMT ::
Monday, 15 December 2003
Gorging ourselves through Central and Southern China
Travelling further south, we got on a not-so-celebrity-cruise ship for 3 days down the Yangste River. A particular joy was the rats scuttling around in the air-con... This did not dampen the beautiful scenery though and it was nice to have a base to relax and unwind with the rest of the tour group.
A highlight was going on a small boat for the day to view the lesser three gorges, which were spectacular. Our Chinese guide tried to tell us that rock formations looked like certain things such as animals, but we didn't fall for it. The water level in this area rose by around 50-100m last year as a result of the first stage of the controversial dam being completed. It was strange to see signs along the hills by the river which indicated that the water level would rise to 175m by 2009 and to see what buildings and villages would be submerged as a result. The guide (as with all guides registed by the state tourist departmeny) tried to convince us that the millions of people displaced by the dam project were happy to move to new homes and that they were getting generous cash settlements. When pushed, they would only say that a few of the older people were unhappy - another example of how the Chinese government tries to control information.
After our boat trip we passed through Yangshou - a backpackers haven - for a few days. This basically entailed a bit of western food and few nights drinking with the group. We had bonded well over the last couple of weeks and enjoyed each others company. Celia decided to try 'hot cupping' where glass and bamboo cups are attached to the back, with a vacuum created to try and pull out the toxins in the body. I did well not to laugh too much at the state of her, which created a few bruises that lasted a week or two. One stuck out by a couple of inches and took a day to go down - you see a couple of the photos I took on the Asia page. Not convinced about the treatment, but Celia did but the toxins back into her body later that day! Onwards to Hong Kong by catamaran...
Tuesday, 9 December 2003
More monks than you can shake a stick at!I
I've seen it all now - you'd think there is nothing weirder than having a dump (to put it politely) in an outside squat toilet with a mountain view. Well, you're wrong - just throw in a couple of buddhist monks staring at you the whole time! Yep, that's what you get for staying in 2 different monastries at the foot of, and up, Emei Shan (mountain). Methinks it's more a Summer or Autumn thing to do as it was absolutely freezing and damp the whole time. On the one hand you could say that the rooms were well-appointed with lighting and a colour telly - on the other hand there was no glass in the top windows! That said, both places were very spiritually calming and the scenary was very beautiful. We got a bus and then a cable car to the near summit and then strapped on ice crampons to make the last few steps of the 10,000ft high golden summit where Celia suffered from altitude sickness, but was OK when we dropped down a few hundred feet. The following day we had a longish walk down the mountain and I went on a village tour with a couple of other people in the afternoon - it was fascinating insight into rural chinese life. I made the fatal mistake of taking out my digital camera out of a school for deaf and mute children and was instantly mobbed! We also got to try different teas, eat some more local food and play Maj Jong with a local family...
Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Panic, chill and Panda...
After an early morning panic on a sleeper train to Chengdu (the miserable train attendent told us a later arrival time and wasn't so miserable at seeing us getting dressed so quickly) we relaxed for a couple of days. Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province which is famous for it's hot and spicy food, it's tea houses and for being the home of the Giant panda conservation centre. We visited the Peoples' Park on Sunday and watched all the locals relax. Celia and I both had an outdoor (clothed!) massage at one of the teahouses and I had my ears cleaned afterwards - really weird having someone poke a load of different brushes in your ear amd then holding a vibrating tuning fork to them to help clean. Mind you, they've never felt or heard better! The following day (1 December) was a very early start to the Panda reserve as they're lazy creatures that spend most of the day sleeping. It was brilliant to see the the baby Panda (born in September ) with it's Mother and to see the adult Pandas chewing on some of their daily 20Kg of bamboo, only a few feet away. Later on, about an hour's drive away we stayed at Leishan the home of the Great Buddha. This stands 71m high and took 90 years to carve out of the rock - very interesting to see close up, but a bit of a sleep climb! Now off to the Emie Shan (10,000 ft high mountain) and a few nights in a monastry - maybe a haircut is in order!
Saturday, 29 November 2003
Soldiering on to Xian email this blog
Travelling on from Beijing to Xian by sleeper train, we visited the Terracotta soldiers the other day - quite interesting but didn't live up to our expectations - far smaller and less warriors unearthed so far than we had thought from seeing them on the television. Maybe we've been spoilt by visiting the Great Wall, which was truly an awesome experience! Xian itself is quite a small city which is surrounded by a wall and moat with a thin park in between.We rented bikes to go round the walls and that was great fun. Also in Xian, we visited the Muslim quarter which was amazing - all kinds of street food, a pet street with fish in open paddling pools and boxes and birds in cages, a butcher's street with weird and wonderful (nad not so wonderful) smells and sights, including sheeps' brains. Maybe we'll try that one next time!
Monday, 24 November 2003
The Great Wall & Beijing sights
On Monday we left the Hotel to visit Simitai on the Great Wall - an
area where few other tourists go as it is 2 1/2 hours away and the
wall is not reconstructed. We saw only 2 other tourists on our 8km
walk which was up and down steep rock in places and took about6
hours - very tiring, but the views were absolutely brilliant.It's
probably the best place I've ever visted - quite amazing to think
that something like 6000km was built when you see the height of it
and the way it hugs the mountain terrain.
Yesterday, we went to Tianemen Sqaure and the Forbidden City and had
a Chinese Guide to take us around - she was very interesting and
really brought the place alive. Afterwards we absolutely froze on a
rickshaw ride through the side streets to the Hutoungs (alleyways
where people live) - it got a bit hairy when we crossed 5 lanes of
manic Chinese drivers. We visited a woman's home and a non-profit
centre for integrating disabled people into society which our tour
company supports. They sang and played music for us and we bought
some of the jewellry that they had made in their workshop - all part
of them earning a small living and being able to contribute to their
After a cultural and 'worthy day' - we chilled out and went to a
restuarant that served western Chinese food - a fusion of Middle
Eatern and Chinese food and where there was dancing. It was a great
meal and helped the group to bond a bit, especially when we went to a
cheap bar for a boogie and then to a trendy club.
We're quite relaxed about China now, including the trtaffic which is
organised chaos! The people are generally very friendly, patient and
tolerant and will ofetn stare at you and what you are buying. but
it's all about taking an interest and getting stuck in. I hope to
learn a bit more Chinese over the coming weeks as the (very few)
words that I know help to oil the wheels.
Saturday, 22 November 2003
Blimey, what a big place Beijing is!
After another flight with Finnair - much longer and a bit of a nightmare. Although we managed to blag really good seats we ended up surrounded by 40 members of the Finland Orchestra on their way to tour in China and hell bent on using (and abusing!) the free bar during the whole of the night flight! We arrived at Beijing airport really tired and a bit disorientated - so much so, it was tempting to claim to be part of the "knee-leg convention" and get a free coach from the airport!
We managed eventually to find somewhere to change money and a local bus to the centre of Beijing which is absolutely massive. Our hotel, near the main Railway station (www.harmony-hotel.com) , is really nice and probably as upmarket as we'll stay in China. A good thing as we're here until next week, when we start the tour through China.
It feels like we've managed to cram quite a bit in our first 2/3 days, despite suffering a bit from jet lag on Wednesday - we're now an expert on haggling in the local silk Market - Celia got a silk table cloth and I got a North Face rucksack and gore-tex trousers for around 7-8 pounds each (still not sure if they're genuine or not but they are of good quality) - we probably paid too much, but we know that now and will go back even more determined! We've explored the local shopping centres and walked a few km to the World Trade Center and had a look around the upmarket shopping malls around there which includes an icerink in the middle. One thing that I've noticed is how many people work in each shop or clean the malls - suddenly 6 or 7 people will appear in a very small shop. They must be very bored as there are not that many people around. Today we got a bus from the station to the "Summer Palace" which is a beatiful place, surrounded by mountains on the outskirts of Bejing - a long trip of around 2 hours took us through the main shopping/market places where the locals go and we caught a glimpse of Tianenem Square in the background, which we'll explore properly in the next few days.
We've had some great food here so far, tending to eat at cheap canteen style places and everyone so far has been helpful and spoke the occaisional word of English until tonight! We thought we'd go to a proper restaurant and selected one that we saw loads of people eating in. Everything (quite rightly!) was in Chinese and the staff didn't understand English - not a problem as we had just bought a phrase book. Started off pointing to a few dishes, each met with a polite 'no' and then I thought I'd use the ace up my sleeve and try to order Beijing Duck, but they didn't do this either. Turns out that this was a specialist place where you cook meat - beef- in a boiling broth at your table along with vegetables. We ended up with 2 plates of of about 20 mutton and beef rolls and a plate a cabbage to cook! Nevermind, it tasted quite good and we'll know next time to notice the boiling pots on the tables and the big pictures of cows on the walls!
Thursday, 20 November 2003
The beginning of the adventure...
Well, where do I start? Helsinki that's where! After a few hours easy flight with Finnair, including speaking to a British Magician going to work in Lapland for a few months, we finally started our journey...
It all started pretty well, with us successfully negotiating the local bus and trams from the airport to our hotel, or rather the Euroshostel - all part of our quest to save as much money as possible. We found Helsinki an interesting place - obviously Scandinavian but with a Russian twist - not really surprising given it's close proximity to Eastern Europe. Highlights of our two days there included going round the old market and looking at the wonderful food - we ended up having lunch there in a Russian Cafe with 5 tables on our last day! We also had a quick look around the Russion Orthodox Cathedral and the Luthern Cathedral in the town centre, had a long trek round the Stockmann department store - the biggest one in Helsinki and had lunch there and also went it's supermarket to get food for a 3 course meal in our room at the Hostel on the second night. We also went for a long walk around the Cultural sites and park in the centre, and visited the 1952 Olympic stadium, which entailed going up a tower and looking down at the facilities, while being mobbed by a load of school kids!
All in all, quite a nice place - I don't think we did it justice as we didn't do our homework as we usually do for our trips to cities. That said, we did prefer our trip to Stockholm. An easy place to travel round as it's small and almost everyone speaks English - I don't think you could get a bigger contrast to our next stop - Beijing. I think it's fair to say that this has been a gentle start to our trip!