Chapter 14: Statistically speaking

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
― Dr. Seuss

So with bags to unpack, friends and family to see (and us being more keen on one of those activities than the other!) we’ve found ourselves with time to reflect on the last six months. Originally we’d planed to head off somewhere else for a few days before work beckoned, but it turned out we felt there was ‘no place like home’ to help settle us into every day life.

Part of these ponderings have led us to numbers… Along the way we tried to keep track of a few statistics. Some were easy as they printed them on tickets (I.e mileages) some harder. For example we were going great guns with keeping a tally of the number of religious establishments we’d been in… Until we got to Myanmar and we hit hundreds of temples (almost) a day so this one is a bit of a guesstimate!! But here we go with the more random account of our time away:

Total time away:  133 Days, 5 hours, 30 minutes and 15 seconds

Total time smiling:  133 Days, 5 hours…… the rest of the time was spent re-planning when our second train was part cancelled!

Number of Countries visited / passed through on this trip (look out for the ‘how to celebrate 100 countries blog in the future!):  16 – UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Nepal, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Australia, Philippines

Hottest Temperature:  38 degree Myanmar

Coldest Temperature:  -28 degrees Mongolia

Total mileage by train (excluding Metro / Underground systems): 19, 585km or 12, 170 miles

Total time on trains:  315 hours, 24 minutes or 13 days, 3 hours and 24 minutes

Total mileage by plane:  37, 192 km or 23, 110 miles

Total time in planes:  52 hours, 13 minutes (including flight with my Father-in-law)

Total mileage by bus / coach:  2768km or 1720 miles

Total time on coaches / buses: 63 hours and 45 minutes or 2 Days, 15 hours and 45 minutes

Total mileage driving through Mongolia and on The Friendship Highway in Tibet:  1245km or 774 miles

Total time on boats:  10 Hours Diving + 36 hours Yangtze Cruise + 1 hour on a rowing boat in Nepal

Cheapest Subway / Underground ticket:  7p – Delhi Metro

Cheapest Train Ticket:  75 Rupees (74p) – Gorakpour to Varanassi Junction (9 hour slow train!!!!!)

Cancelled Transport:  1 Plane,  1 train

Total time under water:  13 hours, 48 minutes (828 minutes)

Number of modes of transport:  14:  Car, Taxi, Train, Tuk-tuk, Bus, Coach, Hot Air Balloon, Paraglide, ATV (Quad Bike), Aeroplane, Metro / Underground, Boat, Horse and Camel

Number of temples visited:  122

Number of Churches visited:  21

Number of Monasteries visited:  33

Number of tigers spotted:  Zero!

Number of hours spent looking for tigers:  20 hours!

Number of falls on snow and ice: Dean 3, Natalie 1

Number of Delhi Belly attacks: Dean 2, Natalie 5

Number of parcels sent home:  Three

Number of Lonely Planets used:  Seven – Trans Siberian, Mongolia, China, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Philippines (yes very heavy!)

Number of currencies:  10 – Euro, Russian Ruble, Mongolian Tugrik, Chinese Yuan, Nepalese Rupee, Indian Rupee, Malaysian Ringt, Myanmar Kyat, Australian Dollar, Philippine Peso

Most expensive public loo:  ‘GUM’ Centre, Red Square Moscow – £2

Cheapest public loo:  Monkey Temple, Kathmandu – 3p

Great Train challenge UNO winner:  Natalie 56 : Dean 50

Weight of my rucksack:  13kg to start, 21kg at the end!

Best glass of champagne:  Moet and Chandon!

Number of photos taken: Don’t ask! (Dean was somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000)

Highlight of trip:  Mongolia, Tibet, Myanmar, our 2nd Wedding and diving in the Philippines… ok thats more than one!

I think it is fair to say that whilst these stats look fairly impressive here, anyone who has ever been on a long trip will tell you they all really merge into one over-arching thought when you get home.  It’s something I call the ‘Heathrow effect’.  This means that as soon as you touch down and walk through through arrivals doors, your whole trip dissolves into one big dream.  But what a mighty good dream it was….

– Natalie

Overcoming Your Fears: Learning to Dive

When Natalie and I first met, she was already an accomplished diver, while I had had neither the opportunity to learn or had the inclination. This was quite a surprise for Natalie because on the surface this should have been something that appealed to me. It wasn’t until we had been together for about 18 months that I seriously thought about learning to dive.

I was in Central America on my annual enforced hiatus from Europe to stay within visa regulations when I had the idea. “When I get to Mexico I am going to learn to dive,” I told Natalie over Skype one day. “Seriously?” was the response on the other end, “that’s awesome”. After promising I would take the plunge so to speak there, was no getting out of it. So upon arriving in Playa Del Carmen I searched around until I decided Phocea Mexico was the dive company to help open up this whole new World to me.

When most people think of learning to dive some of the common fears and concerns are things such as breathing underwater, or encountering rather large and somewhat hungry marine life. My fears were a little more personal. Having worn glasses or contact lenses since I was 18 my biggest fear was what would happen if I lost my mask, and the possibility of my contacts washing away. This had always played on my mind and reared its ugly head again when I first learnt to dive.

I found Nemo!

I found Nemo!

The PADI course was a great mixture of theory and practice, slowly building up your confidence and skill sets in between experiencing the wonders of life underwater. Initially we went through the basics in a large swimming pool, something that I hated. Every time we went under the surface I was engulfed in a sense of claustrophobia, doubts spinning around my mind that this was not natural or ‘normal’. Amazingly on our first dive in the open water I was totally at ease. There was no feeling of claustrophobia, no uncertainty just a feeling of peace and being at ease. The tests and procedures continued and I never did feel comfortable removing my mask and that fear of being nearly blind underwater was ever persistent in the back of my mind.
Completing my Open Water certification was an amazing feeling, I had overcome my doubts but more importantly a new world of travel experiences had opened up for me, and ones both Natalie and I could now share together. As with any new skill you master there is one very important factor in ensuring those new skills ‘stick’, and that is practice. Sadly after learning, Natalie and I had little to no opportunity to go diving. With wedding planning and numerous visas eating into our time, diving slid off into the background of priorities. Just over two years after learning we were able to spend a few days at the end of our honeymoon diving together for the first time. As we kitted up, the procedures and training I had received in Mexico quickly came flooding back and my excitement levels rose.

Most importantly for me during that two-year gap I had received laser eye surgery and no longer needed contact lenses or glasses, a huge boost to my diving ‘career’ and my confidence! The one thing that had made me nervous before every dive was now non-existent so there really was nothing to hold me back.

As we planned our recent adventure we had decided it would be a great way to finish with a relaxed, almost mini holiday / honeymoon in the Philippines, and the basis of this trip was to do some quality diving together. The nerves and apprehension that had once been there was now replaced with excitement. To refresh my skills and improve my diving I completed my Advanced Open Water Certificate. My confidence and ability underwater soared over the two weeks in the Philippines and I was slowly catching Natalie in air consumption (or lack of!) and buoyancy control.

Practice makes perfect

Practice makes perfect

As the saying goes, ‘practice makes perfect’, and it was so true with my diving. Control, manoeuvrability, buoyancy and breathing all became second nature down there and rather than constantly worrying about what I was doing I was now able to enjoy my surroundings.

Learning to dive really does open up a whole new world. From stunningly colourful coral to the intricately decorated tropical fish to schools of sardines that swim around in enormous schools as if controlled by some sort of collective consciousness, you certainly get a greater appreciation for just how amazing nature really is. The silence of life underwater is probably the most notable difference from life above the surface. For the most part all you hear is your breathing and the bubbles escaping your regulator. Over the last two weeks of our trip I was lucky enough to dive with turtles, hundreds of variety of fish and even see my first sharks!

Looking like a pro!

Looking like a pro!

The beautiful thing about travelling is you are constantly challenged and given the opportunity to overcome your fears. Whether it is bungee jumping, skydiving, mountain climbing, or in my case learning to dive, the opportunities are almost always there when you travel. However, if you do challenge yourself and do something you would never have dreamt of back home, you may just discover a new hobby or new passion that will enhance future travels. That is what happened to me, I love diving and cannot wait until our next underwater adventures.

 

– Dean

16 Hours Flights and my Super Human Ability

It would have to be one of the longest flights in the world, 15 and a half hours from Manilla to London non stop. Worse still was that it was a day flight, departing Manilla at around seven in the morning and arriving in London mid afternoon the same day, needless to say neither of us where overly excited about the flight.

For most people there are a few things that you need to make sure the journey goes nice and smoothly. A great selection of movies always helps wile away the hours, a gripping book for when you can no longer squint at that tiny screen is also an ideal back up. Ensuring your iPod, smartphone or tablet is fully charged helps, however on this flight we had USB points in every seat which was fantastic. Perhaps some magazines, or even games of some sort.

The thought of such a long time cramped in a seat creates a sense of dread for most flyers (unless of course you fly Business or First Class, something we are yet to do). Not me however, I love long flights. I have the super human ability to sleep anywhere any time almost on demand. I can be asleep on a plane before it even takes off and usually do. In fact it is not uncommon for me to sleep for the best part of 18 hours on a flight from London Melbourne. To be totally honest I think the best I ever sleep is actually on a plane. Call it a super power if you like but my uncanny gift to sleep almost instantaneously on any moving vehicle also has the ability to drive Natalie crazy!

Natalie is the complete opposite and does not really sleep that much on flights so I am sure you can see how annoying it can be. As Natalie will often say I am quite possibly the worst travel companion when it comes to flying. So good am I at sleeping on moving objects, I thought I may miss most of our train adventures because I would be asleep! Thankfully I didn’t!

Natalie takes great pleasure at poking and prodding to wake me up just to say ‘hi’ or tell me she can’t sleep. If one half of The Smart Way Round can’t sleep why should the other half right?

With only a couple of hours sleep the night before and a 4am wake up, I was expecting that heavenly mist of sleepiness to descend upon me very early on into the flight. This flight was different. As if the Philippines Airline 777 was made of kryptonite my super power abandoned me and I couldn’t sleep. For the first time ever I think Natalie actually slept longer than I did. I exhausted the movie list, played games on my phone played my best playlists to sleep to and ….. Nothing!

For once I was forced to endure a mammoth flight like a normal traveller. I’m sure I Iooked at the clock a few times only to see it start to tick backwards! Finally to add insult to injury, when we arrived over London we had missed our scheduled landing time due to sitting on the runway in Manilla for 40 minutes and had to circle around a few times before landing.

Despite the incredibly long flight time and having my gift almost entirely disappear on me, the flight went relatively quick, or as quick as 16 hours can go. It was slightly bittersweet landing back home in London, the end of quite possibly the most amazing, life changing five month adventure we could possibly have imagined.

We still have the Philippines to fill you all in about and living and working in Europe means there is plenty for us to keep writing about. Arriving back home is not the end of The Smart Way Round but just the beginning!

– Dean

Ps I am currently writing this blog at 30,000ft using free wifi on Norwegian Air. If only they had it yesterday! Sadly I also must report my super power is yet to return….

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Melbourne: Seeing your home town differently

Having lived and worked in Europe for the past 11 years, married to Natalie and armed with my UK Residence Permit I guess I would now be considered to be an ex-pat.

While I am lucky enough to live in one of the Worlds most amazing cities, London, a part of me will always call Melbourne home.It is only when you live away from, and then return, do you truly appreciate your home town.

Working in Europe I always wondered if Parisians strolled down the Champs Élysées and gave the Arc d’Triompe a second thought, or as the Romans wizz past the Colosseum on their Vespas they realised what an amazing piece of history their city had, even if Londoners appreciated having the greatest public transport system in the world, the Tube? (I can tell you the Londoners don’t!).

So over the last few years I have had the opportunity to experience Melbourne in a different light, I have had the chance to be a tourist in my home town.

Melbourne's Flinders Street Station

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station

Put simply, I love Melbourne, it really is the best city in Australia. OK, city rivalries aside, Melbourne doesn’t have the ‘Big Ticket’ wow factors like Sydney does, such as the Bridge, Opera House and Bondi, and probably needs a little more exploration but once you do it is an incredible city.

One thing Melbourne is famous for is its cafe scene and it’s love affair with coffee. We can thank the Italian immigrants after WWII for really kick-starting this. One of the best places to experience Melbourne’s cafe culture is in Degraves Street. A small little pedestrian alleyway running between Flinders and Collins streets, it is filled with outdoor cafés and has an amazing energy and ultra cool vibe.

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

The Yarra River is the heart and soul of Melbourne and a stroll from Flinders Street Station down to the Casino and docklands area is also a must. Great restaurants, quirky bars and modern art awaits you, but it also gives you a great feel for Melbourne’s redevelopment over the last 20 years.

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Now if you are more adventurous you can head out to various suburbs for a different taste of Melbourne. Carlton is the ‘Italian’ district and Lygon Street plays home to some of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Or perhaps down to St Kilda for some city beach chill time. Every inner suburb has a different feel and is famous for something different, and only after exploring a few of them do you truly understand what Melbourne is all about.

Of course Melbourne is also famous for its love of sport and if you are lucky enough to visit during a major event you quickly learn Melbourne loves sport almost as much as coffee!! We finish our visit coinciding with the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix – one of the jewels in the city’s sporting crown. Much like Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams, in Melbourne, if you host it, they will come! In fact half of Melbourne will still turn up to watch a sport they know nothing about.

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Great shopping and great museums also contribute to the Melbourne experience. Every time I visit now I see something different and I have a greater appreciation for my home town. It makes me want to get out and explore London more, a promise Natalie and I have made repeatedly on this trip.

Now while I love Melbourne I am the first to admit it is not perfect, but no city is. Apart from the trams, in particular the Circle Line Tram which does a loop around the city and is free, yes free, ask any Melbournian and they will tell you the  public transport system is not great, (Londoners take note). Australia, not just Melbourne in particular is very expensive for tourists but these are small considerations. It is no wonder that Melbourne is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Melbourne's famous old trams

Melbourne’s famous old trams

If you have never been a tourist in your home town get out there and explore, visit the famous sites, eat at the famous cafés and restaurants, go and see that show or museum you have always said you would, who knows, you might just discover you live (or have lived) in a pretty incredible city and you never knew it!

– Dean

Chapter 11: Melbourne, The In-laws and the Great Outdoors

Touchdown!

We made it, Melbourne, our furthest away point and the whole reason for our overland adventure was now a reality. Landing in Melbourne felt like a world away from what we had experienced through Myanmar, India, Nepal, Tibet and so on.

The sign at Melbourne Airport

The sign at Melbourne Airport

Despite our excitement about arriving back in Australia there was also a twinge of sadness. Australia was our penultimate destination, our target to reach by any means possible and here we were. So our excitement was tempered by the fact that in a few short weeks we will be back to normal life, well as normal as it gets for us! However this was not going to stop us having an awesome couple of weeks.

While I grew up in Melbourne, it is no longer ‘home’ ever since my folks sold up and retired down to Torquay. Put simply if there is a better place in the state of Victoria to live it hasn’t been found yet. At the beginning of The Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most stunning coastal drives, a short drive to the world famous Bells Beach, Torquay was the perfect spot for us to chill and relax for a few days after our epic adventure. Walks along the beach, a glass of red on the balcony looking for kangaroos, does life get any better?

Torquay front beach

Torquay front beach

Of course our visit to Oz wouldn’t be us if we didn’t try and cram as much into a brief visit as possible. This included catching up with awesome friends Matt, Kirsty and my favourite kids in the world and spending a few days in Melbourne itself.

I love Melbourne, it is such a vibrant and cool city. Natalie and I have developed a routine in Melbourne which revolves around shopping, particularly the outlet stores near the Crown Casino and Docklands area, walks along the river and normally a drink in Federation Square. We may do the same thing everytime we visit but it is the sense of familiarity we love.

This time however we had one important thing to do, and that was to pick up Natalie’s parents from the airport. They were flying out for our wedding party and it was a surreal experience.

Natalie’s parents help us out an awful lot, particularly with airport drop offs and pick ups and not to forget her Mum’s mercy dash to Paris airport with my newly issued residence permit so I could return to the UK after our honeymoon!

So patiently we waited, welcome sign in hand hardly believing this moment had come. If you have never experienced it, it’s quite a strange feeling picking up your parents or friends from home in another country.

Waiting for Natalie's parents to arrive

Waiting for Natalie’s parents to arrive

After a late night arrival the following morning we hit up one of Melbourne’s famous lane ways for breakfast before I returned to Torquay and Natalie spent the next day and a half exploring Melbourne with her folks.  They rode the free Circle Tram, had dinner on the Colonial Tram Car as well as going up the 88 floors to the Eureka Sky Deck viewing platform and they seemed to really enjoy catching up and re-living old haunts!

The Cole family’s arrival in Torquay was a chance for everyone to catch up, consume a little too much wine, and explore the surf coast region as we prepared for our Wedding Party.

It’s been great having both families together again and also wonderful that Natalie’s parents can see where I grew up and where we spend our time down here in Australia. Week one in Oz has been great and with dawn breaking on Wedding Party day we couldn’t wait to catch up with all our friends and family.

Australia, it’s good to be home!

– Dean

Chapter Nine: Treasures of Myanmar – The Road to Mandalay

One country that is on all the ‘Top Destinations of 2014’ lists and a country that is literally buzzing within traveller circles is Myanmar. Having only reopened to tourism about four years ago and with tourist numbers soaring, now is the time to visit. With that in mind, and wanting to visit Myanmar before tourism gets too commercial, it was one destination that had really excited us in the planning phase of this trip.

A few important things to note, firstly credit cards are not accepted almost anywhere in Myanmar, (with a very few exceptions) international ATM cards are only accepted by cash machines in a few places outside the capital of Yangon, (thankfully this is on the increase though), and entrances for historical and cultural sites must be paid in either local currency or US Dollars, and US Dollars must be pristine, almost as if they had just been printed. This certainly means you must have a good grip on your finances and adds another important dimension to trip planning throughout the country.

As Natalie had mentioned in her Hot Air Ballooning Blog, our first destination was the so called Jewel in the Tourism crown on Myanmar, Bagan. The Bagan Archaeological Zone consists of over 2,200 red brick stupas and temples scattered over the country side. Clive our balloon pilot had told us that originally there was an estimated 6,000 but over the centuries many had been destroyed, looted or damaged from earthquakes and invaders. Covering an area of 42 square kilometres for most of your explorations you can be excused for thinking you were the only people there. Most visitors head to Ananda, Sulamani, Shwesandaw and Dhammayangyi. However we liked the smaller complexes of temples. Bunched together these small red brick pagoda made you feel like Indiana Jones searching for buried treasure or uncovering a new site  for the first time. In fact the whole Bagan region felt like it belonged in some Hollywood adventure movie.

Some of Bagan's Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Some of Bagan’s Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Unlike the rest of Asia, the rickshaw has not really taken off in Myanmar, meaning the easiest way to explore Bagan was by something called an E-bike. Not quite a push bike and not quite a scooter, these bikes had pedals (which you only used if the bike ran out of juice) and ran on a small battery reaching an estimated top speed of about 15 kmh. Though not designed for it they are great for off roading and all throughout Bagan you could hear the hum of the electric bike followed by the rattle and shake of said bike being taken some-place it was not meant to go.

Natalie modelling our 'off road' E-bike

Natalie modelling our ‘off road’ E-bike

Each day in Bagan culminated in finding an elevated vantage point for sunset. The best time to view the temples is early morning and the two hours before sunset. As the sun dips in the sky the temples and pagoda light up a fiery red colour, a striking contrast to the green surrounding them and the brilliant blue skies. Everyone in Bagan has the same idea though, which means there is little hope to find a secluded temple top to watch the sun go down, but regardless watching the sun drop behind the hills silhouetting the many temples is one of Myanmar’s must do experiences.

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

Sunset over the temples

Sunset over the temples

We also made the half day journey out to visit Mount Popa. An extinct volcano with a monastery complex on top, Mt Popa was a great way to break up visiting all the temples around Bagan. There is a catch though, and that is the 777 steps you must walk up barefoot to the summit. Throughout Myanmar, whenever you visit a religious site it is shoes off, regardless of how hot, sandy dusty, muddy or covered in bird droppings that site is, tradition states you must remove your shoes. Needless to say our ‘Western Feet’ have at times protested and are looking forward to reaching Australia for some much needed love and attention!

From Bagan it was then off to Mandalay, one of Myanmar’s many former capital cities. Unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Road to Mandalay’, we chose to take a boat. Public transport in Myanmar is not really set up for tourism but set up to cater for the locals. Most intercity transportation is either in rather uncomfortable pickup trucks where as many people as possible are rammed in tightly together or overnight coaches that depart and arrive at particularly inconvenient times, as one local said, ‘Myanmar people would never miss a day of work to travel intercity, they prefer to do it at night, oh, and the buses don’t overheat as much!’.

So the boat seemed to be our logical choice. An 11 hour journey, we were excited to see some of the rural life along the river. We were met by a stunning sunrise just after the boat departed but that was about as good as it got. Before we knew it the weather closed in and the majority of the day we were subjected to a huge down pour. As we approached Mandalay in the late afternoon it felt like the rain was getting worse, or perhaps it was because we knew we would soon be getting off. We trudged off the boat into the back of a pickup truck for the short drive to our chosen guesthouse, soaking wet we arrived, and despite the horrible weather we were surprisingly happy as it was the first real full day of rain we had experienced in months.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and certainly had a big city feel after the relative quietness of Bagan. Almost dead flat it was easy to explore on push bike and were introduced to some of the country’s different road rules. Firstly they drive right hand drive cars on the right hand side of the road, not easy when you are overtaking, and secondly, Mandalay had hardly any traffic lights. Four way intersections were a free for all, you approach, look around and if you think you can go, you go, to be honest, even if you don’t think you can, you go! We visited a number of famous monasteries and temples, including the most famous, the Mahamuni Paya complex. Here males dab gold leaf onto a huge statue of Buddha giving it a lumpy look. Various religious sites or inner most sanctums are off limits to females, so Natalie dispatched me with numerous cameras and phones to snap the photos we have. We also visited the ‘Gold Pounders’ of Mandalay. These muscle bound locals smack small leather books filled with sheets of gold for up to six hours to produce wafer thin gold leaf for people to apply on various Buddha images and religious icons throughout the country. Certainly a hard way to make a living. Never have we seen so much gold everywhere as we have in Myanmar!

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

The Gold Pounders in action

The Gold Pounders in action

Our second day was spent visiting the various sites around outer Mandalay, including a famous monastery in the Amarapura district. Here the 1000 monks inhabiting the monastery all line up at 11:00 to receive their rice and fruit. The main walkway is chock full of tourists on either side and as the monks silently march in single file down to the dining hall all you can hear is the beeping and clicking of cameras. In fact many tourists were angrily barking at each other and muscling each other to get the best vantage point! While interesting Natalie and I could not help but feel sorry for the monks, it was almost like being in a Buddhist zoo, with the monks being put on show or paraded for the tourists to take their photos. While I enjoyed the experience of seeing the inner workings of a Monastery, next time I think I would avoid it.

We also visited the neighbourhood of Sagaing a lovely green hilly area dotted with numerous golden Stupa and the small ancient village of Inwa. We finished the day off with sunset over the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world and one of the symbols of Myanmar.

Natalie in the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

Natalie in the botanic gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

To break up our time in Mandalay we also spent a day out in the colonial village of Pyin Oo Lwin. Set up by the British as an escape from Mandalay’s stifling heat, it is now famous for arguably the best manicured botanic gardens in South East Asia. The gardens were beautiful, but the highlights were firstly seeing a huge motorcade of chanting monks and nuns driving down the main street ahead of a truck relocating a huge image of Buddha. People were singing, clapping and waving flags as the image trundled past. Secondly, the journey back to Mandalay was a real highlight. We jumped into a share taxi and headed out to an enormous military base. We drove past barracks and parade grounds, saw soldiers marching and doing martial arts and had a real feeling of should we be here? We arrived out to a small monastery attached to the base where an elderly monk came out and apologised for running late, did we mind waiting for him? Of course not.

After about half an hour he came out with two novice monks, both only about five or six years old. While the senior monk jumped in the front seat the two boys sat in the back with us. They were loads of fun, one we were told was very naughty, but they were as fascinated with us as we with them. This was particularly the case when the cameras came out, taking selfies on the iPhone they loved the fact they could see themselves. At one point as the taxi was flying down the hill the boys were making car noises and Natalie threw in the sound of screeching tyres and brakes and the boys thought this was hilarious.  Arriving back to Mandalay we said goodbye to our new friends and considered ourselves so lucky to have shared the taxi with them. This was a much more real experience than the touristy ‘zoo’ we had experienced the day before, sometimes when you travel you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our final day in Mandalay was filled with a boat ride to the village of Mingun to see their various pagoda, including the ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda, and a final run around Mandalay to visit a few last sites we wanted to see.

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

Myanmar is known as the ‘Golden Land’ and it is easy to see why. With stunning gold gilded pagoda dotting the landscape and some of the friendliest people anywhere in the world it truly is a special place and we were so glad we visited now before that mass influx of tourism and tourism money changes the cities but also the people. Our first half of our journey had been incredible and we had a feeling the second half was going to be just as amazing.

– Dean

 

Taking the leap of faith – crossing the road around the World

I remember in primary school “Hector the Cat” coming to see us and teaching us how safely to cross the road. It was a police and government initiative to teach young kids the importance of road safety. It must have worked well, because ever since I have always looked both ways before crossing and waited for the green signal.

That was before I moved to Europe.

Living and working in Europe has taught me how to cross the road whenever is needed, except of course in Germany where nobody would dare cross on a red signal or J-walk for fear of being fined by the police. Also in Berlin and Dresden you have “Ampelman” the coolest crossing man ever, so why would you disobey?

Watch out for Ampelman

Watch out for Ampelman

I cut my road crossing teeth so to speak in Rome, one of Europes craziest motoring towns. In Rome, the red light for a moped or taxi is a suggestion rather than a given. So perplexed at crossing the road I quizzed one of my local guides. “Dean, it’s all about eye contact. Look a driver in the eye and you have formed a relationship. If it’s a girl crossing the road, the male driver automatically thinks she wants to sleep with him. In your case, they think you are admiring their stylish clothes or sunglasses, give it a try” I was told. You know what? Sure enough it worked. I would then dispense this pearl of wisdom to my groups and eagerly demonstrate with the leap of faith. I would wait until there was as much traffic coming as possible, make eye contact and just walk out. As the traffic stopped, my groups would scurry behind me amazed at the Jedi Mind Trick powers of their Tour Manager.

In London you just go for it whenever you can. As Natalie likes to say, “I’m a Londoner we just go!”. For unsuspecting people who drive on the right, London even has “Look Left” clearly printed on the ground to remind tourists that we drive on the left side of the road, how easy does that make it!

This of course does not work everywhere, when I travelled through Vietnam I discovered it was the “Frogger” approach. Based on the 1980’s arcade game you slowly inched your way across the road and the locals would avoid you. Stop, speed up or stutter and there was bound to be an accident but maintain a constant pace and there was no road that could not be conquered.

Close your eyes and pretend they are not there...

Close your eyes and pretend they are not there…

My favourite roads to cross would have to be La Paz in Bolivia. There they have people dressed up as Zebras holding rope to stop the traffic for people to cross safely. In scorching heat and at high altitude these striped protectors of pedestrians would have to get the award for the most inventive way to help you get from A to B.

China was relatively easy by comparison. We had both heard how crazy the roads were and apart from the odd motorbike whizzing past and the fact you can turn left on a red signal, crossing the road in China was disappointingly easy.

Then we arrived in India. India is a whole new kettle of fish. Not only do you have to negotiate the cars, trucks and bikes, not forgetting the mountains of rickshaws, but you have the cows to try and avoid as well! The rickshaws are fine and easy to dodge, generally speaking they almost come to a screeching halt every time they see a tourist on the side of the road, but it’s the cars behind them you need to watch. The cars will swerve either way to try and avoid them and you have to hope you are not on the way! Eye contact doesn’t work neither does the “Frogger Manoeuvre”, something that has gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion! It seems the best option is a combination of everything we have learnt about crossing the road from around the world, and if that fails, stand next to a local and do what they do.

A quieter road in India

A quieter road in India

So next time you visit a new city or country feel free to try any of these. If you have a method that works leave a comment at the bottom of the blog. Meanwhile I will sit at this roundabout a while longer, surely this traffic is going to subside eventually?!

– Dean

A good run for our money – bye bye overland travel HELLO plane!

So we have reached the end of the line – train line that is and it’s time to board our first commercial flight.

When we left London on the Eurostar back on the 18th November this day seemed a lifetime away…. Or rather at that point our flight wasn’t even booked so we didn’t know when the day was coming.

Back at the beginning leaving home!

Back at the beginning leaving home!

Our aim was to travel overland, without flying, as far as possible, travelling on the Trans Mongolian train and beyond. We hoped to get as far as India and we managed it. Alright we did take one joy-flight over Everest but it wasn’t a scheduled flight and we ended where we begun so it didn’t really count!

We have travelled through 12 countries and at times it has felt both impossible and unbelievable to be where we are. How could we be seeing the Great Wall or Taj Mahal without getting on a plane? Were we really there? On many occasions we have had to pinch ourselves and there is still part of me that can’t believe we are really here and what we’ve done!

Most of our journeys have been via train. We have racked up just under 20,000 KM (or almost 12,500 miles) on the railways through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and India and spent many (sometimes uncomfortable!) hours travelling over 3000 KM (or 1865 miles) on buses in Lithuania and Nepal. In amongst this we’ve had a couple of car journeys (notably Tibet) totalling almost 1400km (or 865 miles) and we’ve loved every minute. I have never spent so much time on trains as I have over these last few months, although from my early days visiting Grandparents in Yorkshire, I always loved them. It is an amazing way to travel and one I’d do again in a heartbeat (with slightly less luggage!).

Great trains... too much luggage!

Great trains… too much luggage!

Each and every journey has had its highs and lows. Comparisons are all too easy to make and it’s hard as all the journeys were so different, but here are my highs (and lows!):

* Cleanest train: Russian Trans Siberian
* Best restaurant car: joint winner – Trans Siberian – it was older than me and kitsch car on train from Ulan Batar
* Most scenic train: high altitude ride from Cheng Du to Lhasa
* Most forgiving train: Russian train from Frankfurt as they waited for us when our connection was late!
* Grumpiest : Russian ladies – but they maintained their carriages so well!
* Worst door security: India trains as they don’t lock them (fun fun fun!)
* Dirtiest toilets: China trains – hands down winner yuk yuk yuk (they were that bad its what prompted this list!)
* Most old fashioned / trains with most character: India trains
* Most consistently delayed trains: Indian!
* Train with best Champagne – Eurostar!!!

Along the way we have met some lovely people, both locals and foreigners not to mention our film crew friends on that initial Trans Siberian journey. Thank you to everyone who has followed the journey so far, and to those in Canada who saw us on the CBC broadcast and have taken the time to track our blog down!

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

We have scheduled this blog to send as we take off from Delhi airport. We have such mixed views about flying out as we’d love to continue overland but the borders just aren’t open and so we have no choice. This flight is the end of the first phase and larger part of our trip, but we still have loads to look forward to! We fly around the houses and then eventually land in Myanmar where Dean has a special treat lined up for Valentines Day (stated tuned!). After two weeks exploring we then head down to Australia which we are both very excited about. We’ll spend time with Deans family, then my parents arrive (very exciting!) before our second wedding party – hurray! Finally it will be time for a second honeymoon in the Philippines.

So as we say goodbye to overland travel we are excited about the next steps of our adventure. Above all we are very proud of what we have achieved on this trip. We set out to travel by train and thats exactly what we’ve done. It has been, and continues to be just an amazing experience. I just need to find the brake pedal as time is going too fast!

– Natalie

Riding in taxis with boys

My Mother once said I had lots of qualities of my Grandparents…. And the older I get the more this is true. Gramps (my Grandfather on Dad’s side who is sadly no longer with us) was a keen motorist (and incidentally ballroom dancer). He liked to be behind the wheel though and was not the best passenger! There was a joke in the Cole family that whenever anyone else was driving Gramps’ right foot would be on ‘his’ brake pedal in the well’ol (foot well) making a hole in the carpet. The older I get the more I seem to be trying to perfect this same skill – co-piloting from the passenger seat by braking for the driver!

Ever since Dean returned from Oz he has been on my car insurance although driving me around in my own car can be quite a stressful experience for him. It’s often met with back-seat driver comments and needless to say he enjoys driving my car, when I’m asleep in the passenger seat!

The reason I explain this is because we have been catching a few Nepali taxis to sort out our Myanmar visa and get to some out of town sites. Taxis in Kathmandu are small white ‘Maruti’ cars – some kind of Suzuki. So to say they are a car is probably bigging them up a bit. I’m just hoping we never have to catch one with our luggage as I doubt it will fit!

A Maruti

A Maruti

Well the other day we had stayed out at Bodhnath Stupa until sunset then walked a bit so it was well and truly dark before we started the process of getting a taxi. It is one of the few times we have struggled, but our driver saw us, swerved across three lanes and skidded to a halt at our feet. This sight of foreigners make their eyes twinkle in the hope of an inflated fare! We negotiated, agreed and jumped in before us and the Maruti were flattened by the passing traffic.

For the first time I jumped in the front and the ride was better / worse than the most scary roller coaster at DisneyLand! Now every taxi driver in Kathmandu has so far made it their mission to get you from a to b as quick as possible, almost as if your life depended on it. This driver was no different – in fact he probably wins the prize for doing that the best…. In the most unsafe way!

We wheel-spun out of the blocks, turned at right angles and cut across six lanes to make it down the first track we wanted. Once I’d opened my eyes we were doing the mandatory ‘duck ‘n dive’ between pedestrians, push bikes and motorbikes. All this was taking place with no street lights. It was at this point that I began to seriously worry about the health of the driver (and consequently us!). He began driving with his head out the window (no eyes on the road and we were now at an intersection with trucks and all of the above) making such noises that I could only conclude he was in a very bad way. This went on and on. In between his phone rang, he tried to answer to no avail so he rang them back (partial halt to the head out window at this point). Now I’m not sure if it was his wife reminding him in his condition to keep warm, or just his mistress arranging a date, but something made him decide his bobble hat was essential and it had to be clean. Next thing I know (we’ve still revving the guts out the car in 3rd gear and flying along) the glove box comes crashing down onto my knees. I managed to dodge his hand on my knee (I’m sure it was an accident as he was doing too many things at once for anything else) whilst he forridged around for his hat. He found it. Phew – slam of glove box. Somehow in the pitch black he knew it was dirty, so he began banging it on the outside of the car through the window to get the dust out. When satisfied it was clean enough, both hands came off the wheel in order to put said hat on. I meanwhile was applying my brake peddle more times the David Coulthard in his entire racing career only to result in a hole in the floor…. Oh no sorry that was already there and tends to be ‘standard issue rust bother’ on the taxis. Every taxi we have been in has had at least one hole in the car somewhere! Finally I knew where we were and with a couple of sharp intakes of breath we made it.

So from now on we have concluded that I barter, agree the price and climb in the back. Here I delve into my pockets and get out the correct money whilst we are flying through the streets. Dean meanwhile sits in the front and films on his Go Pro. I can still see the chaos… But after we have had a narrow escape and not before! Taxi journeys are part of the fun of travel, but show one of the many differences to life at home. I forgot to say that if you find one of the two necessary seatbelt straps you are doing well. You have more chance of spotting one of Chitwan National Park’s 125 wild tigers than finding both the necessary parts working!

The best place for me - in the back!

The best place for me – in the back!

I took this little day-time video to set the scene….two seconds and you’ll get the gist! It was taken driving the following day. The driver in this video was cool, fair and speedy. We loved how he worked the wheel!

With the cool taxi driver as he took a break from turning the wheel!

With the cool taxi driver as he took a break from turning the wheel!

May all your journeys be fast, furious and importantly safe!

– Natalie

Chapter Four: The World’s Highest Train Journey: Chengdu to Lhasa

Bleary eyed we stumbled off our overnight train from Yichang and arrived in the economically booming town of Chengdu. It was to be our base for the next five days as we waited for our Tibetan Travel Permits to be granted.

Chengdu is famous for a number of things, its spicy Sichuan cuisine for one, (which was the subject of our last blog entry), its legendary tea houses and most of all one of the symbols of China, Pandas! This was going to be a fun week.

Our first day was spent exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, the Manjusri monastery. It was an enormous complex, very colourful and was great for photos. We had an interesting conversation with an elderly local gentleman who reeled off numerous statistics about Australia after I told him where I was from. This was followed by being invited in to what looked like an enormous assembly hall. The young girl who invited us then told us the man speaking was from a new wave Buddhist movement. It was like a Chinese version of the TV evangelical preachers you see on American comedy movies, needless to say we didn’t stick around long.

Several of the monasteries are surrounded by reconstructed hutong, or old Chinese alleyways. They were filled with souvenir stalls, street side restaurants, vendors selling various chilli concoctions and tea houses. We loved the Chengdu tea houses, you could walk in, buy a cup of leaf tea for around one British Pound, and then were given a thermos full of hot water. If you managed to finish the thermos, you just went to the counter and grabbed another one, free of charge. What great value!

 

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

The following day was time to visit the Pandas. Somehow we managed to make two connecting local buses to reach the Chengdu Panda Research facility, which was a mission in itself. It involved trying to find a bus line that didn’t exist and thanks to several very helpful bus drivers we reached our destination.

I’m not sure if we were shocked or surprised, but I guess we were almost expecting a big nature reserve similar to some of the reserves you see in Africa, with Pandas living as close to a normal life as possible. In reality what we entered was a Panda zoo. Huge enclosures holding anywhere from one to around five Pandas, all with bamboo feeding stations in the primo location for visitors to take photos.

After our initial surprise/shock/disappointment, we loved the Base. The Pandas were like big, goofy teddy bears, stumbling around and play fighting, but our favourite was one guy stuck up a tree. We must have watched him for around 20 minutes as he tried every which way to scale his way down the tree which he had obviously managed to climb. All his efforts were fraught with disaster and followed by mad scrambles back to the safety of the fork in the branches. We left him to it but returned about two hours later and he was still stuck in the tree! We were lucky enough to see him try several more ill-fated attempts before eventually falling to the ground flat on his back. The Research Base does do some amazing work protecting and breeding future generations of Pandas, and is even preparing to release some of them back into the wild. This day was a real highlight for both of us, but we both agreed we love to come back one day and try and trek out to see them in the wild.

 

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Because of the amount of time we were spending in Chengdu we had decided to break out time up between days exploring the city and a couple of day trips, (the Pandas being one). Today it was time to explore several of the city’s parks. As we mentioned in our Beijing blog we loved the parks there and were hoping Chengdu’s parks would live up to our expectation. We visited another monastery, the newly built hutong surrounding it and experienced our first tea ceremony. Really it was a show to make you buy the shops tea, but we did enjoy a couple of free cups. The best part of the whole experience was the shop assistants puppy dog eyes and look of “if you don’t buy my tea I will get the sack” look. The huge People’s Park was another great place to spend a few hours, and it was here I had one of the more unique experiences of our adventure, I had my ears cleaned by an ear master.

The ear masters walk between tea houses in the parks wearing head torches and carrying numerous instruments that look like they belong in a horror movie. They proceed to pluck, scrub and clean your ears as well as dislodging any nastiness using what sounds like tuning forks. The whole process was a little unnerving and I can’t say it was my favorite experience, but the after the little massage at the end my ears did feel amazing. While Chengdu’s parks had totally different feeling to them, our love affair of how the Chinese people used their public spaces remained strong.
Our final day trip took us out to the town of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of Buddha. What was supposed to be a two hour local bus ride turned into the best part of a five hour marathon as the motorways were closed for one stretch due to fog, and then traffic halted due to an ensuing accident. However it was totally worth it when we reached Leshan.

The Giant Buddha is 71 meters tall carved out of the rock face overlooking the confluence of two rivers. The project was conceived by a local monk who believed the statue would calm the ferocious merging of the rivers some 700 years ago. Now days many historians believe the confluence was calmed by the amount of debris cast into the river during the construction rather than any magical powers of the Giant Buddha. All in all this truly was an impressive construction back in the day and a perfect way to finish off our time in Chengdu. It would also set the scene in many ways for what was to come.

 

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

The following evening, New Years Eve, we boarded our 44 hour train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa. The train journey itself is one of China’s proudest engineering feats, and believe us they have many, but also was incredibly controversial, something we would learn went hand in hand when visiting Tibet. The 3360km journey heads into some very remote landscape, isolated towns, and 80% of day two was spent in excess of 4000m! While not pressurized, each train cabin, and every room in the cabins had vents pumping in oxygen to help you aclimatise.

The scenery was nothing short of stunning, from rocky gorges to flat desert and then the barren expanse of the Tibetan plateau as we ascended above the tree line. The highlight was definitely topping 5000m as we crossed the highest point of the journey and began to see numerous snowcapped mountains surrounding us.

 

Approaching 5000m on the World's highest train journey

Approaching 5000m on the World’s highest train journey

We also saw some truly remarkable and bizarre things as well. The one that puzzled us the most was during one stretch of perhaps 20 km at regular intervals there would be a Chinese soldier, standing in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around him, saluting the train. There was no rhyme or reason for it, truly bizarre! On another section we saw three men lying prostrating on the road near the train. We would later find out they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa, praying and prostrating themselves all the way from their home tome to the capital. Some of these journeys can take up to six months, crossing several quite dangerous mountain passes, (like our 5000m one) and being subject to both extremes of both cold and heat, truly remarkable.

So our new year had been ushered in on the train, (celebrated with a bottle of Great Wall Red wine no less), as was the first day and a half of 2014, rather appropriate really considering how far we have travelled by train so far. We finally pulled into to the final destination, one that polarises opinion, stirs various emotions and promised a very special experience, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet….

– Dean