Chapter 13: It’s More Fun in the Philippines….

… Say the marketing slogans.  They are not wrong!

You can see why they say 'it is more fun in the Philippines'!

You can see why they say ‘it is more fun in the Philippines’!

Rewind to November last year, and we watched in horror as the atrocities of Typhoon Yolanda swept through, taking with it the livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos and the lives of well over 6000 people.  Several people asked us if we were still going ahead with our plans to visit, but there was no stopping us.  The devastation of such natural disasters continues long after the event itself and without tourists how could they afford to rebuild?  There was never any question; wild horses would not stop us going.

Now firstly I should say that the Philippines were originally my baby.  Having been on a few cruises (very different to backpacking I know!) with my parents I had over the years come across many many Filipino ship staff, and for a long time I have wanted to visit the country.  Not only because I had heard how beautiful it was, but just so I could look them in the eyes and say I had been to their beautiful country.  From the early stages of our planning, the Philippines was to be the ideal destination to end our travels and to be our second honeymoon (two weddings, two honeymoons sound fair don’t you think?!).

Lazy days

Lazy days

So we set off, and landed in Cebu, with little planned out and in need of some R&R.  We initially spent a couple of nights at Kon Tiki divers (!) on Mactan Island, which enabled us to dust off the regulators and get ourselves wet with our first diving.  These early dives were to be the first of about 16 dives that followed over the next two weeks and we loved every second of them!

 

The Smart Way Round under water!

The Smart Way Round under water!

We had heard about the huge shoals of sardines that swam off the coast of Cebu in Moalboal, so after our initial dives we headed over to the other side of Cebu Island.  We found a lovely dive resort called Quo Vadis and felt very at home.  Whilst there was little beach area the sunsets were incredible and we found ourselves easily settling into the diving, snoozing, rum at sunset drinking routine!  We liked it so much that Dean decided it was time to up his skills and attempt to catch me up!  He signed on to do his ‘Advanced Open Water’ PADI course.  Even though I am a ‘Rescue Diver’ level, it really meant there was not too much between us in terms of the depths we could go to.  He also decided to qualify in diving with Nitrox (Oxygen enriched air) so we could use that together.  I won’t go into the benefits of using it, but its good stuff!  So for me these few days were very relaxing, but for Dean they involved a lot more study!

Selfie with the Sardines

Selfie with the Sardines

The diving here was instantly great.  Even the house reef out of the front of the resort was like jumping into my Father’s fish tank and every dive was a joy.  The sardines well and truly came out to play and at one point I could barely see up, down, left or right as I found myself in the middle of them.  Quite spectacular.  We saw plenty of special things.  Turtles galore, but my favourite was a tiny blue ringed octopus that I managed to spot on a night dive.  Quite a sight and pure fluke on my part!

Just like a fish tank!

Just like a fish tank!

 

A beautiful spot

A beautiful spot

All too soon it was time to move on and we headed over to Donsol a sleepy fishing village on another Island.  It was a bit hair raising getting there.  With the knock-on effect of a typhoon approaching (fortunately not one as bad as Yolanda) the rain was out to play and it took us three attempts for the pilot to land the plane.  I’ll not lie – I was getting a bit scared by the end when we kept doing the emergency ascent!

Things in Donsol didn’t quite go to plan.  The weather meant it was too rough to get out to the dive site we had hoped to dive.  However we managed to have a fun few days as we went out to spot Whale sharks.  This was a fun experience as we were with a couple of really cool people from our hotel.  We sat around on the boat convinced that we wouldn’t see anything when all of a sudden we got the call to ‘prepare’.  This involved sitting on the side of Bangka (‘catamaran’) and throwing ourselves into the water when the Whale Shark was near.  The ones were saw were up to 8m in size, and were truly spectacular.  We had seen them once before in Mozambique but these gentle giants are always special and it’s a true privilege to snorkel with them.  There is also more of a theme park style experienced with these gentle giants somewhere else in the Philippines where they bait them.  We do not agree with this at all and we were so pleased we had waited to see them in Donsol in their natural habit.  Very special.

 

One of the majestic Whale Sharks

One of the majestic Whale Sharks

We also managed to get out to a local waterfall.  The journey there was very eventful, as we had to abandon our tricycle, and walk some of the way through local villages.  It was really interesting to see the simple way of life that exists within the village communities.  By the time we got to the waterfall we really had earned our swim!  To avoid some of the walk back we took a local Bangka (boat) back to our abandoned tricycle.  The only problem was the tricycle was so caked in mud it took some convincing to get going!  In the Philippines ‘road rehabilitation’ (road works) don’t mean don’t drive on the road.  It simply means the going is a bit tough!  Today was a fine example of that as the road was being built and with all the flooding was one big mud bath.  I gave up with my shoes in the end and simply walked through the ‘road’ bare foot.  I felt so sorry for the driver. My muddy feet were nothing compared to the amount of mud he was wearing!  With lots of coaxing, eventually the trike made it and we were on our way!   With the added adventure thrown in this had been a great day.

Bogged!

Bogged!

The lack of diving ending up being good as it forced us to do something different.  We then took a bus back into Legazpi and went out on ATV (quad) bikes to see the Mt Mayon active volcano.  We rode our bikes up and you could see the lava flows from the last major eruption less than ten years ago.  Whilst we saw some of the volcano unfortunately we were not so lucky to see the top of it on the day we were there.  Like a lot of days it was hidden rather mystically in cloud, but we still had an amazing time.  We returned in time to do a rather unusual activity – fire fly watching!  We boarded a boat and headed out to see these fascinating flies.  As part of their mating rituals their bums light up into what can only be described as a spectacular display.  They were gathered in trees along the banks of the river and they just looked like a fibre-optic Christmas trees.  We were surprised at how much we loved them!  When one landed up my arm I was enthralled with it.  They were amazing!

Making our way up to the volcano

Making our way up to the volcano

Now for the last part of our trip we had planned to slowly make our way back up to Manila, but that was before we heard about the majestic Thresher Sharks.  This species of sharks tend to be deep dwellers, in waters up to 500m.  We had heard that divers could see them in the waters off the Island of Malapascua.  This was the only place in the World where they come shallow enough to dive with them.  A simple google search revealed an image that we wanted to see.  That was it.  We changed our plans and set off on a mammoth travel day full of cancelled flights, missed flights, delayed planes, stressful encounters…. But it was all worth it.  14 hours later we arrived on our small part of paradise.  Malapascua Island, one of nature’s hidden secrets.

 

Dawn on a dive boat - does life get any better?

Dawn on a dive boat – does life get any better?

Now it’s worth saying that whilst the waters were not the clearest, we saw some of the most interesting creatures of my whole diving career.  Evolution dive centre had been recommended to us, and their dive guides Alex and Gino were simply outstanding.  These local dive guides not only had a responsible head on their shoulders but they had incredible eyes.  They spotted things from the tiniest Orang Utan crab (which in reality looked a bit like algae!) to bamboo sharks, wacky frog fish and exotic Nudi Branches.

With Alex and Gino

With Gino and Alex

The variety of fish and were simply amazing, but the highlight definitely were the Thresher Sharks.  We dived to ‘their’ dive site twice, and were not disappointed both days.  For me the most special moment was when I was watching an Eagle Ray get a bit flustered, all of a sudden I looked up and saw a big Thresher lazily swimming past!  They grow up to about 3m in size and have this most incredible tail fin.  Their big eyes are a real feature of the species and they look almost surprised to see you!  I have said it before, but I will say it again.  This was a sight that we felt very honoured to experience and was just a fantastic end.

Thresher Sharks

Thresher Sharks

 

On our dive boat

On our dive boat

All too soon our diving adventure was over and we were preparing to pack all of our belongings.  Whilst we didn’t want to come home, it was getting a little tiring carrying too much stuff (we still had all our cold weather -25 degree gear as well as a newly acquired wooden shark names ‘Clark’!).

 

What a trip, what an end!

What a trip, what an end!

As we boarded our 14 hour flight from Manila reality hit.  We were heading back to where it all began and it was very sad.  The journey had been an immense one, where we felt like we had achieved so much.  Not only that but we have had a lot of fun, have lots of memories and lots of stories to tell.  One thing was for sure though.  This was not a goodbye for the Philippines, simply a ‘see you later – we’ll be back’.  Next time diving the wrecks in Palawan awaits…..

–           Natalie

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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

 

Birthdays on the road

For me, celebrating a birthday on the road is always exciting.  It gives you the opportunity to celebrate with old friends and new as well as doing something different.  In 2006 I went out to dive the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand followed by celebrations at my hostel.  Then in 2010 I was lucky enough to celebrate by bungee jumping off the bridge in Victoria Falls (some would definitely say it was lucky given reports in subsequent years of what happened to one unfortunate jumper who thankfully survived), followed by dinner at a restaurant serving all sorts of different game meat.  Definitely not something I would have done in London!

Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge

Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge

For my 30th we spent the day driving down the Florida Keys in a convertible Mustang, so I have been lucky to have done some memorable things to celebrate.

Me and our wheels on my 30th

Me and our wheels on my 30th

January Birthdays in the UK are often met with little enthusiasm.  It’s just after Christmas, its cold, dark (and at the moment very wet) so outdoor parties are a no no.  I personally love having a birthday in January.  For me it’s the best month of the year!  Growing up I had some great swimming, bowling, ice skating, you name it parties so it’s always been a fun day for me and a day I look forward to.  Dean laughs, as for me it is a three day event.  Much like Christmas there is Birthday Eve, actual Birthday and then Birthday Boxing Day.  So this is being posted on Birthday Boxing Day – at the tail end of the celebrations.  The only problem with this Birthday malarkey is the rising age number, but there is not much I can do about that!

Dean feels a little left out, as his Birthday always falls during one of his busiest months of work, so he is often away.  I remind him though that I have tended to come out to see him so it’s not all that bad!!  Arguably his Birthdays are maybe more fun for me than him!

On January 14th 2014 we were in Kathmandu.  It doesn’t take much to work out that this is near Mt Everest.  Even though we had seen the mighty mountain on our drive along the Friendship Highway, we hadn’t flown over it.  The idea of a Mountain Flight had hatched as we drove to the station in London to leave home.  It was an idea that had stuck.  Mum and Dad had said they would treat me as a Birthday pressie so we booked the flight and eagerly awaited it.

We had a bit of a nervous wait as on the morning of the 14th Kathmandu was shrouded in fog…. However at 10.30 we got the nod and we led out onto the tarmac.  From that moment on I was treated like Royalty.  The small 16 seater plane took off with all its passengers having full view into the cockpit – a treat in itself.  Knowing it was my Birthday the cabin attendant spent extra time pointing out mountains to me, and the Captain wished me happy birthday over the speaker system three times!  We took it in turns to go into the cockpit to take pictures.  My turn came just as we approached Everest and made a U-turn.  She was there in full view and was amazing!  After this I tucked into the cake that had been made especially for me.  The Himalayan Mountain range was just incredible.

Mt Everest.  This doesn't do it justice as pictures don't capture how blue the sky was!

Mt Everest. This doesn’t do it justice as pictures don’t capture how blue the sky was!

This one is for you Mum - me and el Capitan!

This one is for you Mum – me and el Capitan!

Birthday cake by Everest

Birthday cake by Everest

Cake really was the theme of the day as we came back to our room to find yet another one there!  Yum!  The rest of the day was spent catching up with friends and family (including a FaceTime chat with my friend and her new new baby), a bit of exploration and a special dinner with my husband.

First steak of the trip.  I'm hoping the next one will be in Oz as my Mother-in-Law cooks the best Filet steaks!

First steak of the trip. I’m hoping the next one will be in Oz as my Mother-in-Law cooks a great steak!

It was an amazing day and one I will never forget.  Dean spoilt me with several pressies during the week all in the name of my Birthday.  A coffee table (don’t ask!), trousers, top, CD, prayer wheel, buff, bag to name but a few!

As for Birthday Boxing Day…. we learnt how to make ‘Momo’.  A kind of dumping made all over this part of the World.  It was an excellent cooking course and something a bit different!

Highlights of our cookery course

Highlights of our cookery course

Smart cooking

Smart cooking

Then we headed out to do some more sight-seeing, including seeing the biggest Stupa in the region.  Quite fitting really as it was where all the traders used to stop and pray before making the arduous journey to Lhasa through Tibet.

I really don’t think I can find a way to stretch my Birthday over four days… if anyone has any ideas then let me know!  Thank you to all of you for your messages and comments.

–          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

Thank you for your support

After the most amazing time in Mongolia (more about that in the blog to follow) we are really sad to leave this special place, but are looking forward to boarding our train to Beijing in the morning.  Internet access is likely to be a bit more ‘few and far’ between, and social media quite restricted, so we wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you!

Sending stories back about our trip has been different for us this time round.  In the past we have sent big round-robin emails, but this time we thought we would blog and see how that went.

I have heard numerous comments from people in the past (not always positive!) about people always putting things on Facebook and Twitter about their travels, so we thought the best thing to do would be to start up ‘The Smart Way Round’ Facebook page.  We invited all of our friends to ‘like’ the page, that way people could either opt in or out of our travel updates.  At the time it all felt rather self-indulgent and like we were promoting ourselves which was not the way it was intended at all!  In short, we were blown away with the response we got so maybe more people are interested in our travels than we first believed!

So above all this is just a big THANK YOU for your support both before and during our journey.  We will continue to post blogs were we can, although it may not be possible to post these on Facebook.  You can always sign up for email updates via ‘The Smart Way Round’ blog page, or alternatively we will be back on Social Media as soon as possible (Dean can’t be parted with Twitter for too long)!

For now, thank you and see you in China (you better pinch me as it doesn’t seem possible)!

– Natalie