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 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


The Sweeney Todd of Kathmandu

Sweeney Todd of Kathmandu I love not shaving. I associate being clean shaven with work so when we travel I tend to ‘forget’ the razor. Sadly in recent times the beard has developed a rather nasty grey streak, to which I like to blame on Natalie and she likes to blame on Trafalgar! The beard was also a major fascination for many locals through China and Tibet. People would stop and stare or point at it and smile. For some reasons many Chinese assumed I was from Spain because of the beard and I was constantly greeted with “Hola Amigo!”. The highlight came when we visited the Summer Palace in Lhasa Tibet, where one little boy was in awe of the mighty testosterone fuelled shaggy beard. We let him touch it and he screwed up his face and ran off!

Do I like it....

Do I like it….

... I'm not sure!

… I’m not sure!

I don’t know exactly when I mentioned it, whether it was after a few vodkas on the Trans Siberian or when I was suffering from a chilli induced brain meltdown somewhere in China but I had promised Natalie I would shave it off for her birthday, and she never let me forget that promise!

Fast forward to Kathmandu and as we walked down one of the Thamel district streets we saw numerous hole in the wall barber shops. As we approached the third or fourth one Natalie suggested that if I was going to shave, now could be the opportunity, and we decided if anything else it would be an experience. This is where we met the Kathmandu Sweeney Todd.

Should have heeded the warning signs

Should have heeded the warning signs

Wearing a blue balaclava ( this should have set off warning signs immediately) he left his client sitting in a chair with a half finished “do” as we discussed, haggled and agreed fora haircut and shave for the equivalent of about three British pounds. Lets be honest I don’t exactly have the fullest head of hair and anything more than that would have been a little excessive. We waited for him to finish with his current client with both of them telling us, “one minute, one I minute” and then I was subjected to one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable and probably most unhygienic experiences of my life. I had already put my body on the line for The Smart Way Round with the ear cleaning incident but this was a whole new level.

Let’s set the scene, the barbershop, if we can call it that, was little more than about two meters wide, the walls were covered in a mixture of mildew, mould, dirt and car exhaust fumes, in fact it reminded me of the setting of the horror movie “Hostel”! Sweeney Todd then grabbed a pair of clippers that still had hair from his last victim on them and proceeded to do a fairly decent job of shaving my head. My biggest concern was the smell of his hands, let’s just say I’m not really sure when he may have last washed them, I think you get the picture!

The head shave was followed by a shave of the beard, a rather traumatic experience for me and one probably met with some joy by Natalie. So after about ten minutes that felt like a lifetime I thought my ordeal was over, but then he started massaging my head! Headlocks, twists, earlobe pulls some random clicking thing started to make me more and more uncomfortable, he then started on my neck and shoulders.

This was followed by twisting my arms in a manor where I thought I was being arrested and my shoulder was about to pop out its socket before Sweeney then yanked and cracked every finger, even the one I broke just over a year ago that has never healed properly!

This was supposed to be a haircut....

This was supposed to be a haircut….

Before Natalie knew what was going on she was also subject to a massage by Sweeney’s mad assistant. Natalie had hurt her neck somehow in Tibet and all I could think was I hope she was ok. As it turned out the impromptu massage actually fixed her neck!

Thankfully the ordeal came to an end and all of a sudden Sweeney Todd could no longer speak English, all he could do was give a sinister evil laugh ( I may be exaggerating here) and write down that we now owed him three times the agreed amount! Sweeney and the mad assistant just looked at us and laughed pointing to the figure. We said no, threw them slightly more than we agreed upon and left feeling slightly violated a little dirty, but sporting a fresh daper new look and a fixed neck for Natalie. We made a B-line for the hotel and once safely in our room Natalie (my normal hairdresser) grabbed some scissors and took care of all the bits Sweeney Todd missed.

Me, Sweeney Todd and the mad assistant

Me, Sweeney Todd and the mad assistant

Finishing off 'the do'

Finishing off ‘the do’

While it does feel great to be cleaned up a bit I do miss the beard, but as we are still only half way to Australia it should be back in all it’s grey flowing form by the 1st of March. If I learnt anything from this experience it is next time, Natalie can put her body on the line for TheSmart Way Round!

– (the new look) Dean

Chapter Five – Breathtaking Tibet.

Tibet.  A region of the World that sparks so much passion, support, angst, anger, controversy… I could go on.  The history here is so recent, and most people are aware that currently it is not a Country in its own right – rather a region controversially under Chinese rule.  Before I start, I should add that this is probably the most difficult of all the blogs we have written.  Not because of our experiences (in fact it is one of our favourite regions to date) but more that we didn’t want to say or write the wrong thing as the situation in the whole area is so delicate.  We did the ‘paper, rock, scissors’ as to who would write it – and you got me!

There really are two trains of thought about visiting Tibet.  Some people firmly think that you shouldn’t go, for fear of supporting the Chinese regime, thus boycotting for Political reasons.  Others think you should go to support the local people and learn more about their culture, which is incredibly different to that of the Chinese.  We chose the latter – choosing to support the locals and make our own mind up.  Even this decision of ours was met with some negative re-tweets of some of our Twitter posts – proving how emotive this region is.  There is so much to say about the political situation, but that’s not what this blog is about.  Slowly (actually very quickly) Chinese development is encroaching on the traditional Tibetan ways, and for us it was a privilege to visit and see things as they are now.  Leaving the politics aside, this is a land of big skies, beautiful landscapes and incredibly incredibly warm hearted people.  So this is our account of a beautiful part of the World.

You will already have read Dean’s tales of travelling to Tibet by high altitude train.  It had been nail-biting waiting to get our permits.  Currently Chines rules state that you must travel through the region ‘in a group’, ‘with a guide’ and ‘with a permit’.  We might have been a group of two, but that still counted!  So as we got off the train, we were met by our guide Tashi.  Tashi was, quite simply, one of the best local guides we have ever had.  He greeted us with welcome scarves and pressies and settled us in.  We knew instantly it was going to be a good ten days.

We spent the first four days acclimatising in Lhasa.  At well over 3000m its high and an assault on all your senses!  Whilst the air was thin we were rewarded with amazing BIG blue skies.  There was plenty to do in Lhasa so it really was no hardship to be there.  On day one we headed out to the Jokhang Temple.  This is the key central site in Lhasa, and the site of great pilgrimage for Tibet’s largely Buddhist population.  As it was winter time we were assured it was a great time to see the Pilgrims as they had travelled far and wide to be there (something that they don’t do as much in summer as they are busy with their farms).  Together, day and night, they walk several ‘Kora’ (circuits) around various sites and religious buildings in the city.  The Kora around Jokhang Temple was just over 1km long and fascinating.  As soon as you walked up to it you couldn’t help but join in, and before you knew it, you had walked several circumnavigations of the site with the locals!!!  Tashi took us into the temple.  On the way in he explained what all the people were doing outside.  Quite simply it appeared like they were repeatedly throwing themselves on the ground.  This practice of ‘prostrating’ is a form of prayer, and is done repeatedly and really showed their dedication to their religion.   Later on we would even see pilgrims prostrating alongside the road, all the way from a-b on journeys that would take up to a year.  That really is dedication!  Most of the people we saw outside would do this all day.  Like all the Temples we saw, Jokhang was quite fascinating inside as well as our and was very powerful, with the many images of Buddha.  What struck me, and was almost moving, was to see the locals queuing for hours on end to make their offerings of money, barley, and most importantly yak butter milk (poured into big candle like vats that burnt away silently).  Although Tashi said in Buddhism you are not supposed to have favorites, mine was clearly the Compassionate Buddha.  An image that I started recognising everywhere!

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The next day took us out to the World famous Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama.  Many hope and pray he will one day return, but for now he lives in India.  The Palace visit was the first time we had really exerted ourselves.  It involved climbing 13 floors up over uneven steps but we were rewarded with fabulous views.  This doesn’t sound much but at over 3000m it makes you feel very unfit!!  The many rooms in the Palace were well worth the effort and it was just such a wonderful building.  Like with the Jokhang Palace the day before, perhaps the best bit of the experience was getting out and in with the locals and seeming them on their pilgrim trail making their offerings.  There were so few tourists there, it felt like a real privilege to be part of their experience.

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

The third and four days were spent exploring other temples.  I won’t go into every one as you will be asleep, but needless to say we had our first experience of crossing a high mountain pass.  Here it is traditional to hang prayer flags over the road.  As we crossed underneath the red, blue, white, yellow and green flags flapped in the breeze, bringing luck and fortune to all those who had strung them and protecting those who passed beneath.  They were to become a familiar site and one we would never tire of.  In fact we even have some to bring home!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Soon it was time to leave the city.  With Sonamdorje (or Dorje for short) at the wheel, Tashi, Dean and I were in safe hands!  We headed out of the city and started our journey along the famous Friendship Highway – last stop the Nepalese border.  What a journey it was going to be.  We were greeted with one of the highlights of the trip – views over Yamdrok-tso Lake – which translates into ‘Turquoise Lake’.  The colour of it was certainly that and it was just stunning.  We first saw it as we went over the mountain pass, but we then dropped down and followed it round, even dipping a finger in at one point.  Sorry Mum – I didn’t paddle as it was freezing (and it’s sacred so no swimming allowed)!!

Yamdrak-tso Lake - stunning

Yamdrok-tso Lake – stunning

The next few days were spent visiting several temples and sites in Shigatse, Gyantse and the surrounding areas.  Each and every one was different and we didn’t once tire or get ‘templed out’.  Each had their own appeal and style and between us we have some amazing photos.  In Gyantse we visited one called the Gyantse Kumbum which is very like some temples that are found in Nepal (with the eyes) so it was a nice introduction.  After that we took a wander through the back streets of old town Gyantse, where you find the best examples of traditional Tibetan life.  Again the generosity of the people shone through as one man invited us into his home to have a look around.  It was fascinating, but we didn’t dare look round the corner where the goat heads were hung!  We then carried on walking down the street, dodging the ‘doggy bombs’ on the floor and walking past the cattle ‘parked’ outside each resident’s house.  The style of the houses was beautiful, and even though it was dirty in parts, it had such character.  On our journey we also went to Samding Monastery – a nunnery on the banks of Yamdrok-tso Lake (the Turquoise Lake).  The ladies were busy at work and I would argue it was cleaner J  Nuns and Monks are on the same level in Buddhism, they just can’t stay together.  If I had to be a Nun then I would pick there!

Now when you travel for any great length of time, there has to be ups and downs.  We have loved travelling in winter.  It has been cold, but largely we have been rewarded by being one of few tourists in the area.  However we were about to stumble across our first big disappointment and downside of travel through the region at this time of year.  We had heard that Everest Base Camp (on the Tibetan side) was closed, however the Government had granted us access on our main permit, so we were hopeful we could get there.  In Tibet, to travel you don’t just need one permit, you need many!  When we were 90km from Everest Tashi and Dorje went off to apply for the necessary main Base Camp permit which had to be done locally.  We were all geared up to go when there was a knock on the door.  Tashi telling us that sadly it was indeed all closed and there was nothing he or the company could do to get us there.  There simply weren’t the Chinese guards on the checkpoints, and as we had learnt checkpoints are everywhere and there is no way through them except with the right paperwork.  It was disappointing but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had at least seen Everest from a distance that day, which was better than nothing.  Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t work out as planned but that night it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.  It has made us vow to come back sooner rather than later to trek to Base Camp on the Nepali side (and maybe visit Tibet again!).

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

We picked ourselves up and enjoyed the rest of the journey.  Throughout the trip we had, for a large part of the time, felt like we were driving on top of the World.  There were mountain ranges (both snow-capped and incredibly dry) for most of the time, even surrounding the cities.  Tashi duly pointed them out and gave us manageable amounts of history and information.  Meanwhile Dorje gave us two of his CDs as we loved them.  Tibetan generosity at its best.  As I’ve said before (but it’s worth mentioning again!) the Tibetan skies were just so huge.  You could almost see the curvature of the Earth! We loved watching the view change out of the window and the last day was no exception.  We stopped at the top of a pass over 5000m and then slowly descended down a zig zag of switchbacks and passes.  Slowly the trees began to appear again.  We felt less and less like we were in Tibet, but were excited about our next adventure.

There is a wonderful quote by Mother Theresa, “Peace begins with a smile” and the Tibetan people sure know the meaning of this.  We were a fascination everywhere we went.  People looked at us inquisitively, and then we simply had to say ‘Tashi Dalek’ (hello) and they would break into this almighty grin.  They were so pleased to welcome us and this made the decision to come all the more worthwhile.  There is a sadness that extends over the Tibetans, but underneath they are such beautiful people and we fell so lucky to have visited now.

I have never ever had a guide that has made me feel so privileged to be able to travel.  Current Chinese Policy states that Tashi, as a Lhasa resident, has to wait until he is 60 before he can even apply for a Chinese passport and even travel within China (without passport) is severely limited with lots of clauses and restrictions.  It’s just the way it is, but he was so very well read and versed on other Countries in the World.  There we were travelling the World and our wonderful guide isn’t even able to travel freely within China, never mind venture out into the big wide World that he is so desperate to explore.  There is nothing more humbling than that.  One of those moments that makes you feel very lucky to have been born where we were.

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

Tibet – you are simply amazing.  Thank you.

–  Natalie

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border

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

Chapter Two: Irkutsk – Beijing (Including Magnificent Mongolia where it snows glitter from the sky)

* Please excuse any funky formatting and lack of pictures. It appears that WordPress is also on the ‘hit list’ of banned sites in China. However the app (with very limited functionality) appears to be working on my phone, but only with basic text. We are still managing to put pictures up via Instagram which should be linked to our Facebook / Twitter page – we will not be stopped!! Enjoy the next installment and sorry if it looks funky we can’t check it! N&D

After our amazing journey from Moscow (which Dean wrote about in his previous blog), we jumped off the train in Irkutsk and immediately reached for another layer! We had a few nights here to see the sights as well as get out to Lake Baikal. The city was apparently experiencing some unseasonably ‘warm’ weather which meant the ice and snow melted by day, and froze at night! Not falling over was the name of the game – one that I seemed to do better at than Dean! The main square was gearing up for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics next year, and had winter sports themed ice sculptures everywhere which I was very taken by!! The architecture in the city was great and we stumbled across these tourist walking route boards and read everyone with great enthusiasm!

We headed out to Lake Baikal and it was beautiful. We were there in a bit of an in-between season – summer activities had finished and winter ones were yet to start, so we just spent time walking around in the beautiful snow taking in the stunning views. It really was a tranquil, attractive place.

From there we jumped on the train again and tracked the edge of the Lake to Ulan Ude. Most people on the Trans-Siberian train do this leg of the journey at night, but Dean had read how pretty it was, and so had sought out a local train so we could do it during daylight hours. The water from the Lake was almost lapping at the train lines, so it was a beautiful few hours.

I think one of the highlights of the train journey came for Dean in Ulan Ude. Here there is a giant 7m high ‘bust’ (head) of Lenin. We were prepared to be either over or underwhelmed, but thankfully he was very impressive and we were so glad we had stopped. Russians think it is testament to the greatness of the man that the pigeons don’t poo on him…. the cynics say it is all down to the bird spikes sunk into the top of his head out of view that keep them at bay 😉 Throughout Russia and Mongolia we saw many many ‘Christmas’ trees – however for the local people these are put up to celebrate New Year and not our festive season. I appreciated them though for Christmas as well! As well as trees and lights, in Ulan Ude we were again treated to some ice carvings – quite the thing here. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was here that we felt the coldest but it was well worth it.

What came next was magnificent Mongolia – not only a trip highlight but also a huge country highlight for both of us which is really saying something! Such a special special place it is hard to put into words our time here. Due to visa restrictions and there only being one train a week between Ulaanbaator (UB) and Beijing, we were limited to one week here, and what a week it was. At over six times the size of the UK but with a population of approximately three million (and over half of them live in UB) it certainly lived up to its reputation for being remote in parts.

We had a couple of days in UB where we explored from one side of the city to the other – literally when it turned out there were two bus number 7’s!!! We met a lovely couple of local guys who pointed us in the right direction. The following morning we headed out to the Gandan Khild Monastery and had our first experience of the monks chanting – so relaxing. Keen to see as much as possible we then arranged to have a driver and guide from the Hostel for a few days to take us out to the countryside. We piled into our old Russian Combi van and spluttered our way out to the Hustai National Park, where we went out to spot some of the Przewalski wild horses. Originally native to Mongolia, they became extinct several years ago, but 15 creatures were reintroduced from ones held previously in zoos around the world, and it has been very successful as there are now over 300 in the wild. We trekked up hill to see them and they were stunning. It was here that I turned round to face the sun, and with the backdrop of a clear blue sky, the sun was catching the snow particles that were being blown into the air and it really did look like it was raining glitter – beautiful.

We drove on and veering off the road onto a barely marked track on the edge of the Semi Gobi sand dunes the adventure really began. We kept driving and driving in land, before eventually a couple of Gers came into view. These belonged to Bor and Yandag – a nomadic couple, who lived off the land and moved twice a year from their winter site to their summer and vice versa. This would be our base for a couple of days and we both agreed it was the most authentic family homestay we had experienced – it was just awesome. We were welcomed into the Ger and given hot milky tea (the thing to drink in Mongolia). Soon after we went out horse trekking to see the sunset and it was the most at ease I have felt on a horse for a long time. Mongolian horses have smaller legs – so maybe it was just that I didn’t have as far to fall that gave me some sort of comfort!!! Dean on the other hand was not so keen, as he puts it “horses are dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle,” a quote he stole from a movie! That night Dean took some amazing night photos and we had flash backs to our nights ‘bush Camping’ on our Oasis Overland – only this time it was a bit nippy at night!! We wiled away the hours in the evening playing ‘Ankles’ with Yandag who seemed to have a genuine desire to not let her guests win any game! She had such a beautiful smile despite living such a simple yet hard life. Ankles was a game I quickly grew to love… however it has to be seen to be understood and my new found ‘set’ will soon be winging their way home to join the rest of the traveller tat!! ‘Ankles’ are various games of chance played with sheep ankle bones. Each side of the bone represents a different animal and the general idea is to throw certain matching combinations.

The following day we headed out to Kharkhorin City to visit a Monastery. After a day’s touring, we arrived back at camp and this time headed off on the back of Camels Lawrence of errrr Arabia style! They were huge woolly two-humped beasts and they quickly became Dean’s favourites! Unfortunately by this stage my stomach had taken a turn for the worst, so I was treated to several late night treks to the ‘facilities’. These ‘facilities’ were located 30 meters away from the Ger, and we were reminded of the golden rule of loos abroad – don’t look down!! Seeing Orion’s Belt shining so brightly in the night sky will always remind me of this special place. Staying with this family far far exceeded our expectations. There were no big tour groups there… just us. And them. Communicating in the only way we could. Words can’t describe it – we were very privileged to have been there.

We headed on back towards and past UB and went out to more of a tourist guesthouse Ger stay in Terelj National Park. The landscape changed completely and we were greeted with the rugged sights of the harsh mountain landscapes. There were a couple of puppies and I utterly fell in love with one of them – he kept shivering in the cold and so I was helping out by picking him up (although we later learnt that Pedro was indeed a Pedra!!). He would have come with us if he could…. We headed out to visit another monastery here (no we are not bored of them yet!) and then the jewel in the Crown came for Dean – a visit to the massive Chingiss Khaan Statue. Completed three years ago at a cost of 4.1millions Dollars, this 41m high stainless steel statue is immense and matches the feeling towards the great man. Most excitingly for Dean, for a small price you could go up his tail(!) and pop out on the top of his head! From there you could see the never-ending Mongolian skyline that we had become so accustomed to and loved so much. 360 degree of pure sky – we were on top of the World.

And so it was time to head back to UB after not only one of the best weeks of our trip so far, but one of my all-time best travel weeks. For us, the World is too big to keep going back to the same place and there are few places that we visit that we vow to come back to, but Mongolia is one of them. There is so much to see and do and the people are so beautiful that it is hard not to be touched by the place. We didn’t freeze, instead we found it to be quite mild… maybe we have just become accustomed to – double figures. What’s -10 degrees between friends?

I remember very vividly Anastasia, the receptionist at our St Petersburg hotel looking out of the window at the grey weather and saying very passionately and forcefully (over and over and over), “why would you want to take the train now, I mean why – look at it its grey it murky its dirty? Why would you do it now, why?” Dean could see me cringing thinking “it’s time to be quiet now…” but we have our answer. For me and for us (yes we are getting on super well despite the jokes from some people before we went that we might not!!!) this could not have been a more perfect time to come. Yes the odd thing has been closed, and yes the hours of daylight are shorter and it been cold, however we have been treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery, much of which has been covered in beautiful white winter wonderland snow. Who could ask for more? A perfect scene has greeted us and we have loved every second. Winter in Siberia and Mongolia is amazing. As one of Dean’s good friends said, if you come prepared you will love it and we did.

So our last journey on the Trans Mongolian route took 30 hours and took us between UB and Beijing. It was sad in many ways to be completing this journey and both of us are still slightly in disbelief about how far we have come! Rather than two Chinese or Mongolian cabin buddies, we were faced with one very nice Chilean guy and an Italian who showed little interest in anything other than sleeping and looking at my chest – oblivious to the fact that Dean was here and I was scowling at him in disgust!! Fortunately the views out of the window as we crossed the Gobi Desert more than made up for our lack of ‘local’ companions and with mixed emotions we pulled into Beijing raring to go with the next stage of our adventure.

– Natalie