A Travellerspoint blog

And no you can't see it from outer space (China)

A tour of China and Hong Kong

sunny 36 °C
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Beijing in 1989 was in a small way the inspiration behind taking this trip. Not so much because of the student uprising that took place and the subsequent events that unfolded in and around Tiananmen Square at the time but because we, had our own circumstances permitted, could easily have been in Beijing at that very time. With my parents posted to Beijing in the Foreign Office the opportunity was certainly there, had it not been for the birth of our second child. So China was sort of unfinished business.

London to Shanghai is just short of 10,000 kilometres and eleven hours flying time from Heathrow to Pu Dong. The much modernised Shanghai was our starting point on a tour of China which would end in Hong Kong.

China&HK2016 (1)

China&HK2016 (1)

Our first real sight of the city after landing took us to the waterfront with its modern and futuristic buildings on one side of the Huangpu River and the old and more traditional Bund on the other. We took a harbour cruise that evening which was a great way to start to see it. It’s slightly chaotic as you would expect and the inability of the Chinese to queue for anything was something that we would have to come to terms with over the next 19 days; hopefully without causing an international incident. Anyway, tickets bought and place secured on the boat we enjoyed an hour watching the multi-coloured lights of Shanghai dance around the buildings as if showing off its latest outfit.

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China&HK2016 (20)

We spent time walking the promenade on the Bund side of the river the following day. The sun had ramped the temperature up to around 35 degrees and, with humidity being high, China in August was clearly going to be a challenge and it didn’t take long for us to instinctively seek out any shade.

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China&HK2016 (34)

Shanghai is an exciting city and, away from the waterfront, Nanjing Road in the traditional old town, with its ancient Hu Xin Ting Teahouse, and the classic Yu Yuan Gardens is the place to shop. We also saw the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple, just about the only place that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in the entire three weeks.

Just outside the city is a town called Suzhou, well known for its gardens. This beautiful 2,500-year-old city is famous for its landscaped gardens, narrow channels and traditional Chinese architecture. Built on a network of interlocking canals, Suzhou's waters feed the series of classical gardens. These date back as far as the 10th century, and have been restored to their former glory with a few listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On route from Shanghai to Suzhou our coach was trundling along quite happily when an alarm sounded inside the bus. The problem turned out to be an air-con failure. Beyond swift roadside repair, we waited patiently in whatever shade we could find while a new coach was sent to pick us up and complete the remaining 35 or 40 minutes driving to Suzhou.

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China&HK2016 (67)

We eventually visited both the ‘Lingering Garden’ and the ‘Humble Administrators Garden’, both very classically oriental with ornate walkways, bridges, ponds and Lotus flowers being a feature. In between the gardens we took a trip on the local canal which gave us our first real sight of everyday life in China. Modest canal side houses with small extensions or terraces on the back which teetered on bamboo stilts overhanging the canal, many decorated with plants and Chinese lanterns but which failed to disguise the damp looking walls on each of the properties. It was an interesting insight and in stark contrast, just one road back, was a very smart-looking commercial shopping street visible between some of the houses that could have been a part of any city in the UK.

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China&HK2016 (76)

Back in Shanghai we went out for dinner. So far the food had been very good although very much a case of “what would you like with your sticky rice today??” Green or Jasmine Tea were also regularly on the agenda with beer offered rather than wine.

From Shanghai we took a short flight to Wuhan before catching a train to Yichang where we would board a boat for our 4 days and nights of cruising on the Yangtse River. We took an upgrade on the boat which gave us a cabin on the Promenade Deck, all our meals in the Executive Dining Room, free soft drinks, tea and coffee throughout the day and a free happy hour every evening. It turned out to be well worth it.

The cruise from Yichang to Chongqing routed us through the massive Three Gorges Dam project. On board, there were all kinds of presentations including Chinese medicine, Mah Jong, Acupuncture, Snuff Bottle Painting and Tai Chi to name a few while in the evenings there were cultural fashion and dance shows all included. It was all good fun and added to the variety of the trip. It’s typical “confined living’ as you would expect on a river cruise but for sleeping and the occasional use of the balcony the space in the cabin was fine. The gorges themselves, namely Xiling Gorge, Wuxia and Qutang make for some lovely scenery and we were lucky with the weather. Along the way we stopped at Badong, took a ride up the Shennong Stream tributary, and visited the Shibaozhai Pagoda and Temple.

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China&HK2016 (84)

We docked at Badong and those of us that didn’t choose to take the optional excursion had time to wander into the town and explore a little. It was more a village than a town and while it didn’t look or feel like the most prosperous of places to live there was evidence of work going on to smarten the place up, especially riverside where a new walk was being laid which would link the village and the piers by way of steps up from the river to an adjoining square and then up further to the main high street. It was an overcast day which took some of the ferocity of the sun away and eventually the first drops of rain were felt. We continued our walk through the village a bit further and found a small local market where fruit, vegetables, rice and more general household goods were being sold and where a shopkeeper was making tofu which was then transported around the village and surrounding areas on the back of a scooter-cart to be marketed to the locals. The people seemed friendly and certainly weren’t shy of the camera but we couldn’t really go too much further and the rain was getting slightly heavier so we turned and headed back to the boat for the onward journey.

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China&HK2016 (99)

The Shennong Stream is a narrow tributary of the Yangtse for which we transferred on to a smaller boat. It is lovely scenery and after about 45 minutes of cruising we pulled in and climbed numerous steps to reach a small square surrounded by buildings that included a shop, a small museum and a theatre. The theatre was putting on free cultural shows and with one just about to begin we followed the introductory drumbeat, pulled back the tarpaulin-like curtains acting as doors and also screens from the sun and found ourselves at the back of the theatre with standing-room only. It was absolutely boiling in there but was still a preferred option in order to firstly see the show and secondly to be out of the direct sunshine for a while. The show lasted half an hour or so and the various songs told a story which could be followed to an extent with the scenery supplemented by acting at stages right and left as a related sideshow to the singers and musicians but was obviously lost on us as far as the language was concerned.

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China&HK2016 (106)

We also stopped at Shibaozhai and walked up the hill and down through the main street to the ‘Drunken Bridge’ which led to the Shibaozhai Temple. The bridge was safe enough but was constructed using wooden boards on secured cables and this allowed a flexibility so as people walked over the bridge it moved with the pressure of each and everybody’s footsteps creating a wobble underfoot and a few laughs as we struggled across. The pagoda has 12 floors and again the heat made it more challenging but there’s an ‘out’ at the ninth level that most of us took to see the inside of the small temple before going back down via some outside steps. There were some good views from the temple and the bridge with the low level of the estuary being highlighted by a couple of boats stranded on higher, dry ground that would have to now wait for the water level to rise before being capable of floating once again.

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China&HK2016 (115)

Back on the boat, as we exited the third gorge the scenery faded away from the picturesque and imposing mountainside to the flatter and more industrial sights as we approached Chongqing.

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China&HK2016 (158)

Chongqing is China’s largest city, emerging over the past 20 years from a medium sized town to a population of 34 million people. It wouldn’t be top of the list for sight-seeing but was a conduit for us reaching Chengdu and, among other things, seeing the Pandas!! However, before leaving the city we did at least do it some justice by spending some time in Erling Park watching people having their ears cleaned (seriously!), getting massaged and playing Mah Jong (not all at the same time) while we sat, chatted and drank Green Tea. We also saw Chiang Kai Shek’s house and went for a stroll in Qicikou Old Town before continuing the journey by high-speed train to Chengdu.

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China&HK2016 (166)

Chengdu is a tidy city with a newly-modernised feel to it, like much of the China we had so far seen. But our first morning in Chengdu would be spent at the Panda Breeding Centre. On arrival in Chengdu we had been greeted by rain but that was a blessing in disguise as the cooler weather that followed greatly improved our chances of the Pandas spending more time outside of their houses. The Breeding Centre is a fantastic environment for the Pandas – basically a forest of Bamboo and other trees and greenery – with the required medical and care enclosures as the staff work to proliferate the numbers of Pandas in existence. It was a fun morning despite the fighting for space with the over-excited Chinese. The Pandas performed for us and it was great to see them from basically birth through to adult in the different rooms and enclosures.

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China&HK2016 (170)

It was always going to be difficult to top seeing the animals on this particular day but we still had time to have a wander around Jinli Sreet. It’s very commercial but also very colourful and representative of Chinese traditions. Of course there are shops and stalls selling toy pandas and chopsticks but you get the feeling that these would be there even if tourists weren’t permitted. The food and drink outlets are interesting as you rarely see a menu or pricelist in English so it really is a case of point and hope, with the food anyway. We bought a Panda by the way!

Having spent a massive 20 Yuan (£2.40) in Jinli Street we moved on to a local park where we drank more tea - Jasmine Tea this time. Back to the hotel with just enough time to freshen up and eat before going out to the theatre where we had tickets for the Chengdu Face-Changing Show. The show was around ninety minutes of music, comedy, Chinese opera and the Face Changing act; quite challenging at times as you can probably imagine but still good fun and very cultural and colourful PLUS we had more Green Tea!!!!

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China&HK2016 (179)

A good night sleep was needed after a busy couple of days and before we jetted off the following day from Chengdu Airport to Xian. Almost everything, coach breakdown aside, had so far moved along like clockwork but the Chengdu to Xian transfer kind of spoiled things a bit, temporarily. The flight, ours plus a few others to different destinations, had an indefinite delay. With a variable like that it’s difficult to know precisely what the best course of action is but our Tour Manager (who was excellent throughout) gathered as much information as possible and then arranged for us to be checked into a hotel close to the airport and given lunch while we awaited further news. We lost four hours that day but thankfully (a) didn’t have to stay the night in the hotel, and (b) didn’t have to eat any more of their food there. So, all was well. The delay meant that we couldn’t visit the Han Tombs after arriving at Xian as originally planned but a small rescheduling resulted in the visit remaining on the itinerary. Instead, we visited the city walls and, similarly constructed to the Great Wall, it was possible to walk or cycle along the top of the walls if you wanted to. We took a tandem and travelled from the South Gate to the East Gate which took about 25 minutes allowing for a few stops to take some photos as the sun set. It was a fun way to end what had been a disrupted day.

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China&HK2016 (205)

Xian used to be the Capital of China but its international appeal now is really due to the worldwide exposure and acclaim received for the finding of the Terracotta Warriors so, after dinner and a restful night we set off for Li Shan Mountain to see the 6,000 soldiers, horses and chariots found by a farmer digging a well in 1974. For me, whilst it was still great to see and an amazing story, the sight of the Terracotta Warriors probably had less of a visual impact on me than anything else on this trip to the Far East. It was basically everything I expected and had seen in photos and on T.V.; nothing more, nothing less.

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China&HK2016 (212)

From the air-conditioned hangars of the Terracotta Army we made our way back to the city to see the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and also see some Calligraphy. The pagoda is located in a small park/garden and is in the classic style but the idea of climbing to the top simply didn’t appeal at the end of what had been a very hot day in Xian. So, a few photos later we were heading for what turned out to be a lesson in Calligraphy. Under the enthusiastic instruction of our teacher we were all challenged to copy some Chinese characters using the Calligraphy Brush on Rice Paper. There was also a marketing element to the exercise with various artwork and calligraphy on sale including the opportunity to have family or friends names written in calligraphy and taken home as presents, which we did.

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China&HK2016 (208)

We still had the Han Tombs to fit in before we left Xian so it was decided that we would get up an hour earlier the following day and, on the way to the airport for our flight to Beijing, China’s Capital, we would arrive at the tombs as they opened for the day and see the artefacts that had been found. Similar to the Terracotta Army but a more recent find, the Han Tombs revealed numerous smaller but less detailed ceramic figures along with farm animals, carts, cartwheels and pots. It was good to see, especially as we soon realised it was something that we had heard and read about for the first time shortly before we left the UK. So that was Xian, a nice city in my opinion and probably my favourite on the trip. Next stop Beijing!

The Chinese Capital carried an added interest for me as my parents lived and worked in the city for a year back in 1989 so I was keen to see roughly the area where they lived and the location of where they worked. Whether they would recognise much now, 27 years later, is doubtful as the city has developed enormously since then. For example, back in 1989 Beijing had just two Ring Roads. In 2008, when they held the Olympic Games there were four. Today they are finishing off Ring Road number seven! Having said that I am sure that the centre of the city remains largely unchanged.
The weather intervened on arrival in Beijing so our plans were tweaked again and rather than visit the Summer Palace which, by definition, didn’t align with the rain, we diverted to the Temple of Heaven where decent weather mattered less. The approach is made on foot through a neat and tidy park with many trees and ornate covered walkways leading to the steps from which you reach the large circular arena that holds in its centre the Temple of Heaven.

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China&HK2016 (1322)

The surrounding buildings and the temple itself are typically attractive and in keeping with all other similar buildings that we have seen in China. Their use of colour, detail and design is a very attractive aspect of the Chinese culture.

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China&HK2016 (1325)

The Chinese, primarily the women, love an umbrella and, it seems, regardless of the weather. They love an umbrella when it rains and they love an umbrella equally when the sun is out. Personally, I’m the wrong height to be anywhere near one umbrella let alone several hundred. However, it does make for some interesting photographs and that was certainly the case at the Temple of Heaven where the rain hadn’t put any visitors off.
Before heading to the hotel we stopped close to Tiananmen Square in Tiananmen Street to simply spend some time walking one of the main thoroughfares, stopping at shops as we pleased until we reached the top end of the street, nearest the square. Tiananmen Street gave the impression of recent refurbishment with many smart shops and a series of sculptures/statues dotted along the street on both sides depicting various Chinese Trades such as Calligraphy and Paper Making.

The modern architecture in Beijing, like in the other cities, had a touch of Feng Shue about them and none more so than the building shaped like a twisted lowercase “n” that the Chinese refer to as ‘the underpants’.

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China&HK2016 (1354)

I suppose many peoples highlight of a trip to China would be a visit to The Great Wall and I expected it to be one of mine. Whether it would simply be just another of those iconic sights that are exactly as you expect them to be remained to be seen as we left our hotel after breakfast the following day and headed for the Badaling entrance to The Great Wall.

It took us just under a couple of hours to get from the centre of Beijing to Badaling and although we were there early, we weren’t the first – by a long way!!

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China&HK2016 (223)

We were presented with two options; the easy route or the harder route and after thinking about it and looking at the crowds we decided on the harder route which was far less populated and, as pointed out by our Tour Manager, the first three sections on the difficult side weren’t too bad in any case – and as we weren’t contemplating going as far as completing three sections then we should be ok.

It was another hot day but to balance it out a bit the location of the Great Wall, atop the mountain range, attracted a nice breeze which, when coupled with some rare shade, was really welcome during our hour and a half or so on the Wall. So, with the first of the steps in front of us we set off. Varying gradients, inconsistent step heights, uneven cobbles, and people simply ‘getting in the way’ one way or another added to the challenge and the fun. Railings on either side of the wall certainly helped if walking in the middle started to become a struggle. We completed the first section which was our original target but decided to press on as far as we could. There turned out to be a convenient platform, half way up the second section, where an nicely positioned tree on the mountainside also provided the shade required to match with the cooling breeze. We stood there for about twenty minutes before beginning our walk down.

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China&HK2016 (220)

The Great Wall more than met my expectations and despite me having seen many photographs and a lot of video footage of it the sheer size (as far as you could see) coupled with some of the extreme terrain and the gradients, curves and corners that had to be constructed makes it a far more impressive achievement (and sight) than I had given it credit for. Amazing. And here’s a statistic; the complete length of the Great Wall is 500 miles longer than the distance between London and Beijing!

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China&HK2016 (232)

After lunch we headed back towards the city via the Sacred Way (Avenue of Statues). The path, which (like others we have seen on the trip) is slightly curved to fool evil spirits, is lined on either side with willows and carved stone statues of both warriors and animals. It’s the best part of one mile long but is a short respite away from the crowds.

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China&HK2016 (228)

Despite everything that we had so far seen and done there was still a gap or two in our Chinese experience as far as I was concerned. And one of those gaps was to be filled by Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City on the following day.

1989 sticks in the memory for me not just because of the iconic photograph of the student and the tank but for the fact that my parents were working for the UK Government at the time and, along with others, suffered several days of angst while safe passage to Beijing Airport was negotiated, allowing them to fly out to Hong Kong and, as it transpired, never return to China. It was an interesting few days for us and, unable at the time to visit them on post, Beijing felt like unfinished business for me.

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China&HK2016 (246)

Tiananmen Square is huge and in way a little bit soulless with its buildings on each side of the square being so far apart. Tiananmen Tower and the Gate of Heavenly Peace are on the north side of Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China on the east side of the Square, the Great Hall of the People on the west side and Zhengyangmen Gate Tower marking the south end. In its centre, a Monument to the People’s Heroes.

After walking to the centre of the square, past the huge queue that had already formed to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao (Zedong) we proceeded towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace over which Chairman Mao still presides as if still alive and in power. This gate forms the entrance to the Forbidden City. All I can say is that the Chinese public are certainly making up for lost time as this turned out to be as crowded as anywhere we had been in China. At times, our attempt to admire the buildings that house the Imperial Palace was a real test of both temperament and patience but we persisted and prevailed, enjoying the occasion more on reflection than in the moment. It is such a vast area and living in such an environment would have obviously been in extreme contrast to that of the general population. I am glad that we saw it.

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China&HK2016 (258)

Away from the hordes and back on the bus in air conditioned heaven we drove to another part of the city to see the residential alleyways and houses of Old Beijing known as the Hutongs. The best way to see these is on a Bicycle Rickshaw so this is what we did. The calf muscles on our Rickshaw driver were testament to the years of hard graft that had been put in to scrape a living and he must have been hoping for two short and very light people than the one very short and light person plus me that clambered into his Rickshaw that afternoon. Regardless, he drove us through the lanes where we stopped at a family home and were shown around – another insight into regular Chinese living. The owners had a pet Cricket in a tiny cage, a couple of pet birds and three cages containing White fluffy rabbits. I instantly worried more for the future of the rabbits than I did both the birds and the cricket.

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China&HK2016 (288)

Our route back to the hotel took us via the Olympic Stadium (we call it ‘The Birds Nest’; the Chinese call it ‘The Toilet Seat’). It still sits alongside the National Aquatics centre (‘The Water Cube’) but according to locals neither is extensively used any more.

And that was that. We drove past the British Embassy as darkness started to fall and after dinner collapsed into bed ahead of a very early start the following morning and the final ‘independent’ leg of our Far East tour – four nights in Hong Kong.

It is a three hour flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, now almost twenty years under Chinese control but with a further forty years until the former British colony is a fully-fledged member of the People’s Republic of China. It had been an early start but this meant that we had at least half a day still to explore once we had checked into the Harbour Grand on Kowloon. The hotel had a free shuttle-bus that operated in both directions every twenty minutes between the hotel and Tsim Sha Tsui (next to The Peninsula Hotel near to the waterfront and the ferry) and this turned out to be a massive benefit over the four days.

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China&HK2016 (299)

Without any kind of plan for our first few hours we jumped on the Shuttle Bus and headed for the waterfront. We wandered around, got our bearings, skirted around a noisy but passive protest about organ harvesting, researched the Star Ferry and then found a restaurant for some pasta - anything really that didn’t include sticky rice!!!! After that, we enjoyed watching the lights of Hong Kong come on from our hotel room overlooking the harbour.

After breakfast the following day we boarded a minibus for a half day tour of Hong Kong Island. It included the funicular up to The Peak, a boat trip around the floating village in Aberdeen Harbour and a visit to Stanley Market so a few boxes would get firmly ticked as far as Hong Kong is concerned and that would leave the remaining three days to do exactly what we wanted and without any definite plans.
Having said that we had an idea of possibly going to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, Old Hong Kong, Temple Street Market and Lantau Island so we made a conscious effort to get to these places but didn’t know either how or when at this stage.

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China&HK2016 (307)

The view from The Peak is a ‘must see’ and one of those iconic images that are associated with a specific place. Now regarded by many as the richest city in the world nobody can doubt its other claim of having the greatest number of skyscrapers on the planet. It was then a fairly short drive, past Repulse Bay, to Aberdeen Harbour where a combination of Sampans, Junks and Luxury Boats live in close quarters. We took a Sampan ride through the harbour and between the house boats that make up the floating village, home to thousands. As a backdrop to the harbour, the high rise ‘Pigeon Houses’ stand imposingly as evidence of the extent of the confined living that exists in this part of the world.

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China&HK2016 (314)

By way of their behaviours the people of Hong Kong place themselves somewhere between those of China (with its strict discipline) and the UK (with its democratic freedom). Not that surprising really as the former British colony is almost 20 years into a 60 year transition from British governorship to total Chinese control. It will be interesting how the next forty years pans out, both in Hong Kong and on mainland China where surely there will be some ‘give’ as well as ‘take’.

Free from the organised touring we were now on ‘free time’ so needed to decide our next move. We made a decision over lunch to buy an ‘Octopus Card’ (similar to London’s Oyster Card) and immediately tested it by using the Underground to get over to Hong Kong Island and the area there which is typically ‘Old’ Hong Kong. And it does have a different feel to it - with its market stalls selling antiques, the narrow streets, older traditional trades, colourful shop fronts and advertising extended in competition with one another over and above the road. We wandered around Hollywood Road and its adjoining streets and alleys taking photos while at the same time looking for the Buddhist Man Mo Temple.

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China&HK2016 (322)

The temple was a good find with so much colour inside being enhanced to the extreme by strong beams of sunlight arrowing diagonally through the interior but the influence of Buddhism certainly felt stronger in China than it did in Hong Kong which given its history is probably not that surprising.
Leaving the temple we made our way back down in a general direction of where we felt we had arrived on the Underground. Along the way there were numerous market stalls, many selling antiques, some selling posters of Mao and copies of his Little Red Book and others trading more general items. We also came upon a really nice Coffee Shop called The Roaster (not a Starbucks!! Yippee!!) being run by a couple of local girls who took great pride in their work and the quality of what they were offering (and rightly proud of the press reviews that had been written and that they displayed on a part of the café window). A friendly man and his young daughter waved and said goodbye as we sat having ordered our Cappuccino and Hot Chocolate; both drinks noticeably missing from the diet of the previous two and a bit weeks.

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China&HK2016 (329)

Rested and refreshed we carried on with our walk back to the Underground Station we passed a ladder, totally made of Bamboo, leaning against a wall …… in Ladder Street! Eventually, back on the main street the narrow trams were busy going about their business. We had reached the underground station and decided to walk on down to the Star Ferry terminal and catch the ferry back across the harbour to Kowloon BUT it was still daylight and what we wanted to do was travel across with Victoria Harbour lit up for the evening. So, we noticed that the ferry terminals also had eateries within them and therefore took the decision to take a table in Watermark, a nice looking restaurant that overlooked the harbour. It wasn’t the cheapest – it wouldn’t be would it – but it was a really good decision. We had two courses plus drinks and in addition to watching the lights come on over at Kowloon we had also bought ourselves enough time to guarantee that on our Star Ferry crossing we would be able to see all of the lights of both Hong Kong and Kowloon (known as The Symphony of Lights) plus the start of the PULSE 3D Light Show that was being presented two or three times each night during the Summer from the Kowloon clock tower. It effectively saved us the cost of taking the harbour cruise at night.
Back on Kowloon and leaving the Star Ferry behind we made our way to the raised area from where PULSE was being played out. We waited the ten minutes until the start of the next show and then enjoyed it and the music at close quarters.

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China&HK2016 (337)

From here it was a short stroll back to The Peninsula where we could get our Shuttle Bus back to the Harbour Grand. It had been a really good day.
After breakfast the following morning we decided to use the public transport again and find our own way to Lantau Island. Not only was this good fun but we also saved a lot of money compared to the cost of an excursion and also some time. We took the Shuttle Bus again down to Tsim Sha Tsui as usual and walked the short distance to catch the Star Ferry over to Pier 7 on Hong Kong Island. The Lantau ferry used Pier 6 so it was an easy walk by foot to disembark the Star Ferry and take our seats on the Lantau Ferry with the cost still being covered by our Octopus Card.

A visit to Lantau Island appealed because it was different to what we had so far seen in China and Hong Kong. It also had the Po Lin Monastery, the big Bronze Buddha, and Tai-O stilt village to sight-see. The boat from Pier 6 to Lantau took about 45 minutes and drops you by the bus station from where the bus (No.2) to Ngong Ping runs regularly. The journey of about another 30 or 40 minutes takes you through scenery reminiscent of a Caribbean island and there is surprisingly little traffic to prevent our bus driver from tearing round corners as if he was pushing for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

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China&HK2016 (347)

Ngong Ping is the location of both the Po Lin Monastery and the big Bronze Buddha. With little real knowledge of either we headed for the Monastery before taking on the 210 steps leading up to the Giant Buddha.

Po Lin was a great surprise. The smell of incense gradually wafts into your life as you walk the long path towards the entrance where there are several large burners spreading their jasmine scent or whatever else was smouldering and smoking. A series of steps lead up to the doors of the first temple room in a building with fantastic symmetry and colour. Inside, more vivid colour, more artwork and in pride of place, three golden Buddha’s. The space on the left side of the room was dedicated to worship and prayer with a number of rows of square kneeling pads and beyond here and behind the main screen that provided the backdrop to the three Buddha’s was a rear entrance/exit that led to another large building fronted by more steps and even more colourful and attractive detail that framed the front doors to one of the most opulent rooms of its kind that you could expect to see. Five large Golden Buddha’s were the focal point at the back of a room dominated by the colour gold but with multi-coloured patterning on the ceiling beams and the walls and platforms. This had been an unexpected highlight – and now for the Giant Buddha.
There really isn’t a choice. The steps may look daunting but once you are there it simply has to be done. Slightly more than 200 steps - there are convenient platforms that break up their flow and offer the chance of a breather if you need it. And it doesn’t take long. Once at the top the size of the Buddha is impressive as are the views, especially if you climb the extra few steps to the elevated walkway around the statue.

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China&HK2016 (352)

We couldn’t find a bus stop at the top like we had been originally told so after spending some time we made our way back down the steps, past the group of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs plus the more tempting cold drinks and ice cream, and back through the main entrance to the bus stops where we arrived. Our next destination during our short visit to Lantau Island was the stilt village of Tai-O. It didn’t take long for the next bus to arrive; far quicker in fact than the timetable suggested and the ride to Tai-O was equally as frenetic as the first up to Ngong Ping. Having taken the local transport rather than an organised tourist bus we found ourselves ‘downtown’ in terms of being nearer to the local market than anything remotely ‘touristy’. This actually suited us and to wander through the local market and to see what was being bought as general produce rather than us simply being processed through a network of stalls geared to foreigners looking for souvenirs or ‘original fakes’ was a lot more interesting. Exiting the market we found ourselves in the streets and alleys of Tai-O with the harbour immediately behind the properties on the left side. We continued walking, searching out shade at every opportunity as it was so hot, until we found a side alley that led towards the water. From the water’s edge the stilt village was immediately visible. Wooden properties propped up over the water on slim and fairly fragile looking wooden piles that had been driven into the bed of the harbour, providing an elevated foundation for their homes. The numerous houses were effectively conjoined, no doubt providing an added strength and stability during difficult weathers and at times when repairs must be required. The entire stilt community was linked to the more permanent looking residences on ‘the mainland’ and their market and public buses by a bridge across the water to the nearest stilt house. I found it fascinating and seeing it reminded me of the experience that we had at Lake Titicaca in Peru when we saw the Aymara people and how they lived on the Reed Islands.

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China&HK2016 (374)

We caught a bus back up to Ngong Ping to then walk through the village to the Cable Car which would take us on a 25 minute ride down to the main town, Tung Chung, where we could then get the Underground back to Tsim Sha Tsui after stopping for a late lunch.

Back at the hotel we had a few spare hours and then we went out in the evening in Kowloon, local to the Harbour Grand, for something to eat. This time we found a German Restaurant (still avoiding Sticky Rice!!) just a couple of roads from the hotel which made for an easy circuit of the area including the Whampoa ship that sat bizarrely a long way from any water between high rise residential blocks. This turned out to be a leisure facility including a restaurant but we had no time to explore it further unfortunately.

We were now just one night of sleep away from our final full day tomorrow. The list of things that we wanted to do was now down to Kowloon Walled City Park, Ladies Market, The Avenue of Stars and Temple Street Night Market. Disappointingly, the Avenue of Stars was closed for refurbishment but there was plenty that we could do if we needed to fill time.

China&HK2016 (382)

China&HK2016 (382)

The breakfast at the Harbour Grand was fantastic so it made sense to make the most of it both today and before we leave for the airport tomorrow. So, we planned a route via the Underground to the area where Kowloon Walled City Park was. It was also the location of the Hau Wong Temple which we now had time to visit before we went to see the Park.

The temple was quite tiny and had a couple of attendants who presumably opened it and closed it each day and made sure that things were as they should be in-between. It’s a Grade 1 historical building built about 300 years ago and certainly worth spending a little time. Literally over the road is Kowloon Walled City Park.

China&HK2016 (378)

China&HK2016 (378)

The site was used by Chinese imperial officials since the 16th century. In 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, Kowloon Walled City was already a garrison and was reinforced by the Chinese Government. The fort’s fate changed in 1898 when the New Territories were leased to Britain for 99 years. Although the walled city remained Chinese territory by treaty, their troops and officials were forced to vacate the site just one year later. This left a power vacuum that was filled by criminals, and the garrison became a city within a city and fugitives and other criminal elements flocked to the lawless enclave from that day forward. Beyond the reach of the law, the area mushroomed into a squalid maze of illegally constructed buildings, where everything from drug trafficking and prostitution to unlicensed dentistry flourished in a labyrinth of dank, dark alleyways.

China&HK2016 (380)

China&HK2016 (380)

In 1987, with the agreement of China, the colonial government finally took control of the no-go area, resettled its inhabitants, and replaced the slum with a park. Today, the Chinese-style Park preserves traces of the walled city including the imperial government administrative building (known as a “yamen”). The garden–style of the park now offers visitors a chance to appreciate nature in a place where the darker side of life once flourished.
Not far from the Walled City Park is the Mong Kok business district and the Ladies Market. This and Temple Street Night Market would be our final opportunities to pick up any last minute gifts to take home the following day.

Mong Kok is an amazing looking area with its colourful advertising suspended above the road from both sides of the main street. It’s very busy and very commercial but was typical of what I expected from Hong Kong. Ladies Market is one road back from the main street and offers no more and no less than you could guess would be available from a market that primarily (but not exclusively) targets female shoppers and their children.
It was early-afternoon by the time we got back to our room and decided on some time in and around the rooftop pool followed by a snack in the hotel, before heading out in the evening.

China&HK2016 (387)

China&HK2016 (387)

It was dark by 6:30 to 7 pm every day while we were in China and Hong Kong so it would easily be getting dark by the time we got to Temple Street. The route was easy; we just had to get on the underground and find Jordan station which was just one stop on the line from Tsim Sha Tsui where the hotel’s Shuttle Bus stops and picks up.

Emerging back at street level the area around Jordan station was predictably lively and we asked a friendly face where Temple Street was. About a 2 or 3 minute walk as it happened so again it couldn’t have been easier. And you can’t miss it because it has its own ‘Temple Street’ gateway over the road. It’s very much a conventional market but with a focus also on street food being offered by vendors on the corners of the roads near the main entrance. And by the time we exited the market, having bought various bits and pieces to take home as presents, the street was crammed full of people sat eating and drinking with barely a spare seat or table in sight. However, we did find a table where we rested for a while with the largest and cheapest beer we had had during the entire trip. It was a nice way to end.

China&HK2016 (399)

China&HK2016 (399)

China and Hong Kong had been eventful and memorable in equal measure and not even the four hour delay to our taking off at Hong Kong airport (after boarding the plane for the journey home) could detract from the great experience and memories that we took back to the UK with us. The sheer numbers of people, the quite different behaviours, the extreme weather and of course the visual impact of some of the things that we saw will long stay in the memory. 2,400 photographs had been accumulated over the three weeks and for the next few months there would be time spent sorting, deleting and cropping these while at the same time reliving it all.

Posted by david.byne 12:48 Archived in China Tagged landscapes mountains lakes bridges art buildings skylines people trees animals sky night boats trains architecture rivers religion city Comments (0)

One famous little mill at the centre of everything (Paris)

Montmarte, Mussels and Moulin Rouge

sunny -24 °C
View Paris 2015 on david.byne's travel map.

Can you believe it’s only 30 minutes flying time and, for me, just 200 miles from home. Even Manchester is further!! Paris, the French capital and London’s nearest rival for best European city. But did you know that Paris is considerably smaller than London, and in fact you can fit Paris into the land area of London’s parks when they are added together. However, Paris still feels like a big city and certainly crams a lot in to its modest size.
We visited for five full days, taking an early Monday flight and returning home late on the Friday. The taxi took about 40 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport to our hotel brilliantly located between Sacre Coeur and Place de Clichy. So, safely installed in our room before lunchtime we headed for the terrace bar at the hotel to decide what we would hit first. Taking the easy option we walked to Montmartre, through the main thoroughfare and onwards and upwards to Sacre Coeur.

The final bit, up to the church, was made easier by the convenient funicular that quickly transported us to the bottom of the steps that led to the main door. Inside, precisely what you would expect. Nice enough but for me not amazing in the way that St.Marks Basilica in Venice and Haghia Sophia in Istanbul are. Having said that it is still a ‘must see’.

Wandering back through Montmartre is a treat with the various Patisseries, Bars, Cafes and Restaurants just waiting to tempt you in. And to be honest our willpower to simply walk past was never going to be adequate. Macaroons, Coffee, Chocolate, Cakes, Biscuits, Beer, whatever ……. you know you want to! Later we wandered for our first view of Moulin Rouge which turned out to be less than five minutes walk from the hotel; ideal as we had tickets for Tuesday’s late show. We were back to Montmartre a few hours later for dinner when, at night, the area looks different again with all the bars, cafes and restaurants all lit up.

As in many other cities, Paris offers a ‘Big Bus’ to help get around the city and we bought a two day ticket so for the Tuesday and Wednesday we planned our days around the route that the bus would take us. But first we made our way to the area around the Assembly Building and Pont Alexandra III via the Metro, getting off at Invalides and walking through to the Eifel Tower which by now was easy to spot and follow.
Paris so far had appeared relatively quiet compared to what we were used to in the UK but, of course, we soon discovered that the majority of people had homed in on the tower, Notre Dame and the Palace of Versailles. This, combined with many Parisians taking their holidays away from the city in August meant that apart from the main attractions it was relatively easy going around the city.
Paris_Aug15-104

Paris_Aug15-104


Back on the Big Bus we decided to simply sit there and take in the full route for an hour and then make decisions on where to get off second time around. Notre Dame got the vote but rather than battle the lengthy queues to get in the church we walked over the bridge and along the river before heading to the Latin Quarter where we found a café to break the day.
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Paris_Aug15-200


A few of the bridges along the Seine have become targets for couples wanting to attach padlocks as a symbol of their relationship and this has applied sufficient stress to the bridges to require the padlocks to be moved off the Pont de l'Archevêché and relocated along the side of the bridge thus taking the weight away from the main span.
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Paris_Aug15-201


Back on the bus, our next stop was the Eifel Tower where we lingered a bit longer on this occasion, taking photos and walking among the hundreds of people that were visiting this iconic landmark. There’s plenty to see even if you are just passing rather than stopping, with numerous views of the River Seine, the bridges, the monuments and the buildings with their classic architecture and contrasting roof colours and styles. For example, the Obelisk in the Place de Concorde - surrounded by fountains, ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ stands centrally at one of the highest points in the city having been donated to the French by Egypt many years ago.
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Paris_Aug15-315


One of the most impressive, architecturally – both outside and inside, is Opera, the National Academy of Music which we decided to make a point of visiting before the end of our stay. Similarly, we decided that going up the Arc de Triomphe for views over the city would be preferable to the Eifel Tower as the queues for the Arc were significantly smaller and also it would be good to see the tower from that particular viewpoint.
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Paris_Aug15-250


It felt like whenever we walked for a while there would be either a café or restaurant luring us inside or to a table just outside. But why not?
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Paris_Aug15-274


Tuesday evening was set aside for finding another nice restaurant  before changing and walking to the Moulin Rouge for the late show at 11 pm. It’s really worth seeing. We were a group of four as we had a couple of friends with us on the trip. Three of us were really keen on the trip but the fourth would not have come had we not already bought the tickets before mentioning it too him. But, as it turned out, he announced at the end of the week that his number one highlight from Paris was the Ferie Show at Moulin Rouge. And it really was. Two bottles of champagne on the table was enough for an after-dinner show which lasted for about 85 minutes. A mixture of tradition plus one or two new international acts made for a fabulous spectacle and night out, worth every penny. Recommended.

The following day, our middle day of five, we still had our Big Bus ticket to get around with so it was back to Cite and Notre Dame for a proper visit. This obviously meant queuing but to be fair the lines of people were moving fairly quickly and within 45 minutes you can get in, around and out again to find a restaurant a few roads back for lunch.
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Paris_Aug15-290


With lunch out of the way we jumped back on the bus to the Arc de Triomphe to buy tickets and join the very short queue to get to the top. There are also things to see around the base of the Arc including the eternal flame but don’t dismiss the views from the top as these are fairly unique with the main Parisian avenues including the Champs Elysee all extending from the Arc de Triomphe like spokes on a wheel.
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Paris_Aug15-335


The drive down the Champs Elysee is predictable; lots of very nice shops, restaurants, cafes, apartments, Ferrari’s and the occasional Lamborghini. However, don’t be put off. We had lunch on the Champs Elysee close to the Arc and the price wasn’t any more than anywhere else that we had eaten in Paris.

Having now ticked off Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Eifel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe we now looked towards the Louvre as our next port of call. Obviously, you can venture inside (no queues) but we chose not to as we still had plenty we wanted to see and do before Friday evening. The Louvre is sat in an amazing space in the centre of Paris. The area is very photogenic and the walk through the gardens down towards Place de Concorde has a few surprises along the way.
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Paris_Aug15-380


It was getting towards dusk and after dinner we wanted to take a night-boat trip on the Seine from near to the Eifel Tower, giving us a great opportunity to see the tower lit up at the same time. So, we took a taxi from the Louvre to Invalides and then walked towards the Eifel Tower which, by the time we got close, was fully lit and, on the hour every hour, bursts into sparkling lights for a couple of minutes.
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Paris_Aug15-413


Some of the night-cruises finish at 9 or 9:30 but we fortunately, after letting time run away from us, managed to get to the dock next to the Eifel Tower to get the 10 o’clock cruise. Unsurprisingly, it was full and we weren’t in ideal seats but it was still a nice way to spend an hour at the end of a day.

By Day 4 we had properly worked out central Paris and realised that we could in fact walk down to Opera to have a look round the old theatre. It turned out to be a real highlight despite the change in the weather. The Opera House is a fantastic building both inside and out and should really be added to the ‘must see’ list.
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Paris_Aug15-471


Our intention after (another) lunch was to visit the Paris Catacombs to see the underground system that the Resistance developed and used during the war. Shouldn’t be a problem I thought. Get a taxi, buy a ticket from the office and walk around under ground for a while, seeing how it all worked. WRONG! There was a slow moving longish queue around the entire roundabout upon which the main office and entrance stands. Just outside the ticket office is a cross-section model of a part of the system and only then did I appreciate why there would be so much interest in visiting the Catacombs. It’s not just about a few tombs and a couple of thousand bones, it’s much more than that, including a railway system and two miles of tunnels. The time required to first queue and then enjoy this attraction proved too much for us in the end which was a real disappointment and I’m sure it would have been a highlight if we had been able to do it. Maybe another time.
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Paris_Aug15-548


Our alternative destination became the Pompidou Centre which was a short ride on the Metro from the Catacombs. The area around the Pompidou Centre, like the centre itself, is very ‘arty’. I was more interested in the outside of the centre than venturing inside for an hour and that was in no small part due to the surrounding exhibits and square and, of course, one of the bars that eventually proved too welcoming to walk past without stopping. It was all very ‘laid back’ which, in the middle of a busy city, is good to find every now and then. The church that sits along one side of the square is a very imposing building and draws you inside the open door, if only for a couple of minutes. It’s large, for the area, and would have been quite impressive in its heyday but right now it’s looking tired and in need of some TLC. Onward.

With one day remaining of our Paris adventure we had the pre-booked visit to the Palace of Versailles to look forward to on our last morning plus a ‘pencilled-in’ look around the Basilica St. Denis in the afternoon; said to be the first ever church (although in all honesty I think there are a few claiming that honour around the world). But, before all of that, we had dinner in Montmartre to take care of.
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Paris_Aug15-607


It was an enforced early start for the journey to Versailles which would get us there before opening time. Not much more than a half hour bus ride through Paris took us to the gates of the Palace but not before hundreds of others who were already in line to get in. And therein lies the problem with the Palace of Versailles. It is a fact that it is immense both in structure and the grounds it resides in but there are no controls on the numbers of people allowed to visit. So, there were three main things that made this part of our trip to Paris a real low point of the trip. The sheer numbers (and rudeness) of the people in and around the Palace; the total cost of the visit, and the fact that none of the numerous and impressive fountains were functioning. In hindsight, we wouldn’t have bothered. The gardens would have been ok although without the fountains quite ordinary really but the fact that it was a further seven and a half Euros to get around the huge area took the experience well below the average. The Palace itself was simply disorganised chaos with ‘selfie sticks’ proving to be the weapon of choice for many.
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Paris_Aug15-637


[Selfie Sticks have now become a pet hate since our Parisian city break and I fully endorse the banning of them in certain popular attractions/places].
Back to the hotel to check out and find lunch nearby. The Basilica of St. Denis would be our final destination before travelling to the airport for our very short flight home, or at least that’s what we thought. The Basilica, claimed by some to be the first ever church, is at the end of the line on the Metro but the station information explained that the station was unavailable today. Typical. Oh well, jump in a taxi instead. Seconds after pulling away the taxi driver informs us that the church will not be open as it is market day and did we still want to go. Well, quite frankly, we didn’t, but what’s the alternative? Trying to make a quick decision as the taxi fare racked up we decided on going back to Notre Dame and seeing the other end of the isle of Cite upon which the Gothic cathedral sits.
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Paris_Aug15-670


This took us to the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie. In particular, the Conciergerie proved to be an interesting find as it is the old royal prison where Marie Antoinette was held so the afternoon, along the River Seine for the last time, proved to be well spent with lunch taken just outside the Palace of Justice in a really nice ‘art deco’ café/restaurant called Les Deux Palais.
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Paris_Aug15-700


Then, it was back to Place de Clichy in time for the taxi to the airport. Paris had been great. If you ever go there, don’t miss Moulin Rouge or Opera but don’t stress too much if you don’t see the Palace of Versailles, seriously.

Posted by david.byne 13:56 Archived in France Tagged bridges churches buildings trees night architecture rivers city Comments (0)

Black Sand and Green Lights (Iceland)

7 days in Iceland

all seasons in one day 0 °C

Fly North for three hours from London and you arrive in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. In a country of just over 300,000 people, around 125,000 Icelanders live in the city.

We landed late afternoon at what felt like an empty Keflavik Airport. Quickly through Passport Control and then Baggage Reclaim we were soon on the bus that would transfer us to the Reykjavik Centrum Hotel in the middle of Reykjavik.
Snow had fallen during the previous week but the relative warmth of April had cleared the majority of it by the time we arrived. However, it was still cold, especially so as a result of the almost constant breeze that whipped around the country from various directions. It was Easter Saturday and for the rest of the day plus Easter Sunday the time was our own. Everything we planned to do during our stay had been arranged prior to arrival and this certainly took a lot of the hassle away and also saved us time.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

A quick look around the centre, close to the hotel, plus something to eat and drink in the hotel bar effectively took care of what remained of Saturday although we were booked for the Northern Lights Tour that first night but due to weather conditions this had been cancelled so was re-booked for the following night. Then on Sunday there was plenty of time to explore further and find out what the city had to offer. A mental note was taken of any bars and restaurants that could be useful during the week.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

For a small city (medium sized town maybe) the locals do like a bit of public art;…..urban art;…. graffiti;…… call it what you like. There is a lot about and like anywhere else, some of it is good and some it is quite simply untidy and far removed from art. Personally, I quite like a lot of it.
The reviews that we had read beforehand stressed how well located the hotel was and this soon became apparent. It took very little effort or time to reach The Old Harbour, The Harpa Concert Hall, The Cathedral or the shops, bars and restaurants. We also quickly realised how expensive Iceland is. It wasn’t exactly a surprise but it’s only when you start paying the bills for teas, coffees, lunches, dinners and alcohol that it really hits home.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

The weather in Iceland is definitely challenging, even in the relatively calm season that, for us in the UK, is Spring. The often strong winds around the North Atlantic mean that the weather can change quite frequently and quite dramatically. Without exaggeration we could be in bland dry greyness one minute and then twenty minutes later it could be clear blue skies and sunshine followed twenty minutes after that by a snow storm and then the same period later we would be battling with hail and/or rain. The locals claimed that it had been the toughest Winter in 20 years. It had started snowing on and off from the November and was still snowing on and off while we were there in April. And when it snows it really snows!

So, back to the hotel after a day strolling around Reykjavik and generally getting our bearings, it was time to take advantage of the happy hour (two hours actually) which on a 2 for 1 basis at least brought the price of drinks back to something like UK prices. And to be honest, the bar at the hotel was such a nice environment to spend time in that it was something that we made a point of doing on every day except one while we were there.
For dinner that night we ventured out (having eaten at the hotel on our first night) but we didn’t have to go far as Restaurant Uno looked good and was probably only 200 yards away from the hotel. The food was always good, wherever we ate, and fish (Including Whale!), lamb, chicken and even Puffin were easy to find on a menu. Back at the hotel we discovered that the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled so was re-booked (again) for the following night, the Monday.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Our first proper day out seeing what there was to see was on the Monday when we were touring the Golden Circle. It’s a 7 to 8 hour tour and takes in Pingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geyser and a Geo-Thermal Power Plant. The weather played its part, as expected. At Pingvellir, the site of the first ever Parliament – The Althing – you can also see the tectonic plates and the North Atlantic Ridge. It’s a great area for scenery with waterfalls and a river running through the valley, surrounded by snowy mountains.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

The weather changed by the time we reached Gulfoss but cleared again before we left the area. Gulfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall and has at its peak more water rushing over it than Niagara Falls. Much of it was frozen when we saw it which made the landscape and resulting photographs a little bit different to anything we had seen before. By the time we had had lunch at the site the weather had changed yet again and we had transitioned from driving hail to relatively clear and back to driving hail.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Onward to Geysir, the only Icelandic word that has made its name in an international sense. Geysir is the name of the town where there are a predominance of Hot Springs that have, in turn, become known and referred to as ‘Geysers’. There were outlets everywhere with funnels of steam plus the strong smell of sulphur drifting into the air all across the landscape. They spout quite irregularly although Geysir has its own fairly reliable Hot Spring that manages to satisfy the tourists at reasonably consistent intervals of 4 to 5 minutes. But remember, what goes up also comes down, and the water is hot! Photographically the eruption is fairly easy to capture as there is a noticeable build-up of pressure before the water rises slowly before being fired into the air and then ultimately soaking those below that haven’t bothered checking the wind direction before taking up their place around the edge of the Hot Spring.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

From Geysir we continued around the circle to the Hellisheidi Geo-Thermal Power Plant where we stopped briefly for a video presentation and a quick look around the plant. 95% of the heating in Iceland is now provided free to the people and geo-thermal activity also contributes to subsidised electricity for the country.

It had been a long day by the time we were back in Reykjavik but a really good one and we were in the hotel to take advantage of Happy Hour! In a way it was also good news that after the day we had just had the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled. You know the routine by now; rebooked for Tuesday night!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

The following day was a free day for us so we had a chance to plan what we wanted to do. This included visits to the Old Harbour, the Viking Museum (why you might ask!!), the Whales Iceland Exhibition, shopping and lunch in the centre of town plus a proper look at both the Cathedral and the Harpa Concert Hall. And it was cold with a mixture of that bland dry greyness, clear blue skies and sunshine and a snow storm that I referred to previously. The timing of the snow storm coincided with us being at the midpoint of walking from the hotel to our furthest destination, the Viking Museum, just past the Old Harbour. We got battered for a while and were grateful to be able to seek refuge at the first available opportunity which happened to be the Viking Museum. Around half an hour spent in the museum was followed by a short but cold walk (it was clear and sunny by now by the way!) to the Whales Iceland Exhibition which was worth a visit (although quite pricey!). From there we walked back through the Old Harbour past all the Whale Watching Boat companies and then back towards the centre for lunch. The afternoon was spent down by the Harpa Centre where we took advantage of the clearer skies for photos of the mountains across the bay and then back among the shops and cafes before heading back to the hotel. The Northern Lights Tour had already again been cancelled so maybe tomorrow (Wednesday) night??
Wednesday was a big, long day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

We had booked a day (approx. ten hours) in a Superjeep. This would take us further afield and to places not easily (if at all) accessible by ‘normal’ road transport. Sitting high off the ground with huge wheels and large clearances we were plunged down into and across rivers, over lava beds, up snowy hills, through breaking waves on the beaches and occasionally on normal roads. The seat belts would occasionally tighten fiercely as you were thrown left, right, backwards, forwards and upwards as your body reacted to the stresses being placed on the Jeep. Our first stop was the site of the lava flow from E15, the volcano that erupted violently in 2010 and disrupted so much air traffic (including almost diverting us to Paris as we returned from Cuba into London Heathrow). The lava flow melted a huge glacier and initially flooded the valley that we had just driven through before coming to rest as high up the freshly snowed mountain as we could reach. The mountain had also suffered fresh cracking in the 2010 eruption and these were clearly visible. And despite the stillness of the landscape, the constantly changing light and cloud cover altered the view sufficiently enough to overwork the camera before we made our way back through the snow in the jeep. Bouncing through the rivers provided a free car wash (including the roof!) on several occasions as we not so slowly worked our way back to genuine tarmac.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (98)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

It was a day of contrasts and from the stark whiteness of fresh snow we moved on to the somehow clean and pure blackness of the sand on Iceland’s beaches. The Superjeep was in its element, throwing itself into and over the dunes, flirting with the waves as they crashed onto the sand and creating patterns with its oversized but absolutely invaluable tyres. In slightly surreal fashion we drove past the unexpected sight of the wreck of an old United States aircraft that was slowly deteriorating on the highest part of the beach. But the real interest lay in the remains of a Whale, beached and at one time buried under the sands but since uncovered during the recent Winter by the storms that had hit the country.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Our next stop was at a series of waterfalls in the valley, the first of which was only properly visible through a small opening in the rock, creating an open-topped cavern that, with a bit of care, you could access via stepping stones in the stream leading from the fall. This took you right up to the waterfall where getting wet was an inevitability but it was still worth a look. From here you could walk alongside the side of the rock past several other falls to the next big one and there follow a path behind the fall and out the other side.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

Back on the road and the weather changed again. From blue skies at the falls we were suddenly back in the grips of another blizzard and by the time we stopped again there was a fresh dusting of snow covering the surrounding countryside. We pulled in alongside a shallow river that was being fed by another fall about 350 metres from where we had parked. There were routes to walk up to the top or alternatively you could get as close to the bottom of the fall as possible; and this was the option we took. Initially, with the snow falling and visibility being less than ideal, I settled for a few quick photographs before we ventured inside the café for a drink in the hope that the weather would again change as quickly as it just had. Fifteen minutes later and sure enough we had blue skies again. What a difference that made to what we were now able to see. The photos taken previously would have been good enough as memories but now, with the contrast of the blue skies, the fresh snow, the clear water from the fall, the sunshine and now also a rainbow the scenery was even more impressive. We took our time walking to the waterfall and then back again before climbing back into the jeep to begin our journey back to Reykjavik. It had been a really good day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

On the road back our driver was in contact with his boss who confirmed that he would be running the Northern Lights tour that evening and so, although we were booked with a different company, it appeared that we could be in for a very late night. On arrival back at the Centrum Hotel, confirmation that our Northern Lights tour was indeed ON could be found on the main desk in reception. So, for the one and only time we missed out on Happy Hour and headed out for something to eat. The closest restaurant was The Fish Market, literally a few yards walk, and it was somewhere we thought we might try one evening although looked like it would be slightly more expensive than the average, And it was!! Lovely place, nice menu and great food but we did pay for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

The Northern Lights tours start with a pickup at the hotel at 9 o’clock and then the object is to head out of the city and ‘hunt’ for the lights. It has to be clear (no clouds) and very dark and there also has to be the required level of activity. It was certainly clear, albeit a little patchy, darkness (even at 9 pm) wasn’t quite what it needed to be yet and as for activity, that would also hopefully come later. We drove for over an hour towards The Althing (the site of the first Parliament and the North Atlantic Ridge) that we had visited two days previously. We were one of several coaches arriving at this particular venue but it had the real advantage of the café/restaurant staying open for the time we were there and this at least gave us somewhere to occasionally warm up in-between standing in almost pitch-black on the snow trying to spot the slightest movement or hint of Green, Red or Purple in the night sky. The clock ticked by as we all diligently stared skywards in complete silence (almost as if too much noise may frighten the lights away!). 11 o’clock arrived – nothing; Midnight arrived – still nothing. Time to get inside for a while and warm up a bit; it was around two degrees below freezing and just standing around doing nothing was taking its toll on everybody. We certainly weren’t in the minority when we got into the room and there was no sitting room and to be honest little standing room but at least it was warm. Then, a knock on the window resulted in everybody stirring into action with a rush for the doors similar to that when the New Year sales open on Oxford Street! So, out we went again and found somewhere reasonable to stand where a view in a northerly direction would be largely unobstructed by others. The faintest hint of Green light was visible over the top of the facing mountain and this moved and altered slightly before disappearing. And that was pretty much it. Half an hour later the coaches were starting their engines and on the snow covered road back towards Reykjavik. We had all received the “can’t control nature’ and ‘no guarantees’ speech on the way out from the city and the fact that this was at the back end of the season for seeing the Northern Lights meant that nobody was too surprised at the weak display of lights on this particular occasion. But we were soon to receive an unexpected bonus. No more than twenty minutes into our drive back to the city and the coach was pulling over alongside two or three others in a parking area on the top of a hill. The driver had noticed some activity and before allowing everybody off the coach had stopped to check if it was something worth stopping for. And it was. Suddenly, a rush of passengers squeezed towards the coach door and we made our way out into the cold air again and took up a position from where we could say a strong line of Green colouring the outline edge of the mountain in front of us. This was a much stronger light than the one previously and it then changed, displaying upward streams of light from the arc of green created by the shadow outline of the mountain. It fluttered and faded for a while before totally disappearing but generally we all felt a lot better about justifiably claiming to have now seen the Northern Lights. It certainly wasn’t the most spectacular display you would ever see but at least we saw something.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

It was 2 o’clock by the time we reached our hotel but we had nothing planned for the following morning (Thursday) so we could at least get what had been a very long day out of our system before starting again tomorrow.

To hell with the expense, we had breakfast at the hotel next morning. It was a slow start to the day following the ‘big day’ yesterday. We had the morning free until 11 o’clock when we were heading off to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours so we spent a bit more time around the centre. It was snowing (again)!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Swimming gear organised, we made our way to the bus that would take us to the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was a natural hot spa on a lava field and had become a very popular destination for both locals and tourists. It was close to the airport and Keflavik and took about an hour to reach it - you could see the steam from the facility in the distance as we approached. The smell of sulphur was again strong as we walked to the entrance and showed our tickets at the reception area. We hired robes and towels and found our way towards the changing areas where the benefits of a very clever and secure locker system made life easier when you want to take a few photos and then put your camera away for a while. It’s a natural lagoon so don’t anticipate it being kind to your feet. The bottom is invisible as the water is a milky blue colour and it’s also very uneven; smooth in some areas, sharp in others and consistently undulating. But it’s a lot warmer in the water than it is out and the water temperature varies as you move around as some areas are much hotter than others. As with most things in Iceland, it’s an expensive experience but fairly unique and not something you have the chance to do every day. We used the café while we were there (more money!!) and suddenly it started snowing again, this time heavily. Visibility diminished dramatically and all but a few remained in the water. Jan decided she wanted to be one of them, which was fine. Then, showered and changed we paid our bill (Ouch!) and walked through the snow back to the bus that would be leaving for Reykjavik at 3 o’clock.
Back in the city around 4 o’clock we wandered from the bus station to the hotel via the Café Paris which we had found and liked a few days before, getting back in time for Happy Hour. Later we decided to return to Restaurant Uno for our evening meal and made plans for the following morning which we again had free to do as we wanted.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

Plans for our last full day, such as they were, included shopping and a visit to the Cathedral to go up the tower for views and photos over the city.
We woke to a lovely day; still some snow around but the sky was clear and the sun was shining; perfect for the tower so that would now have to be our priority – just in case the weather changed! Everything in Reykjavik was easily walkable and once you’d got your bearings it took very little time to get anywhere so we aimed for the Cathedral as soon as we were up and ready. We timed it well as a queue seemed to build just after we bought our tickets and waited to go up in the elevator. At the top you have to climb a few steps to get to the highest point but the views from there are great. Iceland, in general, is a fairly Black and White country with the dark lava fighting with the ice and snow for dominance. To add colour, the Icelanders make their homes and other buildings as colourful as possible and, from the top of the Cathedral Tower, the view looks like a model village made from Lego bricks with all the various coloured roofs taking centre stage. In the distance the bay and harbour and behind that the mountains looked in immaculate condition on what for us was the clearest day we had seen in the capital city.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Back down the hill from the Cathedral we shopped for one or two items and generally took our time before a coffee break at The Laundromat Café, close to the hotel. Time was pushing on and we had a pickup at 1 o’clock from the hotel to get us down to the Old Harbour to get the boat and go out Whale Watching. It was a three hour excursion around the bay and would be the last real event of our trip to Iceland. It was cold but still clear and after getting our tickets and boarding the boat we were all offered thick overalls as protection against the wind. We accepted!! We sat outside on the middle deck and one of the crew sat on the top deck looking for whatever he could see and then pointing it out to us. Unfortunately, on the day there was very little activity in the water around Reykjavik other than a small pod of Porpoises which from our side of the boat we didn’t really see in any case. Being April, we were at the very end of the Northern Lights season and the very beginning of the Whale Watching season so we came with low expectations of seeing either. I suppose one out of two isn’t bad. So, out of the overalls and back on Terra Firma we walked around the Old Harbour and headed back towards the centre where we had promised ourselves one of the local Hot Dogs available from the kiosk in the Main Square. It was just after 4:30 so was closing in on that time again ……….. Happy Hour! A couple of hours and drinks in the hotel bar and we got ready and ventured out to Bistro Geysir for our final meal in Iceland.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

The morning call for transfer to the airport was an early one – 0300, so a late night was off the agenda. A bleary eyed ride to Keflavik Airport came around all too quickly but it had been a good week. It had snowed again through the night and Iceland was White once again. Our flight was the first one out that morning and we arrived back in the UK before 11 o’clock (Local Time) with lighter wallets but a few photos and memories to make up for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Posted by david.byne 09:51 Archived in Iceland Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains lakes beaches churches art buildings sky snow night planes boats Comments (0)

Living the high life in NYC

Seven Nights in The Big Apple

sunny -19 °C
View New York 2014 on david.byne's travel map.

We landed at JFK around 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday 25th October and by 4:30 we were at our hotel; The Roosevelt on the corner of East 45th Street and Madison Avenue. We hadn’t planned much on our first evening but after unpacking and changing we ventured out across Madison towards 5th Avenue and then on to Times Square where we found a table at Ruby Foo’s restaurant. Great start to the week.

NYC1014 (1)

NYC1014 (1)

Sunday 26th October

The week was planned in a very general fashion with various things already booked and paid for. Some offered flexibility on timing whereas others were fairly fixed. On our first morning we went out and found a place for breakfast across from the hotel and then headed up to the southern edge of Central Park (60th Street) where we picked up our tickets for a Horse & Carriage Ride and made our way to where there were a line of carriages waiting for work. Ours was specifically marked with the name of the company that we had booked with and so we made our way down the line until we saw the logo. It took just under an hour to work our way around the lower half of the park where we saw the New York Zoo, Lincoln Centre, Strawberry Fields, Dakota Building, the Lake and Tavern on the Green where we would eat later in the week. It’s a great time of year (October) to visit New York (and Central Park in particular) as the trees are all turning their different shades of Gold, Red, Brown and Green and it creates some nice colour for photos. Out of the carriage we found ourselves with others watching a group of local ‘entertainers’ setting up what quickly transpired to be a bit of a scam so with money slowly being coerced from innocent passers-by we escaped across the road to The Plaza Hotel where, underneath, they have shops and restaurants so we had lunch. It wasn’t cheap and here we were introduced to the New York (maybe even American) system of paying a restaurant or bar bill. The bill carries three options for the service charge (or tip); 15%, 17.5% or 20% and the three values, based obviously on the total cost of what you have had, are shown on the bottom of the receipt. I knew that tipping was the ‘done thing’ so I rounded the bill up to what I thought was reasonable (which came to just over 11%). This brought the waiter retreating quickly back to our table to challenge whether the service was o.k. or not. We said it was fine and with a slightly confused look on his face he went to great trouble to explain that what happens in New York is that we choose one of the three options and pay accordingly. Wow, what an introduction, we had been educated!!!! And whether you believe it or not, we were informed that the restaurant staff in NYC get around $1.20 per hour which disappears in tax and therefore they rely totally on tips for an income.

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NYC1014 (49)

So, feeling like we had been very politely chastised we left The Plaza Hotel and made our way past Carnegie Hall and back towards Times Square and Broadway where we had a drink in one of the many diners – the first of a few that boast celebrities among their customers, as evidenced by the rows of named plaques lining the walls alongside the tables.

Next stop was the Museum of Modern Art or MOMA as New Yorkers know it. We had pre-booked the tickets so went straight in and encountered the first of many bag searches on the trip. There is security almost everywhere in the city but to be honest it’s really not a problem. As museums go, MOMA was decent and carried some famous work by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol to name just a few and we probably spent around an hour and a half inside before making our way back to the hotel.

On our walk back towards The Roosevelt we detoured to take a look at the New York Public Library (location for several movie scenes) but on route stumbled across Bryant Park. Bryant Park was a great surprise. We didn’t expect the ice skating rink and we didn’t expect the market either. Browsing around several of the small shops and stopping for a drink killed quite a bit of time before we were back at The Roosevelt with more potential shopping in mind for the next few days.

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NYC1014 (106)

It had been a relatively busy day exploring the city so we settled for a snack and a drink in the hotel bar that evening. The bar at the restaurant has a good atmosphere and some nice, comfortable seating areas where you can collapse after a long day walking the city.

Monday 27th October

Slightly crazy in a major city but we struggled on Monday morning to find (or more probably agree) on where to go for breakfast. Anyway, eventually we did and then made our way to Radio City Music Hall where we had a booking for the tour of one of the oldest entertainment venues in NYC. On the way we passed Rockefeller Plaza and the NBC Studios where they were in the middle of their ‘USA Today’ breakfast programme, a venue that would over the next few days hold outside broadcasts with Jim Carrey, Lewis Hamilton and Prince; hence the regular crowds that gather daily around the swiftly erected barriers outside the building in the plaza. But for now, it was on to the music hall. Established in 1932, Radio City Music Hall has hosted so many different types of shows and artists and many are mentioned or displayed during the tour. It went through a few lean years but managed to stay open with public support and is now once again a thriving venue. The tour takes you through some of the history and you see the foyer, the main reception areas, separate ‘lounges’ for men and women and some of the displayed costumes from a variety of shows including those of The Rockettes. You also get to meet a Rockette before settling briefly in the theatre itself where we were fortunate to catch some of the rehearsal for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Artists that have appeared regularly are also recognised with personalised mirrors hung around the corridors alongside photos and posters from the various events staged at Radio City. It’s a good tour and worth spending the hour or so.

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NYC1014 (4)

Our week in New York City had really kicked into gear on our second full day. From Radio City we headed back around the corner to Rockefeller Plaza where NBC’s programming had moved from the ground floor to the first floor. The Plaza itself; the numerous and impressive buildings, ice rink and the outside space within the plaza provide an indication of the influence that Rockefeller has had on the city. It’s a huge complex. Inside the main Rockefeller building it is equally impressive. We were headed for the Top of the Rock Observation Deck for which we already had tickets. This helped reduce the queuing time so gradually we made our way up the 70 floors to the top platform where the views of Manhattan, across to New Jersey and over to Central Park are predictably outstanding. The Chrysler Building is close by, as is the Empire State Building, although the Empire State does get in the way of the view down to Wall Street, the new World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty a bit. To solve that problem simply get yourself up the Empire State Building for views all the way down to the financial district. It’s worth doing both in my opinion.

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NYC1014 (70)

After Rockefeller, we crossed the road to St Patrick’s Cathedral and had a walk around there before getting a shopping ‘fix’ in Saks of 5th Avenue. It’s huge – and so are the prices!!!!! Wallet intact, we had lunch at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, great for milkshakes. You also get entertained by the waiters and waitresses who take time out from serving tables to do a number on the microphone from one of the Broadway shows. And it’s not karaoke, they can all really sing! Topped up with food, milk shakes and musicals we walked to Grand Central Station, literally a couple of minutes from our hotel. Amazingly, there are 117 tracks running out of Grand Central. It also has a number of shops and a Prosecco and Oyster Bar which was where we killed a couple of hours with a few glasses.

Tuesday 28th October

On Tuesday morning we decided to walk straight down from East 45th Street to Union Square which sits between 14th and 17th streets. It took us via Bryant Park again so turned into a bit of a shopping trip too. Union Square was a different part of the city for us and based on what we were told; that to walk between streets takes about one minute each and to walk between avenues takes about five minutes each, it shouldn’t take more than half an hour. The weather so far in New York City had been perfect and today and tomorrow were forecast to be exceptional with temperatures hitting 74 degrees so we walked whenever we could afford the time. However, after seeing the Flatiron Building and having coffee we jumped in a cab and travelled directly west to the Meatpacking District and picked up the beginning of the High Line walk which runs alongside the Hudson River for two or three kilometres. A new part of it has only just opened and in some ways the walk still has to mature a bit but it was a great way to get another angle on another part of the city from up above the traffic. At the end of the High Line you emerge in West 34th Street and we quickly found the Skyline Deli to grab something to eat and drink. No evidence of celebrities this time!!

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NYC1014 (283)

Back in central Manhattan we found Macy’s which apparently we couldn’t just walk past but again the wallet survived and we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our Broadway experience. We were running a bit late and had to get to the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway by 7 p.m. to see Jersey Boys so we were back in a Yellow cab again. Traffic was heavy and at one stage it looked like it would be quicker to walk (which it often is in New York City) but I think the driver sensed the urgency and we were there in good time. Jersey Boys was brilliant! We needed a show that would keep the four of us happy and this one ticked the box. We were out of there by 9:30 and that allowed us time to stroll back through Times Square again.

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NYC1014 (573)

Wednesday 29th October

The Wednesday was always going to be a big day for us with what we had planned and booked. First on the agenda was the Big Apple Helicopter Flight which I had confirmed for 11:45 and we needed to be down at the Heliport in Downtown Manhattan by 11:15. With that in mind we headed for Grand Central Station and had breakfast in the café there. Not the cheapest but very busy and very good. From here we took the subway for the first time; Subway 5 took us from Grand Central to Wall Street in about 20 minutes. We climbed the stairs out of the subway right by Trinity Church and close to the large Bull sculpture that stands in the centre of the financial district. We briefly entered Trinity Church, took some photos around “Bully”, chatted with an NYPD officer and then walked down Wall Street and passed by the New York Stock Exchange and onward towards the heliport at Pier 6.

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NYC1014 (308)

The Helicopter took 6 people and flew us from Downtown Manhattan right up to the Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, passing New Jersey City on the left and all of New York City on the right and back down the Hudson River where we passed over the top of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island before landing back at Pier 6. It was our first time in a helicopter, what a great way to travel. I want one!

The Heliport was located almost in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge and walking New York’s best known route over East River was on my list of things to do so we jumped in a cab from Pier 6 which took us to the Brooklyn side. It was a warm day so we bought some drinks in a small supermarket and started the walk back from Brooklyn across to Manhattan. The views from the helicopter had been amazing and these too, from the bridge, were great. The new World Trade Center stood proud among the financial district as it prepared for its official opening just days after our visit. The walk across probably took the best part of an hour as we stopped to take a number of photographs both of the bridge itself and the views.

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NYC1014 (341)

On the other side we passed City Hall undergoing some kind of repair or renovation and briefly rested with a coffee as we pondered our next move. We had tickets for 5 p.m. at the new 9/11 Museum and Memorial so had two or three hours to grab something to eat and make our way from the bridge to the World Trade Centre site. It gave us a chance to walk to Battery Park which we had seen earlier near to the heliport. From the park you get a great view of The Statue of Liberty and although there was some work underway with planting and repairing pathways it was a nice outside space with things happening such as musicians and breakdancers to entertain the public.

It had turned a bit colder but we were still ok for time so walked to the 9/11 site, stopping at whatever on route. There is still a lot of work going on around the World Trade Center and it really will look fantastic when it is all completed. The main building, replacing the two destroyed in September 2001, is a lovely looking construction and stands alongside the large square footprints of the two previous World Trade Center Towers which have now been converted into a very impressive memorial, incorporating water seemingly falling into infinity and the names of the 3,500 people who died on that day engraved around the edge of the two huge pools.

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NYC1014 (383)

It was approaching 5 p.m. so we made our way into the museum. Opened earlier this year, the museum has received outstanding reviews and was a personal ‘must see’ of mine. After clearing security you enter a hall with videos and references that start to remind you of how the events unfolded. Through to the other side of this and you overlook a larger, deeper area that contains some of the artefacts; sections of the original building that appear to have taken the full force of the impact. You descend to floor level of the hall via a curved walkway thinking that possibly this is the extent of the exhibits and the museum itself. I was wrong and soon realised that this was the top floor of six that sat underneath ground level of the World Trade Center and we had merely seen the introduction to what the museum had in store. For the next hour and a half or so we worked our way through the exhibits as it told the story. From the first ‘Breaking News’ segment that interrupted the normal programming on NBC and CBS to the period of recovery over the past thirteen years including the development of the new site. The presentation was faultless. Video accounts from local witnesses, artefacts both small and large including a fire engine displaying the visible damage resulting from the extreme heat generated by the explosions that took place. The ladders on the roof even showed the signs of turning to molten metal on the back end of the fire truck. There were of course areas dedicated to the fallen including a dark, almost enclosed quiet space with seating that projected a different name every minute onto a black screen at the front of the room with that person’s name being announced amid the silence as it appeared. Very nicely done.

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NYC1014 (391)

I had been keeping half an eye on my watch because I was conscious of the 8 p.m. tip-off time at Madison Square Garden where we had tickets for the Season Opener in the NBA between the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. All four of us had become immersed in the 9/11 Museum and even after more than an hour and a half it was difficult to drag ourselves away. In the end we had to speed up and work through the final areas a little quicker than we otherwise would have liked but we needed to hail a cab and get back up to 34th Street in what was likely to be heavy traffic. Again, it sometimes felt we would get there quicker walking but again the driver did his stuff and got us there in good time. Another security check and a hot dog later and we were in our seats just 13 rows from the front. MSG is a great arena and appeared full for this first match-up of the season. Pre-match and half-time entertainment included Joan Jett (Remember her??) and The Blue Man Group. Celebrity supporters included John McEnroe, Heidi Klum and Taylor Swift. As for the game itself; we logically attached ourselves in support of the home team which appeared to work at the start but only briefly. The Bulls gradually assumed control and proved over the course of the four quarters to be the better side by quite a distance, running out 104-80 winners. We couldn’t quite claim ‘lucky charm’ status for the Knicks but it had been a great occasion and a fantastic, memorable day.

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NYC1014 (424)

Despite the long day we walked from 34th Street back to The Roosevelt Hotel on East 45th. It was a nice enough evening and we had plenty to reflect on. Back at the hotel there was just time for a drink at the bar before bed.

Thursday 30th October

Thursday morning was intended for the Harbour Cruise down the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty and back again. We arrived at Pier 83 at around 10:30 to catch our boat only to find that the cruise that we had booked only sailed once each day and left at 10 a.m. Unfortunately, our information hadn’t told us this and with Friday already booked up it would have to be Saturday morning or not at all.

Instead, we caught a taxi down to Tribeca, getting out at Canal Street and walking around the area until we came across ‘8 Hook and Ladder’; otherwise famous as the Ghostbusters Fire Station. The Tribeca area generally is quite well used for movie locations and is also the venue for the Robert de Nero founded Tribeca Film Festival so it was nice to wander around the area that seemed to be dominated by the traditional houses and fire escapes so often seen on TV and at the cinema.

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NYC1014 (441)

Feeling ‘movie inspired’ we walked all the way across town to Katz’s Deli, the location of that famous scene from ‘When Harry met Sally’ involving Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. It’s also well known for it’s food and I had been warned that we would have to queue for some time if we wanted to get inside to eat and/or drink. Having deliberately had our one and only hotel breakfast that morning (and made the most of it!) following our busy day the day before, it didn’t really matter whether or not we could get a table as hunger was far from setting in. So, when we got there to find that we could walk straight in and get seated we were challenged to order something which of course we did. An hour or so later and feeling heavy we left Katz’s to walk off the Pastrami Sandwich and Milk Shake. However, it was worth the visit. The owner, photographed with a never ending list of celebrities as displayed on the walls, stopped at each table to ask where people were from and to make sure they were happy with what they were having. It had been a good experience.

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NYC1014 (492)

Chinatown, Little Italy and Greenwich Village were next in line. All were within reach on foot and we literally walked through each area ending at Washington Square Park where it was nice to rest a while before moving on. We still had to get to the Empire State Building (where we could also collect the tickets for the postponed Harbour Cruise) and it was already mid-afternoon. We also had a booking for dinner at Tavern on the Green in Central Park which was in the back of my mind. It would be a challenge to do both the Empire State and also be back at the hotel to get ready and get up to Central Park for the 8 p.m. reservation UNLESS the queues at Empire State were in our favour. The other thing was we didn’t want to be on the Observation Deck too early as, having been ‘Top of the Rock’ during daylight hours, we wanted to get the other view at dusk, as the lights in the city start to come on. We were basically pushing our luck trying to do everything we wanted when we wanted but we got lucky. Queuing was minimal and the timing was almost perfect, reaching the top just before 6 p.m. This gave us almost an hour to take our photos and enjoy the views. As it happened that was more than enough, especially with a cold breeze dragging the air temperature down to new lows for the week.

We quickly made our way back to The Roosevelt to get showered and changed before eventually attracting the attention of a cab that could get us to Central Park. We got to Tavern on the Green for our 8 o’clock reservation almost to the minute. Recently reopened after a long time closed, the refurbishment has resulted in a very classy restaurant with bar and live entertainment. The moment that you walk in you know it’s not going to be cheap but you pay for what you get at Tavern on the Green. We had a great evening with great food and it was an ideal venue for one of our last evening meals in NYC.

While the girls grabbed a cab to get back to the hotel, Matt and I decided to walk from Central Park, pick up Broadway and work our way back taking photographs as we went. We didn’t rush and it was good to be able to people watch along the way.

The girls got up early for their trip to the Woodbury Designer Outlets just outside the city on the New Jersey side, and Matt and I left the hotel in the opposite direction to pick up tickets for our Hip Hop Tour of Harlem and The Bronx. We had to walk from East 45th down to 31st Street to redeem the tickets and then back up to East 59th Street to catch the bus. 31st Street turned out to be a wasted journey as the store where we were redeeming the tickets was boarded up. Our only option was to go straight to East 59th and plead our case as we got on the bus. It wasn’t a problem and before we knew it we were on the bus being introduced to our ‘Guest’ Guide for the day; Grandmaster Caz (Remember Rapper’s Delight? He wrote it). Caz took us into Harlem where ‘Mouse’ showed us his Breakdancing skills, we moved on to Rucker Park, Apollo Theatre, Yankee Stadium and other places of interest, pointing out the homes of various celebrities from the Hip Hop and acting worlds plus some of the more significant Graffiti around both Harlem and The Bronx. We also had lunch in Harlem and saw the Walk of Fame in The Bronx that includes a plaque with Grandmaster Caz’s name on it. Four hours after leaving we returned to East 59th at the same time as the girls were finishing their shopping. Like us, they had seen different ‘stuff’ too including some of the natural Autumn colours on display in the trees around New Jersey.

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NYC1014 (595)

We all met up again in the hotel bar for a drink and in the end decided against going out to the Halloween parade down at 16th Street as a combination of tiredness and comfort in the bar kicked in. So that was it for the day.

Saturday 1st November

Saturday, our final day in New York City, was planned as our ‘free’ day. Do anything we want! This wasn’t the way it turned out because we still had our Harbour Cruise tickets to use, Bloomingdales to visit and also had half an eye on using the Roosevelt Tram which was basically a cable car that took you across to the small island that sits near to Queensborough Bridge on the East River. So it was a ‘free’ day …. but not quite.
Packing also had to be considered although we had gained an extra hour on check out from the hotel which helped. We had our room until 1 p.m. at which time we could leave our bags until around 7:30 p.m. when we would get in a taxi for the airport.

Opposite the hotel there was a convenient café that proved handy on our first morning for breakfast and then again on our last. Our boat from Pier 83 left at 10 o’clock so it was a matter of walking until we could get a cab which would take us straight across town to the west side of New York. The weather had unfortunately turned a little and was cold and a bit blowy with rain at times but we honestly couldn’t complain after the week we had just had.

On board our Liberty Cruise the trip lasted about 75 minutes which was plenty, taking us down as far as the Statue of Liberty (her nose is 4 feet long by the way!) and Ellis Island with a glimpse of Brooklyn Bridge and then back up to Pier 83 past New Jersey City on the left and the financial district on the right, plus World Trade Center, Chelsea Harbour, the Meatpacking District, Central Manhattan across to the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the Rockefeller Centre all squeezed in-between the numerous other high-rises like the Metlife Building and Trump Towers. Back at Pier 83 you could see on the dockside next door the British Airways Concorde that they now have on display plus the Space Shuttle that sits in a hanger on the front of the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid which is now part of a museum.

NYC1014 (646)

NYC1014 (646)

It had become cold on the boat so we headed straight for the nearest cab to get us back close to the hotel where we needed to think about finishing our packing and checking out. Then, with bags safe for the afternoon we headed back out to East 59th and Park Avenue where Bloomingdales can be found. If the weather had been a little kinder I think it would have been nice to wander around Central Park for a while but it just wasn’t to be so the wallet had to be ‘prepped’ for the purchase of the inevitable ‘Little Brown Bags’ from Bloomingdales. We thought about stopping for a snack inside the store but couldn’t decide on which of the five places to stop and, after walking around five of the seven levels and resisting a bauble for the Christmas Tree at $129 (!!!!) we opted for lunch at ‘Burger Heaven’ where the burgers were cooked how we wanted and the milkshakes were great. We were further entertained with origami by our waiter before taking a quick trip on the Roosevelt Tram which was just around the corner on 59th and 2nd. We got off, briefly, at Roosevelt Island. And when I say briefly I mean briefly. It was wetter, windier and colder than earlier and whilst it would have been ok to wander the tiny island on a nice day this wasn’t one of them. So, back on the cable car to get the final few photos of the Manhattan skyline and Queensborough Bridge.

Time was slowly creeping towards the end of our stay but we apparently had one final stop to make on our stroll back to The Roosevelt Hotel …………………………….. Bloomingdales again! To be fair you couldn’t say that the purchase of this ‘exclusive to Bloomingdales’ item had been rushed. It had been carefully pondered over several hours which, coupled with a good sales pitch, proved irresistible and my daughter’s luggage for the journey home was now weighed down by several ounces more, probably balanced by an equally lighter bank balance.

Back at the hotel there was time enough for a final drink and a chat at the bar before collecting and reorganising our luggage for the trip home. That final visit to Bloomingdales, probably as much as anything, sums up our experience in The Big Apple. New York is somewhere that is almost unavoidable, you have to go and when you get there much of what it has to offer proves irresistibly tempting. And although you feel ultimately drained both physically and financially at the end of it you can’t help but smile and reflect on the time spent and hope that one day you may get to do it all over again. It had been a great week.

Posted by david.byne 09:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises bridges churches art buildings skylines people trees sky night boats Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (1)

Part 1 - India

sunny -38 °C

It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
A_Delhi_001 (120)

A_Delhi_001 (120)


It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
A_Delhi_001 (18)

A_Delhi_001 (18)


From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)


The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
C_Jaipur_001 (39)

C_Jaipur_001 (39)


City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
C_Jaipur_001 (85)

C_Jaipur_001 (85)


Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
C_Jaipur_001 (106)

C_Jaipur_001 (106)


We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
D_Agra_001 (4)

D_Agra_001 (4)


We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
D_Agra_001 (26)

D_Agra_001 (26)


Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)

E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)


Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
F_Amritsar_001 (9)

F_Amritsar_001 (9)


The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
F_Amritsar_001 (44)

F_Amritsar_001 (44)


Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
G_Wagah_001 (17)

G_Wagah_001 (17)


A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
H_Amritsar_001 (43)

H_Amritsar_001 (43)


The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
J_Varanasi_001 (31)

J_Varanasi_001 (31)


Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
J_Varanasi_001 (124)

J_Varanasi_001 (124)


Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
J_Varanasi_001 (159)

J_Varanasi_001 (159)


A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
J_Varanasi_001 (171)

J_Varanasi_001 (171)


We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

Posted by david.byne 12:58 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises buildings people animals birds boats trains religion Comments (0)

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