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The Maldives - 2017

Baros, a little bit perfect

sunny 32 °C
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Our flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Male Maldives took less than ninety minutes. From Male we would then transit by speedboat to the island of Baros for four nights and days of unprecedented luxury following a busy 12 days touring Sri Lanka.

Met upon arrival at the airport our bags were swiftly removed from our keeping and placed invisibly on board our boat. All on board, we left the quayside at Male and moved towards the empty horizon. Quickly, it became apparent that all was not well and the pilot of our speedboat explained that he wasn’t happy with the gearbox and that we would be provided with a better vessel for our journey to Baros.
Baros Maldives20170004

Baros Maldives20170004


Within a few minutes a gleaming white boat with BAROS in Gold lettering on the side arrived and we transferred mid’ Indian Ocean to resume the 30 minute transfer. This time the boat purred and gradually accelerated to propel us through the water at speed until, with the jetty at Baros in clear view, we slowed to a sedate cruise until we pulled in and tied up.

Two members of the Baros staff were there to meet and greet us by name and escort us to Reception for check-in and a glass of ‘bubbles’. Our bags remained invisible until we reached our room a little later on.
Baros Maldives20170091

Baros Maldives20170091


With the arrival formalities completed we were then taken on a short tour of the facility by Fee (our Room Host) and by the time we reached our pre-selected water villa we knew precisely where the three restaurants were, where the pool was, where the gym, the spa, the marine centre, the boutique, the Sails Bar and the Palm Court area were. And we were in no doubt that nothing would be too much trouble.
Baros Maldives20170158

Baros Maldives20170158


At full occupancy Baros only accepts 150 guests to occupy the 300 staff. For our stay occupancy was at 50% (not high season). Everything was in our favour. The water villa was everything we had hoped for and, as we discovered, was constantly refreshed with fruit, water, tea, coffee and cookies.
Baros Maldives20170252

Baros Maldives20170252


The air conditioning in the room was very effective. Baros is as close as we had ever been to the Equator, just 4 degrees above, and it was very hot, even when cloudy but it didn’t matter as we literally had nothing to do for four days. Maybe a bit of reading, a visit to the Spa or the Gym, a Yoga Session or two, maybe some snorkelling and walks around the perimeter of the island; this took around ten minutes each time. Beyond all of that it was all about the relaxation, the food, the drink and the service.
Baros Maldives20170198

Baros Maldives20170198


The room appeared to be tidied almost every time we left it for a while, even to the extent that the towels were changed as many times as you used them during the day but the staff never interrupted your privacy to get their work done. Only at around 6 pm would you hear a knock on your villa door and it was the member of the service staff responsible for your villa asking if you needed your room tidied and checking that everything was ok.
Baros Maldives20170093

Baros Maldives20170093


Our third day on Baros was also our wedding anniversary (37th) and we started the day with a glass of sparkling wine with breakfast. Jan tried snorkelling and saw many fish including two bright Blue in colour that we were later told were Jack Fish. We walked clockwise around the island and took photos before stopping for a beer around lunchtime; something that had slotted nicely into our daily routine. We found no need for any lunch because breakfast was so good, as was the food in the evening. And with fruit in the room we simply didn’t need any more than half board in The Maldives.
Baros Maldives20170258

Baros Maldives20170258


Later that day we attended a Cocktail Party hosted by the management team on the island. This preceded dinner which we took at The Lighthouse Restaurant. All three restaurants are very good but The Lighthouse offers Gourmet Dining and scores just that bit higher than the other two. During the meal (which was fantastic) we were presented with a cake to mark our anniversary and a couple on the next table (whom we had spoken with very briefly) wanted to buy us a drink and a small bottle of champagne was delivered to our table. One of the starters that we ordered was cooked and flambéed at the table and while we ate our main courses an Eagle Ray swam past, then a smaller Ray followed by two small Black-Tipped Reef Sharks. Brilliant!!
Baros Maldives20170269

Baros Maldives20170269


It was a good day and a great evening and on return to the water villa the staff had been into the room again, delivered the cake back to the room, tidied up and decorated the bed with a ‘Happy Anniversary’ message written in palm leaves and flowers.

The following day was our final full day on Baros. It was very hot but after breakfast we decided to walk around the island again. We walked anti-clockwise this time, just to make it a bit different and we saw crabs, a chameleon-like lizard and some water fowl. We also saw Fruit Bats flying around the trees in the middle of the day. At the Marina Centre we stopped and chatted to one of the management team who had worked in Fiji, The Seychelles and The Maldives and as we stood there talking a small shark appeared close-by in the water.

Jan wanted to go snorkelling again and also spend some time in the pool. She also took some underwater video and saw lots of different shapes and colours of coral, a sea cucumber, lots of very tiny coloured fish plus some larger bright Blue and multi-coloured ones. We finished drying off by the Pool at The Lime Restaurant with a beer and spent time enjoying one of our final few hours looking at the colours of the reef and the Indian ocean.
Baros Maldives20170151

Baros Maldives20170151


A Fish BBQ was being held at the Palm Court area in the evening so we booked to attend that as an alternative to an evening meal at one of the restaurants. It turned out to be a lovely way to spend our final evening despite the threat of some rain. We had one or two brief downpours during our stay but it held off for the majority of this evening and when it did finally rain we had the Sails Bar to run to for cover. The food from the BBQ was really good and the candlelit setting under the palm trees made it special. We finished the night with a drink while chatting to Grenville (Thynne) and Raha (Saber) who had travelled from Dubai and who had bought us the champagne at our anniversary meal the night before.
Baros Maldives20170096

Baros Maldives20170096


It had been an outstanding few days on Baros and from being very much a one-off treat when we left the UK it has now been added to the ‘must go back’ list of destinations. Added to what was a busy couple of weeks in Sri Lanka the entire trip sits among the best holidays that we have ever had. Better start saving!!

Posted by david.byne 12:46 Archived in Maldives Republic Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches trees animals birds night boats Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
SriLanka20170005

SriLanka20170005


After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.

Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.

At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
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SriLanka20170583


Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.

It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.

Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
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SriLanka20170323


You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.

A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
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SriLanka20170682-2


It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
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SriLanka20170734


The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
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SriLanka20170153


Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.

It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
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SriLanka20170471


Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.

Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.

Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.

As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.

Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
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SriLanka20170965


Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.

Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
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SriLanka20171041


After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.

Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
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SriLanka20171157


Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.

Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.

We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.

Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.

The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
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SriLanka20171447-2


More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.

Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
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SriLanka20171535


We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.

We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.

We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
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SriLanka20171559


We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
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SriLanka20171652


We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
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SriLanka20171796


After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
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SriLanka20171866


Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
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SriLanka20171758


Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.

Posted by david.byne 12:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches buildings trees animals birds sky boats architecture city Comments (0)

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

A tour of China and Hong Kong

sunny 36 °C
View China & Hong Kong on david.byne's travel map.

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.

China&HK2016 (20)

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.

China&HK2016 (34)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 (1)

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)

Peru – East and West of the Andes

Jungle, Mountains, Lakes, Volcanoes & Desert all in one trip

all seasons in one day 22 °C

Having never been to South America before it took a while before deciding that Peru would be our destination. Ultimately, it became a straight choice between the land of the Incas and Argentina but a closer look revealed that the sheer size and diversity of Argentina plus the fact that a British summer was not the time to travel to that particular country meant that the necessary four weeks to see everything from Iguaza Falls to Tierra del Fuego would not be possible until the constraints of school holidays weren’t a factor. So Peru it would be!!

The trip eventually worked out to be a total of 22 days including travelling and it was very early one morning in August that we drove to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 to make the short hop across to Amsterdam to connect with our KLM flight to Lima, the Peruvian capital. And twelve hours after taking off from Schiphol Airport we were touching down early evening in the arid coastal city on the Pacific coast.

Lima is far from the most attractive city in the world and its image isn’t helped by the fact that it appears for much of the time beneath a grey and overcast sky. Visually, aside from the main square (the Plaza de Armas) the city fails to inspire. Its suburbs seem awash with glitzy (tacky actually) casinos offering a financially struggling populace life-changing opportunities. It does however have its fair share of museums including a Gold Museum and if you walk down to the coast from the centre, probably no more than fifteen minutes, Lima has an interesting coastline and a few cliff top parks one of which resembles Park Guell in Barcelona. So it’s not all bad and, after all, cities are always good for shopping!!!

13_Lima (11)

13_Lima (11)

Lima was to be the start and finish of our South American adventure and after the initial two days and nights seeing the main historical sites and hearing all about Pizarro and those nasty Spanish we prepared for the next stage of our Peruvian trip; the Amazon Jungle!!

The flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado on the eastern side of the Andes took just over an hour including a quick stop at Cusco. As we approached Maldonado the meandering tan shapes of the Amazon tributaries came into view surrounded by jungle for as far as the eye could see. Expecting a significant increase in temperature compared to dull, overcast Lima, we were surprised to find it only warm. The reason became clear a little later.

We were met at the airport by Erick, our Peruvian guide who had lived all of his life in Puerto Maldonado and for the past ten years had spent most of his time on the river, living and based at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, approximately three hours upstream from Maldonado. We boarded our bus for the short trip to the office where we would leave the majority of our luggage, taking only a small bag for the jungle for the 3 days and nights that we would be there. Outside the office a Sloth was busily lazing on the branch of a tree – our first wildlife. We were told that the previous day had seen strong winds and heavy, unexpected rain (this was the dry season). Trees had come down and a lorry turned over blocking the road to the port that we would usually have left from. As a result, we had to travel further down river to another port which would mean our journey to the lodge would take four hours rather than three. Oh well.

02_Jungle (7)

02_Jungle (7)

Back on the bus for the short ride to the port we soon tested our balance for the first time on the trip, walking the narrow gangplank to carefully take our places on the long, slim boat that would take us to Refugio Amazonas. One at a time; one to the left, one to the right, next to the left etc; so as not to upset the balance of the boat. All on board we settled down in our summer clothes unaware of how cold it would get by the half way stage of the journey. Our skipper was clearly trying to make up for lost time and with his local knowledge steered the boat at speed from right to left as we travelled the Rio Tambopata, avoiding whatever lay just beneath the surface of the muddy looking Amazonian waters. A floating tree – another victim of the previous day’s storm – almost got the better of us as, caught in an undercurrent, it suddenly moved towards us and with limited room to manoeuvre, we had to take a blow to the right hand side of the boats canopy just above the head of the person sitting in front of me. Instinctively we all ducked!

Daylight hours are roughly from 6 am till 6 pm in this part of the world. We were due to arrive at the lodge at around 7 pm and it was now dark as well as cold, quite different to what we had anticipated but with light pollution set to zero it was great to see a full array of stars in the night sky.

Because of our late arrival, we were ushered straight into dinner – the allocation of rooms could wait. The lodge itself was very eco-friendly, constructed with natural materials about ten years earlier. Miguel was the Manager and his introductory speech to us outlined the strict regime for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the fact there was no electricity in the rooms and that basically the place closed down for the night at 9:30 pm. Early starts would be the norm.

The rooms, for obvious reasons perched ten feet off the jungle floor on stilts, were divided up by walls of wooden logs with curtains acting as a front door and another between the bedroom and bathroom. The bed was covered with a box style mosquito net and the far side of the room completely open and facing the jungle. Sleeping, maybe surprisingly, wasn’t a problem although the cold (luke warm at best) shower in the morning ensured you were soon wide awake for the day ahead.

02_Jungle (13)

02_Jungle (13)

Miguel promised to solve the problem with the water temperature in Room No. 29 while we were out with Erick and Enzo for the morning. Enzo had joined Erick to share the workload and both were knowledgeable and spoke very good English. Straight after breakfast they gathered us together and led us off on the first trail. A Tarantula had been pointed out by one of the guides as we made our way from the boat to the lodge when we arrived the previous night. This morning, as well as the numerous birds and sounds it was the Capuchin Monkeys and Dusky Titi Monkeys that took centre stage. Watching one Brown Capuchin Monkey trying to crack a coconut against a branch high up in the canopy was a real highlight.

The butterflies, the birds and the jungle sounds were memorable. In particular, the sound of the Oro Pendula bird, conveniently nesting in a tree at eye level from the upstairs lounge at the lodge, entertained us for ages as we recovered with a drink at the end of a morning walk.

Add to that, (1) a medicinal trail where we learned about the various plants that were used as medicines in the jungle, (2) a night boat excursion looking for Caymans and Capybaras, (3) a visit to a fruit farm where we tried star fruit, oranges and bitter tomatoes among other things, (4) bird and piranha watching from a boat on a lake which also contained Electric Eels, Giant Otter, Catfish and Anaconda, (5) climbing a tower to view over the top of the jungle canopy and (6) some light trekking (avoiding Leaf Cutter Ants along the way) to see the Toucans, Parrots, Macaws and Peccary’s at two different clay licks and it gives a flavour of the three days that we spent in the Amazon Jungle.

The jungle had begun to seriously warm up by the time we left with humidity noticeably rising. Consequently, the cooling breeze as we raced back down the amazon towards Puerto Maldonado was a lot more welcome than it had been on that much cooler evening when we arrived. At Maldonado we were reunited with the rest of our luggage and, leaving Erick and Enzo behind us, took the 45 minute bus ride to the small airport for the flight to Cusco for our next challenge – altitude!!

Cusco sits at somewhere around 10,500 feet above sea level and it’s here that you first start noticing the effects. As a visual reminder hotels are equipped with Oxygen in the Reception areas for people in need. “Drink the Coca Tea” was the general rule and take it easy while you acclimatise.

03_Cusco (15)

03_Cusco (15)

We had six nights to enjoy Cusco and a suite at the Casa Andina Hotel, just a ten minute walk from the Main Square, the Plaza de Armas (all the main squares in Peru seem to be called the Plaza de Armas!). Having arrived late afternoon we did nothing more than stroll and test ourselves with the altitude prior to dinner. The old streets and the main square left a good early impression and the two free days that we had at the end of our stay (on Saturday and Sunday) would be a great chance to wander.

On our first full day in Cusco we met our guide, Gladys, and she took us to visit a number of the Inca sites that surround it including Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman. The 11,500 feet altitude induced a mild and temporary headache and slight congestion but others were already feeling breathless as we walked the final stretch from the bus to the sites. In the evening we found a recommended restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and decided that we would try Cuy (Guinea Pig). Cuy is cooked in several different ways and while ours tasted ok it was hard work finding anything worthwhile and neither of us tried Guinea Pig again during the trip.

Day Two in Cusco and we ventured outside the city with a new guide, David, into the Sacred Valley to visit Chinchero and Ollantaytambo. Chinchero is a typical small Peruvian village with a community that live by traditional ways and means in an attempt to remain as self-sufficient as possible. The women work as weavers and spin the Alpaca wool into thread before dying it using natural materials and then weaving it into fabric. ‘Head Girl’ Olga gave a brief talk in her best English to entertain the group and get them into buying mode. And then, in the courtyard of the house the women offered for sale the various products that each had made. In the corner was a cage full of squeaking Guinea Pigs destined for the pot!

03_Cusco (117)

03_Cusco (117)

Ollantaytambo is a main stop on the railway line through the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu and is also the location of the main archaeological site in the area. It was a hot day and getting to the top would have been challenging enough without the impact of altitude so it was no surprise when some, given the option to finish at one or two lower levels, chose to do precisely that. At the top, the view over the back provided a landscape of snow-capped mountains which made the effort worthwhile.

From Ollantaytambo we travelled to Pisac, another village in the valley but one with more than a hint of the touristic about it. The market, I am sure, has been operating for a long, long time but this was a scene geared very much towards the foreign visitors, as were the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the square on one side. Having said that, it was an opportunity to pick up one or two predictable presents and in any case, everywhere we went, there were photo opportunities.

Back in Cusco we had very little inclination to do much more than eat in the hotel and get some sleep ahead of the 5 o’clock departure for Machu Picchu the following day. The train left Poroy Station – about 45 minutes outside of Cusco – at 06:40. Perurail are a part of the Orient Express group and we were treated to a Peruvian version of the famous service with breakfast and drinks being served during the three hour journey that followed the line of the Urubamba River. It was a very classy trip with great scenery all the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the end of the line that sits below Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes it was a twenty minute bumpy ride on the shuttle buses that compete for the narrow road all the way up the mountain. Once there, make use of the toilets (there are none inside!), get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp and enter through the turnstile, past the Hiram Bingham plaques and up the slope for your first sight of the Machu Picchu landscape.

04_MachuPicchu (8)

04_MachuPicchu (8)

When you enter the site there are three levels and you enter at the middle on a long terrace facing Machu Picchu (Old Mountain). Below, the classic photo of the site appears and it is from down there that you can start the 45-minute walk up to the summit of the old mountain. Above us is the Guard House and the Sun Gate from where the ‘calendar shot’ is actually taken. It’s a huge area and quite a challenge on the uneven Incan stone steps. The views around the bowl of mountains in which Machu Picchu stands are many and varied and supplemented by clouds that cling to the top of the landscape and threaten to engulf it, potentially ruining the view that you have travelled thousands of miles to see. Chinchillas laze on the enormous stones and Llamas roam the site but thankfully without the colourfully dressed peasant women asking tourists for ‘un Sol’ in exchange for a photograph. Machu Picchu is a relatively well controlled World Heritage site. Limits on the number of visitors were imposed a few years ago as a condition of its status and this is supposed to prevent more than 2,500 people visit each day – but then money talks doesn’t it. We were fortunate to see most of the ruins with few other people around and credit for that was due to David, our guide, who knew how to get around the site and avoid the crowds. However, the constant stream of shuttle buses travelling up and down the mountain all day long at ten minute intervals makes it hard to believe that the 2,500 limit isn’t being exceeded.

Back in Cusco after the return train journey, complete again with food and refreshments and on-board fashion show by the Perurail employees (they work very hard for their money!) we reflected on a great day. We didn’t reach the hotel until 9:15 in the evening but the next two days were totally free time and so we made our own plans for the weekend. There is plenty to see and do in Cusco. The main square is easy to get to and everything is within touching distance from there; the Cathedral, Santa Catalina Convent, the theatre, Son Blas, restaurants, bars and the main shops.

Son Blas is a small district a few roads back from the Plaza de Armas at the end of a matrix of some attractive narrow streets, opening out into a plaza with an impressive water feature at the top end. The square was dotted with table-top vendors but it has a very relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to buy anything that was on offer. There are also one or two shops and the usual bars – it was a nice way to spend an hour or so on another hot day. With the boxes ticked for this, the Cathedral and Santa Catalina Convent we headed back to the hotel. The Sunday was to be a totally random kind of a day; so much so that I decided to have a day out without the camera. After all, it was day six in Cusco and what could I possibly take photos of that I hadn’t taken already? By the time we had walked from the hotel to the main square again that question had been answered. We walked straight into the middle of a parade with what appeared to be numerous schools presenting themselves in colourful costumes to dignitaries sat on a V.I.P podium just in front of the main cathedral doors. Bands played and the kids from the schools (possibly dance schools) danced and they were eventually followed by what was effectively a Carnival Queen. Needless to say, all of this warranted a walk back to the hotel to get the camera!! More photos!! It was great to have the two days in the middle of the trip doing exactly what we wanted and we even managed to get the washing done locally.

We were now moving on to Puno and in particular Lake Titicaca. Our transport was to be the Andean Explorer train, again run by Perurail in their own Orient Express kind of way. The journey would take ten hours but travelling across the picturesque Altiplano, the high plains, it was unlikely ever to drag. The train had an observation car at the back which gave complete views of the surrounding countryside as we cruised at 25 miles per hour at between 11,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level with the edges of the Andes Mountains visible on both sides. Alpacas, Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos plus sheep, bulls, cows and numerous birds complemented the landscape. The occasional town offered a brief but chaotic contrast to the calm, unspoiled Altiplano with trackside markets and tuk-tuk’s dominating the scene and children running behind the train waving. Perurail help the time pass easily by providing food and drink intervals, another fashion show, musicians, the bar and, of course, the observation carriage and scenery. And by late afternoon we were approaching Juliaca, the final stop before Puno. Juliaca is a marmite town which a lot of people wouldn’t like but others, including me, loved the experience of passing through it and taking photographs from the back of the train. Juliaca has an edge to it. It isn’t attractive, doesn’t look very clean and certainly doesn’t appear prosperous. The long straight train track through the centre of town was under severe pressure on both sides from the trackside market stalls. It seemed you could buy anything and some goods such as books and oranges were even being displayed on the ground between the tracks while the trains run over the top! Expressions on faces varied, some happy, some sad, some looked angry or simply worn down by life and others simply looked focussed on what they were doing; trying to earn a living. But regardless, almost all of the children were entertaining and happy to run with the train and along the track, calling and waving as we trundled through their town. As soon as the back of the train passed by, the track evolved a series of its own crossings with animals, cars, bikes, tuk-tuk’s (imported into Peru from India in the 1990’s) and people all busily moving across the track. For me Juliaca was a memorable part of our Peruvian experience.

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

Having already said that Juliaca had an edge to it, much the same could be said for Puno where our journey on the Andean Explorer ended. As the train eased its way into the station a welcoming stone was hurled at the window by one of the locals. Significantly larger than Juliaca, Puno sits on the south west corner of Lake Titicaca but other than the lake itself there is little felt worthy of advertising for visitors to see. On the other hand, Lake Titicaca really is worth spending time on. At 13,000 feet it ranks as the highest lake in the world and is huge. Our hotel had its own pier which was surrounded by reeds and marshes which were home to numerous species of birds as I discovered on an early morning walk along the frost covered boards of the pier. We spent a day on the lake visiting first the floating Uros Islands and then Taquile Island. The Uros Islands are about sixty strong and are home to Aymara speaking families, approximately 2,500 people in total. The people construct and maintain their own islands and the houses that they live in using the reeds from the lake. Anchored to the bottom of the lake the islands are visited in rotation to ease the pressure on the families and also to share any income gained from tourism. The one that we visited was called San Miguel and six families (around 42 people ) lived there. Life unsurprisingly is basic with the women doing the usual weaving and other craft work while the men do whatever they do including maintaining the island, the property and the boat (also made from the reeds from Titicaca - as Thor Heyerdahl did for his Kontiki expedition). We spent about an hour learning about how the islands are maintained and looked inside the houses before predictably being asked if we wanted to buy anything. Equally predictably, we did!

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

By contrast, Taquile Island is on solid ground and home to small farming communities. From here it’s easy to see the mountains of Bolivia on the far eastern shore of Titicaca. Mount Illimani, acts as a landmark for La Paz. It’s not an easy walk from one side of the island to the other but we had the motivation of a drink and lunch at the top before we descended down the other side to meet up with our boat again for the journey back to Puno. Again, the views had been spectacular.

The hotel was out on a bit of a limb as far as the town was concerned so we didn’t venture any further than the hotel restaurant in the evening. We had the following morning free and then we went off to visit the Sillustani Funerary Towers that lie about an hour outside of Puno alongside another very photogenic lake. In the centre of the lake is an island that is now a reserve for Vicunas. The lakeside location and the general landscape far exceeded my interest in the history of the towers themselves and while it was a particularly hot day for and the effort required to climb to the top was considerable it was worth it for the views alone.

We had a flight to catch from Juliaca Airport to Arequipa later that afternoon and the trip to Sillustani is conveniently on the way. The joys of Juliaca came quickly flooding back as we briefly flirted with the traffic, the market and the railway line again in the centre of town before squeezing our way through and out of the chaos to the airport located on the outskirts. Inside the terminal building was almost as chaotic and disorganised as the town centre but we made our way through their very different and not totally convincing security process before finding the departure lounge.

From Juliaca, the flight to Arequipa is just under one hour and we were met by Alberto who would be our guide in the area for a couple of days. Our hotel, the Somesta del Posada, was right in the middle of town on one side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas!! Surrounded by Volcanoes, some currently active, Arequipa represents Peru’s second city after Lima. Arequipenos are proud of their city to the extent that they are making what could only be described as a whispered and tentative claim for independence from the rest of Peru. However, apart from promoting Arequipa in every conceivable way possible including their own beer – Arequipena (a direct competitor to Cuzquena in Cuzco) – it is difficult to imagine such claims ever being taken seriously enough to get their campaign off the ground. Our main points of interest whilst in Arequipa were the town itself and in particular the museum where ‘Juanita’ is on show, Santa Catalina Convent, and Colca Valley and Canyon to watch the Condors fly.

First stop was to see Juanita in a museum just around the corner from the hotel. Also known as the Inca Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, ‘Juanita’ is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480, at approximately 11–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) near Arequipa in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate. Today, she is on display in the city, preserved in a temperature controlled glass casing and is the highlight of the museum visit.

Arequipa is a typical bustling city overwhelmed by people and traffic. It also has its fair share of earthquakes - on average there is one every two hours in Peru!!). The most common car in Peru is by far and away the Daewoo Tico and you see these everywhere, often in coincidental convoy in a variety of colours but predominantly yellow. Most taxis are yellow Daewoo Tico’s. A couple of roads back from the main square you will find the large covered market which sells almost everything you can think of and around the corner from here is the Santa Catalina Convent, probably Arequipa’s main tourist attraction. Described as a ‘city within a city’ Santa Catalina is well worth a visit and the guided tour lasting about an hour explains the history of the multi-coloured buildings. But both Juanita and Santa Catalina Convent were added bonuses as far as we were concerned. The main purpose of being based in Arequipa was to be within reach of Colca Canyon to take the opportunity of seeing the Condors fly. It meant that we transferred from Arequipa to the Colca valley, a journey across the highlands of almost four hours passing Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas again as we drove for a while on the new road that stretches from the Atlantic Coast starting in Brazil through Bolivia and Peru before finishing on the Pacific Coast in Chile. We stopped for lunch at Chivay and then stayed overnight at Colca Lodge, a spa resort deep in the valley with natural hot springs within its list of facilities. We arrived late afternoon and it was a lovely sunny evening that provided enough light to stroll to the Alpaca Farm on the other side of the river. Photographically the light was as good as it had been so far on the entire trip so there was little respite for the camera but as the light dimmed the prospect of a Pisco Sour by the hot springs began to emerge as the next favourite pastime. And we were still there after the sun had set.

It was another early start the following morning as we headed off for the canyon with the hope but no guarantee of seeing the Condors rise up from the valley and pose for photos. Colca Canyon is a popular venue for this particular ‘sport’ and others had clearly started closer or left earlier than us but it was a large viewing area and easy to find space to wait and watch. Hundreds of eyes scanned in various directions until high above the peak behind the canyon the first Condor was spotted but it was a long way away and, for me, I wanted to see one much closer to feel satisfied with the morning’s effort. We only had just over an hour before starting a short trek across the top of the valley to get back to our bus and whilst we saw a second and then a third Condor flying high above us it still didn’t tick the box as far as I was concerned. Time ticked away and I was literally about to change lenses on the camera and concentrate on other things away from giant birds when below us as we looked down the valley we spotted outspread wings gliding in a circular and gradually upward motion towards where we were standing. Within seconds it had soared on the thermals up to our eye level and then did a fly-past from right to left in front of us. It was a real wow moment and I just hoped that from first sighting to last I had captured enough quality on camera to do justice to what would be a lasting memory. We continued watching ‘our Condor’ as it soared and climbed until it disappeared over the next ridge before we joined Alberto and the others for the short trek back to the bus. The walk took us along the edge of the top of the valley which gave us an infinite number more viewing points to hopefully see more Condors or even other birds in the area. And we did. Probably the largest Condor that we saw flew above us as we continued walking. It was big and black and with a huge wingspan and if it had been closer would surely have eclipsed our earlier sighting. The valley floor was over one mile beneath us at this point although the maximum drop in the Colca Valley reaches two miles at one point. We walked past a dead donkey and a dead cow on our way back to the bus; surely these wouldn’t go to waste up here!!! Alberto spotted a Humming Bird flying around a cactus and then said that he could hear Parakeets before pointing them out as they flew into trees on the side of the mountain.

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

We had seen eleven condors, our fair share, and it was time to go. We had a four hour journey back to Arequipa passing the lodge on the way and stopping at Chivay for a quick break before moving on down the mountains. What came next was totally unexpected. We remembered Alberto mentioning earlier that he thought he had seen a snowflake falling. Within half an hour of us being on the road from Chivay that solitary snowflake had turned into a full blown blizzard and one that would ultimately make national and even international news!!

Within another half an hour the entire area was white and the roads were very dicey. Our driver did brilliantly, taking no risks as we made our way down, passing again the Llamas, Alpaca and Vicunas who were understandably looking far less lively than they did in the earlier sunshine. We weren’t to know at this stage that within a couple of days the news would break that over 5,000 people had been made homeless as a result of this snowstorm and over 20,000 animals including Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas had died.

We arrived back around sunset which was around 6:30 pm and agreed with several others to meet later and go out for dinner on our last evening in Arequipa with the aim of finding more Alpaca – to eat this time – which we did.

The flight from Arequipa the following day reunited us with the capital city of Lima within one hour but from the airport we drove straight to Paracas, around three hours down the coast by car. Our outbound flight from Arequipa had been delayed so we were late into Lima and therefore later getting to Paracas. Lima was its usual overcast self with barely a hint of breaking sunshine and by the time we reached Paracas it was dark and we couldn’t properly see what awaited us until we checked in and reached our room. Everything was coated in up to 5mm of sand; the result of a sandstorm during the afternoon. Paracas literally translates as Sandstorm and each storm lasted usually for three days and day two had just passed. The cleaning staff at the hotel were already working their way around the rooms and after a quick word at reception ours was moved up the list. Within an hour and after a free Pisco Sour we were able to occupy the suite that we had for two nights to see first the Nasca Lines and then on the following day pay a visit to the Ballestas Islands. Would our room survive day three of the sandstorm? We covered everything that we could just in case.

We travelled on the Pan-Pacific Highway to reach the Nasca Lines. The highway stretches 27,000 kms down the west coast of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina and 3,000 of those kms are in Peru. Peru’s coastline is entirely desert. On the way to Nasca we stopped at Ica to visit a cultural museum. I’m not a massive fan of museums but this was as good as I’ve seen with the usual artefacts being spiced up with mummy’s and the techniques used by the nobility to deliberately deform skulls as a sign of superiority. Amazing.

Nasca is located on the open road with the Pan-Pacific Highway actually constructed through one of the Nasca Lines thus decapitating ‘the lizard’. We had already decided on UK Government advice not to take one of the flights over the lines and instead chose to observe what we could from the viewing towers alongside. As it turned out, the imminent sandstorm ended any prospect of flights being made on the day we were there and the view from the tower was good enough to see two of the Nasca Lines to justify the trip.

On the way back to Paracas we could see day three of the storm in the distance. We stopped to visit yet another archaeological site before stopping again at Ica, this time for lunch and then it was back on the road with fingers crossed over the state of the rooms at the Doubletree Resort. It really was a lovely hotel which under different circumstances would be a luxury. Located on the beach it has lovely swimming pools and outdoor lounging and bar areas but we had little time until the morning before we departed to enjoy the facilities to any extent.

Our very last excursion on this holiday was to the Ballestas Islands. Approximately half an hour out to sea from Paracas the islands are home to almost one million birds plus Sea Lions and Penguins and you can see Dolphins a little nearer to the coast. Just before you reach the islands the boat pulls in and drifts off of a smaller island. The island is basically a massive sandstone rock and on it, in the same way as the Nasca Lines have been etched, is the outline of what looks like a candelabra. It has become a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right although it’s really only a warm-up act for the Ballestas Islands.

As we approached the islands the sharp-eyed among the passengers on the boat spotted one or two inquisitive Sea Lions poking their heads out of the water. The number of birds in the sky at this point was striking and as we got closer to land the number was simply unbelievable. It was easy to understand the importance placed on the gathering and exporting of the Guano from this place! Nobody is permitted to set foot on the islands other than the three Rangers that look after the environment and supervise the farming of the Guano. Our boat switched its engines off and we drifted closer and closer to shore to initially view the Booby Birds, Cormorants, Pelicans, Terns and Penguins.

12_Paracas (80)

12_Paracas (80)

The rock formations, colours and natural windows in the rocks were an attraction on their own and our captain skilfully manoeuvred the boat around the islands to the various inlets to try and see as much as possible. Around one such corner we reached and saw for the first time the Sea Lions, lazing heavily upon the rocks and occasionally throwing themselves back into the water as it crashed against the rocks that they call home. Territorial instincts surfaced as a rival ventured too far into another’s personal space while others were playing. The Sea Lions were a highlight and it would have been easy to have drifted on the Pacific for longer observing both them and the birds but we soon had to start the journey back to the pier but not before cruising nearer to shore to see the Dolphins. Once back in Paracas we disembarked and received a gift from the boat as a memento; nice touch.

It was still only 10:30 am which was nice as we had already done so much and now had several hours to enjoy the beach and the hotel facilities before we caught the bus back to the capital in preparation for our return flight to the UK. The pool bar and lounge had just been cleaned following the previous days rush of sand from the desert so we took advantage and sat there with a drink for a while. The lazy chairs looking from the beach out to sea were another brief refuge before we finished our stay with a walk up and down the long stretch of sand, counting the jellyfish that had washed up onto the beach and were by now in various stages of decomposition. A couple of small boats were anchored just offshore and these had been commandeered by groups of birds, predominantly Pelicans, that perched lazily on the edges of each boat, occasionally taking off and briefly exercising their wings before resting on the ocean for a while and then returning to the boat.

Packed for the final time we made our way to the local Bus Station; in fact, a hut. Inside, best attempts had been made to make the whole operation (run by the Cruz del Sur bus company) look as professional as possible. There was a waiting area and some vending available with drinks and ice creams but best of all there was an information desk and an airport style check in where somebody took your bags, stapled a yellow ticket to them and gave you the matching half of each ticket as a receipt. The bags were then put on the floor behind him in a heap until all of the passengers had been checked in. The same operative then began phase two of the process moving the bags from the floor onto the shelf on the outside wall. From here, unemployment among others in the room fell and two more became operational, moving the bags from the shelf to the waiting transport. While this was underway we were ushered into an orderly line to board what was a double decker luxury coach bedecked in Cruz del Sur livery, something that I then realised I had seen many times during our stay in Peru. At the point of boarding we were greeted at the bottom of the stairs ‘airline style’ by an immaculately dressed hostess who checked our tickets and directed us to our seats upstairs. The coach had all modern conveniences including the usual airline-style onboard services and entertainment. Pillows and blankets were provided for the four hour journey which would get us to Lima for 7 pm. It was all very well done but having said all of that the four hours spent on the coach were more than enough for me and confirmed my preference for smaller vehicles, trains and planes.

Back in Lima, we stayed at the same hotel as that when we arrived and it was nice to be on familiar ground in that respect. No time to venture out so plans were laid for last-minute shopping in the city the following morning plus a walk to the coast for a drink. The Gold Museum is supposed to be worth seeing but its location wasn’t convenient and time simply ran out.

Lima Airport was more challenging than on arrival as a result of the two British girls that had been arrested for drug smuggling. Sniffer dogs were everywhere as we queued to check-in and drop our bags for the hold. Thankfully, the flight was on time and 8 pm in Lima on Wednesday very quickly became 3 pm in Amsterdam and then 6 pm in the UK. Home again.

Peru had been a great choice for our first South American journey. Our expectations were more than met particularly towards the end where the itinerary, on paper at least, felt to be tailing off but that was far from the case. The cities, the jungle, the mountains, the lakes, the desert, the ocean, the animals, the birds and the people all combined to make this a fantastic holiday.

Posted by david.byne 01:33 Archived in Peru Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches bridges churches buildings skylines people children trees animals birds sky snow boats trains ani Comments (0)

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