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Norway 2022

Living Daylight

all seasons in one day 10 °C
View Norway 2022 on david.byne's travel map.

This was a trip that we had waited three years for. Booked in 2019. We eventually packed our cases in June 2022 for the taxi ride to Gatwick and a short flight to Bergen in Norway.

The cute port of Bryggen in Bergen is a World Heritage site and having been there with work some years before I can confirm that it is certainly worth a day or two if you have the time. However, we were straight out of the airport on this occasion and onto the shuttle bus that would take us to the Hurtigruten Terminal where we would be organised for boarding our ship, the MS Nordkapp.

The MS Nordkapp is one of a fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten and their trip described as “The world’s most beautiful voyage” was our choice of holiday. The ship would take us from Bergen all the way North, inside the Arctic Circle, to the port of Kirkenes, a border town with Russia. It stops at 34 ports on the Northbound journey and the same 34 on the Southbound journey. Invariably, those that you see during your waking hours while travelling North will be the places that the ship stops at while passengers sleep on the Southbound leg and vice versa,
This voyage is undertaken by the Hurtigruten fleet on almost every day of the year. Aside from being a ship used for the benefit of a few tourists, it is also the Post Boat i.e it delivers the post up and down the Norwegian Coast; additionally, it is effectively a Cargo Vessel (delivering whatever supplies need to be moved up and down the country) and also provides a bus/ferry service for both car and foot passengers.

The MS Nordkapp carries a maximum of 400 people and for hardened cruise lovers would probably be regarded as a bit basic whereas for others, like us, it was a luxury ferry without the entertainment and formality of the large cruise ships. Having said that, the excellent crew and staff on board busy themselves in such a well-rehearsed manner that there are often many things to do during any downtime that may occur – should you need much more than the amazing scenery that is (?).
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The time of year is significant with this trip. Visiting as we were in June we found ourselves (knowingly I may add) in the middle of their two-month period of total daylight (which runs from the end of May to the end of July). From the end of November until the end of January nature balances its books and you can enjoy 24 hours of total darkness. As grim as this may sound you would of course benefit from having the greatest chance to see the Northern Lights.

It doesn’t take long on board to forget what day it is – and this is almost encouraged by constant reference to it being Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 etc rather than Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whatever.

Our cabin was more than adequate. We had an Arctic Superior cabin on Deck 6 and this gave us easy access to the Sun Deck, viewing lounge, Explorer Bar and also the ship’s cafe (all on Deck 7). Deck 5 is the only deck that we could walk all the way around the ship (useful for photographs) while Deck 4 had the restaurants, kitchen, shop and lecture rooms.

The food is prepared on board by a group of very capable chefs and the extremely fresh ingredients are all locally sourced, often from the ports of call during the voyage. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all excellent with salmon and other fish being a predictable feature on the menu along with Reindeer!

Right, on with the trip. We departed Bergen around 20:30 by which time dinner had been taken and we were settled into our cabin. Permanent daylight can of course be misleading but the wet weather as we departed Bergen detracted from the obvious scenery as we headed towards midnight.

By the time we woke from our first night the ship had visited and departed three of the thirty-four ports. The fourth, Alesund, was reached during breakfast but we stayed for a mere 15 minutes before sailing on towards Gerainger.

As a part of our booking, we had chosen several excursions from the boat. The first of these on Day 2 happened to be the longest. We would disembark the ship at Gerainger at 14:30 and meet up with it again in Molde, approximately seven hours later.

Trips off of the boat either involve walking or a coach ride (or very occasionally a small boat). Today for us would be a coach ride with several stops. Primarily, we wanted to see the Gerainger Fjord and the surrounding viewpoints plus the Trollstigen Pass. It was a terrific day with an unexpected highlight of several metres of snow still occupying the higher land of the Pass.
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As we were late back, dinner was supplied at a restaurant during the excursion. However, with it still as light as midday the Sun Deck and the Explorer Bar would soon become a regular place to relax until common sense determined that it really was time to get some sleep.
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On Day 3 we would reach Trondheim via, in the middle of the night, a stop at Kristiansund. The ship stops for three hours in Trondheim and, although we had no excursions booked, it was an opportunity to spend some time off the boat and walk into town independently. The ship can usually supply a tear-off map of the towns so, using that, we found our way to the centre for a stroll, a coffee and a visit to the Cathedral. The walk back took us a different route back over the river and views of the colourful warehouses on the waterfront.
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Four more ports came and went during the night and before we took breakfast on Day 4. We had another excursion booked when we docked at Bodo. Again, the weather wasn’t being at all generous and, maybe as a result, the sight-seeing tour of Bodo was a bit uninspiring. However, it was the visit to Saltstraumen that was the real motivation for this excursion. The strait of Saltstraumen is the site of a convergence of several different currents which has, on occasions, seen small boats consumed by its whirlpool effect.
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The ship left Bodo mid-afternoon and headed for Stamsund and Svolvaer (the Lofoten Islands). The Lofoten Islands were a ‘must see’ for me but we would wait for this treat until the Southbpund leg of the journey. Day 4 was also the day when we crossed into the Arctic Circle. The ship’s crew don’t let you forget it and hold am entirely voluntary ceremony on Deck & to mark the event,
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Five more ports later and we arrived at Tromso (on Day 5). With a population of 75,000 people Tromso is effectively the capital of the Arctic Circle. Sightseeing in the city took in the Cablecar, the Cathedral and the Polar Museum and Aquarium. Tromso is a place that I really enjoyed and felt it was somewhere that I could live.
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That evening we witnessed the “land of the Midnight Sun” for the first time. It was the best day we had had in terms of weather and the light at midnight and beyond was magical. It coincided with our short diversion into the Trollfjorden. It was here that the Captain of the ship ‘showed off’ a bit by turning the ship 360 degrees three times at the end of the fjord (which was little wider than the ship itself) to allow passengers to take the photos they wanted.
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Day 6: Skjervay, Oksfjord, Hammerfest and Havoysund preceded our arrival at the port of Honningsvag. Honningsvag also gave us our first close-up of Reindeer as a herd ran through the town as we were disembarking the ship. Regarded as a nuisance in town the Reindeer numbers have to be controlled but, of course, that is hardly an issue with them being such a key source of food in Norway.

We took the excursion and were on our way to the North Cape. Basically, the North Cape is the last accessible point in a Northerly direction before you reach the North Pole. It is marked by an iron globe monument and has a visitor centre with a café and one or two other attractions including a tiny chapel and museum.

Whale spotting isn’t unheard of in this part of the world and while the ports of Kjollefjord, Mehamn, Berlevag, Batsfjord, Vardo and Vadso were ticked off we had our first sight, albeit distant, of a pod of Orcas. However, a flashing dorsal fin gave us hope of further sightings during the rest of the voyage.

The sight of Fish Farming was now a regular feature, Visible on a regular basis, the circular and square containers were just visible on the surface of the water, marked usually by small floats . Predominantly Salmon but occasionally Haddock these farms helped ensure that the fish we were enjoying on-board was always super-fresh.

The final destination on the Northbound half of the voyage is the town of Kirkenes. We reached Kirkenes on Day 7. A border town with Russia, 10% of the population are indeed of Russian descent and our stop of three hours allowed us the time to find our own way around the town while others took the excursion to the Border or the alternative hike to the higher points locally. We headed once again for the centre of town and the nearest coffee shop and inevitable church. At times it’s just enjoyable to walk independently and relatively aimlessly for a while and see what we find, especially as the weather had been much kinder since the first two days of the trip.

After Kirkenes, the boat turns and begins to travel South and returns to Vardo in late afternoon, having only been there at 03:30 that morning. With no time to get off and see the small fishing villages we were quickly on our way to and from Batsfjord, Berlevag, Mehamn, Kjollefjord, Honningsvag and Havoysund en route to Hammerfest once again on what was now Day 8.

Hammerfest is defined as the Northern most town in the world. On approach to Hammerfest you will see the most expensive project in Northern Norway. The construction of the large liquefied natural gas site on Melkøya island has resulted in an economic boom and new optimism in Hammerfest in recent years, a stark contrast to the economic downhill and negative population growth most other municipalities in the area are experiencing.
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Rumours were flying around among passengers about a sighting of a couple of Hump-Back Whales but I have no firm evidence to confirm the claim. However, it wasn’t long before the Ship’s Expedition Team were announcing that Minke Whales could be seen on the Starboard Right-hand side of the ship. At last, a proper sighting as the Whale rose and fell in the water, arching its back around 300 metres away from the ship.

Our stop at Hammerfest was just under two hours and then we were sailing once more; this time towards Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso where we would arrive around midnight on Day 8. Having seen Tromso on the Northbound voyage we were keen to see it at the time of the midnight sun. We wouldn’t disembark but the Arctic city is quite attractive with it’s Cathedral and bridge being the focal points against a background of steep snow-capped mountains. It was another lovely evening with a few more photos capturing more memories of a great trip.
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During the voyage we attended several of the lectures given by the on-board Expedition Team. These included sessions on Whales, Seabirds, the Fishing Industry and also the Politics related to the Norwegian Oil and Gas industries. The Expedition Team also gave daily updates on the weather and forthcoming points of interest and the excursions available.

I can’t speak highly enough of those working on the ship. They were all friendly, helpful and very good at what they do.

Finnsnes and Harstad were two small villages that passed us by in both directions on the voyage. Both were very quick stops and both were at inconvenient times but even dockings such as these can be fun to witness from the deck as various things are unloaded and loaded onto the ship. On one occasion, about a dozen high-performance cars were driven on-board. Of various makes and colours and all with equal shine the cars and their owners were annual regulars on the trip. They travel for around 24 hours and then disembark to undertake whatever tour they have decided upon ‘in convoy’. Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis all made their way as we pushed off towards our next port of call.
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Day 9 and we were heading back towards the Lofoten Islands calling first at Risoyhamn, Sortland and Stokmarknes before reaching Svolvaer at 18:30 in the evening. We had decided to take the tour and were really pleased we did as the Lofoten Islands were a highlight. On a global scale they represent a tiny dot on the map but they have an excess of outstanding scenery, assisted at last by the weather which also was lovely, The fish racks were becoming a fairly regular sight as we sailed North on the voyage. You do see them before you smell them – but only just. Our transport for the tour took us to Stamsund to meet up with the ship again some 4 hours later. The evening meal had been supplied as a part of the excursion at a restaurant and again the quality of both the food and the hospitality were high.
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We had only spent two full days on-board and Day 10 was also quite a quiet day for us. However, after brief stops at Bodo, Ornes, Nesna and Sandnessjoen we would return to Bronnoysund where the ship would dock for two and a half hours. So, with tear-off map in hand, we made our way into the small but very tidy town on a lovely bright Norwegian day, By now you can probably guess the routine: Stroll, Town Centre, Church, Coffee Shop. Having said that, Bronnoysund had the addition of a lovely decked promenade so we completed a circular walk by following the prom back to the ship with the busy harbour and numerous small but nearby islands adding to the scene.
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With just ten ports including Bergen to call at we were already reflecting on what we had done and seen and how this trip had been more than worthwhile. The tenth day ended with a 9 p.m. stop at Rorvik before a nine hour sail to Trondheim, a town that we enjoyed on the Northbound voyage. We stayed in Trondheim again for three hours but between 06:30 and 09:30 it was a bit early this time around and clashed with breakfast. Furthermore, we knew we were getting off at the next port of Kristiansund and it was from here that we took our Day 11 excursion to the Atlantic Road. We would meet up with the ship again in Molde some four hours later.
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The Atlantic Road has recently become better known for its part at the end of the latest James Bond movie “No time to die”. The road joins a number of small islands over a 9 km stretch and the scenery is breath-taking although nothing unusual for the outstandingly attractive Norwegian Coastline.

Again, we had our evening meal off the ship at a nice fish restaurant before heading for Molde and a quick tour of the city before getting back on the ship.

We stopped at Alesund late on Day 11 and left in the early hours of Day 12. Alesund looks a nice town but was one that got away in terms of only ever seeing it from Deck 7 on the ship. The villages of Torvik, Maloy and Flora would get us to breakfast on the final day – Day 12. Thereafter, it’s a straight run of 6 hours at sea to our destination of Bergen.
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We docked in Bergen at 14:45 with some initially disappointing news. Our flight back to the UK at 7 o’clock that evening had been cancelled due to a Technician’s strike at the airline. Hurtigruten are generally a very impressive company and they immediately stepped up to the plate and sorted out a hotel for the night in Bergen plus new flights the following day. The disappointment of not getting home when expected soon became an opportunity for us to spend some time in Bergen. Our hotel was walking distance from the airport and Hurtigruten organised the transfer there for us. For there we got ourselves to the Bryggen in Bergen and enjoyed a few hours there which we didn’t expect to have. A small bonus.
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We eventually arrived back in the UK at 3 pm the following day on a flight from Bergen that took us first to Stockholm to pick up the flight to London. A bit of an inconvenience? Maybe, but nothing could detract from the pleasure gained from the world’s most beautiful voyage. I can recommend it, so much so that we have already spoken about taking the same trip in a few years’ time in the Winter, probably November, to enjoy the different things that the opposite season can offer. We will see.

Posted by david.byne 11:00 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains bridges churches buildings skylines animals birds sky snow boats architecture Comments (0)

JORDAN 2019

“WE ARE THE SWITZERLAND OF THE MIDDLE EAST”

sunny 25 °C
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An eight day visit to the Middle East in the spring.
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Jordan was our destination which, given the lack of stability in so much of that region of the world, may be stating the obvious to some.

Flying into Amman, Jordan’s capital city, we were to then move on to The Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba before flying back to Amman to fly home.
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So, Amman was our first stop. Introduced to our guide, Ibrahim, he would stay with us for the journey from Amman to Aqaba and in-between before leaving us to our own devices in Aqaba which would effectively be a couple of beach/pool days for us at the end of the trip. Ibrahim was a priceless source of information.

Amman is an interesting city. No high-rise as such so a bit of a sprawl in many ways but containing so much history within it. We took a city tour and visited their Blue Mosque and the ancient amphitheatre as well as seeing much of the everyday life going about its business.
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When considering whether to go to the Middle East or not and then planning the trip it was difficult to rid ourselves completely of a slight apprehension in venturing to a part of the world that is almost landlocked within territories that have and still are experiencing such turbulent times. A couple of days in Amman helped remove that last lingering element of apprehension.

The people are friendly and so too is the climate ….. in March and April. But beware, temperatures a month or wo later can reach 50 degrees in the shade.
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On our second day in Jordan’s capital city we travelled about one hour outside to the town of Jerash. Comparable to The Forum in Rome, Jerash presents an impressive area of Roman ruins that once formed the old town. Substantially complete roads and pillars leave slightly less to the imagination than does The Forum when trying to cast the mind back to what it may have looked like in its heyday.
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Photographically, much of the landscape around the ruins was awash with Rapeseed when we were there, adding colour to the scenery.
Back in the city for the night we prepared to travel the following morning down to The Dead Sea. On route we stopped at Mount Nebo to take in the view. Jordan and Israel were originally combined as The Holy Land before separation and Mount Nebo is a memorial to where Moses stood looking across The Dead Sea to Israel on the other side as he neared his goal of reaching Jerusalem.
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It was a short drive from here to our hotel on The Dead Sea where we spent just a single night. This was still time enough to experience floating in the water, taking in the view across to Israel and covering ourselves in the mud; you know, healing properties and all that!!
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Fully rinsed, showered and dressed for dinner, the temperature was gradually warming up as we worked our way south from northerly Amman.

After breakfast on day four the road to Petra, many people’s highlight of a visit to Jordan, beckoned. It was a longish journey with a few stops (including a Crusader’s Castle at Qalat Ash Shawbak and an ancient church mosaic in Madaba) en route and Ibrahim came into his own with the history of Petra and the surrounding areas proving both informative and interesting. There was just enough time to visit Little Petra before finding our next hotel where we would stay for two nights.
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The hotel in Petra was in the design of a walled village consisting of individual chalets plus the obligatory reception, dining area, pool etc etc and it made a change from the slightly more expected and predicable designs of 4 and 5 star hotels around the world.

We made an early start following an even earlier breakfast for the very short trip to Petra - deliberately early to beat the anticipated convoy of coaches that tend to arrive at a given time each day. The distance to The Registry from the main entrance is a good 25 minute walk although reined horse and horse & carriage alternatives are options for those wanting a slightly faster arrival.
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To be honest, the walk is worth it if it’s not too hot because the landscape builds and sets you up for what is at The Registry and beyond. Petra is a huge site and in seven hours we didn’t see anything close to all of it but we at least felt that we did it justice in that time. Again, Ibrahim supplied the narrative to the city as we walked its roads and entered the various tombs and palaces.
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There are also places to eat and drink and even a few shops to pacify most of us. Throw in a few camels (that can be hired) and one or two other surprises and Petra doesn’t disappoint; it is so much more than the photograph we have all seen.
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By the time we were strolling back to the exit the temperature at Petra had warmed significantly and even at 3 pm there were visitors entering the site which closed at 5. After seven hours we had probably seen approximately 50% of what Petra had to offer.

Our next stop exploring Jordan was the movie set that is Wadi Rum. In effect a dried-up river bed with geological features seen in films such as ‘The Planet of the Apes’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘Star Wars’.

Along the road towards Wadi Rum we stopped at the train featured in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, another film shot in this area, and also a ranch keeping Arab horses.
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We were then back on the road to our hotel at Aqaba, the Red Sea resort, for a couple of day’s relaxation. Apart from the hotel, the pool and the beach there was also the town of Aqaba itself, within easy walking distance of where we were staying. And so the Souk would be our first target. Several shops and Dinars later and a café stop was well-earned. The Intercontinental Hotel matched the consistently good quality of the other hotels we had stayed in while in Jordan.
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The Jordanian food and drink was very good although alcohol is predictably expensive. The people were very friendly and the service we received was also very good. And we found the country to generally be a very neat and tidy place, regarded by many Jordanians as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Not for its snow-capped mountains (obviously) and lakes, nor for its economy but more for the fact that they sit in neutral isolation among the countries around it simply because it is a country without oil; a fairly unique position in the area. They feel safer as a result as, to their mind, they have little of what anybody else wants and evidence to-date would appear to support that belief.
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What they do have however is a rising sense of tourism with 2018 being a record year for tourists and 2019 looking almost certain to beat it. Visiting Jordan certainly ticked our Middle East box and without massive expense. The eight days that we had and enjoyed were probably just about right. It is doubtful it will make our list of places that we want to return to but we are so pleased that we did it the once.
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Posted by david.byne 12:06 Archived in Jordan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches churches buildings people birds trains architecture religion city Comments (1)

Ticking those 'Must See' boxes in Rome

Seven Hills and so much more

sunny
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Our hotel, the Hotel Teatro Pace 33, was located just off Piazza Navona and our pre-booked taxi took us direct to the door. The hotel was a Cardinal’s house before becoming accommodation in what transpired to be a prime location in central Rome.
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Our visit to the historical centre was 5 days and upon arrival in the early afternoon of the first day we walked to Piazza Navona and then as far as the Pantheon. I knew little of Piazza Navona before researching and booking this trip but it really is the centre of the city and puts you within easy walking distance of almost everything you would want to see.

Surrounded on its perimeter mainly by bars and restaurants the Piazza is lively from morning till night and has a welcoming atmosphere that makes it a pleasurable place to spend time. At night, the three fountains and the surrounding properties are nicely lit and the street entertainers, artists and traders provide added interest.

We would become very familiar with Piazza Navona as, from our hotel, it was often on route to many of our destinations in Rome. The Pantheon is my first example of this. We knew it was close to where we were staying but like so much else in the city it turned out to be closer than we thought. Literally straight across the square and about five minutes’ walk and we were there.

The Pantheon is old, ridiculously old. Its good condition is incredible and the interior contains the tombs of some of the early Kings and Queens of Italy.
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Our plan was soon to walk everywhere, despite the heat. There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants in Rome without mentioning the on-street water vendors so the draining Roman heat can be alleviated whenever it suits you.

We already had timed tickets for the Vatican the following day and, after all the travelling, the prospect of an evening meal and then bed was beginning to gain favour as we walked back towards the hotel from the Pantheon. Finding somewhere to eat is only difficult because of the number of eateries and the choice. It’s a bit like driving into a car park with lots of spaces and struggling to settle on where is best to stop!

Breakfast in the Teatro Pace 33 is taken in your room. There is no dining area but you chose your breakfast the day before, nominate a time that you want it and the staff deliver it to your room accordingly. It works.

After breakfast on our first morning in Rome we took a slow walk in the direction of Castel St.Angelo (also known as Hadrian’s Tomb). We weren’t on this occasion intending to enter and see the Castel but you cross the bridge of St.Angelo and pass the Castel to reach Vatican City, located just beyond.
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Our ticket for entry into the Museum was timed at 11:30. Entry into St.Peter’s is Free but the queue was about 3 to 4 hours long at the time we arrived so decided to give it a miss but possibly return later. The advice from one of the staff marshalling the venue was that it got quiet after 5 pm and up to closing at 6:30.

We had to walk around the perimeter of the Vatican City, following the walls, to our entry point where we went straight in. The voucher that we bought in the UK needed converting to tickets at the first security check and from there we were into the museum.

Vatican City is vast, the smallest country in the world apparently. The entire place is a museum with paintings, relics and sculptures segregated into the different Roman eras, lining long corridors and rooms that in themselves are a work of art with their decorated walls, floors and ceilings.

The number of visitors each day is enormous but the size of the place copes with it comfortably most of the time. Outside, there are gardens at the back to wander in and both before and after your visit it is possible to spend time in St.Peter’s Square with plenty of room all year round EXCEPT EASTER!
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The Vatican is on the South side of the River Tiber and after leaving St.Peter’s Square and stopping for coffee we walked on, following the river in the direction of Tiber Island. A bit before the island appears I planned on turning into the residential area of Trastavere. The research that I had undertaken had highlighted Trastavere as a photogenic area filled with narrow lanes, plants, flowers, cafes and bars. I think that with a little more time we would have gained more from the diversion but the evidence was there to support the claim of it being an attractive and not yet commercialised area of the city of Rome.
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From Trastavere it was a simple walk across the Bridge at Tiber Island, a left turn and a stroll back towards Piazza Navona and the hotel. It had been a long but enjoyable day with a couple of boxes ticked on our ‘to do’ list. We had no plans as such for dinner but after wandering aimlessly not too far from the hotel we settled at a quiet restaurant where the owner, sensing our uncertainty over the menu, offered to prepare something ‘off menu’. We agreed and he brought us a platter of meats, cheeses, breads, pickles, and salad to share. Perfect.
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Day 3 we planned to see the Trevi fountain and the Spanish Steps. An easy walk past the Pantheon, continuing North East to the Trevi. It’s busy, it’s always busy. It’s free. However, bide your time and you can gradually work your way to the bottom level and somewhere at least close to the centre from where you can take the photos. It’s the same at the Spanish Steps but climb to the church at the top for the views over the city rooftops.
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Both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are obviously two of the ‘must sees’ on the list when anybody visits Rome although in truth there are more worthwhile things to spend time on, such as the Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini. The Domus Romane is an incredible Roman site found underneath the 16th century villa Palazzo Valentini, and located close to Trajan's Forum in the heart of what was once the centre of Imperial Rome.
This relatively new ancient site opened to the public in 2010 and is located close to Rome’s Piazza Venezia. It contains the remains of a Roman era house - or ‘Domus’ - dating to the imperial era and probably belonging to the wealthier elements of Roman society.

Visitors can explore all aspects of the ancient house, including the structure itself, the various chambers, living areas, bathrooms, kitchens, mosaics and even decorative wall frescoes - with the additional option of seeing it all brought back to life through a virtual journey. As well as the archaeological ruins themselves, the Domus Romane comes alive through a series of sophisticated light shows that recreate what the villas would have looked like.

For me, the Domus was the highlight of the day even though photographs weren’t allowed.

The Domus is situated close to the Vittorio Emanuele monument, a massive monolith named after the first king of united Italy. Look at it, admire it, photograph it, and move on. We ended up seeing it from several different vantage points without even trying; it’s that huge. As a bonus we still had time to revisit St.Peter's Church at the Vatican and, as suggested, the queues were minimal and we saw everything we wanted to without much of a wait.

Another evening, another restaurant. This time, a risotto restaurant run by a family for the past 33 years and who grow their own rice and also make their own wine.
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Day 4 of 5 had to be The Colosseum. We bought timed tickets at the hotel the day before and had a slot at 11:10. It is amazing how many people don’ buy in advance and who are prepared to queue for hours to buy their tickets before then queuing a bit longer with the tickets to get in.

Before making our way to the Colisseum we decided to take in the local market at Campo di Fiori. A matter of ten minutes from the hotel the market opens every morning and is predominantly Flowers, Fruit, Vegetables, Nuts, Cheeses and Condiments.
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It was a really hot day and the Colosseum is a fairly unforgiving place when it comes to exposure to the elements but the arena is another example of the astonishing history that makes up the city of Rome. It can be a bit of a procession walking around the levels from the top down to the bottom level but this world famous slice of roman history is another ‘must see’.
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Next door to the Colosseum are Palatine Hill and The Forum. Our tickets covered all three and on this occasion we decided to opt for The Forum as we could make it a part of the walk back towards Piazza Navona. Palatine Hill is supposed to be worth the time but we knew we couldn’t get all three banked so we made our way to and through The Forum. The history here is amazing but you need to take the time to realise it by reading the various information boards or taking an audio guide at the entrance. Aside from the buildings there are points of interest such as the place that Caesar was cremated (The place where Caesar was stabbed is close to Campo di Fiori).
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The weather took a turn while we were in The Forum. The sky gradually blackened, the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the seven hills. Accompanying the light show was a brief period of steady rain which we took cover from and then continued our walk past the Vittorio Emanuele monument (again!) and to the nearest coffee shop.
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We started the day at Campo di Fiori and before returning to the hotel we returned to the site of the morning market which was in the final stage of being cleaned up for the evening restaurant trade; a transformation that Campo di Fiori undergoes each and every day. There, we found a bar which happened to be showing the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. The bar wasn’t overly busy so two hours later ……………………………

In the evening we walked as far as Castel St.Angelo again to see it at night before turning back and finding a restaurant for our final evening meal of the trip.
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Our flight on the last day was a late one so we had an almost full day left to spend in Rome. The ‘to do’ list was almost fully ticked but we wanted to try and see the Capuchin Monks at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini and then if we have time the Church of San Clemente near the Colisseum.

The museum for the Capuchin Monks is quite bizarre, some would say macabre or even disturbing. The bones of Franciscan monks are arranged in forms of artwork along with some reconstructed as complete skeletons wearing the cloak of the order. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy seeing it simply because it was so unusual.

With time running out and after a coffee we decided to get a taxi to the Church of San Clemente. Not realising that it would close for lunch we arrived with only about five minutes to spare. This was a shame because apart from the church being extremely old the existing church sits on top of an earlier church which has been opened up to the public. Unfortunately, the lunch break ran until 3 o’clock in the afternoon which was too late even for us o try and return later in the day.

Our walk back to Piazza Navona took us via the Pantheon where, close by, there is an ice cream shop to kill some time at, so we did. And so with ice cream suitably demolished we had a final look around the Pantheon and then took our time getting back to the Piazza and our hotel to collect the bags for the taxi journey to the airport.

It had been a really busy five days. Feet were hurting and wallet was aching - the cost of ticking that ‘to do’ list off!

Posted by david.byne 13:19 Archived in Italy Tagged bridges churches art buildings skylines night architecture rivers religion city Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

semi-overcast 32 °C
View Sri Lanka & The Maldives on david.byne's travel map.

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

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

China&HK2016 (1)

China&HK2016 (1)

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

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China&HK2016 (20)

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

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China&HK2016 (34)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (67)

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

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China&HK2016 (76)

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

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

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

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China&HK2016 (84)

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

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China&HK2016 (99)

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

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China&HK2016 (106)

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

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China&HK2016 (115)

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

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China&HK2016 (158)

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

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China&HK2016 (166)

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

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China&HK2016 (170)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (179)

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

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China&HK2016 (205)

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

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China&HK2016 (212)

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

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China&HK2016 (208)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (1322)

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

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China&HK2016 (1325)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (1354)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (223)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (220)

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

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China&HK2016 (232)

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

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China&HK2016 (228)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (246)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (258)

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

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China&HK2016 (288)

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

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

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

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China&HK2016 (299)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (307)

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

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China&HK2016 (314)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (322)

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

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China&HK2016 (329)

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

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China&HK2016 (337)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (347)

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

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

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China&HK2016 (352)

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

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China&HK2016 (374)

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

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

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

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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.

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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)

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