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Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

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

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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.

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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)

Black Sand and Green Lights (Iceland)

7 days in Iceland

all seasons in one day 0 °C

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

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

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

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

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

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

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

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

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

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (98)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

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

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

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

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

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

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

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

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

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

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

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

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (2)

Part 2 - Nepal

sunny -27 °C

The flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu is less than an hour and after the slightly painful form filling and queuing required to obtain the entry visa at Nepal’s main airport we were met by Buddish and his driver Sunit. It was April 15th and yesterday was New Year’s Day in Nepal ………………….. in the year 2071!!!!!
Our hotel was the Soaltee Crowne Plaza in Kathmandu and the facilities were perfect for the next three nights. Nepal already had a less chaotic feel to it and we were glad that we had seen India first followed by Nepal rather than the other way around. It had been an extraordinary twelve days so far and we were able to relax and enjoy free time for the rest of the day but tomorrow we would start to explore the three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and some of the seven UNESCO World heritage sites located in the valley.
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K_Kathmandu_001 (23)


Our first full day in Kathmandu was day 13 of our trip. Buddish met us in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza and before lunch we would have a good look around Kathmandu city. The first stop was Durbar Square which is full of temples and palaces and was the seat of royalty before Nepal ceased to be a kingdom in 2008. The architecture is amazing and while the square was busy it was much calmer and more orderly than what we had become used to in India. We visited Kumari Che, the temple where the current Kumari (Living Goddess) lives during her time in the position. Basically, a young girl of appropriate background and free from any scars or other physical blemishes is selected to be Kumari at the age of 4 and given up willingly by her family until she reaches puberty when a new Kumari is selected for the position. During the 8 years or so that she fills the role she stays inside the Kumari Che on all but 13 days of the year when she is seen outside as a goddess at the different festivals that take place. That apart, she is occasionally seen for a few seconds only each day at the small window in the courtyard of Kumari Che in Durbar Square. We were fortunate to arrive at the right time to see her appear for probably no more than 30 seconds - strictly no photographs allowed!
K_Kathmandu_001 (12)

K_Kathmandu_001 (12)


The Kumari temple is old with very ornate wooden balconies and window screens, not untypical of many of the buildings in the city which tend to be of wood and brick compared to India where marble and sandstone are mainly used. After climbing the 9-story pagoda and having great views of central Kathmadu from the top we were driven to the temples and stupa at Swayambhunath which is situated on the top of a hill just on the edge of the city. Locally known as the monkey temple (another one!) there is a large tribe of monkeys which you need to be wary of if you visit. We visited in the afternoon when they tend to be a bit quieter and less hungry and although we saw a few they weren’t any bother at all. The temples and stupa at Swayambhunath were well worth the visit and also provided more views of Kathmandu city.
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K_Kathmandu_001 (213)


We had another early start the following day to catch a short flight around the Himalayas to see Mount Everest before breakfast. We left at 5 a.m. and headed for the Domestic Terminal at Kathmandu Airport. The previous day all mountain flights had been cancelled because of heavy snow and poor visibility but our flight was called and we boarded the small bus that took us to the steps of the Buddha Air plane. We then sat on the bus and were told that there would be a delay of 15 minutes but this only put off the inevitable “All Mountain Flights Cancelled” announcement. It was a blow but once again for the right reasons; heavy snow and poor visibility. The following day the news filtered through about 16 Sherpa’s losing their lives following an avalanche just above Base Camp on Mount Everest.
So we headed back to the hotel for breakfast minus our Mount Everest experience but we still had more to look forward too over the coming days. Buddish explained that today we would visit the giant stupa of Bouddhanath, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, then Pashupatinath (Temple of Lord Shiva) and Bhasmeshvar Ghat on the Bagmati River followed by the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.
K_Kathmandu_001 (251)

K_Kathmandu_001 (251)


The giant stupa of Bouddhanath was massive. One of the largest in the world it is surrounded by a circular parade of temples and traders selling different Nepali and Tibetan products. Rows and rows of colourful prayer flags angle down from the top of the stupa to its base while the many visitors walked clockwise around the base or explored the different levels of the giant white structure. We entered a temple, located between the traders on the perimeter, and watched as two children struggled to get a massive prayer wheel turning. Inside the temple two tourists were being blessed by one of the Buddhist Monks, no doubt for a fee; something that is generally frowned upon by the Buddhist community. It was hot around the stupa and with little shade outside we took brief respite inside one of the shops and then sat for a demonstration of Tibetan artwork inside a Thangka House.
K_Kathmandu_001 (348)

K_Kathmandu_001 (348)


Still in Kathmandu we moved on to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the Bagmati River which is considered by some to be the holiest in the world. It is also the site of Kathmandu’s equivalent of the cremation ghat on India’s River Ganges that we had seen a few days earlier at Varanasi. Holy Men, long hair, faces daubed with colour sit outside a temple willing to have their photos taken - but again only for a few Rupees. Compared to the ghat at Varanasi, this one on the Bagmati River is more enclosed and as a result arguably more intimate. It felt more ‘purpose built’ as a place of cremation with many separate platforms for the public funerals. But like at Varanasi, there was a steady activity both on the platforms and on the ghat with a body being carried in to the area from the town while another was being prepared for cremation while a family looked on and as we walked around.
Separated only by a river from Kathmandu, Patan is full of Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments and it was here that we bought a Singing Bowl as our single momento of Nepal. Buddish, our guide, was doing a great job showing us around the valley. His English was excellent and he was good company and he found us a lovely place for lunch, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the main square and temples. Having missed out on our flight to the mountain a bottle of Everest beer was as close to the world’s highest mountain as I would get.
K_Kathmandu_001 (388)

K_Kathmandu_001 (388)


At the small medieval town of Bhaktapur we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and slowly climbed to the main square where we found what appeared to be the entire town out in force and celebrating one of their many festivals. Groups of women dressed in colourful and different costumes queued to make offerings and bands played while ice cream men did a good trade under the afternoon sun and two balloon sellers argued over their ‘turf’. More photos! It’s difficult to work out where (of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) one stops and another starts as they almost merge seamlessly into one city but each had its own style and were worth seeing.
L_Pokhara_001 (21)

L_Pokhara_001 (21)


Our three nights in and around Kathmandu had been great. More relaxing than India and perfect as we edged towards the last few days of the holiday. Our final stop in Nepal would be Pokhara, a short hop by plane from Kathmandu. Buddish and Sunit dropped us off at the airport where the 25 minute flight took us along the edge of the Himalayas which in itself was a trip worth taking. At Pokhara airport we were met by Dipak and taken to Fishtail Lodge; literally a five minute drive by car. The lodge is on the edge of a lake and only accessible by rope-pull raft which meant it was secluded and quiet and perfect for the final couple of days. More tropical than anywhere in India that we had been or Kathmandu, Pokhara town is a tidy place with Tibetan influences and sits right on the edge of the Himalayas with the Annapurna range looking down on it but with the skyline dominated by the slightly smaller but closer Machupuchre (Fishtail Mountain).
L_Pokhara_001 (43)

L_Pokhara_001 (43)


Dipak would be picking us up at 5:15 the following morning to go and watch the sunrise over the Annapurna range from Sarangkot but before then there was a lake to explore. We paid for a boat that afternoon and this took us halfway up the lake to a small island with a temple on it. Quite an attraction for locals and the few tourists that were about, the island was quite busy but worth a brief stop before our boatman rowed us back to the lodge. The noise coming from those visiting the island was in stark contrast to the general environment and as we slowly made our way back down the lake to the hotel it was noticeable how suddenly peace had been restored. On the previous day a storm had broken in late afternoon – something fairly typical in April we were told - and some of the boats had capsized, so we were keen to do the trip and get back as early as possible to avoid something similar. As it happened the day remained fairly still and hazy but at the same time the visibility in the direction of the Himalayas wasn’t great to be honest.
L_Pokhara_001 (131)

L_Pokhara_001 (131)


The Fishtail Lodge is a lovely relaxing environment and something that we now wanted to take advantage of at the end of the trip so when we met up with Dipak early the following morning and he explained the itinerary for the day and we agreed that with everything so close together we could see it all before breakfast and thus have the entire day by the pool. Buddish (in Kathmandu) had already told us that the sightseeing in Pokhara would take two hours maximum and so it proved. We reached Sarangkot before 6 a.m. and acquired best seats on the terrace for the view across to Annapurna’s 1 to 4 plus Machupuchre. Gradually, the skyline lit up and the range came into view and it was then just a simple matter of taking in the view and watching it change with the light as the sun appeared over the ridge. More photos, move on.
L_Pokhara_001 (76)

L_Pokhara_001 (76)


A quick tour of Pokhara town revealed a comfortably populated, neat little town in a lovely location in the valley with decent facilities and a Tibetan refugee community residing in their own camp. We visited Devi’s Fall, Mahendra Cave and also Bindhyabasubu Temple. Devi’s Fall and Mahendra Cave were on opposite sides of the main high street in the centre of town. We were in the dry season so Devi’s Fall wasn’t falling too rapidly. In fact it was almost totally dry but the shapes carved in the rocks by the water in the rainy season were amazing and gave an indication of the power of the water when in full flow. From Devi’s Fall, the water travels underground again, literally under the main road, and appears across the road in Mahendra Cave. Inside the cave the air is very humid as you descend to the lowest point where you can see through to daylight at Devi’s Fall.
Bindhyabasubu Temple was the next and final stop. Basically this was another small temple in the centre of town but a very active one with queues waiting to make offerings to Shiva as a very pungent incense filled the air. These were by now common sights for us on this trip so the real highlight here was the terrific view across town and down through the valley towards the snow-capped Himalayas. Then, it was back in the car for the drive back to the lodge. On route Dipak showed us a bit more of the town including the Tibetan Refugee Camp and some of the oldest houses that have so far escaped modernisation.
L_Pokhara_001 (123)

L_Pokhara_001 (123)


As planned we were back at Fishtail Lodge in time for breakfast and already you could tell that it was going to be a hot, sunny day and the prospect of doing absolutely nothing for almost the first time in three weeks was perfect. By late afternoon we had had enough sun. We could also see clouds rolling in and before long the sky was a blend of grey and black and stormy. The occasional flash of lightning was quickly followed by thunder as the clouds did battle around the valley. We had almost no rain but watched it all happen over the Himalayas and, apart from dinner, the day was effectively over but the benefit of the storm was spectacularly there to see when we woke up the next morning. The sky was cloudless and for the first time we had a clear view from our room of the Himalayas. We grabbed one of the last outside tables for breakfast and enjoyed the view for the one and only time. It was a great way to end our stay.
L_Pokhara_001 (157)

L_Pokhara_001 (157)


Within the hour we were back at Pokhara Airport and boarding the flight back to Kathmandu. Again, the storm had done us a favour and we took Buddish’s advice and got seats on the left hand side of the plane towards the back for outstanding views of the mountain range on the 25 minute flight back to the Nepali capital.
M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)

M_PokharaKathmanduFlight_001 (15)


Buddish was there to meet us (on his day off) with our main luggage and we went for a coffee with him before saying our farewells and flying back to Delhi. Tomorrow we would be heading home and leaving behind the difficult but fascinating country that is India where everything seems to be in extremes and Nepal, the quieter neighbour next door where life and the people are slightly less frantic.
L_Pokhara_001 (163)

L_Pokhara_001 (163)

Posted by david.byne 12:57 Archived in Nepal Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes buildings skylines people snow planes religion Comments (0)

Peru – East and West of the Andes

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

all seasons in one day 22 °C

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

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

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

13_Lima (11)

13_Lima (11)

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

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

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

02_Jungle (7)

02_Jungle (7)

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

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

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

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

02_Jungle (13)

02_Jungle (13)

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

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

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

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

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

03_Cusco (15)

03_Cusco (15)

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

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

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

03_Cusco (117)

03_Cusco (117)

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

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

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

04_MachuPicchu (8)

04_MachuPicchu (8)

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

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

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

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

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

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

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12_Paracas (80)

12_Paracas (80)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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