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Day 231 - 29 April 2010
$1 Magnums
We've just finished our second visit to China; 10 days spent exploring Beijing and a couple of nearby cities. One great thing about China is it's cheap. A lot of other places in Asia are cheap too, such as India or Vietnam, but China is somewhat unique in that it's both cheap and modern (at least the cities are). This has a fair bit to do with the government controlled, favourable exange rate which is kept low to promote Chinese exports. As a result, you've got $0.30 per kilometer taxi rides, $6 dinners at a decent restaurant, $0.15 bus rides and my favourite, $1 Magnum ice-creams :)

The other interesting observation is how different the Chinese and Japanese are. Despite sharing some common written script, appearance and geographical location there are some stark contrasts and complete opposites in their cultures and the way their society functions. In China you'll be bumped in the street, people will cut in front of you when queueing if you leave a small gap, taxi drivers sometimes try to swindle you out of more money, nobody stops for pedestrians, the rules are considered more like guidelines and there's plenty of dodginess. Japan is the complete opposite; if somebody bumps you in the street they'll surely bow and apologize profusedly, nobody would ever queue jump, taxis are very professional with white gloved drivers and automatically opening doors, cars stop for pedestrains (and we saw one girl bow to the driver in appeciation), rules are strictly followed, and everything's above board. Personally, I think I'm more of a China person - it's more fun and I like to bend the rules.

We started our return to China in Qingdao, a pleasant seaside city about 6 hours train ride south-east of Beijing. The city was ruled by Germans around 1900 so there's plenty of nice European architecture. Add the coastal setting and it's quite picturesque.

Next stop was Taishan, 3 hours away by express 200kmph D-class train (a very nice and reasonably priced way to travel). The mountain is a popular (perhaps the most famous and popular) Chinese pilgrammage mountain which everyone from emporers to common folk would come from all over China to climb. They still do today. Except not everyone climbs, you can now get up by bus and cable car. Given limited time (we had a train to Beijing to catch) that's exactly what we did, although we walked partway down. It was impressive to see so much infrastructure at the top of the mountain; three separate cable car lines running up to a busy pedestrain street with shops, restaurants, hotels and of course a few shrines and temples. The final stretch of path to the top was a steep staircase that went up; just like the one in Kungfu Panda, which was good because I wanted to see such a staircase after seeing the movie.

Next up was five days in Beijing. We saw all the big sights. The Forbidden city was big and I personally found it a bit too same-same after a while. We checked out the Olympic Birds Nest stadium which was also impressive, as well as the Summer Palace. Besides seeing the sights we spent some time cycling around. It's quite clear that bicycles no longer run the show, which is quite sad to see, and I think we saw more bikes in Nanjing. However, the infrastructure still exists with wide bikes lanes next to most roads and given the bad traffic, cycling was a good way to get around. Also, Beijing has a lot of very pleasant Hutongs, or alleyways, that see little traffic and connect through between the big roads so they're a fun way to get around... until you hit a big road and need to cross it. Oh, and the pollution in Beijing wasn't noticeably bad; I think we got lucky timing.

Our final sight in Beijing was the Great Wall. We decided to see other sights in the morning then bus over to the wall in the afternoon, arriving around 3pm. Given it was later in the day, and a weekday, it wasn't too crowded. We spent a couple of hours walking up to a high point of the wall before heading back to catch the bus before they finished for the day. Great to see, but it's a pretty monotonous structure so not like you need to explore a lot of it to get the idea.

We also saw three acrobatics shows in Beijing - two in one night since the theatres were close by and even the cheap tickets got us good seats. Spectacular stuff. The first show we saw had lousy theatrics; a venue that looked like a high school theatre, basic lighting and special effects, no clever merges between acts and a curtain that failed to close at the end with a middle-aged casually dressed guy trying to pull it closed; he eventually gave up. However in contrast the acrobatics were very impressive. The third show had rather amusing seating arrangements; much of the audience were tour groups which had bought cheap tickets so all of the crap seats on the sides, back and very front (too close) were full but the cente of the theatre was almost totally empty. Since most of the audience were in tours, I guess that's why they didn't move seats (this is China after all!). Of course we didn't hesitate and grabbed two seats in prime position.

We're currently flying to Zurich, where we will catch up with friends Yaniv and Chloe who are kindly holding a cache of supplies for us before heading on to Croatia. It's quite sad to be leaving Asia; I feel like the most exciting part of this trip is coming to an end. But there's still some exciting destinations coming up; we're planning on visiting Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark and Ireland.

Day 221 - 19 April 2010
The delights of Tokyo
Ah, Japan, we will miss you. We'll miss your efficiency, your excellent train network, your warmed toilet seats and your friendly people. We'll miss your good food, colourful dress and fascinating temples. But most of all we'll miss your unusual quirkiness.

Tokyo's quirky side was on full display for us yesterday, our final day in the country. We'd set it up perfectly, leaving a sunny Sunday to visit the busy Harajuku area where we expected to see the cool and the unusual. First up was the cosplay girls, dressed in their unusual costumes and posing for photos. One was dressed as a superhero, another with a bunny attached to their back, another in a black dress holding a parasol and reading a book, and others that I just couldn't really figure out exactly what they were meant to be. We then stumbled upon four separate groups of guys dressed in leather jackets and sporting 50's hair do's (just like the characters in Grease). The groups then took turns playing rock'n'roll and grooving in the park. As we left the park, Michelle spotted something unusual under the pedestrian overpass. It turned out to be a group of kids wearing various outfits (superheroes, a bunny, a cat, etc.). They had a video camera set up, put on some music and proceeded to dance some choreographed moves as if they were making a music video. Another crazily dressed guy rocked up and watched the performance, clearly amused. I thought the crazily dressed guy was pretty amusing himself!

Sadly the weather was a bit dicey for much of our stay in Tokyo, but fortunately many of the interesting sights were indoors. Some of the other fun things we did and saw:
  • We attended a baseball game between the Tokyo Giants and the Tigers at Tokyo Dome. Most novel were the beer girls who dashed around the stadium with beer kegs attached to their back serving up beer to thirsty fans.
  • Visiting some of the fun indoor game parlours. At one place I got to play a massive version of tetris. Another, called Muscle Park, was full of crazy games such as one where you use a vacuum tube to suck up balls which are then dropped from above you and you need to catch in the basket on your back.
  • Checking out the impressive Emerging Science and Innovation museum which featured a massive suspended globe made from LCD displays and a neat interactive simulation of a computer network.
  • Some fun copycat architecture, including a miniature Statue of Liberty and the Tokyo Tower which looks almost identical to the Eiffel Tower (except it's painted red, doesn't have as good a location surrounded by gardens, and they've built a shopping mall below so you can't walk underneath and gaze up at it).
  • Visiting the Akihabara area, popular with geeks looking for manga and tech, and where girls dressed as maids on the street advertise nearby maid cafes where the waitresses are dressed as maids and you play games with them for prizes.
We are currently flying to China, where we'll spend 10 days and visit Qingdao, Taishan and Beijing. We've got a flight booked to fly to Zurich via Heathrow on April 29th, but given the flight disruptions we'll have to wait and see if that goes ahead as planned. We might be making a visit to Korea or somewhere else in Asia, or perhaps flying to Turkey and working overland from there if the flights remain restricted. No worries.

Day 215 - 13 April 2010
Layers of Japan
As we continue our travels through Japan, we've been getting more and more insights into different aspects of Japanese history and culture through the ages. It feels like our last two stops have added some more layers of perspective, both historic and contemporary, and sometimes a mixture of both. We spent about 4 days in Kyoto, including a day trip to nearby Nara. Kyoto has oodles of temples and shrines, of varying degrees of interest and impact. We visited more than a dozen of them, here are some of the highlights:

  • In Nara, the world's largest wooden building, which houses a huge Buddha. As impressive as all that was, more entertaining was the column at the back of the hall with a hole through the bottom. Apparently anyone who crawls through the hole is assured of enlightenment. Mostly it was kids crawling through, but the occasional adult would try, much to the mirth of everyone else around.
  • A shrine with some thousands of orange torii, or gates, assembled to create a passageway over a path on the back hillside. The whole gate-covered pathway goes for 4 kilometres. We walked a short section, and along the way we also saw small shrines with many small models of the torii gates.
  • A crowded temple complex with views over Kyoto, a love shrine (supposedly if you can walk between two stones 10 metres apart with your eyes shut, you'll find love), and people drinking sacred water with "therapeutic properties" from a waterfall. Oh and of course, lots of pretty cherry blossoms!
  • A temple which is home to both Japan's largest temple gate and Japan's largest bell (apparently it takes 17 monks to ring it)
  • A massive torii gate some 200 metres down the road from the actual shrine, almost right in the middle of a traffic intersection. At first I thought it might have even been a piece of modern art, but no it actually belongs to the temple.
  • An aqueduct out the back of one temple, apparently still in use and we could climb up on top of it (okay this was one temple that wasn't so interesting, but the aqueduct was cool)

  • I have to say, on the whole the temples and shrines that we've seen in Japan are probably some of the most interesting and varied places of worship that I've seen anywhere in the world. Although we've seen plenty of them now, and granted there are many that are very similar, we keep discovering and being surprised by various temples with some new feature or new twist on a familiar feature. So although we are careful in choosing our temples (based on our trusty Lonely Planet), we haven't been too temple-d out. And of course, there's usually someone doing something interesting at all the different temples and shrines as well. There's always something new and novel to observe.

    We also visited several gardens, some associated with certain temples and others separate. Like temples, we're now at the stage where we have to choose our gardens carefully to avoid the "same same" phenomenon. But we saw some impressive sand/gravel landscapes and also some very pretty cherry blossom arrangements too.

    We rented bicycles for a couple of days and rode around between sights, which also allowed us to take in more of the street life around Kyoto. Besides all of the temples and gardens, Kyoto also has many older style buildings and streets, which provide a sense of "historic" Japan. I'm not sure that the tourists wandering the streets dressed up as geishas necessarily add to this atmosphere, but they're fun to look at anyway. But it's not all traditional - there's also new modern buildings, such as the train station which has an eye-catching open atrium with cavernous spaces up to the 11th floor and a skyway running along the length of the building. We have also still been noticing a few new "quirks" of Japan - petrol stations with the bowsers hanging down from above the cars (to save space), a car wash that moves around the car (rather than the car moving through the washer, presumably also to save space) and taxi doors that open and close automatically.

    We enjoyed cycling Kyoto's central river which has a lively vibe on the weekends and in the early evenings, with all sorts of activities going on - sports, dancing, fishing, markets, cycling, strolling, picnicking. We also wandered along a gorgeous cherry blossom-lined path alongside a canal, oh so pictureseque and ventured our first taste of sakura ice cream (made from the leaves of the cherry blossom tree). Finally, a ride out to the foot of the hills took us to another river full of people in leisure row boats and of course, the banks lined with more picnics under the cherry blossoms. One very cool thing that we saw here was a small riverside restaurant/shop that had an ingenious setup to channel a stream of water coming down from the hills to keep some fish alive and keep eggs and canned drinks cold. It's stuff like this, that you never know when it's going to pop up, that makes travelling so cool.

    After Kyoto we headed up into the hills to spend a day in Takayama. The train journey itself was great, through a gorge up into the mountains. Unfortunately it rained constantly while we were there, so we didn't quite enjoy the traditional streetscapes as much as we might have. But most of the attractions were indoors anyway so it wasn't too bad a place to be on an umbrella day. There were three notable highlights amongst the museums we visited:

  • A traditional puppet show demonstration where we got to go backstage afterwards and see how the puppets are controlled. Both cute and quaint, but also quite impressive and not as simple one might think, with elaborate systems of rods, hooks and strings.
  • A museum encompassing Japanese culture and lifestyles from 1955-65, basically a huge collection of "stuff" from this time period. In many ways a random hodge-podge of objects, but also fantastically compiled into a reproduction of a street, with a barber's shop, doctor's clinic, school classroom, toy store, cinema, traditional home and loads of other stuff. Both colourful and quirky, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the tableau of the time period.
  • An outdoor museum with a collection of traditional country houses gathered from around the region. The museum was established in the 1990's in face of increasing modernisation in an effort to preserve the memory of the old housing styles. We were able to wander through the houses which had various displays related to the old rural lifestyles. For example, farming equipment, sleds, silkworm cultures (which people used to keep in their houses), marriage rituals and roofing structures (believe it or not, quite amazing as the thatched roofs were about one foot thick layers of straw). It was a great insight into the "olden-day" rural lifestyles, just a pity it was pouring down with rain the whole time, it would have been so picturesque in good weather

  • We've now reached our final stop in Japan - Tokyo. We're here for a few days, I have no doubt we'll be getting a whole new lot of fresh and novel perspectives here!

    Day 208 - 6 April 2010
    Atomic bombs, festivals, assembly plants and a bike ride
    We are currently in Okayama, yet another large city along the bullet train line between Fukuoka and Tokyo. I must confess that Japanese cities have a bit of the same-same feeling after a while; a similar street scape with a tram network, maybe a metro, plenty of concrete and a bit of wood and a covered pedestrian street with shops. The other funny thing is how Japan reminds me of Washington State. Lots of concrete and wood houses and buildings surrounded by plenty of greenery and water. Oh, and did I mention there's a lot of Aussie tourists here too. At breakfast in the hotels most people seem to be either Japanese, or Aussies talking about Tullamarine Airport.

    Our main reason for staying in Okayama for a few nights was to see the city's castle and gardens (oh, add these to the list of things we see in each big Japanese city), do a bike ride through the nearby countryside, and visit a nearby canal town. We headed off towards the canal town yesterday only to make it a few meters from the hotel door before we got sidetracked - a procession was heading down the main street with girls twirling sticks, a brightly yellow dressed marching band, and lots of kids dressed up in karate outfits. Very cool, but I had a hunch they were heading somewhere even cooler and we followed them. They arrived at Okayama's main garden, overlooked by the castle, where were proceeded to witness and amazing parade of various groups dressed in different attire, dancing, playing instruments, carrying people, etc.. It turns out we had stumbled upon the Goshinko festival. Geez, lucky we didn't leave our hotel 10 minutes earlier otherwise we would have missed out! Makes me wonder how many other cool festivals we've been in town for and missed in the past 7 months. A couple of hours later we decided we'd got the gist of the event and resumed our original plan, to visit nearby Kurashiki. Kurashiki was lovely, with several old warehouses fronting onto a lovely canal. However it was a Sunday, which made the visit even more fun with lots of people out and about. We saw a few couples dressed in traditional attire having their photos taken (perhaps wedding photos?) including one couple who went for a boat ride, to the clapping and cheers of the onlookers (we're not sure why). Another fun sight was a group of both young and old playing with a yo-yo type toy where you wind a string around a spinning top then flick it out. I'm still not sure who organised this activity, it seemed to be a bit of a free for all, and great fun to watch and rest those tired feet.

    Today we went for a bike ride in the nearby coutryside. The Lonely Planet suggested a ride where you pick up the bikes at a rental outfit near one train station, then return the bikes at another after riding 17km along a nice, mostly off-road, bike path. We arrive and it seemed a bunch of other folks with LP books were also there with the same plan. I'm guessing business as got through the roof for the elderly Mom'n'Pop outfit renting the bikes since LP recommended the ride! Great weather today, and the ride was nice and flat so the slightly flat tires and to small bike didn't bother me too much. Along the ride were stops at various temples, which were nice and scenic.

    Before Okayama we spent three nights in Hiroshima. The atomic bomb sights were fascinating to see, and the museum here was much better than the one at Nagasaki. Not surprising, we are definitely more on the tourist trail now than before. It was amazing to see photos and models of the disaster when you can see the building you just walked past or the bridge over there that they targeted. Also sobering that, despite a widely accepted opinion that atomic warfare could be the end of human kind there have been over 2,000 nukes detonated in tests since 1945.

    The next day we visited the Mazda assemly plant. Fascinating stuff. The cars rolled slowly along an track and at various places along the track works, often with the assistance of robots, would add a bit to the car. This guys adding the windscreen, that guys putting the entire dashboard in (with the assistance of a robot mechanism that brings the dashboard from the level below then levers it into the car), that cap's adding the wheels, etc.. I was bummed we couldn't take photos. I was so tempted and the guide didn't really keep and eye on us and it would be so easy to drop back and distreetly take a snap, but decided to behave.

    The weather that day was terrible, so once we got back from the museum I did the taxes. Fun. At least they're finished now.

    The next day we did a day trip to an island called Miyajima. It's most famous sight is a temple that is built over the water on stilts. Oh, and it's painted bright orange. Add to that a stunning entrance gate about 50 meters out into the ocean (boats would arrive through the gate and dock at the temple) and a couple having a wedding tea ceremony in the temple and we were snap happy. Another temple on the island lead to further memory card space issues where we witness all sorts of bizzar ornaments and rituals. Strange rollers built into the hand rails that the Japanese would spin with their hands as they walked up the steps. A rope threaded through many wooden balls (kinda of a giant braclet of pearls) attached to a pully would get spun around by a visitor. A path surrounded by hundreds of little gnom sized statues. Probably the most fascinating temple we've seen yet.

    Tomorrow we push on and head to Kyoto, followed by a brief sidetrip to Takayama before hitting Tokyo. I'm really excited about these next few stops, which I gather are the really big highlights of Japan. By heading from South to North we've left them to last. Oh and the other great benefit is we've been riding the cherry blossum wave! After two weeks in Japan they're still blooming for us all along the way because we've been travelling North. Not at all a happy coincience; we gave this some thought and it's paid off. With luck we'll be seeing them flutter gently to the ground like snow in Kyoto.

    Day 201 - 30 March 2010
    Learning the Japanese way
    Well we just passed Day 200. We've now been in Japan for a week and it seems timely for a quick blog on Japan so far. So far we've been travelling around the southern region of Kyushu, our plan is to travel north up through to Tokyo over the next 2-3 weeks. We timed our travels here to coincide with the sakura/cherry blossoms and indeed we have not been disappointed. The blossoms are simply gorgeous and plentiful - they're everywhere! I really understand now why Japan is so famous for them. Obviously they won't last through our entire stay but we'll enjoy them for as long as they last.

    After our initial introduction to Japan and some of its quirky features (heated toilet seats, vending machines, melodic pedestrian lights) in Fukuoka, we moved on to Nagasaki. Beyond its place in history for the atomic bombing, Nagasaki has an interesting vibe and history. Historically it was Japan's first trading port (and is still a busy port today), with some neighbourhoods and historic sites reflecting European influences of the 19th century. We also visited the atomic bombing museum and memorials, which were both sombering and enlightening. It was also interesting to see the area where the bomb exploded (the hypocentre is marked with a black pillar), and try to imagine the devastation that took place in a bustling area now full of parks and cherry blossoms. Finally, a chance meeting with an Australian Girls Choir acquaintance led us up a hill one evening for a cherry blossom festival celebration, where people come out for dinner picnics under the trees. This seems to take place all over Japan at this time of year. The cherry blossoms covering the entire hillside were truly magnificent, and it was also very pretty when the lanterns were turned on after dusk.

    Next stop was Kumamoto, and again this was one of those last minute decisions that turned out really well. The main attraction of the city is a samurai castle on top of a hill overlooking town. Combined with a fine weather weekend and cherry blossom season, there were loads of people out and about and a wonderfully festive atmopshere. Amongst other things, we saw a traditional tea ceremony and a sort of religious ceremony involving 16-20 people carrying a replica shrine on a wooden cross-beam on their shoulders (we didn't really know what was going on but we saw them running around and just followed them). Oh, and of course there was also the castle itself, with its majestic lookout towers and other buildings containing admirable artistry.

    We spent yesterday in Mount Aso, which is the world's largest active caldera. Exactly what does that mean? Well, a huge volcano erupted eons of years ago, leaving a huge gaping valley which now has towns and farms in the middle of it. But there is still one active volcanic cone in the area bubbling away that last erupted in the 1970's. Unfortunately when we visited the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, so we couldn't take the cable car up to see the mouth of the volcano up close. But we hiked around for some spectacular views, and indeed we could see the toxic sulphur gases spewing out and blowing across the observatory station. It was still a great day with some amazing scenery, and in the museum we got see the volcano vicariously through control a camera that's actually planted in the volcano itself.

    Finally today we stopped off in Beppu, which is known for its hot springs. We hired bicycles and went for a ride to check them out. They were fun to see - some of different colours, one a water spout geyser and another of mud pools. In actual fact there's hot steam rising from spouts, vents and streams all over the city, and we also saw some food being cooked over them. Also very cool (not literally, obviously) to see was the sand bath that we passed by, and watched some people being buried in the hot sand. Very cool! (although not literally speaking, obviously)

    Amongst our Japanese escapades so far we've also stayed at a couple of traditional-style accommodation places. It's been fun learning the etiquettes (we don't think we've committed any atrocious offences yet), living on a tatami mat floor and wearing traditional Japanese-style dressing gowns.

    The language has been a little challenging, people in Japan are so polite that it feels a little awkward that we can only manage the basic "konichiwa" (hello) and "arigato" (thank-you) most of the time. (Although, I am starting to master the "wakarimasen" (I don't understand) pretty well too). But that may be partly my frustration coming out of China where I can actually speak the language. With some overlap in Chinese and Japanese scripts, I'm actually finding that my recognition of Chinese characters is useful in navigation sometimes, as long as I don't try to pronounce them! But it's early days yet, and we find that in encounters usually a smile and a nod or bow helps to break the mood. People are extremely friendly and helpful and despite linguistic limitations, they often go out of their way to point us in the right direction (one man went so far as to walk us 50m to the tram stop and hail the tram for us).

    Tomorrow it's on to Hiroshima for a few days. No doubt there will be some atomic bomb memorials there too, but we're also looking forward to exploring other aspects of the city, including a tour through the Mazda factory.

    Day 196 - 25 March 2010
    The lake city and the modern city
    We're currently in Japan, on a train travelling from Fukuoka to Nagasaki. We arrived in Japan two days ago after wrapping up the first part of our visit to China with two memorable stops; Hangzhou and Shanghai.

    The main feature of Hangzhou is a massive, gorgeous lake. Surrounded by paths and nice gardens and crossed in two places by lengthy causeways, it's a lovely place to walk or cycling around, which we did quite a bit. With spring coming along the gardens also came alive with plenty of flowers blooming, and one amusing sight was seeing all of the wedding couples having their photographs taken. In one rather popular garden we counted no fewer than 9 wedding couples in sight within 50 meters!

    Each evening, roughly ever 30 minutes, a water fountain sound and light show would take place on the edge of the lake. It was impressive to watch, but even more amusing one evening when strongs winds in the wrong direction, combined with an especially impressive jet of water being fired into the air, would result in the crowd being rained on. Caught in the centre of the wet patch, it was funny watching the crowd squeal and eventually disperse after the third or forth downpour. We were too busy trying to photograph the show whilst keeping the camera dry, but eventually retreated ourselves as well.

    Otherwise highlights at Hangzhou included; cycling up into the nearby hills and checking out the tea terraces which reminded us of the Cinque Terra in Italy, visiting a temple which had caged birds trained to say "Ni Hao" (hello) and "Gong Xi Fa Chi" (happy new year), and watching people doing tai chi and dancing with swords and fans by the lake.

    Next stop was Shanghai. I love architecture, and Shanghai was a feast for the eyes. The Bund area, on one side of the river, contains some lovely art deco buildings. The Pudong, on the other side, is even more striking with many fascinating modern structures. On our first evening in town we explored both sides of the river which are brightly lit up. Some of the most fascinating buildings included the Pearl Tower whicb looks like a giant tripod, the World Financial Centre building which looks like it has a giant handle at the top, and the Jinmao tower which contains a massive attrium that looks like something science fiction when viewed from above.

    We also had two memorable train journeys in Shanghai. The first was the bizarre Pudong Sightseeing Tunnel. A futuristic little capsule takes you under the river through a tunnel that's illuminated with all sorts of strange lighting effects. We also rode a maglev train to the airport. It was an 8 minute journey and travelled at 300kmph, hovering 8 centimeters above the smooth metal surfaces that replace the tracks. Sadly we didn't get to experience 433kmph which is the top speed it runs at during peak hour.

    We're now in Japan. Our first day here was spent in modern Fukuoka with somewhat dreary weather, which should clear tomorrow. Already we've seen plenty of wacky Japanese inventions, such as umbrella covering machines for when you enter a shop with a wet umbrella or an automatic banjo playing in front of one shop, plus vending machines everywhere. From the front door of our hotel you could see roughly a dozen, six of which were in a single cluster. They dispense everything from soup to coffee to cigarettes. We're looking forward to exploring this fascinating country, which is different yet easy to travel in (but more expensive than the rest of Asia).

    Day 188 - 17 March 2010
    Change and Continuity in China
    In 1998 I spent 6 months in Nanjing studying Chinese. It was my first time away from home and my first real travel experience. So naturally it had a profound impact on me, broadening my perspectives on the world and infecting me with that chronic condition, the travel bug. In the 11-12 years since, I've had a constant itch to return to China, and so the last couple of weeks have been deeply satisfying in many respects. It's fascinating to see the changes that have taken place in the intervening time. And over the past few days I've had a chance to make some real comparisons as we've visited Nanjing, where I lived in 1998-99 and Suzhou, which I also visited during that time.

    I enjoyed seeing Nanjing again, although there was a little shock to the system to see the tall glittery high-rise buildings that were previously not there. We found our way to the student accommodation building where I used to live, commonly referred to as the Xi Yuan. More surprises were in store, as I found the previously rather drab Xi Yuan has been largely converted to a hotel with a glossy foyer and carpeted stairwells. The space on the 2nd floor where we had our lessons has now been converted to restaurant (our old classrooms are now banquet rooms). Many of favourite old restaurants in the neighbourhood are gone, a particular favourite next door to the Xi Yuan that barely fit 2 tables (affectionately known as A-yi's (Auntie's) for the matriach who ran it) is now completely gone, along with the slightly hokey nightclub/bar next door, having given way to a new multi-storey university building.

    I shouldn't really be surprised at how much things have changed - after all, 12 years is a long time, and what place/institution/organisation/person doesn't undergo change in that time? I guess it's a bit like seeing a child (or young person) grow up - part of you wants to hold the precious moment forever, but you're also glad to see them mature and bloom. And of course, China is likely to have changed more than other places over the last decade or so.

    Around Nanjing more generally, as with much of China that we have already seen, I've noticed that the streets are generally cleaner than I recall. There's less spitting in the streets and less rubbish - we've seen lots of rubbish and recycling bins in the streets, we even saw battery recycling receptacles in one place! Another thing I've noticed is the proliferation of public toilets. Last time I was in China we would keep a look out for fast food joints like McDonald's and KFC as toilet stops. But now there are plenty of public toilets everywhere. The quality of toilets at tourist sites isn't half bad either, compared to what I've seen previously (Minty fresh average rating 1998: 4/10, 2010: 6/10). There's also lots of high end glitzy brand name shops and broad pedestrianised thoroughfares, all things that weren't common when I was last here.

    A little more time in Nanjing and I was able to appreciate that despite the changes, the city still retains its relatively laid back, down-to-earth character. There's still plenty of street food available, with little stalls selling breakfasts around the university and plenty of family-run restaurants around too. Nanjing also still has wide bike lanes and it was great to see lots of bicycles around the city still in use. It was fun to retrace old paths too. Of course, whereas 11-12 years ago there might be 50-60 bicycles passing through an intersection, nowadays its more likely to be 10 bicycles and 20 electric motorcycles/mopeds. Also, in the late 1990's about 80-90% of the cars on Nanjing's roads were taxis, nowadays it's more like 10-15%, with many more private cars. (As a side note, it's exciting that virtually all of the motorcycles in China are electric vehicles - they are so quiet and clean at the local level. It makes me think that if China (and the rest of the world) could only figure out the renewable electricity generation thing, this truly would bode well for the future.)

    Foyer of the Xi Yuan (previously drab with 1970's decor and dark drapings)

    The post office decor remains comfortingly familiar (even the process of sending a package is the same)

    One of Nanjing's main sights, a mountain park with several attractions is still going strong, although once again things have been glossed up a bit and nowadays you have to pay a bit extra to see two separate sites rather than all in one. We visited the impressive mauseoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and a Ming Dynasty tomb (my 4th time!). An outdoor music podium which was somewhat dilapidated and neglected in 1998 has now been resurrected and spruced up. We visited on a Saturday, when the park was packed with people out on a sunny day, reminding us again that there really are a lot of people in China.

    It was also nice to see some parts of Nanjing that I didn't explore the last time I was there - we rode along a river where we could see peoples' washing hanging out on the first fine day in a week. Our stay also coincided with celebrations for the plum blossom and lantern festivals, and we caught some open air entertainment and more street food.

    Upon leaving Nanjing for Suzhou there was one final surprise in store for us. We arrived at the train station, instead of the old building I knew previously, there is a gleaming new train station, more akin to an airport terminal than any other train station that I've seen previously in China. Sure, there were still lots of people around, but by and large the station was pretty orderly and clean. Michael has already written about how modern the train itself was, and along the way we saw several new stations being built.

    We have spent the last couple of days in Suzhou and again there are more changes. The streets seem a lot less dusty and the canals for which Suzhou is known are are lot cleaner. We actually saw people in boats cleaning the canals, which is may be something that wasn't in place 12 years ago.

    Suzhou is also known for its gardens, and we spent some time visiting these. Interestingly, I found myself appreciating aspects of the architecture that I hadn't noticed previously, for example the way that the circular and other unusually shaped portals create beautiful tableaus of the courtyards on the other side. Cycling around we were also caught glimpses of everyday life around town and older architecture along the canals. We also visited a nearby canal town called Tongli, which had more picturesque canals, traditional buildings and gardens - all in all, quite lovely!


    Day 185 - 14 March 2010
    China will grow larger
    Wow, China is modern, especially the big cities (and not just because we've come here straight from India). I'm sitting on a train from Nanjing to Suzhou and it's the most modern train we've been on yet. It's even got the outside temperature and current train speed (currently 204km/h) on a fancy display next to an LCD television showing some Ralph Finnes movie. The streets are clean and quiet, with electric motorbikes and modern cars and buses whizzing past wide footpaths making little noise. The hotels are comfortable, clean, modern and everything works all for around US$50. Most of the systems and the people are quite orderly.

    On the flip side, China's got a lot of very bleak architecture. Thousands of large, concrete apartment blocks that just have been designed by soul-less architects and reminds me a lot of the post-war development around many of Germany's big cities such as Berlin.

    The cities do look quite pretty at night, however, largely due to a lot of bling-bling coloured lighting on all the buildings. Certainly does make me worry, however, about the number of nasty polluting coal power stations that are required to create such a colourful atmosphere.

    One of the joys travelling in China has been the street food. I didn't really have the nerve to take on street food in other parts of Asia, especially in India where the hygiene had much to be desired and those three days in bed with a terrible fever in Morocco are still close by in my memory. But in China the street food seems much safer. So far we've enjoyed fresh corn, baked sweet potato (my favourite, specially on cold days), squid, satayed pork, dumplings, fish balls, flat bread, and boiled eggs from street vendors.

    Another great thing about China is cycling. Many cities have 2 to 3 meter wide lanes, separated from traffic, for bikes and electric motorbikes. Nanjing was most impressive with these lanes on pretty much every road. We finally took the plunge and bought bike helmets to add to our luggage, since getting helmets is often so tricky, and have enjoyed cruising around on two wheels. One thing that's fun in Asia is that most of the locals ride crappy, gearless bikes. Hire a half decent bike with gears and your weaving and whizzing past them, sometimes keeping pace with the motorbikes. Good fun.

    Internet access is another interesting access in China. No youtube. No facebook. Some pages, such as wikipedia articles, won't render with images.

    Well, after Guilin we travelled to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors, which were reasonably impressive except we were both expecting the entire enourmous aircraft hangar sized room to be filled with upright, put together warriors but in reality only the from 50 or so rows of warriors have been restored so far. Still impressive, and interesting to see the warriors they are still assembling with holes in their bodies or heads missing. We also saw another less famous but almost as impressive tomb surrounded by much smaller figures from everyday life; farmers, animals, etc. Xi'an also had an impressive city wall you can go cycling on top of around the city.

    Oh and as expected, I've got the anonymous celebrity thing happening here. A handful of people have asked to take my photo, and I've been surveyed by English language students. I'm always happy to oblige, afterall it's nice to give back and be the one photographed for a change!

    Our last stop was Nanjing, which is where Michelle lived for 6 months in 1998 but I'll let her blog more about that.

    Day 178 - 7 March 2010
    Safety first in China
    Sometimes our first stop in a country leaves us feeling a little unenthusiastic - perhaps through circumstances of illness, tiredness, culture shock, the necessity of landing in a big city or some combination of the above. Morocco, Vietnam and India are all examples of such places where we had this experience, fortunately in all of these cases this passed and these now rate amongst our favourite countries. Similarly, the start of our travels in China has not been without its challenges, although in this case it has less to do with the place itself, and more to do with some unfortunate weather that we have encountered. Our stay to the area around Guilin has unluckily coincided with a cold snap (apparently last week was warm and it's going to get better just around the time that we leave), with temperatures ranging from the mid-teens (degC) down to single digits. Brrrr!

    Guilin itself is a pleasant city, even notwithstanding the fact that we just arrived from India it feels very modern and clean. It's been 11 years since I was last in China so there's probably been a lot of change since then, or perhaps Guilin has always been fairly clean and shiny for a Chinese city. The city is set among a countryside of limestone karsts, with numerous river and lake settings. We've ascended a few peaks in the area for great views and also cycled out through some nearby farmland.

    I've been relishing the opportunity to speak Chinese again, although I'm in equal parts disturbed at how much I've forgotton and impressed at how much I remember. Various bits of vocabulary are slowly coming back to me, and it's nice to be able to give a roughly intelligble answer when someone speaks to me in the local language, even if I am still getting my 4's and 10's mixed up a little (they have similar pronounciation).

    But back to the weather, which unfortunately has impacted our sightseeing a little. We wanted to see some nearby rice terraces that are meant to be a fantastic sight. The plan was to bus to a village about 3 hours from Guilin, spend the night there and then hike the following day amongst the rice terraces, then bus back to Guilin. However, about an hour into our bus ride we became acutely aware of 2 factors: 1) the increasing fog as we headed further up and into the hills, and 2) our growing discomfort with regards to our safety, as the road was damp and the driver of our slightly old and rattley bus seemed rather more reckless than we'd have liked him to be. Now, we've seen some crazy driving other countries, but we've always had good drivers and never actually felt that our vehicle was any more liable to crash than others. But this time, given current road conditions and the fact that visibility at our destination as likely to be poor anyway, and having already passed one nasty-looking accident, we decided that we'd be better off on the road heading back to Guilin. A quick conversation with the bus conductor confirmed that this was perfectly OK - we could hail a bus in the opposite direction back to Guilin, they would come every 15 minutes and would have space for us. So the bus pulled over, and off we hopped.

    We took a little time to appreciate our surroundings, we had been dropped off at an almost deserted holiday and white-water rafting resort, and despite the mist the hills and river below were still quite pretty and atmospheric. We found some houses (but no-one around), ate our basic packed lunch and then proceeded to try to flag a bus down. To cut a long story short, we ended up waiting for about 1.5 hours during which time we tried to hail about 20 buses, none of which stopped for us - for a whole lot of possible reasons, but we never did quite find out the key to it. We also tried hailing a couple of taxis, which were inevitably carrying passengers and even the occasional private car, but all to no avail.

    During this time we met a friendly woman running a road pit stop in the opposite direction who 1) confirmed that hailing a bus from the roadside was a reasonable thing to do 2) confirmed that our bus-hailing hand signal was appropriate 3) told us that there had been a multi-car collision further up the road from where we were (away from Guilin) and 4) tried to contact someone for us to organise a hire car to come and return us to Guilin (an arrangement which unfortunately didn't come through). Although in the end she wasn't necessarily able to definitively help us, it was nice that she validated our actions and didn't think they were unreasonable.

    "Our" spot by the road
    Finally we managed to hail an auto-rickshaw, whose driver said he could take us to a point further down the road towards Guilin where we might have more luck getting a bus or some other vehicle. Perched on small wooden stools loose in the back of the auto-rickshaw, we did question the wisdom of taking this ride from a safety perspective, but by this stage it was getting late in the day and we were getting a little desperate and cold, and were happy to be getting a little closer back towards Guilin. Fortunately all went okay, and 10 minutes later the driver helped us to hail a bus, which - FINALLY! - stopped for us.

    My first thought on boarding the bus was perhaps we weren't any better off than we had been earlier in the day. It was what could be termed a "classic Chinese bus experience", there were guys smoking on the bus and various boxes and other cargo piled up, and at first it looked as if we'd have to sit on plastic stools in the middle of the aisle. But hey, it was transport to our desired destination and fortunately some spots freed up on an anchored wooden box seat for us. And as the bus filled up and the people packed in we were happy to have seats at all. The bus also trundled along at a reasonable pace, and we felt far less likely to be hurtling into the path on an oncoming truck than we had earlier in the day.

    We arrived back at our Guilin hotel cold, tired and hungry but overall relieved and most importantly, safe. Happily they had a room available for us so we checked in again just in time for dinner. So, on the whole it was rather a waste of a day, but we did take away a few key lessons:
  • How to flag down a Chinese bus
  • Where possible, it probably doesn't hurt to check out the vehicle prior to any bus trips we take in the future
  • A deeper appreciation and respect for how dangerous Chinese roads can be

  • The next day we caught a bus to Yangshuo, about an hour away. Happy to report that the journey was uneventful, with good road conditions and driver. Yangshuo is also surrounded by even more plentiful limestone karsts, and despite the cold we've spent an enjoyable couple of days so far exploring the countryside with some stunning scenery. We still have a couple more days here, with lots more to tell and write about - but that will have to wait until another post!
    Day 175 - 4 March 2010
    A day in Mumbai: Happy Holi
    We have arrived in China without too many hassles and are currently in Guilin. We're in a little bit of cold shock, with a 15-20 degree Celsius drop in temperature (plus wind factor), but on the whole Guilin is surprisingly modern, clean and orderly, even notwithstanding the fact that we've just come from India.

    But before we get too far into China, I want to quickly recap our final day in India. Mumbai wasn't originally in our travel plans, but we decided to stop there for a day since we had to fly through there to get to China. And as with so many of our originally unplanned destinations, it turned out to be a great stop.

    Compared to the other places we'd travelled in India (which was basically Delhi and the state of Rajasthan), Mumbai was more ordered and slightly less dirty, the only animals we saw wandering the streets were stray dogs. Overall it felt very cosmopolitan and modern, with wide boulevards, swanky shopping centers and a long stretch of beach front promenade. It seemed that the standard of living for the average Indian was higher than the other places we'd been, people were generally dressed better and seemed happier. This is probably not surprising, since Mumbai is the financial centre of India, not to mention the capital of Bollywood. We also saw the impact of the British presence (Mumbai used to be the British capital of India) in the stately colonial buildings that graced the streets. But we were still very much in India - we definitely saw some novel sights and in keeping with our previous blog themes, plenty of contrast and colour.

    Our day in Mumbai coincided with the Holi festival, which celebrates the start of Spring. It's also a public holiday, so this had some impacts on our sightseeing. On one hand, some sights that we would have normally spent more time at were closed or not operational. On the other hand, traffic was fantastically quiet and we saw many of the festivities in progress. Holi is celebrated by people throwing coloured powder and water at each other, and wandering around town we saw coloured people everywhere. There were groups of guys dancing in the streets to music and we were soon exchanging greetings with people "Happy Holi!" We saw the occasional dog spattered with bits of colour and at one point Michael was daubed with a little colour himself.

    Towards the end of the day, we happened by a large pool of water filled with people washing off and cleaning up. We think the pool is intended for pilgrims to bathe in, but on this occasion it was taking on a definite shade of pink amongst the ducks and seagulls as more and more people washed their colours off. At one point we saw some officials clearing the pool of washers, but an hour or so later, after they had left, it was full of people again.

    On the evening of our arrival, we wandered out to Chowpatty Beach, which was full of people just milling around, chilling out and enjoying the dusk. A group of amusement rides caught our attention when we realised that they were all manually human-powered. Especially fascinating was a ferris wheel-like ride from which the operators would acrobatically swing down to increase its momentum and speed. Incredible to watch but kind of dangerous for them too!


    We also saw a little of the less flashy side of Mumbai, at one point we wandered through a more slum-my area, with small houses and buildings built around tiny narrow lanes (and on this day, all filled with pink and green colour, of course). Out the other end we came to the rocky coast with boys playing cricket on a pebbly beach and people scattered around on the rocks. In stark contrast to the housing we had just come through, we could see shiny new high-rise buildings under contruction in the background. We were also warned off from certain areas by some locals as areas for Ladies' and Gents' business, which made us look carefully at where we were stepping. I engaged in some conversation with a group of girls - they were very friendly, and found the association of my husband's name to Michael Jackson hilarious. Wandering back through the slums we encountered many people who were clearly interested but unfazed by the sight of two foreigners wandering through their local neighbourhood: "Happy Holi!"

    Day 171 - 28 February 2010
    Insights into India: colours and contrasts
    When we first started our travels in India, things were interesting enough and there were lots of novel sights, but we didn't necessarily feel ultra-excited about the place. But as our travels have progressed and as we have moved further away from Delhi, we have felt increasingly engaged and the experiences and sights have been richly rewarding. Not sure whether this is because things are actually more interesting or whether we're just "gel-ling" with the country more with time.

    India is such a colourful place - both figuratively and literally. By now we're almost accustomed to seeing cows, goats, pigs, camels, monkeys and even the occasional elephant in the streets. And yes, the streets are pretty dirty and strewn with rubbish (there would probably be a lot more rubbish if the animals didn't eat a lot of the waste) and the traffic is chaotic. But on the other hand, there is so much vibrantly coloured clothing, especially in Rajasthan, the state where we've been travelling. It's not at all unusual to see a motorbike whizz past with a woman wearing a bright pink, red, turquoise or orange sari. Or similar colours walking down a street carrying a pot or load of firewood on their heads, herding donkeys or goats, or in construction sites. And in the markets and shops there are piles of material, saris, bangles, spices, food and all sorts of other things on offer. Often the houses themselves are painted blue too, adding to the kaleidoscope.


    India is also a country of contrasts. As Michael has previously blogged, the cleanliness and serenity of the monuments are brought into sharp relief against the chaos of the streets. There also seems to be some awareness of environmental concerns - sometimes we see signs about "keeping the place clean", or "say no to plastic", but again this is definitely not borne out in the streets! And of course, while there is a reasonable level of development - highways, technology and preparations for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, there's also a lot of poverty and slum residences in the streets

    We've also had an opportunity to get some glimpses of life in rural India. Visiting a village area near Jodhpur, we saw some traditional crafts (pottery and weaving) and an opium ceremony (no we didn't participate). Once again in the way of contrasts, despite basic housing, the residents have electricity, mobile phones and satellite dishes - it was odd to stand in a small clay hut with thatched roof and see an electricity cable running in to a power board with a mobile phone charger hanging off! Apparently the government has encouraged these developments so that the villagers can benefit from modern conveniences and technology but still maintain their traditional lifestyle.
    A few days later we travelled to Udaipur by car, stopping off at an impressive temple and an even more impressive fort. During the drive we passed plenty of homes, farmland and villagers out and about. One of the most interesting things we saw were ox-driven water wheels in use - we saw these in museums in Morocco!

    The fort itself was also magnificent - positioned on a hill at over 1000 metres elevation with 36km of walls and containing 360 temples, the promise of spectacular views did not disappoint. While wandering around we also came across a dam that is being rebuilt. The women at the worksite invited me over, so I sat with them for about 5-10 minutes during their break. Although they were working and carrying heavy materials around a contstruction site, underneath their scarves and wraps they still wore lots of necklaces and jewellery. They didn't speak any English and I can't speak Hindi so there were a lot of smiles and gesturing. They were interested in my sunglasses and were greatly amused to try them on, and then were also making some comments related to my hair and something about the dust. I realised afterwards that they were asking whether I shampoo it regularly, I guess because it looked pretty clean and shiny to them. All in all, it was a lovely encounter.

    The past couple of days in Udaipur have brought even more colourful sights and the opportunity to see village life. Yesterday we went for a horse ride which took us through another rural village. There were children everywhere, all calling out "Namaste" (Hello) to us. The living there seemed basic but not necessarily impoverished - there were electricity cables, some newer brick houses and schools. In fact, it seemed that many of children seemed to practising their textbook English on us ("How are you?" "What is your name?" "I am fine").

    In the evening we saw a show of traditional Rajasthani dance and music, highlights of which included women dancing with pots of fire on their heads, a guy holding hot coals between his teeth, and a woman dancing with no less than 10 pots stacked on top of her head. Truly impressive stuff - probably the best "traditional show" that we've seen in all of our travels so far (and it only cost us a little over US$1 each!)

    Then finally, just before we left Udaipur this morning, we dropped by a local market to see the preparations for a Hindu festival called Holi, which takes place tomorrow. Holi marks the start of Spring and celebrations take place by everyone throwing coloured dye and coloured water at everyone one else on the streets. In short, it sounds much like a massive Year 12 muck-up day. The market was a buzzing hive of activity with brightly coloured powders and water pistols for sale everywhere. Many of the kids around town have already been practising their water pistol skills for a few days (fortunately only with plain water!) We flew out to Mumbai this afternoon so we won't be in Udaipur for the actual festival we have mixed feelings about this. On one hand we're sorry to miss what will be amazing festivities. On the other hand we've heard that it's pretty full on and anybody and everybody is fair game, so we've escaped before the mayhem where we'd likely be multicoloured ourselves for a few days afterwards.

    Day 163 - 20 February 2010
    Anonymous celebrity, rubbish, and traffic in India

    Today was quite an experience. We spent the day exploring Ajmer, which contains an important Muslim pilgram shrine. It felt like we were further off the tourist trail than ever before in India. The most interesting sign of this is that people wanted to take photos of us rather than the other way around. For the first time in my life I experience the anonymous celebrity feeling. I think they were especially interested in Michelle and her Chinese appearance. One couple handed Michelle their child to hold and photographed her. In a museum we encountered a school group and the teacher started asking us the usual questions such as "where are you from?" and "what is your profession?". In India when you are asked these questions alarm bells are ringing in your head and I was getting ready to walk away before he asked for money or tried to sell me something but then he suprised us both by asking if the children in his class could take photos of us. For the next couple of minutes we posed next to the year 9 school kids as their classmates took photos. Bizzare experience. I expect I'll get similar interactions in Chinese where a 6"4' anglo guy will be quite novel if we escape the more touristy areas.

    The next fun theme of the day was rubbish. In India there is rubbish everywhere lining the streets. I chuckle when I see signs saying things like "Welcome to Pushkar. This is an important pilgram sight. Please do your best to keep it clean" because they don't seem to be working. Today we ate some bananas that we bought from a street vendor, who pushes around a large plantform on wheels loaded with fruit. Michelle then approached a shop keep who appeared to have a rubbish bin and said "rubbish?" pointing a the bin. The shopkeeper pointed at the nearby goat (there's usually a goat or cow somewhere nearby in India). OK, let's give this a try we thought. So we threw the banana peels to the goat and sure enough he gobbled them up. Later in the day we bought mango juice from a shop and wanted to discard our previous, used juice bottle. We offered it to the shopkeeper, again asking "rubbish?". He pointed at the ground. We hesitated and he smiled and said "this is not Australia". Nevertheless we wouldn't want to litter India any further and we later found a bin for our used bottle.

    Lastly, you can't talk about India without talking about traffic. As with Vietnam and Cambodia there doesn't seem to be any road laws, although there certainly seems to be generally understood system to it all (well understood by the locals at least). Here's some ways it differs to the west:
    • Instead of sticking to the left lane, vehicles stay closer to the centre of the road (where the quality of the surface is better) then move to the left after a vehicle approaching from behind honks several times. This results in a lot of honking.
    • At intersections it's pretty much a case of largest vehicle wins; they get to go first and it's up to the smaller vehicles like motorbikes to weave around them.
    • It's OK to drive on the wrong side of the road as long as you stick to the shoulder and only do it for a short distance. This is useful for stopping outside a building on the other side of the road or making a turn where other vehicles are blocking you from getting to the left lane.
    • Animals wander around freely on the roads and need to be dodged although they seem to do a pretty good job of not suddenly moving in front of traffic. One rather amusing incident two days ago; our autorickshaw taxi (small three wheeled vehicle) came across one pig "piggybacking" another in the middle of the road. The taxi driver came within centimeters of the pigs and honks his horn before the pigs finally moved, they were clearly preoccupied.

    Day 161 - 18 February 2010
    India - one week in and a world of contrasts

    We've been in India for a week now. First we visited Delhi, then Agra (where the Taj Mahal is) and now we are in Jaipur. In that time we've seen some amazing sights including impressive forts such as the Amber Fort and impressive tombs such as the Taj.

    Travelling in India so far feels like a mixture of contrasts. Each day we visit these amazing monuments that are stunning to look at, clean, well maintained and apart from the sometimes crowds of tourists quite tranquil. Then you step out of the monument into the street and are immediately back in the real India, with rubbish everywhere, chaotic traffic with much horn honking, pigs, cows, goats and other animals wandering the streets everywhere, beggars, and people frequently urinating on the footpath. There are fewer smiling faces than Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It's full on, but visually not as appealing as most of the other countries we've visited.

    But the sights themselves are absolutely stunning. Today we visited Amber Fort in Jaipur. This amazing sand coloured fort on a hill is overlooked by another almost as impressive fort and surrounded by a defensive wall that snakes along ridges across the surrounding hills far in every direction. We spent a good four hours exploring it thoroughly.

    Before Jaipur we visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. I had pretty high expections and wasn't disappointed. The thing's massive and you only really appreciate that once you get up close. I'm sure I've seen the Taj in movies where there are only a few people wandering around but it's nothing like that, of course, with tourists everywhere doing funny hand gestures for the camera so it looks like they're holding the Taj and all that. Fun to watch.

    Delhi was a good introduction to India. It's got quite a few interesting sights, again mostly tombs and forts and temples and such. We had nice accommodation in a more wealthy, suburban part of town that helped ease us in. We've also enjoyed travelling by train which is quite comfortable, at least in the classes we've been travelling with 4 people to a compartment and laptop power which is nice. The lower classes, which hundred of Indians are packed in and sometimes hanging from the door is quite a sight. Very Slumbdog Millionaire.

    Tomorrow we travel to Pushkar, then on to Johdpur and Udaipur before flying to China. I wonder how China will compare to India, perhaps it will feel quite civilised...

    Day 154 - 11 February 2010
    Northern Vietnam, and then out before Tet
    Well, our adventures in Vietnam are over, and we are currently back in Bangkok airport en route to Delhi. And oh, what sights we have seen over the past 2 and a half weeks - this is going to be a lengthy blog post.

    With Tet (Lunar New Year) only 3 days away now, toward the end of our stay we started to notice a huge flurry of activity with preparations for the festival in full swing. There were cumquat and peach blossom trees being transported everywhere on motorbikes, large floral displays and the streets of Hanoi were full of Tet decorations and plenty of bling bling for sale. The traffic also seemed even more crazily frenetic than what we'd seen previously (although admittedly it could always just be like that). We also noticed shops putting up notices about closing and tour operators scaling down over the 3-day holiday - everything tends to grind to a halt for that period as people return to their familiy homes (and hence why we decided we should leave beforehand). So although we left before actual festival, it was fun to see all the frenzied action in the lead-up (apparently it's mostly a family-based, rather than public, celebration anyway).

    Prior to Hanoi we spent about a week in Ninh Binh and Cat Ba Island. Ninh Binh itself a fairly grey and noisy town (we ended up staying in a nearby village), but the surrounding countryside is quite stunning with lush green rice paddies, a river and lakes set against a backdrop of towering limestone karsts (rock formations). The rice paddies here appeared to be in a different part of the growth/harvest cycle than those we had seen further south, and we saw a lot more people working in the paddies here. It was fascinating to see and it all seems to be very much a community effort, with everyone working on a different task - ploughing, planting shoots, spreading seed, transporting new shoots to the paddies, moving earth around the paddies. Moreover, it really is a very manual process - all of these people working every day standing knee-deep in mud, bent over from waist down in the paddies (the only machinery we saw were a couple of simple ploughs). But they almost always had a smile and often a wave for tourists such as ourselves passing by, and sometimes they even shared a joke with us despite having no language in common (one about a broken down plough stuck in the bog, and another inviting us to join them at work in the paddies).

    It was then on to Cat Ba Island, near Halong Bay, which also boasts impressive limestone karsts but this time rising out of the ocean. We spent a few days kayaking and cruising to take in the sights, including some interesting rock formations and lovely lagoons. The scenery here is awesome, but once again it was the human elements that made this stop all the more interesting. Lan Ha and Halong Bays are dotted with brightly coloured floating villages and homes among the karsts (some officially sanctioned, others not). Each home basically consists of a tiny hut (which might house an entire multi-generational family) surrounded by a frame of wooden planks all joined together, and all floating on plastic containers bobbing on the surface. The homes are anchored to the nearby rock by a steel cable, and the number of homes connected to each other varies from single residences to dozens. These floating homes also often double as businesses such as fisheries, oyster farms, water storage and kayak storage and any manner of practical function that could be required in a fishing village. We saw plenty of fishing boats, and also some oyster farming activities - plastic containers filled with dirt and sand on the bottom of the bay with a netting over the top, then emptied out of the dirt when the oysters are ready for collection. It feels incredibly humbling to be able to get such an glimpse of these peoples' lives.

    Amidst all of the colour and activity, it was impossible not to notice the dogs. It seemed like each home had at least two ferocious-looking guard dogs that bark and growl threateningly at any strange boat (or kayak) that strays too close to their respective property. The dogs apparently serve a security role to prevent theft from homes, fortunately they seemed to be fairly obedient when their owners called them off, and even more happily when we were kayaking, they only run to the edge of the wooden planks and don't ever seem to jump in the water.

    We spent our last couple of days in Vietnam in Hanoi - we enjoyed seeing the Old Quarter of the city with its myriad shops. It seemed that of all the touristy places we had been to in Vietnam that we got hassled the most in Hanoi. But it never got too bad (the Vietnamese touts tend to accept "no" as an answer more than the Moroccans). One night in Hanoi we went to see a show of water puppetry - a North Vietnamese tradition that is hundreds of years old. Besides the expected entertainment and novelty of the art form, the show depicted several aspects of Vietnamese culture and countryside (eg. farming and fishing) that we had seen in our travels over the past couple of weeks and could therefore appreciate all the more. A perfect way to end our stay!

    Day 143 - 2 February 2010
    Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Hue
    We've spent the last week traveling up from southern to central Vietnam. Our only stop in the south was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - we decided to forgo one of our planned stops (Nha Trang) due to anticipated congestion on transport routes as Tet (Lunar New Year) approaches. Ho Chi Minh City felt like a typically big, dusty Asian city so we only stayed long enough to check out the Reunification Palace where the South Vietnamese government ceded power to North Vietam at the end of the Vietnam War. The building has not changed since 1975, and we were shown fittings and new technologies that were installed when it was built (eg. Japanese air conditioners) and that made it a very modern and advanced building in its day.

    We then headed up to Hoi An, which has retained a traditional style old town and buildings. Besides the traditional architecture, we enjoyed seeing some of the nearby Vietnamese countryside. It was all very picturesque, with rice paddies galore, cemeteries, fishermen and life on the river, and villages specialising in woodcarving and pottery. Cycling out through some of the villages, we had children frequently calling out "Hello" to us. Unfortunately I had fallen sick in Ho Chi Minh City, so Michael had some of these adventures on his own while I rested.

    Our final night in Hoi An happened to fall on the full moon. As part of the monthly celebration, the street lights are turned off and paper lanterns are set bobbing merrily down the river. Everyone turns out in the street in force, night-time boat rides are available and there is live music. Of course there is also an entrepreneurial side, and all the foreigners are entreated to buy paper lanterns by the families selling them in the street. And well, how can you say "no" to a small child who holds out a candle and looks up at you with big brown eyes? (except maybe when it's the 6th or 7th child who has approached you in 10 minutes) Overall, it was all very captivating and quite enchanting.

    After Hoi An, we continued on to Hue, which has an old walled citadel and imperial city. Interestingly, the citadel wall somewhat resembled other fortresses that we've seen previously in Europe and Canada, and it turned out that indeed the French helped in the building of this wall. We also spent a day exploring some imperial tombs around Hue. As interesting as the tombs themselves was the outbound journey down the river - the boat that took us there was also home to the family who ran it. We also passed a lot of water-dredging activity and silt/mineral transport boats along the river (again, with people living on them).

    Besides seeing the sights, we've also enjoyed taking in the everyday aspects of Vietnam. Landing in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first and most prominent things we noticed was the traffic - in a nutshell, it's totally crazy. Until now I had been developing a theory that the order in traffic is inversely proportional to the average speed (eg. in Morocco things are chaotic but the pace is fairly sedate). But in Vietnam, traffic is fast and chaotic! Which makes crossing the road a somewhat challenging Frogger-like experience at times. Overwhelmingly impressive is the number of motorcycles that dominate the streetscape - it really is a fundamental mode of transport here. Despite the apparent chaos, there is also a natural flow and rhythm to it all as everyone seems to understand how it all work (except us, that is). We won't be driving here ourselves any time soon!

    Currently we have interrupted our "H" itinerary and are travelling to Ninh Binh in the north of the country. It's a 10 hour train journey on the "Reunification Express" through more picturesque Vietnamese countryside (did I mention that there were lots of rice paddies in this country?). It's quite interesting as the train is full as the Vietnamese return to their family homes for Tet, and we think there might also be a live rooster on our train (we heard it crowing at the last stop)

    Day 136 - 24 January 2010
    Cambodia - Temples, floating village, and the icecream scam

    We're just about to fly from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. We've spent four days here, and it's been a memorable stay. First, let me say that the Cambodians, at least most that we interacted with in Siem Reap, are quite friendly and really have customer service down pat. The hotel was nice, the breakfast was great, the staff always friendly and helpful. Sure there was plenty of people constantly asking you to buy stuff and the odd scam, but sometimes these things are kinda interesting to observe and, as the bible says, you're more likely to be charmed out of your money than have it stolen; it felt like quite a safe place for a developing country that has been through so much turmoil, even as recently as 15 years ago.

    The main attraction at Siem Reap is Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. The temples were amazing and they varied enough that they kept you interested. Even today, our last day, we visited our 15th and 16th odd temples and I still found them interesting - each has a different design and some fascinating aspect you hadn't seen before - a big moat, a staircase with a great view, overgrown with trees, great for sunset, well preserved, falling apart, or a nice raised approach platform. But then I think the temples around Angkor Wat are my sort of thing - afterall like lighthouses or forts or castles they're cool old crumbling buildings in a fantastic natural setting.

    We used different transport to visit the temples; cycling two days, then a tuk-tuk (motorbike with a carriage attached) then a car for the final day, allowing us to reach the further away sights. Near each temple was a bunch of stalls and adults and kids would approach you when you arrived at the temple trying to sell you stuff. The cries of "water!" or "mango!" or "postcard! 1,2,3,4...10 for $1" became a common soundtrack. Fortunately there seemed to be rules preventing sellers entering the temple areas themselves so you could enjoy them in peace.

    My favourite scam (well sort of begging rather than scam) involved icecreams. Surrounding the icecream truck were some girls that, when you went to buy an icecream, would say "One for me! One for me!" trying to convince you to buy them an icecream. I thought about this a bit, and realised how the scam works (based on similar scams) - if you buy the girl an icecream she's not going to eat it, afterall that would probably mean a dozen icecreams a day which is probably not as fun as it sounds. Rather she sells the icecream back to the truck owner at half the price, so she makes some money and the truck owner makes money from the sale too.

    Perhaps our most memorable day was yesterday when we visited one of the floating villages. Rather then visit the most popular village, which was much more touristy and, according to our hotel, "not very nice to tourists" we visited a more remote village where the houses, rather then float, had been built on giant 6 metre high bamboo stilts. This is neccessary because the height of the nearby lake rises significantly in the wet season. Getting there turned out to be more of an adventure than we had hoped for. Our tuk-tuk driver could only take us so far before the dirt road leading to the town deterioated. Here we had to buy tickets for a tour, involving a motorbike ride and boat ride the rest of the way (after the tuk-tuk driver told me he could drive us all the way). Already an hour away from Siem Reap we were committed so off we went. Two motorbikes took us along the road for 20 minutes. It was rough going. The "road" was in pretty bad shape with mud and bog everywhere and we had to get off the bikes in a few places. It felt very Charlie Boorman. We then transferred to a boat which took us to the village, which we toured around by boat and foot. It was pretty amazing to see, with over 3,000 residents and a large fishing industry living entirely in structures towering above us. Since it was dry season, residents could walk between the houses but in the wet season boats would be the only way to get between the buildings. It was also certainly the most remote village I've ever visited; no electricity or running water and very limited transport access.

    Day 130 - 18 January 2010
    Bustling Bangkok
    We have just spent a very pleasant 3 days in Bangkok - although I was here once some years ago, it was great to re-visit the city, see it through fresh (and more well-travelled) eyes and appreciate it anew.

    But first, let me backtrack to our departure from Melbourne. Things got off to a somewhat ominous start when we arrived at the airline check-in desk (after 45 minutes of queueing) and learned that we needed some evidence of onward or return flight out of Thailand. And given our current length and style of travel, of course we didn't have any such thing. Fortunately with the modern wonders of wireless internet and our handy netbook, we were able to hurriedly book a refundable flight out of Bangkok, present our laptop screen to the check-in official and voila! we had our boarding passes. Of course, I can write about it all very calmly now, but at the time it was a panicky 15 minutes or so. Happily we arrived in Bangkok with no further dramas.
    Bangkok has a lively vibrant feel with both modern and traditional elements to explore. In fact we found ourselves reflecting that aside from the traffic (and possibly the weather), it could be quite an interesting place to live. As during my previous visit to Thailand, we have been struck by the friendliness and serenity of the Thai people. We've also been pleasantly surprised by the weather - while it has been warm and humid, it certainly hasn't been as uncomfortable and oppressive as we expected.

    And so, to our highlights of Bangkok:
    • What Wat is what? We visited various Wats (temples) of note - one very gilded and glittery (as Michael says, very "bling bling"), one with a giant reclining Buddha, and a couple of others with high vantage points with views over Bangkok.
    • Catching ferries and boats up and down the Chao Phraya River - great views of wats, palaces, skyscrapers, river front houses and shanty homes, resort hotels, traditional boats, industrial barges - a wonderful cross section of all that is Bangkok.
    • Catching the SkyTrain above the streets of Bangkok, with an aerial view of the buildings and roads. We also noticed markings on the train platforms where people queue up in a very orderly fashion to board the train. Probably not many countries in the world where such a system would work.
    • Hiring bikes and going for a ride around Ko Kret, a man-made car-less island just out of Bangkok. It is amazing that the villages here can feel so quiet, rural and different from the big city just across the river and less than an hour away.
    • Seeing the flashy modern shopping centres - although inside they do just feel like shopping centres all over the world, from the outside they do have a glitz and glamour that sparkles and entices
    • A mass outdoors aerobics session in an urban park at twilight - probably about 100-200 people.
    • Passing through a SkyTrain station at 6pm, when the National Anthem started to play through overhead speakers. Everyone stops dead in their tracks wherever they are for a minute or two, then when the music ends they continue right on walking.

    Another highlight was a visit to "Ancient Siam", which is supposedly the world's largest open air museum and contains scaled-down replicas of various sights and attractions around Thailand. We weren't sure if this was going to be super-cheesy, but it turned out to be really quite impressive. The replicas are constructed with great attention to detail, and are also faithful to the spirit of each original attraction. For example, the recreated temples require shoes to be taken off before entering, the floating market has shops, restaurants and women selling things from boats, and the houses of the "northern villages" actually seem to be inhabited. The grounds are huge (over 80 hectares), but are very pleasant for cycling around, which we did for a few hours. Something we didn't appreciate at the time, but later learned, is that the grounds are actually in the shape of Thailand itself, and the replicas within are placed approximately where their actual locations are in real life. Very cool, and obviously a huge amount of thought, effort and care has gone into this.

    Of course, 3 days in Bangkok is not enough to see all that that the city has to offer, and there's plenty that we haven't explored. Would probably be a good place to revisit again some day and discover and learn more about. In the meantime, we are moving on, and as I write we are on a rather bumpy train to Ayutthaya, about 1.5 hours away. Ayuthaya is an old capital of Thailand and has some interesting ruins, which should be fun to explore.

    Day 122 - 10 January 2010
    UK & Australia - Recharge, repair and prepare
    The last few weeks have been a break from our regular travels. First we stopped off for a few days in the UK on our way back to Australia and caught up with friends there. Happy to escape the cold weather, we then flew back to Melbourne for Christmas. Over the last couple of weeks we've been busy catching up with family and friends, organising visas for the next stage of our adventure, buying new supplies and replacing a few items in our luggage, and finally getting the first (of two) remaining video blog chapters from Morocco published. Hope you enjoy it!

    I also had a chance to spend a few days with friends down at the family's beach house in Fairhaven on the Great Ocean Road (pictured to the right), which was good fun.

    On Thursday we fly with Jetstar airlines to Bangkok and start the next stage of our travels. We'll be spending about 3 - 4 months in Asia, visiting Thailand and Cambodia briefly, then Vietnam, China, India, Japan and then more China before flying back to Europe to explore eastern European countries such as Croatia, Poland and Czech Republic.

    Day 100 - 19 December 2009
    100 days - Vale Morocco
    As we hit triple figues in our day count just over 3 weeks since we arrived in Morocco, today we are flying out from Marrakesh to London.. We are sad that our Moroccan odyssey is over - after a somewhat inauspicious start, once we found our Moroccan groove we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the country.
    It was difficult to beat the Sahara desert, but the last couple of days of our road trip were filled with some interesting sights and experiences, including:
    • Exploring the Dades Gorge - beautiful red earth rock formations with villages and ruined kasbahs (castles) to explore. The people there were very friendly and refreshingly nonchalant about us wandering through their fields and villages. Michael befriended a small boy in trying to access a ruined kasbah that was locked (to the extent that the boy climbed up on to a somewhat perilous ledge in his efforts to break in, Michael managed to convince him that getting in wasn't that important)
    • Stopping off and taking a tour at another kasbah dating from the 17th century that has now been converted to a museum. The guide, who was from the family that owns the kasbah, showed us many interesting artefacts of the historic and traditional Moroccan lifestyle. Most interesting was a wooden door lock with quite an ingenious mechanism.
    • Me getting pulled over by the Moroccan police for overtaking on an unbroken line on the highway. The official fine was supposedly 400 Dirham (~40 euro), but after a friendly exchange in which I agreed with him that Morocco was a fine country to travel in ("tres bon, tres bon"), the officer fined me a "special rate" of only 200 Dirham without paperwork. Handing over the cash, with a smile and a wave we were away, and no doubt he took home a little extra pocket money that night.
    • Visiting Aĩt Benhaddou, a village that has been used for several films, including Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. Films aside, the old village is an impressive sight, sloping up the hillside in a valley by a riverbed
    • Driving through the High Atlas Mountain range pass - we got very lucky with the weather and had an incredibly fine and still day for the drive and enjoyed spectacular scenery as well as the somewhat comic sight of men every 50 metres or so along the road, waving minerals and precious rocks at passing cars in the hope that some tourists will stop and purchase
    • Driving into Marrakesh around the afternoon peak hour. Although we had dreaded the city driving, it actually it was not too nerve-wracking and only a little hair-raising - traffic is chaotic but at least not too fast, and we were able to fairly calmly assert ourselves and negotiate our way through to drop the car off.
    Having been on the road for a week it was nice to stop in Marrakesh for a few days. Marrakesh is a crazy bustling place - had it been our first stop in Morocco we might have been overwhelmed, but being at the end of our stay we were able to enjoy the lively atmosphere. One of the prime sights is Djemma al Fna, a huge square filled with food stores, street performers, snake charmers, performing apes, henna artists, fortune tellers and much more. It's all amazing to see, but of course everyone there is trying to make a buck and a living from all the tourists passing through, so there is something of a constant harrassment in trying to get our attention. We found a good tactic was to say "maybe later", which seemed to be an acceptable answer.

    It's not at all unusual to see some guy walking towards a tourist with live snake in outstretched hand - Michael did at one point end up rather unwillingly with a snake around his neck. In avoiding the snakes we had to take care not to step in the path of the apes which would be liable to jump up on us. And so then we end up on the road dodging the cars, mopeds, horses & carriages, bicycles and donkeys all going every which way - but strangely enough we almost felt safer there than in the way of snakes and apes!

    Day 94 - 13 December 2009
    Moroccan road trip - "Do you have a reservation?" Yes we do!
    It's been four days since we hired a car in Rabat and set off on a road trip over the Atlas Mountains to explore the more remote parts of Morocco, and so far it's been a great decision. Driving through Morocco has been challenging but not too difficult or dangerous; the roads are good quality and other drivers reasonably patient and sensible, especially outside the big cities. We've been able to reach many sites that would be difficult and time consuming to visiting without a car.

    Some of the highlights so far have been:
    • Spending the night in Ifrane, a rather modern ski resort town that could have been in Switzerland, quite a contrast to the rest of Morocco.
    • Stopping at a roadside view point with some stalls to have the local resident monkey jump on our car. When it came time to depart he wouldn't budge so we just started driving and eventually he panicked and jumped off.
    • All sorts of crazy traffic in the towns; kids playing soccer on the road, cyclists everywhere (wasn't expecting that; I guess it's a cheap form of transport), donkeys, tractors, a girl repairing her bike right in the middle of a busy road, and grand taxi sedans crammed full of up to eight people.
    • Getting to Merzouga, a town in the Sahara desert right next to rolling sand dunes and taking a camel ride up into the dunes. The getting on and getting off motion of the camel going up and down is quite alarming.
    • Me learning to drive a manual car for the first time; a bit of a crazy place to learn but I'm getting the hang of it.
    • Coming across a row of wells all tapping into the same underground water source, which was dried up at the time, and having a local shop keeper climb down one than up another. Of course he wanted us to join him to tea and see his merchandise afterwards, but he tipped him 20 Dirham (2 euro) instead.
    The other really interesting part of the drive has been the people, and we've had a diverse set of encounters. Some friendly people who have gone out of their way to help us. Some are fascinated by us; in Sale, a city that probably sees few tourists, a kid washing car windscreens at the traffic lights saw Michelle at the wheel and was very excited, gawking in the window and exclaiming "Chinease!" then calling his friend over. Also lots of people who seem desperate to sell you something or direct you to a hotel or tour. A typical scenrio when stopping in a town or side of the road is somebody approaches you (almost always, unless the area is deserted) and asks A) what language you speak then B) where you're from then C) they say "Sydney?" or "Melbourne?" then D) where are you going and finally most likely E) where are you staying and do you have a reservation. The correct answer for E is YES you do have a reservation (even though we never did) otherwise without doubt they will try to talk you into staying at their brothers/cousins/friend's hotel.

    We're currently staying the night in the Dades George, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains on the other side from civilization. Tomorrow we'll visting the town where "Gladiator" was filmed, then the day after we hope to cross back over the pass to Marrakech; unless the pass is closed due to snow. Fingers crossed, otherwise it's a lengthy drive around the mountains.

    Day 87 - 6 December 2009
    Michael Morocco - Fez and Meknes
    Wow, day 87. We're well in to our travels now. Sometimes I need to pinch myself and remind myself that this is it; we're living the adventure we'd been looking forward to for so long.

    The last few days have been interesting, challenging and memorable. I think Morocco is one of those places where, some days, you don't really appreciate the day until you reflect on it that evening. We made the bus ride to Fez from Chefchaouen, which was a relief because we were both still recovering from feeling ill and it's good to be somewhere where the water is chlorinated so we can be a bit less paranoid. We checked into a nice hotel with a great view over the valley and on our first day hired a guide to show us around the massive medina (old town). It's the largest urban pedestrianized area in the world. Hiring the guide was half the challenge (fun) and involved bargaining with him and insisting the tour didn't include any shopping. The tour was OK, perhaps lacking since his English wasn't fantastic, but he showed us the main sights and didn't take us shopping (although he did take us to an overpriced restaurant) so not bad at 300 Dihrams (about 30 euro) for a few hours.

    The medina was fun to explore. We went back and explored it some more on the second day. Especially fascinating were the tanneries where leather products are produced, and you can watch the whole very manual process of removing the skin from the fleece and dying it in large vats of various colours. We also enjoyed other random interesting sights like the guy chisseling a grave stone or donkeys carrying gas bottles. The touts are a bit of a pain, and the worst are the kids who don't know when to give up. I ended up telling one very persistent kid to "please go away" which he really didn't like and proceeded to swear at me and tell me to go away from his town. Plus everyone seems to be trying to sell you something. The hotelier, the restaurantier, the taxi driver all want to recommended a tour, hotel, restaurant or whatever. That said the people have generally been very lovely and helpful. Even the kids are good for helping you get un-lost for a few Dihrams. Today, some kids tried to show us the way (even though we already knew the way) and insist on some money, but I wasn't going to give them anything and they soon gave up.

    After Fez we took the train to Meknes, our current location. The train system was built by the French and was great - a smooth ride (much smoother than the rattly tracks in Spain and Portugal) and comfortable compartments with 6 people in each. The train was on time and pretty easy to use. Meknes has been thoroughly enjoyable, my favourite place in Morocco so far. Very much a smaller and much less touristy version of Fez; so generally less hassle. It was the capital for 55 years around 1700 and has some great imperial sites with castle-like walls, turrets and tunnels. I quite like the simplicity of the photo shown here of Michelle on the imperial city walls. Less traffic in the city was also a nice change; crossing the road in Fez is challenging since cars seem to have priority and you really have to play frogger to cross the road. It's also much easier to get a petit taxi in Meknes - these things are great, for 10 Dihrams (1 euro) they'll take you across town and they're everywhere; pretty much every third car is one. Finding an empty one is the only tricky bit.

    The other nice thing about Fez and Meknes is they both have two sections; the medina (old town) and the ville nouvelle (French area) which has wide boulevards, fountains, etc. and feels quite European. So you can spend the day in the chaos of the medina then retreat to sleep and dine in the French part of town.

    Tomorrow we're heading to Rabat, the capital. We'll spend a couple of nights there then we're considering hiring a car and crossing the Atlas Mountains over to the desert. Watch this space.

    Day 80 - 29 November 2009
    "Dumb tourist" moments
    Generally we like to think of ourselves as reasonably savvy travellers - we try to be culturally and environmentally sensitive, economic and efficient in itinerary and transport, and have a healthy level of cynicism when it comes to people offering us various services or goods/souvenirs in the street. But several times in the past few days we've been left feeling red-facedly like "we should have known better", in short, like one of those stereotypical specimens that we try so hard to avoid being - the "dumb tourist".
    The first instance occurred when we were in Gibraltar, a singular English outpost on the southern coast of Spain (the first thing we saw upon crossing the border was a classic red telephone booth). We visited the Rock of Gibraltar and enjoyed wandering around, exploring tunnels and forts, and of course, seeing the famous barbary apes of Gibraltar. (they're actually barbary macaques, but for some reason everyone and all the signs refer to them as apes). We were well warned about the apes - by family, by staff and by all the signs posted around the Rock. The apes are fun to watch but notorious for being quite aggressive in taking food from people. After watching some "dumb tourists" playing with the apes, we had a narrow escape when one ape approached us purposefully as we were eating lunch. We retreated to a beautiful cave of stalactites and stalagmites where we finished our lunch ape-free. After the cave, we picked up a snack from the nearby restaurant. Stepping out of doorway of the restaurant with an unopened packet of chips in one hand and drink in the other, I noticed an ape approaching with a greedy look in its eye. I realized immediately that Michael was too far ahead to secure our goods in the backpack, so I turned to re-enter the restaurant. The next thing I knew, the ape had jumped up onto me, clung to my side for a full second then grabbed the chips out of my hand and scampered away to a beam above, as if to laugh at me. I heard someone gasp and say something like "did you see that monkey jump on that woman?!" Yes, I was "that" woman - DUMB TOURIST MOMENT #1.

    After Gibraltar we caught a ferry over the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa. We spent a day in Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the African mainland, then yesterday we walked across the border from Ceuta into Morocco. Once on the Moroccon side, as expected, we encountered the "Grand Taxis", old rattling Mercedes Benz cars which serve as shared taxis - "shared" generally meaning 6 passengers crammed in (2 in front, 4 in back). We were offered a ride to Tétouan, the nearest town. We knew this was our only way of getting to Tétouan but really should have bargained down the initial offer of a private taxi for 20 euro. The taxi turned out to take 3 other passengers, so we really should have paid half the price. DUMB TOURIST MOMENT #2. But oh well, we got to our destination in the end.
    From Tétouan we got another grand taxi (at a far more reasonable price) to Chefchaouen, a small town at the foot of the Rif mountains. Chefchaouen has a famously blue medina (town centre) - all the buildings and streets are wholly painted in light blue, which is very striking. We will confess to experiencing a little culture shock on arrival, in part because it was a festival day and there were people and kids everywhere, but we were also trying to shake off the touts trying to sell us tours or other things. I think we were also pretty tired after negotiating our way here during the day. But I have noticed a very nice community atmosphere - the way people greet each other (and ourselves), and the groups just sitting around in friendly gatherings over tea in the main square. We also had quite a magical experience out on the hillside overlooking town when the call to prayer rang out through the valley at sunset. So hopefully we'll recalibrate to the new pace of things in a few days.

    However, as I sit and write this blog, Michael is suffering from the effects of our DUMB TOURIST MOMENT #3. At dinner last night, we forgot that we would need to be more vigilant about food in Morocco - Michael was halfway through our shared salad entree when he realised it was not a smart move. Fortunately I had not had my half yet, so only one of us was afflicted with diarrhoea and vomiting through the night. The weather today is utterly miserable and rainy, so not a bad day to be sick in bed (we were planning to go hiking), although as Michael just commented, "I'd rather not be sick at all". Hopefully this will pass in the next day or so and we certainly won't make that mistake again!

    Postscript: The pall of suspicion moved away from the salad onto other possible sources when I fell ill 2 days later. Which doesn't really negate the occurrence of DUMB TOURIST MOMENT #3, but it does decouple the presumed cause and effect. Perhaps the illness was a timely reminder for future encounters with washed fruits and vegies, to (hopefully) avoid any further instances of food poisoning.

    Day 77 - 26 November 2009
    Southern Spain: surprises in Seville
      The past week or so has been spent in Seville and Granada. A large part of our initital motivation for visiting both of these cities were respective palace complexes - Alcazar in Seville, and Alhambra in Granada. And to be sure, they did not disappoint. The architecture around both was quite stunning, with amazing intricate detail in the carvings and tiles all over the arches, walls and ceilings. Our tour guide in Seville also took pains to point out that the Alcazar in Seville was actually built by Catholic monarchs, and although the architecture appears to be Islamic/Moorish, it is actually a form known as "Mudéjar" - which basically means primarily Islamic artistry, with some tiny variations due to the Christian input - in truth, all but imperceptible to the untrained eye. (as an aside, our tour guide also told us that Christopher Columbus was apparently blonde, and started to lose his hair in his 30's...just a new random fact to add to the collection). We enjoyed seeing Muslim-influenced architecture of both cities, certainly it makes for a very interesting mix amongst the traditional European and Spanish style buildings, especially when different styles have been mixed into the same building. In Seville, we also noticed a fair amount of interesting modern architecture and sculptures as well.

    Seville in fact turned up a few surprises, and we ended up staying an extra day over what we originally planned. On the afternoon of our arrival we set out to see the Cathedral, but on the way we got distracted by the activity around a film involving Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise. We spent a glorious couple of hours popping around to the different points of action in a car chase scene, seeing the stunt doubles on motorbikes, the camera car all rigged up with equipment, and expensive-looking convertibles with big dark baddies wielding large guns. Quite some unexpected fun! Oh, and we did actually make it back to the cathedral on another day.

    On a cultural note, we also managed to catch some flamenco in Seville - we were very proud of ourselves for staying up late one night to head out at 11pm to a bar with regular casual flamenco performances (we are definitely not night owl travellers!), and another night we saw a traditional performance as well.

    Our other major activity in Seville was riding bikes - we discovered a good cycling network (we love cities that have designated bike paths separated from both the road and footpath). We spent a couple of days riding some of the sights, exploring the river and gardens and catching some of the aforementioned modern architecture, as well as discovering sights off the beaten tourist track. We spent one lovely long lunch hour on the weekend just sitting in the sun in an urban park full of people coming and going, just people-watching - a perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon!

    Day 70 - 19 November 2009
    Pottering around Portugal: from CORK to SALT in 4 steps
    We're sitting on a bus travelling from Portugal back to Spain, and it's difficult to believe that it's only been a week since we left Lisbon - we've been on the move quite a lot lately, staying only 1-2 nights at each of the past few towns. We've found a lot to amuse and delight us along the way.

    First we visited Évora, a historic town about 2-3 hours' train ride east from Lisbon. Highlights included:
  • A 16th century aqueduct running into town, with houses built in underneath the arches
  • The Bones Chapel - a chapel lined with bones from thousands of skeletons, built by a group of monks as a place for reflection on the transience of human life. Somewhat grisly and eerie, but also both impressive and strangely peaceful. The inscription above the entrance ominously reads: "We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours"
  • Learning about the production of cork - apparently Portugal produces 54% of the world's cork, and Évora is a cork-growing region. We learned how cork is stripped from the trees every 10 years, and also found shops with all sort of items made out of cork - bags, hats, umbrellas, postcards. We never really thought about cork production before, but now we know a lot more!

  • We then headed to the southern coast of Portugal, which can be very crowded and touristy in Summer, but is much more sedate and pleasant (not to mention easier and cheaper for getting accomodation). We spent a few nights in the small towns of Lagos and Sagres, and explored the coast by foot and bike, including reaching the southwestern-most point of all of Europe. The southern Portugese coast is quite spectacular, with rugged windswept capes and huge waves (the largest I've ever seen) crashing against the rocky cliffs. Quite reminiscent of the Victorian coast back in Australia, in fact, although the Portugese version is somewhat more developed. Once or twice I felt like I could have been in a Qantas or Tourism Victoria commercial. A memorable sight was that of fishermen perched at the top of the cliffs, a foot or two away from the edge - must be good deep sea angling for them to be worth the risk, not a gentle fall at all!

      Our final stop in Portugal was in Tavira, another coastal town. On the way to Tavira we stopped at Faro and took a boat tour out to a lagoon system just out of the harbour. In Tavira we hired bikes and explored some more of the local lagoon area of where the river meets the ocean. One of the features that we found most interesting in the area were the salt pans which are filled with ocean water, which is then left to evaporate, leaving behind salt which is then collected.

    Overall we've really enjoyed our time in Portugal - lots of very interesting sights, and somehow quite a distinctive feel from other countries we've visited in Europe (I haven't yet quite put my finger on exactly how or why). There's a good mixture of traditional and modern architecture (they have this great way of adorning traffic roundabouts with modern art), and people are very friendly with a gentle pride. It's been a great stay, and I'd really like to visit again one day - maybe explore some of the northern parts of the country. In the meantime, it's back to Spain for the moment - Seville and Granada next on the itinerary.

    Day 63 - 12 November 2009
    Michael Lisbon - our favourite stop so far
    Lisbon was fantastic. Full of whitewashed and brightly coloured buildings with terracotta tiled roofs on a hilly landscape witjh great look-out points. Plus some charming old trams that rattle through the streets and up and down the steep hills. A bit like San Francisco actually. In fact, Lisbon even has its own Golden Gate Bridge, or one that looks just like it, made by the same engineers. Not nearly as well known though, perhaps they need to work on their marketing. The name - Bridge of the 25th of April - could be changed for a start. Another bridge in Lisbon, pictured here, is the longest in Europe. Plus the city has a bunch more sites including more interesting modern buildings, a castle overlooking the city, an old (non-Roman) aqueduct, and is a reasonably priced destination too.

    The highlight of our stay, however, was definitely the day trip we did out to nearby Sintra. The town has three sites that we especially enjoyed. The first was Pena Palace, an colourful palace on a hill top overlooking Sintra (pictured) surrounded by a forest of especially planted trees from all over the world. The German king who married the queen of Portugal wanted to recreate home. Next was the ruins of a Moorish castle on a neighbouring hilltop. With the ramparts snaking over the hill this was breathtaking. Finally we visited the most westerly point of mainland Europe with stunning dramatic cliffs. All up a great day out.

    Day 59 - 8 November 2009
    Michael Going overland
    One thing that I really enjoy about travelling in Europe is the fantastic train networks. Travelling by train is thoroughy enjoyable, and makes the journey almost as much fun as the destinations; you can relax, read a book, have lunch, use the laptop or just listen to music and stare out the window (my favourite) all as beautiful landscape flies past you. The train stations are smack bang in the middle of town and often walking distance from our hotels. No turbulence, security, checked bags, boarding processes, getting to/from the airport. And much more environmentally friendly. I love it.

    Train travel in Europe is getting even better too. Many countries are building new fast train tracks (such as France's TGV) that smoothly glide between major cities and even between countries in a few hours at rocket fast (200 kmph) speeds. Sure beats the US's abysmal Amtrak system, which doesn't even have priority over freight trains. Especially in high density areas like the LA-San Diego region, or the New York-Washington DC-Boston areas a fast train network would be fantastic and make a lot of sense with faster travel times than flying.

    Sadly, I write this sitting on an airplane flying from Madrid to Lisbon. I'd hoped that we would make it all the way from Amsterdam down to Morocco using just buses, trains and ferries but it turns out that the Spanish-Portugese border is tricky to cross except by flying. Still, a single 1 hour flight after 8 weeks of travelling isn't too bad. (Michelle note: we'll be carbon-offsetting all of our flights and any car hire during our trip at www.climatecare.org)

    Spain has been enjoyable so far. The Spanish are most friendly, the architecture (both modern and historic) interesting and landscape scenic. After Valencia we stopped at Cuenca for a couple of nights on our way to Madrid. The town of Cuenca is built on this rocky outcrop jammed between two gorges, with buildings precariously places on the cliff edges sometimes with balconies jutting out over the edge. Madrid is an enjoyable, lively city with nice squares surrounded by grand buildings. Since it is getting into the low season we snagged a nice hotel right in the centre of town at a very reasonable rate. However, the weather is getting cooler so glad to be heading further south to Lisbon. Looking forward to checking out the city and nearby Sintra - I've heard and read a lot of great things!

    Day 51 - 31 October 2009
    Architecture old and new
    We're currently in Valencia, half-way down the eastern coast of Spain. Our last week has been spent taking in a lot of very different sights. Back in Barcelona, a week or so ago, we enjoyed seeing some of Gaudi's works, not only the unfinished La Sagrada Familia, but also a house (Casa Batlló) and a public park (Parc Güell) that was originally intended as an apartment complex. Colourful and playful, they are fantastically over-the-top but also quite beautiful. What is especially impressive is the way that Gaudi created spaces that were eye-catching and distinctive, but also very functional and pleasant, as well as producing new challenges in architecture - the guy was a genius.

    Overall we found Barcelona to be a lively city - fun to visit, and much to offer. We wandered down the pedestrianised Rambla a couple of times (with a firm eye on our belongings) and enjoyed seeing the range and variety of street performers there. Another day we headed up to the top of a church on a nearby hill for a stellar panoramic view of the city (as well as the coolly-located theme park on top of the hill). All in all, a great stop!

    After Barcelona, we made a short stop at a small city called Tarragona, where we checked out some Roman ruins around town, including a Roman circus, forum, amphitheatre and aqueduct. Most impressive of these were the remains of the circus and the aqueduct bridge (although the latter suffered in comparison with the Pont du Guard a couple of weeks ago). Then it was on to Valencia, where we have spent the last few days. The shining jewel in Valencia so far has been City of Science and Arts - a superb complex that includes an aquarium, science museum, concert hall, IMAX theatre and sports stadium. The buildings themselves that deserve as much attention as the attractions, with amazing science-fiction-like modern architecture gleaming in the sun. Depending on the angle, the concert hall looks like a) Darth Vader's helmet in white, b) a Storm Tooper helmet, c) a space ship, d) a super-duper bicycle helmet.


    Day 43 - 23 October 2009
    Au revoir France, Hola Spain
    Our last stop in France was Carcassonne, a perfectly picturesque medieval fortified city with classic pebbled streets, stone ramparts and witches' hat turrets. All it needed was a fair damsal with pointy hat to complete the picture! Despite the grey and drizzly weather, we enjoyed exploring the town. The highlight was the fortified castle, initially built by the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. and then expanded upon in consequent centuries by various provincial lords and the government of France. It was also interesting to learn about the restoration process that began in the 19th century.

    We have enjoyed our time in France and are looking forward to returning next year to explore more of the country. But right now the weather is getting colder, so yesterday we left France and caught the train to Barcelona.

    We spent our first day in Barcelona taking in a few of the main sights, including some of the eye-catching if slightly wacky architecture of Antoni Gaudi. We've also enjoyed catching up with Gareth, one of Michael's university friends who is currently living here. Gareth is proving to be a font of knowledge with respect to Barcelona, and it's great to have the insights and guidance of a "local".

    It's always interesting when we move from one country to another - we realise how familiar we've become with the workings of the previous country. The first day or two in a new country can occasionally be a little overwhelming as we get accustomed to new rhythms, habits and systems. This is especially noticeable in traffic patterns - crossing the road becomes a whole new art (usually we start by following the locals) and language, when you keep wanting to revert to the previous tongue. But on the other hand, it's always the sign of a good Metro system when it can be negotiated upon arrival unseen and with neglible local language (thankfully "Metro" seems to be a term that is universally understood). And hey, give us a few weeks here and I'm sure that our tourist Spanish will be quite polished!

    Day 40 - 20 October 2009
    Michael The French
    The French have their own special way of doing things. Go to a car hire place like Avis or a bicycle hire and you'll find the hours are 8am - 12noon and 2pm - 6pm, that is, a nice two hour break for lunch. Closed on Sundays of course, like pretty much everything else. Then there's the strikes. We've experienced two train strikes in two weeks here. Today we're travelling to Carcassone, and fortunately there's still limited trains running so it looks like we're going to make it, eventually. Buying tickets was fun. Note - if travelling in Europe by train, get a chip credit card. Ticket machines typically accept either coins or a chip credit card. Not sure if we can get them in the US or Aus, but will research this. Anyway, the ticket offices are closed today and without a chip card we needed 30 euro in coins. This took strategy. Going to some stores and asking for change. Going to others and buying stuff to get more change. Finally we have the coins we needed (plus lunch) and are on our way.

    Avignon was pretty good, although this was perhaps our least exciting/fun stop so far due to a few factors. Our first full day was a Sunday, meaning limited public transport. Car hire was expensive (120 euro for the day) and without a car the region is difficult to explore. Then there was the Mistral. A god awful wind (we experienced 50kph on the Sunday) that made doing anything rather unpleasant. Our second day was enjoyable, however. We visited the Pont Du Gard, an impressive aqueduct bridge build by the Romans. Impressive in scale and well preserved, it was worth a couple of hours just walking around the area viewing the structure from various angles. Then we did a hike that took us along other ruined parts of the aqueduct. Best of all, the was no wind (something we really appreciated after the days before!) and the sun out, so it was beautifully peaceful.

    Looking forward to Carcassone. I wonder if somebody has created a giant meaple straddling the road leading into town...? :) (Note from Michelle: don't worry if you don't understand this nerdy board game reference)

    Day 35 - 15 October 2009
    Michael French medical experience
    A few days ago I visited a French doctor. Nothing serious, just needed some pain killers for my foot (I've got arthritis in the big toe) that weren't available over the counter here in France. The chemist directed me to the doctor in the same building, upstairs. I walked into the clinic to find a small waiting room with a few chairs, a bathroom, and a door leading to the doctor's consultation room. No nurses, assistants, evelvator music, appointment times, etc. just a very simple set up. After about 10 minutes the current patient was done and left, and the doctor greeted me. Parlez-vous anglais? I asked him. A little he replied. I've discovered in the last few weeks that a European's idea of speaking "a little" of a language is a lot different to the Australian/US idea; he was being modest and as long as I spoke clearly and not too quickly and avoided any technical words he understood me just fine.

    We started with some chit-chat about the weather (I learnt that the very strong winds that day were called the Minstrel winds) before getting down to business. We talked about my foot, he did some simple diagnosis and then prescribed me the drug I wanted. He asked about our travels, and recommended some places to visit (including the Calanques, where we hiked today) and showed us pictures on his PC. How long do you travel for? he asked. One year. We've been travelling for a month, eleven months to go I responded. He did not need to use his "little" English to communicate his jealousy, simple pointing his finger to me like it was a gun and making a shooting sound. Yeah I get that a lot I told him.

    I left the clinic with the prescription. The visit set be back just 25 euro, even though I'm not a resident and have never paid French taxes. Not bad. Granted that in the US I could have got the drug over the counter without even needing to visit a doctor, but that aside the medical care seems to be of high standard and very affordable. Michelle mentioned a study that ranked the French health system as the best in the world, although perhaps that might not because they do anything very different or clever, just that they don't do anything terribly wrong.

    We're currently in Marseille. We were really impressed by the city even after just a few hours. Looking out of the window of the quite reasonably priced Chinese restaurant we're currently sitting in, I can see the city's beautiful old harbour full of boats, flanked by two beautiful forts guarding access from the sea, surrounded by lovely buildings and overlooked by the cathedral sitting atop a nearby hill, all lit up. Today we hiked the Calanques, a stunning nearby piece of coastline with limestone cliffs plunging into the sea. Tomorrow we'll visit some nearby islands, including the fort-then-prison island where the fictional main character of the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. Should be fun. Next stops are Avignon then Carcassone, then we'll head into Spain!

    Day 32 - 12 October 2009
    I love the Mediterranean Sea
    We're gradually making our way along the southern coast of France, right now we're in St Raphael, about 50km west of Cannes. Today we're moving on to a small town called St Tropez. Each place we've visted along the coast has had its own character, although in some ways it's not the places that we've been staying that have been particularly interesting as much as the areas nearby. The first beach that we saw in Nice fulfilled our conception of a "typical" European beach (grey and pebbly), but since then we've seen some very nice sandy yellow beaches. And of course, the Mediterranean Sea is simply magnificent - a beautiful turquoise colour and simply crystal clear. It's been interesting to observe people on and around the beach too - swimming, fishing, snorkelling, sunbathing. And I have to mention - quite a lot of female topless bathing (sun and water). Not that I would necessarily be up for it myself, but it is kind of nice to see how natural and comfortable it seems here.

    In Cannes, we spent a couple of days exploring the surrounding areas. We made our way to an island nearby which had a lovely old 17th century fort, which was quite magnificent. Yesterday, we went on a coastal hike just out of St Raphael. We had a great day, the hike was about 10km all together and took us about 7 hours. It followed right along the water's edge, and covered some interesting terrain - the red rock of the shore was quite striking, and different from anything else we've seen before. There was quite a bit of clambering over rocks, lots of beaches and lovely little coves, and one slightly dodgy bit on a wall next to the sea (we swear, the official yellow marks told us we had to go there!) Definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far.

    Day 27 - 7 October 2009
    Michael The success and failure of spontaneity
    We're currently in Nice, on the south coast of France near Italy. Today we visited the nearby town of Eze, perched on hill top with a beautiful medieval town overlooking the Cote d'Azur (the Azure Coast). Unfortunately the windy, cobbled streets did not provide any views of the coast; to get this you needed to fork out 5 euro to access the high point. Instead we did a hike down to the nearby coastal town of Eze-sur-mer (where Bono has a villa, apparently) and caught the train back to Nice.

    On our return train journey, the train stopped at a pleasant looking town so we made a spontaneous decision to get off and explore. Sadly we were disappointed - most of the coast was private property (we joked that this reminded us of the US, where a lot of waterfront is privately owned) and jumped back on the next train 20 minutes later. Soon after the train arrived at another stop, which looked even more appealing. Despite our last experience we decided to jump off again, and this time were pleasantly surprised - we found ourselves in a pretty little seaside town with little traffic, mostly pedestrianised streets and nicely painted houses that reminded us of Italy. An hour or two of strolling and an icecream later we were back on the train.

    Before Nice we were in Paris! Paris was certainly enjoyable, despite all of the cons of a large city; more expensive, noisy, crowds, etc.. We found the city was most beautiful after sunset - after all, it is known as the city of light and it certainly is brightly lit once the sun goes down. On Sunday the Louvre was free, and it was amazing just how crammed packed full of people the place was. Certainly not a good day for quiet contemplation.

    The other enjoyable part of our stay in Paris was catching up with friends. We had dinner with Michelle's friends Vanessa and Suthagar. The Australian Girls Choir was also in town as part of a tour and we had a privilege of attending one of their performances and joining the staff for a dinner cruise. The choir were, as usual, amazing. I find it difficult not to feel homesick with 55 Aussie girls in front of you singing My Island Home so beautifully.

    Next stop - tomorrow we're off to Cannes.

    Day 15 - 25 September 2009
    Bruges, Belgium
    We are currently on a train to Paris, just having spent the last couple of days in Bruges (or Brugge, as it is called in Flemish), Belgium. Visiting Brugge was somewhat of a last minute itinerary addition but as soon as we arrived we knew we had made a good choice. The most common word that we have heard used to describe Brugge is "lovely", and indeed it is just that, with its canals and medieval buildings. Another word that we have heard used for is "touristy", and we also agree with that too! (Of course, the two descriptors are not unrelated and we can see why it attracts so many visitors.)

    We went on a couple of very informative bicycle tours (where we learned, amongst other things, about: Flemish history and Catholicism, resident swans, windmills, breeding cows, medieval and Napoleonic infrastructure projects, ice skating to The Netherlands, and cemetery burying technique), and enjoyed dining out on the main square in the evenings. Although we were only in Belgium for a couple of days, we really liked it and felt that we were able to get reasonable sense of the country and the ways in which it differs from its neighbours.

    Prior to Bruges/Brugge, we spent a very enjoyable few days near Cologne in Germany, and caught up with my friends Susanne and Carola (and their husbands Ralf and Albert), who I met in China some 11 years ago. We also attended Susanne and Ralf's wedding. It was great to take a few days out of our travels to spend time with old friends and recharge our batteries.

    Day 21 - 1 October 2009
    The Romantic Rhein, Germany
    We have spent the last few days along the River Rhein in Germany - the area we were in is known as the "Romantic Rhine" and is known for its many castles overlooking the river. Many of the castles were originally built as early as the 13th century and they are beautifully offset by the vineyards and small villages further down the hills.

    We spent a full 3 days cycling around and exploring the castles - we had great fun in one castle fumbling our way around some underground tunnels and enjoyed spectacular views from all of them. Seeing these fairytale castles gave me a new appreciation of how the classic stories that we grew up with are actually grounded in a real tradition and setting of centuries gone by (I think it was the spinning wheel in a ladies' bedroom that really brought it home to me). As Michael commented, our fairytales were probably the equivalent of our modern day soap operas, once upon a time (pun unintended).

    Day 11 - 21 September 2009
    Michael Summing up The Netherlands
    We're sitting on a train on our way from Middelburg in The Netherlands to Boppard, our next destination in the Romantic Rhine region in Germany. I'm looking forward to exploring the Romantic Rhine, it's full of about a dozen castles all within cycling distance of each other and in a beautiful setting. Accommodation for the next four nights has been booked, at 65 euro per night we'll have a nice room with private bath and, best of all, wireless Internet access, our favourite luxury :).

    The Netherlands has been a very pleasant place to travel for the last 10 days. We've enjoyed the cycling culture here, which is strong due to the country's flatness and population density. An extensive network of paths covers the country. Most Dutch speak English, helping to make it an easy travel destination. I must admit, however, that so far I haven't felt blown away by any of the sights we have seen here as I did when we first arrived at the Cinque Terra or Amalfi Coast in Italy or Mateora in Greece or Cappadocia in Turkey. I have concluded that this is perhaps largely due to the flatness of the country, so it lacks the dramatic geographical features that make, for example, the coast of Italy or islands of Greece so spectacular. That said, we've seen a lot of interesting stuff and enjoyed ourselves here - it's great to be back in Europe!

    Day 8 - 18 September 2009
    Michael Windmills, Euromast and video diary
    Today we visited Kinderdijk, a UNESCO site near Rotterdam that contains 16 Dutch style windmills in pretty much original condition. It's pretty clear why the dutch used windmills the lot - the place is pretty damn windy - and the ones at Kinderdijk were used to pump water from the land. Bear in mind that about a third of the Netherlands is below sea level, so there's a lot of dykes and windmills and other mechanics required to prevent the whole place from becoming a giant pond! We also got a chance to see inside one of the windmills, which had space to house an entire family in rather cramped quarters. The coolest thing about living in a windmill is the gears and axel rotating through the house.

    Rotterdam itself has some interesting modern architecture, since it was pretty much levelled by German bombs in WW2. Yesterday we went up the Euromast, a Space Needle like tower, to get a view of the city. I must say the Euromast kicks the Space Needle's arse. First it's a lot cheaper and the views are far more interesting. But the icing on the cake was this extra "lift" you take to the very top, where you sit down and it rotates up to the very top and down again giving you a panorama view. Very neat design.

    We've been spending a fair bit of timing also working on a video diary. Taking footage on our neat little digicam that does HD video and combining it using Sony Vegas. We'll publish the first chapter in roughly a week on this page. Hope you allo enjoy it!

    Day 7 - 17 September 2009
    Anne Frank's House, and onwards from Amsterdam
    Well, we have been on the road for a full week now, although already it feels like a lot longer than that - I think that's a good sign :-)

    We spent a few days in Amsterdam - we joined a bicycle tour one day, and went for a ride in nearby waterlands on another. Another interesting, although sobering activity that we undertook was to visit the house where Anne Frank and her family hid during the Nazi occupation during World War II. It occurred to me that a poignant irony of Anne Frank's story is that her diary has become so well-known and so strongly symbolic of the Jewish tragedy - and yet, if she had survived the war, her personal diary may never have actually been published.

    We enjoyed our time in Amsterdam, and then we moved on to Haarlem, a nearby small city, for a couple of days. We then travelled to The Hague (Den Haag) for one night, and are currently in Rotterdam. We visited beaches both near Haarlem and in Den Haag, and we have to say, they've been very nice beaches - lovely long stretches of yellow sand with strong surfs. We've also been intrigued by what appears to be a culture of bars and cafes right on the beach fronts.

    Overall, travelling in the Netherlands has been pretty straightforward. Everyone speaks English (and well, too) and are very friendly. It feels like a place where rules and regulations are not over-mandated, but there is a sense of relaxed but functional harmony about everything, as long as you use common sense.

    Day 1 - 11 September 2009
    So long Seattle, Arrival in Amsterdam
    After a fabulous send-off from our friends and workmates in Seattle, the day of our departure dawned bright and sunny. We enjoyed one last bus trip out to the airport, and some 16 hours later (2 aeroplanes and a short train ride) we walked out of Amsterdam Central station. We must confess to feeling a little down and missing everyone already, but we are putting that down to jetlag and lack of sleep - we're not taking anything we feel at the moment too seriously.

    We spent a couple of hours after our arrival this afternoon wandering around the central city area - already we have been impressed by the picturesque canals, old buildings (many with a definite lean in their aspect) and multitudes of cyclists. The traffic with cars, pedestrians and cyclists seems to be a little wild sometimes - you really have to watch carefully when crossing the road, and we've already seen a couple of minor collisions. We've also already seem some interesting cyclist sights:
  • a couple riding along holding hands
  • a man with a 1 metre (~3 foot) square size box on his handlebars
  • a man riding along with a young infant in a baby carrier on his chest
  • a man with a guitar case on his back and a guitar case perched out the front of his bike

  • Mostly we are just very tired (we had dinner at 5:30pm and are about to jump into bed by 7pm) but we're certainly looking forward to seeing and taking in more of this vibrant and lively city in the coming days.

    T-minus 4 days - 6 September 2009
    I learnt a new term recently. Flashpackers. According to wikipedia, they are affluent backpackers and "tech-savvy adventurers who often prefer to travel with a cell phone, digital camera, iPod and a laptop ... who leave well paid jobs or take 'career breaks'". Well I'm not sure I like the term, but we're a pretty good fit for the description.

    This week I had a farewell lunch at work. My team mates most generously gave me a Kindle. An awesome gift and perfect for travel, plus it adds to our flashpacker status :) The device weighs in at under 300 grams so lighter than a moderate sized novel, plus we can download books onto it without the hassle of finding an store selling English books which often have a limited selection (and well above US prices). Sadly Lonely Planets are not available for the device yet. But thanks for the gift guys!

    During the trip we're also planning on creating a video blog/diary. The nifty Limux DMC-ZS3 digital camera that Michelle's family kindly gave us as a combined birthdays/Christmas gift takes nice HD video footage. I've loaded the netbook with Sony Vegas video editing software and we plan to stitch together footage from our travel and release a "chapter" every month or so. So watch this space!

    T-minus 7 days - 3 September 2009
    Homeless and car-less, almost jobless and care-less
    We moved our of our house on last weekend so that our new tenants could move in, and so now we are happily camped out at our friends' apartment (thanks Nick and Kat!). The move went well, and now almost all of our whole life (or should we say our previous life?) is neatly packed into a 10x10 square foot storage container. We are fortunate to have extremely generous friends who have been happy for us to stay in their homes and borrow their cars when they are not using them.

    The last week or so has been a little bit of an emotional roundabout as reality is starting to hit - definitely some sadness about leaving Seattle and our lives and friends here but obviously also very excited about our impending adventure. We are also well and truly in the round of farewell dinners and lunches with friends and work colleagues - it's really nice that so many people are so excited for us.

    T-minus 17 days - 23 August 2009
    Counting down...
    Less than three weeks to go! We are hitting the realm of "last things" in Seattle - last soccer match, last dance class, last bike ride, last hike, last picnic... too.

    In some ways it's quite surreal thinking about travelling for a year. I find myself responding to peoples' enquiries: "first we're going to the Netherlands, then we stop off in Germany, followed by France, then Spain, then..." whoa! - just listen to myself, this is incredible, and it just keeps going!

    Coming back down to earth, our "to do" list is happily getting shorter. In another tangible sign of giving up our lives here, we sold our car yesterday. Our Toyata Avalon has served us well over the past three years and we were sorry to see it go. It's not the flashiest looking car but it's dependable and a real pleasure to drive (very smooth steering), not to mention having a big boot (or trunk as it's called here) and being very spacious inside - we could even squeeze in 3 grown men in the back on occasion!

    Right now we are mostly focused on packing up house, as we move out in 6 days' time. We then have a little over a week of work before we head off immediately after that - I think it will work quite well having some extra time after we move out, I think I'd go slightly crazy if we were trying to wrap up the house and work all at the same time. OK, gotta go do some more packing now.

    T-minus 25 days - 15 August 2009
    Michael Welcome to our travel blog! Our departure is getting close. I'm starting to feel very excited, but trying not to think about what's coming too much; I don't want to get too distracted :)

    Yesterday we booked our flight out of Seattle to Amsterdam, and today I booked accommodation in Amsterdam for the first 5 nights. We're flying out of SeaTac at 2.45pm on Thursday September 10th, the day after our last days at work.

    Overall the preparations are going well, although there's a lot to do: rent out the house, sell the car, get immunizations, setup the new netbook, backup our computers, organise storage, pack the house, organise movers, donate/recycle/throw all of our junk, scan important documentation, notify the banks, pack our backpacks... the list goes on.

    Our itinerary for the trip looks something like this:
    September: Netherlands, Germany (attend Susanne and Ralf's wedding)
    October: France
    November: Spain
    December: Morocco
    Christmas/NY: Melbourne
    January: Cambodia, Vietnam
    February: Vietnam, China
    March: Japan, Korea
    April: China, Croatia
    May - September: eastern Europe up through to northern Europe (still rough at the moment)

    We're going to travel as light as possible. We've spent a lot of time figuring out what to take so that we can live comfortably for a year but not lug too much stuff around. Last weekend we did a trial pack and my backpack weighed 11kg (24 pounds) and Michelle's weighed 10kg (22 pounds), so I'm pretty happy about that. I'm also stoked we'll be taking our neat little Lenovo S10 netbook this time, which I've loaded up with TV shows for us to watch in the evenings, on flights, on trains, etc.. Last time we travelled I quickly got tired of watching CNN and BBC, the only English channels in the hotels and hostels we stayed at.

    We'll be doing lots of catching up with friends over the next few weeks; people from our workplaces, our neighbours, our soccer team, and of course all our fellow Aussies living here in Redmond. We'll certainly miss a lot of people whilst we're travelling, and the last 3 years living here have been a blast. I found myself feeling pretty nostalgic last night, as Michelle and I discovered some old footage of a camping trip we did with friends to Orcas Island a few years ago. Boy we all looked a fair bit younger back then.

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