Climbing to new heights

When we arrived to the vast and sparse industrial city of Datong, we could not quite believe that it held some of the most beautiful caves and stone statues we had ever seen. The grottoes hail from 450 BC, a relic of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) absorbing Indian Gandhara Buddhist art, sculptured and developed with traditional Chinese art melded with social features of the time.

After exploring these decorative 20 metre high caves, we decided it was time to scale new heights, so we headed to the capital of the Peoples Republic of China…Beijing to climb The Great China Wall.

Built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) running over 373 miles and containing about 827 city wall platforms, 71 passes and countless towers, they forgot to add one thing, a ‘BEWARE, YOU MUST BE IN VERY GOOD SHAPE’ sign!!! We visited the more popular part of the wall, Badaling, which is also to said to be one of the easier sections and although Stephen and I had managed to keep in good shape during our travels, there was a need for many pit stops along the way. It is also quite amusing to see many Chinese trying to scale the walls in platform shoes, flip flops, thick synthetic clothing and not forgetting lace frills!

Beijing has a lot more to discover apart from The Great Wall, we also visited the infamousTiananmen Square, where you can visit Tiananmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes and The Great Hall of the People. Whilst in Tiananmen Square we popped across to The Forbidden City (north of the square), which was the imperial palace for twenty-four emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

With this overdose in ancient history and culture, it was time to end our trip through China with a final stop by bullet train in Shanghai.

Shanghai was the most westernised destination in China (to my relief as it meant a lot less spitting and peeing in the roads)! It is a fun, eclectic city full of lights, sounds and lots of shopping. During our stay in Shanghai, the Chinese were celebrating The Mid-Autumn Festival also known as The Moon Festival, as at that time of the year the moon is at its roundest and brightest. It is also one of the only public holidays that the Chinese can enjoy, As a result, Shanghai was absolutely packed with people buying moon cakes, visiting the intergalactic looking Pearl Tower, gathering at the river front to see the full moon and generally delighting in some very rare time off!

One of the highlights for us was experiencing the ‘ERA’ Shanghai Acrobatics Show, where performers combine traditional Chinese arts in the form of acrobatics and martial arts with modern technologies such as lighting, music and crazy motor bikers driving 8 at a time in tiny cages. Performers also tossed giant urns in the air and caught them on their heads and petit women contorted their bodies into shapes that would make anyone wince.

All in all, China was an experience never to be forgotten, well most of it was anyway. Ste and I learned how to communicated by pointing at pictures and miming like charades, we ate one of the most delicious cuisines in our entire trip and also got to explore the most beautiful and ancient countries in the world.

Next stop…South Korea

Pandas, Pagodas Bells, Drums and Warriors

Chengdu was on our list for one reason only, to see the cutest and cuddliest creatures around…our good old black and white giant panda bears.

From the bustling city if Chengdu, we took a short subway and taxi ride to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Reserve, where we were able to see these gorgeous animals in an environment that mimics their natural habitat. Amongst the traditional black an white Giant Panda breed, we were also able to see the Red Pandas and in addition to the sleepy adults snoozing in the funniest positions, upside down, on their side or all on top of each other, we also got to see the new borns, so tiny with hardly any fur, dwarfed by incubators protecting their delicate little bodies. It was simply spectacular!

From the big city of Chengdu, we flew to our next stop, the world renowned home of The Terracotta Warriors…Xian! We based ourselves inside the ‘old city’, yet again surrounded by fortified, castle type walls. Spectacular towers with drums and giant bells mark stops through the city, where at night, lit up with gold and red lights Xian truly comes to life! Night markets selling roasted salty walnuts set up base next to men with giant mallets thumping down hard on the cooling caramel made for fresh peanut brittle as tourists and locals alike munch on the sumptuous delicacies while perusing the charms and trinkets of local jewelry merchants.

Our stay in Xian took Ste and I on a very long walk to the Giant Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist pagoda of now seven stories, although when originally built during the Tang Dynasty was only five stories high, located in the south of Xian. But, for us, the highlight of Xian was of course The Terracotta Warriors depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. It is very hard to describe what we saw and felt up on arrival to all three vaults on show. It was a very surreal feeling of mystery, power, fear, worship and the true brutal and cruel reality of rule of the Emperor who apparently had all 700,000 workers buried alive to keep this all a mystery.

After all this history, we needed a little more of a light hearted next stop, or may be not…Da Tong for the Yungang Grottoes.

Cracking open the fortunes of China – Kunming and Dali

If i am to be 100% honest with the next few blog posts, I have to admit that I was terrified of going to China! Why you ask? Well, you hear so much about the lack of English, the MSG in the food, the spitting, the toilets and the Communist regime that I just didn’t know what to expect and this can instill a little fear into anyone.

I can say that I was happily surprised in many ways and also disgusted in many ways, that i will not go into any detail but, overall I am so glad I experienced the hidden wonders and beauties of China and I can say that I survived (I really had it easy to be fair)!

Our first stop after Hong Kong was a city called Kunming. From the moment we stepped off the plane we were struck with the language barrier, the spitting and hacking and trying to find our way to the centre of the city. We made it onto the Airport express bus into town and were dropped off in the city centre. The next challenge was trying to get a taxi…you wouldn’t think it to be a problem but there we where, standing in the middle of a busy road, taxi upon taxi driving by and not one would stop. When they did stop and you told them where you wanted to go, they otherwise didn’t understand you or just didn’t want to take you as it wasn’t in their direction! Anyway, after about 45mins, we managed to get a cab and arrived safely at our hotel.

The main reason for our trip to Kunming was to visit The Stone Forest, a beautifully maintained landscape of natural towering stone giants, forming intricate shapes to the creative and imaginative eye. One could describe it as the Chinese version of the Australian Pinnacles in Perth which we visited back in May. We would have to climb, duck, dive and weave our way through the rocks, avoiding any low hanging obstacles, which the Chinese made look very easy (as they are quite small) but Ste and I had a few near misses!

After our short stay in Kunming, we made our way to a wonderful little old town called Dali, a town surrounded by fortified stone bastions, not quite that of Mdina or Valletta but still steeped in the history of times gone by.

The streets were lined with silver smiths sitting on little stools at the front of their shops hammering away at the hot glowing silver, masterfully turning it into delicate bangles, earrings and necklaces. Little old women made hand woven headdresses made out of delicate flowers that tourists would buy and wear happily through the streets whilst munching on freshly baked Chinese coconut cakes and sesame seed biscuits. No cars were allowed into the old town allowing for children dressed in traditional costume to run through the streets and shoppers and tourists to walk leisurely past the stream that ran through the town and pose for pictures.

Our next stop of discovery (after a very long bus journey and then flight) was Chengdu…Panda Time!

The dazzling lights of Hong Kong

Arriving in Hong Kong was quite an awakening to the senses after the laid back nature of Malaysia, it was also one of our longest stops in one place for an entire seven days as we had to apply for our visas to China which meant ,we really got to discover the island well.

It is your first true hint of the Chinese lifestyle and culture, although they speak Cantonese and not Mandarin in Hong Kong. There are more signs in Cantonese and fewer in English unless you are in the “expat, tourist ares”. It’s your first real taste a awesome Chinese dumplings and lucky enough for us the delicacy of Peking duck when we were taken out by my mums cousin Mark and his Partner Annie.

There is so much to do in Hong Kong from the usual shopping in the never ending malls, walking through the botanical gardens and parks, exploring the back street food markets, enjoying comedy night with all the residing expats working on the island, taking a ferry to Macau for the James Bond gamblers at heart to the most amazing skylines you can ever imagine.

The best night of all??? Being taken to see the light show at night at the Harbour, followed by a trip across on the ferry, then taking a short cab ride up to Victoria Peak where you can see all of Hong Kong and its magic lit up like Christmas and Stephen getting down on one knee and asking me to Marry him!

Hong Kong became more than just country, city or town visited along our way through South East Asia, it became the happiest day of my life so far. It’s going to be hard to top that, but China here we come!

Cable Cars and Borneo’s Orangoutangs

From Penang we travelled further north to a little island called Langkawi. It’s mostly known for it sandy beaches, mountainous views and like most other places in Malaysia, its Indian food!

Our first night was a little marred by the accommodation giving our room away to someone else during the busiest time of the season and putting us in a steroid enhanced mosquito ridden, frog jumping room with no hot water and a broken toilet for the first night. But this was rectified the next day, after the wrath of both Ste and I.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind enough for us to hit the beach, so we got on our moped and discovered the island instead.

One day we took a cable car up to the highest point of the island. The views of the surrounding sea framed by the thick forest, dotted with waterfalls and the calls of its residential birds, was such a complete contrast to the busy tourist roads below. Even those people terrified of heights knew it wasn’t an experience to be missed, as we found out from an Indian family sharing our car.

Night life was delving into delicious Indian curries and breads followed by sweet tangy mojitos served at a local bar set up on the street at night, whilst randomly chatting with fellow travelers and relating stories from countries afar.

After Langkawi, it was finally time to strike off one of the biggest items on my personal bucket list…to see the Orangoutangs in the wild. So, we flew to Kuching Borneo, to make this wish come true.

Instead of taking a tour, we made our own way via the public bus to a special reserve. Upon arrival, we had a 10 minute walk through a well laid path in the forest to the the entrance where the Orangoutangs reside. Immediately, you hear the rustling of leaves and the trees moving and shaking along with the sound of branches breaking. Then you catch sight of these beautiful orange, furry creatures, swinging so gracefully from tree to tree, some with babies no more than eight weeks old clinging onto their mothers fur and the grand Alpha Male Richie leading the way to the feeding ground. They were so majestic and elegant, yet strong and wild, with the ability to snap a towering tree in half let alone a human being. It was y dream come true, it was everything I could have imagined.

Amongst all this excitement during our stay in Borneo, we also visited a cultural village where we got to experience how the different tribes and clans got to settle and live in Malaysia. They put on a show, performing all their varying cultural dances, hunting rituals and burial ceremonies. Then we were allowed to walk around the village and explore their homes, see how they produce their hunting tools and cook their local dishes.

With our tour of Malaysia now complete, our next port of call was Hong Kong, which turned out to have a little trick up its sleeve…

Tea and Scones with Strawberry Jam?

From Kuala Lumpur, Ste and I travelled north to the Cameron Highlands, a place renowned for their tea plantations and very English looking houses!

Established around 1930, the highlands also renowned for it much cooler weather, fruit orchards, farms, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, wildlife, mossy forest, golf course and places of worship, also has its own aboriginal settlement (Orang Asli).

During our two night stay, we visited the famous Boh Tea plantation for tea and scones, a strawberry farm where we indulged in fresh strawberries and cream and a strawberry smoothie, visited a honey farm and ate Chinese noodles and Indian Murtabak and curry freshly cooked by the locals.

From here, we took a coach up to George Town Penang. A UNESCO world heritage site and Penangs capital. As we drove through the city to our hotel, one could see the elements of British influence from its British founder, though today, Penang is a heavy mix of Chinese and Muslims. As you walk through the streets you hear the muslim prayers from the mosques and see and smell the Chinese incense being burnt.

Till today, The town has many of its original shophouses from the 19th century to the 1930s still surviving, many say that the atmosphere is similar that of Singapore back in the 1960s and 1970s, very laid back and relaxed…perfect!

Where’s next on our map? The island of Langkawi!

Malaysia- Malacca ( Melaka) and KL

The best way to describe Malaysia, is to say it’s somewhere in between Indonesia and Singapore, not as modern in terms of their architecture and design but up there with the best for infrastructure, history, entertainment and the kindness of the people, not to mention the AMAZING Indian influence of their cuisine!

Our first stop after Singapore was Malacca, a city steeped in history due to the Dutch and British invasion, so much so, that the city centre has windmills and a little canal system as well as a small catholic infiltration amongst the large Muslim community. Many of the restaurants serve Portuguese and Nonya (Chinese Malaysian) cuisine due to the settlers who travelled down from
China hundreds of years ago.

From Malacca we travelled further north to the ever so great Kuala Lumpur! Malaysia’s very own Singapore, gigantic malls which take you and hour just to exit, if you can find the right exit, China town, Little India, an amazing street lined with outdoor restaurants called Jalan Alor, where you could still get a Tom Yam soup or chilli crab at 2am open seven days a week. Awesome little bars with live bands jamming out Carlos Santana and The Commitments whilst serving up strong Mojitos as well as well as the Batu Caves religious temple – the size of a mountain and not to forget the awe inspiring Petronas Towers. After four nights in KL, you need another holiday, so our next stop was to be the tea indulging Cameron Highlands

Slinging it the Singapore way!

Arriving in Singapore was a breath of fresh air after 6 weeks in Indonesia! Everywhere was clean clean clean, everyone spoke English and getting around on the subway was as easy as jumping into your own car!

Singapore is an dynamic cocktail of cultures, races, technology, fashion and tradition all mixed into one Singapore Sling. No matter whether you’re (window) shopping in the humongous plazas, admiring the temples in China Town or indulging into Indian delicacies in little India, you feel a sense of fitting in, everyone is welcome!

There’s so much to do during the day and at night. One can visit the Japanese and Chinese gardens, the light show at night on the river at the Sands hotel, followed by a cocktail at the infamous Raffles Hotel and eat a ‘design your own Magnum’ from the Magnum boutique ice cream store or simply just take in the view of singapore from up above on the sky path at Gardens by The Bay!

After this fabulous break our next destination was to find out whether all the adverts from the Malaysian tourism authority were true… Is Malaysia Truly Asia???

Spectacular Sumatra

From Java, we travelled to Beristagi in Sumatra to visit another volcano! We decided to take a guided trekk on recommendation. We were met by our guide at 7.30am and were driven to base of the volcano. We climbed up the steep sides of Mount Sarawak for two hours to the volcano summit, the views from on top were electric with nearby cities and fellow volcanoes seen from afar!

Once on top we had to make our way down, but we took a different route through a bamboo forest, twisting and weaving our way down ancient paths built by the Dutch during their rule of Indonesia. We ducked overhanging bamboo branches and climbed over fallen logs for another hour or so until we exited at its base and end our tour with a relaxing dip in Sarawak’s natural hot springs.

Our final stop after six weeks in Indonesia was Lake Toba, one of the enchanting natural wonders of the world. This is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest lakes in the world. Nothing has ever stopped us in our tracks like the view of the mountains sitting against the crystal waters of the lake. The island of Samosir about the size of Singapore sits in the middle of the lake, an island renowned or it’s Batik hospitality, you venture out on a short ferry ride on the island where you hop onto a moped and discover the island stopping for freshly made coffee and banana pancakes and grilled fish. This was truly a perfect ending to an inspiring Indonesia.

The joys of Java

With Ramadan still in full flow, Ste and I left Lombok for Java with our first stop in Surabaya.

It was a rather surreal experience at first, as we were literally the only westerners in all of Surabaya for the three days we were there. But eventually we got used to the giggles and staring from the locals and realized they were just not used to seeing people like us.

Our main reason for stopping in Surabaya was the famous active Volcano, Mount Bromo. It took a 3 hour public bus and a 1 hour minivan ride to get us up to Bromo, but wow…it was so worth it.

We were stopped directly across the valley from the summit and the spectacular view literally stopped us in our tracks. Dwarfed by the sheer size of the surrounding, We slowly made our way across the black volcanic soiled valley to the bottom of the volcano, we were literally engulfed by vast hills and mountains, visibly scared by past eruptions. We then had to climb rather a lot of steps to the top, as we drew closer the smell of sulphur grew stronger and at the top we could hear the bubbling noise of boiling sulphuric water.

On our way back, the minivan who promised to take us back to the bus station never turned up, so, after a bit of haggling, we jumped on the back of two locals mopeds who drove like Michael Schumacher on speed all the way down and hopped onto our bus back to Surabaya. On the journey back locals kept jumping onto the bus to sell a delicious array of freshly cooked spring rolls, steamed buns, sweet pancakes and buttery grilled sweet corn on the cob…that was dinner sorted.

From Surabaya, we took a train and a couple of peanut butter, double chocolate cream filled doughnuts from Dunkin Doughnuts to Jogjakarta, a city bustling with western tourists, cosy eateries and busy street markets. It boasts beautiful architecture and is renowned for its intricately detailed ancient Hindu temples of Prambanan and the gold guided Sultans palace. Jogjakarta is a hub of culture and a fine mix of traditional and modern living.

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