Monday, 21 May 2012

Peninsular Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur


Having alreadly been to KL years ago, I figured there was no real need to go seeing all the sights all over again, and rather, spend this time sampling all the delightful treats available around every street corner. China's food was delicious, but there's nothing like getting your mitts around all that cheap Malay/ Indian food. 

Luckily, I had some family friends living in the city and was fortunate enough to be able to stay with them in the Prince Hotel and Residence, finally, some decent accommodation and not a dorm room. The included breakfast was a treat in itself as well, not to mention the pool.

Poolside at the Prince

One place I hadn't been to before were the Batu Caves which are directly on KL's subway, easy to get to. Once there, you can immediately see the entrance to the caves, with the steps dominated by a Buddha statue. Inside there is a functional temple of sorts still in use and a silly number of monkeys running about trying to steal food and drinks. Clearly been at it a while given how adept one of them was with a can of juice.

Batu caves


Besides a little tourist distraction, I literally spent three days eating food and fitting in The Avengers. I needed my movie fix. Also, needed that obligatory photo of the Petronas Towers at night time, with all the lights shining from every level which I missed last time I was in the city. Last time there was a guy scaling the side of one of the buildings, sadly nothing as exciting as that this time, but there was a Buddhist Wesak parade through the streets with lots of singing and floats.

Petronas Twin Towers, KL


Perhentian Islands


Following a night bus through the heart of the country and two random bus transfers, I finally got to the jetty at around 5am, only a two hour wait until the first speed boat of the day then. Sometimes these buses could be timed/ planned out a little better.

Anyway, once on the boat with the wind in my face clearing the cob webs and feeling fresh, the boat soon arrived at Long Beach on the smaller of the two Perhentian Islands, Kecil. Cheekily, the speed boat doesn't actually go as far as the shore line, smaller long boats come up and collect you from 60m away and then charge you for the privilege, charming.

It was still super early which proved a pain while looking for a place to stay but eventually stumbled upon these outdoor bungalows a couple minutes from the beach, perfect. Hot, beautiful weather, white sand, turquoise water and nothing to do, my kind of place. Plenty of time to lounge around on the beach, chill in the water and get burnt even though I was applying factor 47. Pathetcic skin. All I needed was a deck chair in the shade.

Night time on the beach included beers and the inevitable fire shows, but they weren't advertised which I liked. The food was decent enough but a far cry from the fodder I was devouring in the capital and pretty soon I was craving proper lassis, thalis and more.

Long Beach, Kecil

Sunset

Mozzie Heaven


Although the setting was paradise, I needed a change of location, sad to say. It's not like I won't be getting my fair share of beach action with both Bali and Thailand looming in the wings. However, I already knew where my next stop was, Penang, for, yes, you guessed it, I wanted to gorge.


Penang


I don't remember Malaysia being so jungly, or the roads being so windy. Once on the mainland to Penang, it's not so far as the crow flies, but in a minivan it took around six hours of continuous bends and curves through the dense forests.

Arriving in the heat of the afternoon, I settled for the first guesthouse I encountered off the minivan. Air-con, nice. Went for a random wander but I knew exactly what it was I wanted and it wasn't long before I was sitting in a dank looking Indian slop house chomping through some rice, tandoori chicken and naan.

I wish there was more that I could write about Penang, but apart from getting ripped off with foreign prices to go up a 10 minute train on Penang Hill, I just ate and finished off my book (third Game of Thrones one, it's getting intense). Oh, and I watched Battleship. Taylor Kitsch could be the worst actor ever.

Photos/ blog page dedicated to food to follow soon by the way.



Cameron Highlands


Another windy journey into the heart of the countryside brought the bus through to Tanah Rata, one of the many tourist friendly areas in the Cameron Highlands. The road was peppered with strawberry farms on the way following the road, more so than tea which was a little surprising. The guesthouse even had homemade scones with what I can only presume was homemade strawberry jam too, accommodation a no-brainer then.

Plenty of trails to walk along in the area ranging in difficulty but never any longer than 5/6 hours round trip. Decided to try the longest one but it was really coming down and when I nearly lost my boots in calf deep boggy mud I figured it was best to wait for the sun to come out, hopefully the following day. Needless to say that left me the remainder of the afternoon to pursue my new favourite hobby of scoffing. Went for the all you can eat 'thali' set which is always a bad idea considering I have absolutely no self control when it comes to food.

Managed to get one good day up in the hills so decided to attack trail 1 which leads up to the top of Gurung Brinchang (2000m). The trip is meant to be 13km and take up to six hours but I made good time and apart from a landslide near the peak which had butchered the track, it was fairly standard trekking. I was huffing and puffing pretty badly though, maybe a couple hours without eating would be a good idea.

Roots over the path

View from the top

So much tea

More tea

Last of the tea


Once at the top, there is a road that leads down to the bottom on the other side. It was about 9km long but it was a beautiful day and the scenery was nice, about halfway down there is a massive tea plantation which offered fine views. Taxi back to Tanah Rata and then packed things to move on south, next stop Singapore, if only for a day, before heading to Borneo Malaysia for orang-utans and diving.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Beijing and the Great Wall, China

Coming into Beijing in the early afternoon, the train sluggishly pulled into the station and a load of backpackers piled out. Over the last 30 hours or so on the train with its limited stops, you get chatting to many people doing the same thing as you, and if you’re lucky, staying in the same hostel as you. I found three people heading in my direction so we took the more than efficient subway there.

Here in Beijing, the hostels were more like what I was accustomed to from travelling in Australia or NZ, a nice upgrade from the bunk beds in people’s living rooms which serve as hostels throughout Russia.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Beijing, I had never been that bothered about visiting the rest of the country, the lure of the Great Wall being the more interesting thing to me. However, I had a fantastic week in Beijing and soon realised that if China as a country is anything like Beijing as a city, then I am going to have to come back sometime in the future.

Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square


Tiananmen Square is huge, dominated by Mao’s Mausoleum in the centre and the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the north, separating the square from the Forbidden City. Similar to the Mausoleum in Moscow, you had to surrender you bags/ camera and had no more than a glimpse of Mao before you were ushered out of the building, the only difference being that this building was about tem times (minimum) the size of Lenin’s mausoleum.  

The Forbidden City complex itself is absolutely massive, it just went on and on, one more building after another. Usually that kind of thing would probably get old on me very quickly but I couldn’t get enough, the place was amazing. To the north of the complex is the Imperial Garden, full of different flowers and buildings surrounded by trees, if it weren’t for the throng of tourists you could imagine that it looked the very same all those years ago. 

Once outside the north gate, Gate of Divine Might, your immediate view is of the temples up on Jingshan Hill, a steep enough climb which offers amazing views of the Forbidden City and really helps you to appreciate the sheer size of the complex. 








Summer Palace


Again, another massive complex, the Summer Palace is mostly made up of temples and buildings dotted about Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake which is bordered by various buildings, gardens and bridges circumnavigating the enclosed area. The lake is actually man-made and the extracted soil is what makes up the hill.

Entering the complex from the base of the hill, you come to a narrow creek with a bridge over it, but at water level you are able to walk around on the narrowest of paths and go into the old waterside buildings that have now mostly been converted to souvenir shops and cafes.

Once across the bridge you come to the base of the hill itself, from here the only way is up as you arrive at various levels with what appears to be limited structure containing odd temples and building. At the summit you have a decent enough view out onto the lake but it still appears to be miles away. 

Zigzagging through rock paths and man-made steps you pass yet more old  buildings before reaching the other side of the hill and the paths following the lake's perimeter. You can go either way, but I decided to go clockwise around the lake, passing through plenty more builidings, halls and pavilions, all similar in acrchitecture to one another. 

There is a bridge connecting a small island where many people were just chilling in the shade of the trees, trying to avoid the crowds and find some quiet among the throng of people who had decended upon the complex for the day, busy busy with it being the day before Labour Day. 

The walk itself was very pleasant and takes a couple hours minimum to do if you are ambling along slowly taking in the sights and the atmosphere. Being a foreigner you get stopped pretty regularly for photos with people's wives and babies but it soon becomes common enough for you not to be bothered by it, ridiculous how often people will stop you for a photo.


There are a few different exits for those who want to make a swift exit but eventually you get back to the main exit by following the path round. An enjoyable stroll in the ever improving Beijing weather.














Great Wall


The Great Wall is one of those places you have to go to, especially if you are in the vicinity. I remember when I was in Cairns a few years ago and managed to not dive in the Barrier Reef. Not making that mistake again! 

Rather than take a guided tour and be shepherded around, I decided to do the trip on my own steam. As it was Labour Day, I was under the impression that there would be hoards of people all queueing up to get themselves to the wall so I made an early start to the day. Up and ready and at the bus station by 8am to catch the bus to Muyen, the town from which I was able to negotiate a taxi to the Jinshanling part of the Great Wall.

Once at the entrance to the Wall, you have the option of climbing to the Wall itself or take a cable car, I was feeling lazy. After exiting the car, there is only a short walk before you are on the Wall itself. I was a clear day, beautiful sunshine and the views were astounding as you could see the Wall going east and west for miles. 

I headed east, I had a few kilometres to walk before I reached the path I would have to take to get down to the car park where my taxi was waiting, I hadn't paid him' yet so I was fairly certain he would be there. Usually this stretch is about 10km and goes as far as Simatai but unfortunately that section is currently closed, I heard various reasons why from rock slides to general maintenance, so it couldn't be helped. 

Nevertheless, it was one of those places that lived up to expectations and wasn't a let down. The views were spectacular, I got some exercise for the first time in weeks, the expected crowds were non-existent, and it just happened to be the day of the Great Wall marathon. Choices of the 5km, 10km, half and full marathon along the Wall. No thanks. I saw one guy literally climbing up the steps on all fours, he was only doing the 5km. You can do it!

Once at the east tower, I carried on a bit before the Wall started to seriously deteriorate, then turned back and headed to the car park down the path. My driver was nice enough and seemed to know a bit about the area, how much was true I'll never know. Got back to the bus station where there was a ridiculous queue to get back to Beijing, and then an even bigger one to get back into the city. Still, the Great Wall was amazing, going to have to come back to do the whole Jinshanling - Simatai stretch one day, maybe even a 5km. Maybe not.











Acrobats


I couldn't go to Beijing and miss out on an acrobat show, especially as there were so many available and they were on somewhere in the city every day. Took a taxi to the theatre and once there, had a twenty minute wait before the action started.

There was the inevitable clown who was there comedic relief, unfortunately, and, I’m assuming, some historical storyline which I gave up on almost instantly. However, no such problems following what the performers were doing during there acts.


The first one was most of the male performers doing some form of dance which then led to them swinging around on suspended ropes, an introduction to what was to come.

This was followed by most of the female cast showcasing some of their skills, balancing balls, juggling and passing them with their feet while lying on their backs. One of the women actually balanced a 15ft pole with a hoop on the end on her feet and bounced a ball on five outstretched ‘branches’ until she put it in the net, impressive.

Following acts included two men putting on a power show and holding each other in ridiculously impossible positions and angles, there was a clutch of women, girls really, who were making lotus flowers with their bodies, contorting themselves into shapes that just made me feel a bit ill. Beyond flexible. There was a male/female partnership who were dancing on air with the aid of a rope, or so it seemed, and a magician who changed his appearance with masks in the blink of an eye. Male gymnasts jumping through hoops and landing in impossible positions and a balancing act involving two men, three girls, and a ladder.

However, as impressive as all that was, they saved the best until last with the cage of death trick. Usually just one guy doing 360s in a sphere metal cage would be impressive enough but they managed to fit in five of them, headlights on and horns blaring, full-throttling it around the cage and somehow missing each other. Awesome to see in real life, the crowds were loving it, and I heard after that in some places they manage to fit in six riders, madness.

Typically, as soon as the final act was over, the theatre was half empty and people rushed for the exit as the performers were going through their customary thanks. Nothing to worry about though because some of them even managed to get out before we did! Everyone is in such a rush these days.

There's plenty more from Beijing, but bearing in mind blogs aren't allowed in China I'm playing a bit of catch up and will subsequently add more in the near future, so rather than next stop, currently in Malaysia. More to follow.











Tuesday, 8 May 2012

On the steppes, Mongolia

Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to go to Mongolia, ride a horse and stay a night in a ger. No particular reason, just something I had always wannted to do, and now that I'm here I'm more than excited by the notion of being able to do it.

I managed to find a decent hostel which was arranging trips which weren't absorbetently priced so I booked two small ones to fit into my ever decreasing time here in Mongolia. The first, a two day, one night trip to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park and the second, a three day, two night trip out in the Semi- Gobi desert.

Gorkhi Terelj

The trek started early morning with a two hour ride to the park. I was accompanied by three other hostel guests, our manic driver who seemed to know every pot hole in Mongolia and our enigmatic guide Oogii. He was so full of life and knowledge of the area, having grown up in a nomadic family, and helped to make the trip just that little more enjoyable.

Driving along the highway we came across what was no doubt one ofthe featured stops along the ride where you could hold eagles and giant vultures. After a while of swinging them around they soon get heavy but apparently they won't open their wings otherwise, dubious.

Those claws were going straight through the glove


Once in the park, all there was to see were roaming hills and endless steppe, now and again there would be a building or a ger camp but by and large the countryside was empty, save for a few horses and cattle. As we approached our camp we stopped off at a cave where Buddhists had hidden during Soviet times and a rock formation known as Turtle Rock, however, it actually did look like a turtle.

Turtle Rock


Once at the camp, we were able to explore on our own accord and venture up the nearby hills to get amazing panoramic views of the area, the scenery unspoilt and never-changing for miles on end. There was a monastery within walking distance, too, so we headed that way and had the rare opportunity to actually take photos inside; usually this isn't allowed.

Hilltop view in Gorkhi Terelj

More scenery


Rather than staying in the actual ger camp of the family, we were allocated a 'tourist' ger. This is effectively the same thing, only it is sparsely furnished with just beds, a table and chairs and a stove, which once lit created incredible heat within the confines of the ger. Our guide rustled up some cracking grub but nothing especially Mongolian, he promised that for when we started our second trip. The evening consisted of playing football by moonlight with some locals, watching Oogii doing card tricks and relaxing, we hadn;t a chance to hit up a convenience store for booze, a couple days off would be nice anyway!

Inside a basic ger


The following morning, we headed to a small town south of UB for our horse ride across the steppes, I was so excited. I'd always wanted to gallop across the steppes and the moment was upon me. However, having never ridden a horse before, I was more than a little apprehensive once I got up on it, regardless of how small they are, and also, especially as my horse seemed to ignore every command I gave it.

Me on horseback

Riding along the steppes


We slowly made our way out of the town and then cantered a while towards the Manzushir monastrey complex with our guide. I was happy enough taking it slow at first but by the time we got to the monastery I was itching to open her up, as it were. We had a picnic lunch of kimbap, amazingly enough I liked it more than the stuff I wouldn't touch in Korea. I don't know why it was so good! After lunch, Oogii joined us on the horses and straight away he wa urging all the horses on and before we knew it we were going pretty quickly, or so it felt anyway. However, once we got out onto the steppes, we really started flying and for just a short while we were galloping at full speed. It was an amazing feeling but I couldn't stop laughing the whole time. I was so terrified and just wanted a seat belt! Even so, riding along the steppes was am incredible experience I won't forget.


Semi Gobi Desert

After one night respite to relax after the first trip, we were on the road again to the Semi Gobi desert to once again stay at a family run ger camp, some four hours drive east from UB. The roads were horrendous and half of the time we were off road, driving along tracks that only our driver knew of, I'd swear he was making up where he was going some of the time, plus I've never seen anyone drive so fast on dirt/ sand. Best not to look and just stare out the window at the landscape. It had snowed during the night and everywhere looked so white, clean and peaceful.

By the time we reached the ger camp, we were in the Semi Gobi and the snow was gone, just sand and rock formations for miles around with bracken and tufts of grass springing up all over the place. Pretty barren place to live but this ended up being the family's spring camp, they only stay here for one month before moving all their gear and livestock to their summer camp, where they stay for five months of the year. The rest of the time is at the their winter camp where the kncukle down and deal with temperatures knocking on -57 degree Celsius.

Nothing but desert

And again

Huge rock formations


We basically spent the day climbing local rocks and hills and eating amazing homemade Mongolian food with the family, who were more than keen to try and talk to us through our guide Oogii. More than once Oogii would tell us to say something in Mongolian which meant nothing close to what he said it meant but the family seemed to enjoy laughing at us and feeding us so I wasn't bothered. Turned out I was asking if one of the women loved her husband and that I loved her, she took it well.

Unfortunately we couldn't go camel riding as for two days they were unable to find the camels in the desert, nomads leaving their animals to just randomly roam has it's apparent drawbacks it would seem, so we had to wait until at least one of them was located, as it was, on the following two days, just one of them was all they found.

On the second day we woke up to find it had snowed and the desert was as white as the eye could see. Sadly this meant that we had to take it slowly while trapsing around the desert on our horses, but it was still fun. I felt much more comfortable the second time and wandered around the area, getting a feel for it. After, I went for a power nap, no longer than an hour, before we headed off to Khar Khorum, only to find all of the snow had completely melted. Incredible how the weather fluctuates here.

Riding in the snow


The ger camp

Where did this snow come from?


Khar Khorum was the old capital of the Mongul Empire established by Chinggis Khaan, but there are very few remains from that time, the biggest attraction in the area now is the Eredenezuu monastery. Aside from it's giant outer perimeter, there isn't much left of what was originally built. Again the Soviets destroyed everything except three temples in the the centre of the complex which they decided not to iradicate due to the monks' requests to at least leave some culture for the Mongols to hang on to.

Outer walls of the Eredenezuu monastery


When we got back to the camp we saw that one of the camels had been found, so the following morning the man of the house, an incredibly weathered 79-year- old man, led us around the area. I've never been so uncomfortable as I have on a camel. I thought the horse was bad, the camel nearly killed me and eventually I had to just stand in the stirrups, no way could I go on bouncing between those humps.

My camel and guide


Once we got back to the ger camp, we said our farewells and headed back to UB, with our driver taking his sweet time this time around. I think he may have gone a little hard on the van going out.

Packed my bag, had a few beers with one of the lads from the tour and prepared for an early start in the morning on the train to China. Next stop, Beijing, and a face full of Peking duck.











Sunday, 6 May 2012

Ulaan Bataar

Crawling into Ulaan Bataar in the early hours, all I wanted to do was sleep, and maybe have a few hours where there was no vodka involved. I was thankfully picked up and taken to my hostel where I could recuperate and get some sleep before setting out and having a wander around the city.

The capital city has seen an influx in it's population in recent years and as a result is a bit grimy with an unfrastructure unable to support an ever increasing population. There is massive development happening but for every new structure being built, there is a ger sitting right beside it. With the laws as they are, people can just come to the city and set up camp, such is their nomadic way, very surreal.

So close to the hills


As with any big city, there are of course many sights to see and all very much within walking distance. The city is set in a valley so it is only really expanding outwards with all the sights in the heart of the city.

The main square, Sukhbataar Square, is home to the Parliamentary building which houses a large statue of Chinggis Khaan, apparently I've been spelling it wrong the whole time. Close by there are many museums, something I would usually take a pass on, but when you discover there are dinosaurs inside it's hard not to go running to the front door. Many incomplete skeletons but the Tarbosaur (mini T-Rex) was amazing, no photos unfortunately.

Mongolia's Parliamentary building

New development downtown


Just a short walk away, a little south of the town centre, is the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan with it's many interior buildings, most of which are now filled with stuffed animals, the only one missing was an elephant, really. Further afield is the Zaisan Memorial, dedicated to fallen and forgotten soldiers during Soviet times, on top of a hill just out of town, a fair old walk but it offers decent views of the city where you can see just how much development is happening. North of the city is Gandan Khiid, a small temple complex with a huge Buddha inside.

Main temple of Gandan Khiid

Buddha below Zaisan Memorial

Entrance to the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan

Building within the Palace

Another building within the Palace


However, as nice as all these sights are, there's more to see and do out of the city and in the fresh air. Next stop, the steppes of Mongolia, where horses, camels and the Semi - Gobi await.