Southeast Asia or Bust!

I decided!

Yes, I know, its only January and I already know where I want to go on Holiday this year. Well, for those that don’t know me very well, and I suspect that’s a great deal of you reading this right now, this is a precedent indeed.

Vietnam and Cambodia Trail

But lets not get ahead of ourselves, or myself at least.  I’ve only booked the tour so far, and there is a lot more to consider in terms of the trip as a whole.  I have the option to extend the holiday by booking flights that will either give me a few more days in Hanoi, or in Bangkok respectively. As I’ve not spent any time in either Vietnam or Thailand before its a good opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing either before my tour starts or before I go home. Adding an extra day on the end of the trip will give me a little bit of time in Thailand, which will be good as the tour only really ends there, and doesn’t really give me any time to explore the city.  There may also be opportunity to spend that extra day or two with new friends made over the course of the two week trip.  In Hong Kong I regret not taking an extra day to explore the city state, especially given that no one else on the trip was going to be going home once the trip ended.

https://www.gadventures.com/trips/essential-vietnam-and-cambodia/AVEV/2015/

But digressing slightly, at least I’ve decided where I am going and when I am going on the tour.  Why this tour?  Well, I’ve heard nothing but good things about this trip from other travelers mostly, and of those, a great deal of them veterans at world tourism.  I could only take three weeks in May, because taking any more than that in one go is difficult for my office to cover.  This ruled out most of the four week options, which in turn meant I couldn’t do Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in the same trip.  So I chose this trip because it covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, there is a lot of history and culture, but an option for a bit of adrenaline and nightlife as well.  All in all, some great experiences, including a night on a junk boat in Halong Bay and catching a sunrise in the jungle near one of the most ancient temple complexes in the world.

So I’ve got some decisions to make still, but I think I’m nearly there.  I just need to get all of the other prep done, and await the day I fly out.

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Cruising the Med’, September 2014

I went on a cruise as a very last minute thing with a friend of mine who had completed his degree and was in need of an escape. The rate was very reasonable on the whole, but it was a compromise on the original plan we had, which was to take a three week trip across the states, which would have cost a small fortune. That said, I’ve never been on a cruise before and was assured that it would be suitable. Perhaps that was a bit of a stretch, and its fair to say that for two lads, it probably wasn’t the best of options for us. It wasn’t a complete loss though, for we did see some interesting places on the stops we made.

Palma Cathederal

Palma Cathederal

We joined the trip at Palma, Majorca where we were destined to spend the day before we pulled out of harbour at night.  My instinct was to unpack, take a look around and then get back off the boat and explore.  We had to be back for our safety briefing at a certain time, and there was a free bar.

View of Gibraltar's only International Airport, from 'Jock's Balcony'

View of Gibraltar’s only International Airport, from ‘Jock’s Balcony’

We got to Gibraltar on day 3, and joined an island tour for the morning. For such a small island it has a lot of history, more for its strategic value than anything else. It has a small airport, and the tunnels that were used during World War Two are still used in some places to house fuel and stockpiles of ordnance for the Royal Navy, so that they can stock up before they head off to the Middle East. Our guide for the tunnels was a German former soldier, and I think our bus driver had been in one of the Highland Regiments in his youth, but later a policeman on the island. Europa Point offered a great view of the sea, and with its mix of Spanish colonial buildings, and its Moorish castle, Gibraltar had a character all of its own for such a small place. We saw some of the famous Barbary Apes, but no one wanted to get near them. I think the warnings of them being aggressive little thieves was probably what did it.

Tangier Museum Courtyard

Tangier Museum Courtyard

Our next stop was Tangier, Morocco.  This was another guided tour of the city, and involved a trip around the new city, up into the hills and then back to the old Medina.  Once again, it was a port city steeped in history, and it was a fascinating trip.  My initial thoughts about what to expect in Tangier conjured up imagery of James Bond and Jason Bourne, chasing international assassins along the close rooftops, and narrow stucco walls of the Old City.  The old Colonial Fort near the port  with its iconic parapets and old canons also gave pause to days of old.  Earlier than that, I wasn’t surprised to hear that it had changed ownership many times.  Since the Carthaginians founded it, the Romans, Portuguese and English have laid claim to it, before it became a French colony with the rest of Morocco, and famous residents have included writers of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and the playwright Tennessee Williams.

Tangier Collage

The markets of Tangier were the only thing I disliked, as it was quite clearly a tourist trap, and could be a little intimidating at times, but there was no denying from an imagery perspective, it was definitely exotic and thought provoking.

We didn’t leave the ship on the next day, because from the port of Granada, there really wasn’t much to see.  Our excursion options were a little bit overpriced, most notably, the excursion to see Alhambra Palace, so we had more resolve to go exploring the next day, where our destination was Cartagena.  Not to be confused with the city in Colombia, Cartagena was another important port colony of the Roman Empire, and its apparent in its architecture.  Dominating the skyline is the castle that looks down upon the rest of the town, an ancient amphitheater just below, undergoing restoration, and its adjoining museum.

Cartagena's Amphitheater

Cartagena’s Amphitheater

The mix of colonial state buildings along the main thoroughfare, and the shaded and secluded backstreets, gave Cartagena a character all of its own.  The young lady at the tourist information booth was really very kind to us, explaining that you can pay to get inside the castle, but its really not worth it, and showed us a route up to the top and back down, which was very kind of her.

Anti-Slavery Monument in the Port of Cartagena, Spain

Anti-Slavery Monument in the Port of Cartagena, Spain

There was a market at the harbour but the wind was picking up at that point, I don’t think either of us were looking forward to getting on the boat, but we did, although we booked a last minute excursion for our stop the next day in Valencia, because we were determined to not stay on the boat on our last but one day.

Valencia gave us beautiful weather for our last but one day.  We were told it was Spain’s third largest city, and was home for a number of years to the Spanish Grand Prix.  We took a trip to its Biodome, which is like a natural habit zoo, and contained all sorts of species of African flora and fauna.  On the way we got to experience the city by coach, which is beautiful.  Some of the buildings, the old, but especially the new were true marvels of architecture, including one large building resembling a fish.

Very large and looks like a giant fish!

Very large and looks like a giant fish!

The Biodome Park itself was fairly large, so my mate and I decided to ditch the guided tour and follow the map ourselves to save being led around in a long line with everyone else.

Animal Collage

It was our last day so we opted to eat out before we go back on the ship, so we treated ourselves to some traditional paella.

The rest of the cruise involved a heavy last night to make the most of it.  We had met a few people over the course of our time, and we said our goodbyes before bed, but we had a really early start in the morning to get back to the airport for the flight home, so we had to make sure our cases were packed and ready to be unloaded when we docked back in Palma.

On the whole, the cruise format allowed us to experience many different places in a short amount of time, keeping it fresh, but the cruise and being on the ship itself, felt very claustrophobic.  We changed locations overnight mostly, with a few exceptions, and spent a lot of time in the cabin or in the bar, because there was little else to do.  There were some great sunsets and sunrises to see at sea though, and one night there was a thunderstorm which we were right in the middle of, and out on deck, you could see flashes and forks across the night sky for miles in any direction.

Gibraltar Panaroma

The staff on the cruise liner were excellent I must say, and we met some interesting characters.  The convenience of everything was appealing, but on the whole, I don’t think I’ll be booking another cruise anytime soon.

A Look Back to China, May 2014

Well its been a while since I blogged last, apologies for that.  One of my resolutions this year will be to blog more, and Facebook less.  Yes, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, as this is becoming an activities and holidays blog, I think I need to mention my trip to China.

When I arrived in Beijing, I really felt like a stranger in a strange land.  The first thing to hit you, aside from how small everyone seems, is the efficiency of the chaos you’re in.  That’s a strange thing to say I know, but from the moment I got through immigration, where the nicest immigration officer welcomed me through, I really found myself in what I can only describe as an alien version of an airport.  All the signs are in Mandarin Hanzi.  Thoroughfares are abnormally large, and at each entry into the metro, there are luggage scanners, set up by the police in their red marked khaki uniforms representing something more akin to how you’d imagine the People’s Army.  I really felt like a fish out of water, and not just because it was about 6am after my redeye flight.  I avoided the taxi touts and their attempts to bag a tourist for a £20 ride into the city though, and made me way to the metro, however I had gone completely the wrong way.  However, I met a friendly stranger at the next stop who was in Beijing on Holiday himself from a place in Western China, who set me straight, and was almost happy to give his English a go.

Thats essentially China in a nutshell.  A world apart from home, but with people always willing to help you if you need it.  A complete paradox to the reputation the West gives it, perhaps, but hold on, it is still very very odd as well…

Tiananmen Square

The three week trip continually amazed.  In the first week we visited Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, cities each with their own character.  Beijing was traditional, and yet undeniably patriotic; Shanghai, modern and corporate, a true declaration to the West that it is the commercial giant of Asia; and then Xi’an, a reminder of the old China and its ancient achievements.  During that time, I was awed by the Great Wall and the architechture of the Forbidden City.  Shanghai’s Bund, which dwarves London’s Embankment to almost embarrassing proportions, was lovely to catch at twilight as the city came alive, and its Nightlife certainly made a mark on me.  Xi’an was a beautiful walled city, with its bustling Muslim Quarter and its new found fame, thanks to the Terracotta Warriors.

It was one steep mother...

Such view…. much amaze… wow!

The second week was radically different.  We flew to Chengdu, arguably the Panda capital of the world, but it was such a lovely place too.  The local park was a haven for elderly residents who used it to socialise, take exercise and drink tea.  We actually got to meet our Guide’s Mom and Dad, which was lovely as well.  The next day we went to Leshan for a brief stop to see the giant Buddha carved into the cliff, before we arrived at the Monastery that was to be our home for the next couple of days.  We took a hike up to the Summit of Mount Emei Shan, and although the weather was foul and the fog at the top obscured the view, the sense of achievement was overwhelming.  We also opted to walk back down the same way, how awesome were we.

Golden Summit Emei Shan

A stock photo of what we expected to see…. rather than a big white cloud, which is what we actually saw… :/

The last leg of the trip was a three day cruise on the Yangtze River, through the three gorges and ending up at the Three Gorges Dam, and then a few days in the Yangshou countryside, before our last stop in Hong Kong.  Now Yangshou was lovely, a real beauty of a place.  The Li river and the pointed karsts that dot the landscape once again remind you are a guest in nature’s kingdom.  As this was the penultimate stop, we made the most of some good weather at last.  I also managed to meet a couple of Danish girls in the mud pools and they actually met up with us later in the evening for some beer pong.

Yangshou

When we crossed into Hong Kong it was officially the end of the trip, but we had bonded as a group, which was more than could be said about one of the other groups who shared our Sleeper Train to Yangshou.  We had lunch together and arranged to meet up for a walk to the waterfront to catch the lightshow.  To further that, I asked if people wanted to meet up for a last night party in my hotel room and everyone came along to it, which was genuinely heartwarming.

I wished in hindsight that I’d taken an extra day in Hong Kong.  I didn’t get a picture of the Bruce Lee memorial at the harbour and I would have liked to taken the cable car up to the top of Victoria Peak, but I was ready to come home at that point.  I think three weeks is enough time to get the best from China.

Hong Kong by Night

Wow, that is a lot of lights….

Coming home….

I did however get the best reception from my friends when I got home though.  Three of them met me at the airport and we went out to our favourite club as it was about 10:30pm local time, when I arrived home.  I did enjoy China though; the food, the culture, the diverse nature of its cities and countryside was epic.  I could say a lot about things such as not being able to defame Chairman Mao, or Facebook and Twitter being blocked by the Government, or that no one under 30 years old knows anything about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but for those things that we take for granted here, there is a definite wealth of character to the people of China.  The people are respectful of their elders and of strangers.  They were curious but respectful of me, often wanting a picture or wanting to say ‘Hello’ in English, and that is what I’ll take from this trip.  China is a country that wants to broaden its horizons, and that should be lauded.