Tag Archives: Travel

Ladakh, India – 3 weeks on the roof of the sub-continent

India, for most people, is a place to avoid in July and August. Treacherous monsoon rains and oppressive heat and humidity are enough reason alone to keep most visitors away. There is however, one place, in this vast country, where July and August see optimal weather conditions (think blue skies, no humidity and twenty-five degree midday highs). Sharing a border with both Tibet and Pakistan, and comprising the eastern portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in the remote far north of the sub-continent, Ladakh is a region where you could be forgiven for questioning if you are even in India.

Sparsely populated, vast snow-capped mountains, high altitude desert, a seemingly pristine natural environment, and a distinctive Buddhist culture is not the image that people initially conjure up of India. Yet Ladakh is a great example of the diversity that underpins the nation with the most diverse population on Earth. Only in the entire continent of Africa can you find more languages, religious and ethnic groups than in India.

We had come to Ladakh because we wanted to trek. We wanted to explore a part of the mighty Himalayas. We wanted to spend six weeks in pristine mountain air, in the great outdoors, surrounded by some of the most majestic scenery our incredible planet has to offer.

There are two ways into Ladakh. One is by road,via the Leh-Manali (2 days) or Leh-Srinagar (15 hours) highways, both death defying, mind-blowing, terrifying and time consuming options. Or you can fly from New Delhi (2 hours), which is the expensive option. Being the ‘flashpackers’ that we now are, we decided to fly. During our time in Ladakh, both of these roads would be closed at the same time, for over a week each, meaning the only way in-and-out was by air. Internet was also down for almost two weeks, it was liberating to be so disconnected from the outside world and modern life, my only concern being my dearest mother would worry if she hadn’t heard from us for a few days. Cue going to a phone centre, lining up with multiple other young western tourists, all trying to use the one international phone line to leave a message for their mums to let them know they were fine, but cut-off from the outside world. You could be forgiven for feeling like you were back in 1999.

Given my history of altitude difficulties, we allowed ourselves three full days to acclimatise to the 3,500 metre altitude in Leh, the dusty town undergoing something of a tourist boom, that is the capital of Ladakh. This was the view from our hotel balcony.

dan plummer amelia chin ladakh india feet hotel view

On day three we ventured out in search of a trekking agent, to find out more about which treks we wanted to do. There is an abundance of these in and around Leh, and we spent an entire afternoon walking in and out of these deciding who we liked and didn’t like, before settling on The Nomadic Way, who particularly impressed us.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel our first trek on day two as I was becoming stricken with altitude sickness once again at around 4,500 metres. We then completed another smaller, less elevated trek (sleeping no higher than 3,500 metres), before heading to the Pakistani border and the K2-range in the Nubra Valley via Jeep. We wanted to trek for much longer, but alas, my body is weak and cannot handle altitude, even with medicine and acclimatisation time, so our time in Ladakh was cut short to three weeks as we changed our plans accordingly.

Without question, during our three weeks here, we found Ladakh to be one of the most naturally beautiful places we have visited in Asia. Leh itself is nothing to write home about, but the outlying scenery, and distinct Ladakhi culture (which is very closely intertwined with Tibetan) found within the region is is like few others.

Ladakh is a place were gushing crystal clear streams morph into fierce brown rampaging rivers, that then wind their way through high altitude hamlets irrigated by lush green fields which when viewed from up high, are often just small green dots amongst a mass of bleak brown Himalayan desert slopes and snow-capped peaks that every so often pierce into the brilliant blue sky that looms above. Life hasn’t changed much in these parts for centuries, some villages now have electricity, many don’t even have roads. It’s a place where women my age (27) are often not parents of small children, but almost teenagers.

It has been a bastion of relative safety and security, and refuge for the tens of thousands who have escaped from dictatorship and genocide over the border in the last six decades. A place where the Dalai Lama’s portrait is everywhere, and political slogans vilifying and denouncing the occupying regime only a couple of hundred kilometres away are in plain sight, but where people are free to say what they think, worship who they want. A place where many care about their environment, recognise it’s importance to their way of life, and take steps to protect it. It’s a place where most people can only work for four months of the year, and then retreat to their homes for the other eight to escape the biting cold of the Himalayas. This is a place where you can walk down the street after three weeks of being there, and find that you are on first-name terms with most of the local Kashmiri shopkeepers, despite not having bought anything from them. This is a place sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’, but this is not ‘Little Tibet’, this is Ladakh, by no means is it utopia, but it’s certainly one of our favourite places.

Advertisements

Getting the rules bent on the Leh-Srinagar Highway

Six hours on the road, thinking we are almost half way to Srinagar and our driver gets the call we hoped he wouldn’t. He gets off the phone, “Sorry, road to Srinagar closed. You must stay in Kargil until further notice”. How we hoped he’d been given the wrong information. Sadly he hadn’t. We told the driver to try and go through anyway. Until we got to a roadblock and were sent back into town, to widespread dismay and grunts of disdain. (The road had only just reopened, having been closed for the past week).  Driving back into town, we formulated a cunning plan.

“There’s nothing to do here right, and we will do almost anything to not have to stay here?”,

“Yes”

“So, lets go and ask to speak to the Police and explain we have a flight to New Delhi tomorrow, politely beg for some empathy, smile a lot, apologise profusely for the inconvenience and say how great India, Ladakh and Kashmir are (which is kind of true, anyway) and hope he’s persuaded enough to let us go through. We do not want to spent the night here.”

To many, it may sound futile. But given the lack of activities here to keep us busy, we figured we may as well try.

Twenty or so minutes later, we found ourselves at the Kargil Police Headquarters. A large, unnattractive bulding, in need of a lick of paint and to be quite frank, demolition. Outside were high walls, a no-parking zone and armed Policeman patrolling the perimeter of the building and gate.

We decided that amongst our shared taxi of five, consisting of Amelia and I, a rather amusing 20 year old Australian who enjoyed regaling us with many stories of how he once dated the daughter of a former Miss Japan with grand plans to eventually become a hotshot lawyer (my stories of once being known as “Dan the Gym Man” can’t compete with that), a 19 year old British gap-year lad looking forward to his upcoming freshers week at university, and a mid-thirty something Israeli lady who appeared to be undergoing some kind of early mid-life crisis on some journey of self-discovery whilst coming across as being neurotic with bipolar tendencies, it was decided that given I was white, NOT a child and male, that I should be the one to try and plead our case. We decided that Amelia should come along too, to flash her eyes and smile when needed and because nobody likes saying no to a white guy, especially in front of his lady. Bizarre logic it may seem, but this was a workable plan.

So out of the car we got, and over to the front gate we went. We were welcomed in and told the Chief was out at the moment, but would be back soon. I then spent the next hour chatting to a Kashmiri Policeman called Ahmed, rifle resting on lap, barrel staring down at my leg centimetres away, talking cricket, football, women and India-Pakistan relations, waiting to plead with the chief of Police to let us through on the supposedly closed road to Srinagar. Once he had enough of talking to me, we were moved into a small, dark room next to the entrance, which wreaked of paint and toxic fumes. Oh how I would hate to ever have to go to an Indian jail. We then chatted to another Indian family from Calcutta for the next half hour who were in the same boat as us, and talked football some more.

Mid-conversation, there was a lot of movement and fuss outside by the gate, the chief had returned. This is what we had been waiting for. We were ushered out of the small dingy room, and very briefly introduced to the chief.  A generous portly middle-aged man, that you wouldn’t want to argue with, he granted us our request without us even asking and told us to be on our way.

“Just drive slowly”, he said.

“Yes certainly Sir, thank you ever so much”, we replied, and then repeated to the next five policemen we walked past, jubilant that we didn’t have to spend the night in Kargil.

Our plan had worked. We were going to Kashmir.

During the proceeding hours we would bear witness to and enjoy, one of the greatest road journeys of this earth. We bumped our way slowly across some of the most glorious natural scenery we have seen on our travels, taking in 4,000 metre mountain passes, Hindu Festivals in the valleys and Himalayan glaciers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the Leh-Srinagar Highway.

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC  SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC

50 Faces of India

For once, almost no words. Just pictures of some of the wonderful people we met during our last three weeks in India.

We lost our hearts in Kashmir, then it got complicated

Lush green mountain valleys, snow capped peaks, slopes that descend into dense pine forest as far as the eye can see. This is Kashmir. Without question, one of the most naturally beautiful places I have seen, our journey there taking in what is surely one of the most spectacular roads on this earth.

After three weeks of high altitude desert in Ladakh the greenery of Kashmir offered a much appreciated change of scenery to the barren landscapes across the eastern side of the Leh-Srinagar highway.

Arriving to Srinagar late at night, we arrived to our accommodation – a rustic, yet charming little houseboat that didn’t appear to have changed all too much since the days of the British Empire. Houseboats are the place to stay in Srinagar, and are a novel experience. Possessing an abundance of character, history and charm, once you were on board you felt as though you had stepped back in time to a different age. Our hosts, a local family, had been running a boat here since 1820. Their great-great-great grandfather (or something of the like) had started out in the trade back then, the business blooming in the area as foreigners were forbidden from staying on land. In place of colonial officials and British Generals seeking solace from inhospitable Indian summers who would stay for weeks and months on end, predominantly Indian tourists and a few intrepid westerners make the trip nowadays for a few nights at most.

Srinagar is famed for it’s local gardens, despite gardening not being high up on my list of interests, it’s one of the ‘the things to do’ around the city, and the gardens did not disappoint. Likewise for the nearby Dal Lake, we had a thoroughly enjoyable day boating around relaxing on the lake. We quite liked the idea of heading out into Kashmir, but the areas outside of Srinagar had been badly affected by landslides, unseasonal rains (for the area) and the FCO advised against all travel outside of Srinagar.

People we spoke to were all jovial, friendly, always asking us what we thought about Kashmir, and generally made us feel very welcome. We were loving Kashmir and Srinagar at this point.

Things took a minor turn on day two, when our houseboat hosts advised us to change our plans to visit the old part of town in the morning, because of a general strike that had been called for the day. We laughed, as there had been a general strike in Ladakh about three days earlier, that had wrought havoc on everybodys plans. The comparisons end there. In Ladakh the strike was supposedly in protest at the damage Indian tourists were doing to the local environment, dropping litter, behaving irresponsibly – it was actually quite nice to see a region and local people defending their environment and seeking sustainable tourism. In Srinagar, a quick google search revealed that the strike, and anticipated trouble were in response to the burning of the ISIS flag by Hindu nationalists somewhere in Srinagar two days previously. The ISIS flag contains holy scriptures, apparently the strike was called to protest the burning of the scriptures on the flag, not the actual flag itself. It was all very complicated.

The same google search revealed that ISIS flags had since been hoisted outside the very mosque we were supposed to be visiting that day, barely 24 hours previously, and that grenades had been thrown into local shops less than 2km from where we were staying as well. Suddenly our newfound love of Kashmir was becoming slightly tainted.

Later on that day, another grenade attack was reported on a police checkpoint outside the city. This time a local vendor was killed. Still, we had seen nothing to feel threatened or in any danger, all our experiences and interactions were positive. Srinagar was the most militarised city either of us have ever been in, but it felt calm and safe – we were told it’s much better now than it has been for a long time, and having since read about the recent past, during which tens of thousands were killed, few could argue with that assertion.

IMG_20150731_211243

On our third day, we went out to the lake and ate lunch in a posh five-star hotel. In the afternoon, we retired to our houseboat, and chilled out reading books. At about 5pm, we heard multiple loud explosions, very close to us. Nobody else batted an eyelid, and life continued as normal, so we didn’t think about it too much. Later, we found out that there had been a protest about 400 metres from where we were, directed at local police, who were being accused of the extra-judicial killing of a 16 year old school boy whose throat had been cut, and body had been pulled from the river we were staying on, barely 200 metres down from us, that same afternoon. Local people were angry, the explosions were actually tear gas being fired to disperse the protestors when things started to turn nasty. We weren’t feeling quite so in love with Srinagar by now.

Next morning, we asked our houseboat hosts if it was safe for us to take a little walk, as we didn’t want to spend all day sat on the boat, doing nothing. They said town was calm now, and that we should walk up along the river, as it’s a nice little walk. So we did. A couple of hundred metres up, we found an entire area with shopfronts and buildings daubed, chillingly, and simply, with ‘ISIS’. It appeared to have been written by the same individual(s), but what surprised me (perhaps naively, I don’t know), was that no effort was being made to clean peoples shopfronts and houses of this graffiti. I know if somebody graffitis something unsavoury on property in the UK, or China, for that matter, efforts are made to clean it up. That wasn’t happening here.

Anyway, we carried on walking. Suddenly a military helicopter whizzed overhead, and I saw at least a dozen, maybe twenty, (I didn’t count, it happened so quickly) heavily armed soldiers, running towards us in formation, guns at the ready, less than fifty metres away. My heart raced, partly in excitement, the little boy in me felt like I was an extra in a Hollywood movie. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of being a soldier or policeman. Then the mature adult within me, took stock of reality and thought, “Shit, this is well dodgy”. I glanced around hurriedly, there was no imminent threat around us, there was a main road, barely five metres away, with armed police standing guard. The group of soldiers turned away from us, and stormed down an alleyway. We promptly climbed up a short block of stairs and made it to the road.

“Excuse us officer, is it safe for us to be here? Where is it safe for us to go?”

“Sorry Sir and Madam, this area is now under strict curfew. If you walk that way (down the main road) it is much safer and there should not be any problems.”

Naturally, we followed his instructions and encountered no problems. Despite obvious hostilities between locals and the authorities, nobody gave us any problems and people continued to be warm and welcoming to us. Both police and locals, I lost count of how many hands I ended up shaking. All were at pains to express that people had no problem with foreign tourists.

We made it back to our houseboat safely, and relaxed there for the afternoon. We have no idea if anything else happened that day, we saw or heard no more, but we had seen enough to know that this was probably the dodgiest place we have been to, during five years in Asia. It wasn’t that we felt under threat, or in any danger, it was more the risk of getting caught up in something nasty, which given events of the previous days, was more than plausible.

Srinagar is a place that has had huge issues, and is doing well to start getting back on to its feet again after a brutal and long insurgency. We knew before going that it could be prone to unrest. Tourists are starting to arrive in numbers, and there is ‘relative’ hope on the horizon for a better future. However, stumbling across areas where ISIS graffiti is daubed so brazenly, seemingly so close to the heart of the city, was enough to make us want to leave. This is a new phenomenon, and hasn’t been seen before in Kashmir.

Despite most people seeming friendly, there remained a lot of stares. Staring is part and parcel of being a white person walking the streets of smaller Asian cities, but sometimes here it felt different.

I cannot (and do not want to) imagine that any of the local people we interacted with here would support an organisation such as ISIS, regardless of how oppressed they may or may not have felt under Indian rule. On the other hand, most the businesses did go on strike, because an ISIS flag was burned, so one does wonder…

But the people we met were just like us, merely wanting to get on with their lives, better themselves, and make an honest living.

Seeing the sign of an organisation that vows to exterminate all non Sunni Muslims, intent on dragging the world back to the Dark Ages, who operate with a barbarity of which would make many Nazi’s squirm, would be enough to cause concern among most tourists, and rational local people as well.

Did we enjoy our time in Srinagar?

Yes and no.

Would we advise foreigners visit?

Probably not, unless you are switched on, well informed and keep up to date on the security situation as it is very fluid and effectively a tinderbox that could go up at any time. Some would say ignorance is bliss, but somewhere like Srinagar, I would suggest that ignorance is stupidity and dangerous.

To the people of Srinagar, if any of you read this, I am confident you recognise that support for ISIS is bad for business and that you also are appalled that any good Muslim could support them, and that you will actively challenge such sympathies if or when you learn of them.

One day we would like to return and do Kashmir’s Great Lakes Trek. It looks incredible. Sadly, I can’t imagine that will be anytime soon.

Note – We were in Srinagar from July 23rd to 28th, 2015.

The UK Foreign Office says travel to Srinagar is okay, but not the areas around it in surrounding Kashmir. See the latest advice, here.

An Asian Highlight – Hoi An, Vietnam

As we approached Da Nang for landing I looked out onto the beach from thirty thousand feet and found myself imagining what it would have been like for the US Marines that (in)famously landed here barely 50 years ago. However, I was now looking out onto a vast slither of golden sand that lined the city’s boundary with the South China Sea, a modern south east Asian city gleaming under the late afternoon sun. Gone is the dense jungle and swamps interspersed with the occasional settlement of wooden shacks and short little people in pointy hats that I had grown up seeing in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and even Forrest Gump that for most of my life had formed the basis of my knowledge of this distant yet historically significant land. Now there are tree lined avenues, high-rise offices, five-star resorts and a couple of million people thrown in for good measure. However, interesting as Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city may have seemed, we were not actually staying here.

Instead we would be staying in the nearby town of Hoi An. Hoi An is small place, comfortably traversed on foot or by bicycle. At it’s heart lies an ancient old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its tailors, architectural splendour and lanterns. Nowadays it’s also become a tourist Mecca on the south east Asia backpacker trail, the flashpacker trail, and the Asian Tour group trail. There is nothing Indiana Jones about travel here. People of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities visit, for good reason. Hoi An is quite simply, absolutely beautiful.

I’ve found that I haven’t been particularly keen on touristy places in Asia over the last few years, for example we absolutely hated Bali (but loved Indonesia) and avoid Thailand like we would the Plague. Tourism has helped to lift millions out of abject poverty in the last decade or two, and continues to do so, but in some of the most popular and profitable destinations in Asia I’ve often questioned at what price have these economic gains come at?

Now this is why we liked Hoi An so much. A place that has prospered as a result of the surge in visitors over recent years but doesn’t (yet) seem to have completely sold it’s soul. For south east Asia, this made a refreshing change. Some of those that came here when Vietnam reopened to tourists in the early 1990’s may bemoan the changes, rumour has it that the quality of the suits and dresses on offer has deteriorated as profit margins have soared, but then this isn’t Savile Row. One traveller was so disgruntled by the changes he\she went so far as to effectively sabotage the town’s Wikitravel page!

Whilst the original community have long since left the old town, which is now loaded with shops, restaurants and tailors, the architecture remains majestic. Influenced by Chinese, Japanese and later, European traders, the town’s narrow streets and low rise buildings have largely been renovated, helping to create a first-world Asian-Mediterranean relaxed atmosphere, bristling with culture, colour and cuisine.

The old town comes alive at night, illuminated by the thousands of multicoloured lanterns that line the roads, alleys and buildings. Motorbikes are banned (although only until 9:30pm, a bit of a downer that needs addressing), there is an absence of massage parlours, loud karaoke bars and only a small number of street hawkers that are often so prevalent elsewhere in this part of the world. The food was as good as any we’ve had in Asia, with many restaurants offering very reasonable pricing in the some of the most gorgeous settings we’ve been able to enjoy in 5 years of living and travelling in the far east.

By day we hired bicycles, exploring local villages and countryside. Within less than fifteen minutes of cycling outside the old town, we found ourselves alone, on narrow country paths and off the usual tourist trail. Locals in these villages were as friendly and welcoming as any we’ve come across, anywhere. Children, the elderly, farmers and even construction workers beamed as they excitedly shouted out “hello” from all sorts of distances as the Plummer family cycled past schools, homes, rice paddies and major highways!

A bike ride to the nearby beach proved fruitless, courtesy of our failure to consult a map properly and my unfailing belief and overconfidence in my personal human GPS abilities. We tried to make it again the next day.

Which brings us on to Agoda, who screwed up almost catastrophically with our hotel reservation. As a result, we were given a free upgrade to one of the most expensive and nicest hotels in the area. A particular perk of this was finding out that the ‘free shuttle bus to the beach’ provided by the hotel was actually a chauffeur driven Mercedes. Consequently, whilst everyone else walked, cycled, or flagged down a cab to the beach, we rocked up in our chauffeur driven blacked-out Mercedes limousine. Needless to say we pointed and laughed at all those losers! (Edit – I am joking here, of course!)

And that folks, was 5 days in Hoi An. There are few places we would actually go back to in Asia, but Hoi An is one of them.

18570333750_8fb938b966_z 18135340474_a3c9eb2822_z 18137272143_4018f2ac5a_z

Chaotic but strangely charming (for a day or two!) – Hanoi, Vietnam

I didn’t know much about Hanoi before visiting.

As it turned out, there’s not that much to see and do as such. Hanoi is no London, Beijing or Tokyo. Visiting Hanoi is not necessarily so much about taking in the sights, but much more about taking it in. As our driver tried to navigate through the narrow streets and one-way systems of Hanoi’s old quarter as we arrived at 8pm on a Saturday night, we quickly realised that Hanoi is alive, teeming with life, everywhere.

From the street vendors who have finished for the day and are now eating their noodles (and lord knows what else!) on the narrow pavements sat on chairs barely 30 centimetres high, inches from the humdrum and roar of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of motorbikes that claim these streets as their own, the transportation of choice for 10 year-olds, 80 year-olds, families of five and everybody else in between, speeding round at all hours. To the hordes of young people living it up in the old quarter, drinking their 20p beers, rocking out to Gaga and Maroon 5 who are blasting from the tightly-packed strip of bars, whose customers spill out onto the streets, roads closed, human traffic jams forming in the busiest parts. Then there’s the newly retired Australian couple, slightly bewildered, just trying to make sense of it all, hoping to avoid getting mown down every time they step off the crowded pavements, slightly in wonder, slightly terrified, awestruck at how different the Vietnam they grew up knowing in the 50’s and 60’s is, to the Vietnam they are in right now, in 2015. Adelaide is kind of wonderful in comparison, but kind of boring. This is Hanoi, this is 21st century Asia.

There’s some poorly maintained museums/propaganda fests. There’s some grand old colonial buildings. There’s some very nice restaurants and hotels and a couple of lakes that you wouldn’t want to swim in. But what will be our everlasting memory of Hanoi?

The vibrancy and chaos.

Somehow it works. You always find where you want to go (so long as you’re not looking for the river – private joke) and you somehow never seem to get run over, despite often feeling as though death or serious injury is a real danger, only one wrong step away. You see wacky things all over the place, whether it’s a workman propping his wooden ladder up against power cables in the middle of one of Hanoi’s busiest crossroads as the frantic traffic streams past, or two guys having an afternoon nap under a tank. To sitting in a nice, but cheap restaurant eating your dinner and then having the Prime Minister of Norway and her entourage on an official state visit come and join you for dinner, sat metres away from you. Then there’s the pop stars dressed in Tuxedos singing patriotic anthems atop the remains of downed American warplanes, shot down in a bygone age. It was mad, but weirdly wonderful.

Hanoi was kind of horrible, but kind of quirky with a charm. People were really quite nice as well, even as they were staring you down speeding towards you at 30mph, with impact seeming imminent.

Would we go back? Not in a hurry.

Are we glad we went?  Oh yes we are.

hanoitraffic2 hanoitrafficjam SONY DSC hanoioldquartersaturdaynight SONY DSC sleepingundertankhanoi propagandavietnamsingersb52 hanoi traffic daniel plummer amelia chin hanoi

There’s something about Singapore

We’ve been in Asia for over four years now. Since going home at Christmas 2012, we’ve not been to the “first-world”, so to speak. Since then, we’ve travelled across Western China, the Philippines and Indonesia. We’ve grown accustomed to being in the developing world, and we kind of like it – it’s exciting, different and rapidly changing. However, it’s also become our norm.

If a guy wants to take an entire frozen pig on the metro, then so be it. (Thank you Alexis Joson, for helping me to illustrate my point here – taken on the Nanjing metro, yesterday).

frozenpig_metro_nanjing

Stuff, that in our first year of living in Asia would have had us go “Wow, that’s mental”, has become somewhat normal.

We’ve been away so long now, that it feels weird being in a rich place, surrounded by white people (except for at work). I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s our reality.

Landing at Singapore Airport in the summer, gave us a bit of reverse culture-shock. The first shock was getting out the airport into a brand new Mercedes-Benz taxi, not something you see everyday in Asia.

singapore-taxi

Our next shock was walking into a 7/11 convenience store, and being charged £5 for a 0.5l bottle of water, a Mars Bar and a Solero Ice-cream. I was outraged, and shocked. In China, Indonesia and the Philippines, that would have cost less than £1. Welcome to Singapore.

We quickly became acutely aware of how everybody spoke English, everything was in English, and how everything was pristine and orderly. There were no beeping horns, everybody queued up properly to buy their subway ticket, or to get a taxi, and there was no spitting, or peeing / pooing in public. It felt as though people actually respected one another here, not something we feel too often in Mainland China.

There are a genuine variety of ethnic groups that call Singapore home; Malays, Chinese, Indian, Arabs, and Westerners too. Shops were stocked full of Cadburys chocolate bars, Ribena and it felt as though you could buy anything you wanted, provided you had the money.

We stayed with Amelia’s eldest brother and his girlfriend, who had a very swanky apartment overlooking the CBD area of Singapore. This was the view from their apartment.

Walking around Singapore felt like we were walking through an urban utopia. It was almost too perfect. The old buildings and areas were immaculately preserved, and appeared to have been lovingly restored. The architecture reflected the mix of settlers and people who called Singapore home.

From the grand colonial buildings of the British Empire, to the random, yet often striking high-rise structures of the 21st century Asian business hub, to the colourful shopfronts of the old Arab Quarter. As a retired student of city planning, Singapore was beautiful (with the exception of some of the 1970’s/ 80’s apartment blocks).

The green spaces, the night lights, the incredible eateries located seemingly everywhere, packed to the rafters with all manner of people socialising and enjoying fine cuisine on the streets. Four months after leaving, I’m still taken by it. It was just a beautiful, lovely and seemingly perfect place.

Amelia’s brother assured us it was far from perfect, especially in terms of expat lifestyle. The cost of almost everything, was significantly more expensive than anywhere I’ve ever been, probably approaching London prices.

The heat can be oppressive, apparently, although it was moderate whilst we were visiting. We’ve felt far, far worse in the Nanjing summer.

“There’s not a lot happening in Singapore, it’s a bit sterile.”. Yes, we can see why somebody would say that. But there’s still a hell of a lot more going on than there is any British city apart from London, and it’s got miles more going for it than any city in China, in terms of quality of life.

We kind of concluded that if you’re coming to Asia for the first time, Singapore could be a bit of a disappointment. If you want to see the vibrancy and mentalness of Asia, go elsewhere. It doesn’t have the outstanding sights that make Indonesia, Burma, Thailand and other places such well visited destinations. Ultimately, Singapore is a small island with a city built on it. However, if you want to live in a nice place in Asia, with a high quality of life, you’d be hard pushed to beat Singapore. And it’s on the doorstep of all these other amazing Asian places, without a lot of the negatives found in neighbouring places; pollution, corruption, poor sanitation etc…

If you want a relaxing city-break, to chill-out and unwind, enjoy some first-world comforts, I don’t think there’s anywhere better to go in Asia.

We only stayed 3 nights, but as you can see, we were taken with it. A welcome break, and a nice reminder of what the first world is like. We will return.

Note for readers – I did not take all of the photographs in this article.

East-to-West in Flores, Indonesia

Flores. A place most people have probably never heard of. 1,000km east of Bali, a thin and incredibly long island which stretches 600km from west to east along the eastern part of the vast Indonesian archipelago.

We spent twelve days traversing the island, from the eastern town of Maumere, to the gateway of Komodo Island, Labuan Bajo, in the west.

Looking back, several months later, I smile at our time there. We saw some pretty spectacular things, from the volcanic lakes of Kelimutu, to the beaches of Riung, to the animal sacrifices of Bajawa, to the greatest sunsets I have ever seen, in Labuan Bajo, to the windiest roads I have ever travelled on!

Flores was a delight. It’s far from undiscovered, yet it remains almost completely undeveloped for tourism (with the exception of Labuan), and off the mainstream beaten path. The island is lush, green, mountainous, volcanic and remote. A steady stream of backpackers / flashpackers such as ourselves hopped between towns, travelling east-to-west, or vice-versa. Nobody it seemed, really fancied riding the trans-Flores highway more than once.

We spent our first couple of days in the small village of Moni, where we encountered miserable and cold weather, before heading up to the summit of Kelimutu to check out its multi-coloured volcanic lakes.

kelimutu

We then had a bit of a mare in our route-planning, and headed to Bajawa. Bajawa was a stunning little place, one of our favourite places in Indonesia. It had unique culture, volcanoes, hot springs, ancient villages and a super relaxed, friendly, and at times, stoner vibe.

This was a place where I even dared to eat the local meat, in the town’s designated tourist restaurant. The grilled pork steak I had our first two nights, was fantastic. The third night, the pork steak had sold out – and as I hadn’t gotten ill from meat here, I thought I’d have a bit of chicken. It’s always a bit of a risk in remote, third-word places eating a bit of meat, but I was craving it, so gave into temptation and abandoned my no-chicken rule for a night. I will never be doing that again.

The next day was pretty much spent on the toilet, stomach cramps, the works. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the toilet so much in one day. It was awful. I fell ill about two hours before we had a three-hour journey to Riung, a beach-town north on another joke of a road. I managed to take a couple of anti-diarrhea tablets to keep me sealed for the journey, and just about managed to hold it in for a few more hours of misery until we got to Riung.

Arriving in Riung, my first thought was, “Oh dear god, why did I come here feeling like this?”, there was just nothing there, apart from one or two guesthouses. At least in Bajawa there would have been some kind of doctor / hospital. Not here.

Fortunately, my initial panic was unnecessary and verging on melodramatic (Amelia describes me as being the world’s most pathetic ill person), as I had a surprisingly good nights sleep, and woke up not needing the toilet the next morning. We got up early, feeling drained, yet alive, and walked down to the “sea front”, to rent a boat and visit the 17 Island National Marine Park. I’m not going to say anymore about that, I don’t need to. Just look at these pictures:

Needless to say, I soon perked up and even managed to eat a bit of bread in the afternoon. What’s more, we had the entire island to ourselves. So, what do you when you find paradise?

Well, after the previous days misery, we bathed in the crystal-clear turquoise waters, awe-struck at how lucky we considered ourselves, thinking “Life is pretty good right now”.

Our day in Riung certainly ended up becoming a bit of a trip highlight, as we flick through the photographs now.

After Riung, it was back to Bajawa and onwards to Ruteng, another small town west on the trans-Flores. Unfortunately, by this time, Amelia had come down with a fever, and was feeling appropriately miserable. We stayed a night in a convent, which was actually the best room we’d had in Flores by far, and one of the more bizarre places we’ve slept during our travels, before taking a bus onto Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo Island.

Having lived off little more than fried-rice and dried cereal bars for well over a week, it was nice to arrive in Labuan, and stay in a ‘proper’ hotel, where we could eat ‘proper’ food of substance, and be reasonably confident we wouldn’t get food poisoning.

The next day we visited Rinca Island, home of the Komodo Dragons. I have to say, after the orangutans in Sumatra and our time in Borneo, this was a real disappointment. Poorly run, poorly organised and ridiculously underwhelming, I ended up writing a scathing review on Trip Advisor – which I had never done before, I thought it was that bad.

komodo dragon rinca island

It turned out we’d also just missed Tony Blair, for he had been to see the Komodo Dragons two days before for a family holiday. So whilst Israel was bombing Gaza back to the stone age, and ISIS was starting to wreak absolute havoc in the Middle East, the Middle East Peace Envoy, Tony Blair, was here with us, on holiday in Flores.

Anyway, as luck would have it, I then caught Amelia’s fever, and proceeded to be quite ill for a couple of days. Luckily, we had a nice hotel with these views to help us relax and get better for our final day or two.

And that folks, was twelve days in Flores.

The Volcanic Wonders of East Java

Indonesia is pretty famous for its volcanoes.

As some readers may have noticed in my previous posts, I like a good volcano (except for when they are unleashing mass terror and devastation upon local populations, of course).

A couple of hours east of Surabaya, Indonesia’s traffic choked and just generally unpleasant 2nd city, lies Mount Bromo. On our first trip to Indonesia, in January 2011, Bromo was erupting. I remember being blown away by two Dutch guys we met in Yogyakarta and the images they captured of a truly amazing spectacle of nature. When we visited in July 2014, Bromo remained active, spewing out gas, but it was safe enough for us to stand on the rim of its crater. This was our coolest volcanic experience yet, as the morning sun rose to reveal other worldly views of the National Park.

After Bromo, we headed to Kawah Ijen. We first learned of this fascinating place on David Attenborough’s Human Planet Series in 2010. From the moment we first saw it, we told ourselves “We have to go there one day”, and so we did. It was a long, hot and bumpy journey from Bromo, and we were less than impressed when we arrived at our guesthouse, if you can call it that. It was grim, and there was nothing in the surrounding area. It was back to basics!

Ijen is famed for its sulphur miners, local men who make the arduous trek up, down, back up, and then down the side of the crater every day, carrying 70-80kg of Sulphur on their backs, at presumably great cost to their health, for a few dollars a day, and have done so for generations. We were under no illusions, life out here was tough and brutal, despite the stunning surroundings. Workers from surrounding coffee plantations were trucked around as if they were cattle on the back of lorries. We thanked our lucky stars that we were born British.

We woke up at 12:30am for our hike to the summit, and then down into the crater to see first-hand the blue sulphur flames that burn brightly at night. It was a tough slog up, and waking at such a ridiculous hour wasn’t exactly our favourite thing ever, but fortunately the hike up to the crater was better than we could ever have expected. There was a full-moon, which illuminated the surrounding valleys and mountain tops, like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was utterly stunning. It made the wholly inappropriate start time, awful “guesthouse” room, dinner, and exhausting trek up seem that bit more worth it.

As we walked into the crater, the smell of the toxic sulphur became noxious, and burned our throats and lungs. By the time we’d walked down, we wanted to get out again! We then waited for the sun to rise over the ocean and Bali to the east, and looked down to the west, and the turquoise lake and surrounding countryside that was now visible below us. And then we walked down and back to Surabaya to extend our visa. All before 8am. Productive hey?!

In search of Sumatra’s Orangutans

Orangutans. They’re well ginger, well smart and their babies are well cute.

There are without doubt many other animals which are equally as magnificent, some perhaps more so, which we would dearly love to see in the wild one day, but most of these – Lions, Tigers, Rhinos, African Mountain Gorillas – well, they’re all a bit dangerous.

Whilst you would never want to get too close to an Orangutan, at least you know it’s not ever going to eat you. So not only are they amazing, incredible, magnificent wild animals, but they’re also relatively friendly. Which is always a bonus.

We’ve loved them ever since we first set eyes on them three and a half years ago in Borneo. This summer it was time to go back and see them, this time in the “wilds” of the Sumatran rainforest.

The “wilds” of the Sumatran rainforest would perhaps be an over exaggeration on our part, for we stayed in a small backpacker village, well established on the tourist trail, called “Bukit Lawang”. This village, situated a two and a half hour drive outside of Medan, is the gateway to the Gunung Leusser National Park, which is over 100km long, and 150km wide. It is one of the last relative safe-havens for Orangutans in Indonesia.

Bukit Lawang had an extremely rustic feel to it, there was a lot of basic development geared towards western backpackers, but there were very few tourists it seemed. We couldn’t, and still can’t quite work out, if Bukit Lawang has had its heyday, or if it’s always been like that.

1606977_10152777575687224_7187826835294096581_n

Anyway, the main attraction here is a trip into the jungle to see the Orangutans and other wildlife. Having just completed a busy term at work, and having been stricken down by a cold on our first day in Indonesia, we didn’t fancy undertaking a two or three-day jungle trek, sleeping rough in the jungle. We’ve done that before, and whilst it was an amazing experience, we’re getting a little older now, and are starting to enjoy some of our creature comforts a little more.

In the end, we settled on a one day trek, with a local guide named Wisnu. Every guide we met was at pains to state that there was absolutely no guarantee we’d see any Orangutans, and warned us there was a decent chance we wouldn’t. Fortunately for us, two (plus one baby) came down for the morning feeding. We then trudged up and down hillsides and dense jungle for several hours, until we stumbled across Mina, the most famous, and apparently most aggressive of the local Orangutans. She was just hanging out in a tree with her teenage daughter. After thirty minutes or so of “Orangutan watching”, which consisted of us watch Orangutans sit on a branch, munching leaves, (it was far more exciting than that) we decided to head back to the village.

As we started to walk away, Mina climbed down to ground level, and started walking towards us. When Orangutans are high up in the trees, they don’t look so big. When they’re walking towards you on all fours, mere metres away, they’re bloody massive. I’d certainly never want to fight one (besides, why would anyone?!). Anyhow, Mina, her teenage daughter, and then some more of her friends came to join us, and we ended up spending close to an hour having this amazing Orangutan love-in; just Amelia, myself and Wisnu – all alone in the jungle, hanging out with the kings of the Sumatran jungle.

What a fabulous start to our five and a half weeks in Indonesia.

10599488_10152777577222224_1163495639712502683_n