Gong Hey Fat Choi

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous year of the Snake.

Here’s a picture taken on an evening stroll along Jin Li Street, Chengdu, byway of thematic celebration.

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Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

I was checking the search engine referrals on my blog last night, when I saw ‘Wangdue Phodrang fire’. A short search later I saw the sad news that back in June a devastating fire raised the dzong (fortress), which contained the regional administrative headquarters and a monastery school, to the ground.

This photo makes me very sad:

Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan, on fire

Read more about the fire here and here here

As a place I remember fondly from my trip to Bhutan, I decided to post a few photos of how it was.

The two trainee monks who had just had a very un-monklike fight:

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Young Buddhist monks, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

(This photo is also one of my 7 Super Shots post, which includes a lovely memory of my Grandma related to this photo.)

The main courtyard of the monastery:

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Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

The main courtyard of the monastery:

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Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

High up at the far end of the inner courtyard, the skeletons are there to remind you to live your life well as it will be over sooner than you know it (sage advice):

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Inner courtyard, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

And finally, the sweetest little monk ever:

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The sweetest little monk ever, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

I hear two good things: that many of the treasures were saved, and there are fund raising initiatives in place to rebuild it. Please add comments and links if you know anything about this. Thank you.

Leap Day

As it’s Leap Day, I thought I’d post a few jumping photos (see what I did there?!).

I do like taking pics of random strangers, particularly when they’re acting, posing or generally getting in the way of something I’m trying to photograph. Like the “Bird’s Nest”.

Some random kids jumping outside the Beijing Olympic Stadium

The rest were taken for me by friends, because I’m in them…

In Tibet, in an area where the Chinese government have prohibited mass actions (hoping it at least confused them).

The Potala Palace, Lhasa

With Deb and Sally, using jumping as a way to warm up on a freezing morning.

A frosty morning in the Himalayas

Leaping amongst the prayer flags at Everest Base Camp

Top of the world, baby!

And, in case no-one believes my “National Geographic moment” photo (at the bottom of this page) photo at Yamdrok-tso is real… well, I would have done something that flattered me a damned sight more if I’d Photoshopped this, wouldn’t I?!

Yamdrok-tso lake, Tibet

Happy leaping : -)

7 Super Shots

I am taking part in Hostelbookers 7 super shots thread, because they’ve started lots of travel bloggers scouring their digital photo archives on dark winter evenings (if you live in the northern hemisphere, that is) with this winning idea to inspire those with itchy feet.

Here’s my two penn’orth:

1) A photo that…takes my breath away
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland. It was an October afternoon, a couple of degrees above zero and blowing in a force 4-5 gale off the sea. But still it’s so beautiful that a couple of friends and I spent nearly two hours here taking photos. Just as we though we’d captured the sunset, someone set the sky on fire…

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland

 

2) A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
A baby Orangutan flicking a crafty ‘v’ sign on his cheek at me. This youngster and his parents oozed character, and make for some fabulous photos.

Baby organutan, Lok Kawi zoo, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

 

3) A photo that…makes me dream
Back to dear, lovely Iceland again. This time to Grundarfjörður, on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. Out hiking in a rainstorm west of the Kirkjufell, a small glacier-carved mountain now forming a peninsula at the edge of the fjord, I stumbled upon some lovely wooden cottages. Maybe one day I will own my own cabin around here…

Wooden cabins, Kirkjufell, Grundarfjörður, Iceland

 

4) A photo that…makes me think
My trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau remains one of the most moving days of my life. I spent most of the day in tears at the awful things that humans can do to other humans, and the sheer scale of the loss of life. These small stones, lovingly inscribed with names and dates of those lost by their dependents and placed on the railway tracks at Birkenau, stun me every time I look back at the photo.

Memorial stones on the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

 

5) A photo that…makes my mouth water
In stark contrast to the above, a very simple shot of my friend Jamie thinking just how much he would love a Pieminister pie at that moment in time. The added bonus is that this was taken at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, one of my favourite places in the world, at the stall next to the also-legendary Brothers Cider Bar in the West Holts.

Do you know what...? I love Pieminister!

 

6) A photo that…tells a story
These two young novice monks, at Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan, look all sweetness and light. But until about three seconds before I took this photo, they were having the most violent and un-monklike fight in the monastery’s courtyard!

Novice monks, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

A secondary story is that this was one of my Grandma’s favourite photos from my travels. I spent several hours at her house with the laptop talking her through my photos, but she was captivated by these monks above almost anything else (even the Great Wall Of China, which she had always wanted to visit but never did). I hear she told my Dad and many friends who visited her about “those two little lads who were growing up to be monks”.

 

7) A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
This ‘accolade’ simply has to go to my photo of the stunning Yamdrok-tso lake, in Tibet. I often have this photo as my desktop background on my work computer, and people cannot believe it was taken with a compact camera, and has not been digitally enhanced (or even cropped) in any way. I was just lucky, and in a supremely beautiful place.

Yamdrok-tso, Tibet

 

This photo tag game has been going for a couple of weeks now, so I’m going to nominate 5 posts I’ve seen that I really like (and that inspired me to blog my own – thank you!):

  1. Cam & Nicole at Travelling Canucks and their 7 super shots
  2. Alex at Virtual Wayfarer and his 7 super shots
  3. Erin at De La Pura Vida and her 7 super shots (particularly love that baby sloth!)
  4. Cathy at Traveling With Sweeney and her 7 super shots
  5. Anja at Hitting The Road and her 7 super shots

Singapore Zoo

Landing from Borneo with 12 hours before my flight home, there was time enough for more exploring of Singapore. Having already seen a barrel load of monkeys on this trip, I decided to enlarge the barrel!

With my finances in end-of-trip mode I decided against an airport taxi, and opted for public transport to Singapore Zoo (it’s an easy ride to Ang Mio Ko MRT station, then a 138 bus, should you ever wish to try it for yourself).

You can buy a joint ticket for the Zoo and Night Safari but, having visited the Night Safari at the start of my trip, I can confirm it’s not worth bothering (too dark to see most animals properly. Or at all, in some cases).

Top tips:

1. Walk round, don’t take the zoo train. It’s not a huge area to walk round even in the heat (and/or heavy rain), and going at your own pace means you get to spend more than seven seconds with each animal.

2. After the entrance, turn immediate right for proboscis monkeys. Easy to miss, hilarious to look at with those noses.

3. The best bit (of course!) is the orangutans. Head to the center of the zoo, behind the middle restaurant, and you can see them swinging on ropes directly over the footpath. And your head! Here’s the most expressive Mother and her two babies (she’s carrying one) playing tig
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4. Don’t ignore the Primate Zone (oh, and the zoo train can’t get in here), which has about eight different species.
Walking round a corner to see the Hamandryas baboons, in their enclosure carefully built to resemble their natural habitat of the African Rift Valley, I thought I’d stumbled upon a war council on the Planet Of The Apes
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By the way… what is the collective noun for a group of baboons?
I’m going to refer to it as a ‘bum rush’ from hereon in!

5. Observe all signage
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Other animals are, of course, available, but I concentrated on those looking a little like small dinosaurs in a certain light
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…the ‘cool as’ penguins
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…and otters . Who move too damn quickly to photograph (they probably have a very good agent who’s fiercely protective of their image rights. Or something).

Anyway, back to the monkeys…
I was taking this selfie with a statue of a famous former resident when the lazies in the zoo train (see above) came past. Cue much laughter.
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I think I’m in a lot of people’s holiday photos.

Christmas day in airports

Last Christmas I gave you my heart…uh, wrong piece of writing…I worked an incredibly heartwarming shift in the Crisis Rough Sleepers Centre in London, followed by a sandwich and Doctor Who in a Premier Inn at Gatwick airport!

This Christmas started off in Singapore, with an inexplicable brass rubbing counter at Changi Terminal 3??!

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After a 1 1/2 hour flight was a 4-hour layover in Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo). Which, sadly, is the only dry airport I’ve ever found. Not even a single Christmas drink. In the end, I found some Ferrero Rocher and had a Christmas tea party with Travel Paddington.

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Only one tip for Kuching: clear immigration even if you’re only in transit. Three separate airport staff told me to remain airside. That led to “squeaky bum time” (though not literally…no, ahem, intimate searches for me!), when I finally arrived at Kota Kinabalu. Apparently Malaysian law (at time of writing) is to clear immigration on first touch of soil, even if you don’t leave the airport.

Tropical rainstorms meant it was unsafe to take off, so we sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour before heading to Kota Kinabalu. Through dense clouds on the bumpiest flight I’ve ever had the “privilege” to endure.

Still, travel is made of such fun moments. And a short taxi ride later I was at my hotel.

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I hope you all have a great Christmas X

Sinister Singapore

Day two, and I have rapidly come to the conclusion that this a crazy city full of whack-jobs.

After a visit to a Hindu temple I went for a wander around the business district. Dreadful, dreadful place, reminiscent of Canary Wharf, Dubai & central Chicago. Full of skyscrapers, and essentially a cathedral to obscene people making obscene amounts of money for sport.

A little further north is the Marina, and the relatively new Marina Bay Sands hotel (below), which has an observation deck and swimming pool “perched” across the three towers. As it was howling a gale, and zero visibility due to fog, I decided not to bother going up.

Oh, and guess what? Underneath the hotel is yet another shopping centre and casino. Who’da thunk it?!

I wondered around the Marina, past the Singapore flyer, and basically did the entire F1 circuit on foot (well, I’m sad like that). Here’s the Merlion (or is it meh-lion?!) spouting water over the marina, with the business district behind.

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Next stop was back on the tourist trail, to the Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling (when in Rome, an’ all that…)

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Later I passed through the Psychobabble of the world’s largest shopping centre, Vivo City, as you have to pass through it to get the monorail to Sentosa resort world. I’ll have to tell you about that later as I’ve a plane to catch, but suffice to say that from the start it’s sinister.  On the monorail you’re fed propaganda about how this is “the most amazing place you will ever experience”, which led me to wonder what happens if you DON’T have fun there (I’m now having to leave the island in fear of being shot for insurrection).

William Gibson was right: Disneyland with the death penalty. Bring on the airport, and Borneo.

Soggy Singapore

After a slow start, I headed off to the local Hawker Centre to play food lottery. I ended up (having decided against the frog porridge: too Heston Blumenthal!) with some spicy dumplings and noodles, washed down with a cappucino soya milkshake with worms and leeches floating in it (OK they probably weren’t, but I don’t have a clue what they were).

I then had a bimble through some of Chinatown’s shops and alternative remedy supermarkets, quickly realising that half of what I was looking at is illegal back home. If only I knew which half…

Heading for Clarke Quay I ducked into what I thought was a hotel to shelter from a cloudburst, only for it to be a shopping centre. I beat a hasty retreat, out into the heaviest tropical rainstorm I have ever seen in my life. As it showed no signs of stopping, and as I can’t stand shopping centres, I called it as pub o’clock and found a bar on Boat Quay.

Two drinks later the rain was worse, so I jumped on the MRT to see a different bit of town. Sad to say that Orchard Ion has nothing to do with protons, electrons or indeed electrical charges, and is in fact another damn shopping centre. Still, I did continue my amazing streak of being able to find comic book stores in strange cities (I think I can just smell ‘eau de nerd” from a mile off!), and now own a title called “The Zen Of Steve Jobs.” Nice.

Onwards to the north of the island (it’s an easy ride to Ang Mio Ko MRT station, then a 138 bus, should you ever wish to try it for yourself) to the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo. Getting inside and onto the train, the attendant said “make the baby sit inside, it’s safer” to the couple behind me (what was going to happen? Were there baby-gobbling rhinos inside?!), but me having that thought was, sadly, as exciting as the visit got. Extending the public service broadcasting bit… don’t go.

I know it’s a Night Zoo (the title sort of gives a hint) but it was way too dark to see most animals properly (or at all, in some cases) and certainly to take photos of anything at all. The fact that the sum of my “useable” photos extends to a few chronically underexposed shots of a shy leopard, plus a Malaysian porcupine’s arse, probably says it all. Here’s the aforementioned leopard (NB. there may be a slightly better one on my other camera):

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There was also a distinct lack of monkeys: inexcusable for a zoo. The Tarsier (more of a lemur, really) managed to save the night by being unfeasibly cute and the squeaky, hide-and-seeky otters helped too. Kudos also due to the Indian Rhino for having the ability to look like a triceratops if I screwed my eyes up, too. Finally, a mention in dispatches to:

  1. The animals I’ve never seen (or even heard of) before… civet, babirusa, red dhole, gaur, banteng (the latter, I assume, being a distant relative of former Aston Villa and Middlesborough football player George Boateng?)
  2. The Indian kid who, at the Hog Badger enclosure, started bouncing up and down singing “badger, badger, badger, badger, mush-room, mush-room…”. Nice to see Weebl’s Stuff is popular the world over 😉

End of day one, so first impression of Singapore?

  1. Besides the obvious places (Chinatown & Little India spring to mind) it’s a much more westernised place than I imagined.
  2. There are an awful lot of places designed to part you from your money (NB. I do, at this stage, still remember that I live in London, but I try to avoid the shops there).
  3. Singapore island is bigger than I thought it would be (particularly given how quickly the Japanese crossed it in WW2. Sorry!), but I still managed to find a part that reminded me of Scarborough out north towards the Zoo…!
  4. Singaporeans + Escalators = danger. Particularly at busy times. They stop at the end to think about where they’re going next, oblivious of the people jam behind them.

Right, of to bed now, to work on that sinas pain peculiar to sleeping in a room with an aircon unit (ah, the things you forget when you’re not travelling…).

Toilets of the world

Inspired by this week’s #TTOT (that’s Travel Talk On Twitter… I’ll let Melvin explain), I thought I’d blog the answers to questions about travel toilets. And a few more besides (you can scroll down… no gruesome pictures!)

Q1. Coolest/most awesome bathroom you have seen? The cute, hobbit-like eco-friendly compost toilet at my friend’s parents’ summerhouse in the Finnish lakes.

Q2. What is the most disgusting bathroom you’ve encountered abroad? A toilet behind a restaurant in Damxung (aka. the “big plate of chicken place” for those who travelled with me!), Tibet. You could see  (and most certainly smell!) what people had had for dinner 2 days before heaped under the slit in the floor.


Q3. What is the best “Loo View” you have ever had?. The view over the Finnish lake (frozen when I visited one December) from the top photo was stunning. Also: Hongchungping monastery, Mount Emei, China. There was a beautiful view over a misty valley….

The window view…

…but sadly it was still a hideous hole in the floor, which did not encourage me to linger!

 

Q4. What was your most embarrasing travel bathroom experience? (I remembered a better one) It simply involves a train toilet with one of those “automatic locking doors” that doesn’t really seem to lock properly, and opens at the most inopportune moment…!

No-one uses Western toilets in rural China

Another contender for A3. A compost toilet in a shed at the foot of this Icelandic glacier.

And finally, a message from our Chinglish friends!

Day 38: the end of a week in beautiful Bhutan

DAY 37: was all about seeing the sights of Thimpu.

We spent the day seeing what the Bhutanese capital has to offer, oh, and almost seeing the Elvis/Fonz impersonator King when his motorcade drove past. Blacked out windows, though…

Bhutan didn’t have roads until the 1960s, only has 2.5km of dual carriageway, and does not have a single set of traffic lights (apart from a short-lived experiment, which confused all and sundry). Instead, the major traffic junctions in the capital have “dancing” Policemen in Jacko gloves!

Dancing Policemen, Bhutan’s nearest thing to traffic lights, Thimpu

Here’s the Dzong (=Fortress), now an administrative centre.

Thimpu Dzong (fortress), Bhutan

The largest book in the world, 2.13 metres wide, is in the National Library. I had to ask Abhi, our Nepalese tour leader (who’s about 5 foot 10) to pose next to it to get a true sense of scale.

Allegedly the biggest book in the world, Bhutan

They also have Steve McManaman, circa I think World Cup France 98, on stamps. I have no idea why!

Steve McManaman stamps, Bhutan

 

DAY 38: was mainly filled with a hike up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to the side of a rocky hill.

Looking up towards Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

It was a very steep climb to the top, about 3,200m above sea level, but the views both of the monastery and the Paro valley floor are worth it.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

In the morning, I fly to Delhi.