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 : -)

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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

Tahrir, one year on

The header pictures on my travel blog are some of my favourite travel photos. One may look just like a group of lads playing football, but it’s the location that inspired me to upload it earlier this year…

It was taken in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in January 2010.

Football in Tahrir Square, Cairo (January 2010)

Tahrir Square was a very different place a year ago today, when it was the focal point of the Egyptian revolution which eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Today the name is synonymous with memories of violent conflict, and the blood of many people guilty mostly of “just” believing in the future and demonstrating for positive change.

One year on, I simply wanted to remember my memories of a peaceful place. And my hope that positive change may one day arrive in a country that I very much enjoyed travelling in (more than I ever thought I would).

A calm Tahrir Square, Cairo (January 2010)

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.

Mount Kinabalu

Following a bumpy-as-hell bus trip broken up by another roti stop, the canopy walk at Poring Hot Springs and a shop in Ranau that jointly resembled Grace Brothers and the Naboo-tique, we arrived at Mesilau.

Our overnight stop was c.1,850 metres above sea level, and the starting point for our hike up the mountain. The hostel, with the mountain behind:

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It started raining during breakfast (chicken sausage ‘Julienne’ style. Really) on Friday morning, and continued for a large part of the 8km hike. That doesn’t sound much, but think about 1,500m of climbing, and the effects of altitude. Also, the heat and humidity (wet inside your cagoule from sweat), plus the Mesilau trail is the hardest route up the mountain, with lots of ups and downs and some very steep climbs.

After many steep climbs, slippery wooden steps without a handrail, foot pain, breathlessness and increasing altitude sickness, I made it to the Laban Rata hut 3,200m above sea level

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I collapsed into a chair, and promptly drank 11 cups of sugary tea before progressing to the (cold) shower, dry clothes and food.

Over the evening my headache and dizziness got worse, then the shivers started. By the time of the 2am alarm call (you leave the camping huts early to summit at dawn), I was also massively suffering from nausea and shivering uncontrollably, so I had to take the sensible option and not attempt the summit.

Finally managing to sleep a little, at 6am I got up to watch the sun rise. I then climbed another 300m up on the summit trail to see if the ascent & descent helped my altitude sickness. It didn’t. Only descending, once Dave, Yvette, Khan & Manit returned from the summit, helped.

(I’ve got to head off now, and will add more photos from the other camera at a later date. Til then, here’s the summit from a few miles away on the main road)

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Kinabatangan River

My two-day stay with Orang Sungai (translation: people who live by the river) began at the the Kopel reception centre in Kampo Mengaris village on the banks of the Kinabatangan river.

We ate lunch with the locals, learning a little about their way of life, and how the Miso Walai Homestay programme and their conservation and tourism organistation (MESCOT) had been set up with the help of the WWF in 1997.

Getting onto an open boat, we cruised down the river to see some of the seven types of rainforest, plus many of the birds and monkeys that live along the banks of the longest river in Sabah province. We saw proboscis monkeys, longtail macaques and the silver leaf monkeys (re-named ‘Beckham’ by the locals because of their spiky hair). There were also herons, hornbills and beautiful kingfishers with cobalt blue and vivid yellow colouring.

The first night, we ate and slept at the beautiful Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp in the forest by Tungog oxbow lake

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Halim, our guide, took the group out on foot for a night safari in the forest, to see the flora and fauna up close. I admit I was a little terrified of the prospect of meeting a huge snake in the dark, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

After a cold shower of collected rainwater in a cubicle shared with a bat, several spiders and a couple of small lizards, I headed for bed. Bed was a mattress on the floor of a “camp deck”, a wooden platform raised off the ground away from snakes and other wildlife.

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I fell asleep to the intense wall of jungle sounds and actually found it very relaxing, having one of my best night’s sleep of the trip!

Day two bought another river cruise (different wildlife up and about at 6am) and some conservation work, helping to plant fig trees in the forest alongside the river. The head warden told us that 760,000 hectares have now been reforested, and managed under the jurisdiction of organisations such as MESCOT and the Sabah forest authority.

We then returned to Mengaris village, where I spent the afternoon getting to know my homestay hosts.

In the evening the locals put on a culture show. I had a bit of a dance, but also got myself a temporary job as lead percussionist in the steel drum band (one of the others has photos…I’ll add to this later).

Sandakan and Sepilok

Arriving at Sandakan was the first time I’ve ever been given a (needed) umbrella to walk from plane to terminal. Tony Fernandes and Air Asia may be missing a trick, though. Michael O’Leary and his evil, money-grabbing leprechaun henchmen would charge you 20 Euros for that…

We had roti for breakfast at a roadside restaurant by the statue of a hitch-hiking crocodile, and spent an interesting hour at the memorial on the site of the Sandakan POW camp. But the highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Sepilok orang utang rehabilitation centre.

I would have liked to have got even closer, but the aim of the program is to teach the orangs independence and survival skills, so that wasn’t going to happen. Still, enough of my personal monkey worries. Here’s some orangs being fed:

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These were showing their backs to us for ages and, since they’d put on entertainment for us, I thought I’d give something back (quid pro quo, an’ all that…). So I did little tap dance on the visitor platform. And one of the orangs turned round to watch! Most people, including guides, thought this was funny (and it didn’t disturb the other eating orangs), but I was told off by the German Tourist Fun Police. Gits!

Enough of me being daft, though… this mother and baby had a great sideline in monkey yoga instruction:

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This lady was just hanging out:

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And there were other primates in this part of the forest. Here’s a “macaque-robat” (*groans*)

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The conservation programme video had some unspeakably cute footage, including a dozen baby rescue orangs being wheeled round in a wheelbarrow (I think we have a new collective noun). Great work, needs more support, and I’ll add a link later in case anyone wants to adopt an orang-utang.

I would like to stay longer, but in the morning we’re off to cruise on the Kinabatangan river and stay in the jungle proper. Hopefully more orangs in the wild, also probiscis monkeys…

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…).