We rented a driver to take us from Ubud to Seminyak, which was supposedly more of a beach resort kind of place. The drive took us through Kerobokan, a kind of overcrowded crossroads for the neighbouring cities, and then down into the snails-pace gridlock of cars and scooters that is Seminyak.

Our residence for the next few days is a couple of rooms off a walled courtyard tucked down a secluded alleyway off the main street. The bedrooms reeked of moth-balls, which was not surprising when we discovered that both en-suite bathroom floors were liberally scattered with the toxic chemical. We swept them out into a bin and blew a fan through to get rid of the head-thumping fumes, and then realised that the door of the bedroom that we had intended to give to Berrima opened out directly onto the sunken pool (and I mean directly, a single step would have you in the water), so we had to scratch the idea of a quiet night in a bed of our own.

The pool itself is a bit of a curiosity. It would make an excellent and relaxing koi pond, perhaps the centrepiece of a miniature Balinese garden, but instead it is supposed to be a swimming pool a little over two metres long and far less than that across. It was at first hard to fathom who it might be intended for (apart from precocious 3-year olds), but on the other hand the house’s interior decoration of whisky adverts and old spirits bottles might suggest the life-style of the usual clientele.

The ‘full kitchen’, rather charmingly situated outdoors, consists of the tiniest microwave ever made, a stove top and a couple of battered pans, but certainly enough to make coffee in the morning, so we’re all set there. 

We headed up the lane to see the delights of Seminyak, passing between the friendly tat salesman and the shyly smiling young girl with the withered arm who was peddling vodka-bottles full of moped fuel at the entrance to the alley.

Perhaps I was jaded by the Bali-Belly that I picked up in Ubud, but I found nothing at all to like about downtown Seminyak. It was just a row of tourist shops selling the same tat that they were selling in Ubud, and presumably for higher prices, because we had already driven past all the artisanal streets in Ubud where the stuff seems to be made. 

Feeling distinctly out of sorts, I had a lie down in the apartment, and my magical wife arranged for a scooter-borne Balinese masseuse to arrive on the doorstep. This is one tourist attraction that Bali does really well, and I felt much more cheerful afterward. 

On the next morning, we were up with the neighbour’s rooster, hence off to an early breakfast at a local eatery for a really quite lovely meal. The food is noticeably better in Seminyak than in Ubud. Over Balinese coffee, we planned a walking route down the high street, across to the famous Seminyak beach, along the strand to 66 Beach, returning back to the high street from the other end of town. 

Trying to locate the beach access track, we found ourselves in a hotel bar with no obvious route down to the sand. We initially sat at a sort of circular sun lounger, but were told that there was a minimum 1 million rupiah cover charge. This seemed over the top for a cup of coffee, so we moved to a smaller, less pretentious table. We waited for somebody to come and serve us but to no avail, so we got up and left and, having secured directions from one of the many security guards, found our way onto the sand.

This is supposed to be one of the main attractions of the town, and we had picked our second stay in Bali to give Berrima some beach time. However, when we arrived, the tide was in and both the surf and the “do not swim” flags were up.

The thin strip of gritty volcanic sand was packed with bar tables, sun loungers, umbrellas, and litter. Walking along the small strip of tide-wracked rubbish, the occasional wave washed up over our feet and then attempted to rip us out to sea into the crashing breakers.

It really wasn’t very pleasant at all, and we were glad to find an alley between stacks of beer coolers which led back into town.

As travellers go, we can be pretty stubborn in our pursuit of the ‘real world’. Finally, though, we had to accept the obvious; that the whole island of Bali is given over to a particular kind of spend-by-day, party-by-night tourism, and that the tourist industry is the centre of the culture.

Admitting defeat, we spent our final day at the Waterbom fun park, riding the flumes. The experience was surprisingly inexpensive and very enjoyable for all. The queues were short, the rides fun for adults and children alike, the staff delightful, and the food excellent.

At the end of the day, tired and happy, we were attempting to negotiate a return fare with a taxi driver in the street outside. We had reached an impasse where our highest offer had been rebuffed, when a passer-by suddenly leaned in and said that he would take us for that price. He turned out to be a Waterbom employee on his way home, and in short order we found ourselves cocooned in his tricked-up hot-hatch with lurid orange leather trim and violet highlights. 

After a quick change of clothes, we went straight to the acclaimed tourist restaurant Jackson Lily’s for an incomparable steak dinner, easily the most enjoyable eating experience of the whole trip. If you can’t beat them, join them. 

Restaurants in Ubud

Although we enjoyed our cottage hotel in Ubud, with its idyllic setting and friendly staff, we were quite disappointed with the restaurant. Whatever we ordered, it was overcooked and flavourless, and after a while I realised that there was a correlation between eating at the restaurant and feeling ill for the rest of the day or night.

It wasn’t just the hotel restaurant; in general, we found the food in Ubud to be insipid and uninspired, which was curious considering that tourism is their only industry.

Suckling Pig

One of the local delicacies is suckling pig, which involves slow-roasting an unweaned piglet over a wood fire, a dish that we were really looking forward to. In the days before we became disenchanted with our hotel restaurant, we gave them the required 24 hours notice for preparation, and hurried back in the evening to enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately, it was very disappointing. We surmise that the 24 hour preparation time was for the chef to defrost the pre-cooked pig meat and then boil it to within an inch of its life. It was almost inedible, and came with a kind of warm floppy coleslaw. We didn’t even have the heart to insist that Berrima try it, as she pushed it around her plate and ate bread, rice and fruit instead.

Balinese Coffee

One of the other gustatory attractions of Bali is supposed to be its coffee; after all, it’s grown locally and ‘Civet cat poop’ is a big tourist draw. It was curious, then, that initially we struggled to get a decent cup. Eventually we came to realise that you can order ‘Balinese Coffee’ anywhere, even though it is rarely on the menu, which is made by simply pouring boiling water over very finely ground beans to produce a fine, strong-tasting brew. We were even happier when we found that the baristas at the local speciality coffee house The Black Eye, which does not offer Balinese Coffee on their menu, were more than happy to mill some of their espresso beans to the correct grind so that we could have a morning cup from the comfort of our four-poster bed.

Crispy Duck

One morning, after a couple of cups of Balinese Coffee over which we watched the staff collecting flowers for the hotel’s shrines, we got our driver to drop us off in downtown Ubud to see if we could find something decent to eat. He dropped us off at a place that he recommended, but it was really just an expat burger and pizza joint. After a short walk we found a more traditional restaurant, the Warung d’Ubud, that promised Balinese crispy duck and a variety of local soups.

It was all rather good, with a lovely selection of delicate flavours and some excellent crispy duck. In fact, we were so replete after lunch that we decided to draw a line under any further tourist activities, and spent the rest of the day lazing at the pool.

Curry at the Indus

After a cocktail at the hotel, we headed across the road to the pretty Indus Restaurant, where we ate an acceptable but bland meal of mixed curry dishes overlooking the rain-forest of Tjampuhan ridge, a steep ravine that leads down toward central Ubud. We suffered a bit from the ants and flies that swarmed over, under and on the table, and were somewhat surprised when the bill was about the same as for an equivalent meal in Australia. It’s supposed to be the second best restaurant in Ubud, but we didn’t go back.

Gluten-Free Schnitzels

One afternoon we found an unlicensed taxi-driver sitting in the street outside the hotel, who cheerfully accepted our offer of 50k rupiahs (about $5) to take us wherever we wanted to go. Our destination was the Gluten Free Kitchen, formerly known as the ‘House of Schnitzel’ and thus a perhaps unique blend of grain-free cuisine and Austrian (and Australian!) fast food.

When we got there, we found that there was no power to the street, so we could only pick items on the menu that were made without electricity. This became a bit of a game, but after a while we established that there was no coffee or smoothies, no pan-fried items such as meat and burgers, nor any boiled food such as vegetables. In fact the only appliance that was running was the gas-fired deep-fryer, so we had what turned out to be a rather nice lunch of pork and chicken schnitzels, accompanied by empanadas and onion rings.

Canting Bali Cooking Class

A few years ago, we’d greatly enjoyed a local cooking class in Penang, so we’d booked what we hoped would be a similarly enjoyable and illuminating Balinese cooking lesson.

A small group of us met up at the local market, where we were introduced to the raw ingredients that we were going to use. Then we moved to a paddy which was almost ready for harvest for a discussion about the life and times of rice workers, then on to the school where we joined up with about 30 people to prepare a feast.

We had a fine time pounding spices, extracting coconut oil, and chopping (and chopping. and chopping) vegetables and roots, initially preparing a basic sauce and then expanding it into a number of different dishes.

We ground up tuna and barbecued it on skewers over coconut-shell charcoal, curried tempeh with vegetables, put together a soup of chicken and enormous oyster mushrooms, and steamed fish inside packets of banana-leaf. The resulting meal was very pleasant, and we were certainly all ready for it after a morning of preparation.


About half way through the holiday, my guts turned to water and I spent a considerable amount of time napping between doses of pills while the girls went swimming. At length, feeling a little better, I reckoned I could face dinner if it was going to be simple fare, and we planned to go into Ubud to find something special. However, we’d waited too late in the day and our little treasure grumpily insisted that she wanted to eat in the awful hotel restaurant, largely I suspect because she enjoyed feeding the fish in the Balinese garden.

But if I just chose a salad, how bad could it be?  The headline ‘green salad’ was off today (which should have rung alarm bells!), so I ordered the ‘grilled vegetable salad’ instead.

There are no other words; it was truly disgusting. As far as I could tell, the chef had taken a jar of pickled vegetables, poured it into a saucepan, and boiled it until soggy. I gave up and went to bed, and suffered the most horrible symptoms and fevers, over which I shall draw a respectful veil.

Still weak the next morning, I had a bit of a lie-in, and then we all trundled out of the door and a few buildings down the road to the Elephant Restaurant where I nearly cried with pleasure over a perfect green salad, with a root juice on the side, on a peaceful veranda overlooking the Tjampuhan ridge.

Afterward we sat over perfect Balinese coffee, watching squirrels climbing inside the tree-top mango fruit and nibbling out the soft centres, and wished that we had discovered this gem a little sooner.

Mason Elephant Park

The idea of an Elephant Sanctuary on Bali is a bit odd on the face of it, because they have no elephants there. However, you can do pretty much anything you like if you are a foreigner with money, so a local businessman set about “rescuing” work elephants from Sumatra and setting them to work pleasing the tourists in Ubud. We went to visit them at the Mason Elephant Park.

The elephants – over fifty of them – seemed happy enough with the deal, and some of them were breeding with the ornery old bull that they kept chained up in a corner of the large and very pleasant grounds.

Bronwyn and I have ridden and swum with elephants before (most notably in India), but this was a first for our little daughter so we purchased the “wash, feed and ride” option.

We gave our elephant a good hose-down and scrub, which she endured stoically until I found a nice bit to brush behind her ears.

At the feeding station, you can purchase baskets of cut fruit for a line-up of ever-interested animals. The large ones were a bit daunting for children, so Berrima got to feed a baby elephant.

Then it was time to saddle up for a ride. Bronwyn and Berrima went on one elephant, and I went on a much larger one. Ensconced on a hard wooden howdah only thinly disguised by blankets, we ambled slowly around the extensive grounds, pausing to look (at eye level!) at coconuts and jack fruit hanging from the trees.

The ride of an elephant is not jarring but there is a fair amount of side-to-side sway. Occasionally both mahouts would stop for a photo opportunity, posing each animal in the obligatory tourist pose that we have seen the world over, with the trunk curled and raised.

At the end of the ride, we found ourselves by the rather thick green waters of the bathing pool. We have swum with elephants before, and knew to some extent what to expect, so we had declined that particular package. However, we stopped to watch a number of brave souls get submerged on top of their elephant. It was very noticeable how the mahouts tried very hard not to get fully immersed in the water, from which full-time staff were continuously fishing large floating turds.


We landed at Denpasar airport with the intention of spending a few days in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. After an easy and friendly Customs clearance, we emerged into the main building, an interesting construction of what appear to be modern glass-and-metal tubes running through the decoratively carved red stone gates and walls of an old temple, although in fact the entire structure was recently built as a whole, due to a local bylaw that states that all buildings must have at least some elements of traditional architecture.

Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport
Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport

Our driver arrived and loaded us into his car. The capital city around the airport is scattered with extremely impressive and flamboyant sculptures of heroic scenes from Hindu mythology, sometimes the size of buildings.    The traffic reminded us of downtown Kuala Lumpur, if not India, with families of three and four on little scooters passing us on either side, the ladies often riding side-saddle.

As we reached the outskirts of Ubud, we started to see mopeds carrying entire pop-up food stalls, and in one memorable case, the pillion was steadfastly carrying at full vertical arm’s length not one, but two intact car windscreens.

Out here, there appeared to be at least one temple every few hundred metres, all intricately carved towers and gates. It wasn’t until much later that we realised that these were not temples but regular houses, because every house has at least one “home shrine”, and it is not unusual to have many more.

A Hindu home shrine near Ubud
A home shrine (or two) in the garden

The roadside was packed with artisans, not only a bewildering number of stone-masons who seemed largely to have the same repertoire of metre-high Hindu gods, but also quarry stonemasons with enormous piles of hand-cut volcanic rock, and wood merchants with sections of hard-wood tree wider than the spread of your arms.

Woodworker teaching his son in Ubud
Passing on the family business

Our hotel comprises a number of thatched chalets scattered amongst rice paddies, coconut palms, and endless statues and flowering trees. It was very picturesque. Our chalet boasted a family-size kidney-shaped stone tub, and an enormous solid wood four-poster bed with thick cotton mosquito-netting.

Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud
Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud

The staff were very friendly, very relaxed, yet very focussed on making the place look beautiful. Hinduism is the major religion here, and so there is a continual whirl of colour as small baskets of flowers and food are placed thrice daily before each of the ubiquitous shrines, and every day new flowers are tucked into crevices on the myriad stone statues.

Every morning, we were woken to the sound of sweeping, as the staff combed the site for fallen frangipani and other tree flowers, gathering them for use during the day.

Collecting fallen flowers to decorate Hindu shrines and statues yin Ubud.
The morning flower collection
Tropical carpenter bee Xylocopa latipes
Flowers being visited by a tropical carpenter bee, one of the largest bees in the world.

We had hired a driver for the week, Komang from Abracadabra Tours. He had planned a thorough itinerary from which we cherry-picked the more toddler-friendly options.

One day, he took us to see the volcano. This was not Mt Agung, which is famously still erupting and out-gassing, but Mt Batur which hasn’t done anything much since the sixties, although it is still classed as active. We understand that the trek to the top to see the sunrise is a popular pastime, and in the past we would have done that ourselves, but on this occasion we took the child-friendly option and planned to view the peak and the caldera from a ridge-top restaurant.

From the moment that we left Ubud, the road climbed steadily. It was a striking drive, because the flags were still flying from the recent Independence Day celebrations.

The road up from Ubud took us from the sea-level rice-paddies and banana palms, to the higher altitude orange plantations. We stopped at a roadside shack to buy some small sweet tangerines, and also a handful of hard-skinned purple fruit that we ate by sucking out the pith, not completely unlike a pomegranate in flavour.  Possibly they were a kind of passion fruit, but nobody we asked seemed to know what they were called. One great hit, though, was the snake fruit, so-called because of its scaly skin, which had lovely firm white flesh reminiscent of a lychee.

We were glad that we’d stopped at the roadside vendor to enjoy the fruit, because when we got to the viewpoint (roadside entry fee applies), there was only a dodgy buffet to eat in the supposed restaurant, on wobbly chairs overlooking a cloud-shrouded peak in the far distance.

The volcano Mt Batur
The volcano Mount Batur, from the “restaurant” lookout.

Somewhat underwhelmed both intellectually and gustatorily, we drove back down the mountain to visit another tourist destination, the Kellalalang terraced rice-paddy fields, which seemed like an odd idea because we’d been driving through and walking around terraced paddy fields for the whole day.

Nevertheless, it was one of the region’s attractions, so we drove up to the village (an inevitable roadside entry fee applied) and entered the village. It consisted of a single road lined with wall-to-wall retail outlets all selling exactly the same tat, looking down on what obviously used to be rice paddies but were now an exceedingly well-worn set of concrete steps interspersed with over-priced cafes, children selling postcards, and what seemed to be a recent craze of rope swings slung between palm trees. We handed over our ‘donation’ and clambered down the track, past more child card-sellers and photo-opportunity “rice farmers”, and then, confronted by another donation booth, clambered back up to the retail outlets.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Tegallalang Rice Terraces

We’d arranged to meet Komang at the driver’s car park a little out of town, and when we arrived we were confronted with a large government sign which warned against the locals soliciting donations, and strongly recommended not descending into the paddies as it “destroyed the unique heritage site”. It would have been nice to have known that ahead of time.

Donation for trekking and taking photos at Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Another donation booth

One morning, we booked ‘breakfast with the orang-utans’ at Bali zoo. On our arrival, we were ushered into an outdoor area filled with trestle tables, with a couple of ropes looped overhead for a young orang-utan, and a couple of elephants leaning in over a low fence.

Breakfast with the Orang-Utan
Breakfast with the Orang-Utan

It was quite fun. As well as the usual buffet food, there were short-order chefs sorting out omelettes and so on, and the opportunity to get up from the table and hang out with the orang-utan, elephants, parrots, and even a somewhat nervous pangolin.

Breakfast with the elephant
Breakfast with the elephant

Later we toured the zoo itself, which tended heavily to Sumatran and Benghal  Tigers, and a wide selection of gibbons. It was quite pretty and the animals seemed in good shape. One nice touch was that all the enclosures were decorated with rock-carvings and the ubiquitous pillar shrines of the rice paddies.

Tiger and small girl
Breakfast with the human

One great aspect of Bali was the ready availability of seriously good massage. Wherever we went, there was always somebody who could come to your room, or drive you to their spa, and then for a handful of notes subject you to a wonderful 90 minutes of pounding and squeezing.

Another facet of the culture is that if you have a car, then you are a driver for hire. Haggling with an official taxi driver outside a water-park one day, we were interrupted by a worker at the park who was going home in his tangerine-and-purple hot-hatch, and offered to drop us off at our hotel for whatever price we cared to pay.

There was no benefit in taking a “proper” taxi anyway. On another day, it started to rain while we were in downtown Ubud. Suddenly all the previously ubiquitous kerbside taxi-touts dissolved out of sight, but we stopped a passing official cab. Once we’d agreed on a price, the driver set off firmly in the wrong direction. It turned out that not only did he not know our hotel, but he didn’t even know the road it was on (ie the main street past Ubud museum), and in any case he didn’t seem to know which way his taxi was pointing.

He had two GPS units but one wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to be able to use the other one. Finally Bronwyn fired up her own GPS and gave him directions, but at every turn he shook his head and demurred “one way” although it clearly wasn’t, until he smiled in shocked amazement when we popped out on the main street, facing in the correct direction.

Taj Mahal

We were up and out at half past five in the morning for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Although they were clearly geared up for large numbers of tourists, there were only a few dozen people in sight, and no queues.

Touts for rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tongas clustered around, insisting that the entrance to the Taj was over a kilometre away, which of course it wasn’t. We took a tonga anyway, a carriage drawn by an old and skinny horse with an uneven gait,and were relieved to find that the journey was only a few bone-jarring hundreds of metres around the next corner.

All aboard the Tonga Express
All aboard the Tonga Express

Intensive handbag checkpoint
Intensive handbag checkpoint

After being frisked and scanned through yet another security check, we ran a small gauntlet of prospective guides and photographers. In the end we allowed a particularly persistent photographer to attach himself to our group on the grounds that he didn’t want any money unless we chose to buy his photographs.

It was first light, very humid and sticky. The Taj loomed mysteriously from the mist. It is obvious why it’s regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. It really is quite beautiful.

The Royal Gate
The Royal Gate

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate
First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Royal Gate

The Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) is a mausoleum, built in the early 17th Century as Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife. It stands in an elaborate garden containing four reflecting pools, and is flanked by a mosque and a guest house. It has a beautiful dream-like presence that can only be hinted at in photographs.

Probably the classic Taj photo, across one of the reflecting pools

Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo
Tourists (or their photographers) trying to take the classic Taj photo

Our own photographer had us posing here, posing there, with madam, without madam, standing up here, sitting down there, hands in front, hands behind… Until both Ankur and I cracked at the same moment and cried “Enough!”

Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot
Ankur, Tanu and Amaira are posed for a shot

Bronwyn is slotted into place for another classic
Bronwyn is slotted into place for yet another photo

After we’d got rid of the photographer, we had a pleasant and uninterrupted wander around the grounds. As we approached the Taj itself, we realised that it is much bigger than its ethereal looks convey.

Ankur, Tanu, Amaira and Bronwyn approach the looming Taj
Approaching the looming wall of the Taj Mahal

Reflections of Tanu and Ankur
Tanu and Ankur reflected in the pool

The interior, while encrusted like everything else with inlaid semi-precious stones, is a simple dark open space containing the sarcophagi of the king and his wife. It has an amazing echo, and although there were only a handful of us moving quietly and respectfully around the tombs, the dome amplified the sound to a multitude of hundreds. It must be really loud in there during the peak tourist season.

Inside the dome of the Red Mosque
Inside the dome of the Red Mosque

Looking out over the Yamuna River
Looking out over the Yamuna River

Exploring the upper level courtyard
Exploring the upper level courtyard

Every tiniest detail is intricately carved
Every tiniest detail is intricately carved

Sweepers work continually to clear the marble courtyards
Sweepers work continually to clear the immense marble courtyards

As the sun started to beat down and the tourists began to flood in, we took our leave. On the way out, we dropped into the photographer’s stall and discovered to our surprise that his pictures were rather good, so we bought them. Then we ran the gauntlet of marble trinket salesmen and, avoiding the clamouring tonga touts, made our way back to the hotel for a pre-breakfast nap.

The Road to Agra

We planned to do a circular tour around Northern India, and our Punjabi friends Ankur and Tanu wanted to come too, because they’d never had a chance to be tourists in their home country. In true hospitable Indian fashion, Ankur instantly arranged a car and driver to take us all on a huge arc through Rajisthan and Punjab.

After a full day of exploring Old Delhi, we woke refreshed at our hotel. I was keen to have dosa for breakfast, a traditional South Indian pancake, but the chef, aware that I am a coeliac, warned me that his version contained wheat flour. Then he cheerfully made up a new batch from pure gram flour, and served it with spicy potatoes and a fiery sambar soup.

After this most excellent start to the day, we caught a taxi to meet our driver, Happy, who would be doing all the hard work for the next few days.

Together with Tanu, Ankur and five-month-old Amaira, we piled into Happy’s people-carrier and hit the road for Agra.

Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. There are few road signs in India, and the accepted method of navigation is to shout questions out of the window. Even then, it seems to be part of the Indian psyche to make something up or to tell you what you might want to hear, rather than to admit that you don’t know. We therefore took a straw poll of half a dozen rickshaw drivers before finding two answers that  matched.

These guys are probably lost too
These guys are probably lost too

Eventually we found the toll road, and apart from the regular police checkpoints (security fencing across the road that constrict the traffic into a slalom but which are otherwise ignored), we seemed to be the only vehicle moving, something of a shock after navigating the crowded streets of Delhi.

On either side of the highway, boggy land was being drained and the clay dug out and fired into bricks in the hundreds and hundreds of little kilns spread out across the landscape.

Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra
Brick kilns between Delhi and Agra

The clay was being dug to a depth of about a metre, with walls left standing around every square acre or so. It looked as if water (and perhaps night soil) was then being pumped into each rectangular plot, which was then being planted with crops. The produce was later stored in thatched and mud huts.

Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi
Thatched huts on the outskirts of Delhi

Eventually we arrived in Agra, where the traffic was just as chaotic as in Delhi. All we had was the postal address of the hotel, so Happy navigated by asking people every few miles if they’d heard of it.

Traffic in Agra
Traffic in Agra

The randomness of the answers intimated that nobody had, but we passed many miles of shack hostels leaning up against local shops, before passing through an area of impressive government offices, which opened out into a sprawling confection of turrets and crenellations which turned out to be our hotel, The Grand Agra.

The Grand Agra Hotel
One small wing of the Grand Agra Hotel

As well as the now familiar check for car bombs (a mirror on a stick under the chassis, and a poke around under the bonnet), we also had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer, and watch as our luggage was unloaded through an airport X-Ray machine, before being allowed to check in. Once Inside, the hotel was impressively palatial, and indeed at one end they were building a ‘presidential suite’ with its own helipad and views over the Taj Mahal.

Grounds of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite under construction in the centre
Gardens of the Grand Agra, with the Presidential Suite (the brown bit) under construction in the centre

We had originally intended to visit the Taj at sunset, but we would have had to rush to get to the ticket office before it closed, so we decided to go at dawn the following day, giving us the excuse to relax with some pleasant beers in the bar as the sun went down.

Not a bad little bar, this
Not a bad little bar, this

Later we ate a splendid meal at the restaurant, which we had to ourselves apart from a legion of waiters and a sitar player. Very very stuffed, we waddled out into the darkness and through the water garden to our rooms, surprising a trio of men with rifles who are presumably the night watch.

Old Delhi

What can I say about driving in old Delhi? There are cars and trucks and rickshaws everywhere, all mixed up with pedestrians and bicycles and porters. There are no valid road markings and few signs. Horns sound continuously, but not in anger, just to alert other drivers that you are inches behind them, because nobody uses mirrors.

A minor discussion about negotiating a junction
A minor discussion while negotiating a junction

Bronwyn and I had just emerged from Red Fort with our friends Ankur and Shalu, who had engaged a couple of rickshaws to take us all on a sight-seeing tour of the old town. Our driver was brilliant, pedalling us up and down the tiniest of soukh alleyways, panting and puffing under what I imagined to be the unexpected weight of two tall westerners. However, while waiting at the top of a particularly steep hill, our driver laughed good-naturedly at his colleague labouring along behind us, because neither Ankhur nor Shalu are particularly tiny either.

Struggling uphill
Struggling uphill

Some rickshaws are tidier than others
Some rickshaws are older than others

Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi
Rickshaw traffic in Old Delhi

Downtown traffic
Downtown traffic

Porters at work
Porters at work

Pile 'em high
Pile ’em high

Room for one more
Room for one more

We visited a thousand-year old temple with hundred-year old mosaics, belonging to a strict Hindu sect that didn’t allow any leather inside. Shalu volunteered to stay outside with our shoes, belts and bags while an elderly toothless monk showed us around. We couldn’t take any photos inside either, but it was an old space filled with kitchen cupboards and old chairs, with occasional rather spectacular mosaics and sculptures. Overall it was a very nice little temple.

The street of the old temple
One of these door leads to the old temple

This lass was ironing on the street outside
This lass was ironing on the street outside the temple

We had a good time at the spice soukh, chatting to the merchants who were more than happy to allow us to taste their wares and let us take photos of their produce. We stocked up on chai tea and some really good quality spices.

At the Old Delhi spice soukh
At the Old Delhi spice soukh

Our rickshaw drivers then took us up some rickety stairs above the market, past tatty-looking legal offices and stepping over sleeping people (there are sleeping people everywhere) to the rooftops where we had an unrivaled view of the old city. Locals were having a good laugh flying kites from the roof, it was a relatively cool and breezy place to hang out.

The rooftops of the spice market
The rooftops of the spice market

High above Old Delhi
Climbing up above Old Delhi

I guess this stuff eventually falls to earth
I guess all this stuff eventually falls to earth

Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque
Looking down on an Old Delhi mosque

Man at work behind the Spice Market
Man at work behind the Spice Market

We were starting to feel more than a little hungry, so Ankur asked the drivers to drop us at Karim’s, a famous restaurant catering for “non-vegetarians”. Karim’s consists of an open-air triangle bounded by tiny cafes on each side. We were led up a wooden staircase to a balcony above the kitchen, where we were served some of the best Indian food that I have ever tasted. Mutton Queerma (Korma), an incomparable Butter Paneer, and an awesome and apparently nameless rice dish.

As evening drew in, Tanu arrived in her car with six-month-old Amaira, and drove us out to New Delhi to see the nightly water show at the temple of Akshardham. It took us some time to make sense of the mass of milling and excited bodies by the ticket office, being herded here and there by whistling and shouting security guards, before we realised that we didn’t need a ticket at all if we didn’t want to visit the temple building, which anyway was just closing. There was however an enormous list of banned articles, including cameras and phones, food and drink, any kind of bag, and some odd things such as USB drives and, amusingly, ‘drunkards’.

This meant in turn that there was another immense jostling crowd for the cloakroom, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting as people tried to store their bags. Instead we dropped all our prohibited items back at the car and joined the queue for the queue for the security check. There was still lots of pushing and shouting and attempts at queue-jumping, but in an amiable kind of way with lots of laughter. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the security guards at the head of the queue lifted a rope and everybody surged forward, sprinting to join the back of the next queue.

Here people were separated by whistling guards into separate lines, who maintained order by solidly body-checking anybody who tried to change queues. Eventually we made our way through the scanners and into the temple gardens, which were very serene and scattered with water features and sculptures of mythological figures.

As dusk fell, we were herded gently out of the gardens into the main courtyard of the temple itself, an incredibly impressive recent building built mainly by volunteers from pink stone and white marble.

With Shalu, Amaria, Ankur and Tanu at Akshardam
Akshardham tourist photo with Shalu, Amaira, Ankur and Tanu

The courtyard consisted of a wide area of pools and fountains, and we found a place to sit amongst the families perched around the low retaining walls. As darkness fell, the ceremony began with blessings accompanied by a large swinging brazier of flame. Then the music began, synchronised with playing fountains underlit by dancing coloured lights and lasers. The crowd stilled, and we all stared in awe. It was beautiful, haunting and mesmeric, a gorgeous spectacle. There is a short promotional video here which doesn’t do it justice.

After the half-hour show, the main temple opened to non-ticket holders, so we left our shoes at the front desk and wandered in. It is very impressive, and to my Western eyes reminiscent of walking into a large cathedral but with the statues of saints replaced by swamis. The temple was built by the richest sect in India, and it shows. Every surface is intricately carved and gilded, and instead of a golden Buddha, there is a statue of the man himself. Around the walls, colourful mosaics depict scenes from the Swami’s life, revealing a pleasant man doing a lifetime of nice things before dying peacefully of old age. Compared to other religions, his is certainly a pleasant and refreshing story.

Red Fort

There was a very long queue for tickets at the Red Fort in Delhi, but we noticed that there was a sign above the desk that read ‘Gentlemen’. It turned out that there was another queue designated ‘Ladies’ with only two people in it, so Bronwyn nipped over to get our tickets.

The Indian flag flies above the entrance to Red Fort
The Indian flag flies above the Lahani Gate

Entering the Lahari Gate
Entering the Lahari Gate

Although the fort is essentially a series of ruins containing a small museum and some tourist shops, it is guarded by soldiers in sand-bagged machine-gun nests. Once we were past the security check at the Lahari Gate, we found ourselves in a covered courtyard which once housed a silk and jewellery bazaar for the royal household of the Mughal era, but which now holds somewhat more prosaic emporia.

The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar
The slightly unglorious Chhatta Chawk bazaar

Entrance tunnel
The entrance to the Chhatta Chowk arcade

The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall
The Diwan-i-Aam, or public audience hall

An impressively scalloped audience hall led us out into the main body of the fort, and through another gate under the Drum House, an impressively sculpted building – now a museum – where musicians used to play. Only royalty are allowed to ride through the gate, but luckily we had neglected to bring our horses with us.

The Naubat Khana, or Drum House

The gate under the Naubat Khana. Only royalty were allowed to ride through.
The gate under the Naubat Khana.

Inside the main fort complex are a scattering of harem and palace buildings, all beautifully decorated with carved marble, along with numerous ponds, fountains and channels, one of which runs right through the harem. Although these are currently dry (and now provide seating for security guards), it must have been quite a paradise in its day. In fact a pair of archways to the Hall of Private Audience are inscribed “If heaven can be on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)
Inlaid mosaics in the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Diwan-i-Khas interior

Cooling water would have run through the Rang Mahal

Hanging out with Ankur, outside the harem
Hanging out with Ankur while they renovate the harem (this could take some time)

The centre of the fort is taken up by the ‘Life-Bestowing Garden’, originally 200 square feet of gardens, but these were destroyed during the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. All that is left is a dry reservoir with a marble pavilion at each end and a red sandstone building, the Zafar Mahal, in the middle.

The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)
The Zafar Mahal, a late addition to the central reservoir of the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh (Life-Bestowing Garden)

We were beginning to gasp in the unrelenting dry heat surrounded by all these memories of cool running water, so we retraced our steps through the bazaar, and headed out into Old Delhi for lunch.

Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur

We were hanging out at The Andaman, our favourite luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi off northern Malaysia, and we needed to get to Kuala Lumpur in the south. Since we we had just come off the Trans-Siberian through Russia, Mongolia and China, we decided to continue by surface transport instead of flying.

But first, several days of luxury at the wonderful Andaman, always our home from home when we pass through this region.

The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel
The Andaman is truly a rain forest hotel

Tempted to have a cocktail?
Tempted to have a cocktail?

The table is laid for dinner
The table is laid for dinner

Our friend Kim had flown in from Thailand, and we whiled away the time swimming in the balmy sea, paddling kayaks around Datai island, eating perfectly prepared cuisine and drinking far too many cocktails and bottles of wine. Bliss.

Kim circumnavigating Datai Island
Kim circumnavigating Datai Island

One interesting feature of Datai Bay is the remains of the fringing reef, which was smashed in a storm some years ago. The broken pieces all washed up in the shallows near to the beach, and each piece settled down to become a mini-reef of its own. There are staff whose job it is to wade out into the debris every day, collecting specimens and putting them in an artificial reef behind the hotel. This acts as a breeding ground and hatchery, with the ultimate intention of rebuilding the original fringing reef. In the meantime, if you are careful you can wade out at low tide and see reef life that you would normally not see without diving gear.

The eyes of a clam embedded in a coral head
The eyes of a clam peeping out from inside a head of coral

An anenome on the fringing reef
An anenome on a broken fragment of reef

Eventually we had to to return to real life, so we dropped Kim at the airport and headed down to the quay for the first leg of our journey, the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. We waited in the terminal and watched the approaching front of a gathering rain storm. As the heavens opened, our gate opened, and the terminal degenerated into semi-organised mayhem. The 300 or so of us who were lucky enough to have boarding passes pushed down the cramped gangway, stacking our luggage in a pile at the front of the cabin, and crammed into our plastic-clad seats.

Outside in the fog we could see a queue of other ferries being pummelled by the waves as they waited for us to clear the dock. The crew hurled more and more packages aboard as still more passengers arrived, screaming into their mobile phones. Even as we cast off and pulled away, a steady stream of new arrivals were still leaping aboard, stevedores flinging their luggage unceremoniously onto the roof of the cabin.

A line of arrivals waiting for the dock
A line of arrivals waiting for the dock

We’d noticed previously that the forward end of both passenger decks were protected by rows of welded steel plates, and we soon found out why. As we hit the rolling swell, the bow buried itself deep into the quartering sea. The pilot did a great job of zig-zagging to try to give us a more pleasant ride, but inevitably on each turn we were pushed back under water.

After three and a half hours of corkscrew progress, we disembarked into warm rain and humped our packs up to our favourite Georgetown hotel, the Yeng Keng. Since our last visit they’d built a cafe on one side of the courtyard, and – damp and hungry – we snuck in five minutes before closing and scoffed a very satisfying Malaysian meal washed down with white wine.

The sidewalks of Penang
The covered sidewalks of Georgetown

Detail of a temple archway
Detail of a temple archway in Penang

After a good sleep and an enormous breakfast (two complete servings of Nasi Lemak, and why not?), we headed out into the stunning heat and humidity for the short walk back to Georgetown jetty. We were had been on the car ferry to Butterworth before, and it is pleasant to stand in the open structure of the car deck and feel the warm wind on your face as it makes the short and scenic journey across to the Malay Peninsula. It’s even nicer because, in this direction, travel is free.

Approaching Butterworth
Approaching Butterworth

Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at the dock
Colourful Penang car ferries lined up at Butterworth dock

We had already purchased first class rail tickets from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur, so we ambled unhurriedly in the direction of the rail terminal. The station turned out to be closed for redevelopment, and we were redirected to a temporary structure which was largely closed. After a little searching, we found a small courtyard bar, which was also closed. However, the ceiling fans were running over the battered trestle tables, and there was a snack stall so we settled in to wait with some cans of soft drink.

There were a couple of cafes fronting the courtyard, both firmly closed with rolling shutters. While we sat there, the owner of one of them arrived and cracked open his shutter, pouring a tray of food in front of the gap. A whole family of cats and kittens emerged and began to eat, presumably this was his answer to any possible rodent problem in his stores.

Some local kids came and sat nearby, complaining to each other about their parents’ backward attitudes, and how they wouldn’t allow their children to get ahead. It was intriguing, but we never found out what they were talking about because it was time to head back to the temporary station, which had just opened. It was full of disgruntled passengers who had been told that the daily train to Bangkok had been cancelled and had been replaced by a bus service. Frankly I wouldn’t have complained, as we gathered that the reason that the service had been cancelled was that it had been derailed.

Boarding our own train, we found ourselves in one of those rather tired and battered carriages which are typical in Malaysia. Travelling first class just means that you get an assigned seat, and a pretty girl who brings you water and a piece of cake when you board. However, our seats were at the front of the carriage with copious leg room, and thankfully the flat screen TV did not seem to be working. This was fantastic news because usually they run a loud and endless loop of irritating advertising jingles.

We settled back to enjoy the ride as we travelled the entire length of the Malay peninsula. The windows were actually too dirty to see through, but by scrunching down in doorways I could get a reasonable view of this beautiful, fertile, and above all jungle country.

Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah
Mangrove islands on Kolam Bukit Merah

Arriving finally in Kuala Lumpur, we immediately headed out for food, and were once again stunned by the Malaysian attention to cuisine. A simple bowl of chips is a thing of beauty, and once you settle down to a good fish dish, you’ll never come up for air.

A simple bowl of chips in a roadside bar. Beautiful.
A simple bowl of chips at a roadside bar. Beautiful.

Suitably refreshed, we finished our trip at our favourite KL bar, the Hap Seng Belgian Beer Cafe. It’s not overwhelmingly beautiful and there isn’t much to see apart from passing traffic, but the stools are comfortable, the staff are attentive and the beer is perfect. What more could you ask for?

Under the Petronas Towers
Under the Petronas Towers

At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe
At our favourite KL bar, the Brussels Beer Cafe

Trans-Manchurian Express to Beijing

Boarding the Trans-Manchurian Express in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).

We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.

The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.

The endless steppe, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
The endless steppe

We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.

And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…

At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.

Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.

Jacking up the Trans-Manchurian Express
Jacking up the train to release the old bogie
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.

The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.

Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.

Stone terraces along the Yongding River, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
Stone terraces along the Yongding River
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera's GPS wasn't working
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera’s GPS wasn’t working at the time

The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.

Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.

Beijing railway station in the smog, terminus of the Trans-Manchurian Express
Beijing railway station in the smog

Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.

On the Steppe

We had been keen to get some first hand experience of Mongolian yurts, because we’ve been toying with the idea of building one on our property in Tasmania. Since we were already in Ulaanbaatar, we headed 50km out onto the steppe to spend a few days at Elstei Ger Lodge. That was our first lesson; in Mongolia, yurts are called gers.

Mongolian yurt, or ger
Mongolian yurt, or ger

Our home for the next few days consisted of about a dozen yurts spread out across the flat grassy steppe. Each yurt contained three brightly painted wooden beds inset with drawers, a few small pieces of painted wooden furniture, and a central wood-burning stove.

Ger interior with typical bright paintwork
Ger interior with typical bright paintwork

The sun shone and the steppe was beautiful and so very quiet and peaceful. It is very fertile from horse dung, and far from being simply grass, the flora is a vibrant mix of green plants and fungi. Insects abound, particularly a cricket that makes a clicking sound as it flies. One of my favourite pastimes was to walk about a quarter of a mile out of the camp, in any direction, and to simply stand still and absorb the silence.

The Mongolian steppe, it goes on forever
The Mongolian steppe, it seems to go on forever

The Ger Lodge had attracted an interesting and eclectic bunch of travellers, and one night, after the bar closed, the hard core of us carried all the remaining beer and a considerable quantity of vodka back to our yurt for an after-party. I don’t think that anybody really remembers the whole night, but there was some wild dancing to our portable ipod speaker, a certain amount of lying-in-the-grass-and-staring-at-the-stars, and at least one lengthy who-can-think-of-the-best-toast competition.

I'm pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken
Partying with Gar and Tony, Cheryl and Amy. I’m pretty certain that none of us remember this photo being taken.

We mainly missed breakfast but brushed up OK for lunch, which comprised of mutton accompanied by vegetables from the Lodge’s garden and greenhouse. The meals were cooked and served by enthusiastic local students, and it was impressive the number of ways they found to prepare different and tasty dishes from a limited range of ingredients.

The days were spent in a happy haze of sitting in the sun, playing with balls and bows and arrows, and just wandering off and standing staring into the distance, admiring the views and the horses running free across the landscape. In the evenings, the bar had a selection of traditional Mongolian board games, including the intense “Pentagon” which is played on four rotating boards.

One afternoon, Oggi our guide took us riding out to meet some friends of hers who live in a ger out on the plains, with their children and horses. They welcomed us into their home, which was not dissimilar to the yurts that we were staying in, and introduced us to fermented mare’s milk (a bit like scrumpy. Yum!), mare’s curd (not unlike clotted cream), and a curious biscuit made entirely of mare’s cheese that had been dried in the sun (not unlike a parmesan-flavoured cracker).

Our lovely guide, Oggi
Our lovely guide, Oggi
Local family at home in their yurt
Local family at home in their yurt

The Mongolian saddle looks a bit like a Western saddle, and the reins are held one-handed. To move off or accelerate, you say “Choo!”, and to canter you simply stand up in your stirrups. On the way out I had a bit of a stubborn horse which was moodily intent on following the tail directly ahead of it, but on the way back I had nice feisty one which was happy to go exploring, bounding over tussocks and sandy dunes. Out in front, I was able to briefly fancy that my steed and I were riding at the head of a vast Mongol horde, thundering across the steppe. But possibly my horse was just keen on getting home for dinner.


Having arrived in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, we met Oggi, our guide for the next few days, who took us out on an orientation walk. We began at the grand Sukhbaatar Square, named in honour of the founding member of the Mongolian People’s Party who was largely responsible for the switch from Chinese to Soviet rule, and whose statue stands in the centre.

Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar
Sukhbaatar Square

Some visiting dignitaries were expected, which explained the red carpets and the honour guard outside the parliament building.

Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie
Even visiting dignitaries need to take a selfie

Away from the pomp of Sukhbaatar Square, it is obvious that the city is quite poor, with rotting buildings and rutted roads, unsurprising given its recent history of economic occupation by first the Chinese and then the Russians. Looking around, it’s obvious that the main industry is anglophone tourism from the Trans-Siberian railway. Many shop signs are in English, and it seems that every corner has its karaoke, ‘Irish’ or ‘London’ pub. Mind you, we did try an ‘Irish’ bar and it had none of the usual fake tat, in fact it was really just a high-end Mongolian bar with a Western name, and therefore much more pleasant than we expected.

The next stop on our little tour was the Gandantegchinlen monastery, destroyed (along with most Mongolian Buddhist sites) by the communists in the 1930s but rebuilt when the Russians left in 1990. The original copper and gold buddha was taken to Russia and melted down, but it has been replaced by a 26.5 metre gilt copper statue, the Migjid Janraisig, which stands inside an impressive purpose-built temple.

Photography is not allowed inside the temple, but once through the door, we found ourselves in a huge space held up by four gaily painted tree trunks, surrounding the enormous buddha. Wooden terraces cling to the inside of the walls on several levels. As we circled the statue in the approved pilgrim’s direction (clockwise), hundreds of statuettes of Yush, the buddha of longevity, stared at us from stacks of shelves to our left. Each carving is different, and each is dressed in a different coloured cloak, representing the inevitability of ageing.

On our right, between us and the great buddha, stood a great many brass prayer wheels, constantly in motion as visitors give them a boost as they go past. Some are quite elaborate with projecting handles, but most are simple cylinders which are spun with the flat of the hand.

Outside the temple are the impressive golden feet that are all that remain of the original buddha statue.

Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Ulaanbaatar
Roof detail at Gandantegchinlen Monastery

On the outskirts of the city stands the Soviet-era Zaisan Monument, which we climbed for great views of the city. It was built to honour the Russian casualties of World War 2, but also has friezes commemorating peace-time comradeship between the USSR and Mongolia.

Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument, Ulaanbaatar
Soviet mosaic on the Zaisan Monument

Looking down on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar from this viewpoint, it is clear that major construction is going on, which Oggi told us was all new housing.

Ulaanbaatar cityscape, showing construction in the foreground
Ulaanbaatar cityscape, withconstruction in the foreground including a huge new buddha

As soon as we left the monument, our bus got mired in traffic. I’ve seen a lot of traffic jams all over the world, but I’ve never seen quite so many cars packed into such a small space, inching along with only millimetres between them. Incredibly, there were people trying to hitch lifts and even hailing taxis from the side of the road, but the traffic wasn’t going anywhere and it would have been much faster to walk the short distance into town.

Eventually our driver fought free of the gridlock and turned onto one of Mongolia’s few graded roads. This is a bit of a misnomer, as it must be decades since it was last surfaced, and it has now decayed beyond any reasonable use. Traffic streams in both directions, but across the full two-lane width of the road there is often only space to get one vehicle between the pot-holes at a time, so the traffic consists of a wildly zig-zagging single line of cars and trucks heading in opposite directions. In places the road is so bad that the line snakes off into the increasingly boggy grassland before returning to the highway.

One of the better sections of highway out of Ulaanbaatar.
One of the better sections of highway. On the bad bits, I couldn’t hold the camera steady.

We were out here to visit the Chinggiskhan (Ghengis Khan) Monument, an amazing 40 metre stainless steel statue on top of a 10 metre museum complex dedicated to the Mongolian Empire and the Khans who ruled it.

At its height, the Empire spanned most of Eastern Europe and almost all of Asia including China and Japan. The museums contain artefacts from over 100 years of turbulent history, most of them bronze weapons and tools, along with fascinating descriptions and maps. While we were examining the contents of the second museum, deep inside the main structure, there was a power cut and everything went dark. The staff all had torches and were unsurprised and well organised, but our visit to the museums was over.

However, the building was still full of visitors who had not yet climbed up to the viewing platform on the horse’s head. The lift had obviously stopped, and the stairs that run up inside the stainless steel statue were in complete darkness. Nevertheless, we formed an international human chain, and with the help of cigarette lighters and mobile phones and not a little humour, we all made it to the top for great views of the statue and of the surrounding countryside.

With Chinggiskhan in the rain
With Chinggiskhan in the rain

Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulaanbaatar

The longest arm of the sprawling entity know as the Trans-Siberian railway was built to connect Moscow to Japan via the port of Vladivostok on the eastern coast. However, we had chosen to head south from the major junction at Ulan-Ude, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express which travels down into Mongolia and then on to China.

We had been travelling through Siberia for almost a week. The restaurant car had run out of food, but we had been buying supplies from platform vendors along the way. This had worked just fine for the first part of the trip, but as we approached the Mongolian border the vendors had completely dried up. For some days we had been living on ice cream, beer, and some biltong that was left over in our luggage. By the time we reached the border at Naushki our stomachs were complaining loudly.

Mongolia ahoy! Aboard the Trans-Mongolian Express
Mongolia ahoy!

We knew that 215 minutes had been set aside for customs formalities on the train, so we sat quietly waiting for the customs officers to arrive in our compartment, wondering if there was possibly any nourishment to be had from the curtains, or perhaps from our boots. When the Russian emigration officials arrived, we glumly handed over our passports, to be cheerily told that because we didn’t have any documentation, we were now free to leave not only the train, but the station.

Not pausing to argue with this perhaps unique official viewpoint, we ran for the door and joined the stream of hungry travellers barrelling down the platform. A farmer’s market had been cleverly set up just outside the gates, and we descended on it like locusts. We then spotted a little café where I laid into a very satisfying meat borscht followed by a stack of pork chops and onions. Fantastic.

After a couple of hours we got back on to the train and were handed our passports. The train moved about fifty metres and stopped. A phalanx of Mongolian immigration officers boarded and began to take the train apart, lifting the floors, pulling down the ceiling panels, and checking under the seats and on the luggage racks. Presumably they were looking for stowaways. Only afterwards did they pay any attention to the passengers and their documents.

I was quite relieved about this, because due to some apparently needless intransigence at the Chinese embassy I had my Russian visa in one passport and my Mongolian and Chinese visas in another one. I had not been looking forward to explaining why I had two passports, because dual nationality is not widely understood in many otherwise civilised countries, but now that I had already retrieved my Australian passport I simply handed over my English one and nobody knew the difference.

An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.
An Australian leaves, and an Englishman arrives. Very James Bond.

Mongolian immigration kept us up well past midnight, but finally the carriage settled down to sleep. For the most part, anyway: the two conductresses who run our carriage spent much of the night running up and down the corridor shouting and laughing and randomly opening and then slamming our compartment doors. I can only think that this was some kind of payback for us keeping them awake during our night-time parties (see my previous blog entry).

We had set our alarm for breakfast and woke very confused because although the train was under way, nobody else was stirring. We eventually realised that the train had switched from Moscow time to Ulaanbaatar time. Because the Russian section ignores all the intervening time zone changes, we magically jumped five hours at the Mongolian border, and we had inadvertently set our alarm for 03:00 train time. Back to bed.

At 06:00 we woke to cloudy skies above fields of fenced corrals, each containing a white canvas yurts (known as gers in Mongolia), interspersed with what seems to be stalled Soviet-style construction. We had heard that, since self-determination from Russian rule, 70% of the Mongolian population have abandoned their enforced ‘western’ life-styles and have returned to their traditional nomadic living. There was plenty of evidence of that from the train.

A scattering of gers, viewed from the Trans-Mongolian Express
A scattering of gers on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia’s recent history is not a particularly happy one. The country was ruled from China for some years until it gained a spurious sort of independence by allying itself with the USSR. Unfortunately the only difference in the new regime was that Mongolia’s vast mineral wealth began to head north on the Trans-Siberian railway instead of south. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians wanted to build processing plants on what was effectively occupied territory, preferring instead to transport the cheap raw material back home, where local industries would benefit from processing the low-value ore into high-value commodities.

On gaining true independence in the nineties, Mongolia continued to use the Trans-Siberian to ship unprocessed ore because it didn’t have the cash to invest in its own processing plants. However, we hear that they are making a deal with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto who, in exchange for copper and gold mining rights, have agreed to building processing capacity on site. Hopefully this will start a renaissance in Mongolian fortunes.

We disembarked hungry and dirty in Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop was – blissfully – a local spa where we showered and I had a chance to shave my increasingly unruly beard, before demolishing a buffet breakfast of rice and fruit and eggs. Only then were did we feel ready to go out and sample the delights of the big city.

Ulaanbaatar Central Station
Ulaanbaatar Central Station

Layover in Hong Kong

In order to break up yet another long-haul flight, we decided to hang out in Hong Kong for a few days. After a shaky start (I dropped my laptop in the arrivals hall, completely smashing the screen), we found a hotel shuttle bus and headed out into the city. My first impression was that it felt a bit like Hawaii, which puzzled me until I realised that the similarity lay in the combination of the familiar – the road signs, the cars, the engineering – with the exotic – the Hanzi characters, the huge towers of tiny apartments, the great luxury of the transfer bus that we were in.

Our hotel, the Cosmo in Kow Loon, was a tower of some 20+ storeys crammed with tiny little glass-walled boxes. There is room for a small but comfy bed and a little shower/sink/toilet area walled off with glass. Every surface is mirrored to give the illusion of space, and the outside wall is entirely glass, giving a stunning vista across Mong Kok, the most densely populated area in the world.

Cosmo Hotel in Kow Loon
Cosmo Hotel in Kow Loon

Cosmo Hotel in Kow Loon
Cosmo Hotel in Kow Loon

The rooftops of Mong Kok
The rooftops of Mong Kok

Given that Mong Kok is also famous for its shopping, we dropped in to a dealer to buy a new laptop, and then left them transferring my files while we headed off to explore.

Hong Kong trams are lovely, like skinny London buses with open windows, nice and breezy when they’re not crowded. We took trams all the way down to Causeway Bay, and then all the way back across town to the Peak, content to just sit and watch the world scurry by.

Tram to Happy Valley
Tram to Happy Valley


Bamboo scaffolding
Bamboo scaffolding

Central Hong Kong
Central Hong Kong

Laundry day
Laundry day

We grabbed lunch at a local Chinese eatery, where the waiter was very obliging after he got over his fear that we didn’t know what we were doing. Then we began the long climb up to the cable car station for The Peak.

Waiting for the Peak Tram
Waiting for the Peak Tram

The last time Bronwyn had been here, there was a viewing platform at the top, but now there was an enormous mall and even a Madame Tussauds, with escalators leading up to restaurants and to the new ‘Sky Tower’. The views from the top were very impressive.

Escalators up to the mall
Escalators up to the mall


Looking out from the Peak
Looking out from the Peak

To complete our view of the city, we randomly chose a ferry in the harbour to find out what it looked like at sea-level.

Hong Kong from the water
Hong Kong from the water

Nathan Lane is Kow Loon’s major shopping strip. We went out looking for shoe shops and tailors, but after a couple of hours of fighting off tailor-pimps and wristwatch-pimps in the street, we took refuge in a bar and drank margaritas instead. When we emerged, the bright lights were shining, and we decided that the best vantage point to enjoy them would be across the river in a steak house on the roof of a hotel, where we could order a ‘side dish’ of an Alaskan crab leg to go with our steak.

The lights of Kow Loon
The lights of Kow Loon

A monster glass of Hoegaarden
A monster glass of Hoegaarden

Alaskan crab with your steak, sir?
Alaskan crab with your steak, sir?

A wedding in Langkawi

We were in Kuala Lumpur and were talking about staying on a resort for the last few days of our round-the-world trip, not a type of holiday that we would usually choose, but we were exhausted from the daily changes and felt the need to sit still for a while.

We recalled that a friend had once mentioned the luxury Malaysian island of Langkawi, so without more ado we found ourselves aboard Firefly, a budget airline with a cabin baggage limit so tiny that even our little day sacks had to go in the hold.

Following a quick straw poll of online reviews, we chose the Andaman Resort for pure hedonistic luxury. We did initially plan to visit some other parts of the island, but since the resort was set in acres of thick rainforest in a beautiful sandy bay, we never got up the enthusiasm to leave. We happily spent twelve hours of each night in blissful sleep and the other twelve ambling around on the beach, relaxing by the pool with a book, or enjoying the restaurants and bars scattered throughout the grounds.

Enjoying some freshly prepared Japanese fish
Enjoying some freshly prepared Japanese fish

It was monsoon season, bringing daily rain without affecting the steady tropical warmth. Generally we ignored it, but one night as we sat in the beach bar the staff began setting up for a beach wedding. It seemed a curious choice by the Australian couple because regular squalls were rolling in from the Malacca Strait, and although the wedding was clearly timed to coincide with sunset, the darkening sky was already obscured by scudding clouds.

There's a storm coming
There’s a storm coming

Together with the other bar patrons, we sat with our feet in the warm sand, drinks in hand and protected by a wide-brimmed thatched roof, as we watched the hotel staff struggling to decorate chairs with wind-whipped pandanus leaves. The sound crew were attempting to wrap their gear in plastic bags to protect it from the driving rain, and we wondered why the wedding didn’t simply move to the beautiful little-used marble staircase at one side of the hotel’s immense lobby, which had ample seating and breathtaking views of the storm across the bay.

The awe-inspiring lobby of the Andaman
The awe-inspiring lobby of the Andaman

Nevertheless, the group stubbornly stuck to the program: A wedding on the beach is what they were determined to have.

About an hour after a cloud-enshrouded sunset, after a monsoon squall had drenched the assembled guests despite the hastily dispersed sun umbrellas, the bride and bridesmaids finally made their entrance from where they had been sheltering under a tree. The photographer was having a hard time with the premature dark of the looming thunder clouds, and all the bridesmaids got bunched up while he snapped them, leaving the bride stuck at the back of the queue and standing rather uncomfortably among the amused patrons of the beach bar.

The maid of honour came tearing up the path, shouting for the music to start. The sound crew twiddled knobs and pressed switches, but the soaking equipment produced nothing apart from a little scratchy feedback.

The bridal party finally made it to the front, where the celebrant discovered that his microphone wasn’t working. He put it down and began the ceremony without it, his words and the couples’ responses blown away by the incoming squall and drowned out by the crashing surf only metres from their feet.

The groom looked stunned. The bride looked furious. The maid-of-honour looked incandescent. The squall hit full force, all the umbrellas turned inside out, and night cast a blessed shroud on the proceedings.

Warm and dry in our reed-roofed bar, we all turned back to our drinks.

Georgetown, Penang

Our train pulled in to Butterworth station. Having done no research at all, we vaguely hoped that there might be a hotel nearby, but there didn’t seem to be anything close apart from a dental college. However, we did see a sign pointing to a ferry to Georgetown, so we strolled down to the quay and soon found ourselves in possession of two tickets for the grand price of R1.20, or about forty cents. There was no boat and no obvious timetable, but there were local people sitting about so we settled down to wait.

After not more than twenty minutes, a ferry arrived, so we boarded and sailed off across the calm waters of the Penang Strait. In the distance we could see a cruise ship pulling out of Georgetown. Small dhows behind us on Butterworth beach were festooned with red flashing LED lights in addition to their regular navigation lights, and this combined with a plethora of shore lights must make the otherwise dark Strait quite tricky to navigate. However our little ferry made it to Georgetown in just over quarter of an hour without any problems, and we disembarked. Randomly choosing a road to walk up, we skipped a number of rather dodgy looking hostels until we found a pretty little hotel set back from the street. It was absolutely beautiful inside, and only $75 a night, a little pricey for Malaysia but dirt cheap for us.

Mosaic over the door arch at the Yeng Keng hotel
Mosaic over the door arch at the Yeng Keng hotel

It was late at night, but we’d seen many hawker food stalls on the way up, and the receptionist recommended The Red Garden around the corner. This turned out to be a large courtyard ringed by hawker food stalls, very busy with locals and tourists alike. In the centre was a dance floor and locals salsas, two-stepped and square-danced to a couple singing rock and roll and country tunes. Everybody was having a grand time.

Dancing at the open air market
Dancing at the Red Garden open air market

We chose an eclectic selection of foods including smoked mackerel, tuna sashimi, and some really excellent succulent tempura fish sticks which were described as ‘white tuna’. The only slight irritation were the beer vendors who turned up endlessly as soon as you’d taken a sip from your glass to top it up from the bottle on the table.

Late-night hawker food stalls at the Red Garden
Hawker food stalls at the Red

Some time after midnight the party was still in full swing, but – unusually – we exercised restraint and headed to bed.

The next morning, we enjoyed ourselves doing tourist stuff in Georgetown. It’s an old colonial town with somewhat faded buildings, but the covered walkways bustle with vibrant activity. We enjoyed just strolling around and poking around, deciding that it reminded us a bit of Montevideo. We hunted down a particular bakery that makes only straight finger-like doughnuts, a local delicacy.

Roadside breadstick bakery
Roadside doughnut bakery

Deep-fried bread sticks
Deep-fried doughnut sticks

Typical covered walkways over the storm drains
Typical covered walkways over the storm drains

Pausing to photograph a mosque, we were invited inside by a man who had been charged with spreading the word to non-muslims. Inside the mosque, we donned black cloaks to cover our western nakedness and had an interesting tour, not something that you get to see every day, particularly because Bronwyn was visiting the men’s section. Our guide grumbled a bit through his one remaining tooth, because he didn’t really approve of what he was doing, but since the government had declared his mosque to be a heritage site, he had a mandate to invite tourists.


Minaret of the Georgetown mosque

The door of a temple
The door of a Georgetown temple

We also checked out the unapologetically colonial area around Penang Station, now a Customs house but locally famous as the only station never to have a railway pass through it.

Penang Railway Station (spot the train)
Penang Railway Station (spot the train)

Georgetown clock tower
Georgetown clock tower

The monsoon started and we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, where after a refreshing nap we discovered that the bar was doing a buy-five get-two-free deal. We polished off the requisite number of drinks just as the rain stopped, by which time we were not only a bit squiffy but ravenously hungry. I wanted to try the Old House Restaurant which we had seen on our morning perambulations, and I was ever so glad that we did because every dish was divine, especially my ‘Hong Kong steamed fish’ which was some kind of coral angel fish and was as sweet and tender as anything I’ve eaten.

Mmmm angel fish
Mmmm angel fish

The following morning we had booked several hours at a Malaysian cooking class in the Tropical Spice Garden, a botanical gardens devoted to the spice trade. We knew that we could catch the 101 bus from Georgetown and that our stop would arrive in about three quarters of an hour, but we had no idea about the geographical location of the gardens. Penang is not a very big island so we soon found ourselves on a road that twisted and climbed up and around the shoreline, past endless beaches, fishing dhows, and turtles. In the end, our stop was obvious and well signposted, but of course the friendly driver gave us a wave when we got there anyway.

Penang's Tropical Spice Garden
Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden

Cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and star anise
Cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and star anise

After a guided tour through some of the species that we would be using, we were introduced to our teacher, Nazlina, who soon had us grinding spices and emptying coconuts using ancient traditional methods. Our aim was to make Nasi Goreng, which involves coconut rice, fried anchovies, boiled egg, sambal and cucumber wrapped up into a pyramid of banana leaf.

Bronwyn crushes chillis with a stone maul
Bronwyn crushes chilis with a stone maul

Scrapers for removing the flesh from coconuts
Scrapers for removing the flesh from coconuts

It was great fun, and the four of us in the group took turns to take the meat out of the coconut, smoke the banana leaves to make them flexible, and grind the sambal paste from garlic, galangal, ginger, onion, lemon grass, red chilis and fish meal.

Naza explains
Naza explains

The sous-chef takes command
The sous-chef takes command

Eventually we put all the parts together, with some accidents, into neat pyramidal parcels before settling down to lunch with some beef sambal that we’d knocked up on the side. The perfect end to a perfect morning.

Rolling those leaves is not as easy as it appears!
Our new friend Gretchen finds that rolling those leaves is not as easy as it appears!

Nasi Lemak
Proud of our Nasi Goreng

Kuala Lumpur

We arrived at Malaysia’s LCCT airport late on a Sunday evening with no luggage, no hotel reservations, and a pocket full of Ringits.  Uncharacteristically we had done no research and were just going to play the next two weeks by ear.

The lady at the airport information desk suggested that we catch the No. 6 bus to a nearby station, where we could catch a train into Kuala Lumpur. This proved to be an inexpensive and excellent idea, but on our arrival at KL Sentral we were a bit puzzled to find that the only hotels in the neighbourhood were the Hilton and the Meridien, both well over R600 a night where our budget was a sixth of that. The concierge at the Hilton cleared up the mystery, as KL Sentral station is not central at all, and we needed to catch another train to get to the real main station in the city proper. Bronwyn remembered hearing about a restored Heritage hotel above the main train station, so in the absence of any other plans, we hopped the local Komuter train to see if they had any rooms there.

The hotel was built on the station platform as promised, but the windows were suspiciously dark, and when we eventually found the front door, we discovered that it had chains wrapped around the handles.

A little nonplussed, and aware that all the cafes and coffee shops that we had seen were closing, we stopped at a small street cafe to get something to eat. I picked some hawker food at random from the display of semi-congealed dishes (this place also seemed to be closing down for the night), and found myself with a very hot liver curry and some kind of hot-and-sour smoked fish. Bronwyn ordered some fresh chicken noodles from the counter, and we washed it all down with fresh young coconut juice from the shell.

Halfway through our meal, the power went out and amid some cheers everybody stayed very still in the darkness until one of the chefs found and reset the main fuse.

I asked the waiter what had happened to the Heritage Hotel, and he laughed and said that there were labour problems and that the government had shut it down. He also gave us directions to another suburb where we might find a hotel, but when we climbed into a taxi, the driver poo-pooed the idea and drove us to a hotel in the centre where obviously he got a kick-back, but it seemed clean enough and the driver was content to wait for us to check the room before being paid, so – after running the hot water and air conditioning – we booked in for a couple of days.

After a long and much-needed sleep to beat the jet lag we emerged blinking into the sunlight.  We ambled around the busy streets of KL, mopeds weaving in and out of the traffic. Everybody was cheerful, the women were often beautifully dressed in vibrant colours. Although the city are at least superficially similar to Bangkok, the streets and buildings are clean and nobody pestered us to buy anything. In fact, whenever somebody approached us in the street it was usually to offer helpful advice.

Without much of a plan, we strolled over to the Petronas towers (very impressively shiny) and mooched about in the shopping mall beneath it. The mall was shiny and clean and full of high-end shops, but it is difficult to see why foreigners get so excited by the shopping here because the mall prices are much the same as back home. Food, drink and groceries, on the other hand, are very cheap indeed.

Petronas Towers
Petronas Towers

A well-earned vat of Hoegaarden
A well-earned vat of Hoegaarden

Aware that the daily monsoon was due to start in a few minutes, we popped in to a Belgian bar to wait it out. The rain persisted for an unusually long time, but the Formula 1 was showing on TV, one thing led to another, and it wasn’t until twenty-two beers later that we staggered back out into the night.

Events from then on became blurry, but we do remember playing pool in a nightclub and being propositioned by a prostitute.

A party somewhere in KL
According to my camera, we attended this party somewhere in KL

We vaguely remember the taxi that eventually decanted us into our hotel, where we slept like the dead until checkout time.

Emerging blinking from our Kuala Lumpur hotel, we broke our fast at a nearby cafe. Nasi Lemak is the perfect morning-after food. A big pile of rice, hot sauce, dried fish, boiled egg, nuts and some meat on the side, washed down with ‘Coffee O’ which turned out to be hot, black and sweet.

Feeling much refreshed, we bought some essential supplies – sun tan lotion, insect repellent – and headed for KL Sentral station to see if we could get aboard a train to Penang. We had previously managed to register at the train station website, but Internet bookings were only accepted three days in advance and, having already checked out of our hotel, we were hoping to leave that same day.

Locating a meter taxi – the other kind were working out far too expensive because we don’t know enough about the local area to haggle effectively – we bought a prepaid token, which worked OK except that the driver was convinced that the only reason that a foreigner might want to go to the station was to catch the airport train, and kept trying to convince us that it would be cheaper to travel by taxi.

Kuala Lumpur meter taxi
Kuala Lumpur meter taxi

Kuala Lumpur traffic
Kuala Lumpur traffic

Nevertheless, he did get us to the station in time to purchase a first class ticket half an hour before the afternoon’s departure, which all worked out rather well.

Our first class seats were nice, wide aircraft-style with loads of leg room, just as well because the trip takes over six hours. Every now and then a pretty girl came past handing out complementary cake, sweets and water. The only irritating thing was dreadful music being piped over the PA, sounding a bit like a five year old playing with a mobile phone. Thankfully it eventually also irritated the conductors who were trying to get some sleep in the empty seats behind us, so they turned it down.

For the first hour, the countryside was lush with banana palms interspersed with dwellings ranging from mansions to shacks, often with a backdrop of mine spoil heaps.

During the second hour, the landscape became largely agricultural with occasional paddy fields. Enormous and unlikely-looking hills project steeply upwards here and there, some being whittled down by mining machinery. We passed at least one processing plant, which I gather is for tin.

Three hours in, we were once more treated to the inane electronic music as the train’s infomercial played out on the TV screen at the far end of the carriage. On its fourth loop I had just decided to go and ask the conductors to turn it off when thankfully it started to show a cooking program instead.

Four hours in, and as the sun set pinkly over the distant and misty mountains, we climbed steeply up into the highlands to Tai Ping, passing more mines and refineries on the way.

Five hours in, full dark, and everybody was dozing off. Then the bloody music started up again.


Singapore airport at ten oclock at night. Thirty degrees, and no internet connection so we couldn’t book a hotel. A cluster of people surrounded the airport’s hotel reservation desk and rooms were going fast, but we managed to get one of the last few at the Carlton on the waterfront.

Next step: a taxi. There was the most incredible queue. I counted 1000 people standing in the long snaking line, but a seasoned Singapore traveller behind us recommended sticking with it, and in fact the huge crowd of people was being swiftly decanted into a continually rolling line of taxis by an efficient group of uniformed controllers. We reached the front of the queue, a car was pulled from a fast-moving line and we were ushered firmly into it.

Then commenced a wild ride into the city. As far as I could make out, the rear axle had come adrift from the body shell and the car wavered all over the road, weaving across several lanes on every right-hander. The driver didn’t seem bothered, he just kept the pedal to the floor all the way to the hotel. We stumbled slightly queasily from the irregularly rocking vehicle and made straight for the bar, where we listened to a cover band and drank beer until they closed, whereupon the barman directed us across the street to Chijmes, a courtyard surrounded by bars, where we happily partied with a varied crowd until about five in the morning.

A lie-in on the 25th floor with a view across the skyscrapers and building lots of the city, followed by a pleasant lunch in the hotel lobby, including Bronwyn’s long-awaited first Singaporean laksa.

Finally we wandered out into the humid heat for an amble around town. Having just arrived from China where we had been the centre of attention wherever we went, it was pleasant to blend anonymously into the multicultural blend of people walking the tidy streets.

Sitting on a dock sipping welcome water from a bottle, we were approached by a guy asking us if we were waiting for a boat trip. Unusually, we had done no research prior to our arrival, so we thought that maybe we’d learn something about the history of the country, so we shelled out a few dollars and climbed aboard. It was a traditional “bum boat”, black hull with a wooden awning and eyes painted on the front, one of hundreds that spend their lives chugging up and down the river.

There was indeed a guide, in the form of a tape loop over the loudspeakers, and he spent the next hour or so enthusing about the long and exciting history of Singapore without actually imparting a single solitary fact about it.

On the other hand, we got to see the Singapore lion fish and a lot of pretty architecture.

Eventually, after an enjoyable afternoon giggling at the guide tape, we disembarked at the Old Quay, a riverside restaurant quarter where we stepped over crabs on leashes and were pestered incessantly by waiters touting for business.

Choosing the only restaurant that allowed us to view the menu without harassment, we sat down by the river and began to order. Bronwyn fancied a rogan josh, and asked the waiter if it was likely to be hot.
“Hot?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Bronwyn, “Will it be hot?”
“Hot hot!” he exclaimed, smiling, and disappeared into the bowels of the restaurant, returning with a beautiful repast, including the hottest rogan josh we’ve ever encountered.

We washed it all down with Tiger beer. We needed all the courage we could get before risking the taxi back to the airport.


“Taxi? Meter taxi? Let me take your bag….”
Running the gauntlet of freelance taxi drivers emerging from ever-so-dodgy cars outside Pudong Airport, we fought our way through to the official taxi rank, presided over by a smartly uniformed man with an anti-SARS facemask and a clipboard. He was able to translate our hotel address for the first driver in the queue of identical VW Santanas, and we climbed aboard. The driver, sitting in his perspex protective bubble, crunched into gear and launched into the video game that is Shanghai traffic.

Cars and buses swerved in and out, punctuated by sudden pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, and randomly strewn warning signs. We had no idea where we were going or what to expect, so we simply sat and watched the world race by until we emerged from the city and crossed the Huangpu River into the business district. There, on the waterfront overlooking the Bund, looking like it had just landed from space, was the Oriental Riverside Hotel.

We’d had a long flight that morning, so Bronwyn had a rest while I wandered out for a stroll along the river. I certainly wasn’t going to get too lonely, because every couple of hundred yards I was stopped by Chinese tourists, apparently visiting the big city from the country, who liked nothing better than to take photographs of their wives and girlfriends with the strange pony-tailed giant who had appeared in their midst. Indeed, westerners were extremely scarce on this side of town, so it was even more surprising that I suddenly happened on a Bavarian bar by the waterside, serving pretzels, bauernfrühstuck, and locally brewed Paulaner beer, including my favourite Dunklerweißer. On a later visit, we found ourselves serenaded in English by what seemed to be a Korean Mariachi band.

It was an excellent opportunity to stop and watch the boats plying the river. Like much else in Shanghai, it was a shock of contrasts, oil tankers and container ships rumbling their way past a backdrop of the Bund and the office buildings of the city centre, sounding their horns as they manoeuvred their way to or from the enormous dockyards downstream.

The Yangtze River

Fascinated by the maritime component of this great city, we booked aboard a tourist ferry which would take us up the river, through the dockyards, and out as far as the confluence of the Huangpu and the Yangtze. Discovering that there was no food available on the ferry, we grabbed a bite to eat in a dockworkers cafe hidden under the pylons of the dock (we just pointed randomly at the menu and got served a very nice meal with a bottle of Tsing Tao beer), and then climbed aboard.

The towers and skyscrapers of the city soon faded into the heat haze, as we entered one of the busiest sea docks in the world. Everywhere there were container ships and tankers being built from new, or refurbished from the deckline up, tiny figures hanging like spiders over the sides as they worked away at the rust with handheld power tools. And everywhere, darting between the huge hulks and running backward and forward between the docks, little liveaboard boats, each as far as we could see permanently occupied by a family, as indicated by the pots of food plants and the washing hanging out to dry.

Plying the centre-line of the river, we passed perhaps a dozen little dredger boats. They seemed to be very busy sucking up the bottom mud and raking something out of it, but whether it was edible shellfish or something else, we were never able to discover.

Finally, the ferry reached what appeared to be the open sea, but which was in fact the famous Yangtze, Changjiang or Yellow River, just getting wide and lazy after its long journey all the way across the country en route to the East China Sea.

Interesting Food

Back in town, we searched in vain for a Chinese restaurant. Every eatery boasted its French-trained chef and its European menu, and in the end, surrounded by thousands of years of Chinese culinary expertise, we had to settle on French cuisine and New Zealand wine. However, they weren’t going to get away with this every night, so we hunted down a five-star Chinese restaurant which, conveniently enough, was located in our hotel, inside the huge glass sphere that you see on every Shanghai postcard.

It still wasn’t easy, though. As we approached the door, we were firmly rebuffed by staff in beautiful silk dresses, “No no sir, here Chinese food, restaurant is downstair.”

Nevertheless, we battled our way in, to be confronted by an enormous circular room with stunning views over the Bund, acres of plushly set tables, and not a single other diner.

The menu was fascinating. Every dish that I’d always wanted to try, but had been afraid to in fear of being passed off with a substitute. The prices were suitably exorbitant, so it looked like this was going to be the real deal. As the waiting staff peered over each others’ shoulders in amazement, I ordered Birds Nest Soup, and Sea Cucumber in Abalone Sauce.

I was not disappointed. The soup, which should be made from the spit-glued nests of cave swallows harvested by men hanging from hazardous bamboo ladders, had precisely the texture you would expect from boiled saliva. Similarly, the braised sea cucumber came whole and ungarnished, and looked and tasted exactly like the boiled slug that it was. The abalone sauce was excellent. Signing off the equivalent price of a room in this five star hotel, I declared myself satisfied.

The Tourist Tunnel

In the morning, after picking over a sadly westernised breakfast and trying to shake off our jetlag, we headed for the city centre. Apart from the road bridge, there are two ways of crossing the river; the metro, which is fast and efficient and costs 2 Yuan for as far as you want to go, and the Tourist Tunnel, which is much slower, costs 40 Yuan just to get you under the river, and is… weird.

After buying our Tourist Tunnel tickets from the smiling attendant, we made our way down an escalator onto an underground station platform adorned with quite lifelike virtual fish tanks. After a few moments, a fully automated carriage arrived out of the tunnel, and we were escorted with a flourish into the glass cabin, perhaps the size of a large van. The car started to move, accompanied by electronic music from hidden speakers. Suddenly, a male voice intoned something like “volcanic rocks” in English, and all hell broke loose outside. Strobe lights flashed up and down the tunnel, glowing images appeared on the walls, and the train moved through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of neon colour, each accompanied by a geological phrase and loud music. A few moments later, we emerged on the other side, amused but very definitely baffled.

The Bund, Jade Buddha, Fangbang Road

Shanghai is a city in transition, with rickshaws mixing it with cars in front of the tin shack sweatshops in the shadow of huge international skyscrapers. This can be a little frustrating when you are a tourist, as we found that sites of interest on the map were as often as not represented on the ground with a small sign saying “Former site of…” or “Here once stood….” Mind you, you cannot fail to be impressed by the people who thought it necessary to erect a plaque dedicated to “The former site of the former provisional government of Korea.”

The famous Bund, on the northern side of the Huangpu River and directly opposite our hotel, bears a strong resemblance to the Thames Embankment, if you could imagine London sweltering in sultry heat and packed with postcard vendors and street photographers. Shanghai Old Street, situated on Fangbang Road, is particularly interesting. In its 825 metres, the architectural style of the buildings ranges through time from the Ming and Qing dynasties at one end, to the western-influenced Chinese Republic at the other. You cant help noticing the wealthy glory of the former, and the somewhat seedy squalor of the latter.

One thing that we were keen to see, and that we were pretty sure was still standing, was the Temple of the Jade Buddha. It was quite a walk through the bustling streets, assaulted on every side by the blare of horns and the tinkle of bicycle bells, directed this way and that by grey-uniformed traffic assistants who constantly harangued pedestrians, car drivers and rickshaw riders alike in an attempt to get them to observe the traffic signals.

The shops selling carved jade and silk clothing, which characterised Fangbang Road, gave way to tiny sheds devoted to the sale of buttons or strips of ribbon, until finally we stood outside the monastery that was our destination.

There was a small fee to get in, and then another fee to see the buddha, and yet more money-making ventures in the form of stalls selling small carvings and jewellery, but apart from all that it was quite a relaxing place.

It had quite a number of shrines, each with its impressively carved stone or wood androgynous buddha. The centre-pieces, the eponymous Jade Buddha and the jade Reclining Buddha, were well worth the visit all by themselves, but if you want to see them, you’ll have to go yourself because photography is forbidden. In some ways, this is a pity, because I would have loved to get a picture of the monk in attendance to the Jade Buddha, concentratedly texting on a mobile phone, pooh-bear slippers peeking from beneath his saffron robe.


All too soon it was time to leave Shanghai, so we paid our enormous hotel restaurant bill and caught the cheap and incredibly high-tech underground metro just as far as the train station, because we couldn’t resist catching the fastest train in the world. It really is an amazing piece of technology. Our original taxi ride from the airport was 45 minutes; the 420km/h maglev did roughly the same journey in 6 minutes, running alongside the motorway and passing the hurrying cars as if they were standing still.

Once at the airport, Shanghai had one more surprise for us. While we were queuing to pay the 90 Yuan departure tax, an official gave us a certificate to confirm that our body temperatures were below 37 centigrade. A little investigation revealed a man with an infra red camera who was reading off peoples core temperatures from a distance. “You don’t have SARS. You are free to go.”