A paradise in Yading

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Yading was one of the those places we heard about only after traveling through China and doing some extensive research about the region. It does not get mentioned in the same sentence as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Jiuzhaigou or Huangshan when you talk about China’s big ticket items. It has however been touted as the real Shangri-la of China by locals, deemed a beautiful untouched paradise likened to utopia. Yading is for travelers looking to go a bit off the beaten path. Best of all, Yading is less touristy and crowded due to its location in the remote parts of Western Sichuan. We were game.

A lot of research and digging led us to more information about this paradise. It is hard to reach (averaging 10-12 hour bus rides on unpaved mountainous roads) and the towns close to Yading have poor amenities. Unless we were willing to spend a bomb on flight tickets or private drivers, public buses were the only way to go. A little bit daunted, we went ahead with our planning into Western Sichuan. We braced ourselves for the horrendous bus rides and sure enough, they delivered. I swore never to take another long bus ride again in China after three 10 hour bus rides to get into and out of the region. Did I mention that the roads were bumpy and winding and that passengers smoked and puked onboard? *shudder*

But the payoffs? There was so much we saw that could last us a lifetime. This region is rich in Tibetan culture and it proffered us a taste of Tibet before we ventured further west of China. Yading was definitely one of the highlights. At an altitude of 4400 meters, Yading’s scenery was breathtaking. Snow dusted mountains, lush green pastures and the clearest lakes and rivers you can possibly imagine. Add to that colourful prayer flags strung haphazardly around rocks and stupas, you get Yading in all its glory and exoticism.

Though the hike was strenuous due to thin air, we managed to see one of the many lakes in the reserve. The clouds were also kind enough to part a few times during the day to reveal majestic peaks.

Yading is fast becoming the chinese tourists’ premier holiday destination. When we were there we could see hotels being built and roads being developed. It will no doubt be more accessible in the future, but like all the other major sights, once developed, Yading will become touristy and crowded. I’m only thankful I got to see it now while it is still considerably ‘untouched’.

Suzhou’s Gardens and Canals

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Suzhou is all about its gardens and canals. A visit to Suzhou would not be complete if you missed either. The gardens are plenty and if you pick the right one at the right time, you might be lucky enough to dodge all the tourist crowds. A moment of peace and relative quietness in the gardens and you will see begin to appreciate the masterpiece that it is. Its use of rock, stone, water and pavilions are typical of classical chinese gardens and there’s no better place to see them all than in Suzhou.

The canals were another highlight of Suzhou. In the less touristy parts of town where the canals can be found, you can see locals going about their daily life centering around these canals.

Not much can be said about Suzhou as a city, save that it is fast becoming another one of China’s overpopulated and fast developing concrete jungles. But the gardens and the canals are what differentiates Suzhou from any of its other counterparts.

Experiencing Huangshan in Anhui Province

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Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is an incredibly popular scenic spot amongst the mainland chinese tourists. If you’ve seen the movies ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ by Ang Lee or ‘Avatar’ by James Cameron and wondered if that bizzare landscape exists in real life, there you go. Huangshan deserves its fame, and its had it for years before movie makers even thought up their scripts. Huangshan had often been depicted in paintings by Chinese artists for centuries. It’s no wonder why throngs of chinese tourists visit every summer holiday.

The rocks have been described as grotesque with some resembling human faces or body parts. The type of trees found in Huangshan are unique and exclusive to this region, called the Pinus Hwangshanensis!! I kid you not, that the name even bears the location of where it was first found. These pine trees complement the grotesque rocks and make for beautiful silhouette shots.

As for the experience itself, I would reconsider going during the peak holiday season if we were to do it again. Though special and deserving of a visit, the mountains were brimming with chinese tourists so there were long lines to go up the cable cars and even a queue to walk down the steps when we went. Overall it was an experience that could have been improved but hey, that’s part of traveling after all. We can’t get it right all the time ;)

Ancient Hui Villages of China

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Finally, a blog post after more than two months!! We are well and still traveling in case you’re wondering. A combination of factors have left this blog somewhat stranded, mainly the great firewall of China blocking key sites like Flickr and WordPress, and our fast paced traveling which does leave little time for blogging.

I wanted to write about the ancient Hui villages of Hongcun and Xidi that were some of my highlights of our travels in China. I was especially taken by the architecture which is a photographer’s dream really. Well preserved, charming and still inhabited by local folk, ambling down the many narrow alleyways and lanes transports you back to a time where life was simpler and stress free. Such a contrast to the huge modern cities where smog, traffic and high rises abound.

Hongcun and Xidi were the first of many villages that we have since come across in the last few months. It still stands that the villages of China are where you find the real gems. The friendly folk, architecture and often amazing scenery will leave you wanting more.

Where the last 6 months of travel have taken us (Part II)

The last 6 months have been far from quiet, contrary to my blog activity. Admittedly I have been struggling to keep up with updates but I’m hoping to catch up with this quick 6 month summary of where we’ve been.

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A snowball fight up the Swiss Alps

We finished the year 2013 in a small town called Frauenfeld in Switzerland while making side trips to Zurich, Schaffhausen, Fussen (to see the Neuschwanstein Castle) and Lindau with family who flew for miles to visit us. Snow evaded us all Christmas so we made a trip up the Santis mountain to throw snowballs at each other.

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Our workaway stint in this mansion

In the new year, we happily returned to Paris for a quick trip to revisit old favourite spots before taking a train to the small town of St Thomas de Conac in the Southwest of France, close to the region of Cognac, where we stayed with a French family for 2 weeks. In exchange for free lodging and 3 meals a day, we worked hard each day to turn their beautiful old mansion into a bed & breakfast. Our french improved and we learned how to appreciate french vegetarian cuisine.

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Le Mont St. Michel from afar

After our 2 week stint ended, we wished our new friends good luck and left to go up north to visit the towns of Saint-Malo and Mont St. Michel in the region of Bretagne. Crepes never tasted better than in the region  it came from and we swore never to eat crepes outside Bretagne again (which incidentally did not last long…).

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Made a new friend in our second workway stint

A few days later we joined our second host family in the town of St Pere En Retz for 2 weeks and learned a host of new things like building fences, flipping crepes, making marmalade and salad dressing, appreciating wine and shopping in french farmers markets (which happens to be a leisurely weekly activity).

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The American cemetery at Omaha beach, Normandy

Two weeks went by incredibly fast and we were soon saying goodbye again to our new friends before leaving for Normandy. We got to see the D-day beaches and American cemetery and despite atrocious weather conditions, felt strangely peaceful to be surrounded by thousands of crosses.

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Shopping in the souk of Marrakesh, Morocco

We boarded a plane and landed in the welcoming heat and exotic smells of Marrakesh where we were joined by old friends we had not seen in ages. Together, we trekked on camels and spent a night in the Sahara dessert amidst a sandstorm, took a bus ride through the breathtaking Atlas mountains, ate one too many tagines, visited a foul smelling leather tannery in Fes and explored the picturesque blue city of Chefchaouen during our two week Moroccan adventure.

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The town of Lagos, Portugal

A short ferry ride transported us across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa in Spain where we indulged in some of the most amazing tapas we’ve ever eaten. The next day we hopped on a bus towards the Algarve coast in Portugal where we visited a bone chapel in Faro and ate delicious chicken piri piri in Lagos. In Lisbon we were captivated by Fado music as well as the famous custard tarts of Belem.

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The Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

Sintra was a fairytale escape from the buzz of Lisbon and Porto fast became my favourite city because of its riverfront and charming buildings.

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Standing at the edge of Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain

A quick stopover in Salamanca en route to Madrid impressed us with its vibrancy and stunning Plaza Mayor while Madrid stayed in our hearts.  We went vintage shopping in Malasana, soaked in art at the world class museums and hung out in tapas bars. Madrid reminded us so much of NYC it made our hearts ache.

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Watching a bullfight in Valencia, Spain

We reunited with our old friend again in Valencia to party like never before in Valencia’s Las Fallas festival. For four days we watched fireworks, heard never ending gunfire explode and saw elaborate structures get burned down in the spirit of the annual fire festival. No one does festivals quite like the Spanish. Our experience was further heightened by an unforgettable bullfight show in the Plaza del Toros of Valencia.

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The Gap of Dunloe, Ireland

We then parted ways and made our way to Dublin where we piled back on winter layers to brace the cold and winds. We rented a tiny car and drove for a week around Ireland, taking in some of the most breathtaking natural beauty there is out there. Our last stop, Belfast in Northern Ireland, was an eye opening visit and we learned so much about its recent troubled history from spending some time with  our friendly host.

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The town of Bruges in Belgium

A quick flight took us back to the continent, specifically Brussels and we had one full day to see the many Tin Tin artwork and chocolate shops around the city before taking a train to Antwerp which felt like a whole new country with locals speaking Flemish and looking more Dutch than their French speaking counterparts in Brussels. A day trip to charming Bruges rewarded us with beautiful sunny weather, pleasant strolls along its many canals and mouthwatering waffles.

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The quintessential windmill in Holland

We spent more than a week with good friends in Amsterdam and cycled around tulip fields in the Dutch countryside, fell in love with Vincent Van Gogh’s art work in the Van Gogh museum and climbed a working windmill in Zaanse Schans.

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Semana Santa processions in Andalusia, Spain

Leaving our good friends this time was easier knowing that we had more family to see soon, which we did in Spain. Together we spent 11 days in the historically and culturally rich region of Andalusia where we watched flamenco in Seville, observed Semana Santa processions in Cordoba and visited the Alhambra in Granada.

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The French Riviera

After Andalusia we flew to Toulouse, France and rented a car to drive around the the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The highlight was watching flocks of pink flamingoes in their natural habitat in Camargue. The mediterranean beckoned us and we headed east towards the Cote d’Azur, basking in the Mediterranean sunshine in towns like Nice, Cannes, Antibes, and Menton. Monaco was probably the smallest and richest country I’ve ever stepped foot in.

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London’s calling!

London was our next stop and we spent a good week seeing all that London had to offer, including a little side trip to Oxford for scones and tea (and to see the university of course!) with surprisingly more sunny than rainy days.

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Inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

In Krakow, we ate pierogi (Polish dumplings) and joined a fantastic free walking tour of the city (our first one ever!). A sobering trip to the  Auschwitz concentration camps left us shaken by the horrors of the holocaust.

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An indoor food market in Stockholm

We spent 3 days in Stockholm and fell in love with its many sleek design shops. Less than an hour’s flight away, Helsinki was surprisingly liveable and the Finnish language sounded like a variation of Japanese.

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The streets of St Petersburg, Russia

We boarded an overnight cruise ship to St Petersburg, Russia and spent 72 hours in this gorgeous city, meeting interesting locals, watching a fascinating ballet performance and shopping for cheap Russian dolls at a local market.

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Looking over Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland

The last leg of our travels was spent with a good friend in the UK where we hiked 13 km in the Lakes district, visited a castle in Snowdonia, Wales, ate chinese food in Manchester and searched for Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford upon Avon to no avail. We made our way north to Glasgow in Scotland and contemplated joining a ghost tour in Edinburgh but ended up entertaining ourselves with some good old Scottish stand up comedy instead.

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The Basilica Sacre Coeur in Paris at sunset

We flew from Edinburgh to Paris and had 2 hours to spare in transit for one last baguette and stroll by the River Seine, and then it’s au revoir Europe as we fly to Doha, Qatar for one night to see what this gulf state had to offer.

The last 6 months have seen us through 14 countries and countless travel stories, memories and lessons that would last us a lifetime. We are beyond blessed to experience this and are excited to continue on our journey through Asia for the next 6-12 months. Keep following our journey! Your support and comments are invaluable to us :)

See the summary of the first 6 months of our travel HERE.

48 Hours in Doha, Qatar

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Forty eight hours in this progressive Arab nation was enough to reveal interesting facets of this tiny country. Every other person we see on the street is a migrant or expat with local Qatari nationals forming a minority in this oil rich state. You would also never see a Qatari taxi driver, alluding to how rich the country is.  Unsurprisingly, impressive sky scrappers and high rises crowd the skyline of Doha bay, and many more are on the way. The notable architect I.M. Pei of the Lourve glass pyramid fame was even commissioned to design the Museum of Islamic Art, the star attraction of Doha.

Despite the intense heat and temperatures, Doha was a gem of a visit. Relatively clean, safe and modern, this city is one to watch out for.