A summary of our first 6 months in Asia

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now you probably know that we took 22 months off our careers and lives in Sydney to travel Europe and Asia. While I’ve summarised our travels around Europe in two parts; here and here, I haven’t got around to reflecting on the Asian leg of our travels until now.

We kicked off Asia in the summer of 2014 in Hangzhou at the east coast of China and were instantly taken by the romantic beauty of Xī Hú or West Lake.

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Romantic West Lake in Hangzhou, China

After Hangzhou we detoured inland to climb Huangshan mountain in the region of Anhui, China. It was our first eye opening experience navigating the massive crowds of China which we soon became experts at. The well preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi proved to be enjoyable side trips in this region.

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Rocks that resemble faces in Huangshan, China

We then headed back to the east coast with a short stopover in Nanjing to visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall before spending a few days in the canal city of Suzhou where we met the most wonderful airbnb hosts.

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The canals of Suzhou, China

Our next destination was Shanghai which we’ve experienced before in winter but being back the second time round in summer did not stop us from tasting piping hot ‘xiao long baos’ or soup dumplings.

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The Shanghai skyline featuring the distinctive Pudong Tower

We boarded the comfortable high speed train that transported us from Shanghai to Beijing in 5 hours and were lucky to see the Great Wall of China twice, once in a remote part of the wall called Huanghuacheng where we saw a grand total of only 10 people which is incredibly rare in tourist sights around China.

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A remote and unrestored section of the Great Wall in Huanghuacheng, Beijing, China

From Beijing we flew to Seoul, South Korea to celebrate my milestone birthday of turning 30 where I underwent a full makeover with the best plastic surgeon in Seoul. No, not really though I probably could have given the reputation of plastic surgeries in Seoul and if I were willing to give up my travels then, but I did get a distant glimpse of North Korea from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between both countries.

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Looking out onto North Korea which is the closest many of us will get to this hermit nation

After a refreshing week in Seoul we were raring to return to China and our next stop was Kunming in Yunnan where we visited the famous stone forest or Shilin.

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Stones as far as the eye can see in Shilin, Kunming, China

Dali, the hippy backpacker haven of Yunnan was an interesting stopover for a day but we were keen to move north to Lijiang to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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Dali, a haven for hippy backpackers escaping big cities

We were unlucky with the weather during our 3 day hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge but we lucked out in the friendship department, meeting fellow hikers who fast became firm friends.

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The raging waters of Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

Returning to Lijiang after our hike, we rested and explored the surrounding countryside of Baisha by bicycle and were treated to breathtaking views of this region.

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Canola fields and the Yulong snow mountain near Baisha, Lijiang, China.

Shangrila, a bus ride away from Lijiang was our gateway to the Tibetan region of Sichuan. We tasted our first yak meat burger and enjoyed watching locals dance in the main town square every evening.

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Locals dancing in circles every evening in the main town square of Shangrila

From Shangrila we took a grueling 13 hour bus ride to the town of Daocheng in Sichuan, which we based ourselves from to explore Yading, the supposed ‘Shangri-La’ or paradise from the novel Lost Horizon. While I’m not sure we found paradise in that sense, Yading certainly blew us away with its beauty even as we struggled to catch our breath at the high altitude we were in.

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One of the many lakes in Yading nature reserve

Our next stop in the Tibetan region of Sichuan was Litang where we witnessed a sky burial, something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

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The site of a sky burial in Litang, Sichuan, China, where vultures are patiently waiting while the body is being prepared

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Friendly local Tibetan kids in Litang, Sichuan, China

We made our way further north by bus to Kangding, another Tibetan city in Sichuan where we chatted at length to a monk in a fast food restaurant before landing ourselves in the capital of Sichuan to visit some adorable pandas.

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The icons of China in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

From Chengdu we flew to Guilin in the region of Guangxi and found ourselves amongst hundreds of giant limestone karsts. Yangshuo and Xingping, small towns within short distances of Guilin were my absolute favourite parts of China.

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Cruising down the Li river and taking in the surrounding karst scenery in Xingping, Guangxi

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Cycling in the countryside of Yangshuo, Guangxi

A side trip to visit the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces in Guangxi solidified China as one of the most naturally stunning countries we’ve ever been to. We had never seen so much extremes in beauty in one country in the space of such a short time.

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Rice fields that resemble the backbone of a dragon in Guangxi

We flew across the country again to Xi’an to see the famed terracotta warriors before boarding a 32 hour train ride to the roof of the world, Tibet.

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The army of terracotta warriors in Xi’an

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Onboard the highest railway in the world to Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa was a real feast for our senses with Tibetan locals prostrating around religious sites and temples with such fervent devotion.

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The Potala Palace in all its glory in Lhasa, Tibet

After spending a few days in Lhasa we began our journey towards Everest Base Camp, the closest we’ll ever set foot to Mount Everest.

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The long straight road to Everest Base Camp, Tibet

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Reaching Everest Base Camp at 5200m was a very significant day for us

We camped overnight in yak tents at Everest Base Camp and visited the highest post office in the world.

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Yak tents for overnight campers with Mt Everest in the backdrop

We continued on the Friendship Highway towards the land border between Tibet and Nepal the following day and reached Zhangmu, our final stop in China. We crossed over by foot the next morning into Kodari the border town on the Nepal side and had to trek through a landslide and endure a long rickety bus ride into Kathmandu, a real test of our travel limits.

We spent more than a week in Kathmandu and had the opportunity to witness and partake in some local festivities with a Nepali family.

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The bustling and colourful Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

From Kathmandu we made side trips to Nagarkot and Bhaktapur to see mountain views and ancient cities that have sadly since been destroyed in the recent earthquake.

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Bhaktapur in Kathmandu Valley before the 2015 Nepal earthquake

Chitwan was our next stop and we went on an elephant safari to look for the one horned rhino.

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The one horned rhino commonly found in Chitwan Valley, Nepal

From Chitwan we made our way to Pokhara, our base for nearly two weeks while we hiked the popular Poon Hill trail. Our trek of 4 days 3 nights started off easy but we were soaked to the bone the very next day from a cyclone that had hit the region.

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Soaked from head to toe on our second day trekking up to Ghorepani in Nepal

Thankfully on the day we hiked up the very top of Poon Hill the sky cleared and we had the most magnificent sunrise over the the Annapurna mountain ranges.

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Sunrise over the Annapurna mountain ranges as seen from Poon Hill, Nepal

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Hikers rewarded with a spectacular sunrise after a day of non stop rain

 

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Reaching the top of Poon Hill was an achievement after a tough day of trekking in the rain

We nursed our sore muscles back in Pokhara for a few days before taking a bus ride back to Kathmandu to catch our next flight to Delhi, India.

We celebrated Diwali with some very close friends we had planned on meeting up for months and joined in on their family’s lavish Indian wedding celebrations. There was so much dancing, music and noise over the entire one week celebration.

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The groom being carried into the wedding hall in Delhi, India

While in Delhi I was not going to miss the chance to see one of the seven wonders of the world, so we made a side trip to Agra and laid eyes on quite possibly the most beautiful man made architecture I have ever seen, the Taj Mahal.

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The Taj Mahal in Agra, India is beautiful from every angle

After India, we spent a month in Taipei, Taiwan living as locals and explored the many night markets that Taipei is known for. We also made side trips to Yehliu Geopark, Jiufen, Hualien and Taitung.

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Yehliu Geopark in Taiwan is known for its naturally occurring mushroom like rock formations

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Jiufen, Taiwan was one of the inspirations for the Japanese animation Spirited Away

While in Taipei I couldn’t resist the chance to visit the neighbouring Japanese islands of Okinawa. Getting up close with whale sharks in the largest man made tank in Churaumi Aquarium was the highlight of my short trip to Okinawa.

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Whale sharks, manta rays and all sorts of other marine life in Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan

We celebrated new year’s eve in Taipei and left a piece of our heart behind in Taiwan as we flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand to begin the South East Asian leg of our travels, which I’ll save for my next summary post.

This time last year

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When I consciously pause and take time out of my daily routine to think about where we were this time last year during our travels, I’m amazed at how quickly time passes, and how scary that these precious memories will soon be years ago, rather than a year ago. If I rewind to two years before, we were in Lisbon on the 5th of March 2014 and almost midway into our 2 year travel plan. And Lisbon already feels like such a distant memory. Oh how fragile memories are and how unforgiving the ticking clock that accompanies it!

So this time last year we were in Myanmar, one of the last countries we visited before heading home to Sydney. I’ve compiled a bunch of my favourite photos from Myanmar. The top four were taken in Bagan and the last three were taken in and around Hpa An. I’d be honest and say that Myanmar isn’t on my favourite countries list, but it certainly deserved a visit, and we met enough interesting locals to help us remember this country. Because at the end of the day the scenery and sights will fade but the interactions and people are the ones that form the fragment of memories that linger on, hopefully beyond the years that will soon pass.

 

Flying over the island of Kauai, Hawaii

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The island of Kauai in Hawaii is beyond breathtaking. We knew that if we had to splurge on one helicopter ride of our lives, it had to be over Kauai.

It is hard to recapitulate in words the landscape that we saw during our 1 hour helicopter ride, but it was nothing short of majestic. The Na Pali coast on the north was my highlight of the scenic flight, and boy did it blow us away. It might seem familiar as the setting for one of the earlier Jurassic Park movies. The cliff faces are distinctive and unmistakable, and resemble the buttresses of cathedrals you would see in Europe. Talking about art imitating nature possibly?

The Waimea Canyon on the west is equally stunning and in contrast to the rest of the island. This canyon, also known as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’ stood out in deep orange hues, peppered with lush greenery.

And let’s not dismiss the countless waterfalls that flow through the island. One an average day, hundreds of waterfalls can be seen coursing through the landscape of this garden island as they call it. I’ve never been a huge fan of waterfalls, but the waterfalls on Kauai are quite a sight to behold.

 

Sugar Pine Walk

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Here’s a very belated post and announcement for 2016. We’re expecting a little one in May and I’m hoping that this bub will be a traveler in the making:) After all we don’t plan on giving up on our passion for travel. If anything I’m already scheming up a 3-6 month family trip in a few years time to South America or Africa. Am I being overly ambitious already?

These pictures were taken just before Christmas last year in a secluded corner of the Bago State Forest roughly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne called Sugar Pine Walk. It’s a very short walk but the picturesque pine trees make for a pleasant photo stop on our drive down to Melbourne. I’d expect it to look even more stunning in the golden glow of autumn or covered in a blinding white bed of winter snow.

Exploring Taitung on Two Wheels

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Taitung is a great city to explore on a bicycle. It is relatively flat, there are designated bike paths that take you through the city and there are many varied spots to explore that are within easy reach.

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We started off at the old sugar factory that has been abandoned and is slowly being transformed into an art space with great potential. We enjoyed speeding down the vast empty spaces and discovered some really quirky cool spots for photos.

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We continued along the designated bike path that was once a railway track, and it offered us a glimpse of locals’ backyards. We cycled past thriving vegetable patches and little backyard gardens. It was a very quaint little community with a bit of a Japanese feel to it.

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The bike path then takes us through some streets and a park filled with hot air balloon lanterns, the mascot of Taitung (Taitung is famous for its annual hot air balloon festivals, hence the mini hot air balloon mascot).

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The path continues onto the shore, and we find ourselves breathing in the salt-laden air of the beach. It was a good place to take a break, and there were several snack shops in the area selling local Taiwanese delicacies. I spotted a dilapidated white house that looked like a drawing from a children’s book and it left me wondering about its inhabitants.

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The bike loop finishes in a large park which we spent several hours cycling around on a different day, and like so many other times before, we truly learnt and saw the city in so many ways that a tour bus or car cannot offer.

The town that ticked all my boxes

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Hoi An charmed its way into my heart right from the beginning. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this place even with my high expectations shaped from hearing all about this famous town. It is a busy little tailoring town located halfway between North and South Vietnam with bright yellow colonial architecture and colourful lanterns strung all along the narrow streets.The food is delicious as you’d expect in Vietnam, and the eager tailors can whip up a suit or dress for you in a day, or sew a new leather bag or pair of sandals if that’s what you fancied. We could wander the streets freely without worrying about bikes and cars because the streets are cordoned off for pedestrians. At night, the lanterns painted a romantic glow over the town. The river is lit up with candles carrying the wishes and hopes of tourists and locals alike. We spotted a few young couples in traditional garb posing for engagement photos. It was the perfect backdrop for blossoming love and it felt right for the mood we were in.