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.

These places really do exist in real life…

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I’ve been procrastinating this post for a while now. It’s not that I dread writing about it, rather it’s a challenge to try and describe in words my most favourite part of China. Not to mention selecting only a handful of the hundreds of photos we took in this region.

Often we see pictures on the internet and wonder if such beautiful places really do exist in this world, and that’s what went through my head as I sieved through our endless pictures of Yangshuo and Xinping in the region of Guangxi. These places are very real and none of the pictures have been photoshopped or edited.

This region is most famous for its limestone karst scenery. They are literally everywhere. I first laid eyes on limestone karsts in Vietnam and fell in love with it. But this tops it without a doubt. You can scale any peak in this region and see hundreds of limestone karsts as far as the eye can see. These peaks resemble hunched giants, quiet, unassuming but impossible not to notice. And sunsets in this region are truly breathtaking. Layer upon layer of shadowy peaks bathed in golden light.

I remember as a kid drawing multiple mountain peaks in an upside down ‘U’ or ‘V’  for art class, and realised as I grew older that my drawings were too far fetched and that such peaks probably don’t exist in real life. But seeing these limestone peaks before my very eyes proves that our imagination may not have been too far from reality. These things really do exist in real life..

The wonder that is Taj

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There are a few things in this world that one must see in their lifetime. Some may say the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon. To me, it has got to be the Taj Mahal.

As you enter the main gate leading to the Taj, you see the arch of the gate slowly unveil this majestic piece of architecture and framing it in the process. It literally takes your breath away. You can’t help but stop and take in this wonder of a sight right before you. Then you whip out your camera and take a zillion photos of this perfectly symmetrical and incredibly photogenic man made creation.

What makes the Taj all the more special is the story behind it. Emperor Shah Jahan was so heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz that he commissioned the building of the Taj as a mausoleum in memory of her. Add to that the outrageous myth that every craftsman and builder had their hands chopped off to prevent a replica of the Taj from being built. It is impossible not to be charmed by this architectural marvel.

 

 

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.