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 XΔ« HΓΊ 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.

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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’Β  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..

Colours of Nepal

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Looking back on the photos we took from spending almost a month in Nepal, I’m drawn by how vivid the colours of this country are. I remember the day we crossed the land border from Zhangmu in Tibet, China to Kodari in Nepal and were immediately struck by the chaos, noise and colours of this landlocked country. It was a feast for our senses.

We had such an enjoyable experience in this country, mostly helped by the friendly locals, festivals and beautiful mountains. These pictures offer a glimpse of our time in Nepal.

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.

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.