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.

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Around the world in colours: Yellow

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Sticking out amongst a field of sunflowers in Provence, France

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Within the walls of the Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

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Fans left out to dry in the small town of Fuli in Guangxi, China

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Monks strolling the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos

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Golden hour in Paris every night

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A hot air balloon ride over the landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey

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The picture perfect heritage town of Hoi An in Vietnam

IMG_1334Everyone’s favourite food in Bologna, Italy

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Hiding amongst wild flowers in Baisha, Yunnan, China.

Around the world in colours: Red

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Tomatoes of all shapes and sizes for sale in the markets of Nice, France.

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Tulips as far as the eye can see in Keukenhof, Holland.

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Monks sharing a laugh during an open debate session in Lhasa, Tibet.

IMG_2535Beautiful autumn leaves draping over a stone facade in the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

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The ubiquitous red phone booths in Primrose Hill, London.

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Labourers hard at work at the Agra Fort, India.

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The Shurijo castle on a fine winter’s day in Okinawa, Japan.

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Man’s best friend in front of a Tibetan home in Litang, Sichuan province of China

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Monk statues perfectly aligned in front of a monastery in Hpa An, Myanmar

Faces of Tibet

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The most fascinating aspect of travel is the people. Being able to observe the locals in their element is what sustains our interest in long term travel, as opposed to the big sights and wonders which wear thin after a while. If I had to pick one culture of people that stood out to us it would have to be the Tibetans.

Tibetan faces were some of the most exotic we had ever come across. The men were rugged, flamboyant, well built and embodied the ‘Eastern Cowboy’ persona which took us by surprise. We had imagined pious and meek stereotypes which were not untrue, but we hadn’t expect to see a lot more diversity in this race. The women were beautiful with their rosy cheeks and exuded elegance in their traditional garment and cowboy hat. And then there were the monks, who stood out in their red robes in contrast to their humbled posture and demeanor. It was hard not to be captivated by this race of people.

While we were drawn to their faces at first sight, we were held amazed by their deep devotion to their religion. It was not an uncommon sight to see Tibetans repeatedly prostrate themselves in prayer at holy sites or circumambulate in meditation around temples, some interspersing with full body prostrations every 3rd step along the way. It certainly taught me a thing or two about devotion despite our vastly different faiths.

Tibetans are not without their flaws, as I found them to have a lower standard of hygiene which could be a result of the tough environment, conflicting history and slow development especially outside the capital city. Nonetheless their resilience in surviving such harsh living conditions particularly the farmers and nomadic tribes is something many other cultures can learn from.

Top 6 Cycling Experiences

Exploring a new place on two wheels can be very rewarding. I’m not much of a cyclist but I’ve discovered the immense pleasure of cycling leisurely along a flat road with the wind in your face and an endless view to die for. It makes the uphill slog and leg exercise worthwhile.

Here are my six best cycling experiences, accumulated from our travels around Europe and Asia, and in no particular order.

1. Lucca, Italy IMG_1211 IMG_1218

Lucca is a beautiful medieval city in Tuscany with intact city walls that circle the old town. Cycling the city walls is a perfect way to get to know the charming old town. My favourite bits are exploring the old town through the many narrow back lanes and hopping on and off our bikes for a quick gelato break. Oh, and the bikes we hired were so cute I wish I could take them home with me!

2. Yangshuo, China IMG_0204 IMG_9407

Yangshuo is famous for its distinct limestone karst terrain that covers a huge area best explored by bicycle. We would wake up very early in the mornings and cycle to neighbouring villages, passing rice paddies and locals going about their daily lives. In the afternoon as it got hotter we would retreat back to our rooms and venture out again in the evenings to explore other areas. It was so simple and idyllic that it became a routine for us during our time there.

3. Loire Valley, France IMG_5627 IMG_5581

Exploring the Loire Valley of France was a challenging 4 day adventure of cycling from one chateau to another with one too many wrong turns, uphills and glorious sunflower fields to distract us. Of course, we could have easily visited all four castles by train or car but the satisfaction and pride from completing 160km for a newbie cyclist like myself is something worth boasting about 😉

4. Lake Bled, Slovenia IMG_6923 IMG_6942

Bled is such an underrated place that I wish more people would know about. Cycling around the most exquisite turquoise waters of Lake Bled was the highlight of our time in Slovenia. Your eyes are constantly drawn to the stunning lake which occasionally throws you off your cycling course! We could stop any time at our whim and fancy, take a few pictures and have a sandwich by the lake with our feet dangling over the waters and ducks waiting to catch any bits of our crumbs.

5. Paris, France IMG_1628 IMG_1646

Paris remains one of my favourite cities in the world and when it’s not freezing cold, cycling on the busy streets, by the Seine or along Canal St Martin is an amazing way to soak in the city. Chic cafes and stylish Parisians line the sidewalks and you get a glimpse of La Tour Eiffel every now and then. The velib system is also easy to use and so cheap to get around town.

6. Tulip fields in Netherlands IMG_0228 IMG_0274

Cycling amongst blooming tulip fields in Holland in search of more blooming tulip fields felt like a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. We would be cycling along a stretch of striking red tulips and then spot a streak of purple tulips ahead that we would race down the flat road to get to that field. It was a fun experience of finding tulip field after tulip field, with each discovery getting better and better.

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..