A culinary adventure in search of Sichuan’s Lost Plate

If there is one city you need to take a food tour, then Chengdu is that city. Sichuan food is an experience that deserves its own tour. That’s why we jumped at the chance to hop on a tuk tuk to discover it with Lost Plate food tours.

We met our guide Chin Oh and 8 other American, British, French and Singaporean travellers and packed ourselves into 3 tuk tuks and set off! It was a strange sight to see tuk tuks in this modern Chinese city, but it definitely added to the charm.

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Our first stop was Dan Hong Gao, a tiny kiosk selling egg baked pancakes. We would have never discovered this place if not for Lost Plate Food Tours. The chefs at Dan Hong Gao were making 2-3 pancakes at a time, stuffing it with all sorts of sweet and savoury delicacies.

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Chin Oh recommended the pancake named “strange” because it was sweet, spicy and nutty all at the same time! What a great recommendation, it wasn’t strange at all, just really yummy! No wonder Dan Hong Gao had won many awards all proudly displayed in front.

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Stop #2 was my most favourite one. Set in the middle of a private military housing complex, Chao Shou is a apartment turned restaurant, named Chengdu’s best hidden restaurant in 2017, serving the best Chengdu dumplings.

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It was something right out of king fu panda, not only because they served dumpling (the best I’ve ever tasted) but probably also because of the unassuming setting where bowls full of dumplings kept coming non stop that made me feel a tad bit like Poh!

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We tried all sorts of dumplings – original, dry chili, sour spice, soupy!

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While we were enjoying our feast, two girls wandered in and were turned away because they had no reservation and the place was sold out. One of the girls started dramatically crying! Only after my first bite into the dumplings did I realise why. Although it was the most basic place set in the middle of no where in there was a reason why it has won a ton of accolades. It wasn’t about the ambiance or the experience. It was just all about the food.

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Our next stop was a Sichuan noodle place that Chin Oh said was only a “little bit famous, not too much”. For the life of me I can’t figure out why, because the noodles were delish! Once again we tried all sorts of noodles in small bowls – cold noodles for a hot summer day, strong sweet and nutty noodles, the sad jelly noodle that was spicy as hell and the sweet and sour one.

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Here we had our first taste of Ma La – the mouth numbing Sichuan red pepper. Although in small doses, this can be deadly but also really really good! The best types of Ma la numbs your mouth for at least 5 mins according to Chin oh. The best type of anaesthetic if you have a tooth to be extracted maybe? But don’t worry the Ma La in the sad jelly noodle (which got its name because the emotion after having Ma la) is really very good. We had tons!

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Stop #4 was Sichuan stir fry, really really good Sichuan stir fry.

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We had everything from the double fried pork (the best!) to beef soaked in a mala soup/ gravy, stir fried green peppers, the original version of the famous kung pao chicken (the best I’ve ever had) and century egg.

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For those moments when you feel like you can’t take more spice, there was also a plate of sticky rice with pumpkin and orange peel, a strange but great combination.

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This last dish was a revelation to the history of Sichuan food. It’s evolution has 3 eras: firstly the time before salt mines were discovered in China, everything tasted sweet! And hence the sweet sticky rice with pumpkin, after the discovery of salt, everything was salty! And when westerns started traveling to China in the 16th century, they brought along chili, which the Chinese have now mastered and hence the feeling of fireworks in your mouth.

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Our last food stop was another hidden restaurant in a private housing complex. This time it was hot pot.

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Not the traditional one, but this hot pot was for satays dipped in a hot bowl gravy. Chin Oh helped us pick all sorts of veggies and meats on sticks to be cooked.

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By the time the bowls arrived we were so full, but we couldn’t stop ourselves from reaching out to the aroma filled satays dipped in the bowl. Gluttony at its best (or worse).

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Fun fact – Chinese characters are a little bit like hieroglyphs and the word/letter for stick hot pot, looks like food on a stick!

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That was it for food and we could barely move, but we had one last stop – drinks! Chin Oh took us to the coolest ancient Chinese styled bar.

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It was a dark den where the group downed bottles of Chinese rice wine. If you thought Ma La burnt your throat, wait till you try Shaoxing! Gambe!

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All in all we had a great time. Lost Plate Tours had certainly discovered Sichuan’s culinary extravaganza and they are the perfect people to help you discover it too! Thanks for a great time..

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Book your tours here and prepare your tastebuds to be wowed.

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The Heart of Sichuan – Chengdu in 3 days

Chengdu is a great stop on your China itinerary or if you live in the region a perfect long weekend getaway. Famous for it black and white cuddly bears and mouth numbing Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu is a marvellous hot pot of all things Chinese (pun intended). Three days gives enough time to explore the city and its surroundings, here’s what we did.

Day 1

As you arrive in the capital of western China, be sure to stay in a quaint old Chinese house converted into a hotel. We stayed in one called Buddha Zen and it was gorgeous.

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Take day 1 to immerse yourself in the sensory overload that is Chengdu. Start in Jinli road, next to the Wu Hou shrine.

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This beautiful old quarter with winding alleyways, lakes and bridges is part of the oldest areas still in tact in Chengdu.

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Spend a good half of the day getting lost in Jinli, pop in to the peaceful, meticulously curated ground areas of the shrine (entrance ticket required, as of March 2018 it was RMB 60), admire the old stage right in the middle of Jinli road that still has Sichuan Opera performances during festival times, pick out a few trinkets from one of the many kiosks lining the road.

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Most of all, try the food. You’ll discover taste buds and sensations you didn’t know existed! If you are more adventurous than us, try rabbit head or duck head (beak and all) or pig nose!

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And if you arent, sit in one of the many Sichuan hot pot places and let your mouth explode! The one thing that welcomes you to Chengdu is the smell of hot pot. I kid you not, while you are walking on the streets, riding in a taxi, there is no escaping this amazingly peppery smell. So immerse yourself in this truly Sichuan experience. Locals spend hours “hot potting”, we spent just over an hour at most, but take your time, try everything!

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After Jinli road, if you are into more ancient alleyways head over to Kuan Zhai Xiangzi, translated the wide and narrow alleyways. Basically there are two: one wide, the other also pretty much the same size, but I guess considered narrow? We preferred Kuan Xiangzi because for some reason it felt less chaotic and had a beautiful overhead tree covering.

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Pop over to one of the many quaint tea houses down the alleyways. Pick from an array of Chinese teas and order a bowl of melon seeds. Getting to the edible center of the melon seed takes some effort, unless you master the skill every local seems to have of extracting the seed with just one bite.

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Either way, you’ll spend a good part of your afternoon in this tea experience.

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Don’t be surprised if someone with an armful of strange looking tools walks up to you and offers to clean your ear. This seems to be a truly Sichuan experience. I can’t guarantee the hygiene of this “cleaning process” because they seem to use the same tools on everyone! But apparently it’s a therapeutic exercise that goes well with tea.

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Next take a 20 min walk over to people’s park for some people watching. Join a game of mahjong or do some Tai Chi with the locals or simply walk around the park and watch the day go by. If you are interested in the local arts (I highly recommend this) head over to Shu Feng Ya Yun inside the park for a night at the opera. Note that the tickets sell out fast and need to be bought in advance. Marvel at the high pitched voices of the opera singers and the costume and mask changing illusionists. The latter way by far our favourite. We even recorded the act in slow mo to figure out how it’s done, but they are too good! The masks themselves are gorgeously decorated and the whole act is perfectly coordinated.

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Day 2

Today will probably be the highlight of your trip to Chengdu and is probably the reason you are making the trip in the first place.

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So wake up early and make your way to one of the Panda breeding centers. Now you’ve got a few options

1. The giant panda breeding center – this is close to town and is the most popular spot to see the pandas, it also has the most amount of pandas

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2. Dujiangyan – a 90 min drive out of Chengdu, this is a smaller base, but offers the coveted panda keeper volunteer program, read more about it here.

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3. Wolong panda breeding center – it’s pretty much the same as Dujiangyan because it’s run by the same people and has the volunteer program, but is 3 hours away from Chengdu. So why go? Wolong is known to be the original home of pandas, so if that matters this is the place to visit.

Whichever option you pick, remember to go early for two reasons (1) beat the crowds, especially those coming in massive tour buses (2) pandas are active only in the morning till around 10-11am, after that is nap time!

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If you do the volunteer program, you’ll spend pretty much the whole day at the base. If you go only to visit the pandas, it will take you at least half a day because you won’t be able to take your eyes off those cute and curious creatures. Read about our play date with the pandas here.

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If you still have time and energy when you get back into town, you can head to the ancient Wen Shu monastery. If you are all monasteried out, you’ll still love the old town area the monastery is located in.

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More winding alleyways, tiny shops and quaint tea houses, what’s not to love.

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This evening why not consider a food tour? After the pandas, this is probably the other reason you are in town. While you’ve probably has a good dose of hot pot and stir fry, food tours offer amazing insight into the local cuisine and takes you to some amazing, hidden restaurants that will otherwise be completely off your radar. We did our food tour with Lost Plate, read about our one heck of a culinary adventure here.

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Day 3

Take a day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site – the Leshan Giant Buddha statue, supposedly the largest in the world. Leshan is just over 2 hours drive by car (it can take up to 4 hours if you take public transport).

Once in Leshan you have two options:

1. Do the 3 hour hike to the Buddha statue – the good part is you get really up close to the statue. However, it can get very very crowded and you will spend the better part of you time standing in the long single file queue with noisy tourists.

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2. Take a boat ride – personally I recommend this option. The mammoth statue faces a river, and if you take a mere 30 min boat ride you get a much better view and an opportunity to take as many pictures as you want of the entire statue

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If you take option 2, the Lehsan excursion will last around 5 hours, and if you hike it would take around 8. In any case it will take you pretty much the whole day.

Once back in Chengdu head over to Jiuyanqiao bar street. This beautiful area by the most has a number of interesting bars and of course the beautifully arched Anshun bridge. This is a great spot to say “Gambe” to your weekend in Chengdu.

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A play date with the pandas

Seeing pandas in Chengdu was a dream, part of our bucket list. For us Chengdu was synonymous with the cute and cuddly panda bears, so much so that unknowingly we had rechristened our favourite Sichuan restaurant back home Chengdu Panda. We honestly thought that’s what it was called until one day after recommending the place to some friends who then later walked all over Chinatown in Singapore in search on Chengdu Panda without much luck, did we realise the place was named Old Chengdu. But our brains saw Chengdu and thought panda, so for years we visited the place unknowingly calling it that. Anyway the point is we love pandas, so off we went to Chengdu to see them.

We wanted to get as up close and personal with the pandas as possible, so we booked the panda keeper volunteer program at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, Dujiangyan Base.

Pro tip: this “volunteer” experience is a paid one and you have to book well in advance because they only take in 30 volunteers. Book directly with the center, if not various travel agents will charge you a crazy amount of money. We paid RMB 700 per person in March 2018, which in itself was quite expensive. They don’t have a proper website that I could find, so email them pandaeducatecenter@163.com.

Our day started early as we had to make the 70 min journey from Chengdu to Dujiangyan. The program starts at 9, but get there early so you can finish all the paperwork and make payment (made directly to the center with cash or card). We were then divided into groups, 6 in a group led by their lovely English speaking staff.

We dressed up as panda keepers in blue jumpsuits and gloves and hopped in a buggy that took us through the massive bamboo forest to our allotted panda enclosure. And there we got down to business.

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Pro and I were given a cage to clean up and when we walked into the cage, there they were – the cutest two pandas in the world! When they saw us coming in, they rushed to the front of the cage and looked at us with those adorable eyes!

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Doris our group leader was trying to get the two pandas to step out so that we could clean the cage, but the two fur balls refused to leave. I think they liked us! So she had to bribe them with carrots and drag them out. Once we were given the all clear, we opened the doors and set to work. We had to clean out the panda poo and sweep the bamboo leaves off the floor. You can guess who drew the short straw, so I picked up the broom while Pro shovelled away the poo.

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As I was sweeping, Doris came in and sternly asked me to move away from the back door. Without me noticing, the pandas had come back and were right behind me trying to get in (I knew they liked me). As cute as they were, pandas are still bears, Doris reminded us.

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After the clean up, we walked around the center from one enclosure to another to gawk at the cutie pies.

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It was drizzling and we were given rain coats but the good thing is that apparently pandas loved the rain, and it sure looked like they did because they were out and about playing and just being cute.

We started for hours. Started at one panda hugging a tree peacefully asleep..

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…one looking intently at the falling rain drops…or engrossed in his morning prayer..

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….another munching away on fresh green leaves

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..two pandas playing with each other…

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…doing a little stretch dance, maybe tango?

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…pandas sitting like humans and munching on bamboo shoots…

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…pandas believing they can do acrobats..

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…pandas searching for something far in the horizon

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…And finally a 7 month old panda baby curled up into a ball and sleeping!

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When we got back after our walk, it was time to feed the monochrome giants. After their hour in the rain, the pandas made their way back to the cages and prepared themselves for lunch. We were each given a tray of carrot sticks and we sat down in front of the cages and fed them.

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Doris warned us to pull our hands back as soon as the pandas took the carrot, if not our fingers would be part of their lunch. They don’t mean any harm, but those powerful jaws can crush your bones!

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Sitting next to and feeding a panda was a magical experience. They are like big cuddly babies that look at you with imploring eyes. And they way they take the food to their hands and eat!! Really tugging at my heart strings here! At the end of the carrot tray the pandas were rewarded with a bamboo cake which they seemed to love…

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The pandas had eaten, and it was now time for our lunch. We went to the staff canteen and feasted on a buffet of great Sichuan food. When I booked the tour I was told it was going to be a simple lunch, the same as what the staff eat everyday. It was anything but simple. The food was really very good! Read about our Sichuan food experience here.

After lunch they show you a documentary about pandas and releasing them into the wild and post that you repeat the morning tasks of cleaning and feeding.

The last activity of the day is a chance to make the bamboo cake for the pandas, after which you get a certificate for being a panda keeper.

If you want to pay a hefty fee of RMB 1800 (as of March 2018) you can opt to hug a panda and take a picture. It’s strictly for 20 seconds and you get to sit next to a panda and have your arm around him. We didn’t think it was worth the money since we anyway got very very close and were in fact able to touch the pandas during the day.

Pro tip: if you don’t want to spend the entire day at the center you can be like us and skip the afternoon activities. We wanted to go back to Chengdu since we only had 3 days and tons more to see and do in town. Read our 3 day Chengdu itinerary here. Although you end up paying the full amount even if you do a half day volunteer, it saves you some time and anyway the afternoon is a repeat of the morning.

All in all it was a wonderful play date with pandas, getting really up close and personal with these once critically endangered species.

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Know before you go

  • You can volunteer in one of two places – the Dujiangyan base or the Wolong base – both run by the same company so the experience is pretty much the same. Dujiangyan is 1.5 hour drive from Chengdu, Wolong is 3 hours away, thats the only difference you need to consider
  • The interaction you get with pandas with the volunteer program is limited to feeding them
  • When you clean their cages, make bamboo cake etc, there are no pandas around
  • You get to walk around the park to see the pandas in their enclosures – this is the same as what you would get if you buy a normal ticket priced at RMB 50, so its a big price difference
  • Bulky cameras like a DSLR aren’t allowed while you are volunteering so you will have to be happy with photos from a phone camera
  • All in all what you pay for is the chance to feed the pandas (unless you are really into cleaning cages :)), this time is roughly around 1-2 mins. Of course you can touch, stroke them while you are at it.

How to get there – there are 3 ways to get to the base:

  1. Taxi: you can show the driver this words, :四川省都江堰市青城山镇石桥村中国大熊猫保护研究中心都江堰基地(怀中路青城山镇与大观镇之间)
  2. Train: take subway to XIPU(犀浦), then take the train around 7:53 in the morning from XIPU(犀浦)to Qingchengshan Railway station(青城山站) then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base (熊猫乐园)
  3. Bus:Take bus from Chadianzi (茶店子客运站) to Dujiangyan(都江堰)then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base

Not wanting to risk getting lost early in the morning we booked the transfer through Chengdu Holiday (chengduholiday@yahoo.com) well in advanced and paid RMB 600. This seemed to be the standard lowest price we could find.

Hope you enjoyed the story of our play date with the pandas. If you are interested in doing the same and have more questions, give us a shout in the comments below and we’ll get back to you.

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Trans Siberian Rail Journey – everything you need to know

Firstly lets start with definitions. There are a few “trans” trains in this region that are used interchangeably, so to avoid any confusions these are the names you’d hear –

  1. Trans Siberian: this is the most famous one, partly owing to the movie and partly because it is the longest train journey on the planet. This goes between Moscow and Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia.
  2. Trans Mongolian: as the name suggests this branches out from the Trans Siberian and goes across Mongolia to Ulaanbataar and Beijing.
  3. Trans Manchurian: this goes all the way across China to Harbin and then to Beijing

Most people take the Trans Siberian and its branch Trans Mongolian all the way to Beijing and skip the cold of the Russian east coast. This is what we took, covering 6000km on rail.

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How to book the Trans Siberian tickets

Unfortunately there is no official rail website where you can buy these tickets, you have to go through a Russian travel agent or a 3P website. I suggest you pick a Russian travel agent as it gives you a few advantages

  • You can customise the itinerary as you wish, getting off and on from different stations and spending as much time as you want along the way
  • Its MUCH cheaper than buying it from a local travel agent. We tried buying off some Singaporean agents and the cost was more than double. We met a Norwegian couple on the train and they had the exact same experience trying to buy from Oslo.

If you are planning on making some stops in between, remember that you can’t buy one ticket. It doesn’t work like a hop on hop off. You will need to buy as many tickets depending on the number of stops you make. We stopped in Irkutsk and Ulaanbataar, so we had to buy 3 tickets: Moscow – Irkutsk, Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar, Ulaanbataar – Beijing.

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Our Trans Siberian Rail Tickets!!

Picking the right train

There are normal trains and express trains depending on the dates you pick to go. If you make stops in between in Siberia, you might end up in a normal train that doesn’t go all the way. This is not ideal because its slower and stops in many places. The normal trains don’t have first class. If your travel agent offers you first class on a normal train, that means he’s giving you a second class cabin to yourself.

Check out seat61.com to get a detailed understanding of each train. We took train number 4 from Moscow to Irkutsk and train number 306 from Irkutsk.

There are also Russian, Chinese and Mongolian (run by Russians) trains. Depending on the flag of the train the staff will be from that country. Although neither really speaks any English, this is something to keep in mind.

Solely based on the two trains we travelled in, my biggest advice is to pick the Russian or Mongolian trains. They are newer, MUCH MUCH MUCH cleaner, better maintained with staff who were more professional.

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The beautiful Russian train staff

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The slightly annoyed at being photographed Chinese staff

Picking the right cabin 

You have an options of picking from

First class: there are two per cabin, although one is still a bunk bed. There is also one “shower” room between two cabins, so you have to share with your neighbours. This has a sink, tap and a shower. However, don’t attempt a full shower because the doors aren’t entirely sealed and it will start leaking into the cabins. Trust me, it happened to us. A damp carpet in your cabin is not what you want on the longest train journey on the planet. There are 2 toilets for each carriage, which usually has 16 people. There is enough storage for 3 big bags, 1 small bag and 1 back pack, very comfortably. The cabin also has a power socket for all your devices.

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Inside the Moscow – Irkutsk Chinese Train

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Our wonderful cabin inside the Irkutsk – Ulaanbataar Russian Train

Second class: this has 2 bunk beds for 4 people and can be a little bit cramped up.

Third class: I haven’t personally seen this, but everything I have read that one should not to take the third class cabin unless you are Russian.

When to go: Summer vs Winter 

Ah here is a question we mulled over for quite some time. Go in the summer when the sun is out and the temperature is comfortable or see Siberia like how we’ve heard all our lives – completely frozen. We picked the latter and I will personally recommend it, although I have no comparator. Winter is Siberia is bitterly cold, but with the right clothes, its beauty is beyond words. Miles and miles of monochrome landscape gleaming in the winter sun.

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Siberian landscape as the train slowly rolled past

We did consider a middle ground in our typical compromising style and although I haven’t personally experienced it, some Russian friends advised us not to go there in Spring when the thaw happens. The melting snow slush makes everything cold and not so beautiful.

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Onboard!

Where to go

The popular stops along the way are

  1. Yekaterinburg – if you want to see the remains of the last Tsar Romanov family or enter the heart of what was once the center of Russian organized crime.
  2. Irkutsk – to see the breathtaking Lake Bikal. Read about our stop over in the most famous part of Siberia here.
  3. Ulaan Baatar – enter the wilderness of the Steppes and Gobi desert through Mongolia’s capital

While on the train

The first thing to keep in mind is the time table on board the train. These timetables were made before smart phones and GPS and also keeping in mind the patchy connection in the middle of nowhere, so all times are in Moscow time. This can be a bit confusing at first especially because you cross about 5 time zones enroute, so it makes sense to have Moscow time on your phone.

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The slightly confusing time table on board our train #4

The weird part is that when you stop at stations, the time shown on the station clock is also Moscow time!

Everyday the train will stop 3-4 times. Once in the middle of the night and maybe 2-3 times during the day. Each stop will be about 15-20 minutes but they start calling you back after about 5-10 minutes so you don’t get much time on ground. In any case you cant go too far, just in case the train leaves without you. You can hop off the train to stretch your legs or buy some essentials. In the winter we didn’t see many stores, but this could be different in the summer. The stores we came across had all the basic necessities – toilet paper (although your bum might scream in pain if you use it), cup noodles, bread, chips etc. We also came across some roast chicken, bacon and fried fish although its freshness is suspect.

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Small stores on the platform selling food and basic necessities

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Another quick stop at midnight. Weather: -20 degrees and light snow fall!

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Fried fish being sold by vendors

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Pro and his dad coming back with groceries

The restaurant car

There is a very warm restaurant car on each train. The food is very very mediocre and over priced. We had soup which surprisingly tasted fresh and good, but the roast meat and sandwiches were quite bad. The bread was stale and the meat was hard and chewy.

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The train conductors cooked their own momos!!! and luckily for us shared them with us

Each carriage has a hot water dispenser where you can get unlimited hot water ranging around 80 degrees.

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Pro’s dad filling hot water into the flask provided by the train

Be ware that some trains do not have restaurant cars. The one we took from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar only did that leg and since it was just a day and a half, there was no restaurant car on the train. Imagine our surprise heading for dinner! But the staff onboard did sell tea, coffee and snacks. The coffee came in very fancy crystal mugs!

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Coffee served in fancy crystal mugs and metal holders

What to pack

Food – since the food onboard is limited and there isn’t much to buy from the train stations, we packed most of the food we needed. This included

  • Cup noodles
  • Cup soup
  • Tin fish
  • Cheese
  • Salami
  • Beef jerky
  • Instant rice (Dont judge, us Sri Lankans cant go long without rice)
  • Some packeted Sri Lankan food – seeni sambol, pol sambol, fried sprats
  • Vermicilli (since its easy to cook – you only need to dip in boiling water)
  • Fruits
  • Tea
  • Instant coffee
  • Milk powder
  • Ready to eat Quinoa mix from Jamie Oliver
  • Biscuits
  • Chocolate
  • Nuts
  • Whiskey
  • Vodka (we were in Russia after all)

We had also taken some cutlery

  • Disposable plates
  • Forks, knives, spoons, scissor
  • Cups
  • Flask: so that we could easily take the hot water back into our cabin

Other than that we packed

  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes for the body
  • Lip balm
  • Enough moisturizer
  • Swiss army knife
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We borrowed a pot from the staff and cooked rice!!!

How to pack

We had arrived in Russia with two big suitcases on wheels. But since the cabins are small and room to manoeuvre is minimum we also took with us some foldable duffle bags. The clothes and toiletries we need on board was packed in one duffle and the food was packed in another. This was Pro’s ingenious idea and worked brilliantly for us.

What you get onboard 

You will get a bed sheet, duvet, blanket and mattress cover, pillow and pillow cover. They also give you a plate and a hot water flask – its cleanliness is questionable so we didn’t really use these.

The Toilets

This is a stress point for me and I couldn’t find much online. So if you are finicky like me, here are the deats.

Moscow-Irkutsk (Chinese Train) – We were in first class and only 6 people including ourselves were using the toilet. It was a metal toilet, with a flush peddle that you had to step on. Overall it looked clean, although I didn’t dare sit on that toilet seat. From time to time it smelled a bit bad, but there wasn’t much choice.

Irkutsk onwards (Russian Train) – The toilets were in great condition here! the set up was exactly the same as the train before, however it was MUCH cleaner and regularly cleaned. There was fresh toilet paper and hand towels as well as liquid soap.

Border crossing

If you take the train all the way from Russia to China or vice versa, you will experience 2 border crossings and therefore 4 check points as you cross each country. This is what you need to know

  • The train stops and immigration and customs officers board the train and will come to you to do the check. You are not allowed to get off the train or wander about inside the train until all checks are completed.
  • You also can’t use the toilet (since its stopped in a station) till the checks are completed. So remember to finish all your business before the train stops
  • You will receive an immigration and customs declaration form from the train staff before the check point so remember to fill them up as soon as you get it
  • Keep your passport and forms ready to be checked when the officials board the train
  • Also keep your luggage ready to be checked. If you have any bags kept in the luggage space on top, bring them down and keep them ready
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Mongolia border check

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Russia border check

We haven’t answered all your questions? Leave a comment and we’ll respond.

Siberia’s Frozen Nothingness

Siberia – that word in itself sends a cold shrill down my spine. Known for being probably the world’s bleakest, inhabited, vast land of frozen nothingness. As I type this out, sitting in a train enroute to Mongolia, I look out of the window and see the frozen Lake Bikal – an expansive large white mass with distant snow covered mountains.

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Pro loves trains and ever since watching the movie Trans Siberian, he had wanted to do the world’s longest train journey. Something about whizzing past a vast land area with nothing, doing shots of vodka with strangers that don’t speak the same language appealed to him. So it made it to our bucket list.

The first big pre trip decision we had to make was whether to do the train journey in winter or in summer. Do we brave the sub zero temperatures (remember its always +30 degrees where we come from) or go in sunny summer when we can perhaps stay out for extended periods without the risk of frost bite. In the end, the decision was simple – we had to see Siberia the way we had heard it. The way my mum described it written in Doctor Zhivago, the way the movie Transsiberian showed it, the way we expected it to be when we walked into a cold room with a centrally controlled air con and said “jeez this feels like Siberia”. So winter it was.

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Close to midnight on a cold winter day, we hopped on Trans Siberian Train #4 from Moscow. Read all the logistical details about our trip here.

After settling into our cabin which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson movie (Thanks T for the apt reference) we journeyed through the center of Russia for 4 not so long days.

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I had expected to be bored, so my kindle was equipped with 6 new books, I was armed with my laptop to write and of course had my camera to snap every passing scene. But to my surprise the days on the train were pleasantly eventful. Time just whizzed past in us playing house – preparing our meals, tidying up, washing and cleaning dishes; making friends – having that occasional vodka shot with strangers, befriending the conductors who fed us with freshly made momos (YUM!); getting layered up to jump off the train in -20 degree weather when it make a couple of short stops each day.

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Siberia was pretty much exactly how we expected it to be – a vast landscape covered with snow, dotted with a few evergreens. With each passing day the landscape changed. We woke up to a misty mornings where everything was pretty much…white. The scene outside our windows seemed to be in the inspiration for Monet’s Magpie. As the hours passed and the winter sun rose, blue skies framed the landscape and the powdery snow glittered. The sun dipped early making everything almost monochrome in the early evening and after that, pitch black.

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Four days of gentle rocking on the train stopped when we got to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Bikal the world’s largest fresh water lake. It was half the size (without exaggeration) of Sri Lanka! Imagine that.

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This was the perfect place to finally experience the real Siberia, after seeing it outside our window for days. It was half past 7 when we jumped off the train, but it was still very dark and foggy in Irkutsk. We got off to a snow covered platform lit by 19th century lamp posts and watched our train engulfed in the mist, while the conductors were herding the moving passengers.

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From here we drove off to the complete wilderness of Siberia – Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Bikal. Given its geographical positioning, Olkhon was thankfully isolated from most of civilisation that had creeped in on Siberia. And given the extreme winter weather, we had the place almost to ourselves and the 1000+ locals who lived on the island. Olkhon was a mystical place of significance to the Shaman believers.

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But for us, the magic was in the lake. Around the island, the water is so pure that when it freezes in winter, the frozen lake is completely transparent. Imagine that you are standing on a glass on top of a 1500m depth – thats the feeling you get standing on the frozen Lake Bikal. The water is frozen solid for a good 2m and is completely strong. So much so that the only way in to the island from the mainland is to drive above the ice.

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At first I didn’t get this – I’ve seen frozen lakes before that resembled skating rinks and were white as snow (yes yes, because of the snow). But Bikal was different – partly because of how pure the water was and also because of the micro climate on the island, as cold as it got (way past -20) it doesn’t snow much! All of this made the lake so magically (and a tad bit scarily) transparent. Yes its all a bit confusing and hard to imagine, but look at these pictures..

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For the most part I was half expecting some white walkers and the ice breathing dragon Viserion to just come by. This landscape looked eerily like something north of the wall. Or maybe they had just been here and hence this scenery.

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We spent as much time on the ice as our tropical loving bodies would allow it. Peeping through the ice to see if we can spot any fish below the frozen surface (spoiler alert: we didn’t, we did however see the rock clad bottom of the lake it some shallow places), playing a game of ice foot ball (or ice foot block), exploring ice caves and munching on icicles (yes, Pro did do that).

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While the lake is for the most part frozen and safe to trod on, some parts, particularly whats known as the “big sea” can be a bit dangerous. The lake freezes in parts starting from the top. As the still liquid waves keep rippling up, massive slabs and blocks of ice forms one on top of the other. Some of these were about 10ft tall! This can also then create cracks and crevices in the ice curving along for a few kilometres!

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When we got to the “Big Sea”, Anatoli our driver sped right over the ice touching 100kmph and came to a screeching halt next to an area with massive and beautiful blue ice slabs (think colour of the White Walkers eyes) and a long crack.

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We jumped off the jeep and while I was capturing the breathtaking aqua blue scenery, Pro started playing with the ice slabs. Seeing that there was a thin layer of water on top of the long crevice surrounded by ice blocks, his curiosity got the better of him and he started throwing smaller blocks in an attempt to make a splash.

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Thats when we heard a heart wrenching sharp, thunderous crack sound emitting from the lake! At first I thought it was thunder, then I realised it was the ice, and the floor beneath me was vibrating ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should run for my life, and if so in which direction or if I should cling on to the largest ice block I could find or just let my fate be decided by the great Shaman powers who possessed the lake. In the end I think I froze (no pun intended) while watching a mammoth ice plate move and change its resting position.

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As we rushed back to the jeep (to get the hell outta there) Anatoli was calm and implored for us to stay longer on the ice (no way in hell.) and as he did this, he told us the story of how his brother died when the frozen lake gave way and opened up, right here on the big see and pointed to a grave site on top of a mountain (was he for real?!) While we thought we escaped a near death experience, here he was calmly telling us of his loss, one that happened in a very similar situation to what we thought was unfolding then and there.

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In the end we of course made it out to live another day, enjoy the reflection of the setting sun on the legendary Lake Bikal ice and to later sit beside a warm fireplace eating honey cake.

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It was a good reminder that the lake specifically and mother nature in general was precious and jaw droopingly beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.

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How to NOT Quit Your Day Job and Travel

There are tons of articles and inspirational stories about how people quit their jobs and traveled the world, how people made a living out of it or even found ways to travel the word for free. But not all of us have that luxury or the need to do so, some of us have commitments and in fact some of us actually love our day jobs. Taking a break and traveling somehow makes it more special, more earned, more sought after. Everything over done can be boring and I for one never want travel to be boring. So here’s an article, for a change, about how to travel relatively excessively while still having a full time job.

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The first thing we see as we wake up each day – a push pin map up on our bedroom wall

1. Have that burning desire to travel…for adventure, to see and experience new things – unless you really really want to travel it’s not going to happen. You may look at other people’s pictures and stories wishfully but if you don’t want it badly enough it ain’t gonna happen. Travel is going to cost you and that “payment” in return for all those memorable experiences has to be more important than a lot of other material things. If travel isn’t your priority then again it ain’t gonna happen, make the choice and don’t complain. #noexcuses

2. Maximize number of days – the first question people always ask us is how we manage to do it with a full time job, how we manage to get days off work. Actually it’s quite simple – here our secret (might be very obvious when you read it). We plan all our travels around public holidays. Every additional day you get to spend in some exotic location is like gold when you have a full time job. Unfortunately for us Singapore (where we live) doesn’t have a lot of public holidays unlike our beautiful motherland (Sri Lanka) but we make it work.

Here’s our actual holiday calendar from last year –

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3. Plan well in advance – this I know for a lot of people is a huge hassle, then do yourself a favour and hire a travel agent (if you want I highly recommend THE TRAVELLED :)) lots of people travel during long weekends and prices soar! The only way out is early planning. Also if you want to experience some of the most unique things that sell out fast, there is no other choice.

Pro had to book a meal at Jules Verne inside the Eiffel Tower 6 months in advance as a surprise during our trip to Paris. Even then he couldn’t get us in for dinner.

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An exclusive look out, reserved only for diners at Jules Verne on top of the Eiffle Tower

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We bought the passes to see the mountain gorillas forever in advance because it was a bucket list item we really wanted to tick while in Africa.

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Coming up close and personal with a Silverback Mountain Gorilla, during our trek in Rwanda

4. Make use of benefits your work place offers – if you are lucky enough to work for a progressive company that believes in things like agile working, make use of it! Be disciplined about and ensure you don’t slack, but working out of a quaint coffee shop in Fremantle with a sea view is way better than sitting at your desk. Plus you still have a few hours everyday to explore your surroundings

 

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Working off a cafe in Fremantle, the coffee though..!

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That very same work day ended like this, just before the sun set

Pro and I go back home every Christmas. We end up spending about 2 weeks in Sri Lanka and work about a week from home. Working from your dining room, having your mum’s home cooked lunch is a gazillion times more satisfying and productive than your office desk. Also you have the entire evening to catch up with friends from home. Precious.

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Home for Christmas

 

5. When work takes you places, extend – if you are blessed enough to travel with work, make the most of it. It’s a bit difficult to plan in advance but sometimes a weekend on either side or just an extra day is all you need. When Pro and I first started traveling way back when we were still working in Sri Lanka, we got the chance to travel to Singapore thrice within a year for a training. We extend each trip and covered 3 other cities – Hong Kong, Phuket and Manila.

Work took me to Africa last year, Pro joined me and we took a week off together.

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Waderlusting at the entrance of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Once in London for work, all I needed was one extra day to bask in a rare sunny day during the British Spring.


5. Maximize time on your holiday – we are definitely not the type of tourists that hop on a tour bus and rush from place to place just to snap a quick photo and tick a box. Having said that we do really try to make the most of our holiday. Time is precious when you have a limited number of days off from work and your inbox is overflowing while you are away. So make choices, a little extra effort and time on the road will be completely worth it.

When we went to South America we really wanted to see Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It was completely and utterly out of the way, but who knew when we’d make it to this far away land again? So we made it happen. Taking 2 flights (which we had to research like hell to find) and paying extra for transfers we made it to see the world’s biggest mirror and what a journey it was! We had to skip Bolivia’s bohemian capital La Paz and had to sacrifice Lake Titicaca in Peru and only had 2 nights in the Bolivian wilderness, but I’d do it again any day. Just to see those stunning desert lakes and the salt flat.

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Salar de Uyuni in all its glory

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Making full use of the stunning landscape to take some interesting pics

Just this Spring, we went to Japan and really wanted to maximize our chance of seeing Mount Fuji. So we hired a car and drove in a hail storm to the town of Kawaguchi-ko at the foot of the mountain. The next day we were rewarded with stunning views of the almost symmetrical volcano.

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Driving in a hail storm to Kawaguchi-ko, Japan

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Rewarded the next day with breathtaking views of Mount Fuji

Or the time we spent way more than we should have, to fly to Uluru in the middle of the red desert in Australia, just to see the iconic Ayer’s Rock

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This sacred rock was such a special place with an amazing vibe you could actually feel

Or the crazy dash we made to the remote town of Jiuzhaigou in China to witness the unique turquoise lakes, a serious effort was required.

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Multi coloured lakes in Jiuzhaigou, China

So all in all, this is how we manage to pull off sometimes 16 countries a year while having a full time job! And we our total count as of now is 50, that’s only 1/4th of this beautiful blue planet, there is so much more to see.

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Be wanderlusters, make choices, if it’s too much let a professional handle the planning!

Good luck and tell us how it goes…

Delightfully Salty! A Photo Shoot Like No Other

What have you imagined heaven to look like? Living in the blue sky, walking on white fluffy clouds? Welcome to Salar de Uyuni.

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The doors of our jeep opened and we leaped into the sky. Or at least it felt like it, until our feet touched a shallow layer of cold water. Here we were in the middle of the Bolivian desert, in the largest salt flat in the world, stepping on the largest mirror in the world.

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Everything you’ve read, seen and heard about this place is true. The place is almost surreal. I’m not sure where the sky started or ended. What was real and what was the reflection. For as far as your eye could see it was the sky, above and below you.

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Perched up ~3600m above sea level, in the land locked Bolivian desert is this natural marvel. No doubt it was once submerged in sea water, probably a few millennia ago before tectonic plates shifted to make the world as we know it today. But today this salty delight is in the middle of the South American continent. Accessed from a non-descriptive little town called Uyuni, the salar is the crowning jewel of this little nation.

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The best time to visit the salar, in my humble opinion is the rainy season. Although most would prefer the dry winter months, when it rains a thin layer of water remains on the surface of the salt flat creating an amazing mirror effect that gives the feeling that you are walking on clouds. The dry season I’m sure is perfect, but when you see the sky and ground collide to create one seamless white & blue paradise, you know it just cant get any better.

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There isn’t much to see here other than whiteness for as far as your eyes can see (over 10,000 sq km to be precise), but the setting does make for a fantabulous backdrop for perspective photography. So we hired a few “props” from our hotel (side note: all hotels have cupboards full of toys and toiletries and what not that one can rent for props for a day of photography) and set out shoot the day away.

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Just remember to bring out the crazy in you, or ensure you have a crazy friend in tow, like we did (thanks Swa for the brilliant photo direction!) to end up with pictures like this

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A few things to keep in mind when visiting the Salar,

  1. If you go in the rainy season, remember to pack water proof shoes. Stepping into the cold water early in the morning was not pleasant as a few of us discovered

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  2. Pack water proof clothes, pants at least, so you can roll around in the water, shooting pictures with no worry
  3. Consider staying in a salt hotel, its an interesting experience to say the least! Read about our’s here.
  4. Nights in the salar can be bitterly cold, so pack well
  5. You are in the middle of a salt flat, so be extra careful with your camera and such devices, the last thing you want is the insides of your precious SLR corroding
  6. Tons of sunscreen is a must. You are completely exposed to the sun with no where to hide. At the end of the day we were burnt crisp.

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  7. Take tons of props with you and let your creativity unfold.

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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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Coming up close and personal with King Kong

Gorilla trekking has been on my mind for a long time, the concept of venturing into a thick jungle in search of giant mountain gorillas was extremely fascinating. Walking up to a 200kg King Kong and his family blew my mind. So it made it to the bucket list and therefore seemed like a good way to celebrate my 30th birthday. Why not come up close and personal with a giant primate and consider how humanity evolved for me to have lived 30 years of a homo sapient existence!

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We were assigned to the Sabinyo gorilla family which was really exciting because firstly the iconic jaggered volcano in the park shared by all 3 countries was named Sabinyo as was half the hotels and restaurants, so it seemed like we were visiting royalty. Secondly the oldest silverback known to man was the alpha of this family! Real life King Kong!! Silverbacks usually live upto a 35 or 40 years, but this gentle giant just crossed 45!

 

The entrance to the park marked by a rock wall and guarded by an armed guard who was waiting for us. There are mountain elephants (didn’t know such a species existed before) and buffaloes in the hills. They can sometimes go rouge and be dangerous so we must at all times we guarded by a man holding a gun, which he promised was not to shoot at the animal but only to scare him away, if it ever came to that. Spoiler alert! It didn’t.

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We trekked for about 90 mins and apparently came to a point where the path split. My first reaction was, there is a path?!? The whole time I was thinking we were creating one, chopping off small branches and the undergrowth. But yes, there was a path and we were at crossroads. The problem was that the trackers hadn’t yet spotted the gorillas. They apparently almost got to the gorillas when they spotted a mountain elephant! Then no one moves. So they were waiting for the giant to move away so that they could carry on tracking the Sabinyo group. But without knowing where the gorillas were, we couldn’t proceed. Such is the nature of cross roads. So we sat down and waited. And waited. One of our guides escorted by the armed guard went ahead to see if they could find the trackers, so we waited for them to come back. And we waited. 30 minutes went by, no guide, no guard, no news. So the second guide went in search of the first armed with a porter who was carrying a machete. That felt a little like abandonment. Here we were sitting in the middle of the thick forest with our porters and nothing to protect us if it ever came to that (well I was armed with a selfie stick). Another 15 minutes slowly ticked by and the guides returned. The Sabinyos had been spotted and we were on our way.

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This is where things got….difficult. The blooming gorillas were on the face of a steep mountain. So our first task was to trek or in my case crawl, hang and slide down. The thing you don’t realize till you actually do it is that you are not stepping on solid ground. The plant growth is so thick and roots and wines and trees and plants are seemingly one of top of each other a good few inches above the ground. So you have to keep going. You can’t stop because if you do you fall. To add to our problems there were stinging nettle everywhere. Not only can you not step on something solid, nor can you hold on to dear life! So you just go..and we did. Finally after what seemed to be forever they said that we arrived. We had to leave our bags and walking sticks with the porters, grab only our camera and trek further down to the gorillas.

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All my pain vanished the moment I spotted a fury back with touches of silver merely 10 meters away. OMG the Sabinyo silver back, the oldest alpha was sitting, just there, right there where I could reach out and touch him.

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We got closer and closer. I really only had to straighten my arm and I would have touched the magnificent alpha. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Park rules and fear for my life.

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He just sat there. Posed for us. Ignored us. Scratched his arm. Ate some leaves. Stared at us.

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After a while the silver back for bored…stood up to show us his ginormous size and where the 250kg was dispersed (I really took a step back, not that there was space or ground to move back) pounded on his chest and growled loudly (I think I peed a little and then toppled).

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Oh. My. God. Here was King Kong, telling us who’s boss. We didn’t for a moment doubt that he was.

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Then he walked away, showing us his magnificent rear! We followed of course.

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Two other gorillas, one baby and one female joined him and we were on their trail. They stopped, we stopped. The cameras snapped.

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We just stood there snapping and snapping and snapping. A minute later the guide said “guys, slowly turn around” OH. MY. GOD. Mummy bear, I mean gorilla with her baby on the back was walking to us. And I mean we were in her path. She was a few feet away. Of course there was nowhere to move to. She just brushed up against us and walked away. Just. Like. That.

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The two baby gorillas jumped away from their mummy and started playing. What a riot. They were aggressively playful with each other. Pulling, biting, tackling, punching, eating, stealing and probably even tickling each other. A-do-ra-ble!! We were inches away from them and they did not care.

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The silverback got bored and went further downhill, sat himself near lush vegetation and started eating. I guess he knew we wouldn’t hurt his family, although he did give us a few looks while whole bushes vanished into his mouth.

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What magnificent creatures. I could’ve stared at them all day. They just went about eating and playing and just being. They were so like us. Their fingers, their eyes, the expressions, the way they itched, the way they ate, the way they gestured at each other. It was easy to see why Diane Fossy was so obsessed with these creatures.

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Technically we had an hour with them, but I think we spent close to two. I was devastated when the guides said time was up. Partly because we needed to make our way back the same way we came, but also because I wanted to snuggle up to the Sabinyo and be a part of their family.

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Kicking and screaming (only in my mind) we left. And things got even more difficult back up. If not for Eric, my porter, my trekking partner I would have had to beg the silver back to let me join his family. Eric almost dragged and partly carried me back up. What an amazing experience.

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One I would not do again, but to have been able to do it once was all that I had expected and more.

An Amazonian Adventure 

Exploring the world’s biggest rain forest was an obvious bucket list item, so I didn’t even hesitate to fit it into our South American adventure.

We accessed the Amazon from Brazil with our guide, whose name was…wait for it…RAMBO! He’s from a local tribe and apparently after spending 5 years in the Army he got this nickname.

The best – and sometimes only – way to access this thick rainforest is by boat. The part of the Amazon we visited was around Rio Negro and Rio Amazon. We boarded our small boat and set off to see the spot where these two epic rivers met – one black, full of minerals met the other, brown, cold and apparently more aggressive. It was quite a spectacular site as the two opposing rivers formed almost a line when they met.

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We cruised along the rivers and every now and again spotted fishermen (or maybe some kind of water weed gathers) hiding among the thick vegetation on the river.

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Rambo took us around to find various Amazonian residents including

1. The sloth bear – having very much a humanlike face and clinging on to you like a baby it was the cutest animal ever!

2. A baby anaconda – this baby weighed a ton and coiled itself around my neck before I quickly passed it on..I’ve tried pythons around my neck before, but the anaconda was something else. It was a lot heavier and stronger!

3. Enormous carnivorous cat fish!

4. Amazonian monkeys who we tempted with bananas. They aren’t tamed so these little creatures were slightly afraid of us and wouldn’t interact too much. But the allure of food got the best of them so they would stretch and jump to get hold of the bananas
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We also spotted some residual giant water lilies growing ahead of the season or left behind from the last. Rambo calls them Amazon pizzas!

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We then disembarked at a small town to buy supplies for the next few days in the jungle and drove inland to take yet another boat to get to our lodge. This was more of a canoe than a boat. We loaded all our stuff and set off through narrow winding streams and lakes to get to our very basic jungle lodging.

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After resting for a while we set off to capture one of Amazon’s most feared predators – the piranha! A few mins away from our lodge we stopped the canoe in a shaded area and Rambo took out the fishing rods. My expression was “sorry, right here?!? You mean I shouldn’t dip my toes in the waters outside the lodge?!?” Of course he failed to mentioned the river was piranha infested! Pro had even ducked his go pro underwater in hopes of getting a shot at some fish!!! Narrow escape apparently.

Rambo took out a few piranha delicacies – beef and pork, cut it in small pieces and fixed it onto the hooks of each of our rods. Apparently piranhas don’t like the fat part of the meat so that had to be cut off..demanding much! With the bait in, we waited. For most part we felt that we were feeding the piranhas than fishing for them. It was either the lack of experience or the intellect of the fish, they managed to gobble away the bait without getting caught.

Rambo of course had no problem whatsoever and kept catching all 5 varieties of piranhas. But they did trick him too many times and kept eating the bait, so it was just our lack of experience.

Piranhas aren’t as big as the one on the movie poster, they were little harmless looking fishies with killer well hidden teeth.


Swa managed to get one but flicked the rod too hard that the fish got tossed off to the other side. This happened twice and the third time was of course the charm! He ended up catching 3 little monsters!!

 Piranhas in stock we set off to watch the sunset. I snoozed off for a while and when my eyes opened we were approaching a beautiful soft white sand beach…how did that happen in the middle of this river?!

We took some stupid photos while waiting for the sun to set – some jumping, some silhouettes and some down right weird shots later we witnessed a beautiful sunset turning the sky and the lake orange at first and then a beautiful shade of pink

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As darkness set we headed back to the lodge for a grilled piranha dinner.


The next morning we were up before the alarms. Such is life in the jungle, the sun rises and the surroundings quieten down signaling your body to wake up.

Today Mother Nature reminded us that we were in a rain forest. The skies opened up and poured all morning. But of course this didn’t stop us as we set off to find and swim with pink river Dolphins. This was by far the cutest Amazonian experience (not that one expects the Amazon to be cute!).

At first I was a bit skeptical about getting into the water. Although Rambo swore it was piranha free, who knew?! And what other strange swimming floating creatures could be in these dark waters, it was the mother of jungles after all. I had heard horror stories of invisible creatures getting into your body and taking residence! But after seeing the Dolphins jump out of the water and interact, I couldn’t help myself. Screw the piranhas, I will take the chance!


These Dolphins were completely wild but playful. They would come and rub against you, bite you. I freaked out at first (was it a piranha?!) but it wasn’t painful and they were just being their excitable selves. Their skin felt like human skin and they didn’t seem to freak out at our touch. So, dancing in the rain with Dolphins – check!

We then went to Rambo’s friends place in the jungle and snoozed on hammocks while Rambo cooked the most delicious chicken stew and rice. This guy is multi talented! It was the perfect comfort food our wet bodies craved. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and snoozing after that heavy lunch.

  
We were meant to camp in the forest tonight but the blessed rain was not going to allow that. So Rambo’s friend Dorian kindly offered us hammocks in his hall. When night fell Rambo made a kick ass barbecue before taking us caiman spotting.

Now this caiman spotting was something else! Decked up in rain covers we set off in the dark and walked down to the river and boarded a small canoe. It was pitch dark. Complete black. Rambo sat at the front of the canoe with a flash light on his head. He was like a lighthouse or a flood light. Turning his head around and lighting up the river banks. Not seeing is a scary feeling! The waters were so still and the blackness was daunting.
Rambo nodded in one direction and the boatman changed direction. He slowed the boat, Rambo casually reached out and lifted a caiman!! Just like that! Oh shit! The waters are infested with man eating alligators and here we were floating around in the darkness! For its recreation value!!!!



The caiman he caught was small but strong. It had to be held by its head and tail, else one can get hurt. Rambo passed it around and the boys had fun! But I was completely freaking out. They could grow up to 2 meters and are aggressive! One wrong move, the boat could topple and we could be eaten alive! I wanted so badly to have my feet on the ground. But Rambo had other ideas! After releasing the caiman we went around the river and he taught us how to spot the little monsters. Their eyes gleam in the light. Apparently you need to have 100% visibility when you reach out and snap it out of the water. Rambo showed us 3 scars from when he tried to catch them without really seeing them. I couldn’t handle the predator infested water in the darkness anymore and was more than glad when we came back.
Later that night the boys drank local Rum and smoked an Amazonian weed. We sang and danced and told stories.

Rambo was a colorful guy! He claimed to have 3 families – two in the indigenous tribes, one in Manaus! Apparently he fathered 18 daughters and 15 sons with 5 wives!! His oldest is 32 and youngest was 2! He was apparently in the army special forces and was a qualified sniper, survivor, parachuter and commando! He spent 3 months living in the jungle eating rodents, frogs and insects as part of his training. Were these fairytales told around the bonfire to gullible tourists or was this the way of life in the jungle one would never know. But he seems to be more than deserving of his nickname, Rambo.

The next morning the rain had ceased. So we once again boarded the canoe and headed up stream. Rambo found us a spot to enter the forest and we hiked around the thick jungle. Ever so often he would point to a tree or pick a fruit and explain its medicinal properties or how the tribes would use it. The guy was good with his hands he made a bowl out of a leaf, a spoon out of a bark, a spear and even a carrier for our water bottle.

   
At one point Rambo turned Tarzan and started swinging himself on the thick vines that were hanging down from colossal trees.


Of course the boys followed suit!


Later that day we cruised along the Amazon River spotting various animals, flora and fauna. We had spent most our time in the Amazon around the negro river which had a starkly different landscape than the Amazon River. Now seeing this part of the forest, I think I preferred it to the other. But I can’t really say for sure since I only spent a few hours there. But one thing was for sure, there were more animals in this part of the forest, on the banks of this river. We saw a variety of birds, monkeys and even a sloth bear in the wild.

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Our time in the Amazon was coming to an end and we made our way back along some of the same parts of the river we had used to get here. Half way through we had to stop. The entire river was covered with a very thick vegetation that wasn’t there 3 days ago! If you had an Ariel view you wouldn’t be able to say that there was a river here, let alone the majestic Amazon River.


Rambo tried really hard to wade through the jungle and maneuver through the growth. It was impossible! There was no getting through this, so we turned around and took another path.


A few mins later the sky opened up and rain poured down. It was actually quite a nice experience, I loved cruising along the river drenched! Before we could make it to port the rain had stopped and the sun was out. That’s how unpredictable the weather in a rain forest can be, sunny one minute and a proper downpour the next and back to being sunny. It was either that or the cry protesting the end of our Amazonian adventure!

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