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.

Cappadocia, the real Flintstones! 

Cappadocia deserves a book, but I’m going to try and manage with a blog.
When the wheels of our plane touched down, I wanted to cry. It was gloomy as hell with a slight drizzle. I was dreaming of weird rock formations and blue skies. I guess we’ll have to manage with chunks of angry looking clouds.

We had plotted our destinations for the next two days, and after getting picked up from the airport, our first stop was Deverent Valley. It turned out to be more of a pit stop to fill ourselves up with all sorts of nuts and dried fruits. Apricot seeds easily mistaken for almonds was the highlight. Of course the camel shaped strange rocks were cool too.

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Next we were off to the little town of Avanos, popular for its pottery. Given the landscape and geology, one would expect the entire valley of Cappadocia to be popular for pottery, apparently Avanos was particularly popular.

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We walked into one of the many potteries – is that what you call them? Or pottery houses? – and the folks were kind enough to give us a demonstration of how to make pieces of art out of clay. We were also served Turkish tea, apple tea and wine from an interesting decanter; Turkish hospitality at its best!

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Much to my delight and that of the 10 family members I was with, I was asked to have a go at moulding clay and of course I did! So under the watchful eye of a master potterer (is that what they are called?), I made a bowl and painted it!! Of course the moulding in some parts of the process was looking a little x rated, but a cute little bowl emerged at the end, so all good. I might have an alternative career here, if all fails.

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There was a gallery full of beautiful painted pottery to buy, most of which were not allowed to be photographed. The price tag was quadruple that of the ones at the grand bazaar, so we gave it a miss, although we spent enough time walking around and admiring.

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Our next stop is probably one of the most iconic in the valley – the fairy chimneys of Pasabag. This beautiful site has obviously inspired many fairy tales. It is not just weird rock formations; people actually lived there. There were reminiscence of a church, kitchen with a tandoor and bedrooms.

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The living quarters got more elaborate on our next stop, Cavusin village. Imagine this – a whole village inside a rock!

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Not entirely sure how people got in and out of this village on a daily basis. Maybe they didn’t. The highlight of course was the church which still had coloured frescoes on its walls. Although there was evidence of burning inside, someone clearly tried to destroy this religious structure and what was left was black tainted walls.

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Our last stop for the day was the Goreme open air museum. This isn’t a museum as much as it is an enormous monastery with countless churches. This is where the history of Cappadocia became clear to us. Early Christians came here to meditate, pray and practice their religion in solitude. They couldn’t do it in the busy big cities and the caves in Cappadocia was a perfect refuge. That’s why there are countless churches in the valley. It’s a humongous complex, but one can rest and grab a cuppa at one of the quaint cafes inside.

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A drizzle set in and it got too cold for our tropical bodies to bear, so we called it a day, especially because we had big plans at dawn the next day. It was only natural that our abode for the night was a cave hotel, we were in fact visiting the real Flintstones! Bedrock Cave Hotel was an old cave dwelling turned into a hotel. The rooms were beautiful, the floors were covered with earthy coloured carpets and the uneven rocky walls made the whole experience very primate. If u ever visit Cappadocia you must must must stay in a cave hotel.

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The next morning our alarms went off before dawn but we didn’t mind struggling off the bed and layering up because we were taking flight to see Cappadocia from above. Hot air ballooning is one of the highlights of Cappadocia and it’s right on top of many best hot air ballooning locations around the world.

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My mum is not too fond of my good friend adrenaline. Standing in a flying basket controlled by a balloon and hot air was exactly the kind of thrill seeking adventure she didn’t enjoy. So although we assured her it was completely safe and there was nothing to fear and she put on a brave face, I could see she’d much rather be enjoying the view from where her feet can touch the ground. A minute into our flight there was an almost inaudible sigh of relief just as she began to love the experience.

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Around 200 balloons take flight everyday so it’s considered a daily festival, our pilot Emrah informed us. He expertly guided us right around the rose and red valleys, through clouds and above mountains. The view from the ground was perfect enough and imagine, from the sky it was spectacularly splendid!

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The sunrise as it most often is was spectacular. Seeing other balloons drifting in front of us shadowing the rising sun was a picturesque sight.

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At one point we felt whiteness surrounding us and we couldn’t see the ground anymore. We were inside a cloud! It was magical!

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We flew for about an hour, this was easily the highlight of our trip. This coming from someone who had been on a hot air balloon twice before. So don’t fuss over the money you will have to spend, Every. Penny. Was. Worth. It.

Emrah was a master pilot and a bit of a show off. When it was time for landing he told us he was going to land directly on the truck that was waiting to transport the basket back. And he did. He expertly maneuvered the balloon to stop right where he wanted it to – the back of a truck. He was also quick to point out how some of the other pilots landed on ground and some who tried to land on their trailers but needed a tremendous effort from the ground staff to do so. Kudos Emrah, we were very impressed!

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The best part about landing, the champagne breakfast.

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A splendid breakfast and yet another gorgeous view of Goreme and its outskirts was awaiting us back at the hotel. Tummies full and eyes well feasted we set off to explore more of this mysterious valley.

Our first stop was the Goreme panorama. It only takes 5 mins, unless you drool over the view like we did, but it’s completely worth a stop. It’s most popular to view the sunset, but autumn brings with it grey clouds so we stopped by during the day.

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A gazillion photographs later we set off to Ortahisar rock castle, a colossal rock turned castle. We were advised not to climb it for safety reasons, a group of foreigners had fallen some time ago, but lots of people braved it and we could see tiny humans all the way on top. We only admired it from the bottom.

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Talking about admiring from the bottom, our next stop required admiring the underground – Kaymakali underground city. We picked this over Derinkuyu because the entrance and exit was different so you didn’t have to retrace your steps. The guy at our hotel advised us to take a guide and preferably “uncle mustafa”, the oldest guide there (73 years old we found out later) who also happened to be bald. Once we got there, the boys set out to find uncle mustafa. Now every guide at Kaymakali is named mustafa, but uncle mustafa is special. Unfortunately the uncle wasn’t around so the boys contracted a toupeed mustafa instead. We all gathered at the entrance, collected our tickets and made our way inside. Pro’s mum suddenly turned to a respectable looking old gentleman in a suite and a cap and demanded he took his cap off! The old gent surprised and confused obeyed. He happened to be bald and yes, here was uncle mustafa! She demanded that he accompanied us as our guide, but of course he couldn’t because we had contracted someone else. But no one says no to her, so toupeed mustafa huffed off and uncle mustafa gave us the tour. He really was the best.

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You need a guide in Kaymakali, otherwise it’s just a maze of rooms and corridors. Uncle mustafa was so knowledgeable and had a knack for storytelling, so the whole place came alive. How the early settlers hid inside the city during war times, how they closed the doors and guarded themselves, how they cooked, how they let the kitchen smoke out without anyone above ground noticing, how they made wine! Such fascinating stories. The most impressive part was the ventilation system! These guys were proper engineers back in the day!

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Apparently the city has 8 underground levels, only 4 are open to the public. 3500 people lived here! I would have gotten a little (a lot) claustrophobic, but I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus this place was cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

We then went to Uchisar to have a long lunch and taste Cappadocia’s famed wine. Uchisar is a quaint little village filled with cave houses, wineries and cute little shops. We picked a restaurant named Sira with a gorgeous view of the valley and just sat there for hours. This is the good thing about being with family, the conversation flows just like the wine and no one wants to move.

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We had to drag ourselves off our chairs as there was more to see. The Pigeon Valley was our first post lunch stop. As the name suggests this beautiful was full of pigeons!

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Apparently pigeons were used as an essential form of communication and their droppings were used as fertilizer. So the early settlers started breeding pigeons. Each house carved into the valley had a pigeon hole! (Now I know where that phrase came from).

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Some houses even had beautiful houses made just for pigeons.

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The Uchisar Rock castle, one of the most iconic landmarks of Cappadocia stood in the background of the pigeon valley. Rock castles are fascinating! These people were smart enough not to build from scratch but use nature’s own structures to create utility for themselves.

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We drove back to Goreme and looked for things to do to kill time before taking our flight to Izmir. Oh what oh what oh what can we do…oh what oh yes oh ATV! Perfect sunset activity. We hired ATVs and drove off road to the rose valley.

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With the Uchisar castle in the background and the red rocks of rose valley on other side, this was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend spent in Cappadocia that can only be described as breath-taking.

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So here are my top tips for Cappadocia, if you ever consider visiting

  1. Two days is perfectly enough to explore the region. It would be ideal to spend two nights because you can wake up to see the hot air balloons in the sky one morning and take a flight the next
  2. Don’t miss hot air ballooning for obvious reasons. If the pictures in my blog doesn’t convince you, take a leap of faith.
  3. Go wine tasting. Cappadocia has the perfect climate to produce wine, and it shows! The French may not agree, but its true. Try the wines made out of the local grapes which is a little bit more special than the Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon you can find anywhere.
  4. HIKE! this is something I missed because our group was too big and not fit enough for it. But the beauty of Cappadocia is in its surroundings. One can truly appreciate it only if you just explore..on foot.
  5. Stay in a cave and feel like the Flintstones!

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A Turkish delight

Turkey is a smorgasbord of scent, sound and taste. Something about its old name Constantinople had left an image of mysterious allure in my mind. Not that I had visited before, but history lessons can do that to the mind of a teenager. When my sister suggested Turkey as a possible destination for her wedding, I must admit that I was a little biased and may have steered the course to ensure it was finally picked. Turkey is infused with the character of two continents. It may not be the only country to have that charm, nor the only country to have two continents within its boundaries, but there was so much history and stories, I couldn’t wait to get my feet exploring. Good thing there were shoe polishers at every nook and corner had my feet gotten dusty!

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We had 9 days planned that took us across the ancient trade capital of the world, Istanbul; the curious rock formations in the valley of Cappadocia; the capital of Alexander the Great’s empire, Ephesus and the travertines in the white cotton castle of Pamukkale. This post is only about Istanbul, had I tried to fit in the other 3 cities I may never have made it to the end, or worse; you would have gotten bored.

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An overnight flight brought us to Istanbul and an hour later we were in the historic Sultanhamet. You probably won’t get the most spacious and luxurious rooms, but staying within the area of Sultanhamet was the best decision we made as most of Istanbul’s prized attractions were only a very short walk away. We had enough time left on our first day to cover one of the city’s highlights, the Hagia Sophia, once a catholic church later converted into a mosque, it is now a museum. Its insides are covered with beautiful paintings, but underneath those paintings are the most breathtaking mosaic designs of the church it used to be. The main dome is said to be covered with 30 million gold tiles forming stunning Christian art.

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Although a museum Hagia Sophia still has prayer recitals 5 times a day, to which they receive a response from the Blue Mosque across the street. It’s quite an interesting prayer dialogue that almost sets the background music to Istanbul’s old city. Our next stop was the Blue Mosque but we were too late and it had already closed for prayers so we called it a day and went to feast our taste buds on some mouthwatering Turkish cuisine.

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On day 2 we started off where we left off, the Blue Mosque. The blue morning sky and palmyra trees gave this imposing figure a stunning background. It’s officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but is nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that adorn its interior. There is only one main dome to see and to enter women have to cover their heads since it’s actually a worship site. An hour admiring the blue tiles later we crossed the road to the mysterious Basilica Cistern.

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Ever since reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I have been curious about this underground water storage and it didn’t disappoint. It’s remarkable for both its practical and artistic value, not to mention the magical feel inside.

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At the end of one side there are two pillars with Medusa’s head. One curiously upside down and the other tilted. All this coupled with dim light inside, definitely adds a mysterious touch.

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Back up on ground level we walked for 5 minutes to reach the opulent Topkapi Palace, which was home to many sultans for centuries. It’s huge, I mean colossal. Be ready to spend hours here if you want to see half of it. It’s crowded and there are queues to see the most popular attractions, like an 80 carat diamond in the treasury! But it’s worth it, as this might just be the epitome of Ottoman riches and architecture. What you just can’t miss is the Harem. You have to buy an additional ticket to see this area, worth every penny spent. Every wall is covered with either mosaic or traditional blue and white tiles.

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Walking from room to room of where the Sultan and his harem actually lived, I kept picturing beautiful Turkish woman clad in their riches, surrounded by their many servants walking the same corridors that was all part of their home. I did wonder if I was alive back then and if I dipped into the massive swimming pool or looked out the ornate windows into the vast empire. Apparently 4000 people lived here at a time, so there may be a chance that I was one of them.

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We had to call it a day earlier as today was the big day! We all rushed to get dressed and later that night sailed down the Bosphorus making merry and toasting the newlyweds. We sailed from Europe to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea and back. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful couple..

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Day 3 in Istanbul and the skies decided to have their own party! But a little pitter patter didn’t stop us, as we hopped on the tram and then the bus and made our way to the Chora Church. Definitely a little less popular of the many attractions in Istanbul, but its paintings and the mysteries they revealed made it worth it. The interior of the Church is entirely covered with frescoes and mosaics detailing out the Christ’s life and various miracles he performed. One of the most intriguing frescoes was the one which showed that Joseph had a family including a son before he met Mary. I’m no historian nor a Christian so I can’t comment on the story, but it certainly was a version of the story I hadn’t heard of before.  Among the mosaics and the frescoes are the stories of how Jesus cured a leper, turned water into wine and multiplied bread.

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The second half of the day was something I was really looking forward to since the day we landed, the shopaholic in me was screaming, the Grand Bazaar, the grandest of them all was awaiting exploration. I’d read of many horror stories of people being robbed, cheated and lost inside this ancient maze, but I was not deterred and armed with a map downloaded from the net – which one doesn’t need by the way – we began our adventure. I must say the grand bazaar is a great shelter from the rain and the overtly friendly Turkish salesmen ensured we were fully occupied for 3 whole hours. You can spend much more, I mean it is the grand bazaar after all, but we spent 3 fruitful hours and exited with a beautiful Turkish kilim and some Turkish pottery. A day well spent if you ask me.

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However, the day was not over yet, we had a session booked in a Hamam to scrub away our tired bodies and any worries of all the money we spent. Hamam is the Turkish name for the famed Turkish bath; usually the spa is split by gender, but we managed to find supposedly the only Hamam in Istanbul where couples could go through the treatment together. The Suleymaniye Hamam is a 10 minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. When we walked through a door dated 1557 into a traditional and lavish living room I knew we made the right decision.

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The price for the treatment is a steep 40 euros per person, but the whole experience is worth it. After changing into our spa outfits, we started off in a hot (very hot) room where we lay on an ancient (I hope) marble slab sweating our lives away. After a while we were ushered into the smaller rooms inside the hot room and properly “exfoliated”! I must admit I was expecting it to be a lot more painful than it actually was, so having gone through the experience, I can fearlessly recommend it to anyone, even people who are pain intolerant like me. After being scrubbed, soaped and bathed by a male masseuse, we were escorted outside where we dried ourselves before being wrapped from head to toe. And that was the end of the hamam treatment. On a rainy afternoon, I’d go again!

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Our last day in Istanbul before flying off was spent in the Spice Bazaar. My Sri Lankan, spice loving senses had a field day! This was the place to buy anything from spices (obviously! as the name suggests) to tea and coffee to especially mouthwatering Turkish delights and other sweet Turkish delicacies. We were advised not to buy anything from inside the bazaar as it’s overpriced and vendors and known to cheat! But we had to walk inside and feast our eyes on the pyramids of multi colored spices, lines of dried chili and tomatoes hanging from the shop ceilings and an array of sweets with tasting samples (the boys made maximum use of those samples, much to my embarrassment). Once outside the bazaar we zeroed in on one store from which we bought all that we needed – spices, Turkish delight, pistachios and dried fruit. Our bags were now a few kilos heavier than they should be!

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We had purposely skipped the attractions on the more developed side of Istanbul like Taksim square to spend enough time feasting our senses in various nooks and corners of the old town.

I left Turkish food right to the end only because had I mentioned it earlier you may have rushed out hungry and not read this in its entirety. Turkish food…oh…Turkish food…I can sing about it and I can dance for it. Heaven on a platter. A pottery seller in the Grand Bazaar summed it the best, “Turkey may not have the most beautiful sites, the richest history or the best people. But it has the best food and no other country can compete.” I may not fully agree with his exaggeration, but Turkish food was simply delightful. You must try everything – the meats, the vegetables, the warm breads, the dips, the pickles, the tooth numbing sweets. If it looks weird, don’t be afraid, looks and taste have no correlation. Everything is fresh! Everything has a distinct flavor that explodes in your mouth. My all-time favorite was grilled paprika (OMG! Yummmm…) which sometimes comes in the mezze platter and…….wait for it…Kozde Patlican! Grilled eggplant, oooooozing with butter and garlic, heart stopping! As a pure non vegetarian I’m a little bit surprised that no meat dish made it to the top, let’s blame it on the extra fresh Mediterranean vegetables.

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I must mention that both my favorite dishes were from the same restaurant. The Old Ottoman Café, an unassuming little place down an alley in the Sultanhamet is well worth the mention.

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Turkey has a notable tea and coffee drinking culture. Turkish tea & Turkish coffee, of course! its not for the faint palatted. A tiny cup of Turkish coffee is half filled with ground coffee powder, you can obviously only drink the liquid sitting on top, which is just half the cup. But with a scrumptious little Turkish delight, this is the perfect night cap (for those like me who’s sleep is not afraid of caffeine).

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And then there is the whole drama around Turkish ice cream. Sometimes annoying, but mostly fascinating, these guys really make you work for your ice cream!

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Our time in Istanbul was up and we boarded a plane to Cappadocia. That story is for next time, till then here are my top tips for Istanbul:

Must buy – I’m sure you will buy everything from pottery to carpets to spices and sweets, so I’m not going to waste time advising on those. The definite buy for me was pomegranate juice-ish, vinegar-ish substance. You know the amazing combination of olive oil and balsamic when eating bread or in salads? Replace that with the pomegranate substance, heaven!

Must eat – yes you will eat every type of kebab and lots of meat. But if like me you notice the many empty half foil covered pots outside every restaurant you must try the pottery kebabs. The taste of course differs depending on where you eat it from, but the fanfare and drama around it is well worth ordering this dish. But like I said before grilled paprika & Kozde Patlican were my absolute favorites.

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Must do – the hamam of course! Some may think it’s a little pricey, but most places I checked offered a similar rate. You can find a hamam in every nook and corner. It’s a purely Turkish experience, not to be missed!

Must see – the view from the top. Istanbul has a beautiful skyline. So whether you see it from the top of one of the many rooftop restaurants or the top of the Galata tower or even from on board a boat on the Bosphorus, it’s a magnificent sight.

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Untouched Timor Leste

Landing in Timor’s capital Dili was exciting! You tend to wonder, who in their right minds would venture out here – a war torn nation that’s merely 10 years old which seemingly lack the most basic modern comforts like running water, electricity and paved roads! Apparently there aren’t many crazy globe trotters like Pramodh and I.

Entry visa for all nationalities can be obtained at the airport – Whoop! Whoop! – this usually never happens to Sri Lankan passport holders, hence the jubilation. 

Waiting outside to pick us up at the airport was Ali, our driver for the next 5 days.

Dili is a small city, with no high rises and traffic. Glimpses of Timor’s troubled past is still visible in some buildings decorated by bullet holes. The UN has just left the country but there were still a number of NGOs and aid workers who are not very welcome by the locals. Lets just say the hefty salaries and hardship allowances that exapts get paid can create some animosity. There was a slight feeling of tension as we drove around Dili visiting some of its tourist attractions like Christu Rei and the Tais market, but this is a country awakening, trying to find its identity after years of war, so it deserves some leeway.

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We drove east of Dili to Baucau, Timor’s second largest city on a breathtaking road – for the most part it’s by the sea or on cliffs overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. There seemed to be so many sea bathing or snorkeling stops and fishing villages, which I could have photographed forever, but of course Pramodh refused to stop.

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3.5 hours later we arrived in Baucau and spent the night at Pousada de Baucau an old very pink Portuguese mansion now turned hotel. Baucau’s surrounding beaches are beautiful, but we were here only because it was the mid-way point to our ultimate destination.

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The next day after breakfast we set off to Tutuala the entry point to Timor Leste’s crown jewel – Jaco Island, but not before running into someone who seemed to be the mayor or some VIP of Baucau. His armed guard with their very visible weapons and back up ammunition were our breakfast companions!

Our 5 hour drive was eventful to say the least. To give you a summary, here is my list of incredulous and spectacular things that happened:

1. We were given attitude from a herd of goats on the road – yes goats! Seeing animals blocking the road is not a new sight to me, but it’s never been like this – this heard of goats formed a line in front of our car and just refused to let us move!

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2. We witnessed some amazingly constructed traditional Timorese houses. These houses are built on stilts with high roofs adorned with beautiful ornaments and decorated with wood carvings. Why houses on heels? To protect people from crocodiles! Did I forget to mention the crocodile infestation in Timor? My apologies, apparently there are many salt water crocs in the surrounding waters. Timor even has a folklore of how a the island in the shape of a crocodile!

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3. Paddy fields on the beach – this may not be weird in some countries, but coming from Sri Lanka both an island and a place filled with rice plantations I had never seen one on a beach, right next to the gushing sea waves.

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4. The road from Tutuala to Valu beach – or the lack of it. There is an 8km stretch which is pure jungle! We met a convoy of 3 land cruises just before Tutuala and followed them all the way to Valu beach. There really was no road and if not for the invention of 4WD, we’d probably have to walk through thick bushes and jump over large rocks. The ride was bumpy and there were areas that didn’t seem to support a vehicle, however, eventually we got there in one piece and were rewarded for our troubles. As we reached the edge of the jungle, there waiting to greet us was this breathtakingly beautiful view.

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Jaco is a sacred island on the eastern most tip of Timor Leste. Timorese believe in an ancient legend in which a young boy saved a crocodile’s life and in return when the crocodile died, he turned into an island (Timor) to create a home for the boy. The head of the crocodile is Jaco Island which makes it sacred for the local people. The easiest access point is Valu beach on the mainland. Since it’s sacred, no one lives there and you can only visit it during the day. Valu beach itself was amazing, we couldn’t wait to cross the small straight to get to Jaco.

There were fishermen with boats lazing on the beach and for $10 one of them agreed drop us off in jaco and come back to get us a few hours later.

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Jaco by far is the best beach that I have seen. Ever. Period. It is the definition of pristine. The sort that you see on travel brouchers but can only be obtained after heavy photoshopping, but this was the real deal. The only visitors here are the expats who make the occasional weekend trip from Dili. We had the entire island to ourselves with the most perfectly long stretch of beach and aqua waters. 

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I was sceptical about getting in the water, what with all the crocodile stories, but I ignored the images of Lake Placid that were flashing in my head and got into the true blue waters and snorkelled for hours. You don’t need a lot of gear to see corals and fish, just peer into the water and you’ll see plenty.

When visiting Jaco, however, there aren’t very many accommodation options to select from. There are two very basic guesthouses that offer a roof over your head, a much needed mosquito net and some basic food. There is no running water and I wasn’t brave enough to explore the toilets, the sea had to do. I was somewhat mentally prepared for this, so we didn’t mind it.

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We spent the day lazing around, reading, taking long walks on the beach, collecting shells, star gazing and waking up to a stunningly gorgeous sunrise.

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The treacherous road back to Dili awaited us, but the beauty and peace of Jaco was well worth our troubles.

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The trip to Timor was an eye opening one for us. Coming from a country ravaged by war, I felt for the Timorese and their struggle. Yet it’s a country with immense natural beauty and culture waiting to be discovered.

Hope you’ll let the world discover you Timor Leste, hope you heal.

A word about Koreans, who made our trip special

After our trip to Seoul, I was really inspired to write a piece about Korean people. I’m not sure if my experience was a typical one, but we came across so many amazing people that I think it’s worth writing about.

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I was delightfully surprised to find how friendly Koreans were. As a group of 6 brown people we stood out like sore thumbs, so it was easy for people to know we were tourists. Most people were curious to find out where we were from, others wanted to offer us their help to ensure we knew where we were going and others just wanted to welcome us to Korea. Of course most of this was our interpretation of their sign language since most people didn’t speak English.

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Here are some of the people and instances that stood out

Sign language subway lady

We took the express train from the airport to Seoul station which is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. We then switched to the city subway to get to our hotel. Here we met a lady who tried her best to ask us if we knew where we had to get off. It may have been a simple act, but had never happened in our travels before. So it was a great start to our trip and a very nice way to make a foreigner feel welcome.

Coffee ladies – mum & daughter

Berkleys is a small coffee shop in Bukchon. It really is very small and can seat only 5 people, but while we were there we realized it was quite a popular place to grab a coffee on the go. It’s run by a mum and her daughter. While we were contemplating whether to enter the place, they greeted us with a “hello, we have great coffee, wanna try?”. Who’s going to say no to that. Not only do they serve great coffee they make the best sandwich (yes, singular, they have only one option on the menu).

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While we were munching our breakfast they explained the interesting process of cold brewed coffee and offered us some free samples to taste. It’s random seemingly simple conversations like this that made a difference.

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Director, Cameraman

We visited Changdeokgung Palace and it’s beautiful secret garden. Fall definitely is the best time to visit Korea, the foliage was amazing. Tesh and I wanted a typical touristy “jumping picture” with fall colours as our background. While we were attempting the perfect shot, a gentleman with a very professional looking camera walked up to us and started directing how we should pose and jump. All of this was in Korean (which we didn’t understand) and sign language. We tried several times and each time he explained how we could do it better and by the end of it we were surrounded by 5 other cameramen photographing two girls attempting to jump, not so gracefully may I add.

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After the shoot and once the crowd dispersed I wanted to take a shot lying on the leaves on the grass. While Pramodh was taking this picture of me, the same director/cameraman gentleman walked back. He started once again directing the scene. He even collected handfuls of leaves and handed it over to passers-by to sprinkle it on me to get that perfect, natural shot! Lol

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Summer

We spent two nights in a traditional Sopoong Guest House, a Korean Hanok. Summer was the bubbly girl who came every morning to clean the place. We got talking, she was extremely interested in where we were from and what we did. We even managed to induct her to some famous sights in Seoul she hadn’t yet been to before we took a gazillion Polaroids.

Polaroids with Summer

At the end of a long chat on the second day she offered to accompany us to lunch. She took us to a local restaurant, which served the most amazing food, it was definitely one of my best meals in Seoul. We walked about a kilometer from our Hanok along tiny streets and alleyways to get to this place. We would’ve never thought of eating here nor would we ever have stumbled upon the place while exploring the ancient Bukchon area. We only realized how popular the place was seeing the long queue stretching all the way along the narrow winding alleyway. The pepper pork bulgoggi was their specialty (to die for), their bibimbap was also out of this world (worth rising from the dead to die for again).

Summer with the Spicy Pork Bulgogi

Back to Summer..she decided to give us Korean names judging by our personalities and the vibe we gave her. I was named Ji Hei, which meant wisdom; what a very perceptive girl 🙂 The hotel had given us postcards which we were very excited to send back home. She was so helpful and even offered to mail our postcards for us.

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Bubbly Jemma

Given its reputation for great food we thought it would be a good idea to take a food tour. Tripadvisor had great reviews for O’ngo so we decided to try that on our second night in Seoul. Jemma, our guide was one funny, friendly, bubbly person. She gave us a great intro into Korean cuisine and ensured we were all well fed and taken care of throughout the tour.

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We chatted the whole night, well after our tour was scheduled to end.One might say that all tour guides are chatty, fun and helpful, but I’ve been around too many to know that Jemma was one of a kind. She had 20 min conversation with this lovely Latvian couple on our tour to help them find envelopes (yes envelopes are apparently almost extinct and they couldn’t find it for 3 whole days despite searching high and low). DSC_0565

It was hard to pin point what it was about Jemma that made her extra special, it might have been that she seemed to be talking to everyone at the same time about different topics, it could have been how she ensured we all knew what we were eating and more than enough to stuff ourselves or maybe it was because she took a personal interest in each one of us and definitely because she taught us how to take photos “the Korean Style” – i.e. covering half your face with the peace sign to look thinner! Either way, Jemma really made an impression. DSC_0583

Antique hair ornament lady

We spent an afternoon in Insadong, the old artsy area in Seoul. Seeing some beautiful antiques I walked into a store. The owner seeing me exploring her merchandise, grabbed my arm and surprised me by sticking traditional hair ornaments into my hair and taking pictures while giving me a detailed explanation in Korean (did I mention I didn’t understand the language?). I was completely caught off guard; and if it weren’t for Tesh who was with me and explained what was happening, I would have been a little worried.

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Free hug people

Insadong is full of interesting performers, people in costume, promoters of the word of god and tourists. We met a great group of people giving free hugs! It kinda was like a goodbye hug on our last day in Seoul. The hug was accompanied with an interesting chat about everything from where we were from to walking on fire! I suspect they thought all brown people walked on fire. We didn’t mind the generalization, I wish I could walk on fire!

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There were countless others who stopped us to randomly ask where we were from and were generally helpful. I wish I had stopped to take a few pictures with them. It was the people that really did make Seoul special. Farewell souls of Seoul, till we meet again.

Volcanic Adventure – Mount Bromo & Ijen

Visiting one of the many volcanoes in the region was on my bucket list before leaving south east Asia, so our pick both in terms of natural beauty/diversity and ease of climb was Bromo. We took a 2 hr flight from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia’s next largest city and the closest airport to Mount Bromo. It takes 3 to 4 hours from Surabaya to get to Bromo. So plan for this especially if u are landing at night and planning on climbing the next morning.

We got to our hotel, Java Banana by 11pm and got 3 hours of sleep before leaving the hotel at 3 am for our adventure.

You need to 4wd to get there. It was very dark and we couldn’t see the road at all, it was only lit by the hundreds of other jeeps making the same drive, but my body definitely felt ruggard road.

45 mins later we jumped off the jeep to trek abt 5 mins to the sun rise viewing point. Yes it is 3 am but the shops here are in full swing selling tea, coffee, banana fritters and corn on the cob. The sun is only set to rise just after 5am, so we kill time drinking tea in a shop. Just past 4 we walk to the viewing platform already full of people and find ourselves quite a great spot facing east. And there we stood for the next hour and a half freezing till madam sun shone her face.

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It’s cold, very cold. We were both wearing a few layers but that wasn’t enough so we had to dance in one place to keep warm.

The three volcanoes are on the west side directly opposite to where the sun rise is. Here’s a tip, while the sun rise, any sun rise is spectacular there is nothing extra special about the one here, so perch yourself facing west so you see the volcanoes through the clouds and most making them look almost mystical. Don’t forget to walk around the platform as there are many breathtaking angles for pictures

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A hundred or so photos later, snapped under near freezing temperatures we set off to get a closer look of Mount Bromo. On the way down there is yet another great spot to take pics of the three destroyers called lovers hill.

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The geography surrounding Bromo is quite spectacular. Volcanic ashes and sand have created what is known as the sea of sand right around the mountain making it almost separate from the rest of the world. You can walk or hop on a horse to cross the sea of sand. We paid 80k per person and opted for the latter. I’m not sure we got the best price as our guide did the talking, but it was 6am and we were cold so a few dollars here or there didn’t matter.

Sea of sandOn horse back
The horses take you all the way up to a very steep staircase to reach the crater. There are enough rest areas along the stairs so it’s not too bad.

Horse drop off point

The stairs
Once we reached the top we couldn’t help but we wowed by nature. Bromo is still an active volcano and last erupted in November 2010 (just ash). When you peer into the crater you can see clouds of smoke coming up from within while your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of sulfur.

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Some people do the 3km crater rim walk, but our guide promptly said “crazy people”. I suspect the path isn’t very stable.

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That morning after breakfast at the hotel we started our 6 hour journey to Banyuwangi where Ijen is. We stayed overnight at Ketapang Indah, a hotel by the sea overlooking Bali. Now it made sense why most tours of these two volcanoes ended up in Bali.

Our adventure to Ijen started at 1am. We left the hotel thinking it probably wasn’t going to be as cold as bromo, boy were we wrong. I fell asleep going there and coming back so u have no idea how long it took, but the drive itself was at least over an hour. Our guide had packed breakfast for us, so after munching that down around 2 maybe 3 am we started our 3km hike to the top of Ijen. But first we had to buy entrance tickets 150k per person sold by a shivering man in a tent in front of a mini bonfire.

The start Buying tickets from the "counter"

The trek started off easily on flat ground and then it became steeper and steeper. It’s pitch black with only the moon and stars above you so don’t forget a torch. We hiked for what seemed like forever making small stops and then reached the half way point marked by a shop (closed at that hour) and this sulfur collection point. We rested there for a while sitting in the cold admiring the starry night and once again began our journey. All at once it got a whole lot more difficult and then much much easier. Just remember of walk on your left, the right is a dead drop which u may not see in the darkness. Dawn was almost approaching when we got to the top, the view seemed spectacular but it was too dark to see.

We now had to make our way into the crater, 800m down. If you thought the first 3km was bad, oh dear…there is absolutely no pathway to get to the bottom so you just have to balance on the rocks, cling on to dear life, pray that you don’t fall and give it ago. It takes about 45 mins to get down. We could almost see some blue flames from a midway point but very very sadly once we got to the bottom it was too lit up that we missed the fire. What a pity, laboring this whole journey to see it and missing it by maybe 30 mins. So my advice, leave early (maybe midnight) and take shorter breaks on the way up and plan to be inside the crater by 4am.
Blue flames
It was dark all this while and the climb down was dangerous so I never bothered to look around. Once at the bottom and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath and for me get over the disappointment of missing the flames you look around and realize that you might as well as be on the moon. The surroundings were mostly grey with bits of yellow to mark the sulfur. I was 800m deep inside a volcano! It was quite an amazing sight. The crater lake was bright green surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks.

View from the bottom Sulfur fumes Liquid suflur

We saw a few miners on the way down but right at the bottom there was one guy stationed inside the volcano.There are miners and then there are entrepreneurs. This guy was collecting liquid sulfur and pouring it in different shaped moulds to make souvenirs! You can buy bits of sulfur shaped as hearts, animals, flowers, you name it. Liquid sulfur once in contact with water freezes up. So he pours in the dark yellow liquid and drops a bit of water to make his masterpieces. I was afraid my whole house will smell like rotten eggs, the infamous sulfur stench so didn’t bother buying any.
Making sulfur sovenirs
The sides of the crater full of sulfur was emitting smoke that the wind took to the top. At first there was a bit of smoke on the lake but it soon cleared up and then suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. Sulfur dioxide! My eyes were burning and my lungs were coughing up. For a moment I thought I would pass out. The guide grabbed my hand and said “let’s go!!!”. With involuntary tears pouring down we made our way back.

A fellow traveller The crater lake At the crater lake

Solidified sulfur
It’s a very difficult very scary journey up to the top. You can easily slip and break your neck. To add to the difficulty of the path I was now tearing coughing and sneezing!!! Most people around me were clearing their throats and spitting out. Not the most hygienic conditions. Even though I could hardly breathe the photographer inside me stopped several times to take in the scenery and snap a few shots. Every time we came across sulfur baskets that miners had left behind I couldn’t help but stop to snap it.

Making their way back up Sulfur collected

The trek up

45 more mins of clinging on to dear life and we were back on top. Only then did I notice a sign that said visitors are not allowed inside the crater for safety reasons, oh well!

Apparently you arent allowed to go down The view from top
Even the top of the volcano was filled with smoke so we didn’t wait to see the view from the top but made our way down. After a while the smoked cleared up and we could enjoy the beautiful scenery that we had missed on the way up.
Walking back

Sulfur on a backdrop of more volcanic mountains
We met a few miners down at the collection point, but today was a public holiday and most of them were not working. Each miner carries about 70kg of sulfur at a time up the crater to the collection point. 70kg!!!! And they do it 2 maybe 3 times a day! Suffocating through the inevitable smoke. Now I know why this particular job was classified as one of the worst in the world. The health risks are imminent but apparently the government has a insurance scheme, not sure how much that helps! They sell 1kg of sulfur for merely 1000idr which is just about $0.10.

We met a miner with his collection and Pramodh tried to give a shot at carrying it. He could only manage it for a few mins, god knows how these guys do it every day!
The miners Hard at work The minors
Going down the path was a hundred times more difficult than climbing up. It was completely slippery and we had to walk sideways like crabs. Some parts of the path had ditches so we walked in them to prevent ourselves from tumbling down. My legs were giving way, but managed to make the 3km journey back.

Ijen was difficult, in any standard. If you want to make the trip there are a few essentials: 1. A proper mask with filters, not the small surgical one, but the heavy duty type. 2. Proper shoes for the trek and climb 3 proper clothes to stay warm 4. Some form of gloves partly because of the cold but mostly because you have to grab hold of the volcanic sulfur rocks when climbing up or down the crater. 5. Ideally some foam of goggles, at least carry them in your bag so that you can put them on when the smoke sets in. I had only number 3, 4 and partly 2 and trust me I regretted it.

The adventure part of our trip was complete and now for the charity part. We had brought with us clothes to give away to the miners. We stopped in a factory to give those away. They were highly excited to receive this gift especially on a religious holiday. Our next stop was an orphanage to give away books and stationery that we had bought. The kids were super curious but shy. The brave few managed to ask us where we were from and what we were doing there. They were grateful too and thanked us with the little English they knew.

With our new miner friends Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage

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