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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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…

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.