Friday, September 4, 2020

NZ, Covid-19, and out & about

Covid-19 started to gain momentum. On the 18th of March we got word that Thailand was going to close its borders so we began a 2 day process of packing up all our stuff and exiting the apartment.  The border closure came in the next week – so we happy we made the call to move quickly. 

It was packed at Vientiane airport, whereas in Bangkok the departure halls were all but empty.  We returned to Bannockburn NZ, happy we had the house to return to.


Back in NZ after lock-down eased, we took a short break to …Oamaru.  Somewhere we normally passed through or stopped for lunch, but never stayed.  It was a very enjoyable place to explore a little further.  We stayed just outside the town, on the way to Bushy Beach, in a converted farmhouse.

In town we walked the harbour, visited the excellent public gardens and generally enjoyed looking about.  The one thing that stood out was the food – every meal was outstanding and we suffered food fatigue! The Star and Garter café, with its walls covered with old wedding photos, Fat Sally Pub with a chicken salad loaded with tasty morsels that was so big we couldn’t finish, cheese from Whitestone, Pizza from the Brewery and an outstanding south American influenced meal from Cucina

And we finished with a detour to Fleur’s at Moeraki.  The food was excellent and the Pinot Gris so outstanding we stopped at the cellar door in Kurow on the way home and purchased a few more bottles


In August our little break away was to Twizel.  Again staying a few minutes outside town.  We took a trip up to Mount Cook and walked the Hooker track to the glacier lake.  

The day started cold – Andrew left his hat in the car and insisted on imitating a Russian grandmother with his scarf wrapped around his head.  

The day warmed up and most of the walk was in pleasant sunshine. We also walked up the hill to view the Tasman glacier and lake.  We visited the Salmon Farm shop, biked around the area and had lots of coffees at the Hydro café. Highlight of our accommodation was an outdoor bath. It took a lot of talking to convince Andrew it was worth braving the -4 degrees of frost to sit in the double sized bath, looking at the milky way in the dark skies.  He loved it once he tried it.

Frosty morning, looking at the outdoor bathtub

Mt Cook road and Clay Cliffs

Penang March 2020

Penang,Malaysia and more specifically it’s largest city of Georgetown, had long been on the to-do list.  But needing 3 flights from Vientiane to get there, it had been a little hard to schedule in.  We took the opportunity to visit in March when Covid-19 was starting to take hold outside China, but before we knew quite how big it was going to get.

Having left Vientiane @ 8:30 and landed via a stop in KL @ 16:00 we thought we would take the local bus into town.  And it was a real local bus, we ended up taking well over 90 minutes to get to destination, stopping at every stop along the way.  But looking for a positive, we saw some territory we wouldn’t have seen from the expressway on the 25 minute return journey. 

Instead of a 3 minute walk to our accommodation, it ended up being a 15 minute slog after Maps told us to get off the bus one stop further than we should have.  While the temperature was similar to Vientiane in the mid-30s, Malaysia had 75% humidity compared to 33% back in Laos.  We felt rather sweaty arriving at Campbell House, our base for the next 3 nights.  It was a good location, quiet and easy enough for us to walk where we wanted to go.  It was also a good cool bolt-hole in the middle of the very hot and humid days.  

There was no lift, so the luggage was hoisted by rope & pulley up to the 2nd and 3rd stories. 

After checking in and freshening up we were off to eat.  Just down the street was a recommended Indian restaurant, Hameediyah, where everything is recommended but their murtabak were highly recommended.  It was bustling spot and we were lucky to get a table.  And the murtabak were delicious.

 Our time in Georgetown involved a lot of walking and exploring.  The heritage area is a real tourist magnet and there are so many signs of gentrification.  On the other hand the street art does give a nice feeling.  But lines of people wanting to Instagram themselves in front of said street art wasn’t attractive.

 Two of the highlights of our time in Georgetown included the visit to the Pinang PeranakanMansion.  It was surprisingly larger than it’s outside façade suggested and the interior collections and rooms were enjoyable and informative.   There were very good textile and beading collections and a surprising amount of European china.  Lots of display cases full of cherubs and dolls.

 The other great use of our time was joining a food tour Heritage on a plate  The insights from a local about experiences and changes in the city was as interesting as the food we sampled.  He took us to places he liked, not necessarily the ‘famous’ spots in Penang.  From Indian sweets (puthu), to a killer samosa cart, curry, Chinese noodles and more – we were unable to fit in all the food offered. 

This was a trip where we ate a lot.  From a café with 20 varieties of cake, to the Italian restaurant below our hotel, we had only positive experiences.  Andrew found the best souvenir, being a small wooden clipboard and has used it daily since – who says we never buy souvenirs

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Hanoi - long weekend

We were lucky enough to be able to schedule a long weekend in Hanoi before year-end.  Looking back it had been 7 years since we were last in Hanoi.

At the airport we found the public bus and we got the last spare seats onboard for the 30 minute drive into the city.  Luckily the hotel (E-Central) was just around the corner from the bus-stop.  Having dropped our bags we headed to a nearby rooftop bar, Diamond Sky Bar,  for a couple of cocktails.

We followed those with an expensive by local standards (but excellent) meal in the fusion restaurant, The Gourmet Corner.

The meals for the rest of the trip all added together probably cost less than the price of that meal - but all food in Hanoi was great!  We had a number of Bun Cha meals - trying multiple variations of the classic pork and noodles dish with a few fried spring rolls on the side.

It was a case of less than optimal timing choice of destination: in that the air pollution was significantly worse in Hanoi than it was in Vientiane.  However we had packed our face masks and we carried on.

On the weekend the streets around the had been closed off to vehicles and there were plenty of people taking advantage of the walking streets.  It was funny to see numerous dogs out walking with little shoes on.  Kids and powered ride-on cars created a chaos area with noise and vehicles driving in all directions.

We had a local 'specialty' of egg coffee - but while it was pleasant, it isn't something you would want too often.  It is more like dessert in a cup. More delicious, was the visit to Maison Marou - consistently great chocolates and chocolate brownie

We visited three museums while in town.  The Vietnam National Museum of History was a bit uninspiring inside.  There was an interesting wooden buddha - havent seen one like that before.  And the exterior architectural style was probably more interesting than the other contents.

We visited the "Hanoi Hilton", Hoa Lo Prison but it was a bit soulless and the information not outstanding.  Having seen a lot of similar places throughout Asia, this really didn't rate.

The surprise highlight was the Vietnamese Women's Museum.  The displays and information shared were outstanding and it is highly recommended

Friday, November 22, 2019

Kunming,China: Oct 2019

Andrew got a bit testy when he was asked more than once if he had his APEC card before we left the house - but I didn't want a repeat of the no-visa refusal he had in Shanghai a couple of years ago.  Our destination was Kunming, China, which is a 90 minute direct flight from Vientiane.

After an easy passage through immigration we decided to take a taxi from the airport so we could see a little of the city outskirts, in the last light of day.  Reasonable plan but it turned out we watched the sun set while sitting in a 30 minute traffic jam just outside the airport waiting to get through toll-booths onto the motorway.

Our hotel, Moon and Chalice, was a delight.  It was beautifully decorated, with all the comforts you could want  - at a very reasonable price.  They did little things such as bringing a little thermos of special tea blend to your room each afternoon.

Kunming is a nice small Chinese city of only 6 million people.  It tends to be a transit hub for most travelers heading to Dali or Lijiang.  While Kunming doesn't have lots of "must-see" tourist destinations, we were content to explore for a couple of days.

We mastered the underground transit system and made our way to the end of the line to the Western Hills Dragon gate.  We couldn't avoid going on a weekend day, and there was no end of people visiting, but it was all quite manageable.  We purchased all the tickets (buses, cable cars etc) in one go - and Andrew was super happy as he got his seniors discount.  We took the open cable car to the top of the mountain and walked through the temples carved into the hillside

There were good views over the city lake and the green mountain (really just a big hill) area

At times we were unsure exactly which way we should be walking.  There were maps, but, for us, they didn't add a lot of information as the actual landmarks didn't quite match what we were seeing on the maps.  But we kept heading downhill, and it all worked out.  

One of the places we wanted to visit was the central gardens.  There we found good food and coffee in a nearby district and there were lots of locals enjoying themselves in the park.  Chinese public dancing is so good to watch - people just really enjoying themselves, participating at whatever level of activity they are comfortable with.  Talent is not a pre-requisite.  

I made Andrew make a longish walk to the history museum at the end of a busy day.  The reason was to see a display on the Flying Tigers - an American volunteer Air Force division that for a short time was based in China during WWII.  They  were instrumental in fighting the Japanese Bombers attacking the region and nearby Burma for the 7 months that they were there.  The museum was very average, but the Flying Tiger display was educational

Food was easy and we made sure we had the most famous local dish "Over the Bridge Noodles" - a delicious soup.  An interactive meal where the ingredients were added for us at the table.  Then there were green-onion pancakes ... cumin beef, mmmm lots of good stuff.

The area we staying had been heavily renovated.  New-Old facades that were aimed at the local Instagram demographic.  There were still a large number of Chinese flags everywhere following the huge celebrations earlier in the month of 70 years of Communist rule.

The city was very approachable and people very kind to us.  It was a very nice long weekend away

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Almaty, Kazakhstan

We said farewell to Karakol and began the long drive to Almaty.  We chose to go over the Kegen border point.  It closes from October to about May each year.  It was a quiet border but the highlight was the immigration official showing us his border stamper - it had a Silver Fern on it.  He was a rugby fan and a fan of the All Blacks.

The areas either side of the border were wide open steppes with views to the mountains on the horizon - and plenty of gravel roads.

We stopped at the Charyn canyon for a late lunch and a view of the "Grand Canyon"

Almaty is another city with wide streets and plenty of parks and sculptures.  Almaty means Apples and there were many references to apples including the apple-car installation near our hotel.

Although there is a metro here the lines are not very extensive, so we ended up walking everywhere we wanted to go.  

The visit to the Fine Arts museum was well worth the effort.  The collection was eclectic, but there were little gems throughout.  The statue of the horse made entirely from knucklebones captured Andrew's imagination.   The 1595 painting by Lorenzo Strauch was also stunner.  The red faced infant on the pale body grabbed your attention and you couldn't stop looking at him!  But there were various styles represented
 The inside of the Greek Orthodox church, Zenkov Cathedral lived up to the ornateness suggested by the colourfully painted exteriors.  It is a wooden building that has no nails.

From here we proceeded to the large food market.  We do like visiting these markets.  Although they are often quite similar they all have a different feel to them.  The importance of horse as a meat was evident with the large area devoted to sellers of horse.  All the herds of horses we have been seeing weren't just there as riding animals!

The majority of our meals were from two Georgian Restaurants: 1. we like Georgian cuisine and red wine a lot and 2. these restaurants were nearby and had very good food. 

Daredzani was more up-market and had English speaking waiters and menus.  Patsatsina had no English and we got a good meal and wine using advanced pointing and mime techniques.  

The large public space, looking through to the landmark Hotel Kazahkstan was busy on 2 of the 3 nights we were in town, with lots of people either going to a concert one night or to a movie premiere the other.  The sun reflected in the big screen and the movie scenes provided and interesting outlook. 

Our hotel Novotel Almaty City Centre was nicely located for us, sitting directly beside the cable car.  We chose not to ascend the mountain because of constant low cloud and smog.  The weather app called it “smoke” :  no fire, but some pretty murky conditions.  The snow capped mountains surrounding the city did look lovely when we could see them.

Andrew had a cold so we headed to a pharmacy the hotel directed us to.  They spoke zero English and while we spent some time translating the Russian on the boxes via a Translation App we ended up buying him the pharmacists 1st suggestion of fizzy paracetamol.  We looked in a few more pharmacies before trying a modern one with a younger pharmacist.  The minute we asked English, she tuned out, ignored us and played on her phone.  Lucky for us the medicines were displayed around the counter, behind glass.  And we spent a few minutes translating various names.  When we found a possible day & night type medicine and asked to see it, she was very helpful to show us 5 other alternatives.  Andrew didn’t shake the cold for about another week.

Our 3 weeks in the Stans was interesting, challenging and ultimately very satisfying travel.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Karakol, Kyrgystan

The next morning we walked out of the apartment to see if we could find our pre-arranged driver.  He found us – 2 tourists pulling suitcases probably made it easy to identify us.  Our driver, spoke no English but drove well.  

The journey from Bishkek to Karakol was 400 km and 5.5 hours plus a couple of stops for the driver to have a cigarette.  The views were outstanding, from snow topped mountains, rock formations and the lake Isy-kul. The lake is so large you couldn’t see the opposite shore nor either end.  

It wasn’t surprising to read that it is just under 200 km long and 60 km wide and is the 2nd largest saline lake in the world, behind the Caspian Sea.  It was an important part of the silk route connection for the Far East to Europe and many historians believe 
that the lake was the point of origin for the Black Death that plagued Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century.  The lake's status as a byway for travelers allowed the plague to spread across these continents via medieval merchants who unknowingly carried infested vermin along with them.

Along the lake there were no shortage of horses, being ridden, being used to pull carts and simply running about.  There was also large volumes of produce being packed into big transport trucks.  Shiny red apples were also being sold on the roadside piled high in buckets.

Home tonight was “Matsumoto”, a lovely place run by a Japanese lady married to a Kyrgyzstani.  Apart from the simple Japanese design the biggest highlight was being allowed to put toilet paper directly into the toilet, rather than the rubbish bins beside the toilet.  Small luxuries make one happy

In Karakol we went for an orientation walk to get our bearings.  Walking through a smalli market there were shop after shop of gold jewellery.  This ties into the use of gold as a store of wealth.  Everywhere we have been we have seen people with golden smiles.  It is very normal to have a mouth full of gold teeth.  While initially I thought it was only done by the old generation, we saw plenty of younger people with a gold tooth or two. 

It was town for specialist wedding vehicles.  We walked past the bridal shop and saw the Bridal-wagon.  This was soon followed by a sighting of a stretch limo.  

We visited the Dugan Mosque and the Russian church before returning to the Fat Cat cafe.  We had stopped there earlier for a drink and were tempted by the delicious brownie.  Andrew was drawn back by the lure of bottles of Georgian wine.  So we returned for an early dinner pizza and a glass of Georgian wine.

The next day was an overnight journey up into the mountains behind Karakol, Tien Shien. Due to the the proximity to China we had to have special permits which were reviewed at a control post a couple of hours in.  We saw a lot of mountains and plains, climbing through high passes.  

We drove through to the nearby hot springs for a late lunch.  The nearby river was freezing with mountain run off while 10 metres away there was very hot water coming out of the ground.  The drivers had a bath while we stood under the only shade in the area - one big rock.  We made our pot noodles and had a couple of the local mallowpuffs - a complete meal.  

Onward to see a bit more territory including rock carvings done thousands of years ago probably as a offering to the gods for good favour.  

Our home for the night was Ingelcheck, an old Soviet town which at its heyday had a population of 5000 now there are about 30 families living in a ghost town.  Our accommodation for the night was at a local teachers house.  She spoke good basic English and cooked us a very nice Yak stew and Somsa.  Hospitality was very good, in simple circumstances.

The surprise of the night was the toilet.  We had been wondering where it was, we knew it would be basic, but it managed to exceed our expectations.  She pointed through the wall and said the big building.  We walked out together and looked around.  The only possibility was a building 50m away.  We cautiously entered to find a row of 4 concrete cubicles with a window high up the wall.  There was a hole in the concrete with a large drop to the stuff below.  Most basic toilet I have seen and we have seen a few in the last few years.  Oh well we survived.  

We were in bed before 19:30 and limiting liquid intake - the return to the latrines was not going to happen!

Just the basics here, including dried animal dung for burning and water pumps

Andrew likes to look over walls - even though here he could have walked around the front and entered any building he wanted to.  The old high school and a picture of the toilets.

The next day our drivers turned up 1 & half hours later than arranged - they had been hunting wolves overnight.  For a while there we thought we were going to stuck in an abandoned town.  Possibly there may be some improvement with Chinese investors recently starting to work the mines again.  

Our host took us to the school while we were waiting for the drivers.  This was a nice modern facility (the only living place in town I would say). Warm and light, there were plenty of resources including kids sitting down at 9:45 for a hot snack in the 'canteen'.  We thought we had misunderstood when our host said there were 5 teachers - but there were.  Each small classroom probably had 4 desks and I think there were 17 children.  The infants were cute and hid when we came in, but the minute the teacher said photo - they were all there ready to be snapped