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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dushanbe and Bishkek

Dushanbe is a very pleasant city. It felt like we could be somewhere in Europe.  The Plane trees, parks and roads all contributed to that feeling.  It was also very hot in mid-September, so walking in the shade of the trees was a relief.  

We referred to the Lonely Planet, and headed off to see the recommended Ethnographic museum.  Only problem was -  it wasn’t where the Lonely Planet map said it was and was actually on the other side of town.  I then remembered someone’s comment in pre-trip research, that they were unsure if the Lonely Planet writer had actually even visited the city, so huge were the errors.  

So unintentionally having visited the outside of some university building, we backtracked and headed for the large Rudaki Park.  There were lanes and lanes of roses, and they were scented roses.  That and the smell of freshly cut grass was a pleasant change for us.  Nearby, was the 2nd largest flagpole in the world, and the ‘Whitehouse’, parliamentary buildings.  

Leaving the park, it was a relief to get inside the National museum and its lovely air-con.  As with anywhere, the exhibits on stones/geology were a bit dull (we are not really into them), but the rest of the collection was quite good.  Quite a lot of effort seemed to have been put into the displays and descriptions.  It was good to see more of the wall murals from Panjakent.  We had seen some lesser quality pieces in our visit to the museum in Panjakent.  But the best bits are in Dushanbe and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  The room displaying the gifts from visiting nations, was not a winner for me, bowl from Pakistan, pen from India etc.  The top floor had a nice collection of art works by Tajik artists.

For lunch we walked a reasonable distance in the heat to go to the popular Turkish restaurant,  Merve.  The cold drink was particularly good, and food was great.   There were constant pictures of the President wherever we went 

Dinner was next door to our hotel in a nice modern cafĂ©.  At that time we didn’t know it was a chain and ended up at another one when we got to Bishkek.  Two meals, 2 beers and a coke = $12

The next morning it was out to the airport for our flight to Bishek, via Almaty.  There were great views of the snow capped mountains along the route.  Unfortunately the scheduled 2 hour stopover ended up being 6 hours and included boarding the plane and being made to disembark while they swapped out the plane for technical reasons.  And no internet in the terminal unless you have a local number to which the joining code could be sent to.  In the end it was a 4 hours delay for a 30 minute hop flight.  Luckily the driver the apartment arranged to meet us at the apartment was still waiting for us @10:30pm. No local money, no chance to walk the neighborhood but hey...we are in Kyrgyzstan.

Our 1st goal in Kyrgyzstan was finding an ATM and getting some money.  Beside our apartment was a popular called Bublika.  Coffee, and plates of pancakes and omelettes: we were ready to hit Bishkek.  It turned out to be another lovely city.  Not because of any particular sights, but rather for the parks and public spaces, kind people in cafes and it just had a good positive vibe.  At one point we were sitting in Oak Park, it wasn’t silent looking at the changing colour on the leaves of the trees, instead there was a constant thrum of acorns falling, rustling  through the trees and bouncing off the ground underneath.

USAid had been very active in helping the tourism industry progress and one of their initiatives was preparing walking routes, with supporting stories of the places you were seeing.  It was very well done and helped get us around the city point we wanted to see. There were a lot of parks, squares and sculptures and we didn’t visited them all.  

We had lunch in modern cafe which we had also been to in Dushanbe.  It was only after we sat down and recognized some of the decor did we realize this was a Russian chain called Shokoladnitsa.  The dumplings and local beer were well appreciated.  

Over the road was the Tsum, central department store.  Again the most useful shops were on the very top floor.  Here were a lot of same-same tourist souvenirs but there were a couple of shops with unique items.  The best selling the most delightful silk scarves with merino wool felted into them.  

We visited the Fine Arts museum, which had quite a large space but only a few really good pieces.  The good pieces, were very good, though.  It was particularly noticeable that the dominant colour in all the paintings was brown, reflecting the terrain and harsh environment.  But when it came to the textiles, they were unabashed riots of colour. 

In the way home we stopped in the supermarket.  It is always interesting to see the different  things in supermarkets giving a small insight into local life.  The one thing we both noticed was that bulk biscuits are a major thing here with a aisle devoted to scooping up all the freeflow biscuits you could want. We instead found chocolate marshmallow biscuits that we had had on the airplane - and they served us well as meal supplements over the next few days.  

In the evening we walked to a Georgian Restaurant.  "Pur Pur" has constant good ratings from a number of sources.  It was a good choice, and it lived up to expectations with lamb that melted in your mouth!  The freshly prepared Khachapuri bread and a carafe of Georgian wine made it well worth the walk. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seven Lakes & Iskanderkul, Tajikistan

Breakfast was more toned down-selection compared to the excessive breakfasts that had been served up to us so far, but still had multiple small dishes.  Our driver for the next 2 days picked us up from outside the hotel.  Rohib spoke good English and had spent time in Germany and Russia.  

The lakes were each a slightly different colour and the people living along the way were certainly living basic lives.  At the 6th lake we stopped and walked to the 7th lake.  

The journey thus far had taken a couple of hours on gravel roads that became progressively narrower and rougher.  The 7th lake was lovely and worth the 150-250 flights of stairs our 2 phones told us we had climbed.  Along the way we had met multiple donkeys carrying firewood, working hard under heavy loads, and their owners encouraging them along.  

It was a bit dubious that the driver’s Opel Vectra was going to be able to handle the roads all the way to the 6th or 7th lake as we had read of other people switching to 4wd cars for the journey.  We made it, but there were a few places where the car struggled badly and we ended up rolling backwards down a hill to try again...not entirely confidence inspiring.

We did the long journey back to the main road.  On reaching the paved road our driver morphed into a racing-car driver.  Speeds were constantly high, and he was overtaking everything at every opportunity.  In one way it was good to turn off the main road and get back on gravel.  Because there, he was infinitely more cautious.  On the negative side it was another hour on gravel roads and the last part done in darkness.  The last portion from Iskanderkul to Sarytag was in pitch dark, on dirt roads that were not in good condition, climbing up highs hills and there was dust everywhere leaving next to zero visibility at times in the headlights of the car.  It was a real relief to get to our home stay, eat a simple meal and fall into bed.

The next morning, we had a got up early and had a brief walk near the property.  We watched groups of older people herding cows to different pasture.  Generally, there was not a lot of grazing, and where the cows ended up didn’t look much better. The stones buildings they were living in had no obvious electricity and smoke suggested open fire cooking

A quick breakfast of eggs and not-so-fresh bread, and we were back in the car jolting along a different road back to the Iskanderkul lake.  This was a newer, better road built because of the Chinese gold & antimony mining camp which we passed through on the drive.  I assume they also paid for the electricity pylons and all other new infrastructure we could see on the way.  Production from the mine was expected to be 2ton of gold per year and 16000 ton of antimony (used in batteries). Various conversations with people during the larger Stans trips had plenty of negative comment about these foreign investors. 

Iskanderkul lake was a beautiful sight.  We also walked alongside the river in order to see the roaring rapids/waterfall.  I was less keen on the cantilevered viewing platform...well anchored, but it had seen better days.

Back in the car and a 1 hour trip back to the main road, then racing car mode again.  We did go through the infamous Anzob tunnel – previously known as ‘the tunnel of death’.  These days, it has lights and a reasonable surface.  But the 5km tunnel (@ 2700m) was built by Iranian engineers and it was handed over unfinished for nearly 10 years with no lighting, there was water flowing through it and eventually major potholes.  Work started again in 2017 and it is dramatically better.  There is still no ventilation and Tajik vehicles have a tendency to have bad fumes, so visibility is still not great.  Everyone, including the driver , was very relieved to see light on the other side.  

The road had plenty of avalanche shelters and even at the end of summer there were patches of snow on the roadside due to the altitude we were at.  Our driver had to stop once after the tunnel because he was feeling tired after a broken night’s sleep in Sarytag.  He wasn’t totally unsafe but it was good to hit the outskirts of Dushanbe and we were not going to argue about transferring to a taxi for the drive into the city.  

The driver helped us arrange that new taxi journey.  The only problem was that the taxi driver he got for us - had no idea where the street of our hotel was (and it wasn’t a small street).  He asked us to put it on a map for him.  It was just lucky we had some internet and could do that otherwise it would have been a long journey with him stopping every 2 minutes to ask people for directions.