Travelogue Mauritius 7: Epilogue

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jun 22, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Epilogue
21-22 June 2013

We’d already made the executive decision not to bother with any of the tour options on the South of the Island (Curepipe and the volcano, Chamarel and the 7 coloured sands, the tea tour, the zoo etc), so all that remained to do on our last full day was nothing.

We slipped into the comfortable routine of our decadently multi-course breakfast and again watched in fascination as the chef at the hot buffet effortlessly flipped out our 2 perfect omelettes. He uses small cast iron frying pans each on its own gas ring. You choose your fillings from a row of dishes – cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, chillies, ham etc – and he scoops as you choose, finishing off with expertly cracking the egg/s one-handed into the bowl, giving it a quick whisk and pouring it into the pan just as the other omelette is ready for a flip (which he does with a flick of the wrist like it’s a pancake). A few seconds later and omelette 1 is ready to go and he’s wash-rinse-repeating the whole process. Quick as lightning and every omelette perfect. When asked his secret he says it comes with 25 years of doing it – and he can’t remember when last he dropped one!

Breakfast behind us, we headed down to the water for a bit of kayaking. It was really hard work because the wind was up, so the water was choppy. We’d started paddling North up the Mont Choisy public beach, but were being pulled out to sea by the current so turned to head back. Easier said than done! Although I was maintaining a steady movement, there were times when I was just staying on the spot! A lot of work for no progress, I can tell you! Amazingly though, once you pass the point where the piers on either side protect the hotel’s little lagoon, it’s another story entirely. From paddling on the spot, it almost felt like I shot forward! Hallelujah! It really was quite a work out – so lucky I had a week’s worth of sugary breakfasts to fuel the machine!

The beach crew told us that it was 10 minutes to waterski time, which made for great timing – and gave me just long enough to spend some quality time with the jewellery peddlar on the beach. Mauritius is known for pearls of course, but also haematite (a silvery black shiny stone) and sandstone (brown glittery stones from Chamarel), which are often coupled with amethyst and turquoise from Rodriguez and Madagascar. They’re also big on shamballa bracelets, made with shiny stones made from the volcano’s lava. I got a black Shamballa bracelet and a haematite necklace with black pearls… And ended up getting a matching haematite bead bracelet thanks to the skiing being delayed because the speedboat battery was dead!

There was nobody else in the queue to ski so the crew agreed that I could go for one long circuit (they’d insisted I could only have 2 short turns the first time since there were others wanting to go). The water was quite choppy from the wind, but it was still a good ride and I enjoyed it immensely.

Taxing stuff done with, the loungers called. And we succumbed to a few blissful hours of rest and relaxation.

But there’s only so long we can keep still – and this was further tested by “Music Day”, which was a seemingly endless poolside karaoke caterwauling – so early afternoon we headed off for an amble that ended up taking us the full length of the public beach, around the point, through Club Med and the (very fancy) Le Cannoniers (with its gorgeous water features and old lighthouse historical monument (which they’re using as Bob Marlin’s Kids’ Club (very cute), through Pointe Aux Cannoniers and all the way to Grand Baie. We punctuated the trek with a few Phoenix breaks when a waterside spot grabbed as and, predictably, ended up at The Beach House. No point fighting something that works.

Cabous was in attendance, looking quite (beach chic) scruffy and doing the rounds being friendly and welcoming to the patrons, who again seemed to mostly be South Africans.

We were a bit peckish by this point so ordered nachos to share. Best ever!! (Self-confessed) Dorito’s, brilliant bolognaise, salad, cheese and cheese sauce with a healthy dollop of guacamole to top it off. Perfect accompaniment to yet another perfect sunset.

Nowhere near ambitious enough to walk back (and under the gun to get back for happy hour at The Pirate) we caught the bus – with a bus stop directly outside the Beach House with the exact right bus pulling up to it at the exact right moment, how could we not?!

The Pirate was quite a bit busier than it had been on any of our previous visits. A combination of people we recognised having their parting shot, new faces having their welcome rounds and us. The waiter seemed to recognise us – although he was very poker-faced about it – and brought us chicken fritters as bar snacks instead of the usual peanuts. Very welcomed alongside a few Blue Marlins.

Dinner was again in the smaller dining room and the theme for the evening’s meal was clearly seafood. We were served crab soup and the buffet was all fruits de mer, fish pie, fresh fried fish and whatnot. Pudding was a bit disappointing for me since it was a kind of eclair thing with butterscotch sauce… But a big dollop of coffee mousse on top to ruin it all.

Nonetheless, our resort had been great and the food largely excellent; our positioning for daytrips and excursions perfect. If we had it all to do again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. On the whole, it hadn’t been as expensive as I was anticipating. Sure, resort prices are ridiculous, but with options across the road and up and down the street, this could be largely mitigated (for us, seemingly not so easy for the more remote resorts we’d seen dropping off our cruisemates). It definitely also helped to have half board, so main meals were taken care of but allowing the freedom to explore without the fear of missing out on all the lunches and teas that make up the value.

Worry of any sort messes with the island lifestyle and we can’t be having any of that!

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Travelogue Mauritius 6: Trou Aux Biches

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Trou Aux Biches
20 June 2013

With plan in mind to catch the (free) glass-bottom boat from the pier at the hotel at 9.30, we were braced for breakfast at 8.45. Deviating from the usual combination, I went “death by chocolate” and upped my usual pain chocolat with a pancake with cinnamon sugar, syrup and chocolate sauce matched with a cup of hot chocolate… Before embarking on my usual yoghurt, omelette, ham/cheese/bacon baguette story.

Sugar-rushing and ready to rumble, we were pier-side with time to spare – and alongside a German couple as our only boatmates. We alighted and settled either side of the glass-bottoms, with a very clear view of the seabed since the water is very clear and very shallow. There wasn’t much to see though; it was all sand and rocks (and water of course).

The driver took us out a bit and pointed behind us to the shore. Fascinatingly, we could see rain coming toward us in a clearly defined curtain, moving from over the forest behind the public beach, toward us from the North. Before we knew it fascination turned to horror and we were getting pelted (well, engulfed by light drizzle that was at an angle to cut straight below our tarpaulin roof) and getting drenched! Luckily, the rain moved very quickly over us – and of course it’s warm so not so bad… and our objective was after all to jump in the sea so, by definition, to get wet anyway.

But not yet apparently.

Somehow, the skipper’s attention had been diverted by a passing dive boat that had cut out so we ended up performing a towboat function to shore. Maybe not so bad as we towed them to the beach at Trou Aux Biches, which looked gorgeous and to be a perfect afternoon excursion.

Finally, we were back out to sea and ready to start snorkelling… Only to find we were one set short for our little group. Christian and I were to be sharing a set, so I took the mask and snorkel first and we jumped off the boat. The water was fab and warm but the current quite strong, pulling to the North. No a concern though because we had no particular course, so just bobbed around checking out the thousands of small brightly coloured fish swimming beneath us.

Then disaster struck. I passed the mask to Christian and the elastic snapped as he was putting it on. And it fell out his hands. And sank. The water wasn’t very deep, with us being able to stand on tippy-toes on some of the bigger rocky outcrops on the sandbed. We tried this to get a better look at where the mask had fallen, but only succeeded in getting some toes shredded from the unsteady footing. The German chap swam over to help, but was a little too leisurely so by the time he reached us, we weren’t even sure whether we’d moved position because of the current and even less sure what it might have done with the mask! We swam around for a bit looking out on the off chance we’d spot it, but with neither of us having a mask and only one snorkel between us, there was slim chance of anything productive coming of it.

We got back to shore a little disheartened, but it didn’t last long and we were soon cheery again on our trusty poolside loungers. After a couple of hours of reading and relaxing, we were ready to head off to see what Trou Aux Biches had to offer.

The walk down the main beach road was very pleasant, with decent pavements lined with cheery bright bougainvillea and of course the intermittent beach views. The wasn’t very much to see or do at Trou Aux Biches though (just a few souvenir shops) so we decided to walk a bit further in the hope of finding a lunch spot on the beach. No such luck. We walked all the way to Pointe Aux Pimentes (about halfway to Port Louis if the map we were using is to scale!) and didn’t find anywhere suitable… So we turned around and walked home.

No loss though, it was a very pleasant walk. And we did eventually get lunch – across the road from our hotel at The Pirate! Nothing fancy, just shared a pizza (they put chicken on their Regina as standard. Genius!) and a few Blue Marlins, but it was great.

By then it was 4pm, so we moved back to the hotel and spent a few hours playing games at a table at the end of the lunch deck with the waves lapping beneath us, watching the sunset. Simple pleasures.

We played until dark, then returned to the room to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was yet another masterpiece, with a Chinese theme for the usual 4 courses. Chicken noodle soup to start, with a plated assortment of bitesize Chinese treats to follow; then a stirfry buffet (chicken, beef and pork all equally delicious!) and a rice pudding to close.

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Travelogue Mauritius 5: Mont Choisy & Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy & Grand Baie
19 June 2013

Our concerted efforts to already charter the North, West and East coasts combined with our growing ambivalence toward the central and Southern “attractions”, moved us to decide that an agenda of nothingness at our own resort was to be the order of the day.

We managed to be at breakfast by 9 and made a leisurely lion’s feast of the fares for the better part of an hour, with little else on the itinerary bar a wander down to the watersports to see what might take our fancy.

That turned out to be an easier decision than anticipated since some schmuck had broken the (only) skis the day before, we’d missed the morning snorkeling trip and Christian’s injury precluded the pedelo, so kayaking it was to be. Nice enough, enjoying the sea and sun – and clever to start against the current to make for an easy return journey.

The tough stuff done, we made for a dip in the pool (not to be Captain Obvious, but the sea is very salty) and some downtime on the loungers; books in hands, anticipating the most challenging part of the rest of the day to be coping with the Sade (album, seemingly on repeat)… Then the rain came. Nothing to write home about – just a gentle drizzle, from patchy clouds and without affecting the temperature – so we moved to the covered patio to see if it was worth waiting out.

The entertainment staff at this resort are very exuberant, taking any opportunity to chat, try and rope you into some activity or another or generally ensure you’re having (their idea of) a good time. The head animator caught us and soon was plying us with riddles and challenging us to solve visual riddles with little pieces of stick he carries around in his pocket. Fortunately, the seemingly arb points he kept awarding us soon amounted to a cocktail reward, but we decided to leave on a high and go to Grand Baie for lunch.

Of course, once we were showered, dressed and on the bus, the sun came out and belted down all afternoon!

Nonetheless, it made for a very pleasant afternoon at the Beach House, where we wetted with ice-cold Phoenix draughts and whetted with a delicious creamy marlin in white wine pasta and a chicken and prawn curry and rice. We’d hoped to catch up with our new friends from Cape Town, but the poor wi-fi signal our side and their poor mobile network connection their side was making comms by any of the usual methods a challenge. Sadly, when we managed to chat later, it seems our forays in Grand Baie had overlapped so we could easily have hooked up!

We caught the bus back to Mont Choisy, but jumped off halfway to enjoy a sunset walk along the beach. Amazingly, not only are the roads and beaches spotless, but we passed a team of ladies raking the needles and cones from the thicket that runs between the road and the sand. Job creation or not, their contribution certainly makes this island life idyllic!

Sundowners and backgammon saw us through to dinner – yet another meal… And 4 courses of it to boot! Chicken soup and feta salad served to start, buffet main where we had pesto spaghetti with spicy lamb meatballs (and tried the fish parcels wrapped in cabbage), then a multi-layered chocolate and vanilla cake with custard to end.

Amazed at how doing so little can make one so tired, we mastered a chill evening with a few episodes of our newest find, Seed.

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Travelogue Mauritius 4: Ile Aux Cerfs

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jun 19, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Ile Aux Cerfs
18 June 2013

Having settled into island life quite quickly but thoroughly, a 7am wake-up seemed like a tall order… Although a necessary evil for our full day catamaran cruise and waterfall tour on the East coast. Tightly securing caution from the wind, we set 2 alarms and requested a wake-up call from reception to ensure that we were up and out in time for our collection, and a hearty breakfast beforehand.

I’d plotted and planned the breakfast element, reckoning that there was no need to rush the carbo-loading since we’d been briefed that the tour starts with a cross-country drive from our position in the North-West to our departure point dead East, pausing to pick up other passengers en route. My logic allowed a decadently leisured lingering on the yoghurts, pastries and juices based on the premise of the other type of carbo-loading – loading the proteins into a handy carb take-away. Baguettes are perfect for that! It was a cinch packing a 1-egg omelette, a handful of ham, a chunk of cheese and a healthy smattering of bacon into a forearm of French roll and twisting a serviette nappy-style around the bottom to keep everything together.

With that, we were off with our new taxi-mates – 5 sullen Indian oldies from Durban at the back (1 with an annoying wheezy throat-clearing cough and splutter thing, which grew tired very quickly) and their 6th riding up front with the driver, telling stories of SA corruption and how unsafe and sad everything is (not the stories we should be taking overseas with us).

Fortunately, the next couple we picked up was a lot more up tempo and there was soon a better vibe all round. They are from Cape Town… And we were hardly surprised when the next pick-up was a couple from Jo’burg! We did mix things up a bit when the last passengers turned out to be a couple from Maputo, on holiday celebrating his 45th birthday.

We were dropped off at the docks and handed over our shoes (which was mandatory, and a little unsettling) at the jetty and alighted the speedboat taking us out to the catamaran. We were joined there by the other half of the tour group – a herd of animatedly excited Chinese people and a young British couple.

After a brief induction to their catamaran, how things work about and the running order for the day, we settled ourselves on the big nets at the front – (coincidentally?) alongside all the other Southern Africans. We were the first to order drinks – Stags, the only local beer we’d yet to try – which seemed to set the trend and soon there were clinking bottles cheering good health and happy birthdays on our side of the boat, while the Chinese girls busied themselves taking photos (of themselves and us) and making their first (of what proved to be many) outfit changes.

The weather had started off good, but unfortunately it got a bit cloudy and windy, neither of which are ideal conditions for our exposed position. Things improved somewhat when we sailed into the sheltered lagoon where we were anchoring to take the speedboat transfer to what had just been referred to as “The Waterfall” up to this point and which we assumed would be quite some spectacle. Well, you know what they say about assumption.

The waterfall turned out to be little more than 10 metres (maybe, tops) at a dead-end junction not wide enough to allow 2 speedboats simultaneously. The driver of the speedboat ahead of us was delighting his passengers with daredevil back and forthing, wetting the people at the front as he darted toward the waterfall, close enough for them to be showered with spray, then backing up quickly again. Our driver wasn’t quite as much a prankster, though he did get close enough for us to get a light spritz (which enthused the Chinese no end, happy-snapping pics of us since the South Africans all happened to be at the nose of the boat).

All in all, it was a bit of an oversold but underwhelming element of the tour… Although it was a laugh (probably because of the Stags and the – likely uncoincidental – good humour of our group).

Next on the agenda was the BBQ lunch on-board the catamaran, which again proved to be a bit disappointing. I suppose it’s tough to bulk cater for people, using only the limited galley space and a small braai grill on the back of the boat… And even worse to grill for South Africans when it’s such a big part of our lifestyle that our standards are so high. Needless to say, very average rice, coleslaw and pasta salad and hopelessly overdone and sat-too-long chicken and fish weren’t the lavish on-deck feast the pictures on the sales materials had presented. At least we hadn’t upgraded to the lobster lunch (served in the same sorry state) as the Mozambicans had done in light of their birthday celebrations.

After lunch we were speedboated to our afternoon on the island, Ile Aux Cerfs. It was lovely. With the lagoon and beaches sheltered from the wind, we were able to properly enjoy the golden sands and azure waters. It’s not very far from the mainland (opposite Le Tousserok) and has an 18 hole golf course in the middle that the fancy resorts on East coast can access by speedboat. On the beach itself there is a bar and restaurant, ice-cream hut, plenty of loungers and enthusiastic waitrons milling around to cater to your fancy, but we opted to rather take a turn around the art and craft market and then chill with the Cape Town couple, swapping stories, sharing tour tips and generally having a marvellous time frittering the day away.

All too soon it was time to get back on the speedboat to get to the catamaran for the return journey (to the coast to catch the taxi transfer back across the island). The journey back seemed quicker than the ambling sail in the morning – perhaps sailing with the tide, perhaps the company and the merriment from the Stags – slowed only by our occasional wander into a sandbank, which we seemed to just wait out until the tide drifted us over it. Very island-style.

We were all relieved to get our shoes back – most in the firm belief that we’d seen the last of them – and it was a very different ride back in the van, mostly because the Indian oldies had predictably gotten there first and placed themselves 2-by-2 in the row seats, so we were split up and inserted among them, which livened the whole bus somewhat with group chatter, meaningful glances and giggling. I was positioned next to Cough and Splutter, but that wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits (nor raise theirs).

We waved goodbye to our friends from the day, having enjoyed their company immensely – and having made promises to meet up for lunch in Grand Baie later in the week. Having seen more of the island, we realised how fortunate we were to have chosen to be based in Mont Choisy – an easy bus ride to Grand Baie and Port Louis and on a road with several entertainment options, whereas these resort ‘estates’ are far more remote, no doubt having anything and everything you might need contained inside… At extortionate hotel prices. We also have a small resort with probably 60 or so rooms horse-shoed around the central area, whereas the resorts that we’d seen on the East coast all seemed much bigger with several hundred rooms. I’m sure that there are upsides associated with that kind of scale, but I prefer our homely spot, with more than we need and being able to come and go and feed our whimsy as the mood takes us.

We were very pleased to reach our hotel and get a shower and fresh clothes on, in time to make our way to dinner, which had been moved to the smaller restaurant upstairs to better accommodate the smaller winter (can’t believe this is their winter!) complement of guests. Another magnificent meal, with spicy fish soup followed by a mini pizza, with a buffet for mains. We had a few smaller portions of everything with guinea fowl, roast beef and lasagne from the main buffet and a delicious tagliatelle bolognaise from the pasta mini-buffet.

Another day successfully done and dusted in Mauritius!

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Travelogue Mauritius 3: Port Louis

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Port Louis
17 June 2013

We’re settling in nicely with the breakfast routine and got a slightly earlier start having not had the travel lag to wear off. Meats, cheeses, yoghurts to start; omelette, sausages, bacon and beans for main… And a cheese, ham and bacon baguette for the road.

Feeling confident about the public transport system, we set off for the bus stop across the road in the direction of Port Louis. Even with 2 false starts (buses headed to other parts of the island), we still only had a 10 minute wait, tops. The 16km bus ride shouldn’t have taken as long as it did (about 45 minutes), but these buses stop ridiculously often with some bus stops as little as 50 metres apart – although it doesn’t cause the chaos it would cause at home, even though most roads are single carriageway, because there is much less traffic and congestion. Probably because there are convenient and affordable buses so people don’t need cars.

We took the bus to the end of the line – the Port Louis Bus Terminus and consulted the map we’d acquired at the hotel to determine that we were across the highway from the waterfront and on the same road as the market. Looking up to the hill on the left we could see the Citadel, so were optimistic that it’s be easy enough for us to get to the (only) 3 things we wanted to do in this city.

We started with the market, which is a few blocks of stalls and shops, fortunately closed off for cars since the pedestrian traffic is manic enough! We soon discovered that everyone sells a combination of the same things – knock-off clothing, souvenirs, spices, pashminas and pearls. It made shopping easy though and a few simple price comparisons and some haggling and we had the few items we wanted. Thankfully, there were very few hecklers, so largely is was a painless experience (although this could just be relative to the last few places I’ve been, which can be a shopper’s heaven or a nightmare, depending on one’s patience levels).

The city is laid out in a neat grid, although it doesn’t feel like it with the veering on and off pavements to avoid stalls, shoppers and general people-traffic. The only trouble we had finding our way to the Citadel was the fact that none of the street names are marked – and for a big grey building on a hill it is surprisingly tricky to spot as you get closer, thanks to the narrow streets and multi-storey (but no means skyrise) buildings. Nonetheless, we managed to find it and, a short steep hike later, we were standing in the battlements and enjoying what must be the best view of the city.

The Citadel was built by the British and named Fort Adelaide after the King’s wife. It was thought to be built to protect the 1,000 odd British settlers that were here when they changed the slavery laws and emancipated the French’s slaves. It was thought that this would lead to strife, which didn’t seem to happen and, like Durban, they just imported cheap Indian labourers to work the sugarcane fields instead.

Being a relatively young city, there isn’t much else of historical importance to see, besides the Black Penny Museum… Which we went past, but didn’t bother going into, on our walk along the esplanade at the Waterfront. We did almost go into the Keg & Marlin on the promenade, but decided against it thinking that since we’d managed to avoid KFC, Steers and Debonairs, we might as well maintain the day as authentically Mauritian.

The Waterfront doesn’t hold much of interest, just a few glossy buildings with label-brand shops and the to-be-expected handful of restaurants and cafes. It is clean and pleasant though and the waters relatively clean and clear for a working harbour.

Having completed the full circle of the town, we headed back to the bus terminus and – with some difficulty since it was obviously school-leaving time for the day and there was a mess of scholars everywhere – found our bus stop. Luckily, there was a bus to Trou Aux Biches (the next stop down from ours) about to depart. Not so luckily, we had to stand… Which proved to be quite a challenge as the bus jerked and jiggled down the narrow roads. I’m sure that the school kids behind us were having a good giggle at our jellying, but at least those on either side of us had the good manners to just stare.

We got back well in time to enjoy a refreshing swim and admire the sunset from the comfortable vantage point of a poolside lounger, then retire to our balcony for some Vonta and backgammon until dinner.

Dinner was a plated soup (consomme) and starter (divine chicken and mushroom vol au vent type pie thing), then buffet main course (we opted for rare steaks, egg and veg chow mein and crispy skinny chips). There was a pancake buffet for dessert, but we just didn’t have any room!

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Travelogue Mauritius 2: Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Grand Baie
16 June 2013

We set off from the hotel at about 2pm for our excursion to spend the afternoon in Grand Baie. We’d had advice from the chaps from Durban the night before that the island was easily navigated by buses, which were easy enough to catch since our hotel was positioned on the main beach road between Port Louis (the capital) and Grand Baie (the tourist haven, teeming with entertainment options and nightlife). This opinion had been verified by another fellow (coincidentally also from Durban) we’d met at our morning skiing session. So, on leaving the hotel, we politely declined the taximan at the door, offering a ride to Grand Baie for 500 Rupees. A few minutes wait at the bus stop 50m down the road and we alighted for a bargain 22 Rupees each.

The buses are a bit shabby, but not dirty, so the savings were a welcome tip – especially since Grand Baie was only a 4.5km ride away.

Being a Sunday afternoon, most of town was closed, including most of the highbrow label stores in Sunset Boulevard, which is a mall made up of quaint little cottages each housing a small store. This didn’t matter to us as it wasn’t what we were after anyway and we were quite happy to wander up and down the waterfront and beachroad, stopping to look here and there, but mainly just getting our bearings.

Some time later, we took a break in a lively spot called The Beach House – bright and white-washed, overlooking the sea – with an ice cold Phoenix draught in hand. It was only as we were leaving that we spotted all the posters and plaques in the entrance and realised that it’s Cabous Van Der Westhuizen’s bar. Perhaps this was why the tables on either side of us were all South Africans. Or perhaps not; this island is full of Saffer tourists (like us)!

Needing to fuel the rest of our sight-seeing, we did an on-the-run take-away from a bright green foodtruck on the beachfront that had a mouthwatering chicken donner displayed. It was served with all the usual schwarma trimmings and sauces… But on a baguette of course! It was a great sandwich!

We’d done some tour price comparisons as we went and stopped in at our operator of choice to confirm a cruise on the East island and waterfalls for Tuesday. 100 Rupees cheaper than the lowest price we’d had – and a third of Ziad’s price!

Pleased with our purchases, we celebrated at Cokoloko, taking advantage of their 4-7 happy hour “1 litre Big Daddy beers for 160 Rupees”, with the box of popcorn they served alongside, which for me was a win compared to the endless flow of nuts served everywhere else.

Not wanting to miss out on our already-favourite happy hour at the Pirate, we got to the bus stop for 5.30 and were soon on a jam-packed bus headed back to Mont Choisy. While it’s easy enough to catch a bus to our area because of where we’re positioned between Grand Baie and Port Louis, we learned that some buses are better than others route-wise and we had taken one that veered inland a bit where we were coastside. No mind though, the conductor was kind enough to point out the best disembarkation point for us and we had no more than a few hundred metres walk to get back to our hotel.

…at quarter past six, with plenty of time to relax at the Pirate, sip a Phoenix, recap our day and discuss plans for the week ahead before we were due at dinner, which only stats at 19h30. We were in no rush, so even made time to induct our balcony with a few games of backgammon, sipping on Vonta (Fanta and vodka).

Dinner was a completely different format, being a 4-course set menu rather than all the previous buffets. I was a bit worried about this, being the fussy eater I am, but it turned out all good with a creamy soup starter; shrimp and pineapple cocktail; mixed grill and berry cheesecake.

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Travelogue Mauritius 1: Mont Choisy

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Jun 17, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy
15 June 2013

How very early 5am is in winter! Especially when you’ve been out on the red wine the night before… And you’re so excited for your holiday that you wake up at 3.30, afraid you’ll oversleep (and end up getting up at 4.30, half an hour before the alarm goes off!) Fortunately, Mother was uncharacteristically on-time so we were bags packed (in her new car) and en route to the airport (in fully econo mode) with time to spare.

… Which we wisely spent at Wimpy, carbo-loading for the journey ahead.

Good thing too because, while our short 4 hour hop of a flight was just about back-to-back feeding, we’d never have lasted through the first 2 rounds of snacks to have our first main meal “lunch” at 11. A really respectable ravioli though, well done BA!

We landed at the Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, which is in Plaine Magnien at the very south of the island while our accommodation was at the very north. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as we soon found out with an easy 40 minute (private car) commute. Like in Sri Lanka, we found ourselves on the only highway on the island, fortunate that it ran exactly from where we departed to where we wanted to go. Hardly surprising though, since Mauritius is only 65km from north to south and 45km east to west, so nowhere is really far from anywhere else!

Our driver initially took us to the wrong resort, but was soon sanctified when it was apparent that it was an easy mistake to make with Mont Choisy comprising several resorts, hotels, motels and villas… Most with Mont Choisy in the name! Second attempt fruitful, we discovered Hotel Mont Choisy Coral Azur to be our home for the week. We hadn’t even taken our bags out the car when the driver pulled up because the resort seemed fancier than we expected but, to our surprise and delight, this was it… sparkling pool, loungers, palm trees, blue skies and even bluer sea!

We checked in and the porter escorted us to our room, 218, a lovely upstairs suite with private balcony overlooking the gardens and the Indian Ocean beyond. The room is mostly an obscenely large bed (made up of 2 three-quarters side-by-side), reassuringly made with just a mountain of pillows, a sheet and a purely decorative runner – in contrast to the down duvets and electric blankets at home.

We’d checked in at about 5pm and in the quick once-over of our room and discovery of our balcony we realised we were in the midst of our first Mauritian sunset, so decided to do a quick up-and-down our road while it was still light.

A short adventure revealed a road generously dotted with holiday accommodation, restaurants and shops. We spotted signage for a supermarket (which we wanted to visit to buy stocks for our minibar since the hotel prices were predictably extortionate), but couldn’t seem to find the shop. Arrows pointing in both directions but the centre point seemed to be an Indian restaurant on one side (bannered as Indian, but also serving Chinese and pizza!) and a clothing shop on the other. We were flummoxed, so decided to consider our next moves over a beer at Le Bay des Pirates – a decorated-to-death bar, restaurant and dancefloor with thatch overhangs, banana trees, barrel bar tables and a wooden boat centrepiece. It was 6.05 on Saturday and they offered a Happy Hour from 6-7 on weekends, so it seemed like kismet!

We tried the local Phoenix, which is quite strong tasting and bitter, and then the Blue Marlin, which is equally strong but sweeter. And then tried each again to secure our first impressions.

The only other patrons were an entertaining couple – Terry and Antony from Durban – who’d been to Mauritius before and had lots of sage advice for us, and who were generally well-travelled so we shared anecdotes about the highs and lows of various places. They also solved the mystery of the missing supermarket for us, explaining that you have to go through the clothing store to get to it. Thinking they meant “past” rather than “through”, we nipped back to the clothing store. True as nuts, you have to go through the clothing store, through the ensuing souvenir store and only then get to the supermarket! Three stores armadillo’ed all using the same entrance! We stocked up on water, Fanta and a couple of cans of variant of Phoenix – lighter and with lemon – that would serve as poolside wetties for the following day.

Having not eaten in a few hours, grumbling tums encouraged us to return to Coral Azur for our dinner (since we’d booked half board so our breakfast and dinners were included). We were met with a sumptuous buffet with everything you can think of and piled plates high with an odd mix of a bit of everything – pasta, roasted chicken, curry, sausage stew…

Full and tuckered (even though it had only been a 4 hour flight, commuting had taken the entire day), we turned in early and watched a few episodes of series on the laptop (real 2013 travellers) before turning in.

A gloriously long night’s sleep later, we made no rush to up and out to breakfast, served until 10. When we did, we discovered it was a beautiful clear-skied, sunny day – perfect for a leisurely breakfast on poolside deck. We plotted our day over cold meats, cheeses, yoghurts and full fry-up, deciding to try the watersports first, lounge at the pool until our meeting with our tour operator at 1.45 and then catch a bus to Grand Baie for the afternoon.

Taking a walk to the beach, we presented ourselves at the hut that serves as hub for the hotel’s watersports. The staff all speak good English and are friendly and very helpful. A pleasant surprise that the hotel includes the usual non-motorised activities (kayaks, windsurfs, lazer boat, pedelo etc) as well as a range of motorised (water-skiing, inflatables, glass-bottom boat snorkelling etc) all for free!

We started with the water-skiing. Despite a decade or more since the last time I skied, I had no trouble getting up and thoroughly enjoyed my laps on the smooth-as-glass open waters. Christian wasn’t so lucky and aggravated an existing rugby groin injury, likely ending his skiing possibilities for the holiday. Nonetheless, we were able to grab kayaks and took a trip up and down either side of the coast – even able to catch a rather spirited local church service on the seafront on the public beach a few properties down.

While we weren’t out for long, kayaking takes a different kind of fit and, lacking upper body strength as I do, I was grateful to have a lovely sit by the pool for an hour to relax after the morning’s activities.

Our tour operator, Ziad, met us at 1.45 to run through the “what to do” options on the island. The guys at the resort’s beach hut had told us about some of the tours that operate from the hotel and we were horrified when Ziad’s prices averaged three times what we’d been told! This made us more resolute to get another opinion in Grand Baie before committing to anyone. We politely let Ziad finish and headed out the hotel for our outing to Grand Baie.

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Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 24, 2013 Under Travelogue

FES
23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! :D

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Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Apr 23, 2013 Under Travelogue

VOLUBILIS – MEKNES
22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! ;)

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Travelogue China 3: Hangzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

HANGZHOU
27 August 2014

With the tour itinerary getting lighter, we were able to sleep in a bit and still have plenty of time for our breakfast buffet (including ice-cream!) before the 9.30 departure for the day’s activities.

We settled in our tour bus for the 3 hours of travel from Suzhou to Hangzhou (pronounced “hung-joe”), which passed easily now that the busload was interacting as one group abuzz with exchanges about home and the tour (from the Jenkins kids, if nobody else).

The first stop was lunch at a tea farm. Although it felt like we were perpetually en route to a meal (quite routine 8, 12.30 and 6) and the format of each meal was the same (8-10 courses on a lazy susan), the dishes themselves and the variety of locations kept the mealtimes interesting enough.

We opted not to take the presentation at the tea farm since we’d already had a tea ceremony in Suzhou and figured that since it’s all supposedly strictly traditional, you seen one, you seen ‘em all. That might have been a bit dismissive as the locals are so passionate about their tea that they eat, drink and cook with it.

This meant we were on course for West Lake, the big drawcard for the area. Our route took us through the magical bamboo forest where the iconic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed.

The time at West Lake was free time to walk around and admire the scenery. It’s a series of loched manmade lakes, with beautiful thick trees on the banks, large clusters of wild Lotus flowers on the water and a path all the way around so that you can amble along. There were lots of benches and decks to sit and admire the view, mostly under the shade of gorgeous overhanging willow trees. Pretty bridges made for other scenic vantage points and lovely backdrops for photos.

As with everywhere else there were so many people – some even with dogs, of which we’d seen precious few on our trip, and always little chocolate brown miniature poodles. And as with everywhere else, lots of requests to have pictures taken with us.

We would be returning to West Lake for the evening’s entertainment, so there was no objection to moving on to get our hotel. The Courtyard Marriott. Wow. What a grand hotel! Breathtaking lobby, beautiful rooms, astounding facilities. Yet another pleasant surprise on our “bargain package”!

Dinner was at the Lily Hotel and quite different to previous. Same format of course, but much tastier. Hard to tell if this was the restaurant – which did seem much nicer than some of the previous, which had typically understated decor – or the palate of the region.

Then back to West Lake for the show, Impression West Lake which was conceived and directed by Zhang Yimou who is famed for doing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Using the lake, surroundings and an underwater steel stage as props the show is an hour of hundreds of performers and clever usage of lights and sound to create a dazzling epic masterpiece that tells the stories of the classical myths and legends of West Lake. The invisible stage makes it seems as if the dancers are gliding on the water and the mammoth cast is paled by the magnitude of their stage!

We had the best seats in the house (not to be confused with the paraplegic toilets, which we’d taken to seeking out as they were always “proper” toilets) – front row seats on the water’s edge – and couldn’t help but be moved by the triumphant soundtrack… even if we couldn’t quite get a handle on the story.

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Travelogue China 2: Suzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

SUZHOU
26-27 August 2014

Monday morning started even earlier than the previous few, reason being that we had to catch the bullet train from Beijing to Suzhou and, as Mr Lee impressed upon us several times, the train waits for nobody!

So there we were, bleary-eyed but well fed, on the bus at 06h50 to cross town from our hotel’s position in the north-east to the station in the south west. As dumb luck would have it, the traffic was on our side and we got to the station with an hour to kill. Rather an hour too soon than an hour too late though.

Mr Lee had prepared us for the getting on and off the train which, in well-oiled-machine Chinese style, was a mere 2 minute window. That’s just 2 minutes at each station for passengers to alight and board! And the train never runs late and never waits for anyone! Miraculously, we Sloth Africans managed to pull it together and get the lot of us and our ever-increasing flock of luggage on board with time to spare.

The train is very comfortable with 15 or so rows of seats in each carriage, 3 to the left and 2 to the right of the aisle. There is a little dedicated luggage space in the front of each carriage and deceptively accommodating shelving overhead, which was more than ample for our carriage’s needs (thankfully our co-passengers were travelling light!). The seats reclined far enough to allow for easy napping and, mercifully, both the toilets that served our carriage had seats and toilet paper. The entire train was pristinely clean and a cleaner still did regular rounds, offering use of her bin bag to clear our garbage and swishing about sweeping as the train hurtled along smoothly and silently at over 300 kilometers per hour.

In 5 hours we covered the 1,400km journey south, to the relaxing part of the tour.

Already the pace had slowed as once we checked into our hotel, the Pan Pacific, we had free time right until dinner. What a relief – the pace had been quite hectic in Beijing!

Our hotel was again top class; quite different to Traders which was a big modern block, Pan Pacific was a beautiful sprawling mega-villa laced around ponds and gardens. An absolute maze on the inside, with our drop-off (and future meeting point) on the 1st floor, our room on the 2nd floor and the lobby seemingly nonsensically on the 3rd floor.

With 2 hours to kill until dinner we popped out the meeting point entrance to see who our neighbours were. No joy from across the road – a greengrocer and dodgy (closed) pub called BlackJack – so we tried heading right.

A bizarre assortment of very functional shops; the only one of any interest was Holiland bakery. Lured in by the pretty cakes and secured by the soft-serve machine, we endured the cacophony of shoppers and store attendants as well as the painstakingly slow-moving queue – thanks to the cashier also being the packer and the store policy requiring each item to be individually packed in little baggies that stuck to each other and resisted opening – for one reason. Fresh sugar cones.

There was an attendant dedicated to the soft-serve machine, armed with a waffle-maker that she was using to make fresh sugar cones. She had a pre-made batter, thin and runny like a pancake batter, that she was spooning onto the heated waffle iron and spreading thinly. A few seconds of cooking and she’d wrap the toasty flat result tightly around a conical wooden mould. Voila! Fresh sugar cone! It felt the time had stood still… she did it soooo slowly… but it was worth it. The product was a still-warm cone that tasted a bit like Boudoir biscuit, with silky soft ice-cream poured inside and twisted to a peak on top. Yum!

We ambled back to hotel and had a lovely sit before having to meet for dinner.

Quite used to the format now, the only adjustment was to being a smaller group now that splinter groups had gone elsewhere. Being just 13 people (which we were assured was not a bad thing in China as their unlucky number is 4 because it had some connotation with death, which is pretty unlucky) we now fitted around a single table and in the small private dining room at our restaurant which, like all the others, shall remain nameless as the signage was all in Chinese only.

Another lovely meal – getting the hang of chopsticks, getting adept at dishing off a constantly swivelling lazy suzie, getting used to one glass of Coke / beer per meal, getting accustomed to no salt / pepper / serviettes, getting to know the company. Having a feast and having a laugh. All good.

TUESDAY
We finally got to have the first bit of a lie-in this holiday, only having to wake up at 8 in order to make our 9.30 meeting time.

The plan for the day was a city tour of Suzhou (pronounced “sue-joe”), which is known as the Chinese Venice because it has over 1,400 canals. It is considered to be a smaller city, with a mere 15 million population so had Mr Lee more relaxed, saying that “it nosso busy so don’t have to walk like sticky rice.”

The bus took us to the famous Lingering Gardens. One of 4 most famous gardens in China, it was built in 1593 and belonged to a series of owners since then, accumulating cultivated gardens, quaint buildings and scenic pathways between interesting relics.

There are exhibits of classic calligraphy and paintings of the national flowers – plum (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), lotus (Winter), Chinese rose (Spring) – which can be seen in the gardens. As we walked into the garden, we were greeted by the lotus flowers in bloom on the pond. They are much bigger than expected with great big round leaves. Stark contrast to the controlled miniatures in abundance in the bonsai garden.

Wandering around gardens is not normally our sort of thing, so we did a once-round and buffered the extra time by going to the shop stalls across the road and buying some real bargain souvenirs.

Next up was the embroidery factory. This was no ordinary embroidery! The Masters (and there are only 4 of them) are able to do double-sided embroidery, meaning they can embroider the picture on the top (and I’m talking better-than-photo quality stuff) AND simultaneously create a (different) embroidery on the reverse side! Really amazing stuff!

We got to watch a Master at work. This old lady is 75 years old and has been working at the same factory every day for more than half a century and she only embroiders fish. All day, every day for 57 years and just fish. They are spectacular! She does the most realistic vibrant fish using the finest of stitching (splitting a single thread into 1/24 so you can barely see it), an expert deft hand and a mirror on her lap to monitor the back picture. Unbelievable. Comes at a pretty price too – since it can take years to finish a detailed piece, it can fetch Y500,000 (ZAR 875,000) or more.

From there we went on the Grand Canal tour. This canal runs all the way from Beijing and through Suzhou, with a total length of 1,800km (9x Suez and 20x Panama Canal). Construction was started in 221BC, intending the canal be for military use and merchant trading (silk and tea). It is the second longest, only behind the Yangzhou River; but it’s far from the deepest being mostly only 2 metres deep in Suzhou, nor the fastest since boats may only go at 20kmph.

The canal tour took us through the oldest parts of Suzhou, where the houses back onto the canal and there are steps from their back doors right into the water. Mr Lee got the boat to stop so that we could jump off and nip down an alleyway into the “high street” to see the hustle-bustle of the narrow, noisy, smelly market.

Mr Lee also pointed out Shantang street (“mountain water” street) as a good place to come in the evening for dinner (for once not included in the package). The area had previously been the city’s red light district, but now all that remained of its dodgy history was the red Chinese lanterns, which are now emblazoned with street names in lieu of conventional signage.

The deal was sealed. We returned to the hotel intent on having a rest and then heading back to Shantang for the evening. We got a little sidetracked though since the maids wanted to clean our room shortly after we arrived back (they seem to clean perpetually, not concerned about what time they do what rooms), so we went for a walk in the opposite direction as the previous night.

The walk (or possibly a debilitating luckless visit to a shoe store) sapped mom’s last energy, so she bowed out of the plan and I went ahead and shared a cab to Shantang with our groupmate as planned.

As always, the city looked very different by night and the journey into town seemed much quicker by cab. The cab fare was cheap too, at Y15 (ZAR 26), which like many other coutries makes it viable to outsource transport, not like at home where the cab fare is more than the night out!

We were deposited at the gate to Shantang, since being ancient and very much pre-car it’s a pedestrian-only precinct. It was so pretty with a big glowing arch entrance and a view down the lively street with all the shops open and marked with red Chinese lanterns.

We’d been given a recommended restaurant by Mr Lee, which our hotel concierge had written in Chinese on a hotel business card to help us to find it. It became a sort of treasure hunt looking for “tent-stroke-kappie-square” which is how we remembered what the first (of four!) characters of the restaurant’s name looked like. We wandered down the first of the side roads – a narrower version of the entrance road, now parallel to the canal – and found the restaurant! It was really busy and the hostess managed to communicate that there was a half hour wait. No mind, lots to see and do, so we said we’d come back.

We took a wander down the canal and over a bridge to circle back on the other side. We encountered a lively looking pub, so decided to stop in for a beer to pass the time waiting for the restaurant. We ordered Tsingtaos and listened to the locals warble on the karaoke. Perusing the menu, it looked really good so we decided to go back to our restaurant and check their menu before deciding where to eat.

The original restaurant was ready for us when we returned, but a brief flip through the menu showed that, while the food looked good, it was much the same as the lunches and dinners we’d been having, so we decided to go back to the pub to have a beer and a snack and repeat the process to make a bit of a pub crawl out of dinner.

It was a good call and we enjoyed delicious chicken pops and wokfried pepper beef at the pub. Then the challenge began. We walked around and about, up one street and down the other and couldn’t find another pub! Try as we might, there simply wasn’t another option.

We were not so desperate as to try a karaoke house, easily located by the wailing and caterwalling coming from them. Strange format, the karaoke houses have small roadlevel reception areas and the hostesses escort you to your own private lounge, dark and kitted with comfy couches around the walls, all facing a large screen and all with easy access to microphones. Even assuming they have some sort of soundproofing, the participants are so enthusiastically loud and proud that the result is cacophonic!

We did get to see the whole of the downtown area though and did stop to enjoy street food at some of the many vendors. The highlight was the mini lobsters although, admittedly, I did think they were cockroaches at first glance!

The streets were a hive of activity – and all very very clean. We wandered around, looking at shops and street vendors, buying the odd beer at the local 711 equivalent, and ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, ending on a 23,000 step day!

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Travelogue China 1: Beijing

Posted by cl@rks on Friday Aug 22, 2014 Under Travelogue

TRAVELOGUE CHINA 1: BEIJING
21-24 August 2014

We were greeted, as planned, at the airport by our driver from Merry Travel, which was a relief since the last thing we needed after 2 long flights with a 4-hour transit in Dubai in between was to cause an international incident at PEK being lost and tired-grumpy. Risk averted, we met our first tour mates – a lovely Kiwi couple – and climbed into our very comfortable people-carrier, for the commute to who knows where.

First impression of China? It’s hot. Very hot. And humid. Very very humid!

Traffic was (initially) not as bad as expected – it’s much worse at home! The drive is prettier though, with willow-like trees lining the wide highways, and not a spot of litter anywhere in sight.

Although the driver said that our hotel is very close to the airport, apparently it’s all relative since the city is 16,800 square km with 24 million people.

This – if we’d done our homework – should have come as no surprise. The enormity hasn’t sprung out of nowhere; Beijing had its first walled city from 11th to 7th century BC, has been a prominent city for millenia and been the capital of China for almost 8 centuries. It was first on a site called Peking Man, and has only been called Beijing since 1919. The name Peking is Cantonese; Beijing is Mandarin.

We did experience patches of traffic (nothing unmanageable, especially since it was rush hour) and it was marginally more of a liability to us getting to the hotel than the driver’s commitment to driving at 60; likely a legal requirement seeing as we weren’t being overtaken. Eventually we pulled up at the Traders East Side hotel and checked in quickly and easily. The hotel was *very* nice, far exceding our expectations!

Our 7th floor room was spacious with impeccable decor, twin beds with billowy soft white linen and a large new and lovely ensuite bathroom. The enormous bay window overlook the hotel gardens framed by a public walkway along a riverbank with the cityscape beyond.

The room didn’t hold our attention for long though and we were soon off to find out what our little slice of Beijing had to offer.

We got a city map from the concierge, which was daunting and confirmed that the enormity we’d felt from the car was a reality – what we’d seen was a tiny fraction of this city!

We decided to ditch the map and follow the concierge’s advice to walk through the gardens and onto the walkway (which we’d seen from our room) where we’d find activity around the corner.

We did. And kept ourselves entertained with blissfully light-concentration activities like wandering around supermarkets and eating delicious fried egg salad sandwiches rolled and wrapped in bacon (clearly not traditional Chinese fare, but we figured we’d get enough of that on the tour itself).

Friday morning started early, with a 6.30 wake-up call. Not so bad when there’s a hotel breakfast up for grabs. And this one was complicated! All things to all people, there was a buffet corner for every taste; an omelette station, a stir fry station, a waffle and pancake station; a salad valley, with smoked chicken and duck; a cereal bar with unfathomable yoghurt flavours. So much choice! But beef sausages and turkey bacon, so not necessarily winning.

We met our tour group in the foyer at 8am: mainly Saffas, with 2 Kiwi couples and an Aussie bloke (who turned out to actually be a Frenchman living in Manley). Our tour guide, Mr Lee, took charge and turned out to be a helluva nice guy, who speaks a spot of Zulu from a stint working for the Ackerman family of Pick n Pay fame. He shared his (fascinating) lifestory of being raised by his grandfather who died 2 months ago at 101 years old, having spent a life practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine, which he’d passed down to his many sons and couldn’t undestand why this grandson insisted on as flaky a career-choice as being a tour guide… which must be quite demoralising since our Mr Lee had to study 4 years in university for the pleasure of qualifying to guide our tour! I suspect there must be much of this generation, like our Mr Lee, born after the population curbing policy so being only child brings more pressure to succeed the elders.

First stop was Tian’anmen Square; the largest square in the world at 44,000 square metres (880×500), which can host a million people at a time! We started at the Front City Gate (one of nine city gates) and admired the traditional Oriental pagoda with mosaic roof tiles that looks onto the Square.

We passed Chairman Mao’s Mauseleum, but were advised that the queues are too long to be practical for our tour – 2 hour queue for a 20 second viewing where you can’t even stop or take pictures! But there are enough pictures of the Chairman nonetheless, austere portraits though they may be (not a peace sign in sight in any of them!), eg at Tian’anmen Gate, the building famed for being where Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic and which is most familiar from always being the backdrop on TV reports when there are happenings on the Square.

We took a few snaps of the Monument of Heroes (erected 1958) with the National History and National Revolution Museums in the background, and moved on.

… into the Forbidden City (or Gugong, as it’s known in Chinese), built from 1406-1421 for the Imperial Chinese power of 2 dynasties over 500 years of tumultuous history, spans over 72 hectares surrounded by large walls and a wide moat. It housed the royal family only (the Emperor, his family and his concubines) and is gigantic – mostly out of necessity to house the huge families the Emperors had, which came with the territory of having anywhere from 35 to 1000 wives (depending on physical and economic capacity), all the children that came with that gaggle (the first son becomes the succeeding Emperor and his mother the current Empress) and housing many generations together at one time, eg the most well-known, the Ming Dynasty.

The dwelling is a legitimate city because it has all the self-containment and utilities of a city (in a labyrinth of courts, halls, gardens, rooms and allies) and, with 9,728 rooms, it would take 28 years to stay in each of them. Unlike European palaces, Gugong links art and architecture in subtle forms based on philosophy, harmony and circles of power and influence. The layout of the entire complex and all of its buildings is strictly in accordance with the principles of feng shui – dictating which way things face, what should be next to and apart from what and with such things as lion and lionness statues as gatekeepers – with other more practical infrastructural strategies like the 15 layer city square floor to prevent attacks from enemies tunneling through from below. Equal parts superstition and caution; clearly the yin and yang way.

With only royalty, Generals, bureaucrats, concubines and eunichs allowed inside – ruling all known civilisation – the goings-on in Gugong were a fascinating mystery to the common people. Now the City is a national heritage site marked for the public, but only to enjoy the gardens and admire the buildings, not for concerts or private events etc.

We couldn’t help but admire all the jade which, since it ostensibly wards off evil spirits, was used jade to make anything and everything. It is traditional to wear a jade bangle on left arm (because it’s close to the heart) and many women still wear them, apparently often sentimentally handed down from older generations.

Crystal symbolises loyalty and faithfulness; ironic since the Emperors placed huge crystals in their wives’ camps… while they were off philandering with their concubines!

All the walking had us very ready for our (optional) Hutong tour; optional because it wasn’t strictly mandatory… but hardly a choice after Mr Lee’s charming hard sell and bargain bundle package offer.

Hutong is a Mongolian word describing the narrow street and alleys (in some places only wide enough to walk one-wide) – or neighborhoods thereof – formed by rows of traditional courtyard residences. The name comes from the times of Kubla Khan (Ghenghis’s grandfather), who introduced the necessity of waterwells in the town. These waterwells were called Hutong in Mongolian language so these collections of houses adopted the name.

These hutong housed the lower end of society in the very status-driven dynastic period, but today represent the true heart of Beijing. The areas are very intimate because most families live in the same place for 200 or 300 years. Even though the old houses are being renovated and renewed, the powers that be are trying to pull down the hutongs to replace them with practical and space economical apartments – to the detriment of the residents since, while they own the houses they live in, all land belongs to the government so they can do what they want. The government thus pays for the house, but this is only enough money for the resident to move very far out of the inner city. It’s working too – what was about 2300 hutongs in Beijing now counts only about 220 left.

Our visit to the Hutong included a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys and a lunch in a local home. Being our first official foray into local cuisine, we had no idea what to expect.

Our group was seated at 3 round tables: 2 in what looked like the main bedroom (the usual fittings – and family members – were, quite insubtly, stashed behind a sheer curtain in the room) and our table in the living room entrance into the small house. Each seating was set with a small saucer and set of chopsticks as placekeepers and each table had a large lazy susan in the middle.

Soon after arrival, our host placed a large bowl of rice, a plate of mini drumsticks and a plate with green cyclindrical stalky veg with chicken strips. While tasty, we were morbidly fascinated by the small lunch and tiny portions allowed by the saucer-sized servings.

Then the plate of beef with onions and peppers arrived. And the boiled spicy cabbage. And the celery with chicken. And the carrots and cabbage stalks. It was a multi-course feast!

We should have expected such good fortune seeing as the house was feng shui: A north house (facing south). This was traditionally so that the south house, which is coldest, is for the servants; the east side for boys and west for girls in accordance with yin yang (girls are yang). There are no bathrooms or showers in the house, requiring use of (particularly disturbing) ablution blocks (with all squat toilets and no cubicles or doors). No wonder that younger people prefer apartments!
The oldies from the Hutong take their pet birds in cages to the park for tai chi in the morning; back to the park in arvie for mah jong, cards or Chinese chess. It’s a full life really (but must be bloody cold in Beijing’s gruelling winters).

The Temple of Heaven is not a religious temple, but where Emperors went twice annually for rituals of prayer and sacrifice to ensure good harvest for the people and thus retain his mandate from heaven to be ruler of China. It was also constructed between 1406 and 1420, with architectural layout to represent spatially the relationship between Earth and Heaven, with the Emperors in between. The complex spans 274 hectares (a square mile) of park, which is 4x the size of the Forbidden City and 7x Tian’Anmen Square! It contains a palace for preparation and halls and altars for the sacrifice.

It also contains the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – a main symbol of Beijing, often on cover of tourist books. It is one of three buildings built in the Mingdang style – entirely of wood with no nails – but is the only existing example of this ancient architectural style. Built in 1420, the original hall was rectangular and used to worship heaven and earth. It was later rebuilt in 1545 into a round building topped by triple eaved roof with glazed tiles symbolising heaven, earth and the mortal world. It was again reconstructed in 1751 to become the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, supported by 4 immense pillars representing the four Seasons and the twelve months of the year.

After 1939, the complex was converted into a public park, with several portraits and exhibits to show the traditions and rutuals.

It was in this courtyard that Mr Lee began our Tai Chi instruction. He explained that your Chi is your air and blood and showed us how to do a selection of the core movements, slowly and purposefully. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that my Dachshund has been doing it for years!

Cultural matters in order, it was time for a spot of commerce. We were taken to a silk factory where we were taken in “Chinglish” (what the locals call what we Westerners call “Engrish”) through the metamorphosis of moth-eggs-caterpillar-moth and what this means for silk production. With 1,300 metres of silk thread coming from a single cocoon, the biology lesson seemed a bit disrespectfully abridged!

We were also treated to a hands-on demo of how the silk thread is transformed into pillows and quilts and all the goodies that cover them. Really indulgent stuff! So soft and smooth and, well, silky.

Closing the day was a live theatre show of Kung Fu Panda, threading an unlikely story of 2 of the world’s most lovable panda bears and their journey to find the masters of Kung Fu, with some pretty impressive displays of fighting styles and traditional weapon (batons, nunchucks etc) control. The Kung Fu performers were all from the martial arts school which spawned legends like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and a neon screen introduced each set of performers as they took the stage, including details of their qualifications and accolades.

Not usually our scene, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Last order of business at the end of a very long first day was a(nother) multi-course / lazy susan / tiny saucer / chopsticks feast, with the now seemingly customary bottle of Coke and 2 quarts of beer for the table to share. Pot of tea to start and finish, but not a whiff of dessert in sight. No wonder the Chinese are so skinny!

SATURDAY
Due to what would seem to be poor planning on the part of the tour organisers, the Great Wall excursion was planned for a Saturday… which we were told meant a particularly early start in order to cope with the weekend traffic of people leaving the city to visit their homes / family / friends in the countryside. You’d think they’d have factored that in and started the tour earlier in the week! No mind, we had an excellent sleep in our very comfy accommodation, a lush breakfast (with every Eastern and Western option imaginable) and Mr Lee rocking the mic in the bus and entertaining us with endless stories and facts.

Serendipitously, the “best jade factory in Beijing” was directly en route to our Great Wall excursion so we were able to stop off and have a gander… which we’d already learnt meant a tutorial, a tour and a per person salesperson shadow, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of interest. Again, we were told this was a government factory, which “guarantees the best quality at the best prices”. Delivered with enthusiasm, to a skeptical audience.

Getting to the Great Wall gathered a busload of excitement. One doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of the Wall’s history and function to know that something that can be seen from out of space is stellar up close and personal!

There are obviously many places from which you can access the Wall, but ours was everything i expected: entrance through a grand stone gate, up the stairs to the walkway atop the wall, and wall as far as the eye can see in either direction.

Being in a valley, we had to ascend the Wall. We opted for the right hand side as it seemed like an easier route. If it was easier, it certainly still wasn’t easy! The searing 30-something heat with the hectic humidity and the steep and uneven stone steps made for quite a mission indeed. So so worth it though. What a view! What an experience!

What was also nice was having bonded with our group from the first day and catching familiar faces along the route, sharing hints and tips on things to see and best photo opp spots. Lots of requests for photos with Chinese people, who were unashamedly fascinated with us Westerners and seemed to prioritise us over the historical masterpiece on which we were all standing!

We rationalised this as being because with 1,4 billion relatively homogenous-looking Chinese people, concentrated as 24 million in Beijing alone, and with almost all of the many tour busses even being Chinese people, perhaps the 21 of us were a bit fish out of water. We’d also been asked a few times where we’re from and the blank result of our responding “Johannesburg… South Africa… Africa?” indicates that either the language barrier is bigger than imagined, or possibly China is very much a land of Chinese focus.

Brick walls aside, it’s really quite something to think that we’ve done something so momentous! Such a pity that so much of the Wall has been destroyed or removed (for people building using the materials to build their homes), but hopefully enough of the remains will be preserved for future generations to appreciate.

We’d built up a healthy appetite, so were very ready for… another lazy susan feast. The monotony of the repetitive meal format was staved (for most people anyway; one of the Kiwis had already resorted to making sandwiches at breakfast to eat for lunch on the bus!) by 3 things: the variation of the dishes served, the disbelief that all of these meals are included in our bargain package and the venues where the meals were served. This lunch was in an enamel outlet.

Cloisonne enamelware originated in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty and was typically called “Blue of Jingtai” as blue was the dominant colour used. The enamelware was only used for royal families and was a symbol of authority and status.

The enamel-inlayed jewellery and ornaments were very pretty and, of course this was a government factory, which guarantees the best quality at the best prices…

Back to the tour, we visited the Olympic Green, laid out along a straight promenade (called the Olympic Axis), creating a natural path along which to discover the features and buildings on the parkland. We walked as far as the National Stadium (nicknamed the Bird’s Nest for its distinctive design) and the Beijing Aquatics Centre (a.k.a the Water Cube because of its facade constructed out of thousands of ultrathin plastic pillows, creating a distinct look resembling bubbles).

After a day of much walking, the last stop was quite welcome. We were treated to a relaxing footbath and reflexology (lecture and) session at the Chinese Traditional Medicine centre, where the ancient art is instructed and practiced.

The massage (executed by a student) was pleasant if not a bit pedestrian, but the real highlight turned out to be a “free” consultation with a TCM Doctor. There was lots of diagnosis of high blood pressure and cholesterol, with indecipherable prescriptions written in Chinese, and all the medicines – conveniently for the doctor – coincidentally coming at a 700 Yuan (ZAR 1050) pricetag for a 30 day course… but, naturally, a course is more effective if followed for at least 90 days.

Mom was prescribed 3 different meds, promising to cure everything from swollen legs (thanks to the heat and the Great Wall walk, no doubt) to sleep issues (that would be the just-before-bed coffee) to weightloss (no prizes for guessing this one). I was given a clean bill of health (probably because the doctor spotted my pedometer). Needless to say, we walked out with nothing.

Next event was the acrobats show. Wow! What those people can do with hoops (varying heights, tumbling and backflipping through), umbrellas (whizzing and balancing on toes), bicycles (sit, stand, headstand, grandstand, human pyramid) and the simple human body (crazy contortionist who could lie on her chest on the ground and have her legs run full circles around her head)! Sheesh – what a show!

There was much excitement for the last event of the day – Peking duck dinner!

Mr Lee shuttled us off to a very authentic-looking place (ie there was no English anywhere), and we were soon seated and sipping on a tasty chicken broth. Several courses later, the star of the evening arrived – a golden brown crispy duck that had been spatchcocked and neatly sliced into many delicate slices. The hostess came to the table and demonstrated how to prepare little pancake parcels of duck with sprouts and cucumber and a brown condiment sauce of sorts.
The evening closed with… dessert! Watermelon. What an anti-climax! Although, it could have been worse – in winter the dessert is cucumber!

SUNDAY

The highlight of the tour (for me anyway) was the first agenda item on Sunday morning, the outing to Beijing Zoo to visit the panda bears!

It had rained overnight, so the sky was clear and (uncharacteristically) blue. You don’t realise how subliminally the perpetually smoggy greyness dampens spirits… until it lifts, taking the atmosphere on the bus with it!

Mr Lee gave us a precis on panda bears and their habits, preparing us for the zoo visit. Slothly creatures, they are very antisocial and spend on average 14 hours a day hunting bamboo (not a very energetic exercise since it’s everywhere) and eating it… and the rest sleeping. They have no interest in company nor altering their routine. Apparently there can be some sparring of potential suitors at mating time, but even that seems to be a largely could-take-it-or-leave it affair.

Even though the panda bears are found in the wild in Sichuan – suited because of its rainy climate which provides an abundance of bamboo – the Beijing Zoo is world famous for its collection of panda bears and efforts in preservation. The animals are a species of national pride for the Chinese and, while they are happy to ship off pandas to (qualifying) zoos around the world, it is on the understanding that they are on loan, still belong to China and can be recalled at any time.

The main panda enclosure has 5 adult bears and we were very lucky that all of them happened to be awake at the same time, so we saw all of them! No mean feat since, clearly, they don’t fret about early rising and we’d caught their “morning rush” (all were sitting or lying flat on their back and slowly shoveling bamboo into their mouth) before naptime and a busy afternoon of doing more nothing.

Big beautiful creatures and a wonderment to see them in real-life!

The panda experience overshadowed the ensuing pearl factory visit somewhat. Following the same routine as the other manufacturer tours, we started with an introductory talk, from a very charming hostess called Michelle. I commented to her afterwards on the serendipitous appropriateness of her name and it turned out to be less than coincidence as she’d chosen her English name (lending from a model on a poster on the wall of the store) when she got her job there.

Michelle told us all we needed to know about the 4 colours pearls come in (white, lavender, gold and black) and where what can be found (seawater vs freshwater). It was a very interactive show-and-tell, including the most useful bit – telling real from fakes by rubbing them together and assessing the white residue.
We bought a few obligatory real sale bargains… but nothing compared to our tourmate, Rosemarie, who was a bit of a pearl fiend – already draped in 2 enormous pearl necklaces clasping a large pearl pendant with a pearl brooch the size of my palm to match, 3 or 4 pearl bracelets and 2 large pearl rings. She, of course, had gone big and bought for herself and her giftlist.

Pooped already, it was good to have a chilled traditional Tea Ceremony next. With over 4,000 years of tea drinking, the Chinese have finessed this to a fine art and our hostess did a great job of explaining everything to us.

Tea-making is an exact science that requires not only the right pot (since all tea is made from leaves, not bags) but also the right temperature water, so as to maximise the expressing of the tea from the leaves. To measure the water temperature they use an ingenious little ceramic model called a Pee Boy because the water comes out as a jet – as if the boy is peeing – if it is the right temperature; if not, it doesn’t come out at all.

She expertly scooped, boiled, swirled and poured us a few flavours to try, starting with Jasmine tea which is known as a morning or work tea. The leaves have so much flavour that you can use them up to 4 times over 24 hours.

Next was Oolong tea, which is also known as dragon tea, since it is said to hold the power of the dragon. This tea is served in little cups with a black dragon on the outside. As the hot twa is poured into the cups, the dragon turns red. Oolong is supposed to be slurped, allowing the air taken in with the sip to unlock the flavour of the tea. Oolong is said to be good for circulation, metabolism and iron. But probably not good for your popularity, if slurping away in the open plan at the office.

We also tried Puer tea, which is the national tea in China, as well as the fruit tea which can be served hot or cold.

All tea is supposed to aid digestion, so it is served before and after meals. The tea awaiting us at the table when we got to lunch was nowhere near as fancy as the tea house’s offering though.

The group all knew each other quite well by now, so there was much excited exchanging of stories from the morning’s experiences – and strategies for the afternoon’s excursion… shopping in Silk Alley.

China had an indelible reputation for big brand shopping, which constitutes a combination of products liberated from the factories (originals swiped by workers), factory rejects, copies (fakes) and downright rip-offs. The secret is being able to tell the difference between them!

Mr Lee has lost credibility on guaranteeing us the “best deals” from our inkling suspicion that perhaps the dealers might be chosen per kickback! He is an excellent showman though and spun a good yarn about getting us on the inside of the (very) limited access “red button” backroom in the top shops in Silk Alley to buy electronics, jewellery, leatherware, accessories, luggage, you name it!

Our experience in the red button room was short-lived, thanks to my salesperson getting unwarrantedly hysterical and pushing my buttons (red and otherwise) within a minute of our arrival. Being as spoilt for choice as the 7 floors of shops (peddling the same merch) allowed, my capacity for the banshee was exactly zero, and we were soon on our own mission and haggling and bargaining up a storm! … and managed to secure an excellent deal on the genuine leather (Chinese brand) luggage set we’d spotted in our hotel shop and been hankering after.

The bargaining for the luggage had been a long and tedious process, leaving little time for other shopping in Silk Alley, which worked out in our favour as the next stop was also a shopping excursion at another multi-storey factory outlet mall. The second mall was cheaper than Silk Alley presumably because it was a more informal so avoided the fixed costs associated with the formal shop set-up.

We had a whale of a time in the factory outlet! Surprisingly, Mother bought very little, but I more than made up for that and, never being ones to give up, we passed on the return journey to the hotel, opting instead to stay and shop. We made plans with some of our friends to meet at 5, then again at 6 when we still had a full floor to go,and ended up leaving closer to 7, having exhausted the will to shop and committed to the idea of foraging for dinner.

In an effort to keep it simple, we broke convention and had a not-very-traditional McDonald’s, but it was made ever more complicated by a ridiculous out of stock of bacon, lettuce and chicken situation. Double cheeseburger meals were fine though and gave our slimmed-down little group of 5 a chance to roundtable on the day’s achievements and the evening’s plan.

We decided to walk back along the main road we’d come along on in the bus to try and find the famous gigantic TV screen. Relying on memory, we thought it to be only a few blocks away. When we were a few more than a few blocks away, we realised we must be on the wrong track. We managed to flag down a cab (not mean feat on the very wide roads with fast-moving traffic), but the car would only take 4 people, so we sent Mother with Rosemarie and Johan, leaving Nelson and I to see the rest of the city on foot with a good walk back to the hotel.

It took a good hour or so, and pushed it to an 18,000+ step day, more even than the Great Wall day which was only 16,000! Slept like a baby after all that!

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Travelogue Poland 3: Warsaw

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 12, 2014 Under General

WARSAW 
11-12 June 2014

We’d done the right thing booking the first flight out from Katowice to Warsaw because, while it was a mission to get up early after the NIN concert festivities, it meant that even with commute and transfers  we had a full day in the nation’s capital.

We caught a taxi from the airport for about R200 that dropped us almost at our lodgings, unable to drop us at our door as we’d booked to stay right on the Old Town Main Square (Stare Miasto Rynek), which was pedestrian-only for a few blocks around it. 

Our apartment was a bit like the one we had in Zagreb; quaint, perfectly appointed, huge wooden bay windows, translucent curtains… but minus the unexpected old lady live-in landlord (and hopefully minus the church bells at dawn!). The building must’ve been super old, with its entrance a mere tunnel off the Square, the wide and winding staircase (we were on the 4th floor; no lift!) in the original bare wood, the front door thick, heavy and solid with the original brass key (and a collection of deadbolts that the door had obviously collected over the various periods of strife it’d lived through).

We were an hour early, so literally bumped into the caretaker and his wife (as they were coming up the stairs and me careening down the stairs to tell Christian the bad news, that there was nobody to let us in). They were more than happy to let us deposit our bags as long as we got out of their hair to make up the flat. Not that we needed any encouragement on that front; we were out the door in a flash!

As luck would have it, there was a Tourist Information office right beneath our apartment, so we grabbed a free map… and were almost immediately able to tick off number 10 (The Old Town Square), 11 (The Warsaw Mermaid Statue), 12 (The Historical Museum of Warsaw) and 13 (The Museum of Literature) of the Top 30 Things To See in Warsaw!

Founded in the 13th century as a prince’s headquarters and a fortified settlement, the Old Town is an exceptional place. Almost entirely destroyed during World War lI, it was restored so faithfully to the original that UNESCO still listed it as a World Heritage Site. The Square is a constant hub of activity, with cafés and restaurants on the fringe spilling out umbrella’ed decks and beer gardens, artists exhibiting sculptures and paintings, children playing in the fountain, and buskers creating a continuous melodious soundtrack making every moment a memory. 

In the centre of the Square is the Warsaw Mermaid Statue, paying homage as the mermaid is Warsaw’s symbol and on its coat of arms. Legend has it that a mermaid swimming in from sea stopped to rest near the Old Town and liked it so much that she stayed. The local fishermen thought she was interfering with their hauls so intended to catch her, but fell in love with her instead when they heard her sing. Along came a baddy rich merchant and actually did capture her, so when a young fisherman mobilised his mates to free her, she took arms with sword and shield and vowed to protect the city and its people. 

Our walking tour next took us one block down to an even bigger square,  Plac Zamkowy, in front of the Royal Castle. This had been the headquarters of kings and authorities since the 16th century, was the place where the Constitution – the first in Europe and second in the world – was adopted, and is now a museum. It was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt using the parts that survived. 

Again the Square was there to be enjoyed and people were darting in and out of purposefully-placed sprinklers to soothe the seating heat. There was a lively atmosphere and the resonance of people enjoying themselves – in the restaurants as well as just hanging out, walking or cycling. Not entirely sure why so many people were free on a Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a different discussion entirely. 

We walked past the Waza Column – erected in 1644 by King Wladyslav in honour of his father who’d moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow – and down the road. While there weren’t any places of interest according to the tourist map, the road and its buildings are still surreal and breathtaking. Double lane wide pavements on either side of a double lane road, everything immaculately paved and cobbled, dotted with neat street lamps and flower boxes. Grandiose buildings on either side hosting all sorts of things, arbitrary and otherwise. And ice-cream shops. Lots and lots of ice-cream shops. 

Every second person has a varigated chocolate and vanilla softserve cone, with the ice-cream spiralled gravity-defyingly taller than the depth of the cone below it. Ice-cream is a big business in Warsaw, it seems. Apparently it’s all year round too; obviously in the blazing summers, but also in winter where people bundle up so much that they get hot in all their thermals and buy ice-cream to regulate their body heat!

By now it was lunchtime and so stumbling across a Molly Malone’s was all the serendipity we needed to get a grazing happening. We still went local though, sharing a wicked but delicious chleb (lard with bacon bits served with slices of sourdough and rye to smear it on)?, a bigos (sour stew made from cabbage, sausage and mushrooms) and a plate of pierogi (mushroom and cabbage). Polish food is really tasty – and of course agrees with me since their main food groups being sausage, potato, cabbage and mushroom!

Lunch gave us quite a bit to work off! Luckily all the sites are walking distance, in a convenient loop and – like Krakow and Katowice – Warsaw is completely flat, making walking a pleasure.

We tackled the inland sights first, heading for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier where, fortuitously, we caught some sort of military parade with loads of soldiers dressed in different types of uniforms were marching with all the usual pomp and regalia. 

On the road again, we headed through the Barbican and curtain walls into the New Town, which is not so new now having been around since the 14th century. Until the 18th century it was a completely separate town, with its own town admin, city hall and church. Its Rynek (Square) doesn’t hold a candle to Old Town though, being a fraction of the size and – besides living up to the by now quite passé breathtaking beauty of the buildings in general – quite unremarkable, with its only piece of interest being a cast iron well adorned with a virgin and a unicorn.

We’d long-since gotten church fatigue, which is a pity because, of course, all of them are magnificent. They stand out even among the rest of the picture perfect city… but there are just too many to make any stand out as of consequence. We did however pop our heads into the St Francis Seraphic Church as it is famed for its original 17th century baroque interior escaping the fires ensuing from the War’s bombings. And we were walking past. And it was open. And it was free. And there was no queue. 

That was the farthest point on our plan, so we changed direction toward the Vistula on a road that junctioned at a panoramic viewing deck. Sadly, Warsaw has opted to put a double lane freeway along the bank of the river, so it’s not as pretty or serene as Krakow’s. They do however have a Multimedia Fountain Park on the riverside, with literally hundreds of fountain nozzles ejecting water in sequence for a constant show, which apparently is accompanied with lights and music on Friday and Saturday nights. The fountains are all housed in pools the size of Durban’s paddling ponds, but swimming is not allowed, just dipping of feet, made comfortable by a thick flat lip around the pools for people to sit on.

We of course were on a mission, so no time to dillydally in the fountains! We had a few last things to see before sundowners at the oldest pub in Warsaw (not that there was any danger of the sun going down for hours yet, just that our body clocks are preprogrammed on SA time and you can’t mess with that!)

The most notable stop was a turn through Kanonia, a small triangular square behind the cathedral where the canons (priests) had been housed in the 17th century. Besides being charming in its crude rickety cobbledness, it also houses a large gunmetal bell, which was never hung. Apparently, going round it 3 times brings luck so, never one to turn back on a superstition (as Granny said, just in case), that’s what we did.

We also saw the narrowest house in Warsaw, which is only one window wide. This shrewd builder avoided taxes as back in the day land tax was based on the width of your facade just like in Hanoi). Still, more scientific than our dear City of Joburg who seem to do property valuation using ouija boards and bingo balls!!

Sights done and dusted – and probably a good 10km of tread clocked – we crossed the river to the oldest pub, Pod Barnlka, for a Guinness. We thanked our lucky stars that we booked the apartment we did as we’d very nearly booked one on this Square (almost expressly for its reference to the oldest pub!). While still ok and still an easy walk into the Old Town – everything is after all walking distance from everything – it didn’t hold a candle to where we were based, right in the thick of things! 

Having seen everywhere on our walking tour, we’d pinpointed New Town for our dinner so wound our way slowly back there, taking time to stop at some of the sights that had been busy earlier when there had been lots of tour groups (refreshingly seemingly mostly young Poles) out. The most notable was the Little Insurgent Monument – a statue of a little boy wearing a helmet way too big for him and carrying a big machine gun, commemorative of the contribution made by the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Scary that times were so awful that small children were actively fighting wars.

The day had provided lots of good fodder for dinnertime conversation at our chosen destination, Podwale Piwo Kompania, which we’d chosen for the setting, the atmosphere and – most importantly – gabolki on the menu… which turned out to be so delicious that we contemplatesld ordering a second round!

But we didn’t, and rather went for a second round of sundowners outside the Palace. Very confusing with the sun only setting so late and throwing everything out of sequence! 

When we were finally en route back home we considered stopping for a finale at the beer garden outside our apartment, but were lured into the Shamrock underground (literally) pub. With a normal (but small) entrance on rhe road level you enter onto a landing and then veer down some steps, snaking to the tunnels below, where the pub itself is housed. They reckon some of the cellars date back to the 13th century and are naturally the best preserved because they’re underground so they avoided all the chaos of the wars and whatnot. 

The tunnel we were in was semi-circular and only just high enough at it’s highest point for Christian to stand upright with a smidge to spare. Couches were built into the low part on the one side and a well-stocked bar ran the length of the other. Not a window in sight! Moving to the end of the bar we saw a few steps down, which opened into a full blown (big!) undeground tavern, with the only natural air or light coming from a small delivery chute at the far end. What a wonderfully weird and wicked place to conclude our trip!

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Travelogue Poland 2: Katowice

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 12, 2014 Under General

KATOWICE
09-11 June 2014

The train from Krakow was supposed to be 2 hours (for the 70 km journey), but took almost 3 thanks to some indeterminable delays en route. It was hot as Hades on the train which,  although spotlessly clean,  looked like it had survived a bygone minimalist era with its maroon springy cushioned benches and spartan finishes.

The station is far grander though,  with double volume ceilings, shiny floors and lots of shops, restaurants and cafés.  Apparently this is a relatively new thing, with this sparkly new building only replacing it’s drab communist predecessor in late 2012.

Exiting the Station (at what we were later to discover was the worst possible exit) we found ourselves on a main road, with no clues as to where we were or where we needed to go. We ended up circumnavigating the block and ending up at the other end of the Station… and conceded and jumped in a taxi, showing him our hotel booking form for direction. 

We’d – cleverly,  we thought – based ourselves at the hotel closest to the stadium hosting the concert we’d come all this way for, but started to have doubts about this wisdom as the timer ticked over in the taxi as we inched through the evening’s 5 o’clock traffic.  Twenty minutes later we were checking in at the Olympic Spodek and not too concerned about anything,  having laid eyes on the magnificent oddity that is the Spodek Arena. 

Built between 1964 and 1971 and weighing in at some 246 thousand square metres of circular arena with space for 11000 people,  the building was nicknamed the “Latajacy Spodek” for its striking resemblance to a flying saucer. Our hotel was nestled in just behind the arena, and was very comfortable as a single storey of identical rooms laid out around a long central lounge area with several poof leather couches, a bizarre indoor putt putt course and a handful of gym machines, with the whole lot in the searing spotlight of a skylight that ran the length of the room.

The hotel provided us with a tourist map and Katowice guide, which we took to the only shaded couch to study, fearing we were to hell and gone from everywhere and everything would be a mission. Au contraire! Our location was not as dire as it had seemed. As can happen, the taxi had had to go the long way round, where we as pedestrians had the option to walk across the Square in front of the arena and through the spaghetti of tunnels that ran under the big traffic circle (of cars and train tracks) that separated our side from the main town.

It wasn’t much of a walk for us and we were at the station no more than 10 or 15 minutes later. Amazing how different – and much easier – the town looked when we had a map… and no luggage.

The Pocket Guide tourist map we’d been given was really self-deprecating on poor Katowice, apologising for its newness, its stem primarily functional in the industrial age. Not to say it didn’t have a long history before that – the area having been chronicled as inhabited by Silesians in 1299, changing hands a few times, and settling with the Prussians under the name Karolina in 1942 – just that, while it had suffered mercifully little comparatively during WII,  it had been shamelessly and primitively exploited of natural resources following the war and all the ensuing Communist complications. Now,  with many clunky bronze statues dotted around the city to commemorate their crawl toward a market economy,  Katowice is only now starting to embrace the possibility of a bright future.

This is all gone into at great length in the guide as a prequel to stating that there is little to see and do in this city. 

While it does lack the textbook palace / Old Town / ruins / bohemian district, as long as you’re keen to eat/drink/shop in wide café-lined pedestrian streets then Katowice is not so bad! And  we’re always keen to do all 3 or any combo thereof, so had a lovely wander through a mall and around the town and then set about tracking down Bar Pod Siodemka (Bar 7), which had been recommended for its local fare.

While we were disappointed that they were out of golabki (meat parcels wrapped in cabbage and baked in tomato sauce), this gave opportunity to try other exciting things and, despite the temperature still being over 30 degrees in the evening, we had soup to start – zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes) and garlic (broth with soaked croutons). For main course we shared 2 quite different things: placki (potato pancakes, served thick like flapjacks but crunchy on the outside like hashbrowns) stuffed with chicken and wild mushrooms, and a Silesian speciality called rolada slaska (rolled beef filled with onion, bacon and pickles, sort of like a beef olive) served with kluski slaska (pillowy potato flour doughballs – essentially a Pierogi without filling – like big gnocchi). All washed down with the local Tyskie beer (although our other favourite, Zywiec,  is also from Katowice). Delicious! 

Having been solidly on the go for days and with the reason for the whole trip – the Nine Inch Nails concert – that night,  Tuesday was scheduled as a “go easy” day. We We slept in, had a lingering and leisurely feast of a breakfast (watching the band busses and trucks buzzing around, preparing for the show), wandered into town, ambled through the mall,  grabbed some lunch, and retired to the hotel in mid afternoon to relax and prepare ourselves.  But the excitement got too much and at about 4 we headed out to see what was happening at the Arena. There was already quite a crowd gathered on the steps at the entrance,  but not enough to hold our attention, so we went into town for a sundowner.  

Much better idea! A good proportion of people were wearing NIN (or comparative bands’) merchandise and there was a lot of excited energy in the pubs and restaurants. It was all like one big pre-party!

Arriving at the Arena first order of business was, of course, the merchandise stand. Their prices were, as always, heinous.  But one must do what one must do and I’m super stoked to have my most expensive to shirt yet!!

We stocked up with a tray of Tyskie only to find out on entry to the grandstands that no drinks – alcoholic or otherwise – was allowed in the stands (unlike home, where that is the point of decanting into plastic cups). Worked out to our benefit though as we were allowed to stand at the back of the landing and finish them and this turned out to be the best vantage point – and an excellent private dancefloor! So we sloooowly sipped our drinks to make our exile last well into the performance.  And by time we were caught for having finished,  the show was so far in and we were so immersed that there was no quieting us! We simply got more beers and moved to the next landing!!

The show was brilliant – truly worth travelling for and a quite lifeline landmark for me, as a lifelong fan! The venue was excellent – full of energy, but not too crowded. The set list was great – a good mix of crowdpleasers and unanticipateds with the usual emotional rollercoaster of cutting between the manic and the depressive tracks. And we’ve been in presence of (and probably quite close to, seeing as his tour bus was right outside our hotel window) our heroes – truly a legendary musical genius of our time.

We went into town afterwards to grab a much-spoken-of post – concert kebab, which was lifesaving… and it turns out shrewd as well, since the band was still packing up and weren’t allowed in until the talent had left the building.  No mind though.  After all that excitement, who could sleep?!?

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Travelogue Poland 1: Krakow

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 10, 2014 Under General

KRAKOW
06-09 June 2014

I was lucky enough to be surprised with a trip to Poland for my birthday,  ostensibly to go and see Nine Inch Nails, a lifelong favourite band. While a week surely seems long enough to go to a concert, once we started researching all there is to see and do, I was worried we’d be short on time. Our first eager-beaver landlord must’ve thought so too as he called me on Thursday at 2.30, enquiring my whereabouts and was surprised when I said “Johannesburg” as he was at the airport waiting for us – a full day early!

That must really thrown him off as he then forgot to fetch Alex and Robbie, who were flying in to join us for the weekend in Krakow and who he’d committed to collect at midnight. Tables were turned when he got their call, waking him up! He gave them details on a taxi company and they ended up getting a taxi cheaper than the committed transfer. 

We were very excited to hear the news that our apartment – and indeed all of Krakow – seemed at first impression to be a win.

We got this news update sms from our friends while we were connecting in Dubai, having flown Emirates as usual.  We still had 2 flights ahead of us, to get to Warsaw and then on to Krakow, but the journey was easy enough and soon it was 3.30 and we’d landed and were manning the only carousel in the modest Krakow Airport Arrivals terminal, eager to get our bags and start our Polska adventure. 

We’d anticipated a relatively long transfer into town,  having been told that traffic would be “very bad” at that time of the afternoon, but 20 minutes along a windy single lane road flanked thickly with trees on either side and we were in the Jewish Quarter, mounting a pavement (as seems conventional) on Bozego Ciala Street outside our residence, offloading our bags (mercifully light at a record 11kg and some change each) and gazelling up the four flights of stairs (no lift!) to the welcoming arms of our friends… and an induction Polish Vodka shot! 

There’s always much excitement when we reunite and this time was no different.  Animated chatter and feverish catching-up on our marvellous balcony,  over snacks and chilled beers and punctuated with Vodka shots with orange wedge chasers.

Lix and RoRo had done a remarkable reconnaissance job the night before,  despite their late arrival – and it was soon clear that the good people of Krakow had done more than their fair share to make sure that this was so. The city is as alive at night as during the day and our apartment had a 24 hour bottle store and an “open until the last person leaves” pub downstairs with numerous other entertainment options along the road, round the corner and on the rooftops.

We’d decided to start the evening with the Plac Nowy (square), literally around the corner from us… but we didn’t even get that far, being lured in by a gorgeous little beer garden on Meiselsa Street that connected us there. It seemed like the perfect place for a sundowner – and the perfect time,  despite being about 8pm already, since the sun was still up and it was still bright as day! We had a lovely time at a cosy table nestled under a big old tree with low hanging branches creating a lush green ceiling.

By stark contrast, the next place we visited – one of many on the Square – was a dark tavern,  relying on candlelight even in the daytime to provide the murky glow.  Still charming though, in its own way. 

I ended off my evening at (what we called) The Robert Smith Pub, so named for the psychedelic portrait of said hero on the wall in the main bar. By now the vodkas had done their mileage and the gals headed back to the flat, while the boys went to forage for food. Some time later they arrived with toasties,  but I was out for the count already, so the only evidence of the mission in the morning was the 2 empty plates  (delivery vehicle of the clearly unplanned take away!) and a single lonely cherry tomato that had made its escape from the plate on the stairs at the front door (which remained there for much of our stay).

Saturday saw a slow start thanks to Friday’s antics – much to my chagrin, waking starving from having missed dinner the previous night.  Christian and I eventually pulled ourselves together enough to take to the streets to gather supplies for a “simple” bacon buttie brekkie.  Easier said than done.

No problem finding a shop (as with everything else, conveniently just around the corner), but once at the shop everything was complicated (on an already self-complicated day!) We managed to find the bread (flat oval loaves, not square ones like ones like have at home), cheese (marked “Salami”), butter (which turned out to be garlic butter), ketchup (which ended up being pimento flavoured) and orange juice relatively easily,  but couldn’t find bacon at all (!!!) 

Weirdly, there is no pre-packaged meat at all, with all meat offerings behind the (single) butchery/deli counter. An enormous amount of choice considering the space – mostly sausages and cold meats, but also all the essentials from a red meat and chicken point of view. We couldn’t see anything that looked like bacon and got got a blank stare when we asked for it. Christian asked the butcher lady if she spoke English; she nodded and said “f*@#” and the other 2 deli ladies roared with laughter.  Clearly on our own, we ended up with white Kielbasa (the only ones that looked like they could be cooked, the rest looked like Russians or Franks) and Krakowska Kielbasa (which looked like ham).

Worked out OK in the end, with a delicious ham and cheese sandwich and a sausage sandwich each to show for our labours.

Good humour restored, we were newly motivated to take on the sights of Krakow. There was a tourist map on our coffee table that confirmed what I had ascertained from the accommodation search – the 2 big areas of interest are the Stare Miasto (the Old Town) and the Jewish Quarter (where we were staying) with one or two other things off to the sides.

We started with a walk through the Jewish Quarter, taking in all the many old and beautiful churches and temples. Krakow is a remarkable place being an ancient city relatively unharmed during World War II, so having much of its centuries-old history and landmarks perfectly preserved – and accessible to anyone and everyone. This can surely also only be possible with the support of a respectful and responsible people, which is evident but the noticeable pristine maintenance of the city, with no litter anywhere! 

We walked down to the Wisla River and enjoyed a stroll along the wide promenade,  alongside a good number of Krakowians out taking a walk / cycle or sunning themselves on the grassy banks.  It was a perfect day – not too hot, with textbook blue skies – and we’d walked all the way around the peninsula to the base of Wawel Castle, so we stopped to have a cold drink on one of the many bankside barges with rooftop cafés. 

Refreshed, we walked around the inside of the castle complex with its famous Royal residence and cathedral and enjoyed the spectacular views over the Dragon’s Den. This deposited us at the bottom of the Planty (park) that runs in a light bulb shape around the entire boundary of the Old Town. The Planty is divine – a thick, lush green avenue with lots of benches and places to sit and enjoy and wide smooth walkways to easily traverse the town as an experience rather than a chore.

Our destination was the middle of town – Rynek Glowny,  the Main Market Square – and we were there in less than 10 minutes.  Alex and Robbie went up St Mary’s Basilica while we went on the hunt for a tour operator (for an Auschwitz tour for the following day) and some Pierogi (stuffed dumplings, already a day overdue).  We had no trouble with either mission and 15 minutes later were reunited and in the Number 7 bar beer garden,  with beers and Pierogi (one portion filled with meat and another with cheese) on order.

I left the gang and went off to shop for souvenirs at the legendary Cloth Hall at the centre of Market Square and soon returned with arms laden with bags of goodies.  Poland is mercifully cheap even travelling on the Rand!!

We’d spent the whole day skirting around the idea of having a hangover curry, with only the faintest hint of conscience at needing to have a traditional Polish meal instead. Now, having ticked the Pierogi box, we felt vindicated and succumbed to going to Roti Roti (their menu was also on our coffee table and had planted the idea in the morning). Our karma must’ve been good as we stumbled on a Carrefour en route and managed to secure their only 3 packets of bacon! Streaky, thin-cut and only 150g per pack, but still… it was bacon!

The curry was good, the setting fun (we had their single wooden table on the pavement, with a hand-painted map of India on it), the ordering complicated (our waitress’s English was only marginally better than our Polish! And the restaurant was out of Masala,  which limited options somewhat) and the company superlative,  so a great time was had by all.

We wound our way back home, with the obligatory stop-in at The Robert Smith Pub,  but didn’t make a big night of it seeing as we had our Auschwitz tour early in the morning. 

And bacon butties! 

The flat oval loaf bread turned out to be really good – soft on the inside with a nice chewy crust – and garlic butter and pimento ketchup fortunately all complimented each other, as well as the thin cut streaky bacon (which we gluttonous devoured all 3 packs of for breakfast!)

Exemplary tourists, we were outside and waiting when our driver arrived to fetch us at 9 on the nose. The same cannot be said for the other 4 passengers in our party,  who kept us waiting for 15 mins outside the Hilton while they smoked! We took an instant dislike to them and didn’t engage with them at all on the hour-long journey to Auschwitz. 

What an amazing excursion. I’m not much of a history buff, but you can’t help but have a mental image of what the place will be like. Having seen countless black and white images in textbooks and on TV of Jews and other prisoners being trundled along train platforms, stripped,  counted, marked and worked to emaciation; having learned and regurgitated stats on the number of people that were delivered to these camps and the very different numbers on how many left; having heard the stories of what the Germans soldiers did to and how the German doctors experimented on these people…. none prepares you for actually being there. 

The planning, design and development are truly a testament to Germany efficiency. The camp is so much bigger than I would have thought.  And super structured,  symmetrical and organised. Everything accounted for and everything in its place. The buildings all still standing and in perfect condition – a credit to the Polish government for declaring the site a museum in 1947, when they could just as easily have torn it down.  There is a sign at the entrance that says something to the effect of forgetting about what happened opening the door to it being able to happen again. What’s really scary is that this compound was built to last this long! Had history turned out differently,  who would be there now? Would Hitler have continued the genocide, taking it further afield (he was already bringing in train loads from Norway and Greece, over a thousand miles away!) or finding new blights to remove from his world??

The Auschwitz tour is, hardly surprisingly, very well laid out and executed and you see and learn a lot in the 2 hours, being led in and out of buildings, each with different stories and artefacts. Some astounding exhibits that have to be seen to be believed like the goods removed from prisoners, including the 90,000 shoes, 40m X 6m room of suitcases, mountains of spectacles,  (wooden) toothbrushes, dolls… and the room of 7 tons of human hair that the Germans were cutting off the women before they were executed and selling to make hair cloth!

Other absurdities like the court and jail in the compound.  It’s farcical to have run these token hearings when nobody was given a chance to defend themselves and everyone was found guilty and condemned to gallows or firing squad. The inhabitants of the jail were sentenced to death by starvation and the lucky ones either asphyxiated from the poor ventilation or froze to death on the stone floors in winter.

Truly atrocious.  And so scary that it was all so organised and out in the open – not like the Killing Fields we saw in Cambodia that at least had the decency to be secretive and hidden!

Worse than Auschwitz I though was Auschwitz ll – Birkenau.  Somehow at school it was the poor cousin to Auschwitz,  where in real life it is quite the opposite.  It’s enormous and was an outright death camp, complete with gas chambers and incinerators, on mammoth scale.  

The purpose-built tracks saw trains pulled into the central platform whereupon a doctor decided by inspection who was well enough to work and who not. Being one of the 70% on the “not” list could make your stay at Birkenau less than 3 hours! You arrived, were separated from your stuff, herded into the queue, told you were going to be disinfected, stripped, gassed and incinerated. Making the other queue (a man healthy enough to work) gave you an average life expectancy of 3 to 6 months, doing hard labour on about 600 calories a day (a fraction of what you need to survive) so that you worked/starved yourself to death, if the cold / disease / rats didn’t get you first.

The Polish climate is not ideal for the prisoners either – very hot and humid summers and bitterly cold winters. By a cruel twist of fate the winter of 1942 was one of the coldest ever, with temperatures dropping to -40s!  It was a very warm day yesterday – but by no means the worst summer has to offer – and we each had a litre of water over the 3 hours of the tour. The prisoners were given none. They resorted to drinking from muddy puddles after the rain and melting snow. 

The cruelty and the indignity that those poor prisoners were subjected to. It’s shameful that people can do that to other people (and it took a *lot* of people to run that machine, with over 7,000 S’S soldiers based at Auschwitz alone). The wording on the door at the entrance was right;  we can’t change what happened, but we can prevent it from happening again. And experiencing it firsthand really brings the history to life. It’s a pity more young people don’t have access to travel to see these things or I’m sure – maybe overoptimistically – that the world would be a better place. 

What was a better place was Market Square, and that’s where we got our driver to drop us off after the tour. We’d located the 2 Irish pubs in town and thought those to be the perfect mission to follow such a serious day. 

The first one, Mbassy, was just off the main market square, in Stolarska Street.  It was nice enough – the Guinness fresh and cold, the decor predictable,  the atmosphere average – but didn’t hold our attention for very long.  Alex and I had done a quick reccie in the adjacent little square (Maly Rynek), where there was a stage and some stalls erected in what seemed like a mini summer Sunday festival.  

We found an incredible food stall, retrieved the boys and relocated to the bench  tables on the Square for a tapas of sorts of glazed mini pork roast, giant mushrooms, Pierogi and Kielbasa. YUM!

We then continued to the second Irish pub (creatively named The Irish Pub) where we were lucky enough to catch SA vs UK darts on the telly which was as good and reason as any to settle in.  Quite by accident we spotted the Florian Gate at the end of the road, which warranted a visit for the sake of completeness,  being the last actual landmark place of interest on the tourist map.

This left us at the most northerly point of town,  so we walked along the Planty to enter the town from the West to find a pub recommended in the guide,  called BaniaLuka,  known for its festive crowds drawn by the 1 Euro drinks and 2 Euro meals. We were having a much easier time with the map since Anglocising all the road names. For example,  BaniaLuka was much easier to find on Ski Pants Street than on Szczepanska Street! 

The place was a bit of an oversell, although granted the guide did push it’s second main virtue (after bargain booze) as it being open 24 hours, so more the fool us for arriving sober in the harsh light of day.

We decided instead that the right mission was to hunt down a gabolki (meats and rice in cabbage parcel baked in a tomato sauce) closer to home in the Jewish Quarter, so off we set across the Stare Miasto, through the beautiful shopping streets and along the now-familiar Stradomska Street to our ‘burb… halted only in our mission by the quest for a loo.

We found a tiny bar, which had an online jukebox, so we had to stay and do a Furtado dance (to show Lix and RoRo what all the fuss is about). We asked the barman for the best gabolki restaurants nearby and when he recommended Kuchnia Domowa (“Dorothy Kitchen”, a good omen indeed) a couple of hundred metres down the road, we were sold!

And a good choice it was too! We shared meat and cheese Pierogi and had the much-anticipated gabolki… and it was delicious! 

But obviously must have been very light as it didn’t take much more merrymaking  before we were queued up at the zapiekanki stalls in the middle of our local square.  Zapiekanki is a toasted baguette with melted cheese poured over it, then covered with mushrooms and ketchup and other toppings of choice. We kept it simple and just added pepperoni. What a perfect midnight snack!

On our last morning,  the only thing left undone was a visit to Schindler( of List fame)’s factory, so we got up and out and trekked across the bridge to Podgorze to find it. It’s not as well sign posted as you’d expect, so we had some challenges,  but we found it in the end. It’s been turned into a museum, but we were too short on time the help give it much attention. 

We instead caught a cab back to our spot to have a decent breakfast before going our separate ways.  Despite really really really wanting a Full English,  I had the Polish breakfast,  which turned out to be really good (and not too experimental) as a pair of fried eggs, toast, ham, cheese and cottage cheese with chives and cucumber diced in it (sort of like tsatziki).

We’d timed everything perfectly and had 10 minutes to spare to go up and get Lix and RoRo’s bags to meet the driver at 12. Christian and I jumped in the car too and got dropped off at the train station to see what time we should leave for Katowice. Fortunately, there was a 13h48 train which allowed a generous amount of time for us to get back and gather our things, drop off the keys and get back. We were delighted to find as well that the tickets – for both of us – came to 26 Zloty, which is only about R70! 

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Travelogue Hong Kong 4: Hong Kong Island & Kowloon

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

HONG KONG ISLAND & KOWLOON
27-31 March 2014

Having pre-booked our ferry transfer to Hong Kong – for a very civilised 10h30 – our evac from Macau was quick and painless.

The breakfast buffet was quite different to the previous day, sadly missing the things we favoured (quiche, aloo curry, baked beans with sausage medallions) but still with enough basics (bacon, chicken sausage, eggs etc) and some new additions (french toast) to sate.

Fascinating to watch the bizarre combo of things such a diverse cross-section of people choose at these buffets. Not at all uncommon to see a single plate with a small portions of scrambled eggs, bacon, noodles, cooked veg, dimsum and fresh fruit… all eaten with chopsticks! Toast doesn’t seem to feature – likely because it can’t serve as the delivery vehicle it does when you’re using a knife and fork.

Chopsticks must be a nurture art of practice, as we discovered when the little Chinese boy (no more than 4 or 5) alone at the table next to us dropped something through his chopsticks onto his plate, setting off a domino effect that resulted in his glass of milk landing on his chair next to him and rolling onto the floor. He froze and his eyes went so big they were almost round! We quickly rounded up all the serviettes on our table and helped him dab most of it up, so by the time his mom got back from the buffet a minute later, there was little evidence of the carnage from the recent milk tsunami. Obviously the little chap wasn’t one to keep secrets though and soon mom was smiling, head-bowing and rapid-fire Chinesing obvious gratitude to us.

The ferry ride was quick and comfortable – and again, completely full – and an hour later we were deposited at the Hong Kong Island Central Pier.

First order of business was to collect our apartment key from our host’s tea shop, which a Google Maps search had indicated was two rights and a left from the station. Sounded easy enough… until we realised, as we had in Taipei, the station has several exits in different directions and starting the instructions with “head East” wasn’t largely helpful when your luggage is all shoes and no compass! So we jumped in a taxi, which took us exactly 1 block parallel to the station, but was worth the R45 to save the anguish of wandering aimlessly on the busy streets with our considerable luggage in tow.

The girls in the teashop revealed that our host was currently travelling in Shanghai, but were able to give us the apartment key, directions and instructions to leave the keys with the 24 hour doorman when we were due to leave on Monday morning (a relief to not have an extra chore to drop off keys as we were headed to the airport at 5am).

The directions were easy enough and we were soon at our apartment in Hollywood Street (famed for antiques shop and opposite the famous Man Ho Temple, which made us giggle), with the only challenge being the 120 or so steep steps up Ladder Street to get there. Although it could’ve been way worse, seeing as Ladder Street continued to ascended as far as the eye could see!

Our apartment was tiny – no bigger than my bedroom at home – but well apportioned, newly renovated and with TWO balconies (a long one running the length of the flat overlooking the street and a smaller square one running the width of the flat, off the side nestled into the building above the entrance hall), which has to be a coup in Hong Kong. The bedroom is no more than an alcove built around the double bed; the bathroom a glass sliding door off the entrance passage with a shower, loo and basin. The kitchen area is a double cupboard with undercounter fridge, 2 plate stove on one side and small sink on the other. A convection oven the size of a small microwave sits on a rolling trolley island. Just enough to be able to do anything you need to do, not enough to really want to do anything. Presumably the locals have as big an eating out culture as the Taiwanese.

We put our bags down and hit the town, first port of call being to find the Gieves & Hawkes store in the International Finance Centre (commonly known as IFC) mall to collect Christian’s suits. Luck was on our side and our rough plan to head towards the water and take it from there serendipitously led us directly to the mall, and the store was at the top of the first escalator as we entered. More fortunately, the suits were perfect and looked great on! We asked the attendant to hang onto them so we could do a bit of sightseeing unencumbered and pick them up en route home.

We were in no particular hurry so, since we found ourselves at the central terminus, decided to take a bus up to The Peak, a shopping mall with viewing deck. As the bus wound up the mountain, the cars got flashier and the entrances more impressive. Clearly, the better the view, the higher the price tag!

The Peak Mall was nothing special in itself – perfectly lovely, with lots of restaurants and high-end shops – but boasted a rooftop terrace with gorgeous views of the far side of the island, as well as Lamma Island and Lantau (where we started our trip).

At the base of the mall was a viewing deck for the Victoria Bay side of the Island, with a winding walking path to get varied vantage points. Great spots to take pics (and selfies of course).

The Peak Tram runs from top of the walking path and had been recommended to us to try. We thought it would be a tourist activity but, based on the bussle and jostling, it appears to be a popular public transport alternative. It’s HK$28 for the tram as compared with the bus at HK$9.50, but only takes a couple of minutes – belting near vertically down the mountainside – versus the bus winding slowly and gently upward for 45 minutes.

Alighting at the end of the line, we consulted the map to see that we were at the end of the Causeway, which meant we had to walk the length of the pier to get back to IFC.

Hong Kong Island is easy to move around using a set of wide pedestrian skywalks that interlace all the malls and buildings, so you don’t need to contend with the shops and cars while getting from place to place. Since everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere, this must be a godsend!

We navigated through the skywalks and back to IFC. We stopped en route to the suit shop to grab a sundowner at Liberty Exchange, a swank bar full of banker and stock broker types (and not an Oriental face in sight). The chap next to us at the bar spotted us to be tourists immediately and introduced himself. Of course, he turned out to be a Saffa – a chef who has been on HKI for 10 years and is now, funny enough, looking to move to Taipei. He’d never been there and we’d never been here, so we shared insights on where to go and what to see.

Suits in hand, we manoeuvred back to the apartment to drop them off and head out for the evening, to check out Wan Chai, which is infamous as the playground of the 7s since it’s so close to the stadium.

The MTR metro system is particularly simple to master since it’s a single straight line that runs the length of the bay, so we were soon at our destination and being swept up in the throng.

The road is a mess of bars and clubs spilling onto the streets with touts and hostesses willing people in as they attempt to pass by. Lots of neon signage with flashing icons and logos fighting for visual attention. And lots and lots of lager louts soaking it all in and allowing themselves to be lured along a bar hop. Not surprisingly, most of the clientele was English, Irish, Aussie and Kiwi with the odd Saffa group.

We did a tour of the road – careful to avoid the notorious girlie bars with their curtained entrances (and unscrupulous billing tactics!) – concluding with dinner at the curry den at the top of the street.

Friday had been allocated to Kowloon exploring, with no rush to head out since our Saffa friend had warned that HK is a city that starts late (11ish) but ends same. It was a simple journey since it’s only a few MTR stops from Central Station on Hong Kong Island to Mong Kok on Kowloon and we were deposited right at the entrance to the Ladies Market, which seemed as good a place as any for our sightseeing to begin.

Kowloon is grimy and cluttered. Not dirty exactly – obsessively swept so there’s no litter or garbage – but just a general grey and dingy feel. The buildings are completely unmaintained , which probably adds to the overall impression, along with the general clutter that comes along with so many people in such a confined space (to the point that someone told us that, should a fire break out in Kowloon, there wouldn’t be enough space in the streets for everyone to evacuate). Despite the impression our shopping bags might present, we were underwhelmed by Kowloon and keen to get back to the Island.

By stark contrast to Kowloon, we spent the evening in SoHo, which was made infinitely easier by our Saffa friend’s revelation of the world’s longest operational escalator, which runs up the hill through SoHo (or our adventures might’ve been severely hampered if relying on us ascending the steep – and seemingly endless – stairs on Ladder Street in foot!)

SoHo was teeming with people. Every establishment had loads of patrons – all Westerners – and there were restaurants themed to every nation and menu imaginable. Bars overflowed onto the central walkway and restaurants occupied every square inch of the little terraces carved out on the side streets. Very upmarket, with most dressed to the nines; proper inner city cosmopolitan with people clearly only arriving as we were finishing up for the night.

Our weekend itinerary had been dedicated to the Hong Kong Sevens Rugby tournament, so we were bleak to wake up to dark skies and rain on Saturday morning. We hadn’t yet managed to secure tickets – but were confident, based on popular opinion, that we’d get from touts around the stadium – so reconciled ourselves to the possibility of watching Saturday’s games in a pub and going to the stadium on Sunday rather. With new optimism for our win/win plan, we headed to our local, The Cottage Gastropub, for a breakfast pizza. What a great idea putting sausage, bacon, mushrooms etc on a pizza and topping it with fried eggs!

The combination of pizza and the spirit in the bar (which was of course showing the Rugby) we used a gap in the rain to dash out and head in the direction of the Hong Kong Stadium.

As soon as we surfaced from the subway station, we were approached with tickets for sale. Not wanting to be duped into fakes, we decided we’d only consider buying tickets right outside the stadium, where their validity could be verified at the gates. And there was no shortage of opportunity – lots of scalpers… and, weirdly, a good few people with “tickets wanted” signs. Why didn’t the people looking to buy, just buy from the hordes of people trying to sell to us? Justified our paranoia!

It was really easy to find the stadium: just follow the crowds and the loud cheering. Apparently, the weather hadn’t deterred the fans nor dampened the spirits!

On arriving at the stadium we saw the fanpark across the road and decided to give that a gander before committing to tickets (by now it was about 1pm, so we’d missed the first half of the day’s play thanks to the rain). The fanpark was brilliant! We managed to get ourselves a pair of pints and a prime-sited cocktail table – under a big umbrella – right alongside the main big screen, probably because we’d arrived during the break in play for lunch.

By the time play resumed, so had the rain and we were thanking our lucky stars for the umbrella, crushed in alongside our new friends (2 Englishmen based in Hong Kong and 3 Irishmen dressed in matching tutus and candy-coloured wigs). True to form on what we’d heard about the 7s, it was lots of beer and laughs loosely set to the sporting backdrop. Spirits were high all round and the dress-up makes for superlative people-watching. What a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Sunday morning was rainy, so we hibernated with our leftover Pizza Hut duo (we’d secured en route home the night before) and TV. Really good to get in some downtime on the last morning of what had turned out to be a hectic holiday!

At noonish we up and outed to the Sevens Fanpark at Central Pier. It was quite different to the one we’d been at on Saturday, with a funfair set-up as well as the big screen and food/drink stalls. Speaking the testament of the game stalls, there were lots of stuffed animals interspersed in the crowds and regular intermittent whoops of completely non rugby-related delight. A completely different vibe to the day before, but equally fun.

We rounded off the outing with a late lunch at SuperSuper – a fitting conclusion since it’s the same chain we’d had our first local meal at in Discovery Bay.

Then it was home to pack, which was easier than it could have been since Christian had bought a new suitcase (as well as the suits, our shoes and a bunch of other things). The bright side about our postage stamp apartment is that it was easy to pack up since nothing was more than a generous arm’s reach away!

We had been very lucky all afternoon since it had been quite clear of rain, then poured down while we were packing and, since it had stopped again, we thought we’d take advantage of the good fortune and take a walk up to SoHo for a farewell bite. With nothing even vaguely traditional tugging at our conscience, we threw caution to the wind and chose a cosy little Mexican restaurant, positioning ourselves at a corner counter window seat so we could watch people (helter-skelter, as it was raining again) on the main passageway as we ate our burritos, tacos and nachos.

An eye of the storm gave us enough opportunity to get home, via 7Eleven to grab chocolate milk and TimTams, the holiday snacks of choice – and the wisest nightcap option with our super-early start for the morning.

After a restless night, worried about sleeping through the alarm, we were up at 4.45. We were also worried about not finding a cab so early so had built in a bit of fat in case we might have to walk to the station (which we’d timed to be 8 minutes sans luggage). Turned out to be unnecessary and after a 2 minute wait, we were able to flag down the first cab to pass, right outside our apartment block.

Central Station is brilliant – the ticket office opens at 5.30 with the first Airport Express train at 5.50. The cherry on the top is the bank of airline desks where you can check-in and book through luggage. Genius! Except Emirates only opens at 7, which would have been too long a wait for checking into our 8.25 flight… and a good thing we hadn’t planned on doing that since our flight had at some point, unbeknownst to us, moved forward an hour to 7.25. We were very tight for time and in the sticky situation where any possible Plan B would take longer than the Express train!

Amazing how slowly time moves when it’s 5.35 and you realise you’re short an hour. And you’re waiting for the 5.50 train.

Amazing how quickly the minutes fly by when you’re on the train and the 6.25 check-in time is approaching.

We were very fortunate that the train deposited us right at the entrance to Terminal 1, and right outside Row G, as required. After a mad dash, 3 suitcases wheeling madly, we got to a blessedly non-existent queue and were checked in with no more than a minute to spare.

A happy ending (were it not for sacrificing breakfast at the airport in the time-crunching process) indeed.

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Travelogue Hong Kong 3: Macau

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Mar 27, 2014 Under Travelogue

MACAU
25-27 March 2014

It was a very early start for us to get to the airport for our 07h55 flight. Fortunately, our timing meant that the roads were pretty empty (but we still had no trouble flagging down a taxi on Xinyi Street even at our 05h15 departure from Honey’s flat.

When we got to the check-in desk, the attendant told us the flight was full. I readied for a fight as we’d even pre-booked specific seats online… I was surprised and delighted when it was revealed that the implication of the overbooked flight was an upgrade for us to Business Class. Winner!

It was such a blessing as we were bushed from our jam-packed  weekend and early start, so being able to make the seats into an almost horizontal bed – and being given a real pillow and duvet – made for a very comfortable snooze on our flight back to Hong Kong. 

On arrival, we had to catch a bus from the airport into Hong Kong to get the ferry to Macau at 12.15. The ferry ride is an hour and every boat while we were there seemed to book to full, with boats every 15 minutes around the clock. That’s a lot of traffic! 

Arriving in Macau, it was the old routine: draw local currency from an ATM, find the tourist desk, get a map, call a taxi. Easily done and soon we were off to our hotel, the Regency. We’d chosen this hotel specifically for its location, on the coastline at the Taipa end of the bridge that connects the island to mainland Macau. This would provide us a central location with easy access to Macau to our north, Taipa around the hotel and Coloane to the south. 

Taipa and Coloane were previously 2 separate islands, which have now been connected with an expanse of reclaimed land that has been named Cotai. Not only does this provide more land and the convenience of being able to move between the previously separated islands, but they’ve also added the Lotus bridge to Zhuhai Shi city in China for easy access to and from there as well. With the inevitable dependence of islands on mainland for supplies this no doubt is a big win for the Macanese. Also, 94% of the population is Chinese – although you’d never say such a small percentage are foreigners  since all signage is in Chinese and Portuguese as standard (and often in English and French as well on advertising messaging). After checking into our hotel and getting settled, it was already 3pm, so we decided the flight path to be a taxi to drop us at the very southern tip of Coloane, where we’d have a bite and then wind our way back up, catching a bus or taxi whenever made sense.

The drive showed us a lot of 2 things: construction and casinos! It looks like there are lots of massive developments on the go, with enormous  hording and flocks of cranes. The casinos were plentiful, stupendous and garish with outsized statues, fountains, columns etc and the promise of enough neon to make nighttime as bright as day. It was like being a Lilliputian in a very kitsch Gulliver Land.

The taxi dropped us at Cheoc Van Bay, where we expected to see a row of beachfront shops and restaurants. There was nothing of the sort. A pleasant stretch of beachfront, a public pool, a tea house and (fortunately) a terrace café overlooking the sea, where we had a great bacon and pepperoni pizza (not very traditional, but very necessary).

With a new lease on life, we took a walk around the western peninsula and into Coloane Village, which is little more than a few houses, a small town square, some stilt houses… and Lord Crow’s Bakery, where we indulged in locally-famed Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese egg tart). Catching the bus was easy as it was right outside the bakery and almost all routes went past our hotel. It was only 4 Patacas (about R6) each for the journey, a bargain at the price as it slowly wound around the side of the island we’d not yet seen, so doubled as a tour (including great views of China across the channel). The taxis aren’t expensive either, costing us less than R50 to get from the pier to the hotel and less that R40 to get from our hotel across the full length of Taipa and Coloane. The currency is completely interchangeable at 1:1 with Hong Kong Dollars (you can pay in HK$, but will only ever get change back in Patacas) and everything is marked with the $ sign, even though they mean Patacas. 

We got off the bus earlier than planned, jumping off at Sam Po Temple for a sunset walk around Taipa Village, and to scope out prospects for dinner. We’d set sights on Rua de Cunha, which the tourist brochures had all earmarked as the foodie street, but it was all bright neon, too many people and a bizarre number of the same bakery chain stores a few doors apart from each other (like 7Eleven does), all selling the same things. Having decided against eating there and noticing pubs conspicuous in their complete absence, we meandered back toward the hotel.

We found a brilliant Korean restaurant at which to have dinner and tucked into a feast of roasted pork belly, smoked and glazed duck and a deliciously rich tomato and onion beef stew. We had ordered everything together, but it was served as courses, which worked out rather well!

Wednesday was dedicated to exploring Macau. The historic centre includes the oldest western architectural heritage on Chinese soil today, interspersed among Macau’s traditional Chinese architecture and traditions. Historically, Macau has been an important gateway through which western civilisation entered China over 500 years ago, when Portuguese navigators in the mid 16th Century and developed it into an international trading port. For almost 3 centuries, until Hong Kong was colonised in 1842, Macau’s strategic location at the mouth of the Pearl River offered unique position to the South China Sea, serving as the hub of maritime trade – and bringing people of all sorts of nationalities, which have left their marks in and around the old city.

The tourist maps made the plan quite simple, with 25 “must see” points of interest winding their way on a manageable course from the south (at the other end of the bridge that run from in front of our hotel) up as far as the middle of the island then cut across to Guia Hill, which was conveniently adjacent to the ferry port so we could book our tickets back to Hong Kong and then conclude with sundowners on the Fisherman’s Wharf.

We set out at 11am and spent 3 hours exploring the 12 churches / temples / cemeteries, 4 fortresses / old city walls, 3 squares, 3 buildings of interest, a library, a theatre and a garden. While some points of interest are more points than interests, it’s a manageable walk following a logical route, so worthwhile seeing the lot. We did finally get in a gondola ride (after 2 false starts with both the Lantau and the Taipei ones closed for maintenance) – and a bargain at the price of 3 Patacas (R5) each for a return ticket. We ended up ditching the return as the walk down from the lighthouse at the top spat us out neatly at the Pier, as we’d planned.

We were able to pre-book our ferry to Hong Kong for the next day (for the princely sum of 159 Pataca (R230) each, so the wheels were in motion to move on the next day at 10.

Our traipsing had worked up quite an appetite so we headed over to the Fisherman’s Wharf, having decided that a Portuguese seafood meal would make the most sense in context (and provide a break from the fare of late). Easier said than done. We were shopping between conventional mealtimes and all the kitchens were closed! We found a Thai restaurant open though and had a lovely red curry duck and pork with morning glory and rice sticks (noodles), run on the water’s edge overlooking the wharf, bay and bridge.

We decided to see what all the fuss was about, so caught a taxi to Cotai to the Venetian, which had been recommended to us by the Aussie on Elephant Mountain in Taipei. Everything he had said paled when we experienced the real thing. New words have to be created to describe the enormousness, the stupendity, the opulescence of the casinos!  They are each and all buildings grandiose beyond belief, clustered with ridiculously mammoth adornments and ?goliath features. A complete sensory overload. Like Vegas + Times Square + Dubai. In one place. At one times. 

Then you go inside.

And everything’s multiple volumes.

With marble floors and chandeliers. 

It’s like Liberace has been reincarnated into a suburb!

And it is a suburb because all of the casinos interlink with passages and walkways, seamlessly taking your journey from game floor through food courts, through world label shops (lots and lots of watches and diamonds, must be the impulse purchase if choice for gamblers) and fancy restaurants and hotels and, um, gondola rides. Back at the Venetian. Time to go home. Not getting tangled in this web.

Dinner was a far more modest affair. We found a diner called Brilliant Gourmet close to our hotel and had a Seafood Baked Rice (al forno cheesy seafood number with rice instead of pasta) and Christian a super-legit beef curry. No ambience whatsoever in the restaurant – no music, bright lights, laminated menus and enlarged food pics on the walls – but an amazing meal, with Tsingtao to wash it down. 

Macau? Glad to have seen and done it. 

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Travelogue Hong Kong 2: Taipei (Taiwan)

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Mar 25, 2014 Under Travelogue

TAIPEI
21-23 March 2014

It may seem extravagant to wedge a holiday within a holiday, but when you figure how far we are from home and the comparatively small hop it is from Hong Kong to Taiwan, it seemed foolish not to! Especially not when I’ve been promising my friend, Honey, for 8 years that I’ll come and see her!

We could not have asked for a better start to the day. Having intentionally slept with the curtains open, we awoke to the gorgeous mountain view from our 8th floor room (glass windows from floor to ceiling and wall to wall) at the Auberge. The weather had held nicely – although gotten a bit chilly – so we could see for miles and miles; the bay directly in front of us and to the left, the community encircling it and the mountains as a back drop.

Breakfast was another lavish affair, with variants of the same formula as the previous day. We ate our fill to fuel up for the journey ahead, which began with an easy connection bus from the hotel’s entrance (using our Octopus card, still on the same R100 we’d loaded at the beginning of the day before!). Hong Kong International Airport is easy to navigate, but huge, so it was good to arrive well in time so we could amble through the process of checking in and getting to our gate in time for our midday flight.

An hour and 40 later, we were landing in Taipei and, being well past lunchtime and with plenty of time to get to our 5pm meet-up with Honey, first order of business was the food court. 

I’d been operating on the assumption that we’d immerse in local culture (which really only means food) as we normally do… but it’s quite hard. Everything is so foreign! That might sound obvious, but the addition of the so-unfamiliar Chinese writing leaves you unable to even sound things out, let alone attempting to translate or speak back. We buckled and got McD’s. With a little more time and less pressure, the restaurant option mysteries started to clear. No regrets on the burgers, but I’d quite like to have tried the Japanese cheese curry (not paneer, a curry with a cheesy sauce). Still not traditional in the “when in Rome” sense, but intriguing nonetheless.

We decided to get a taxi into town since it was the NTS (Taiwan currency, we believe stands for New Taiwan Dollar) equivalent of R350 and the combination of public transport it’d have taken to get to City centre would’ve been damn close to that for the two of us.

We thought we were quite shrewd, avoiding potential language issues with the driver by getting a tourist map and circling our destination to point at… but were concerned when we were deposited at stipulated destination and there was no “big Starbucks directly opposite” as per our arrangement with Honey! Turns out we’d erroneously circled Daan Park instead of Daan and were a block off. We of course, didn’t figure this out immediately and there was some mild panic of us being completely lost with no idea of where we were going and our only means of contact with Honey being Facebook but we had no wifi access! And even though all the signs are bilingual, the Chinese symbols are so foreign that it’s completely visually cacophonous and you have as little idea of  where you are as you have of where you are supposed to be!

It was a joyous reunion when Honey did find us (as it always is with old friends… and especially when you’ve been lost in the prequel!) and a delight to find that her apartment was literally across the road from our meeting point. A great apartment too! A little free-standing cottage plonked on top of an apartment block, too cool! We got the tour, which was less of the studio and more of clambering over the pipes and stuff on the roof to see the spectacular views in all directions – including the famous Taipei 101 building at the end of our road, off to right and even clearer than the Sagrada Familia had been from our apartment in Barcelona! 

Honey was kind enough to plan to vacate her studio for our exclusive use, necessitating some minor housekeeping for our handover, starting with instructions on where to find the key (in the drawer at the entrance way), with the option to just leave it in the door if easier (on the outside! even if we’re out! Taipei is *that* safe) rather than running the risk of locking it in accidentally with the slamlock door. We were also advised that no toilet paper gets flushed – ever! – which would take some getting used to. And, on the fun side, tutored on how to operate the mozzie-fritzer electrocuting tennis racquet.

We then accompanied her on the trip to the laundromat (to tumbledry the bed linen) and got in some beers at the local 7Eleven, joking that we’d have to do a 7Eleven pub crawl like in Khao San Road in Bangkok! Inner city living with so many people has its conveniences –  amenities are close and service quick – and we were done and heading out for the evening within the hour.

Honey had arranged with some friends to meet at Hooters and we were soon enjoying a hearty welcome with pitchers of beer and deepfried delights. A really nice bunch of people, warm and welcoming, with plenty of questions about how we came to be in Taipei and lots of advice on what to see and do while here. We had a fab time, with lots of laughs over the hulahooping competitions being held periodically over the course of the evening.

The decision was then made to move on to a bar called On Tap, where we stayed for the rest of the night socialising, enjoying the 80s music, playing the (very PG) cardgame Uno, glugging (the very unimaginatively named) Taiwan Beer and knocking back Christmas In Your Mouth (a shooter creation with cinnamon, hence the name) and vodka jellybabies. A great (and long) night had by all! … and, as we were told it would be, easy as pie to hail a yellow cab – any time day or night anywhere in the city. Fortunately this fella wasn’t watching a dvd while he drove, as was the chap who’d brought us to On Tap! 

Saturday morning began – after a long lie-in and a big bottle of water – in the afternoon. Happy to have slept the morning away and feeling human again, we hit Subway for breakfast (at now lunchtime) and walked the length of Xinyi Road Section 3 to have a close up look at the Taipei 101. Surprisingly, lots of the shops weren’t open and, fortunately, there wasn’t the mad crush of people we’d anticipated would come along with a Saturday morning in town.  It was still a decent walk though, being a lot further away than it looked. I guess 101 stories of building can create that kind of optical illusion!

The Taipei 101 broke records in 2004, with tallest structure height of 508m, tallest roof at 448m and tallest occupied floor at 438m. It also had the fastest elevator (1010m per minute) – it takes only 37 seconds to get to the viewing deck on the 89th floor – and the coil from it is now mastered into a sort of balled artpiece at the entrance. Honey shared with us the cheat to bypass entrance fees by faking a visit to the Starbucks right near the top, but we passed and opted to just stamp our passports with the commemorative stamps in the lobby.

Back at the apartment, Honey called to update us with the day’s plans, which began with us catching the MRT from the Daan station to meet her and Shawn at Dongmen Station. Complacent now that we felt we knew the lay of the land, we had no trouble getting to Dongmen, but soon realised with horror that there are 8 exits from the station and we hadn’t made a plan in which one was the meeting point! Honey and Shawn had had the same realisation – probably at around the time we had – and luckily our “staying put” plan worked perfectly with their “split up and spread out” plan and we were soon happily reunited and jumping in a yellow cab and off to our next adventure. 

… which was the perfect calm to ease us into Day 2 – Honey’s friend’s baby’s 1 year birthday party, in the southern suburbs so we got to see the other side of town (where Honey works). We were by now – thanks to our longer-than-planned walk and the Dongmen shenanigans – 2 hours late for the party, which turned out to be a good thing as we got quality time with the hosts and selected guests of choice. 

We went straight from there to the Tong Hua Street nightmarket to grab some grub. Too awesome! Lots of fun, exciting and often indeterminable nibblybits! Highlights were the sausage on a stick butterflied and stuffed with spring onion, the deepfried battered prawns and pineapple, 2 types of deepfried mushrooms (neither look like ours at home) and squid balls… and the orderly 1-way pedestrian system that made moving through the bustling market easy and pleasant. Pineapple chunks (sweeter than home, tasting almost like undiluted cordial) and toffee strawberries (like toffee apple, but strawberries) for puds. All deeelish!

Honey had done a spectacular job of social butterflying for us, so it was soon time to scuttle off in the direction of her friend’s Greek restaurant, Yiamas, for a comedy evening with more of her friends. Lots of fun and laughs… especially when the (pseudo) magician duo were using props from random items on patrons’ tables for their skit and they happened across Shawn’s gun – a very convincing looking plastic number he’d won in the carnival at the market.

Then the coup de gras for the evening – around the corner to a gem of a place called Bob Wun Daye to watch a Taiwanese ska band. They were really truly excellent! And the venue was perfect – long, narrow, cosy, busy enough to be vibey, empty enough to easily get a drink… and a cocktail table right at the front for the best vantage point for us, Mary Bites Kerry’s newest fans!

Sadly, we had missed the start of the band’s set so all too soon they were done. But that didn’t mean the entertainment was over – people from the audience kept coming up, picking up an instrument and jamming with whoever was doing same and for however long they were feeling it. Members of MBK came back and joined in at times, but the most consistent gueststar was a brilliant bass-playing chap in skintight red trousers, with thick waistlength hair died platinum blonde and tied in a high ponytail, whom (for obvious reasons) we nicknamed Barbie… and took great delight dragging into a photo with us. He seemed quite flattered, in an aloof rockstar way. Christian had a pic with the lead singer from MBK, who seemed genuinely surprised (and very pleased) we were interested – and broke the bad news to us that they’d yet to release a CD, so there were none to buy. 

We were supposed to meet up from there at (yet another) bar, called Deviate, but our taxi driver misunderstood our direction and erroneously dropped us off so coincidentally close to home (and nowhere near the other place) that it seemed like a good reason to call it a night. At 3am, probably a good idea.

The next morning, once again, started in the afternoon. The moderate weather was a blessing to allow a good sleep and generous lie-in, and our faith in the accessibility of everything and the economy of the public transport left us quite confident that an afternoon was all we needed to fill in the gaps of the essential sight-seeing.

Honey came to us and we three headed out around 13h30 to catch the MRT to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial complex. It’s a big and beautiful area with the Opera House, the National Theatre and the Memorial building flanking a central quad.

We were very fortunate to be visiting on the weekend of the WWF Pandas World Tour, so there were 1600 model pandas in various outfits and poses displayed in the centre of the quad, with countless 6ft+ plastic pandas dotted about the place, each with a queue of people lined up to take a picture with it. A prime display of how the Taiwanese are as panda-mad as they are orderly and obedient. Or maybe it’s just madness in general seeing as they dress their kids as animals (in panda hoodies, lion onesies etc) and their animals as kids (full regalia including jeans, tops and socks – and we’ve seen a few in nappies!) and they’ll line up quietly to see the opening of an envelope!

In their defence, it’s a lot easier to bow deference in a nation where there are light panels outside (pristine and abundant) public toilets so that you can see on approaching which stalls are occupied and vacant. And where the little man under the pedestrian go/stop light quickens pace as you’re running out of time – even though there’s a perfectly clear digital countdown timer alongside him.

Back on the MRT, in search of lunch, we alighted at Taipei Nangong Exhibition Centre stop to eat at one of Honey’s favourite restaurants, a Thai spot in Red Square at Ximen shopping district. We soon saw why she likes it so much – quaint and friendly, completely run by one woman (literally: taking orders, cooking, serving, billing and cleaning) and the most amazing food. This kind of set-up could only ever work with people as pathologically honest as the Taiwanese – the temptations of abusing the honour system of helping yourself to drinks and volunteering what you’ve had when billtime comes would far outweight any concerns about “saving face”.

Our people are more of the “stuffing face” variety… as we displayed when we narrowed down the menu to just order the things we absolutely couldn’t live without – spring rolls and shrimp pancake to start followed by chicken green curry, beef masaman curry, breaded chicken in lemon and sesame, spicy pork mince and morning glory. A lot of food for 3 people (although we rationalised that onlookers might’ve been fooled that we’d ordered for 6 seeing as we had 3 of Honey’s friends join us by this time).

In desperate need of movement after our enormous meal, we had a wander around the market and shopping district, thoroughly enjoying people-watching the hordes of chavs with big hair and crazy outfits.

We made our way across to Honey’s favourite temple, LungShan, which has a magnificent “dragon water” waterfall at the entrance, where people cleanse in preparation for worshipping Buddha. The temple was founded in 1738, so has all the ornate detail and decorative intricacies of a bygone era on the walls, arches, cornices and elaborate roof murals. It is apparently dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy and is brightly decorated with all the snacks and flower offerings that guests leave for the gods (but that we surmise end up on the monks’ tables).

Spiritually fulfilled we ambled around the Snake Alley market, careful to avoid all the snake activities, really not wanting to see snakes slit end-to-end while still alive to be drained of its believed-to-be elixir blood. Vile concept and – while not a fan of snakes by any means – unconscionably cruel. 

Our sightseeing left just enough time for a flit past home before meeting up with Shawn (who’d been working) and (more) friends for dinner at a modest local diner, as authentic in its clientele as in its food. Low tables and simple milking stools, the 100 offered hundreds of dishes, mostly at 100NTs a plate – the intention being for the table to order a generous selection and share. Same with the beers that were served in quarts with each person having a small breakfast glass to pour into. Rounds and rounds of yummy food were delivered to the table, our favourites being the sizzling beef (in a thick oniony and peppery gravy) and the mackerel (light, flaky and buttery).

Starting to get the hang of the city, we opted to walk back to the apartment – chaperoned for the first bit by 2 of Honey’s friends, who fortuitously happened to be going in the same direction as us and committed to ensuring we took the only turn required on our route.

Monday morning, following Sunday’s shorter and relatively easier night out, started at a bright and breezy 9am. There had been much discussion over the course of the weekend about what we should do with our unchaperoned tour and we’d narrowed it down to Elephant Mountain in the morning and the Maokong gondola in the afternoon. 

Taipei had other ideas. 

On crossing to the Daan MRT station to start our journey, we were greeted with a flashing neon sign saying the gondola was closed for the day for maintenance. First Ngong Ping, now Maokong! Of all the luck!

No mind, we caught the train to Xiangshan anyway to do our morning climb, confident that a plan would present itself when the time came. Honey’s friend had left excellent directions to finding the start of the mountain climb, which is fortunate since it’s very poorly signposted.

We climbed the some thousand or so steps and were very pleased that our efforts were adequately rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of the whole city. We could see all the way down Xinyi Street to the apartment! And the massive cluster of buildings that is Taipei, hugged by the mountain bowl. It provided an excellent vantage point from which to plot our next movements.

We decided to catch the train to Tamsui, which promised a fishermans wharf and related activities, so it was down the mountain, back on the MRT (only 60NTs from one end town to the other!) and 40 minutes later we reached the end of the line to see what we could see on the Tamsui River. 

Which turned out to be not a whole lot, but still a good leg stretch and some fresh(ish) air, so no regrets.

The last thing on my list was a visit to a Jade Market. Poorly prepared, we walked past where the big market was told to us to be but, coming up blank, we ended up having to pop back to the apartment to do some research (which was only a minute away since we were on our road anyway). A quick Google revealed that the Daan Park market was the main one… but only opened on weekends! Fortunately, there is also a daily one a few blocks from home. 

A quick hop on the MRT and R6 and 11 minutes later we were at the market. Could definitely get used to this public transport thing!

Returning to the apartment less than an hour later, we found Teacher Honey waiting for us, so Christian nipped downstairs to the 7Eleven and we pulled up a plank on the roof for a sundowner (yes, the weather had held and it was still dry!) and a catch-up of the day’s events. We were so lucky to have Honey host us and lend us her flat – the casual downtime is always the best part of these holidays! :)

Finale dinner was another tapas style eating arrangement with some of the most delectable traditional Taiwanese food! Beef soup with noodles to start, spicy beef on morning glory, dumplings of every flavour, a beef tortilla thing… everything generously slathered or dunked in blackbean sauce, soy sauce and chilli oil. Ate to stuffed. Again.

Luckily it’s a city worth walking through, so we got to expend some of the food with a stroll to On Tap, the bar we’d been at the first night. We were, of course, far better behaved being a school night, but it was great to get in a last beer, review the fun weekend and compare notes for the future.

It was horrible to have to say goodbye – but hopefully it’s not for too long. And good friends are good friends, wherever they are. AND we have loads of new (and silly!) photos and memories to keep us going until next time.

What an excellent city! What a brilliant weekend! What genius people! Thank you, Taipei. We owe you one! ;)

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Travelogue Hong Kong 1: Lantau

Posted by cl@rks on Friday Mar 21, 2014 Under Travelogue

LANTAU
19-21 March 2014

It really is a long haul from Joburg to Hong Kong… but thanks to virtually empty flights, Emirates’ superlative entertainment options and delicious food and a mercifully short (2 hour)  stopover in Dubai, it wasn’t so bad. 

What was a bummer was finding out on landing at Hong Kong International Airport that we’d just missed the bus to Discovery Bay and had an hour to wait until the next one. Although not so bad, since it gave us chance to get local currency and – since the busses only take exact change and we were now only packing HK$500s – *have to* spend some.

I suggested a bottle of water, but Christian returned with 2 beers, seemingly “a sign” since they amounted to HK$30 and we needed HK$70 for the bus. Amazing how much brighter the small things seem after 5 hours sprawled across 3 seats on the first flight plus 2 hours and some change over 2 (well, 2.5 if you consider that my head was on Christian’s lap) seats on the second. With a hearty “cheers”, we celebrated our arrival. 

We had had no choice but to wait for the bus to take us to Discovery Bay because they don’t allow cars or taxis on that part of the island. We tried googling (using the airport’s free wifi – very civilised) but came up dry. What we did find out, is that the utility of cars has been replaced with golf carts. There are only 500 licenses though, so sometimes golf carts can cost up to HK$2 million!

There wasn’t much – besides blocks and blocks of apartments, mostly 30 stories high! – on the drive from the airport and we were disappointed that it was foggy as we drove into Discovery Bay (by now around 11pm), so we couldn’t see anything nor get our bearings. By the time we’d wound downhill to our destination, the Auberge, at the water’s edge, the mist was palpable! The air was the kind of wet that makes your hair curl as you step off the bus. Literally. :/

The hotel is gorgeous! Enormous cavernous reception with elaborate strings of fist-sized blue/azure/grey crystals hanging like chandeliers, grandiose escalier up to the left, 2 decadent curves of couches parenthesising a central  lounge area, concierge to greet us, porters to serve us, reception ma’am and sirring up a storm to us… certainly above our usual modest level of holiday accommodation! 

We completed check-in (a lot longer than we’re used to since there were so many more features and facilities for us to be briefed on), freshened up in our (beautiful) suite and were out the door to go exploring.

Fail.

While it’s super convenient that the Auberge annexes the Grand Plaza, everything was closed – judging by the signs, at 10. Fortunately we’d eaten our fill on the flights (yes, 2 unchoosebetweenable options had again led to a “chicken [nasai goreng] AND fish [in cream parsley sauce with oregano potatoes]” answer to the stewardess’s predictable question), so didn’t need fuelling and it was nice to take a walk around anyway and stretch legs and whatnot. 

Discovery Bay is situated on the NNW coast of Lantau Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The Auberge is situated at the top end of a curved bay, with a beach to the North and Disneyland to the North West. We walked south to see what all we could see along our bay’s shoreline.

It was a crisp evening, so a lovely walk. Discovery Bay is clearly the fancypants part of Lantau and everything is Stepfordly perfect. There is still a large concentration of apartment blocks, but with a smattering of townhouse strips, that must cost a pretty penny! It’s very lush and green with precise, manicured gardens – even in the apartment complexes, where buildings are raised off the ground to start on what should be the first floor so that the space on the ground accommodates more greenery. And bicycles. Lots of bicycles. Not chained or locked, just neatly slotted in bike racks.

We walked through an area called Sienna, which seems to be creme de la creme. Townhouses replaced apartments and golf carts replaced bicycles. Very weird to see parking lots of golf carts and not a car in sight. The roads are eerily quiet, although lit up like a Christmas tree because it seems to be standard practice for buildings to leave (neon) lights on in their entrance hall and up the stairwells. Would make a killing introducing the concept of motion-sensor lights here, to be sure!

The area seems very self-contained and completely accessible (not a high wall or locked gate in sight!) and we walked through a school, playground, sports centre, “Central Park”, a very lovely pond area with paths and bridges, and back onto the dockside walkway back to the hotel, for the most excellent night’s sleep under the fluffy white duvet and between the silky soft sheets.

Breakfast was amazing, starting off with full Eastern and moving onto full Western. Very exotic to be eating beef su mei, pork and prawn dumplings, noodles and egg custard balls to start. Equally extravagant to follow with protein-intensive eggs, bacon, sausage, beef hash, salmon and beans!

A good start to what was planned to be a long day.

As all research had hinted it would be, public transport is cheap and easy. Also helpful that on Lantau there are only really four routes of interest. We caught the bus down to the Pier, which is the main junction on the Discovery Bay side. There we caught the bus to Tung Chung, which is the main junction to travel to anywhere on Lantau, or get to the airport or the mainland. We were headed to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha Unfortunately, the (widely and highly recommended) cable car was closed for the day for maintenance so we had to take the bus. 
 
The bus rides gave us chance to see most of the island. Despite the impression that all the condensed apartments might give, there is still much undeveloped land on Lantau. There are stretches that resemble Mauritius with a smattering of small houses (tiled on the outside) on narrow hilly roads, with very tropical trees and shrubbery everywhere. Were it not for the cowboy busdrivers and their deathwish rollercoaster driving style, the transport might’ve felt less logistical and more recreational! 

We were deposited at the Pai Lao gate where we could walk up Bodhi Path, admiring the 12 Divine Generals stone statues (showing which animal of the Chinese zodiac each represented) up to the Di Tan circle at the base of the steep staircase that would take us up to Big Buddha. Hard to tell whether the people bowing in the Di Tan were praising Buddha or just asking him to give them the strength to survive the hundreds of steps!

We managed the steps with a single stop on the way up – conveniently a couple of monks were making their way down on the other side of the stairwell, which made for a great excuse to stop and rest… i mean, take a photograph. 

The Big Buddha really is, well, big. An enormous statue perched atop a peak with breathtaking panorama of Lantau – not surprisingly, from our experience at ground level, very green and lush. He has worshipper statues all round, of slanty-eyed dancy people offering him lotus flowers and the like. Lots of fun watching tourists emulating the statues’ poses in their pics! 

It was a far easier journey on the way down.

We worked our way through the rest of the complex quite quickly (mostly since the leisure spots all seemed to centre around vegetarian food) and took in the Po Lin Monastery, Hall of the Great Hero and Hall of A Thousand Buddhas in minutes, stopping to snicker at the Fat Ho Memorial Hall, which sadly didn’t have a big sign we could photograph. 

The only other thing on Lantau I wanted to see was the Tai O ancient fishing village on the West coast, which turned out to be simple enough by catching the same 21 bus that had brought us to Ngong Ping. We’d learned at Tung Chung (from an Australian on the bus with us) that it was a advisable to buy an Octopus Card, which could be loaded with cash credit and swiped on all the public transport to avoid the exact change requirement, so hopping on and off busses was proving to be very simple and convenient. 

Twenty minutes on the bus and we were at Tai O, met at the door by a lady peddling tickets for boat ride tour of the fishing village, General Rock and (potential) White Dolphin sightings. For only HK$25 it seemed like a good deal.

The fishing village is quite something. An entire village of houses on stilts, some quite neat and tidy, others little more than aluminium shacks. It would appear as if most have primary access from the water and there were loads of people pulling up to cafés and neighbour’s porches in their boats, climbing ladders alongside the stilts to get to the buildings above.

The boat then u-turned and headed back out to sea. The skipper pointed out General Rock, which was very aptly named because a more general rock you never have seen. Allegedly an outcrop section resembles the profile of a General. Allegedly. 

Sadly, we didn’t see any dolphins on our trip. The Aussie who had given us the advice on the bus had warned that it was luck of the draw… but it was a cheap tour so worth the risk.

Thinking there might be more to the village, we crossed the river and walked the length of Shek Tsai Po Street. Not much to see, just the residential area. Although, quite a culture shock, again with no cars, and nothing locked up or tied down – including baskets full of shopping outside what seemed like a community meeting at the community hall. Noticeboards dotted at intervals along the walking path (there was no road to speak of) broadcast news and a small post office was the only official building. Heart-warmingly, even such a ‘simple’ society has split bins along the route for rrecycling.

Done with our day’s adventuring, the plan was to head back to DB Pier (where we’d caught the bus out) and have an early dinner. For this we needed to connect at Tung Chung. With a gap between buses, Christian suggested we visit the adjacent mall, which turned into a far longer than planned interlude when first I found the Adidas/Reebok shop and *had* to get 2 new pairs of sports shoes (Christian also got 2 pairs, just to be sporting), then Christian found Gieves & Hawkes (of Savil Row) gentlemen’s outfitters and treated himself to 3 new tailored suits for work.

An hour later, spent (in more ways than one)?, we got the bus to DB Pier. 

The Plaza at the Pier was a jovial affair, with an amphitheatre style arrangement in the centre that was filled with kids in the middle, playing, and moms on the low, wide steps around them, onlooking and socialising among themselves. Restaurants and shops surrounded the amphitheatre, providing another level of entertainment and adding to the buzz and movement within the area.  Walking through the plaza took us to the waterfront, with bars and restaurants opening onto a wide promenade, overlooking the pretty bay (the water in Lantau all seems to be a light translucent jade colour) and the stretch of beach at the inner side of the inlet.

We went with tradition and chose the Irish pub, McSorely’s, for a sundowner Guinness, but couldn’t bring ourselves to eat dinner there as their menu was all curry and burgers and this was, after all, our first meal in the Far East so it seemed only right to have something local and traditional. 

Easier said than done. The restaurants were all world fare – German, Italian, American etc – as was the clientele, which we confirmed more and more now that we’d noticed. It seems that Discovery Bay’s niche is ex-pats. Mostly Irish, some English and a few Aussies from our vantage points, not a Chinese patron in sight.

Sundowners behind us, we found a noodle and congee bar option for dinner and decided it was the right thing to do. Tucked away and barely branded on the outside, we found it to be more like a canteen than a restaurant; Super Super was neat, tidy and efficient. We ordered 4 meals to share, expecting to get tiny portions based on the prices (less than R200 for everything), but were proved mistaken when a few minutes later we were feasting on a tableful of food! Not a problem – everything was delicious! A prawn wanton soup (with noodles), spicy stripped pork and noodles, pork with rice (topped with pork mince, which was my best!) and chicken and prawn with rice. We ate all the good bits and our fair share of the starch, but there was still enough rice and noodles left for another person to eat their fill.

Congratulating ourselves on a dinner well done, we went to catch the tail end of the (3 hour) happy hour. It was a bit disappointing that there is no local brew, so we had to settle for the German, Brazilian and Japanese beers options we were presented. Beers are quite expensive – no doubt since they’re imported – at HK$50 each. There was not a local patron in sight; everyone again Irish, English and Aussie, with an American family for good measure. Not sure if it’s Discovery Bay thing or a DB Pier thing… 

The buses run all night so we had no trouble (and no more than 5 minutes wait) to hop on and head back to our hotel to drop off our shopping and have a nightcap on the big, manicured hotel verandah overlooking the sea and then another in the big, beautiful hotel bar.

All in all, a great first day, perfectly ended with a flop into the kingsize bed with thick and fluffy duvet and silky soft sheets – a far cry from the airline seats of the night before!

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