Blogging Retrospectively: why I am determined to see this to the end and where I am right now

It’s now May 2015 and I’m not in Asia or in Australia. I don’t want any of my readers to feel deceived since I aim for my blog posts to maintain high levels of integrity and purity of emotion. However, the truth is I fell behind with my blogging whilst travelling. I still have thousands of photos to sort through, and Australia brought with it new challenges and triumphs that required me to very much live in the moment. Not that this should eclipse my ability to blog, but it did mean that whilst diary entries were rife, translating such entries into pieces of writing that (hopefully) maintain a good balance between personal (but not too much) and engaging (reporting every aspect of each day would be bland) became somewhat difficult.

So what’s the future for the blog? I want to see it through until the end of Australia- I’ve written up few entries on Melbourne yet have developed a genuine and fond attachment to the place. My Australian family have joked that they expect me to return when I’m 25 (I’m currently 22) and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that I will. I’d like to say that there will be another point in my life where I can take some time out and see more places. I know that, by living in the UK, I am incredibly fortunate since Europe is very accessible to me. And if I’m being totally honest, there are still lots of parts of Europe I’ve yet to see. Even those that have been explored have not been viewed through the eyes of my 22 year old self. So, should the opportunity present itself, I would like to be able to blog about any future travels too (time, money and audience- I don’t know if you guys would be interested- permitting).

Right now I’m working in my home town. This period of time (let’s call it spring 2015) has had a comfortable feel- lots of routine, limited pressure. In June the tide will be changing- I can’t say whether this will be for better or for worse, but I strongly believe that life is about new challenges.

The next entries posted will pertain to Melbourne. I went to see the Great Ocean Road, and have explored places around the city including the Yarra Valley, Rosebud and Safety Beach. Completing this blog- though insubstantial and small- would mean a lot- closing the chapter but providing another source through which I can revisit those experiences. To everyone that has taken the time to read any of my blog posts- thank you 🙂 And I will be keeping a close eye on other WordPress travel blogs to see where I can be inspired to visit next!

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Behold… The Big Buddha

The day we went to the Big Buddha, we were lucky to experience glorious weather even if for my travel companion, we had another cable car to endure. Transportation was efficient (as is typical of Hong Kong) with us taking the MTR to Tung Chung station (which took about an hour from where we were). We then walked to the Ngong Ping Cable Car, which took us up to the mountainous area where the Big Buddha shrine sat serenely.

If travelling by cable car (the np360), you have a few options available to you.  You can take a standard cabin cable car, which has see-through windows but a covered floor, and also slightly less of a surface area available to look through the window. You can take a crystal cabin, with a clear bottom and a larger window surface area than the standard cabin. Or you know, you could slum it in a private cabin (but lets be realistic here).

We decided to go crystal cabin on the way there, standard cabin on the way back. This was a huge triumph for my friend in terms of battling his vertigo- we ended up in a crystal cabin with a lovely family, some of whom also suffered from vertigo, and he ended up reassuring them!

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The NP360 and some views from the Crystal Cabin on the way there…

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Our sunshiney day                                    Seeing the sea beneath your shoes

Upon arrival at the other cable car station, we explored the area surrounding the Big Buddha (a.k.a. Tian Tan Buddha). There is a viewing deck where you can take clear photos with the statue in the background:

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We walked around amongst smaller statues and souvenir stalls.

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The area surrounding the Big Buddha statue

We also came across a wooden fork specifying how many miles away we were from various famous attractions across the globe, which was quite fun to read!

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Only 1972 miles from the Great Wall and 9632 miles to Big Ben!

We climbed the stairs to the Big Buddha, attempting to avoid tripping over the tourists who suddenly stopped at various points to take a picture (we were guilty of this as well) 🙂

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Upon reaching the summit, you are presented with beautiful views of Lantau Island, where the tribute was built:

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Within the Buddha itself is a museum with facts about the Po Lin monastery and surrounding area. The main appeal of the attraction to me, though, was actually standing so close to the statue and admiring it’s sheer scale and beauty. It has obvious significance to Buddhists, but even for those of other or no religions, it is undeniably spectacular.

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As the afternoon drew onwards, we returned to the cable car terminal (see below):

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And on the way back, we saw Hong Kong at night- still beautiful amongst the smog.

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Seeing Pandas, being big kids and getting soaked at OceanPark! (Stint 2 in Hong Kong)

As much as we’ve pretended to be cultural during travel (and some days, managed to succeed), occasionally you need to just be a big kid and have fun. When my travel companion suggested OceanPark Hong Kong, I wasn’t overwhelmingly excited. It had been a while since I’d been to a theme park, and I reasoned that it would not be particular different to UK theme parks like Thorpe Park or Alton Towers.

I was wrong.

We had an absolute blast.

Because OceanPark finds a rare balance between accommodating to all ages, wowing with beautiful animals and giving an equal amount of attention and input to all the themed areas of the park.

And- most momentous at all- this is the place I broke a 13 year ban on eating McDonald’s and ordered McDonald’s chips as sustenance (vegetarian in Hong Kong, since they are cooked in vegetable oil) . To be fair- since all the food outlets in the park are fast food places, it is the lesser of all evils. Better the consumerism devil you know than the one you don’t.

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To get to OceanPark, we took the MTR (train network) to Admirality station and then took the Citybus (Route 629) direct to the attraction. Upon arrival, it was an overcast, grey day- not cold, but not warm without the presence of the sun. In spite of that, the park is awash with colour- both outside (the grass dolphins on the left) and upon entering the main square or centre-point of the park itself, called Aqua City (the photo on the right).

Note that these fountains are present and on automation throughout the day within the park and at night, are lit up in different colours to create a beautiful spectacle.

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The fountains lit up at night

We started our day by venturing towards the Aquarium, an attraction in Aqua City. It is laid out beautifully, with sound effects, coloured lighting in some parts and placards with facts about the marine creatures shown. Here, we saw an array of sealife including ribboned pipefish and stingrays (amongst other things).

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We were in the Aquarium for maybe half an hour/forty minutes. To leave, you pass through a visitor shop (as is common of many themed attractions) and whilst we had fun putting on ridiculous cuddly shark and penguin hats, there was nothing that we felt was justifiable to spend money on.

Over the next few hours, we got to see Pandas and Alligators in the Amazing Asian Animals section of the park (I took a particular liking to An An the panda) and watched a wonderful seal show (for Psychology enthusiasts among us, that was a fairly overt display of conditioning).

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Hi An An                                                               Chilled out panda

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I also enjoyed seeing these little fellows

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A photo from the seal show

We caught the final 15 minutes of a spectacular dolphin show, whereby dolphins were woven into a heroic story. The atmosphere was created by cinematic screens and sound effects. The crowd was enthralled and so were we. Dolphins are undeniably beautiful and talented animals and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t see the show in full.

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Around about this point, it was nearing lunchtime. After my travel companion said a quick hello to an old friend:

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We decided to head to the other section of the part (accessible by train or cable car) since there were more food outlets there. We queued for the cable car- the station of which is built in a section of the park made to look like Hong Kong during it’s British colonisation.

Apologies to those with vertigo for this photo (including my travel companion, who- as always, was amazing and dealt with this):

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We had to wait a while, but finally arrived at the other side of the park and into Marine World. Presented with ample choice of pizza, McDonalds, hot dogs, chicken and the like, we both had McDonalds for lunch. I just settled for chips, whilst my friend ordered a more filling amount of food. Happiness came in the form of the ice cream stall nearby, allowing a chocolate Magnum to complete an incredibly healthy and balanced meal.

Next, we attempted some arcade games- with my friend picking up a few stuffed toys on a frisbee like game and basketball. I failed miserably until the launch the frog onto a lilypad game- the first time in my life I’ve won anything from this kind of arcade stall.

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The arcade stalls

I was kind of chuffed to win my new friend…

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Over the course of the afternoon, we went on a range of rides. Particular favourites of mine were the swings and the rapids, which left us in fits of laughter.

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Swings > rollercoaster (controversial)                Photographing others during their rapids torment

We ended our time at the park in the Polar Adventure section, where we got to meet some adorable penguins and see an Arctic fox.

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We left to queues of people waiting for the bus. But it didn’t matter, because we had a lot of fun that day. The kind of carefree silliness that you need to invite back into your life sometimes. My second stint in Hong Kong was going just as well as the first time round and better yet, there was still more to experience…

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Going around Guilin: the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan).

For me, Guilin was a first. For my travel companion, he had visited 10 years previously. He remembered this part of China as possessing great natural beauty, a rural kind of charm. This kind of beauty remains in fragments:

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But as with anything, development is a double-edged sword- and as we ventured away from the Reed Flute Cave back to our van, the same machines creating for Guilin were also marring the landscape of what used to be an untouched fishing village.

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See the crane- top right hand corner

But all was not lost, because the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan) provided us with a scenic snapshot to enjoy. Better still- whatever age you are- you’re never too old to enjoy a park (well that’s my theory).

The Elephant Trunk Hill gets it’s name from the shape the rocks form, resembling an elephant drinking from the River Li. Entrance cost CNY 75 and you pay more if you wish to climb the hill.

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Apparently, there are carvings in the rocks which provide information on the attraction, but you need someone with local knowledge to give more information about this. We decided not to climb the hill due to budgeting restrictions.

However, we did enter the “lovers park” (not awkward because, more than anything else, it was all humorously bewildering to my friend and I).

The park area is full of steel framed statues and larking around is a must:

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So basically quite unlike parks in the UK. Kids look away now. 

Though we didn’t know this at the time, parts of the park can be lit up at night- we figured this out upon seeing a tree with lights hanging down from the branches. So as a tip, perhaps this would be the best time to visit the Elephant Trunk Hill Park. However, entrance into the park at night is more expensive, so do take this into consideration.

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From the park, you also get views of the river:

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By now, we had completed both the Reed Flute Cave and the Elephant Trunk Hill and we were feeling incredibly hungry. We consulted a park map and located a restaurant on the edge of the park, overlooking the River Lijang. The Homa Cafe is a hidden delight- waiting staff are friendly, and on a cold day- food is incredibly warming.

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My friend tucked into a noodle dish whilst I enjoyed tofu, rice and stir fried vegetables. After swapping drinks (he wasn’t fond of his citrus, orangey tea but I enjoyed it), we returned to the area around our hotel in Guilin and explored the town during the late afternoon.

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Our late lunch at Homa Cafe. 

Our time in China was drawing to a close. But I still had a bit more time in Hong Kong before I approached the other part of my journey and settled down in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of months. And despite thinking I’d seen it all in Hong Kong during my first stint there (see the categories sidebar for my earlier blog posts on Hong Kong), it just so happens I was very wrong. The commercial capital of Asia still had far more to offer…

The Artificial Lights (a visual walkthrough). Reed Flute Cave, Guilin, China

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We walked past Guilin’s mountains…                               And reached the entrance of Reed Flute Cave

And then we saw this (note, no filter or editing has been used on any of these photos)…

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So what you’d typically expect to see in a cave 🙂

Seeing Xi’an part 2: the Muslim Quarter, trying not to get run over and eating too much at a Birthday dinner!

The Muslim Quarter…

Was the plan for late afternoon/early evening. After the gas canister exploding incident. To explain what happened in a bit more detail, a guy behind us was carrying a glass jar which contained the gas and I guess the pressure just became too high and then you have green gas and shards of glass coming towards you (part 1 of seeing Xi’an). As a stereotypical Brit, I decided I needed a cup of tea to return to a normal state of self. Our nearest coffee shop was a Starbucks and so we headed there on automation after washing our mouths out with water.

There is little I can say about Starbucks that you won’t already know but in this Starbucks in Xi’an, beggars walk through the door and actively badger customers for money. It was a strange thing to witness- we knew China had a huge divide between the rich and the poor, but had seen nothing like this in Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan. Staff asked the guy to leave, and soon later we followed.

We headed west of the Bell Tower (in the centre of Xi’an, which we had previously visited) and towards the Drum Tower. We walked around the Drum Tower and proceeded onwards until we reached a new scene- smoke dancing in the air, and a riot of colour; street food sizzling and people jostling around. We had reached the Muslim Quarter.

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The bell tower at night                                             Walking towards the drum tower

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The Muslim Quarter

We walked through a sheltered market part of the Quarter- here, a range of weird and wonderful items were being sold. From the beautiful (woven Chinese scrolls and silk scarves) to the light-hearted (touristy souvenirs), slightly distasteful (playing cards on Gaddafi and Bin Laden) to the intricate (wooden carved ornaments and delicate teapot and teacup sets).

The indoor part market formed a circle, and once we exited the other side, the air was filled with the sounds and scents of fresh food being prepared; meat dishes in abundance although there were also stalls selling stews, soups and noodle dishes.

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We walked past a stall where chefs were making fresh pasta, which gathered quite a crowd. Though undoubtedly heavy, the guys in question never hastened their vigorous kneading and movement of the dough.

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The chefs making pasta

Then we walked back past the drum tower, glowing gold, silver and red in the night-time darkness, before finding a bus to take us to where my travel companion’s birthday dinner had been booked that night.

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Trying not to get run over…

Was one of the biggest challenges in Xi’an (in fact, extend that to the whole of China). There is blatant disregard for a pedestrian; if a car or bus is moving- you better move or it’s the end of the road (literally). In a way, this attitude that everyone has almost gives you the feeling that life is cheap in China. There was one point where I was standing on an insubstantial little island in between two sides of an incredibly busy road and experienced something like panic. However, we made it onto a bus and clung onto the railings on the vehicle with all our strength as the bus lurched forward.

Eating too much at a birthday dinner…

Was a given. A lot had happened that day, from a mellow morning to an eventful afternoon and evening. But it was still my travel companion’s birthday. The final chance to show my appreciation to the long-suffering person who had agreed to spend a fair amount of time going round Asia with me.

Redford Indian Restaurant is located in Tang West Market in the Lianhu District and is number 1 on Trip Advisor. I had emailed the manager explaining the birthday situation and they were amazing- when we arrived, they had put balloons and a personalised “Happy Birthday” sign outside their restaurant.

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The restaurant exterior (and the sign and balloons on the right)

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The restaurant interior

The restaurant is beautiful and the staff are ridiculously friendly. We both went for Singha beers and then gorged on an Indian food feast that proved both of us have eyes far bigger than our stomachs.

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The onion naan they served was probably one of the best naan breads I’ve ever tasted. SO GOOD.

Then they brought out a cream, fruit and meringue birthday cake for the person in question, which meant I got to be the most embarrassing friend I could be and sing “Happy Birthday”.

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Happy Birthday Sugartastic!

Afterwards, feeling suitably stuffed, we meandered around DaTang West Market. We had very little time in Xi’an compared to our other destinations. Our final destination would be Guilin, what used to be a quiet little fishing town… however, as we soon discovered- things change.

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Some photos of the different parts of the market

Seeing Xi’an part 1: the journey, the layout and the green gas explosion!

The journey…

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Was different. The station was Beijing West and it was full of people, jostling for space. In a tiny way, it conceptualised just how populated a country China is. Foreigners made up 0.1% of the station population. This was the local way of travelling, and a contrast to Beijing Airport.

The scramble…

To the train was substantial. But we made it.

The train travel…

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Was comfortable. Large red seats. We had paid a little more to be in a better carriage, toilets were still squatters as is standard in China, and manners remain consistent throughout the culture.

Then we arrived at Xi’an North station. We got a cab and prayed the driver would not crash because it was seatbelt-less and there were metal grills dividing the front and the back seat- this could lead to a fatal injury. We settled in initially because it was late in the day. The next day was my travel companion’s 22nd Birthday.

The layout…

For the birthday was simple enough to organise. We chilled in the morning, going to a Korean tea shop in a shopping centre near the Grand Metropark Hotel, where we were staying.

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I can personally recommend the latte and the white peach tea!

The morning was chilled… we visited a shop called Yishion (kind of like a Chinese version of H&M and New Look) where we both found jackets and my travel companion enjoyed a McDonald’s lunch (we are connoisseurs of fine food).

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Shop till you drop birthday style and fillet o fish anyone?

The afternoon is where we get cultural. We visit the Bell Tower of Xi’an, which resides as the central point of the city, a hub where four roads meet. To have a tourist attraction which was built around in order to provide the city structure is quite amazing.

It is beautiful; the outside is like overlooking a to-scale fully functioning model village. The inside is colourful and mesmerising, with a psychedelic roof and various ancient artefacts.

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It contains a number of bronze cast-iron bells, prevalent in the Tang Dynesty. Why the tower was created is unknown, although there are legends surrounding it’s formation.

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An hour later, we decided to move on from the tower. All was fine until…

A crash. Loud in my ear.

A gas cannister exploding- the green gas explosion…

unfurling through the air.

And worst of all- I froze.

I don’t think it did me any harm… but it certainly added an innovative experience to my travel companion’s birthday. What was terrifying was the shock. And being only metres away as shards of glass exploded towards me…