Sunday, July 12, 2015

World Trip 2015

I have just returned from another whirlwind trip around the world.  This may be the last in such a fashion as I am getting fed up of death, dirt and destruction.  I still love the call of things new and untested though. Can't help myself.
I set off from Brisbane end of April with a friend from Airlie Beach - Liz.  We headed towards Hong Kong where we did the usual trips to Stanley markets and up to Victoria Peak.  Unfortunately I wanted to walk all the way down, the long way, and my legs and feet suffered for it.  In the evening we stayed put in our hotel in Kowloon and next day we flew to Shanghai.  Our hotel, Astor House, was olde worlde with lots of dark wood, huge rooms, but fortunately it had been renovated with decent bathroom, coffee shop and massage parlour which I took advantage of as the poor old legs were aching.
This was my first visit to Shanghai and I was amazed at the modern buildings built around the Huangpu river.  It began to dawn on me that China was fast becoming a superpower and the rest of my time travelling around China confirmed this.  We spent the day walking along the Bund and had drinks at the Hyatt followed by dinner - such fun as we made good friends with the management and I chatted to a local diner who told me that he lived in a penthouse nearby and ate there often.  Half his luck as it was delicious.  The second night we had dinner overlooking the river, drinking in the colours of the ever-changing lights on the tallest buildings on the other side.
After two nights there we moved on to Beijing where we stayed at 151 Lama Temple Courtyard Hotel in one of the famous hutongs or alleys. It was a traditional residence that had recently been renovated and although the rooms were small, it was very comfortable.  After scouring the internet, I found a company offering very cheap tours to Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace and next day we went to the Great Wall at Badaling (both tours were about $25 for the day including lunch).  We had the best peking duck ever at a nearby restaurant which also featured a show.
On to Chengdu where we were met at the airport by Harry Lee, owner of Discover Panda tours (his email is  He was a real find as he turned up in a brand new car and his English was very good.  He had organized for us to stay in a very newly renovated hotel called Buddha Zen Zen - nice, modern rooms with a great restaurant at a good price.  Our first tour was to see the pandas and then on to a water town - one of the old villages built along the river banks.  We took a boat ride in a Chinese type gondola.  That evening we managed to find a very modern part of town where we had cocktails before dinner.
Next day we went to see the Big Buddha at LeShan.  This is the biggest in the world and we saw it from the top and then took a boat ride so that we could get an even better view.  I had heard about
a monastery where it was possible to spend a night and it was proving to be very difficult to make a booking but Baguoa monastery, the first monastery on Emei mountain, has an ex monk who speaks good English and makes the bookings - the abbott threw him out when he was caught smoking and womanising.  That night we went to see a great show which ended with women dressed as 'the jewel in the lotus' and chanting Om Mane Padme Om so I began to hope that the Tibet Buddhist influence was at last taking effect but Harry, our guide pooh-poohed this. The following day we laboured our way up to the top of the mountain to see another big Buddha covered in gold.  It was freezing cold and people were hiring ski gear but we just gritted our teeth and kept walking.
Liz and I separated at this point and I flew back to Beijing and on to Moscow - I had not been there since 1972 and was completely blown away by the improvements. My first time there, Moscow looked as if it was in the middle of a war with few private cars and mainly trucks and soldiers on the streets.  The huge shopping centre GUM next to Red Square had baskets of small, black potatoes as window displays - there was nothing to buy and I watched people queue to buy something and rush off to a corner to see what was in the plain box.
I stayed in a newly renovated hotel room at the Matreshka Hotel that had no windows so I was able to sleep away the jetlag.  It was very cheap and next to Red Square and the Bolshoi which was very handy as I spent my only full day at the Kremlin and then went to see the ballet Don Quixote at the Bolshoi.  Similar to ballets at Sydney Opera House as far as costumes, settings went but dancing in Moscow featured the stars of the ballet as cameos.  I had French champagne in the interval - big mistake - small glass $40.... GUM now had food from all over the world and shops included Louis Vuitton and all the other big names.  I really enjoyed my stay but two days was enough as the only other things on offer was a visit to the metro stations or a trip to as shooting gallery to use an AK47.
On to Copenhagen - my hotel (Wake Up) was expensive and the room was small and functional.  Scandinavia seems to thrive on functionality.  Think Ikea.  My friends Bo and Tina had flown in from Stockholm and we had an excellent dinner together - ingredients put together in ways you wouldn't dream of.  Apparently one of the best restaurants in the world is in Copenhagen.  We did a bus and boat tour next day before the obligatory smorgasbord lunch and then I was off to Nice.
Caroline met me at the airport and we had an early night.  Next day we went to my favourite Mala beach for lunch but I was disappointed - the Grand Prix was on and the restaurants had hired staff who didn't have a clue but they were cheap.  I ordered afagato from the menu and 3 times was presented with ice-cream.   I had to tell them to bring a short black coffee which I poured over vanilla ice-cream - simple and delicious.
Caroline opted to go home and I lay down on the beach.  After a nap I got up to swim but that didn't last long as the water was freezing - 18 degrees as it turns out.  So another nap in the sun and then I tackled all the stairs back to the apartment.  It was 7.45 p.m. and Caroline was about to come and look for me.  Next day I walked along the coast to the station and felt very happy and not so old when a middle aged Frenchman told me I was 'ravissante' .  I  got the train to Cannes to have lunch with Carole in her fabulous apartment - the Film Festival was on and the streets were very crowded.
Monday we went to Nice for lunch and then had drinks on the bay at Villefranche before dining at our favourite restaurant African Queen in Beaulieu.  Tuesday we had lunch in Monaco after I had walked around briefly - lots of people there for the races.   Caroline's brother Elliott shouted us dinner at a Lebanese restaurant down at the port.  On my last day I had lunch with Carole in Cannes once again as I couldn't get enough of her fabulous view and then Caroline and I had dinner on the beach at Monte-Carlo. 
Next day we both took the train to Paris where Anne-Marie met me and took me to see the new Louis Vuitton building - if you like buildings then this is for you - not much inside.  All arty farty - the only picture of note was the painting The Scream by Munch.  Lunch the following day with the Wickers and then Anne-Marie started my Parisian tour by taking me to Beaubourg. and she is a private tour guide and driver.  She certainly knows her stuff and I felt privileged to have her show me around and tell me so much about her beautiful city.  She took me to a Piaf show in a small theatre which was highly entertaining.
Next day I took Anne-Marie out for dinner and we went to her local good value restaurant.  The waiter kissed me on the top of my head at one point - he ended up giving us champagne and limoncello which once again was very good for my ego.  Sunday lunch was at the military club and in the evening we went to a concert - some famous old bloke playing the piano and no-one daring to move or cough.  I felt trapped - the only pianist I like is Elton John so it was wasted on me.
On the last day we walked around the Marais and saw the movie Timbuktu before a couscous dinner at a good Moroccan restaurant where the owner called me a gazelle and presented us with free drinks.  I must still have it for the French men - so good for the ego.
I flew to England to meet my sister and stepdad for a Mediterranean cruise.  First stop Santiago de Compestela - the cathedral there is the end of one of Europe's most well known pilgrimages.  Then across the dreaded Bay of Biscay to southern Spain where I took a tour to the fabulous city of Seville.  We sailed overnight and next day I took another tour to see Alhambra Palace and Granada.  The Nazari dynasty built it in 1238 and it is the best preserved palace representing the Muslim world.
From there to Morocco and a tour to the town of Tetouan which has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
Our last port of call was Lisbon in Portugal.  It was my first visit and after we had seen the sights together end enjoyed a lovely lunch on the port, I walked around the old city to really get a feel for the place.  Back across the Bay of Biscay which was mercifully calm and back to England. Dinner with an old friend, Thelma and a couple of days with cousin Ellis and his family in the beautiful Stratford on Avon before taking the plane to Iceland, another first.
I was amazed that Iceland was only a few hours away and the first evening was spent at the Blue Lagoon - expensive but rather nice to sit in warm, blue water with steam curling into the cold air.  The sun set at midnight and rose at 1 a.m. so it never got dark.  People seem to stay up all night to make the most of it before the long, dark, cold winter sets in. 
The only day of rain on the whole trip was the following day and I was booked on a tour of the south to see glacier lake.  We passed several waterfalls, the view of which was not affected by the rain.  I could see in the far distance a bright spot and as we neared the lake, this grew and we spent the next two hours in sunshine.  The were a blue lake in front of a glacier that was calving lots of little icebergs and we ventured out to see them close up in an amphibious vehicle.  There were seals sunning themselves.  The third day I did the Golden Circle tour which takes in the major sights such as the edge of the tectonic plate dividing North America from Eurasia and where the first parliament was located at Lore Rock.  Iceland has the oldest parliament in Europe.  There were unusual waterfalls and geysers and all seen under blue skies and brilliant sunshine - the fourth sunny day since the beginning of the year.  I had a meal at the Wild Game restaurant in town and tasted Minke whale - deliciously subtle but opted for lamb as the main course and there wasn't a hint of the taste of mutton.  The restaurant also served puffin breasts and reindeer.
On to New York and straight out to see a robot ballet featuring a lot of those little Japanese robots.  Jackie and Jeff kept me entertained royally for the four days that I was there.  I visited the Metropolitan museum for several hours and also had a nice lunch in Central park and dinner in an African restaurant. A visit to the museum at Ground Zero was very thought provoking and well worth the time.  The last day we saw a Broadway show and had a picnic whilst being entertained by dancers next to the river.
Time to hit South America.  First stop Lima which I had avoided on my last visit some 22 years prior, too dangerous.  I saw the main sights in the posh suburbs including watching the changing of the guard at the palace. There were two guards at the beginning of the ritual which was accompanied by a brass band.  About 60 soldiers goose-stepped around the courtyard to the tune of Il Condor Passa and by the time they finished, there were no guards left at all.....  Next day took the luxury bus to Paracas.  On the way to my hotel in this very small town, I stopped at a museum run by a grandfather and his grandson - there were about 50 skulls, all elongated and even a piece of shiny material displaying all the Nazca signs.  All had been collected by the grandfather himself.  Next day I took a boat to the Ballestas islands, known as the Poor Man's Galapagos.  Lots of seals, booby birds and a connection to Easter Island when I saw the abandoned buildings where guano had been collected years ago by the people 'blackbirded' from there.  Some of the walls on Easter Island definitely have a Peruvian influence.
Another bus to Nazca where I was lucky enough to walk straight into Peru2Go tour company and meet a lovely couple - he was a pilot and she ran the office.  I spent the afternoon with Juan-Carlos at Chauchilla cemetry where there are many bodies in holes, in sitting positions and all wrapped up in cotton.  Next morning out to the airport - there was a lot of fog and I was on the first plane out.  It was a mercifully short trip - 30 mins - over 12 of the large figures scratched into the earth - no-one knows by who, why or when and they can only be seen from the air - a monkey, a humming bird and even an astronaut.  I felt a bit sick but did not throw up thank goodness.  Then the bus back to Lima.
I did not realize Cuzco was at 3400 m above sea level but my trusty aspirin saved me and I did not suffer from altitude sickness at any time, either there or in La Paz which is 4200 m.  However I took the precaution of avoiding all alcohol.   My whole trip had been planned around Inte Raymi or the Sun Festival which takes place 24th June every year.  It is an old festival which was banned by the Spanish conquistadores but revived in 1944.  I had paid for a package which included airport pick up and an apartment at Hotel Adina Wasi.  I did a city tour on arrival. 
The first night I went out for dinner at La Plaza de Armas and suffered very much from the cold.  There was a procession of people from Cuzco and I flashed my media card and stood not far from the President on the rostrum.  Next morning early we were all taken to the Sun Temple to witness the first part of the festival - the Inca salute to the sun.  Lots of people in costume - drums and conch shells.  The main performance was at Sacsahuyaman fortress where there are huge rocks that have been chiseled to fit perfectly one into the other - how they moved the rocks and carved them is the subject of much conjecture.  A llama was supposed to be sacrificed so that his entrails could be read to determine the events of the following year - one did appear and was very still but they insisted that
he was not killed.....perhaps he was drugged.
The train to Machu Picchu is an eye-opener.  It rivals le Train Bleu from Monaco to Paris. Meals are served and we even had a fashion show where people bought up alpaca and vicunya shawls.  It was good to see Machu Picchu again.  The first time I did the four day Inca trail to get there.  A lot more of the place has been exposed now.  I looked at the sheer cliff down to Aguas Calientes and the train station along a winding road, and could barely believe I had run down that cliff-face some 22 years before.  My legs were never the same after that viz. Hong Kong. The last day we went to the Sacred Valley - more walking up lots of steps.  I always felt as if I had heart disease but younger people reassured me that they felt the same pressure in the chest when walking uphill. 
The short flight to La Paz, Bolivia went over Lake Titicaca and the snow-capped Andes.  It is the highest city in the world and last time I was there I really suffered with headaches.  I was only there to visit South America's most important ruins - Tiwanaka.  Ivan had not wanted to waste his time visiting what Lonely Planet called 'just a pile of rocks' hence my return.  I went out next day and the ruins were just that - ruins, a pile of rocks, very disappointing.  Fortunately I had a nice, big room with fabulous views over the city in the crater and snow capped mountains.  I spent a lot of time in that room because the city was full of poisonous fumes from cheap diesel and there was not a lot to see.  I did visit the witches market with its baby llamas which are used to ward off evil when buried under new buildings, and I did do a tour of the city which included a view of the infamous San Pedro prison where the best cocaine in Bolivia perhaps South America is made and detailed in a book called Marching Powder.  Tourists used to be able to stay there until there were too many robberies and attacks. On the last day I also went to Moon Valley but I was glad it was all coming to an end.
I was there 4 days during which time I was robbed 3 times, possibly by the people running the hotel.  There were so many of them and I think they took money from my purse whilst I was in the shower or at breakfast, fortunately not a lot.  There were lots of signs around La Paz warning people of robberies.
My last destination was Santiago, Chile where I got the 14 hour flight to Sydney.  I spent just one day there and was surprised that it had changed so much in 22 years.  I had a nice lunch and generally walked around watching people enjoying themselves - lots of good vibes.  It felt like Australia.
I was nearly home..........The Qantas 747 400 flight of 14 hours to Sydney was actually pleasant as I was upgraded to premium economy.  We were loaded onto the plane with business class and I sat drinking champagne and watching the 'poor people' walk through to the back of the plane.  The flight went south to the pole and back up to Sydney and the plane barely moved.  A weekend with Alan and Maureen, lunch on Sydney Harbour in the sun and back to the Whitsundays.  Wot a life!