Klutziness on the high seas and a resort review

So, now Roman is in Switzerland and I am in the States. Here in Connecticut, it’s the coldest week we’ve had all winter. We’re talking optimistic highs of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows much lower than that. The skies are clear and the sun is out with full force – everything outdoors is beautiful: frozen, brittle and glittery in the glare of the bright light. I’m happy to observe it from indoors and to let my mind wander back to the warmer climes we enjoyed in the Philippines.

Coral Bay: a retreat from the world

My last post on our time in the Philippines was about its capital city, Manila. We had a great few days there but our main objective in the Philippines was to get some beach time in, do some diving and r-e-l-a-x after our jam-packed time in China.

So our next destination after Manila was chosen very specifically with those goals in mind. We were heading to Coral Bay Dive & Beach Resort, an intimate, rustic resort on a wee island in the midst of an archipelago surrounded by beautiful blue ocean.

Back when we were actually there, I did a quick illustrated post on how to get there: Getting to Coral Bay

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 9.01.34 PMThis place is in the middle of nowhere; the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was a cast away on a deserted isle. Popototan Island, where Coral Bay is located, is inhabited only by the resort staff and by one seclusion-loving European in a private home. Most of the islands in the area are uninhabited.

Here’s the link to the map – you can click and zoom out to see just how small this island is!

Being so far from anything, the resort is by necessity – and by choice – a bit rustic.

DSC_0115Accommodation is in the form of simple bamboo huts furnished with the basics – a bed with mosquito netting, bedside tables and lamps, a basic bathroom, a balcony with a hammock. There is a generator that supplies electricity from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. Water for showers is not heated. Hearty, home cooked food is available, buffet style, at prescribed times in the open-air restaurant. WiFi is available in the resort’s office only: the goal of this place is to provide its guests with a chance to unplug and appreciate the spectacular surrounding nature.

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Aside from spending all day in a hammock by the water, Coral Bay offers activities: snorkeling, kayaking, island hopping and diving. The snorkeling is one of the place’s best features. Grab the gear from the dive center, hop off the pier, swim a few yards and you’ll be floating above the resort’s private and pristine reef, where thousands of beautiful creatures make their home. Roman and I did this nearly every day we weren’t diving. Floating peacefully just above the fish, clams, anemones and corals all doing their thing – it’s just magic!

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

For my personal preference, the cottages could have been a bit better furnished – the bed and seating weren’t as comfortable as would have liked. And the food was a bit on the stodgy side for my taste – very carb and meat heavy and a somewhat limited selection. But this was the case for us everywhere in the Philippines. This country is NOT known for healthy eats… On the balance though, the minor discomforts were well worth the chance to spend time surrounded by so much beauty!

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Moments I want to remember

It’s been a walk down memory lane going through my photos from our stay at Coral Bay. Since these things fade over time I want to make sure I get them down in writing now. 🙂

– We arrived from Manila at Coron, the only town on the big island “closest” to Popototan. We had time to kill before our boat for Coral Bay was leaving, so we got to wander the town, have a snack at a cute little restaurant, and check out the local marketplace. Always one of my favorite things to do. Coron was teeny tiny, sweet and welcoming in the warm sunshine. I wouldn’t mind going back some day to get to know it better! 🙂 Here are some of my favorite photos from our short visit there.

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– One of our first nights at the resort, Roman and I went to the dock to look at an inky black sky strewn with a thousand stars. Suddenly, the hotel’s generator broke down, and everything was cast into total darkness except the glimmering stars above. Looking at the water below, we noticed that there were little lights flitting about – fish with phosphorescence no doubt! We ran our hands through the water below the dock and little specks of glowing lights trailed behind our fingers. Nature lighting up the heavens above and the waters below!

Coral Bay's mangroves at night

Coral Bay’s mangroves at night

P1050721– We were on the island for Thanksgiving. One of my friends emailed and suggested we share photos of our turkey-day grub with each other. So me, my friend in Atlanta and my friend in Poland were together in spirit. And that day, the buffet had roast chicken and potato on the menu – probably as close as I would have come to Turkey and mashed potatoes anywhere in the Philippines anyway. 🙂

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– I loved the silence on the island. No traffic, no TV, no machinery, meant lots of space for the sounds of nature. Every night, once the sun had set, there was a slow-paced concert put on by the local geckos which was just awesome. Check out what it sounds like in this post: Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

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No pictures of this memory, thank God!

We did a bunch of dives while we were at Coral Bay. It was my first time ever wreck diving. Things seemed pretty relaxed in the Philippines; I’m not sure we were technically allowed to do wreck dives with our open-water certification. The dives could have possibly been a bit more professional, but we still had a great time and it was a good experience.

Batfish lingering around a wreck

Batfish lingering around a wreck

I had some challenges with the diving (I did a post about it when we were there: Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea) but once I got past those it was a great time – aside from my klutziness, one more my less admirable characteristics that comes to the fore from time to time.

Somehow on the day in question I had equal parts luck and klutziness going with me which was definitely a good thing or else I may have gotten swept out to sea!

During the first dive of the day I managed to somehow dislodge one of my flippers. The thing disappeared and no amount of searching the area around the wreck was able to produce any trace of it. So I spent the dive swimming lopsided and wondering what sort of insane fee we would have to pay for losing the hotel’s gear. Happily though, the flipper had floated to the surface just next to our boat and one of the crew had rescued it. Win number one!

The bigger fail/win came on the trip back to the resort.

We were on a small boat. It was simple but I assumed it was pretty sturdy. After a day of diving, we were relaxing, watching the horizon as the sky changed colors in advance of the sunset. I borrowed Roman’s camera to take a few snaps. I walked to the prow of the boat for a better view. Trying to get the optimal angle, I leaned against a beam – not realizing that the piece of bamboo was being held in place only by the canvas roof bracing it against the bottom of the boat.

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

I guess I leaned too hard, because the next thing I knew, I was toppling over. My feet flew above my head, my torso plunged over the side towards the water speeding below, and my hands grasped! In some sort of divine instinct, they found their marks, and I managed to grab hold of Roman’s tumbling camera in one hand and a bit of thin rope that – thank God – was securely attached to the ship in the other. The camera and my head stopped thanks to my hold on that rope about five inches above the water and the crew ran forward and hoisted me back onto the boat.

My sarong had dipped into the salty brine, I had a rope burn on my left hand (I still have a slight scar from it today, over a year later) and my dignity might as well have been flung overboard too. The sarong that I’d been wrapped in flew over my head as I fell I have an awful mental image of my pale, flabby body in a bright green bikini flopping around for all the crew to see – poor guys!! But I escaped an unplanned dip in the ocean, or worse, and I even managed to save Roman’s camera. So I guess that’s a fair trade off for being embarrassed to the point of utter mortification!

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Days without pictures: Ushuaia

We had a super winter adventure yesterday in the Torres del Paine national park. It was overcast but the weather held out and we got to see some beautiful things. (Post about that to come at a later date… 😉

We timed things right. Today it’s nasty out which is just perfect for us. Full license to have a lazy/admin type Sunday in our wonderfully cozy temporary home here in Puerto Natales. The snow and slush are coming down outside. The wood stove is clicking and creaking gently as the fire burns inside. There are plans afoot to cook a curry for dinner at home with the owners of the B&B. I’m a happy girl.

Some snaps from right now, here in Chile…

 

And in the mean time, there’s a chance to finally catch up on some blogging…

So leaving Chile for now to return to our last stop in Argentina, Ushuaia… We had a total of four days there. The first day was a recovery day. Although I thought I had factored in plenty of time to do everything we needed and wanted to fit in prior to our departure from Buenos Aires, inevitably there was too much to do and too little time – how does this ALWAYS happen?? – and our last days there were busy, busy, busy and of course we got the minimal amount of sleep on our last night. So Saturday, our first day in Ushuaia, was all about recovery – relaxing, getting organized and gathering energy for the next four days.

We’ve been traveling for ages now and I’ve learned that it’s good for me to take a break from photography from time to time. I’ve got more pictures than my laptop has space for anyhow, and it DOES change your experience of a place when your more focused on just being there, rather than being behind the lens.

So there are days that I leave the camera behind, and I am always happy when I do. But Ushuaia was different.

We only had four days there, I was head over heels in love with the place, and God was it beautiful. I wanted to photograph EVERYTHING. And in my defense, we have seen and done so much on this trip. Capturing images are a great way to jog your memory later on, to help bring you back to a place and an experience. And Ushuaia is definitely a place I want to remember clearly.

But I also wanted my camera to survive the visit, which means that it got left behind, much to my chagrin, during our winter sport outings.

So, here are some verbal snap shots from my days without pictures (supplemented with some of Roman’s pics – his camera is pocket-sized and therefore much more portable! :-))

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 1: dog sledding

We are picked up by our tour operator and drive out of the city. Any buildings disappear pretty quickly as soon as we reach the city limits, and the views outside the fogged windows are replaced by nature. Snowy woods, pristine mountains. I wrote earlier that Tierra del Fuego looks like a landscape out of a fantasy movie, and today I narrow things down: it feels like I am entering the eternal winter of Narnia.

We come to the lodge where the dogs and sleds are. Inside is piping hot, with wood fires blazing in every room. Next to one a grey cat is stretched on a couch, napping. We are out all day and I swear it hasn’t moved an inch when we come back later in the afternoon.

The crew is organizing the sled and us tourists; Roman and I get to meet the dogs. Siberian and Alaskan huskies. It was awesome to learn about them and they were soooo cuddly and sweet. Apparently they don’t get along so well with each other, and the sled teams have to be carefully arranged – pairs are made up of a male and female dog for example, and order is determined by personality – to ensure fights don’t break out.  But they are tremendously sweet and affectionate with humans, and we got down to petting them every chance we got. The team of the second sled was younger dogs – teen agers – and they acted the part, barking and howling, a lot of talking with not much to say – while our team sat around with quiet dignity in the snow, waiting to get going.

 

Thank you Roman for sharing your pics with me. 😉 The dogs had the most amazing eyes. A lot of them had two different colored eyes. Gorgeous!

The sledding was fun – except for when a dog stopped for a bathroom break. If you ever find yourself traveling by dog sled and you see a dog stop to drop a load, make sure you hold your breath when the sled starts moving again. Husky poo is potent and you don’t want to breath in a cloud of it, trust me on this.

What a sweet face!

We sled along into the woods until my feet and cheeks are just about frozen with the cold, and then it’s time for…

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 2: snow shoeing

I’ve snow shoed before once, with Roman’s mom and step-dad back in the Swiss mountains. That was an awesome experience, so I’m so excited to have the chance to try it again.

There’s a lot of standing around, trying to stamp feeling back in to my feet, as everyone in the group gets kitted up with shoes. Finally we are off, and at first I am underwhelmed as we move slowly through flat forest. Eventually, our quiet but kind guide turns off the flat path and we start to head up hill. It feels good to use my body. The blood starts to pump and I find a rhythm to my pace. My footsteps in the crisp snow are like a yeti systematically making his way through a lifetime supply of Captain Crunch cereal. Up, up, up we go through the hilly woods. I start to forget my frozen toes and notice little details.

The delicate tendrils of sage green moss on the trees. Naked, knobbly, symmetric branches forming vivid patterns above the snow. Small but hardy leaves on bushes, spikey and defiant. The color of the snow. It is thick, pristine and white, but where crevices form – fine cracks that run inches deep along the side of the path – there is a subtle glow of the most pure aquamarine, as if snow and cold were the birthplace of blue.

We come to a clearing and that magic moment happens, when the work of my body has warmed my blood and the heat zooms down to my toes all at once. I love this feeling and savor it as we take in the view that stretches for miles before us. The valley down below, the ranges of mountains reaching out in either direction behind it. Stunning views. This place really is magic.

Then it’s time to head back down. We return to the woods in the valley where a small wooden hut has a fire, hot cocoa and cake waiting for us. Cheeky birds, like sparrows but with vivid yellow breasts, sneak in through the cracks and jauntily land on the table, the cake, claiming it as their own. We laugh and watch them flit about, and take another round communing with the huskies outside before heading back to the lodge and returning to town. An awesome day!

I loved this collection of colorful lanterns back at the lodge. Roman kindly let me steal is camera… 🙂

Buenos Aires bookends

Today has been our last full day in Buenos Aires.

A full day – we’ve been going since we got up and there will be an early start tomorrow morning to do the rest of the packing, hand back the keys to our temporary home and go through the process to get onto the plane that will fly us down to Ushuaia.

A full day, sometimes a challenging day, a good day.

A grey day – over cast and sometimes rainy. Which I liked.

Our first week here there was nothing but grey, and it feels fitting that we end our time in BA the way it started. Meteorological bookends to a place. I like the symmetry.

Maybe it sounds dramatic but I guess things are feeling a tad dramatic. I’ve been pretty emotional the past couple of days. It’s not unheard of for me to get all nostalgic about a place as it comes time to leave it on this trip, even as we are still there.

Will we ever see this city again? And it’s been temporarily home and now it’s time to uproot yet again and move once more into the unknown. All that sort of stuff.

But I’ve gotten better at it with time. Especially in this second half of the journey, I’ve been filled with momentum and more tuned in to gratitude and the hunger for more adventure has been sustaining and inspiring me through having to saying goodbye to a place.

But this time round the emotions are in full force. Everything feels more intense as awareness of the end to the big journey increases. As well, this little apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, is the longest place Roman and I have had been able to call (temporary) home since we left Zürich a year and nine months ago. And Buenos Aires and I have had to go through a process. From that pretty tough first week when I was really wondering what the heck we were doing here to now, where the city has been transformed in my eyes to a place full of rough beauty and soooo many things I would love to do, if only we had more time…

I am greedy; I always want more. But I am trying to learn how to be satisfied with what is, and so I will just enjoy the symmetry of my rainy days and focus on some details of BA that I’ve savored during my time here, with the addition of the one little rant.

BA – what I hate

Oh my God I hate the dog crap all over the place. It is everywhere and it is awful. You know when you were a kid and you played that game where you couldn’t step on a crack in the street and you’d be jumping all over the place as you walk? It’s like that here except everyone is maneuvering to NOT step on the poo. Some streets are better but some streets are worse and you cannot drop your guard. Some streets stink of it and you have to watch not to accidentally open your mouth ever cause you might just get a mouthful of poop-flavored air. I would rather walk in a cloud of Roman’s second hand cigarette smoke than breathe in poo-air, it’s that awful. Seriously, people of Buenos Aires, do not own dogs if you can’t or won’t pick up after them!!!! It’s just not right.

You see something like this in the street and you know someone’s day just got worse when they walked here….

BA – just some of what I love

Caca de perro was definitely one of the things I noticed first about BA, but thankfully, many other things joined the symphony of the city and managed to do a decent job drowning out that particular “instrument”. Once you get over the poo, or at least get adept at side stepping to avoid it, there are so many lovely details to appreciate. Here are just some of the little things I’ve collected and enjoyed while we’ve been here:

–       There are islands of good smells on the streets to counteract the poo. Small fruit and vegetable shops opening up to the sidewalk and street-side florists with stands bursting full of gorgeous blooms are all over the place and I love walking through the fresh, lovely smells and taking in the burst of bright colors while walking through BA’s streets.

–       Walking home from yoga. I take a different zig-zag to get back just about every time and I love discovering new streets, shops, views each time.

My favorite cobblestone alleyway on the way to/from yoga

–       All the PDA in the street! I love the young couples making out in public. This is still such a thrill for me since Asia is way conservative about that sort of thing and it was so tough for me to have to watch my actions with Roman while we traveled there. I love it that I can kiss, hug or hold hands with him when ever I feel like it, and that other people can – and do! – too.

–       I love the old American and European cars! There are plenty of standard modern cars all over the place but there are also all sorts of rusty gems – Fords, Citroens, Fiats – clunking along the city streets and I think they’re awesome.

–       No pictures of this but I love how the slanty light of mid morning or later afternoon filters through the arched roof of tree branches hanging over the city’s streets. Just gorgeous.

–       I love the street art!
Yes, that’s Alf

–       The awesome old-timey elevators with the accordion doors you have to pull closed before you can ascend/decent. The nifty apartment doorbells. The funky keys.

What a classy doorbell system!

Our apartment key, like some sort of mini steam punk machine gun

–       Cheap and delicious wine!

–       The way the people here sing along with the music in their headphones while walking.

–       Beautiful sunsets from our apartment window.

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list, but it’s bedtime now – tomorrow is a new adventure! Good night folks! 🙂

What a difference a week makes

And glorious sunshine, and a good amount of yoga!

Last time I posted, I was feeling pretty downtrodden by our first seven days here in Buenos Aires. Happily, the weather took a turn for the better this past Tuesday, and my mood, along with the city itself, is much lighter as a result. All the locals we’ve chatted with seem to have been similarly depressed by the rain; typically Fall in BA is much more like this past week – crisp, sunny, invigorating. Since the weather has improved, I’ve been loving the cool morning walks to Spanish class and the play of autumn sunshine across the wonderful mix of architecture old and new, and I’m starting to discover why and how people get enchanted by this city.

Here are some random impressions and experiences from the past week.

–       I talked in my last post about the fashion sensibilities of the young porteñas in the city. I’ve noticed too that the older generation – 60 and above – tend to dress with an awful lot of panache and I adore seeing the elegant older women in refined, well-tailored fall colors, the men with small moustaches, stylish blazers and dashing neckerchiefs wandering around the streets of our neighborhood.

–       I don’t want to jinx things, but I seem to be developing a knack for avoiding the dog poop (caca de perro) on sidewalks. Knock on wood – I haven’t stepped on any since arriving and I’m even starting to get a kick out of what Roman and I are terming the “dog trains” that trundle along the sidewalks here. Imagine a single dog walker as the spoke in a wheel made up of at least ten leashed dogs, from pocket dogs to great big labs and everything in-between. Now picture this moving down the street at a good clip, and the millipede effect of all those legs trotting along at once. Quite a sight, and there are tons of them, in our neighborhood at least.

–       BA is great for trees! I love, love, love how many streets are covered by an arching canopy of branches that reach up and over from opposite sidewalks to touch hands high above the traffic. Especially gorgeous when sunshine filters through the branches. Photos to follow one of these days… In the mean time, here’s a whole blog devoted to the subject: http://losarbolesdebuenosaires.blogspot.com.ar/2009/03/tipa-trees.html

–       There are some not-so-good smells in the city for sure (reference the previous dog poop item) but there are good smells too. Our little corner almost always smells like the fragrant smoke from a barbeque, which makes me hungry. Need to find out which restaurant this smell is coming from. 🙂 I love passing by the little cave-like meet-cheese-and-wine shops and getting a whiff of the evocative, musty, cloistered smell that wafts out of the open door.

–       I am loving our Spanish classes! I’m the only beginner student at our school at the moment (it’s low season), so I’ve been having one-on-one sessions with my teacher and I’m amazed how much ground we’ve covered in just one week. We’re at Vamos Spanish, in case you’re interested, and Roman’s been really happy with his intermediate class too. Friendly, highly competent staff, good value for money, nice location – based on our first week we can definitely recommend this place. 🙂

–       We got to experience a protest! We were at home one night when I thought I heard some weird noises coming from the apartments next door. I went onto the balcony to check it out, and the racket only escalated. Cars honked, pedestrians clapped, and people all over the neighborhood stood on their balconies and leaned out their windows, hitting pots and pans, whistling and blowing on vuvuzelas. We were baffled but intrigued and delighted. Take a listen and maybe you can see why we were initially confused: Palermo 31 May. The event went on for about an hour, and we found out when we went for drinks with our “landlady” (the woman we are renting from on Airb’n’b. She’s a total sweetheart) later that night that it was a protest against the government. Here’s a bit more info about it if you’re interested. There was a second round the next night, and I have to say it’s been pretty amazing to see so many people participating in something like this.

–       I’ve found a yoga studio. It’s in the neighborhood, is teenie-tiny but cute, is staffed by Americans and the classes are all in English. Bad for my Spanish practice maybe but oh so good for my state of mind and my out-of-shape body. I’ve been going just about every other day and as per usual, a regular practice just makes everything better. Thank goodness for yoga. Another definite recommendations: http://www.happysunyoga.com/

And, just for good measure, here’s a few photos to visually whet your whistle for Beunos Aires. 🙂

In the touristy but still awesome section of La Boca

In Boca

Around San Telmo

This guy’s got it going on!

Food, funerals and fireworks

It’s really time to leave Yangshuo for our next stop in China, but before I finish up with this place I wanted to share our food and accommodation notes plus a little something extra.

Accommodation and food notes

After leaving Omeida, we decided to treat ourselves and went upscale at a hotel called the River View Hotel. It was expensive for our budget (around RMB 250 per night, or USD 40) but it was also the first nice place we stayed since arriving in mainland China.

A big, clean, comfortable bed, Western style toilets in a perfectly clean bathroom, our own private balcony. All of these made a nice change after the hotels we experienced in Xinjiang and the squat-style toilet and spartan room at Omeida. Also great was the location: the river view was nice enough but having our favorite coffee shop just a few doors down was the real treat. 🙂

MingYuan Café is listed in Lonely Planet. It’s a cute little café with eclectic decoration and probably the best espresso/espresso drinks we had in all of mainland China. …Thinking about it… Yes, THE best espresso we had on the mainland for sure. Unconventional but awesome tiramisu and cheesecake too! We practically lived at this place and it’s a super spot for studying Chinese.

Other favorites included Kelly’s which I wrote about earlier, and Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ordered a whole mess of different things from the huge menu, and each and every one of them were delicious.
Traveler’s note: There are tons of restaurants in Yangshuo. We tried a fair amount of them and most of them were fairly average – catering to tourists who probably won’t stay long enough to be picky. There are probably other gems out there though that we didn’t get to!

A word of warning

Another random note to travelers – like most hot spots in China, visit Yangshuo during the national holiday week at your own peril!!

We were still in class when the holiday and its thousands upon thousands of giddy Chinese tourists descended upon the place. Suddenly the streets around Omeida were filled to the brim with wobbly tandem bikes (parents with a small child strapped precariously to a seat strapped precariously to the bike bar, couples in matching outfits, young men with flower garlands resting on their brows) heading out to the countryside, while the hawkers around the tourist center redoubled their efforts and the alleyways swelled with tour groups in matching neon hats obediently bobbing along after flags on sticks fluttering above the crowds…

Consider yourselves warned. 😉

The unconventional alarm clock

While we were students at the Omeida Academy in Yangshuo, we lived in a dorm room in the residential part of town. We were on the 2nd floor (1st floor if you’re European – one above the ground floor) of an apartment building filled with a mix of locals and students, with our window facing out on to the sidewalk and broad street below.

One morning early we nearly tumbled out of bed when we were awoken by the tremendous cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of small but potently loud fire crackers being set up directly below our open window. Blearily peeking out, we could see a crowd gathering in front of the building below.
We asked our teacher about it at class that morning and it turned out an elderly man from the building next door had just died, and what we had witnessed was the start of his funeral ceremony.

By the time our morning class was over, more mourners plus a band had gathered. People were wearing white tissue paper over their clothes and playing cards at tables set up under a tent on the sidewalk. The band would start up every once in a while and someone took it upon themselves to light another round of fire crackers every once in a while.

It was all very interesting and we felt lucky to have a glimpse into this cultural tradition. That is, until the sun started to set and we realized that we were in for a late evening of lurchy-sounding music and fireworks that all sounded close enough to have been taking place on the edge of our bed.

The next day we found out – first hand – that traditional Chinese funerals are a multi-day affair. The noise – I mean celebrations – kicked off around 6:30 in the morning and tended to carry on until close to midnight. The final night there was a crescendo, with no fewer than three bands and one performance troupe participating, and lots of drunk, theatrical, karaoke-style singing.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of local traditions, but we sure didn’t sleep enough that week and it was with equal parts fascination and relief when early the next morning we watched from our window as there was a last hurrah and the colorful casket was carried down the street, followed by dancing dragons, musicians, mourners and plenty of fireworks.

So, in case you ever wondered what a Chinese funeral might sound like, here are some sound bites. (I especially get a kick out of the car alarms at the end of the second one… 😉 )

Chinese funeral 1

Percussion!

Snap shots from my parents’ home

The holidays are now behind us and we are well and fully landed in the New Year over here in Connecticut. It’s still feeling somewhat surreal but it’s helping that things are quieting down a bit. Only now is it starting to really sink in that I am here with Roman in my hometown.

It’s too early for me to be able to deliver news about our onward plans for anyone who might be curious. 🙂 (I’m curious too in fact!) For now I’m mostly focusing on savoring the comforts of home:

–       It’s a great feeling not to have to pack up my bag every few days/every week. I have shelves in my old room where my clothes can stay put for now and that is awesome.

–       I love that my pillow smells like me.

–       Western plumbing is still blowing my mind and I have to remind myself at least once a day that I can put toilet paper into the toilet bowl over here.

–       My mom has been really generous with my use of her kitchen; we even have figured out how to cook two different things simultaneously without getting in each other’s way. I am loving being able to cook my own food again, and it’s total comfort to cook with my mom and better yet to be treated to her cooking.

–       I can’t get enough Martin hugs!! Hugs from my nephew are a rare but oh-so-deliciously-wonderful-and-precious thing.

–       It’s great having time to talk with my grandma Jackie. At 90 she’s more awesome than ever!

–       Although Stamford has changed a lot since I’ve lived here and there’s loads of new restaurants and shops, etc., it’s still a nice feeling to leave the house (instead of a hotel) and already know where I’m going without having to study a Lonely Planet map first.

–       Same goes for being able to take an aimless walk with Roman without having to worry about finding our way back to the hotel.

–       The best feeling is falling asleep all cozy warm under layers of my mother’s home-made blankets and quilts while the freezing winter air creeps in through the cracked-open window – I am loving the New England winter weather after all the tropical heat in the Philippines. All I need is some snow!! 🙂

Silk Road Tour day three

Getting back to magical Xinjiang…

Wanna buy a… sheep?

We’d awoken in the cold, dark of pre-dawn back in Tashkurgan in order to make it back to Kashgar in time for the Sunday livestock market. Driver put the pedal to the metal and we raced along, retracing our route along the spectacular Karakorum Highway as the night melted gently into day. The hours slipped by easily and before we knew it, we were driving into Kashgar.

We didn’t want to miss the action at the market, which starts wrapping up mid-afternoon, so we headed straight there. See my earlier post for plenty of photos. Suffice to say it was incredible! We’ve visited tons of food and goods markets while traveling in Asia, plenty with handfuls of live animals for sale, but this was our first opportunity to see an honest-to-God livestock market.

The market takes place in a huge open space that was packed to the gills by the time we arrived with thousands of animals and maybe as many farmers, traders and shoppers. It was apparently wedding season in Xinjiang, and no Uighur wedding celebration is complete without plenty of roast sheep and goat to feed the hundreds of guests, so it was prime time shopping season!

It was fascinating to wander cautiously through the narrow lanes separating the groups of livestock, observing the heated negotiations between buyers and sellers while attempting not to step in (too much) fresh goat/sheep/cow poo. 😉 I’m not sure if we just got lucky but there were hardly any other tourists there and it really felt like entering a completely different world and I just loved it. (Click here for the photos)

Incredible Kashgar!

After the market, Yusef kept us moving. I’ll do a separate post about the tourist/historic sites we visited. I enjoyed them but for me the real highlight of the day was Kashgar’s old town. Lonely Planet writes this about the city:

“Modernity has swept in like a sandstorm. The highways and railroads that connect it to the rest of China have brought waves of Han migrant workers… and much of the old city is being bulldozed in the name of ‘progress’. Yet, in the face of these changes, the spirit of Kashgar lives on. The great-grandsons of craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel away in side alleys; everything sellable is hawked and haggled over boisterously; and not a few donkey carts still trundle their way through the crowds…”

Indeed, there was a stark contrast between the modern part of town, where we saw as many, if not more than, Han faces as Uighur, the streets were broad and the buildings boxy, modern, anonymous, and the warren of narrow roads that made up the original and entirely enchanting old town.

Too cramped for cars to easily navigate, the streets are none-the-less busy. Skooters, bikes, donkey carts, push karts and pedestrians make their way through patches of fragrant smoke from the plentiful kebab stands that line every road. The buildings are low, only a few stories at most, crumbling and in the traditional Uighur architecture. Men with wrinkle-etched faces in traditional caps and women in incredibly colorful layers of clothes and headscarves, small open-air shops of nuts and fruit and meat and breads, beautiful arched doorways leading to squashed, intriguing back alleys – there was just too much to look at and all of it was fascinating! 🙂

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Fanning kebabs on the narrow grill

We luckily had an extra day in Kashgar after our tour was complete so we had a bit more time to enjoy the city on our own. The photos below are from both days.

Bits and pieces

Just a few things I want to remember about Kashgar:

We saw tons of wedding parties on the move while we were in the city. This involves a truck with a group of traditional musicians sitting in back, playing awesome music on drums and other instruments as it cruises through the city, announcing the wedding party to any interested onlookers. (More on Uighur music) The truck was usually followed by another vehicle with a guy and a camcorder sticking out the window, filming the procession. After this comes any number of cars all decorated with colorful ribbons and cloth – the wedding party. I loved seeing these processions! 🙂

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A car decked out in wedding gear (this was actually in Tashkurgan)

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If this sounds like your cup of tea, this guy can perform and film YOUR wedding for you! Just call 152….

I also got a kick out of how agrarian the city is despite it’s being, well, a city. Donkeys are everywhere, even in our hotel which was outside the old town we woke up to the crow of roosters and I even saw one woman feeding her goat by walking it along the grassy median dividing the sidewalk and one of the main streets.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I really loved they way the local women dressed in Xinjiang. I’m not sure if there’s an official name for their style but I’m calling it gypsy chic. 🙂 These are women who are not afraid to wear a bit of color! Check out the shoes, the rhinestone, the sequence, the attitude!

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Yusef took us to an incredible tea house (incidentally also a film-location for Kite Runner). We made ourselves comfortable on the balcony and he ordered what I believe is the only thing on the non-existent menu. Incredibly delicious saffron tea and some of the traditional bread. I was the only woman in the whole building; Roman and I were the only non-locals. Everyone else on the balcony with us were Uighur men in their caps, sipping tea, watching the progress of life on the streets below and putting the world right in their drawn out discussions. Loved it!

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Delicate, sweet saffron tea – good to the last drop

Photo impressions from Kashgar

Dried peppers for sale

Garlic!

Street-side barber. Love the tan line! 🙂

No idea what this guys is selling, in fact I’m not sure I want to know…

Outdoor bakery. The traditional breads are cooked in an oven that is not too different from a tandoor.

Silk Road Tour day one: Part two

Yurt home stay

After our morning’s thrilling ride along the Karakorum highway, we arrived at our Kyrgyz home stay at Karakul Lake in time for a late lunch. The women made us a simple but tasty meal of home-made pasta in a vegetable soup. In the afternoon Roman and I wandered the magnificent landscape around the lake, and even ran into some camels!

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The littlest kids want to help make the noodles

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Simple stove

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Warming and tasty with wonderfully doughy noodles

The family we stayed with are yak farmers. Their yurts at the lake are their seasonal semi-permanent home; although they also have and use traditional yurts, we stayed the night in one of the concrete, non-mobile yurts on Yusef’s advice – the night was a cold one and we could use any extra heat we could get!

There’s lots more I could write but for your sake and mine I’ll just try to capture some of the details and share some pictures. 🙂

Little things I want to remember:

• I was amazed how everything revolves around this one little stove in the middle of the yurt. It’s fueled primarily by dried yak poop and gets wonderfully warm and toasty. The stove is the source of heat, it’s where tea and food are made, it heats water for washing dishes, for washing oneself, it burns scraps of trash, meals are eaten around it.

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Yak poop drying for later use…

• The huge, apple red cheeks of the younger kids were so adorable.

• I loved how the women in the family dressed in bright colors and wore heels even though they live on rugged farmlands.

• I loved how, aside from this family, it seemed like there were no other people around for miles and miles and miles.

• Which was an advantage since the bathroom was basically anywhere you liked outside the yurt! Fine during the day time, definitely an experience in the pitch black night with an icy cold wind rushing round your bum!

• During the late afternoon, after our walk but before dinner, we returned to the yurt to find Driver and one of the younger girls bedded down for a nap. Roman joined them and I sat, enjoying the peace. Gorgeous was the soft sounds of the fire burning in an otherwise silent yurt. Total peace and comfort.

• How incredibly cold it got at night! The beds are formed of multiple layers of thick, narrow, colorful blankets which are stacked along the wall of the yurt during the day; you just wedge yourself somewhere into the pile and wait to warm up!

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Bedding stacked up against the wall of the yurt – a riot of color

Photos of and around Karakul Lake

The yurts were directly by the glimmering, clear waters of Karakul Lake. With snow covered peaks rising on the horizon and a vast, open, dramatic landscape all around, this place was simply beautiful beyond belief. A few photos for your enjoyment:

Current events snapshot: Mid-Autumn in Hong Kong

It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival today and Roman and I are lucky enough to be in Hong Kong for the celebration!

I’m by no means an expert on the holiday, but I know it’s based at least in part on moon and harvest festivals and is tied loosely to the equinox – the occurrence of the length of the day and night being equal somehow allowing the goddess of the moon to be reunited with her lover, a famous archer who lives in a palace on the sun – for this one day in the year. Romantic stuff and I love it! 🙂

The holiday is celebrated with many traditions, among them eating moon cakes, parading with lanterns and moon gazing. We didn’t have any cake or lanterns, but we did get to enjoy a splendid view of the moon above the city this evening, before heading back down to check out the festival at Victoria Park. Check out that view! (image should be clickable for a closer look)

Happy birthday to… this blog!

I’ve now been on the road for one whole year! Unbelievable but true! I’ve put together some videos to celebrate and to help me get my head around just how much we’ve seen and done these past 365 days. 🙂 Enjoy!

Intro

India

Myanmar (Burma)

Thailand

Laos

Cambodia

Vietnam