Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Final Adventure - 28th Stop: Abu Dhabi

The final stop is upon us! After three and a half years of travelling, there's just one more box to be checked off our list before we leap back into the loving embrace of Ireland. And I'm happy to say we finished on a pretty high note. Abu Dhabi continued on where Dubai left off, giving us another taste of the lavish lifestyle, serving up some truly world class sights, none of which cost us a penny! I'd even argue that it's nicer than Dubai and certainly had more of a structured city feel to it. They were a lot more different than I would have imagined actually. For example, the people of Dubai don't like The Flintstones, but the people of Abu Dhabi do...! (Baddum tish!)

Anyway, if you do happen to be flying through, definitely give this place a few days of your time.

Abu Dhabi - not just an Arsenal midfielder!

The above picture is from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and I'm just going to skip the timeline straight to there as it's probably the most incredible building we've ever seen and, quite frankly, shits all over the Taj Mahal. We were only in town for three days but made sure to visit this place twice, spending three hours there each time - it was that good!

We got to see the place, not only by day and night, but also got to take a free guided tour, learning about the building itself, as well as the history of the UAE and the Muslim faith. Our guide was very charming and if you're going to give a group of tourists the hard sell on Islam, this is definitely the place to do it! All they need to do is bring in a few high profile Muslims like Muhammad Ali, or Cat Stevens and they'd be converting people left, right and centre!

Top tip - you're meant to cover up while you're there but if you happen to show up with nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, they'll loan you some traditional garments while in the mosque. So, (and I probably shouldn't be encouraging this, but...) make sure you don't have the required clothing and get your hands on a Kandura or Abaya, just to give your pictures that authentic feel!

In other Abu Dhabi news, on our second day in town, we grabbed some bikes and cycled along The Corniche - a lovely waterside promenade. It's a place where you could easily spend the day with beautiful white sandy beaches, but we had only hired the bikes for an hour so we had to rush to get back in time.

After The Corniche, it was just a short walk up to The Emirates Palace Hotel, reportedly the most expensive hotel in the world. The kind of place where they sprinkle 24 carat gold flakes on your coffee. Now surely that's the definition of having too much money - you're so rich that you literally ingest valuable metals!

Non guests are allowed to walk around the first floor and the hotel gardens, and to be honest, I thought we fit in pretty well. It's like we own the place!

Unsurprisingly, we made our video diary back at the mosque:

There was, however, a tiny bit of drama before we boarded our final flight home. As I mentioned previously, we got away with quite a lot of excess baggage when flying with Emirates from HK to Dubai, but we weren't so lucky on the way out. This time we were 11kg over the limit, and with a charge of €30 per kg, that added up to a lot more than we were willing to pay!

We were left with little option (and even less time) to lighten our load. So, we swapped some things around, layered on the clothes, filled up our pockets, and even gave a stack of books to a (very grateful) Pakistani lady. We could hardly walk back to the counter with the amount stuff we had crammed into every orifice! We probably looked like the most conspicuous shoplifters you could imagine. But it worked! No extra charge for us! By the end of it, we deserved a Nobel Prize in Physics for the way we made 11kg worth of mass disappear into thin air! 

And that was that for Abu Dhabi, and the final stop of our Am-Asian Adventure for Allah knows how long! We'll definitely be back again many, many times in the future as we've got a lot of unfinished business here. Twenty-one countries may seem like a lot for our record books, but we're actually not even half way to completing the Asian collection (There's 49 countries in total, in case you're wondering). So, watch this space, Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan or whoever you are, we're coming for you!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Final Adventure - 27th Stop: Dubai

After visiting 20 countries in the last 3 years, and ticking pretty much everywhere east of India off our list, we’re making our Middle Eastern debut with an initially unplanned visit to the United Arab Emirates. We were originally ending our holiday in Hong Kong and flying straight back home from there, but Aisling’s start date was pushed back a couple of weeks, and seeing as we were flying to Ireland via Dubai anyway, we decided to extend our layover to give ourselves a full week here. Another plus was that I have cousins living locally, so it’s always nice to have a helping hand (and a place to stay!).

It was our first time flying with Emirates and they were the absolute biz! For starters, seeing as we were moving everything back with us, we had quite a lot of baggage (this was even after we had shipped back three big boxes). We were given a, very generous, 60kg between us, but at check in our bags came to just over 75kg. We started to sweat as we know how much excess baggage costs, but not a word was said about it. We were just checked in and sent on our merry way! Job! (They wouldn't be so lenient on the flight out from Dubai a few days later, but we'll come to that...). And the flight itself was just as good – great food, lots of entertainment choices and serious leg room too. Not even the couple in front of us, who reclined all three chairs could ruin it for us! (Seriously though, there’s nothing I hate more in life than people who push back their seats on planes or buses. Scum of the Earth!)

As for Dubai, it’s one of the strangest places we've been, in that it’s not really a city in the traditional sense; there’s no town centre or main street, it just seems to be a series of malls and skyscrapers dotted along a flat desert plain, interconnected by a massive system of highways. And I’m not talking regular dual-carriage ways here, more like serious 14 lane monsters! They’re almost as imposing as the buildings themselves. The city in its entirety is like a wonder of the modern age – the colossus of roads!

We went to a few different malls here: Dubai Mall (which is the biggest in the world), Mall of the Emirates and Marina Mall – each the size of a small Irish town. You’d think they’d be pretty similar across the board and one would be enough, but they’ve all got something unique to each warrant a visit, so don't just see a mall, see 'em all!

The first one we visited was Dubai Mall, which contains an aquarium, a waterfall, a skating rink, as well as every food and clothing chain you could imagine.

It's also located right next to the Burj Khalifa (I guess it's only right that the world's biggest mall should be beside the tallest building).

Next up for us was the Mall of the Emirates, and while Dubai Mall had a skating rink, this place had a proper indoor ski slope! Just in case you fancied a quick ski in a break from the 40 degree heat outside.

Some other highlights from our very busy first day in town included Jumeirah Beach, passing by the uniquely styled Burj Al Arab along the way and afterwards stopping off at the Souk Madinat - a modern version of a traditional Arabian market. Even though it wasn’t authentic, it was still really cool, and felt like something from Aladdin. And as we had never been in this part of the world before, it was certainly a whole new world for us!

The next day, we went to Dubai Creek which is the old part of an otherwise very new city. The weather wasn’t the best though and we even had a bit of a shower; the second time in our lives that we’ve brought rain to the desert. We could make a living out of this!

We walked around the various souks, which sold a multitude of things from exotic looking herbs and spices to crafted gold, and then got a traditional boat, called an abra, back across the river for the measly sum of 1 Dirham. 

On day 3 we were met with more rain (seriously, are the Irish cursed or something?!), but still went out and about, taking a stroll along The Walk, which is lined with more restaurants and cafes than you could ever eat in. They even had Pizza Company – our absolute favourite from South East Asia, which is obviously where we went for dinner that night. At this stage, we’ve almost been to every single branch they’ve got! We also walked along the beach, looking at the sand sculptures, admiring them in peace which was a strange luxury for us. In most places we’ve been in Asia, people make such sculptures on beaches and then charge you  money to take pictures of them. But that’s another great thing about Dubai – people here have so much money that they don’t even want yours!

We then rounded off the day with a trip back to Dubai Mall to have a look at the Burj Khalifa lit up against the night sky. We saved actually climbing it until the end of our trip, but both times it was equally beautiful in light and dark, so I suppose in that sense, Arabian nights really are like Arabian days...

And after scaling these Arabian heights and witnessing some incredible Arabian sights, we went for a few Arabian bites. (Some rhymes that failed to make the list: flying Arabian kites, boarding Arabian flights and wearing Arabian tights).

Dubai in general is just a different world entirely. It's so ridiculously lavish, but done so in a way that you don't feel uncomfortable or unworthy to be here. I guess it's a bit like one big amusement park, and the theme is "look how much money we have!". Even the crows here have a fashion sense!

I presume he was just on his way to the dry cleaners. We should hook him up with that goat we saw wearing a shirt in India!

We had a couple of days in Abu Dhabi as well in the middle of our stay, but that's a story for another blog. The final thing we did in Dubai on our second stint here was go on a typical tourist day out in the desert - partaking in some dune bashing, fancy dress, shisha pipes (or 'thank you' pipes as they call them in China) and an Arabian dinner and dance show to round it all off.

We also made a quick video diary there, if you want a look:

And that was Dubai! We had such a good time here, and special thanks to my cousin Fiona and her family for putting us up while we were in town. Dubai is what it is really. You're not going to come here looking for your typical backpacker experience, but it's a great spot to spend a few days, especially if you pair it up with a stop off in Abu Dhabi (and even more especially if you have loads of money!). 

We did manage to pop over to Abu Dhabi ourselves, so we still have one final entry before we eventually returned home to Ireland for good. So brace yourselves, only one more leg in our Am-Asian adventure to come... (for now).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Final Adventure - 26th Stop: Kunming

This blog entry will be a bit all over the place as we spent 10 days in Yunnan province, hopping from place to place, using the main city of Kunming as our central hub. So, even though we spent a lot of time in town, we equally didn't spend much time here at all! As for our impression of the place - no complaints. There was nothing there to wow us, but we weren't expecting much, and that's not why we came here in the first place. All we needed was somewhere nice to stay, maybe a few nice restaurants and a couple of attractions, and for that, it did the job.

Rewind! On our way to Everest base camp, we made friends with a lovely Canadian girl named Cleona, and as is the nature of the climb, we bumped into her a few times on the way up and a few more on the way back down again. But that was about two weeks ago at this stage, and we had long since said our goodbyes. Fast forward to our flight to Kunming, and guess who we’re sitting next to on the plane?! It's incredible enough that we happened to be on the same flight, even more incredible that we happened to be sitting beside one another, and the most incredible thing of all (or perhaps the most embarrassing) - we only realised this with 20 minutes of the flight to go! I guess we just weren't used to seeing each other without four layers of clothing, or hats and scarves, or not cold and miserable!

On our first stint in Kunming, we were just in town for one night as we were due to get a train to Luoping the following morning. A trip to Kunming train station would have otherwise been a fairly unnoteworthy event, except for the fact that only one week before, 33 people were stabbed to death and 140 more injured in a terrorist attack. I know I've bemoaned our luck before by not being in the right place at the right time, I guess that put things into perspective for us. We were even a bit uneasy going to the train station after such an event, although at that point in time, with all the extra security, Kunming train station was probably the safest place in China.

We didn't really do much in the time we did have in town. In fact, the majority of our time here was spent playing table tennis! Ais and I have a bit of a rivalry going when it comes to air hockey and ping pong, so we made the most of the free table at our hostel. We even made a special in-game video diary:

And although that was the end of, not only our time in China, but our final Am-Asian adventure, we were still really upbeat. Why? Because we were coming back to HK! We were never as excited to come back here as we knew it would be the last time for a long time, in the city we called home for over three years. Our HKID cards still worked at the airport though, so it was nice to know they hadn’t forgotten us. The two days we did have here were all go go go, as we had lots of jobs to do, loose ends to tie up and of course, people to see and goodbyes to make.

Our final farewell to Hong Kong, and the end of our three months of travel… or is it?! Dun dun dun!!!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Final Adventure - 25th Stop: Lijiang

Lijiang is aesthetically what you'd imagine an old Chinese town to be - quaint cobbled streets, flanked by gently trickling streams. Buildings with snow-powdered, ornamental tiled roofs, decorated with paper lanterns and cherry blossoms. It had all of the above, mixed with the main component of modern China - lots of people! So, although beautiful, it could have been so much better. The good news is, we decided to stay on the outskirts in a much quieter and more authentic little village called Baisha, where we got to enjoy all of the good things about Lijiang, without the tourist throngs.

We arrived into Lijiang on an overnight train from Kunming, and after jumping on a bus from there to Lijiang Old Town, and then into a taxi to Baisha, we could finally settle in. And what better way to immerse yourself in the Chinese countryside than picking up a couple of bikes and cycling from village to village. From Baisha to Shuhe, along the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (great name btw!) and inadvertently through a swarm of bees - it was a thoroughly wholesome afternoon. And we even rounded it off with a sampling of local teas under the bright, March sun.

The next day, we got a bus from our quiet haven into Lijiang itself. It was relatively busy but nothing we hadn't experienced before and that minor flaw would be the only bad thing I would say about the place. It was otherwise really, really nice! Even the McDonald's looked classy!

In terms of attractions, the best spot was probably Black Dragon Pond - a scenic little park, just on the fringes of the old town. And if Lijiang and Baisha were your stereotypical Chinese villages, then this was the park equivalent.

The town itself was just as lovely and the kind of place where you could easily spend a whole day just meandering in and out of the town's maze-like alleyways. It's also worth popping into Mu's Palace to get a nice look over the town from above (unfortunately not named "Mu's Views").

And that was Lijiang! We made an extra quick video diary back in Baisha before dinner:

Great food, great company and beautiful surroundings; a lovely little round up to our time in town before we had to return to Lijiang that evening for our night train back to Kunming, in what would be our fourth and final visit to the city. I guess I should probably give a run down on our time there next time around. See you then!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Final Adventure - 24th Stop: Yuanyang

Up next is Yuanyang, the second stop in our whirlwind tour of Yunnan province. This one was even further out, requiring a 7 hour bus journey and then another 45 minutes on a minibus, sending us right down South towards the Vietnamese border. We were dreading another Luoping experience, where we would be landed in the Chinese countryside with not a soul in town who could speak English, stumbling from place to place with the locals' hands in our pockets and their piss on our shoes. Instead, it was thoroughly enjoyable and had everything we needed. Even the people were relatively nice!

Our guesthouse was located in a perfect spot, overlooking the terraces of Duoyishu – one of the three main scenic points - so even though it took some getting to, it was worth the journey.

Yuanyang, as you can see, is famous for its rice terraces which cascade down the mountainside in a seemingly endless flowing staircase. It's like the hills are made of melted chocolate! These terraces were started by the Hani people over 1,300 years ago, covering an area of more than 28,000 acres and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At some points, there are even as many as 3,000 levels!

The landscape was a lot like that of Sapa, a place we visited in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and a quick bit of research shows that there's actually less than 135km between the two. Small world! Unfortunately, we also experienced similar weather in both places with unwanted fog blocking out a lot of the otherwise breathtaking views. I always hate leaving places knowing that the photos I took didn't do them justice. Still, we did manage to get a few moments in the sun.

Seeing as we were based right in heart of the action in Duoyishu, we only had two other spots to visit. Transport here is a bit unpredictable and your best bet is to flag down a minivan on the roadside and just hop onboard. We set off for our next viewpoint, 16km away in Laohuzui with this in mind, but as it turned out, we ended up walking the entire way ourselves! We were planning on getting a lift en route but one just never came! We didn’t mind too much though as we had the whole day, the only disappointment was the dense mist that surrounded the valley. It’s always frustrating when the weather spoils a view such as this. You want to take pictures that fully capture the brilliance you are witnessing, but the colours are washed out and the features are dulled, and even though you’re in the right place, it just isn’t the right time. 

I guess that’s the risk you take when you only give yourself one day in an area. It was certainly enough time to see everything here, but you are kinda gambling on the weather playing its part. You win some and you lose some...

It was more of the same weatherwise at the next view point of Bada, although this time we did manage to hop on a minivan so, small victories and all that. We made it back to our base in Duoyishu in the late afternoon, and luckily by that stage, the sun had come out and we at least got a few nice snaps.

Here's a quick video diary from the terraces:

And that was our short and sweet visit to Yuanyang! We spent almost as much time getting there and back, than actually in the place itself but it was still worth the trip, even with the poor weather. A quick mention too to our accommodation - Jacky's Guesthouse: amazing location, great food and Jacky's Mom was an absolute hoot, even though she didn't have any English.

The final thing I have to say before signing off is be sure to look up Yuanyang on Google Images to see how spectacular it can be with the right conditions. That seems to be the theme of Yunnan for us so far - within touching distance of unequaled beauty, but always one step behind. Maybe we'll have some better luck in our next stop - Lijiang!