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Part 1 – The Beginning : Vladivostok
The longest rail journey in the world – the Trans-Siberian railway. It crosses 8 timezones and covers almost the entire breadth of the biggest country in the world, Russia. The classic route from Moscow to Vladivostok or vice versa have been a thing of many travellers’ imagination from all over the world. The vast land with varying landscapes of steppes, taigas and the odd small town found every now and then along the way is one that draws people in, but more importantly, the experience of being in the midst of ordinary Russians, watching them go about their daily life as the train passes by is more of the adventure that travellers are after.
Most travellers would start their trip from Moscow and either finish in Vladivostok, or divert and take the Trans-Mongolian down to Ulan Bator and onwards to Beijing in China. I took the other way, starting from Vladivostok and finishing my trip in Moscow (with an extra trip to St. Petersburg and Tallinn in Estonia). Vladivostok was much closer to Sydney, Australia (where I live) and also, with the multitude of people telling me that St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in Russia, I thought I would save the best for last!
And I’m glad I did, as I totally learned to appreciate all the cities and towns I saw along the way and not having to compare them with any other city. Each place is unique, and the ones I visited all have their charms (maybe save for a couple) but to those just about to plan on embarking this journey, I totally recommend doing it in this direction.
This may be a bold statement, but several sites have started referring to Vladivostok as “Russia’s San Francisco”. Why the comparison? Well, for one, Vladivostok is set on a beautiful harbour with nice big iconic bridges linking one side to the other, and also linking a former military fortress island, Russky Island (Russian Island) to the mainland. The weather is also milder than the rest of Russia (mild is relative, but it is significantly warmer in the summer in Vladivostok compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg).
Vladivostok may still has elements of its grey past, being a military city during the Soviet era and closed to the outside world for decades. However, you will also find the old royal tsarist-era glory in some of the buildings in the city, and you can feel the sense that the city is definitely sprucing up its image. It recently hosted the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) Summit and with that, new infrastructure has been built all across the city. They have a new airport, a new airport train, 2 new bridges, and lots of new development in Russky Island to turn it into a resort and recreation island.
I started my trip from Sydney, Australia where I live, and the closest and easiest access for me to Vladivostok is via Hong Kong where Vladivostok Air and S7 both have direct flights the entire week (but it depends which day of the week that you will either get Vladivostok Air or S7). With my schedule, I managed to fly on the day that Vladivostok Air operates on (Saturday). My First impressions – über crap airline!! Air-con was not working inside the aircraft, there was a long delay with no notice to passengers on what was happening, aircraft seems really old, aircraft upholstery is already in tatters. No inflight entertainment, not even some music to listen to. Legroom is absolutely tight, I really wonder how the naturally big Russians could fit into these seats!
Flight attendants are your stereotypical Russians – not very warm. And this is not a cheap flight either! The funny thing is that the flight attendants probably overslept during the flight and forgot to serve refreshments before landing. As the plane was descending, they then hurriedly served drinks to passengers, which is unheard of with other airlines with stricter and more stringent safety regulations. The only consolation is that the flight attendants speak reasonably decent English.
In short, I would not recommend taking Vladivostok Air if you can help it. Note that Vladivostok Air code-shares their flight with Aeroflot, the national airline of Russia, so you may have an Aeroflot flight number but your flight could be operated by Vladivostok Air. I heard S7 Airlines is a much better option, so see if you can take that instead. Another option is to go via Seoul where Korean Air and Asiana both offer direct flights to Vladivostok. And after I returned from my trip, I also found out that Philippine Airlines has started a flight from Manila to Vladivostok, another option which you can consider, as Philippine Airlines, despite not being the best airline in Asia, still has a far better service and aircraft fleet than Vladivostok Air or Aeroflot!
The flight arrived 30mins late but it didnt matter as I had to wait for the Aeroexpress train from Vladivostok airport to downtown Vladivostok, which only starts operating from 8am (my flight arrived at 5:45am). The Aeroexpress train is a new service that started only a few months ago, in time for the APEC Summit in 2012, which Vladivostok hosted. The train costs 200 Rubles for a standard class seat, which is enough for most travellers anyway considering that the journey only takes 45mins.
I stayed at the Azimut Hotel Vladivostok. I had low expectations of this hotel, as the reviews were not that great and I just wanted to get a reasonable hotel near the train station.. Well, I was right! The hotel claims to be 3-star, but I’d say it’s just 2 -star. The reception staff were great, they spoke good English and were very accommodating! The room they gave me had views of the Amur Bay, which was awesome, but the carpet was really old and ugly, and the room smells of cigarette (possibly from the Chinese guests next door who smoked). Breakfast was average, it has reasonable selection of hot and cold meals.
My 3 days in Vladivostok
Here’s a diary of my 3 days in Vladivostok:
DAY 1 – Highlights of the day :
1. Seeing the end or terminal point of the Trans-Siberian railway line
2. Taking the private tour with Ekaterina and Elina to Russky Island and experiencing the island fortress built by the last Tsar of Russia and developed by the Soviets to defend Russia from further invasion by the Japanese. Ekaterina is the one who speaks really good English and Elina was the driver and a local of Russky Island, so pretty much, Elina was the one who told the stories and Ekaterina translated them (though she knew about Vladivostok so she would tell me details about it).
During the tour, we crossed the 2 massive bridges built especially for the APEC summit in 2012. It took only 3 years to build the bridges and the Russky bridge currently holds the record for the tallest bridge in the world, with its pylon measuring 326meters. It also lays claim for the longest unsupported span between 2 pylons at 1.1kms. Quite impressive I must say!
On the way to Russky Island, Elina told us that the current Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the island for an official visit. There were loads of security on the island, and no one is allowed near the Russian President unless you’re part of the official party. He’s not really a people’s president, I suppose..
We then went to check out this fortress under the Russky bridge. It had a great view of the harbour, and the cannons (canei in Russian) looked quite imposing. Just below the fortress is one quite curious spot that Elina pointed out to us, which apparently was found on the island and thought to be built by the early settlers on the island centuries ago, before the Russians arrived. It’s called a labyrinth, but it was pretty much a path the is made of stones and looks like a maze. Legend has it that if you go around the maze and make a wish, and feel the energy, your wish will be granted. And so Elina and Ekaterina showed me how to do it..
Then our guide Elina took us to Voroshilov battery, which has the largest of all the cannons on Russky Island. I must say this really blew my mind, as it really had massive cannons like I’ve never seen before, and the entire fortress that they built just to fire these cannons was three storeys deep and has several lifts to take the missiles up the different levels of preparation before it is fired! The military staff working on the facility would work long days and have to even sleep in the bunkers next to the missiles and the lifts!
Next stop was the monastery of Saint Serafin, the oldest Russian Orthodox Church and monastery on the island, built 150 years ago. It was an interesting insight into the practices and beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Ekaterina managed to explain to me how they make offerings and wishes. She also told me stories on how the Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet Communist era.
The final stop was lunch at Rynda Bay, at the Rynda restaurant where they actually catch their own seafood from the bay itself and cook them in the restaurant! You can’t get any fresher! The highlight was the fried scallops (they were big!) and the seafood pasta in cream sauce! The thing to note is to get there early in the restaurant as we had to wait for a bit to get our orders. I was so fortunate to have such amazing weather that day coz it was sunny and warm (apparently it has been raining in the last few weeks in Vladivostok).
The tour finished and I was dropped off at Admiral Fokina Street, a pedestrianised street near my hotel. They call this the “Arbat” of Vladivostok (as it is very similar to Arbat St in Moscow – so they say).
— END OF DAY 1 —
Day 2 : Vladivostok city
Highlights of the day:
1.) Funicular to the Eagle’s Nest viewpoint
2.) S-56 submarine
3.) Ploshad Revolutskii and Svetlanskaya Street (main street of Vladivostok with beautiful 19th century architecture)
4.) getting lost and finding a beautiful Orthodox Church on the hill (Podrovitsky church or something – check LP book)
Before I left the hotel that day, I asked for directions to go to the Funicular and the receptionist gave me the wrong directions! I ended up walking along Aleutskaya St., all the way up the hill (which was what the hotel receptionist told me!) The good thing is that I managed to find a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church which I didn’t initially plan to visit.
Eventually I decided to follow what Lonely Planet had on its map, which was different from what the hotel receptionist told me (talk about trusting the locals more!) I did reach the funicular in the end but along the way, I managed to go under the Golden Horn Bay Bridge to find a Russian war memorial, which was interesting.. I then bumped into this young sailor who was lost and wanted to know where the shops are. He was part of the sailing team of the Passadi, Russia’s fastest sailboat. He’s an apprentice sailor, only 19 years old and was keen to practice English with me.
The funicular took passengers to a certain point which leads to a pedestrian over bridge to the lookout point, which offers a fantastic view of the Golden Horn Bridge and the Golden Horn Bay itself. The lookout point looks worse for wear and really needs to be spruced up, though it is functioning ok. At the very top of the lookout point is a monument which they call Eagle’s Nest. On the rails of the Eagle’s Nest are several “lovers locks”, similar to those I found in Paris.. Just one level below the lookout point is a souvenir shop which stocks a wide variety of souvenirs.
After seeing the lookout point, I then went to see the S-56 submarine, which is on display along the waterfront. It’s an old Soviet submarine which has been taken out of service and put on a stand in front of a war memorial. The first half of the submarine was mainly photos and mementos of navy crew who were part of the submarine. The second half was the actual submarine part with periscope, rockets and sleeping quarter in there. This part is the most interesting bit of the S-56.
I then went walking along the short promenade, which was nice but their promenade finished abruptly and I had to walk on the side of the train tracks.. I ended up visiting Ploshad Revolutski (Revolution Plaza) which had a big Soviet communist statue on one end. It’s a popular spot for people to hang around and have public events like outdoor concerts, plays, etc. and kids also have a mini go-kart open circuit there.
It was around 7:30pm and there was still light during that time. I walked along Aleutskaya Street towards the train station (Vokzal in Russian), and near the station, there is a Russian restaurant that the tour guide Ekaterina recommended to me, called Nostalgiya (Nostalgia). It has a small arts and crafts shop at the front and a cafe to the left, but behind the cafe is a small restaurant that is beautifully decorated in tsarist-era theme. The food was not as expensive, though not cheap either. I had a yummy salmon caviar and this so-called Nostalgiya Roll which is pretty much a fried chicken roulade stuffed with veggies (like embutido). Plus, a special Nostalgiya dessert to cap the night (ice cream with whipped cream and fruits)
— END OF DAY 2 —
Day 3 ( Vladivostok):
Highlights of the day:
1.) taking the bus from train station to Muzei Automobiliskii and to Mayak
2.) negotiating my way in the train station to exchange my train tickets to vouchers so they can be valid for boarding
3.) Automobile Antiques museum
4.) lookout point in Mayak
5.) having Cinnabon
Check-out day – I tried asking for a late checkout but it seems that the hotel was quite busy and needed the room. So I packed my things and quickly went to the train station to get my boarding passes before checking out. At the train station, no one spoke English. They can utter some very basic words but not much. Luckily there was this young guy behind me in the queue who could speak english and was kind enough to help me translate with the lady at the information. I was then asked to go to Counter 1 (but ended up in Counter 2) and managed to change my tickets from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Khabarovsk to Chita, Chita to Ulan Ude and Ulan Ude to Irkutsk. The rest of the tickets I may have to get when I reach Irkutsk and Tyumen.
As my train to Khabarovsk departs that night at 9:25pm, I pretty much had the entire day to spend in Vladivostok. I asked the receptionist for directions to the Automobile Antique museum and to this lighthouse that marks the “end of Russia” and this time she got it right! I had to take the bus No. 31 to Sakhalinskaya and the Automobile Museum is just around the corner.
It was a bit of an experience taking the bus as I don’t speak the language so I just had to show this piece of paper with Cyrillic writing for “Muzei Automobiliski” that the hotel receptionist gave me. The bus driver understood and took me on board.. When it was almost time to get off, I kept asking the driver if this was the stop, and there were a couple of really helpful passengers who told me where to get off and how many stops to go!
The Automobile Museum was quite interesting. It took me almost 45mins to get to this place, which is in the real suburbs of Vladivostok. It’s actually a warehouse-type museum of old Soviet vehicles, both military and civilian. I was the only visitor to the museum and the women looking after the place had to switch on the lights of the place for me. Goes to show that not many people go and visit this place (thanks to Lonely Planet I learned about it). I love looking at the old soviet cars and also they managed to have a Ford Model T on display (one of the first mass-produced cars in the world!). They also sell a few souvenirs, fridge magnet being one of them and booklets containing photo of the vehicles on display.
I then headed back to the train station on the same bus 31 and negotiated my way to bus No 60 to Mayak. I initially boarded the bus no. 60 but it was for the wrong direction so the driver dropped me off just in front of where the bus to Mayak is and took me there. I got to Mayak but I don’t exactly know which direction the lighthouse is. I asked the driver and he didn’t understand me. There was a lookout point though of the bay and the Russky Island bridge, plus Russky Island itself so I went to check this one out. Then I found some Russian Uni students and tried asking them if they know where the lighthouse was. They have heard about it but they don’t know where it is.. I decided I’ll slowly take my chance and walk one direction but what I saw was a slum area, and I didn’t fancy risking myself going there and getting mugged or mauled by guard dogs (there were signs of barking dogs on the front of the properties there).
So I went back to town and just had Cinnabon and coffee. It was the only western food franchise I saw in my 3 days in Vladivostok, and not that I really have to eat at a western food franchise, I was actually just craving for good coffee and their cinnamon rolls! Also, there isn’t a Cinnabon outlet in Sydney, and have only tried it in Manila.
After my Cinnabon fix, I walked a bit along Svetlanskaya street and found the GUM ( the only department store they had during the soviet era that somehow still exists today). It was a mishmash of small stalls inside and wasn’t particularly appealing, though the interior was quite interesting.
Then I had some dinner along Admiral Fokina st, one of the places there has something like a fast food style place with Russian food, which was quite ok. For my final stop in Vladivostok, I went for a short stroll along the Stadium Dinamo, down to the other end of the promenade to watch a bit of the sunset and say goodbye to what was a pleasant surprise of a city that was Vladivostok.
— END OF DAY 3 —
Watch out for more tips on Vladivostok and the rest of my Trans-Siberian railway journey on my future posts and an upcoming guidebook which will surely enable anyone to do the Trans-Siberian railway journey independently!
Taipei – The overlooked metropolis of Asia
Taipei – the capital of Taiwan, an island known around the world for its technological exports and progressive economy back in the 1980s and 1990s. When China has fully opened its doors to the western world for investments and tourism, Taipei and Taiwan have slowly dropped off the radar. We don’t hear much about Taiwan anymore, and tourists who used to go to Taipei to experience some authentic Chinese culture have suddenly flocked to Mainland China to see what the motherland has been keeping secret for over 40 years during Chairman Mao’s regime.
I first visited Taipei back in 2001 when I was sent by my company for a 3-week certification training. That time, China was still starting to develop as a tourist destination, so a good number of tourists interested in learning about the Chinese culture came to Taipei to visit its beautifully-rich National Museum and perhaps take Chinese language studies. Back in 2001, what is now the second tallest building in the world (Taipei 101) is still being built, and the tallest building in Taipei was a 40-storey building called Shin Kong tower. Din Tai Fung, the now-Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant known for their xiao long bao (soup dumplings), used to be a one-restaurant outfit that has slowly been gaining recognition from all the international celebrities that visit Taipei. Taiwan was a very bustling metropolis, teeming with activity nearly 24 hrs a day, full of night markets, big shopping malls, exciting night life and culture.
What’s New in Taipei?
Fast forward 11 years later, I had another opportunity to visit Taipei to attend an international conference. This time, I found myself in somewhat a different city to what I remembered. I found the pace of the city to be a little more laid back than what I remember it to be. Perhaps because a good number of Taiwanese have decided to move overseas, particularly the US, Canada and Australia, and also to take advantage of the boom in China. The city was still bustling with life, but it has a more gentle feel to it. It doesn’t feel as hectic and crowded as Hong Kong or Shanghai, and everything seems very orderly and clean. Here are a few new things I experienced since 11 years ago:
1.) Taipei 101 – the previous tallest building in the world (until Burj Khalifa beat it a few years ago) – towers over the city and has become the icon of the city. Going up the top of the observatory on Taipei 101 is an absolute highlight. It has one of the most dramatic sceneries with the rolling hills and mountains surrounding the city as well the sprawl of the city on display. It also has a display of the unique piece of engineering called damper that is used on the building to avoid too much swaying and shaking on an earthquake.
2.) Din Tai Fung has blossomed – and now has so many branches in the city and even in several countries around the world (including in Sydney). It has become more popular than ever, and has cemented itself as a real Taipei institution. From humble beginnings, this restaurant has earned a Michelin-star rating.
3.) High Speed Rail (HSR) – Taiwan has also now opened a High-Speed Railway, which travels almost at the same speed as the Shinkansen (bullet trains) in Japan. It has cut down the travel time from Taipei to Kaohsiung (the southernmost city on the island) from 4.5 hours to 2.5 hours. It’s very clean and efficient, and is much easier than flying!
Taipei’s metro system is still a fast and efficient way to travel around, with numerous lines servicing key tourist attractions around the city. I visited the night market in Shih Lin once again after 11 years, and it is still as buzzing as ever! One thing I wanted to do in Taiwan is to shop for cheap electronics, but this time however, I didn’t find the prices to be that drastically cheaper than those in Australia. Still, there are bargains to be had, but not with what I was looking for at that point.
Melting Pot of Chinese culture
Taipei has several other attractions going for it. The National Museum holds one of the largest collection of exquisite Chinese treasures and artefacts from the very first dynasty to the more recent century before General Chiang Kai Shek, the founder of modern Taiwan, fled China to establish the democratic Chinese republic in Taiwan. Since the re-establishment of informal ties between Taiwan and China, a lot of Chinese tourists have come to view these treasures which they have been deprived of, so be wary of the time you visit as it can be very crowded.
However, what I found interesting about Taiwan now, which I have just gained an appreciation after having visited China a few months earlier, is that it is a melting pot of Chinese culture. There are influences from the Sichuan region, Fujian region, Beijing, and all other parts of China. It’s something that I never thought I’d notice, as I grew up thinking that Chinese culture is just one and the same all over. It’s evident in the wide array of dishes that you will find on the streets and Chinese restaurants.
One other thing I noticed about the Taiwanese – they are surprisingly very friendly and very helpful to tourists! For some reason, I didn’t quite have that experience 11 years ago, but during this week-long trip, every time I approached someone to ask for directions or ask for some service, they were so attentive and will go out of their way to help. I felt very safe and at ease the whole time I was walking around.
As their tourism slogan goes, it’s “Time For Taiwan”! Go check it out!
The Original Bungy Jumpers
Bungy Jumping, as we know it today, has its roots from the most unusual place in the world. It’s been practiced for way longer than when AJ Hackett invented the adrenaline-pumping experience that many people come to know. Bungy jumping did not come from New Zealand. The original idea can be traced from the Melanesian islands of Vanuatu (formerly called New Hebrides).
The tropical islands of Vanuatu is renowned for its magnificent diving, very friendly people and the more than a dozen active volcanos that dot its country. Most tourist visit the islands for its rugged mountains, tropical forest and well-preserved and rich marine life. But there is one unique thing that only few people have come to know – Vanuatu is home of the land divers (called Naghol or N’gol in the local language).
I was fortunate enough to have been in Vanuatu when they are doing the land dives. Only a limited number of tourists are allowed to view the ritual, which happens only on a Saturday from April to June each year. This is when the vines are at their most elastic. Land diving happens only on one place in Vanuatu, and only in the southern part of Pentecost Island.
Land diving is thought to have originated from the legend of a woman who ran away from her husband and climb up a banyan tree to avoid him. When he chased her up the tree, she leapt. In horror, the husband went after her and leapt, not knowing that she tied some snake vines on her ankles to break her fall. She survived but he didn’t. To remind the men of this incident so they don’t get fooled again, men started throwing themselves over makeshift platforms with snake vines tied to their ankles.
These days, land diving is performed to pray for a good yam harvest. Divers wave a yam plant at the top of the platform and throw it out before jumping. It has now become a tourist attraction, but despite this, tourism numbers have been restricted and limited on the island for this event.
There are twice-weekly flights from Port Vila to Lonorore Airport with Air Vanuatu. Lonorore Airport is the closest place to the land diving site, which is in fact a 5-minute walk from the airport. The other way is to take a charter flight/day tour with Air Taxi Vanuatu or Unity Airlines during the Nagol season (every Saturday from April to June).
To get to Port Vila from overseas, Air Vanuatu has daily flights to Sydney (Aus), Brisbane (Aus), Auckland (NZ), Noumea (New Caledonia) and Nadi (Fiji). Virgin Australia also has direct flights from Brisbane to Port Vila.
More Images of the Nagol (Land Diving)
Land Diving Tower
To more Fabulous Journeys,
The Mighty Yangtze
The Yangtze River – most possibly the most well-known river in China. Throughout the history of the Chinese civilisation, the Yangtze River played a very important role in the lives of the Chinese people. There was a popular saying back in the days, that whoever gets to control the Yangtze River gets to control China. Such is its might and power that many Chinese painters from several hundred BC were painting the landscapes and scenery along the river itself.
Being one of the famous rivers in China, the tourists from all over China and the rest of the world have been curious to see the grandeur that has been described in ancient literature as well as early 20th century photographs of the majestic scenery of the river. I too was drawn by the images and words of people who have travelled to the region in the past, and hence I decided to take that cruise along the Yangtze river from the mega-city of Chongqing, downstream towards the Three Gorge Dam to the small town of Yichang.
I, like many other travellers, expected to see some lush green mountains, limestone cliffs and more of the natural scenery that most people usually see when they browse through the websites on Yangtze river cruise. I was so looking forward to taking spectacular photos of the rural Chinese landscape that appears in many ancient Chinese paintings. I expected the river to be clean, with not much rubbish and to be well preserved, since it is one of China’s greatest assets.
The Reality Is…
…And as much as I’d like to give a great feedback on a particular tourist destination, the Yangtze River is quite polluted and there are hardly any pristine sceneries to be found along the way. There is only one or two small section of the Yangtze that offers you the rural scenery that you see in the tourist brochures and . The rest have been filled up with high-rise buildings and new towns and developments to cope with the ever-growing demand and wealth that China has been experiencing in the last 20 years.
Also, since the Three Gorges Dam has been built and went in operation, the water levels have risen significantly and have displaced a lot of the people living on its banks. The settlements along the riverbank have to be moved higher, hence all the new high-rise developments in a number of spots along the way. The rising of the water level has actually submerged a good number of ancient historical buildings and old carvings, and thus added to the disappointment in my visit to the area.
However, in saying that, I can say that going through the Three Gorges itself (which is one of the few remaining pristine areas along the river) and the ancient temples along the way are still nice. The best part for me was seeing the massive Three Gorges Dam and passing through the locks to get downstream to Yichang. It’s definitely one of the most amazing piece of man-made engineering I have seen so far.
The cruise itself all depends on the boat that you get on, so it will be a mixed bag of reviews for the different cruise line companies. The one I got on was the Century Diamond and I can recommend this particular cruise line. The staff are all friendly and the service is good comparative to the service you get in the rest of China.
For the cost and the time you spend on the boat, I would say that the Yangtze river is not as attractive as it used to be, due to the rapid commercialisation and growth of China and that region. If you have a limited time in China, I wouldn’t recommend this to be at the top of your list. Sure, there are nice spots, but not nearly as nice as other attractions in China.
The Breathtaking Patagonia
Patagonia is a region in the southern part of South America that is split between Chile and Argentina. It’s known for its spectacular landscapes comprising of snow-capped mountains, crystal-blue lakes, semi-arid plains and valleys. It’s a trekker’s paradise, with lots of walking tracks around the various national parks in the region, the most famous one being the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
I visited Patagonia in January 2012, but was not fortunate enough to see Torres del Paine National Park. At that time, there was a bush fire that broke out in Torres del Paine and all tourists have been evacuated to El Calafate in Argentina, which was the nearest town from where the bush fires happened. El Calafate went from a small quiet tourist town into a busy mildly chaotic town where backpackers and trekkers from Torres del Paine were scrambling to find accommodations or the next bus to go to El Chalten. Well, anyway, it probably wasn’t meant to be for me at that time.
My trip to El Calafate was timed after my cruise to Antarctica. I wasn’t sure if it was the best decision to visit this region after having seen such magnificent scenery of massive glaciers and snow-capped mountains in Antarctica, but that was the only time we could spare from my month-long holiday in South America.
One thing that seriously drew me to visit El Calafate was the enormous and magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier. I’ve seen several pictures of it from friends who have visited Argentina, but initially I didn’t know where exactly it was. Only after some research did I realise it was near El Calafate and it is very accessible to the public! Anyway, there’s more to El Calafate than that and the small town. I have listed the 5 things that I love about El Calafate:
1.) Perito Moreno Glacier (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares)
No visit to El Calafate and the Argentinean Patagonia is complete without seeing this magnificent piece of ice. It is one of only a handful of glaciers in the world that is advancing, and the unique thing about this glacier is that it is 32 kms long and has a face that is advancing so close to land. Visitors can choose to walk on the glacier itself (via guided tours) or to view the glacier from the lookout point (Pasarela) and marvel at its size and grandeur. There is also an option to take a boat cruise close to the face of the glacier and see it carve as it advances closer to land. No words can do justice to describe this great spectacle of Mother Nature, but perhaps the photos can:
2.) Cerro Fitz Roy and El Chalten
El Chalten is a town 70 kms north of El Calafate and is a trekker’s paradise. There are a few walking tracks to some beautiful glacial lakes and snow-capped peaks, with Cerro Fitz Roy (Mount Fitz Roy) being the highlight of the area. This is what many would claim to be the “Torres del Paine” of Argentina, and the peaks of Fitz Roy does look very similar to Torres del Paine. It would be worth staying overnight in El Chalten and do a long hike to Laguna de los Tres, as it is a 7-hour hike each way and it is the closest point to view the peaks of Fitz Roy. I only went on a day trip, so I only had time to do the walk to Laguna Torre, which was a 3-hour walk each way. The walk to Laguna Torre goes through this beautiful valley and at some stage, it follows the river. The lake is the end point, and you get a view of Cerro Torre.
If you want to learn about how glaciers are formed and the nature of the Patagonian region, the Glaciarium is a great place to visit and check out! It is 18km from the centre of El Calafate, and shuttle vans run from the centre of town to the Glaciarium. There are audio-visual presentations, dioramas, and great exhibits about the natural surroundings of Patagonia and how it all evolved. Outside the Glaciarium, there is an amazing view of Lago Argentina (Lake Argentina), a beautiful turquoise-blue lake, and the vast expanse of the Patagonian plains.
4.) A walk along the shores of Lake Argentina
Lake Argentina is Argentina’s largest lake, and one of South America’s biggest. It has a beautiful turquoise colour that comes from the fact that it is formed by melting glaciers. A good variety of bird species get attracted to its shores, the most famous one being the pink flamingos.
5.) Zipline at Cerro Frias
Take a 4WD up Cerro Frias and make your way down the mountain via South America’s longest zipline! Cerro Frias is a privately-owned estancia (estate) that has opened its doors to tourists for horseback riding, 4WD and its famous zipline. You can choose to take the horse up the hill or the 4WD and then zipline down the hill. Once you reach the top of the hill, you will be able to see the peaks of Torres del Paine in Chile from a distance, as it is only a few kilometres from the border with Chile. The zipline is exhilarating, and offers great views of the valleys, mountains and plains of Patagonia. I certainly enjoyed it and totally recommend to anyone who want more adrenalin-pumping fun!
An Island In the Middle of Nowhere
Mention Easter Island to an avid traveller, historian or archaeologist, and the first thing that comes to mind is the image of those mysterious stone statues called moais that surround the island for over a thousand years. Many historians have wondered how these peculiar statues have come to being, and how the local tribes have managed to carve and bring down those heavy figures from the top of an extinct volcano and transport them throughout the entire island. Moreover, the island is thousands of miles away from the nearest land mass, and with such a distance, scientist have often wondered how ancient Polynesians have migrated to this island and lived with its seamingly limited resources. So many mysteries, so many theories, yet still unsolved until today.
Where Is Easter Island?
It’s been a childhood dream of mine to see the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island. I’ve read and seen photos of these strange statues and I’ve always thought that it would be such a dream to be able to visit them. And lo and behold, fast-track 25 years later and I had the great opportunity to visit this mystical island paradise.
The island was named after the feast day when it was first discovered by Europeans, Easter. Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish, Rapa Nui in the native language) is a special territory of Chile, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is located 3,510km from mainland Chile, 2000 km from the tiny island of Pitcairn, and around 4,000 km from Tahiti (to its west). It’s considered to be the most remote inhabited island in the world (inhabited by non-incestuous people, that is – Pitcairn Island can be the most remote, but everyone there is related).
Though it is a small island, Easter Island has enough attractions to see for a couple of days at least. Most people tend to stay between 3 to 5 days and enjoy the island’s rich archaeological sites, as well as its unique Polynesian culture and laid-back lifestyle.
What To See On Easter Island
Here are some of the things you have to check out while on Easter Island
1.) Moai Statues
This is the most obvious attraction, and the main reason most people from all over the world have for coming to Easter Island. The mystery of the Moai has become one of those legendary wonders of the world, at par with the mysteries of the Stonehenge in England and the Pyramids in Egypt. There are several sites to view the moai. Some of the moais have been re-erected on to their ahu (altar), while some have been left in its original state, as found by the European explorers when they first arrived, or as it was when the 1960 tsunami hit Easter Island and toppled some of the moais.
Here are some of the sites to view the moais:
- Ahu Tongariki
Ahu Tongariki is the biggest set of standing moais on the island. It was re-erected by the Japanese in 1960s using cranes, and in return, to thank the Japanese, the island lent them a moai for the World Expo 1970 in Japan.
- Ahu Akivi
Another great site for viewing moais that have been re-erected. This ahu is slightly different from the others in that this is erected inland (unlike the others that are along the coastline) and the moai statues are looking out to sea, instead of looking inland like the other ahu’s.
- Ahu Nau Nau
This ahu is one of the 2 ahus that you can find on Anakena Beach.
- Ahu Akahanga
This site is where you will find fallen moais and remnants of an ancient Rapa Nui village, just as how it was when the early European explorers discovered the island. It is a fascinating place in that you will see how the people who carved the moais used to live.
2.) Beach and Volcano Crater
- Anakena Beach
Anakena Beach is the biggest beach on the island, and the most swimmable. It has white sand, crystal clear waters and palm trees that were introduced into the island from Tahiti.
- Rano Raraku
Rano Raraku is an extinct volcano from where most of the moais on Easter Island have been carved from. It is declared a national park in itself, and there is a trail where people can walk up the volcano to view all the remaining moais that were left unfinished by the Rapa Nui people. Some of the moais were only half carved and some have been left facing down.The place looks like how the early European explorers found the moais on Easter Island, abandoned and lying face down.
- Rano Kau (volcanic crater)
This extinct volcano has a viewable crater with a lake in it, and around the area was where the strange “birdman” cult started and thrived on the island. The cult was known to worship a “birdman” who was chosen from childhood and the chosen one is pretty much kept in captivity. The selection process of the birdman is a cruel one. A few boys are challenged to race over rough seas and swim to the nearby steep rock formation where a certain type of bird lays its nest at the very top of this high steep rock. The boy who manages to climb the steep rock successfully and bring back the egg of this bird intact back to the volcano and offer to the “Birdman” becomes the next birdman.
Other Things To Experience On Easter Island
Ahu Te Pito Kura
Though it is called an Ahu, it doesn’t necessarily have any moais on it. Ahu means “sacred place”. This site is unique in that it contains a round stone. This mystical stone is believed to possess healing powers and energy(mana). The Rapa Nui people call this the “Navel of Mother Earth”. If you put a compass over it, it will not be able to detect north from south and would spin around like crazy. People who believe in energies and healing power of stones can touch their forehands and face down on it to receive mana from it.
Love it or loathe it, cultural shows are a good way of understanding and learning more about how the traditional people of a country live, their food and their customs. For some places more than others, the local culture may be on the verge of decline and death, and the only way they are preserved is through cultural shows. Such is the case in Easter Island. The Rapa Nui people (as the natives of Easter Island are called) have nearly been completely decimated by starvation and famine before the early European explorers found the island, and thus, their unique culture have nearly vanished. You will be able to experience the dance, myth, customs and food when you go to a dinner and show.
There are a few options on the island in terms of dinner and show packages but the one that I particularly liked is called Te Ra’ai. This show offers a traditional Rapa Nui dinner, cooked in underground earth ovens, and prepared with a traditional Rapa Nui ceremony of blessing the food. The dinner is followed by a very traditional Rapa Nui dance performance. The other shows actually have a mix of other Polynesian dances, but this one is purely Rapa Nui.
Of course, you can’t visit a place without trying the local cuisine! Easter Island unfortunately isn’t abundant in natural resources or fresh produce from the land but being surrounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean, it is very abundant with fish. The most common fish you can get there is tuna, and the tuna there is so fresh! I highly recommend trying the ceviche, which is a typical Chilean dish of marinated raw fish with tomato, onions and spices. The best ceviche I’ve had so far (comparing this to the ones from mainland South America) was from Easter Island! It is a must-try!
Easter Island, being in the middle of the Pacific, can offer spectacular sunsets. You don’t have to go far to see them from Hanga Roa town (the main town of the island). There are a few moais near the coastline of Hanga Roa, and you can take great photos of the sunset with the moais.
How to get to Easter Island
The easiest way to reach Easter Island is to take the once-or-twice-daily LAN Airlines flight from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island (Hanga Roa airport – IPC). The flight takes roughly 6 hours. There are also flights from Papeete, Tahiti to Easter Island on LAN Airlines, but they are very infrequent (once a week only, also around 6 hours). As of writing, LAN Airlines have started a twice-weekly service from Lima, Peru to Easter Island (Hanga Roa airport – IPC) and flight also takes around 6 hours.
Where To Stay
The main (and only) town on Easter Island is called Hanga Roa, and is where you will find all accommodations. Booking accommodations on the island can be expensive, and it is more often cheaper to get a package that includes the tour of the island. I stayed at Hotel Chez Joseph, which is near the town’s church and school.
Easter Island is definitely one island worth visiting despite the distance. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post from Fabulous Journeys!
Goodbye Amazing Antarctica (for now.. Maybe I will be back)
This is the final instalment of my Antarctica Diaries. I hope you have enjoyed reading the other entries on my experience in the White Continent. Antarctica is a truly magical place, barely touched by humans, and exuding in raw beauty and pristine wonder. If you have not read my other entries about Antarctica, here they are:
If you’ve been inspired by my experience in Antarctica, you must really get yourself over there! These companies are what I’d recommend you consider when booking your journey to Antarctica:
Day 8 – Deception Island and Half Moon Island
In the morning, our ship negotiated the narrow passage on Deception Island called Neptune’s Bellows. Deception Island is a volcanic island, and the Neptune’s Bellows was formed from the breaking of the volcano crater, which then let the sea water into the crater and formed a bay. There is one bay that people could swim in Deception Island, as the volcanic ash warms up the water to 30 degrees when washed away from land into the sea by the tide. Unfortunately for us, the wind went up to 25 knots and it was deemed dangerous for the zodiacs to go into the water, so we only had a glimpse of the bay and the U-shaped island.
Our ship then changed course and took us to Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands. It was our last zodiac landing for the entire trip, and quite a nostalgic moment for me. Last time to see those cute penguins, the chilled out seals, and the amazing scenery.. Half Moon Island was very beautiful! There was a Chinstrap penguin colony, a few Weddell seals, and some Arctic Terns. At one end of the island is the Argentine military base and research station, which opens only in the summer but has not opened this season yet while we were there. I really enjoyed the scenery though, with mountains and glaciers around the other side of the island. The place was absolutely serene, and I was savouring the last moments in one of earth’s last frontiers.
In the evening, our ship started sailing for the Drake’s Passage, as there was a forecasted storm that was crossing the Drake and we wanted to avoid of minimise the time getting past the storm. They showed David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet in the multimedia room on the ship.
Day 9 – Drake’s Passage
It’s a rough day out in the sea. There are 4m swells and the boat is really rocking! Some of the guys have started a competition for who can survive the Drake’s Passage without any seasickness tablets and without throwing up. I joined the competition, and so far so good (this is at 1:50pm).
There was a lecture in the morning about Antarctic Seals. It was interesting to learn about the different characteristics and behaviours of each type of seals, and where you can find them. Shame that this happened after the trip, but I guess going on land earlier is much better than having this lecture when we arrived in the South Shetlands (this was the schedule back then).
The Drake Passage became rougher and rougher.. The 4-meter waves became 10 meter waves, and it was seriously difficult to walk on the ship! Eating was already a challenge in itself, as the food would sometimes slide off the plate due to the sharp angle that the ship tilts while navigating through the massive waves! Many people have started throwing up and giving up on the challenge, but I managed to stand strong, and had completely no medication during that period. Admittedly, I was seriously uncomfortable, and I have never experienced such rough seas in my life! We got lucky on our way to Antarctica, but it was not the case on our way back. Welcome to the real Drake Passage (as the captain told us)!
Day 10 – Drake’s Passage – Cape Horn/Beagle Channel
Our final day at the rough Drake Passage, and I managed to hold up without throwing up! During breakfast, the whole ship was rocking too much that I had so much difficulty getting my breakfast from the buffet table! I so admire the waitresses Veronica and Tamara for their superb balancing skills and ended up getting the breakfast for me and took it to my table! And while eating, my breakfast even slid off my plate with the incessant rocking of the ship!
The crew decided to postpone the lecture til the late afternoon when the sea was much calmer, so that people can attend. I went to the bridge and saw more waves crashing into the ship. When we reached Cape Horn, the sea was so much calmer, but with the tough conditions earlier, the kitchen crew were only able to make sandwiches for lunch. At that point, I was ready to celebrate my victory of not having taken medication and not having thrown up during the rough Drake Passage crossing! J
In the afternoon, we had a brief debrief, and then a presentation of videos that the crew and Levend (one of the passengers – the cool Turkish guy who has a travel agency and travels around the world extensively) have prepared for us.. All in the DVD! J
Then, it was time for our final dinner at the ship, and then an after party with the crew in the bottom part of the ship! So much latin music dancing, and some of the crew were just amazing at dancing!
Day 11 – Final day
Final breakfast on the ship, and it was time to say goodbye to the crew and to the new found friends on the ship. It’s been a fantastic journey, a trip of a lifetime, and very fortunate to be in the company of wonderful crew and wonderful passengers! This is absolutely one trip that I will never, ever forget!
I hope you have enjoyed my Antarctic diaries series, and I hope I have inspired you to visit Antarctica and marvel at the jaw-dropping scenery and very cool wildlife.
To more Fabulous Journeys ahead!
The Antarctica Journey Continues
This is the fourth instalment to my Antarctica Diaries series, where I’m sharing the accounts of my recent trip to Antarctica onboard the M/V Ushuaia. In case you haven’t seen my previous post, check out the links below for my first 3 posts of the diaries:
Day 7 – Boxing Day – Hydrurga Rocks and Trinity Island
Breakfast was early again today, and our first trip on the zodiac was to Hydrurga Rocks. We were told that Hydrurga Rocks isn’t really on most Antarctic maps, and hence, not many ships would go and do a zodiac landing there, so we’re so fortunate to be able to visit it. On this place, we found more Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies, and some Weddell seals lying in the snow. There were a good number of Weddell seals around, so it must be a popular place for them to hang around.
The best part was seeing 2 Adelie penguins that went astray and stayed on the island for a while! It was the first time I saw Adelie penguins on the trip, as we were not able to reach their colonies on Petermann Island just past the Lemaire Channel. I got excited that I finally got to see this specie of penguin, which is becoming rare to find on the top part of the Peninsula!
In the afternoon, we went to Mikkelsen Harbour to an island called Trinity Island with an abandoned Argentinean emergency shed, with a Gentoo penguin colony underneath and more Gentoo colonies. There was an abandoned whaling boat and whale remains around on one side of the island, and a few Weddell seals were hanging out by the beach. There was a lone chinstrap penguin by the beach. There is a small hill where a Gentoo colony can be found, and offers a good view of the harbour and its surrounds.
In the evening, during dinner, we set sail for the Neumeyer Channel, where the sea started to become rough, and I didn’t get as much sleep. Though it wasn’t as bad as what we were gonna experience next!
Watch this space for the fifth instalment of my adventures in Antarctica!
White Christmas in Antarctica!
Having lived in the Southern Hemisphere for the past 10 years made me miss the typical “White Christmas” that I grew up to imagining as a child. I grew up in the Philippines, and though it doesn’t snow there, I grew up thinking of Xmas from all the Xmas songs and Hollywood movies I saw as a child, where it’s the typical Northern Hemisphere Christmas. I have spent 3 other real white Christmases before in Europe, but nothing can beat Christmas in Antarctica!
Christmas day was obviously spent with the penguins and more spectacular views of the white continent. Following on my posts about South Shetlands and Paradise Bay, here’s a continuation of my journal during my trip to Antarctica:
Day 6 –Xmas Day! - Neko Harbour and Orne Harbour Zodiac cruise
Neko Harbour and Orne Harbour Zodiac cruise – we had an early start to the morning, and our ship went to Neko Harbour in the morning. Neko Harbour was the second and our final landing on the Antarctic continent (the rest were on islands off the continent). The landing site was quite unique in that it was close to one of the glacier terminals. We were advised that as we land on the shore, that we immediately go up to the higher part of the island and not hang around the beach area. This was because when the glacier calves, it causes a mini-tsunami which could potentially sweep us into the water.
On the landing at Neko Harbour, there were a few Gentoo penguin colonies around the lower part of the land. We went up the hill to see the majestic view of the harbour itself. We hanged around for a while at the top, just watching the glacier directly opposite us calve every now and then, and just enjoying the magnificent view.. We also saw some skuas hovering around and fighting with each other. Some Gentoo penguins were nesting in the snow, which was another unusual thing for them to do, and doesn’t give their chicks much of a chance at survival. Our biologist guide told us that these could be first-time parents, and they probably are still learning the ropes on how to breed and hatch a chick. On our way back on the zodiac, the crew mentioned that there were minke whales swimming around the ship, and our zodiac happens to be there when the whales were swimming! We had an up close view of the minke whales swimming around and underneath our zodiac boats! It was such a surreal experience! I’ve never gone that close to a whale before! And I was lucky enough to be one of the last 2 zodiacs that were in the water that time (the other passengers have gone up to the ship already).
In the afternoon, we were split up into 2 groups to cruise around the Orne Harbour. I was on the second group, and unfortunately, that was when the weather turned for the worse. It snowed and was a bit uncomfortable. I was sitting at the very front of the zodiac, and I ended up being the “snow breaker” for the people on my side of the zodiac! It was quite painful in the eye, I have to say! But, on the other hand, we did have a white Christmas after all! There were some amazing icebergs and glaciers around the area! We got to see a Weddell seal on an iceberg, as well as some chinstrap penguins, Antarctic cormorants, Antarctic terns and the common seagull.
In the evening, just after we all finished with our main course, the expedition leader called out saying there are a couple of humpback whales swimming near the ship. There was a mad rush to see the whales that everyone didn’t eat the dessert anymore! The whales were just magnificent to look at! And it all suddenly cleared up and the sunset was amazing! Well, not quite sunset as there was light at 12 midnight still!
More info to come!
Finally Landing on the Antarctic Continent!
Continuing from my previous post on Antarctica, where we made our journey from Ushuaia, crossed the Drake Passage and then made our first landing. The first landing on our journey was on the South Shetland islands, which are considered sub-Antarctic islands. In theory, we haven’t really set foot on the Antarctic continent itself at that point yet.
Here’s the next couple of days’ events that happened during our journey in Antarctica:
Day 4 – Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay
Our boat cruised overnight along the Gerlache strait and docked near Cuverville island, where after breakfast, we boarded the zodiacs again and landed on Cuverville Island itself. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we all dressed up warm. In fact, we prepared for the cold too much that most of us felt hot when we got to the island! When we landed, our guides told us to either choose between staying just on the shore area, or hike up this hill, which is supposedly medium in difficulty level. Most of us passengers then decided to hike up this hill, which ended up feeling like a steep hill for me! The top of the hill is supposed to have amazing views of the bay and the other side of the island. And it was! But man was the climb tough for me, as the path was very narrow, slippery and steep! There was a Gentoo penguin colony halfway up the hill. It was a difficult climb for me and I somehow had to hold the expedition biologist Julieta’s hand to get down the hill!!
When we got back to the ship, I was feeling so hot from the thick clothing (and also my fear of heights/vertigo setting in made me sweat profusely) that I just dressed up in t-shirt and hawaiian shorts. I went to the dining hall for lunch just wearing this outfit, and nearly every passenger was just staring at me! I had no idea why they were looking at me strangely until one of the guys pointed to my hawaiian shorts! Wearing hawaiian shorts in Antarctica! Now that’s really odd! Everyone had a laugh!
In the afternoon, our ship cruised along and reached the area of Paradise Bay. We went on a zodiac cruise first around Paradise Bay, and saw some crabeater seals, and Weddell seals. There were also penguins on some of the seal colonies. We also saw some Cormorants nesting on the side of a cliff. After the zodiac cruise, we went to the old abandoned Argentine station called Brown Station, and this was our very first time to set foot on the Antarctic continent! It was one of the very few places in the continent where you can make a landing from sea straight to land without having to use an ice axe! We then climbed up this hill and saw an amazing view of the harbour. Truly a paradise! On our way down, we slid down the hill on our bums, which was really great fun!
In the evening, we had a parillada (Argentinean BBQ) snack and dinner. We had chori-pan for snack (yum!) and asado for dinner. It’s one of the best dinners so far on this trip!
Day 5 – Xmas eve – Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy, Danco Island
Our ship attempted to go into the Lemaire Channel, which is a very narrow passage between towering peaks and glaciers. This passage was only discovered less than 100 years ago, as it was very narrow, and few ships can get through it. We were told that this passage was blocked with lots of ice in the last couple of days, and some cruise ships who had been in the area the day before were not able to get through due to so much pack ice. But still, our captain wanted to give it a go. We were all looking forward to this, as we would be able to see the only Adelie penguin colony that is still accessible on Antarctic cruises, plus the spectacular scenery of going through the Lemaire Channel. Unfortunately for us, it was still blocked with so much ice, so we had to do Plan B.
Plan B was to visit to Port Lockroy and Wiencke Island. It was snowing, and weather was not that great. Wiencke Island was our first stop, with more Gentoos penguin colonies, and remains/bones of a whale being left on the island. First time I saw a penguin’s egg still being incubated by the mother penguin, and I also saw some broken eggs that the Antarctic skuas managed to steal and eat from the mother penguins. Next we moved over to Port Lockroy, just on the other side. Port Lockroy is a British-run museum and semi-research station, and had a gift shop and post office in it. It was our only chance to buy a souvenir that is really from Antarctica and send our postcards from the frozen continent!
In the afternoon, we went to Danco island, and hiked up to a small hill which had a Gentoo penguin colony. There were penguins along the beach as well, and it was very funny to see them walk along and swim into the water. I learned a new term – raft of penguins – which means a group of penguins swimming together! Then we went on a brief zodiac cruise through the icebergs floating around.
In the evening, we had the traditional Xmas eve dinner in the ship with duck as the main meal. Afterwards, the party started in the bar! We had some music, dancing, people playing with the balloon decorations, someone creating a snowman on the deck, and the funny part – a group of guys taking their shirts off outside in the snow at the front of the ship! Crazy lads! Someone made a snowman on deck, as we had enough snow on board to make one! X’mas eve is traditionally when most Argentineans and South Americans celebrate X’mas, and since most of the crew were Argentineans, we did it their way. It was a shock to most Westerners who are used to celebrating on the 25th (Xmas day itself)!
Til the next part of Antarctica Diaries – hope you have enjoyed it so far! Please leave some comments if you wish