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Archive for October, 2012

The weather looked pretty dismal as our flight touched down in Christchurch. We walked out of the airport into a freezing torrential downpour and realized pretty quickly that our first stop needed to be a shoe store. Sandals don’t quite cut it during early spring in New Zealand.

Our first stop wasn’t actually a shoe store because we had to pick up our rental car first. They say that driving a car is like riding a bike; once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget. Whoever “they” are, they obviously have never gone nine months without sitting behind the wheel and then rented a car in a place where you drive on the left side of the road. After accidentally hitting the windshield wipers instead of the blinker about 100 times and continually repeating “stay to the left, stay to the left” every time we made a turn, we successfully navigated our way to Kmart without causing a single accident and were able to procure our much needed shoes. We know that it isn’t well known for having the best shoes around, but our plan to camp and road trip around New Zealand for the next month meant that we needed to purchase quite a few things. Kmart is the perfect place to gear-up when you need cheap stuff that doesn’t have to last too long. In less than an hour, we had everything we needed to hit the road in the morning.

When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and the sun was shining for our long drive south to Dunedin. You’d think we’d never seen mountains before with the way we were ogling over the Southern Alps and taking a million photos from the moving car. While we loved living in Colorado, we always said that if there was a place with mountains like the Rockies and a turquoise blue sea, it would be heaven on earth. New Zealand must be that place. You can nearly see skiers coming down the white-capped mountains while you’re standing on the beach with a view of the endless blue ocean. We started discussing our plans to move here only two days into our visit.

To break up the nearly 400km drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, we made several stops along the way. The first was for a “Driver Reviver.” We think this is the coolest thing ever; free coffee at a rest stop and with a clever name to top it off. The next stop was a picnic lunch along the Rakaia River with gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains, and just before the longest bridge in New Zealand (yes, that’s right, our atlas told us so). Following lunch and a few hundred more kilometers, we broke off the highway at a town called Oamaru. It reminded us of Leadville, Colorado, but on the water. Just up the road is another quaint sea village called Moeraki, where the ancient Moeraki Boulders are located (basically, round orb-like stones on the beach where tourists take pictures).

By the time we made it to Dunedin the day was almost over, so we pulled into a holiday park where we set up camp. Holiday parks in New Zealand are similar to KOA Campgrounds in the US; mostly electrical RV sites with some space for tents (only crazy people like us stay in tents this time of year) and tons of facilities like kitchens, showers, hot tubs and computer rooms. Despite it being a more commercial camping experience than we’re accustomed to, we were stoked to be sleeping in a tent after a summer without any camping. At about 2am we realized what a terrible mistake we’d made. It was freezing cold and our 55˚F sleeping bags weren’t providing much comfort. Thankfully the rental company had upgraded us to a Subaru wagon, so we changed our plans a bit and have been sleeping in the back of the car instead of the tent.

We set out in the morning to explore the Otago Peninsula. It was a gorgeous drive along the main road that winds along the north coast all the way to the tip where there are stunning cliffs and an albatross center. On the way back we took dirt roads that led us to inlets and viewpoints where we saw no other cars. There are sheep farms everywhere, and being the time of year that it is, their coats are thick and almost ready to be sheered.

Our final day in Dunedin was spent exploring more of the country side. One of the greatest things about New Zealand is that you never have to drive far to get out of the city and into nature. The transition from buildings to open spaces happens quite quickly. Our first stop was a short hike down to some cool cliffs known as Tunnel Beach. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot only to find a sign posted which read “Closed for Lambing.” Many trails that we had encountered the day before had similar signs posted making it difficult to find a nice trail. Now don’t share this next part with anyone, but we did something naughty…we ignored the sign, climbed the fence, and hiked the trail anyway. Nothing like a little excitement to get the day started. For the record, we did not encounter any sheep or lambs along the way. What we did see was more majestic New Zealand landscape.

Having a car for the next few weeks is an exciting prospect. For months now, we have been relying on public transit to make our way around the world, but in New Zealand we will come and go as we please.  We don’t have a guidebook, but we did buy an awesome road atlas, so our days are sure to be filled with countless scenic lookouts and quirky informational plaques. Here’s to the open road!

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Walking Sydney

Walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge is one of the must do tourist activities when visiting the city. On our first day there, we set out to do just that. There are a few different ways to experience the bridge. Some fork out over two-hundred dollars to harness-up and climb to the bridge’s highest point. Others pay less to climb one of the towers, and then there are the backpackers like us who go for the free option and simply cross via the walking path.

Looking out over the Opera House and Sydney CBD.

The views from the bridge were great and the price couldn’t be beat. Along the way to the bridge, we ended up discovering that Sydney is a fantastic city for self-guided walking tours. We spent the next three days walking around town and seeing the sights, while trying not to go broke in this insanely expensive city.

Our first day started with a walk through Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens, which culminated with a view of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. We have grown up seeing pictures of the famous Opera House on TV and in magazines, so we had a clear image of it in our heads. Truth be told, it was actually a bit disenchanting to see it in person; sometimes the great sights of the world get so hyped up that when you actually get there, the thrill dies quickly. That being said, the Opera House did provided a spectacular backdrop for our picnic lunch in the nearby park.

Post-lunch pic

Skateboarder in front of the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park

We continued our walk around the harbor and through the bustling Circular Quay where numerous ferries come and go every few minutes. We even came across a street performer playing a didgeridoo like no other didgeridoo player we’ve ever heard. It fit into one of those typical Australian stereotypes, like seeing kangaroos, so we were quite pleased with that.

This guy broke it down on the didgeridoo!

Our second day in Sydney didn’t grace us with blue sunny skies as the first, but nonetheless we took off for a walk through Darling Harbor. It is a hub of activity in the city, with the Convention center, Aquarium, Maritime Museum and tons of walking paths.

View of Sydney’s Darling Harbor

Monorail cruising through Darling Harbor

Last but not least, we hopped a bus towards the ocean on our final day in town. The weather was unpredictable to say the least, but we put on our rain coats and took off for the 6km walk between Coogee Beach and Bondi Beach anyway. The winds were strong and the rain quite cold, but the walk was a lot of fun!

Strong gusts threatened to blow us over the cliffs. Seriously.

On the way from Coogee to Bondi Beach.

Despite our short time in Australia, Sydney is a city we are glad to have visited. It is the perfect place to begin or end your trip in this massive country, and spend a few days walking about.

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This post is about our visit to Western Australia, but the story begins many months ago…

Split, Croatia – April 2012

While riding a ferry to the island of Hvar, we were attempting to take a picture of ourselves when a guy came up to us and asked if we would like him to take our photo. We began to chat and told him about our RTW trip. Upon hearing about our plans to travel to Australia, he quickly replied, “Well, it’s lucky you met me then!” and said nothing further leaving an awkward moment of silence. Does he work for the Travel Channel? Does he want to offer us a book deal? Maybe he’s a local hotel owner with a discount? Curiosity swirled through our heads until he finally chimed in again telling us that his name was Juan and that he and his girlfriend Saskia were on a lengthy road trip around Europe. Despite having only known us for about 30 seconds, he offered to host us at their home in Perth, Australia. We exchanged information, but at that point didn’t think much of it. After all, who would fly to such a remote place to stay with complete strangers?

This is the fateful photo taken on the ferry in Croatia

Fast Forward 6 Months

We landed in Perth at 5am after a red-eye from Kuala Lumpur. Out of it from not sleeping on the flight, we walked out of customs to see Saskia’s smiling face saying “Welcome to Australia!” I guess we are the type of people who fly somewhere to stay with strangers, not complete strangers though, as we did spend one crazy fun night in Split with Juan and Saskia making our friendship about 12 hours old.

After a few hours at dinner in Split, we decided they weren’t axe murderers

As we exited the airport, we saw that they had the car packed up for a proper camping trip and even had a boat in tow. And so began our road trip adventure through Western Australia. Straight away, we headed north from Perth towards Gnaraloo Station, a 12 hour drive that allowed us to see some true Aussie outback. The road we took made its way along the west coast through barren desert, fields of wheat, white sand dunes and rust-red flatlands. Just about now you are probably thinking, did they see kangaroos? YES WE DID. Sadly, the first 20 were all road kill (apparently hitting a kangaroo isn’t at all uncommon when driving in the bush) but eventually we began to see groups of them hopping through the shrubs. We even saw some emus too!

By the time we arrived at Gnaraloo Station, the sun had already set. We unloaded the camp gear, and before we knew it the night was upon us and brilliant stars had filled the sky. Pardon the pun, but the stars of Western Australia are truly out of this world. We have seen our share of clear, starry nights in the Rocky Mountains, but these stars take the cake hands down. Between the drive and the stars, the feeling of remoteness was astonishingly wonderful.

We awoke in the morning to views of the Indian Ocean with humpback whales breaching just off the shore and headed to Gnaraloo Bay for some beach time and fishing. Over the last couple of months in SE Asia, we have become pretty good at beach-time but when it comes to fishing we both fall in the novice category. Juan on the other hand is an avid fisherman and was happy to show us the ropes. Over the next few days we spent countless hours soaking up sun, snorkeling, fishing on the boat and flying a really fun kite (that’s right, kites aren’t only for kids these days). Although Saskia pulled in more fish than the both of us combined, we did land a few good catches. It was the best fishing trip we have ever been on.

Eating fresh seafood is something that we always enjoy, but the experience of catching fish at sea and then cooking them up for dinner is tough to beat. Juan even caught a huge squid that we grilled up on the camp fire.

What time wasn’t spent at the beach was spent telling stories and making jokes while we sat around the fire and looked out over the dunes and sea. For the first time in ages, we didn’t turn on our computer or feel the need to be “connected.” After just four days of camping our new friends felt like people we had known for years.

The end of our camping trip did not, however, mean the end of our visit to WA. Juan and Saskia still had a few things planned. Along the way down to Perth, we made our way to the coastal town of Kalbarri for a night. To get there, we passed some blowholes that shot sea water up through circular holes in the stone creating a whistling noise and huge bursts of water. Then we made our way through Kalbarri National Park which is home to a deep gorge that cuts through the red stone and provides a refuge for lots of annoying flies. Finally, we drove into Kalbarri, a cute little town on the ocean, where Juan and Saskia had booked us an incredible B&B where we stayed the night.

After a delicious breakfast, we drove out for the last section of our road trip back to Perth. Along the way, we stopped at The Pinnacles, an area of land that has interesting rock formations jutting out of the dunes, which actually reminded us a lot of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia. We even got a little unexpected excitement from a flat tire when we pulled off a road to see Pink Lake. After snapping a few pics of the interesting pink color that is created by beta carotene and fixing the flat, we headed on our way.

Our Western Australia trip came to an end at Juan and Saskia’s place, where we enjoyed a few more laughs and some tasty Jamie Oliver hamburgers. It is amazing how quickly a week can go by when you spend it with great company, exploring new places. The coast of Western Australia is amongst the most isolated places in the entire world, and were it not for that chance encounter on the ferry in Croatia, we probably never would have seen it. Turns out that Juan was absolutely correct; it was very lucky that we met him, because it lead to an unforgettable Australian experience and two new friends for life.

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Despite the many posts that we have made about our RTW trip thus far, there is always so much more to share. Deciding what to write about and what to skip is a constant debate for us, and we are sure that many other travel bloggers encounter the same dilemma. Sometimes we leave stories out because you simply had to be there to get it; other times we choose not to write about a destination because we can’t find the right approach; and then there are the instances where we choose not to write because we’ve been posting so much that we don’t want to overwhelm our readers (or ourselves). The story of our week in Beijing falls into all three of these categories and will be the first in a new series of posts called “Travel Throwbacks” that will include tales of destinations, strange encounters, and of course many photos from past adventures that we have not yet shared on our blog.

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We arrived in Beijing in May via high-speed train from Shanghai.Riding a long distance train in China (or any form of public transit for that matter) is always quite an experience, and this journey was no exception. The landscape between Shanghai and Beijing is barren and dry, almost reminiscent of Nevada in places. As we sped along the tracks, cities began to appear in the distance. Generally the term “ghost town” is used to describe cities that once were, but these ghost towns are cities yet to be. Huge boulevards, sky scrapers, and massive housing complexes sat complete but empty, still waiting for inhabitants. No doubt these cities are meant to help handle China’s enormous population and rapidly growing middle class, as well as to keep unemployment at bay, but it was a strange and eerie sight none the less.

Image Credits: http://financialpostbusiness.files.wordpress.com (top right), Michael Christopher Brown/TIME Magazine (bottom center)

Once inside the city, it became apparent that Beijing is China’s tourism hot spot for a reason – there are soooooooo many things to see. The city attracts not only foreigners, but an immeasurable number  domestic tourists each year. The main attractions are The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China, but the list also includes the 2008 Olympic Green, Tiananmen Square, the Imperial Summer & Winter Palaces, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, the list goes on and on. Certainly we did not see everything in Beijing, but we think we made a pretty good run at it. So prepare yourself for a very long read…

The Forbidden City

This is probably Beijing’s most well-known and sought-after historical sight. Based on advice from fellow travelers, we showed up an hour before the ticket office opened in an attempt to beat the crowds, but lines had already formed. While we were thankful to be amongst the first to enter the city’s walls, we were still amazed by the sheer number of people flooding through the gates. Although The Forbidden City has been open to tourists for some time, some parts still are forbidden. We were frustrated by the red tape and barriers, but happy to find an amazing view of the entire complex from the hill of Jingshan Park. The walled city is so expansive that you need a panoramic lens to fit it all in one picture.

Tiananmen Square

Situated across the street from The Forbidden City is the famous Tiananmen Square, as well as Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. It felt surreal to walk through Tiananmen Square. We grew up knowing the story of the deadly protest that took place there in 1989, and were moved to experience the surroundings ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the square is heavily guarded by Chinese military. Unlike most public squares in the world, gathering and loitering here are not encouraged. You have to go through metal detectors and security just to enter the square. There are no benches where you can sit. If you stand in one place for too long, you’ll be told to move along. Yet, there is also a massive electronic display that continually plays propaganda films of a prosperous China with happy people and unspoiled nature. Interesting to say the least.

At the far end of the Square, opposite the Forbidden City, sits Mao’s Mausoleum. If you do not know who Chairman Mao Zedong is, please stop for a moment to find out here. Mao’s body is open to the public for viewing most mornings, and we were interested to take a look. It was quite the experience! We stood in the long, winding line for nearly an hour and, after going through metal detectors, we entered the building. The Chinese people treat this as a religious experience. There are no photographs allowed, no talking, and one must not stop walking. The body itself looks fake, like a perfect wax replica. Perhaps it is, we will never know.

Olympic Green

We took a day off from exploring Beijing’s ancient sites and rode the subway to the Olympic Green. It was fun to see the buildings in person that created such a world-wide frenzy during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was also exciting to be there just months before the 2012 Games began. The first thing that we noticed was the fact that acres of land must have been flattened in order to open up room for this massive pavilion; we could only imagine the masses of people that roamed the land four years ago. The Water Cube is a true architectural wonder. Its luminescent bubble-like structure make you feel as if you’re swimming in a bath. As we walked away from the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest, we noticed that the Olympic Green sits on a straight axis with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which you can see on a clear day (we were lucky as this is rare in the often dusty city). Overall, visiting Beijing’s Olympic Green made us want to attend the Olympics someday. It has officially been added to our bucket list.

Temple of Heaven

Yet another example of Beijing’s very ancient cultural heritage is the Temple of Heaven.  Located in the southeastern part of the city, this temple complex dates back to the early 1400s and was used for religious ceremonies.  Its primary purpose was to serve as the site for an annual sacrificial offering to heaven asking for a plenty harvest. Rightfully so, the main attraction is an enormous, three-tiered, circular structure known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. An interesting and somewhat comical bit of history that we came across was a small wooden called the Seventy Year Old Door. The story goes that at the age of 70, Emperor Qianlong was in poor health and had a small doorway cut into a temple wall to shorten his walk to the offering sight. He feared that the new door would cause his decedents to become lazy, so he made a royal decree that only those who had reached the age of 70 should be permitted to pass through the doorway.

Surrounding the temple are a series of gardens which are a popular weekend getaway for locals seeking a bit of refuge from the chaos of Beijing’s streets. Families pack picnics and spend all day lounging in the shade, listening to music, playing games and dancing in the squares.

Summer & Winter Palaces

While The Forbidden City is the most iconic Imperial Palace, it is not the only royal residence to be found in Beijing. Trust us when we say that the Summer and Winter Palaces are not too shabby either.  They may not have the labyrinths of rooms, courtyards and corridors that The Forbidden City does, but boy oh boy are they stunning!  The Summer Palace is situated outside of the city center and the grounds contain two substantially sized lakes. There are numerous temples, galleries and reception halls speckled amongst rocky hills, small rivers, cool woods and green lawns. It isn’t hard to imagine why the emperors and their families enjoyed spending the hot summer days in this little slice of paradise.  The grounds of the Winter Palace, on the other hand, are quite a bit smaller (probably because not too many people enjoy leisurely strolls in the freezing cold) and are located right in the heart of Beijing.

The Night Market

Aside from its many tourist attractions, Beijing is also know for a unique characteristic that has been dubbed “hutong culture.” Branching off of the main streets are a maze of small alleys and walkways. Some of the best food and hang out spots can be found in the most conspicuous locations. If you are seeking a taste of the wild side, but aren’t a fan of wandering around in places that aren’t on any tourist maps, then we suggest checking out the night market instead. As is the case with many international cities, Beijing has a happening night market with an entire section dedicated to quick eats. Beijing’s market in particular definitely offers some things that you won’t find anywhere else.  Case in point: skewered scorpions! It took us a few minutes to work up the nerve to give it a go, but eventually we did manage to stomach four scorpions each. Scorpions may be dangerous, but they had better remember who is really on top of the food chain.

Lastly, no trip to Beijing is complete with a day spent on The Great Wall. Just after our visit, we dedicated an entire post to our day of hiking there, which you can read here. We think you’ve probably read enough for the day, so we’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

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It’s hard to believe that our time in Asia has drawn to a close. 5 months in 9 countries and we’ve only barely scraped the surface of this enormous continent. In many ways, Asia really stretched us beyond our comfort zone. We became comfortable communicating using improvised sign language with people who spoke no English, tried foods we never knew existed, learned how to SCUBA dive, perfected our chopstick skills, witnessed extreme gaps between wealth & poverty, met new friends & reconnected with old ones, rode on elephants, played with tigers & fended off monkeys, learned how to use eastern toilets, climbed the Great Wall of China, visited schools in Korea & Japan, rode a Shinkansen bullet train, explored ancient ruins, learned how to drive motorbikes (on the left side of the road), went to a Muay Thai match, and survived the most terrifying yet beautiful bus ride of our lives.

While we have seen and done a lot, we are already talking about our next trip to Asia. When that will be, who knows? But when we do return it will be with a sense of pure excitement and anticipation. We have truly come to appreciate that the blanket term “Asian” as in “Asian food” that is often used at home is really a very poor descriptor. The diversity of cultures, foods, languages, religions and geography of this continent is simply astounding. This time around, we stuck to the eastern side of the region, but western China, Nepal, Russia, “the ‘stans”, India, Burma, Bangladesh and Indonesia are ranking high on our list of places to visit next time around.

Now we have departed on a new phase of our journey: 6 weeks in Australia and New Zealand. Looking back on our first continent jump, from Europe to Asia, we were both a bit apprehensive and anxious. We were ready for more excitement and the uncertainty that Asia would bring, but we were also nervous about visiting a region of our world that was so foreign to us. On the surface, this continent jump may appear to be an easier adjustment, as we will be returning to “western” customs and the English speaking world; however, it is often said that going back to what you know after being abroad can actually be the greatest culture shock of all.

As a recap of the past 5 months, below are 5 of our favorite blogs from our time in Asia. If you have some time on your hands, you can read all of our posts about Asia by clicking here.

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