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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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Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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A lot can happen in a week. Since we last wrote, we’ve played with tigers, ridden on elephants, watched knockout Muay Thai, honed our motorbike skills, climbed Thailand’s highest peak, and so much more.  Where did we do all of these spectacular things? A little place called Chiang Mai.

Not so little actually, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand making it somewhat of a “capital” for the northern region of the country. While it doesn’t have the skyscrapers, mega-malls, and constant adrenaline of Bangkok, Chiang Mai still seems to have something for everyone. We easily could have spent a month there, but the tourists visas we acquired at the border with Cambodia were only valid 15 days, so we had to leave before we were ready to say goodbye. Thanks to our friends Daniel and Libby, we got a taste of home and some great suggestions of what to do and see in the city. Here is a glimpse at the different faces of Chiang Mai.

On the Wild Side

Amy is a cat lover through and through, and since childhood Mike has been watching Jake Jabs play with baby tigers on those annoying American Furniture Warehouse commercials; so when we learned about Tiger Kingdom just outside of Chiang Mai, we jumped all over it. As the name would suggest, this place is crawling with tigers! Tiger Kingdom does not drug their animals prior to allowing visitors into the animal enclosures. This is evident from their playfulness and alert demeanor. For our visit, we chose to get in the cage with the little guys. The tiger cubs we played with were 2-4 months old and beyond adorable. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a plan for lifting one in the fifteen minutes we were allotted, but we did get plenty of pictures.

As Thailand’s national animal, elephants are an important symbol of the country’s culture and history. Chiang Mai is home to numerous elephant sanctuaries, some more concerned with the elephants’ well-being than others. We took the advice of our friends and visited a place called Maesa Elephant Camp, a place that rescues elephants from bad situations and breeds baby elephants to increase the dwindling population in Thailand. During our visit, we saw a 4 month old calf with his mother, fed bunches of bananas and sugarcane to a herd of hungry elephants, and even rode on the back of an old-guy by the name of Poo Somboon. He was 41 years old and carried three of us on his back like it was nothing. The camp even has a daily show where the elephants play harmonicas, paint incredible pictures, and shoot soccer goals. There is no doubt that the elephant trainers love and care for these animals, and we can only hope that the elephants themselves also have fun preforming.

We also got a close look at one of the most dangerous animals around, the Muay Thai kickboxer. You don’t want to mess with these guys or gals. Muay Thai is the nation’s favorite sport and for good reason. We spent an evening watching several fights at a local arena in Chiang Mai. The night began with two female fights then moved on through increasing weight classes of men. Although gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, throwing down a few Baht between friends is common and makes things a bit more interesting. While small, the female kickboxers who started things off fought with great ferocity. The male fighters, on the other hand, were more methodical in their attacks. Unfortunately, the “main event” didn’t even last one round; a knee to the kidney and kick to the temple ended things quite quickly in a knockout.

The Street Food Scene

We can say with confidence that Chiang Mai has the best street food scene that we have experienced thus far in SE Asia. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets boast endless options of Thai food and other interesting specialties like sushi, Indian and Burmese food. We spent our weekend evenings in Chiang Mai grazing through the stands and ended up absolutely stuffed each time.

Greater Chiang Mai

For those with more than a few days to spend in Chiang Mai, we recommend getting out of the city center to visit a doi (meaning mountain in Thai). We spent one day with our friends driving up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. The air became cooler and less tainted with pollution as we scaled the mountainside. Thick fog had engulfed Doi Inthanon that day, and the rain was relentless, but we still had fun walking through some trails and visiting a few waterfalls.

Another more easily accessible mountain is Doi Suthep, which is a short 25 minute drive from the center of Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike one day to visit the temple that is perched on the top of this mountain, Wat Phrathat. The temple itself is stunning, and the panoramic views of Chiang Mai cannot be beat.

Taking it Easy

After several action-filled days, we were ready for some relaxation. Having heard of the infamous Thai massage, we wanted to give it a try. You can’t walk down a street in Chiang Mai without seeing two or three spas, so it was easy enough to find a spot. We can’t say that getting a Thai massage is the most relaxing experience, but it definitely awakens your muscles and works out the kinks. It’s kind of like visiting a masseuse and chiropractor at the same time.

An afternoon stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai will lead you by countless ornately decorated temples. We spent an entire day just marveling at these wats and stopping for Thai Tea along the way. Turns out that it was Buddhist Lent during our visit to Chiang Mai, so we saw lots of activity at the temples.

There is nothing like a familiar face, especially when you haven’t been home in seven months. This blog is dedicated to our friends Daniel and Libby – thank you for sharing your home with us for the past week and showing us a great time in Chiang Mai! The hours spent playing cards, telling jokes, and sipping coco locos made us feel so at home. The farewell lanterns were the perfect end to a great week.

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We bet you’ve seen Indiana Jones or maybe Tomb Raider if you are from a younger generation.  What is it about exploring ancient ruins that captivates the mind and conjures up a deep sense of adventure?  Some of the world’s most well know ruins can be seen at Angkor Wat. It is the single most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia, but for many travelers the question remains, what’s up with Angkor Wat? Last week we visited this mystical city, and through our pictures and story hope to share its wonder.  (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load!)

Our favorite view of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng, the famous hill from which sunset and sunrise are watched by tourists each day.

While this temple complex bears the name of its most famous structure, Angkor Wat, it actually contains over 1,000 temple ruins which were the center of the Khmer Empire. It is an awesome place (truly “awe” inspiring, as the word was intended) that all travel lovers should add to their bucket list.

Tickets are required for entry into the Angkor Archaeological Park: 1-day, 3-day or 1-week passes are available. We opted for three days and made it to over 20 of the ruin sites. This amount of time was perfect for us, but if you fancy yourself an amateur archeologist, you may want to go with the 1-week pass.

Day 1

We started our first day early and full of energy and excitement to see Angkor Wat. We had been looking forward to visiting for many years. We found a tuk-tuk to drive us 6km north from Siem Reap to the entry point of the Angkor complex. Despite fellow travelers advising us to hire the tuk-tuk for the entire day, we decided to do things our own way (sound familiar?) and walk between the temples. Our first stop was the granddaddy of them all: Angkor Wat. From there, we set off on a trek through jungle roads and crumbling monuments. When the day was done, we had visited Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Bayon.

Ta Prohm is commonly referred to as “The Tree Temple” because of the numerous roots that have grown into and around the ancient ruins.

Bayon, the main temple within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom

Bayon is filled with massive stone faces, one of which can be seen in the background here.

Day 2

After a very hot, sweaty and exercise-filled day, we came to our senses and opted to hire a tuk-tuk driver for our second day. It ended up being a great decision. We were able to cover more ground and see some of the further out temples that simply would not be walkable (unless you’re a crazed exercise fanatic that gets off on speed walking marathons).  Our first stop was Phnom Bakheng, a pyramidal temple atop a hill from which you can take in an aerial view of Angkor Wat (as pictured in the very first photo of this post). After viewing Angkor Wat from above, we visited Baphuon, the Royal Palace, Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup.

These detailed faces carved out of stone stretched on for hundreds of feet just outside of the Royal Palace within Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan was one of the largest temples we visited in terms of area and also the least restored. The sheer amount of stone used to construct this building blew our minds.

By the time we reached East Mebon in the late afternoon, we were glad that we had hired a tuk-tuk. We likely would not have made it this far without a vehicle.

Day 3

After two days at the Angkor complex, we took a day off to relax and rest our sore mussels.  At only $5 USD per hour, a massage seemed like a pretty good way to spend the afternoon.  We had no idea what we were in for…we endured one of the roughest and painful, yet most effective massages we have ever experienced. Definitely one of those “hurts so good” moments.  We had planned on returning to the ruins the next day, but Amy awoke to a bout of food poisoning (and all that entails) so we took another day off.

The next day her situation had improved. We hired a tuk-tuk once again and this time set our sights on the temples located even further away from Siem Reap.  As would be expected, the more remote the temple the fewer the tourists. It was nice to escape the crowds as we enjoyed more of these magnificent ruins, including Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei.

Banteay Srei is one of the furthest out temples from the heart of the Angkor complex. It has the most detailed stone carvings of any of the temples we visited, making it well worth the long journey.

While visiting Banteay Samre, we came across a Buddhist Monk preforming a rain prayer over local villagers. Although many of these temples are ancient, some are still used for religious ceremonies.

Beautiful Sanskrit carvings lined the door frames of Preah Ko

The main tower of Bakong was built to represent the mythical Mount Meru, also symbolized by the central structure of Angkor Wat.

Too often during our travels we visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have been spoiled rather than preserved by being added to this list; many of the sites feel more like Disneyland than places of great historic and cultural relevance.  This was not the case with Angkor Wat.  Despite the millions of visitors annually, the temple complex retains a great deal of authenticity and truly deserves its reputation as a world wonder.  To put it plainly, no matter who you are, Angkor Wat will not disappoint.

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What can we really say about The Great Wall? It was as incredibly breathtaking as we had imagined; we couldn’t have dreamt it to be any better. The part that we visited, between Jinshanling and Simatai, is one of the furthest from Beijing, meaning that it is undisturbed by the masses of tourists that flock to the closer sections, and it also retains its authenticity since it has not yet been fully restored. Here are a few photos of our visit; we took hundreds and will spare you by only sharing a few of our favorites.

Miles and miles of wall stretched out in both directions as we began our hike from Jinshanling to Simatai.

As we hiked, the views kept getting better and better.

This section of The Wall contains 22 watch towers, each with their own unique style.

We were by no means the only people on The Wall that day, however, at times it felt as though we were out there on our own.

Smiles come easy when you’re on The Great Wall.

Great Wall aside, hiking through this lush green mountain range was spectacular in and of itself.

Many of the towers along the way offered commanding views of The Wall’s snake-like figure rolling from peak to peak.

We found ourselves snapping a photo nearly every minute; we had to constantly remind ourselves to take breaks from our cameras and soak up the present moment.

This steep section of the Simatai wall is currently closed and expected to reopen in October 2012.

We loved encountering rustic stretches of The Wall that have yet to be restored. At times it felt like the stones might crumble away.

It is impossible to measure the length of The Great Wall in its entirety, but estimates put it at more than 5,000 miles long.  To give you an idea of its vastness, that is longer than I-90, the longest interstate in the USA, which runs from Seattle to Boston.

Some of the best views came towards the end of our hike as we climbed steeply to the East Simatai Gate. Our glutes were killing us the next day!

7km. 22 towers. 100s of photos. 1 great day!

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With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, China can be a tough place in which to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Even when traveling to “small towns” you often find yourself in the midst of millions. In need of some peace and quiet, we headed towards the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng County.

The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. It only took a few photos to convince us to add this area to our China itinerary.

The Longji rice growing region is home to several villages speckled throughout the mountains. The most popular village in the area is Ping ‘an, but popular is not what we were looking for. We wanted something a little more secluded; so we set off from Guilin for the village of Dazhai, which has a reputation as a smaller and more chilled out place to use as a home base for exploring the terraces.

View of Dazhai village from above

As is usually the case when riding buses in China, we were the only westerners on board and weren’t entirely sure where our stop was, but that always helps to build the sense of adventure. After about two hours, we were dropped off at a pretty deserted little bus stop, if you can even call it that, and our bus sped on down the road. Luckily for us, a young Chinese couple from Guangzhou had gotten off the bus as well, and we decided to share a van to Dazhai (thanks to them, we were able to get the real “Chinese” price and we were confident that we were headed in the right direction).

When we arrived at the gate to Dazhai, the driver told us that we would have to hike the rest of the way as motor vehicles are prohibited beyond the city gate. Thank God, no motor bikes to dodge for at least a few days! We had found the solitude we were looking for.

While very secluded, Dazhai is situated at the base of spectacular terraced mountains, so we decided to continue our trek uphill to another village called Tiantou. Tiantou is even smaller and offers the best panoramic views in the area. Everything in this village is carried up by a person or packed on the back of an animal. We saw everything from live chickens to rice noodles to beer being brought up on the back of mules. We even saw a Chinese tourist being carted up the mountain in a wooden chair carried by four other men. Lazy? Or smart?

Those mules must work hard. And for all that effort, beers at the top are still only 8RMB!

About half way into the 40 minute hike to Tiantou, it started to dump rain as thunder reverberated between the peaks; we quickly realized we were in the midst of our first monsoon. Our umbrella wasn’t doing much of anything, so we started running until we found shelter under a covered bridge.

Soaking up the monsoon. The smiles came after finding shelter.

When the rain slowed down a bit, we marched onward until we finally reached Tiantou Village and came across a hostel with a spare room. Turns out the storm had caused several landslides knocking down lines and leaving the entire village without power. No electricity meant using flashlights, meals cooked by fire, no internet, and no hot showers. It lasted our entire stay and it was absolutely fantastic! For the first time since we began our journey, we truly felt off the grid.

The amazing view from our bedroom’s window.

The rice paddies in this region are incredible. Not only are they beautiful, but they are a true testament to the lengths people will go to create a steady source of food. The mountains are terraced into steps that seem to reach into heaven, and, with some imagination, it is easy to see where the name “Dragon’s Backbone” comes from.

Crazy shaped terraces. How did they do this?

Our visit overlapped with planting season, so workers were hard at work clearing and shaping the land, filling up the paddies with water and planting seedlings in the muddy terraces. In just a few months all of the terraces will be completely filled and covered in green growth which must be a spectacular sight.

Worker preparing the paddies for planting. It’s hard to believe rice is so affordable when so much effort goes into its production.

The rain that we encountered on our first day persisted throughout most of our stay, but that didn’t make our time any less enjoyable. We spent a lot of time reading, playing cards, and enjoying the rain storms from the sheltered patio of our hostel. We were, however, fortunate enough to catch a break in the weather long enough for one full day of hiking. The area offers many trails that follow the contour of the terraced mountains, and steps allow you to transcend up and down between villages and viewpoints.

Cruising the paths through the terraced paddies.

After a long day of hiking, we were tired; our legs were killing us from all the stairs. But we had to capture the excitement that we still felt from being in such a magical place. We decided to end our hike with a little photo shoot and jump for joy atop our final viewpoint.

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Upon arriving at the dock in Yangshuo, we said goodbye to our boat full of new Chinese friends and set off for our hostel.  We heard many stories about the budget accommodations and even cheaper food to be had in China, but until Yangshuo, we had yet to fully experience them.  Our hostel was awesome and we were shocked to find beds for only $2.50 USD.  We instantly realized the cost benefit of traveling in China; no wonder so many backpackers flock to this region.  Our one-year trip may have just been granted an extension.

The center of Yangshuo with the spectacular karst peaks in the background.

The cruise down the Li River offered spectacular views, and during our four days in Yangshuo we continued to be wowed by the magnificence of the limestone peaks.  At home we spend much of our free time hiking and enjoying the outdoors, so naturally, we like to do the same while on the road. One of the best bike rides of our life happened in Yangshuo, through the Yulong River Valley.  We cycled for 20km up and down the river on rocky paths exploring small villages, rice paddies, and the surrounding peaks.  The farmers who live in the region work hard under the heat of the sweltering sun, but man do they live in a beautiful place.  We found ourselves wondering if they realize that their home is situated in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.

Adventure biking along the Yulong River.

Glistening rice paddies.  If you have to work knee deep in mud, this is the place to do it.

Mike cruising the trails alongside acres upon acres of farmland in the Yulong River Valley.

We spent another one of our days in Yangshuo hiking toward the town of Fuli, but this time the heat was too much to handle.  We only made it about 6km into the hike before opting for a more enjoyable plan: beers in the shade along the Li River.  At our apartment in Denver, we frequently enjoyed sitting on our balcony and taking in the view with a beer or glass of wine, and we enjoy doing the same while traveling.

View of the Li River from our secluded beer drinking spot in the shade.

Throwing up the peace signs is a must when taking photos in China.

One of the many villages that sit along the Li River. Beautiful sky, but man was it hot!

On our last day, we took a bus to the nearby town of Xingping.  You can never really get tired of the amazing mountains in the area, but what we most enjoyed about Xingping was the town itself.  Its relaxed vibe stems from its small size, smiling locals and lesser influence of tourism than its neighboring cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. We considered changing our travel plans to relocate there for a few days, but the Longji Rice Terraces to the north were calling our name.

The view of the Li River from the town of Xingping.

Back home, cooking and savoring fun and inventive meals is something we truly love, and it’s no different when we find ourselves in a foreign place. We were surprised by a cafe in Xingping where we enjoyed one of the best Chinese meals we have had so far. The pineapple duck and side of taro root with bok choy lingered deliciously in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon.

Roasted duck with real, fresh pineapple! “Please Sir, I want some more.”

The walls of the cafe where we ate in Xingping were covered with notes of praise from customers from across the globe.

Our week of biking and hiking in Yangshuo made us feel at home. May 16th marked four months since we arrived in Barcelona to begin our RTW trip.  At times we honestly do get a little homesick, especially when our friends and family reach milestones in their lives.  Even though we are living our dream, we know that life goes on back home for those we love.  That being said, we are going to end this post with a throw-down of shout outs to some very special people; they have been in our hearts and minds throughout the journey (events in chronological order, no favorites here)…

Abe – We miss you greatly, but your love for travel lives as we explore this amazing world.

Max & Tamara – Another Siler, yes!  We are so excited to meet Paul!

Cindy & Marisol – Congratulations again on your engagement!  We will 100% be there to celebrate with you on your wedding day!

Alina & Mike – We welcome Sebastian into the world and our family!

Liz & Alyssa – Sorry we couldn’t make the Portland Juice Press launch party. So proud of you and looking forward to our first taste of the juices upon our return!

Nick – You the man! Congrats on your graduation and starting a new chapter in your life. We love you!

Christina – You’re done with law school! Congratulations friend!  We hope to celebrate with you down south after you take care of that pesky bar.

And a big thanks to ALL of our readers! Sharing our experience via The Chamborres Expedition makes us feel a home wherever we may be.

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Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.

The Hong Kong skyline lit up during the nightly light show. Image: hksalad.com

Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.

Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.

View from the St. Regis Hotel in the Kingkey 100, Shenzhen’s tallest building at 441.8 metres. It is currently the world’s 10th tallest building!

Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.

Random fact: Hong Kong is composed of 263 islands.

We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

Looking out on Victoria Park from Parkview Hostel.

Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.

Shrimp wonton noodle soup can be found from most hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Causeway Bay. A tasty and cheap meal for only 20-25HKD.

Get our dim sum on with some BBQ pork buns.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.

View from the top of the Peak Tram. It must be breathtaking on a perfectly clear day.

We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.

The Big-But-Hard-to-See-Buddha

No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.

Putting in our time at the beach on Cheung Chau.

In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.

Walking along Cheung Chau’s Mini Great Wall.

We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.

Taking our own photo wasn’t a high priority at the time, so we borrowed this one. Image: http://www.flickr.com (robferblue)

Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.

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Pamukkale literally means “cotton castle” in Turkish. Take a look at this picture and you’ll see why.

These naturally formed travertines are the result of thousands of years’ worth of calcium deposits left behind from mineral water running down the hillside. Once upon a time, Pamukkale may have been considered one of the most magical places on earth. For centuries, local Turks, and eventually tourists too, flocked here to bathe in these incredible pools filled with steaming hot water from the earth below.

How we envisioned Pamukkale….we were wrong. Image: trkaplicas.blogspot.com

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this cotton castle has been nearly loved to death. The overuse and poor preservation of the pools nearly led to their complete destruction. In the last decade, great efforts have been made to restore the travertines to their original state, but it will take many years for the constructive power of nature to complete the work.

Travertines in the early morning light

If it weren’t for the dawn arrival of our overnight bus from Cappadocia, we may have been greatly disappointed. All of the travel agencies around Turkey show you pictures of the “old” Pamukkale and conveniently forget to mention that all but a few pools are now closed for restoration. Luckily for us, we were granted entrance to the park at quarter ‘til 7 before most of the staff had even arrived. We were the first visitors in the gate and had the place completely to ourselves, except for a few stray dogs that followed in our footsteps. We began to explore some fantastic pools as we climbed our way up the travertines.

Our canine friends

Then, when we had nearly reached the top, we heard someone honking a horn and blowing a whistle.  We looked up to see a very displeased security guard waiving us off the hill. Turns out that the area we were climbing in was off limits. They normally have a guard stationed at the bottom instructing you not to climb, but we had arrived so early that he hadn’t reached his post yet. Whoops!

Mike on a quest to find the hottest pool.

Almost to the top, just before we got busted.

After making our way back to the bottom, we followed a narrow path along some man-made pools. The view of the mountains across the valley was spectacular, but the pools themselves were frankly nothing special. At the end of the trail, however, we ran into another spectacular sight: the ruins of ancient Hierapolis. During Roman times, people found the hot springs of Pamukkale to be so fantastic that it inspired the settlement of Hierapolis, which sits just above the travertine pools where the water springs to the surface.

Smoking hot travertines

We spent the remainder of our day hiking around and exploring the ruins of what must have been an enormous and wondrous city. The remnants of Hierapolis spread across a great deal of land and contained some very well restored buildings and monuments. Some of our favorite ruins are pictured below. Pamukkale is best known for the travertines, but for us Hierapolis was the highlight.

The Martyrium of St. Philip

The Theater

Main road leading into Hierapolis

All in all, our morning of accidental trespassing and archeological exploration was a great time. While we would not recommend going out of your way to visit Pamukkale (that is, until the restoration work is complete), if you happen to be traveling between Cappadocia and Ephesus, it is certainly worth stopping for half of a day.

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