As usual it takes me more than half a year to post holiday photos and write a few lines about it. This time it’s June 2016’s holiday to Vietnam [wikipedia.org]. A packaged tour to Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay.
We flew into Hanoi [wikipedia.org]. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum [wikipedia.org] followed by a visit to the Presidential Palace Historical Site [wikipedia.org] built by the French as the seat for the Governor-General of Indochina and where Ho Chi Minh [wikipedia.org] later lived as President, though not in the European style palace rather in a more modest and traditional stilt house.
Later we visited the Temple of Literature [wikipedia.org]. Dedicated to “Confucius, sages and scholars” and home to the first university in Vietnam, founded in 1076 (take that Oxford and Bologna). The most interesting thing is the Stelae of the Doctors which are 82 large stone statues of Turtles with a large — meter and a half or so? — tablet standing on their backs and inscribed with the names of the graduates and staff of the university.
After the Temple we took a rest and had dinner before boarding an overnight train to Sa Pa. An adventure for my daughters who could not sleep. We left late and arrived in Lào Cai [wikipedia.org] before 6AM. From Lao Cai we took a bus up into the hills to Sa Pa [wikipedia.org].
We didn’t do much in Sapa town itself, just eating and sleeping (and a bit of pool time). We spent our two days treking around two local villages – Lao Chải a Black Hmong [wikipedia.org] village and Tả Phìn a Red Dao [wikipedia.org] (the ‘D’, written as ‘Đ’ in Vietnamese, is pronounced like a ‘Z’). The villages are beautiful, bright green rice paddies in the valleys between mountains but you do spend the whole hike being followed by eager locals hawking things. That gets real old after a few kilometers. I know they are just trying to make a living but if you do buy something from one then you become a target for the rest.
We spent most of a day driving back from Sa Pa to Hanoi and spent the evening in the Lotte Hotel. Shopping, swimming and watching the traffic 30-plus storeys below. The next day we spent the morning driving from Hanoi to the coast to visit Ha Long Bay [wikipedia.org]. We spent the early afternoon sailing among the limestone karst formations that make up the bay and visited a floating village to get a more up-close view via a traditional row boat trip around some of the islands.
After a night on the boat — another first for the kids, along with the train — we visited Sung Sot cave and Monkey Island beach. And then a long ride back to Hanoi.
The last evening in Hanoi we went to see a traditional water puppet show which was interesting. Very annoying the number of ass holes recording the whole show on their phones or taking photos and forgetting to turn off the damn flash despite being asked in, like, seven languages to no take videos or photos. So unless you are in the front row you get to enjoy the show with 5 or 10 small screens in your view. Ass holes.
You can see full photoset for each location on Flickr:
It’s been six months since I went to Harbin on a tour with my wife’s family. We just got back from another trip — to Hanoi, Vietnam — two weeks ago so I thought I should finally write-up the last trip before I work on the new one. The photos have been on flickr [flickr.com] for a while, just never got around to the blog post.
We went to Harbin [wikipedia.org] to be cold. To see snow. Snow there was, and cold also. Negative 30° Celcius. Damn cold. Well, the last day was -30°. But straight off the plane it was cold; -15° or so and -25° or less expected overnight. Our first stop was a local shop selling “proper” winter clothes — jackets, hats, “inner layer pants”, snow pants and boots. Even the guide said the quality is not amazing, they will last the week but you can just trash them or ‘donate’ them on the way out. Getting kids in and out of 4 layers of clothes all week was a trial of patience.
After acquiring appropriate attire, we visited Harbin Polarland. Arctic Foxes, arctic Wolves, a polar bear, penguins and a couple of beluga whales, all in enclosures too small. It was sad. There wasn’t much time left on the first day after that, the sun sets early, but we did visit St. Sophia Cathedral [wikipedia.org], a Russian Orthodox Cathedral — fun fact: Harbin was founded by the Russians [wikipedia.org] to manage an extension to the Trans-Siberian Railway. We also visited a section of the Songhua River [wikipeida.org]. No one was interested in skating or other frozen river activities. It was windy and, as promised, -25°. First day off the plane from Singapore that was too much. I did enjoy the sight of the Wal-Mart Supercenter!
The other major attraction near the river was fast food. The McDonald’s was closed but there was a local equivalent. The kids at chicken and french fries since dinner was underwhelming. Getting kids to eat was also a week-long trial of patience. Plain rice at set meals and instant noodles in hotel rooms formed the majority of their caloric intake all week. Supplemented with crispy roasted seaweed brought from Singapore. Nobody really liked the food, apparently Harbin has a reputation for bad cuisine in China so it wasn’t just us.
We only stayed in Harbin one night and early the next morning we took the bus to Yabuli Ski Resort. On the way there we stopped at a “traditional” farm for a horse-drawn sledge ride and fun with firecrackers. Between that the bus ride and meals that was the end of the day.
Overnight it snowed, not much but there was a enough to cover everything when we woke up. While other members of the tour went skiing or what not we enjoyed the snow making snowballs! We cheated and bought some snowball makers and made piles of snowballs. The snowball makers were a good investment as it was too cold to actually pack the snow without them, unless you were willing to remove your gloves…
Our next adventure was the “Snow Forest” (according to the guide). After a few hours in the bus driving up into the mountains we arrived as a large gate make of packed snow leading to a small collection of cabins and entertainment — dog sleds, inner tube slides and food. And really loud music, including our theme songs “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (which was also played at Harbin Polarland during the Beluga Whale show) and “Let It Go” from Frozen, oddly appropriate, which we heard over and over the rest of the trip. But what we actually stopped for was a hike through the woods. The woods were beautiful, aside from a few caged animal “attractions” it was amazing. Until the guide left us all behind and we started to wonder if we were getting lost. The snow was deep enough and the path cleared so that we weren’t likely to get lost, except it was snowing and at times visibility wasn’t that great. The kids were tired and some people worried we should go back and not forward. In the end we caught up with the guide at the end of the trail. After that we just headed back to the bus.
Onward and upwards, higher into the mountains we went for an hour or so until we reached “China Snow Town”. It was typical China (my experience); we had to stand around in a waiting area while the guide dealt with entrance payments and paperwork, change buses with our luggage to smaller buses to go to the last kilometer (no outside vehicles inside Snow Town) and then walk and drag our luggage the last half kilometer to the hotel. Snow town is basically one long street and our hotel was right in the middle. The hotel was an experience! Either they remake it every year (the place is only open in the winter) or we just happened to go in a year when it was new/remodeled. Everything was new. All the furniture was fresh wood — it smelled like an idea shop — the toilet was new, the showers were new… new, new, new. And hot. Very hot. While outside it was -20° outside it was closer to 30° inside. If you came in from outside you were drenched with sweat before you crossed the (small) lobby. There was no way to avoid being drenched. Unless you were willing to use the lobby as dressing room to put on all your layer but you underwear.
After check in and dinner I decided to explore the Snow Town. I walked up and down the street. Provision shops, tea houses, restaurants; provision shops, tea houses, restaurants; provision shops, tea houses, restaurants… you get the idea. But everything made of wood, red lanterns (all advertising Budweiser!) hanging all around and everything covered in a blanket of snow. It was nice. The only thing I didn’t get to see was the traditional snow town, which you have to pay for and was part of our tour but for the next day.
Sleeping the Snow Town (at least at our hotel) is an unforgettable experience. I wish I could forget how hard the beds were. They we little more than boards. It’s like the hotel was an endurance test, sleeping on a board in a 30° room.
After surviving our first night, of two, We took an early morning trip up to the mountaintop; driving up the snow-covered road in an Inveco, I felt like I was in a National Geographic special about Siberia:
The snow on the mountain was more than half a meter deep. I stepped off the path while building a snowman and sank up to my waist. Stay on the path.
After lunch we visited the main attraction, the traditional Snow Town at the heart of Snow Town. We went in an hour before sunset so we could enjoy the day and night-time view. The traditional town, apparently it’s basically a movie/TV show set, is beautiful. Snow piling up on top of steep straw roofs. It was still early in the season so there was only 20cm or so of snow — I’ve seen photo of it closer to a meter thick on the roofs — but it was beautiful. However, it’s small. The traditional part is maybe 20m x 20m square. A couple of houses, a well and shrine with a big bell. That’s it. I stood around for almost an hour waiting for the sunset and the lanterns to come on to take photos. This was one of three times I felt really cold the whole trip standing around, taking my gloves off repeatedly to better use my camera and phone. It was bitterly, painfully cold.
After another hard night we spent most of the next day in transit. We didn’t go back to Harbin itself but to Daqing Lindian Hot Springs resort a few hours outside the city center. This was the kids favorite night – indoor heated swimming! My wife even dared to run outside to one of the outdoor hot spring baths for a while! I owe her $2 for that. It was a good relaxing night. I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit but as part of the tour, in the freezing winter, an afternoon of swimming in hot springs was nice.
The next day was out last full day and we headed back to Harbin early and then to the main attraction. The whole reason to go to Harbin – the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival [wikipedia.org]. I don’t remember where I first read about or saw something on the festival but it’s been on my list of must see places for a long time. The festival is actually two different things, one Snow Sculpture festival and one Ice Sculpture festival in two different locations.
We started with the Snow Sculpture festival. Unfortunately while the festival is open, it’s not really in full swing until January or February and there were not that many completed sculptures. There was one massive, maybe 100m long, sculpture and they were working on 30m high castle, but a lot of things were still just rough, half carved blocks or pile of snow. Still what we did see was amazing and the snow sculptures were never the thing I wanted to see.
We visited the Ice Sculpture festival, like the traditional Snow Town, an hour before sunset so we could see it during the day and lit up at night in all it’s glory. And it did not disappoint. Despite being the coldest day; below -30° it was a magical experience. The ice sculptures, really buildings made of massive blocks of ice cut from the river, are amazing and lit from the inside in a rainbow of colors. Tragically the kids missed it all, between the bitter cold and not wanting to get all their gear on they decided to stay on the bus and miss out on the Ice Sculptures. Words cannot do it justice, put it on your bucket list.
The last thing we did before sleep and a pre-dawn flight was dinner in an ice palace. Chinese steamboat in a building made entirely of ice next to our hotel. And steamboat lives up to its name under those conditions; a boiling pot of broth in a room made from ice. Steamy.
Overall Harbin was a great trip, not sure I’d do it again but as a once in a lifetime trip it was worth it. China is hard, and much of the bitching above is just a difference in expectations and culture I suppose. Harbin, while it’s a big city in absolute terms, is a bit off the beaten path making it that much more so.
It’s amazing how little knowledge there was about this in Singapore. First mention I saw of it in local media was two days before. No one anywhere selling viewing glasses or sheets or anything; seem Singaporeans don’t fully understand capitalism, there is a total eclipse in December 2019 here so I need to pre-order a few thousand solar eclipse glasses!) I put too much effort into taking my photos – I rented a 500mm Canon lens and a doubler from Camera Rental Center [camerarental.biz] here in Singapore. Read up on how to take the photos on Mr. Eclipse [mreclipse.com] and ordered solar film and glasses from Thousand Oaks Optical [thousandoaksoptical.com] via Amazon [amazon.com].
The photos turned out great. You can see the full Partial Solar Eclipse, Singapore, March 2016 [flickr.com]. The only issue was my tripod was not up to the task of holding that mammoth lens so I could not take longer exposures – they got too blurry. C’est la vie, ISO 3200 FTW! Next chance in 2019.
In June I went to Pune in India for “handover training” on the project which has been the main focus of my work for three years now. I didn’t see much in Pune but since It was a three-week trip I managed to take a weekend trip with two of the other guys from the project. Of course the must see attraction for one’s first time in India is the Taj Mahal [wikipedia.org]!
In order to get to the Taj from Pune we flew to New Delhi early on Saturday morning. Once there we met up with a hired driver to drive us the 200+ kilometer to Agra. With a quick stop in Delhi to see the Red Fort [wikipedia.org]. The Red Fort was built by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal Emperor who built the Taj, and was the residence of the Mugal Emperors for 200 years until “the Britishers” took over.
You can see how the Red Fort must have been a beautiful place, and could be an amazing place to visit. However… it is in pretty bad shape. Trees down, all the water fountains under some sort of renovation — and what appears to be the workers on this project living with their family under one of the buildings in the middle of what should be a pool. We saw a woman down there doing the laundry and the kids playing.
All in all the Red Fort was not worth the two hours in the 40+ degree Celsius Delhi summer heat.
After a quick fast food lunch — the land of vegetarian McDonald’s “burgers”! We piled in our ride for a tour of India’s $2 Billion Yamuna Expressway [wikipedia.org]. Halfway to Agra we took a short break for our driver to replace a tire and then a few miles down the road to have the tire fixed. I haven’t seen a car tire with an inner-tube before. I think those went out of style in the US before I was born.
Eventually we did get to Agra. Then we go lost. Seem the driver didn’t know the way to the Taj. We drove the wrong way a few miles — which takes some time in Agra — before he asked for directions and we backtracked to the Taj.
Once there we were told there was only 15 minutes until the ticket counters closed – one hour before the Taj itself closed for the night. And that it was a 600 meter walk from the parking area to the ticket counters. We elected to walk it, running a gauntlet of trickshaw drivers, camel handlers, horse masters and donkey cart drivers who wanted to sell us a ride. They didn’t give up until we were within about 100 meters of the ticket gates. The constant touting was not the part of the walk that leaves an impression. All tourist hot-spots have their equivalent. The smell is the part that sticks with you. It was like walking through an open sewer. It was, without a doubt, the worst smell I have ever smelled. Worse than the pit farms near my grandparents house. Worse than smell of Bangkok back alleys. I mean, you could see horse shit, donkey shit and even camel shit on the road — and you could smell it when it was there. But this was a constant smell of doom, an apocalyptic odor. Something I will never forget. We never identified its source but luckily it was confined to the 600 meters between the parking lot and the ticket counters.
We made it to the ticket counters in time, got our tickets and our booties — which one must ware inside the Taj itself. By coincidence that night was a full moon, and the Taj is open for night viewing during a full moon. We had planned to get tickets for the full moone viewing, unfortunately you can’t just buy tickets for it at the ticket counter — you have to buy them 24 hours in advance. The website makes not mention of this and we were unable to get them to sell us tickets so despite the coincidence we were unable to take advantage of our one night being the a full moon.
We spent our hour wandering around and taking photos before the guards kicked everyone out and we had to make our way back through the stench. Thankfully it was less intense, maybe the wind have shifted. We spent a night in a nearby hotel.
Next morning we went back for sunrise photos but low hanging clouds kept it from being too dramatic. In any event we walked around for a good two hours taking in the beauty of the Taj itself and the surrounding buildings. The Taj deserves all the praise for its beauty. There is not much to it inside, it is after all a mausoleum. The outside is the glory. It is an amazingly beautiful building. If it had not been for the need to get to Delhi to fly back to Pune for work I could have spent all day just wondering around the Taj grounds and admiring the beauty and the details. Despite the sunset and sunrise being less than spectacular and the daytime haze making for a dull gray sky I took an enormous amount of photos — I doubt I will ever go back.
On my last trip to Israel for work I scheduled a one day layover in Istanbul — arriving at 6AM and off again at 6PM — with plans to take the time to wander around Sultanahmet and take some photos. I’ve been to Istanbul many times, it’s a great city and always worth the time. Hagia Sophia [wikipedia.org] is my favorite building in the world. I can — and do — spend hours sitting and walking around it in.
That was all I planned for this trip. A relaxing day on the way to Israel for work. I did not plan to visit Istanbul on the way home, just a quick plane change. Alas my flight from Tel Aviv back to Istanbul didn’t take off till about 20 minutes before my connection was scheduled to take off and it’s an hour-long flight.
We were met at the gate by staff but they were only interested in passengers for a couple of destinations whose connections had not yet taken off. The Singapore flight was long gone. There were about 12 people on my plane who all missed the Singapore flight. I will only say that the Turkish ground staff had no idea what to do with us and were completely lost, they could only tell us the next flight was the same one the next day, 24 hours to wait. We had to figure out, basically on our own, that we needed to get visas because the airport hotel was full, we had issues with baggage — the staff there told us it was checked through, then they told us we could get it at after we go our hotel fixed, which meant leaving the customs area (and going through the one way gate into the arrivals hall), we needed to get paperwork from the ticketing counter upstairs, etc, etc, etc. It was a fiasco. Took me two hours. I was stupid enough to believe the luggage guys and leave the customs area and then I had to use a special phone to call them back from outside and they came and escorted me back into the customs areas and then took another 30 minutes to find my bag. My flight landed in Istanbul at midnight and it was 4AM when I got to my hotel.
The good news is that the hotel was in a great location, near Fetih [wikipedia.org]. So, after some sleep I spent the day wandering around the Fetih Mosque [wikipedia.org], Şehzade Mosque [wikipedia.org], saw the Valens Aqueduct [wikipedia.org] and wandered around the university area. Even wandered through the end of some protest.
The missed flight and delay was tiring and losing a day was annoying but at least I got to spend it in a city I love to wander around it.
From our base in Matsumoto [confusion.cc], we made our way by train by train to Nagano [wikipedia.org] bus and then on foot through the snow to Jigokudani Monkey Park [wikipedia.org] in Yamanouchi [wikipedia.org]! To see the world-famous snow monkeys, lounging in the Onsen:
It was bitterly cold, around -10° C. And very atmospheric with steam rising from the various hot springs along “Hell’s Valley” (Jigokudani). our first sighting of the monkeys was foraging in the snow near the visitors center at the apex of a, very slippery, two kilometer walk through the woods. Despite the cold and snow there were a number of visitors, many with impressively large cameras and zoom lenses determined to get great close up shots of the monkeys. After taking our turn with the monkeys near the visitors center we walked on to the actual hot spring. It was a bit of a letdown when we first saw it:
It’s a man-made bath for the monkeys. Also according to Wikipedia the monkeys only started to use the onsen in 1963. Proof of evolution? I think so. I guess the nice setup for photographers was made later in support of the Japanese obsession with photography.
We also visited Nagano itself, though this was on a different day due to how short the days were. We didn’t do much since it was the off-season, just wandered around Zenkō-ji and its surrounding building. Including at least two trips through the pitch black, and freezing cold, corridor under the main hall in an apparently fruitless attempt to gain entrance to paradise.
10 years ago, in March 2004 I visited Japan for the first time. One of the stop on that trip was Matsumoto, in Nagano prefecture. We didn’t spend much time there – one afternoon and the night. I really only remember three things from my first visit:
How cold it was in Matsumoto-jo, one of the few original castles still standing in Japan, where we had to remove our shoes as we walked up to the top, everyone had frozen toes and it was snowing when we left
A used Kimono shop on Nakamachi-dori, where we spent a long time browsing the beautiful kimonos
The sound of the recorded woman announcing arrival in Matsumoto on the train as it pulled into the station
Ten years later, in February 2014, I visited Matsumoto again. The goal was to go somewhere where my daughters could see snow. Turns out Matsumoto was not really a good choice as it apparently does not get that much snow. We used Matsumoto as a home base to and went to Kambayashi Onsen in Yamanouchi — famous for its snow monkeys as well as seeing Zenkō-ji in Nagano and taking a bus to Hida-Takayama for an afternoon.
Matsumoto is an even quieter town than I remember and the early sunsets a late sunrises of winter made it seem ever quieter. But some things don’t change:
Even though it was quiet, we all enjoyed ourselves; my wife had a good time eating, including horse sashimi and more soba then you can shake a limp buckwheat noodle at. We took advantage of my mom and sister being with us to leave my daughters with them in the evening so we could go out and try different restaurants since my wife is really the only adventurous foodie in the group. My daughters enjoyed the soba too but their favorite things were ham from Lawson’s and the popcorn from 7-11.
As for snow, we got some in Yamanouchi when we hiked up to see the snow monkeys and we drove through a lot on the way to Hida-Takayama but none in Matsumoto until the last morning. On the last morning we got a lot of snow we had to catch a train at 10AM but we know the forecast was for early snow. So I woke up at 5AM and sure enough there was about 10cm on the ground. I woke Tori up and we walked to the castle to take some photos and play for an hour or so.
I spent a weekend in Sydney between work meetings. It rained much of the weekend but I got a few hours on Saturday afternoon to go and see the city. On the upside the rain left a bit of a rainbow and I was able to get a few shots of it from Harbor Bridge. The weather also made for some very dramatic clouds at sunset and a wonderful reflection of this buildings windows:
In June the family took a short holiday to the Gold Coast in Australia. Took the kids to Sea World and Movie World and whale watching. Not much for photo taking but the whales and the beach sunset on the first day were great.
During the whale watching we got to follow a few whales for almost 45 minutes, and we saw dolphins along side the whales and even a sea turtle. Unfortunately we didn’t see the whales breach but lots of surfacing for air – blow holes, humps and tails.
The beach was amazing, even in the southern winter the water was fairly warm – warmer than the air in fact. We played in the surf a lot, I think that Tori may have enjoyed the time at the beach better than anything else. The beach as Surfers Paradise — and in fact the whole town — reminded me of Gulf Shores and my granddads beach house when I was a kid. Wonderful shallow surf you could wade out in for a long way, sugar sand and all. It just had that small beach town feel, not like the mega tourist beach towns. I will have to take Tori and Livi back again just to play on the beach.