Friday 28 March 2008


We're been in Chengdu for a few days now. Right from the trip in from the airport, it's obvious that Chengdu is a richer city than Xi'an. There are forests of new apartment blocks sprouting everywhere. Construction appears frantic here. There's also landscaping and attempts to make the place look nice which lacked in Xi'an. The downtown core is larger and more modern. There are poorer neighbourhoods and places we were told to avoid.

We were greeted at the airport by our driver and guide as the first four days of our trip was a private tour. They took us to our hotel in the Tibetan quarter where we were greeted with a police blockade and a few dozen police cars. They're parked a few to each block with their lights flashing. The area is heavily patrolled.

Police cars in the Tibetian Quarter

It's clear the authorities have taken the Tibetan riots very seriously. Travel to Western Sichuan is closed and there's no chance of going to Lhasa. It's been interesting watching the Chinese English-language news station. The rioters are simply branded as criminals and the Dalai Lama is blamed. There's is no mention of what motives or grievances there could be beyond labelling them secessionists. The main news websites like the BBC, CNN, Google and Yahoo are all blocked.

I don't support the violence in Tibet against the Chinese but do believe there should be a better political process. We've eaten at a couple of Tibetan restaurants and we're still staying in the Tibetan quarter as our token support. I must say I don't think I'll order yak butter tea again!

We've been to some temples on Qingcheng Shan, a holy Taoist mountain, and walked around the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project. In the 3rd century BC, Li Bing came up with this grand irrigation scheme which massively improved agricultural productivity in Sichuan. This filled the royal coffers and enabled Emperor Qin to unite China and build his terracotta army. It's more interesting than it sounds and is an important UNESCO site.


Kids with a panda bear

We went to the Giant Panda Research Base where I took pictures of the kids with a young panda. You have to get there early before the panda's all fall comatose after their bamboo breakfast. Afterwards we went to the Sanxingdui Museum which chronicles some quite amazing artifacts from the rarely mentioned ancient Shu Dynasty.

Leshan BuddhaSummit of Mt Emei

We did an overnight trip to the ancient town of Huanglongxi and Leshan to see the world's largest Buddha and climbed up Mount Emei. Huanglongxi was a tourist trap and Leshan was underwhelming but Mount Emei was good. We took the easy route which just involves 3km of walking up steps and then a cable car ride to the top. We lucked out with the weather. It was sunny and we had fantastic views all the way to the mountains of Western Sichuan and Tibet. The top was still covered with snow. For the first time, it felt like we were breathing fresh air!

Holly's HostelFire breather

Tennis ball cannonKieran with Kirin

With the private tour over, we're now hanging about at Holly's Hostel in Chengdu touring local sights and deciding what to do next. While as badly polluted as other Chinese cities, Chengdu has its pleasant spots.

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Wednesday 26 March 2008


Made it to China. We almost missed our connection to Xi'an due to the massive queue/scrum for the domestic flights airport security check taking over an hour to get through. Great introduction to China - especially all the shouting and scuffles with security guards. And then they kept changing the departure gate for the flight!

I can't believe how terrible the air pollution was in Xi'an. Caught myself trying to take very shallow breaths just to avoid breathing it. It's so bad, you can barely see any blue sky. You have to look straight above you.

XianXian Wall

We stayed at the Bell And Drum Tower Hotel. Very convenient location but their rooms were rather tired. As we had heard, mattresses tend to be rather hard in China and this hotel was no exception. Still, it was clean and the plumbing worked.

We did lots of walking around. Rode bikes along the city walls. Saw the terracotta warriors. Browsed through the excellent Shaanxi Museum. Got caught in the rain. Exercised in the park. Bartered for souveniers. Enjoyed the serene Great Mosque. Found the start of the (Northern) Silk Road. Most nights we wandered around the Muslim Quarter checking out all the food stalls and shops. It's a modern city but not as modern outside the center as I expected. At least there was a Starbucks close by. I've read that there are now more Starbucks in China than the United States.

Terracotta1Terracotta Warriors

So far China is much as what I expected. Crazy traffic. Lots of spitting and other behaviours that would be considered rude in the West. Horrible toilets. Got overcharged just buying water. If you don't know the proper price, you're pretty much guaranteed to get overcharged. Stunning amount of building going on. Life feels rather frantic in the city.

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Sunday 16 March 2008

Gone To China and Japan

Tonight we’re catching a red-eye flight to China. Our first stop is Xi’an. Then we fly to Chengdu in Sichuan for a short local tour but we have about ten days to do whatever we want. Not sure yet whether we’ll go south or east or we could even try going to Tibet. We’re going to make it up as we go. By April 6th we have to be in Beijing in order to catch our flight to Osaka. We’re hoping to be in Kyoto in time to see the cherry blossoms but according to current predictions, we’re going to be about a week late. Then we have a few days up in Tokyo before flying back to Beijing on April 15th. We have a week in Beijing and then we fly back to Kuala Lumpur. No doubt its going to be our most challenging trip yet.
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Friday 14 March 2008

Diving Sipadan

SipadanAt the top of my list of things to do while in Malaysia this time around was to dive the island of Sipadan. Sipadan is considered one of the best dives site in the world.

So I booked us on a 6 day/5 night package at Borneo Divers Mabul Resort. Mabul is the island next to Sipadan. You can’t actually stay on Sipadan as it’s now protected and visitor numbers are limited.

There are four other places you can stay. The Sipadan Mabul Resort (SMART) runs a high end Water Village as well as some value-oriented beach bungalows. There’s another water village at Kapalai and there’s an old converted oil rig platform called SeaVentures which offers good value for money. A fifth option which the cheapest of the lot is to stay in Semporna on the mainland but then you have a long boat ride out to the islands.

Borneo Divers Resort BungalowI was very happy with the Borneo Divers Resort. It was well run and the bungalows were bright, nicely furnished and comfortable. The staff were very friendly. The diving kit was a mixed bag: some stuff was new, some was rather old. If I was going to complain, I would say the food wasn’t inspiring. It was perfectly adequate but not a lot of choice. A minor niggle.

The daily routine is breakfast by 7:30am and then walk over to the diving station by the beach to put on your wetsuit and boots. Your fins, weights, BCD, regs and tanks are already loaded on the boat so there’s nothing much for you to carry except your mask and computer. The boat leaves at 8am and takes about twenty minutes to get out to Sipadan. It will take up to about 12 people.

At Sipadan, you have to first dock while all the permits for the day are checked. Lots of visitors are just there for snorkelling so they get off the boat and then the divers head out to the first dive site. After the dive, we dock again and have a one hour break on the beach. It’s catered with tea, coffee, water and some snacks. Lots of chit chat. Then it’s off for the second dive. The dive master switches all the tanks for you so all you have to do is a predive check and then backwards roll into the water.

After the second dive, the boat picks up the snorkellers and we all head back to Mabul in time for lunch. All meals are included in the package. At 3pm, there’s another boat dive but it’s only to either Mabul or Kapalai. After that, you have the option of doing a (free) sunset dive at the house reef without a guide so you must have a buddy.

After your last dive, it’s your job to wash all your equipment with freshwater and get it ready for the next day. Dinner service starts at 6:30 and the night is yours.

That’s the routine. I loved it.


The diving was very good. I was a bit disappointed at first as I expected to be blown away and I wasn’t. But the diving was very good.

Sipadan is a turtle island. You can’t go there and NOT see a turtle. You regularly see a few on each dive. They’re not easily scared by divers so you can approach them quite close as they lie sleeping on the seabed. You get both Hawksheads and Greenbacks. There’s also lots of whitetip sharks. You see them on almost every dive too. I don’t go so close to them!

I was really hoping to see a tornado of barrucuda which are often found at Barracude Point but they never showed up. Guess it was the wrong season for them.

The other star sighting we had was a large Eagle Ray swimming along the sea floor at about 40m depth. First one I’ve ever seen. Lovely creature.

Beside those, there was plenty of other sea life and I must confess I don’t know all the names of them. They’re fish. Tons and TONS of fish. Colouful fish. Little ones and big ones. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Trigger fish, Parrot fish, Angel fish, Jack fish, Bum heads, Blue Spotted Rays, Alligator Fish, Trevalleys, Flute fish, Pipe fish, Groupers, Bat fish, and bazillions of tiny reef fish. Found a black frog fish. He was cool. Annoyed a Morray Eel. Even got to see a school of cuttle fish. This region has upwards of 3000 species of reef fish.

One of the highlights was playing with a large school of Jack fish. Jenny and I managed to hover in the middle of them while the school circled us. Weird having all those eye’s looking at you!

The point is that there’s lots to see. There’s also lots of nudibranches and other little things if you take the time to just explore. Even found a pygmy seahorse.

So after twelve dives, I was pretty happy with Sipadan.

Divingportrait2Jenny had a couple of moments while diving. Once, she dived off the boat without putting her fins on first. The DM was standing around looking at an empty boat and calling out “whose fins are these?!”. Of course, no one let her forget that quickly. On the last dive, I noticed my no decompression countdown was getting close to zero. Then I checked Jenny and found she had slipped into a decompression dive. This is something that’s always avoided as you have to manage your ascents more carefully. It was easily sorted by a longer stint at 5m.

Overall, the diving isn’t difficult. There are currents but they’re easy to live with. The sea was always very calm with no swell. It can be freaky as you swim over the dropoff knowing that the sea floor is 600m below you. But you can get a wonderful sensation as if you’re skydiving. We visited Turtle Cavern twice and on the second time penetrated inside the cave a short ways and enjoyed the view looking out into the deep.

We made some friends during the trip. Divers are a friendly bunch and there’s plenty of time to relax and chat. The pictures I’ve posted here are from Tim and Lana who are a Canadian couple we met.

So I would recommend diving Sipadan but I probably won’t go back unless it’s a great deal. I want to dive Layang Layang with the hope of seeing Hammerhead sharks. Or I’d like to go somewhere to see Manta rays. Asia has so many good places to go diving!

How To Pee

Found this rather explicit toilet sign in a restaurant in Malaysia. Wonder if they also do signs for squat toilets.

Malaysian Toilet Sign


Sunday 9 March 2008

Malaysian Elections

Barisan Nasional LogoThe results of the 2008 Malaysian election are in and Barisan Nasional is back in power. This coalition is headed by the UMNO which has ruled Malaysia ever since independence in 1957. I don’t believe having the same party in power for 50 years is that healthy and certainly makes for a very suspicious and unbalanced “democracy”.

Like many Asian countries, the deal is that citizen’s can have economic freedom but criticism, protest and dissent are not tolerated. In Malaysia, all the mainstream media are controlled by political parties. Journalists lack freedom of expression and forums for debate just don’t exist. As witnessed by the recent Hindraf protests or the arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian government will freely use the draconian Internal Security Act laws to squash political opposition. Opponents can be detained without trial indefinitely. This is justified as the way to maintain stability, security and economic growth. It’s also a convenient way for the same party to stay in power.

The biggest issue in Malaysian politics therefore continues to be avoided and that is the unequal treatment of citizens of different races. I don’t see how a country can achieve racial integration when you keep reminding everyone that their race matters.

This latest election brings hope that a more open dialogue will begin. The opposition political parties have gained many new seats and Barisan Nasional has lost it’s 2/3rds majority in parliament which allowed it to push through legislature with impunity. It may force the goverment to listen more but it’s a long road to getting politics balanced.

Saturday 8 March 2008

K* Turns 9

We got back from Australia on Feb 3rd and spent the month chilling out in Malaysia. We celebrated Chinese New Year and also K*’s 9th birthday. For a treat we took K* and several family members indoor rock climbing at Camp 5. Great facility. We’ve also been kite flying and a done few other local trips.

Worlds Largest Pewter MugK* Turns 9

During the month we have also concentrated on sorting out the remaining few months we have in Asia before we return to the UK. All this travel takes a lot of research and planning. Australia took us to the end of our plans and bookings. It’s a tough life trying to decide where to go next.

One decision we made was that it was time for another diving trip.


Thursday 6 March 2008


After Uluru, we returned to Melbourne for a few more days before flying back to Malaysia.

According to latest survey by The Economist, Melbourne is the 2nd most liveable city in the world (Vancouver is #1). I can believe it. It’s an easy grid-based city with plenty of green area’s and lots to do. It’s big enough to be interesting but not so big as to be overwhelming. Southeast from Melbourne is the Mornington Peninsual which has some lovely scenic areas and quaint towns. The Dandenong Ranges National Park was a nice place to hike. We also went down to Authurs Seat for fabulous views one day and rode the Puffing Billy another day. There’s lots of parks with ubiquitous BBQ’s for picnics at the drop of a hat.

If I was going to live in Austalia, I would either pick Brisbane or Melbourne to settle in.



We’re back in Malaysia but I still need to finish up blogging about Australia. I’m also trying out BlogJet as a way of writing these posts.

From Melbourne we flew to Ayer’s Rock to visit Uluru. In some ways, I had been dreading this part of the trip as it’s the middle of summer and I expected some terrible heat. And, after all, it’s a lot of money to go see a big rock. I couldn’t convince Jenny to drop this part of the trip as she really wanted to see this icon of Australia.

While flying there, you get to appreciate the size of Australia and how much of it is just desert. Miles and miles of nothing.

We got there and sure enough, it was hot – 40 degree’s celsius. However, the humidity is only 10% so it doesn’t feel that bad really. Generally, you do stuff in the morning and late afternoon and laze around the rest of the day. We rented a car so we could easily get about.

I really enjoyed the outback atmosphere. For such a dry place, there’s lot of vegetation. In the evening, there’s an orgy of insect life bouncing around. We saw several lizards and even a small snake. There’s bigger things like kangaroos and camels but we never saw them; they mainly come out at late at night. Of course, there’s also a bazillion flies that want to crawl all over you. By this time, all of us had nets to go over our heads.

We saw the sunrise and sunset at Uluru. The sunset wasn’t too great due to clouds but it was still a good show. We did a couple of walks around the base. We walked around the Olga’s and saw the sunset there too. Jenny and the kids also did a course on dot art painting. We didn’t climb Uluru as the local aborigines request that you don’t.

We stayed three nights at the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge in one of their budget rooms. It’s just bunk beds and a bathroom but it’s great value and comfortable enough. Hotels can be very expensive around Uluru. Recommended.