The Trans-Siberian Railway

‘Trains seemed the happiest choice. You could do anything on a train; live your life and go long distances. There was little stress, there was sometimes comfort, and there was something romantic in the notion of boarding a train.’ – Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar.

I have long had the ambition to journey along the Trans-Siberian railway but I have always found a reason not to do it. This summer, having finished employment in China, provided Nicki and I with the perfect opportunity to get on the train to Moscow. So we did.

In order to make best use of our time, and get some shower/hot food stops we planned our train journey in 3 parts:

Part 1: Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)

Part 2: Irkutsk – Omsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)

Part 3: Omsk – Moscow (2 nights, 1 whole day)

Part 1: Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)

Our journey began in Mongolia. You can read about that leg here.

Our hostel host in Ulaanbaatar had kindly called upon his dad (for that’s who we thought he was) to give us a lift to the train station. We arrived with our rucksacks about an hour early, but we weren’t the only ones.

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There were about 10 other foreigners of different ages and nationalities waiting to board the train. We took the obligatory photo of the carriage before boarding and finding out who awaited us in our cabin.

Throughout our journey we had booked onto second-class carriages. This meant that we were bunked in a 4-person cabin rather than the private 2 bed of 1st class or the 6 beds of 3rd.

We ambled along the narrow corridor towards our cabin, Nicki leading the way. Once we reached our bunk we discovered one man already positioned within it. It didn’t take us long to realise that he was unique. He was murmuring to himself and clutching his chest in pain. He was a skinny man dressed in a white vest, which he did not change until he left the train with us in Irkutsk.

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Upon departure, we were immediately engaged in conversation with or carriage-mates. Several of them were from New Zealand, of which many were former Brits, which contributed to a laid back atmosphere and a few beers. We found that alcohol was easily drunk on the Trans-Siberian despite not technically being allowed.

In fact, our Mongolian roommate, Shak, soon asked me to open his 1 litre bottle of Chenngis Khan Gold Vodka. Upon doing so he poured Nicki and I a ‘shot’ that filled half of our paper cups. He dipped his fingers in his and flicked some out of the window before flicking some more at my feet in a kind of pre-drinking ritual.

He then showed us how to down half a glass of vodka before egging us both to do the same. Nicki has filled hers up with coke in the meantime, which left Shak with an expression of distain. So much so that he put his fingers to his throat in a motion we mistook for throat cutting aggression (instead we inferred that this is a Mongolian sign for ‘drink more’). I had made the mistake of humouring him and he now thought he had a drinking buddy for the next 36 hours.

Shak then invited Tara and Andy, two well-mannered Ango-Kiwis, to join us for another half cup of vodka. After a whole cup of vodka in 2 gulps I was ready for an escape. However, Shak now really wanted to sniff his bread whilst he drank but didn’t have a knife (thankfully). Instead he ripped into the bread with his teeth, spraying crumbs all over the cabin. Thankfully escape came when Shak finished the remainder of his 1 litre bottle and passed out asleep. We moved our conversation to Tara and Andy’s cabin.

Before we could put ourselves to bed, Shak woke up and asked us to join him as he opened his second bottle of vodka. He could not grasp that other people could not speak Mongolian and continued to talk to us; he even tried to speak to the Russian inspectors in Mongolian at the border crossing. We declined more vodka and Tara tried to use her hands to get him back to sleep while I put his bottle back into his bag.

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We eventually got ourselves to sleep. The cabins on the Tran-Siberian are of amble size for a good night sleep. Despite being a hot July day, it wasn’t too stuffy in the room.

We were woken in the middle of the night by the arrival of our 4th roommate, who looked like a smaller (but still very tall) version of Yao Ming. Nicki is the lightest sleeper in the world, so the big man’s snoring did not impress her.

At around 5am (too early), Shak was awake and lively, with no regard for others. He was still chewing on his bread and trying his best to wake others up in the desperate need for company. I habitually sleep on my front and tried to pretend that I was still asleep but I couldn’t once Shak slapped me twice on the bum. He motioned as if to say I shouldn’t sleep on my front and, in an attempt to appease him, I lay on my back with my arms folded. He then slapped my arms and told me to lie with them straight. I can only describe him as Golem-like in his manner.

Once I had run out of ways to pretend I was asleep, I sat up to see Shak celebrate at the discovery of his second bottle of vodka. He obviously assumed he had finished it the night before. So he drank a few shots (before 6am). He decided to open a large tube of processed meat and left it open for us to smell and the flies to feed on for a few hours (until Nicki nicely asked him to put it away)

We had brought too much food on our trip and it was clear by breakfast time that we weren’t going to eat it all. We were on a learning curve and after this journey we realised that dried fruit is better than sweets (which do not leave you feeling good), one packet of pre-packed noodles is enough for any human in a 24-hour period, and dried nuts are the perfect snack.

We soon came to the board crossing to exit Mongolia, where we completed our customs checks with very friendly officials before moving 30 minutes more before our check into Russia, with far more stringent checks that left us motionless for 3 hours. However, once we were cleared for entry into Russia we were at liberty to stretch our legs around our first Siberian town in Russia. It was very basic and seemed like would fit the Siberian stereotype had it been covered in snow. Yet, the hot weather and bright sunshine made it feel somewhat confused.

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The afternoon on the train was very pleasant. Shak had passed out again and Nicki caught up on her sleep. The Kiwi ladies had tuned into a radio service playing the British and Irish Lions vs. All Blacks so I listened to that from my bunk whilst observing the train cut through the beauty of the Siberian countryside. I also found time to write this.

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Actually, I had not expected the train journey to be so relaxing and not boring at all. Despite no access to Wifi or 3G we were surviving, who knew it possible? If conversation ran out there were books, if I didn’t fancy reading I could look out the window, type my blog, watch some Orange Is the New Black, eat, have a beer, have a nap, or even do nothing. This was the beauty of the journey.

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Night approached swiftly and we exchanged a few Serbian beers after a short stop at a station. There is a timetable in each cabin telling you the arrival and stoppage length at each station. This is useful to know when you can get off for a stretch or to stock up on water or beer. It is worth noting that these times are always in Moscow time, yet we were 5 hours ahead at the point so we had some maths to do.

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By the time the sun set, which was about 10pm, Shak had finished his 3rd litre bottle of vodka in 24 hours and was passed out again. This made for a much smoother transition to sleep and we were packed and ready for a 7am departure upon our arrival in Irkutsk, Siberia. Shak was up, ready, and smartly dressed in a shirt by 6am. We caught him drinking Nicki’s unfinished beer from the night before. The journey will definitely be most remembered for his contribution to it.

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This is the only photo we have of Shak (left)

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Part 2: Irkutsk – Omsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)

After a fantastic introduction to Siberia at Lake Baikal we were now back on the train for our second leg of the Trans-Siberian express. It is probably worth noting that our first train journey was officially known as ‘Trans-Mongolian’ since it ran through Mongolia and not Eastern Siberia, but before Irkutsk the routes unify, which meant we were now ebbing through Siberia on the ‘Trans-Siberian’ railway.

After the previous experience in our carriage, we were eager to find out who our cabin mates would be for the next 42 hours. Irkutsk was a long stop so everyone had evacuated the train to get some fresh air and stretch their legs. This gave us an opportunity to make assumptions about our new friends based on the property they had lying around. One item was a pair of jeans neatly hung on a hanger. I asked Nicki to inspect the label, where a ‘made in Russia’ stamp presented itself. I fathomed that they looked like women’s jeans and only a lady would be considerate enough to hang them up.

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The food and utensils also caught our eye. There was a juice drink that I would have expected a Chinese person or a British person to drink and, most disturbingly, there was a very sharp bread knife wrapped in a flannel. Thankfully, there was no tube of processed meat.

Shortly before the wheels starting turning again, our companions jumped aboard. They were a father and daughter combination (although it took us a while to work that out) heading back home for work. We eventually found out that they were lovely, but the micro-expression the 30-something woman presented when she first saw us indicated she didn’t want company on this trip.

The evening went quite swiftly as we watched the Siberian countryside roll by between downloaded episodes on our laptop.

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There are many wonderful elements about spending so long on a sleeper train. One of them is that you can get up when you want, without that carpe diem regret you get with a lie-in at home. Also, because you can’t do anything else, you have no guilt about being lazy. Nicki would ask ‘what is your plan for today?’ and I would reply ‘might have a nap, read my book, look out of the window’. She would say ‘when do you want a beer?’ and I would reply ‘sometime today’.

At about 11 in the morning our Russian friends departed the train and were replaced with the scariest-looking Russian men I could have imagined. The shorter, older one had a bottom row of teeth made only of gold and the taller, wider one had a ‘scar’ on his forehead that resembled recently applied stitches. Upon closer inspection I thought it was a tattoo, but Nicki is sticking with stitches as an explanation for the monstrosity on his face. My prejudice made me assume that they were heading to a football match. It turned out Alexis and Alexander were two friendly, scary men.

Nicki remained apprehensive about their presence in our cabin and, twinned with the oppressive ‘you are in Russia, speak Russian’ stewardess of our carriage, we decided to spend some of the afternoon in the dining carriage.

We originally came to eat the tuna sandwiches we had made in the dining cart, but was aggressively told off for even thinking about it by the large lady running the stall. Instead we decided to watch a film and relocated into another seat to block out the sun. The waiter/owner lady thought we were hiding away from her so we could eat our tuna, so she (still aggressive) came and took our lunch bags away and hid them in her fridge. We had a beer.

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Eventually we came to a half hour stop in the mid afternoon. This allowed us to sit on a bench and eat our tuna sandwiches whilst macho Russian men took their tops off and went for a stroll.

Upon returning the dining carriage we were pleased to see the Kiwis enjoying a beer. One of companions, Sarah, is also a teacher in China and the youngest member of her group. She sat with us most of the afternoon as we ended up drinking, playing card games, and chatting until the late evening. This made for an easier sleep in the bunks alongside Alexander and Alexis (who, by the way, would not accept any of my offerings for sweets as ice breakers).

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DSCF3813The next morning arrived and we were to get off the train for a brief stop in Omsk where we were going to have a shower and a warm meal before getting back on for the final time,

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Part 3: Omsk – Moscow (2 nights, 1 whole day)

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The final third of our journey saw us travel 39 hours and across 3 time zones before arriving in Moscow.

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By now we were far more knowledgeable about how to prepare for our excursions. However, we were somewhat hampered by the liquid that we absorbed during lunch. This made our last minute supermarket shop a little more hap dash.

Despite this, we still entered the train armed with tuna (always a hit), cheese, instant mash, dried fruit, soup, and a few chocolatey treats.

For the rest of the journey we would share a cabin with a German mother and son, both of whom were lovely in a typical German way. The boy, who had just finished school at 19, spoke English fluently and eloquently explained the emotional trip they had been on together: his mother was born in Siberia and wanted to retrace her steps to her ancestral home.

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He described how his mother, who he was speaking for because she could not speak English, left Siberia when she was young (probably 50 years ago, but you don’t ask these things) and didn’t know much about her hometown. They had flown into Moscow from Germany and caught the railway into Siberia only to find her town completely different to how she imagined. He explained how the streets she remembered were no longer there and how the beautiful countryside around the town had been lost to deforestation in the processes of becoming a smoggy and polluted city. He went on to suggest that timber had been sold to the Chinese for financial gain but, since it was un-replenished, a loss to the natural environment. His mother had heard how the weather was more dramatic now, without the surrounding natural environment to protect the city. It was quite a sad tale and the lad’s mother seemed quite emotional as he retold it.

That said, the views we had from our train window showed Siberia to remain largely wild and beautiful in its landscape. The landscape appeared to be changing from the Eastern Siberian plains beyond Irkutsk to miles of trees as we drew closer to Moscow.

We slept easily in the company of our new friends and woke up early with the sun beaming through our window.

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Nicki waved to me as I lay on my shelf from the narrow corridor and invited me into the dining carriage that was, helpfully, only 10 metres away from our cabin. Inside she had prepared two plates featuring an apple, 3 squares of chocolate, and a handful of raisins. Inside each apple was a candle that Nicki lit and quietly sang Happy Birthday to me so that it was audible only to me. She had also prepared a birthday card in advance. I was now celebrating my 28th birthday aboard the Tran-Siberian express bound for Moscow. Nicki had also ordered me 2 fried eggs and a beer to complete my 7am surprise! What a lady!

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There are worse places to spend your birthday, although being stuck on a train might not be everyone’s idea of a nice day out. The train from Omsk to Moscow crosses 3 time zones. This meant that my birthday actually lasted 27 hours. Perhaps the best place to have a birthday?

Anyway, we spent the day occupying ourselves once more, and I spent a few hours preparing for the upcoming football draft in the dining cart. We ordered a few beers from a kiosk at one of the 20-minute station stops and drank them with our German friend  We both value hygiene, personal space, decent food, and WiFi too much. I would recommend the Tran-Siberian to anyone!

Mongolia: Mutton and Milk

Before embarking on our Tran-Siberian adventure we had a short stay in Mongolia, where we were able to see a vastly different way of life and alternative culture to the city life we have become accustomed to in China.

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On the Friday evening we finished our job in Ningbo, Zhejiang for the last time and decided not to rush straight into travel. Instead we had a day to rest and pack before flying to Beijing for our last dose of China.

Uncharacteristically, our flight was on time, which meant we had a full afternoon to explore Beijing for the last time. We took the metro from our hostel to the Summer Palace (somewhere I had never visited during my stays in Beijing). We were slightly underwhelmed by the Summer Palace as we got the feeling that many of the temples we have seen in China are more impressive.

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We then decided to have one last visit to the eerie, yet majestic, Tiananmen Square, overlooked by the massive portrait of Chairman Mao pinned to the entrance of the Forbidden City. It was nice to see it one last time, satisfied with the knowledge that we are unlikely to ever see it again.

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There was one meal that we were missing from our time in China: Peking duck in Peking. So we made it our mission to find one of the best: Bianyifang. We found the restaurant close to Tiananmen Square, which was strangely quiet given its online recommendation as one of the oldest duck restaurants in Beijing. We mistakenly ordered two whole ducks which was overruled as ‘too many’ by the waiter when he returned from the kitchen: he was right.

The duck we ordered eventually came and was cut up in front of us. One duck was enough to feed and satisfy both of us. This was our final meal in China, and one worth the wait.

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The Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian) runs from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and, had we not been cheats, this is where we would have started our journey overland. However, our employers offered us repatriation for air travel (not train travel) so we decided to use this to save ourselves time and money by flying into Mongolia.

We arrived into Mongolia’s capital city with no real expectation of what we were going to see and do. We have come to realise one of the beauties of teaching abroad is the number of opportunities we have to travel. Had we been at home, a trip like this would probably have been planned months in advance but, aside from our train tickets and accommodation, we were going to make it up as we go along.

We spent our first afternoon wandering around Ulaanbaatar and familiarising ourselves with the country. Nicki and I both saw similarities between Reykjavik in Iceland and Ulaanbaatar. This was probably because of the blue skies and sparseness of people. It soon become evident that Mongolians love a beer since there are lots of pubs dotted around the city.

We were also to find out that Mongolians love something else more: Genghis Khan. This was evident from our arrival at Genghis Khan Airport, our hostel on Genghis Avenue, the first beer we drank was called Genghis, and the main square in the city features a massive sitting statue of Genghis Khan. We were to be reminded of this at several points during our stay.

For lunch, we visited a restaurant called ‘Luna Blanca’ for lunch, which could easily be confused as a Buddhist centre. Inside we had a delicious lunch of home made soup and filleted soy accompanied by a sea blackthorn juice (which we were told is native to Mongolia).

Some of our first impressions were not what we expected. For example, English is far more widely spoken than we thought it would be especially when compared to China. Secondly, the Mongolian hospitality is fantastic; everyone is happy, welcoming and helpful. This was very refreshing.

After a beer we went back to our hostel to enjoy Joanna Lumley’s documentary about her journey on the Trans-Siberian railway. As a consequence, we spent the next few days perfecting our Lumley impressions. Marvellous.

The following morning a lady picked us up from a tour company (Sunpath). We were going to spend the next 3 days in the company of an English Speaking guide named Boiler and a driver who didn’t speak at all.

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We embarked upon a 5-hour, 400km, journey out of Ulaanbaatar and into the vastness of Mongolia’s wilderness. There are only 3 million people in Mongolia, yet it is 6 times the size of the UK. This makes for miles of greenery, fresh air, and wild horses. Boiler informed us that Mongolians do not see their livestock as property, but they let their horses, cows, sheep and goats roam freely until they need them for wool, milk, transport, or meat. In this respect, animals are not limited by space, but instead feed on natural grain and grass and live a wild but tamed life. Consequently, we were able to look out of the window (as well as nap) and our journey was not as gruelling as a 5-hour journey in a car may seem.

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Eventually we arrived at Karakorum, the old capital and centre point of Mongolia’s historic empire. It was actually hard to imagine such a small area being such an influential place in world history. We were given a tour of the museum which helped us better understand the history of Mongolia and its empire as well as gaining more knowledge about the role of Genghis Khan and those that succeeded him.

Additionally, we were invited to play some traditional Mongolian games, including rolling animal ankles.

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The following morning we were to be guided around the monastery that still dominates the area, but we now retreated to our accommodation for the evening. We stayed in a guesthouse a short walk from the monastery and we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves sleeping in a Ger (traditional Mongolian accommodation). This was a great introduction to nomadic life and a surprisingly comfortable and spacious place to sleep.

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Our hosts provided us with dinner, which always seems to contain mutton, an, due to the number of tourists present, we were entertained by a band featuring an impressive traditional throat singer.

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The following morning we had a walk around the monastery of Karakorum before having some more mutton and then driving towards the semi-Gobi where we rode camels. This seemed a little contrived since we had no purpose to ride the camels except the ride the camels. In India we needed to get somewhere so it was a little more special but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

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The final part of our day was what I was looking forward to the most; meeting and staying with a nomadic family.

We spent a few minutes off road to reach the Ger of our host family. The father invited us into his Ger to have a welcome smell of a strange jar and a drink of some fresh cow’s milk mixed with salt (Nicki struggled but stayed typically British in her politeness by drinking it all).

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We were then left to our own devices until dinner. We tried our best to avoid the seven-year-old child of the family, since we had already seen him catch another person with a cowboy’s noose. We were not successful, however, because we were staying in his grandmother’s Ger and she had a secret stash of sweets hidden in the cupboard. He knew where it was. At one point in the evening we had a thunderstorm and the boy visited our Ger for some shelter, he brought a couple of frogs with him and left them behind when he left.

Dinner was cooked with hot stones. The stones were placed in the kiln and were then added to the water once piping hot. This immediately boiled the water and the mother chucked meat in with the stones to create a broth. It tasted delicious once it was ready.

Once the sun set around 10pm there was very little light and it resulted in an early but another very pleasant sleep in the Ger.

The next morning featured a short horse ride with the man of the family, before the final 3-hour journey back to Ulaanbaatar.

As we were not travelling onward until the next evening we had another day in Ulaanbaatar. We decided to use it to travel 50km beyond the city to a famous statue of Genghis Khan.

The information online about how to get there wasn’t conclusive so we decided to brave it with a taxi. The taxis in Mongolia are slightly odd in that they aren’t labelled. Instead you just stick out an arm and hope someone in any car will pick you up. A man pulled over almost immediately and drove the 90-minute journey to the statue, waited for 2 hours there, and then drove us back. He charged us about 20 pounds each for the privilege but we felt it was worth it.

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The statue was magnificent in size and appearance. It dominates the surrounding landscape and makes Genghis Khan look imperious. Once inside the structure we climbed some stairs and excited through the groin of Genghis and onto the back of his horse. The most impressive feature of the statue was Genghis’ face. A Chinese man sneezed on us as we tried to take a picture.

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It was now time to stock up on food and beer before embarking on our Tran Siberian adventure bound for Moscow. However, the sale of alcohol was banned because it was Election Day. The shop assistant must have seen my desperation to take beer on the train as she offered to let me buy some if I agreed to take it wrapped in a black bin liner from the back of the shop as to avoid the cameras. This was Mongolian hospitality at its best.

Tulous of Nanjing County, Fujian Province, China: Communal Living

For the best part of 2 years we have been living in China, and we take every opportunity to get out of our city and explore what China has to offer. However, I don’t often take the time to write about it here, and thought I would make this trip an exception.

Aside from providing an update of what we are up to, I also feel as though there is not enough information in English online about how to visit the Nanjing County tulous, and I wanted to share some of our experiences here. That said, the tulous offer a really unique insight into rural Chinese life, communal living, and alternative culture existing in China.

The Tulous (translated from Chinese as: Earth Buildings) are round houses made from natural resources. They are built up to 5 floors high and house up to 300 people. Some of them have housed the same families for over 25 generations. The houses are usually round in shape and feature a courtyard area in the centre. We were informed that the bottom floor usually features the kitchen areas so that water isn’t used in abundance on higher levels. It was amazing to imagine that someone could live their whole life in one circle, surrounded by the people they know and trust.

Despite this, we learnt that the clans who live in the tulous did so for more reasons than to simply live in close proximity to each other. Instead, rival clans used to fight a lot so the round houses were built as a form of defence from rival families. Today, it seems harmonious though.

Most of the tulous we visited were still inhabited by families who were more than welcoming to curious tourists like us. However, one must presume that many of the tulou inhabitants would have recently left their ancestral home in order to seek employment and wealth when the mass migration to the coastal cities began.

Anyway, our journey began from Ningbo and after researching our trip to the tulous we decided to book a train to Nanjing County, Fujian. Most of the information online points to travelling to the tulous from Xiamen (the nearest large city), but Nanjing is closer to the clusters and many trains stop there on the way to Xiamen from Shanghai etc. In fact, the train station itself is designed in the shape of a tulou.

Despite booking our tickets for the following Saturday we managed to charm the ticket inspector into letting us on our intended train with the promise that we didn’t mind standing up. In the end it turned out to be 6 hours of musical chairs as we prayed on empty seats. A flight to Xiamen would have taken us less than 2 hours, and a 3 hour bus from there would have taken us to the tulou clusters. But we decided to take the 6 hour train to take us directly and cut out the need to stay in Xiamen for the night.

Upon arrival in Nanjing, Fujian we realised that we were in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the busy city life on the East coast, there were no taxis or buses here. Instead there were touts offering us transport to the tulou clusters. We had previously booked a small hotel not far from the station (or so we thought). After a lengthy discussion with a driver we agreed to pay 220rmb our 45km drive to the hotel (as we arrived close to 10pm we took our chances on this being a good deal).

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In the end we were very glad that we didn’t end up going to Xiamen instead though as we would have had to pay for a night in a hotel and missed the experience of arriving in YunShuiYao ancient town late in the night. We quickly noticed that the temperature had dropped significantly and we checked into our cheap hotel promptly to find it very cosy, modern and comfortable.

It is worth noting that there are two Unesco areas here. The first, Yun Shui Yao, requires 90rmb for tourists to enter. The second,  Tian Luo Keng requires 100rmb. People visiting may wish to select one or both of these locations depending on budget.

Websites recommended an 8:30 bus to the tulou clusters from Xiamen, requiring a change in Shuyang town. Yet, we found ourselves waking up right in the middle of it all. We were very lucky with the weather and went for a morning stroll through the narrow streets of the ancient town and out beside the glisteningly clean river. Here we had our first site of an ancient inhabited tulou, built on the bank of the river. We were invited in by a resident who offered us tea and allowed us to walk to the third floor to see the views from the top (she asked us for 5rmb for the privilege but we later found out we didn’t need to pay. We didn’t mind supporting her though).

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From there we had a short walk towards He Gui Lou, a rectangular tulou with over 200 years of history. Inside many of the residence appeared to have become cigarette makers and were keen for us to buy from them.

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We spent the rest of the morning walking along the river of the ancient town, taking in the fresh rural air and enjoying the morning sun. We visited another larger Tulou named Huai Yuan Lou before having an inexpensive rice cake and noodle lunch beside a mill (which supposedly featured in a famous film).

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Our next step was to return to our previous hotel to pick up our luggage and make our way to Tian Lou Keng where we would be residing inside one of the ancient communal buildings. In order to get there from YunShuiYao we needed to catch the green public bus (number 6) to the tourist centre. You can catch the bus directly from the road on the opposite side of the river. The journey took about 15 minutes and cost 3rmb.

We were expecting scores of tourists at the tourist centre, particularly as we were visiting during Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) holiday. To our surprise there was hardly anyone in the centre and we had not seen a single foreigner up until this point. It is worth noting that there are no ATMs anywhere, and Alipay is currently used scarcely. We found this out the hard way.

Once we paid for the Unesco Heritage entry we waited to board a bus to the tulou cluster. We were again surprised to find that the bus needed 10 people to justify the journey and we had to wait for others to arrive. This would seem normal anywhere else, but we very rarely have to wait for people to fill up a bus in China.

The area is very well prepared for tourism, with dozens of buses waiting to take people. Yet, there were fewer than 10 people in total. We were not to complain about getting away from the crowds.

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We told the driver that we would be staying in Ta Xia Village for the night, and we kindly offered us and the 8 other passengers a proposal. He suggested that, since there were so few people, he would take us to different tulou clusters and wait for us to return to the bus before moving on meaning he could ‘drop the two foreigners off’ at their village at the end of the trip. Everyone was happy with this convenient arrangement, especially as it meant transport for the day was sorted for 15rmb.

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Our first visit was the most famous of them all, TianLuoKeng itself. This is the most famous cluster, and the image that you see most frequently on Google searches. This is mainly because it is magnificent. From above the cluster you can see the 5 earth buildings contributing to the community with the spectacular backdrop of the hills. This is known locally as ‘4 dishes, 1 soup’ due to its layout. It was this view that I had wanted to see when persuading Nicki to visit Fujian. It now appeared that we had been successful in our mission and it felt a lot like mission accomplished.

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We then descended down the hill to visit inside the tulous and observe the structures from the outside. We both found it fascinating to consider that they were fully functional homes as it would be easy to think of them attractions instead. There were people drying flowers in the sun for tea, drying laundry on lines, and sitting around chatting. We were in a community.

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After hoping back on the bus we made a short journey to Yu Chang Lou, which I believe is the tallest tulou with 5 levels.

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Our final stop was our final one, Ta Xia Village. We found ourselves walking along the quaint town trying to find our accommodation. When we didn’t stumble across it by chance I asked a local, who offered to take us in his car instead of trusting us with his directions. It was that kind of hospitality which cemented our love for the area.

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DSCF2988When we arrived at the accommodation we were not disappointed. We stayed at Nanjing QingDeLou Inn, which is a historic earth building converted into a very hospitable homestay for visitors. Its main selling point is that you get to spend the night in tulou-esque accommodation, in a room surrounding a nice courtyard. We were given a ground floor room, which meant we heard every creak from the movement above as the wooden structure had no noise or heat insulation. This may sound like a negative, but it is not. It really added to the authenticity of our stay. During the night the hosts allowed for guests to socialise in the middle of the courtyard, which is perhaps how social living should be. We woke up the next day satisfied with the knowledge that we had spent the night in an ancient tulou.

We spent the next day relaxing in our calm surroundings and did not leave Ta Xia village. We walked along the river in the morning towards De Yuan Yang, an ancestral monument towering above the village where spires representing ancestors stand proudly.

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Reminding ourselves that we were on holiday, we took the time to relax in the afternoon, taking full advantage of the suntrap courtyard of our tulou, taking in the atmosphere of a riverside restaurant, and indulging in a few local beers.

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It was then time for our final night in Fujian before the kind host offered to take us on the 90-minute journey back to Nanjing Station for 200rmb, rather than leaving the evening before (which would be required for a public bus).

So many things could have (and probably should have) gone wrong on this trip. However, with a bit of luck, kindness, and research we came away with one of our favourite memories from our time in China. I would not be surprised if tourism really took off in Nanjing County, but a little part of me hopes that it stays as unique and special as it is now.

 

 

Ubud, Bali: Endlessly Eating.

After our adventures in Sumatra we had decided to spend a week in Bali for some R&R. Nicki and I had never been on a holiday designed for relaxation together before and we were sure that it was going to test our ability to ‘do nothing’.

We arrived in Bali in the late evening and got our taxi towards Ubud, the area we decided to stay. In hindsight we would have been better off going with the heckling private taxi men than the official taxi service, since we feel we paid over the odds for the trip.

Ubud was our chosen destination on recommendation. There are several popular areas in Bali but Ubud, with its slightly hipster/hippy reputation, seemed to come with the most positive reviews.

We were holidaying in Bali during rainy season, and we did not see much of the sun during our week. This did not effect us too much in Ubud as it is not a coastal place and much of what to see did not require us to be outdoors.

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We made a great effort to sleep in on our first day, reminding ourselves that we had nothing to be up for. But we were up in time to catch breakfast at a local restaurant, Habitat, which served the most amazing bowl of vegan food. I am a huge cynic of food stuffs such as chia seeds and have previously thought that the food market exploits people who have a desire to keep their body clean, but this bowl was a whole new world to me: coconut milk mixed with dragon fruit was mixed with kiwi, banana, museli and…chia seeds (I still don’t know what they do).

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Feeling full of fruit we headed towards the Monkey Forest up the road to see a park full of monkeys. This was worth a visit and similar, if not as ethically comforting, to the sanctuary of monkeys I saw just outside of Kyoto in Japan. Instead these monkeys were an attraction for selfies. There were very entertaining episodes of people holding bananas and then getting a shock when they were pounced on by a monkey but Nicki still remembered the Orangutans, so she fearfully kept her distance from these primates. They bigger ones were quite scary actually.

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dscf2601Our days were largely centred around food and Ubud is the perfect place to make food your primary focus. We ate at lots of wonderful restaurants at cheap prices (although paying in tens of thousands doesn’t make it seem inexpensive). Every lunch and dinner we ate somewhere different and we used TripAdvisor to seek out new and exciting dishes. Nicki tried her best to eat a vegan diet for the first few days, but she was too tempted with cake. It was a valiant effort.

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One of my favourite places was a small non-profit restaurant, Fair Warung Bale, that donated any money made to healthcare. The food there was amazing and abundant. Anyone who visits Ubud should definitely eat there!

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Aside from the food, there was yoga to be done. We visited the Yoga Barn in Udud and spent an afternoon in Yoga. I am the least flexible person but found comfort in the other men who were struggling to keep up with the bendy people. We were in a huge open wooden shack protected by a thatched roof and it was nice to do some yoga with the rain adding to the ambience. It was like doing yoga in a giant tree-house. The Yoga Barn was a great introduction to yoga and Nicki really enjoys it so she was in her element.

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Despite this experience, I was finding it hard to warm to some of the people in the Yoga Barn café. There were lots of people eating raw food with fantastic postures but with an added aurora of superiority. I prefer pretentiousless hippies.

We were also fortunate enough to witness a traditional woman’s dance at the temple on Monkey Forest Road. The dancers seemed to dance with their eyes, which was as captivating as it was unnerving.

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After a few days in Ubud we decided we needed to see what other parts of Bali had to offer. I was particularly intrigued by the place that seems to lure the most tourists: Kuta. I managed to persuade Nicki to visit the costal resort for the day, although it was clear she had her reservations.

Nicki’s instincts were completely justified when we arrived. Kuta was one of the most disappointing places I have ever been. In my eyes Bali has always been synonymous with beautiful beaches, wonderful food and positive vibes. However, our first experience of Kuta saw us stare stone-faced at the most disgusting beach littered with rubbish. We asked each other; surely this is not the right place?

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We then walked around the town looking for places we were recommended by TripAdvisor. It appeared that Kuta was still sleeping from the previous night, since the only people we seemed to see were groups of Australian men in singlets or beer bellied Aussie couples. There were a few bars and restaurants open so we decided to pop in for some breakfast.

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Upon eating a mediocre meal we were already missing the uniqueness of Ubud, with is character and identity. Kuta was not our kind of place. So much so that we returned on our 2-hour drive back to Ubud within a few hours, deciding to spend our afternoon and evening in a place we enjoyed rather than a place we were quickly growing to dislike.

We made it back to Ubud in time to enjoy the majority of the afternoon. We decided to visit a restaurant situated in the midst of the rice paddy fields a short walk beyond the city. Nicki claimed that the walk was reminiscent of Julia Robert’s experience in ‘Eat Pray Love’. However, we kept missing the hidden signs directing us towards the restaurant and ended up walking into the darkness, with only a phone torch preventing us from slipping into the paddy fields. And then, when we arrived we found the Sweet Orange Warung restaurant to be closing. We were lucky enough to return the following day, in the daylight and really enjoyed eating with a view over the rice fields.

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dscf2642dscf2640However, we then had to navigate our way back to the town in darkness and we took a route through the fields without another person in sight. My instincts were telling me that it wasn’t a good idea as we talked single file along a narrow boggy path in the dark. I was leading the way, and I was glad I was when I saw a large rat scurry across my path as I don’t think that was something Nicki wanted to see.

Our time in Bali was drawing to a close and the weather was picking up, meaning we could exploit the outdoor pool at our hotel (as well as a couple of indoor massages). There was one final thing we wanted to do before we went home, a cooking class. We had enjoyed the experience in Udaipur, India so thought we could add Indonesian cuisine to the list of things we will intend to, but never actually, cook at home.

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This time we were part of a group of 24 people cooking all sorts of delicious dishes to eat ourselves. It was a really good experience and I am always amazed with what you can do with raw and fresh ingredients. I don’t think I am ever going to have the patience to be a good cook, but I enjoyed learning from the locals at Paon Cooking class.

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That was that. We were now ready to return to China for our final semester before the Summer. Our experience in Indonesia was an eye-opener: we realised that the beauty and diversity of Sumatra made it an amazing destination for travel, and that Ubud is a place you really need to embrace to fully appreciate it. Kuta, however, is somewhere I don’t think I will be returning to. Bali and Sumatra made for a trip to remember.

Sumatra, Indonesia: ‘Forest People’ and Volcanoes.

Chinese New Year has quickly rolled around again, and it has given us another excuse to explore a different part of Asia. This time Indonesia has been our host.

We decided to break our 18-day holiday into 2 parts, adventure (Sumatra) and relaxation (Bali), as we are slowly learning that experiencing a few places in detail is more satisfying than making whistle-stops in several places.

Upon arrival in Medan, Sumatra we were taken on a 4 hour journey by car towards the jungle. The roads were both busy and bumpy for long stretches and we had our first encounter with the Sumatran rainy season as sheets of rain fell onto (and into) our car. We were excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead as neither of us really knew what to expect from our jungle plans.

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We needn’t have been, however, since our jungle base in the village of Bukit Luwang was both accommodating and comfortable. We were given a luxurious room with a jungle view and a porch way with our own hammock. This gave us a good night sleep before our jungle trek began the next day.

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The primary purpose of our jungle trek was to try to track down some Orang-utans. Nicki and I had decided not to buy each other Christmas presents this year, but instead treat each other to a couple of days in the Sumatran jungle with some orang-utans. We set off across the bridge that separated Bukit Luwang from the jungle and began our walk into the depths of the jungle. Our guide handily pointed out different plants, insects and animals that only a trained eye would spot and normally had a story to tell about everything.

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The initial stages of our trek were not difficult and before long we found ourselves eating tropical fruits whilst sat on a wet log. In fact, rain was incessant throughout the day, but it didn’t dampen any spirits. The natural umbrellas of the trees above prevented us from getting soaked, and the cooling of the rainwater made the sweat from our bodies less noticeable.

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We soon came across our first Orang-utans. We were surprised to see them so soon since we were warned that rain could prevent the orang-utans movements and so we were asked to be prepared not to see any at all. We stood gawping and taking photos of mother and baby as the mum sat lazily in the tree as her child swung playfully between the branches.

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After a jungle lunch lunch, freshly prepared by our guides, we came across another Orangutan, and the most famous one among the guides: Mina. The guides seem to know all of the Orangutans and we had already heard many legends about Mina. One of the guides had a bite scar on his leg to prove his life-long relationship with the most aggressive orang-utan. When word spread about Mina’s presence close by Nicki went into Fight-or-Flight mode as her own survival instincts kicked in. And then, when Mina bound into sight ahead of us, Nicki took off in the other direction. She basically legged it.
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Mina carried her twin babies (whom she protects even more vehemently since the death of her previous child) and occupied a tree in front of us. We backed away to a safe distance. I then noticed that Nicki was not in sight so I called out for her. ‘I’m here’ was her reply from the considerable distance. We were then all instructed to cautiously walk past Mina without making eye contact whilst the guides occupied her attention. Thankfully Nicki made it back in time to experience the sight of this great ape up close. It was amazing to see such a majestic animal in the wild, and within feet away from us.

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Back as a group we continued our trek up steep hills, and then back down them. The early part of our trek had left us complacent and we now had to be more sure footed and aware of the ground beneath us as the rain was starting to take its toll on the ground. Not only was it getting steeper but it was also getting muddier and a little less easy to navigate through. Nicki was amazing throughout.

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As we continued our trek deep into the afternoon we came across more orang-utans and we were starting to feel very lucky to see so many. Additionally we were given glimpses of other primates, including black gibbons and macats.

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The hardest part of our trek was the last 40 minutes where we had to sharply decline towards the river. At one point we had to toss a rope down the path and almost abseil down the muddy path, such was the gradient of the hill.

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However, we were eventually victorious in our mission to reach camp. As we did so we noticed that another orang-utan was knocking about near our shelter. We had come all of this way only to find an orang-utan at our camp anyway.

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For the rest of the evening chilled out in the river, ate nice food, and drank a beer with our head torches on before retiring for a night under a shelter in the jungle.
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We were asleep pretty early, which meant for an early start the next day. We embarked on a 2-hour trek up and down the hillside, which made for a completely different exercise given that the equatorial sun had replaced the previous day’s rain. As much as we loved the previous day’s adventure and all the thrills it brought, Nicki was not having any of this. She wanted to be back at the shelter, and I don’t think I was being too helpful by acting like I was having the time of my life. Sorry Nicki.

DCIM100GOPROHowever, there was a sense of achievement when we made it back to camp, drenched in sweat and new memories. We were then able to walk slightly upstream and cross the strong current to bathe and massage in the natural waterfall feeding the river. It was a nice way to unwind and reflect on an eventful couple of days.

Our final couple of our in the jungle featured a jungle fruit salad before rafting the aggressive river on a raft made of rubber rings (probably wouldn’t pass any health and safety measures back home). We travelled quickly down stream, picking up pace where the water was most angry, and got very wet on our way down. We were back within half an hour. In fact, the rafting was a real highlight, bringing us all the way back to our lodge for a well-earned shower.

A few achy muscles and dirty clothes were ample cost for an incredible 2 days in the jungle. It may have been a bit of a struggle, but seeing orang-utans in the wild is something we will never forget. An amazing Christmas present.

We returned to find out that it was exactly 2 years since I saw the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, so who knows what 25th January 2019 will bring. Chimpanzees maybe?

The next day we decided to have a nice rest, remembering that we are on holiday. So we woke up late, had a big breakfast and sunbathed beside our jungle view with a beer. We were on holiday, after all.

The next stop was Berastagi, a 4 hour drive from our luscious jungle retreat. We left early in the morning after consuming the fruit platter provided for us at breakfast and checked into our hotel before midday. Berastagi is at a slightly higher altitude that Bukit Luwang or Medan so it had a slightly cooler feel to it.

We walked around the town throughout the afternoon and realised that we were the only tourists about. It was quite apparent that Berastagi isn’t as well equipped for foreigners as other aspects of Asia but that made it a little more authentic than we thought it would be. We eventually found a nice roadside café that provided us with a delicious Nasi Goreng (the most popular dish here: a mix of rice and other nice stuff).

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That evening we hired a guide for our volcano trek the next day as we were for-warned about the risks of going it alone. In fact there was a list on display of all the foreigners who had perished on the volcano because they went up without a guide: the perfect advertising.

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To my surprise one of the volcanoes erupted in front of my eyes (Nicki was unfortunately napping). I was amazed by the nonchalant reaction of all the locals. They told me that it frequently erupts and that everyone who used to live on the mountain has been relocated. Thankfully, we were climbing the more peaceful volcano the next day.

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We set off at a sociable time in the morning (choosing not to get up early for sunrise) and began climbing the mountain. It turned out that we were hiking on one of the most popular days of the year, since locals were also on holiday for Spring Festival and it was a weekend. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as China.

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Several things became apparent quickly: our guide wasn’t quite physically fit enough for walking uphill, foreigners were walking safely without a guide, and littering was accepted. It was shocking to see plastic bottles, wrappers and other rubbish distributed carelessly all the way up the mountainside. This was completely in contrast to the attitude of everyone in the jungle.

It was quite a steep climb until we reached the unmistakable stench of sulphur which indicated our approach to the volcano crater. Many locals had camped at the summit over night to celebrate the arrival of the new Lunar year. There were several sulphur vents producing dangerously hot steam from deep within the earth. Our guide informed us that these kept the volcano calm as it literally ‘lets off steam’ all the time rather than let it build up inside.

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We were able to walk around the crater and enter the middle where a pool of rainwater formed a lake. The colour of the water apparently discoloured by the chemicals in the earth below it. Thankfully there was no eruption whilst we stood in the crater. It really was a spectacular sight and it really reminded us of a scene from Iceland…or Mars.

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From there we began our decent down a much more tricky root. But our guide was more nimble with his feet going down. We did not see another soul on our 2 hour trek down but we did have to slide down a mud-‘slide’ and negotiate our way across fallen trees on a less well trod path.1881940307

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Eventually we reached some for of civilisation in the form of some hot springs. Only, it was more like a children’s swimming pool than the romantic mountainside Jacuzzi we had envisaged. Still, we got into our swimming gear and bathed with the locals (all of whom were fascinated with our whiteness and made no excuse for staring incessantly at us). As we were preparing to leave an old man made some comment in Indonesian about me, which made the whole pool laugh. They didn’t laugh quietly. Everyone in the pool was laughing hysterically and the old man made more comments, which made them cackle even louder, like a comedian at the top of his game. We had no idea what to do as we stood there being laughed at. I ended up nervously moving around the corner but could still hear the roaring laughter. Then, having left the scene in a haste, I realised that I left my swimming trunks beside the pool. I couldn’t go back out of fear of further ridicule so I left them there. It has to be a low point.

We were soon over the embarrassment and clear of the smell of sulphur. Our final challenge of Sumatra was to get back to Medan for our Bali bound flight. We decided to go back to public buses so made our two-hour journey crammed in the back of a colourful old bus beside a breastfeeding old lady.

Having got back to the airport at a tenth of the price of a private bus, Nicki decided to should spend our winnings on a Starbucks Coffee.

Our Sumatra adventure was over. It is an amazing island and one that I thought I’d only visit through David Attenborough and a TV screen. Seeing Orangutans was the real highlight of the trip and well worth effort needed to find them.

We are now onto a new experience and test for us: rest and relaxation in Bali.