Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blue Mountains, Australia

On September 2, we left for 5 days in the Blue Mountains, a mountain range near Sydney that we wanted to visit to get a feel of the countryside of Australia. We stayed at an Airbnb accommodation that was a little guesthouse in a backyard, with a bathroom that was clearly a DIY expansion to the main building and had the particularity of being outside and unheated —this was fully disclosed in the Airbnb listing, but we chose it to be a little more adventurous. On the plus side, this was cheap and we were located right in the Blue Mountains, in Wentworth Falls.

On our first day, we went on a very short stroll in Leura to visit Sublime Point:

On our second day, we went abseiling and climbing near and around Boar's Head, with the Blue Mountain Adventure Company. This was a very cold and windy day, close to 5⁰C / 40⁰F, because of the elevation (around 900 m / 3000 ft). Despite wearing 7 layers, Lauren was still shivering with cold. We abseiled in the morning:

The rock in the middle that supposedly looks like a boar's head (well, I do not see the resemblance) is where we were climbing around.

We stopped mid-day at the bottom of a cliff for lunch and hot tea, prepared by our guide who had a camping stove. We continued the day with climbing. Since it was just the 2 of us plus our guide, for safety he would climb first with both of us belaying him (he trusted us, wow!), then he would anchor himself and had us on belay as we climbed. We followed this procedure in 2 stages, stopping halfway on a ledge on the cliff. As Lauren and I were waiting on the verry narrow ledge, our guide took a few steps to the side to take pictures of us:

Orange specks on a sheer rock face.

On the next day, we went to the Echo Point lookout from which we admired the iconic Three Sisters, a formation of 3 prominent rocks. Then we hiked (or bushwalked, as Aussies would call it) down to the first rock formation, and in the Jamison Valley. We were not quite sure if we wanted to hike up from the valley, but we heard from other hikers there was a railway going up the mountain, so we decided to check it out and discovered it was the Scenic Railway, the steepest one in the world with an incline of 52⁰ (each carriage has a switch so that riders can adjust their seat inclination for an extra +12⁰ = 64⁰ —this option is labelled "cliffhanger"). The tracks were originally installed in the 19th century for a coal mine, but it was retroffited as a tourist attraction. We also discovered 2 cable cars in the same area (Scenic Skyway, and Scenic Cableway). These 3 installations are part of the Katoomba Scenic World. Since a one-way ticket for the railway costs almost as much as a day pass for all 3 installations, we bought the day pass and entertained ourselves by riding the railway and cable cars a bunch of times to take a lot of pictures :-)

Three Sisters in the background.
At the bottom of the first "Sister".
Scenic Railway.
Scenic Railway.
Scenic Railway.
What I will remember the most of this visit of the Blue Mountains, is taking part in a 2-day bush survival course from High n Wild. Our instructor was really awesome and had an interesting background. He had previusly attended a survival class where he and 4-5 other students had to spend 6 months by themselves in the wilderness, each building their own shelter, searching for their own food, etc. In order to get a head start, he arrived on site 2 months before the other students. As he told us, an important skill in survival is learning from trial and error, so when he or other students had questions their instructor was sometimes purposefully giving them cryptic answers.

But in our case, 2 days gave no time to learn from trial and error, so our course was very straightforward. There is so much I would like to write, but I will have to keep it short.

We learned how to make cordage from leaves. We learned how to build a basic type of shelter, a debris hut. We learned how to make a fire using nothing but a knife and wood. We learned how to prepare a fail-safe and inexpensive tinder: vaseline cotton balls, which work very well with magnesium rods. We learned how to build traps to catch small animals. We learned how to maximize our chances of being found in a search and rescue operation. We learned how to escape bush fires. We learned how to make primitive water filters from coal, sand, and leaves, etc. Seriously I could write 5 to 10 thousand words about everything we learned.

Aside from the learning, we explored local caves. Some passages were so tiny we had to crawl on our stomachs. The entrance of one of the caves was full of thousands of tiny flies so we closed our mouths and moved through quickly, ugh!

The area was full of aboriginal hand prints, but we were not quite sure whether they were authentic or not. Our instructor seemed to think they were fake, which is apparently not so uncommon.

We slept outdoors, on a mat, slightly under the overhang of a cliff.

On the second day, we began a canyon walk through a wet canyon. It was quite challenging, with flat rock surfaces with moss or algae extremely slippery.

All in all, I very highly recommend this survival course. If you are a MacGyver type of person, you will love it.

Beginning of our survival course. There were 7 of us total (1 instructors, 2 junior instructors, and 4 students).
Believe it or not, but there is space for 1 person to lay down under this debris hut.
Preparing kindling for the fire.
Carving a little plank to make fire (sorry for the bad picture quality —I scratched my GoPro case while climbing a few days earlier). 
Where we slept. Lauren was paranoid about bugs crawling on her face, but luckily it was an uneventful night. 
More canyoning.
One of the most difficult passages while canyoning. I was trying to not get wet here. But eventually we all had to walk in knee-deep water.
Canyoning was our last activity in this survival course. We were very happy to go back to the hotel and take a hot shower.
Finally, on our last day in the Blue Mountains, we visited the Wentworth Falls, which were very beautiful. A pathway was carved on the side of the mountain, where a handrail is the only thing that prevents you from falling 100 m / 330 ft into the valley.

The falls from afar.


Top of the falls.

Next up, trip up the coast to Brisbane!

Thursday, September 24, 2015


After 2 months of summer in Asia with temperatures during the day generally above 32⁰C / 90⁰F, we appreciated Sydney's more moderate temperatures of 16-21⁰C / 60-70⁰F at this time of the year. We arrived on August 28 and spent 5 days here.

Our hotel was located in the inner-city suburb Potts Point, which is close enough from downtown that we decided to walk to it on our first morning there. First we walked down by the Woolloomooloo Bay where some navy ships are harbored, past Finger Wharf, through the Royal Botanic Gardens, and we arrived at Circular Quay, from which we can see the Sydney Opera House.

Royal Botanic Gardens.
Sydney Opera House - but is a caption really needed for this picture?
That evening we went to the top of the Sydney Tower (second tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere). Luckily we happened to be there right at sunset, the air was very clear, and the view stunning!

View from the Sydney Tower.
Obligatory selfie at the Sydney Tower.
My girl.
We booked a guided tour of the Opera House, which we found very interesting. This is definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting Sydney. For example I learned its design was picked from the result of an international design competition. The winner, Jørn Utzon, had submitted his entry late it consisted of little more than preliminary drawings but he won somewhat unexpectedly. His design turned out to be extremely difficult to build. The construction was initially estimated to take 6 years at a cost of $7 million, but it took 16 years and cost $102 million. The construction of the (originally) elliptical shells was a major hurdle that engineers worked on for 6 years, but could not solve economically. Utzon himself had the breakthrough idea of making the shells sections of a sphere, which simplified their construction significantly.

We boarded a ferry to explore the harbour and also transport us to the nearby town of Manly, which has beaches very popular with tourists. I cannot count how many play of words the guide on the ferry made about the name of the town, but it was mildly funny. We spent the day walking around Manly and visited some nearby cliffs.

Another activity we recommend for anyone visiting Sydney, if not afraid of heights, is climbing the Harbour Bridge! The company who organized it is very professional and gives you lots of gear to be well prepared: harness to attach you to a cable, full body suit, wireless headphones, gloves, beanies, flashlights, etc. Again, the guide was quite entertaining. We learned too many factoids to list here. The one I remember the most vividly is the story of the construction worker who fell from the bridge, but happened to be a competitive diver, and a strong swimmer, and happened to fall right by a boat who helped him out of the water. This was the only fall during the construction of the bridge where the victim survived relatively unscathed.

Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Group picture with our fellow climbers.
This view was described by the guide as "his office view, probably one of the best in the world" ;-)
Finally, we rode a jet boat around the harbour (Oz Jet Boating). Water. Water everywhere! I am glad we wore those stylish red waterproof ponchos.

Can you spot us? We are on the 2nd row from the back, on the left.

Next stop: the Blue Mountains!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Suzhou, China

On August 24 we made our way from Shanghai to Suzhou.

The high-speed train ride was supposed to be quick and easy (about half an hour) but unfortunately this did not go well.

[Prepare for an overabundance of details...]

As we exit the metro and walk toward the Shanghai Railway Station, it starts raining so we get wet. We walk into the hall where ticket machines are located, wait in line, and when it's our turn we realize the machine's language is set to Chinese with no option to set it to English. We decide to try another machine. It has a button to change the language, but it has no effect. Grr... We walk to a separate hall with more ticket machines. We find one where we can change the language to English. Success! But as we go through the steps to purchase the tickets, we realize the machine requires a Chinese electronic ID to be scanned/swiped. Bummer! Even though the hall is crowded with travelers, there seems to be no employees to help us out.

We walk to yet another hall where most people with tickets are lining up to get on the trains. We don't have tickets, but we hope to find help there. We ask an employee where to buy tickets. She understands us but does not speak English, and seems to point toward one of the halls where we came from.

We walk back there, still in the rain, lugging our bags with us. We see that there is a very small counter in the corner of the hall, now manned by one person. He speaks a bit of broken English and explains we have to walk to go to the building across the street to buy tickets.

We get outside again, take an underground passage to cross a street, and arrive at a separate building where, indeed, multiple ticket counters are located. People seem to be buying tickets in cash. Thinking we were a bit short on cash, and unsure if we could use a credit card or not, I go to find an ATM.

It takes me 30 minutes to eventually come back with cash, because there was no ATM nearby, and I had to try 3 different ones until one of them let me withdraw cash. Finally, with some cash in hand, we buy our tickets for the "next train to Suzhou" (haha, more on this later). We walk back through the rain to the hall to board trains. Our train is in an hour and a half, so we wait in the waiting hall.

About 10-15 minutes before our train is scheduled to arrive, we get up and wait in line at the turnstiles to go on the platform. Lauren scans her ticket at the turnstile, but it flashes red and doesn't let her in. An employee checks her tickets and point out the ticket is for tomorrow's train. The person at the ticket counter made an error and got us the wrong tickets!

There is no way we are getting on this train. I eventually find a service desk in the station where I explain my situation. They tell me they cannot exchange the tickets, and that I have to go back to the ticket counters across the stret.

I go back to the ticket counters, wait, exchange tickets, and walk back through security. The next train doesn't leave for another hour plus.

We get on the train and finally arrive in Suzhou. The trip between the two railway station should have taken a bit more than half an hour, but ended up taking 4 or 5 hours.

By this point, we are both tired and decide there is no way we are going to keep with our initial plan of spending only 1 night in Suzhou, then taking another train to Nanjing. So we extend our 1-night stay to a 3-night stay in Suzhou to skip Nanjing completely.

[The summary: a 30 min trip can take multiple hours with some bad luck, so we're going to try to avoid staying at one place for just one night]

On our first day in Suzhou, we went to the Pingjiang Lu pedestrian to walk along the canals:

A little Engrish here and there always makes me smile - the new word of the day is "unrecycle":

Once past the touristy part of these canals, we end up in a really poor neighborhood:

Along the way we see a "Dr. Fish" place where you can have little fish eat the dead skin off of your feet. I am very ticklish so I couldn't do it, but Lauren did:

And yes, she is wearing purple, fuzzy, clip on antlers. [Edit Oct 8: this sort of headwear has apparently become a new fad in China, see this New York Times article.]

Next day we visited the Garden Museum, the Humble Administrator's Garden, and the Suzhou Museum, which is a beautiful modern building. I learned it was designed by renowned Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei:

Garden Museum.
Humble Administrator's Garden.
Suzhou Museum. Small, free, and impressively zen despite all the people.
Leaving the Suzhou Museum, we took a pedicab over to Shantang Street. The poor driver was pedaling a fixed gear bike in a really hot day, and seemed truly exhausted!

Shantang Street, the "number one ancient street in China", is another nice alleyway with many little old shops and restaurants:

Our last day was spent travelling all the way from Suzhou to Shanghai Pudong airport. We took the regular high-speed train from Suzhou to Shanghai (this time it was absolutely painless), then the Shanghai Maglev Train from Suzhou to the airport.

Riding the maglev train was quite an experience! Even though the track is designed to be very smooth, its top speed of 431 km/h / 268 mph is so fast that the train cabins shake more than I think they would :) The journey time is 7 minutes 20 seconds. In taxi it would take 30 minutes with no traffic.

Next stop: Australia!