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Eurasia travel planning

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Travel planning

Here’s Shaun patiently filling in the dates for our big retirement trip across Eurasia. It’s the last 20 weeks of 2018 and the first 20 weeks of my retirement. We’re going to be teenagers for half a year before bucking down to a responsible, grown up(ish) old age – or there again, maybe not.

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Brisbane to Sydney

The drive from Gladstone to Brisbane is easy, through varied landscape, wetlands, plains and hills with tropical crops still n vidence. We stop for a picnic lunch at Noosa, where we hoping to go into the national park and maybe see some wild koala bears but it was impossible to park so we ate our cheese sandwiches on the beach watching the surfers.

In Brisbane we have a nice room with a balcony looking into treetops.

The hotel is on kangaroo point, a kink in the river that the city is built round. The city hopper boats help the bridge join the point to the rest of the city.

We walk up river past gardens and open air swimming pools and meet his guy on the way

to the art gallery, which has really interesting exhibits of art by people from all round the Pacific. Most of it is highly political.

We drive inland along the New England highway across the north west tablelands, through nondescript towns and villages to Tamworth, home of a significant country music festival and a large golden guitar. The couple who run the motel are the first people who ask where we’re from since we arrived in Australia. They are Russian and we have a nice chat about Volgograd, where they’re from and the distorted image of Russia projected by Western media.

The drive the next day takes us throughout the some beautiful hills, dramatic waterfalls and some unmade roads

We pass vineyards and cherry orchards (and finally see some wild kangaroos), getting to Katoomba, a longtime tourist town in the blue mountains west of Sydney. We’re staying in a nice old, though slightly tatty hotel and have a lovely walk along the cliff tops.

We set off early and stop off at a train museum on the way to Sydney.

We drop off the car spot on time, dump our bags at the hotel and set off for Sydney harbour bridge – we’ve made it!

North Australia

Darwin is hot, very hot. There are no motorbikes hooting as they drive along the pavement. The cars progress at a stately 25 mph and stop at the red lights. No-one shouts “taxi” as you pass and no-one smiles or greets you.

We get to bed at 6 in the morning and sleep for a few hours before venturing into the town, which is hot but livable with green spaces, wide streets and pavements and an outlook on to the bluest sea. The architecture is nondescript – the town was destroyed first by Japanese bombs in the second world war and then by cyclone Tracy in 1974.

Nearly a quarter of the population is Aborigine but you would never guess that from the otherwise excellent tourist information and interpretation boards.

There are lots of unfamiliar birds – two sorts of ibis pecking about in the parks like pigeons but four times as big and ten times as stately. Parrots squawk from the palm trees and at dusk huge bats soar gracefully through the trees.

On the second day, we walk along to the botanic gardens (disappointing but we’ve been spoilt on the way here – Singapore botanic gardens is pretty hard to beat) and East point reserve. There are warnings all along the coast path about crocodiles, which make us both jumpy. It’s also much too hot to be walking far.

We have a nice stop at the national museum and art gallery, which has an interesting exhibition of a collaboration between an aboriginal and a white Australian artist. A video of the aboriginal artist explains her inspiration in painting edible plants and animals – aboriginal people are losing / forgetting information gathered over millennia on what plants and animals could be eaten and how they should be processed. Some people were poisoning themselves by eating the wrong things.

On the way back we watch hermit crabs making these tyre tracks in the san.

We finish up watching the sunset over the sea

Shaun has given in and abandoned the plan to drive across the outback from Darwin to the east coast of Australia. We fly to Cairns and when we arrive we find we’ve messed up the dates. Fortunately the car hire company, the hotel and the Great barrier reef companies are all able to fit us in a day early. Shaun has caught a feverish cold so we stay in after finding something to eat at a local hostelry that claims to be a traditional English pub but is actually like a Harvester restaurant

We take a day to do a snorkeling/glass bottom boat tour to the Great barrier reef. The big catamaran takes us to two spots in the outer reef less than a mile apart but quite different from each other both in terms of animal and coral species. It is a truly mind blowing experience swimming amongst the brightly coloured tropical fish darting in and out of the nooks and crannies in the alien landscape constructed from corals in every conceivable form. I stayed in the shallows for the most part but every now and then I’d stray to the edge looking over a cliff into the deep blue abyss. I do see how people get obsessed by this natural wonder. The young man who gives out the snorkeling gear is a marine biologist training to dive so he can spend his career working out how to save it. No pictures of the underwater magic because no waterproof camera but we had some dramatic skies on the ride back to Cairns.

And find a flock of pelicans on the beach near the harbour.

We spend Wednesday driving near to the coast around five hundred miles south to Mackay through sparsely populated and varied landscape of sugar cane and eucalyptus, always with cone shaped mountains nearby.

We are staying at motels where you park your car outside your room. They’re pretty soulless but practical. The television presenters are all white. We’re back to picnics rather than eating out all the time, which is nice.

Mackay is pleasanter than cairns with a few old buildings. People are friendlier than further north – not exactly interested in you but ready to have a chat, tell you local news and help out if you look lost.

The road follows the railway track but we don’t see a single passenger train, just containers and not so many of them.

We’ve both got feverish colds and coughs so we get up late and take Thursday slowly, making our way down the coast. We stop 200 miles south of MacKay at for lunch at Rockhampton botanic gardens in a lovely cafe

These guys were keen to join us


We haven’t seen any live kangaroos or koala since we got here but the gardens have a zoo attached where they keep koalas that can’t be released into the wild. In addition to losing their habitat and getting killed on roads apparently they drown in people’s swimming pools…..


We sleep in Gladstone, a little town on the coast that functions as a coal terminal shipping the black stuff mainly to China these days. We’ve lost the intense heat and are enjoying a balmy 27° and a warm wind. Brisbane tomorrow.

Last train to Bali

We take a grab taxi to the terminal to catch a boat from Java to Bali. The driver hands over to a man who puts us in a cafe to wait for the express bus to Denpasar, capital of Bali. The ferry ride is only 15 minutes but takes over an hour because boats have to queue to access the dock. We’re quite pleased it’s a short tide because the ferries are quite rusty and seem to have holes in random unexpected places. It’s very calm though.

We’re equally relieved get off the bus in the outskirts of Denpasar – the driver is a demon who forces every other vehicle off the road. We fend off the taxi drivers and walk first to a cafe and then to a roundabout where we catch a cab up to Ubud, a town in the hills.

Our hotel is arranged around a lovely, secluded garden just off one of the town’s main streets. It serves excellent pancakes for breakfast served by a young man who is obsessed with English football so Shaun has nice conversations.

Bali is the first place we’ve been since Siem Reap in Cambodia which is dedicated to foreign tourism. That has its nice sides (beer, laundry, vegetarian food) but also it’s seedy aspect. The consumers are mainly Australian with a smattering of Europeans, Chinese and indonesians from Jakarta. 85% of the businesses here are owned by non Balinese (Jakarta-based and Australians) and large numbers of low paid workers come in from East Java and the islands east of Bali. Glossy tourist resorts are putting increasing pressure on the islands water and other resources. With all that, however, all the Balinese people we talk with are smiley, welcoming and helpful.

In the pleasant 23° we walk the tourist shops, visit the rice fields and the monkey temple and shelter in bars from tropical rain.

We catch a shuttle bus down to the airport and spend the afternoon wandering along Kuta beach and stop at a beach bar to watch the sunset before a midnight flight to Darwin, North Australia.

Solo and Malang

The train journey from yogyakarta to Surakarta/Solo is only an hour but somehow we get on the wrong train so we have to stand – no great hardship and the guard doesn’t mind.

We spend the afternoon walking the town, mainly in search of food – vegetarian food is not easy to find here especially since we’re avoiding salads so gado gado is off the menu. The vegetarian fried rice and noodles we order is full of chicken…

That leaves us a bit sad until we find this delightful street of garden centres. One of the owners shows into the back where he grows his stock next to the railway.

We manage to get our train tickets printed though – we’ve bought them all online but have to print them out at the departure station. And Shaun finds a train, which cheers him up.

We get a taxi out to a waterfall, which is beautiful, foreign and fun – interesting how waterfalls are appreciated the world over

We walk a couple of miles up some steps and a very steep concrete road past some very posh houses to find an unimpressive temple.

There aren’t any cars up there so we walk a mile or so downhill to the nearest village and just as we join the main road a little blue bus going to Solo turns round the corner.

We do manage to find something to eat at a beautiful restaurant right opposite where a jazz concert is setting up for the evening.

Solo to Malang is a few hours train journey through uneventful countryside and we pick up the last train ticket of our epic journey on arrival

The hotel that Shaun’s booked is a gem (especially at £17 per night) – the staff claim it was built in 2005 and then correct themselves that actually it was 1987. I’m sure they are wrong but I can’t find any information about its history.

It serves vegetarian Indonesian food so we get to eat as well!

We spend the next day visiting mount bromo, a boiling volcano in the caldera above Malang. Several thousand people go to see the sunrise there each morning at 5am but we go in the afternoon and have the only jeep on the plateau. The lad who drives it is a fan of English football and drove Steven Gerrard when he visited. His parents are farmers locally, which is why he is allowed to drive a jeep in the national park – a privilege reserved for the people who live and farm here.

The rain that cascaded down as we drove up the mountain cleared in the afternoon revealing nearly vertical slopes where the local people grow potatoes, chillies, camphor and apples. It’s stunningly beautiful.

We have our first beer for a week (alcohol isn’t banned but it’s not easy to find, even in an easy going city like Malang.

We spend the morning before our last train journey wandering round one of the Kampongs that has worked with some art students to paint itself in bright colours in an effort to regenerate and enhance community spirit.

The start of the train journey from mytholmroyd was full of delays and difficulties and we ended on the same note. I had bought tickets to a station fifty miles short of our actual destination. I got the final section online but we never printed the ticket. And there were no taxis at that station so we ended up walking half a mile along a deserted road at midnight with our rucksacks – fortunately an honest taxi found us so we made it safely to hotel blambangan in banguwaungi (try saying that after you’ve had a pint).

Jakarta, Yogyakarta

Jakarta is huge, 10 million people, mostly young. It feels as though there are lots of different economies going on – a ten mile taxi ride costs £2 but there are flash shopping malls selling goods at European prices. The public infrastructure is falling apart and there are miles of shacks with burning rubbish dumps next to the railway as we leave but the centre is full of high rise hotels and shopping centres. There are big smart cars and motorbikes, but not much in between. You can tell it’s one of he most unequal countries in the world.

Security in the richer places is highly visible – the malls and hotels have guards. A policeman checks the boot of the taxi and swipes a mirror under the car for explosives as we enter the main station. The main central park has only one entrance with narrow gates and iron bars at shin level to prevent vehicles entering.

The city is a startling mixture of modern and old, rich and impoverished, western and traditional. These clean and tiny streets where we were seeking laundry house a Chinese population right opposite the smartest shopping mall in Jakarta.

Indonesia is the most populous muslim nation on earth with over 250m people, a quarter of them under 14, so it striking how young people are on the streets. Women mostly wear hijabs but otherwise there is no very obvious dress code and they seem to be working, riding mopeds, going out in the evening – generally able to do their thing. Lots of people have a smattering of English and generally people working in hospitality can speak quite a lot.

What was odd, given that Jakarta is the capital city of the sixth largest nation in the world, was how novel we were. When we visited museum square on sunday afternoon, we were mobbed by school students wanting to practice their English; the compere of the AIDS awareness concert greeted us from the stage. I think we saw five other westerners the whole time we were in Jakarta.

We had an unusual journey to visit the beach – you have to pay to go into an amusement park to access it.

And we also had an unexpected gig in the metro cafe next to the hotel on Monday night. Something quite surreal about listening an indonesian band in Jakarta belting out the Sting song An American in New York against a backdrop of John Lennon and Bob Marley.

The train journey eastward to Yogyakarta takes us past more rice fields, over rivers and then round the foothills of volcanic mountains.

We get taxi from Yogyakarta station, but he cheats us so we decide to go back to using grab, the Asian version of Uber, and tip handsomely.

This city is the centre of a special region which still has a king because they were allowed to keep him when he supported the Republic in kicking out the Dutch just after the second world war. Interestingly, a middle aged guy who was telling us about the Japanese occupation didn’t know Britain had been involved in that war though he was knowledgeable about UK football.

People stop us on the street to practice their English, sell us tours and batik and just out of sheer curiosity.

There is a procession on the first morning, led by elephants and featuring a centrepiece that looks a bit like the rush bearing cart.

We catch a bus out to the 9th century Hindu and Buddhist temples at prambanan.

And the following day a taxi to Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist temple in Asia.

Then a cup of Java coffee watching an elephant having a bath.

I screw up ordering the taxi back but five blokes cluster round the car and help me sort it out and the driver takes us to an extra temple on the way home as well as explaining the crops were passing – chillies, peanuts, plantain.

We finish off with a traditional play in the grounds of the museum under the memorial to those fallen in 1949 in the final throes of achieving independence from the Dutch. The event is free and has enthusiastic audience participation, young and old.

Sumatra to Jakarta

Sumatra is the westernmost of the major Indonesian islands. We fly into Palembang in its eastern half and catch the new SkyTrain that was built for the Asian games into the town centre. A smiley woman in turquoise blue uniform tells us what station we should exit for our hotel. Excerpts from the Koran are playing on the sound system. Tall slim young men in dark uniforms, carrying long truncheons and white helmets oversee the train and stations. People are keen to help us, ebullient in their friendliness.

It’s good to see that you’re not allowed to carry snakes on this train but a bit disconcerting that people might bring them on in the first place.

Palembang is a low rise sprawling city roofed in corrugated iron and terracotta tiles that would look at home on the Mediterranean.

We catch the 8.30am train out of Palembang eastwards to bandar lampung. 10 hours to cover 350 km through rubber plantations, jungle, oil palms and nice little stations. We’re the only westerners on the train.


There’s a fabulous sunset as we trundle past the volcanoes that surround Bandar lampung.

We catch a taxi to our hotel and eat at a shopping centre opposite (Carrefour, curiously).

Nice breakfast on the roof

An interesting journey on an old but carefully driven bus to the ferry across the 21 miles that separates Sumatra from Java. I haven’t been that well so pictures not very exciting….

Then a cup of tea at Merak, the port at the Java side of the crossing, and a two hour train journey with a group of sixteen excited school girls who want selfies with the weird foreigners, a chance to practice their English and charm us into singing a happy birthday video for their headmaster.

There was a dramatic thunderstorm at Rangkasbitung where we changed trains. Disconcerting because we were standing on a metal platform. But the weather cleared for the onward journey.

And finally into Jakarta.

Singapore

The journey from Melaka on the West coast of Malaysia to Singapore at the tip of peninsular involves a taxi, three trains, a bus and two metro rides. Most of the journey is through oil palm plantations but also sections of uncleared jungle sometimes brushing the windows on either side of the train on its single track rails.

Singapore is expensive so we’re staying near little India on the 19th floor of an hotel widely used by tour groups, which is clean, safe and characterless with a view out over the blocks of social housing which, along with investment in education, was a keystone to Singapore’s economic success after defeating colonialism and separating from Malaysia.

The city is full of signature buildings around the quays, modern and colonial

A river runs through the city along whose banks modern, expensive restaurants now ply their wares to business people and tourists. I’m reading The river’s song by Cheung Christine Lim, which follows the lives of people who were displaced when the river was cleaned up in the seventies – good book.

Food courts sell varied and delicious fare at low prices – unfortunately Shaun won’t countenance eating in these but we do find a vegetarian restaurant in little india that has been selling south Indian curry since 1947. My food is lovely but Shaun’s only scores 5/10 on his curryometer.

Again there is the ambivalence about Britain’s colonial role – Raffles is still up there on a pedestal, the bridges have British names and the interpretation boards that line the front give credit to the colonisers in developing Singapore. Somehow I’m surprised by that.

Singapore’s botanic garden is fabulous – it is one of three that are listed by UNESCO (Kew and Padua being the other two), and has been important in development of tropical agriculture – eg ‘rubber Ridley’, also known as ‘mad Ridley’ was director of the gardens in the late 1880s and developed hevea brasilensis as a major crop for the tropics using a few seeds that he was sent from Kew and lots of enthusiasm (I guess he was quite knowledgeable as well…). We see. Lots of rubber plantations on

The gardens have been a centre for orchid hybridisation since the early twentieth century and the national orchid collection opened to the public in 1995 – what a fabulous place.

We haven’t been able to find an appropriate ferry from Singapore to Indonesia (the ferries sink quite a lot so I’m not so keen on taking one anyway) and we have booked a plane to Palembang. Looking forward to seeing what Sumatra is like.